Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple

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Last weekend I finished the first book of my ongoing 2012 Project: Reading twelve author biographies. My January selection, “Hawthorne: A Life” by Brenda Wineapple has set the bar fairly high for subsequent entries. I’ve read several of Hawthorne’s novels (The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, and The Marble Faun) and dozens of his short stories, but this was my first real introduction to Hawthorne, the man…

It can sometimes feel a bit profane for us mere readers to learn of the origin and genesis of our favorite stories. It’s like the old warning about not ever getting a ‘backstage pass’ to go behind the scenes to witness your favorite television program being made – it’ll lose its magic and you won’t like it any more. Wineapple, however, succeeds in allowing these glimpses in the behind the scenes motivations and origins of Hawthorne’s works without ruining our appreciation of them in the process.

The book even provides something of a “volume discount,” since peeks into the lives of some of the other famous American authors are a significant part of the book. Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Alcott to name just a few.

In spite of his associations, though, Hawthorne was at his core a loner and rather insecure. I had not known before reading this book that he frequently burned his own manuscripts that weren’t up to his own high standards. Wineapple says, “Hawthorne was a perfectionist unwilling to release any of his work to the public before he had polished it to a high gloss.” Another favorite passage related to his burning quotes him as saying, “Thoughts meant to delight the world and endure for ages, had perished in a moment, and stirred no heart but mine.” I loved that one.

(below: Hawthorne in his younger, “dashing” years…)

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I also hadn’t known of his politics (really his friends’ politics; he didn’t seem to hold many strong views himself) and his close association with president Franklin Pierce (often referred to as either the worst or weakest of our presidents), a college classmate and friend. Hawthorne’s fawning official biography of Pierce cost him “hundreds of friends” who “drop off me like autumn leaves.” This was in the time where the country was becoming increasing divided and polarized over the issue of slavery.

I was struck also by Hawthorne’s often crippling self doubt and his expressed fears that he will “never make a distinguished figure in the world, and all I hope or wish is to plod along with the multitude.” In another letter he muses that he is likely doomed to become part of “that dull race of money-getting drudges” (in other words, having to get a “real job”).

There was also the traditional lore about Hawthorne. How “the spirit of my Puritan ancestors was mighty in me,” and how “Salem was where women had dangled from the gallows, and Hawthorne’s great-grandfather had all but tied the rope.”

I’ll finish by citing one quotation which sums up Hawthorne in a great, succinct way: Hawthorne’s best stories “penetrate the secret horrors of ordinary life.”

How do you like the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne? Too dark? Too hard to read? What are some of your favorites?

P.S. February’s selection in my author biography project: “Memory Babe” – about one of my favorite authors, Jack Kerouac. Has anyone read that one?

(Below: Hawthorne’s “Wayside” home in Concord.  He liked to write up in the tower, access to which was gained by a trapdoor, upon which he set his chair while he was writing so as not to be disturbed)

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“Mira! Mira la tormenta!”

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Sarah Connor: “What did he say?”

Old man: “He said, ‘There’s a storm coming.'”

Sarah Connor: “I know.”

The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg

I remember when I first watched the movie, The Terminator, back in the mid-80’s and thinking this was a great ending for that film. Knowing what the future holds, the pregnant Sarah Connor heads off to Mexico in order to survive the nuclear war and to prepare for what follows. After reading Richard Heinberg’s Book, The End of Growth, I’m left wondering if I will need to employ a similar strategy at some point.

Our planet has a finite size. That is a fact. It is also a fact that, relatively speaking, it’s a very BIG place, which is insidiously deceptive to the humble brains of humans. Heinberg’s basic premise is that continued growth is impossible due to decreasing resources and increasing demands, particularly for energy. Cheap energy, in the form of fossil-fuels, in fact, is what he argues has “fueled” growth in the modern era, and an effective substitute is yet to be discovered or developed.

Those who expect a return to growth are counting on technological innovations and increased efficiencies (indeed, in my former, casual ponderings on the future, I must admit that I staked my hopes on this as well) are doomed to be disappointed, in Heinberg’s opinion. Years ago, my dyed-in-the-wool conservative older brother recommended the book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist” by Bjorn(?) Lomborg to me in order to assuage my fears. Maybe I need to revisit this one now. Who knows, though, if the material in it has already become somewhat outdated…

This book also does speak a little about the boom-bust life cycle of technologies and uses the “fad” about corn ethanol (once known as “gasohol” I think) as an example. I’d always wondered exactly who it was who EVER thought this was a good idea. I mean, with exponential population growth, “yes, let’s set aside huge swaths of arable land to grow more fuel!!” Something seems to me to be obviously wrong with that idea…

The ideas in is book will keep you up at night, and, sadly, not much of the book is devoted to potential solutions to all the dangers described therein…

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I Wrote a Haiku :-)

My prodigous literary output of 2012 has now reached three lines and 10 words.  I composed the following at about 5 a.m. the other morning.  You can probably guess my inspiration.

