I had heard that Houellebecq was a nihilist author, so I expected his writing to be bleak and boring and hard to get through. Instead I was pleasantlyI had heard that Houellebecq was a nihilist author, so I expected his writing to be bleak and boring and hard to get through. Instead I was pleasantly surprised at how engaging and funny his writing style and characters were. Nihilist or not, he has a good capacity for appreciating and savoring the small nuances of beauty, empathy, kindness, and pleasure in social interactions. I found his sense of humor really fascinating - it definitely runs dark, but it's also very humanizing, and betrays a certain level of bravery, honesty, and love that counterbalances the self-centered despair. Above all, it's a book full of intelligence, the oblique, charming kind that leaks out at the seams of descriptions and jokes rather than the dominating kind of intellect that attacks problems directly and tries to bully them into submission. It's interesting given that issues of dominance and submission, particularly as they relate to gender, shape the book in important ways.
The narrator's ex-girlfriend says at one point: "Yes, in theory you’re definitely macho. But then you have such refined tastes in writers: Mallarmé, Huysmans. They don’t exactly play to the macho base. Plus you have a weirdly feminine eye for household textiles. On the other hand, you dress like a loser. I could see you cultivating a macho slob thing, but you don’t like ZZ Top, you’ve always preferred Nick Drake. In other words, you’re a walking enigma." The narrator is truly an odd mix of machismo and delicate sensibilities - he is uninterested in feminism, and not worried about the welfare of women under the new repressive religious regime; mainly he is worried about whether women are sexually accessible, and the ideal wife for him, as for his idol the 19th-century writer Huysmans, is one who would be a combination of "a good little cook" and a whore.
There's an especially fascinating passage where one of the characters talks about Story of O, a classic of sadomasochistic literature, and its depictions of feminine submission to masculine desire. The idea is that just as the woman in the Story of O experiences bliss through total submission, so too society can experience bliss by submitting to the dominance of religion - in this case Islam, though it could just as easily have been Catholicism I think ... and so the Islamicized vision of France that Houellebecq presents is one where the public sleepily, dreamily, blissfully submits to the rule of religious authorities and everyone is happier. Men have the joy of submitting to a state that provides them with submissive wives who are good little cooks and sex slaves, and women have the double joy of submitting to the state and to their husbands.
Of course, the oblique point that the book makes is that this looks like joy only as long as no one looks too hard at the inner lives of women. Politically, submitting to the authoritarian right looks like joy as long as no one thinks too hard about who gets hurt. The sleepy, dreamy, blissful submission is its own kind of nihilistic suicidal impulse, a rejection of agency, choice, and autonomy - the impulse to negate selfhood through passivity, by saying, as the narrator says at one point, "fuck autonomy." The book is a warning and a guide: If you want to kill yourself, if you want to give up on meaning and integrity, on authenticity, here's how to do it.
A historical novel about the last months of Van Gogh's life, imagining a romance between the painter and the daughter of a (historical) quack doctor wA historical novel about the last months of Van Gogh's life, imagining a romance between the painter and the daughter of a (historical) quack doctor who was treating him at the time.
I rarely ever stop reading a novel part-way through, but I'm sorry to say that I disliked the prose style of the author enough to do so in this case after only about five or six chapters. I just found her writing style extremely flat and unengaging. Part of the trouble is that the author is constantly spelling things out that would be better illustrated through character actions or descriptions, and so even though it's all grammatically smooth, and there are even the occasional interesting and nicely-phrased descriptions, I kept feeling like I was reading something written for first graders.
