Monday, December 20, 2010

Soon it will be Christmas day

Current book: None
Pages read: None

It's Christmas break from literature time. You may expect me back in the new year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Look at his little face!

Current book: None
Pages read: None

Ok, so instead of starting On the Road, I just kept reading the copy of Call of the Wild that I have, because it also includes White Fang. So, mostly, I read about the antics of an adorable wolf puppy.
I am not ashamed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Man's best friend

Current book: The Call of the Wild
Pages read: 40 - 81 (end)

Wow. Short. This might be the shortest book so far. It's kind of a weird edition, so the pages are really wide, but still.

After Buck becomes team leader, the team completes their run to Dawson, Alsaka, in record time. They're immediately sent out on another, however, which is both virtually unprecedented and very tough on the dogs and the men. By the time they return from the round-trip journey, they've traveled 1800 miles in three weeks, and the dogs are virtually spent. Since the Canadian government has no use for tired, injured dogs, they're sold to a worthless party of two men and a woman (Hal, Charles, and Mercedes) who have no idea what they're doing in Alaska. The men overload the sled and buy dogs with no experience, and Mercedes is an obnoxious citified idiot, so their trip turns into a fiasco. They end up using up the food rations halfway through the journey, which means they run the dogs starving for the rest of it. By the time they reach the frozen river they have to cross in order to finish their trip, half the team is dead and the rest nearly so. Before they cross the river, they meet a man named John Thornton camping at the water's edge. Buck, sensing that the ice on the river is rotten, lies down in the traces and refuses to rise. Hal tries to beat him to death, but John Thornton steps in and stops him. The sled goes on without Buck and crashes through the ice, killing everyone. (We're not sad. Well, a little for the dogs.)

John Thornton becomes Buck's new master, and one to whom he gives his whole self, heart and soul. Buck regains his strength and becomes an amazing specimen, both of dogdom and loyalty to his master. He saves Thornton's life in a bar brawl, wins him 1600 dollars by proving he can pull a sledge with a thousand-pound load, and rescues him from whitewater rapids. When Thornton and several other men venture into the wild to look for gold, Buck enjoys the trip immensely, feeling more and more drawn to the wilderness. He stays with Thornton, but hunts his own game, ranges far and wide, and bonds with a wolf. One day, returning to camp, he finds that Thornton and his friends have been killed by Indians. He attacks and scatters the Indians, killing some of them, and, after mourning Thornton, joins a wolf pack, becomes its leader, and roams free and wild for the rest of his days.

Well, my impressions from the first post are pretty much the same. Thematically, there's the sense that the wilderness calls to something in all of us, man or beast, and has a purifying effect on our needs and emotions. Impulses are stripped down to their raw form; the needs to eat and to fight are foremost at all times. There is also the sense, though, that the humanizing element of love, in this case Buck's for John Thornton, is the only thing that can ever override that urge to satisfy need. Buck stayed with Thornton until Thornton was gone, and even after he died, returned to the spot where he was killed each year to hold vigil. The point is not that the call of the wild is overwhelming and all-controlling, but it is a powerful force that sways us all and can be overcome only by love and loyalty.

Also, the scene where Buck has to pull the thousand-pound sledge is one of the most compelling moments in my experience of literature. I actually said, "Come on, Buck!" out loud. I was alone in the workout room, so it's all good, but really! Way to go, Jack London! (Also, it reminded me of Stone Fox, which, if you haven't read, you should. But be prepared to cry.)

Superb. Any book that makes me cheer out loud for the main character I'll call worthy of the list. In seriousness, though, I'm impressed at the depths that London plumbs in what seems, on the surface, to be a simple adventure story.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

And puppies! Lots of puppies!

Current book: The Call of the Wild
Pages read: 1 - 40

Oh, man. This book is awesome. I don't mean to sound too much like a 12-year-old boy here, but come on - the thrilling tale of a courageous dog sent into the harsh wilderness of the frozen Yukon, fighting it out against the men and savage dogs who will destroy him if he gives them half a chance? Excellent.

Buck, our heroic half-St. Bernard, half Scotch-shepherd, lives on a sunny California plantation, but is sold by his master's servant to pay off a gambling debt. He's beaten and shipped cross-country for several days with no food or water, until, finally let out of the crate, he's nearly mad with thirst and rage. His new owner, however, beats him until he at least gives the appearance of obedience, though his heart is still defiant. He learns that the only way to survive is to be constantly on the defensive, but also ready to fight for what he wants and needs. He's sold again, this time to a man who procures dogs for the Canadian government's sled teams, and is broken to the harness and educated in team-driving. Soon he learns that the leader of his team is a dog named Spitz, but the two don't get along. After weeks of fighting and badgering each other, they have it out in the snow, and Buck kills Spitz. Afterward, he becomes the leader of the team, which is passed into the hands of the mail service. Buck is a good team leader, but secretly rejoices more in the fresh outside air and the wilderness than he does in working for men.

There you go, then. Superficially, of course, it's an adventure story, and a fast-paced, exciting one at that. Underneath, however, it's a story about men as much as dogs. Dogs aren't the only ones who have to change the way they behave in survival situations, yes, but more important than that is the fact that men squabble over power, nip at each other until they're driven mad with rage, and eventually fight one another for supremacy at the cost of lives. To his credit, London never overtly says anything of the kind, but it's not hard to find it below the surface.

Books about animals are always actually about people. It's a great literary truth.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Maintiens le droit

Current book: The Call of the Wild
Pages read: None

Haven't had a chance to start this one yet, thought I'm quite looking forward to it. I actually haven't read it, which is odd, considering it's so often assigned in school. Judging by the fact that I used to love Silver Chief: Dog of the North, I'll probably enjoy it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Like a memory long since past

Current book: To the Lighthouse
Pages read: 144 - 242 (end)

Well, Woolf went ahead and shocked the hell out of me by moving the story forward ten years in a few pages. She narrates the passage of time from the perspective of the house (not in its voice, but simply as though you were in it), detailing the slow decay and empty seasons it witnesses in the Ramsey family's absence. During the decade-long gap, Mrs. Ramsey dies, as well as two of the Ramsey children.

When the family returns, it is with Lily Briscoe and Augustus Carmichael, but no one else. Mr. Ramsey decides he must take a trip to the lighthouse with James and Cam (the youngest daughter of the family). The two children are ambivalent, but Mr. Ramsey is obsessed with the idea. They go, and Lily stays on the beach, painting. On the trip to the lighthouse, James steers the boat and Mr. Ramsey reads a book. When they finally reach the island, Mr. Ramsey praises James's steering, and Cam regards it as an important moment - one for which James has been waiting a long time. Mr. Ramsey is triumphant at the lighthouse, and Lily, back on the beach, successfully finishes her painting with one distinctive stroke through its center.

Huh. That was not what I expected. I'm struggling with what the lighthouse is really supposed to represent now. The idea of success and happiness may still hold true, but it's odd, then, that Cam and James had no interest in it. Maybe it's something closer to a sense of achievement, of being finished with what life has to offer. Mr. Ramsey is desperately in need of validation all the time, so that would make sense for him. James needs Mr. Ramsey's validation, too, but is happy to get it during the journey, and doesn't need to have achieved all of his goals yet, since he is still a young man. It would mesh with Lily's contemplation of the lighthouse as well; she thinks that she knows when the Ramseys reach the lighthouse, and that's the moment when she finishes her painting. It is also the moment when she realizes she is content to be alone with herself and not to seek out a husband. It's not as though it has to be that black and white and only represent one thing, but it seems to be something along those lines.

In addition to that, there's sort of a sense that no one has really reached their true goals, since both Mr. Ramsey's and Lily's lives are clouded by the fear of failure, and James has hardly gotten started. The lighthouse, then, is a sort of unattainable ivory tower - even when James reaches it, he realizes it doesn't seem the same as when he was a child, and therefore he will never really be able to get to the place it used to be. Much as Mr. Ramsey and Lily can never rest assured that their work will make them immortal (though Lily reconciles herself to that fact upon finishing her painting), no one can truly reach the ideal, far-away beacon of the lighthouse because of the fact that it becomes a different object when one arrives at it. (Is this making sense? Shit is getting existential, is all I'm saying.) So, in addition to contentment and achievement, it has the melancholy air of the loss of what can never even be had.

Ok, Virginia Woolf. You have made me think about this for a considerable amount of time and I am still unsure of what it means. I am also, however, convinced of the importance of understanding it. This one is definitely worthy of the list.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Full speed ahead

Current book: To the Lighthouse
Pages read: 70 - 144

All right. I have considerably more patience to write today. In true Virginia Woolf form, there aren't a lot of plot events occurring, but there is a lot of internal thought that's being communicated for each of the characters.

