Thursday, September 21, 2017

Blogging note -- moving to new address

Informal Inquiries will cease "publication" today, and I will be moving my erratic, impulsive, obsessive, and compulsive blogging activities to a new address:

The name of the new blog (linked above) should tell you all you need to know about the focus: Poe's tales of ratiocination (and a few of his other stories) and, of course, Poe's many descendants in the world of crime, detective, and mystery fiction. Postings will begin appearing soon, and I invite you to join me at the new address.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Maxwell Perkins -- Editor as Handmaiden

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

Today is the birthday of Maxwell Perkins, the most famous American editor. He discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe. His fellow editors at Scribner wanted to sign more experienced writers thinking they were a sure thing, but Perkins looked for new talent, and he struck gold.

Perkins became the model for a new kind of editor. He did much more than clean up a book for publication; he looked for a writer he believed in who still had a lot of work to do, and then nurtured the book until it reached its final form. He suggested changes to the plot, he came up with book titles, and was a friend to the writers he published. 

Perkins was not good at spelling and punctuation, and he was a very slow reader. His gift lay in spotting talent, particularly in writers who didn’t have reputations yet. He was also talented at getting those writers to respond to criticism of their work. He said that Fitzgerald was very sensitive to criticism, that “he could accept it, but as his editor you had to be sure of everything you suggested.” Hemingway was a perfectionist, and claimed to have written parts of A Farewell to Arms over 50 times. Perkins said, “Before an author destroys the natural qualities of his writing — that’s when an editor has to step in. But not a moment sooner.”

But his biggest challenge by far was Thomas Wolfe, who was a chronic over-writer who struggled to delete a page. Wolfe would write his novel Of Time and the River (1935) standing up, using the top of a refrigerator as a desk (he was 6’6’’), and then he would throw each page into a box without editing or looking at it. Perkins had to go through the mess of papers and put the pages in order, based on his best guess. Over time, they became estranged. In 2016, the movie Genius came out dramatizing their relationship, with Colin Firth as Perkins and Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe.

Later in his career, he also published Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Despite his huge success, he was a modest, idiosyncratic character who liked to stay out of the limelight. The way he thought about editing contrasts with how people thought of him. He was famous for having discovered so many important writers, but he thought editors shouldn’t draw attention to themselves for the work they did on other people’s books. He said: “An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. […] An editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing."

And there is this personal postscript:

If you want to know more about Perkins and his impressive influence upon American literature in the 20th century, I highly recommend this brilliant 1978 book -- Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg. It is the best book you will ever read about books, writers, and publishing. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"Into My Own" by Robert Frost

First there is this poem by Robert Frost, "Into My Own":

ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day       
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e’er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track        
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew—
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

Readers who have followed my erratic blogging adventures over the years will not be surprised by this admission: I know not very much about poetry. Oh, yes, I know a little bit about figures of speech, diction, forms, meter and rhythm, rhyme schemes, and a few other aspects. However, I do not really understand why poetry exists. That must seem like an odd statement.

So, trying a different approach, let me reframe that notion into a question -- Why does poetry exist? -- and let me invite you to stop for a moment and tell me what you think about that question. I look forward to hearing from you. 

Moreover, you might want to talk about Frost's poem, "Into My Own." It deserves explication.

So, what do you think?

Friday, September 15, 2017

The final poem by Basho

Falling ill on a journey
my dreams go wandering
over withered fields
                 — Matsuo Bashō

Personal Postscript: 

Death poems were a tradition in some East Asian cultures -- read more about the poetic form here -- and I cannot improve upon Basho's offering, so I will not attempt the impossible, but I will simply leave his death poem here for you to ponder.

Light the candles on Agatha's birthday cake

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of English crime novelist and playwright Agatha Christie (1890) (books by this author), the best-selling novelist of all time. Christie's books have sold more than 2 billion copies around the world and been translated into more than 103 languages.

