Thursday, September 3, 2009

The presence to concede

All right, I give up. This blog is officially going on hiatus. I can't possibly do this in addition to being a full-time teacher in my first year of teaching. I'm sad to say it, but there it is. I hope those of you who read so far enjoyed it, and I hope to be back someday. Perhaps in the summer.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Slouching toward Bethlehem

Current book: Things Fall Apart
Pages read: None

I cadged the book off a fellow teacher, but haven't had any time to read. I'm the worst blogger ever. ::hangs head in shame::

Monday, August 24, 2009

Surely some revelation is at hand

Current book: Things Fall Apart
Pages read: None

I still don't have this darn book. It was the first day of school today. What can I say?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The falcon cannot hear the falconer*

Current book: Things Fall Apart
Pages read: None

It's now the end of teacher workshops. I'm still a horrible updater, but I should get the book today, one way or another. I wouldn't hold your breath on an entry until Monday, though.

I didn't even make exciting food. Instead I, you know, got ready for an entire school year. Ahem.

*Did you think I was going to quit with the Yeats? Hah.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The center, clearly, cannot hold.

Current book: Things Fall Apart
Pages read: None

It's the first week of school and I haven't had the chance to get to the library or bookstore. Suck it up.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

It's a matter of life after death.

Current book: Rebecca
Pages read: 167-324 (end)

This book was incredibly entertaining, I have to say. I kind of tore through it and didn't have time to write. It stopped being just a workout book and became my primary book, too, so it got finished more quickly than I intended.

I was totally right about Maxim killing Rebecca. It turns out that she was totally evil and manipulative, and also, apparently, sexually transgressive. The narrator finds out about Rebecca's murder after a ship runs aground in the bay near Manderley, and the diver who's sent down to check out the underside of the ship discovers Rebecca's body in the cabin of her sunken sailboat. Since Maxim already identified Rebecca's body, months ago, things seem a little fishy. While he confesses to the narrator, he doesn't confess to the police, and, after an inquest, is found innocent. Weirdly, the fact that the narrator finds out about the murder brings the couple closer together, and she and Maxim are finally able to be completely in love with one another and happy. Mrs. Danvers, however, devastated and unconvinced, burns Manderley down while Maxim and the narrator are away dealing with the legalities. The end.

Drama! Murder and arson and sex and crazy people! How can you not like this book? Honestly, I feel bad calling it a great novel because it's so damn entertaining, but it's also an interesting and innovative twist on the society novel that reveals the darker underpinnings of the moneyed class and the repercussions of marriages in that world. Nice, Du Maurier. Very nice.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Like an overgrown bat

Current book: Rebecca
Pages read: 7-167

I actually read these pages in two days, but I completely forgot to post yesterday. I offer you the excuse that instead of posting I made sushi for the first time ever. I was just doing vegetable maki, but it came out pretty much perfect. So that was nice. I also worked out, went to the Asian grocery store for the sushi supplies, made butternut squash and mushroom soup, frosted cupcakes, and went for a walk. Of course, today I worked out, went for a walk, cleaned the apartment, did laundry, and made Boeuf Bourguignon, and I’m still posting. So you guys just sit there in awe of my productivity. Because I said.

The book, to come to the point, is excellent. It’s the story of a young woman (nameless, in that mysterious narrator kind of way) of the middle class who marries a society widower named Maximilian De Winter (referred to as both Max and Maxim). Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, was drowned in a sailing accident about a year before he meets the narrator. The narrator is only 21 to Maxim’s 46; she’s somewhat unrefined, though sincere and kind, and harbors a great deal of self-doubt as a result of her social status. When she arrives at the great manor house, Manderly, of which she is supposed to become mistress, she finds the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, intimidating and controlling. The shadow of Rebecca is everywhere, and though Maxim has chosen to close the wing of the house in which Rebecca used to spend her time, everything else is still arranged to all of Rebecca’s exact tastes and desires. The narrator, understandably, is preoccupied with thoughts of her husband’s first wife, and slowly learns from Mrs. Danvers, the household staff, and the people of the area that she was beautiful, accomplished, and popular. Maxim never wants to discuss his first wife, and seems likely to freak out about the whole thing at any moment.

It’s quite compelling and suspenseful. The continual descriptions of the blood-red rhododendrons that surround the house and darken many of the windows are, I suppose, less than subtle, but that doesn’t mean they’re not effective. The ominous air about the manor house is further thickened by Mrs. Danvers swooping around startling the narrator whenever she looks into the dark and disused areas of the house. I feel like I have no idea what will happen in the end, but I’m fascinated by the possibilities and the foreboding atmosphere du Maurier’s created with them. We might find out that Maxim killed Rebecca, or at least was somehow partially responsible for her death, or maybe Mrs. Danvers will go mad and try to kill the narrator for trying to replace her beloved former mistress. Or maybe Maxim will have a complete breakdown have to be put in an asylum. Anything could happen.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Oh no, not again.

Current book: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Pages read: 1-216 (end)

This book is honestly difficult to assess, due to the fact that I've read it a gazillion* times. It's the story of Arthur Dent, an unassuming Englishman saved by his best friend, Ford Prefect, (a native, it turns out, of Betelgeuse) from the destruction of the Earth. Ford is a researcher for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a snarky encyclopedia of all the knowledge in the universe, and manages to hitch a ride on the ship of the hostile bureaucrats who destroyed the Earth in the first place. Ford and Arthur are promptly kicked off this ship, but miraculously picked up by Zaphod Beeblebrox, the president of the galaxy, and his girlfriend, Trillian, an acquaintance of Arthur's. They're miraculously picked up because Zaphod's stolen a ship powered by improbability, which is Adams's clever way of making his deus ex machina a sharp little joke instead of a weak plot point. The four of them end up visiting the planet of the designers of Earth, who, it turns out, were commissioned to make the planet as a giant computer to determine the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, to which the answer, it has been previously determined, is 42. The mice of Earth, commissioners of said computer, are quite upset at its destruction, but decide they can get the answer from Arthur's brain, though it will require surgical removal. Due to this threat, Arthur, Ford, Zaphod, and Trillian make a thrilling escape.

It ends rather abruptly, actually, which I had either forgotten or never knew, since I always read the trilogy in a collected edition. I'm also not doing it justice, since you can't repeat the humorous diction and internal dialogue jokes with any success. The jokes, I must admit, get a little stale with repetition, but when you're 12 and reading it for the first time, it's pretty much the greatest thing ever. Best 100 novels? I don't know. One of the funniest 100 novels? Most likely.

* A technical term meaning "so many I can no longer remember the exact number, but I'm pretty sure it's upwards of ten."

Friday, August 7, 2009

The digital watch is a pretty neat idea!

Current book: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Pages read: None

So, I thought about just faking this post and pretending I'd read, because I've read this book...mmm...maybe six times? But I'm all honest and trustworthy, so I'll tell you I haven't started it yet. And I didn't even cook anything fancy. Also, no post tomorrow because I'm out of town. Maybe Sunday, but don't go holding your breath.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Unclad refection

Current book: Naked Lunch
Pages read: 1-195 (end)

Here's the deal with this book. It's a detailed, hallucinatory portrayal of drug use set in an ambiguously futuristic society that's designed to highlight both the modern hysteria about drugs and junkies and the disgusting realities of long-term addiction. It works in vignettes and scenes that are structured to echo the shattered time-sense of the addict and therefore purposefully disorient the reader. Human existence, especially consumptive activities like sex, eating, and violence, are exaggerated to the point of abhorrence and even nausea in order to give the reader a more striking picture of drug use and what it could become in a future overwhelmed by it. This both informs and disgusts the reader while simultaneously satirizing the mass media's obsession with addiction.

Look at that, you guys. Wasn't that a reasoned, logical, and observant reflection? Because what I wanted to say was, "Oh my god, I hated it so, so much! Why can't I unread this book and never have to think about it again? It was nonsensically pornographic drivel!"

