Like two other Medieval landmarks, the Decameron and 1001 Nights, the Canterbury Tales are a collection of short stories drawn together by a framing sLike two other Medieval landmarks, the Decameron and 1001 Nights, the Canterbury Tales are a collection of short stories drawn together by a framing story. In this case it’s a group of pilgrims from all different parts of society, and they’re telling stories to pass the time on their way to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Here he is getting killed:
Chaucer only managed to finish 23 of a planned 120 stories, so that’s actually a pretty bad job; his big innovation was that the 23 he did finish created real, distinct characters representing a cross-section of society. The hypocritical religious figure the Pardoner, who’s basically running a protection racket for the soul - and we can see in him how jaded people have gotten about organized religion - the drunken Miller, who tells one of several lengthy fart jokes; and of course the Wife of Bath, Chaucer’s greatest creation.
don't want no scrubs
She’s looking for her sixth husband; she cheerfully admits to using sex to get what she wants; she has a dim view of men except as a means to an end.
By God! if women hadde written stories, As clerkes han withinne hire oratories, They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.
What she’s saying is that men control the narrative; when it’s her turn to speak she has a lot to say.
There are also, as mentioned, a number of fart jokes. The Miller's Tale contains perhaps history's first description of analingus as Absalon "kissed [this one lady's] naked arse, most savorously." The Summoner's Tale is an examination of the age-old question of how to divide a fart into twelve parts. Don't worry, they figure it out....more
"Why are you furiously taking notes on the subway?" is what no one asked me. "I just started The Waves," is what I would have replied, "and I'm realiz"Why are you furiously taking notes on the subway?" is what no one asked me. "I just started The Waves," is what I would have replied, "and I'm realizing that it's going to be difficult even for Virginia Woolf. I'll have to get on top of it early if I'm going to get it at all."
"Why is it so difficult?" "Have you read Virginia Woolf before?" My imaginary friend has not. "She was a modernist," I'd say. "What she was about was getting into her characters' heads, their thought processes - the experience of being alive. We call it stream of consciousness, with all its eddies and diversions. That means her writing tends to be scattered and confusing, like you yourself. ('But'--shh.) She refuses to tell you what's happening; she leaves clues, instead, and you have to figure it out."
"That sounds annoying."
Well, yeah, it kinda is. "Why did she do that?" I don't know. The modernists were trying to do something new, and they succeeded in that. They wrote books that the average person, looking to be entertained, might dislike. They're too hard. They're for reading nerds, people who like puzzles. Of the three great modernists - Woolf, Joyce and Faulkner - none of them have ever met a plot point they couldn't obfuscate.
"Why is The Waves particularly difficult?"
As if this stream-of-consciousness writing isn't hard enough, modernists always (for some reason) switch perspectives. In my favorite Woolf book Mrs. Dalloway (1925), there are two main characters - Clarissa Dalloway and the PTSD-afflicted veteran Septimus. Same for James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which stars Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus. In this later work, though (1931), there are six characters to switch between. William Faulkner, who had by now written his masterpiece The Sound & The Fury (1929), also switched between lots of different characters. So it's even more complicated to keep track of what's happening.
The characters in The Waves are: Louis the ambitious, self-conscious outsider, who will (view spoiler)[have an on, off, on-again relationship with Rhoda (hide spoiler)]; Bernard the likable, loquacious storyteller with a confused sense of self, who will (view spoiler)[fail to seal the deal with his first love and settle for another (hide spoiler)]; Neville the quiet, serious, bisexual (?), snobby poet; Shy, awkward and embarrassed Rhoda, who will (view spoiler)[commit suicide (blink and you'll miss it) (hide spoiler)]; Jinny who loves to be loved; And certain, pastoral Susan.
Unspeaking is a seventh character Percival, named after the knight who went after the Holy Grail, representing maybe youth and idealism, who (view spoiler)[dies off page around the halfway mark and (hide spoiler)] looms over everyone's lives.
The story is anchored by an omniscient narrator who intervenes to describe a day - morning, their childhood; night, old age. The narrator returns to certain themes: waves, birds, snails, assegais. (Assegais? Spears. Whatever, Virginia.) In between, we get monologues by each character in which they continuously describe who they are (and aren't), in a prose-poem style. Part of the confusion is because everyone says what she really means. Where, say, Tolstoy was brilliant at showing the undercurrents of thought beneath what people say, Woolf's characters just speak the undercurrents.
