The Stepford Wives are one of the great metaphors, up there with Hester Prynne's letter and Carrie's telekinesis; you probably know the idea even if yThe Stepford Wives are one of the great metaphors, up there with Hester Prynne's letter and Carrie's telekinesis; you probably know the idea even if you've never read the book or seen the movie you didn't even know was based on a book. Suburban ladies are suspiciously good housekeepers, is what it boils down to. And not only are the housewives of Stepford wicked into dusting, they have a tendency to give up all other interests - art, tennis, Betty Friedan - about four months into residence there.
For those of us who have had great friends who suddenly got pregnant, moved to the suburbs, and started interrupting poker night at 9:30 after two beers, this explains a lot. (Ira Levin wrote Rosemary's Baby too, by the way, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. Here's a guy who doesn't like neighbors.) Levin puts it all together well and it has a great (if inevitable) ending. There are a few totally bizarre, context-free allusions to gimp suits. (One assumes he was hinting at another advantage to Stepfordization, but he lacks the courage or foolhardiness to get into it.) The writing is competent at best; it reminded me occasionally of its near-contemporary Naked Came the Stranger, which is not a good thing. But I had a good time.
The intro by Chuck Palahniuk contains all the spoilers and is totally unnecessary anyway; it's basically a book report....more
Mr. Polly is an average little man - somewhat ruined by chronic literature abuse, but more of a Sancho than a knight. When he tries on a quixotic suit, he realizes quickly that he's more schoolgirl prank (by another of Wells' underage vixens; the man did like them young) than hero. Chastened, he shuffles into a marriage and an unprofitable business. This all takes up about three quarters of the book, and it's fitfully entertaining - the wedding is pretty funny - but I wasn't engaged. It's episodic and meandering; Polly's malapropisms aren't as funny as everyone thinks they are; and the complete scorn for Mrs. Polly feels misogynist.
The last quarter changes its tone considerably, and at least it's more exciting. There's a great cracking action scene, and then another one that doesn't really work with the flow of the book but is way more entertaining than the rest of the book so who really cares. A good around-the-house chase is never amiss. And in the end, (view spoiler)[Mr. Polly escapes the shackles of conventional society - marriage and business - and settles into an idyllic, pastoral life. (hide spoiler)]
It's fine. I was sometimes amused. I like the science fiction better.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It's a killer idea and Megan Abbott, who rose to fame as a straight noir writer, makes it as entertaining as it ought to be. All these bouncing, dead-eyed ponytails, high on eating disorders and Adderall, turn out to be perfect for noir.
Us hard little pretty things, brightly laquered and sequin-studded...these glitters and sparkle dusts and magicks? It's war paint, it's feathers and claws, it's blood sacrifice.
As you may have gathered from that quote, this isn't a book that will withstand being taken too seriously. Sure, it's a gender-flipped Beyond the Chocolate War. Fuck it, it's a trans Matterhorn, why not? (Abbott is afraid you might miss the soldier parallel, so she'll remind you about it like a hundred times.) Best frenemy Beth thinks she's in a deeper story as well, constantly quoting 16th century Italian poets and Nietzche and The Wire. But it's basically killer cheerleaders, and you'll have a better time if you leave it at that.
Abbott wobbles a little bit on the landing, but by that time you've had so much fun for so long that you barely care. The movie's already in development - Natalie Portman's apparently on as Coach French - which of course it is, it's pure money. (And btw it's so completely girl-focused that it might fail a reverse Bechdel test.) These happy few, this band of bitches, you could do worse than spending a few days in their shark-toothed company....more
Of all the major writers in the canon, DH Lawrence is the horniest. Lots of people write about sex, but Lawrence writes exclusively about it, entirelyOf all the major writers in the canon, DH Lawrence is the horniest. Lots of people write about sex, but Lawrence writes exclusively about it, entirely about it. He's consumed by sex. Sex motivates everything that happens in his world. It can draw people together like in Lady Chatterley's Lover, or drive people apart. (Its energy in Sons and Lovers is not super positive.)
He thinks there's real communication to be had about what sex is like and why. He wants to talk about how sometimes it's not as fun for the woman, and how one might help change that. He wants to discuss how sometimes it gets boring and then you have it in public just to spice it up. And he wants to talk about how sometimes you want to fuck your mom, which brings us to Sons and Lovers.
Paul Morel wants to fuck his mom so bad it ruins every relationship in his life. Everyone can see it. His dad, catching them at a "long, fervent kiss" late in the kitchen, nearly fights him for it. The two women in his life - passive Miriam who says "Yes," and Clara of the body - both know that they're competing with his mother and that they can't win. They're both willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of his overwhelming horniness - "Let me be the sheath to you," says Miriam hopefully - but it's not enough.
