I enjoyed this. I thought the humor worked; it didn't try too hard and there were some clever moments. It's a smart book. I'm often annoyed by funny pI enjoyed this. I thought the humor worked; it didn't try too hard and there were some clever moments. It's a smart book. I'm often annoyed by funny people; I strongly dislike Christopher Lamb, who also wrote a "funny" book set in a castle, and Doug Adams doesn't really work for me anymore. So I went into this without high hopes - but it was cool, man, I dug it. The ending wasn't as satisfying as I was hoping it'd be, but it worked okay....more
I read this mostly so I could smugly say to people that I read the version of 50 Shades of Grey that was published 30 years ago and written better. (TI read this mostly so I could smugly say to people that I read the version of 50 Shades of Grey that was published 30 years ago and written better. (Than the excerpts I've read online, okay? No, I haven't read 50 Shades. I would be happy to hateread it except that by all accounts it's incredibly boring - not even trashy enough to be a decent hateread.)
The movie, of course, was legendary in middle school as the dirtiest movie anyone was aware of. (Second place goes to Weird Science.) This has caused several problems in my generation, like the idea that adding food to sex isn't gross, and a weird fetish for hats. (I don't think I was supposed to be turned on by the bowler hat scene in Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I blame the movie for the fact that I was.) The book is different. Darker, yes. Somewhat more extreme. There's no playful blindfolded eating here; instead she's chained to the dude's chair every night, blowing him while he eats dinner. Which sounds distracting.
But both the book and the movie - and 50 Shades, is my impression - draw a murky line between sex play and abuse. It's hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. John Gray (yes, he shares a last name with Christian) might be an abusive guy who happens to find someone who's into it. Or he might be escalating the brutality of their sex games because she's so into it. It's hard to tell, more in the book than the movie. That's interesting, and I liked the ambiguity.
9 1/2 Weeks is a memoir, written by a woman who was at the time an executive at Ms. magazine. In the book, she's described as a high-powered career woman, and part of the affair's attraction is the abdication of power she has every day; in the movie she's an art gallery employee, so the conflict there is removed.
In the era of Dan Savage's "everything goes if it turns you on", this book's uneasy relationship with consent is disturbing - but then, that's the thing with memoirs. When EL James makes it up for 50 Shades, it's annoying; when this lady describes an affair that happened to her, you can't really get mad at her for not agreeing on a safeword. This is a good book. It's super hot, which one can't say about many books - I mean, not always - that cross-dressing bit is no less weird here than in the movie - but certainly a lot of the time. It's well-written and it raises some interesting questions. It's like 50 Shades but written 30 years ago. And better.
"The pills are good for nothing," fumes the heroic hypochondriac Bramble in one of your better opening sentences, and we're off on a picaresque tour o"The pills are good for nothing," fumes the heroic hypochondriac Bramble in one of your better opening sentences, and we're off on a picaresque tour of all the cliches of the 1700s and 1800s. Featuring such greatest hits as:
- Casual anti-Semitism, racism, sexism and classism! - Ridiculous coincidences! - People who turn out to be of higher birth than they seem! - Duels! - Fainting!
It was influential to writers of the 1800s and especially influential to Dickens, whose alter ego David Copperfield at one point lists his favorite literary characters and most of them are from Smollett. You can see the influence: Smollett has a flair for caricatures, although Dickens has more of one.
It's an epistolary - of course it's an epistolary - and Smollett uses that structure to show the same events from several different points of view. That's a cool idea, but Smollett can't execute it well enough to keep it interesting. The maid, for example, has one joke: the misuse of words like "suppository" to dirty effect. It gets old even to a 13-year-old like me.
And yet it's all sortof likable. Don Quixote shows up, or close enough. And there's this, from a quack doctor: "Every person who pretended to nauseate the smell of another's excretions, snuffed up his own with particular complacency." So that's maybe the first recorded instance of the maxim that everyone likes the smell of their own shit. It's not great, really, but it's pleasant.
Clinker himself is a minor character, introduced late, which confused me enough that I had to stop 20% through and confirm I was reading the right book. The major characters are;
- Mr. Bramble, the hypochondriac from above; - His sister Tabitha Bramble, fast becoming a spinster of no return and desperate to marry; - Her maid Winifred Jenkins, she of the one joke; - The Bramble nephew Jery Melford, a pleasant buy rowdy young man; - His sister Lydia, who's fallen in love with some dude or other.
