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.

Monday, December 19, 2011

#11 - Under the Volcano

Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957) was a Cambridge-educated Englishman and quite a remarkable alcoholic. If drinking one’s life away were a school class, Lowry would have been picked out at age 8 and put into the Gifted and Talented program. This convoluted image comes to me because Mr. Lowry was famed for beginning to drink heavily at 12 and being full-blown by the age of 14.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Rant #1 - Accessibility

Hello! I am currently wading my way through Malcolm Lowry’s "Under the Volcano" for you - expect that by the end of the week. Tonight, however, I’m going to kick off a new periodic feature here at Modern Librarians.

So welcome to the first of the Modern Librarian Rants. You see, although we are both naturally charming and pleasant persons, from time to time K. and I are afflicted by some annoyance in the world of Letters. These irritants wedge themselves in our brains, and we return to them again and again - sometimes passing them back and forth between us, sometimes brooding upon them in solitude. And as we pass over and over again across these obnoxities, always the cerebral vitriol accumulates.

So here, then is the place where we will spit out our bilious pearls for examination. We will not promise carefully constructed or 'fair' arguments - these are over-rhetorical ventings of spleen, not forensic cases. But at the least, we may inspire a thought here or there - or better, a discussion. Please feel free to have a look at them and let us know what you think!

Today’s subject: A brief piece In Praise of Difficulty.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

#90 - Midnight's Children

K. says:
Hello, lovelies! We’re so glad to have you here on our very first tag-team book review from our Top 10 List. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is, more than many of the books on this list, definitely one that the everyday reader is familiar with, for one reason or another. Salman Rushie is an incredibly high-profile, controversial writer, and I think the experience of reading Midnight’s Children definitely showed me why that is.

Monday, November 28, 2011

#88 - The Call of the Wild

Jack London (1876-1916) was a turn-of-the-century journalist and fiction writer, and (a quarter-century before the advent of the New Yorker) something of an American pioneer in the medium of magazine short fiction. He is another one of the over-assigned and the over-taught writers on our list - I read a few of his short stories ("To Build a Fire") in middle school and the Call of the Wild early in high school.

What they don't tend to teach to school children is that he was also a card-carrying socialist, who wrote one of the first great "Dystopian" novels of the 20th Century, The Iron Heel (beating Aldous by 20 years and George by 40). I am also informed by Wikipedia that on one occasion, he made a statement of working-class solidarity by wearing a flannel outfit to a high-society function, qualifying him as one of the earliest obnoxious hipsters.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Extracurricular #2

Hello, reading world! M. and I are working on (read: arguing about) our interpretations of “Midnight’s Children”, and in the meantime I am going to leave you lovely people with a review of one all my all-time favorite nonfiction books.

What is the opposite of a guilty pleasure? Not an innocent pleasure, surely. An innocent pleasure is something that would bring you happiness, amusement, contentment, without causing any damage. Something harmless. That is not what I am talking about. What I am talking about is what I would like to think of as constructive hero-worship.
I don’t mean to sound self-righteous. I do have guilty pleasures, in number. Criminal Minds, for instance. Oxford shirts. Those frozen pirogues that come in a box that you can boil in the microwave. I could go on an on, but what I’m writing about today is something totally different. Today I am coming clean to you about my hero-worship, my admiration of and devotion to the unparallel intellect of the late David Foster Wallace.
The book of his that I have been reading most recently (which is to say, the book of his that has been floating around somewhere in my bed for those night when sleep can not and will not come) is Consider the Lobster. This book, like the earlier and brutally genius A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is a collection of essays, from literary reviews to travel pieces to bizarre little snippets of days in Mr. Wallace’s remarkable life.
Of the essays in this book, (of which there are ten), I am going to focus mainly on my (selfishly-chosen) favorites: “Bid Red Son”, “Authority and American Usage”, and the titular essay.
“Big Red Son” is notable for several reasons: 1. DFW wrote it acknowledging his opinions and experiences as ‘yr. correspondents’, and rendered the piece has though it were the deliberations and opinions of two people- the effect of this is fascinating. 2. It is written in such an anthological way- a way that includes the thoughts of author as a sort of set of field notes, reactions to the factual practices of a culture that is totally foreign to him- leaves the reader processing things very slowly (in a way I would imagine the first explorer in Australia would have reacted to an ostrich. It’s clearly there; I just have no idea what to make of it). I walked away from that reading with a tremendous amount of knowledge about the porn industry, its dress, its jargon, its practices, its members- much more than I ever wanted to know. It was not until after I had closed the book, though, that the idea of making a moral judgment about it even crossed my mind.
“Authority and American Usage” is a lengthy essay that, on its surface, is a review of another book I own and love, Mr. Bryan A. Gardner’s Modern American Usage. Although he talks a great deal about the merits of that book, the essay is more than just a review. It is, at sixty-one pages (including end-notes) in my edition, a fairly in-depth look at the stuffy, neurotic, bookish subculture to which both I and my associate here belong. DFW refers to them as S.N.O.O.T., an acronym coined by his own family who themselves are unsure of what it is supposed to stand for. In short, a S.N.O.O.T. is “somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.” Mr. Wallace writes that "In ways that certain of us are uncomfortable with, SNOOT's attitudes about contemporary usage resemble religious/political conservatives' attitudes about contemporary culture. We combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a curmudgeonly hell-in-a-handbasket despair at the way English is routinely defiled by supposedly literate adults....-a fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that listening to most people's public English feels like someone using a Stradivarius to pound in nails. We are the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else." This is a perfect example of what I once heard called DFW’s “aw-shucks genius”- the ability to combine his staggering intellect with his humble, earnest sensibility.
In regards to “Consider the Lobster”, Mr. Wallace is not making an obtuse, pithy joke. He is being totally straightforward in his titular essay- asking his reader to really think about what it means to cook and eat a lobster, what is lobster is, and the culture surrounding lobster consumption. Do to this, he takes his reader to the “enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed” Maine Lobster Festival, not so far afield from when your humble reviewer makes her home base. The most faintly perceptible traces of the same consuming despair at being part of a large crowd doing something mindless and gluttonous that drove “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is present here, in a dazzlingly well-researched way. He is not preachy here, nor does he shy away from the most gruesome part of what is the frankly a rather gruesome endeavor of cooking and eating lobsters on a massive scale. Details of the lobster fishing, selling, and preparation processes are not spared, but there is no sense of indignance or feeling of moral superiority by the author. There are only the observations of Mr. Wallace, in his aw-shucks voice and his unfailing eye.

I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you. A happy happy Thanksgiving to all of you here, and hello! to our readers abroad. We’ll talk to you soon.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

#38, E.M. Forster's "Howard's End"

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

Only connect! is the catchphrase of the novel, spoken over and over by our protagonist, Margaret Wilcox (nee Schlegel). The connections being made are between siblings, men and women, and social classes. I know M. has talked a lot lately about his pet peeve of the heavy-handed narrator, and I must say that this book would be his dream come true. The narrator here is so light-handed and detached, I really only noticed his presence at all once.

This book centers on the families of different social classes. The Schlegels are a highly cultured group of people possessing all the vestiges of aristocracy an English family at the turn of the twentieth century without actually being landed gentry. They believe in higher education, art, and music almost to a fault, and spend much time on committees, championing the rights of the working class and trying to give them books. The Wilcoxes are no less wealthy, but their money is much newer and gained from a few generations in business (unlike the Schlegels, none of whom work at all). This clan is headed by Henry Wilcox, a pretentious chauvinist who disdains women, the poor, and anyone in any way less successful than himself. The last family is the Basts, who are seen the least in the narrative but seem to always put the most significant action in progress. They are very working class, and while Leonard Bast seems desperate to climb the social and educational ladder, idolizing the ideals of the Schlegels, his wife Jacky is a woman of simple means and is often described as being unbearably stupid.

Howard’s End itself is a beautiful country manor home belonging to the Wilcoxes. The first Mrs. Wilcox befriend Margaret Schelgel after the families connect for the first time, after a failed affair between a Wilcox and a Schlegel. At the end of her life Mrs. Wilcox asks that Howard’s End go to Margaret because she feels that her friend is the only one who will really appreciate and endure its history and beauty. This request is ignored by her husband Henry, who goes on to marry Margaret, who has (along with her sister Helen) taken the Basts on to become their patrons. Henry is totally disdainful of their relationship, but over its course seems to relinquish some of his harsh views directed at women (When he finally admits that his wife is a tremendously clever woman, I was shocked) and the working poor. It turns out that many years previous, Henry Wilcox had an affair with Mrs. Bast, and is shocked when she returns to his life.

Helen Schlegel is a patron to the Basts in more ways than one (to put it delicately) and at the end of the novel she has Leonard Bast’s child. By this time Leonard Bast has died of a heart attack he had while being beaten rather savagely by one of Mr. Wilcox’ sons. Mr. Wilcox leaves Howard’s End to his wife Margaret as he is dying, who in turn leaves it to the son of her sister and Leonard Bast.

Lionel Trilling described this novel as E. M. Forster’s answer to the question “Who shall inherit England?” This was perhaps the most important question of national identity at that time, the height of the British Empire and before the World Wars. One of the book's loveliest passages is Margaret asking herself a version of Trilling's question that looks to both the past and the future:

Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our country-side have all have issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination may be, it seems to have failed here. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature-for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk.

Forester’s answer is simple: in this new England, if people can only connect, these iron class barriers wil eventually fall away. Old Money and New Money will be held in the same esteem, the working poor will be able to climb to previously unimagined heights, and the illegitimate child, so to speak, of rich and poor will inherit the land.

Forster grapples with the inheritance questions without getting preachy, and his language often borders on the sublime. Not once through the course of the novel did I feel like I was being beaten over the head with a moral agenda, and while on the surface it seems like a very foreign account of a very foreign way of life, if we stop to think about it, it might be more relevant than we want to imagine. It is for these reasons that I think Forster’s Howard’s End deserves its place at #38 on our list.

This week M. and I are embarking on our first joint-reading quest. Be here later this week when we give both of our thoughts on the contemporary class Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie.



Thursday, November 10, 2011

Recent Developments....

Hello there, reading world! We have a little project update to share with you. After much debate, M. and I have decided that we are going to take ten of the books from the list that we think are, for whatever reason, especially important, influential, or innovative, and do them together. We thought the following ten were the works that really merited two sets of eyes, two opinions, and two interpretations:

1. #1, James Joyce's 'Ulysses'. It must be #1 on the list for a reason- we're going to find out why.
2. #2, F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby'. I promise we're not just doing the top 10.
3. #4, Vladimir Nabokov's 'Lolita'. Endless controversy, endless interpretations. One review would just not do it justice.
4. #6, William Faulkner's 'The Sound and the Fury'. Just because he's not my favorite doesn't
mean I don't acknowledge he's a master craftsman.
5. #13, George Orwell's '1984'. Of all the novels-as-political-allegory of its time, we thought this one the most deserving of its rank.
6. #45, Ernest Hemingway's 'The Sun Also Rises'. We're paying homage to the undisputed champion of the iceberg technique.
7. #55, Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road'. Two views on the quintessential novel of American youth.
8. #64, J.D. Salinger's 'The Catcher in the Rye". Being frank- this book is beloved by neither M. nor me. However, since it is so widely taught in high schools and is seen as a "life-changing book" by so many, we thought we should give it a second look.
9. #80, Evelyn Waugh's[1] 'Brideshead Revisited'. Evelyn Waugh is one of both of our favorite authors, but we have very different opinions of this classic.
10.#90, Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children'. This book changed the novel and changed the world. It is one of the most recent on the list, and a stunning representation of the modern
political climate.

We will be starting next week with our reviews of 'Midnight's Children'. Bear with us- it's a tough, highly symbolic text. In the meantime, we'll be soldiering on with the rest of the list.

Stay lovely!
[1] For the amusement of the reader: M. is a positively freakish Evelyn Waugh lookalike. Young Waugh, though, not old drunk jowly Waugh. It had to be said.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

#30 - The Good Soldier

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

Ford Madox Ford’s book baffled me. It was the first of the novels I’ve read in this our Quest where I was at a genuine loss in trying to work out how to respond to what I had read. If this review comes across as a little disjointed, a series of impressions rather than a fully-structured critique, then I hope that the generous Reader will find it wholly appropriate for Ford, who was, consciously, an Impressionist.

The Good Soldier is the first book I’ve read that I cannot whole-heartedly endorse for the casual reader. Every other book I’ve read so far - even Edith Wharton, for all her subject matter bored me - wrote in a skillful, pleasant and accessible enough way that I think a “subway commute and twenty minutes when I can spare them”-style reader could derive great pleasure from the reading. Ford is certainly skillful - moreso than West and probably Wharton, if no Conrad - but his Impressionist contempt for linear narrative and his overbearing narrator make the writing less immediately accessible.

Ford Madox Ford (nĂ© Ford Hermann Hueffer - he changed from the very German name to the quasi-palindrome after the First World War) was born in 1873 into a family of painters and scholars of French and other ‘nice’ professions. In addition to writing two books on our list, he was a noted editor and critic. He was an intimate and collaborator with Joseph Conrad, a life-long friend of Ezra Pound, and well-connected with the English literary scene. (His journal The English Review published not only Pound and Conrad, but also Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and the first published work of D.H. Lawrence.

He was also a philanderer and a serial bigamist, which gave him subject-matter expertise regarding the work currently under review.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#35 - William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying"

My mother is a fish.

My roommate and I have a game that we play every now and then called “Appreciate, but Do Not Like”. It’s not really as much a game as it is a conversation starter and a way to pass the time. It’s totally self-explanatory; we just take turns saying things that we appreciate the usefulness of but do not enjoy, and why. Take vacuum cleaners. I appreciate the thing they do, and a clean carpet is always nice, but I really don’t like the noise they make. See what I mean? That appreciate-but-do-not-like feeling is exactly the feeling I have about William Faulkner.

#35 on our list is Faulkner’s 1930 novel As I Lay Dying. It is a story about a family in Mississippi told in fifteen difference voices over the course of fifty-nine chapters, about the death and burial of Addie Bundren. The story is told mostly from the perspectives of her husband Anse, who insensitivity is only matched by his ignorance, her sons Jewel (illegitimate, a product of her affair with a neighbor), Darl (the only remotely articulate one of the bunch, committed to a mental facility by the end), Cash (who builds his mother’s coffin outside her window while she watches), Vardaman (honestly, who came up with these names) and her daughter Dewey Dell, a teenaged girl who got herself in an unfortunate situation and spends most of the novel trying to get an abortion with the ten dollars her baby’s father gave her before sending her on her way.

This story is a symphony of voices. Faulkner captured the dialect beautifully, and wrote male and female characters, children and the elderly, all with equal dexterity. I cringed at Anse’s (the widower) totally self-involvement- his main motivation for going on the pilgrimage to Jefferson seems not to be because he wanted to fulfill a promise to his dying wife, but because he can get a new set of wooden teeth there. To make matters worse, he brings back a new wife along with the teeth. His portrayal of a child’s grieving process is moving- it is from there that we get the famous line “My mother is a fish.” (That line is in fact a chapter unto itself.) How Vardaman (whose age is never explicitly stated, but is often estimated to be about ten years old) copes with carrying his dead mother on procession to the town she wanted to be buried in, and how he keeps the secret of his sister’s pregnancy is so delicate and innocent you can’t help but feel for him:

“And so I am going to know where they stay to night soon. They come across the house, going across the yard in the moon, carrying her on their shoulders. They carry her down to the barn, the moon shining flat and quiet on her. Then they come back and go into the house again…And then I waited and I said Dewey Dell? And then I waited and then I went to find where they stay at night and then I saw something that Dewey Dell told me not to tell nobody.”

Stylistically, this is obviously a really well-done book. That being said, I couldn’t say I enjoyed it. Unless you’re really invested in the voices of impoverished farmspeople in the early twentieth century Deep South, this is not a book you’re going to want to slog through. The voices and motivations of the characters are so remote and difficult to access, it often seemed to me like they were motivated by nothing at all, and I can honestly say that there was only one character in the book with any self-awareness at all, which I found really frustrating.

Maybe you’ll find the regionalism charming- and the book does have some really well crafted moments of dark humor. I appreciated how well this book was written, but I didn't enjoy reading it- but you just might.



Saturday, October 29, 2011

Our First Movie! "Anonymous"

"Artists have something to say, otherwise they’d just made shoes. Are you a cobbler, Mr. Jonson?"

Tonight, M. and I thought it might be fun, given our interests, to go see “Anonymous”, the Shakespeare-conspiracy film that was released yesterday. This was my first time in a movie theater in about two years, so the whole experience felt very new and exciting. We went not because we were expecting a compelling argument for Anti-Stratfordism, we went because we wanted to see what they were going to do with the theory.
I’ll tell you what they did. They went crazy. They went no-holds-barred, not a single shred of historical evidence crazy. They went incest and royal intrigue crazy. The whole thing was done as a sort of nonsensical meta-narrative, narrated by one Sir Derek Jacobi of the Royal Shakespeare Company. While Mr. Jacobi is a leading anti-Stratfordist, and specifically and Oxfordian, I was shocked he would put his name on such a flagrantly ridiculous farce of a movie.
I don’t want to go too far into the plot, since some of you may want to go see it, but I must inform you going in that apparently the majority of England’s earldoms circa about 1600 (I guess? The chronology of the events, like the rest of the movie, is totally detached from anything that ever actually happened) were held by a slew of the Queen’s (yes, good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen) beautifully blonde, androgynous bastard children, all of different fathers to whom she gave birth to and had spirited away while she was “on progress”.
To its credit, this movie was visually stunning. The costumes, architecture, and technology of the time were all totally anachronistic, but beautiful. It was also very well acted, for what it was. The fellow that played Ben Jonson, around whom much of the action focused, was really quite good, as was Jamie Campbell Bower (a striking young Edward de Vere).1
As I said, chronologically this movie is junk. Plays appear to come out in an order that does not even vaguely resembled the order, or the years in which they were actually published. Elizabeth I has a veritable legion of sons, there was an enormous peasant massacre on the London Bridge that never actually happened, and it is implied- no, it is explicitly stated, that Christopher Marlowe was murdered by William Shakespeare (who is, by the way, represented here as a drunken, carousing, illiterate2 boor). I could go on for pages, but I’ll spare you.
All that being said, did we have a good time? Absolutely. It’s a good-looking, fun misrepresentation of history, and a good movie to play spot-the-inaccuracy with. Someone on set while filming described it as a “certifiably loony fantasia”. Sounds about right to us.
1.Here M. disagrees with me, a frankly looks a little nauseous.
2. The people who made this film wrote away the issue of Shakespeare having been an actor by saying that he was illiterate, meaning for some reason that he could read perfectly well but could not write at all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

#67 - Heart of Darkness

The horror… the horror.

Joseph Conrad is one of the early, dominating presences on our list. As many readers will already know, this feat is made all the more incredible by the fact that Conrad (born Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski) was not a native speaker of English. Conrad’s father, a Polish aristocrat, was exiled for inciting rebellion against the czar in the 1860s, and young Conrad lived a life of adventure on the high seas before settling down in England to write, among other things, four of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century.

(What is it with the Slavs and beating us at our own game? Nabokov would go on to do much the same thing in the mid-century. Without the adventure.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Extracurricular #1

You may know Bill Bryson,for his travelogues A Walk In the Woods, Notes from a Small Island, In A Sunburned Country, etc. or for his explanatory nonfiction books, A Short History of Nearly Everything, Mother Tongue, (my personal favorite) Made in America, and others. To my mind, he can do little wrong. His writing is intelligent, engaging, entertaining, and informative- a rare and valuable combination in today’s writing. I picked up a large-print ex-library copy of his Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid on mega-sale at [1] thinking it was a memoir- probably because it’s subtitled “A Memoir”.

This is supposed to be the chronicle of Bill Bryson’s childhood in Midwestern, mid-century America with the emphasis on his alter-ego, super hero the Thunderbolt Kid. It served well enough as a memoir, but even more than that I found it to be more of a book on the state of America and American domestic life in the 1950’s in which he just happened to star. The book is more about the mind of Americans at the time- people’s reactions to Joseph McCarthy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and how daily life was lived in a time before cell phones, the internet, McDonald’s, and Wal-Mart, that just happens to be told by a six year old boy who fancies himself a comic book style super-hero who can look at people and make them disappear.

I read it in a three sittings- it definitely goes fast. It definitely had its flaws. I think the biggest point against it in my book was that Mr. Bryson gets just a little bit out of control with his hyperbole. Hyperbole has its affect when used sparingly, but here it got to the point where he would try to present actual facts and it would totally lost on the reader who had heard a dozen other things been called the tallest, smallest, biggest, or best before then. Whenever confusion arises in this book, it is because Bryson has not made it clear enough if he is describing the world with the awe of a child to whom everything is terribly impressive, or if he is a well-researched fact that is actually impressive.

That being said, this book was not short on entertainment value. There were times when my snorts of poorly-repressed laughter did disturb my sleeping roommate. When recounting his first months in elementary school:

“They insisted on knowing strange things, which I found bewildering. If you asked to go to the restroom, they wanted to know whether you intended to do a Number 1 or a Number 2, a curiosity that didn’t strike me as entirely healthy. Besides, these were not terms used in our house. In our house, you either went toity or had a BM…but mostly you just “went to the bathroom” and made no public declarations with regard to intent. So I hadn’t the faintest idea, the first time I requested permission to go, what the teacher ment meant when she asked me if I was going to do number one or number two.

“Well, I don’t know,” I replied frankly and in a clear voice. “I need to do a big BM. It might be as much as a three or a four.”

See? Brilliant! A prime example of the perfectly clear, totally astounding thing known as Child Logic. The hilarity doesn’t stop with the antics of young Bryson. Much is made of the bleached-flour all-American down-home culture of the Midwest in the 1950’s. Community events seemed more prevalent and more important to social life than they are now, but if the food really was as he described, you had better believe I would be a hermit.

“The main course at these potluck events nearly always consisted of a range of meat loafs, each about the size of a V-8 engine, all of them glazed and studded with a breathtaking array of improbable ingredients from which they took their names- Peanut Brittle ‘n’ Cheez-Whiz Upside-Down Loaf and that sort of thing.”

The people that actually partook in these colorful dishes were possibly the only things that could outdo them in hilarious bizarreness: “Hey Dwayne,[2] come over here and try some of this…You want chocolate gravy with that or biscuit gravy or peanut butter ‘n’ niblets gravy?”

There is no shortage of moments like that in this book. If you like Bill Bryson, give it a try. If you were a kid in the 1950’s, give it a try. If your parents were kids in the 1950’s, give it a try. If you appreciate American history, bathroom humor, or sighing nostalgia, (or some combination of the three), pick it up. Read this book, is what I’m saying.


[1] If you guys don’t shop there yet, I really can’t recommend it enough. They have killer sales periodically (I think my copy of this book was like $1.60) and for every book you buy, you also pay a few cents to contribute to re-forestation. They have contributed over ten million dollars to literacy projects and reuse or recycle all of their books. Awesome prices AND social responsibility- what more could you ask for?

[2] Apparently approximately 90% of adult males in 1951 were named Dwayne. About the same percentage of females were called Mabel.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Just a little something....

Hi, everybody! I stumbled upon this video, a charming little representation of how I feel most of the time:

Tomorrow I'll have our first 'extracurricular' review up of what I've reading for fun lately, Bill Bryson's The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. See you all then!


Monday, October 17, 2011

#58 - The Age of Innocence

I took rather an uncharitable swipe at Edith Wharton in a footnote to my introductory entry, so I thought it best if I took up Age of Innocence, one of her two books on our list, relatively early. (The other is the House of Mirth, ranking at #69.) To my surprise, I actually found it clever and rather well-written, with a deep sense of irony and clean prose. I admired it, even liked it a little. That in the final analysis I did not truly enjoy or connect with this book says as much about me as it does about Wharton.

First, the necessary biographicals, courtesy of my edition. Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was born a child of privilege in the elite New York society that became the dominant setting of her works. She wrote short stories and worked in interior design, but she is most known for her success as a novelist. At the age of 58, she became the first female recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, awarded to her in 1921 for the present book.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

#72- A House for Mr. Biswas

Hi there! My, don’t you look lovely.

The first thing that I heard about this book (besides that it was #72 on the Modern Library List) was from my Post-Colonial Literature professor, who told the class not to worry about the book being 560 some-odd pages, because “it goes fast”. I will admit that the novel does go fast, but not in the way that people usually mean when they use that descriptor. It covers an approximately forty-five year span, and in those forty-five years Mr. Biswas is born in rural Trinidad (backwards, significantly enough), loses his sixth finger, goes to grammar school that clings tenuously to the British colonial system, meets a girl in a shop, marries her and by doing so tethers himself to her massive, domineering family (think the in-law stereotype TO THE MAX), has four children, becomes a journalist, finally buys a house, and dies. To be fair, that is the extremely boiled-down summary, leaving out the rich complexities of the relationships between Mr. Biswas and his fantastically sassy wife (Going to buy you that gold brooch, girl! is his refrain. I suppose it would look nice in my coffin, she answers. Great stuff.) his son, upon whom he lives vicariously, his brother-in-law Owad, the favored child sent to Cambridge, and various co-workers and family members he attempts to stand up to. It is perhaps Ms. Biswas’ most notable characteristic that he does stand up for himself and fail- he can’t even manage to stand up.

V.S. Naipaul’s writing is, in a word, spare. ‘Spare’ seems a strange descriptor for a book as long as this one, but for all the richness of the details, the reader’s access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings is limited. I have known readers to find this frustrating, but I loved it. Just as the smallest actions and most seemingly insignificant words can unpack a world of knowledge about a person in real life, the slightest movement or most passing word can illuminate complexities of character that explication explanation just couldn’t.
‘In a few years you will look back on this and laugh,’ Mr. Biswas said. ‘You did your best. And no true effort is ever waste. Remember that.’
‘What about you?’ Anand asked.
And though they slept on the same bed, neither spoke to the other for the rest of the evening.

See what I mean? The weight of Anand’s question, and the silence that follows it, are so potent, so bursting with significance, with really powerful, enigmatic energy. Is “What about you” meant to hurt, or is it genuine? Is the silence reflective, or tense with anger? The language, so unburdened by clunky excess, is open for all kinds of interpretations.

At its heart, A House for Mr. Biswas is a comic novel. The comedy ranges from the ironic and sardonical (the editor at the paper Mr. Biswas works at cares very little about facts and very much about shock value, leading Biswas to write a column which he titles “White Baby Found in Rubbish Dump In Brown Paper Parcel: Did Not Win Bonny Baby Competition”) to the silly and crude (see incident involving a great number of bananas, a handkerchief, and *ahem* human waste). It is highly critical of the culture from which the author hails, and definitely has moments that will be shocking to modern, Western readers.

On the cover of the edition, there is a blurb from Newsweek that describes the novel as “a marvelous prose epic”. I was skeptical of the use of the word “epic” at first, but it is- in a way. It is the epic tale of the journey of a bookish, unambitious, underwhelming, petty man from birth to death, that somehow manages to be a fantastic book. I definitely recommend this one.

My next book from the list will be E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. In the meantime I’ll be putting up my first “extracurricular”- a review of Bill Bryson’s memoir/chronicle of the 1950’s, The Life and Times of the Thurderbolt Kid. The Modern Librarians are taking most of the weekend off, since M. is running a marathon (best of luck to him!) but expect more reviews soon.

Thanks for being here with us.

Monday, October 10, 2011

#73 - The Day of the Locust

Nathanael West is one of the lesser-known lights of the Taken Too Soon constellation of American writers in the 1930s, the generation that boasted Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Day of the Locust was his last novel, published in 1939. In late December 1940, a mere day after F. Scott died of a heart attack, West ran a stop-sign and was killed in a car accident.

Like Fitzgerald (who was a friend), West was interested in the dark corners and back-alleys of his America. But where Fitzgerald's work focused on the personal tragedies of affluent expatriates and the New York elite, West's final book packs a panoramic lens and heads out West, to a land as superficially beautiful and deeply disturbing in our day as it was in his - Hollywood.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Inaugural Review- #15, "To the Lighthouse"

Ever had your head held under water for a minute and a half?

No, me neither. But if I did, I imagine the first desperate breath of air I got to take after being released would feel very similar to the feeling I had when I read the last word of the last page of #15 on our list, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The edition I have is 310 pages- it’s not what you could exactly call a long book. Nevertheless, it took me two weeksto read. Why the inordinate amount of time? Because reading To the Lighthouse felt akin to wading through knee-deep snow. It was beautiful, a sparkling example of delicately styled prose. Open up to any old page, and you’ll get something like,

“What then came next? Where were they going? From her hand, ice cold, held deep in the sea, there spurted up a fountain of joy at the change, at escape, at the adventure (that she should be alive, that she should be there). And the drops falling from this sudden and unthinking fountain of joy fell here and there on the dark, the slumberous shapes in her mind; shapes of a world not realized but turning in their darkness, catching here and there, a spark of light; Greece, Rome, Constantinople.”

See? It’s lovely, finely-wrought, and ornate. Ms. Woolf’s rendering of landscapes and the tensions in relationships between the sexes characteristic of the time period and society she was writing are just about as apt as can be. The fatal flaw for me with this book is not really a flaw at all. As a piece of impressionist literature, it is a paragon. I just didn't find it enjoyable to read. It's not that I am fixated on the entirely plot-driven novel, (not to fear, I'm not about to pick up a Dan Brown novel on you guys,) or that I need something fast-paced. I'm sorry to say that the meandering quality of the writing just didn't do it for me.

In case anyone is interested, the book I will be reviewing next week is #72, V.S. Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. In the meantime, look for an “extracurricular” from either me for M., where we share our thoughts on our pleasure reading.

Stay wonderful-


Oh Hello, Didn't See You There!

Hello, book-lovers! Nice to see you. As these are our introductory posts, I should tell you that I am K., the fairer half of this project[1]. While I’m sure my counterpart has told you that his background is largely in antiquity, I am grounded somewhat more in the (relatively) modern day, having started my studies in Shakespeare and extending through Postmodernism. While Mr. Billy Shakes still has an iron grip on my heart, I am endeavoring on this project both to try and expand my appreciation of 20th Century literature, and hopefully to foster a little love out there for the written word.

As for my natural literary inclination, I have already mentioned an (almost certainly unhealthy) Shakespeare obsession, but I was raised on rather a more contemporary diet. I attended my first lecture on Jack Kerouac at the ripe old age of three and never looked back.

I originally had the idea to go through with this project when I came across the Time Magazine list of what they deigned to be the one hundred great modern novels. Upon finding that there were other lists, M. and I sat down with the Time list, the Randall list, and the Modern Library list to make cases for each. We ultimate chose the Modern Library list for a whole host of reasons I’m sure I will speak more about later.

For the sake of clarity, let it be known that even though the Modern Library list does rank their titles (a feature it does not share with the Time list) we are reading and posting our reviews of these books in no order other than how the mood strikes us to read and write about them.

Instead of both reading all one hundred on the list, M. and I have decided to split it up 50/50. Though we do both hope to get to all one hundred at some point, things like work, class, and giving our kitten, The Professor, heaps and heaps of attention do take up much of our time. As we hope some of you might read some of these books along with us and want to ask questions/have some kind of dialogue, we are also thinking about putting up some videos every now and then.

So, what makes a book “great”? How have these one hundred books come to gain so much influence in the Western canon? Within the next year, we are going to try and answer those questions. Thanks for starting this journey with us. It’s great to have you here.


[1] See also, the one with more of my tenuous attachments to reality still intact.

The Saga Begins!

Welcome to Modern Librarians. This blog will record the thoughts and labors of your two humble bibliophiles as they strive with modern literature, with great books of the past, and (probably) with each other. The role of our little corner of the Internet will be that of literary soap-box, where the intrepid and occasionally vituperative K. and I can share our thoughts as we make our way through the Modern Library’s 100 Greatest Novels [1] of the 20th Century.

Along the way we’ll toss out reviews of other books as we read them, and general book-thoughts as they strike us- but the backbone of this blog, for now, is the periodic reviews of the 100 books on that list. [2]

* * *

I am M., the slightly older, dustier and (charmingly) pedantic half of your guide-team through the 100 Greatest project, the Virgil to K’s Beatrice, if you will. In literature I incline toward antiquity and the Greats; my natural appetite is for the Noble, the Mystic and the Defiant. The extent to which a work reminds me of Hector’s farewell to Andromache, of the dying Cyrano, or of Tennyson’s Ulysses enjoining his aged sailors to one more geriatric voyage is the extent to which it will appeal to my guts.

Beyond that gut-reaction, I do have other literary ‘likes’- a taste for the decidedly un-noble Ovid and the smart dry humor of Waugh and Amis (the elders, both), and a guilty fondness for well-written fantasy novels.

I’ve always had a mad fondness for books - in fact, there is telling evidence to suggest that I am genetically predisposed to bibliomania. When I was pre-natal, so my mother tells it, the one wish that she repeated to everyone who asked about her child-to-be was, simply, ‘I want a kid who likes books.’

Be careful what you wish for.

It’s something of an obsession. When I walk into a bookstore, the smell of the paper enters my nostril and makes a direct assault on the most avaricious parts of my brain. I start grabbing volumes left and right, black out and regain my senses more than an hour later in the store cafe with black coffee and a stack of books in front of me[3]. The subject doesn’t matter - legal philosophy, histories, Romantic poetry, an Introduction to Vietnamese - I want them all.

In part, the Modern Librarian project is an avenue towards satisfying that acquisitive beast inside me - it means that I have a reason to buy 50 new books. It’s also a chance to compel myself to read certain books that are influential, important and not at all to my taste.[4] Mostly, however, I’m reading in the hope of finding a pleasant surprise and sharing it with you.

See you in the stacks!

[1] Greatest Novels originally published in English - unless the Modern Library possesses the native Anglo-American distaste for fur’ners...

[2] Followers of the above link will already have discovered that our list has an Evil Twin in the form of the Reader’s Choice List, whose top entries are so atrociously bad that they cry out to the poison in my pen. You can bet that at least a couple of them will find their way into these pages. K., however, is having none of it, so I expect I’ll be battling the dragons Rand and Hubbard (who have 7 of the top 10 entries!) solo.

[3] A real-life stack from earlier this week: the Collected Letters of T.S. Eliot, a history of the Central Asian Steppe, the Metaphysics of Aristotle, the Tao Te Ching, two novels by John Barth, some stream-of-consciousness rag by Harold Bloom, and a collection of Feynman anecdotes.

[4] see: Wharton, Edith