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2011 Book #14: Disgrace

J.M. Coetzee has been following me around. I hadn't heard of him until relatively recently, and then his name started popping up everywhere. Book-related everywheres, anyway. So when I happened to pick up Disgrace and read the blurb, I decided to give it a try, recalling how much I've liked South African lit in the past. And it was good. At the very least, it was a nice break from the intensity of books like The Hunger Games and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

Disgrace is about different kinds of disgrace and how people deal with it and try to move on. David Lurie (who reminds me of Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being), a Romantic poetry professor, has an affair with the student and gets in trouble. He refuses to cooperate with the university committee dealing with his case, and he is dismissed. He goes to visit his daughter, who lives on a farm in the country, a very unsafe place in recently post-Apartheid South Africa. One day, as she and David return home from a walk, they are robbed, and she is raped by three people. She refuses to report the rape and deals with it by herself, her own form of disgrace. David deals with it, too. There are, of course, a few subplots, one of which involves a veterinary clinic with the basic purpose of euthanizing dogs from which David learns to deal with his own disgrace.

Oprah should be all over this one. As I said, it reeks of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I didn't like, though it's not so preachy. Coetzee has his Kundera moments in which he philosophizes a bit excessively, but at least he keeps it in the mind of the protagonist rather than doing the moralizing himself.

My favorite part of the novel, and what will keep me reading Coetzee, is the prose style. It's beautiful. It also makes for easy reading: I think I started Disgrace this time yesterday.
 

2011 Book #15: Mockingjay

I think I've said all I want to about the Hunger Games trilogy. Mockingjay was just like the other two, but this time, instead of ending with a cliffhanger, it just ended. Think about the end of Harry Potter, the summing up several years in the future, but badly. In Harry Potter, I think such an ending was a good choice and provided closure at the end of an absorbing series that many kids had grown up with. Sticking an ending like that on a series like the Hunger Games was kind of pointless and dumb. Just sayin'.

All three books were quick reads, and they were entertaining enough. Mockingjay is my least favorite because, by this point, the reader knows exactly what is going to happen. It's entirely predictable. Collins even includes another trip to the Hunger Games - of sorts. The format is exactly the same as the other two, and so is the style. I got bored pretty quickly, and I'm glad I've gotten these books out of my system. That said, I did enjoy them well enough.
 

2011 Book #16: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is short, and I guess that's my only real complaint. It's similar, in a lot of ways, to One Hundred Years of Solitude, minus the vast epicness, which is my favorite thing about that novel. I'm not saying that means I didn't like this one.

It's a novel(la?) spiraling around Santiago Nasar, who is killed by two brothers defending their sister's honor. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the circumstances and how everyone in town knew exactly what was going to happen but did nothing to prevent it for various reasons. Angela Vicario, just married hours before, is returned to her parents' home after her new husband discovs that she's not a virgi. When asked, she says Santiago Nasar took her virginity, so her brothers want to kill him. Marquez is never clear about whether he actually did or not.

Again, it's short, though I don't see how a novel like this could be very long, and if it was, it would be tiring. I miss the world of One Hundred Years of Solitude, though I know every Marquez novel can't rehash that one. He did mention a couple characters from it, though, for all I know, they could be actual historical figures. I know exactly zero about Colombian history. I do know that I'm looking forward to reading more Marquez. I'm spacing him out, though, like Murakami, especially since he's quit writing. 
 

2011 Book #17: Crime and Punishment

So. I read Crime and Punishment and liked it, though not as much as I thought I would when I was halfway through. At one point, I thought it might trump One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it didn't. I'm not going to summarize it here because everyone is familiar with it. The funny thing is that I had no idea how it ends. I knew, going in, that Raskolnikov kills someone and then suffers because of it. I didn't know that he, in fact, kills two people, though the second person, I guess, doesn't really matter.

My only problem with the novel is the end. I was disappointed that it ends relatively happily under the circumstances, that Raskolnikov sees the light, so to speak. It's hopeful. I'd braced myself for a depressing, pessimistic ending, and I was disappointed because it wasn't the life-changing end I'd expected. Crime and Punishment is, after all, considered one of the best novels ever written. My expectations, I guess, were too high.