They ramble around the Island, especially Scotland, which the Scottish Smollett would like to tell you all about, and then guess what happens in the end? (view spoiler)[Everyone gets married, because of course they do: Lydia to her original suitor, who turns out to be of noble birth; Tabitha to the Quixoteesque guy; Winifred to Humphry himself, who turns out to be Bramble's bastard son because why not. (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"]>...more
"A ghost," sniffs Clara Reeve, "must keep within certain limits of credibility."
She's complaining about The Castle of Otranto (1764), the original Go"A ghost," sniffs Clara Reeve, "must keep within certain limits of credibility."
She's complaining about The Castle of Otranto (1764), the original Gothic novel. Giant death helmets and moving paintings, she argues, "instead of attention, excite laughter." Which is true, and Castle of Otranto is silly - but it's also entertaining, unlike The Old English Baron (1778).
The story in this slim and forgettable book is a watered-down Hamlet. Ghosts cry out for vengeance; etc. Along the way we hit many of the standard Gothic tropes, which means that it's time for
One Drink - Fainting - Creepy noises - Nasty weather - Impenetrably ornate sentences - Eyes are scary
Two Drinks - A suit of armor makes an appearance without someone in it ---- +1 and falls over, making a racket - Sinister paintings (lockets acceptable) - A lady is in her nightgown - Virginity is threatened
Three Drinks - An "irruption of poems" (h/t Schmidt for phrasing) - It's an epistolary Characters - Someone could be described as "Byronic" - Surprise relative! ----- +1 almost incest ----- +2 actual incest - relative turns out to be a villain - There is a monster or ghost ---- +1 monster turns out to be villainous relative (the "Scooby Doo Bonus") Setting - There is a castle ---- +1 castle is from Gothic period ---- +1 castle is busted ---- +1 castle is in isolated location ---- +1 castle is cursed ---- +2 castle has secret passageways and/or forbidden wing
So. The first three quarters of the book will get you drunk as fuck, and it's fine. It's not bad. It's not really much of anything, to be honest. Unfortunately by the time you get through the last quarter you'll be hung over, because it's just everyone endlessly congratulating each other on figuring everything out. (A la the last third of Pamela, a book Reeve admired.) It's almost as boring as Mysteries of Udolpho, which also deals in sober, credible ghosts, and is also lame.
So here's the thing: if you didn't want to be silly, you shouldn't have written a Gothic. Give the choice between credibility and silliness, I'll take The Monk....more
This slim book by a famous Japanese author, currently being adapted into a movie by Scorsese starring the dude from Girls, is about a missionary sentThis slim book by a famous Japanese author, currently being adapted into a movie by Scorsese starring the dude from Girls, is about a missionary sent to Japan in the 1600s. Christians were terribly persecuted back then; it was called the time of "Kakure Kirishitan", or Hidden Christians. Christians were forced to trample on the image of Jesus (called a fumie) or they were horribly tortured to death.
And the thread of torture and death hangs over every page, so this is a tough book to read. It brings up deep questions about faith and doubt and God in general: what is the price of faith, and what does martyrdom mean? Is it more religious to stick to one's faith - to refuse to apostatize, or trample on the fumie? Or are there circumstances in which the most religious act is to apostatize? Father Rodrigues spends much of the book wondering whether he'll have the strength to resist torture. But in the end, (view spoiler)[he is never tortured; instead, Japanese Christians are tortured until he apostatizes. Which, of course, he does immediately, because what price is his own pride compared to the slow death of those who never signed on for a trial like this? After all his steeling himself for trials to come, his decision in the end is quick and...well, easy might not be the right word, but it's barely a decision at all. (hide spoiler)]
I'm not a fan of books that preach to me, but this isn't a preachy book. It never asks me to believe, myself; it's just about what it means for those who do. I thought it was terrific.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
In 1831 Nat Turner led the largest slave uprising in American history, murdering 60 white men, women and children with a mob of slaves in Virginia. SoIn 1831 Nat Turner led the largest slave uprising in American history, murdering 60 white men, women and children with a mob of slaves in Virginia. Some dude went and interviewed him in prison, and this claims to be his first-person account of his life and revolt.
