Wednesday, January 14, 2015

That man...Jeeves...

My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

I admit I didn't resonate with this book nearly as much as most people do or have done. I guess perhaps for the same reason(s) that I believe I probably would not enjoy watching Downtown Abbey if I watched television. Although I did laugh in some places and chuckle in others, overall I just didn't connect very well with this one. 

Firstly, this was a collection of short stories, and I truly expected a novel. That was somewhat of a disappointment to me. Secondly, there were really only two of these, the first, Leave it to Jeeves, and last, The Aunt and the Sluggard, that I felt were entertaining. Overall, the parts I found most enjoyable were the self-effacing remarks/realizations by Bertie Wooster of what Jeeves must think of him on occasion. 

     "To complete the character-study of Mr. Worple, 
     he was a man of extremely uncertain temper, 
     and his tendency was to think that Corky was a  
     poor chump and that whatever step he took in 
     any directions on his own account was just 
     another proof of his innate idiocy. I should 
     imagine Jeeves feels very much the same 
     about me." (page 13)

Jeeves develops a scheme that backfires (most of them do, by the way) so that Bertie's friend, Corky, a portrait painter who has never even painted one portrait over many years, has now lost his fiancĂ© to his uncle, Mr. Worple, whom she has now married and ironically presented with a son/heir. Unfortunately, this now cuts Corky out of any expected inheritance, though he has now been commissioned to paint a portrait of his own ex-fiancĂ©'s child, ostensibly his new cousin. 

     "It's my uncle's idea,...Muriel doesn't know about it yet. T
he portrait's to be a 
     surprise for her on her birthday. The nurse takes the kid out ostensibly to get a 
     breather, and they beat it down here. If you want an instance of the irony of fate, 
     Bertie, get acquainted with this. Here's the first commission I have ever had to 
     paint a portrait and the sitter is that human poached egg that has butted in and 
     bounced me out of my inheritance. Can you beat it? I call it rubbing the thing in 
     to expect me to spend my afternoons gazing into the ugly face of a little brat who 
     to all intents and purposes has hit me behind the ear with a blackjack and swiped 
     all I possess. I can't refuse to paint the portrait because if I did my uncle would 
     stop my allowance; yet every time I look up and catch that kid's vacant eye I 
     suffer agonies." (pages 23-24)

In the end, the portrait is a total flop, his uncle is livid and stops his "allowance," but Jeeves has yet another brilliant suggestion--that Corky pursue drawing for the comics. 

     'If I might make a suggestion, Mr. Corcoran - for a title 
of the series which you have 
     in mind - "The Adventures of Baby Blobbs."'

     Corky and I looked at the picture, then at each other in 
an awed way. Jeeves was 
     right. There could be no other title. (page 30)

This becomes Corky's new occupation, providing a steady and sufficient income. At least he's now supporting himself... :)

It seemed that every story involved someone trying to simply sponge off a relative or claim an inheritance so they didn't have to work for a living. 
That bores me after a story or two. 
I prefer to be productive, at all costs! In addition, I can handle only so much of one person being totally dependent upon another person for each and every decision/action in their life, as Bertie Wooster was with Jeeves. Yikes! I can't begin to imagine having so little independence and self-confidence! Not my type of person! 

This "book" could never have been written without the phrases "Leave it to Jeeves," as uttered by Bertie and "Very good, sir," as spoken many times by Jeeves. After all, as Bertie states repeatedly of Jeeves, "That's the sort of chap he is. You can't rattle him."

I am glad to have read this since it is referred to so often, but other than that I only found it to be mildly entertaining. Fortunately, it was short and a quick read! Now on to other books which I'm sure will be more enjoyable! How about you? Have you read any of this series by Wodehouse? What was your reaction? 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Wife, the Maid, and...??

