Monday, October 27, 2008

List-o-phile Monday

Yes, List-o-phile Monday is back! Today I'm going to be a little unconventional. My reading seems to get grouped into themes - around places, time periods, etc. This usually happens all on its own...I don't plan it out that way. In August/September, it was a WWII theme. Lately I've been in a NYC theme, so the city is on my mind. Today's list is the New Yorker Magazine's "New York Canon." You can read more about it here. I say it's unconventional because I'm not "actively reading" from the list. It's in my book-list folder, and I'm sure I'll use it as a guide in the coming years, but it's not a requirement that I read them all.

The criteria: all-around literary merit and New Yorkitdude - the degree to which a book allows itself to obsess over the city. This list was created for the New Yorker's 40th anniversary, so it's just those published since 1968...they are not all fiction.

The list:
  1. The Armies of the Night - Norman Mailer
  2. An Anthology of New York Poets - Ron Padgett and David Shapiro (editors)
  3. The Tenants - Bernard Malamud
  4. Beneath the Underdog - Charles Mingus
  5. The Boys of Summer - Roger Kahn
  6. Great Jones Street - Don Delillo
  7. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute - Grace Paley
  8. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York - Robert Caro
  9. Without Feathers - Woody Allen
  10. Ragtime - E.L. Doctorow
  11. On Photography - Susan Sontag
  12. Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan - Rem Koolhaas
  13. Zuckerman Unbound - Philip Roth
  14. Take Five - D. Keith Mano
  15. Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin
  16. Money - Martin Amis
  17. Bright Lights, Big City - Jay McInerney
  18. Bonfire of the Vanities - Tom Wolfe
  19. Bad Behavior - Mary Gaitskill
  20. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York - Luc Sante
  21. Jazz - Toni Morrison
  22. Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir - Anatole Broyard
  23. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon
  24. Random Family - Adrain Nicole Leblanc
  25. The Displaced of Capital - Anne Winters
  26. Lush Life - Richard Price

Sunday, October 26, 2008

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination

I wasn't sure if I would write a review for this book or not. Then I wrote the review, and I wasn't sure I would post it. I'm not good with expressing emotions and I'm not good at dealing with accepting other people's expressions of emotions. Even hugging makes me feel uncomfortable. You know I'm comfortable with you when hugging doesn't make me squirm. This is a family issue. Whether it's because we're German or just weird or cold, I don't know. My great-grandmother (the daughter of German immigrants) didn't even believe in rocking her six children...to do so was coddling them too much. So, writing this post has been very difficult, because it is so personal...it has to be so personal. This post has turned out to be much more about me and my own experience than anything in Elizabeth McCracken's book, but hell - it's my blog and I'll write what I want :-)

Having a miscarriage was much more devastating than I could have ever imagined. I wouldn't even know how to begin to describe it here. When someone you know dies, most of the time you have memories of them...even though you miss them terribly, and wish they hadn't died, there are usually good things you can remember to help you through it. This is not so with a pregnancy loss. You are mourning for someone you didn't know. I've lost a fair amount of people in my lifetime, so I know about death...I know about mourning. When my best friend died when we were juniors in h.s. (her 28th b-day would have been this past Tuesday - 10/21...which was also the date, many years earlier, when my grandmother -now dead - gave birth to a stillborn son), I remember describing my feelings as if someone had blindfolded me and dropped me in the middle of the forest...I was completely disoriented - how did I get here? where am I? how do I find my way back to a place I know? Even if you do find your way back, it's never to a place you know. It might look the same, taste the same, smell the same, etc., but it's never the same. Having a miscarriage is no different, except there was never a "person" to mourn. Instead, you have lost someone you will never be able to get to know...someone you will never have the chance to meet. It's a mourning for hopes, dreams, expectations. That might sound trivial, like not being able to go on a trip that you had planned, but it's anything but.

In addition, it's a blow to your self-esteem...or something like that. I experienced it - am experiencing it - as a blow to my female-ness...my womanhood. Somehow, I wasn't able to sustain this life inside of me. It is a sense of failure at the one job nature has designed me to do. And there is the inescapable feeling that it was your fault. Even if there is no reason why it wasn't, even if science tells you it wasn't, you can't help but feel it was. The fact that most happen for unknown reasons - they don't start to test for why you have a miscarriage until you've had two or three - gives the whole thing a mystery, and you can't do anything except blame yourself.

Miscarriage is silent. Mine happened before almost anyone knew I was pregnant - actually, only my immediately family, a co-worker, and two friends knew. So, it happens, people send you sympathy cards, the next time they see you they ask how you are doing in a very sympathetic way, and it's over with...no one mentions it again. Everyone moves on, but it remains a very real part of the woman who experienced it. It's there all the time. Every day I think, by now I should have been 5 months pregnant. We would know by now if it was a boy or a girl. Every time you see someone pregnant, hear of someone pregnant, walk past the baby clothes, baby food aisles, diaper and toy commercials on television, Angelina Jolie...it's constantly reminding you that you are no longer pregnant. That this horrible thing has happened to you. Sometimes it feels as if the world is out to bombard you with as many reminders of your loss as possible. For example, checking the OMG site on yahoo, there were two stories about celebs being pregnant, and there is an entire subheading for "baby bumps." I should have a baby bump by now, damn it!

My response to every problem is to read a book. There are plenty of books out there "about" miscarriages...but most appear to be the typical clinical reaction...it gives you the statistics, it tells you about the stages of grieving, when you can start trying to conceive again, potential causes, etc. But I don't want any of that. I wanted to read a story - fiction or not - about somebody who had gone through this. Try searching for "miscarriage+fiction"...not very successful. So I was very "excited" when I accidentally came upon a review for An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination.

