You know, I'm sure I'll get clocked for this decision, but upon re-reading 1984, I'm actually knocking it down two stars. I'll give it its iconic stat...moreYou know, I'm sure I'll get clocked for this decision, but upon re-reading 1984, I'm actually knocking it down two stars. I'll give it its iconic status, and I won't deny that it's certainly a riveting, chilling read. But there's a point to which, as (not necessarily a wiser but) an older reader than I was when I first read it 7 years ago, I don't find it particularly convincing as a narrative anymore. In fact, it felt almost propagandistic this go round, albeit for liberal rather than totalitarian or far-right politics (those that we usually attribute propaganda to).
People call "The Handmaid's Tale" a knock-off of this novel, but I re-read each back-to-back and ultimately find Atwood's vision more successful because better founded in a logical sense. Orwell presumes that the fall of the world has happened in the somewhat recent past, and that his reader will trust that it's probable and so be terrified because of that (and considering how near to WWII he wrote this novel, can I really blame him?). But there's no sense of the tangibility of how that fall would look; in Atwood's novel, there are hints of the sorts of events that would lead to such a panicked turn to a Big Brother-esque world - the threat, really, is the end of our species' existence. And for that, in Atwood's world, we might sacrifice something more complicatedly *human*; in other words, our civilization, our culture, our capacity for at least imagining free will, if not necessarily owning it in the sense that people like to believe in.
But Orwell jumps the gun, and so on re-reading it, I didn't feel nearly as scared, because the rise of Big Brother felt so much more alien to me. As an 18 year old, of course I thought The Man would take over if I gave such an entity even an inch in the scheme of things. Now I certainly have my political anxieties, particularly as an American citizen in this historical moment, but politics appear to me far less of a this-or-that kind of domain than they once did. And so Orwell's sense that the world will either be salvaged or damned feels a bit like listening to my grandfather blather on about how "so-and-so was THE WORST PRESIDENT in American history," and he would vote for a WOMAN before he voted for THAT CLOWN. Etc.
Sorry Orwell! This is still an important book! I just don't find it all that believable or horrific anymore. (Oh, also, I really didn't like his treatment of Julia. Oh! And his characters felt really really wooden. And woody! Ha! Ha! Winston got a woody! I went there.)(less)
I won't lie. I skimmed the last 100 pages because I'm overwhelmed with my teaching duties this term. Nevertheless, it's still sitting on the top of my...moreI won't lie. I skimmed the last 100 pages because I'm overwhelmed with my teaching duties this term. Nevertheless, it's still sitting on the top of my bookshelf, meaning that I'll at least pretend I'm going to thoroughly engage with those 100 pages in the near future. More likely, I'll continue wading through my other semester-books and pick up a few pleasure reads when I can, instead, but it's the thought that counts, yes?
The 300+ pages I *did* read were just fantastic. Warren could probably be a bit more economical with his prose, and there were some detours in the narrative that could have been left unsaid, but how can you not love a political novel that's primarily interested in the kind of psychological responses to the gap between "The Law" and "Justice"? The characters are just terrible little shits, but watching them maneuver in a dirtied chessboard is thrilling. (less)
Re-read. Beautiful prose, but what a tedious text on the whole. Frog is pretty fun, and DOES DRAG??? I liked that part. A very strangely ethically amb...moreRe-read. Beautiful prose, but what a tedious text on the whole. Frog is pretty fun, and DOES DRAG??? I liked that part. A very strangely ethically ambiguous tale that apparently decided its utopia had no necessary use value for women. Well, enjoy that one, Grahame! I mean...I'd be cool "hanging out" in an all-boy zone for a bit, but I wasn't aware that that was also what this ultimately conservative tale desired.(less)
**spoiler alert** X-posted to my Sula review page, as well
It always feels slightly blasphemous to review Toni Morrison’s work—even worse if you’re dis...more**spoiler alert** X-posted to my Sula review page, as well
It always feels slightly blasphemous to review Toni Morrison’s work—even worse if you’re discussing her in an uppity, academic setting. There seems to be some disservice done if you aren’t simply basking in her glory. This is not to say that her work is untouchable (read Love and you’ll know what I mean), and I certainly don’t believe she thinks as much (though she wields a far heavier hand in critical reception to her work), but that any review I might eke out will inevitably fall short. Perhaps this is why I’ve felt so uncomfortable over the past several weeks; I re-read Beloved and Sula one after another (Beloved for my longest seminar paper; Sula for a presentation), and in a scholarly capacity. Not only did I feel slightly, as I said, presumptuous—but also inadequate, for how does one write about a novel as emotionally complex and ethically indeterminate as Beloved? How does one argue against Sula as a positive model for the ‘new black woman’ in a classroom—especially when you yourself love Sula, even despite your inclination to think of her as an awful person? At the end of the two weeks or so it took to get through both novels, I felt like a picked scab. I was emotionally tired out.
It seems strange that it had been so long since I’d read either novel—above three years for both of them—because so many moments from each have become imprinted on my psyche, it seems. Of course, one forgets much: the strange spectacle of Shadrack’s final National Suicide Day; Helene Wright turning to ‘custard’ on the train; the fact that Paul D made an impact on 124 Bluestone Road (or Paul D more generally; it seems I only remember the women of Beloved). But there is also much that feels inescapable: the ‘O-gape’ of despair in Nel’s final howl for Sula; the chokecherry tree that blossoms on Sethe’s dead-skinned back; that strange rose-shaped birthmark over Sula’s eye; Amy Denver’s yearning for velvet and for Boston, where she’ll find that velvet. In some ways, I can only describe the power these novels have had over me in Sethe’s terms—they follow me, my rememory, and I run into these images and moments at unexpected times, with unexpected reactions to them. I say rememory because for Sethe, rememory signals the tangible quality of the past—you encounter your own history as tactile, rather than ephemeral, and at times, this past is something you simply cannot get away from. Not that I want to escape Morrison’s work, but that her novels have that beautifully tangible quality for me; I don’t simply scan the pages, but enter into some other world, an elsewhere, where I confront my self even as I confront all that is narrated.
Re-reading Beloved this go-round was particularly difficult. It took me nearly two weeks to get through the novel—for no other reason than that there were many occasions where I simply had to put it down and step back for a spell. I won’t pretend that I feel the emotional resonances of black experience—but even as a white, gay, male reader, I can feel the resonances of the human experience, which is precisely what I think Morrison intends. The politics of slavery and the tensions of the post-Reconstruction era are of course central to the novel, but Beloved is never a polemical minstrel show—the powerful political work is done, it seems, simply by granting her characters an implicit and enduring humanity. One of the things I’ve always admired about Morrison’s work is her capacity to imagine the nuances of every person, no matter how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ they might seem at surface. Thus, in the face of the awful atrocities Schoolteacher and his pupils commit against the Sweet Home slaves, there are whitepeople like Amy Denver, like the Garners and the Bodwins—and even in the case of Schoolteacher, who horrifyingly instructs his pupils to put Sethe’s ‘human’ qualities on one side of a list and her ‘animal’ on the other, there is an indication that he has some capacity for sympathetic feeling, if only in his treatment of his dying sister-in-law. Likewise, Sethe is the emotional core of the novel, but she has committed one of the only crimes that is literally unrepresentable—infanticide. Morrison neither condemns her, nor lets her entirely off the hook. Even in their most fraught and horrifying sins, these characters are for Morrison essentially human, and she treats each one on their own terms. A novel about slavery and infanticide—a ghost story, in some capacity, as well—never manages to become moralizing or alienating, because Morrison refuses to let either her narrative or her reader take any easy outs.
Sula once tried to battle Beloved for my top-Morrison spot, but I think this re-reading has cemented the hierarchy for me. Nonetheless, they both remain among my favorite novels of all time (Beloved, in fact, has to be in the top five for me). Sula offers a wonderful exploration of female-female relationships (not necessarily erotic, though one can certainly read the Sula/Nel pairing as erotic in some capacity—I would argue more autoerotic than anything), and imagines a space in which women necessarily rely upon one another in a woman-centered community. My professor asked as we discussed the novel: ‘Do you think Morrison suggests that men have to leave in order for these characters to establish healthy and productive intimacies?’ And in fact, I tend to agree. We talked about the novel as contextualized alongside the Moynihan Report (a 1965 sociological ‘study’ that essentially claimed that female-headed black households kept ‘the race’ down, and generated figures like the Welfare Queen)—and so wondered together whether Morrison’s novel offers an alternative to these sorts of (white) hegemonic discourses on matrilineal systems in black communities. For Sula, this is the only available model; and in the case of Sula and Nel, female intersubjectivity is the most powerful and generative model of subject formation. Notice that the real troubles of the novel occur only after Nel and Sula’s strangely indistinguishable identities are fractured. Oh, look. There I went and did an academic discussion of the novel. But these issues weren’t what first drew me to the novel; rather, I think I was pulled in by the vulnerability of Nel, who ‘pulls her nose’ to make it seem more ‘white’ in the eyes of her mother. I was drawn to the way Morrison describes the ‘expanse of khaki’ that covers the men’s predatory/dormant dicks—and how Nel and Sula are unable to comprehend—but simultaneously able to intuit—what it means to be called ‘pig meat’ by these men. I was seduced by Sula, much the way she seduces everyone around her, and repulsed by her selfish actions—I was lured into imagining what it would be to function as the ‘dumping ground’ for a community’s frustrations, but being self-sufficient enough (as Sula is) to not give a damn. I felt my chest tighten when Nel lets out that final roar of utter grief (sidenote: Morrison has a real way of illustrating inarticulable emotions through guttural sounds). I considered my own conflicting desires to assimilate, as Nel does, and to deviate, as Sula does—the novel asks, in many ways, how we might discover a middle ground, and if such a thing can sustain itself. Sula doesn’t have the weight of Beloved, but it is in many ways so different from Beloved (even though many of the same issues arise—woman-centered communities, the mother-right, infanticide, & co.) that it carries the same sense of power.
As I mentioned at the top, Morrison has had her hits and her misses. Love is scatterbrained, meandering, and a bit of a hackneyed reworking/amalgam of her earlier novels. Song of Solomon may be a powerful novel, quite well written (with an absolutely amazing opening scene)—but for me, Morrison simply can’t write men in the same way she writes women, and the novel suffers for it. Her most recent, A Mercy, is positively stunning; The Bluest Eye was an eye-opening experience for silly-freshman-me, who had read perhaps one black author previously (Ellison’s Invisible Man). Jazz, Paradise, and Tar Baby all sit on my shelf, beckoning to me—but will likely have to wait until summer, as Atwood and Byatt’s new novels will dominate my winter break.
But Beloved and Sula are truly two works beyond comparison. As schmaltzy as it sounds, they changed my life. And it’s almost heartbreaking to see so many vicious reviews on goodreads, where people tear Beloved apart, call it the ‘worst novel’ they’ve ever read, decry Morrison’s illuminative faculties as a prose writer. I can only tell myself that art is subjective that these people are fucking idiots, like most people, and that I’ll keep-on-keepin’-on with my worship at the altar of Toni. (less)
Dahl was v much a childhood obsession of mine, particularly this, Matilda, and The BFG. The novel was no less a pleasure reading it now, and in many s...moreDahl was v much a childhood obsession of mine, particularly this, Matilda, and The BFG. The novel was no less a pleasure reading it now, and in many senses, even more horrific than I remember. The unreadability and insidiousness of evil in the story - the sense that figures who want to transform, kill, and even cannibalize you on the mere basis of your existence can also be "just like" a trustworthy person in your everyday life seems to me a profoundly adult anxiety. That the narrator manages to outsmart them despite major setbacks (this whole business of becoming a mouse) remains likewise empowering. Dahl's style is itself titillating; like a long-form fairytale, which in many ways, this novel truly is. The wicked witches; the transmogrification; the fear of manipulation by our most basic needs (food) and greeds (decadence in desire); the wonderful storyteller (Gramamma).
I was interested, too, that so many of my students found Dahl's project tacitly anti-woman - that the witches, and this is explicitly underscored, are only ever women, and use their feminine wiles/spectacularity to lure you in. I found this troubling on my re-read, but nevertheless think underlying misogyny in the novel is not uncomplicated by other considerations of gender, particularly in the boy's transformation into a pseudo-genderless form (a mouse is emphatically *not* a "boy"), and in the wonderful characterization of the spry, cigar-chain-smoking grandmother. That transformation speaks to other interesting notions of intimacy and human temporality in ways that, I think, perhaps contest Dahl's initial insistence on the seductive evils of "women."
In any case, a children's novel I'd continue to return to - and in fact, I think I may peruse some of my other favorites in Dahl's oeuvre soon!(less)
Like many poignant war novels, McEwan's Atonement begins as a private coming-of-age tale, a love story, and a look into a terrible betrayal. We see th...moreLike many poignant war novels, McEwan's Atonement begins as a private coming-of-age tale, a love story, and a look into a terrible betrayal. We see the world through Briony's eyes, and it is a world in which all is in flux, naivete begins to decay, and the hard truths of life are just starting to put pressure on a little girl. The war intervenes; now life is not only one defined by change and disappointment, but by absolute chaos and potential annihilation. I don't suppose I need to go into much detail, because I'm sure most have seen the film--as I did, before reading the novel. This, however, didn't 'taint' my reading experience, because McEwan's prose has a peculiarly entrancing quality. Like Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, the prose here feels impossible to capture, even if the film adaptation is otherwise good cinema. He captures not only the bizarre innocence of the child--innocence that is always in conflict when thrown up against the adult experiences surrounding it--but the pain of the loss of that innocence. Pain, disappointment, grief, unfulfilled desire--all of these experiences permeate the novel in profound and often unexpected ways. The Tallis mother who is on the surface inadequate, prejudiced, and ultimately a figure of evil in her children's eyes is presented as paralyzed by her own maternal love, which she sends out in tendrils through her home, sensing everything and doing nothing. There's a tenderness to McEwan's depictions of even the most seemingly awful characters, and this vulnerability is perhaps the crowning achievement of the novel, which could very easily have proven cliched and dull. How, for instance, does he evoke sympathy with the little devil-child who comes in between lovers? Or how can he relate the simultaneous resentment and yearning between two sisters? He has a very rare capacity for digging far below the surfaces of human psychology; nothing is black or white, or even grey--but infinitely complicated and, like the fountain in which Cecilia dives to retrieve the broken vase, difficult to penetrate beyond the illusion of the ripples on the surface. A truly beautiful work. I so look forward to reading more from him.(less)
I feel somewhat strange reviewing this one after I'd just reviewed Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters and suggested that I felt his portrayal of Sylvia Plat...moreI feel somewhat strange reviewing this one after I'd just reviewed Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters and suggested that I felt his portrayal of Sylvia Plath constituted a violence against her; a good friend was reading Nafisi's memoir with me for a class and made a similar suggestion about this text. She said that she felt Nafisi does her damnedest to box the figures from her life away into neat characters--and to some extent, I can see this. You have Nassrin and Sanaz, the rebellious ones; Azin, the sort of skanky one; Mahshid, the prude; so on and so forth. She does create character categories for the people in her life--of course, she makes clear at the beginning of the text that a memoir is still part-fiction, and also that she shuffled characteristics around to protect the people portrayed. But perhaps my friend is right; maybe this is a violation of the humanity of these people--would I feel violated if I were depicted in such a manner? I think I probably would. So I suppose it is important to question the ethics of a memoir.
Additionally, what is it that draws Americans so inexplicably towards a memoir like this? Are lured by the fact that, as Nafisi points out, it's often wonderful to revel in literary portrayals of suffering and oppression, because it provides an opportunity for the reader to disavow their own problems? This is something Nafisi's students struggle with--why does reading Madame Bovary or Lolita give us pleasure? Do we like assuming that we're somehow more progressive because we can point to Iran and say, "Look how they treat their women; look at the executions; look at the censors"--does this mean that we can lean back, hands behind our head, and feel that we've done a good job? I don't know. And I don't know that that was really my draw to this text--because I didn't hate it in the way my friend did, and we argued on several occasions about this. I'm interested to see how our professor handles it when we discuss it next week.
For me, this was a text that dug into the deeply-hidden sentimental inclinations I have--the reason, perhaps, that I decided I wanted to go into academia, to be an English PhD now, was--is--that I have some strange faith in the transformative power of literature. I believe that a good book can make you a better person, can teach you empathy, can allow you to explore serious ethical and socio-historical concerns. The imaginative life is, as it is portrayed in this memoir, often my more 'real' experience. Literature allows me to live a multitude of lives, and has often provided a space of survival, a safehaven, for me. And so there's some naive draw for me to this memoir, which idolizes these very notions--reading and teaching are paramount, and the real harbors of humanity in the face of suffering, for Nafisi.
In any case, you might love this; you might hate it. The bottom lines are these--Nafisi is a rather nice writer. I really enjoyed her prose style, which managed to be tender and engaging, and also, she's quite good at maintaining suspense. It reads as very cinematic. If you've not read the texts she discusses at length in the text--Lolita, Invitation to a Beheading, The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller, The Ambassadors, and Pride and Prejudice--prepare to have them ruined. She spoils the shit out of them. My friend who hated this also hated her monopolization of literary interpretation--I didn't take this as a scholarly work, though, so I just imagined them as alternative readings of these texts to garden-bar-style-pick from. But in any case, you may want to read these beforehand if you're planning to read them in the near future. I don't know a great deal of Iranian history, and so I did find it sort of refreshing to step out of my comfort zone and learn a few things--as to whether this is an 'accurate' portrayal, I don't know, but as with anything, I suggest you take things with a grain of salt. I think that was my friend's major problem--she felt that Nafisi acted as if she had the answers to everything, and that they were unambiguous ones. I can't say I agree with this argument, but I can see where she might pull it from. But I didn't take any of this at face value--a memoir may be autobiographical, but that does not mean it's objective truth.
An enjoyable read, and a nice testament to the potential power of literature.(less)
I've been planning to read this for several years now, and I suppose I was finally motivated because just about everyone I know in Boston urged me to...moreI've been planning to read this for several years now, and I suppose I was finally motivated because just about everyone I know in Boston urged me to do so. The two responses I've usually heard in relation to the novel are: "Despite the subject matter, I loved Lolita"--or, "Because of the subject, I was repulsed by this novel, couldn't finish it, hated reading it, &co&co". My question to these people--and this isn't everyone, of course--is what else did you expect from the novel? The term 'Lolita' is part of our cultural lexicon; did anyone go into this novel thinking Humbert Humbert was going to take a look at Lolita and say, "Gee, this sure is wrong"--'Fin'--? The novel *is* it's subject, in some sense, because it's precisely his obsession with nymphets that drives Humbert's personal narrative, and perhaps most fascinating about the novel is that Lolita herself is not a self at all, but rather a co-opted idealism. So I'm unsure why people love or hate the novel in spite of/because of its pedophilia--seems they might be missing the point, yes?
At any rate, Nabokov's prose is absolutely stunning. Playful, delicate, hilarious, and littered with allusions, it's absolutely a joy to read. The plot itself is fairly sparse in some sense, and almost conventional, if that makes sense to anyone. There aren't really any huge surprises after the initial rape, and the novel moves in an a-b-c direction; it's really the way all of this is handled that makes the novel truly beautiful and shocking and engaging, etc. You often veer dangerously close to 'understanding' Humbert's motivations, and certainly, you recognize him as human, which is something we simply can't seem to do with certain criminals--we relegate people to the category 'monster,' and in so doing, ignore the possibility that the monster is, in fact, within us. Perhaps that's the most disturbing facet of the novel; though it's disturbing in many ways--I found myself most unnerved by how absolutely unreliable Humbert is as a narrator (my roomie disagrees with this entirely), and how certain figures--Lolita and Charlotte, in particular--are wholly distorted through his perception. Truly, these women become the pinned butterflies of the narrative, and that there are probably people out there who function with such deluded perceptions of the world may be the most terrifying thing this novel suggests.
In short, it's beautiful, it's scary, it's beautifully-scarily-written, and a real pleasure to read. Definitely looking forward to more Nabokov in my future...(less)