Monday, June 29, 2009

Let's mock the midnight bell!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 27, 2009

It's like reading.

Current book: Look Homeward, Angel
Pages read: None

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

Friday, June 26, 2009

The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 25, 2009

And even against my character

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

We'll always have Paris.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 22, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I appreciate your honesty.

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

The cheesecake is incredible, as anticipated.

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

Friday, June 19, 2009

And many more

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

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

Thursday, June 18, 2009

That's nobody's business but the Turks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Say it again

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 15, 2009

As it works its way on in

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 14, 2009

In the water she wanted to stay

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

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

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

Friday, June 12, 2009

Check back when there are more missiles.

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

No time for war today, sorry.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Gee Mom, I wanna go home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

It's too bright a world for war right now.

Current book: The Naked and the Dead
Pages read: 99-209

I read lots more, but no post, due to the fact that I spent five hours in the car getting to the place where my husband and I were taking the Foreign Service Officer Test and back home again, and also that I got offered an incredible job today (for which I have been searching for over a year). So I don't want to tell you about misery and mud-slogging. Instead, I will be joyful and excited and tell you about mud-slogging tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

War is all hell.

Current book: The Naked and the Dead
Pages read: 1-99

We're in the midst of a company of American soldiers on a ship in the Pacific during World War II. At first, they're waiting to storm a small Japanese-held island, which they subsequently do. There's a lot of buildup to the actual landing on the beach, but it turns out that when they arrive, the fighting is either nonexistent or located entirely inland. They set up camp.

That's really all that's happened as far as the plot goes, but we've met a wide cast of characters that includes the strategically gifted but annoying General, the bloodthirsty Captain, the whiny noncom who thinks the entire war is a conspiracy against him, the downtrodden Jewish clerk-turned-infantryman, and the hardworking Latino scout. I think Norman Mailer might be responsible for the popularity of the "ethnically diverse company of soldiers" plot device in modern film. Or maybe he's just copying it, too.

Why do people enjoy reading books about war? I really don't understand the impulse. I mean, Norman Mailer is a really good writer; he's doing an excellent job with the prose and the subtle characterizations of the soldiers he's portraying. And yet, every time I get to a part where they're slogging through the jungle in the darkness and heat and confusion, I am both put off and bored at the same time. Explain to me the attraction of this kind of thing. Really!

Also, there's lots of talking about sex and swearing, but I have to say that I consider it simple realism and am not at all bothered by it. (That sounded sarcastic, but I didn't mean it to, I swear.)

Monday, June 8, 2009

We don't need no water

Current book: Wide Sargasso Sea
Pages read: 155-190 (end)

Well, in the end, Rochester drives Antoinette completely mad, separates her from all the people she's ever known and loved, and drags her to England. There, he keeps her locked on the top floor of his manor house, looked after by Grace Poole, a servant hired expressly for that purpose. She wavers in and out of a fugue state, forgetting most of her psychotic behavior after it occurs, but often screaming at or attacking those she comes into contact with. At the close of the book, she first imagines burning down the house, and then, soon after, sets out to do so.

Rhys had to fulfill the events of Jane Eyre, of course, but it was entirely believable that Antoinette would have been driven mad by Rochester's callousness. Rochester escapes with a hint of humanity, since he, too, was driven into an unsuitable and ridiculous marriage. He honestly seems to have given it a chance at first, but somehow, everything fell apart; it may have been Antoinette's history, or the forced quality of the marriage, or perhaps simply Rochester's feverish misery in the islands. It was a little Heart of Darkness, actually, in a "watch the white Englishman get corrupted by his tropical surroundings," but I believe that the blame still lies with Rochester due to his complete inability to recognize the humanity in others - both his wife and those native islanders she had chosen to love.

Tomorrow, depressing World War II novel! Nothing like the Pacific Theatre to cheer you up, I always say.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A fine and fancy ramble

Current book: Wide Sargasso Sea
Pages read: None.

