Ha, it's an "equestrian travel classic". This has been described by me as "Travels with Charlie with Robert Louis Stevenson," which I'm sure was very...moreHa, it's an "equestrian travel classic". This has been described by me as "Travels with Charlie with Robert Louis Stevenson," which I'm sure was very clever of me. Gill suggests I pair it with Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer.(less)
Mill on the Floss feels to me like two different works stitched together. The first is a full-length sort of pastoral novel about a brother and sister...moreMill on the Floss feels to me like two different works stitched together. The first is a full-length sort of pastoral novel about a brother and sister growing up on a mill; the second, picking up around ten years later, is a shorter novella about star-crossed lovers. It doesn't feel very well-planned; two of the main characters in the second bit barely show up in the first. Sure, the first novel develops the main characters, and makes you care about them more as things start to get heavy, but it's still hard not to feel like you've been dropped into one of those shitty "Ten Years Later..." gambits from TV dramas whose ratings have gone south. And it's a shame, because Eliot at her best is an exceptional plotter; I was expecting things to hang together more than it felt like they did.
That first part, featuring the young Maggie & Tom Tulliver, is also Eliot's most autobiographical work. Tom is based on her older brother, who would in fact disown her due to her unconventional romantic decisions as an adult; Mr. Tulliver is based on her own father, who made similarly poor decisions. And Maggie is our own Mary Ann Evans, which makes it feel sortof awkward when Eliot eventually starts to describe her as pretty hot.
It's also a little awkward during some early scenes that feel...how do I say this? They feel a little Flowers in the Attic. Brother Tom calls Maggie into his room, shuts the door, says "You mustn't squeal out, you know," and then...
drew the sword from its sheath, and pointed it at Maggie...who, trembling and with tear-filled eyes, got upon the bed.
Just sayin'. Toward the end of the book, (view spoiler)[that incestuous undertone will, shall we say, not exactly be washed away. (hide spoiler)]
I sound like I'm down on this book, but Eliot is the best novelist yet to exist, so it's not like this isn't great stuff. Her usual devastating insight into human nature is present, and her usual mastery of language. And as Lise points out in the comments below, the plot of Mill on the Floss is (at least in parts) more dramatic - even melodramatic - than anything in her masterpiece Middlemarch, especially towards the end. It's wilder than Middlemarch, a little less controlled; maybe that sounds like more fun to you.
You're not going to have a bad time reading Eliot. Maybe a slightly slow time toward the beginning: like Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss takes its time getting going. But it's always worth it.
By the way, the Floss is the river the Mill is on. Is that obvious to everyone else? I didn't get that at all; I had to spend like twenty minutes Googling around to figure it out. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Jonathan Edward's classic 1741 Puritan sermon is a masterpiece of dickery. "I hate you," is his basic thesis, "And God does too." You are doing a terr...moreJonathan Edward's classic 1741 Puritan sermon is a masterpiece of dickery. "I hate you," is his basic thesis, "And God does too." You are doing a terrible job at not being shitty - "your foot," as you may have heard, "will slide in due time" - and you will probably get hit by a truck later today - "the arrows of death fly unseen at noon-day," you know - and then you will burn in exquisite torture forever and ever, because you are the worst.
The God that holds you over the pit of hell much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked,
says Edwards, describing his vision of God as a squeamish child. You can picture her complaining about it later. "I was so dreadfully provoked!" she says. "This world is icky."
It's been slightly fashionable for writers like Sarah Vowell to try to redeem Puritans lately - to show their more tolerant side. I think that's a lost cause, and certainly Edwards isn't doing anything to help as he picks out all the grossest quotes from the Bible, like the one that imagines us crushed in "the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God" (19:15 of the gloriously Grand Guignolish Revelations). "He will crush you under his feet without mercy," Edwards elucidates, in case you weren't clear on the image here: "He will crush out your blood, and make it fly, and it shall be sprinkled on his garments, so as to stain all his raiment." That's God, just stomping gleefully around in his blood-spattered robe, poppin' dudes like bubble wrap.
