Saturday, December 19, 2015

aaah....a real bookstore

Just didn't want to miss a chance to say that wandering through a real bookstore is an afternoon delight....

I mean the kind of bookstore that doesn't have a clothing section and 8 checkout registers and employees with job titles like "barrista"....

I really don't mind at all when I have to get down on one knee and sort of turn my head upside down to read the titles of the American history books that are stacked wrong side up on the bottom shelf behind the rickety shelving that's labeled "Poetry" and "Classical Arts" with little hand-lettered labels that were taped on but are starting to peel off in all directions....

I love the chance to actually handle the "special" books in the locked case behind the owner's cluttered desk, the ones that are, let's be honest, overpriced, but every once in a while I buy one because the temptation to own a musty 1866 copy of sermons delivered by notable churchmen after the assassination of President Lincoln is just too much to ignore....

See, Barnes & Noble is never going to carry that one....and I don't think it would be all that easy to download it to my Kindle.

Awright,  you got me, I have a Kindle, I've used it, I kind of feel OK reading books on that puppy, I know it's the 21st century and all....

But, here's the clincher for me:  no matter how close I hold that Kindle to my nose, it's never going to smell like that book of sermons calling on the Almighty to bless his servant, Old Abe....

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book review: St. Ives, Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England

Book review: St. Ives, Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907
438 pages

This is a re-do of my earlier post on Stevenson's St. Ives, because I now confess that I stopped reading at p. 390. So, don't worry about spoilers….

I've always maintained a coldly mechanical willingness to stop reading a book whenever the time comes….in St. Ives, the time comes at Chapter XXXI.

Stevenson died after writing XXX chapters of St. Ives, and a respected contemporary, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, wrote the remaining VI chapters from Stevenson's notes.

Stevenson's oeuvre is fastidiously lush, precise, sophisticated, with deeply contextual character development and dialogue that leaves me breathless with anticipation for more. There's an abstractly beautiful love interest. Did I mention that I'm a fan of 19th century prose?

Quiller-Couch doubtless had his merits as a 19th century writer. He ain't no Stevenson.

Q-C's contribution to St. Ives lacks the prepossessing heartiness of Stevenson's dialogue and storyline.

Q-C can't quite gin up the panache and persiflage that RLS animates on nearly every page.

Q-C makes a too sincere but unavailing effort to match the rural patois that Stevenson offers for the reader's delight.

Q-C bungles the parlous adventures of the eponymous protagonist, injecting a wretched slapstick element that leads an RLS fan to transition uncomfortably into pursed-lips mode. 

Stevenson's prosaic mastery is, sadly, missing in the last VI chapters of St. Ives, and, therefore, ignorance shall be my penalty for closing this truncated masterpiece before I reached the end.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book review: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
Creator of crime fiction and that ace crimestopper, Sherlock Holmes

I'm re-reading some of Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" adventures, including several that are new to me….yes, yes, of course I read "The Five Orange Pips" again, doesn't everyone?
This time I tried "The Adventure of Lady Frances Carfax" and "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" and a few others.

Basil Rathbone as Holmes
I first read some of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes when I was too young to be entertained by anything but the action. With that constraint, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" was somewhat boring, and "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons" was simply pedestrian. The Complete Sherlock Holmes languished on my "To Read" list for years.

Now I am an older, more aesthetic fancier of the agile mind and the haughty generosity and the dimensioned humanity of Sherlock Holmes. Time after time, Holmes austerely allows Lestrade to claim a vaunted reputation that is too often boosted by the singular and covert prowess of Holmes himself. Holmes always takes the opportunity to be genteelly solicitous to the frightened widow. Despite his loveless bachelorhood, he is charmed by young lovers and easily condones their righteous excesses. He can be excited by discovery, and clap at each revelation, with the innocence of a child.

