Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen

...though people do not like their mother’s virtue to be questioned, the frivolities of grandmothers may be charming things to smile at. ~ from The Poet (one of the seven tales)

This is the first work I’ve read by Isak Dinesen – the nom de plume of Danish author Karen Blixen. She is perhaps best known, outside of Denmark, for her memoir Out of Africa, but as I understand it, she is better known in Denmark for this collection of short stories, Seven Gothic Tales. The tales are set in Denmark and Western Europe, mid 19th to early 20th centuries.

This book satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category #3 – A classic by a woman author.

The Seven Tales, as you can probably guess, are of the gothic genre. Some of them also contain a bit of magical realism. I found most of them fascinating – sort of a cross between O Henry and Edgar Allan Poe.

The Deluge at Norderney – an eclectic group of victims are thrown together during a flood. Some with deep dark secrets.

The Old Chevalier – a macabre story of a man experiencing a spontaneous intimate moment with a stranger.

The Monkey – a bizarre story, magical realism, my favorite.

The Roads Round Pisa – a man, some people he meets, a coincidence.

The Supper at Elsinore – two fashionable spinster sisters are visited by the ghost of their long lost brother, the pirate.

The Dreamers – Three men who at different times and places have fallen in love with the same woman. In each instance, just as they are realizing their love, she flees without explanation. They each desperately search, find each other, and then find their mysterious woman.

The Poet – about an aspiring poet, his protégé, and a love triangle.

When expressing my feelings about written works, I usually avoid the phrase, “written beautifully” or anything like it. It seems a bit pretentious to me. I care about the intrigue of the story more than the finery of the prose. But I have to admit, Dinesen turns a very elegant phrase (a few examples below). The stories are fascinating as well (one exception that you can probably pick out from the synopses above).

I believe most have profound meanings – mostly, except in a very vague sense, lost on me.

I stumbled upon Dinesen almost by accident; a very fortunate accident. Have you read Seven Gothic Tales? Isak Dinesen?


There was no distinguishable line of division between the sky and the sea. The sun went down in a confusion of light, itself a dull red like the target upon the promenade. ~ from The Deluge at Norderney

I have always thought it unfair to woman that she has never been alone in the world. Adam had a time, whether long or short, when he could wander about on a fresh and peaceful earth, among the beasts, in full possession of his soul, and most men are born with a memory of that period. ~ from The Old Chevalier

And chivalrousness, I think, means this: to love, or cherish, the pride of your partner, or of your adversary, as you will define it, as highly, or higher than your own. ~ from The Old Chevalier

And human beings cleave to the existing state of things. All their lives they are striving to hold the moment fast, and are up against a force majeure. Their art itself is nothing but the attempt to catch by all means the one particular moment, one mood, one light, the momentary beauty of one woman or one flower, and make it everlasting. ~ from The Monkey

The idea of marriage has been to me the presence in my life of a person with whom I could talk, tomorrow, of the things that happened yesterday. ~ from The Roads Round Pisa

She looked very young and small, but her deep gravity and great self-possession gave her figure a terrible importance, as if a young destroying angel had rushed from the blue sky above them onto the stone terrace, to stand in judgment there. ~ from The Roads Round Pisa

To Morten’s sisters the infrequent news of their brother was manna on which they kept their hearts alive in a desert. ~ from The Supper at Elsinore

Coffee, according to the women of Denmark, is to the body what the word of the Lord is to the soul. ~ from The Supper at Elsinore

But the brightness of the moon upon the water was so clear that it seemed as if all the light in the world were in reality radiating from the sea, to be reflected in the skies. ~ from The Dreamers

To this woman I owe it that I have ever understood, and still remember, the meaning of such words as tears, heart, longing, stars, which you poets make use of. ~ from The Dreamers

Also, though people do not like their mother’s virtue to be questioned, the frivolities of grandmothers may be charming things to smile at. ~ from The Poet

It was that hour just before sunrise when the world seems absolutely colorless, when it gives indeed a sense of negation of color. ~ from The Poet


Monday, July 24, 2017

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (85 down, 15 to go)

I will show you fear in a handful of dustThe Waste Land, by T.S. Eliot (the source for the title of this novel)

This is the first time I’ve read A Handful of Dust and the second novel I’ve read by Evelyn Waugh. The book is a modernist, and/or humanist novel according to Waugh, and the third-person narrative of Tony Last, an English gentleman, set in 1930s England and Brazil.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars

This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category #10 – A classic set in a place I’d like to visit (Brazil).