And the frustration is because, in Woolf's hands, these undercurrents are terribly la-di-dah and pretentious.
"Yet these roaring waters," said Neville [at the first of two climactic dinner parties], "upon which we build our crazy platforms are more stable than the wild, the weak and inconsequential cries that we utter when, trying to speak, we rise; when we reason and jerk out these false sayings, 'I am this; I am that!' Speech is false!"
But nobody talks or thinks like that. Obscured is the majesty of To The Lighthouse (1927), the authority of Mrs. Dalloway, certainly the joy of Orlando (1928), sunk under a sort of grim, arch aloofness. It's often beautiful, but always artificial.
Woolf means to convey the confusion of being alive, and she means to abandon novelly efforts to force a life into a storyline. "There is nothing one can fish up in a spoon," says Bernard: "Nothing one can call an event." This is noble but there's no reason it needs to be so opaque.
Life itself is what Woolf was after, and in The Waves - her last great work and her most ambitious - she tries to describe it in all its flavors. "We differ, it may be too profoundly," says Louis, "for explanation. But let us attempt it." But this isn't Woolf's best effort.
All of that is what I would have said, anyway, if anyone had asked me why I was furiously taking notes on the subway. Which is maybe why no one asked.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Bel canto means "beautiful song," and Anne Patchett wanted to write a melodrama. Big emotions, big events, like an opera. The plot of her book seems aBel canto means "beautiful song," and Anne Patchett wanted to write a melodrama. Big emotions, big events, like an opera. The plot of her book seems allegorical; it's certainly not realistic, which makes it a surprise that it's based on real events. She was inspired by the Japanese embassy hostage crisis of 1996, during which a number of diplomats were taken hostage for a remarkable 126 days. She thought - I'm taking much of my information from a terrific interview at the end of the book - she thought, "You know what this story needs is an opera singer," and here we are.
What she's carved out of this lengthy hostage crisis is a utopian society: the have-nots forced to coexist with the haves in a world where art is the only diversion and the unifying force. As in the real-world crisis, people of many nationalities are gathered together. There's a translator who serves as witness. Love is found. They make beautiful songs. It's like a more hopeful take on John Fowles's The Collector.
Looming over it all is the suspicion that this probably won't end well, and it's to her credit that (view spoiler)[toward the end she actually had me half-convinced she was going to write a way out of it. (This is before I realized that it was based on a true story.) Even more surprising, I wouldn't have minded: I liked her characters so much that I would have taken any cheap excuse to see them live. They don't. The eventual "rescue" is sudden and agonizing. (hide spoiler)]
It's a beautiful song, and this is the best book I've read in a while. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
China's biggest scifi author finally comes to the US, and he is a nerd. Cixin knows a shitload of science & math, and he's going to throw a lot ofChina's biggest scifi author finally comes to the US, and he is a nerd. Cixin knows a shitload of science & math, and he's going to throw a lot of it at you, including:
- The civilization-as-simulation idea which I learned about from The Hidden Universe by Brian Greene; ((view spoiler)[this one turns out to be a red herring (hide spoiler)]) - The Fermi Paradox: where is everybody? - Stephen Hawking's warning that maybe we should shut up because look what happened to the Aztecs when they came in contact with aliens; - Some extremely complicated math involving the three-body problem, which is a real thing; - The Sixth Extinction, the idea (entirely accepted at this point) that humans are causing the biggest catastrophe to life on earth since the dinosaur-killing asteroid; - And then it takes all these thoughts to a place where really only fiction would dare to go - this idea that (view spoiler)[we might basically commit suicide as a civilization because we're doing such a shit job. (hide spoiler)]
I like the book's grounding in real science. And I like that it feels specifically Chinese; the Cultural Revolution hangs over the whole book, and the characters' reactions to events like the dismantling of science and the possibility of alien contact come directly out of those events. (There is also an American who gets to the same place for different reasons.)
But it does seems like Cixin is so excited about science that he forgets about plot sometimes. There are long passages describing some theory or other instead of happening, which isn't as dire as it sounds but it's still not always gripping. And I think it's likely that there are lots of scifi authors dealing with the dramatic possibilities of dimensions five through eleven, and this just seems cool to me because I don't read a lot of scifi.
