Friday, December 31, 2010

Brent's Top 10 of 2010

What a great year of reading! Except for the top 2, these are not in order.

Top 10 of 2010

Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The last book I read this year was also the best. It didn’t unseat The Brothers Karamazov for my favorite novel, but Demons had me from the first page. It’s got everything I look for in a novel: great characters, interesting ideas, a plot that keeps moving and, in the Pevear/Volkhonsky translation, really nice prose. Well worth the month it took to read. Recommend for kids with Che Guevera in their t-shirts.

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace is my favorite author that should still be living. Shorter then Infinite Jest, but possibly more difficult, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men never shies away from the dark side of human nature; indeed, without the postmodern games Wallace plays, it might be too dark to even be palatable. Wallace infuses the darkness with enough beauty to keep it from growing too oppressive, but BIWHM is the toughest book I read this year, for more than one reason. Recommended for people who aren’t contemplating suicide.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Conner
This barely missed the top 10. A dark southern gothic tale of sin and redemption, populated by unnerving but somehow relatable characters. Recommended for street preachers.

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West
Possibly the bleakest portrait of Hollywood ever to see print, Nathanael West’s little fable features a cast of despicable characters doing despicable things, and shocks without even trying. That we don’t want the entire cast to die in a fire is a testament to West’s characterization skills. Recommended for aspiring actors.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
David Mitchell’s newest novel spans from the Netherlands to Japan, following a Dutch shipping company and the eponymous Jacob de Zoet over fifty years. Surprising, beautiful, moving, and challenging, Mitchell is still one of my favorite authors. Recommended for pasty white guys.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A completely unexpected bombshell, Ford Madox Ford’s quietly devastating masterpiece came out of nowhere and depressed me for weeks. Chris wrote about it extensively; I didn’t, but loved it anyway. Recommended for fans of sadness, non-linear timelines.

Emma by Jane Austen
This year I read both Emma and Pride and Prejudice. P&P has the name recognition, but Emma barely edges it out as the better book. With all the dark novels I read this year, Austen was a little ray of light. Reading her, even at her most scathing, is a joy, and I’m embarrassed that I let her embarrassing fanbase keep me from reading her for so long. Recommended for guys who think they’re too cool to read Austen.

Travels with My Aunt by Graham Greene
Graham Greene in hedonism mode is nearly as good as Greene in Catholic mode. Exploring the flip side of his most famous themes, he leaves it to the reader to decide what’s right and wrong. Also, it’s really funny. Recommended for my aunt.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
Written entirely in a broken, cryptic dialectic, Riddley Walker shouldn’t work at all, yet somehow manages not only to be believable but affecting. Pro-tip: read it out loud. Recommended for people with a long attention span.

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton
G. K. Chesterton turns in a surreal performance with this, a spy novel that eventually goes… well, I won’t spoil it. Short, sweet, and a real joy to read, I recommend this for everyone.

Honorable Mentions:

77 Dream Songs by John Berryman
John Berryman turned my onto poetry. Some of the most beautiful stuff I read all year.

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
The best science fiction novel I’ve ever read. Also the year’s most depressing book not by David Foster Wallace.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
A great meditation on predestination and God’s authority, disguised as a fable about a girl’s school.

Dishonorable Mentions:

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
My first foray into magical realism sucked. Should have started with one of the major works.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"You are unhappy, aren't you? I see, I see, don't tell, but don't question me either. We are all unhappy, but we must forgive them all. Let us forgive, Liza, and be free forever!"

At the beginning of the year, my goal was to read all of Dostoevsky’s major works that I hadn’t read. As my list attests, it didn’t really work out; Demons is the first of his novels I’ve completed this year, and I didn’t leave much time to spare. In retrospect, though, it’s probably for the best; Demons was dense—and entertaining—enough to fulfill my big Russian book needs for a while.

Demons is different from Dostoevsky’s other major novels in that it is, at least on the surface, a political novel. It follows a fairly large cast of characters through a period of several months of upheaval, as a radical contingent of anarchists and nihilists try their best to overthrow the established government through a combination of civil unrest, labyrinthine schemes, and, eventually, murder. Of course, this is reductive: even if you don’t quite follow all the political machinations, the focus is, as always, on the people caught up in the intrigues, and the ideas and emotions that drive them. Calling Demons a political novel undersells it, and probably would have put me off of it had I not heard that it was also a comedy. It is, incidentally, but engaging it expecting Catch-22 is a mistake. The humor here is of a more vicious sort—brutal satire, bleak jokes, sad (and wicked) clowns; these are the main attractions here.

And the characters here are some of Dostoevsky’s richest: Stepan Trofimovich, a former rabble-rouser, reduced by years and unrequited love to a delusional shell of his former self; his son, Pyotr Stepanovich, a nihilist anarchist who disguises his own malicious ideas beneath the veneer of a clown; Kirillov, whose dedication to his nihilism makes Pyotr look like a poser; Nikolai Stavrogin, the mysterious figure whose messianic bearing is integral to the anarchists’ plot to bring down the government, but who may be interested in other things; and dozens of others.

Demons is, in some ways, a very unsubtle book. Unlike The Brothers Karamazov, wherein Dostoevsky gives Ivan the atheist the stronger case, even though Dostoevsky himself agrees with Alyosha, the saint, there’s never any question who Dostoevsky sides with in Demons. The anarchists are indeed misguided, but in unique ways. Repeatedly, it’s made clear that there is ultimately nothing to the ideology of the anarchists but a desire for upheaval and childish rebellion, but, in spite of this, they never come across as straw men. This is partially because Dostoevsky never spells out what the characters are thinking. Sure, there are long monologues and philosophical conversations, but the characters that people this novel are essentially as unknowable as a real human, in the best possible way. When the denouement arrives, it’s completely unpredictable and strangely inevitable, in the same way real life often is.

There’s no way to really share what this book is like in a short review, but I’d like to note that Demons is, like all of Dostoevsky’s major novels, a religious one. It’s a novel about God where God exists mostly in the margins. Not one of the major characters is religious, and the only one who has any sort of spiritual experience at all is brutally dispatched. It’s a novel of emptiness, and God is conspicuous in his absence. Stepan Trofimovich, in the scene excerpted above, is the only character to receive redemption, but what a glorious moment it is when a single point of light pierces through the darkness, illuminating the entire novel and showing what might have been, before disappearing as more men choose to be controlled by their demons instead.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Billy's top books of 2010

Overall I consider 2010 a successful reading year. While I did read some really bad books this year, for the most part I read them to revel in their mediocrity (see: Rocky, Swords from the North, Don't Hassel the Hoff) or because they were free downloads for my kindle (see: A Thin Difference, The Heir). However, I also read a lot of books that I really enjoyed. Here's the list of my favorites.

