Monthly Archives: March 2012

From The Writer’s Almanac

Old washing machine in Bunratty, Ireland

Old washing machine in Bunratty, Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Beware!

I can’t fathom someone railing against refrigeration or washing machines. I get the preference for fresh food, but what about dairy? Must we get milk and cheese daily?

Today is the birthday of the poet R.S. Thomas, born Ronald Stuart Thomas in Cardiff, Wales (1913). Most of his poems were about the Welsh landscape and its people. He was an Anglican clergyman, as well as a poet, until 1978, when he retired and devoted himself to the cause of Welsh nationalism. He often grew frustrated with his fellow countrymen, though, blaming them for letting their culture fade away into history. In his poem “Welsh Landscape,” he called them “an impotent people, sick with inbreeding / worrying the carcass of an old song.” He didn’t learn the Welsh language until he was 30, and though he wrote his poetry in English, he wrote his autobiography in Welsh. He called it Neb (1985), meaning “nobody.”

He was a Luddite, viewing modern conveniences as distractions that cause us to neglect our spiritual health. He and his wife Elsi lived in a small and almost primitive stone cottage for much of their marriage, and their son, Gwydion, remembered his father preaching against the evils of the refrigerator and the washing machine from his pulpit. His poems were as austere as his lifestyle, and he once wrote: “A recurring ideal, I find, is that of simplicity. At times there comes the desire to write with great precision and clarity, words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes.”

That must have been some church. Was using a washing machine sinful? Or just dirty?

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Posted by on March 29, 2012 in World Lit, writers, Writers' Almanac


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Team of Rivals

Let me just start by saying that I highly recommend this book.

Just as I was beginning it, a friend forwarded me a rather snarky analysis of Kearns Goodwin’s thesis or, I should say, thesis as he imagined it. I’m still not clear on whether he actually read the book or was just reacting to the press about it but, thankfully, I stopped reading about two lines in when his condescension became clear. Suffice it say that he believes that there was nothing remarkable about Lincoln’s cabinet since all presidents up to that time culled their governments from their rivals.

Thankfully, Kearns Goodwin analysis of Lincoln is far more nuanced. While she clearly has a love affair going on with our 16th president, she persuasively shares Lincoln’s qualities with her readers. As painted by Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln was a remarkable, ambitious but not egotistical, pragmatist. His ability to look past his rivals’ personal slights and to see the strengths that they could bring to bear coupled with his innate diplomacy allowed him to cobble together a government during this country’s most trying times.

Would that Lincoln’s abilities had been equally as successful in his choices of generals. The most frustrating part of reading this book was the repetitiousness of the struggles Lincoln experienced with his parade of incompetent generals. More than once I found myself exclaiming out loud in frustration as Kearns Goodwin related yet another ridiculous episode with this general or that one.

by Bridget

Kearns Goodwin is obviously enamored of her subject and successfully persuades the reader that this admiration is well placed.

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Posted by on March 28, 2012 in history, non-fiction


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“Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.”

—Anthony Powell

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Posted by on March 18, 2012 in British Lit, quotation


In Search of Lost Time

He looks rather cute here. Not so neurotic and hard to live with. I finished reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which is like climbing Everest in some ways. I’m a Also I finished William Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life. What to say? Obviously, whole books have been written on Search, which has its peaks and valleys to continue the mountain analogy, banal as it is.

Here are some quick comments.

  1. Thank God, I’m not a hyper-observant person. Granted one can make perceptive observations about every aspect of life, but that’s quite a cross to bear.
  2. Wow! Talk about beautiful sentences and masterful descriptions by the dint of perfectionism. (That’s sort of an inside joke since Proust uses “by the dint of” a lot—in some spots three times in two pages.)
  3. I loved Françoise, the servant. She was so funny, probably my favorite character. There were times that I had to take a rest because there would be so much about the Narrator’s ruminations or (mis)perceptions on Albertine, which echoed Swann’s relationship with Odette and the Narrator’s with Gilberte. I guess two obsessions per work is my limit.
  4. Read a biography before or along with the book (or in lieu of). Some would disagree, but I found Proust’s life fascinating. He was quite neurotic, wearing fur coats inside in the summer, eating little and strange combinations of foods at odd hours, needing his mother so much, and never finding love. The biography will tell you about his relationship with money. He never held a regular job, though his parents encouraged him to find a career. He wound up inheriting a fortune, but frequently had money problems due to lavish spending and poor investments. He had a vexing and contentious relationship with his financial advisor after his parents died. Definitely, a father figure. Yet the book neglects the theme of money, while how we view money does reveal so much about our psyche, though it’s not something we remember the way we remember past loves, friendships.By reading the biography, we learn about the incredible task of editing and publishing this opus, who helped him and how they had to literally cut and paste and decipher Proust’s handwritten pages for the resulting 3300 plus page novel, which sadly wasn’t finally edited when Proust died (so we don’t really have what he finally approved). Proust thought he was going to die and his last months were a race to finish checking the manuscript. another bonus the biography provides is insight into what other writers and Proust’s friends thought of the book. Since some of the characters in the book are patterned after real people, it’s interesting to see what those individuals think of the book.

