Friday, April 30, 2010

Mediterranean Delight

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: None

I fully intended to finish this book today, and then I just couldn't bring myself to read about Auschwitz any more. I've failed you. And I'm not even cooking anything interesting this weekend. Last weekend I made up a recipe that came out totally awesome, however, and I will share it with you below. You read that right. I made it up. Like a real chef! (Yes, it has calorie calculations. Because I care about that sort of thing.)

Spinach and Sun-Dried Tomato Rice Pilaf

(3 servings)

1 TBS butter (100)

1 onion, diced (45)

4 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, chopped (60)

6 oz. baby spinach (40)

1 cup rice (600)

2 cups chicken broth (30)

¼ cup white wine (30)

1 tsp. salt

¼ cup grated parmesan (110)

1015 kcal/3 = 340kcal/serving

1. Saute onion in butter until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add sun-dried tomato and rice and sauté until rice is toasted, 3 minutes or so.

2. Add spinach a couple of handfuls at a time and stir until wilted.

3. Add broth, wine, and salt, bring to a boil and reduce to vigorous simmer. Cover. Simmer 15-20 minutes, adding broth if necessary to ensure rice is cooked through.

4. Remove from heat and stir in parmesan.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Imminent psychotic break

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 408 - 498

Not a whole lot of new information in this section, really. We're pretty much getting details and a greater understanding of what happened to Sophie while she was at Auschwitz.

In the end, she secured a promise from Höss to have Jan enrolled in the Lebensborn, but was never able to determine whether it actually happened. She's still unaware of his fate. Her daughter, Eva, it's clear, was sent to the gas chambers of Birkenau (an adjunct camp to Auschwitz designed solely for genocidal exterminations). Wanda, her friend from the resistance, made it to Auschwitz, too, and spent a considerable amount of time urging Sophie to use her privileged position to try to help the resistance within the camp by passing on information and trying to steal a radio. Sophie was unsuccessful at this, but she did make an attempt to steal a radio from Höss's daughter's room, and was almost caught. Höss and his family ended up leaving Auschwitz when he was reassigned by the Reich, and Sophie was relegated to the (still privileged) role of typist and translator to the camp itself. That's all the more we know of the camps at the moment.

In the present, Stingo and Sophie come back from the bar where she's telling him about Auschwitz to find that Nathan has returned, contrite, and wishes to move back in at the boardinghouse. Both he and Sophie do, and immediately everything is hunky-dory again. (Which, in my opinion, shows that Stingo is an idiot for believing that this guy can ever be a normal and functional human being.) After a week or two, Stingo gets a call from Nathan's brother, and, at his request, goes to see him in Forest Hills. There he learns that Nathan's a paranoid schizophrenic with violent tendencies (yeah, could have told you that), and is not, in fact, a biological researcher. He does work for Pfizer, but only in an unimportant office job, and is, in general, incapable of performing even that work consistently well. Knowing all this, Stingo agrees to keep an eye on Nathan and try to get him to stop taking coke and amphetamines.

In the meantime, Nathan and Sophie get engaged, which is pretty horrifying, and Stingo goes on a trip upstate to see a family friend. His trip is cut short by a phone call from Sophie, whom Nathan has beaten and threatened with death for the purported crime of cheating on him with Stingo. Stingo returns to the city immediately, and, after being threatened by Nathan himself, spirits Sophie off on a train to Virginia.

We're rapidly approaching the conclusion and therefore also the revelation of what it is that Sophie is truly haunted by. Her guilt stems from something far worse that a few collaborationist tendencies and her failure to steal a radio, so we can tell that there's some terrible secret that she has yet to tell our hero. (Like I said, I know what the secret is, so I guess it's been spoiled for me, but watching the book lead up to the secret is as fascinating knowing what it is as not, I suspect.)

Still having bad Holocaust dreams. I really like this book, but I won't be sorry to finish it and move on to something a little less, "Hi, we're the bleak horrors of human existence. How are you?"

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The satirical rogue says here

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: None

Sorry, I needed a break from the Holocaust today. In lieu of Sophie's Choice, though, I give you this list of ten words that I really like for no good reason:

1. jinx

2. brocade

3. prestidigitation

4. autumn

5. silver

6. sonata

7. parsnip

8. teaspoon

9. chrome

10. mahogany

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fount of Life

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 326 - 407

When Stingo and Sophie meet again, after he thought she had left the boardinghouse, she tells him that she's still planning to move out, but will spend one last weekend there. Most of that weekend is spent drinking with Stingo at various locales. At one point she offers to give him a blow job, though he, ah....spends himself...too quickly, as it were. Point being, Stingo and Sophie seem to be moving toward a sexual relationship as well as a Platonic one. She also tells him about her early relationship with Nathan, after Nathan had "saved" her and given her medical care, when things started to get more complicated as she began to see his darker (read: totally fucking psycho) side. He's a complete meth addict, as it turns out (though, being another time, they're called "bennies" (short for Benzedrine) instead of meth, but whatever), and takes coke pretty frequently, which partially explains his weird mood swings. He also just seems to have violent tendencies and mood swings on his own, however, that are only worsened by the drugs.

