Sunday, November 29, 2009

289. The Pursuit of Love – Nancy Mitford

History: This book was published in 1945.
Plot: The narrator is Fanny, whose mother ("The Bolter") and father have left her to be brought up by her Aunt Emily and the valetudinarian Davey, whom Emily marries early in the novel. Fanny spends much of her time at Alconleigh, home of her cousin and great friend, Linda, the main character in this book. The early chapters recount the Radlett children's bizarre upbringing, including their contrasting obsessions with hunting and preventing cruelty to animals, and the activities of their secret society, "the Hons."
As soon as she is grown up, the romantically inclined Linda marries Tony Kroesig, a dull banker and MP. They have one child, Moira, to whom Linda takes an instant dislike; Moira is soon abandoned to the care of her prosaic paternal grandparents. Linda leaves Tony for an ardent Communist, Christian Talbot. She travels to France to help with the Spanish refugees , but is still unable to get Christian’s attention. She finds out he is having an affair and leaves him. On her way home to England, she runs out of money in Paris, and as she is weeping , siting on her suitcase, she meets Fabrice, a French duke. They have an affair, he is very rich and buys her lots of presents and puts her up in a beautiful apartment. However, the couple are separated by the outbreak of World War II. Linda goes back to her family in England, and Fabrice joins the fight against the Nazis. At some point Fabrice comes back to England and sees Linda, and tells her he loves her. As a result of their liaison, Linda becomes pregnant - against medical advice - and dies in childbirth. Fabrice having been killed in the war, their baby son is adopted by Fanny and her husband.
Review: When Nancy Mitford wrote The Pursuit of Love in 1945, it caused a sensation. Her family and friends were shocked, the public was titillated, and everyone was hugely entertained. Yet at first sight, it’s certainly a good novel, but nothing to cause so much fuss: through the eyes of Cousin Fanny, it follows the pursuits and the loves of Linda Radlett, daughter of Lord Alconleigh, and the wildly eccentric habits of her family. Why the furore? Because Nancy Mitford, as her sister Jessica pointed out, had no imagination whatsoever: the book is so clearly autobiographical as to be almost a memoir, stripping her family, friends, and self bare with her own brand of wicked satire. Mitford sends up her class endlessly, wickedly, and accurately. From the tiny indicators of speech that separate the Hons from the Counter-Hons (the genuine nobles from the pretenders), to the men with leisure to tease their neighbors or make a hobby of their health, she makes even this middle-class American see every strand in the complicated braid.
Opening Line: “There is a photograph in existence of Aunt Sadie and her six children sitting round the tea-table at Alconleigh.”
Closing Line: “Oh dulling,” said my mother, sadly. “One always thinks that. Every, every time.”
Quotes: “The young man she had fallen in love with, handsome, gay, intellectual and domineering, melted away upon closer acquaintance, and proved to have been a chimera, never to have existed outside of her imagination.”
“Whatever quality it is that can hold indefinitely the love and affection of a man she plainly did not possess, and now she was doomed to the lonely, hunted life of a beautiful but unattached woman.”
“She reminded herself that nobody ever really knew he state of a man’s heart, not even, perhaps specially not, his moher, and that in love it is actions that count.”
Rating: Superb

Friday, November 27, 2009

288. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

History: This is an autobiographical novel, published in 1963. Sylvia Plath committed suicide one month after this book was published. The book contains many references to real people and events in Plath's life. Plath's real-life magazine scholarship was at Mademoiselle magazine beginning in 1953. Furthermore, Philomena Guinea is based on Plath's own patron, Olive Higgins Prouty, author of Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager, who funded Plath's scholarship to study at Smith College. Plath was rejected from a Harvard course taught by Frank O'Connor. Dr. Nolan is thought to be based on Plath's own therapist, Ruth Beuscher, whom she continued seeing into adulthood. Plath was actually a patient at McLean Hospital, an upscale facility.
Plot: Esther Greenwood, a young woman from the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, gains a summer internship at a prominent magazine in New York City under editor Jay Cee. At the time of the Rosenbergs' execution, Esther is neither stimulated nor excited by the big city and glamorous culture and lifestyle girls her age are expected to idolize and emulate. Instead her experiences frighten and disorient her. She has a benefactress in Philomena Guinea, a formerly successful fiction writer, who will, later during Esther's hospitalization, pay for some of her treatments.
Esther describes in detail several seriocomic incidents that occur during her internship, kicked off by an unfortunate but amusing experience at a so-called "ladies' day" banquet, and reminisces about her friend Buddy, whom she has dated more or less seriously and who considers himself her fiancé. She returns to her Massachusetts home in low spirits immediately finding out that she did not get into the writing class at Harvard. After being rejected, she decides to spend the summer potentially writing a novel, although she feels she hasn't got enough life experience to write convincingly. All of her identity has been centered around doing well academically; she has no idea what to make of her life once she leaves school, and the choices presented to her (motherhood, as exemplified by the prolific child-bearer and vacuous Dodo Conway, or stereotypical female careers such as stenography) do not appeal to her.
Esther becomes increasingly depressed, and finds herself unable to sleep. Her family doctor refers her to a psychiatrist, Esther immediately is suspicious of him, and who then hastily diagnoses her with a mental illness and administers electroconvulsive therapy. Also, this first therapist is noted by his sex, and also his good looks, which Esther resents. By this time, Esther is suffering from intense insomnia and is traumatised by the therapy, which was improperly administered.
Esther's mental state worsens. She describes her depression as a feeling of being trapped under a bell jar, struggling for breath. She makes several half-hearted attempts at suicide, including swimming far out to sea, before making a serious attempt. She leaves a note that says she is taking a long walk, then crawls into the cellar and swallows almost 50 sleeping pills that have been prescribed for her insomnia. She is discovered under her house after a rather dramatic episode in the newspapers has presumed her kidnapping and death, all taking place over an indeterminate amount of time. After a stay at the state institution, which is terrifiying, she is sent to a private mental hospital funded by her benefactress, Philomena Guinea, and meets Dr. Nolan, a female therapist with whom she becomes very close to. After several months, the doctor prescribes electroconvulsive therapy and ensures that it will be properly administered. Esther describes the ECT as beneficial in that it has a sort of antidepressant effect, lifting the metaphorical bell jar in which she has felt trapped and stifled. Under Dr. Nolan, Esther improves and various life-changing events —such as losing her virginity and her final understanding of death through the suicide of her friend Joan— help her regain her sanity. The novel ends with her entering the room for her interview which would decide whether she was free from the hospital or not.
Review: During and after reading The Bell Jar, I have become fascinated by Sylvia Plath and plan to read more by and about her. It’s 1953, and for a woman who wants to define her life by her work and her mind, the pressures of marriage and womanhood are immense. Esther is surrounded by talented girls who want nothing more than a rich husband and children. Esther doesn’t fit into that mold, and she is unable to create her own.
I think it’s a strong point of the book that Plath doesn’t present as the proximate cause anyone in particular (the mother, the misdiagnosis, the boyfriend, the patriarchal society). Rather, all of these elements stand for themselves, and we are left to wonder which contributed, and to what extent, to the downfall of this promising young woman.
Plath uses an almost causal tone when describing Esther’s breakdown. Everything is stated matter-of-factly, demonstrating how even the mentally ill can think rationally.
The book deserves its place among the best of the American classics. Plath was a literary genius whose own struggles with mental illness gave her poetry and prose a tragic and haunting voice.
Opening Line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Closing Line: “The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thriead, I stepped into the room.”
Quotes: “I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them , but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
Rating: Excellent.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

287. Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stephenson

History: This book was published in 1886.
Plot: The central character and narrator is a young man named David Balfour (Balfour being Stevenson's mother's maiden name), young but resourceful, whose parents have recently died and who is out to make his way in the world. He is given a letter by the minister of Essendean, Mr. Campbell, to be delivered to the ominous House of Shaws in Cramond, where David's uncle, Ebenezer Balfour, lives. On his journey, David inquires to many people where the House of Shaws is, and all of them speak of it darkly as a place of fear and evil.
David arrives at the House of Shaws and is confronted by his paranoid Uncle Ebenezer, armed with a blunderbuss. His uncle is also miserly living on "parritch" and ale, and indeed the House of Shaws itself is partially unfinished and somewhat ruinous. David is allowed to stay, and soon discovers evidence that his father may have been older than his uncle, thus making himself the rightful heir to the estate. Ebenezer asks David to get a chest from the top of a tower in the house, but refuses to provide a lamp or candle. David is forced to scale the stairs in the dark, and realizes that not only is the tower unfinished in some places, but that the steps simply end abruptly and fall into the abyss. David concludes that his uncle intended for him to have an "accident" so as not to have to give over his inheritance.
David confronts his uncle, who promises to tell David the whole story of his father the next morning. A ship's cabin boy, Ransome, arrives the next day, and tells Ebenezer that Captain Hoseason of the brig Covenant, needs to meet him to discuss business. Ebenezer takes David to South Queensferry, where Hoseason awaits, and David makes the mistake of leaving his uncle alone with the captain while he visits the docks with Ransome. Hoseason later offers to take them on board the brig briefly, and David complies, only to see his uncle returning to shore alone in a skiff and is then immediately struck senseless.
David awakens bound hand and foot in the hull of the ship. He becomes weak and sick, and one of the Covenant's officers, Mr. Riach, convinces Hoseason to move David up to the forecastle. Mr. Shuan, a mate on the ship finally takes his routine abuse of Ransome too far and murders the unfortunate youth. David is repulsed at the crew's behaviour, and learns that the Captain plans to sell him into servitude in the Carolinas.
David replaces the slain cabin boy, and the ship encounters contrary winds which drive her back toward Scotland. Fog-bound near the Hebrides, they strike a small boat. All of its crew are killed except one man, Alan Breck {Stewart}, who is brought on board and offers Hoseason a large sum of money drop him off on the mainland. David later overhears the crew plotting to kill Breck and take all his money. The two barricade themselves in the round house where Alan kills the murderous Shuan, and David wounds Hoseason. Five of the crew are killed outright, and the rest refuse to continue fighting.
Alan is a Jacobite Catholic who supports the claim of the House of Stuart to the throne of Scotland. He is initially suspicious of the pro-Whig David, who is also friendly toward the Campbells. Still, the young man has giving a good account of himself in the fighting and impresses the old soldier.
Hoseason has no choice but to give Alan and David passage back to the mainland. David tells his tale of woe to Alan, and Alan explains that the country of Appin where he is from is under the tyrannical administration of Colin Roy of Glenure, a Campbell and English agent. Alan vows that should he find the "Red Fox," he will kill him.
The Covenant tries to negotiate a difficult channel without a proper chart or pilot, and is soon driven aground on a rocky reef. David and Alan are separated in the confusion, with David being washed ashore on the isle of Erraid near Mull, while Alan and the surviving crew row to safety on that same island. David spends a few days alone in the wild before getting his bearings.
David learns that his new friend has survived, and has two encounters with beggarly guides, one whom attempts to stab him with a knife, and another who is blind but an excellent shot with a pistol. David soon reaches Torosay where he is ferried across the river and receives further instructions from Alan's friend Neil Roy McRob, and later meets a Catechist who takes the lad to the mainland.
As he continues his journey, David encounters none other than the Red Fox (Colin Roy) himself, who is accompanied by a lawyer, servant, and sheriff's officer. When David stops the Campbell man to ask him for directions, a hidden sniper kills the hated King's agent. David is denounced as a conspirator and flees for his life, but by chance reunites with Alan. The youth believes Breck to be the assassin, but Alan denies responsibility. The pair flee from Redcoat search parties until they reach James (Stewart) of the Glens, whose family is burying their hidden store of weapons and burning papers which could incriminate them. James tells the travellers that he will have no choice but to "paper" them (distribute printed descriptions of the two with a reward listed), but provides them with weapons and food for their journey south.
Alan and David then begin their flight through the heather, hiding from English soldiers by day. As the two continue their journey, David's health rapidly deteriorates, and by the time they are set upon by wild Highlanders who serve a chief in hiding, Cluny Macpherson, he is barely conscious. Alan convinces Cluny to give them shelter. The Highland Chieftain takes a dislike to David, but defers to the wily Breck's opinion of the lad. David is tended by Cluny's people, and soon recovers, though in the meantime Alan loses all of their money playing cards with Cluny.
As David and Alan continue their flight, David becomes progressively more ill, and he nurses anger against Breck for several days over the loss of his money. The pair nearly come to blows, but eventually reach the house of Duncan Dhu, who is a brilliant piper.
While staying there, Alan meets a foe of his, Robin Oig--son of Rob Roy MacGregor, who is a murderer and renegade. Alan and Robin nearly fight a duel, but Duncan persuades them to leave the contest to bagpipes. Both play brilliantly, but Alan admits Robin is the better piper, so the quarrel is resolved and Alan and David prepare to leave the Highlands and return to David's country.
In one of the most humorous passages in the book, Alan convinces an innkeeper's daughter from Limekilns that David is a dying young Jacobite nobleman, in spite of David's objections, and she ferries them across the Firth of Forth. There they meet a lawyer of David's uncle, Mr. Rankeillor, who agrees to help David receive his inheritance.
David and the lawyer hide in bushes outside the Ebenezer's house while Breck speaks to him, claiming to be a man who found David nearly dead after the wreck of the Covenant and is representing folk holding him captive in the Hebrides. He asks David's uncle whether to kill him or keep him. The uncle flatly denies Alan's statement that David had been kidnapped, but eventually admits that he paid Hoseason "twenty pound" to take David to "Caroliny". David and Rankeillor then emerge from their hiding places and speak with Ebenezer in the kitchen, after which the story of David's patronage is revealed: Apparently, his father and uncle had once quarrelled over a woman, and the older Balfour had married her; informally giving the estate to his brother while living as an impoverished school-teacher with his wife. This agreement had lapsed with his death, and David was provided two-thirds of the estate's income for as long as his wicked uncle survived.
The novel ends with David and Alan parting ways, Alan going to France, and David going to a bank to settle his money. At one point in the book, a reference is made to David's eventually studying at the University of Leyden, a fairly common practice for young Scottish gentry seeking a law career in the eighteenth century.
Review: I liked it, but not as much as Treasure Island. It's amusing how much Kidnapped matches the standard blockbuster fantasy plot without being a fantasy at all. This sort of adventure story is often written as fantasy these days, with the otherness of magic and medieval cultures replacing the otherness of historic Scotland and its wilds, and yet little of the plot changes without the fantasy element. Without the escalating discovery of power or the mythological structure, there's less going on, but the complexities of Scottish politics fill in and feel deeper than most fantasy politics.
Strange places, attractive rogues, adventure on the high seas, and a bit of Scottish political intrigue make this an adventure and provide the obvious appeal, but the strength of Stevenson's writing lies in the character interactions. Not the characters themselves as much: David is a solid everyman, young and a bit brash and full of self-confidence. Alan is a classic rogue, with some fighting skill, a gift of gab, and a gambling problem. The other characters also tend to stick closely to stock types, and none change much over the course of the adventure. But they all feel deep and nuanced because Stevenson's touch with dialogue and interaction is exceptional.
David expresses an attitude of superiority and adventure in the first-person narration that fits his age and mingles with a straight-laced attitude from his upbringing that occasionally catches him by surprise. Alan isn't just a rogue with a heart of gold; he's obnoxious to David as well, when he's in that mood. David doesn't quite know how to deal with their conflicting political beliefs. When they finally have a serious fight, it's one of the most honest fights I've seen in a book of this sort; they fight like adults with real resentment, true to their characters, rather than like petulant children or angsting teenagers.
There are some flaws. I found the beginning and end of the book by far the strongest, and got rather tired of the extended wander across the Scottish Highlands punctuated by only a few significant events. The final resolution of David's inheritance is a wonderful set piece but a touch too easy (although Stevenson does a great job making the victory a bit less than complete for practical reasons). And this is still a boy's adventure novel, an exciting romp and not much more than that. But it's a great example of the genre.
Opening Line: I will begin the story of my adventures with a certain morning early in the month of June, the year of grace 1751, when I took the key for the last time out of the door of my father’s house.”
Closing Line: “The hand of Providence brought me in my drifting to the very doors of the British Linen Company’s bank.”
Quotes: “Even I, who had the tide going out and in before me in the bay, and even watched for the ebbs, the better to get my shellfish -- even I (I say) if I had sat down to think, instead of raging at my fate, must have soon guessed the secret, and got free. It was no wonder the fishers had not understood me. The wonder was rather that they had ever guessed my pitiful illusion, and taken the trouble to come back. I had starved with cold and hunger on that island for close upon one hundred hours. But for the fishers, I might have left my bones there, in pure folly. And even as it was, I had paid for it pretty dear, not only in past sufferings, but in my present case; being clothed like a beggar-man, scarce able to walk, and in great pain of my sore throat.”
Rating: Good

286. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

History: This book was published in 1952. A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of "the Brotherhood", and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The book is a passionate and witty tour de force of style, strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce, and Dostoevsky. It is the only novel that Ellison wrote. Ellison states in his National Book Award acceptance speech that he considered the novel's chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest -- as Ellison would later put it -- he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly-regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind of symbolism which Ellison first encountered in the poem The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot. Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at the Tuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Land's ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and of literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later about what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation —techniques he had only before seen in jazz.
Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided him a "growing satisfaction." It was a "covert process," according to Ellison: "a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know what it was doing."
Plot: In the beginning of the book, the narrator lives in a small Southern town. He is a model student, even being named his high school's valedictorian. Having written and delivered a successful speech about the requirement of humility for the black man's progress, he is invited to give his speech before a group of important white men. However, he is first forced to fight a humiliating "battle royal" with other young black men. The battle royal consists of the young black men fighting blindfolded in a boxing ring while their white superiors watch in enjoyment. After finally giving his speech, he receives a briefcase containing a scholarship to a black college that is clearly modeled on Tuskegee Institute.
During his junior year at the college, the narrator is required to give Mr. Norton, a rich white trustee, a tour of the grounds. He accidentally drives to the house of Jim Trueblood, a black man living on the college's outskirts who impregnated his daughter. Trueblood, though disgraced by his fellow blacks, has found greater support from whites. After hearing Trueblood's story and giving Trueblood a hundred dollar bill, Mr. Norton faints, then asks for some alcohol to help his condition, prompting the narrator to take him to a local tavern. At the Golden Day tavern, Norton passes in and out of consciousness as black veterans suffering from mental health problems occupy the bar and a fight breaks out among them. One of the veterans claims to be a doctor and tends to Mr. Norton. The dazed and confused Mr. Norton is not fully aware of what’s going on, as the veteran doctor chastises the actions of the trustee and the young black college student. Through all the chaos, the narrator manages to get the recovered Mr. Norton back to the campus after a day of unusual events.
Upon returning to the school he is fearful of the reaction of the day's incidents from college president Dr. Bledsoe. At any rate, insight into Dr. Bledsoe's knowledge of the events and the narrator's future at the campus is somewhat prolonged as an important visitor arrives. The narrator views a sermon by the highly respected Reverend Homer A. Barbee. Barbee, who is blind, delivers a speech about the legacy of the college's founder, with such passion and resonance that he comes vividly alive to the narrator; his voice makes up for his blindness. The narrator is so inspired by the speech that he feels impassioned like never before to contribute to the college's legacy. However, all his dreams are shattered as a meeting with Bledsoe reveals his fate. Fearing that the college's funds will be jeopardized by the incidents that occurred, college president Dr. Bledsoe immediately expels the narrator. While the Invisible Man once aspired to be like Bledsoe, he realizes that the man has portrayed himself as a black stereotype in order to succeed in the white-dominated society. This serves as the first epiphany among many in the narrator realizing his invisibility. This epiphany is not yet complete when Bledsoe gives him several letters of recommendation to help him find work in the north. Upon arriving in New York, the narrator distributes the letters with no success. From the recipient of the final letter, the narrator learns that the letters instructed various friends of the school to assist Dr. Bledsoe in keeping the narrator deceived about his chances at returning to school - that is do not hire the narrator and do not inform him of the contents of the note.
He eventually gets a job in the boiler room of a paint factory in a company renowned for its white paints. The man in charge of the boiler room, Lucius Brockway, is extremely paranoid and thinks that the narrator has come to take his job. He is also extremely loyal to the company's owner, who once paid him a personal visit. When the narrator tells him about a union meeting he happened upon, Brockway is outraged, and attacks him. They fight, and Brockway tricks him into turning a wrong valve and causing a boiler to explode. Brockway escapes, but the narrator is hospitalized after the blast. While hospitalized, the narrator overhears doctors discussing him as a mental health patient. He learns through their discussion that shock treatment has been performed on him.
After the shock treatments, the narrator attempts to return to his residence when he feels overwhelmed by a certain dizziness and faints on the streets of Harlem. He is taken to the residence of a kind, old-fashioned woman by the name of Mary. Mary is down-to-earth and reminds the narrator of his relatives in the South and friends at the college. Mary somewhat serves as a mother figure for the narrator.
No longer able to work at the factory, the narrator wanders the streets of New York. Eventually, he comes across an elderly couple being evicted from their apartment and gives an important speech rallying passers-by to their cause. The onlookers, angry at the marshal in charge of the eviction, charge past him and start a riot. His otherwise powerful speech brings him to the attention of the Brotherhood, an equality-minded organization with obvious communist overtones, though the word Communist is never used in the novel. Their leader, Brother Jack, who witnessed the speech and the riot, recruits him and begins training him as an orator, with the intention of uniting New York's black community.
The narrator is at first happy to be making a difference in the world, "making history," in his new job. He gives several successful speeches and is soon promoted to head the Brotherhood's work in Harlem. While for the most part his rallies go smoothly, he soon encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist in the vein of Marcus Garvey who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Ras tells this to the narrator and Tod Clifton, a youth leader of the Brotherhood, neither of whom seem to be swayed by his words.
Soon the narrator's name is all over Harlem, and a magazine calls to interview him. Though he tries to convince them to interview Tod Clifton instead, they insist upon him. When the article comes out, one brother criticizes him for taking personal credit for the work, instead of emphasizing the whole of the Brotherhood. Though his work has been impeccable, the Brotherhood's ruling committee decides to take him out of Harlem and set him to work in a new part of town.
When he returns to Harlem, Tod Clifton has disappeared. When the narrator finds him, he realizes that Clifton has become disillusioned with the Brotherhood, and has quit. Clifton is selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, mocking the organization he once believed in. He is shot to death by a police officer in a scuffle. At Clifton's funeral, the narrator rallies crowds to win back his former widespread Harlem support and delivers a rousing speech, but he is censured by the Brotherhood for praising a man who would sell such dolls.
Walking along the street one day, the narrator is spotted by Ras and roughed up by his men. He buys sunglasses and a hat as a disguise, and is mistaken for a man named Rinehart in a number of different scenarios: first, as a lover, then, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and, finally, as a reverend. He sees that Rinehart has adapted to white society, at the cost of his own identity. This causes the narrator to see that his own identity is not of importance to the Brotherhood, but only his blackness. He decides to take his grandfather's dying advice to "over come 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction. . ." and "yes" the Brotherhood to death, by making it appear that the Harlem membership is thriving when in reality it is crumbling.
The novel ends with a massive Harlem race riot, fueled by anger over Clifton's death and the tension between the Brotherhood and the followers of Ras. Riding a horse in full tribal regalia, Ras orders the narrator hanged and throws a spear at him. The narrator hurls the spear back, piercing Ras' cheek. He now realizes that even in trying to subvert the Brotherhood, he has only aided its white-controlled interests in helping to start a race riot that will generate sympathy and propaganda for the organization. Blinded by his epiphany, the narrator runs away, and is soon accosted by a group of men for his briefcase. He once again flees and the narrator falls down a manhole, where he is taunted by his pursuers. Rather than try to escape, he decides to make a new life for himself underground, invisible. As mentioned at the beginning of the story, he taps an electric wire running into the building so he can power his collection of 1,369 bulbs in the basement, hidden from the power company.
The story ends with the narrator musing over the problems of his life. The story begins from where it started; the narrator is still in the same spot. However, at the end of the novel, the narrator is ready to resurface because "overt action" has already taken place. This could be that, in telling us the story, the narrator has already made a political statement where change could occur. Storytelling, then, and the preservation of history of these invisible individuals is what causes political change.
Review: The book's main theme is the invisibility of the underdog. As the title suggests, the main character is invisible because everyone sees him as a stereotype, not as a real person. While the narrator often bemoans his state of invisibility, he comes to embrace it in the end. He realizes there are a number of advantages to it that allow him to remain undetected and inconspicuous. In all other parts of the country people live in a kind of vastly standardized cultural prairie, a sort of infinite Middle West, and that means that they don't really live and they don't really do anything.
Most Americans thus are Invisible.
I previously enjoyed Native Son because the plot had twists and turns like you were riding a roller coaster. Invisible Man had twists and turns, but more like g-force nightmare 180 degree hairpins late at night on a mountain road with a 500 foot drop while you are tipsy from alcohol and altitude, with a crazed nymphomaniac in the passenger seat insisting on giving you a blowjob.
And the writing! Ralph Ellison can make words open up the page like Alice's looking glass, and draw you into scenes like you are there, and all the weird awful crap that happens is affecting you right in the room. Early in the book there is a scene where the protagonist is invited to give a speech to a Chamber of Commerce meeting. It is one of the best written scenes I've ever experienced in any novel. Sex! Violence! Betrayal! More violence! More Betrayal! And THEN he has to give the speech to these men who have shown themselves to be total savages, and act like one of my UMTYMP honors students giving a valedictory speech at graduation.
However I could not find sympathy for the main character, it seemed as if he chose the scrapes he got himself into.
Opening Line: “It goes a long way back, some twenty years.”
Closing Line: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
Quotes: “How stupid could people be? Was everyone nuts?”
Rating: Mediocre.

285. The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

History: This book was written in 1951. Wyndham frequently acknowledged the influence of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.
Plot: The protagonist is Bill Masen, an Englishman who has made his living working with "Triffids," plants capable of aggressive and seemingly intelligent behaviour: they are able to move about on their three "legs", appear to communicate with each other and possess a deadly whip-like poisonous sting that enables them to kill and feed on the rotting carcasses of their victims. The book implies they were bioengineered in the Soviet Union and then accidentally released into the wild when a plane carrying their seeds is shot down. Triffids begin sprouting all over the world, and their extracts prove to be superior to existing vegetable oils. The result is worldwide cultivation of Triffids.
The narrative begins with Masen in hospital, his eyes bandaged after having been splashed with droplets of triffid venom in a lab accident. During his convalescence he is told of the unexpected and beautiful green meteor shower that the entire world is watching. He awakes the next morning to a silent hospital and learns that the light from the unusual display has rendered any who watched it completely blind. After unbandaging his eyes, he wanders through a largely sightless London, watching civilization collapsing around him. Masen meets a sighted woman, novelist Josella Playton. She and Masen begin to fall in love and decide to leave London.
After being lured by a single light in an otherwise darkened city, Bill and Josella discover and join a group of sighted survivors at a London university led by a man named Beadley, who are planning to establish a colony in the countryside. Beadley wishes to take only sighted men who will take several wives to rapidly rebuild the human population. The polygamous principles of this scheme appall one of the other leaders of the group, the religious Miss Durrant. Before this schism can be dealt with a man called Wilfred Coker takes it upon himself to save as many of the blind as possible. He stages a mock fire at the university and during the ensuing chaos kidnaps a number of sighted individuals including Bill and Josella. Each is chained to a squad of blind people and forced to lead them around London, collecting rapidly diminishing food and supplies. Bill and his group finds themselves beset by escaped triffids and an aggressive rival gang of scavengers led by a ruthless red-haired man.
Masen nevertheless sticks with his group until the people in his charge all begin dying of some unknown disease. He leaves and attempts to find Josella, but his only lead is an address left behind by the now-departed members of Beadley's group. Thrown together with a repentant Coker, he drives to the place, a country estate named Tynsham in Wiltshire, but neither Beadley nor Josella are there; Durrant has taken charge and organised the community along "Christian" lines. Masen and Coker fruitlessly search for Beadley and/or Josella for several days, before Bill remembers a chance comment Josella made about a country home in Sussex. He sets off in search of it, while Coker returns to Tynsham.
Bill is joined by a young sighted girl named Susan; they succeed in locating Josella, who is indeed at the Sussex house. Bill and Josella consider themselves to be married, and see Susan as their daughter. They attempt to make the Sussex farm into a self-sufficient colony, but with only marginal success, as the triffids grow ever more numerous, crowding in and surrounding their small island of civilization. Years pass, during which it becomes steadily harder to keep out the encroaching plants.
One day a helicopter pilot representative of Beadley's faction lands at the farm and reports that the group has established a successful colony on the Isle of Wight (and that Coker survived to join them). Despite their ongoing struggles, the Masens are reluctant to leave their home, but their hand is forced by the arrival the next day of a squad of soldiers who represent a despotic new government which is setting up feudal enclaves across the country. Masen recognizes the leader, Torrence, as the redheaded man from London. Torrence announces his intention to place many more blind survivors under the Masens' care and to move Susan to another enclave. After feigning general agreement, the Masens disable the soldiers' vehicle and flee during the night. They join the Isle of Wight colony, and settle down to the long struggle ahead, determined to find a way to destroy the triffids and reclaim Earth for humanity.
Review: John Wyndham raises relevant questions regarding the manipulation of nature and proliferation of space armaments. He weds the two concerns and creates an entertaining, thought-provoking story based on a credible “what if”. What if a new – perhaps man-made – form of life thrust itself forward at the same time as a space catastrophe – also perhaps man-made – occurred? Even though this is a postapolyptic story, the novel is not at all a doom and gloom book. It is actually quite hopeful, optimistic, and funny.
Opening Line: “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”
Closing Line: “We think now that we can see the way, but there is still a lot of work and research to be done before the day when we, or our children, or their children will cross the narrow straights on the great crusade to drive the Trippids back, and back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.”
Quotes: “Keep behind me. There's no sense in getting killed by a plant.”
Rating: Good

