Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Only I will remain.

Current book: None
Pages read: None

I haven't started A Passage to India yet, so instead I'll write about something else entirely. There's a little exercise circulating around the literary sphere of the internet in which bloggers are picking out and explaining the ten books that have most strongly influenced their world views. It's an interesting question, so I thought I'd participate and see what I could come up with. Many of the people who've done it already have listed things like Proust and Ayn Rand and John Stuart Mill, which, frankly, I find hard to believe, but there you are. I'll be honest about mine - they're not going to include philosophy books. It's not the way I work. You want to change my world view? Get me involved in your story and then blow me away with a new and revolutionary idea in the context of the narrative. Works every time.

In no particular order:

1. His Dark Materials, especially The Amber Spyglass, Phillip Pullman
You may or may not recognize that this is, in fact, both a children's book and a fantasy novel. Nonetheless, I'm not sure any book has ever had quite as strong an effect on me. It's odd, considering the fact that, though I like it, it's not as if it's my favorite book in the world. The story that the physicist, Mary Malone, tells about herself is one of the most powerful moments I've ever experienced in fiction. Her realization that, as a nun, she was spending her entire life living for the afterlife, when all she wanted to do was experience the pleasure of a kiss and the taste of marzipan made me shiver all over. I realized, by reading this book, that I've long held the belief that life is to be lived, not to be worried over, and that appreciating what is beautiful and good is, perhaps, the reason for being.

2. The Neverending Story, Michael Ende
If you've only seen the movie, do me the favor of reading the novel. It's not as much for children as it seems, and regardless, it's delightful and entertaining, so it won't be any great burden. I list this book because it taught me, and reminds me, each time I think of it, that the possibilities of the world are endless. Ende offers that idea realistically, regardless of the fantasy setting - the possibilities are not always pleasant, and are, in fact, fraught with danger, but they are worth taking risks to explore.

3. The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
Even thinking about this book makes my entire chest sort of contract with emotion. The characters are so well drawn that you want them for your friends, and that's a major part of the attraction, but the influence of the book comes in changing the way its reader thinks about class and nationality. It's almost anthropological, but simultaneously deeply emotional. I often think of it when I hear about difficulties with foreign policy. It taught me that there are enormous dangers to be overcome when cultures intersect, but that patience and a great willingness to forgive can accomplish the task. I'm not sure that there's a more important lesson for the modern world, actually.

4. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri's biggest influence on me is inherent in her writing style itself. I've never read writing that is so evocative and uses so few words. Her writing has taught me to smooth out both my own writing and even the way that I think about things, sometimes. Thoughts, much like the written word, benefit from the kind of stark efficiency that Lahiri represents. She is a master of the language, but also of her characters. Her plots are as simple as her diction, and yet they come back to me often and inform my interpretation of strangers and their situations. When I consider the lives of those I don't know, I often think of Lahiri's short stories, and they are, in a way, avenues by which I am able to relate to those around me.

5. The Giver, Lois Lowry
Lowry succeeded in shifting my perspective on the world when I first read this book. It was a great story, but more than that, it made me appreciate something I had completely and utterly taken for granted before that point. The value of history and memory has never been hit home as hard for me as it was in this book. Also, the idea of the value of precision of language in the futuristic society in the novel sometimes comes back to me at odd moments. In my perfect society, there would definitely be precision of language.

6. Dune, Frank Herbert
I wouldn't say this has changed my worldview quite as much as it has acted as an anchor for me. The real lesson I learned from it was to consider the sweep of the future in moments of everyday life and to think of the great breadth of the effects of the decisions one makes. Also, I can and do recite the Bene Gesserit litany against fear from memory. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it's weirdly effective in moments of crisis.

7. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
It's the Ixchel as much as anything that I think about the most often from this book. They're the eyeless, earless, mouthless aliens that care for Meg after she's been burned by the evil cold darkness around Camazotz. There's a moment in which Meg tries to explain what her friends are like, and all she can come up with is what they look and sound like, and the Ixchel, of course, not having eyes and ears, can't understand. It coaxed me into trying to understand the nature of things beyond their appearances and even their physical attributes, and to think of the universe not necessarily as a visible entity, but as a real one. Also, I learned about tesseracts, and everyone loves tesseracts.

8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein
If you think you understand the emotions and motivations behind revolutions, you ought to read this book in order to reconsider them. It might simply confirm your ideas, but it might also change them. I didn't understand the American Revolution until I read it, and it was fairly mind-blowing when I did. I think it was the first book I ever read that made me want to jump out of my chair and go do something, regardless of the fact that I was not currently oppressed. It's got some nice linguistic ideas in it, too.

9. White Lotus, John Hersey
From this novel I learned about the brutality and dehumanization of slavery and abuse, but also about passive resistance and nonviolence. It's not that I didn't understand the concepts before, but Hersey puts them into a context in which it's impossible not to feel the emotions that come with them, and therefore to understand them on a far deeper level. I think I also got an education in cultural difference, and learned that it can be both fascinating and exploitable.

