Saturday, January 31, 2009

Web of lies!

Current book: The Beautiful and Damned
Pages read: Would you believe me if I said none?

Ok, so my promise was a horrible lie. I'm sorry, baby. I'll never do it again, I swear.

Anyone in the market for a bridge?

Friday, January 30, 2009

Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse

Current book: The Beautiful and Damned
Pages read: Guess

So, I may not be doing well at reading my books every day, but I'm certainly a faithful poster of my various excuses, aren't I? I don't know; this week has just been difficult for me. Between ennui and illness and just something that seemed like general exhaustion, great literature didn't seem to fit in. I think it's actually to literature's credit that it requires energy. It's often a common trait of books that are deemed worthy of the title of literature that one can't read them when one is very tired, distrait (yes, that's what I mean), or otherwise indisposed. Unfortunately, the difficulty of some books seems to be the only characteristic that really qualifies them for said title, and it is in this way that we're often misled into believing things are great when they may not be. (This also goes for books being depressing. As I may have mentioned in the past.)

You'll be comforted to know that instead of reading Fitzgerald I finished my third re-read of James Clavell's Shogun and started a random fantasy novel. These do not require my brain to work nearly as hard as F. Scott. (I accidentally just typed his name as Scoot. I think I would like him more if he were named F. Scoot Fitzgerald. You know, like, "Hey, Scoot. How are those Beautiful? Oh, Damned, too, huh? Nice." Oh, you know what else? Part of the reason I associate him with an extreme sense of dissipation and hopelessness is the fact that he has the first initial-middle name-last name thing going on, which I can't help but connect with "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock." Because I am that dorky. And it's one of the best poems ever written. I seem to have reached a stage I'm going to go ahead and call a little punchy right now. But you knew that from the Scoot thing, didn't you? Ok, this parenthetical is over.)

I'm going to go ahead and promise you that I'll read tomorrow, but I'm not going to say how much. It could easily be another pathetic 15 pages.

Scoot. Teehee.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Speaking ill of the dead

Current book: The Beautiful and Damned
Pages read: Still none

In lieu of actually posting about Fitzgerald, since I can't seem to get my shit together enough to read him, I will, instead, discuss Updike a little more, regardless of the fact that this is beginning to sound like the "I Hate Updike Project." The obituary for him in the Washington Post the other day had the title "John Updike's Lyricism Exalted the Everyday and the Unglamorous." I don't know what exactly it was that Henry Allen, the Post's lit writer, was reading, but it was apparently not the same stuff that I was reading. Unless the word "exalted" has lately been redefined as "cheapened and tarnished." If so, you'd think someone might have mentioned it to me. The obituary also included the following quotation, "He said in an interview in Life magazine that 'the idea of a hero is aristocratic. Now either nobody is a hero or everyone is. I vote for everyone.'"

Do you, Updike? Do you really? Then try making the everyday seem aristocratic, rather than despicable on every possible human level. Apparently I misinterpreted the situation when I said that I didn't think Updike really wanted us to like Rabbit Angstrom. I guess he did. How it is, then, that he failed so utterly miserably, for me, at least, is hard to fathom. But call me crazy for having a violent hatred for a verbally abusive husband who leaves not only his pregnant wife but also his pregnant prostitute mistress, accepts no responsibility for any of his actions, and comes out the other side thinking he's righteous and entitled. Christ.

I thought of some other witty commentary about this last night as I was falling asleep, but it faded in the fog of sickness that carried me off to the realms of the unconscious. It was really witty, though. There were going to be parentheses. And maybe even an asterisk.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The dog ate my Fitzgerald?

Current book: The Beautiful and Damned
Pages read: None

I'm getting sick, and there was no reading today. I...don't really have an excuse.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pessimistic misogynist literature may never be the same

Current book: The Beautiful and Damned
Pages read: 3-16

Shameful level of progress, I realize, but my motivation has not been high, to say the least. We've met our main character, Anthony Patch, gotten a bit of his family history (mainly that he's rich, his father died when he was young, and he has a crotchety grandfather) and a general description of his youth and current personality traits. He's attractive, somewhat diffident, impressed with himself in the way that most young men (according to Fitzgerald) secretly are, and settling down in New York to write a history of the Spanish Inquisition. My guess is that the great debauchery of New York high society will soon tempt and corrupt him.

The prose isn't actually bad, so far, and a definite relief after Updike's horrors. Why is it, though, that authors of "great literature" so often feel the need to give you the history of a character's boyhood years and possibly those of his father and grandfather before they actually start telling their stories? Aside from rare cases in which said characters were deeply scarred by their terms at Eton, it just doesn't seem relevant.

However, Mr. Patch does have a bathtub "equipped with an ingenious book-holder," which has endeared him to me somewhat.

I've been informed by several people that Updike died today.

My attorney has advised me not to comment at this time.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Same bat time, same bat channel.

Current book: The Beautiful and Damned
Pages read: None

So, I have to admit that I haven't really started The Beautiful and Damned yet. Updike really took it out of me, and I'm not a big fan of the only Fitzgerald I've read, which is, of course, Gatsby. Anyway, I'm posting anyway because of my weird confusion about the title of this book. It got onto my list as The Beautiful and the Damned somehow, with an extra the stuck in there. Searching around online, I've seen the same mistake made in several reputable places, and I can't say I'm surprised. It seems to flow a lot better with the extra the. I looked into the origins of the title a bit to see if he was referencing or quoting, but he doesn't seem to be, so I'm forced to conclude that Fitzgerald has a crippled sense of the rhythm of language. I don't remember Gatsby that well, what with it being a Junior AP assigned text, but it doesn't bode well.

We'll find out tomorrow when we rejoin our hero!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

An insult to the psychotic lowlife community

Current book: Rabbit, Run
Pages read: 271-307 (end)

Thank god this book was short and that I'm done with the damn thing. (Before I conclude my discussion, I want to mention the misogyny that's existed throughout the whole thing, which was really starting to bug me there at the end. Every woman in the book is despicable in one way or another, and while the men are, for the most part, just as bad, it's the women who get blamed for the misery and frustration that all of them are feeling. I'm not saying that misogyny is an automatic red card, as it were, but when the book has no other redeeming characteristics, it bothers me more than usual. Ok, done with that part now.) It didn't get any better or at all redemptive, because that would evince some sort of optimism on the part of John Updike, and I'm pretty sure that he's horribly jaded and bitter and will be forever. Or at least he's pretending to be for the sake of making himself look intellectually melancholic; it's not academically fashionable to write about the inherent good of humanity, after all. Never mind the fact that Anne Frank managed it after persecution by the freaking Nazis. But it's so terribly difficult, you see, being a twenty-something white male in suburban Pennsylvania. Poor, poor John Updike. My heart bleeds.

To come to the point (though I don't know why I should when it took Updike three hundred pages and he could have done it in thirty), Rabbit goes back to his wife and once again vows that they'll be together forever, encouraged by her minister and their "sacred" bond of grief. (Dead children are always great for a marriage. No tears or recriminations there, no sir.) There are a few scenes of them together (I'm sure I don't need to express that they're depressing and tinged with the reek of squalor, but I'm doing it anyway. They're, ah, depressing and tinged with the reek of squalor.) and then they head to the dead baby's funeral. In the midst of the interment, Rabbit flips out, publicly berates his wife for their child's death, and then literally runs away through the woods next to the cemetery. He ends up back at his pregnant prostitute's apartment, where he finds out about her pregnancy, assures her of his intent to divorce his wife and marry her, and also runs out on her while he's supposed to be getting them sandwiches.

