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Forgetting the Book of Forgetting

October 30, 2009

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
By Milan Kundera

I picked this one up at the beginning of the semester, because when I can’t think of anything to read, I’ll just choose a Kundera novel I haven’t read. This is because I always know what I’m getting with Kundera. I’m going to get some confused, dispossessed middle-aged Czechs who have lots of extramarital sex and are staggered by what communism has done to their psyches but don’t know how to process it. That’s what Kundera always delivers.

Even though it’s basically the same story every time, I keep returning to Kundera because he’s just good. He’s good at this story. He knows it so well and he can write it fluidly, with that persuasive movement that marks his prose. Kundera isn’t tired of these people and he ensures that we don’t either.

He tells us that they are stunted in love:

The absolute quality of love is actually a desire for absolute identification. We want the woman we love to swim as slowly as we do; we want her to have no past of her own to look back on happily. But as soon as the illusion of absolute identity falls apart (the girl looks back happily on her past or picks up speed), love turns into a permanent source of that great torment we call litost.

He’s going to be reflexive:

The reason we write books is that our kids don’t give a damn. We turn to an anonymous world because our wife stops up her ears when we talk to her.

He’s going to remind us that history always counts:

In times when history still moved slowly, events were few and far between and easily committed to memory. They formed a commonly accepted backdrop for thrilling scenes of adventure in private life. Nowadays, history moves at a brisk clip. A historical event, though soon forgotten, sparkles the morning after with the dew of novelty. No longer a backdrop, it is now the adventure itself, an adventure enacted before the backdrop of the commonly accepted banality of private life.

But that’s what we rely on him for. It’s notable that even though I only read this book in September, I can’t tell you any of the characters’ names. I don’t even remember much of what happened to them. Their faces and story lines begin to blur with the other dozen or so Kundera characters I’ve already met. But I don’t mind. I’ve met them all before anyway.

READ IF: Like me, you’ve already gone through Kundera’s better novels (The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Joke) and have some time to kill on a cozy autumn evening.


Unhistoric Acts

October 23, 2009


By George Eliot

There are books everyone tells you to read. Ulysses, War and Peace, something from Proust. And then you read them and think, That really wasn’t that good. The world has been telling me to read Middlemarch for years and so I went out and bought it, but it sat untouched on my shelves for almost five years. It was nearly 900 pages. Who has that kind of time anymore?

This summer, I decided I would make the time for it and so I brought Eliot’s masterpiece with me to Lakewood, Colo. I finally started the book in July, after laboring through Within a Budding Grove. As soon as I’d finished the very first page and been introduced to Dorothea and Celia Brooke, I felt like I was home again. Proust is amazing, of course, but reading Proust is traveling endlessly in a foreign country (Marcel’s consciousness) and after a thousand pages of travel, you just want to go home. Middlemarch brought me back.

Eliot writes with that familiar, 19th-century flow, drawing you into a universe entirely of her own possession, and does not let you go. The power went out for three days at my house in Lakewood and so I spent hours with Middlemarch, hardly putting it down for the day. I felt as if I’d fairly floated out of Colorado for the rest of the afternoon. It is a vast undertaking, but it’s a vast world she’s created. The people who populate this book are unusual because they are “historical,” but they are lovable, because we know what to expect from them; we’ve seen them operate before.

The exception to predictability, however, must lie entirely with Dorothea Brooke. She’s an extraordinary creation. I think we could all benefit from being more like her. A brilliant, thoroughly dynamic heroine, she makes the most mistakes and learns the most from them. Despite her often pitiable position, Dorothea fights despair with a heartiness that can only come from within. Her compassion covers all that she does. Speaking on behalf of poor Mr. Lydgate, she says, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”

Eliot writes with force and beauty. She might be the most Tolstoyan of her kind. Her business is grounded in probing the complicated depths of human connection. The last lines of the novel hit me with a thudding power:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

READ IF: There is no “if” here. I join “everyone” in telling you, quite simply, READ.

Is it Fate, or is it Family?

October 16, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz

Successful authors, it seems to me, figure out what they know and what they’re good at–and then they keep writing it. Over and over again. It’s the same story every time, but you keep coming back to it because they’re so good at this one story. Milan Kundera has one story (post-communist Czech couples have love affairs and try to piece together their lives), Jhumpa Lahiri has one story (Indian immigrants feel misunderstood), even my beloved Virginia Woolf has one story (Can people, isolated as they are, ever find unity?). Junot Diaz has his one story, too: Tortured family sagas of Dominican immigrants.

But he’s great at it. He writes with charm and humor and you keep coming back, even though you’ve read it all before. I was enchanted by Diaz after reading Drown, his celebrated collection of short stories; he blew me away. But when I started The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I began to get the uncanny sense that I’d met these people before.