I am a model of restraint.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: 238-351 (end)

So, during the cruise, when Julia and Charles meet again, they also fall in love and begin an affair that subsequently lasts for years and ends in both of them divorcing their spouses for one another. Unfortunately, they never actually marry, due to the fact that Julia's guilt, as a lapsed Catholic, prevents her from doing so. She's spurred to the pinnacle of that guilt by her father's death, at the very moment of which he crosses himself and accepts, once again, the faith that he'd long ago denied. The end, rather abruptly.

It was kind of an anticlimactic ending that didn't live up to the promise of the beginning of the story, but then, Charles Ryder's life didn't live up to its early promise either, which is sort of the point. It's a matter of realizing that Waugh isn't trying to portray the daring exploits of Charles Ryder and his interesting but tragic friend Sebastian, but rather show us the bleak reality of life: that there is no way of telling how things will turn out. Some things will go well, and others ill, and that's simply how it is. It's really quite elegant.

There are also, of course, some heavy implications about the gradual decline of the English aristocracy, but Waugh treats that with a careful touch as well. There's a gentle sadness about it, a sort of nostalgia for the greatness and beauty of both the old estates and the noble families that are attached to them. It's impossible, however, not to notice the contempt Waugh has for the idea that those families are somehow inherently more valuable as people. Sebastian alone is an eloquent and simple foil to that idea.

Good. Worthy of the list. I'd recommend it.

Stupid Naked Lunch. I do not want to read about drugs and giant insects. God, I hate this kind of thing. On the plus side, it's hard to believe it's going to be worse than what I'm imagining. Dread is an applicable word.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Son of slacking revisited.

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: 238-351 (end)

I read, but I just don't have the post in me tonight. Long day. Too tired to analyze literature. Tomorrow.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

O my brothers.

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: None

Ok, now I'm just putting off reading because I don't want to read Naked Lunch next. Maybe I'm being unfair and it'll be great, but somehow I doubt it. I saw the movie and I'm not sure I'll ever actually recover. Granted, I was twelve, and that shouldn't really happen to any twelve-year-old, but still. A note, though, to anyone who's got kids: if you have more than two children with any decent interval between them, don't let the eldest one show the youngest any movies until they're both at least sixteen. Seriously. There may be emotional trauma. A Clockwork Orange was another one I saw way too young. Although, frankly, I'm not sure any age is old enough for that movie. I maintain that it deserves an NC-17. This is all totally off the subject of literature. How about that?

Friday, July 31, 2009

Slacking revisted. Revisited.

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: None

Odd of me not to post on Thursday or Friday, but sometimes I'm unpredictable.

I made baked falafel.

See? You didn't see that coming.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hypnagogic skillz, yo.

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: 148-238

I don't mean to brag (except for how I pretty much do), but the last paragraph of the previous post was incredibly coherent and eloquent considering the fact that I was literally falling asleep at the keyboard as I wrote it. I actually had to backspace a line of repeated keystrokes that were caused by my sleep-paralyzed fingers lingering on the t. Anyway, that's not relevant, but I'm kind of amazing.

Charles is successful at Parisian art school, and eventually turns his hand to architectural studies, at which he is quite talented. Sebastian, however, sinks further into his alcoholism, causing numerous uncomfortable scenes at family gatherings. He eventually disappears and takes up residence in Casablanca (Which is in Morocco, if you didn't know. But you should have, because there's no excuse for not having seen the movie.) where Sebastian is later forced to track him down to tell him that his mother is dying. He's too busy living a debauched life with a young German man to come back to say goodbye to her (it's unclear whether they're lovers, but it could go either way pretty easily), and we're left with the impression that it'll all come to no good.

Julia, Sebastian's sister, enters into an unfortunate union with a longtime Canadian friend, Rex Mottram. He turns out to be rather a cad, but by the time she really learns that, it's too late for Julia to give him up, due to her abiding and passionate love, so they get married anyway. After the episode of Sebastian's mother's death, Charles makes his living as a professional architectural painter, publishing several folios of England's great houses and one of Latin American architecture, to great acclaim. He, too, is married, to the sister of a friend from Oxford, but the marriage hardly seems a happy one. What little we've seen of his wife pretty much consisted of the two fighting about the children, the house, and Charles's painting expeditions. As I left them, Charles and his wife were just setting off on a cruise to America upon which they had encountered, by chance, Julia and Rex. Cue romantic intrigue.

I realize this book sounds a helluva lot like many of the other books I've read, as far as the plot goes, but somehow it's entirely different. Whether it's the fact that Waugh's writing in 1944, that he's gifted and evocative with his characterization and description, that I'm in the right mood for him, or, more likely, a combination of the above, this book is far more compelling than its counterparts written in earlier times. I don't know what it is about 1920s prose, but it kind of drives me insane. It wasn't, it seems to me, until later in the century that the tone of the modern novel actually managed to resolve itself into something admirable.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: 68-148

I was right about Sebastian's salvation of Charles, which he neatly accomplishes by breaking a bone in his foot and calling for Charles to aid and entertain him while he's laid up in bed. It doesn't take long, of course, for Sebastian to be up and about, and the two young Oxford lads spend the summer drinking the Earl of Brideshead's (Sebastian's father's) wine, reading poetry to each other, and conducting decorating experiments. After a month or so, Sebastian takes Charles to Venice, where the Earl of Brideshead lives with his mistress. Charles has a lovely time sightseeing on the Brideshead dime, but eventually the two must head back to school.

Their mutual sophomore year is much different than their freshman year, in that their old circle of friends disappears and the two are almost always alone together. During various vacations and holidays, when Charles nearly always goes to Brideshead, it becomes apparent that Sebastian is rapidly becoming both an alcoholic and an outcast from his family. Because Charles is so often around the family, but clearly Sebastian's friend, he finds himself in the awkward middle territory of being called on by Sebastian to stand with him against his family and the world, and being called on by the family to influence Sebastian for the better. Charles tries to avoid the issue as well as he can, and though he and Sebastian are, at one point, arrested for drunkenness, things continue fairly uneventfully until Sebastian reaches the nadir of his alcoholism, and is found drunk, in middle of the afternoon, by his 10-year-old sister. Sebastian's sent to live with a supervising priest at Oxford, while Charles decides he should go to a European art school and learn to paint.

The things that make this book so remarkable are Waugh's humorous and incisive style and his uncanny realism of characterization. I honestly don't know how he does it. It doesn't even seem like it should be a particularly memorable story, and yet I find myself captivated by it, simply because Waugh's prose gives me no choice in the matter. Ah, if only I could write as well.

There are some interesting homosexual threads through the text, too, which it would be hard not to incorporate into such an important series of male relationships. When Waugh acknowledges the possibility of male-t0-male attraction, he does so matter-of-factly, not as though it's not important, but rather as though it's simply a matter of course. (Then again, Britain is the home of Eton and prefects, so I guess it makes sense, after all.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

A promising early career

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: 3-68

Oh, man. This book is awesome. I don't know what it is, precisely, but I find the prose compelling in the extreme. The voice and the character development is superb in its realism, and lends the story humor, nostalgia, and intrigue at intervals. I'm telling myself not to read too much of it all at once, but I don't know if I'll be able to hold out. (Although the thought of the upcoming Naked Lunch should keep me from going too fast.)

So far, we've met Charles Ryder, currently a Captain in the British army during World War II, whose company has just been transferred to an area near the Bride river. As it turns out, Charles spent a lot of time there during his days at Oxford. After that short introduction, we're plunged into the story of Charles's Oxford days and how he came to spend so much time at Brideshead, the manor house located near the Bride. Charles wastes a lot of his time at Oxford with Sebastian, the second son of the Earl of Brideshead, who carries around a teddy bear at all times and charms most of the student body. Basically, we've witnessed their meeting and subsequent hijinks, and the final term of Charles's first year has just let out for summer. Because Charles has squandered his allowance for the year and his father won't give him any more money, he's forced to sit at home and brood about all the fun things he could be doing. He's only been home a couple of days, but it looks to me as though Sebastian, or something else, might come to save him from his poverty and boredom.

