Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Year In Review - Movies

Favorites are indicated with bold/underline font. Also note, these are all movies I watched for the first time in 2008, and does not include movies I have (1) seen before or (2) have only watched PART of a series (such as Dance to the Music of Time)

  1. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (2007 – USA)
  2. Wide Sargasso Sea (1993 – Australia)
  3. 3:10 to Yuma (2007 – USA)
  4. Funny Face (1957 – USA)
  5. Jesus Camp (2006 - USA) one of the most blatant depictions of child abuse I have ever witnessed
  6. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 - USA) GESSNER!
  7. Eyes Without a Face (1960 - France)
  8. Night and Fog (1955 - France)
  9. Michael Clayton (2007 – USA)
  10. Becoming Jane (2007 – UK)
  11. Battle of Algiers (1966 – Italy)
  12. American Psycho (2000 – USA)
  13. Passion of Joan of Arc (1928 - France)
  14. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004 - USA) The more I think about it, the more I like it
  15. Possession (2002 – USA)
  16. Fight Club (1999 – USA)
  17. Song of Bernadette (1943 – USA)
  18. Freaks (1932 – USA)
  19. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966 - USA) Elizabeth Taylor is AMAZING
  20. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958 – USA)
  21. Solaris (2002 - USA)
  22. Baby Face (1933 – USA)
  23. Sunset Boulevard (1950 – USA)
  24. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968 – USA)
  25. There Will Be Blood (2007 – USA)
  26. This Island Earth (1955 – USA)
  27. V for Vendetta (2005 – USA)
  28. Lost in Translation (2003 - USA) Like Eternal Sunshine... I like it more now than I did when I first watched it.
  29. Out of the Past (1947 – USA)
  30. Sin City (2005 – USA)
  31. In A Lonely Place (1950 – USA)
  32. Judgment Day – Intelligent Design on Trial (2007 – USA)
  33. Manhattan (1979 – USA)
  34. Viridiana (1961 - Spain) Can I possibly tell you how much I disliked this film? How much I dislike ALL Bunuel films I've seen?
  35. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962 – USA)
  36. Rebel without a Cause (1955 - USA)
  37. Sophie’s Choice (1982 – USA)
  38. What’s Up Doc (1972 – USA)
  39. Don’t Look Now (1973 - UK) Even though I knew what was going to happen, it still scared the shit out of me.
  40. Bringing Up Baby (1938 - USA) Hillarious!
  41. Breathless (1960 – France)
  42. Closely Watched Trains (1966 – Czechoslovakia)
  43. Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919 - Germany) Absolutely the freakiest, most terrifying movie I have ever seen
  44. Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (1978 – USA)
  45. Nosferatu (1929 - Germany) After The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, this was really disappointing.
  46. L’Inferno (1911 – Italy)
  47. Carnival of Souls (1962 – USA)
  48. Dracula (1931 – USA) Did people really think this was scary? Did people really think Bela Legosi was hot in this? I don't get it...
  49. All Things Fair (1995 – Sweden)
  50. 9 ½ Weeks (1986 – USA)
  51. Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935 - USA)
  52. La Dolce Vita (1960 – Italy)
  53. Une Femme est Une Femme (1961 - France)
  54. The Pink Panther (1963 - USA)
  55. To Have and Have Not (1944 - USA)
  56. Night of the Hunter (1955 - USA) The more I see of Mitchum, the more impressed I am of him.
  57. Bigfoot: The Legend of Sasquatch (1977 - USA)
  58. Celebrity (1998 - USA)
  59. Man With the Movie Camera (1929 - USSR)
  60. Laurel & Hardy's Babes in Toyland, aka March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934 - USA)
  61. Duck Soup (1933 - USA)
  62. Noises Off (1992 - USA)
  63. The Ice Harvest (2005 - USA)
  64. The Bishop's Wife (1947 - USA)
  65. Barton Fink (1991 - USA)
  66. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990 - USA) Have I ever told you how much I LOVE Gremlins? Every time the Gremlin Daffy came on the screen, I could not stop laughing.
  67. Burn After Reading

