Wednesday, January 7, 2015

In which the Polar Vortex forces me to write a post

I think I would have to rank The Way We Live Now among my favorite book titles ever. It's maybe not a particularly original phrase but something about the rhythm of it appeals to me. It's evocative and immediate; as soon as you read the phrase it conjures up something of the change we all have to deal with in our own lives. Maybe that's just me. Anyway, not only is it a nice little string of words, it also fits the book perfectly and even lends a little focus to a fairly wide-ranging plot.

Y'all know I love some Trollope. Apparently this is one of the books that gets singled out as his "masterpiece" and I can see that. There's a lot going on, but the book never gets lost in the weeds or bogged down (or other landscape metaphors). Even as I was reading I was impressed by the way the different elements unfolded, and pleased to find that there were no over-the-top satirical digressions like some others of his books (yaaaaaay).

At the center of the book is change, and particularly change around the relationship between money, honor, and social acceptance. The sinister Augustus Melmotte is making unheard of sums of money, and he has a daughter who will presumably be the heir to all this. Although he, his Jewish wife (yes, it goes there, or skirts close), and the mousey daughter are completely uncouth, various impecunious nobles and members of respectable society start cosying up and/or scheming to become part of his business or to marry the daughter. Melmotte is making his money through -- brace yourselves -- SPECULATION

which obviously makes everything worse. Trollope's big point is that there's no there there, both in terms of the money (that's not really a spoiler, is it?) and in terms of Melmotte's social acceptance. People don't really want to associate with him, but the fact that other people apparently are willing to tolerate him (for his ££££) makes them willing to go along too. Here, this passage captures the line of thinking at the heart of the novel nicely:
There is money going. There must be money where there is all this buying and selling of shares. Where does your uncle get the money with which he is living like a prince at San Francisco? Where does Fisker get the money with which he is speculating in New York? Where does Melmotte get the money which makes him the richest man in the world? Why should not you get it as well as the others?
Trollope obviously has a problem with Melmotte as a foreigner, and the book certainly leaves the door open to anti-semitism, at the very least. It's interesting that Melmotte himself is not Jewish, but his wife, who basically does and says nothing, is Jewish; and also that in an episode in which a young lady decides to marry an old rich Jewish guy for the material advantages and gets rejected by her parents for doing so, it's the Jewish financier who comes off best of all. So while Melmotte's cosmopolitan background and association with, yes, Jewish moneylenders, are all very sinister, Trollope seems to be pretty deliberate in trying to make his book not about evil Jews corrupting everything. Certainly he's not up to modern post-Holocaust levels of decency and sensitivity, but he does also seem to be trying, in the context of his own time and contemporary developments, to align himself on the progressive, open-minded end of things. And in this book, it's actually America that is the most consistent source of sketchiness and danger. Anyway, just as important is the fact that the "respectable" English characters do not cover themselves in glory. There's lots of shameless conniving around cash-grab marriage matches; the young heirs to respectable positions are pissing away their inheritance and youth gambling and corrupting young working women; and of course everyone's primarily concerned with what everyone else thinks of them.

Well, that's what Trollope's concerned with, but it's an entertaining book because the characters are interesting. Trollope does his thing with the romantic pairings, showing how love is both a natural phenomenon that can't be helped or created, but also something that can be influenced by circumstances and even rational considerations. I just like the way he writes these things; it's not just overwhelming romantic love that wins the day, but rather a combination of (irrational) affection and (rational) admiration that lead to a happy pairing. Trollope likes giving counter-examples, where people are attracted to each other or respect each other but the match just doesn't work because the other half of the equation is missing, and while the mother or the lover or someone else might urge the girl (it's usually the girl) to go through with it anyway, Trollope upholds the ideal that both things ought to be there. Well -- he upholds it for the middle class at least. Ruby Ruggles has affection and romance confused (due to reading novels, bad girl), but I don't think she ever had much affection for whats-his-face the miller.

A surprise awesome character in this book is Dolly Longstaffe -- Dolly, short for Adolphus, he's a dude and yes that threw me for... a while. If we're keeping a list of proto-Bertie-Woosters, he goes right on there, not least he becomes the one who sets the ball rolling for the great unraveling in the final third of the novel. He starts out as a kind of nothing background character and, thanks in no small part to his own clueless bullheadedness, becomes a kind of hero in the end by sticking to his guns and refusing to play the game(s).

