These stories are well enough written but most of them are too cute and sentimental for me. The stories that aren't about fetching children in the rurThese stories are well enough written but most of them are too cute and sentimental for me. The stories that aren't about fetching children in the rural South feature adult heterosexual relationships that are described in the shorthand of stereotype as Capote evidently wasn't familiar enough with the subject to provide convincing details. ...more
My reactions to Simone's massive novel about life with J.P. Sartre, Albert Camus, and Nelson Algren are violently mixed. It's fascinating to read abouMy reactions to Simone's massive novel about life with J.P. Sartre, Albert Camus, and Nelson Algren are violently mixed. It's fascinating to read about an era where prize-winning novelists were resistance fighters and political organizers, and though they're continually bemoaning their powerlessness, I'm amazed by how much what they do and say matters in their vanished world. On the other hand, it's discouraging the way Simone turns Sartre into a plaster saint, and Camus into a heroic godlike creature every woman desires. The big revelation this novel delivers is how focused on men the author, a feminist icon, was, and how hostile she is to all women other than herself. It wasn't just the era she lived in, because Colette, born a generation before Simone, wrote many warm and appreciative portraits of women, and didn't delude herself about the flaws in the characters of the men she loved.
One of the philosophical preoccupations of the novel is Sartre's idea of "Bad Faith", which as I interpret it, is the creation of a morality or an ideology that protects us from the anxiety of having to make choices about our life. The Camus character in the novel is continually struggling with one anguished choice after the next about freedom, betrayal, life and death, but the choices of the women are limited to choices between one man and another. And even then, the choices about when to end the love affairs are almost always made by the men. Perhaps Simone's bad faith about the inability of women to be happy without being the acolytes of men is what makes her style pedantic and turgid, resembling James Michener far more than her literary predecessor, the clear-eyed and elegant Colette, so that the novel is slow going, relying on the basic vitality of the times and the characters to pull you along. ...more
An intellectually stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable book about investing. Benjamin interleaves his penetrating and cynical analysis of Wall StreetAn intellectually stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable book about investing. Benjamin interleaves his penetrating and cynical analysis of Wall Street with delightful asides on psychology, literature, and philosophy. Jason Zweig's commentary updates this classic text by applying Benjamin Graham's ideas on value investing to recent (up to 2003) events in the market....more
No one better than Jean Rhys in describing what it's like to be poor, powerless, and female. Her characters spend their days in fear of the human raceNo one better than Jean Rhys in describing what it's like to be poor, powerless, and female. Her characters spend their days in fear of the human race until they can't bear it any longer, and burst forth in destructive anger. The settings are cheap hotels, and the scene with the bugs coming out of the wall at night in this novel is not to be missed....more
A wild and delightful account of the life of a young Japanese man who has withdrawn from society and become a dreaded hikikomori. No fancy metaphors,A wild and delightful account of the life of a young Japanese man who has withdrawn from society and become a dreaded hikikomori. No fancy metaphors, no poetic language, nothing but the heartbreakingly real description of the life of someone who can't bear modern life. Like William Burroughs writing without his layers of obfuscation. Funny, tender, honest, wonderful....more
One of my least favorite T.C. Boyle novels, in which the milquetoast hero cures his ulcer and redeems his manhood by catching his wife having her wombOne of my least favorite T.C. Boyle novels, in which the milquetoast hero cures his ulcer and redeems his manhood by catching his wife having her womb manipulated in broad pastoral daylight by a doctor of movement therapy while a prominent advocate of vegetarianism looks on, masturbating. The neanderthal is unleashed in our hero, who grabs a stick shaped like a baseball bat from the leafy ground and proceeds to beat both his rivals bloody. Once he manages, brandishing said stick, to bring fear to his wife's eyes his marriage is saved and he manages to live a long and happy married life, engendering three daughters who "grew up to be leggy and lean, and they ate whatever they liked, within reason. Will was devoted to them". You just have to hope his wife doesn't let him anywhere near these leggy girls when he's brandishing his stick.