2008 Year in Review - Books

This was a good reading year. Sometimes I get to this point and think, man I read some stinkers! But this year – I had some stellar new discoveries…authors I look forward to coming back to and getting to know better: Cormac McCarthy, John Dos Passos, William Styron, Don Delillo, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino and Jonathan Lethem in particular. All men! There were stinkers this year as well – I wasn’t exempt. Wings of the Dove, Bonjour Tristesse, and Water for Elephants (which I believe was plagarized) belong in that pile, but the stinker of all stinkers was Eat, Pray, Love. God I hated that book. A fellow-blogger once asked me if I would rather read James’s The Ambassadors or Ulysses (the answer is Ulysses). I think the tougher questions is would I rather read The Ambassadors or Eat, Pray, Love. Now THAT would be a devil of a choice. I have often pondered what kind of hell God might invent for me, you know, if that’s how things work. I think a hell surrounded by people like Elizabeth Gilbert might be one option. But the stinkers have not dominated the landscape this year. If I can discover this many exciting “new” (for me) authors in 2009, I will consider it a success.
  1. Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
  2. The Sea – John Banville
  3. Emma – Jane Austen
  4. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  5. Sister Carrie – Theodore Dreiser
  6. The End of Alice – A.M. Homes
  7. Dance to the Music of Time (1st Movement) – Anthony Powell
  8. Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth
  9. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  10. Out of Their Minds – Clifford Simak
  11. Bonjour Tristesse – Francoise Sagan
  12. Wings of the Dove – Henry James
  13. Rabbit, Run – John Updike
  14. If This is a Man (aka Survival at Auschwitz) – Primo Levi
  15. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf
  16. Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather
  17. A Passage to India – E.M. Forster
  18. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum – Heinrich Böll
  19. Female Chauvinist Pigs – Ariel Levy
  20. Water for Elephants – Sarah Gruen
  21. The Violent Bear It Away – Flannery O’Connor
  22. Lambs of London – Peter Ackroyd
  23. Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
  24. Nostromo – Joseph Conrad
  25. Solaris – Stanislaw Lem
  26. Falling Man – Don Delillo
  27. Barabbas – Par Lagerkvist
  28. The Odyssey - Homer
  29. Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert
  30. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
  31. Dance to the Music of Time (2nd Movement) – Anthony Powell
  32. The Trick is to Keep Breathing – Janice Galloway
  33. The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood
  34. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
  35. Loving – Henry Green
  36. Never Let Me Go – Kauzo Ishiguro
  37. The Zookeeper’s Wife – Diane Ackerman
  38. The Story of the Eye – Georges Bataille
  39. A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway
  40. Ulysses – James Joyce
  41. The Pit and the Pendulum – Edgar Allen Poe
  42. Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
  43. Main Street – Sinclair Lewis
  44. Sophie’s Choice – William Styron
  45. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination – Elizabeth McCracken
  46. Carmilla – Sheridan LeFanu
  47. House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
  48. Visions of Gerard – Jack Kerouac
  49. Bless Me Ultima – Rudolfo Araya
  50. Death in Venice – Thomas Mann
  51. Call of the Wild – Jack London
  52. The Painted Veil – W. Somerset Maugham
  53. 42nd Parallel – John Dos Passos
  54. The Nose - Nikolai Gogol
  55. Candide - Voltaire
  56. Billy Budd - Herman Melville
  57. The Wapshot Chronicle - John Cheever
  58. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler - Italo Calvino
  59. L'Enfer - Henri Barbusse
  60. Dance to the Music of Time (3rd Movement) – Anthony Powell


L'enfer

Henri Barbusse's 1908 L'enfer (aka Hell or The Inferno) gives us an unnamed narrator living in a boarding house in Paris. He discovers that through a hole in the wall, he can see into the room next door, where he spies on his fellow boarders. There's a lot of pseudo-philosophizing (or, more precisely, sentimental bullshit) about love and death. When I read stuff like this...also the works of Georges Bataille and others...it amazes me - the French capacity for this stuff. It comes out again in some of the French new wave films of the 1960s that I've seen...I'm thinking specifically of Breathless (though certainly not to this extent).

She interrupted him with a gesture of infinite weariness.

"I know what you are going to say. You are going to talk to me about the beauty of suffering. I know your noble ideas. I love them, my love, your beautiful theories, but I do not believe in them. I would believe them if they consoled me and effaced death."

With a manifest effort, as uncertain of himself as she was of herself, feeling his way, he replied:

"They would efface it, perhaps, if you believed in them."

She turned toward him and took one of his hands in both of hers. She questioned him with inexorable patience, then she slipped to her knees before him, like a lifeless body, humbled herself in the dust, wrecked in the depths of despair, and implored him:

"Oh, answer me! I should be so happy if you could answer me. I feel as though
you really could!"

He bent over her, as if on the edge of an abyss of questioning: "Do you know what we are?" he murmured. "Everything we say, everything we think, everything we believe, is fictitious. We know nothing. Nothing is sure or solid."

"You are wrong," she cried. "There is something absolute, our sorrow, our need, our
misery. We can see and touch it. Deny everything else, but our beggary, who can deny that?"

