Welcome to The Once Lost Wanderer. The name is derived from two poems: Amazing Grace by reformed slave trader John Newton, and All That is Gold Does Not Glitter by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Ambassadors by Henry James (71 down, 29 to go)

The Ambassadors by Henry James

The great church had no altar for his worship, no direct voice for his soul; but it was none the less soothing even to sanctity; for he could feel while there what he couldn’t elsewhere, that he was a plain tired man taking the holiday he had earned. ~ Lambert Strether regarding Notre Dame Cathedral

This is the first time I’ve read The Ambassadors or Henry James.  The novel is the third-person narrative, told in realist style, and at times is nearly stream of consciousness.  The story is told exclusively from the point of view of Lambert Strether who is sent to Paris, by his wealthy fiancée, to persuade her son to return to Massachusetts and take up his responsibility in the family business, probably taking place in the very early 1900s.

Henry James is one of the most prolific authors on my list with 4 novels in the top 100, and 3 more in the next 250. I thought it was surprising that in spite of so many works making the list, this was his highest at #71. Nevertheless, I was impressed with his numerous “Great Novels” and I was looking forward to my first experience with James. To be perfectly honest, I was quite disappointed.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I were to sum it up in one word, it would be “pretentious”.

I am going to reserve judgment on James as a whole though, as I have read he had 3 distinct styles: James I, James II, and The Old Pretender. The Ambassadors, one of James’ later works, falls under that last label. I will experience James’ earlier styles later, perhaps I will find them more enjoyable.

I thought the premise of this story was promising. The main character, Lambert Strether, is sent to Paris on a mission by his widowed fiancée, Mrs. Newsome. He is to retrieve her wayward son, Chad Newsome, and bring him home to run the family business. The precise nature of the business is never explained, only that it involved the manufacture of some “little nameless object”.

Strether travels to Europe with his friend Waymarsh. I was never clear why Waymarsh came along, and he never seemed to be of much help. During a layover in England, Strether meets American expatriate Maria Gostrey. The two are immediately drawn together and into one another’s confidence. I was never clear why these two became such fast friends. Strether and Waymarsh set off for France, and before long Maria follows.

Once in Paris, Strether finds Chad, and the two have a tête-à-tête to discover one another’s motives. Chad knows why Strether has come and is cheerfully defiant that he shall ever acquiesce. Strether learns that Chad is keeping company with Marie de Vionnet and her daughter Jeanne. Strether is uncertain which of the two is keeping Chad in Europe.

I won’t synopsize the entire plot. Chad is not eager to leave, and Strether begins to understand why. He finds Chad much improved for his European sojourn and eventually feels it would be a shame for Chad to leave. Strether’s failure to achieve his mission results in the arrival of more of Mrs. Newsome’s “ambassadors”.

I’m getting sick of this novel all over again trying to review it. I have two main complaints. Everyone, describes everyone with every ridiculous superlative, every time. Chad calls Strether magnificent; Strether calls Marie de Vionnet exquisite; Maria Gostrey describes someone – everyone as superb; everyone call Mrs. Newsome incomparable, impeccable, extraordinary;  friends of Chad’s friends call his friends charming, someone else calls somebody flawless, others are lovely, splendid, peerless, elegant, sublime. Marie de Vionnet once even calls Chad infinite.

It’s as if James is trying to convince the reader, through his characters – that he’s created fascinating characters.

I found them ridiculous and barely interesting.

And then the dialogue: It was pretentious and smug, and it didn’t matter the speaker. They all seemed to delight in paradox, saying things that made no sense, or contradicted, and then smiling self-satisfied with their own brilliance by the incomprehensibility of their words.

An example between Strether and Maria Gostrey, about Marie de Vionnet

“There were moments,” she explained, “when you struck me as grandly cynical; there were others when you struck me as grandly vague.”
Her friend considered. “I had phases. I had flights.”
“Yes, but things must have a basis.”
“A basis seemed to me just what her beauty supplied.”
“Her beauty of person?”
“Well, her beauty of everything. The impression she makes. She has such variety and yet such harmony.”

And it isn’t just me. Edith Wharton, who admired Henry James, used the very word “incomprehensible” to describe passages of James’ writing.

Make it three complaints. I might have hoped, in spite of the pretentious dialogue and insipid characters, this novel would be about the allure of Paris. But no. It could have taken place in Hoboken.

