I just noticed this is my 100th review. Or perhaps it is my 98th if you only count the sober ones (unless of course you’re using the Alex method, in w...moreI just noticed this is my 100th review. Or perhaps it is my 98th if you only count the sober ones (unless of course you’re using the Alex method, in which case I’ve only written two reviews because it’s only the drunken ones that count), and so I shall allow myself in light of this occasion to blather away without bothering my head about any forms whatsoever. (As opposed to the usual.)
Which reminds me of a quote I came across recently…
“The conviction is gradually forcing itself upon me that good literature is not a question of forms new or old, but of ideas that must pour freely from the author’s heart, without his bothering his head about any forms whatsoever.”
This quote doesn’t actually have a whole lot to do with The Seagull but one of its characters—a character whom I didn’t even like very much, if I’m being honest—says it in a soliloquy, which is the only time he seems to say anything interesting. But while this play does talk about books and literature and features writers and actors as characters and even contains a play-within-a-play, it is actually more about the things that aren’t being discussed. Because that is sort of how Chekhov rolls, right? It is the layering of subtext that fuels the play’s energies.
And I like that about Chekhov. I like that what isn’t going on is just as crucial as what is. I enjoy the understatedness of the characters’ interactions with one another and I like that major occurrences are generally played down rather than overdramatized with soap opera music and close-ups. And the more I talk about this play the more I wonder if I should’ve given it four stars instead of three, but in the end I found myself comparing it to other Chekhov plays and I simply didn’t love it as much as I loved, for example, The Cherry Orchard, which ends with a goosebump-inducing scene in which a family’s beloved cherry orchard is razed before they’ve even moved out of the fucking house! This play just ends with a whiny, self-obsessed little twirp doing what he should have done in Act I.
Treplev isn’t the only one who annoyed me. His mother Arkadina is a bit of a heartless monster. His love interest Nina is kind of a shallow pain in the ass, but she does exhibit some strength and resolve at the end of the play, qualities that redeem her in my eyes. But even though some of The Seagull’s characters aren’t necessarily likeable, they’re still fun to read about. I mean who doesn’t like a heartless monster in a matriarchal role?
I’m going to see this play performed in a couple of weeks by the Huntington Theatre Company and I am looking forward to it. Especially to the ending.
Also, I think I should probably write more drunken reviews. This one was way too sober.(less)
I’m rating this book two stars only on a technicality…which is that technically speaking, this book sucks.
Ursula Todd is an English-born nobody. Born...moreI’m rating this book two stars only on a technicality…which is that technically speaking, this book sucks.
Ursula Todd is an English-born nobody. Born into a large wealthy family, there isn’t a whole lot about her that stands out. She shares a closeness with one or two of her siblings, but overall she has a pretty meek personality and remains largely invisible most of her life—with the caveat that “most of her life” in Ursula’s case actually means “most of her lives” because this bitch keeps on dropping dead and coming back again.
Life After Life is a book that focuses on Ursula’s slow build-up, over the course of multiple lives (because it takes her hundreds of tries to get it right), to assassinating Adolf Hitler. This is not a spoiler, by the way. The assassination occurs on page one. The hundreds of lives it takes for her to get to that point occur on pages two through five hundred twenty-nine. And that includes the following exits, stage left (spoiler alert if you’re a Final Destination fan): umbilical cord strangulation, asphyxiation by natural gas, blunt force trauma by a falling brick wall, blunt force trauma by a homicidal husband, suicide by cyanide capsule, stroke (or whatever the hell that was on the park bench), falling off a roof, Spanish flu, drowning, Blitz bombing. Some of these happen repeatedly because it takes Ursula several lives to figure out that she’s doing something wrong and needs to adjust her strategy. She can’t exactly remember her previous deaths, but she does know something is amiss and can occasionally execute a modification to her preordained path and avoid that outcome...only to have a different mortal outcome occur in its stead, of course. (But truthfully, most of the time the modification occurs on its own without her having to do anything at all. Magic!)
