Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ragtime

THIS was the book I've been waiting for. Lately it's been taking me at least a month to finish a book...but I managed to knock this one out in a week and a half. In fact, I think this was the first time since March or April that I read more than one book in a month.

E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime was fabulous. It's the interweaving story of three families in the New York City area at the beginning of the 20th century: a respectable upper-middle class clan, a family of Jewish immigrants, and African-American Coalhouse Walker. Stringing them all together is a cast of famous historical figures, from Morgan and Ford to Goldman and Houdini. This type of book can easily seem contrived, but Ragtime didn't. It was a fun read, compelling and entertaining. I was constantly looking up the historical information, trying to figure out what was real and what Doctorow had invented. I was never so intrigued by Harry Houdini and Emma Goldman...this book made me want to go out and read all the biographies and historical writings about this time period that I could get my hands on.

The New York Times review of the novel called it "a highly original experiment in historical fiction." Here's what makes me laugh about this: within the first 10 pages, I kept thinking - this reminds me of something...the style, the cadence of the prose, the subject matter. And it quickly dawned on me why it was so familiar: John Dos Passos's U.S.A. Trilogy (especially the only third of it that I've read thus far - 42nd Parallel). It not only has the same rhythm, and deals with the same time period, but it also does the same thing: interweaves the lives of different families with historical figures to form a narrative of America. Also, there were elements of the Coalhouse Walker plot that echoed Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man. But that was just a nagging feeling in comparison to the screamingly obvious parallels with Dos Passos. In a book of lesser literary merit, this would have really annoyed me. I become possessive and loyal to certain authors, and for some reason Dos Passos is one of them. He has been virtually forgotten, when his literary talents are just as great as his contemporaries (and friends) Fitzgerald and Hemingway. If I wouldn't have simply enjoyed Ragtime, had so much fun reading the novel, this post would be very different. I would be yelling, how dare this Doctorow person rip off Dos Passos, and then he gets hailed as "original." I would be calling out the bullshit. And while it really isn't as original as the NY Times review would lead you to believe, it was a lot of fun to read.

This was my first encounter with Doctorow - do his other books also deal with historical subjects in a similar manner? I will definitely be revisiting him in the future. And Ragtime also made me want to go buy some Scott Joplin cds.

A Salute to The Ambassadors?

Ann Patchett is probably not an author I would have really considered reading. She's one of those authors I've "heard of" in the least meaningful way...I've walked past her books in Borders, vaguely registering them to the category of "not interested." And now that I've come across this article from NPR's "You Must Read This" series, Patchett has entered a new category: Never Pick Up A Book By This Author. Who else resides in this category? I couldn't come up with one. There is a separate but related category of Authors To Avoid Unless You Can't Avoid It, in which Henry James and probably Henry Miller are the first two that come to mind, though I'm sure there are numerous others. Fortunately, I don't believe Patchett is the type of author that will end up on any Best 100 lists that I - for some strange reason - make it my goal to wade through.

So, what is it that Patchett has done to incur such wrath from me, who has never - and now will never -read one of her books? She has exclaimed her love for not only Henry James - but The Ambassadors. That book is one of the signs of the Apocalypse, let me tell you. It is the work of a devil.

Here's what she said:

If the topic of conversation for our vacation was going to be The Ambassadors — that notoriously opaque Henry James novel published at the start of the 20th century — I would get to work straightaway.

And work it was. I followed Lambert Strether to Paris as he tried to reclaim the errant playboy Chad Newsome and return him home to his mother. The action was so subtle and the conversations so dense I could scarcely blink for fear of missing something. Suddenly reading felt more like deep sea diving, going miles out on a boat, suiting up in heavy gear, and then swimming down and down into that other world.

But that's what's so beautiful about the book — and about Henry James. Once you get in, it becomes your entire consciousness, the air you breathe. I had never read anything so all-encompassing, nothing that could knock out every bit of ancillary chatter in my brain. What seemed impenetrable at first slowly bloomed open with layer upon layer of meaning. The rewards of the effort were limitless, the literary equivalent of a religious text. As soon as I finished, I wanted to start again.

[Emphasis mine]

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA Ann Patchett you are so funny! Yes, James does feel like swimming - swimming in a sewage-polluted river where you encounter a giant, human-eating monster. You escape, but you are covered in nasty, stinkly slim that takes weeks to get off. Only it's not that exciting. It's also interesting that James knocks out all the other chatter in Patchett's head. Because whenever I pick up James, the chatter in my head increases: "Hey, wouldn't you rather be taking out the garbage?" Oh yes, I would rather take out the garbage. With my copy of The Ambassador's in it.

True friendship is a rare gift in life, but a friend with whom you can read and
reread The Ambassadors cannot be replaced.

Oh, so many mocking things come to mind: With friends like that, who needs enemies? If that's the true meaning of friendship, I'm glad I don't have any friends.

People have read this blog and quickly realized my hatred not just for Henry James, but for The Ambassador's in particular. They e-mail me and say, you're just being hyperbolic right? It can't be THAT bad, is it? "Yes. It really is," I advise them. They tell me they have to see for themselves. It's usually not that long after that that I get a follow-up e-mail. "You were right. It IS that bad." Listen to me here people: it really is that bad. And I would advise you to stay away from anyone who tells you they like it. Those people are working for Satan.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Henderson the Rain King

I don’t remember when I began reading Henderson the Rain King. It might have been April. When Shawn begins to remark, “You’ve been reading that book for a long time,” I know I’ve been being lazy. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the book. In fact, I generally enjoyed it. I thought the writing was enjoyable, Henderson the character was funny, and the subject matter was decently interesting for a Modern Library Top 100 – because let’s be honest, the majority of them are pretty boring. And the book’s only a little over 300 pages long. But for some reason, it took me at least a month and a half to finish this book. This problem is becoming a trend.