Early in the relationship, Sophie tells Stingo, when she and Nathan went away to Connecticut for a weekend, he convinced himself that Sophie was sleeping with her boss, spent the recklessly fast drive to Connecticut verbally abusing her, and when they arrived, had violent sex with her (which she admits was consensual and even enjoyable on her part), beat her until he broke a rib, and then tried to get her to commit suicide with him by taking cyanide. (He's a real prince. Have I mentioned?) Anyway, she doesn't really offer Stingo any explanation for all this, but she does relate it to him so that he'll comprehend Nathan's history of violence. Some part of her feels that she deserves this kind of treatment, it's clear, due to a sense of guilt so vast that it threatens to overwhelm her at times. She harbors some anti-Semitic feelings, due mostly to her upbringing, and that's part of it, but mostly it's from the undisclosed events of her past.

Convinced more by her own urge to confess than by anything Stingo really does, Sophie proceeds to tell him more of her story, both in Auschwitz and beforehand. She was hoping, it seems, when she broached the subject of her son with Hoss, to get him enrolled in the Lebensborn (the Nazi eugenics program that kidnapped Polish children of correct Aryan genetic composition and placed them with German families) as a way out of the concentration camps.

We also learn more about Sophie's history in Warsaw before she was arrested. It seems that, since she hated her husband, she had an affair, after he was arrested, with a member of the Polish resistance named Jozef. Jozef's role in the resistance was to kill Poles who were informing the Nazis about the location of Jews in hiding. Apparently, he usually garroted them with piano wire, and always vomited afterward. (Whoa. I mean, yes, I'm on his side, but whoa.) After a while, Jozef was found out and had his throat cut by the Nazis. Another member of the resistance, Wanda, who was a friend of Jozef's, used to try to convince Sophie to use her German-language skills to help them, but Sophie refused, on the grounds that she couldn't endanger her children. This is the part where the astute reader goes, "Children?" That's right, ladies and gentlemen, the plot thickens: Sophie had two children, Jan and Eva, not one. (Since I knew some of the plot of this novel beforehand, I was aware of that, and have been confused for most of the novel, but now am less so.)

The book is giving me bad dreams about Holocaust-related stuff. They're not actually dreams about the Holocaust, but they're definitely attributable to thinking about its horrors on a daily basis. Last night I dreamed that I'd been keeping a guinea pig in a drawer, but I'd forgotten about it and, as a result, had starved it almost to death. When I opened the drawer, it was there, emaciated and laboring to breathe, and had lost all its hair. I realize that this doesn't really make any sense, and, if it's analogous to the Holocaust, puts me in the role of unwitting and contrite SS guard, apparently, but I was pretty disturbed. Um. Yeah. I guess that's all.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 253 - 326

You know, it's very difficult, when relating the plot of books that have more than one temporal setting, to decide when to use the literary present and when to use the past tense. I have a moral obligation, as an English major and an English teacher, to try to use the literary present whenever possible, but when I'm talking about events that happened in a character's life previous to the time of the narrative, I don't see that I have much of a choice. This is just my inner grammarian trying to apologize for what might seem to be an impropriety of tense usage.

Well, as it turns out, Sophie has been lying to Stingo when relating her story previously. When she tells him about seducing Höss, she makes it clear that her father was not an innocent Polish professor, but rather some kind of insane anti-Semite. He wasn't technically a Nazi, since he was a member of a different political party, but he espoused the "Final Solution" in a pamphlet that he wrote before the idea of the "Final Solution" had even been widely disseminated. Sophie was his stenographer and secretary (also his virtual slave) during her youth, and so it was she who typed the manuscripts for this pamphlet. Sophie's husband, it turns out, was more of a toady for her father than anything else, and she loved neither of them, nor was particularly upset when they got taken away.

At Auschwitz, Sophie tries to use her work on the pamphlet, though, (as well as a copy that she's managed to hold onto) to convince Höss that she is innocent and he ought to save her. For a moment, it seems to be working, and he admits to being sexually attracted to her and kisses her, but then he changes his mind. She is not worthy of saving or even fucking, since she is, after all, a Pole, and therefore genetically unsuitable. Anyway, she makes one final appeal to him, down on her knees, kissing his boots, to at least let her see her son. (Her son? Yes, that's correct. She has a heretofore unmentioned child, also in the camps, whom she has been separated from.) There's also an episode in which Höss's female housekeeper, also a prisoner, takes sexual advantage of Sophie in an upstairs hallway, which is, of course, another source of trauma for Sophie, but also gives Sophie a hint of power over the housekeeper, due to the fact that Höss loathes homosexuality.