She was born Mary Clarissa Agatha Miller in Torquay, Devon, to an upper-middle-class family. She was home-schooled by her mother until she was 16, when she was sent to school in Paris to study piano and mandolin. Her father died when she was young, which threw the family into financial upheaval. Rice pudding became a frequent meal, but Christie still described her childhood as "gloriously idle." She adored her mother, who dabbled in Unitarianism and theosophy, made her own dolls and doll furniture, made up ghost stories with her sisters and mother, and favored the nonsensical books of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll. 

Christie worked as a nurse at the Torquay Hospital during World War I, learning much about the poisons that would later populate her novels. She began writing stories, mostly about spiritualism and the paranormal. She set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo and used the pen name "Monosyllaba." The book was rejected by numerous publishers. She tried again with a book called The Mysterious Affair at Styles  (1920), which featured an extravagantly mustached Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot. The book was a hit, and Christie was off and running. Hercule Poirot would be featured in more than 33 of Christie's novels, though she admitted she found Poirot "insufferable and an egocentric creep." She actually killed off Poirot in a novel titled Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, in the early 1940s, and had it stored in a bank vault to safeguard it from Nazi destruction during World War II. When the book was published in 1975, the New York Times ran Hercule Poirot's obituary on the front page. 

Agatha Christie's formula was simple: assemble eight or nine people on a snowbound train, a girls' school, or in a remote country house and add a murder. She had a strong dislike for guns, so she devised other methods to dispatch her victims, poison being the most common. In one novel, a child dies by bobbing for apples. In another, a character is electrocuted while executing a specific chess move. Christie stored a corpse with tennis rackets at a club and once had her detective squirt soapy water to subdue a murderer. She often employed red herrings and double bluffs. In one book, the killer turns out to be a dead man. In another, the killer is a child. And in another, it turns out that all 12 suspects have committed the crime, together. 

Christie created the character of Jane Marple, an elderly spinster, for the 1927 short story, "The Tuesday Night Club," which appeared in Royal Magazine. Marple appears in 12 Christie novels, including The Thirteen Problems (1932). Marple is a nosy old woman and amateur detective living in the village of St. Mary Mead. Christie said Marple was, "the sort of old lady who would have been rather like some of my step-grandmother's Ealing cronies — old ladies whom I have met in so many villages where I have gone to stay as a girl."

Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap, originally written as a radio sketch in honor of Queen Mary's 80th birthday, is the world's longest running play. It was first staged in 1952 and has been running ever since. Agatha Christie was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1971 and died in 1976. Her books include Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (1962). 

When asked about her writing method, Christie responded, "The disappointing truth is, I haven't much method." She worked out her plots in school exercise books, making lists of victims, culprits, and MOs, and then picking the best combinations. For most of her life, she pumped out one novel per year, admitting that she often felt like "a sausage machine."

On writing, she said, "Three months seems to me to be quite reasonable to finish a book, if you can get right down to it."

And there is this personal postscript:

I've read quite a few by Christie, seen many of the Poirot and Marple mysteries on TV, and should try to read and see even more.

Now let me offer you a mystery to solve:

My favorite by Christie would be ______________________ because of the profound ethical problems at the core of the crime and the sleuth's solution.

Tell me about your favorites (and then I will fill-in-the-blank with the title of my favorite).  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Stained Glass

I apologize for some of my recent postings -- too political -- and I will henceforth try to limit myself to postings that focus upon fiction, biographies, histories, plays, and poetry. Here, one of my archived BookLoons reviews, is an example of my limited focus.

Stained Glass: A Father Dowling Mystery by Ralph order for
Stained Glass
by Ralph McInerny
Order:  USA  Can
Minotaur, 2009 (2009)
Read an Excerpt
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Having published twenty-eight Father Dowling mysteries, half a dozen Andrew Broom mysteries, a dozen other mysteries set at the University of Notre Dame, and a distinguished body of nonfiction, prolific author Ralph McInerny has repeatedly proven to fans of the deadly genre that McInerny is a superb storyteller. Now, in the latest Father Dowling installment, Stained Glass, the priest-and-sleuth finds himself involved in one of his most challenging investigations.