Updike attempts to be artistic at the end by bringing us around to Rabbit running away again, and he's not entirely unsuccessful. I have to give credit where it's due: he knows his craft well. The prose is good, and the ending does achieve a haunting sort of tone. I don't think that Updike expects us to like Rabbit, but I do think that he expects us to agree with him about the inherent bleakness of modern life.

Well, screw that, I say. Yes, there are bad parts about life. People often feel trapped in their marriages and their jobs, stifled by their routines, and turn to the uglier things in life. But just as often people are buoyed by their friends and family, change careers and find something they love, take solace in the joy that their children bring them, and are comforted and sustained by the beauty of their love for their husbands or wives. Why don't we get to hear about that? Why isn't there a single shaft of light in this entire novel? I'm not saying everything has to be optimistic and happy all the time, but never? You want to call Updike a master of realist fiction, then I'd like to see some goddamn realism. The world is not a horrible pit of sadness and despair, and to portray it as such seems to me a betrayal of the inherent duty of every author: to show us the truth.

See this box I'm standing on? There's soap in there.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Not unexpected.

Current book: Rabbit, Run
Pages read: None

No post. Tired. Hate Updike.

Friday, January 23, 2009

And I know it's my own damn fault

Current book: Rabbit, Run
Pages read: 167-271

Blah. Still not good. (I'd even go so far as to call this book hateful. It certainly makes me hateful. That's the same thing.) After a few more weeks of Rabbit being a complete deadbeat, which subjects us to Updike's thrilling narratives of cheap dates in tawdry clubs, Rabbit's pregnant wife goes into labor. He still has enough of a conscience left that he feels like he should be there, though god knows if I were his wife I'd want him as far away from me and my newborn child as possible. So he goes to the hospital where his wife has a daughter, and he's impressed enough by the miracle of birth that he decides he ought to get back together with her. (What a brilliant plan. I was not at all skeptical of their renewed marriage vows. I was just sure they'd live happily ever after.) A couple of weeks later, he gets frustrated with her yet again (to be fair, she's an alcoholic, but the real reason is that he can't stand the baby crying) and walks out one night. She goes on a drinking binge alone in their apartment and accidentally drowns their brand-new baby girl in an attempt to bathe her. The last bit I got to was Rabbit finding out about the whole thing and coming back to see his wife.

So, this is a cheery and uplifting little tale, isn't it? Gee, I really do love accidental child death, alcoholism, and two-timing deadbeat husbands.

So far, I have discovered no redeeming social value in this book. I would have stopped reading it a long time ago if I weren't so dedicated to my adoring public. So, adoring public, I hope you're appreciative.

Oh, I almost forgot! Before Rabbit decides to go back to his wife, he gets his prostitute-mistress pregnant, but she's too afraid to tell him because of his verbal abuse. (Did somebody send out a memo that told everybody to write books composed entirely of characters the audience hates? Because I missed it. Rushdie and Updike got it, though. Boy, did they ever.)

I continue to read at an astonishing rate in order to get this damn thing over with. Sometimes paragraphs might get skipped, it's true, but when they all say the same thing, it's really fairly irrelevant.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

John Updike can kiss my ass.

Current book: Rabbit, Run
Pages read: 3-167

I hate this book. John Updike writes in a smug, bleak modernist tone that makes my skin crawl. Everything has a sort of pall cast over it by his narration that tarnishes even the most beautiful of things. (Also, he writes in the present tense, and nobody likes that. Well, maybe some people do, but it bugs the hell out of me.)

The main character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, is a despicable, immature jerk who leaves his pregnant wife in the first chapter. We're obviously supposed to sympathize with the bleakness of his daily existence, but Updike's prose leaves me with nothing but disgust for him. We follow him through a period of hedging about whether or not to leave, as he drives for hours into the night, but eventually returns to the Pennsylvania town from which he departed. Then he crashes with his old basketball coach, hooks up with a prostitute, Ruth, and ends up living with her for the next several months and becoming a gardener. We're subjected to hearing about his relationship with Ruth, his interviews with his wife's minister, who tries to convince him to go back to his wife, and that minister's interviews with the wife's family, from whence all the pressure comes.

I think Updike is trying to present a picture of a lost modern man and the inevitably of the unhappiness and confusion of his existence. I don't really appreciate that kind of picture, nor am I convinced of the importance of painting it when it's been painted before. You may have noticed the large number of pages I've read in one day, and it's because I'm going through the prose as fast as possible in order to get it over with. Really, this is the kind of book I dislike above all others. I feel like I have a coating of rancid oil on my tongue while I'm reading it. Rabbit Angstrom can die any time, and that'd be just fine with me.

On the plus side, I've been a little bleak myself lately, about career prospects, money, and all those sorts of frustrating issues one deals with in one's twenties, and Updike and his off-putting antihero have kicked me right out of it. It's a nice side effect to be able to say, "Wow. Life is nowhere near as horrible as Updike makes it seem, nor is it as bad as I have self-indulgently been pretending it is." Not that I'm giving Updike any credit for it. The jerk.

I must have tempted fate with the end of my last post, because now I just want Forster's overwrought drama back. Seriously, I'll take a rainy carriage accident any day over this bullshit.

Also, the message of all of my books seems to be that modern life is bleak and hopeless. With F. Scott Fitzgerald up next, I'm not optimistic that it's going to change. Wind in the Willows may be my first real hope. Surely Frog and Toad aren't representative of quiet desperation. Right?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

It was a cliched and hackneyed night.

Current book: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Pages read: 151-184 (end)

Ok, are you ready for this? You might want to sit down, because E. M. Forster went all Shakespeare on me at the end of this book, and more happened in the last 33 pages than in pretty much the rest of the whole thing. Phillip is unable to convince the Italian father (Gino) to part with the baby, and so all involved are going to head back to England in defeat. (Well, except Caroline will actually be heading back in triumph, technically.) However, right before they're supposed to leave, the sister-in-law (Harriet) decides, in a flash of predictable idiocy, to kidnap the baby. On the rainy pitch-black carriage ride away from the scene of the crime, however, there's a terrible collision and the baby is killed. Also, Phillip breaks his elbow, but that's not really important. Afterward, Phillip goes to tell Gino about the whole thing, and Gino, in a fit of rage, tries to kill him, but Caroline sweeps in at the last second to save his life. Just before they finally leave Italy, Phillip is seconds away from confessing his now-fully realized love for Caroline, but she beats him to the punch by unburdening her secret passion for Gino! They part in an agony of unrequited love.

All of this is followed by about eight straight pages of unnecessary and obvious analysis of their mutual discovery that life's passion is bittersweet, but that the experiences are worth the pain due to their intense beauty. It would have been a lot more meaningful if Forster had left us to discover that on our own, but it was 1905, and most people weren't giving their readers a lot of credit.

So, I found the whole thing pretty uninspiring, when it wasn't outright ridiculous. It's kind of a bad novel, really. (Don't get me wrong. It's not bad like Sophie Kinsella or Dean Koontz or anything, but it's hardly great literature.) I think it made the list for the same reason that Midnight's Children did: it's an inferior, earlier work by an author famous for a much better novel. Really, though, I worry about the people who wrote this list. They should get out more. And by get out, I mean stay inside and read.

Anyway, overall, I guess we were going for an examination of the stifling and ludicrous nature of English society as well as a story of the ephemerality and beauty of life. It's been done, and much better. Thumbs down. (Also, if he was going to go for the ridiculous Shakespearean ending, more people should have died. Preferably by the sword.)

Updike, you don't have a tough act to follow. Try not to screw it up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

But at least they can all quote Dante.

