Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Year in Review - Books

I read a lot more this year than I thought I would, given that the first 2/3 of the year I was pregnant and not feeling well, and then the last 1/3 I have been taking care of an infant. But I wouldn't say, as I did last year, that it was a good reading year. I read some books that I really did enjoy (marked with a *), and I found some new (for me) authors that I really liked - particularly Douglas Adams and EL Doctorow. But it took me until March or April to get to a book that I really liked. 2009 seems to have been a year of books that I am still indifferent about.

In 2010, I hope to finally finish the Modern Library's Top 100 of the 20th Century - that will be a big accomplishment, considering I've been "actively" working the list since 2005. I also hopefully will FINALLY get to some books that have been at the top of my TBR pile for a few years: In Cold Blood, The Shipping News, and maybe even Possession. We'll see though - the focus will be getting through the ML list, and with such tomes as Parade's End, Studs Lonigan and Finnegan's Wake still to go, it may be a struggle.

Here's the Read in '09 list:

  1. A Room with a View - EM Forster
  2. American Psycho - Bret Easton Ellis
  3. Empty Phantoms - Interviews with Jack Kerouac
  4. Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
  5. Fight Club - Chuck Palahnuik
  6. Fatelessness - Imre Kertesz
  7. Amok - Stefan Zweig
  8. Time's Arrow -Martin Amis
  9. Closely Watched Trains - Bohumil Hrabal
  10. The Rainbow - DH Lawrence
  11. Justine - Lawrence Durrell
  12. The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler*
  13. Atonement - Ian McEwan*
  14. Henderson the Rain King - Saul Bellow
  15. Ragtime - EL Doctorow*
  16. High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes
  17. A Dance to the Music of Time (4th Movement) - Anthony Powell*
  18. A Handful of Dust - Evelyn Waugh
  19. Golden Bowl - Henry James
  20. Pale Fire - Vladimir Nabokov*
  21. Balthasar - Lawrence Durrell
  22. And Then We Came to the End - Joshua Ferris*
  23. Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
  24. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
  25. Chocky - John Wyndham
  26. The 39 Steps - John Buchan
  27. King Lear - William Shakespeare
  28. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams*
  29. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer*
  30. The Naked and the Dead - Norman Mailer
  31. Life of Pi - Yann Martel
  32. Under the Net - Iris Murdoch
  33. Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
  34. Winnie-the-Pooh - AA Milne
  35. 1919 - John Dos Passos
  36. Zuelika Dobson - Max Beerbohm
  37. No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy*
  38. Pippi Longstocking - Astrid Lindgren
  39. The Ginger Man - J.P. Donleavy

2009 Year in Review - Movies

I didn't watch as many movies as I did last year. Once again, this is mostly due to pregnancy and then the arrival of Brendan in August. But I did ok considering. Favorites are underlined/bolded.
  1. Le Cercle Rouge
  2. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (I LOVED this! Definately the best I watched all year)
  3. Soylent Green (not bad for a Charlton Heston film)
  4. Thumbsucker
  5. Double Life of Veronique (A movie I really wanted to love, but it just left me cold)
  6. Meatballs
  7. Divine Horsemen
  8. Fateless
  9. Atonement
  10. Slum Dog Millionaire
  11. Three Penny Opera (I was pretty disappointed in this one)
  12. Wonderful/Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl (Did she support the Nazis or not? Was Triumph of the Will a propaganda film, or a documentary? I still don't know.)
  13. The Big Sleep
  14. Return to Oz
  15. Cabaret
  16. Clash of the Titans (Can't wait for 2010's remake of this starring Ralph Fiennes)
  17. Appaloosa (I know I watched this, but honestly, I can't remember a thing about it)
  18. L'Avventura (Didn't really get it when I watched it, but appreciate it more after reading Ebert's review)
  19. Frozen River
  20. Battleship Potemkin
  21. The Public Enemy (1931 version with James Cagney, not Johnny Depp)
  22. Monkey Business (I enjoyed Duck Soup to this, but it was classic Marx Brothers nonetheless...and I love me some Marx Bros.)
  23. The Trouble With Harry
  24. Incident at Oglala (Should my "neighbor" Leonard Peltier really be in prison? Probably not.)
  25. Rear Window (After years of only seeing parts of this film, I finally saw the whole thing)
  26. Gran Torino (Terribly disturbing)
  27. The Fire Within
  28. Iris
  29. Stranger Than Fiction (No matter how many films I see her in, I cannot conceive of Maggie Gyllenhall as a romatic lead at all, but this movie was cute anyway)
  30. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (I think this has been called "celluloid excrement," and I can't say that I disagree)
  31. No Country for Old Men

The Ginger Man

I cannot say that I went into reading this book with an open mind. I was expecting not to like it. That expectation was largely based on Doug Shaw's review. And guess what - once again he was right.

Doug sums up the plot of The Ginger Man so succinctly, I will just let him tell it to you:

Okay, okay, quiet down now, I got a joke for you. Stop me if you've heard this one: ...[Sebastian Dangerfield] walks into a bar, right? Gets blind drunk, smashes up some things, goes home, and pawns his woman's stuff to get more money to buy booze. Wait, it gets better. She gets mad, he smacks her, and she leaves eventually. He pawns the rest of her stuff, gets drunk, and finds another woman who has sex with him and falls in love with him...

Wait, it gets better... after this new woman falls in love with him, this guy walks into a bar. Gets blind drunk, smashes up some things, goes home, and pawns this new woman's stuff to get more money to buy booze. She gets mad, he smacks her, and she leaves eventually...

That plot synopsis I just gave you is the entire story of The Ginger Man. That one theme, over and over. And over.

The Nation says that this novel is "a comic masterpiece." The New Yorker called it "a triumph of comic writing." Let me give you some quotes here, and you tell me if you think this is comedic:

[Sebastian] took the child's pillow from under its head and pressed it hard on the screaming mouth.

"I'll kill it, God damn it, I'll kill it, if it doesn't shut up."


[Sebastian's wife]: "That we've been starving. That the baby has rickets. And because you're drinking every penny we get. And this house too and that you slapped and punched me when I was pregnant, threw me out of bed and pushed me down the stairs. That we're in debt, owe hundreds of pounds, the whole loathsome truth."

...He slowly reached out and took the shade off the lamp. He placed it on his little table.

"Are you going to shut up?"


He took the lamp by the neck and smashed it to pieces on the wall.

"Now shut up."


[Sebastian:] "Well god damn it, another word out of you and I'll bat you in the bloody face..."...Sebastian's arm whistled through the air. The flat of his palm cracked against the side of her face and Mary sat stunned. He slapped her again. "I'm going to kick the living shit out of you. Do you hear me?"

That's hillarious, isn't it? Jay McInerney - whose book Big City, Bright Lights is on my TBR pile, calls Dangerfield thoroughly charming. Yeah - Dangerfield seems like the type of person you'd really enjoy knowing, doesn't it? I'm not sure on what planet someone would find Dangerfield charming, but it isn't on the planet I live on (or would want to live on).

I don't know that I've run across another literary character that I so thoroughly detested. At first I debated who I disliked more - Sebastian Dangerfield or Rabbit Angstrom. But Dangerfield wins hands down. At least Rabbit, Run wasn't supposed to be funny.

I'll be frank here, as this is pretty much all that I have to say about this novel (which is a waste of paper, if you asked me). Sebastian Dangerfield is an Asshole - with a capital A. A story about an abusive guy who takes all his money (and his wife's money, and his girlfriend's money, and his friend's money, etc.) to get drunk and schmooze women, while his wife and infant daughter virtually starve in a house that is literally falling down is not funny. In fact, I find it incredibly disturbing that anyone would think this is funny, or that such a character is "charming." And if you are someone who thinks this character is charming, or sympathetic, or funny, I'll venture to guess that you're probably an Asshole - with a capital A - too. So there.

Please don't construe this as a softening of any anti-Henry James-ness, but I think that I would rather reread The Ambassadors than have to encounter Sebastian Dangerfield ever again. The only use for my copy of this novel is to give it to Brendan to fart on.

Monday, December 28, 2009


1984 is personal. My reaction to it was purely personal. Obviously I know and understand its links and parallels with the USSR, but I didn't care about any of that. To quote from my 2006 journal entry about this novel:

1984 bothers me....I don’t give a shit about big brother, loss of privacy, the ability to or possibility of altering the past, the social commentary, its relevance to today, etc. I don’t care. What bothers me is the story about Julia.

I was deeply disturbed by the love story here. DEEPLY disturbed. And it all centered around this:

"...Confession is not betrayal. What you say or do doesn't matter: only feelings matter. If they could make me stop loving you - that would be the real betrayal."

