Sunday, May 31, 2009

Heaven on a bun.

Current book: White Noise
Pages read: None.

Weekends there's just never reading. Went to a pool party today instead. I didn't make any fancy food for it, but I did buy one of the best watermelons I've ever tasted. And I've still got half left. Hurray! Also, grilled bratwurst for the first time ever, (not that I've never had grilled brats, but I've just never been in charge of them) and they came out perfect. So, good job me. I would like to state for the record that good bratwurst grilled from raw (as in, not par-boiled or otherwise pre-cooked) far exceed the results of any other method of preparation. The end.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

I have just met you and I love you.

Current book: White Noise
Pages read: None.

And I didn't even cook. I did see Up, though, and I can highly recommend it. I was delighted by virtually every moment of it. Thanks, Pixar, once again.

Friday, May 29, 2009

That is what I truly want to be

Current book: White Noise
Pages read: None.

Instead of reading I engaged in blatantly consumerist activities. Well, I bought groceries. But among them were Oscar Meyer hot dogs! Take that, Don DeLillo! I laugh in the face of your anti-consumerism. Haha! (That was me laughing, to be clear. I thought it was clear.)

Seriously, though, it was just too depressing to try to read White Noise today. Eating sushi and reading my book about Chinese cooking, grocery shopping, and taking a lovely hour's walk in the 75 degree sun were far better uses of my time.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Don't call it "the red ball thing."

Current book: White Noise
Pages read: 3-99

You know, I was really hoping this book was going to be good. It's kind of science fiction, it's modern, and I sneaked and read the first page yesterday and it seemed promising. Alas, I was inappropriately optimistic. Don DeLillo is so wrapped up in sounding like an academic and treating the world in which his characters live as a sort of No Exit style Sartrean nightmare that he forgets to lend the characters and plot any realism whatsoever, rendering his narrative both obnoxious and forgettable. (Man, I wish I could review books in the newspaper. That was a satisfyingly cutting sentence to compose.) We haven't actually gotten to the science fiction part of it yet, but when we do I'm betting that it will only resemble science fiction in the remotest fashion - in other words, it will employ an unrealistic situation that sounds vaguely technical as a device by which to deliver depressing existentialist commentary.

Plot-wise, we've met Jack Gladney, his wife Babette, and their crop of children, who come from both their marriage and several previous marriages on either side. Jack is a professor of Hitler Studies at an Unnamed Famous Liberal Arts College, and is, in fact, credited with inventing his discipline (which just goes to show you how much of a tool the guy really is). Babette doesn't seem to do much besides corral the children, and that in a very New Age, "let them make their own decisions about things that they shouldn't be making decisions about" sort of way. The children are absurdly unrealistic in their dialogue, as is, in fact, everyone in the novel. (It sort of reminds me of the movie they made of Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs's memoir. I didn't read the book, but the movie was intolerably and pedantically depressing, so that's about right.)

Jack also has a fellow professor, Murray, for a friend, and we're given glimpses into Murray's solitary and horrific existence in which he sits in his efficiency apartment, lusts after women, and reads pornography. There's lots and lots of barbed narrative commentary on the consumerism that's growing more rampant in America, including a long section about how shopping is a modern form of religious meditation and, in the end, is the same as dying. (What does that mean? No one knows. It's fucking ridiculous. Oh my god. I almost can't even keep typing. It's so obnoxious and self-righteous and irrelevant; the pedantic bullshit overwhelms my language circuits. (Seriously. You didn't see it, because I fixed it, but I totally misspelled "overwhlems" just then.)) In a faint glimmer of something interesting that might eventually resolve itself into plot, there are mysterious illnesses developing among the children of the small town in which the college is situated, and no one can seem to figure out the cause. One of the Gladney's kids, Wilder, has an attack of this in which he cries continuously for four hours and then abruptly stops.

I'll be reading this one as fast as is humanly possible so that it will be over sooner. Existentialism is so goddamn frustrating. (This is why I never took Philosophy in college. It makes me swear.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thou shalt not escape an abusive relationship.

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: 74-122 (end)

Oh, tiny, short novels. You're over so quickly that I don't have time to whine about being bored by the repetition of events and character traits. Oh, wait...

So, in the end of this novel, we discover that Emil's sweetheart, Maria, who long ago married another man, is trapped in an unhappy marriage that is verbally, though not physically, abusive. Alexandra interacts with her a little and is our conduit for the discovery of this abuse, but I was hoping that she'd deliver Maria out of her emotional bondage somehow, and it just didn't happen. That's realism for you. Anyway, we also learn that Alexandra is kindly taking care of another "crazy" old person in addition to Ivar; it seems her homestead has become something of a rest home.

After a year or so, Emil returns from Mexico city, where he's been successful in business, and impresses the whole town with his fancy Mexican clothes and guitar-playing. Maria is reminded of her love for him when he returns, and just after they spend some time together at the wedding of a local girl, they end up revealing their true feelings to one another. That night, Emil spirits Maria out of her house to the nearby riverbank, where they consummate their forbidden love. (Look, I'm trying to make it sound classy, but it's coming out like a romance novel. It's not like that at all in the book.) Unfortunately, Maria's husband comes home and finds Emil's mare in the stable, and he sets out with a rifle, finds the two in flagrante delicto, and shoots them both to death. (And man, Cather gets a little gruesome here, telling us that the bullets tore Maria's lung and nicked her carotid artery, causing her to bleed slowly to death. Seriously. She actually used the word "carotid.")