"You are right," he said, "it is the only absolute thing in the world."


There's a lot of that in this book.

I don't really have anything additional to say about this book. It wasn't very exciting, the writing was fairly mediocre, the story didn't grab me. Overall: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Monday, December 29, 2008

If On A Winter's Night a Traveler

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise—“I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.

Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position. With the book upside down, naturally.

Of course, the ideal position for reading is something you can never find. In the old days they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear with a special harness, seems attractive to you. With your feet in the stirrups, you should feel quite comfortable for reading; having your feet up is the first condition for enjoying a read.

Well, what are you waiting for? Stretch you legs, go ahead and put your feet on a cushion, on two cushions, on the arms of the sofa, on the wings of the chair, on the coffee table, on the desk, on the piano, on the globe. Take your shoes off first. If you want to, put your feet up; if not, put them back. Now don’t stand there with your shoes in one hand and the book in the other.

Adjust the light so you won’t strain your eyes. Do it now, because once you’re absorbed in reading there will be no budging you. Make sure the page isn’t in shadow, a clotting of black letters on a gray background, uniform as a pack of mice; but be careful that the light cast on it isn’t too strong, doesn’t glare on the cruel white of the paper, gnawing at the shadows of the letters as in a southern noonday. Try to foresee now everything that might make you interrupt your reading. Cigarettes within reach, if you smoke, and the ashtray. Anything else? Do you have to pee? All right, you know best."


Ah...


I immediately recognized that If On A Winter's Night a Traveler is a book best read alone, in a room with the door shut. Perhaps it would best be read alone in a cabin with a fire, snow outside. But I don't have a cabin with a fireplace, so my bedroom will have to do. I usually read over my lunch at work, and once I pulled out Calvino's book and thought better of it. It's better suited for a quiet evening where there will be no interuptions. After a while I even stopped carrying it around - there was no reason to do so, as I knew I wouldn't pick it up while stopped for a train, or waiting for the dentist or whatever. It's one of those books that requires a particular reading experience...a particular setting, and without that setting there really is no point in reading it.

That opening is so powerful, so wonderfully written. It reminds me of the opening of Delillo’s Falling Man which was also amazing… “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” I still think about those opening lines.

Calvino doesn’t tell one story in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler: he tells eleven. It’s the story of “The Reader,” addressed in the second person. He (it becomes clear later on that "The Reader" is either a man or a lesbian, with evidence pointing towards the former) starts to read Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” but after a few pages discovers that the rest of the book is missing. The Reader goes back to the bookstore to return the novel, but all the copies are like that. They got mixed up with another book, “Outside the town of Malbork” by Tazio Bazakbal, at the printers. So, “you”, the reader, buy that one, thinking it might continue the Calvino novel. It turns out it’s an entirely different book. So begins the quest to find a complete novel…all the books keep getting interrupted. By about half-way through, I did start to get disoriented…I got lost trying to remember what fragment of a book I was in, and how the reader, and therefore I suppose I, came into possession of it, and how it related to the other fragmentary stories. But no matter, really. Should it be any wonder that it’s disorienting? It’s eleven stories in one.

What makes this book is the writing. It’s FABULOUS. There are so many passages…beautiful passages that I underlined about the nature of reading. “One reads alone, even in another’s presence.” “I, too, feel the need to reread the books I have already read…but at every rereading I seem to be reading a new book, for the first time. Is it I who keep changing and seeing new things of which I was not previously aware?...Every time I seek to relive the emotion of a previous reading, I experience different and unexpected impressions, and do not find again those of before.”

I’ve been wanting to read this novel for so long…years I think. And while it was a little different than I really expected, the writing did not disappoint. Like with many other books, such as Sophie’s Choice, I wish it wouldn’t have taken me so long to read…it would be much more powerful (and easier to understand) to read it in a short amount of time. But something has come up again that’s interrupting my reading...not that I’m complaining, but I’m trying to muscle through, though it makes it difficult. I am anxious to read more from Calvino. And why are you still reading this post? Why haven’t you, Reader, gone and picked up If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler? Do yourself a favor for the new year and read the book!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Wapshot Chronicle

I came to this book without any expectations. As much as it shows ignorance, I had never heard of this book or its author (John Cheevers) before the Modern Library list.