I wrote extensively about this in my journal at the time. I read 1984 when I was dating Shawn - about a year and a half into our relationship. Everything was still fairly new, and we were still in the lovey-dovey stage. And I completely felt Winston in this instance - he and Julia know they will be tortured, and that they will give the other up. But no matter what, they would still love each other. That feeling would still be there.

And then there is Room 101 and the rats. And Winston really does betray her, in his own definition of the word. He tells O'Brien - do it to her, not to me. His own self-preservation instinct is stronger than his feelings for Julia. And Julia did the same thing. This FLOORED me. It had me questioning everything: would I do the same thing? Would Shawn? And what did that mean? I was bewildered and confused for days.

I continued in my journal:

...After Winston is arrested and begins to be tortured, all I wondered about was Julia – was she constantly on his mind, there with him, etc. Because I would like to imagine that I would feel him there with me. But then I think about those tortures – being kicked in the back where my discs are bad, or to be beaten, shocked, and it's frightening because maybe it would be so bad that I wouldn’t think or feel anything but my own pain. It’s frightening that someone could take him away from me in that manner. Then there was the scene when they shock his brain to convince him of things, and I became afraid of someone who would remove him from my brain in such a way to make me forget that I love him. But then in the end, with the rats, when he tells them to do it to Julia instead...That was the betrayal – he thought of himself to her detriment. What bothers me is that someone else can force you to that point, and you can believe all you want that it won’t or couldn’t happen, but it can. Until just now, I thought that what bothered me was that someone else could do that to me – someone else could force me to betray him but when I was just writing that, I realized that someone could do that to him as well – he could betray me in the same way, and suddenly, I’m not sure which is more disturbing.
I read a lot, but it's rare when a book truly elicits a reaction, or that really moves me. I'm not talking about feelings of frustration, boredom, and general anger at a book or author (*cough cough* Henry James *cough cough*). I'm not talking about being engrossed in the plot. I'm talking about something that stays with you, and that when I recall it, it brings that emotion back up. I can really enjoy a book: its plot, its language or style, etc., but it's those that are not only reading experiences but emotional experiences as well that I love. I get anxious just remembering my reaction to this novel, and that says a lot. I'm not sure that I could stomach reading it again, but I'm sure that I will some day. 1984 may not be my favorite book, but it certainly was able to bring forth really strong emotions. And THAT makes it a damn good book.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Pippi Longstocking

Last night I finished Pippi Longstocking. I had never read it before.

I mentioned this briefly here: as far as I can tell, Pippi Longstocking is the ONLY children's book included in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list (2008 edition - not included on 2006 list). This bothers me. If we are going to start included children's books on such a list, that is fine, but there are many others that would come to mind before Pippi Longstocking. What about Winnie-the-Pooh? Charlotte's Web? Even The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe isn't included. WHY ONLY PIPPI?

The editors of the 1,001 list revamped it in 2008 to address criticism that it was too Anglo-centric. So they took out all these classics of Western literature - Dickens, Faulkner, Austen, Woolf, and added all these non-Anglo texts to the list. (There isn't anything inherently wrong with that, but see my reasoning here, here and here for why the editors didn't go about it in the right way.) The only explanation I can come up with for the appearance of Pippi in that misguided reshuffle is that someone thought - we don't have enough Swedes on here! And put Pippi Longstocking on there to fill that gap (for those wondering, the 2008 ed. included nine books by Swedes; five of those nine were not included in the 2006 edition). With that logic, I can see why they left off all those other great children's books that I mentioned - because they are all written by British or American men, which clearly didn't fit their new model.

I know I should get so frustrated with a silly book list, but I take these things seriously. They chopped The Brothers Karamozov, The Sound and the Fury, and Pilgrim's Progress off the list, and added Pippi Longstocking. There is something very wrong with that. Not all baseball players deserve to be at Cooperstown, if you know what I mean, even if they are decent.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No Country For Old Men

I feel completely unqualified to write about this book. McCarthy always makes me feel this way. I just don’t ever know what to say. McCarthy is so singular that there are no comparisons to make.

I often want to call his prose “sparse,” but that word implies “less than what is necessary” which isn’t what I mean at all. It is only what is necessary – no less, but no more either. While I truly love the flourish of well written prose, McCarthy’s is as stripped down as it could possibly get. Even quotation marks are an unneeded extravagance. This writing style highlights the bleakness of his topics: apocalyptic disaster, absolute evil, etc. The horror speaks for itself – McCarthy doesn’t need a lot of words to convey it.

I won’t go into the plot details here, mostly because I don't feel like it, but also because the story is probably familiar to most. I am fascinated by two characters in this story: Moss and Chigurh. Moss: he thinks that HE is the “ultimate bad-ass”. He greatly overestimates his abilities in this department. He is no match for Chigurh – but then again nobody is, not even Wells. But here is Moss, repeatedly told not to try to outrun this thing, because it will not work. He will get you. But Moss is so caught up in himself. “I’m going to make you my special project” – he says something like that to Chigurh, and you just want to laugh at him. Yeah, ok Moss. He’s just so dumb in that respect.

I keep reflecting on Chigurh, and found a lot of insights about him in some research. He’s not a “character” in the traditional sense. He doesn’t have a personality. Characters change and react to their surroundings and the events that happen to them. Chigurh just IS. And he is simply not responsible for the deaths of the people he murdered. Fate has put these people in his way, and that wasn’t their doing. At some point, they made a choice which led THEM to HIM in a sense, not the other way around.

What more can I say? Again – McCarthy always leaves me speechless.

One woman who attended my local book club when I was participating said that she was disappointed in No Country for Old Men’s translation into feature film. She felt it didn’t do the book justice. I’m not sure I completely agree. Perhaps the film wasn’t great at showing that Chigurh isn’t just a bad guy. He is THE bad guy– a force of nature, destiny personified - conscienceless, ruled by fate, meting out some kind of divine justice. Maybe he is best described as beyond good and evil. It didn’t matter to him that he could have let Carla Jean go, just to be nice or whatever. Everyone involved had to die – just because they did. I only say that this might not have been conveyed in the right way due to Shawn’s reaction: “I don’t like the ending,” he said. “They didn’t get the bad guy. I hate it when the bad guy gets away.” I didn’t try to explain that you simply CANNOT get Chigurh. If you could, No Country would be just another chase story, no different from a number of other Tommy Lee Jones movies. Chigurh is beyond that. I don’t know that anything that said was much as included in the novel but not the movie, but I’m not sure that this all-important element came through. That’s probably why so many people were confused by the ending. They went to the cinema expecting to see a modern western staring Tommy Lee Jones, but they got something different.

The denouement, when seen through the lens of what the general viewing public may have expected from this film, was anticlimactic. But I believe that Bell is perhaps the central figure in this story. HE is the one that has a change, though perhaps that is simply because he’s the only one that doesn’t end up dead. In the beginning, we find the Sheriff realizing that he is confronting something that simply wasn’t when he got in the law enforcement business. I don't want to say "didn't exist," but just wasn't. He doesn’t understand this new thing, this new force. He doesn’t WANT to understand. He wants no part of that world. He thought at some point God would come into his life, but what he finds instead is Chigurh – who in a way is like some people’s conception of God. In the end, he has to opt out. Is the ending ambiguous? Yes. But perhaps less ambiguous than The Road with the fish… and the ties between those two novels, with the fire being carried forward, has been pointed out many times by people more qualified than me to discuss this.

I enjoyed this from the Scanners discussion forum (regarding the film, but applies to the novel as well):

Chigurh is by no means the focus of "No Country For Old Men" (it's more about the other characters' responses to his presence), but he bothers some people because they don't know who he is or what he represents. And that's just fine. Ask yourself, "What does he seek?" (in the words of his movie-killer antithesis, the cannibal psychologist Dr. Hannibal Lecter)... and where does that get you? He seeks $2 million in a leather satchel. As Joel Coen once said to me in an interview about "Barton Fink": "The question is: Where would it get you if something that's a little bit ambiguous in the movie is made clear? It doesn't get you anywhere." Sometimes, if certain questions don't appear to have an answer, maybe that's enough of an answer. Or maybe it's a superfluous question."

One (hopefully non-superfluous) question I do have to ask – and maybe it makes me look like a moron – but who the hell was Chigurh working for? Was he working for anyone? If any explanation was given, I missed it.

I really only started this book because I’m (1) not into The Big Money for some reason – I guess I needed a break after 1919 and have kind of given up for the time being; and (2) I am having a difficult time stomaching The Ginger Man. Watch for seething post on that coming up in a few weeks. McCarthy is always a nice break from the mundane. I can’t wait for Blood Meridian in 2010 (which will also eventually be made into a film).

