Overrated, in my opinion. I'm not really a nonfiction reader, so I was out of my comfort zone to begin with. Schiff seemed to keep making the point th...moreOverrated, in my opinion. I'm not really a nonfiction reader, so I was out of my comfort zone to begin with. Schiff seemed to keep making the point that the REAL Cleopatra has been lost to myth and mostly sexist heresy, yet provides very little in the way of facts, because, hey, very few facts seem to exist. Yet, instead of sticking closely to the facts that she does provide, she injected plenty of her own romanticizing, without even telling us from where she draws what is obviously her own personal impression. I realize that history is not objective, but it seems a bit hypocritical to be constantly lambasting the ancient historians that she cites for being too slanted when she does the exact same thing. Also, constantly complaining about how sexist everyone was before the 20th century is a little...dumb. Really? Roman historians were sexist? They feared powerful, intelligent women? They tried to put them down by hypersexualizing them? YOU DON'T SAY!
My brother thinks that I, like he, am too much of a snob for criticizing such things. Well, I am. But c'mon people, the NYT rated it as one of the top 10 books of the year in 2010, and Schiff has won a Pulitzer Prize. So kill me if I expect more. Read Shakespeare instead.(less)
It's hard to explain exactly how I feel about this book. On the one hand, it is clearly A Significant Novel destined for the classics shelf. It's very...moreIt's hard to explain exactly how I feel about this book. On the one hand, it is clearly A Significant Novel destined for the classics shelf. It's very ambitious and all-encompassing, comprised of at least three major plotlines and a laundry list of characters. I loved some of the ideas presented in the novel, such as the film that is so absorbing that you literally can't stop watching. On the other hand, it was frequently a quite frustrating and tedious novel. Wallace continually makes references to characters or organizations that you don't yet know about or understand, or in some cases will never know or understand. Eschaton drove me up the wall (though I imagine a lot of people enjoyed this part). It reminded me of Bleak House in the sense that you have to wait and wait and slog through so many pages before pieces of the plot start falling together. Unlike Bleak House, Infinite Jest never offers you any kind of neat resolution. Or a resolution at all, really. The ending was possibly the most irritating moment of all, although by that point, I was just relieved to be done with the book. I found it incredibly difficult to finish, even though people have told me/I've read that people can't put it down after a certain point. I just grew tired of the tedium and the incessant darkness.
I'm surprised that more people aren't bothered by the darkness of the novel. Yes, it is funny, but it's also incredibly depressing. All of the characters are addicts, whether to drugs or some other distraction (tennis, sex, grammar, etc). No one is happy except for the horribly deformed Mario Incandenza. Mario is probably the only bright point of the novel, but even his happiness is tainted by his naivete and sheltered nature. His happiness doesn't seem real, almost as fake as the happiness of a drug high, because he doesn't really know enough about the world. And there's no way out for the addicts- eventually, whatever they're addicted to loses its potency or otherwise ruins their lives, so they seek out help. But even the help is insufficient. AA is presented as effective but essentially pointless, basically just a way to brainwash oneself out of an addiction in order to lead a normal if largely stale life. Gately is the most hopeful representative of a recovering addict, but when he gets injured and questions his resistance to receiving painkillers, the reader has to wonder, what is the point? Why shouldn't he take the Demerol? Is cleaning shit out of bathrooms and being tortured by the inaccessibility of Joelle really better than his previous life? Wallace seems to want to believe that there is something worth recovering for but can't quite put his finger on it. He prizes sincerity and yet spends plenty of time hiding behind satire and caricature. Anyways, for a 1000-page novel, it was tough not to have any signs of hope to hang onto.(less)
I inhaled this book in a matter of four or five days. The first day I plowed through Patty's therapeutic autobiography, which was the most engaging pa...moreI inhaled this book in a matter of four or five days. The first day I plowed through Patty's therapeutic autobiography, which was the most engaging part of the book for me (which I find perplexing, considering what an absolutely awful person she is), second day kept plowing to find out what happened with the Patty-Richard-Walter situation, then got progressively depressed by how self-absorbed and amoral or just downright creepy everyone was, and subsequently kind of limped to the end, bandaging my soul with breaks for watching Glee.