There's plenty of wild plot in this novel, including a young con man, conned himself, who is arrested at a luncheon in the upscale sanitarium run by Dr. Kellog. The con man escapes and ends up owning a flat in Paris, an estate in Westchester, and a house in Zurich by marketing a 60 proof women's tonic. Plus there's an epic battle between Dr. Kellog, his alcoholic adopted son, a sickly tame wolf, and a female chimpanzee in which the vegetarian and bicycle-toned Dr. Kellog claims victory by drowning his son in a batch of nut butter.
T.C. could be considered one of the founders of hysterical realism, the genre that James Wood defines when he says:
"The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity. It seems to want to abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence–as it were, a criminal running endless charity marathons. Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion. Inseparable from this culture of permanent storytelling is the pursuit of vitality at all costs. Indeed, vitality is storytelling, as far as these books are concerned."
This almost perfectly describes THE ROAD TO WELLVILLE, and many other T.C. novels as well. In the best of his novels, DROP CITY and SAN MIGUEL, T.C. restrains his his hysterical tendencies, and sticks with great benefit to a more classic plot. But who can really fault him, not me. Others of my favorites, like Margaret Atwood, have over larded fantastical plots into their books, presumably because it is a crowd pleaser. You only have to read a few chapters into any of George R.R. Martin's SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series to know that. It's just not my style, I prefer the classic plotters like St. Aubyn who give their main characters a chance to live and breathe. And when T.C. sticks to the classic style as he does in SAN MIGUEL, he's the best writer around....more
I'd listened to Natalie Goldberg's audio CD on Zen and writing and enjoyed it, so when I saw Banana Rose in the used bookstore, I couldn't resist. WouI'd listened to Natalie Goldberg's audio CD on Zen and writing and enjoyed it, so when I saw Banana Rose in the used bookstore, I couldn't resist. Would her fiction live up to her writing instruction? It did. An enjoyable look at the wild hippy life of a New York Jewish girl. The writing is fresh and vital, transporting you to the world of Banana Rose and her lover/husband Gaugin. If I had a complaint, it would be that Banana remains painfully naive and without a trace of the political theory that inflamed the 1960's. The result of too much Zen?...more
In ARROWSMITH, Sinclair Lewis tells the story of idealistic Martin Arrowsmith, born poor, who rises through hard work, a passionate dedication to "theIn ARROWSMITH, Sinclair Lewis tells the story of idealistic Martin Arrowsmith, born poor, who rises through hard work, a passionate dedication to "the truth", and two advantageous marriages to become one of the world's leading medical scientists. Writing in 1961, Lewis's main biographer Mark Schorer said that ARROWSMITH remained the most widely read of Lewis's novels, and that in its day of 1925 it was "another instant success.... (it) stilled those carping voices that had complained that in MAIN STREET and BABBITT Lewis... lacked 'spiritual gifts'." Stung by these criticisms, and determined to write a "heroic" novel that would silence his critics and give him a shot at the big prizes (his calculations were spot on, as ARROWSMITH did win him a Pulitzer), Lewis concocted a thrilling plot which includes elopement, angry parents, tempting young women, professional intrigue, a bubonic plague epidemic, and an oddly modern finale in which adequately heroic Martin quits his post at a major research institute and retreats to a startup in the backwoods of Vermont.
The sentimental seriousness with which Lewis chronicles Martin's career and marriage to one of the most unrealistically ideal wives in literature marks a sad departure from the sardonic wit with which Lewis observed George Babbitt go about his daily American life. When Babbitt meets his wife after an absence during which he's been trying hard to stray from the confines of marriage, "he was dreading the moment when he would be alone with his wife and she would patiently expect him to be ardent." How amusing and deadly that picture of Myrna's patient endurance of Babbitt's dreaded ardor compared to Martin's reaction when he's separated by the epidemic from his long-suffering and thus insufferable (to me, not Martin) wife Leora and tempted by lovely Joyce: "Did he really want Leora here, with Joyce... in the house? (Dear Leora, who was the source of life! Was she now... missing him, lying awake for him?) Suddenly he was out of bed, kneeling, praying to Leora." Dear Leora, sticking to her usual policy of self-sacrifice for Martin's sake, conveniently dies, allowing Martin to marry the lovely and very rich Joyce with a clear conscience.
