Saturday, September 28, 2013

Recent reading

Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey shines a brilliant and largely skeptical light on heroes of what was then the recent past.  He treats of Cardinal Manning with Cardinal Newman as a telling sidelight on Manning's climb;  Florence Nightingale (whom Strachey clearly respects more than the others) and the appalling state of British military medicine before her interventions;  Thomas Arnold, who reformed the British public schools into what many considered an even worse institution;  and General Gordon, who is still associated with his defeat by al-Mahdi at Khartoum.

I found Baladhuri's The Origins of the Islamic State a largely tedious retelling of stories mostly of conquest.  Perhaps the translation was somewhat at fault.  However, there were occasional surprising anecdotes which sweetened the slog for this interested layman, and I quote one here:  "The state of 'Uman continued in a fair way, its people paying sadakah on their property, and poll-tax being taken from those among them who were dhimmis until the caliphate of ar-Rashid who made Isa ibn-Ja'far ibn-Sulaiman ibn-'Ali ibn-'Abdallah ibn-al-'Abbas its ruler. The latter left for 'Uman with some troops from al-Basrah, who began to violate women, and rob the people, and make public use of musical instruments.  The people of 'Uman, who were mostly Shurat, having learned that, fought against him and held him back from entering the city.  Finally, they succeeded in killing and crucifying him."

Alec Wilder's American Popular Song is a valuable treatment of the work of composers for popular media in the period 1900 - 1950.  He provides extended treatments of the work of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, with briefer treatments of numerous others and finally of outstanding individual songs.  These treatments include many samples of musical transcriptions, for which some ability to read music is of course requisite.

Another novel by R. K. Narayan, The Vendor of Sweets, includes many beautiful touches of comedy and nostalgia in a tale of a generational cultural clash.  As usual, it is my favorite of his books, since it is the last one I read!

Over recent weeks of commuting I listened to a recording of Joyce's Ulysses read by Jim Norton, with the Penelope episode read by Marcella Riordan.  This version loaned additional humor to the written page, and gave me more insight into the work.  Additional insight came from reading the first half of Richard Ellmann's biography James Joyce.  I abandoned this after it tells of the publication of Ulysses and its aftermath, as I found the tale of the artist ascending far more interesting than the story of Joyce at work on Finnegan's Wake.  This I continue to find unreadable other than in the beautiful or comical excerpts provided by Joyce's legion of commentators.

I found the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's lengthy The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle easy enough to read but lacking in meaning.  Li Yu's The Carnal Prayer Mat contains some truly extraordinary pieces of adult fiction, so it's not for everyone!  But it is unique treatment of Chinese society during the Ming and Qing dynasties, at least among the various translations of old Chinese writing that I've seen.

I've not previously noted two books by the artist Rockwell Kent that have given me great pleasure.  Both are diaries illustrated with his often beautiful woodcuts.  N by E describes a sailing adventure from the US to Greenland in a small boat that wrecks on the Greenland coast.  Wilderness tells of a time with his young son on a nearly uninhabited island near Seward, Alaska.  Richard Nelson's Hunters of the Northern Ice and Hunters of the Northern Forest are anthropological treatments of vanishing North American aboriginal cultures.

Georges Perec's W, or, The Memory of Childhood has two seemingly distinct narratives:  one regarding his childhood in occupied France and after, and the other a treatment of a prison-like society.  It is an enigmatic yet powerfully told story.