Sunday, July 27, 2008

Down in the valley, the valley so low

now finished: McTeague by Frank Norris
now reading: Thomas Jefferson by R.B. Bernstein

Well, I really liked the ending of McTeague. Which means this blog post will probably be pretty spoileriffic. You have been warned.

First of all, we know I'm a fan of the desert, the stark heat, the intensity of the land, the vast spaces, and so on. So for the book to culminate in a Death Valley death scene totally works for me. But there you are with McTeague and Marcus, the former friends, killing themselves in the process of trying to beat each other, and with Marcus' last breath he clicks the handcuffs onto McTeague's wrist so that McTeague is now chained to his fate and doomed to die there as well. All the while the canary in its cage twitters feebly. What a scene! What a great ending in the annals of literature! We are chained to our fate and the doom we create. Our violence and greed for the money end up making us prisoners. Nature will kick our ass when we get so caught up in material society. But only after our fear and guilt and past misdeeds that haunt us drive us away from the real treasures -- both gold and wife -- that we've found. And so on.

A lot of book endings suck. I don't mean to criticize; as a writer I, too, find endings difficult. But it's so wonderful when you get to a glorious ending, a fully realized vision, such as that of McTeague. And just like the scenes in San Francisco, the ending chapters' trek down through California, prospecting for gold in them thar hills, and finally death in the alkali sands are all so vividly written.

Frank Norris is so interesting to me now. He had his whole literary career in a life of thirty-two years. !!! He traveled, dabbled in art, sucked at math (perhaps to spite his businessman father), played hard, made himself a legacy in his Berkeley fraternity...he's really interesting. I've been reading the intro to the book (which I can never read until after in novels, for fear of plot spoilers) and seeing all the real life influences that led him to create McTeague. So there is that "thinly veiled memoir" element, but in more of a "write what you know" way, and his writing is honest and literary. He's clever. I may seek out The Octopus, too, which is the book I'd always heard of by him.

Speaking of my desert love, I was intrigued as he tries to make his escape to Mexico when some people he meets think he's trying to escape a crime he committed and thus "trying to get down to Arizona." It's so interesting to think of what people thought of Arizona in 1899, when it was still a territory and not very populated. I like finding references to it and finding its place in people's minds back in the day. (The movie In Old Arizona was great for that, too.)

And who wouldn't love this quote, from page 280 of my edition? (ISBN: 014-0187694)

"'No, no,' Trina had exclaimed, when the dentist had repeated this advice to her. 'No, no, don't go near the law courts. I know them. The lawyers take all your money, and you lose your case. We're bad off as it is, without lawing about it.'"


Oh, Trina. Seriously -- the book is pretty horrifying. I read that Norris had read about a real life instance of an estranged, drunk husband murdering his wife. It's so frightening to imagine. But the horrifying reality happens in this world -- often. I mean, we never think about it, keeping it out of sight and out of mind, because it's impossible to really deal with thinking about it. Imagining being killed is hard enough. Imagine being killed by someone you know. Then by someone who supposedly loved you. I mean, what must it be like in those final moments? How must it be to be killed and to see and feel this person killing you? My brain hurts. My whole body hurts and shudders, actually, to think about it. It's SO creepy to try to really conceive of being killed and the life slipping out of you as you are violently pummeled. And it's SO creepy to think about how horribly some humans behave to their intimate partners.

I'm going to stop writing about it now for the same reasons we all want to stop thinking about it.

For those who are curious, no, obviously, the Thomas Jefferson is not part of my A to Z literary blog project, but part of a non-fiction project I started a couple years ago, abandoned, and to which I have now returned, in which I read a biography of each U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong. I read Joseph Ellis' His Excellency and David McCullough's John Adams. Now on to number three. I'll probably try to do a presidential bio a month among my other readings, until law school gets too intense again. I hemmed and hawed forever about which Jefferson because there's the Pulitzer-winning Dumas Malone multi-volume work about him that I will probably read someday, but maybe not as part of this all-the-presidents project which is meant to go quickly.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dying in a pool of blood and stuff

now reading: McTeague by Frank Norris

So here's the thing. All of a sudden McTeague gets totally violent and creeptacular! It starts when Trina, his wife, becomes a liar and he becomes a violent abuser. Now, neither of those behaviors is acceptable and both are terrible in their own ways. But herein, his violence is almost like some kind of vindictive thing against her keeping the money, whereas I just want to scream at him, "It's not that she kept the money! She lied to you about it!" Then her: ugh. She's paranoid. But she's also desperate, and that is sad. And his violence is never acceptable.

But with all that, who knew how ugly and violent it could be in the end!

I was supposed to say something more profound about this but I don't remember what it was. Maybe tomorrow.

But, p.s., goooooo concertina!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

If you're going to the dentist in San Francisco

now reading: McTeague by Frank Norris

Before Brian, my main concept of Frank N. was The Octopus, this perhaps because I started working in a bookstore when I lived in California and it just kind of happened that way. But then I started this little literary blog project and Brian suggested Norris for 'N' because he (Brian) loves McTeague.

So now I'm more than halfway through the tale of this big ol' bumbling dentist and his friends and neighbors and antics on San Francisco's Polk Street (not to mention at the theatre and on their picnics in Schuetzen Park). The story is written in a simple, charming fashion that I find delightful. I read that it is a Zola-esque "literary naturalism." But you know what else it reminds me of? Candide. (my favorite!) It's like the anti-Proust. But not with the dry choppiness of, say, a Hemingway. It's that easy, straightforward storytelling that can come across as "old-fashioned" but not in the stiff old flowery old-fashioned way.

He also does this thing of showing you how lover/fiancee/wife Trina's family speaks in their German accents which is funny and which for some reason I'm not finding nearly as annoying as other times when authors write a character's speech in the vernacular. D.H. Lawrence did a bit of that with Lady Chatterley's gamekeeper/lover to show how he switched back and forth between proper talk and that of his native village, not to mention everyone from Mark Twain to Toni Morrison having used it for African-American English, particularly in the South. I generally find it tiresome to read.

Am I the only one who gets annoyed by that stylistic device? It's OK in McTeague so far. Maybe because even out of the dialogue he'll write the son named August as "Owgooste" because that's how they say it and how McTeague hears it, so the book is reflective of McTeague's experience.

At any rate, the best thing about this book is the little flat with its various rooms and how all the neighbors who have apartments there come to life and have their quirks and interact.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A through M

Halfway through: that's me! I have closed the book on 'M' and begun 'N' (and even for good measure bought 'O,' but let's not get ahead of ourselves). At this time it is only fitting that I pause, reflect, look back, and rank those first thirteen books in order from favorite to hated. I have supplemented my rankings with the rating I give to each book, so where two or three books share a number-of-stars rating, the order of the list reflects which of those I have judged to be better.

This was hard to do!

(For those who don't remember the scale...
***** - Mexican food
****1/2 - Tibetan food
**** - Indian food
*** - Italian food
** - Thai food
* - Korean food)

With no further ado, then:

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote ****1/2
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster **** 1/2
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco ****
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence ****
The Information by Martin Amis ****
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick ***
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett ***
None to Accompany Me by Nadine Gordimer ***
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler ***
The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer **
Fear of Flying by Erica Jong **
Cuba and the Night by Pico Iyer *
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs *

OK, second half of the alphabet! Bring it on!

Monday, July 14, 2008

War is over (whether or not you want it)

now finished: The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

Well, I'm done! I know, that was fast, right? It was a long 'un (721 pages) but it moved quickly and it wasn't tiny, crammed type or anything. It just kind of moved along, like a mass market book would. (Notice how the blogger has learned to be careful about slighting genre fiction...)

So in the end it wasn't just about war. It was also about the soldiers fighting the war. And that really was all it was about, but he did pull it off, I think. You get to know the men in the platoon, and as you go along they each get a flashback dropped somewhere in the hundreds of pages, in which you learn about their pre-war lives, which illuminates their war selves, and it's pretty interesting. I will say that I did totally care about what was going to happen at the end, so that's a good book, I guess.

As I read it I could see how ol' Norman "burst onto the scene" with this, in 1948, half a century before Saving Private Ryan and still a few decades from Apocalypse Now. But i was starting to seriously question how Mailer came to be known as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, if not the greatest. Maybe when I read The Executioner's Song I'll feel differently. (And I will read that; it won a Pulitzer, after all.)

In the end he concocts this powerfully symbolic trek -- two actually, both the mountain climb and the carrying of jackass Wilson on a stretcher -- and he really brings it all together nicely.

But I just didn't have too much to say about it. It was, well, you know: about war.

Maybe tomorrow I'll share some thoughts on the pages I folded down that contained political ideas.

Meanwhile, 'N' has long been settled when Brian (who is sometimes a participant in this project) put in an early plug for Frank Norris' McTeague. Sorry, V.S. and Anais. But the question is, should 'O' be Kenzaburo Oe or John O'Hara? And if Oe, which Oe?

Next up, a ranking of the books read so far...

Monday, July 07, 2008

War vs. Buddha

now taking a break from: The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer
now reading: Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen

Don't worry, I'm totally going to finish the 700-pager about war. I think. I'm just pausing because we were sitting around Brian's parents' living room and they had Stealing Buddha's Dinner on the shelf there and it had already intrigued me when I touched it at Borders a while back and then I picked it up and it's about a girl who immigrated from Vietnam as a baby and she grew up in Grand Rapids and she's my age so reading her memoir is like reading my own childhood as far as what happened in 1984 and how I felt about it and it's the perfect book to read on one's last day in Grand Rapids since it all takes place here and so that's why.

Of note: Mr. Mailer himself notes in the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition that The Naked and the Dead now strikes him as amateurish when he looks back. (Or, I should say, when he wrote that intro -- who knows how things strike him now, wherever he is, hanging out with George Carlin or whatever.)

As for my little Buddha book, it's not about Buddha at all except for the awesome bits where this 7-year-old Vietnamese-American girl blithely and matter-of-factly shuts down her uber-Christian friends playing in the backyards of Grand Rapids as they ramble on about being saved and she's like, "Whatever, Christianity!"

You know I'm not the biggest memoir fan, but I'm glad I dipped into this one. It's something about the my-age thing, too, of course.

I'm sure I'll return to The Naked and the Dead soon enough. Did I mention it's about war?

Friday, July 04, 2008

What I think so far

NOW READING: The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

It's about war.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Twaddling bossy impudence

now finished: Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Like most things besought by scandal, the so-called scandalous bits of this book are SO not the point. I am really glad that the edition I bought (ISBN: 0-8021-33347) includes not only a critical analysis "introduction" (which I read after, of course, so as to not have the plot ruined for me) and some historical information about when it was published, but also includes an excerpt from the court decision that allowed it to be published unexpurgated (what was that I said about wanting to read novels instead of case law this summer?!) and even a letter from Archibald MacLeish saying that it should be published.

Archibald, in fact, points out that when you take out any page with a four-letter word or description of the sex act and then print that expurgated material in its own separate little bundle alongside the larger text, then of COURSE it seems "offensive" and of course its point in the novel as a whole is lost.

So, we've established that the novel is really good, and not in an "I-read-Playboy-for-the-articles" way, but why? Well, let's take the very first line:

"Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically."

That rings true today as well, of course. We are lost, lost, lost, but too lost to even know it.

D.H. Lawrence says humankind pretty much destroyed itself, by refusing to appreciate their human bodies. Not just for sex, although that is relevant, and symbolic, but because people are so caught up in the intellectual life and things they tell themselves are important that they neglect what is actually important.

So here's the gamekeeper, who had his stint out in the world among the cool kids, as an officer and a gentleman, if you will, and he has rejected that and returned to the shire of his youth. But, he has not gone back to the crappy coal-town village of his upbringing or back to his even more crappy wife; he is living in isolation in the wood on the Wragby estate owned by Chatterley. It's fully bacchanalian of him, especially when Lady Chatterley goes out to dance naked in the rainstorm and he grudgingly follows her. Naked, natural, earthy bliss.

But in the end when they want to be together, their bliss is thwarted by the entanglements of the world, as they both need to get divorced and their respective disgruntled spouses fight this tooth and nail. Their hope, though, lies in the child they conceived, which they call the future and which they both somehow tenderly believe is real and true. Mellors, the gamekeeper, takes a bit longer to believe in this child, because he is so altogether frustrated at the world. It's not people per se, as he explains; it's not that he couldn't have "got on" in the army. He liked the men there, and they worked well with him too.

"No, it was stupid, dead-handed higher authority that made the army dead: absolutely fool-dead. I like men and men like me. But I can't stand the twaddling bossy impudence of the people who run this world. That's why I can't get on." --pp. 344-345

I. Love. It.

I have found more and more in this novel that speaks to my law school experience, and to many of my experiences in this world. Good ol' D.H. was disgusted by an England that had died of industrialisation, but he was equally disgusted by the people who sat around living the "intellectual life" while entirely out of touch with their bodies, their selves. I think our world a hundred years later is even more hyper-technology-industrialized, and we are even more out of touch with our physical selves, whether from obesity/preservatives, or the sheer laziness that is life in front of a television, or the fact that we can't walk five steps down the street and have to jump in our car and go from fake environment to fake environment all the time. I'm thinking of the very term "air-conditioning." What artifice do we construct in which to dwell?

But so while Mellors has no hope for the future or the generation that has learned only how to spend money but now has none to spend (hello!), and Connie has her issues with everyone's constraints, there are actually some very good points made by others: doesn't Connie's sister Hilda help her out, despite major reservations about class-mixing? Doesn't their father know best, having lived quite a life but found a way to not be just trapped in a marriage? And even poor paralyzed husband Clifford, who really says some terrible things (he's sort of that obnoxious, Fox-news-watching Republican uncle at the Thanksgiving dinner) really mean well--plus he's only so awful because he's LITERALLY had his life and freedom of movement and sex taken away from him, by being paralyzed in the war?

Man, there is so much going on in this book! And it's soooo good!

Read it, I say! Or read at least something by D.H. Lawrence, at any rate.

Coming soon, my updated ranking of my literary blog project books, so far.