A New Way (“Read If”)
I was thinking about this blog in my literary modernism class this week. I realized that, in its present form, it is not very effective. Even though I am still reading as voraciously as ever, the form of this blog is not conducive to writing regularly. Writing the kinds of reviews that I’ve been writing–long things that ramble and cut loose like an eighth-grade book report–are not useful or relevant. Book reviews are becoming shorter, snappier, more concise. I have to approach something like this.
So the shape of this blog is going to change a bit, silent audience. (If there is an audience. I doubt it.)
Since writing the review on “The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories” at the beginning of last month, I have read eight books. I plan to tell you a little about each of them right now.
You will notice that most of these books come out of the modernist movement. A few of them are from my modernist class, but the rest are ones that I’ve simply elected to read in my spare time.
Writing amid the 1944 bombardment of London, H.D. sought to pick up the pieces of her world by fashioning a fresh faith. Because the structures of the old way of life were literally falling down around her, she drafted a plan of her artistic vision for reconstruction. That plan took the shape of her masterful poem, “Trilogy.” H.D. is not generally regarded as a modernist poet; thanks to her former lover Ezra Pound, she is taught today as an imagist poet, a label that she flatly refused throughout her career. “Trilogy,” however, establishes her firmly in the modernist camp. With its repetition and heavy allusiveness, “Trilogy” attempts to unify a post-apocalyptic world by framing the dialogue with ancient religious myths and the presence or absence of women in these belief systems.
READ IF: You want a deeper understanding of H.D.’s range of poetic vision, and an interesting perspective on how the Virgin Mary might fit into a new world order
John Dos Passos
I was supposed to like this book. Dos Passos makes an apparent attempt to join in the modernist discourse of urban life by tackling New York. Perhaps I have been reading too much Woolf and Joyce, but I didn’t feel like he did it very well. Reading this novel was like reading a messier, American version of “Mrs. Dalloway,” but without the effective psychological realism and compelling characters. I don’t know what Dos Passos was trying to do here, but I don’t think it worked. He begins by swapping back and forth between different characters, but the end of the book starts to read like one of those stock, failed-American-dream bildungsromans when it focuses exclusively on the character Ellen.
READ IF: You want a watered-down version of Joyce or Woolf. (Or if you want to be convinced that the Americans just weren’t cut out for the modernist movement.)
Following on the heels of the last comment, that Americans weren’t cut out for the modernist movement, Larsen gives us even more proof. You can’t exactly say unkind things about passing since it was one of the first successful novels written by a woman who came out of the Harlem Renaissance. But it wasn’t particularly engaging. None of the characters are likable and the movement between plot and dialogue is halting at best. Larsen has one shining moment during a party scene, where she seems to approach a fresh, present style, but the rest of the novel lapses into a predictable hum.
READ IF: You need a satisfactory and occasionally interesting introduction to the Harlem Renaissance
St. Mawr and the Man Who Died
I bought this collection of two novellas at an enormous book sale in Durham back in January and just now got to it. I confess that I quickly lost interest in “The Man Who Died” and paid more attention to “St. Mawr,” a bizarre but fascinating story of a rich young American, her pampered husband, her opinionated mother and a magnificent stallion, St. Mawr, they buy. The horse represents something dark and dangerous about true human nature and becomes the catalyst for all of the action in the story. While I’m not sure what Lawrence’s goal was, he certainly provided a very interesting, and often funny, diversion.
READ IF: You want a lighter segue into Lawrence’s prose, without the shady sex
Zen and the Birds of Appetite
This is not a novel. Highly regarded Catholic theologian and monk Thomas Merton had a deep affection for Buddhism. In this collection of essays, Merton argues that Christians should try to approach Zen and be aware of their errors in trying to explain it. Zen, Merton implies, cannot be explained or even well-understood by the Western mind. This is probably why I finished the book just as confused as I was when I started it. But the whole concept is still very interesting to me. Merton has a tendency to get very dense in his philosophical ruminations at times. If I was a more diligent reader, I think I would have gleaned more from this than I did. But I certainly left with a broader appreciation for Zen Buddhism and the places where it does intersect with the life of the Spirit in Christ.
READ IF: You’re curious, as I was, whether there is anything to this Zen thing.
“Cane” blew me away. Southern literature, in my opinion, ccontains some of the most powerful and immortal books in the American literary canon. The dark, enchanted history of the South brings forth ample material for colorful characters and complex social issues. Novels borth in the South are born out of and into its troubled past–a landscape fraught with the difficult union of charmed myth and bloody reality. Toomer taps into the tragic legacy of slavery to write one of the best, most enduring novels about the African-American experience in the South. It’s beautiful, it’s graphic, it’s disturbing, it’s compelling–it’s everything a novel should be.
READ IF: You want to read one of the most outstanding books in American literature. Not even kidding.
I don’t even know where to begin with “Nightwood.” It is easily one of the most confusing–and bizarrely rewarding–books I have read in my entire life. Barnes is outrageous. She writes in a style that I cannot compare to anything else. It’s modernist, it’s insane, it’s poetic (T.S. Eliot called it “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it”), it’s elusive. This book, a cult classic of modernist and lesbian literature, defies categorization. The characters seem to be nothing more than hallucinations, and yet they are somehow very real, very believable. It’s mysterious. You should read it.
READ IF: You want to read a novel that is completely unlike anything you have ever read before.
This was my birthday gift from Angela. And reading this novel made one thought rise to the surface of my mind: “What’s the point? Why try to write at all? I know I’ll never get even CLOSE to being this good.” This book is beautiful. Kundera is a genius. This novel tells the story of a foreign world (at least to me), the Czech Republic before it was the Czech Republic, when a communist regime controlled every aspect of your life. Communism frames the tragic stories of this novel’s characters, men who must possess women, the women who are possessed by them, the beautiful tragedy that ensues. You also have to read this one.
READ IF: You want an accessible, beautiful introduction to Kundera, and a gripping novel with deep, intentional characters–oddly relatable, even though they come from a world you do not know.
There you have it.
I’m reading “Lolita” and two volumes of poetry now. Short, snappy, modern reviews coming soon!