This novel got me to thinking, though. The main reason I'd never read it is that I wasn't assigned it in college. Granted, I don't think I ever took a class that involved Russian lit of any sort, beyond a modern lit class in grad school, and even then it was Notes from Underground, which is very short. Professors don't assign long novels anymore. I've heard many times things like "I assigned such-and-such, but I'd have assigned such-and-such instead because it's better, but it's sooooo long." I think My Antonia, The Well of Loneliness, and Orlando might have been the longest novels I had to read in college, and they're all significantly shorter than Crime and Punishment. And the same professor assigned all of those novels.

I often feel shorted in my English degree, though UNO had a really good English department back in the day. And I'm not sure I'd have read a long novel if I was assigned one, though I think I read all of those three. I don't think I got all the way through Orlando, though I put in a good effort. It sucks that professors have become so cynical that they assume students won't read long assignments. Not that students help, of course. I read my share of Cliff's Notes.

As disappointed as I was in Crime and Punishment, (and, to tell the truth, I wasn't all that disappointed) I can easily recognize that it's a Great Novel and that anyone with a lit degree should have read it. I remember a professor assigning a short Dickens selection and claiming that a whole Dickens novel would be too much. I read A Tale of Two Cities right after I graduated and was angry that I hadn't read it earlier. I have too many holes in my English degree, and I think it's because professors are caving in to students' laziness. I slipped through college with mostly As and didn't do a quarter of the work I should have had to do to get them, and now I regret it. And I went to a good school. Sometimes I'm amazed that LSUS English graduates are even literate.
 

2011 Book #18: The Grapes of Wrath

I usually make myself write these blog posts within hours of finishing the book so I don't forget what I want to say about them. Except I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath a couple of days ago, so I don't have as much to talk about.

I really loved this novel. It's the most beautiful English I've read in a long, long time. Here's the first paragraph:
To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.


After I read that paragraph, I knew I'd be able to get through this novel. Whole (short) chapters like these are interspersed with the actual plot.

As with Crime and Punishment, this book is so widely read that it has its own Cliff's Notes, so I'm not going to bother with a real summary. It's basically about a family from Oklahoma who gets forced out of their house during the Depression and the Dust Bowl, moves to California (with all the other farmers), and tries to survive. It's sad but soooo rewarding. I had a hard time not crying.

I've read two other Steinbeck novels: Travels with Charley and Of Mice and Men. The former was required reading before my senior year of high school, which was a looong time ago, and all I really remember about it is that I liked it. I read Of Mice and Men a couple of years ago, and I liked that one, too. The language, though isn't what stuck out for me about those novels - okay, I don't remember enough about Travels with Charlie to make that statement fairly. Both are very short novels, and I think Steinbeck might work best with a longer form.

The other day, my mom asked me what I was reading, and when I told her, she said that she liked it and that it was sad. I said, "Wait. You've read The Grapes of Wrath?" I really wasn't expecting that. I guess she read it in high school or college. Which brings me back to my earlier point on professors not assigning long books anymore. This novel is the kind you assign to make people love literature and language. Sure, Of Mice and Men is great, but I've found it hard to get absorbed in a short book, and I think most authors do best when they have some space to dig in their roots.

Until very recently, I haven't been a fan of long books. I've always had an attention span issue, and I'd lose interest after a couple of days or a couple hundred pages. And I think the shorter books I've always been assigned is what made the difference. The syllabus, for instance, would you have five days to read The Awakening (it's very short), and then we'll discuss it for one (maybe two!) class periods. That's not what college should be. Isn't the point to learn to analyze and write about literature? How are you supposed to do that when you never really get into anything beyond surface level? It's impossible if you're only discussing it for an hour. Reading longer books for my 50-Books-in-a-Year challenge has totally changed my mind about this stuff. Professors are pressured to fit a ton of stuff into their syllabi, and it's the students who are suffering. It's become quantity over quality (Must Prepare for the Lit GRE!), so it's no wonder universities are churning out English majors who are barely even literate.

BONUS (I couldn't help myself):

 

2011 Book #19: Brideshead Revisited

I enjoyed Brideshead Revisited sooooo much more than I thought I would. In fact, I think it's one of my favorite books ever. Evelyn Waugh has a lot in common with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, though it was published twenty years after The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. Brideshead Revisited is about wealthy English families between the World Wars. In college, Charles Ryder befriends Sebastian Flyte, and they run around together. Then Charles becomes involved in Sebastian's family, and due to a flaw, of sorts, in Sebastian's character, bad things begin to happen, and they part ways. But Charles can't shake the Flyte family, and we hear about what happens to them through the rest of the novel while Sebastian remains on the periphery. It's really depressing, though not in the family-loses-its-money-etc-etc way that you might expect. The characters are empty and remain so. No one is happy for long.

