Lovecraft can be silly, racist, and extremely purple, but he has this terrifically unique imagination: his stories feel like nothing else. And they'reLovecraft can be silly, racist, and extremely purple, but he has this terrifically unique imagination: his stories feel like nothing else. And they're very enticing. There's a certain feel to his stories - a pallid green glow - a whole collection of words like "eldritch", phrases like "foetid green ichor" - that feel forcefully Lovecraftian. "The foulest nightmares of secret myth" is what he's about. He's a true individual. I dig him.
Full (if growing) list of things to make sure not to miss: PARODIES? Herbert West - Reanimator (Ha, this was a ton of fun) The Hound (also great)
RACISM! Horror at Red Hook (Whee!) He (Loved this one. Watch out for those Chinamen, I guess.)
CTHULHU Dunwich Horror At the Mountains of Madness (Fun stuff, I wrote a review elsewhere) Shadow out of Time (Kinda too long) Call of Cthulhu Whisperer in Darkness (fantastic! "I'm afraid the creatures are learning to steer better with their space wings.")
THE REST OF IT The Case of Charles Dexter Ward The Dreams In The Witch House Colour out of Space (Great...sortof like a parable about radioactivity?) Shadow over Innsmouth
While this Penguin edition is lovely, I'm supplementing it with a cheapo Collected Works on my Kindle, for the stories I want to read that aren't in this collection....more
The answer is sortof. Spanking the Maid is actually a lengthy, postmodern allegory, I guess for the creative process although (like this white whale I read about once) with enough general effectiveness to stand in for any number of other annoying processes. That's pretty good in itself - allegories involving spanking are a thing we could probably use more of, or at least a thing we could not use less of - but it's also one of those "YO CHECK IT OUT, ALLEGORY" situations - again, like that whale - where you're kinda like yeah, dude, I get it; I mean, it's not a subtle piece of work.
"No seriously though," you ask, if you are Jennifer, "But is there spanking?" Yes, there is spanking! There is a lot of spanking. It is chock full o' spanking. It's spanktastic! If spanking was white guys, this book would be Harold Bloom's Canon*. See, the allegory is that there's this maid who keeps trying to clean this dude's room but she does a lousy job and he has to punish her by spanking her, as one does; similarly, you keep having to try to discipline your brain to create great art, by spanking it, but your brain's panties keep falling down about its ankles while it's trying to dust. Or something like that.
* Because Harold Bloom's Canon has a lot of white guys, and this book has a lot of spanking. Get it?
I like Coover's "The Babysitter" a little better; it's similarly aggressively pomo, and similarly amused by waving its penis around, but I thought it was more complicated than this was.
Briar Rose is better, too, a winky novella about Sleeping Beauty, entertained or tortured through the years by a procession of fantasies about her own rescue, woven into her brain by the evil witch, a funhous Scheherezade, while her faithful princes die in the hedge outside. According to John Banville's worshipful intro, this is about love.
BTW, this is impossible to get on Kindle even if you know where to look, so if you want to read this you're going to have to hold a book called "Spanking the Maid" up in front of your face, which is either good or bad depending on whether you're on the subway and a creep. ...more
Despite the title, Blood of the Vampire contains neither blood nor vampires. It's a melodrama, and certainly sensational, but it's a tidy package andDespite the title, Blood of the Vampire contains neither blood nor vampires. It's a melodrama, and certainly sensational, but it's a tidy package and tightly plotted.
Marryat was a huge success in her time, writing something like 70 best-selling novels, most of which most critics hated. We're familiar with writers like this today: we book snobs turn our noses up at them. There's apparently some sort of backlash wave happening for the Victorians, though, where these best-selling, unappreciated Victorian authors are being reexamined, and Marryat's undergoing a bit of a Renaissance. Based on this one book, I'd say it's deserved; Blood is deeper than it looks.
The vampirism in Blood is invisible. There's no biting here. The "vampire" isn't even consciously harming anyone. Since there's no possibility for proof, the idea that she's a vampire at all is completely circumstantial.
So this is a metaphor for The Woman Question. (And race, as well; Miss Brandt, a quadroon, is a direct descendant of Jane Eyre's Bertha Mason.) As Greta Depledge points out in an informative but wicked thesisy introduction, you can replace the word "vampire" with "hysteric" throughout the book and it still reads perfectly well. ("Hysteria" was the diagnosis for any woman who didn't rigidly conform to societal expectations, or showed a glimmer of libido, or did anything else men weren't crazy about.)
But its ambiguity, which must be intentional, allows for two opposite interpretations of the book. In the most obvious, the hysterical Brandt sucks the life out of people around her; in this reading, Marryat is a conservative. But since, again, there's no proof whatsoever (view spoiler)[that Brandt is a vampire, the second reading is that she's an innocent free-thinker who's victimized and eventually murdered by patriarchal oppression. (Now I'm the one who sounds thesisy.) How do we even get the idea that she's a vampire? From a physician who decides that it's the best explanation for a now-dead baby she was fond of holding. That, obviously, is a ludicrous diagnosis, even for a Victorian doctor.