Tony Last is an English gentleman, lord of the ancestral home, Hetton Abbey, a large country estate where he lives with his wife Lady Brenda and eight-year-old son John Andrew. Tony and Brenda seem happy together and a perfect match; John Andrew is being raised a proper British gentleman, and not terribly spoiled by his privileged life. Tony seems to love being guardian of the family legacy, though he is struggling to restore the decaying manor to what he envisions as its proper state. Tony and Brenda were considered by their friends as a pair who were – preeminently successful in solving the problem of getting along well together. It all seems a perfect picture of early 20th Century British nobility.

You probably caught the ominous use of the word “seems” – everything “seems” idyllic, but then – it all unravels rather quickly.

SPOILER ALERT – the following contains a spoiler.

Two events turn Tony’s world upside down. His son, John Andrew is killed in a hunting accident – no one to blame. Shortly after the funeral, as in later the same day, Brenda tells Tony she’s been having an affair and wants a divorce. The reader has known about the affair for a while, along with most of Tony and Brenda’s friends. The affair was so inexplicable, I at first thought it a severe weakness in the plot.

Brenda seemed genuinely to love Tony, and even to like him. The two were cute together. They were affectionate and playful. She didn’t seem bored or restless. The man she has the affair with, Mr. Beaver, is not handsome, accomplished, wealthy, or charming. In fact, he lives with his mother – every woman’s dream, right? Nor does fate does throw them together in some intimate way. Brenda just decides to have an affair, and Beaver is the closest man.

She is completely cavalier; all her friends and even casual acquaintances know, as do Tony’s friends, Brenda’s sister, and Mr. Beaver’s mother. No one is shocked, and no one tells Tony.

It just didn’t make sense to me. Until I learned that Evelyn Waugh received a similar shock from his first wife. He was the wronged and innocent party. It probably didn’t make sense to him, so I’ll give him some credit for what initially seemed a weakness in the plot. I believe, witting or not, he was expressing through Tony what he must have felt. It worked, because I was certainly hurt for Tony and rather disgusted with Brenda.

Tony is of course, staggered by these two blows coming in such short succession. He has lost his wife and his son. He might have struggled on with one blow or the other, but his whole existence:  lord protector of the Last family manor and legacy is in jeopardy. He has no heir and no mate to give him one.

In order to cope, Tony travels abroad and plans to be gone many months. He joins a jungle excursion in search of a lost city in the Amazon, grand adventure – all that, with a new acquaintance. The reader is dubious of Tony’s qualifications for such an adventure, and Tony’s companion does not inspire confidence either. Nonetheless, in intrepid British fashion they soldier on to the jungles of modern day Brazil.

It doesn’t go well.

But I’ll leave it at that. It is a terribly depressing story. I can get past that. I shouldn’t like every tale to be “happily ever after”. I didn’t like it much when I first finished, though, I have to admit I was engrossed. I read it in two sittings. I’ve been ruminating on it since and it has grown on me.

Waugh described Tony Last as "a Gothic man in the hands of savages…" The savages were not just those in Brazil, they were also the civilized savages back in England. It’s not clear which the worst were. As I say, it grew on me, but I didn’t like it as much as my previous experience with Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited.

Sometime after the initial publication, there was an alternate ending published – a happily ever after ending. I didn’t like it. I generally don’t like alternate endings in principle, but this one was completely incongruous.

A Handful of Dust is VERY reminiscent of American Pastoral by Philip Roth - a contented successful man, has it all - and then...

