Monday, September 26, 2016

Book review: A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Book review: A Farewell To Arms by Ernest Hemingway

It's been a long time since I read Hemingway. This was my first time for A Farewell to Arms.
It's a slow starter, but I learned to pace myself. The action is restrained but steady, and I realized gradually that a key element is the relentlessly realistic dialogue.

The American protagonist, Frederic Henry, is involved in every scene. The life of the book is his life. His recurring, desultory involvement in his own life and his role in the Italian Army in World War I is the backdrop of his elaborately played out relationship with the nurse, Catherine Barkley.

A Farewell to Arms doesn't really seem to be a war novel. On the other hand, except for brief interludes, the characters really don't seem to be at peace. For Henry, it's an ironic farewell.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"...inter librorum copias" redux

"O quam dulcis vita fuit dum sedebamus in quieti . . . 
                                   inter librorum copias."

Alcuin of York (c735-804)
Advisor to Charlemagne

'Oh, how sweet life was when we sat quietly . . . midst all these books.'

Read it a couple of times, you may get a different picture in your mind each time…..

I could settle down here....

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Book review: The Witches: Salem, 1692

Book review: The Witches: Salem, 1692
Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2015
498 pages

It may be that Stacy Schiff has neglected to include some fact or sentiment about the Salem witch trials, but I can’t imagine what it might be. The Witches is an expansive compendium of the whos and whats and whys and wherefores of this compelling—yet essentially impenetrable—story about a community gone crazy.

Maybe you had to be there to understand it.

It’s too easy to suggest the McCarthy Communism hunting in 1954 as a modern analogy, but it won’t work. The whole dreadful McCarthy thing was a political football, approaching a sideshow even though it attracted the nominal attention of the nation and destroyed many lives.

The Salem witch trials and the witch hunting that went on in neighboring towns were endorsed at all levels of leadership. The trials consumed the waking hours of all the townsfolk, who were deeply convinced that witches exist and that they were in league with satanic forces.

For my taste, Schiff tells too much of the story. I would have been content with a less detailed account. There is repetition that is dispensable.

For my taste, she struck a good balance between telling the story as it happened, and inviting the reader to suspect that the teenage girls were fooling all along, and that too many accusers had a personal reason to “get” the accused, and that too many religious and civic leaders struggled unsuccessfully with their religious faith and the opposing impulses of their arguably decent selves who quickly figured out that the witch craze was a very nasty game.

You don’t need to read the whole book to figure out that there was some very destructive bogus stuff going on in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.

Maybe you don’t need to read the whole book to be convinced that some folks aren’t continuously motivated by a decent streak of good will and a desire to support communal well-being.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Before comic books there were....


“Chapbook” is often the moniker for a smallish publication containing poems or perhaps short stories or other material, often cheaply published and/or self-published.

The word itself was introduced in the early 19th century, although the genre of chapbooks has been around since the 16th century, when printed books started to become affordable after Gutenberg invented the European printing press in the middle of the 15th century.

Scottish chapbook

Small books with modest (or no) covers, and perhaps up to 24 pages, circulated for hundreds of years, boosting the availability of almanacs, children’s stories, folk tales, poetry, and political and religious tracts.

In the early 19th century, in England, the books were distributed by peddlers or other salesmen known as “chapmen,” thus the books were “chapmen’s books” and you can take it from there.

Some modern chapbooks can be very expensively produced with handmade papers and such, but more typically they are modest publications with limited press run, produced by folks who want to publish but can’t find a commercial publisher.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

“Blood-and-thunder” for only 10 cents

There were “westerns” before John Wayne put his mark on them.

The men in blue and gray in the Civil War—the ones who could read, and the ones who had buddies who could read—were avid fans of the dime novel.

New printing technologies in 1860 made it possible to churn out an endless succession of the cheap (10 cents, hence “dime novel”) so-called “blood-and-thunder” stories, often about heroes of the American West like Kit Carson.

 These dime novels in the mid-19th century were the ‘westerns” before Hollywood invented the movie genre of the same name in the early 20th century.

The flood of cheap books was unleashed by improvements in the steam printing press and stereotype plates, the cast metal plates that used a reversed image of a full page on the press. The resulting increase in productivity and cost reduction permitted publishers to do huge press runs of the formula “western” novels that were written by assembly lines of writers. Some of the more respectable authors cranked out a new book every three months. Some of the hacks claimed to be able to produce a brand new novel in 24 hours. As you might guess, originality and quality weren’t the principal standards of excellence.