That second reading is tempting, but problematic for one reason: the physician predicts that if Brandt marries, her husband will die, and he obligingly does so. (hide spoiler)] So let's not say there's conclusive evidence either way on this. Just that it's an interesting, complicated book. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
What's it like The frustration or the joy of reading Dickens, depending on your attitude, is his digressiveness. Since, some will tell you, he was paidWhat's it like The frustration or the joy of reading Dickens, depending on your attitude, is his digressiveness. Since, some will tell you, he was paid by the page, he tended to produce a lot of pages, with the result that books like Bleak House are great rambling ambles. If you read books in order to find out what happens next, you may be frustrated. But if you read them to be immersed in someone else's world, they're terrific.
Bolano too was paid by the page, in a way. He wrote 2666 in the last five years of his life, knowing he was dying, intending for it to be published in five parts, to provide for his family after his death; so he was plenty motivated to produce a lot of pages. 2666 contains a recipe for brussels sprouts with lemon, which sadly calls for boiling rather than roasting; some increasingly creative ways of saying "vaginally and anally raped"; and this:
Only the digestive system of herbivorous animals, said Florita, is equipped with substances capable of digesting cellulose and therefore of absorbing the glucose molecules that make up cellulose."
- this section will go on to analyze diarrhea in great detail - after which I made the note "Srsly, wtf?"
What's it about So if your question is, "But what's it about?" then this is not the book for you. For example, major (view spoiler)[: although the infamous Part IV feels at times like a murder mystery, there will be no reveal. The Ciudad Juarez killings that inspired it were the result (I guess) of a culture in which the murder of a woman became a relatively common way of expressing frustration, and that's the horror Bolano is telling you about. There is no Bad Guy here, just murder. (hide spoiler)]
You read 2666 to be immersed in Bolano's wonderful, weird brain. You read to see "buildings propping each other up like little old Alzheimer's patients." Or for this:
And then, as if a breath of foul air had wafted into a commercial for sanitary pads*, the silhouette of a man made them freeze.
You will get sentences like these nowhere else in literature. At times Bolano careens into a kind of prose poetry, as in the long paragraph around 77% when a girl describes the transparent obsidian sacrificial altars of the Aztecs:
At first the light was black or grey, a dim light in which only the inscrutable silhouettes of the Aztecs inside the pyramids could be seen, but then, as the blood of the new victim spread across the skylight of transparent obsidian, the light turned red and black...
It's difficult to get the power of a passage like that across without the full (much longer) bit, and without the "Gah, what's this now?" feeling you get when the story lurches into it out of nowhere, but poetry is what it is - new, offhand, weird poetry, maybe not exactly poetry, but certainly not exactly prose either.
* And let's be clear here, there's a lot of talk about the horrific sections of this book, and they are, but Bolano is often very funny, too. Here's my favorite description of kissing ever:
The girl's tongue was very dry at first and Reiter caressed it with his tongue until it was thoroughly moistened.
I can't even paste that without cracking up.
What is it But if your questions is, "But what's it about?" god, dude, let it go, it's about the search for the missing cult author Archimboldi, Bolano, dying, pours out everything into an attempt to write his masterpiece: 2666 is about death and masterpieces. "Every secret author is, by definition, a writer of masterpieces," he says, before setting the pantheon of great writers of works "magnificent and sometimes monstrous" apart from "the epigones and authors he called the Horde." Bolano considered himself, I think, a secret author, and his hopes didn't rise past becoming the kind of cult author his protagonists, here and in Savage Detectives, are in search of. But 2666 represents his best effort at creating something worth going in search of. And it's one of those rare cases, like Infinite Jest, where someone with vast potential just nails it.
How strange he would find it if he knew how high he's risen since his death. By some fluke of fate, we all found him after all, and how lucky we are! Because 2666 is a masterpiece. Magnificent, and sometimes monstrous.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Louisa May Alcott, a transcendentalist feminist of ambivalent sexual orientation and the author of sensational novels, is asked by her publisher to wrLouisa May Alcott, a transcendentalist feminist of ambivalent sexual orientation and the author of sensational novels, is asked by her publisher to write a book for girls; she's like eh, that sounds super lame, but she does it anyway, "in record time for money," and here we are.
What's startling about Little Women given the intro I just gave it, and the reason it worked then and still works now, is its absolute sincerity. There's not a trace of sarcasm in the entire thing; it remains a sweet-natured book full of nice people doing nice things.
Another way to say all that is, of course, "corny," and it is that too. You know how sometimes you re-read a beloved book as an adult and realize there was much more going on under the surface than you caught when you were younger? Well, this is not one of those books. It's utterly straight-forward.
