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As I noted in my previous entry, I’m no expert on vampire literature and am currently more interested in sharing ideas for thought and discussion than on “settling” anything in reference to this novel. I am just reviewing my notes on the book and am suprised to find that curiosities and issues for consideration and discussion are still flooding my mind. So here are some additional things that intrigue me in reference to this novel:

1. I’ve heard that reviewers and critics, in general, share my belief that Rice is an innovator in this area of literature and that her books are of higher quality than most other vampire novels. I’d like to hear what readers with more experience in vampire literature have to say about this notion. How rare in level of quality is Rice’s vampire fiction? What influence has she had on other writers in this genre? Are there other authors of vampire literature whose skill and insight are equally noteworthy?

2. In my last entry, I noted how numerous and how complex are the philosophical concerns addressed in Interview with the Vampire. I just wanted to bring up a few more that seem impossible to ignore:

—the nature of choice in one’s actions and the extent to which passivity functions as a form of action and as a choice. “And so you decided to become a vampire?” the boy interviewer asks Louis soon after the book opens. “Decided,” Louis replies, “It doesn’t seem the right word. Yet I cannot say it was inevitable from the moment he stepped in the room. No, indeed, it was not inevitable. But I can’t say that I decided.” This sort of ambiguity in the extent to which one’s will and reasoning determine one’s actions and that to which we cannot exactly say that we “decided” to act persists throughout the text. It is important to Louis’s self-realization journey and to the portrayal of vampire nature in general.

–the nature of love. Claudia says at one point that vampires daring to love one another is the “crowning evil” of all they do. Rice seems to explore two extremes of thought about love: in one sense, love is the greatest driving force behind many of the characters’ most significant acts. In others, as well as at times in Louis’s musings, the idea of love among vampires and even seemingly in and of itself is all but dismissed. Or it is suggested that love among vampires is inescapably weak compared to that among mortals. In his ponderings, Louis seems to compel us to ask to what extent love motivates action and to what extent it may simply be an excuse for behaviors. Some consideration of love as simply an overestimated extension of the basic need for companionship also appears, as does some exploration, through the different relationships among the vampire characters, of a potentially infinite range of types of love in general.

3. In my last entry, I noted two separate issues–gender/sexuality and the coming-of-age narrative—as worthy of thought in reference to this novel. After writing this last entry, I started to think about the ways in which the issues that I had chosen might intersect and overlap, which is interesting in this case. The central coming-of-age narrative here is, of course, Louis’s. But Claudia’s transition into womanhood without physical change creates a sort of partially stunted coming-of-age tale, and we do see some movement toward maturity in Claudia as the novel progresses. Strangely, as both Claudia and Louis mature, they move from an opposite-sex love object choice to a same-sex one. Claudia, arguably partially by force of circumstance, moves from Louis to Madelaine; meanwhile, Louis moves from Claudia to Armand. Why does Rice present this transition to a same-sex object choice as a part of the coming-of-age process? Or if it’s not the gender that determines the choice, what role does gender play in how these attachments develop and progess? And what, then, does determine the ultimate object choice for each of these two characters?

4. It’s important, of course, to ask why Rice chose the interview format, given that the interviewer plays such a small role in the text. But as the contrast between the sense of discomfort in the interviewer’s voice at the beginning and his behavior at the end indicates, he is seduced by the story of vampire life, which is not the effect Louis intends at all. My first thought about the interviewer was that he might be seen as a figure of the reader, who may be at first judgmental, then silent as he/she is drawn into the story, and ultimately awed by the tale’s sensuous imagery.

But as far as the interviewer’s reaction goes, I don’t think that comes close to telling the whole story and would really like to hear other readers’ interpretations of the book’s ending.

Having the book develop as a tale that Louis presents during an interview also allows Rice to show Louis not as having a complete and solid narrative to deliver, but rather as sometimes hesitant, confused about what he means, and ambivalent. This gives us a more compelling and complex sense of the philosophical inquiry that pervades the novel, as well as of Louis’s struggle to establish and articulate a coherent sense of self.

Are any of these issues of interest to other readers? And what key issues have I missed? I’d love to hear from you!

 

 I must admit that before I read this book, I had literary vampiraphobia with a touch of pure hard, cold prejudice.  I had read long excerpts from several vampire novels and Twilight in its entirety, along with some secondary literary criticism and analysis. I did so, however, NOT because I was interested in the vampire genre or impressed by its rise to popularity.  Instead, we might say that I wanted to know what tired cliches bound together the works I’d read and how on earth the genre could rise to popularity in any period.  After all, in my mind, what could be done to make the act of sucking blood out of another being into something I wanted to read about? Nothing, I imagined.

I’m not going to turn my reading of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire into a life-changing experience and claim that it sucked the moral blood out of my staunch and longstanding disgust.  But I did come to see that various qualities associated with the vampire genre can combine to create a medium for certain social questions, themes, and portrayals of uncommon or taboo behaviors.  Rice, I feel, uses these media cleverly and insightfully.  I saw that intellectually worthwhile questions and conflicts could be explored within the frame of a vampire tale, and I feel that Rice’s explorations are, in many areas, as strong as in texts and accompanying genres that we are used to regarding as more mentally stimulating and complex.

Although I know that my interests, of course, may not match those of others, I’ve decided to share some of the reflections, issues, and questions I raced to write down as I was reading.  This may just be a start, and I may have more to add later, but for right now, here are four things I found worthy of thought in reference to Rice’s novel. These are in no particular order:

1.  This is, in a sense, a coming-of-age novel, and the vampire genre allows for opportunities not available to most coming-of-age authors.  Because Louis’s existence seems to begin anew when he becomes a vampire, the author can begin the part of the book that tells of the coming-of-age journey at the moment of Louis’s “birth,” the point at which he knows nothing and first begins to search for order and answers.

Once Louis is reborn as a vampire, he begins searching for and trying to create his identity and life perspective, beginning with a sense of himself as different from other vampires.  At that point, he believes that he, unlike the other vampires, is empathetic and still capable of the strong emotional attachments viewed as existing only among mortals. He also feels disdain for the pleasure of the kill that other vampires savor, convincing himself that he kills only because he must, meanwhile underestimating his own culpability in his having become a vampire.  As in most coming-of-age novels, the protagonist casts off these early beliefs by intertwined and inextricable processes of developing self-awareness and of maturing through experience.  There is a great contrast between Louis’s self-concept at the beginning of the book and at the end of it.

2.  Although I realize that this book has drawn the attention of some scholars, it is generally categorized as popular fiction.  Consequently, I was surprised at the variety of philosophical issues it addresses and the depth in which it explores them.  Readers themselves are drawn to explore them but must find them impossible to resolve.   Just to name a few:

—the conflict between and convergence of mortality and immortality.  At many points, the interactions and contrasts between vampires and mortals raise this issue.  In addition, we get glimpses of varying sentiments among the vampires about what it means and how it feels to be immortal.  We are asked to explore mortality and death as forces extending beyond simple bodily destruction, especially as Louis realizes that if all the vampires ever created were, indeed, alive forever, there would be many more of them.

—the nature of evil and what acts are and are not evil in nature.  The issue of what evil has to do with the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being is handled particularly cleverly at one point.  The novel also, in some descriptions of the vampires’ actions, raises questions about whether acts done because they are necessary to life can be viewed as evil.  Under what circumstances? Finally, Rice leads us to question the purpose of the concept of evil itself.  What fuels the need to believe that one’s actions and one’s identity are free of evil entirely?

3. For me, the most compelling issues in this text are sexuality and gender.  The eroticism in Rice’s work is daring, to say the least, as is her image of gendered role play.  For example, as Lestat comes to Louis and thereafter instructs him in vampire life, there is unmistakable homoeroticism present in numerous passages.  Beyond that, as the two negotiate their relationship, there are a few points at which Louis seems to be taking on a distinctly female role while Lestat’s masculinity seems suddenly apparent and even exaggerated.

For me, however, the character in the work who merits the most discussion in terms of these issues is Claudia.  When Lestat and Louis make Claudia a vampire, the eroticism–eroticism in a scene involving adult contact with a child–is strong and hard to miss.  As Claudia matures but does not change physically, she seems, at many points, some of which contain strong sexual undertones, to be both a woman and a child or to alternate quickly between coming across as one and then as the other.  Her presence in a household she shares with two adult men, Louis and Lestat, creates numerous scenes in which Rice’s portrayal of both gender and adult-child relations is eerie but compelling.  I hope to review the work to explore

—questions of gender identity and gender relations in the vampire world.

—Claudia’s character and role in the text.

—erotic undertones in some scenes depicting the vampires’ interactions with their mortal victims.

4.  Rice makes skillful use of contrast.  Much of the tension in the work comes, for me, from abrupt alternation between slow-paced scenes with much description and scenes depicting fast-paced action.  The slower and calmer scenes are relaxing and create comfort, which is shattered by the sudden intrusion of a fast-paced scene, often a horrific one. Rice juxtaposes depictions of Louis and his peers doing what they need to do to survive or to escape a threatening situation, in various senses, with philosophical explorations that generally leave Louis more conflicted than he was before.  Am I going too far, I wonder, if I think of this as, in part, a way of exploring the force of daily life’s necessities compared to that of the individual’s search for truth and meaning.

Well, again, these are just my first impressions, and I hope to have more refined ideas or other suggested issues to share in the future.  I especially hope that some of you will leave comments so that I can hear your ideas.

 

 

After much time spent puzzling over the question of what to make of Fanny, I find myself still grappling with it. As I think about the text more and more, in fact, I feel more strongly that I’m still just grappling here instead of really figuring anything out.  These reflections are, then, like my earlier ones uncertain and tentative.  I may even be less certain about what I’m saying now than about what I put forth previously.  But, with that in mind, here goes:

As we try to make sense of this novel, it seems as if we must begin by trying to make sense of Fanny, though I honestly see little hope of success.  Aside from, of course, the narrator’s, Fanny’s emerges as the primary perspective from which we see things in the novel, a situation that is furthered by her remaining distant from everyone but Edmund.  Edmund and Fanny’s bond develops because of their shared morality, as we see when the rest of the young people want to perform the play Lovers’ Vows and both Edmund and Fanny object.  Never allowing her text to sacrifice complexity, Austen suggests a difference in morality between these two characters, however, by letting even Edmund end up being drawn into the play, although it’s important that he agrees to participate as a favor to Mary Crawford.  I suppose it’s true that, therefore, from one angle, we might look at Edmund’s behavior as a sign of moral strength in that he is relinquishing his desire not to be involved  because his resistance has done nothing to stop the play’s performance and he wants to prevent the greater immorality of Mary’s being forced to act out scenes with strong romantic overtones opposite an outsider from the community.  And on Fanny’s part, with her forceful insistence that she “cannot act” and the virtual terror that seems to accompany this assertion, one can see why some readers would contend that, in this case and in other notable major episodes, what some would categorize as actions motivated by Fanny’s morality are more accurately classified as reflections of her extreme insecurity.

There’s no doubt that Fanny is insecure as a result of her harsh treatment.  As we see when she reflects on her place in the Bertram home during her visit to her birth home in Portsmouth, she enjoys far more material comfort there but receives little love or encouragement in either location.  Among the Portsmouth clan, it’s clear that her mother has other favorite children, a fact perhaps reflected in Fanny’s having been chosen in the first place as the child to surrender to the Bertrams’ care. In the Bertram home, she endures the constant criticisms of her Aunt Norris, (a great vehicle for Austen’s sense of humor but a character about as charming as a rabid dog with red ants building villages in its ears)  who goes so far as to blame Fanny for Maria’s fleeing her marriage and running off with Henry Crawford.  Her preposterous reasoning is that, had Fanny accepted Henry’s repeated marriage proposals, he would not have sought Maria’s attentions in the first place.

Fanny sleeps in the attic and is often treated little better than a servant; for various happenings, Lady Bertram and her Aunt Norris depend on her companionship or assistance while the other young people are allowed to pursue freedom or enjoyment. (These ladies simply “cannot do without” Fanny time and time again, and in a good 50 percent of these cases, I can see no earthly reason why not).   Although Austen portrays Fanny’s treatment as unjust, one inescapable question is whether the author sees the adversity she endures as one source of Fanny’s character strength. Or is said character strength something Fanny possesses by nature–something that  enables her to respond politely and calmly to the harsh treatment she endures? 