In case it wasn't obvious by that account, I was quite unsettled by the fact that there is no "good" character. Franzen excruciatingly delineates what's wrong with both his characters and the world, but there's next to no hope. I guess Walter is supposed to be what Franzen believes to be good, but he ends up getting reduced to a weirdo who yells at people for owning cats, defeated by the rest of the awful characters and the awful world. And even he struggles and occasionally fails to preserve his integrity; as much as he rails against population growth, he himself has two kids with Patty and wants to have kids with Lalitha (the sentence about yearning to make her big with child was...frustrating, if not disgusting), he allows himself to take a cross-country camping trip in a gas guzzler because he biked to work for most of his life, etc etc. I'm not saying that there HAS to be a representation of what's good—well, maybe I am. It was frustrating to constantly be told what was wrong with society without any indication of what is good, of what people should be striving for. According to the novel, Republicans are greedy and purely self-interested, but liberals are stupidly self-righteous and hypocritical; being rich is bad, but so is being poor, and so is being middle-class for that matter. His use of satire was sometimes amusing (I especially enjoyed the stuff-white-people-like-esque description in the opening paragraphs about Patty's trials and travails in St. Paul) but more frequently soul-sucking. If everything is bad, including the things that should be polar opposites, then are we supposed to conclude that good simply doesn't exist? That everything is hopeless?
Well, perhaps. Everything from the characters' personalities to the state of the environment feels predetermined. I was especially bothered by the overly psychoanalytic accounts of the characters' personalities (Patty goes to Minnesota to be the opposite of her parents, Walter works hard and doesn't drink in order to be the opposite of his alcoholic deadbeat dad, Joey goes conservative and runs away from home to piss off his overbearing liberal parents—oh wait, everyone does everything they do because of their parents!) until I started thinking about how it connected to the predetermined nature of just about everything in the novel. Aside from the domestic drama, the big issue is the environment and population growth. While Walter presents logical arguments for why people should stop having so many babies, the idea goes against biological impulses, the American culture of personal freedoms, and what seems to be one of the few things that provides some amount of happiness to the characters of the novel. It just seems inevitable that people will keep on reproducing as much as they please, and that the reasons behind it are not ones you can really consider evil, even in the face of impending doom. Despite the scary quality of not being able to control our own fate, Franzen repeatedly presents freedom as a bad thing, either as a force that paralyzes or causes us to make the wrong, self-indulgent choices. But not only does the novel present austerity as devoid of pleasure or happiness, it seems to be impossible to achieve; we simply can't resist exercising our freedoms, which, funnily enough, brings us back to the problem of determinism.(less)
**spoiler alert** It was compelling at first, but became progressively lamer. Grossman creates a fantasy world similar to many fantasy worlds, present...more**spoiler alert** It was compelling at first, but became progressively lamer. Grossman creates a fantasy world similar to many fantasy worlds, presenting it as an escape from "normal" life, but turns that idea on its head when it turns out that the magical world requires just as much hard work and contains just as much disillusionment as the real world. The problem is, he kind of beats that dead horse again and again and again. On top of the transparency of thematic material, he clearly makes references to other fantasy books like Harry Potter and Tolkein, to the point of letting on that his characters have read these books; BUT, he refuses to name the one book that becomes integral to Grossman's own plot. Instead of calling a spade a spade, he uses the plot of the Chronicles of Narnia but renames it "Fillory and Further." What perplexes me is that he doesn't try to gloss the similarities or make the references oblique; it is quite obvious that Fillory is Narnia. And if he's trying to make some "meta" commentary about reading, which I imagine he is, then wouldn't it make the point stronger if he had just said that he was talking about The Chronicles of Narnia? Anyways. In addition to that gripe, he dragged out the ending for far too long; everything after the defeat of Martin Chatwin was pretty dumb. I mean, if the whole point of describing Quentin's pain and method of healing after Alice's death is that he has chosen to withdraw from the magic world and not to care about anything ever again, then why does he suddenly decide to fly off and join his buddies on another adventure (other than to allow the author to write a sequel, of course)? Not to mention the fact that making Julia into a magician is so gratuitous it hurts.