The life lessons given here are basically still sound. Alcott recommends marrying for love; she's not against a woman being the primary breadwinner. In a very gentle, nonthreatening way, she's true to her feminism, and you'll find nothing truly objectionable for your child. A lot of God shit, so your mileage may vary on that.
Our lead character, Jo, and our semi-autobiographical one, bums me out a little; if you don't mind spoilers, here's why. (view spoiler)[Alcott never married. While there apparently was a Laurie for her, of sorts, there was not a Bhaer, and it shows: Bhaer is a totally unreal character. He's the husband equivalent of Steve Carrell describing boobs as sandbags in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
There was a moment when Jo turned Laurie down and it looked like she was going to become a single author, and I really liked that, even before I learned that that was what Alcott actually did. But Alcott sortof copped out on her own life, I think, marrying Jo off to this neutered Casaubon, and it stuck in my throat a bit. (hide spoiler)]
Little Women has neither subtlety nor malice; it succeeds purely because of Louisa May Alcott's sheer charisma. It was, is and probably always will be a very pleasant book.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A great rambling hilarious explosion of stream-of-consciousness writing from one of the more execrable protagonists I've run across, Money is surprisiA great rambling hilarious explosion of stream-of-consciousness writing from one of the more execrable protagonists I've run across, Money is surprisingly effective. Surprising because there's a novel buried in all this postmodernism, with an actual plot and actual twists, so cleverly hidden that I didn't even see it coming until it showed its hand. And it's that plot that makes me like this book much better than ancestors like Tropic of Cancer that seem to disdain anything like it.
The distance between author and narrator corresponds to the degree to which the author finds the narrator wicked, deluded, pitiful or ridiculous
says Martin Amis, or the character named Martin Amis inside the book, and John Self is all of those things in spades. In case you have any doubts about that, Amis the author will make it crystal clear:
It's always been phenomenally clear to me that the women I've hit don't like being hit one bit. If they did, what would be the point of hitting them?
John - a wonderful kind of unreliable narrator, by the way, because while he always tells us the truth, he also tends to be blackout drunk during key moments - is wicked, deluded, pitiful and ridiculous, and I spent the book wondering how the hell things seemed to be going so well for him; what's the message Amis is sending here? Nihilism? Why is he writing a book in which his completely horrible protagonist gets away with everything?
Is there a moral philosophy of fiction? When I create a character and put him or her through certain ordeals, what am I up to - morally? Am I accountable?
And what if he has no real ordeals? What if he wins? Then what are you up to, morally? And then there are spoilers: (view spoiler)[He doesn't, and maybe you saw this coming but the essential grift of both the plot and the book completely snuck up on me: I was hoodwinked as badly as Self was.
We are all stomped and roughed up and peed on and slammed against the wall by money.
The book can drag at times: there's no variance in tone or pace, it's just one breathless rush of awful behavior, and it does start to muddle together at a certain point. But one can't really knock a writer for achieving exactly what he set out to. This is a complete success.["br"]>["br"]>...more
Ximena is totally into Rodrigo, but Ximena's dad and Rodrigo's dad are both wack old assholes, and her dad humiliates his dad in a wack old assThe Cid
Ximena is totally into Rodrigo, but Ximena's dad and Rodrigo's dad are both wack old assholes, and her dad humiliates his dad in a wack old asshole fight, so in order to save his family's honor Rodrigo is all
Spurious pity mixed with monstrous pride! Quick to insult, are you afraid to fight?
and kills Ximena's dad, because good plan, dude - dads sound like such a hassle, man, seriously - so then Ximena is super pissed, and she's like
From all your knights I now demand his head Whoever brings it me, I'll share his bed.
And then guess what happens? I am not going to tell you! You should find out by reading this play, because it's total balls. It's awesome, man. Rollicking plot with great momentum, and gorgeous flourishy Shakespearean language.
And Bolt's translation is on par with Richard Wilbur's brilliant Moliere. It's that good. Beautiful lines, in effortlessly rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. It's so smooth!
For love - sweet source of all my bitter pain Breeds subtlety in every lover's brain.
Right? This whole thing is just the shit, man.
