They don't quite do it for me, these quiet, mundane episodes of Indian-Americans in varying stages of missing their cultural homeland. Which is not toThey don't quite do it for me, these quiet, mundane episodes of Indian-Americans in varying stages of missing their cultural homeland. Which is not to say I think they're bad, or that Ms. Lahiri is untalented. . . just that it's not my cup of milky Darjeeling.
I'm a fan of the straightforward prose, and Lahiri displays a strong grasp of imagery and details. You never doubt the authenticity of her stories (except for "Mrs. Sen's," which features the most selfless, sensitive and understanding young boy who ever lived).
But they tend to run together, these snippets of immigrants struggling within this alien culture, sometimes struggling because of the culture itself but just as often due to strained personal relationships. Also taxing is the relentless theme of sadness, loneliness and quiet despair.
My favorite story is the first one, "A Temporary Matter," a heartbreaking requiem for a marriage. Other good ones are "When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," "This Blessed House," and "The Third and Final Continent." I was surprised that the titular story left me coldest. It honestly seemed almost amateurish.
In sum, I can appreciate the quality of craftsmanship but have little interest in experiencing more of it. I think I need more flashing lights than Lahiri is offering.
The only thing I could think of while reading this is that it´s what that sensitive druggie high school dropout I always wondered about finally did wiThe only thing I could think of while reading this is that it´s what that sensitive druggie high school dropout I always wondered about finally did with himself. If you didn't have someone like that in your high school, for a stand-in you can just picture Jordan Catalano from "My So-Called Life" (the Jared Leto role). Except uglier. . . much uglier. This is the book he would have written 15 years after dropping out, after almost OD-ing several times, getting a bunch of other idiots hurt or killed and then finally cleaning up his act.
These are highly compelling stories about a generally despicable man trying to find his way in the world. Amazingly despicable, actually. "Ugly beauty" is a good oxymoron for this stuff. It's full of despair and cruelty and it could very well depress the hell out of you, but there's a strand of Buddhist wonder that permeates the whole enterprise. Johnson's really good at finding awe and beauty in the most horrible of places, and it's an impressive juxtaposition in these otherwise bleak essays.
His language is incredible as well. It's almost as much poetry as it is prose, with a loose, swingy rhythm and the random yet spot-on metaphors and imagery that leave you with little doubt as to Johnson's druggie credentials. There's a wonderful ambiguity in a lot of these devices; sometimes it's too much, but most of the time it imparts a wonderfully dreamy (or is it trippy?) feel.
Only a few of the stories didn't work for me. My favorites were: "Car Crash While Hitch-Hiking," "Out on Bail," "Dundun," "Work," and "Beverly Home." Johnson really has a knack for powerful endings, and I'll check out more of him some day. I would recommend this to anyone with at least a mildly twisted taste. . . someone who can handle the often shocking doings of this demented narrator. If you've read Poe Ballantine, who I like a lot and also recommend, this will give you the feeling that he owes a lot to Mr. Johnson.
(Crítica en español primero; English review below)
Estoy empezando a creer que no me guste en general la literatura moderna. Se podría mirar en mis "es(Crítica en español primero; English review below)
Estoy empezando a creer que no me guste en general la literatura moderna. Se podría mirar en mis "estantes" de libros para ver el énfasis en las clásicas, pero hasta ahora me había dicho que fue una cuestión de construir una base firme de conocimiento literario, no necesariamente una preferencia. Reciente estoy poniendo en duda esa asunción.
Uno de los factores principales en mi disgusto de la literatura moderna son los mecanismos de narración que a menudo me parecen demasiado elaborados. Libros como Let the Great World Spin, The Handmaid's Tale, y The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches sufren por esto: la voz artificial de sus narradores se pone inconsistente o literalmente increíble en varios puntos del cuento. Parece casi un requisito para autores contemporáneos, como si el contenido del cuento no fuera suficiente para sostener una novela, o quizás como si todos las historias se hayan contado así que un moderno pueda solamente ofrecer manera novedosa de contarlo, o tal vez el mero deseo de lucirse. (Algunos libros que utilizan un mecanismo elaborado con buen efecto son The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Elementary Particles y The Feast of the Goat.)
Lamento que este libro también complique su narrativa innecesariamente. En varios episodios del libro -- un "artículo" de revista, las "letras y documentos" de unos muertos -- es simplemente increíble que estos mecanismos divulguen tanta información (y en el caso del "artículo," en la misma voz del propio narrador). Además, no queda para nada claro por que se necesita comenzar la novela 13 años en el futuro, cuando nunca regresa a esa época para envolver a la historia, y no menciona nada en las primeras páginas que sea vinculada con las consecuencias últimas de la historia. Supongo que se haga por proveer un poco de contexto, pero se podía también sin esas dos primeras páginas. . . ubicando la historia de "sobre" dentro de una ventana de tres años, en cambio de trece.
Otro problema con la novela es su estructura de misterio, por dos razones: primero, dentro de las primeras 20 pàginas aprendes que el muerto era un piloto colombiano que se había encarcelado por 20 años. . . cualquier lector podría adivinar por lo menos una idea general de por que se mató. Sin embargo, la segunda razón es más fatal, y es que nunca se revela la causa directa de muerte -- porque "ya no importa." Si no importa, no se puede escribir toda la novela como si fuera lo único importante. Esta conclusión es singularmente insatisfactoria. Entiendo que refuerza al tema del libro, que el narrador necesitaba aceptarlo y adelantarse la vida, pero todavía sentía como un escape injustificado.
A pesar de estos defectos, habían cosas que me gustaban mucho del libro. Provee una descripción fascinante y conmovedora de la realidad de una generación de jóvenes creciendo en Colombia (más bien en Bogotá) en las 80 y 90. Vásquez describe muy efectivamente lo único y trágico de crecer en tal ambiente, y como colombiano adoptado (mi esposa es de Cartagena, de donde ahora escribo mientras visitamos a los suegros) aprecio mucho esta mirada dentro de la cultura. . . es verdaderamente un país trágico, en muchos niveles.
También Vásquez mete buenos pensamientos sobre la identidad, la memoria, y otros toques psicológicos. A veces resultan un poco pretenciosos (como por ejemplo cuando dice que "el presente no existe en la realidad". . . ahh no, claramente no conoce mucho al Budismo), pero por lo general provocan buenos momentos de consideración. . . me gustó particularmente la explicación del título. Aquí es otro que ocurrió temprano:
La vida, en esas épocas que ahora me parecen pertenecer a otro, estaba llena de posibilidades. También las posibilidades, constaté después, pertenecían a otro: se fueron extinguiendo imperceptiblemente, como la marea que se retira, hasta dejarme con lo que ahora soy. 17
Un imágen genial acompaña a esta idea provocadora, y la pretensión es evidente en la primera línea. Para un hablante no nativo del español, el lenguaje del libro fue muy accesible: directo y sencillo pero todavía con buen ritmo y buena elaboración.
En fin, me parece una historia interesante que probablemente no necesitara ser tan larga. La propia historia es sencilla, y tal vez por eso Vásquez creía que necesitaba elaborarla con una estructura (y narración) artificial que no servía bien. Hubiese preferido mucho más que cuente la historia de perspectiva omnisciente -- no me hubiese distraído tanto. Pero es muy valeroso como un artefacto del narcotráfico de Colombia (las víctimas son muchas y continuas); probablemente vale la pena leerlo solo por él. Yo recomendaría que se lea sin saber mucho de la trama, para evitar la decepcíon cuando no iguale la descripción externa.
Por casualidad bastante impresionante, leí una entrevista del autor justamente después de escribir lo anterior cuando acompañé a mi esposa a una cita óptica. La entrevista fue de una revista de un EPS, como si ya no fuera lo suficiente rara la coincidencia. Pero me cayó bien Sr. Vásquez, y a pesar de los defectos en este libro estoy intrigado para leer más de él, tal vez The Informers, lo cual la entrevista comentó fue el único libro escrito en otro idioma que el inglés para lograr los "Top 10" de Amazon en 2009.
I'm beginning to believe that I don't like modern lit in general. Looking at my shelves you'd see the emphasis on the classics, but up to now I'd told myself it was just about building a strong foundation of literary knowledge, not necessarily a preference. Recently I'm doubting that assumption.
I'm sorry to say that this book also unnecessarily complicates the narration. At various points of the book -- a magazine "article," the "letters and documents" of a dead woman -- it's simply incredible that these "documents" could divulge as much information as they do (and in the case of the "article," in the same exact voice as the narrator's). Moreover, it's not at all clear why the story needed to start 13 years from the time of events, when we never return to that time period to wrap it up and there's nothing mentioned in those first couple of pages that has anything to do with the consequences of the story. I suppose it was done to provide a little context, but that could have been done without the first two pages, placing the story's envelope in that three year window instead of starting 13 years out.
Another problem was its mystery structure, for two reasons: first, within the first 20 pages we learn that the dead guy was a Colombian pilot who was imprisoned for 20 years. . . any reader could guess at least a general idea for why the guy got wacked. Nonetheless, the second reason is worse, and it's that the direct cause of death is never explicitly stated, because "it doesn't matter anymore." If it doesn't matter, you can't present the whole novel as if that were the only important thing. This conclusion is singularly unsatisfactory. I do get that this conclusion reinforces the theme of the book, that the narrator needed to move on and let go. It still feels like a cop-out.
Despite these defects, there were things I liked a lot in the book. It gives a fascinating and moving description of the reality for an entire generation of Colombian youth in the 80s and 90s. Vásquez describes very effectively the uniqueness and tragedy of growing up in such an environment, and as an adopted Colombian (my wife is from Cartagena, from where I'm now writing as we visit the in-laws) I greatly appreciate this glimpse into the culture. . . it's truly a tragic country on many levels.
Vásquez also inserts good thoughts about identity, memory and other psychological touches. They sometimes come off pretentious (such as when he says "the present does not exist in reality". . . um no I don't think so, clearly you're not overly familiar with Buddhism), but they generally incite nice little moments of pondering. I particularly liked the titular passage (p.83), and here's another from early on (my translation):
Life, in those times that now seem to belong to someone else, was full of possibilities. The possibilities as well, I realized afterward, belonged to someone else: over time they were extinguished imperceptibly, like the tide as it recedes, until leaving me the person I am today. 17
Great imagery -- the "receding sea of possibilities" -- accompanies the provocative thought, and you can also see the tendency to pretension in the first line. For a non-native Spanish speaker the book's language was very accessible: direct and simple but with good rhythm and decoration.