Father Dowling's church, St. Hilary's in Fox River, Illinois, is suddenly included on a diocese list for closure and demolition. Several obstacles, however, stand in the way of St. Hilary's demise: a group of senior citizens is determined to petition the diocese, a wealthy family matriarch is determined to protect the church, and the sublime beauty of the church's stained glass windows may be the parish's saving grace.

Complications arise when a woman is found murdered in the garage owned by someone with connections to the well-connected matriarch. Very quickly, though, the police realize that the dead woman's identity adds another peculiar wrinkle to the murder investigation. More than that, as investigators learn more about the victim's relationship to others, and as the body count escalates in Fox River, Father Dowling becomes more involved in the mystery. Only when he is able to expose old secrets and circumvent church politics will he be able to help the police solve the crimes. And the key to everything is, of course, the exquisite stained glass windows of St. Hilary's.

Finally, the bottom line is this: No one who cherishes the guilty pleasures of tautly plotted mysteries populated by intriguing characters will want to miss out on the recommended Stained Glass. If you have not already read Ralph McInerny's highly regarded mysteries, you should do yourself a favor by accompanying Father Dowling on his latest adventure.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Mystery books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews

Handel runs into controversy in Tennessee

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

George Frideric Handel completed the Messiah  oratorio on this date in 1741. Librettist Charles Jennens had finished the text in July, and he handed it off to Handel with great expectations. He wrote to a friend, "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject." Handel worked at a furious pace, doing nothing else but composing from morning to night, and completed the oratorio in only 24 days. Messiah tells the story of Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection. It was originally written for the Easter season, and it debuted in Dublin at a charity concert the following April. The event attracted 700 people; to accommodate such a crowd, gentlemen were asked to leave their swords at home, and ladies were requested to remove the hoops from their skirts. The Dublin News-Letter reported that Messiah "far surpass[ed] anything of that Nature which has been performed in this or any other Kingdom." It remained one of Handel's favorite works for the rest of his life, and grew to become a beloved holiday favorite — but at Christmastime, rather than Easter. Even Mozart was reluctant to change anything about the oratorio when he supervised a new arrangement in 1789. "Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect," Mozart said. "When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt."

And, with a focus on a Tennessee and atheists, there is this article.

Finally, there is this personal postscript:

I wonder what Handel would think of the dispute in Tennessee. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Francis Scott Key and the future of Informal Inquiries

First there is this from The Writer's Almanac:

It was on this day in 1814 that Francis Scott Key was inspired to write the words to "The Star-Spangled Banner,"  by witnessing the British attack on Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. It had been a dark summer for the young United States. Just three weeks previous, on August 24, British troops had set fire to much of Washington, D.C., including the Capitol, the Treasury, and the president's house. President James Madison had been forced to flee for his safety. Americans were terrified that the British might choose to invade New York or Philadelphia or Boston and destroy those cities as well.

The British had recently begun using rockets, a new military weapon adapted from Chinese technology. Francis Scott Key was horrified as he watched these rockets raining down on Fort McHenry, at the mouth of Baltimore Harbor. He watched the bombardment all night, and he had little hope that the American fort would withstand the attack. But just after sunrise on September 14th, he saw the American flag still flying over the fort. In fact, Francis Scott Key might never have even seen the flag if the fort commander, Major Armistead, hadn't insisted on flying one of the largest flags then in existence. The flag flying that day was 42 feet long and 30 feet high.

Francis Scott Key began writing a poem about the experience that very morning. It turned out that the battle at Baltimore was the turning point of the war. Before the war, the American flag had little sentimental significance for most Americans. It was used mainly as a way to designate military garrisons or forts. But after the publication of "The Star-Spangled Banner," even non-military people began to treat the flag as a sacred object.

