Posts Tagged ‘Penguin Classics


Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Democracy in America Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a lot here to chew on. Democracy in America took me the better part of 2012 to read and that’s not just because I was pacing myself: it’s a dense volume, with a lot of information and analysis. Tocqueville moves from everything from what could cause a civil war in the US (he wasn’t far off on that one) to a future when the US and Russia are the dominant powers in the world (remarkably insightful for someone living in the early 19th century) to the tyranny of the majority (I’m still not sold on that one). I’m not sure it’s as indispensable as is sometimes claimed, but I feel like I have a much better grasp on the political theories around the way the US was constructed.

But like I said: this is a long read. He covers a lot of territory and a lot of theorizing. There’s some end notes, but I kept wishing there were more of them (and weren’t as obvious as explaining who people like Napoleon were) to help make some of his insights a little easier to digest. And for what it’s worth, the two essays included at the end of this book are enjoyable reading, too: they’re both accounts of Tocqueville’s travels along the Canadian/US border, plunging deep into the woods. Recommended for political buffs, but it might be overwhelming for casual readers.



Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau

Zazie in the MetroZazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau (translated by Barbara Wright)

Sometimes, I’ll call a book or story cinematic. Normally, I mean it as a way to say the writing is particularly visual, like the words immediately lend themselves to being seen. For example, when I think of Casey Plett’s story “Not Bleak” (review coming soon, I swear!), I can picture the wide-open fields of the Canadian prairies and the small Mennonite community, not to mention Zeke withdrawing into herself as they cross the border.

But here’s something else that seems cinematic, in a different sense of the word. Zazie at the Metro is cinematic in a Buster Keaton sense; it’s essentially the story of a young girl visiting her uncle in the city and wanting to ride the subway. But it goes off the rails in a series of increasingly madcap adventures, witty wordplay and punning, and alcohol. As written, the book practically is a screenplay; small wonder it was made into a film only a short while later.

As noted, it’s about a young kid visiting her uncle. That’s Zazie, visiting Paris to see her uncle Gabriel. She doesn’t like him, or anybody else, and is fixated on riding the Metro. Which is closed up because of a strike. Instead, Zazie starts amusing herself, stealing, lying and running amok through Paris. She – with Gabriel, his friend Charles and a handful of accomplices in tow – get mixed up in police conspiracies, different varieties of kidnapping and a drag nightclub.

It sounds simple enough, right? And it’s a wild story, the kind that gets crazier as it goes on, kind of like one of those old Keaton or Harold Lloyd flicks, where the hero ends up chased through town by thousands of people or climbs a skyscraper with their bare hands. The fun is in the telling, not in the realism.

Which gets me to my favourite thing about this book: the telling. During a life as a public intellectual, Queneau was known as something of a lingual jokester. One of his books is Exercises in Style, where a simple story is told in different forms, over and over, with Queneau parodying everything and anything. This is similar.

Throughout, he writes characters as a collection of clichés and accents, their words running together and slipping into puns. Zazie goes from childlike innocence to asking existential questions in a moment, characters emptily rely with “(gesture)” or “(sigh)”, and Queneau reaches for the wordiest of saying things: “the cameras crepitated,” and tourists talk with “a great berlitzscoulian effort.”

Or, for example, here’s a small taste of Queneau’s prose:

“Gabriel’s admirers had already installed him comfortably and, equipped with adequate apparatuses, were measuring the weight of the light in order to take his portrait with silhouette effect…” (pg 76)

The Penguin Classics edition is nice, coming with a decent introduction by Gilbert Adair, who sets the stage for the book: he sketches out Queneau’s biography, explains the reactions to this little book and draws a comparison between it and French New Wave, particularly to the films of Godard.

The translation by Barbara Wright is good, too. Between all the puns and linguistic wordplay, I imagine the text was a pain to translate. Although I found it a tad British at times – the police arrive in a black maria, for example – I can’t really speak to that being something she added or if it’s more a reflection of a particularly French synonym that defies translation. It certainly makes me want to polish up my abysmal French skills, anyway.