Ultimately it seems like an interesting story that probably didn't need to be this long. The story itself is simple, and perhaps because of this Vásquez believed it necessary to contrive a structure (and narrative device) that ended up detracting instead of adding. I would have much preferred that he tell this story from 3rd person omniscient -- it wouldn't have distracted me as much. But it's extremely valuable as an artifact of the Colombian drug trade (the casualties are many and continuing); it's probably worthwhile to read it for that alone. I'd recommend that if you read it, do so without knowing much about it, as I've seen many complaints that the book didn't match its external descriptions. I didn't have that problem at all because I knew very little going in.
As an impressive coincidence, I read an interview with the author right after writing the above when I accompanied my wife to an eye exam. The interview was in, of all place, an HMO-sponsored magazine for medical waiting rooms, as if it weren't already a strange enough coincidence. But Mr. Vásquez came across as very likable, and despite my problems with this book I'm intrigued to read more of him, perhaps The Informers, which the interview stated was the only non-English book to make it into Amazon's top 10 from 2009.
When I started this Orwell was my favorite author ever, and one volume of his most personal writings have done nothing to change that status. His typiWhen I started this Orwell was my favorite author ever, and one volume of his most personal writings have done nothing to change that status. His typically clear, incisive prose is on full display, while his perpetually calm and reasoned attitude -- especially when speaking about his contemporaries -- continues to give him an aura of being the only adult in a room full of squabbling children. It's very hard to disagree with him when he uses such plain logic.
Orwell's opinion on other writers and famous figures is fascinating and often transformative, highlights being H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, D.H. Lawrence, W.B. Yeats, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Twain, Churchill and Gandhi. His tone towards these folks is one of straightforward modesty, though he does occasionally lapse into a strange mixture of bullheaded arrogance and idealistic naiveté (especially as regards Socialism). The most glaring example of this is his repeated certainty in the first years of WWII that Britain could only win by undergoing revolutionary class upheaval, a prediction which turned out almost shockingly narrow-minded. I couldn't help feeling simultaneously amused and sad at knowing just how wrong his "end of capitalism" proclamations have turned out. He'd sure be horrified today, wouldn't he?
Specific highlights are "No, Not One," "Pacifism and the War" for a glimpse at what those he criticized thought of him, and "Looking Back on the Spanish War," which recalled his excellent and under-read Homage to Catalonia (see my review). But really the whole thing is valuable as a prolonged glimpse into one of the great minds of Western Civilization during such a volatile period.
It actually surprised me that his Wartime Diaries included at the end of the book were perhaps my favorite part, just because they provide such an amazingly clear window into not only the complex political machinations behind the simplified history that we all learn (e.g.: propaganda; British domestic politics and popular wartime attitudes; Anglo-Indian relations; the tense and turbulent relationship between Britain and Russia), but also because of their vivid and often beautiful portrayal of what life for a common citizen during those times must have been.
There's a span between pp. 420-28 where Orwell describes the horror of air raids and food shortages, and it's absolutely amazing to think that actual people suffered through these things only 70 years ago. It's especially powerful for a U.S. audience, since we can literally not comprehend how it must have felt to be subject to threats on our very sovereignty. To put it in terms a North American could understand: it would be like knowing 9/11 is happening beforehand and then experiencing it every night, all night long for months on end. Orwell's portrayal is riveting, but only because he writes without pretense; his goal is only to describe popular morale and give examples but his innate talent makes it so much more. Some of his more poignant entries:
19 October 1941: The unspeakable depression of lighting the fires every morning with papers of a year ago, and getting glimpses of optimistic headlines as they go up in smoke.
22 January 1941: The onion shortage has made everyone intensely sensitive to the smell of onions. A quarter of an onion shredded into a stew seems exceedingly strong. E. the other day knew as soon as I kissed her that I had eaten onions some 6 hours earlier.
4 March 1941: At Wallington. Crocuses out everywhere, a few wallflowers budding, snowdrops just at their best. Couple of hares sitting about in the winter wheat and gazing at one another. Now and again in this war, at intervals of months, you can get your nose above water for a few moments and notice that the earth is still going around the sun.
Overall this book is important not only for Orwell completists but as a historical document. The diaries alone are a treasure in this respect. For ardent fans of Orwell as well as WWII history buffs it's a must-read, but even casual fans or poli-sci enthusiasts will appreciate his political and economic views. I plan on reading the next two volumes, though probably not the first as I am more interested in seeing how his thought develops, now that I know where he was at in his mid-30s.
Caveat: I didn't finish it, or even make it through the first story. Since I've lived in Colombia and my wife is from there, there's something deeplyCaveat: I didn't finish it, or even make it through the first story. Since I've lived in Colombia and my wife is from there, there's something deeply arrogant and even offensive to me about this guy attempting to discuss the FARC (oh excuse me -- MURC) situation from a privileged intellectual's perspective without ever having stepped foot in the country. I stopped reading when Fountain's young, white "enlightened" proxy began scolding the Marxists for mismanaging their revolution. I've spent almost three years in Colombia and would never presume to lecture anyone on the topic except with the most modest of disclaimers.
And on top of this presumption, the dialogue is laughably stilted. . . it reminds me of stuff I used to do at age 25, before I had even attempted to write seriously, where your characters converse in ways that no normal people speak, just so they can discuss Important Things. Talk about contrived.
This is what passes for award-winning, 4-star short stories these days? Well then, please excuse me while I find my way back to the classics section....more
A strange, somehow-alien figure hobbles across the craggy landscape in the stark moonlight, with weird, unearthly spires jutting around him and a massA strange, somehow-alien figure hobbles across the craggy landscape in the stark moonlight, with weird, unearthly spires jutting around him and a massive, oppressive stone castle-church looming in the distance, a dark edifice which houses horrific secrets of an ancient, untold mythology, the facts of which would certainly drive the strongest man immediately insane.
This is the image that Lovecraft arouses in me, along with a sort of nebulous sentiment of anguish and despair. This precise scene does not occur anywhere in these stories, but it seems like it could, and it gives you a pretty good idea about what you're in for should you pick up this book. Perhaps better than anything else, Lovecraft creates an oppressive mood of slow-mounting horror; it permeates nearly everything he wrote, a defining quality that is arguably his greatest legacy.
As well as he does that, however, I can't shake the idea that he was a two- or three- trick pony at most. He mostly tells the same story over and over again (especially his later stuff), except from different perspectives, sort of like World War Z. It's a story of some ancient alien race that has been secretly present on earth since before humanity and is more or less trying to take over the world. Half the stories here conform to that description. He essentially wrote variations on a theme, and it got old.
Couple this with the lack of narrative tension -- yes there's an apprehensive mood and a generally disturbing quality throughout, but no real suspense -- and it provides a strangely unimpressive reading experience. I wanted to like these stories more than I did. Indeed, I liked the ideas of the stories, their premises, more than the stories themselves.
And I do believe there's genius behind those premises, but writing them all from the same general perspective -- an investigator/scholar/reporter using eyewitnesses and a written record to reconstruct events -- bled them of any urgency or fascination. They were distinctly non-compelling. The formal, distractingly ornate prose didn't help either except to give everything an off-putting, Victorian air.
(It's strange to think that eminently readable authors like Maugham, Hesse, Huxley and Forster were writing at the same time. Even if you limit it to U.S. authors who were contemporaries of Lovecraft, you have a group that included Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and John Fante. Not sci-fi/horror writers maybe, but all of them far from Lovecraft's irritating stiffness.)
I'm not sure if this was more a style of the times or just particular to Lovecraft, but I found myself wishing throughout the book for just a little 3rd-person omniscient. He got the closest to this in the last story, "The Haunter in the Dark," which uses the reporting essentially as an envelope; not surprisingly this was one of the best stories in the collection. That it was his last story ever makes me wonder if he was moving naturally toward a more compelling narrative style, and if perhaps he would have written even better stories had he lived longer.
None of his earliest stories are very memorable except for "Herbert West -- Reanimator" and "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn," though "Reanimator" is again better in theory than execution, and "Arthur Jermyn" was essentially redone much more captivatingly in the brilliant "The Shadow over Innsmouth." "The Rats in the Walls" was the first story that I thought was really great, and it sort of signals a coming escalation in quality for the rest of the book, which picks up for good at "The Call of Cthulhu." Four of the last five stories were terrific despite being formulaic; the poor exception was "The Whisperer in Darkness" which was as ludicrously contrived as it was tired.
But "Cthulhu," "The Colour Out of Space," "Innsmouth" and "The Haunter in the Dark". . . definitely worth reading. If you include "The Rats in the Walls" with those four I think you can forget all the rest. If you love those and want to read more afterward, you'll be free to while also knowing you're not missing much if you don't. I haven't read At the Mountains of Madness, which many include with his best works, but the plot description makes it look like yet another variation, which I don't feel compelled to read. I think I'll just wait and hope that Guillermo del Toro finally gets his wish to adapt it to film. Oh, and I'd recommend reading the stories before their introductions, which sometimes contained spoilers.
To sum up: Lovecraft was very good at several things, of which the two main ones IMO were his creation of mood and his extremely imaginative, hugely influential cosmic mythology. Those are reason enough to recommend at least an acquaintance with his work, though probably not enough to overcome the boredom of delving through all the similar stories in a collection like this. There are five stories here that are definitely worth your while, just to know Lovecraft and appreciate his skill and influence. I'd only recommend the rest of the book to ardent fans.
In recently re-reading John Fante's letters, I noticed he described his magnum opus Ask the Dust as "like Human Bondage, but with humor and wistfulnesIn recently re-reading John Fante's letters, I noticed he described his magnum opus Ask the Dust as "like Human Bondage, but with humor and wistfulness." Given that Dust is one of my all-time favorite books (see my review), and that Bondage has been collecting dust (ahem) on my to-read shelf for a great many months, I decided that Fante's letter was the perfect cue to pick up this otherwise intimidatingly-dense tome.
(By the way, if you haven't read Ask the Dust yet, you should literally stop everything right now in order to obtain a copy and read it.)
The parallels between Dust and Bondage are indeed obvious, what with a young sensitive type obsessed with a non-requiting insensitive type. Fante's description about humor and wistfulness is spot on as well. Maugham doesn't have the poetic flourishes that Fante whips out by the dozen, but I quite liked his unadorned, direct style; it gives me some reassurance in my own similarly plain writing.