And there is this personal postscript:

Recent conduct by NFL players -- not standing during the National Anthem --  can be handled with an easy change to the game plan: do not play the National Anthem at sporting events. Instead, reserve the use of Key's song for official, governmental, military, and similarly situated situations. What could be more simple as a solution. I guess some people will disagree with me. 

Future postings here at Informal Inquiries will be occasional rather than frequent.

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror

Here is another review that I wrote for a BookLoons a few years ago:

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror by John order for
Rumpole and the Reign of Terror
by John Mortimer
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2007 (2006)
Hardcover, Softcover
Read an Excerpt
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Horace Rumpole, the legendary criminal barrister of the Old Bailey, is back in action in another entertaining mystery from John Mortimer, the author of one Rumpole novel and twelve Rumpole collections, many of which formed the basis for the phenomenally popular PBS-TV series of some years ago.

Rumpole's colorful and spirited wife Hilda (She Who Must be Obeyed) has been working secretly on her own memoirs (which become the focus of alternating chapters in Rumpole and the Reign of Terror), but Rumpole (the principal narrator) remains oblivious to his wife's needs and interests because he has a new client (which comes as a relief after a bit of a drought for the aging veteran of the English courtroom).

This client, though, has a huge problem that even Rumpole may not be able to solve: Dr. Mahmood Khan, originally from Pakistan and more recently of Oakwood Hospital in London, has been arrested on charges of terrorism based on his alleged involvement in a plot to blow up London.

Many people, even including Hilda, 'think that terrorists don't need defending' and believe that they should instead be simply locked away, but Rumpole willingly takes on the doctor's case. As for himself, Khan doesn't seem to take the charges seriously. With an 'amused stoicism ... behaving like David Niven in some ancient film of understated heroism,' Khan seems peacefully devoted to the British way of life and is totally 'devoted to the royal family, roast beef, and cricket.' He 'even likes the English weather.'

Perennially fond of cigars, a glass or two of Chateau Thames Embankment, and leisurely hours at Pommeroy's wine bar, Rumpole the Great Defender will make astounding discoveries in the case of the Crown versus Khan. In fact, Khan's defense will depend very much on whether or not everyone is who he or she seems to be, and Rumpole is about to make quite a few people more than a little uncomfortable as he pursues the truth. And along the way, the traditional domestic tensions in the Rumpole household threaten to reach an ultimate crisis, especially when Hilda attracts the attentions of another admirer.

Readers who fondly remember Mortimer's earlier tales of the indomitable barrister will thoroughly enjoy Rumpole's latest legal adventure. Provocative, timely, and highly recommended, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is first-class entertainment. Don't miss it!

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Mystery books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Hopalong Cassidy rides off into the sunset

First there is this link to an article about Hopalong Cassidy.

And there is this personal postscript:  

I miss watching TV westerns, and I wonder why they have disappeared? Why do you suppose they have become extinct? Perhaps it has something to do with political correctness and guilt. After all, given the new attitudes in American culture, we seem to be quite busy revising or erasing a lot of chapters in American history. TV westerns might be incompatible with those new attitudes. So, what do you think?

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Falling Man (2007)

Here is one of my BookLoons reviews from the past. Today is the right day to republish it.

Falling Man by Don order for
Falling Man
by Don DeLillo
Order:  USA  Can
Scribner, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover, CD
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

To say that September 11, 2001, has become a turning point or significant moment in history is already an unavoidable yet overworked cliché. Furthermore, to say that novelists throughout history frequently have engaged history's turning points or significant moments for purposes of catalyzing and enriching their novels is an obvious observation. Only occasionally, though, do those intersections of specific historical moments and fictional imagination go beyond topical social commentary and instead result in enduring literary excellence.