And yet, the fabulous boarder at 221B Baker Street has no fear of the nastiest brute….Holmes will leap—leap!—onto the back of an escaping felon….he will defy the powerful and the villainous alike, in defense of the letter of the law and in obedience to humane justice….

Jeremy  Brett as Holmes
Holmes is a good man.

His adventures are good reading, time after time.

The yin and yang of productivity

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Book review: Saint Martin’s Summer

Book review: Saint Martin’s Summer

Saint Martin's Summer, published in 1909, is a historical romance, Sabatini's signature style. Think of it as a very high-toned beach book….
Here's my take on it:

Jason Bourne would be bored in Dauphiny.

It's a sleepy, rural French province, but there is the occasional sword play, and some moat diving, so he wouldn't be bored all the way to tears…

But let's just face up to it, in your classic Romantic novel about 18th century French dowager marquises and blundering bounders and dashing heroes and cherishable maidens and fat, simpering seneschals, you're going to get more talk than titillation, and more argument than action. So be it.

Sabatini deftly creates his tale of principled, introspective people trying for success, both villainous and otherwise. 

 His characters have deep appeal—they're always trying to do the right thing, or at least trying to do a bad thing the right way…e.g., Grenache knows he must save the girl, and he knows he will love her deeply…

They care deeply—about the ones they love, about their success in a milieu that maximizes opportunity for deception and ultimately minimizes the prospect of getting away with a betrayal or self-dealing or moral weakness.

Sabatini is a colorful storyteller, and he tells a great story about things that count.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book review: John Adams

Book review: John Adams
Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001
751 pages

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you don’t think the biography is the best way to do history. David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winner is a reason to change your mind a bit.

John Adams is simply a really good book. McCullough helps you to warm up to the man and to his personal experience in leading the Revolution and the first formative years of the American republic. 

Adams, our first vice president and second president, was among the few who were in the thick of it from the beginning, and he never shrank from doing what he expansively viewed as his duty to his new country.

McCullough’s prose is a delightful experience for the serious historian and the armchair dabbler who likes a good read. From cover to cover, this is a lush, genuine presentation of a man, his loved ones, his career, his commitment to do good works and his never-flagging appreciation that the object of government should be to do the people’s business and make possible a decent life for all.

John Adams was savaged by the earliest manifestations of partisan party politics, but he never stooped to play that game.

Too bad we don’t have someone like John Adams in a leadership role today.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter

Book review: Clotel, or The President’s Daughter
Introduction by Dr. Joan E. Cashin
M. E. Sharpe, Inc., Armonk, New York, 1996
191 pages

This is a workmanlike treatment of a subject that is a hardly imaginable foundation of early America: slavery.

It’s more a documentary than any modern understanding of a novel. Brown does a good job of character development for a limited cast of characters, including Clotel, the “mulatto” daughter of a black slave mother and a white father. The story of many aspects of slavery—disruption of families, cruelty of masters, the abolition movement, the economic importance of slave-based agriculture and production, the moral, philosophical and political debates about the “peculiar institution”—is written in a style that is manifestly journalistic and prosaic, not literary.

Clotel is a high impact read. Brown was born a slave in Kentucky circa 1818. He escaped, became an abolitionist and a writer in England, and was purchased by friends and freed in the middle of the 19th century. He published Clotel in 1853 as the first “novel” written by a black American.

It isn’t good reading. It’s harsh reading. It’s a terribly candid condemnation of a despicable fact of American history. It’s a catalog of shame and endurance and human spirit.

By the way, the subtitle acknowledges Brown’s unabashed reference to the story, well known in the mid-19th century, that Thomas Jefferson dallied with his slave, Sally Hemings, and had children with her.

Here are a couple items:

Prof. Cashin notes: “Historians estimate that perhaps 10 percent of the four million slaves living in the South in 1860 had some white ancestry.”1 Too many white owners forced themselves on their female slaves. In some parts of the South, a person with white lineage except for a black great-great-great-great grandmother could legally be sold as a slave.