Thematically, Maugham reminds me of Hesse, who also deals with the search for beauty among the mundane. They're similarly preoccupied with ideas of metaphysics and spirituality, though Maugham seems to take a broader view, looking at the world as a whole and searching for patterns of human behavior. Hesse, for his part, remains fixated on the dichotomy of the earthly v. the ethereal and never reaches a satisfying conclusion. Maugham doesn't seem to explicitly identify this dichotomy, though he appears to settle eventually on the earthly side of it with his own relatively unsatisfying conclusion. It's interesting that this work predates Hesse's most important works by five years or so.
Despite its density this was a quick and engaging read. I loved it for almost the entire first half, fascinated by Phillip's adventures in Heidelberg and Paris, and intrigued to see where he ended up. I recognized a lot of myself in Phillip and thus enjoyed his musings on a personal level as well.
Unfortunately most of my enjoyment screeched to a halt when Mildred entered the story. Most unfortunate is that she essentially became the story's centerpiece, the plot alternating between Phillip's desperate obsession and Mildred's cruel rejections. This dragged on for too long, and when Maugham finally jerked the narrative out of this rut he was left with far too few pages to craft a satisfying, well-paced ending. The relationship with Sally, telegraphed as early as p. 425, was left completely untapped until being disjointedly rushed to fruition in the final 20 pages. I liked where it ended up, on an optimistic and joyful note, but it did not feel earned in so little space, and following on the heels of so much depression and despair.
Additionally, some of the symbolism was a little too on-the-nose -- especially the mirrored relationships between Phillip-Norah-Mildred and Mildred-Phillip-Miller/Griffiths. It would have been understandable even without so much heavy-handed repetition. Still, as I said before the book remained quite readable throughout, and I always enjoyed Phillip's existentialist musings, even if they were also repetitive after a while.
One note that is not a criticism but rather is something I feel unable to grasp in reading about this era is how people responded to love and betrayal. First of all, it's bizarre to see the phrase "make love" meaning something so clearly different from what we understand it as today. I'm still not sure exactly what it means in Maugham's context. Is it just courting, or flirting, or romantic repartee? Then there's kissing, which is apparently done even if you don't really like someone, as Mildred did with Phillip, sort of out of duty when someone does nice things for you. I can only assume that kissing at that time meant much less than it does to us, since it conveyed no claim on a romantic relationship whatsoever.
Then there's betrayal, which apparently is no big deal either, considering how characters like Mildred, Phillip and Griffiths handle it as a matter of routine. There appears to be little sense of what we now consider shame or honor, none of the horrible things that Mildred/Griffiths do are ever discussed directly, and everyone just sort of goes on as if massive betrayal is a fact of life. I can't figure out if this was normal or if Phillip is just that much of a sap, but the latter doesn't seem quite consistent with the rest of how he's presented. To be clear, I don't consider this a fault in the book, just something that generally baffles me about this era.
Summing up, this is a novel, like those of Hesse, in which ideas about life and existence enjoy primacy. Its great first half is diminished by a misguided second, though most people should find something to identify with in Phillip, a surrogate for Maugham himself. Bondage is perhaps a common ancestor of Hesse and Fante, the former of which explored similar ideas and the latter similar characters. It's good to read for the same reason that many classics are: for a more complete frame of reference on literature in general, and because it offers many useful insights into the human condition.
An ugly little debut with First Novel written all over it. It's not difficult to see why it remained unpublished during Fante's lifetime. The most surAn ugly little debut with First Novel written all over it. It's not difficult to see why it remained unpublished during Fante's lifetime. The most surprising and disappointing aspect is how unrecognizable Bandini is here compared to the glorious Ask the Dust (see my review), offensive and obnoxious compared to bold and brilliant.
Fante does a good job channeling the arrogance of youth, and a lot of the discrepancies between the two Bandinis could probably be chalked up to just that, in addition to his isolation in the later work (i.e., he has no loved ones to continuously abuse as he does here). But it really just reminded me of my own first efforts at writing, which will also remain mercifully unpublished.
The differences between the two novels don't end at the protagonist. The language here is much flatter, not the soaring imagery and innovative flow of Dust. Again: First Novel, understandable. But there's also little to nothing that happens here, and while that was somewhat similar in Dust, there were still various interpersonal connections in that one, not just the one-way invectives or obsessive fantasies you get here. Consequently, the title is somewhat of a misnomer in all but the metaphorical sense. You don't see Bandini physically making his way to Los Angeles; you just see the precious few events that lead to his decision to go there.
But Bandini himself stays largely the same from first page to last, literally psychotic at times, even displaying occasional self-consciousness of his mental disturbance. There are even flashes of "Walter Mitty" here, though a sinister Mitty, with Bandini's tendency to convert the mundane into the self-aggrandizing fantastical (interestingly, "Mitty" wouldn't be published until three years after this was written). But Bandini's flights of fancy, unlike Mitty's, hold real-world consequences.
Ask the Dust is one of my all-time favorite books, beautiful and inspiring, so I was eager to read the entire Bandini saga in chronological order. Sadly, though I read this in just a day I didn't enjoy it at all, save for a nice little interlude of lovely cheer when Bandini helps an old lady carry her bags and comes away inspired by his own goodness, albeit all-too-briefly (pp. 48-9). But I can't recommend it to anyone except for Fante completists and other writers, and I hope Wait Until Spring, Bandini will be closer in quality to its successor than its predecessor.
You can't blame Fante for this one though, because though he wrote it he also recognized after-the-fact that it shouldn't be published. It's disrespectful in a way for his estate to have published it posthumously; Fante certainly had every opportunity to do it himself so you have to assume he deliberately decided not to. And something of such inferior quality can only serve to diminish his legacy. So while it may be valuable as an objective record of Fante's literary transformation, that's probably the only way it should be read and appreciated.
Update after perusing other reviews: It's striking how many people loved this book, yet out of all the positive reviews almost none of them mention Ask the Dust, or they admit this being the first Fante book they've read. For those waffling on Fante do yourself a favor and read Dust FIRST, then this, then decide what you think of this one. If you put the two books side by side they're not even close in quality, and it seems like the people who really admire this book are doing it without the context of Fante's masterpiece. In other words: believe me and not them! (How's that for a final Bandini-esque flourish?)
For readers like me who prefer longer stories and novels, this one can feel a little difficult to latch onto. The "stories" are made up of not so muchFor readers like me who prefer longer stories and novels, this one can feel a little difficult to latch onto. The "stories" are made up of not so much narratives as brief moments (which of course have tiny little stories of their own). Ironically, despite their brevity they really require quite a bit more attention than the huge panorama of a novel, where you can miss some pieces while still comprehending the whole. These require significantly more effort to appreciate, and they tend to run together if you're not used to paying close attention. It's counterintuitive and kind of fascinating that such short stories can actually be more difficult for those with an attention deficit.
The more I read, the more I realized that these tiny little stories were more akin to poetry -- or even the Japanese koan -- than to traditional prose. The level of attention required is not the only similarity. In a lot of ways micro fiction is an excellent bridge between traditional fiction and poetry, especially for those like me who have never felt themselves able (or willing) to spend the energy to truly fathom the latter.
So while I still feel somewhat baffled by these non-traditional works, I liked a lot of them and I'll keep the collection around to reread, waiting (hoping?) for that one day when I'll feel up to the effort of really sitting and pondering with them. Something else to recommend this collection: female authors are equally represented for a change. The stories are also the perfect length for some weird bathroom reading.
I got about halfway through before finally putting it down. Basically I realized there was no need to continue torturing myself (even though it's realI got about halfway through before finally putting it down. Basically I realized there was no need to continue torturing myself (even though it's really difficult for me to stop reading a book, even one I dislike). I just need more substance out of my literature, whereas this is mostly form and style. Vonnegut's always good and I liked "Jewbird" and "Pecan Tree," but the Brautigan was beyond me and I gave up for good after the first LeRoi Jones story.
A legitimate, objective criticism is that this collection has no female authors. I guess women writers from the 70s weren't innovative enough for Mr. Klinkowitz . . .?
But in the end my main reason for quitting is just a matter of personal taste. If you're into really weird/abstract/absurdist stuff you will probably dig this....more
Stephen King called this basically the best short story collection ever and that was enough for me. I've been searching it out since, figuring somethiStephen King called this basically the best short story collection ever and that was enough for me. I've been searching it out since, figuring something as wonderful as King says wouldn't be so hard to find (I eventually had to check it out from a university library after not finding it for years second-hand and refusing to pay 30-some-odd dollars online).
I was expecting something a little bolder perhaps than this staid anthology of popular classics -- the editors basically printed the most often-published stories of the previous 70 years or so -- but I can't complain about the results. It serves as an excellent introduction to the classics of the format; I'm using it as sort of a jumping off point for an in-depth exploration of short stories per se and it has served me well in this respect, showing me essentially a baseline for high quality short literature, and in many cases the very birth of certain styles and techniques. I would recommend it to fans of classic literature for that reason alone.
Overall I really liked almost half of the stories, finding the other half forgettable. I absolutely loved three of them (London's "To Build a Fire," Maugham's "Rain" and Tarkington's "Monsieur Beaucaire") and adored a few more. 40 stories is a lot and you can't like 'em all I don't think. Here are the ones that stuck with me:
"The Devil and Daniel Webster" - Stephen Vincent Benet "Back for Christmas" - John Collier "Youth" - Joseph Conrad "The Bar Sinister" - Richard Harding Davis "A Rose for Emily" - William Faulkner "Old Man Minick" - Edna Ferber "The Three Strangers" - Thomas Hardy "The Monkey's Paw" - W.W. Jacobs "Champion" - Ring Lardner "The Fly" - Katherine Mansfield "Murder in the Rue Morgue" and "The Gold-Bug" - Edgar Allen Poe "Chickamauga" - Thomas Wolfe
The Poe stories are of course classics, and his most published ever according to Wikipedia, but I couldn't help being a little disappointed not to have some of his more macabre stuff like "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Pit and the Pendulum" or "The Cask of Amontillado." It's strange for me to have to reorient my perspective of Poe to consider him almost first and foremost the creator of the modern detective story. Strange but true.
As for my loves, well I don't know I think you have to experience them to really understand what I want to say here. For example, sure you know Jack London is an outdoorsman and a frontier-y type of writer, and he likes his snow and his dogs, but you don't know until you read "To Build a Fire" that he's also a high master of suspense, bringing the cold to you and making you suffer along with his poor misguided protagonist. I have rarely been as tense while reading anything.