Like I said, Evelyn Waugh's kind of amazing. This story doesn't sound all that thrilling, but with Waugh's characterizations and powers of description, I find myself enthralled even by the most insignificant of interludes. It even made me lose track of time on the elliptical machine. Considering that I class working out as a form of self-inflicted torture, that's fairly impressive.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Slacking revisited*

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: None

I have the book now; I'm just a slacker.

Also, it's a movie edition. Why do people do that? I hate movie editions of books. I realize the cover doesn't matter at all, but it makes it seem like the movie came first. Movie covers should be reserved for novelizations so you know they're horrible travesties of literature.


*I bet I'll be able to use this title a good five times.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read.

Current book: Brideshead Revisited
Pages read: None

Can't read when you don't have the book. Still waiting for InterLibrary Loan. I don't know why it takes four days for a book to travel across the city. I should really just start going to the branch libraries.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Negative. I am a meat popsicle.

Current book: Women In Love
Pages read: 368-460 (end)

Well, Ursula and Birkin join Gerald and Gudrun at Innsbruck, where they all stay in a snowy little hostel and converse with other travelers, artists, and young people. Eventually, Ursula tires of the place, specifically the unending and philosophically unforgiving snow (Don't ask me. Apparently snow is cold and eternal like the stars and makes one realize one's insignificance.), and she and Birkin leave Gudrun and Gerald there. The relationship between Gerald and Gudrun quickly sours; Gudrun demands Gerald love her, and he can't. She can't love him either, but she can't leave him until she establishes her independence by rejecting his love. Since he can't give it, they're at something of an impasse. They end up fighting horribly, and Gerald is moved to a murderous rage by Gudrun's demands upon him, but only puts his hands to her throat and doesn't actually strangle her. The whole scene takes place outside the hostel, and afterward he wanders off into the snow to clear his head and ends up freezing to death. Gudrun, who'd decided to leave him anyway, is unable to properly grieve, but Birkin and Ursula are quite upset. Birkin feels as though he's lost one kind of true love, which Ursula is hurt by and incapable of understanding.

I'm disappointed in the ending. There was a moment, 80 pages or so from the end, when I thought to myself, "Oh, god, I hope he doesn't kill anyone off," and then he went and did it. It was a transcendently realistic portrait of modern love, courtship, marriage, and the state of men and women in society, and then he had to go make it all ridiculously dramatic at the end. It doesn't make sense that Gerald would be moved to murderous rage - he simply would either have acquiesced and pretended to love her or he would have left her. Either ending would have made a clearer and more accurate statement about relationships and the pressures of society than stupid murder and freezing to death. Why do authors feel moved to do that kind of thing? Is it just to sell books? Is it the fashion of the period? What?

Anyway, overall, Lawrence said a huge amount about men, women, and relationships, especially the taboos and lusts that govern them, and painted a vivid portrait of the difficulties of philosophy and reality that surround them. The characters did a lot of philosophizing, but it was successful because young people often do that kind of thing, and the idealism rang true, if not always perfectly entertaining. Regardless of the ending, I'm deeply impressed by the nuance and bravery of the novel. I believe its place on the list is deserved.

There may be a delay before Brideshead Revisited because I'm still waiting for it from Interlibrary Loan.

Friday, July 17, 2009

You may drool jealously.

Current book: Women In Love
Pages read: None

I was too busy having a beautiful French dinner to celebrate my husband's new job to read literature: baked brie en croute with artichoke hearts, blue cheese-crusted filet mignon with pommes frites, duck a l'orange with potatoes, carrots and leeks, sauteed vegetables, and puff pastry filled with whipped cream and hazelnut coffee ice cream.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Or womyn.

Current book: Women In Love
Pages read: None

Instead of reading, I went swimming with my husband. Just because Ursula and Gudrun couldn't. I was representing the sisterhood of women! Ok, not really.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Repent at leisure.

Current book: Women In Love
Pages read: 265-368

Ursula and Birkin successfully make up, and Ursula, though reluctant, agrees to marry Birkin. They fight a lot, mostly about Hermione and Birkin's tendency to be a jackass, but there you are. Gudrun has become a little disillusioned with Gerald; the two have a jovial conversation about how marriage was unnecessary and ridiculous, but when Ursula runs off with Birkin and does the deed (which results in estrangement from her parents) Gudrun begins to have second thoughts.

Gerald's father finally dies, and, in need of comfort, he sneaks into Gudrun's room in the night. She receives him, though she's surprised, and allows him to sleep in her arms for a few hours. Rather than pitying him and growing more fond of him a result, however, she finds herself disgusted by him, both physically and emotionally (kind of the reverse-Florence-Nightingale-effect). Nothing much comes of it, but it's an interesting scene that illustrates Gudrun's unconventional reactions to the circumstances of relationships. After Birkin and Ursula's marriage, the two decide they simply want to wander around Europe a while, and Gerald and Gudrun decide to accompany them for a short while, at least. Gerald and Gudrun head off to London first, where we see Gudrun meet one of Gerald's former lovers in a club, though again, nothing comes of it. The couples are scheduled to meet at Innsbruck in a week or two.

I'm refraining from much analysis until the conclusion, but I'll just say this - I'm astonished by Lawrence's bravery and frankness in describing sex, lust, and taboo relationships. It doesn't surprise me that he was banned left and right, but it surprises the hell out of me that he was brave enough to put his name on something so starkly truthful and dangerous, and that he was willing to attribute to everyday people sexual needs and philosophies so completely unacceptable to public sentiment. Very, very brave man, that David Herbert.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why, it looks like young men playing leapfrog.

Current book: Women In Love
Pages read: 176-265

Well, post-tragic-drowning, Ursula decides that she actually hates Birkin, and they have a pseudo-fight (meaning they pretend it's a discussion) about the incompatibility of their philosophies of love. Later, however, Birkin takes ill and disappears for a while; upon his return, Ursula convinces him to say that he loves her. Shortly afterward, he asks her to marry him, which incenses her, not because of his hypocrisy (which was what I thought it was going to be), but because it implies a desire on his part to control her, which is most notably expressed through his insistence on an immediate answer.

In the meantime, Gudrun and Gerald are falling deeper in love. (Especially Gerald, who wasn't doing a very good job of realizing his affections before now. (Because boys are stupid about that stuff.)) The father of the Crich family is ill, and Gerald and the rest of the children are feeling a considerable amount of distress about it. As a result, but also because he just wants to spend time in her company, Gerald asks Gudrun to tutor his little sister in drawing and sculpture. (The sister, Winifred, is kind of awesome. She's a sassy, bright little kid who talks like she's about twenty. (Also, Winifred, Gudrun, and Ursula? Christ, Lawrence. Punish your poor girls some more with these names, why don't you?)) Anyway, that's all fine and good and going well.

Right after Birkin's poorly received proposal, he heads to Gerald's house for a little manly comfort. And by manly comfort, I mean naked Japanese wrestling (which seems to be what I always knew as Indian wrestling, as far as I can tell). The two men strip and fight until they're sweaty and exhausted, and that makes them feel better about their relationships with women. You go right ahead and read the obvious homosexual subtext in, because it's definitely there. I mean, come on:
"He seemed to penetrate into Gerald's more solid, more diffuse bulk, to interfuse his body through the body of the other, as if to bring it subtly into subjection, always seizing with some rapid necromantic foreknowledge every motion of the other flesh, converting and counteracting it, playing upon the limbs and trunk of Gerald like some hard wind." (255)
I'm not sure it's actually possible to sound more like you're talking about sex. There's even a big discussion of the ability of men to fulfill each other's emotional needs more completely than women can fulfil them. Very Greek, this bit.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Guns N' Roses

Current book: Women In Love
Pages read: 81-176

I think the rose petal that our cat ate has caused him to go completely mad. This is not related to Women In Love.

