Incorrigible Bookworm

Picture of Me at the Last Bookstore, Downtown Los Angeles

Sometimes, I just have to sit up and take a good look at myself. Where in Blue Blazes did this Bookworm come from? There was no one like me in the family. I was looked at by my family with a combination of contempt and admiration. When I was doing well in high school (I was the valedictorian of my class), I was referred to as “the walking dictionary.” I was a person of whom prodigies were expected … in the normal course of events. People expected my help with their homework—even if I knew zilch about the subject.

In fact, books were for me an escape. I was a sickly child, stricken by numerous allergies and frequent and debilitating headaches. The latter turned out to be a brain tumor in my pituitary gland. When I came out of surgery in the fall of 1966, I kept asking myself, “Why me?” I went almost overnight from a devout Catholic to a lapsed Catholic. I continued to suffer various physical and mental after-effects because of the lifelong steroid therapy that ensued.

I was never any good at athletics. For exercise, I liked to walk a lot. I couldn’t even drive a car until I reached the age of forty, and I no longer had to take a blood pressure medication (Catapres) that caused me to fall asleep in moving vehicles.

And so, at an early age, I turned to books. Was it because my mother used to tell me fantastic stories about fairy princesses in the dark forest that she told me in Hungarian? I couldn’t really read English with any proficiency until the third or fourth grade.

I started to accumulate books at home, causing some friction with my parents. They didn’t like to see me spending money for books at Scroeder’s Bookstore on Cleveland’s Public Square. Once, when my cousin Emil saw me reading Tom Sawyer in the living room, he grabbed the book out of my hands and hurled it at the floor, causing it to bounce. “This is what I think of books!” he said while I wondered what was coming next.

Of course, I love books. Even though I have donated over a thousand books from my collection to the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I still read as much as ever, if not more so.

 

Sherlock Holmes et al

A Book That Introduced Me to Some Great Writers

Sherlock Holmes was never the only game in town. Granted, he was easily the best of the Victorian and Edwardian detectives; but there were a number of others worth reading. When I came upon the above book years ago, I was introduced to a whole constellation of British crime-fighters. The book was edited by Sir Hugh Greene (1910-1987), brother of novelist Graham Greene and director-general of the BBC during the 1960s. In all, he produced four books honoring lesser-known British and American detectives:

  • The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
  • Cosmopolitan Crimes: Foreign Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1971)
  • The Further Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1973)
  • The American Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (1979)

The original volume was by far the best of the series. The only author I followed from the three later volumes was Jacques Futrelle, creator of the Thinking Machine detective stories, who drowned in the Titanic disaster of 1912.

For a number of years, I sought collections of several authors recommended in The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. The ones who interested me the most were:

  • Arthur Morrison, who, in addition to his Martin Hewitt stories wrote the very Dickensian The Hole in the Wall and the excellent Dorrington Deed Box
  • Clifford Ashdown, author of the Romney Pringle stories
  • Baroness Orczy, the Hungarian woman author who gave us The Scarlet Pimpernel also wrote a series about a lady journalist in London named Polly Burton (The Old Man in the Corner stories)
  • R. Austin Freeman’s Edwardian Doctor Thorndyke forensic investigation stories appeared in several volumes
  • William Hope Hodgson wrote a series of stories about a ghost investigator named Carnacki
  • Ernest Bramah, a tea merchant, gave us a blind detective named Max Carrados, who was actually able to read newspapers by feeling the ink on the newsprint

My favorites from the above list are Bramah and Morrison, with Orczy and Freeman not far behind. Unfortunately, most of their books are devilishly hard to find.

 

Repeat Performances

I Frequently Re-Read Books That Have Impressed Me

This year I have re-read ten books since the start of 2019, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. It has been eleven years since I have read any Conrad, back when I had finally finished Under Western Eyes, which I had started back in college. The main reason I ever re-read a book is to see whether I have somehow changed in the intervening years. Very occasionally, I forget that I have read a particular work in the past and go through it a second time, not realizing my mistake until I check my reading log. Below is a list of 2019 re-reads:

  • Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim
  • Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
  • Sean O’Casey: Juno and the Paycock
  • Virginia Woolf: Monday or Tuesday, Eight Stories. I re-read this one by accident.
  • John Lloyd Stephens: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán. I will probably re-read a number of other books about Mexico in the next few months, most of which I have not touched for over 30 years.
  • William Shakespeare: Hamlet. Multiple re-reads.
  • G. K. Chesterton: Robert Louis Stevenson and The Poet and the Lunatics. I frequently re-read Chesterton for sheer enjoyment.
  • J. E. Neale: Queen Elizabeth I

A Joy to Read Any Number of Times

As my Yucatán vacation draws close, I will probably re-read Fanny Calderón de la Barca’s Life in Mexico; Charles Macomb Flandrau’s Viva Mexico!; and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and a few other books.

 

Cogitus Interruptus

Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Laurence Sterne

He was a Yorkshire Anglican clergyman who just happened to write one of the five greatest novels ever written, Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) gave us The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (1759-1761), a book that can be read and re-read with pleasure over an entire lifetime. It was in the mid 1960s that I first encountered it in Chauncey C. Loomis’s class on “The Eighteenth Century English Novel.” Loomis was my favorite professor of English, which happened to be my major at Dartmouth. I am still re-living that class and re-reading the books that he assigned. That makes his class one of the best I ever took.

