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:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

Today's question:

“So here today I present to you an Unread Books Challenge. Give me the list or take a picture of all the books you have stacked on your bedside table, hidden under the bed or standing in your shelf – the books you have not read, but keep meaning to. The books that begin to weigh on your mind. The books that make you cover your ears in conversation and say, ‘No! Don’t give me another book to read! I can’t finish the ones I have!’"

Oh my. I don't really know where to start. Some of these books have been on my list for literally a decade. Here's a shortened version of my to-read list...(I've tried to focus on the ones that have been on the list for the longest.)
  1. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Marquez
  2. Possession - Byatt
  3. In Cold Blood - Capote
  4. Through the Looking Glass - Carroll
  5. The Power and the Glory - Greene
  6. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Adams
  7. The Things They Carried - O'Brien
  8. Pilgrim's Progress - Bunyan
  9. Le Pere Goriot - Balzac
  10. David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, etc. - Dickens
  11. Middlemarch - Eliot
  12. Last Temptation of Christ
  13. Hunchback of Notre Dame - Hugo
  14. King Solomon's Mines - Haggard
  15. Last of the Mohicans - Cooper
  16. Blonde - Oates
  17. Anil's Ghost - Ondaatje
  18. King Lear - Shakespeare
  19. Brothers Karamazov - Dostoevsky
  20. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  21. Jude the Obscure - Hardy
  22. Go Down Moses - Faulkner
  23. The Lord of the Rings - Tolkien
  24. The German Lesson – Siegfried Lenz
  25. Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Henry James Doppleganger

So, I'm trying to get through The Golden Bowl. I really am. But obviously I hate Henry James. He gives me a headache.

But anyway, I was looking something up about this dreadful (but not as dreadful as The Ambassadors) book, and came across this portrait of Henry James (not a lady) by John Singer Sargent.

Here is a photo of Bill Kirchenbauer, who used to be on my favorite sitcom of all time, Just the Ten of Us.

I see a resemblence. Somehow, thinking of Henry James as Coach Lubbock makes him slightly more tolerable. But not his infernal books.
*Sigh* I miss Just the Ten of Us.