… but the question is: How many times does a book (esp. a novel) compel you to consult other reference works (dictionaries, wikis, Google search, etc.… but the question is: How many times does a book (esp. a novel) compel you to consult other reference works (dictionaries, wikis, Google search, etc.) before it becomes, well, a bad book?
I enjoyed this book. I vacuumed up the younger Pynchon (through Slow Learner: Early Stories) as a young slacker. Then my attention wandered away during his long silent period from the '70s to the '90s. Reading this book (the product, apparently, of the long silent period) was like meeting a old friend who had aged well. Some of the old things I had loved remained evergreen. Other parts improved with age.
…. but the above-posed q. remains. By the time I was finished reading this book, I had eight index cards filled with the evidence of approx. 320 occasions where a reference, word, or phrase was unfamiliar enough to note down. That's one trip to a reference work every two-and-a-half pages. Perhaps that's too often?
A book can be both profound and enjoyable without sending the person of adequate, but not exceptional, education (which I present myself to be) to the dictionary, etc., on even a single instance. However, no reasonable reader resents being challenged on occasion. How many challenges are too many? In a recent Merlot-fueled dinnertable discussion with the Long-Suffering Wife, we agreed to disagree. I thought that once every twenty pages was my bottom limit, where my wife (as is her wont) was inclined to be more flexible, suggesting once every ten pages, or perhaps maybe less in the case of especially talented writers.
I am perhaps less tolerant of obscure references because my touchstone when I am invoking childhood fairy tales is the Emperor's New Clothes, which fits in nicely with my vaguely Pynchonian conviction that the world (at its best) is a great conspiracy to deceive. When reading, the deceivers are members of the book-selling and public-dialog-setting class, some of whom seems to be convinced that, if they just present their ridiculous and indefensible views in an incoherent enough manner, they will be treated as wise by those too insecure to call their bluff.
The reader who needs help with Mason & Dixon is not without easily-available resources. The novel has a wiki here. It is maintained by the same person who maintains the wiki for David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- see that wiki here.
It is interesting to compare the two. I recently read Infinite Jest. Its wiki is very professional and conforms admirably to the three Core Content Policies of Wikipedia: neutral point of view, verifiability, and no original research. This is probably a result of the many hands involved in its care and maintenance, which in turn seems to be a result of the enduring popularity of Infinite Jest. This wiki is a tremendous public service and a great aid to the enjoyment of the novel.
Mason & Dixon (sadly) has not attracted such a following, and its wiki, comparatively, is sort of a sad thing, like an unmaintained vase of aging household flowers, once thought an object of great beauty before attention turned elsewhere. There was apparently a lot of enthusiasm in the project when it started in the mid-2000s. As a result, many of the mystifying references in Mason & Dixon are well-explained and there are links to interesting images and research, which aid understanding. However, it did not achieve the critical mass of long-term editors necessary to maintain Wikipedia-style Core Content Policies, and there are repeated violations of principles one and three above. In addition, some very obvious things (e.g., Birmingham, England (p. 763)) are explained, while other less obvious things (e.g., Draco (p. 181)) are not.
My two attempts to enlist as a new editor went unanswered. This is probably because the editor has moved on to newer, more interesting projects, or maybe my application fell into a hole in the ether. Perhaps I didn't make a great first impression by remarking, when I applied electronically for a wiki editorship, that the site could stand some improvement. I tend to make a similar mistake during job interviews also, which is one reason I have never achieved any time-sucking position of responsibility, and have time to read long novels like this one and nit-pick websites about them. ...more
I don't normally get all goopy over modern fiction – non-fiction tends to float my boat more effectively. But this book is going to reduce me to semi-I don't normally get all goopy over modern fiction – non-fiction tends to float my boat more effectively. But this book is going to reduce me to semi-articulateness, e.g.: Wow! Great! A pleasure to read from beginning to end! Made me neglect activities a responsible person should be doing!
I'm always hoping that the books I read will make me better in some concrete way, like when I read a bunch of books about the Housing Bubble Crisis and achieved a greater appreciation of the toxic mixture of idiocy and mendacity which made it possible. But when I read fiction I have to settle for some airy-fairy, vague, completely-unsupported-by-data conviction that reading fiction makes one a better person, gives a deeper understanding to the human condition that mere facts cannot provide, etc. It's an act of faith. I hate engaging in acts of faith.
But I gotta be me, so I'm always groping around for some practical use. In this case, the book largely takes place in the heads of a handful of Vietnamese people. Since I (a person of European heritage) live in Vietnam now, and often find the natives completely baffling, I asked myself, Did this Canadian lady get it right? Does this book give me a clue about how Vietnamese people are?
Probably the best way to get an answer would be to find a Vietnamese person who has read the book, but so far no luck with that. I find no evidence the book has been translated or published in Vietnam. I don't even think the itinerant urban hawkers of pirated editions of Western paperbacks in the downtown tourist district have this one in their stack.
I can clear a room quickly by mentioning Henry James' view (buried mid-way through an 1884 essay available here) that, should a woman (or presumably a man) possess the gift of the story-teller, she (or he) could tell the story of soldiers on the basis of a glimpse she once had of them while passing a doorway. And then I could tell the empty room about Graham Greene's comment on this story, to wit: Yes, but to get all the details right, she'd have to sleep with one of them.
I am left with falling back on my personal judgment, which I have learned from hard experience is not something on which one should bet the mortgage. Does the novel capture what it's like to be Vietnamese? It feels like a trip into the head of the Vietnamese as I understand them, esp. the constant worrying (which would have driven me to a nervous breakdown long ago) about what others think, the conviction that visible material wealth on this earth somehow correlates to your worth as a human being, and the complete inability to withhold judgment on yourself and others. (To summarize, it would suck to be a Vietnamese – I'm glad I don't have to attempt it.)
I think the book deserves praise for explaining the exotic to the rest of us, but I also want to add, as many reviewers here and elsewhere have done, that the language is clear and beautiful, the plot is easy-to-follow but not at all silly, the characters are interesting, and the conclusions daringly un-cynical. All in all, the best novel I've read in a while....more
I bought this when it was a Kindle Daily Deal. I have observed that some books reappear as Kindle Daily Deals on a regular basis. The reappearance ofI bought this when it was a Kindle Daily Deal. I have observed that some books reappear as Kindle Daily Deals on a regular basis. The reappearance of this one is worth keeping an eye out for.
I read Important Modern Novels partially out of a sense of duty, but when I found myself in an antique land with a bacteria-driven case of the feverish shakes, I abandoned the IMN I was laboring through and went with Elmore Leonard to divert me until the inner man was sufficiently recovered to address a work of award-winning prestige literature. EL is excellent to read when sick in a foreign country.
Reading EL reminds me a little of going to a museum of medieval art, or medieval wing of a more general museum. In general, I like going to modern art museums/wings of etc. because, well, I feel like I have permission to have a sincere, genuine, shallow reaction, e.g., “Wow! That’s ugly” or “What a lot of effort went into making that painting that looks exactly the same as a photograph” or “That artist’s mental health professional should be on danger money”. In the case of medieval art, however, I feel like all of the unprofessional, uninspired, or plain old ugly works of art were already used as kindling a long time ago, perhaps during some especially cold winter in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War. The survivors, by natural selection, are all excellent. So, you see one icon -- great -- the next one -- also great -- the next one -- great, and so on. Make no mistake, they are all great, but occasionally I yearn to be able to say “Is it just me, or is this Virgin Mary’s halo crooked?”
So it is with the paragraphs of Elmore Leonard. They march by, not a spare word in them, not a description of the weather to be found, the parts readers skip duly excised, darlings duly killed, and so forth. Terrific -- no joke. A lot of effort went into making it look effortless. Great for when you are sick or otherwise laid low, but when I’m feeling healthy I need a little grit, a little imperfection. But it’s great to know he’s there, because the world, she is full of sickness, and I will no doubt be sick again sometime....more
To be more specific, what is the difference between a good novel and a bad novel? I think it's still fashionable, even atWhat makes a good book good?
To be more specific, what is the difference between a good novel and a bad novel? I think it's still fashionable, even at this late date, to avoid this question by saying no one should be limited by the ideas of others concerning what is good and bad, that one man's meat is another man's poison, etc. But – damn the torpedoes – I'm here to tell you that some things are good, and others aren't. Now, if I could just figure out which was which...
This all occurred to me while reading this fine entertaining short novel (purchased after succumbing the siren call of the Kindle Daily Deal) as a detour and a reward for making it to the half-way point of a slab-like Important Modern Novel (IMN). Both this book and IMN feature portrayals of drug addiction, even though they are in most other ways (e.g., length, swankiness of literary reputation, decade of composition, intended audience) very different.