Apropos of literature, Gudrun has fallen in love with Gerald and Ursula with Birkin, but both women are struggling with the fact that they have deep reservations about the men to whom they're attracted. (I would like to take this moment to point out that I tried to leave the preposition at the end of that sentence, so that I'd sound more like a normal person, and I was incapable of letting it stay published. The end.) Birkin's problem is that he "doesn't believe in love," in that horrible, philosophizing, jaded way that people think they don't believe in love when a) they've never really experienced it and b) they're afraid of what it might do to them. (Not that I'm editorializing or anything. Because this blog never indulges in knee-jerk criticism. Ever. Really.) Gerald, on the other hand, is just horribly classist and sexist. I'm not really sure which problem is worse, but at least Gerald might be educated out of his. Anyway, both couples are basically in the midst of courting, although there's a great moment before Birkin is obviously involved with Ursula when Hermione whacks him on the head with a lapis lazuli paperweight. That's classic literature right there, guys.

The couples, now, are being seen in public together, and go to a public picnic and boating party hosted by the Criches that's a village tradition. They have a lovely day, during which Gudrun and Ursula take an afternoon boating trip alone and use the opportunity to bathe naked in the river. It might seem like a little lesbian-tinted moment of voyeurism, but actually, it's a nice tie back to two earlier episodes in the novel - the first, I mentioned before, when the two girls long to be able to swim in public like men, and the second, at Hermione's party, when the crowd goes swimming together and both girls refuse to join in. It's interesting that they refuse in company but swim together in private, and indicative of the fact that their longing for freedom is ever constrained by society. Even when freedoms are offered in a limited way, such as swimming with a group in bathing costume, they are unsatisfied - it must be unobserved, naked swimming, or it's just not good enough. (I like it. Stick to your guns, Brangwen sisters. Your naked, solitary guns.) When they return, they split back into couples, but there's a tragic accident during which Gerald's sister and her beau are drowned, and that's pretty much the end of that party.

D. H. Lawrence pretty much rocks. I don't know how he does it, but even though the book consists almost entirely of his characters sitting around talking (aside from paperweight-assault and accidental drownings, that is), I'm still captivated by his prose. The conversation, as I mentioned in the last post, is so sharp and intelligent and viciously pointed that I can't help but both enjoy and be drawn to analyze and apply it.

Also, he used the phrase "meretricious persiflage." Oh, man. Stuff like that is why I majored in English.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Weekend update:

Current book: Women In Love
Pages read: None.


Fresh cherry-blueberry scones: awesome.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Current book: Women In Love
Pages read: 1-81

So far, my favorite part of this book is when D. H. Lawrence has one of his characters, a young wealthy man, introduce the idea of solipsism to a matronly older woman. Check it out:
"'People don't really matter,' he said...'Essentially, they don't exist, they aren't there.'
'Well,' she said, 'I would hardly go as far as that. There they are, whether they exist or no...You can't expect me to know them, just because they happen to be there. As far as I go they might as well not be there.'
'Exactly,' he replied...
'Except that they are there, and that's a nuisance,' she said."
Oh man. I love you, D. H. Lawrence, for reducing solipsism to ridiculousness through the satirical lens of upper-class English society. I laughed out loud.

Anyway, the actual substance seems like it's going to be largely a discussion of the modern condition (by modern, we're talking 19-teens) of men, women, and marriage in moneyed society. Our protagonists are the Cornish sisters Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen. They're both unmarried young women living in a coal-mining area. Ursula teaches school, and Gudrun has just returned from abroad and is not currently employed, but the family is comfortable financially and well respected socially. We've met some of their society, mainly Rupert Birkin and Gerald Crich, two eligible young gentlemen of the area, both of whom seem rather atrocious for different reasons, but have caught the attention of our young sisters. We've also met Hermione Roddice, who's overtly interested in Birkin and something of a giggly twit, although she disports herself well in conversation.

Speaking of conversation (Hah. Get it?), that's largely what the book's consisted of so far. The sisters discuss their mutual fear of marriage and their dismay at the social controls on women of the time. (Quite poignant, that one. They watched Gerald strip his shirt and go for a swim, and Ursula bemoaned the fact that they could never, as women, dream of doing such a thing. I never thought of that, but it would have been fairly awful for something as simple as going for a swim to be an unfathomable possibility. Occasionally I long to live in dramatic historical periods, but I'm usually aware enough to think better of it for reasons like this.) Ursula, Hermione, and Birkin have a conversation about whether the social taboos on sexuality are harmful or virtuous, and there are various conversations concerning class and education as well. The book opens with a wedding, moves through several days of every day activities, and all of the important characters are currently attending a gathering at Hermione's country house, where most of these deep conversations are taking place.

I like Lawrence's discussions of important issues, and his characterizations are solid, so I'm enjoying the novel so far (which is kind of an astonishing feat on his part, since I'm pretty tired of 19-teens and 20s literature right now). He's got this very sharp, critical way of cutting directly to the heart of subject through his characters' observations, and he does it so cleverly that it makes you delight in his almost vicious success. Take that, stifling moral strictures! No wonder he got banned all over the place.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Hold you in his armchair you can feel his disease

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: 431-522 (end)

I thought I'd finally figured this book out. I thought I'd discovered why the elder Gant wouldn't die and why Eugene could never really become independent from his family. I thought that the two must be unalterably connected - that when the elder Gant died, Eugene would be free. And I respect the hell out of Thomas Wolfe for proving me wrong.

Ok, plot points first, though. Eugene finishes his summer working various jobs and trying not to starve to death, but ends up with a sense of the great worth one can achieve by earning money with the sweat of one's brow. Back at school, with the majority of the student body enlisting in the military for World War I, he's entirely in charge of the school paper. In October, he's called home because Ben has pneumonia. After a protracted description of Ben's suffering, he finally dies and Eugene returns to college a changed (read: completely insane) young man. Seriously, he spends the rest of his college career wandering around campus in filthy clothes, refusing to bathe and spouting philosophy and poetry (I don't mean to be harsh, but we all knew that guy in college and he wasn't some stargazing genius - he was creepy and insane.)

Anyway, Eugene's professors think well of him, and he graduates draped in glory of various types. Afterward, at home once again, he's confronted with his father's imminent death. Just like always, though, the man refuses to kick the bucket. This time, instead of sticking to the destructive pattern of family strife, however, Eugene finally makes up his mind to leave for Harvard and never come back. (He makes this decision by consulting Ben's imaginary ghost, but what are you gonna do?)

So, the surprise factor, then, was that Eugene was actually able to break away from the family without witnessing his father's death. Instead, he made the break as an active decision, proving that intention and power are far more important to the outcome of one's life than personal background and the vicissitudes of fate. It was, as I mentioned, a bit unexpected, and I liked the statement it made: yes, family and circumstance may drag you down, but you can choose to break free of them, though the cost may be great.

I don't know. I think I liked it. It was a very coming-of-age, bildungsroman kind of thing, but, in the end, interesting and bit unusual. I don't know that I would call it one of the 100 greatest novels of all time, but it's an original twist on an old theme, and successfully characterizes the feeling of the age in which it was written over a broad cross-section of the population of that age, including most of the major socioeconomic groups. It certainly qualifies as important literature, in any case.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

He will grope his way toward a foreign soil

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: 332-431

Contrary to the rest of my posts about this book, I actually have something to say in this one. I think it's because Eugene is finally growing up and becoming interesting. ("Was that an implication that children are boring?" you may be asking yourself. Yes. Yes, it was. Seriously, I don't know how people put up with them. I was at the library today, picking up, among other things, Women In Love for the Project, and there was a little boy waiting for the elevator with his mother. The mom said, "Ok, the elevator's almost here," and the little boy responded in the whiniest, most annoying, edge-of-a-tantrum voice possible, "I don't want to take the elevator! We always take the elevator!" That was all my tiny glimpse allowed me to witness, but I'm fairly sure it went on afterward. If I'd been his mother, I'd have said, "Why don't you whine about it some more? That'll make me change my mind. Or, when we get home, you can go to your room for an hour and think about how much worse that is than the elevator. Also, die in a fire." The problem with children is that sarcasm is lost of them. Little toads.)