10. Medea, Euripides
The depth of human rage and pain comes through in this play like it does in no other work that I've read. The fact that it succeeded, when I read it, of making me feel pity and sympathy for a woman who tortured and killed her husband's lover, that lover's father, and her own children was pretty astonishing. What's even more astonishing is that it managed this feat 1600 years after it was written. So, its effect on me was to impart both an understanding of the agony of the soul and its need for revenge and the timelessness of great literature and the human condition.

You'll notice that kind of a lot of these are fantasy, science fiction, and children's literature. There are a couple of reasons for that. First, I read a lot when I was young - far more than average - and a lot of books that influenced me did so when I was a kid because that's when I ran into their new and innovative ideas. By the time I was reading grown-up books, I'd already encountered a lot of the major literary themes. The second reason, though, is that fantasy and science fiction have a power that often goes beyond that of regular fiction - to make us consider that which is completely different from us and to realize in it deep truths about ourselves and our world. Regular fiction sometimes has this power, but the moment of realization is never as strong for me as when it comes through the medium of the unfamiliar.

This exercise was both harder and more enlightening than I thought it would be. If you guys would like to give it a shot, I'd love to hear what you've got to say.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Or is that off the curriculum?

Current book: Ethan Frome
Pages read: 19 - 129 (end)

I have an inability to even see the title of this book without thinking of John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank asking his former English teaching is she's still "inflicting all of that horrible Ethan Frome damage" on her students. So, I guess you could call me prejudiced coming in, though I take all characterizations of high school reading with a grain of salt, having both been a hater of assigned texts myself and having taught high school English.

Ethan Frome details the life of the title character, who is a 50-something farmer living in Massachusetts, and has been crippled in an accident of some kind. Our narrator, a visitor to the village for a year, gradually uncovers the story of that accident during his stay, but gives it to us, the audience, in one big chunk, as follows. When Ethan was a young man, his mother was ill and the doctor sent a woman named Zenobia (I'm not making that up. I couldn't. Also, her nickname? Zeena. See? No way I'd expect you to believe that if I'd made it up.) to take care of her. After his mother's death, Ethan married that woman before he realized that he didn't love her and that she was a chronic hypochondriac. They spent several years in a loveless marriage, which mostly consisted of Zeena spending Ethan's hard-earned farm money and whining about how ill she was, before Mattie Silver, a distant relation of Zeena's, came to stay with them, both to help around the house and because she had no place else to go.

Mattie was bright and sweet and loving, and she and Ethan fell in love and danced around the edges of having an affair until Zeena kicked Mattie out. On the trip to the train station, Ethan and Mattie decided they'd rather die than be separated and attempted to commit suicide by running their horse-drawn sledge into a tree. They were both gravely injured, but neither was killed. Flashing back to the present, the narrator ends up spending the night in the Frome household and discovers that ever since, Zeena has been playing nursemaid to Mattie, and Ethan has been trapped with both his horrible wife and the now-bitter Mattie, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Cheery, huh? Nothing like a botched suicide pact and a life of constant regret and misery to get you going. Honestly, it wasn't actually that bad. The writing was pretty decent, with some lovely descriptive work. I was engaged with the story, regardless of the fact that it was clearly going to end in tragedy, and I have to hand it to Edith Wharton for not stretching this thing into 300 pages. Other authors of the time would have, and it didn't need the length. It needed the number of pages it actually got, which was a refreshing change from most of these novels, in order to clearly communicate the plot and the themes thereof. Obviously it presents the bleakness of life and circumstance, especially that of marriage and the tight-knit and therefore constrictive society of New England, but I almost pin it more as a cautionary tale than anything else. It seems to me to say something more along the lines of, "Be careful when you make decisions regarding love, but when it's right, for God's sake, go for it," than it does, "We're all doomed to misery and despair." The fact that the anonymous narrator is still an unmarried man early in his life, and has met and observed Ethan Frome, gives us the sense that for the narrator, at least, it's not too late.

I'm not sure if it's one of the best 100. It's decent, but I don't feel particularly affected. Then again, I'll probably think about it later, and that's a good sign. Borderline, I suppose.

I'll leave you with one of the more delightful moments, which was a description of the Fromes' cat.
"The cat, unnoticed, had crept up on muffled paws from Zeena's seat to the table, and was stealthily elongating its body in the direction of the milk-jug."

Don't tell me you don't have an instant picture of that.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Despite everything...

Current book: A Good Man is Hard to Find
Pages read: 127 - 252 (end)

I was thinking that the Flannery O'Connor stories in the second half of the book wouldn't be any worse than the ones in the first half, but I was wrong about that. It's like she goes out of her way to illustrate the absolute worst tendencies of humankind in as despicable a way as she can think of. What is the point of that, I ask you? I understand and recognize the fact that bad things happen in the world, but they don't happen all the time with no respite. Not every person you meet is calculating how to take advantage of you. It's absurd to write a collection of short stories that is focused so single-mindedly and depressingly on the idea that we should assume the worst of our fellow humans, because they will, invariably, fulfill the assumption. I hate to bring the Nazis into this, seeing as it's the default example, but Christ, O'Connor, if Anne Frank can think that there's good in the world, maybe you ought to give it a shot.