Having said all this, I'm clearly a literary snob, and it was pretty engaging at the beginning.(less)
Reading this after The Ambassadors was inevitably going to be a letdown. But even independent of that, I find stories narrated from the perspective of...moreReading this after The Ambassadors was inevitably going to be a letdown. But even independent of that, I find stories narrated from the perspective of a child to be quite disconcerting. Like Turn of the Screw, WMK has a lot of scandalous material that I was surprised to find in a late 19th century novel, including the nasty consequences of divorce, characters swapping and dropping partners every few pages, and a description of Maisie's mother stumbling out of her bedroom post-coitus, half dressed and giggling. Quelle scandale! (less)
**spoiler alert** Don't read if you haven't read the book and think you will! It is essential that you read this book without knowledge of what's goin...more**spoiler alert** Don't read if you haven't read the book and think you will! It is essential that you read this book without knowledge of what's going to happen...
This is one of James' later novels, and thus very dense and difficult to read. But, unlike something like Beast in the Jungle, the payoff was much greater to me and made the difficulty worth it in the end. The Ambassadors has it all— humor, memorable characters, beauty, and intellect. While I struggled to get into it at first, the more I got used to the style of writing and the more I came to know about Strether's predicament, the more invested I became. I will hopefully re-read it someday, considering a) I think that's part of the point of the book, and b) I imagine a lot of things make a lot more sense that way, or at least reveal new things to think about. The fact that James manages to keep the reader just as oblivious to the real nature of Chad and Madame de Vionnet's relationship as Strether is amazing. Mind-boggling, really, that he can do that to a reader even in 2010. My favorite part of the book, and probably what really captured me, is Strether's day in the French countryside, living out his Lambinet fantasy. There can't be many chapters that are more beautifully written than this one, from the description of the countryside to the appearance of Chad and Madame de Vionnet floating down the river, suddenly upending everything you and Strether previously thought. Other highlights for me included Sarah Pocock's "I think it's hideous" line in response to Strether's plea that Chad has improved under Madame de Vionnet's influence, Waymarsh's "sacred rage," Waymarsh in general, Mamie's meeting with Strether and her statement "I know everything"...the list goes on.
As with Portrait of a Lady, the ending of The Ambassadors can be seen as disappointing— why can't he just stay in Europe and marry Maria? There's nothing left for him in America! And it's Woollett, for God's sake! I don't think the ending has to be bleak, and Strether himself seems fairly optimistic about it. Strether says he has to leave in order to be right, which to me means that in order to do justice to the expansion of consciousness he underwent in Paris, he can't live "happily ever after," so to speak. He can't enter into an overdetermined ending of the narrative; he has to jump out of the marriage plot ending and go back to America, where who knows what will happen? Also, if the point of Strether's revelations is that meaning is malleable, as in the meaning of virtue in the "virtuous attachment," then his statement that in order to be right, he can't get anything might mean that he can't get things in the sense of understanding things, like "Ah I get it now!" Because the only thing you can "get" is that those aha moments don't exist; that there is no one meaning to "get," not only in Strether's understanding of the world but in the reader's interpretation of the novel. And hence, the need to re-read.(less)
I think The Beast in the Jungle made me the most pissed off while reading of all the stuff I read for my Henry James class. The prose is typical of hi...moreI think The Beast in the Jungle made me the most pissed off while reading of all the stuff I read for my Henry James class. The prose is typical of his later style, which means that it's INFURIATING. You read yourself into circles, thinking that you know what each word on the page means, but somehow they do not add up to a logical meaning when you reach the end of the sentence, so you have to back and re-read, and re-read, and re-read. And even when you do that, the meaning of the story is not clear. According to my professor, that is kind of the point— that the titular "beast" is James' syntax itself, which devours his character at the end. While it's certainly an impressive feat to pull off and I take my hat off to James' capacities as a writer, it did not make for enjoyable reading for me. I remember having the sinking feeling, as I tore my hair out trying to figure out what was going on, that the story would never reveal exactly what is going on; that you never find out exactly what was supposed to have happened to Marcher, or what knowledge May Bartram has of his life. There is the interpretation that he's just the guy to whom nothing ever happens, that he thinks he's the central character of some great story or drama but it turns out that he's a terrible protagonist because he wastes his life waiting for something to happen. BUT, not only is that terribly trite, it doesn't really explain what happens at the very end of the story, when the Beast pounces upon him. Another more interesting interpretation is that Marcher is homosexual, but even that is a bit overdetermined. I suppose my professor's "syntax" idea is the most palatable to me (probably because I was brainwashed by her superior intellect), but that doesn't change the fact that this is an incredibly painful story to read, seemingly written only so that James can laugh at you and your weak brain in the end.(less)