And that is what is most bothersome to me, I think (besides her dull personality). It is exhausting to read about a woman dying over and over again only to be reborn right back where she started, and all without seeming to have any input into anything whatsoever. She just goes along with the program, a plastic bag beaten about by the wind. All the dumb things she has done along the way, all the idiots she enters into relationships with, it all starts over, and then you start to get confused as to who’s alive and who’s dead in this new life of hers and is she still with this person? Is she a mother this time around? A spinster? And then you start to realize that who cares. It doesn’t matter. She’ll just die again anyway. In fact the only time she ever starts to make real decisions is toward the end of the novel after she has lived a ludicrous number of lives, and are we supposed to be at this point rooting for her? What most of us have just one lifetime to figure out she gets hundreds, and even so it’s still not enough? One of my favorite of Ursula’s decisions is that after dying a bunch of times in the Blitz, she decides to spend her next life somewhere safer and moves from London to fucking Munich.
Also, the character interactions, which is something I usually enjoy in novels, is pretty nonexistent here. Characters don’t have meaningful interactions in Life After Life; they merely quip and provide one-liners before the narrative moves onto the next scene (which is often just as dull). Reading this book ultimately became tiresome to me, which is not really how you want your reading experience to go.
Looking at the ratings for this novel it’s clear I’m in the minority, which is why I felt a certain pressure to isolate the components of it that irritated me or caused me to dislike it, but the truth is I don’t really know for sure if it was any of these things in particular or if it was the whole package to blame, but the bottom line is that this book was just not for me.(less)
I sold my first car just a little over a year ago. It was sort of a bittersweet thing for me because even though that rustbox was old and broken there...moreI sold my first car just a little over a year ago. It was sort of a bittersweet thing for me because even though that rustbox was old and broken there was a comfortable familiarity there. I loved it in spite of itself. I venture to guess that if I were ever to get back into the driver’s seat (theoretically, of course—the car is long gone now), I’d be awash in nostalgic warmth and tenderness for it. Then, I’d start driving it and quickly remember that yes, the turn signal does sometimes blink spontaneously without driver input and yes, the heater fan does get “tired” if you keep it too long at Level 4. Oh, not to mention that weird noise when you first start it but I swear it will go away on its own once the car warms up. Still, I would love to be driving it again. In a lot of ways it was a great car; so what if it had a few shortcomings?
DFW’s got a few shortcomings. He’s got that twitchy way of winking at you in his footnotes (some of which go on for pages). He’s got the long, winding sentences that often have a kind of manic quality to them. And often times he devolves with his storytelling choices into an almost experimental writing style (e.g. providing the reader with a story in the form of his narrative notes rather than that of the finished product itself).
And yet, there is definitely still a loveable familiarity there. The footnotes are entertaining, sometimes even fairly amusing. The long sentences are actually pretty brilliant for the most part and lend his stories a qualitative edge that is unique to DFW and somehow just…works. I’m not particularly fond of the writing experiments but I can look past them when they crop up here and there and appreciate the story for what it is. All in all it’s not a bad drive and even with those DFW-isms I hated while reading Infinite Jest, it was nice being back in DFW territory.
Of course not every story in this collection worked for me, which is why I’m only giving it three stars. (Infinite Jest got four.) I hated “Church Not Made with Hands” and “Tri-Stan,” for example. That said, the stories I did like, I loved. Here are my favorites:
“Forever Overhead” “The Depressed Person” “Signifying Nothing” “Octet” “Adult World”
Oh and but except the other thing this DFW car does that’s pretty quirky sometimes is instead of successfully ending a story it’ll just(less)
When I read excerpts of Don Quixote in high school, which I think must be a requisite for any Spanish language class taken by anybody ever, I was asto...moreWhen I read excerpts of Don Quixote in high school, which I think must be a requisite for any Spanish language class taken by anybody ever, I was astounded that something so seemingly banal could be as wildly popular and possess such longevity as this book is and does. At the time, I did not find Don Quixote to be anything more than a bumbling fool chasing imaginary villains and falling into easily avoidable situations, and the forced hilarity that would ensue seemed to be of the same kind I recognized in farcical skits performed by eegits like The Three Stooges.
But I suspected there was something more to Don Quixote than what my 14 year-old impressions were telling me, and I’m glad I finally read this book in its entirety. Having done so, I’ve discovered that Don Quixote is not a bumbling idiot—far from it, in fact. He is highly intelligent, highly perceptive and observant, and most surprisingly, and in spite of his delusions of being a knight errant, he is actually also highly self-aware. The combination of these traits makes him one of the most interesting characters in literature, and if it weren’t for his fallibility in misinterpreting reality (to put it nicely), the brilliance of Don Quixote would be elevated to unapproachable levels.
