Sir Walter Scott’s “Quentin Durward”

BLOG #35, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #44
SIR WALTER SCOTT’S QUENTIN DURWARD
September 2, 2015

I was still in my childhood when I read my first historical romance. It made such an impression on me that I searched out more. By my mid-teens, historical romances had become an integral part of my yearly batch of must-read books

Early on, I stumbled onto my first Sir Walter Scott novel—I’ve been hooked on Scott ever since. So much so that I have concluded that our 44th book selection must be one of Scott’s historical novels.

Margaret Drabble, in her monumental The Oxford Companion to English Literature, declares that Sir Walter Scott’s (1771 – 1832) “influence as a novelist was incalculable; he established the form of the historical novel, and according to V. S. Pritchett, the form of the short story. He was avidly read and imitated throughout the 19th century, not only by historical novelists such as Ainsworth and Bulwer-Lytton, but also by writers such as Mrs. Gaskell, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters, and many others, who treated rural themes, contemporary peasant life, regional speech, etc., in a matter that owed much to Scott.”

Early on, impressed no little by Goethe’s romantic German poetry, Scott wrote romantic poetry that celebrated his native land of Scotland. His greatest successes being works such as Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Marmion (1808), and Lady of the Lake (1810).

Then he turned to a new genre: historical novels. Of which two centuries of devoted readers have reveled in romances such as Waverly (1814), Guy Mannering (1815), Rob Roy (1817), The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Ivanhoe (1819), Kenilworth (1821), and Quentin Durward (1823).

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I am choosing Quentin Durward first on the assumption that many of our readers will already have read the ever-popular Ivanhoe. There is something about Quentin Durward that so resonated in my mind many years ago that I have been unable to forget it.

The lead characters include Quentin Durward (a young Scottish adventurer, in France searching for action). He more than finds it!
La Balafré (Durward’s maternal uncle).
Isabelle, Countess of Croye.
King Louis XI of France (a Machiavellian pragmatist).
Charles, Duke of Burgundy (hasty and pugnacious).

The time: 1468.
The setting: France and Flanders.

Bear in mind that the action may seem slow at first; but, before long you’ll find it increasingly hard to put the book down. Surprisingly, you’ll discover that Scott’s portrayals of King Louis and Duke Charles seem modern in that their ethical behavior appears almost distressingly contemporary to readers of our time.

Also, it quickly becomes obvious that royal and aristocratic marriages back then had precious little to do with love; in that respect, both women and men were merely dynastic pawns.

Welcome to the anything-but-calm 15th century.

* * *

There are a multitude of editions to choose from, but I heartily recommend a hardback with color plates such as the Dodd, Mead (New York) edition of 1924 which sports 16 color illustrations by Percy Tarrant.

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Robert Barr’s “A Prince of Good Fellows”

BLOG #13, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #39
ROBERT BARR’S A PRINCE OF GOOD FELLOWS
April 1, 2015

For April, here is an easy-read after the monumental War and Peace. It is one of the earliest books I ever bought with my own money; I purchased it in 1953. It had everything my boyish mind reveled in back then: history, royalty, intrigue, danger, romance, and a likable protagonist, James V, King of Scotland.

Back then, I knew nothing about the author. Several days ago, browsing in my library for our 39th book selection, I spied the battered, stained, and discolored copy of my old friend, picked it up, and decided to re-read it to see if it would still have its initial hold on me.

It did—and it didn’t. What was different was that I now had over half a century of historical and literary research behind me, including bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, a masters in English, and a doctorate in English (History of Ideas concentration). Back then, I read it for the adventure and romance of it; now, I read it with the critical eye of a scholar. In other words, even though I knew it was fiction, I now wondered if it was fiction based on fact (back in the fifties I didn’t care the proverbial “two hoots” whether the book was accurate historically or not—I was just looking for a good read). But now, that wasn’t enough.

Now, remembering how I was captivated by the concluding romance back then, I discovered that I still was, but now I wanted to know if that was accurate. I almost wished I hadn’t checked, for though the book still appears to be historically accurate, there wasn’t to be a happily-ever-after scenario for the king and his bride.

I’d long ago discovered in my historical research that there was precious little real romance in royal marriages down through the centuries. Marriages took place for dynastic reasons and the principals had precious little to say about it. If they wanted romantic love, society would wink at their many extra-marital escapades. In fact, James V was the only legitimate child his father ever had. Note Charles and Diana’s disastrous marriage. In fact, it was said that Charles was the only man in the world not in love with Diana. Instead, he found love with Camilla, another man’s wife. In the case of William, Kate represents one of the very few cases in British history of a future monarch being permitted to select his own mate.

Now, in my research, I discovered that James V’s bride died during the first year after marriage; he remarried—and out of that union came one of history’s saddest heroines: the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, doomed to die at the hands of Elizabeth I, her cousin.

But having said all this, I’m still glad I prowled around in actual history after having re-read this book, because now that I’ve authenticated the core story, I’m more fascinated than ever with James V; his nemesis, that rascal Henry VIII of England; and so many other fascinating real-life characters.

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Now for the author, a most fascinating real-life figure himself. Robert Barr (1849-1912) was born in Glasgow, Scotland. When only four years of age, he emigrated to Canada with his parents. After being educated in Toronto, in 1881 Barr decided to relocate to London, then the most exciting and powerful city in the world. He would go on to become an educator, journalist, editor, publisher, and novelist. By the 1890s, he was publishing a book a year (mostly novels, short story collections as well), and was close friends with literary luminaries such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, Bret Harte, and Stephen Crane. Barr was especially prolific in writing historical romances and books about crime.