Non-Fiction Division
  • Let's Get Free by Paul Butler: I started the year off right with this book (by my Criminal Procedure professor) that shines a light on the problems and inconsistencies within our criminal justice system. Though I didn't agree with Butler 100%, he has some great ideas that seem eminently implementable if we could just get past our ignorant prejudices. The main idea I took from Let's Get Free is that people are going to do drugs, no matter what we try to do about it, and locking up non-violent offenders not only ruins their lives, making it harder for them to become productive members of society, it also shatters their communities (for example, the 13 year old whose father was incarcerated for the majority of his life) and leads to a self-perpetuating spiral. Also, we really only enforce drug laws against black people, so it's pretty racist to boot.
  • The Death of Innocents by Sister Helen Prejean: Sister Helen Prejean puts a face and a story to two men awaiting their executions (for crimes, based on her review of the facts, that they didn't commit). The fact that the two men are innocent doesn't matter as much to what I thought was the major takeaway from this book: that the people we kill in the name of justice are still human beings, still children of God, and to deny that by executing them is gross. I also found the stories of the families and friends at least as compelling as those of the men themselves. I read this book in anticipation of the seminar I took about the death penalty last semester, which, in case you were wondering, left me even more staunchly opposed to it. My review of this book caused the biggest 50 Books controversy that I've been a part of, and I thank my 50 Books brethren who stood with me against the salvos of that ignorant interloper.
  • The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong: The Brethren, like The Nine, which I read last year, shows an in-depth, behind the scenes view of the Supreme Court. This book focuses on the first few years of the Burger Court and includes several watershed cases, such as U.S. v. Nixon and Roe v. Wade. Looking back on The Brethren, what I remember most is trying to reconcile my strong respect and fascination with the Supreme Court as an institution and the failings of some of its members (mostly Warren Burger's, who came off as an epic buffoon). It also made me appreciate justices like Scalia, who I disagree with on almost everything but who is undeniably brilliant, even more. In the end, a fascinating book that should be required reading for anyone in law school or with any interest in the law or Constitution.
  • Honorable mention: The Damned Utd. and The Baseball Codes
Fantasy Division
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King: I finally tackled the Dark Tower series this year (shocked I hadn't gotten to it til now, despite being an avid Stephen King fan for about a decade) and I'm glad I did. It wasn't perfect (I'm looking at you Song of Susannah), but it was satisfying and as ensorcelling as a fantasy epic should be. The Dark Tower is the culmination of the seven novel series and, while it may not be the best (Wizard and Glass probably was), was valuable for the way it ended the story. After some thought, I found I appreciated either of the two endings King gives us and would recommend the series to anyone who enjoys Stephen King.
  • The Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R. R. Martin: Jim has been recommending these books to me for years and I finally got around to reading them. I'm not going to say they are high literature or anything, but they are very entertaining and I look forward to both the rest of the series (please don't die before you finish, George) and the HBO depiction this spring.
  • His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik: Hands down the gem of the "read it because it was free to download for kindle" division. This one is set during the Napoleonic Wars, if dragons existed and we used them as an air force. It may sound a little silly, but the characters and plot were compelling and I look forward to starting off 2011 with the sequel.
  • fail: The Magicians
Fiction Division
  • Run with the Horsemen by Ferrol Sams: I never got around to doing a proper review for this book, which is too bad because it's fantastic. I guess I just figured my meager skills as a literary critic wouldn't do it justice. Maybe Chris will read it next year... Anyway, Run with the Horsemen tells the story of a boy growing up in rural Georgia during the Depression. Through a series of anecdotes (often hilarious in a Tom Bodette/Garrison Keillor kind of way), we learn about what life is like for Porter and how he relates to his world. By the end of the book, you realize that Porter's most important relationship is with his father, despite his father's absence from most of the anecdotes. Porter both idolizes and is disappointed by his father and his struggle with this realization is very interesting. So read this book. If nothing else it's laugh out loud funny.
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: This was my first Vonnegut and I rather enjoyed it. Of course, my favorite part was the description of Billy's wang as tremendous, but the rest was good, too. I actually did do a pretty extensive review for this one, so see it for more.
  • fun, light reading: Rules of Deception, Like Warm Sun on Nekkid Bottoms
  • don't read it on a bet: Peace Like a River
So yeah, 2010 turned out all right. I got to 40, which was my goal, and I didn't even include any of my law school textbooks. Hopefully I'll do even better in 2011; I'm shooting for 45.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top 5

It seems rather to be jumping the gun to write a top ten with four days left in the year, because who knows what I might yet read in that time? Thanks to Christmas, there is a pretty impressive stack growing on my nightstand... But I suppose this is about what I have read and not what I will be reading.

This was a strange year filled with non-fiction on various topics from Paul Revere to grief, and a lot of G.K. Chesterton. Perhaps strangest was that this year marks the fewest books I have ever read, so I apologize but I shall have to stick with five. I'm used to a larger pool, and it is a rare book that can really make a lasting impression. Or if you prefer to place the blame on the reviewer... I'm picky.

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton: There might be better ways to start a year than reading Orthodoxy in a hammock in Brazil, but I haven't lived them yet. Essays on every topic under the sun written with a free and generous hand that somehow mixes profundity and hilarity in the perfect cocktail of Chestertonian delight. So good that I bought a lending copy because I never seemed to have mine on hand when I wanted it, which was practically all the time.
Keyword Search: "Nerd-vana"

The Barbarian Way by Erwin McManus: Despite initial images of Capital One commercials, this book was quite inspiring. In the short term, it made me want to buy a broadsword and go fight trees in the nearby woods; but in the long term, it actually provoked me into some pretty crazy and awesome life-changing experiences.
Keyword Search: "Fire"

The Soul of Science by Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton: Context, grounds-conclusions, a whole portrait gallery of historical figures in all their glory, and yes, this was my beach read. But who couldn't use a little more understanding of the origins and historical progression of physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and all of those wonderful things that fall under natural philosophy?
Keyword Search: "Comedy of Errors"

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton: "Topsyturvydom" and a streak of flame red hair from start to finish. I always knew we were insane, but as usual, Chesterton makes us sane enough to appreciate the poetry of our own lunacy.
Keyword Search: "..."

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller: A book about stories. Here's a man after my own heart... Who needs a book when our own lives are perpetually unfolding canvases of greater depth than any several hundred pages could convey? But then, the glory of fiction is that it is a training ground for finding the significance of reality, which is often harder to see.
Keyword Search: "Stranger Than Fiction"

Would've, Could've, Should've...:
The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill

Never Again:
Anything about sex education. I've ceased to care.

This has been "Top 5 with Christy." Tune in next time to hear Christy say... Perspicacious?

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

Now that I think about it, it's kind of funny that I was reading this book at this time of year because it's now around 9 years since I read my first Tolkien book, Return of the King, while spending Christmas at my sister's house in Florida. But that's neither here nor there. At one point in my life, I was a fairly serious fan of Tolkien's, and I would not count myself less so now, but it has been some three years since I last read any of his books. Thus, it has been an interesting treat to reread the book that I love so much. And in some ways, it feels like the story has grown with me, unfolding new depths that I missed when I was a thirteen year old nerd who couldn't turn the pages of her Silmarillion fast enough.

The plot, as ninety percent of the population knows, concerns one Frodo Baggins, who inherits a magical trinket only to discover that it is actually the much sought after One Ring belonging to the dark lord Sauron who needs it to complete his master plan of dominion and terror over Middle Earth. He must travel from the idyllic Shire to lands unknown through perils unheard of with friends the likes of which few hobbits could ever have dreamed of- except, of course, for Bilbo, but he is unique among them.

It's refreshing to read the books after having only watched the movies for a while. Though Peter Jackson did well enough (in some areas, surpassing expectation, in others... well, let's just say that I have a friend who created a hit list just so he could put Jackson's name on it...), Tolkien was a master in ways that cannot quite be transcribed onto Blu-Ray. For instance, Elves are seen almost purely in their mystical, otherworldly element, but the laughter, song, and even worldly flaws of the Elves are missed in favor of angelic choir soundtracks and the fading gray of twilight. I (selfishly?) like knowing that they too can do wrong, perhaps explaining my greater love for The Silmarillion with proud, doomed Feanor and his sons, the grasping and greedy Elu Thingol who must have had some redeeming qualities if he had such a wife as Melian the Maia who would leave her home in Valinor to be with him, but also the nobler Beleg, Glorfindel of Gondolin, and Finrod Felagund.