The narration insists that he doesn't realize it's them, and would never have shot Maria if he had known, but I find myself extremely skeptical of that claim. He's caught, pleads guilty, and is sentenced to 10 years in prison. Alexandra goes to visit him and makes it clear that she forgives him completely and will try to secure his pardon. (Cather explains Alexandra's motivation for this by saying that she doesn't want to see any more lives ruined, but I find her forgiveness, and, in fact, the blame she places on Emil and Maria for the tragedy pretty off-putting. There's consistent repetition of the idea that the two were sinners who deserved their fate. It's hard to tell if Cather is showing us how insensitive the strictures of pioneer society are or if she's showing us that adultery is bad and wrong. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt and say the former, but I'm just not sure it's true.)

Several months later, ostensibly as soon as he heard about the tragedy and could get back, Carl returns and he and Alexandra renew their love, promising marriage to one another. The conclusion of the book notes that Alexandra may even leave the homestead, because it's not important who owns the land, but rather that the land is the constant, the thing that lasts forever, and humanity is only passing over it and acting as its custodian. (Which, again, is a little out of the blue. It made me think, "Well, then why have you shown us the lives of these people and made them seem important?")

I liked it, because I like the way Cather writes and how she gives us pieces of lives and events as though we're looking at a portion of a reality over which she has no control. That said, in this story, unlike that of Death Comes for the Archbishop, I could feel Cather's hand in the plot and I didn't necessarily like where she went with it. As I mentioned above in my discussion of her possible moralizing, it seemed as though the novel was out to prove a point that I'm not sure I agree with. Cather shouldn't be trying to inculcate morals with her prose; the starkness of it and the subtle realism she employs have a message all their own. To force another is to defuse her own success.

I'll be interested to see how My Antonia stacks up.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Crazy Ivar's House of Hammocks

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: 5-73

So, for a while I thought that the Bergsons, also known as the "Swedish girl and her brothers" from yesterday's post, were actually Norwegian. But it turns out that they're Swedish after all, and I was right all along! Sorry, Scandinavians, I didn't mean to step on any toes, there. It's usually Finland and Sweden that everyone confuses, anyway. Well, that and Sweden and Switzerland. I'm going somewhere with this post, I swear.

Anyway, the girl's name is Alexandra. It quickly becomes clear that she's the leader in her family, and she takes over the management of the farm after her father dies. The book jumps several years at a stretch, and later we see her deciding to keep the farm and invest in more land when her younger brothers want to give up and trade for the richer fields nearer the river bluffs. Another sixteen years passes in a flash, and we see that her decision was the correct one - the farm has flourished and all three Bergson children are successful, though they split the land when the elder son, Lou, married, and are currently separate landowners. At this point, we also see Emil, the youngest son of the family, courting a local girl and struggling with his future. He doesn't know if he wants to stay in Nebraska, feels stifled by farming, but is unsure what else to do. He comes to Alexandra at one point and tells her he doesn't want to go to law school because choosing the wrong career is simply an easy way out. (Resonates a bit, that part.)

Then, out of the blue, Alexandra's long-lost friend, Carl Linstrum, comes back from the East. We met him very briefly at the beginning, but his family moved away quite quickly. Regardless of the fact that Alexandra is 40, (which is, of course, far too old to even consider something as reckless as marriage) the two fall in love, or at least comfortable and attractive like. Alexandra's brothers (excluding Emil), however, strongly object to the match because they don't want her to give her land and money to Carl, who's something of a penniless vagabond. She argues, quite convincingly and confidently, that they have no say in her actions, and that neither they nor their children have any right to her land, anyway. Nor, she goes on, does their public embarrassment at her supposedly inappropriate actions really matter to her. Carl hears about the argument, however, and tells Alexandra to give him a year in which to make some money so that the relationship won't seem like a predatory one on his part, and he goes off to Alaska. Emil also decides to go to make his fortune, though he's heading for Mexico City.

Oh, I forgot to mention: there's also a local old guy called Crazy Ivar, (which is a completely excellent name, by the way*) who's something of an enigma. He makes hammocks, is able to cure animals of illnesses, can charm the birds out of the sky, and also has fits of madness from time to time (that I'm going to go ahead and guess are petit mal epileptic seizures, but it's conjecture). Eventually, he loses his land and Alexandra takes him in and looks after him, which is another source of scandal and subsequent petty annoyance by Alexandra's brothers. (They're kind of jerks, in case you hadn't gathered.)

That's where we are. Cather maintains the almost stark prose that she often used in Death Comes for the Archbishop, but there's less of the candid and beautiful description that I had grown accustomed to by the end of that novel. Perhaps it's because Nebraska isn't beautiful enough to warrant it, but I think the landscape just has less of an emotional pull on Cather personally. The story's good, though, despite the large jumps in time, and I'm enjoying the way that Cather writes women, which I didn't get to experience very much in the last book, since it was mostly about priests.