And this is, by the way, Lawrence's autobiographical novel. He told Jessie Chambers, the real-life Miriam, "I've loved [my mom], like a lover. That's why I could never love you." Nice, DH.
For context, here we are near the beginning of the century. Here are prudish Virginia Woolf and shitting, twitching James Joyce, careening into modernism, changing the face of literature - and Lawrence, this son of a coalminer, off on the side doing something totally different: writing about sex, over and over, with a persistent urgency that's just as radical. It's not that it's dirtier; Ulysses is dirtier. It's that it's more serious. Joyce is doing it to shock you. Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer (1934) was only a little after Lady Chatterley (1928), is much more shocking - but Miller isn't writing about sex, he's just jerking off while mumbling to himself. Lawrence isn't dirty, or at least not consistently (Lady Chatterley has its moments), but he's erotic. He's horny. That scene where he comes downstairs late at night to find a certain someone "kneeling naked on a pile of white underclothing on the hearthrug, her back towards him, warming herself" - that's, I mean, it's hot stuff.
Also it comes right after a scene where Paul (view spoiler)[stealthily tries on a lady's stockings, (hide spoiler)] btw, which comes so unexplained that you're like yeah, that part is definitely autobiographical. (That scene was cut from the original edition, so that's a good way to tell if you're reading the unexpurgated version or not. The original cuts - around 10% - also trimmed out much of the stuff about William at the beginning, which probably improved the flow of the book.)
Lawrence's debt is to Hardy, who also wrote about sex but who was not as horny. They share a knack for vivid scenes; Hardy gives us, for example, swordplay in the ferny glen from Far From the Madding Crowd, and Lawrence delivers Clara and Paul slipping down a rain-soaked cliff of slippery red clay, slick with and stuck in the vermilion mud.
Her shoes were clogged with red earth. It was hard for her. He frowned. At last he caught her hand, and she stood beside him. The cliff rose above them and fell away below. Her colour was up, her eyes flashed. He looked at the big drop below them.
"It's risky," he said, "or messy, at any rate."
That it is, and here's a great book about it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
She thinks sometimes, can't help thinking, of those cans of peanuts sold in novelty shops, the ones with the pape
Here's what heterosexual sex is like:
She thinks sometimes, can't help thinking, of those cans of peanuts sold in novelty shops, the ones with the paper snakes waiting to pop out when the lids are opened. There will be no reading tonight.
There will be no heterosexual sex in this novel, in which all the main characters will at least consider suicide and also make out with other girls. At one point Virginia Woolf makes out with her sister, which I'm not sure that really happened.
There are three thematically linked stories here, each spanning a single day. The first stars Virginia Woolf herself as she begins one of her best books, Mrs. Dalloway. The second focuses on a woman named Clarissa in 2001 as she plans her own party, very loosely mirroring the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. (Her friend Richard, veteran of a different kind of war, sits in for Septimus.) And the third, smallest and in some way scariest one stars a pregnant Mrs. Brown in the 50s as she reads Mrs. Dalloway in a shitty hotel room.
It's a wonderful book: perfectly planned and executed, exceptionally written, engaging to read and very moving. Cunningham has totally knocked this out of the park, and you can see why it won a Pulitzer. It joins The Master on my list of weird brilliant semi-fictionalized metafictional books starring other authors.
You should read Mrs. Dalloway before this. The Hours contains major spoilers for Mrs. Dalloway, and anyway you should just read Dalloway in general, it's fuckin' awesome....more
"Oranges is an experimental novel," says Jeanette Winterson in her thoroughly obnoxious introduction: "its interests are anti-linear...You can read in"Oranges is an experimental novel," says Jeanette Winterson in her thoroughly obnoxious introduction: "its interests are anti-linear...You can read in spirals." It's nothing of the sort. It's a standard semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, interspersed with some sort of Arthurian malarkey.
Coming out stories from the 80s and 90s aren't aging terribly well; they're too specifically grounded in that period. David Sedaris is a little wincey in hindsight, too. But this one from 1985 is fine as they go. The conflict between the protagonist's burgeoning gayness and her evangelist nutjob mother / all her friends / own beliefs offers plenty of easy jokes and drama. I didn't always fully buy it; some of the moments that should have been most affecting, either happy or awful, seemed to not quite land their punches. But I was engaged.
The Arthurian stuff is very lame. Obvious, immature, trying too hard. Winterson's trying to make her protagonist's journey into her sexuality into a knight's quest, all mythic and metaphorical, and it's silly. It reads like a college student's first shot at writing, which is more or less what it is.