That’s it. I’ve spent enough time reading and reviewing this novel.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

5th Textuscriptus Anniversarius of The Once Lost Wanderer

I know there is some convention for calling this a blogoversary, but etymologically, that doesn’t make sense.

Anniversary is the combination of the Latin annus (year) + versus (turning) = yearly turning, or yearly return of a specific date. So, blogoversary makes no sense – there is nothing in the term to denote annual. It just means blog turning.

It’s me – it isn’t you.

If you choose to mark your blog anniversary with a blogoversary, feel free. I just can’t do it. It should be textuscriptus anniversarius  (Latin textum (web) + script (record, log) + annus (year) + versus (turning))

Today marks the 5th textuscriptus anniversarius of The Once Lost Wanderer. I forgot to make any special note in previous years, which is not nearly as serious as forgetting one’s wedding anniversary. I am told the best way to remember that – is to forget it once – but I have not tested that theory (36 years and counting).

Anyway, 5 years today. It’s been fun. A very few of you may remember when this blog was called The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time (and my quest to read them) 

That title was descript, but not very creative. Inspired by so many bookish blogs with wonderful, lyrical, imaginative names, I changed the name to The Once Lost Wanderer which is derived from two poems: Amazing Grace (more commonly known as a hymn) by John Newton and All That is Gold Does not Glitter by J.R.R. Tolkien. Like Newton, I once was lost, but now I’m found – though I still like to wander, and as Tolkien asserts, not all those who wander are lost. I like to wander:  through secret places of Middle Earth, courts of Imperial Russia, grand plantations of the antebellum South, the inner sanctum of a mad scientist’s laboratory, through deepest seas, farthest planets, and the occasional insane asylum.

Can you name the novels to which these descriptions apply?

I’m 70% through my quest, and in case you’ve wondered what I’ll do when it’s complete – I’ll just keep going. My list actually goes up to 350, so I’ll keep reading, though at a more leisurely pace and not so exclusively. I’ve forsaken most other literature during the quest, and I will take more detours once I’m done with 100. I may restart another quest that I forsook – to read a biography of every non-living American President (cuz the living one’s stories are not finished).

And – sometime after the 100 I hope to start writing MY novel.


The Wanderer

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Guest Book Review by Grandsons Judah and Luke of He Bear She Bear

He Bear She Bear written and illustrated by Stan and Jan Berenstain

It is time for another guest book review by one of my Grandsons – make that two of my Grandsons as brothers Judah and Luke are submitting this collaborative review, of a book they read with Grams and Grandpa.

Judah and Luke did not quite agree on the theme. Luke felt it was a story about bears – and was fairly succinct because – he likes bears. Judah was a bit incredulous of Luke’s appraisal and felt that Luke likes bears, because the Berenstain Bears are not at all like real bears and Judah is confident that Luke’s opinion would be exponentially altered if he were to encounter one of the larger, and scarier variety of these impressive omnivores. More importantly however, Judah felt the theme was infinitely more complex than Luke, at his young age, could be expected to appreciate.

Judah believes the bears, the standard motif of authors Stan and Jan Berenstain, are simply mataphors for the human race, and the story an ingenious analogy to categorically repudiate gender stereotypes.

Judah recaps that two juvenile, unnamed bears, technically bear cubs, engage in a hypothetical romp, imagining the variety of professions, or occupations either a He Bear, or a She Bear could pursue. The bears imagine they can be: carpenters, merchants, firemen, policemen, doctors, teachers, cowboys, astronauts, etc. Judah was particularly gratified that one of the professions involved climbing poles. Judah has an extreme fascination with poles and climbing.

Judah was impressed. He felt the Berenstain’s were ahead of their time as the book was published in 1974. He didn’t feel it was patronizing political correctness, but rather a genuine and enlightened vision the Bernestain’s were proffering. He wondered if it was not perhaps rather avant-garde for its day though.

Luke opined that he liked the fish too. (One of the bears imagined being a marine biologist, and the illustration included numerous colorful fish.)

Judah gives it 4 ½ stars (the ½ was added because of the pole climber)
Luke gives it 4 stars (would liked to have seen a kitty or doggy thrown in somewhere)

Other reviews by my Grandsons:

Mr. Bliss  review by Andrew
Bears on Wheels  review by Andrew
Are You My Mother  review by Andrew
Sam and the Firefly  review by Judah