Anyway, Eugene is learning lots at college (and by lots, I mean how to sleep with prostitutes and fudge his grades). Well, it's not quite that bad, but he does fall in with a rough crowd for a while. His professors also do a great deal to disillusion him, proving to him by their teaching and grading habits that hard work is a poor substitute for conformity and ass-kissing. He comes home at the end of freshman year to spend the summer back in Altamont, where he falls into first love with a woman named Laura. Eugene, being an early bloomer, is still only sixteen, and Laura is twenty-one. She raises this objection to their relationship, but Eugene denies her, claiming that true love is unaware of such paltry details. (He's right. But it doesn't matter, because it isn't really true love, as we'll see.) When she leaves for the Fourth of July holiday, she writes to tell him she's been engaged to be married all along and won't be returning as promised. He's completely crushed and returns to school jaded and world-weary, which, of course, makes him popular among the sophomores and solves all his social problems. At Christmas, home again for the break, he makes the mistake of drinking his father's stash of alcohol and fully realizing the horrors of his possible inheritance of alcoholic tendencies. After this episode, he tells his family that all they've ever done is hold him back and he wishes to be free of them forever. (Go, Eugene! It's about damn time!) He goes back to college for the second semester, during which World War I starts. When he reaches summer break, he decides to head north to Virginia, where Laura's married household is located, to try to reclaim her. He doesn't find her, though, and instead ends up taking a summer job as a foreman overseeing the manufacture of large machinery.

That's where I am, but what I've failed to mention is that during all this Eugene has had sex with a couple of prostitutes and flirted with three different other women, in addition to his doomed love affair with Laura. That does not, in itself, seem important. However, Laura was 5 years older than him, the prostitutes were both in middle age, the three other women he flirted with were all middle-aged or older, and at least one of them had been widowed. Normally, I would be the last person in the world to call attention to a pattern like this and call it an indication of an Oedipus complex, but I'm forced to do so because of the fact that Thomas Wolfe directly discusses the Oedipus story and Eugene's personal fascination with it at the end of one of the chapters. I want to forget that he did it, but I just can't. So Eugene has a thing for his mom, which he expressed by pursuing older women. There. Happy?

Oh, also, the elder Gant, though he's been threatening it for 200 pages, has still not managed to bite it. Alas.

Monday, July 6, 2009

But it's also the name of a town.

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: None

I'm a bad, bad blogger. Well, actually, I had a sore throat today and didn't work out as a result. I went swimming, but you can't really read and swim. Man, if you could, my life would be totally awesome. But I digress.

I made ham pilaf with raisins and pine nuts for dinner, though. Only I added thyme and a pinch of clove, because I'm awesome like that. Next time I'll toast the pine nuts and use fresh thyme, and it'll rock even harder. (If pilaf can rock hard, because I'm not sure that's possible.)

My sore throat's on the mend, so back to the elliptical and Thomas Wolfe tomorrow.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Proof through the night

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: None

I didn't post all weekend. New heights of irresponsibility, here. I'd claim patriotism, but since I'm immersing myself in literature on this blog, we all know that's not the case.

Monday will see things right again.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A good familiar creature

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: 224-332

Eugene finally goes to college! Everyone hates him there! Helen gets married! Gant keeps threatening to die but still won't! That's all!

I really wish I had more to say about this book, but I just don't. It's a story about Eugene growing up. I neither like nor dislike it, really. Eh.

In food-blogging related news, the chocolate mousse cake I made last weekend for a gluten-free friend of mine came out well. It was made almost entirely of eggs and chocolate, with a little sugar and water thrown in. It baked up into something akin to solid chocolate pudding. I think I'd make it again, but I'd be inclined to serve it with a dark fruit sauce and whipped cream. Also, when it was in the midst of construction, just after all the ingredients had been put together in the bowl, it sucked onto the whisk like Newtonian fluid. I wanted to perform experiments on it.

The sangria I made was amazing, as usual. I don't mean to brag, but I make truly excellent sangria. (The first time I ever had sangria, I realized that it was what I always thought wine would taste like when I was a little kid. I'd read about feasts in books, and they'd be eating roasted meat and drinking rich, red wine, and I'd imagine what it would taste like: dark and smooth and fruity, more interesting than juice, but still cold and sweet and beautiful. And then I tasted real red wine. Vinegar with a hint of lighter fluid was not what I'd had in mind. Late,r sangria was a comforting revelation.) I will share with you my secrets, loyal audience, because I'm selflessly altruistic. There are two things that are important: do not put liquor into your sangria, despite recommendations from the masses, and use, if at all possible, unsweetened fruit juice. The best result I've gotten comes from the method that follows:

1) Take one bottle of cheap red wine (I recommend Charles Shaw Shiraz, if you've got a Trader Joe's) and pour it into a pitcher or large bowl.

2) Add 1/4 of a bottle of Rose's grenadine.

3) Add an entire small bottle of maraschino cherries and their juice (about 12 cherries and 1/4 cup of juice).

4) Add 1 cup of unsweetened cherry juice. (I've also had success with unsweetened currant juice. If you can't get unsweetened, tart juice of some kind, cut some grenadine.)

5) Juice one large orange or two small oranges into the mixture. (Spanish tangerines are the best, if you can get them.)

6) Slice another large orange or two small oranges and add to the mixture.

7) Refrigerate for at least 12, preferably 24 hours.

Ta-da! Best. Sangria. Ever.

I also made white citrus sangria last weekend, which was a bottle of champagne with grapefruit soda, cherries, and oranges. I'm not willing to call it the best white sangria recipe, and therefore won't give you specifics, but I believe I'll tinker with it as a base recipe in future.

Sangria is considerably more interesting than Look Homeward, Angel. Trust me.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The soul of wit.

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: 150-224

So, Eugene and Eliza come back, as anticipated. Eliza continues her property acquisition, Eugene achieves academic success and begins attending private school at the behest of a local millionaire, and Eugene's sister, Helen, goes on a singing tour of the southern states. That's really it. We're just witnessing the slow development of Eugene into an adult. I kind of can't wait until he goes off to college and things start happening in the real world. (No, rural Appalachia doesn't count as the real world. I should know. I lived awfully near there.)

Short post. More when there's more to be said.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Let's mock the midnight bell!

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: 70-150

Sunday seems to be "Forget to post" day. Maybe I'll just make it a day off every week. It's not like I ever read on Sundays anyway. Well, not the list books. (Um. I mean, I never read anything besides the list books. Ahem.)

I have to say, Thomas Wolfe is growing on me. The histrionic philosophizing is still a little obnoxious, but after a while it gets to be sort of endearing. You know, like a crazy uncle, where you're like, "Oh, there goes old Thomas again, rattling on about the virginal dawning of the buds in spring and the hellish maw of a night spent in the contemplation of mortality." (Honestly, I hope to be old and crazy like that one day. If the neighborhood kids are scared of me, so much the better.)

We're still following Eugene through his youthful development. He goes to school and learns about cliques and teasing, but also about making friends and defending himself. He develops a strong bond with his elder brother, Ben, and eventually, at the behest of his impoverished parents, joins Ben in selling The Saturday Evening Post after school. Sometime when Eugene's around 10 years old, his mother Eliza buys a boarding house in town and steps in as proprietress, taking Eugene to live with her there. This effectively separates Eliza and her husband, who is still a foul-mouthed, crazy drunkard, but less abusive than he once was. (I thought he was going to bite it at one point, but he pulled through. Damn.) Eliza runs the boarding house profitably, though she's clearly a skinflint who maltreats her largely black staff. After a while she rents out the management of the boarding house and takes Eugene with her on trips through the southern United States, where, for a while, they settle down long enough for Eugene to attend another school. They're away for some time, and it creates a break in the plot in which we learn that Ben misses his brother a great deal, but Mr. Gant is getting along just fine without his wife. We're still in that break, and I believe Eugene and Eliza will soon return, and then we'll move along again.

Like I said, it's growing on me. I'm interested in Eugene and what will become of him in his rather difficult circumstances. He's working with an abusive, alcoholic father, a crass, racist, skinflint mother, and a motley assortment of brothers and sisters, some of whom are upstanding hard workers, and some of whom are on their way to becoming criminals. He's obviously incredibly intelligent, creative, and somewhat ambitious. I believe our hero is destined for great things. (Partially because Thomas Wolfe told me so at the beginning of the book.)