Oddly, the contractions in this book are separated in the extremely old-fashioned style, as in "did n't." That always throws me off when I read it; it makes my brain skip a beat.

*You know what else is an excellent name? Sir Henry Shrapnel. Apparently, he's the guy who invented the first fragmentary artillery shells, so they named them after him. I learned that from Trivial Pursuit yesterday, and it was awesome.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cooking and books. But no cookbooks.

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: 1-5

Today I made quinoa salad with asparagus, goat cheese, and toasted almonds. It called for couscous and farro or barley, but I was making it for a Memorial Day cookout hosted by someone with celiac disease, so I thought I'd go ahead and keep it gluten-free. It came out pretty well, I think. I put a few diced carrots in, as well, and I think you could switch in just about any spring vegetable, lightly sauteed. It was dressed with olive oil and Meyer lemon juice, which was nice, but very light. In future I think I'd put in some rice wine vinegar to sharpen it up a little. Overall, though, quite lovely.

I did read about five pages, as you can see, and met a Swedish girl and her brother who live in pioneer-era Nebraska. So far, we know that their father is dying and they're trying to hold onto the farm. Much more tomorrow, since the weekend will be over and I'll be working out and therefore reading on the elliptical machine again.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Deus ex pot roast

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: Still none.

I don't feel guilty for not reading, since it's a holiday weekend, after all. My husband and I went swimming today to usher in the summer, and that was lovely and excellent. In addition to that, I made Pot Roast Bordelaise, which I'll go ahead and tell you about, since I'm in the habit of talking about food, apparently.

It's a James Beard recipe (also known as the father of American cookery), and it's really quite simple. You have to use a whole beef brisket, which gets up there in cost, and actually, the most difficult part of the process is finding a brisket that hasn't been trimmed. It took me a butcher and two grocery stores before I got one. (The guy at the butcher actually seemed pretty sheepish that they didn't have one, since it is kind of their job.) Anyway, you trim off the enormous layer of fat on the bottom so that you can render it to liquid in the biggest pan you've got. I know, not exactly health food, but using liquefied beef fat for a braising liquid base is pretty much the best idea ever. Then you coat your brisket in flour and brown it in the hot fat, after which you dump in some thyme and marjoram, beef broth, an onion stuck with cloves, a bay leaf, and a carrot. Then you cook it for three hours on the stove. Ta-da! Delicious, amazing meat. I usually thicken the sauce with cornstarch to make gravy, as well. It's so good. Somehow the simple combination of spices intensely enhances the taste of the meat, making it taste richer and fuller than any other pot roast you've ever had. The only problem is that you can't stop eating it. Also, it makes excellent leftovers, hot or cold.

Like I said, cooking blog.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Death by chocolate

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: Still none.

I have eight whole minutes to spare before midnight in which to tell you that I didn't read.

But man, those cookies were awesome.

Friday, May 22, 2009

There's no metaphysics on earth like chocolates.

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: None!

Today I took a walk, gave blood, went to three grocery stores and a butcher, gave my friend a ride to the airport, and made triple chocolate cookies (With melted chocolate, cocoa, and chocolate chips, in case you were wondering what the three kinds of chocolate are. Also, a little bit of coffee.) The recipe included the words "fudgy consistency" and "reduce an adult to tears of joy." (Ah, Baking Illustrated, how I love your diction.) I haven't tried them yet, but the entire apartment is so thick with the smell of warm chocolate that it's almost enough just to smell it. Almost. Also, I used parchment paper on my baking sheets for the first time, and I'm an enthusiastic convert. The cookies just slide right off! No spatula or anything! No half-squished cookie edges or little rings of crustiness to scrape off your baking sheets! Convert! I say unto you that I bring the good news: parchment paper will deliver you to eternal bliss! Kind of.

I'm fully aware that I sound more like a cooking blog than a literature blog right now, but I figured you'd rather have a run down of what I did instead of reading than nothing at all. Maybe I'll convert it into a cooking and literature blog - I'm going to make pot roast on Sunday, after all. The 5.65 pounds of beef brisket in the fridge is solid, meaty proof. But I digress. (Well, or do I, since this whole thing is a digression? That's right, folks; come for the literature, stay for the deep metaphysical reflection.) Ahem. The point of all this, of course, is that there was no time for the pioneers, though I'm quite looking forward to them. Probably tomorrow?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

It's like a musical.

Current book: O Pioneers!
Pages read: None!

I felt it needed an exclamation point, too, so as to fit in better.

I don't have a good excuse.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I know it when I see it.

Current book: Tropic of Cancer
Pages read: 208-318 (end)

Thank God it's over. It stayed pretty much the same. For a while the narrator got a job teaching school, but he hated it (and I shudder to think of the damage he did his students), and eventually his sugar daddy friend invited him back to Paris. He went back and promptly convinced the guy to leave his pregnant lover and return to America, while he, the narrator, took the 2800 francs that were supposed to go to the girl. Afterward, sitting in cafe, the narrator decided that he should go to America, too. Only there was a helluva lot more sex than what I just described.

