06 July 2005



    MOSQUITOES (1927; 1955)

This novel, Faulkner's second, originally appeared in 1927. It is a truly bad book, complete with ugly racial stereotypes, the n----- word, plus a character usually referred to as "the Semitic man." However, the Jewish characters seem to represent the "voice of reason" in the book, and maybe Faulkner is speaking through them. He puts an assortment of people on a yacht on Lake Pontchartrain, where they proceed to behave inexplicably and abominably. Are they all drunk, or what?

Very little of the Faulkner style is evident here. Towards the end a few passages take off into the tiresomely overwritten style that he indulges in in the Sartoris novels and THE SOUND AND THE FURY and ABSALOM, ABSALOM! ("Not yet despairing because not yet desiring, he nursed his remorse in a silence that was so profound...," for example).

In the Introduction I learned that Faulkner got fired as a Scoutmaster for drunkenness; that he fabricated his military record--not just once or twice in passing remarks but making a lifetime project of it, even going around in an outfit designed to look like an RAF uniform, which he’d had made for himself. He was in the RAF but never a pilot as he went around claiming to have been.

(1 March 2003)

   HEAVEN AND  HELL: MY LIFE IN THE EAGLES, 1974-2001         (2008)

Don Felder of the Eagles band tells his life story here but I wish he hadn't.  Most of the account is an outpouring of grievances against the two band members who he perceives as having wronged him--Don Henley and Glenn Frey.

Felder seems to be a litigious sort and managed to get himself fired from the Eagles after more than two decades with them.

One doesn't know how much of this story to believe because the bitterness motivating it is so intense.  The Eagles took plenty of cocaine and smoked plenty of pot.  They lived a life so high and so pampered that women were throwing themselves at them.  This has been true of many music groups in recent times.  One wonders why the many stories of instances of greed and cruelty on the part of Henley and Frey were included.  Even if these are true, what is the point of disclosing them to readers who can  have no knowledge of the situation and no way of obtaining other points of view? Clearly the only point is for Don Felder to vent his rage.

Very little light is shed on the actual songs and how they were made though the process of mixing is made clear enough. Who actually wrote the music and who wrote the lyrics isn't spelled out except that it seems sometimes to have been a group project.

This book was a long slog.

3 October  2012



Peter Finn is a Washington Post columnist who gained access recently to some CIA documents pertaining to the publication and distribution of the controversial novel Doctor Zhivago by Soviet author Boris Pasternak.

What we have here is an account of the CIA's involvement in the complicated story of the battle between East and West over publication of a novel that didn't toe the prescribed socialist-realism line laid down by the USSR and that even seemed a tad critical (but only a tad) of the Soviet system.

The Soviet authorities seem to have shown colossal stupidity by raising objections to the book's publication in the first place. Moreover--though little is made of it in this book--anti-Semitism was involved.

The book is oddly silent about a couple of topics that strike me as important enough to have been included: how Pasternak spent the Second World War years, and how it is that he could have been Jewish enough to have been a target of Russian anti-Semitism and yet Russian Orthodox enough to have had a Russian Orthodox funeral after receiving the last rites of the church.

He seems to have been born into a Jewish family who were somewhat assimilated, with a father who reportedly became a Christian.  However, Boris Pasternak stated that Jews ought to become assimilated--that Judaism ought to die out.

This view is horrifyingly unacceptable to most Jews the world over, of course. One has to wonder about whether Pasternak had an opportunistic streak--and whether it was that opportunism that embroiled him in the controversy that raged around Doctor Zhivago for so long.

This book doesn't pass judgment on the CIA but it should be fairly clear to any reader that the kind of cloak-and-dagger maneuvers and publicity stunts in which the CIA involved itself, for the sake of using this novel as a way of defying and showing up the USSR, may have been somewhat diverting for the CIA "operatives" but that they were using a novel as a political football, and a very dangerous one at that.

Pasternak's book (and the movie made from it) made vast sums--but he must have received only a small fraction of the royalties he was owed. His long-time companion/mistress and her daughter were arrested and sent to a camp for years on a trumped-up charge.