All in all, a wild, silly and highly enjoyable ride. If you’re the kind of person who likes re-reading stuff, there’s plenty of wordplay and such to go back and chew on; if you’re more into reading comic adventures, there’s a lot of that too. It’s probably a tad too clever for some people – I can imagine some saying it strays too far from reality for their tastes – but still, I’d recommend it unreservedly.

Rating: 8/10


Rome at the Brink: The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust

The Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of CatilineThe Jugurthine War and the Conspiracy of Catiline by Sallust
(translated and edited by S.A. Handford)

The last years of the Roman Republic were a pretty wild time. Casear was running his army through Gaul, Pompey was battling out in the East and at home, there was discontent and riots. Two of the most interesting moments care rather early in the late period and were both covered by the same author in two short monographs.

Sallust was a senator and governor in these years. According to legend, he was wildly corrupt and made a killing before being asked to resign, when he retired to a private life of writing histories. Two of these have come down to us: one looks at the short war against Jurgantha, the other examines Cataline’s conspiracy to bring down the government in a coup. I can’t speak to Sallust the politician, but as an author, he’s an interesting one, if one that’s problematic.

Let’s start with the Jugurthine War. Jugurtha was a king in what’s now northern Africa and an ally to Rome, although someone who wanted power, which Rome wasn’t willing to give. He bribed people in the senate to overlook his naked power grabs as he marched up and down the country. He eventually ended up killing Romans and pissing off the republic, who sent an army down to deal with him. Sallust’s timeline isn’t exactly clear, but he generally follows as both Quintus Caecilius Metellus and Gaius Marius ran consecutive campaigns against him.

It’s pitched stuff. Roman armies come close to defeat, but pull out a win at the last moment. Roman leaders corrupt Jugurtha’s confidents, who then stage plots to kidnap and sell their king to Rome. Marius captures a city when a foot solider discovers an overlooked path that leads right around the strongholds. Finally, there’s an all-or-nothing battle where Jugurtha throws it all on the line and loses.

Meanwhile, the Catiline conspiracy is shorter, but even crazier. Catiline was “an ambitious careerist,” as Hardford puts it, who eventually decided he should rule Rome. After losing elections and seeing his enemy Cicero be elected to power, Catiline staged a conspiracy to put together an army and take Rome by force.

It wasn’t really all that crazy. At the time, Roman generals commanded a lot of personal power with their armies, who looked to them for everything from pay to a plot of land when they retired. And at the time, Pompey and his army were out in the far east.

In Sallust’s hands, it plays out like a morality play. Catiline corrupts people with his wealth and attracts all sorts of undesirables. Meanwhile, the upstanding leaders in Rome – Cicero, Cato and Caesar – investigate like detectives, debate appropriate punishments and set up resistance. Coming from a guy who was legendarily corrupt himself, seeing such moralizing is kind of funny. Although again: Sallust is great at setting tension and building a gripping narrative.

Here’s where the trouble comes in: he’s often confusing and misleading in his storytelling. At worst, he’s outright malicious and disingenuous. He places events where they have more dramatic impact, not when they actually happened. He gives people cool dramatic dialogue – “I will check the fire that threatens to consume me by pulling down everything about your ears.” – but provides it at the wrong time (and, according to Cicero, gives us the wrong words, too!).

This is where a good editor like the late S.A. Handford comes in handy: he establishes the misleading errors, provides context and lays out a clear timeline in two introductions and keeps the taut, dramatic narrative intact. Even if Sallust wasn’t an accurate historian, he was still a pretty solid writer, although I’d rank him in a second class behind Livy (Previously reviewed: The Rise of Rome (Books I-V); The War With Hannibal (Books XXI-XXX); Rome and Italy (books VI-X)  or Tacitus (Previously reviewed: The Annals).

Rating: 7/10

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Good Times, Bad Times: The Complete Stories of Dorothy Parker

Complete StoriesComplete Stories by Dorothy Parker

These days, I suppose Dorothy Parker is best remembered for witty verse, blistering one-liners and maybe her work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. But she was also one hell of a writer, particularly in the short story form. In a time where most writers were self-important white men, Parker was a wit and talent who crossed mediums. In a burst of creativity, she wrote drama reviews, light verse and short stories for a succession of magazines (mostly the New Yorker), a lot of them real good.