I liked the epigraph Waugh used from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland

…I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you 
I will show you fear in a handful of dust

References to Classic Literature:

All of the rooms at Hetton Abbey are named for characters from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.  One of them then is of course, Tristram – reminding me of the last classic novel I read: Tristram Shandy.

The library at Hetton Abbey had, among other works, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

There is a character who possesses the complete works of Charles Dickens – but he cannot read and must employ someone to read to him

Trivia:  Evelyn Waugh’s first wife – her name was Evelyn.


Friday, July 21, 2017

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (84 down 16 to go)

…there never was a great or heroic action performed since the world began by one called Tristram ~ Walter Shandy, Tristram's father

This is the first time I’ve read Tristram Shandy (though I started it and did not finish years ago) and the only work I’ve read by Laurence Sterne.  The novel was originally published under the longer title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but most modern editions go by the shorter version. Tristram Shandy is a first-person narrative, though it is difficult to categorize it further, using the common fiction genres. I call it a comic novel, and satire, of the Enlightenment era.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category #5 – A classic published before 1800.

In spite of the original title, the novel is not much about Tristram’s life though it is certainly about his opinions. Most of the book is Tristram relating comic settings and conversations between his father and uncle: Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby. Nearly half the book takes place before Tristram’s birth; he narrates earlier events that were presumably passed down to him. It takes place in early to mid-18th century England.

Walter Shandy intended his son to be named Trismegistus, but the chambermaid sent to relay the message can only remember it begins “TRIS”. The officiating parson, concludes it must be Tristram – a name Walter Shandy thought was unison to Nincompoop.  Walter also believed, for he’d read numerous books on the subject, that large noses were a sign of intelligence and nobility. He was therefore again disappointed at Tristram’s birth, when the Doctor permanently crushes Tristram’s nose by use of forceps.

As I said it is a comic novel – one of the earliest and considered one of the best. Hmmm, for me, not so much. There is no doubt much of the humor was lost on me owing to a quarter millennium separating the author’s day and my own. I know the book is filled with double entendre and subtle allusions relevant in Sterne’s day. I caught some of them, but I’m sure I missed more.

Sterne, via Tristram, makes many allusions to other writers and books, and I’m sure I missed many of these for the same reason. His favorite was Don Quixote. Sterne makes repeated explicit references to writings and characters from Don Quixote as well as many subtle allusions. Tristram’s Uncle Toby and his aide Corporal Trim are very reminiscent of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Sterne makes other allusions to:  Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Locke, John Bunyan, Rabelais, and more.

Another comic device Sterne used was digression – in fact, it was his main gag. He seldom finishes a chapter without chasing some digression and promising to return to the previous subject in some future chapter. Then he often digressed from the digression, and often yet again, and etc. Often, he does not get back to the original point for many chapters – if at all – though he occasionally reminds the reader that he has not forgotten and intends to return to unfinished portions. I know it was intentional, but for me it bordered on absurd. I’m convinced Sterne was intelligent, witty, very well read, and used clever word play, but for me, it just didn’t work well.

The book concludes with a very clever double entendre though – really more of a quadruple entendre. After one character relates an amusing story, a listener concludes:
A Cock and Bull, said Yorick – And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.
As I’ve suggested, the reader can take that statement one of at least four ways: one quite literally, a second figuratively, a third rather bawdily, and a fourth – that may just be the author’s self-effacing commentary on the entire book.

I’m glad I read Tristram Shandy. It has been on my TBR for a long time and I think it is historically significant, but I didn’t really enjoy it – so, I’m also glad to be DONE reading it.

Have you read Tristram Shandy? Did you like it any better than I did?

Other excerpts:

I have but half a score things to do in the time – I have a thing to name – a thing to lament – a thing to hope – a thing to promise, and a thing to threaten – I have a thing to suppose – a thing to declare – a thing to conceal – a thing to choose, and a thing to pray for – This chapter, therefore, I name the chapter of Things – and my next chapter to it, that is, the first chapter of my next volume, if I live, shall be my chapter upon Whiskers, in order to keep up some sort of connection in my works.

Sciences May Be Learned Rote But Wisdom Not

Let love therefore be what it will, - my uncle Toby fell into it.