Even if you haven’t read Drown, you have at least met Oscar before. He was that socially inept, fat kid who lurked in the hallways of our high schools and sat alone at a table in our American History class at our universities. He always ate alone. He was always reading books with galaxies on the covers and playing games on his computer. We gravitate to Oscar and his plight because we recognize it. Diaz’s craftiness lies in his ability to lure you to care about Oscar, and hope desperately for his lot to improve. But it doesn’t. Diaz was never one for sugar-coating reality.

I wasn’t initially sure what to make of the device of footnotes throughout the novel. I’ll admit I expected to be annoyed by them, but they were often the most amusing paragraphs in the book, and it’s Diaz’s way of giving you the background of Dominican history that he wants you to have without being pedantic.

Oddly enough, Drown felt more whole to me than this novel. But it did, after all, win the Pulitzer Prize. And I don’t regret reading it; meeting the troubled Wao family, harking from a long line of family unluckiness (or was it Trujillo’s curse?), worth it.

READ IF: You love a good, tortured family saga about immigrants in America.

A personal note: Finally revived this blog. I am going to try to post every Friday, and perhaps give it broader focus on media happenings, as well as what I’ve been learning in my time at UNC Press.

Quick update

August 9, 2009

Three things:

1. Updated my reading list for the fall.

2. Joined Good Reads, because my little sister made me, and then spent about an hour during down time reading lists and finding things I’ve read. Can I just say that I’m thoroughly grieved at the clout that “Twilight” fans carry on that site? I’m sorry, but “Breaking Dawn” does NOT belong a list of “The Greatest Classic Novels.”

3. Really enjoying “Middlemarch” right now. Dorothea Brooke is an engaging creation and I’m so fascinated by her. Eliot is a master and this book, more than anything else I’ve read from her, proves it.

Summer hiatus

July 10, 2009

Perhaps I should have just announced this more formally, insead of just dropping off the blog entirely, but I am going take a brief summer break. Working as a copy editor has quashed my desire to read when I get home at midnight and I’ve only read six books this summer, to my great shame. I did just finish “Between the Acts” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” however. The collected poems of Anna Akhmatova and Augustine’s “Confessions” are still lingering on my bedside table, along with Bill Walsh’s “Lapsing into a Comma.” And I can’t even begin to think about “Middlemarch”…

But I will be back in the fall, likely with lots of thoughts about Woolf and the other novels I manage to squeeze into my queue.

See you in September!

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

The Quiet Tragedies of British Schoolchildren and French Families

May 19, 2009
Never Let Me go

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro

I think all of Ishiguro’s genius lies in one quality: subtlety. He somehow manages to say a lot in very few phrases and gestures. Kathy, the narrator of this chilling and quietly disturbing novel, is an ambiguous protagonist. At the end of the story, you’re not sure if you actually know her any better than you did when you began. But she upsets and fascinates you. That’s at least certain. Kathy and her friends have to cope with a unique set of issues. Hailsham, a boarding school where the story begins, seems like any other English primary school at first. But as Kathy softly reveals the details, you start to realize these aren’t ordinary kids. If you haven’t read it, I won’t give it away, but it’s worth your time. I think I’m a bit more partial to the other novel of his that I’ve read, “The Remains of the Day.” But Kathy and the butler seem to be characterized mirrors of one another: the quiet and unsettling Brit with a secret that begs to be mined. 

READ IF: You want a well-written page-turner that doesn’t act like a page-turner.

Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette
Honoré de Balzac

After months of modernists, it is refreshing to return to the conventional realist novel: a novel that gives you the satisfying chaos of family drama, sex and tragedy. Balzac certainly delivers. I read half of this 400-page story while trapped in the courthouse for seven hours, and it was absolutely absorbing. Balzac is funny and an accurate portraitist of people, especially sad, evil people. Cousin Bette, the ugly spinster with a vendetta against the Hulot family, is a fascinating creation, and she seems to compete with her accomplice, the indefatigable coquette Madame Marneffe, for the position of villain. The entire story hinges on money: money and sex, money and family, money and tragedy. It’s an engrossing, thoroughly satisfying story.  

READ IF: You’d like a long, if enjoyable, introduction to Balzac. (I think I liked this better than “Pere Goriot,” but both are worthwhile.)

In the past few weeks, I also read two Chekhov novellas (“In the Ravine” and “Peasants”) and a handful of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, along with a bit of Robert Hass. But I’m going to hold off on the reviewing until I get to Denver. I have a fairly ambitious list to accomplish while I’m working there this summer:

Middlemarch, Eliot
Within a Budding Grove, Proust
Between the Acts, Woolf
Three Guineas, Woolf
The Confessions, Augustine
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan
The District and Circle, Heaney
Selected Poems, Anna Akhmatova

Until then!