Which is both the blessing of a book like this. It collects not just the cream of her stories, but everything she published, right down to a handful of early sketches. While it doesn’t touch on her other talents – no reviews, no verse – it allows you to trace her progression as a writer, from her early sketches to her late, darkly humourous stories.

Parker wrote most of these for the New Yorker, so there’s a very 20s New York vibe at work: speakeasies, upscale urbanites, and lots of social cues. People speak of how well they treat their servants, who are lucky to get a day off a month and the remnants of their castoffs; couples go out for a drink and get royally sloshed, all while proclaiming the virtues of staying sober.

A common criticism of Parker is how she must’ve been unhappy or how she descended into a pool of, I dunno, drink and sadness or something. I guess they imagine she lived in a scene straight out of a Lana Del Ray video. I sort of see where they’re coming from – there are a number of depressed people here – but I never got that impression at all.

A good example of this is her story “Lolita,” which is about an unhappy mother, an unexceptional daughter and the rich man who falls for her. The crux is a broken relationship and the mother’s caustic relationship – she professes wishing the best for her daughter, but wants nothing more than to see her relationship fail – but Parker doesn’t write it like a dark, sad tale.

The daughter’s life is blossoming and the mother can’t accept that change. In Parker’s hands, the story is more about refusing to let go and the perils of growing bitter – the juxtaposition of the two great, since we can see how it’s destroying the mother’s life and we know she won’t let it go.

There is a certain sadness at work here, but it’s usually presented in a way that seems strangely modern: missed messages and mixed signals. Parker wrote in a time of rough phone connections and telegrams. People misunderstand a message on a bad connection or pretend they aren’t home – in a manner that echoes a broken relationship. I can’t say with certainly what Parker would’ve thought of Snapchat, Group DMs or subtweeting, but I imagine it would’ve been a lot like what she wrote nearly 90 years ago.

I think more to the point about Parker and her perception is her use of point-of-view. While most of the time she uses an omnipresent third-person, there a few stories where she instead goes into first-person, often with a character she shares a name with: “The Garter,” “The Waltz,” “The Little Hours.”

In these stories, Parker shows the same themes and ideas as her other stories – miscommunication, social cues, etc – and uses them to great effect. In “The Waltz,” Dorothy dances with a klutz who keeps stepping on her feet and can’t get away from a party she doesn’t want to be at – but she doesn’t say no or try to leave in a comedy of manners.

For nitpickers and over-zealous critics, the way these stories are presented makes easy pickings for people to project on her. When she had trouble sleeping, did she really start thinking about La Rouchfoucauld? Who knows? And more importantly, who cares? I think it’s safe to say Parker wasn’t a memoirist. As Regina Barreca notes in her introduction, “when an author’s words are confused with her deeds, they too often act as substitutions for a truly conscientious consideration of her work and life.”

Indeed, a collection like this shows that while Parker’s output slowed over the years – the bulk of these stories come between 1926 and 1933 – the quality remained fairly consistent. Stories like “Song of the Shirt: 1941, ““Lolita” and “The Lovely Leave” are still pretty good.

My Penguin copy has a nice introduction by Barreca, who examines the themes of Parker’s stories, her life and how people often conflate the two, plus a handful of early sketches by Parker that I more or less skimmed through; they’re amusing, but not really essential.

Rating: 8/10. An enjoyable collection of stories and a book I’d recommend for anything who likes short fiction. As an overview of Parker’s work, it’s a little lacking, but Penguin’s The Portable Dorothy Parker does a good job of that.


The Curse of St. Custards: Molesworth – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

MolesworthMolesworth – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, with an introduction by Philip Hensher

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but I’ve never really held an opinion on private schools. I’ve sort of been aware of them, but even when I was younger, they seemed like something for rich kids, something of a British relic. Which is maybe why so many British novels deal with them while Canadian fiction doesn’t.
It ranges from older stuff like The Lord of the Flies and it’s marooned school children to something as recent as the Harry Potter series, which is basically about life at boarding school: trouble with headmasters, living in dorms and everyone clad in a uniform, although it’s all sprinkled with magic.