The latter proposition is clearly at least partly true, as Fanny’s grace in difficult situations throughout the novel illustrates.  But what of the former?  It seems as if the overall pattern of the novel does support this assertion, judging even by the subtle differences among the Bertram children, for whom being the object of overindulgent treatment encourages weak character.  We see, for example, that the oldest son and daughter, Tom and Maria, are clearly held in higher regard than their younger siblings, a pattern that depicts a mindset that was common among this era’s aristocracy.  And what happens?  Edmund, of course, not only behaves better on the whole than Tom, but actively seeks, in becoming a clergyman, the influence of even greater discipline and regulation than he’s already experienced according to his household position. Tom, the favored elder brother, meanwhile, accumulates substantial gambling debt and consoles himself with the fact that many of his friends are deeper in debt than he is.  Throughout the text, Tom’s carefree attitude about money seems linked to the quiet assumption that, although Edmund could have chosen a far more profitable career than he does, he would have had to choose some career and earn a living eventually.  Tom, meanwhile, it seems to be assumed, can repay whatever his debts may amount to and even begin building his future through inherited money and property. Nowhere in the novel, even as the issue of Edmund’s decision to become a clergyman draws discussion, do we find any indication that Tom is–or should be–planning a career.  Ultimately, Tom’s illness makes most explicit Austen’s implication that discipline and adversity build moral character, as it offers Tom both of these things, which he has never experienced  because of his privileged position.  Austen states that, as a result of Tom’s illness, “he had suffered and he had learnt to think, two advantages that he had never known before.”

Similarly, although the contrast between Maria’s character and Julia’s is nowhere near as stark as that between Tom’s and Edmund’s, Maria, elder and favored child, ultimately does her impulsive running off with a man while married to another man; Julia is single when she elopes with Mr. Yates.  Its implied that, when things calm down, Julia’s marriage may evolve into a union that the family can accept; not so with Maria’s.  Julia’s behavior is treated as something that she ought not have done; Maria’s is an act of calling shame upon the entire household.  Again, as with the Bertram boys, the elder child, Maria, who is favored, emerges with weaker moral character than does the younger, slightly less spoiled Julia.  The one form of discipline and duty forced on Maria, Austen makes clear, is one that fosters rebellion rather than moral strength–the obligation to enter a marriage that will secure a respectable social position and financial privilege, which Maria acts in accordance with when she initially marries a man, who, it is said, would be thought “a rather stupid fellow” were it not for his wealth.    

It could hardly be clearer, then, that adversity builds moral character but that  familial pampering, here and in what I know of Austen otherwise, seems the greatest force opposing moral devekopment.  But the character-shaping discipline that Edmund and Tom receive from sources outside the family keep the author from appearing to be an absolute enemy of the upper classes or seeming to portray the aristocracy’s lot in life as an absolute condemnation to moral lassitude.  In fact,  Austen complicates the question of nurture’s influence on adult character by making the influences of childhood and young adulthood extend far beyond one’s parenting and social position.  Still, Fanny, who unquestionably endures the greatest abuses, stands as the moral force that provides constancy to the Bertram household throughout the text while whims, guests, projects, and parental absences create a generally comfortable but a slightly unstable home environment for the Bertram children (which, nevertheless, we must regard as a model of routine and comfort next to the Portsmouth home to which Fanny is sent back to for a visit, seemingly as punishment for her repeated refusals of Henry Crawford’s proposals).  We do not have then, one of those common texts in which the wealthy are displayed as corrupt and the poor as noble.  Austen is too astute an artist to create such a tiresome, pedantic tale.

Despite the fact that we’d assume Fanny to be the happiest character in the novel’s “happy ending,” this is not one of the many “fairy tale” novels popular among certain classes of readers in Austen’s day in which lowborn children rise to great wealth and status and wellborn ones, portrayed as simplistically greedy and morally reckless, are somehow torn from their elevated position, often as a direct result of these very attributes.  First off, we have the question of the Crawfords, who do not seem to belong simply to a particular class.  Mary and Henry Crawford technically belong to the ranks of orphans, having been raised by their aunt and uncle after losing their parents.  Orphans in general, in nineteenth century novels, however, tend to be doomed to poverty and certainly left out of the elevated social circles populated by the children of prestigious families.  These two, however, seem to enjoy a favorable social standing and, at least in Henry’s case, the promise of a large inheritance, as we are reminded by the other characters each time Fanny refuses one of his proposals.  At the same time, however, we might expect the Crawfords to exhibit moral strength because of the suffering it’s implied that they experience in their home, with their aunt and uncle using them as pawns in their quarrels and, Austen also implies, making them feel unworthy and lucky to possess the privileges they do.  Rather than develop in accordance with hardships thrust upon them at home, the Crawfords seem to avoid these influences by distancing themselves from the household they are reared in as much as possible.  They spend considerable amounts of time with the Bertrams, Henry travels on extended trips, and Mary seeks a familial bond of surrogate sisterhood with Fanny.

Money, then, does not guarantee a wholly privileged upbringing, and individual choice plays a significant role in how individuals respond to their lot in life, with other influences and factors also intervening.  And were an aristocratic position a possible destiny for the virtuous orphan schooled in decorum, such as Fanny, it would not then be, as Austen illustrates by Fanny’s refusal to marry Henry, the absolute fate that the  heroine desires or even the fate that being reared among the upper classes makes most appropriate for the heroine.  With Edmund having chosen, in the clergy, a career that will offer him a relatively comfortable living but is clearly socially and economically less rewarding than many of the other options he could have pursued, Fanny still wishes to be his wife.  Her upbringing and character seem particularly well-suited for her fate in marrying a clergyman.  Her strong morality, of course, is advantageous. Meanwhile, her experience of two separate households will prove useful in her interactions with a diverse community, her habit of looking always to the needs of others and serving them would be considered a virtue for a clergyman’s wife in this culture, and her expectation of a slightly lower level of privilege than that afforded to the other Bertram children well suits the social rank that she and Edmund will occupy–by Edmund’s choice.

Many popular writers of this era simplistically presented two routes from a low birth into a higher social class, often pursued together by the same virtuous female character. These were the following: 1. reception into an aristocratic household upon the heroine’s finding herself orphaned or otherwise homeless and 2. marriage to a wealthy man.   Austen alters these formulas and their outcomes a bit in Fanny’s case and suggests that the upper classes do not conspire ceaselessly to keep the lower classes in their place, as many authors of her day would have it,  She shows us that the Bertrams take Fanny in  not because she is thrown into a homelessness that leaves them no choice but rather to foster a better upbringing for the Price family children.  By the time they fill Fanny’s former role as household helper with her sister Susan, the Bertrams are shown as needing this outsider child almost, perhaps, as much as she needs them.  Austen also starts a trend here that will become more important in Persuasion–the possibility of a child of lower-class birth advancing himself to a higher standing, which, in both novels, is offered by the military, as Fanny’s brother, William Price, rises to the rank of lieutenant.  But she refrains from making his elevation simple evidence of some cliched belief that those who work hard, whatever their origins, may succeed in that she makes Henry Crawford’s intervention a significant factor in William’s promotion.

A good thing, in this example, arises from something troubling–Henry’s relentless pursuit of Fanny, but there is no portrayal of Fanny’s still refusing Henry after he has assisted her brother as a show of ingratitude, although that’s exactly how the Bertrams see her refusals throughout Henry’s pursuit.  Nor does William’s promotion wholly seem a redress of misfortune in his upbringing.  On the one hand, William, indeed, grows up in significant misfortune.  This is the case, of course, because he spends his youth in the chaotic and impoverished Price household. In her portrayal of this family, however, Austen presents William as one of Mrs. Price’s favorites.  This minor character’s lot in life, then, joins the complex situations and fates Austen affords to the novel’s other characters.  In so doing, she portrays a culture in which tiny hints of social transformation and individual explorations of choice are becoming more common and more influential, but not overwhelmingly so.  The upper classes still enjoy great power and exhibit widespread corruption.

Recognizing this novel’s complexity does not mean denying its powerful indictment of the privileged classes of Austen’s day.   Fanny seems, in part, to function as an outsider who makes this indictment  readily apparent to the reading audience through her moral constancy and insight.  As an outsider to the privileged classes, Fanny sees what they cannot.  Each time she is scolded for rejecting Henry Crawford, she withdraws from the family circle to review her reasons for doing so.  Although these are numerous, her insight into Henry’s problematic moral character is a significant one.  And it is not simply her own feelings for Edmund that motivate her opposition to his pursuit of Mary Crawford.  In Fanny’s eyes, Edmund is the “dupe of Miss Crawford” as he fails to see her shallow character until the end of the novel.  These insights are depicted as ones that she cannot share with the Bertrams, not even with her friend Edmund:  they are foreign to the upper classes, as is the heroine’s moral insight in general and , on the whole, the heroine herself   Nevertheless, through Fanny’s fate and her relationships with some of the other characters, Austen suggests a certain amount of fluidity and individual choice gaining power in the society of her time.

As I’m sure many of you are aware, Jane Austen is widely considered one of the most quotable authors in the English language.  I was particularly struck by some of the insightful and witty lines in Mansfield Park.  And there’s a lot more where this comes from, so as you come across that great line in the novel, please share with the rest of us!

I suppose I’d save myself a lot of trouble if I said that the opinions reflected in these quotations have nothing to do my own, but that’s, shall we say, simply not the case, except where their value is obviously not in their truth but in their wit.   They are in no particular order except for the order in which I discovered them with interest upon review of the text.

1.  “A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.”

2.  “Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves.”

3.  “. . .they are much to be pitied. . .who have not, at least, been given a taste for Nature in early life. They lose a great deal.”

4.  “I cannot think well of a man who sports with any woman’s feelings. . .”

5.  “. . .if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better:  we find comfort somewhere.”

6.  “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

7.  “.  .  . there is not one in a hundred of either sex who is not taken in when they marry. Look where I will, I see that it is so; and I feel that it must be so, when I consider that it is, of all transactions, the one in which people expect most from others, and are least honest themselves.”

8.  “The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient—at others, so bewildered and so weak—and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! —We are to be sure a miracle in every way—but our powers of recollecting and forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

9.  “Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there’s never any hope of a cure.”

10.  “But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty woman to deserve them.”

The scholarly edition of Mansfield Park  that I took a brief glance at indicates that this novel raised more controversy and contrasting opinions than all of Austen’s other novels combined.  Chiefly, people tend either to love or to hate Fanny Price–or else, at the very least to be uncomfortable with her.  Tony Tanner writes of Fanny that no one “ever fell in love with her,” and, in an apparently oft-quoted comment, Kingsley Amis warns that spending the evening or having dinner with Fanny and Edmund would be a venture not to be entered upon without significant deliberation.  On the other hand, those who find Fanny likeable have, of course, championed her superior moral character.

This same character, according to Fanny’s detractors, is simply “too much”:  the heroine, in their minds, stands too far outside of and ostensibly above the habits and manners of the other characters for readers not to approach her with discomfort.  Besides that, some have argued, what we call “morality” in Fanny might more accurately be termed an “overzealous insecurity,” as noted in the introduction to the edition of the text I consulted.

It seems that Jane Austen was highly aware of the wide range of reactions that Fanny could provoke, according to an associate of mine who has read considerable amounts of biographical material on, along with the letters of, Jane Austen.  Unlike with her other novels, she kept track of the reactions this one inspired faithfully, apparently.  But her records contain no comments on how she felt about these reactions.

Hmmmm. . .What about Fanny Price?  It’s not in my nature to like or dislike literary characters all that intensely; for some reason, if I don’t try to avoid these impulses, they ruin my enjoyment of the book.  But strong reactions intrigue me, so I’d really like to know what the rest of you think of Fanny, either here or when we meet.  Meanwhile, I’ll try to sort through her character as much as I can and see if maybe, maybe I can come up with some further analysis –though whether I can or not, knowing  you all have some to offer, again, here or when we meet, I certainly look forward to hearing from you!

These are my initial thoughts on this novel, presented in no particular order and certainly not as my foremost insights on the text.  Although I would have to say that I have far more enjoyment from than insight about this particular selection, I do hope to return with some greater insights in the days to come–emphasis on hope.  Right now, I thought I’d just get the discussion rolling.

Before  we chose this book for our Meetup reading, my experience with Jane Austen was confined to Persuasion and Emma, both of which I read as an undergraduate.  I now intend to read at least Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility because, whereas I felt, in true undergraduate fashion, that the other two novels were “okay,”  I positively loved this one.  Most of the serious readers I’m acquainted with have read more Austen than I had previously and have at least one novel of hers that they hold as a “favorite,” and now, at last, I do as well–this one.

One big source of the difference in my opinion between the other two novels and Mansfield Park is that, in both Emma and Persuasion, at least it seemed to me, the heroines had to confront some truth that, throughout the text, I kept feeling as if they narrowly missed a few times, and–now, perhaps, only because I was eighteen when I read one and twenty when I read the other– I’m considering reading these again as well because Mansfield Park dazzled me so, and when I say “so,” I mean so far beyond my expectations that I sat there staring at it when I was done, wishing I could say a personal “thank you” to Austen.  On the other hand, when I read the other two (young and inexperienced as I was, so I’m wondering what would happen if I took another gander) these two heroines’ near misses with a truth they ultimately came to accept grew a bit tiresome to meto, so the plot didn’t compel me to pick the book up.