From the outset, the book was mildly humorous and quirky. It’s the story of the Wapshot family: Leander and Sarah, their two sons Coverly and Moses, and the aunt with the purse strings, Honora. It’s mildly humous and quirky, however, until the second part, when I encountered this: “Writer’s epistolary style (Leander wrote) formed in tradition of Lord Timothy Dexter, who put all punctuation marks, prepositions, adverts, articles, etc., at the end of communication and urged reader to distribute same as he saw fit. West Farm. Autumn day. 3 p.m. Nice sailing breeze from NW quarter. Golden light. Glittering riffle on water. Hornets on ceiling. An old house. Roofs of St. Botolphs in the distance. Old river-bottom burg today. Family prominent there once. Name memorialized in many things in vicinity; lakes, roads, hills even. Wapshot Avenue now back street in honkytonk beach resort further south. Smell of hot dogs, popcorn, also salt air and grinding music from old merry-go-round calliope. Matchwood cottages for rent by day, week or season…” Fortunately, that doesn’t last for the rest of the book.

More than anything, it’s the story of three emasculated men. First, Honora accidently sees Moses having some fun with a female house guest while she’s hiding in a closet. Don’t ask. Then she turns into the mean old aunt with the money. She tells Leander that the boys need to get out on their own and she puts Leander’s boat (which she owns) up for sale. Honora actually owns pretty much all of the Wapshot stuff, including their farm. The sale of the boat falls through, but Leander wrecks it, and his wife turns it into a gift shop. Both of the boys eventually get married, but of course they both have issues with their wives, which leaves them further emasculated. Leander pretends to shoot himself; Leander sends fake letters to his sons saying that he’s dying. Coverly’s dumb wife leaves him (briefly), and Moses’s wife is (for a time) under the thumb of rich old Justina, who gives the couple two twin beds for their wedding present. And then we “come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale.” Yes, Cheever actually wrote that. In the end, Coverly’s wife comes back, Justina’s house burns down, and Leander dies.

When you come to a book without expectations, it's hard to be disappointed. And I was not disappointed by The Wapshot Chronicle. But I wasn't wowed and/or awed either. Funny, but not too funny. A little strange, but maybe not strange enough. All in all, not bad...not great, but not bad.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Billy Budd

Oh, Billy Budd. What to say about you?

A few years ago, I read Moby Dick and LOVED it. There are so many levels to it, it’s so rich, so perfectly written. Definitely one of the top three American novels of the 19th century, and definitely one of the top ten American novels ever.

Then…I think it was earlier this year…I read "Bartleby the Scrivener." WTF is that all about? "I'd perfer not." Melville is clearly a very talented writer, but, what? You lost me there, Herman.
And now Billy Budd. I really don’t know what to say. I don’t know that I have anything to say. It’s Billy Budd – he’s a 21 year old popular strapping sailor who is drafted (essentially) into the British Navy in 1797. Claggart, the ship’s Master-at-Arms has it out for him, and eventually turns him into the Captain for trying to start a mutiny. When Billy Budd is told of the charges, he hits Claggart so hard he kills him. Billy is tried, convicted, and hung. There’s a lot of pontificating and waxing poetic in between.

I know, I know…Abraham and Isaac, Jesus metaphors, etc. The Publishing Triangle put it at #13 on their list of the 100 best lesbian and gay novels. But it’s not really a gay novel, is it? There are sort-of gay overtones, or undertones, to the story. Claggart’s hatred of Billy Budd clearly springs from some kind of attraction or jealousy towards Budd. But really. That list is crazy anyway…To Kill A Mockingbird, Death Comes for the Archbishop AND Little Women are on there.

I’m ambivalent about the whole thing. It was certainly well written, I just wasn't pulled into the story. Oh Herman, where did our relationship go wrong? But I'm willing to work on it. I am committed to my relationship with Melville. In the future: Typee, Pierre, Confidence Man, and probably others. Hopefully, these issues with the intimate relationship between writer and reader will resolve themsevles.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Candide

I’m embarrassed that I’m only now reading Candide. Especially considering that I spent 1998-2000 completely engrossed by Enlightenment thinkers – specifically the Deists, of whom Voltaire was one. I spent my freshman year of college reading the collected religious writings of Thomas Paine, and books such as Deism in 18th Century America and Religion During the American Enlightenment. You know, normal pursuits for an 18 year old. I remember at one point in there picking up Candide, and maybe reading the first page and then putting it down. I don’t know what my problem was.