Absolutely no redeeming value. The worst part, aside from the lack of plot and the completely gratuitous vulgarity, was that the narrator's main reason for abandoning all social mores was to pursue pleasure above all else, but none of the things he did made him happy in the least. So he wasn't just a hedonistic asshole, he was a whiny, angsty hedonistic asshole.

I have no further comment. Let us never speak of this novel again.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Tropic of I hate your guts, Henry Miller; die in a fire.

Current book: Tropic of Cancer
Pages read: 107-208

Yeah, it's the same. It's like Holden Caulfield grew up, lost what little sexual inhibition he had, and moved to Europe to become a worthless hack writer. Christ.

So this guy, who we've learned is named Henry Miller (And man, do I loathe it when authors do that. If it's a memoir, than write a damn memoir, you tool.), couch surfs around Paris for a while. Eventually he tries to con a rich older woman into supporting him and his friend, but neither of them will have sex with her because she's too old, and since she's in it, it seems, to get laid, it doesn't work out. Finally he gets a job as a newspaper proofreader and is actually able to support himself. Guess what he uses the money for? Five points if you said sex and booze. After a while he gets laid off, takes up with a rich American friend, and debauches himself into illness. (Yes, that was the entire contents of 101 pages. I'm not even kidding.)

At some point in here he also has a little speech about how pleased he is with himself for renouncing all restraint and dedicating himself to hedonism. He's decided that that's an admirable and brave thing to do. Right. It's like listening to drunk philosophy majors try to get girls into bed. Kill me now. This kind of writing is what makes me despise the post-modernists and their vulgar, self-indulgent bullshit. I don't care that you wasted years of your life drunk in a Parisian brothel. You have to make some kind of point.

I think this book should actually go on a worst 100 novels list.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Flames, on the side of my face...

Current book: Tropic of Cancer
Pages read: 1-107

Oh my god, it's so horrible. I had no idea. I thought Joseph Conrad was bad, but this is an affront to my very being on both a literary and personal level. Remember how I had that dream in which I explained that John Updike was so bad that it was like pornography? That was inaccurate and dramatic. This is actually pornographic. I see why it was banned; it offers absolutely horrific language to describe unnecessarily vulgar and disturbing sexual situations that contribute nothing to the plot. Well, how could they contribute anything to the plot, since there isn't one?

So far, we've met the main character, who's a debauched American wanna-be writer living in Paris. He has no money, and therefore crashes at his friend Boris's until about page 90, when he gets a room at a Russian immigrant's apartment in exchange for teaching him English. Now imagine that plus meeting about a dozen people who are variously described as whores and degenerates and relate their various sexual liaisons in profane and florid prose.

It's horrible. It's not as though I want to condone censorship. Ever. At all. But I almost can't blame them. Look at this stuff. (WARNING: Awful, incredibly offensive, horribly adult content below. )
"I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt...You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum...I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris' chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces..." (6)
Do you see what I'm saying? And there's not even any point to it. It doesn't even make sense. Christ, Henry Miller.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Reverse psychology

Current book: Tropic of Cancer
Pages read: None

You're probably tired of my excuses, so I won't provide you with any. But I'll read tomorrow; I swear I will. Honestly, it's practically my duty as a semi-subversive liberal, since the book was banned in the U.S. for nearly thirty years.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

There's no wrong way...

Current book: Tropic of Cancer
Pages read: None

Yeah, I'm an unrepentant slacker. But those who attend my friend's housewarming party tonight will have peanut butter bars as a result, and their gratitude for that source of pure deliciousness will probably outweigh that of the Internet for whiny rants about early 20th-century prose.

Also, I played Rock Band and did laundry. So there.

Friday, May 15, 2009

No sex yet.

Current book: Tropic of Cancer
Pages read: None

You'd think, after all the trouble I went through to get a copy of Tropic of Cancer, that I'd actually have started reading it today. And you would be wrong.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Welcome to Earth.

Current book: War of the Worlds
Pages read: 99-223 (end)

Ok, now that I actually have time to post properly, I'll do so. I wouldn't want to shaft H.G. Wells or deprive you, the readers, of a post that is actually laudatory.

So, in the second half of the novel we follow the narrator's brother around for a while while (Don't you love it when proper grammar allows you to put the same word twice in a row? Probably not. In fact, you've probably never thought about it. I, however, find it amusing and delightful. But I'm quirky like that.) he tries to escape the Martian destruction of London. He comes to the aid of a couple of ladies, securing their carriage for them and using it go cross-country and away from the path of the panicked metropolitan horde. This section largely consists of commentary on human behavior in survival situations, but the verdict isn't too damning: logic is the main casualty, rather than decency.

Anyway, eventually we get back to the narrator, who's still hanging out with the curate (who I called a priest last time, but that was incorrect), and ends up buried in a cellar with the man and trapped by Martians who are roaming around outside. They watch the Martians' movements for several days, and come to the conclusion that the Martians are capturing humans in order to breed them for food. Lovely. After a while, the curate gets snatched out of the cellar by a Martian tentacle (because he won't stop gibbering like an idiot) and devoured alive. (We're sad. Really.) Our hero hangs out in the cellar as long as he can without food, but is eventually forced to leave. When he does, he finds the area deserted, though covered in a dying alien weed the Martians planted. He wanders around the countryside, scavenging, and finds no signs of living Martians, nor anyone else.

