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His Excellency

son-excellence-eugene_rougon_gallimard19th century novelist Zola shows us more of the machinations, betrayals of French politics in his sixth published story in the Rougon-Marquart cycle, Zola depicts the greed, manipulation and ugliness of French politicsthrough His Excellency: Eugene Rougon. When the story begins title character Eugene Rougon has fallen from his lofty government job. He’s resigned to take some heat off the emperor and hopes this action will be rewarded. Soon Rougon meets Clorinde, a beautiful, flirtatious troublemaker. She’s much younger and spends her days tantalizing the rich, powerful men who’re happy to waste their days gazing at her in her boudoir as she poses for a portrait and rambles on. She’s not the brightest light, but we all know how little that matters when it comes to powerful men.

It’s uncertain who Clorinde’s father is. Both she and her mother are gadabouts from Italy. It’s whispered that she’s the illegitimate daughter of  an aristocrat, who’s introduced as her godfather. Right. Clorinde is all appetite, appetite for power, like Rougon, whom she sets her cap for. She could have any rich, powerful man, but she goes for this old bachelor. Despite being attracted to Clorinde, Rougon knows they’re no good for each other so he marries another more sensible wife and convinces Clorinde to marry a rich, malleable man who’s gotten a government ministry. Clorinde goes along, but vows to get even. And after many years she does.

It was interesting to see this greedy crowd of relatives and old friends who hang on to Rougon to get political favors that make them rich. The minute Rougon closes down the favor-trough they’re out to get him led by Clorinde. Rougon’s fortunes go up and down as the story progresses. I enjoyed the realism and even enjoyed disliking the corrupt hangers on and, of course, Clorinde, who had no good qualities or no uncorrupted qualities. This book would make a good movie.

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Another Reading

https://vimeo.com/peopleshistory/kevin-coval-nelson-algren-chicago

Here’s another reading of Algren’s poetic Chicago: City on the Make.

Chicago: City on the Make

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Nelson Algren blew me away with his powerful poetic prose in Chicago: City on the Make. I expected it to be a novel, but it isn’t. It’s a prose poem essay that packs a lot of history and observation into very well written essays on the city. Written in the 6o’s, Chicago: City on the Make brought old Chicago, one that’s grittier and livelier to life. Algren’s Chicago was getting softened up, suburbanized almost when he wrote the book. Now downtown at least is like a lot of cities, though the neighborhoods are quite individual.

The book’s a must-read for people who know the city and want to learn more. The 50th Anniversary edition that I read has a lot of good annotations, but there were some references that weren’t covered that I had to use Bing to find.

Half-way through the book, I emailed a friend who teaches a unit on Chicago in her high school urging her to add at least a few chapters from the book to the class reading list.

Here are a few quotations from a book that’s full of great passages:

“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

“…a city that was to live by night after the wilderness had passed. A city that was to forge out of steel and blood-red neon its own peculiar wilderness.”

“It’s the place built out of Man’s ceaseless failure to overcome himself. Out of Man’s endless war against himself we build our successes as well as our failures. Making it the city of all cities most like Man himself— loneliest creation of all this very old poor earth.”

Eight Feet in the Andes

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Dervla Murphy’s travels are always absorbing and often humorous. I’ve read her Eight Feet in the Andes thanking God I’m not on this four month trek with a mule and a 9 year old (who’s amazingly patient, uncomplaining and intelligent). I wouldn’t be able to stand all the bugs, the 25 mile hikes up worn out trails that barely hug the mountains, the eating just ship’s biscuits and canned sardines for days till the next town which could be a week away.

Yet I find the book enthralling. The Murphy’s encounter people with histories and cultures I’d never heard of, some are amazingly hospitable and some are very cold and aloof. I love how Murphy tells it like it is. She doesn’t glorify all the native cultures or demonize all the mestizos. Each encounter is related as objectively as is humanly possible.

I’ve also learned so much about the Spanish and the Incas, how they clashed and how that affected numerous ethnic groups who were in the way. I’ll add a few good quotations later in the week, God willing, as it’s time to return to my end of term grading.

The Moonstone

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Told by a several different narrators, all with different personalities and motives, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone entertains from start to finish. It begins with a family’s black sheep bequeathing a large, expensive jewel, the moonstone of the title, to his niece Rachel. The moonstone originally was a sacred jewel in India and three former Brahmans have come to England to get it back no matter what.

Rachel receives the moonstone on her 18th birthday when many have gathered for her party. She flaunts the stone all night and then puts it in a cabinet in her bedroom. During the night it’s stolen. Who did it? The Indian jugglers, who came by out of the blue? One of the servants–particularly the maid who had been caught stealing by her previous employer? Or a guest who’s in need of money? It could be anyone and Collins keeps the surprises coming chapter after chapter.

I enjoyed the humor and how the story was as much about the personalities of the characters and their relationships as it was about finding the culprit who took the cursed moonstone. I will soon read another Wilkie Collins’ story, that’s for sure.

North and South

In June my online book club read Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Since I’v seen the BBC series, I knew I’d like it, but I really liked it more than I expected. North and South has been billed as a Pride and Prejudice with social issues thrown in. That’s not a bad quick summary of the novel.

