Thursday, May 26, 2005

Sense and Sensibility (by Jane Austen)

I don't think I'd ever read it all the way through, but Beth inspired me. It's flat-out impossible for me to get the movie characters out of my head. But I think it's a great story, with a somewhat sad, somewhat realistic ending. And it's Jane Austen, so what's not to love? And what can you really say about it? It's one of her best.

White Noise (by Don DeLillo)

I first read White Noise back in college, when I had the habit of going to the campus bookstore and buying books for classes I wasn't taking. And at the time it blew me away totally; I had never read anything like it. It's an interesting experience to come back to this book ten years later; as you get older and more aware of mortality, you can relate to the ideas in the book more strongly than you could when you were younger--even if the writing itself seems less fresh and impressive once you've read, for instance, the Douglas Coupland ouvre. (Not that Coupland doesn't owe a debt to DeLillo, obviously, but DeLillo feels less unique now than he did in 1995.)

I say you can relate to the ideas because this is a novel of ideas; the characters are never persuasive characters, but spouters of ideologies (which could easily be annoying, and I know many people who are annoyed by the book). The plot, such as it is, is left somewhat unresolved, because that's not the point. The point is, what is the best way to deal with the inescapable fact of death? And you can't wrap up those kinds of ideas in a nice tidy plot. Or at least it feels like you shouldn't.

"How strange it is. We have these deep terrible lingering fears about ourselves and the people we love. Yet we walk around, talk to people, eat and drink. We manage to function. The feelings are deep and real. Shouldn't they paralyze us? How is it we can suvive them, at least for a while? We drive a car, we teach a class. How is it no one sees how deeply afraid we were, last night, this morning? Is it something we all hide from each other, by mutual consent? Or do we share the same secret without knowing it? Wear the same disguise?" (Page 198)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Invisible Man (by Ralph Ellison)

"The mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived."

Wow. This book is incredible, literally: I can't believe that it's Ellison's first book. Obviously he put his heart and soul into it, which is part of what makes it great. But the command of language, metaphor and symbol are... off the top of my head, I can't think of anyone else who uses symbolism quite so well. I wouldn't even want to try and make a list of the symbols in this book, because it's just too rich and too dense. And the symbols turn into larger motifs, which recur throughout the book, accumulating layers of meaning.

A book like Native Son, which is in a similar tradition, written by an African-American author and set in Harlem during the same time period, is important and thought provoking because of the story and the social questions raised by the story. Invisible Man has that same importance, but it adds a whole other layer on top of it. As a pure literary work, it is virtuosic. I was so impressed by this book. It goes in the category of Classics You Should Definitely Read.

"I looked into the design of their faces, hardy a one that was unlike someone I'd known down South. Forgotten names sang through my head like forgotten scenes in dreams. I moved with the crowd, the sweat pouring off me, listening to the grinding roar of traffic, the growing sound of a record shop loudspeaker blaring a languid blues. I stopped. Was this all that would be recorded? Was this the only true history of the times, a mood blared by trumpets, trombones, saxophones and drums, a song with turgid, inadequate words?" (Page 383)

Friday, May 13, 2005

This Side of Paradise (by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

There's something very touching about This Side of Paradise. I don't mean the story itself; rather the foreknowledge that F. Scott is going to figure it all out eventually--like he's unearthing nuggets of deep psychological truth on which to base his future great works. It's like the NaNoWriMo of a young genius. (I don't know the precise timeline of this book, but I am educatedly guessing that this is one of his early efforts.) (I just looked it up so as not to appear like an idiot, and it was his first book.)

In this book he also writes a lot about the great and not-so-great writers of history, as well as their works, and it's sort of eerie to know that one day Fitzgerald will write a novel that stands with the best of them. Did he have any idea at the time?

The format for this excavation is the life story of a Sebastian Flyte/Adrian Mole type character: Amory Blaine. The story is broken into short chapters and incorporates play-like dialogue, poetry, and other prose experiments.

My experience of the book is so bound up in my awareness of Future Fitzgerald that it's hard for me to evaluate the book on its own. I would say it's not in itself a work of genius, but it was clearly written by a genius, and that's why it becomes worthwhile. It's a character sketch that never quite turns into a story. But it's a wonderful character sketch nonetheless.

" he wrote one day, when he pondered how coldly we thought of the 'Dark Lady of the Sonnets,' and how little we remembered her as the great man wanted her remembered. For what Shakespeare must have desired, to have been able to write with such divine despair, was that the lady should live ... and now we have no real interest in her.... The irony of it is that if he had cared more for the poem than for the lady the sonnet would be only obvious, imitative rhetoric and no one would ever have read it after twenty years." (Page 124).

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (by Douglas Adams)

You know, I am not entirely convinced that I ever read this book before. I know I read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Restaurant at the end of the Universe and I think Life, the Universe, and Everything. But I don't think I ever read this one. When I saw the movie, a lot of the material was unfamiliar to me. Of course Arthur Dent, the towels, and 42, I knew all of that. But Slartibartfast and the mice at the end? No.

(I do know that at one point I knew the ultimate question, and now I don't anymore. Can anyone remind me? It was very clever, as I recall.)

Pretty fast read, and I'm surprised by just how much of it ended up in the film. (Although why we didn't get to hear any of to Vogon poetry I don't understand.) There's a big controversy about the leopard line, which I don't really get. I mean it's not that important. (Yeah, I went there.) There's nothing I can say about this book that hasn't been said before, really. Funny, fast, entertaining. I think a few of his other books are better, though. Am I allowed to say that, or is it blasphemy?

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Naked and the Dead (by Norman Mailer)

Back to the reading list with this one! It's a World War II novel about the invasion of a Japanese island, sort of The Thin Red Line, except good. It's thought provoking, full of moral ambiguity and realism, suspenseful, and extremely well-written. It's up there with All Quiet on the Western Front and almost as good as Catch-22 (which I have an overpowering desire to read next, but I can't find my copy).

The big problem I have with this book is that the characters are so diverse, but they all have one thing in common: they think women are faithless whores. I can only think of one character who doesn't have "all women are bitches" as a personal motto, and there are many characters in this book. And it is surprising that a book about a bunch of men being all penisy and bellicose on an island would have so much to say about women, but it sure seems to.

I note that Norman Mailer (I have never read anything else by him) wrote a book called The Prisoner of Sex, which purports to "take on Gloria Steinem, women's liberation, and the politics of sex." I have a sneaking suspicion that this book would make me VERY ANGRY. At best, his premise is that monogomy is not a natural state. (Oh yeah, all his characters who think women are whores are all cheating on their hateful, frigid wives by fucking anything that moves. It's great.) But maybe this book would mitigate or elucidate his ideas about women. You can tell me all about it after you read it, because I don't have to. Yay!

Okay obviously this detracted from the enjoyment of the book for me. But if you like books about war that are messy and real and vivid and thoughtful and haunting, you should definitely give it a read. There is a lot of truth in this book, and a lot to think about when you're done reading it. Recommended, in spite of everything.

"We have the highest standard of living in the world and, as one would expect, the worst individual fighting soldiers of any big power. Or at least in their natural state they are. They're comparatively wealthy, they're spoiled, and as Americans they share most of them the peculiar manifestation of our democracy. They have an exaggerated idea of the rights due themselves as individuals and no idea at all of the rights due others. It's the reverse of the peasant, and I'll tell you right now it's the peasant who makes the solider." (Page 139)