In the end, he comes upon the artilleryman he'd initially traveled with and stays with him for a couple of days. The artilleryman speaks at length about how the Martians are going to farm humanity for food, and though most people will probably go along with it simply to avoid death, he's going to start a resistance and infiltrate London's sewers in order to try to destroy as many Martians as possible. At first, our narrator's all for it, but eventually he realizes that the artilleryman has no actual intentions of carrying out his plan; he's just a grand schemer. Our hero leaves him at this point and makes his way to the city, where he finally discovers that the Martians are all dead, destroyed by Earth's bacteria, to which they have no resistance. (I know people scoff sometimes at the convenience of this ending, but it's actually pretty clever and plausible. In addition to that, it makes it clear that humanity escaped its horrible fate not because of any merit on our part, but rather by simple luck (or perhaps the grace of God, though Wells remains skeptical of that point)).

Those are the major events of the story, but there's also an epilogue in which the narrator is reunited with his wife. It's nice and touching and makes me like him a little more. He goes on, afterward, to discuss the scientific advancements that the Martian invasion provided, but then caution that we're still not prepared, in the event of another attack. He also mentions having flashbacks and moments of terror during his everyday life; I was impressed by the fact that H.G. Wells managed to acknowledge Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before anyone else really knew about it.

It was quite a good novel, especially considering the fact that it was the first alien invasion novel ever written. The number of science fiction books and films that are clearly indebted to Wells is pretty astonishing. (It made me go check out the Tripods series by John Christopher. Yes, they're children's books, but they pretty much rock.) I liked his clear, logical prose, his balance of plot and scientific information, and his messages about human nature and the possibilities that may lay in our future. So, hey, positive review!

I finally got a copy of Tropic of Cancer. There's a photograph of a woman baring her right breast on the cover. Maybe that's why it sells so well. Anyway, next up, sex, I guess.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A slight delay

Current book: War of the Worlds
Pages read: 99-223 (end)

I finished, but I don't have time to post before work, so you'll get to hear the thrilling conclusion tomorrow. The delay is a good thing, actually, because apparently there's no copy of Tropic of Cancer to be had for love or money in this city. The three copies in the library system are checked out, and neither the local used bookstore nor Barnes and Noble had one, either. It didn't get put on some sort of popular list while I wasn't looking, did it? Anyway, I hope to secure one before Friday, but at this rate, who knows?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The milking stools are coming!

Current book: War of the Worlds
Pages read: 1-99

I don't know if it's that this novel is just an extreme contrast with Joseph Conrad, but I'm getting a great deal of satisfaction out of reading it. It's such old-fashioned science fiction: straightforward and logical and actually, in some way, based on science. The narrator's voice is clear, concise, and reasoned, but with enough emotion to make him sympathetic. Also, everything happens in order, which is a glorious relief from Lord Jim and its horrible convolutions of plot.

It almost seems silly to relate the story, but it's possible somebody might not be familiar with it, so here goes. Our hero, who lives in a small town in England, is befuddled by foreign objects coming to Earth from Mars. At first, they seem like simple meteorites or possibly canisters holding messages, but soon Martians emerge. (I was not aware that we got to "see" the Martians right away in the book, but we do. They're described as sort of blob-like, with horrible ugly faces and profoundly intelligent eyes.) At first, they seem harmless and uncommunicative, but soon they start killing people with heat rays and building enormous, tripod-like vehicles to stalk across the countryside and eradicate everybody. Our hero, in the midst of the attacks, is separated from his wife and currently making his way cross-country in the company of a military officer to try to find her. (I have to admit that he's not trying as hard as I think he should be if he's really in love with her. I see why they played that up more in the films; he seems a little cold.) Anyway, that's the gist of it so far, except that we've learned that the narrator's brother lives in London, which is also about to be attacked.

Mostly Wells is playing up the chaos and confusion with which human nature responds to threats to its immediate existence. People are by turns savage, panicked, and crippled by indecision, and it seems like very few of them are coming out of it looking at all noble. There's an excellent moment when the narrator meets a priest and Wells makes an incisively clever point about religion:
"This must be the beginning of the end," he said, interrupting me. "The end!" The great and terrible day of the Lord..."

"Be a man," said I. "You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent." (83)
Well said, Herbert George. Well said, indeed.

Monday, May 11, 2009

War cancelled on account of illness.

Current book: War of the Worlds
Pages read: None

Sick today, so no post. We'll see about tomorrow. It's a little ironic that germs are keeping me from reading War of the Worlds, considering their importance to the plot.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

I know you know I know you know. You know?

Current book: Lord Jim
Pages read: 302-417 (end)

This book was terrible. I think it might be the worst writing so far, though not the worst plot or set of characters. But really, the switching perspectives and timelines was awful, pointless, and so badly-executed as to be maddening in the extreme.