FINALLY, I come to the thing that prompted me to actually sit down and write this. Hilariously (to me), one of the great modern social evils Trollope wanted to expose in this book was the evil of authors and reviewers colluding to promote books. That's right: threats to the social order, new forms of financial trickery, and FALLACIOUS BOOK REVIEWING, oh noes! So in service of this very important theme one of the main characters is Lady Carbury, who is seeking literary fame. (There is a lot to be said about Lady Carbury, and how she is a much more sympathetic character than Trollope means her to be, and how his solution is for her to just support a male writer, but dammit this post is already too long.) At one point she starts writing a novel and she names the main character Cordinga, "selected by Lady Carbury as never having been heard before either in the world of fact or in that of fiction." Which I was reminded of when I read Alice's post about Carmilla, because I was all "that's not a real name, silly Victorian authors."

UGH FINE I will make brief comments about Lady Carbury. If you read her plot as "Trollope is offended by no-talent people who only write for the sake of getting attention, and who are willing to game the system to get that attention," it's like, ok T, you're kind of an elitist dick, but if you're seriously bothered by this, fine, whatever. But the fact that she's a woman, and her failings as an author seem characteristically feminine -- well. And then he gives her this super-sympathetic backstory, where she's had a really shitty life, including an abusive marriage, and so she has set her cap at literary fame to redeem her life now that she's a widow. So while she behaves really awfully to her children, it's hard to see her literary aspirations as anything other than mildly humorous, and certainly not as a point against her. Again, as an individual character who doesn't have any particular love or talent for writing, it kind of works for her to end up settling to enjoy the literary scene through a social connection to it rather than as a celebrated author -- but that's not actually it, is it: it's that her proper role in the end is as wife and hostess. Mmhm.

Anyway. As usual, I did really like this book even though Trollope is like, Dead White Guy Number One. I read it over Christmas and even though it's a big ol' Victorian novel I happily picked it up whenever I got a chance.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

#Minithon (updated with thrilling conclusion)

I feel the need to record my mini-participation in today's Mini Readathon.
Click for other, more awesome posts
I woke up this morning at about 7am, mostly because my head is full of Sinus Death. And then I had breakfast of sausage links (mini-er than normal grilling sausages), pills (small things, obvs), and coffee (first rule of Minithon is that the coffee is never mini).

My mini reading material of choice this morning was comic books because those have a mini word count. And because when you are feeling a bit beat up and lazy, no one understands better than Hawkeye.

Someone else put this on the internet, for the record
My other reading material today is the London Review of Books, issues of which are piling up on my couch. Although it is printed on satisfyingly large paper, the LRB is in fact made up of reviews and essays, both of which are pretty mini, so there.

And just to amplify the mininess of the day, I actually am probably not doing much reading this afternoon because I promised a friend to help with childcare at an event she's hosting today, so there's further smallness for you. Mini on, fellow mini-ers.

I read volumes 1 and 2 of Hawkeye and loved them all over again. Because, boomerang. Then I went and did my babysitting thing, which took me up to the end of the official Minithon time frame, but I ended up reading about a half of an LRB anyway. I'm a doctor, not a timekeeper! (No, really, I'm a doctor now, Alice isn't just trolling me in some inscrutable, vaguely complimentary way.) And then I watched 30 Rock and knitted. Well done, Minithonners! Let's all drink little airline bottles of booze in celebration.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Haven't we had enough voting this week? -or- Waiting for Goodreads to send my dang sticker

I don't really use Goodreads. I like the scanning of barcodes part (who wouldn't; except probably someone who spends their working days doing that anyway) and I like the idea of having this automagically generated report of what I've read. Furthermore it can be fun and rewarding to enter my page progress. But I don't write reviews, I hate doing stars, I don't really add people as friends, and it's a lot less cool to log in and see what I've abandoned or stalled out on. (Is there a good way to "finish" a book in the sense of quitting it? I haven't played around with it much, but Goodread's interface seems kind of inflexible compared to my usual patterns of reading, which involve a lot of not-reading.)

However, in addition to being a place where people can apparently carry on utterly pointless feuds, Goodreads is a place where you can click on buttons to vote for Book(s) Of The Year. I saw some chatter on Twitter that one book I definitely support had been nominated so I dusted off my log-in and cast my vote. Then I started looking for other books to vote for. When I didn't see any other books I've read as nominees I started thinking up write-in candidates.

And that's more or less when I realized how little I read in the year it's been published. There are a few things, notably Pioneer Girl, that I've read and liked and which qualify. One book, I really wanted to vote for it but the site wouldn't let me. Since I live in a pig sty studio apartment it was sitting in arm's reach, and I checked the publication date: 2014! Or no, wait, 2012; the US hardback came out in 2013 and the paperback in 2014. So fine, you win, Goodreads.

