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.