Peter Taylor and the Cost of Being Southern: A Summons to Memphis

Like other Southern writers of his generation (Walker Percy and Shelby Foote come immediately to mind), Peter Taylor explores the lives of upper class Southerners searching for some clue to unlock the terrible allegiances Southerners of a certain background feel to family, home, and tradition – and for what it costs to free oneself of those allegiances.

A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (image courtesy Goodreads)

After the sort of manic energy I encountered in Daniel Forbes’s Derail This Train Wreck, I decided that I wanted something more – at least seemingly – sedate. I found it in the first of my Southern authors from the 2015 reading list, Peter Taylor. Best known for his short fiction (every short story writer should study The Old Forest and Other Stories for examples of how the short story is done well), Taylor is a Tennessean from exactly that sort of upper class background I mention above – and he explores the pain associated with breaking free of such a background with all its attendant traditions and constraints – as brilliantly as do those contemporaries, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote. A Summons to Memphis is in a very real way the story of a trial: the trial of being a scion of privilege in a place where such a plummy birth carries within it the seeds of destruction for all lucky enough to be such fruit. Continue reading

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Book Review: Derail this Train Wreck by Daniel Forbes

What Forbes is after is not easily achieved: he seeks to portray both a society in crisis and the life of a person who, in crisis himself, still strives to draw public attention to the social crisis in hopes of saving, if not himself, at least that society. Derail This Train Wreck is a ray of light in a world going dark.

Derail This Train Wreck by Daniel Forbes (image courtesy derailthistrainwreck.com)

Derail This Train Wreck is a book of our times. It has elements of the near future dystopian tale so popular in our times. Its political satire veers between the somberly apocalyptic vision of a Truthout piece and the tongue in cheek irony dripping humor of an article from The Onion. And its domestic/romantic plot line (a failed relationship and the struggle of the parties to reorient their lives) is the stuff of which our lives and those of many we know is made. That Daniel Forbes has been able to weave this disparate elements into a narrative that is not simply cohesive but compelling is to his great credit – and the reader’s delight. Continue reading

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Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey: Good Enough…

Catherine Morland is like most adolescents: too certain about what (she thinks) she knows, too uncertain about what she knows (she thinks) she doesn’t. Her negotiation of coming of age is about learning to manage both what she knows and what she doesn’t know – as well as learning how to recognize when she knows and when she doesn’t….

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (image courtesy Goodreads)

My life as a famous and beloved book essayist has its twists and turns. This week’s particular turn took me north to Maryland where I served in the graduation festivities at the university where I teach. As a result (and because I’m currently working my way through Daniel Forbes’ dystopian satire  Derail this Train Wreck), I’m doing what I warned you I might a week or so ago: writing about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey is probably my least favorite of all great Jane’s works. There are a couple of reasons for this, and you may as well know them. First, it was published posthumously (as was my favorite of Austen’s works, the marvelous and prescient Persuasion about which I will write near the end of this year) although it was the first novel she ever completed. The story behind that is well documented: Northanger Abbey was accepted for publication, but the publisher later decided not to issue the book. Over a decade later – near the too early end of Austen’s life – her brother Henry bought the book back from that same publisher for the same price for which it had originally been purchased. Evidently, that publisher, Crosby and Co., was not known for either editorial or business acumen: in the time between their purchase of the manuscript in 1803 and Henry Austen’s repurchase of the manuscript in 1816 (a mere year before Jane’s death), Miss Austen had published four other novels of which a good publisher ought to have heard: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Though published initially by “A Lady,” anyone with an interest in literature or reading knew who the author was – except the fine folks at Crosby and Co. it seems. To get to the point, reason #1 why Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen work is that it’s a first novel with a first novel’s foibles: too much self-satisfied obvious authorial voice, too little attention to smoothing out the rough patches, which are numerous. Continue reading

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Jose Saramago: Baltasar, Blimunda, and The Flight to Happiness

“…the longer you live the more you will realize that the world is like a great shadow pervading our hearts. That is why the world seems so empty and eventually becomes unbearable.” – José Saramago, Baltasar and Blimunda

Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago (image courtesy Goodreads)

After taking longer than I should have (and mewling and puking about it in the process) I have finished Portuguese Nobelist José  Saramago’s masterful Baltasar and Blimunda from the 2015 reading list. It’s a powerful novel as both a tale of the mystery of love and as a novel of ideas. Saramago’s genius is his ability to wed these very disparate sorts of stories (romance, political statement). Saramago’s gift to readers is that he does both of these in a subtle, even elliptical way, introducing themes, spinning them out, spinning away from them, then gradually winding us back to them when we have all but forgotten them. Like a Scarlatti sonata, Baltasar and Blimunda is part entertainment, part education, and part expression of the artist’s view of the world.

More about the power of the imagination to do both good and evil than any other theme, Baltasar and Blimunda asks us to consider why we allow others’ ideas to control our destinies…. Continue reading

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The Reading and Writing Doldrums…

Even the most avid reader, and the most dedicated writer, and I think I qualify as both, occasionally hits the doldrums – whether from a slow book, personal distractions, or the impositions of silly stuff like work…

EPSON MFP image

The author, much younger,  engrossed in a favorite pastime.

I am still making my way through Jose Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda, a book I began about a week ago and which I’m only two-thirds through. Saramago is a Nobelist and a brilliant writer,but reading him is a slow business. Whether that is due to his leisurely pacing or to the density of his writing (Baltasar and Blimunda is a novel of ideas as well as a historical work), I’ve found myself slogging through a very fine and engrossing novel.

So maybe it’s not my fault that I’m not writing a book essay yet again. Maybe I’ve just run into one of those writers whose work one simply can’t race through.

Continue reading

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Rediscovered Twain Stories and the real Mr. Darcy: Scholarship and Smoke and Mirrors

Scholarly inquiry is often like panning for gold: patient tedium  yielding the occasional nugget. Then again, sometimes it yields to the temper of the times and decides to hype the discovery of iron pyrite. 

Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory (image courtesy Wikimedia)

That fount of all that is worth knowing in life, Facebook®, provided me with a couple of interesting items yesterday that were a step above the usual “look at what I’m having for dinner” and “here I am at (insert event name here)” fare. One was provided by a FB pal and fellow Scrogue who thought I’d find interesting a news item from Cal-Berkeley reporting that scholars have located a number of Mark Twain’s early newspaper pieces. A second item came to my attention via one of those pages one “likes/follows”: in this case, the FB page of a certain early 19th century British novelist with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. This item concerns a new book by a scholar who claims she has positively identified (which puts her in a queue with several other scholars) the historical figure upon whom that writer based one of her most famous literary creations, a rather proud sort of fellow named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Each of these stories is treated in a breathless sort of reportorial “wow, cool” tone.

One of these events is scholarship in action, albeit scholarship of a plodding, antiquarian sort  – the other is “scholarship” cooked up by editorial to please marketing. The former is useful in the same way that textual criticism is useful; it provides us with a slightly clearer picture of a major literary figure’s work. The latter is ultimately speculation – unless a smoking gun appears (incredibly unlikely given the disposal of the author’s papers) passing as scholarly inquiry – interesting, fun, but simply not of use to our better understanding of the author’s work.

So why get exercised over any of this? Well, as a great American (Ow! tongue stuck in cheek again) once told us, we have to be concerned about known knowns and known unknowns…. Continue reading

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The Blues Boy…

“Muddy Waters was born near Rolling Fork, Mississippi. And to me he’s a Mississippi person that went to Chicago and play[ed]. John Lee Hooker was born in Mississippi and went to Detroit. B.B. King was born in Mississippi and went to Memphis.” – B. B. King

B.B. King and Lucille (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The news announced on B.B. King’s web site that the great guitarist and singer is in home hospice care means that soon another of the great blues musicians produced by the Mississippi Delta will soon no longer whinny with us, as Dylan Thomas would say. The loss of a figure like King is greater than the loss of a brilliant musician; with his passing another link to the long, storied history of one of America’s great original musical forms will be lost. In our current cultural malaise, with musicians unable to get paid for their creative efforts, King is also one of the last reminders that talent and perseverance could once lead to musical success, cultural respect, and recognized influence. Continue reading

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