I'm not going to summarize any of these other than to say that the worst one of them all features a traveling Bible salesman who seduces an extremely intelligent girl with a prosthetic leg. He gets her to take it off to show it to him and then steals it from her, leaving her stranded in a hayloft. Are you freaking kidding me with this, Flannery? (That's right. You've earned enough of my wrath that we're on a first name basis. Of hatred.) Honestly, what a waste of paper. Yes, yes, literary merit, I guess, since we've decided that deep and unnecessary pessimism and clear misanthropy are literary, but I'll never touch O'Connor again, if I can possibly help it. Not worthy of the list.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Nothing new under the sun

Current book: A Good Man is Hard to Find
Pages read: None

You know, I think that one of my major problems with Flannery O'Connor, aside from the fact that the themes of her stories all seem to be the same (that humanity is selfish and violent), is that she writes about the South. (I realize my capitalization may be controversial, here, but I'm referring to a specific geographic region with a cohesive identity, not the cardinal direction, so I'm giving it the capital.) I know I mentioned this yesterday, when I was concerned with the fact that her portrayal of the South was biased and negative, but I'll admit, today, to hating pretty much everything I read that's set in the South. I say pretty much because it is possible for a book to transcend its setting if it's good enough. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, manages to be completely awesome and amazing despite its dusty, rural atmosphere.

What is it about the South as a setting that bothers me? I'm not sure, honestly, but there are definitely a couple of things that contribute to the problem. First, there's the fact that I've lived in the South on more than one occasion and I don't like it there. (Seriously, nothing happens in a timely manner. Buying groceries is an exercise in Buddha-like patience as you wait for the cashier to finish talking to the person in front of you, finish asking you how you're doing and if you found everything all right and how your day's going and isn't the weather nice, and then actually scan the groceries at glacial speed. Many people refer to this as a charming, laid-back atmosphere. I refer to it as annoying as hell, especially when I have other errands to run.) Then, there's the fact that when a book begins with a description of its setting, and it's some rural town in Mississippi, you pretty much know where that book is going - either it's going to be a long-term portrait of a family that's lived there for years and has struggled over the ages to make its fortune and reputation, or it's going to be an examination of the history and current state of racism in that town, probably featuring a transformative experience for one of more of its main characters. Don't pretend I'm wrong about this, because I am so, so right. As I said, there are books that transcend this issue, but there aren't many of them. It's gotten to the point where, when I go to the library, any book that has a description that mentions the South goes right back on the shelf. What can I say? They're just like the books about up-and-coming young women trying to make it in New York. I know what they're about - it's always the same.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Look away, look away, look away

Current book: A Good Man is Hard to Find
Pages read: 1 - 126

So my lack of prejudice was rewarded with mediocre, depressing short stories. I do not feel as though I've learned a valuable lesson. Also, I don't know about the people who made this list - this is the second "novel" that's actually a short story collection, and I'm annoyed. It's not the same thing, guys, and I refuse to count it as such.

The title story is about a family (grandmother, parents, and three children) who go on a road trip to Florida and get shot by escaped convicts. That's really all that happens, except that the grandmother is clearly an example of the old and genteel traditions of the South and fights against the modernization and death of chivalry represented by her children and grandchildren, who don't have her manners or sense of propriety. And yet, those manners and sense of propriety get her nowhere when the car breaks down and she tries to sweet-talk the convicts. They just kill her anyway.

All of the stories are about the deep South, and most are about families, in one way or another, breaking and destroying themselves, or about strangers betraying trust, or about humanity being sort of awful and ignorant in some other way. I'm not going to summarize each one, because, frankly, it'd be painful for both of us.

I don't like O'Connor, though I see why she's respected as part of American literature. Honestly, though, these stories would have been a lot more impressive in the 20s than in 1953, when they were actually written. I'm not sure they're as innovative as they ought to be in order to be included in the canon. But they're depressing and illustrative of parochialism, so they get to count as literature, I guess. If I were from the South during this time period, though, I have to say I'd be pretty angry about O'Connor's portrayal of the place. I'm not saying some of it's not fair - the culture of the American South can be pretty hard to take - but not everyone is ignorant and conniving.

I should finish on Monday, I expect, and I'll be happy to be shut of it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Perhaps we should try another book?

Current book: A Good Man is Hard to Find
Pages read: None

I haven't started this one yet, but I'm going to preface it by saying I have absolutely no idea what to think about Flannery O'Connor in advance. It's kind of nice, actually. I feel like I almost always have strong prejudices about authors, either because I've read them before (which, honestly, means that it's less prejudice than it is experience, in those cases), or because I've heard them either complimented or criticized. It's hard not to have prejudice about Ulysses, for example. I couldn't say for sure, but I think I know several fellow English majors who've been reduced to tears by that book. Personally, I'll admit to having lobbed Conrad across the room upon finishing Heart of Darkness. I probably shouldn't have read it all in one sitting, but there you go.