Tomorrow's my birthday, so I won't be posting. Instead, revelry!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's like reading.

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: None

Um...cinnamon chocolate mousse cake and two kinds of sangria?

Friday, June 26, 2009

The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: 1-70

What's this? An actual post on a Friday? It's practically unprecedented! Your explanation lies in the fact that I worked out, incredibly virtuously, even though it was Friday. Working out is when all this reading gets done, you see. Because if you're going to plow through what can sometimes be the agony of "literary" prose, you might as well do it on the elliptical.

So, I don't know what to think about this book. It was written in the 20s, and it's got that 20s moralizing style about it, but it's also weirdly and bluntly philosophical. Every chapter section ends with a couple of dramatically reflective paragraphs that discuss mankind's existence, the depths of human emotion, and/or the vicissitudes of fate. It all sort of comes out of nowhere, and it's usually presented as a character's internal monologue. I feel like I just want to skip over most of it, as it's both repetitive and unrealistic. It's definitely not a point in the novel's favor, but the storytelling itself, when it's uninterrupted by the blatant philosophizing, isn't half bad.

The story so far centers around Eugene Gant, but Wolfe spends the first 50 pages or so telling us about Gant's father and how he ends up in Altamont, North Carolina, where Eugene has lived his whole life (all eight or so years of it, so far). The elder Gant is a tombstone-carver, a reader and writer of poetry, a raging, abusive alcoholic, and quite possibly insane. He settles in Altamont after wandering around the country and marrying two women who both die (of natural causes, we're told), and then eventually marries another wife, Eugene's mother, Eliza. He spends quite a few years drunkenly abusing the family and waxing philosophical before Eugene is born. Eugene seems to have inherited his father's poetic nature, and Wolfe gives us his thoughts from birth, telling us that he understands everything around him at pretty much a genius level, and only lacks the muscular and linguistic development necessary to express himself. (I find this obnoxiously unrealistic and frankly quite silly.) Anyway, Eugene is now in the process of growing up and learning about the world through the narrow window of his Appalachian experience. He has just begun to attend school and contemplate the meaning of life. (I am not, in fact, exaggerating. The first day he comes home from school, he sits on a hill and thinks about what it means to exist. Laying it on a little thick, aren't we, Wolfe?)

The prose is a bit on the intense side, too. I mean, the guy's reaching almost Lovecraftian heights of description at times. (Heights? Depths? You choose a label.) Anyway, I'm just not sure I can ever get behind something like this:
"Gant heard the spectre moan of the wind, he was entombed in loss and darkness, and his soul plunged downward in the pit of night, for he saw he must die a stranger...And like a man who is perishing in the polar night, he thought of the rich meadows of his youth: the corn, the plum tree, and ripe grain. Why here? O lost!" (13)
You know what the context of that is? Sitting in his in-laws' drawing room after dinner. I mean, I guess that in-laws can plunge one's soul into a nightmarish chasm of melancholy self-relfection , but perhaps we might call it a tad histrionic? I'm just throwing it out there.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

And even against my character

Current book: In Our Time
Pages read: 12-158 (end)

As you can see, this book wasn't much of a reading challenge. It's odd, actually, that it made it onto a list of the 100 greatest novels, considering the fact that it barely qualifies as a novel. It's more of a collection of short stories that are vaguely related to one another. They share some characters and subject matter, but not enough to qualify as an actual novel.

Anyway, as far as the message of the stories goes, they seem to combine to portray the futility of human existence. (You're surprised, right? Because Hemingway never writes about the futility of human existence.) Almost all the stories are short enough to qualify as vignettes, really, and they range from young adult experiences fishing in the woods to railroad encounters with hobos to continental travel in unhappy marriages. All of these are interspersed with one-page or less glimpses of World War I combat experiences and also, for some reason, bullfighting. Like I said earlier, it's all only vaguely related.

Still, the prose is stark and direct; it's some of the most classically modernist writing I've seen. The description is straightforward enough to convey emotion almost entirely through a subtle play of impression and implication. We're left to fill in what isn't given to us, and in so doing, we must necessarily add emotional and thematic interpretation. I hate to admit it, because I've never liked Hemingway and would much rather maintain my contempt than recognize his artistry (Because, come on, think about whose blog you're reading, here.), but I'm forced give him credit for his ability to corner me into examining the motives of his characters and the messages of his plot. You just can't read a story about a woman wanting to rescue a cat from the rain during her vacation at an Italian villa without asking yourself what the cat means to her, what it implies about her relationship with her husband, and what the cat's eventual rescue by a maid who delivers it to their room says about the future. (You may be thinking, "Um, I can," but that's why I'm writing the blog and you're not. (Oh, don't get all upset at my snark. You know you like it.)) Honestly, I'd challenge you to read the story and not find yourself searching it for deeper meaning. I'd call that a literary success.

I don't think it's enough of a novel to be one of the 100 best, but it has made me reconsider Hemingway's merit as an author.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We'll always have Paris.

Current book: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Pages read: 140-253 (end)

Well, the end was more of the same, only lots of it happened during World War I. Aside from the inevitable dissolution of the salons during the war, it was very similar to the rest of the book, except that instead of living in Paris, they were living in the French countryside or in Spain. The close of the story consists of Gertrude Stein's success in publication and her urging Toklas to write her autobiography. Convinced that Toklas never will, then, Gertrude Stein commences to write it for her, which results in the book that the reader has just finished. (Change tense enough for you in there? I tried to keep it even, but I'm not sure it was possible. Oh, whatever. You didn't even notice.)

Despite its smugness and elitism, I still like it. It was just so lovely to be along for the ride with Matisse and Picasso and the Parisian art scene that I couldn't help myself. It doesn't make me like Tender Buttons or any of Stein's other post-modernist ridiculousness, but it makes me like her a lot more. I really appreciate the message that art and literature are worthy not because they must have deep messages, but because they impart beauty to the world. Stein often says in the book that sentences are worth considering in themselves simply because their structure can be complex and beautiful. I like that. I'm not sure I like some of the insane prose that came out of it, but as a concept, it's very attractive.

Also, in the middle of this last part, Stein and Toklas became friends with Ernest Hemingway and helped him along as he wrote In Our Time, which is the next book on the list. That was kind of a weird coincidence. Also, I was surprised at how much they liked him and his writing, what with all the misogyny.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

Current book: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Pages read: 69-139

There isn't very much plot forthcoming; we meet lots of artists and their friends and wives, and we follow Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas around Paris and the Continent, but that's mostly the gist of it. Oddly, it's not boring or tedious, but rather glamorous and entertaining. The overarching message seems to be that art is important and worthwhile, and there is a great deal of beauty in the everyday. I can get behind that.

The voice experiment that Gertrude Stein is performing is particularly interesting when she's speaking about herself in Alice's voice. She manages to sound both arrogant and ridiculous and as though she's mocking herself for being arrogant and ridiculous as the same time. These factors combine to transform her commentary about herself into incisive self-examination. It's impressively clever, I have to admit.
"She [Gertrude Stein] always says she dislikes the abnormal, it is so obvious. She says the normal is so much more simply complicated and interesting." (83)
Sounds obnoxious and arrogant, doesn't it? But when it's written about as though her friend is admiring her for it, but we, the audience, know she's writing in the voice of her friend, it sounds to me like she's poking gentle fun at her friend's admiration of her and of her own habits. I don't know; that could be giving her undue credit, but it's the impression I get again and again.

You'll note the comma splice in the above quote. Gertrude loves them, and, in fact, run-on sentences of all kinds. Apparently she had a thing against commas. She also doesn't capitalize nationalities (i.e. German is written german, and the like). Normally, I would grumble snarkily about this kind of behavior, but I'm still somehow charmed by the Continental artsy atmosphere of the whole thing. Also, I want a croissant.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Current book: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Pages read: 4-68

I forgot to post again yesterday. That's the second time in two weeks. Late-night partying - that's what's responsible. You think I'm lying, but I'm really not. (Well, unless you object to calling 1am late-night. Which you could. But the principle is solid. Anyway.)

