Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Ambassadors (Henry James)

This book is slow to get going, I will admit. This is probably the fourth time I've started it, and I am a Henry James fan. I guess my main issue with this book is the premise. There's all this Jamesean drama over this kid who moves to Paris, because his mother wants him to move back home. Seriously, that's the premise. Mom wants him home. She sends Lambert Strether (her boyfriend, as it were) to get him back. And then Strether has lots of experiences, and Paris changes him.

Every emotional nuance of every person involved is explored. And while that can be wonderful in, say, Wings of the Dove, with its perverse love triangle and its wonderful complexity, with a book like this, it seems to serve a slightly more banal purpose. All the same, the ending really did affect me because I did care about Strether and his journey. But it made me want to see the movie version of it (if there is one). On the other hand, The Portrait of a Lady made me want to stay far, far away from the movie of it, because the book couldn't be improved.

I did, in the end, like The Ambassadors. I liked Strether and even sympathized with him. And I still love James and his crazy ass sentences. But every so often I'd step back and think, "So the guy stays in Paris. Who gives a rat's ass?" That's probably not a great sign.

"Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?...The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have. You've plenty; that's the great thing; you're, as I say, damn you, so happily and hatefully young." Page 130

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Summer (by Edith Wharton)

I can't write about this one without a ton of spoilers so--spoilers! I went and read this one on the advice of some people on Snarkfest who said they liked it more than Age of Innocence, which of course I love. But I was underwhelmed. It's The Awakening meets Heaven by V.C. Andrews.

Charity is a girl from a small town who rejects ambition and education in favor of physical pleasure. The book is well written (especially all the "blossoming womanhood" metaphors) and the sexual elements are handled forthrightly. But of course, it all ends badly. My initial reaction was that it was irritating in its predictability, but I take the point of this critic, who says, "it is a nice piece of muted irony that Charity has not read the books around her in her own library, books that would tell her the inevitable end of her relationship with Harney." That's not only true, but interesting.

Another critic (here) points out the interesting Freudian elements of the text. Of course, the author also fails to realize that the marriage that ends the book is not in the least "positive." It is complete subjugation and even possibly incest. We want to wish the best for Charity and think that her husband is really a hero, but come on. I think that's wishful thinking.

It's well written, of course, because it's Wharton. In examining a sexual awakening, I guess it's brave. But I didn't find Charity all that sympathetic, in the end, and the inevitable tragic ending didn't excite me.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Lean, Mean Thirteen (by Janet Evanovich)

I always look forward to a new Stephanie Plum book. This one had what I thought was a particularly juicy plot (or way to spice up the "love triangle" business somewhat) as it involves Stephanie's hitherto unseen husband Dickie. However, it was absolutely more of the same. It might as well have been a Stephanie Plum madlib, because it seriously went nowhere.

Evanovich did an interview with Entertainment Weekly a while back in which she said she would never deviate from her formula, because people seemed to like it, and she was making a ton of money, and screw you. (She did not say screw you.) But come on, all that sexual tension and no payoff? It's getting really tiring. If she doesn't jump Ranger's bones in the next book... well, it will be annoying.

Anyway, as per the last entry, if I ever start talking about "the Wake" in super pretentious fashion, feel free to remind me that I also read this.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A Word in Your Ear: How & Why to Read James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (by Eric Rosenbloom)

I'm getting really into reading Finnegans Wake; the more I read it, the more I am interested in understanding it. (My finest moment was the other night, when I translated an entire incomprehensible sentence about "esoupcans" without using any sources at all. I don't have the sentence in front of me, but once I connected "esoupcans" with "europeans," the sentence made sense to me. It was sexy.)

Anyway I've been looking up books that help illuminate the text and in my search, I ended up reading the first edition of this book, which I found as a PDF online. It is uneven and lacks a certain academic rigor; on the other hand, it has many worthwhile tidbits worth noting for posterity. I will now note some of them:

  • On the idea that Finnegans Wake is a dream: the opening word of the novel, "riverrun," suggests the French "reverons," meaning, "we will dream." Cool, huh?
  • "explications of Finnegans Wake are often more arcane than the text itself" (true, very true)
  • There is a critical theory that ALP is in reality a widow of a man executed after the 1916 Easter uprising. The hanging scaffold is the scaffold Tim Finnegan is building. (I don't think the book has an easy solution like this, or that it can be solved, even, but it's interesting.)
  • Phoenix Park (the site of HCE's crime, of Humpty Dumpty's wall, and of Finnegans scaffold) is Eden, "where the fall into knowledge is enacted nightly."
  • "The challenge of reading is not to see through the veil of printed words to something hidden but to transubstantiate them as symbols back to originating thought." Oooh. Deep.

I loved the author's symbol language that shows how characters morph from one into the other. He also connected each of the characters to characters in the myth of Osiris and in the Tristan and Isolde story (not an original theory by any means but an extremely illuminating one, and in this case, explained particularly well). Also includes "the shorter Finnegans Wake" (about ten sentences long, available online and charming) and various guides to reading.

Did this book blow my mind? Not really. But it offered more pieces to the puzzle. I can't imagine why anyone would want to follow in my footsteps at this point, but Finnegans Wake? Is really, really fun to try and figure out. Especially once you realize that Joyce isn't being random at all; that it all fits together; it all makes sense in a really frustrating, cool, brilliant way.

(And I've just realized that once I finish this book I am in danger of name dropping it in every conversation I ever have about literature, only I will refer to it as "the Wake" and be really pretentious and annoying. Crap.)


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Lady Susan (by Jane Austen)

I'd never read it! It's a very short epistolary novella about this essentially horrifying bitch named Lady Susan, and her romantic exploits on her own behalf and on behalf of her daughter. When it was over, I was disappointed. It definitely ends too soon; a lot of action is stuffed in the epilogue. The characters are wonderful, the writing is witty; basically, it's Jane Austen, who is charming, and if you haven't read it, you should read it. It will not take long!

Friday, June 15, 2007

I Capture the Castle (by Dodie Smith)

Maybe the best book ever. Why didn't someone sit me down years ago and pry my eyelids open and force me to read this? I thought you all were my friends!

I wish there were an easy way to find out which books you will love, so you don't have to wade through a bunch of crap to find those few perfect books. I guess because it's so individual, and because every book is so unique. But this book was just note-perfect.

I avoided reading it for years because I assumed it was a fantasy thing. Although I read fantasy sometimes, I really have to be in the right mood. But this isn't that at all. It's the diary of a seventeen-year-old girl in the 1930s. And it's... well, it's lovely. The fact that I've read both this book and Black Swan Green this year makes it a good year.

I want to just go back to page one and read it all over again. I'm on my own tonight, with just an empty house and half a bottle of wine. Maybe I will.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Louisa May Alcott: A Biography (by Madeline Stern)

I have two back-entries to write (since my last post I have read The Accidental and Special Topics in Calamity Physics) but I finished this one this morning and figured I'd get it out of the way. I picked this up at the Orchard House (the home where Alcott wrote Little Women) and read that it was the premier biography of Alcott, so was looking forward to reading it.

I was hugely disappointed. Although the author had clearly done her research, she writes the whole thing in a folksy, Alcott-esque style like a cute life story and doesn't explain anything. She drops names and doesn't explain who they are; she almost never quotes from primary sources; she writes in a confusing, faux-literary style, and she leaves out all the interesting facts, trivia, quotes, background stories, and explanations. She neglects to tell us what happened to anyone (such as the niece she was raising when she died) and she ends it as Louisa is dying. And throughout, she seems to guess as to what people were thinking and feeling, and it's obviously biased by hindsight.

I would have quit reading this if I weren't trapped on a plane. It was really not well done, and given all the research Stern did on Alcott, she could have written something a thousand times better. I guess I just wanted it to be more academic, more rigorous, and less frou frou.