“Winter Haiku”

Scraping asphalt bare

Plows sound through the arctic air

Interrupting sleep

Thanks for listening!  🙂 

A Passion in the Desert

This weekend I read the wonderful short story, “A Passion in the Desert,” by Honore de Balzac. A local “Great Books” discussion group was tackling this work in January, so I met up with them at the Nora library on Indianapolis’s north side last night. It was a nice group of six (counting me)! evenly split between men and women (something of a rarity in book groups). The fact that we were able to have a nearly 90-minute discussion on a 14-page short story is either a testament to the richness of the story, or the quality of the discussion – or both!

For those who don’t know, the story deals with a French soldier who was part of Napoleon’s Egypt campaign around the turn on the 19th century. The soldier is captured by the Arabs (presumably the Mamelukes?) but escapes their clutches only to find himself stranded at a small oasis in the desert, which he learns also happens to be the home of a female leopard. Providentially for the soldier, he first meets the leopard just after she has fed, thus reducing the immediate danger to himself. The two begin a wary friendship, with the soldier initially just biding his time for a chance to kill the leopard or make his escape. Over time, however, the friendship grows (almost) into a kind of love. But, in the end, it “ended as all great passions do – by a misunderstanding. For some reason, one suspects the other of treason; they don’t come to an explanation through pride, and quarrel and part from sheer obstinacy.”

I won’t reveal how the story ends. You can read it for yourself for free online at:

http://www.classicshorts.com/stories/pitdbalz.html

Interesting also is that the story of the soldier and the leopard is framed as kind of a story within a story, told by a man (who had met the soldier as an old man and heard the story from him first hand) to his lady friend after a visit to a menagerie, where the woman marvels at the tameness of the wild animals. This framework meant very little to me while reading, but garnered much focus at our discussion, with one member astutely pointing out that the wonderful story of the desert had become diluted to be used just “to impress his date.”

The story also includes some powerful natural descriptions of the desert, and in a wonderful exchange at the end the soldier says, “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.” When asked to further explain that statement, he replies, “It is God without mankind.”

Definitely worth a read.

(below: Honore de Balzac)

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Book Blogger Suffering Mental Illness From Reading Catch-22?

Dateline: Bibliophilopolis, January 23, 2012
A local book blogger was found incoherent & disoriented in his home Sunday evening. Apparently, some fellow bloggers had become concerned when his blog had fallen silent for an even greater period of time than usual. Investigation revealed that he had been reading Joseph Heller’s novel, Catch-22, in an “assignment” from the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club. Attempts to contact other members of the club for reaction are ongoing.

Apparently, the stricken blogger has been showing up every thursday at the club so far this month, thinking the meeting was scheduled. When told last week by library volunteers that the club meets the LAST Thursday of the month, he reportedly replied, “This IS the last Thursday!” He was then notified that the meeting is on January 26th which prompted the protest, “But that’s the NEXT Thursday of the month!” before storming off muttering to himself.

The blogger’s chief complaint seems to be that he imagines the book is getting longer and longer the more he reads. Just as the number of missions The unfortunate Yossarian is required to complete is continually raised in the book, the blogger claims whenever he thinks he’s nearing the end of the book, he sees there are more pages than the last time he looked. Clearly hallucinating, as even he acknowledged, he remained hopeful that in a sustained, marathon reading session he still might be able to finish by Thursday.

Asked just when he might be able to get a marathon reading session in, he would only say, “When I have more free time!” The same reporter inquired when that might be and was told, “Well, not until I finish this damn book, that’s for sure!”

Library officials have been attempting to contact other members of the book club in fear of the possibility that this phenomenon may be widespread. Ominously, only a few have responded, and in somewhat cryptic emails, perhaps confirming their worst fears. Whatever happens, this Thursday’s meeting should prove interesting – if anyone shows up…

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The 2012 Deck is Stacked!

I now have a “final” list of the short stories I will be reading in 2012. Like last year’s “Project: Deal Me In,” I’ve come up with fifty-two stories, each assigned by me to a specific card in a standard deck of playing cards. A list of these stories may be found on my separate page “2012 ‘1 Short Story per Week’ selections” on the left-hand sidebar. Like last year, the different suits have some “meaning” – hearts = stories by some of my favorite writers; clubs = stories by famous writers that I may or may not have read; diamonds = stories by female writers; spades = ghost/scary stories or sci-fi stories.