Anyway, I think I read some Flannery O'Connor short story when I was preparing for the English GRE subject test, but since I read 12,000 pages in preparation for that test, I don't remember a whole lot of it. I have friends who hate O'Connor and friends who love her, so the opinions I've heard balance each other out. I have no idea what the book I'm going to read is about, other than what the title implies. I'm a blank slate, here. A blank slate with sarcastic parentheticals. It's the best kind.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Let no man put asunder

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: 281 - 349 (end)

Ok, I'm going to go ahead and admit, grudgingly, that Fitzgerald surprised me with the end of this one. I thought it was just going to be this interminable thing where Dick cheated on Nicole with Rosemary and their relationship went on and on in a farcical approximation of marriage, but, instead, our schizophrenic heroine pulled herself out of victim-hood and left the bastard! But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Weirdly, we sort of never get any resolution on Nicole's father. We, in fact, have no idea what happens to him after he takes off for distant lands all ridden with cirrhosis. Whatever. Nicole and Dick go back to the clinic in Zurich for a while, where things go rapidly downhill. It becomes apparent that Dick is developing alcoholic tendencies. When his partner at the clinic confronts him with this fact, he denies it, but both men agree it's best if Dick takes a leave of absence. (And that's the last we hear of the clinic in Zurich.) He and Nicole head south to the beach where we first met them, stopping at several cities on the way to alienate all their friends and acquaintances. (Well, I should be clearer - Dick is the one who alienates their friends, since he can't abstain from drinking and has a loose tongue when he's inebriated.)

When they arrive at the beach, they encounter both Rosemary and Tommy Barban. Nicole and Rosemary immediately start fighting, since it's clear that Dick is still infatuated with Rosemary, and the visit ends with Dick taking off for a few days to clear his head. (And take Rosemary up to Grenoble, or some other place, which I can't remember the name of and don't want to page through the book to find out, because it's not important. It's not important enough to have spent this whole parenthetical on, either, but it's a little late to consider that particular issue.) While he's gone, Nicole calls Tommy up and invites him over, and the two profess their love for one another, which has been long-standing, and then sleep together. Upon Dick's return, Tommy demands that Nicole tell Dick the truth and ask for a divorce. She does, and he agrees to it, more, it seems, from fatigue and laziness than anything else. Nicole marries Tommy and lives happily with him and the children, and Dick fades into obscurity in rural New York. (Are you shocked? I was.)

This is all crazy and unexpected, and I don't know what to make of it. First, there's the fact that I'd pegged Rosemary as the protagonist of this novel from the beginning, which was clearly incorrect, and even now I'm not sure who I'd give the title to. Fitzgerald gives us the most backstory about Dick, but Nicole ends up being the most heroic, while Rosemary starts strong and then sort of just fades into the other woman role. Add to that the portrait of schizophrenia Fitzgerald paints, which seems pretty accurate, and the fact that Nicole eventually transcends her dependent relationship and her mental illness to stake out some happiness for herself, and I'm actually shocked as hell. Fitzgerald almost seems to be celebrating divorce as a means of escape from an ailing marriage, which isn't something I would have expected of him.

I don't know what to conclude. Clearly, the dissipated life of wanderers of the Continent doesn't do anyone much good, but the real message seems to be that predatory relationships should be avoided at all costs, and, if they've been established, one will, hopefully, be brave and strong enough to throw them off. Also, there's the idea that mental illness is both human and conquerable, which is fairly progressive and enlightened, for the time period. Dick's alcoholism and descent into small-town obscurity leave me with little idea of their point, other than that they might represent his just desserts for choosing to marry a woman with whom his relationship was inappropriate and almost rapacious. And so are the righteous rewarded and the wicked punished, I guess.

I still don't think it's worthy of the title of one of the best 100, but I'm more impressed with Fitzgerald than I've been previously. Since I've now read every novel he published, it's a good thing he improved my opinion of him before it was too late. 'Cause I'm sure he was really invested.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tender is the delicious lamb!

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: 193 - 281

Well, first and most important things first, my lamb biryani was completely amazing. Seriously, you guys, it was the kind of thing you'd have in an Indian restaurant and go "There's no way this is replicable at home." Unless you're totally amazing, like me. (Fine, fine, and unless you have a really great Indian cookbook, which had a lot more to do with it than any actual skill on my part. But that is not the point.)