284. Naked Lunch – William Burroughs

History: This book was originally published in 1959.
Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. "The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork."
Naked Lunch is considered Burroughs' seminal work, and one of the landmark publications in the history of American literature. Extremely controversial in both its subject matter and its use of often 'obscene' language (something Burroughs recognized and intended), the book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles. It was one of the most recent American books over which an obscenity trial was held. The book was banned by Boston courts in 1962 due to obscenity (notably child murder and acts of pedophilia), but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. This was the last major literary censorship battle in the U.S. The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes, as it was found to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.
Upon publication, Grove Press added to the book supplementary material regarding the censorship battle as well as an article written by Burroughs on the topic of drug addiction. In 2002, a "restored text" edition of Naked Lunch was published with some new and previously suppressed material added.
On a more specific level, Naked Lunch also protests the death penalty. In Burroughs' Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness, perhaps the most shocking and pornographic section of the book, "The Blue Movies" (appearing in the vignette A.J.'s Annual Party) is deemed "a tract against capital punishment." Within "The Blue Movies," three adolescents take part in hanging one another, wherein Burroughs lewdly mocks by incorporating auto-erotic asphyxiation.
Plot: The book begins with the adventures of William Lee (aka Lee the Agent) who is Burroughs' alter ego in the novel - as well as his pen name for Junky. His journey starts in the US where he is fleeing the police, in search of drugs and his next fix. There are short chapters here describing the different characters he travels with and meets along the way.
Eventually he gets to Mexico where he is assigned to Dr. Benway; for what, he is not told. Benway appears and he tells about his previous doings in Annexia as a "Total Demoralizator". The story then moves to a state called Freeland—a form of limbo—where we learn of Islam Inc. Here, some new characters are introduced; Clem, Carl, Joselito amongst others.
A short section then jumps in space and time to a market place. The Black Meat is sold here and compared to 'Junk', i.e. morphine. The action then moves back to the hospital where Benway is fully revealed as a manipulative, uncaring and corrupt monster.
Time and space again shifts the narrative to a location known as Interzone. Hassan, one of the notable characters of the book and "a notorious liquefactionist," is throwing a violent orgy. AJ crashes the party and wreaks havoc, decapitating people and imitating a pirate. Hassan is enraged and tells AJ never to return, calling him a "factualist bitch" - a term which is enlarged much later when the apparently "clashing" political factions within Interzone are described. These include the Liquefactionists, the Senders, the Factualists, the Divisionists, who occupy "a midway position". A short descriptive section tells us of Interzone University, where a professor and his students are ridiculed; the book moves on to an orgy that AJ himself throws.
The book then shifts back to the market place and a description of some form of government. Characters including the County Clerk, Benway, Dr Berger, Clem and Jody are sketched through heavy dialogue and their own sub-stories.
After the description of the four parties of Interzone, we are then told more stories about AJ. After briefly describing Interzone, the novel breaks down into sub-stories and heavily cut-up influenced passages.
In a sudden return to what seems to be Lee's reality, two police officers, Hauser and O'Brien, catch up with Lee, who manages to kill both of them. Lee then goes out to a street phone-booth and calls the Narcotics Squad, saying he wants to speak to O'Brien. A Lieutenant Gonzales on the other end of the line claims there's no one in their records called O'Brien. When Lee asks for Hauser instead, the reply is identical; Lee hangs up, and goes on the run once again.
Review: Maybe not your music, or for that matter mine, but surely music nevertheless. This "novel", moreover, extols thing that today are rather taken for granted like illegal (and in the book and in Burroughs personal life seemingly excessive) drug use, homosexuality, the use of `obscene language', the dehumanization of modern society. Sound familiar? Of course, but Burroughs said it when it was not fashionable to do so. No wonder he was the "mentor" for those young kids, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, etc. when they hit New York in the mid-1940s looking for "something". Using believable metaphors representing addiction to such things as, most notably heroin and control, along with medical practice such as Benway resorting to subway abortions after having his license revoked, and even homosexuality and WASP supremacy, Burroughs repudiates America's consumerist post-World War II state, and the overall human condition.
Opening Line: “I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…”
Closing Line: “No glot.. C’lom Friday”
Quotes: “Look down at my filthy trousers, haven’t been changed in months… the days glide by strung on a syringe with a long thread of blood.”
“And once he has scored he holes up for several days like a gorged boa constrictor.”
Rating: Not my cup of tea, but important.

283. A Severed Head – Iris Murdoch

History: This book was published in 1961. Despite these serious overtones, A Severed Head is regarded by many readers as the most entertaining of Murdoch's novels. As British novelist William Sutcliffe put it, "Of all the lots-of-people-screwing-lots-of-other-people novels this is probably the best, and certainly the weirdest. With less philosophising and more shagging than Murdoch's other books, it is a joy to see this wonderful writer let her hair (and her knickers) down."
Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon is a 41-year-old well-to-do wine merchant who is married to an older woman called Antonia. It never occurs to him that his ongoing affair with a young academic called Georgie could be immoral. Actually, he considers himself to be a very lucky man. Displaying quite a number of macho attributes in his relationships with women, Lynch-Gibbon is shocked when, out of the blue, his wife tells him that she is going to leave him for Palmer Anderson, her psychoanalyst and a friend of the couple's, with whom she has had a secret affair for quite some time. The break up is very friendly, and both Antonia and Palmer appear to be sympathetic with Martin and still want to be friends. He moves out of their London house but still does not want to publicize his affair with Georgie, let alone become engaged to her. Georgie is very hurt by this, and confides to Honor Klein.
Honor Klein, Anderson's stepsister, who is a lecturer in anthropology at Cambridge, is staying with Palmer, and intervenes in the situation by telling Palmer and Antonia about the affair with Georgie, all the details including the abortion. Martin is shocked that this occurred, and suddenly is questioning his love… He continually changes who he is in love with throughout the book, Antonia, Georgie, or Honor. He confronts Honor in the wine cellar, and then physically attacks her, but doesn’t feel remorse for it, but instead becomes attracted to her.
Like a man possessed, he follows her to Cambridge and, in the middle of the night, breaks into her house, only to find her in bed with her stepbrother. At this point, Palmer turns into a harder, less ambiable man, demanding Martin not tell Antonia. Martin, however, is more disturbed as to whether he can love a woman who has incestuous relationships with her brother.
Georgie attempts suicide, and ends up in the hospital. Martin is overcome by his own needs and spends months away. And then Martins brother Alexander tells him that he and Georgie are engaged to be married. Martin goes off the deep end and drinks for days on end.
Palmer, in his shame of being caught with his sister, and, for fear of getting caught by Antonia, starts to be mean to Antonia, and she breaks up with him. Martin and her get back to together for a short time. But, out of the blue, Antonia confesses to him that she has also been sleeping with his older brother Alexander for quite some time.
In the end, Georgie and Palmer go on a long trip together, Antonia and Alexander get married, and Honor and Martin end up together.
Review: Murdoch succeeds in presenting a middle-aged bourgeois who initially thinks of himself as a survivor but realizes that he is in fact a victim. Throughout the novel, all the main characters insist that they have long overcome conventional morality, that they are free agents in the truest sense of the word, but in spite of his hedonism Lynch-Gibbon's residual moral posture just will not go away. Murdoch is particularly good at conveying the atmosphere of benevolence and the apparent lack of hard feelings among the individuals that have wronged and been wronged. ("It is not at all our idea that you should leave us. In a strange and rather wonderful way we can't do without you. We shall hold on to you, we shall look after you," Anderson says to Lynch-Gibbon, who sees himself as a cuckold rather than anything else.) At times funny, sad at others, A Severed Head also deals with more serious issues such as abortion (Georgie terminates her pregnancy at an early stage of her relationship with Lynch-Gibbon) and attempted suicide (again it is Georgie who tries to take her own life after being rejected by both Lynch-Gibbon and his brother).
Opening Line: “You’re sure she doesn’t know,” said Georgie.”
Closing Line: “I gave her back the bright light of the smile, now softening at last out of irony. ‘So must you, my dear!’”
Quotes: “The loss of Antonia seemed like the impossible loss for ever of all warmth and all security; and it was strange too that although a few days ago I had seemed to divide my being and give to Antonia only a part, it now seemed that with her all was to be dragged away. It was like being flayed.”
“Your love for me does not inhabit the real world. Yes, it is love, I do not deny it. But not every love has a course to run, smooth or otherwise, and this love has no course at all. Because of what I am and because of what you saw I am a terrible object of fascination for you. I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use, anointing it with oil and putting amorsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies.”
“I pulled out a bottle. It weighed heavily in my hand like a familiar tool or weapon.”
Rating: Very good, but weird.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