It's hard for me to say more than that about such books, so I apologize if my few remarks give little insight into Fellowship, only I hardly know where to begin. For some, it begins a journey that basically defined the genre of fantasy, for others, it is a plunge into a deep world of symbolism, meaning, and purpose that reflects more than a little of the world around us, and for still others, it's the synthesis of so much legend and myth that it can barely be called the work of one man so much as hundreds. However it is approached, I always find myself traveling a new and unique path with each rereading of this treasured classic.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Top 10 for '10

Without further ado, here are the best ten books I read this year. For inconsistent reasons, I am not including Shakespeare, who is so undoubtedly awesome I don't even feel like talking about him, and some of the books I have already read, like Riddley Walker and Pride and Prejudice, though those are really fantastic.

10.) Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH Lawrence -- I am deeply suspicious of the underlying message of Lady Chatterley's Lover, which seems to me to be tediously reactionary in its idealization of the sexual act. But reading it was a sheer joy; I have read very few better-written books, if any.

9.) A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene -- The story of a man who tries to run from himself and from God, but finds them, together, waiting in the leper colonies of Africa. Probably deserves to be "canonized" with the quartet of Greene's "serious" novels (and it's certainly better than The End of the Affair).

8.) The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark -- I could have easily included The Only Problem here instead, but this one sort of epitomizes Sparkian elegance. It's the story of a girls' organization in war-era Britain, but that only scratches the surface: Really, it's the story of time, and death, and a reminder of their constant presence.

7.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov -- Russian, satirical, fraught with religious imagery and talking cats: Brent should have read this years ago.

6.) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh -- Probably the most dogmatic book I have ever read that I thought was successful, and that includes Graham Greene. There is no ambiguity that religious belief is a good--perhaps the only good--in Brideshead, but Waugh's sharp sense of humor and character make it compelling instead of preachy.

5.) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte -- Are there Austen-style Jane Eyre sequels yet? If not, why not? It makes me think about Pride and Prejudice if someone had given it to a screenwriting hack to be "punched up," and the film that comes out in March should be awesome.

4.) A Room with a View by EM Forster -- This is a stranger book than it lets on, always subverting expectations. It is not, as it pretends to be, a book about an English girl on a trip to Italy. It may be a satire. It may have a happy ending. I am not sure.

3.) The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco -- What would Sherlock Holmes be like if he were, oh, say, a Franciscan monk? A big, brain-wracking puzzle box of a book. Not for the faint of heart.

2.) Emma by Jane Austen -- My ex-girlfriend suggested recently that carrying around Jane Austen books makes me look gay. If that's true, then I am the gayest gay that ever gayed, but that's okay, because Emma will keep me company in my bachelorhood.

1.) The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford -- I realize that this is a blatant violation of the rules I set on myself at the outset (I read this before, in high school) but I did say they were inconsistent. The Good Soldier is a novel of not understanding, the best book that has ever been written where the narrator makes no pretenses to know anything. Confusion--religious, sexual, epistemological--is its principal dynamic, and it is wonderful to lose yourself in.

Honorable Mention:

The Only Problem by Muriel Spark
The Complete Stories by Graham Greene
God's Grace by Bernard Malamud
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Dishonorable Mention:

The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole
The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave
The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

MACBETH: ...Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day
And, with thy bloody and invisible hand,
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale. Light thickens,
And the crow makes wing to th' rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse.
Thou marvel'st at my words, but hold thee still.
Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.

My aunt gave me a copy of Harold Bloom's Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human for Christmas. In it, Bloom professes a special love for Macbeth, and calls him the most imaginative of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Of course, Macbeth blurs the line between real apparitions and false. Some visions, like the witches on the heath are certainly real--Banquo sees them too--and others, like the "air-drawn dagger" that Macbeth sees just before killing King Duncan are certainly imagined. Others, like Banquo's ghost, lie somewhere between.

But the fact remains that Macbeth, in all his imaginative power, is someone who knows exactly what he's getting into. From the first, he seems to understand that the actions foretold of him spell his own doom:

I am Thane of Cawdor.
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs
Against the use of nature?

So why does Macbeth do it? There are many answers, none of which feel quite sufficient. The worst of these is that Macbeth is prodded to it by his more domineering wife. Yet Bloom notes also that the Macbeths present us, ironically, what may be the strongest and most equal marriage in all of Shakespeare's tragedy. For my part, I note that long after Lady Macbeth has gone mad from guilt and committed suicide, Macbeth himself remains, showing a greater reserve of inner strength which belies this explanation.

Explanations that focus on Macbeth's destiny seem also insufficient, insofar as they downplay the natural qualities in Macbeth (and Lady Macbeth) that make him agreeable to the murder of Duncan, as well as those of Banquo and the family of Macduff. Nor do they fully embrace the chicken-and-the-egg ambiguity inherent in the witches' prophecy.

Bloom's suggestion is something I would never have considered on my own. It centers around Lady Macbeth's strange assertion in 1.7:

I have given suck and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me.

We know that the Macbeths are childless; what child is this? Is it from a former marriage? Or a child that has died? In any case, there is now no child and Macbeth has no issue. It is this fact that propels his murders: The witches foretell his kingship, but also that the line of Banquo will become king afterward, supplanting the heirless Macbeth.

Children make the fear of death more bearable. Our lives are by their nature too short to accomplish all that seems to us our potential, but while our children live something of us lives, too. Macbeth's frenzy, then, may be seen as a desperate rebellion against death, to take all power unto himself though the consequences are clear. He strikes at the children of others: It is Fleance, Banquo's son, he really wants to kill, and he succeeds in murdering Macduff's son. Blood, which is suggestive of both generative and destructive power, obsesses him:

It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

Macbeth's wanton violence wavers somewhere between a will to destroy the issue of others and a perverse attempt at leaving a sort of negative legacy--rather than no legacy at all--and it is worth noting that the play has at least one example of a child born from violence, Macduff, who was "from his mother's womb / untimely ripped."

But Macbeth must ultimately face the fact that his only capabilities are negative capabilities; he engenders nothing but destroys all. His most poignant moments are late in the play, after Lady Macbeth's suicide, when his imaginative powers are transmuted into a prescient clarity about his own worth. His "tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow" soliloquy is the most famous of these and is possibly bettered only by Hamlet's "to be or not to be." But almost as good is this less infamous one:

I have lived long enough. My way of life
Is fall'n into the sere, the yellow leaf,
And that which should accompany old age,
As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honor, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

Lear's tragedy is that he spends the entire play driving himself mad thinking that he does not have what he truly does, Cordelia's love. Macbeth's tragedy is that he has never made a Cordelia, and cannot escape such truths, like Lear and Lady Macbeth do, into madness. He is instead tormented by his sanity. Finally, the only thing left for him is to go into that abyss that he has created.

Note: This will be my last book of the year. The first book I read in 2010 was King Lear. Like all things, the year begins and ends with Shakespeare...

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

So this was the first actual comic book I have ever read cover to cover. My friend Ryan let me borrow it because we had been discussing who would win in a fight, Batman or Superman, and the two go at it in this (apparently, according to wikipedia, non-canonical) story. The experience was both interesting and frustrating; on one hand, Batman's vigilantism is called into question and debated throughout the comic, but on the other I'm apparently not very good at reading comics and found it hard to figure out exactly what the hell was going on. Also, there was a lot of back story that I didn't have all the pieces to, though I could pretty much get the gist.