Current book: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Pages read: 68-150

Alas, there won't be any star-crossed intrafamilial loving, due to the fact that our English half-sister has already discovered the existence of her Italian half-brother by means of picture postcards. Oh, well. Unsurprisingly, the English family of our wayward widow decides to cover up the whole ill-fated marriage and subsequent birth and ignore the existence of the offspring. That is, until it becomes unavoidable to acknowledge the existence of the Italian lad - then, the matriarch of the English family decides that they have to go try to rescue the baby from his obviously inferior father and bring him back to be raised in England. (Italy, after all, is full of papists and fornicators. Everyone knows that.)

Our widow's brother and sister in law accordingly head off to Italy, where they meet our widow's former (young female) chaperone, engaged in the same charitable pursuit of rescuing the baby. The brother-in-law (Phillip), who's been falling in love with the chaperone (Caroline), is seduced by the beauty of Italy (You were hoping I was going to say something else after seduced, weren't you? Yeah, me too.) and decides he doesn't really care that much about getting the baby, but is still willing to give it the ol' college try. Caroline, however, sees the relationship between the Italian father and his son and, realizing the fact that the man really loves his child, decides she and her English cohort are in the wrong. When I left them, Phillip and Caroline were in the local church, arguing over the proper course of action.

Once again, I can't say what will happen next, but Forster's only got about 30 pages to conclude this debacle, so I won't be in suspense too much longer. I'm not terribly impressed by the novel so far, but it moves along, at least. As for the deep and meaningful subtext of the book, I'm going with, "Classism and manners are ridiculous and unnecessary and the English can't see past their own noses to the beauty of the world that lies beyond." It's just conjecture, though. I suppose it's possible that Forster will turn the whole thing around and make it a modern morality play, but I doubt it. Not after Caroline gave us an eloquent explanation of the fact that English society stifled both her and the wayward widow and drove them to their current ends. Stifled women seem to be a theme lately. (And by lately, I mean for the last 5,000 years.)

Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion! (Twenty bucks says this book makes my "Not worthy of the top 100" category.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

The wages of sin

Current book: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Pages read: 14-68

Well, our sprightly young widow starts page 15 off with a bang by embroiling herself in a sordid Italian love affair. I'm astonished by this completely unexpected turn of events. My goodness, the shock. Her brother-in-law is dispatched with all haste to Italy to investigate the situation and, ostensibly, bring the wayward lamb safely back to Mother England. He tells himself, however, that should the match be an acceptable one, since they've been told the prospective husband is Italian nobility, after all, that he'll let Lilia (the wayward widow) have her second marriage. Imagine his horror, then, when he discovers that, in actuality, the Italian lover is actually a 21-year-old ex-army private with no occupation and is also (my god, the shame and disgrace) the son of's almost too terrible to say...a dentist. (I am not exaggerating the level of chagrin expressed in the text. Really.) It's all very dramatic, and made moreso when we discover that it's too late and they're actually already married! ::music sting::

Predictably, our young widow has a year of unhappy, isolated Italian marriage and then dies in childbirth. Awesome. Forster actually seems to be mocking the pretensions of English society with the extremity of Lilia's in-laws' reaction to the marriage, so that's some nice social commentary, but then the young woman is punished by dying prematurely. I'm not really clear where we're going with this.

I mean, honestly, I have no idea what's going to happen next. (Famous authors should start having slogans, like, "E. M. Forster, keeping you guessing since 1905." Ok, it might need some work, but the concept is sound.) Maybe the Italian half-brother will grow up and meet the English half-sister and they'll have a disgraceful love affair and eventually discover it's incestuous, which will, of course, result in their double suicide. But I'm just throwing out guesses. (I've mentioned the frequency of incest in works of literature, right? Just following the trend.)

I...don't have that much else to say. It reads quick, once I actually get to it. Which markedly increases the urgency of my library request for Rabbit, Run. Come on, InterLibrary Loan!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tasty, tasty excuses.

Sundays are apparently also bad for my work ethic.

I made prosciutto, goat cheese, and asparagus omelets this morning, though. So at least I slacked off for a good cause, right? Playing Twilight Princess and watching five episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender are probably less good excuses. But if Sunday isn't for good food, cartoons, and video games, you tell me what it is for. (Don't say reading great literature. Don't...I can hear you.)

Also I saved some kittens. From a fire.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

In print, it's libel.

Saturdays seem to be really bad for my work ethic. And by work, I mean blogging. Ok, that's not actually true, either - while I did not, in fact, want to read, I also didn't want to go to work today. But I have a choice about subjecting myself to E. M. Forster, and not so much about fulfilling my poorly paid tutoring hours. Ahem. This is really just a long-winded excuse for not making a real post. (Also, rumors that you may have heard that I'm reading other books instead are unfounded and frankly despicable, because I would never do something so irresponsible and devious. Especially not children's books from the 1950s*.)

Still love me? More Victorian ridiculousness tomorrow.

*Seriously, though, have you read 101 Dalmatians? Because it's completely awesome.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The relative merits of vegetables

Current book: Where Angels Fear to Tread
Pages read: 3-14

All right, so it's a pathetic number of pages. I admit it. But Friday's like Saturday for me, and I had to go to the grocery store and the library and the tea shop (Yes, I go to the tea shop. It happens regularly. They've reached the point where they just go get the Earl Grey when I come in the door.), not to mention get some important socializing done with my friend and go out to dinner with my husband, so what's a girl to do?

Anyway, I've already discovered that this book's going to center around Lilia, a young widow whose in-laws don't approve of her. They've been trying to improve her behavior since she married into the family, apparently, and have now decided that the best course of action is to send her on a pleasure trip to Italy. Does anybody else see the error in judgment here? Pleasure trip to Italy likely to improve the imprudent young widow's behavior, is it? Not at all likely that she'll become embroiled in scandalous Italian love affairs. Furthest thing from her mind, I'm sure.

Anyway, I'm not really far enough into it to say how I like it yet, but the diction is pretty amusing. It's sort of slightly wry but proper Victorian English, which appeals to me because it's impossible to take it entirely seriously. For example:

"They sowed the duller vegetables first, and a pleasant feeling of righteous fatigue stole over them as they addressed themselves to the peas." (14)

I just feel that at some point in my life I need to stand up ceremoniously and say, "Excuse me whilst I address myself to the peas."

That's right. Whilst.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

I have to return some videotapes.

Current book: Main Street
Pages read: 259-406 (end)

Well, I'm officially done with Gopher Prairie forever, and I only wish I could say the same for our poor heroine. In this last part of the book there are some rather momentous events, including the declaration of World War I and the death, from typhoid, of Carol's former maid Bea and her son. The major crux of the plot, though, rests on two new people coming into town - a schoolteacher named Fern and a tailor named Erik. Fern acts neatly as a new and enlightened friend for Carol and Erik as a new and enlightened love interest. Through various machinations of the townsfolk, Fern is sent away in disgrace on suspicion of having committed indiscretions with one of the local hooligans (who is not, of course, punished in any way). Carol fights hard on her behalf, but ends up disgusted by the injustice that results. The town and school board are very "Well, she was asking for it," which is not unexpected, but it's funny to me that Lewis implies that Gopher Prairie is somehow remarkable in its attitude. I think he might be idealizing the city a little, to think that things somehow would have been different elsewhere. Maybe in fifty years. And maybe not.

Anyway, Erik the tailor ends up falling in love with Carol, and she with him, but running off to the city after Carol's husband discovers them taking a walk one evening...and all that that implies. It is, to be fair to Carol's husband (which is difficult for me to do, since he's a stultifying, controlling, moron), a real affair that has simply not yet become physical, but in comparing Carol to Fern and then threatening her with the same fate, he seems finally to add the proverbial last straw. There's an excellent interlude in here where Carol is incredibly bitter and her internal monologue goes all Patrick Bateman on you:

"Carol reflected that the carving-knife would make an excellent dagger with which to kill Uncle Whittier. It would slide in easily. The headlines would be terrible." (300)

I almost died. (When you think about it, actually, Patrick Bateman and Carol are not entirely unalike. They just express themselves differently. Very differently.)

