Friday, February 24, 2012

The Valley of the Bones: Book Five of A Dance to the Music of Time (by Anthony Powell)

So in this book, Nick goes off to war, sort of. He is training with a regiment in Northern Ireland. The book continues to be unconcerned with anyone who isn't of high military rank (which I mentioned last time, when Nick was like "oh hell no I'm not joining the lowly infantry") and Nick's fellow officers are the only characters that really get fleshed out at all. This whole series is really an exploration of a very specific social class--the upper one.

It's yet another new cast of characters (though you just know Widmerpool is bound to show up at some point) who all, weirdly, have w-themed names. (I don't know why I noticed this, but there's Gwylt, Rowland Gwatkin, and Idwal Kedward.) The single guy who writes the reviews on Amazon liked this installment a lot because it is a satirical take on military life. As far as that goes, it's no Catch-22, and I preferred the brief time when Nick goes on leave and we see his in-laws the Tollands, etc.

I think this is also partly because the war is going on, but there's no actual fighting yet. I want to get to the death and destruction and fighting! I guess this installment felt like the first one that was really kind of killing time, though I do see the point--the calm before the storm and all that. So I enjoyed it, but I'm looking forward to the next installment.

There are a bunch of really awesome quotes from this one though. I usually just pick one of my highlights (love the highlighting feature on my Kindle app) but here are a bunch of them, I'm just going to include them all:, since I think it gives a really good overview of Powell's style:

"All love affairs are different cases, yet, at the same time, each is the same case. Moreland used to say love was like sea-sickness. For a time everything round you heaved about and you felt you were going to die — then you staggered down the gangway to dry land, and a minute or two later could hardly remember what you had suffered, why you had been feeling so ghastly."

"When people really hate one another, the tension within them can sometimes make itself felt throughout a room, like atmospheric waves, first hot, then cold, wafted backwards and forwards, as if in an invisible process of air conditioning, creating a pervasive physical disturbance. Buster Foxe and Dicky Umfraville, between them, brought about that state."

"I was impressed for the ten thousandth time by the fact that literature illuminates life only for those to whom books are a necessity. Books are unconvertible assets, to be passed on only to those who possess them already."

"Matilda, for instance, would take the line that no woman was worth a moment's consideration unless she were capable of making a man neglect his duty. Barnby, on the other hand, would say no duty was worth a moment's consideration if it forced you to neglect women. These things depend so much on the subjective approach."

"The London streets, empty of traffic, looked incredibly bright and sophisticated, the tarts in Piccadilly dazzling nymphs. This was before the blitz. I knew how I knew how Persephone must have felt on the first day of her annual release from the underworld."

"As in musical chairs, the piano stops suddenly, someone is left without a seat, petrified for all time in their attitude of that particular moment. The balance-sheet is struck there and then, a matter of luck whether its calculations have much bearing, one way or the other, on the commerce conducted. The potential biographies of those who die young possess the mystic dignity of a headless statue, the poetry of enigmatic passages in an unfinished or mutilated manuscript, unburdened with contrived or banal ending."

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Bossypants (by Tina Fey)*

We drove to Portland for the long weekend (yes, we are slightly crazy) and at Powell's Books, the greatest bookstore ever invented, we bought Bossypants on audio for the drive home. (I was looking for The War for Late Night, which I thought would also be a good audiobook choice; we listened to Game Change on a long drive a few years ago and it was awesome.) Tina Fey reads it herself, of course, and does a fantastic job. There's actually a couple of bonuses to having it on audio; they play the first Sarah Palin SNL skit in its entirety, for example, and we laughed all over again.

Tina Fey is interesting, relatable, feminist, and funny. Loved her stories about theater camp, photo shoots, and the Sarah Palin SNL sketches. I'm not a 30 Rock viewer, so that stuff mostly flew over my head. There's no real dirt and gossip here (I really wish there were, because I am nosy) and it isn't laugh-out-loud funny (I smiled a lot, but didn't really laugh), but it was totally pleasurable to spend a few hours listening to Tina Fey tell all the stories in Bossypants.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds (by Flann O'Brien)

It's hard for me to know what to say about this one. It's a novel within a novel within a novel. On one level, it's about a lazy university student who is writing a book about a guy (Trellis) who is writing a book; on another level, a bunch of characters refuse to do what they're told and gang up on their author (also Trellis) torturing him and putting him on trial. O'Brien reportedly hated comparisons with Joyce, but it's Irish, it's experimental, it's satirical, it's mythical--it's at least from the same antecedents as Joyce. (Hey, Finn McCool is in it!)

It's weird and unique and at times very funny. I found myself appreciating the metafictional parts, but really enjoying the first-person narration. So I was somewhat disappointed when that first-person speaker all but disappeared in the second half of the book in favor of characters who I enjoyed much less.

Here's the thing though: I was really struggling not to feel incredible sympathy for Trellis during the scene at the end of the book, even though it could not have been more clear that it was a story within a story within a story. The characters (who in themselves are fictional) are sitting around arguing about what they should do to him next, they backtrack and change their minds, and yet, such is the power of narrative that I still felt bad for him! I guess whenever you read a story, on some level, you know it's "fiction" yet you still buy into it. But it was like watching a Shakespeare play where the actors are constantly breaking character to talk to friends sitting in the audience. Yet you still cry when Romeo and Juliet die.

I'm not sure ultimately what O'Brien is saying with this book--I might need to read some more essays on it--but that experience was certainly what stuck with me from reading it.

But really, tell me you don't want more of this guy:

"The mirror at which I shaved every second day was of the type supplied gratis by Messrs Watkins, Jameson and Pim and bore brief letterpress in reference to a proprietary brand of ale between the words of which I had acquired considerable skill in inserting the reflection of my countenance." (p.12)

(P.S. This book has the best blurb I've ever read, by Dylan Thomas. "Just the book to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl.")


Monday, February 13, 2012

The Kindly Ones: Book Six of A Dance to the Music of Time (by Anthony Powell)

Halfway through the sequence, and this one really gives you a feeling of scope, incorporating flashbacks to the narrator's childhood (a childhood that abruptly ends when WWI begins) and ending with the beginning of World War II. (The implication is that the author is going to be enlisted; he doesn't want to join the infantry, but is supposed join as an officer--I guess this is because he's from the upper classes.)

In this book we spend more time with the characters we've spent five books getting to know, including the ridiculous Widmerpool and the (as gossip tells it) sexual deviant Sir Magnus Donners. (There's a whole scene where a bunch of people are at Donners's castle and they act out the seven deadly sins; it's the comic setpiece of this book, though of course there's something tragic about it in the person of Betty Templer.) I love the interpersonal drama here most, and I look forward to seeing it played out in volume seven against the backdrop of war.

"He used to read in the evenings, never with much enjoyment or concentration. “I like to rest my mind after work”, he would say. “I don’t like books that make me think.” That was perfectly true. In due course, as he grew older, my father became increasingly committed to this exclusion of what made him think, so that finally he disliked not only books, but also people – even places – that threatened to induce this disturbing mental effect."

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