Monday, January 31, 2011

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

The final scene of Shakespeare's Cymbeline is, like the play itself, a winking mess. It resembles the third act of a sitcom where all hoaxes and hijinks and disguises are finally revealed, except amplified to absurdity: Fidele is not dead, in fact, he is not Fidele but Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline, and the kindly mountaineers she befriended are not Polydor and Cadwal but her long-lost brothers Guiderius and Arviragus. Imogen has been faithful to her husband Posthumus--who, by the way, is not dead either, as she thought--and not, as he believed, seduced by the unscrupulous Iachimo. I have left out several things Brent might call spoilers.

Many have suggested that something about Cymbeline, which flits happily between Augustan Britain and Renaissance Italy, doesn't hang together, but the problem is that it hangs together too well. The plot is impossibly complicated, and resolved too neatly. Clearly, Shakespeare's mode here is parodic.

Yet it has an earnest center in Imogen, who is a model of goodness. In Italy, her banished husband Posthumus makes a bet with Iachimo that he cannot seduce her; and indeed she is unassailable, though Iachimo steals her bracelet as proof to fool her husband. She charms everyone that she meets, from the Queen's odious son Cloten to Iachimo to Guiderius and Arviragus to the Roman general Caius Lucius, who takes her in his service while she is on the run, disguised as the boy Fidele. Guiderius and Arviragus, who also think she is Fidele, fall over themselves in praise:

GUIDERIUS: Were you a woman, youth,
I should woo hard but be your groom in honesty,
Ay, bid for you as I do buy.

ARVIRAGUS: I'll make 't my comfort
He is a man. I'll love him as my brother.--
And such a welcome I'd give to him
After long absence, such is yours.

And this is within minutes of meeting her!* By contrast, evil in Cymbeline is a weak affair: Cloten is a foul idiot who follows Imogen to Wales in order to kill her husband and rape her over his body--but mostly he wanders around the countryside, lost. Iachimo, as Bloom likes to point out, literally means "little Iago," and the bracelet he steals is a pale imitation of Desdemona's handkerchief in Othello. Cymbeline himself, who banishes Posthumus (he is not noble enough for Imogen's hand) and then repents, is a poor man's Lear. Only the Queen, who wishes to kill Imogen and install Cloten as heir, shows any menace, but she is early revealed as impotent: The killing potion she has procured is, unbeknownst to her, a harmless sleeping draught.

Many learned perspectives on Cymbeline, including Samuel Johnson's, have been negative, but I might suggest meekly that we need not always expect the bleakness of a Lear or Othello, and there's something charming about this play about a good woman in an essentially good world. Yet it seems mostly ignored; if you have heard any passage from it, it is probably this one:

Fear no more the heat o' th' sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta'en thy wages.
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

This is the elegy that Guiderius, Arviragus, and their foster father Belarius sing for Fidele/Imogen, whom they think dead. What death anxiety is there has been hidden, by quiet self-consoling ("Fear no more...") and one very cheesy joke ("As chimney-sweepers, come to dust") and yet I think there are worse things one might read at my memorial service. These words are false in Cymbeline, where every good thing survives; for us mortals they may be more appropriate.

*Funnily, Arviragus' promise to "love him as my brother" is ironic, and Guiderius' claim that he would "woo hard" if she were a woman is too, but in a much, much ickier way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

She is a wonderful nerd, and he hopes this won't change. He'd be distressed if she were cool - it's be as if his flesh and blood had grown up to be purple.

This book, though very well written, was heartbreakingly depressing. The book follows the lives of various people that work, or are associated with, an English language newspaper based in Rome. Each chapter is a short story from the perspective of a different character that is woven into the larger narrative. Each character is deeply, utterly flawed. Even the character I liked the most (Arthur Gopal) had possibly the most depressing story. The above quote is from his chapter, describing his daughter. The daughter that dies a short time later. At least at the end of Arthur's chapter there is a hint of redemption for him. Other characters are nowhere near as lucky.

I understand that most people aren't great. I understand that most people don't remain strong in the face of adversity. I don't need story after story reminding me of this fact. I do want someone to overcome. I want a protagonist I can agree with; that I could see standing if I were to meet them. Perhaps that's not a popular sentiment though. This book is a good, quick read on the up side. The writing is full of rich, colorful descriptions of both people and events. However, if you're in a happy mood read at your own risk.

The Return by Roberto Bolano

If The Return is to be our primer on Roberto Bolano, then we may come to find that he has a fondness for three types: the murderer, the detective, and the porn star. The last of these is the most interesting by degrees, though perhaps by default--Bolano possesses little insight into a killer's psychology, and no one has said anything remotely interesting about detectives since Raymond Chandler.

Naturally then, the best of the stories collected here is "Joanna Silvestri," about the eponymous porn starlet reconnecting with a now aging, somewhat destitute John Holmes. "Jack" has a sort of otherworldly presence:

...I know really photogenic girls who lose it as soon as they start a blow job, they look terrible, maybe because they're too into it, but I like to keep my face looking good. So my mind was on the job and, anyway, because of the position I was in, I couldn't see what was happening around me, while Bull and Shane, who were on their knees, but upright, heads raised, they saw that Jack had just come in, and their cocks got harder almost straightaway, and it wasn't just Bull and Shane who reacted, the director, Randy Cash, and Danny Lo Bello and his wife and Robbie and Ronnie and the technicians and everyone, I think, except for the cameraman, Jacinto Ventura, who was a bright, cheerful kid and a true professional, he literally couldn't take his eyes off the scene he was filming, everyone except for him reacted in some way to Jack's unexpected presence, and a silence fell over the set, not a heavy silence, not the kind that foreshadows bad news, but a luminous silence, so to speak, the silence of water falling in slow motion, and I sensed the silence and thought it must have been because I was feeling so good, because of those beautiful California days, but I also sensed something indecipherable approaching, announced by the rhythmic bumping of Shane's hips on my butt, by Bull's gentle thrusting in my mouth, and then I knew that something was happening on the set, though I didn't look up, and I knew that what was happening involved and revolved around me; it was as if reality had been torn, ripped open from one end to the other, like in those operations that leave a scar from neck to groin, a broad, rough, hard scar, but I hung on and kept concentrating till Shane took his cock out and just after that Bull ejaculated on my face.

I must apologize twice over: Once for the length of that passage, and once again for its filthiness. It is, however, the emotional crux of this collection, not least because in so much of the rest of it emotion is wanting. Crude as it is, Bolano's ironic sense is ebullient here. There is the great disparity between the "lowness" of the act and the angelic luminescence of Jack's presence; the comparison (which feminists have made before, with sterner faces) between the sex act and the violence or surgery; the too-perfect porn names like "Shane" and "Bull" and "Robbie and Ronnie." And best of all there is the way this impossibly long sentence, like the sudden withering of the organs it describes, limps lamely to the finish: "Shane took his cock out and just after that Bull ejaculated on my face." In the presence of a greater connection, physical touch seems ridiculous.

But Bolano's vices get the better of him: Joanna is thinking all this while being interrogated by a detective, who doesn't care about Jack Holmes. He's looking for information about a minor player in the pornographic world that has no relevance whatsoever to the narrative. So why do it?

Probably because Bolano was obsessed with the "secret story"--the answers to the questions that are left unasked. What the detective wants to know is likely important to him, but to Joanna (and Bolano, and us, by extension) it is irrelevant to the point of incongruity. The stories in The Return have a glancing-off quality to them, the relevance of parts to the whole is left explicitly absent. But there are better ways to do this than to populate stories with cast-offs from Allen Ginsberg, Quentin Tarantino, Chandler and Tom Waits. It is difficult to shake the feeling that The Return is peopled by detectives, criminals, mobsters, and prostitutes because they signify grit. And The Return is gritty all right, ground down by Bolano's style into flat, gray sand:

Bedloe's face was a blood-spattered mask, garish in the light of the living room. Where his nose had been there was just a bleeding pulp. I checked to see if his heart was beating. The women were watching me without making the slightest movement. He's dead, I said. Before I went out onto the porch, I heard one of them sigh. I smoked a cigarette looking at the stars, thinking about how I'd explain it to the authorities in town.

This is unconscionably lazy. Comparing a face to a mask; "bleeding pulp;" the cinematic pulse-check followed by the the words "He's dead." If all the hack writers in all the world put their minds together, could they come up with a sentence more cliched than "I smoked a cigarette looking at the stars, thinking about how I'd explain it to the authorities in town?"