As a result of her husband's verbal censure and her resulting anger with him, Carol ends up moving to Washington D.C. for two years with her son. There she rents an apartment with some other young women and takes in all the culture and conversation she's been missing for the past five years. I admit to being relieved that the city lived up to her expectations once she got back to it. I was afraid that Lewis's point would turn out to be that society is the same everywhere and there's simply no escape. Instead it seems to be that happiness is a matter of personal freedoms and finding one's kindred spirits in the world.

To my later chagrin, however, Carol ends up returning with her husband to Gopher Prairie. The ending of the novel is somewhat ambiguous: she seems to have found herself, and is no longer bothered by the pettiness of the townspeople or their constant viciousness, but she simultaneously realizes the futility of trying to change them. She's told herself she can be happy because she knows who she is and that her surroundings don't matter, and Lewis seems to support that idea, but we saw that the pinnacle of her happiness and freedom came when she left Gopher Prairie. Why can't she simply stay away? Maybe Lewis is saying that the trap is inescapable, but you have to realize that it can't make you into one of those whom you so greatly despise. Still, it's an ending haunted by melancholy and futility. I respect Lewis's choice to make it that way, but the romantic in me wishes Carol had thrown off the yoke of her marriage and stayed in Washington D.C. with her circle of friendship and culture.

Overall, I have to say it passes muster for the List. It is almost certainly one of the best 100 novels I've ever read, and I expect to continue to think about it and what it had to say for days, months, even years to come. It's particularly impressive that I'm so fond of a novel that's this bleak, since I generally reject books that I find overly pessimistic about the human condition. Bravo, Mr. Lewis. Bravo.

Also, good for a Twin Cities-dweller's ego that we're the pinnacle of culture and object of many a country girl's fantasy life. We do, after all, have all those experimental theatres and soda fountains.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

But he left all the books to her

Current book: Main Street
Pages read: 208-259

You guys! My irreverent Swedish handyman got married and sold out, and now he makes nice with all the conservative town assholes, even though they won't give him the time of day! I'm so sad. I can't blame Lewis for making the choice, but I'm still sad. Also, I totally called the fact that Carol was going to have extra motherhood-induced angst. There was actually a point where the narration read, "She felt trapped." So, yes. Surprisingly, we don't actually get to hear much about her son - I was kind of expecting that she'd get completely obsessed with him, for lack of anything else interesting in her life, but apparently not. Lewis glosses over the first couple of years of motherhood without giving us a lot of detail, probably because he knows that it'd be mind-numbingly boring. (Look, I'm not really the maternal type. You may come to realize this. Especially with infants. If I can't have an intelligible conversation with it and it's also not furry and cute, I'm just not that interested.)

At some point in these chapters, Carol's good friend Vida the semi-enlightened "old maid" schoolteacher gets married and turns on Carol like a vicious dog. She transforms from an avid reader and an occasional supporter of Carol's ideas into a rabidly conservative housewife who reads nothing but the newspaper. Lewis makes a lot of implications about compensation and making a false show of happiness with Vida's story. He stops short of saying that she's pretending to find her new life fulfilling, and instead implies that she has forced herself to actually find it fulfilling. Her attendant criticism of Carol belies her security in her position, though. Again, a masterful portrait of another kind of small-town desperation, one forced by a lack of choice, and one that makes Vida an excellent foil for Carol. (Yes, sometimes I use literary terms. Deal.) Vida shows us how Carol's choice to complain about the town, even though she never takes a really strong stand, to continue to maintain her dissatisfaction, is, in some ways, an act of defiance in its own right.

Finally, at the end of this section, the local-boy-made-good comes back to Gopher Prairie for a visit. He's a millionaire automobile magnate and has the inflated ego to match his cash. The townies practically worship him, and Carol finds herself unable to refrain from joining in, as much as she finds him obnoxious and unworthy of admiration. Then there's an interesting scene where he hits on her while simultaneously calling her stuck-up and difficult. Nothing happens, but again she finds herself drawn to him against her will. I don't think he'll be back, but rather serve as another lost possibility for her, a far-off escape that she'll dream of from time to time and never be able to act on.

It seems like the real problem with Gopher Prairie is that it's full of conservatives. Lewis hasn't said it straight out, but the problem is that no one will change anything, or improve anything with civic money, and I have to say that that seems to fulfill the definition pretty handily. There's definitely some love for socialism going on, too. Workers of Gopher Prairie unite!

On a light note, there was an excellent quote that summed up many an outsider's impression of my relationship with books, and which I feel compelled to share:

"Carol drove through an astonishing number of books from the library and city shops. Kennicott was at first uncomfortable over her disconcerting habit of buying them. A book was a book, and if you had several thousand of them right here in the library, free, why the dickens should you spend your good money? After worrying about it for two or three years, he decided that this was one of the Funny Ideas which she had caught as a librarian and from which she would never entirely recover."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I'm gonna bite my pillow!

Current book: Main Street
Pages read: 89-208

I'm already more than halfway through this one, and not just because I'm having a migraine-recovery day. It really is interesting and easy to read, especially when one compares it to the relative fog of Rushdie's magical realism and complex political statements. Don't get me wrong; I don't want to sound like one of the small-town shut-ins that populate the novel, but sometimes it's nice to read a few sentences in a row that actually seem to relate to one another.

So, our young and impressionable heroine has made her way through several seasons of the whirl of Gopher Prairie gaiety and is now really beginning to experience the sensation that she's not getting anywhere with her projects and plans for the town's betterment. As she makes her way through various deadly dull social occasions and the regular meetings of her stiflingly catty women's clubs, she keeps coming up with schemes and plots to do such outrageous and revolutionary things as refurbishing the town hall, building a new schoolhouse, or planting trees in municipal areas. She is, of course, handily rebuffed by her small-town compatriots, who, in turn, laugh at her enthusiasm, scrutinize her financial motives, or resent her for implying that the town is anything less than perfect. It's astonishing, actually, that she has the perseverance of spirit to keep trying. We also get to see her try to be a perfect doctor's wife, including a rather bloody scene where she helps her husband amputate a farmer's arm. (Sinclair Lewis is all about the action. He's like Michael Chrichton before his time. Ok, not really. Though could we add grey gorillas with crystal-powered lasers? Because that would be awesome.)

At some point she gets it into her head to put on a theatre show, too, and we get to see her struggle with the community theatre experience. (It's straight out of Christopher Guest, really it is.) She ends up putting on what she calls "a bad play, abominably acted," which I must say sounds terribly familiar. (I was in a summerstock production of Annie. Oh, god, the orphans, you guys. The horrible orphans.) It amuses me greatly that, while they ended up choosing an unknown and banal-sounding show for their project, the committee rejected Carol's idea of doing Shaw because it was too artistic and controversial. Shaw. Yikes. (I mean, I guess there's some socialist material in there, especially with Major Barbara, but really? Man, I'd love to let David Mamet or Harold Pinter loose in Gopher Prairie.) Anyway, her total failure at theatre was the end of the section, which also closed with a three-year entr'acte and the information that our heroine's having a baby. I can't wait for the motherhood-induced realization that she's really and truly trapped in her small-town life.