But enough about my failings as a comic book reader. I saw Batman in a different light in this edition. Though he still stops short of killing any of the villains he battles, he still seems to have little regard for due process. In one illustrative exchange, two talking heads discuss whether Batman's methods are acceptable.

Ted: "Miss Lang, you are the Batman's most vocal supporter. How can you condone behavior that is so blatantly illegal? What about due process, what about civil rights?"

Ms. Lang "We live in the shadow of crime, Ted, with the unspoken understanding that we are victims - of fear, of violence, of social impotence. A man has risen to show us that the power is, and always has been, in our hands. We're under siege - he's showing us that we can resist."

(this last dialogue bubble was at the bottom of a page. as I read it i was thinking, ummm, that has nothing to do with anything, which is why I was so glad when I turned the page and saw...)

Ted: Lana, you haven't exactly answered my question...

But we don't really get into it much further from there. The new police commissioner vows to hunt Batman down, but we don't get much more thoughtful debate on the right and wrong of it. Of course, I probably shouldn't expect much thoughtful debate on such a topic from a comic book, but in the end I kinda felt like Batman was a Constitution-hating dick.

So yeah, I didn't really love it and wouldn't recommend it if you're not into comics. And I still think that Superman is better than Batman.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil. But suddenly, as we struggled round a bend, there would be a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass-roofs, a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stamping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling, under the droop of heavy and motionless foliage. The steamer toiled along slowly on the edge of a black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us--who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms...

I do not wish to dwell too long on the question of whether Heart of Darkness is a racist text. It is. Chinua Achebe is not right about everything, but the thrust of his argument I consider unassailable. Most critiques to Achebe amount to an insistence that it is Europe that is really being implicated in Conrad's novel, but saying that Europe is as bad as Africa is not exactly charitable to Africa. That is to say that intent is irrelevant--no matter what conclusions we are meant to draw, we are working from a particularly vile set of first principles that takes the horrific inscrutability of Africa and its people to be self-evident.

The question I find to be more interesting is what comparison is being made. The structure of Heart of Darkness is essentially metaphorical, but what is the object of that metaphor? In technical terms, Heart of Darkness provides us with a vehicle--Marlow's journey into the Congolese interior to retrieve the wayward station manager, Kurtz--but the tenor is somewhat less obvious. We would know instantly, if we could only see the images that visit Kurtz in his death-fever:

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,--he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath--

'"The horror! The horror!"

The interpretation I recall from reading it in high school was that the novel is really about the rapine colonization of Africa by European powers. Europe, this view suggests, is as rotten and repellent as Africa at its core. And that would indeed provide a neat comparison between the Congo River and the Thames, on which Marlow tells his tale to the unnamed narrator. But this interpretation seems woefully incomplete. Can it be that Kurtz, who even on his sickbed protects jealously his stockpile of ivory, has had such a change of heart?

A better answer, I think, is that the journey being traced is psychological. Examine this passage:

[Kurtz] had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land--I mean literally. You can't understand. How could you?--with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policemen, in the holy terror of scandal and gallows and lunatic asylums--how can you imagine what particular region of the first ages of a man's untrammelled feet may take him into by the way of solitude--utter solitude without a policeman--by the way of silence--utter silence, where no warning voice of a kind neighbour can be heard whispering of public opinion? These little things make all the difference. When they are gone you must fall back upon your innate strength, upon your own capacity for faithfulness.

Kurtz is a sort of ubermensch--a man whose capabilities exceed ours. He is rumored to be impassably intelligent and eloquent; his will overpowers. We are told that he outstrips his peers at the extraction of ivory by an absurd degree through these gifts; white men and natives alike are in thrall to him. Marlow sees him, mouth open, as having a "weirdly voracious aspect, as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him." If anyone has the "innate strength" to bend the African landscape to his will, it is Kurtz, and to some extent he does. And yet, when Marlow retrieves him from his outpost station, he finds him enfeebled and terrified on the fringes of some phantasmagorical night-ceremony.

The utter silence of this land reduces a man to his barest self, Marlow tells us. Robbed of civilized company, Kurtz approaches himself, and discovers his own interiority. Despite his supernal qualities--or perhaps because of them, exacerbated by them--Kurtz is horrified by the journey he must make into his own psyche, his most primeval and basic elements: his "reptile" brain.

Less often quoted are the words that precede Kurtz's last:

It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror--of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge?

Kurtz, it seems to Marlow, dies in the act of self-examination.

You might notice a certain circuitousness to it: The jungle, through its isolation, drives Kurtz's horror of the self, but it is also symbolic of it. The African tribesmen--conspicuously denied their own interiority--are both causes and expressions of this agony. The line between the self and the Other is constantly being blurred in Heart of Darkness, like some sort of photographic negative of Walt Whitman's democratic self. Or perhaps it is best expressed by Frost, talking about the same self-horror:

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars--on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

As far as Conrad's Africa resembles an alien world, this Frost may have considered Heart of Darkness something of a facile enterprise.

Achebe would have us throw the whole thing on the scrap heap where we keep minstrel shows and our tapes of Amos 'n' Andy. But Heart of Darkness endures because it has complexities and subtleties that Achebe's work lacks, and a thin ripple of irony that allows us to put Conrad at some distance from his narrators--though Achebe has a tin ear for it. It deserves both the praise of critics and Achebe's scorn, and if we can't abide by that sort of contradiction we are poor readers indeed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

GUIL: No, no, no... you've got it all wrong... you can't act death. The fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen--it's not gasps and blood and falling about--that isn't what makes it death. It's just a man failing to reappear, that's all--now you see him, now you don't, that's the only thing that's real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back--and exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.

I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead because I thought it would be an interesting companion piece to Gertrude and Claudius. Both are attempts to look at Hamlet from different vantage points, but Stoppard's play is decidedly more tangential. His protagonists, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, are decidedly minor characters: Hamlet's college friends turned spies for Claudius, who appear on stage to be mostly spoken at, and then are dispatched with little fanfare.

Rosencrantz and Guildernstern works better than Gertrude and Claudius because it nimbly sidesteps the trap into which Updike falls. Attempts at recontextualizing Hamlet are bound to fail because Hamlet is so expansive; derivative works will always feel narrow and slight. Stoppard embraces that feeling and uses it as the dynamic force in his play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know next to nothing about the events that propel Hamlet, and so Rosencrantz and Guildernstern becomes about the frustration of understanding. They have been asked to keep an eye on Hamlet and report to his uncle, but they don't know why; they are so little informed that this assignment becomes impossible. Stoppard elevates this lack of understanding to a universal, neurotic affliction:

ROS: I remember--

GUIL: Yes?

ROS: I remember when there were no questions.

GUIL: There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter.

ROS: Answers, yes. There were answers to everything.

GUIL: You've forgotten.

ROS (flaring): I haven't forgotten--how I used to remember my own name--and yours, oh yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it--people knew who I was and if they didn't they asked me and I told them.

GUIL: You did, the trouble is, each of them is... plausible, without being instinctive. All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque. A man standing in his saddle in the half-lit half-alive dawn banged on the shutters and called two names. He was just a hat and a cloak levitating in the grey plume of his own breath, but when he called we came. That much is certain--we came.

In this way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern provide a contrast for Hamlet, who seems to know everything. In the postmodern world there are no more Hamlets, however, and a great number of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns. Like this pair we too suffer from an incompleteness of knowledge, and spend our lives trying to reconcile ourselves to it.