I put excited in quotations because a book about this subject really isn't exciting. Elizabeth McCracken, the author, had a stillborn. Though miscarriages and stillborns - McCracken was very near to giving birth - are two different things, they are both in this general category of pregnancy loss. Hers occurred because of the umbilical chord was wrapped around the babies neck. She was living in France at the time, and was seeing a midwife who seemed very nonchalant about the pregnancy. Had she been seeing a regular doctor, had she been sent to the hospital immediately, etc., the baby (nicknamed "Pudding") could have maybe been saved. But McCracken doesn't play the blame game, or the "what if" game.

McCracken captures beautifully the emotions of this experience. How much it means to have someone say the right thing at the right moment. For me, it was the nurse in the post-op after my required operation. Then it was two of my male friends whose e-mails really surprised me. One even sent me a poem. Dominik - who once told me he hadn't read a book in years - sent me a poem. I was amazed. McCracken also knows about the friends you lose...or rather, the people you thought were friends who say the most hurtful things that you realize you're not friends any more, if you truly were in the first place. I had a situation where two weeks after the miscarriage, I got an exuberant e-mail from my friend that she was pregnant. I wrote back that I was happy for her, and explained what had just happened to me and that I was sorry that I couldn't be as happy for her as I wanted to be...or better put, as happy for her as she wanted me to be. I got a rather not-very-nice e-mail in response. I deleted it. End of friendship. This was the friend that I didn't want to tell I was pregnant because I knew she was trying and I didn't want to hurt her feelings. One of my first thoughts when I got pregnant was, "How am I going to tell her?" She was mad that I wasn't happy enough for her, regardless of my own situation. I'm sorry, I'm venting. Two months later...almost three months later and that still makes my blood boil.

This gets to something everyone needs to understand about pregnancy loss: it causes an unexplained, overwhelming jealousy and hatred for pregnant women. McCracken touches on this in her memoir. Is it irrational? Probably. But it's there and it doesn't go away very easily. An e-mail list that I belong to for women who have had miscarriages forbids people posting about pregnancy, or to do so with warnings, like spoiler alerts, so those of us who still aren't ready for it are spared the details. I have shot death rays in the direction of pregnant women since my miscarriage...including yesterday. McCracken poignantly states that whenever someone has a pregnancy loss, the world should spontaneously stop the reproduction process... I just wish that pregnant women would go away. Though it's already been three months since my miscarriage, I still cannot bear the thought of Thanksgiving, as my sister-in-law is pregnant. I will probably not go. I was due a month after her.

I loved McCracken's descriptions of wanting cards...like business cards...that you hand to people that explains what's going on. Kind of like John Singer's cards in The Heart is A Lonely Hunter. "I'm deaf and dumb but I read lips so there is no need to shout." McCracken had been obviously pregnant, and wanted to cards to explain the still birth to people who asked, so she didn't have to explain. I want these as well. But since most people didn't know I was pregnant, it wouldn't be for when people ask about our suddenly missing baby. No, mine would be for people who ask, "So, when are you having children? Have you started trying yet? Have you discussed it yet? WHEN ARE THE BABIES COMING?" Since, as I mentioned, I'm uncomfortable with not only my own emotions, but the emotions of others, to spare myself the embarrassment of their sympathy I just say, "Yeah, we've talked about it" and leave it at that. I wish I had a card that said, "I was pregnant but had a miscarriage. Please don't ask me about babies again, and please don't talk to me about pregnant people."

McCracken went on to get pregnant again and have a happy, healthy child. But she also captures the sense of innocence that is lost after a still birth (or miscarriage...it applies to both). Unless you have experienced it yourself, losing a pregnancy, while something you think about, something you avoid feta and deli meat so you don't have, is always something that happens to other people. And then it happens to you. And you spend any subsequent pregnancy worried - deathly worried - that it will happen again. I'm terrified of it happening again, and I'm not even pregnant (yet - hopefully it's a yet, and not a never). It's no longer something that happens to other people - it happens to YOU. And there are women out there who have two, three, five + miscarriages. In fact, 1/100 women have "recurrent miscarriages." Once that innocence has been stripped away, it is never the same. YOU are never the same, and not just because of the loss. It's a once bitten twice shy dilema. McCracken - like all women who have lost a pregnancy - know it's not a when with giving birth, it's an if. It's always an if.

The author also brings up a good point, which I hadn't thought about before. Surviving a pregnancy loss is like surviving a natural disaster. She discusses this in the context of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans is not over it. But don't we, as country, think...ok, we're over it. Why aren't you? But they're not over it. They'll never be over it. And they have every right to not be over it, just as women who have lost a pregnancy have every right not to be over it.

I wanted to feel the full emotional impact of this book, so unlike with Sophie's Choice, I read the whole thing in one sitting. Maybe I'm masochistic in that way...I won't deny the charge. But I didn't want to putter around in it...I wanted to dive in and be fully engulfed. I couldn't stand to be submerged in it in intervals, like over lunch, or waiting to go to the store. It was all or nothing. Yes, this book made tears just stream down my face. This is not something you read without tissues nearby. But it was perfect. It perfectly captures this experience. It was perfectly written, and it was the perfect time for me to read it. This books comes much closer to "understanding pregnancy loss" than any book that only gives you the causes, and a list of the stages of grief.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sophie's Choice

I will say this first off: I wish that I hadn't taken so long to read this novel. I wish I could have sat down and read the whole thing from cover to cover. But sometimes life gets in the way. I recognized when I was reading it that I was missing some of the emotional power of this wonderful novel because my reading was so spaced out over time.

That said, here is my reaction: Wow. This is an amazing book. It is deeply emotionally powerful...and deeply depressing. If you are not ready to be socked in the face by the reality of this novel - Auschwitz and its aftermath basically - don't read it.

