1. To finally figure out the difference between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Dante was a Guelph.
2. To discover why Constantine made his famous donation.
3. To learn some new and ingenious ways to torture your enemies. Dante is very imaginative in this regard.
4. To find out what happened to Potiphar's wife, Mohammed, Ulysses, Atilla the Hun, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy. We meet them all in The Inferno.
I recommend Dorothy Sayers' translation because of the excellent introduction and notes.
This morning Elaine and I read A Picture Book of Abraham Lincoln. She really is fascinated with Honest Abe. I may have been reading just a teeny weeny bit more about him that I really need. But it's a delight to see a child become interested in something and to go wherever her imagination and curiosity takes her.
We also read How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which believe it or not, I've never read before - or rather, read so long ago I had forgotten it. It's a delight. Elaine kept wanting to tell me what came next and I explained to her the concept of "spoilers." She loved the idea and proceeded to say instead, "You'll never guess what's next." That works.
I also explained the concept of narrative technique as we read one of the best children's books I've read in a long time (and I read three to five children's books a week as you know.) It's called Previously. Here's what Goodreads had to say about it:
Jack was running like mad in the dark woods with a hen under his arm.
Previously, he had stolen the hen and climbed down a beanstalk."
But do you know what was Jack doing before he climbed down the beanstalk?
Or what Jack and Jill were arguing about before they went up the hill? And what happened before that? Every story, every person, and every thing started somewhere, and now the inventive and whimsical Allan Ahlberg explores what all your favorite storybook characters were up to previously, aided by Bruce Ingman’s energetic illustrations.
A Very Private Eye is a collection of Barbara Pym's letters and journals edited by her sister, Hilary, and her friend and literary executrix, Hazel Holt. As the spinoff from my online Trollope group (called otherlit) has been reading our way through Pym's novels, I've been reading my way through this collection, trying to stay at about the period in her life when the book we are reading was published.
In about 1970 Pym's publishers decided that no one would buy novels like hers and despite the help of friends in the literary world none of her books were accepted for publication between then and 1977.
She tried to stay hopeful for a time and continued writing but eventually as the years went by her writing slowed and she became depressed. "Every now and then I feel gloomy about it all and wonder if anybody will want to publish anything of mine again."
Writing had been the heart of her life. She always carried a small journal with her and noted little scenes in tea shops or standing in a line for a bus or at a lecture and worked these things into her novels. She still kept notes but fewer and with not much hope that she would be writing a novel into which to weave these observations.
For those of us who love her novels and find the author herself a charming and attractive woman it is heartbreaking to read of those years, her occasional mention of publishers who have returned her manuscripts, the fact that she has put away a nearly finished novel as unpublishable. It is especially hard to read of her slowing down and writing less and less. In a world where the best seller list was composed of John Grisham, Patricia Cornwell, and Robert Ludlum it was difficult to sell a subtle, sophisticated, and dryly witty novel no matter how well written.
All of this changed suddenly in January of 1977 when a Times Literary Supplement article asking famous literary figures to name the most underrated novelists of the time. Only one author was mentioned twice, by Philip Larkin and by Lord David Cecil: Barbara Pym. Immediately publishers wanted to see her manuscripts, the BBC wanted to interview her, photographers called to make appointments to photograph her. Her next novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for a Booker. Finally the worth of her work was recognized and she became well known. It was worthwhile to write again.
As we read these pages of the memoir, we know that she was going to die soon and would have very little time to enjoy this resurgence. She shined up some novels written earlier and she wrote another novel, but didn't have time to do a second draft before she died of cancer in January 1980.
The book is full of vignettes as she goes to tea with Lord David or attends church with a friend from college years. She says in a journal note, "I find it is pleasanter to observe these things rather than actually participate in them." She was an astute observer.
Before re-reading Pym's novels one after the other I hadn't really noticed all of the humor and the satire and the occasional cynicism in her work. We have just finished the last of her novels published before the dry years. Her darker novels are ahead of us.