In the end, an English pirate named Brown comes to Patusan and attacks it while Jim's away. When Jim returns, Brown claims it was a misunderstanding, and that he simply wants safe passage away from the place. But Brown double-crosses Jim, with the help of Jewel's disgruntled guardian (who feels that Jim stole Jewel from him because he didn't get paid for her...service... and therefore wants revenge). As the pirate's ships are leaving the area in the promised ceasefire, they suddenly attack and decimate the village. After their departure, the headman demands Jim's death as payment for the village's destruction, and Jim submits himself to the local justice and is shot dead, leaving Jewel weeping at his betrayal of his promise never to leave her.

Now imagine all that ridiculous and useless drama related through four, count them, four levels of narration. We learn about this ending through an unnamed narrator reading a letter from Marlow about a letter from the owner of the rice mill at which Jim was briefly employed, about a letter from Jim that reported on Jim's final situation before the tragedy at Patusan. Also, throw in Marlow's letter about listening to Brown's report about the situation, and it's pretty much impossible to tell who's speaking about whom and when. It's certainly impossible to tell why on Earth anyone would ever choose such a convoluted and ludicrous fashion in which to relate a simple adventure narrative.

Conrad is terrible. The end.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Strange new worlds

Current book: Star Trek
Pages read: Star Trek!

As you may have guess, I saw Star Trek instead of reading. Oh, man, guys. Awesome.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Week's end

Current book: Lord Jim
Pages read: None

Screw you, Conrad; it's Friday.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Kwantsu, dudes!

Current book: Lord Jim
Pages read: 186-302

Man, I just do not know about Conrad's talent as a writer. And by "I don't know," I mean, "I know, and he doesn't have any." I don't mean to sound harsh, and actually, I think that Heart of Darkness, when I read it again, is going to be much better written than Lord Jim, but this book suffers from extremely poor craftsmanship. While I was able to appreciate Henry James's ability to pace and plot The Bostonians, regardless of how I didn't particularly identify with any of the characters and found the statements it was making muddy and mildly offensive at best, Lord Jim is handily defeating my intention to give it the chance to prove that Conrad is worthy of his many accolades. The guy can't stick to a timeline to save his life, which I can accept as a valid literary technique (even though I hate it so much that I find it difficult to express the loathing), but he does it to absolutely no purpose whatsoever.

He switches narrative styles in the same fashion; presumably it's always Marlow who's narrating, but sometimes he gives us play-by-play explanations of events he's personally witnessed, and sometimes he tells us about what Jim's told him, but in such a fashion that it seems like third-person omniscient narration. It's ridiculous. You're never sure who's talking about whom, or even who's speaking, due to the fact that the parts that are direct quotes from Jim are often dozens of pages long, but sporadically interspersed with irrelevant commentary by Marlow. I mean, Christ on a crutch, if somebody tried this in a college writing course, his workshop would devour him alive. The emperor is naked, guys. Seriously.

Well, anyway, there's some plot, at least. Jim, accompanied by his letter of introduction, goes off to manage a rice mill for a friend of Marlow's, and secures himself a happy situation for a short while. Soon, however, one of the ex-crewmen from his ship shows up, and the recollection of his dishonour is so great that he feels he can't bear it. He gives up his job with no notice and runs away. There are a few more incidents like this that make it clear that Jim can't stand to be reminded of his past, and as result, he ends up taking an assignment in Patusan, a remote state in an unnamed Southeast Asian country. (Patusan was created by Joseph Conrad, but Surf Ninjas totally used it for the name of their fake country, and now I'm pretty much forced to think of Rob Schnieder being an idiot and that one kid's enchanted Game Gear every time Conrad uses the name. It's sort of distracting.)

When he gets there, he finds it extremely hostile, due to the fact that there's a crazy Rajah in power, whom he immediately, in all his Great White Savior-ness, ousts through military force, becoming quite the local legend in the process. The local people are, of course, eternally grateful and beholden to him. Before he accomplished his great coup, it seems, he fell in love with a local girl whom he calls Jewel, and he's now taken her to wife. Marlow relates all of this to us during a visit to Patusan, which he seems to have made his way to quite easily, despite the fact that it's supposed to be so remote that Jim will never be located by anyone who might know anything about his shameful past.

That's about it, in, again, way too many pages. Also, it makes no sense that Marlow has gone to all this trouble to secure positions for and travel to visit this guy whom he barely knows. He met him at the trial, for God's sakes, and now they're BFFs? What is the deal with that?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

We ain't no delinquents; we're misunderstood

Current book: Lord Jim
Pages read: 88-186

Well, we've gotten more of Jim's story, by way of Marlow, and the nearly 100 pages worth of it boil down to this: his ship hit something, probably a wreck, around midnight and was damaged beyond the possibility of repair. The crew members immediately decided to abandon ship in the crew lifeboat with no regard to the 800 passengers aboard. Jim argued vehemently to help them, but in the end, there was neither time nor the possibility of making any difference, so he ended up joining the crew in their escape boat, though they accused him of committing the murder of another crew member to secure himself a spot.