I’m sure I will read many other short stories throughout the year besides these, but these are the “required” reads, and their order will be determined by fate – i.e. the random drawing of a new card from the deck each week in what became a Saturday morning ritual for me in 2011.

Yesterday, I drew the ten of clubs, which was Isak Dinesen’s story, “A Sailor Boy’s Tale.” I liked it a lot, despite its relative brevity and “simplicity.” I’ll have more to say about it later…

So… do you have any planned short story reading this year? Have you read any of my fifty-two scheduled stories, and are any among your favorites?

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My Blogging Friends

I’ve been wanting to write a brief post recommending a few blogs that some of my “friends in real life” have been writing. Since another one has just been launched, the time now seems right. I’ll take them from oldest to youngest…

1. “Ramblings”

This blog is authored by Scott, a friend and classmate of my youth who is now a veterinarian. Largely biographical, Scott’s blog deals primarily with reminiscences of his growing up in Indianapolis. It is also my Mom’s favorite blog. 🙂 She says his stories remind her of the intros and “out”ros from that television show, The Waltons.

Scott is also, like me, a lover and keen observer of the natural world. My favorite of his posts is a story of a youthful misadventure that I took part in. (That particular post may be found here.) Though not a book blogger like most of my readers, he has a very nice writing style that I think many would enjoy.

2. “Shame & Pride

Only four installments thus far (with hopefully more to come!) in this blog written by another childhood friend, Paul, who became a naval aviator. Though born in the USA, Paul’s parents were immigrants from Estonia, and he was the first bilingual person I ever met. (I was so impressed that he spoke a separate language at home & to his mother on the phone; I mean, he was just a kid like me – how did he ever learn TWO languages!?).

The first few posts deal with the story of his parent’s “escape” from the Soviet-controlled Baltic State, and Paul’s coming of age in Indianapolis, and the “culture clash” the older members of his family overcame. A good story. His posts are best read in order. Start with Part I.

3. “Mirror With Clouds

The author of this almost brand new blog is a former co-worker of mine and, along with myself and another friend, Sonja, one of the three founders of a long-lived – but sadly recently discontinued – book club, “The Indy Reading Coalition.” Though he relocated to Ohio shortly after our book club’s launch, he still was a regular participant via speaker phone and, later, Skype.

His taste in books frequently overlaps with mine, and I know he will be a welcome addition to the book blogging community. Fellow book bloggers, please check out his site and help welcome him to our wonderful community!

What about you, readers? Do you have any blogs by your friends IRL that you’d recommend?

2012 “Books I Started but Haven’t Finished” Challenge

Jillian, at A Room of One’s Own, is sponsoring a reading challenge for 2012. I don’t usually take part in these, but since I’m a fan of Jillian’s blog, and since she invited me to join and it fits in with my plans anyway, here goes. Ten books that I have at some point started but have stopped for whatever reasons. A couple of these I consider myself “currently reading” anyway, just very, very slowly…

1. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman -Haruki Murakami (short stories)
I’ve loved the stories from this that I’ve already read, and will certainly read the rest at some point this year.

2. Haunts: Reliquaries of the Dead – (a short story anthology)
An anthology of GOOD ghost stories. I didn’t pause my reading because I didn’t like them, I’ve just been reading them sparingly, a little at a time.

3. Atlantic – Simon Winchester
(there’s a long ‘sub-title’ to this book that I can’t remember at the moment) This is a great, Non-fiction book that I discovered via the NY Times book section. Kind of a biography of the Atlantic Ocean and humanity’s relationship with it. Tough going, but fascinating.

4. The End of Growth – Richard Heinberg
I may have paused this one to stave off depression. Not sure I believe 100% of the author’s take on the economics of the present day, but sobering, informative reading thus far.

5. How to be a Really Good Pain in the Ass – Christopher DiCarlo
Got this one and met the author at the Indianapolis Chapter of The Center For Inquiry. I’ve been slowly progressing through this guide to critical thinking for several months now.

6. I Am No One You Know – Joyce Carol Oates (short story collection)
I maybe have read half of these so far. I have grown to appreciate her writing more and more in the past couple years. Her novel, The Tattooed Girl, was one of my. Favorite reads in 2011.

7. The Plague – Albert Camus
I’ve false-started this one a couple times now; not sure why I haven’t kept going. There’s “nothing wrong with it” that I remember…

8. Main Street – Sinclair Lewis
Started, but failed to read, this book for a discussion group this year. It’s a classic. I should read it.