 

Dismal.

Though, again, it's up there with my favorite novels. I spent a long time reading this one because I didn't want to leave it. I liked the atmosphere. At the end, I found myself in a daze like I did with For Whom the Bell Tolls, when I felt like I was in the mountains of Spain during their Civil War for a few hours after.

Before this novel, I didn't know much about Waugh, and I guess I still don't. I most clearly associate him with my chronic confusion over his gender: I've embarrassed myself several times calling him "she". In my defense, though, Evelyn is a pretty girly name. I also don't understand why he's not taught in universities. I have an English degree, and I feel like I should have at least heard of him while I was in college. At least for GRE purposes.

I'll certainly be reading more Waugh in the near future. A Handful of Dust is probably next. It's funny: sometimes I use a site called The Book Explorer for recommendations, and the list for Brideshead Revisited includes several of my favorite novels. One Hundred Years of Solitude, my Very Favorite Book, is at the top. I wish I'd been introduced to Waugh much earlier.

 

2011 Book #20: The Blue Sword

The Blue Sword seems much longer than it is. It's a kids' book that doesn't read like a kids' book. In fact, I'm kind of confused about why it's even in the juvenile section of the library rather than, at least, the young adult section. Maybe it was the style that made me read it so slowly. Surprising longness aside, I really liked it. Robin McKinley is good at creating a whole world in a relatively short space.

The novel is about a girl from a normal-ish world who is thrust into a magical one in which she must learn to function and thrive. Corlath, king of the Hillfolk and guided by some kind of hereditary magic, kidnaps the girl, Harry, and takes her into the hills, which are threatened by the Northerners, who aren't quite human. Turns out Harry is good at riding horses and fighting, and she has some of the magic, too. They eventually fight the Northerners. Things are more complicated than that, of course.

I read The Blue Sword because it's one of Palmer's favorite kid-books, and, though he doesn't seem to be too fond of them anymore (Harry Potter is a kids' novel!), I see how he liked this one. It's really engrossing. It's one of those I'll confuse with a movie. There was some confusion as to which Robin McKinley novel was actually his favorite. There's a prequel to this one called The Hero and the Crown, but it was written after this one. It was supposedly going to be a whole series, but I guess that didn't pan out. She talks a bit about it on her webpage:


The bottom line is, it isn't my choice. You don't write stories like you might build a bookcase. You don't get up in the morning, decide that you're going to put seven chapters together to make a novel, whip out your tape measure and decide how many words, order the paper by the square foot from the office supply shop, sit down and start stamping the pages with black ink in a quantifiable pattern, and polish off the rough edges with a sander at the end. It's not up to you. You write what you are given to write, and you just go on hoping you will go on receiving those gifts. Damar hasn't seen fit to oblige me to write about it lately.
All of this, of course, seems like corny crap to me. It's funny how a photo of an author will immediately bias me for or against him or her. Robin McKinley reminds me of one of my high school teachers. It's actually kind of creepy. She also loooooves horses. The author blurb on the back flap of the first edition of The Blue Sword says that "Robin McKinley lives at present on a horse farm in eastern Massachusetts where she divides her time between the fascinating occupants of the barn in the mornings and the tyranny of her typewriter in the afternoons." She totally wrote that herself. What matters, though, is that I enjoyed her novel, and I'll be reading the next one in the near future. I like to put a couple unrelated books between ones in a series. 
 

2011 Book #21: The Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood isn't really a sequel to Oryx and Crake like I expected it to be. The two novels' events happen at the same time: the plots and characters are interwoven. The Year of the Flood is narrated by two of these characters, Toby and Ren. They're both part of an environmentalist group called God's Gardeners. The novel jumps around in time between Year One, when the God's Gardeners first organize, and Year Twenty-Five, when the Waterless Flood knocks out most humans. The Waterless Flood is the virus Crake intentionally spreads in the first novel. Then Things Happen, as they did in Oryx and Crake. We hear a bit more about what happens at the end of the first novel, though not much. Many of the characters in The Year of the Flood are minor characters in Oryx and Crake, and vice-versa, which makes it interesting.