Jill Lepore, in The Story of America: Essays on Origins, notes: “Blood-and-thunders were ‘sent to the army in the field by cords, like unsawed firewood,’ one contemporary reported. After the war, dime novel westerns cultivated a vast, largely eastern, and altogether male audience: they were the first mass market fiction sold to men and boys.”(1)

Dime novel readers who weren’t Kit Carson (1809-1868) fans must have been a rare breed. Between 1860 and 1900, the American frontiersman was the hero of more than seventy of the popular books.

(1) Jill Lepore, The Story of American: Essays on Origins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012), 212, 217.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book review: The Bridges of Madison County

Book review: The Bridges of Madison County
Robert James Waller (b1939)
New York: Warner Books Inc., 1992
171 pages

This was a notably popular new book. However, I’m aware that not everyone is a fan.

If you’re looking for highly stoked eroticism and high-rolling lives that throw off sparks when they touch, look elsewhere.

Frankly, for lots of tastes, good advice is: look elsewhere no matter what you’re looking for.

For me, the chance intersection of the putatively unremarkable lives of Francesca and Robert has all the heat and dazzle of slow-moving lava, without its destructive power. They come together, they permit each other to nourish their beautiful personae and they generate a passion that consumes without burning.

Francesca and Robert come together too late in their lives, after unbreakable commitments have been made to other cherished persons who, regrettably, are not like themselves.

I am drawn to the unsounded depths of their love and their absolute, cascading, undeniable recognition of each other as the unforgettable objects of their burgeoning desire.

They understand that they must be content with the short lifetime of their dalliance. They honor their love by deeply understanding its nature, and by accepting the permanent separation that their unyielding integrity requires.

Robert whispers to Francesca: “…this kind of certainty comes only once…”

The Bridges of Madison County is a love song, a courtship, a delicate primer on yearning, a too brief opportunity to know how it feels to be in love like that.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The old blanket fort

Did you make one of these when you were a kid?

I did. Many times.

If you didn’t make one when you were a kid, you can make up for that by helping your grandchildren make one.


Or make one for yourself.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Mindset: think about it

Book review: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
By Dr. Carol S. Dweck, New York: Ballantine Books, 2006
277 pages

This is one of those books that knocks a hole in your head and then fills it up with startling knowledge.

Dweck wrote this rather chatty book about a very serious subject: the mindset that influences much of your life, and can literally play a critical role in your success or failure at work, at school, among your friends and at home with your family.

Here’s a simplistic summary of her findings based on years of teaching and research:

There is a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A mindset is a frame of mind that enables you to interpret what’s happening in the world around you, and to determine how you will feel about it, and how you will act and react.

I’ll take a stab at briefly defining the two mindsets in my own words.

Fixed mindset—you interpret most everything that happens to you in terms of whether it validates your static view of your own abilities and self-worth, in other words, you see the events and people in your life as confirming that you are talented and wonderful, or proving that you’re stupid and worthless. You can’t change, and you’ve got to grab what you deserve.

Growth mindset—you interpret most everything that happens to you in terms of feedback about your motivation and your performance, in other words, you see the events and people in your life as part of your continuous quest to learn and achieve your goals and enjoy your relationships with others. You can change, and you can learn to do better.

Of course, it’s possible to have different mindsets in different circumstances, and it’s possible to have some mix of the mindsets.

Dweck says you can learn to have a more effective growth mindset, and you can teach others, kids and adults, to embrace a more effective growth mindset.

We can always learn, we can always build up our talents, we can always get smarter, and we can help ourselves to have more enjoyable lives.

This all makes sense to me.

I don’t think I learned everything Dweck can teach me, so I’m going to read the book again.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

“…somewhere hot…”

Book review: A Pirate Looks at Fifty
Jimmy Buffett (b. 1946)
Ballantine Books, New York, 1998

Full disclosure: I’m not a Parrothead, but I’m related by blood and marriage to gen-you-wine Buffett fans, so I take the liberty of using familiar language, even though “the king of somewhere hot” has never seen me and isn’t likely to in this earthly paradise….

A Pirate Looks at Fifty is a memoir-ish book by Himself, written almost 20 years ago, I spotted it in the local library’s discarded book sale bin and I did the right thing.

Seems to me, for starters, no one should ever discard a book full of Jimmy Buffett stuff, he’s just so much in love with life and he is a magnet for vicarious attention, I dare you to read Pirate without getting at least a fleeting urge to head for the islands and see the world through Jimmy’s eyes.

You don’t even have to read the whole book (I confess, I didn’t), just read as much as gets the juices flowing and then get on with your regular life, and you can dip into it again any time you want. Buffett’s music and Buffett’s style are a buffet—grab what you want, anytime, sing along as the spirit moves, and go back for more whenever….

You don’t even have to like margaritas to get the full, slobbering, belly laugh, hijinksed, hot damn but mucho mellow effect when you sing along with Jimmy about the Mexican cutie and the lost shaker of salt.

