Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 3 (1792)

In my continued slow trot through the books in Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, I've come to The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 3 (1792). One thing to know about Samuel Johnson is if you have decided to read his complete works, there are going to be a lot of words to read. Luckily for this reader, Johnson is a pretty amazing writer and this third volume of his collected works continues to demonstrate the wide-ranging nature of his interests.

In this volume we get a couple of pieces on Greek theater, some extensive notes on Shakespeare's Macbeth (and some well-placed jabs at other editors of Shakespeare), an extended series of essays from The Adventurer, and the philosophical novella, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

While all these works have something to offer, the writing that is most accessible to the modern reader can be found in Johnson's contributions to The Adventurer, a bi-weekly newspaper to which he contributed a number of pieces, both signed, anonymous, and under the names of various characters. These brief essays hit on innumerable topics, contemporary, historical, and literary, but the most fun of all are when Johnson takes his pen out of its sabre and points it at various irritating types of the day. Consider, if you will, the essay from Tuesday, December 11, 1753 in The Adventurer Number 115. You can read the whole essay here (and you should!), but here's a taste:

Some indeed there are, of both sexes, who are authors only in desire, but have not yet attained the power of executing their intentions; whose performances have not arrived at bulk sufficient to form a volume, or who have not the confidence, however impatient of nameless obscurity, to solicit openly the assistance of the printer. Among these are the innumerable correspondents of publick papers, who are always offering assistance which no man will receive, and suggesting hints that are never taken; and who complain loudly of the perverseness and arrogance of authors, lament their insensibility of their own interest, and fill the coffee-houses with dark stories of performances by eminent hands, which have been offered and rejected. 

It's amazing to me that Johnson can still be so relevant (or, I guess, that humanity is so consistent) that 261 years later, these same words could be written about innumerable tweets, facebook posts, and blog comments.

And how about this section from The Adventurer Number 137:

It is difficult to enumerate the several motives which procure to books the honour of perusal: spite, vanity, and curiosity, hope and fear, love and hatred, every passion which incites to any other action, serves at one time or other to stimulate a reader.

Some are fond to take a celebrated volume into their hands, because they hope to distinguish their penetration, by finding faults which have escaped the publick; others eagerly buy it in the first bloom of reputation, that they may join the chorus of praise, and not lag, as Falstaff terms it, in "the reward of the fashion."

Some read for style, and some for argument: one has little care about the sentiment, he observes only how it is expressed; another regards not the conclusion, but is diligent to mark how it is inferred; they read for other purposes than the attainment of practical knowledge; and are no more likely to grow wise by an examination of a treatise of moral prudence, than an architect to inflame his devotion by considering attentively the proportions of a temple.

Some read that they may embellish their conversation, or shine in dispute; some that they may not be detected in ignorance, or want the reputation of literary accomplishments: but the most general and prevalent reason of study is the impossibility of finding another amusement equally cheap or constant, equally independent on the hour or the weather. He that wants money to follow the chase of pleasure through her yearly circuit, and is left at home when the gay world rolls to Bath or Tunbridge; he whose gout compels him to hear from his chamber the rattle of chariots transporting happier beings to plays and assemblies, will be forced to seek in books a refuge from himself.

Don't let the old-timey language dissuade you, folks, this is amazing stuff.

Volume 4: here I come!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (2012)

In the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer (2012), Derf Backderf tells the very unique story of his time as a teenager in a small town in Ohio, just outside of Akron. Most things about his high school experience are pretty ordinary -- cliques, drinking, boring teachers, clueless parents, but one thing, in retrospect, eclipses everything else: Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, who would go on to become a serial killer.

As you might expect, Dahmer was not a super popular guy in high school. He was, in fact, just one or two rungs up from the very bottom. Backderf and his friends, however, were amused by Dahmer's antics and incorporated him into some of their stunts and inside jokes. You get the impression from the book that rather than feeling he was being made fun of, Dahmer liked hanging out with these guys, even though the "friendship" was mostly based on Dahmer acting like he was having convulsions and yelling out some catchphrases.