9. The Antiquary – Sir Walter Scott
I almost totally neglected one of my favorite writers this year. This book is one of Scott’s Waverley novels.

10. The Firebrand – Marion Zimmerman Bradley
I read about sixty pages into this one at one point but got distracted by other books and responsibilities. I’ll have to restart it from the beginning I’m sure, since it’s been quite a while.

My 2-year Blogoversary!

Happy birthday to my blog, born the first week of 2010! Closing in on 300 posts and 1,000 comments and 40,000 page views. Thanks to all the visitors who’ve taken the time to browse my site and especially those who leave a comment. It’s been a lot of fun, and I think I’ll “renew my contract” for another year and see where it leads…

Happy reading in 2012!

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“Parthenope” – The Last Short Story from my 2011 Reading Project

2011’s “Project: Deal Me In!” has been one of my most enjoyable (and successful – I actually finished it!) projects I’ve tried. And random chance (I chose in which order to read my 52 stories by drawing from a dwindling deck of cards over the year) saved one of the best short stories for last, Rebecca West’s oh, so poignant tale, Parthenope.

Rebecca West may not be well known to many readers. To me, she (unfairly) had been most famous for an affair she had with H.G. Wells, which I first read about in his Experiment in Autobiography – quite the weighty tome, I must say. The affair produced a son, Anthony West, who also wrote a biography of Wells that I own, “H.G. wells: Portrait of a Life.” She also wrote an acclaimed account of the Nuremberg trials, “A Train of Powder” in 1955.

The story of hers that I read for my project was originally published in The New Yorker magazine in 1959. ***Spoilers Follow***

I think almost all of us have in our memory certain magical moments in time, or magical places visited in our youth. This story describes both. The narrator is actually telling the story of her uncle who, as a child, was sent to a neighboring house with a message. In this house lived seven daughters (of “The Admiral”) who her uncle, from his window, had frequently observed in the gardens, playing croquet and generally being – at a distance – enticing and alluring.

He is greeted by the eldest of the sisters, Parthenope (for pronunciation help, think “Penelope”) who seems more serious and mature than her sisters. He is quickly under her spell, though just a boy and twelve years younger. It seems clear that there is also “something wrong” with the sisters. In one encounter, the narrator’s uncle describes Parthenope as:

“…playing a game by herself, a game that he knew well. She was throwing a ball high into the air, then letting her arms drop by her sides, and waiting to the last, the very last moment, before stretching out a hand to catch it. It was a strange thing for a grown-up lady to be doing, but it did not distress him like the playground gambolling and chattering of her sisters. They had been like children as grown-ups like to think of them, silly and meaningless and mischievous. But she was being a child as children really are, sobered by all they have to put up with and glad to forget it in play.”

Sadly, there is mental illness in Parthenope’s family, from her mother’s side. And her sisters, after being “hectored into” unsuitable marriages by the Admiral, have become worse than only “silly,” as they were first presumed. It seems it will be Parthenope’s fate, as the healthy sister, to watch over them.

The uncle’s few encounters with Parthenope and her sisters have stuck with him over the years, and as fate would have it, he encounters them once more, quite by chance, when he himself is full-grown.

In a meeting filled with tenderness, he calls upon them and speaks again to Parthenope, with whom he has come to “know” that he is “…united by eternal bonds” though “they hardly knew each other, which was the reverse of what usually happened to men and women.”

Telling him of her sisters’ fate, and their husbands, she says, “They married my sisters because they were beautiful, and laughed easily, and could not understand figures. They might have considered that women who laugh easily might scream easily, and that, if figures meant nothing to them, words might mean nothing either, and that, if figures and words meant nothing to them, thoughts and feelings might mean nothing too. But these men had the impudence to feel a horror of my sisters.”

There is a near infinite sadness associated with Parthenope – one which the uncle cannot but acutely empathize with. She tells him, “You do not know what it is like to be a character in a tragedy. Something has happened which can only be explained by supposing that God hates you with merciless hatred, and nobody will admit it.” She is also haunted by the fear that one day, she too may lose her mind (“Every night when I lay down in bed I examine my day for signs of folly”).

His offers to help her in her misery are gently rebuked. When he offers to at least write to her on occasion to assuage her loneliness, she says, “You must not be involved in my life. There is a force outside the world that hates me and all my family. If you wrote me too often it might hate you too.”

I wish I could say that the story had a happy ending, but how could it? It makes me wonder why I like this story so much. I’m guessing it’s because West succeeds in making the reader feel the exact emotions of not only Parthenope, but also those of her would-be benefactor. Not emotions that one wants often to feel, but emotions that are nonetheless quite real and powerful.

(below: Rebecca West)

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