It's getting perilously close to the end of the year and if I want to say anything about the books I've read in 2012 I had better do so soon. I think I'll just list the rest of the mysteries I have read but haven't commented on.
I always enjoy the Mrs Malory mysteries. I finished Mrs Malory's Shortest Journey back in September and I should have written about it right away because it's a little more firmly plotted than most of Hazel Holt's stories and it has an unusual twist at the end. It's one of my favorites.
Back in April I thought I would re-read my way through P D James. I got through the third one, Unnatural Causes, before that plan broke down. Maybe in 2013. You can't go wrong with James. I've never encountered a weak mystery written by Dame Phyllis.
In July I read the first of the Charles Todd mysteries featuring Bess Crawford, A Duty to the Dead. I've read the three following books and reported on them but I never mentioned this first in the series. You would do well to read them in order though that isn't absolutely necessary.
Sarah Caudwell's mysteries in which the sex of the detective is a mystery are very satisfying. I started re-reading that series with Thus Was Adonis Murdered. It's a clever locked room-ish story with a group of lawyers back in London trying to run the investigation of a murder in Italy.
I have a handful of additional mysteries and I'm going to indulge until after Santa has come because I expect him to bring a couple of big (700-800 pages) nonfiction tomes and I want to be free to start them as soon as they arrive. I am looking forward espcially to the latest Louise Penny Inspector Gamache mystery.
The Insanity Offense: How America's Failure to Treat the Seriously Mentally Ill Endangers Its Citizens by E. Fuller Torrey
More than 50% of “rampage killers,” men (they are almost always men) like the one who killed more than 30 people at Virginia Tech a few years ago and the one who recently killed five people and grievously wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords and several others in Arizona, are seriously mentally ill and untreated. More than 60% of men who kill their own children and 75% - that’s three out of four – women who kill their children are seriously mentally ill and untreated. More than 10% of the prisoners in American jails and a larger percentage of people arrested for non-family violence are seriously mentally ill and untreated. Between a third and half of the people who are homeless and living on the streets and eating out of garbage cans, as best can be determined, are mentally ill and untreated.
We have stringent state laws in the US that prevent involuntary hospitalization and involuntary treatment of people even with extremely serious paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, even if they are delusional and violent. A few such people who have been treated against their will have been awarded millions of dollars when represented by civil liberties lawyers to make certain they continue to go untreated – and in all too many cases remain on the street, eating garbage, threatening and attacking their families, sometimes murdering others. The laws require a person to be threatening “imminent” violence – which means with a knife in hand and moving forward, and so also means years of increasingly frequent and threatening incidents and a history of assault, even with a baseball bat, knife, gun, or other weapon, is not enough to allow a judge to force the mentally ill person to remain in treatment and to continue to take medication.
In The Insanity Offense, E Fuller Torrey, makes a plea for more sensible and humane treatment of these people who are, by the nature of their illness, unable to make a sane decision whether to be treated or not. Before the middle of the 19th century people who were insane were kept imprisoned and chained. Today we are doing much the same thing, because leaving such people untreated leads to staggering numbers of the mentally ill residing in our jails and prisons. In the more than 3,000 counties in the United States there is not one with a hospital housing more mentally ill people than the county jail. The jails are our new mental hospitals. The costs, and not just the costs in money, are staggering.
Torrey’s case for sensible laws that allow involuntary hospitalization and treatment of the most seriously ill is convincing. Sick people who are released from hospitals without further treatment are alarmingly vulnerable – they are attacked, raped, murdered in much higher percentages than the general population. They fill our jails and take up the time and resources of our police system. They are now a large percentage of the people who attack police and are killed by them. And the very seriously mentally ill are found in disconcertingly high percentages among those who attack and murder their families, neighbors, and complete strangers.
