Friday, January 29, 2010

Is also fine, and would suffice.

Current book: Cat's Cradle
Pages read: 140 - 287 (end)

I estimated last night when I posted the end page, so 284 was wrong. It's actually 287. You may censure me for inaccuracy if you so desire.

After John gets off the plane with the rest of the visiting contingent, "Papa" Manzano prepares to give a rousing political speech. Instead, he has some kind of stroke and keels over. With his stricken, gasping breaths, he makes Frank the next President, and then subsides into unconsciousness (but not death). Everyone is, of course, upset by the whole thing, and they all scatter to various important places. John goes to check in at his hotel and discovers that it's being run by Philip Castle, son of the multi-millionaire Julian Castle, who was once a playboy but now runs a pro bono hospital on the island. Julian does not share his father's interest in healing the sick, and is, fact, rather deliciously caustic, instead. Anyway, they get to know each other, and eventually everyone ends up at the President's mansion. (And a couple of other places, but I'm glossing over locales for ease of explanation.)

Frank begs John to become President in his stead, offering him the incentive of marrying the beautiful Mona. After a little deliberation, he accepts. During this period, Newt paints an impressionist painting of a cat's cradle - a game, he explains, that is a perpetration of falsehood against the young, since there's no cat and no cradle, but just a set of xs made of string. Afterward, he makes several references to this idea to illustrate the lies that govern everyday life. For example, just after Newt explains that his sister's marriage is an abusive disaster, John says,
"'From the way she talked, I thought it was a very happy marriage.'

Little Newt held his hands six inches apart and he spread his fingers. 'See the cat? See the cradle?'"
It's brilliant, I have to say. I love it when an author makes me smile wryly and go, "Nice." I did it even more dramatically when Newt said the same thing about religion. It's a thoroughly well executed metaphor, and he uses it for cutting social commentary. (I'm falling on love with Kurt Vonnegut. Can you tell?)

Anyway, everyone's hanging around the President's castle (Palace? Fortifications? There's not a good word for what it is.), and John eventually gets called to go investigate the fact that "Papa" Manzano is dead. Well, he is, and it's clear that he's died of taking Ice-Nine, which has caused all the water in his body to freeze at the room temperature, killing him instantly. John confronts the Hoenikker siblings with the information, and they admit to having had Ice-Nine all along. Frank gave his to Manzano, Angela gave hers to her husband, and he's sold it to the government, and Newt gave his to a lovely Russian ballerina who turned out to be a spy, and so took it back to Russia. The United States and Russia, therefore, are both in possession of this substance that can destroy the world at the drop of hat. (Sound familiar? Yeah, I bet.) They all agree to try to hide the evidence by melting it with blowtorches and simply go on with the ceremony that has been planned for that day (which celebrates a great sacrifice made by some war heroes), after which they'll announce that John will be the new president and everything will be hunky-dory.

Of course, things go awry, as they so often do, and one of the demonstration planes doing the flyover for the aforementioned ceremony crashes into the presidential palace, sending it cascading into the sea. Unfortunately, this also sends remnants of Ice-Nine cascading into the sea, which promptly turns to ice and spreads the contamination throughout the entire world, immediately destroying the entire ecosystem. Cheery.

Oh, I forgot to mention that John has discovered, prior to all this, that everyone on the island is actually a Bokononist, and that it was Bokonon himself who asked that the religion be outlawed in order to make it more popular. (Clever. It would totally work.) After discovering this and the fact that Mona is a Bokononist, he also converts to Bokononism, though he intends to keep it outlawed, as President, in order to make sure it stays around. (Not that that matters now, what with the Ice-Nine and all. This is why I try to keep things in order when I summarize, but sometimes they slip by me.)

Mona and John survive by hiding in an underground bunker, and emerge after several days (during which, realistically, there were tornadoes and hurricanes and the like) to find the world a frozen, desolate wasteland. They do find some of the other Americans from the plane, but mostly the island seems deserted. Eventually, they discover that Bokonon gathered everyone together and advised them to commit suicide by licking the Ice-Nine, and they, in fact, did so. John is bewildered by this, but Mona explains that it's better to die when there's nothing else to be done, and promptly follows suit. The book ends with John finding Bokonon himself, who tells him the same thing, but also that he should go out grinning, thumbing his nose at God. That's the end.

So it was crazy and interesting and sharp and engaging and it made me think. I'm impressed by how well Vonnegut told a completely insane story, how often he made incisive points about modern society, and how apropos the book still is after almost fifty years. There's, of course, the clear parallel between Ice-Nine and nuclear weapons, but there's also the sense that it is frighteningly easy to destroy the world by accident as well as on purpose. In other words, it's not just nuclear weapons that could end our existence, but also a thousand other things that we may not even know exist. More important even than that dire warning is the idea that most of us are happy to remain blind to the constant threat of destruction that is the modern condition.

I will think about this book many, many times in future, and that lends it a depth that I value as much as any other facet of literature, and perhaps more. It's definitely worthy of the list. I'm sure some people would argue that literature shouldn't be about fake substances that could destroy the world. They'd say literature has to deal with reality, and must be written with long, descriptive passages that showcase the depth and complexity of the language. These, they would say, are the hallmarks of what makes the literary world great, and science fiction has no place there. These are the people who have created the literary canon.

See the cat? See the cradle?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Patience is a virtue.

Current book: Cat's Cradle
Pages read: 140 - 284 (end)

So, I finished this today, but I have no time to write. Tomorrow instead.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Now I am become Death

Current book: Cat's Cradle
Pages read: 1 - 140

I am at something of a loss on how to describe this book. I like it, but it's very, very strange.

The narrator, John, is investigating the history of a man called Felix Hoenikker, who, in this world, is the inventor of the atom bomb. He begins, though, by telling us about both that mission and his own devotion to a religion called Bokononism, which he periodically references throughout the text. It was by investigating Hoenikker, it becomes clear, that he found and devoted himself to this religion in the first place, which shows us that the whole thing is being told retrospectively.