Since academics are slow, and since this is the centenary year, I think The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 still qualifies as a new book, though. It certainly qualifies as a book you should read. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you want one book to read for the centenary, this is it. That's not a very original opinion; this book has gotten a lot of praise. July 1914 is a quicker, pacier read (and has bigger type), and is essentially narrative, whereas Clark goes broader and deeper, exploring various factors and facets of the prewar world in a more explicitly analytical way. If you are really getting serious about the topic (reading two books qualifies), I strongly recommend getting hold of the review essay by John Deak published in the June 2014 Journal of Modern History titled "The Great War and the Forgotten Realm: the Habsburg Monarchy and the First World War." Most academic libraries, I dare say, have some sort of public provision if you want it, and Deak's review of Austrian history and historiography is invaluable.

Anyway, back to the book. The first chapter of The Sleepwalkers is an overview of Serbian politics in the nineteenth century, which is such an amazing, mindblowing, perfect choice I can, indeed, hardly even. Chapter two then deals with Austria-Hungary and its internal politics. Clark sets the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary front and center, takes it seriously, and is never too eager to sweep it aside in favor of great-power conflicts that must obviously be the real truth. One of the simple but excellent insights here is the way Clark chooses to make an analogy between the Serbian nationalists of the 1910s and modern terrorist organizations. That kind of thing can be tenuous, and at any rate it's liable to become dated, but in this case it's convincing and moreover an extremely effective way to quickly get the reader into the scene. The second section, chapters three through six, treats the international political situation not simply as a matter of international relations or the interaction of policy but a messy tangle of individuals often working at cross-purposes. This is a theme that will resonate with the July 1914 book, but Clark goes into much more detail, focusing country by country with subheadings like "Who Governed in St Petersburg?" and "Who Governed in Paris?" This section deals with a lot of different themes and theories that appear in "1914" literature, so you get wonderful little passages like "A Crisis of Masculinity?" (Side note: Christopher Clark must be superhuman, for all that he's able to cover in this book.) Finally, in the third section, we get back to the July crisis proper. This section covers familiar ground but is able to draw on all the consideration of the preceding 360 pages to really supercharge the narrative.

Guys, I'm fawning over this book, which is so uncool and gets one nowhere in one's career, but whatevs. It's amazing the level of research here and even more amazing how effortlessly it's put across. I put this in my suitcase when I went to Rome this summer, even though it takes up a significant amount of space, simply because I couldn't put it down. It's a long book, I know, but if you like reading history I guarantee you will love this, and however far you get into it you will get a lot out of it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Abroad isn't at all what it was."

The Towers of Trebizond was a Newberry Book Sale purchase that almost wasn't. I picked it up and put it down, and picked it up, rinse, repeat. On the one hand, the camel on the cover is pretty cool-looking; on the other, sigh, that woman is drinking from a Union Jack teacup. Union Jack teacups make me feel a bit tired.

It turned out that my ambivalence about the cover was a premonition. The book follows Laurie, the narrator, a young woman who accompanies her Aunt Dot and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg on a mission to Turkey to convert Muslims to high-church Anglicanism and introduce the women to freedom, education, and hats. (This was published in the early 1950s, if that description makes you raise an eyebrow.) It's relentlessly comic and intensely Anglican. Let us take as our text:
A group of inhabitants stood by the road as we drove up; they were dark and sad, and they may have been Rogues, but I thought they looked more like those obscure, dejected, maladjusted, and calamity-prone characters who come into Tenebrae, such as Aleph, Teth, Beth, Calph, Jod, Ghimel, Mem, and the rest, and they sounded as if they were talking in that afflicted strain that those characters talk in, and saying things like 'he has brought me into darkness and not into light', 'he has compassed me with gall and labour', 'he has built against me round about, that I may not get out, he has upset my paths', and ' my eyes have failed with weeping, my bowels are disturbed, my liver is poured out', and so on, till all the lights go out and there is nothing but the dark.
Laurie speaks/is written in these long, run-on sentences that convey naivety or something and it got old for me fast. I think she's meant to be sort of "daughter of the house" age, i.e. between 17 and 21? but I don't know, it just bugged me. And then while I get that Tenebrae joke (a) I feel I deserve a gold star for getting it, and (b) it's, like, twice as long as it should be.

I could see the humor on the page but it just didn't connect. Sentences like this:
Father Chantry-Pigg always spoke as if he had just parted from the Byzantines, and was apt to sigh when he mentioned them, though, as aunt Dot pointed out, he had missed them by five centuries.
 make me feel sure that there are people out there for whom this is a cherished book, The Funniest Book On Earth, but for me every recognizable foible or outlandish personality quirk got instantly beaten to death and then ground into powder with Laurie's long sentences and slow-moving paragraphs.