We used to have mental asylums, places where, ideally, the sick and vulnerable were given asylum, and could be protected from themselves and others. But deinstitutionalization from the late 1960s through the late 1990s has put most of these people at the mercy of themselves and others.
We cannot call ourselves a civilized nation and continue to treat the most vulnerable among us in this way.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall . . .
This is one of the first pieces of verse that I memorized and I'll bet it was for you, too. (I'm very careful with eggs to this day.) Most of us learned "by heart" the nursery rhymes and other verses we encountered as small children, often before we could read.
Oh, how I love to go up in a swing . . .
Rote learning, teaching by asking children to memorize things, is so far out of fashion at the moment that you'd probably get less criticism if you robbed a bank.
Aye, tear her tattered ensign down . . .
But when I was in school it was the tail end of the era when children were asked to memorize things: the multiplication table, the US states and their capitals, the periodic table, and most important to me and to the author of this book, poetry.
Build thee more stately mansions, oh my soul . . .
Even in college, my Shakespeare professor made us memorize: Hamlet's soliloquy, the sceptred isle speech from Richard II, the quality of mercy speech from The Merchant of Venice. "What news on the Rialto?" from the same play, I memorized on my own. (Apparently nobody else did, however, as when I say that I get blank stares.)
But that was in another country, and besides the wench is dead . . .
I spotted that quote in a novel a while ago and the author wrote to tell me no other reviewer had noticed it.
Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice . . .
Now comes Catherine Robson, who grew up in England and is now a professor at New York University. In Heart Beats she makes the case for requiring children to memorize poetry. She talks at length about three poems that were often assigned to children to memorize, Casabianca (The boy stood on the burning deck . . .), Elegy in a Country Churchyard (The curfew tolls the knell of parting day . . .), and The Burial of Sir John Mooore after Corunna (Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note). I don't know that last one but I know parts of the other by heart, and if you are reading this blog you probably know them too.
Only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone, and not your yellow hair.
I'm talking about this book without having read it ($45, no Amazon discount, new and so not eligible for interlibrary loan, Santa tapped out.) I have read instead a lengthy review by William H Pritchard who is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College. (I wonder if my SATs are good enough to get me into Amherst where I could major in English and take courses from Professor Pritchard.)
Alone, alone, all all alone, alone on a wide wide sea . . .
Robson feels strongly that memorizing poetry, preferably poetry with a strong meter, contributed something to a child's education that they could absorb no other way. She is not concerned so much about whether a poem is "good" or "bad" but rather values verse because it gave children something that they took with them, whether they were to leave school at 14 and work in a coal mine or were part of a family who read aloud or recited poetry in front of the fire in the evening.
The mirror cracked from side to side, the curse has come upon me cried the Lady of Shallott . . .
Because I'm just old enough I did a lot of memorizing in school and so I carry with me hundreds of verses that are there when I need them. I'm sorry, as is the author, that children today will not be given that treasure.
The One remains, the many change and pass; Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly; Life like a dome of many-colored glass, Stains the white radiance of Heaven; Until Death shatters it to fragments.
The Uncommon Reader arrived yesterday. I read it when it was first published and this is a gift copy but I couldn't resist it and re-read the whole thing last night. Which is easy to do because it's short and very sly and dry.
I had forgotten that Her Majesty begins her reading with Ivy Compton-Burnett. I'm reading Ivy right now, in chronological order to watch her develop and change, so I know she isn't always easy going. The queen choosing her book because she remembers "I made her a dame" is just the sort of illogical way so many of us pick what to read next. Not that we are making authors dames but we all have discovered books that were lagniappe given us by Chance.
I particularly like the sort of Greek chorus provided by the Duke of Edinburgh, who doesn't approve of this reading business at all. And the difficulties of being a dedicated reader when you are the queen can be serious. When she is off giving The Queen's Speech at Westminster she tucks her book behind a pillow in the coach. But when she gets back it's not there.