In the case of Fanny, I felt that Austen had created a far more sophisticated exploration of the conflicts and collaborations between nature and nurture, starting from the moment Fanny was taken from her lower-middle class home .  Besides that, I felt certain that the heroines would ultimately mature as they needed into the Bertram family.  The whole premise of young, lower-middle-class-born Fanny being thrust into a noble family allows us to see Austen, at once, trafficking with a lower-class heroine in one sense and an upper-class one in another, as well as allowing her to explore class relations, which she does with extraordinary wit and a very stark portrait of how the upper class treats the lower class, with Fanny never quite being received into the household, to say the least.  This fact adds complexity to the nature/nurture exploration:  this is hardly a simple case of what I’ve already seen in a dozen other novels–some lowborn woman never knowing or knowing late in life about the lowborn family of her origin, which ultimately, when she does encounter it, emerges as the locus of, to call it what it is, downright repulsive behavior.  In these other cases, either the young woman and/or perhaps even the family with whom she resides know nothing of her origins, or, if known, these origins do not in any way influence the way she is treated.  With Fanny, it’s a case of some privileges being afforded and others being withheld, and when it comes to how her particular upbringing relates to her behavior, we see our heroine, when she returns home to visit her birth household, almost unable to bear its lack of privileges and privacy:  what might have, had she remained in the Price household throughout her young life, seemed “normal” appears almost barbaric to Fanny at times.  But this fact aside, Fanny is clearly the text’s moral locus.

The text shows how shallow and money-obsessed the Bertrams and their associates are, with the exception of Edmund, Fanny’s one true love and ultimate husband.  We are shown that moral weaknesses in the Bertram daughters may be the direct result of their upbringing.  For example, when Maria marries the undesirable Mr. Rushworth, who, it is said, would be thought quite “stupid” were it not for his money, it is presented as Maria’s “duty” to accept the offer, and it’s said that any young woman would do the same in her place.  These comments within the dialogue, along with Mary Crawford’s questionable character, underscore Fanny’s moral superiority. When Crawford is pursuing her, in fact, Fanny is accused of and scolded for not thinking of what’s best for the family when she rebuffs him repeatedly .  But the way things ultimately work out, the novel suggests that this whole business of marrying for money leads to disaster and is falling by the wayside as time goes on.  In fact, the final romantic actions of Julia and especially Maria are presented as shameful to the family (although it’s implied that Julia’s union with Mr. Yates, secured by elopement, is one that can be adjusted to conventions and that the family’s perspectives may be adjusted to tolerate it), which further underscores Fanny’s singular moral position.

One final suggestion that emphasizes, I think, questionable morality within the Bertram household is what I believe to be an implication that the family is involved in the slave trade, which would, in addition, suggest that their wealth, in itself, is corrupt.  My belief that Sir Thomas Bertram at least toys with the slave trade a bit comes from, first, the fact that the property he owns and  leaves the household for an extended length of time to check up on is on one of the Leeward Islands, territory where the slave trade was prospering at the time of the novel’s 1814 publication, and, second, that Fanny asks Sir Thomas about the slave trade, and Austen does not tell us what he answers except that, whatever it is, it hastens the conclusion of their conversation. By presenting the subject in this way and by suggesting that Sir Thomas does not engage in an extended conversation about this subject with Fanny, we are left to determine the extent of the family’s involvement with the West Indies slave trade on our own, and Austen finds a way to, at once, incorporate this controversial issue into the text and, if we look at the matter a certain way, to be said, instead, to have taken a “hands off” approach to it.  Consequently, as we consider the morally problematic “nurture” to which Fanny is subjected but against which her morality triumphs, one issue, the slave trade, remains potentially a major and potentially a miniscule influence on Fanny’s upbringing while others, such as the motives for marriage, are fairly directly shown as corrupt, although, in the treatment of Julia’s elopement and the evolution of this union in subsequent days, I see another range of possible reader interpretations  of the morality of various characters, a sophistication I do not recall seeing, or at least not to the same extent, in Emma and Persuasion. 

This contrast, in my opinion, along with Fanny’s not remaining unchanged by the Bertram household in many ways, especially as her taste for household comforts is presented when she has difficulty adjusting to the Price home, makes this a complex novel and makes the nature-nurure relationship a complicated one.  Although Austen, with her substantial wit, offers clever, original aphorisms about a number of things (more striking ones than I recall encountering in the first two Austen works I read, although both of these were, I believe, composed later in her career, those on marriage are among the most clever and witty, in my opinion, and present, whether seriously or with sardonic charm (a decision often left for the reader himself/herself. The possibility of drawing contrasting interpretations of said remarks, depending on how one interprets Austen’s tone, gives this issue much for each reader to conclude independently, from one perspective; from another, should one, for example, feel that Austen’s tone at such moments is clear and stark, her remarks support interpretations of Austen’s commentary about love in the name of money and perhaps even about trends in the overall moral character of the upper class and “noble” persons of her time as direct and accusatory.  There may even be said to be a quiet parallel here between the Bertram family’s taking in of Fanny and the nobility’s potential influence, by example, of common citizens’ morality.  If we consider this parallel viable, it adds yet another level to the nature/nurture question by making the influence of nurture one that goes beyond simply the household in which one is reared.

Numerous scholars and artists whose opinions of this text are frequently quoted see a similar complexity, but often either fail to specify the basis for their opinions or base them on entirely different evidence and locate them in entirely different issues from my own.  This suggests that there is far more complexity here than that in which I have found a stimulus for these initial reflections–complexity that will, I hope, surface as our group discusses this fascinating text.  I welcome the rest of you to disagree with my first impressions, challenge them, and demand that I confront conflicting opinions.  This text itself, I believe, invites you to do so with a call far more compelling than my own.       .

The English Patient

by Michael Ondaatje

First off, I am one of the estimated three Americans not to have yet seen the film The English Patient. The film has been on my list of cultural stuff to do for several years now, but I had heard the book characterized as “needlessly diffiicult, perhaps too difficult.” Hmm. Then why was it nominated for our group’s reading with the observation that it reads best if one has not seen the movie? (Well, thanks be to Jason!). I was at a point at which I didn’t know where my next textual experience would come from, so I thought I’d give it a try.

By the time I reached the end of the first chapter, every page I finished bore so many notes and ideas for further exploration that it looked like a yearbook or something. If you are prone to turning analytical and making interpretive notes in the books you read, don’t miss this one. If you aren’t, there are so many things to take note of that you just may on this one, so I’d suggest you not miss it either. Let’s see, there are issues of wartime identity and decorum, questions of trauma and its effect on the individual’s future, issues of the nature of narrative and artistic commentary within a work itself, questions of national identity and patriotism, and issues of the body as symbolic entity–besides all the analysis of character motivations one could do in depth with the material provided. This is, in short, that rare book that readers at any level might respond to analytically. As you know if you’ve seen the movie, there’s also a strong plotline to carry anyone who prefers not to analyze.

Almost everyone knows that story, so I need not repeat it. If you don’t know it, as I didn’t, do read the book before you see the film. I’m ordinarily not much of a plot-oriented reader, but this one held my attention. The style is rich in its modulation between vague, dreamy speculations, realistic dialogue, and concise, needlepoint-sharp, and arresting delivery of plot-centered material. So I would recommend it to all of you, though I don’t know if it’s as good when one has seen the film, and I know everyone else has.

And since I don’t need to tell the story, how’s about one of the many issues I have noted in my book that can engender a range of interpretations far too extensive for me to cover here? (Opens book to random page and picks something written in the margin). Here we go: how the patient’s body and fate become, in a metaphorical sense, the body of the narrative itself. The patient’s fate is posited as, from the early pages of the novel onward, the central catalyst for progress in the narrative in the most general sense. More specifically, the patient’s body emerges as the locus of determination of more specific narrative direction, as it becomes the treasure around which the specific character relationships that determine the novel’s precise progression are negotiated. In fact, it spawns the others’ reaction and adjustment to the notion of disasters and injuries made common in the course of international conflict, a phenomenon of which acceptance on one’s individual terms shapes the other characters’ self-definition on deeper levels in the context of the war. (Oh, and if you are like me and love to read about WWI and WWII, this is an indispensable text for you as well).

We see this clearly in Hana, whose attention to and concern about the patient and his welfare repeatedly invoke the contrast between the patient’s representation of pain and susceptibility to injury and her own position apart from these threats. How, then, Hana seems to ask, does the healthy and able-bodied citizen assume the proper perspective and, indirectly, the proper position within a narrative that is defined by the role of a “patient”? What of the tales his fate implies as central to the new grand master narrative of the war, which centers on its effects and the suffering that remains for individuals positioned as the recipients of international aggression yet identified by their homeland, in this case, as “English,” a label still perceived as satisfactory and essential for designating the individual’s identity.

 

There are also many influences on the characters that take on, for them,

a didactic role in relation to the proper social treatment and tactful public discussion of various happenings, issues, and identities created by the wartime experience. Such things are a big part of what the characters are trying to figure out and, for anyone interested in the war, wholly essential in a way that nothing else can match: what could be more basic than asking who, what, and how the experience of war is to be, from that point forward. These are big questions in the background of this novel as well, so, again, what can be taken up in any other text when the subject is the war that is more important than these issues in terms of questions raised by wartime literature?

And whoever said it was needlessly difficult was either making it hard on himself or herself or assuming that I was really, really dense.

Dear Everybody

by Michael Kimball

This novel began as a short story, “The Suicide Letters of Jonathon Bender (b.1962-d.1999).” What a broad range of pieces beyond what might be labeled ‘suicide letters’ comprise this collection! The genres covered, twelve in all, are listed on the novel’s title page. Just to hit the highlights: “Letters, Diary Entries, Encyclopedia Entries. . .Weather Reports. . .a Eulogy. . .”. This ambitious combination clearly shows Kimball having set for himself a greater challenge than that posed by the traditional epistolary novel, a challenging genre, I would contend, in and of itself.

Among the greatest challenges the epistolary novel poses and Kimball’s adaptation of it intensifies is the maintenance of relative consistency of voice and style among documents attributed to the same person, but with slight variations on that basic style to accomodate a range of occasions, audiences, and time periods, along with the protagonist’s age. There is a broad spectrum of all of these in this novel, yet I, admittedly a demanding and detail-sensitive critic of style, found Kimball’s performance in this area accomplished and judicious, even as the 32-year span of Jonathon’s life is concerned.

I initially took up this book because it addresses two themes I pursue in my reading: the coming-of-age process and suicide. Novels pursuing these two themes tend, however, to display two common weaknesses: first, there

is a tendency towards overdetermined cause-and-effect logic and the side effect of said logic–the protagonist’s behavior seeming to make more sense than that of the typical individual who is not ultimately a suicide victim and, at times, even more sense than that of other characters portrayed in the work. Second, even

more often, we find a progress narrative tightly structured to demonstrate the character’s progression towards a point that may be referred to as the “last straw” and seems to ultimately and almost wholly motivate the main character’s self-destructive action. Here, although there is a development in this novel that might be conceivably referred to as Jonathon’s “last straw,” we see that he, like a real child proceeding to and then through adulthood, advances clearly but then,at times, retreats to a frivolity or naivete that challenges his assumingly established adult, independent status in managing day-to-day life. His depression, as well, at times intensifies in response to a stimulus that seems as if it would have only a minor effect on Jonathon’s life and then, shortly thereafter, seems to be far less impacted than one would expect by some development or event that seems as if it would be highly influential on the average person. What happens here, then, is that Jonathon’s psychological makeup seems far more personal and individual than that of characters in similar texts while still coming across as highly realistic and still avoiding an alternate common flaw of works featuring mentally ill characters: a feeling of emotional chaos, which, in turn, may engender a sense of impossibility of relating to those suffering from a mental condition.

This work, in fact, offers a nice balance between humor and horror.

Understandably and realistically, it is horror that emerges as the far stronger mood within this dynamic. In the meantime, however, Kimball explores a wide range of in-between affective tendencies, as, for example, he leads the reader, at numerous points, almost but not quite to the verge of tears (although, by the end, I would predict that most audiences will have ultimately been moved to tears at least once, if not until the novel’s final pages) or conversely, to the verge of laughing out loud but not quite to this point because of some element that simultaneously creates a pull towards sympathy and even a sadness that verges on despair (but likewise, I would predict that most readers will have laughed out loud at least once before the conclusion of their experience with this book). The work truly is emotionally astute in a wide variety of ways.