And then that intro! My, Winterson does take herself seriously! "Oranges is a threatening novel," she says, slopping mortar on her own edifice. "It dares to suggest that what makes life difficult for homosexuals is not their perversity but other people's." Again, this is badly dated but one tries to give it the benefit of its time. But then - "Worse, it does these things with such humor and lightness that those disposed not to agree find that they do." The whole intro is like this, embarrassingly self-aggrandizing. Her emperor was skimpily dressed already. To see it through her eyes, to realize that she sees it all in shining armor...well, now she's gone and made it naked....more
Virginia Woolf has a thing about sea lions. Here's Mr. Ramsay leaving the porch:
with a movement which oddly reminded his wife of the great sea lion a
Virginia Woolf has a thing about sea lions. Here's Mr. Ramsay leaving the porch:
with a movement which oddly reminded his wife of the great sea lion at the Zoo tumbling backwards after swallowing his fish and walloping off so that the water in the tank washes from side to side, he dived into the evening air.
She does it in Mrs. Dalloway, too, describing Lady Bradshaw "balancing like a sea-lion at the edge of its tank, barking for invitations." She returns to this image because sea lions are funny.
So here she is again, wry and "alone in the presence of her old antagonist, life." Life - "terrible, hostile, and quick to pounce on you if you gave it a chance." To the Lighthouse is her most autobiographical novel; her mother, like Mrs. Ramsay, was apparently super hot, and her father a mediocre intellectual, and they spent summers in this house. And there were lots of kids. She's left some of the darker parts out.
She likes parties, Woolf does, and the climax in this book is the triumphant dinner party closing Part I where for a night everyone is part of something, even Lily Briscoe, the self-doubting artist who's closest to our stand-in for Woolf herself. From there it takes a jarring leap through a decade, in a passage that's sometimes gorgeous, describing the passage of time and decay of times;
how once the looking glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, the door opened, in came children rushing and tumbling, and went out again.
and sometimes a little overwritten - at one point we're "despairing yet loth to go (for beauty offers her lures, has her consolations)," and you're like wtf "loth," shut up Shakespeare - and I don't love Part II. You can hear the gears grinding. But it's short, and worth it for Part III, during which we find out whether we'll get to the lighthouse, and along the way "picked up used & tossed aside all the images & symbols I had created," because Woolf is a very tight writer, and she knows exactly what she's doing.
You get this peculiarly Woolfian feel from her books. They are funny, and joyous too: you feel that she thinks life is beautiful. But you also feel that it's not for her. She admires it, but she can't really do it. She's generous, I think; she sees beauty and she can put it into her books. But she doesn't keep it for herself. Eventually, she'll be off into the water with rocks in her pockets and she'll leave it with you. But, I mean, thanks, Woolf. I got it....more
I own this dish towel because I like the story, but also because I love imagining the other people who own it. Women, maybe, whose husbands will never
I own this dish towel because I like the story, but also because I love imagining the other people who own it. Women, maybe, whose husbands will never read their dishtowels, or wonder what the context might be of that whisper: "Free, free, free!"
The context is they're imagining you dead, husbands.
This is the most subversive dish towel I'm aware of....more
Bear with me: when I watched the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven I felt like Eastwood was ending an entire genre. This is tired, said Clint, its beatsBear with me: when I watched the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven I felt like Eastwood was ending an entire genre. This is tired, said Clint, its beats are tired, its cliches are tired, there's nothing more for it to say, I'm gonna give you one last great Western and that's enough, okay? And the movie had such overwhelming eulogic power that it almost succeeded.
(It didn't, of course, but it was years before anyone dared to make another one.)
And I got the same feeling from The Awakening. I felt that it was hammering the nails into the coffin of a genre - the genre of novels that end the way Awakening ends, which is sortof a startling lot of books. With this mixture of irritation and love - "I'm sick to death of this stupid story" but also, "And here's one more great story." That to me is its brilliance: it tells a familiar story, but it's simultaneously furious at the very story it's telling, at the world it's telling it in, and when it ends it intends not to end this specific story but this entire story, the telling of this story, the existence of it.
It didn't work either. But A for effort! We all got it coming, kid....more
Graham Greene sometimes categorized his own novels. He drew a line between the "Entertainments" like Stamboul Train and The Third Man (none of which IGraham Greene sometimes categorized his own novels. He drew a line between the "Entertainments" like Stamboul Train and The Third Man (none of which I've read) and the more serious "Novels." You could break it down further: he wrote some political novels like the Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, and a number of religious (Catholic) ones like Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock. And Heart of the Matter and End of the Affair are probably about emotions or whatever, I haven't read them yet.