Ok, so, Hoenikker has three children: Newton, a midget who has just flunked out of medical school, Angela, who is a housewife in Indiana, and Frank, who, we learn, disappeared for some time after being pursued by the police for racketeering charges and is now the scientific adviser to the self-made dictator of the tiny island nation of San Lorenzo. (Got it? Clearly, James and Faulkner and their long sentences are rubbing off on me. Or maybe I'm trying to translate the benefits of literature to you, the reader, out of a sense of altruism and duty. Let's go with the second one.) John goes to the town that has the laboratories where Hoenikker made his discoveries and meets one of his fellow scientists, Dr. Breed (who may have slept with Hoenikker's wife, though it's unclear). He also meets other townspeople, for no real reason other than to create a contrast between the world of the scientific thinker and the world of the "normal" thinker, I believe.

Eventually, John discovers Frank's whereabouts, and decides that he has to go to San Lorenzo to meet him. On the plane on the way there, he meets Angela and Newton (called Newt), who are on the way to attend Frank's wedding to the beautiful sex-symbol daughter of San Lorenzo's dictator. Upon viewing her picture, John falls instantly in love with said sex-symbol and mourns the fact that they can't be married, since she's already engaged to Frank. While on the plane, he also meets the American ambassador to San Lorenzo, and his wife, Horlick and Claire Minton. They give him a copy of the only available history of the island, which explains the Bokononian religion and the fact that San Lorenzo was taken over by Bokonon (actually a calypso singer named Lionel Johnson) and his friend, Earl McCabe, who landed there accidentally after a shipwreck and decided they'd like to rule. "Papa" Manzano (Have we noticed that people called "Papa" are never suitable leaders? Don't put them in power, guys; it's just a bad idea.), the current dictator, apparently took his cues from McCabe, who, subsequent to the shipwreck, had a falling out with Bokonon/Johnson and banned him and his religion from the island. So, there we are, with our hero John and his entourage just getting off the plane after landing in San Lorenzo. Oh, also, John believes that Hoenikker invented a substance called Ice-Nine before he died, which would change the crystalline structure of ice and cause water to freeze at much lower temperatures than normal, and that all three of his children are in possession of this both revolutionary and incredibly dangerous substance.

I know it sounds bizarre and nonsensical as hell, but somehow it's both convincing and compelling. The narrative voice is strange and perhaps insane, but the events move quickly, and Vonnegut intersperses the plot with cutting satirical commentary that's beautifully delivered. The comments of the "regular" people about scientists' thinking and the comments of the scientists about the thinking of "regular" people are rather expertly pitted against one another to represent the foolishness of the two extremes. It's impressive. Take this excerpt, for example, which is a story related by Naomi Faust, Hoenikker's secretary.
"There was one [conversation with Dr. Hoenikker] where he bet I couldn't tell him anything that was absolutely true. So I said to him, 'God is love' ... He said, 'What is God? What is love?'"
Nice, Vonnegut. Nice.

The little excerpts of Bokonon's calypso songs that John inserts wherever he feels like it and that illustrate the gist of his teachings are sort of getting on my nerves, but I think Vonnegut's using them to that purpose in order to illustrate the fact that quoting scripture is an exercise in absurdity. Cutting, but true.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of this one, which is a nice change. I mean, yes, the Faulkner was good, but I wouldn't exactly call it a page-turner. This, though, I would.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Who dares to put a musket to his shoulder?

Current book: A Separate Peace
Pages read: 120 - 204 (end)

Well, predictably, Finny is unable to sustain his denial of the war, and Gene is unable to staunch the flow of his guilt. Both are eaten up by their particular demons, and they spend the year mutually trying to ignore them. One of the other boys, an especially sensitive and artistic kid called Lepellier, enlists in the middle of the year. Later, he sends Gene a telegram asking for his help. When Gene goes to him, he discovers that Lepellier has lost his mind because of the pressure of boot camp, and gone AWOL to avoid a Section Eight discharge (discharge because of mental unsoundness). Gene is, of course, disturbed by his experience, and it serves as a warning to him that the war, and, in fact, the world, are far darker and more dangerous than the isolation of Devon Prep would have all of them believe.

On a fateful night in late winter of that year, one of the ringleaders of the class decides that he'd like to get to the bottom of Finny's accident, and so has the other boys drag Gene and Phineas to a sort of mock trial, at midnight, to determine the truth. It all has the air of a joke, but there's something sinister about it, too. In the end, the truth does, in fact, out, and Phineas, running away in blind horror at Gene's admission of guilt, falls on the stairs and re-injures his broken leg. Gene goes to apologize to him, and the two reach some kind of uneasy forgiveness, but there's the sense that Finny can't ever really forgive Gene - not for betraying him and breaking his leg, but rather for embodying the deeply flawed nature of humanity. (All right, all right, I know I'm getting all English major on you, but this sort of thing does actually exist in literature. We call it a theme.) The next day, Gene learns that Phineas died under the anesthetic while the doctor was setting the break, and the book concludes with scenes of the boys of Devon enlisting and going off to war.

The problem with summarizing this novel is the fact that not a great deal happens; it's how it happens that's important. It's a coming-of-age novel, sure, so there's the classic theme of the acceptance of both maturity and mortality, but it's all set in the light of the inhumanity of oneself and the world. Knowles achieves this by filtering that inhumanity through the lenses of both Gene's betrayal and the impending war, and the effect is subtler than it sounds. Rather than hitting you over the head with the realization that cruelty happens on both personal and international scales, Knowles allows you to understand it through the events of daily life at a prep school. All right, he goes a little too far with Gene's first-person retrospective reflection at the very end, but for the most part he does it extremely well. This is a beautiful little book, and certainly worthy of this list. (Two in a row! Has that even happened before?)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Life moves pretty fast.