The motives of the dude - a white slaveowner named Thomas Ruffin Gray - have been questioned quite a bit, as has the authenticity of the whole thing. There were a bunch of witnesses to the confession, but of course none who were sympathetic to Nat Turner's mission to murder all their babies. I like this piece about the Confessions. (Like any discussion of this primary source, it gets a bit wrapped up in Styron's Pulitzer-winning 1967 The Confessions of Nat Turner.) We're unlikely to get a definitive answer about this, but the tendency has been to more or less take this at its word. It feels to me like Gray has written down what Turner told him. (Along with a few "Holy shit!"-style asides.)
Turner, who taught himself to read at a young age and comes off as highly intelligent, claims that God communicates with him and ordered him to fight; what he describes matches pretty well with schizophrenia.
On the other hand, it also matches pretty well with God. "Go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child," He tells Samuel in 15:3-4. When asked, "Do you not find yourself mistaken now?" Turner answers, "Was not Christ crucified. And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work." Only God knows the difference between a prophet and a schizophrenic.
Most of Turner's confession is a step-by-step, almost laconic description of the revolt itself. "Twas my object to carry terror and devastation wherever we went," he helpfully explains. As he goes he picks up a crowd of slaves, sometimes drunk, who (according to him) carried out most of the bloody work: "I sometimes got in sight in time to see the work of death completed, viewed the mangled bodies as they lay, in silent satisfaction, and immediately started in quest of other victims."
It's disturbing stuff. Worth reading? Sure, yeah; it's certainly not boring, and it's very short. As a (probably) primary source about the effects and events of slavery, it's interesting.
These actions are of course terrible, but then so is the institution of slavery that inspired them; they were technically a response in kind, so if you believe in an eye for an eye, you should have no problem with Nat Turner. It seems to me like we have to judge slavery first, and Turner's response to it second. History has decided that Turner's rebellion was a bad idea: it led directly to the murder of 200 slaves and the passage of new, even more restrictive laws prohibiting education and assembly, among other things. John Brown's rebellion in 1860, on the other hand, is given credit as a spark for the Civil War. And I don't know, certainly Brown's timing was more fortuitous and it's nice that he didn't murder any babies, but in general I'd say that both events were a natural, predictable result of slavery. Turner pleaded not guilty to his charges, "saying to his counsel, that he did not feel so." Fair enough....more
I wanted a book about the Underground Railroad; here's the book my research led me to, and I'm glad it did. I had a pretty murky understanding of whatI wanted a book about the Underground Railroad; here's the book my research led me to, and I'm glad it did. I had a pretty murky understanding of what the whole thing was about - like, Harriet Tubman and a bunch of underground tunnels? Now I know better.
Here are all the stories you know: Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Solomon Northup (the Twelve Years a Slave guy), John Brown. The slave escape that inspired Uncle Tom's Cabin and the story that inspired Beloved.
Here also are important figures I didn't know about: - Isaac Hopper, who with other Quakers in the early 1800s "became what can fairly be described as the first operating cell of the abolitionist underground." - Levi Coffin, another Quaker (there were lots of Quakers! Go Quakers!) known as "The President of the Underground Railroad'; - Josiah Henson, an escaped slave who founded a Canadian settlement for other escapees; - Anthony Benezet, who started a black school in 1750 and 'helped convert Benjamin Franklin and others to aboltionism, by demonstrating that his students were capable of the same level of achievement as whites." - Jermain Loguen,an escaped slave who became a popular preacher - William Lloyd Garrison, whose fierce Boston-based paper the Liberator was an important abolitionist resource
There are a ton of exciting stories about the Railroad - of course there are - and an awful lot of them are in this book. I totally dug reading it - even with its fairly frequent lapses into breathless, purpleish prose - and I learned everything I wanted to.
Random other quotes "The British colonies of North America and the United States imported only about 6 percent of the between 10 and 11 million slaves that were brought from Africa."
"From the earliest days of settlement, at least some colonists had equivocal feelings about slavery. In 1641 Massachusetts forbade slavery."
Philadelphia was the early center of the underground railroad, and Quakers were early pioneers: around 1800, "in the cobbled lanes of Philadelphia, fugitive slaves, free blacks, and white Quakers were discovering one another, and recognizing one another as allies in the struggle that was to come."
John Brown is a problem. He represented the extreme but correct response to slavery times: he just dropped everything and said "Well, that's awful andJohn Brown is a problem. He represented the extreme but correct response to slavery times: he just dropped everything and said "Well, that's awful and I'm going to murder everyone who does it," and then he did nothing but that for the rest of his life. So that's great...ish, but he was so bad at it! And plus he was white, and white heroes fighting racism make us feel squidgy.