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He was a real craftsman with words. According to his close friend Jerome K. Jerome, Barr will “often spend an entire morning constructing a single sentence. . . . If he writes a four-thousand-word story in a month, he feels he has earned a holiday.”

* * *

Now that I’ve learned all this about Barr, I’m intrigued enough to track down more of his books and read them. I’ll be interested in your reactions.

Look for copies on the web: A Prince of Good Fellows (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co., 1902).

MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN – PART 3 -TAYLOR’S 2011 REWARD

BLOG #43, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
MAKING MEMORIES WITH GRANDCHILDREN
PART THREE
TAYLOR’S 2011 REWARD

October 22, 2014

At the front of Taylor’s journal, I had written in:

“The world is a great book—
and those who do not travel
have read only one page.”
—St. Augustine

In a way, Taylor’s cruise was a trial-run for Seth’s three years later, for Taylor’s re-introduced us to the minds, habits, and speech of a thirteen-year-old. I’d forgotten, for instance, how short a time instructions remain in their mental silos, and how constantly those instructions have to be reinforced. For I should have remembered from Charles Schultz’s immortal Charlie Brown movies how adult talk is received in their minds as so much “wah wah wah.” I mistakenly assumed that once I had thoroughly planted in Taylor’s mind the necessity of writing in his journal each day, he’d faithfully remember. Hardeeharharhar! Three years later, when I scrutinized his journal for the first time, I ruefully discovered that he quit after only five days! Even though I reminded him to write in it several times during the cruise. Of course, when even college freshmen have to be constantly reminded of such things, it was stupid of me to assume thirteen-year-olds would be any different…. Only belatedly did we realize we had taken so many photos of places we visited that we failed to realize how few of them featured Taylor himself!

_MG_0120  Visiting one of Gaudi’s Architectural Wonders  in Barcelona.

 

* * * * *

Finally, the big day arrived. By mastering the geography of the world, during the twelfth year of his life, Taylor had earned his personal dream Mediterranean cruise. But for us, the proverbial moment of truth had arrived. Connie and I now had a duly signed and witnessed power of attorney to be solely responsible for Taylor’s life during the two weeks he was with us. Such a responsibility is more than a little daunting. Much more so than having one’s grandson with us in the United States where most people speak English. For should he get lost in a foreign country, where the native language is not English, in great cities, often teeming with millions of people, and streets and byways our grandson has never seen before—what would we do? More frustrating yet, what would he do? What if some unscrupulous person should lure him away—and we’d never see him again? How could we ever have faced his parents with this perceived dereliction of our duty?

Since our son Greg, an advertising copywriter from Fort Lauderdale, would be with us, and would, from time to time, have Taylor alone with him, what if he’d be lost then?

That this is no light problem, let me share with you one of the scariest moments of the entire trip that took place at Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia. Millions of people live in Barcelona, and over 25,000,000 people from all over the world come here each year to see this almost mythical church [it’s not an operational cathedral] over a century in the making. It takes hours just to get inside its gates. Well, while inside, Greg and Taylor went shutterbugging in a different direction than Connie and I did. When I circled back and found Greg, Taylor was nowhere to be seen! Had this been San Francisco, Dallas or New York, I wouldn’t have been nearly as apprehensive. Initially, I assumed I’d find him quickly; when I failed to do so, each additional minute—each seeming like years!—that passed, my stress level skyrocketed. Here, there, inside the teeming edifice, I raced, then outside, but inside the gates, and everywhere masses of people—and no Taylor. I think I must have aged years during the mere minutes it took to find him, nonchalantly taking pictures. Oh the unutterable relief! And, at this juncture, the trip had not even started yet!

At the Monastery at Montserrat.  _MG_0358

Later on, I thought of the parallel in Holy Writ, when twelve-year-old Jesus was lost in the great metropolis of Jerusalem—and his frantic parents searched three interminable days before finding him.

With that preamble, let me back up a couple of days.

ALMOST MISSING OUR PLANE

Up until this day of departure, we’d kept Greg’s joining us on the cruise a secret. Taylor had not even an inkling that his beloved uncle would be sharing the two weeks with us.

On July 27, we were scheduled to pick up Taylor in Annapolis, fly out of Baltimore to Philadelphia, where we’d change airlines and meet Greg at the gate of departure. That was the schedule; the reality proved far different! The reality was that not one, but two Baltimore to Philadelphia planes proved defective, thus placing our connecting flight to Spain in jeopardy.

We, along with some other travelers in a similar plight, were rushed to our already checked-in luggage, then rushed to a waiting van, then a veritable Jehu of a driver risked traffic tickets by racing down the freeway to the Philadelphia airport. Surreptitiously, Connie texted Greg so that he and the gate attendants could keep track of our whereabouts and likely (if no traffic slowdown) projected time of arrival. With bare minutes to spare, we reached the vast Philadelphia terminal and were propelled post-haste through security. We just made it! And the look of disbelief on Taylor’s face when he saw his Uncle Greg waiting for us in line was absolutely priceless! Worth every minute, week, and month of subterfuge it took to pull it off.

We were next crammed into an oversized US Air jet like so many tightly-packed sardines. Very little sleep for any of us during the long trans-Atlantic flight.

On July 28, we arrived in Barcelona, checked in at the Regina Hotel and, because we could not get in our rooms until afternoon, we took our pre-arranged bus trip to the mountaintop monastery of Montserrat. Believe me, when we returned from this jaunt, we found something to eat and we went to bed early, trying to catch up on the missing night’s sleep plus the missing eight hours on the clock.