Current book: A Separate Peace
Pages read: 11-120

One might say that A Separate Peace was partially responsible for this blog's existence. The reason is this: a couple of years ago, I decided I ought to read more classics, and the first one I picked up as a result of that decision was this novel. It was actually worthy of the label classic, and I was therefore converted to the idea that it would be worth my while to pursue reading more of them. It took a while to put this whole thing together, but John Knowles definitely helped.

So, this is the story of a couple of boys at prep school in New England in 1943 and 1944, just as the United States is entering World War II. Gene Forrester, the main character, is best friend and roommate to Phineas, the Ferris Bueller of Devon Prep. The boys spend a lot of time together playing sports, occasionally studying, and often breaking the rules, but because of Finny's (that's how Knowles shortens it, though I really want it to be Phinny instead) charm, they never get into trouble. During the summer session one year, they engage in the dangerous but thrilling activity of jumping off a high tree branch into the nearby river. It happens again and again, and, in fact, they create a club called the Summer Suicide Society that requires performance of this feat as its admission test. Running through the narrative of all of the these activities is Gene's latent feeling of jealousy toward Finny for his popularity and success. While Gene excels at academics, he feels a disparity between himself and his friend, and he is both jealous of Finny as a result, and guilty about his jealousy.

One night, while studying (in order to be head of the class so that he'll feel he's as good as Finny), he comes to the realization that Finny doesn't share his competitive view of their relationship. Insulted and ashamed, he accidentally/on-purpose jounces the branch of the diving tree as Phineas is about to jump off, and Phineas falls to the ground, shattering his leg. After being sent home for the first term of the following year to recover, Phineas returns to Devon the next winter. Gene confesses to him, though Phineas doesn't actually believe him, and the two remain close friends. Phineas will never be able to play sports again, so as a result, he dedicates himself to coaching Gene to athletic success. Gene, wracked by almost constant feelings of guilt, returns the favor by tutoring Phineas. In addition to this, the war is heating up and there's the incessant pressure among the schoolboys of Devon to enlist, seeing as most of them are nearly 17. There is the unspoken fact, as well, that Phineas will not be able to join them in enlisting, and he adopts a cavalier attitude toward the war in order to hide the pain he feels about the situation.

That's where we are. Nothing is surprising, of course, being as I've read it before, but Knowles does a beautiful job of examining those jealous, cruel, shameful parts of human nature that we all share and wish we could hide. Gene may sound like a bad guy, but he's clearly not, and his reactions are so artfully communicated that it's easy to recognize them as impulses that are echoed in the reader's self. Also, can I just say that I really appreciate that Knowles did not go to the "sexual abuse at prep school" place? That was an excellent decision on his part.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

From the nearest tree

Current book: Light in August
Pages read: 291 - 480 (end)

I forgot to post on Friday, but instead you get a surprise Sunday post. Excited? Oh, I know.

Well, somehow I got all confused, and it turns out that Lena's lover was actually Joe Brown, the bootlegger partner, not Joe Christmas, the murderer/half-blood. So, there's that. Um, I wish I could remember more of what happened in the conclusion, but there wasn't actually that much. Joe Christmas is on the run for a while, and then he gets caught in a nearby town when his grandfather and grandmother find and recognize him. His grandfather, it turns out, had killed Joe's mother and her lover for having the illegitimate, mixed-race child that was Joe, and given him to the orphanage himself, years ago. His grandmother has been searching for him ever since, and is happy to have found him, though devastated by the circumstances in which she does. After Joe's caught, they haul him back to the courthouse, fail to properly guard him when he's transferred from the jail for his trial, and he's killed by the local mob's vigilante justice, led, of course, by his murderous and crazed grandfather, who still hates him. (How was that for a sentence full of clauses? Just call me Henry James.)

Joe Brown, in the meantime, after being confronted with Lena's newborn son (I forgot to mention, but Lena gives birth in here, too. It's very low-key.), runs away, leaving Burch to take care of Lena. It's clear that Lena is, for some reason, reluctant to marry Burch. He wants to marry her and take care of her, but she's holding him off. (Due to a sense of honor, perhaps? Or maybe just caution. Girl has kind of gotten burned.) The last thing we see is the two travelling north, toward what end, we can't say. (Which is obviously supposed to echo the beginning scene, where Lena's travelling on her own.)

Quite advanced for his time period, Faulkner. Like I said, I didn't see the social commentary coming. It's clearly a reflection on how racism in the South is destroying the lives of its inhabitants, but it's also a reflection on the savagery of the small-town community in general. There's a certain amount of existentialist acceptance of circumstance, too, since the end gives one a feeling that nothing changes, regardless of the dramatic series of events that might occur. My only complaint is the long sections of the life and family histories of seemingly minor characters, but I have to respect the fact that Faulkner's doing his best to craft an intricate portrait of Southern small-town society, so I can't really fault him for it. I have to admit that he's shattered my prejudice against him. Faulkner is an excellent writer. I believe this book is, in fact, worthy of the list.

Oh, William Faulkner. I thought you would suck, and you didn't. Good job.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Don't you cry for me

Current book: Light in August
Pages read: 146-290

Well, actually, this post is going to be about all 290 pages, seeing as how I never wrote about the first 146. There just wasn't time. The interview went well, though, so I had a good reason to slack off. And yesterday I didn't get up at 5:45, after my flight home the night before got in at 11:45, to work out, and therefore did not read Faulkner, and therefore did not post. Anyway.

This book is not what I was expecting. I read some short story by Faulkner in high school ("The Bear," I believe it was called), that was just excruciating, so I was expecting this to be also. I recall Faulkner's prose being confusing and boring and jumping around in time, and this really doesn't do any of that. It jumps around in time a bit, I guess, but you can follow it with little trouble.