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Zuleika Dobson

I had no preconceived notions of what Zuleika Dobson was going to be like. I didn’t even go into expecting it to be a comedy, because in my mind I kept getting it mixed up with Zlata’s Diary and therefore thought it might be about someone in Eastern Europe. But it actually has nothing to do with Eastern Europe. I kind of wish that it did, though. Roger Ebert’s words about a movie he REALLY didn’t like come to mind: It has to be seen to be believed, but I don’t recommend that.

What to say about this mess that is Zuleika Dobson?

I suppose I should lay out the plot here first. We have Zuleika Dobson, who is very beautiful and makes her living as a conjurer, putting on parlor tricks for rich people in Europe and America. (She’s “less than mediocre” at her profession, but I suppose she gets by on her looks.) At the beginning of the novel, she is coming to stay with her grandfather at Oxford.

Zuleika is notorious for not falling in love with anyone. That is until she sees the Duke of Dorset, a student at Oxford. He is notorious for the same thing. Of course, they fall in love, but only briefly. The day after they meet, Zuleika visits the Duke, but when she learns that he loves her, she isn’t interested anymore. Yeah, the whole thing lasted about 12 hours. The Duke is still smitten of course, and decides to kill himself for love of Zuleika. He tells her of his plan. She is excited that someone would do this for her.

The problem is that all of Oxford is in love with her apparently, and when word gets around that Dorset is going to kill himself for her, all the other males at Oxford decide to do the same.

How does Zuleika respond? Well, she must do something for all these young me who are going to throw themselves in the river for her. So she puts on her conjuring show. How kind of her! When the Duke is walking Zuleika back to her rooms after the show, he tells her that he wants to live, and asks her to release him from his promise to kill himself. Zuleika is disgusted by the suggestion.

And then we get to Chapter 11. Geesh, this book exhausts me.

The Duke has now decided not to kill himself over Zuleika. But then he gets a letter from home about two owls, and apparently that means that he is going to die. So he hasn’t prolonged his life any after all. He knows that no one will believe him if he says, “it’s silly for all of us to kill ourselves over this woman, but I’m going to die today anyway.” He walks around Oxford trying to talk people out of the mass suicide but without any success.

And then we get to this entire subplot, where his landlady’s daughter is in love with him. The morning that he is going to jump in the river, he confronts her about it, and she admits that she loves him. He tells her that he hates Zuleika, and gives Katie a pair of pearl earrings that Zuleika had given him as a trinket. He kisses Katie and then goes to kill himself. All the undergraduates kill themselves by jumping into the river and yelling “Zuleika!”

But it doesn't end there. There was one undergraduate that doesn’t kill himself, though he intended to: Noaks, who lived with Dorset. When Katie, after finding out that everybody has committed suicide, goes to ready Noaks’ and Dorset’s room for their families, she finds Noaks hiding behind a curtain. He doesn’t want anyone to know that he didn’t kill himself over Zuleika, because that would make him a coward. Katie tells him that she loves him, because he didn’t kill himself over Zuleika, who Katie hates because of the situation with Dorset. Noaks, pleased that somebody likes him (he’s kind of a dork) asks her to marry him – well, more like he gives her a ring and says now they are engaged. Before too long Zuleika shows up, and Noaks tries to make excuses to her why he isn’t dead like the rest of them. But now Zuleika loves him precisely because he is the only one left. Katie of course overhears all of this, throws Noaks ring at her, informs Zuleika that Noaks was just chicken and that she knows that Dorset didn’t kill himself over her. This kid Clarence (who I assume is Katie’s brother, though I’m not sure that we’re ever told that) goes to beat up Noaks, but Noaks jumps (or falls) out the window and dies.

Zuleika decides that she is going to enter a convent so that she can’t wreck havoc like that again, but at the last minute, terribly worried that everyone will find out that Dorset didn’t kill himself over her, decides to go to Cambridge, presumably so that she can do the same thing again.

Phew. That took a lot to recount, and it wasn’t a very long book.

Despite its attempts to be a comedy, I found Zuleika Dobson to be terribly unfunny. By Chapter 3 or so, I was wondering what the hell was this thing? Is Beerbohm being serious about this? I really didn’t get at first that he’s being facetious – that it’s supposed to be some sort of satire. If taken seriously, it reminds me of the melodramas I tried to write when I was 12 years old. That’s not a complement, in case you were wondering. This is TERRIBLE! I thought. How the [expletive] did this drivel end up on the Modern Library list? How could ANYONE possibly like this? But as I started to research other bloggers/online reviewers who read Zuleika, I find that they all had over-the-moon praise for it. Orrin, the reviewer at Brothers Judd said, “the revelation of this satirical baroque masterpiece justifies all the wretched dreck I’ve waded through on this list.” The reviewer at 70proof called it “wonderfully clever,” “genuinely funny and significant” and said that its verbosity “only adds to the pleasure.” WHAT???? I’m not entirely sure that I was reading the same novel as they were.

The New York Times, at least gets closer to my feelings. One article there states, “Beerbohm cannot approach real harshness. For a satirist he’s too congenial…The visciousness that makes Juvenal and Jonathan Swift great is beyond his modestly ironic touch.” Perhaps that is what is wrong with it…I don’t know. It feels like there was potential there, but something wasn’t right.

A new revelation has suddenly come to me. I have known girls like Zuleika, and they annoy the piss out of me. These are the girls that fawn over all the men – even ones they do not like – because they cannot stand to be in a room with someone of the opposite sex and not be the complete center of their attention. I had a roommate like this once. I know it comes from a place of insecurity, but it is annoying nonetheless. It’s frustrating when you can’t bring a boy home with you because you know your roommate will be clawing at him all night, and though I mean no disrespect to any males reading this blog, but most men are too stupid to realize what females like this are doing. I didn’t realize until now that perhaps the reason this book frustrated me so much was because Zuleika is TOTALLY like that roommate.

I could be snarky here. And trust me, I want to be. I feel almost compelled to be an ass about people who think this book is worthwhile (William Styron, one of the Modern Library list’s judges called it “a toothless pretender”). But it’s the Christmas season, so maybe I should try to be nice or something. So rather than blast those crazy reviewers who enjoyed this novel, I will leave you with a phrase my grandmother always says when someone enjoys something she doesn’t, and can’t understand why they like it because she thinks it’s stupid, but she wants to be nice: “It’s good we don’t all like the same things.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Holiday 2009 SLIFR Quiz

Ok - I may be REALLY out of my league here but I've been meaning to fill one of these out for a long time, and I finally did it! Yay for me!


1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.

2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible?
The Wizard of Oz

3) Japan or France?

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
I know they may take away my American card for this, but I don’t like westerns.

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
Literature, of course! Actually, thanks to Dos Passos, I am now completely fascinated by the influence that film had on the novel.

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).
Because I can’t answer “misunderstood” I’m going to say underrated: Idiocracy. This is where we potentially are headed, people.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.

Angelina Jolie. Her fall from my esteem has more to do with her personal life than her acting. I suppose I liked her better when she was nutso. Is this kind of like admitting I don’t like Mother Teresa or something? because that’s what it feels like.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
I cannot answer this, as I do not know enough of either’s work to make a judgement call

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film
Blue Velvet

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall?

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers. First favorite: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (it’s the only one of his I’ve seen, but with the line “Gessner!” i feel it has a right to more than one slot).

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
DVD – the delightful Stranger Than Fiction. I honestly don’t remember the last movie I saw in the theaters. It must have been Slumdog.

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray?
Not upgrading yet.

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
See my answer to #8; but based on their wiki photos, I’m going to go with Deezen.

15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
This one was harder than I imagined it would be. There are the obvious old-timers, like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant. I’m wracking my brain for something that George Clooney was in that I didn’t like, and I can’t think of any, so maybe I should answer him. But I’m also thinking Kate Winslet. Yes, that includes Titanic. Oh and Christina Ricci.

16) Fight Club -- yes or no?
A very unenthusiastic yes.

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland?
See answer to #8. Yeah – I’m admitting it; I’ve never seen Gone with the Wind. Please don’t throw tomatoes!

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir.
There are so many things I could put here, but I’ll go with my long-time favorite, from the wonderful movie WHICH IS NOT YET OUT ON DVD DAMN IT!, The Blue Dahlia – “Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.” Loves it.

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)
I can’t think of an answer for this.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it?
I’ve seen some real stinkers at the drive-ins (<$2/film) (The Saint being one of them), but I wouldn’t say I regretted it. They were a waste of time, but I wouldn’t say regret. Only two films fit the regret category: Saw and Pink Flamingos.

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
Yeah, once again, haven’t seen anything either of them were in. Though Van Johnson looks familiar.

22) Favorite Alan Rudolph film.
Does the fact that Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is in my Netflix queue count for anything?