How should a good book portray drug addiction? Does the author's opinion on the matter make any difference? There was a period, seemingly a long time ago but still in my lifetime, where people wrote with a straight face (damn, mixed metaphor... typed with a straight face? No? Wrote with a straight typewriter? Not right...With a straight word processor? Ok, Ok, move on...) about drug taking as a mind-expanding, revolutionary, spiritual, fun, or some combination of previous, activity. While it's impossible to prove that drug-taking made the life of all drug takers worse, anybody with enough grey matter left intact today can probably agree that the overall effect on society and the people in it has been overwhelmingly negative. Anyone today who attempted to flog a novel that praised drug use as an improving activity at the few remaining publishers would find their head metaphorically handed to them, along with the suggestion they let themselves be escorted off the premises by security before the police arrive, all this without any consideration of the actual quality of the writing therein.
Which is to say, I guess it's possible to take a completely irresponsible few of drug use and still be a great writer, just as reprehensible views of other topics have been held by great writers (I name no names) and admirers often manage to divorce their admiration of their prose from whatever toxic opinions the writer has held.
So, conventional wisdom, which can be correct surprisingly often, has come down, in the case of drug-taking, on the side of Evan Hunter and David Foster Wallace. Each felt the need to portray the unpleasant results of drug addiction according to their talents and understanding. DFW had famous and well-publicized first-hand experience with drug addiction and recovery, along with an unstoppable gift for manic self-expression. The result was an entertainingly terrifying look at the monkey-mind internal monologue of the overeducated drug-addicted, a high-speed plummet down the narrow corridors of denial and deception (of self and others), which is sometimes so compelling that I just needed to put the damn thing down and do something else, 'cause the IMN was giving me the howling fantods.
I had a less complex but somehow more sincere reaction to Hunter. In this book (NOT a spoiler, in my sight), a teenage boy gets hooked on heroin and it falls to the boy's parents to try to get him to quit. The boy and his father, neither of whom claims to be a massive intellect, have an argument that seems simultaneously clichéd and painfully honest, the way people might talk to their loved ones when they are too far gone in their misery to worry about how they might sound. I actually winced at the raw awkward emotion. The conversation is full of the dumb things that people in trouble say, the ridiculous lies, the self-justification, the blaming … not articulate, just real. It's not as unique and difficult-to-copy as DFW, of course, but also very good and perhaps closer to the real lived experience of many people, since few of us have the thesaurus-emptying vocabulary of nearly all of DFW's characters, regardless of previously-stated educational background and intellectual prowess of these characters.
Drug addiction in the working- and middle-classes were newer and more shocking then (i.e., when The Pusher was published). Probably, any writer writing today as McBain did would sound embarrasingly naïve, and the other members of the writing workshop would tell him to Make It New. But McBain was there first, don't forget: he told it the way it was. He invented a style and school of writing and plotting that has been ceaselessly imitated, because people saw something in it that hadn't been captured elsewhere. He made a new phenomenon real to a whole slew of people.
There are many ways to make a good book good. Unlike DFW, McBain chose a way that didn't get the literary thought leaders all excited. McBain probably couldn't help it, any more than you can stifle a sneeze that really wants to get out. DFW's good book is probably more profound, but McBain's good book may touch more people directly and less self-consciously....more
People say you can't learn anything from social media, but I have learned from Goodreads about normal behavior, which otherwise exists in my life mostPeople say you can't learn anything from social media, but I have learned from Goodreads about normal behavior, which otherwise exists in my life mostly as a rumor. Specifically, I have learned that many people read more than one book at a time, apparently remembering each of them individually. This strikes me as an intellectual feat on a par with Mr. Memory in “The 39 Steps”, who amazed music hall audiences by recalling random facts, such as the distance between Winnipeg and Montreal, on demand.
I possess barely enough gray matter remaining in the old coconut to retain the ongoing action in a single book. This is possibly a result of repeated exposures to the delightful chemical concoctions of the Jameson family of County Cork, or maybe it's just the run-of-the-mill ravages of time. Whatever the reason, I rarely assay a new book unless finished with the old one.
However, it is my strange and not-unpleasant fate in life to be periodically served up with blocks of time of happy isolation in remote lands, freed from both the seemingly unbreakable din of popular culture (e.g., the latest brayings of those who hope to grab political power) as well as the tyrannical necessities of fashion (e.g., having to wash one's own clothes). In these happy moments, I am able to seize upon one of the many great doorstops of Western literature and plow through it, secure in the knowledge that, if any of the oxen I see daily get obstreperous, I possess the means to render the beast non compos mentis.
But there are inevitably times when one cannot practically carry a volume such as the one I am working on now, whose main text is 980 pages, many of them without so much as a new-paragraph indentation, followed by 100+ pages of 8-point digressive footnotes that would have Natty Bumppo reaching for the Visine. At these moments, it is fine to have a book like “Sucker's Portfolio” (you see now? I actually am going to get to the point – someday) on hand, waiting patiently on the tiny e-gadget of choice in your pocket to be produced in hotel bars and airport waiting-areas to spare you the horrifying possibility of conversation with others. Since the contents of “Sucker's Portfolio” are largely (not entirely) short fiction, it can be picked up and abandoned at will. The contents of the stories are by far from the author's best, which is probably the reason none of them saw the light of day until the literary executors determined it was time to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip.
I don't mind reading minor works by well-known writers for many reasons, among them: it's reassuring knowing that even the well-regarded had off days, it's interesting to compare the best work by a writer with less-than-best (what works? what doesn't? why?), sometimes a writer reveals more in failure than success. Also, the lightweight nature of the book and its contents allow you to quickly return and (incoming mixed metaphor) plow the needed furrows in whatever literary doorstop has currently caught your fancy.
I enjoy reading the opinions of others here at Goodreads. Just as I sometimes do in many areas of endeavor in real life, I find the judgment of other readers inexplicable. In this case, I felt that the long non-fiction piece “The Last Tazmanian” was by far the weakest piece on the book, although many others stopped to praise it in these electronic pages. In my opinion, this essay is the sort of prolonged old-codger get-off-of-my-lawn cane-on-the-floor-banging that well-regarded writers tend to indulge in when they are well after their prime and the world continues to spin off on its disastrous course with supreme indifference to the distinguished career of the writer. It's actually an embarrassment to read even if (especially if) you agree with the opinions expressed therein about Christopher Columbus, the sad fate of indigenous peoples, the pernicious effect of television, and other topics. I can imagine Vonnegut looking at this essay and saying “What a mess! I'll put this in the bottom drawer and see if I can improve it in a few months”, but never quite getting back to it.
It's a shame that there isn't any more information in the book or (as far as I can tell) online about when the fiction might have been written – the reader is left to guess by piecing together clues from the make of cars and type of telephones, for example, the characters are using. It's my guess that most of the stories (including the unfinished fragment at the end) came from the pen of a much younger writer. They are more cheerful, vigorous, and straightforward than the cranky 1992 essay. Some readers here complained that they are “dated”, which I think might be some sort of codeword I have not noticed previously for views (in Vonnegut's case, about women) OK at the time but now considered unsuitable (the views, not the women). Since I was not expecting a model of enlightened thought, I guess it didn't bother me much, but then again it might have had I been a member of the group being represented in a manner which might charitably be called “unflattering”, but also could be accurately called “insulting”.
I got this ebook for $1.99 as a Kindle Daily Deal, and I have noticed that on Amazon.com, as elsewhere in life, what goes around comes around, meaning, if you are willing to check back nearly every day like a little lambkin, it may return to Daily-Deal-dom and you might be able to pick it up cheap, too. If, like me, you are a practicing cheapstake, it is worth the effort....more
My elevator pitch: this book is what would happen if the love child of Being There by Jerzy Kosiński and The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky was kidnaMy elevator pitch: this book is what would happen if the love child of Being There by Jerzy Kosiński and The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky was kidnapped at birth, raised in 1930s Hanoi, and, when achieving the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old, forced to write a humorous newspaper serial under deadline pressure.
Like Chance the Gardener, the hero Red-Haired Xuan is a dolt mistaken for a genius. Unlike Chance, Xuan has a certain amount of low cunning and a talent for effectively parroting the popular clichés of the moment after a single hearing. Some of the books funniest moments are Xuan's mash-ups of pompous half-understood political rhetoric with the slogans of quack medicine (the hero's career prior to social climbing), made-up on the fly under pressure. But the hero isn't likable. Nobody in this book is likable.
Fyodor D. is not normally known for belly-laugh-generation, but I include him in the parentage of this work because it has the same streak of deeply-felt, mean-as-a-snake loathing for the hypocrisy and self-indulgence put forward in the name of modernity (e.g., p, 112: “Joseph Thiết was deeply concerned about the good of the nation while simultaneously despising the tastes and amusements of the masses”). I like mean-as-a-snake loathing in a writer – it means he or she is taking the world seriously.