The main weakness I would cite here is one I might consider significant, except not in light of these strengths: the reader’s need to suspend disbelief when it comes to Jonathon’s brother Robert’s possession of decades-old documents and memories of the exact words of specific interactions, both of which may not seem likely to have survived the tests of time. At times, as is often the case in epistolary novels, some documents seem to exist wholly for the purpose of conveying information that the reader may have a need for in order to understand the narrative.

I feel, however, that most readers, like me, will perceive such problems as minor in comparison to the overall achievements of this work. The text offers a compelling portrait of an individual who presents striking eccentricities and will not soon be forgotten. At the same time, however, its overall level of believability is higher than one might expect from a work focusing on such a protagonist.

Hello again, all.  I was wondering if, either now in comments or after some thought done before our next meeting, some of you could launch some good hypotheses that might help clear up a bit of nagging confusion I feel.

I felt that I’d call this work fairly good if in a generous mood and just okay if in a less generous mood.  I was content to think, having heard others say it was great, that this was “just me”:  there must be, I was sure, something personal and of the sort I need to work through on my own kept me from enjoying it more than I did but that I probably just happened to have run into people with some common personal criteria for literature that made all of their reactions much the same. .  But then I was shopping on amazon.com and decided to look up the reviews there.   I expected that readers in general would approve of the work, but what I read went way beyond that–the reviews were marvelous but simply in that the reviewers were ecstatic and quick with generic superlatives of praise though they didn’t really attribute much beyond what I do to the novel.

Okay, says I.  I can think of a few books I’ve read in the past that do many of the things Morton’s novel does in much the same way, so, having encountered some of Morton’s tactics before, perhaps I was a little underimpressed by them as I read.  But then I read that the book sold 63, 128 copies in its first week on the market, making Morton, at that moment, the second best selling author in the US behind J.K  Rowling.  Wow!  So as I put all of this together, the question that burst forth from my mind was this:  Is the novel really as good as these sales figures and its online reviews suggest?  Very well then.  I’ll bet some of you have already guessed what my next question is:  if the book really is that good, why?  What makes it that good that I’m missing here?

Now or before we meet, could other readers please think about these questions and, if their opinion of the book ranks among the throngs of highly favorable ones, could they be prepared to explain their views with greater specificity.

Alternately, is anyone either

1.  in agreement with me about the book’s being  just  fairly good/okay?

2..or maybe even wholly unimpressed with or wholly unenthusiastic about the text? 

I’d like to hear from you on these issues in your comments or at our next meeting.  If I can appreciate the book more, I want to learn to value whatever it is I’m missing and join those who praise the book wholeheartedly.  Even if  this text’s treasures are of a sort that I simply cannot appreciate , I don’ t want to miss the chance to learn of attributes that make great fiction.

Well, we have extra time between meetings this month, so I suspect I’m not the only one doing a little extra reading. Would love to hear what everyone else is doing, but here’s the latest from me. . .

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

This one was both a bestseller and a suggestion from Rachel. It was the latter that persuaded me to read it, and I am very glad that I did. I think this would be a good book for the group to discuss as well–it raises issues of metanarrative, the Gothic, sibling rivalry and bonding (especially concerning the nature of bonds between twins), and the practice of literary biography. It’s, at once, a mystery, a gothic novel, and a tale of self-discovery, and the strange and wonderful thing is that it blends all of these things well. I have read other books that try to pull off similar acts of blending, and they usually haven’t, so far as I can recall. Most books that attempt such stunts usually end up seeming aimless, as if they don’t quite know what they want to be. Not this one.

 Here’s the deal:

 Margaret Lea, a young literary biographer who has secretly learned that she was born a twin but that her sister died at birth, receives a note from Vida Winter, the most popular author in the history of the world, in which Winter asks Margaret to be her official biographer. Vida promises to tell Margaret the truth, which is quite the pledge, considering that, throughout her career, Vida has given numerous interviews in which she told tall tale after tall tale to biographers and reporters The personal truth that Margaret is struggling with and the various questions of identity raised by Miss Winter’s narrative intersect in countless thought-provoking ways. Meanwhile, the Gothic and mystery elements of this novel make it a real page turner. Indeed, I recommend this one to a general audience because there are so many different potential approaches to it that it seems as if almost everyone would find something to think about here. For more on this text, check out its website, www.thethirteenthtale.com.

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov

I love this book, but I hesitate to recommend it. I reread it in some extra spare time because it is one of those favorites that I return to again and again, but, in the past, a few people have seen me reading it and asked about it, then decided to read it themselves (calling this “by Lucinda’s recommendation”-um, well, not exactly; you know that book you like but can’t imagine anyone else liking? Yeah, this is mine), and have returned to me with negative reviews. Now if you simply like any text that sows a very fertile field of literary criticism and instantly raises 10 or 12 (I’m not exaggerating) possible interepretations, well, then, yes, I recommend it to you. This novel takes place in an unnamed dystopia, where Cincinnatus C., a prisoner in a jail so strange that his proposed executioner poses as not only a fellow prisoner, but one jailed for having tried to somehow defend or rescue Cinncinnatus and where one of the highlights of every day is the prison guard’s feeding of a spider in the courner, has been sentenced to death by decapitation for a crime called “gnostical turpitude.” We never reallly find out what that is: in fact, this is a text full of uncertainties and irrationalities that are never settled, and all that fuzziness is one of the main things people who have read the book “by Lucinda’s recommendation” have complained about. Do you,on the other hand, like ambiguity? If so, then I really am issuing you my recommendation that you check this one out. And yes, indeed, we can talk about it. I collect interpretations of this book.

Here are some of the reasons I love this novel but others may not: what Cincinnatus does to his executioners absolutely quadruples (at the least) the number of possible interpretations, and it enhances possible readings that take the prisoner’s situation as metaphorically tied to the situation of the artist in certain political regimes. Now some people have told me that if there’s anything they don’t want to read one more of, it’s some novel in which some protagonist’s fate metaphorically explores some plight of the artist. As fror me, I just love these if they’re good, and if we count this one as one of these ambitious novels, yes, it’s a good one, very rich and worth exploring. I personally love looking up an interpretation or two of this text before each of my readings of it and trying to read it according to that perspective. Now I know that some of you regard literary criticism as a “ruination” to great works or contend that a truly accomplished piece doesn’t need it, so never mind. As for me, if I can find a situation in which my own reading experience and literary criticism can work together intimately, I’m in my glory. So that could make all the difference. A smaller issue is the humor in the book. There are parts of this thing that make me literally laugh out loud. A few readers have commented that this humor seems inappropriate and perhaps even offensive, considering the situation. If you can’t take a joke on the way to the old chopping block, then, that’s understandable, and I’d urge you to go elsewhere. But you’re missing some great humor. Finally, although Nabokov insists that he knew nothing of Kafka before he published this work, nearly every critic describes it as “Kafkaesque,” and I’d say that’s accurate. That’s high praise in my little corner of the world, but I doubt that the many of you who were forced to read The Metamorphosis or some such work in the course of your schooling would say the same. But if the “Kafkaesque” is somnething that is alleged to be found in many books where it never truly is and that has unnerved you in the past, try this one. It truly is Kafkaesque.

And there you have what I truly think about my recent reading. So what about you?

Anyone else care to weigh in with suggestions or perhaps second opinions on these two? 

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter  by Carson McCullers

“So the rumors about the mute were rich and varied.  The Jews said he was a Jew.  The merchants along the main street claimed that he had received a large legacy and was a very rich man.  It was written in one browbeaten textile union that the mute was an organizer for the CIO.”

In a sense, this is the story of  a town full of lonely people and outcasts who come to project their own identities on, and thus find relief for their loneliness through, a local deaf mute named Singer.  And yes, anyone out there who is thinking, “Hmm.  Obvious Christ figure” is absolutely right.  So if that’s something that pushes you away from a book, I’ll admit that staying away from this book is probably a good idea.  But if, perhaps, this device used to draw together and define the various characters seems a bit obvious, the wide range of things we learn about the characters and the great range of characters peopling the late 1930s Southern town portrayed in this 1940 novel, the first and most widely known of Carson McCullers’s career, make up for it.

Among others, we meet a precocious tomboy adolescent, a black doctor, the town drunk, who is also a follower of Karl Marx, and a restaurant owner who admits to his wife that he, indeed, “like[s] freaks” when his wife criticizes him for befriending lonely outcasts.  McCullers’s portrayals throughout the novel, in fact, represent a sort of literary hospitality to “freaks.”  Especially for an author who was 23 years old at the time of the novel’s publication, McCullers displays amazing depth of perception.

  All of the characters, in fact, are believable and intriguing.  This is a prime example of Southern Gothic, which means that life in this novel’s world is fairly dark and dreary; as in Southern Gothic fiction in general, it may seem that a few too many tragedies befall the characters in the course of the novel, but these are narrated with a stark beauty that makes reading about them worthwhile.  This is the third time I’ve read this book.  I find the novel as a whole deeply moving, and let’s just say that I’m not much of a fan of things Southern in general. 

But here’s a warning:  what you want to happen, here and in Southern Gothic in general, is very unlikely to be what ends up happening, and the novel may just leave you with a feeling of deep despair.

This work has has earned praise from such greats as Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright, and Gore Vidal.  The above cautions aside, it’s definitely worth checking out.

 Washington Square  by Henry James

I’ve read most of James before and generally liked it, but somehow, this one had slipped past me, so I decided to tackle it at last.

Overall, I’d have to say that a few of James’s other novellas and novels, such as Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw, do appeal  to those who ordinarily don’t like James’s work or the novel of manners in general.  But with this one, if you hated  The Golden Bowl or  The Portrait of a Lady, you are likely to despise it as well (and believe me, I know a lot of people absolutely despise these texts).  Now if you like James and the novel of manners in general, or if you haven’t yet been exposed to one or the other and are curious, I’d highly recommend this work.

In the novel, a rather plain young woman with a massive inheritance coming  is approaching the age at which, if she has not married, she will be considered a “spinster.”  Enter Townsend, a suitor who is chiefly interested in her money, yet whom she decides to marry, a plan to which her father strongly objects.

That’s just the beginning, but I fear I’d spoil the novel if I revealed the last two turns of  plot.

James, in my opinion, consistently peoples his works with complex and compelling characters.  Here, the most intriguing and well-constructed character is Catherine, the protagonist.  Early in the novel, James explores the roots of her shyness, extravagent taste in clothing, and  place in society as a “plain” young woman.  He then explores in detail the interactions among Catherine, her father, and her suitor.  Over the course of the novel, we see Catherine mature in her practicality, assertiveness, and independence.

Since we’re talking about James, it goes without saying that the prose consists of a brilliant mix of periodic and cumulative sentences.  For the greatest clarity and impact, I’d suggest reading aloud.

In case you’re still not sure whether this is the work with which you, the curious about James and the novel of manners who have no experience with either, want to begin, I will close by pointing out that this one is shorter than many novels in that genre, whether by James or by other authors.

Kate Morton Website

Hi again, all.  As I look through the comments members have made, it seems to me as if a lot of people are really enjoying  The House at Riverton.  I thought, then, that some of you might be interested in a link I found that wasn’t mentioned, at least in my edition of the book.  It has a ton of information:  reviews, synopses of  Morton’s other work, interviews, you name it.  It seems to be a smoothly constructed site:

http://www.katemorton.com

Enjoy!!

Well, I have just finished reading Kate Morton’s The House at Riverton, and if I were questioned as to whether, in general, I would recommend this book to other readers, my answer would be “Yes.”  Now, if said readers , for whatever reason, resisted my advice or contended that they had started the novel and found it dull or disappointing, my response would not, however, be  to try to kindle their enthusiasm for the work or to spout praise in the hope of getting them to give the book another chance.

There is a certain set of reader expectations with which some may approach this book that are bound to lead to disappointment.  According to the negative reviews I surveyed (very few in number compared to the positive ones), the whole setup of the book, which promises, in the end, to take the reader beyond the conventional explanation of fictitious Modernist-era poet Robbie Hunter’s death at a Riverton social gathering (suicide). It is to, and does, reveal the secret that Grace Reeves, former Riverton servant and later lady’s maid to Hannah (Hartford) Luxton,  has kept about the death from the early 1920s until 1999.  This may lead readers to expect a series of plot twists that represent the height of cleverness, but some who approached the book expecting such a performance express great disappoiontment.  I cannot say that I found the ending to derive from all that ingenious a “twist” myself, but such a “twist,” rather than what I was seeking was, to a certain extent, something I feared—twists like the one that seemed to be absent from disappointed readers’ experiences, I have found, should  often be categorized less appreciately as “gimmicky.”  So I instead approached this book with the fear of a grand gimmick to come that, thankfully, never did.