So, finally, after 10 years, I came around to Candide. And damn – this book is hilarious! For those of you who don’t know, Candide is a boy who grows up in a Westphalian castle. One day, the Baron catches him kissing his daughter and sends him away, thus starting the chain of adventures that follows. Candide’s teacher, Dr. Pangloss, espouses Leibnizian optimism, stating that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But Candide quickly realizes “if this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?” Explaining Pangloss’s theory later, Candide says, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.” The point of the book is to satirize this idea. Shortly after its publication it was banned for blasphemy and political sedition and it was added to the Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books in 1762. Regardless it was a HUGE bestseller at the time. Voltaire didn’t admit to writing it until almost a decade later…though everyone suspected it was him. In 1929, the book was barred from entering the U.S. by a Boston customs official because it was obscene. [This is a great quote.] “For years we’ve been letting that book get by. There were so many different editions, all sizes and kinds, some illustrated and some plain, that we figured the book must be all right. Then one of us happened to read it.” Ah, Mrs. Winterson (Jeanette’s mother) would have known better! What is it she always said – the trouble with books is that you don’t know what’s in them until it’s too late?

Beyond the basic plot and the humorousness of it all, there is a serious side to it as well. The central issue of the novel is the problem of evil – how can an omnipotent and benevolent God allow suffering? This issue came up for Voltaire in the wake of the Lisbon earthquake and the subsequent fire and tsunamis that completely devastated the city in 1755. Prior to that, both Leibniz and Voltaire’s friend Alexander Pope had proclaimed the optimistic doctrine. Voltaire composed a poem entitled “On the Disaster at Lisbon or an Examination of the Axiom ‘All is well’” to directly address the optimist claims in light of the earthquake:

Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
Come, ye philosophers, who cry, "All’s well,"
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race,
This child and mother heaped in common wreck,
These scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts—
A hundred thousand whom the earth devours,
Who, torn and bloody, palpitating yet,
Entombed beneath their hospitable roofs,
In racking torment end their stricken lives.
To those expiring murmurs of distress,
To that appalling spectacle of woe,
Will ye reply: "You do but illustrate
The Iron laws that chain the will of God"?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
"God is avenged: the wage of sin is death"?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood.

When earth its
horrid jaws half open shows,
My plaint is innocent, my cries are just.
Surrounded by such cruelties of fate,
By rage of evil and by snares of death,
Fronting the fierceness of the elements,
Sharing our ills, indulge me my lament.
"Tis pride," ye say— "the pride of rebel heart,
To think we might fare better than we do."
Go, tell it to the Tagus’ stricken banks;
Search in the ruins of that bloody shock;
Ask of the dying in that house, of grief,
Whether ‘tis pride that calls on heaven for help
And pity for the sufferings of men.
"All’s well," ye say, "and all is necessary."
Think ye this universe had been the worse
Without this hellish gulf in Portugal?

… But how conceive a God supremely good,
Who heaps his favors on the sons he loves
Yet scatters evil with as large a hand?
What eye can pierce the depth of his designs?
From that all-perfect Being came not ill:
And came it from no other, for he’s lord:
Yet it exists. O stern and numbing truth!

…‘Tis mockery to tell me all is well.

Voltaire expanded upon this theme in Candide. In Pangloss (the meaning of his name, “all tongues” is obviously getting at him being “all talk”), Voltaire created this ridiculous spokesman for the optimist, who always responds that all is for the best, regardless of what suffering he is confronted with…even his own. As the book goes on, the sufferings become more and more intense, and it seeks to illustrate that in the midst of such terrible circumstances that the characters encounter, it is really absurd to believe that this is the best of all worlds. But Pangloss never waivers. “I am still of my first opinion…for I am a philosopher and cannot retract, especially as Leibniz could never be wrong.” Later, “Pangloss owned that he had always suffered horribly, but as he had once asserted that everything went wonderfully well, he asserted it still, though he no longer believed it.”

Candide, on the other hand, is more wishy-washy about the subject. When things are going well, he asserts this must be the best of all possible worlds; when things are going badly for him, he asserts the opposite. In the end, Candide is married to Cunegonde (though he admits he was never really interested in doing so) and is living on a farm with Pangloss, Martin, Cacambo, and the old woman (are we ever told her name? If we are, I completely forget what it is!) and they are bored and unhappy:

‘"I want to know which is worse, to be ravished a hundred times by negro pirates, to have a buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped and hanged at an auto-da-fé, to be dissected, to row in the galleys—in short, to go through all the miseries we have undergone, or to stay here and have nothing to do?"

"It is a great question," said Candide.’

So, they go to see a Dervish and ask him what he thinks about things.

"Master," said he, "we come to beg you to tell why so strange an animal as man was made."

"With what meddlest thou?" said the Dervish; "is it thy business?"

"But, reverend father," said Candide, "there is horrible evil in this world."

"What signifies it," said the Dervish, "whether there be evil or good? When his highness sends a ship to Egypt, does he trouble his head whether the mice on board are at their ease or not?"

"What, then, must we do?" said Pangloss.

"Hold your tongue," answered the Dervish.