I read it in the chance that I'd recognize some of the Hanoi I now live in, but so much sad cruelty has taken place since then to now that, well, it's completely unrecognizable. For example, at the time of this book's writing, where I live now was literally a swamp. Now, it's morally a swamp. See? Completely different....more
I enjoyed this collection as an excellent short snack between longer reads. I admire authors who write convincingly about people working and how theyI enjoyed this collection as an excellent short snack between longer reads. I admire authors who write convincingly about people working and how they do their jobs, no matter what that job is (except when the job is teaching creative writing, English lit, etc., in which case, for the most part, the writing about working is not writing, it's typing, and a bore to read). Anyway, the best parts of this are the parts about working, whether the work is police informant, TV writer/producer, dishwasher, detective, or real estate developer. The WORST part is the sex, which is uniformly humorless, joyless, and a chore to read. The second worst part is the offhand references to musicians, alone or in groups, of which I have never heard, proving that I am not as cool as Geo. P., which I knew already.
Many short story collections are frustrating to read because the author is replowing the same field of personal knowledge, so the characters and plots tend to blend together. It's to Geo. P.'s credit that there is a mix of time, place, and voice, so the stories stand separately in the memory, unlike each other and also unlike other writers today. Sex and music be damned, Geo. P. is worth reading....more
Here on Goodreads, someone cast a vote for Frank Cowperwood – the hero of this novel and the other two in the series – as a hero of capitalism. Maybe this voter was being sarcastic, or perhaps ironic. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal allowed a professor of English from Fordham University to express the opinion that Dreiser was writing ”admiringly” about Cowperwood. Perhaps this prof decided to see whether the WSJ will print any preposterous opinion as long as plays nicely with the editor's worldviews. Or maybe the prof just needed more publication to inflate his application for tenure, and gross inaccuracy did not bother him.
Whatever the reason, let's just make it clear that Theodore D. is not a fan of capitalism and is extremely unlikely to write a novel-length appreciation of a robber baron. NOTHING in his life, letters, and politics indicates that he had one iota of sympathy toward the barons of capitalism. He joined the Communist Party back when the C.P. was kissing up to regimes who routinely slaughtered anyone who showed the slightest affection for free markets.
So, when Cowperwood expresses opinions like this:
I have at least eighteen thousand stockholders who want a decent run for their money, and I propose to give it to them. Aren't other men getting rich? Aren't other corporations earning ten and twelve per cent? Why shouldn't I? Is Chicago any the worse? Don't I employ twenty thousand men and pay them well? All this palaver about the rights of the people and the duty to the public – rats!
I think it's safe to say that, whatever the reader's opinion, the writer did not mean this internal monologue to be taken as a correct objective analysis of events.
About this book in particular, well, first of all, I'd recommend against reading it if you haven't read The Financier first. It is possible to do so without too much confusion as Frank's career, imprisonment and divorce are adequately explained and no characters – aside from Frank and his mistress-turned-wife – from the first novel reappear in the second. However, I feel the reader would understand and appreciate Frank more if he had accompanied him from the beginning of his journey.
I'm interested in corruption. How does it happen? I mean, nobody has ever offered me a bribe in my life, not because of my fine moral qualities, but because I've never been in a position to give or withhold anything even slightly valuable. So I was interested when this book gives a seemingly good description about how the corruption intersection of government and money is paved. Sometimes his descriptions of dirty dealings are vague, just saying that they happened, or saying something like “we need not detail here the methods used etc etc”. Other times he gets deep down into the weeds about the conception and execution of a corrupt deal, which turns out not to be too much different that today. Theodore D. does not approve of these corrupt deals, which the novel's “hero” initiates and executes, which is one of the reasons why I thought the suggestion that the hero was meant in any way to be sympathetic to be completely ridiculous.
Dreiser's style is an acquired taste. I like it. I find it strangely soothing, but I can understand how it would irritate some people – the sudden eruptions of purple prose and long descriptions of the backgrounds of people who turn out to be of little importance outside the chapter in which they appear. Also, the word choice is often downright odd, with many appearances by words which could most charitably called “low frequency”. Most of them appear only once, but the most frequent offender is the word “trig” – NOT short for “trigonometry”, but meaning “neat and stylish”, a definition I knew only because I read e.e. cumming's “I sing of Olaf glad and big” many many years before. Drieser REALLY likes this word. It's very distracting. However, the Merriam-Webster online dictionary says Mark Twain also used it, so maybe I should lighten up.
Speaking of distracting, read the following dialog (Kindle Location 1367):
– “Did she have red hair?” – “Oh yes. She was a very striking blonde.”
Ok, yes, I know that such a thing as “strawberry blonde” exists, but still – blonde redheads? I was going to write that this would be a great name for a band, but then Google told me it was already taken by a band who have had great popularity for many years. I should get out more.
Also jarring was this list of foreign nationals inhabiting Chicago in the 19th century (Kindle location 93):
– … the Hun, the Pole, the Swede, the German, the Russian...
Hmm, Huns in Chicago? What gives? I mean, it can't be the derogatory term for Germans, 'cause Germans are named elsewhere in the same list. Are they actual Huns, like, descendants of Attila The? A mass migrations of Mongolians to Chicago in the mid-19th Century? That doesn't sound right. I mean, I nodded off sometimes in history class but a fact like this would have stuck in my brain, I think....more
As a practicing cheapskate, the pattern of my reading has for many years been largely dictated by what is available at the public library, supplementeAs a practicing cheapskate, the pattern of my reading has for many years been largely dictated by what is available at the public library, supplemented in the digital age by what's available free online. So, I snagged this ebook edition with the intent of NOT reading cover-to-cover – when I try to read a collection of short stories like a novel, they all tend to blend together in a way that does not enhance enjoyment. Of course, I can put my ebook reader into airplane mode to keep the the little yellow minions of Jeff Bezos from yanking it off my ereader, but eventually one wishes to read or at least order something else, at which time one must submit to the yanking.
Which is all a rather verbose way of saying that, of this writing, I have only read from the beginning through ebook page 253, that is, through the end of the story “A Simple Inquiry”. Plus I jumped around a little and read some of the more famous short stories that occurred later. I'm noting this down now so, if I ever return to this volume, I can pick up where I left off.
I sometimes teach. Specifically, I sometimes teach non-native English speakers to write in English. I find it strangely comforting to know, then, that educated English-language speakers are not the only group that seems to think vague and gaseous prose is a marker of elevated intellect. In fact, the cult of paired-down, spare prose seems stronger than English than in any other language that I've encountered and, just to make my sympathies clear, I believe this is an admirable quality in a language and the defenders of clear writing style should be proud of their cranky vigilance.
Like all teachers, I am sometimes a lazy teacher. While being a lazy writing teacher, I sometimes hold up Hemingway as a example of the clear and unadorned prose style successfully applied. Since it has been awhile since I read Hemingway, I thought I would check to see if I am really as full of codswallop as lazy teachers often are.
The result: I am fortunate that the bar is so high in the field of teacher-generated codswallop, because my reading of Hemingway this time has led me to believe that his very self-conscious lack of long words and sentences is itself a distraction, and there may be a point where there is just too much striving for simplicity. This is especially the case when Hemingway attempts dialog, from which I can conclude that people Hemingway applied the adjective “swell” to virtually everything they approved of, and often repeated themselves, or others in the room, for no discernable reason. Unlike my acquaintances (and myself), they never nattered on pointlessly, left sentences half completed, stuttered, stumbled, doubled back, corrected themselves, made vaguely ironic references to fleeting bits of popular culture, or were just plain old incoherent. Either H's realism is not as real as all that, or maybe people – even boxers and bullfighters – were more articulate then, perhaps because they watched less television.
So, I leave this memo to my future self: Start at page 253, and see if the impression you get is any different than before.
Memo to present self: Acknowledge the codswallop, and stop holding up Hemingway as an example of great prose to students. Hmm, maybe I'll switch to John McPhee....more
”It is,” said Lowbeer, “as people used to say to my unending annoyance, what it is....”
It's hard not to like a book with such sentiments in it.
”It is,” said Lowbeer, “as people used to say to my unending annoyance, what it is....”
It's hard not to like a book with such sentiments in it.
I have been resisting this author for decades, mostly because he was recommended to me by my long-suffering wife (LSW), to whom I feel the need to make pointless displays of independence of mind, and also because he was popular with a certain segment of our society, and again see above pointless displays etc. One day, LSW and I were sitting around the apt studiously ignoring the piles of things that needed to be done. LSW was looking at one of those ridiculous Buzzfeed quizzes, entitled something like “Which modern science-fictiony-almost-mainstream author are you?” LSW had just determined that she was Kurt Vonnegut. She read me the questions and entered my answers into the quiz so I did not actually have to stand up and ruin my achievement of perfect sloth.