You will not, at this point, be surprised if I say that I got to page 53, mostly by skimming, and then remembered with relief the concept of giving a book fifty pages to grab your interest. I'm disappointed, though, because I was planning to look super smart by making a connection between this book and Scoop. Maybe someday I'll be in a better mood and come back to this, but for now I am moving on.

Monday, November 3, 2014

This post brought to you in a cleft stick

Fun fact: you can be "finishing your dissertation" for a year (or more!) but at some point, you have to actually finish the dang thing -- and it's, like, work. But then, as you wait for the defense and hope hope hope there are five people not hating your work, you have some weird awkward space to attempt job applications and read things again.

When I bought this copy of Scoop at Open Books, having skipped out of a play with Alice like delinquents or possibly discerning theater-goers, she said something like, "you found a pretty-covered Waugh!" It is that exactly; I like these very distinctive editions, although I'm not fond of the fact that they have not even one sentence of plot description on the back. Look, I just want to be sure I haven't read this one before, but I guess I'm just supposed to be sold by the author's name. It's Waugh, what more could you possibly want to know, I imagine the publisher saying. Or it could be ironically appropriate since in Waugh's books actually knowing anything is generally a handicap, and those who can spin a line, go with the flow, bluff their way through, are the ones who get ahead.

Scoop is certainly in that vein; a socialite convinces a newspaper magnate to hire a trendy writer friend to cover a civil war in Africa, but the newspaper ends up hiring a rather Bilbo-ish country life columnist with a similar name and sending him instead. The civil war isn't real, unless maybe it is, although it doesn't really matter as long as the reports being filed at home are exciting enough.

Like A Handful of Dust, this is a book with a sharp, almost contemptuous driving energy. Western ideologues and journalists have concocted the fake civil war, while capitalist-imperialist interests are behind whatever is actually happening. No one operates under any concept of truth or justice, and this is as true in the fictitious Ismaelia as in London. I was reminded of the current fluster about Ebola as I read; hundreds or thousands of people can die in Africa but it doesn't get as much reaction as one death (or one possible ill person!) in America or Western Europe. Waugh's not making quite that point, but he is talking about a similar kind of self-centeredness and callousness.

It occurs to me that I might not describe Scoop as "funny". It is funny, start to finish it's funny; but if I had a dedicated shelf for comedy, it wouldn't get shelved there. (I am tagging this post humor, but that's metadata. Har har.) It's not a lighthearted book, I think. Waugh's writing reads as a bit angry to me, and I'm not entirely sure that I'm right about that. Maybe I'm bringing certain preconceptions about Waugh as a literary writer to the table, or maybe media manipulation, commercially expedient crisis, etc, just don't feel like much of a laughing matter in 2014. But I got this sense from A Handful of Dust too, where Waugh is unsparing in dishing out disaster in the real world outside the London social round. So, consistency in the writer or consistency in the reader?

Monday, August 18, 2014

"That which was supposed to happen had happened"

This is a heck of a book. I suspected it might be: I mentioned to a twitter contact that I'd just taken it out from the library and he told me to get in touch when I'd finished it, because he wanted someone to talk about the ending with. And yet -- almost right up until it happened -- I was still surprised at how taken aback I was by the ending. In the best possible way.

Look, we may or may not know each other, and I certainly can't tell you how to spend your time, but I really think you want to read What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

The central characters, Charlie and Sophie, were intense college lovers at their exclusive liberal-arts-college writing program, and in the novel's present, Sophie comes back into Charlie's life under murky circumstances. The novel alternates between the two of them, unfolding the past both directly and indirectly.

This is a book about lives and narratives: the versions of our lives and others' lives that we construct and tell (think of the title as a question at a party: "Whatever happened to..."), and the relationship between those stories and real events, the march of time. What does it mean when it seems like someone else's story should be to fall in love with, or reconcile with, or help me, but they refuse? Can we know another person the way we know a character in a book? What does it take to change our own story; however sincere a conversion, can it really ever change our path? What Happened to Sophie Wilder effortlessly (!) drew me into these deep waters, as Charlie tries to piece together the plot of Sophie's life and find his own place in it. It's effective at conjuring up all these different layers of narrative and reality without getting in the way of the actual experience of reading; it's only when you get to the (puzzling, contradictory) ending, as you review the whole thing in your mind, that all of this comes to the surface. I guess it's a little like those Magic Eye posters (google it, youngsters): the ending knocks your eyes out of whack, so to speak, and then the thing you were looking at all along suddenly transforms into something deep and textured and surprising.