So obviously this is terrific fun and highly recommended. Listen: your forefathers were assholes, and Jonathan Edwards is the high priest of fuck you. "It would be a wonder if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time," he predicts. "Nor will God then at all stay his rough wind."
Puritan God will fart in your face, friends. And it's gonna stink.(less)
I read this as a companion to The Martian, which was as good an idea as it sounds like it was. And Mary Roach really always brings it; you're not goin...moreI read this as a companion to The Martian, which was as good an idea as it sounds like it was. And Mary Roach really always brings it; you're not going to have a bad time with her. Something about her gleeful interest in gross stuff is just terrifically appealing, you know? This is the only book where someone's going to seriously examine whether, in zero G, farting might possibly propel you across a room. (No.)
I will say: this is not so much actually about Mars as it is about being an astronaut in general. Roach examines what it's like to be in space right now, and what it has been like up 'til now, but there isn't a ton of discussion of the nuts and bolts of how we will get to Mars. I'd even go so far as to say that I felt like she wanted to write a book about astronauts and her publisher suggested she tack on some stuff about Mars because people might like that better. That's what's bumping this book from five to four stars from me: her hypothetical publisher is right: I want to hear about going to Mars. Mars Mars Mars. How Buzz Aldrin pooped fifty years ago is still interesting - don't get me wrong, I'm definitely interested in Buzz Aldrin's poop - but not five-star material.
But, y'know, just today I was having lunch with someone and she was like "I don't know how ultramarathoners run 20 miles a day without damaging themselves," and I was like "It's because their bones have increased density in direct response to the continual stress they put on them; their bone density is going to be measurably higher than mine." Which is a thing I learned from this book, and Roach is wonderful at providing you with that sort of random factoid that's going to be fun to insert into conversations. That's a lovely thing, and there's never a good reason not to read a Mary Roach book.
Shame about the fart propulsion failure though, right? That was a great image.(less)
I've been thinking a lot recently about Virginia Woolf's comment that Middlemarch is "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." I ge...moreI've been thinking a lot recently about Virginia Woolf's comment that Middlemarch is "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." I get it, and it's true, and my question was "What are some other books written for grown-up people?" Tolstoy? Tolstoy. What else?
And here's what else: here's a book for grown-up people. It has that vertiginous insight into human nature. It has a vast, complicated, working plot. And it's about grown-ups, by which I guess I mean that the plot doesn't revolve entirely around people courting each other or mucking about with swords.
Dickens does not write novels for grown-up people (I know, you're about to make an argument for Bleak House, and you might have something there) but Trollope shares with him a bottomless sympathy for humans. Melmotte is completely amoral, and he knows it, but Trollope does such a terrific job getting us into his head that I ended up almost rooting for him. Respecting him for what he is, anyway.
Of the many other characters spinning around in this mammoth panorama, Roger Carbury may be the hero of the book - I feel like if anyone represents Trollope himself, it's Roger - but he's also the least interesting character. I found him not unlikable, not awful, but boring. Felix is the only character for whom Trollope shows little sympathy; he's an outright villain, and a terrifically drawn one. My favorite character in the book turns out to be Marie Melmotte, who's quite a bit smarter and stronger than anyone gave her any credit for.
This is a book where everything is built on false foundations. The gentlemen of the Beargarden have an ongoing whist game built mostly on IOUs - a totally false economic system that mirrors the larger railroad scheme everyone's caught up in. Marie and Ruby both build "castles in the air" regarding their future romantic prospects. The society Trollope is clearly not fond of has lost its grip on reality.
In a lot of ways The Way We Live Now is an archetypical Victorian novel - maybe the archetypical novel. It features the two big Victorian obsessions - class and women - and does a terrific job of getting into every corner of both debates. Ruby Ruggles reminds me of Hardy; Henrietta Carbury reminds me of Eliot.
It's all marvelously done, and this is one of the best books I've read in ages.