No, shockingly, I actually can't. I know this all sounds like angst and boredom, but Lewis is doing a damn fine job at painting a portrait of Middle American life. While you could argue that the plot's a little thin, it's as if he's leading us through Carol's days as a method for delineating his characters. He's showing us the people who populate her life and, by doing so, compellingly illustrating her situation. Some part of me keeps wanting to shake her and say, "Stand up to everyone and stop caring about what they think!" but I can't do it because Lewis has proven to me how impossible it would be to do such a thing. (And I'm not a forgiving reader. I was mad at Anne when she finally forgave Gilbert, after years of grudge-holding, for calling her "Carrots." The jerk.*) I hate to sing his praises all the time, but it's impressive stuff.

Also, I sort of love the socialist Swedish handyman who's courting Carol's maid. He's the only one in town who's just like, "Fuck 'em! Who cares?" (Who thinks I was one of the lunatic fringe in high school? Hands?)

*If you don't know what I'm talking about, you're either a boy or have been terribly deprived for your entire childhood. Go get Anne of Green Gables. Do it right now.

At least I got my MRS

Current book: Main Street
Pages read: 1-88 (yesterday's)

In theory, you'll be getting another post after I do my reading for today, as well, since I read yesterday before the attack of the horrible death migraine. I know what you're thinking: migraines are an excuse people use to not do anything when they've just got a bad headache. I used to think that, and then I started having them. (Actually, I kind of think that more now, because I often hear people say, "Man, I have a migraine," and I look at them and they're not, in fact, sobbing with pain, trying not to throw up, or lying very still because they can't see.) As you may have surmised, it was less than fun. Actually, it was one of the worst ones I've had, partially because it was accompanied by the inability to speak properly. I hate that. It's like I just can't find the words for things, or get those words out when I do find them. I have to think for a solid minute about one sentence, and it still might come out wrong. Do you know how long it took me to write that post yesterday - you know, the one with eight words? I'm guessing five minutes. And I got it wrong twice. To someone as word-oriented as I obviously am, it's the scariest thing ever. The blurred vision, tingling in the mouth and extremities, and intense pain aren't any fun, either. Ahem. Anyway.

So, Main Street is pretty engaging, I have to say. It's centered on a young woman in the 19-teens (Man, there is just no good way to say that decade, is there?) named Carol (often called Carrie, so I'll probably switch back and forth in much the same maddening fashion as Sinclair Lewis does) who, in the first few chapters, goes to college, graduates, works for a short time, and then marries and moves to a very small town in Minnesota. The chapters that discuss her experiments and vacillations with majors and careers in college hit sickeningly close to home, I have to say. She can't figure out what she wants to do, and ends up settling on teaching and library science because it sort of seems like a good idea.

(Personally, I went with the teaching, but I thought about library science, too. Yikes. I was almost having flashbacks during some of the passages, like:

"Throughout Senior year she anxiously related all her experiments and partial successes to a career...But how she was to earn it, how she was to conquer the world - almost entirely for the world's own good - she did not see." (3)


"In a month Carol's ambition had clouded. Her hesitancy about becoming a teacher had returned. She was not, she worried, strong enough to endure the routine, and she could not picture herself standing before grinning children and pretending to be wise and decisive." (7)

Ugh. That sounds ridiculously familiar to me. I went and got my Master's in teaching, and now I don't even know if I want to do it. Later, Carol turns out to make lots of other decisions that don't really apply to me, but I'm impressed by how perfectly Lewis manages to capture that loose-ends feeling of making career choices because you don't know what else to do. That was an extremely long parenthetical. With quotes. Taking it to new parenthetical levels, here. I hope you appreciate my dedication.)

So, right, Carol moves out to Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, with her 15-year-older doctor husband with whom she is not in love, and proceeds to meet all the townspeople and realize how prosaic and uninspired they are. There are perhaps two other "interesting" (read: at least slightly intellectual) people in town, and she quickly embarks on a quest to better the townspeople by introducing them to newfangled ideas like reading and having parties with themes. (No, really. Theme parties are the path to intellectual salvation. In this case, Chinese costumes and food brought all the way from the exotic Twin Cities!) We're sort of at the point where she's made all her social inroads, joining the Bridge Club and Ladies' Aid Society and the like, and is just now beginning to realize the facts that these people are not going to change and that they will hate her for trying to force that change on them. I imagine it's going to be pretty bleak and even vicious, but Lewis is a good storyteller, and I'm intrigued. I'm really impressed by his ability to write from a female point-of-view, as well. He manages to make Carol sound idealistic, bored, naive, downtrodden, and desperate by turns, and all while maintaining a balance of sympathy for and disgust with her. It's a virtuoso performance.

Finally, hearing Lewis talk about the Twin Cities in 1920 was really interesting, since I live in them. We've managed to shed the shanty towns along the river, I'll note, but Fort Snelling and the high bridge are still here. The descriptions of bone-chilling cold have not ceased to be apt, either, since the current temperature today is -19 with a wind chill of -34. I'll be staying in today.

Monday, January 12, 2009

No clever title, sorry.

Current book: Main Street
Pages read: 1-88

No post on account of migraine. More tomorrow.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: 485-533 (end)

Well, finally done, and I'm not sorry to see the end of Mr. Rushdie, I have to say. By the close of the novel, Saleem had been arrested, named all of the children of midnight as traitors to the Indian government (which resulted in their forced sterilization), gotten re-united with his surrogate mother, and met his future wife (who we'd been hearing about in the narration from time to time and seems like one of the only sane and likable characters in the whole thing). Remember how I said it felt a little rushed at the end? That certainly didn't go away. I kind of hate Saleem for turning traitor, too, but he's so damn self-deprecating that you can't do that much about it. (It'd be like kicking a puppy. Well, like kicking a mean puppy that just bit you in the ankle, but then acted all sorry and cringy. You might do it, 'cause ow, your ankle, but you wouldn't feel good about it later. Unless you're a sociopath, and then I really can't help you.) Also, can I just take a moment to say that I love how in India you just tack the syllables "wallah" onto anything and it means "seller of"? As in "balloon-wallah" or "hot dog-wallah" or "sno-cone-wallah"? I find it charming, for reasons I can't explain.

So, how was the book? It's a difficult question. I see that there's literary merit in it, and that it treats the human condition in a new and interesting way, as well as providing a study of a period in Indian history that's key to the identity of the nation (arguably one of the most important and influential nations in the world). In some ways, then, it is a great novel, because any novel that encompasses all of those features is great. Did I like it? Not really. It didn't change my view of the world in any significant ways. I didn't find myself moved by the story or attached to its characters. So in some ways it's also a failure as a novel. That said, great literature isn't always entertaining, and entertaining literature is often far from great. This is not one of the precious few books that are able to combine greatness and entertainment, but it's still important.

I'd like to say that it has a definite message, but I don't think I actually can. It's less about making a statement and more about creating a portrait of the human lives that make up and are affected by politics. I was right days ago about that portrait, though, and I'm not convinced that Rushdie needed all 533 pages to paint it, nor that much of his stylistic annoyances were justified by their results. I think, I have to admit, that the reason this novel is so revered is because of Rushdie's body of work, rather than the particular merits of the book itself. He could have achieved what Midnight's Children achieved in a 40-page short story. Chalk one up for the Dickensian tactic of sprawling humanity, I guess. Have I read 100 better novels? I'd have to say yes.