I think I liked The Year of the Flood more than Oryx and Crake, though that one was good, too. I gave this one four stars on Goodreads because, unlike Oryx, it's really preachy. Explicitly so, even. The way Atwood does it, though, isn't annoying, at least for the most part. Adam One, founder of the God's Gardeners, gives sermons of sorts, followed by poems Atwood says were inspired by William Blake's poetry. You can listen to some of them here. They're super-corny.

I explained my past with Margaret Atwood in my Oryx and Crake post, so I won't talk about it again. These books, though, have reminded me of how much I enjoy her stories and her writing style, so I'll revisit her novels soon, though only after some DeLillo because I've given myself a stern talking-to about the Thesis Monster situation, and I have to get to work.
 

2011 Book #22: Americana

This is the third time I've read Americana. I really need to work on the Thesis Monster, and it had been a year since I'd read the book, so I figured rereading it would be a good start. I loved it the first two times: it was probably my favorite DeLillo book (hovering there with White Noise). This time, though, I was bored out of my mind. Michael Douglas narrated it in my head (a la Wonder Boys), and he just droned on and on.

I've come to the conclusion that my love affair with Don DeLillo is permanently over. The turning point is when I was researching the Thesis Monster and realized that he just writes the same book over and over: some dude with postmodern angst is running away from identity-creating media to find his own identity. Okay, that's not exactly the case with all of DeLillo's novels, but they're all basically about the same thing.

So much for the DeLillo Binge.

As much as I didn't enjoy Americana this time around, there are things about DeLillo that I still do love. His language is beautiful. If I could make myself sit down and write a novel, I'd want it to sound like his.
Literature is what we passed and left behind, that more than men and cactus. For years I had been held fast by the great unwinding mystery of this deep sink of land, the thick paragraphs and imposing photos, the galop of panting adjectives, prairie truth and the clean kills of eagles, the desert shawled in Navaho paints, images of surreal cinema, of ventricles tied to pumps. Chaco masonry and the slung guitar, of church organ lungs and the slate of empires, of coral in this strange place, suggesting a reliquary sea, and of the blessed semblance of God on the faces of superstitious mountains. Whether the novels and songs usurped the land, or took something true from it, is not so much the issue as this: that what I was engaged in was merely a literary venture, an attempt to find pattern and motive, to make of something wild a squeamish thesis on the essence of the nation's soul. To formulate. To seek links. But the wind burned across the creekbeds, barely moving the soil, and there was nothing to announce to myself in the way of historic revelation.
DeLillo's style is beautiful. It's just that I've become as jaded as the characters in his novels. David Bell would have no interest in reading Americana.
So. On to the Thesis Monster. Now, as reconnected with the novel as I can be, I have no excuse not to write. My outline is done: all I have to do is fill in the blanks between quotes. Because that's what the Thesis Monster is: a series of quotes. The postmodern problem.
I've made a schedule of sorts. On weekday mornings, I work on the Thesis Monster, and that's that. I've never been good for much after lunch, so the afternoon is mine. If I can be productive in the mornings, it'll be done soon, and I'll never have to look at it again. I'll also be done with academia, which is another - much scarier - issue. But I have some time left.

This afternoon, I'll ride my bike up to Palmer's, water some plants, and try to tackle The Moviegoer. I hated it when I read it at least ten years ago, but I change my opinions of books pretty frequently. The weather is nice, and I'm looking forward to propping my feet up and giving Walker Percy a second chance.

In other news, the Shreveport Library Book Sale was last Saturday. I usually don't buy much of anything since everything is so disorganized and it's so crowded. Here's what I got this time:

 

2011 Book #23: The Moviegoer

I read The Moviegoer when I was in high school, and I hated it, though I knew I should have liked it. For years, I've claimed not to be a fan of Southern lit in general - with exceptions like A Confederacy of Dunces and, more recently, Faulkner. I'm not sure why I don't like it. Maybe it's because I hear the words in my head with a heavy southern drawl.

Anyway, months ago, I decided to give The Moviegoer a second try, and I finally got around to it. I remembered almost nothing about it, but I had a feeling I'd like it more now. The protagonist is exactly my age, 29 and about to turn 30, and he has a lot of the general life issues that I have, so I can totally empathize with him. Here's an example:


Today is my thirtieth birthday and I sit on the ocean wave in the schoolyard and wait for Kate and think of nothing. Now in the thirty-first year of my dark pilgrimage on this earth and knowing less than I ever knew before, having learned only to recognize merde when I see it, having inherited no more from my father than a good nose for merde, for every species of shit that flies - my only talent - smelling merde from every quarter, living in fact in the very century of merde, the great shithouse of scientific humanism where needs are satisfied, everyone becomes an anyone, a warm and creative person, and prospers like a dung beetle, and one hundred percent of people are humanists and ninety-eight percent believe in God, and men are dead, dead, dead; and the malaise has settled like a fall-out and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall - on this my thirtieth birthday, I know nothing and there is nothing to do but fall prey to desire.


The problem with The Moviegoer is that it bored me. I wasn't bored to put it down, but I wasn't excited to read it, either. Maybe it's the drawl drifting through my head - I don't know - but I just couldn't get into it. Walker Percy just isn't my kind of writer.

On a more interesting note, I've now read as many books this year as I did in all of 2010. I was on quite a bender, but then I started messing with the Thesis Monster again, and Palmer got me hooked on Warcraft, which is much more fun than you might think it would be. I'll still hit the big 5-0, just you wait. I'm glad I got ahead in January and February.
 

2011 Book #24: Watership Down

I tried reading Watership Down several years ago and failed. I remembered what happened more than halfway through the novel, so I'm surprised I didn't just finish it. It is long, though. And it's totally worth a read. I really enjoyed it, though reading from a rabbit's point of view took a bit of getting used to. The novel is about rabbits starting their own warren and the Things that Happen. It's amazingly violent - much more than I thought it would be. I haven't seen the movie (or if I have, it's been a really long time), but I bet it sticks pretty close to the novel's plot. And Adams is great at imagery. I felt like I was in the warren with the rabbits.

The first time I tried to read Watership Down, I lived in Mid City, New Orleans. It was probably a year or two before the hurricane. My condo wasn't in the best neighborhood, but it wasn't terrible, either. Except a girl named Ashley lived next to me, and she sold prescription drugs, so ne'er-do-wells were often about, yelling up to her window. "AshLEY!" Urgh. Anyway, I was sitting in a recliner next to a window that looked out to my small patio. It had a privacy fence a good bit taller than me. I heard a noise, and a dude I assumed to be one of AshLEY's "friends" jumped over my fence, grabbed my bicycle, shoved it over the fence, and jumped back over. Goodbye to my bike. Not that I really rode it or anything. I didn't know what to do, so I just sat really still and watched him. I figured it'd be a bad idea to try and confront him since the only thing between us was a thin pane of glass.

I don't really have a lot to say about this novel. I really liked it. There's also a Tales from Watership Down that I'll probably look into at some point. A novel about rabbits was certainly a change from what I've been reading lately.
 

2011 Book #25: The Silent Land

I usually don't read books like The Silent Land, which fits squarely into the pop-fiction category. I found it through a Facebook ad that claimed it's like a Murakami novel. I was, of course, skeptical, but I downloaded it to my (new!) Kindle and gave it a try. It's was really short: I read it in four or five hours, and I read pretty slowly. It's about a couple skiing in Spain when they get caught by an avalanche. The husband digs out the wife, and they get down the mountain, but no one is there. The whole town is empty. At first, they think that the resort has been evacuated for fear of another avalanche, so they try to get out of town, but no matter what road they take, the always end up back there. The reader wonders if they're dead, which seems kind of obvious if you've ever seen Beetlejuice, or if something else is going on. The power starts going out, and time gets confused. In the end, it turns out that only one of them is dead, which is a bit of a twist, I guess.

Though The Silent Land is a predictable pop-fiction thriller, I really liked it. Graham Joyce's imagery is really good: it was one of those novels in which I found myself totally absorbed. I was even creeped out at times. I wanted to find out what was going on as much as the characters did, so I found myself reading through it really quickly just to find out what would happen next. It's totally worth a read.
 

2011 Book #26: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

I'd wanted to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell since I first saw it on bookshelves a few years ago. I didn't really know much about it except that it involved magicians but isn't really fantasy. Which meant to me that it might not suck. I had a feeling that I'd really like it, but I didn't even try reading it because it's so long. Like 900 pages long. In fact, if you count Lord of the Rings as three books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is the longest book I've ever read. But, you say, I have an English degree! Colleges don't assign long books anymore, so I wasn't in the habit. Even Lord of the Rings took me several months to read, and I was quite impressed with myself after finishing it.
Here's the most basic of summaries, as the plot is quite complex: In early ninetenth-century England, there is a society of magicians. They don't actually practice magic - they just study it. Someone gets to wondering why no one in England practices magic anymore, and a couple members if the society find the one magician who actually practices magic: Mr. Norrell. Mr. Norrell wants to get involved in the government, to help England in its war against France, but no one in politics seems to respect magic. He has a cousin in Parliament, Sir Walter Pole, who refuses to help him. Sir Walter's wife dies, though, and Mr. Norrell says he can bring her back to life, which he does, except he doesn't exactly know what he's doing. He asks a fairy, known as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair, to help him. The fairy makes a deal, saying he'll revive her as long as he gets half her life. Mr. Norrell thinks the fairy means that Lady Pole will only live for half her normal lifespan, but the actual deal is that Lady Pole will be spirited off to Faerie every night to dance in a ball, a captive of the fairy. So, since Mr. Norrell "helped" Lady Pole, he gets his foot in the door at Parliament and becomes involved in the war, using magic to defend England. Meanwhile, a younger man named Jonathan Strange stumbles into magic because nothing else interests him, and he eventually becomes Mr. Norrell's student. He learns quickly and then goes off to Belgium to fight in the war. At some point, the fairy decides he wants Strange's wife, Arabella, for his collection, so he charms a swamp log to look like her and then kidnaps her. The charm wears off after a few days, and it looks like Arabella is dead, though she is stuck in Faerie with Lady Pole. Then there are a few hundred pages of war and the like, and, somehow, it doesn't get boring. Eventually, Strange and Norrell separate, and since Norrell has hoarded all the magic books in England, Strange runs out of material to study. Not knowing what Norrell did with the fairy, he decides to summon his own fairy. The problem is that it's the gentleman with the thistle-down hair. The fairy refuses to help him, so Strange casts a spell and makes it to the fairy's mansion, and he sees his wife at the ball. The fairy curses him and sends him home, and he obsesses over getting his wife back, deliberately making himself crazy in the process. Eventually, he convinces Norrell to help him, and they team up again, fading off into magicland together.

And that's only the most skeletal of summaries.

I absolutely loved every minute of this novel. I was totally intimidated by its length, but it was so worth it. I was sad when it ended because Susanna Clarke had drawn me into a world I didn't want to leave. The funny thing is that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was her first novel. I can't wait to read the rest of them, though I have a feeling that after this one, I'll find myself disappointed.
 

2011 Book #27: The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken

I read The Short Stories of Conrad Aiken by accident, though I've been meaning to read it for years. I'd just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and was waiting for UPS to deliver The Savage Detectives, and I figured I'd read a couple of the stories. This collection includes my very favorite short story ever, "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," so I thought I'd enjoy the rest of them. Once I started reading, I found myself enjoying the stories differently than I'd expected to. I thought they'd all be like "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," but they're not.

"Silent Snow, Secret Snow" is about a boy, who, one morning in his bedroom, imagines that snow is falling. He hears the postman coming down the street as he always does, but his footsteps from the farthest house are muffled due to the snow. The boy gets up, looks out the window, and sees that there is, in fact, no snow at all. He becomes obsessed with the snow, hearing it in the mornings and imagining it all day, and he loses interest in real life. His parents and teacher are concerned, as his condition progresses very quickly. Every morning, he imagines the snow getting deeper and deeper, and he can only hear the postman when he gets closer and closer. Eventually, the boy recedes completely into his world of snow, oblivious to his parents and the real world around him.

I've always liked that story. I think I read it for the first time when I was in high school. I don't remember whether it was assigned or not or how I found out about it. I still have a copy of it from a library book. The funny thing is that I own the library book, now, and that's what I read. I don't remember how I got that, either. It's from the main branch of the Jefferson Parish Library, and I assume I got it from a book sale. It's been sitting on my bookshelf for years, waiting to be read.

And I like it most of the stories. I only really like two of them, though: "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" and "Mr. Arcularis," which is about a man taking a boat to Europe after surgery in the US. He meets a woman, and things turn out interestingly. Lots of stories in this collection are about failed love, and some, like "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," are about crazy people.

I did a bit of reading about Conrad Aiken, and it appears that love and insanity were some of his major concerns. Evidently, when he was a kid, his father went crazy and killed his mother. He was always afraid he would go crazy himself. And he was married three times. In an interview with The Paris Review, he said he was primarily a poet, but he started writing short stories for the money and decided he liked them. I don't think I've ever read one of his poems, and I'm not to interested in doing so. He was a friend of T.S. Eliot's and surprisingly influential in the literary world in the 1920s and 1930s.

I don't see myself revisiting Aiken, though I enjoyed the stories. I'll probably stumble across "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" or "Mr. Arcularis" again, but his other work doesn't interest me.
 

2011 Book #28: My Life in France

My original plan for this blog was 50 novels in a year, but a friend recommended and loaned me Julia Child's My Life in France. It sounded interesting enough, and though I'm usually not one for nonfiction, I figured I'd give it a try. My Life in France is an "autobiography" about Julia Child's years in France when she decided she loved cooking and went to the Cordon Bleu, etc, etc. I put "autobiography" in quotes because her nephew, Alex Prud'homme, actually wrote the book. From the forward, written by Prud'homme:

For a few days every month, I'd sit in her living room asking questions, reading from family letters, and listening to her stories. At first I taped our conversations, but when she began to poke my take recorder with her long fingers, I realized it was  distracting her, and took notes instead. (x)


Yeah, that's not autobiography, and after I read the forward, I almost decided not to read the book at all. But, even though it's written by someone else, I really enjoyed it much more than I imagined I would. There's something exciting about it, and after seeing Julie and Julia, which I also liked immensely, I wanted to hear the real story. It seems that lots of the bad stuff was glossed over, like tension between Julia and Louisette when the latter wasn't really helping with the cookbook, and Julia had her name removed as an author. That said, My Life in France is an inspiring look into Julia Child's life that made me want to drink more wine, at the very least - and keep a diary (at which I'm generally terrible) because it'd be nice to look back after many years and remember little things, like fantastic meals, that I enjoyed.

 

2011 Book #29: The Savage Detectives

The Savage Detectives is kind of a hard read. It's also really, really long. It's also worth getting through. I'm not sure how I came across it, though Roberto Bolaño's 2666 has been on my radar for quite some time. I haven't tackled it yet because it's even longer than this one. Until recently, I've never been a fan of long books, probably because I was conditioned in college to read short ones quickly. Longer books, though, like One Hundred Years of Solitude and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, are steadily growing on me.

The Savage Detectives is split into three parts. The first is somewhere under two hundred pages, and it's a nice, easy read. It's generally about this early college-age kid, Juan Garcia Madero, who fancies himself a poet and joins a sort-of movement in Mexico called the visceral realists. He meets other people, some of whom are poets and others who pretend to be poets, and Things Happen. The most important of these other characters, we figure out later, are Ulises Lima and Arturo Bolano. They end up running off withe Garcia Madero and a prostitute named Lupe. Then we get to the second part, the bulk of the book, told by lots of narrators. All of the stories at least mention Ulises and Arturo, but some only tangentially. Wikipedia (I know) has a good list of the various characters telling the stories. Ulises and Arturo went to Europe for a few years, then back to Mexico, and got into mischief. They kind of turned people off. They didn't seem to write much poetry. Finally, we reach the third part, which is a continuation of the first. After leaving town (they were all trying to hide Lupe from her pimp), they drive to the Sonora Desert to search for the founder of visceral realism, Cesárea Tinajero, and Things Happen.

I really loved this novel, though it took me forever to read. It seems like the kind that you need to reread and study: it's really complex, and working on wrapping your head around all of it would probably be rewarding. That said, I'm not going to reread it - at least not in the near future.

For a novel about poets, there's very, very little poetry in it, and we only get to see one official visceral realist poem by Cesárea Tinajero, which is basically a series of drawings. It's interesting that we don't hear anything from Ulises Lima or Arturo Bolano themselves, that it's all stories surrounding them. Even Garcia Madero, to my knowledge, only appears in the first and last parts.

A funny bit: At some point while I was reading, I tweeted that Bolaño shares Don DeLillo's love of lists, even that he puts DeLillo's lists to shame. Then, toward the end (page 574), Bolaño talks briefly about DeLillo, calling him a "phenomenon." That gave me a chuckle.

It would actually be pretty interesting to compare Bolaño to DeLillo. The Savage Detectives fits pretty squarely under the Postmodernism bracket (vague as it is), and there are lots of Deserts and unhappiness and motels. Bolaño almost makes DeLillo interesting again.
 


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