I'm suspicious of dystopias. They present extreme visions of the world, in order to illuminate issues with the real one; that's all fine, but in orderI'm suspicious of dystopias. They present extreme visions of the world, in order to illuminate issues with the real one; that's all fine, but in order to get to those extreme worlds people have to act in extreme ways, and I end up not buying it. I guess I'm not great at suspending my disbelief.
I didn't have this problem with Handmaid's Tale. Atwood's detailed imagination and the force of her vision just swept me entirely in. It's perfectly constructed, always exciting, and - wonder of wonders - uses its dystopic setting to make real points about today, just like dystopias ought to do. And as I've been reminded about below, there's nothing particularly unbelievable about any of this. Atwood was writing when apartheid was still a thing; America itself is only 150 years out from slavery, which institutionalized rape.
The idea is that America has been taken over by a fundamentalist Christian sect who are super into "family values" (remember those?). Women who have done terrible things like get married twice are punished by becoming handmaids - pregnancy machines for aging powerful men who are almost certainly sterile themselves, which puts the handmaids in an awkward position. Our unnamed heroine is no heroine, but she is wicked good at Scrabble. This was the least believable part of the book for me. No one spells "zygote."
I first read this book in high school, hoping for sexy parts. There are not sexy parts. The description of handmaid sex - the wife positioned at her head, holding her hands grimly while the husband plows away - is some of the least sexy sex this side of Updike.
I hated the epilogue, btw. Reads like Cliffs Notes mixed with fan fiction....more
Every season of life is an edition that corrects the one before and which will also be corrected itself until the definitive edition, which the publis
Every season of life is an edition that corrects the one before and which will also be corrected itself until the definitive edition, which the publisher gives to the worms gratis.
This really speaks to me. because I've gone through like twenty editions of myself - not because of demand, just that previous ones were like riddled with typos.
I've read de Assis before, and it's great to revisit his weird, modern style. Writing in the late 1800s, De Assis is the Pushkin of Brazil - the father of their literature. Traces of metafictional Borges and magical realism can be seen. He doesn't so much break the fourth wall as refuse to acknowledge its existence. His narrators, his world, the very idea that you're reading a book, are all unreliable.
"And now watch the skill, the art with which I make the greatest transition in this book," he says, before making a totally awkward transition...
Strip away the tricks and Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas - also known as Epitaph of a Small Winner - tells a small story. A guy leads an uneventful life. There's a love interest. Stars are crossed. The action is conventional. But you could say the same about Ulysses, and where would that get you? The book isn't about the story - it's about the book. It's narrated from beyond the grave. Bras Cubas rambles, aggrandizes himself, changes his mind. "Maybe I'll leave out the previous chapter," he says. "Among other reasons because in the last lines there's a phrase that's close to being nonsense." Then he singles you out - "seventy years from now, [you] leans over the previous page to see if [you] can discover the nonsense." I laughed because I'd just finished doing exactly that. I have no way of knowing if Bras Cubas actually did leave the previous chapter out.
I like Dom Casmurro best; the actual plot engages me more. But who am I to say? "The main defect of this book is you, reader," Bras Cubas warns me. Maybe my next edition will do better....more
Here's Richard Wright going door to door in the 1920s Jim Crow South trying to sell his dog for a dollar because he's starving. A white lady offers hiHere's Richard Wright going door to door in the 1920s Jim Crow South trying to sell his dog for a dollar because he's starving. A white lady offers him 97 cents and, feeling some distant surge of fury inside, he turns her down, goes home with his dog and his hunger. A few days later (view spoiler)[the dog gets run over by a coal truck, (hide spoiler)] and this book is a bummer. This is not quite 100 years ago, this hellish world he's trying to claw out of. The degradation required of black people in order to survive is a nightmare.
So this skinny kid teaches himself to read, borrows a lone sympathetic white guy's library card, forges a note from him. He makes sure the note includes a racial slur, to make it more believable; it's crucial that the librarian not guess the books are for himself. He dives into Dostoevsky, Dreiser, Gertrude Stein.