ARROWSMITH marks not just a transition in Lewis's work from satire to heroic seriousness but is also the point at which Lewis turns away from seeing marriage from the female as well as the male point of view, and fixes his sympathies firmly with the men. Lewis is sympathetic enough towards Martin's first wife Leora, but how could he be otherwise, since she obliterates herself when her presence isn't required by Martin or the plot. She has the trick of napping "inoffensively" while Martin works, and remaining "unannoyingly silent." But once Leora has been finally obliterated by bubonic plague, the silences of wives in Lewis's novels will invariably be annoying and their napping, offensive. This more limited patriarchal perspective, plus its deadly seriousness and mawkish sentimentality, are good enough reasons for ARROWSMITH to be almost completely forgotten today. Yet there are still reasons for reading it, chief among them the way Lewis, writing in 1925, manages to reveal so much about contemporary American life. Our obsession with the tricks and toys of science while we at the same time venerate a simpler more "natural" way of life. Our belief that intelligence and sporadic bursts of overwork will more than compensate for periods of drug-soaked dissolution and mediocrity (as they did in Lewis's own case). The tensions and power struggles in a marriage where the wife has money of her own. The vilification of socialism and organized labor by the comfortably middle-class. Reading even the most mediocre of Lewis's novels (which might be ARROWSMITH) lets us see how much of what we think of as modern about modern life has been part of American culture for at least four generations. ...more
How can you not love a novel whose "half-baked entrepreneur" hero rises from village poverty to owning his own limo service through flattery, intelligHow can you not love a novel whose "half-baked entrepreneur" hero rises from village poverty to owning his own limo service through flattery, intelligence, lies, hard work, blackmail, luck, and finally, killing his boss and making off with a red bag full of bribery cash, all the while telling the caustic truth about the relations between rich and poor in modern India. White Tiger has its moments of beauty and uplift, like the visit the hero and his little cousin make to see the golden-beaked storks in the National Zoo, and they shine all the brighter because there aren't many of them. ...more
I almost gave up on this novel after fifty pages. Its relentless focus on the misery and absurdity of humanity dredged up unpleasant memories of readiI almost gave up on this novel after fifty pages. Its relentless focus on the misery and absurdity of humanity dredged up unpleasant memories of reading Celine in my youth. But I persevered with the book and was pleased to have my suspicions of literary influence confirmed when Celine's Journey to the End of Night saves the life of the hero's father.
Like Celine, the narrator and his father can't stand anyone except beautiful inaccessible women and extremely rich people. Once the women have succumbed for reasons I can't understand to the charms of narrator and father, they too join the ranks of the despised. Since the extremely rich people never succumb, they are admired to the last. At least the narrator of this book, unlike Celine, doesn't have a vendetta against the Jews.
The plot is a long string of absurd events and all characters except the narrator and father, who blend into a single character, are cartoons. Hard for me to believe that this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. ...more
**spoiler alert** Opening a Balzac novel is like peering through a glass window into an enormous ant colony, where the ants are tiny men and women, th**spoiler alert** Opening a Balzac novel is like peering through a glass window into an enormous ant colony, where the ants are tiny men and women, the aristocratic ant-men dressed in wasp-waisted coats with cravats and frilled shirt fronts, the elegant ant-women wearing voluminous gowns of silk muslin with enough fabric in each leg-of-mutton sleeve for two modern dresses, sashed tight to corseted ant-sized waists, all rushing around dashing off articles for the little papers or dancing on stages in the colored light of burning quicklime or making shady deals or using their charms to pick the pockets of their lovers, all of them franticly obsessed with fame and fortune. It's a world described in exhaustive and sometimes exhausting detail, from the methods of printing books to the interiors of country houses to the cost of everything. It's the world of Restoration France, from the fall of Napoleon to the February revolution of 1848 that ended the era of French royalty, as recreated by the father of naturalism, the school of fiction writing whose goal was to realistically portray the scientific truths behind the destinies of human beings and human societies. But rather than the drab and pedantic universe one might expect to emerge from this application of science to literature, Balzac's French anthill is brilliantly colored and enlivened by his own imaginations and obsessions, the way his lovely young actress/prostitute heroines were turned into temporary goddesses by those colored cylinders of limelight.
