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