John Keats: Selected Poetry (ed: Elizabeth Cook)

Selected PoetrySelected Poetry by John Keats
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I almost gave this book three stars, since I really loved only a few of the Keats poems contained within, but the book as a whole gave me such a great look at his progression from start to finish. That was one intent of the editor, Elizabeth Cook. She writes in her introduction: “But to read Keats’s poetry through in chronological sequence (the principle of this volume) is to be impressed with the astonishing speed with which it matures. Keats effectively produced his life’s work in two years; the greater part of it in one” (p. x).

I found several of his poems too verbose, as though he were trying to impress us with his vocabulary. I’ve seen intense poetry from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and other Romantics that hit on similar themes but did it in fewer words. I’m not looking to enforce a word limit (e.g. I love the Odyssey), but I want these poems to be beautiful, using only what is necessary. Keats succeeds best when his craft fades away and the story and emotions come to the foreground. But even in these longer works, he often has a moment of clarity. In “Sleep and Poetry,” he writes: “Stop and consider! life is but a day; / A fragile dew-drop on its perilous way / From a tree’s summit” (lines 85-87).

I like his narrative poems the best. “Lamia” is my favorite, by far. It is a well constructed story with beautifully chosen words the flows perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed “Hyperion: A Fragment” as well. His attempt to rework this unfinished poem in “Fall of Hyperion” fails, in my opinion. He returns to using too many words again, almost like a student padding a paper to reach the required page count. The beauty and sadness of “Hyperion” is lost amongst the glut of words.

I wonder what Keats would have produced had he not died of tuberculosis at 25. Based on Hyperion and Lamia, I think he would have continued to grow and increased his legacy even further.

Let me give yet another shout out to the wonderful editions in the Oxford World’s Classic series, produced by the Oxford University Press. I really love these editions … this is my 7th in the series. A great introduction, timeline of the authors life, the work and then fantastic notes that provide context and elucidation.

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The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect XThe Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this novel but couldn’t get excited about it. With murder mysteries, I tend to like ones where the crime is intricate, you don’t know “whodunit” or you have an endearing detective figuring out the situation.

In the Devotion of Suspect X, the crime coverup seemed unbelievable and the characters were never developed beyond the basics. It seemed more like a sketch of a mystery rather than the finished product.

Natsuo Kirino’s Out remains my favorite novel for this type of mystery.

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The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

The ItalianThe Italian by Ann Radcliffe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian. While it wasn’t a very deep story, it was well-told and kept me turning pages. At times, the plot twists were a tad melodramatic but she always kept the suspense high throughout three volumes, moved the plot swiftly and tied many threads together by the end. She didn’t explain everything, but I enjoy not having everything neatly tied up. It lets the reader enjoy and continue the story through their own mind.

I was impressed that Radcliffe, writing in 1797, suggests that torture is never a valid method for eliciting truth. Innocents will create false confessions just to stop the pain (vol. 2, p. 199, original text). Today, 217 years later, some still don’t realize that torture is both wrong and useless. She goes further by having one of her lead characters, Vivaldi, comment on the torturer: “that any human being should willingly afflict a fellow being who had never injured, or even offended him; that unswayed by passion, he should deliberately become the means of torturing him, appeared to Vivaldi nearly incredible” (vol. 3, p 312 Oxford World Classics complete edition).

Some might have problems with Ann Radcliffe’s verbose and descriptive language, but this should be savored not feared or dismissed. She was at the cusp of the Romantic movement that explored natural beauty and description of everyday experiences, and her prose is expansive in describing scenery and emotions. Sure, one could probably compress these three volumes into one, or maybe even a novella, but I believe such an effort would diminish the beauty of the journey.

It was a joy to hold these books, both old and new. The leather-bound editions with their old style script and spelling methods were scrumptious. The new Oxford World Classics edition had a wonderful introduction and useful reference materials. Finally, on a personal level, it was fun that one some of the characters were from an area at the base of the Tyrolean Alps. Some of my family is from this area!

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On rereading books

My father-in-law sent me a quote and asked me whether or not I thought it true. It seemed pretty straightforward, but I unpacked it over a run. I wrote him back but thought I’d share it here too.

When you re-read a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in yourself than there was before.
– Clifton Fadiman, editor and critic (1904-1999)

I think the quote can be true in that as you change and grow, your perspective on things changes, hence your interpretation and understanding of what the author is telling you may be different. The text itself is static and humans are not machines that produce the same output given the same input over their lifespan.

On a trivial level, I think you might see more in a book on a re-reading, since you may have glanced over a piece or been distracted by an outside disturbance (noise, music, anger, sadness, confusion, etc.).