On to Main Street. I can't say I know much about the novel, except that it was written by Sinclair Lewis, who grew up in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, hometown of a college friend of mine. My college friend actually worked at the Sinclair Lewis Boyhood Home Museum, and, when I went there for Thanksgiving one year, showed me the town billboard that proudly proclaims "Sauk Centre - Boyhood Home of Sinclair Lewis!" Ok, I lied, I know a little about the novel, and from what I understand, it's a scathing portrait of small-town America that mocks the daily life and social cruelties of that society. So, I'm thinking Sauk Centre might be a little, um, misguided... in the their pride. We'll find out. (Then again, as I recall, the biggest attraction in Sauk Centre was the two-screen movie theatre, so maybe they're taking what they can get.) There's a definite possibility that I'll be turned off by Lewis's cynicism. (Don't faint. I'm actually kind of a hopeless romantic. No, really, I swear.)

Anyway, hurray new book tomorrow!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What does the A stand for?

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: 430-484

Well, our hero has regained his memory and married one of the other children of midnight so that he can act as father to the illegitimate child of yet another of them. Simultaneously, India has been wracked by warfare and finally entered a state of emergency. Saleem's son (only not really his son) was born at midnight the day that state of emergency was declared, and has ridiculously large ears in the same way that Saleem has a ridiculously large nose. I get what Rushdie's doing, and I think my supposition that he was trying to say that everyone is, in some way, an allegorical representation of their larger community was correct. That said, he's hitting it a little hard. I mean, really, another bizarrely-accentuated child born at midnight at another key moment in India's history? I got the message without being bludgeoned with it. It's like Hawthorne's imagery in The Scarlet Letter. Do we really need to see Chillingworth come out of the shadows and Dimmesdale to bleed from his chest to get what's going on? I don't know. I feel like I'm not being given any credit as a reader. Then again, I have an academic understanding of literature, so I'm predisposed to creating meaning where it doesn't exist. You can only read so many scholarly articles before some of the nonsense rubs off on your psyche. At least I haven't stooped to writing words with their prefixes in parentheses as a pathetic attempt to make them seem like they have two meanings. Jesus, I hate that. (You know what I mean - "(Re)Imagining Sexuality in Shakespeare's Blah-di-blah..." ::shudder::)

Definitely finishing tomorrow, if only to get the darn thing over with. I'm actually looking forward to getting into the modernist Main Street, because at least it's not freaking post-modern. (Sometimes it's nice if things actually make sense. Really, Rushdie, I promise I won't think less of you if something's possible in real life.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

It's like the Twinkie defense. Only without sugar.

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: None

So by "I might actually finish tomorrow," I really meant, "I won't read at all." I told you I'd probably fail to live up to your standards. That absolves me of all responsibility, right?

Actual post tomorrow, I swear.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mistah Kurtz, he dead.

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: 374-429

You know what this book was missing in order to fulfill the requirements of a bad soap opera? (Hah. I just realized that's completely redundant.) Amnesia. Luckily, Salman provides. That's right, ladies and gents, our narrator has completely forgotten who he is. All right, it's not as ridiculous as it sounds, but still - amnesia? Really? Anyway, after Saleem's family moves to Pakistan, the conflict between India and Pakistan starts to escalate, and eventually breaks out into war. Saleem finds himself courting death by wandering around the city during bombings, and eventually gets knocked unconscious and rendered amnesiac by one such outing. Oddly, though, he keeps referring to himself as purified by it, somehow. (Well, I guess that makes sense. If you forget everything you've ever done, you're guilt-free. Catholicism should try that. Frontal lobotomy as the path to salvation.) It's actually a thought-provoking plot element, this idea that Saleem has surrendered his roots to his home country and, as a result, can no longer remember who he is. In fact, the loss of his memory is inflicted by direct violence from his past (and, if we would believe his narrative voice, the whole of his very identity).

I found myself thinking, during this discussion of identity as country, of how connected I am to my own native country. Do I identify myself with the United States? To some extent, I feel American (though not in a shorts-wearing, flat A, fanny pack kind of way), but if I renounced my citizenship, would I really lose anything? I don't know. The U.S. is home, and I don't know that any other country could ever be, but it's far from the most defining characteristic of my identity. Even when it comes to loyalty, I put many other kinds before that of my country - friends and family are easy enough, of course, but also personal integrity, morality, environmental responsibility...lately, all of those have seemed to be in discord with the agenda of the nation. Then again, providing a dissident voice is loyal, too. This is a complete digression, but the point is that country and identity don't necessarily go together in my head, so for Rushdie to assert the connection so strongly makes me examine my own feelings about it. (Kind of the point of books, isn't it?)

Well, after the amnesia strikes, Saleem ends up joining the Pakistani army, and using his outsize proboscis and its accompanying uncanny aptitude for scent detection to act as a kind of bloodhound for finding the enemy. We hear about his daily army life a bit, and then the eventual downfall of his unit after they massacre hundreds of refugees and get themselves lost in the jungle. The parts about killing people are oddly detached, and by the time the troops wander into the jungle and start hallucinating goddesses and monsters among the Sunderban islands, you get the feeling that Saleem has completely lost his mind. I have to say, as weird and difficult as it is to read, I feel like it's a fairly accurate portrayal of the ravages of war on the human soul. I'm expecting somebody to gasp out, "The horror! The horror!" at any minute.

There's definitely a feeling of winding down going on, and I'm disappointed that we haven't seen more of the children of midnight and their magical powers. Things also feel a bit rushed, like the author is struggling to cram everything he can into the last hundred pages or so. I feel like that a lot with books, and I remember thinking the same thing about The Satanic Verses. (Maybe it's me, but I'm going to blame the authors. Charles Dickens never had this problem. Then, again, his books are interminable journeys through a foggy Victorian purgatory, so there you go. Also, he was paid by the word.)

I might actually finish tomorrow. Expect some sort of spectacular finale! Or don't. I'll probably fail to live up to your standards.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sexual deviance, here we come!

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: 350-373

Well, I'm a horrible slacker and only read 23 pages, so there's not too much to say, but those pages were chock-full of incest, if it makes you feel any better. Saleem's in love with his sister. Heavy. It's actually not as bad as it seems because of the fact that Saleem was switched at birth with his parents' actual offspring, so really they're not blood relatives. That said, Rushdie makes the point that if you're raised as siblings, you're siblings, and the social taboo is really the part that matters. So, incest. Woohoo! (Has anyone else noticed that incest is ridiculously prevalent in books - especially "great literature"? What is that about? I'm not just talking marrying your second cousin Jane Austen-style, either.)

Aside from developing incestuous tendencies, Saleem's also developing kinesthetic ones. His sinus surgery endowed him with a heretofore-unknown sense of smell, but one that is preternaturally acute. (Ok, I may have designed that sentence purely to use both heretofore and preternaturally. But can you blame me? Don't answer that.) He also claims to be able to smell the sacred and profane, the pure and the corrupt, happiness, sadness, anger, and all the rest. Again, pretty intriguing. I'll read more tomorrow and see where all of this goes; I'm not too far from the end.

Oh, also, Rushdie used the word disorientated. Pardon me while I retch for a moment. You know, the British get a lot of things right, but that's one I find unforgivable. Do you orientate people to a new school? I didn't think so. Christ.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Would you prefer yellow spandex?

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: 255-350

You'll no doubt be disappointed to hear, as I was to read, that the children of midnight have not yet banded together and created a legion of superheroes. (No spandex at all, really. Also no cloaked jet planes. Any book can benefit from some cloaked jet planes. Well, maybe not any book.) In fact, they seem oddly unimportant to the story, though there are yet whispers of them threading through the chapters and hinting at things to come. We're moving along pretty well through the political events of Indian history and Saleem's late childhood and early adolescence. He's reached puberty early and is developing a mature body and its accompanying impulses before he's ready, which is actually creating a nice parallel with India's development and subsequent conflicts with neighboring political powers.

