Books in General

A Man of Mystery Revealed by His Books

7 April 2019

From The Wall Street Journal:

Who is this guy?

You’re supposed to be able to tell something about a man from looking over his books. But I can’t make this guy out. We are told the owner of the house we have rented in a Swiss village is French and spends only a few weeks a year here. That suggests he is immensely wealthy, but the fact that he finds it convenient to rent out his house suggests that he is not illimitably wealthy. He has good taste: Everything is just so. There isn’t anything in the house—I know I am supposed to call it a “chalet,” but that feels a little precious—to compete with the views of the Alps.

Except the books. A different kind of man might have gone with books-by-the-yard (by the mètre?), hidebound and stately and not intended for reading. But this guy has real books. With the exception of a few French titles, they are almost all in English and evince a deep, curious, respectful and very un-French interest in the minds and doings of les Anglo-Saxons.

He’s not a young man. Here is a midcentury mind: “Caen: Anvil of Victory,” dictators, inflation, Bertrand Russell, psychoanalysis, the Cold War. Two subjects are splendidly overrepresented: diplomacy and its fraternal twin, espionage. If this gentleman has one biography on a subject, he has four of them—a completist and an obsessive with an interest in intelligence, treachery and high affairs of state. There are a half-dozen books by and about Henry Kissinger, as well as biographies of Talleyrand, Lloyd George, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. There are five books about the Cambridge spies Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, and a big pile of Graham Greene novels.

. . . .

Fiction is segregated in a loft, with low chairs and a reading lamp in the shape of a St. Bernard dog with a keg of brandy around his neck. (We are near the St. Bernard pass.) There’s middlebrow ephemera (John Grisham) but mostly those wonderful old Penguin paperbacks with the orange covers—a wall of these looks like happiness to me—and you could spend a year contentedly reading through them: “The Dean’s December,” “Wide Sargasso Sea,” “A Writer’s Notebook,” “Friends and Heroes,” “A House for Mr. Biswas” and many more.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Sierra Nevadas

6 April 2019


PG hasn’t posted any photos recently.

This one was taken a little way into the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California before the peaks become really high. Evidently, it’s been a wet spring because this much green is unusual for the location.


How Dickens, Brontë and Eliot Influenced Vincent Van Gogh

5 April 2019
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From The Guardian:

As Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhône goes on show at Tate Britain, it is, in one sense, coming home. This might sound like wishful thinking. For the past half century the painting has hung in Paris, and its singing Mediterranean colours, which the artist himself described as “aquamarine”, “royal blue” and “russet gold”, bear little resemblance to the murky half-tints of the Thames, which runs past Tate Britain’s Millbank site. Yet its spring exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain, is organised on the principle that the foundations of the Dutchman’s art, both his eye and his intellect, were laid not in the south of France, nor in the misty light of the Low Countries, but in London, where he spent three life-defining years (1873-76) as a young man.

A case in point: if you look beyond the hallucinogenic brilliance of Starry Night Over the Rhône, which Van Gogh painted in 1888, two years before his death, you will notice a family resemblance to a small black and white engraving that he first encountered more than a decade earlier, during his London stay. Gustave Doré’s Evening on the Thames shows London from Westminster Bridge, a view Van Gogh knew intimately from his commute between his suburban lodgings and the Covent Garden office where he worked as a clerk. It wasn’t the pomp of the neo-gothic Houses of Parliament that drew Van Gogh to Doré’s image so much as the regular pattern made by the gaslights as they flared across the river. Fifteen years later he would transpose this jolt of modernity to Starry Night Over the Rhône, a view of Arles in which new-fangled streetlamps compete with exploding stars to light up the sky.

. . . .

Van Gogh’s connections to British culture go even deeper. Carol Jacobi, the lead curator of the Tate exhibition, explains that the Dutchman was “an intensely literary artist, and the books that he read during his time in London were as important to his later development as the images he encountered in the city”. Van Gogh’s letters home to his family are crammed with references to classics that he had devoured during his time in Britain, including John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. His favourite author remained Charles Dickens, closely followed by George Eliot. Sharp-eyed art historians have pointed out that the night sky in the Rhône painting is a direct quotation from a scene in Dickens’s Hard Times, in which the secondary hero, Stephen Blackpool, gazes at a star as he lies contemplating his difficult life and imminent death.