The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress 

No, this is not a repeat posting from December 2013, rather a follow-up based upon Ariel Lawhon's recent blog post

As I read Ms. Lawhon's post regarding further information about Ritzi's life after 1930, I believe I felt the shock, relief, and then happiness the author must have felt upon being contacted by Ritzi's descendants... Wait? Ritzi's descendants? Yes, the real story is that she herself disappeared from New York in the aftermath of the mysterious disappearance of Judge Joseph Crater, changed her name, and began life anew. Miss Lawhon had felt that Ritzi must have died in 1930, but how wonderful to learn she did not only live, but thrived...

I just wanted to share this "human interest" story. I thought it noteworthy...

And if you've not yet read this book,! :)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Classics Club Spin #8: Intense, honest...eye-opening!

Go Tell It on the Mountain 

This is one classic I am ever so grateful to have read. Many years ago I had read parts of Notes of a Native Son and was so impressed with the powerfully direct writing style. This novel resonated for me on so many levels. As with any classical book I plan to read, I purposefully did not research prior to reading. I much prefer to form my own unique reactions to a text with as little "interference" from others as possible, then research based upon my desire to know more once I have formed my own opinions... Baldwin claimed this book to be "semi-autobiographical," assuming that John is to represent him. 

This is quite a stinging commentary on the rigidly strict religious institutions and practices of the day for a storefront church in Harlem. Baldwin drops hints to the reader from the very beginning. On pages 3 and 4: "Sarah, who wore a red ribbon in her hair that day, and was fondled by her father." I don't remember that Sara's age is revealed, but I guess her to be at least 6 or 7 years old, and there is no further mention of any sexual abuse in John's home (at least that I can recall), but there is this little "slip of the tongue," if you will. Baldwin depicts the father's unwieldy righteousness as he "doctors" Roy, his youngest son's wounds, without ever considering the boy's own culpability/responsibility for the fight. Gabriel eventually blames his wife/the boys' mother, slapping her as hard as he can in the face, to which Roy reacts: 
"Don't you slap my mother. That's my mother. You slap her again, you black bastard, and I swear to God I'll kill you." 
Following this, Gabriel beats Roy with his belt, whispering "My Lord, my Lord, my Lord, my Lord." This made my stomach lurch as I reacted viscerally to this self-righteous protestation of "doing the Lord's will." Using religion to justify abuse is just about as low as any individual can get, in my opinion!

He has no true defense as his sister Florence observes:
"Yes, Lord, you was born wild, and you's going to die wild. But ain't no use to try to take the whole world with you. You can't change nothing, Gabriel. You ought to know that by now." (p. 44)
Although this particular book is set in Harlem and the characters are black, this could be any race/religious combination--there are many examples in our world today where religion is used as a basis for abuse, particularly among family members, and especially with regard to absolute patriarchy where males are granted unquestioned power to control and manipulate family members in any way they see fit. And this is one of my first complaints about many (okay, most) organized religions. I could not discern that religion had actually improved Gabriel much as a person. Granted, once he was "saved," he did stop carousing every night in the bars, getting drunk, passing out in the ditch, and screwing any woman he met, but then he adopted a "holier than thou" attitude. Gabriel was quite a conflicted character: although he married Deborah who had been gang-raped by white men as a teenager and shunned by many/most, he really never seemed to love her, in fact as she remained barren throughout their marriage, he grew to actually hate her...for her ugliness and the fact that she could not get pregnant. (I assume the rape had left her physically unable to establish a pregnancy.) He was truly a mean man who didn't appear to have much empathy or sympathy...for anyone.