There are many things in this novel that were unique to my reading experience: firstly, that it takes place in the period immediately following WWII - 1946, 1947. Other than Kerouac, I couldn't think of another novel that takes place then...or deals exclusively with that time. Secondly, the main character of the novel, Sophie, went through the horrors of Auschwitz, but wasn't Jewish. Up to this point, most of my dealings with Holocaust-related literature focus on the experience of Jews, but of course every other cross-section of humanity was there as well. Thirdly, Sophie wasn't a hero. In this respect, Sophie's story was probably closer to the story of your every day, average person living under Nazi rule. She wasn't involved in the resistance. She had opportunities to do so, but didn't. She tried everything she could to save her own life, and also the life of her son. Most people might talk about how they would have fought the Nazis...they would have been another Oscar Schindler if given the chance...they would have been brave. But the fact that there weren't more Oscar Schindlers...that while some people did what they could, there were thousands - millions - of people who did nothing. And they did nothing for the same reasons that Sophie did nothing. We might like to imagine that we would have done something, but human nature tells us that we probably won't have done anything. Is that cowardly? I don't know. It wasn't heroic, but I don't know if it was cowardly. Lastly, most books about the Holocaust are about just that...they take place in the camps, or during that time. Styron took a different path. While we could say that Sophie's Choice is about Stingo, the 22-year-old Virginian come to Brooklyn to write his first novel where he meets Nathan and Sophie and it's the story of their friendship and their tragic end, it's really about the aftermath of Auschwitz. Sophie wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Auschwitz...everything in the book is tainted with that.

And while all of that is clever, different from the standard, run-of-the-mill (if there could be such a thing) Holocaust novel, what makes this book so amazing, so emotionally hard-hitting is Styron's language. He is a beautiful writer. Some have complained that the sex scenes were stifled, that Sophie doesn't really have any redeeming qualities except that she was at Auschwitz, and that Stingo doesn't have many redeeming qualities himself. I can't really argue with any of those points. But none of that diminishes the beauty, the pervasive sadness of this story. If you've seen the movie, you know what I'm talking about.

I also have a theory that parts of Water for Elephants were lifted from Sophie's Choice, either the book and/or movie... though I'm not accusing Gruen of plagiarism...it might have been subconscious. This thought first came to me when I watched the movie in August or September. There is a scene where Stingo and Sophie are in Sophie's room with a bottle of champagne. They are going to surprise Nathan with a celebration for his important discovery he made at the lab that day...the cure for cancer or whatever it is he says. So, Sophie and Stingo are fiddling around, getting this stuff ready, and Nathan arrives early. Just walking in on that scene, you might think something is up, and Nathan immediately begins to accuse Sophie of doing more than fiddling behind his back. I knew immediately that I had seen this scene somewhere before. I wracked my brain until I finally came upon it: Water for Elephants. There is a scene in that book that is exactly the same, in which Jacob and Marlena are fiddling with a bottle of champagne because they are going to surprise August after some triumph of the circus (I don't remember what exactly)...and August walks in on this and thinks there is something up and begins accusing them. IT'S EXACTLY THE SAME SCENE. And then, something else hit me later on in the movie: Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic. And guess what - he displays exactly the same characteristics of another paranoid schizophrenic - August in Water for Elephants. In both cases it's revealed by someone else after Nathan/August goes nuts...in SC it's Nathan's brother; in WfE, it's the circus leader. Then there is the obvious structure parallel: the love triangle made up of Marlene/Sophie, August/Nathan, and the young, inexperienced newcomer, Stingo/Jacob. I of course don't know if Gruen ever saw or read Sophie's Choice, so I can't say if it was actually copied from there or not - on purpose or subconsciously, but the parallels are there. After a search around some other places on the net, I'm not the only person to have noticed these connections.

Anyway, Sophie's Choice was great. I once described Lolita as being achingly beautiful...I think that that phrase describes this novel as well. I could feel the horribly tragic longing in Stingo, and in Sophie. I know in the coming years, I will revisit it. It's just too powerful not to be drawn back to. I already miss it.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

I hadn’t really been looking forward to Main Street, having read Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry a few years ago and not particularly caring for it. I’ve been puttering around with Main Street since January. It’s one of those that I would read a few chapters, put it down, then pick it up a gain a few weeks later. Though I liked it enough throughout, I was disinterested. That is until the last five or six chapters. At that point, for some reason, I came to really appreciate what Lewis was doing.

Main Street is the story of Carol Kennicott, a cosmopolitan dreamer in a small prairie town in Minnesota. Carol, who spent some time in the bigger cities of the Midwest as a librarian and progressive single woman, moved to Gopher Prairie with her husband, where he is a doctor. Carol had all these ideas that she was going to revitalize this small town, from introducing the women (and her husband) to the poetry of Swineburn and Tennyson, to tearing down all the buildings and starting over – Georgian architecture and a new fangled thing called City Planning.

City Planning: what I studied in college and what I have been employed in (in one way or another) since. Because most people who are reading this blog probably aren’t overly informed about the history of city planning (unless this is another strange coincidence, such as Robby Virus and I’s interest in space age lounge music)...I'll give some background. The time period in which the novel takes place (it was published in 1920) was really a golden age for the field. Some boring facts:
  • In 1901, the McMillan Commission was formed to update and complete the original plan for Washington D.C. – which included Union Station (opened in 1907) and the gorgeous, symbolic National Mall pretty much as it exists today (at the time, there was a railroad station in the middle). Union Station was designed by Daniel Burnham, and as a planner, I am required to tell you that Burnham said the following: "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will not themselves be realized." –If there really are planners reading this, they will know why that’s funny. (More on Carol & Washington D.C. later)

  • In 1901, New York implemented the New York State Tenement House Law, which led to the outlaw of the “Dumbbell Tenements” – those horrible things that produced the miserable conditions of the poor immigrants to NYC in the late 19th/early 20th century, as described by Jacob Riis and others. See some photos of Riis's here...very moving.

  • In 1916, the Nation’s first comprehensive zoning resolution was adopted by NYC

  • In 1917, an experimental cooperative agricultural colony was established in California (farm cooperatives are mentioned in Main Street…of course it's viewed it as socialism)

  • In 1917, Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. is elected the first president of the American City Planning Institute. I am a member of its descendent, the American Institute of Certified Planners.