It looks as if Pasternak had very little control over the situation once he had finished his book and shown it to a publisher. From then on he and his book became tools in the Cold War.

He was a powerful enough figure in the USSR to be able to have personal conversations with both Stalin and Khrushchev, and the reports of these that are included in this account are fascinating.

Whether Zhivago is an important literary work is a question that has been put on a back burner. Vladimir Nabokov did not hold Pasternak in high esteem at all, and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion condemned Pasternak and Zhivago as "despicable." It is unfortunate that the hijinks of CIA agents and helpers, some of them well known in the media (Gloria Steinem, Zbigniew Brzezinski), have overshadowed the issue of the work's literary merit.

And then there is the vexed question of Pasternak's Nobel prize.  The book implies that he might have been awarded the Nobel prize primarily as a political gesture--and it is noted that the award citation did not mention Zhivago specifically.

Somewhat later the Nobel prize for literature went to Mikhail Sholokhov, one of the darlings among the USSR's favored literary lights, for his ponderous novel Quiet Flows the Don. It seems as if the Nobel laureates in literature are chosen for political reasons sometimes--a sad fact  that is highlighted by this book, though it is not emphasized.

The book seems like a fair and objective account. However, since the CIA traffics in disinformation and lies, how sure can anyone be that the documents on which this book is based are the truth?

July 10, 2016




Interesting comments on Mark Twain and the Mark Twain industry. especially the Hannibal, Missouri, tourist trade. The author does a good job of demolishing those who criticize Huckleberry Finn for its perceived racist elements.

10 May 2000


Image result for f. scott fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald's letters are interesting but sad as he becomes increasingly imploring in his need for ready money--so "his" daughter (always "my daughter," never "our daughter") can stay on at Vassar, so he won’t have to "put" Zelda in a "public asylum," and so on. 

Fitzgerald reveals himself to be the whiny spoiled child one always suspected he was, and undoubtedly anti-Semitic despite a sort of friendship with S. J. Perelman. 

The collection includes letters to Hemingway, Edmund Wilson and other notables.

3 August 2001


The author takes us into the world of a museum--this one in the midst of staging a popular exhibit to display a gold-covered doll that was important to a pre-Christian culture.

The story soon becomes a murder mystery and moves along at a fast clip.  There are entertaining passages, and the story is replete with the author's wry humor.

However, she may have got carried away towards the end, when she has one of the main characters, Waring Smith, wounded by a gunshot but apparently wandering around in a business-as-usual mode in spite of being covered with blood for quite a while. We never find out if his wound was tended to. There are quite a number of such loose ends in the story, but most of it is pretty good fun anyway.

(7 April 2011)

    THE BOOKSHOP (1978)

Short, quietly excellent novel about a widow in a small East Anglian town who decides to open a bookshop. Without any love story, this is an extraordinary disclosure of a triumph of human greed and lust for power.

8 May 2001

   HUMAN VOICES (1980)

This short novel takes us into the lives of some employees of the BBC during World War II. The plot revolves around Sam Brooks, who is in charge of recorded programs but who has too great a liking for young women employees (his "seraglio," as some of his colleagues call his collection of young women). The novel has quiet humor and good sense.

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000) began her writing career at the age of 60. She herself worked at the BBC during World War II, and this book is almost certainly based on her own experience. She has probably captured much of the atmosphere of war-ravaged London, including the ever-present danger of unexploded bombs.

However, the plot of the story doesn't quite jell. Pathways are opened up in the story, only to trail off into nowhere. What become of Lisa Bernard and her baby, for instance? Still, this was a novel well worth reading.

1 April 2005



This book is a fascinating and well-researched social history of the concept of a home--as contrasted with a house. We learn how the notion evolved over centuries, running parallel to the notion of privacy.

I had a few problems with the book, however. One was the inattention to apartment living. How does it fit in with the author's general theories?  One cannot refer to an apartment as one's "house" but one can (and usually should) refer to it as one's "home."  And yet in many people's minds, apparently, only an actual house (free-standing or with only an adjoining wall or two) can be regarded as a real "home."

