Wednesday, May 29, 2013

I'm not convinced anything in this post makes sense

I'm sitting here having something of an omg moment, because there are so many things in the world and in my life that I want to (help) accomplish and yet I do so very little and, hello, exhibit A, there are two emails I've been avoiding in my inbox for two weeks now. And that's reminded me of something I could do to avoid those for a wee bit longer.

Welcome to this blog post, about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

I really liked this book. More specifically I was in awe of and delighted by it. From about halfway through I tried to put together my reaction and here's the best I came up with: say you're visiting an art museum for the first time. You're on vacation, or it's Sunday, or whatever, and it was free, so you're sort of drifting merrily through the galleries. Pictures pictures pictures: landscapes, ladies, naked ladies, landscapes, Dutch interiors, shoopdedoo. And then as you're casting your eye lazily across one wall, a picture jumps out at you. This, you think, this is the real thing. I've looked at all these other pictures that are superficially doing the same stuff: but this one works. This is the piece of art all those other paintings are trying to be.

You know you like my pretentious analogies, don't lie
I haven't read many (any?) other books about Jewish-Americans or golems or comic books or whatnot but somehow this book felt like it got something that other books I've read missed. It just clicked for me in a way I wouldn't necessarily have predicted. And it was darn entertaining too. I don't think it's changed my life or anything, and maybe I won't remember it at all in a few years, but man! It hit me the right way this time.

So lemme tell you a little story about this book. I bought it for £2 used with the express intention of getting rid of it when I was done. I actually finished it when I was staying in a hotel, and when I saw a bookshelf in the lobby with miscellaneous books on it, I got super excited about this perfect chance to pass the book on, indirectly, to someone else. So excited that I got rid of the book before I'd made any notes about favorite passages or copied out any quotes.

*~*~so genius~*~*

But, to cycle back around to the start of this post, I think one of the reasons I liked this book so much was the character of Josef Kavalier. Of all the characters, he was the one I was most interested in (and really, he's the main character, so that's good). During the Second World War, he gains a sort of notoriety among his fellow soldiers because he never opens his mail, and when someone confronts him about it he (I think, see above) responds that... he just didn't open it. He couldn't quite deal with it, so he didn't. So, uh, I don't think it says anything good about me and my psyche that I do that sometimes too, but it was a detail that I liked.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Frenchy Frenchy French

I know this is annoying and pretentious, but here's me having read a best-seller and my major takeaway is, Golly, what does it Say about Us as a Society that The Elegance of the Hedgehog was so popular?

I disliked the two main characters. One is a concierge in a hoity-toity building; plain and from a humble background, she has taught herself a lot about culture, philosophy, literature, music, but feels compelled to hide it under a stereotypical "stupid old woman" surface for the comfort of her wealthy employers. The other is a young teenager, also highly intelligent, who hides her brilliance in order to be left alone by her vapid, elitist family and peers. They're both really bitter about leading lives of deception, and scornful of the people they're deceiving. This all seems pretty pointless to me. At least the concierge is pursuing her interests though. The teenager is planning to commit suicide and burn down her flat in a big Gesture, and is keeping notebooks of profound thoughts to leave behind her in the meantime. So, massively selfish as well.

The back of my edition has a quote from the Guardian: "Resistance is futile... You might as well buy it before someone recommends it for your book group. Its charm will make you say yes." Ignoring that half-hearted last sentence, that's a pretty hilariously lackluster endorsement, and sums up my expectation going in and my reaction after the fact. I guess book club members identify with bitter geniuses who feel compelled to hide their brilliance; and not only do they identify with them, they find them "charming". Well, they are French.

Believe it or not, I didn't actually hate this book. It's not bad, it's just... meh. It is extremely French in its obsession with the "oughts" of social position and particularly with the idea that great culture only belongs to one kind of person. Lordy, the French. I did find it blazingly predictable that Japanese culture is held out as pure, beautiful, and generally perfect. Sadly, this stereotype is not in any way subverted. Save us, Japan!