"I was in hopes," said Pangloss, "that I should reason with you a little about causes and effects, about the best of possible worlds, the origin of evil, the nature of the soul, and the pre-established harmony."

At these words, the Dervish shut the door in their faces.
It is eventually decided by all that they work without arguing with each other – it’s the only way to be content. But Pangloss, being old and set in his ways, keeps trying to explain to Candide why this really is the best of all possible worlds: "There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts." But Candide has finally come to the conclusion that it’s best just to work in the garden, not waste time on discussions about the garden’s design.

The question remains as to whether Voltaire slightly misrepresented the optimist viewpoint. To see that this really is the best possible world, they claim, you must be able to look at events in their totality – as in from an omniscient or divine point of view. One of the central concepts of optimism is that human understanding is too limited to see the reasoning behind human suffering, and it cannot be applied to individual circumstances. That is why Candide continually oscillates – because when good things happen to him, he thinks, yes – all really is for the best; when bad things happen, he thinks, how could this world possibly be the best there is, or as I already quoted him above, if this is the best of all worlds, I’d hate to see what the others look like. Voltaire may be suggesting that optimism isn’t necessarily false, just irrelevant. Until we can see from the omniscient point of view, asserting (like Pangloss) that this is the best of all possible worlds won’t really help us in the midst of tragedy. Kind of like the lame comfort, “it happened for a reason.” Unless you know the reason why bad things happen to you, the fact that there is a reason beyond your understanding isn’t really comforting.

Some have theorized that Candide can be seen as a sequel to the Adam and Eve story. In the beginning, Candide is cast out of the “terrestrial paradise” and begins to wander aimlessly. The Garden of Eden, of course, really was the best of all possible worlds (or at least that’s how it is set up to be…) and Pangloss plays the serpent, whose dalliance with Paquette gave Cunegonde and Candide the idea to try their hand at it, which is what ends up getting Candide expelled from the Castle. The theme of the Garden of Eden is revisited at the conclusion to Candide as well. It’s a totally plausible theory, in my humble opinion, and one that made me completely rethink the novel.

Popular legend has it that Candide was written in three days (though of course it really took much longer); it didn’t take me half as long to read it. It’s short and moves along quickly. I found it hard to put down…wondering what quip Voltaire was going to put in there next. Such as:

“After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon, the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin than to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fé; for it had been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking.

"In consequence hereof, they had seized on a Biscayner, convicted of having married his godmother, and on two Portuguese, for rejecting the bacon which larded a chicken they were eating; after dinner, they came and secured Dr. Pangloss, and his disciple Candide, the one for speaking his mind, the other for having listened with an air of approbation…They marched in procession thus habited and heard a very pathetic sermon, followed by fine church music. Candide was whipped in cadence while they were singing; the Biscayner, and the two men who had refused to eat bacon, were burnt; and Pangloss was hanged, though that was not the custom.”

This novella’s most obvious comparison is Jonathan Swift, specifically Gulliver’s Travels, but I found Candide much more enjoyable. I had problems with Gulliver’s Travels, mostly because it is so interlaced with 18th century English politics that I just didn’t get it (though I did like when he wee'd on the castle). Candide’s satire is aimed at much more obvious targets…or at least targets I am more informed about than English politics. It also reminded me of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus, which I sort of read for a German cultures class in college.

I definitely enjoyed Candide, but I wish it hadn't taken me so long to get to it. I know I would have thought it was awesome when I was 18, and I'm sure I would have tortured my roommate even more than I already did by reading it out loud. Oh well, better late than never.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

42nd Parallel

First, as an introduction to Dos Passos, who – if you are anything like I was until recently (and only because of my book list obsession) – you have never heard of, some quotes:

“[He’s] the greatest living writer of our time.” -Jean Paul Sartre, 1938

“Dos Passos came nearer than any of us to writing the Great American Novel, and it’s entirely possible he succeeded. I can only say, from my own point of view, that no novel I read while in college stimulated me more, astounded me more and showed me what a thrilling inner life was there for anyone gifted enough to be a major American novelist.” – Norman Mailer on Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy

Dos Passos created a “whole new school of writing.” - Sinclair Lewis, on Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer

One of the greatest pleasures of being a reader is not only discovering a hidden gem in a book, but finding a hidden gem in a new author…especially one that made you leery at first. I was not overly excited about John Dos Passos or his U.S.A. Trilogy. Even though basic research would/should have made me anticipate it with joy. A forgotten member of the Lost Generation? Contemporary and friend (sort of ) of Fitzgerald and Hemingway? This should have tipped me off. but instead, I was apprehensive about my ability to like Dos Passos. Somewhere along the line, he had become lumped in with Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. Not that I don’t sometimes enjoy Lewis and Dreiser (Main Street was one of my favorite books I read this year). They can just be a little daunting sometimes.

