January 2015 reading list

The Sound and the Fury 

I’ve posted a number of thoughts about rereading this one.  It’s been about 12 years since I last read it, and I think this was the 6th or 7th time through.  Each time I see new things in the book; this time it was a more complete understanding of what was going on inside Quentin’s head.  I don’t know a book that more justifies re-reading.  This is part of a project of trying to work through Faulkner again.

The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate

I got a Modern Library pairing of these two for $4 at Carolyn Staton’s book stall at the antique mall in MidTown Shopping Center (I highly recommend the book selection there).  These are Nancy Mitford’s novels based on her family.  Years ago, I read her sister Jessica’s memoirs, a collection of journalism, and several other books, and followed that with some biographical books and a collection of letters from the Mitford sisters.  Somehow, I never got round to reading Nancy Mitford.  These two novels are hilarious, a great deal of fun if you know nothing about the family and essential reading if you do know about them.  Light, quick reading with a seriously barbed wit.  The humor and pleasurability of reading has renewed my curiosity about her biographical books.

Brideshead Revisited, Scoop, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, A Handful of Dust, and Men at Arms

I’d never read any Waugh except The Loved One, and had several of these bought decades ago at Choctaw Books in Jackson.  My enjoyment of his friend Nancy Mitford’s books lead me to go ahead and read through Waugh, which has been more-or-less a disappointment, although I’m keeping going.  By far the best is Gilbert Pinfold, which is Waugh’s account of his own mental breakdown, and where he turns the hardest form of his wit in on himself to excellent effect.  It also has this passage that has to be inspired in some way by an early encounter with the Mitford sisters (the phrase about their private language and “own games” nails them, and Waugh was in love with Nancy Mitford):

Twenty-five years ago or more Mr. Pinfold, who was in love with one of them, used to frequent a house full of bright, cruel girls who spoke their own thieves’ slang and played their own games. One of these was a trick from the school-room polished for drawing-room use. When a stranger came among them, they would all– if the mood took them– put out their tongues at him or her; all, that is, to say, except those in his immediate line of sight. As he turned his head, one group of tongues popped in, another popped out.  Those girls were adept in dialogue. They had rigid self-control. They never giggled. Those who spoke to the stranger assumed an unnatural sweetness.  The aim was to make him catch another with her tongue out.  It was a comic performance– the turning head, the flickering, crimson stabs, the tender smiles turning into sudden grimaces, the artificiality of the conversation which soon engendered an unidentifiable discomfort in the most insensitive visitor, made him feel that somehow he was making he was making a fool of himself, made him look at his trouser buttons, at his face in the glass to see whether there was something ridiculous in his appearance.

I am pretty sure I would trade all of Waugh’s novels for the chance to see those sisters make such a fool of Waugh.

Scoop, a satire of war journalism based on Waugh’s experience in Ethiopia at the time of the Italian invasion, is hilarious.  I am not a fond of Waugh’s love for certain things and the way he expresses it; the little-match-girl-looking-in-and-wishing-to-be-an-insider feel of his writing about old Catholic families of England does not do anything for me (laying aside his relatively readily expressed and manifold bigotries) which, among other things, made Brideshead Revisited not appeal.  I may reevaluate after attempting Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, but am pretty sure that after those and the other two WWII novels, I’ll be done with him.

Would be interested in hearing in comments contrary opinions; several people I respect like Waugh a great deal.

The Sixth Extinction

This is New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s account of the ways in which human activity is causing mass extinctions.  It’s far from just climate change– the fungus wiping out frog populations was apparently spread by the way human beings have traveled everywhere, and that a specific African frog that carries the fungus and was taken all over the world for use in pregnancy tests, for instance. Each chapter is built around the author’s visit to a place connected to a particular extinction. It is an interesting read, although I’d liked to have learned a little more.

The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case

A wonderful use of a single event as an important window into history.  This is Michael Ross’s account of a trial in New Orleans in 1870 in which two Black Creole women were accused of kidnapping the young child of an Irish family.  Ross has a huge amount of rich material to work with– transcripts, extensive press accounts of a story that brought national attention in an atmosphere of great newspaper competition– and sets it in context, using the trial as a natural basis for talking about race, emancipation, and choices being made in the South in the late nineteenth century.  Without directly making the point, the book makes clear that this was a moment when the choices that resulted in Jim Crow were in no way inevitable.  It also gives a nice picture of New Orleans at a particular time.  Highly recommended for readers of legal, New Orleans, or Southern history.

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

Eric Foner’s latest.  This book was prompted by Foner learning of almost account-book level records of an important link in the Underground Railroad in New York City.  Foner wrote the standard history of Reconstruction, and, most recently, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which was a favorite of mine a couple of years ago.  This one has an excellent overview of both writing about and the history of the Underground Railroad, and sets it in the debate among abolitionists about the best way to end slavery.  It  renewed my annoyance at William Lloyd Garrison, as, I suppose, did the Lincoln book a couple of years ago.

Opening the Bible

Thomas Merton’s short book about reading the Bible was given to me by a fellow fan of The Sound and the Fury, because there is a chapter about the book and the Dilsey/Easter section.  The first chapter, which quotes and cites the prophets admonishing people against listening to what prophets say about God’s words, was interesting (but was I being told to stop reading?), as was the section about The Sound and the Fury (although I tire of readers who go no farther in explaining Benjy than asserting he was an “idiot” who did not have any understanding of what was occurring around him.  The whole concept of stream of consciousness is that it is generated by the emotional and other understanding the viewer– Benjy– has of what he perceived, and that is what the Benjy section does.  Not sure what to make of a Catholic writer who chooses two extremely Protestant theologians as the only two modern ones quoted, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   Not sure I’m the best judge of the writing of Catholic theologians.

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