Briefly, it’s the story of country girl, Margaret Hale getting uprooted from her lovely pastoral Helstone and plucked down in gritty, smoky Milton a factory town in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. There she comes to know both the Higgins family, who work in the mills and whose daughter is sickened due to the horrible conditions in her mill and the Thornton’s whose grown son owns a major mill.

Gaskell’s got a light touch so the story’s not overwhelmed by the social issues, yet in her lifetime, many readers criticized her for siding with the workers to the degree that she did.

I liked the characters Gaskell crafted and the even-handed debates they had on labor relations. As you might guess, Margaret and Mr. Thornton are polar opposites for most of the story, yet develop an attraction. While that’s nothing new, Gaskell handles the relationship well, so you’re pulled in.

The story moves a long and contains several quotations that I’ve marked.

A good read, indeed.

King Coal

By Upton Sinclair, who always takes the side of the underdog and shows people how hard and unfair life was for the lower classes in his time (i.e. early 20th century), King Coal is about a well-to-do college student, who leans to the left politically. His older brother and friends tell him that all the news and complaints of poor treatment of coal minors is hog wash. He decides to spend his summer as a miner.

He takes on the clothing of a working man and goes to North Valley where he gets work in a mine. He has no idea how much worse things were than he imagined. He makes friends with the workers, lives amongst them and sympathizes with them. He gets the same bad treatment. He faces the same problems – high rents in the mining housing, bad food at the canteen, exorbitant prices at the general store. When he helps the men organize and request, not a union, but someone to check that the coal loads are weighed right, he lands in jail. The judge is in bed with the mine owners. Upon release he’s followed and when a reporter prints his story . . . well, on and on it goes, injustice upon injustice.

The story is compelling and Sinclair creates likable characters a few that middle class and progressive wealthy folk would take to. It’s still a relevant story and should be read in history classes. If I taught history, I’d have some students read this, others read The Jungle and others read Oil! and then compare notes.

The Film Snob’s Dictionary

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Written by David Kamp, The Film Snob’s Dictionary is a fun little reference book with a tongue-in-cheek tone that can help readers learn to b.s. their way through an erudite conversation on film or just help readers learn a little more about filmmakers and terms related to film.

Here are a few entries, chosen randomly, to give you a taste of the book:

Film Threat. Surprisingly buoyant, unsmug Web ‘zine (originally a print magazine) devoted to independent film. Where snobs go to read fulsome appreciations of Sam Raimi and interviews of such Queens of the B’s as Debbie Rochon and Tina Krause. (N.B. The website was bought and taken offline so where will we read these articles about people I never heard of?)

Mankiewicz, Herman. Gruff, whiskey-soaked, cigar chomping, old-school screenwriter par excellence (1807-1953)who bolted from his comfy perch at the Algonquin Round Table to write titles for silent films and screenplays for talkies, famously summoning his friend Ven Hecht west with te line “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition are idiots.” A dab hand at many genres–he wrote or cowrote Dinner at Eight, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and The Pride of the Yankees . . . .

Third Row, The. The only appropriate place for a true cinephile to sit, as per the dictum of  the late snob overlord and belle-lettrist Susan Sontag. Though the third row is said to provide the ideal perch from which to comfortably take in the MISE-EN-SCENE while unobstructed by fellow audience members, New York’s Anthology Film Archives, in 1970, catered to the socio-pathology of Film Snobs by opening its Invisible Cinema . . . .

The Horizontal Man

In 1947 Helen Eustis won the Edgar Award for best mystery for The Horizontal Man. Set at a small New England women’s college where a young Irish English professor, Kevin Boyle is murdered; someone took a fireplace poker and bashed him over the head with it. Soon Molly Morrison, an introverted freshman with a huge crush on Prof. Boyle has a breakdown and while in the school infirmary confesses to the murder.

No one buys that and she’s eventually cleared, but the question remains: Who killed Boyle? As the novel progresses Eustis provides an up close look into the psychology of the students and professors. Surprisingly, police and detectives play a small role in the novel, a technique I can’t remember seeing in other mysteries.

I liked her precise style, which transported me to the late 1940s.

Notes from the Underground

Yesterday I attended my library’s Great Books discussion. We talked about Fyodor Doestoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a troubling book to read but a terrific book to discuss. The narrator is neurotic or possibly psychotic. He introduces himself saying:

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I don’t know beans about my disease, and I am not sure what is bothering me. I don’t treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let’s say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course I can’t explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “get even” with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t treat it, its is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then– let it get even worse!” 

Part One of the story continues with this tone as the narrator, whose name we never learn, rants and raves about society. He’s a 40-something civil servant who delights in being rude to the public he’s supposed to serve. (Haven’t we seen those types in government offices and private sector customer service desks?) He has no filter and like a Russian Trump will call a spade a spade, the stupid, stupid.

In Part Two, Doestoevsky switches from a monologue to a narrative and goes back in time to when the narrator was 20. He’s (no big surprise) alienated from his peers, unhappy with the world, which fails to see how brilliant he is, and manages to misread every social situation and make problems spread and grow.

Now why would anyone want to read about such a misanthrope?

The answer’s because Doestoevsky makes us think and delights us with fine prose. He poses interesting questions:

“And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive–in other words, only what is conducive to welfare–is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact.”

His book still is relevant as it shows the shortcomings of “enlightened self-interest” or rational egoism, philosophies that aren’t quite dead, that fail to show the need for sacrifice and empathy and the limits of rationality on its own.

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