I was William Gibson. Well, that seemed like something of a sign, so I signed up on the library ebook waiting list for his latest.
This is a very interesting read and can be approached in a number of ways, depending on your temperament. LSW is something of a purist in reading habits and much else. So she insists on knowing nothing, nothing at all, about a book, its plot, main ideas, etc., before reading. If you are one of these, I say “good on ya” because, in this case, purity is an especially impressive feat of intellectual discipline because this novel (and Gibson's others, if I understand correctly) throws a lot of terms and jargon at the reader in the first 50-100 pages, which you are just supposed to figure out on your own. Some reviewers have compared this to the experience by learning a foreign language from sink-or-swim immersion. Seeing as how, during the rest of the day, I am actually sinking in an attempt at real-life sink-or-swim immersion learning of a forn. lang., I felt that sufficiently familiar with the experience to reject it out-of-hand as wrong for me.
Or, to put it another say, LSW is about the journey not the destination, but I'm always asking “Are we there yet?”. She wants to show her work, I just wanna know what the damn answer is already.
In any case, the many reviews etc online will inform you nicely about what to expect, should you choose to approach this book in this manner. These also allowed me to separate the jargon that Gibson created for his science-fiction future from the words that I don't know solely to my woefully inadequate education. For example, on page 10, one of Gibson's heroes meets a recent paramour. This hero “[n]oted, wishing he hadn't, a mons freshly mohawked since he last encountered it.” Since I was only on page 10, I assumed that “mons” was some bit of nanotechnology fiber-gadget that people have implanted in themselves in this scary/fabulous future, only to have my Kindle dictionary function inform me that it is an elegantly Latin-derived term for lady bits. I was extremely chagrined. In my defense, among the sort of people that I know, when lady bits are referred to in conversation (perhaps more often than strictly necessary considering the lamentable infrequency with which actual non-figurative lady bits appear in our lives), we tend to lean heavily on vocabulary with Anglo-Saxon origin.
I don't think it is a spoiler to reveal that there is an apocalyptic event referred to in the text as “the Jackpot”, nor is it a spoiler, I think, to say that it is casually referred to without explanation in the beginning of the book but eventually explained. Many reviewers/pundits/analysts etc call this event “vague” or “unexplained”, but it is eventually explained fairly specifically, which leads me to the suspicion that some of these reviewers etc. didn't actually read the book to the end, or perhaps could have paid closer attention.
So, in summary, a good book with interesting ideas, some of which (e.g., “the Jackpot”) will probably bubble up into mainstream culture in a little while. Get ahead of it by reading this....more
A round-up of where to find this story for free on the 'net: Those nice people at Amazon let me download a free copy here, and of course The GutenbergA round-up of where to find this story for free on the 'net: Those nice people at Amazon let me download a free copy here, and of course The Gutenberg Project has it, plus a .pdf format available from Penn State University. Finally, this story is the ninth of twelve stories by James in a beautiful reproduction of the 1903 collection “The Better Sort” by The Internet Archive, which also offers on the same page the opportunity to download it in a bewildering variety of formats.
Probably, if you are here, you know this already, but, just to be clear, this is not a novel but a 48-page “short” story from back when a story could be 48 pages and still be considered short.
Sometimes, I admit, I resorted to reading sentences out loud to try to sort out what they mean, and/or what exactly the pronouns actually refer to. This is an excellent way of assuring you won't be crowded on the bus.
This is one of the few times when persisting through a 1903-sized “short” story is unambiguously worth the effort. Many short stories (from all ages), I find, tend to leave me saying “whu?” on the last page. When you finally get to page 48 of this one, it's actually stated very clearly what all the fuss is about – unless you are one of those types who is always needing to find hidden meaning, in which case this story, like apparently everything else every written by anyone, is secretly about (view spoiler)[homosexuality, which is a very very boring conclusion (hide spoiler)].
The last and most important recommendation I can give is that it is the sort of fiction which, if analyzed correctly, will cause the inwardly-directed reader to abandoned profitable activities, like preparing for a useful career, in favor of awkward but sincerely-felt attempts at wildly spontaneous behavior, esp. of the romantic kind, which may not appear at the time to be a wise course of action but eventually turn out to be worth it.
About this last bit of advice: Past performance is not an indicator of future results, your milage may vary, re-tweets are not endorsements.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
For people considering reading this book, the next sentence, which will take less than two seconds to read, will predict with great, if not complete,For people considering reading this book, the next sentence, which will take less than two seconds to read, will predict with great, if not complete, accuracy whether you will like it.
There are many things in the world that most people seemed to intuit, but which I cottoned onto seemingly long after anybody else. One example: there are certain situations in which a joke is actually not appropriate. An example more relevant to the matter at hand is: If you are reading a novel, and the main character in that novel is another genuinely-existing-in-the-real-world novel, then the second novel (genuinely-existing-etc.) has somehow an important bearing on the first one, usually as an influence. This is the case here. The titular Billy thinks about F and L in LV, which he has recently read, several times in the short period of time in which this novel takes place. For many many years as a reader I would have discarded this as trivia, but – very belatedly – I understand that this is a clue. Or maybe it's an homage. Or both.
In any case, the books are in many ways very different, but if you think that Thompson's drug-addled ravings (“you say that like it's a bad thing!”) are the work of genius, then this more modern investigation into the lunatic present is right down your alley. If Thompson's work seems like a senseless pastiche of all that is wrong with the world, then, well, just don't bother with this. I mean, life's full of aggravation already, why spend precious reading time on something annoying?
I enjoy both Thompson and this book, but I don't think either book is going to change anybody's mind about the world and its recent history....more
Those nice people at Amazon offered this ebook for sale one day (and only one day) for $2.99. Thanks guys! But then the concluding volumne, Claudius tThose nice people at Amazon offered this ebook for sale one day (and only one day) for $2.99. Thanks guys! But then the concluding volumne, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina, is only available at the price ($8.99) that any 70-year-old bestseller might command. Well-played, Amazon! Way to trick a really, really tight-fisted reader!
Anyway, this is a really enjoyable book, good for a read that is both diverting and perhaps even edifying. I've read that the book is crummy history but it feels to me like it transcends the mere facts of the time to give a feeling of what living at the time and place really felt like. But, most importantly, it's just plain fun.
For the young-uns in the audience, pull up a chair and let grandpa bore you with the information that, in grandpa's television-addled youth, the British television serialization of this book bore a similar place in the cultural life that Downton Abbey holds today. But now, merciful forgetness has worked sufficiently upon grandpa's memory so that he can read this book (for the first time) and the images of Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, et al., appear only in very ghostly form, leaving grandpa to conjure a far superior version of the story for himself in his active, if somewhat memory-deficited (not a word, apparently), imagination....more
It's hard to review this excellent book, except to say something unhelpful like “It's excellent”. The book is fiction, of course, but since the book wIt's hard to review this excellent book, except to say something unhelpful like “It's excellent”. The book is fiction, of course, but since the book was written while the author, an Iraq War veteran, was studying in New Orleans and is about an Iraq War veteran who is studying in New Orleans, it's hard not to conclude that the book is an attempt to put his war experience into a form that is more easily understandable by others (and, possibly, himself). It has certainly accomplished this worthwhile goal. Plus, it's written in a spare and clear manner, which sounds perhaps like faint praise but is meant as high praise.
The hero is always in the situation where he is the most-correctly-behaving last good man in the area. Maybe that might get on some reader's nerves, but in this case I felt the author should be given a break. Most everyone else in this novel is, at best, well-meaning, but often less than well-meaning, especially all of the civilians but also many of his military higher-ups. In one situation, the hero loses his temper at a celebration when some drunken young people set off fireworks near some children. He is then, he feels, treated like sometime of dangerous lunatic by his friends and others for the loss of temper. No one seems to agree with him that drunkards putting children in danger is a bad idea. What was I supposed to make of this? Are people really such idiots? Or does the soldier, suffering from post-service emotional distress, fail to see that at least some people agree with him? I couldn't tell – perhaps that's my shortcoming.