The Illusion Almost as good; it's apparently sometimes called Corneille's The Tempest, and I understand why. It's sortof a meta examination of the nature of the stage, and there's a magician. Again a very satisfying plot, with twists and terrific speeches. More of a straight comedy....more
Sharp, focused and righteously angry, but...I don't know if it's just that I've been aware of and pissed off about Chappaquiddick for so long, or whatSharp, focused and righteously angry, but...I don't know if it's just that I've been aware of and pissed off about Chappaquiddick for so long, or what, but I felt like I've heard this story before, had these emotions already. I like the gambit of staging an entire book in the moment of a catastrophe - a "life flashing before one's eyes" thing, but the execution feels too slight - too easy? - to be great. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, though, especially if you don't mind getting a little bummed out....more
Y'know, this is terrific. Screamingly funny - that speech Fitz-Nottle gives is amazing - and deceptively intricately plotted. It's a puzzle book, righY'know, this is terrific. Screamingly funny - that speech Fitz-Nottle gives is amazing - and deceptively intricately plotted. It's a puzzle book, right? Our heroes get into what seems like an untenable situation, and the suspense is wondering how Jeeves will fix it, and that's all very cleverly done. Jeeves is sortof a dastardly hero, and Wooster himself is one of the great unreliable narrators....more
This is a review of the play, not this translation. I read Paul Roche's translation, which (as usual) was clear but not smashingly elegant.
Bleak is thThis is a review of the play, not this translation. I read Paul Roche's translation, which (as usual) was clear but not smashingly elegant.
Bleak is the road...I am coming.
Alcestis, the earliest of his extant plays, shows Euripides doing what he does best: overturning the rocks of myth and poking at the worms underneath. The story: Admetus has been promised by his buddy Apollo that he can escape death if, when his time comes, he can convince someone else to die in his place. Sadly, no one wants to do this for Admetus except his loving wife, Alcestis, who faithfully dies for him. And if that sounds like "WTF dude" to you, well, folks did things differently back then - but actually it sounds pretty fucked up to Euripides too, so here we go.
The juicy part of the play comes when Admetus's dad Pheres shows up. Admetus is on his way to bury Alcestis, and he's understandably a bit raw, and he starts raging at his dad, who is after all super old and why couldn't he have died? And his dad is like
"I'm the coward, you say, you - you prince of cowards Shown up by a woman who died for you! ...Keep your mouth shut, coward, and remember If you love your life, so does everybody."
Lol, pwned. Once again, Euripides the trickster breaks the cocks off the Greek statues.
The play is confused by the intervention of Heracles, who (view spoiler)[kinda bails everyone out and gives us a sudden happy ending. Fuckin' Heracles, right? It's often, as my boy Ronald points out, difficult to classify Euripides' plays, and that holds true here. It mixes comic and tragic tones and leaves you unsure what you've got. (hide spoiler)] But this is one of my favorites.
Update: with time, the deus ex Heracles has kinda gotten to me; I'm downgrading this to four stars because of the ending.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Recently voted the best ever crime novel by some dudes, and I can understand why: this is a perfect mystery. Perfect puzzle - and I love that ChristieRecently voted the best ever crime novel by some dudes, and I can understand why: this is a perfect mystery. Perfect puzzle - and I love that Christie finds it unnecessary to give us some big lurid case; it's an incredibly mundane small-town murder - perfect clues, perfect ending. It might be the best mystery novel I've ever read, including Holmes; it's that well done.
And this book is completely impossible to say much more about without spoilers, so...I won't. If you know you know; if you don't, quick read this book before someone spoils it for you....more
I'm trying to figure out what it is about books like this that makes them perfect for me. It's tight and focused, that's one thing. It's a great storyI'm trying to figure out what it is about books like this that makes them perfect for me. It's tight and focused, that's one thing. It's a great story with acute insight into human nature, that's another. It's well-planned; there's not a sentence that doesn't point in the right direction. Each word is chosen carefully. Little details, like the way Stevens uses "one" instead of "I" at any point where he wanders too close to his own emotions.
It works on two levels, both equally effectively. On the surface, it's a terrific, penetrating look at one person who's failed to live his life. It's a tragedy and it carries a tragedy's sense of inevitability: given the protagonist's fatal flaw, his life leads inexorably to his fate.
And under that, it's about choosing one's masters, and how a failure to think critically about one's situation can lead to disaster. Stevens fails on both personal and much larger levels to take any agency - to question his place and his path - and the consequences are perhaps larger than one might expect.
It's a subtle, quiet book, but always engaging to read - the sort of book where one plans to put it down after the next paragraph, but somehow finds oneself still reading two pages later - and it's beautiful. Ishiguro completely masters Stevens' voice, never giving too much away, but letting exactly enough slip through Stevens' cracks. He does a perfect job of telling a much different story than Stevens does.
This is the best book I've read in some time.
BTW, I loved Stevens' fixation on the idea of "banter," and his hilariously inept attempts at it. It culminates - and ties in to maybe the main theme of the novel, the idea of "dignity" - with his one successful joke:
"It's rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir. But I suspect it comes down to not removing one's clothing in public."