And I wish I'd paid more attention and realized that this is the first book of a trilogy. It definitely feels like it; the plot is not at all over when the book is, and I don't really feel like reading the rest of it.
I'd say this is worthy if you dig scifi anyway, maybe not crucial if you don't.
Translation is by Ken Liu, who swept the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy awards a few years back with a short story called The Paper Menagerie which I thoroughly disliked. It feels, as translations from the Eastern hemisphere tend to, slightly awkward; I think they just talk different over there. You get used to it. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Aubrey says: "namely 'Love and Friendship', 'The Female Philosopher', and 'The History of England' (might be slightly wrong on the title of that one).Aubrey says: "namely 'Love and Friendship', 'The Female Philosopher', and 'The History of England' (might be slightly wrong on the title of that one). From those, I gathered 15 year old Austen was a caustic rebel who likes dick jokes. "
"Why should I read Jane Austen?" asked my wife. I've read all of Jane Austen now - this was my final one - so I was ready to answer.
The 1800s were all"Why should I read Jane Austen?" asked my wife. I've read all of Jane Austen now - this was my final one - so I was ready to answer.
The 1800s were all about a shift from Romantic to Realist literature, I said. Romantic novels are full of telepathy and crazy ladies in attics, and bizarre plot contrivances, and orphans who turn out to be the long-lost sons of the noblemen who happened to be acquainted with pretty ladies. Only toward the end of the century did it occur to authors like George Eliot and Gustave Flaubert to write plots that were plausible in the real world. Jane Austen alone, I said, writing way back in the 18teens - before the great Romantic masterpieces by theBrontes,Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas - seemed to predict realism. Her plots were (largely) realistic; her characters recognizable humans. It's astonishing to read her in context; she seems to be writing in the movement past the movement that hasn't even flowered yet.
"But I don't care about context," said my wife: "Context is for nerds. I'm only interested in reading books that are entertaining now, to me."
That kindof threw me for a loop.
Because Austen does feel old-fashioned. The other shift in the 1800s had to do with morals. Novels, generally aimed at young well-to-do ladies, were marketed as prescriptive: they served both as entertainment and as guides for how to behave, and that meant that they were often snobby and prudish. It was, again, not 'til later that writers like Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton started to challenge the status quo instead of enforcing it. And Austen wasn't ahead of her time here: she was a merciless status quo enforcer.
In Sense & Sensibility, sense wins. Of the two sisters - steady, diligent Elinor Dashwood and sensitive, spazzy Marianne - Marianne holds your interest, but Elinor drives the plot. And in the end, (view spoiler)[Marianne (in a bummer common to many Victorian novels) marries Colonel Mustard Brandon, a man she's been completely indifferent to until the last five pages. The primary relationship in the novel, honestly, is the steadily growing respect and trust between Brandon and Elinor, who would be well suited to each other, both being sensible and boring. You'd be forgiven for feeling like they got their pairings wrong. But, then, here's Austen the realist: Brandon, with his fortune, can afford to pick the prettier one, and men have been known to do so. (hide spoiler)]
Along the way Austen is merciless to women of slightly lower class than her protagonists - notably Lucy Steele, who's (view spoiler)[secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars. (hide spoiler)] To be fair, she's merciless to everyone else too, like snobbish, insipid Lady Middleton. But still: this kind of social moralizing hasn't aged well, and Austen comes off as kindof a dick. That quote that opens Pride & Prejudice,
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
She's kinda kidding / not kidding about that; she says it tongue in cheek but it is in fact the plot of most of her books, and taken as a given. Her novels are often about the dangers of falling in love with someone slightly above or below one's station. They warn of the dangers of charming young men. They suggest that perhaps the boring, older, stolid gentleman in possession of a good fortune might be a better choice.
She can be a little boring. There's not a ton of plot to her books. A few people fall in love; there are complications; most of the complications are resolved.
So, "Why read Jane Austen?" I don't really have an answer. I like her characters. They're human and relatable, flawed, "almost pretty." (Her female characters, that is. Her male characters are generally defined by their manners, incomes and illegitimate children.) They remind me that the basic concerns of humans - whom to spend time with, where to get one's money - are always the same. Now we call our Colonel Brandons "settling," but it's the same choice.