All this stuff is going on behind the scenes and influencing Carol. It is mentioned that she is reading city planning magazines. This is a turbulent time for the things that Carol cares about: labor is organizing, women are organizing, movies are being made (Birth of a Nation is released in 1915). Freud and Jung are writing. These things aren’t discussed outright for the most part…nobody says, “Hey, did you read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?” or “Isn’t that something about Margaret Sanger?” but it’s all there.

The first half of Main Street focuses on Carol and her struggles with the town. When she tries to implement self-improvement for the poor, including employment assistance and life skills training, she is met with resistance – that’s charity, which is the job of the churches, and those lazy bums just need to get off their asses and work for a change. When Carol suggests mending the clothes they donate to the poor, she is told that the poor have more free time and should do their own mending...why should the richest wives in town waste their time doing that? She wants new buildings that take into account design, function, neighborhood character…not the haphazard development that had been occurring. She wants to start a theater group, but people are only interested in putting on stupid stuff…nothing high art that would add culture to the town.

I completely empathize with the early struggles of Carol Kennicott. She is my imaginary professional forerunner. The struggles that she has to get her reforms implemented (which never happens) – even to have them taken seriously – are struggles that I have today. “Why would we install sidewalks in this nice new townhouse development for the elderly, a block away from the grocery store? People don’t need sidewalks.” Instead they walk in the street and get run over by cars going 50 mph in a 25 mph speed zone. Ah, the countless hours I have spent trying to get municipal officials to see that zoning isn’t communism (or a way to bend the rules for your buddies while at the same time punish the newcomers), for example, or that it isn’t really a good idea to build in the floodplain. It makes me realize how much some types of people never change.

Carol oscillates between being the victim of Main Street, and kind of being an asshole. Sometimes she wants to accept Gopher Prairie for what it is, and sometimes she wants to tear it all down and start over. But I think that that was part of what made Carol come to life…she has dimensions…her feelings changed.

The second half of the book begins to focus in on the disintegrating relationship between Carol and her husband Will. Will wins Carol over in the beginning, and sells her on the idea of Gopher Prairie…charming, bucolic, pastoral, etc…and to be fair to Carol, he does say that he’ll take her there and they’ll turn the town into what it should be…into what the dreamers always wanted it to be. But when they get there, reality strikes. It takes Carol a half-hour to walk the entire area of the town, with “the grasping prairie on every side."It’s full of drab houses, gossipy women (and men), etc., and in many ways, Carol is laughed at. ("She wants to help the poor! Hahaha! Who ever thought of such a thing.") It doesn't help that he pretty much says it's all ugly and insinuates that the inhabitants are all uncultured, stupid lugs. It was probably true, though.

To be fair to the other inhabitants of Main Street, including Will, Carol is kind of pompous and pretentious sometimes. She comes in from St. Paul with the attitude of “I know what high art is…I’ve lived in the big city. I’ll teach you all about it.” The residents of Gopher Prairie want none of this. They’re happy with the way things are. They think Gopher Prairie is the best place in the world and are perfectly pleased with their own version of “culture.” This struggle is presented at the micro-level in the relationship between Carol and Will. Will, who really is a sweetheart for the most part (until he starts messing around with Maud Dyer), at first tolerates Carol’s opinions and efforts. He just sort of let her do her own thing. But over time, he comes to resent her and her desire to change things, including himself…and she comes to resent him in turn as well. He, and the rest of the town, don’t understand why Carol can’t just be satisfied. At one point, Will tells her, “That’s the whole trouble with you. You haven’t got enough work to do. If you had five kids and no hired girl, and had to help with the chores and separate the cream, like these farmers wives, then you wouldn’t be so discontented.”

But that’s not fair to Carol. I think that neither Will nor Carol knew what they were getting into when they married each other…they both seemed to have different ideas of who they were marrying. Carol, like many wives of her time, and for ages before and after, wanted to live what she called a more conscious life. She didn’t want to be satisfied with just more work. She wanted something more…something more than Gopher Prairie. If Will had been more understanding of where Carol was coming from, I don’t think it would have been so bad for her. But for the most part, she was all alone. Yes she was difficult, and pretentious and pompous, as I already said, but she did have a point. She was an idealist, but didn’t have the skills needed to get her ideals realized.

What Lewis does, however, is that he doesn’t really sympathize with Carol…he presents her as she is, and how she thinks that she is, but does the same for Will. What he wanted in a wife wasn’t what he got. Maybe that was his fault – I think that to a large extent it was. But Lewis shows both sides.

Anyway, Will’s indictment of his wife, along with some other factors, is the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back. Carol decides she’s had enough of Gopher Prairie, and decides to move with their young son to Washington D.C. – without Will. I was shocked by this. I was shocked not only by Carol’s courage to go off on her own – to live, with her son, in a city she never saw before. We’re talking 1917 or 1918 here. But I was also shocked that Lewis, a man obviously, was able to create such an amazing female character. She wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t “immoral” (by the standard of the times), like her somewhat-contemporary, Carrie from Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. She didn’t go to Washington to live the single life or anything like that. She went to assert her own freedom and independence.

I think that Lewis’s choice of Washington D.C. is an interesting one, and I wonder why he chose, or had Carol choose that over the more obvious NYC or Chicago. It allowed him to have her working for the war effort, but other than that, I am struck by the coincidence that Washington was the site of so many changes at the time, including planning-related. He gives no detail. But like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Washington during the early 20th century was a magnet for planners. It might be a surprise to some that the National Mall didn’t always exist as it does today. Pierre L’Enfant designed it in that way, or in a similar way, but it didn’t get implemented on a grand scale until the early 1900s. When Carol was there, the Lincoln Memorial was just being built (it was finished in 1922), and there was a railroad station in the middle of the Mall (see the photo below - Smithsonian is the domed building on the right).

Union Station was pretty new…maybe about a decade old. I just find it really intriguing that Lewis decided to plop Carol down in the middle of this…the center of the free world, so to speak, instead of the more obvious choices. I think that it underscores what I was saying at the beginning…that all these important things are going on around Carol and having an influence on her. Lewis puts her right in the middle of the action.