Among many other things, this book is very funny....more
Roald Dahl understands that the interests of children, which are to get into as many things as possible as thoroughly as possible, and the interests oRoald Dahl understands that the interests of children, which are to get into as many things as possible as thoroughly as possible, and the interests of adults, which are to get children to shut up and sit down, are not just incompatible but war. Reading him brings me back vividly to a time when the daily battle was to get around the unpredictably cranky obstacles of grown-ups in order to get to the important things, like climbing all the way through that culvert to see where it comes out, or turning the living room into a space ship by covering everything in it in tin foil, or even being left alone to read whatever deeply inappropriate book has caught one's fancy.
TMI Dept: I don't know if it's some kind of deep proto-adolescent imprinting thing or what, but Quentin Blake's illustrations of Miss Honey totally make me horny....more
Cryptonomicon is one of those plotty books, where things happen and then other things happen, which isn't really a knock: some of the best books everCryptonomicon is one of those plotty books, where things happen and then other things happen, which isn't really a knock: some of the best books ever are plotty. Lookin' at you, Count of Monte Cristo. But when you write a book about a bunch of stuff happening, it succeeds based on whether all the things that happen feel like part of a whole - whether all the threads come together. At their best, these books are giant jigsaw puzzles: a successful one is a masterpiece of planning ahead, and authors like Dumas or Hugo take your breath away when you realize how carefully they've set you up.
And Cryptonomicon pulls off that plottiness. Stephenson throws a lot of balls in the air; the story spans sixty years, from World War II to the late 90s, and rounds the globe, from some made-up country near England to the Phillipines, with plenty of stops in between. It's an impressive feat, and I can't poke a single hole in it. Nice work, Neal!
I mean, look, while insight into human nature isn't necessarily necessary in a plotty book, it helps to have some. Dumas and Hugo are wrestling with fate and evil and control; they're asking big questions. You're not gonna learn a whole lot about human nature from Cryptonomicon. There are some cool characters, like uber-Marine Bobby Shaftoe, but basically these are just people who do things.
And it has to be said that Stephenson has little to no grasp on how women operate. He seems to likes women - this isn't a misogynist book - I'm just not sure he's met very many of them.
Which kinda ties into why I didn't totally love it all. It's impressively put together, but it's...well, I was reminded of David Foster Wallace very often; same conversational tone, same exceptional technical intelligence - but Stephenson is - how do I say this? - he's just not very cool. Which I know, you're like "Wait, you're comparing someone's coolness unfavorably to DFW? He wasn't cool!" But he was! He wouldn't have said so, but he totally was cool.
Maybe I can say it like this: DFW was a geek; Stephenson is a nerd.
So this is a nerd epic. It succeeds at what it wants to be. I enjoyed it. I didn't love it....more
Some of the things science fiction writers tend to do irritate me. They make up words, they throw gee-whiz laser guns in when they don't add to the stSome of the things science fiction writers tend to do irritate me. They make up words, they throw gee-whiz laser guns in when they don't add to the story, and they're more prone to eye-rolling love stories than genre-less fiction.
And here's Neuromancer totally doing every one of those things, but for some reason I don't mind it here.
I'm not totally sure why. It starts with Gibson being a very good writer, certainly. And the heavy noir influence certainly doesn't hurt. But aside from that, I don't know, maybe I was just in a good mood this week.
I didn't find the technology badly dated, largely because Gibson doesn't really even try. His descriptions of hacking are more metaphorical than predictive; he understands that, whatever, I guess you write some codes or something, but after that he basically describes acid trips and lets that be the end of it, so what are you gonna argue about?
I'm not gonna go rushing out to find the rest of this series - it's still sci-fi, after all - but this is some of my favorite sci-fi. I dig it....more
Here's the first thing I love about The Sea, The Sea: its title. Isn't it wonderful? Imagine how boring it would have looked on a shelf if it had justHere's the first thing I love about The Sea, The Sea: its title. Isn't it wonderful? Imagine how boring it would have looked on a shelf if it had just been called "The Sea." But with that profoundly simple decision to repeat itself, it suddenly drips horror and madness and obsession. It's just brilliant. Almost makes me wish Emily Bronte had called her book "The Moor, The Moor."
And then Murdoch plays this terrific game with the opening sentence:
The sea which lies before me as I write glows rather than sparkles in the bland May sunshine.
Which is the boring first sentence of a book that should be called "The Sea." It even says "bland"! Blahhhh, lame, until you get to the next paragraph:
I had written the above, destined to be the opening paragraph of my memoirs, when something happened which was so extraordinary and so horrible that I cannot bring myself to describe it even now after an interval of time and although a possible, though not totally reassuring, explanation has occurred to me.
And there's the first sentence of a book called "The Sea, The Sea." Whee! Off we go, madness and horror. ...more
This is a review of the play itself, not this particular translation. I read Roche's translation, which is good but (as has been pointed out by absoluThis is a review of the play itself, not this particular translation. I read Roche's translation, which is good but (as has been pointed out by absolutely everyone already) includes made-up stage directions that are somewhat distracting.