The setting is a vacation house on the Isle of Skye, where Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey and their eight children are on holiday, along with a group of friends and acquaintances. Mr. Ramsey is a famous writer of philosophy who struggles with everyday interactions and has a tendency to become agitated when he doubts his own genius. Mrs. Ramsey spends most of her time looking after (read: worrying about) her children, but also invests a lot of her energy in facilitating smooth and pleasant social interactions amongst her guests. Also along is Lily Briscoe, an unmarried thirty-something who fancies herself a painter. Mrs. Ramsey longs for Lily to marry another guest, William Bankes, but the two aren't interested in the match. Paul Rayley, a young gentleman, is, however, in love with Minta Doyle, who is, frankly, obnoxiously ditzy, and Mrs. Ramsey is also interested in their match. To round out the party, we have a pedantic, defensive scholar and disciple, Charles Tansley, and a slightly crazed opium addict, Augustus Carmichael.

I won't reel off the names of the eight children, but the one we're most concerned with is the youngest boy, James, upon whom Mrs. Ramsey dotes, and who desperately wants to visit the nearby lighthouse (hence the title). Mrs. Ramsey promises him he can go when the weather is fine, since the trip requires a boat, and there's a steady thread, through the story, of his hope for fine weather, her indulgence of it, and Mr. Ramsey's pessimism about the next day being stormy and wet.

The first half of the book takes place over the course of an afternoon and largely features conversation between Lily and William and the Ramseys and Charles Tansley, during which we learn the facets of their characters I've already mentioned. Toward the end of the afternoon, Minta and Paul go off the the beach with two of the younger Ramseys and come back engaged. There's also a long scene of the evening's dinner, during which Mrs. Ramsey thinks about how obsessed her husband is with his work, Mr. Ramsey thinks about how obsessed his wife is with social convention, Charles Tansley thinks about how stupid everyone is, and Lily thinks about her paintings. At the close of the section, Mrs. Ramsey puts the children to bed and she and Mr. Ramsey sit up together, considering, but not discussing, their relationship.

There are some interesting themes, the most prevalent of which is probably the difference between one's inward and outward selves at any given moment. The complexity of the thoughts of each character and the careful description of them in contrast to his or her actions portrays the starkness of that difference and implies that the outward self is simply a social veneer. I'm not entirely sure it's supposed to be a negative judgment, however, since there are some characters who would be better off if they were more successful at maintaining that veneer. The second theme that jumps out at me is, I must admit, Oedipal in nature. James Ramsey clearly resents his father for using up his mother's attention, and wishes to have her all to himself. His father also represents realism and a harsh, uncompromising view of the world, while his mother promises both optimism and comfort, giving him even more motivation for valuing one over the other.

We'll see what happens with the lighthouse, which is obviously a central symbol, probably representing success and happiness (which explains why Mr. Ramsey is so pessimistic about reaching it, seeing as that's all he can think about and feels that it's out of his reach). There are a lot of ways the ending could go, but my guess is that Woolf will make it characteristically inconclusive.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Do not pass go.

Current book: To the Lighthouse
Pages read: 3 - 70

You know, I'm just not feeling writing about literature today. Rather than writing a half-assed post about a pretty good book, I'm going to wait until tomorrow and hope I'm in a better mood for it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

For better or worse

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 500 - 591 (end)

Ok, I'm finally done! (muted cheering) This is even the last book by Henry James, which, frankly...yay.

Gilbert just gets worse after everyone's gone, especially since he realizes that Isabel's been working against his interests in the matter of Pansy's marriage. In retaliation, he sends Pansy away to the convent where she spent much of her youth. A couple of months later, Isabel receives a telegram from Henrietta telling her that Ralph is dying and requesting her presence. Isabel wants to go see him in England, of course, but Gilbert forbids it because he's a vindictive asshole. She discusses the matter with Gilbert's sister, who, though silly, has been a friend. Gilbert's sister reveals (I guess by way of comfort? It's kind of unclear.) that Pansy is actually Gilbert and Madame Merle's illegitimate daughter, not the child of a first marriage as Isabel had previously thought. Madame Merle and Gilbert are, in fact, still having an affair. Gilbert's sister also tells Isabel that Madame Merle persuaded Gilbert to marry Isabel because of her money and the fact that Isabel would be able to provide for and act as a mother to Pansy.

Isabel takes this information as permission to disobey her husband and go to England. She visits Pansy on the way out of the country and asks her to come on the journey, but Pansy, though torn, refuses out of obedience to her father. She also begs Isabel to come back some day. Isabel makes it to England and watches Ralph die. She realizes that she loves him and wishes she would have married him, but clearly it's too late. Afterward, Caspar proposes that she come with him to America and he'll help her to escape Gilbert and her unhappy marriage. She considers it, and almost does so, but in the end, decides against it and departs for Rome without saying goodbye.

Huh. It actually ended up a lot more sympathetic to Isabel than I thought it would. As I've mentioned, James tends to go all cautionary-tale on his young heroines and make it out like they're responsible for their own miseries. To some extent, Isabel is responsible for her own misery in that she could have chosen a better husband earlier on, but was stopped by her need for freedom. At the same time, though, Gilbert Osmund is clearly a punishment that far exceeds the crime. James must, therefore, be remarking upon the fact that women are powerless in their marriages, and that the level of control their husbands have can be absurd.

I'm a little unclear, though, on what the point of Isabel's going back to Rome at the close of the novel is really supposed to be. She seems to go back out of a sense of duty, to both Pansy and to the conventions of society, but I don't know why it is that that duty outweighs every shred of her personal happiness. She passes up the chance to go with Caspar in order to return to certain misery. It's true that she doesn't love Caspar, so perhaps things wouldn't improve, but it would be worth a shot considering the emotional abuse she would be escaping.

I don't know that it's worthy of the list. It's not bad, but I think there are other books that might communicate the same idea from the time period just as well. It seems sort of unremarkable. Daisy Miller is more compelling, I'd say, and also not 600 pages long.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Seriously. Filled with hate.

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 446 - 500

So, Isabel sort of dissuades Warburton from proposing to Pansy, or a least doesn't encourage him, and he doesn't act any further, since he knows Pansy isn't really that interested in him. True to form, Gilbert is incensed that his wife would choose to disobey him in this manner, and their relationship deteriorates further. Later, Henrietta comes to see Isabel, who finally confides to her that she's in a hate-filled, punishing marriage. Henrietta is sympathetic, but it seems there's little to be done. Caspar Goodwood shows up, too, and is saddened to see Isabel in such a state. Ralph, who's been hanging around Rome in ill health the whole time, finally decides to go back to England, and everyone goes with him as an escort. (Everyone, in this case, being Henrietta, Caspar, and Warburton.) Isabel's all alone and miserable.

So, I guess the message at this point is pretty much, "Take what you can get if it seems at all reasonable, because otherwise you'll end up in a hate-filled, punishing marriage." I have to say, it's kind that no one's said "I told you so" to the poor girl yet, but clearly they're all shocked by how miserable she is.

I'll have some more thoughts after the thrilling conclusion.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Taste of India

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: None

Man, Friday is not a good day for my updating. Not that I read anything, but still - I could have at least come on here and made some excuse about it.

I did make beef curry, though, if you're at all consoled by that. No? Oh, well.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

At a fancy ball or minuet

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 353 - 446

Well, Gilbert and Isabel get married, much to everyone's chagrin, and then we leap forward a couple of years to the future of their loveless marriage. (Yay loveless marriage!) Isabel has, in the intervening time, had a child that died at birth. Now, Pansy (oh, I didn't mention earlier, actually - that's the name of Gilbert's daughter) is beginning the rituals of courtship. First up as a suitor is Edward Rosier, a long-ago friend of Isabel's who is only just rich (as opposed to comfortably or even insanely rich). Pansy falls in love with him and he with her, but Gilbert won't permit the marriage because Edward hasn't enough money. Following Rosier is our old friend Lord Warburton. There's a bit of a problem with his suit of Pansy because Isabel thinks that Warburton is still half in love with her (which, honestly, he probably is). Gilbert, however, very much wants Warburton to marry Pansy, what with him being landed nobility and all.

The relationship between Gilbert and Isabel is clearly a complete disaster. She thinks, we learn, that he actually completely loathes her, and that, in fact, he has sort of organized his life around hating her. He's very controlling, and demands, basically, that she obey him - even more than that, sort of represent him - all the time. So, knowing that, when Gilbert tells Isabel to make sure that Warburton is the successful suitor and not Rosier, we can see where it's going. At first she's uncertain, but when she couples the knowledge of Warburton's old passion for her with the possibility of defying Gilbert, it seems her decision is easy enough. She tells Rosier that she'll give him whatever help is in her power.