In Washington, Carol works in an office, meets a lot of interesting women – and men also – but mostly women. Suffragettes among them. She meets the type of women Carol would have been if she hadn’t gone to Gopher Prairie with Will. She has a good time.

And I have to give props to Will here too, who let her go. Maybe he was trying to avoid a scandal by seeming to bless her leaving, but he does so nonetheless. He came to visit, and tried in his own way to sell her on Gopher Prairie (- Carol notices that he’s trying in the same way that he convinced her about GP in the first place). But he says that he didn’t come to bring her back, and he doesn’t. She ends up staying in Washington for a year and a half. In the end, she decides to return to Minnesota. Not, surprisingly, because she’s pregnant again. Not because it’s time to go home and be the happy wife Will always wanted. But because her active hate for the town had subsided. She needed to get away long enough to be able to appreciate it for what it was. She remarks when she returns that people care about her…they greet her when they see she has come home…they are interested (to an extent) in her travels, etc. And she realizes that it would never be like that in Washington. She has come to appreciate Gopher Prairie for what it is…she can accept the people and the town, but she can now do so without stifling herself…without giving up herself. She can finally call Gopher Prairie home.

One of my favorite characters in the novel was Erik Valborg. Oh my, was he gay. It's never stated explicitly, but you know what's going on, and you know that's what the people in Gopher's Praire are thinking. He's called a "fairy" and much to do was made about his impecible clothes, the way he talked, how he mentioned to someone that he wanted to design women's clothes (he's a tailor), etc. Everytime he would show up, I kept picturing Christian, the winner of last year's Project Runway, in clothes from 1910. I can hear him saying, "O Carol, you are so FIERCE." You know, something like this:












OR










("Why hello there! Don't you look fierce!")

I know, I know...he ends up sort of having an affair with Carol, but I don't care. He was gay gay gay (in Nathan Lane Birdcage voice). Here's the deal with their "affair": Carol pays attention to him, listens to his dreams of being a fashion designer and encourages him. Over time, she comes to realize she's in love with Erik...or maybe she is in love with the idea of being in love? He expresses interest in her...even writing her a very bad poem. But in the end, he runs away to pursue his dreams...nothing ever really happened between them. Erik eventually becomes an actor.

Sinclair Lewis was kind of an interesting chap. One drunken evening Lewis declared himself, “the best goddam writer in this here goddam country.” He wrote about the America that he knew…and it wasn’t perfect. He got a lot of slack for that. But Lewis didn’t see himself in that narrow way…that he was putting down America by writing his satires…his stories that show the black eyes and warts, in addition to the idealism and passion. He considered himself a fanatic American…desiring to push us to realize our potential. Main Street caused a sensation because of his true-to-life depiction of small towns…and most people don’t like to see true-to-life depictions of themselves. The critic Ludwig Lewisohn wrote that “Perhaps no novel since Uncle Tom’s Cabin had struck so deep over so wide a surface of the national life.” It caused a mini-sensation. His obit in Time said he “he hit the U.S. hard in its solar plexus, immortalized a national character.” I imagine they didn’t think he immortalized it in a good way.

Here is Lewis’s career in a nutshell: He writes five “forgettable and forgotten” novels. Then he writes Main Street. H.L. Mencken wrote of it, “That idiot has written a masterpiece.” Then Lewis wrote four other best sellers, each worse than the previous one. Then he wrote more forgettable and forgotten stuff. Summary: his “productivity clearly outlasted his talent.”

Despite a number of semi-important novels, he has been consistently dismissed by the literary community. Rebecca West, E.M. Forster and Mecklen were all supporters, but almost everyone else thought he was a hack. Then, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature– the first American to do so. At the time, Lewisohn wrote, “something very like a groan went up” about it. They felt that Lewis only won the prize because he didn’t portray America as this shining example in the world. He showed it as it really was (or is). People felt that this fed into the European stereotype of America as vulgar, materialistic, and hypocritical. You know, what Europe still thinks of us. Hemingway said the only good thing about Lewis getting the Prize was that it meant that Theodore Dreiser didn’t, though I doubt that had anything to do with Hemingway believing that Lewis unfairly portrayed the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Lewis addressed the comments of his detractors when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1930. He said, “In America most of us are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American…To be not only a best seller in America but to be really beloved, a novelist must assert that all American men are tall, handsome, rich, honest, and powerful at golf; that all country towns are filled with neighbors who do nothing from day to day save go about being kind to one another; that although American girls may be wild, they change always into perfect wives and mothers; and that, geographically, America is composed solely of New York, which is inhabited entirely by millionaires; of the West, which keeps unchanged all the boisterous heroism of 1870; and of the South, where everyone lives on a plantation perpetually glossy with moonlight and scented with magnolias…that, in fine, America has gone through the revolutionary change from rustic colony to world empire without having in the least altered the bucolic and Puritanic simplicity of Uncle Sam.” Again, this strikes of the patriotism test going on today in American politics.

More funny Lewis and Nobel Prize anecdotes: when Lewis got the phone call that he had won, he thought it was a joke. When he was finally convinced that it wasn’t, he called his wife to tell her. "What's the matter?" "Dorothy, I've got the Nobel prize!" "Oh, have you ... How nice for you! Well, I have the Order of the Garter!"


I think that I mentioned this when I was posting about Willa Cather, but I am amazed to look at the time period here and compare what Lewis is writing about, what Cather is writing about, and what is going on with other American writers, particularly those hanging out in Paris. This is the time when Stein, Fitzgerald, Hemingway are writing as well. It’s amazing to look at these two groups of authors and see how different they were. It’s like they were writing about completely different worlds…Lewis, Cather and others telling the story of the American heartland…pioneer stories, with the ex-pats giving us something different entirely. Fitzgerald was an early admirer of Lewis…he even wrote him a fan letter. Many would probably argue that those based in Paris at the time were probably better writers. Obviously Main Street doesn’t hold a candle to The Great Gatsby, which I think is the best American book of the 20th century, but Lewis’s first wife Grace brings up a very good point about the Fitzgerald and his fellow writers: “Were the 1920s really the Jazz Age except for a few? Most Americans at that time lived more like Sinclair Lewis’s characters.” Lewis exists in a place between the Victorians and the Moderns…between the world of writers such as Edith Wharton and her friend Henry James and the world of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, and those to come after.