Recently I came across a copy of Molesworth, a collection of books by Geoffrey Willans, all of them illustrated by Ronald Searle’s cartoons and picked it up on a whim. I was pleasantly surprised: it’s another look at boarding school, but it’s laced with a savage, cynical sense of humour. And Searle’s cartoons – dark and dryly witty – add another element to its cutting humour. It’s great stuff.

Essentially, Molesworth 1, aka student Nigel Molesworth, aka “the goriller of 3b and curse of St. Custard’s,” narrates the books like he’s writing a how-to for students. He’s young, flunks all his classes and can’t spell worth a damn. He’s also irrepressibly clever and sees that class is worthless, the food is appalling and Master Sigismund is actually “the Mad Maths Master.”

His stories take various forms: daydreams, lectures on how to get out of assignments and chance moments in the schoolyard with classmates. They include his younger brother Molesworth 2, his friend “Peason,” and my favourite of all, Fotherington-Thomas ,a guy who skips around saying “Hullo clouds, hullo sky.” I think one of the best moments – and a good example of the kind of humour we’re dealing with – is when Fotherington-Thomas and Molesworth discuss existentialist novels while lazing through a soccer game.

The kind of humour that runs through here is clever satire, dressed up like it’s coming from a kid and it works on a few levels. Although Molesworth can’t spell a damn, he’s up on world leaders, classical composers and literature. Sure, it’s funny when he calls out his Latin teacher on how useless it is in modern society, but even a kid will enjoy seeing a pupil best a teacher.

Granted, some of the jokes are a bit dated. When Molesworth cuts into French class, it’s at the droll texts featuring a kid named Armand who visits the zoo with his father. The reference is lost on me, but Molesworth’s take is still fresh (note: all spelling in context):

“ ‘Thou art a good boy, Armand,’ he sa, ‘this afternoon I will take thee to a zoo.’
Ahha you think is not so dumb as he look he will thro Armand to the lions.
‘Are there any animals in the zoo?’ ask Armand.
‘Oh but yes,’ sa Papa without losing his temper as this feeble question.
‘Houpla houpla I am so hapy.”
Perhaps the lions are not bad enough perhaps it will hav to be the loups… You wonder if it was noel coward who wrote the dialog it is so nervously brilliant my dear how long can it be before Papa do Armand.” (pg 174)

I especially enjoyed Searle’s cartoons. They’re something of a mix of Matt Groening and Ralph Steadman; they’re cynical and chaotic, but composed with a dry, understated wit.

At their best, Searle’s lines can look as dystopian as a nuclear wasteland while the kids smile, slouch and light a cig in the background.

Generally, his illustrations are for what’s happening in the text – the Molesworth brothers setting a giant bear trap for Santa; an unhappy Molesworth 1 trudging across a cricket pitch – but some of the book’s best moments are when Searle draws harsh, hilarious caricatures: an advanced whip, complete with telescopic sight and rangefinder; stuffy, silly-faced adults; the master pleading “you boys think I’m soft, but I’m hard, damned hard.”

This one completely took me by surprise. It’s funny, dark and packed with great cartoons. While it’s a little dated – the schools are still segregated by gender here, for example, and female students are basically ignored until the end – it’s biting humour holds up. Recommended!

(images via: Forbidden Planet, Matou En Peluche)


Two Lives of Charlemagne: Various, translated and edited by Lewis Thorpe

Two Lives of Charlemagne: The Life of Charlemagne; Charlemagne (Penguin Classics)Two Lives of Charlemagne: Various, translated and edited by Lewis Thorpe

After reading a mammoth biography of Nixon and a pulpy detective story, I decided to plunge into something quick, enjoyable and far removed from our times: two ancient biographies of King Charlemagne.

I’m the kind of reader who digs reading ancient history and especially primary sources, but generally my knowledge is limited to ancient Rome and Greece, not to medieval history. So this collection of Charlemagne stories was something of a start point for me. I think it’s a good one for anyone, too.

In a nutshell, Charlemagne was a Frankish king who lived in the eighth century. He didn’t quite found the Carolingian Empire, but he greatly expanded it to include most of modern-day France Germany. In 800, Pope Leo III named Charlemagne emperor at a ceremony in Rome, giving him a formal grip of this vast territory. Ruling such a large area was no mean feat: he employed a large number of public servants to keep things running as he fought battles throughout his kingdom.