This part was significantly more exciting than the previous 350 pages, I must say. It actually seemed like there was some action for once, and, though Isabel's predictably tragic marriage wasn't exactly cheery, it was nice to see her contemplate standing up to her horrible husband. The part with Warburton still loving Isabel and planning to propose to her stepdaughter was a little odd, but then, Isabel's only six years older than Pansy, so it's not as strange as it might seem. There's a nice little scene where Warburton is discussing dancing at a ball, and fails to ask Pansy to dance the cotillion because he's planning to ask Isabel instead. It's a nice little analogy for the relationship, and I have to give James a point or two for sneaking it in.

We'll see what happens. Honestly, I'd love to see Isabel go all Tess of the D'urbervilles and murder Gilbert, but it probably won't happen. Especially not at Stonehenge.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Don't go up the stairs! You moron!

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 260 - 353

I lied about Rome and Venice; it was actually Florence. Um, sorry? Anyway, like I said, Isabel decides she likes Gilbert Osmond because he seems to know what is right and think the absolute best of himself at all times. (Which, as we the readers can see, actually makes him a pedantic asshole, but there you are. Of course, we also know that he's after her money.) Eventually he proposes to her and, though she takes a few months to think about it and travel the globe, she accepts him. Caspar Goodwood (who comes to renew his courtship) is pissed off, Lord Warburton (whom Isabel stumbles upon in Rome (no, really Rome this time, I swear)) is hurt, and Ralph Touchett (who's been hanging around the whole time) is stricken with ill health (to be fair, he was already troubled by long-term illness, but still) as a result. Everyone hates the match except for Madame Merle, which only increases Isabel's determination to make the marriage work.

It's like watching a horror movie during which you feel compelled to instruct the main character not to do the idiotic things that she's doing because of the fact that they'll surely result in her death. Unfortunately, there's nothing to be done. Some part of me wants to believe that James is trying to criticize the difficulties that society creates for women who want to be independent, but it seems to me more like he's saying that women need to accept what's good for them and settle down to marriage before they're swept off by disastrous wooers. (That's right. I said wooers.) This is probably unfair, but I get the feeling that if I had been alive at the time and had ever met Henry James, I would have found him a bit hysterical. (In the sense of reactionary, not amusing. Amusing is not really a word we use for ol' Henry.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Poor little rich girl

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 198 - 260

Well, Mr. Touchett dies in good time and, true to his word, leave Isabel lots and lots of cash. She's shocked and overwhelmed, but manages to collect herself enough to take advantage of the money and tour Europe. She heads first to Paris and then to Rome and Venice with Mrs. Touchett. She's still trying to figure out what it is that she wants to achieve in life, but she has a pretty fun time looking at museums and antiquities while she's working on that.

Madame Merle, who is also in Italy, has a friend named Gilbert Osmond, who has a 15-year-old daughter that has just left her convent school. It seems like Madame Merle is half in love with Gilbert, but that doesn't stop her from recommending that he marry Isabel. He agrees to meet her because he's interested in his new fortune. Since he's charming and attractive, she immediately likes him.

That's your lot for this round. It seems that now we're going to learn the perils of a young girl who falls prey to fortune-hunting. I wish I had more to say, but Henry James is so busy presenting a cautionary tale for all independent-minded young women that he's forgotten to do anything else. Honestly, I feel like I'm reading an admonitory pamphlet. Except it's so, so long. (Want to know an incredibly shocking fact? This book was written in installments for a magazine. That means James was paid by the word. Are you terribly shocked?)

Monday, November 29, 2010

In want of a wife

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 132 - 198

So, Lord Warburton feels upset and betrayed and can't understand why Isabel doesn't want to marry him. She's annoyed with him for being presumptuous, but doesn't really say so. Not long after her first refusal, she also gets to refuse Caspar Goodwood when he comes to see her in London. He's way more presumptuous than Lord Warburton, and gives her a talking-to about how it's her duty to marry and she's just being difficult and unruly. Isabel cites her independence and her desire to see the world as her main reasons for refusing to marry.

Mr. Touchett the elder, who, as you may or may not remember, is an invalid, takes a turn for the worse. He calls Ralph to him to tell him that it's his desire that Ralph marry Isabel. Ralph objects on the grounds that she doesn't want to marry him and also that they're cousins (which I can get right behind because, come on, incest taboo), but he asks his father to leave Isabel half of the money that's supposed to be his, about £60,000 or something like seven million dollars. This is all so Isabel can pursue her dreams of independence and discovery and avoid a marriage of necessity.

Isabel, meanwhile, has taken up with Madame Merle, a friend of Mrs. Touchett's. She's an American living in Venice, and she's learned and talented, being both a painter and musician as well as an avid reader. Initially she's quite the role model for Isabel, since she's independent and continental, but Isabel soon discovers that she's incredibly annoying, and spends most of her time criticizing her friends and acquaintances.

That's where we are. I can't help but feel it's just going to turn into a morality tale about how Isabel ought to have married so as to save herself the pain and anguish due to every "independent" woman. I don't have a lot of other commentary at the moment except to relate this little exchange of dialogue:
"I don't wish to marry. There are other things a woman can do."

"But none that she can do so well."
Christ, Henry James. Thank you for that.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I'm thankful for literature. Well, some of it.

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 57 - 132

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, blog post on Thanksgiving! That is the level of dedication here. Working on Thanksgiving: U.S. postal service? No! Deus ex Libris? Yes!

Unfortunately, despite all the above fanfare, not that much happened in the book. Isabel is attracted to Lord Warburton, but is warned off of him by Mr. Touchett the elder. Warburton proposes to Isabel after only a few days of acquaintance and she turns him down, crushing his hopes and rather angering him. She cites as the reason that she can't marry him the fact that she feels a social responsibility not to let herself be blissfully and ignorantly happy. Simultaneously, Isabel's American friend, Henrietta Stackpole (Which man, is quite the name. I have this thing where I associate the name Henrietta with white farmyard chickens. Why? No idea.), comes to visit her and brings her the news that another rejected suitor of hers, Caspar Goodwood (Also quite the name. I feel like this whole thing is begging to be made into a comic book, where Isabel Archer is actually a superhero, and only refusing her suitors out of a sense of duty to the populace to continue her masked crime-fighting career.), is in the country and wants to see her. Meanwhile, Ralph Touchett realizes that he has feelings for Isabel, though he's been trying to deny it to himself.

Man, I am having a problem with Henry James because he keeps featuring free-spirited young women in his books who follow their independent ideals and come to no good end. I mean, ok, I don't actually know what's going to happen to Isabel, but twenty bucks says she comes to no good end. I get the feeling Mr. James wasn't too fond of feminine independence. He always makes these women out to be both independent and ignorant, rash, and arrogant. Because women can't possibly be well-informed and independent at the same time. That would be absurd.

I feel a little bad for poor old Lord Warburton. He's quite charming and amiable and is given every reason in the world to think that Isabel will be amenable to his proposal of marriage, and then she shuts him down because of what she conceives of as her civic duty to tend to the misery of others. He makes the very fine point that there's no reason she can't be his wife and also tend to the misery of others, but she's immovable. It's pretty harsh.

No post tomorrow, because, though I'm dedicated, I'm not getting carried away or anything. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Henry James, I cannot break bread with you.

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: None

No reading. Cooking for Thanksgiving!

I will take a moment to muse upon the holiday atmosphere of some books, however. Whenever Thanksgiving and, subsequently, Christmas, roll around, I start to feel like there are certain books I need to read. Chief amongst these is Little Women, and I think it's probably because it starts at Christmastime and covers a number of Christmases as well. Thanksgiving doesn't lend itself as well to books, but Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy from Laura Ingalls Wilder are big contenders. Anyone else? What books remind you of Christmas and Thanksgiving? Or am I just a little crazy?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Can you feel it? The love?

Current book: The Portrait of a Lady
Pages read: 3 - 57

All right, I admit it: I was procrastinating yesterday because I didn't want to read Henry James. Again. And I was right to be reticent. I've found, upon thinking about it, that James and Tolkien have something in common in that they both feel the need to explain the entire history of each character upon the audience's first meeting him. It really drags on the narrative flow. Then again, I'm not sure Henry James is familiar with the idea of narrative flow.

I have to say, I was rather enamored of the first few sentences of this one.
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not - some people of course never do, - the situation itself is delightful.
It's just so...charmingly English.

Anyway, it doesn't take James long to get boring, but the first 50 or so pages boil down to the following. Mr. Touchett is an American banker who came to England 30 years ago and bought a manor house and is now something of an invalid, confined to a wheelchair. His wife, Mrs. Touchett, is virtually separated from him because, as she says, she's "not suited to England." She comes back once a year or so to see him, but spends the rest of the time traveling. They have a son, Ralph Touchett, who is of marriageable age but is single, and that son has a friend, Lord Warburton, of a similar age and situation. On Mrs. Touchett's recent trip to America, she went to see her niece, whose father (Mrs. Touchett's brother) had recently died. She swept the niece, Isabel Archer, along with her and has now brought her to England to stay at the estate. Ralph meets Isabel and is instantly attracted to her, as is Lord Warburton. Isabel is an independent, strong-minded young woman who think she's always right and has a dim view of marriage.