Stingo, all upset at the fact that Sophie and Nathan have split up and left, meets his father, who's come to visit him in the city, and basically decides to go back to Virginia with him. The two gallivant about the town and drink and things, but nothing of import really occurs. Having decided to leave, however, Stingo changes his mind when he finds Sophie at one of their former haunts, where she relates to him the above revelations. Stingo lets his father know he won't be going back to Virginia - at least not yet. He's still infatuated with Sophie, though, at this point, it's as much her story as the girl herself that holds his interest.

The psychological discussion of the decisions people make in survival situations is as nuanced and sensitive as anyone could ask. Sophie says, in reference to her groveling and begging and seduction, as well as to the actions of any prisoner, be they noble or despicable, in Auschwitz, that no one can be really be judged for what they did there. One is under such stress, such reduced circumstances, as to be unable to determine the course of one's own actions. I would agree, I have to say, though I'm inexperienced in things like this. But I can't see that it's any different than extreme coercion. Statements and decisions made under threat of death and torture are not attributable to logic or even emotion, but rather to an animal will that drives survival beyond the capacity of the mind and body to refuse. When do morals enter a situation like that? I would posit only afterward, when they provide guilt and shame for actions that were taken in circumstances beyond their purview.

I suspect I'll be seeing this theme illustrated further.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 169 - 253

An actual post on a Friday! I told you it was a page-turner.

Predictably, Stingo's girl does not, in fact, provide him with sexual release; instead, she just teases him mercilessly all night and then breaks down in tears, saying that she's a virgin and her analyst is trying to help her work through her sexual repression. Anyway, suffice it to say that Stingo is still pretty sexually frustrated.

He and Sophie and Nathan continue to be friends, and most of the time, all is well. One night, however, after Sophie meets Stingo and tells him that Nathan made a great breakthrough in his research that day (he's a biochemist of some kind), Nathan totally loses his shit again and freaks out at both of them. In the end, Sophie and Nathan have a huge fight and both of them pack their things and leave the boardinghouse, going in opposite directions.

In the meantime, we're getting more of a picture of what happened to Sophie at Auschwitz. It seems she was the favorite secretary/slave of Höss, and, as such, was provided with special treatment. She ended up resolving to seduce him, either mentally or physically, in order to get out of the camp. That's as much as we know, really. There's some detail involved about the workings of the camp and stuff, but I won't bother summarizing it; I assume you know about the Holocaust.

I don't have much analysis to offer today, so I won't. But I am interested to see where things go.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

PTSD, much?

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 84 - 168

To answer a comment question, no, I haven't read this book before. I'll always mention it if I've read them before, since it fundamentally changes the reading experience. I do, however, know the "choice" that the title refers to, just from living in the world. (It's the kind of thing you find out if you pay attention. Nobody thinks about spoilers when it comes to literature. Not that I'm one to talk, what with summarizing dozens of books on here. Anyway.)

Once Stingo gets to know Sophie a bit more, he begins to hear about the story of her life. She's a Christian who was living in Poland at the time of the Holocaust. Her father and husband were taken away and shot for being professors, and she and her mother were left alone. She was eventually arrested for smuggling meat to try to provide for her consumptive mother, and that's how she ended up in Auschwitz. The story's coming piecemeal through various narrative techniques, so there are many more details to come about Sophie's experience in the camps, it's clear, but we know, so far, that she had a relatively easy time of it and was a favored prisoner, and that she had some kind of special status with the camp's commandant, a man named Höss. (Look at that. I went through all the trouble of putting an accent in for you guys, which, as you may have noticed from my tendency to use the phrase "social mores," I usually neglect to do.)

As far as Sophie's life in Brooklyn goes, we know that she works for a chiropractor, and that her transition to American life has been somewhat difficult. She's amazing at picking up languages, and knows German, Polish, Yiddish, and English, and she's really fit in well, but has had some traumatic experiences, too. Her health was poor for a long time after she arrived, due to anemia and other effects of malnutrition, and she's had psychological issues, too. (Because, Jesus Christ, how could you not?) Also, during a blackout on the subway one day, she had a man take advantage of her proximity and the darkness by...well, there's not so much an accepted phrase for this...raping her with his hand. So, that didn't exactly help matters. In the end, though, after depression and illness, she fainted in the library and Nathan was the one who helped her home. Afterward, he took her to several doctors and insisted that she recuperate, and they fell in love. Which brings us to where we are now, with the two of them in this strange, abusive relationship.

As for Stingo, he's coming along on writing his novel, and has also found a girl to date whom he thinks is going to provide him sexual release, as well. His talk about sex is much more tolerable in this section simply because he explains that he's very inexperienced. That, for me, means I'm now able to interpret his lustful vulgarity as indicative of sexual frustration, rather than disrespect for the women he wants to sleep with. Now it feels sort of pathetic and even, almost, cute.