But they're all entertainment, is the thing with Greene. No matter what weighty matters he is or isn't tackling, there's always thrill, drama, plot. He was influenced heavily by Henry James, whom he called "as solitary in the history of the novel as Shakespeare in the history or poetry," but he'll never be accused of whacking off into a tissue, as James can be - a lot of flustering about and not much done.
So Brighton Rock is about salvation, good and evil, hope - heavy shit. Brighton Rock is candy, like this:
"Bite it all the way down, you'll still read Brighton," says Big Blonde Ida. And is the Boy rotten all the way through? And is poor Rose, who "belonged to him like a room or a chair," doomed? And whose face will Chekhov's vitriol end up on? (Vitriol is sulphuric acid. I had to look it up.)
But it can be enjoyed as a pure thriller, too: The Boy is an ambitious teenage gang leader who finds himself in the middle of an escalating conflict, driven to increasingly desperate measures to cover up the previous desperate measures. Murder - and worse yet, marriage, which means, "The truth came home to him with horror that he had got to keep her love for a lifetime." Yikes, right?
This is my favorite kind of book: it's cracking entertainment, and it comes with human insight as a sort of door prize if you want it. And that's why Graham Greene is one of my favorite writers. ...more
Marilynne Robinson shrugged and thought "Maybe I'll write a book" and then just did it, in longhand, and then she showed it to her friends who lost thMarilynne Robinson shrugged and thought "Maybe I'll write a book" and then just did it, in longhand, and then she showed it to her friends who lost their minds, and one of them was an author whose agent pounced on it and she got a call, like, "This is brilliant, get ready to be famous," and she was like "Oh, okay."
The deep woods are as dark and stiff and as full of their own odors as the parlor of an old house. We would walk among those great legs, hearing the enthralled and incessant murmurings far above our heads, like children at a funeral.
I wonder how many struggling would-be novelists have read those sentences and just given up. Hopefully enough. “Here’s a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life, waiting for it to form itself,” said the Times instantly. It was nominated for the Pulitzer. It was 25 years before Robinson felt like writing another book.
She's compared to Melville. "I thought that if I could write a book that had only female characters that men understood and liked, then I had every right to like Moby-Dick," she says, and it's hard to find a piece about Robinson that doesn't mention Melville too. This is not because of her symbolism; although housekeeping is a symbol here, it doesn't have the smashing originality or unsubtlety that the Whale does. It's because it's about faith, which is alive and vital to Robinson the way it is to Melville. People who care this urgently are apt to sound radical about it:
In the newness of the world God was a young man, and grew indignant over the slightest things. In the newness of the world God had perhaps not Himself realized the ramifications of certain of His laws, for example, that shock will spend itself in waves; that our images will mimic every gesture, and that shattered they will multiply and mimic every gesture ten, a hundred, or a thousand times.
This isn't dogma; it's actual God, from a person who believes that the Bible is an actual thing. "It must mean something," Robinson says, "and I'm going to find out what." I'm an atheist, so I think the first statement is false, but I find her efforts awe-inspiring.
When you talk about Robinson you talk about Melville, and Emerson and Thoreau thanks to her gorgeous relationship with nature, as quoted above, or the abandoned house in the cleft of the valley. Shirley Jackson doesn't come up as much, which seems odd because We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems like an obvious comparison. They're about houses and outcasts, and also they're both totally kickass....more
There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sac
There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct...the other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community.
Koestler believes in socialism; his question is, if achieving socialism means torturing and murdering a few people, do we throw out the people or socialism? The answer is easy if you ask the people, and here's a book from the people.
It seems like an easy question regardless to me: any system which forces us to ask it is necessarily corrupt. Koestler seems to believe that too: "One cannot build Paradise with concrete," his protagonist says: "No. 1's [Stalin's] regime had besmirched the ideal of the Social state even as some Mediaeval Popes had besmirched the ideal of a Christian Empire."
But as we know, the debate is still alive and thriving today: I followed this book with Guantanamo Diary, which is about exactly the same thing. Once again, a person is tortured for the sake of a system; there are Americans with waterboards who believe that the ends justify the means. Am I comparing post-9/11 America to Stalinist Russia? Yes. How could we not?
The book itself is terrific stuff. Exciting to read and very smart. Midway through, prisoners learn from their coded tapping communication system that someone is shortly to be executed, and they create a drumroll by banging on their doors with their fists as he's dragged down the hall, their only way to acknowledge him. I don't want to get too flowery here, but I don't think I've ever read a scene more powerful.