The plots and stories in the novels did not interest me so much as the point of view revealed. I gave myself over to each novel without reserve, without trying to criticize it; it was enough for me to see and feel something different. And for me, everything was something different...
In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. My tension returned, new, terrible, bitter, surging, almost too great to be contained. I no longer felt that the world around me was hostile, killing; I knew it.
If you've ever wondered how reading can be an act of revolution, this book will lay it all out for you. Jim Crow depended on the ignorance of black people. As Wright started to see other perspectives, he understood how the system oppressed him and he started to see that things could be different. Reading was war for him. He tried to hide what was happening behind the shuck and jive, but it was impossible; white people could sense that he had become dangerous.
"Why don't you laugh and talk like the other niggers?" [his boss] asked. "Well, sir, there's nothing much to say or smile about," I said, smiling. His face was hard, baffled; I knew that I had not convinced him..."I don't like your looks, nigger. Now, get!" he snapped.
And he does; (view spoiler)[he gets to Chicago, where he joins up with the Communist party only to find that while their ideals are noble, the reality is just more fitting in. (hide spoiler)] Here, as in Native Son, Wright slows down quite a bit; the back third of each book gets extremely talky. He sucks you in and then he's like "Now that I've got you, let's talk about Communism." But even with the - let's face it - boring stuff, this is still the best description of life under Jim Crow I've ever read. Wright is not just a self-made man but a man who has made himself in the face of an entire system dedicated to keeping him unmade; it's pretty inspiring stuff. And he's succeeded in turning himself into one of the great writers of the century.
Perhaps, I thought, out of my tortured feelings I could fling a spark into this darkness...I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human.
Mission accomplished, Wright. Sorry about your dog.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
My friend NE says "Anyone who is planning on dying some day should read this book," and while that cohort doesn't include me, I suppose I could read iMy friend NE says "Anyone who is planning on dying some day should read this book," and while that cohort doesn't include me, I suppose I could read it just in case someone else dies....more
I've been fooled twice now into thinking Nella Larsen isn't a great writer. She is. She controls her story perfectly; she gives you exactly the informI've been fooled twice now into thinking Nella Larsen isn't a great writer. She is. She controls her story perfectly; she gives you exactly the information you need at exactly the right time. Her stories are carefully constructed, each one building steadily towards a wallop. They make a huge impact. There's no fat, nothing that doesn't exactly need to be there.
There's a six-floor walkup in one scene of Passing; the characters complain about it, and one makes a racial comment about it. It's there for a reason; Larsen is positioning you, making sure you know you're six floors up, because one of the characters will have to come back down. It's extremely careful and effective, but it doesn't seem positioned. It just does its job.
What she doesn't have time for, particularly, is sentences. She comes out with stuff like this:
This, she reflected, was of a piece with all that she knew of Clare Kendry. Stepping always on the edge of danger. Always aware, but not drawing back or turning aside.
And you're like jeez, that's...clunky. It gets you where you need to go - Clare, who passes as white and has married a racist, is capable of anything. But it's not pretty.
I was reminded of something Steinbeck said:
I have no interest in the printed word. I would continue to write if there were no writing and no print. I put my words down for a matter of memory.
He had no time for punctuation; he was uninterested in the craft of writing. Prose is a cracker. You don't need it to be interesting; you just need it to hold the cheese.