It's still really engrossing. Regardless of the fact that I didn't read yesterday, I'd categorize this as a page-turner. I really want to know what happens from moment to moment, and at the same time I appreciate the depth of the examination Styron's performing on both his characters and the world they live in. It's both superficially and profoundly interesting, which is a rare thing, even in literature.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Must be Wednesday.

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: None

Not so much with the reading today.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Faulkner is so five minutes ago!

Current book: Sophie's Choice
Pages read: 3 - 84

As requested, I'll first give you a rundown of the tagine results! It was pretty delicious, actually. I think it needed the addition of fresh herbs, either cilantro or parsley, to finish it (Which I left out because I didn't want to buy a giant bunch of parsley for one dish. But I was a fool.), and I kind of want to try making it with pork and raisins instead of chicken thighs and apricots, but I'd heartily recommend it. Filling and good for you. Anyway, the recipe is here, if you want it. (Only don't listen to the part where it calls for two tablespoons of oil to brown chicken thighs and an onion. One at the most, guys.)

Our heroic narrator in Sophie's Choice is named Stingo (and in the immortal words of all Valley Girls everywhere, let me just say: gag me with a spoon), apparently a prep-school nickname which he has, for some reason, decided to hold onto. Stingo is a writer who has recently graduated from college, tried his hand working for McGraw-Hill in New York, and found that he couldn't stomach the mind-numbing grind of office work. (Man, do I feel him on that one.) So, luckily, he's come into a little money (which is weirdly connected to slavery, since it's basically the direct profit from his grandfather's sale of slave years ago, but has been hidden since and only recently found) and is currently living in Brooklyn in a Jewish rooming house (Notably Jewish because he's talked about it a bunch of times and is not, himself, Jewish.) and trying to write.

His neighbors in the rooming house include Sophie, a Polish woman who was interned at Auschwitz during World War II, only a few years ago. Stingo was in the war, too, we learn, though he never saw combat and was only involved at the very close of the action in the Pacific theatre. So, anyway, Sophie is very beautiful and Stingo kind of instantly falls in love with her, but she's dating a complete asshole named Nathan, who abuses her and yells at her all the time. He's clearly mentally unstable and has insane mood swings, but Sophie seems to love him. Stingo meets them both after a fight, and feels a great deal of contempt for Nathan, but still, somehow, becomes friends with them, obviously more the spend time with Sophie than for any other reason.

So far I really like it. The narrator is a little arrogant and therefore obnoxious, and it has a tendency to get slightly more vulgar than I'd prefer I (He watches a girl from afar, for example, and says he'd like to "fuck her to a frazzle," (11). I don't really have time for that kind of bullshit.), but I'm interested in the story and the characters, and I find the prose and pacing quite engaging. The fact that I'm as interested as I am despite the centrality of an abusive relationship is a pretty good sign for the writing, I have to say. The narration seems fairly autobiographical, although it's not fair to say that without knowing details. I can't help it, though; when writers write about writers writing, I have a tendency to assume that they're relating their own experiences.

As a side note, actually knowing what's going on is a nice change from Faulkner. (Although this guy has mentioned a couple of times how great he thinks Faulkner is, which, since I'm reveling in the relief of clear prose after the Faulknerian fog, is kind of ironic.)

Monday, April 19, 2010

The roof is on fire

Current book: Absalom, Absalom!
Pages read: 278 - 378 (end)

Nothing really new in these 100 pages, except at the very end. Faulkner spends most of them recapping the story of Henry and Charles, only adding the fact that Charles had told Henry that he was Judith's brother long before Thomas came along and did it. Thomas, however, did tell Henry that Charles was part African-American. The miscegenation, apparently, was what Henry objected to when he killed Charles, not the incest. (Which is pretty fucked up, really, but taboos are strange things that are defined by the weirdest parts of culture, after all.)

Anyway, after all this, we finally get the conclusion to Quentin's story, which is that Rosa drags him out to the Sutpen house when she's initially telling him the story, and there he and she end up finding Clytie and Jim Bond, Charles Bon's grandson, as expected, but also, rather shockingly, Henry Sutpen. It turns out Judith didn't kill him, and Clytie has been secretly taking care of him for years. Later, when Quentin has gone off to school, Rosa goes back out to the Sutpen place to get Henry and take him back to town, and Clytie flips out and burns down the house with herself and Henry in it. (Have you noticed how literary novels love to burn down houses? Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Gone With the Wind...I'm sure there must be more.) Jim Bond escapes and flees. The end, pretty much.

I don't have anything new to say. Faulkner's trying to communicate that one person's tragic history is a tragic history we all share, and the South is doomed to repeat its mistakes until it learns from them. (Which it's still working on, in my opinion - then again, who isn't?) And yet, the craft with which he communicates this message is at once both impressively complex and inherently flawed. I understand why he gets literary respect for the intricacy and slow revelations of his prose, but I think his execution is lacking. Perhaps, since this is a later book, he's gone too far in the direction of complexity and thereby crossed the threshold into confusion, or perhaps he was doing something new in this book and hadn't yet mastered the technique, but either way I don't think it was quite successful. Not worthy of this list.