Another point stressed by comdemning reviewers was an ostensible cliched quality pervading the major characters of the novel with the excedption of Grace.  Overall, although I would not, let’s say, be enthused to read a second novel in which one of  Morton’s major characters besides Grace was given the protagonist’s seat do that I might further explore his or her great complexity in further depth, nor did I find the chief figures in the novel boring or predictable.  At one point, I begtan to feel that way about Emmeline, the  younger of the two Hartford sisters, but I think my own angle of perspective was the issue.  Had I been thinking throughout about what Emmeline’s view of her own place in the Hartford family and as a woman of her time as shaped in her response to older siblings Hannah and David, the relationship between them, and the pair’s relationship to others both inside and outside the family, I think I would have found Emmeline more intriguing throughout.  It’s also important to note that Grace’s recollections are the heart of the novel, which means that we should not expect the character portrayals to explore some possibilities they might have if, for instance, an omnisicent, third-person narrator had controlled the text.  Comparing this text to others in which a major character’s recollections are foundational to things, I was pleased with Morton  simply for not turning Grace into some strange figure who just happens to think like a clairvoyant deity.  Does that sort of thing annoy anyone else?  I think that, much of the time, we just accept it without thinking, and I’m glad to say it is absent here.

For me, if anything, an abundance of minor characters proved a bit confusing and distracting at times. But all of them had important enough roles in the plot that had Morton made things simpler by compressing some of them into single persons and tried to make the plot work that way, readers could have spotted her having done so a few novels away.  In some cases, she would also have sacrificed historical accuracy.

Oh, and about historical accuracy-I was  impressed with this novel nin that regard.  When it comes to the period including and between the two world wars,  it’s really rare for me to get through a historical novel without either  1.  begging that whole issues, events, and snatches of dialogue be eliminated so that I can take the book seriously.  2.  or, more often, wanting to acknowledge the author’s hard work and make sure that he or she knows that I learned something from all the era-specific annoyingly showy little tidbits at the center of entire, otherwise superfluous, scenes developed just to reveal a bit of show-offy historical knowledge.  Instead, I would consider this a solid piece of historical fiction.

Despite what a few displeased reviewers said about the style seeming “forced” or “overdone,” I felt that the wqriting promised to be a bit weak in the early chapters but, far from making good on that promise, it was generally strong and, at times, (but not often enough for me to wonder exactly what kind of skill in diction 98-year-old Grace, an archaeologist, is suddenly exhibiting to dazzle Morton’s readership,, anyway) compelling.

There are just thee issues in the book that had an impact on me that might be ranked as “puzzling” or “disturbing.”  So here goes:

1.     Most of all, what is the intended to be the relationship between Grace and the reading audience?

 

2.   At one point in the novel, Grace has an important conversation about a potential life choice with Alfred, and, at first, I thought that it was Grace’s decision that I didn’t find believable.  But I now think it was the process of realization through which Grace, in talking to Alfred, became aware of the exact nature of the choice to be made.  Do you feel that way?

3.      There is a “game” played by the three Hartford children that is refererred to by them, and eventually by Grace, as “The Game.”  For all practical purposes, though we never see the Hartford children play it,  this “Game” ends up performing adequately significant and varied functions to earn its capitalization.  But when she first mentions it, Grace initially starts to call it “The Game” and then decides on “the game” instead (in one of the moments that call attention to her relationship to the reading audience), noting that it hadn’t, at that time, become “The Game” in her mind.  Did anyone else, based on this moment and given that what we do get to see about this “Game” excludes its being played, expect The Game to play a larger or, at least, different role from the one it ultimately performs?      

Hello, all.  I’m still thinking about the Kundera, but instead of going deeper into one or another well of knowledge, as I promised I would try to do (and I’d have to say I did try), I’ve been stuck on a few questions that I hope some others among you might just be interested enough in to start chatting about here and now. But if not, at least when we meet, I hope.  Here goes:

1.  What’s the relationship between this narrator who occasionally pops up and the novel as a whole, and how does that narrator relate to Kundera himself.  Every time I felt a strong narrative presence, half of me felt that this was so rare and fleeting a feeling that it would vanish from mind in the long run; the other half felt like this was a justifiable big deal that would be promiment enough again later (and maybe even enough to claim “again and again”).  But I ended up sort of in between with a few moments stuck in my mind with no sense of what they revealed to me.  Anyone else?

2.  Dead characters.  Of the four major figures in the book, only Sabina is living at the end.  That means 3 of 4 deceased–one of four, even a nice even two of four would seem to make more sense.  Why three?  And why did Kundera choose Sabina as his sole surving figure?

3.  “Karenin’s Smile”–you name it on the death of the dog.  Then there’s Karenin in general.  Why is Tomas and Tereza’s female dog named after a male character in a Tolstoy novel (a novel that happens to be tied with Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for the Honor of being my favorite novel, so, yeah, maybe the answer is that I have to tackle this one since I think Anna Karenina has been dubbed mostly my thing around here, but, hey, it doesn’t have to be).

So if I do put my head to finding some semi-satisfactory or better answer to these questions, are any of these what folks would like to hear a response to?  Or better yet, anyone have a response before I start looking for the right angles from which to take my shots?

Oh, on the subject of questions–did you all know that if you want to submit potential questions for discussion at one of our meetings, Rachel will take them and see whether they might merit space on the list?  I’ve been sending mine for the past few months now.

Almost all of Kundera’s novels are set in Czechoslovia.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in my opinion,  deals most intriguingly with the persecution endured by outspoken, anti-regime Czechs starting in the late middle/final third of the twentieth century (out of the ones I’ve read, that is.  I’m not even halfway to reading them all). 

Several things fascinate me about the dynamics of power, persecution, and politics in this text:

1. I see complex portrayal of the politically rebellious spirit  in Tomas.  But here, especially in some of the central experiences of  punishment and rejection he endures lie parallels, (not literal similarities in the most basic sense of the word, and I like that.  It gets a little old to read the works of authors whose every book features either a. a writer or b. an academic)   to Kundera’s own life. Kundera lost a prestigous professorial position for political reasons (  He moved to France permanently in 1975, and despite their Czechoslovakian settings, his novels were not published in Czech for many years.

2.  The text is  unlike many simpler novels in which the spirit of political rebellion is so one-dimensionally glorified that the characters over whom it holds the greatest influence  practically earn sainthood. And, as this great transformation takes place, we are shown page after page of evidence that any political efforts these characters get involved in, they enter with and because of their commitment to a cause. 

In many other books  that have political strife as a large element, characters are, of course, more complex than that.   But   I like the fact that when I look at Tomas’ political acts and thoughts, I see a character who is SORT OF trying to sort out his own motivations, SOMETIMES not simply not wanting to know because he cannot  be honest with himself on a certain issue, but rather not wanting to know something about his own values for reasons that seem to range  from boredom with such quests to inability to escape a position he is already said to have taken a stand that he must maintain.

  3 .  And then there’s the humor element.  Sure, it’s degrading for Tomas to go from surgeon to window washer, but there’s something amusing in his liasons with women (especially in the distasteful smell that Teresa discovers in his hair). 

These things, to me, seem vital in Kundera’s fight against kitsch, which I also find compelling because Kundera admits that kitsch is sometimes unavoidable and reveals its presence in numerous public and private endeavors that we may not have considered before.  

From here, I tend to look into not just Kundera’s views on kitsch, but his larger views on the novel and art in general.  After I have done so, I will try to pass this way again and offer a little critical context or me even some analytical insight that I hope my effort to produce and your time spent in reading what I come up with, if anything, will help us all understand the novel better.  I myself found this to be one of the more difficult but enjoyable books we’ve read as a group.    I’ve also talked to people outside of the group who deserted the text because of its difficulty and thus forfeited the  enjoyment that most people I know who stuck with the book ultimately discovered.

Here, again this month, is the short version of my adventures in reading beyond book club selections. Would love to hear you hit the highlights and lowlights of yours.

1. Sonny Brewer, The Poet of Tolstoy Park

This novel takes place in 1925, and its protagonist, a retired professor from Idaho named Henry Stuart, has been diagnosed with tuberculosis and told that a warmer climate will increase the quality of his remaining days of life, which are, as one might have guessed, numbered. He selects his new location, Fairhope, Georgia, and prepares to leave his two sons behind, all three men knowing that his departure means absolute final goodbyes. And here’s where the book begins to falter a bit. Here, as throughout, the author’s portrayals of interpersonal relationships, with the exception of the truly intriguing connection later developed between Henry and a young Georgia widow named Kate, lack complexity. Here, as for most of the rest of the novel, the characters face circumstances that would seem to demand complicated, delicately crafted personal responses, but instead, the major figures generally behave predictably, taking their responses from stock characters or, at best, classic personages before them, and the truly troubling part is that Brewer, at times, sorta kinda kinda sorta seems to be laying the groundwork for something more intricate and sophisticated, but this effort soon fizzles out. Overall, in fact, I would commend this text for its ability to raise audience expectations and set readers guessing ahead to plots that, even when we’re dealing with a reader like me–one self-consciously lousy at imaging plot twists to come, are probably far more satisfying than the directions the book does take. Similarly, what drew me to this novel was, of course, the mention of “Tolstoy” in the title and the back cover blurb’s claim that Henry, facing his own mortality, takes perspectives “inspired by the writings of his beloved Tolstoy.” Indeed, Henry names the small estate he purchases, where he builds a round house of concrete blocks, “Tolstoy Park.” But despite that, there really is very little Tolstoy–or at least, very little that demonstrates much beyond the average educated reader’s depth of knowledge about Tolstoy or insight into specific issues in, let alone passages from, Tolstoy’s work.

There is something clearly Thoreauvian about Henry’s construction of his primitive shelter and about the relationship between his physical labors and the development of new elements in his consciousness. Accordingly, painstaking detail is given about much of Henry’s labor. The problem is, however, that Thoreau was an insightful literary craftsman whereas Brewer, at least for my money, is neither a distinguished nor a disgraceful stylist, so this material makes for dull reading. In fact, it seems less often as if an attempt to dazzle the reader has gone awry than as if there has been no such attempt made but still the details of an activity have been preserved with enough care to enable readers who wish to retrace the protagonist’s steps to pay homage to Henry in some sort of home improvement project.

If you, however, like the sort of inspirational spirit that radiates from novels whose dying protagonists are miraculously given extra years, their health coincidentally improving after some sort of enlightening transformation in their souls, but have found that the overall prose quality and plot development in such books is often simply abominable, you might like Brewer’s work. It is far less gimmicky and fraught with cliche than such books generally are. And, in fairness, I must admit that the spirit in which I greet such miracles has been labelled “not kind enough to be called hostile” and even in one case, “somehow deserving of the label ‘sadistic’,” so I may not have given this novel the chance it needs to work its magic, although I think I was prepared to suspend my disbelief because of the Tolstoy element and all. That and because, I was told in advance, the novel doesn’t behave, as some such texts do, as if the newly reinvigorated protagonist may well have achieved immortality because after his/her return to health, he/she approaches and passes a succession of ripe old ages with never so much as a thought of death.Instead, as the novel draws to its close, many years having passed, we watch Henry prepare for his approaching grave.

It is in these preparations and in the final chapters of the book that we find the most engaging and even touching prose ands the most memorable developments in character relationships. In fact, the strongest section of this book is its brief epilogue, in which the major Fairhope characters react to differing aspects of Henry’s legacy that move them to far-less-than-obvious thoughts and emotions that relate to everyday and non-Henry-centric issues. Here I was moved to pause briefly and factor my latest read into my ongoing ruminations on the question of what force an individual human legacy may exert upon the lives of others. Now, I’m not claiming I got anything worth the effort of reading the entire book, but rather asserting that, had the entire book risen to the level of quality the author here displays the potential to reach, this book could have been quite an effort, indeed.

2. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov Occasionally, if I need more inspiration to love books in general than I’ve found in my last few new reading selections, I dig in to my collection and extract one of my personal classics for a third or fourth read. This is how I recently came to be reading Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s autobiography and one of the few autobiographies I wholeheartedly enjoy, written by one of the authors whose work, in general, I most wholeheartedly admire. It’s the quality of literary artistry present in an author’s creations that most often earns him or her this rank with me, and Nabokov is truly, as many have called him, a master craftsman. I could quote any of the thirty or so underscored passages of sheer genius I cherish in this book in support of this assertion, but I think I’ll stick to the famous opening:

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is headed for (at some forty-five-hundred heartbeats an hour).”

And yes, there is more, much more, where that came from.