Now, at this moment in history in 2007 - looking back to the subject of September 11, 2001 - we have Falling Man, Don DeLillo's bold engagement with the singular turning point in modern American history. Using that date as his catalyst, DeLillo presents readers with characters (much like readers themselves) who must somehow make sense of their lives and their surroundings in the time after (and before) the moments when two airplanes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. A man who has been estranged from his wife suddenly finds himself searching (and gambling throughout his search) for meaning; the estranged wife, fretting over her fluctuating roles when she finds herself caught in the midst of generational demands, grapples for her own identity within a world suddenly gone quite chaotic; children - in one of DeLillo's most remarkable presentations - turn their experiences and their limited awareness and understanding into innocent games; and - in DeLillo's most daring presentation - a few passionately and divinely motivated Islamic terrorists test the depths and limits of their commitment to Allah.

Taking his title from the briefly seen iconic photograph of 9/11 (and from the subsequently and too frequently seen performance artist who mimicked the plight of the falling man), Don DeLillo has attempted (and, I would argue, he has succeeded in writing) the seminal novel about this young and frightened century's turning point.

However, I would submit to you that this is not typical DeLillo writing, and readers looking for another UnderworldWhite Noise, or Libra will not readily see DeLillo's wry (and often scathing) satire of contemporary society; in fact, Falling Mansometimes reads more like an elegy for lost innocence, a commentary on resilience, and an ode to fractured isolation. Notwithstanding (or perhaps because of) those qualities, Falling Man is a fine (perhaps even great) novel, but time (and repeat readings) will tell if Falling Man will go beyond its immediate and obvious status as topical social commentary and become instead excellent and enduring literature.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Contemporary books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews

Sunday, September 10, 2017

In the Name of the Father (2006)

Here is one of my BookLoons reviews from a few years ago. I offer you this belated reprint for two reasons: (1) I've been reading lately about the American Revolution, so my interest in the era has been renewed, and (2) the book is such a worthwhile study of this country's early years that I want to recommend it to more people.

In the Name of the Father: Washington's Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation by François order for
In the Name of the Father
by François Furstenberg
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 2006 (2006)
Reviewed by Tim Davis

In the formative years of the United States of America, the nation's early, tenuous existence and its chances for a secure future remained vulnerable to multiple threats: geographical, political, and international. One of the defenses against these threats was the development of nationalism, a shared cultural attitude - promoting liberal and republican values - that would 'reshape individual identities and foster political {national} loyalties.' How American nationalism became an important though paradoxical force in early American culture is the subject of François Furstenberg's interesting book.

The problem inherent in America's embryonic nationalism, as Furstenberg argues, was the issue of consent. If the nation were to survive and prosper, Americans would simply have to consent - implicitly or explicitly, tacitly or openly, willingly or reluctantly - to the government; after all, such a liberal, republican democracy could exist and thrive only if those who were governed would consent to being governed. Without popular consent, the government would fall and anarchy would prevail.

Nationalism and consent, however, needed to be cultivated. One of the very specific ways in which U.S. nationalism and citizen consent were shaped and nurtured is the focus of Furstenberg's book. In fact, In the Name of the Father looks closely at the ways in which popular writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries 'framed the idea of American citizenship ... {Popular and widely disseminated texts like} pamphlets, biographies, schoolbooks, sermons, political orations, almanacs, newspaper reporting, broadsides, even materials like ceramics and painting ... shaped U.S. nationalism in ways that would have long lasting consequences ... {These} texts provided the medium through which political ideologies were disseminated and nationalism forged.'

The foregoing kinds of popular texts were actually America's 'civic texts, and it was largely from these sorts of texts that Americans of the early nineteenth learned their political ideology.' Moreover, these kinds of texts 'promoted consent {emphasis added} to the constituted political authorities and a sense of political obligation ... {In fact, these} texts promoted political unity and loyalty by canonizing major documents - most importantly, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Washington’s Farewell Address - and by creating a powerful mythology of the Founding Fathers centered around George Washington as the 'Father of the Nation.''