I've never understood why this distinction should be made. One can have almost as much privacy in an apartment as in a house.  The only real difference appears to be that apartments cost less than houses do and usually require less maintenance (which means less expense to the resident). In other words, a "home" in the popular mind of the present day means a costly residence for the "haves" in this world, those who can afford a house, while apartment dwellers aren't entitled to call their (rented) space a "home."

This question has completely eluded the author, but her book would have been quite different, I suspect, if she had addressed it.

The miscellaneous facts she introduces into her account are extraordinarily interesting.  For instance, people in the past expected far less comfort in their residences than we do today. They were cold and crowded surroundings, and furniture came into the picture only fairly recently.

This is a book that is well worth a careful reading.

16 May 2017




The author is a professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins University who is concerning himself with civility. This book isn't a guide to manners, exactly. For one thing, it isn't nearly comprehensive enough to qualify as an all-purpose etiquette book in the Miss Manners vein.

Forni sets up a series of situations and briefly outlines one or more ways of dealing with them. He concentrates particularly on travel, driving, and the Internet.

In general, the recommendations seem sensible, but there were all too many situations where I wanted to say, "Let it go! Forget about this!" but where Forni recommends saying something to the offending party.

How much peace and quiet is a plane passenger really entitled to during a flight, for instance? Forni seems to believe that a passenger has a right to demand it.  He also believes that people have a right to dictate what topics others can talk about.

A little of this kind of insistence goes a long way, in my experience. All too soon a civility-chaser who pursues Forni's recommendations will be acting tyrannical.

18 November 2012

   MAURICE (1913; published posthumously, 1971)

   Forster's novel about homosexuality came to light only after his death. Originally written in 1913-14, it was revised twice by the author (1932 and 1960) but apparently he thought it too controversial to be publishable, even in the more tolerant climate of his later life.

Presented here is an England that discreetly looks the other way while young men form sexual attachments for one another.  Pretending that these attachments never happen was a necessity given the laws that made homosexual relationships a crime.

Maurice Hall appears at 14 but we see him on into his early adulthood, as he becomes a stockbroker.  He has always regarded girls/women as if they were another order of being, creatures from a different planet, perhaps. He can't work up any physical interest in them. But he forms intense attachments to men--notably Clive Durham, a schoolmate.

It looks as if the bond between Clive and Maurice will become permanent--when suddenly Clive declares that he has discovered that he likes women and is about to marry one.  Aware that Clive's family is eager to have an heir, Maurice feels helpless and devastated.  

Some years later Maurice visits Clive and his wife and experiences a crisis, culminating in his decision to visit a hypnotist in an attempt at correcting what he feels obliged to think of as a defect. Toward that end, he lies to Clive and his wife, saying he's already engaged to a woman.

Meanwhile he's rapidly developing a relationship with Alec Scutter, a newer servant in the Clive Durham household and one who is about to emigrate to Argentina. Alec is crude and lower class, with a chip on his shoulder, and shrewdly knows how to suggest blackmail to Maurice without being blatant about it.

That Maurice is disintegrating by this time should be apparent to the reader. There is an incident where he knocks an older man down on a train and causes his nose to bleed. There is the way he lashes out at a servant unnecessarily.  Without putting his battle into words, he is clearly struggling hard against what he feels to be true--that his homosexuality is innate and irreversible--and what he knows is expected of him: a heterosexual existence.  He sees himself with his chosen partner, Alec, defending their life against a critical world: "...when two are gathered together, a majority shall not triumph" is what he feels he and Alec must demonstrate.

Many old notions in England were in the process of crumbling at the time when this book was written.  This story isn't an especially good representation of that crumbling world, however. This may be because Maurice either does some very odd things--yelling "Come!" out the window repeatedly at Clive's so that Alec will climb up to his bedroom window, for instance--or because the author hasn't made it clear how much of what is described is real and how much is a dreamscape. However, the character of Alec stands out. He is completely understandable, and his often ignoble part in the events shows how very keenly the class differences must have made themselves felt.