282: Operation Shylock - Philip Roth

History: This book was published in 1993. Operation Shylock radically attacks the distinction between life and art by making a fairly mimetic version of the author the protagonist of an obviously invented (though plausible) story. The book itself, like several of Roth’s novels, walks the tightrope between fact and fiction. It’s written in first-person confessional style and built on the foundation of factual events; yet a disclaimer at the book’s end insists that Shylock is pure invention. Yet despite this effort, separating the real from the fictional in Operation Shylock is not wholly impossible. Specifically, several minor characters from the novel are actual people including John Demjanjuk, and Israeli writer and Roth friend Aharon Appelfeld,the nervous breakdown Roth suffered following a difficult knee operation (described in the prologue) actually occurred (cf. Claire Bloom's Leaving a Doll's House). To confuse matters even more, Roth has claimed in public that he really did undergo a top-secret spy mission for the Israelis, as the book states.
Plot: The author, recovering from a mental breakdown caused by the dangerous painkiller Halcion, travels to Israel to interview colleague Aharon Appelfeld for The New York Times Review of Books. He discovers, however, that another Philip Roth has gotten there before him and has been preaching anti-Israeli doctrine in his name. According to the other Roth, the Jews must abandon the concept of Zionism and return to their homelands in Europe before Israel disgraces the entire religion. Roth grows upset that his name is being used for political purposes — especially political purposes with which he doesn’t agree — and goes out to confront his doppleganger. He discovers that the “fake” Philip Roth is virtually indistinguishable from the “real” Philip Roth, and that people are buying the ruse. The imposter refuses to back down from his impersonation, claiming to be a martyr for the cause of Jewish Diasporism.
The views espoused by “Philip Roth” quickly come to the attention of both Israeli and Palestinian intelligence, and soon the author can no longer distinguish reality from subterfuge. As a high-profile Jewish figure, Roth begins to suspect that he is being ensnared by both Israelis and Palestinians into working for their causes. Innocent encounters begin to seem like carefully crafted plots designed to sway his opinion.
To top things off, this all occurs at a time when tensions couldn’t be greater between Arab and Jew. Israel is involved in the trial of John Demjanjuk, a Cleveland auto worker accused of being the notorious Nazi torturer Ivan the Terrible. The legitimacy of Jewish and Palestinian claims about Israel rests on whether Demjanjuk is really a monster finally being brought to justice or a poor immigrant being subjected to a sham trial.
For Roth, the final truth to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there isn’t any. Israel is both a paradise for the Jews and a nightmare for the Palestinians; Demjanjuk is both a model American citizen and a Nazi butcher; and the Israeli intelligence agency the Mossad is both manipulative and deceitful as well as a noble institution worthy of working for. If there is any simpler truth, the author concludes, it cannot be deduced from the evidence that is now before us.
Review: Roth is a narcissist with much to be narcissistic about. This book is an amazing combination of Roth's extraordinary writing ability and his obsessive naval gazing. Indeed, without obviously intending irony, he calls his "double" in the story--the "other" Phillip Roth-- Moishe Pippic, which translates as Moses Bellybutton. No phrase could better capture Roth's grandiose self-image and obsessive self-examination; one Phillip Roth wasn't enough to sate him, so he has two of them in the book.
And yet you (or at least I) are reading it. The reader can just feel Roth saying, "Grandiose? You don't seem to have anything better to do with your time than read my self-exploration, so who are you to judge?"
This novel has a plot, but that plot--while immensely clever--serves mostly as a very thin wafer on which Roth serves thick essays on Israel and jewishness from a variety of perspectives. We hear from arab intelligentsia, jewish "diasporists," Nazi war criminals, children of Nazi war criminals, holocaust survivors, Israeli secret agents and, most of all, two Phillip Roths looking in the mirror. Roth's conception of the thoughts and diatribes of all but the latter are beautifully written--angry and thought-provoking-- and make the book worthwhile if you are interested in that sort of thing, but not so interested that you will be upset by some of the frankly offensive views portrayed in some of their rants.
The plot is too thin, the self-obsession too great, and the interesting bits too specialized.
Opening Line: "For legal reasons, I have had to alter a number of facts in this book."
Closing Line: "This confession is false."
Quotes: "You are that marvelous, unlikely, most magnificent phenomenon, the truly liberated Jew. The Jew who is not accountable. The Jew who finds the world perfectly to his liking. The comfortable Jew. The happy Jew. Go. Choose. Take. Have. You are the blessed Jew condemned to nothing, least of all to our historical struggle." "No. I said, "not a hundred percent true. I am a happy Jew condemned to nothing who is condemned, however, from time to time to listen to superior Jewish windbags reveling in how they are condemned to everything. Is the show finally over?"
Rating: Horrible. Way too wordy, boring, and narcissistic.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

281. The Glimpses of the Moon - Edith Wharton

History: This book was published in 1922, a year after Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize.
Plot: The novel tells the story of Susy Branch and Nick Lansing, both of whom have no money but have found ways of living comfortably in high society -- they have been sponging off of friends in order to support the lifestyles to which they have been accustomed. When they meet and hit it off, they decide to marry and live as long as they can off the wedding presents they receive and the offers of houses to visit that come from their rich friends. The catch, though, is that they have agreed to end the marriage if one or the other finds someone rich who will marry them.
Susy and Nick are fond of each other, but have diferent ideas about what manipulation and deception, what management is acceptable when it comes to securing money or a house to live in. They quarrel about whether Susy should take a box of cigars left by their friend, and this quarrel causes a rift that won't soon heal and that hints at the even greater struggles the two of them will soon face. They quarrel again because Susy covers for an aquaintance to have an extramarital affair, and Nick leaves her.
Susy is upset, but ends up promising to marry her friend, Stratford, who has just inherited a fortune. When she kisses him, though, she is repulsed, but it gets better over time. Nick is traveling with friends and is charmed by their daughter, but not romantically. Stratford pressures Suzy to divorce Nick, so she begins proceedings, thinking this is what Nick wants her to do. But it becomes more difficult than that, and things are stalled. Spending more time with Stratford, Susy learns that he also helped the friend have an extramarital affair, actually leasing the villa to the elicit couple. This is the last straw, and Susy goes to live with her poor artsy friends, who have five children. She loves the children, and cares for them when the parents go on a trip for the summer. Nick comes to Paris, and sees the poverty she lives in, but thinks she is still with Stratford. But in the end they get back together.
Review: The Glimpses of the Moon was written with a much lighter touch and has a happy ending, something you don't often see in a Wharton novel. She turns a keen eye on high society and brings to light their foibles and follies. Money may buy Venetian palazzos, but the inhabitants seem to be morally bankrupt. Are any of them really happy? She very deftly writes about marriage and money and contrasts what value marriage has with or without the jewelry, homes and bank accounts. She very cleverly leaves it up to the reader to contrast wealthy characters, or those that come into wealth, with those that must work to get by. Susy and Nick may be friends to these Society people, but at times they're treated as little more than servants. Even the children in the novel reflect their upbringing and the values of their parents and having material wealth doesn't necessarily buy happiness as we all know. The Lansings seem to learn the most valuable lessons from the poorest characters in the story.
Opening Line: "It rose for them - their honey-moon - over the waters of a lake so famed as the scene of romatic raptures that they were rather proud of not having been afraid to choose it as the setting of their own."
Closing Line: "They leaned on the sill in the darkness, and through the clouds, from which a few drops were already falling, the moon, labouring upward, swam into a space o sky, cast her troubled glory on them, and was again hidden."
Quotes: "'You're very cruel, Susy--so cruel and dreadful that I hardly know how to answer you,' she stammered. 'But you simply don't know what you're talking about. As if anybody ever had all the money they wanted!' She wiped her dark-rimmed eyes with a cautious handkerchief, glanced at herself in the mirror, and added magnanimously: 'But I shall try to forget what you said'."
Rating: Mediocre.

280. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

History: This book was first published in Spanish in 1967. It was was translated into over 27 languages. It was also an immense commercial success, becoming the best-selling book in Spanish in modern history, after Don Quixote. The product of 15 months of work, during which García Márquez barricaded himself in his house, it broke his writer's block and is widely considered García Márquez's magnum opus. The narrative style of the novel was especially praised - ostensibly objective but often manifestly ridiculous, it combined García Márquez's experience as a journalist with the literary style of magical realism and extensive uses of metaphors and irony. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.
Plot: The novel is the history of the founding, development, and death of a human settlement, Macondo, and of the most important family in that town, the Buendias. This book marks a century and a half of the Buendia family, with over 25 characters weaving in and out of time. The first generation, Ursula Iguarán and José Arcadio Buendía have three children. The two sons, José Arcadio and Aureliano, have different personality traits. This is echoed throughout the rest of the book. Over six generations all the José Arcadios possess inquisitive and rational dispositions as well as enormous physical strength; the Aurelianos, meanwhile, tend towards insularity and quietude. This repetition of traits reproduces the history of the individual characters and ultimately a history of the town as a succession of the same mistakes are made. The founding of Maconda, the years of war, the famine and prosperity are described, but mainly the book is about the love affairs, and what follows, whether a child, or heartache.
Review: This book is filled with short stories, all related to the magical realism theme. One of the most charming qualities of this book is that you can pick it up and allow it to fall open at any random page, read that one page only, and still enjoy it for the imagery, the sheer beauty with which everything is described and narrated. In terms of point of view and place, Marquez used his control over language to recreate a path not yet followed by readers as he gently lead us into the land of magical realism. Magical realism is a technique in literature used to tell a tale through a warped perception, getting the reader to use a refreshing new view. The imagination of the men in Macondo follows a pattern we can learn from. At a young age they sense these grand ideas of possibility, and visions of the future. When this adrenaline begins to slow with age they crash.
Opening Line: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father tok him to discover ice."
Closing Line: "Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth."
Quotes: "But the lucidity of her old age allowed her to see, and she said so many times, that the cries of children in their mothers' wombs are not announcements of ventriloquiesm or a faculty for prophecy but an unmistakable sign of an incapacity for love."
"It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay. It was an intricate stew of truths and mirages that convulsed the ghost of José Arcadio Buendía with impatience and made him wander all through the house even in broad daylight."
Rating: Okay, but difficult to read.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

279. American Pastoral - Philip Roth

History: This book was published in 1997, and won the Pullitzer Prize in 1998.
Plot: Roth alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, who is the narrator, comments on the life of Swede Levov, a high school athelete he admired and respected. Swede was a legend in his own time within his Jewish neighborhood, an extraordinary athlete who was the embodiment of "American" to his contemporaries, to their parents, to their little brothers and sisters. The Swede's younger brother, Jerry, was Skip's best friend, and that friendship gave the eventual writer ample opportunity to observe and worship his idol. He sees Seymour Levov many years later at a baseball game. Swede Levov has aged gracefully, looking every bit the successful and contented businessman that no one from their neighborhood ever doubted he could become. He seems, to Skip now, impossibly serene, as though the Swede is unafflicted by any depth, that he is incapable of having anything other than the perfect life.
A short time later, Skip receives a letter from Seymour "Swede" Levov, asking that they meet to discuss a private memoir of the Swede's and his brother Jerry's father, a glovemaker whose company the Swede eventually inherited and successfully carried on. Unable all these years later to resist the quiet, legendary Swede, Skip meets with him. But at the lunch, the Swede makes no mention of his father or of a memoir, simply talks of his sons and of memories of Newark before and during World War II. Skip's impression, is not exactly of shallowness, but of layer after layer of surface, of glowing blandness and self-contentedness. He tells of his wife and 3 sons, constantly keeping up that vacant smile. Skip Zuckerman thinks he is insane, and they never meet again. Skip leaves the meeting disappointed and a little bewildered about his own continuing fascination with the great Swede Levov.
At a high school reunion, in 1995, Skip runs into the Swede's brother Jerry -- once his intense, combative Ping Pong-playing best friend, now a several-times-divorced and very successful surgeon. Skip mentions having had lunch with the Swede, and Jerry stuns him by saying he's just come from his funeral. The Swede knew he was dying when he met with Skip, and as the two reminisce, Skip comes to realize that there was far more to the Swede beneath that seemingly unscratchable surface.
He learns another story of him, the tragic derailment of the life after his teenage daughter Merry in 1968 set off a bomb in protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War, in which the rest of the book describes. Seymour Levov remained traumatized for the rest of his life. The rest of the novel consists of Zuckerman's posthumous recreation of Seymour Levov's life.
In Zuckerman's reimagining of Seymour's life this second marriage has no part; it ends in 1973 with Watergate unraveling on TV while the previous lives of all the protagonists completely fall apart.
Seymour Levov is born and raised in the Weequahic section of Newark as the son of a successful Jewish-American glove manufacturer. Called "the Swede" because of his anomalous blond hair, blue eyes and Nordic good looks, he is a star athlete in three sports and narrator Nathan Zuckerman's idol and hero. The Swede enlists in the Marines, like his father, and then eventually takes over his father's glove factory, Newark Maid, and marries Dawn Dwyer, an Irish-American Miss New Jersey 1949 winner (the actual winner that year was Betty Jane Crowley).
Levov establishes what he believes to be a perfect American life with a beloved family, a satisfying business life, and a beautiful old home in rural, Old Rim Rock, New Jersey. Much of the book describes his relationship with his daughter, the beloved Merry, who was a precocious and intellegent child until approximately age eleven, and then begins to go insane. Merry is also suffering from a speech impedement, stuttering. However, Swede blames himself, because of a prolonged kiss he gave her somewhat inappropriately on the way home from the beach when she was eleven.
As the Vietnam War and racial unrest wrack the country and destroy inner-city Newark, the teenage Merry, outraged at the United States' conduct in Vietnam, becomes more radical in her beliefs and in 1968 commits an act of political terrorism. In protest against the Vietnam War and the "system", she plants a bomb in a local post office and the resulting explosion kills a bystander. In this singular act, Levov is cast out of the seemingly perfect life he has built and thrown instead into a world of chaos and dysfunction.
Like a number of real-life members of the Weather Underground, Seymour's daughter goes permanently into hiding. This destroys her doting parents, and they begin to fall apart. Dawn is hospitalized twice, in a mental health facility, and has a face lift as well. Swede has an affair with Sheila, Merry's speech therapist, whom he eventually finds has harbored Merry soon after the bombings. Dawn, too, has an affair.
Also, Rita Cohen, acting as a spokes person for Merry, has a few encounters with Swede, and swindles ten thousand dollars out of him, but then telling him he must have sex with her if he wants to see his daughter, which he doesnt.
In Zuckerman's narration, a secret reunion of father and daughter takes place in 1973in Newark's ruined inner city, where Merry is living in abysmal conditions. During this reunion, she claims that since the first bombing she has set off several other bombs resulting in more deaths and that she has been repeatedly raped while living in hiding. the novel revolves not so much around this scene as around what Merry has done, the deaths she has caused, and the absurd, irresistible question of how this respectable Jewish athlete and his Irish, former-Miss-New-Jersey wife could have given birth to this once angry, now dislocated, apparently reasoning, weirdly unthinking girl. The question can't be answered, of course, but causalities keep shaping themselves in the mind.
Review: Philip Roth has sexual hang-ups and identity issues and ongoing self-obsession, which he regularly parses into novel-sized chunks, with wariness. The most interesting person in the book is Merry, not Swede. The last 100 pages of the book, take place at one of Swede and Dawn's dinner parties. They talk about pornography and they talk about elections and, they talk about glove making. It's like being trapped in a room. The daughter who provides a little insanity is gone. She's subtext. You want her to come back.
There are long sections of conversation (one features the Swede's bulldog of a father interrogating his Catholic future daughter-in-law about anti-Semitism), that just go on and on. Structurally, the book is poorly shaped. Roth fills the novel with all sorts of rabbit trails that lead off all over the place. It’s hard to keep an eye on what exactly you’re talking about. When he returns from his rabbit trail, it’s hard to pick up the story where you left it. At times, for example, I didn’t know whether he was talking about the past or the present.
Roth doesn't circle back to the 90-page preamble featuring Zuckerman, the ending feels arbitrary and the gratifying if bracing payoff that "American Pastoral" vigorously promises throughout is denied. We don't find out about his second marriage, and even how and when his first marriage ended, and how Merry ended either. It's as if Roth became weary of endless conversations at the dinner party, the drunk woman stabs his father with a fork, and the book is over.
Opening Line: "The Swede."
Closing Line: "What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?"
Quotes: "You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance…and yet you never fail to get them wrong…You get them wrong when you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell someone else about the meeting and you get them wrong all over again…the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception."
Rating: Good.