Upon hearing this testimony in court, the judge at the hearing chooses to believe that Jim didn't commit murder, but that his abandonment of the ship constitutes criminal negligence, and he strips Jim of his seaman's license as punishment. (If you're wondering why none of the crew is getting tried, a couple of them are, and the rest cheezed it before the fuzz caught up with them.) After the verdict, Marlow offers to help Jim get back on his feet financially by offering him a letter of recommendation that he can take to future job opportunities. It's unclear what those opportunities might be, but there you have it.

I think Conrad is largely making the point that in situations where survival is on the line, those who act with honor are largely tread upon, either at the moment of the crisis or in the period immediately afterward, in retribution for the guilt they've caused those who didn't act with honor. (I just impressed myself with the brevity and clarity of that assessment, so I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why do they call it a kangaroo court, anyway?

Current book: Lord Jim
Pages read: 3-88

Ok, so before I get to Conrad, I have to report that I had a dream last night in which I expounded to my mother, father, and older brother upon the absolute wretchedness of Rabbit, Run. I believe I called it "pornographic in its utter awfulness". (Pornographic, here, in the sense of having no redeeming social value.) The extent to which I dislike John Updike is fairly astonishing, since he has managed to invade my subconscious months after I read his novel. I mean, really. I have to admit that I woke up fairly amused. Also, subconscious, even I feel that pornographic may take it a bit too far.

Anyway, Conrad. Um. I remembered him being kind of terrible from when I read Heart of Darkness for high school senior English, but I was willing to entertain the possibility that that was the undeveloped impression of a 17-year-old who read the entire novel in one day. While it no doubt was, I'm afraid that Mr. Conrad has failed to redeem himself thus far in my subsequent experience. Lord Jim starts out fairly well, actually, with a rather poetic portrait of Jim, a sometime seaman in the service of the colonial British navy and various merchant organizations, working his way around the South China Sea and experiencing Malaysia and other points of Southeast-Asian interest. There are some beautiful descriptions of Malaysian flora and fauna, as well as the general atmosphere of the cities and ports, that I found quite compelling and surprisingly accurate to my personal experience (which happened in the late 80's and early 90's, so it's kind of cool that it meshes with Conrad's 1899 novel).

So that's all fine and good, but eventually Jim gets on a ship that ends up in some kind of disastrous accident, and suddenly we're thrust from a vague hint of said accident into a narrative provided by an officer witnessing Jim's trial for his role in that accident. It's an incredibly abrupt shift, and this officer, Captain Marlow (Ring any bells, Heart of Darkness readers? Yeah, I thought so.), begins his story by talking about several completely unrelated events and people. It's an entire chapter, then, before we learn why this guy is even talking to us and what the hell he has to do with Jim; I found it quite maddening, actually. (It kind of reminded me of Faulkner, who also can't keep a timeline together to save his life. Or his reader's sanity.) So, eventually, as I said, we find out that Marlow is a spectator at Jim's trial, and we're just now beginning to get the story of the fateful accident from Jim as he speaks to Marlow in the evenings after the day's hearings have concluded. It seems that the two are going to become fast friends.

We know a little about Jim's character at this point, and it mostly consists of the fact that he's a man who puts enormous store in personal pride and integrity. He embodies the idea of honor to such an extreme degree that he lets no insult go unnoticed or unavenged, but also feels duty-bound to do the right thing in every circumstance. The trial, then, is suspect to the reader already because it implies that Jim did something immoral or incorrect by allowing the ship he was on to run aground (Or something. Frankly, it's pretty unclear what happened at this point, or why, precisely, Jim is on trial, but it seems that he's being blamed for the accident and the deaths it caused.), and that clearly doesn't fit with what we've learned about his character at this point. We'll find out more as his story unfolds, which I hope that it will do in a way that makes at least some vague kind of sense and occurs in roughly chronological order. (But I'm not holding my breath, dear readers. I know the ways of Mr. Conrad.)

Monday, May 4, 2009

Take care of yourselves and each other.

Current book: The Bostonians
Pages read: 322-350 (end)

Oh, right. Now I remember what happens: soap operatic confrontation backstage at a crowded lecture hall. Of course.

Basil follows Verena back to Boston, where he shows up on the night of her most-advertised, most-anticipated speech ever. When she sees him in the audience before the show, she loses her nerve completely. He goes backstage to try to speak to her, and after a lot of stalling from a security guard hired by Olive to prevent just such an eventuality, finds her, all undone by his presence, and sweeps her away so that they can get married. There's kind of an awesome Jerry Springer moment when Olive, Verena's parents, and the lecture tour agent all have a giant fight in the dressing room. Verena's mother offers to abase herself at Basil's feet in order to keep Verena there, at least for the duration of the evening, but to no avail. Olive comports herself unexpectedly well, and ends up going on the stage to speak in Verena's place, regardless of the fact that she's always claimed to be an abysmal public speaker. Basil, for his part, continues to act like a complete ass, telling Verena that he's sorry to make her suffer so, but he knew that she would be unable to resist marrying him, and that it's for the best that she give up all her silly ideas of freedom, which she pretty much confirms entirely by dissolving into tears and collapsing into his arms. James, at least, ends on a note of skepticism about their future; Verena is lead away, sobbing, by Basil, and the last line of the book promises that such tears will be her lot in marriage.

