Sunday, February 28, 2021

Herzog by Saul Bellow (novel #173)

If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog ~ opening line


At first, I thought Herzog was clearly not out of his mind. He is lucid, intelligent, and philosophical, but over time I began to wonder about him even as he wonders about himself.


Was he a clever man or an idiot?


Moses Herzog is a middle-aged Jewish man, author, professor, and philosopher. He has suffered two failed marriages: the first to Daisy – just sad; the second to the manipulative and vindictive Madelaine who seems intent on ruining him socially and professionally.


But then – as noted – Herzog may be mad. He is certainly not a reliable narrator, and this novel is very nearly one long monologue of his thoughts and words.


And his letters. Herzog writes LOTS of letters; he seldom sends them. They are to famous persons: President Eisenhower, Martin Luther King, Churchill, Nehru, Spinoza – oh yeah – some not even alive. Others are to family, friends, doctors, local politicians. All reflect Herzog’s discontent, and I’d say his fixing of blame on anyone and everyone but himself.


I liked Herzog at first; I thought he was the victim. Indeed, in spite of his unreliability, it is clear that Madelaine was pretty awful. But Herzog was his own worst enemy, and engages in far too much navel gazing.


But I, a learned specialist in the intellectual history, handicapped by emotional confusion…Resisting the argument that scientific thought has put into disorder all considerations based on value…Convinced that the extent of universal space does not destroy human value, that the realm of facts and that of values are not eternally separated.




One rather insignificant discourse he had with a friend. The friend with emotional problems of his own, recounts how devastated he was by the death of his pet monkey. Herzog muses:


A man could do worse than to love his monkey...


Maybe it wasn’t insignificant. Herzog had done worse. I still have some sympathy for the fellow. He has a couple crises, including homicidal thoughts, and later arrest, but in the end, perhaps the navel gazing did some good. He seems to find some balance. He quits writing letters, takes responsibility for his life, and under the watchful eye of a loving brother – the reader thinks there may be some hope for Herzog yet.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I've read one other work by Saul Bellow [The Adventures of Augie March] which I enjoyed. This one, not as much. 

This novel satisfies a 20thCentury classic for the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge.



Friday, February 19, 2021

Who is your favorite? / Who would you save?

The Classics Club Meme 2.0 asks: 


Who is your favorite classic character? That’s a little like picking my favorite child, but in this instance, I’ll give it a try…by first mentioning the also rans:


Faramir from The Lord of the Rings: If you’ve read it, I don’t need to explain why. Heroic, egoless, devoted son and brother.


Starbuck from Moby Dick: Brave without bravado, duty bound, wise and gentle.


Denver from Beloved: in the beginning, frightened and angry, in the end heroic and loving


Francisco d’Anconia from Atlas Shrugged: I thought his speech at the dinner party, was better than John Galt’s definitive broadcast.


Nick Andros from The Stand: How I love Nick. He nearly rationalizes leaving the feeble-minded man-child Tom. Nick has problems of his own after all – a deaf-mute in post-apocalyptic chaos – Tom will only increase Nick’s struggles, but Tom will not survive long on his own…Nick will not, cannot leave him.


Marmee from Little Women: More than just a loving devoted mother (which is plenty in and of itself). Marmee was ahead of her time, and made her little women know they had value beyond which 19thCentury America readily acknowledged.


But my favorite of favorites is Sydney Carton from my favorite of favorites novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Two words – sacrificial love.


***** BONUS FEATURE *****

In a similar theme, Paula from The Vince Review asks: Which Character [from classic fiction] Would You Save?


There’s so many to choose from. I think the first character in literature whose death broke my heart, was John Thornton from The Call of the Wild. I wanted Thornton and the dog Buck to spend a lifetime together. Of course, that would have been contrary to the entire point of the story, but I was 10 and didn’t really get it. Next was Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit, and then I should mention Boromir and Theoden from The Lord of the Rings. I read these the first time at age 11, but now, reading them as an adult, I find their deaths…hmmm…more crucial to the poignancy of the story. I still love all three, but their deaths were epic, heroic, and I think I’d let them stand. 