Nella Larsen has a lot of cheese. Don't let the cracker fool you....more
In 1952 author Marijane Meaker, using the pen name Vin Packer presumably because she won the "Invent a gay male porn star name" contest, wrote what'sIn 1952 author Marijane Meaker, using the pen name Vin Packer presumably because she won the "Invent a gay male porn star name" contest, wrote what's credited as the first lesbian pulp fiction novel. That's a very specific thing to be first at, but there are a lot of books so okay. She and her publisher had to be careful: to escape censors, everyone had to end up (view spoiler)[either straight or institutionalized. (hide spoiler)]
Meaker was unhappy with the book partly because of that ending - which she wrote so tepidly that no one could have failed to read between the lines - and partly because she was young and the book is fairly awkward. Which is partly the fault of the '50s, honestly; everyone was such dorks back then. The action is set (of course) in a sorority house full of terrible repressed young women who sing to each other a lot and dream of being "pinned" by hulking fraternity brothers. The brothers sing a lot too, wanna hear a song?
We are the great big, wow! Hairy-chested men, wow! Hairy-chested men!
See what I mean? Dorks. (All the songs, in Meaker's hands, develop a menacing tone; that's a nice trick.)
Dangerous dorks. I read this under the misapprehension that it was noir; it is not noir, but very bad things happen. (view spoiler)[Mitch's sisters passively arrange for her rape as punishment for her nonconformity. This is nightmarish, obviously, but I don't find it particularly unbelievable. (hide spoiler)] And there is a femme fatale of sorts. (view spoiler)[Poor weak Leda, who sacrifices Mitch to save her own social image, is a pitiful and believable betrayer. (hide spoiler)]
The story has its roots in Meaker's life, as I learned from her penetrating and self-deprecating introduction. She explored her sexuality at boarding school; (view spoiler)[a girlfriend's mother found a letter she'd written; she was punished. (hide spoiler)] The bad things that happen aren't unbelievable. It was dangerous to not conform in the 50s, and particularly dangerous to be gay. And sororities and fraternities are still extremely dangerous places.
Meaker somewhat reluctantly agreed to let Spring Fire be republished ten years ago, and I'm glad she did. It feels like an honest document: these are the feelings that gay people had to wrestle with in the '50s, and the dangers they faced. (Obviously I don't know for sure - but Meaker does, that's the point of books.) It sold 1.5 million copies when it came out, a surprise smash hit; Meaker talks about the fan mail they got from lesbians across the country who recognized their own experiences. They're all doddering old people now, and I bet they were psyched to see this back in print. I'm psyched I got to read it, too. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say it's important, but it's interesting. I like it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
"Would you forgive me if I told you I'd killed someone?" "It would depend, I guess. Why'd you do it?" "Let's say I was driving drunk twenty years ago an"Would you forgive me if I told you I'd killed someone?" "It would depend, I guess. Why'd you do it?" "Let's say I was driving drunk twenty years ago and I hit someone. A teenager! And I just drove off!" "Ugh. Maybe if you'd never drank again?" "What if it was a girlfriend and I killed her in a fit of passion?" "No, not then." "What if I was a serial killer but I only killed bad people?" "Definitely not. How would you know who was bad?" "I'd be, like, a detective." "That's dumb."
As you may have guessed, Joanne has never even seen Dexter. Google will deliver an "If you're reading this I must be" letter for you, by the way. You can tell it, "If I haven't signed in to Gmail for six months, send this letter to this person." You can also tell it to subsequently delete everything, which is useful if you are a serial killer and have been writing emails about it. Here's a link. Mine is super corny. I put serious thought into using it to deliver one last "Your mom" joke to my old roommate from college - that'd be pretty sick, right? "If you're reading this I'm in hell; your mom says hi." But I feel sure that I'll outlive him, so it would be wasted.
Here's the thing with this book: I didn't believe the ending. I didn't think Moriarty accurately depicted the way people work. In the end it was more about how she wishes people behaved - so that means I smell bullshit: proselytizing: telling you what to do. It's a bummer, because until then she'd set up a complicated situation that examined the tricky - sometimes unbearably tricky - decisions one is sometimes required to make when one is married.