There is a final question, of course: The man in the hat and cloak, "levitating in the grey plume of his own breath" becomes a likeness of Death, who has called them--as he calls all of us--without telling us why, or when, or how. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exhibit some sense that they have been cast into a plot that ends with their doom, and ironically everyone in the play, including the audience, understands more of it than they do. Even at the last, Guildenstern is left wondering:

ROS: All right then, I don't care. I've had enough. To tell you the truth, I'm relieved.

And he disappears from view. GUIL does not notice.

GUIL: Our names shouted in a certain dawn... a message... a summons... There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where w e could have s aid--no. But somehow we missed it. (He looks round and sees he is alone.)


He gathers himself.

Well, we'll know better next time. Now you see me, now you-- (and disappears).

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Persuasion by Jane Austen

His choice of subjects, his expressions, and still more his manner and look, had been such as she could see in only one light. His opinion of Louisa Musgrove's inferiority, an opinion which he had seemed solicitous to give, his wonder at Captain Benwick, his feelings as to a first, strong attachment,--sentences begun which he could not finish--his half averted eyes, and more than half expressive glance--all, all declared that he had a heart returning to her at least; that anger, resentment, avoidance, were no more; and that they were succeeded, not merely by friendship and regard, but by the tenderness of the past; yes, some share of the tenderness of the past. She could not contemplate the change as implying less.--He must love her.

Anne Elliott hardly belongs in the same company as Austen's more infamous heroines, Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet. She has nothing of either's more appealing flaws--Emma's gregarious meddlesomeness, and Elizabeth's prideful wit--and indeed Austen is famous for having remarked that Anne herself was "too good for her." Like the other two, she is fiercely intelligent; though while Emma's intelligence is social and Elizabeth's bookish, only Anne's can be called practical. Her most singular trait, however, is her perceptiveness: Anne alone sees and knows those around her, though she is rarely seen and hardly known except by the object of her love, Captain Wentworth.

He, too, is perceptive, but more narrowly in that his perception extends chiefly to Anne. Once, eight years before the book begins, that shared perception nearly led to marriage, before Anne allowed herself to be persuaded against it by her godmother, Lady Russell. When Wentworth appears again, compelled to renew his association with the Elliots by (as is always the case in Austen) a matter of property, he spends most of his time trying to avoid Anne in spite of his feelings. Here is a book in which the two principals barely speak to one another, and yet Anne and Wentworth operate on a separate wavelength, by which their thoughts are available to each other, whether they wish them to be or not.

Wentworth's detachment makes him something of a cipher. Is there anything else to recommend him to us? He is a decorated serviceman, with impeccable manners but an undistinguished intelligence and a clumsy romantic impulse. One suspects that only die-hard Austenites would read Wentworth fan-fiction. But we believe in him because we trust Anne, and while she is being roundly ignored by her father, sisters, cousins, et cetera, Wentworth is attuned to her, which must count for something.

The perceptiveness that Anne and Wentworth possess enables their survival in Persuasion's universe, which is marked by some of Austen's most savage satire:

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was very stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little ared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

One of most interesting questions about Austen's work is to what it extent it opposes the social framework of her era; attempts to categorize Pride and Prejudice as a feminist novel, for example, inevitably overshoot the mark. Persuasion seems to me to be Austen at her most radical, and the above paragraph presents a view of an England that has no conception of true value. Anne's blessing is that she understands the worth of others; Wentworth's is that he understands the worth of Anne.

And yet, as with her other novels, Austen's social commentary cedes precedence to the expression of character. In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom has an essay called "Canonical Memory in Early Wordsworth and Austen's Persuasion." It's one of Bloom's shaggiest pieces, and I don't think I can really describe what Bloom means by "canonical memory," but I will agree that memory is the novel's most vital force.

There are, by my count, three widowers in Persuasion and one widow. Lady Russell is one, and so is Anne's hopelessly vain father, Sir Elliot. Anne is linked romantically to the other two: William Elliot, a cousin and the inheritor of the Elliot estate (think Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice), whose marriage was unhappy, and Captain Benwick, who, while not technically a widower, recently endured the death of his sweetheart. At first blush either would seem a match for Anne--Elliot is insanely wealthy and charming, Benwick bookish and intelligent.

And yet by the book's end we come to understand exactly why Anne needs Wentworth. Her perceptiveness, combined with her innate kindness, has led to a lifelong campaign of self-denial in which she quite admirably suffers the pettinesses of her family and friends without complaint. Wentworth represents Anne's past and as such does what no one else can: He connects Anne to herself. She, in turn, does the same for him. Neither Elliot nor Benwick can do this for Anne, nor she for them; having buried their first loves their pasts are wasteland, ruinous, irrevocable.

Persuasion, quite simply, is a novel of second chances, of memories reclaimed as living truths. Elizabeth and Emma require a great deal of self-discovery before they can find love; Anne is fully fledged and only needs to rediscover Wentworth, whom she has lost, and who, quite happily, has found her again.

P.S.: I didn't read the version pictured, but I wish I had, because that is an illustrator that really understands the book they're illustrating. Love the symbolism of Anne's telescope.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Man Who Was Thursday; Fire and Fragrance; Heretics; River Secrets; When Heaven Invades Earth

There are not many books that strike me as this one did, and I suspect it's because it combines the novel delight (I actually didn't mean to make a pun... sorry) of fiction with the wonderful mind of Chesterton. Beginning with the red-haired woman who forms the one bright flame in a tale of darkness, confusion, fear, and, ultimately, absurdity, the story follows a certain Gabriel Syme, who we quickly discover to be a detective for a special police force. He ends up on an anarchists' council, attempting to take down the top man while fearing for his life at every turn, and through a series of strange encounters, he discovers the absolutely nothing is as it seems. I loved it and would have reread it immediately except that I have far too much to do and too little time to do it in.

This book is basically a rousing call to action by two voices in the 24/7 prayer and missions movements. They're both primarily speakers, so the book reads like a lecture. If I hadn't had both of them as teachers before reading it, I think I would have appreciated it more, because they have some pretty great stories to share and, if you can dig them out, points to make. What impacted me most was the concept of urgency and legacy: living as if the world could end tomorrow while making plans as if you'll live to be 100.

Another volume by G.K. Chesterton... It took me a little while to get into this one, probably because I hold everything Chesterton writes against Orthodoxy regardless of whether that is a fair comparison to make. Nonetheless, as this was the volume that preceded it, it seemed sensible to discover what he was referring to with arguments and contestations.

I don't remember any particulars (it having been well over a month since I read it) except that I enjoyed his defense of bores.

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person. Nothing is more keenly required than a defence of bores. When Byron divided humanity into the bores and the bored, he omitted to notice that the higher qualities exist entirely in the bored, the lower qualities in the bored, among whom he counted himself. The bore, by his starry enthusiasm, his solemn happiness, may, in some sense, have proved himself poetical. The bored has certainly proved himself prosaic. (from ch. 3: "On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and making the World small")

This was a quick read. It's the third in the Books of Bayern series, which began with the re-written fairy tale of the Goose Girl. The next two books follow from details and characters in the first story, but they don't do the fairy tale thing.

Basic plot breakdown: Razo is the smallest member of the king's elite guard and doesn't seem like a very apt candidate for the job. When he is chosen to escort a diplomatic party to the country of Tira (with whom they had a war in the second book, Enna Burning), he and many others are rather confused. But then lots of crazy things happen with a radical group that loathes the people of Bayern, and his particular skillset comes in handy to save the day. Hurray! Happy coming of age story replete with intrigue, romance, and all that other stuff.