As a sort of post-script, apparently Quentin dies (Of fever from the climate of Massachusetts? Of the drama of the story he's just told? It's unclear, and, either way, obnoxious.) just after he finishes discussing this story with his roommate, but you only find this out if you read the biographical appendix at the end of the book. Which I think is cheap as hell.

Friday, April 16, 2010

What waters? We're in the desert!

Current book: Absalom, Absalom!
Pages read: None

My recap for the week goes like this: Faulkner is impenetrable and obnoxious. Ta-da!

Sunday I'm making Moroccan Chicken and Apricot Tagine. Do I have a tagine? No, I do not. But I won't let it stop me. I'll let you know if my confidence is misplaced. Or, alternatively, brag about how awesome I am, which you ought to be used to by now.

In other news, as a grammar obsessive, I'm pretty in love with this.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Speaking of incest...

Current book: Absalom, Absalom!
Pages read: 172 - 278

I was wrong about Sutpen dying - I guess they just broke it off and Rosa went back to her father's empty house. I'm kind of unclear, exactly, but that's because Faulkner is fairly impenetrable and I don't care enough to look back and actually figure it out. Anyway, they definitely break it off, and Sutpen instead seduces Milly, who's the daughter of his hired man, Wash Jones. Jones is so angry (and rightly so) that he kills Sutpen.

We've switched narrators (Again. I think we've had about six at this point.) and are getting Quentin's roommate's impressions of Quentin's retelling of his father's account of Sutpen's report of his own story. (Did you follow that? Pity any high school student who's ever had to read this. Seriously.) Anyway, what we've figured out is this: basically, after Rosa leaves the house, Sutpen abandons Judith and the slaves to their own devices, like I said, and goes off to seduce Milly. Also, Judith figures out that Charles Bon's wife has died, leaving his son down in Louisiana an orphan, and Clytie (short for Clytemnestra, who's actually Sutpen's illegitimate daughter, but also still a slave (Have I mentioned how Sutpen is a total asshole? Well, he is.)) goes down to retrieve him. He and Clytie live out behind the house in the slave quarters for a while, and then eventually everybody gets yellow fever, and Judith ends up dying. Clytie and Bon's son, then, are left alone out at the house. Eventually, that boy grows up and marries a woman, and she ends up having a child, but she and Bon's son both run off and Clytie's left to raise the kid, Jim, on her own. I think.

After that, we get some backstory on Sutpen, who, as it turns out, has devoted his life to having a giant plantation because of the fact that a plantation owner insulted him when he was young, and now he equates material wealth with power and respect. He, as a young man, goes off to make his fortune in Haiti, and he does, but ends up marrying a woman and having a son who he casts off. Guess who his son is? You can't possibly, so I'll tell you: Charles Bon. So, the real reason that Sutpen objected to Judith marrying Bon was because it would have been incest, what with him being her half-brother. It turns out Sutpen told Henry this, and that's why he killed Bon, who also knew the truth of the matter. That's about where we are.

I don't even care enough to analyze. It's confusing and impenetrable and obnoxious. I understand the effect of layering narratives so that you reveal a story a bit at a time, but instead of creating a successful combination of voices and revelations, Faulkner is creating several voices that sound the same and only serve to confuse the timeline. The reader (me, in this case) is left feeling manipulated and abused by the author. Seriously, I feel like I'm reading a bad mystery in which the author has to conceal clues from the reader in order to prevent him from discovering the twist, instead of writing a plot that's actually well crafted enough to sustain both the mystery itself and the reader's interest in it long enough to come to its conclusion.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Perpetuating the hierarchical dichotomy

Current book: Absalom, Absalom!
Pages read: None

So, I didn't read today, but I'm still thinking about something Faulkner said in yesterday's pages.

"...his fierce provincial's pride in his sister's virginity was a false quantity which must incorporate in itself an inability to endure in order to be precious, to exist, and so must depend upon its loss, absence, to have existed at all." (96)

My initial reaction to that was that it was ridiculous and tautological, which it kind of is, but, upon considering, I was forced to acknowledge the fact that virginity is defined, somewhat, by its absence. (Man, also, just take a moment to look at the guy's diction. This is what I wade through every day.) After all, if it's never going to be taken away, it has no value. It's only in the ephemerality of it that we find value at all. I'm not sure that's a good thing; in fact, I think it may be a bad one for society, that we see virginity as a commodity or a gift of some kind. It's so backward of us, really, to value a woman's sexual purity, since it comes from the rather archaic notion that it's the only way to be sure any child a bridegroom has is his own. I mean, really, I think we've moved on at this point. And yet, there's still this sense of the value of remaining a virgin until marriage, or, if not that, at least the idea that a woman's virginity is a gift to whomever "takes" it. Whereas, if a woman has sex with a virgin man, she's usually the one perceived as generous. How weird is that? Male virginity is a liability, and female virginity is a commodity and a mark of moral fortitude.