Too often Bolano wants this kind of empty cool to do his work for him. There are fleeting moments of brilliance, like the first sentences of the title story: "I have good news and band news. The good news is that there is life (of a kind) after this life. The bad news is that Jean-Claude Villeneuve is a necrophiliac." But they are deflected by nonsense like: "Pavlov was waiting for me by the fireplace, reading and drinking cognac. Before I could say anything he smashed his fist into my nose. I hardly felt the blow but I let myself fall anyway. Don't stain my carpet, I heard him say."

Danny liked this book considerably, and though it hurts my sense of honor to say anything too negative about books that are lent to me, I think the best I can say on this one is "mixed results." It seems unlikely that I will try to tackle 2666 any time soon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

I was interested in reading this series because I have read the Wheel of Time series (so far) and was really curious about why Robert Jordan chose this particular author to finish his series. In case you didn't know, Robert Jordan died before he could finish the Wheel of Time series and basically asked Brandon Sanderson if he would write the final books in his stead. Keep in mind, this was a series he started writing in 1977 and has about 1.8 billion characters (I wish this was an exaggeration). Pretty huge undertaking, if you ask me. Plus, there is a certain level of trust required to have someone finish the thing you've been working on your whole life. However, after having read the Mistborn series I can better understand why Brandon Sanderson was selected.

The events in Mistborn are seen through the eyes of 16 year old Vin (sometimes the narrator does change, but for the most part it is Vin). She's a thief that has grown up in a cutthroat underground. Her brother initially got her involved in this lifestyle. She has a very complicated relationship with him. He saved her from their mentally unstable mother, who killed their younger sister, and has kept her alive; however, he also occasionally beat her and eventually abandoned her. Understandably, Vin has huge trust and abandonment issues. On the bright side, we learn that Vin is also very crafty and a skilled thief. At least she has something going for her. Her best attribute, however, is her Luck. Her thieving crew leader Camon has discovered that whenever she's around the crew's jobs tend to go well. She seems to have an innate ability to get people to react how she wants them to. This is very handy as the crew is often trying to scam people.

Unfortunately, Vin's Luck has garnered the attention of an obligator. Vin lives in the Final Empire, governed by an emperor god known as the Lord Ruler. The Lord Ruler has minions that make sure everything goes as he wants it to. The obligators are his human underlings. They act as priests of the Lord Ruler's religion and bureaucrats. Inquisitors serve as the muscle of the government. They are impaled with various metal spikes that imbue them with various powers. They are considered unkillable by most people. Not many of them exist. Lastly, the Lord Ruler controls a race called the koloss. They serve as a part of his vast armies. They're grotesque blue-skinned creatures ranging in size from 5 feet tall to 13 feet tall. They've been made for the sole purpose of killing. Though they are not anywhere near as deadly as an Inquisitor they are still rather formidable because of their strength and size. Getting back to Vin, the obligator sends an Inquisitor after her because of her Luck.

Fortunately, Kelsier is also interested in Vin because of her Luck. He and one of his friends distract the Inquisitor enough so that Vin can escape, unbeknownst to her. However, in the time that Kelsier has been distracting the Inquisitor, Camon has decided to beat Vin. Just when things are about to get really uncomfortable for Vin, Kelsier shows up again to save her. He removes her from her thief crew and asks her to join his. She obviously agrees. Later, Kelsier explains to Vin that her Luck is really the mystical power of Allomancy. Allomancy is basically magic derived from metals. When Vin and Kelsier consume specific metals they can use them to do certain things. There are 8 basic metals and 2 special metals:
1. Iron - Pulls on nearby sources of metal
2. Steel - Pushes on nearby sources of metal
3. Tin - Increases human senses
4. Pewter - Increase physical abilities
5. Brass - Soothes emotions
6. Zinc - Riots emotions
7. Copper - Hides the use of Allomancy
8. Brass - Allows one to sense Allomancy
9. Gold - Allows one to see into one's past
10. Atium - Allows one to see slightly into the future
People that can use all of the metals are called Mistborn. People that can only use one of the metals are called Mistings.

The reason the Kelsier has acquired Vin is that he is gathering a crew for a very important purpose. He plans to overthrow the Lord Ruler. He wants to do this on behalf of the skaa people. The skaa people are the slaves of the Final Empire. They are used by the nobility to work in factories, mills, fields, etc. They are abused and killed indiscriminately. Kelsier also has a more personal reason for wanting to unseat the Lord Ruler. Years before, Kelsier and his wife were caught breaking into the Lord Ruler's palace. They were sent to work in the Pits of Hathsin. It was universally known that no one ever lived through this. Kelsier's wife did not. This caused Kelsier to "Snap". Mistborns are not born with their powers, ironically. They have to experience some traumatic event that causes them to Snap and gain their powers. Kelsier's newfound abilities allowed him to escape the Pits of Hathsin. Because of this he has become known as the Survivor. He plans not just to overthrow the Lord Ruler, but to kill him as well. He claims to have found an eleventh metal that will give him the power to do so.

Mistborn follows the crew's activities throughout the year that they've given themselves to accomplish this rather large task. Vin is in charge of impersonating a noblewoman and acting as a spy among the nobility. Sazed is charged with training her in the proper ways of court manners and customs. Sazed is a Keeper of the Terris people. The Terris people are highly valued by the nobility because they are considered perfect servants; however, they have more skills than the nobility knows. Like humans with Allomancy, Terrismen have Feruchemy. Feruchemy allows Terrismen to store up certain attributes in different metals which they can use at later times. Feruchemy follows along similar lines as Allomancy:
1. Iron - Stores physical weight
2. Steel - Stores physical speed
3. Tin - Stores the ability to use the five sense
4. Pewter - Stores physical strength
5. Brass - Stores warmth
6. Zinc - Stores mental speed
7. Copper - Stores memories
8. Bronze - Stores wakefulness
9. Gold - Stores health
10. Atium - Stores age
The Lord Ruler has attempted to remove the power of Feruchemy from the Terris people through a program of selective breeding. He has been unsuccessful so far due to the activities of the leaders of the Terris people called the Synod. Terrismen with the ability to use Feruchemy are hidden from the Lord Ruler. They are called Keepers because they are charged with keeping certain knowledge alive through the use of copper. Each Keeper has a certain specialty. Sazed's specialty is religion. He retains knowledge of all the religions that were present before the Lord Ruler eradicated them.

Other members of Kelsier's crew include:
1. Dockson - Kelsier's righthand man. He is a gifted bureaucrat. He is charged with overseeing the crew's finances and making sure everyone gets whatever they need.
2. Breeze - He is a brass Misting. He is in charge of recruiting for the skaa army that Kelsier intends to build.
3. Yeden - He is in charge of the skaa rebellion currently. He ostensibly hired Kelsier's crew to overthrow the Lord Ruler.
4. Ham - He is a pewter Misting. He is in charge of training the skaa army.
5. Clubs - He is a copper Misting. He is in charge of hiding the crew's Allomantic activities.
6. Lord Renoux - His real identity is known only to Kelsier. He was hired to impersonate the real Lord Renoux in order to use his business as a front for the purchases of the skaa rebellion and as a method of getting a spy among the nobility. Vin is acting as his niece Vallette.
7. Lestibournes (aka Spook) - He is Clubs' nephew and a tin Misting. He helps by serving on the watch to keep the crew safe.

After reading the whole Mistborn series I can understand some of the reasons Robert Jordan chose Brandon Sanderson to continue his legacy. Sanderson is adept at making seemingly minor details of the first book important later in the series. His characters are also very complex and sometimes funny. He also has a very good grasp on how religion and politics work. His system of magic was also thoroughly thought out. In fact, it reminded me bizarrely of physics sometimes. All in all, it was a pretty good read. I'd recommend it to people who enjoyed other fantasy novels.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Walks With Men by Ann Beattie

“You see through this; understand I was too naïve, even if you factor in that I was young. The ‘80s were not a time when women had to put up with male tyrants. No woman had to fit herself around a man’s schedule. To do so was lazy, as well as demeaning. But I didn’t introspect; I didn’t ask enough questions. I expressed passivity by pretending to myself that whatever I did for Neil was charming, old-fashioned dutifulness. More embarrassing still was the fact that I let him support me, that I had delusions of becoming a major essayist (In this culture? as Neil would say).

