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.