Blah blah blah, love triangle, Isabel's eventual acceptance of the inevitability of marriage and the value of love over high-minded independence, etc, etc. Lots of complex sentences with too much description and not enough exposition. The end. Gosh, I just love Henry James so much.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Not on bread alone

Current book: Go Tell It on the Mountain
Pages read: 166 - 253 (end)

I actually read yesterday and simply didn't have the time or energy to update. I also made bread and completely screwed up the first batch of dough. Ruining dough is not good for one's analytical skills. (I believe that I mismeasured my liquids through haste and inattention. I'm here to provide cautionary baking tales for you, ladies and gentlemen.) That said, even though I got nervous and stressed out about the second batch and possible under-kneaded it, it still came out well, and I made absolutely delicious Monte Cristos with it for supper. French toast with homemade bread and cream in the custard, covered with ham and Swiss cheese? A-OK.

Deborah, apparently, just kind of got sick and died, but not before she found out about Gabriel's child out of wedlock. Anyway, after the conclusion of his story, we get Elizabeth's. She came to New York with her fiance, Richard, who was a nice young man she met back at home. They planned to get married in New York once he had enough money, but, times being what they were, it never happened. Elizabeth got pregnant, but before she could tell Richard, he was arrested on bogus charges by the police, and, after being exonerated at trial but also beaten and humiliated, he killed himself. This, of course, left Elizabeth as a single mother. Her friend, Florence, however, introduced her to Gabriel when he came up to New York, and, eventually, they married. That means, though, that John is Richard and Elizabeth's bastard son, not Gabriel's.

As Elizabeth's story concludes, Baldwin returns us to John's perspective. He falls into a religious reverie during the prayer service, and, after spending all night wrestling with his hatred of his father and his faith in God, is "saved" as the sun rises in the morning. At the close of the novel, John hopes that he can stay saved despite temptation (a hope that he expresses to another congregant, Elisha, in a vaguely homoerotic way) and Florence threatens to tell John the truth in front of Gabriel. The last line of the book consists of John telling his mother, "I'm coming. I'm on my way." It could mean that he's on his way to becoming a religious man and living his life well, or that he's on his way to the destruction inherent in the black condition in America.

I've pretty much maintained my impressions from the first two-thirds. Baldwin is portraying a lot of the negative aspects of religion - the controlling nature, the false hope, the hypocrisy - but he's also giving it some credit for providing an alternative to alcohol and crime as a way to survive. I don't know what to make of John's revelation at the end. He's able to face his father, unfaltering and unblinking, as a result, but at the same time, the ending line seems fairly ominous to me. I'm inclined to come down on the side of pessimism for this one and say that it's pointing to the fact that he's going to come to the same grief that all the other characters have come to, or something similar to it, at least. After all, what waits for him, as a young black man, but poverty and discrimination?

Henry James next. Oh, Henry, I know that I will be incredibly annoyed by your ridiculously complex sentences and your tendency toward unnecessary double negatives. So we meet again.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Come to Jesus

Current book: Go Tell It on the Mountain
Pages read: 90 - 166

Continuing with Florence's story, we learn that she moved to New York, married a deadbeat drunkard who left her ten years later, and has since been single. After Florence gets done with the prayer that reveals all this to the audience, it's Gabriel's turn to give us his life story (not that it's being written in the first person, which I feel like I'm implying).

After his sister left, Gabriel became a hoodlum, drinking and screwing around with the local girls, until one day, after leaving his lover's bed, he experienced a religious epiphany under a tree. It was your classic "pray for forgiveness and be welcomed into the bosom of the lord" kind of thing. So Gabriel became a preacher, and quite a popular one, well known for his fire and brimstone. Florence's friend, Deborah, who had been raped as a young teenager and since devoted herself to prayer and chastity, greatly admired Gabriel. Eventually, as a result of a message from God, Gabriel married her. It wasn't long before he cheated on her with another local girl called Esther, who got pregnant and gave birth (having moved to Chicago at that point) to his first son, Royal. Esther later died, and Royal, too, and Gabriel was left with his guilt and Deborah. We don't yet have information on how Deborah died and Gabriel married his current wife, Elizabeth, but I'm sure we will soon.

It continues to be pretty interesting and rely heavily on character development, but there's also a lot of discussion of both race and religion. When Florence is arguing with her husband, Frank, about his tendency to spend their money on alcohol, she says that they'll never be able to save up to move away from "all these niggers," if he keeps wasting it. He replies that she'll never be able to "get away from niggers." This part sort of knocked me back a little, just because of the implication that Florence regards all the members of her race as a bad element in society. That's not true, of course but she's clearly conflating race and class; frankly, it seems impossible not to in the time period she's a part of. She wants to get away from poverty, violence, and alcoholism, and all she's ever seen in the black community are situations that enforce those conditions. Baldwin's point, then, that self-hatred can stem from the conditions imposed by society, is well made and well taken. (Also, "nigger" is just never an easy word. Ever.)

As far as religion goes, the message is still a mixed one. Clearly, not everything about religion is bad, since it changes Gabriel from a hoodlum into a productive member of society. It's not, however, fixing all his problems, what with the adulterous relationship and bastard child. Gabriel thinks, at one point, that his "brothers and sisters" are losing themselves in worshiping golden idols in the form of jazz and blues clubs, which is also an interesting point from Baldwin, given the fact that the black identity in America at the time was so heavily defined by music. I still need more time to see where he's going with that.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So, so alone.

Current book: Go Tell It on the Mountain
Pages read: None

No reading today, I must admit. I could be reading now, but instead of reading the book I'm supposed to be reading, I'm reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay instead. Which, so far, is better than most of the books on this list. So, there you are, then. I just don't know, list-makers. I just don't know.

Anyway, more religion, faith-questioning, and race in America tomorrow. The Baldwin is actually halfway decent, which makes for a nice change.

Speaking of whining about things, also, has anyone read The World According to Garp and liked it? I keep looking stuff up about it online, and all I find are these incredibly laudatory reviews. I can't believe it's so well respected. With some of the books I've hated, I can understand the praise, and I sort of can with the Irving, but surely I can't be the only one overwhelmed by the sexual violence and disturbing content. Can I?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The son of a preacher man

Current book: Go Tell It on the Mountain
Pages read: 9 - 90

Ok, the first problem with this book is that I constantly have "Go Tell It on the Mountain" stuck in my head. It's kind of an issue.

The novel itself is kind far. I don't really know what Baldwin is trying to say just yet, but I think he's very, very angry. My initial impression is that he hates religion, but it may just be that he hates the oppression that religion can represent, especially to someone who's been raised in a family where it's used as an excuse for abuse and control.

So, John, the 14-year-old son of Baptist preacher living in Harlem, is questioning his faith. His father, Gabriel, beats everyone in the family and constantly tells them what they can and cannot do. For his whole life, John's accepted that Jesus and the church will be his future, but he's starting to think that the "holy life" - praying, abstaining from pleasures like movies and alcohol, devoting one's life to Jesus - is not the life that he wants to live. Soon after John's thoughts begin to head this way, his brother, Roy, is stabbed. It brings the family to a crisis in which his father, mother, and aunt have a huge fight about the way Gabriel treats the family. As a result, John's aunt, Florence, comes to Gabriel's church to pray for salvation, something which she has never done before.

At that point, we get a little backstory on the family. Gabriel and Florence were raised by their mother, a former slave, and never got along. Florence hated Gabriel and hated living in the poor, rural south. After many years of promising herself that she'd get out, she bought a train ticket to New York and left their mother on her deathbed for Gabriel to look after.

That's it so far. Like I said, Baldwin seems very angry, as much about the place of blacks in America as the fact that religion can be used to manipulate them. He's not entirely against religion, I think, but rather is against its use as a different kind of whip and chains in the black community - as a new, self-inflicted slavery. (I may be going too far with that metaphor, but I don't think so.) We'll see what happens between John and Gabriel, which looks to be the central conflict of the story. I don't think it'll be pretty.

As far as writing goes, it's quick and engaging and does a good job of creative multiple, convincing perspectives. John is a little hard to relate to just because of the extremity of his hatred towards his father. That said, his yearning for the comfort of faith and his inability to experience it is compelling. Speaking as an agnostic, I've had the experience myself: that bewilderment that results from understanding that there's a group of people that seems to get this great comfort out of something that continues to elude you, and that seems not only far-fetched, but, in fact, impossible.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Psychologically disturbed

Current book: The World According to Garp
Pages read: 285 - 437 (end)

Sorry to keep you waiting, loyal readers. It was a complex week that involved no working out, the aforementioned cold, and a very sick cat. All is now well (including the cat), working out has resumed, and, as you can see, I've finished this terrible, terrible book.