If you think for a minute, you might guess what happened next, because clichés so often befall vain people.”

Do not be deceived by the cover—Walks With Men is no poorly written piece of chick lit. Anne Beattie, the author, teaches in UVA’s highly regarded MFA program and is an O. Henry and Pen Award-winning author. (Plus, Miranda July endorsed her on the back cover, and if that doesn’t make her acceptable for the standard indie book snob, what does?)

The main character of our novella, Jane, has recently finished her education at Harvard with honors, has become decidedly anti-establishment, and is of interest to the press because she decided to tell the school on graduation day where they could shove it—in front of God and Jimmy Carter. She has these plans to live on a farm in Vermont with her granola boyfriend Ben and his goats, but the professor that interviews her—arrogant, twice her age, and sure he has a stockpile of wisdom to dispense upon her—wins her over. They have an arrangement where she can ask him any question she likes and he must answer, as long as no one knows about their relationship. (Cue in ominous music here.) He supports her in an apartment while he writes nonfiction novels and she “works” gathering research for him and not doing much else. While their relationship seems to exist in a carefully sealed vacuum, the rest of Neil’s life does not, and the things that she does not know eventually come out and overwhelm her.

Like all men, all people, while Neil is quirky and interesting and loveable, he’s deeply flawed. The complications he tries to hide from Jane but ultimately brings into her life are many and she starts to see over time that his wisdom is limited to superficial things—where to have sex, what to do when depressed, what to do with leftovers from restaurants, how to take your drink, where to buy your scarves. How to be in a relationship without steamrolling the person you love, on the other hand, might be foreign to him. As their relationship progresses (don’t worry, no spoilers) she begins to have issues with self-importance and direction that seem to travel back directly to the fact that she has allowed Neil to take care of her for so long. Characters with strange subplots: her ex that’s high on yoga and love, her gay neighbor that’s been struggling from mental health issues left over from Vietnam, his lover who wants Jane to watch them have sex, all help her work through her loneliness and get a hold of who she is and what it is she does and doesn’t want. Jane isn’t always without her own issues, however, and we see that illustrated through her issues with her mother and closest female friend, Jan, an obvious foil without much going for her but a pointing finger.

As a female, I can appreciate a piece of writing like this for a variety of reasons—it was literary, it was accessible to me despite the fact that I’m from a different generation and mindset than her main character(mostly due to the universal relationship issues Beattie touches on), and because Beattie trusts her audience and doesn't pander to them. Beattie gives female readers the best of both worlds.

All in all, a good read.

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton

I’m waiting to hear back on my graduate school applications to the MFA programs at McNeese and George Mason and in the process, have become obsessed with all things MFA-related. This includes authors fresh out of writing programs that have enjoyed some degree of success, which is how I found out about The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. She’s just two years older than me and already a "golden girl" in the writing scene.

Maybe I’m being catty but I’m not sure I get why she warrants such attention. I am not in the habit of turning my back on a book before I’m finished reading it… If I am having a relationship with the novel in front of me and participating in a dialogue with the author, not finishing a book just seems—I don’t know, rude? Regardless of my ideas about reading etiquette, I was tempted to give up on this one.

The Rehearsal focuses more or less on two characters—Isolde, the younger sister of a girl who has just left school due to an affair with one of her school’s music teachers and Stanley, a nearby student at a prestigious acting school. We do not witness Isolde’s story first hand, but rather through her interactions with her nosy (and detestable) Saxophone teacher. We never know if any of our characters are giving us actual accounts or simply acting, as the novel is about what is perceived to be true as much as it is about what actually is true. Eventually, the two strangers come together and Stanley puts together a play based on Isolde’s older sister’s scandal and awaits the reactions.

My main problem with the novel was the dialogue. For example, the conversation where the saxophone teacher is discussing the death of one of her students, Bridget, with Bridget’s mother:

“I understand that this is something you couldn’t possibly have prepared
yourself for,” the saxophone teacher says to Bridget’s mother. “I’m shocked
myself. I feel partly it’s because Bridget was so dull. I always imagine that
the ones who die are the interesting ones, the wronged ones, the tragic ones,
the ones for whom death would come as a terrible, terrible waste. I always
imagine it as a tragedy. Bridget’s death doesn’t quite seem to fit.”

The mother responds by nodding and agreeing, more or less, that her daughter was too boring to die. On what kind of planet do exchanges like this happen? Earlier in the novel, while Bridget was still alive, the same teacher told Bridget she was too “scrubbed pink” and therefore not sexy enough, mysterious enough, to play the saxophone, and should stick to something more appropriate, like the clarinet.

One of the subplots in this novel is that of a gay student named Julia that also has private lessons with the saxophone teacher. One night, the teacher takes both Julia and Isolde out to a performance and tries to strike up a romance between the two young girls. In their lessons that follow, she will ask one what happened, and then the other, throwing in not-so-subtle hints about what she thinks should happen should they see one another again. Here, a conversation between Julia and the saxophone teacher, before Julia launches in on a conversation about trying to seduce Isolde:

“I’ve been looking at all the ordinary staples of flirting,” Julia says, “like
biting your lip and looking away for just a second too late, and laughing a lot
and finding every excuse to touch, light fingertips on a forearm or a thigh that
emphasize and punctuate the laughter. I’ve been thinking about what a comfort these things are, these textbook methods, precisely because they need no decoding, no translation. Once, a long time ago, you could probably bite your lip and it would mean, I am almost overcome with desiring you. Now you bite your lip and it means, I want you to see that I am almost overcome with desiring you, so I am using the plainest and most universally accepted signal I can think of to make you see. Now it means, Both of us know the implications of my biting my lip and what I am trying to say. We are speaking a language, you and I together, a language that we did not invent, a language that is not unique to our uttering. We are speaking someone else’s lines. It’s a comfort.”

Once again, the focus on acting v. being, etc. Insightful, yes. Something I can actually picture a high school girl saying to her mentor? No.

I realize I'm almost to the end of the reviw and have barely touched on the other main character, Stanley. It seems he's only a shadow of a real character, a conduit through which things will happen. I found myself skimming through his sections.

I think that if I could have read about Bridget, Julia, and Isolde functioning in their natural environments, I would have enjoyed the book. The actual meat of the novel is interesting, but the way that it is conveyed made it a burden to stomach. I understand that she’s trying to do something different, something ambitious, that this is probably exactly the kind of writing that MFA programs go crazy for… but as an “average reader” it didn’t work for me. I want to know what actually happened more than I want to know what their posture was like while they sat in their lessons, talking about something that may or may not have actually happened, instead of playing their instruments… which is what I assume saxophone lessons are for.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

Probably some one man on average falls in love with each ordinary woman. She can marry him: he is content, and leads a useful life. Such women as you a hundred men always covet--your eyes will bewitch scores on scores into an unavailing fancy for you--you can only marry one of that many. Out of these say twenty will endeavour to drown the supposed bitterness of despised love in drink; twenty more will mope away their lives without a wish or attempt to make a mark in the world, because they have no ambition apart from their attachment to you; twenty more--the susceptible person myself possibly among them--will always be draggling after you, getting where they may just see you, doing desperate things. Men are such constant fools! The rest may try to get over their passion with more or less success. But all these men will be saddened. And not only those ninety-nine men, but the ninety-nine women they might have married are saddened with them. There's my tale. That's why I say that a woman so charming as yourself, Miss Everdene, is hardly a blessing to her race. --Gabriel Oak

One of the strongest impressions one receives when reading Far from the Madding Crowd is awe at Hardy's vast knowledge. The story is crowded with offhand allusions to poetry, the Bible, and to Greek mythology, some of which are absurdly obscure. These vary in subtlety, but none is so plain as the name of the heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. Just as King David, having seen Bathsheba sunbathing from his roof, was overcome with a lust which engenders violence, Bathsheba Everdene cannot help but become the object of obsession.

She has three suitors, and together they form a catalogue of the ways men fall in love with women: The first is Gabriel Oak, a patient and pragmatic shepherd who is refused by Bathsheba at the beginning of the book. The second is Mr. Boldwood, who owns the farm adjacent to Bathsheba's, and his love is more along the obsessive King David line, madly begging her for a promise of marriage and allowing his own farm to go to ruin. The third is a young soldier named Frank Troy, whom Hardy describes thusly:

He spoke fluently and unceasingly. He could in this way be one thing and seem another; for instance, he could speak of love and think of dinner; call on the husband to look at the wife; be eager to pay and intend to owe.

Troy is a scoundrel, engaged to another girl, and his attachment to Bathsheba is short-lived, but she is charmed by him and allows herself to descend into Boldwood-like love-madness on his account.

Meanwhile, Gabriel exhibits an actual devotion to Bathsheba by toiling unceasingly on her farm. He solves every crisis: He cures the sheep when they are sick; he puts out fires; when a drunken Troy refuses to cover the hay-ricks for the coming storm, Gabriel does the work of ten men single-handed. He is a shepherd in the Christian sense, and like his analogues in Count Belisarius and The Good Soldier he performs this imitation of Christ before a backdrop of religious confusion and ignorance. Hardy plays this for laughs:

"How did Cain come by such a name?" asked Bathsheba.

"Oh you see, mem, his pore mother, not being a Scripture-read woman, made a mistake at his christening, thinking 'twas Abel killed Cain, and called en Cain, meaning Abel all the time. The parson put it right, but 'twas too late, for the name cold never be got rid of in the parish. 'Tis very unfortunate for the boy."

But there is a very serious sense that religion provides little of the necessary wisdom of living. Instead, Gabriel's pious devotion is a product of the simplicity of country life, which forms a kind of religion. Hardy notes that the barn on Bathsheba's farm resembles a church with transepts:

One could say about this barn, what could hardly be said of either the church or the castle, akin to it in age and style, that the purpose which had dictated its original erection was the same with that to which it was still applied. Unlike and superior to either of those two typical remnants of mediaevalism, the old barn embodied practices which had suffered no mutilation at the hands of time.

Gabriel's constancy is the constancy of the earth, the constancy of the country farm. He is opposed in this by Troy, who represents the fickleness of the modern city, and who nearly drives the farm to ruin (a ruin presaged by his name, a city synonymous with destruction) by neglect of his duty both as farmer and lover. We want desperately for Bathsheba to return to Gabriel's offer of marriage, though the years pass and he seems unlikely to renew it, resigned to laying down his life in quiet service.

Hardy has a terrific style that thrives on grammatical tension. He will overload you with winding, circuitous sentences and absurdly elevated vocabulary before delivering a short summary statement of incredible power. The effect is like the inflating and popping of a great balloon, or being spun in a funnel until expelled violently from the tip:

Above the dark margin of the earth appeared foreshores and promontories of coppery cloud, bounding a green and pellucid expanse in the western sky. Amaranthine glosses came over them then, and the unresting world wheeled her round to a contrasting prospect eastward, in the shape of indecisive and palpitating stars. She gazed upon their silent throes amid the shades of space, but realized none at all. Her troubled spirit was far away with Troy.

And, because two points make a line, here is another:

Hence Bathsheba lived in a perception that her purposes were broken off. She was not a woman who could hope on without good materials for the process, differing thus from the less far-sighted and energetic, though more petted ones of the sex, with whom hope goes on as a sort of clockwork which the merest food and shelter are sufficient to wind up; and perceiving clearly that her mistake had been a fatal one, she accepted her position, and waited coldly for the end.

How wonderfully this maps Bathsheba's inner thinking: We are taken through the labyrinthine course of one who clings to their own reasoning to find comfort, only to emerge from such pondering into an inevitable and nearly ineffable truth: Bathsheba, having chosen wrongly, is alone.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Lisbeth Salander is the girl and she steals private information, she’s a 90-pound anorexic looking hacker. One of many descriptions of this loony lady:

"A black T-shirt with a picture on it of E.T. with fangs, and the words I AM ALSO AN ALIEN. She had on a black skirt that was frayed at the hem, a worn-out black, mid-length leather jacket, rivet belt, heavy Doc Marten boots, and horizontally striped, green-and-red knee socks. She had put on make-up in a colour scheme that indicated she might be colour blind. In other words, she was exceptionally decked out."

The main story is of an investigative financial reporter that has been convicted of libel (I hate that word). His goal is revenge and understanding, but he can’t get that until he solves a 40 year-old murder/disappearance mystery. Salander helps him in last half, but she has her own story to tell.

She is really fucking nuts, but a sympathetic character that you love and wish you could pick her up, put her in your pocket, and take care of her. But she doesn’t need or want you. Which makes you want to help her more.

I read this for my Mom. It’s a page-turner after about 65 pages of set up. I’m surprised it is so popular considering the slow start. I loved the Swedish towns and supreme frigidness of the climate and characters. The proper nouns are fun to fumble through pronouncing. I’m not really saying you should go out and read this though. It’s pulp, with intrigue. Mystery novels are a hard sell for me, the last mystery I read was Motherless Brooklyn and as much as I suggest you read Lethem, Larsson is Swedish and I’m not. I hate being monolingual more and more with each translated book I read.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Time of Our Singing

My apologies if this premiere post of mine comes off a shade or two pedantic. I wrote this short essay for a college application a week ago. I'll curse and be real in the rest, I swear. Thanks for letting me into the Fifty Books Project. It's warm in this room. -James
            With The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers has written a social novel that questions some of the most entrenched myths of our times. He takes on the ambiguities of racial identity in 20th century America with more veracity than most writers since James Baldwin’s novels of the 1960’s. The story succeeds in painting impressionistic vistas of how our identities are chosen for us despite how we might see ourselves. And the interpersonal dilemmas here inevitably merge with a national struggle to overcome race, with unsettling consequences for all of the people we meet.
            The novel’s matriarch is Delia Daley. She hails from a proud African-American family from Philadelphia. She works as a nurse to earn money for her classical voice lessons; her dream is to follow in the footsteps of Marian Anderson. Easter weekend, 1939, she travels to the capital to attend Anderson’s concert on the National Mall and there she meets David Strom in the massive crowd. He is a German Jew who has fled Europe just ahead of the Nazis. David is a quantum physicist but also an amateur singer with abundant knowledge and appreciation of classical music. When he hears Delia singing along with Anderson, he falls for her, and, in turn, his attention and praise captures her heart. Yet, Delia knows enough about her countrymen to tell him they can’t see each other again. “It’s impossible,” she says. The crowd’s indifference on the National Mall does not represent the nation’s true temper.
            Then, a stranger abruptly changes the direction of her life. A boy who has lost his family in the crowd cries out terrified. In the ensuing moments, she and David pacify the child, acting as surrogate parents until he finds his brother. He quickly trusts them equally, takes both of their hands, and they walk together, improbably, to the Lincoln Memorial. The image Powers has drawn for us is a makeshift family, a promise of the future, juxtaposed by the gatekeeper of an inequitable past. Delia and David see themselves with this child and decide, privately but equally, that he has been sent to them to forecast a future in which they need not fear the sum of their love.
            Powers is a savvy storyteller, and one of the ways he draws us into his world is by the repetition of his characters’ most treasured anecdotes. The scene on the Mall with the lost boy is replayed in David’s mind several times. We see it again through Delia’s daydreams. Even their middle child (and our narrator), Joseph, recalls the family lore half a century later when he brings his two nephews to the Mall to hear Minister Farrakhan speak. His memory distills the Stroms’s doubt and hope and failure over three generations. Thus, David and Delia’s story germinates from a real boy, but almost instantly becomes mythologized. “The bird and the fish can live together,” the Stroms sing in the safety of their Morningside Heights apartment. Maybe so, but as we watch the 20th century unravel, we see that the Stroms must not only confront society’s murky ideals, but their own.
            David and Delia marry, and they pour their optimism into their three children. Jonah, Joseph, and Ruth become the unwitting subjects of their parents’ social experiment, fueled by the optimism of an isolated moment and a hope polished so fervently it has no choice but to shine. When each of the Strom kids inevitably asks their parents, “What are we?” their parents respond: you must decide for yourself. You can be whatever you want.
            Powers wisely uses broad strokes, fixing the Stroms and Daley’s lives within the greater story of our country. We relive in gruesome detail the murder of Emmett Till; Delia has to explain to her sons how this could happen to a boy their age. And yet, horrid as it is, at least the crime happens from afar. Soon, the Stroms find themselves flirting with chaos in person. For example, when the brothers tour the U.S. in the late 1960’s, protests and street battles always happen to spring up a day before or after their arrival. They avert disaster by a handful of hours each time. Their near encounters with the country’s racial touchstones is hardly believable. Yet, what Powers loses in verisimilitude he gains in his characters’ moral development: the children see their parents’ fundamental error by looking through the prism of an exploding America. The world did care who and what they were. Such iconic moments keep the novel from becoming a fairy tale. Without the historical bloodshed, we’d likely write off the preternaturally gifted Jonah and Joseph as unlikely elitists, the fortunate sons of parents naïve enough to believe that their offspring might live outside the most entrenched rules of their land.
            Race is the myth that America has agreed to endorse, thus it is the one that the Stroms must try to ignore. But it is always already informing our interactions. No wonder, then, that the Strom children feel fully formed as their racial identities evolve beyond their parents’ idealistic dream. By shedding the false skin of a colorblind world they finally must make their own decisions. Jonah strolls into the Watts riots to get a glimpse of the venom he’s been sheltered from. A looter mistakes him for being white, and puts a gun to his head; he escapes with his life only because the otherworldly sound he produces distracts his would-be murderer. Joseph trades in his Julliard education for playing lounge versions of Motown songs. And Ruth fully rejects her post-racial upbringing by her 18th birthday. She meets a militant man, joins the Black Panthers, and engages in subversive activities. It is here, in the genesis of this generation’s adulthood—about halfway into the novel—that we see them for who they are: three bi-racial children of different skin tones, yes. More crucially, though, they are three people whose immersions into America’s greatest myth are now unique, and thus, finally, memorable.  

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare

Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
'Tis true, 'tis true; witness my knife's sharp point.

So, apparently Titus Andronicus is pretty much universally considered Shakespeare’s worst play. Even Harold Bloom, Bard booster extraordinaire, says the play can’t be taken seriously, and must be read as satire if anything at all is to be gotten from it at all; other critics attack its extreme—sometimes comically so—violence; still others point to the less than nuanced characters, none of which are really worth cheering for, as the play’s biggest weakness. And, I have to admit, on one level, it’s hard to disagree. Apart from Aaron, who’s certainly one of the most despicable villains in all of Shakespeare, most of the players are notable mainly for the gruesome ways in which they die. There are no “Alas, poor Yorick” moments, the poetry is spare, and the genuine emotion is thin—I felt revulsion more strongly than anything else while reading Titus Andronicus.

So, the story: Titus is returning from battle, bearing with him Tamora, Queen of the Goths and her sons, one of which he commands to be mutilated, in spite of Tamora’s pleas for mercy. This act of butchery sets off the whole play, most of which is taken up with Tamora’s revenge, which she plans with Aaron, her Moorish lover, and Titus’s response. You know the drill; it’s a Shakespearean tragedy—everyone dies, pretty much.

The thing is, while the criticisms of Titus Andronicus are basically true, they don’t make it a bad play. For Shakespeare, the man who gave us Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, and scads of literature’s most famous characters, it’s definitely lower-tier. As an entertainment, though, it’s not bad. It’s grotesquely funny, fast-moving, and, as mentioned, Aaron is basically evil personified. It’s not going to change your life, but it’ll probably pass an afternoon, and, at the end (SPOILER) a mother’s sons are served to her in pies. Shakespeare knows pulp.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

James Wood calls the final chapters of Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop some of the most beautiful in the English language. To be sure, the final chapters are where the most striking moments lie:

In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of the hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel like and one's heart cry "To-day, to-day," like a child's.

Cather paints death in the bright, pastel colors of the Southwest; for Jean Marie Latour, the Archbishop of New Mexico, death seems to hold little anxiety. Latour tells us that he will "soon be done with calendared time," a phrase that reduces death--and life--to little more than a material object. Death Comes for the Archbishop is mostly free of individual conflict; Bishop Latour's battles are on the larger scale that determines whether the church will thrive or wither in the distant Southwest. It is no wonder, then, that when the final conflict comes, Latour has his mind on greater things.

But Wood's claim reminds me of the Misfit from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find," who says of his latest victim, "She would of been a good woman... if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Death Comes for the Archbishop is best when it faces last things, but Cather has the Bishop's entire story to tell. More typical are passages like this:

The streams were full of fish, the mountain was full of game. The pueblo, indeed, seemed to lie upon the knees of these verdant mountains, like a favoured child. Out yonder, on the juniper-spotted plateau in front of the village, the Spaniards had camped, exacting a heavy tribute of corn and furs and cotton garments from their hapless hosts. It was from here, the story went, that they set forth in the spring on their ill-fated search for the seven golden cities of Quivera, taking with them slaves and concubines ravished from the Pecos people.

There's nothing wrong with this, per se. It has a breezy plainness that seems appropriate to the arid setting. Take out the "u" in "favoured" and it could have been written in 1997 as much as in 1927. But it seems to me to work against the story itself: Latour is a French-born priest who served until his thirties in an Ohio diocese; the land he has been chosen to preside over stretches across thousands of miles, many of them desolate and sparsely populated. Yet we know the name of every cactus and shrub in New Mexico. Cather takes frequent breaks from Latour's story to tell us ones about Spanish explorers and native Americans like the one above. This surfeit of knowledge, combined with the dry style, veers to the tedium of mediocre travelogues. Does this reflect the mystery, the strangeness, the wonder of what someone like Bishop Latour must experience in this unknown wilderness?

But death is a wilderness about which neither Latour or Cather can overwhelm us with details. It is the quintessential "undiscovered country." In spite of his dismissal of it, death makes Latour more interesting and elevates the novel. If you believe your life is boring, you may want to think of that inevitability with some comfort.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

No one knows the source of the Nile, Julien said to himself. It hasn't been granted to mortal eyes to see the king of rivers in the state of a simple stream: thus no human eye shall see Julien weak, first and foremost because he isn't.

Julien Sorel is a man of great ambition. He is a carpenter's son, but longs to distinguish himself among the upper classes, like his hero Napoleon once did. Napoleon's route--the military--is no longer available to him in 1830, but perhaps a life of distinction in the clergy will be equally good. Like all egoists, the endgame matters little; while he would have preferred the red coat the black will do. And like all social climbers, he harbors a deep and bitter antipathy toward the social classes through which he wants to rise.

At the very beginning of the novel he manages to procure a job as a tutor for the children of the mayor, M. de Renal, based on the merit of having memorized the entire Latin New Testament. But Julien has no religious sentiment; he cultivates what he calls hypocrisy, an outward expression of piety and orthodoxy that belies his disgust. And yet, Julien is a poor hypocrite: his education is too limited, and he is too impulsive. When he begins to suspect that M. de Renal's wife has fallen in love with him, he considers it his "duty" to seduce her--a Napoleonic conquest--but, in a manner not unlike the way that a Catholic sacrament transmutes the heart, his outward actions of affection compel him too toward love. The principle struggle of The Red and the Black is the surface vs. the interior, and despite Julien's cultivation of hypocrisy this struggle affects him most strongly because his rivals in the nobility have little of his inward depth. He permits himself to internalize such frauds, as when his friends try to legitimize his newfound wealth by spreading a rumor of noble parentage:

Could it really be possible, he wondered, that I might be the natural son of some great lord driven into exile in our mountains by the terrible Napoleon? This idea seemed less improbable to him with every passing moment... My hatred for my father would be proof of it... I shouldn't be a monster anymore!

The Red and the Black, strangely, offers two iterations of the same story: After being forced to leave Mme. de Renal, Julien is hired as a secretary to a Parisian nobleman, M. de la Mole, whose daughter Mathilde becomes Julien's mistress. Such repetition allows us to see clearly how Julien grows, and becomes more adept at playing the games of the upper class, but his rage grows with him. When, for a second time, it becomes clear to Julien that society will not suffer both his ambition and his love, he rejects society in an act of shocking violence.

I won't spoil anything, but I will say that I was impressed with the simple admiration with which Stendhal treats Julien's actions. They are an anachronism, Napoleonic in their way, and they are strangely redemptive. Julien refuses to play a rigged game, and as such he frees himself from time, and from society. By banishing his hypocrisy, he is freed unto himself.

Two things frustrated me about The Red and the Black: The first is that it is replete with very topical references to French politics of 1830, and the appendix in the back is not very illuminating. The second is that Julien is remarkably fickle, and much of the second book is consumed by Julien falling in and out of love with Mathilde, who alternately falls in and out love with him. A sense of absurdity redeems this, though, and I admit that it seems to accurately map our propensity to change our minds about love. The Red and the Black is called the first psychological novel, and its depiction of Julien's inward thoughts is especially fine, including what I would call an early form of stream-of-consciousness. That psychological detail is what makes the novel so rewarding, and I will concede that when Julien is at his most frustrating, he is at his most human.

Beowulf translated by Burton Raffel

"But a monster still lived, and meant revenge/She'd brooded her loss, misery had brewed/In her heart, that female horror, Grendel's/Mother, living in the murky cold lake/Assigned her since Cain had killed his only/Brother, slain his father's son/With an angry sword. God drove him off,/Outlawed him to the dry and barren desert,/And branded him with a murderer's mark. And he bore/A race of fiends accursed like their father [. . .]"

This wasn't the first book I intended to read, much less review this year. I had hoped to start with Demons, but my student teaching assignment had other plans. As I re-read Beowulf in preparation for the beginning of the new semester in a couple of weeks, a review began to form in my head. I began to read my old high school copy, the much touted Seamus Heaney translation, then found out my class would be using the older Burton Raffel translation. For the sake of this review, I find this just fantastic. I love translated literature and I love comparing translations from different writers and the effect the different styles and wording have on the reader.

Like most, I truly admire the Seamus Heaney translation. It is masterful, it is literary, it employs techniques that exhaust me just imagining the effort required to remember and effectively use them for an entire epic poem. Raffel's translation, on the other hand, is much easier to read. Not only do I still appreciate the action of the story, I feel like I'm sitting around the fire in a mead-hall listening to a king's favorite storyteller extol the feats of a great warrior.

I was gripped anew by the fight between Beowulf and Grendel, the underwater fight with Grendel's mother, and the pain of the Geats surrounding the funeral pyre of their King. The story itself is familiar to a modern reader, both because many of us have read it, and in that much of it has been used in huge numbers of stories since then: dragons, monsters, fate, fame, kings, treasure and revenge. It employs all of the elements of an epic poem in the most barebones way possible: in just over 3000 lines (about 125 pages, compared to 500 pages for The Odyssey) our hero goes on a quest, defeats a monster, journeys to the underworld to defeat yet another monster, returns home victorious and lauded by all, then faces a final challenge at the end of his life. This final challenge claims his life, but he still defeats the ancient evil that has been buried deep within the earth. In one of the most moving of literary passages, he is lauded and mourned by his people as the flames of his funeral pyre swallowed his body and riches.

There are elements of written oral traditions that I find difficult to read - namely, the tangents. The stories of the greatness of Hrothgar and Beowulf's ancestors, the warning inherent in the tale of Siegmund and his pride in his own great deeds. While I had trouble leaving off and picking up the main story around the shorter stories within it, I appreciated how the poet used those tales to give weight to the tradition of storytelling in this tradition. Overall, for sheer literary technique I would recommend Heaney's translation, the way that he tries to stick to the format of the Anglo-Saxon poet is impressive and commendable. For a first introduction to Beowulf or for pure enjoyment of the story rather than the craft of it, I would recommend Raffel's translation. If you're as much of a language nerd as I am, pick up both and compare.

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

Throne of Jade is the sequel to a book I read last summer, His Majesty's Dragon. The series is set during the Napoleonic wars, but with a twist: instead of a world in which dragons don't exist, these books take place in a world in which dragons do exist, are used as an air force, and are intelligent creatures. In particular we follow the adventures of Temeraire and his companion, Laurence. Throne of Jade picks up where His Majesty's Dragon left off; at the end of the first book, we learn that Temeraire is, in fact, a very rare and powerful dragon and his egg had been sent as a gift from the Emperor of China to Napoleon himself when Laurence (who had previously been the captain of a ship in the English Navy) captured it. Predictably, the Chinese are pissed and demand Temeraire be returned to China. Thus, this installment tells the story of Laurence and Temeraire's trip to China and Laurence's efforts to prevent his separation from the dragon.

The two things I liked most about His Majesty's Dragon were the action and the interactions between Laurence and Temeraire. Unfortunately, Throne of Jade was much lighter on both. Temeraire is an endearing character because of his innocence and his loyalty. He seem almost childlike, which can be very amusing, and his devotion to Laurence (and Laurence's devotion to Temeraire) make both characters more likable. But Throne of Jade focuses much more on the diplomacy and the Brits' attempts to persuade the Chinese to let Temeraire return to England. In the end, it was still enjoyable, but not quite as good as the first (though it finished strong).

There were a few other holes in the book that warrant mentioning. In England, dragons are treated almost like horses or dogs: their human companions are completely devoted to them, but they are used as tools of war and are not given nearly the same rights or freedoms as humans. In China, however, dragons are revered and are allowed to move freely through the cities and provide for themselves. Novik highlights this distinction when the transport carrying Temeraire and Laurence to China stops at a slave trading port and Temeraire begins to question the nature of human-dragon relations in England. However, instead of delving deeply into the subject, Novik just kind of puts it aside and returns to the plot of the story. On one hand, I thought that was kind of cheating, that she shouldn't bring it up if she's not going to tackle it (in all fairness, there was a little bit of foreshadowing that the topic will be addressed in the third book), but on the other I kind of wish she hadn't brought it up in the first place. It's not a requirement of actual social responsibility to call attention to the way dragons are treated in England because, you know, dragons don't actually exist (and I can't think of a situation that this was intended to be a metaphor for, unless Novik was just throwing it out there that slavery is bad) and it just kind of tainted what should be a light, enjoyable, action packed story. If I were looking for hard philosophical questions, a series of books about dragons in the Napoleonic wars is not where I would turn. Also, Novik is kind of racially and culturally insensitive. At one point she refers to a Chinese person as a "chinaman" (in a narrative description, not as a reflection of how the characters would speak at the time). Also, she says Temeraire's secret weapon is known as "the divine wind" by the Chinese, which I thought was interesting (seeing as how the word kamikaze means "divine wind" in Japanese). Maybe she was trying to be clever and missed or maybe she just didn't know the difference, but it seemed a little wonky to me.

Sorry for getting into a rant at the end; I actually did enjoy this book, even if not as much as the first one. Still up in the air whether I'll continue with the series. It'll depend on if I run out of things to read/how cheap the next one is on kindle.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

"The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at all. It is true the population has increased."

Waiting for Godot is a short little play by Samuel Beckett that’s often considered one of the most important plays ever written. Representing a near-complete break from the necessities of plot and coherency, its plotless plot—two men, Estragon and Vladimir, wait in front of a weeping willow for the never-to-show Godot, and interact only with a madman, Pozzo, and his mostly-mute slave, Lucky, and then start the whole process over again the next day—brought the absurd and unknowable to the mass audience of the theater.

Reading the play—I have a performance downloaded which I haven’t yet watched—I was struck by how involving it is. In spite of the nothing that happens (twice!), it still kept me wondering what wouldn(n’t) happen next. Never having read the play, I wasn’t sure if Godot would show, but after the first act, it became pretty evident that he wouldn’t be making an appearance in the second.

Because of Godot’s complete refusal to show its hand, it can be interpreted in any number of ways. Partially due to my own interests and partially due to the text itself, I found it most effectively read as a modern lament of the absence of God. Godot, inexplicable and unseen, never shows, never really explains, and only sends a young boy to tell the two men, at the close of every day, that he’ll come tomorrow which, of course, he never does. This smacks of deism, but there’s a strong strain of humanism in the play as well, in spite of its dim trappings. Beckett himself said it was only about symbiosis, and that symbiosis is evident in the exchanges between Vladimir and Estragon: they can hardly stand each other at times, but they certainly can’t make it alone.

It’s also worth noting that the play is pretty funny, in an absurd way, and if that’s your thing, you can enjoy it on that level as well. It seems like a work that would reward rereading; perhaps I’ll read it again next time I’m at the DMV.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

01 The Return by Roberto Bolaño trans. Chris Andrews

Sex, Violence, and Literature

Roberto Bolaño has been at the top of my list of favorite authors for about four years.
Why? Because he's better than you.
I like to think of him as these things:
1. a failed poet that found success in fiction (everyone that fails is better for it)
2. obsessed with all the best themes at the wrong time, and
3. one that died too young (drug circumstances notwithstanding)

I could easily waste 1000 words discussing the letdowns of the translation by Andrews or the crap editing/production job of New Directions, but those are two negative aspects in this new year of optimism and positivity.

The Return
reawakened my love of this Chilean expat. The Savage Detectives has been and remains my favorite work by Bolaño because of the humor, confusion, and scope; Admittedly I've never loved any of his shorter fiction (novellas, short stories).

While there are moments of perfection in all of his writing, I have pages of quotations that forced me laugh, admire, and miss my stop on the train, The Return finds a way to make those moments span an entire story that creates a feeling of eternity but can be read in 30 minutes. It's hard to explain, but within the 13 stories in this collection I felt fear, anger, love, arousal, disgust, awe, and satisfaction.

Yeah, I said aroused. "Joanna Silvestri" is a fantasy. Not my fantasy, but Bolaño makes her yours. I was happy the book is hardbound, just wished it was a bit bigger.

Sex is an obsession for Bolaño-themes of prostitution, pornography, and whores collide with violence and revenge. The story titled "Murdering Whores" really is about a whore that murders. Bolaño doesn't play with cliché. His background in poetry will not allow it. But he knows sex. Sex is used as bait, pleasure, profession, and child rearing.

Why is this worth reading and rereading? Because it is poetry. It makes you experience everything for the first time again, every time. Bolaño creates characters that are realistic, believable, and at the same time you wish they weren't. Nazis, Russians, ghosts, detectives.

Oh yeah, there's an awesome story about witchcraft in the Spanish First Division and Champion's League. I think Bolaño wrote that one for me though.

p.s.-if you think this is crude and that you, as a self respecting young woman or man, would never read such trash, be happy I didn't mention the story on necrophilia

Thursday, January 6, 2011

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the bone yard ten feet deep.

I am not much for horror—Steven King and his counterparts have never appealed to me. There’s something different about Shirley Jackson’s work, though. In high school, she caught my attention with The Lottery. It was a while before I read anything else by her, but I read plenty about her—drawn in to the private life of a neurotic woman prone to staying shut in her house who didn’t like to bring attention to herself with interviews and the like. I knew that anyone able to chill me as well as she had, that could write as eerily as she did, had to either have a wonderful imagination or be just a bit disturbed. Who doesn’t love an eccentric author?

Spoilers. Kind of.

Like most young people, Merricat, the main character of We Have Always Lived in the Caste, is prone to making deals with the universe. If she nails a book to a tree a certain way, her family will be protected from the townspeople who don’t like them. If she walks along the sideway just a certain way, no one will harass her on her bi-weekly trips to and from the town to bring her remaining family members books and food. I say remaining family members because most of her family is dead—killed six years prior with arsenic. Only Merricat, her older sister Catherine, and her senile Uncle Julian remain living in their home, holed away with the money the locals know they horde. Constance was accused of being the one to poison her family and was let off the hook—though everyone still believes she’s guilty because she had always been the one in charge of the meals. In the beginning, the reader can’t be sure whether or not she’s guilty, though we do know she believed her parents and the others deserved to die. Both girls seem strangely removed from the event, and don’t discuss it between themselves with the exception of a brief exchange at the end of the book. Julian, on the other hand, is utterly obsessed with reliving the day of the poisoning from start to finish, because he was one of the intended victims and barely survived. While the sisters have disregard for the dead, they seem to harbor some kind of feelings for Julian:

Once I brought Uncle Julian a new leaf from the chestnut tree and put it on his window sill. I stood outside in the sunlight and looked in at him lying still in the dark room and tried to think of ways I might be kinder.

This is coming from the girl he won’t acknowledge, who he swears to Charles is dead and not in the house at all, that is not allowed to touch his things. In particular, his collection of writing on what they refer to as The Last Day, that he has dedicated his days and nights to finishing, when he can get out of bed at all.

On occasion, a gossipy old woman will come to call on the girls for tea, but the rest of the time, the Blackwoods keep to themselves. Until a cousin with questionable intentions shows up for an extended visit, putting a wrench in the system that the sisters have carefully set up for themselves in order to maintain some sense of a family life and happiness. Merricat has always taken care of her timid older sister and shielded her from the public eye and then this man comes in, making Constance feel guilty for the lack of guidance she’s provided for her fierce but out-of-touch-with-reality younger sister, whose strange behavior is suddenly not so acceptable anymore now that someone else is paying attention and there’s a more suitable caretaker to run the errands and tend to things. The tension comes to a head when Merricat decides that she has to do something to push Charles out of the picture in order to protect her relationship with her sister, who seems to be bending to Charles' logic (and manipulation). First, she tries her magic:

It was important to choose the exact device to drive Charles away. An imperfect magic, or one incorrectly used, might only bring more disaster upon our house. I thought of my mother’s jewels, since this was a day of sparkling things, but they might not be strong on a dull day, and Constance would be angry if I took them out of the box…

When she tires of waiting for the results of her attempts to cast out her “demon” cousin with magic, Merricat takes things a bit too far and in the process, a large section of their house burns down. Just as the firemen come to their rescue (?) so do the people of the town, using the opportunity to tear the place to pieces and wreck everything the fire didn’t damage. From there, we have what seemed to me to be a haunting version of Grey Gardens where the two girls make due the best they can in a deteriorating disaster of a place, refusing visitors and putting up barriers to keep the curious out. They escape mentally, talking about how happy they are “on the moon” even though their uncle has not survived their second round of disaster and have only former tablecloths to wear for clothes and their world seems to revolve around keeping the kitchen, their one unblemished room, perfectly clean so they can take their tea like ladies in their only two remaining cups with handles.

The whodunit plot twist isn’t much of a plot twist, but I don’t think that was ever Jackson’s intention. The horror isn’t so horrifying. But there’s something strange about the love the sisters have for one another despite a horrendous crime and their inability to love anyone else that kept me reading until the last page… and somehow also kept me strangely sympathetic. I think I also had to hang on to see any of Merricat’s magic was going to work. I could argue the answer to that particular question either way.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Things That Matter by Edward Mendelson

In the process of applying to graduate school, I have been seized by a fear--perhaps one I should not detail too thoroughly in this, a public forum--a fear that I am entering into a world of obscurism and arcana, the kind of universe that inspired the late Dennis Dutton's yearly bad writing contest. For this reason I have gravitated toward critics like Harold Bloom, James Wood, and Edward Mendelson, a Columbia professor of English who in The Things That Matter writes:

[Novels]were not written to be read objectively or dispassionately, as if by some nonhuman intelligence, and they can be understood most fully if they are interpreted and understood from a personal point of view, not only from historical, thematic, or analytical perspectives. A reader who identifies with the characters in a novel is not reacting in a naive way that ought to be outgrown or transcended, but is performing one of the central acts of literary understanding.

Mendelson divides The Things That Matter into seven parts, each corresponding to the Seven Ages of Man. Each age is embodied by a book; for Mendelson, Frankenstein becomes a novel about birth, Wuthering Heights about childhood, Jane Eyre, adolescence; Middlemarch, marriage. Love, parenthood, and "the future" are given to three novels of Virginia Woolf's: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts, respectively.

This works better than it probably should. Mendelson is a thoughtful and--if this is a thing that can be said--a creative reader, seeing in novels what I had not imagined. He has the kind of wisdom that sees wisdom, and I found myself moved by several thoughts. Who would have thought that Frankenstein--which I disliked--had such subtleties as this, in an explanation of Victor's fascination with alchemy:

Magic is different from modern science in two crucial ways. First, magic promises results that are spectacularly vast in comparison with the amount of effort that goes into them, and, second, only exceptional individuals can wield magical powers. The words of a magical spell can be spoken as easily as any ordinary words, but when spoken by the right person, they cause earthquakes and thunders... Part of the appeal of the alchemist's magic is that it claims to give you something for nothing, provided that you are special enough to deserve it. (A similar fantasy of getting something for nothing seems to be behind the idea of "magic" in the realm of human relations: the husband or wife who complains that "the magic has gone out of my marriage" is perhaps disappointed at no longer being given something for nothing.)

Or this, about Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester:

Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester have each endured loneliness and solitude in order to arrive at this point, because in the world perceived by Charlotte Bronte all roads to the gardens of intimacy lead through deserts of solitude, and no one can attain intimacy who has not accepted loneliness.

I certainly do not agree with everything that Mendelson says. He makes a bold claim in his introduction that our foremost novelist of the past two centuries is Virginia Woolf, and that our sacred cows--specifically, Eliot, Yeats, and Joyce--are exalted by the assumption that pattern and myth are superior to human emotion and psychology. It is easy to appreciate the underlying sentiment, which appeals to the non-professional reader and forsakes the academic, but understates the ways in which pattern and myth anchor and organize human spirits and personalities. Nor does Mendelson quite believe it, I think, as he spends quite a bit of the section on Mrs. Dalloway explaining how it is patterned after Ulysses--itself patterned after The Odyssey.