Of course, then, Faulkner goes on to say the following.

"In fact, perhaps this is the pure and perfect incest: the brother realizing that the sister's virginity must be destroyed in order to have existed at all, taking that virginity in the person of the brother-in-law, the man whom he would be if he could become, metamorphose into, the lover, the husband..." (96)

While I see the point that by exercising his ability to choose a spouse for his sister, Henry is, in some ways, complicit in deflowering her (See that? Complicit. As though it's a crime. Clearly I am not immune to the social mores I've just been whining about.), for Faulkner to use the word "realizing" here is a bit of a stretch. I mean, come on, Faulkner. You just called the guy a provincial, and now he's realizing his incestuous tendencies and using his friend to vicariously deflower his sister in order to slake his own forbidden lust? Let's not get carried away, huh? Also? Ew.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Forward into battle

Current book: Absalom, Absalom!
Pages read: 80 - 172

It's funny how I liked Faulkner before and kind of hate him now. This book is a bit later than the first one I read, and I think he got carried away stylistically. I really get why people complain about him being impenetrably confusing now, though.

I have to go backward in the narrative structure to cover what happened in this section, because Faulkner can't seem to communicate plot events in order. So, it turns out that the reason that Henry and his college friend, Charles Bon, disappeared is that Sutpen (Henry's father), investigated Charles, who was, after all, engaged to his daughter, and discovered that he already had a wife and child in New Orleans. He confronted Henry and Charles with this information, and Henry, as a result, renounced his role in the Sutpen family. The real reason, we discover, for this renunciation, is that Henry is in love with Charles - not necessarily homosexually, but certainly homosocially. He idolizes the guy; he dresses like him, talks like him, and generally wants to be him. Charles is a bit in love with Henry as well, and Faulkner says that the only reason Charles considered marrying Judith in the first place was that she was the female version of Henry.

Anyway, after the fight, Henry goes down to New Orleans with Charles, where he discovers that the allegations are correct, and not only that, but that Charles's wife is a black woman. (Which is, to Henry, both unimaginable and insulting to his sister.) Instead of fighting Charles or doing anything else about it, though, Henry decides to join the army and fight in the Civil War, and Charles goes with him. The implication is that Henry is obligated to kill Charles in a duel, but since they're joining the army, is content to stay by his side and watch him die in combat, instead.

However, they make it four years in the army together, and eventually Charles decides it's time to go marry Judith, despite the fact that he's already married. Henry, as a result, is forced to kill him. (Apparently. Although why he doesn't just tell him to stay the hell away from his sister is a little beyond me. Well, it's not, actually - clearly he's embroiled in conflicting emotions - jealousy of his sister, anger with Charles, desire for Charles, guilt that he brought Charles into his family in the first place - and thinks that removing the variable that is Charles will solve all his problems.) Afterward, Henry goes home to tell Judith what's happened, and she murders him with his own pistol. (Yep. You read that right. She is, apparently, unmoved by the fact that her fiance was married to another woman, and is only enraged that Henry killed him.) Rosa moves in to take care of Judith, and when Thomas Sutpen comes home several years later, he and Rosa get engaged, despite the fact that she's only about 16 and doesn't even like him. But it's ok, because he dies before they can get married.

Well, I whine, but this part of the story was actually sort of interesting. It involved wading through foggy timelines and multiple narrators, and a considerable amount of annoyance at the fact that Faulkner has everyone talk like an omniscient narrator, regardless of the fact that they couldn't possibly have witnessed many of the events that they're recounting, but whatever. The relationship between Charles and Henry is pretty intriguing, and sensitive for the time that Faulkner was writing in, especially considering his setting. Still, I can't say I'd be very interested in struggling through the rest of this if I were reading it of my own volition. Part of the problem is that Rosa, who seems to be the protagonist, is both obnoxious and boring. She has no agency; there's little else I find as annoying as a main character with no agency. I'm moved by the demands of the List, though, so I shall soldier on.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The queen of spades

Current book: Absalom, Absalom!
Pages read: 7 - 80

I'm disappointed in Faulkner. This book is already clearly inferior to A Light in August; I'm bored with it and I'm only on page 80.

Basically, what we've got is the story of an old spinster (Your etymology for today: the word spinster comes from the act of spinning, because only a woman who wasn't married would have to spend her days spinning thread in order to support herself. Ta-da!), Rosa, being told from the point of view of a young man, Quentin, who's about to go to college, by way of Quentin's father, Rosa herself, and whomever else Faulkner decides he thinks he ought to include. It goes something like this: Rosa's father, Mr. Coldfield, lets his daughter, Ellen, marry a creepy random guy, Thomas Sutpen, who breezes into town one day with a wagon full of black servants and a French architect. This is apparently both suspicious and impressive, and over the course of the next several years, the town goes from wanting to run Sutpen out on a rail to grudgingly accepting him. So, eventually he ends up marrying Ellen, and they have two children, Henry and Judith. Rosa, Ellen's sister, who's born several years after Ellen is married, and is therefore a contemporary of her own niece and nephew, goes to live with her sister's family after Coldfield dies.