Van Gogh loved Dickens and Eliot for the way they took the everyday details of modest lives and elevated them into something luminous. Here was social realism, in all its unloveliness, transformed into a kind of moral grandeur. A few years later, and on his way to becoming the artist who would invest old shoes, ragged sunflowers and potato-eating peasants with powerful feeling, Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

By Vincent van Gogh -, Public Domain,

Starry Night Over the Rhône by Vincent van Gogh

Gustave Doré’s Evening on the Thames. Illustration: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Airbnb’s Newest Host Is Mona Lisa

4 April 2019

Nothing to do with books, but PG could imagine all sorts of plot ideas this could generate.

From ArtNet News:

The Louvre and Airbnb are offering two lucky winners a private sleepover party at the Paris museum. An exclusive dinner, and drinks in front of the Mona Lisa are part of the extraordinary minibreak.

The once-in-a-lifetime offer is being given to a pair of guests who will get to spend the night of April 30 glamping in a pyramid-shaped bedroom beneath the real one at Paris’s most famous museum. Guests will dine beside the Venus de Milo as well get to enjoy the Mona Lisa, all without any other visitors pushing past for a better selfie angle.

Link to the rest at Artnet News

Washington Department of Corrections Quietly Bans Book Donations to Prisoners from Nonprofits

3 April 2019

From Book Riot:

The Washington State Department of Corrections quietly rolled out a new policy via a memo on their website last month which disallows books to be donated to prisons via nonprofit organizations. So quietly, in fact, that one of the largest nonprofits that works to get donated materials to prisoners was taken by surprise to discover the change. They weren’t informed before it was implemented.

“We’re ready to fight it,” said Books to Prisoners, located in Seattle, in a tweet.

. . . .

The new policy limits books to those accepted by the Washington State Library for incarcerated individuals which had already been approved by the Prisons Division, used books from the Monroe City Library directed specifically to the Monroe County Correctional facilities, and to those used books purchased by prisoners enrolled in pre-approved correspondence educational courses from the bookstore linked to the educational facility in which they’re enrolled. Individuals have never been allowed to make donations to prisons; those have always had to go through either nonprofits or bookstores.

As Books to Prisoners pointed out, this severely limits access to literature for incarcerated individuals, and especially impacts those in facilities outside Monroe County.

One of the reasons noted for this sudden policy change is the lack of staff in mail rooms to determine whether or not materials sent are appropriate or whether they’re hiding contraband.

Link to the rest at Book Riot


3 April 2019

Per the varied comments on yesterday’s post titled The Poets’ Scrolls:

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sand stretch far away.

~ Percy Bysshe Shelley


And a bit of Ecclesiastes helps put statues and scrolls in their proper places for PG.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

. . . .

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.

The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.

All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

. . . .

I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.

~ Ecclesiastes 2, 4-11, 14

PG understands that “vexation of spirit” in the last line is translated from the Hebrew original: “striving after wind; thus, frustration.”

The whole thing is less optimistic than PG’s normal outlook on life, but perspective on contemporary understandings and the issues and disputes of the day can provide a beneficial point of view.


Athena, Goddess of Copyediting

2 April 2019

From The Paris Review:

My first exposure to Greek mythology was at the Lyceum—not the famed Lykeion in Athens, where Aristotle and his pupils strolled around as they discussed philosophy and beauty, but a movie theater on Fulton Road in Cleveland, where my brothers and I spent Saturday afternoons. The Lyceum was classic as opposed to classical: popcorn in red-and-white striped boxes, a stern lady usher who confiscated the candy we snuck in from outside, buzzers under the seats for a gimmicky thrill.

Every week, the Lyceum showed a double feature, usually a horror movie—The MummyGodzillaThe Creature from the Black Lagoon—paired with something mildly pornographic (and highly educational). At one Saturday matinee, I laid eyes for the first time on the Cyclops. The movie was Ulysses (1955), starring Kirk Douglas as the man of many turnings. In a way, it, too, was a horror movie, full of monsters and apparitions: a witch who turned men into pigs, sea serpents, Anthony Quinn in a short tight skirt.

Ulysses is the Latinate name for Odysseus and the one preferred by Hollywood and James Joyce. How Odysseus became Ulysses is, like many things that happened between Greece and Rome, impossible to say for sure. Scholars have suggested that the “D,” or delta, of Odysseus in Ionic Greek was originally an “L,” or lambda, in the Dorian and Aeolic dialects. Delta (Δ) and lambda (Λ) are similar in form—a wedge with or without a bar—but to my knowledge no one has suggested that Odysseus was the ancient equivalent of a typo for Ulysses. The name may have reached Rome independently as Ulixes through Sicily, the traditional home of the Cyclops.