So, to give you a little background on TAoABT (because if you think I'm typing the whole title every time, you're dreaming), Gertrude Stein was a famous author and poet, and Alice B. Toklas was Gertrude Stein's longtime companion (and lover?), though she had little literary ambition of her own. As a sort of experiment in voice and character perception, Gertrude Stein decided to write Toklas's autobiography as though Toklas herself had written it. This, then, is the result.

Alice B. Toklas comes to Paris form her home in America and finds herself drawn to the world of modern art and literature that is represented by Picasso, Matisse, and Gertrude Stein. She stumbles into the salons and gallery shows of these most modern of artists and becomes so intrigued by both their art and their lives that she insinuates herself into that society. We get detailed character sketches of Stein, Picasso, and Matisse and their various wives, girlfriends, and lovers. It's all quite literal and detailed. Picasso and Matisse have quite a rivalry going on between their schools of artistic expression. There's not really a plot, per se, but the anecdotes and sketches of French salon society in the early 20th century are engaging. (It's sort of like Tropic of Cancer in its organization, actually, what with wandering around Paris and meeting random people, but it bears little resemblance to that monstrosity in any other way.)

I don't know how to assess the results of Stein's experimentation with creating a voice, due simply to the fact that I'm unfamiliar with her "normal" voice. That said, what she does create in this book could certainly be called distinctive. I hear the character in the prose clearly and easily, and therefore assume that Stein is successfully reproducing Toklas, rather than presenting her own voice.

I'm surprised at how much I like it, even with the lack of plot. I don't know why I expected not to, but I did. Nice to be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I appreciate your honesty.

Current book: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Pages read: None

The cheesecake is incredible, as anticipated.

I now at least have a copy of the book I'm supposed to be reading, so I'm further along. Not, you know, a lot...

Friday, June 19, 2009

And many more

Current book: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Pages read: None

I always want to say this book was written by Gloria Steinem, because I can't keep Gertrude Stein and Gloria Steinem straight. It should be easy, since they're from completely different time periods and have completely different careers, but there you go. I don't actually have a copy of this book yet, so I obviously haven't read today. Also, it's my husband's birthday, so I wouldn't be reading anyway. I did make incredible cheesecake for him, though - nut crust with a chocolate layer, plain cheesecake, and fresh strawberry topping. Technically, I don't know that it's incredible because we haven't tried it yet, but it's been incredible every other time. I'm confident.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

That's nobody's business but the Turks.

Current book: The Maltese Falcon
Pages read: 95-186 (end)

The end was completely different than I was expecting; somehow I was under the impression that there was a jewel of great value inside the statue itself, but that wasn't the case. The statue was supposed to be covered in jewels that had been enameled over so as to be invisible, but it turned out to be a fake, regardless of jewel location. Lame. I'd have been much happier if there'd been a jewel inside, even it would simply have fulfilled my expectations. (Just like Romancing the Stone. Now that had an excellent ending. Alligators, people!) They never even find the real statue in the book. How is that an exciting mystery, I ask you? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So, I was right about the double-crossing. Brigid (whose name I misspelled yesterday, sorry) turns out to have been working for Cairo and Gutman all along. (I'm shocked. Are you guys shocked? So, so shocked.) I don't really see the point in describing all the plot events, so let me just sum up. Spade has a series of meetings and encounters with policemen, informants, and Cairo and friends during which he guesses, threatens, and prods them into admitting their various roles in the Maltese Falcon's theft and retrieval. It turns out that Brigid shot Archer, and after Cairo and Gutman discover that the Falcon they've been chasing is a fake, they take off for Constantinople (not Istanbul) to retrieve the real one. On the way they're arrested and shot, respectively. Spade makes it clear to Brigid that he never trusted her and is going to turn her in. She begs and pleads, and even though he has some affection for her, he still gives her up to the cops. Finally, Spade is left alone with his fake Falcon and the various wads of cash he's cadged from the participants of the story along the way.

I have to say, I'm left wondering what the point of the thing was supposed to be. I guess, in the end, it seems as though Hammett was trying to give us a window into a private detective's life - in other words, that he refrained from wrapping things up in a satisfactory manner in order to provide realism. That said, the complete lack of realism in the dialogue and most of the plot effectively undermines that effort. I don't know - maybe the hard-boiled detective cliche is just too prevalent these days for me to see much merit in it, but I was fairly unimpressed. Sam Spade doesn't even figure anything out for himself; he unravels the story entirely through coercion and questioning. Maybe that's more realistic detective work, but it still seems like kind of a letdown to me. I'm unfamiliar with how much of this type of fiction had been written before The Maltese Falcon, or if there are other books with Sam Spade, even, but it smacks of bestseller-caliber prose without the pizazz. It wasn't difficult to read, and I was interested after the first half, but as the plot failed to develop, I lost that interest rapidly. (It was like watching Lost. For a while, it was an interesting, mysterious survival story. And then it was all, "Polar bears! No, invisible jungle monsters! No, a mysterious underground room with a countdown timer! No, psychic weird other people on the island!" After a while, you need some logical development, or there's really no point.)

Also, Spade reminded me a little of James Bond in his tendency to sleep with an untrustworthy woman (Oh. He slept with Brigid. I forgot to mention. But then, you probably assumed, because come on. Who didn't see that coming?), get betrayed, express sexist, manly contempt that he was betrayed, and then turn in the treacherous lover while still expressing some kind of fucked-up affection for the woman. I hate that bullshit. In what world do you get to take sexual advantage of someone and then use it as a reason that her treachery is more despicable than it would otherwise be? Or, alternatively, why isn't the woman's use of sex as betrayal clever and strong like it would be if it were Sam Spade or James Bond's? Blech. Spade even has the Moneypenny-esque secretary who's in love with him but sort of hates him for how he treats the other women in his life. I don't know if Spade or Bond came first as a literary character, but the two seem almost interchangeable. (Aside from the gadgets. Which obviously make James Bond superior. Just like Batman is superior to Superman. Don't even try to argue with that.)

People keep asking if I'm going to write my own list of the best 100 novels. I suppose I'd better, if I'm going to keep whining about all of these other books. I'll probably wait to do that until I'm done with this list, just to see if there's any overlap. I'm sure there will be, actually, since To Kill a Mockingbird is on this list, and it will certainly be on mine, too. Dune and The Sparrow and The Namesake and things like that are going to be pretty different, though. The Maltese Falcon - not gonna make it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Current book: The Maltese Falcon
Pages read: 1-94

Dashiell Hammett, in addition to having way too many double consonants in his name, describes things in literal detail more than any other author I've ever read. And I have read a lot of authors. It's very strange; even things like rolling a cigarette are described in anatomical complexity:
"...sifting a measured quantity of tan flakes down into curved paper, spreading the flakes so that they lay equal at the ends with a slight depression in the middle, thumbs rolling the paper's inner edge down and up under the outer edge as the forefingers pressed it over, thumbs and fingers sliding to the paper cylinder's ends to hold it even while tongue licked the flap, left forefinger and thumb pinching their end while right forefinger and thumb smoothed the damp seam..." (8)
I mean, really, do we need a dissection of the cigarette-rolling process? It kind of reminds me of the parts in Laura Ingalls Wilder when she'd describe Pa making a door latch or something, and I was always like, "Carving, planing, wood, curves...blah! We get it; it makes a door latch!" But maybe that was just me. Anyway, despite the whining, I actually don't mind the style, and I think it's just a small part of Hammett's larger attempt to recreate the mindset of a detective. The details he gives extend past just people and crime scenes to the whole world of his main character. I respect that in a detective novel. It's sort of the opposite of Arthur Conan Doyle and his eternally obnoxious refusal to give you all the details that Holmes sees, followed by his tendency to make you feel like an idiot because you couldn't solve the mystery. (Although, after a while, you begin to figure them out anyway.) Where was I, now? Oh, right. At the beginning.