She tells this story to Quentin, as does his father, in a fashion that makes it clear that she feels that the lives of everyone involved with Sutpen were ruined by him, but we have no idea why yet. Ok, he's a little weird, I'll give you that, and he apparently makes his black servants fight each other for entertainment, but considering the atmosphere of the time period (total and complete racism), I'm not sure why that makes him such a terrible person in Rosa's (and the town's) eyes. Anyway, Henry and Judith grow up during the story, and Henry brings home a friend from college to whom Judith gets engaged. However, just before the marriage, Henry has a falling out with Sutpen, his father, and he and his college friend disappear. So, I think, does Judith, at least for a while.

That's about where I am, I guess. If this account sounds confusing, that's because the book is also confusing, and can't seem to find a steady timeline for itself. I've heard people make this complaint about Faulkner, but it wasn't apparent in A Light in August, and I'm annoyed to find that it is in this novel. Like I said before, I'm kind of bored already. I'd say it's because I don't care what happens (which is true, but not the main reason), but it's also because I already know what happens, since Faulkner had Rosa tell us in the first chapter, and seems content to spend the rest of the book filling in the details. Yuck. I don't like it when authors do that, for the same reason I don't like war novels - it's completely apparent what the point, the plot arc, and the outcome are going to be, so you spend the whole thing going, "Why am I reading this?"

Friday, April 9, 2010

The finest in beverages that make you blind.

Current book: None
Pages read: None

Things I learned from the dictionary this week:

1. The word "garner," is not only a verb that means to get and keep something, which I knew, but also a noun meaning a place where you store grain, which I sure as hell did not know. Did anyone out there know that?

2. "Mountain dew" is actually slang for moonshine. Which makes it a really weird name for a type of soda. Where's the marketing on that coming from? "Hey guys! Let's name our soft drink after bootleg liquor!"

That's all.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Pip pip, old chap.

Current book: A Passage to India
Pages read: 250 - 322 (end)

Man, there's a lot of denouement in this book. The only stuff that happens in the last 72 pages is that Aziz agrees not to sue Ms. Quested for damages, she goes back to England, Fielding goes back to England, and then he marries Mrs. Moore's daughter, Stella. Ok, looking at that on the page, I guess it sounds like kind of a lot, but everyone just sort of disappears, and you only get to hear about it from Aziz's point of view. When Fielding goes to England after Ms. Quested leaves, Aziz suspects him of courting her in order to get the money that he urged Aziz not to sue her for, but is chagrined at his own mistrust when Fielding returns with Stella as his wife. Fielding and Aziz fight a little as a result of the situation, but eventually make up. The book ends, however, with Aziz asserting India's need for independence and Fielding saying it's impossible. Forster indicates that they aren't yet ready to build a friendship to cross the vast gulf that colonialism represents, but that they may be able to some day.

Overall, good. Nice commentary on the colonial situation in India at the time. Can't imagine it wasn't controversial as hell, but that's what literature's for, after all. Probably worthy, considering its political import. For some reason, I incline toward brevity when discussing this book. No explanation for that.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Current book: A Passage to India
Pages read: None

Yeah, I never really read on Wednesdays. Well, that's not true, actually. I read, just not the blog books. Sometimes, one needs a break from literature.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Post-colonialism, yo.

Current book: A Passage to India
Pages read: 162 - 250

Things are rotten in the state of Bihar. It turns out that Ms. Quested is accusing Aziz of trying to proposition her in the cave, or something along those lines, so he's in a great deal of trouble. Ronny, the magistrate-fiance, is, of course, incensed, and all the local British legal power is being brought to bear on the case. The situation, of course, goes far beyond the surface level, and is clearly representative of the years of racial tension that have preceded it. Anyway, so Mr. Fielding, who has long been Aziz's friend, leaps to his defense, insisting that he can't possibly have committed the crime, and thereby alienating himself from the entire British community. Mrs. Moore also believes that Aziz is innocent, and frankly, Ms. Quested just seems confused and befuddled most of the time. All of the Brits have rallied around her and are providing her with a lot of sympathy that is a lot more about the political situation than it is about Adela, but there you go.

