Monthly Archives: September 2012

Beyond Ricci, a Terrific Digital Library

Boston College has put together an outstanding digital library for scholars and curious Sinophiles consisting of information on Jesuits in China from the 15th century to the 18th. Beyond Ricci contains slide shows and background information to acquaint readers with the knowledge, key people and their perceptions of the places they experienced in China and Thibet (sic).

To dig deeper you can view, scans of the actual rare book collection. They have atlases, narratives, history books and technical books, which you can view in a variety of options. The text can be searched but as the site points out the searches aren’t perfect since the project lacked the fortune it would cost to code every word so that the old S’s read as S’s rather than F’s and such.

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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in book lovers, Christianity, history, memoir, Religion


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Poem of the Week

Cameo Appearance

by Charles Simic

I had a small, nonspeaking part
In a bloody epic. I was one of the
Bombed and fleeing humanity.
In the distance our great leader
Crowed like a rooster from a balcony,
Or was it a great actor
Impersonating our great leader?

That’s me there, I said to the kiddies.
I’m squeezed between the man
With two bandaged hands raised
And the old woman with her mouth open
As if she were showing us a tooth

That hurts badly. The hundred times
I rewound the tape, not once
Could they catch sight of me
In that huge gray crowd,
That was like any other gray crowd.

Trot off to bed, I said finally.
I know I was there. One take
Is all they had time for.
We ran, and the planes grazed our hair,
And then they were no more
As we stood dazed in the burning city,
But, of course, they didn’t film that.

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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in American Lit, poetry


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Upton Sinclair’s Birthday

Cover of "Oil!"

Cover of Oil!

I do like Upton Sinclair’s work. The Jungle, Oil! and The Money Changers are still all too current. Here’s what the Writer’s Almanac has to say about today’s birthday writer:

Today is the birthday of Upton Sinclair (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1878). A precocious child whose heroes were Jesus Christ and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sinclair entered City College of New York at the age of 14. He paid for his tuition and housing by publishing stories in newspapers and magazines. And by the time he was 17, Sinclair was doing well enough to pay for his own apartment and still had money left over to support his parents. But after he married and had a child of his own, his income was no longer adequate. He self-published his first novel, Springtime and Harvest (1901), with the help of a loan from his uncle. Several more books followed, and although some of them got decent reviews, they didn’t sell well.

Sinclair was deeply troubled by the disparity between rich and poor. He witnessed the income gap in his own extended family: his grandparents were extremely wealthy, and his parents were destitute. Sinclair eventually joined the Socialist Party of America, and his political philosophy became linked with his writing as he became inspired by investigative journalists. Sinclair said, “The proletarian writer is a writer with a purpose; he thinks no more of art for art’s sake than a man on a sinking ship thinks of painting a beautiful picture in the cabin; he thinks of getting ashore — and then there will be time enough for art.”

In 1904, a socialist newspaper hired him to write an exposé of the meatpacking industry and the exploitation of its immigrant workers. So Sinclair moved to Chicago’s stockyards district for seven weeks. He took detailed notes on the miserable working conditions there, and then returned to the East Coast to transform his investigative journalism into fiction. The Jungle was serialized in the paper, as planned, but six different publishers declined to publish the manuscript in book form unless he lost the “blood and guts.” Sinclair decided to self-publish once again, and he began taking advance orders. Encouraged by his brisk sales, Doubleday agreed at the last minute to publish the book on the condition that its claims could be verified. The publisher’s lawyer traveled to the Chicago stockyards to witness for himself the dreadful state of affairs, and The Jungle caused an almost instant sensation when it was published in 1906. Sinclair received $30,000 in royalties in the first year alone.

Although Sinclair had intended to highlight the mistreatment of the workers, readers recoiled instead to his descriptions of what exactly went into their food supply. “I aimed at the public’s heart,” Sinclair remarked, “and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” President Theodore Roosevelt received a hundred letters a day demanding the reform of the meatpacking industry. Sinclair and Roosevelt began a correspondence, and while the president was critical of socialism, he hastened to add, “But all this has nothing to do with the fact that the specific evils you point out shall, if their existence be proved, and if I have power, be eradicated.” Roosevelt was true to his word, and he passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act, and the Meat Inspection Act, in 1906.

Although none of his later books matched the success of The Jungle, Sinclair continued to write books with socialist agendas, like Oil! (1927), about the Teapot Dome scandal; and Boston (1928), about the trial of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. His 1942 novel, Dragon’s Teeth, about the rise of the Nazi Party, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

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Posted by on September 20, 2012 in American Lit, classic, Pulitzer Prize


September 18th from the Writer’s Almanac

Yesterday was my birthday, so let’s see what happened in the world of literature and culture on the 18th of September.

Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson (books by this author), born in Litchfield, England (1709). He was a sickly child, but very intelligent, and when he decided to wed at the age of 25, he set out in search of an intelligent wife. He found one in Elizabeth Porter Jervis, whom he called “Tetty.” Jervis, at 46, was 21 years his senior, a widow, and had three children. When she met Johnson, she remarked to her daughter, “That is the most sensible man I ever met.” Johnson referred to the marriage as “a love-match on both sides” and grieved her deeply after her death in 1752.

Johnson single-handedly compiled A Dictionary of the English Language. Published in 1755, it took him nine years to complete, and contained almost 43,000 words. Johnson illustrated many of the words with quotes from literature. He also used humor. One of many examples was his definition of oats: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”

He was also a prolific essayist, writing for publications like The Rambler and The Idler. He grew famous for his pithy aphorisms, like “The jest which is expected is already destroyed.” And “Marriage has many pains, but celibacy has no pleasures.”