As they move through high school, Dahmer's connection to his friends and a regular life becomes more and more tenuous. He is drinking heavily, experiencing upsetting thoughts of sex and death, dealing with his parents' ugly divorce, and is eventually left alone in the house when his mother (who has had frequent mental health problems herself), moves back to Wisconsin with his younger brother. Then things go really bad.

Backderf, of course, had no idea how bad things had gotten with Dahmer and no way of knowing how bad they would get a decade later in Milwaukee, and much of the book gets into Backderf's feelings about Dahmer now and how he can reconcile his own memories of being a teenager with the life of Dahmer.

The book is thoroughly researched -- through published interviews and books, Backderf's own documentation, and conversations with mutual high school friends -- and satisfyingly footnoted, which gives the reader a lot of context without bogging down the panels. The art has personality and the book has a great pacing. You can tell this isn't Backderf's first time at the drawing board, and he gives his story the space and seriousness that it deserves.

[Finally, I'm not always a fan of video trailers for books, but it kind of works in the context of a graphic novel..]

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Unmentionables by Laurie Loewenstein (2014)

I received a copy of Laurie Loewenstein's debut novel, Unmentionables (2014) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The combination of historical fiction and women's movement details were right up my alley, so the Early Reviewer selecting robot did a good job there.

The book starts us off in a small town in Illinois on the Chautauqua circuit in 1917. Marian Elliot Adams is a veteran speaker with the traveling educational / entertainment spectacular that comes through town every year. She speaks to the crowd on the somewhat salacious topic of revolutionizing women's undergarments. She believes that simple is best, and that women who aren't weighed down with pounds of petticoats and unnecessary straps and belts will be more able to participate in everyday life and healthier to boot. Most of the crowd is a little scandalized by her talk, but the town's widowed newspaperman Deuce Garland, and his step-daughter, Helen, are intrigued by this commanding and confident woman.

While bending down from the stage to talk to Helen after her speech, Marian slips and violently twists her ankle, forcing her to spend some unexpected down time in the small town recovering with Deuce's next-door-neighbor, Tula.While she is in town, she makes a big impression on the lives of Deuce and Helen, and sets events in motion that ripple through all their lives over the next year.

I have to admit at first this book didn't really grab me. It was nice enough, but the characterization was a little broad and the plot followed predictable cliches of women's rights, fighting for justice, and cloaked Midwestern racism. But then something happened -- Loewenstein isn't afraid to let her characters develop a little more deeply than you'd expect, and the action of the novel sometimes slides away into unexpected territory. Particularly in the case of Helen's solo move to Chicago and her experience in the workforce and Marian's work with the Red Cross in France during WWI, the plot of the novel explores the darker side of justice and good works and ultimately earns the right to its rather romantic (and sweet) ending. While the book would have been stronger for me without the foundation of a traditional and predictable set of plots and characters, Loewentstein ultimately goes beyond that and gives us a strong and surprisingly moving novel.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Never-Ending Poem by the Poets of Everything by Mary Strong Jackson (2014)

I was lucky enough to be sent a free copy of The Never-Ending Poem by the Poets of Everything by Mary Strong Jackson (2014), mostly because I am married to Mary's son. Don't let that familial relationship distract you, though, I would like this book-length poem even if the author wasn't my mother-in-law.

This volume of poetry consists of a series of inter-related poems that each flow into each other by picking up a word or phrase from their predecessor and then giving a focus to their successor. The author invites the reader to continue the poem after the book ends, even providing some blank pages to aid in keeping the never-ending poem going.

There are a lot of gems in here, but one of my favorite poem/verses is:

The poet of oceans
meets with the poet of prairies
to talk about expanse
food given to nourish
storms that toss one's home about
the poet of prairies says
"It is the same for me"
(p. 31)

I've read quite a few of Mary's poems and I always admire the straightforwardness of the observations and the combination of the prosaic everyday world with a somewhat philosophical eye. Some of the poems are funny, some are heartbreaking, and all feel more than anything else, extremely real. This is a good read, and one that can be dipped into at any point and returned to again and again.

You can read more of Mary's poetry and other writing on her website: