Notes for review: there are few things more dangerous to a reader than an entertaining book about what a clever person has read. A few decades ago we...moreNotes for review: there are few things more dangerous to a reader than an entertaining book about what a clever person has read. A few decades ago we were all reading Helene H.'s "84 Charing Cross Road". Just recently I have been strongly tempted by Prof. Flynn's book he wrote to his students (in fact, I'm buying two classics just based on the sample chapter I found on his website, and I almost never actually buy books).
Hornby's essays here are explicitly crafted to wreak mayhem on one's reading list. Bad man!
And— Five stars, but don't go thinking this is a life-changing opus. (Or even life-ruining, despite what Hornby might desire.) These are bite-sized essays that will leave you smiling, looking forward to more, and inspired to read read read, which to us is like telling an addict that the heroin is on the house. What it promises, it delivers.(less)
I feel really bad about giving this only two stars —"it was okay" — but my reaction was quite the letdown. Meh.
But as I forced myself to read further,...moreI feel really bad about giving this only two stars — "it was okay" — but my reaction was quite the letdown. Meh.
But as I forced myself to read further, I realize the problem is that while the conceit behind the book is clever, it really doesn't work.
This book, at its heart, is a collection of grammatical examples, with a short snippet of explanatory introduction to introduce each concept, and sometimes to link various terms together.
The author attempts to spice things up by using a mildly breathless gothic romance style for those explanations and especially the examples. Appropriate pen drawings accompany.
But once one has gotten over the novelty of the tone, it's still just a compendium of grammar. I didn't find that it helped me recall any better which terms go with which concepts — usually my brain delights in retaining jargon, but grammatical terms are too arbitrary. What on earth, for example, does the word "perfect" have to do with tense? It still comes down to memorization, and I'm with Einstein on that issue.
Perhaps someday Simon Winchester, who wrote that delightful book on the OED, will figure out how to tell the story of the evolution of grammar and make it fascinating.
Useful guide to Milton's life and the narrative structure of the book. For instance, I would have otherwise been disconcerted by the fact that Paradis...moreUseful guide to Milton's life and the narrative structure of the book. For instance, I would have otherwise been disconcerted by the fact that Paradise Lost opens with Satan and his buddies waking up in hell, having lost the battle for heaven. So where is the description of that battle?(less)
Very useful while reading both stories. But sometimes I really have trouble swallowing this symbolic stuff. I mean (paraphrasing some stuff on The Sec...moreVery useful while reading both stories. But sometimes I really have trouble swallowing this symbolic stuff. I mean (paraphrasing some stuff on The Secret Sharer):
Leggatt's hair is black and came out of the water. And the scorpion died in black ink. So the scorpion represents Leggatt and tells us that Leggatt is violent and nasty, just like the scorpion.
Yeah, right. Some of the other stuff I can believe, but how much of this is what the author really intended, and how much is the critic/analyst simply making up?
The thug in this scene is explicitly using hollow-point bullets, which represent his "empty headed" lack of education and thus his unimaginative response to the situation, and also foreshadows the death of the politician a chapter later in the meteorite crater (or, as T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men would phrase it: "under the twinkle of a fading star"). Recall Clancy's political prejudices: he notoriously believed that all politicians are stuffed shirts, ergo hollow!
Really, I love Cliff's Notes, because they point out stuff I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. But ya gotta take this stuff with a grain of salt.
Recommendation: * Read all of Section 1, containing descriptions of the seven basic plots in erudite detail. * Skip to Chapters 21 through 24 of S...moreNotes:
Recommendation: * Read all of Section 1, containing descriptions of the seven basic plots in erudite detail. * Skip to Chapters 21 through 24 of Section 3. These explore the "dark" and "sentimental" variations of the foregoing. * Skim Chapters 26 and 27, wherein the author is revealed to be a sexist reactionary. Keep in mind that if one can enjoy the music of Frank Sinatra while ignoring the fact that he as a sexist jerk, one can read the balance of Bookings with the same forbearance. * Either read or skim Section 2, which explores commonalities of all the plot archetypes, including character archetypes. But it will probably feel pretty redundant. * Finish with Chapters 28, 29, 25 and 30 in that order. The first two of those introduce and analyze two modern plot types; the third explores Thomas Hardy's psychological novels; the final goes into a fascinating analysis of Oedipus and Hamlet. * Skim
p. 382: "[George:] Lucas drew on the knowledge of Joseph Campbell ... in an effort to ensure that his story matched up as faithfully as possible to their archetypal patterns and imagery. [...:] But however carefully Lucas tried to shape his script around these archetypal ground rules ... it had not got the pattern right."
Section I: the seven basic plots are: Overcoming the Monster (incl. subgenre "The Thrilling Escape From Death"); Rags to Riches; The Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy (*not* necessarily funny!); Tragedy; and Rebirth.
Section II: what they all have in common: the character archetypes.
Section III: "Missing the Mark" discusses how the plot archetypes go awry. First examines each of the plots in their "Dark" and "Sentimental" versions. In the "Dark" versions, the protagonist never achieves "enlightenment" in symbolic form due to an egoistic focus. In the "Sentimental" versions, the story and ending appear happy, but without ingredients necessary for archetypal closure. (Chapters 21 to 24). Then to Thomas Hardy (Ch. 25), documenting how his oeuvre shifted from "light" to "dark" in parallel with his increasingly frustrating and dysfunctional personal life. Then the worst two chapters (26, 27), reeking of personal biases and opinions regarding nihilism, violence, sex and the changing role of women. First of three "modern" archetypes (mostly unseen in classic literature): (Ch. 28:) Rebellion against "The One" (except Job); then (Ch. 29:) The Mystery (actually diagnosed as usually a sentimental comedy with a hero unintegrated into the basic story). Finally, best chapter of the book, on Oedipus and Hamlet.
Section IV: "Why we tell stories", pretty boring, unless you want an examination of how religious texts can be perceived in archetypal patterns.
Ch. 27: points out many books and films pushed out the boundaries of what was acceptable in terms of sex and violence (e.g., Texas Chainsaw Massacre). But he conflates this with a fundamental shift in the center of gravity of story-telling, ignoring that many of these extreme works have a narrow public appeal and are not considered as having intrinsic lasting importance. Frankly, his reactionary rage (notable in his columns) is barely suppressed.
Ch. 27: Sexism. In discussing the movie Alien, he states "the basic plot is very similar to that of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (p. 486). He astonishingly ignores the fundamental distinction between mayhem performed by humans, *acting as monsters*, and that performed by actual monsters. The perverse horror of Chainsaw is in the very disturbing transformation of humans into monsters -- even into a family of cooperating monsters. Being killed and consumed by the Alien is basically no worse than an attack by a shark, or a lion.
Also, he seems to be quite sexist here, or at least comes very close to it. "The image of women was becoming de-feminised. No longer were the styles of women's clothing intended to express such traditional feminine attributes as grace, allure, prettiness, elegance: they were designed to be either, in a hard direct way, sexually provocative, or sexlessly businesslike." [Frankly, I find Trinity in The Matrix (which he doesn't discuss) to be an paragon of grace, allure and elegance as well as sexually provocative.:] Apparently an archetypal hero must be masculine, and thus to portray a woman in heroic terms is a contradiction of the archetype. He sounds outraged: "There was now a premium in showing animus-driven women capable of competing with men and outperforming them in masculine terms. Female characters were expected to be show as just as clever and tough as men, mentally and physically." His only saving grace is the uncertainty whether he believes (prescriptively) that women should properly behave only in a ladylike way, or whether he believes (descriptively) that the fundamental archetypes in our psyches are limited thus.
But, frankly, his chapters on the modern subversion of the archetypes display more irritation than admiration, and many readers will probably have a sneaking suspicion that the author is a social reactionary, which also seems to be evident in his columns for the Telegraph.
Consider: the author makes a strong case that these plot archetypes are fundamental and universal (as, I understand, Jung had attempted to establish with personality archetypes?). But does this make them eternal and unchanging? And even if that is given, does it make them good and true? Many inheritances from our evolutionary past are dysfunctional; perhaps it is proper that we should rebel against aspects of these archetypes, especially those that are arbitrarily constraining. Booker doesn't perceive this possibility, implicitly treating any deviation from his perception of these rules as dysfunctional. (Although he isn't consistent: the fact that Ripley in Alien is a woman he finds distressing; the fact that Oedipus marries and has children with his mother is brilliance.)
Ch. 31 (beginning of Part IV): "[If:] there is one thing we have seen emerging from the past few hundred pages it is the extent to which the stories told by even the greatest of them are not their own." The stories told by Shakespeare, Dickens, Hugo -- not their own? Because they have been influenced by ghostly skeletons of plots and characters in their subconscious? This is incredibly arrogant. Booker has spent so many decades in his labors that he can't see the forest for the trees.
Side note illuminating arrogance: fn. 3, p. 553: "Various attempts have been made in recent years to provide a scientific definition of the difference between human consciousness and that of other animals. A *fundamental flaw* in all of them lies in their failure to take account of the consequences arising from the split between ego and instinct...." Booker -- a journalist and author -- apparently believes himself competent to evaluate and judge anyone.
Q: quote attributed to Churchill belongs to Bernard Shaw? (p. 576)(less)
Some books get all the luck. When a reader is first exposed to a perspective never before seen, or an effort of creation never imagined, that book tha...moreSome books get all the luck. When a reader is first exposed to a perspective never before seen, or an effort of creation never imagined, that book that triggered this will loom larger, regardless of its merits.
Wood's book is the first litcrit book I've ever read; or at least that I can recall (there are plenty of books I read twenty or thirty years ago that would surprise me now).
I got lucky, since this is a engagingly written and passionate work of a bibliophile, but what earned it that extra star was that I hadn't studied the craft of writing before, so it hadn't occurred to me that it would refine my craft of reading as well. As others here have complained, this makes pedestrian prose a bit harder absorb, but Wood also remind us that there is probably still plenty of excellent fiction that can be turned to instead.
The overwhelming majority of books I read come from the public library -- San Francisco's main is only a ten minute walk. This will be one of the very rare books that makes it to my 'buy' shelf. I think it will also be that even rarer book, one that I'll hope to re-read often -- although my infatuation may lessen if and when I find other (perhaps better?) litcrit books.
I just took a look at that shelf, and it reminded me that Wood's frequent references to books I haven't yet read, or to books I read as a less enlightened reader brought back to mind Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road. I don't recall anything about Hanff's skill as a writer, but she must be one of the most delightful readers of the past century. If you haven't read her short, epistolatory memoir, then you are missing out on a classic. (The movie is a conceptual sacrilege: a story about readers should be read, not watched!)