Specifically: (view spoiler)[both of the husbands in this book suck. The one guy killed a lady and then forces his wife to either condone his cowardice and become an accessory, or make the moral choice for him and fuck her whole life up. The other guy had a stupid little fling and then came crawling back, and I was totally rooting for Tess to stick with that nice gym teacher. Moriarty is clear about her message: marriage is forever, stick with it for the kids, nothing is more important. She insists that's the right decision - the book is perfectly clear that its wives are noble - and I don't buy it. If she'd written a more ambiguous ending, making room for the possibility that they're making a terrible mistake from which their lives will not recover, I might have liked this book more. (hide spoiler)] But frankly I'm left feeling that I have more insight about human character than Moriarty does, and that means the book has nothing to teach me about humans. And when you have that feeling, you probably didn't like the book.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking… Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
T“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking… Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”
That's the famous mission statement from Christopher Isherwood, who steadfastly refuses to fix it - to tell you what it's all about. It's intriguing. One finds oneself naked with a younger person. Why has the person become naked? What is the person's goal? This seems unusual. It's all a little bit oblique. It's intriguing but frustrating. Does anyone know what's going on? Not to flap my hands helplessly and whine "Fix iiiiiit," but only one of us is getting paid for this.
In the middle of the last century Isherwood wrote what Edmund White called some of "the only serious, non-pornographic accounts of gay experience I came across back then." That's brave and useful from a historical perspective; it's lost the transgressive thrill now. I live in Brooklyn. I can't go to the bodega without tripping over serious, non-pornographic gay experiences and their huge fucking strollers.
Which, believe me, I realize how lovely it is that I get to be bored by all this. But - all triumphing over small-mindedness aside - we're still reading a book here, and it turns out that it's yet another one about a middle-aged white male college professor. He has oblique experiences. The book's over before it's begun. It's quiet and subtle. It's sad but still buttoned. It's quite passive. I'm not saying I want it all fixed, exactly, but this is so restrained that you can barely feel it....more
Rec'd by Susanna, Lauren and Michael Schmidt; of the so-called Big Six scifi writers, this is the one I've missed. Cecily, wanna read it with me sometRec'd by Susanna, Lauren and Michael Schmidt; of the so-called Big Six scifi writers, this is the one I've missed. Cecily, wanna read it with me sometime?...more
Stephen King says this is his favorite novelist of all time, and he never steers me wrong (except occasionally with the books he writes himself) so thStephen King says this is his favorite novelist of all time, and he never steers me wrong (except occasionally with the books he writes himself) so this seems like a safe bet....more
Say there's a bad guy. He's in a book; the book is well-written; fine, there are many books about bad guys. Say further that the book is written by aSay there's a bad guy. He's in a book; the book is well-written; fine, there are many books about bad guys. Say further that the book is written by a bad guy. Fine; lots of authors are dicks. Now say that the author is unaware that they're both bad guys. He hasn't written the book he thinks he's written. Now where are you?
A Bend in the River's Salim is a bad guy. He's a bully and a coward. He doesn't know that he's a bully and a coward, and VS Naipaul doesn't seem to know either. (view spoiler)[In the end Salim saves his own skin, abandoning his ward to violence. He seems okay with it. (hide spoiler)] There's a shocking moment towards the end of the book: (view spoiler)[he savagely beats his mistress. "The back of my hand, from little finger to wrist, was aching; bone had struck bone." She seems okay with it. She calls him later. "Do you want me to come back? The road is quite empty. I can be back in twenty minutes. Oh, Salim. I look dreadful. My face is in an awful state. I will have to hide for days."
The passage confused me because, from what I know about people, they don't like being beaten without a safeword. It confused me so much that I wanted to learn more about Naipaul. I had to know what was going through his head when he wrote this passage. I don't do this normally; I think books should be taken on their own terms. But this doesn't ring true for me. It disturbs me. What happened here?
What I found was a quote from Naipaul about his own mistress, Margaret Murray: 'I was very violent with her for two days with my hand; my hand began to hurt...she didn't mind it at all. She thought of it in terms of my passion for her. Her face was bad. She couldn't really appear in public." So this is where the passage comes from. Salim and Naipaul are the same. So this is truth, right? In its own way?