By tending to fuse citizens into a single nation, the civic texts and canonized documents would, in effect, 'unite {all Americans} as siblings under a common father.' But at this point, as we are adroitly guided by Furstenberg's thesis, we begin to recognize the paradoxical problem: 'Washington as general and president was both father to his nation and {as plantation and slave owner} father to his slaves.(Emphasis added) So, as the author argues, 'the Washington mythology opened a space for the incorporation of slaves into this national family, with slaves, like white Americans, united in bonds of affection and gratitude {and consent?} to Washington ... {Thus, the} paternalist ideology of nationalism blended into and eventually authorized a paternalist {and acceptable} ideology of slaveholding as these texts promoted both nationalism and slavery in the name of the father.'

And there you have the premise for Furstenberg's fascinating study in which he demonstrates the ways in which a newly formed American culture was able simultaneously to foster the strange bedfellows of nationalism, individual freedom, consent, and slavery. Using many dozens of historical examples in support of his study, and looking at ways the canonical documents were perpetuated through civic texts, Furstenberg shows us the formative stages of the early definition of being a 'good citizen in America' and how that evolving definition 'was complicated and compromised by the problem of slavery. Ultimately, we see {in Furstenberg's cogent argument} how reconciling slavery and republican nationalism would have fateful consequences that haunt us still, in attitudes toward the socially powerless that persist in America to this day.'

Students of American history and political theory, and observers of contemporary politics and social problems will find much to admire and ponder in Furstenberg's important new book. Using a technique similar to what I as a literary theorist know as New Historicism, Furstenberg expertly draws upon historical documents, first as a way of more clearly understanding the culture in which they were produced, and second as a way of more critically assessing 21st century American society and politics which have been incontrovertibly influenced by those documents, their cultural context, and the lingering problems of nationalism and consent.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more NonFiction books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews

Friday, September 8, 2017

Storm warnings: past and present

First there is this from today's edition of The Writer's Almanac, but why the article was published at that site, and what it has to do with writing and writers is beyond me; in any case, I offer the article as a timely reminder of the past and a cautionary tale for the very near future for millions of people here on the Gulf coast:

A Category 4 hurricane hit Galveston, Texas, on this date in 1900 . The city is located on a low, flat island off the coast of Texas, about 50 miles southeast of Houston, and in 1900 it was a bustling port city. On this late summer day in 1900, Galveston was packed with tourists and vacationers, in addition to the town’s 40,000 permanent residents. People were aware of a strong tropical storm that had hit the Florida Straits on September 5, and Cuban meteorologists tried to warn their American counterparts that the storm was strong and damaging. The U.S. Weather Bureau ignored the warnings, convinced that the storm was on a curved path that would take it up the Eastern Seaboard.

With the limited technology available to forecasters at the time, it was very difficult to predict which way the storm would go, and the bureau deliberately avoided using the word “hurricane,” for fear of causing widespread panic. As a result, the people on Galveston Island weren’t warned until the central Weather Bureau office in Washington, D.C., sent out a warning on September 7. The weather seemed fairly calm, so most people on the island disregarded the warning.

The highest point on the island was only nine feet above sea level, and there was no sea wall because no one believed it was necessary. The hurricane brought a storm surge 15 feet deep and submerged the whole island, knocking buildings off their foundations. Telegraph lines and bridges to the mainland were destroyed. There was no escape and no way to call for help. A survivor later told the New York Times : “I managed to find a raft of driftwood or wreckage, and got on it, going with the tide, I knew not where. I had not drifted far before I was struck with some wreckage and my niece was knocked out of my arms. I could not save her, and had to see her drown.” Another survivor said: “It's a sight I hope I shall never see again.

Destruction and desolation; wreckage strewn everywhere, chaos, and that voice still ringing in my ears, ‘Save me!’” The Great Galveston Hurricane killed 6,000 to 12,000 people, and remains the deadliest natural disaster in United States history.