Following is our itinerary:

July 30 – We board Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas and sail out to sea.
July 31 – Nice, French Riviera, Monaco
August 1 – Livorno, Pisa, Florence
August 2 – Citaveccia and Rome
August 3 – Salerno, Pompeii, Amalfi Coast
August 4 – At Sea
August 5 , 6 – Venice
August 7 – Split (Croatia)
August 8 – Dubrovnik
August 9, 10 – At Sea
August 11 – We dock at Barcelona
August 12 – We board our plane and arrive in Philadelphia in the afternoon.

* * * * *

It is fascinating to see the world (in his journal entries) from the eyes of a thirteen-year-old!

July 30 – “We were caught in a huge storm. It thundered, hailed, and blew a couple of chairs off the boat. That was real cooooool! Then one of the staff let us inside or made us go inside.”

July 31 – “This morning we arrived at Nice. It was cool. We had to get up early though. Dang! We have to get up even earlier tomorrow. When we got to Nice we had to take a tender to shore. It was pretty cool but we didn’t sit up top which would have been even cooler.

“Our tour guide took us to a place called Eze! It was really cool, there was an amazing view and there was this castle, church, or whatever. I think it also could of been a house and a hotel. Maybe all of the above.

August 1 – “Today, we arrived at Florence. We went to Pisa and got a few pictures but the thing that sticks out the most was our guides. Especially Dilleetta! Aghaa! She didn’t tell us anything and she wouldn’t shut up. She would be like the sky is light blue which is a light blue but it isn’t quite blue, it’s kinda light or white but not quite. It’s a blue or a medium blue with white. But it’s not a dark blue white. Then it would be too dark blue. When we first got to Florence she took us to a leather shop for an HOUR. She said it was free time. G R R R R! . . . . We eventually go to Pisa and did all that and having Poppy running away.”

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 Visiting the Colosseum in Rome

My face is still red from that Pisa experience. I had drummed this message [to stay together at all times—and never to separate one’self from the group] again and again into everyone’s head—except, obviously, my own. At Pisa, inexcusably, I wandered off, taking pictures. Some time later, when they were getting extremely apprehensive—had I experienced a heart attack or stroke? —, we found each other. Boy, did I ever get a verbal thrashing! Taylor will probably chortle about the difference between Poppy’s talk and Poppy’s walk until the day he dies!

* * *

A little while after we returned, I asked Taylor if the cruise had made any difference in his life.
A far-away look came into his eyes, then he said, “The world seems so much bigger now.”

His parents tell us, “Ever since his cruise, it’s clear Taylor has been badly bitten by the travel bug.”

In retrospect, when asked to come up with his ten favorite places or experiences, in order of preference, this is what he wrote:

1. The Amalfi Coast [he was overwhelmed by the corkscrew road leading down through mist to the incredibly deep blue sea below].
2. Venice.
3. Monaco [he especially reveled in seeing the exotic Lamborghinis, Bugattis, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, etc.].
4. Eze. [An ancient hilltop village in France].
5. Strawberry virgin daiquiris [his favorite pool-side liquid extravagance].
6. Soft-serve ice -cream machine [no small thanks to near constant visits to it, he gained over five pounds during the cruise].
7. La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
8. Food! All the different food at all the different stops.
9. The storm [as we were leaving Barcelona and heading out to sea, a terrific Mediterranean storm blew out of nowhere, blowing deck chairs, people, and everything not nailed down, hither and thither. Taylor enjoyed most the sheer violence of it; got out in the open so he could take the full brunt of it. The authorities were not amused; they unceremoniously pushed him back under cover].
10. Dubrovnik

Next week, we’ll break from Grandparenting in order to get to Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month October selection. We’ll get back to Seth’s 2014 story on November 5.

Photos by Greg Wheeler.

What Was the World Like 100 Years Ago?

BLOG #36, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
WHAT WAS THE WORLD LIKE
100 YEARS AGO?

September 3, 2014

In a nutshell, it was a different world from the one we live in today. In many ways, changed very little from what it had been for more than a millennium. As 1914 approached, so many things seemed to be going right for the nobility, princes and princesses, kings and queens and emperors.

Ever since Darwin, there had been the perception that the world was rapidly becoming a better place. According to evolutionary theory, it was assumed we could expect global peace in the future. As Emile Coeu famously put it, “Every day, in every way, I’m becoming better and better.” It was then easy to believe in the goodness of God: God would no longer permit mankind to do terrible things to each other.

Back then, England ruled the world, thus, ruling over one quarter of the globe, it was said, “The sun never sets over the British Empire.” At the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, her sway extended over half of North America, slices of Central and South America, a vast part of Africa, a whole continent in Australia, some of the richest lands in Asia (including India), plus other island possessions spread clear across the globe. It was the British sea-power that enabled it to rule over the ocean, and Britain’s merchant fleet that made Britain the greatest of all trading nations.

On the European continent, the Hohenzollern Kaisers had gradually forged such a powerful military power that the German army was perceived as being almost invincible. And now, vain, impulsive Kaiser Wilhelm II worshiped the art of war. A huge naval shipbuilding program had begun in order to challenge Britain’s supremacy over the seas.

France had mostly recovered from its 1870 defeat at the hands of Germany. France now had a world-wide empire, second in size only to the British.