I only have twenty pages left, and yet, continue to ignore them. My husband and I went to the zoo today, though. The animals seemed a little put out that it was only 55 degrees. But then, so did most of the population of Minnesota.

No cooking adventures of late, although I have recently discovered that toasted English muffins with peanut butter and jelly are astonishingly satisfying. Tomorrow Wide Sargasso Sea will be over, and then it will be dead naked time.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

We all scream for nightmarish realism.

Current book: Wide Sargasso Sea
Pages read: None.

Remember my social calendar? Yep, I stuck with that. Also worked for five hours, so, you know, I'm still respectable. I may be avoiding the next book a little as well, seeing as it's 700 pages long and one of the blurbs on the back reads, "A triumph of nightmarish realism." Oh, joy.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Come again another day.

Current book: Wide Sargasso Sea
Pages read: None.

Had to go swimming. It was vitally important to do so before it rains all weekend. I didn't even cook, so I have no food blogging to add. Tomorrow I have a crowded social agenda, so I'd be surprised if reading happens. Cause I'm popular and important. Ahem.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I had to crawl over him every time.

Current book: Wide Sargasso Sea
Pages read: 107-155

Still good. The same commentary from yesterday has continued to apply.

Antoinette discovers that Rochester has found out about her past and asks Christophine to help make him fall back in love with her, since Christophine's supposed to be an obeah (a witchdoctor, basically). Christophine tells her either to talk to Rochester or simply leave him and go elsewhere, but she does neither. Rochester punishes Antoinette for his discoveries about her past by ignoring her, calling her by a name not her own (Bertha, of course), and, eventually, flirting with one of the servants in her presence. The two have a confrontation in which it becomes clear that Rochester doesn't love her, won't start anytime soon, and, in fact, blames her for her psychological fragility. Christophine takes charge, after putting Antoinette to bed, and proceeds to read Rochester the riot act for marrying a girl he doesn't love purely for her money and then torturing her into misery.

I'm right in the middle of that riot act at the moment, and I have to say that Christophine is kind of my hero. She's acting, I think, as Jean Rhys's real voice in the matter, offering a modern and enlightened perspective on the treatment of women in general, and the possibilities that underlie stories of madwomen in earlier times. She's pointing out that women who were once locked away and regarded as insane may simply have been too progressive for their own good or have been driven to madness by the circumstances forced upon them. It's an impassioned and convincing argument presented through a compelling story and characters. I can't really ask for more.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The madwoman in the attic

Current book: Wide Sargasso Sea
Pages read: 17-107

I am intrigued. Jean Rhys is doing an impressive job of twisting the characters of a well known novel to suit her own ends. Her prose is compelling and beautiful, her setting both lush and threatening at once, and her pacing masterful and swift. She reminds me a little of Cather, but with more direct and pointed plot and a healthy sense of the dramatic.

This book is the story of Mr. Rochester's first wife, from Jane Eyre. It is, however, as far removed from the style of Jane Eyre as a book written 119 years later should be. Antoinette Cosway (standing in for Bertha Mason, if you've read the Bronte) lives in Jamaica with her mother, a widow, on a large estate that is falling to pieces. Antoinette's widowed mother no longer has the money for the upkeep of the family land, and is despised by the local people as a former slave owner. The two have a servant, Christophine, who is also ill regarded because she hails from Martinique. Antoinette's mother eventually attracts a new husband, the proper and English Mr. Mason, who dismisses his wife's concerns about the animosity of the locals with contempt. Not long after the marriage, however, a mob burns down the house. Antoinette is hurt in the crisis and is sent to a convent to recover, where she later attends school. She never goes back to live with her mother, who dies several years later.