Brown underscores the hypocrisy of slave owners who professed political, philosophical or religious convictions that were nominally opposed to slavery. For example, Brown states that in the middle of the 19th century, more than 660,000 slaves  were owned “by members of the Christian church in this pious democratic republic.”2

Slavery died hard. Writers like Brown helped to make it happen.

1 -  p. xiii
2 -  p. 187

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Book review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Boston: Beacon Press, 2014

This is a book about the history of the United States, and the concurrent histories of the indigenous peoples who lived in North America before there was a “United States.” Surely you already know, deeply or vaguely, that these are violent histories of conflict, betrayal and subjugation.

Full disclosure: this is not an easy book. If you are an American historian or a student of American history, you should read it. Don’t expect to enjoy it. Dunbar-Ortiz frankly admits that she had “grave misgivings” about her mandate to “write accessibly so it would engage multiple audiences.”  She uses the word “genocide” a half dozen times in the first few pages, and repeatedly thereafter, and this sets a tone for the entire book.

Here are selected chapter sub-headings—they’re not a representative sample, but they are illustrative:
  • White Supremacy and Class
  • Roots of Genocide
  • Settler-Parasites Create the Virginia Colony
  • Career Building Through Genocide
  • The Genocidal Army of the West
  • Greed is Good
  • North America is a Crime Scene
Dunbar-Ortiz concludes by endorsing a Native American historian’s observation that “…while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past.” The author argues for “honoring the treaties…restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks…[restoring] all stolen sacred items and body parts…payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations.”

That is a conclusion of historic proportions that engages multiple audiences. Dunbar-Ortiz had grave misgivings before she wrote this book. I think many readers will feel the same.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Brokeback Mountain

Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal
Director: Ang Lee
Won Oscars for Directing, Music and Writing/Screenplay

Based on the short story by Annie Proulx, screenplay by Larry McMurtry

Here's the big bad spoiler: it's a love story. It has cowboys. And scenic mountains. What could be more all-American?

The love positively erupts, it's a stunning revelation, there is gentleness later, and disappointment that can't be contained. There is real love, you cannot be in doubt about that, and there are the hobbling constraints that Jack and Ennis cannot overcome.

In the end, there is a bloodied shirt that is a delicate memento linking Ennis to Jack, a painfully impotent manifestation of the many wounds they bore, and inflicted on each other.

In the end, there is a big empty space where love should be, but too many precarious opportunities have already passed by.

p.s. Ditto for Annie’s book

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Book review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Book review: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
By Charles Mann
2011, Vintage Books

Everything you never knew about civilized people in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and killed most of them (OK, many died in battle, but it was European diseases, mostly). Maybe close to 100 million "native" people died within 100 years or so of the "discovery" by Columbus…..but hold on, this book is not about Wounded Knee-type criticism or ex post facto self-flagellation.

Mann beautifully describes the marvelous sophistication of cultures, cities, agriculture, arts and science that blossomed in North America, Central America, and South America thousands of years ago, in many cases predating achievements and growth and civilization in Europe. Yes, the Incas never used the wheel except for children's toys. And yes, the Mississippian city of Cahokia was a bustling port and a trading center with population equal to Paris in France---and that was 500 years before Columbus sailed.

Beautiful downtown Cahokia
And yes, there were grand cities in the Americas before there was pyramid-building in Egypt. And yes, the Olmec culture in what is now Mexico invented the zero whole centuries before mathematicians in India did the same.

My recollection of learning about the history of the Americas is that the dates and events were tied to discovery and conquest and colonization by Europeans. The implication was that, before the white men with guns, germs and steel arrived, nothing much was going on in whole continents characterized more by "virgin land" and "endless wilderness" than by people who had agriculture, city life, art, trade, commerce, religion, science, kings and philosophers.