In LOST ILLUSIONS, a novel written past the midpoint of Balzac's 28 year literary career, Balzac's obsessions with literary fame, social success, aristocratic women, and the crushing loads of debt both he and his heros can't seem to avoid are in full flower. His hero, born Lucien Chardon, is a poor young man as beautiful as any successful courtesan who has some literary wit, a taste for luxury, and a burning social ambition. In other words, better looking and less talented than Balzac, but with the same emotions. Lucien falls for an older woman, Madame de Bargeton, a member of the provincial aristocracy. She falls for Lucien's good looks and flattery, leaves her boring husband, and carries Lucien off to Paris. If there's anything Balzac knew perfectly, it was the relationship between a poor ambitious young man and an older, richer, better born woman, because he depended for most of his life on a series of similar relationships to pay his debts and build up his monumental ego.
Soon after the lovers arrive in Paris, their love starts to fray at the edges. "Although it is not commonly admitted that feelings are subject to sudden changes, it is certain that two people in love often move apart more quickly than they have come together. In the case both of Madame de Bargeton and Lucien, mutual disenchantment was setting in, and Paris was the cause of it." The axe falls when the lovers meet again at the opera. Lucien sees Madame de Bargeton "as she was seen by the people of Paris: a tall, desiccated woman with freckled skin, faded complexion and strikingly red hair: angular, affected, pretentious, provincial of speech, and above all badly dressed!" He is "ashamed at having loved this cuttle-bone and promised himself to take advantage of her next access of virtue by dropping her." For her part, Madame de Bargeton is so humiliated by Lucien's bad manners and newly-purchased clothes that make him look "like the best man at a wedding" that she abandons him at the opera and refuses to see him thereafter.
Without Madame de Bargeton's resources, Lucien is thrown into poverty and forced to make his living first in the corrupt world of the new papers that had sprung up once Napoleon's press censorship was relaxed under the restored monarchy, and then as the lover of Coralie, a 17 year old actress/prostitute who falls for Lucien at first sight, a weakness that eventually leads to her abandonment by her wealthy sugar daddy and the financial downfall of both Coralie and Lucien.
The "little papers" that for awhile provide Lucien with money and an introduction to high society thrive on satire, sarcasm, personal attack, and scandal-mongering. Their owners and journalists are addicted to graft, intrigue, and blackmail. They bear an astonishing resemblance to today's journalistic world of bloggers and cable news channels, just as the young "actresses" who live off rich old men and dominate Paris gossip for a year or two before disappearing into obscure poverty resemble today's celebutantes. And beautiful dissolute bisexual Lucien could be any of the actors who astonish us briefly with their talent then die before they're thirty. Except that Lucien doesn't die. Crushed by poverty and failure, forced to leave Paris and return to the provinces, he tries at the end of the novel to commit suicide, but is rescued by the first fully homosexual male character to appear in a novel: Jacques Collin, the great general of convicts who rides in, disguised as a Spanish priest, to save Lucien at the end of LOST ILLUSIONS, then proceeds to outlive and outshine him in A HARLOT HIGH AND LOW.