Ok, so, moving on. I was wrong about Nicole and Dick meeting Rosemary in Switzerland. Instead, they meet Dick's doctor friend, the one who was originally in charge of Rosemary's care, and he proposes that he and Dick start a clinic in Zurich together. Dick agrees, especially since Nicole's been so fragile, and they move to Zurich to get that set up. Things go along for a while in a sort of ok way, but eventually Nicole takes a turn for the worse. (I was also wrong about Nicole not being a schizophrenic. She definitely has paranoid and psychotic tendencies, and tends to suspect those around her of conspiring against her, though she realizes her errors in moments of lucidity. Also, she's always accusing Dick of infidelity, which is actually fair.) Anyway, Dick is worried about her, but doesn't seem to know whether he loves her or wants to be rid of her. Some of both, I suspect.

Dick's father, who lives in the States, dies, and he has to go over to America to take care of the funeral and his father's affairs. It's a bit traumatic for him, but not so much that he lets it get to him or anything. (Grief isn't appropriate in the upper classes, you know.) Upon his return to the Continent via steamship, he reacquaints himself with the McKiscos, now quite wealthy due to the success of Mr. McKisco's novels, and then stops off in Rome for a little vacation for himself. There he meets Rosemary, who's in the city filming another movie. By this point, it's been four years since they've seen each other, and it only takes them a day to start making out, and another couple of days to sleep together. Dick decides, however, that he's devoted enough to Nicole not to leave her for Rosemary, and Rosemary seems to accept this as her due, though she professes that Dick is really the only man for her. She seems close to marrying another guy, an idea to which Dick objects, but she offers him the (quite valid) argument that he's never going to marry her, so why not?

They part company, and, while Dick is on his way back to Zurich, he hears that Nicole's father (who molested her, in case you've forgotten) is very ill and may die. He goes to see the old man, who seems to be teetering on the edge of death, and sends a telegram to Zurich to inform his doctor friend of the news and ask his advice. Nicole accidentally finds out, and immediately goes to meet Dick and see her dying father. (It sort of seems like Fitzgerald wants us to think that this makes her crazy, but come on. Taking off, no matter how abruptly, to see your dying parent is a pretty normal thing to do.) Anyway, when she gets there, she finds out that her dad has packed up and left. Everyone, especially his doctor, is completely astonished, since he was supposed to be terminally ill and incapable of exertion, much less long-distance travel. Left in a state of shock, Dick and Nicole plan to return to Zurich.

All right, it's actually improving a little. Though I'm still frustrated with Dick and his infidelity, I feel like I'm getting a portrait of what it's like to try to function in a relationship with someone who's mentally ill, but with whom one is actually in love. The problem is, I feel like that's what's interesting to me about this book, but it's not what Fitzgerald wants to focus on. He's more interested in the old "illness of modern society" business, and the schizophrenia and its fallout are just symbols of the same old problem. Maybe I'm being too harsh, though. It's more interesting; I'll take what I can get.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Yuppy housewife day

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: None

I didn't read. I didn't do anything else worthwhile, either. I was lazy and relaxed and non-productive. (And by non-productive, I mean I went to yoga, made a Greek salad, and sewed the hook-and-eye closures and buttons back onto a jacket. All things are relative.)

This weekend I intend to make homemade lamb biryani. I'll let you know how it comes out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Electra complex, much?

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: 131 - 193

You'll note from the random gap in my pages read that this book is divided into sections (also called "books," of course - I sort of hate it when they do that) that have a couple of blank pages between them. Why? No one knows.

After the little problem in Paris, instead of going on with the plot, Fitzgerald gives us some back story on Nicole and Dick. It turns out that Dick isn't a surgeon or general practitioner, but rather a psychiatrist. He met Nicole at a sanitarium in Zurich (Where she was brought by her father after several years of failed treatments, and which she needed, we eventually discover, because he had incestuous relations with her. Ew.) that was run by a friend of his, and she promptly fell in love with him, exhibiting classic signs of transference. (According to Fitzgerald's psychiatrist character, not me. He also calls her a schizophrenic, and I'm thinking "no" on that, since she doesn't seem to have breaks with reality, but whatever.) Anyway, she corresponded with him throughout her recuperation, and, as she improved and became rational and coherent, he started to fall in love with her, too. Later, upon his return to Zurich, he was too attracted to her to heed the warnings of his friend, and, though he tried to distance himself from her, eventually married her. Which brings us to where we are today - their marriage is clearly flawed and based on Nicole's dependent adoration of him - now that the bloom, as it were, is off the rose, and he's no longer infatuated with her youth and neediness, he wants young, needy Rosemary instead. After Rosemary leaves them in Paris, he and Nicole go home so that Nicole can recuperate, since she was so upset about the fact that he was dancing attendance on another woman. After a couple of months she is, it seems, perfectly ok, and the two head to the Swiss Alps to celebrate Christmas. (Do I think they'll meet Rosemary there, by a neat and tidy coincidence? You bet I do.)