And then, lo and behold, I very quickly learned that I was oh so wrong in my apprehension. 42nd Parallel, the first volume of the trilogy, turned out to be FABULOUS!

42nd Parallel, published in 1930, tells the story of five characters: Mac, Janey, Eleanor, Ward, and Charley, following them from all childhood until the beginning of America’s direct involvement in WWI. They’re all from different backgrounds, different places. Eventually they converge and begin to play parts in each others lives. They’re all trying to figure out where they fit in – where they fit in society, in the country, the new century, the political world - what their role could or should be. But it’s not a character study – Dos Passos isn’t trying to be Henry James and describe every minute detail…every motivation. It just goes – it moves…somewhere I saw Dos Passos’s writing described as “rapid-transit pace,” and that is an apt description.

Dos Passos calls his style "contemporary chronicle." The novel isn’t just these characters, and it’s not traditional narrative. The story of each is told intermittently from that characters point-of-view (but in the third person). This is interspersed with news headlines, song lyrics, biographies of famous or important people of the time, and what Dos Passos calls the “camera eye,” which I will post about later. And when I say biographies, I don’t mean, “so-and-so was born at this place, on this date, and here’s what he did.” Here’s two examples:

(From "The Electrical Wizard")

Edison was born in Milan, Ohio, in eighteen fortyseven;
Milan was a little town on the Huron River that for a while was the wheatshipping port for the whole Western Reserve; the railroads took away the carrying trade, the Edison family went up to Port Huron in Michigan to grow up with the country;
his father was a shinglemaker who puttered round with various small speculations; he dealt in grain and feed and lumber and built a wooden tower a hundred feet high; tourists and excursionists paid a quarter each to go up the tower and look at the view over Lake Huron and the St. Clair River and Sam Edison became a solid and respected citizen of Port Huron.

Thomas Edison only went to school for three months because the teacher thought he wasn't right bright. His mother taught him what she knew at home and read eighteenth century writers with him, Gibbon and Hume and Newton, and let him rig up a laboratory in the cellar.

Whenever he read about anything he went down cellar and tried it out.
When he was twelve he needed money to buy books and chemicals; he got a concession as a newsbutcher on the daily train from Detroit to Port Huron. In Detroit there as a public library and he read it...

He worked all day and all night tinkering with cogwheels and bits of copperwire and chemicals in bottles, whenever he thought of a device he tried it out. He made things work. He wasn't a mathematician. I can hire mathematicians but mathematicians can't hire me, he said.
In eighteen seventysix he moved to Menlo Park where he invented the carbon transmitter and made the telephone a commercial proposition, that made the microphone possible
he worked all day and all night and produced
the phonograph
the incandescent electric lamp

and systems of generation, distribution, regulation and measurement of electric current, sockets, switches, insulators, manholes. Edison worked out the first systems of electric light using a direct current and small unit lamps and the multiple arc that were installed in London Paris New York and Sunbury Pa., [YEAH SUNBURY!]
the threewire system
the magnetic ore separator,
an electric railway.


(I just had to make sure I included the part about Sunbury! It's friggin' awesome when you come from a small town without any nationally known import and then you come across it in a book of such importance.)

and from "Proteus"

In eighteen ninetytwo when Eichemeyer sold out the corporation that was to form General Electric, Steinmetz was entered in the contract along with other valuable apparatus. All his life Steinmetz was a piece of apparatus belonging to General Electric...
General Electric humored him, let him be a socialist, let him keep a greenhouseul of cactuses lit up by mercury lights, let him have alligators, talking crows and a gila monster for pets and the publicity department talked up the wizard, the medicine man who knew the symbols that opened all the doors of Ali Baba's cave...
Steinmetz was a famous magician and he talked to Edison tapping with the Morse code on Edison's knee
because Edison was so very deaf
and he went out West
to make speeches that nobody understood
and he talked to Bryan about God on a railroad train
and all the reporters stood round while he and Einstein
met face to face;
and but they couldn't catch what they said.

And Steinmetz was the most valuable piece of apparatus General Electric had
Until he wore out and died.

His narrative has a similar pace and rhythm as the biographies.