I have certainly experienced having a passage with little importance to my view of the world on one reading, that turns out to be pivotal the next time I encounter it. Additionally, I think that some passages that I saw as sublime at one point have seemed less important, or even trivial, as I’ve aged.

I would add that there’s another option the quote doesn’t quite cover, namely a better understanding of the context in which the work was created. Knowing the times in which the work was written, the conditions of the people it references, the group of creators who the author worked with, etc. all can enhance an understanding of the text, i.e. find new meaning in the text. That isn’t really a question of something new in me, unless you’d argue that new knowledge in me is what the quote was trying to get at.

Poetry might be a different game altogether. I’ve been reading a lot of it lately, predominately the Romantics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, a little Byron). I reread several poems in the course of two weeks and each time, it seemed like I found something new in it. I think good poetry needs to unpacked, as there are often many levels of meaning. And sometimes the meaning is influenced by which poems precede and follow it. So, context matters a great deal in poetry, whereas in prose, you traditionally read linearly from beginning to end. I have read a poem that means one thing to me, but when I read it along with other ones next to it, it takes on a different meaning, maybe only fuller, but it’s different to me. There’s also understanding the “school of thought” writers, ones such as the Romantics who wrote together, or were followers of early Romantic poets. You can see threads, challenges and experiments in a new text. These things increase my understanding of the work, which isn’t really from inside me nor inside the static text.

I don’t reread stories that often. I’m slowly trying to get into that practice, especially as I get older. Perhaps looking for both more in the text and more in me. I reread Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” every year. Each time, I feel like I find something new in it, but I also see how much I myself continue to change.

All in all, an excellent exercise.

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Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Lyrical Ballads: 1798 and 1802 (Oxford World's Classics)Lyrical Ballads: 1798 and 1802 by William Wordsworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As my interest in 19th century literature, especially the Romantics, has increased, I thought I should turn to one of the foundational works of Romantic movement. Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads sets the stage for a tactile and euphoric literature that embraced the world around it. It eschewed some of the loftier and abstract subjects of poetry and focused on the land and the people close to it. The edition I read includes both the original 1798 volume and the expanded, two-volume 1802 version. Fundamental to the 1802 edition is the Preface, originally added in 1800.

Wordsworth’s Preface is outstanding. He lays out the purpose of poetry and his thoughts on the what he and Coleridge are trying to convey with Lyrical Ballads. Fundamentally, Wordsworth writes that “poetry is the first and last of all knowledge– it is as immortal as the heart of man” (p. 107). He thinks that the poet has only one restriction, that he must give “immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer or a natural philosopher, but as a Man” (p. 105). Wordsworth also tries to differentiate this collection from contemporary poetry. He writes that “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling” (p. 99). With this, I think he means that feeling drives the action, it is active not passive. Our emotions drive our world, our actions within it and our understanding of it.

I liked both poets, even though Coleridge contributed only four poems. Coleridge’s content, meter and pacing are excellent. Wordsworth is wonderful for evoking something within me. Of Wordsworth’s pieces, I truly enjoyed “Goody Blake, and Harry Gill, A True Story”, “We Are Seven”, “The Last of the Flock”, “The Idiot Boy”, “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman”, “The Brothers, A Pastoral Poem”, “Lucy Gray”, “The Childless Father”, “The Old Cumberland Beggar” and “Michael, A Pastoral”. From Coleridge, I absolutely adored his 1798 poem “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere, in Seven Parts”.

I prefer the 1798 edition over the 1802 version of Lyrical Ballads. I think that the 1798 edition was more incisive, compact and visceral. I felt that there was too much in the latter edition, in that it seemed to dilute the impact of the original work. I certainly wasn’t happy with the changes to The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere effected in the 1802 rewrite “The Ancient Mariner, A Poet’s Reverie”. Coleridge updated the language with contemporary words, and while the original version was a little hard to read then (and certainly now), it was worth the effort, making it one of my favorite pieces in the collection.

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The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre

The Vampyre and Other Tales of the MacabreThe Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre by John William Polidori
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having heard of the ghost story competition among Lord Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley, and Byron’s physician John Polidori in the summer of 1816 beside Lake Geneva, I was eager to read Polidori’s story that came out of the night, one of the founding vampire stories, especially one that moved the vampire from a rural setting to urban high society. At the 2014 Washington Antiquarian Book Festival, I actually saw a copy of the Polidori’s original story, falsely attributed to Lord Byron (corrected in the second edition). This edition from Oxford World Classics included not only Polidori’s The Vampyre, but also 13 other short stories that appeared, mostly in magazines from the 1820s through the 1830s.