In some ways, James comes off as an arrogant jerk who thinks that the cause of women's rights is a ridiculous crusade led by hysterics and dreamers. That said, he also comes off as an arrogant jerk who thinks southerners are backward and incapable of adapting themselves to modern society. I hate to extrapolate the author's views based solely on the content of the characters' statements and feelings, but that's all I've got to go on. In the end, I suppose that James didn't really choose a side, but maintained a lofty, omniscient distance from the issues and left us to judge for ourselves. It's well written; I'll give it that. The characters are crafted with care and precision, the pacing is tuned and deliberate, and the issues compelling and timely. That said, I don't particularly like any of the characters, and here at the close of the novel I'm left with the feeling that I don't know why James wrote it. Perhaps he didn't have a reason. Then again, it makes a nice change from proving everyone in the world is destined for misery, which seems to have been the theme of quite a few of the books on the list so far.

Conrad tomorrow. Oh, joy.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Nervous affliction

Current book: The Bostonians
Pages read: None

Still haven't finished. It's because I'm a woman, you see, and my feeble intellect is incapable of sustained attention. Forgive me whilst I lie down and attempt to quiet my feminine hysteria (caused, as I'm sure you're all aware, by my wandering uterus).

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The horror!

Current book: The Bostonians
Pages read: None

One chapter left, and still I've failed you. It's because I can't stand to hasten the approach of Conrad. I mean, could you?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Middle-class white suburban opression

Current book: The Bostonians
Pages read: 246-322

Well, we're heading into the home stretch now. You can tell because Olive's starting to completely flip out all the time, and that's fun for everyone. Also, James says "I" a lot more when you get toward the end. If anyone has a theory as to why, I'm willing to entertain it.

The prolonged visit that Basil and Verena were still conducting when Olive returned to the house at the close of my last post turns out to be a jaunty stroll (again with the strolling - it only ends in ruined maidens, I'm telling you) through Central Park, during which Basil espouses his conservative views on The Woman Question (Do you think I'm going to stop capitalizing that? Because I'm so not.) and hits on Verena something terrible. She rebuffs his advances, but not before she finds herself intrigued, albeit against her will, by his impassioned pleas for the rights of man. It is not, apparently, that he has anything against women per se, but rather that he feels his sex must also be championed. (It just smacks of Neo-Nazism, doesn't it? It's not that we want to denounce and debase all other races, it's just that we want to stand up for white rights. Because whites need so much defending. It amazes me how people don't understand the problem with that kind of philosophy.)

Somehow Verena allows this to endear him to her, rather than rolling her eyes and sighing at his idiocy (Which is what I would do. But you may have noticed that I'm something of a cynic.), but, in the end, she takes her leave of him with her honor still intact. (Oh, I almost forgot - James throws several random barbs about the vulgarity of the design of Central Park into this section, and it's kind of awesome in a "Why are you vindictively critical of something that's clearly now stood the test of time?" way. Seriously, the man is obviously deeply disgruntled with Frederick Law Olmsted, and it's difficult to say why. I may be biased in Olmsted's favor, however, since he also designed the layout of the village in which I spent my formative years. And he designed the gardens of the Biltmore Estate. Don't tell me you don't love the Biltmore Estate. There's an underground bowling alley and three kitchens, one of which is exclusively devoted to pastries. Are you going to argue with that?)

A short while later, Verena and Olive decide to take a vacation to Cape Cod (The descriptions of the small towns that are nearly overrun by the wilderness of the wild shoreline are both beautiful and fascinating, since Cape Cod and wilderness are no longer ideas that even remotely relate to one another.) in order to relax and to plan a grand lecture tour for Verena, which is to begin at some giant, famous music hall in New York. (I mean, you know, it's not Carnegie, but Christ - she's really moving up in the world.) Basil ends up following them there, where he renews his advances toward Verena. She is increasingly unable to resist him, but quite refuses to gallivant off in order to avoid him, insisting to Olive that she at least do him the justice of listening. He hangs around for the subsequent month, and they have many a jaunty stroll and attendant discussion of their mutual values. During these discussions, Basil makes it clear to Verena that she would have to cease all lecturing immediately upon their marriage, and not just that, but that he views her plans for Radio City Music Hall as nothing short of despicable. (Have I mentioned he's a regressive jerk? I thought I'd reiterate, just in case that wasn't coming through clearly.) At the end of a month, though she clearly wishes to do precisely the opposite (because somehow she's fallen for him, even though he's a regressive jerk) Verena refuses Basil. When he comes to see her one last time upon the morning of his departure, he finds her gone, with only Olive's obvious triumph for a farewell.

It's astonishing to me that I have completely and totally forgotten how this book ends. Regardless of the fact that I read it and wrote a paper on it only a few years ago, I have no idea what the conclusion is. I think they get married, but that's conjecture as much as recollection - conjecture, I might add, based on the proposition that Henry James is not going to come down on the side of female emancipation. I mean, have you read Daisy Miller? Poor girl dies at the end, and all she really did was break a few social conventions. (It's a rough life, being a James character. I mean, besides the dying, there's the fact that you have to examine everyone you meet in an absurdly meticulous fashion and then make judgements about their relationship to you based on your observations. Ahem.)


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