So far, we've met the hard-boiled Sam Spade, and it's all very film noir, just like you'd expect. Some dame, as it were, comes into his office and asks for his help to find her sister, for which she pays far too much to be telling the truth. Spade's partner, Archer, whose wife he's sleeping with, takes the case and tails the guy said sister is supposed to be palling around with. Archer gets shot, as does the guy he's tailing, and so the plot thickens. Later, the girl, whose real name, at least for now, is Bridget, admits that she's actually wrapped up in something to do with a valuable sculpture, namely the Maltese Falcon. At the same time, Joel Cairo, an Egyptian agent of the man who owns the Falcon and desperately desires its return (or so he says), shows up to question Spade and try to get the Falcon back. Spade works it out so that he's on a $5,000 commission to return the statue to Cairo. After nosing around for a bit, Spade finds Mr. Gutman, yet another guy looking for the statue, and quite a shady character (his agents have been searching Bridget's and Cairo's hotel rooms) and has a meeting with him during which they threaten each other and posture a lot. Gutman claims he knows where the statue is, but it doesn't seem likely after the meeting.

That's as far as I got. It's entertaining; I'm interested in watching Spade find the Falcon and discover what's so damn valuable about the thing (even though I already know that part). I predict a great deal of double-crossing, treachery, and possibly mistaken identity, although that last bit might be too Shakespearean.

To answer the question in the previous post's comments, my husband and I did once start to watch the movie, and it was so wretched and poorly written that we only made it twenty minutes in. I guess it doesn't translate to film?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Say it again

Current book: The Naked and the Dead
Pages read: 555-720 (end)

Well, Hearns got shot trying to get through the pass a second time, and the injured guy got carried miles and miles through the jungle, at great physical and psychological cost to his stretcher-bearers, only to die when they had almost arrived back at the beach. Awesome. The invasion itself, however, was extremely successful; the U.S. took the island and eradicated all Japanese forces, after which it seemed like everyone would get to go home. (There was also a whole bit with a crazy sergeant leading the platoon futilely up a mountain, during which one guy fell to his death Whitewater Summer style. (Yes, I'm making a comparison with a bad Kevin Bacon movie. What of it? Don't pretend you didn't love Whitewater Summer.))

The end is obviously supposed to be playing up the "What is it all for?" angle. I respect that, and in the microcosm of one Pacific island, it makes a lot of sense. You could even say that it applies to a majority of wars, perhaps, especially of the brand we've been having since World War II. That said, I think Mailer is in error when he refuses to acknowledge that wars have reasons behind them that sometimes justify the great personal costs to the participants. It's not that he makes an argument against that justification, but to some extent he denies it by omission.

It was a realistic portrait of tropical combat. One of the best 100 novels ever written? Doubtful. But then, 700 pages of war narrative, no matter how well written, will probably never make my top 100 list.

Tomorrow, mysterious falcon sculptures. Too bad I already know the twist ending. The Maltese Falcon is people!

Monday, June 15, 2009

As it works its way on in

Current book: The Naked and the Dead
Pages read: 357-555

This book is impossible to summarize. We learn about the backgrounds of several more guys. The General transfers Hearn to the company we've been following, and he's given orders to move them to a different line, but partway through the several-day trek, they're caught in a pass between two mountains and shot up. Only one man is hit, and the rest retreat. A party is sent back to base with the injured man, and the other guys are all waiting to try the pass again tomorrow.

That's it as far as plot goes, I guess. Just think back on every war movie you've ever seen. That's what's happening: random fights between men over their ethnic backgrounds, pretending to be crazy to try to get discharged, some guy befriending an injured bird and some other guy killing it out of spite and cruelty in order to portray the dehumanization of know. Army stuff.

Honestly, it's really not bad. I think a lot of people would find it extremely fascinating, and the fact that I'm not utterly disgusted with it, despite the fact that I hate combat narratives, is impressive. Mailer was young when he wrote it, and I can tell that not only because he sometimes uses cliched prose, but also because his realism still contains a shred of actual hope.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

In the water she wanted to stay

Current book: The Naked and the Dead
Pages read: None

I forgot to update yesterday, even to say that I didn't read! (Which I didn't, so it's not like you missed much, but still.) Oh, the shame!

I clearly did not spend my time birthday shopping for my husband, having lunch with a good friend, and going to a pool party rather than reading. That would have been wrong. Instead, I was engaged in some very important unnamed activities, and I'm very, very sorry that I didn't update. Can you feel the contrition? It's practically dripping off of me. Much like pool water. Would have been. If I had gone to a pool party. Which I didn't. At all.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Check back when there are more missiles.

Current book: The Naked and the Dead
Pages read: None

No time for war today, sorry.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Gee Mom, I wanna go home

Current book: The Naked and the Dead
Pages read: 209-357

My ability to summarize this book is somewhat crippled by the fact that it's written with virtually no plot. That said, it's surprisingly compelling anyway. At the moment, we're switching back and forth from the narrative of the current time, in which the soldiers are stationed on a Japanese-occupied island, to various narratives of the past, in which we learn their histories and reasons for joining the military in the first place. As I said, it's impossible to properly summarize the information, since there's a vast amount of it, but the histories of a couple of the characters certainly stand out.

One of the men, Red Valsen, grew up in a coal-mining town and worked in the mines himself after his father's death when Red was 13. He swore, not long after he began mining, that he would escape, and consequently left home at the age of 18, forsaking his duties as the breadwinner for the family. He became a tramp, occasionally washing dishes for money, but mostly getting drunk in railroad cars. I think Mailer, by giving us an extensive explanation of his background, is doing a creditable job of presenting a situation that is worse than being engaged in combat. For this solider, then, the hellish atmosphere of jungle engagement is preferable to the hellish atmosphere of both the coal mines and American transiency. I can't say that I blame the guy for abandoning his family in order to escape the coal mines. The idea of crouching in the dusty darkness for 12 of every 24 hours is completely unconscionable to me. (Then again, you're talking to the girl who walked out on a temp job because it consisted of working in an assembly line to put together folder contents for a conference. Putting sheets of paper one on top of the other for eight hours a day is unconscionable, too. I still should have just told them I was sick, but I'm not really ashamed of my moral stance for freedom from mind-numbing menial labor.)

In another of the flashback vignettes (which I need a better name for, but nothing's forthcoming), we're given the history of Hearn, the General's steward. In the present, he's bucking under the yoke of the General's authority, finding small ways in which to defy the man, who he considers somewhat irrational in his demands (and rightly so). In the end, however, the General proves to Hearn how untenable his rebellion is by threatening him with a court-martial for disobeying an order to pick up a cigarette butt that he, the General, has just dropped. It's immediately after this humiliating demonstration of the submissive nature of his role in the military that Mailer gives us Hearn's complete history, which enlightens us as to the reasons for his problem with authority and his urge to overtly rebel.

Hearn, as it turns out, is the son of a powerful Midwestern industrial tycoon. He grew up in an atmosphere of plenty and privilege, but when he went away to school (first boarding school and then college), discovered not only that didn't want to be a businessman like his father, but that, in fact, the principles of American business might be fundamentally flawed. In college, he ended up changing his major from medicine to English, and eventually refusing all of his father's money, financing his education instead by working menial jobs. He graduated and became an editor, but finding the work tedious, and inflamed by the craze for national defense immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, joined the army soon after.

Most of the soldiers have stories as personal and interesting as these, and I think it's in the telling of them that Mailer truly excels. The scenes of combat and jungle-slogging provide a successful contrast to these stories, but are far less interesting to me than the reasons why each man has chosen to subject himself to the cruel and taxing existence that defines a tour of duty during wartime. I'm surprised, despite my complaints about the combat scenes and details of the war, at how engaged I am. Ok, I still skim through large sections when they consist entirely of combat maneuvers, but I'm intrigued by the backstories and interpersonal dynamics of the men. As far as the battle for territory goes, because I suppose I should include that, there's been no progress or change, so mostly the soldiers have been hanging around playing cards and doing makework jobs like ditch-digging.

There is also, at one point, a lengthy description of a bombed-out field covered in corpses in various states of destruction and decay that I feel is fairly gratuitous. I understand that Mailer wants to provide a realistic picture of war, but the literary equivalent of a pan across the field would have been sufficient, rather than the closeup of each corpse's ruined face and body with which we were provided. Because ew.


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