Friday, June 28, 2013

A Death in the Family (by James Agee)

Also known as #99! That's right, I now have only one book left to finally finish the Time 100 list: Gravity's Rainbow. I figured I might as well end with another giant difficult behemoth of a book, as that seems to be my tradition. But before I dig into that one, let's talk about A Death in the Family by James Agee.

This is quite an interesting book structurally, and reminds me of Faukner's As I Lay Dying, although it's more accessible. It isn't just the central premise of a central family member dying, or the compressed time period in which it takes place, but also the continual point of view shifts. We see the action through the father, the mother, and each of the children, as well as some other members of the family. It's impressionistic in that way. There are also flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness passages.

It's also poetic and meditative and rather beautiful. The whole part about Rufus (the young boy who I think of as the main character) trying to negotiate the social world of the neighborhood boys sticks in my mind, and the opening sequence especially is gorgeous. I mean the first sentence: "We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child." I mean, how terrific is that?  This is another book and author I hadn't known anything about (all I know is what I read on the back of the cover, which said Agee died when he was 45, not long after the book was published) but am very glad to have been introduced to. I know I've said it before, and no doubt I'll say it again, but this has been an outstanding book list.

I'm going to end with a long quote, because it's so beautiful and it makes me cry and I don't want to cut it down:

“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it's good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what's it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what's it all for?

Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it's almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.

And God knows he was lucky, so many ways, and God knows he was thankful. Everything was good and better than he could have hoped for, better than he ever deserved; only, whatever it was and however good it was, it wasn't what you once had been, and had lost, and could never have again, and once in a while, once in a long time, you remembered, and knew how far you were away, and it hit you hard enough, that little while it lasted, to break your heart.”


Friday, June 14, 2013

The Sot-Weed Factor (by John Barth)

Phew! This one took me a while to read, especially since it's 758 pages chock full of ersatz 17th-century diction. There's definitely some rough going in places, but I found that the novel gets better as it goes on, and from page 600 or so onwards, I really enjoyed it. (I think it's because we see the main character, Eben, achieve some actual personal growth, as opposed to the first 600 pages of him making the same mistakes over and over. Probably deliberately, of course, but it still can get tedious.)

This is a comic epic that satirizes picaresque novels like Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones, neither of which I have read. It is definitely witty and entertaining, god knows it would make an amazing movie (just the character of Burlingame alone, who shows up all over the place in various disguises, would be comedic gold). There is a lot that is just simply over-the-top, including the story-within-a-story of John Smith and Pocahontas, which involves a penis and an eggplant and... well, I've already said too much.

There is also kind of a lot of raping. I mean, a lot. Of raping. Comedic raping, almost entirely of men raping women, half of which seemingly leads to women being all, "oh you raped me so well, I am now in love with you!" I mean, it's a satire and everything, so it's supposed to be over-the-top and ridiculous, which it is, I mean there's a lot of pants-pooping too, but there's still arguably some overkill in the sheer quantity of it, and the lack (until the end, which, again, was my favorite section) of strong female characters. I'm sure feminist critics have had plenty to say about this book.

It is, however, very smart, well-researched (based on a real poem and the real history of colonial Maryland), entertaining, over-the-top, and at times hysterically funny. I am ultimately glad I stuck with it until the end!

"To ask a man what he thinks of gambling is as much to ask him what he thinks of life," was one of the positions he experimented with. "Doth not the mackerel gamble, each time he rises, that yonder gulls won't snatch him up, and the gulls make wager that they will? Are we not gamblers all, that match wits with the ocean on this ship of wood? Nay, life itself is but a lifelong gamble, is't not? From the moment of conception our life is on the line; every meal, every step, every turning is a dare to death; all men are the fools of chance save the suicide, and even he must wager that there is no Hell to fry in. Who loves life, then, perforce loves gambling, for he is Dame Chance's conquest. Moreover, every gambler is an optimist, for no man wagers who thinks to lose." (page 210)


Monday, June 10, 2013

The Interestings (by Meg Wolitzer)

 This is a book that I am not quite sure about. I enjoyed the premise more than the execution, I think. It’s interesting because I loved The Marriage Plot, in spite of its somewhat overprivileged characters, but had issues with this book for similar reasons. I thought about it a lot (if nothing else, this book did stay on my mind) and realized it’s because Jules, the semi-main character of The Interestings, is supposed to be this amazing person who is funny and somehow unique and special (so that the most sympathetic character, Ethan, is in like apocalyptic love with her) but she actually comes across as rather charmless, bitter, and lacking perspective. I like the idea of exploring jealousy, but you can’t really pull off endless, vocal jealousy of your rich friends when your rich friends 1) go out of their way not to throw it in your face, 2) are basically admirable and decent people, and 3) take you on first-class vacations and write you big checks. I mean come on. At that point you are the asshole in this scenario. (I didn’t mind her having the feelings so much as ranting about them to her long-suffering husband on a constant basis--I wanted more subtlety, I think, in this storyline.)

I was more interested in some plotlines than others. Ethan was my favorite character by far, I completely loved him, and I enjoyed the Ethan-Jules-Ash storyline, even though I had the issues with Jules as noted above. I did like the way it resolved, with Jules telling Ethan to talk to Ash about his issues, and the cartoon. The resolution was nice. (Even if overly reliant on my pet peeve cliche of “I’m not sure how to end this book so I will kill someone off.”) Actually in general I thought the characters’ endings made perfect sense. I also liked the sense of events happening against the backdrop of various decades; I thought the passage of time was handled very well.

I wanted some of the characters to be better drawn, in addition to the supposedly “funny” Jules (who never says anything humorous that I can recall): Cathy was a complete cipher to me, and I feel like the end of the book would have worked better if I had any sense of her at all. Maybe this was deliberate, given the Cathy/Goodman plotline, but I would have liked to understand why they were her friend in the first place. Ash was basically too good to be true, mostly in the way she didn’t seem to really care that her husband spent their entire marriage in love with another woman (I thought that was going to bubble up at some point, but nope). Jonah bored me; I know a lot of reviewers liked his plotline, but yawn. He just seemed like someone wallowing in his own problems for no reason. (I did like the resolution of that too, though.) Goodman’s plot arc worked for me, and I especially liked the final conversation between Ethan and Jules about it. I liked their friendship, and I liked Jules’s strong boundaries, and I liked her ultimate choice of career.

So I don’t know where that leaves me, kind of babbling about this book that I’m a little unsure about. I give it a solid B, but I feel like it could have so easily been an A.