Austen is funny and perceptive. But if her novels feel familiar, you could choose to read a more recent, familiar novel - one that doesn't force you to sit through endless card games you don't know how to play, or know the difference between a barouche and a post chaise.
So my wife quit Emma after 50 pages and read The Marriage Plot instead. I was unable to convince her or myself that there's a screaming need to read Jane Austen. Can you think of one? I'd be happy to hear about it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Just because a book is about serious things, doesn't mean it's a serious book. I'm sad to say I found this book a little corny.
That seems like a weirdJust because a book is about serious things, doesn't mean it's a serious book. I'm sad to say I found this book a little corny.
That seems like a weird word to describe a plot this dire. A woman is kidnapped in Haiti; terrible, terrible things happen. If you're into trigger warnings: (view spoiler)[rape rape rape rape rape. And torture. Also rape. And a miscarriage, not at the same time. (hide spoiler)] Roxane Gay is writing about the outer limits of human endurance.
But there's a Nebraska mother-in-law prone to homespun wisdom who made me groan every time she opened her mouth. There's an insistence that Mireille's prior life was a "fairy tale." There's stuff like this: "He kissed me so hard I felt his lips in my spine. It was the kiss of a stranger and I wanted it and I wanted him." It's corny. I feel like the writing skill isn't quite up to the subject matter here. I liked the second half better than the first half: I think Gay does a good job of depicting post-traumatic stress, and how difficult it is for Mireille to pull herself out of the hole she's in. She's particularly effective at showing how, in the aftermath of Mireille's loss of control, she finds everyone still trying to make her do stuff: see a doctor, make a sentence, be okay, and all she really needs is to find some way to be in control of her life again. It was hard to read but I'm glad I did. I got it.
I don't think it's a bad book. It made me think a lot, which is good. It also disturbed me a whole lot; if you're prone to nightmares you should think twice about it. Or if you have a low tolerance for corniness.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Jennifer D says: "just wanted to mention this book to you...because of its context in the history of the novel. the introduction is fascinating and taJennifer D says: "just wanted to mention this book to you...because of its context in the history of the novel. the introduction is fascinating and talks about the process of getting the inuit oral tradition transcribed... then understood and translated."
Jennifer is right, I'm super into this. Thank you friend!...more
Muriel Spark keeps surprising me. This is the third book I've read by her and none of them are like each other. The Driver's Seat was ferocious, deepMuriel Spark keeps surprising me. This is the third book I've read by her and none of them are like each other. The Driver's Seat was ferocious, deep metafiction, but this is...this is just a bunch of old people acting dotty.
I mean, no, it's about death, I guess that's pretty intense. A memento mori is a reminder of death. You know who gets into this stuff is monks. The idea is that you can't truly appreciate your life unless you've come to terms with oncoming death. This is why the capuchin monks in Florence built a whole chapel out of bones:
I totally visited this place once, it was aight
At least that's why they said they did it. It was probably just that they thought it looked awesome, which it does.
Anyway, memento mori is Latin and it translates as "Remember you must die," which is what a voice on the phone keeps saying to all these dotty old people in Muriel Spark's weird book. They all hear and respond to the voice differently. They're connected to each other in complicated ways. Here, I'll lay it all out. I suppose there are spoilers here, but this isn't really the kind of book where spoilers are a thing.