In addition to that, though, Saleem has begun to blame himself for every bad thing that happens to the new state of India, including the death of Nehru, and frankly, I'm getting a little frustrated with his hubris. I mean, ok, I get that we're going for deeper symbolic meaning, here, but things are getting out-of-hand. You know when you have a friend who blames him or herself for everything, no matter how blameless he or she is? After a while you get pretty damn tired of hearing "Sorry, it's all my fault," and the like. Take it a step further, and you might even get angry that he or she is appropriating situations that have nothing to do with him or her. (This makes perfect sense to me and has happened on several occasions, but maybe I'm just a horrible person. ) That's what's happening to me with Saleem. I understand he's connected fatefully to India through the whole midnight thing, but what entitles him to tie every aspect of his life to the history of the country? Why does he get to be responsible for Nehru's death? I'm beginning to want to categorize him as just crazy, needy, and obsessive. Maybe Rushdie's point, though, is that anyone's life is tied to that of their country, regardless of fateful birth-hour - that everyone, in fact, can serve as an allegory for their larger community and even humanity as a whole. (Deep, huh? Sometimes I astonish even myself.)

On a more plot-related note, Saleem's family spent some time in Pakistan, returned to India, and decided to leave again, though not before Saleem got surgery on his sinuses that removed his power to read thoughts. (Note to self: do not get your tonsils out. They may be responsible for any number of your uncanny and brilliant talents.) So, now, according to our hero, anyway, he's exiled both from his magical birthright and his home country. Also, his sister, it has been hinted, is about to become a huge singing star in Pakistan. None of this is really clearing up my need for perfect allegorical parallels with the country of India, but it's pretty interesting. I don't feel like I'm slogging through the prose, which is a nice change, and the plot is resisting the tendency to leap about in time.

New word that I learned from Rushdie today: tergiversatory - tending to repeatedly change one's attitude and opinions toward a cause. (Will I ever use that word in conversation? Only if I want to be mocked mercilessly for my overdeveloped vocabulary. Then again, I'm used to it.)

Also, Rushdie, don't think I didn't notice that you put your own last name into a list of people in that last chapter. I noticed. No, you are not cool.

Monday, January 5, 2009

They no longer matter.

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: 189-254

Are you ready for my incredible discovery of the day? You might think you are, but you're actually not. That's how incredible it is. Midnight's Children is actually X-Men! It turns out that the title doesn't refer only to Saleem and India, but actually to all of the children born between midnight and 1 am on the fateful morn of India's independence. (Yes, morn. I warned you about the diction.) And, even better, these children all have magical (I'm not saying mutant, but I'm thinking it) powers, such as walking through reflective surfaces, changing gender by jumping into water, and, in Saleem's case, mind-reading. No really, how is this not X-Men? Are you guys with me on this?

Anyway, so I'm actually kind of excited about this whole turn of events, and the plot in general is improving, too. We're getting coherent stories of Saleem's childhood now, and I'm beginning to appreciate the characters more (or Rushdie's fleshing them out more - however you want to look at it. I prefer the cynical way. Always.) now that we've stopped jumping around from generation to generation every dozen pages or so. At the same time as the characters are developing, we're getting some sense of what's going on with the Indian populace - especially as it relates to class. Saleem keeps getting himself into situations in which his status as a rich Muslim is a danger to his very existence. I feel like I'm learning some things about the tensions between rich and poor in India and how those tensions relate to religion, which is pretty interesting. There's a huge emphasis on light and dark skin, too, and the association of light skin with money and power (and Britishness - there's an allegorical skin disease that all of the Indian businessmen are suffering from that turns them white. Not exactly subtle, but it does make the point.) that I'd sort of forgotten about it. Of course, I have to take it with a grain of salt, since it's both fiction and a quarter of a century out-of-date, but nonetheless.

Aside from developing astonishing telepathic powers and discovering the existence of the rest of the gifted children of midnight, not a whole lot has happened to Saleem. He did get in several bicycle accidents, and we got to hear about him using his telepathic power to cheat at school. (I challenge anyone to deny that they would do the same - especially in math. Stupid math.) There's sort of a sense of foreboding about how the children of midnight are going to use their powers, also - it seems, according to Saleem, at least, that they have a tendency toward selfishness and perhaps even evil. I'm actually sort of intrigued.

On a separate note, I was talking to my mother on the phone today, and she told me she'd once imagined how fascinating it would be if everyone in the world had a room full of all of the books they'd ever read, and how much that would reveal about their characters. I have to agree. I'm a little obsessed with imagining my own such room now, and I'd dearly love to walk around and look at them all. I can't even imagine how many I've forgotten.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Tell me about your mother

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: 133-188

All right, so I'm back on track with the reading after the rude truncation of my holiday break yesterday. (I mean, really, a girl needs some time to mentally prepare herself for going back to work, and an hour and a half on Saturday morning is not it.) To be fair, I could have read in the evening, but instead I got Chinese food and watched Sex and the City with my friend Kate, and I think it was wise, in the interests of maintaining my sanity.

Anyway, back to Rushdie. So, ok, the plot's improving, sort of, but we're still incredibly focused on the small and bizarre details of our main character's everyday life (which currently consists of infancy, and I don't know anyone who finds that interesting aside from doting parents). I'm reading along at a fairly good clip, interrupted only by the occasional loss of continuity (like on page 157, where he reintroduces the main character's grandmother, who I was pretty sure was dead at that point. I think I may have interpreted her metaphysical death as an actual death. That was the day I was reading while working out, so my sweat-blurred vision may have misled me. Or I just wanted her to die and got carried away. It's hard to say.), but I'm really beginning to wonder how much credit to give Rushdie. He's taking his poetic interpretation of things kind of far. Here's an example - he has a discussion on 139-140 of someone in the house pointing at a portrait with his finger. It doesn't seem particularly mysterious or symbolic on a basic level, does it? And yet, Rushdie makes it into this portentous moment where the finger is really pointing at not only the portrait, but everything beyond it, and ends by saying,

" Or was a finger of warning, its purpose to draw attention to itself; yes, it could have been, why not, a prophecy of another finger, a finger not dissimilar from itself, whose entry into my story would release the dreadful logic of Alpha and Omega..."

What? Some guy points at a portrait and somehow we've reached the dreadful logic of Alpha and Omega? Remind me not to go around pointing at stuff lest I unleash nuclear holocaust, because wouldn't that be awkward. The tone kind of makes it sound tongue-in-cheek, but it happens so often that I'm afraid it's annoying whether it's supposed to be humorous or not. (Though I should have seen the finger thing coming, since the chapter title is "The Fisherman's Pointing Finger".) Suffice it to say, things are a little on the heavy side.

There's some really cool and successful symbolism going on, though, too, like when Saleem (the main character, whose name I should have told you a long time ago) describes his father as a fighter of djinni. He tells an excellent story that parallels his father's battle with alcoholism with his childhood fantasies of his father fighting "bottled spirits." I know, it's kind of one giant pun, but it's charming and, dare I say it, poignant. I really want more moments like this one from the book, and instead I keep getting a lot of attempts that turn out clumsy. Also, there is this completely bizarre focus on excreta and bodily fluids. I don't know if Rushdie wants his narrator to seem childish, or whether he personally is fascinated by this sort of thing, but I've heard way too much about snot and vomit and bowel movements. (Don't make me talk about Freud, Rushdie. Nobody wants that.)