Trojan Women is an anti-war play, performed in 415 as Athens prepared to go to war with Sicily and in the wake of Athens' brutal conquest of the island of Melos. It takes place directly after the fall of Troy and stars the captured Trojan women, notably Priam's wife Hecuba, the mad prophetess Cassandra, and that Helen woman. It's a little light on plot; there's mainly a lot of gnashing of teeth and being bummed out, and that's about it. Less of the subversive cleverness that I know and love Euripides for. But it certainly gets its point across: "Of all those seeming to succeed, count no one happy till he is dead."...more
Hey, remember when you were like "I guess I should read The Tin Drum but I wish it was much less daring and also that it was written by an old fuddy-dHey, remember when you were like "I guess I should read The Tin Drum but I wish it was much less daring and also that it was written by an old fuddy-duddy"? Well, so does John Irving....more
Beloved has been more quickly and thoroughly canonized than any other modern book, so and because it suffers from two curses. The first is the curse oBeloved has been more quickly and thoroughly canonized than any other modern book, so and because it suffers from two curses. The first is the curse of the classic itself, what you might call the Moby-Dick curse: everyone read it too early so no one liked it. It's not exactly difficult (nor exactly is Moby-Dick), but it's not easy either, and a high schooler forced to read it is going to suspect it of being good for her, which is no fun for anyone. When I polled my bookish friends about this book, I got a lot of "Er...I read that 20 years ago and it was probably okay," when I didn't get silence. In fact, I got more tepid comments about this book than any other I can remember, including Moby-Dick and even Sound and the Fury, which is immeasurably more of a pain in the ass.
The second curse - the curse that leads to the first curse - is that it's about slavery. It was canonized because it's very good, but also because it's the best novel everyone could agree on that was by a black person and about slavery. That's not Toni Morrison's fault, it's her credit. But because we in America are obsessed with race - with the legacy of slavery - and because we all feel pretty shitty about it, in many different ways (or, at least, definitely two) - any book about slavery is going to come under fire forever and ever. Mark Twain probably knew when he wrote Huck Finn that it would never be talked about outside of the context of race; Toni Morrison most certainly did. When she wrote Beloved, she knew that every asshole in the country would take swings at it for as long as it lives, which looks like it's going to be a very long time.
So. Toni Morrison, a brilliant author at the height of her powers, writes a savage, no-holds-barred epic about the horrors of slavery, and everyone talks about its subject instead of its writing. Is it brilliant? Yes! It is brilliant. Does it deserve to be canonized, or is it in part canonized because it fills a niche that we needed filled? And the answer is yes to both.
What astonished me about Beloved is how fully in control of the narrative Morrison is. The way she hints at events, and then slowly returns to flesh them out again and again, from different perspectives. She sets up like ten different mysteries - what, to take a minor one, happened to Sixo? And she resolves each one in turn. Sixo gets (view spoiler)[the wonderful last line, "Seven-O! Seven-O!" as he smolders. (hide spoiler)] This is mastery on a puzzle level that's Nabokovian.
And Morrison walks this tightrope throughout the book: she absolutely indicts slavery, she cudgels us with its reality - the incident this book is based on is real - but she stops just short of punishing us for reading the book. (Unlike her canonized peer, Cormac McCarthy, who is all about punishment.)
It's not a perfect book. There's an essential corniness way deep down inside Morrison, particularly when it comes to love, that made me roll my eyes several times: "They stayed that way for a while because neither Denver nor Sethe knew how not to: how to stop and not love the look or feel of the lips that kept on kissing." Barf, right?
And while she usually manages to keep her Faulkner fetish in check, there are moments where the postmodern gobbledygook surges up; particularly in a bit toward the end from Beloved's perspective. We didn't need to get inside her head to realize she was insatiably nuts; Morrison could have trusted that she'd already gotten that across just fine.
But these are judgments made in the context of a great book. I'm picking on minor quibbles because Beloved is great enough that it deserves to be picked apart thoroughly. It is a great book: rewarding, captivating, different, important. It deserves its place.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Shortly after starting this book I Wikipedia'd Donna Tartt, to see if I was dealing with some sort of reverse George Eliot; I had been under the impreShortly after starting this book I Wikipedia'd Donna Tartt, to see if I was dealing with some sort of reverse George Eliot; I had been under the impression that only men got as smugly pretentious as Tartt does. But no, she's a real lady! Ask Bret Easton Ellis, whom she was banging at U. Miss while in a grad writing course that also included Jonathan Lethem and Jill Eisenstadt, so that is a whopping lot of talent in one course, and also Bret Easton Ellis.
And you sortof start to wonder, did he start a competition with Donna Tartt about who could write a book featuring the most douchebags? Did they have a douchebag contest going? That would certainly explain American Psycho. It's the literary douchebag crane kick.