In Catania, a city under Mount Etna built largely of polished black lava, souvenir shops sell ceramic figurines of the Cyclops. Cyclopes (plural) were a race of giants, similar to the Titans, clumsy prototypes for human beings. Polyphemus worked on Mount Etna, forging lightning bolts for Zeus.

. . . .

Athena must have appeared in the movie—what is the Odyssey without Athena? She is the protector of Ulysses; he would not survive without her. Surely the hero invokes her—I must have heard her name. But I don’t recall meeting Homer’s gray-eyed at the Lyceum. No tomes of mythology by Bulfinch, the d’Aulaires, or Edith Hamilton sat on the bookshelves in our house—in fact, there were no bookshelves in our house. But we had comic books and library cards, and I subsisted happily on the Brothers Grimm and Little Lulu. I did not, like a prodigy, read the Iliad in translation at fourteen. I had a weakness for the genre of the girl detective, for Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. I also liked Poe and Dickens and Mark Twain and tried to read Hawthorne (yawn) and Sir Walter Scott (snore) and Dostoyevsky (coma). Anything I learned about Greek mythology was either absorbed through popular culture or through writers in English. In junior year at Lourdes Academy, the all-girls Catholic high school I attended in Cleveland, we read Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the lesson of which, according to Sister Diane Branski, was that though Joyce had lost his faith (and left Ireland), he could never get away from the Church (or Dublin). And neither would we.

. . . .

Once, for sixth-grade religion class, we were split into groups for a project on vocations. The nun handed out pamphlets describing what could be expected from each calling: you got married, you became a priest or a nun, or you remained single. I was put on the “single” panel. Remaining single did not feel like a choice—it was something you got stuck with, like the unmated card in a game of Old Maid. But the pamphlet pointed out that although you might not choose it, if you were to die tomorrow—tragically, at age twelve—you would perforce be single. The only model the Church offered a girl was the Blessed Virgin Mary.

I suppose Athena became a model to me without my even realizing it: a third way. Athena, like Mary, is a virgin—parthéna—but she does not carry the paradoxical burden of maternity. She was born, fully formed and armed for battle, a warrior, from the head of Zeus. Her mother, by most accounts, was Metis, one of the Titans, rivals of the Olympians, meaning that Athena came from old stock. Because Metis wasn’t around (I am sorry to report that Zeus swallowed her while she was pregnant), Athena had none of the conflicts a girl has with her mother. She gets along well with Zeus’s wife, Hera, that most irritable of goddesses. Zeus never pressures her to marry.

Other women and girls may favor a different goddess. Many opt for Artemis, the huntress; someone who longs for children might identify with Demeter; great beauties are chosen by Aphrodite. Hera is not popular; in her Roman guise as Juno she is statuesque and confident, but what a bitch. For me, it had to be Athena. Whereas the Virgin Mary is a model of humility and servitude, Athena is the template for a liberated woman.

Athena is unfettered: she has no masculine deity to accommodate, no children to appease, no family obligations to juggle with her career. She is beholden to no one—Zeus treats her with respect and indulgence. Like a favorite daughter, she knows how to handle him. He trusts her judgment and lets her have her way. Her virginity may be one of the reasons Athenians chose her to be the patron of their city: she would be dedicated. Thee founding myth of Athens is that Athena and Poseidon were rivals for top honors in the city. Athena planted an olive tree on the Acropolis, and Poseidon caused salt water to spring up on its slopes. The gods judged the olive the greater gift and awarded the city to Athena.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

PG attended very small rural public schools. He was fortunate, particularly in elementary school, to have wonderful teachers.

However, the books and stories he read about students in Catholic schools made those institutions sound far different than his own schools. In many such accounts, the teaching nuns were often depicted as intimidating and strict.

He remembers wondering how his education would be different with teachers like that instead of warm and grandmotherly Edna Lascelles (grades 1-3) and intense and exciting Betsy Smith (grades 4-6).

If you’re wondering what “very small rural public schools” means, from grades 1-3, PG’s classmates were Andy, Danny, Jim, Ernest, Sandy and Sandy Lee (last names withheld for privacy reasons).

From grades 4-6, classmates were more transient. PG was never the only student in his grade, but there were never more than two other students. Betsy gave him different (and harder) assignments than she gave the other students.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

29 March 2019
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From Book Riot:

When I learned that Guillermo del Toro was adapting Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark for the big screen, I screamed. With joy. Though I hadn’t read the children’s horror series since, well, since I was a child, the terrifying images from the books were still vivid in my mind, and the story of the Wendigo could still give me the shivers.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

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