For anyone who has ever been: deeply in debt; humiliated by their social superiors; ambitious but poor and ignored; or born into a chaotic, greedy, amoral, status-seeking civilization, Balzac is the writer and LOST ILLUSIONS is the novel for you....more
Almost a caricature of the male style, full of clipped dialogue and supposedly telling detail, hinting at unmentioned depths. But I'm left with the seAlmost a caricature of the male style, full of clipped dialogue and supposedly telling detail, hinting at unmentioned depths. But I'm left with the sense that what you see is what you get, and that there's not much there under the shallow surface....more
BABBITT is the devastatingly funny yet still endearing portrait of George Babbitt, a suburban real estate broker who is 46 in 1920. It's fascinating aBABBITT is the devastatingly funny yet still endearing portrait of George Babbitt, a suburban real estate broker who is 46 in 1920. It's fascinating and disturbing when reading BABBITT to realize how little American business, American marriages, and American men have changed in the past 91 years. In 1920 gas cost 31 cents a gallon, liquor was illegal though in plentiful supply, and the internet had yet to be imagined, but George's emotional mix of bluster, bullying, babyish pouting, and his desperate need to be loved and admired are all but eternal. He's Homer Simpson in frameless glasses and a well-cut gray suit. His world of new suburbs built over old orchards, shady real-estate deals, conventions and lunches at which the gold old boys puff themselves up, drink themselves silly, and rant about the union-loving socialists who are killing the country hasn't changed much either. The genius of BABBITT is that it evokes my compassion for the kind of man I fear and despise when I encounter him in daily life.
BABBITT is usually described as an acutely observed but somewhat poorly written novel about business. I'd say it's a brilliantly written novel about American marriage, and the extension of the social contract of marriage to the larger framework of American social life. As in MAIN STREET and DODSWORTH, BABBITT's focus is on the marital power struggle, where one party strives to enforce conformity to a shallow social order and the other fights for a more meaningful life. In MAIN STREET the wife was the rebel. In BABBITT it's George who longs to flee from the boredom of business, church, golf, and middle-aged marriage to "darkness beyond mysterious groves" with a dream girl who is slim, pale, and eager. George's wife Myra represents the forces of habit, affection, and convention that keep George from pursuing his dreams. In MAIN STREET, Lewis's sympathies are with the artistic woman who's oppressed by marriage and a small town. In BABBITT, we get the husband's point of view on the marriage, but Lewis doesn't fail to observe said husband with an amusingly ironic wife-shaped eye. By the time he wrote DODSWORTH, Lewis had lost his ironic perspective and gone over to a whole-hearted defense of the alcoholic overbearing husband. Which makes BABBITT, where the author doesn't take sides as he describes George and Myra fighting for the upper hand, Lewis's masterpiece.
BABBITT was criticized by Mark Schorer, Lewis's principal biographer, for its "aesthetic crudities"; by Edith Wharton, to whom BABBITT was dedicated, for its "excess of slang"; and by Gore Vidal for its lack of plot. Probably they were all a little shocked by the radical technical innovations of a best-selling author. BABBITT's plotless pastiche of voices, including voices from social classes not usually thought of (certainly not by aristocratic Ms. Wharton) as a proper subject for literature, prefigures the postmodern techniques of writers such as William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, and William Burroughs. And Lewis's technique was no accident: as a man who'd made money selling plots to Jack London and had his most famous portrait done by Dadaist Man Ray Lewis certainly knew what he was doing when he structured BABBITT as a series of scenes that reveal George, mostly through dialogue, and from a succession of cubist angles. BABBITT resolves not with a dramatic climax but in an ironic circle when George, who in the first scene complains to his wife of a pain in his side that he thinks might be appendicitis, is in the end brought back to his marriage and his social group by his wife's operation for appendicitis. What's as remarkable as Lewis's technical innovations is that in spite of them BABBITT remains highly readable ninety years after it was written....more
For some reason I never thought I'd like Susan Sontag's novels but this one changed my mind. A look at European history during the revolutionary and NFor some reason I never thought I'd like Susan Sontag's novels but this one changed my mind. A look at European history during the revolutionary and Napoleonic eras through the eyes of upper class men and lower class women. Ms. Sontag injects just enough of her political perspective to make me see history with new eyes....more
During the long months it took me to read 2666 I was convinced it was an important work of fiction, but I only occasionally enjoyed reading it, and noDuring the long months it took me to read 2666 I was convinced it was an important work of fiction, but I only occasionally enjoyed reading it, and now, three months since I finished it, there's not much from it that's stuck with me. Two characters, and an ambiance described perfectly by the quote from Baudelaire that Bolano uses as a preface to his novel: "an oasis of horror in a desert of boredom". Except that the horror is to repetitive and mundane to be any sort of oasis.