But Lewis didn’t feel animosity towards them…I think he recognized his place as a transitory spot between these two literary worlds. “I have, for the future of American literature, every hope and every eager belief. We are coming out, I believe, of the stuffiness of safe, sane, and incredibly dull provincialism. There are young Americans today who are doing such passionate and authentic work that it makes me sick to see that I am a little too old to be one of them.” He goes on to mention Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, and William Faulkner, and says of them all (this is great), “Most of them a little insane in the tradition of James Joyce, who, however insane they may be, have refused to be genteel and traditional and dull. I salute them, with a joy in being not yet too far removed from their determination to give to the America that has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost far cabins, billions of money and tons of faith, to an America that is as strange as Russia and as complex as China, a literature worthy of her vastness.”


Time, in Lewis’s obituary, wrote that he “was not a great writer, nor even a good one.” The whole obit is a horrendously mean (IMO) stab at a decent American writer. His official biographer wrote that “he was one of the worst writers in modern American literature.” Ouch. As I said in the beginning, I was disappointed in Elmer Gantry a few years ago, and I feared that Main Street would be a mix of that and Winesburg, Ohio, which bored me to death. In reality, it turned out much more like The Magnificent Ambersons, another great but pretty much forgotten classic of yesteryear. Main Street was completely different than I expected. I appreciated it…I appreciated Carol and the voice that Lewis gave to his female character at a time when male authors didn’t bother much with females…especially ones like Carol. It’s not a perfect book…it’s not the best book ever written…not by a long shot. But I liked it, and I will pay it a complement I haven’t been paying many novels on the Modern Library’s Top 100 of the 20th Century lately…I understand why it’s on the list, and I agree.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Motherless Brooklyn

This was a great book, especially coming off Ulysses. It was another book club selection...my favorite so far, besides The Road, which will be hard to top.

Jonathan Lethem takes the basic plot of every hard-boiled detective novel ever written (it reminded me most of The Maltese Falcon, but maybe because I'm really familiar with it) and turns it on its head: Lionel Essrog, the main character, a "detective" for an agency run by his friend and mentor Frank, has Tourettes. Frank is killed in the opening of the novel, and it is up to Lionel to track down the killer...a mysterious Polish giant. The trail takes him to discover mob bosses (sort of), cops out of their league, Japanese businessmen, crazy Zen practitioners, etc. But no matter how 'ordinary' the detective story, no matter how much Lionel is set up by the frame of the narrative to be Bogart, he simply cannot be Bogart because of the Tourettes. There's a scene where he's gun to gun with Frank's widow. She's saying all the typical femme fatale stuff. But he can't help himself to shout EATMEBAILY! When he throws his gun into the ocean, he can't just do that. He has a compulsion to throw four more things in as well, including a shoe (because he ran out of other things to throw).

Was it perfect? No. Some of the dialogue was stiff at times and I really could have used a map of Brooklyn, but it was a good story, with unforgetable characters, and a unique twist on an old genre. I think that Salon.com's review sums up what is special about this novel: "[Lethem's] given us something that is at once less derivative and more traditional: a detective story that transcends its pulp roots not by adopting high-art pretensions but by bringing to the genre an originality and an idiosyncratic sympathy that few other writers could muster." There was a long discussion at book club about Tourettes, about how Lethem decided to create Lionel with that disorder, as opposed to any other, and I found a great article about Tourettes, and Lethem here, if you're interested. I am definately looking forward to rearding more by this author.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I Survived Ulysses and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

Ah, what to say about Ulysses...

Since I can't come up with anything immediately, I'll let some important people have their say first:

"It's a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel; & until the raw ingredients of a pudding make a pudding, I shall never believe that the raw material of sensation & though can make a work of art without the cook's intervening...the same applies to Eliot." - Edith Wharton

"Never did I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th - merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges" - Virginia Woolf. She also wrote that Ulysses was "an illiterate, underbred book ... the book of a self taught working man." She later admitted that despite that, it is clearly important.

"He's is a good writer...People like him because he is incomprehensible and anybody can understand him" - Gertrude Stein, who did not have any love for Joyce. As Hemingway says in A Moveable Feast, if you mentioned his name twice at her house, you would not be invited back.


"A heap of dung, crawling with worms, photographed by a cinema apparatus through a microscope—such is Joyce's work." - Karl Radek. I don't know who he is, but I like what he said.

"Few other people have been interested in this book, where the reader, cutting through a boundless forest of words, would find nothing but worthless trifles and erratic images. Who but persons with an excess of fat would need such a book?" - Zhou Libo - I don't know who he is either...but in VH1-reality-show-train-wreck fashion, he roundabout-ly calls anyone who likes Ulysses fat. Yeah - take that!

Ok, ok...there were a lot people that said good things about it too, like Hemingway, Pound, Eliot, Carl Jung (though he became convinced that Joyce was schizophrenic after reading it), etc. There was this one guy named More who didn't like Ulysses. He was asked if he had read T.S. Eliot's defense of it. More said that he hadn't. When told that Eliot argued that Ulysses is a work of the highest importance, he responded: "That young man has a screw loose somewhere!" Even Joyce's wife called his writing "chop suey" and asked why he didn't write "sensible books that people can understand."

Here's the plot of Ulysses: Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom wander around Dublin, first separately, then together, on June 16, 1904. Yup - the greatest novel of the 20th century (my ass), almost 800 pages - and that's it. Ok, moving on...

Seriously, though, I could write here about what I didn't like about Ulysses, but most people who have read this novel have already done that for me. But to summarize: dense, confusing, obtuse, WTF?, cannot comprehend, must be too stupid, etc. etc. I don't feel there is any sense rehashing any of it. Probably even those of you who haven't read it know what I'm talking about.