It was on this date in 1793 that George Washington laid the cornerstone for the Capitol Building. The original building was much smaller than the one we know today, because members of Congress didn’t have offices; they worked at desks in the main chamber. The cornerstone was crafted by a silversmith named Caleb Bentley. Washington, who was a Freemason, was dressed in his ceremonial Masonic sash and apron as he laid the stone.

The jewelry store Tiffany & Co. was founded in New York City on this date in 1837. It was billed as a “stationery and fancy goods emporium” at the time. Charles Lewis Tiffany and his business partner, John B. Young, opened the store with $1,000 that had been loaned to them by Tiffany’s father. The company was soon popular with the New York elite, and Abraham Lincoln bought jewelry for Mary Todd at the store, but it first achieved international fame in 1867, when it became the first American company to win the grand prize for silver craftsmanship at the Paris World’s Fair. In addition to high-end jewelry, Tiffany & Co. also produces custom designs for various professional organizations; they’ve created the Super Bowl trophy since the very first Super Bowl in 1967.

Truman Capote made it famous with his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958. The heroine, Holly Golightly, takes a cab down to Tiffany’s whenever she’s feeling low. She says: “It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.” It was made into a movie in 1961 starring Audrey Hepburn.

It’s the birthday of actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith (books by this author), born in Baltimore, Maryland (1950). She’s appeared on television series like Nurse Jackie and The West Wing, but she has devoted most of her career to the stage. She’s known for her “documentary theatre” productions, like Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 (1994), about the aftermath of the Rodney King beating; or Fires in the Mirror (1992), about the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn. Smith puts on one-woman shows in which she chooses a troubling event in contemporary America, does extensive interviews with people who were involved, and then turns those people into characters. She mimics their language, voices, and mannerisms. The New York Times called her “the ultimate impressionist,” claiming, “she does people’s souls.” In the late 1990s, she founded Anna Deavere Smith Works, an organization that brings artists, dancers, actors, and writers together to work for social change.

Today is the birthday of Swedish actress Greta Garbo, born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm (1905). She grew up in a poor neighborhood, a shy child who preferred daydreaming and play-acting to school. When her father died of Spanish flu in 1920, she had to leave school and go to work to help support the family. Her first job was in a barbershop, as a “lather girl,” and she also found work as a department store model. Her modeling jobs led to some small roles in advertising films for the store and for a local bakery.

While studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, she caught the eye of silent-film director Mauritz Stiller. He took her under his wing, changed her last name to “Garbo” and cast her in his film The Saga of G?sta Berling (1923). When Stiller signed a deal with MGM in Hollywood, he insisted on bringing his star with him. The studio set about to craft a persona for the aloof Swedish actress, portraying her as a woman of mystery, and though they had only agreed to put her under contract to get Stiller on board, they soon discovered that she had star potential.

Flesh and the Devil (1926) made Garbo an international celebrity, and it was during the filming that she met and fell for her co-star, John Gilbert. Garbo and Gilbert went on to star in a silent film adaptation of Anna Karenina, called Love (1927), as well as two more features, and got engaged. But Garbo called off the wedding at the last minute, and though she had a few high-profile relationships over the years, she never married.

Garbo traveled, and had many close friends, and she was fond of walking around New York City — but she did guard her privacy fiercely. Parodies of Garbo always include the line “I want to be alone,” delivered in a heavy Swedish accent. It comes from the movie Grand Hotel (1932), and it’s always been strongly associated with Garbo since she appeared so melancholy and solitary. But she once pointed out, “I never said ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.”

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Posted by on September 19, 2012 in American Lit, British Lit, classic, Writers' Almanac


A Dance With Jane Austen by Susannah Fullerton – A Review

For other Austen fans:

Jane Austen's World

A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and her Characters went to the Ball, Susannah Fullterton

“Ah”, I said, when I saw Susannah Fullerton’s book in my mail box. “Here’s just the book I need.” Some of the biggest gaps in my Austen reference library concern dance and music. Whenever I wanted to find out more about the social customs of balls and dancing, how ladies and gentleman conducted themselves, the food served at supper balls, the etiquette of a gentleman’s introduction to a lady before he could dance with her, precisely when the waltz became acceptable not only among the racy upper crust but with villagers in the hinterlands as well, and the difference between private balls and public balls, I had to consult a variety of books. This was time-consuming, and a bit frustrating, for there were variations in details that each source offered.

And now…

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Posted by on September 14, 2012 in Uncategorized


Great Expectations

This month’s book club selection was Great Expectations. I admit I haven’t read much Dickens. Dickens is the sort of writer who’s works are so well known that even if you’ve never read any, you know his stories and characters.

I expected to like Great Expectations and found I liked the travails of Pip, a young boy growing up blessed or cursed by an anonymous patron’s wealth, more than expected. I loved the characters of Joe, Pip’s brother-in-law, who’s down to earth blacksmith and Biddy, a girl who tutors Pip in the early chapters. Miss Havisham and her dark,neglected mansion spooked me while Estella annoyed me. How can Pip not see through her? Not see how cold and egotistical she’ll always be? (I realize Freud was just starting up and hadn’t had the popularity he now does so Pip wouldn’t examine his relationships in light of psychology’s findings.)

The story offered so much more suspense and intrigue than I expected. Each page was a treat. Later this fall there’s to be a new film version. Will they get it right?

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Posted by on September 11, 2012 in British Lit, classic


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