If you’re not up for a seven volume novel or 800 page biography (that does read much faster than the novel), do try Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. It should amuse, enlighten and maybe pique your interest in Search.

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Posted by on March 16, 2012 in fiction, French Lit


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The Man Who Loved China

Simon Winchester‘s The Man Who Loved China chronicles the life of Joseph Needham (a.k.a. 李约瑟), a British scientist whose work and writings taught the West about China’s scientific firsts. Needham was a curious, eccentric guy. He made a splash at Cambridge as an embryologist. In his spare time, he was a nudist, socialist, philanderer, liberal Christian who loved Morris Dancing.

The first part of the book introduces readers to Needham, his background and all his quirks. Also it covers his engagement and marriage to Dorothy Moyle, another scientist, who studied muscles and who was very tolerant of her husband’s affairs. She wasn’t threatened by Needham’s mistress Lu Gwei-djen, a Chinese scientist who captured his heart and eventually moved down the street from the Needhams. Meeting Lu sparked Needham’s affection for China.

The middle third (more or less) recounts Needham’s time in Chongching during World War II. Actually, I was surprised that Needham only spent 5 years in China and that he’d come so recently. Before reading the gook I had the notion that Needham was a contemporary of say Lafcadio Hearn, the Japanophile who lived in Japan in the 19th century. Wrong.

Since Needham had mastered Chinese and was keen to travel to the Middle Kingdom, the British government sent him there to aid Chinese scientists who had fled into the western parts of China to escape the Japanese. Needham traveled the country meeting scientists and gathering data for what would be his opus, a multi-volume Science and Civilization in China. His travails are fascinating. Yet, before you know it Needham must head back to England.

The last third of the book describes the conflicts and eventually illness that Needham faces back in Europe. Since he was in China, he couldn’t develop his relationships at Cambridge so he doesn’t have the supporters he needs when he falls into trouble through naivete and poor judgment. He has to weather some harsh storms after heading a committee and unwittingly playing a patsy for the Chinese government during the McCarthy era.

I found the first two thirds of the book most interesting, and the final third lost momentum, but then that’s the case for a lot of people’s lives. The story of Needham writing and publishing a major work of scientific history is hard to make compelling.

I liked learning tidbits about China that I can throw into conversation. They invented toilet paper and stirrups, which were a small but important advance that helped the military and others ride for longer periods of time. Since the Chinese built really good stone bridges throughout the country even in kind of no man’s lands, it was hard for invaders to take over the country. The Chinese could move about the network of roads with bridges so easily. Many of these bridges are still in use. (Funny that building well, for the long term has stopped here.)

Reading about Needham was fascinating, probably more than really knowing him. He’s the kind of guy I’d roll my eyes at. The ex pat who comes to Asia and within a week is dressing in silk robes, someone who has to be more Chinese than the Chinese around him, I’m guessing. I did like that WInchester inserted a lot of objective insights. So he let us know that while Needham thought Chongqing was a heavenly city, other expats weren’t as enchanted and complained about the smells and filth. That’s how things really are. There’s always a range of reactions of opinions and attitudes amongst expats of their adopted home. It was good to see this aspect included.

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Posted by on March 15, 2012 in non-fiction


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By Bread Alone

Who decided to publish this vapid book? I guess whoever did agrees with Mencken that “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.” Since this Harlequin romance-like trash was first published in the U.K. I guess the same can be said of the Brits.

Sarah-Kate Lynch throws together a predictable story about Esme, who I guess is supposed to resemble Bridget Jones if she were married. Esme is nursing some tragic hurt that is only hinted at up to page 225, when I abandoned this read since life is just too short. (A friend lent me this novel because it’s got a French theme. She did warn me that the beginning was cheesy. I’d say the middle is and I predict the ending is as well.)

