Saturday, August 17, 2019

On "Trouble at the Dance Hall" by Donna Baier Stein (2665 words) ***

The center of this story is a fiddler who is struggling to get by--and who also happens to be a black man in a bar full of white people, some kind, some not so. Read the story here at Green Hills Literary Lantern.

On "Gods and the One God" by Robert M. Grant ****

This book sets out to describe the state of religion during the first century insofar as it related to what Christians would have encountered, then goes on to describe how those religions and philosophical thought based in them went on to influence the development of the Christian idea of the trinity.

What's interesting about the book is the way Grant ties in Christianity with an overall movement in philosophical and religious thought that was increasingly sliding toward monotheism. Centuries before Christians came on the scene, philosophers were beginning to describe concepts that emphasized one god (e.g., Zeus) as the father or hierarch over all the other pagan gods. Such reasoning would play an important role in the development of the Christian trinity as Christians tried to explain how God could be one and yet Jesus and the Holy Spirit were also God with the Father.

The through-line unfortunately isn't that clear in what Grant presents to readers, and for a book aiming for general readers, it's still a bit technical at times, something that probably can't be helped given the complexity of trinitarian ideas (e.g., Grant acknowledges a triad existed early on but it wasn't a true trinity, which is a difficult distinguishment). Still, it's an excellent reference.

Monday, August 5, 2019

On "Mrs. Manstey's View" by Edith Wharton (4114 words) ***

What makes this fairly formulaic story so special isn't the plot, which is as drear as one would expect from Edith Wharton, or the characters, who are perhaps a bit less uniquely drawn than usual but the writing style, which is beautiful and the portrait of loneliness in its most egregious form and what little hope one clings to. Manstey is an old lady with nothing to live for but a room with a view. Read the story here.

On "Collected Stories, 1891-1910" by Edith Wharton ****

This collection of writings from the first half of Wharton's writing life runs the gambit of subject matter.

"The Fulness of Life" works off of some fairly banal tropes: A woman at the gates of heaven finds the love she's always wanted, except it means that her husband will have to be alone for eternity because she was his love for all time. Guess what happens?

In "The Lamp of Psyche" a woman in love with her husband discovers that, though able bodied, he did not fight in the Civil War. Why? Her idealistic bubble is burst.

"The Valley of Childish Things" is a series of short vignettes that read almost like jokes. It's a strange piece that I'm not sure adds up to much--but that leave one with lots to ponder.

"The Muse's Tragedy" is about a literary critic who finds the companion of a dead writer he's written extensively about. The companion and he forge a relationship, but as the story proceeds, we move from third person to first and learn the truth of the companion's relationship to the dead writer, which is not, at least as she perceives it, the way that others have perceived it.

"A Journey" is a melodramatic tale about a woman who has to bring her sick, dying husband home but who seems unwilling to let anyone else know he's dead once he kicks the bucket. The piece seemed overwritten to me, like something I'd expect to see in some slick magazine for people looking for "thrilling" writing.

"The Pelican," by contrast, is one of the best Wharton stories I've read. It's a tale about a man's various meetings with a woman over the years, but it's tone is such that it gripped me from start to finish.

"Soul Belated," about divorce and non-remarriage, feels both quite modern and a bit dated, insofar as society standards go. Wharton is a curious figure insofar as her writings about relationships go--her modern sensibility fits in well today, but she was writing in and for a time when views were quite different.

"The Twilight of the God" is a short play and seems out of sort with the stories in the collection. It focuses on the ways in which we idealize relationships of the past to the detriment of those in the present.

"A Cup of Cold Water" is another study in class, which so many of the Wharton stories deal in. Here, as with many of her protagonists, a man has gotten in over his head, taking out a gal whose tastes are far too expensive for his salary, and pays the price.

"The Touchstone" is a novella that touches a bit on class (a man needs money to marry) but even more so it deals with questions of what we owe to the dead and to those who love us, even if we don't love back.

"The Duchess at Prayer" and "The Angel at the Grave" both in their own ways deal with the way that one responds to death and to the legacies that people leave behind, the first a statue of a woman at prayer and the second a man's storied ideas.

Fine art figured large in many works by Edith Wharton, as in "The Recovery," which revolves around a woman who marries a painter whose reputation is such that he is hired to paint for various patrons and even to have a show in Europe. In "The Rembrandt" a woman attempts to sell an "unsigned" Rembrandt--something no museum would be interested in precisely because it lacks the signature. "The Moving Finger" combines with art the macabre, when a man who loses his wife asks that a painting of her be continuously updated so that she ages with him. "Sanctuary" focuses on an architect who is faced with an ethical dilemma.

"The Descent of Man" focuses on the difference between economic considerations and values/science in answer to the question regarding the prostitution of one's writing versus true art.

"The Mission of Jane" is a tale about adoption told from the point of view of the ambivalent (even negative) adoptive father. The story ends with the father finding love within him, as one would expect, but not in the same place where one would usually expect.

"The Other Two" is a fine tale ahead of its time, focusing on a newly married man and his relationship with his divorced wife's two previous husbands. "The Reckoning" continues on that theme, with a woman coming to terms with what it really means to divorce someone after her second marriage ends.

"Expiation" is another piece focusing on writers--this time, on the nature of what makes a particular work popular.

"The Lady's Maid Bell" is a well-put-together ghost story with a ghost that is perhaps a bit more interactive than in most such stories I've read. "The House of the Dead Hand" is another ghost story, but only in its final moments--before then, it is a gothic tale around which the mystery of of a masterpiece makes the piece one that one can't stop reading.

"The Introducers" is a forgettable romance story whose plot is predictable from early on. "The Hermit and the Wild Woman" is another less intriguing story, this one reading like a Catholic fairy tale.

The very fine "The Last Asset" is a kind of psychological horror story, insofar as the main character learns how manipulated he has been when helping a lady with her daughter's wedding. "The Pretext" also works off the idea of love used as an excuse to perform certain actions that are not as genuine as one desires; here, an older, married woman falls for a younger man who also falls for her and who drops a fiance because he can't handle marrying someone else, much to family consternation. Does he love her, or is something else going on?

"The Pot Boiler" returns to the theme of art versus money. Here, an artist is convinced to paint portraits of society ladies for good cash, hence, compromising his artistic vision. Wharton seems to suggest that it's okay for folks without real talent to paint (etc.) for money but that it's a waste for a person with talent, who should live in poverty for art until discovered. I used to have conversations with a roommate on this subject, who viewed folks who wrote pop lit as hopelessly compromised. I wasn't totally convinced then that such a person was sacrificing integrity then, and I'm even less convinced now. After all, why should one's artistic skills only be put to use for the highest ends and not for the everyday? You can do "low-end" stuff and use it to pay for the high end, if that's what you want to do.

"The Best Man" focuses on a similar issue of money versus integrity, this time in politics. A governor has a district attorney few like, a man who had had a scandal a few years before and who the governor hired anyway, at his wife's urging. Now, it has come to light that his wife was paid to urge the governor to hire the man, just as she has again been requested now by another party to help get him fired. The news is about to break. What is the governor to do? Sully his (or rather his wife's) reputation by not firing the D.A. or fire him to avoid the scandal? Or?

"His Father's Son" is about a man living his life through his son, who is doing things he dreamed of doing (moving to the big city and becoming a society man).

In "The Daunt Diana" a man collects artwork, sells it, and re-collects it. "The Debt" focuses on a scientist's assistant who upends all that the scientist has done once he's dead, much to the consternation of the scientist's relatives. What is loyalty? To be true to scientific ends or to be true to someone's legacy? Or is the legacy those scientific ends?

"Full Circle" is a deft exploration of the psychology of guilt, as an author hires another author to write fan letters for him.

"The Legend" is about the cult of authorship, how we often esteem highly what others esteem more than we esteem by any sort of objective criteria (if that's even possible).

"The Eyes" and "Afterward" return to the ghost tale. In the former, a man describes a pair of eyes that look at him at night, mostly when he has run-ins with one family. "Afterward" is about a ghost one doesn't know is a ghost until "afterward."

The long "The Letters" closes the collection, focusing on many of Wharton's themes about love but reminiscent in some ways of the 1944 best-seller Forever Amber in its caustic views.

Wharton stands as a writer at the end of one era and the start of another. Her language is sometimes verbose, but her sensibilities are quite modern. In this sense, I find her fiction a joy to read.