I don't even know how to conclude the plot. The rest of the book covers everyone's life until he or she dies, but to no great effect. The Garps have another child and Garp writes an incredibly sexually violent book which is very popular. Garp's mother is shot and killed by a violent anti-feminist. Eventually Garp is killed, as well, because of an article he wrote decrying an extremist feminist group. Their kids grow up, and the epilogue follows everyone through his or her eventual death.

Honestly, it was just wretched at the end. I completely lost all patience with it and pretty much skimmed the last 75 pages or so. Everyone is either sexually transgressive, violent, or both, and after a while I just can't take that anymore. I don't know what the point is supposed to be except to make the reader vaguely nauseated. It sure had that effect on me.

Within the novel, the last book that Garp writes is called The World According to Bensenhaver, and I can't help but think that Irving is trying to point to himself with it. Garp's book, of which we are treated to the first chapter, begins with the disgustingly violent rape of a woman who kills her rapist while he's still raping her. Garp (Irving) shares every horrific detail. (I won't, because I'm not going to put you through that experience, but believe me, you're better off.) I wish I could unread it, really; I want not to have experienced reading it. Anyway, the point is that the critics of Garp's work call it, basically, what I'm calling it - disturbingly, pornographically violent. So what the hell is Irving doing by putting it in? Perhaps he's trying to defend his own book, (which I am also happy to call perversely disturbing and violent) from critics? Perhaps he's trying to say that the society that values a book like Garp's (and his own) is somehow sick? I have no idea; I just wish I hadn't had to go through the experience of reading it in order to be left wondering.

Ew. Just ew.

No list, Irving! It's not for you.

An addendum: I just looked at the New York Times review of the book from 1978, and in it the reviewer talks all about how the book will make you laugh with its absurdist treatment of violence, rape, and death. Whatever, Times reviewer. Laughing at this book never even occurred to me. And frankly, I worry about your sanity. Sure, the violence overblown and ridiculous, but that doesn't make it funny; it makes it even more sickening. Maybe I'm a Philistine, but if so, I'm happy to be one.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Current book: The World According to Garp
Pages read: None

I lied. Posting isn't back yet today due to a head cold and a lack of working out as a result. Perhaps tomorrow, but I can't make any guarantees at this point.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Vagina dentata

Current book: The World According to Garp
Pages read: 216 - 285

Well, hell. I started out liking this novel, moved on to dislike, and now I actively hate it. Seriously, Irving? I know you can do better than this 70s sexual deviance bullshit.

Helen starts having an affair with a graduate student in one of her courses. One night Garp finds out and tells her to break it off. He takes the kids to a movie so she can accomplish that, but comes back early to find her giving the guy one last blow job in his parked car in the driveway. The problem is, he doesn't see the car until the last second, and ends up rear-ending it. One of their sons is killed, one loses an eye, Garp's jaw is broken, Helen's arm is broken, and the unfortunate other man gets his penis inadvertently bitten off. (Do you see what I mean? What the hell is the point of scenarios like this in fiction? Honestly, can anyone explain it? Because I'd like to know.) The wounded family goes to stay with Jenny in her enormous house on the east coast, and they meet all sorts of herweird hangers-on there. After a while, the guy that Garp kicked out of his Duncan's friend's mom's bedroom (follow that?) shows up, too, to spend time with Garp because he loves Garp's books so much.

That's all so far. I can't wait to find out what disturbing and nonsensical plot twists are in store for me next. Seriously, though, I have some major issues with authors who like to torture their characters, especially when they have to delve into the realms of highly improbable circumstance to do so. There's just something about the events in this book that seem like a fun-house mirror version of reality. I'm disoriented and annoyed, just like at a real fun-house. I don't find that it gives me a new perspective, either, as I can only assume it's meant to do. It's just...degrading. It makes me feel bad about the world, bad about people, and even, sometimes, bad about myself. It certainly makes me feel bad about Irving.

Well, anyway, at least I get a break - I'm headed off to celebrate a very good friend's wedding, so there will be a hiatus from posting until next Tuesday, the 9th.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male

Current book: The World According to Garp
Pages read: 120 - 215

You know, I thought I was going to like this book when I started it, and things seem to going downhill rapidly. Everything's getting tawdry and sensational for no good reason, and it's bothering me. It seems too much a product of the 70s right now, in that everyone spews insults and sounds like a semi-violent idiot. I can't really work with that. (I mean, really, we just met a character who called Garp "chickenshit" at least four times in as many pages. Who talks like that?)

Anyway, to move on to the plot: Garp finishes his short story and sends it to Helen, who agrees to marry him, and Jenny gets her book published. It sells phenomenally well, and suddenly Jenny and Garp are famous for being its author and subject, respectively. Garp hates it, of course, and Jenny collects a pack of feminist hangers-on, whom Garp also hates. Garp and Helen, however, have two children, both boys, and a fairly happy marriage. Garp writes two novels, neither of which is particularly popular, and spends the rest of his time as a homemaker. He has a couple of one-night stands with babysitters, which is pretty reprehensible, but eventually gets over his need for infidelity. Later, Helen and Garp have a weird four-way relationship with another couple they know, which ends with Helen making them stop and everyone else resenting her for it. (What did I say? 70s.)

It's pretty much just all twisted, strange domestic scenes. In the part right at the end of this section, Garp's older son, Duncan, goes to a friend's house to spend the night, and Garp, who's very overprotective, ends up checking on him at 1 am. He finds the friend's mother in bed with a younger man, whom she asks him to kick out. He does so, but then she, in a drunken haze, tries to seduce Garp and is angry when he won't sleep with her. (This is the part with all the "chickenshit" usage.) He ends up taking Duncan home, slung over his shoulder in a sleeping bag, and gets stopped by the cops, but manages to prove his innocence.

I seem to be failing to see the point. It started out as a book that seemed to be about the possible complexities of life and finding oneself. I think it's trying to continue to be that, but it's failing miserably. Everyone is cartoonishly reactionary. It kind of reminds me of White Noise, actually, the way the characters act toward each other. They're enraged or they're consumed with lust or they're weeping or they're laughing, but rarely are they somewhere in the middle. Add to that the odd and slightly disturbing sexual material, and things just seem overblown and ridiculous. I just can't relate to this much unorthodox sexual angst all in one place. Sometimes I feel like 70s authors are so bent on getting you to believe that this stuff happens all the time that they forget to include a story. Makes the novel rather difficult to relate to.

I'm hoping the sexual content settles down a little, or, at the very least, starts to contribute to the plot.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tell me about your mother.

Current book: The World According to Garp
Pages read: 62 - 120

Garp graduates from Steering and decides to go to Europe instead of college, but he takes his mother with him. He's ostensibly learning to be a writer, but Jenny ends up writing a 1,500 page autobiography while he works on one short story. He corresponds the whole time with Helen, eventually proposing to her via letter. She denies him at first, but we'll see what happens next, because she seems likely to change her mind.

That's really all that happens of substance in these pages, but clearly the relationship between Garp and his mother is just odd as hell. She insists on coming to Austria with him, but he lets her get away with it, and then they live together while they're there. He fulfills the caretaker role, largely because he speaks German and she doesn't, and does the cooking and shopping. They also get into these weird arguments about lust, since Jenny has never felt any and thinks it's disgusting when Garp does. Garp sleeps with some prostitutes and gets the clap, as well, but it's sort of peripheral, and Jenny doesn't find out.

I don't have a lot to say right now, other than that the relationship with Jenny and Garp is strange. I guess she wants to infantalize him, since he's all she has in the world, but she also reacts very strongly to his interest in sex, I think because of her general distaste for men and the sexuality she thinks they represent. I suppose, if we were to give Jenny a modern label, we'd call her asexual. She seems to think everyone else ought to be, too. Honestly, I don't like her much, but Garp isn't a whole lot better. He seems to be going through an adolescent disdain phase where he thinks nothing is good enough for him. I hope he grows out of it.

Friday, October 29, 2010

His formative years

Current book: The World According to Garp
Pages read: 1- 62

It's the middle of World War II, and Jenny Fields, a young woman with a rich family, decides that she doesn't really believe in society's values - that is, getting married to a suitable man - so she drops out of Wellesley, where her family sent her, and attends nursing school instead. She becomes a nurse, which she loves, and lives alone, which she also loves, but is constantly bombarded with innuendo from her family that she's sleeping around and wasting her life, neither of which is true. Eventually she decides she would like to have a child, but is still contemptuous of all men to the extent that, using a scalpel she'd gotten (legally) from the hospital, she slashed a guy who was sexually harassing her in a movie theater. (He was out of line, but still. Opened his arm to the bone and sliced his lip. Ouch.)