23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see.
Hearth and Harvest – because my husband’s in it! Otherwise, I’ll say Jesus Camp. It’s a blatant depiction of sanctioned child abuse.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.
A favorite of mine from when I was a pre-teen, Shipwreck (or was it Shipwrecked?)

25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share.
Yes – admitting in #18 that I never saw Gone with the Wind. I am constantly embarrassed when a film is referenced that I didn't see. I am taking steps to correct this, though.

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald?
I don’t think I’ve seen anything either of the them were in. This quiz should be my answer for #25.

27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who?

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why?
There are so many movies in this category I wouldn’t know where to start. In general I avoid seeing run-of-the-mill romantic comedies (sorry Sarah Jessica Parker!) and all the slasher films that have been coming out in the last 5-10 years. I also refuse to see anything with Seth Rogen, because I think he’s an ass.

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience.
The Snowman.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
Jeffrey Jones. One I can finally answer!

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever).
I can’t answer this one…it would require too much thought, and when I get up at 5:30 for more than two days in a row, I just don’t have it.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie.
My American card may be revoked for this too – I don’t like John Wayne. Please don’t throw tomatoes.

33) Favorite movie car chase.
The Bourne Identity.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film.
Honestly, I have no idea. Cannot think!

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
Yeah, maybe you could just keep looking at #8?

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.
*Sigh* See #8. Again.

37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be?
Luis Bunuel. I feel guilty about it, but I just can't stand it!

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
I wouldn’t say hated, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind wasn’t what I expected, which disappointed me at first. But now I feel better about it.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls?
I’ll give you one guess of what my answer here is.

40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?
Is it terrible of me to admit I don’t know what is referred to by the Cutters? Perhaps this should be my answer to #25. And having never seen The Warriors, I’m going to have to go with Delta Tau Chi. Hopefully the answer to the second part isn’t Belushi.

41) Your favorite movie cliché.
The noir femme fatale

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen?
Well, I saw Donen’s Funny Face and didn’t really like it. Never saw anything by Minnelli. Except Liza. Harharhar.

43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence.
Gremlins - can that count as horror?

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie.
Perhaps this is because it’s fresh in my mind, but I love Will Ferrell stepping in front of the bus in Stranger Than Fiction.

45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate?
Pink Flamingoes. There is simply no excuse.

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?
So, have I earned my film dunce cap yet?

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director.
I guess I’m required to answer John Ford, aren’t I?

48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending.
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. That whole film was ambiguous.

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
I’m thankful that I saw the following movies: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, The Trouble with Harry, Gran Torino, Iris, Stranger Than Fiction. And I’m looking forward to someday seeing the following movies that were released this year: The Informant, The Men Who Stare At Goats, The Road

50) George Kennedy or Alan North?
They just had to throw in one last embarrassment, didn’t they?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A U.S.A. Resource

I'm currently in about 2/3 of the way through Dos Passos's 1919, the second installment in the USA trilogy. Because I allowed such a huge gap between my reading of the first installment and this one, I am having a hell of a time keeping track of characters and remembering who we know from 42nd Parallel, and how those characters relate and interact with the characters in 1919. I have search high and low, and haven't really been able to find much information about USA, specifically a character list. This is an egregious oversight on the part of book readers/bloggers. But today I stumbled upon this website, which is really excellent.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S.A. today, so I know at least some of you are going to be as busy with turkey and family as I will be, so this week’s question is a simple one: What books and authors are you particularly thankful for this year?

  • I'm thankful for Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Atonement for making me cry
  • I'm thankful for finishing all the Henry James novels on the Modern Library list.
  • I'm thankful for discovering EL Doctorow and Iris Murdoch
  • I'm VERY thankful for A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
  • I'm thankful for being able to finally finish A Dance to the Music of Time after a year and a half of reading it.
  • And most strangely, I'm thankful for Anthony Powell. I miss Nick and Isobel and the rest of the clan already! They will be part of my consciousness for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Brideshead Revisited

Back in '03 or '04 I was participating in a lot of online book clubs, mostly through yahoo groups. After a rather tumultuous time at the end of 2004/beginning of 2005 I had to give them up, mostly due to lack of internet access at home. (Gosh, I can't believe there was a time when I didn't have internet - or a computer that worked for that matter!) was then that I first heard of Evelyn Waugh.

As I've mentioned before, at first I thought that Mr. Waugh was a female. I remember checking Brideshead Revisited out of the library, and never even opening it. It had been selected as a monthly read by one of those online groups, and I believe that it was around the time that everything started to fall apart - or perhaps more correctly come together - and I didn't have much patience for reading anything other than my "comfort" books. So it wasn't until I picked up Scoop a few years later (2007?) that I had my first real introduction to Waugh. And Scoop was friggin awesome.

Now here's the interesting thing: Scoop and A Handful of Dust (which I read earlier this year) were very similar in style. Certainly A Handful of Dust wasn't as fact it wasn't particularly funny at all - at least not in the way that Scoop was funny - but you could tell they were written by the same author. But if you handed me Brideshead Revisited and didn't tell me who wrote it, and asked me who I thought wrote it, I wouldn't answer Evelyn Waugh. I would tell you it was written by Waugh's contemporary, my pal Anthony Powell, of A Dance to the Music of Time fame. In fact, it is so similar, I am getting things mixed up. Is Charles - the narrator - Charles Ryder, or Charles Stringham? Or is Charles Stringham Sebastian Flyte (because they are sort of similar)? Erridge or Brideshead. Julia and Jean...both older sisters of their friends, both married to morons, both having an affair with the narrator, etc. And wasn’t there someone who reminded me of Widmerpool? Oh no, that was young John Bayley in Iris. [That is completely unfair to Bayley, as it was only social awkwardness and a very slight resemblance between Hugh Bonneville and Simon Russell Beale.] I'm so confused!

Brideshead Revisited both is and is not what I was expecting. It is what I was expecting in terms of plot: it's the story I had understood would be contained in the pages. Because, you know, sometimes the story is NOT what had been promised (as in, A Handful of Dust wasn't HILLARIOUS! as promised on the cover). It was NOT what I was expecting, however, because it didn't appear to be Waugh at appeared to be Powell. Now, Powell has a reputation (at least in my mind) of being very long winded, which is the opposite of Waugh. I’ve always found him pithy – to the point, without a lot of long sentences, connecting an exorbitant amount of sometimes unrelated information together will a lot of commas. Though I say that Brideshead Revisited reminds me Powell, I did not mean in this aspect. Waugh is certainly more wordy here than in his other novels I’ve read, but he has not gone too far into that comma-laden world.

The way in which he resembles Powell here is in the characters and the world they inhabit. It’s the circle of the respectable British middle class and low-hanging, decaying nobility. The narrator is slightly more involved, however, here than in Dance. There are differences, of course. The Marchmain clan are Catholic, which causes all of the problems around which the plot centers. Oh yes – and there really is a plot here, again as opposed to Dance, which is just the long story of life.

Last year (was it last year?) a film adaptation of Brideshead was released. I had wanted to see it at the time, but of course didn’t, so I had it in my Netflix queue. I have issues with novel adaptations: do you read the book first, or see the movie? I have traditionally seen the movie, because when I do it the other way around, I am completely uninterested in the film and either (1) fall asleep; or (2) start doing something else and forget that I was even watching it. So typically if I read the book first (especially if it had been a recent reading), I should just forget about watching the film. Anyhoo – Brideshead was in my queue, slowly creeping its way to the top, but after finishing the novel I removed it. I had heard rumblings that the film became more of a condemnation of Catholicism, as in: look at the bad things that happen to this family because they were Catholic! There isn’t a happy ending because of it! How terrible! Which of course isn’t the point of the book at all. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite. Despite his agnosticism throughout the book, in the end Charles has a mini-conversion. He doesn’t go out and convert – at least that isn’t said that he does – but he seems to get it in the end. The old Charles would have said to Julia, “What do you mean we can’t get married? This is ridiculous. All for that silly superstition?” But the new Charles simply agrees. Maybe I’m wrong about the film though – I don’t know. Now that I’m distanced from the book by a few weeks, I think maybe I should add it back on the queue. Anyone seen it?

This was the last Waugh off of the Modern Library list, which I am finally winding down (only 20 left!). I have to say thanks to the ML list editors for this recommendation - I don't know that I would have ever picked him up otherwise. That's what makes these lists worth bothering about...discoveries like this. And though I'm done with the Waugh on the list, I know in the coming years I will seek him out again and again, both to read new and to re-read. I'm not sure if Brideshead will be one that I will reread any time soon, but it was a good book, and one I'm not disappointed that I spent the time to read.

