Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Poor little rich girl

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 29, 2010

In want of a wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 25, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Henry James, I cannot break bread with you.

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

No reading. Cooking for Thanksgiving!

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

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Can you feel it? The love?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Not on bread alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Come to Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So, so alone.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The son of a preacher man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 15, 2010

Psychologically disturbed

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

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

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

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

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

Ew. Just ew.

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

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


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

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Vagina dentata

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Sexual Behavior in the Human Male

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tell me about your mother.

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

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

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

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


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