This was my first encounter with Saul Bellow. After reading Doug Shaw’s review of The Adventures of Augie March, I was very afraid. With three James Joyce novels and three Henry James novels on this damn list, how can they punish me with Bellow? So, seeing as how Henderson the Rain King at least LOOKED interesting, I wanted to start there. I also have been meaning to read Herzog, but if I was going to hate Bellow, I wanted to have at least knocked one of his novels off the list.

A brief synoposis: Henderson is a middle-aged guy, neurotic, etc. who decides to go to Africa. He manages to find a guide into the “uncivilized” part of the country. The first tribe he encounters is having a problem with frogs: they have invaded the well used to water their cattle, and contaminated it by their presence. Henderson, believing he can fix the problem, wanting to help, accidently blows up the well, cause much larger problems for the tribe than the frogs did. He and his guide move on. They are picked up by a neighboring tribe (essentially captured), and there Henderson meets Dahfu, their King. They become friends, and Henderson – through a show of strength – becomes the Rain King. This isn’t a great thing to be actually. Not everyone likes Dahfu, and when he is killed while trying to capture a lion. It’s only then that Henderson is told that if the king dies without an heir, the Rain King takes over. Henderson really just wants to get out of there, and he and his guide manage to escape, and Henderson heads home.

While I'm sure the book is full of symbols, Bellow wrote an article for the NY Times shortly before Henderson's publication saying people shouldn't read too much into books, so I'll ignore the symbology. Take the man at his word, right?

While reading the book, something was bothering me. The voice reminded me of something, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. About half-way through I realized that to some extent, it was the similarity between Henderson the Rain King and a book I read a few years ago, Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux. Both deal with similar subjects and with similar humorous approaches. Then, three-quarters of the way through, I realized that Henderson’s voice, his manner of speaking and dealing with situations reminded me of Woody Allen somewhat. I guess it was the neurotic part.

So, Henderson is the story of a Woody Allen-like character in Africa, and there's a lion hunt. All-in-all, it's kind of hard to fail with that set-up, and Bellow does a good job. I can't say that I'm looking forward to The Adventures of Augie March, but from what I've heard and thinking about the writing style in Henderson, I think that Herzog is promising. Bellow is a writer I will be revisiting, forced by the Modern Library or not.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Today in Literary History...

On June 22, 1964 the US Supreme Court decided that Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer was not obscene, and gave us a new standard for censorship. I hated Tropic of Cancer, but this decision was important none the less.

Read more.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Absence and Fun Website

I know, I've been a very bad book blogger of late. My deepest apologizes. I'm not reading...and when I am reading, it's in spurts with days in between where I don't read a thing. I've picked Dance to the Music of Time back up...I'm stalled in the last book, of course. Someday I will finish...maybe!

In the meantime, I came across this website today. Though some of it requires a subscription, I appears that you can read the most recently posted articles for free. Today's entry is about a meeting between Groucho Marx and T.S.Eliot.:

On this day in 1964, T. S. Eliot wrote to Groucho Marx to confirm that a car would be at waiting at the Savoy to pick "you and Mrs. Groucho" up for dinner. Eliot also noted that Groucho's announcement of having "come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighbourhood, and particularly with the green grocer across the street." Eliot began corresponding with Marx several years earlier, having first sent a fan letter saying how much he enjoyed his movies. They exchanged photographs -- Eliot had to ask for a second of Groucho as his first one had no cigar -- and over several years tried to arrange an occasion for dinner or, as envisioned by Groucho, an evening wherein "you and I will get drunk together." Their letters show an increasing familiarity, though perhaps more on Groucho's part: Eliot's salutations evolve from "Dear Groucho Marx" to "Dear Groucho," while Groucho, having been encouraged to use "Dear T. S. E." goes one better to "Dear T. S.," or "Dear Tom" to start, and "My best to you and Mrs. Tom" or "My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be" at the close. In one letter Groucho says that he has just finished his latest opus, "Memoirs of a Mangy Lover": "... I doubt whether it will live through the ages, but if you are in a sexy mood the night you read it, it may stimulate you beyond recognition. . . . I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so
don't hesitate. Confide in me."

Their much-postponed dinner took place just seven months before Eliot's death at the age of seventy-six. In a letter to Gummo, Groucho describes finding his "celebrated pen pal" to be "tall, lean and rather stooped over. . . from age, illness, or both," but "a dear man and a charming host." Though "a memorable evening," all did not go as expected:

... At any rate, your correspondent arrived at the Eliots' fully prepared for a literary
evening. During the week I had read "Murder in the Cathedral" twice, "The Waste Land" three times, and just in case of a conversational bottleneck, I brushed up on "King Lear."Well, sir, as the cocktails were served, there was a momentary lull - the kind that is more or less inevitable when strangers meet for the first time. So, apropos of practically nothing (and not with a bang but a whimper) I tossed in a quotation from "The Waste Land." That, I thought, will show him I've read a thing or two besides my press notices from Vaudeville. Eliot smiled faintly -- as though to say he was thoroughly familiar with his poems and didn't need me to recite them. So I took a whack at "King Lear". . . . That too failed to bowl over the poet. He seemed more interested in discussing "Animal Crackers" and "A Night at the Opera." He quoted a joke -- one of mine -- that I had long since forgotten. Now it was my turn to smile faintly. . . .We didn't stay late, for we both felt that he wasn't up to a long evening of conversation -- especially mine. Did I tell you we called him Tom? -- possibly because that's his name. I, of course, asked him to call me Tom too, but only because I loathe the name Julius. Yours,Tom Marx


Hope that will tide you over until I finish The Golden Bowl or Henderson the Rain King!