So, nearly 200 pages in and we're basically still observing the early childhood of our narrator. There are a couple of things I'm wondering about, especially with the symbolic parallels with India: first, what's going on with Saleem's mother? She kind of seems to represent old Indian values, sort of in a "Mother India" kind of way, and yet she's currently providing for the family (rather than Saleem's father), and she's doing it by winning money at the racetrack. So that's weird. Also, Saleem now has a little sister (commonly referred to as the Brass Monkey, ostensibly because of her hair colour, but I think it's an excuse for Rushdie to seem quirkier) who was born just after Gandhi died, and I can't figure out what she's supposed to be. New generation of politicians, maybe? Finally, and also bizarrely, Saleem has a Cyrano de Bergerac type of nose, and it seems central to the story. It's apparently big enough that it causes people to gape at him on the street, give him weird nicknames, make fun of him in school, the whole deal. Perhaps it's an excuse for Rushdie to talk about snot more, but I'd like to reconcile it with the India parallels and I don't really know how.

Maybe I'm just giving Rushdie too much credit by trying to come up with an elaborate network of symbols for everything to correspond to. (Yes, that sentence ended with a preposition. But it's ok because I'm writing a sardonic parenthetical about it. Right?) I want them to be all perfect, but they don't seem to be (perhaps because I don't know enough Indian history?). I'm hoping there'll be a giant epiphany at the end of all this, 'cause otherwise I'm skeptical that it's worthy of the List.

Also, did we really need the scene where Saleem sees his mother masturbate? I thought it seemed like a bit much. ::coughFreudcough::

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Excuses, excuses

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: Um, none.

Ok, so I didn't read anything today. I promise I have a really good excuse, though. Or at least a sort of passable one. What happened is this: my phone rang at 8:45 this morning with the supposedly good news that I wouldn't be needed at work until 10:30. This would, in fact, have been good news if I had known that I was supposed to be at work at all today, but, instead, as an unknowing sleepy person, was pretty much totally suck. Instead of a free Saturday at the end of vacation, then, what I got was an obnoxious four-and-a-half hour chunk of my Saturday erased. Add to this the fact that the highway that I take to get to work was closed today because they're demolishing some bridge above it, but failed to inform anyone (and by anyone, I mean me) of this important detail. Point being, it was not a good day. I just didn't have the capacity for wandering magical realism. Nor, really, the time. I shall return to flippant literary analysis tomorrow, like a good girl.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Sweat and literature

Current book: Midnight’s Children

Pages read: 53-133

You’ll notice, from the information above, that I’ve made it to page 133. You’ll also be interested to note, then, (or, at least, I’ll pretend you’re interested, and if I say it, that makes it true) that the main character of the story has just now been born. I got prematurely excited on page 117 when his mother’s water broke, but there was a whole labor chapter after that. How foolish of me. This also means, though, that India has achieved independence, so I can only conclude that there will now be a lot of simultaneous political and personal development, of India and our main character, respectively. Rushdie’s doing a nice job with paralleling the development of the two already, so I’m actually looking forward to watching the artistry of his tactic unfold.

And yet…the problem with magical realism, I think, is that the characters are always so illogical and governed by the vagaries (yeah, 50-cent word!) of the author’s complete lack of responsibility to reality that they end up being both unconvincing and alienating. There’s just something about a character who lives in a world where anything can happen with no explanation that divorces him or her from the common human experience. Characters are mostly the reason I read books (though, of course, you can’t separate any one element from another). When I read a truly incredible book – one of those that’s so good that you miss it when you’re finished and you wish there were more, or you wish that you could go back and read it again for the first time – I miss the friends I’ve made along the way more than the exciting action or the beauty of the description. They’re the reason I cry or laugh or scowl or what have you. (Well, scowling happens a lot anyway. Especially when there are comma splices. When did those become ok?) So when characters aren’t compelling, when I read about them and have to think of them as nonsensical idiots, possibly even despicable ones, I get all resentful. (Technically, this also happens in real life. But when you’re surrounded by nonsensical idiots in real life, you can’t put down the book. It is also, I have noticed, considered unacceptable to take smug pleasure in their suffering. Oh, temp jobs. You have taught me many lessons.)

To get back to the book, though, I’m having this weird problem with Rushdie where I notice that he’s doing something – like using cinematic terminology, for example – and think, “Oh, that’s kind of cool,” and then he goes and tells me he’s doing it. It takes all the artistry out when you call attention to what you’re doing. To be fair, he’s using a first-person narrator, so maybe it’s purposeful, but I still don’t like it. He’s flirting with a sort of smug, pat quality sometimes.

This is rather negative, but honestly, I don’t know that I’d still be reading this book if it weren’t a project. Still, I did my reading while working out this morning, so that might have something to do with it. Nothing like sweating and breathing heavily to make you lose your patience with an author. (Or other people in the workout room who take your machines. Or anyone who’s breathing your air, for that matter. Look, working out sucks, what do you want from me?) Anyway, I’m hoping for action now that we’ve actually got the main character past the glint-in-his-father’s-eye stage. Come on, action!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

If you with patient ears attend

Current book: Midnight's Children
Pages read: 3 - 52

So, I'll begin with initial impressions. Coming into this one, I had no idea what it was about. I've read The Satanic Verses, so I'm familiar with Rushdie's style, although I'd forgotten his tendency to be all jumpy-aroundy (What? That's a perfectly valid literary term. You can look it up. All right, you can't look it up. Sue me.) and I'm not sure I like it. In this first couple of chapters he's reminding me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who I'm actually incapable of reading. Really, I've tried One Hundred Years of Solitude three times - how many Jose Arcadia Buendias can one person deal with? "A gazillion" is apparently the rest of the world's answer, since everyone seems to love that book like his or her firstborn. Firstborn completely baffling and obnoxious magical realism, that is. But I digress.

Anyway, I didn't read the author's introduction, because I started it and he was giving me way too much backstory and spoiling the plot. Why do they do that? You're writing your introduction to your own book - do you not realize that if you say what happens you might ruin it for somebody? I hate how famous literature is exempt from spoilers. Just because the whole world knows the end of Romeo and Juliet doesn't mean you have to go around repeating it before every edition of the play. There's the off chance some sixteen-year-old has been completely oblivious, and think how fun it'll be for him or her. Ok, maybe not fun. Also, I guess Shakespeare kind of gives it away in the prologue. Bad example. (Also, I'm being horribly hypocritical, since this entire blog is kind of one giant spoiler. But it's my blog, and you know what you're getting yourself into. (You know into what you are getting yourself? Ew.)*) Point being that I just jumped right into the novel. I quite like the first-person narrator's voice, and I have to respect Rushdie for being able to get away with phrases like "occult tyrannies" without sounding pedantic. There's not a whole lot of story yet - we're getting the family history of the main character, who was born at midnight on the first day of India's independence. Hence, together, he and India are midnight's children, and we will, in theory, be watching him and India develop together (You might think I used the wrong pronoun there, but I didn't. Don't question me.). So, anyway, lots and lots of backstory, which is slow in developing, but interesting. We've gotten the history of our character's grandfather and are now working on his father. What interests me most is Rushdie's ability to use specificity of language to express himself exactly how he wants to, but in an extremely poetic fashion. He's almost like an engineer of language. Also, he keeps making me look up words. I sort of remembered what purdah meant, but not really. I enjoy it when authors make me look up words - unless they're being truly obnoxious about it, which does happen ::coughChinaMievillecough::.

Overall first impressions - it has potential to be good enough to overcome the annoying jumping around in time, subject, and space, but we'll see how the plot develops. I have faith in old Salman: he pulled through for me on The Satanic Verses, and, though this is an earlier work, I think he can do it here, too.

Also, there was a superfluous comma on page 23. Someone give me an editing job. Sheesh.

On an unrelated note, although a literary one, I finished rereading The Sparrow today, and I'd forgotten how completely amazing it is. And how it makes me cry like a little girl. It would definitely make my personal list of the 100 greatest novels.

*That's right. I used double parentheses. Did you have something to say?


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