"Rain" stayed with me for days afterward, and I can still think back with a smile upon its perfection. I see in it a precursor to a lot of what Salinger was trying to do in Nine Stories, what with this unbearable interpersonal tension that winds up snapped in the most horrific and bizarre way possible. The resolution is at the same time shocking and utterly inevitable, and it hits you like something really heavy that hits things hard.
"Monsieur Beaucaire" is a wonderfully elaborate mystery that you don't know is a mystery until its Dickensian ending, an ending which is not quite Dickensian because the reader is kept in the dark along with the rest of the characters. It's beautiful though. I also want to give a special shoutout to "Chickamauga" for the amazing voice, much better done IMO than Twain in "The Celebrated Jumping Frog," which I have to say I still don't really get as a piece of literature.
So the best ever? Not sure, some of it definitely feels stuffy and dated. I'm also definitely not qualified to say, but someone like Stephen King might know. Is it something you should read if you like classic literature and short stories? Definitely. Something I want to own some day, when I can justify the asking price for an out-of-print book? Also yes.
The information here is important and convincing, if unengaging. I'm not a trained researcher so it may not impress you to hear that I couldn't find mThe information here is important and convincing, if unengaging. I'm not a trained researcher so it may not impress you to hear that I couldn't find many holes in the data analysis. Another disclosure: I am a public educator and thus suffer from the accompanying biases. That said, this sure seems like a cogent argument for not only how private/charter schools are less effective than public schools, but also for why that might be so. Perhaps most impressive is that, while the authors' position is clear, the presentation is always respectful of the opposite position and almost never polemical.
Basically, the Lubienskis present data that confirms what many pro-public schoolers have been saying for years: the difference in performance between the two sectors (i.e., the raw scores) is due not to the effectiveness of the school but rather to a difference in student ability. In other words, if you were to somehow assure that both private and public sectors were dealing with the same breakdown of student demographics (principally racial and socio-economic), then public schools would score as well or better than any others. This is as intuitive as it is (here) borne out by facts.
The next question is why public schools are more effective, and the Lubienskis boil it down to two main factors: teacher certification and the adoption of more modern, research-based instructional practices. They suppose -- and this is the weakest part of the book, toward the end when they begin engaging in poorly supported hypotheses -- that allowing more autonomy for teachers in the private sector leads to complacency and stronger adherence to outdated teaching models. In other words, they suspect that the bureaucratic control over teaching and professional development in public schools actually produces results, an idea that should make private/charter folk shudder in their boots.
My favorite aspect of the book is how it really crystallized some of the problems I have with the market theory of education. First of all, I'm convinced that some things are more important than the profit motive; health and education are two of those things, and I don't think anyone will ever convince me otherwise. So the idea of just sort of throwing education up in the air and letting it flutter down like a leaf on the wind of market forces is really horrifying to me. The Lubienskis helped me better understand this horror with some of their arguments.
First of all, assuming that parents can automatically recognize good educational practices (an important premise when consumers are supposed to make educated choices about products and services) is just wrong. That simply doesn't happen with schools, where true outcomes aren't seen for years. . . and in the meantime if you've chosen wrong, well WHOOPS, that kid didn't work out so well so I guess you'll have to choose better next time. Your bad!
Is this really the kind of world we want for our children, where literally their very futures become totally uncertain? Is it really necessary to point out that there is literally no area of the private sector that has been impervious to fraud, extortion, collusion and/or price-fixing? And we want to import those problems into a comparatively healthy public sector? We want to willingly convert our children into monetary units, to be manipulated and fought over like supermarket shoppers? Maybe it's just me, but it seems absolutely insane that people are proposing this and being supported.
Parents can't make informed decisions when there's not even consensus on how schools perform relative to each other. And as the Lubienskis point out frequently, the market theory idea that rational consumers will make informed choices doesn't play out here, where parents routinely select schools based on criteria other than quality education. Do we want parents to be able to use public funds, for example, to pay conservative Christian schools just based on religious values, when all evidence points to them being the absolute worst-performing of all schools? It's the slickest of slopes. Another important factor is the idea of competition between schools leading to unintended outcomes, such as schools devoting more energy to marketing and student exclusion. Marketing people make good livings off of persuading people to buy things, and if that power is applied to the education "market," how much less informed will the parental decisions be?
Most importantly is one that they don't hit on directly, and which I alluded to above, which is that education is not one of our country's sectors that you want to leave open to the arbitrary pull of market forces. There are certain areas of life that require, you know, vision and planning, and education is one of those. You don't just expose it to whichever entrepreneur wants to make a buck; you have to protect it, nurture it, be its steward. Otherwise you're just begging to have the entire education infrastructure of our country destroyed. And what some people may not understand is that we've been there before. We didn't like it, what with the rampant inequality and our undereducated workforce. It's what, you know, led us to come up with public education in the first place.
Okay so I'll limit my diatribe to damages already incurred, but one last point is that I did look up rebuttals to the book before writing this, just because I wanted to make sure I wasn't missing something obvious. It seems like the only conservative rebuttal of any substance was by Patrick Wolf on the "Education Next" website. Yet his points aren't relevant.
He complains, for instance, that the Lubienskis used only math performance, yet when citing reading scores, he omits one of the most significant factors that the Lubienskis admit they couldn't adequately measure, namely that private school parents are probably more invested in education and thus more likely to read to them at home than their public school counterparts. Wolf would prefer to use other measures such as graduation rate, post-secondary schooling, criminal activity, and others, all measures that coincidentally depend much more on a student's demographic than on her/his schooling.
Wolf then complains that performance is measured using tests that align more closely with public than private school curricula, yet somehow I can't imagine him making the same distinction would the tests show higher scores for private schools. He then closes by triumphantly proclaiming that "this book has nothing to say empirically about school voucher programs," since "voucher recipients make up a tiny fraction. . . in the data set the authors examine."
This last, however, is either willfully or ignorantly missing the point. For if the Lubienskis can show that private schools in general do not outperform public schools, then the voucher debate is irrelevant. This is because without a significant advantage in private school efficacy, there is no compelling reason to switch from a well-established service provider to a more expensive one that is largely unregulated and unproven.
And here's a question for all the market proponents: how much economic sense does it make to pay more for a service that's either equal or inferior to the one you're already getting for free?
Unevenness is an inevitable characteristic of short story anthologies, not because the quality of story varies across the collection, but rather becauUnevenness is an inevitable characteristic of short story anthologies, not because the quality of story varies across the collection, but rather because among such variety there's bound to be certain styles that please one's individual taste more or less than others. It's not something you can really hold against the anthology, however, because it's simply part of its nature. If you don't like the variety, you should read something different.
You can blame this particular anthology, however, for not fulfilling its mission of being "useful to young writers, and to others interested in literary technique," which happens here occasionally with the introductions that are included ostensibly to help you. Some of them achieve the goal of clarity, with Alarcon on Joy Williams, Beattie on Craig Nova, Davis on Jane Bowles, and Williams on Dallas Wiebe being some specific examples of illumination. Others are maddeningly vague and amorphous; even after reading them I felt unclear of the story's point. As the probable nadir of these introductions, Wells Towers's intro to "The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge" is not only useless but outrageously pretentious, as if he were trying to show up every other presenter (and failing miserably).
Largely though, the intros are helpful in pointing out what to look for in appreciating each short story, something I was greatly looking forward to in starting this collection because the short story form, like poetry, is something I've never really felt I "got." It's most likely related to my love of the novel, and the fact that short stories are exponentially compacted and therefore require a corresponding augmentation in one's attention to detail. My habit of zipping through a page-turning novel doesn't transfer well here, where instead focus and contemplation are more rewarding. I appreciated that most of these intros provided certain tips on how best I could channel my attention.
Strangely, I may have appreciated even more the intros to the stories I didn't like. Whereas before I would have felt defective for not understanding an acclaimed story, the intros helped me see that I merely do not value the goals of those particular stories, particularly those that are almost wholly experiments in form. As a novel-lover, I value story above all else, followed by character. As a rule, form and style are interesting to me only insofar as they complement one of the former aspects. In certain books and stories, however, the author is concerned primarily with investigating the boundaries and possibilities of form, a focus which bores me in very short order.
Here, stories like Leonard Michaels's "City Boy," Glynn's "Except for the Sickness," Barthelme's "Several Garlic Tales," and Davenport's "Dinner at the Bank of England" fell into this category. Borges often devolves into this exercise as well, though he does it better than almost anyone else. But now, thanks to this book, I'm okay with not liking them. I don't feel like a failure. I can simply recognize that they're not my bag.
Most of the other stories were in my "Pretty Great" category of stuff I enjoyed but that didn't blow me away: Millhauser's "Flying Carpets" was a satisfying depiction of childhood nostalgia; Carver's "Why Don't We Dance?", like most Carver, is a hauntingly sad look at the opacity of human interaction; Wiebe's "Night Flight to Stockholm" is a multi-layered absurdist romp and the similarly distinct structures of both Davis's "Ten Stories from Flaubert" and Connell's "The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge" enhance the effects of their poignant observations. Nova's "Another Drunk Gambler" scratched my recent Graham Greene itch with its vivid depiction of a seedy foreign land. Jane Bowles provides a good mix of her husband and J.D. Salinger with her gripping diary of a deteriorating psyche. Rush's "Lying Presences" is one of my favorites, a fascinating character study of two estranged (er. . . alienated?) brothers.
The next notable group are those select authors whose works I will actively seek out after this sampling. I'm sheepish to reveal that they're all men, but I don't know how much I can consciously alter which works impact me most. The first is James Salter, whose "Bangkok" is, as Dave Eggers notes in his excellent introduction, "a nine-page master class in dialogue." Rarely have I become so well acquainted with two characters over such a short space and with only their spoken words to know them by. It's downright voyeuristic. The next is Denis Johnson, who a friend highly recommended to me. His "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" reads like a bad mushroom trip, one with delusions of grandeur and a crushing, heartbreaking sense of nihilism. In painting form it would be Munch's "The Scream."
But my favorite of the whole collection was Ethan Canin's "The Palace Thief." I can't even really explain why. Maybe it's the classic, unadorned narration or the fascinating sociopathy of the main subject. A lot of it has to do with the heartbreaking and all-too-familiar cowardice of the narrator himself. Maybe it's just the length, which makes it more a novella and consequently more in my wheelhouse. Canin presents the whole thing as almost a mystery while everything told seems absolutely inevitable. It's a terrific mix and the most satisfying of the bunch for me.