But The Things That Matter rekindles my excitement for graduate work. Writers like Mendelson (and Bloom, and Wood) maintain, like the keeper of the vestal flame, the vitality of literature, and leave good maps for those who might follow them.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

"I was born with the devil in me," he wrote. "I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing."

This book considers, as Larson tells it, two key attributes of the human condition, pride and lust for power, through the stories of Chicago's World Columbian Exposition (the world's fair) of 1893 and of H.H. Holmes, one of the most prolific and downright creepy serial killers in America's history. Though the two stories are only related by time and place, Devil in the White City is still an interesting book and Larson weaves the stories together nicely.

Holmes's story is certainly the more lurid of the two. In the few years before and after the fair, he may have murdered somewhere between 20 and 100 people. He confessed to 27, but that number was clearly a lie (some of those people were still alive) and he was only convicted of murdering one, but the investigator who finally pinned it on him also dug up enough evidence to probably convict him of three others. In addition, investigators found bones from an unidentified number of people in the hotel he constructed only a few blocks from the fair, which doubled as his house of torture. His preferred method of murder was locking his victims, usually young women, in airtight chambers and either leaving them their to asphyxiate or pumping poisonous gas into the chambers. What made him really creepy was his ability to charm the pants off of just about anyone he chose. He convinced four women to marry him (he never divorced any of them, either, and only killed a couple or three of them) and frequently talked his creditors into suspending or forgetting his debts. Now I'm going to have to make a list of my friends and decide which one is a secret serial killer, because Holmes proved it really can be anyone...

Despite how gory and titillating the true accounts of Holmes's activities are, Larson's story of the Fair is more dramatic. In the last decade of the 1800s Chicago was suffering from a serious inferiority complex with respect to New York, so it nearly bit off more than it could chew by bidding on and winning the right to host a big ass world's fair to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus's arrival on the continent. Paris had held a world's fair a few years before (at which it unveiled the Eiffel Tower, an architectural marvel for the era) and Chicago had to step up and surpass it or humiliate itself and the country. The story of how the Fair came together was pretty interesting, especially considering how much of a marvel many of its aspects were at the time and the fact that it was the largest peaceful gathering in the history of the world to that point.

Overall an interesting tale and definitely worth a read.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

And god bless your eyes, and your hearing also and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.

Gilead takes the form of a letter from John Ames to his son, who was born when Ames about 70. Ames knows he won't be around to see his son grow up, so he wants to write down all of the things he would have told him if he had been around. Similar idea as The Last Lecture except fictitious and much more theological, as Ames is a preacher in rural Iowa, as his father and grandfather were before him. For the most part the book follows a stream of consciousness, diary type of format as Ames writes down his musings about God and life in general and works in stories from his life and the lives of his father and grandfather and the impact they had on him. He tells about how he lost his first wife and daughter, how he met his son's mother, and the blessing it was for his son to be born after years of yearning to be a father and giving up hope as he aged. About halfway through the novel Ames begins to focus more and more on the reappearance of his best friend's son, Jack, into his life. Jack's given name is John Ames Boughton; as you can probably discern, Ames's friend named his son after his friend. Though old Boughton envisioned Ames as a second father for Jack, Jack is a ne'er do well and he and Ames have a strained relationship from the moment Ames baptizes him. At this point I think Robinson gets a little off track; Ames stops imparting wisdom and starts using the letter to work out his the troubles that Jack causes him. It seems like if a real John Ames were actually writing this letter to a real son, he wouldn't have included many of these sections, especially the way the story resolves itself. However, the story is interesting and we get a better picture of Ames's character, which is what I think Robinson was going for.

Overall, I found the writing in Gilead appealing and Ames's discussion of his faith to be interesting and moving. Even though every once in awhile it got a little tedious, I would recommend this book.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

“…the question therefore was not whether a man would choose to be always in the primes of youth, attended with prosperity and health, but how he would pass a perpetual life under all the usual disadvantages which old age brings along with it. For although few men will avow their desires of being immortal upon such hard conditions, yet in the two kingdoms before-mentioned of Balnibari an Japan, he observed that every man desired to put off death for some time longer, let it approach ever so late, and he rarely heard of any man who died willingly, except he were incited by the extremity of grief or torture. And he appealed to me whether in those countries I had traveled, as well as my own, I had not observed the same general disposition.” – Gulliver, on living forever

Gulliver’s Travels is a strange book. Now mostly pigeonholed as a children's book, perhaps because most adaptations never make it past part two, it’s actually a scathing—extremely scathing—satire on both the specific political events at the time it was written, and on the shortcomings of mankind in general. It’s also an occasionally grotesque comedy, full of more poop than you can shake a stick at, and occasionally leavened with moments of poignancy, like the excerpt above, where the disadvantages of living forever are spelled out to the titular traveler.

The plot, for those who don’t know, revolves around Lemuel Gulliver, an intrepid traveler with an unnatural propensity for ending up in the most unusual places: Lilliput, where the tallest citizen barely exceed 6 inches in height; Brobdingnag, a land of giants; Laputa, a floating city full of brilliant idiots; and the country of the Houyhnhnms, where horses rule over feral—or are they?—humans.

Each episode is basically self-contained, and each presents it’s own opportunities for Swift’s two favorite things: the aforementioned scathing satire, and all the scatological humor a reader could ever want. Dogs are inflated with billows until they burst; horses climb trees to cover Gulliver in excrement; Gulliver is used as some sort of sexual aid for giant women; Gulliver pees on a building to put out a fire. Just saying, Swift likes his bodily fluids.

Of course, Gulliver’s Travels isn’t well-regarded because of its giggle-inducing dirty bits. Swift’s pen takes on virtually every high tower of the European empire (although we are repeatedly assured that the negative things Gulliver says about Europe do not apply to England), and the satire is as sharp and relevant today as when it was published. For example, government officials in Lillput are chosen thusly:

I was diverted with none so much as that of the rope-dancers, performed upon a slender white thread, extended about two feet, and twelve inches from the ground… This diversion is only practised by those persons who are candidates for great employments, and high favour at court. They are trained in this art from their youth, and are not always of noble birth, or liberal education. When a great office is vacant, either by death or disgrace (which often happens,) five or six of those candidates petition the emperor to entertain his majesty and the court with a dance on the rope; and whoever jumps the highest, without falling, succeeds in the office.


It’s difficult to tell to what extent Swift empathizes with Gulliver, which makes certain sections of the book a little challenging—for example, the Houyhnhnms, whom Gulliver seems to admire, and to whom are given mostly desirable qualities in contrast to humans, practice breeding in a way that seems perilously close to eugenics, and at one point, their council seriously considers genocide to rid their land of the Yahoo—that is, feral human—menace. Gulliver also, disturbingly enough, eats Yahoo meat and uses Yahoo skin to make clothes, making him essentially a cannibal and a Nazi tailor. They also seem rather xenophobic, eventually exiling Gulliver after 3 years of peaceful coexistence. To attribute all these views to Swift seems awfully presumptuous—he did, after all, write a famous essay about eating Irish babies—but they present a complicated counterpoint to Swift’s overall point—mankind has major issues.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

5 Favorites from a Year of Reading (2010)

I didn't read nearly as much as I wanted to this year, but here are some of my favorites.

The Princess Bride by William Goldman
I love this movie, and to me honest, I didn't know that it was a book until a couple of years ago. It is a brilliant story. Goldman did an amazing job of weaving this story together. It's hilarious and awesome.

The Millennium Series by Stieg Larsson
There is a reason that these books are so popular. Lisbeth Salander is one of the best female characters in a long time.

The Shadow of the Wind by Calos Ruiz Zafón
Zafón deftly weaves the history of Barcelona with an intriguing story of mystery and romance. The end product in an ode to storytelling. A love letter to reading.

The Tempest Tales by Walter Mosley
When Tempest Landry finds himself in front of St. Peter, he provides a justification for each of the sins he is charged with, he argues his case, and eventually refuses to go to Hell. No one had ever done this before, but if they had, they would have found out that the free will that man has on Earth follows him into the afterlife.

Misery by Stephen King
Creepy, creepy, creepy. Stephen King is a master of suspense and storytelling.