Tuesday, August 31, 2010

William Cullen Bryant find

One thing I cannot wait to post about Mineral Point is my 'find' at the used bookstore. One of the shops in the old Cornish foundry is a used book store, which we perused one afternoon. Lots of local interest books, maps, etc. No literature section, though there was a comparatively extensive section on haiku(?).

In the poetry section, I found a hard cover edition of William Cullen Bryant's poetry. 1899 and in very good condition. It contains all his poems, and is filled with illustrations including a frontpiece of the author (complete with protective tissue paper). There are a few signatures up front with dates, which I find rather nice (though I wonder if a serious collector would approve of this).

Anyway, I love his famous poem Thanatopsis and have really enjoyed several others that I read with similar themes. His poetry, to me, is the literary equivalent of the Hudson River School of painters (with whom I believe he associated). There's a sense of celebration of the new country and its potential as well as the untamed wilderness, which I have always found appealing.  So I've been interested in reading more of his work. Plus, as part of the early American period of literature, he fits right into my proposed area of focus should I ever become a serious bibliophiliac. 

I paid $7 for the book. I haven't seen anything online that is an exact duplicate of my purchase, but I did see one that was very close going for $15. So I at least got a good buy, though I won't be featured on Antiques Roadshow any time soon. I have to say I'm a surprised Bryant isn't more well-regarded as a poet. I mean, his work is very 'of the period' with the rhymes and some of his Romanticist phrasing, but he is so utterly American in his subject matter and tone that you'd think he would be a bit more embraced within 'the Canon'. Plus he was a mentor to Walt Whitman, and you can see how he influence the poet behind Leaves of Grass.

Can't wait to read some of the works in here, especially those that were not included in the other Bryant edition I have! One other thing about his poetry that I like (and this probably is a result of Bryant's transcendentalist leanings), is a definite quality of zen philosophy in between the lines. I'm sure he wasn't into Zen, but he obviously had some moments of kensho relating to nature. So his work resonates for me that way, as well.

Droid X

Jim and I definitely geeked out on our phones during our trip to Mineral Point. We used the GPS to navigate, the camera to take all our pics, and the Google Sky Map app to identify the stars in the sky. At night before bed, we downloaded free apps that didn't seem to want too much information.

On our recent bike ride, Jim wanted to take some pictures of the silver maples we pass at one point, as well as the 'cathedral'. The cathedral (not sure if I've mentioned it or not), is a part of the path where the trees interlock above in a consistent way to form a high tunnel that looks like the inside of a cathedral. I think of it as a transcendentalist or pagan cathedral. Anyway, his phone allowed him to act on the impulse. "These phones are so worth it," he said after he put it away. We're quite pleased with how useful they are.

Unfortunately, I have yet to take time to figure out how to download pics to my laptop. None of the cords I put in my desk seem to fit. So my Mineral Point posts will be a bit delayed.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Emile Zola - The Kill

The third novel in the Rougon-Macquart Cycle is The Kill, a title that suggests an act of violence. However, while that connotation is certainly appropriate, the title is really a noun. A 'kill' being the spoils of a hunt. In this case, the 'kill' in question is all Paris. This is the novel where we really see Napoleon III's insiders cutting up France for their personal gain. If you are reading the books in the order Zola suggested, this will be the first novel that really gives you an idea of the kind of plotting and characterization Zola is capable of, as well as the tone of his realist approach. It is also the first you will read that is in a modern translation (by Arthur Goldhammer, who does a fantastic job as far as I can tell).

The Kill is readable, well-plotted, and has plenty of memorable (though definitely not sympathetic) characters. Eugene Rougon - the 'great man' and political power from His Excellency, Eugene Rougon - is back in power and appears to be in a stronger position than ever. He's really a background figure here though. The Kill is more about his younger brother Aristide, who figured somewhat prominently in The Fortune of the Rougons. Aristide has moved to Paris and reinvented himself as Aristide Saccard, a wealthy land speculator who's grafted his way to the top with the aid of his brother's blatant nepotism.

While Aristide is key to the novel, The Kill is most focused on his second wife Renee. Angele, Saccard's first wife and the mother of his two children, has died. In one sense, Renee is also a 'kill', for Aristide is slowly devouring her fortune to keep his own precarious financial situation afloat. Despite this, Renee generates little to no sympathy. Narrowly avoiding a scandal by marrying Saccard, she is as avaricious and predatory as the other vultures in his world. Living a life of luxury and waste, she is an insatiable consumer and engages in a sexual relationship with her stepson Maxime (Saccard's son through Angele). Brought up in Saccard and Renee's world, Maxime is an effete fop and represents the 'flower' of the society Zola is skewering. (Saccard's other child, a daughter named Clotilde, was dumped on his brother Pascal after Angele died). As a side note, there is a hint that Maxime has an anonymous illegitimate child whose existence was hushed up.