* * * * * 

And here is a personal postscript:

The horrors of the Galveston storm might never be repeated, but the prospect of what might happen because of Hurricane Irma has me on pins and needles. Moreover, the predicted track for Hurricane Irma continues to change, and I will not be surprised if the storm moves up the west coast of Florida. So, because of that possibility, I remain concerned here at Casa Davis on the northern Gulf coast, and I will have my personal flotation devices standing by in case of emergency. Well, because of God knows what might happen, Informal Inquiries might be silenced for a while. Bon voyage!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

"All overgrown by cunning moss" by Emily Dickinson

Here is something special from Emily Dickinson, one of her less often encountered poems, a loving tribute to one of her favorite authors, Charlotte Bronte, written on the fourth anniversary of Bronte's death; this three-stanza version is the one edited by Ralph W. Franklin:

All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of "Currer Bell"
In quiet "Haworth" laid.

This Bird – observing others
When frosts too sharp became
Retire to other latitudes –
Quietly did the same –

But differed in returning –
Since Yorkshire hills are green –
Yet not in all the nests I meet –
Can Nightingale be seen –

                                                                  - F146 (1860)  148
Emily Dickinson sometimes wrote different versions of the same poem, and that fact (in addition to her often difficult to read penmanship) is among the major challenges editors confront when preparing Dickinson's poems for publication; after all, which of Dickinson's versions should be made available to readers?

Well, there is a reason I mention that editorial challenge. Here is another version of the same poem. This one is edited by Thomas H. Johnson. I have included the different third stanza and the added fourth stanza:

Gathered from many wanderings—
Gethsemane can tell
Thro' what transporting anguish
She reached the Asphodel!

Soft falls the sounds of Eden
Upon her puzzled ear—
Oh what an afternoon for Heaven,
When "Bronte" entered there!

* * * * *

I confess that I prefer the more direct three-stanza version with its lovely bird imagery and geographical references. To my mind the Biblical and mythological allusions in the second version -- in the third and fourth stanzas -- somewhat artlessly complicate the simple tribute.

So, which version do you prefer? Why? 

"London" by William Blake (1794)

First there is this poem, "London" by William Blake, from today's edition of The Writer's Almanac:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

* * * * *

And there is this personal postscript:

William Wordsworth said William Blake was a mad genius. I agree. I was introduced to Blake rather late in my life -- just about 20 years ago -- when I took a semester-long course on Blake's poetry and art; I continued studying Blake after the course, and I have read most of Blake's poetry, I have viewed most of his art, and I have read the biographies by William Gilchrist and Peter Ackroyd.

As for "London," one of Blake's poems in Songs of Innocence and Experience, don't let the easy-going rhythm and rhyme scheme lull you. The poem is to my mind one of the most vivid and disturbing poems ever written. I read it as a harrowing portrait of urban life and poverty, an indictment of government and the church, and a lament on the far-reaching scourge of sexually transmitted diseases.

I offer the poem to you without further comment.

However, I encourage you to comment.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Returning to Concord via American Bloomsbury

In 2006 I read and reviewed American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever. Here is a link to that review.

My posting earlier today has me wondering about what I missed (and, more to the point, what I've forgotten) in the book, so I'm rereading American Bloomsbury with an eye to understanding better the community of Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Alcott, Hawthorne et al in mid-19th century Concord, Massachusetts.

However, as I embark upon my return to Concord via Cheever's book, I realize how often I reread books rather than move on to new books. In fact, someone once called me an "intensive" rather than "extensive" reader. At first I was uncomfortable about that label -- as it underscored the fact that I've missed out on reading a lot of books that perhaps I might enjoy -- but I've accepted my reality. Yes, I do repeat myself quite a bit in my reading choices.

And all of that leads me to ask you something:

What about you? What books have you read several times and might read yet again? Are you an "intensive" or "extensive" reader?