After some time, a nearly brain-dead ball-turret gunner, name of Garp, comes to the hospital for treatment. He can only say his own name, has no capacity for reason, and frequently gets erections and masturbates to orgasm wherever he happens to be at the time. One time, Jenny climbs on top of him and uses him as a sperm donor for the child she wants so badly. She gets pregnant, Garp dies of his injuries, and she's eventually fired from her job for being an unwed mother.

She has the child, names him T.S. Garp (no meaning behind the letters, except that Garp's rank was technical sergeant) and moves to a boarding school called Steering School where she works as a nurse. Jenny raises Garp at the school, and we see some scenes from his childhood: he almost falls off the roof after playing in a rain gutter, he gets bitten by the dog of another staff member, he generally wanders around the infirmary and talks to older boys. Jenny eventually becomes head nurse and slowly fills the infirmary with books, since she reads constantly. Eventually, Garp enters school at Steering, which he loves. One day, it becomes apparent that he needs to choose a sport to play, and his mother happens upon the wrestling coach and chooses that as his sport. The coach's daughter, Helen Holm, loves Jenny because she resembles her long-lost mother. Garp, while wrestling for all the years of his Steering career, slowly falls in love with Helen Holm.

That's where we are. Lots for 60 pages, really. I like it so far; it's very engaging, and I always love the "childhood at school" parts of novels like this. The narration is interesting because it's often interspersed with references to Jenny's autobiography, published later, and by excepts from things that Garp has written that offer a sentence or two of commentary on the situation. It's clear already from the story that Garp aspires to be a writer, and apparently his aspirations are going to come to fruition.

It's also oddly vulgar sometimes, which usually bothers me, but it seems to be passing just under the radar in this novel. He just tends to talk about erections, sperm, and other excreta more than is really necessary, but for some reason it's coming across as frankness rather than vulgarity in this book.

I think it's going to be a good one.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

I'd take the seasick crocodile.

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 550 - 661 (end)

I'm not sorry to be done, I'll say that about it. The ending was pretty sensational, and I don't mean that in the nice way.

Just after the scandal gets cleared up, Tom Stark gets injured in a football game and ends up paralyzed. As a result, Willie Stark withdraws his deal with the crooked contractor because he feels he has nothing to lose and is, for the moment, politically untouchable. The contractor, who was in cahoots with Stark's Lieutenant Governor, "Tiny" Duffy, is displeased, of course. As a result, an unidentified caller gets in touch with Adam Stanton and tells him that Anne slept with Stark, and that's why he was given the hospital directorship. Stanton is so incensed that he assassinates Stark at the capitol building and gets himself shot and killed in the process.

Afterward, Burden finds out that Duffy was the one who called Stanton, and, while he does go to his office and threaten him, resolves to leave well enough alone about it, since Duffy has no future in politics anyway. Burden, in fact, has a dramatic change of heart, marries Anne Stanton, and decides to write his long-lost dissertation about Cass Mastern. Burden finally realizes that the past doesn't define the future, only provides a jumping-off point for it, that he's wasted his life up until now, and that he wants to make the world a better place.

In the words of the immortal valley girl of 90s California, "Gag me with a spoon." I mean, really, Warren? This guy, who has no moral fiber of any kind, and who we've seen, time and time again, make reprehensible decisions more out of apathy than anything else, who's written off both the women in his life because they didn't do exactly what pleased him, and who blackmailed the only man in his life he ever really respected - this guy turns it all around and is filled with the light of righteousness and truth? For fuck's sake, man, you can't just completely change your mind about everything you've said in the entire novel right at the end.

I don't know, maybe you can, and I should be happy about it, since I just whined about how I hate books that condemn humanity as worthless, but I wanted it to be more believable, in the end. I just don't know that there was enough reason for Jack Burden to have a change of heart. It's not as though there was any one event that could have changed my mind, I suppose, it's just that I needed to see some flicker of morality in Jack's soul at some point before the very end of the novel. It's like deus ex machina, in a way, or deathbed conversion - it doesn't mean anything when it's sudden and without reason.

Speaking of deathbed conversions, there was some sense of Stark having wanted to do right all along that sneaked* into the novel in this end bit. When he was dying, he told Jack that he wished it had all been different, and Jack reflected on the fact that sometimes good men act badly in order to achieve good. Warren seemed to be arguing not for the idea that the ends justify the means, but for the idea that politicians who have fallen prey to that logic are not necessarily bad, but are just trying to act within the limitations of the political system. That was the kernel of truth in this book, really, and the idea that I liked best in it. The political system seems designed, in a way, to cause moral compromise. A senator can never get the law that he really wants passed, because it will have to be tweaked and amended, defanged by the opposing party, and passed through a committee that will make more changes, so that eventually it will be barely recognizable. That, too, is a kind of moral compromise. However, I think Warren carries the idea a little far. I don't think Willie Stark is actually a sympathetic character, simply because we've seen him bully, both verbally and physically, too many people. You want to build a hospital? That's great, but it doesn't excuse the years of corruption and blackmail that stand behind your career.

I don't know what to say about it. It was one-sided, a bit rambling, and disorganized, but it had moments of truth and discussed the political system in a way that hadn't been done before it was written. The ending was a bit of flash-in-the-pan, but I'm not sure most people would object to it as strongly as I do. I'm slightly swayed by the fact that it won a Pulitzer (which I shouldn't be, since that's very emperor's new clothes of me), but I still don't think it's worthy of the list. It's marginal. I don't have a good answer.

*As a side note, did you know that snuck is actually not a grammatically correct past tense form of sneak? I learned that today, and, I have to say, I'm a little disappointed. Snuck seems much more illustrative to me. Alas.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Then my father is truly dead.

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 460 - 550

I grudgingly admit that Warren actually managed to surprise me with a plot twist. I'm still annoyed with him for being constantly and consistently depressing, but at least I got a moment of shock out of this book.

It turns out that Jack and Lois's marriage ended because Jack left Lois with no warning or explanation. (Jack's narration actually manages to kind of blame her for it, which is pretty spectacularly unfair, but he also sort of half acknowledges that he's in the wrong.) Anyway, shortly after that part, we find out that Anne Stanton never married, and always seemed vaguely disappointed in Jack. He resolves his conscience about his bad relationships by painting Anne and Lois with the same brush - namely, that of all women, whom he dismisses as needy and bound by social convention. (Whatever, Jack. What. Ever.)

Back in the present, Willie Stark's son, Tom, gets himself into trouble with a girl. In the usual way, she gets pregnant and then accuses him of being the father, and he denies it and says she sleeps around. This results in Stark trying to buy her off with pressure from her senator, namely the guy that Judge Irwin endorsed way back at the beginning of the book. So, of course, that means that Stark wants to pressure Irwin into withdrawing his endorsement unless the senator erases the scandal with Tom, and to do that, he wants Jack to blackmail the judge with the scandal he unearthed. Stark still doesn't know what it is, but he trusts Jack to deal with it. So, Jack, who, remember, used to admire Irwin, goes to blackmail him. Irwin refuses the deal, of course, and, after Jack leaves, shoots himself.

When Jack's mother finds out that Irwin shot himself after Jack visited him, she breaks down and tells Jack that Irwin is really his father. (Music sting! Honestly, it was really quite a shock, but it made sense in the context of Jack's mother's many husbands, so it didn't seem underhanded of Warren or anything.) Jack is remorseful, but not nearly enough, frankly, and still goes back to work for Stark. He refuses to do any more blackmailing, however. Stark's hand is forced by circumstance now that Irwin is dead, and he ends up having to give the contract to build his hospital to a crooked contractor in exchange for the erasure of Tom's pregnancy scandal. Stark is incredibly upset about it, what with the hospital being the one thing he was actually going to do right.

Jack is just so awful that I'm having a hard time mustering any emotional connection with the events of the book. Every time we learn something about his past, I feel like I'm supposed to be sympathetic to him, sorry for his loss of innocence or something, but it feels to me like he never had any innocence to lose. Maybe that's the point - that he's supposed to represent the inevitability of corruption and its inherent place in the human soul - but it's not working for me. The fall from grace is just so much more powerful. Warren took a stab at that with Willie, but he didn't give us enough evidence for Stark's initial goodness, either.

I'm just not cut out to read books where the message is that people suck and everything's awful. I fight it the whole way through, because I think it's untrue and even, sometimes, damaging. Also, it's not very nice first thing in the morning.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Objectification much?

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 373 - 460

All right, I'll admit it: I've been remiss in explaining the roles of a couple of characters because they kept being peripheral, but now I have to because they gotten important to the plot. This is what I get for cutting corners.