At this point, there's a large leap forward in time, and the narration changes from Antoinette's perspective to that of Mr. Rochester. Mr. Rochester comes to Jamaica on family orders to marry Antoinette, now a grown woman. Shortly after his arrival he contracts a tropical fever, which he recovers from, but he occasionally still shows signs of confusion as a result. He marries Antoinette as planned, moves with her to another part of her family estate, and tries to settle into the marriage. He both loves and is attracted to her, but is puzzled by her erratic behavior and signs of paranoia (she is often afraid, discusses her own death on a regular basis, and sometimes stays in bed all day). One day, Mr. Rochester gets a letter from a distant cousin of Antoinette's that warns him that she's going mad just like her mother did, and informs him that her mother is still alive and locked away in an asylum, raving. Mr. Rochester sets out to find the author of the letter, but gets lost in the jungle and has to give up.

Like I said, I'm intrigued and entertained. I like the characters, who are realistic and flawed. I like the fact that Rhys is commenting on a familiar story but making it entirely her own. I appreciate the post-colonial perspective and the fact that Rhys is forcing her reader to rethink a classic work of literature. It's not as though she's saying Jane Eyre is wrong or racist or should be condemned as colonial. Instead, she's simply saying that we should consider new perspectives on all of the characters; each of them has a story that is worth telling.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

They are called "novels," after all.

Current book: White Noise
Pages read: 272-326 (end)

At the end, Gladney hunts down the researcher who gave his wife the experimental drugs in exchange for sex and tries to kill him. He ends up botching the job by shooting him in the hip, getting shot in the wrist himself, and finally dragging the guy to a Catholic charity hospital where they're both treated by German nuns who don't believe in heaven. (Because, of course, DeLillo finds it necessary to make the point that people need religious devotees to keep the classic sense of religion for them, rather than doing it for themselves, and also that this need is fundamentally undermined by the fact that religious devotees may be as doubtful and human as everyone else. It would be a compelling point, if the conversation that elucidated it weren't written in stilted, obnoxiously academic dialogue.) Afterward, everything's back to normal (and by normal, I mean stupidly unrealistic bleak modern consumerist society). The end.

I'm terribly sad that it's over. I bet you can tell.

I think part of the reason so many of the books on this list are utterly painful is the phenomenon of novelty. There are many, many works of literature that are greatly respected because of the fact that their authors did something in them that had never been done before, or never been done quite the same way. In a sense, I can understand and agree with that respect. That does not, however, make them necessarily pleasant to read, nor, on a stand-alone basis, particularly meritorious as works of art.

Tomorrow, Wide Sargasso Sea, which several friends profess to enjoy a great deal. Here's hoping.

Monday, June 1, 2009

What's in your wallet? Pedantry!

Current book: White Noise
Pages read: 99-271

Well, the novel improves a little as it progresses simply because of the fact that something happens. There's a huge chemical spill in the town where Gladney and his family live, and they're forced to evacuate to the local Boy Scout camp, which is quickly contaminated as well, and afterward, to a nearby town. I thought it was going to be exciting and cause actual plot to occur, but they just wait around for a week and half and go home. Afterward, Gladney and his daughter discover that Babette, the family's mother, has been taking an experimental drug. It turns out she slept with the experimenter to get him to give it to her, and its entire purpose is to alleviate the fear of death in the human psyche. She stops taking it because it's ineffective and causes patchy memory loss, but Gladney's becoming obsessed with taking it himself and the ramifications of being unafraid of death.

I don't know where I got the impression that this was a science fiction novel, but I was obviously mistaken. Nothing remotely science fiction-y has happened, unless you call a vaguely futuristic setting and some unexplained illnesses science fiction. (I don't. You might have gathered.) It's still pedantic and obnoxious as well, and is trying too hard to make a point that would be better expressed in a subtle fashion. Yes, there's a toxic cloud of consumerism that poisons the American public daily, but do you have to make a ridiculous and obvious symbol of it, DeLillo? If you do have to, could you at least make the plot interesting or the characters compelling?

This novel won the National Book Award, and I just don't know how. I guess it got "cutting social satire" points. That's all it's got going for it. The obnoxious writing certainly shouldn't have merited such an honor:
"It isn't that she doesn't cherish life; it's being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.

MasterCard, Visa, American Express.

I tell her I want to die first." (100)
Augh! Who likes this stuff?


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