Tensions increase as the trial approaches, and Mrs. Moore eventually washes her hands of the whole thing and sets sail for England when riots break out. At the trial, there's a lot of posturing on both sides, some indications that the British are playing fast and loose with trial law, and a lot of anger from the crowd outside. None of that matters, however, because when Adela gets up to testify, she recants and drops the charges. Everything is immediately thrown into chaos, and Mr. Fielding ends up having to spirit Adela away to the college where he teaches. Ronny finds her there and they agree that it's best if she stays there for a few days while things quiet down. She had previously been staying at another British family's house, but now that she's gone back on her testimony, she, too, has become a social pariah. Ronny also tells her that his mother, Mrs. Moore, died on the way back to England. (Which, honestly, is kind of random, but whatever.)

I feel that Forster's characterization of the inherent problems of colonization is just about perfect. His portrayal of the Raj is spot-on from what I know of it (which is a considerable amount, most of which I learned from a really excellent book called Ideologies of the Raj). There's a lot of complexity in the role of women in British India, since they need to be protected from Indian men but are also drawn to them, and also in the British position itself, what with the conflicting ideas of patriarchal responsibility to civilize the people of India and an inherent disrespect and hatred of them. So, well done, Forster. I...have no complaints?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Send big dogs after her

Current book: A Passage to India
Pages read: 61 - 162

Apparently I read this a lot faster today than I did on Thursday. I have no clever explanation for that.

Well, since Mrs. Moore and Aziz were so friendly before, a mutual acquaintance, Mr. Fielding, invites them both to tea. Mr. Fielding is a local British teacher whom Aziz has known for some time, and Mrs. Moore since she arrived. Anyway, they meet and Aziz inadvertently invites Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested to tour the Marabar Caves, a local attraction, with him. It seems that he means the invitation as a courtesy, but the two women take it at face value. Aziz is left in the position of being forced to arrange the excursion even though he does not want to, but at least Mr. Fielding agrees to go along.

In the meantime, Ms. Quested tells Ronny that she does not want to marry him, but after a harrowing drive together in which their lives are threatened by an unrelated accident, she changes her mind and they become engaged. She is, however, aware of and depressed by the fact that she does not actually love him.

When the trip to the caves finally rolls around, Mr. Fielding is late for the train, and so Aziz and the two ladies end up going alone. Mrs. Moore sees one cave and declares herself exhausted, so it is Aziz and Adela alone who complete the trip. At the top of the escarpment where the caves are located, Aziz loses track of Adela. After a short time, he sees her far below him meeting a British friend who has come along in a car, and ceases to worry about her. By the time Aziz gets back down to where Mrs. Moore is, Mr. Fielding has arrived (ostensibly in that same British car) to save the day. Everyone's pleased, though Adela is still absent, and they're all sitting around having refreshments when the local police come tearing up and arrest Aziz for having put Ms. Quested in great danger. We don't have any explanation of what happened; he just gets hauled off to jail and it's the end of the chapter.

The commentary on the inappropriateness of the Raj's rule of India continues, obviously. It's clear that the British are so politically flawed themselves that they have no right to try to "improve the Indian people," as they are so desperate to do, and, in addition to that, consider themselves socially superior, regardless of the fact that they are often ill-mannered, unforgiving, and even hostile. It seems like we're about to get an example of their capacity to be heinously unfair, also.

There was a cunning little piece of commentary on whiteness where Forster said that being white had as much to do with color as "God save the Queen" has to do with God. So true, Forster. So true.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A passage to cake!

Current book: A Passage to India
Pages read: None

This is what I did instead of reading. It's a chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting, all made from scratch, and I also split the layers and put strawberry jam between them, with cream cheese frosting in the center layer.

I'm not sorry I didn't read.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The white man's burden

Current book: A Passage to India
Pages read: 7 - 61

I'm not very motivated to write today, seeing as it's 75 degrees and sunny, so this is going to be short and sweet.

So far, it's good. Mrs. Moore has brought Ms. Adela Quested to India to marry her son, the local magistrate, Ronny Heaslop. Both the women are very much interested in getting the real experience of India: meeting the local people, understanding the culture, and seeing the landscape. Ronny, however, feels that India and her people are beneath him, and does not want his mother or his soon-to-be-fiancee to develop sympathies for them. Mrs. Moore meets Dr. Aziz, a local Indian doctor, one night, quite by mistake, and afterward is intrigued with him and wishes to bring him into the British social circle, which she and Adela are determined to extend to the educated Indians in the area.

E. M. Forster has a lot to say about the politics of the Raj, it's clear. Ronny is completely despicable, and not just because I'm reading from a modern point of view. Adela and Mrs. Moore are well meaning, but are still so wrapped up in their own Western values that they can't really see that the only Indians they want to get to know are those who've Westernized themselves. They're both intrigued by the exotic, but only the exotic that has been rendered safe for them by colonial influence. I expect this book to be quite complex and interesting. Also, you can tell I like it because I only read 60 pages or so, regardless of the fact that my workout was as long as normal. I pay more attention when I like them.

Finally, it's a good thing I lived in Singapore for a while, because Forster has no problem throwing around Indian terms with no context at all. I'm lucky I know what a sais is, is all I'm saying.


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)