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War, women, French boy, little boy

June 18, 2009

Perhaps I’ll expand on this entry further, but I had to write at least something small so this blog wouldn’t look like a ghost town. Here are the three books I’ve most recently finished here in Denver:

Three Guineas

Three Guineas

Three Guineas

By Virginia Woolf

I am reading this to prepare for my honors thesis and I read about half of it on a plane a few weeks ago, so my memories of it may not be all that lucid. But it was satisfyingly intense, predictably so, because when you’ve got Woolf talking about women and war, you know it’s going to get hot and heavy.

In this three-part treatise, Woolf attempts to answer the question, “How shall we prevent war?” Her answer, succinctly, is: Treat women equally with men. Educate them, let them have professions and pay them fairly. It seems like an odd answer at first, but not after Woolf draws out her defense: a conglomeration of historical, artistic, psychological and political evidence. She is a tireless researcher and presents her facts with authority and clarity.

The basis of her argument is that if women, liberated from the dominance of men, are enabled to act and earn money by themselves, they will also be able to think for themselves. And they will soon begin to think that patriotism to England’s war does not make sense for them. What reason do they, as women, have to be patriotic toward England for? What good has England done them? None, in fact–depriving them of property, professions and even recognition as an independent human being. It’s a compelling argument, particularly for its time.

It’s interesting to think about how her argument applies now, in 2009. Women are certainly more educated than they were 70 years ago, but we’re still lagging on the equal-pay thing. And careers still pose a number of complications for the modern woman. But I’m not sure what kind of relationship that creates with modern war. I’m sure if Virginia were here, she would have an answer.

READ IF: You have energy to apply to a fairly dense, but often compelling, argument for women’s rights.

Within a Budding Grove

Within a Budding Grove

Within a Budding Grove

By Marcel Proust
Translated by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, updated by Terence Kilmartin

I’d like to make the habit of reading a volume of Proust every summer. I read the first, “Swann’s Way,” last summer and so I took up the second a few weeks ago.

I started it while I was in copy editor training in Columbia, Mo., and I’ll admit, it almost drove me insane. Proust is probably one of the worst things to read when you are being trained to be a copy editor. Instead of short, compact, journalistic sentences, I’m confronted with page-long descriptions of the feeling behind the movement of Mme Swann’s wrist as it emerges from her peach afternoon-tea gown. It was initially very difficult to turn off the “copy editor” brain and turn on my “reader for pleasure” brain.

But I managed. And Proust always delivers. But he doesn’t wait for you to catch up with him. You have to plunge in and keep swimming, or else you’ll drown in the veritable torrent of Proust’s prose. He writes with such finesse–and such volume!–about such minute things: mere glances, raised eyebrows, fleeting impressions, sounds, scents.

Not that I’ve had a terrible lot of experience with him (I’d say 1,500 pages is a decent amount of experience), but this is what I feel about Proust: He is difficult to read because he presents you with a whole other reality. He asks you to leave wherever you are and join him, without reserve, in this flood of sensations, in the life that he is living right now. This, naturally, requires a great amount of mental exertion–a lot of which, I confess, I was not able to give. I drifted away at times. But he always tugs you back in. And you’re grateful for it.

Because no one writes about Life, Immediate, quite like Proust does.

I wish I had the book with me now so I could share some of my favorite passages, but I don’t; apologies. It’s beautiful, beautiful language, though. More beautiful than I could even dream of attempting.

READ IF: You want to drown in the sensations of a new reality.

A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany

A Prayer for Owen Meany

By John Irving

Before I say anything about this book, I want to say: Jackie, thanks for letting me borrow it. I still want to live in your house this summer and I think you are a beautiful, wonderful person. But, honestly, it wasn’t my favorite book ever. Not even close, actually. I kinda hated it.

Mainly the narrator, John Wheelwright, because he was one of the most obvious, unsurprising “cause” characters that seem to exist only to let the author air his political opinions. Not every chapter of your life has to be related to how much you hate Reagan and war and America. Granted, these may be worthwhile things to hate, but not when the story has nothing to do with any of those things. He was the most tiresome, two-dimensional narrator ever. PLUS, he never gives us any kind of explanation for the ONLY interesting thing about him: whether he is a “non-practicing homosexual” or not. He just says something stupid like, “I don’t know. I guess America neutered me.”

Owen Meany was good, however. He was original. I’m not sure what I thought about the trope of writing everything he said in capital letters, but whatever; you can get away with it. You were interested in what happened to him from the beginning, and he was, admittedly, the one thing worth having in this too-long novel.

After the 300th page or so, I just stopped caring about all of these characters. I did want to know how Owen’s prophecy of his own death turned out, but other than that, I couldn’t care less who John’s real father turned out to be, or what happened to Hester (there’s another predictable stock character. The sexy-but-troubled girl who bottles up her feelings. Yeah. Haven’t met her before). I was just ready to be done with all of them.

Irving’s writing is not particularly skillful, but it’s not bad. It’s like mayonnaise. You’ll eat it if it’s already on your sandwich, but you wouldn’t purposefully request it.

Bad books make all my sarcasm leak out. Sorry.

READ IF: Your landlord tells you to. Or if you like mayonnaise.

All that aside, this is what I’m currently reading, and what you can expect to hear more about soon: 

The Confessions, St. Augustine
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

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