All in all it's a good collection, perhaps not as helpful as I had hoped in terms of understanding the art form, but enjoyable and rarely boring. The strangest part is that while I consider myself very well-read, I only recognized four of the authors' names (six including the presenters). I think it's mostly because I'm largely out of touch with contemporary literature, and even moreso with contemporary short stories. In that sense the collection is disheartening, as it reveals a whole world of fantastic authors of which I've hitherto been unaware. It's one of those (sigh) humbling moments when I realize I haven't traversed nearly as much terrain as I had thought.
(Crítica en español primero. . . Review in English below)
La continuación de El Eternauta es decepcionante después de la majestad de la original (se pu(Crítica en español primero. . . Review in English below)
La continuación de El Eternauta es decepcionante después de la majestad de la original (se puede leer mi crítica aquí), pero los demás cuentos -- y especialmente los últimos -- recompensan para éste defecto.
Le hace falta mucho a esta version novelada de El Eternauta la ausencia de los dibujos. La historia no transmite ni cerca del nivel de suspenso y tensión de la original. Además una de las fortalezas mayores de la original era en tener un grupo de protagonistas, es decir varios personajes con quienes podíamos empatizar. No existe este grupo en el segundo, solo tenemos a Juan (y hacía el final el regreso de un personaje genial que sin embargo parece completamente distinto que su versión original), nada mas que Juan experimentando algunos cortos episodios aislados e irreales. Se pone más interesante hacía el final cuando salen del planeta, pero en esas alturas ya parece otro cuento. . . no permanece nada que me recordara de la magnífica primera instalación.
Los demás cuentos son mucho más agradables, y muchos recuerdan del genial Ray Bradbury con sus toques de nostalgia, y con las muestras del lado humano del espacio y el futuro (especialmente "Una muerte," "El árbol de la buena muerte," y "Un extraño planeta. . ."). Parece que Bradbury escribía unos solos años antes de Oesterheld (estoy pensando en algunos representativos como R Is for Rocket, The Illustrated Man, y Dandelion Wine), lo cuál impresiona bastante, que el argentino los escribió casi en el mismo momento, y por lo menos tan buenos.
Mi favorito, quizá por lejos, era "Retorno," que cuenta de un futuro en que los seres humanos son esclavizados por robots. Reanude algunos temas de El Eternauta en este respecto, pero llega en un final mucho más optimista (no muy difícil dado el otro, jeje) y con una cantidad pasmante de sutileza y moderación. Es decir es raro encontrar un cuento sobre tecnología que no obviamente propone un lado u otro. Oesterheld sostiene la sorprendentemente progresiva actitud que la tecnología puede estar bien, pero también el deseo de no utilizarla.
Me intrigaba mucho el próximo cuento, "Un extraño planeta. . . planeta. . . planeta," y me encantaba el diario como modo de narración, pero se puso muy apurado y me hubiese gustado que demore mas, con mas detalle y un poco mas de explicación. "Paria especial" me recordaba un poco de Asimov con su misterio, entretenador sin duda. Allí también encontré la mejor línea del libro -- y uno de las mejores que he leido en meses -- cuando Oesterheld compuso una poesía sobre la exploración estelar:
Vi un sol que no era 'mi' sol, vi planetas que nada tenían que ver con 'mi' planeta. Me vi entonces a mí mismo, y vi que también yo nada tenía que ver con el que era antes. . .210"
Lo mejor de esta es que Oesterheld inventó una falsa historia de un explorador histórico que había comentado esto sobre encontrar una nueva estrella.
Son estos toques que elevan a Oesterheld en mis ojos. Creo que la continuación de Eternauta fue en gran parte un error -- no me sorprende que nunca lograra crearse un digno final -- pero los cuentos revelan una impresionante mente creativa. Combinados con la imprescindible Eternauta, podemos darnos cuenta del gran genio que se nos fue arrebatado muy pronto, y de manera horriblemente injusta.
The novelized sequel to El Eternauta is disappointing after the majesty of the original (see my review here), but the other stories -- and especially the last ones -- make up for this lack.
The absence of drawings significantly hurts the sequel, as the narrative no longer transmits the suspense and tension of the original. Additionally one of the great strengths of the first book was in having a group of protagonists, or various characters with whom you could empathize. There's no group here, just Juan (and toward the end one of the most loved characters of the original, though in a form that has little resemblance to his original portrayal), nothing more than Juan experiencing short, isolated and surreal episodes by himself. It gets more interesting toward the end when they leave the planet, but at this point it really seems like a different story altogether. . . there's nothing there that recalls the magnificent first installation.
The rest of the stories are much more enjoyable, and many of them remind one of the great Ray Bradbury with their nostalgic touches and portrayals of the human side of space and future (especially "Una muerte," "El árbol de la buena muerte," and "Un extraño planeta. . ."). From what I've researched it seems that Bradbury was only writing a few years earlier than Oesterheld (thinking primarily of some of his more representative works like R Is for Rocket, The Illustrated Man, and Dandelion Wine), which is highly impressive in that the Argentine was writing this stuff (which is arguably as good or better) at the same time.
My favorite, maybe by far, was "Retorno," which tells of a future in which humans are enslaved by robots. It renews certain themes from Eternauta in this respect, while arriving at a much more optimistic ending (not very difficult when considering the other, I suppose). Most impressive in the story is the subtlety and moderation Oesterheld employs, especially over the last page. It's rare to find a story about technology that doesn't obviously advocate either the pro- or con- of the discussion. But here, Oesterheld maintains a surprisingly progressive attitude toward technology by saying that it can be very good, and it's good to pursue it, but it is also good for those who have no wish to pursue it. Both are okay.
The next story, "Un extraño planeta. . . planeta. . . planeta," was highly intriguing as well. I loved the narrative device of the diary, but it got very rushed and I would have liked it to last longer, more drawn out, more detailed and perhaps even more explanation. It's one of the rare short stories that left me wanting more. "Paria espacial" reminded me a little of Asimov (as did the robot theme from "Retorno"), with its entertaining mystery. There also I found the best line of the book, one of the best I've read in months actually, when Oesterheld composed some pseudo-poetry about interstellar exploration (my translation):
I saw a sun that wasn't 'my' sun, I saw planets that had nothing to do with 'my' planet. I looked then at my very self, and I saw that I too had nothing to do with what I had been before. . .210
The best thing about it is that Oesterheld invented a fake history of a historic explorer who uttered this upon seeing a new star up close.
These are touches that elevate Oesterheld in my eyes. I believe that trying to continue Eternauta was largely a mistake -- it's not surprising that no worthy conclusion was ever created -- but the stories reveal an impressively creative mind. Combined with the landmark of Eternauta, we can begin to understand the heights of the beautiful genius that was unjustly taken from us too soon ("disappeared" by the Argentine dictators against whom he fought).
It's actually just as Catholic a work as what I consider his most Catholic so far, Heart of the Matter, but here Greene doesn't deal with his religion in a mystifying, perseverating and in my opinion tedious way, one that is largely inaccessible to non-religious readers like me. Here, rather, he examines Catholicism holistically and much less personally. We don't see one man struggling with a specific dilemma of absolution, but rather a similar man struggling in general with his faith. (Quixote is much like Scobie, really, with similar doubt and despair -- I imagine that both of them are probably autobiographical in this respect.) This is, frankly, much more comprehensible and engaging for a non-Catholic.
I love the references to Don Quixote and Miguel de Unamuno's Quixote essay, both of which I read over the summer (see my reviews here and here). I would say a working knowledge of Quixote's original adventures is vital to fully appreciating this one, though you can probably skip the Unamuno which is depressingly esoteric. The climax of Greene's book is absolutely rousing within the larger context of these works, and the last pages similarly heartbreaking.
The entire tone of the book is perfect, both whimsical and unexpectedly weighty at times. The criticism of Catholicism (and to a lesser extent Stalinism) never feels mean-spirited. At its strongest it is more gentle mockery than scathing derision, of the type that only someone who really loves it after all can convey. One of my favorite lines is: "Father Quixote reproached himself for having spoken too freely. . . Bishops, just like the very poor and the uneducated, should be treated with a special prudence."
To be sure, there is more than glib wisecracks going on here with respect to Greene's challenges to Catholicism, but all of the questioning feels sincere, more a result of concern than bitterness. There is the openly-addressed problem of faith and doubt, and Quixote's question of how valuable his purity can be when he has never known real temptation. There's an earnest struggle against the rigid, hypocritical hierarchy that constitutes the structure of the Catholic Church. But none of it feels like potshots, which endears both Greene and the book to me even more.
All in all it's a beautiful little book, perhaps not an Important Work by a man who is increasingly rising in my esteem with each passing book, yet perfectly executed nonetheless. It captures the jovial whimsy of the original Quixote while including more theological questioning and still avoiding my major complaint of the original by being told in a brisk 200-or-so pages. Highly recommended for fans of both Greene and Quixote (and Unamuno, if any of you are out there. . . to become a fan of his check this out).
After loving Parable of the Sower (see my review) I was frustrated by this one. No the 1st wasn't flawless, but for 2/3 of its length it was nearly soAfter loving Parable of the Sower (see my review) I was frustrated by this one. No the 1st wasn't flawless, but for 2/3 of its length it was nearly so. This one, on the other hand, is more defective than perfect, and despite a brilliantly realized, realistic dystopia -- an all-too-rare feat that I would otherwise be slobbering over -- my overarching feeling after finishing Talents was disappointment.
Butler still did certain things very well here. The necessary shift that Olamina undergoes in her outreach effort feels natural and believable. There are the same horror elements that were so impactful the first go-round, this time chiefly taking place in a post-modern concentration camp. There's a shockingly blatant critique of Christian fundamentalism that was as welcome as it was unexpected. There is still an emotional connection with most of the characters from the first book.
Unfortunately those are about all the positives I can point to. The pacing of the book is way off, hindered even further by the detached narration device. I really missed hearing it solely from Lauren's perspective and found myself skimming most of her daughter's interpolations (until the very end at least). Having Lauren interrupted by her daughter and occasionally Bankole and one other character not only threw off the rhythm but also called more attention to a narrative flaw that was relatively hidden in the first: namely, there's no way that Lauren could journal as exactly as she did, complete with verbatim dialogue plus precise body language and movements. It's not a big deal but it made the proceedings more difficult to engage with.