Lena Grove, a young poor woman from Alabama, is traveling in order to find her no-good boyfriend who has gotten her pregnant. He said he'd go on to his next job and then send for her, but he never did (What a shocker.). We get a little dusty-road-traveling time, and then she ends up in the town where she's heard he is. It turns out it's not him, though, just a man with a similar name (Bunch to Burch). Her boyfriend, though, is in the town anyway, going by the name Joe Christmas, which Bunch subsequently makes clear to her. So, then Faulkner pauses her story, aside from telling us the fact that Bunch is smitten with her, and we get the story of the local pastor, instead. Why? Hard to say at this point. The local pastor, Hightower, used to be in charge of the church, but after his wife ran away to the city with another man and then died in a freak accident, they kicked him out, and he now lives in disgrace. He and Bunch, who seems like a decent guy, are friends. After his story is concluded, we get Joe Christmas's story.

Joe Christmas is actually not in town after all, though he was very recently, because he's killed his mistress, with whom he was living (well, in a cabin nearby her, really), and set fire to her house. Ok, so now that that's established, we go way, way back to find out that he spent his childhood in an orphanage, until they found out that he had minority blood of some kind (Let me take this moment to say that Christ, this book has a lot of racial slurs. It's "nigger" this and "nigger" that, every five seconds. Don't get me wrong, I understand the time period and the fact that Faulkner is discussing what's going on in realistic detail, but sometimes it gets to be a bit much.), and placed him immediately with an extremely straitlaced farmer and his wife, who go by the name of McEachern. His foster father basically beats him whenever he doesn't know his catechism, and he quickly becomes maladjusted and angry. He also has a lot of self-hatred going on with the mixed blood situation. We watch him grow up, start beating women, and continue to hate his foster father, until, eventually, the woman he's sleeping with on the sly takes him to a party. They are discovered by McEachern, who confronts him, and he ends up hitting and killing him, after which his girlfriend (who is also a prostitute, by the way) leaves him. He chases her down and confronts her, and she and her other boyfriend beat him up, take his money, and leave him bleeding on the floor.

All this basically establishes his life of vagrancy and crime, and he spends the years between this incident and the present wandering through the South, doing odd jobs and sleeping with girls like Lena. He eventually settles in the town where he's killed his mistress, Joanna Burden, and we get a bunch of her backstory, too. She works for minority rights, especially with African-American colleges, and has a good relationship with the black community in the South as a whole. It's this that makes her willing to have a relationship with Christmas, but also what makes him resent the whole thing, what with his self-hatred and all. They have a lot of confrontations about that, and it all eventually results in her killing herself, it seems. So, I guess, though I'm a little confused at this point, that Christmas saw her kill herself and then, for some reason, made it look like he did it, and then burned down the house. That's really where we are, plus the fact that Bunch plans to take Lena out to the cabin near Christmas's house and get her settled there so she can wait for him. Which doesn't make any sense, but there you go. Oh, also, Christmas is a bootlegger, and has a heavy-drinking partner named Joe Brown who seems eager to bear witness to the fact that Christmas was sleeping with his mistress and then offed her. (The subtext here, too, is that even if Christmas didn't kill her, he was still a mixed-race man sleeping with a white woman, which will be grounds for his execution.) Confused? That's all right, I am a little, too. I think it'll resolve itself.

I'm surprised at the fact that this is a sharp examination of racism in the South at the time. I wasn't expecting that, and I respect Faulkner for doing it. It certainly couldn't have been easy. Also, the prose is interesting and sort of revelatory. He combines words in poetic and unexpected ways, and the sentences are well-crafted, yet simple. His description has all the power of precision without the encumbrance of overly complex syntax and diction. Colour me impressed, Faulkner. I had no idea.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Business before pleasure

Current book: Light in August
Pages read: 1 - 146

The heading of this entry is deceptive; it appears as though I'm going to talk about the book, but actually, I don't have time for it. I was traveling all day today for an interview tomorrow, so no post today or tomorrow, actually. Faulkner will wait. He always does.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A nice change from the ubiquitous tomato.

Current book: None

Cooking this week, on the subject of not literature, included Farfalle with Pine Nuts, Prosciutto, Spinach, and Raisins, and was excellent, especially when I added lemon juice not called for by the recipe. (Because my habit of reading too many cooking blogs and trying new recipes allowed me to recognize the fact that the dish lacked an acid component.) After I added it, it went from "Oh, this is good," to "Excellent!" I was pretty proud of myself.

This post, you might note, is a bit late for me. I forgot to update until just now, but I didn't have anything else to say about Henry James anyway. I'm glad I'm done with him. Of course, William Faulkner's next, so it's a bit of the old "frying pan, fire" problem. But I endure. It's because I'm stoic. I am! Totally stoic! Oh, shut up.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Damned if you do

Current book: The Wings of the Dove
Pages read: 586 (369) - 689 (472) (end)

Done! Huzzah! So. Kate never goes and has sex with Merton, much to my dismay, although we don't really cover the fallout of that; I guess maybe she does and James is just too delicate to talk about it. Anyway, in the end, Lord Mark goes to visit Milly and, out of spite for the fact that Kate won't marry him, he tells her that Kate and Merton are secretly engaged. This sends her into some kind of fit of illness, and she starts fading fast. She won't see Merton, who decides that this is as good a reason as any to give up the deception he's long been uncomfortable with, and he goes back to England to marry Kate. She's disappointed in him for failing to get engaged to Milly, but they're still, apparently, in love.

Shortly after Merton gets to England, Milly snuffs it, but, as it turns out, she leaves him a generous bequest in her will. When he discovers this fact, though, his conscience smites him, and he gives Kate an ultimatum: either they don't touch the money and they get married, or he gives her the money and breaks off the engagement. So, basically, it comes down to Kate choosing the money or the marriage. She chooses the marriage (I'd like to point out that this happens in the space of like, one page, and is incredibly abrupt, and I was forced to go, "Christ, James! Hundreds of pages of description to get to this point, and now you're rushing?), but they both recognize, ruefully, the fact that they've been spoiled for each other, to some extent, by their mutual machinations.