The three main characters - Aristide, Renee, and Maxime - are rendered with great psychological penetration and yet - in typical Zola fashion - offer no redeeming characteristics. They have tasted every pleasure and thrill and are now jaded and bored. They and their set are consumers that make a cloud of locusts look restrained. Despite possessing hundreds of thousands of francs and 'rivers of gold,' they always seem one wrong step from bankruptcy. The final lines of the book underscore the sheer waste these people's lives represent.

Another member of the Rougon-Macquart family drawn in this novel is Sidonie Rougon, Aristide and Eugene's sister who was only a footnote in the The Fortune of the Rougons. She seems to have benefited less overtly from the Empire. As near as I can tell, she's some kind of slimy grifter. How she profits by her activities is unclear. Whatever she is, she definitely needs a janitor mopping the slime off the floor behind her. The best example of her in action is when she arranges Saccard's marriage to Renee, a 'client' of hers, while Angele is on her deathbed in the next room and little Clotilde is playing with her dolls just out of earshot.

While these characters are very well drawn, the majority of the supporting characters in The Kill are little more than names and positions. This could be Zola's way of illustrating the shallow lives of these people, but it can also be confusing while reading the novel. Another fascinating - though sometimes frustrating - tool of Zola's in this novel is his tendency to render extremely detailed descriptive passages around furnishings and interiors. These passages also instill the sense of superficiality, but they slow the narrative. When they work well, however, these passages are fantastic writing. For example, Zola's description of Renee's bedroom and dressing room appears to be an indirect means of commenting on the psychology of her sexual relationship with Maxime. It's a brilliant device I've never seen used in any other novel.

Renee and the other characters in The Kill remind me of present day CEOs and executives behind debacles like the Enron scandal. These people are all seeking a sense of fulfillment they are morally incapable of attaining. I'm not even sure they have the moral compass necessary to understand the correct direction towards becoming fulfilled. As a result, Zola's depiction of the Saccard family is like turning over a rock and analyzing the squirming, slimy depravity of people obsessed with acquisition, consumers whose appetites are never satisfied. As is often the case, Zola's social criticism of the Second Empire speaks directly to modern American culture and its probable direction and fate. This book was a great read and is highly recommended.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Mineral Point, WI

Thanks to an invitation from our friends Daniel and Alan (and their faithful hound Rosie), we were able to get a guided tour of this off-the-beaten track village and artists' colony for a weekend.  We stayed at a B&B that was a three minute walk from Daniel and Alan's house, and we got to see all the sights.

Mineral Point used to be a mining town, and many of the old Cornish buildings made of limestone that were built during its heyday in the 1800s are still standing. Many even occupied and serve as artist studios, stores, restaurants, hotels, etc.  I'll be creating posts about our doings, including photos over the next couple days.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Emile Zola - His Excellency, Eugene Rougon

His Excellency, Eugene Rougon is - according to Zola's preferred order - the second novel of the Rougon-Macquart Cycle. It focuses on the eldest son of Pierre and Felicite Rougon. In the kick-off novel The Fortune of the Rougons, this small-minded conniving pair of social climbers used the unrest of the coup that installed the Second Empire to snap up the tax collector position in their small provincial town, finally attaining the status and 'wealth' they had dreamed for decades of attaining in a windfall manner.

Eugene had long since left Plassans for Paris, skulking around as a boorish hanger-on in politic circles. His scheming, amoral mind simply monitored which way the political wind was blowing and advised his parents accordingly so they could appear to be brave and wise during the coup and get their 'cut' of the post-coup spoils.

It's been a few years since the coup when the novel begins. Eugene has risen to a position of great influence with Emperor Napoleon III but has recently fallen from grace. He waits for an opportunity to make his way back into favor. He gets his chance when he hears of what amounts to a terrorist plot against the Emperor. He keeps the information to himself rather than warning anyone and, once the plot comes off, the Emperor's anger and fear provide an opportunity for hardliner Rougon to come back to prominence as Minister of the Interior. Amazingly resonant for post-911 America!

Rougon's use of his power once he is back in favor is largely to benefit his close friends with favors and position. He does little or nothing for the people or the country and actively curtails freedom of the press, authorizes groundless arrests, maintains a spy network, etc.

I'm finding that each of Zola's novel in the Cycle focus not only on a different member of the Rougon-Macquart family but also on a different facet of society (e.g., the art scene, urban poor, the theatre, business, etc.). His Excellency, Eugene Rougon tackles politics, and the character of Eugene Rougon is someone who covets political power of any kind. He likes the feel of power and the way people treat him when he has it, but he has no particular aspirations for using his power in any truly constructive way. He wants it the way a sewer rat covets a shiny object.

The key scene is towards the end of the novel where a charitable event has the main characters buying and selling things from each other for exorbitant prices, while one character mans a 'lucky-wheel' that keeps spinning as people step up to pay for 'a try'. It's the perfect metaphor for venal politics, and the overall impression is that politics is a game where players gain their influence for private profit with no thought at all for the public good or the country. Once again, Zola's biting social satire feels all too relevant for modern day America.

While the political satire in bitingly on target, His Excellency, Eugene Rougon is not as well plotted as other Rougon-Macquart novels. The realism of Eugene's inertia and the way he just sits around waiting for the political tide to change doesn't make for a compelling story no matter how much truth resonates in it. Even his downfall, rise, downfall, and rise do not help much. It's not as though he's orchestrating efforts to get back into power or falling from grace in some form of justice or karma. It's just the 'lucky-wheel' of politics turning.

As in all the Rougon-Macquart novels, the outlook is extraordinarily cynical and pessimistic. The realism of the novel, however, prevents you from dismissing what is presented. It's too credible, too familiar, and all too likely to be true. Bottom line, His Excellency, Eugene Rougon is interesting as an element of the Cycle but is not especially successful as a novel on its own merits. This may be why the only translation remains the Vizetelly translation, which is readable but has had some of its more shocking aspects unfortunately 'cleaned-up'. Read this one only if you're out to read all twenty novels.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chicago Tourist

Yesterday I stayed overnight in Chicago for business, which turned out to be a really pleasant experience in an unexpected way. During the 90's, I lived downtown and vowed I'd never return to the monochrome malls and homogeneous housing of suburbia. Of course, that all went out the window when I met Jim and we bought a house together. And it took quite a while for me to adjust to life in the burbs.

At first, I'd go back to the city as if I were returning home. There was a sense of relief to be back. However, over a couple years, I grew to like my new house and the garden and all that. And then, when I went into the city, I felt like a visitor not someone making a homecoming. My overnight stay last night represented a new feeling. I felt like a tourist, and that's infinitely better than being a visitor because a tourist experiences something as if it's brand new.

I stayed at a hotel on Wacker with a nice view of the river. I was by myself and had dinner at McCormick and Schmick's, where I sat outside to people watch. I was wearing some nice clothes, it was a beautiful evening, and people were still headed from work to home and just filtering into the restaurants. All of the sudden, I realized that I felt the same way I felt visiting London or Athens or New York. I was looking at the buildings and watching the people going by and felt excited to be there experiencing it.

If I'd had some postcards, I would have started writing to friends and family!  Then the waiter might have asked where I was visiting from.  What could I say?  Maybe I'd say New York.  Or I could fake a weird accent and say I was visiting from Lichtenstein or Malta or Singapore and make up some crazy story about why I was there and what my impressions of Chicago were. (These flights of fancy are not at all uncommon for me).

I took a walk after dinner, just enjoying the energy one always finds on the streets in a big city. And that's really when it really struck me that I was a tourist in Chicago now. Even though I knew this city very well, I had been away from it for long enough so that it was like new again. Now I'm thinking that it would be fun to take a vacation to Chicago. Find a nice place to stay, check out museums, do Mag Mile shopping, see some shows, etc.

Very odd to think of Chicago in this manner, but there it is. I'll have to start making some plans for a return visit. And get my story straight when some waiter sees me writing postcards I'll never be loopy enough to mail and asks: "So where are you from?"

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Rank Test Snag

Looks like I'll be missing this rank test altogether! Jim and I will be in Mineral Point. Well, I guess my hope that I'd test for the blue stripe and the blue belt at my next rank test will definitely come true now.  I think I'd have to be pretty slow not to learn what I need by the next rank test.

On a positive note, I have controlled my time at work to where I have been going to Hapkido on a regular basis again. And work is not the reason I am missing this rank test.  That's something to be happy about!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Welcome Home!

I'm so happy the troops are coming home from Iraq! So many people have sacrificed so much and for so long, and it's time to bring them home. I'm glad Obama kept this promise, and I hope that the work the troops did over there - regardless of how misguided the Bush administration was in starting this war - yields benefits for the US. To anyone who served and who happens reads this: Thank you for your courage and welcome home!!!!!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Upcoming travels

A couple we know (Daniel and Alan) have invited us up to Mineral Point, Wisconsin where they have a vacation house. The town has a website billing itself as 'reminiscent of a rural English village', and it does looks very picturesque!  We've never been there before, but it sounds like there are a lot of 'our people' there as well as lots of artists and artisans who have shops there. I'd like to spend some time chatting with some of them to see how they got started with an enterprise like that. It seems like a really big undertaking, however I've thought about it as a second career after the house is paid off.  Of course, I'd have to get back in the saddle with drawing or painting or learn to do ceramics (and be good at it!) first.