The rest of these, I read as an adult, and though saddened by their deaths, I see them as important to the story: Piggy from Lord of the Flies; Starbuck from Moby Dick; John Singer, the deaf mute, from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; Nick Andros, also deaf mute, from The Stand; Lennie from Of Mice and Men.


And last (almost last), I come to Sydney Carton again, from A Tale of Two Cities…but how could I begrudge him his most noble act, his great peace. No!, Sydney died for something glorious; I shall neither deprive nor spare him. But the girl, the poor, frightened girl, who went to la guillotine with Sydney, an innocent victim of the mob’s bloodlust. Oh, my heart bled for her. If I can spare but one, it shall be her.


Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett (novel #172)

At sea there is nothing to be seen close by, and this has its counterpart in a sailor’s character, in the large and brave and patient traits that are developed, the hopeful pleasantness that one loves so in a seafarer.


The country – the one with the pointed firs – is Dunnet Landing, a small fishing community on the coast of Maine. The story – some say it is not a story (novel), but rather a series of sketches – is told by a summer visitor, an unnamed writer from Boston, who visited once before, and presumably finds the setting quaint and quiet, and perhaps conducive to her creative process. 


If you ask me – I note that you did not; I’ll try not to be hurt – but if you ask me, this is a novel. It flows sequentially, and although it is mainly character driven, giving it the feel of sketches, there is still a plot: a comfortable, cozy plot, though rather subtle.


The characters are the charm. The main character, the widow Almira Todd, the narrator’s host and landlady, is herbalist and apothecary to the village, liked and trusted by all, including the village doctor. Mrs. Todd is 67 full of candid observation and homespun wisdom. 


Mrs. Todd gave a funny little laugh. “Yes’m, old friends is always best, ‘less you can catch a new one that’s fit to make an old one out of,” she said, and we gave an affectionate glance at each other…


Mrs. Todd’s mother, Mrs. Blackett, age 86 lives in an offshore island with her son William. 


Mrs. Blackett was of those who do not live to themselves, and who have long since passed the line that divides mere self-concern from a valued share in whatever Society can give and take. 


Tact is after all a kind of mindreading, and my hostess held the golden gift. Sympathy is of the mind as well as the heart, and Mrs. Blackett’s world and mine were one from the moment we met. 


Then there is Captain Littlepage, well-read, quoting Milton and Shakespeare, and just a wee bit mad. 


He waved his hand toward the village below. “In that handful of houses they fancy that they comprehend the universe.”


There is the legend of Joanna Todd, cousin of Mrs. Todd’s husband, the jilted lover who became the hermit of Shell Heap island, which is now her resting place.


And Elijah Tilley, semi-retired fisherman who still mourns his wife, “poor dear” gone now eight years. 


At first, he had seemed to be one of those evasive and uncomfortable persons who are so suspicious of you that they make you almost suspicious of yourself.


If the characters are the charm, Jewett’s writing and the subtle plot are the beauty. The narrator, from the big city, knows she is not part of the community.


…but I had now made myself and my friends remember that I did not really belong to Dunnet Landing.


But over time, and somehow in spite of the reputation that small communities are aloof and wary of outsiders, she wins their trust and affection.


I came near to feeling like a true Bowden, and parted from certain new friends as if they were old friends; we were rich with the treasure of a new remembrance.


I heard the words “next summer” repeated many times, though summer was still ours and all the leaves were green.


There may be restrictions to such a summer’s happiness, but the ease that belongs to simplicity is charming enough to make up for whatever a simple life may lack, and the gifts of peace are not for those who live in the thick of battle.


***sigh*** This book left me longing for the simple life and the gifts of peace, and specifically for a quiet New England seashore – though in summer, definitely in summer.


My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies a classic by a woman author for the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge, and title with botanical word for the What’s in a Name 2021 Challenge








Sunday, February 7, 2021

John Adams by David McCullough

Election fixing, social media attacks, political intrigue, fake news, foreign
influence, personal betrayal, partisan news, cancel culture…yep, I’m talking about the election of 1800.