Blah. The real problem with James is that, on some level, you have to recognize the guy as a talented writer, but he's just agony to have to actually read. He clearly knows the craft and has a beautiful command of language, but when he puts it all together to tell a story, it's like it never goes anywhere. (Not to mention his 19th-century need to make everything a cautionary tale. God, that gets old.) So, I don't know; it is, on a literary level, a good novel because of the fact that it's well written and it delves deeply into the psychology of its characters. Personally, I don't like it at all, and I don't think it's one of the best one hundred novels of all time. Also, it's a bit sensationalist, really. It was kind of like reading Danielle Steele. (Ok, I've never actually read Danielle Steele. But it's what I imagine reading Danielle Steele would be like. Only I'm guessing she's less boring and not as talented. The end.)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ah, Venice!

Current book: The Wings of the Dove
Pages read: 505 (288) - 585 (368)

So, Milly goes gallivanting off around the Continent again in order to follow her doctor's advice. We skip over a lot (which I'm just tragically upset about), but eventually she ends up in Venice, where she's sort of bored, crushed by the pressure of society, and lonely. During one of her lonely moments, Lord Mark shows up, and, because she's vulnerable and emotional, she confesses her terminal illness to him. He offers to marry her, which is precisely the kind of pity she's hoped to avoid by leaving everyone (except Kate) in the dark about things, and she flips out at him and sends him away. Next to visit (and I mean next, because they run into each other in Milly's Venetian foyer) is Merton, newly committed to the idea of paying Milly lots of attention. He does just that, and then continues to visit for the next several days.

We're treated, also, to a couple of conversations between Merton and Kate that finally make it clear that Kate actually wants Merton to marry Milly and inherit her money when she dies. Merton pretty much agrees, which makes him more mercenary than I was expecting, but demands that Kate prove her love to him by "coming to him" later at his hotel. I'm going to go ahead and interpret this as "having sex with him," which makes him yet more mercenary. He's turning into a regular bounder. I mean, really, it's kind of awful to demand a woman's chastity as a guarantee that she won't leave you. Anyway, so that's about where we are. Merton's holding off on proposing to Milly until he gets his guarantee from Kate, and it's looking like Milly will say yes to him, though Lord Mark has raised doubts for her about Kate and Merton's mutual honesty. Milly, after all, is still under the impression that Kate doesn't care for Merton, but she is, due to the aforesaid doubts, beginning to reconsider that idea.

What will happen next? I'm trying really hard to care! No, actually, it's a bit better since things started to happen, though clearly it's not going to end well for the people involved. These things never do. More analysis will be forthcoming when we reach the thrilling conclusion. I'm guessing there'll be morals. Consider yourselves warned.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

When first we practice to deceive*

Current book: The Wings of the Dove
Pages read: 437 (220) - 504 (287)

Somehow I misread earlier (Gee, I wonder how that could possibly have happened. Surely it wasn't the fact that my stultified brain was unable to force itself to absorb all of the information in James's interminable paragraphs of description. Must have been the 19th century American literature goblins. They're always making you forget stuff. Little scamps.) and it turns out that Milly actually does like Merton. I was right about Kate, though, asking Merton to dance attendance on Milly because of the fact that she's a terminal case and she loves him. Despite his better judgment, he agrees to do it, and correspondingly (I don't think that's the word I mean. Something else with a c. Consequently. That's the one.) goes to visit Milly at her hotel, where she is flattered and surprised to receive him. Looks like he'll be able to make her love him, or fulfill her fantasies of being in love, anyway, with relative ease. We also learn that Aunt Maud thinks Merton should actually go after Milly, and she tells Susie so in a meeting the two have. Susie, however, had heretofore been under the impression that Kate didn't love Merton; Aunt Maud, during the same meeting, corrects said impression, making this little love triangle even more complex.

Here's how it breaks down:

1) Kate loves Merton.
2) Merton loves Kate.
3) Milly loves Merton.
4) Milly thinks Kate doesn't love Merton.
5) Susie knows that Kate does love Merton.
6) Kate asks Merton to pretend to love Milly.
7) Aunt Maud tells Merton to really love Milly.
8) Merton thinks Milly is a nice girl and very pretty, but doesn't love her. Yet.

A couple of things could happen at this point: Merton could actually fall in love with Milly, which would certainly be awkward; Merton could con Milly into marrying him, wait until she kicks the bucket, and use her fortune to make himself marriageable in Aunt Maud's eyes, though we've seen no evidence that he'd be that calculating; Milly could find out Merton's just pursuing her out of pity, and die of hurt feelings; or something else entirely could happen. (I'd like Milly to snap and kill everyone, but then it'd be postmodern.)

The excessive description is still obnoxious. It's like James has to cover everything three times: once before it happens, when it actually happens, and then after it happens. Just the middle one would be fine with me. He's probably trying to create a sense of dramatic irony, as well as to illuminate the social and psychological aspects of his characters' decision-making, which, to be fair, is brand new and exciting in James's literary America, and is why he's a respected author. (See? See how reasoned and fair and objective that was? I'm being good.) But I don't have to like it.

*I'd like to point out that this quote is from Sir Walter Scott's Marmion, and not, in fact, Shakespeare. Because I'm here to inform the public. Be informed, public.

Monday, January 11, 2010

First do no harm.

Current book: The Wings of the Dove
Pages read: 350 (133) - 436 (219)

You know, it's not often that I find myself reading a book in which I get to the bottom of the page, pause, and go, "Wait, what?" Henry James, though - if anyone can get me to do it, he can.

Well, despite the fog of intricate syntax, I've managed to divine the following: Milly doesn't actually have feelings for Merton, though Kate thinks she does. Kate and Merton are still very much in love. Aunt Maud asks Milly to come and stay with her as a...I don't know, permanent houseguest, I guess...but Milly declines. In the meantime, Milly asks Kate to accompany her to visit a doctor and to keep the visit secret. Milly learns, from the doctor, who clearly subscribes to the "women shouldn't be told any actual information about their health" school of medicine (also known as the "misogynist bullshit" school), that she should go see everything she possibly can and live life to the fullest. Clearly, she's going to die. So, Kate knows this, but no one else does. Merton chooses this moment to return from his trip to the States, and immediately meets with Kate, soon after which she tells him that he has to go see Milly, because Milly is in love with him. Merton, rightfully so, is confused by this message (and he's not the only one), coming, as it does, from his affianced, and wants to know why he should do such a thing. Kate provides no explanation, but it seems to me that she wants him to dance attendance on Milly so that the poor girl can experience love before she snuffs it.