When they arrived at the palace she had a word with Grant, the young footman in charge, who said it was security and that while ma'am had been in the Lords the sniffer dogs had been round and security had confiscated the book. He thought it had probably been exploded.
"Exploded?" said the Queen. "But it was Anita Brookner."
I'll bet Anita Brookner had a giggle over that.
Alan Bennett is a national treasure.
Biographies tend to be either deadly boring or deeply engrossing. David Nasaw's biography of Joseph P Kennedy, the father of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, is one of the engrossing sort. Enough time has gone by and enough actors in the Kennedy family tragedy have died that most of the papers of most of the Kennedys and of the people they wrote to and received letters from, as well as everybody's journals, are now available, primarily at the Kennedy Library in Boston. Nasaw has taken advantage of these newly released materials to fill in many of the blanks that remained in the Kennedy story.
Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, was far more prominent in American public life before World War II than I had realized. He started his fortune working for a family bank and investing in a stock market that was notoriously easy to game. By performing trades that were unethical but not illegal he amassed a large fortune, which he increased with his adventures in Hollywood. He sensed the 1929 disaster was coming and put his money into safe securities and real estate and then made another fortune shorting stocks as the crash unfolded.
When Franklin Roosevelt needed someone to head the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission who better to write the rules than a man who had used every possible technique to play the market? Kennedy was immensely successful as SEC chairman, partly because he had another talent: self promotion. His name became a household word. He moved on to the newly-formed Maritime Commission and when he resigned from that post expected to be named secretary of the treasury.
Roosevelt may have made a disastrous error naming Kennedy as ambassador to England, but he wasn't so foolish as to make Kennedy treasury secretary. Kennedy and his family arrived in England to a riotous welcome. His popularily was at its peak. But it didn't take long for him to strike out on his own, giving speeches which contradicted the foreign policy to which the state department and Roosevelt expected him to adhere.
In the years immediately before the war he was an ardent appeaser, a close friend of Neville Chamberlain, and a strong proponent of treaties with Germany. He was deeply worried at the idea of a war and even when Hitler had demonstrated that he would comply with nothing he had promised to do, still Kennedy advised England to make peace with Hitler.
By the time Kennedy came home and resigned his position he had made an enormous number of enemies in England and in the United States. His unpopularity put him in a position where Roosevelt was unwilling to give him any significant job when the US finally entered the war. He was offered the chairmanship of the Small Business Administration, at which he scoffed.
Still he hated the war and wanted the British to capitulate and the US to sign a treaty giving Hitler the continent in order to get us out of the now expanded and bloody war. He became increasingly anti-Semitic and increasingly outspoken about it. When his eldest son, Joseph P Kennedy, Jr, his son-in-law, Billy Hartington, and his daughter, Kathleen, were killed he became extremely bitter and began to talk of a conspiracy in which Roosevelt had purposely created a climate in which the war was inevitable. Kennedy became a pariah.
With the death of his eldest son and most beloved child, Kennedy turned to his second son, JFK, and began engineering his political career. JFK had been in poor health since birth and it is now thought that he had undiagnosed Addison's disease. He had serious back problems and a case of malaria that was not diagnosed until very late. But his father ignored all of this and pushed him into politics and eventually into the presidency. It's questionable whether JFK really wanted this career for himself but in the face of a bitter, disappointed, ambitious, and thwarted father he had no choice.
This is an authorized biography and it's no surprise that Kennedy comes up smelling like a wild Irish rose, but there are some things he has been accused of, but of which he is innocent. He was not a bootlegger. He did not make his fortune in the liquor business. He may have lied about unethical conduct but he never, as far as the biographer could determine, intentionally broke the law. He was devoted to his children and spent as much time with them as he could, especially when they were small. He was a gifted administrator and performed a string of difficult jobs with brilliance. But his ego tripped him up and he died a broken-hearted man after the additional deaths of JFK and Bobby Kennedy.