I dare you not to sing a couple verses and the refrain right now, you have to, really….

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Book review: The Sea Runners

Book review: The Sea Runners
Penguin Books, New York, 1983
279 pages

I want to be fair. This is a novel about dogged everything: determination, courage, loyalty, imagination, strength, stubbornness.

I’m bound to say there’s little excitement in Doig’s first novel. You’d think that death-defying action would add a little bunny to one’s pulse, but I couldn’t point it out. There is a relentless context that animates the characters in The Sea Runners, and swaddles all the environmental features of this story of men against the sea. It’s based on an actual event in the northern Pacific Ocean in the middle of the 19th century, so you know how it turns out.

Four Swedes escaped from a Russian work camp and paddled in a stolen canoe for a couple months on the open ocean to reach the American port of Astoria in Oregon. The story is more interesting than that simple summary, but it merely informs….it does not soar.

I thought of myself as an Ivan Doig fan when I began reading The Sea Runners, and now I understand that I must be specific: I like This House of Sky and I like The Bartender’s Tale, and such.

The emerald clarity of Doig’s stories about the West is a world apart from the drudging redundancy of this book. The character development is relentlessly obvious. It is also narrow and repetitive. Despite his intentions, I’m sure, Doig doesn’t resist running his characters through the same paces, over and over again.

The Sea Runners isn’t a bad story. The determination, courage, loyalty, imagination, strength and stubbornness are in plain view, there’s never any doubt about that.

In fact, there’s no doubt about just about everything in this story.

Nevertheless, Ivan, I love ya, man. I love some of your stories.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Here’s one for your reading list

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger

I just started reading Junger’s new book, and I’m hot to pick it up again.

In his Introduction, the author says:
“Robert Frost famously wrote that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. The word ‘tribe’ is far harder to define, but a start might be the people you feel compelled to share the last of your food with…
This book is about why [treating someone like a member of your tribe] is such a rare and precious thing in modern society, and how the lack of it has affected us all. It’s about what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty and belonging and the eternal human quest for meaning.”

It doesn’t take Junger long to get right to the point, quoting from a 2012 journal article:
“The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment…that maximize[s] consumption at the long-term cost of well-being. In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

Now, if you read that last sentence without saying some of the words right out loud, maybe twice, with feeling and with some awareness of despair, well, maybe you should go for the CliffsNotes version and save yourself some time.

Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, New York: Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2016, xvi-xvii, 23.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book review: Waterloo

Book review: Waterloo
Bernard Cornwell, Waterloo, (New York: Penguin Books, c1987, 2001)
378 pages

This is my first read in Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series. It’s both brilliant and deadening. Waterloo is a celebrity battle for most people, including me before I started Waterloo, and I guess most folks know little more than the outcome: Wellington and the Prussian commander, Blücher, put an end to Napoleon’s final fantastic comeback in Europe. The Little Corporal died six years later in exile.

Cornwell is an appealing storyteller and his exacting descriptions of characters, places and the battlefield milieu are almost a reward in themselves. It’s really impossible to feel detached from what’s going on. Ay, there’s the rub. I felt distress and then full-blown horror as the fighting wound up and then wound down—nearly 50,000 men were killed or wounded in frantically compressed combat that ended on June 18, 1815, in a small valley in Braine-l’Alleud near the Belgian town of Waterloo, which gave the epic battle its name.

Skeleton of soldier at Waterloo with musket ball in chest
Even the slightly Hollywood bravery of Richard Sharpe doesn’t soften the impact of reading about the butcher’s work done on all sides in that violent meeting of men and ambitions. The somewhat formulaic treatment of the lives and loves of key characters is a slight distraction, but it really doesn’t hinder the accelerating martial excitement of Waterloo.

Cornwell is a compelling storyteller. I was greatly moved by Waterloo, but I can’t say I’m glad I read it.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Book review: Orphan Train

Book review: Orphan Train
Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train, New York: William Morrison, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishing, 2014
278 pages

The first appeal of this book was the historical context: the so-called "orphan trains" that carried as many as 200,000 orphans and homeless kids from the East Coast to most of the states in the interior of the country during 1854-1929.

The short version is: well-meaning social workers and benefactors (the Children’s Aid Society of New York and others) took kids ages 6-18 off the streets and out of institutional settings, and transported them to other states where families almost literally grabbed the children off the trains and took them into their homes, for good or ill. Some of the “orphan train” kids are still living.

Kline creates believable characters. Niamh Power, the Irish lass whose family fled Ireland in the early 20th century, is the hardiest of the hardy. One is tempted to say that her life of struggle, obstacle, and success is a fantasy of the novelist’s musing. Perhaps it’s more credible to suspect that Niamh’s trajectory is all too characteristic of many of the “orphan train” kids and the grownups who thought they were helping them and the grownups who didn’t think that….

Another character, Molly Ayer, the modern goth lassie who interacts with the nonagenarian Niamh, is a puzzlement. She’s a foil and an analog for Niamh—her story is a provocation in Orphan Train, it adds interest and it injects a diffusion of clarity. I assume that’s what Kline wanted.

This would be a more compelling story if it were a shorter compelling story. The point is clear: the child’s life was a succession of individually exceptional but dully repetitive episodes of joy, sadness, and degradation that, frankly, would kayo most kids, most people. Even at 278 pages, Niamh’s tale is overwritten and restated, time after time after time.

This is a respectable, perhaps a superior composition. There are simply too many notes.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The good old Dewey Decimal System

Betcha didn’t know that the Dewey Decimal System was invented in 1873 by an Amherst College junior, who was, mostly likely, a neat freak.

“Melvil Dui” was born as Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey. In his youth, the lad was obsessed with frugality, efficiency, and a “passion for order.”  He acquired a lifelong fixation on labor-saving devices and concepts.

There were some weird outcomes. In thrall to brevity and efficiency, he adopted the name “Melvil Dui.” Yeah, you get it.

He also persuaded the faculty at Amherst to adopt his revolutionary system for cataloging, using a numeric coding system which standardized the classification of books, created standard categories and could be expanded as needed to accommodate new titles without disturbing the orderliness of the system. Dewey was a student worker in Amherst’s library, and he was intensely frustrated by the traditional hodgepodge of library book classification and storage: a book could be shelved anywhere in a given library, and would be more or less randomly located in every other library.

By Dewey’s time, libraries had been around for several hundred years. Admittedly, in the early days there weren’t all that many books, but the Dewey Decimal System was long overdue.

I wonder why no one thought of it before the nerdy kid came along.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book review: American Crisis

Book review:
William M. Fowler, Jr., American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783 (New York: Walker and Company, 2011)
340 pages

American Crisis offers many teaching moments to students of American Revolutionary history.

The war didn’t end at Yorktown. British troops finally left New York City more than two years later.

Washington enters Boston, 1783
Some might speculate that the war effectively ended before that dramatic capitulation at Yorktown in October 1781, because the British never allocated the land and naval forces that were needed to force the colonials to give up. Certainly, the hostilities did not end when Cornwallis threw in the towel. Fowler weaves military, political and diplomatic details together in describing “the dangerous two years” between Yorktown and the official signing of the peace treaty in 1783.

It’s difficult for us in modern times, so accustomed to light-speed communications, to understand the frustration and limitations faced by military commanders, Congress, king and Parliament in the late 18th century. A round trip across the Atlantic could easily take two months or more. Washington could communicate with his officers and Congress only as fast as a horse could travel. British commanders in America were largely on their own in making tactical and strategic decisions. Parliament, the king and American diplomats negotiating peace had to act in perpetual ignorance of recent military actions in North America.

The feckless sloth and impotence of the Second Continental Congress, and (after 1781) the Congress of the Confederation, is a central theme in Fowler’s account. American troops went unfed, unclothed and unpaid for long months and years. The troops committed technically mutinous disobedience about 50 times, and Washington’s officers pushed close indeed to open revolt in their largely unsuccessful efforts to get paid as the end of the war draw closer.

The principal obstacle to forthright action in the congress was its inability to raise money: national taxes needed unanimous consent of the 13 states, which mostly never happened, and the individual states mostly refused to pony up funds from their own resources to support the army. Thus, “the dangerous two years”—if the British had had the military capability to defeat Washington’s army, likely it could have done so. Luckily for us, the king and his ministers never beefed up their army and navy enough to win the war in North America.

In effect, Washington held them off until they gave up.

Fowler says it much better than I can.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Another thought about biographies

The first book I can remember reading, in the 1950s, was a young adult biography of John Paul Jones.

That doesn’t mean I love biographies. Honestly, I don’t read them much.

My taste in history runs to chronologies, regional and epochal frames of reference, les longues durées of the French Annalistes….

Recently I jumped out of my comfort zone to read Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters. I’m a fan of the blues, and original Delta blues is good times music for me. Muddy Waters and “Mannish Boy” are right up at the top of my list.

Robert Gordon, the author of this jam-packed Waters bio, offered this thought about his genre:
“Biography is the process of securing what is mutable. Undertaking the creation of one requires embracing the paradoxical: the writer is asked to create the skin and soul of a person, but not to inhabit it.”

That’s rather deep stuff, I think. It reminds me to mention that I’m no fan of the “great man” style of writing history, even when the great man is a great blues man.

Robert Gordon, Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters (Little, Brown and Company, New York: 2002), xx.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.