Forster is especially sensitive to the class structure that was deeply embedded in the world he inhabited, and this book is one more instance of that sensitivity. But, astonishingly (considering the time when it was written), he also provides an eloquent statement of the homosexual's dilemma.

20 November 2013


Said to be Forster’s own favorite among his works, this novel is definitely not my favorite. Although it contains interesting observations about the English public school system and about child bullies, the plot is contrived, probably faulty, and hard to follow.

Ricky, the sensitive, lame protagonist, marries a woman who turns out to be "legacy-hunting" and who persuades him to hide his knowledge that another man is really his half-brother. Steve, the "earthy" half-brother, turns out to stand for Good, as does Ricky’s friend. Characters, including Ricky himself, die off in droves in this story, with very little attention given to their deaths--creating an oddly unreal impression throughout the absurd narrative. Very disappointing.

6 January 2004


   THE MAGUS (revised edition, 1977)

A long novel, set mainly in Greece. It seems to have been changed considerably since its first edition. The story is larded with phrases and whole sentences and paragraphs in Greek or French, untranslated, and every section is prefaced by a quotation from the Marquis de Sade.

When I read a work of fiction, I expect to find an interesting story with characters who capture my attention. In this book, the narrator/protagonist seems so incredibly dense and stupid in the way that he knocks his head against a stone wall throughout this novel that I found him tiresome.

Fowles said that the original title of this book was The God Game. I have a notion that he might have written this book intending it to be an allegory about God's nature (God as a sadist). It's the only way this story can make much sense.

Fowles also mentions having been influenced by Alain Fournier's novel Le Grand Meaulnes, a misty story of Platonic search for a vision of perfection that can never be grasped. This pointless but endless quest seems to be the "problem" of Urfe, the protagonist in The Magus.

The Magus is an intellectually pretentious work, in my opinion. Moreover, I had the uncomfortable sensation that the author had his eye on the cinematic possibilities when he set the story in Greece. This uncomfortable sensation turned into downright annoyance by the time I got to the dramatic pageant, with characters dressed up in masks of animal heads.

27 July 2005

   LAY THIS BODY DOWN: THE 1921 MURDERS OF 11                   PLANTATION SLAVES (1999)

In Georgia John S. Williams, a white farmer, owned a plantation worked by black men whom he had bailed out of jail. In exchange for their debt to him, they were bound to do his bidding--in perpetuity, as it turned out, for the debt was never regarded as paid, and Williams locked his peons up at night to insure that they couldn't escape. He and his sons (who ran sub-plantations of the same type) were always well armed, and bloodhounds were at the ready in case any black man tried to get away. The peons were beaten cruelly and often. Some were killed.

Since peonage was against the law (though it was a frequently overlooked law throughout the south at the time, since it was a way for the south to keep the slave economy that had sustained it before the Civil War while nominally acknowledging that the former slaves were "free"), federal investigators showed up on Williams's plantation, looking into the matter of peonage there.

Williams was concerned that they might have found out too much, and so he determined to end the lives of eleven black men whom he regarded as most likely to reveal his guilt. Accordingly he ordered his overseer, a young black man named Clyde Manning, to help him kill these men. Manning clearly did not want to kill the men, but Williams emphasized that he had no choice: "It's your neck or theirs, Clyde," he said, and Manning knew he meant it.

The men were bludgeoned to death or dropped live off a bridge in pairs, chained together, along with stones to weight them down.

The evidence surfaced later, and Williams was convicted--a strange turn of events in Georgia of that time, when it was highly unusual for a white man to be convicted on the testimony of a black hired hand.

Later Manning was convicted too. Both men went to prison, Manning to die of tuberculosis only a few years later after serving on a chain gang while incarcerated.

This story is riveting--and gives a very grim picture of life for black people in the south after the Civil War.

One question I was left with was whether the reader is supposed to believe that Williams's family scenes during the courtroom--his weeping wife, his children clustering around him--were authentic and spontaneous, or staged for the sake of persuading the audience. I am inclined to believe that they were entirely staged, but I wish that the author had dealt with this question. The scenes (and there were several) have a Norman Rockwell quality that is almost too poignant to be real, given what we know for a fact about John Williams: that he was a ruthless, cold-blooded killer.

(22 December 2005)


The author is a professor of history at the University of Illinois, and he has apparently studied the literature of the Nazi era and the Holocaust very comprehensively. Drawing heavily on the astute observations in the diaries of Victor Klemperer as well as on many other sources, he paints a picture of the Germans that makes no apologies for them.

They were not "just following orders," nor, by and large, were they just going along with the genocide idea for the sake of the other elements of Nazism. They were often whole-heartedly participating in the genocide.

Fritzsche gives close attention to the use of the "Sieg Heil!" greeting in Germany--noting how often and on what occasions it was used. He finds that it was in very common use, replacing the more traditional forms of greeting at every level of social discourse.  He moves on to explore the extent to which Gentiles and Jews knew about what was really happening to the Jews and other "undesirables" who were deported--never to be heard from again.

Fritzsche offers no explanation for the Germans' behavior during the Nazi era, though he emphasizes that they were hurting economically in the 1930s, probably hurting enough to be desperate.  He just lets us know that this is how it was, and yes, most Germans had a very good idea what was happening to the Jews.

What is most puzzling to me is that so many people bought the twisted logic of the Nazis' plans.  Why accelerate the "final solution" just when Germany seemed in danger of losing the war? The logic behind this change in plans escapes me--except that Fritzsche strongly suggests that greed was a very powerful motivation.

The people whom the Germans were so rapidly moving about and ridding themselves of had property--and jobs. Land, valuables, assets that were coveted and all too easily seized. And, as people, they were occupying space.

One wonders about the burgeoning population of the world. Will there be other instances of genocide as the world's population grows?  More recent events seem to point in this direction.

Fritzsche clearly does not believe that the Germans are uniquely inclined to hatred and brutality.  His book is describing the way things probably were for the ordinary person in Germany between 1933 and 1945.

27 February 2013



The authors have interviewed and studied several compulsive hoarders--persons whose accumulations of personal belongings have reached dangerous proportions. The objective was to analyze their motivations and behavior patterns and offer assistance in the daunting task of (1) disposing of the excess stuff and (2) effecting a permanent change in the hoarders' habits.

It seems to have been a discouraging enterprise since many hoarders do not perceive their accumulations as a problem.

The authors point out that persons who house large numbers of pets irresponsibly are also hoarders--and that there is a clear link between obsessive-compulsive disorder and hoarding.

Some hoarders have been able to continue their hoarding simply because they had enough money to pay for more storage space for their stuff. And the authors indicate that the US trend toward bigger and bigger houses is encouraging hoarding. Since 1970 the average house size [in the US] has increased by 60%, they tell us.

The book isn't very carefully written, however. The authors give a citation from William James dated 1918 (he died in 1910). They haven't sorted out the difference between convince and persuade, and so there are frequent sentences like When I convinced her to discard... .

Nevertheless, this was an interesting study of a disturbing phenomenon.

28 July 2013



Amusing  incisive commentary on contemporary mores and style.

(1 June 1998)


The author's autobiography, with a particular emphasis on his service in World War II. Growing up in Pasadena, California, he was in for a rude awakening when he entered the military. Later he went to graduate school and became a professor of English, concentrating on the 18th century and Samuel Johnson. Fussell's self-critical approach prevents this book from being arrogant or supercilious. He offers many refreshing if pessimistic perspectives on the American scene.

17 August 2005



Peace Be With You said...

OMG I was thinking you were an amazing speed reader when I realized this is what you've written since 1982. Phew. Love the fiction list. I've partaken of some of those myself. TFA by Achebe is one of my all-time favorites.

wordswordswords said...

I lost a large part of the books list years ago when there was a computer meltdown. Back then I was just storing the list of books I'd read on my PC and hadn't turned it into this blog yet. The list has been a way of making sure I don't read a book I've already read or an author I didn't much like. If anyone else finds it useful, that's great!

No, I'm definitely not a speed reader. I get through one or two books a month.

Thanks for stopping by!

--wordswordswords AKA agate (Joan)