So, Adam Stanton, the hero-surgeon guy who was once Jack's good friend, is also the son of the previous governor, Governor Stanton. Adam's sister, Anne, was also good friends with Jack, and, there is an implication, had some kind of romantic relationship with him as well. This next section is mostly one long flashback that gives us details about the friendship and romance between the two of them.

After Jack finds out about the dirt on Judge Irwin, he tells Anne, who tells Adam, and both are devastated because it implicates their father, the former governor, in the scandal. As a result, Adam decides to take the hospital job that Stark has offered him, perhaps to make up for his father's corruption, or perhaps because he now sees the whole world as corrupt (and therefore doesn't mind Stark's hand in the business). Meanwhile, Jack finds out that Anne has had an affair with Willie and possibly manipulated him into offering Adam the job. This discovery launches Jack into a spiral of despair during which he drives across the country, stops in a motel, and gets drunk while he remembers his past.

In Jack's flashback, we see his blossoming relationship with Anne when they both teenagers, he in the summer after high school, she a year younger. They were simply friends at first, then found mutual attraction, and finally ended up almost having sex, but stopped just short of it. Adam was less than pleased to find his friend dallying with his sister, but didn't say much about it. The two planned to get married, but after several years of college, Anne lost interest in Jack, who was slacking off and had no ambition, and the relationship died. Afterward, Jack married Lois, who was nice to look at but not much else to him, and lived unhappily in the marriage for a while. That's where I had to stop, so I don't know how their marriage ended just yet, but I'm sure it did.

The way Jack talks about Anne is characteristic of that idea of the young, unspoiled maid who is attractive because of her potential for being spoiled. Once you have her, you won't want her anymore. It's a disturbing little paradox, really (and a pretty common one - look no further than your local mall and the dozens of available Catholic schoolgirl miniskirts), and one which Warren is playing up pretty strongly. There's a sense in it that Jack spoils everything he touches, or, more than that, that the world spoils everything in it.

The way Jack talks about Lois is, if anything, even more disturbing. He says, multiple times, that he is attracted to the "machine" of Lois, but not the "being" that is Lois. In other words, he likes the way she looks and the fact that she has sex with him, and that's about it. He often refers to her as an "it" in this part, and says things like, "when it opened its mouth to say words," in reference to her. Frankly, it's so offensive that it's difficult to read. I'm not saying Warren is a misogynist, because I think he's using the corrosive nature of this idea for a reason, but Jack sure as hell is. Lois is nothing to him but a tool to get over Anne - a toy that he thought would make him happy for a while - and he's proving it to us in the narration.

It's seldom that I've disliked a narrator as much as I dislike Jack Burden. He seemed vaguely human when we were hearing about his first love with Anne, but everything else he's done and is doing is almost cartoonishly reprehensible. I guess Warren's trying to make him the ultimate example of the ruination that is political corruption, but, once again, I think that nuance would suit better than extremity. I'd much rather seem him as an ambiguous character struggling with his morals than as the completely fallen man that he is. Even the scenes of his past never show him doing anything truly moral - he's just icky.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The road to hell

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 268 - 373

Hey, things are exciting in this bit because there is actually a glimmer of hope that not everyone in the entire world is completely beyond redemption! It's very, very faint, but it's there. I'll let you know where in the synopsis it comes in, because it might be hard to tell.

So, back to Cass Mastern. After killing his friend in order to secure said friend's wife, he and the woman have an argument about a slave that she sold. The slave had been in Mastern's family for some time, and the only reason his new mistress sold her was because she felt threatened by her beauty. Mastern heads off to go retrieve her, and in so doing, loses his mistress forever. He doesn't end up finding the slave, but does get in a fight, become ill, and then come dragging home feeling guilty for the whole thing. Afterward, he's a broken man, and ends up fighting in the Civil War and dying of a bullet wound. And the moral of all this, as Warren points out through Burden's narration, is that the world screws everyone over and makes him miserable. (Awesome. This is not, in case you were wondering, the glimmer of light part.)

After the Mastern bit, we get back to Burden's activities in Stark's employ, and follow him as he digs up dirt on the judge Stark was threatening way back at the beginning. He succeeds in finding out that the judge, Judge Irwin, once took dirty money when he was attorney general. As a result of the deal, a lawyer for the state lost his job because he tried to bring a suit against the company that was doing the lawbreaking. After appealing to the governor at the time (not Stark) and being told he'd better quiet down or risk even greater consequences, said lawyer killed himself. Burden hasn't yet reported this information to Stark, but will soon, and then, we assume, ruin Irwin's reputation with it.

In the meantime, Stark has been making plans to build a huge, free hospital in the state, and, lo and behold, he actually wants it to be politically clean. He wants to build it in order to do good, rather than just to make money and connections. (See the glimmer? An actual good intention!) Burden is given the task of convincing his old childhood friend, Adam Stanton, now a famous surgeon, to take on leadership of the place. Adam has, for now, refused, but the discussion is certainly not over.

As I said, it's kind of nice that Warren complicates Stark's character here with the sense that he actually wants to do some good, and isn't just completely, permanently corrupt. That said, it seems like Burden's going to strong-arm Adam into taking on a position he doesn't want, so it's not an entirely virtuous situation. But still, it's a helluva lot closer than we've gotten in this book so far.

I don't know, maybe I'm just naive as hell, or maybe it's that this book is too much a product of its time, but I guess I don't believe that everyone who's ever even come close to touching any aspect of politics has become part of a corrupt machine. That seems to be Warren's thesis, and I honestly think it errs pretty heinously on the side of cynicism. To be fair, some of that is a product of the narrative voice; Jack is supposed to be completely cynical himself, after all. But I think there's room for nuance that I've only just now seen evidence of, and I'm not entirely convinced is going to be pursued as much as I think it should be.

In other news, Warren used a word I didn't know: marmoreal. It means "like marble or suggestive of marble, especially as it relates to a sense of coldness or aloofness." From context, before looking it up, I'd decided the meaning ran something along the lines of "dignified and severe," so I was pretty close. (Although, honestly, part of me really wanted it to mean "like a marmot.") It's not often I have to look up a word, so I liked it, but I didn't like that he used it three times in as many pages. Have the wit to vary the tune, Warren.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Lame duck

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: None

No pages read at all, and I didn't even cook anything, so I have no real excuse. Yeah, sorry.

On the subject of political novels, has anyone ever read a modern American political novel that was actually good? I know I haven't. Mostly they seem to stumble around, wallowing in scandal and poorly disguised commentary, until they come to unsatisfying endings. Unfair? Tell me how.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Violent tendencies

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 173 - 268

I honestly don't know how to relate to this book. It seems to be a series of confused recollections of various instances of corruption, but I don't feel like I'm really getting anything out of it or that it's moving the plot along.

I mean, for example, in this bit we see Willie Stark get his attorney general out of an impeachment scandal, and it's clearly underhanded, and then there's a bunch of reflection about it on Burden's part. At this point, I get that there are lots and lots of scandals, so listing each one isn't really doing a whole lot for me. His wife threatens to leave him. I guess that's new. Then we get the story of Jack Burden's doctoral dissertation, randomly, which is about the diaries of a guy named Cass Mastern, an ancestor of his, and his marital infidelities. He was a good guy, basically, who went to college and ended up sleeping with a friend's wife and then, eventually, killing the friend.

That's really all there was. I just...I don't know. I'm bothered by how often we're switching time periods and by how unimportant the information we're getting is. Everything just seems like a foregone conclusion, and it's obnoxious. If Warren hadn't started out with the utter corruption of Stark right at the beginning, it would be a lot better. The characters are all just so horrible. I want to punch everyone in the face.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Either I'm dead right or I'm crazy

Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 70 - 173

Well, when I said "argue with the judge" yesterday, what I really meant was "try to intimidate the judge into changing his endorsement." Despite the fact that Governor Stark seems to have a great deal of power, he fails to get the judge to back down. Burden, the narrator, is disgusted at his own involvement; he used to know the judge well, and is ashamed of his own part in the political corruption. You wouldn't know it from the way he acts, but his narration is full of self-loathing.

After they leave, Warren throws us back to the beginning of Willie Stark's political career. It turns out he gets into politics by becoming treasurer for his county. While he's in that position, a vote comes up for a contract to build a new schoolhouse, and Willie insists that the county take the low bid (like you do). However, the county commissioner wants to give the contract to his brother's contracting firm (which has been accused of substandard building practices and also offered a higher bid), and gets Willie kicked out of office in order to do so. Willie is disgusted, of course, but later vindicated when one of the fire escapes crumples during a fire drill, killing three children and making Willie look the righteous do-gooder. Shortly thereafter, upon the request of some concerned citizens, Willie runs for governor. It turns out that one of the other candidates arranged Willie's run so that he'd split the vote of the first candidate's opponent, and when Willie finds out, he exposes the whole plot in a high-profile speech. Afterward, he spends the rest of the campaign time speaking for the opposite side, having changed his whole persona and political diction (formerly righteous, informational, and boring and now inflammatory, didactic, and exciting). Burden covers Willie on the campaign trail and takes care of him when he finds out about the scandal and drinks himself into a near-coma.