I have to say that I wasn’t as impressed with Polidori’s story as I thought I would be. J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla was a much better vampire story, but then again, it had a literary tradition to build upon, including the groundwork laid by Polidori. I thought that Polidori’s story could have been better, especialy if he’d developed it a bit more.

William Carleton’s Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman was a horrific story of a religious/political revenge that included a home burning and lynching. It was more a true crime confession, but still quite shocking.

Edward Bulwer’s Monos and Diamonos started off as almost a skeletal sketch, but it built up like a Le Fanu short stories from In a Glass Darkly. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

James Hogg’s Some Terrible Letters from Scotland was terrifying. It centered around a cholera outbreak. It was made up of three letters, which included themes of almost being buried alive, social shunning and ghostly visits. The first letter remindede of Le Fanu’s writings.

There were two anonymous stories in this collection that I liked. First was The Curse, which showed how quickly the descent into madness can happen to not deal with a tragedy. It also showed how madness can be a refuge from reality. The second story was Life in Death. You saw what was coming very early one, but it still gave me the shivers. I can only wonder at its reception in 1833!

I have to say I was very pleased that this collection included one of the masters of this genre, and one of my favorite writers from the 19th century. Le Fanu’s Secret History of an Irish Countess is perfect. It includes his classic pacing, building terror, and a sense of the macabre. As always, it was pure reading joy. And the footnotes said this story was expanded into one of Le Fanu’s most popular novels, Uncle Silas. That novel sits on my shelf and I can’t wait to get to it!

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Bookstores in Colorado

Diane & I had an excellent and productive time shopping for books on a recent trip to Colorado. I stopped at antiquarian stores in Colorado Springs and Boulder as well as an indie shop in Boulder that sold new and used books. The last place, Boulder Bookstore, was a place we’d hit back in 2009, and I picked up Jane Bowles only novel,just reprinted. The two other used and rare stores were new to us, partly since I only got the serious collecting bug in 2012.

Doug Clausen runs Clausen Books in Colorado Springs. He’d been trained in the business by his father and opened the place I visited in 2000, I believe. It’s a small store along the road, but on the inside, there are wonderful shelves of pre-loved books from all segments of the Dewey Decimal system. I gravitated to his literature section (two cases), then almost a whole case of Modern Library books. I came close to picking up another Modern Library copy of Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle with original dust jacket, but I passed since I have a copy, plus several other versions of that fabulous book. In an enclosed case I found some of the pricier items, all beautiful but nothing that was on my list. Toward the back was a miscellaneous section of antiquarian books. Beautiful bindings vied for my attention and I peeked at about a dozen of them. This is the section from where I selected my treasure, a full off-white leather bound, 1841 edition of Chapters on Churchyards by Caroline Southey. The author inscribed it to her cousin. Bliss.

Finding a beautiful book is one thing, but having the opportunity to chat with the owner about other books and our interests is something I treasure. I had a chance to talk with Doug about my collecting interests, his store and his background. We didn’t talk for long but it’s a memory I’ll treasure and recall whenever I pick up the book I purchased from him.

To me, my books are not just valuable for their contents and bindings, but also for how I acquired them. Whether it was a great interaction, stumbling upon a treasure, or finally finding something I’ve been looking for, that makes these bound wonders all the more special to me.

In Boulder, I visited Red Letter Second Hand Books on three successive days. The first two times I picked up great volumes. On my first visit, I bought a first edition of Paul Bowles short story collection, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories. I also saw a beautifully bound edition of Longfellow’s Tale of Miles Standish. I picked it up, put it down, picked it up and put it down. The exquisite binding tempted me but it was just eye candy. I didn’t want the poetry contained within. I only collect what I really want and will use (i.e. play with and read). On my next visit, I did find something that was both nice and on my list. It was a 1949 reprint of Boccaccio’s Decameron, with a slew of full page illustrations by Rockwell Kent. I also found the Golden Book of Coleridge, an Everyman Library collection of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry. It has the three pieces I had been seeking: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan (???). I would love to have found it in an older binding, but it was in good shape and only $10. I’m so happy to add it to my collection. On the final visit, I looked quickly since we were headed out of town. I didn’t see anything I could justify. Like with Clausen Books, we spoke with the people who worked at Red Letter. I think one was the owner, but they were all really friendly, especially after we said we’d come back and actually did, twice!

So, all in all, a wonderfully productive trip for my collection and two new stores and people with whom to keep in touch.

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