I've been blogging for almost 7 years now and recently I've been reading some of my older blogs. There are a few that I particularly like and that I think deserve to be reposted. So here, from out of the past, is a review of a book about correct English usage, assuming there is such a thing.
Ah the joys of disparaging those who disagree with us about English usage. They seem never to get old. The author of this "History of Proper English," Henry Hitchings, while he tells us repeatedly that he does not take a stand, he's just explaining to us what has happened over the years, is actually quite opinionated. In his opinion there are no valid standards, all standards are artificial (he speaks repeatedly of "bogus" rules), and no one has a right to impose his "standards" on the rest of us. Ebonics, anyone?
On the one hand, this book is so dry I have to keep hand cream by my reading chair. I fell asleep three or four times over the third or fourth page. And if he isn't lively enough in the first few pages to keep even a reader like me awake what can we expect on page 241? On the other hand, there are gems embedded in the sand. I did not know, for instance, that "speakers of Dyirbal in Queensland have traditionally had for all things an everyday word and an alternative one for use in the presence of their mothers-in-law," or that "the Burushaski language spoken in some northern parts of Pakistan distinguishes four genders." (That one threw me a bit. I still haven't worked it out.)
In plugging the value of redundancy, Hitchings contends that "it is the lack of redundancy in mathematics and its teaching that explains why so much maths bewilders so many people." Who knew? After futzing around for 20 pages he finally defines language. "Language is power." Useful, that. He also says that "'Logic' is often a mask for smugness and jingoism." And that grammatical failings have been associated with moral ones." That last is probably true, but can I trust anything this guy says?
He ticked me off when he stopped his discussion of the validity of using "n't" instead of "not" to lecture America on what he sees as our history of genocide, wars of conquest, imperialism, and I forget what else. (Repetition of these charges tends to do the opposite of convince.) As for the French, Hitchings says that "the main purpose of the Academie Francaise is not to affect the behaviour of French-speakers, but to provide amusement for foreign journalists." Possibly so.
The book is indeed a history of attempts to describe or prescribe grammar and reactions to those attempts and he mostly tells us about the ludicrous mis-statements and frustrated "oughts" and "musts." One grammarian declared in 1762 that "because" was obsolete, and that grammarian is so wrong about that, says Hitchings, how can he be right to try to standardize spelling and encourage us all to avoid double negatives? There's a name for that illogical assumption but I forget what it is.
I did not know that Joseph Priestly had written a grammar book but as Hitchings implies, why would you listen to a guy who initially called oxygen "dephlogisticated air." Why indeed. He addresses rapidly diverging English English and American English, first mentioned in print in 1663 when it was pointed out that an "ordinary" in America was a tavern whereas in England it was an inn. Things deteriorated from there.
Hitchings is alert for the inconsistencies of people and institutions who/that have taken a position on the descriptive/prescriptive scale. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, was responsible for untold cases of apoplexy when it came out some years ago with a very lax descriptive edition. If a lot of people use "ain't" then "ain't" is an acceptable word. Here's Hitchings' comment:
". . . it is striking that the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary are responsible for a book with the title 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces. Examples include acumen, chimera and niche. If 'almost everyone' mispronounces them, it follows that almost no one pronounces them 'correctly', so perhaps the supposedly correct pronunciations are close to becoming obsolete." You will be relieved to know that I pronounce them correctly.
Personally, I cringe when people use "whom" when the correct usage (at least for the moment) is "who." When they use "who" for "whom" I don't really care. I answer the phone, "This is she," which usually gets me a moment of silence. I cling bitterly to the difference between lie and lay and a couple of other lost causes, but on the whole I welcome new words from wherever they come (I would be mute without "download," "delta function," "skoch," and "binary.")
But there IS an argument for retaining small distinctions. When "shall" and "will" are interchangeable, "hopefully" is thrown about recklessly, and almost anything can be described as "awesome," we lose subtlety and are less able to communicate fine distinctions. Unfortunately, there are fewer of us trying to do so all the time.