Monday, November 23, 2009


Ok, so I mentioned in my post about Under the Net that I was going to watch Iris but accidentally got The Fire Within instead. The Fire Within was decent, but I really wanted to see Iris. Which I did this weekend. Totally devastating.

This is going to sound stupid, but I never think of famous people getting old and losing their minds and having to be put in a home. It's weird. I don't know why, but it's weird. Somehow it seems that famous people should be immune from that because, you know, they aren't like the rest of us. But of course they are.

Beyond that, though, it really was a devastating movie, regardless of whether or not the person disappearing from Alzheimer's was famous or not. The dedication of John Bayley to stick with her through that is amazing. That's love. This movie made me realize that if I ever get like that, I want my loved ones to put me in a home and forget about me. I wouldn't want to be remembered in that way.

I will definately be picking up the Bayley memoirs that the movie is based on.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Under the Net

I did not expect to like this book at all.

For some reason, certain books get linked with other books in my mind. Such as: I have long associated Zuleika Dobson with a book written about Sarajevo (Zlata's Diary). I have no idea why, other than the strange Z names. In this case, I had lumped Under the Net with The Ginger Man in my mind. I could not keep them straight. And since I have only read bad reviews for The Ginger Man, I have not looked forward to reading Under the Net.

Once - was it earlier this year? - I picked Under the Net up off the shelf, laid down on the bed in my library (which, in case you wanted to know, was my great-grandparents bed) and read a few pages. Now, in the first few pages all we learn is that Jake is being kicked out of where he was staying. I didn't care about this. So I put it back, further cementing in my mind that I was not going to like reading this book.

But in my effort to get through the Modern Library's List by the end of next year (it's going to be close - I've got a lot of thick books ahead), I knew I would have to read it. And as I've mostly got, as I just mentioned, LONG books left (An American Tragedy, Studs Lonigan, Women in Love, and *ahem* Finnegan's Wake) I thought now, while I'm home with Brendan, might be a good time to knock this one out.

Ok, so I was slightly bored in the beginning. I couldn't tell you when the novel picked up for me, but it was long before Jake steals the show dog from Sammy's apartment in order to use it as a bargaining tool to get his manuscript back. And by the time we got to THAT part, I was really into it. Under the Net turned out to be a funny! I had no idea.

Jake needs a place to stay, and that sets off a series of events, and for a time he finds a place to stay, and even has a job, but that all unravels, and he ends up exactly where he was in the beginning - but this time with a dog. Not the most exciting novel ever, but I found it entertaining. I've already added The Sea, The Sea to my TBR. Under the Net may be one of the few remaining pleasures on the list...after all, I'm staring down Women in Love, Old Wives Tale, AND Finnegans Wake.

I'm a little annoyed with Netflix...or maybe I should say I'm annoyed at myself. I was really looking forward to seeing the movie Iris, which is based on Murdoch's life with her husband. But of course like the dumby that I am sometimes, yesterday I was searching for some French New Wave films, and accidently rearranged my queue so that The Fire Within is on its way instead of Iris. Oh well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Few More Modern Library Reviews

#45 The Sun Also Rises I thought that I would like this book. I really didn't. I thought it was boring, even though there was bullfighting. I wish that I liked it. I did like Brett, though.

#74 A Farewell to Arms The other Hemingway on the list. I read this in April or May of 2003. I remember the time very vividly. I had graduated college the December before, but all my friends were still at school. So every weekend, I would go to visit them, get terribly "tight" (as Ernest would say) and then go back to work on Monday and pretend to be some kind of responsible adult. This all was complicated by the fact that I was in this strange almost-relationship of sorts with a German exchange student there who was going back to der Vaterland in May. And there was someone else who I also had my eye on, who had a girlfriend and who I thought couldn't really care less about me (but he was in love with me, as I came to discover two years later). Did I mention that I was engaged to someone else at the time? Yeah. Let's just say that I was A TOTAL MESS. And during this time, I read A Farewell to Arms. Honestly, all I remember of it was the scene in the end where they are rowing away across a lake. That did happen in this book, right? I'm not sure if I don't remember anything else because I was drunk all the time, or because my life was a mess, or because I was kind of indifferent to the novel, though I liked it much better than The Sun Also Rises.

#78 Kim This novel factored heavily in The English Patient, which is one of my favorite novels OF ALL TIME. So, I was expecting to really like it. I didn't.

#100 The Magnificent Ambersons Sometime I am going to have to back and reread this book and do a long post on it. This is one of those books that I have never heard of outside of this list, by an author I had also never heard of. But this book is great. The main character, George, is an asshole, and enough bad things cannot happen to him. You WANT bad things to happen to this jerk. What sticks in my mind most about this novel is that it really predicts the future. Written in the early 1900s, sometimes it feels like someone from the last 50 years writing about what impact the car was going to have on society, knowing already what that impact was. But Tarkington really saw it coming...he hit it right on the nose. Definately a novel that deserves more fanfare than it seems to get.

The Naked and the Dead

If you would have told me in August that while I was off on maternity leave, I would have the time to read a 700+ page novel, I would have laughed at you. But I somehow managed to find the time to get through The Naked and the Dead in between changing diapers and feeding Brendan. It's amazing what you can do when you just read 20 or so pages a day.

I was trying to remember if I've ever actually read a "war book" before. I tried to read Enemy at the Gates in 2002 or 2003, but didn't get very far. Same thing happened with The Thin Read Line. Last year I tried to read All Quiet on the Western Front, but I wasn't at the right place in my life for it, so I shelved it. I owned The Killer Angels for a long time, but never even opened it. I got rid of it a few years ago, knowing I would never read it because frankly, I don't give a damn about the Civil War. In high school I read Howard Fast's April Morning, which I suppose could be called a war book of some sort, but it's kind of a young adult book, and to classify it with what I might call REAL war books seems strange. From Here to Eternity (can that be classified as a war book?) and The Things They Carried have long been on my TBR list, but they haven't come up yet. So really, The Naked and the Dead is really the first true war novel I've ever read.

I liked The Naked and the Dead. For being more than 700 pages, it wasn't slow or daunting, and I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen to all these characters and whether or not they would make it through the pass and then over the mountain. And to say that - that I really cared about what happened - may be the first mark of a good book. There are a lot of books on this Modern Library list that I cared as much about the characters as I do about the Civil War. And the fact that I felt invested in what happened to Gallagher, and Goldstein, and Hearn, and that I hated Croft and the General (though I really liked Croft at first - until he killed the bird) surprised me. I honestly didn't expect to enjoy this book as much as I did. All that the men went through, trying to climb that mountain, only to turn back because of a hornets nest.

The first - and main thing - that struck me about TN&TD is the debt that Mailer clearly owes to John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy. The structure of Mailer's novel reminded me so much of 42nd Parallel from the very beginning; the narrative style was similar as well. Dos Passos is everywhere for me this year...both in this novel and in Ragtime. It's amazing to think that that trilogy had clearly such an impact on the rest of the century's writing, and yet it is virtually unheard of. Well, maybe it's not actually unheard of. I had never heard of it outside of all these Top 20th century lists. It wasn't discussed in my high school english classes, where we spent a considerable amount of time on Dos Passos's contemporaries, Fitzgerald and Hemingway specifically. This really annoys me. Poor Dos Passos, you pilot fish!

The back of my copy of the book says that The Naked and the Dead is the most important American novel since Moby Dick. I think in that statement a lot of very important American novels are skipped over - specifically The Great Gatsby. And I really don't see how it can be rated as important as Moby Dick, but I liked it anyway.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Life of Pi

Last year, my mom and I had the following conversation:

MOM: I read a good book - Life of Pi, and I think that I get it. The boy was the tiger, and the sailor was the zebra, and the cook was the hyena...
ME: So what was the religious theme of the book?
MOM: What?
ME: I thought there was some religious theme to it.
MOM: I don't know. I guess I will have to re-read it.

I've been hearing about Life of Pi for a long time. And I have been avoiding it. First of all, I don't like to read popular books. I don't want people to think that I'm someone who jumps on a bandwagon; someone who reads Faulkner because Oprah told me to. I ADORE Faulkner (despite our initially contentious relationship), but I would have purposely NOT read him during the time that he was Oprah's book club pick. Unless, of course, I could wear a shirt that said, "I LOVED FAULKNER BEFORE OPRAH." Books with buzz tend to scare me away.

I have been avoiding Life of Pi for the other reason as well: it's religious theme. It's a book that is supposed to make you believe in god. Oh boy, one of those books. No thank you.

But then, there are people whose opinion of books I take seriously, mostly because we have such similar tastes. So, I have finally given in and read it.