Looking at Joyce the man and the history of Ulysses is (to me) much more interesting than discussing the bad points of the novel. Joyce was afraid of dogs and thunderstorms. He began Ulysses in 1914, 2 years after his last (and final) visit to Ireland...he created the whole thing from memory and by consulting with friends and directories. While Joyce was a teacher in Italy, one of his students was Italo Svevo, who would go on to write Zeno's Conscience. It is Ezra Pound who should be thanked (or stoned) for the publication of Ulysses. Joyce set Ulysses on 6/16/1904 to commemorate his first date with his wife, Norah. I've considered this a lot over the three months it took me to read this book...would I want someone to write a book like Ulysses to commemorate their first date with me (that turns out to be the "Greatest novel of the 20th century" even though nobody knows what the hell it means)? Or would I rather have some nice jewelry? I'm not really sure. I suppose if said book rakes in a lot of money, I could buy a lot more jewelry...but I digress...

But what is really interesting to me is the obscenity thing. My understanding of the situation: the novel was serialized in an American magazine. After the publication of a certain chapter, it was banned for obscenity. A few years later, with dollar signs in their eyes, Random House decided it wanted to publish Ulysses in America. So, they essentially staged the obscenity trial. They wanted it to go before a certain judge in NY, because they knew he would rule in favor of it. They also wanted to include the opinions of respected artists and writers about Ulysses...problem was, at that time you could only use what was in the book for evidence. So, they sent a guy to Europe to buy the book, paste the articles in it they wanted to include for evidence, and return to America. The day his ship arrived was blazing hot, and customs was letting everyone through, no questions asked. The guy with the book insisted that they open his luggage, and then insisted that it be seized. They got the judge they wanted, and he of course said it wasn't obscene because nowhere in it was the "leer of the sensualist" present...Joyce didn't include his rude schoolboy pornography (as per Wharton) to titillate, but to simply tell the story of what someone does in the course of a day.

Joyce has said that he wanted "the ideal reader with the ideal insomnia," and that his readers should "devote his whole life to reading [his] works." Well, I have insomnia sometimes, but I have come to terms with the fact that I'm not cut out to be Joyce's ideal reader. I can't/won't even devote my life to Kerouac's writing...and I cannot imagine doing so for anyone else - especially not if it included Ulysses. (Though I might be forced to take Joyce over Henry James.)

The jury is still out for me on my overall, final opinion on Ulysses. After finishing Don Quixote (the last BIG GREAT book I read) last year, I was ambivalent as well...a few months later I "got it." But there was a difference: I didn't have to force myself through DQ. Yeah, I get that Ulysses is important, if for nothing else it's ambition. Clearly Joyce was a very talented writer to be able to pull off something here...even if I'm not sure what it is that he pulled off. There were funny parts. There were lewd parts. There were even parts where I understood what was happening. But I could say that about a lot of books.

I have a theory that you have to be Irish to appreciate Ulysses. Kind of like I really like Faust, sauerkraut, efficiency, and German beer because I'm German. Despite what my husband's last name (a McL-), and consequently mine, might lead you to believe, I'm German to the core - old, Protestant farmer German on pretty much every known branch. The obvious solution to this might be to have my husband read it and see if he likes it. But Shawn wouldn't get it either, though - I suspect his ancestors were Ulster Scots (aka Scotch-Irish)...not "Irish." (But don't remind him of that! He prefers green to tartan if you know what I mean.) If it's not an Irish thing, it must be what I have long suspected: that nobody really gets it...people just go on about how great it is because they didn't get it, so they are either stupid or it's a great book, so they choose the lesser of the evil. Or maybe I'm just too stupid to get it, so in order to still feel half-intelligent, I assume that everyone who says they like it must be pretending to get it...because these people can't be smarter than me. Maybe Joyce has played a grand joke on all of us for the last 90 years or so. After all, he did say, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." I don't know what to think. But then again, that's generally how Ulysses made me feel...confused.

It was a good feeling to be able to put that book back on my shelf. It went on the shelf instead of in the abandoned books pile because maybe someday, someone will walk into my 'library' and I can point at Ulysses and say, I read that, and that person will be impressed. I'm afraid, however, of its status there...I'm afraid that one day I might pick it up and think, "Maybe I'll try it again... they say the more you read it..." Listen, Readers of Kristin's Blog: I am holding you responsible. If I ever write on this blog, "I am going to read Ulysses again," please stop me.

Ulysses is important: for its influence, for its ambition, for setting the bar so high on what you can do in a novel. I will conceded that. Joyce is obviously talented...maybe a genius. But I didn't get it. Don't expect me to say this type of thing again: if you understand Ulysses, you're smarter than I am.

For (another) great review of Ulysses please check out Doug Shaw's page.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Pit and the Pendulum

I was never really into Edgar Allen Poe. This fact has always perplexed me, because I do really like dark, gothic stuff, and nobody is better known for that than him. We had to read a fair number of his short stories in high school, including "The Pit and the Pendulum." A few years ago I read "The Fall of the House of Usher," and was completely underwhelmed. I would like to care more about Poe, but I just don't.

All I remeber of having read this in high school was the following: (1) It was about this guy locked in a dungeon and his tied down and there is a pendulum suspended from the ceiling and it's coming towards him and will soon split him in half; (2) I was ambivalent about it; and (3) Miss Bernheisel told us the story demonstrated "suspension of disbelief." Meaning - you're reading the story and are so engrossed that you take this guy's story as truth, but afterwards you're supposed to wonder if any of it really happened. Was he just delerious?