As for the pace, the first half of the book was almost entirely setting (or "exposition" for you fans of the plot pyramid). Nothing happened that couldn't have been condensed to a prologue, or maybe even an epilogue to the first one. Nothing happened until Jarrett's Crusaders came to town. Seriously. Nothing I cared about anyway, because the new characters, and even some of the old ones, were too thin to matter and/or didn't behave believably. (And yes, I am including the spoiler that occurred during the 1st half.) The pace did step up after that, when stuff actually happened, and it proceeded pretty well until the end when the whole thing jumped the rails entirely after Ch. 21.
This would be a good spot to convey some of my concerns about internal consistency, concerns that nagged through much of the book but became dealbreakers in the abovementioned chapter. First of all and most minorly, we heard throughout Sowers that the border between CA and OR was closed and heavily guarded, yet in this one it's not. What happened there?
A little more serious is what we find out when Lauren stays with the Elfords in a "middle-class neighborhood even though they could afford their own walled enclave." So they live without walls, just in a normal neighborhood? These places still exist? Or are we meant to understand that they are in fact protected here too, a la Robledo? If not, is it just CA that is so messed up then, and it hasn't spread anywhere else? I mean, CA was really messed up, with like people eating each other and shit, and sex slaves and non-sex slaves, but maybe that's just localized and contained down there? And in the rest of the country there are still universities and airplanes and you can just live as if nothing crazy and horrifically dystopian is going on? Basically, California is the only place that's fucked, is that the message? I mean I guess that's understandable, given the current state of CA, but it would help to spell it out a little more. And if so, then why the hell are people still in California? This just made no sense to me at all.
And then the end, when the pace accelerates exponentially for characters and their goals (I won't say more to avoid spoilers), it was astonishingly rushed. It felt like Butler just wanted to be done with it already and crammed in everything, including stuff that could have even been another book. Or alternatively, it would have been better to condense the 1st half and spend more time here. As it was, to believe that all these things happened over a few weeks in Portland was ludicrous, especially when it appears that none of the followers Lauren had lived with for years felt nearly as strong about her message as these strangers she talked with over less than a month.
My passionate criticism reveals how affected I was by the 1st book, and even by some of the characters in this one. Having the storytelling flubbed like this left a pretty bitter taste. Make no mistake -- the story is still a good one, even an important one, and the author's purpose is powerful. But it seems that Butler, much like her protagonist, struggled significantly with her purpose's execution.
P.s. I still look forward to reading as much of Butler's stuff as I can, hopefully in the near future.
This is the most Catholic of the three Greene novels I've read (The Quiet American and The Power and the Glory being the other two; see my reviews herThis is the most Catholic of the three Greene novels I've read (The Quiet American and The Power and the Glory being the other two; see my reviews here and here), surprising because in one of the others a priest is the main character. Because the central conflict here is a purely Catholic problem of sinning and false absolution, a dilemma that is completely foreign to me, it's understandable that this story interested me less than either of the others.
It's also an earlier novel, and though it came after Power its style seems almost rudimentary -- more Spartan, boring and heavy-handed when compared to the other works. The theme is hammered home relentlessly in Book Three, in a case of minor overkill. It just felt less artistic than the two other novels, both of which continue to haunt me so long after reading them.
It's still Graham Greene, so you can still expect exceptional psychological insights and an amazing attention to the detail of a foreign locale. You feel as if you've been there after reading his descriptions. But in the last third it shifts into wholly religious territory, and anyone who does not have personal experience with Catholicism may feel akin to one trying to peek inside a church through a foggy stained-glass window; you're not gonna see much if you try, and what you do see you won't be able to really understand.
Update: After reading more about the book and seeing that Greene himself apparently disliked it, I have to wonder about all these people who consider it one of his best works (or one of the greatest works of the 20th century in some cases). Are these people saying that Greene didn't know what he was talking about? That he was blind to its quality? That while he was brilliantly capable of creating it, he was an imbecile when it came to appreciating it? That doesn't sit well with me. Put it this way: I respect Greene too much as a writer to completely discount his opinion about his own writing.
This one didn't do it for me. It seemed like at least half of the book was descriptions of where the protagonist (the Kid) was riding, walking, or sleThis one didn't do it for me. It seemed like at least half of the book was descriptions of where the protagonist (the Kid) was riding, walking, or sleeping. Variations of the word "black" or "blackened" appear to be a favorite. They are somewhat interesting descriptions and include most of the things that mark McCarthy's writing: run-on sentences with lots of "ands" but no commas, compound words and derivations that are barely comprehensible, and often-arcane vocabulary that 99% of readers will not understand. But they are still just descriptions, and they take up almost half the book. That's about 150 pages of description.
They do have that flow and rhythm that make McCarthy's stuff so hypnotic, and even beautiful, but I've been needing more substance from my books of late (I actually had the same criticism of the last book I read, Raymond Queneau's The Flight of Icarus). I've been realizing that the books I enjoy most have a captivating story, and unfortunately story is the thing that McCarthy seems to least prioritize here, placing his emphasis instead on mood, style, theme and arguably character.
A good example of my craving for story is that by far the two most captivating parts for me were stories told within the book, the first being Tobin's magnificent description of the Judge leading the company to gunpowder, and the second being the Judge's story of the harnessmaker. Perhaps they were so fascinating to me because they omitted the huge quantity of description that was otherwise omnipresent. When these two mini-narratives occurred in such close proximity to each other, I began to get hopeful that the book was finally getting more interesting. Alas it wasn't to be as no other stories ever appeared while the larger, mostly plotless narrative remained mostly plotless.
I suppose there is a plot though it's not readily discernible. If I had to name it I would say it's about the Kid wandering and encountering the Abyss but attempting to fight it's pull. Again, that's more theme than plot, but that's pretty much what there is. The Judge is a great villain; you could read him as either Satan or Death or God with equal accuracy (your choice being dependent on your general level of optimism I suppose). But he's very creepy and the book is at it's best when he's around either speaking his craziness or doing something horrific.
And speaking of horrific, wow is that a good word for this book. I mean I guess you know what you're getting into with the epigraphs dealing with cruelty, death and violence. . . but still, this takes "bleak" to a whole new level. There are actions described here that you will not be able to unread, and that make the stuff in Child of God and Outer Dark look almost Disney.
But that's really the problem: there's so much of it and you just get beat with it over and over again, in addition to the monotonous descriptions, that it loses its impact pretty early on. The climactic horror in Outer Dark will stay with me much longer than any occurrences in this book, just because you could feel everything build up to it, and it was by far the worst thing you had read and it came at the end. In this one there is no "by far the worst" horror. There are just dying, mutilated, rotting things of all shapes and sizes on every single page. There's no shock value when it's all horrible.
I'm not squeamish about what I read, I want to be clear. Hell, I cut my reading teeth on Christopher Pike which led straight to King, Koontz and Rice. My point is that I need more from a novel than just a litany of horrors expressing that existence is abominable and there's no making it better. Okay, that's one perspective, granted, but not the one I choose to utilize in daily life. But even if that is the author's perspective, I can get behind a book that presents it in a more compelling way, for example a book like Journey to the End of the Night, which I read recently and loved.
Here though, it just gets old. Perhaps I'm reading it wrong and McCarthy is really a little more optimistic than all that. Perhaps he's just criticizing white culture, though brown people are not any nicer here. Perhaps it's a critique of war, exposing the inhumanity it breeds. Okay, I can dig, but I would also be able to dig with half as many pages as McCarthy uses.
Perhaps I've just been contaminated by Ian's vitriolic review for The Road and now struggle to get past McCarthy's apparently pretentious style. Perhaps Ian has been my Toto, tugging the curtain back from the Wizard. Perhaps I just prefer the "Later McCarthy" works (it would be interesting to re-read No Country for Old Men and see if I still love it). I guess time will tell, because I still have the The Border Trilogy on my shelf and I'll get to it sooner or later. Or perhaps I wasn't in a sufficiently contemplative, meditative mood that the perpetual descriptions veritably demanded. Or perhaps I'm just not feeling charitable enough (which, ironically, might be McCarthy's fault after reading this book).
Either way, I guess it's important to read as "the major aesthetic achievement of any living American writer," as one critic lauds. It's certainly important for McCarthy fans. I don't know if it's one you really enjoy though, so maybe go in not expecting to. For me, sadly, it will be the book that led to me removing McCarthy from my "Favorite Authors" list. Wouldn't it be pretentious to keep him up there when I've only really liked two out of the five of his books I've read?
Loved it, just a beautiful book. Perfect through the first half though it tailed off in the last third or so, with some strange pacing and a lack of sLoved it, just a beautiful book. Perfect through the first half though it tailed off in the last third or so, with some strange pacing and a lack of suspense. This book had everything I like in speculative fiction: hyper-realistic scenarios, heavy socio-political themes, racial and gender diversity, optimism about the human spirit and a generous sprinkling of Eastern-flavored mysticism (Ok, I'll admit I didn't know I liked that last one, but it really worked here).
It reminded me a lot of The Road: grisly and bleak and at times as much a horror novel as anything else, though ultimately with a more positive outlook than McCarthy. The only thing you couldn't accuse this book of being is funny -- Butler is deadly serious, and she has a serious message which again, I like. In fact I like these qualities so much in dystopian fiction that I actually wrote a novel along those lines, finished earlier this year. You can check it out for free at the link at the bottom of the page, (view spoiler)[but it's not as good as Octavia Butler. (hide spoiler)]
I can't wait to read the next Parable, such did the characters grab me, in that sense reminding me of some of Stephen King's apocalyptic groups, say in The Stand or The Dark Tower. I'm ashamed it has taken me so long to find out about Butler and the gift she has for telling stories.
I read Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam Trilogy last year and liked it, but her bizarre exaggeration got on my nerves after awhile. The two different takes are similar thematically, but I happen to be sincerely concerned about humanity's trajectory and it feels like Butler shares that concern more than Atwood who, contrarily, seems to think it's sort of absurdly hilarious. Maybe it's just my own lack of humor, but I prefer an author who takes the fate of humanity as seriously as I do.
So yes, I loved this book and from reading her bio I love Octavia Butler. She seems like she was truly humble and joyed to be able to write for a living. I have Parable of the Talents, Kindred, and Bloodchild on my short list, but I wouldn't be surprised if I end up plowing through her entire bibliography in the near future. Any fans of sci-fi should read this (and my book too, and let me know what you think).