Dick has a little moment during Nicole's recuperation in which he recalls the warnings of his psychiatrist friend, who told him he'd feel trapped by having to care for her the rest of her life. It happens this way: he wants to play a song that Rosemary sang on the piano, but after beginning, checks himself when he realizes that Nicole will associate it with his infidelity. Because of that, he thinks to himself how constrained he's become, since he can't even play what he wants to play on the piano. Ok, there, Dick. The problem is not that you're trapped by your mentally fragile wife; the problem is that you want to commit adultery and she feels betrayed. I don't think that she's the one with the issue, here.

I was entertained by the explanation of the interesting history of Nicole and Dick. It was a nice change of pace from wandering around European cities partying and declaring forbidden love. Of course, I'm pretty sure we'll be back to that now that we've covered the scandal and madness, but you never know. I'm considerably more than half done, so I'm expecting Fitzgerald to kill someone off at any moment.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Undeserved acclaim

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: None

I didn't read today. I'm terribly sorry. Only I'm not actually, because I really don't like Fitzgerald. So, instead of talking about what part of Fitzgerald I read, I'm going to talk about how I do not understand why he's hailed as a great American author.

Seriously, I just don't get it. Maybe, maybe, if he'd been contributing something to the world that was new or different, but his books all do the same thing that a dozen authors before him did - they discuss the flaws of a modern society and present a story of how it ruins the lives of those who exist in it. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with that storyline or the message that it carries, but I'm not sure that Fitzgerald does it particularly well, and I know that there are authors who do it better. (Like Sinclair Lewis, who was a close contemporary (Fitzgerald lived from 1896-1940 and Lewis from 1885-1951) and wrote incisive prose that showed both a more realistic and more hopeful picture of the world. Have I mentioned that I love Sinclair Lewis?) Add to that the fact that Fitzgerald has some serious pacing issues and a tendency to off characters that he doesn't know what to do with, and I just don't think he's worthy of the mantle of greatness that the American literary world has chosen to bestow upon him. This list, for example, has four Fitzgerald books on it. Four of the greatest 100 novels of all time are by the same guy? Pardon my skepticism, but I think not. Especially when they're all the same goddamn story.

So, if you love Fitzgerald, and you think he's a genius, and you're ready to defend his honor as one of the greatest writers of all time, I'd love to hear it. Because I'm at a loss here.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Champagne wishes

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: 61 - 128

Well, Rosemary and the Divers head north to Paris, where they gad around the city spending money, staying up late, and pretty much establishing themselves as the dissipated rich. They don't do very much that's worth remarking upon, but the interlude is clearly meant to show us the character of the Divers' lives. We do learn that they've got children, apparently somewhere that's not Paris or the beach, and whom, I have to say, they seem to be neglecting rather shamefully. Anyway, one night, after a party, Rosemary tells Dick that she loves him and wants him to make love to her. He refuses, but apparently the proposition is enough to cause him to fall in love with her. They recognize that their love is wrong, but decide to entertain the idea of an affair, it seems, while concealing their affection from Nicole. It's important to hide it not only because it's immoral, but also because Nicole is prone to depression and already recognizes the fact that her marriage is deeply flawed.

Meanwhile, the Divers' friend, Abe North, who, it's been established, is an alcoholic, leaves for some important destination that I can't remember. It turns out that he actually returns to Paris the next day, pursued by a scandal in which he and an African-American man are accused of theft and fraud. Another African-American has been wrongly accused of the crime, and somehow, in the confusion, Abe North shoots the second guy and leaves his corpse in Rosemary's room. I'm not really sure why this is important, but it happens. Dick immediately comes to Rosemary's aid and uses his credentials as a doctor to get the hotel to cover up the scandal, which, it's implied, could ruin Rosemary's acting career simply by her association with it.

Well, I'm annoyed, predictably. Events just don't seem to have any logical explanation, and that's obnoxious. Also, there's the fact that, once again, all of the characters are sort of feckless and shallow. I don't know, Fitzgerald. I just don't know.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Well, I'm sure death will settle the issue to everyone's satisfaction.

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: 10-61

Ok. I'm mostly better, and I worked out this morning and so was able to read on the elliptical. I have a headache now and may have pushed it too hard, but these are the sacrifices I make for you, dear readers.

Fitzgerald is not annoying me as much as usual. Yet. He probably will eventually, since this book is, in fact, about the vagaries and pettiness of the rich, just like the rest of them have been. It's not that I don't respect his message - which is actually quite complex, balancing, as it does, the idea that the rich are distracted and shallow and concerned only with themselves against the fact that society has created their state of being and they're still people with important and universal emotional experiences - it's just that it's always the same. You pick up a Fitzgerald book and he introduces some people and you go, "Oh, look. The dissipated rich. We will now watch the tragic romantic downfall of any number from one to four of them, ruminate on the alienating nature of modern life, and then someone will probably die."