A few years later, Willie runs for governor in his own right and is elected. Burden gets fired from his newspaper for refusing to write articles that hold the party line (which is in favor of the other candidate), and, after a period of whiny unemployment, Willie hires him. To do what, you ask? Whatever Willie decides, it seems.

Right now, it sounds from my description like both Stark and Burden are upstanding gentlemen who are fighting for what's right. That's misleading, though, because their actions belie the undercurrent of cynicism in the book. Burden's narration is so damn jaded and hopeless that it seems like everyone in the world is corrupt. I know Warren's doing that on purpose, since it's retrospective and Burden, has, in fact, lived in a corrupt world for years, but doing it through that lens makes it seem like no one has ever been honest. Even Stark, in this early example of crusading for what's right, seems like he's dirtied by corruption; Burden never stops calling him a dupe, and a fool, and a blind, naive moron. It's fairly impossible, then, to sympathize with either of them. Burden's obnoxious because he's so bitter that he can't take joy in anything, and Willie's obnoxious because he's presented as either an idiot (in the past) or a tragic example of corruption (in the present). Can no one actually be good? It's like watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, only at the end, Mr. Smith just takes the graft money and screws the boy scouts out of their camp. Cheery.

I'm kind of annoyed by the dialogue, also. I don't know if it's just a product of the 40s, or what, but I find the way people speak to be stilted and unrealistic. It sounds like film noir or something, and I don't appreciate it as stylization, if that's what it is, so it comes across as affectation instead.

We'll see what happens, but it's hard to get into a book when you hate the narrator. And all the other characters, come to think of it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Current book: All the King's Men
Pages read: 1 - 70

Willie Stark, the governor of Iowa (I assume, because they keep talking about Mason City), is visiting his father at the former's childhood home. Our narrator, a journalist who works for Willie and goes by the name of Jack Burden, is accompanying him, along with Mrs. Stark and a couple of other flunkies. It's apparent from the description of Willie and his home town that he was raised as a simple country boy, and, now that he's gotten into politics, has become a fat cat who does whatever it takes to get what he wants. (I already kind of hate him. Actually, not just kind of. I already hate him.) After using his old, broken-down father and his father's old, broken-down dog for some photo ops, Willie takes Jack over to the house of a judge whom Burden used to know. That judge, as it turns out, has just endorsed a candidate for office of whom Governor Stark does not approve. Willie proceeds to argue with the judge about his choice.

That's as far as I got, which, honestly, doesn't seem very far for having read 70 pages, but there's a lot of description going on. Snippets of both Stark's and Burden's childhoods are sneaking into the narrative, as well as an account of their first meeting, years ago when Stark wasn't yet a politician. Warren's made a good, though perhaps not particularly risky, choice by tipping his audience off to the fact that Stark's political life has corrupted him. Now, instead of waiting in suspense to see if he'll give in, we're waiting in suspense to see what exactly his downfall will be. I wonder, too, if Warren's going to go beyond just the governorship and take Stark to the presidency. It seems fairly likely, based on the title , but it's probably not necessary for the portrait of corruption it seems we're heading towards; could go either way.

This book makes me wish I knew more about Watergate. It was written long before Watergate ever occurred, but I still feel like it's the most relevant modern political scandal I can think of. Warren was probably thinking about the general disaster that was 1920s politics in Chicago and elsewhere when he wrote the novel, but it resonates more for the modern reader when applied to recent scandals. Anyway, Watergate - I mean, I've got the basic gist of it, that Richard Nixon authorized illegal search and seizure of Democratic party records in order to improve his political position. But I know there's more to it than that, and that I'm missing information. More than the details, though, I wish I had a better idea of how Watergate affected the political climate of the U.S. at the time. What did it feel like to have the president disgraced? What did it feel like to know that the highest office in the land was one of the most corrupt? Sure, I was alive during the Clinton impeachment, but frankly, it was a kangaroo court that had nothing to do with actual corruption on Clinton's part, and it didn't seem like it undermined American political confidence much. I only assume that Watergate did, and that it really had an impact on everyday life. I could be wrong, though - maybe half the population ignored it, as they mostly seem to do these days. Well, that or scream crazy slogans and deny evolution. Apathy or insanity - it's hard to say which is worse. I've digressed, so I'll exit. More scandal coming soon.

Monday, October 18, 2010

What happens in Florence stays in Florence.

Current book: A Room with a View
Pages read: 158 - 211 (end)

Well, everyone spends some more time together, Cecil keeps being an asshole, and eventually George and Lucy find themselves alone together. George admits that he still loves her, kisses her, and tells her to leave Cecil. She's angry and resistant and denies him, but later in the evening realizes that he's at least right about Cecil. Lucy calls off the engagement, which Cecil handles fairly well, and she vows to go to Greece on a pleasure trip to avoid complications and gossip in England. Before she can leave, however, she meets George's father, who realizes that she loves his son, and he tells her so. His certainty causes her to realize the truth, and she vows to reconcile with George.

Forster skips forward several months here for the final chapter, and we see the two young people already married and vacationing, once again, in Florence. Lucy's family is, apparently, angry with her about their marriage, but she and George are, nonetheless, happy and full of hopes for the future.

It was a cute, cheery little novel with an undercurrent of cutting social satire. All in all, it was pretty enjoyable, but I'm not sure it was deep and moving, or even particularly memorable. I will admit that the portrayal of Cecil kept cutting me to the quick, though. Some of the reasons he's an asshole, as I mentioned before, are traits that I share with him, and it made me think about my personal flaws. I suppose that's a mark of good satire, really - that it results in self-examination.

Anyway, I wasn't blown away by the novel, and I don't think it really deserves to be on the list, but it's worth reading. It did have a bit to say about women not letting themselves be controlled and protected by men or their families, so that was nice, but honestly I think Forster was thinking more about being entertaining than anything else. Sometimes that has its place.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Breaking the fourth wall

Current book: A Room with a View
Pages read: 72 - 158

Well, the scandal is surprisingly unexciting, since all that happens is that George Emerson stumbles away in embarrassment and Miss Bartlett whisks Lucy back to the carriage. The whole party leaves, actually, since there seems to be a storm coming, but they do so without George, whom no one can find. They get back to Florence just fine, and, much later that night, George does, too. Lucy, pressured by Miss Bartlett, agrees to flee to Rome, the next stop on their tour, early the next morning.

At this point, the narrative jumps ahead a few months, to Lucy's home in England after she's returned. She has just gotten engaged to man named Cecil, whom she met in Rome, and who is clearly a jerk. He's incredibly snobby, but less about money than about intellectual prowess and high taste, which is, usually, just as obnoxious. Anyway, just after the engagement, the Emersons of the kissing scandal rent a nearby house. Lucy is conscience-stricken, not having told Cecil about said kissing incident, and she doesn't know what to do. Miss Barlett eventually comes up to stay at Lucy's for the wedding and adds the pressure of having the only other person who's aware of the scandal also present. To add to the trouble, Lucy's brother, Freddy, is becoming friends with George. Lucy, therefore, sees him oftener than she'd like and finds herself attracted to him (though she doesn't really realize it).

Well, it's honestly a bit silly. I mean, it's fairly well written, sure, but the subject material seems a tell the truth. If this book were translated into modern diction and jazzed up for the publishing trade, it'd be a pink paperback located on the "chick lit" table. Seriously. That does mean, though, that's it's pretty entertaining.

Cecil being a total snob without really being a snob about money is an interesting interpretation of class difference. He just sort of places himself in a higher intellecutal and cultural bracket than everyone else and gets peevish when they violate his sense of dignity. (Honestly, it hit a little close to home. I have tendencies that are not always unlike Cecil's. For example, there's a bit where Forster describes how Cecil sneers at Freddy while the latter is singing comic songs, and I was reminded, uncomfortably, of my inability to tolerate the broad comedy of popular movies like Anchorman, Superbad, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.) I was impressed that Forster thought to include a subtly different take on snobbery and hierarchy.

Also, one oddly glaring flaw occurs when Forster first introduces Cecil; he says something like, "We've come far enough in the story now that Cecil must be described." There's been no narrative presence at all up to this point, and frankly, I was annoyed by the sudden inclusion of one. You can't just turn to the camera and talk, as it were, whenever you feel like it. It has to be established early and continue throughout. Poor form, Forster. Poor form.


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