East was the vast land called Russia, composed of one-eighth of the land mass of the world. A proud and imperialistic nation ruled by the Romanoff czars, now Nicholas II. Nicholas, a narrow-minded aristocrat who wholeheartedly believed in the divine right of kings and was totally oblivious to the plight of his people, was incapable of handling the forces sweeping across the steppes of the empire. Politically inept, he was dependent on his strong-willed czarina, Alexandra, who was herself manipulated by the Svengalian mystic, Rasputin.

Dominating Central Europe was the far-flung Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled by its beloved emperor, Franz Joseph, last of the great Hapsburg monarchs. The empire shouldn’t even have existed, yet somehow did, composed as it was of 12,000,000 Germans, 10,000,000 Magyars [Hungarians], 6,000,000 Czechs, 5,000,000 Poles, 4,000,000 Ukrainians, 3,700,000 Serbs and Croats, 3,300,000 Rumanians, 2,500,000 Slovaks, 1,300,000 Slovenes, and 800,000 Italians. But all those diverse peoples remained a unit mainly because of the respect they had for the emperor. In reality, it was just one big powder keg waiting to explode. And Franz Joseph was old.

Then there was the increasingly formidable Japanese Empire. To the north, Japan annexed the Kuriles; to the south and east, the Ryukyus, the Bonins, the Volcanoes, and Marcus Island. After its victorious war against China in 1894-95, the Japanese annexed Taiwan and the Pescadores; and Korea became a vassal. In 1904, Japan had an epic showdown with Russia, and won. Nicholas II never recovered from that ignominious disaster. So now, Japan was spoiling for a fight in order to acquire even more territory.

Thus the western world was ruled from five great cities: London, Berlin, Moscow, Vienna, and Paris. Most all the European royal houses had intermarried to the extent that they were all cousins.

It is fascinating to read eighteenth and nineteenth century fiction. The protagonists, the heroes and heroines of that age were invariably royal, among the nobility, or aristocratic. In America, it seemed every girl yearned to marry a prince, duke, earl, count, or lord. And many did just that. Reason being that the European aristocracy and nobility, due to their frivolous and lavish lifestyles, were almost always in debt: desperately needing money. Since there were plenty of rich Americans who had lots of money, and would gladly pawn off their daughters to the highest bidder, Americans bought their way into European high society. That most of those marriages had nothing to do with love, yoking title to money, more often than not, they proved disastrous.

It would not be until the end of World War I, and the resulting doom of royal supremacy, that fictional heroes and heroines shifted away in the direction of media, entertainers, and sports protagonists, such as we see today.

The tragedy of 1914 was that, in reality, no one deep down really wanted war. Times were good. Sidewalk cafes were full. Monarchies were becoming ever more democratic, the middle class was increasingly prosperous, education was becoming more and more accessible to all, European tours were something more and more people wanted to take. In most cases the populace would rather have the ruler they had (the devil they knew) than the ruler they didn’t know (the devil they didn’t know).

Then came June 28, 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, in Sarajevo, Serbia, on a state visit, was assassinated.

And the world exploded into war . . . and has never been the same since.

References: The Five Worlds of Our Lives (New York: Newsweek, Inc., 1961).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The White Company

BLOG #18, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE’S THE WHITE COMPANY
April 30, 2014

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For our May selection, I am reaching back to a book I reveled in as a boy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company (originally published in 1890). Before selecting it as our 29th Book of the Month, somewhat apprehensively, I re-read it to see if it still had the magic and romance it had for me as an adolescent and teenager. Not to worry–it was just as gripping now as it had been back then.

Why was I apprehensive? Because of the recent Sherlock Holmes movies that portray him and his constant sidekick Dr. Watson as violent, sex-addicted, spiritualistic, and into drugs. And that was not how I remembered him in The White Company. Nor was it, generally speaking, in the original Sherlock Holmes stories. True, the spiritualistic and drug elements are in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but they were understated. Indeed, The White Company doesn’t even contain foreshadowing that Doyle would desert the audience that made him wealthy in the first place.

But it is comforting to be reassured that The White Company is all I remembered it to be when I was young. The ultimate books to me are the ones you re-read, each time with enjoyment almost as great as the time you first read them. Here is my February 28, 2014 reaction: What a story! What a prodigious work of research and scholarship it took to bring back the wild, bloody, yet glorious Fourteenth Century, the heyday of the archers and the beginning of the long decline of armored knights. Doyle brings all of them to vibrant life. You feel you are in that century, on the eve of England’s losing France. Young people have always loved the book. More mainstream than later spiritualistic druggy Doyle. A tremendous read!

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Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) was born into a prominent Irish Catholic family (son of the artist Charles Doyle). Doyle was educated in Stoneyhurst, in Germany, then returned to earn his medical degree at Edinburgh University. He then practiced as a physician from 1882 – 1890. But after trying his hand at writing historical fiction, he concluded that writing was more remunerative than medicine. Three of his most popular novels turned out to be Micah Clarke (1889), The White Company (1890), and Sir Nigel (1906).

When Britain was drawn into the fiercely fought and bloody Boer War (1899-1902), Doyle volunteered as a senior field physician. In 1902, he was knighted for his wartime contributions. It was while he was in Africa that Doyle wrote his semi-utopia, The Lost World (1912), for which he created a new character, Professor Challenger, who also starred in the sequel, The Poison Belt (2013). Doyle also created a Napoleonic Wars hero, Brigadier Girard.