For me, the joy of reading this book is learning about the multiplicity of cultures that flourished in the Americas, and learning how they tamed and managed and very greenly conserved their environment…and for me, the sad revelation of this book is understanding that the peoples of the Americas were human beings whose achievements were noble and notable, and yet, lamentably, their legacies are largely lost and the losses are barely mourned.

In 1533 Pizarro and his conquistadors at Cuzco precipitated the decline of the 300-year-old Inca empire in Peru. Fifty years later, the Spanish colonial administrators in Peru ordered the burning of all the Incan "khipu" knotted string records because they were "idolatrous objects." Khipu were the Incas' only form of writing. The smoke from the burning of the books gets in your eyes, forever and ever.

Khipu knotted strings

Charles Mann's website:

Some other book reviews:

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The wisdom of L. P. Hartley

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

L. P. (Leslie Poles) Hartley (1895–1972)

This is the celebrated first line of the "The Go-Between," Hartley's novel of Victorian romance and deception published in London in 1953. It can mean whatever you make of it.

I take it as an admonition….one must try to be aware of the unique and partly (perhaps completely) inaccessible context that framed the actions and outlooks of those who did things we think we're interested in…it's not easy to think and feel as the Romans did…

The 1970 movie with Julie Christie and Alan Bates is a genuinely throbbing, set-your-teeth-on-edge rendition of the book…give either of them a try.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Book review: Girl With A Pearl Earring

Book review: Girl With A Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

slim offering of historical fiction about Johannes Vermeer's enigmatic portrait of an unknown young girl, circa 1665.

It's a breathtaking, tantalizing love story….tantalizing because Vermeer and the maid, Griet, almost embrace their passion, each stepping over the line without transgression, but not without hurt:

Vermeer, the worldly one, the master, tempted to the edge of the precipice…

Griet, the child innocent, heedless of her woman's heat, trespassing unaware and ever nearer to the mystery that she barely understands in the beginning….

She feels the lush weight of the earring, his fingertip sears her skin, she inclines toward his touch, trembles with a disembodied, virginal start of pain….

Quickly stilled, she sits for him.

He trembles—a long moment—with the rush of desire, masters it, and steps back to his easel, granting her a little more time in the childhood she is leaving behind, giving her a peace that will become a bereavement, a keening memory….

They look at each other, mute, apart yet bound, in flagrante delicto, withering, without joy….

Monday, October 26, 2015

Book review: The Financier

Book review: The Financier
By Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)
First published 1912, Harper and Bros., New York.

It's just amazing that Dreiser wrote this gritty novel in 1912, before anyone even thought of derivatives, credit default swaps, sub-prime "liar loan" mortgages and no-fault (for bankers and brokers, that is) national financial meltdowns. Frank Cowperwood is the ethically-challenged "financier" whose star and fortunes rise so marvelously and then collapse with equal flare. He seems so absolutely convincingly contemporary that I had recurring transient episodes of reverse déjà vu as I followed his desperate ambition and burnout.

Frank is a first-rate villain. He burns his friends and enemies with equal disdain, he channels Gordon Gekko with suitably theatrical energy, and he is most deliciously unrepentant when his schemes go awry, his loans get called and his empire crashes around him.

I say "deliciously unrepentant" because, unlike the contemporary villainous free spirits of Wall Street, Frank promptly goes to jail for his crimes.

The Financier so obviously is the kind of novel that might be written by a baroque clone of Michael Lewis. If you'd like to work out a bit of the residual rage you feel about the man-made financial cesspool we  wallowed in for the last few years, try this American classic.



Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Book review: The Comanche Empire

Book review: The Comanche Empire
Hamalainen, Pekka. The Comanche Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

This book will change your mind about how the West was won.

Hint: The Comanches got there first.

The Comanches arrived obscurely in the American Southwest in 1706. This book provocatively makes the case that the Comanches created an imposing Southwestern American empire that spanned 150 years. They blunted the 18th century colonial ambitions of the Spanish in Mexico and the French in Louisiana, and stalled the westward thrust of Americans and the U.S. government until the middle of the 19th century. A broad coalition of Comanche rancheria chiefs throughout the territory of Comancheria first dominated the Apaches, eventually turned against their Ute allies, and commercially or militarily subjugated numerous lesser tribes. 