Speak, Memory is an “autobiography revisited” in that Nabokov first published it in 1951 under the title Conclusive Evidence and then, in more or less its present form, after much revision in 1966. Although I have not read the 1951 version, the revision process involved still intrigues me, most keenly so when Nabokov himself makes reference to it: for example, when he says that he neglected a certain task the first time around, for what reasons, and what he hopes to achieve now that he plans to face some creative or personal challenge head on. He does this, for example, with reference to his generally emotionally distant brother in a particularly moving section of one of the book’s finest chapters.

 On the whole, Nabokov’s autobiography tells of his life before he moved to the United States in 1940, including his Russian childhood, his education at Cambridge, and his drifting life as an emigre who formed very few lasting friendships during his tour of several European cities. The text is and isn’t chronological: looking across the grain of the chapters as a whole, things start, as the above quotation suggests, with his birth and move through his journey into manhood. Notable points along the way include his first love, his interest in entomology, his first efforts as a poet, and the career and death of his father (in no particular order). But he does quite a bit of leaping forward and lurching backwards along the way. He can be said both to be crafting an autobiography and to be drawing together into a coherent whole a number of previously published pieces.

 Memory, as the  book’s title suggests, figures heavily in this process, and its power to bring things together is but one of its virtues here celebrated. I believe, in fact, that the common claim that Nabokov’s autobiography can be viewed as a celebration of memory is well-founded. Memory, for Nabokov, if properly pursued brings well-defined portraits and a general sense of stasis to situations and issues that otherwise blur or breed insecurity.

 For me, Nabokov’s memory outperforms those of many other writers in its efforts to transform everyday scenes and incidents into heartwrenching portraits and clever tales. In addition, many authors’ recollections reach their most awkward points when the writer speaks of the processes of his/her memory and its shortcomings, dragging readers off into some self-indulgent and far-too-familiar-to-be-clever-anymore-oh-someone-please-tell-him-oh-please digression after which one’s position in relation to the writer never feels quite comfortable for as long as the work in question endures. Nabokov’s notes on what he wishes to remember are concise and are often presented as if he were making the effort to remember at the same time as he is writing; these features, alone, however, do not account for the vast difference between the affective wonder Nabokov achieves and the discomfort that many writers inflict upon their readers when they engage in similar endeavors.

What does? I have long wondered, still taking this question with me every time I enter one of Nabokov’s texts. I feel something of the answer instinctively yet can articulate nothing of it, and this may be a large part of what so fascinates me about Nabokov’s work overall. But I have recommended this book to people who had tried to read one of his novels but found little to interest them there, all of whom did manage to complete this book and most of whom gave generally positive reviews. If, however, the very idea of reading about a young man’s life in pre-Revolution Russia and then post-Revolution Europe just sounds like it cannot help but be boring to you, then, against what I believe to be overly optimistic advice: some critics would contend that you should go ahead and read this particular book anyway because Nabokov’s talent will take you far beyond any content issues if only you appreciate high quality writing. I concede that it will probably just about as dull as you expect it to be as you dread ever to touch the book’s cover. There are certain dispositions and inclinations that hold too much power over certain readers for any author’s magic to overcome them.

 In most other cases, for most other readers, I’d contend that there’s something to be specially admired within Nabokov’s collected works, and there’s quite a good chance that Speak, Memory will turn out to be just the thing. Have you read either of these books/authors?

If so, feel free to tell me how far off base I am. If, not, then what are you reading these days?

Argh.

My coworker insists 1984 is a good book. I say fine, but I wouldn’t call it literature. Would you?

Rev Road Question

Why John Givings? I’ve just finished the chapter where the Givings visit Frank and April.

Why John Givings? Why is he here? Why is Yates introducing him to us? Is he the blind prophet? Is he a warning – get out, Frank and April, or you’ll be where I am? Or is he there to show us, in his spooky similarity to Frank and April, that they’re nuts, too?

John Updike

The purpose of literary criticism, in my mind, is that it provides a “look, did you see this?” or “what about this bit here?” kind of guide  for lesser readers such as myself. It helps me find the best bits of a book (see Lucinda’s opening thoughts on Revolutionary Road). Good criticism helps me verbalize my arguments for why, exactly, I loathed or loved a particular piece of fiction. I think this is why I’m going to miss John Updike.

I haven’t read any of John Updike’s fiction, excepting the short story “A&P” and its unforgettable ice cream scoops. But I have read several of his thoughtful reviews in The New Yorker, which led me to read several additional pieces from his recent Due Considerations. Through such sources, he’s helped me to find and appreciate innumerable pieces of fiction, and therefore has had an outsized influence on my reading life.

I can’t get past the “national treasure” aspect of John Updike. He was prolific while maintaining an astoshingly consistent high quality of work. He was intelligent but generally soft spoken, and he valued quiet pursuits like golf – pursuits at odds with the stereotype of the spirited artist. He is an unexcludable part of 20th century America, a writer’s writer, a writer’s reader, and a reader’s writer. I’ll miss him and the promise of more, which is silly given that I’ve never met the man.

Anyways, here are a few bookmarked sites for you to enjoy. Let me know if the link fails. I haven’t tried to share my bookmarks yet.

Remember Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman wins the Newberry Medal award for kids lit. Read all about it here.

As we start down Yates’s Revolutionary Road together this month, I thought we might try to create, at the least, the opportunity to take in some background information, some analysis, maybe a bit of secondary source review, and whatever other community resources you might find yourselves wishing for as you read the novel.

I can’t promise that I personally will get to all of that, but resources for discussion of this novel, as well as of its big screen adaptation, are abundant. The book itself is a remarkably quick read; I started it last night and am currently beyond page 200 of a little over 350 pages. I went back and forced myself into inchworm-paced reading of a chapter or two just to make sure I wasn’t just skimming the surface of the novel in disrespectful haste. It seemed to me that I must have been, given the rate at which things were moving despite the fact that I’d found plenty to ponder along the way. But, no, indeed, it is simply a fast read yet a multilayered and thought-provoking text. What a deal!

The style of the book has a lot to do with this. As its compound-complex sentences rush forward in stocky paragraphs, I, as a reader always on the prowl for masterful craftsmanship while armed and ready to attack any unfortunate artistic choice that the poor, defenseless author has made with one adverb too many or something , occasionally feel compelled to pause and consider a fine turn of phrase or a sharp sliver of irony.The rest of the time, I find myself covering long stretches of prose thinking, at first, “Uh-oh. We’re heading into a sort of territory that many authors abandon craftmanship in or fall into cliche in covering,” but then ultimately thinking, “Okay; that’s right; that’s good; that’s the way to say it” and even sort of reminding myself that, by whatever miracle, it is possible, though of course not probable, that the author’s bones may rest in peace even without my approval of how each and every printed character stroke lies against the page, and, with that in mind, the book is tugging me into a headlong rush forward and pleading with me that if I will leave such obsessive scrutiny behind, a much more compelling reading experience awaits.

Thus, readers who may cringe and turn away from any novel that sets someone like me off into an awestruck monologue and such at some complexity of craftsmanship may proceed with the assurance that Yates’s novel is not, in any sense, one of those books. They and others will, I believe, be satisfied with Yates’s clear and solid writing. This is lucidity from almost any vantage point. In fact, the number of years that passed before Yates’s work drew popular attention surprise some chiefly because he is, they agree, “not a writer’s writer, but a reader’s writer.” In other words, mental microscope not required.

 I’ve encountered numerous comparisions between this novel and The Great Gatsby, one of my personal least favorite novels of all time. There are, indeed, clear thematic similarities, but the themes in question are so broad that one can have completely different responses to the two novels. Like Gatsby, with its darned green light at the end of the dock and references to good and bad drivers, Revolutionary Road does–now remember that you’re hearing only my humblest of opinions–harbor a few painfully obvious little patterns of symbolism and a couple of metaphors through which readers might easily–well, yes, all too easily–be led to a little life lesson or two. But I recognize that the urge to run away screaming when literature seems to be leading one in such a direction is but a quirk in my personal reading temperament, and there’s a fine line between what any reader who possesses said quirk may applaud as rich, sensory impressions catalyzing insight and  what he/she dismisses as a heavyhanded pounding against the skull of some truism he/she would not even consider worthy of its place in a fortune cookie. Besides, the offending patterns are just as easily ignored as they are easily observed because there’s a lot more going on here. So we end up in this respect, as with the question of the overall craftsmanship in the book, with a win-win situation.

All over the internet, in newspapers and magazines, as well as in some literary scholarship, we may find a wide range of readers committed to bringing about a “revival” of interest in this novel, which they hail as a forgotten classic. As usual, such a revival begs the question, “Why now?”. Why have the filmmakers chosen this particular text as the basis for a heavily hyped production at this particular cultural moment? I’ll think about it, but perhaps someone who has seen the film could give a more insightful answer.

The Richard Yates revival is generally attributed to publication of a volume of his Collected Stories and a new edition of Revolutionary Road a few years ago. I’m all set, once I’ve finished the book, to take a look at Blake Bailey’s literary biography, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, which has been met with wide critical acclaim and has also been noted as a major catalyst for renewed interest in Yates’s work. For now, I’ve been supplementing the novel with a broad scan of reader responses across numerous internet forums and of Yates’s interview comments on the book.

So far, I’ve found that

1. A far higher than average percentage of those who admire the novel have highly positive things to say about its film adaptation and its overall fidelity to the text. But those who criticize the film show an unusually high level of anger, often assuming the authority to determine that, were Yates himself alive, he would be positively disgusted at seeing his work “debased” in its “being forced to fit the mold of an overhyped Hollywood big screen production.”

2. Reader responses to this book in all sorts of forum are generally highly positive. Those who disagree, however, most commonly fault the book for the shallowness of its characters. Some fans, in response, claim that if we read carefully, we will find far more complexity in the characters than a quick recreational reading reveals. Others say that yes, indeed, the characters are a bit shallow, but that this is not merely the author’s intention but, in fact, a part of the author’s genius.

3. The novel has been widely hailed as a pointed critique of suburban life or even of marriage in general. In interviews, however, Yates consistently contended that his intention was instead to provide a broader critique of American life in the 1950s. He stated that

 

during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs–a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price, as exemplified politically in the Eisenhower administration and the Joe McCarthy witchhunts. Anyway, a great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that–felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit–and that was the spirit I tried to embody in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the Fifties.

Hmm. Do tell. I’ll try to pass this way again when I know more. Until then, as always, happy reading to you all!

Certainly, certainly, if there’s anything any one of you would like me to explore, I shall return with whatever comes  of diligent, unflagging effort and brainwork on whatever in the world might be the issue you’d like to see get itself looked into. And I’d truly love to hear how the novel goes for all of you as you read.

 

Looking for a few good books. Looking hard, coming up either empty or with books that turn out to be disappointments. having chosen. I’m sure some of you find yourself in such a position, wondering what might be the best source of recommendations for good books to read that you would not have found on your own or simply, in a world full of books, what to read next.

This problem, which various websites and periodical book reviews helped me to kind of, sort of address mostly in terms of newly published and bestselling works, was a big enough deal in my life that–and I’m not kidding even one teensy bit about this–it became one of my primary motivations for starting a book club that worked from member suggestions.  

I always let anyone who wants to tell me about a book know that if I’m given a thoughtful personal recommendation with the understanding that I’m probably going to share my honest opinion of the book in some public forum after I finish it, chances are I’ll get to it sometime. And I’ll usually find enough good in most books to at least have made them worth reading.

But if anyone wishes to try to come up with a book that I will adore and wholly recommend to others, he/she should take a close look at the author’s style. I wholeheartedly believe in looking at literature as an art, and how a book is crafted is much more important to me than what and whom it portrays. If I’m subjected to the work of some author who is truly blessed with a tin ear, his/her little lapses in diction, heavyhanded metaphors, and the like will come trip-trap-clunking through my mind at random future moments and irritate me all over again. Happens all the time with Ayn Rand. Happens all the time with Theodore Dreiser. Yes, I have been told that many people consider this an elitist view, and such persons have told me that “it shouldn’t really matter how a thing’s written, just so it gets the point across.” My response to that has been that I wasn’t looking for a “point” but rather looking for an experience, and artistry is what creates experience where there would otherwise have been only content. Content that, if style is no issue, might just as well have been rendered in another medium. And as far as whether I am looking at things from an elitist perspective, well, if people think that’s the case, I’ll still be stuck looking at them that way, so there’s nothing I can do but accept that. And what about you?

 With all of that in mind, I thought we might chat a bit about what various members consider to be the defining characteristics of a “good” book for this particular group,. about what each of us is personally looking for in a reading selection, and about anything you’d recommend as a good general source of future reading ideas. And of course, if there are authors whose achievements in artistry you consider praiseworthy, I’d love to hear about them in your comments.

We’re reading again

So says the US Census Bureau, as reported by the New York Times.