And besides which, check him out:
Lookit that fuckin guy, right? He looks like Yosemite Sam! And that's how he's described in James McBride's National Book Award winning...what is this, a satire? Is it a slave comedy where our narrator wears a silly dress, John Brown is a loony old coot, and Frederick Douglass is a drunk perv? Yeah, more or less it is. Makes it a weird pair with the also-lauded The Known World: that book seems true but isn't, and this one seems totally made up but is in fact, as far as I can tell from a little research, pretty fair accurate.
And it's incredibly entertaining. "The hard part about writing about a guy like John Brown," says McBride - also btw the author of The Color of Water, which you maybe read freshman year in college - "is that he was so serious, and his cause was so serious, that most of what's been written about him is really serious and, in my opinion, a little bit boring." And you're like yeah, man, I thought Cloudsplitter was boring too. So here's McBride's antidote, and maybe watching a shitfaced Frederick Douglass chase a cross-dressed teenager around the room is a little too "quit fucking my sacred cow" for you, it was a little for me, but at least it isn't boring.
McBride is kidding but not kidding, because he's trying to solve this John Brown problem. Why didn't Douglass show up for John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry? Where was Harriet Tubman? Why was this crazy old white coot the only one who said well fuck it, I'm gonna start shootin' people?
I mean, look, the answer was that he totally wasn't. There were like 250 slave revolts, many of which were way bigger than John Brown's pathetic band of starving psychos. Brown's timing and his flair for drama were terrific, but Nat Turner was the original bloody martyr. But McBride likes John Brown. He wants him heroized. Brown is also famous, he points out, because his plan, suicidally stupid as it was, lacked nothing for ambition. Brown was a total failure at running a war, but he was amazing at getting his ass martyred.
And that's pretty great, especially if you're crazy. John Brown is the answer to moral relativity, which is how old people explain why they like Gone With The Wind. "People were different back then!" they say. "It looks awful now, sure, but that's just how everyone did it; folks didn't know any better." And here's John Brown, who was like slavery?! Well, we can't have that, let's go shoot everyone. It's only domestic terrorism if you're wrong.
John Brown was serious business, but he certainly wasn't boring. This book is the same, and I loved it....more
An homage to Lovecraft and Mary Shelley at once, this book has one great image - Lovecraft by way of Stephen King, which is as effective as you'd thinAn homage to Lovecraft and Mary Shelley at once, this book has one great image - Lovecraft by way of Stephen King, which is as effective as you'd think it'd be - and a lot of boring parts. King's been trying to reinvent himself as a not-entirely-horror guy for over a decade now; it's more or less working, but I think he's at his best when he's squishing through the muck in the back of our minds, just because he's so fearless about how deep he goes. Beyond that willingness to plumb the depths, he's an average novelist at best. Revival makes that especially clear, because, again, that one image is super crazy, but you get so little of it. The rest of the time you're like yeah, I'm turning the pages, sure - King can always do that - but I'm not really respecting what we're doing here....more
My question of the morning was, are there any black novels at all from the 1800s? And the answer is yes! Here they are, or anyway the three I found meMy question of the morning was, are there any black novels at all from the 1800s? And the answer is yes! Here they are, or anyway the three I found mentioned first. That and The Bondwoman's Narrative.
Remember the episode where they make a time capsule and Leslie Knope writes a book for it? Here is that book, and if "remember that episode when..." iRemember the episode where they make a time capsule and Leslie Knope writes a book for it? Here is that book, and if "remember that episode when..." is your favorite game, this is the book for you. Or, if you see it on the sidewalk and somehow recognize Leslie Knope just from her blazer, because the rest of it is covered by trash, then probably that's a sign that this is, if not the, at least a book for you. It's entertaining enough. But it's sortof made to be found in your uncle's bathroom, which is a problem because Leslie specifically asks you not to leave it in a bathroom, because she says she worked really hard on it and your bathroom is gross. I don't think she actually worked very hard on it though. Except for the Zorp part, which seems like maybe an intern spent all night smoking weed and thinking really hard about that and came in all haggard the next morning like "I wrote this...thing?" and everyone was like hey, actually that's pretty funny. Anyway, it's been kicking around our house for a week or so and I've been flipping through it during breakfast and I have no problem with it. But you should probably not pay actual money for it because it's printed on phone book paper.