I got this - well, no I didn't. My buddy Chris got this for the Aethiopica, or An Ethiopian Story, a 3rd-century novel that's not really set in Ethiop...moreI got this - well, no I didn't. My buddy Chris got this for the Aethiopica, or An Ethiopian Story, a 3rd-century novel that's not really set in Ethiopia. And I would have gotten it for that, too, if I had gotten it, but Amazon accidentally shipped Chris two copies and he's a righteous dude so I just sortof magically received it instead.
Included here: Heliodorus, "Aethiopica," 200s AD Lucian, "True Romance", 100s AD - early scifi! Apparently there are aliens! A parody. "An Ephesian Tale" "Chaereas and Callirhoe" "Daphnis and Chloe" - "the perils to the lovers are more psychological than physical and the story traces their love affair from the first stirrings of adolescent attraction through long-delayed consummation." (some Amazon reviewer guy who thinks this is good) "The Ass" - dirty! Not by Lucian! "Alexander Romance" - "shaped the later image of Alexander the Great as much as or more than did genuine history."
Here's what I've read so far: Aethiopica: Surprisingly modern-feeling, this is clearly recognizable as a normal novel, with a plot and characters and everything, so...so much for that whole idea that novels were invented in the 1600s or whatever. It starts in media res, like The Odyssey, and moves on to a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale type of deal, which is a little old-fashioned; it seems like it wasn't until around the 1700s that novelists decided it was okay for a novel to have just one plot. But it's entertaining - pirates and fights and romantic confusion, whee! - and written with confidence, and it's perfectly good reading. (less)
American literature didn't get off to a fast start. Our best efforts to convince the world that Puritan sermons count as literature aside, nobody real...moreAmerican literature didn't get off to a fast start. Our best efforts to convince the world that Puritan sermons count as literature aside, nobody really got anything decent written until Poe in the early 1800s.
Except there's this, which I found referred to fleetingly as the first viable American novel - 1797 - and I'd never even heard of it, and it's actually pretty great.
The titular coquette, Eliza Wharton, joins a long list of vile women in literature who do gross things like flirt, or show a little reticence about marrying whatever boring Casaubon everyone else decides they should marry. It never works out, so don't get your hopes up. But author Hannah Foster is less interested in indicting Eliza than everyone around her.
Eliza begins the book Emma-ish, headstrong and pleased with herself. The old guy her parents foisted on her has conveniently died before marrying her, and she cheerfully reenters the dating scene, writing that "every thing tends to facilitate the return of my accustomed vivacity." She makes no effort whatsoever to pretend this is a disappointment; she hopes only to find someone a little more interesting this time around. "These bewitching charms of mine have a tendency to keep my mind in a state of perturbation," she chatters. "I don't know how it is, but I am certainly very much the taste of the other sex."
But she's immediately directed toward the reverend Boyer, a safe guy whose love letters are crashingly boring. She prefers the company of Major Sanford, a kindred spirit who unfortunately (and pointedly) can get away with being a coquette himself because he is a dude. When she puts off Boyer, hoping to have just a tiny smidgeon of fun in her life, he storms off in a huff; her friends judge her mercilessly; she's written off as a coquette and abandoned.
As the story progresses and Eliza's options narrow precipitously, her tone changes too - from the vivacity she starts with (and she uses that word like ten times) to a glum desperation. "May my unhappy story," she finally writes, "serve as a beacon to warn the American fair of the dangerous tendency and destructive consequences of..the practice of coquetry."
So the message here isn't that Eliza is a bad person; it's that society sucks, and "vivacity" like hers will be crushed. It's a bummer message, but certainly not a unique one: the literature of destroyed women is rich. This is a worthy entry in it. I'm not sure why it isn't more well-known; it should be.(less)
I loved this Shakespeare-by-way-of-Steinbeck Lear of the Corn. I read it directly after a re-read of Lear, so some of my pleasure came from seeing how...moreI loved this Shakespeare-by-way-of-Steinbeck Lear of the Corn. I read it directly after a re-read of Lear, so some of my pleasure came from seeing how clever Smiley is with her source, but it's a tremendous book in any case.