In 2002, 47% of Americans read a novel, play, or poem. In 2008, it’s up to 50%. Maybe reading is tied to the economy (the library is free), to the national mood (thoughtful and reflective, in my opinion), or to our book club.

Here, as promised, is what I read besides the group selection in the last month or so:

1. The Memory of Running by Ron McClarty

Promotional materials for the book compare the protagonist, Smithy Ide, to Holden Caulfield and Yossorian. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would recommend this one who has a soft spot for highly flawed heroes. Smithy Ide begins the novel as an alcoholic, chain smoking, obese man in his forties with no close friends and a dead-end job. I personally have a soft spot for anyone leading a grand and glorious life of failure, I must say, but I really liked Smithy and felt empathy almost instantly because he is not at all self-pitying; his life has simply turned out as it has. He learns first of the deaths of his parents, then of the death of his sister, Bethany, long tormented by a psychiatric disorder. Smithy finds his old bike and sets of on a quest that will lead him from the East to the California funeral parlor where his sister’s remains are being kept. Along the way, his tales from childhood are charming and touching. As is often the case in novels about quests and rites of passage, Smithy sheds some of his old habits and becomes a much better version of himself, encountering someone or something leading to his enlightenment at every stop. My only quarrel with the book, in fact, is that Smithy’s journey doesn’t quite meet my standards for believability. His transformation seems a bit too complete, his overall growth experience seems to involve far less pain than I’d expect him to endure under the circumstances, and his luck and the level of sheer frequency with which he encounters someone helpful or something intriguing along the way seems a bit too high. But my expectations of believability have often been labeled a bit high, and I’m particularly hard on happy endings in this regard.

Yet another love-it-or-hate-it book. If you generally like the main genres and conventions at play in this text–flawed protagonists and rites of passage/on-the-road quests/journeys of self-actualization, you’ll probably enjoy this one, as I mostly did. If this kind of thing drives you up the wall, as it does many readers, then you and this book really need to stay far away from each other.

2. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

First off, thanks to a few newcomers who recommended this book to me at our last meeting. I am very enthusiastic in saying this one gets my highest recommendation for practically anyone in the group to enjoy. Thank you. I am sorry I missed it before and about as pleased as I get on new books to have now read it.

The only negative thing I would say about this book is that because it is eerily realistic in its descriptions of the mundane facts of human existence, there are a few moments that could set the stomach a little woozy. Yes, 500+ pages read, and only that small nit for the picking.

One of those few books that made me wish that I had the depth of insight and writing skill that the author exhibits without ever bothering to consider whether I could. I couldn’t. Usually, when someone says a book is funny, I can see where he/she gets that idea, and I nod at the appropriate places, I think. But on this one, I laughed out loud numerous times and sort of sat there dissecting the reason I was laughing because I was impressed by how cleverly crafted the humor was. This book also moved me to tears at a few points. Yet I didn’t feel as if I had been yanked hither and thither by some emotional chain as I sometimes do.

Oh, what’s it about? The plot lines are clear and well-crafted, but somehow it never occurs to me to mention what it’s “about” when recommending it to others, which I’ve done several times since I finished it just this past week. But anyway, it’s about an elderly couple, Alfred, whose health is declining because of Parkinson’s (and the portrayal of this process proves quite thought-provoking) and Enid, who wants to have one last Christmas with her husband and three adult children at her home in Midwestern St. Jude. As the book returns at various points to Enid’s wish, (and thus has just enough plot structure but nothing so heavy to render the text one of those “page-turners” I end up reading hungrily to find out “what happens” but also end up finishing quickly with little attention to anything besides the plot) we get to know her three adult children. Okay, “dysfunctional” may be the first word that comes to mind when I think about Gary, Chip, and Denise as a group, but for the novel’s merit, this is really a good thing–all three are very well-rounded and likeable (although the likeable part may be just me, but even with the one I found the least compelling, Gary, I was amused rather than annoyed mostly. And/or the novel got me to think about what makes people with certain types of personalitities tick) characters.

And just one last time: this one gets my highest recommendation. It will probably be longer than I would like before I can say that again about another novel. One of the best books I’ve read in quite some time.

And one again, that’s all from me. What are you all reading that you think the rest of us should or shouldn’t be? Let us know in your comments.

The NYT is hosting a blog, Proof, about Alcohol and American life. Pretty interesting stuff here.  It’s especially interesting if you’re one to indulge a bit too much over the holidays. I’ve been known to have something of a Bacchanalian streak about me, so I find this reading is right up my alley.

Today’s post is about hangovers. The ending description is from Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim:

not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.

Jesus! Then I thought, I wonder if anyone can beat this? Hemingway was a huge drinker, but I can’t recall any hangover descriptions. Ditto Faulkner. Maybe Cheever or Updike? How about you poetry nuts? Got anything?

I’ve heard it before, the “my boyfriend/fiance/husband doesn’t read” lament. I feel your pain.  I don’t date people (girls) who read, either, and it would be nice if they understood the power of books.   But considering those girls don’t think, work, or eat… well, I’ll just give up on getting them to read.

But you ladies out there don’t have to give up!  I’m here to introduce one holiday-related post guaranteed to get your man between the covers (of a book).  Here’s a few jewels that he just might finish:

1.  Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.  I love Gladwell, and anytime I get a NY’er in the mail with his name in the contents, I drop everything and read his article. Always fascinating. In this book, he investigates how some people manage to get so far ahead of the game that they aren’t even on the curve. People such as star athletes, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc.  He dives into data, gives you the benefit of stats, and presents the conclusions in a straightforward but interesting style. I read a few chapters at the bookstore, and I’d say it’s good stuff. 

2. Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress, by Russell Smith.  Does your fella think that Sketcher’s and a bulky, multi-dialed stainless steel banded watch make him look like a rock star?  Then your dude needs this guide.  It’s a walkthrough of what fits, how to dress your body type (guys under 6ft should never wear off-color blazer/pant combos – who’d’ve thunk it), how to assess quality, etc.  It’s got a nice load of new-to-him sartorial vocabulary to prep the guy of your dreams for war with that slimy suit salesman.  He may give you the sideways glance upon unwrapping, but he’ll secretly read it cover to cover, and pretty soon he’ll be saying, “Did you see what that guy was wearing!  Ugh!”

3. Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories by Chuck Pahalniuk.    True stories.  By Chuck Pahalniuk (of Fight Club fame).  Nuff said.

4.  The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, by Daniel H Pink (author) and Rob Ten Pas (illustrator).  Is your guy not only illiterate but also constantly out-of-work?  Then he needs this graphic guide to career success.  It’ll have out from behind the Xbox and into a networking event in no time.

5. Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape, by Brian Hayes.  It’s a “Guide to Everything that isn’t nature.” Since nature is boring, this should kick ass. Seriously, with all the talk of infrastructure, I’m like, What’s Infrastructure? And if your guy is anything like me, then he’ll love to have his curiosity satisfied. And since our day-to-day world is almost completely a built world, this could really get some use.  Be prepared for 2 months of  “Did you know…” conversations at the dinner table.

For all you ipod toting poetry nuts:

 

http://www.slate.com/id/2203198/

 

you’re welcome.

Children’s Books?

I’m sure at least a few people who celebrate holidays and gift-giving rituals of various sorts at this time of year can relate to the position I always find myself in, which I call gift-giving perfectionism: just getting to the end of that list of people to buy for is not enough; I aim to choose every single person’s gift with enough thought to keep me from running across something I wish I’d gotten instead a few months later. For the recipient, it should be the sort of thing that, years later, he or she will still have and will remember as having been what I got for him or her this particular year.

For that reason, I hardly ever give books. Many of the people I’ve bought for in the past already own more books than I do, still haven’t gotten to most of the what was on their overburdened shelf of books they’ve been planning to read since last December. As far as most of my family goes, they’re proud of me for being the first to pursue any education and reading experience beyond the demands of daily life and state law, even more proud and ever thankful since I’ve stopped trying to persude them to engage in such endeavors.

Two of my nephews, however, ages 6 and almost 9, now love books, so I’m considering books as gifts after all. My brother and sister-in-law would probably assume that since books are important to me, to say the least, I’d do a good job of picking them out.

The fact of the matter is that I am completely ignorant about children’s books, but if I had a few titles to work with, I know these kids well enough to pick the ones that were best for them personally and fit their reading abilities. I am looking for something that enhances children’s love of reading, is highly enjoyable for them, and will be kept and remembered in years to come.

I don’t think anyone ever gave me a book like that, but it would be nice if someone had. (Well, there was “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss, but I was graduating from grad school by then). Using various lists compiled by folks in the know about this kind of thing, I could start with dozens of titles to work with, but I’d prefer to take a more personal approach.

 Besides, now that I’ve thought about this a bit, I’m no longer just interested in what will work for my nephews in particular, but rather in what various other people consider to be these timeless childhood books that really make an impact that extends into adulthood–whether these be what people are giving to kids in their lives, what adults remember from their own childhoods, what adults who simply enjoy reading children’s literature consider to be the best they’ve read, or what people would tell someone like me with no knowledge of children’s literature to take a look at, first things first. So what comes to mind and why? Let me know in the comments.

What are you reading? Part I

Back on the old message board, we had a conversation going about what different people were reading, to whom the reader would recommend the texts in question, etc.  I know a lot of you read more each month than whatever is designated by the group.  So I’d invite you to let me know what you are reading in your comments, and maybe we can revive this old conversation and update it from time to time.  This month, I read

1. The Secret Between Us by Barbara Delinsky.

I’d heard a lot about this author and most of it complimentary, so I decided to give her work a shot.  This novel begins when Deborah, a middle-aged doctor, and Grace, her sixteen-year-old daughter have a hit- and-run accident on a rainy night while Grace, who is a new driver with only a learner’s permit, is driving.  When she is questioned about the accident, the authorities simply assume that Deborah is driving, and she says nothing to contradict that supposition.  As a result, great emotional and practical complications arise for both Grace and Deborah as the accident is further investigated and as they try to deal with its implications.  I’d say this is one of those novels you neither love nor hate.  It’s just plain “all right.”  The dialogue is excellent, but, except for a problematic stain on this reader’s credibility at one point, the problems Grace and Deborah encounter are portrayed fairly well, but these, along with the ending, are basically what I would have expected.

2.  I Loved You All by Paula Sharp.  I picked up this one because it was a coming-of-age-tale about narrator Penny, who is an adult looking back on incidents that begin when she is eight years old.  Penny’s mother, Marguerite, is battling alcoholism and, in Marguerite’s absence during her treatment, Penny’s teenage sister, Mahalia, develops and attachment to Isabel, a highly religious warrior in the pro-life crusade.  Penny herself is hilarious, a real rebel of a long child,  who supports her mother no matter what and refuses to join her sister in her admiration of Isabel.  If you cherish strong character development as I do, this one merits not merely a read, but a round of applause.  A broad spectrum of characters live between these pages, and I truly felt as if I understood what makes each one tick.  The style is strong as a whole, and some parts are deeply touching.  The only problem I have with recommending this book to anyone else is that it takes on issues of the abortion debate and of the authority of religion, which, I realize to be teritory a lot of people just don’t want to enter.  The other major issue this book engages is gender roles; there’s much to talk about here in that regard; I found the novel’s portrayal of these issues highly compelling, but again, I know this isn’t a theme that everyone is comfortable with.

So that’s it for me.  What are you all reading?  Let us know in your comments.

A Thankful Post

I was originally intending to write about literary moments for which I’m thankful. I’ve been thinking about those moments in books that have given me delight, that have made me smile on the metrolink when the other passengers are just bobbing along, planning their Mondays. I’ve been trying to remember the moments that catapulted me from my chair, that made me pace the apartment in an attempt to shake the aftershocks from my bones. Unfortunately, I can’t do it. There are too many such moments, and snipping those little sequins from a dress in motion robs them of their seductive power.

 

Instead, I’ve decided to focus on whole books. If you’re in the club, then you understand how certain books can remain a part of your psychological landscape. I’ve narrowed the many down to two that I particularly treasure:

 

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov. There’s something about this little jewel of Nabokov’s that has brought me back for at least three rereads. It rewards a careful, word-by-word dissection with beatiful symmetry, poetic imagery, and a tremendous empathy for the main character. It also contains one of the most poignant moments in all of literature – the punch bowl in the sink. Now here’s the catch – I won’t read this part. I refuse. I reshelve my copy a few paragraphs prior to the passage in question, and don’t go near it again for months. It becomes radioactive.

 

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. This is one of the few books that I’ve reread during the original read. I’d finish a chapter, then immediately reread that chapter. I finished the book and then reread the parts that were profoundly affecting. I never engage in such nonsense. Divisadero is divided into two parts that are not directly related in any traditional way. The relationship between the two parts has been described as “twinning” and apparently the “twinned” motif recurs, in miniature, throughout the book. The first part was “meh”, but the second part is perfect. I don’t have any words beyond perfect. It’s perfect.