Admittedly, I had to become accustomed to the dialect and the use of words in this book that I would never think of uttering, nor would I accept others using, especially other white folks like myself. However, I do believe it is this honest and accurate dialogue that contributes so very much to the power of this book--and it is powerful! Gabriel's sister, Florence states to her husband, (p. 84), "Being a preacher ain't never stopped a nigger from doing his dirt." Florence had just received a letter from Deborah (Gabriel's wife) detailing her belief that her husband has an unclaimed illegitimate son living in their town. 
She sighed...Well, he's a preacher. And if Deborah's right, he ain't got no right to be a preacher. He ain't no better'n nobody else. In fact, he ain't no better'n a murderer."
He had begun to whistle again; he stopped. "A murderer? How so?"
"Because he done let this child's mother go off and die when the child was born. That's how so." She paused. "And that sounds just like Gabriel. He ain't never thought a minute about nobody in this world but himself."
One of the things I appreciated most about this book was the insider's view of the life experiences that can build such hypocrisy into people's psyche and behavioral patterns. Gabriel and Florence were raised by a mother who constantly intoned "the Lord" into their daily lives, insisting each of them MUST be "saved." (I wondered just what kind of person she really was, as she was so manipulative of her children to get what she wanted--someone to take care of her.) Though what does that really mean?  An individual may complete certain actions, but does that truly change their outlook, attitudes, and behaviors? Gabriel was proof that outward behaviors can change, but a heart may remain just as hard as ever. Having once succumbed to a "charismatic" Methodist and been "saved" as a young teen, I truly believe this can simply be the product of emotional turmoil and fervor created by others. (As with John.) Once I began questioning the validity of these "beliefs" in an objective and logical sense, I was searching for something much more practical and applicable to everyday life, without a deity.

Interestingly, in his first years as a preacher in the south, Gabriel was quite successful as an evangelist and was in demand to travel and preach, though he cited the hypocrisy among the "older" preachers and wanted to make sure he was never like them, however, he soon proved to be just as much a hypocrite, if not worse, seducing a woman and sending her off with money he and his first wife, Deborah, had saved when she admitted she was pregnant. Then to treat his family as he did. And like his mother did to him, he expected his children to all be SAVED, too. .

I had a feeling about John's observations of Elisha, the 17-year-old preacher's cousin who had himself just become a preacher in his own right; that he may be attracted to Elisha in ways other than just idolizing a fellow teen a few years older who had already accomplished so much. And I learned in later research, Baldwin did "come out" as gay. (I thought I had remembered that somewhere...) Now I really want to read his book Giovanni's Room.

The last scene of this book is so thought-provoking! Although John has finally succumbed and become "saved," it is obvious that he perhaps now fears his stepfather Gabriel even more so than before, for now that he is saved I can believe Gabriel may well beat him even more, to "help" him stay on the straight and narrow path, of course. (All in Christian love...) Sadly, I felt that John is damned if he is "saved," and damned if he isn't... I think Gabriel just got off on the power trip of beating his children and wife. Ironically, although John is not Gabriel's biological son, he is the boy who seemingly "obeys" and does what is expected of him, as opposed to Roy, Gabriel's biological son, who is the opposite, much as his father was as a youngster. 

If you haven't read anything written by James Baldwin, I would highly recommend this book. So powerful, so intense, yet so very readable!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Classics Club Spin #7: A Truly Timeless Masterpiece

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This is a larger-than-life novel!! Although quite intense, it is so very readable! If you decide to read or (as in my case) reread it, please obtain this Penguin Classic version (ISBN 978-0-14-303943-3). The 34-page introduction written by a Steinbeck scholar, Robert Demotte, is not to be missed. There is so much pertinent background material that makes you realize Steinbeck literally put his heart and soul into researching this novel over the course of a decade, though it only took 100 days for him to actually write it! Awards conferred upon this work: National Book Award (1939), Pulitzer Prize (1940), and it was cited prominently when Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962. For once I totally agree that this novel is so very deserving of such accolades! 

I originally started rereading this after some 43 years as part of the NPR GoW 75th Anniversary Read Along. This link takes you to the first of three online discussions, the last of which was led by the National Steinbeck Center scholar-in-residence, and author of On Reading the Grapes of Wrath, Susan Shillinglaw. I became too busy to participate in the third/last session, but have read the comments/discussion. (Links to these later sessions are located on the right as you scroll down a bit.) I found it fascinating to read others' comments on this timeless masterpiece. So scary how it still relates all too well to our world now! 