The whole thing is narrated in the heroine's voice (the doctor's daughter), and she's constantly telling you things like, "I felt attracted to Vincent, despite the fact that he resembled my father, whom I never respected very much." Or, "My brother clearly wanted to compete with me for Vincent's attention." The book could have been so much better if these endless flat sections of matter-of-fact narrative could have been replaced with scenes of dramatic action or interesting dialogue. For example, she could instead have written something like, "When Vincent met my eyes, heat crept up the back of my neck. My father shot me a look of annoyance." In short, she's constantly and repetitively telling you everything about the characters and their background and their relationships to each other, rather than showing you by what the characters do and how they interact with each other....more
(3.5 stars, really, because it meandered a bit much in part II.) This book was a hoot. Published in 1958 or so, it's full of funny American 50s slang,(3.5 stars, really, because it meandered a bit much in part II.) This book was a hoot. Published in 1958 or so, it's full of funny American 50s slang, and in the few days it's taken me to read it, I've started going around calling people buster and saying things are a hoot and you've got my number all right. Anyway, it's an innocents abroad tale about an American girl who gets funded by her rich uncle to spend 2 years traveling wherever she likes. She heads straight to Paris and then gets stuck there, drinks a lot, has a surprising amount of sex, hangs out in cafes with intellectuals and artists, dances a lot, complains a lot, and tries to get into movies and plays. Not a very promising premise, I grant you, but it's funny and witty, offers a fascinating window into a fascinating time and cultural jumble, provides a few gripping plot developments, and ends with a twist I really didn't see coming. I also loved the afterward. When her first book was a great success, her husband was unhappy, and told her if she wrote a second, he'd divorce her. She did and he did. I could identify with that a whole lot more than with her spoiled, airheaded fictional protagonist, I'll say that much!...more
I was curious to read the original versions of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale (La belle et la bete in French), so I checked out this collection oI was curious to read the original versions of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale (La belle et la bete in French), so I checked out this collection of translated French fairy tales from the library. (I wasn't confident enough in my French to try to read them in the untranslated eighteenth-century original.) There's a great introduction which explains a lot about the historical context in which the tales were created - they were a product of salon gatherings during Enlightenment-era France, and gradually developed and mutated as social, economic, and political conditions in France deteriorated under the rapacious and incompetent monarchy of the Ancienne Regime. Rich and highly educated women led these salons, and the tradition arose of telling long elaborate fairy tales that were supposed to sound like spontaneous creations, though in fact the women carefully composed them in advance and in writing and then memorized them so as to sound spontaneous and natural. The first version of Beauty and the Beast is actually quite bizarre ... it goes on and on and just gets weirder and weirder and weirder - I finally gave up on getting all the way through it and just skimmed it. The better-known abridged version that came later, at the hand of another "salonniere," is much better.
Interesting, but not anything you'd ever want to read to a kid ... these stories were meant for grown-ups....more
A fascinating look at how French culture, language, identity, and borders took shape, particularly during the 1700s and 1800s. I read some chapters anA fascinating look at how French culture, language, identity, and borders took shape, particularly during the 1700s and 1800s. I read some chapters and skimmed others, but on the whole I was surprised at how readable, charming, engaging, and well-written this was. Granted, I came to it with low expectations, since anything with the word "geography" in the title I automatically assume will be a slog to get through. But the author knows how to tell a story, and he weaves together a fabric of strikingly detailed anecdotes rather than organizing the material didactically point-by-point. The overall effect for me was feeling myself transported back in time, immersed in the motley patchwork of tiny villages and dialects and myths and religious practices of provincial France of centuries past. I loved this book and strongly recommend it to anyone with even the slightest interest in French history and culture....more
I'd almost forgotten about this really charming book about a princess who befriends a river dragon, set in a kind of mythical version of medieval FranI'd almost forgotten about this really charming book about a princess who befriends a river dragon, set in a kind of mythical version of medieval France - I remember really enjoying it. (The reason I chose to read it will be obvious to anyone who knows me very well.)...more
Only got the chance to skim a few chapters, but some fascinating stuff. The chapter on abortion and birth control was very moving. I wish there were mOnly got the chance to skim a few chapters, but some fascinating stuff. The chapter on abortion and birth control was very moving. I wish there were more attention paid here to prostitution, because the question of how prostitutes dealt with those issues is interesting to me. But she explicitly, unfortunately, excludes them from her scope. Which is a bummer, since the other big work I read on French 19th-century prostitution, Corbin's (Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France After 1850, barely goes into the issue at all either. And it really seems like it'd be a major concern for your average prostitute!...more
A charming, well-written look at a culturally rich time in France's history, Napoleon III's benevolent dictatorship. Rather than writing a straightforA charming, well-written look at a culturally rich time in France's history, Napoleon III's benevolent dictatorship. Rather than writing a straightforward big-picture political history, Williams chooses instead to illuminate different aspects of the period by giving us a biography of a different pivotal figure in each chapter. There are chapters on political influencers, the composer Halevy, the artist Corbusier, writer and literary critic St. Beuve, an educator, a scientist, a promenient woman, and so on. I thought it was great, really fun and a nice way to delve into the cultural and "daily life" history while still getting a good sense of what was going on politically....more
The story of a Parisian ingenue in the second half of the 19th century, who rises from gutter-dwelling prostitute to famous actress to millionaire-impThe story of a Parisian ingenue in the second half of the 19th century, who rises from gutter-dwelling prostitute to famous actress to millionaire-impoverishing courtesan.
Wonderfully, surprisingly racy for a 19th century book. Funny in parts, and I really enjoyed the characters despite how sleazy and dumb most of them were. The ending was strange, though, and didn't totally seem to fit with the rest, since Zola suddenly gets very heavy-handedly moralistic, even though he clearly is no big fan of religious piety. It was a little incongruous that he could tell the story of Nana and her companions with so much zest and humor but express so much bile and disgust for them at the end.