But it was the creation of the subtle hawk-eyed amateur detective Sherlock Holmes that catapulted Doyle to world-wide fame. His stolid roommate, both friend and foil, Dr. Watson cemented them as a team. The Strand (one of the era’s finest magazines) carried almost all of their crime-solving adventures.

James D. Hart, author of The Popular Book (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1963), a reprint of the original book by Oxford University Press in 1950), had this to say about the pair’s international success:Scan_Pic0092

“Doyle arrived in America for a lecture tour in 1894, “four years after A Study in Scarlet, the first of his detective stories, appeared in this country. His popularity grew through three editions of this book, The Sign of the Four, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had begun as a conventional historical romancer, but later he applied the techniques of the romance to a new type of fiction. The American public came to know him only as the creator of two characters permanently enshrined in this nation’s literary mythology–Sherlock Holmes the master detective and his friend Watson, who could grasp only the most elementary clue… He created simple, clear characters whose personalities remained constant but whose thrilling adventures were ever changing–ingredients typical of the romance, which emphasizes the excitements of plot involving characters clearly representative of good and evil”, (p. 198).

It shouldn’t be difficult for you to pick up an unabridged copy of The White Company, but I urge you to secure, if at all possible, the Cosmopolitan Book Corporation’s 1922 edition, with its magnificent N. C. Wyeth color illustrations. Prepare for a timeless great read, one that all generations will revel in.

Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”

BLOG #39, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #23
VICTOR HUGO’S LES MISERABLES
September 25, 2013

Last month, I let you relax, walk the beach, and regenerate your batteries. But now autumn is here, school is in session, and it’s time to lower the boom on you! It’s time for one of the world’s greatest heavyweights. Heavyweights indeed: depending on a number of variables, an unabridged copy comes to somewhere between 1400 and 2000 pages.

But remember this: Don’t ever waste your time reading an abridged copy of any book worth reading! I always wonder when I look at an abridged book, How can any human being have the gall to conclude that s/he knows more about what is important in a book than the person who wrote it?

So I expect you to read every word in the unabridged version. But I am not a Simon Legree: Because I want you to take the time to really savor the book, I am permitting you to take two months to complete it. There won’t be another Book of the Month until December. First of all, purchase an unabridged you can mark up, reason being Les Miserables is one of the most quotable books ever written. An additional word of warning: In recent years more and more publishers have committed what I call a crime: publishing abridged versions of classic books without indicating inside the book that it is incomplete. So, do your homework in this respect.

* * *

Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885), French poet, novelist, dramatist, and leader of the Romantic Movement in France, lived life on the grand scale. Since his father was a Bonaparte general, Hugo’s early years were lived in luxury; but then came the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, and life got much harder. Suffice it to say that he is generally considered to be one of the towering figures in world literature.

Since it would take years to fully digest all that Hugo accomplished, I won’t even try, leaving such a fascinating journey to you. Most of the growth in my own life has resulted from just such side trips of discovery as I am suggesting to you now.

If you only tackle a few of Hugo’s books, I suggest you seriously consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Toilers of the Sea.

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Hugo spent fourteen years laboring on this monstrous book. I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the novel on your own, so I certainly won’t spoil your reading pleasure by giving away the plot of what is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. I might even go out on a limb by admitting I have yet to read a more powerful or deeply moving book than this. When I completed it for the first time, I wrote down this summation: I am numb. It is a book to go back to again and again, for it is inexhaustible and it is suspenseful—a great read!

I think the best summation of its power was penned by the English scholar and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne:

Les Miserables is the greatest epic and dramatic work of fiction ever created or conceived. The epic of a soul transfigured and redeemed, purified by heroism and glorified through suffering; the tragedy and comedy of life at its darkest and its brightest, of humanity at its best and at its worst.

Vincent Hopper and Bernard Grabanier, in their two-volume Guide to World Literature (Barron’s Educational Series, 1952), declared that Les Miserables “is one of the most moving appeals ever made in the history of literature to our common humanity; only a great soul could have written it.” They also point out that it is more a collection of novels than just a novel.

Don’t be tempted to lose interest when Hugo appears to have forgotten what he was writing about, and wanders off in what will seem to be a totally irrelevant direction. Those side trips will all prove their relevance later on; and if you failed to carefully read them, I guarantee you will end up failing to internally capture the power of the novel! Indeed, those side-trips have developed world-wide fame on their own—especially the passages depicting the Battle of Waterloo, the sewers of Paris, the flight of Jean Valjean, the portrait of the Bishop, the drama of the candlesticks, and the description of the Benedictine monastery. Indeed, the book might aptly be likened to a vast mosaic or puzzle: as you read along you will keep slotting in images, many seeming not to fit in anywhere, but by the moving conclusions, all the pieces will finally be placed—and you’re left with the completed masterpiece. Interestingly enough, John Steinbeck, much later on, borrowed from Hugo in his own sidetrips in The Grapes of Wrath.

Welcome to one of the world’s greatest books. I look forward to hearing back from you after you return from Victor Hugo’s world, from experiencing first-hand the French Revolution.

FAIR PLAY – AND THE TOUR DE FRANCE PELOTON – PART TWO

    BLOG #30, SERIES #3
    WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
    FAIR PLAY
    AND THE TOUR DE FRANCE PELOTON
    PART TWO
    July 25, 2012

It is over for another year: the 99th to be exact (with so many crashes, only 153 of 198 made it to Paris).  And Connie and I are vicariously drained by the intensity of it.  Thanks to the continuing miracle of television we’re able to have ringside seats for the entire three weeks, and, in this year’s case, 2,500 some miles (the distance varies each year, depending on the route chosen; no two routes being the same).  Equivalent to racing bikes across the entire continental United States at full speed.  No wonder it is today ranked as the #1 yearly race in the world!

Fair play – that is the real subject of these two blogs.  Without this essential aspect of sport – or competition in general –, the event is a travesty, victories meaningless, and are not worth the time it takes to watch them.  Indeed, the subject of fair play represents the very core of my upcoming book with e-Christian Books: Showdown and Other Memorable Sport Stories for Boys.

Sadly, fair play is not as central to American sports as it used to be in generations past.  Instead, winning at any cost – even if it means maiming or incapacitating for life a member of an opposing team [think New Orleans Saints bounty scandal] more often than not appears to be in the ascendancy.

Needless to say, millions from all around the world watch each year’s Tour de France to see if race officials are still doing their best to maintain a level playing field.  Perhaps the most telling moment was when Peter Sagan, the electric new addition to the race from Slovakia, was sprinting for a stage win and the biker just ahead of him – I believe it was Goss – swerved just enough to block Sagan’s forward progress, race leaders penalized Goss by 30 points.

But the most telling moment (in terms of character) occurred during that horrendous day when some despicable person seeded a mountain road with tacks, causing some 43 riders to pull off with flat tires.  The defending champion (Cadel Evans of Australia) was sidelined by tacks three times!  At that time, Bradley Wiggins of the UK held a slight lead over Evans, so all he had to do was proceed at the same speed as before and then his main rival for glory in Paris would be conveniently eliminated.  But Wiggins would have nothing to do with profiting by his rival’s misfortune: in consultation with other team leaders he slowed down the pace of the entire peloton long enough for Evans and other bikers with flat tires to change bikes and catch up with the peloton.  It was a seminal moment.  The only comparable one being when Lance Armstrong’s arch rival, Jan Uhlrich of Germany, descending too fast on a mountain stage, careened off the road, Armstrong almost skidded to a stop in order to help Uhlrich get back up to the road and on his bike.  Never shall I forget the sight of Uhlrich (during the final laps of the Tour on the Champs Elysee in Paris) reaching out his hand to grasp that of the victor, Armstrong, in tribute to that incredibly generous act of graciousness.

But back to this year’s Tour: I couldn’t help but notice that, after the Evans incident, everyone (players and media alike) began treating Wiggins with deeper respect and admiration.  By that one act, Wiggins had achieved towering moral stature in the eyes of his fellow cyclists.  Other defining moments followed: ordinarily, when a given cyclist establishes dominance time-wise over his rivals in a race [and Wiggins dramatically proved twice that he was the race’s best time trialist by far] – especially if he leads a strong team –, he becomes boss of the Tour from there on, brooking no threats to his rule.  All breakaway riders are to be unceremoniously pulled back to the peloton by the end of each stage.  Armstrong was just such a clearly-in-control leader.  Wiggins, on the other hand, didn’t appear to feel his need to constantly remind his fellow riders who was boss.  If the breakaway riders were no threat to the final standings in Paris, he’d sometimes just let them have their moment of glory.  Even more significant, however, was a decision Wiggins made before the peloton entered Paris on the last day.  Ordinarily, the first of seven laps in Paris represents a supreme moment when the new king of the Tour flaunts his Yellow Jersey and team by grandly riding at the very front for the entire lap.  But not this year: George Hincapie (not a member of Wiggins’ Sky team), a veteran of 17 Tours, savoring the last one of his career on the Champs Elysee, was chosen by Wiggins to lead out.  Not only that, but on the very last lap, instead of merely basking in his own glory at the front of the peloton as is the norm with Yellow Jersey winners in Paris, Wiggins speeeded up so as to give his teammate, Mark Cavendish (“the fastest man on wheels”) a leg up in winning the sprint to the finish, thus becoming the stage winner.

For I have noticed in this all-too-short journey we call life, it is the “little” things we do or do not do that end up defining us for our contemporaries and for posterity.  In this particular instance, who knows what the impact for good, for instilling in the young a deeper sense of fair play and selflessness, of this one man’s choices, may turn out to be.

                                                                              BLOG #29, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
FAIR PLAY
AND THE TOUR DE FRANCE PELOTON
PART ONE
July 18, 2012

Every year at this time the Tour de France dominates our lives.  Not that we are unique in this respect, for in France over 15,000,000 people line 2,100 miles of roads, mainly in France but also in Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain; and then there are the millions who watch it on television around the world.  Without question it is the greatest bicycle race on earth.

But keeping it so is anything but an easy task given that riders from every bicycle-loving-nation on earth try to make it into the ranks of one of the competing teams.  Together, all these fiercely competing teams make up what they call the peloton.  Each year my wife and I become more fascinated by this strange animal with its core engine of riders and its constant breakaway of riders determined to find fame outside the riders who are content with whatever glory comes to their individual teams.

Because so much is riding on winning something—be it being first to crest a hill, first to race across a finish line during a day’s stage (if not first, at least second or third), and most desirable of all: first to cross the line in Paris as the winner of the Yellow Jersey (or second or third)—there is almost unbelievable pressure on race officials to keep a lid on things, on the testosterone-driven 180-some riders who each harbors an agenda.

And then there are the inevitable crashes.  In this year’s Tour, far more than normal.  When the peloton is in motion with all those cyclists weaving in and out, moving forward and dropping back, all in the confines of narrow roads, crashes occur without a moment’s notice.  When they do, given their speed (20 to almost 60 mph), and paved road surface, the injuries are often bloody and serious, resulting in continual reductions of riders in the peloton.

With the peloton is a host of race officials, team leaders, media personnel (complete with helicopters overhead), and general support personnel, all further clogging up roads bordered by spectators.  It is a veritable zoo.

Each year’s peloton is a world unto itself, a miniature republic.  The ruler of that peloton is forced to prove his right to wear the coveted Yellow Jersey.  The winners early on are a different breed from the kings of the sport who lie low until the mountains.  Thus the winners of the relatively flat stages know that their reigns are likely to be brief.  The entire peloton knows this thus the early day-to-day winners have little power over their unruly cyclists.  But cyclists feverishly compete for momentary glory anyway, even knowing how ephemeral it is likely to be.

Always in the back of their minds are the dreaded time trials.  Dreaded because in them there is no longer any possibility that they can hide their true abilities from the peloton or the world, for each rider’s race time is individual.  At every stage of the time trials, speed so far will be measured against all the other finishers.  Almost inevitably, the leading time trialists will also excel in the mountains and fight it out for the podium in Paris.

And then there loom the mountains, with their serpentine roads and grades up to 20% on which the true separation between the titans and the lesser-mortals is graphically made evident.  But no matter how powerful a cyclist may be, unless he has an equally powerful team supporting him, his winning chances are nil.  Here it is that the smoothly operating phalanxes of superb and tireless mountain men come into their own, each man giving his physical all at leading out at the head of the peleton, with the others getting to coast behind in his slipstream.  Inevitably, however, the time will come when the future king of the race is forced to leave the slipstream and race for the top with the other would-be-kings.  These moments literally define each year’s Tour, and can be tremendously exciting to watch.

Now it is that the entire focus of the Tour is on these gladiators: who is it that has the greatness and staying power to dominate the mountains and rule over the rest of the race?  Sometimes the outcome remains in doubt until the very last day.  But then, be the margin between the leader and the closest competitor ten minutes or ten seconds, during the triumphal ride to Paris it is an unspoken rule that it would be unsportsmanlike to challenge the Yellow Jersey for supremacy in Paris.  Yet, even then a crash or accident of some sort could dethrone the ruler as could his failure to keep up with the peloton.

* * *

Next week, after the last week of this year’s tour, we’ll discuss more in depth the issue of what it takes to maintain a level playing field for all, as well as what real power may reside in those who wear the yellow jersey during the last half of each year’s Tour.

WILLIAMSONS AND TRAVEL

 

WILLIAMSONS AND TRAVEL

For Oct. 19, 2011

As we begin to pack our suitcases for our auto-trip through our Southwestern national park lodges, I thought this would be the perfect time to see if I couldn’t siphon some money out of your pockets.  After all, that’s what’s been happening to me ever since the first time I stumbled on a Williamson book many years ago.

Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to travel when the automobile was new?  When there were no transcontinental highways (how about hardly any paved roads at all!), motels, service stations, AAA, repair garages, etc.?  Not to mention automobiles that broke down so often that only the foolish traveled without a chauffeur, mechanic, and ample supply of spare parts and tires.

Well, imagine no more.  Back in 1902, an adventuresome British husband and wife writing team, C.M. and A.M. Williamson, partnered with Doubleday Page to produce one of the most fascinating and informative series of travel novels ever written.  Before they could write such a book, however, the fearless couple had to themselves explore a given travel route.  In the process, they devoured local travel lore, legends, history, historical romances—all kinds of fascinating side trips.  Then they incorporated all the usual mechanical breakdowns, and stirred in enough romance to keep the reader up half the night turning pages.  In short, there has never been another series like theirs!  There could not be, for the age vanished almost as quickly as it began.

Following are the books I have been able to find (first editions when possible):

  •   The Princess Passes                                (1903-4)                         Early automobile
  • The Lightning Conductor                        (1903, 1905)                 Early automobile
  • My Friend the Chauffeur                         (1905)                              Early automobile
  • Lady Betty Across the Water                 (1906)                         General early travel
  • Rosemary in Search of a Father            (1906 – 1907)            General early travel
  • The Princess Virginia                               (1907)                         General early travel
  • The Chaperon                                              (1907 – 1908)            Water travel
  • Set in Silver                                                 (1909)                         Early automobile
  • The Motor Maid                                         (1910)                        Early automobile
  • Lord Loveland Discovers America      (1910)                         Early American travel
  • The Golden Silence                                     (1911)        Travel in desert lands (including camel transportation)
  • The Port of Adventure                         (1913)                         General travel
  • It Happened in Egypt                          (1914)                         Egyptian travel
  • Secret History                                        (1915)                         Early airplane travel
  • The Lightning Conductor                    (1916)                         Early automobile Discovers America
  • Winnie Childs: Shop Girl                    (1916)                          General romance
  • Everyman’s Land                                    (1918)                        End of World War I travel
  • The Lion’s Mouse                                    (1919)                         Post-war travel
  • The Second Latchkey                             (1920)                         General
                                                                                               

Here are some passages from their 1905 novel, My Friend the Chauffeur, that will give you a sense of their writing style:

In France: “. . . we moved like a ship under full sail; but suddenly the road reared up on its hind feet and stood almost erect, as though it had been frightened by the huge snow-capped mountains that all at once crowded round us.  An icy wind rushed down from the tops of the great white towers, as if with the swooping wings of a giant bird, and it took our car’s breath away” (118-19).

In Italy: “It [Certosa of Pavia] was too beautiful to chatter about.  But it did seem strange that so pure and lovely a building could have owed its existence to a crime.  I had heard Mr. Barrymore telling Mamma that it was originally founded in thirteen hundred and something, by the first Duke of Milan with the view of taking off the attention of Heaven from a murder he had committed—quite in his own family—which got rid of his father-in-law, and all the father-in-law’s sons and daughters at the same time.  No wonder it took a whole Certosa to atone for it. . . .”(164).

Bellagio, on Lake Como: “The rest of the party were on an entrancing terrace, looking down over other flowery terraces upon the town of Bellagio, with its charming old campanile, and its grey roofs like a flock of doves clustering together on the border of the lake.  The water was so clear and still that the big hotels and villas on the opposite shore seemed to have fallen in head down, and each little red-and-white canopied boat waiting for passengers at the quay had its double in the bright blue mirror.  Clouds and mountains were all reflected too, and it seemed as if one might take one’s choice between the real world and the dream world” (192).

My favorite passage from the book, however, is from Maida (the loveliest passenger in this ancient Panhard automobile) who plaintively poses this rhetorical question: “What becomes of the beautiful army of days marching away from us into the past?  The wonderful days, each one differing from all the others: some shining in our memory, in glory of purple and gold, that we saw only as they passed, with the setting of the sun; some smiling back at us, in their pale spring dress of green and rose; some weeping in gray; but all moving at the same pace along the same road?  The strange days that have given us everything they had to give, and yet have taken from us little pieces of our souls.  Where do the days go?  There must be some splendid world where, when they have passed down to the end of the long road, they all live together like queens, waited upon by those black slaves, the nights that have followed them like their shadows, holding up their robes.

“I’ve had this thought in my mind often since I have been flashing across Europe in an automobile, grudging each day that slipped away from me and would not stay a moment longer because I loved it.  I wish I knew the way to the land where the days that have passed live; for when those that are to come seem cold to me, I would like to go and pay the old ones a visit.  How well I would know their faces, and how glad I would be to see them again in their own world!” (205).

If you too are getting the Williamson bug, just log on the Internet and begin chasing down these wonderful travel romances.  Your travel life will never afterwards be the same!

* * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll ourselves hit the road.  Please come along.


29TH ZANE GREY CONVENTION, Part 3 EXPLORING YORKTOWN

29TH ZANE GREY CONVENTION

If there is a third-fiddle in the historic triangle of Virginia, it has to be heretofore little-noticed Yorktown. It is exceedingly unlikely that today, one in 10,000 Americans knows the significance of Yorktown. I know I personally had only a vague understanding of its historical significance prior to the Wednesday of the convention. Here, in brief, is a summation of its significance:

On July 4, 1776, American patriots signed the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. War was declared. For five long years, George Washington led his ragtag army in battle with the well-trained British forces. More often than not, Washington was defeated in these clashes, but each time managed to escape. It was a battle-weary people, with little in the way of good news to cheer them up, that faced the definite possibility—even probability—that they would lose to the world’s greatest superpower that September of 1781. But there was a wild card in the deck: France, Great Britain’s fiercest enemy. It was a global war the two nations fought, thus Britain was not at liberty to further weaken the global war by allocating more warships and troops to the American rebellion than it already had. France took advantage of this golden opportunity to embarrass its enemy by sending a fleet to the rescue of the American rebels.

Yorktown Ramparts

The French Admiral Comte de Grasse proceeded with his entire fleet of 24 ships from the West Indies to the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, sailing from New York, Admiral Thomas Graves with 19 British ships left New York. On September 5, at Virginia Capes, the two forces collided. Because of being becalmed (no wind to propel them), their fighting was indecisive. Then, reinforced by additional vessels and siege guns from Newport, R.I., the French sailed back into the Chesapeake to take final control of the Yorktown Harbor.

Yorktown Ramparts

During late summer of 1781, the Marquis de Lafayette (serving under Washington) had so harassed Cornwallis’s troops that he’d been forced to retreat from Wilmington, N.C. to Richmond, VA, then Williamsburg, and finally, near the end of July, to Yorktown, which he proceeded to fortify. Lafayette’s forces, now totaling 8,000 troops blocked Cornwallis from escaping anywhere by land. Cornwallis’s army of 7,000 kept waiting in vain for the British reinforcements to arrive. Under the naval umbrella of the French fleet, Washington dramatically moved 7,000 additional Franco-American troops from New York to Virginia. But Cornwallis’s last hope, Thomas Graves, felt he had no alternative but to return to New York after the stand-off at Virginia Capes. As a result of this, after strategizing with British General Sir Henry Clinton, a British rescue fleet, two-thirds the size of the French, set sail from New York on October 17 with 7,000 British troops. But it was too late: Bombarded by the French fleet on one side and 16,000 allied troops on land, Cornwallis surrendered his entire army on October 19, thus assuring victory to the allied forces. In short, without the French, quite possibly we’d still be part of the British Commonwealth today, like Canada.

David Leeson at Yorktown Battlefield

As our bus pulled into the Yorktown Museum, I felt I’d finally learn the entire story. Instead, I was disappointed: nowhere in all the displays and dioramas was the full story told, nor was it told in the film. Indeed, it was only on returning home and researching for this blog that I turned to the Britannica Encyclopedia and got the full story. Now, if I were to return to the Yorktown Battlefield, which our folk visited that Wednesday, I’d know what the significance was of the fortifications we rather blankly gazed at.

Yorktown Village

Next Wednesday, we’ll explore Old Jamestown