That's all. Again, far too many pages for this information, and lots of them consisted of long-winded description of the attitudes of various characters that would have been better delivered through action and the observation thereof than through paragraphs of narration. There's actually disconcertingly little dialogue in this novel, when you think about it.

Also, can we go back to the horrible doctor thing? Put yourself in this position: you go to your doctor, concerned that you may have a terminal disease, and he says, "Don't you worry your pretty little head about it. But you should go see everything you want to see that's important, travel as much as possible, and really live life to the fullest." What would you do? Cause I'm pretty sure I'd sock him in the face and get a second opinion. Sometimes I forget how condescending the world was to women know, almost all of recorded history. Also, this kind of thing is why I don't like doctors. You can't trust them. They're always telling you things like, "Your eczema is caused largely by stress. Try to relax." Sure, doc. I'll get right on that.

Friday, January 8, 2010

For the thrilling conclusion

Recap day!

So, my recap this week goes: Africa, socially acceptable spousal abuse, colonization, suicide, boring description, transgressive engagements, society triangles, possible lesbianism.

It's fun to read two books in one week and compare them, especially when they're ridiculously different. Just wait for The Jungle and Finnegans Wake. Won't that be fun?

I made an orzo-based version of parmesan risotto this week to go with chicken with black olives, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, and artichoke hearts. It wasn't new, but it was delicious. I highly recommend it. No other news. More books next week. (Well, probably just the one, actually; it's pretty long.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Guard thy tongue from barking idly.

Current book: The Wings of the Dove
Pages read: 274 (57) - 349 (132)

Stuff actually happened! Kind of! If by "stuff happened" you mean "people talked to each other a lot," then it totally happened!

So, basically, Kate and Merton get secretly engaged to one another after Merton's interview with Maud, but both agree to keep it on the downlow (Are we capitalizing downlow? Is it silly to ask grammar questions about slang?) so as to keep Maud happy for as long as possible. Merton goes off to America, and the narration switches to the story of Milly Theale, an American heiress, and her sometime companion, Susie Stringham. The two women met each other in Boston and have basically become a pair of female best friends who keep each other company. (In the parlance of the time, this was referred to as a "Boston marriage," and considered an appropriate thing to do before you really got married. Is there speculation about a high number of lesbian relationships at the time? You bet there is.)

So, Milly and Susie gallivant to London, and there they meet, through mutual acquaintances, Aunt Maud and Kate. Milly and Kate hit it right off and become new best friends, thereby endangering the relationship between Milly and Susie. Also, as it turns out, Milly and Susie are acquainted with our dear Merton, whom they met in Boston. There's an implication, though it hasn't been said, that Milly and Merton may have had mutual romantic interest in one another as well. In the meantime, Aunt Maud has embarked on a campaign to get Kate to marry Lord Mark, a young nobleman from the area with good prospects who is also clearly a total jerk and whom Kate does not like at all. (Also, Lord Mark? Really?) Aunt Maud mentions, to Susie, the romantic entanglement of Merton and Kate, and Susie shares the information with Milly. That's where we are, then. At the moment, everyone is busy speculating about who's involved with whom, and how extensively, and whatever will become of them all.

It's a bit more interesting now due to the fact that things are occurring in the present, and therefore it seems as though the plot is actually progressing, although I still have to say that this was kind of a pathetic amount of development for 75 pages. Not a lot to add, I'm afraid. I'll try to be more thoroughly snide next week.

A note about my posting schedule: Monday through Thursday will be whatever I've read that day, Friday will be a recap of the week's conclusions and whatever else I want to talk about, including cooking, and Saturday and Sunday I'll be taking off. We all know how Saturday and Sunday posting went before, so I think I'll just nix all the excuses and call it a workweek blog.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Up with which I will not put

Current book: The Wings of the Dove
Pages read: 217 (1) - 274 (57)

This book, as you can see from the weird pagination above, is actually sandwiched together with another James novel in the edition that I got from the library. So, my page numbers will continue to be weird, although when I quote I will simply put the page number of the correct page in the edition I've got, rather than converting. You're fascinated by this information, right? Good. I could tell.

So, I forgot how I hate Henry James. Oh, how I hate him. (I think The Bostonians was only tolerable because I'd read it before, although I'm not really clear on how that makes any kind of sense, but there you are.) I mean, credit where it's due, he's not actually a talentless hack or anything, but the pacing of his novels makes me want to gouge out my eyes. Begin with the fact that every sentence has about twelve clauses in it, and you have to struggle to understand what in the name of God he's actually saying, and then follow it with the fact that hardly anything happens in the present because most of the major events of the plot are told in retrospective format, and finally, finish with the fact that every new person you meet gets about five pages of description of his or her character, and let's just say that "page-turner" is not a term we'd readily apply. Look at this sentence, for instance:
"Merton Densher, who passed the best hours of each night at the office of his newspaper, had at times, during the day, to make up for it, a sense, or at least an appearance, of leisure, in accordance with which he was not infrequently to be met in different parts of the town at moments when men of business are hidden from the public eye." (247)
Putting aside, for the moment, that I can't remember this guy's name and keep wanting to call him Martin or Morton (because those are actual names) it must have taken me a good 15 seconds to parse this sentence for actual meaning. And I read quickly. (No, really. It's kind of freakish.) There are six intervening clauses in this sentence. Six! Why would you do that? (Ok, I'll admit, I had to take a bit of delight in the post-Victorian ridiculousness of the diction, but still. This sort of thing just isn't sustainable.)