The first character who lodged herself in my cranium was Liz Norton, the gorgeous goddess who enlivens the otherwise tediously literary first section of 2666. Liz charmed me right away because "For her, reading was directly linked to pleasure, not to knowledge or enigmas or constructions or verbal layrinths..." I doubt that pleasure loving Liz would have had the fortitude to wade through Bolano's enormous enigmatic construction. The second character I liked and remember was Oscar Fate, a black journalist who vomits his way through an ominous yet aimless third section. I remember Mr. Fate because his section has an immediacy that differs from the emotionally distant tone of the rest of the novel and convinces me that it's the dying Bolano, with his taste for loneliness and prostitutes, who looks most directly out of Oscar's eyes.
The rest of 2666 blurs together in a Surrealist college of strange stories and long obsessive lists embedded in a self-referential matrix at whose center lies the great enigmatic writer Archimboldi. Bolano may have been describing what he was aiming at with 2666 when he describes Archimboldi's work: "The writing was clear and sometimes even transparent, but the way the stories followed one after another didn't lead anywhere: all that was left were the children, their parents, the animals, some neighbors, and in the end, all that was really left was nature, a nature that dissolved little by little in a boiling cauldron until it vanished completely." But there are few children in 2666, fewer animals, and almost no nature. What's left at the end of 2666 is the competitive, frightening, violent, and sexually obsessive world of human men.
In retrospect, 2666 seems so tedious and dreary that I have to ask myself why I was convinced, and still am convinced, that it is an important if unpleasant novel. Is it because Bolano suggests that we "are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown... (we) have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench" and thus implies that any reluctance on our part to read another grisly yet boring page about a murdered girl is only a validation of 2666's status as the great work of a great master? Well, no. I'm not that big a sucker for authorial self-aggrandizement. For me 2666's importance comes from its place in the history of the Surrealist novel that began with Nadja, reached its apogee in Hopscotch, and has perhaps come, like Soviet Communism, to its bloated tragic end in 2666.
I've had a soft spot in my head for charming Surrealist bad boys since I hung out for awhile with a group of post-Situationist poets in my early twenties. And two of the most charming (and most important) of the Surrealist authors are Andre Breton and Julio Cortazar. Cortazar was one of Bolano's favorites, and 2666 borrows a great deal from Cortazar's masterpiece Hopscotch, including the division into loosely related sections and the recursive presence of a master writer who provides a meta-commentary on the novel that contains him. Cortazar in turn borrowed his mysterious not-quite-a-prostitute heroine La Maga from the title character of the original Surrealist novel, Nadja. What the three have in common is the rejection of reason, morality, and work, and a predilection for living off ladies of easy virtue who are deserted the moment they become inconvenient, then idolized in absentia. So why after multiple readings do I still find Nadja exciting and Hopscotch marvelous but am certain I'll never pick up 2666 again? Is it because the Marxist faith that Breton espoused and Cortazar maintained gave them some hope for the future, and that hope for the future is a necessary precondition for experiencing and communicating pleasure? Bolano, having passed through the ultra-cynical baptism of the Situationists, has no hope left for any project of social improvement, so what we're left with in 2666 is like the Surrealists' beloved sado-masochism without a tinge of revolutionary romance - an interminable night of horror. I hope that this transformation from revolutionary idealist to hopeful realist to self-involved cynic doesn't say anything about the transformation of our larger world, but I'm pretty sure it does. And that's why 2666 matters: it's the last panel of a triple mirror reflecting our recent centuries, and if the picture's not pretty, it's not the mirror's fault....more