I'm trying not to give away too much (the unfolding is part of the effect), and so I'm falling into freshman lit major mumbo jumbo and possibly making the book sound weird or hard. It's not; it's an engaging novel that you can happily read on the train. Just as a story about young people figuring out what to do with their lives, it caught and held my interest. Plus the writing is notably good.
I miss that about those days---the freedom to want; the belief that our desires could never disappoint us, so long as we remained loyal to them; the sense that we could choose our fate, as though the absence of choice weren't exactly what made it fate.
And if you think, a novel about twenty-something capital-w Writers in New York City, goodie; I had a similar thought and, hilariously, on the next page it agreed with me:
Outside the world of mean-spirited media blogs no one had any idea who we were. Max secretly faulted me for this, though in truth people were simply tired of comfortable young white guys from New York. I couldn't blame them; I was tired of us, too.
So go get What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Better yet, get it and give a copy to a friend and make a pact to get together and talk about the ending when you've finished it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Adventures in "giallo" literature

I believe in getting to the airport early for an international flight, but for various reasons I was outrageously early for my flight out of Fiumicino, meaning that I got to investigate all the shops at my leisure (and my wallet's peril). This included a Feltrinelli's outlet -- the Waterstones or Barnes & Noble of Italy -- which had a single, but generous, table of books in Inglese. This is an interesting thing, the forty or so titles in English that make up the selection in an airport bookstore; what would you choose and/or expect? In this case, there were the usual sorts of things, I guess, the supernatural romances, the pinky-purple chick lit, the conspiracy thrillers, the award short-list titles; but also, and I thought this was a nice touch, a selection of novels with Italian connections, whether written by Italians or simply set in Italy. And among these was a detective novel translated from Italian which sounded pretty interesting, but I virtuously chose not to spend my money in such a fashion (and promptly went and spent four times as much-- look, I don't have to explain myself to you). Having arrived home, I tried asking google what that book was so I could look for it at the library, and google suggested the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri. Now, I think the Big G is wrong, I don't think Camilleri is the author I saw at the airport--

"Wish you had Glass now, eh?" - no, really no
--but Camilleri was readily available at the library and so I took out The Shape of Water, the first of this apparently much-loved series.

A man is found dead of a heart attack in his car, parked in an area notorious for prostitution. But of course, the dead man was a political heavyweight, this is Sicily, and it's a crime novel, so it's not so simple as all that.
"Wonderful, eh?"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"It's wonderful, that is, that someone in this fine province of ours should decide to die a natural death and thereby set a good example. Don't you think? Another two or three deaths like Luparello's and we'll start catching up with the rest of Italy."
I found it interesting that the tagline on my edition is a novel of food, wine, and homicide in small-town Sicily, which makes it sound sort of travelogue-esque; plenty of murder mysteries trade on readers'/viewers' interest in the setting, serving up atmosphere along with a puzzle.* In fact, The Shape of Water is a fairly sordid little story of sex, politics, scandal, and death, and while food features from time to time, I wouldn't say it's particularly prominent. The tagline may be drawing on the series as a whole rather than this particular installment.

I didn't call the book "gritty" there because the writing seemed a little too spare for that particular adjective. The quotes on the back compare Camilleri to Hammett and Chandler, so I have a vague notion that this is a matter of style. It wasn't my favorite; in a couple of places it felt flat rather than taut or hard-bitten or whatever. Nevertheless, there were parts that stood out, including passages that were genuinely funny, which as we all know is not easy to do.

At the end of the book I discovered endnotes which explained some of the political references and undercurrents and gave rough dollar values for the lire quoted in the text -- these notes were minimal and genuinely useful, or would have been if there were any indication in the text that they existed! Seriously, no asterisks or anything. Hopefully that was corrected in later editions; pity the translator who went to the trouble of compiling them if not.

In sum, this book didn't totally win me over but then it didn't turn me off either. I have another volume in the series (not the second one, but a later one) and I'm still going to read that one too. I didn't see anything here that would make me particularly love this series the way that readers in other languages apparently do, but neither did I dislike the book. Certainly Sicily makes a unique environment for crime stories, and I thought it was handled really well; I mean, I don't know what would actually be "realistic" but this didn't feel didactic or exoticized. I suppose that's one value of reading a translated book.

* Has anyone else seen Endeavor? The second series just aired on PBS. I never liked Inspector Morse much (although Lewis I like), but Endeavor is pretty gorgeous.