Anyway, to come to the actual plot, Kate Croy, our protagonist, is the child of dead mother and a deadbeat father. She and her sister have very little money, and Kate has recently begun living with her maternal aunt, Maud, who is quite rich. Said aunt has forbidden her from seeing her deadbeat father and is very keen on Kate's marrying well. Kate's sister, Marian, is also keen on her marrying well, since she's pretty much dependent on Kate for an income, due to the fact that she's the impoverished widow of a good-for-nothing Irishman and mother of several good-for-nothing half-Irish children. Kate, of course, is smitten with an inappropriate young bachelor - Merton Densher - who is a journalist about to embark on a trip to the United States. That's all. In 57 pages. Plot, Mr. James. It's a thing we do.

Well, all right, to be fair, Merton does go to talk to Aunt Maud to try to convince her to let him marry Kate, but Aunt Maud, who actually seems rather a decent lady, tells him that she thinks Kate has amazing potential, and that it is her due in life to marry a great man. (Why she can't be great on her own, rather than just marrying a great man, is not a subject we'll get into here, but we'll say, for now, that it was Another Time.) That's where we are. Romantic tragedy, coming right up.

James gets 10 points for using the word "penetralia." No, I did not make that up. I'm not sure a word can possible sound more filthy, though, in fact, it just means the most secret places, either of one's soul or a sacred building. But come on! It's like genitalia and penetration put together. Tell me I'm not the only one with my mind in the gutter.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Its hour come round at last

Current book: Things Fall Apart
Pages read: 126-209 (end)

And we're done! The difference in lengths between some of these books is funny to me. I mean, we've got Atlas Shrugged, coming in at 1070 pages, and then we've got this one at 209. It's also funny how the long ones are usually fairly excruciating. Well, that's not fair, actually. Atlas was excruciating, but An American Tragedy wasn't that bad, and I think it's the second longest one I've read. So, never mind. This one was short; that was the idea I was getting across there.

But to move on to something vaguely related to the point of this post, it turns out the exile thing just isn't that bad. Well, Okonkwo thinks it's pretty bad, because he's so invested in his manly position in society. In reality, though, it's pretty cushy exile: all they have to do is go to Okonkwo's mother's village, where they're immediately accepted, taken in by family members, and given land, houses, and seed yams to plant a crop. Okonkwo mopes around for a long time, but eventually steels himself to live out the seven years in this other village and then return to his own in a blaze of glory. In the meantime, the white man makes his way to the area, bringing, by turns, Christianity and the British government. (And things go well and everybody lives in harmony and there's no fighting and that's the end. Yeah, not really. It would have been refreshing, though, wouldn't it?) One of Okonkwo's sons, whom he has always disapproved of because of his tendency to be sensitive, thoughtful, and therefore womanlike, is converted by the missionaries. Okonkwo is displeased, as you might imagine. He disowns his son and embarks on a campaign to oust the white intruders through violence. Nobody's really behind it, though, due to the fact that the white intruders have got both guns and a tendency to kill people. Okonkwo and his family finally head back to their village, the seven years of exile being up, but when they return, they find that the Christians are causing trouble there, as well. Okonkwo is disappointed to discover that the men of his village are just as afraid to be aggressive towards the whites as everyone else, and in the end, he kills a white man out of rage and frustration and then hangs himself.

Well, cheery conclusion, as you can see. I felt like the end was rather sudden, but perhaps that was intentional on Achebe's part. The fact that Okonkwo, the individual most bound by tradition and the strictures of his society, is the one who ends up being destroyed by the invasion of the white men is pretty central to the theme of the novel. The other people in his society, especially his son, prove themselves more adaptable, and therefore survive. The tricky part about interpreting this is thinking about whether holding onto tradition, as Okonkwo does, is supposed to be a positive thing or a negative thing. Is Okonkwo admirable and martyrific (yes, I just made that up), or is he stubborn and hidebound? And his son, who converts and survives - is he forward-thinking, or a treacherous coward? The answer is neither. The book is a presentation of the things that happen in it, and seems to refrain from judgment of any kind. It's much more, "the white man came, and these things occurred," than, "and those who were bad were punished and those who were good were not," or anything of the sort. Things, in fact, fell apart, but in the same way that they did in the poem that the title references. The center of a society cannot hold when circumstances demand that that society must change drastically, and those who are the most invested in tradition will be the ones who are unable to survive in a new order, whether it is good or bad. (Am I too literal and referential with my echoes of Yeats's poetic diction? You'll live.)

It was a pretty good novel, and certainly an important one. I think it qualifies as listworthy, if only for the fact that I had to think damn hard about what the message was, and I'm still not sure. But I'm still interested.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Less slouching! More Bethlehem!

Current book: Things Fall Apart
Pages read: 3-125

I bet you thought I was lying, didn't you? You should know that when I make a blogging promise, I keep it. (Even if it's promising I'm going to post, and then saying nothing but, "I didn't read and I'm not sorry." Letter of the law, people.)

Anyway. Full disclosure on Things Fall Apart - technically I read it once before, when I was studying for the GRE subject test in English Literature. However, reading for the GRE English test pretty much consists of looking at the pages and absorbing 1) the characters' names, so that you can identify them in excerpts later 2) whatever tragic ending there may or may not and 3) if you possibly can, some sort of vague inkling of theme. Point being, my recall of Things Fall Apart pretty much consisted of the following before this morning: Chinua Achebe, first widely-recognized African author, book about Africa, tribal life, Okonkwo, yams. And it stood me in good stead on the test, I must say, but I think it's probably best that I actually read it this time.

Okonkwo's our main character, and he's a respected man in his village who's overcome a bad father who didn't leave him anything of use, subsequently creating his own prosperous farm and household, which includes several wives and children. The plot is...minimal. It's really more like a portrait of daily life among the Ibo than it is a story, although the chapters do touch on small stories within the larger outline of tribal existence. One of Okonkwo's daughters is thought to be a spirit girl, and her mother is trying to keep her here on Earth, since her other children have died. For several years, a boy who is a prisoner from another tribe lives with Okonkwo's household and becomes like a family member, but then is sentenced to death. Things like that. (Right here is where I almost used the wrong "they're." I almost put "their" there, instead of putting "they're" there. The world may have come to a premature and fiery end as a result. So count yourselves lucky. And now I've realized it really ought to read "These stories," but I've written this whole parenthetical, and damned if I'm going to waste it.) They're connected with one another, but there's no larger plot until the end of the first part. At that point, which is right where I finished, Okonkwo's gun accidentally explodes next to a young boy during a tribal ceremony, and, as a result, he and his family are banished for seven years.