First of all, the key to this book is in the author's introduction. You have to read that first, or like my mom, you will miss the point. Martel gives us two stories: one is fantastical - unbelievable. A boy is on a lifeboat with a tiger for almost a year and the tiger doesn't eat him? The second story is the believable, and probably true one. But which one is the better story? Which one makes life more interesting? Obviously the fantastical one. The religious theme, of course is that we can choose to believe the religious stories - that god created us special, and a baby was born to a virgin in a stable, and angels and shepherds, and wise men, and all the other religious stories, or we can believe the "real" story. You can take your pick. God is the better story.

Now in the previous paragraph, I only listed the Christian story. But Life of Pi is not exclusively a Christian story. Pi is also a Hindu and a Muslim. So it doesn't matter if your story is Kali and Shiva and the turtle - or is it an elephant? - holding up the world, or whatever stories it is that Muslims believe (I admit my inexcusable ignorance of what is in the Koran), or if you believe in the baby in a manger. Martel is just saying that the better story is the fantastical one...the one that it's hard to believe but is more beautiful...or more exciting, or something.

I'm not really sure about that though. They are good stories, some of them at least. But isn't the story of the natural world just as interesting, just as worthy of awe? Go on youtube and listen to some of Neal DeGrasse Tyson's talks on the universe and you'll see what I mean.

All in all, Life of Pi wasn't bad. It's not the greatest thing I ever read. But for being popular, it was a pretty decent read.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

I'm a week late on this one. Oh well.

If you could ask your favorite author (alive or dead) one question … who would you ask, and what would the question be?

This one is easy. I would ask Jack Kerouac if he drank himself to death on purpose. This question has plagued me for years...almost a decade now. In the documentary What Happened to Kerouac, someone (I never remember who she is, but she was a friend of his) says that he told her that as a Catholic he couldn't kill himself, so he intended to drink himself to death. Which he succeeded at admirably. However, this woman is not included in any of his biographies - I've checked the indexes. And in general, the possibility that Jack was drinking with the intent to kill himself isn't even discussed. Did this person, whose novels exude an enthusiasm for life, commit a slow form of suicide on purpose, or was death just a consequence of drinking in order to escape the realities of what fame (or infamy) had brought him?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I have been meaning to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for a long time...either since it came out, or since I read Foer's other book, Everything is Illuminated - I don't remember which happened first. I LOVED Everything is Illuminated. It's one of the best books I ever read. It was funny, moving, quirky, terribly sad. And it was awesome. So obviously I was looking forward to EL&IC, but also a little afraid...I was afraid it would be like my "relationship" with F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby absolutely blew me away when I read it in 10th grade, and since then I have read other Fitzgerald novels, but none of them are as good. He knocked it out of the ball park with Gatsby, and how could you rival that? So I have been timid about Extremely Loud - what if it just wasn't as good...then I would be disappointed.

But EL&IC did NOT disappoint. Within the first dozen or so pages I was laughing out loud: "Succotash my Balzac, dip shiitake!" But as I said, there is a pervasive sadness, centered around 9/11. This isn't my first 9/11 novel. It seems to have become like my Holocaust novels - I keep reading them. Their sadness is different from other tragic books, because you know what happens. From the very beginning, I knew how Oskar lost his father. You know what is going to happen, what the narrative is circling around. And it doesn't even need to be stated. Foer didn't need to say, "those messages were left on the phone on September 11th." It needn't be said - we know. It's not a novel about 9/11, but rather a novel in the shadow of 9/11.

It takes a lot for a novel - or anything really - to move me, especially to move me to tears, and this one did - and more than once. This book gave me "heavy boots." I finished it yesterday, and I can still feel its weight.

I know that Foer often gets mixed reviews, but I think that he is my favorite contemporary writer. The more I read, the more I like. Tragicomedy must be my thing. With EL&IC, I would definitely recommend having read Grass's The Tin Drum first. It's certainly not necessary, but there are a lot of parallels, which really enhance the reading.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Can't Wait for this Movie!

Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is going to be made into a movie. I read the book last October and loved it. I wonder if the part about Fitzgerald's size problem will be included?

New Book Site Discovered!

I just came across this website that I'm really digging. I wish I had more time to just sit and read all the articles. I had read somewhere - don't remember where - that the site was ranking the top 20 books "of the millenium thus far." Could just be the top 20 books of the decade, but I suppose they're trying to be dramatic. Whatever - regular readers know how much of a sucker I am for book lists. And lo and behold, the site has a lot of other awesome stuff too. They are also reviewing the Modern Library's Top 100 list! - again, I wish I had the time to really sit and read the articles.

So far, I've read three (Middlesex, Atonement, Never Let Me Go) off of their best of list, which is pretty good for me, considering I tend to stay in the pre-1960 literature.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Book II of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet is a departure from Book I - Justine. That book was so stylistically beautiful; Balthasar was much simpler in its narrative style, which was a little odd because it was told from the same character's point of view.

This installment had me very confused at first. Articles I had read about it lead me to believe that it was Balthasar himself that would be narrating this volume and not Darley, the narrator from Justine. But that's not the case. Actually, what has happened is this: Darley has written a book about his experience in Alexandria and his affair with Justine. Balthasar gets a copy of the manuscrpit and creates and interlinear - a commentary on the text to show Darley all the things he got wrong, all the stuff he didn't know about about, and sends it back to Darley. Darley thought he knew what was going on, but in reality he didn't. We only have our perspective in events, and it's always limited - it's never the full story. That's what Alexandria Quartet is - the same story told from different perspectives.

Like I said, it's not the same lyrical style as Justine. It's Darley coming to realize that he didn't know the whole story, and that his affair with Justine wasn't what he thought it was. In a way, the different narrative - much less poetic - made it easier to read. I'll reserve my opinion until I get through the next two books - Mountolive and Clea, but overall it was good.

Pale Fire

This is the fourth Nabokov novel I've read. The first, obviously, was Lolita. A few years ago I also read Laughter in the Dark and The Eye, neither of which I remember anything about except that I didn't particularly care for them. Ada has sat on my TBR list for at least five years. There are others by Nabokov I have long hoped to pick up as well - Pnin and Invitation to a Beheading chief among them, but when your book list runs several hundred long, it's hard to keep up.

So Pale Fire - I didn't know what to expect going in and I will admit that at first I really didn't like it. But as it went on, and the riddle of what was really up with this Kinbote guy got deeper and more bizarre, I started to enjoy it more.

In this novel - you've got this guy, Charles Kinbote, a visiting professor from the country of Zembla (imaginary or not?) who is writing a commentary on his "friend" John Shade's poem. It quickly is apparent that the commentary has nothing to do with the poem but rather dwells on the deposed king of Zembla, also named Charles. Eventually, the reader comes to understand that Kinbote is - or believes he is - this king.

Pale Fire thus presents two possibilities: (1) Kinbote is telling the truth and really is the King of Zembla or (2) he is insane. As the narrative progresses and it appears that he is stalking Shade -finding out where he is vacationing and renting a cabin at the same place - I come down on the side of insanity. But is Zembla real or not? I would guess not, but if it isn't, what the hell is Kinbote doing as a visiting professor at the University? What university would hire someone who claimed to be from an imaginary country?

The structure of the novel presents a slight challenge for reading. Kinbote suggest reading the poem, then the commentary, then the poem again, but I read them both together - a few lines of the poem and then the commentary on those lines. This seemed to work out well.

Overall, I liked Pale Fire - it was interesting and unique. While a reader - myself included - often returns to a writer expecting something similar to the first enjoyed book, and it can be disappointing to find something completely different, but there is definately something to be said for an author who can successfully switch it up for each novel. Nabokov presents something different in each book I read of his (unlike some others on the Modern Library list - James and Lawrence, I'm looking at you!), and I appreciate that. I've read enough by him to know not to expect Lolita II (if not in subject, at least style). Pale Fire really was good, and deserving of a spot on a list of top 100 novels of the 20th century.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The End of Henry James...For Now

Sometimes I have wondered if the Modern Library's list was made to torture me, as if it was designed specifically for my book-related OCD. After all, I committed to it before I had waded through the waters of James Joyce...before I realized some of the innocuous titles on there really weren't one book, but were multiple (it actually isn't a list of 100's a list of 116), and when all I had read of Henry James was a short, decently enjoyable ghost story called "The Turn of the Screw," which, believe it or not, made sense. Yes, this list was designed just to trick laugh as I worked my way through Portrait of the Artist, only to realize that I still had Ulysses and Finnegans Wake left. And then, the horribly cruel joke of Henry James. It's not that I expect The Ambassadors to be a short ghost story as well, but I didn't expect to find what I did...or what I didn't find (as in, I didn't find a novel that was at all comprehensible). AND THEY MAKE ME READ 3 BY THIS CHARLATAN!

