Sunday, December 13, 2015

O Pioneers!



O Pioneers!
by Willa Cather
read: 2015

Immigration is something of a hot issue in the news, so it is interesting to read a novel like O Pioneers! which deals with new immigrants from groups that are now long-established. The Bergson family are Swedish-Americans that inhabit frontier Nebraska in the early 1900's, but they still have memories and traditions from their homeland. The French, Swedish, and Romanian immigrants of the time and place all have their own culture but are working together to make it in a strange, new America. It's a nice reminder that we were all aliens here once.

One of the themes of the novel is the relationship between mankind and nature. Protagonist Alexandra says at one point, "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years." The first part of that quote is the novel's most famous, but I think the second part is just as interesting, implying that in many ways people are hardly different from birds. The land provides sustenance for Alexandra and her family, and her life is inextricably tied to the land, but she wants her younger brother Emil to be able to transcend an agricultural existence and experience more of the world.

Cather's empathetic, all-seeing eye reminds me of Faulkner or Toni Morrison, She has sympathy even for those who do wrong, and seeks to explain rather than condemn.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Old Wives' Tale



The Old Wives' Tale
by Arnold Bennett
read: 2015
Modern Library #87, Guardian 1000 Novels

Oh my God! We are totally like the girls in The Old Wives' Tale! You are such a Constance, and I am such a Sophia!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Occultation



Occultation
by Laird Barron
read: 2015

This is a creepy collection of stories to read, having moved into an old house and having a three-year that has nightmares every night. The final tale, "Six Six Six," about a couple that moves into a house that is literally and figuratively haunted, was especially a bad choice for me right now.

All of these stories are creepy, but "Strappado" and "Lagerst├Ątte" are unusual for Barron in that they may not even be metaphysical.

Almost all of these stories have love as a backdrop. In "The Broadsword" and "Six Six Six," the lack of trust between romantic partners becomes an issue. Lack of trust is even more dramatic in "--30--," where two ex-lovers find themselves at each other's throats while in isolation on cursed land. "The Forest" is about terrible forces that doom all of humanity, but it's also about rediscovering lost love. In "Catch Hell," the occult elements are just a backdrop for a marriage torn asunder by the death of a child.

The past returning also shows up again and again. The protagonists of "Mysterium Tremendum" and "The Broadsword" are each haunted by a death witnessed years ago. The heroines of "Lagerst├Ątte" and "Catch Hell" deal with grief over dead relatives. In "Six Six Six" the husband inherits his Satanic family homestead and returns to a life he believed left behind.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Imago Sequence



The Imago Sequence
by Laird Barron
read: 2015

I don't think the high points in the The Imago Sequence were as insidiously creepy as some of the high points in The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, but it had some standout moments. The sad, paranoid ending of "Probiscis" sent a chill down my spine. I liked the threads that tied some of the stories together: the Mina Mounds, the idea of portals between parallel worlds in Parallax and the title story. Like H.P. Lovecraft, Barron keeps you in the dark as to what the horror is, but by tying the stories together into the same mythology, you get to feel multiple parts of the elephant .

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Satanic Verses



The Satanic Verses
by Salman Rushdie
read: 2015
Guardian 1000 Novels

I described Midnight's Children as "rich," and the same applies to Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, but I'd argue the latter text veers into incoherent at times. There are many plots and many characters, and the two main characters change from good to bad and back during the story, making it hard to follow or have a rooting interest. I don't think I really have the background to appreciate some of the religious elements or some of the experiences of an immigrant in the Western world, but at times things did resonate with me, such as Chamcha trying to reconcile with his father.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Big Sur



Big Sur
by Jack Kerouac
read: 2015

I once had a music blog and a few years ago I reviewed One Fast Move Or I'm Gone, an album by Son Volt's Jay Farrar and Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, built around the words of Jack Kerouac's Big Sur. I panned the album at the time, but came to love the poetry of the lyrics and the moroseness of the music. Since that review, I moved to the Bay Area (and back), visited the City Lights bookstore and the Beat Museum, and traveled to Big Sur. It was strange reading the novel and having lines like "I'm just a sick clown and so is everybody else" or "I am going to die in full despair - Wake up where? On second breath in life the atmosphere is dearer maybe closer to Heaven" and have a melody spring into my head reflexively. It enhancement my enjoyment of the novel and forced me to pay closer attention to the prose than I do normally.