It's insanely ambitious to try to write Lear as a novel at all; it's a crazy play and most of it doesn't make any real-world sense. Realism isn't really the point there. But Smiley has figured most of it out. She makes dad's Alzheimer's explicit, of course, and adds some backstory that helps to explain the extreme nature of everyone's emotions and actions - I suppose some might call (view spoiler)[the revelation that both Ginny (Goneril) and Rose (Regan) were raped by their father a bit of a low blow, since it necessarily puts us on their side (hide spoiler)], but it made sense for me. She ducks a few things: probably wisely, she doesn't try to do Harold's (Gloucester's) fake suicide, which doesn't really work in Lear either, and she drops the character of the Fool.
But most of the characters, and most of the major plot developments, are there, interpreted in ways that I found interesting. Smiley throws in these tiny details: pelicans appear in a moment of crucial decision, echoing Lear's weird dis on his daughters: "Twas this flesh begot Those pelican daughters. Back then people thought pelican mothers would cut their own breasts and let their babies drink their blood. I know.
But she kinda punks out on the ending, and I'm not sure why. (view spoiler)[I love the idea of the poison time bomb sausage - really, that's one of the best murder weapons I can remember - but Rose never eats them. Caroline (Cordelia) survives, as does Jess (Edmund). Why? Did Smiley just look into the abyss and blink? I doubt it; I'm sure she had her reasons. But I was kinda looking for everyone to die, because this is Lear and the central event of Lear is that everyone loses and dies. (hide spoiler)] So that was a minor bummer for me. Or bumming lack of bummer.
Billy Budd, another in Melville's oeuvre of nautical tales of gay passion, is shorter than his masterpiece and not as rewarding. The problem is that i...moreBilly Budd, another in Melville's oeuvre of nautical tales of gay passion, is shorter than his masterpiece and not as rewarding. The problem is that it's kindof boring and not much happens.
It was Melville's last work, and he never really finished it - he just left a ton of scribbles and sketches and conflicting drafts kicking around - and maybe that's why it feels like a bit of a mess: because it literally was, before various people tried to stitch it together.
Your basic story is that there's this super-pretty guy, Billy Budd, and this other dude on the ship, Claggart, is deeply closeted and therefore confused and eventually enraged by his unstoppable attraction to him. So of course he (view spoiler)[accuses him of plotting mutiny, and then Budd punches him in the face and kills him, and then the also-possibly-closeted captain has Budd martyred. (hide spoiler)] And that's about it, and there are the usual Melvillian tangents into, like, the history of mutinies and whatever.
"But," you say, "What makes you so sure this is a story of gay unrequited love? Maybe Claggart doesn't like the guy." Glad you asked. I underlined all the stuff that sounds kinda gay - what, you don't do that? - and I have a lot of underlines.
[Claggard gazed at Billy,] his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.
Melville's playing this game where he keeps using words like "romantic" that could perfectly well mean two different things. "A mantrap may be under the ruddy-tipped daisies," he says, optimistically.
"But," you say, "Melville goes out of his way, once or twice, to be like 'It wasn't a sex thing!'" For instance, in a long discussion of Claggart's "depravity according to nature," in which he's described as "a nut not to be cracked by the tap of a lady's fan," Melville specifically says "the depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual." And "well," I respond, "I said closeted."
Melville is like Shakespeare in that if you suspect his words may have a double meaning, you'd be a sucker not to assume he knows what he's doing. He's a master of language; if he can mean two things, he generally does. And here, thanks probably in part to his natural desire to leave things open (he is a terrific writer, after all, and the best books aren't easily defined), and in part to the fact that he himself was (I think) a closet case (whose own unrequited crush on Hawthorne ended up causing a rift between them), and of course also due to the obvious fact that back in 1924 one couldn't just run around writing gay love stories whether or not one wanted to - a fact that Oscar Wilde could still attest to 75 years later - he's written a book that never explicitly says it's a story about the thin line between closeted love and hate.