Friday, November 13, 2009

278. The Mayor of Castorbridge - Thomas Hardy

History: This book was published in 1886.
Plot: A young hay–trusser named Michael Henchard and his wife Susan stop at a country fair near Casterbridge, Wessex, Spurred by alcohol, he decides to auction off his wife and baby daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, and a sailor, Mr. Newson, gets them for five guineas. Once sober the next day, he is too late to recover his family, particularly since his reluctance to reveal his own bad conduct keeps him from conducting an effective search. When he realizes that his wife and daughter are gone, probably for good, he swears not to touch liquor again for as many years as he has lived so far (twenty–one).
Eighteen years later, Henchard, now a successful grain merchant, is the eponymous Mayor of Casterbridge, known for his staunch sobriety. He is well respected for his financial acumen and his work ethic, but he is not well liked. Impulsive, selfish behavior and a violent temper are still part of his character, as is dishonesty and secretive activity.
All these years, Henchard has kept the details surrounding the "loss" of his wife a secret. The people in Casterbridge believe he is a widower, although he never explicitly says that his first wife died. He lies by omission instead, allowing other people to believe something false. Over time he finds it convenient to believe Susan probably is dead. While traveling to the island of Jersey on business, Henchard falls in love with a young woman named Lucette de Sueur, who nurses him back to health after an illness. The book implies that Lucette (Lucetta, in English) and Henchard have a sexual relationship, and Lucetta's reputation is ruined by her association with Henchard. When Henchard returns to Casterbridge he leaves Lucetta to face the social consequences of their fling. In order to rejoin polite society she must marry him, but there is a problem: Henchard is already technically married. Although Henchard never told Lucetta exactly how he "lost" his wife to begin with, he does tell her he has a wife who "is probably dead, but who may return". Besotted, Lucetta develops a relationship with him despite the risk. Yet just as Henchard is about to send for Lucetta, Susan unexpectedly appears in Casterbridge with her daughter, Elizabeth-Jane, who is now fully grown. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are both very poor. Newson appears to have been lost at sea, and without means to earn an income Susan is looking for Henchard again. Susan, believed for a long time that her "marriage" to Newson was perfectly legitimate. Only recently, just before Newson's disappearance, had Susan begun to question whether or not she was still legally married to Henchard.
Just as Susan and Elizabeth-Jane arrive in town, a tidy Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, is passing through on his way to America. The energetic, amiable Farfrae happens to be in Henchard's line of work. He has experience as a grain and corn merchant, and is on the cutting edge of agricultural science. He befriends Henchard and helps him out of a bad financial situation by giving him some timely advice. Henchard persuades him to stay and offers him a job as his corn factor, rudely dismissing a man named Jopp to whom he had already offered the job. Hiring Farfrae is a stroke of business genius for Henchard, who although hard-working is not well educated. Henchard also makes Farfrae a close friend and confides in him about his past history and personal life.
Henchard is also reunited with Susan and the fully grown Elizabeth-Jane. To preserve appearances, Henchard sets Susan and Elizabeth-Jane up in a nearby house. He pretends to court Susan, and marries her. Both Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane's mother keep their past history from their daughter. Henchard also keeps Lucetta a secret. He writes to her, informing her that their marriage is off. Lucetta is devastated and asks for the return of her letters. Henchard attempts to return them, but Lucetta misses the appointment due to a family emergency that is not explained until later in the book.
The return of his wife and daughter sets in motion a decline in Henchard's fortunes. Yet Susan and Elizabeth-Jane are not the root cause of Henchard's fall. Henchard alone makes the decisions that bring him down, and much of his bad luck is the delayed and cumulative consequence of how Henchard treats other people. His relationship with Farfrae deteriorates gradually as Farfrae becomes more popular than Henchard. In addition to being more friendly and amiable, Farfrae is better
informed, better educated, and in short everything Henchard himself wants to be. Henchard feels threatened by Farfrae, particularly when Elizabeth-Jane starts to fall in love with him.
Unknown to Henchard, Elizabeth-Jane is not his biological child. Henchard's daughter, also named Elizabeth-Jane, died three months after he and Susan parted. This Elizabeth-Jane is Newson's daughter. He learns this secret, however, after Susan's death when he reads a letter which Susan, on her deathbed, marked to be opened only after Elizabeth-Jane's marriage. Feeling ashamed and hard done by, Henchard conceals the secret from Elizabeth-Jane, but grows cold and cruel towards
The competition between Donald Farfrae and Henchard grows. Eventually they part company and Farfrae sets himself up as an independent hay and corn merchant. The rivalry and resentment for the most part is one-sided, and Farfrae conducts himself with scrupulous honesty and fair dealing. Henchard meanwhile makes increasingly aggressive, risky business decisions that put him in financial danger. The business rivalry leads to Henchard standing in the way of a marriage between Donald and Elizabeth-Jane, until after Susan's death at which point Henchard learns he is not Elizabeth-Jane's father, and realizes that if she marries Farfrae, he will be rid of her.
In the meantime, Henchard's former mistress, Lucetta, arrives from Jersey and purchases a house in Casterbridge. She has inheritied money from a wealthy relative who died: in fact it was this relative's death that kept her from picking up her letters from Henchard. Initially she wants to pick up her relationship with him where it left off, but propriety requires that they wait a while. She takes Elizabeth-Jane into her household as a companion thinking it will give Henchard an excuse to come visit, but the plan backfires because of Henchard's hatred of Elizabeth-Jane. She also learns a little bit more about Henchard.
Specifically, the details of how he sold his first wife become public knowledge when the furmity-vendor who witnessed the sale makes the story public. Henchard does not deny the story, but when Lucetta hears a little bit more about what kind of man Henchard really is she stops rationalizing his conduct in terms of what she wants to believe. For the first time, she starts to see him more clearly, and she no longer particularly likes what she sees.
Donald Farfrae, who visits Lucetta's house to see Elizabeth-Jane and who becomes completely distracted by Lucetta, has no idea that Lucetta is the mysterious woman who was informally engaged to Henchard. Since Henchard is such a reluctant and secretive suitor who in no way reveals his attachment to Lucetta to anybody, Lucetta starts to question whether her engagement to Henchard is valid. She too is lying about her past: she claims to be from Bath, not Jersey, and she has taken the surname of her wealthy relative. Yet she came to Casterbridge seeking Henchard, and sent him letters after Susan's death indicating that she wanted to resume and legitimize the relationship. Although he was initially reluctant he gradually
realizes that he wants to marry Lucetta, particularly since he's having financial trouble due to some speculations having gone bad. Lenders are unwilling to extend credit to him, and he believes that they would extend credit if they at least believed he was about to be married to a wealthy woman. Frustrated by her stalling, Henchard bullies Lucetta into agreeing to marry him. But by this point she is in love with Farfrae. The two run away one weekend and get married, and Lucetta doesn't have the nerve to tell Henchard until well after the fact. Henchard's credit collapses, he becomes bankrupt, and he sells all his personal possessions to pay creditors.
As Henchard's fortunes decline, Farfrae's rise. He buys Henchard's old business and employs Henchard as a journeyman day-laborer. Farfrae is always trying to help the man who helped him get started, whom he still regards as a friend and a former mentor. He does not realize Henchard is his enemy even though the town council and Elizabeth-Jane both warn him.
Lucetta, feeling safe and comfortable in her marriage with Farfrae, keeps her former relationship with Henchard a secret. This secret is revealed when Henchard foolishly lets his enemy Jopp deliver Lucetta's old love letters. Jopp makes the secret public and the townspeople publicly shame Henchard and Lucetta. Lucetta witnesses this and is shamed and, who by this point is pregnant, dies of an epileptic seizure.
When Newson, Elizabeth-Jane's biological father, returns, Henchard is afraid of losing her companionship and tells Newson she is dead. Henchard is once again impoverished, and, as soon as the twenty-first year of his oath is up, he starts drinking again. Newson returns, and instead of telling Elizabeth Jane the truth, Henchard decides to leave Castorbridge that night. He gets a job as a hay trusser in a nearby town, and learns from passengers that Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane will be married that night. He goes to the wedding, but does not receive the forgiving attitude and flees. By the time Elizabeth-Jane, who months later is married to Donald Farfrae and reunited with Newson, goes looking for Henchard to forgive him, he has died and left a will requesting no funeral or fanfare.
Review: Hardy understood that the vanishing peasant culture he chronicled was one of want, danger and ignorance, not some prelapsarian paradise. Hardy grew up poor in the English countryside himself, a sure inoculation against sentimentalism. From the arresting opening scene - in which a drunken young journeyman laborer "sells" his wife to another man - there unfolds one of the most stupendous tragedies in the English language, the story of a man of almost superhuman willpower destroyed by his pride, wrath, and bafflement in the face of the onrush of the modern world.
I did not feel the character of Henchard was understandable, and Elizabeth Jane as well. I wanted to sympathize with them, as I have done in other Hardy's characters, but found them too willing to enter in to upheaval, strife. Especially with Henchard, he is actually asking for enemies, then cries when he has no friends.
Thomas Hardy’s almost supernatural insight into the course of wayward lives, his instinctive feeling for the beauty of the rural landscape, and his power to invest that landscape with moral significance all came together in an utterly fluent way in this book. From without, society enforces its norms. From within, personal corruption brings self-destruction.
Opening Line: "One evening of late summer, before the present century had reached its thirtieth year, a young man and woman, the latter carring a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Prios, in Upper Wessex, on foot."
Closing Line: "And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth ad
seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain."
Quotes: "Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquillity had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain."
Rating: Okay.