(view spoiler)[Godfrey, the weak and philandering husband of Charmian, the aging famous writer who has Alzheimer's or something; Dame Lettie, Godfrey's sister who gets the first calls;
Their servants: Mrs. Anthony Mrs. Pettigrew who is a mean person and who formerly worked for Lisa Brooks, who had an affair with Godfrey and blackmailed Charmian about her lover... Guy Leet, who married Lisa to shut her up;
Godfrey & Charmian's former servant Jean Taylor, who had an affair with Alec Warner, who also screwed around with Lettie and who is methodically studying senescence, which means getting old;
Percy Mannering, a poet; His granddaughter Olive, who has an arrangement with Godfrey regarding stockings (an arrangement shared by mean Mrs. Pettigrew) (hide spoiler)]
Spark hurls all this at you in just over 200 pages, and I'm not sure why. For fun? I took notes but I'm not sure it matters. All of these people will face death in various ways. (view spoiler)[Alec's notes - his life's work - are destroyed. Lettie is brutally murdered. Others die of being old. (hide spoiler)]
I was left with the impression that this is more or less a pleasant book about aging, a little like Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. Maybe less serious than that. So, once again, I don't know what Muriel Spark's deal exactly is, although I'm certainly going to keep trying to find out. One thing she doesn't do is write bad books. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It tells the story of four brothers who battle fate, or a crazy guy, or Western influence - in an interview Obioma calls the book in part metaphorical, mad "prophet" Abulu representing outsider predictions of what young Nigeria will come to. (The critic Fredric Jameson argues that "All third-world texts are necessarily allegorical.") Abulu predicts death for the oldest son, Ikenna. The brothers deal with that prophecy in different ways. In order of descending age: 15- year-old Ikenna who "nailed small things to big crosses" (view spoiler)[believes it; (hide spoiler)] 14-yo Boja (view spoiler)[succumbs to it; (hide spoiler)] Obembe (11) and our narrator Ben (9) (view spoiler)[fight it, murdering Abulu, with Obembe fleeing afterwards and Ben imprisoned. (hide spoiler)] The father is largely absent, the mother (view spoiler)[consumed by spiders. (hide spoiler)] The two youngest children, David (3) and Nkem (1), are egrets in Obioma's allegorical telling; (view spoiler)[they more or less miss the turmoil and maybe they'll be okay. (hide spoiler)] The plot is solid and interesting; the ending is perfect.
Obioma's use of figures of speech is terrific, entirely unique. I don't know for sure whether it's him or Nigeria coming up with these sentences I've never heard before, but wherever he got stuff like "The dying sun pitched in a corner of the sky as faint as a nipple on the chest of a teenage girl," I'll take it. There are elements of magical realism; Abulu at times seems to have real prophetic power.
There's a quote at the beginning of one chapter: "Those the gods have chosen to destroy, they inflict with madness." It's tagged as an Igbo proverb, but it's originally from Euripides*. We're all working off the same traditions here. This is a terrific addition.
* Wikiquote says it's commonly misattributed to Euripides and it's actually some dude named Publilius Syrus. Whatever. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
What Ripley's Game doesn't share with its two predecessors is Ripley's shadowy games with identity, the maneuvering and confusion about who he is, who he's killed, who's dead. I miss it. Instead, he spends much of the book insisting that he's not even a bad guy: the victims this time around are Mafia, bad guys themselves, so he's pulling a Dexter.
He seems incapable of settling down: he keeps finding excuses to murder people. But now he's coming up with a heroic self-image in his head to justify it. (Of course, you're aware that the Mafia guys were all casualties on his way to his real target, (view spoiler)[who was always Trevanny, even if he didn't know it himself. (hide spoiler)] That's still interesting.)
It's still a fun and entertaining book. He always makes me want to bring up hypotheticals to my wife: "If I suddenly came into $200,000, how could I explain it believably?" We couldn't think of a way. "If I murdered a guy but then bought you a harpsichord, would that be cool?" She said that sounds nice. She's probably kidding. I don't think she wants me to murder anyone. Maybe she does.
But I don't love the whitewashing. In Talented Mr. Ripley he was a void, a great screaming abyss of amoral loneliness; as he gains confidence he loses some of his interest.
I'm getting diminishing returns as I read through the Ripley series. Only the first was what I'd call a great book; the next two are just fun reads. Nothing wrong with a fun read though.
PS If you have any other good examples of closet cases in literature, I'd like to hear 'em. My list is shorter than I feel like it ought to be.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Roald Dahl continues his mission to ruin your child by insisting that a man-sized centipede would not be the most horrifying thing in the world. CentiRoald Dahl continues his mission to ruin your child by insisting that a man-sized centipede would not be the most horrifying thing in the world. Centipedes are nightmares, man. Wanna see a foot-long centipede hunting bats? Of course you don't, that's awful.
Anyway, so here's a book about a kid who murders his legal guardians and takes off with his creepy friends. Along the way they meet magical people who make rainbows, and pick a fight with them. When they're done they deface the Empire State Building. As you can imagine, the result of all this is that they get a parade.
There are some great songs in here, too, all of which should be sung to the tune of something by Gilbert & Sullivan....more