But speaking of drumrolls, can we talk about the ending? (view spoiler)[It has this perfect, perfect ending: "Rubahov broke off his pacing and listened. The sound of muffled drumming came down the corridor." I got chills all over again, re-reading it just now. But then: it turns out that's not the end at all; there's a whole nother chapter that totally doesn't need to be there. Bummer! Do you like that last chapter? I think he shoulda quit with the drumming. (hide spoiler)]
This is an overwhelming asskicking of a book, one of my favorite reads in recent memory. The answer is that the ends do not justify the means, and if you have to ask the question, you are no longer the good guy.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
No one describes the American West better than Willa Cather. "The grass was the country," she says, "As the water is the sea. The red of the grass madNo one describes the American West better than Willa Cather. "The grass was the country," she says, "As the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of winestains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. and And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running."
There's a lot of running in this beautiful book - running towards or away from that country as its characters try to escape its toil and monotony. That's the action of the plot: who will escape? I was surprised by the answer. There's all this foreshadowing, right? (view spoiler)[Pavel and Peter throw newlyweds to the wolves. A hobo dives into the thresher. There are three suicides in the course of the story: Mr. Shimerda (probably), the hobo, Mr. Cutter who takes his wife with him. Death seems everywhere and I thought for sure it was coming for Ántonia. I liked the ending in all its antidrama: nothing happens. She doesn't escape, she doesn't die; she marries a nice guy and has a bunch of kids and she seems happy. The story plummets into sentimentality here, though, and it was laid on a bit thick. But what to make of the wolves? Are they to make us understand how uncertain Ántonia's happy ending is? (hide spoiler)]
There's an introductory framing story, featuring a grown Jim Burden, that I don't understand at all; it was apparently cut from later editions. The book is straight-forward and short; it would make good high school reading. It dips into sentimentality. But it's beautiful and likable, and I'm a fan.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Here's a quiz: which of the following are real examples of the overwrought chapter titles in Sister Carrie?
a. Convention's Own Tinder-Box: The Eye ThaHere's a quiz: which of the following are real examples of the overwrought chapter titles in Sister Carrie?
a. Convention's Own Tinder-Box: The Eye That Is Green b. Game of Thrones: A Feast for the Crows c. When Waters Engulf Us We Reach For The Stars d. When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King e. Transformers: Dark of the Moon f. In Elf Land Disporting: The Grim World Without g. The Blaze of the Tinder: Flesh Wars With the Flesh h. Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son
Anyway. This unsexed book is about Carrie, who will not work. She shacks up with a couple of men instead, and there's its revolution: Dreiser doesn't judge her, and (view spoiler)[she won't end up on a train platform. Here is one of the first women who get to fuck and live (hide spoiler)] - although I'm guessing about the fucking. You get the unusual sense that Dreiser may not understand how the birds and bees operate.
He doesn't understand writing terribly well either. Saul Bellow recommends that you not linger over the sentences; they won't reward you. Blaze through the first half as quick as you can. The story builds a grinding momentum, and it's rewarding, but it does take its sweet time. Dreiser can write a book, but he can't write a sentence.
In A New Literary History of America, Farah Jasmine Griffin imagines a meeting between Carrie and Lily Bart of The House of Mirth, and that's a great idea. They have their similarities. They arrive in the city with nothing but their looks. They're painfully sensitive. They both live in unforgiving worlds, but they make different decisions about how to navigate them. Carrie is tougher. She goes much deeper into the world than Lily does; she sees it all, from top to bottom. Griffin thinks she's more groundbreaking. Sister Carrie isn't as good a book as House of Mirth (not many are), but Carrie has something going on.
It ends (view spoiler)[ambiguously. Not for Hurstwood! But for Carrie, who still hasn't done any work. She sees herself mostly through other men, and it's this dude Ames who gives her the final cut: "If I were you," he says, "I'd change." Which is a sick burn. Dreiser seems to dismiss her: "in your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel." She's not exactly passive: she makes most of her more important decisions for herself. She decides. But she doesn't really do, and that's what Ames and Dreiser are mad about: they expect better from her, in sortof a clucking dad way. (hide spoiler)]
It's an odd book. Despite its unsexiness it raised an uproar when it was published; Carrie lives out of wedlock, and worse, and folks were pretty scandalized about what their imaginations filled in. Dreiser hoped that when it "gets to the people, they will understand, because it is a story of real life, of their lives." It was published in 1900 and served as part of the vanguard, with Wharton and Henry James, that dragged novels out of the moralizing 1800s. It has no grace and little subtlety, but it has force.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more