I now remember how dreary this novel seems in the aftermath of completing it, and yet, there is also that glimmer of "hope," be it ever so dim and faraway. How to define that bit of "hope"? The answer is quite complex, as when contemplating anything about this novel. It is as if Steinbeck overlooks nothing in his social commentary: familial relationships, the breakdown of an agrarian society, the unbridled greed of corporate/business/banking entities, gender roles, organized religion and just "preachers," corruption among those with money and the "police"/law, and symbolism for almost every word written in this work. Steinbeck's word choice actually elicits visceral reactions for many readers, me included, and not just once or twice, but repeatedly throughout the novel. It would be very easy to teach a one-semester course based upon this work alone, there is so much to be discerned and teased out and related to so much else in our world: other literary works, social commentaries now and then, etc. Absolutely fascinating! I am so very glad I reread it 40+ years later; my interpretation now is so much more intense and fulfilling!

I am literally scared as I read and complete this novel...scared that it could all happen again, in the present-day U.S. I'm not sure what could or would ever happen to make that impossible, but at present, I feel the corporations and elite rich folk have enough power and control to wipe out many, if not most, of the lower SES folks, at their whim. Although I've always considered myself an eternal optimist, the past 12-15 years have demonstrated this possibility in the ever-lower wages for most U.S. lower- and middle-class jobs, and the ever-increasing numbers of working poor who slip lower and lower, into poverty or below, on the economic scale. While corporations get to deposit and hold their profits overseas and evade paying U.S. taxes, set pricing, exploit world labor for the cheapest wages and most dangerous settings. Overall, the setup is much the same now as it was then. 

As Steinbeck notes repeatedly throughout this novel, it is only by organization of the masses to strike, that any change will occur. However, as also noted by Casy and others, men must be willing to sacrifice their own lives, and that of their families, in order to "fight back" at all. We see that many of these men must have separated themselves from family in order to pursue such noble yet dangerous causes. Perhaps it is this conflict that upsets me the most, the fact that even if a person can understand the source and continuing manipulation of the migrant masses, the "common man" has little to no recourse without being killed. We have certainly witnessed this throughout history in so many ways and times. However, as is noted many times in this novel, for every step taken forward, or gain in civil rights, there may be steps backward, but never totally back to the beginning, it continues to improve, little by little, through the advances and retreats... I am using the term "civil rights" in an extremely broad sense, to include workers' rights, equality among genders (purposefully included more than just two...) and people of all heritages/backgrounds, overall a respect for each and every human to have equal access to all societal entities and opportunities for growth and development. 

It interests me that the message I take away from this novel, that we all must help each other in any way we can, is echoed by so many present-day "philosophers." I could try to name them all, but it seems the list would be endless. I do believe that the human race is slowly but surely realizing this really is all each of us can do for the world/Universe, but without that, there truly is no hope for this species. Of course, the ultimate goal is to grow these numbers of people who are motivated thusly in their daily behaviors and intentions to a critical mass that will actually change our man-made society for the better. James Redfield is the first "modern-day" spiritualist I've read who echoed this philosophy and took it a step further. In the years since first reading The Celestine Prophecy, I have developed a very practical life philsophy of exactly this sentiment: try to leave each person I encounter throughout the day a little better off for having interacted with me, in whatever way that is possible, based upon mutual respect, kindness, and compassion. Simple. Hands-on. Practical. It never ceases to amaze me how this simple philosophy in action seemingly allows me to spot those who profess to live their life this way, typically under the guise of organized religion, and yet, in reality, do not... Perhaps their intentions get lost in all the ritualism, etc., 

Have you read this classic? If not, you really really should. It is timeless and there is so much to say about it. I could easily create 20 different posts analyzing so many aspects of this text, but basically, that has all been done and is available online. (I have 10 pages of notes and so many post-its in the book, you can hardly see the edges of the pages!) You could start with the NPR link above for that... Rereading this now has reinforced my beliefs about the importance of each individual contributing whatever they can to better this world. No contribution is too small. And that is the way I will continue into 2015... Happy New Year!