I find myself wanting to judge the way that people treat each other, especially men and women, in this book, but I'm forced to pause because of the difference in culture between myself and the inhabitants of the novel. (Some of us were Anthropology minors in college, you know. Still haven't really forgiven Levy-Bruhl for some of those classes. Not to be confused with Levi-Strauss. Not to be confused with blue jeans.) It's hard to judge the abuse of women and their relegation to cooking and child-tending when one is judging a culture that is completely divorced from one's own. And, so far, that seems to be the point Achebe is making. His book is not organized in the way that a normal Western novel is organized because he comes from a completely different background than a Westerner. Why should there be a cohesive, plot-driven narrative if that's not how it's done in Ibo culture? And, if we're not judging the literary style by a Western yardstick (oh, man, that's actually kind of amusingly redundant, when you think about it), why should we judge the values of the characters that have been so strongly influenced by a non-Western society? It seems like a statement to me, and having heard Achebe speak about it several times, I'm pretty sure I'm right. This might be coming off sarcastic, but I actually mean it when I say that I am impressed by his insistence on sticking to his own mores instead of bowing to the world of popular and accepted literature. Things Fall Apart is a pretty big step forward for African literature in the world, and it's nice that it's been recognized as such. It is my favorite book ever? Not really, but I'm still interested enough in the story to keep reading.

On a purely personal level, just so you know what I'm objecting to, Okonkwo is pretty mean to his wives and children, often hitting and scolding them for things they do wrong, but again, and here's where the culture comes in, Achebe makes it clear that this is socially required and that he's respected for his actions. Okonkwo still takes it a bit far, though, due to the fact that his father was a lowlife; he's clearly trying to compensate, by being overly cruel, for fears that his village and family won't respect him. We'll see where that goes during the upcoming exile, 'cause I can't imagine it being anywhere positive.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

More Yeats references! It's like I never left!

Deus ex Libris shall officially return on Monday. Yes, faithful readers, I realize that you've missed my biting sarcasm and lucid if not, in fact, revelatory prose. So I have, out of the goodness of my heart, contrived to return to you. (And by "the goodness of my heart," I actually mean, "leaving the job that was taking too much of my time and preventing me from reading.)

So, grateful masses, herald the second coming with joyful ululation!


A Clockwork Orange (5) A Good Man Is Hard to Find (4) A Passage to India (6) A Room with a View (3) A Separate Peace (2) Absalom Absalom (6) Achebe (5) Adams (3) All the King's Men (8) An American Tragedy (17) Atlas Shrugged (16) Babbitt (8) back from hiatus (1) baking (11) Baldwin (4) Baum (3) Bonfire of the Vanities (6) borderline (12) Brideshead Revisited (9) Burgess (5) Burroughs (1) canon (1) Capote (6) Cat's Cradle (3) Cather (19) cheesecake (4) Chopin (4) Conrad (5) cooking (25) Death Comes for the Archbishop (6) DeLillo (6) Dreiser (17) du Maurier (2) Edith Wharton (1) emergency (2) Ethan Frome (1) excuses (141) Faulkner (9) Felicia DeSmith (3) Finnegan's Wake (1) Fitzgerald (24) For Whom the Bell Tolls (3) Forster (19) Fowles (7) Franny and Zooey (2) Go Tell It on the Mountain (4) Grahame (2) Guest post (3) Hammett (2) Hemingway (5) hiatus (4) holiday (5) horrible (4) Howards End (6) In Cold Blood (6) In Our Time (1) Irving (6) James (25) Jazz (1) Joyce (1) Keneally (7) Kerouac (5) Kim (7) Kipling (7) Knowles (2) Lady Chatterly's Lover (6) Lawrence (26) Lewis (13) Light in August (3) London (3) Look Homeward Angel (9) Lord Jim (5) Mailer (7) Main Street (5) Midnight's Children (9) Miller (6) Morrison (1) Mrs. Dalloway (3) My Antonia (6) not a novel (4) O Pioneers (7) O'Connor (4) On the Road (5) Orlando (4) other books (7) page updates (1) Rabbit Run (4) Rand (24) Rebecca (2) recap (1) Rhys (6) Rushdie (18) Salinger (2) Schindler's List (7) Sinclair (6) Sons And Lovers (12) Sophie's Choice (10) Star Trek (1) Stein (5) Styron (10) Tender is the Night (10) The Age of Innocence (4) The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (5) The Awakening (4) The Beautiful and the Damned (8) The Bostonians (9) The Call of the Wild (3) The Fellowship of the Ring (5) The Fountainhead (8) The French Lieutenant's Woman (7) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2) The Jungle (6) The Lord of the Rings (16) The Maltese Falcon (2) The Naked and the Dead (7) The Naked Lunch (1) The Old Man and the Sea (1) The Portrait of a Lady (10) The Return of the King (6) The Satanic Verses (9) The Two Towers (5) The War of the Worlds (4) The Wind in the Willows (2) The Wings of the Dove (6) The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (3) The World According to Garp (6) Things Fall Apart (6) This Side of Paradise (6) Thomas Wolfe (9) To the Lighthouse (3) Tolkien (16) Tom Wolfe (6) Triv (2) Tropic of Cancer (6) unworthy (33) Updike (4) vacation (2) Vonnegut (3) Warren (8) Waugh (9) Wells (4) Wharton (4) Where Angels Fear to Tread (4) White Noise (6) Wide Sargasso Sea (6) Women In Love (8) Woolf (10) worthy (25)