Monday, November 9, 2009

277. Tristam Shandy - Lawrence Sterne

History: This book was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next 10 years. It has come to be seen as one of the greatest comic novels in English, as well as a forerunner for many modern narrative devices.
Plot: Tristram Shandy can always attribute the peculiarity of his nature and the strange events of his life to the fact that, when he was on the point of being conceived, his mother asked his father, the eccentric, henpecked Walter Shandy, whether he had not forgotten to wind the clock.
Immediately after Tristram's conception, which occurred sometime between the first Sunday and the first Monday of arch, 1718, Tristram's father journeyed from Shandy Hall, the ancestral estate, to London, a trip his sciatica had hitherto prevented him from making. Both noteworthy occurrences can be verified in Mr. Shandy's meticulously kept diary.
The reason that Tristram was born in Shandy Hall, instead of in London, and delivered by a mere midwife, instead of a real doctor, is ascribed to the peculiar marriage settlement between the elder Shandys. According to its terms, Mrs. Shandy would be allowed to bear her child in London, but if she ever falsely persuaded her husband to take her to the capital, she surrendered this right and would have to settle for a home delivery. Since she has done this once, Mr. Shandy feels justified in sparing himself the expense of taking his wife on a second trip to London, although he enjoys going there by himself.
On the night Tristram is born, his father and his Uncle Toby are comfortably debating some complicated and endless issue before a cheerful fire. When Susannah, the maid, informs them of the impending birth, they send for a midwife and for Dr. Slop, a local quack practitioner who had once written a cheap pamphlet on the history of childbirth. Dr. Slop's chief function at local births is to allow the midwife to do the delivering while he charges a handsome fee for drinking the father's best wine.
Before either doctor or midwife can arrive, Walter Shandy and his brother have some fine conversations about their past life. Uncle Toby was an honorable soldier in his day, but during the Siege of Namur in 1695 he received a wound in the groin, an embarrassing place and left the army to retire to the country. His loyal servant, Corporal Trim, joined him and suggested an ideal occupation for the retired military man. Near Shandy Hall is a patch of lawn where Trim constructed a miniature battlefield. There Uncle Toby reconstructs his campaigns by means of toy fortifications, trenches, and soldiers.
His delight in this pastime is not, however, shared by his more philosophical brother, who constantly interrupts his long-winded tales of vanished military glory with equally long-winded philosophical speculations. Walter Shandy has theories about everything, and they are often highly ingenious, but they are never even remotely applicable to the problem at hand, and usually get bogged down in oceans of arcane facts and meaningless, if charming, lore. One such philosophical divertissement, begun while the brothers await the arrival of the midwife and Dr. Slop, concerns itself with the reasons for Mrs. Shandy's preference for a female rather than a male attendant at her delivery. Uncle Toby suggests it might just be female modesty, but this idea is too simple to suit Walter Shandy who goes into a long and incomprehensible philosophical harangue about the complex nature of women.
The talk is interrupted by the arrival of Dr. Slop. While Corporal Trim diverts the Shandy brothers with the reading of a long sermon, Dr. Slop goes about his work with typical ineptitude. Mistaking the infant's hip for his head, the doctor flattens Tristram's nose with his forceps. Another portion of Tristram's anatomy will receive an insult on a later occasion when, as a boy, Tristram relieves himself out of a window only to have the window come crashing down on him. These episodes, Tristram feels, with some justice, have blighted life.
Finally, the lad is born, while Mr. Shandy reads the company his translation from a Latin treatise on npses by German scholar named Hafen Slawkenbergius. (Both author and work are Sterne's inventions.) When Mr. Shandy hears of the nearly disastrous episode with the forceps, he fears for his child's safety. Learning that the baby is unusually sickly, he sends immediately for the local parson, Mr. Yorick, to baptize the infant before any further mishaps occur.
Hastening to dress for the event, Mr. Shandy sends Susannah on ahead to tell Yorick that he wants his son baptized "Trismegistus" in honor of his favorite philosopher. But Susannah finds the odd name difficult to remember, and by the time she conveys the request to Mr. Yorick, she has transformed the name into Tristram, which also happens to be the clergyman's first name. This coincidence thrills Mr. Yorick. The child is baptized accordingly, and by the time Mr. Shanc arrives, fully clothed at last, he is too late to change matters, although he thinks Tristram is the worst name in the world and can only bring bad luck. The only hope for this disaster-hounded child now is a proper education.
Tristram's boyhood is marred by one sad event - the death at Westminster School of his older brother, Bobby. Different members of the family react differently to the untimely tragedy: Mr. Shandy philosophizes about the nature of death; in her grief, Susannah finds joy in the thought that she will inherit all her mistress' dresses when Mrs. Shandy goes into mourning; and Corporal Trim symbolically drops his hat as if he himself had died and delivers a magnificent funeral oration on the spot.
The Shandy family's next problems concern the sort of tutor, if any, to get for Tristram and the age at which the boy will be ready to wear long trousers. But these practical considerations take second place to the tale of Uncle Toby's pursuit by the Widow Wadman, a buxom lady who lives near Shandy Hall. The gentle Uncle Toby bears up well under the widow's efforts to win his heart.
One day, however, the Widow Wadman, more anxious than ever to be married, asks Uncle Toby an embarrassing ques-tion: precisely where was he wounded? He assures her he will allow her to touch the actual place where he received his famous wound; he then produces a map of Namur and puts her trembling finger on the appropriate portion of the battle-field.
Corporal Trim, less naive if just as good-hearted as Uncle Toby, has to point out to him that it is the spot on his person, not on the battlefield, that the Widow Wadman has in mind. When he is finally made to realize the awful truth, Uncle Toby beats a hasty retreat from any idea of marriage.
Review: I listened to this book, and found it the best way to catch the satire in the writing. This book is like no other book I've ever read, so it's difficult to even figure out how to evaluate it. It's wonderful, and strange, and frustrating, and hilarious. Piling digression upon digression upon digression, Sterne's narrative (or quasi-narrative) twists and turns, doubling back on itself before suddenly darting forward for a page or two before falling back into a sub-sub-plot: Making fun of his father, conversations between Father, Uncle Toby, and the servant, Trimm. Lots of attention paid to Uncle Toby's groin wound, and the curiousity of his fiance, Widow . I love the scene of making sausages. It takes an amazing talent to write a book like this that actually carries itself off in a way that works. Sterne does even better than that. It is no accident, then, that Tristram Shandy should have exerted a profound influence on the fiction of James Joyce, for both Sterne and Joyce are irrepressible jokers who delight in exploding the possibilities of prose fiction into something very different from the ordinary novel-perhaps best called the comic epic in prose. By means of caricature, digressions, ab-surdly inflated language to describe the most mundane things, puns, and a panoply of wildly eccentric characters, Sterne makes glorious fun in Tristram Shandy of such a sober predecessor as Samuel Richardson, and even of the more worldly Fielding.
Beneath the practical jokes played on his fellow novelists and on his readers, however, Sterne has laid a very solid substratum which gives Tristram Shandy, for all its seeming chaos, a strength of form and theme that has made it endure long after most practical jokes are forgotten. This substratum consists of the very human story, told in loving, even senti-mental detail, of the two immortal Shandy brothers-Walter and Toby-and their occasionally philosophical, occasionally ridiculous responses to the world around them.
Opening Line: "I wish my father or my mother or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me."
Closing Line: "Lord! said my mother, what is all this story about?--
"A Cock and a Bull," said Yorick-- "And one of the best of its kind, I ever
Quotes: "If it had not been for those two mettlesome tits, and that madcap of a postilion who drove them from Stilton to Stamford, the thought had never entered my head."
"Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world, though the cant of hypocrites may be the worst, the cant of criticism is the most tormenting!"
Rating: Good and Funny.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

276. The Professors House - Willa Cather

History: This book was written in 1925, in post-war America. In a similar fashion to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Cather narrates a story about the moral decline of a money-driven society.
Plot: When Professor Godfrey St. Peter and wife move to a new house, he becomes uncomfortable with the route his life is taking. He keeps on his dusty study in the old house in an attempt to hang on to his old life. Also the marriages of his two daughters have removed them from the home and added two new sons-in-law. As he is going through the changes of moving into his new house, he recounts his life, his family, and fondly remembers his former student and friend, Tom Outland. As he rejects the modernity thrown at him, St. Peter finds solace in memories and in the earth - in short, in what cannot be tempered by time, but that which fixedly stands alone.
The novel is in three parts, the central one deals with an exploration of an ancient cliff city in New Mexico by Tom who died in World War I.
In the final section, the professor, left alone while his family takes an expensive European tour, narrowly escapes death due to a gas leak in his study; and finds himself strangely willing to die. He is rescued, by the old family seamstress, Augusta, who has been his staunch friend throughout his trials. He resolves to go on with his life and make the best of things.
Review: The novel explores many contrasting ideas: that of loneliness, idealism vs. materialism, the sadness and resiliency of old age - the old vs. the new in the old house and the new house, the Professor or old generation vs. the new generation.
Also, Tom Outland's values vs. Louie Marsellus', the idea of the Professor as a scholar vs. his family relations, Indian tribes vs. the current world (of the 20s). My favorite part, Tom's story is so descriptive in the beauty of the landscape. Tom and the Professor both have a respect for nature, and admire the beauty of landscape throughout the book. Tom Outland's thrilling tale of a long-lost civilization is both an ironic contrast to the professor's staid outer life and a mirror of the imaginative interior life he experiences in his attic study.
Opening Line: "The moving was over and done."
Closing Line: "He thought he knew where he was, and that he could face with fortitude the Berengaria and the future."
Quotes: "No, Miller, I don't myself think much of science as a phase of human development. It has given us a lot of ingenious toys; they take our attention away from the real probelms, of course, and since the probelms are insoluble, I suppose we ought to be grateful for the distraction."
"If he lost an umbrella, it was a real misofrtune. He wasn't lazy, he wasn't a fool, and he meant to be honest; but he was intimidated by that miserable sort of departmental life. He didn't know wnything else. he thought working in a store or a bank not respectable."
"He seemed to be at the root of the matter; Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths. he seemed to know, among other things, that he was solitary and must always be so; he had never married, never been a father. He was earth, and would return to earth. When white clouds blew over the lake like bellying sails, when the seven pine- trees turned red in the declining sun, he felt satisfaction and said to himself merely; "That is right."
Rating: Very Good