ps if your reaction to this book is "episode of what?" then you do not need this book....more
In Cold Blood kicked off two genres of novels all by itself: true crime and new journalism. All you people who got hooked on Serial recently, you canIn Cold Blood kicked off two genres of novels all by itself: true crime and new journalism. All you people who got hooked on Serial recently, you can thank Truman Capote. New journalism wouldn't be called that for twelve years, but it was Capote who invented it in 1965:
I've always had the theory that reportage is the great unexplored art form... I've had this theory that a factual piece of work could explore whole new dimensions in writing that would have a double effect fiction does not have—the every fact of its being true, every word of its true, would add a double contribution of strength and impact.
He referred to it as a nonfiction novel; Tom Wolfe would pick it up with the terrific Executioner's Song is basically just a really long version of In Cold Blood.
I thought Executioner's Song could have used an editor at the time, but I sure got right into Gary Gilmore's head; this shorter story is tighter and cleaner but it does end up losing some of the epic tragic feel ES had. But, I mean, it's extremely good. It's a ripping read; I mean, it's a pretty neat trick, getting to read about lurid murders and calling it literature. Sweet! ...more
This dude somehow managed to get his book edited* by his actual torturers, and that's the most creative metafictional gambit I've ever seen. Suck it,This dude somehow managed to get his book edited* by his actual torturers, and that's the most creative metafictional gambit I've ever seen. Suck it, Flann O'Brien.
* I guess we call it "redacted" when it's CIA, whatever...more
Daniel Defoe, the popular 1700s smut peddler, is back with another sexy story about sexy sluts having sex - and this one might be his dirtiest yet! RoDaniel Defoe, the popular 1700s smut peddler, is back with another sexy story about sexy sluts having sex - and this one might be his dirtiest yet! Roxana offers her maid up for sexual purposes to her lover! She dresses like a harem slave and puts on sexy little dance numbers! It's not as dirty as famed 1750 porno Fanny Hill, but it's not so far off.
Defoe likes to put his characters in desperate straits. He's most famous for the one about the castaway, but his two next-most-famous books use the word "whore" a lot, and that's enough for a pattern for me: these books were meant to titillate, and it's fair to think of Defoe as a guy who wrote dirty books. He gets away with the racy stuff by creating those desperate straits, forcing his characters to make difficult decisions, and then clucking his tongue over it a lot, a tradition that extends all the way down to the Friday the 13th movies and their beloved habit of showing teenagers having premarital sex and then getting chopped up.
He's also a pedant. If his books are distinguished by the exigencies they put their protagonists into, they're also consistent in their meticulous records. Crusoe made lists of all the supplies on his island. Roxana goes through her finances with you, in to-the-dollar detail, over and over. This too is a tradition, extending through Balzac and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. It sounds boring, but if you want to understand how money worked in the 1700s, here's your big chance. You don't, of course, so it's mostly boring.
Virginia Woolf says that Defoe "seems to have taken his characters so deeply into his mind that he lived them without knowing exactly how, and, like all unconscious artists, he leaves more gold in his work than his own generation was able to bring to the surface." It feels like to me like his characters escape him: they're more than who he thinks they are. (Or, at least, there's enough life in them to become more with time.) Robinson Crusoe is a lunatic. Moll Flanders is almost a feminist.
And Roxana...well, Roxana is complicated. "Seeing liberty seemed to be the man's property, I would be a man-woman, for, as I was born free, I would die so," she says, and that's pretty awesome, right? She insists on independence. Her refusal to marry her series of companions seems triumphant to a modern reader. She reminds me of the mighty Becky Sharp, who similarly escapes her author and is punished by him for it, or despite it.
But punished she is, and Roxana doesn't translate as well for we modern readers as Moll Flanders does. She's a sort of accidental unreliable narrator. She sounds convincingly kind, but she's terribly cruel to her children. I like her; I find it hard to reconcile the woman who seems constantly aware of and concerned about the feelings of others to the woman who drops a trail of abandoned children behind her like a harp seal. This is probably Defoe's fault; he tries harder to get into Roxana's head, to describe her motivation and personality, than he ever did with Moll or Robinson, and he mucks it up a bit. She just fails to come across as a consistent, believable human. This is the most psychological of Defoe's novels, and it exposes his weakness.
On the plus side, though, there are some sexy parts....more