A masterful story by a story-telling master and a great quick read that engrosses you right away. It seemed more of a YA novel despite some genuinelyA masterful story by a story-telling master and a great quick read that engrosses you right away. It seemed more of a YA novel despite some genuinely terrifying moments (foot-worms, boy-drowners, I'm lookin' at you), moments that horrified as much as anything I've ever read not by Stephen King. I also liked the understated way the fantasy began to creep into the narrative, taking over almost before you know it. The lone kid v. everything else reminded me of the wonderful film "Pan's Labyrinth," a modern classic (though much darker). But I like how Gaiman subverts the "Hero's Journey" trope just enough to keep it fresh -- (view spoiler)[the hero gets saved by a girl! And then causes her death! And then everything he supposedly learns he forgets! Cool! (hide spoiler)]
The negatives: too slight for me to really love, stylistically unremarkable, frustratingly vague about the parents' apparent emotional neglect, and plagued with an unfortunate overabundance of commas. Still it was entertaining and I would recommend it to any fans of modern fantasy, or to those who liked the aforementioned film and/or Hayao Miyazaki animes. I would see a film adaptation which, knowing Hollywood, must be inevitable. I hope Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro know each other.
Like a cross between Orwell's non-fiction, Kafka, and John Fante, as told by Camus's narrator from The Fall, it should surprise nobody that Bukowski cLike a cross between Orwell's non-fiction, Kafka, and John Fante, as told by Camus's narrator from The Fall, it should surprise nobody that Bukowski considered Celine the greatest writer of the last 2000 years. As far as modern writers go (besides Bukowski),Chuck Palahniuk and Poe Ballantine have similar sensibilities. And since I love all of these authors that Celine reminds me of, it makes sense for me to love this book as well. And I do.
I've had this on my shelf for awhile but allowed it to daunt me with its heft and perceived density, and with its philosophical underpinnings of existentialism and nihilism (I generaly suck at distinguishing the two from each other). I imagined a dour slog of a read that would nonetheless be Good For Me(TM) when I finally got around to it. If I had known how kinetic, funny and beautiful it was -- the lyricism, rhythm and imagery are outstanding -- I never would have waited this long to read it.
Thankfully, I recently saw the gorgeous Italian film "The Great Beauty," which opens with the same epigraph that Celine uses to open this novel. I happened to be between books and trying to figure out what to read next, so I took the cue and happily so! (And for those who see the movie, it not only opens with Journey's opening but ends with its ending; over the credits you are taken on a boat ride under the bridges of the Tiber river, mirroring Celine's last paragraph on the Seine. Impressive filmmaking indeed.)
But back to the book. It will hopefully astonish you with its freshness as it did me. Before Camus, before the Beats, hell way before the godfather of the Beats, Paul Bowles (another one I love), even before John Fante (though not before Kafka and right after Hemingway and Faulkner), Celine came out with this, a novel that easily spans both classic and modern literature, no matter your definition of the two. It may not match Faulkner's style, but it surpasses him in its overt delving of some pretty mucky depths. It's not far and away the most misanthropic work I've ever read, but it joins the top 5 for sure (the other definites: The Dwarf, The Fall and Outer Dark).
The plot's not all that important, the episodic nature of Bardamu's adventures reminding me a lot of Kafka's Amerika with the dreamy, illogical jumping from one scenario to another. William Vollman sums it up well in his brief-but-insightful afterword when he calls it an expression of the idea that, "We are no more than decaying, flatulent assemblages of phlegm and fecal matter, animated by lechery and self-delusion to commit acts of increasingly futile denial of the grisly fact that existence is innately. . . spoiled and that death is coming." Not only is it a good description of what you're in store for should you pick up Journey, but it's also a decent example of Celine's style. And wow, what style -- I must have marked over 60 pages for insight, poetry or sheer pizazz. A short one as an example:
The possibility that there would never again be races at Longchamp overwhelmed her. The sadness of the world has different ways of getting to people, but it seems to succeed almost every time. 46
But you'll notice I didn't give it 5 stars, and that's because it's not perfect. I'm impatient with bloat and this book had it, notably the African episode (among others). I imagine part of that is the desired effect, this tedious drudgery that for Celine characterizes all of existence. . . I don't really have a better response to that than a shrug with an "Ehh." Also, there's only so many different ways you can describe the shittiness of the world before the reader becomes numbed to it. Celine writes many variations of:
But just as a sick man changes sides in bed and in life, so we too are entitled to move from side to side, it's the only thing we can do, the only defense that's ever been found against Fate. No good hoping to drop off your misery somewhere on the way. Misery is like some horrible woman you've married. Maybe it's better to end up loving her a little than to knock yourself out beating her all your life. Since obviously you won't be able to bump her off. 299
And while his formulations of these variations are fascinating, they're not endlessly so.
So that's about where we're at, a flawed book that I loved, totally bleak but occasionally rescued by some shocking flights of optimism and sentimentality, none more unexpected or beautiful than Alcides's heartbreaking devotion to his niece. There's also this Robinson guy: who is he exactly, and what is he to Bardamu? Vollman says he's Bardamu's guide through the night, trying to drag him ever lower and deeper, to show him what must inexorably await him should he continue down his path. I like that explanation better than any I came up with. The richness of the book will not leave you short of things to ponder. . . another good example is the tantalizing glimpses Bardamu gives, especially as we near the end, that people are perceiving him much differently than he's presenting himself to the reader.
I wonder how appropriate it is to consider the book outside the context of Celine's later anti-Semitism. On the one hand, this came before that, so it should be relatively untainted. On the other, on full display is the depraved mindset that would allow someone to so rabidly latch onto that particular brand of hatred in the first place. I guess I don't see it as relevant in the end, when trying to weigh the book's merits anyway, which is principally what I'm here to do. But I will say that in order to fully understand Celine's 1952 preface, you should at least read up on his Holocaust legacy (here, for example).
This is, at the end of the night, a must-read for all fans of Literature (Whether French, Classic, Modern, Philosophical, etc.). I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Knowing little about this book besides having heard it described as a "must-read" for educators, I found it disappointingly self-helpy. The central thKnowing little about this book besides having heard it described as a "must-read" for educators, I found it disappointingly self-helpy. The central thesis -- that the "Growth Mindset" offers significantly more long-term satisfaction and achievement than a "Fixed Mindset" -- appears solid, and the way Dweck reframes this aspect of mental health is both convincing and welcome. She really seems to see the big picture, and almost every other psychological theory can be reorganized to fit under the "Mindset" umbrella, which is impressive.
As both a parent and an educator, Chapter 7 (Parents, Teachers & Coaches) was by far the most valuable in the book, and I would strongly recommend those 20-odd pages to any other of those three groups. But the rest of the book is sort of blah; Dweck repeats herself alot, has at times an off-puttingly smug tone, and even that wonderful Ch. 7 is frustratingly vague. I wanted more concrete suggestions on what to do, especially for teachers, not just the handful of anecdotes that Dweck provides. I suppose you have to pay more for her Brainology (TM) program in order to reap the full benefits.
So overall Dweck has an important idea, but the way she presents it feels too thin to fill up an entire book. To make the book more satisfying, she needed to go into more detail in each subset: what specifically can managers do to foster it among their employees, for example? But perhaps she has that planned for the future. . . I, for one, would eagerly buy a book of hers that focused solely on education.
Also, I feel compelled to comment on her perhaps unfortunate inclusion of Tiger Woods and Alex Rodriguez as shining examples of growth mindset. I wonder if she would revise that assessment after they were both proven to be somewhat less than what they presented to the public. At least she didn't waste time on Lance Armstrong. . .
I don't feel qualified to substantively comment on this world classic. I didn't study it in a university course or have an expert explain it to me. II don't feel qualified to substantively comment on this world classic. I didn't study it in a university course or have an expert explain it to me. I read it in my free time over the summer, hopeful to count it as "pleasure" reading but ultimately finding that it fit better in the must-finish-in-order-to-be-cultured category. Whereas I devoured both War and Peace and Anna Karenina in less time last summer (see my reviews here and here), this one was a slog -- likely more important given its age and originality, but much less entertaining than either of Tolstoy's behemoths.
I was helped in my appreciation by reading it alongside Miguel de Unamuno's Vida De Don Quijote Y Sancho. Though I can't recommend this extremely long essay to anyone who's not studying academically, I also can't deny that it dramatically increased my level of engagement with the source material. If I had only read the novel on my own, I fear I would have dismissed it as an inaccessible relic. But thanks to Unamuno, I'm able to see its value. . . not so much in the story itself, but in the two unforgettable protagonists.
The second part, as many say, is undoubtedly the more fulfilling of the two, the richer and deeper half. The meta-story is interesting, and Sancho gets more characterization and more action (including, in one of my favorite episodes, his long-sought governership, even if it's not truly an isle). It's here where the squire's secret wisdom is on glorious display, seducing the reader to love him once and for all. Also, at various times there is a fascinating lifting of the veil in which Sancho acknowledges his master's insanity while simultaneously avowing both his love and duty to the same madman.
The duo is also dealing with fame in this second half, as the first part of their adventures has been published in the time they've been resting (the aforementioned meta- aspect). This makes their adventures less natural but somehow more adventurous. There's also the question of their hangers-on (specifically the Dukes), who court them for their fame while mocking them for their craziness. At several points you wonder who is worse off: the unknowingly mocked (Quixote & Sancho), or the depraved who will go to such ridiculous lengths in their mockery.
The good stuff, though, is too few and far between. There's a lot of tedious filler that had me really struggling to keep on. I would actually suggest to people wanting to read this that they get a condensed version of the first half, just to understand the events, and then read the second half in its entirety. That way you experience the style, know everything that happened, and come to the meat of it fresh and ready to ponder an analyze.
And there sure is a ton to analyze. The word "quixotic," for example, of course comes from this book. It means "exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic or impractical," and Don Quixote certainly was these things at times. But I'm not sure those are his defining characteristics. Unamuno would certainly disagree with the word's modern-day meaning, calling Quixote a "Knight of Faith," exemplifying what it means to believe undyingly in an ideal, perhaps God, and to fight with all of your strength for that ideal, no matter what say any of the unbelievers.
I think the main point is that Don Quixote is a blank slate, into whom you can read whatever you want. You can call him a fool, as I was inclined to during most of the first half. You can call him a hero, as Unamuno unwaveringly avers. You can call him something in between, or perhaps take your cue from the surrounding characters who swore that he was both mad and sane at the same time. He has something for everyone.
I prefer to think of him as the embodiment of idealism, though not in the mocking connotation that the word "quixotic" has now gained. Don Quixote is pure idealism, an admirable idealism, the ideal of idealism, if you will. And Sancho, who I absolutely love, is a skeptical realist who worships this ideal and is really trying, despite himself, to grow into it himself.
