Thursday, January 26, 2012

Extracurricular #3: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov

Hello reading public! Some time early next week I will be sharing my review of Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer”. Now though, I’d like to share some thoughts on an ‘extra-curricular’ book I’ve just finished reading.

The book is 2000’s Vera {Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov} by Stacy Schiff, who made bookchat headlines more recently with her phenomenal 2010 biography of Cleopatra. As the title kindly informs those of you not already given to prying into the personal lives of great writers, Schiff’s subject is the elusive Vera Nabokov (née Slonim), wife of the great Vladimir.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Team Review 2: #18, Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut was born in Indiana in 1922, the son of German immigrants. He was educated at Cornell before joining the Army in World War II. He fought, and was captured, in the Battle of the Bulge, and was a German POW near Dresden at the time of the famous firebombing. After being liberated, he returned to the United States, studying and working briefly in Chicago before taking up a career as a full-time writer. He was the author of 14 novels, of which Slaughterhouse Five is the 6th, and dozens of short stories and essays. He died in 2007.

Monday, January 16, 2012

#93 - The Magus

John Fowles (1926-2005) was born into the interwar English upper-middle class. He was educated at the Bedford School (appropriately, the same school attended some seventy years prior by Samuel L. MacGregor Mathers, the Golden Dawn occultist) and New College, Oxford. He had the good fortune to graduate from a preparatory course for the Royal Marines the very day that Germany surrendered in World War II, and subsequently spent his twenties teaching English at, among other places, a private school on a Greek island, before becoming a full time writer.
He was, by all accounts and the testimony of his own journals, a thoroughly irritable and grouchy man, full of hatred for his publishers, his considerable success, his readers, and the human race in general. His other novels include The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector, and Daniel Martin. The Magus was the first written but the second to see print, being published in 1966 and revised a decade later. (I read the revised edition for this review.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wild About Wodehouse

What ho, old beans! Ring the bell for the tea things and we’ll flap the old gums for a bit.

What’s gotten into me lately? There’s only one explanation. I’ve been reading P. G. Wodehouse. Not just reading- more like devouring. The past three books I’ve read have all been in the Jeeves series: The Inimitable Jeeves; Thank You, Jeeves; and Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves.

Some of you might be familiar with Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his “gentleman’s person gentleman” (read: valet) Reginald Jeeves from the sixteen novels P. G. Wodehouse wrote about their misadventures in the early 20th century. Other of you might have enjoyed the TV series “Jeeves & Wooster”, starring the pictured Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, respectively. Most of you, however, will at least remember the former mascot of, Jeeves the butler. Jeeves has since gone into retirement on the American version of the search engine, but in the UK and Canada where the character is more recognizable, Jeeves is still in attendance to fetch the answers to your everyday queries.

Bertie Wooster and Jeeves are definitely Wodehouse’s best-loved characters. Wooster is a bumbling, good-natured minor aristocrat, described by Jeeves as “mentally negligible but with a heart of gold.” His language is a riot- his pals from his social club are greeted as old eggs, old beans, old chaps, old gargoyles (I promise I did not make that up). He is upbeat, goofy, and has all the emotional an intellectual maturity of a thirteen year old. His most shining quality is his total inability to say no to anyone, especially when plied with the magic words, “But Bertie! We were at school together!” Needless to say, his good nature is taken advantage of constantly. He harangued constantly by his bull-like Aunt Agatha, arrested, sent to jail, embroiled in a series of unfortunate love affairs with thoroughly unpleasant women, declared legally insane, trapped in a potting shed, and kidnapped an help prisoner on a yacht, all in the span of less than four hundred pages.

And in every single one of these cases, Jeeves has materialized, and with understated brilliance and impeccable grace, extricated his young master from the “horns of the dilemma”. Jeeves is a mysterious figure, who always appears in the exact moment when he is needed. Jeeves also has a particular fashion sensibility, and Wooster often asserts his authority by donning an article of clothing that is particularly offensive to Jeeves, such as a white casino jacket, a straw gondolier hat, or mauve socks. In every case, immediately after the offensive garment in introduced, Wooster will inevitably get into a sticky situation which Jeeves, always at least two silent steps ahead, will resolve for him with a carefully executed scheme. After his situation is resolved to its happy normal, Wooster always gives Jeeves permission to discard, donate, or even burn the garment that offended him most recently which Jeeves will, having anticipated his master’s movements, already have done.