42nd Parallel is experimental and modern. You can see the coming generation of writers, and I was struck by the similartiy of cadence in Dos Passos as in Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. I don't know if Ginsberg read or was influenced by Dos Passos, but I can't imagine he wasn't. I know Kerouac was. He quotes U.S.A. Trilogy in his letters, and was reading Dos Passos (aloong with Dreiser, Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis) during the time he was outlining Dr. Sax. What I don’t understand is why, apart from my book lists, have I not heard of Dos Passos? Why isn’t he mentioned in school, in literary resources, along with Stein, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Hemingway? Where did his reputation sour such that, while he was just as popular and important in the early 20th century as those others were, somehow he is now pretty much forgotten?

On average, I finish almost one book per week. Over the last 10 years, that means almost 500 books. Probably more than half of those are just ok. So far this year, I’ve read 53 books and looking at my list, less than 15 really stand out. So, to find a new author that really excites me…that’s what reading is all about. Jeanette Winterson, in one of her essays, says, “knowing that there are favorite books still to come is a continuing happiness.” That’s why I bother with book lists…for an increased chance to find those great authors. The chance that I would have picked up Dos Passos without his appearance on The Lists is probably relatively small. But I loved 42nd Parallel…I’m so glad I found it. I cannot wait to read the next two books in the trilogy, and his other work. A+ for this leading contender for the Great American Novel.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Painted Veil

In 2007, I saw the movie The Painted Veil, based on the novel of the same name by W. Somerset Maugham. I also read Of Human Bondage, which is Maugham’s most famous book. I LOVED both of them. Then I read The Painted Veil, which was nothing like Of Human Bondage, and was very different from the movie.

I say different from the film, but it isn’t really. The plot is still mostly the same. Kitty is a twit. She’s a twit who lives in England, and likes to have a good time. But then along comes Walter Fane. She doesn’t like Walter – he bores her tremendously. But when he proposes, she accepts, mostly because she has already passed on a lot of better prospects. So, they get married and move to Hong Kong, where Walter is a bacteriologist. It doesn’t take Kitty long to find a boyfriend there – Charles Townsend. When Walter finds out, he gives Kitty a choice: accompany him to a cholera epidemic or get Charles to divorce his wife and marry her. Walter knows Charles is a cad and would never divorce his wife. So, Kitty has to go to the epidemic. While there, Kitty comes to see herself in a different light, mostly through her work at an orphanage with nuns. She realizes what a twit she is.

And this is where the book and the movie diverge. The movie is a sweeping love story: in the midst of the epidemic, Kitty finally falls in love with Walter. Kitty learns she is pregnant…it’s probably not Walter’s, but it doesn’t matter anymore. When he finally gets sick with cholera, she is there to help him, but he dies. A few years later, we see Kitty in England, where she runs into Charles. She has her little boy with her, whom she has named Charles. He hints at picking up their affair again, but she declines.

The book is very different on these points. She does learn that she is pregnant, and it’s still probably not Walter’s, but it does matter. Maugham makes it clear that it would have been easy to lie to Walter and say “of course it’s yours.” But she can’t do that anymore. In Maugham’s version, Kitty never comes to love Walter. Their hatred of each other does cool slightly, and Kitty comes to respect Walter, but she never loves him. Walter dies in the novel also, but Kitty isn’t there. She’s only told he’s been sick when he’s moments from dying, and though she begs him to forgive her for what she did, he only mutters gibberish about a dog. She returns to Hong Kong, where Charles Townsend and wife graciously offer to house and take care of her. How sweet. Mrs. Townsend has no idea her husband and Kitty had anything going, of course. Eventually, Charles gets Kitty alone, and she yields again to his advances. She feels so despicable at herself afterwards that she leaves in a few days to return to England. When she gets there she learns that her father (her mother has just died) is going to the Caribbean and she convinces him to take her along. She is determined to raise her child (she assumes it’s a girl) so that she doesn’t become a twit like Kitty was.

In the end of both, Kitty is a changed person, though how and why she changed is different. In the film, Kitty is changed mostly through Walter, through his forgiveness and love. You know – Titanic in China or something like that. In the book, Kitty is changed on her own – by her work in the orphanage and by realizing how stupid she was to fall for Townsend. She changes by seeing how utterly useless she has been in her life. I’m not sure which one I prefer.

As I mentioned before, this book was very different from Of Human Bondage, which was really long and very good. Not that The Painted Veil wasn’t good. It felt very modern…I think one could easily be convinced it was written by someone in 2008 – that it was a new book – rather than one that was written in 1925. Not that Of Human Bondage (published in 1915) felt dated – it’s just not a book stylistically or topically that I could be convinced had been written recently.

Overall, I’m still not sure how much I liked The Painted Veil. I definitely liked Of Human Bondage more, and I wasn’t as moved by the book as I was by the movie. It was a fair book of its own right, but comparatively I didn’t particularly care for it.