Bearing those things in mind, I decided to read the story again (and guess what - it's on a list...go figure). I was right about the plot, but I forgot many of the details - that this whole torture chamber is set up to kill the guy one way or another. First, there's a pit in the middle of the dungeon. Then they tie him up and try to kill him with the pendulum. When he outsmarts them there, they make the walls hot and move them (like in the garbage disposal scene in Star Wars) to try to get the guy to fall into the pit. And then, in the end, rescue! I'm still ambivalent about it. But I did think about Miss Bernheisel's statements...and I think she might have been right. I was also struck by the way in which the Inquisitors had designed this whole room to kill the man without having to bother doing it themselves. It reminded me of the torture chamber in The Phantom of the Opera (the book, not the musical/movie), in which Raoul and The Persian (also left out of the musical) find themselves as they pursue the Phantom and Christine. I don't know if LeRoux would have read or been influenced by Poe's story. The wikipedia article was no help :-)

Overall, it was a half-decent story to read on an October afternoon, but as I had suspected: really not that great.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The End of Ulysses

I came across this article in the NY Times book-related blog, Papercuts. It got me thinking what music I would give to my favorite authors. What music would I recommend to James Joyce? That's when I had my epiphany. I suddenly realized what reading Ulysses is like: trying to figure out the "meaning" of R.E.M. lyrics. Sometimes, you think you get what Michael Stipe is talking about, but then you realize you have no idea. Sometimes it appears that there is meaning to the song...or maybe there is no meaning, and R.E.M. is playing a huge joke on anyone who tries to find the meaning. Reading Ulysses is TOTALLY like reading the lyrics to "It's the End of the World As We Know It..."

"That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane and Lenny Bruce is not afraid/ Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn - world serves its own needs, dummy serve your own needs /Feed it off an aux speak, grunt, no, strength, Ladder start to clatter with fear fight down height /Wire in a fire, representing seven games, a government for hire and a combat site / Left of west and coming in a hurry with the furies breathing down your neck. "

Yeah. That pretty much sums up Ulysses. Which I have now officilly finished.

Modern Library List According to the Authors

I came across this post today at slate.com (it's a few years old...ok, a decade). It's set up as a listserv between dead authors responding to the Modern Library's Top 100 list. Whoever put it together is a genius. The first post is by Edith Wharton to Henry James:

Saw Wings of the Dove last evening and was very impressed. So that was what it was about! Your writing has no bigger fan than EW, but I must admit to finding some of the later novels a bit, shall we say, murky...Is it true they're giving the Merchant-Ivory treatent to your Golden Bowl? Can't say I ever made it quite to the end of that one either.

Have you looked over the Modern Library list yet?...Ulysses, alas, is No. 1. Have you driven into this fog? It's a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) and uninformed and unimportant drivel. The ingredients of soup do not make soup without the cook's intervention. The same goes for Mr. Kerouac.
Just reading that, I didn't get where they were going with this. Then, they have Henry James response, and about three sentences into it, I thought...this doesn't make sense. Then I realized - oh...it's supposed to be Henry James writing! I get it!

...It is unlikely to fail to play upon the suspicions of such a one that the composition of his most esteemed should be that most lately converted into a wan cinematic confection of fretsome abbreviation. Neither, however, could a figure such as he neglect the obersvation that the personage with whom the former is now abstractly in conversation...

Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Woolf and Kerouac all take their turn at commenting, and for the most part, the voice is true to form. It's exaggerated of course - I noticed this most in the Kerouac part - but it is a humorous take on the list.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Ulysses Resources

For those of you who might be thinking of reading Ulysses, here are some resources I found helpful:

Comparing Ulysses to The Odyssey
Images corresponding to the story, such as places, people, etc.
This website has it all

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

Saw this for the first time yesterday. Almost 90 years since its original release, this film is still scarry - and there is no bells and whistles like there is today; no blood and gore. Do movies get any creepier?





Could they have made him any more sinister?








Absolutely terrifying when Cesare opens his eyes.



















Just this screenshot gives me the chills.

A Moveable Feast

A Moveable Feast is Hemingways memoirs of his early-mid 1920s Paris days. Like most memoirs, it might not be entirely truthful, and there is evidence that between Hemingway's posturing of himself as the quintessential male and the editing of his fourth wife, the tale is not necessarily non-fiction. Whatever - I don't care. It was extremely entertaining nonetheless - and one of the best books I've read all year.

I love stories about authors...their habits, lives, friendships, rivalries, etc. I turned down almost ever other page in some chapters for their insight into the lives of Hemingway's friends: Stein, Joyce, and Fitzgerald in particular. A Moveable Feast is full of funny anectodes that made me laugh out loud. Stein wouldn't invite you back to her house if you praised James Joyce more than once. Hemingway called Katherine Mansfield "near-beer" compared to Chekov. He always held his breath whenever Ford Maddox Ford came around - I suspect because he smelled bad. There is a long episode in which Hemingway and Fitzgerald go on a trip together to pick up a car. On the way home, Fitzgerald doesn't feel well and becomes convinced that he is dying. You can just hear the frustration that Heminway felt about this, Fitzgerald lying in bed telling him to take care of Zelda, demanding a thermometer, etc. And then we come to Fitzgerald's...ah, yeah - his size issue. Apparently, Fitzgerald had his eye on some girl, but something Zelda had once told him held him back from pursuing her. Essentially, she told him his penis was too small. Fitzgerald was so self-conscious about this, Ernest had to (I'm giggling just writing this - it is too funny) check it out in the bathroom of the cafe to reassure Fitzgerald. He told Fitzgerald it was fine, that women say that to keep men in check, that it was the size it grows to that matters, and that they could go look at the statues at the Louve if it made Scott feel better. Yeah - TMI but REALLY funny.

Gertrude Stein's influence is very clear in Papa Hemingway's style in A Moveable Feast. It reminded me very much of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and not just in the subject matter. I liked The Autobiography plenty, but this was better...if just for the Fitzgerald penis episode. How many books can have THAT in it? Sure, alot of it is mean-spirited, but mean-spirited can be fun to watch - as in my continued fascination with Megan from all those VH1 shows, including the insanely awesome-looking upcoming Charm School II. I've had a love-hate relationship with Hemingway over the years, but A Moveable Feast was FABULOUS!