Bill Johnson is an amazing speaker, and he's a pretty good writer too. The most jarring part was probably the perspective shift, because he approaches life from a completely different angle than even many of his readers (who are likely a rather homogeneous group in most respects). But that just made it all the more challenging. It was intense, profound at times, and always candid. The title pretty much says everything about what it contains.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike

She felt this would happen but once, this unfolding of herself, and so she was luxuriously attentive to it, as if she were both storyteller and heroine, physician and invalid. In their hours of stolen intimacy, Fengon disclosed to her in the white mirror of his own body, furred and pronged, a self laid up within her inner crevices and for forty-seven years merely latent, asleep. All her unclean places came alive, and came clean. Did she not carry in her veins the warrior blood of Rodericke and of his father, Hother, the vanquisher of Guimon, who had betrayed Gevare and whose live body Hother burned in revenge? Protest had been lurking in her, and recklessness, and treachery, and these emerged in the sweat and contention of adulterous coupling.

John Updike's Gertrude and Claudius is predicated on a major miscalculation: That the story of Hamlet can be told without Hamlet. Or, rather, that a prequel to Hamlet can be written in which Hamlet himself is forced to the periphery, barely mentioned (I don't believe he has any quoted dialogue in Gertrude and Claudius), perpetually away at Wittenberg. The problem with this is not merely that Hamlet is a superior work--which it is, to everything--but that Hamlet is too large to be contained this way. He is too expansive; he commands our attention even when he is not on stage. Hell, he commands our attention when we're reading things that have nothing to do with Hamlet.

Gertrude and Claudius'
neatest trick is that Updike, borrowing from Shakespeare's original sources, Saxo Grammaticus and Francois de Belleforest, splits his prequel into three sections in which the characters are first called by the names Grammaticus gives them, and then Belleforest's, and finally Shakespeare's. So Gerutha in Grammaticus becomes Geruthe in Belleforest and finally Gertrude in Shakespeare; Feng becomes Fengon becomes Claudius; Amleth becomes Hamblet becomes Hamlet; Hamlet's father Horwendil becomes Horvendile becomes--as Hamlet himself subsumes all others--Hamlet senior.

I was first inclined to think that this was a sort of pedantry, but I decided that it has an appealing thematic thrust: The story's progress toward Hamlet is inexorable, and by extension, our principals' progress toward death. Updike's Hamlet is an apocalypse, though a hastily sketched one; the crimes of Gertrude and Claudius are by comparison are minor stuff. Gertrude is a noble, clever woman trapped in a marriage of political convenience. Claudius is a wise, cosmopolitan adventurer unfairly overshadowed by his older brother, and is incited to murder only when his brother threatens to dispatch Gertrude as punishment for their adultery. Here are people whose yearning ought to make them more relatable than Hamlet, whose vengeance looms larger than its cause.

But Updike has too much to overcome to make Gertrude and Claudius work. First of all, he doesn't help himself with flabby discourses on Danish history and geography like this one:

Geruthe and Horvendile paid a patriotic visit to the battlefield of Fotevig, where over a century ago Erik the Memorable had decisively defeated Niels and his son Magnus, who had treacherously murdered Duke Knud the Breadgiver, conqueror of the Wends, in Haraldsted Wood. Magnus fell at Fotevig together with no fewer than five bishops. Erik's victory had been aided by three hundred German armored knights hired for the occasion, a technological innovation which at blow rendered popular levies upon the peasantry obsolete.

Or pointed references to the original, like this one from Corambis, known in Shakespeare as Polonius:

"Without forgetfulness, milady, life would be intolerable. All that we have ever felt or known would come crowding in upon us, like rags stuffed into a bag, as they say happens to unfortunates in the moment of drowning. It is averred that it is a painless death, but only the drowned could tell us with assurance, and they are silent, being so. That is, drowned."

Because his daughter Ophelia drowns in the play. Get it?

But the real issue is that Gertrude and Claudius is incapable of surprising us. We know exactly what will happen: Gertrude will fall in love with Claudius and Claudius will kill the King and usurp the throne. This is, save for a few minor details, the entire plot of Gertrude and Claudius. Gertrude's feelings about her marriage can be surmised without reading them, and there is little about their affair that might capture our interest, especially from an author who might reasonably be called our foremost literary expert on adultery. The novel's most powerful effect is to make us impatient for Hamlet and then to interrupt the narrative before he does or says anything of interest. It may drive us back to the original play--a result of no small worth--but there we find that Updike has little to illuminate.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Golden Ass by Lucius Apuleius

Stupid people always dismiss as untrue anything that happens only seldom, or anything that their minds cannot readily grasp; yet when these things are carefully inquired into they are often found not only possible but probable.

The Golden Ass, or the Metamorphoses, by Apuleius is one of the earliest existing examples of what we would now think of as narrative literature. It’s not quite a novel; it’s more like a short story collection with a more-substantial-than-usual wraparound story. Divided into eleven short “books”, it follows the misadventures of a young man, Lucius, as he pursues his interests: magic, women, and living life.

Every section has at least one interstitial story, some longer and better than others. The most famous of these is Psyche and Cupid, appearing for the first time in Western literature. It’s a beautiful story well-told, and maybe the best part of the book. Other stories generally revolve around violent death or poorly hidden affairs; sometimes there’s magic.

Reading The Golden Ass is somewhat strange. It’s been around for such a long time, and has influenced everyone from Shakespeare, to Cervantes, to Augustine, that reading it sometimes brings on episodes of déjà vu. Its elements have been reappropriated so many times, particularly the central gimmick of the protagonist changing into an animal—in this case, the titular ass—that by all rights, The Golden Ass should be dull and predictable. However, it avoids this pitfall in two ways. First, like Don Quixote, it’s an example of a form in flux, and, as such has no qualms about incorporating poetry, folk tales, songs, author self-insertion in ways that feel almost postmodern—ridiculous, right? Secondly, The Golden Ass is quite a ribald piece of work—Philip Roth can’t hold a candle to the debauchery that takes place in these episodes.

In the last book, which is unfinished, the tone changes as Lucius, desperate for reprieve that seems forever out of his grasp, prays for deliverance from his donkey form or, barring that, death. It’s a beautifully written passage, serious where most of the book is silly, and powerful. I’m sure there’s infinitely more to it than I can cover here—the Latin original is supposedly full of wordplay—but The Golden Ass is still a must-read for anyone interested in the capital-C classics, whatever the language.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

"Hell, boy. At some point, all fathers want to kill their sons. Just like all sons think about killing their old man. THey're too much alike or they're not enough alike. t doesn't matter. What's beautiful is that they don't do it." - Some guy in this book

There's only one problem with L.A. It exists.

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them. – Mark Twain

Every year, I read a book or two that barely qualifies as a book at all. Whether it’s a Christopher Pike novel, a novelization of a video game, or Chuck Palahniuk, there’s always one book that makes me cringe just a little when I see it on my annual list. The thing is, for the most part, these books aren't touted as something they aren't—with the exception of pretty much anything by Palahniuk, I’ve known what I was getting into; I’d just forgotten how depressing a bad book could be.