Anyway, I guess Tartt's a great writer, because she does a terrific job of inhabiting the sort of insufferable, pedantic twit who brags about knowing the locative case in Greek. Oh, me and my clever little friends! We wear cuff links and read Seneca and describe our ex-girlfriends as "A lowbrow, pop-psychology version of Sylvia Plath...all the clinging, all the complaints, all the parking-lot confessions of 'inadequacy' and 'poor self-image,' all those banal sorrows." Which is a shitty thing for a dude to say, y'know? And, again, Donna Tartt isn't even a dude.
It settles down, a bit, after the first quarter or so, into a passably competent thriller-type-thing. Murder and such. It's reasonably entertaining. A bit fixated on "hippies," which word appears 23 times and always with negative connotations, so that's weird, but whatever. I guess we all have our boogeymen. It gets - to use my girlfriend's word, which made me want to just hug the shit out of her - super "plotty" towards the end, which was good, but I felt a little let down by the denouement; I was kinda hoping for (view spoiler)[some huge revelation, like everyone was scheming to frame Richard, or Julian was in on it, or some crazy shit like that, so just having Henry shoot himself was, like...not plotty enough for me? (hide spoiler)] I don't know, that's unfair of me to say but it's how I felt.
I've heard people say that the neat thing about Secret History is how it shines a realistic light on what it really means to murder a guy. Like, away with the murder mystery cliches, here's how it happens, and the family's funeral, and everything. And she kinda does, and I can appreciate that. But she gets to it by cheating, doesn't she? (view spoiler)[They get into this situation because they've already killed the other guy, whom they hadn't planned to kill. So it's not about how normal people might interact with murder - it's how normal people who already killed a guy during a Bacchanalian orgy might interact with murder, the next time. (hide spoiler)] That's not the same, and it's not actually realistic either. It's only happened to me like two or three times, and I found it way easier to cover up than these guys did.
Maybe I just don't have any friends like Bunny.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Oh hey, it's another entry into the pantheon of clever, self-conscious books by middle-aged white guys. How's this one, you ask? Full of existential aOh hey, it's another entry into the pantheon of clever, self-conscious books by middle-aged white guys. How's this one, you ask? Full of existential angst, thanks for asking - but leavened with witty word play! Oh, you say, so...just like the other ones? Well, yes, pretty much.
Man, I'll tell you. Middle-aged white guys. It's not that they're not clever, but they're just so aware of it all. Is it possible to be self-deprecating while simultaneously patting yourself on the back for how self-deprecating you are? ...more
Listen, I hate to be the guy who ruins the joke, but it's impossible to seriously judge Canadian literature without acknowledging that Canada is not aListen, I hate to be the guy who ruins the joke, but it's impossible to seriously judge Canadian literature without acknowledging that Canada is not a real place. It's a funny little conceit, but it's stretching plausibility a bit far to pretend that there's some enormous country right on top of the United States where gay marriage is legal and we totally never invade it at all.
It's not a country, okay? It's just some dude in Minnesota with a big back yard.
Glad we got that out of the way.
Anyway, but there are some very nice authors living in that dude's back yard, like Margaret Atwood and...and I don't know, Michael Ondaatje? Really just Margaret Atwood. And here's a book she wrote.
I liked the first half the best, because we have this terrific villain, little nine-year-old Cordelia. Just a total Iago. And you're like holy shit, is she going to end up murdering our heroine? No, because it's narrated in first person as a flashback, but maybe she'll maim her a little.
It's a bit of a letdown, after that, to find out that everyone has their own perspective on things and even the most hissing of villains is more to be pitied than cursed. I was having fun with the cursing! But I guess a super perceptive story about real people is fine too.
I'm bumping a star off because there's an awful lot of very specific description of the protagonist's art, and I thought it all sounded fairly silly. But aside from that, Cat's Eye is a heck of an achievement for someone who lives in a fake place....more
This is a subtle, intelligent, sensitive, perceptive book. But it's also a little boring.
It has some spectacular moments! Tadeshina is a terrific charThis is a subtle, intelligent, sensitive, perceptive book. But it's also a little boring.
It has some spectacular moments! Tadeshina is a terrific character in the mold of the nurse from Romeo & Juliet, and her makeup is probably the best character in the book. And there's a scene involving Kiyoaki's nipple that's terrifically gay.
This may have been one of those cases where it was the wrong book at the wrong time. I wasn't prepared for something I had to immerse myself in at a Proustian level, but here it was, and I sorta cruised through it on autopilot. I appreciate that this is an excellent book. But...it's also a little boring....more
In David Foster Wallace's posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not there's a little piece called "Five Direly Underappreciated US Novels > 19In David Foster Wallace's posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not there's a little piece called "Five Direly Underappreciated US Novels > 1960," and Wallace goes off on paragraph-long defenses of some books he likes - "Bleak but gorgeous," he says of Omensetter's Luck, "like light through ice." But when he gets to Blood Meridian there's just this one line under it:
"Dont even ask."