Comanches managed a succession of peace treaties and conflicts with the Spaniards and completely blocked their repeated efforts to extend colonial settlements northward from Mexico. The political, commercial and military supremacy of the Comanches was based principally on their success in adopting and adapting Spanish horses for efficient transportation, military power and a thriving and lucrative trade in horses throughout the Southwest.

 Hamalainen's central argument invites—indeed it provokes—a reasonable dispute about the credibility of his claim for a Comanche empire. In classical political or geopolitical usage, the claim is untenable, at least in part; the Comanche empire had neither fixed borders, nor a single self-sustaining centralized supreme authority, nor a durable bureaucracy, nor a definitive political structure.

Nevertheless, the Comanches had a respected, recurring broadly representative council of chiefs that planned and organized extensive raids, trading and other commerce, and military operations. Their hunting, pasturing and trading territories had indistinct geographic borders that were never surveyed or adjudicated; Comanches never sought to occupy and permanently control any specifically delineated territory. Hamalainen says they were "conquerors who saw themselves more as guardians than governors of the land and its bounties." Nonetheless, the geographical extent of the their domains was well known, respected and enforced by the Comanches.

Each Comanche rancheria had its own geographic territory, rigorous socio-military culture and hierarchical organizational. The situational circumstances of Comanche military superiority, their control of trade  and their ability through the decades to repeatedly impose and maintain obviously favorable terms in their treaty and trade agreements are undeniable evidence of the Comanches' extended dominance of terrain, physical resources, culture and commerce, and, not least in importance, the Spanish and French colonial enterprises that sought to compete with them.

For decades the Comanches set the terms of their success; no competing power could defeat them, and no Indians or Europeans could evade the Comanches' dominance in their domain. Thus, the Comanches created a de facto empire. Ultimately, they were marginalized by a combination of drought that constrained their bison hunting and weakened their pastoral horse culture, disruption of trade which limited their access to essential carbohydrate foodstuffs, epidemic disease that repeatedly reduced the Comanche populations, predatory bison hunting by the Americans in the early 1870s that wiped out this essential food resource, and, finally, by the irresistible tide of U.S. government-sponsored westward migration that pushed American citizens into Comanche territory.

Too bad the Comanches left no accounts of their own. It would be fascinating to hear this story in their own words.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Book review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

A book that makes language an erogenous zone….

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Saturday, October 17, 2015

Book review: Bartleby, the Scrivener

A short story by Herman Melville (1819-1891) 
First published 1853 in Putnam's Magazine, and later in Melville's The Piazza Tales in 1856.

If you can read Bartleby without suspecting, nay, without more or less believing that it was written by Dickens, you can take pride in your mental discipline whilst reading. I confess that I briefly searched for Bartleby in my rumpled collection of Dickens, which of course does not include The Piazza Tales.

None of Melville's notorious South Sea elements here. This is straightforward, 19th century prose set in 19th century Wall Street with shabby, luridly eccentric antebellum characters including the narrator and his bedeviled scrivener (copyist), Bartleby.

The circumstances of this desiccated short story are curious, even eccentric, incredulous. The withered and aloof Bartleby is presented, examined and disdained, until his very dispirited isolation makes him the object of the narrator's genuine but increasingly troubled caretaking.

Bartleby's enervating and apparently desperate ennui keep him always a step removed from the narrator's efforts to supply a little humanity in his life.

The scrivener is lonely beyond understanding. He bears almost in silence the emotional poverty that ultimately kills him.

One believes that Bartleby longed, in vain, to be able to repel the Reaper with his simple and inscrutable refrain: "I would prefer not to."

I will prefer not to re-read Melville's tale on a dreary afternoon.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2015 All rights reserved.