We are introduced, this time around, to our dissipated rich at a hotel in the south of France. The main character, Rosemary Hoyt, is an up-and-coming American starlet who is visiting the Continent with her mother and recovering from a bout of pneumonia, contracted while diving in and out of the water during repeated takes on a film set. At the hotel, she meets various other guests from both England and America and takes an immediate liking to the married but charming Dick Diver. He and his friends are established in the area, and come every summer to the hotel and its environs. Since they recognize her as a famous actress, even though she's only recently been bestowed with that fame, she's taken into their fold. Nicole, Dick's wife, is aware of her infatuation with Dick and is clearly annoyed by her presence, but has the good graces not to acknowledge the problem. Dick obviously feels some mutual attraction, but tries not to act on it.

Though they've only known the Divers for two days or so, Rosemary and her mother are invited to dinner at their house. At the party, Dick offers to take Rosemary to Paris when the Divers leave for the season in a few days. Rosemary's mother, it seems, has already been consulted and given her approval, and Rosemary, of course, is delighted. There's subtext at the dinner party, too, that strange and possibly lascivious things go on behind closed doors at the Diver house, and that neither Nicole nor Dick is really happy with the marriage. On the way home from the party, two of the male guests, Tommy Barban and Albert McKisco, get in a fight about whether or not the Divers should be an object of scandal. Barban defends them so mightily that he insults McKisco's wife for gossiping about them, and McKisco, as a result, challenges him to a duel. (Seriously, McKisco? You are such an idiot. There is little that I find more asinine than duelling with pistols. Walk away from each other, turn around, and then fire guns directly at one another. Best case scenario, you both miss and look like morons. Worst, you kill each other over something completely stupid. It's not often that I point to the current era and go, "Way to not be idiots!" but, really, good job on the rejection of dueling.) Anyway, they duel and miss each other, anticlimactically, and Rosemary resolves to go off to Paris with the Divers.

This summary is making it seem as though Rosemary is a woman of the world who's going after Dick, but she's got a pretty innocent air, actually, and seems to rely on her mother for advice and protection. Of course, it's her mother who's told her, now, to go ahead and embroil herself in an affair with a married man, if she's attracted to him, citing the fact that she's a successful actress, and therefore financially independent, like a man, so she doesn't need to worry about her virtue or the consequences of adultery, also like a man. I'm thinking she might want to worry about morality. Or at the very least getting her heart broken. Call me old-fashioned.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Tender is the Conjunctiva

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: None

Now I have pink eye. I am not even kidding. Someone is clearly punishing me. Tell me what I did, sickness gods! I will attempt to atone for my despicable sins!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Tender are my bronchial tubes

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: None

It's not looking good for reading this week, I have to say. I could tell you about being sick, but I'm guessing you don't want to hear about the colour and consistency of the phlegm I'm coughing up. See? You don't.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Like a lamb

Current book: Tender Is the Night
Pages read: None

Somehow I've managed to get sick again. Part of it was on vacation, too, which I find exceedingly unfair. So, anyway, I'm back from vacation, but I'm sick and I don't want to read F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Can it be spring now?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Did I mention vacation?

Current book: Vacation!
Pages read: Vacation!

I'm leaving for vacation today, so no posts until Tuesday the 9th.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Literature of the Age

Current book: Orlando
Pages read: 198 - 329 (end)

I found the end disappointing. I was hoping for mad gender revolution and for Orlando to become a member of Parliament or something. No such luck.

Orlando sort of hangs around England for a long time, dipping in and out of society and dancing attention and patronage on Pope and Addison and the like. (You'll take note here that the timeline seems to be out of whack. Orlando was alive when Queen Elizabeth was, and yet is now hanging out with Alexander Pope. Woolf never really explains it, but Orlando is, apparently, immortal, and is just living her way through all the centuries that define Britain as it is today.) She becomes disillusioned with both society and literature, after a while, and withdraws again to her country home. She reaches a Victorian crisis point at which she feels she absolutely must be married (because that's what Victorians do), but can't think of either a good reason or a likely candidate, and, in a fit of despair, runs out along the moors near her home. All crazed, as she is, she falls and breaks her ankle, and, of course, a likely young man comes along to rescue her. They become engaged five minutes later (Literally. No, I'm serious.), and then we spend the next couple of dozen pages hearing about their relationship. His name, amusingly, is Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmardine. The two are made for each other, it seems, and spend lots of time discussing how mutually sympathetic they are and how each seems so like the other's gender that it's uncanny. They get married, (weirdly, in the middle of a storm at midnight kind of thing), and he goes off to sail around Cape Horn, which is, apparently, what he does for fun.

Orlando pops in and out of society some more, now dressing as either a man or a woman whenever the mood suits her to be one or the other. Eventually, she meets the modern incarnation of Nick Greene, the poet she once hosted at her house, and finds him, though actually a different person, completely unchanged. (Woolf is satirizing the idea of literary criticism here by showing that the modern Nick Greene reveres precisely the poets that the ancient Nick Greene denounced as too modern, and the modern Nick Greene denounces the contemporary poets as too modern as well.) Finally, Woolf fast forwards through time again to make it 1928, the year the novel was written, and Orlando an unremarkable minor noblewoman buying supplies for her newly born son. (No, don't ask how she had a child. No idea whatsoever.) There's a long section right at the end in which Orlando considers the fact that she is many people - hundreds of layers put together from all those roles that she's had in the past - and that the real importance of life, then, is not defined by the marks we leave on the world, since they are all made by different people, in effect, but rather b y the appreciation we have for the beauty of both the world and the people that are in it.

