Saturday, June 24, 2006

Naked Lunch (by William S. Burroughs)

Important historically more than as a work of art, I think. The obscenity trial of Naked Lunch was the last such trial in the United States. And I can definitely see why the book was considered obscene; it's way more graphic than Henry Miller, or at least more disturbing, because of all the detailed injection descriptions (yes, I read them... shudder) and all the... well, gross stuff. The edition I read had the preface after the book, which is really dumb, because it's hard to hang your hat on anything if you just dive into it, like Burroughs's anti-capital punishment stance and his philosophy of Need, which he sets up nicely if you read the effing preface first. I found the novel as a whole to be occasionally poetic, occasionally funny, and occasionally reminiscent of George Bush. But as far as the beats go, I liked On The Road better.

"The junk merchant doesn't sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to the product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client."

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Wonder Spot (by Melissa Bank)

I didn't realize that Melissa Bank had another book, but she does! This is exactly what I wanted The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing to be: a cohesive novel in vignette form rather than a series of stories, several of which don't match.

In this book, the main character's name is Sophie Applebaum, which I think is the best name ever. I kind of want to change my name to Sophie Applebaum. Overall, this book is better than Girls' Guide and I thought Girls' Guide was pretty good. Definitely above your average chick lit, with realistic characters you can care about, and no pat endings. Leaves you wanting more. Loved reading it.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Night (by Elie Wiesel)

"I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people."

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Baby Proof (by Emily Giffin)

I'm not usually a chick-lit reader, but I had to read this one because I enjoyed Something Borrowed and Something Blue so much. (This isn't a sequel, but one of the characters does make a cameo appearance.) It centers around a woman who doesn't want to have children, except that her husband decides he does. It's more complex than your standard chick-lit, not really formulaic, and another breezy read. I loved so many of the subplots and characters (especially Michael, from start to finish) but I pretty much hated Ben. I can't say more without giving anything away, but my hate for Ben was regarding his actions at the beginning of the novel, and he never won me over again. But anyway, it's refreshing and honest and thought provoking for women who aren't necessarily gung ho on having kids--or women who are. If you like chick-lit that's got a little more meat to it, I'll give it the thumbs up. (Although it's probably not as good as Something Blue which has been my favorite so far.)

Monday, June 12, 2006

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (by James Joyce)

Shock of all shocks, I actually loved reading this. I was not looking forward to the moocow and the tuckoo and all the Joyceness of it all. I was not looking forward to more of whiny Stephen from Ulysses. But it’s not that way at all. It is lyrical, funny, polished, thoughtful work, featuring many passages I sat and re-read just for pure pleasure. Whatever Thomas Effing Wolfe is trying to do in that ungodly mess of his (see below), Joyce does ten thousand times better in Portrait--I guess I was right about Joyce coming off better by comparison. Joyce is actually trying to say something about the nature of nationality, family, religion, vocation, and art. (As opposed to Wolfe who... okay, I won’t start on him again. But I hate his vacuous, masturbatory, douchey novel even more after reading this book.)

The passage that is sticking with me at the moment is the one quoted below, which I’m still trying to figure out (if you want to make sense of the next two paragraphs, you may want to read it now). The original title of Portrait was Stephen Hero, which made me think that the quote was significant when I first encountered it. Then when I got to the end and realized what Joyce had done, I had to go back and re-read this. Stephen is talking about the personality of the artist ultimately flowing into the narration, and his example is a novel that begins in the first person and ends in the third person. Well lo and behold, at the end of Portrait, we see that Joyce has done the opposite. He starts in third person but ends in first person. There seem to be several layers of irony in here given the title of the novel and it’s autobiographical nature. So what does it mean?

I suppose I could go look up what critics have had to say about this, but that takes all the fun out of it. So far, my thoughts are that A) Stephen is wrong, not for the first time, and Joyce is winking at us from behind the curtain (while paring his fingernails); or B) Stephen is articulating Joyce’s own artistic progression. What this indicates, though, is that the end of this novel isn’t Stephen’s endpoint, but his midpoint. Stephen has to go inward in order to find, for lack of a better term, his artistic voice or aesthetic. But once he does that, he will build his symbolic wings and fly (as the novel’s symbolism and his last name, Dedalus, suggest) away from his own interior self and go back outward. It’s a very Yeatsian idea, the movement first inward and then outward. And given all the bird imagery and the fact that it’s his coming-of-age story rather than his adulthood, it seems a good bet that there is more to come with Stephen. This story ends in media res. Obviously, then, the “equidistance” referenced in the quote below would reflect the novel itself. I’ll ponder some more, but the senior member of the English faculty on my campus is a Joyce scholar who teaches Ulysses, and I need to hunt him down and ask him what his take on it is, if I can. Damn the semester being over!

The quote that I really wanted to use for this is on page 150, the description of the woman standing like a seabird who becomes a secular replacement for the Virgin Mary in Stephen's mind, when he has his artistic awakening. That was one of the passages I sat and re-read a few times. Oh, that James Joyce. This book is the 97th book that I've read from the Radcliffe list, and I'm sure I will have warm and fuzzy feelings for Joyce throughout books number 98 and 99. And then it will all go straight to hell, because book 100... is Finnegans Wake.

“The simplest epical form is seen emerging out of lyrical literature when the artist prolongs and broods upon himself as the centre of an epical event and this form progresses till the centre of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others. The narrative is no longer purely personal. The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea. This progress you will see easily in that old English ballad Turpin Hero which begins in the first person and ends in the third person. The dramatic form is reached when the vitality which has flowed and eddied round each person fills every person with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life. The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak. The esthetic image in the dramatic form is life purified in and reprojected from the human imagination. The mystery of esthetic, like that of material creation, is accomplished. The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” (Page 119)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Look Homeward, Angel (by Thomas Wolfe)

Oh my god, I hated this book so much. The longer it went on, which is "interminably" in case you were wondering, the more I hated it.

In my journal I said that it's "like The Corrections, only autobiographical and bad." It's about a family, and it's supposed to be realistic, because it's the author's barely fictional account of his own life. Except The Corrections is entertaining, and I cared about the characters. Not only does this novel have no forward momentum whatsoever, there is absolutely no reason to care about the characters.

First of all, we meet Gant, who is only important (we later learn) because he's the father of Eugene, a barely veiled stand-in for the author. Two hundred pages we spend on Gant and find out a whole lot of trivial details that mean nothing. It's incredible to me that so much verbiage is spent on this guy and he's still a caricature by the end of it. He's a mean alcoholic and he "wets his thumb" before he talks, and he is irrational and yells at people. For six hundred pages. That's it. He doesn't grow, change, or evolve. Because nobody grows, changes, or evolves in this stupid novel.

Then there's Eugene. Why do we care about him? We don't. He's a genius and a dreamer and he has an ego that the author means us to affectionately laugh at. (Although this begs the question, because the author clearly hasn't "outgrown" Eugene's problems with ego, as evidenced by the fact that the novel exists.) Why should we care? He hates his family, he learns some things, he's mildly sympathetic, but he's not especially interesting. And his family, although it's supposed to be this terrifically real portrayal, is written about in excruciatingly repetitive style. Helen "plucks her large chin." Ben says "Oh my God" a lot. Eliza is cheap. By the end, it's so ridiculous that I wanted to fling the book across the room. What's the point of having an "Eliza is cheap and Ben yells at her" scene every 50 pages? This book would have been far better, and gotten the exact same points across, if it were 200 pages long instead of 600 pages long.

And all the while, we learn about the minutia of Eugene's ENTIRE FUCKING UPBRINGING, to the last decimal point, and we do not care. And barely anything happens. And it sucks.

Apologists for this stupid ass novel admit that it is self-indulgent and all, but it's just so well written! It's brilliant! No, it isn't. It's someone trying to be Joyce and as much as Joyce annoys me at times, at least I can respect him. There's a whole chapter where Eugene pointlessly wanders through the town and the end of every paragraph is a quote from Shakespeare or similar. It's supposed to show Eugene's inner self, be a stream-of-consciousness thing, whatever. Show his erudition and self-absorption, I guess. But it comes off as tiring and gimmicky and absolutely as pointless as everything else in this novel.

I seriously can't think of another novel on my reading list that I think is so overrated. Also, between this and An American Tragedy, I am very tired of modernist bildungsroman novels. One bright side is that one of the few books remaining on the list is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I can't help but feel that I will like it much better after having read Look Homeward, Angel. Bleh.

Oh, just to adhere to the "yin-yang" principle that I tell my students gives their reviews some credibility, there is some nice writing in this novel from time to time. I guess. Below is one of the only sentences in the entire novel that I enjoyed. But a lot of the time it just seems so strained, like "oh look at me, how poetic I am!" and it made me want to throw the book across the room again. Ugh. Ugh. Thomas Wolfe. I hate you.

"'My dear, dear girl,' he said gently as she tried to speak, 'we can't turn back the days that have gone. We can't turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young. We are a flash of fire--a brain, a heart, a spirit. And we are three-cents-worth of lime and iron--which we cannot get back.'" (Page 461)