That's all about the book. I'd like to make a short observation about the behavior of the certain bookish critics who sometimes manifest themselves here on Goodreads. It seems that any author or review who expresses an opinion criticizing the soldier ethic or experience, especially in the context of America's recent actions in the Middle East, is likely to get one or more critical response to the opinion – fair enough, it's an exercise in free expression. However, these opinions follow a certain pattern. It is: If you are an author like this one, you get a one-star review. If you follow the link to the reviewers' profile, you find that the reviewers' newly-established profile is set to private, and there is a single review – the one you've just read. Comments here on Goodreads sometimes get the same treatment. It's strange to think that reviewers feel they must cloak themselves in anonymity by setting up a separate private account, presumably with an newly-chosen email (mandatory to establish a Goodreads account, if memory serves) just to state this point of view, or any point of view, for that matter. On the other hand, there could be multiple non-members of Goodreads, browsing reviews, who come onto a review (or comment) that offends them so much that they feel they must, for the first time, set up an account and write an opinion, after which they never are moved to write another one, or even list another book as “read” or “to read”. That doesn't seem right, but it's possible. Anyway, no great conclusion to this observation – just wanted to note that it happens. ...more
Although I put myself forward to the indifferent world as a mature man of intellect, I have the usual selection of shortcomings, among which are a basAlthough I put myself forward to the indifferent world as a mature man of intellect, I have the usual selection of shortcomings, among which are a basically childlike (NOT in the flattering sense of the term) lack of self-control, which manifests itself as the desire (for example) to immediately consume a second ice-cream, or beer, directly after the first ice-cream, or beer, and the same with the third after the first two. I seem cheerfully impervious to the often-experienced lesson that, in the past, the second (or third) ice-cream (or beer) is rarely as pleasurable as those that have come before.
To the beer-and-ice-cream category of experience I now add David Foster Wallace. I recently finished reading DFW's Oblivion. I enjoyed it, although after typing “enjoyed” right now, I felt the urge to footnote (see what I did there? DFW has a lot of footnotes in this work, so it's a joke, see?) that I did not enjoy it the same way that one enjoys, you guessed it, ice cream and beer (this and all previous refs to i.c. and b. mean, of course, when they are taken separately). DFW at his best is significantly more difficult than ice cream or beer, and requires a certain persistence and mental discipline, but the rewards are as real as i.c. or b., and easier on one's sylph-like figure.
In any event, although I rarely listen to those counseling against additional ice cream or beer, I urge you to be wiser than I am and enjoy a break between your doses of DFW. Although clearly a writer of great talent and imagination (and of course the famous thesaurus-like vocabulary), the short stories, if taken one after another, might evoke an involuntary “oh-for-the-love-of-pete-not-again” response. I refer to the long long sentences, the digressions, and so forth. They are, simply, difficult to take in large doses.
I liked Oblivion (published many years later) more than this book. I think that DFW was actually becoming a better writer when older, which of course makes it even a bigger damn shame that he succumbed to mental illness as he did. Most of us men do not have the ability to make the obsessions common to young men (most obviously, sex, but also fame, ambition, need for attention, etc.) sufficiently interesting to others, which turns out to be a good thing. Effective dramatization of that state of near-insane self-obsession is an undeniable accomplishment but rarely reflects well on oneself. Oblivion, written by DFW in his thirties, shows that the lessening of the animal instincts allowed him to more effectively explore other parts of human experience and to push outwards some as a writer. I wish he had had the chance to push further.
But even average DFW is better than the best of nearly everyone else, so, if you have had a certain amount of DFW-free time to clear out your palate, I'd certainly recommend giving this occasionally infuriating book a try....more
“People Prefer Electric Shock to Thinking: Study” was the way they put it in the New York Post only a few days ago. Whether these click- and tenure-ba“People Prefer Electric Shock to Thinking: Study” was the way they put it in the New York Post only a few days ago. Whether these click- and tenure-bait studies are worth the time and energy it takes read about them is an excellent question, but assuming that this particular one is, the world reaction could probably be divided into two categories: non-readers of DF Wallace, and readers of same. The former may have snorted derisively, rolled their eyes, or lamented (silently or aloud) the state of the human condition today. The latter said to themselves: Oh, yeah, sure, of course they do. I've read about them already in Oblivion.
DFW's stories in this collection are largely about people suffering from a serious case of what my Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) is pleased to call “monkey brain”. (Others, perhaps attempting to avoid confusion with the material which is eaten out of a hollowed-out monkey's skull, have termed it “monkey mind”.) Whatever you call it, it's the largely modern experience of useless thoughts ricocheting rattling uncontrollably around your mind like beebees in a tin can.
Your reaction to these stories many depend on (1) whether you yourself are in possession of monkey brain, (b) whether you acknowledge same, (iii) whether you, in personal possession of monkey brain or not, feel that accurate depictions of this mental state are a worthwhile object of the writer's craft (and the reader's time).
Some readers may not like DFW's stories because they (the readers) are not in possession of monkey brain themselves, and lack the empathy, desire, or imagination (or some combination thereof) to project themselves into the minds that do. These people are not necessarily dummies or bad. Some people find it difficult or impossible to imagine mental states different from the ones they find themselves in. They see these states portrayed in fiction (or even in real life) and they just don't get them, just like, no matter how long your dog looks at the doorknob, he won't be able to figure out how to open it. He's not a bad dog. He just can't understand doorknobs.
However, your dog, even if he doesn't understand doorknobs, would not (because dogs are famously earnest and truthful) say (if he/she could talk) that they (the doorknobs) don't exist. However, those who are not in possession of monkey brain might, here at Goodreads and elsewhere, deny that anyone is in possession of the mental states portrayed in this book, and DFW's attempts to portray same are just a bag of post-modern tricks, useful only to impress the other members of the graduate writing program and fiction-publishing elite. They are wrong. Monkey brain exists.
Others may not like these stories because they are too familiar with these mental states. They don't want to read about them. They read books to get away from monkey brain, since a good book provides a few blessed moments escape from monkey brain, in my experience. At this point, LSW (a brainy chick) might invoke aristotelian poetics, which, if I'm understanding her correctly, would say that reading fictional portrayals of your deepest and most annoying mental states might lead you to a catharsis, which would do you a power of good, sort of like a colonic irrigation for the brain (not the most elegant image but I hope you get my drift). Just as many are skeptical about colonic irrigation, the potential benefits of reading about your most unpleasant mental states are lost on certain monkey-brainers.
I've been trying to maintain as light and pleasant a tone as I can muster until now, but of course the future suicide of DFW hangs over this book like a ugly spectre, and that's a serious business. Reviewers here at Goodreads and elsewhere have opined that this, DFW's last book before his death, was really a cry for help. (Try the following combination at Google yourself: “David Foster Wallace” Oblivion “cry for help”.) There is very little one can write on this topic without appearing, at best, a clueless nimrod, so I'll just come out and say that it's a damn shame there seems to be such a positive correlation between talent and madness.
It's generally considered to be a very shallow response to fiction when a person says “I identify with that” or “That felt just like my life” or something similar. Still, that's how I feel. In this case, if you enthuse too, uh, enthusiastically about how DFW captures a part of your lived experience uncaptured elsewhere, you also run the possibility that your friends might begin to worry about you and your mental health. Still, I'm going to say it: DFW, like Guinness, reaches the parts that others don't reach. If reading him is sometimes an obligation instead of a pleasure, it's only because he's making you think about yourself and others in new ways, which even my monkey brain found itself able to do, if only for a few seconds before some other distraction came along....more
A entertaining hard-boiled detective novel, with cussin', sex and violence. Not for those who want their homocide genteel.
I read a review, written wheA entertaining hard-boiled detective novel, with cussin', sex and violence. Not for those who want their homocide genteel.
I read a review, written when the TV series “The Wire” (partially written and produced by Pelacanos) was on the air, that called the book something to tide fans of “The Wire” over until the next season premiered. Now that “The Wire” is receding into television history, this book is even move useful as a tool to stave off the sadness that comes from knowing that one of the best TV series ever made is surely gone forever.
In my case, part of this process included casting my mental film of this book with actors from “The Wire". In the following list, the first name is the name of the character in this book, the second is the of “The Wire” character.
TC Cook - Proposition Joe (I know the actor has passed on, but this is just my mental movie) Gus Ramone - Gus Haynes (B-more Sun City Editor from season five) Dan Holiday - Jimmy McNulty (obviously - the same drunk with an attitude, too smart by half) Rhonda Willis - Kima Griggs Bo Green - Lester Freamon Romeo Brock - Omar, or maybe Cheese Conrad Gaskins - Cheese, or maybe Omar Asa - Wallace (now a grown-up adult actor, but again, my mental movie) Regina Ramone - Shardene Innes (Lester Freamon's girlfriend) Barolo Wilkins - Herc Fishhead - Bubbles Raymond Benjamin - Stringer Bell
And so on.
Perhaps not the most profound reaction to this good novel, but from the heart....more
Somewhere in the world, buried perhaps in some five-volume Life of Joseph Conrad, is a well-researched and otherwise-reliable explanation why this novel is subtitled “A Simple Tale”. But since I don't have easy access to a well-stocked university library at my disposal, I have to rely on what the Bulgarians are pleased to call “Chicho Google”.