Then he will never, quoth my father, be able to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives. ~ Walter Shandy upon learning his brother Toby was to be married

It was a consuming vexation to my father, that my mother never asked the meaning of a thing she did not understand. ~ narrative regarding Tristram’s mother

The French have a gay way of treating every thing that is Great; and that is all can be said upon it. ~ Tristram

I’m persuaded there is not any one prince, prelate, pope, or potentate, great or small upon earth, more desirous in his heart of keeping straight with the world than I am – or who take more likely means for it. ~ Tristram


Monday, July 17, 2017

Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus by Kyle Idleman

…the grace of God doesn’t simply invite us to follow…it teaches us to follow. ~ Ken Idleman from Not a Fan


The premise of this book is nothing new – The distinction between being a nominal Christian and being a committed follower of Jesus. I’m certain there are thousands of books on the subject.


Ken Idleman’s approach, which you might infer from the title, contrasts being a “fan” of Jesus with being a follower.


He defines a fan as: an enthusiastic admirer. It’s easy to be a fan, quite another thing to be a committed follower.


John 3:16 emphasizes believing.

Luke 9:23 focuses on following.

There is no believing without following. There is no John 3:16 without Luke 9:23.


Idleman opines that many, if not most, good church-going, Christians in North America are probably fans, but not necessarily committed followers. He does not imply they are not true Christians, though he does draw attention to an important warning that Jesus gave: in Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus says

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.


Idleman points out one important word in Jesus’ warning that is often overlooked and particularly alarming. Jesus did not say: there will be a few, or there will be some, but there will be MANY – MANY who thought they knew the Lord, MANY to whom the Lord says: “I never knew you.”


This isn’t the main point of the book though, just something I found particularly important. The book is intended to help the fan recognize themselves as such, and then to make the switch from fan to follower.


In the final section of the book Idleman points out that Jesus has three pretty demanding requirements of followers: willingness to follow WHEREVER he leads, willingness to do WHATEVER he leads them to do, and willingness to follow NOW.


As I said, there are thousands of books on the same subject. I’ve read a few. I don’t remember exactly what caused me to pick this one up, but I think the title caught my attention. In spite of liking the title, and the analogy, I liked a different comparison Idleman makes even better. At one point he asserts that many Christians treat Jesus like a consultant. A consultant is recognized for their expertise and is polled for their advice, but ultimately the consultee is free to heed or ignore the consultant’s advice. Idleman then points out:  

God doesn’t do consulting. Never has. Never will. He does God. When we treat him as a consultant, he simply stops showing up for the meeting.


Idleman’s style is a little different than what is usually associated with Christian non-fiction. He is humorous and entertaining, throwing in random things like quotations from Indigo Montoya, writing in Klingon, or using TV ads as illustrations.



In short, I found it useful and timely commentary that was easily accessible.



Friday, July 14, 2017

The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle                                    A Sherlock Holmes short story

The Adventure of the Speckled Band is part of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes collection. Chronologically, it is Holmes’ fourth case, and the second in which Dr. Watson assists Holmes.

A distressed, and of course beautiful young woman, Helen Stoner, comes to Holmes early one morning. She confesses a vague feeling of dread and enlists Holmes’ assistance. She tells how her twin sister died of no apparent cause two years earlier. Her sister’s death was preceded by mysterious incidents in their step-father’s country manor. Now, with the advent of similar incidents, Helen is in fear for her own life.

I don’t suppose it will be a spoiler to reveal that a “speckled band” plays an important part in the mystery.

I am certain that I read this story many years ago, because I had a very specific idea of what the speckled band referred to, which proved to be correct. It will certainly mystify a reader unfamiliar with this tale.

Doyle thought The Adventure of the Speckled Band was his best Sherlock Holmes story. It is certainly the best I’ve read thus far, though I’m not very far into the canon. In the three stories that precede this, Holmes solves mysteries, but there is no criminal brought to justice, nor innocent who is saved. In this story a villain is indeed brought to justice and the terrified woman is saved from certain doom by Holmes' extraordinary powers of deduction.