But: "She didn't mind it at all." That still doesn't seem right. It's the truth to Naipaul; is it the truth to Murray? So I kept looking, and I found a letter from her, in response to the above quote. She says, drily: "Vidia [Naipaul] says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind." (hide spoiler)]
So Naipaul is not telling the truth; he doesn't have the truth; he doesn't see the truth. He's the villain in his own story and he's incapable of realizing that he's written the villain in this one.
And why would we read a book by someone who doesn't recognize truth? It's well-written. It's a well-written book by someone who is incorrect about who he is, what the world is. He's telling two stories: one about Africa, one about people. He doesn't know about Africa; he's only visited. He's certainly a racist. He doesn't know about people, either. The situation is imaginary; he made it up to illustrate his twisted, cynical, violent view of the world.
The thing is that this is a good book. The plot is thin, and didn't engage me as much as I'd hope, but the ideas are powerful and disturbing. The writing is something like brilliant. It taught me something about a certain kind of person: the bad kind. To get into the head of someone as corrupt and as devoid of self-awareness as VS Naipaul is, that's interesting and even valuable. He has told the truth; he just doesn't know the truth he's told. Know your enemy, right? Here is the enemy.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
You cannot shape your child into what you want, says Doris Lessing: you must help him become what he is. He may not be exactly in your image - but heYou cannot shape your child into what you want, says Doris Lessing: you must help him become what he is. He may not be exactly in your image - but he will be a special snowflake in his own way. Glad to be getting more parenting tips from literature....more
I've actually only read the first story so far. I dug it pretty well. A take on Bluebeard, which is a fun story and always good for some deconstructioI've actually only read the first story so far. I dug it pretty well. A take on Bluebeard, which is a fun story and always good for some deconstruction. I didn't totally love the ending.
The whole thing seems like an excuse to work in a bunch of references to the Decadent movement, a 19th-century thing involving Gothicness and symbolism and dirty stuff. Oscar Wilde was involvedn and Baudelaire. Here are some of the ones I looked up:
she writes to Elizabeth Bowen in 1932, that the esteemed Prix Etranger award has gone to someone named Stella Gibbons. "WhoVirginia Woolf is enraged,
she writes to Elizabeth Bowen in 1932, that the esteemed Prix Etranger award has gone to someone named Stella Gibbons. "Who is she?" she asks. "What is this book?"
The Starkadders were not like most families. Life burned in them with a fiercer edge.
And when Flora Poste is flung among them in their great crouching, rotting farm, she immediately commences meddling. She aspires to write Persuasion, but she's more of an Emma herself - Emma accidentally transported to Northanger Abbey to find the Earnshaws squatting there.
There'll be no butter in hell.
But Flora is a tidy person: "Unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life. I cannot endure messes." So she promptly sets about tidying things - tidying things for Hardyan rake Seth, Pygmalion-ready Elfine, brimstone-breathing Amos, and even for poor Aunt Ada Doom (name your cat that) who saw something nasty in the woodshed, which does beg the question, has there ever been anything in a woodshed that was not nasty? Don't say wood. Leave wood in a woodshed for ten minutes and it's teeming with centipedes.
This is a very funny book. I don't know how far funny takes us. Is funny alone enough to make a book great?
And does literature have any sort of obligation to give good advice? Because no one should actually be like Flora. Flora works only in a very tidy world. In the untidy real world, people like Flora don't get invited to parties.
Gibbons is a little too pleased with herself by the end, which goes on like the last scene in Star Wars. We still have questions. Did the goat live? Will anyone ever find Graceless's leg, which fell off and no one even noticed for half a day?
To answer Virginia Woolf's question: Stella Gibbons wrote 22 books but we remember only this one, which has survived all this time because everyone just likes it very much. It has, pound for pound, the best names this side of Dickens. It's very funny and very tidy. There are worse things to give the Prix Etranger to....more