Well, I don't know what to think. I enjoyed it a lot, and it had a lot to say, though it didn't go in the direction I expected. I would have like stronger commentary on gender, but now that I think about it, maybe the subtlety of it was a good thing. It was remarkable how little and how much Orlando's life changed when he became a woman; it's impressive that Woolf could successfully combine the nuances of social criticism and the philosophy of identity by making the choices that she did. So, I withdraw my disappointment comment from above.

In addition to the subtlety of the gender stuff (not to mention the foresight and bravery it took to write about gender at all in 1928), I was impressed by how Woolf was able to make the story about philosophy and literature and society as much as about how those things affect gender. I mean, really, it has as much to do with what is valuable in society and the literary world as it did with the implications of being a man or a woman. I like the philosophical conclusion she draws about literature and society, too, which is as follows: Literature is important and valuable in that it creates in us the ability to appreciate the world that's around us. We should not focus, then, on the monuments we might create for ourselves by writing great works, nor should we worship works that we consider great, but rather allow the process of writing and reading to inform our appreciation of nature and increase the richness of life itself.

I'm for it.

There's all kinds of stuff online about how Vita Sackville-West is the real-life Orlando, and you can make events and characters in the story line up with her events and characters in her life. You can look it up and read all about it, if you want, but I didn't really feel like writing a dissertation about it, and prefer to consider the thing on its own merits anyway.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What you will

Current book: Orlando
Pages read: 96 - 198

So, after becoming a recluse for a while, and burning most of his manuscripts, Orlando is suddenly and aggressively courted by a woman called the Archduchess Harriet, purportedly of Romania, who comes to his estate and won't leave him alone. He responds by asking the king for a diplomatic job, and is subsequently sent off to Constantinople. (Not Istanbul. Yet.) He goes off and spends a lot of time looking off his balcony at the beautiful flowers and smoking cheroots with the Turkish diplomats, until he eventually earns the Order of Bath, which is just another kind of knighthood. On the morning after the party they throw him to bestow that honor, his servants find him in a deep sleep from which he cannot be awakened. He remains asleep for seven days, during which there is a Turkish revolution and all the English are kicked out the country or killed. Orlando, asleep, remains unmolested, though a marriage certificate between him and a gypsy girl is discovered in his chambers. (Are you ready for this next part? You might think you are, but you're not. I'm not sure there was any way to be ready for the next part.)

When Orlando wakes up from his semi-coma, he's a woman. How? Why? When? No idea whatsoever. (Were you ready? Yeah, I didn't think so.) As a result, he (from now on, she) puts on clothes that could belong to either sex and rides off to join the gypsies. She fits in with the gypsies for a while, and doesn't think too much about gender, because men and women are fairly equal in gypsy society, but eventually decides that the gypsies aren't interested enough in philosophy and literature and heads back to England. On the boat back, Orlando thinks a lot about what it means to be a woman instead of man - that now she has to wear skirts, and can't do what she wants, but will be flirted with and pursued and given attention. (It seems, also, that Orlando's attraction to women has not changed with her gender; in other words, she still likes the company of ladies.) There is much musing on which is the better sex, both in nobility and in quality of life, and she eventually draws the conclusion that men treat women rather poorly, but women are foolish to go along with it. Neither sex, she thinks, is really so different, but each chooses to widen the surface differences between the two as a result of the small underlying differences that really do exist.

She gets back to England, where there's a civil suit pending about her estate, which makes sense, really, what with her disappearance and return as a person of a different gender. She goes back home to await a decision in the suit, and in the meantime to write or otherwise occupy herself. Her servants welcome her with open arms and seem unperturbed by her transformation. Eventually, the Archduchess Harriet comes to see her again and reveals the fact that he's actually the Archduke Harry, and only disguised himself as a woman in order to seduce the then-male Orlando. Which would be kind of convenient, actually, if only Orlando liked him, but, unfortunately, she finds him obnoxious. Eventually she succeeds in spurning his advances, but later, when she goes to London, runs into him again and finds that he still wishes to pursue her.

This is a pretty different novel than I was expecting it to be, what with the sudden, sharp gender commentary. I had no idea it was coming, although I suppose I could have considered the reference to Twelfth Night that is the title. (Orlando is the name that Viola, the female protagonist of the play, adopts when she poses as a man.) Since Woolf was writing in 1928, it shows a hell of a lot of forethought for her to espouse the notion that one can change gender and remain the same person - that gender is, in fact, a construct of society that is only very remotely related to the physiology that is its source, and plays a larger part than it has any basis for in determining one's lifestyle and decisions. I'm interested to see where she goes with it.


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