Haha, but NO MORE! I have finally finished The Golden Bowl, the last of the three on the list.

A summary of The Golden Bowl: Maggie and Amerigo are going to get married (because Maggie has money and Amerigo wants some). Amerigo and Charlotte used to be lovers, but Maggie doesn't know that. Amerigo and Charlotte go shopping together before the marriage, and they look at a golden bowl in a shop, but Amerigo notices a flaw in it, so they don't buy it. Maggie & Amerigo get married. Maggie wants her dad to get married, and the most obvious candidate is Charlotte. Adam (Maggie's dad) marries Charlotte. Charlotte & Amerigo rekindle their relationship. Yes: Amerigo is sleeping with his step-mother-in-law. Maggie begins to suspect something's up between her husband and her step-mother. On day, she goes shopping and finds a golden bowl in a shop, which she buys. A few days later, the shop keeper comes to visit her: he felt bad he charged her so much money for the bowl, because there's a flaw in it. While there, he sees photos of Amerigo and Charlotte, and tells him about their coming to the shop a few years ago and about their conversation. Maggie & Amerigo have a "confrontation" (I put that in quotations, because it wasn't at all interesting or exciting). Maggie schemes to get her dad to return to America with Charlotte without either of them finding out that she knew what was up between Charlotte & her husband. It works, they return to America, and suddenly Amerigo is happy with Maggie.

This is, at least, what I THINK happened. I can never quite see through the fog of James's prose and I could not find a chapter-by-chapter analysis of this book, which was the only thing that made The Ambassadors and Wings of the Dove half-comprehensible. The Golden Bowl wasn't as bad as The Ambassadors, but that is not a compliment.

James (once described by Thomas Hardy as the Polonius of English Prose) went through three phases of his career: James the First, James the Second, and the Old Pretender; the latter phase encompassing only three novels: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. I titled this post "The End of Henry James For Now" because I'm sure as I work my way through other lists, I will be forced to confront this foe again, but it will be in Daisy Miller, or Portrait of a Lady. I am not expecting to enjoy them, but I have at least slain the evil dragon that was the Old Pretender. I have beaten the Modern Library at its game...I have beaten Henry James!

On a side note, I'm due in a week with my first baby, and I felt like he couldn't make his debut until I finished this damn book (which I've been reading since March). Now that I have, he can come any day!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Handful of Dust

For a long time, I assumed Evelyn Waugh was a female. It wasn't until a few years ago when I read the uber-hilarious Scoop that I realized he wasn't. That still makes me laugh for some reason. So now every time Waugh comes up in conversation, and the person has never heard of him, I always say, "I know it's a girls name, but Waugh is actually a male." I just wanted to get that out of the way, in case you weren't aware of that either.

So, yeah, Scoop was REALLY funny. A Handful of Dust, not so much. I wasn't expecting it to be Scoop II, certainly. The story is actually fairly dark: Brenda, Tony's wife, is having an affair with John, Brenda & Tony's son dies in a horse riding accident, Brenda decides she wants a divorce, Tony goes on an "expedition" in Brazil where he falls seriously ill and is kidnapped, essentially, by an Englishman living in the jungle who tells a search party that Tony died. Brenda remarries and under the assumption that Tony is dead, his beloved homestead is overtaken by relatives.

What is funny about this novel are the small things: Mrs. Beaver's ideas of not only good interior design, but what Tony's memorial should look like. The debacle when Tony tried to fake having an affair. The minister delivering a sermon he wrote for troops overseas, talking about loved ones thousands of miles away. And the ending - Tony condemned to reading Dickens for the rest of his life. It's not the Marx Brothers's not something you're going to read and laugh out loud about and slap your leg and say, "This Evelyn Waugh, he really is funny!!!!". Maybe it's funny in the same way that Waiting for Godot is funny - it's simply absurd. But I guess that's "British humour" for you.

A Handful of Dust is one of those books you don't have to invest yourself in. If there are deep meanings within it, I didn't notice them. It's comedic writing within a really sad story. It wasn't Scoop, but it was decent in its own right. Waugh is a novelist that know I will continue to read - Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and Brideshead Revisited are all rumored to be good and are novels I'm expecting to someday pick up. If for no other reason than to be able to tell people that despite what they might think, Evelyn in this case is a boy. :-)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

Todays question:

Which do you prefer? (Quick answers–we’ll do more detail at some later date):

Reading something frivolous? Or something serious?

It depends on how I'm feeling, but what is termed "frivolous" to me is probably very serious to someone else.

Paperbacks? Or hardcovers?
Definately paperback.

Fiction? Or Nonfiction?
Poetry? Or Prose?

Biographies? Or Autobiographies?
History? Or Historical Fiction?

Series? Or Stand-alones?
Stand alone.

Classics? Or best-sellers?
Classics. I stay away from best-sellers. If 5 years after a book was published, I'm still interested in it, then I'll pick it up.

Lurid, fruity prose? Or straight-forward, basic prose?
I'm not picky, really. So long as it's good prose, I enjoy both.
Plots? Or Stream-of-Consciousness?
Again, not picky. In the hands of a good author, both have their respective merits.

Long books? Or Short?
Definately short when possible. But I'm not judgemental. A book isn't good or bad because it's long, it how those pages between covers are used.

Illustrated? Or Non-illustrated?
Well, illustrated is always fun, but most adult books aren't illustrated, so it's not something I've come to expect.

Borrowed? Or Owned?
New? Or Used?
I really don't have a preference. So long as the used doesn't have a lot of underlining or notes and the pages aren't falling out, I'm happy with whatever the book in my hand's past might have been. Well, within limits.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More Modern Library Reviews

Sons and Lovers - D.H. Lawrence

I read this a few years ago. And I cannot remember anything about it. When I picked up Lawrence’s The Rainbow earlier this year (or was that last year?), I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t remember anything in Sons and Lovers. Probably less than 50 pages into The Rainbow I realized why – it’s because Lawrence is boring. That’s all I have to say about that.

The Way of All Flesh - Samuel Butler

This is another one that I don’t really remember, but I do remember more of it than I do of Sons and Lovers. Here’s what I remember: (1) the main character – Ernest (had to look his name up) HATES his parents. In fact, I think everyone in this novel hated their parents. (2) Ernest marries some floozy that used to work for his family. And I think she takes advantage of him. (Had to look this up to – it’s not that she takes advantage of him, it’s that she was already married when she married Ernest).

It’s really unfair that this novel made it on the list of the top 100 of the 20th century, as it was written in the 1880s, but not published until 1903. Overall, it was a snoozer.

Appointment in Samarra - John O'Hara

I had been really excited to read this at first. After all, it’s about Pottsville. And though I’ve never been actually to Pottsville, I’ve been through it a number of times on Route 61 on the way to Reading…back when Reading was a place you went instead of a place you avoided. And throughout the book, I kept thinking, Haha…they’re talking about Tamaqua. It’s always great to be able to read about a community you are at least proximately familiar with. And when you’re from central Pennsylvania, there aren’t many novels available to give you that experience. It’s pretty much John O’Hara and John Updike (whose Rabbit series takes place in the aforementioned Reading). Of course it would have been funnier had the setting been, say, Shamokin, with which I’m much more familiar, or Shenandoah, just because if you’re from the Shenandoah region in Pennsylvania, you know it’s not pronounced Shen-an-do-ah, but rather Shen-do, and that for some reason has always amused me. But, I had to settle for Pottsville.

Now besides Appointment at Samarra being set in within the general region in which I live (it’s not really close but it’s a community that’s covered on the local news stations), it seemed like a story I would enjoy. But alas, it really wasn’t. I couldn’t really pinpoint for you what exactly it was I didn’t particularly like…it probably wasn’t any one thing. I just didn’t get into it as much as I had assumed I would. Overall it was a descent book, but not one I can rave about.

Tender is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald

This was the second Fitzgerald novel I read. The first was obviously The Great Gatsby. Has anyone these days NOT read The Great Gatsby first? Let's just say Tender is the Night is not The Great Gatsby.

The Secret Agent - Joseph Conrad

I’ve read three Joseph Conrad novels: Nostromo, The Heart of Darkness and this one. I read The Heart of Darkness as a freshman in college (or maybe a senior in high school…) I absolutely did not get it. For me, at least, Conrad takes the type of dedication that has only come in the last few years for me. Maybe it’s maturity of one form or another, I don’t know. I managed to get through Nostromo...I didn't particularly like it, and it was difficult, but I got through it.