Having just read The Worm Ouroboros (and being sorely disappointed), I was in the frame of mind for still more medieval high fantasy. This book and itHaving just read The Worm Ouroboros (and being sorely disappointed), I was in the frame of mind for still more medieval high fantasy. This book and its 600-some-odd pages had long been daunting me from my to-read shelf, but I finally had the impetus I needed to pick it up in earnest. They were both written within a couple decades of each other, they both treated some Olde English-y types of stories, they were both similar in length; why not compare the two?
Within pages I was already feeling embarrassed that it had taken me so long to work up the nerve to read TOaFK. It was, in short, everything that Ouroboros was not (see my review) -- highly engaging, nuanced, exciting, thought-provoking, funny and heartbreaking. It was, in a word, affecting.
A large part of White's ability to affect the reader is the subject matter itself. King Arthur, Merlyn, Guinevere, Lancelot, and Galahad are some of the most deeply embedded fictional figures (really almost archetypes) in all of Western culture. So already when starting the first page, the reader is primed with a warm familiarity for the story on which she is about to embark.
But White is not content with relying on our affection for these myths. His genius is to be able to convincingly and deferentially present the human faces of these mythical characters in fascinating detail and complexity. He has gloriously fleshed out the archetypes.
It feels pointless to give examples and plot summaries, because there's really no way to explain the surprising delight and comfort you get from being in such expert hands as White's. He clearly inhabited this world he wrote so much about, and that allows him to give the reader what feels like a damn authentic glimpse of inhabiting it yourself.
Perhaps most surprising about the book was its overt political substance. White uses Arthur's unification of England and struggle to keep it peaceful as a platform for strong anti-war commentary. It makes sense, since the book was essentially written during WWII, but it's still surprising. It would have felt out of place if White hadn't been talented enough to seamlessly weave it into the story. I am glad to say that he was.
Still, I have yet to meet the perfect novel (with reluctant apologies to Mr. Orwell, Tolstoy and Steinbeck), and this one suffers from being too long. There were pages of descriptions and setting that -- though still more engaging than those in Ouroboros -- could have nonetheless been cut drastically in order to keep focus on the story. Also, White appeared somewhat apathetic about his Guinevere, who has the least to do and comes off as both boring and ignoble. In fact, he doesn't appear to really care about any of his female characters, with the possible exception of Elaine, who is still portrayed as overwhelmingly pathetic.
But these flaws weren't enough to knock off a star, because I loved every minute of the rest. The ending is downright heartbreaking, and of course it has to end that way, because that's how the legend ends. But I love the hopeful touch that White adds in the form of a certain page-messenger, with that idea that forms the title of the last book. I love that last flash of Merlyn, and the final clarity he brings to Arthur. It is simply beautiful, and I'm joyed to have experienced it, not only the ending but the entire book. I highly recommend that you do the same.
Anxiety. Injustice. Terror. Muddle. Impotence. Kafka conveys the feelings better than any writer ever. He enjoys/suffers the simultaneous blessing/curAnxiety. Injustice. Terror. Muddle. Impotence. Kafka conveys the feelings better than any writer ever. He enjoys/suffers the simultaneous blessing/curse of unfettered access -- really a direct portal as if through a mirror - to that dreamscape world of slow-burning nightmares.
Living in such close, constant proximity to this nightmare world apparently made Kafka's life rather burdensome, but every one of his readers is better and more enlightened for his suffering. These are ideas and motifs that make his stories downright uncomfortable to read. It's difficult to love Kafka because the experience of reading him can be so purposely dreadful. But it's not difficult at all to stand in awe and gratitude of an intellect that produced works of such originality, illumination and alienation.
I enjoyed this collection for containing some of his lesser-known stories. I've read all of the major works but was interested in the more minute tickings of his brain. Sure it was interesting to re-read The Metamorphosis, although I enjoyed it probably least out of all the stories in the book due to its tedium. And despite its understandable literary significance, I suspect that the designers of high school curricula perpetrate a disservice upon both Kafka and teenager by submitting the youth to this work as an introduction. The Trial would be more accessible even if not as emblematic.
"The Judgment" was simply bizarre and baffling. Flew right over my head.
But I enjoyed "The Stoker" and "A Country Doctor," the most authentically dreamlike of the bunch. "The Stoker" has that quality that everyone has experienced in her or his dreams, where you have a goal, something you have to do, and you're on the way to do it but get sidetracked, then gradually forget what you had to do, yet still suffer that anxiety of knowing you had to do something. It's a perfect depiction. And I've rarely read or experienced a nightmare more disturbing and horrifying than "A Country Doctor," which shares the same relentless, formless compulsion of "Stoker," but in much more sinister tones.
"In the Penal Colony" is probably the most straightforward of the collection, up there with The Trial (which contains that haunting exemplar of existentialism from this collection, "Before the Law") and The Castle as my favorite of Kafka's.
I found the anecdote "A Message from the Emperor" to be the most powerful story of them all. I can't quite put my finger on what hit me so hard about this one, perhaps the religious overtones, with the Emperor being God, and us humans forever impeded from receiving God's message. It conveys this sense of unbearable tragedy in amazingly few words.
"Josephine the Singer" and "A Hunger Artist" are the two stories that seemed the most important somehow, although I did not quite enjoy either of them (though the latter more than the former, especially with the concluding image of the Panther). They will reward a revisiting.
Overall, this is a wonderful collection for Kafka-lovers and beginners alike. It contains his most important short works, a few of them ("The Stoker," "Before the Law," "A Message from the Emperor") helpfully presented apart from the longer works in which they were eventually included. As I said, it's not necessarily enjoyable, but these works are important as hell, and the experience of reading them uniquely disturbing.
Out of the three non-fiction books of Orwell that I've read, Homage to Catalonia is my favorite (see my review), indeed is as near perfect as you canOut of the three non-fiction books of Orwell that I've read, Homage to Catalonia is my favorite (see my review), indeed is as near perfect as you can find. This one is probably my 2nd favorite so far, just for the heights of analysis that he reaches. Orwell, perhaps more than any other writer, has an amazing ability to take a step back from a particular issue in order to view the larger perspective, yet simultaneously penetrate straight to the heart of it with incisive, common-sensical language that is at once both familiar and fresh (and totally distinctive). I love his writing, and through it the man himself.
Rarely does a book, especially one of non-fiction, excite me as I read it. And yet here I am, giddy from the last few chapters of The Road to Wigan Pier, where I encountered 80-year-old arguments on technology, progress, and class dysfunction that seem as lively and relevant as ever. Indeed, a few of the arguments I had actually arrived at independently, in response to events and circumstances of the 21st century. Seeing them elucidated with much greater skill and eloquence by my hero, Mr. Orwell, leaves me proud and gratified to have unconsciously followed in his footsteps.
It's not as consistent as Down and Out in Paris and London, which I just read (see my review), but its highs are higher. And while his descriptions of the miners and other working class around Wigan lack the heart and empathy he showed in Down and Out, he still makes the same penetrating insights in regards to the impossibility of their situation. He indelibly shows us that what is happening to them is not okay, and also that the problem is damn near intractable. But the real beauty of the book begins in Part II, when Orwell gives a brief autobiography of the formulation of his political ideals, then follows it with a discussion of Classes and Socialism.
I believe the overarching, permeating quality of this discussion is Orwell's very sincerity on the matter. He freely admits his own ingrained class prejudices, and very astutely points out how they (and analogous ones in corresponding members of the middle class) present stubborn obstacles to the fellowship of the working class that is the Socialists' ostensible goal. For if middle class Socialists secretly loathe the dirty workers, and the working class reasonably distrusts their middle class supporters, there is no hope for anything constructive to pass.
He proceeds from this to a withering critique of the Socialist leaders, wondering if, beneath their purported "love of the workers," there is really nothing more than "a hypertrophied sense of order." This sentiment, he continuously warns, is that which will eventually lead the current middle class Socialists to embrace the burgeoning Fascism.
Then comes Ch. 12 (my favorite), Orwell's take-down of industrialization and "progress," or as we call it today: technology. While recognizing the inevitability of these advances, and even their overall desirability, he detests that they make us "safe and soft." He points out the rather obvious fact that humans, in the hoped-for world where everything is done for us, should have no reason to be physically, morally or emotionally fit. It's really impossible to do the discussion justice without quoting it all here, but I'll give his conclusion from p. 203:
The machine has got to be accepted, but it is probably better to accept it rather as one accepts a drug -- that is, grudgingly and suspiciously. Like a drug, the machine is useful, dangerous and habit-forming. The oftener one surrenders to it the tighter its grip becomes.
Sounds like a world I am becoming acquainted with more every day. I love the prescience on display, especially in this discussion, but also at other points concerning inequality and unemployment. You can also see the beginnings of the worried strains that would eventually lead to 1984.
As for the introduction, despite its criticism of Orwell I enjoyed reading it both before and after. I think it tainted my perception of the opening chapters, making me particularly perceptive to Orwell's callousness. Of course it's indisputable that he's inappropriately insensitive as he describes the poor, essentially as one would a lower species. Again, this is in stark contrast to the sympathy he shows the underclass in Down and Out.
But aside from the more-or-less accurate accusation of snobbery (though I believe Orwell sincerely admits guilt and accepts blame in the 2nd half), the foreword comes across as hyper-sensitive when re-reading it upon finishing the book. Gollancz's rebuttals against Orwell's charges are largely unconvincing -- he brushes off, without any real argument, the idea that Socialism is associated with automatization; he essentially ignores Orwell's larger point about the need to better tailor propaganda toward the workers; he exaggerates Orwell's disdain for certain "crank" movements; and -- in my opinion the worst offense -- he mocks Orwell for admitting his own ingrained class prejudices, then disingenuously (or ignorantly) claims that nobody else feels them.
Thus, while I sheepishly felt after first reading the Foreword that my love for Orwell had perhaps been misplaced (and this feeling even carried over into the first few chapters as I witnessed certain rough depictions of his subjects), after reading the book I believe that between the two men, Orwell ultimately gave the better showing. So it turns out that my adulation is totally merited, and that I can continue reading (and loving) Orwell's non-fiction with clear conscience.
To sum up: Orwell is wondrous, this book is less wondrous than Homage (which is no insult), but really you should read all three of the ones mentioned here, probably in chronological order, so as best to see Orwell's development.