It’s a bit unfair to begin so; David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography is about MUCH more than the election of 1800. But the election chapters had a sad familiar ring.  


I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, and when I do, it is more of a discipline than a pleasure, but reading John Adams was a pleasure. There were times, when I couldn’t put it down. I’m not sure how McCullough pulled that off. It is certainly testimony to his talent as a writer, historian, and biographer, but I think it is also has something to do with his subject.


I’ve read biographies for a number of founding fathers, and all of those who served as President. In my opinion, John Adams is the most extraordinary, of the highest integrity. Indeed, his integrity likely cost him the election of 1800: caught between the Francophile Republicans and war-hawk Federalists – satisfactory to neither – Adams was steadfastly desirous of peace, and unflinchingly prepared for war. 


Of those election vices, I mention at the beginning – John Adams was the bigger man. He could hardly be said to have campaigned at all. Years later he would lament over that, and subsequent elections:

Our American chivalry is the worst in all the world. It has no laws, no bounds, no definitions; it seems to be a caprice.



In the end, Adams lost the election, but won the peace.


The second such achievement of his career, for in the Revolution, if Washington won the war, Adams and Franklin won the peace. It was almost comical, how Adams and Franklin – who respected but didn’t exactly like one another, played the British against the French, who neither respected nor liked each other – to negotiate a peace treaty that was remarkably favorable to the new United States of America.


There is so much more besides the revolution and presidency. I think the most interesting points are Adams’ relationships: A long, tested, tried, cooled, and restored, friendship with Thomas Jefferson; a challenging productive collaboration with Benjamin Franklin; a quiet respectful relationship with George Washington; an ever cautious familiarity with Alexander Hamilton; his love, pride, and disappointment for his children, and above all others, the relationship between John and his most trusted advisor, most faithful supporter, and greatest friend Abigail. 


In one of hundreds of letters he wrote her over the years, John called Abigail

…my dearest, worthiest, wisest friend in this world…


In another he wrote:

I must now repeat this with zeal and earnestness. I can do nothing without you.


And while the relationship between John and Abbigail is the triumph their life, the final chapter of John Adams’ life is beyond extraordinary. If it were the work of fiction, it would be discredited as ridiculous. 


As the 4thof July, 1826 approached. John Adams 91, and Thomas Jefferson 84 were seriously ill. At Monticello Jefferson, heavily sedated passed in and out of consciousness for several days asking if it was the Fourth. In the early morning of the 4th, he learned the joyous day had arrived, and quietly died in the early afternoon. Hundreds of miles away in Massachusetts, with no means of knowing the fate of his old adversary and older friend, John Adams whispered…”Thomas Jefferson survives.”, and a few hours later John Adams also lie dead.


That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the same day, on the 4thof July, on the 50thbirthday of the nation, President John Quincy Adams opined, that it could not be coincidence, but that it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor”


John Adams was a prolific reader of Greek philosophers, Roman Statesmen, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and clergymen. But he also liked a bit of fiction, including Don Quixote, and the novels of Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper.


Quotations, all by John Adams:


Facts are stubborn things.


When asked by lifelong friend Benjamin Rush if America would succeed in the Revolution, Adams replied…

Yes, if we fear God and repent our sins.



I study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.


Opining on the role history would assign to Franklin and Washington

…that Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod and thence forward these two conducted all the policy, negotiation, legislation, and war



Reason holds the helm, but passions are the gales.



Great is the guilt of an unnecessary war.


His benediction, after his first night, in the not yet completed President's House in Washington City:

I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.



If worthless men are sometimes at the head of affairs, it is, I believe, because worthless men are at the tail and the middle.


Near the end

I find my imagination, in spite of all my exertions, roaming in the Milky Way, among the nebulae, those mighty orbs, and stupendous orbits of suns, planets, satellites, and comets, which compose the incomprehensible universe; and if I do not sink into nothing in my own estimation, I feel an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees, in adoration of the power that moves, the wisdom that directs, and the benevolence that sanctifies this wonderful whole. 

There is a very good mini-series based on this biography...but of course, the book is better.