 

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I thought I’d share two books that I’m thankful were written, published, and somehow, found by me. I invite you to remember those special, super-excellent reads, and share them with the crowd.

First of all, since Rachel just invited me to contribute to the blog, since this is my first post, and since some of you may not know me, let me introduce myself. I’m Lucinda, and if I hold any claim to fame in this group, that claim would be that I’ve been here since before the first meeting. This whole book club thing was my idea back in 2007. Given the popularity of reading groups these days, I figured that something like Meetup would have at least one St. Louis book club. It didn’t, but there were a fair number of people in St. Louis on the list of those who were interested in participating–IF someone else would please start the group. As I watched that list lengthen over the months, I first felt certain that someone else would tire of waiting for something to happen. Finally, I did, and so it all began.
In early February of 2009, this book club will be celebrating its second anniversary. The original aims of this group were 1. to allow people who weren’t necessarily networked within any of the various subcultures of readers and writers in the area to join a book club easily and  without wondering whether they would “fit in.” 2. to bring together readers with a broad range of approaches and levels of literary education. Then to welcome suggestions for book selections from the group so that, drawing on one another’s interests, we could all  explore a broader range of literary delights. 3. to establish one small rule–that members should treat one another with respect–and commit to it while allowing readers to explore fruitful conflicts and differences of opinion.
Looking back and looking at where we stand right now, I’d say the group still does those things. Joining is hardly more effort than breathing. New members can come to their first meeting without feeling the awkwardness of being the only newcomer judged by a room full of regulars. If you’re a part of this group by internet connection only, please join us. I personally cannot think of a recent time when there weren’t at least two or three new people. There are also always a few people, who, simply by habit and without any formal sense of being “on duty” for new members, will be glad to answer your questions about anything at all.

 

It’s the whole commitment to covering a wide range of texts and drawing on member input that makes this group most valuable to me. Left to my own devices, I would go looking for a great book and find one easily, but here’s what would be so good about it: very complex characters, a grand achievement of some sorts in style, a compelling portrayal of the depths of human sorrow and absolute alienation from a cold, unfeeling world. Now, if that didn’t sound great to you, I’d just have to tell you that it gets better. All of these elements are going to work together to lead up to an ending that, at the brightest, is ambiguous and casts doubt on whether things can be as happy as they once were. But that’s a little bright for my inclinations, so, more often, I’d pick something that ends tragically, not for the characters only but for the reader’s outlook on the human condition. And, after all of that, if you still waned proof of this book’s greatness, then I’d tell you how powerfully depressing this ending would be for you–isn’t that amazing? Not to mention just how hard I cried.

 

 

Like a lot of other people, I was ready on my own to try some new kinds of reading, but I didn’t know what to look for. I found it in this group; why, I even learned to appreciate someone’s promoting a book because it had an “uplifting message.” We’ve read J.K. Rowling (who, in my little sanctuary sealed against popular reading, I believed to be a man), Jodi Picoult, and Neil Gaiman, just to name a few authors of books I’d never have touched the covers of on my own.

In a small way, the variety of texts covered makes it more natural for people to treat one another with respect. In some of the other groups I’ve been involved with, people have been outwardly nice, but there has been a sort of obvious but unspoken intellectual pecking order, and a lot of comments made clearly were intended solely to establish the speaker’s analytical prowess. This group, however, isn’t hierarchical, and the variety of texts helps to keep it from getting that way. No matter how knowledgable anyone in the group may be about some aspect of literature, I don’t think anyone has the kind of intellect or breadth of reading experience that would position  him or her among the most insightful people in the room month after month. Sometimes the discussion ends up taking on issues that involve some popular media phenomenon surrounding the book, its adaptation into another medium, the era or culture portrayed in the book, or something in someone’s life experience that helps the rest of us understand the plot of a text more fully. I think almost everyone, at some point, has become the most valued source of knowledge in the room . Since members come to this group through Meetup, which covers a wide variety of issues, they bring with them varying levels of formal literary education, reading experience, and time habitually devoted to readings. And, in fact, if you had no information besides people’s roles in the group discussion, I don’t think you could tell which person came from which background.

When this group was initially founded, I was obsessed with making sure that everyone treated others with respect. With all the power games and insensitivities I’d seen and tried in vain to eliminate in professional situations, classrooms, and one or two other reading groups, I had no idea how I was going to guard the group dynamic against these evils without putting a damper on group conversations. Although I can see a few minor factors that account for people’s overall respectful behavior in this group, I have no idea why people at our meetings are generally warmer and more tolerant than I would have expected them to be. I won’t pretend that there are no awkward moments or that all of us haven’t probably  fallen in a belly flop on someone else’s nerves; people simply seem to take a more laid back approach in this group than they do in other contexts while still voicing some very strong opinions about various books. Whatever the reason may be, that’s just how it is.

With all of that in mind, I’d like to see you, our members who read all of this internet material but just hasn’t made it to a meeting yet, come and join us at the next one. It’s a busy month but a good time to start. If you’ve felt like you had to read a few hundred pages at least for there to be a point in your coming to a meeting, now you can read three or four short stories, most of which rank on the short side of the general short story universe, and you’ll have one whole author’s texts on the agenda covered.

In the end, I am, of course, glad to see the group still doing a few key things that I found important two years ago and still consider important now. Important, absolutely. But absolutely not all that this group does, and far from being the most important qualities that, in the future, it should exhibit. If there’s one  opportunity this group offers its members, it’s the chance to assume an active role–in this blog, in suggestions to Rachel and Cristy, in bringing up new issues during discussions, in nominating texts, and also in ____________, especially in _____________, _________ being that thing I failed to mention because it could be any number of things  that one of you would like us to try but haven’t brought up. Please bring _________________ up. Somewhere among the different ways that silent members of this group fill in that blank, we might find the new most important things in this group for the years to come.

Non-writers writing fiction

I was sitting at my dad’s house waiting for my laundry to finish (yes, I’m too old to be doing laundry at my parent’s house). On his little reading table sat Walden Two.  Walden Two, written by BF Skinner. And I thought, BF Skinner? The nym behind the eponymous Skinner Box? I flipped the book over, and sure ’nuff, one and the same.

I thought, this just has to be terrible, probably as unreadable as Ayn Rand.  I read the first few pages. Surprisingly, it wasn’t terrible. It probably doesn’t develop into anything subtle, beautiful, literary, etc, but certainly impressive for a non-writer. It’s a utopian vision, and seems to serve as a thought experiment where Skinner can test the consequences of his psychological theories. The reader reviews on Amazon back me up on this supposition. Interestingly enough, it looks like Walden Two made some waves upon publication, and even affected the work of other utopians, notably Aldous Huxley

It got me thinking, what other non-writers have tried to disseminate their ideas in fiction?  Let me know in the comments.

Books Read in 2008

The River Wife by Joan Agee – Another meeting I was not present for and didn’t have the chance to read the book. 

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone - Another juvenile classic widely read by both kids and adults.  Harry Potter is one of those series you either love or loathe and of course the group was divided (but mostly for) into these categories.

Animal Farm by George Orwell & Lord of the Flies – Two books you’d typically find in your high school curriculum. Most were either for one or the other. For me, Lord of the Flies was the more enjoyable of the two though I could appreciate the symbolize in Animal Farm. Since both books dealt with society gone bad, it was easy to discuss both in one meeting.

Keeping Faith by Jodi Picoult – Since this author is fairly popular, the group decided to read one of her books. At one point, I had a bunch of books but after awhile, I found the author a bit fomulaic.

Anna Karenina by Tolstoy – I honestly couldn’t finish it but it started out ok.

Turn of the Screw by Henry James – I can’t say enough about this classic. The story has been with me since 1995 and I just find it fascinating. Admittedly the text can be convoluted and certainly there are character flaws, but the ambiguity of the story is what draws in most people, including myself.

The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Niffenegger’s – Wonderful book on time travel that doesn’t have so many rules causing the reader to become confused. The time travel element is really just a sub-plot to real heart of the novel which is the love story between the two protoganists who are constantly fighting time travel to be together. I don’t think there was a member who attended this book meeting that hated the book and is this is one we’ll have to see once it comes ot theaters.

Them by Joyce Carol Oates – It was hard to find something enjoyable about this book. I couldn’t really relate to the characters and the plot seemed to just drag on and on.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde – This book had an interesting premise but didn’t live up to what it could have been. It was almost like it couldn’t decide on what it wanted to be…a detective novel, a time travel story, etc.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – Most members of our group enjoyed this one. I really enjoyed the descriptions of circus life and was able to feel for Jacob, the protagonist. And though the ending was a bit unrealistic, I was glad he got a happy ending.

Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – We read this one for our Halloween theme. It was particularly scary and I finished the book with a few more questions than answers. On the whole it wasn’t a bad novel, but I find Bradbury’s short stories more appealing. Most of the group members enjoyed the internal conflict of the father as opposed to the adolescent boys.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman – This is another book you either adore or loathe. What killed it for me was finding out this “novel” is really a novelization of a television show. I couldn’t really get into the head of any of the characters and it was just way too predictable for me.

Books Read in 2007

If you’ve read any of these, feel free to comment on them:

Perfume: The Story of a Murder by Patrick Suskind – our first meeting was not a success considering how everyone hated the novel and the person who suggested the book didn’t even show up! I ended up giving away my copy to a member on Paperback Swap.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Ah what a classic! Most of us enjoyed this and it was certainly a breath of fresh air from the previous meeting. We had a ‘Page to Screen’ night for this one.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini – This was another enjoyable meeting and the book mostly got positive remarks. I enjoyed it but didn’t feel it merited a re-read so I put on my PBS account.

The Giver by Lois Lowry – Though written for juveniles, our group had much to discuss with this one. If it ever gets turned into a film, I’d love to have a ‘Page to Screen’ night for it.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – Classic, gothic style novel that was most likely a love-note to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, this book had mixed reviews. Obviously one of those novels you either really enjoy or loathe to pieces.

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams – our first play discussion and sadly I missed it but I heard it was a good meeting. One day I’d like to see this play with the group.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – This was a rather interesting book about an a boy dealing with Autism. Most of the group enjoyed it. I thought it was fine up to a point. Guess I was in the mood for a mystery and I didn’t get one.

In my quest to find anything and everything having to do with Henry James’ Turn of the Screw or TOTS as I call it, I found out that Oates has written a re-working of the classic story from the ghosts’ point of view. Though I do not care for Oates (only having read one of her novels), I will give this story a shot since A. it’s probably a short story and B. It’s TOTS!

Once I’ve read the story, I’ll give a full review. :)

~Rachel

Jim: Cool chain.  But I lost my watch on the subway today.  Here sweetheart, open this.

Della: Did you wrap this yourself?

Jim: Um, yeah.

Della: You got me isotoners?  Well, I guess it’s cold outside… I’m sure I’ll use them and they’ll be so warm.  I love you so much!

Jim: Yeah.  You’ll get some use out of those.  Listen, I got to go back to the office.  

Jim snags the coat from the peg, and out falls the box of combs for Lydia, the very combs Della’s been eyeballing for weeks down on Broadway.  O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. 

Dear Book Readers,
It always impresses me when an author’s work is faithfully adapted to the media. Long novels are often chopped to bits on the big screen and fair little better on the small; however, when you take a short story, it’s easier to include everything.

Collier’s stories have appeared on famous radio shows and tv show. I’m including everything that I can find on them in case you would be interested in tracking down these yourself or having a get-together where we can a movie/radio night.

Radio:
Back for Christmas appeared as an episode on the show, Suspense. In 1943, Peter Lorre starred in the role of the Doctor. The episode was re-recorded with a new cast in 1948 with Herbert Marshall in Lorre’s part.

De Mortuis also appeared in Suspense in 1949 with Charles Laughton in the lead.

Evening Primrose appeared on the program, Escape, and starred William Conrad as Charles Snell.

Television:
Lights Out: 1946-1952
De Mortuis

Suspense: 1949-1954
De Mortuis

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: 1955-1962
De Mortuis – Season 2, episode 3
Wet Saturday – Season 2, episode 1
Back for Christmas – Season 1, episode 23

Evening Primrose was turned into a one-act musical by Stephen Sondheim in 1966 starring Anthony Perkins (Psycho) & Charmian Carr (Sound of Music). Years later, Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser) recorded the one-act musical (4 songs) with Thersea McCarthy.

Tales of the Unexpected: 1979-1988
Back for Christmas
Wet Saturday

If you decide to listen or watch these adaptations, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. I own the Hitchcock episodes and all of the radio adaptations if you are interested in meeting up to view/listen to them.
~Rachel

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