Bertie was a member of a social class known as the “idle rich,” a class which comprised most of the High Society scene in Britain before World War II. These were people born either into aristocratic, or simply tremendously wealthy families, who were left huge sums of money, which was allotted to them in the form of monthly allowances. So, being financially independent but without any kind of job or responsibility, these people had a whole lot of money at their disposal, and a whole lot of time to spend it. The world was their playground, and in London, they were in the center of the social world. Having a staff, including cooks, butlers, and valets (it should be noted that contrary to popular belief, Jeeves is a valet, not a butler) was almost a requirement to run in those circles. The language in these books, the yes-sir no-sir very-good-sir I-could-not-presume-an-opinion-sir austerity of Jeeves and the bubbly, slang-heavy barrage of Wooster’s dialogue are period-perfect.

My favorite of the three Wodehouse books I’ve read so far is definitely The Inimitable Jeeves. It is most episodic than the other two, and easier to take in small doses. These stories, to me, are like children’s stories; humorous, light, clever, and, being marked with Jeeves’ presence, they have the guarantee of a happy ending.

Toodle pip and cheers, chaps!


PS. For all you P.G.W. devotees out there, the book “Plum Sauce” by Richard Usborne is a peerless companion to all things Wodehouse, and a must-have for every Jeeves and Wooster fan. Highly recommend.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

#95- Iris Murdoch's "Under the Net"

Hello, lovelies! I know, it’s been much too long. But I promise I didn’t forget about you- this book was just slow going. Slow Going is not, of course, to be confused with boring.

Number 95 on the list, Under the Net, was published in 1954 and authored by native Dubliner Dame Iris Murdoch. This, her first novel, is a conflation of philosophy and the picaresque style, narrated from the point of view of one Jake Donahue. Jake is often wrongly described as a “failed novelist”. I take issue with this description because we all know one can not fail if one does not try. Jake has made it his mission in life to not try. At anything, really. Ever. He dabbles in translation, wrote one mediocre book, and mooches prolifically. His relationships are, for the most part, superficial. His love affairs are handled badly and lead nowhere.

So what makes Jake’s a voice worth reading? Jake is far and away the most self-aware narrator I have ever come across. He suffers from a condition he describes as “shattered nerves” (a condition that now probably has a proper name and diagnosis and favored treatment) and insists that how his nerves got shattered is unimportant. I know so far in our readings M. and I have made much of the heavy-handed narrator versus the light, unobtrusive narrator. Jake is leagues away from unobtrusive- every thought he has is about himself- but I don’t feel comfortable calling him “heavy-handed”. He is intensely, painfully self-aware. Every word he speaks, every action he commits, every decision he makes is carefully outlined, described, and analyzed for the reader.

Much as you would expect, that level of introspection can get overwhelming quickly. This is why the book took me so long to read- every thirty to fifty pages I had to get up and do something else, usually for a few hours. But please, don’t let this deter you. I really enjoyed reading about Jake’s lady-pursuing, dog-stealing, hospital-breaking adventures. Your capacity to handle (and enjoy) this book is going to be entirely based on your tolerance for neurotic people. If you can stand the compulsively self-reflective voice, the voice that sees a fractal pattern of possibilities and consequences in every word and gesture, I think you’ll get a lot out of this book. If “over-analyzers” are one of your pet peeves, stay far away from this book. Far, far away.

The supporting cast in this book is delightfully colorful. Jake has a person he describes as being emphatically not a servant who follows him around and fulfills servant-like duties, who, next to Jake, looks about as complicated as a plastic cup of applesauce. His first landlady, Magdalen, is the kept woman of a film industry magnate. One of the people Jake mooches off of, Dave the Philosopher, makes a number of farcical appearances, Hugo Belfounder, a jack of all trades and former roommate of Jake’s, is essential both to furthering the plot and to illustrating more of the narrator’s character: he is Jake’s polar opposite. He is superficial, uncomplicated, un-philosophical, and has never had any trouble accumulating money. He serves as a conversation partner for Jake while they are both in a facility for test subjects in a research project to cure the common cold, and their relationship is broken when Jake writes the aforementioned mediocre book about his conversations with Hugo. Thinking he has betrayed his friend by publishing a work based on their interactions, Jake runs away, much to Hugo’s confusion. Throughout the book, Hugo serves as the perfect counterweight to Jake’s obsessive analysis:

“During the early parts of my conversation with Hugo I kept trying to “place” him. Once or twice I asked him directly whether he held this or that general theory- which he always denied with the air of one who has been affronted by a failure of taste. And indeed it seemed to me later that to ask such questions of Hugo showed a particular insensitivity to his unique intellectual and moral quality. After a while I realized that Hugo held no general theories whatsoever. All of his theories, if they could be called theories, were particular. But I still had the feeling that if I tried hard enough, I could come somehow to the centre of his thought…” (61)

I think the above is a good illustration both of Jake’s relationship with Hugo, and Jake’s need to get to an ideological heart of everything everyone says (including himself). But don’t worry- the book isn’t all introspection. When I described this novel as picaresque, I really meant it. Superficially, casting off all the underlying philosophy (but why would you want to?) it’s a fun book about a roguish hero who goes on a wild adventure, getting by on his wits alone.

Does this book deserve to be on the list? Definitely. The story is engaging, and its message was really sincere. Jake is a person who, like so many intelligent people, lives with a lot of noise in his head- the noise of insecurity, the noise of those around him, the noise of money, and the noise of fear. But, just like Pandora’s box, at the bottom of the pile of negativity, there is a positive: creativity. Jake’s goal is ultimately not to turn off the noise- it is to strike a balance between all the forces within himself, both good an bad, by turning the volume on the noise down.

It’s been a pleasure, reader, as it always is. You have M.’s review of John Fowles’ 1966 novel The Magus to look forward to, as well as a little glimpse into my latest pleaure reading obsession. Our next team review will be of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five- get ready for clash of the litcrit titans on that one. And as always, we welcome you to join in!



Monday, December 26, 2011

'Tis the Season

Hi everybody! As the holiday season is winding down, M. and I just want to take this chance to say Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukka, Happy Kwanzaa, Have an Awesome Solstice, etc etc. Or, if this time of year holds no particular cultural or religious significance for you, Happy Last Week of December to you, our wonderful readers.

As I'm sure all of you know, it's a busy time of year. We will be enjoying the merry-making through this coming weekend, M.'s in the middle of a big project at his real-life job, and it's GRANT-PROPOSAL season for yours truly. But of course, we will be making time for you lovely people here in reading land with an upcoming review of Iris Murdoch's first novel, "Under the Net". We also have a forthcoming review of Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 masterpiece, "Slaughterhouse-Five", which I know is on the favorites shelf for a lot of you out there. This is one I can promise some heated discourse on- it is one of the books on our "Top 10" list that M. and I definitely have different opinions of, and as always, we would love to hear your thoughts.

So again, Happy Holidays from the Modern Librarians to you. Of course, I couldn't resist including a seasonal photo- the official mascot of the ML, our kitten Professor Catface Meowmers (PhD) sporting a festive hat.

Shalom and mahalo and jingle jingle bells,

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

K.'s Rant/Review....Raniew?

I have often been asked what my literary “guilty pleasure” is. Most people have one, I’m sure. Romance novels, detective thrillers, some young adult lit., that sort of thing. Something the reader recognizes as bad writing, but enjoys reading anyways. I couldn’t really say I have a guilty pleasure in that sense, but lately I have been spending time in a genre that isn’t exactly “high literature”. I’ve developed a little fascination with the humorist’s (or humorous) memoir.

The big players in this game are people like David Sedaris, whom I adore, Bill Bryson, Augusten Burroughs, etc.* I have mixed feelings about all of these men, which is why this is turning into a extracurricular review/rant.

The basis of this entire genre can essentially be boiled down to one sentiment: “A funny thing happened to me, let me tell you about it.” or something similar. The quality (and by quality here I mean entertainment quality, different than literary quality) is in the author’s ability to make his or her story interesting to their reader. The minute the recounting ceases to entertain the reader is the minute the book ceases to be valuable. For this reason, I very much enjoyed David Sedaris’ 1997 collection Naked. Out of the seventeen essays, I enjoyed myself thoroughly through all but one.**

Augusten Burroughs follows along a similar idea, but does not split his incidents up into individual essays as Sedaris does. He has written six memoirs to date, more, both to my mind and his, than any 46 year old has any business writing. Of these six, I have read three- Running With Scissors, A Wolf at the Table, and, most recently, Dry, a memoir of his alcoholism treatment. Burroughs is a decidedly darker humor the Sedaris or Bryson. His entire life, as he tells is, is a series of dark incidents, each more disturbing and bizarre than the last. While Mr. Sedaris often seems to be hyperbolizing for the sake of comedic effect, one frequently gets the impression that Burroughs is telling outlandish and frequent lies. I have no doubt that he has had an uncommonly difficult life and has plenty of reasons to be unhappy, but the way he presents much of his material is just not believable.

Aside from the believability issue, Burroughs also crosses over onto the wrong side of the interest line. Running With Scissors can hold a reader well enough simply because the scenario is so bizarre: the child of two mentally ill parents is relinquished into the care of his mother’s ‘psychiatrist’ and his family, a collection of totally neurotic and unhinged people. The rest of his memoirs would be interesting perhaps to Mr. Burrough’s friends and family, but as a reader with no emotional attachment the author, they read pretty dull.

One of the absolute worst offenders to the Reader’s Interest Line rule that I have read lately is Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island. As an Anglophile and fan of Mr. Bryson, I thought this book about his goodbye travels around England, where he had been living for twenty some-odd years, before returning to his native American Midwest, was going to be a real treat. I was very, very wrong. Please understand, dear reader, that normally I adore Bill Bryson. The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way counts among my favorite modern nonfiction books. His “Eminent Lives” series Shakespeare biography is succinct, well-informed, and enjoyable, and his Dictionary of Troublesome Words for Writers has often served me well. That being said, I had absolutely no idea what he was thinking when he wrote Notes from a Small Island.

Normally a witty and pleasant voice, here Bryson read like a tiresome old git. This description of each location he visits is exactly the same: arrive, wander around until settling on what will prove to be a horrid guest house with no cable and bad service, wander around and discover that there are no good restaurants or pubs around, go to bed, get up, wander to the local tourist attraction, discover entrance is a few dollars, and refuse to go in. This, as you can imagine, quickly got boring. He refuses to pay less than one pound to get into a private garden, asking What could a garden possibly need my money for? (Apparently Mr. Bryson has heard neither of landscaping nor lawn maintenance,) and makes some particularly culturally insensitive remarks directed at the Welsh. He states that native Welsh-language place names, (which I personally find mellifluous and enchanting,) sound to him akin to the noise my cat makes whilst being sick on the carpet after someone has accidentally fed him cheese.

All of these elements did not add up to what one could call an interesting read. I found Notes From a Small Island quite disappointing, especially after getting my hopes up as a Bryson fan. That being said, I am definitely going to try another one of his travelogues soon, and hopefully chalk up this reading misadventure to choosing a book from his “Cranky Old Man” period.

One last thing before I let you on your merry way- I know M. mentioned this already, but my condolences to the reading world for our recent loss. Christopher Hitchens, (1949-2011) was a peerless voice and a brilliant writer who had the rare and priceless gift of being able to write intelligently on just about any subject. One of the greatest lights in the thinking world went out last week, and he will be dearly missed.

Thanks for reading, and a very happy holiday to you,

*I also read Russell Brand’s memoir “My Booky Wook”. My mother always told me if I hadn’t anything nice to say, then I shouldn’t say anything at all, so I have nothing to say about Mr. Brand’s first, of hopefully very few, books.
** "The Drama Bug” was my personal favorite. A fresh-faced, earnest young Sedaris decides to speak exclusively in Elizabethan jargon with his friends and family- so hysterically funny that I called M. and read him the whole story aloud.