This year’s bad book award goes to Sandman Slim, the ostensible subject of this post. It follows the titular protagonist, a man who’s literally been to Hell and back, as he tries to track down and kill the former friends who sent him there in the first place. It would be classified, I suppose, as urban fantasy, and it takes most of its imagery from the Bible: Satan, archangels, weird evil angels, actual demons, and some other creatures make appearances throughout. The writing style is a mixture of noir-style toughness and 19-year-old notebook scribbles. The takeaway from this book: Slim is EDGY. Everything in this whole book is EDGY. Slim is on the ball; he realizes that God and the devil are both just screw ups, equally selfish, stupid, and useless. He’s the center of the universe, and since he’s an immoral jerk, well…

It sort of pains me to write those previous paragraphs. Full disclosure: as a Christian, I would have found sections of this book offensive if the whole thing hadn’t been so offensively stupid. It’s never exciting, involving, suspenseful, sad, happy, and, perhaps most damningly, it’s never fun or funny, in spite of Slim’s non-stop stream of EDGY, hilarious bon mots.

So, of course, the real question isn’t “Was this book about a guy who kills angels and stuff good?” but, as Chris asked me, “You knew what this was about and you read it anyway?” It’s a hard question to answer. Movies can be so bad they’re good, but it’s tough for a book to reach that point. Bad books are time consuming and depressing, and after I’ve finished them, I wish I’d spent my time on something else. On the other hand, I feel like there’s some benefit to reading really terrible stuff. For one thing, if you like to write, it gives you something to look at and say, “I could do better than that.” As a reader, it keeps you balanced and gives you some perspective: no matter how much you disliked the last Jane Austen, or even Chuck Palahniuk, book you read, it wasn’t as bad as Sandman Slim. It might also help you (me) to choose more carefully in the future.

Next up: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

Memento Mori by Muriel Spark

They were assembled once more in the dining-room where a fire sparkled weakly in the sunlight.

Henry Mortimer said: "If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practise which so intensifies life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs."

Memento Mori, if it had not been for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, would probably be now remembered as Muriel Spark's most significant novel. It continues to make itself available to contrarians who would call it, contra Brodie, her masterpiece, and indeed it possesses a kind of fullness, or richness, that her non-Brodie books often seem to lack.

The cast is unwieldy, a panoply of eldlerly figures coming to terms with the end of their lives. All are curmudgeonly, and some downright senile:

"I have quite decided to be cremated when my time comes," said Godfrey. "It is the cleanest way. The cemeteries only pollute our water supplies. Cremation is best."

"I do so agree with you," said Charmian sleepily.

"No, you do not agree with me," he said. "R.C.'s are not allowed to be cremated."

"I mean, I'm sure you are right, Eric dear."

"I am not Eric," said Godfrey.

One by one, each of them begin to receive anonymous phone calls that tell them, "Remember that you must die." This is the memento mori of the title--an allusion to the lone figure that, when a Roman emperor or general would receive a triumph, or victory parade, through the heart of the city, would lag behind him whispering a humbling reminder of his mortality. In Rome it was a check against the ambitions of the powerful, but these characters have only delusions of power, and age and death--by means of spurious wills--threaten to bring masters on equal footing with their servants. No emperors can be found here.

Instead, these phone calls ought to be a warning against pettiness and unscrupulousness: Your last days are a time to make things right. But the old folks of Memento Mori are obstinate, and cling to old jealousies, ancient affairs, bizarre sexual perversions, and insidious blackmail. They obsess over the identity of the caller--who, it is suggested, may have supernatural origins--but only rarely do they ever stop and consider the implications of the caller's message.

Spark was 41 when she wrote Memento Mori, which you might call novelist-young. She persisted, according to Stannard's biography, quite crankily into her late eighties. One wonders, when faced especially with the character of Eric--the spoiled, untrustworthy son of Charmian, a once-successful novelist--whether the novel is something of a vision of Spark's own convalescence. As it is, Spark never mended her own broken relationship with her son Robin, and in the late stage of her life they came very much to resemble Eric and Charmian.

Is the title of the book, in Spark's case, advice unheeded? The characters that deal most positively with the anonymous calls are the ones who are most religious (like Charmian, when her senility wanes), and as such Memento Mori is presented as a defense of Spark's mid-life conversion. But if we can grant Spark some measure of clairvoyance--or perhaps, acknowledging her persistent obsession with control both in life and literature, a considerable measure of self-determinism--it comes also to a recognition of the difficulty of truly setting one's mind on last things.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

Have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time - beautiful?

A Room with a View was a strange book. Although its settings are diverse, starting out in Italy and making stops in a couple other countries, much of the story feels like a chamber drama. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine the whole novel playing out on a stage, which would easily hold all the novel’s principles at the curtain call. The conflict is mostly internal, with most of the external action holding significance only because of what we, the readers, know to be happening internally. The big events in the novel—a murder, an unkept secret—are background to the real drama, that of Lucy’s transformation from proper Victorian woman into a more modern type.

The story is simple: young Lucy Honeychurch is staying in Italy with several other people, including her cousin, Charlotte Bartlett, strange outsiders Mr. Emerson and his son, George, wannabe novelist Eleanor Lavish, etc. One day, while downtown by herself, Lucy witnesses a murder, passes out, and comes to in George’s arms. This leads, eventually, to a stolen kiss, and then the action moves to England, where Lucy attempts to forget about George through an engagement to a boorish lout, Cecil.


At risk of simply repeating Chris’s review, I think Cecil may be Room’s greatest creation: at first a simple, boorish snob, he becomes suddenly human when Lucy breaks off her engagement in favor of George. It’s as if he goes from a two-dimensional line drawing to a fully realized three-dimensional character, suddenly commandeering our sympathy once he reveals his weaknesses. He leaves the novel, never to return, immediately after his redemption, a perfect gentleman, not a villain at all.

The ending of the book is romantic without being sappy, probably due to its brevity—Forster spends only as much time as necessary to establish George and Lucy’s bond, not letting their romance, which is, pardon the redundancy, romantic, become sappy or unbelievable.

I don’t know what else to say about A Room with a View. It seems like a fairly simple book, , not necessarily thematically—there’s a lot here about religion and art, to begin with, that I haven’t touched on—but there is something skeletal and bare about the novel, not In a bad way, but in a way that’s extremely compact. Like this review.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

So, with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 last week, I decided it was time for me to finish up the Harry Potter series. I was a fairly early reader, picking up the first book right after the second came out, and, up until Order of the Phoenix released, I read them more or less as soon as they came out. Unfortunately, OotP really didn’t do it for me, and I didn’t read The Half-Blood Prince for a year or so after I finished that tome. I started Deathly Hallows soon after it came out, got bored after about 100pp, and told myself I’d get back to it eventually. I finally did.

I share the above to share this: I feel like how much one enjoys Deathly Hallows, especially the first half, is directly proportional to how seriously one takes the story; that is, I always enjoyed Harry Potter as a fun little lark with some dark edges. As the books got more serious, diminishing returns set it—although I enjoyed Half-Blood Prince, it wasn’t nearly as fun as the earlier books for me, especially Goblet of Fire, which is probably my favorite. So, now that I’ve rambled, let me address the actual book.

First, the negatives: The first half of this book was really, deathly (haha) slow. There were huge sections that felt like they could have been seriously condensed, especially the interminable setup for Harry’s escape from Death Eaters early on. Also, this book is SERIOUS. There’s little of the lighthearted humor that characterized the first few books—which makes sense thematically—but I found that it created a distance for me because, as I mentioned earlier, I never thought of Harry Potter as inherently serious. Lastly, there’s a lot of exposition. Most of this takes the form of newspaper articles, excerpts from Dumbledore’s biography, and word of mouth from other characters. There are also conversations that are basically info-dumps—in other words, a lot of telling instead of showing.