Kerouac's accounts of his drinking binges are tough to read in light of his alcohol-related death prior to the age of 50. He does not glorify his alcoholism, describing how the physical ills of a hangover are intertwined with a spiritual despair. In this light, his life's end was truly sad.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Wings of the Dove



The Wings of the Dove
by Henry James
read: 2015
Modern Library #26, Guardian 1000 Novels

I often enjoy quiet novels about interpersonal relationships, events, and attitudes, but I essentially slept through much of my reading of The Wings of the Dove. James kept expounding for page after page on a minute shift in one character's perception of another and the novel might have been more readable if some of that was omitted.

James changes perspectives in the narration. The reader sees the first few chapters from the perspective of Kate, establishing her motivations to soften James setting her up, ultimately, as the story's villain. Much of the rest of the first volume focuses on Milly, but the second volume zeroes in on Densher and his moral dilemma. Despite struggling with the prose, I did find the story compelling, with James keeping me in suspense until the very end.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All



The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All
by Laird Barron
read: 2015

The United States covers a wide, often sparsely populated area, and modern civilization sprung up relatively recently. What dwells in the spaces that haven't been paved over by mankind? What undiscovered ruins lay there? Who lived (or lives) there, and what strange gods did they worship? Barron answers these questions with a healthy dose of Lovecraftian horror. The empty spaces are full of dark, evil creatures and forces that want to destroy mankind and only spare humans so they can spread the tales of the terrors they have seen. Most of Barron's characters have figurative demons even before encountering the literal ones that people his stories. It makes for pretty dark stuff.

Friday, May 8, 2015

At Swim-Two-Birds



At Swim-Two-Birds
by Flann O'Brien
read: 2015
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 Novels

Other than a couple of the stories in Lost in the Funhouse, I have not read anything with as many meta-fictional layers as At Swim-Two-Birds. The narrator is an author writing a story that features an writer who falls asleep, allowing his fictional creations to play at creating stories of their own. Characters interrupt tales with other tales, one-upping one another. The fictional author gives birth to a figurative offspring made literal flesh, and that character in turn writes a story wherein his dozing father gets his comeuppance. These stories-within-stories are intercut by the narrator's tales of drinking with friends and maintaining his relationship with his guardian uncle. Often I find this sort of metafictional exercise showy and pointless, but there's enough humor to make it work here; O'Brien knows he's being a bit silly.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Napoleon of Notting Hill



The Napoleon of Notting Hill
by G.K. Chesterton
read: 2015

I've spent a little time in London but I'm not sure I understand enough about either the geography of the city or about the public sentiment towards patriotism in England in 1904 to appreciate some of the apparently satiric elements in The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns



Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
by Frank Miller
read: 2015

Throughout Dark Knight Returns, there's a running argument about whether Batman does more good or evil for society. Miller takes pains to make the characters espousing both sides of the argument look like idiots, letting them voice closed-minded or naive thoughts in the same breaths with which they render their opinions on Batman. But he also makes sure that both sides have a point. Obviously Batman stops a lot of crime and criminals, but he also inspires the Joker to come out of retirement and kill hundreds. Commissioner Gordon (and ultimately his successor) ultimately feels it best to look the other way, but it's a murky decision.

I have same complaint about Miller's Batman that I do about the Christopher Nolan movies: when he's causing destruction at a massive scale, it's ridiculous to continually point out that he doesn't kill people. He kills bunches of people.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pale Fire



Pale Fire
by Vladimir Nabokov
read: 2015
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #53, Guardian 1000 Novels

Pale Fire has a unique structure, with the novel told in footnotes to the titular poem. The commentator, Charles Kinbote, serves as an unreliable narrator, believing that the poem is a tribute to his homeland of Zembla and the tales he told poet John Shade about his native land. We're meant to laugh at Kinbote's naivete, in part, but I think there's a compelling point here about the baggage that readers bring when interpreting works. The author's intention matters, certainly, but the audience for art is always bringing its own perspective and experience.

I don't find the story of Kinbote, Shade, and John Gradus really compelling in and of itself apart from the metafictional gimmick. There's some interesting guesswork as to whether Zembla is real, whether Gradus planned to kill Kinbote or Shade, whether Shade and Kinbote were really friends, etc., but it's an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional one: I don't really care what the answers are.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

All Aunt Hagar's Children


All Aunt Hagar's Children
by Edward P. Jones
read: 2015

I couldn't find a master list of parallels between Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar's Children, so I put this reference together (not exhaustive):

Lost in the CityAll Aunt Hagar's Children
1The Girl Who Raised PigeonsIn the Blink of God's EyeLitC: Robert considers abandoning his daughter after his wife dies in childbirth. AAHC: Ruth finds a baby abandoned in a tree.
2The First DaySpanish In the MorningBoth stories describe a child's first day of school
3The Night Rhonda Ferguson Was KilledResurrecting MethuselahBoth feature a character named Anita, presumably the same woman (with AAHC story coming after). Main characters are both students dealing with death
4Young LionsOld Boys, Old GirlsMain character of both stories is Caesar Matthews, with AAHC story coming after
5The StoreAll Aunt Hagar's ChildrenPenny (grocery store owner) appears in both stories
6An Orange Line Train to BallstonA Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in PeruMarvella and her children appear in both stories, with her daughter Avis featured in the AAHC tale
7The Sunday Following Mother's DayRoot WorkerMaddie appears in both stories
8Lost in the CityCommon LawAAHC story takes place earlier, with Lydia a young girl and her mother Cornelia and Georgia about 30
9His Mother's HouseAdam Robinson Acquires Grandparents and a Little SisterA Joyce appears in both stories. Both have a theme of raising children that don't belong to you, and of the destruction of drug culture
10A Butterfly on F StreetThe Devil Swims Across the Anacostia RiverBoth stories reference Mansfield Harper and deal with theme of infidelity
11GospelBlindsidedBurned-down church and Revered Saunders from LIC story mentioned in AAHC
12A New ManA Rich ManElaine Cunningham appears in both stories
13A Dark NightBad NeighborsBeatrice Atwell appears in both stories
14MarieTapestryGeorge Carter records life histories of main characters of both stories

One has to ask: why does Jones do this? From a literary standpoint, I think it adds depth to the characters and the world - they have life outside the 20 pages or so in their stories. Minor characters in one tale become major characters in another. This feeling that minor characters have their own rich, interesting stories to tell is present in Jones' novel The Known World as well. Aside from the literary reasons, there's a sociological / historical reason for Jones to set up the connections he does: the effects of slavery, Reconstruction, and institutional racism have reverberated throughout American history, and the thematic and literal echoes in Jones' tales reinforce those reverberations.

AAHC takes places largely in Washington D.C., but the setting is contrasted to the rural life that African-Americans left behind in the rural south during the migration to urban centers. In Root Worker, for instance, a middle class doctor learns herbal medicine from a "root worker" in the North Carolina town her parents came from. Jones is interested in the tension between Southern roots and modern progress, and AAHC is consumed with it.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Lost in the City


Lost in the City
by Edward P. Jones
read: 2015
Pen/Hemingway Award

When I wrote about The Known World, I mentioned Edward P. Jones' all-seeing narrative voice, free of judgment. That voice is almost frustratingly present in Lost in the City - Jones might give you several of a character's thoughts and actions, but he never reduces it to something simple by tying a verbal bow around it. The reader is left to wonder, judge, extrapolate, and doubt. I might liken his short stories to those of Flannery O'Connor, but O'Connor's stories - many of them brutally depressing - seem to suggest we should be laughing at the same time we're crying. Jones doesn't open the door to humor in the same way, which probably suggests something real and depressing about the African-American condition.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Y: The Last Man



Y: The Last Man
by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra
read: 2015
Eisner Award

I finally finished reading Y: The Last Man after a break of several years. Vaughan created a post-apocalyptic world where all man save one have been killed by an unknown plague. Like much of the best science fiction, this new world serves a commentary on our world, in issues such as the role of women in the military and government, and the benefits and perils of cloning. Ultimately, the tale Vaughan tells is Yorick's; like in The Handmaid's Tale, the story is a reminder that an individual's fate matters even amidst tremendous general upheaval.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Inherent Vice



Inherent Vice
by Thomas Pynchon
read: 2015

Perhaps my favorite movie ever is The Big Lebowski, and it's easy to draw parallels between that film and Inherent Vice. Both feature noir-format stories with convoluted plots but a drug-addled hippie protagonist largely unable to comprehend them.

Do we need to stage an intervention at this point for Thomas Pynchon's predilection for writing lyrics for fake pop songs?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Berlin Stories



The Berlin Stories
by Christopher Isherwood
read: 2015
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 Novels

There's not really a plot to The Berlin Stories, which is a series of short semi-autobiographical tales set in Berlin in the 1930's: instead, the tales are more about the the setting of the city itself and the characters that expatriate Isherwood (and his alter ego William Bradshaw) encounters in his semi-idle adventures. The Nazis are taking over Germany, which directly affects some of the Isherwood's friends, but for most of the people it's just background for their affairs, crimes, scandals, and insecurities. His famous "I am a camera" line has mostly been interpreted as Isherwood serving as a silent, non-participating observer, but it also reflects his unbiased eye: even when the narrator is personally hurt by Arthur Norris' machinations and Sally Bowles' capriciousness, he still sees their good points as well as their faults.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Three Paradoxes



Three Paradoxes
by Paul Hornschemeier
read: 2015
Guardian 1000 Novels

My introduction to Paul Hornschemeier is through the Comedy Bang Bang title credits and accordingly I expected a humorous air to Three Paradoxes. It does have some funny parts - like the ancient philosophers making fun of Zeno's titular paradoxes - but mostly it plays things straight as a low-key, introspective, wistful, semi-autobiographical piece. Hornschemeier uses a variety of different artistic styles for different sections, from realistic to cartoon-strip, showing a real mastery of the form.

Friday, January 16, 2015

A Clockwork Orange



A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess
read: 2015
Time 100 NovelsModern Library #65, Guardian 1000 Novels

I've wanted to read A Clockwork Orange since college, or maybe even since high school, and in hindsight I probably should have read it earlier. The autonomy theme is similar to Brave New World, which was a favorite of mind, but as I get older the idea that we can create Pavlovian associations that make criminals not want to get commit crime sounds pretty good, and frankly more humane than prison.

I thought the slang would be annoying, but I caught on pretty quickly and it really added to the feel of the story. To the extent I don't understand Alex, I think that's part of the point.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Possession



Possession
by A.S. Byatt
read: 2015
Time 100 NovelsGuardian 1000 NovelsMan Booker Prize

Possession is full of layers of metafiction. The text is mostly present-day narrative, but also contains letters, diary entries, and poems. For the most part, we are confined to what the characters in present uncover when investigating the mysteries of the past, but there are a handful of occasions where Byatt introduces a narrative account of the past that cannot be known to the present-day characters.

Roland and many of the other characters are literary scholars and are conscious of how the elements in their lives mirror literary themes. "He was in a Romance, a vulgar and a high Romance simultaneously; a Romance was one of the systems that controlled him," Roland realizes.

The novel is deep enough to invite literary scrutiny, but at the same time it is a comment on the limitations of such scrutiny. Roland thinks he understands Ash, but when he finds Ash's love letters to Christabel he realizes he was missed an aspect of his personality. Similarly, the thrust of the scholarship around Christabel's work assumes lesbian themes, and when it's discovered she had an affair with Ash it changes the interpretations of her work. We are also limited to what is preserved for posterity, as items are never recorded or destroyed. The novel begins with Roland discovering a letter that was never sent, and ends with all the characters opening a letter that was never read.

I feel compelled to mention the final scene. It was uplifting that Ash knew of his child and kept a lock of her hair forever, but that meant that Christabel needlessly carried the guilt of not telling Ash for the rest of her life. The situation was bound to be hopeful in some measure and tragic in some measure, and it is little surprise that the woman suffers more.