Unfortunately everyone did anyway and this book, where you can identify the good guys as the ones who haven't actively killed any babies or puppies yet, is considered a Great American Novel by people who are probably no fun at parties at all.
Based on a true story about how everyone is terrible and life is torment, and also this guy's diary which sounds like a joy, Blood Meridian has more in common with Inferno and Paradise Lost than any specifically earthly matters. It feels more like a tour of Hell than of the Southwest circa 1850, and the monumental Judge Holden is the best Satan since Milton's, a relentlessly amoral force who insists on only two things: war and science. Like Milton's Satan, he gets all the best lines:
Whatever exists without my knowledge exists without my consent...Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.
By the way, and watch what happens next:
What's a suzerain?
A keeper. A keeper or overlord.
Why not say keeper then?
McCarthy does that after many of the Judge's speeches - just poking at them, and poking at his own tendency toward high-falutin' language while he's at it.
But McCarthy does share Milton's terrible force and authority with language. (And, while we're making comparisons, David Foster Wallace's tendency to play "fuck you" with a thesaurus.) What I learned about how to read him: a) do it slowly; b) don't worry overmuch about all the words you don't understand. (Although it is nice to read on a Kindle so you can look at least some of them up.) And take some pleasure in the moments when McCarthy describes "a urinecoloured sun," or "a solitary lobo, perhaps gray at the muzzle, hung like a marionette from the moon with his long mouth gibbering."
Yes, this is a brutal book. Tough to read. But it's very good. And I don't even mean that sort of book where you're like ugh, I guess it's good, I wish it was also enjoyable to read. You do get that feeling sometimes, but it fades as you go. By the end, the weirdest thing happens: as the climax hits you're actually excited. You're hoping the good guys, such as they are - less bad? - win. (view spoiler)[Obviously they don't, but they do lose in what I found to be a tremendously satisfying and right-feeling way. (hide spoiler)] Of all things, this book made me sad to realize I was near the end of it.
I'm not sure this is a Great American Novel, just because I'm not altogether convinced it takes place in America. This America looks a lot like an Inferno. But it is great.
And not just for reading! Check it out:
Blood Meridian Charades One of the things Cormac McCarthy enjoys is dead babies, but another is writing "like some" and then something insane. In this game, you pick anything that comes after "like some," and then try to act it out. If your friends don't get it, everyone drinks! Here, I've picked out a few to get you started:
Like some... - "Loutish knight be-riddled by a troll" - "Pale and bloated manatee surfaced in a bog" - "Queer unruly god abducted from a race of degenerates" - "Egregious saltland bard" - "Land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear"
I put a much longer list in a comment below. Have fun and keep it clean!["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
You know how everyone says this book is great? Well, me too. This book is great. I laughed and cried! Well, not really, but I came about as close to cYou know how everyone says this book is great? Well, me too. This book is great. I laughed and cried! Well, not really, but I came about as close to crying as I've come since Where the Red Fern Grows.
I hope you don't consider that a spoiler; if you don't suspect that not everyone's gonna make it through this book, you have misjudged it badly.
It's the story of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. There are a bunch of dudes and a bunch of ladies and a whole bunch of cows.
I blazed through this in four days, during which I had to be convinced to do anything other than read it. It's immensely entertaining, sharply written and observed, true about the nature of people. It has an epic scope but you'll never have any trouble keeping the characters apart; hell, you won't even have trouble keeping the horses apart.
There are a few extremely disturbing passages. One in particular involving guts that has merrily joined the rest of the nightmares roiling around at the bottom of my brain waiting for me to have insomnia. I wish McMurtry hadn't thought of that. Terrible things happen with little warning here. Get ready.
Absolutely one of my favorite books of the year....more
Okay, three stars because the premise is terrific: A modern black lady gets time traveled back into slavery times. So yeah, Louis CK basically said thOkay, three stars because the premise is terrific: A modern black lady gets time traveled back into slavery times. So yeah, Louis CK basically said the same thing but funnier, but Octavia Butler said it first!
But only three stars because urgh, I am not into this writing. Graceless and expository. It's a great idea, but it's not a very good book....more
And this is the peril of not knowing anything about a book. Maya Angelou's autobiography starts out as a pleasant but fairly conventional memoir, andAnd this is the peril of not knowing anything about a book. Maya Angelou's autobiography starts out as a pleasant but fairly conventional memoir, and then suddenly blammo, an extremely traumatic thing happens, with very little warning, that I was in no way prepared for.
Which is probably just what her actual life was like, except not a book, so there's that.
Anyway, if you haven't read this yet, you now know more than I did. Brace yourself.
Aside from the extreme trauma: this is an absolutely stunning book. What a writer Angelou is! Screamingly perceptive, beautiful, incisive.