We're also going down to Panama City Beach to visit my parents for a few days. They rent a condo down there almost every year, so we'll be able to beach and snorkel...and go deep sea fishing! Been a long time since I did that, and Jim has agreed to give it a try. Last time, I caught six or seven fish and was a sweaty, fishy mess when it was over. My mom took a pic but then leaned over the side the boat and promptly dropped the camera into the water. This time I hope we'll have the same luck with the fishing and much better luck with the pics.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Emile Zola - The Fortune of the Rougons

In the first novel from Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle, the foibles, schemes, and depravity of the Rougon-Macquart family and their illegitimate children plays out like something you would expect to see on some nasty episode of The Jerry Springer Show. The Fortune of the Rougons lays out the entire family tree that Zola will dissect over the course of the remaining nineteen novels, exploring how the flawed character traits of one generation emerge in the next two in all sorts of hideous combinations. This is the kick-off to a kind of realism that makes the most exploitative reality TV show of today look classy.

There's Pierre Rougon, who bamboozles his mother and shafts his siblings of their inheritance so he can just manage to get a toehold in a middle class existence. His wife Felicite spends her whole life bitter about her shabby furniture and home and, rather than working hard or being sensible, plots how to get-rich-quick so she can live in a nice part of town and look down on others. There's Aristide Rougon, who writes revolutionary editorials so he can realize a windfall when the rebels take over - and who switches sides as soon as he realizes they won't.  There's lazy, wife-beater Antoine Macquart who sends his children and wife out to work and takes all their money to buy himself nice clothes. His daughter Gervaise has two children out of wedlock (one at age 14) and spends most nights getting drunk with her mother. It goes on and on and on.

"Why read this?" you might ask.  The reason I am fascinated with Zola's bleak and hideous novels is that they reflect so much truth about real human beings. It's amazing how some of his novels still work as reflections of current culture even today, over a hundred years after they were written. His novel The Kill deals with wealthy speculators who make millions but can't seem to stay solvent (or moral).  Sound like Enron? Then there's Nana, the novel about a prostitute who becomes the toast of Paris, despite the fact that she has no talent, and how - almost without meaning to - destroys the lives of everyone around her with her depravity.  Anna Nicole Smith or Paris Hilton?  On top of the brilliant social criticism, his novels are art because of their exploration of heredity and determinism.

Anyway, in The Fortune of the Rougons, we quickly see that almost the entire family is corrupted by the desire for wealth without having to develop any talent or ability in order to get it. Interestingly, the novel also suggests that this family springs from a line plagued by insanity. There are almost no characters with redeeming traits, and one walks away feeling that in this world there is little hope for those who are upright and honest, either in business, love, or achieving happiness. It's the anti-American Dream.

The only two heroic characters are Marie and Silvere. Their romance and sacrifice are especially poignant in the face of the people who actually come out on top. Tracing the rise of the Rougons, it is apparent Zola wishes to illustrate that in human society ideals are wonderful but ultimately it's connections and timing that propel you to the top. Whether he believed this in general or just in terms of the corrupt Second Empire period he is skewering in his novels, I am not sure. What is especially sad is that none of these characters have any especial plans for utilizing their prosperity. They simply want it so they can sit and do nothing. They are as intellectually empty and they are morally bankrupt.

There is no recent translation of this novel that I can find other than the Ernest Alfred Vizetelly translation.  It sounds as though his efforts are somewhat bowdlerized. Further, the editions that are in print nowadays often get slammed on amazon.com for having typos on every page.  My version didn't have this latter issue, but since there isn't any other version available there's little point in complaining.  I actually found Vizetelly's translation clear and easy to read.

My only criticism of The Fortune of the Rougons is that Zola sometimes relies too heavily on exposition as opposed to characterization and action. However, he's covering a lot of ground here and the scope of the family he outlines is pretty vast for such a relatively short book. So I had no trouble overlooking this small issue.  Bottom line, I 'enjoyed' reading it. It was a good story, and there was definitely some dramatic tension in whether pathetic mediocrities such as Pierre and Felicite will actually achieve their ends.  For people who enjoy literature, this is a thinking man's tawdry soap opera, but it is also very bleak and even somewhat depressing in terms of its view of mankind.

While there is really no set order for the twenty novels in the cycle, and they can all be read independently (at least the ones I have tackled so far), The Fortune of the Rougons is the place to start if you want to read any number of these books. I also believe that The Debacle and then Doctor Pascal should be read last as they outline the downfall of the Second Empire and then provide a thematic wrap-up to Zola's purpose in writing the novels.

That said, Zola did provide an order that he preferred. I'll be working my way through the novels in that order and will review each one as I go.