Sure, he could command an army, but consider the Carolingian Renaissance, too. As Lewis Thorpe points out in his introduction, Charlemagne was illiterate, but had a healthy respect for learning: his schools, where students copied works of ancient writers, kept many Roman writers from falling into oblivion.

So by anyone’s standards, he was an interesting guy. Which is why the two biographies included here are so interesting. Einhard, an adviser at Charlemagne’s court, wrote the first only a few years after the king’s death. An anonymous monk wrote the second a few decades later. The difference between the two shows how quickly the man’s legend was growing into mythology.

Of the two, Einhard’s is the drier and more formal. Structurally, it’s a lot like Suetonius: a formal biography of an emperor. It lays out the life and the man in a set order, dealing with his actions in one book, then his personal life later on. It’s a dry read, where Charlemagne deals with one war after another, subduing them as he goes. But there are interesting little touches, like how he used to enjoy wearing a jerkin made of sheepskin. Still, these details are key to this book because of what comes next.

The second biography is a lot looser and more colourful. Written either by someone named Notker the Stammerer or The Monk of St. Gaul (who may even be the same person), this book is fast and loose with the facts, but doesn’t let anything get in the way of a good yarn.

If the Charlemagne of the first biography seems like a kingly ruler, a smart tactician on the battlefield and a patron of learning at home, in the second he seems less like a statue and more like a real person. Notker packs his book with anecdotes that might not be completely true, but serve to illustrate a point.

My favourite is when a bunch of nobles show up in their finest clothes while Charlemagne breaks out his old goatskin. After spending a day hunting and a night drinking, they’re ordered to show up in the same clothes the next morning. Of course, their clothes are a mess; Charlemagne can’t resist showing off how clean and comfy his simple goatskin still is.

Here’s another. After short riding cloaks become popular among nobles, he demanded they only wear longer ones, saying:

“ ‘What is the use of these little napkins,’ he asked. ‘I can’t cover myself with them in bed. When I am on horseback I can’t protect myself from the winds and the rain. When I go off to empty my bowels, I catch cold because my backside is frozen.”

Only a few decades after his death and the man is quickly becoming a legend. From here it’s not too far to the anonymous epic The Song of Roland (Back in 2011, I looked at Dorothy Sayers’ translation here), where Charlemagne plays a key role. It’s a little like reading about the legends surrounding Romulus in Plutarch – or even about George Washington and the cherry tree. Note how quickly famous figures pass into legend as their stories spread and shift like a game of broken telephone!

But if Notker is more entertaining, he can also be more frustrating, too. His account is wildly inaccurate, getting names and dates all mixed up. And he intersperses his biography with stories about bishops and monks behaving badly, none of which really have anything to do with Charlemagne.

This is where Thorpe’s great editing comes in. In my edition – originally published in 1969 – Thorpe prepared a lengthy introduction, breaking down the history of the Franks and taking detailed looks at each book. And in the back are nearly 30 pages of notes, plus a large index. In all, that’s nearly half the book! His notes are largely helpful, pointing out inaccuracies and allusions (Notker was a fan of Virgil, it seems) and explaining obscure references: which ancient people inspired which story, for example.

There are some things I wished he’d have included, like translations for the many writers he quotes in other languages, usually en francais but sometimes in Latin. I understand a little French (and almost no Latin) and suspect reading them in Google Translate means I’m missing something. Some more maps – there’s only one, showing the empire as it stood in the mid 8th century, well before Charlemagne was named emperor – would’ve been nice, too.

Side note: Penguin has a newer edition out, translated by David Ganz. I’m not familiar with it, but I should point out that at 160 pages, it’s a slimmer volume than this. The notes are probably a little more up-to-date, however.

But really, those are minor gripes for an interesting read. And for someone like me, who was relatively new to this period, it was a good starting place, focused on a key figure and showing both his importance and influence. I’ve already grabbed a copy of Gregory of Tours History of the Franks, too!