It's dangerous to write a book in which your characters are supposed to be super-intelligent and having profound thoughts about culture on every page, but actually this one pulls it off. There were several points where I did, truly, feel enriched by the observations of these characters. For example, here is the teenager on grammar:
Personally, I think that grammar is a way to attain Beauty... when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language... I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility.
And the concierge on "Dido's Lament" by Purcell:
In my opinion, the most beautiful music for the human voice on earth. It is beyond beautiful, it is sublime, because of the incredibly dense succession of sounds, as if each were linked to the next by an invisible force and, while each one remains distinct, they all melt into one another, at the edge of the human voice, verging on an animal cry. But there is a beauty in these sounds that no animal cry can ever attain, a beauty born of the subversion of phonetic articulation and the transgression of the careful verbal language that ordinarily creates distinct sounds.
I liked this book if for no other reason than that it reminded me to go listen to this piece again; and if people have discovered various works of art or music because of this book then it deserves every copy it sold.

One more:
To those who have not understood that the enchantment of language comes from such nuances, I shall address the following prayer: beware of commas.
The ending I found shocking and predictable all at once, and while I never did come to like the characters, I think I came around to something like sympathy, so there's that. All in all, I think this is a book worth reading if the opportunity comes around. And if my (hypothetical) book club picked it, I wouldn't decide to be "out of town" for the relevant dates.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Insanity! No, really: prepare the padded room

Lady Audley's Secret: it's no Woman in White.

Penguin knows that we cannot resist Coralie Bickford-Smith's beautiful clothbound designs, and so they've introduced (in the UK anyway; have these made to America yet? can't remember) the Penguin English Library. The fiends. I mean, look at this cover:

These are paperback editions with a slightly rubbery matte finish, and very reasonably priced; this one is £6. I noticed that this series started with the usual suspects, Austen, Dickens, etc, and you can tell it's been successful because they're digging pretty deeply into the classics catalog now. Coralie Bickford-Smith: cover design crack. (Side note: I was relieved when I saw her name credited on the back of these volumes; at first I was concerned that Penguin had genuinely ripped themselves off, so I'm glad that it's rather a case of a good designer getting more work.)

This was not an especially notable book; it takes far sterner insaner stuff than this to impress a veteran of Alice's Woman in White Readalong.

There are a couple of notable things about it, though. I did like Robert Audley, who's a sort of lovable layabout who nevertheless gets sucked into Mysterious Doings when he can't just let his friend's mysterious disappearance go. It's a sort of Code-of-the-Woosters thing. Braddon doesn't recognize the good thing she has here though, and like a true killjoy Victorian sensationalist, she seems to think we'll actually dislike Audley for being a nominal barrister who doesn't really care about making a legal career but is happy to lounge around leading a mildly dissolute, unstriving bachelor life. In the final analysis, Audley is only an embryonic awesome character; Braddon sort of leads him through a conversion to being serious-minded and diligent and booooo-ring.

Granted, it's been many, many weeks since I finished this book and therefore stopped actively thinking about it, but is it even slightly possible to see Audley as a predecessor for Bertie Wooster? Maybe through several other literary degrees of separation that I can't think of? Alternatively, I'm reading the fully developed awesomeness of a character like Bertie onto the unlikely-hero lead of a fairly unpretentious popular thriller. (Yeah, okay, I'm seeing it.) Still.

Audley is embryonically awesome in another way: he's clearly (that is, clumsily) presented as a man qualified to become, for the purposes of the story, the Detective. As someone with legal training, Audley knows about evidence and reasoning and so can investigate the case. In our modern post-post-post-conventional genre world, Audley could carry a whole series of increasingly tenuous mystery novels. Dame Crawley's Enigma. Viscountess Grande's Private Affair. Comtesse L'Enfant's Confidence (the foreign installment). Princess Edwina's Riddle: The Stunning Conclusion of the Robert Audley Chronicles.

As I flip through my dogeared pages, I'm reminded that there's a lot of entertaining wackiness in this book of both the intentional and unintentional variety. For instance, I'm pretty sure Braddon's having a larf when she puts this reflection into Robert Audley's mouth (or brain) (you get it):
The Eastern potentate who declared that women were at the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. They don't know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramides, and Cleopatras, and Joan of Arcs, Queen Elizabeths and Catharine the Seconds, and they riot in battle and murder and clamour and desperation. [sic] If they can't agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they'll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills; and social storms in household teacups.
Suddenly I don't really care to give this blog post an ending. My first sentence stands as my final verdict.