Showing posts from July, 2009

Annual Blog Hiatus

This blog will be on its annual hiatus from now until about the 20th of August. Enjoy the dog days!

Reading Journal: "Crossriggs"

Jane and Mary Findlater, Crossriggs. Originally published in 1908. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics, 1986.

Mary Findlater (1865-1963).

A hundred years ago, Scottish writers Jane and Mary Findlater were bestselling novelists. Their novel Crossriggs was published in 1908, and the Findlater sisters were the toast of literary society on both sides of the Atlantic. Henry James was an admirer and correspondent. On a tour of the United States in 1906, the sisters had been entertained by Mrs. William James, Andrew Carnegie, and the daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Between Jane's first novel in 1896 and their last co-written novel in 1923, the sisters produced twenty-two books, either separately or in collaboration. Several of their books, including Crossriggs, were bestsellers. A hundred years later, Jane and Mary Findlater are virtually unknown.

In 1923, after their last book was published, Mary was diagnosed with cancer. She survived, but she and her sister never wrote anothe…

Musik in the Park

Acute Achilles tendonitis in my left heel didn't keep me from riding my bike over to Spring Park this evening for a little taste of Lawrence Welk served up by the Bavarian Musikmeisters as part of the Northfield Public Library's summerlong Books and Stars program. On the way home, I stopped to smell my friend Jack's perfect roses.

Earlier in the day, I spent an hour reading under a big cottonwood tree in Southern Lakes Park in Inver Grove Heights while Will had his oboe lesson. With a cloudless sky, low humidity, and temperatures in the upper 70s, this may have been the loveliest day of the summer so far.

Reading Journal: "Stoner"

John Williams, Stoner. New York Review Books 2003. Originally published 1965. Paperback. 278 pp. $14.95. I found my copy at Central Avenue Bookstore in Faribault.

Early in Stoner, John Williams' spare and beautiful novel about the life of William Stoner, a quiet young man who leaves his parents' Missouri farm to become a professor of English at the state university, Stoner and two other young English instructors sit around over beers and discuss the nature of the university. Dave Masters insists that the university is a kind of asylum for those unable to make it in the world, for the impractical, the incompetent, the irresponsible, the idealistic. "For the dispossessed of the world," Dave says. There's some truth in this. But even for Professor Stoner, quietly tucked away with his study of the medieval grammarians, life is hard. He finds himself unhappily married to a cold, manipulative, unstable woman. Cut-throat departmental politics threaten to derai…

Reading Tennyson's "In Memoriam"

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.
—Tennyson, In Memoriam (stanza 95)

The statue of Tennyson outside Lincoln Cathedral.

I recently watched the film of Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney's one-woman show about her spiritual journey from Catholicism to atheism. Having rejected the God of organized religion, Sweeney attempts to find God in Nature. She goes on a trip to the Galápagos, reads The Origin of Species, and realizes along the way that Nature is harsh and cruel, driven by blind and random forces. Eventually, she comes to accept that there is no God, that human beings occupy no special place in the order of things, and that death is the end. The profound and troubling implication of Darwin's theory of evolution is that we are living in an entirely materialist universe and that humans arose not through some divine plan, but through random variation. To accept this at its full weight is to accept that even human consciousness, even wh…

Listening: Paul Hindemith

Paul Hindemith. Sonatas for Winds and Piano, vol. 1. Massimiliano Damerini, piano. Rino Vernizzi, bassoon, et al. ARTS 47122-2. Available from

One evening last winter, Will and I sat in the car having one of those musical "driveway moments." We were listening to a Schubert piano sonata. Will listened appreciatively for several minutes, then commented, "The problem with classical music is that it's mostly just a bunch of scales." I suppose I had noticed this before, but had never articulated it so bluntly. My favorite example of "just a bunch of scales" is the magnificent and moving pas de deux from Tchiakovsky's Nutcracker:

In the treble clef, it's nothing but a descending G-major scale (the F is sharp) that quickens (from quarter to sixteenth notes) as it descends. It's satisfying because it does what we expect it to do. The ear knows where the music is going. This is true of most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century music…

William Holman Hunt & the Pre-Raphaelite Vision

William Holman Hunt's "Our English Coasts" (1852).

William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was one of the founders, along with Rossetti and Millais, of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of nineteenth-century British artists who rejected the current academic style of painting, influenced by the classicism of Raphael, and sought to emulate the style of the earlier Renaissance. Their canvasses were generally busier, more rich in color, and more full of symbolism, and were often commentaries on Victorian social, moral, and religious life. "Our English Coasts" (1852), for example, demonstrates Hunt's marvelous use of light and color, his naturalism and attention to detail, and also (though less overtly) his use of symbolism and social commentary. The alternate title is "The Strayed Sheep," giving the painting Christian connotations. The painting also reflects the vulnerability of England to foreign invasion, especially in 1852, when Napoleon III had ju…

Reading Journal: "A Partisan's Daughter"

Louis De Bernières, A Partisan's Daughter. Alfred A. Knopf 2008. Hardcover. 193 pp. $23.95. I purchased my copy for 40% off during the River City Books going-out-of-business sale.

After the cinematic sweep of De Bernières' Captain Corelli's Mandolin (1995), A Partisan's Daughter seems like a one-act play. The novel is set in a crumbling house in a down-and-out district of London in the 1970s. Over coffee and cigarettes, Roza, an illegal immigrant from Yugoslavia, tells her life story to Chris, an unhappily married, middle-aged pharmaceuticals salesman. As Chris listens to Roza's sad and often brutal stories, he wrestles with his feelings for her. "I never lost the sexual attraction I felt for Roza, even long after we became friends," Chris explains, early in the novel. "If anything, it increased because she began to touch my heart."

De Bernières is interested in the difficulty of knowing another person, and in how stories create sympathy …

Required Reading for the Fourth of July