Rating: 8/10


Getting Out of Hand: Barnaby Rudge – Charles Dickens

Barnaby RudgeBarnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

A novel about murder and injustice, intolerance and mayhem, Barnaby Rudge is a solid Dickens novel and maybe one of his most underrated books to boot.

Set in London of the late 18th century, Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge follows a group of characters on both sides of society and law: a cold-hearted aristocrat, a domineering father, a pompous apprentice and a mentally handicapped young man. Oh, there’s also a chirping raven named Grip, but more on him later.

The novel roughly follows the events around the Gordon riots of 1780, which in a nutshell had groups of anti-Papists roaming around London, causing mayhem and breaking into jails to set prisoners free. Largely fuelled by Lord Gordon’s inflammatory rhetoric against a bill proposing relief to Roman Catholics, these riots exposed the deep divide between the two religions in England, a divide going back to Mary Queen of Scots’ claim to the throne a century beforehand. For a few days, crowds overran the city; eventually, the military was called in, killed scores of rioters and eventually hung a number of people.

Dickens novel takes these riots and injects a classic angle: a young man falls for a young lady from a family at odds with his own. A triangle develops when a rough, crude and assholish stableman falls for her as well. And through a web of connecting characters, ranging from several elected officials, an innkeeper, a locksmith and even a hangman, Dickens has this couple (and their at-odds fathers) basically cause a disastrous riot.

And that’s not even getting into the titular character! Barnaby is a simple-minded person (he comes across as someone on the spectrum) who cares little for the long-term and is all about here and now, not to mention his mother. He helps out when he feels like it, but at other times likes to roam around the countryside with his pet raven, Grip. Later, he gets sucked into the anti-Papist movement, motivated by a desire to help his mother out financially. But for the first half of the book, he’s almost the glue between the wide group of characters; he’s someone everyone knows and looks out for.

Episodic in nature, this book defies an easy summarization: it’s not just a love story, and it’s not just about the riots either. It has a larger cast than some of Dickens other novels (see: Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers) and their subplots often feel as important as the main story of the riots.

Indeed, his cast of characters is as memorable as any of his books. There’s innkeeper John Willet’s domineering, almost brutal relationship with his son Joe, who he treats like a bad dog. There’s locksmith Gabriel Varden and his sanctimonious, passive-aggressive wife and her maid. There’s his apprentice Simon Tappertit, who feels he’s destined for great things and puts on airs.

But the one I enjoyed most is Dennis, the hangman. He’s vulgar in a charming, ruffian kind of way. He wears clothing of people he hanged and carries a stick fashioned by a prisoner in their final days. He thinks his job is as important as any in England and enjoys it so much he tries to work in a hanging at any possible opportunity. In one memorable scene, he finds himself fixated on someone’s neck in the way one might expect a plastic surgeon to stare at a nose they’d like to operate on. He plays an interesting role in the novel, at once the reactionary who spreads chaos and comic relief from the tense, fast-paced riot sequences.

And those sequences, which form the bulk of the novel’s back end, are where the book really takes flight. His scenes where the mob storms and razes a house or where they storm the Newgate prison are as good as anything of his I’ve read. They’re almost cinematic, cutting back and forth between scenes in vivid detail and constantly raising the tension as rioters storm the jail, take Varden hostage and set fire to the city.

However, elsewhere the book is occasionally slow. It’s not as concise as Oliver Twist and, like Pickwick Papers, it’s episodic nature gives it a sprawling, almost rambling feel, especially in the final chapters. And with all the characters, there was bound to be a dud or two; Emma Haredale, for example, comes across as little more than a description, not a fleshed-out character like the rest. Hell, Grip seems like more of a person and he’s a raven! Granted, he sings and dances, too.

Still, I couldn’t help but think how we live in a time where the occasional elected official will go on rants about a religious group plotting to overthrow the government and protests in the street turn into incited violence. And in one sense, Barnaby Rudge feels as relevant as anything Dickens wrote: the riots, the intolerance, the easily led people looking for an excuse to wreck havoc. We’d be well to remember our own Lord Gordons are mad, too.

Rating: 6/10. Barnaby Rudge is an enjoyable read, if a little long in the tooth, and easily one of Dickens’ more overlooked novels – although I’d also argue it’s one of his lesser books, too.