Tristram Shandy revolves around four plot points that would seem to be pretty thin. All the plot points involve either interruptions or “abridgments” of various sorts:

  1. Just as Mr Shandy and his wife are approaching orgasm, the latter asks her husband if he has rewound their clock.
  2. When Tristram is being born, the forceps of Dr Slop, who presides at the birth, crush the little lad’s nose.
  3. As a result of a miscommunication with one of the servants, the new baby is christened Tristram instead of Trismegistus.
  4. Tristram is accidentally circumcised when a window crashes down upon his foreskin.

How these four main plot points are stretched out over some five hundred pages of warmth and hilarity is a major miracle. The plot is positively Ptolemaic, with little epicycles and interruptions that create hilarious interludes.

It has always amazed me that it is the young Tristram Shandy who is narrating the novel. Yet he is not born until midway through the book, after we have been exposed to numerous incidents which the young Shandy could not have experienced as he was still in utero.

I can see myself coming back to Tristram Shandy again and again, paging at random to the beginning of a sequence, and reveling in it again … and again.

Serendipity: The Marbled Page

The Notorious Marbled Page in the Middle of Tristram Shandy

One of the oddest novels ever published is Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1761). I first encountered it in college in a class on the 18th Century English Novel. I fell in love with its eccentric charms when I was scarce nineteen years old. Upon re-reading it, I love it all the more. The novel seems to start several times in its nine books, and there is a marbled page (see above) several hundred pages in. I have a whole lot more to say about this book in a future post. Below is the first paragraph of the book:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.—Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it;—you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a half-penny matter,—away they go cluttering like hey-go mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them off it.

 

 

Four Travel Classics About Mexico

Fanny Calderón de la Barca’s Life in Mexico (1843)

There are four books written by foreigners over a hundred year period about their encounters with Mexico. They are all beautifully written classics of the travel genre. I present them below by order of publication.

Life in Mexico (1843)

Frances Erskine Inglis was a Scotswoman, herself of noble birth, who married the first Spanish ambassador to Mexico and became the 1st Marquise of Calderón de la Barca. She traveled extensively throughout the Republic and became enamored of the people and their culture. Even now her book is a delight to read and a major influence on writers who followed.

Charles Macomb Flandrau’s Viva Mexico! (1908)

Viva Mexico! (1908)

Next is a book of essays by an American author and essayist named Charles Macomb Flandrau. After a visit to a Mexican coffee plantation run by his brother William, Flandrau wrote Viva Mexico! about Mexico under the rule of dictator Porfirio Díaz who ruled for most of the years between 1876 and 1911. (He is famous for the following quote: “Poor Mexico! So far from God and so close to the United States!) Flandrau’s book is still quite readable today.

D. H. Lawrence’s Mornings in Mexico (1927)

Mornings in Mexico (1927)

British novelist D. H. Lawrence has a mixed record when it comes to Mexico. His travel essays in Mornings in Mexico are among his best nonfiction, while his bloated novel The Plumed Serpent, written the previous year, is one of his worst works, showing no understanding of Mexican Indio culture.

Sybille Bedford’s A Visit to Don Otavio (1953)

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey (1953)

Finally, there is German/British writer Sybille Bedford’s account of a year spent in Mexico, mostly around Lake Chapala, just south of Guadalajara. The Don Otavio of the title is a charming Criollo host who makes the stay of Sybille and her companion at their lakeside estate an idyl. Whenever Sybille attempts to travel to most other destinations (including Acapulco, Mazatlan, Puebla, Mexico City, and Oaxaca), she runs into difficulties. Don Otavio’s estate is like a refuge in a country where travel (at least in the 1940s) was problematical at best.

Interestingly, Bedford is aware of and discusses the other three books mentioned above.

 

Blood on the Bayou

Mystery Writer James Lee Burke

I have been reading occasional mystery novels by James Lee Burke over the years. Having just finished the first novel in the Dave Robicheaux series—Neon Rain (1987)—I now know why I like him so much.

Dave Robicheaux is the hero of most of Burke’s novels. After a traumatic stint in Vietnam, he joins the New Orleans Police Department. He has had a problem with alcoholism and a history with Twelve-Step programs, as well as a distrust of authority. At one point in Neon Rain, he says:

Like many others, I learned a great lesson in Vietnam: Never trust authority. But because I had come to feel that that authority should always be treated as suspect and self-serving.

His pictures of the Southern Louisiana landscape sometimes wax on the poetic:

Clouds of fog swirled off the bayou through the flooded woods as I banged over an old board road that had been cut through the swamp by an oil company. The dead cypresses were wet and black in the gray light, and green lichen grew where the waterline touched the swollen bases of the trunks. The fog was so thick and white in the trees that I could barely see thirty feet ahead of the car. A rotted plank snapped under my wheel and hanged off the oil pan. In the early morning stillness the sound made the herons and egrets rise in a sudden flapping of wings toward the pink light above the treetops. Then to one side of the road, in a scoured-out clearing in the trees, I saw a shack built of Montgomery Ward brick and clapboard, elevated from the muddy ground by cinder blocks and cypress stumps, with a Toyota jeep parked in front.

And:

Somewhere down inside him, he knew that his fear of death by water had always been a foolish one. Death was a rodent that ate its way inch by inch through your entrails, chewed at your liver and stomach, severed tendon from organ, until finally, when you were alone in the dark, it sat gorged and sleek next to your head, its eyes resting, its wet muzzle like a kiss, a promise whispered in the ear.

There is a great deal of violence in the plot as Robicheaux fights his police force and various Federal agencies at the same time as he tracks down a set of murderous thugs, one by one.