But, I mean, let's be serious, that's definitely what it is.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Ehhhh, I liked The Magician King so much that I thought maybe I was coming around to Grossman, but this one was just okay again. It turns out that I r...moreEhhhh, I liked The Magician King so much that I thought maybe I was coming around to Grossman, but this one was just okay again. It turns out that I really just liked the one story - Julia's hedge witch odyssey, excepting the end of it - and everything else is just...too Narnia for me.
And man, that ending. Whew. Musta thought it was Super Obvious Metaphor Day. It ain't Super Obvious Metaphor Day, is it? Nah, it ain't Super Obvious Metaphor Day.(less)
A People's History's 750 pages can be boiled down to two statements:
1) America sucks; 2) The only way to change it is to organize.
Both of these things...moreA People's History's 750 pages can be boiled down to two statements:
1) America sucks; 2) The only way to change it is to organize.
Both of these things are true, and Zinn makes his case with comprehensive thunder. The extermination of Native Americans; the genocide of slavery; the systematic fight against civil rights, socialist and labor movements; all the way up to the horrors of Vietnam, Zinn shows us how America's interests have always been big business at the expense of the people. "To give people a choice between two different parties and allow them, in a period of rebellion, to choose the slightly more democratic one was an ingenious mode of control," says Zinn, and you're like oh snap.
It's certainly a valuable book: one of the best broadsides against the Establishment ever written. But it suffers from two big problems:
First, as he says right in the title, one of Zinn's goals is to tell a different kind of history - one not dominated by individual heroes and villains, but a story of people who come together to change the direction of American society. That's nice, but we learn best when information is presented in the form of stories, and stories work best when they have protagonists; Zinn's refusal to give us protagonists makes it hard to keep straight what's going on. (Even when protagonists do show up, Zinn often fails to put them in context: Mother Jones pops into the story a few times with zero explanation of who the hell she is.) It unfortunately makes the book feel somewhat like the textbooks you used to know and loathe during high school - just long lists of events and numbers and happenings, that make your eyes glaze over. Only a masochist would count the number of times Zinn says, "[x] people marched at [somewhere] to protest [a thing], and the police beat the shit out of [y] of them." It's a lot. I was left with a chaotic sense that lots of people have been unhappy with lots of things, and generally gotten beat up for it. This is very well-written, for a history textbook...but that's not saying much.
Zinn's disdain for the mechanics of storytelling is also manifested in his dreadful taste in books, by the way. When he cites literature, it tends to be stuff like Edward Bellamy's boring proto-scifi Looking Backward or Jack London's dreadful dystopia Iron Heel - well-intentioned but terrible. Makes you think Zinn might be a pain in the ass to have over for dinner.
Second, Zinn's consciously biased tone ends up making it easy to disagree with him. He makes his point so many times, so persistently, that even I found myself at times wanting to argue - and I'm firmly on his team. It's just...when a guy repeats himself a thousand times one's natural inclination is to be like "Shut up." That's just how it goes. Zinn freely admits that this is
a biased account, one that leans in a certain direction. I am not troubled by that, because the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction - so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements - that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission.
And Zinn's right: I remember dismissing my high school textbooks out of hand because they were so clearly biased that I felt immediately that they couldn't be trusted. The problem is that although Zinn is philosophically opposite, the effect is the same. Anyone who's not already inclined to agree with Zinn will find it all too easy to dismiss his entire book, which means that A People's History is doomed to do its preaching only to the converted. Top reviews of it on Goodreads tend to be five stars or one, divided by whether the reviewer already agreed with Zinn or not.
As the converted, this still had value for me. Zinn makes the very clear point that I am exactly the problem: the former activist who's settled comfortably into the middle class and therefore deactivated. I got mine, right? I'm actually mentioned in this book: Zinn describes a Boston protest against the first Gulf War that I was at. But it's been a long time since I took to the streets. So, okay, as an extra-credit assignment in Zinn's Shitty History 101, I promise to get back out there, as long as I don't have brunch plans.(less)