The explanation favored by the first few pages of returned by a Google search is that the subtitle is ironic. The novel is not simple at all, these explainers explain, and was never seriously meant to be considered so. But since this is a population who are mostly writing lengthly analyses of the book, I believe this is not a reliable sample, as the writers (probably graduate students or the like) have a vested interest in convincing the readers that the book is complex by forethought and design.
The book IS complex, but I still think when Conrad used the subtitle “A Simple Tale” he was serious. Similarly, Graham Greene called some of his novels “entertainments” but they were not completely bereft of material to stimulate the old coconut.
But Conrad's original intent (I opine completely unburdened by supporting evidence) was to write a story in simple declarative sentences, for an intended audience of the comparatively uneducated, sort of like Tolstoy. However, Slavic literary sensibility will inevitably out. Conrad just couldn't stop himself from chucking in a wagonful of super awesome low-frequency words (podgy, hyperborean, charabia, panjandrum, havelock, hebetude, maculated, mansuetude, villegiature, and others) unlikely to be easily recognized by the great unwashed. On top of that, Conrad moves the novel's action back and forth in time so frequently and unpredictably it makes “Pulp Fiction” look like David Copperfield. The result is a deeply entertaining mess. You have to be ready for a serious read when you settle down with this puppy.
Here, I manifest a slight sympathy with Goodreaders who expected a page-turning thriller and/or tried to read this while they had the flu, and were disappointed.
Lots of modern people who demand that their books, movies, etc., have the same socio-polito-psycho-world views as they (the modern people) have will not like this book, as it is essentially an encyclopedia of conservative (in the US political sense) prejudices, with women, the poor, the working classes, idealists, and non-Anglo-Saxons, among others, coming in for a thorough bashing. I think that Conrad is not being fair to women, the poor, etc., but I still enjoyed the book because, as everybody started saying about the year 2002 for reasons I have yet to fathom, “it is what it is.”
Given Conrad's clear prejudices, I am surprised at Conrad's sympathetic portrayal of Stevie. Stevie is not, as characterized in the book blurb above, an “idiot”. The character Stevie is clearly a functioning autistic, perhaps today he might be characterized as suffering from Asperger's Syndrome. In any case, this novel came out in 1904, WebMD says the first usage of the word “autism” dates from about 1911. I do not recall seeing another character quite like him in literature of that age. Even in 1936, when Alfred Hitchcock (often interested in the cinematic portrayal of psychological states) made a film adaptation of this book, Stevie's character had to be transformed into a normally rambunctious child – the average filmgoer was probably not ready for a realistic depiction of autism on film.
It's also interesting how certain ideas (in this case, autism/Asberger's) tend to crop up in different places at more or less the same time, like those monkeys on different islands who all figured out how to crack open a coconut at more or less the same moment.
So, in conclusion, a very enjoyable read from an age when people had time for “simple” to be more complicated....more
Brain Pickings, like many new media outlets, seems to have realized that nothing attracts the page views like a well-written bit of optimistic sentiment, so we get as part of their recommendation this uncharacteristically sunny sentiment from the pen of The Master:
I have led too serious a life; but that perhaps, after all, preserves one’s youth. At all events, I have travelled too far, I have worked too hard, I have lived in brutal climates and associated with tiresome people. When a man has reached his fifty-second year without being, materially, the worse for wear — when he has fair health, a fair fortune, a tidy conscience and a complete exemption from embarrassing relatives — I suppose he is bound, in delicacy, to write himself happy.
I’m here to tell you now that the previous bit of sunny sentiment is immediately followed by a devastating “but”, specifically:
But I confess I shirk this obligation. I have not been miserable; I won't go so far as to say that--or at least as to write it. But happiness--positive happiness--would have been something different.
I love James and this is a great story, but -- as usual with my first read-through of a James story -- a great fat “Say What?" issued from my greasy lips when I reached the final word. Since then, I have discovered that several very clever people have reached wildly different interpretations of what we are supposed to make of this curious story. So I don't feel so bad about not really being sure what the heck this great slab of ambiguous prose is supposed to be about, except I have a sneaking suspicion that a heart-warming depiction of the bitter-sweet joys of middle-age was not Henry’s primary aim. Read it for yourself and decide.
Not really a novel as much as a throwback to the time long ago before the era of attention deficit disorder, when people wrote 35-page stories and calNot really a novel as much as a throwback to the time long ago before the era of attention deficit disorder, when people wrote 35-page stories and called them "short stories". Very enjoyable and written in a clear style. There are lots of great moments, like when the acting troupe coalesces to become, in effect, a detective, and when the lead player "interviews" a dumb (in the sense of unable to speak) person using acting and gesture as a type of language. I read it in two days and it was a great change of pace after several serious books. The copy I have (filched from the long-suffering wife) says it costs $22.50, which is pretty steep for a long short story. This is definitely a book to seek out at your public libraries, while we still have them. ...more
The longest story in this collect, “The Duel”, was the basis for the 1977 Ridley Scott movie ”The Duellists”, starring Harvey Keitel and David Carradine. I haven't seen this movie and I don't know if it is any good.
A very enjoyable set of short stories from the time when people thought that a 25-page story was short.
Many of the stories are like alternate takes on Conrad's most famous works -- “Gaspar Ruiz” in Heart of Darkness territory (figuratively, not geographically), "An Informer" same for The Secret Agent or Under Western Eyes, and “The Brute" for any number of well-known sea-going stories.
“The Duel” is the longest story in the book and also the best, IMHO. The ending of this story had me turning pages like I was reading this year's hot suspense novel.
Conrad sometimes writes sentences that have to be read two or three times. This I usually consider an unforgivable flaw. But stick with him, because then he’ll come out with a sentence that will knock you flat with its clarity and plain-spoken drama, like
“Don’t you know yet,” he said, “that an idle and selfish class loves to see mischief being made, even if it is made at its own expense? Its own life being all a matter of pose and gesture, it is unable to realize the power and the danger of a real movement and of words that have no sham meaning....” [“The Informer", Kindle location 932]
No man succeeds in everything he undertakes. In that sense we are all failures. The great point is not to fail in ordering and sustaining the effort of our life. [“The Duel”, Kindle location 2699]
Ditto the untranslated French -- usually a deal-breaker for me, but here something I felt I could put up with.
In summary, a great thing to have on your electronic device to prevent you from being in the situation where you’re stuck somewhere with nothing to read -- the horror, the horror....more
According to this 2013 appreciation of this novel by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, and (probably reliable) information elsewhere on the IntAccording to this 2013 appreciation of this novel by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post, and (probably reliable) information elsewhere on the Internet, this is a novel that all the cool kids like, including Raymond Chandler, Flannery O'Connor, and George V. Higgins. The cool kids have it right. This is a great novel. Even this Yankee liked it.
While I am grateful for Mysterious Press for saving this novel from oblivion, I am also cranky enough to note no human being seemed to mindfully read the new edition of this book from beginning to end before publishing it. If they had, they would have noticed several errors, presumably occurring in the computer-aided process of converting the book from one format to another. Several times, the word “the” becomes “he”. In the very last paragraph of the book, there is “Night was corning on” instead of “Night was coming on”. There are other similar examples. It's a little distracting. As I tell my students, you can't rely on spellcheck to catch all your mistakes, you have to read it yourself, or get a friend to read it for you.
The quality I enjoyed the most is that it doesn't have writerly tricks. Although it is set in a rural North Carolina town, it contains no “eye dialect” (i.e., words misspelled to reproduce the alleged native patois), but it has an ear for the way people sound and a talent for getting it down right. For example, we learn the first-person narrator had one year of college education and seems a little less dim than his fellow roadhouse employees, but the narrator never seems unbelievably well-schooled or improbably articulate over the course of the 200+ pages you are with him.
This novel takes place in a grim world. Nearly everybody is stupid and mean. If you read to get away from stuff like that, you may want to give this a wide berth. It will not restore your faith in mankind.
The Mysterious Press edition also had an introduction with a short list of forgotten authors of similar literature from the same period which deserves a look. They include
Edward Anderson - Thieves Like Us, Hungry Men Tom Kromer - Waiting for Nothing Horace McCoy - They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, I Should Have Stayed Home
There's also William Faulkner, but he's not forgotten, so far. ...more
This book is available for free download from a variety of sources. Many different electronic formats are possible through The Gutenberg Project and MThis book is available for free download from a variety of sources. Many different electronic formats are possible through The Gutenberg Project and ManyBooks. A free audio book can be downloaded from archive.org. Penn State University has the book for free download as a PDF file. There is the inevitable Google Books, and many others.
I did my bit to accelerate the collapse of brick-and-mortar bookselling by downloading this as a free ebook after seeing and perusing a paper copy at the last old-school paper book retail chain still, for the moment, standing.
Like a Jedi light saber, this book is a more elegant weapon for more civilized age. It's as damning an indictment of capitalism as anyone in the capitalism-damning racket could possibly want. If that's not entertaining enough, it's just plain old weird. The effect for me was like sitting around a campfire listening to a scary story come out of a solitary face in the darkness, only with routine business practice standing in for the madman with a hook instead of a hand. The very very even, very very calm tone seemed hypnotic to me, but I guess it's a short hop from hypnotic to sleep-inducing for many readers. I could definitely understand those who found it difficult to plow through the reproduced-in-full summations of the opposing lawyers in the criminal prosecution at the book's center. Ditto for the full names and thumbnail biographies for all of the jurors in the same trial, none of whom does or says anything vital to the plot after their introduction.
Speaking of which, in this novel, the prosecution is allowed to address the jury finally, after the defense. What's up with that? That never happened in Perry Mason, Matlock, etc. I'll bet a nice annotated paper version, bought at a failing bookstore chain, would have had a footnote explaining. Serves me right for being a cheapskate.
For people considering reading Saunders in general or this book in particular, here's a round-up of his writing available on the 'net for free, as ofFor people considering reading Saunders in general or this book in particular, here's a round-up of his writing available on the 'net for free, as of 15 February 2015:
The preview touted here at Goodreads above is only the first third of the first story (“Victory Lap”) in this collection and, as such, should be boycotted and ridiculed as a shameless tease.
”The Simplica Girl Diaries”: one of the best and most-discussed (if Google is any indication) of the stories in this collection, which has appeared in its entirety for many months on the New Yorker website, inexplicably not behind their pay wall. Who knows how long this happy state of affairs will continue? Worth a look if you are thinking of reading this book because how you feel about this story will probably be a good predictor of how you will feel about the entire book. I thought it was a great story.
I thought this book was great and it met kind of an acid test I have for compelling books, to wit, did I neglect things that I urgently needed to do to read this book? Yes, I did. That's the highest recommendation that I can give.
People's reactions to this book mystify me a little, which I guess is appropriate because I don't understand a lot of things, like why people who are not rich act in the interests of the rich if they are not getting paid to do so, to name just one example.
Negative reviews here at Goodreads fault the author for insufficient empathy, but I thought that, compared to many of his tragically-hip contemporaries, Saunders as a writer is dangerously unfashionable in his portrayal of flawed characters showing (however briefly) the better angels of their nature only when acting under the influence of long-along half-remembered moral instruction from parents, or by miraculously unearthing a moral compass in the face of smothering strictures of berserk authority. Readers should be aware that such tenancies will get you the serious stink-eye from majority of the fashionably-tattoo'd denizens in your MFA writing class, so the writer should be given some credit. Saunders is of course now free of such tyranny, but remember he had to pass through such purgatory to get where he is today.
It was interesting to see, also above, the answers to the question “is there an overall theme” to these stories. One said “class disparity”. Another “fear, technology, and hope”. Another nothing – other than “sadness”. My wanders, lonely as a cloud, through the 'net yield a similar diversity of opinions. In my sight, the opinions here (and elsewhere) are probably more indicative of the interests/inclinations of the writer of the answer than anything else.
However, I must admit that I am bugged by the nagging self-question about each story individually and all of them taken as a group: “What am I supposed to think about them? What they are about? How can people be so sure than they understand what these stories are about?”
I will end with an example of this nagging uncertainty, which is also a complete and utter spoiler of the first story in this collection, “Victory Lap”, so the balance of this review will lurk behind the “spoiler” html tag.
(view spoiler)[ I saw, here and elsewhere, writers stating with admirable self-confidence that “Victory Lap” was “about” a young teenage boy who overcomes the suffocating strictures of modern parenting to save a neighboring girl who is about to be kidnapped by a creepy psycho. The story is “about” that, but to say that the story is “about” the boy, I think, is inaccurate. But I don't have anything more accurate to put in its place.
The story is told alternately from the point of view of the boy, the neighboring girl, and the creepy psycho – all very nice rendered. I think, if you did a word-count in the story, each character would get roughly the same amount of interior monologue, meaning, the same number of words in the story. How can someone be sure that the story is “about” the boy and not one of the other three characters? Is there some signal that I missed, because I wasn't paying attention in middle-school English class, that tells you “see, the story is about this guy”?
Also, at the end of the story, there's this ambiguous bit where the teenaged boy, after successfully preventing the kidnapping (see, I told you there was a spoiler), has a moment at the story's end where he is standing over the disabled creepy kidnapper guy with a rock. The kidnapper is disabled, girl has escaped, sirens indicate the approach of authority. Does the teenaged boy needlessly smash the creepy guy's skull in as the girl watches? I think that's what you are supposed to think. The rescued girl's parents, attending to her after a nightmare a while later, tell her, see, everything is all right, you shouted, he put down the rock. Am I supposed to conclude, ah-ha, you see, American middle-class life is built on a tissue of lies, insert additional profound-sounding anti-American clap-trap here, here we see the violence and lies inherent in the system? Really? Seems kind of simple-minded, as a conclusion, but if not that, then what? (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I had a hard time finding this book at the Washington, D.C., public library because, although it is about a resourceful little girl and has whimsicalI had a hard time finding this book at the Washington, D.C., public library because, although it is about a resourceful little girl and has whimsical illustrations, it is shelved with the novels for grown-ups.
Has anyone out there every actually read this to or with an actual child? What was the child's reaction?
Saunders is sort of literary flavor-of-the-month now. I see serious people with goatees and/or tattoos reading his latest, Tenth of December, in coffee houses. It's encouraging in these times to see anyone reading anything anywhere, so no complaints, no remarks about goatees or tattoos.
As remarked here on Goodreads, there's a certain world view evident in this book that is likely to please the goatee-and-tattoo crowd. One reviewer seemed to think this book displayed anti-Christian bias because one of the (temporary) villains falls into the still-very-common trap (common across all religions) of attributing good fortune to God's favor. It seems barely worth mentioning that people who do this are really missing something very basic about the religious life, even if they go to a place of worship every week.
The religious are touchy. Compare: Elsewhere in this story, Saunders mocks the eminently mockable advice to “work smarter, not harder”. You don't see a lot of management consultants getting all stroppy on Goodreads about it.
I guess I understand the D.C. public library's decision to put this in the section with the books for grown up. They don't want a rushed parent absently pulling this off the shelf for their child's bedtime reading one week and returning enraged the next, asking what kind of morally polluting secular humanist filth the pub. lib. is peddling these days. I suppose that could happen. Even in Washington DC....more
Don't read this book for a good laugh. In fact, directly after reading this book one evening, I went to sleep and had a “Fobbit”-influenced nightmare.Don't read this book for a good laugh. In fact, directly after reading this book one evening, I went to sleep and had a “Fobbit”-influenced nightmare.
Everybody loves to laugh. Many love to read. So when a new novel is described as hilarious, when reviewers claim they laughed when they read it, it's likely to attract people who want a good chuckle. In this case, people will pick up this book knowing that the humor is likely to be dark, but still they expect the book to be funny. It is not funny. It's angry. You don't have to be a genius to figure out why the writer is angry.
So, opinion in the US on this book seems to be lined up along the predictable lines, i.e., if you are a liberal in the US political sense, you are likely to praise it. You might even say it's funny. If not, you are likely to find it lacking.
A critical review here (also cross-posted on Amazon) questions the author's integrity. For example, the writer says he never heard the term “fobbit” while he was in Afghanistan and Iraq, and says that none of his friends did either. He implies that the word is an invention by the author, part of his larger plan to “impugn the Army and its men”.
It took me about 15 seconds on Google to find a satirical rap video uploaded in 2007 which uses the term, among other places, in its title. I think it's safe to say the author did not make this word up as a slanderous weapon.
Later, this same reviewer rhetorically asks “what kind of man serves 20 years in that same Army, retires, presumably collects (or will collect) his pension and then turns around and stabs his fellow soldiers in the back?”
I think we can agree back-stabbing is not admirable. So the argument rests on whether this book is a stab in the back. I asked a person whose opinion I trust if it was a stab in the back. This person said (in effect), if the author did his Army job sloppily or negligently, leading possibly to deaths or at least a weakening of the war effort, THIS is a stab in the back to his fellow-soldiers and/or country. If he does his job competently (I assume Abrams did), comes home, takes the retirement that he is due, and takes advantage of our civil liberties to write about the ossified bureaucracy, clear unfairness, and soul-destroying wrongness that he witnessed, he is not a back-stabber. He is a patriot. ...more
At times like these, I tend to see the world as a giant version of high school, witA New York Timesbest book of 2012? Really? I mean, it's OK but ...
At times like these, I tend to see the world as a giant version of high school, with more money. In this case, I see this as the grown-up version of the kids who ran the high school literary magazine praising each other, sincerely but, well, wrongly. It's just not that good.
Still, I enjoyed it. (view spoiler)[Considering the story is about a guy sitting around waiting for something that never happens, (hide spoiler)]A Hologram For the King moves forward at a snappy pace and is easy to read. It claims 317 pages, but -- as noted elsewhere on Goodreads -- there’s a lot of white space going on. At this length, it’s a good book to borrow on one of those library ebook loans where Amazon comes and yanks it off your device at the end of the loan period.
On the other hand, the main character is one of those awkward white guys who otherwise populate British “comedy of embarrassment” vehicles and, on this side of the ocean, the novels of Jonathan Franzen. These guys must somehow, for the story to work, have gained a position of at least modest authority but then, in order for the novel to be minimally novel length, must engage in multiple incredulity-stretching lapses in judgement. For many people, a little of this kind of main character goes a long way. Being a white guy who is no stranger to judgement lapses, perhaps I have a higher tolerance for this than normal.
One part where my disbelief refused to suspend itself was the multiple occasions when the protagonist Alan began to compose letters to his college-age daughter. This wheeze allowed Eggers to show off his writerly chops in the area of aphorism. Many of the quotations from this book here on Goodreads are lifted from these segments. So, they are good writing, to be sure, but it’s hard to believe that this bumbling salesman who otherwise shows no particular interest in the written word is adept at crafting such tight, well-polished sentences, except for the obvious reason that the author requires a vehicles for his bon mots (a phrase from the French meaning “good mots").
The sex is ridiculous, too. If you didn’t know, you could tell this book was written by a man because, in spite of being an obvious loser, he is the recipient of frequent distaff sexual attention.
Conclusion: not for everybody, not (NY Times be damned) life-changing, but pretty good and worth a look.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Like Thomas Jefferson improving on the Gospels with an X-ACTO knife, Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy pulls apart and reassembles the world of Patrick O'BrLike Thomas Jefferson improving on the Gospels with an X-ACTO® knife, Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy pulls apart and reassembles the world of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels in a configuration more to Ghosh's liking.
Elements of the Aubrey/Maturin world which so far appear more-or-less unaltered in the Ibis Trilogy (so I therefore believe are pleasing to Ghosh): the world in the age of wooden ships, botany, Sir Joseph Banks, Napoleon, a sense of the grand sweep of history.
Elements of the Aubrey/Maturin world which do NOT so far appear in the Ibis Trilogy (therefore I assume NOT pleasing): sympathetic white males in position of authority, a steady and omniscient narrative voice, the sense that the author started with a grand plan for the series and is sticking to it.
How you feel about both series may depend on whether the qualities of your novel's heroes must be aligned with your personal interests and/or political convictions. As an example, I once met a lady who didn't like the Russell Crowe movie version of O'Brian's works because there weren't any women in it. Apparently, every movie she saw had to have a major female character. This seemed odd to me (although I did not tell her so) because, while there were inarguably no distaff characters in that particular movie, it seemed possible that a movie could have no important female roles and still be good, just as a movie could contain no major male characters and still be good.
In Ghosh's case, this series seems to be an attempt to remove white European males from the heroic place they occupy in the narrative mind of O'Brian and similar writers, and rewrite history to replace them with types of people the author thinks more worthy of admiration, specifically, women, Asians, artists, people of non-traditional sexuality, and lovers of flowers. Does that bother you? Then don't read this book.
Personally, I don't get exercised about the personal details of my fictional heroes, as long as there are heroes in evidence (modern novel with no sympathetic characters? Won't touch it). So, I am in the happy situation of being able to enjoy both O'Brian and Ghosh for simpler, perhaps more frivolous, reasons: a good story, fun and interesting historical details, interesting characters, and a lost world richly evoked. ...more
The period of 1940-60 in Malaysia were interesting times, in the sense of the phrase “May you live in interesting times”,A gentle book about cruelty.
The period of 1940-60 in Malaysia were interesting times, in the sense of the phrase “May you live in interesting times”, which is said to be an ancient Chinese curse but apparently is not. In any case, while we here in my home country were enjoying the sunny morning of our empire, the present-day Malaysia was mired in a brutal occupation, followed by a Communist insurgency with ethnic overtones, followed by successful repression of C. i. with e. o.
Recently I read a newspaper article on sleeping better. It recommended that time-honored technique of reading, and added that it might help if the material was a little dull. This book was not, in my sight, dull, but most of the nastiness is only referred to. When described, it is with restraint. People spend an extraordinary amount of time talking about gardens. Scenery is described at length, sometimes by the narrator, other times by characters. It's relaxing. From where I sit, that's praise. Also, the book's peacefulness is a good sleep aid. I speak from experience.
It's also nice to see an author with enough self-confidence in his own power to refrain from attempting to shock.
Some interesting words:
holbol (p. 33) – definition: concave-convex, richly profiled mouldings (from Wikipedia). Usage in this book: A holbol gable with a plasterwork of leaves and grapes capped the porch.
godown (p. 47) – definition: a warehouse in a country of southern or eastern Asia (from Merriam-Webster.com). Usage: The factory was the size of a wharf-side godown.
nock (verb – p. 136) – definition: to fit an arrow to the bowstring ready for shooting (from Kindle's onboard dictionary). Also used as a noun for the notches, both in the bow and the arrow, for holding the string. Usage: He nocked an arrow to the string of his own bow...
nightjar (p. 205) – definiton: a noctural insectivorous bird (from Kindle's dictionary). Usage: A nightjar calls out, then stops.
pollard (verb – p. 270) – definition: to cut off the top and branches of a tree to encourage new growth (from Kindle's dictionary). Usage: He asked us to pollard the pine trees at the perimeter of his garden.
Words from Chinese, Malay, or Afrikaans (yes, Afrikaans) are also sprinkled liberally through the book, in italics, often untranslated but guessable from context. "Google Translate" makes this much less annoying that it used to be. ...more
I read this book in a great stun-an-ox-able old-school hardcover from the public library. This choice, like much of the action in this novel, was a reI read this book in a great stun-an-ox-able old-school hardcover from the public library. This choice, like much of the action in this novel, was a result of greed, a.k.a. the titular sacred hunger. In this case, the artificial scarcity created by e-book producers makes borrowing at the public-library a hassle – waiting lists, limited choice, no renewal (although disconnecting your reading gadget from the world makes this last irrelevant). Meanwhile, great reading in infinite variety lays in unmolested dustitude (not actually a word) on the shelves of the big-city library. Once you wipe the pollution off the yellowed pages, they will allow you to keep it almost indefinitely unless somebody else wants it.
In any event, I am here to warn you that the dust cover of the great stun-an-etc hardcover edition of this book contains outrageous spoilers which might ruin the enjoyment of people who read books in the conventional manner. After reading, you could very easily skip to page 450 of this 600+ page book and not miss anything – except for the sheer enjoyment of reading excellent writing, characterization, etc. It didn't bother me a lot but the long-suffering wife tells me this might bother a normal person. If I ever meet a normal person, I'll ask.
This book is enjoyable but the author violates the old writing-school saw about “show, don't tell”, meaning, sometimes he can't resist the temptation to pop out of the narrative to shake his cane at the lamentable state of the world today. I understand the author's contention (valid, in my sight) that the history of the slave trade pretty much puts to paid the notion (fashionable at the time of the book's publication and still today) that unobstructed free trade leads to a happier, more prosperous world for all. I understand the author wished to make certain we don't miss it. But you have to have some faith in your readers. Show, don't tell.
But this is really quibbling. This is a very enjoyable book: well-written enough to divert, and brainy enough to engage the coconut.
List of fun, obscure, and no-doubt-historically-accurate words rescued from oblivion in this book (definitions from The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary unless otherwise noted):
farouche (p. 12) – sullen, shy quoit (p. 16) – A flat disc of stone or metal, thrown as an exercise of strength or skill subfusc (p. 24) – Dark or dusky colour, gloom scarph (p. 52) – a method of joining two members end to end in metalworking or woodworking (Wikipedia) quashee (p. 151) – term for a dark-skinned person caboceer (p. 151) – headman of an African village or tribe crepitant (p. 151) – making a crackling sound, also, to break wind (it will be hard working this one into casual conversation) sallet (p. 254) – A light round helmet without a crest and with the lower part curving outwards behind, worn as part of medieval armor. cambric (p. 312) – (Of) a fine white linen; (of) a similar cotton fabric. syllabub (p. 312) – Something frothy and insubstantial; esp. empty or lightweight writing or discourse. Previously, the name of a non-alcoholic drink and a dessert purlieu (p. 404) – the suburbs, outskirts, or surroundings of a place....more