Putting the characters aside, though, I have to say that the storytelling here is simply superb. When reading an English translation, I never know whether credit for this ought to be awarded to the author or to the translator (or to both!), but nonetheless this is the kind of writing that just pulls a reader along effortlessly. Each episodic adventure rolls seamlessly into the next and even while the subject of many of these adventures covers similar ground—a maiden who has been dishonored by her man is one such theme, for example—it never seems recycled.
Don Quixote is actually comprised of two volumes written about a decade apart. Historically speaking, there was an erroneous book published in between Cervantes’s own two works under the pretense of being the “real” volume two of the tale of Don Quixote, but was attributed to an unidentified author with the pseudonym Avellaneda. It is likely that this fake version lit a match under Cervantes, and what I love about this little piece of history is that when Cervantes actually completes his authentic second volume, it is riddled with allusions to Avellaneda’s deceptive book, and these allusions become so ingrained in the text that it becomes difficult to separate fact from fiction. At one point Don Quixote meets someone who claims to know him, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the claimant has actually met Avellaneda’s Don Quixote, and the real Don Quixote is horrified that someone should have the audacity, not just to impersonate him, but to do such a horrible job impersonating him, that he goes to great lengths (and yes, we’re talking about the character here) to prove to anyone and everyone that he is the real Don Quixote. He even changes his itinerary to avoid a city that the fake Don Quixote purportedly goes to, just to make it clear that Avellaneda is a lying whore and cannot be trusted. Metafictional stuff like that can be pretty entertaining in its own right, but the fact that it was implemented in a book written over four hundred years ago just makes it all the more mind blowing, or at least it does to me.
All in all, I had a hard time letting go of DQ when I finished this book. It turns out I really fell for the guy.(less)
Liking this book makes no sense. Not only are its characters subjected to like, the bleakest set of circumstances ever, but then those circumstances a...moreLiking this book makes no sense. Not only are its characters subjected to like, the bleakest set of circumstances ever, but then those circumstances are presented to the reader with such an alarming degree of authorial detachment that you almost have to wonder whether Mistry himself—fed up with the unending series of hardships his characters are required to endure—didn’t just raise his arms in the air and say, “Oh, fuck it.” And yet I could not tear myself away from this train wreck.
A Fine Balance presents neither a balanced nor a very fine account of a group of four Indian residents during the late 1970s. These folks, heralding from different castes and backgrounds, are tossed together by their individually perturbing situations to forge an unlikely bond—not unlike the bond formed among the cast members of Big Brother or The Real World except that in this case, the glamorous hot tub around which the characters congregate is replaced by a broken propane stove and a rusty tap from which water can be drawn only occasionally. For those not brushed up on their political history, the late 1970s saw India under the rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who, though largely considered one of India’s greatest prime ministers on account of her centralizing policies (the constitutionality of which, I suppose, could be debated), was certainly not among those in the author’s favor. Throughout the story, Mistry’s characters are continually being caught in Gandhi’s crossfire even while remaining mostly oblivious to the political climate surrounding them. We get the distinct impression that Mistry is trying really hard to keep his own opinions from interfering with the story, but it is pretty obvious dude’s got some serious bitterness issues to work out.
Anyway, this book is not without its flaws. A few characters bump into each other under repeatedly, under no plausible pretext other than pure coincidence, and this coincidence occurs frequently enough, especially toward the end of the novel, that the reader has to remind himself that this is India we’re talking about here, right? The one with a population density of a thousand people per square mile? Mistry makes us feel like this might be an India under glass, where the characters are tiny steel balls and Mistry is controlling the flippers.
This book is good, though. For all its doom and gloom, I still see the hope in its pages. Three of its characters are clothing tailors, and one of the repeated themes is something about how life is like the patchwork of a quilt, the good parts and the bad parts being sewn together—but if one were to try to remove the bad parts, he’d only end up with holes in his life.
(I suppose you’d have to think positively when you share a crapper with 150 other villagers.)(less)