But The Secret Agent - THIS is nothing like the other two Conrad's I read. The subject matter is much simpler, the writing simpler, and it's a great book. A porn peddler/anarchist/secret agent for Russia is assigned to blow up the Greenwich Observatory. He ends up getting his mentally challeneged brother-in-law involved, who accidently blows himself up during the bombing attempt. It's just a great book, and if you want to read something by Joseph Conrad that's not so, well, Joseph Conrad-like, this is what you want. Alfred Hitchcock even made it into a movie - he called it Sabotage. It's kind of confusing, the title I mean, because he also made a movie called Saboteur AND one called The Secret Agent. But Hitchcock's The Secret Agent is actually based on a story by Maugham, not Conrad!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The End of the Dance

I didn't realize how sad this was moment was until I wrote the title for this post. The End of the Dance. This isn't just the end of a book. Powell's million word, 12-novel, 4-volume work could never be called "a book." To some extent, it feels like the end of a chapter in my own life. I've been reading it for more than a year and a half now, and so much has happened in that time. And all along, every night, there was Nick Jenkins. It's not a book - it feels more like a relationship. And my "relationship" with A Dance to the Music of Time has lasted lasted longer than some actual relationships.

I began this book in November or December of 2007. It's been so long ago now, I don't remember. I complained, incessantly, about this novel in the beginning. I was beginning to fear he would be like Henry James, as Powell is prone to comma use and long-windedness. But I've been very wrong about books before, and I learned (with Things Fall Apart specifically), that you can absolutely detest 75-90% of a novel and then something happens at the end that makes that whole experience worth while. That's why I never give up on reading something, even if I can't stand it. Even if I find myself throwing it against the wall. The only exception was Suite Francais. But that was just bad writing.

Anyway. It really wasn't until I saw the first part of the BBC version that I really "got" it. Somehow seeing it all come together in a 2-hour visual presentation allowed me to put the pieces together. Oh - that's what was going on. It suddenly made sense.

Perhaps if the second volume (comprised of the fourth, fifth and sixth novels in the series) wasn't as fabulous as it was, this review would have taken a different tone...I might have had an entirely different opinion about Dance. These novels really were fabulous: Fitzgerald's parties set in London instead of America. It was kind of like that. There wasn't dancing in the fountain, but people were falling down stairs and dying, drunk butlers getting bit by monkeys, and their fair share of drinks...though probably much more sipped politely than glugged.

I didn't particularly like the third volume, which dealt with World War II. It was really here, however, that the genius of Powell's work comes to light. It would seem that an author would put his character at the center of all action, that he would be present for everything important that happens in the course of the novel. But that isn't Dance. It's the exact opposite. Nick is never involved in anything really exciting during the war. There's the Blitz, but Nick is never in a building that blows up - though a number of his friends unfortunately are. Death mostly occurs "off screen", and is casually mentioned or learned through here say. And that's what makes Dance to the Music of Time really unique - the narrator is not the central character. We barely know anything about Nick. Powell tells us just enough to move the narrative forward. That was the most frustrating thing about these novels at first...I wanted to know more about Nick. But once I was able to accept that this was what Powell was giving wasn't Nick's story, it was the story of everyone around him - once I let go of my need to know Nick, the novels were much more enjoyable.

The fourth volume was really mixed - some of it I enjoyed (poor X. Trapnel), some of it I wasn't thrilled with (Scorpio). But overall, it was good. And I don't know that I'll ever get the image of Widmerpool jogging into the mist - "I'm leading, I'm leading..."

Though occassionally likened - rightly, I believe - to Jane Austen, Powell is most often compared to Proust. I've never read Proust...I'm afraid of In Search of Lost Time, but then again I was afraid of Powell (whose name is pronounced like "pole" and rhymes with "Lowell", which may or may not be the same thing, probably depending on whether or not British or not). But having never read Proust, I imagine that the comparison is simply in the shere ambition and volume of their two masterpieces, not necessarily in style. In an interview for the Paris Review in the 1970s, Powell briefly addressed the comparisons with Proust: "the essential difference is that Proust is an enormously subjective writer who has a peculiar genius for describing how he or his narrator feels. Well, I really tell people a minimum of what my narrator feels – just enough to keep the narrative going." Nick is much more the eye of the hurricane than the center of action - all the important stuff that moves the story along is happening to other people, happening around Nick, not to him. The things that do happen to Nick aren't important in terms of the plot. As I said earlier, what happens to Nick only happens to move the story that he can meet someone else, or run into someone he hasn't seen in a while, or be told an interesting story about someone.

But I don't want you to think the series, or any individual component of it, has a plot. Because it doesn't. Stuff happens, but like life, there isn't a sequence of events leading to a climax. So this whole level that fiction has typicall engaged on is just left out. What it is replaced by is perhaps unsurpassed in literature, or maybe surpassed only by Proust. You get to know an awful lot of people. You spend 100 pages or so with someone, then they go away, only to be reintroduced in another context - as someone's new wife or business partner. And this is where the book becomes rich, where it is funny and tragic. And that's also why you can't give up after the first section, or why you can't "dabble" or read some here, some there. As a review for the Times wrote,

He is a writer who should be read in bulk, however. Dipped into at random, any one of these books can seem bland at best. But several together reveal rich patterns in the caperings and transformations, the pairings and partings, the exits and reappearances of Powell's more than 300 characters.

Just as in real life, knowing the context of relationships is important. Knowing that Widmerpool essentially sent Stringham to his death isn't quite as tragic if you don't know the back stroy from when they were at school together. And knowing Bithel's interactions with Widmerpool during hte war make their interactions in the cult much more meaningful. Barbara Wallraff wrote in the Atlantic,

"One becomes more and more bound up in Powell's parallel universe, until the novels begin to seem like a long, long, long letter by a witty and kindly old friend, filling one in on what has become of other old friends. I have a number of firends in the real universe who I felt would be susceptible to Dance's charms, and having encouraged them to read it, I find that we can talk about the characters almost as if we were discussing people in our own circles.

In fact, curiously, no books have ever made me feel more as if I were living someone else's life along with him. As one reads A Dance to the Music of Time, one looks forward to meeting certain characters again as much as one does to seeing favorite people in life; one looks forward to parties in the books as much as to real parties."

I wholeheartedly agree.

When Time Magazine put this novel on it's top 100 list, the reviewer stated that "Powell's real triumph is in the way he catches the rhythm of ate itself, the way it brings people together, only to spin them apart, then reunite them later as near-stranges, transformed in unexpected ways by the intervening years." If this book is going to be said to be about anything, it is about coincidence. You meet someone at school, and then 10 years later you are re-introduced to them as a friend's business partner. Everything is just getting Powell points out in the beginning of the novel:

...These classical projections, and something in the physical attitudes of the men themselves as they turned from the fire, suddenly suggested Poussin's scene in which the Seasons, hand in hand and facing outward, tread in rhythm to the notes of the lyre that the winged and naked greybeard plays. The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings, facing outward like the Seasons, moving hand in hand in intricate measure: stepping slowly, methodically, sometimes a trifle awkwardly, in evolutions that take recognisable shape: or breaking into seemingly meaningless gyrations, while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.

My friend Steve once asked me if the commitment it takes to read Powell's 3,000+ page magnum opus was worth it. At the time, I was hesitant to answer. And maybe I really need to wait until I'm further away from the experience to say for definate one way or the other. But my reaction right now is - yes. It definately was worth it. Powell is an excellent writer (even if his comma use annoyed me at first), and the characters he created really came to life. I'll never forget them, and I'm sure even if I never read another sentence out of it, decades from now I'll be running into people that I will only be able to describe as Widmerpool-like...or Pamela Flitton-like. As Powell himself said, "A couple of years ago, I stepped down from a very crowded railway carriage in Westbury, and a fellow came up to me, and said, 'I had dinner with my Widmerpool last night...' Everyone has their own Widmerpool."

In the way these characters have entered my consciousness, they are on par with Jay Gatsby and Jordan Baker, Almasy, Hanna and Kip (from The English Patient), Ignatius from Confederacy of Dunces and Edna from The Awakening. (They are, in fact, on par with the characters from my favorite novels. Does this mean that A Dance to the Music of Time might be a new candidate for that honor?) While in most novels, you only get to know a character at a particular instance in their life, in Dance, you know them their whole life. The sheer expanse of the whole thing - 12 novels spanning a half century, written and published over the course of 25 years; 3,000 pages, a million words...makes it much more than a book, as I said when I started this review off. It's not a book, it's an experience - an invitation to live life along with Nick Jenkins. It's a chance to be allowed into a world as vast and richly detailed as Tolkien's Middle Earth, even if it is much closer to reality. Yes, I do think it was worth it. And I am not counting out someday reading it again.

In one of the articles I read while researching A Dance to the Music of Time for this post, the author stated that probably less than one million people have read the series. I'm proud and happy to say that I'm one of them.

Some Interesting Dance Links:

I also enjoyed this review: