Friday, June 26, 2015

Contemporary Interlude #2: The Festival of Insignificance, by Milan Kundera

Harper, 2015
128 pp
translated by Linda Asher
arc copy -- thank you!

" the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in atrocities, in bloody battles, in the worst is the key to wisdom, it is the key to a good mood."


I'm probably among the few people reading this book who have never read another book by Milan Kundera.  I have some of them on my shelves -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Slowness, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting -- but just haven't quite got to them. So I'm in no condition to judge whether or not this book is, as the cover blurb states, "a summation of his whole work."

The book is structured in seven short parts consisting of small little chapters, rather loosely connected to each other, all light in tone.  All of the main characters in this book are friends living in Paris, all are getting older, and we watch them not only in each other's company but among others in various situations as they contemplate how to achieve a "good mood."   Why?  Because, as Ramon notes, following Hegel's essay on the comical,
"True humor is inconceivable without an infinite good mood...Not teasing, not satire, not sarcasm. Only from the heights of an infinite good mood can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of men, and laugh over it."
So right up my alley.

Ramon also understands futility:
"We've known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush."
The way out ("one possible resistance"): "to not take it seriously," a very liberating concept.

 To me it seems  that even while focusing on and contemplating the value of insignificance, the author is actually making significant points about human beings and human nature in our modern world.   For example, even as the novel opens, the focus is on how our era finds beauty in sameness rather than in individuality, as seen through Alain's contemplation of the navel.  It's not his own -- he watches young women as he waxes about   "how to define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel." After all, in different eras, it's been the uniqueness of  "thighs, buttocks and breasts" among women that's been sexy; now men seem to be much more focused on the navel that is generally the same among all women.  Then we meet Ramon, who really wants to go and see a Chagall exhibit at a museum in the Luxembourg Gardens, but has passed it by several times just knowing he couldn't stand the "people in line, their faces paralyzed by boredom," who once inside would ruin his experience with "their chatter." He'd much prefer to visit the statues of queens, "poets, painters, scientists," in the park, "the garden of geniuses," where "no one stopped to examine their faces or read the inscriptions on the pedestals."  There he can inhale the "indifference, like a soothing calm." Charles and Caliban, once actors and now  catering cocktail parties,  round out the group.  Caliban speaks French, but dons wigs, colors his skin and  pretends to speak only Pakistani.   One thing they all share is a "joke" about Stalin and twenty-four partridges that runs throughout the book, which is looked at, analyzed and in the end, recreated in a sort of artistic fashion.  But they're all friends, and friendship is "sacred," according to what I call a meta pop-in by the author; it's clearly the one thing that he sees as rising above and beyond all of the trivial, insignificant things in life.

This is a book that definitely needs a reread, which sadly, I did not do; I imagine if I went through it a second time I'd probably get way more out of it. I loved the writing in this book, although some readers may find Kundera's few meta pop-ins a little distracting.  Here, his characters are aware that they are governed by a "master" (the author), who "invented us" and made his characters study Hegel. What I enjoyed about this book are all of the philosophical ruminations, for example, about how people come to be divided into apologizers and their opposites, or about how conversational brilliance can be offputting and actually harmful, and the difference between generations and its relationship to communication:
"People meet in the course of life, they talk together, they discuss, they quarrel, without realizing that they're talking to one another across a distance, each from an observatory standing in a different place in time." 
To offer two varying literary critiques: first, from Michael Dirda at the Washington Post who thought it was "very French," and an opposing view from The Guardian, whose author calls it a "stinker."  What most readers will probably miss is the lack of a cohesive story holding this book together, but for me, I was so taken with the philosophical observations and the writing that it worked, and worked well.

I read this book for TLC book tours (thanks!), and you can find the rest of the readers and their thoughts here

Sunday, June 7, 2015

*The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Oxford World's Classics, 1998
originally published 1850
302 pp


If you look at a random reader review of this novel, one of the first things you're apt to see is that The Scarlet Letter was assigned in someone's literature class in high school.  I wasn't that lucky (I took a more classical route -- Shakespeare, the Greeks, etc.)  but then again, I may not have appreciated it as much as I do now, having just read it. I can see why a lot of readers might be turned off of this book -- the language is on the archaic side (lots of thees, thys and thous) -- but once you get past that hurdle, there is an excellent story here.  It is a dark tale that kept me mesmerized for four days, once completely through the night until the sun came up.  If you've ever had an empty feeling (meaning you wanted more) upon turning the final page, well, that's exactly how I felt when I'd finished. I LOVED this book.  I LOVED Hester Prynne.

Since this plot is so well known, I won't rehash it here.  Once again I happened to choose a novel that has been very well covered in academia, and one which can be examined from several perspectives, including  themes, characters, and symbolism. Go look it up -- there are a huge number of scholarly works on this novel (as well as some pretty awful high school essays to be avoided at all cost).  If you haven't yet figured out my reading raison d'etre,  I move right into the psychology of the individual, especially the darker side of human nature, and this book is a goldmine.

Hester Prynne on the scaffold facing the townsfolk before going back to prison.
The Scarlet Letter is an example of an American romance.  That does not at all mean the Harlequin variety,  but rather it is a way of writing  that deals more with internal truths rather than recreating external ones.  Here's a very brief description:

The term ‘Romance’ is frequently used to talk about a particular type of prose which has been considered as the distinctive voice of American fiction. As opposed to the realistic English novel of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Trollope, Elliot or Thackeray (or Tolstoi, or Balzac, or Galdós for all that matter) the American Romance is more emotional and symbolic, less realistic and less structured than the novel. The protagonists of the Romance are heroic, mythical figures, typically lonely individuals facing dark forces which in some mysterious ways grow out of their deep unconscious selves. Frequently the hero dies in the end. Setting is not used realistically, but as a space that recreates the psychological world of the characters. Hawthorne defined it as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with nature of the other”. Through Romance, a fiction is created to expose the inner truth of a real situation.
In writing this book the way he did, Hawthorne was able to come up with a story set some two centuries in his past, allowing him the freedom to examine how human nature may have functioned under the repressive hand of the Puritans. Here he employs different perspectives to relate his tale; he also, as with other romance writers of his time, uses symbolism in nature to great effect.  His darker thematic concerns include alienation, isolation, and hypocrisy among others, and he does such an excellent job of revealing just how these forces worked on the main characters to make them who they are.

It is truly a shame that so many people dislike this book, because it is seriously one of the best I've had the pleasure to read this year.  If you read it slowly, you will discover that rather than it being "boring" or "a yawn" (as some readers have described it), it  is actually a beautiful and human story that I will never forget as long as I live.  If you read it in high school, you might want to go back and read it again, this time slowly. It is worth every second of time you give to it.  Now I'm hoping I'll find something equally as good from around this time...this book has set the bar.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Oh my gosh! It's here! Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh

My mail person today handed me a package from Book Depository -- and it turned out to be the third installment of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, Flood of Fire.  Shrieks of delight!!!!!  I have been waiting impatiently for this book a) to be published and b) to get to my house.  I preordered it from Amazon, but then decided I couldn't wait until August to read it, so I bought it from the UK.  Clearing book decks now, getting ready to open it up and read it.  It feels like Christmas today!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

June: playing catch up; May wrap up

Hester Prynne on trial

At the rate I'm currently reading, I won't finish my stack of American novels for years so I'll be spending June mainly in the 19th century trying to catch up. No excuses. May -- things are in great shape once again as they should be, and my husband's making me laugh most days as he continues his quest to fully automate our house Jetsons style.  Yesterday he managed a successful voice command that turned the front door lights on and off.  When he said "Computer" it answered "Yes, Sire?" ... I hope it doesn't go to his head.

On with the show. Most recently, it was Gabriel Urza's All That Followed (Holt) that gave me hours of reading pleasure. Not out until August, I was lucky enough to have received copy through LibraryThing. I'll be writing about this one soon; in the meantime it's a big fat yes, go get a copy. Urza is a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and it shows in this book.  More pertinent to this year's American-novel plan though, The Adventures of Captain Suggs took me down into the South for a nice change of pace.

Mystery and crime sucked up most of my reading energy in a very good way. Highsmith's Strangers on a Train gave me an entirely new perspective on this book; funny how that happens after returning after x number of years.  In my obscure women crime novelists project,  the letter "M" was represented by Merlda Mace, an extremely-unknown American crime novelist who published Motto For Murder in 1943.  My usual country-house murder preference is for novels written in interwar Britain, but this time the action takes place in the Adirondacks during a blizzard.   Moving along, in May the world lost the great Ruth Rendell,  and in a sort of homage I decided to read five books labeled by The Guardian as her "key works" :  From Doon With Death, A Judgement in Stone (my favorite as Rendell), A Dark-Adapted Eye (my favorite as Vine), Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, and Not in the Flesh.  I changed tack midstream and read a true-crime history called Square Mile of Murder by Jack House, which explores four horrific murders in Victorian Glasgow which took place all within one square mile. Helene Tursten's The Beige Man, Christopher Brookmyre's Dead Girl Walking and The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins filled up the remainder of my crime reading.  A word about Girl on the Train: feel free to disagree, but I thought this book was just awful. Oy.  If this is the new face of crime fiction, then no wonder I prefer the old stuff.

I haven't written about any of these books yet, but in the realm of the strange, E.M. Forster's The Celestial Omnibus came out on top this month. If you haven't read it, do yourself a favor and grab a copy. Jeez -- talk about being lost in a book! I hadn't planned on reading it, but I had picked up The Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood to read with my online group and one of the stories in this collection came up during the conversation. Three Valancourt books  kept me entertained in May: The Day of the Arrow, by Philip Lorraine,  Benighted, by J.B. Priestley (the source of James Whale's 1932 movie "The Old Dark House") and The Moorstone Sickness,  which is from the 1980s and may seem a bit old hat to modern readers, but the ending of that book was a big OMG.

Finally, coinciding with the release (and my reading of) a new book from Soho called Innocence; or Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margolius Kovaly, I read the author's memoir Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968.  I'll be posting about Innocence this week; Under a Cruel Star offered a lot of insight into Kovaly's novel.

and now 

--- the other stuff

  • the book group read The Bookman's Tale, by Charlie Lovett. While most of us loved the mystery of the historical provenance of a work in this novel, and we were impressed by the love that goes into book repair etc., the way the author decided to structure his crime elements left us sort of cold. As one of my friends said, all the book was missing was Ned and a roadster, and you'd have a perfect Nancy Drew mystery.  Maybe the comment was a bit harsh, but it made us laugh.  Oops. Bad choice on that one!  
  • Once again a large number of books were delivered this month, mainly Valancourt titles (I should buy stock in this company, I swear), but others as well, including two more collections of Forster's short stories. I normally don't even like short stories, but his are just amazing.
  • currently reading: The Sleepless Men, a novel written by obscure American crime novelist E.H. Nisot (an original Crime Club first edition) , and Aickman's Heirs, edited by Simon Strantzas, new from Undertow Publications. 
I have to go see what his majesty is automating now, so  happy reading!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

*in which we move away from New England and head south: Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs, Late of the Tallapoosa Volunteers, by Johnson Jones Hooper

University of Alabama Press, 1993
(originally published 1844)
201 pp
and speaking of Edgar Allan Poe, he actually read and wrote a brief blurb about The Life and Adventures of Captain Suggs (as it was called in Poe's time) in the journal Aristidean (1845) saying the following:

"We sat down to this book quietly; read, laughed — read, and laughed again. There is more true, indigenous humor in this, than anything we have yet seen, from the American press...Captain SUGGS is a man of metal — "yea! an honest, incorruptible — very jewel of a fellow." 

This "jewel of a fellow" went by the motto of "It is good to be shifty in a  new country," meaning, as the author explains, that "it is right and proper that one should live as merrily and as comfortably as possible at the expense of others."  And this is precisely what Captain Simon Suggs does throughout his life, from his teen years on.  In fact, this con artist pulled his first major scam against his own dad, a Baptist preacher.   Adventures of Captain Suggs is a chronicle of Suggs' adventures along the Tallapoosa in Alabama, and we read along as Suggs gets into predicament after predicament, always getting the better of someone and making a dollar or two in the process.  But we're not here just to see how much trouble Suggs can stir up for himself or others.

 The introduction to this book states that this book "flagrantly satirizes the Democrats, and especially former President Andrew Jackson, a lightning rod for the formation of the Whig party."  The entire collection of Suggs stories in this volume is framed as a "campaign biography," in which the editor appeals to the "Men of Tallapoosa" at the end:
"...we have done! Suggs is before you! We have endeavoured to give the prominent events of his life with accuracy and impartiality. If you deem that he has "done the state some service," remember that he seeks the Sheriffalty of your county. He waxes old. He needs an office, the emoluments of which shall be sufficient to enable him to relax his intellectual exertions. His military services; his numerous family; his long residence among you; his gray hairs -- all plead for him! Remember him at the polls!"
Trust me. After reading this book, Suggs would be the last man on earth to get my vote for the "Sheriffalty" of my county.

 His creator, Jefferson Jones Hooper, started writing his Suggs stories in 1844, publishing them first in the East Alabamian, where he served as editor.  The motto of Jones' newspaper was " We stand upon the broad platform of Whig principles," so with that as a clue, it's not too difficult to figure out as you start to wade into the book that Adventures of Captain Suggs is meant to be a flat-out satire. But even (as in my case)  if you know little to nothing about Jacksonian democracy, you may still find yourself mildly chuckling while reading  these little stories, although quite honestly they were probably much funnier in their day.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

*Poe's only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Broadview Press, 2010
[originally published 1838]
294 pp


While very  unlike the other American novels I've read so far, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is Poe's only novel, and while I should probably post about it at my oddly weird fiction section of my online journal, it is an example of  a 19th-century  American novel so the post is also appropriate here. The first time through it some years ago, I was downright incensed with the elements of racism that appear here; this time through (while having read a lot of scholarly works about this book in the meantime)  it became a totally different book.

the story:
Disguised as a genuine narrative, the story begins in earnest when young Pym's friend Augustus Barnard urges him to travel on the Grampus, a ship captained by Barnard's father. Pym's mother and grandfather are opposed to him going, with the granddad threatening to cut him off financially if he even brought up the topic again. So, typical teenagers that they are (despite what happens later), Pym and Augustus set up a scheme to fool Pym's parents to explain away his absence -- and Arthur stows away in the ship's hold in a clever set up designed to provide him access to Arthur's cabin once the ship is underway. After quite some time of hiding out alone in the dark, he comes to realize that things have taken an unfortunate turn on the Grampus in the form of a mutiny.  This is when things really get going here.  The mutiny sparks another mutiny, as the crew takes sides and set the captain adrift on the seas; fortunately for our narrator, Augustus is spared and at a timely moment, Pym reveals himself and  things start to settle down. However, the fate of the Grampus and those remaining is far from settled -- starvation, storms, sharks, and even a visit from the Flying Dutchman all help to contribute to the ship's ultimate demise.  The two who remain are picked up join the crew of the Jane Guy, starting another entire series of adventures which take our erstwhile narrator and his companion down into the Antarctic, going further south than any other expedition in history.  There, along with other wonders the crew has never seen, they discover the tropical island (yes, I did say tropical) of Tsalal, along with its very black native population, who have a strange fear of anything white.  

Since the first time I read this book some years ago,  I've done a lot of reading about it and I've discovered that even Poe scholars can't agree on what to make of it. Dana D. Nelson in her The Word in Black and White: Reading "Race" in American Literature, 1638-1867 notes that

"Readings of Pym range widely, from psychoanalytic exploration to social satire, from self-referential commentary on writing (or reading) to a metacritical demonstration of utter absence of meaning. Those commenting on the text apparently cannot reach any consensus or 'thrust toward uniformity,'..."
Depending on which/whose critique/analysis you read, Poe's Pym is either a seagoing take on the American push for frontier expansion, an interior journey into the self, a quest novel (vis-a-vis Harold Bloom's definition, mentioned in this edition's introduction, [27])  a "jeremiad of the evils of slavery" or "covert statement of Southern racist ideology" [29], and it has even been noted as  (in part) a story of thwarted colonialism (from Mat Johnson's hilarious novel Pym ).  Author Toni Morrison  also argues re Poe's work that "no early American writer is more important to the concept of American Africanism than Poe because of the focus on the symbolism of black and white in Poe's novel." 

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a strange but interesting little book. According to that online font of knowledge called Wikipedia, Poe himself called this "a silly little book," and in some ways he's definitely right. It is way over the top and as one goodreads reviewer puts it, the "elephant in the room" of racism is definitely there. [as an aside, whether Poe was/was not a racist is still a matter of debate in scholarly circles.] After having read it, I can see why there are so many different interpretations of this novel (you can also add in bildungsroman), but in my opinion, no matter how you read it, it is much like many of Poe's other works, largely concerned with confronting the self in terms of other (if nothing else, the scene where he is disguised as a a dead man and can't recognize himself in the mirror is a huge clue), and ultimately destabilization of the self that follows as a result. In the end, though I believe it's a novel best appreciated on an individual basis -- I mean, seriously, if vast numbers of scholars over the last 100-plus years can't agree about the nature of Pym, how can there be any definitive interpretation? 

A brief word about this book: for anyone remotely interested in further studies of Poe's Pym, this particular edition from Broadview Press is a good place to start.  The narrative is extensively footnoted, and there are three appendices -- "Sources for the Novel", "Contemporary Reviews," and "Other Writers' Responses to Pym"  (Melville, Beaudelaire, Jules Verne, and Henry James).  There's even a map of Pym's travels (which is reproduced here in a bit of blur but you get the gist) as well as an extensive research bibliography.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket is definitely very different in terms of American novels, but definitely worth a read and then a reread.  

Thursday, April 30, 2015

May: in which I continue to press on; April wrap-up

Around my house, April has been the month from hell with bad news coming from every quarter, it seems, but finally I'm sensing a change in the wind.  The bad stuff sent me into my books -- no surprise there. Ever since I was a kid I would hole up with a good (or bad) book to help bad times pass quickly, so it seems that old habits don't die so easily.

I got a bit sidetracked this month from early America, but I'm still laying in a big supply of novels. I did manage to finish Poe's only novel,  The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, a title which lends itself very nicely to a limerick --  but sadly I couldn't come up with one.  I also read Hope Leslie, which I really liked, and then there was Cooper's The Pioneers which drove me insane and hurt my brain while I read it.   In terms of contemporary reading, I finished two from 2015:  Song For an Approaching Storm, a novel about Cambodia in 1955 from three different points of view , and Ishiguro's The Buried Giant, both of which were very satisfying.

In the crime/mystery world,  Cafe Europa by Ed Ifkovic comes out in May via Mysterious Press. It's not my usual cup of tea, but as it turns out, it was pretty good.  Joyce Carol Oates also has a new one called Jack of Spades  which I haven't yet posted about but well,  imo she's written better.  Mary Kelly's A Cold Coming of 1956 came first in my ongoing obscure women crime novelists project, followed by two by Marie Belloc Lowndes: first, The Lodger, which is quite famous, but to find something more obscure that she'd written, I read her Letty Lynton, which is a re-imagining  of the 1857 Madeleine Smith case. And since I got so wrapped up in Madeleine Smith, I also picked up Alas For Her That Met Me! by Mary Anne Ashe, who is really Christianna Brand, who's given us yet another take on the story.  The dark zone was occupied this month first by  Simenon's The Engagement and then Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, both of which are beyond excellent. 

In terms of strange fiction, two haunted house novels occupied my time, first The Feast of Bacchus by Ernest G. Henham. Written in 1907, it's been brought back to life by Valancourt Books, and it is by no means your standard haunted house tale. Far from it, in fact.  The second one was The Uninhabited House, by Charlotte Riddell, originally published in 1875. This one falls more along the lines of what most people would consider a more typical haunted house story, although it's more what it says about the time that caught my eye.   My online group finished The Golem by Gustav Meyrink, which took me two full weeks to get through but which was well worth all the time and brain pain in the long run.  

And last, but by no means least, Shocking Paris: Soutine, Chagall and the Outsiders of Montparnasse by Stanley Meisner was this month's nonfiction read, coming from Palgrave MacMillan. Everyone thinks of Montmartre as the Paris art hub but an upstart group of outsiders changed all that. This book is quite interesting, tracing this group of people through just after the Nazi occupation of France, and it's a title I can definitely recommend.


and now for all of the

--- other stuff

  • the book group read Rebecca, by Daphne DuMaurier.  Even there the old movie starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier came up more than a few times ("but in the movie ...."), a trend I'm noticing more as I go backward and read a lot of these older novels.  I'm starting to realize that people know all about the movies but pretty much nothing about the books on which they're based. Gresham's Nightmare Alley is another example.  At the moment I'm working on titles for next year's book group, for after our summer hiatus which starts in July. 
  • I'm quite embarrassed to say how many books were delivered this month. My favorite title (which I haven't yet read): Kitten With a Whip, by Wade Miller, written in 1959.  I only hope the book is as cool as the title. The woman on the cover looks positively femme fatale-ish. 
  • currently reading The Day of the Arrow, by Philip Loraine. Speaking of movies based on books, this one spawned a movie called "Eye of the Devil" from 1966. I haven't seen it, but I'll be watching it as soon as I've finished the novel.  
back to my book now...the main character has just discovered the family history in some dusty "old tomes" in the castle's library....