Tuesday, July 08, 2008


What I read on my summer vacation

Great books are never what you think they are going to be. In fact, I don't know why I approach previously unread works with any preconceived notions whatsoever, because I always end up tossing these notions over the side very early on, usually by the end of the first several paragraphs. Which is what happened with The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay. From what I'd heard about this book, I was expecting P.G. Wodehouse meets Evelyn Waugh. Of course, what I got was Rose Macaulay. And her comic/tragic novel set primarily in 1950s England and Turkey.

The first half of the novel is a verbose and droll send-up of the Church of England, personified by the narrator's Anglican missionary aunt Dot ffoulkes-Corbett and her traveling companion Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, both intent on converting Turks and visiting sites of Christian antiquity. While deeply embroiled in this main theme, Macaulay also manages to roast the genre of travel writing very nicely, by introducing various other writers both real and fictional, many of whom are busily roaming about while scribbling their "Turkey books."

The second half of the novel (stick with it, through the sometimes dense theological patter of the first half) does an about face and sends our narrator off by camel across the Levant and finally back to England, all the while embroiled in an unsuitable love affair which is almost completely unmentioned in the first half of the book. I won't elaborate on the plot except to say that the denouement is terribly moving, particularly the last two pages. Which took me completely by surprise, considering the largely comic and wittily offhand nature of the prose style. Jan Morris wrote the introduction to the NYRB softcover reprint I have my paws on, and she considers this novel to be Macaulay's finest, as well as her lightly-disguised autobiography, in many key ways. I can see that I'll have to go back and re-read the whole thing sometime, because the ending throws new light on the entire book, particularly on the narrator's own doubts regarding her religion. I'd taken quite a few weeks off from reading much of anything very meaningful, partly on purpose and partly because of sheer intellectual laziness, so I must regard this as my first great book of the summer reading season. What to follow it up with, though, that's the problem.

Keep the blog entries coming. Glad all is well. For summer reading I finished Sinclair Lewis's Babbit, half way through Dodsworth and reading some John O'Hara short stories. (Naturalism fan that I am)

FTY: Landed recently the two volume 1925 Boni Liveright edition of Dreiser's American Tragedy; Up next for reading -mammoth novel that it is.

Sunny and hot in Colorado
Hi Steven, thanks for the note - I am lost in the works of H.M. Tomlinson, read three of his books in the last week and have another two on my bedside table, waiting in the wings. Read one earlier this spring, too. Lots to say about his writing - a combination of naturalism and romanticism - unfortunately no time for a long post this week - soon, though!

I haven't yet faced Dreiser - certain times in life demand some happy endings, and this is one of them. However, someday...

Thanks again - sunny and hot here too, but the ocean cools things down. At the end of the day I go soak my feet off the dock at the harbor. Just a mile down the road. Maine - how I love it.
"...how I love it."

I would too, in a wooden canoe. That has always been my dream, slicing through a crystal glass surface with only the drip of water off my oar as it rises out of the water to by side, broken by an occasional loon, calling his mate from the nearest shady inlet. Have you had the opportunity...in a wooden canoe?

I sent another post right after my last since I was remiss in thanking you for the H.M. Tomlinson note. But for some reason, it did not post to your blog. I had not heard of him so quickly went to Wikipedia and then to my bookshelf to find an old copy of 'A Treasury of Sea Stories' illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Tomlinson is in there with a piece entitle 'The Storm from Gallions Reach. This on your bedside table? The Sea the The Jungle? The Day Before? He was so prolific. I will put him on my to-read list.

The more I read his work, the more I am coming to regard Tomlinson as kind of a British Christopher Morley, and in fact the two writers were friends and correspondents. More on that later. "Gallion's Reach" is indeed one of the books on my bedside table - the story in your collection must be a chapter in that work. I bought "Old Junk" in Boston this spring and promptly read it, then meant to read more Tomlinson immediately but got sidetracked (happens... often...), then last week I finally assembled all the Tomlinson books I found I owned, and opened the first one and couldn't put it down.

I have yet to have the wooden canoe experience - but I've had many quiet moments by the sea, and Maine lakes, some with loons involved.

We're actually looking for some kind of boat, any boat. A canoe isn't great for the ocean unless you really know what you're doing (I don't). But this used boatyard about two miles down the road from home has a wooden boat for sale - a sweet blue sailboat named the 'Sarah' - is that, could it be, my ship coming in??

More on Tomlinson soon - I'm in the thick of it right now.
Great to hear from you! Yes, please keeps the posts coming.

I'm glad to hear you are enjoying Tomlinson. I agree with your linking Tomlinson and Morley and would add C.E. Montague to the group. I came to T and M through Morley's "Ex Libris Carissimis" and the high praise he had for them both. I'm looking forward to reading your post on him.

By the way, I wondered earlier about translations of Don Quixote. This week I checked with a member of the romance languages department at my school and he came out heavily in favor of a 2003 version by Edith Grossman (Harper Collins). So, that's on the list here. [This was inspired by David McCullough's commencement speech at BC in May; I thought it was great. The text is available at www2.bc.edu/~chambers/McCullough.pdf]

Best regards,

I would second the Grossman translation. On the bookshelf but only the first several chapters have been read. Another must read before I die. I also have a nice copy of the Samuel Putnam translation aquired before Grossman's was issued -Also quite good translation from what I have read. Like Cevantes, someone needs to lock me away in a cell so I can be 'well read'.

Gary, glad you are still checking in here! Thanks -

Dan, the first installment of the Tomlinson report is up today - oh, I've been having a fine time reading his books... I know he's a long-time favorite of yours and now I know why. Thank you for the link to the speech, I'll take a look!

Hi again Steven - perhaps you should knock over a bookshop. Just kidding. Larceny will get you nowhere. Do what we all do instead, steal a few hours to read, now and then...
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