Basically, Esme is haunted by a mysterious sorrow (I think she had a child die) and by “the one who got away” even though that guy was obviously a loser. We all suffer heartache in our teens or 20s and if we live a half way decent life by our mid-30’s we’re over it, way over it. Esme, get a life.

Since I have a life, I dropped this mess unwilling to believe that it could improve.

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Posted by on March 10, 2012 in fiction


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Dante’s Inferno

February’s book for my online book club was Dante‘s Inferno. I much preferred this Medieval epic to The Odyssey. It just flowed better. Perhaps it’s the translation. I read the Norton Critical Edition translated by Michael Palma.

In a way, the Inferno is sort of a guide book in which Virgil leads Dante’s personal down, down into the depths of hell. Thus there isn’t a plot as we find in most stories. As the reader follows the pair through each level of hell, you get an understanding of the theology of the day.I also enjoyed learning about all the historical figures, the battles and scandals that led the people to their particular end.

It’s a very visual book and I can see why it makes a good computer game.

It was hard at times not to feel sorry for the damned. I suppose that’s a modern flaw. We tend to rationalize and prefer a softer God. Yet Dante read the New Testament too and probably more often and with a keener mind than I have. I did remind myself that the theology of the time clearly believed in grace and everyone in hell chose it, they could have avoided their punishment.

I was surprised how short the epic was and recommend reading the essays in the back of the critical edition. Also the BBC’s In Our Times has a good program on The Inferno.


Posted by on March 5, 2012 in classic, poetry, World Lit


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You Are Old Fashioned

You think that the best things come from the past. You love anything vintage or retro.
You have a good memory for facts. You always are an ace at trivia.The world excites you. There are so many places you want to go and things you want to learn.You have a few key interests that are borderline obsessions. You can’t stop thinking about them!
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Posted by on March 4, 2012 in words


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This month’s book club selection was Homer’s Odyssey. I read selections or maybe the whole thing in the later years in grade school and all of it in college when I took Greek Lit in translation. The best experience was Greek Lit. My professor was engaging and enthused, which was infectious.

This time my interest waxed and waned. The beginning seemed slow and I had a hard time getting into this classic as I just wanted to follow Odysseus and move beyond the scene back in Ithaca with the boorish suitors chowing down and drinking up at the hero’s expense and eyeing the hero’s elegant wife Penelope. As I read I was impatient to get to the familiar scenes with the Cyclops and the land of the Lotos Eaters. Then I found those parts came earlier than expected and ended too soon.

I loved some of the poetry, the lines about the red fingers of the dawn, but I had trouble enjoying the epic. I was out of sync as I read it. Some of the best adventures like the episode with the Cyclops flew by and others like the beginning with the suitors and Penelope dragged.

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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in classic


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Get Lost in a Book


Make a post
link up (coming)
read 5 books from the list that you haven’t read before


would be nice but I’d be more interested in why you pick each book and what you thought of it. This can be added to your post about the challenge.

The list didn’t turn out as long as I’d hope so there will be no voting….just read five books (not yours) from the list. Yes, there are a couple of series on the list but you only need to read one of them.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Arabella by Georgette Heyer
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Briar’s Book by Tamora Pierce
The Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun
The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Fools Rush In by Janice Thompson
Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Anne Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer
Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin
Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowlings
The Hawk and the Jewel, The by Lori Wick
The Hobbit, The by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
How to Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto
The Inn at Lake Devine by Elinor Lipman
The Irish Country series Patrick Taylor
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Key Trilogy by Nora Roberts
Le Grand Secret (The Immortals) by René Barjavel
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Mist of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Mitford series by Jan Karon
The Negotiator by Dee Henderson
The Night Watch by Sergej Lukianenko
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman
The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
Persuasion by Jane Austen
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Phryne Fisher Mystery series by Kerry Greenwood
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Princess Bride, The by William Goldman
The Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce
Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice
Secret Garden, The by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Spy Wore Red, The by Aline, Countess of Romanones
Stand, The by Stephen King
Stone and the Flute, The by Hans Bemmann
Tangled Web, A by L.M. Montgomery
Time Traveler’s Wife, The by Audrey Niffenegger
Venetia by Georgette Heyer
Westing Game, The by Ellen Raskin
Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce
Worthing Saga, The by Orson Scott Car

I’ve chosen:

  1. The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  2. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  3. The Spy Wore Red by Aline, Countess of Romanones
  4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  5. The Irish Country series Patrick Taylor
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Posted by on March 3, 2012 in American Lit, British Lit, classic, contemporary, fiction