Now for the positives: by the end, I’d been won over. I underestimated connection to the characters, and when it all went down in the end, I found the various fallout, including deaths of some important characters, surprisingly effective. A couple long-standing characters get a shot at redemption, and Rowling does a good job at avoiding the various attendant clichés. The final confrontation(s) between Harry and Voldemort and well-drawn, and the entire last half of the book moves very quickly and seamlessly. I was surprised how little navel-gazing there was, pleasantly surprised since that’s basically what turned me off of the series to begin with. I was also impressed with the complexity of the plot—there were a couple times that hewed close to dues ex machine, one of the series’ most consistent problems, but for the most part the story played out organically, using characters and touchstones from throughout the seven books to draw everything to a mostly satisfactory conclusion. I even liked the Epilogue, which, although it was a little cheesy, read to me more like Rowling trying to limit the amount of post-series fanfic and mostly succeeding.

It may sound like I’m damning Deathly Hallows with faint praise, but it was probably the 3rd best book, after Half-Blood Price and Goblet of Fire. It was satisfying in a way that long-running series rarely are, and it hit the right notes when it counted.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Room with a View by E. M. Forster

The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never was such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy's first aim was to defeat herself.

I didn't intend it, but A Room with a View pairs nicely with The Ambassadors: Here are two books about people living conventional, oppressed lives who do not understand how stifling their existences are until they visit continental Europe. The actual nations and nationalities don't matter much--Paris isn't nearly so vital to Strether as Chad and his circle are, and for Lucy Honeychurch of A Room with a View, Florence isn't nearly so vital as the young man she meets, George Emerson, whose eccentricities make him both fascinating and a wildly inappropriate match.

Lucy is traveling with her elder cousin when she meets George at a pension house in Florence, where George and his father offer to trade rooms with them so that they can have a view of the river. It is a great kindness but also an impropriety which Forster exploits for great comedy. George continues to be there for Lucy when the "real" Italy threatens to overwhelm her--once, when she is stranded in the Cathedral of Santa Croce without her guidebook, and again when she witnesses a brutal murder in the Piazza Signoria. But when George, overcome with passion, kisses Lucy on a trip to Fiesole, she flees to Rome where she becomes engaged to a dull, critical buffoon named Cecil Vyse.

Forster originated the concept of "round" and "flat" characters and the number of strong, vibrant personalities is one of the most remarkable achievements of A Room with a View. Forster also has a knack for the perfect set-piece or minor detail:

She beheld the horrible fate that overtook three Papists--two he-babies and a she-baby--who began their career by sousing each other with the Holy Water, and then proceeded to the Machiavelli memorial, dripping but hallowed. Advancing towards it very slowly and from immense distances, they touched the stone with their fingers, with their handkerchiefs, with their heads, and then retreated. What could this mean? They did it again and again. Then Lucy realized that they had mistaken Machiavelli for some saint, hoping to acquire virtue. Punishment followed quickly. The smallest he-baby stumbled over one of the sepulchral slabs so much admired by Mr. Ruskin, and entangled his feet in the features of a recumbent bishop. Protestant as she was, Lucy darted forward.

I love this--Lucy's shallow distrust of Catholicism, the mordant humor of the children being blessed by Machiavelli, the silliness of the words "he-baby" and "she-baby." Forster slips through any number of literary modes with great success, from the satirical to the gothic:

Two Italians by the Loggia had been bickering about a debt. "Cinque lire," they had cried, "cinque lire!" They sparred at each other, and one of them was hit lightly on the chest. He frowned; he bent towards Lucy with a look of interest, as if he had an important message for her. He opened his lips to deliver it, and a stream of red came out between them and trickled down his unshaven chin.

And to the romantic:

He carried her to the window, so that she, too, saw all the view. They sank upon their knees, invisible from the road, they hoped, and began to whisper one another's names. Ah! it was worth while; it was the great joy that they had expected, and countless little joys of which they had never dreamt. They were silent.

In this manifold way Room stubbornly refuses, until we find out whether Lucy will ultimately leave Cecil for George, to commit to either comedy or a tragedy. Cecil is awful: pedantic and cynical, and dismissive of Lucy. But when she breaks off their engagement, he is suddenly and shockingly redeemed and humanized:

There was a pause. Then Cecil said with great emotion:

"It is true."

"True on the whole," she corrected, full of some vague shame.

"True, every word. It is a revelation. It is -- I... I'm not going to worry you. You are far too good to me. I shall never forget your insight; and dear, I only blame you for this: you might have warned me in the early stages, before you felt you wouldn't marry me, and so have given me a chance to improve. I have never known you till this evening."

Our hearts break quite unexpectedly for Cecil. It is sobering: happiness, Forster tells us, is possible for some but it is not possible for all. The novel's conflict is in Lucy, who must learn to be honest with herself about what she both wants and needs, but it is Cecil who is the casualty of this conflict. A Room with a View succeeds on the virtue of this element of honesty, when its final chapters could easily have become cloying or sentimental. It is nice to see that Lucy has come to know herself, and good to remember that not all who do so are happy with what they find.

Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

“I was trying to think who you reminded me of. Somebody who went about strewing ruin and desolation and breaking up homes which, until he came along, had been happy and peaceful. Attila is the man. It’s amazing. . . . To look at you one would think you were just an ordinary sort of amiable idiot–certifiable, perhaps, but quite harmless. Yet, in reality, you are a worse scourge than the Black Death. I tell you, Bertie, when I contemplate you I seem to come up against all the underlying sorrow and horror of life with such a thud that I feel as if I had walked into a lamp post.”

An effective farce is often described as being like clockwork. That is, all the wheels and gears are set in motion, one at a time, working independently but also, at the same time, pushing the other parts of the clock to better things. All these disparate pieces—gears, springs, wires—working together cause something to happen—In the case of the clock, to turn the hands; in the case of the farce, to build to a comedic climax. If this is indeed the criteria, then P. G. Wodehouse is undoubtedly the master of the literary farce. Exercising a writing style that is uniquely British and not too far removed from more mannered writers like Jane Austen, Wodehouse moves his characters like chess pieces, timing their interactions so that they all work together to deliver an appropriate payoff.

The dual lynchpins of Wodehouse’s Jeeves series, of which Right Ho, Jeeves is the second, are the narrator, the somewhat dim Bertie Wooster, and his brilliant, unflappable butler, Jeeves. Wooster essentially serves to set the gears in motion, and Jeeves works as sort of a pendulum, to extend the metaphor, making sure that, ultimately, everything runs in proper time.

The setup of Right Ho, Jeeves is simple: Wooster’s demanding Aunt Dahlia demands that he act as presenter at an awards ceremony to be held on her estate, and, in the parallel plotline, Jeeves is acting as counselor to Gussie Fink-Nottle, a newt-obsessed man who, though lacking social skills, has fallen in love with the strange Madeline, and needs Jeeves help to get everything working smoothly. From there, it gets more complicated, as Wooster forcibly takes over Gussie’s counseling, and manages to mess up everything.

I confess, Right Ho, Jeeves took some time to win me over. By their very nature, farces start out mildly amusing and build; with this in mind, the slow beginning wasn’t bad—Wodehouse has a very pleasant, easy-reading style—but it wasn’t really making me laugh much either. However, the build was impeccable, and by the time an inebriated Gussie is decides to use the awards presentation as a platform to drunkenly attack everyone present, I was laughing out loud.

I wouldn’t say Wodehouse is great literature, but I suspect it’s better than I thought it was initially—after all, haven’t we heard that drama is easy, but comedy is hard? It takes a certain sort of skill to write a funny book, and Wodehouse has it.