Thursday, April 23, 2009


now finished: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

This was a quick read (unlike many a Russian). While it may seem simple, it definitely has a lot of statements about humanity, families, politics, generations, interpersonal relationships, and the like. Those are never as simple as they seem, of course.

It's funny (now, to me) that this novel caused such controversy at the time. Older conservatives thought Turgenev was mocking the older generation whose time had come and gone, and putting the young radical on a pedestal. Younger radicals thought he made a caricature of the young whippersnapper who thought he knew better than everyone and hated everything around him. Turgenev himself said he wasn't quite doing either and had mixed feelings about the times that were a-changin'. For these reasons, we could all obviously get introspective and analytical while reading the novel.

Bazarov and Arkadii (mostly Bazarov) get bored visiting the parents' countryside peasant-laden farms. It sounds like a nice idea, Bazarov muses, to live that idyllic life with solitude and all, "but no--you're consumed by boredom. One wants to come into contact with people, if only to criticize them, but at least to come into contact with them."

See, how can I fully dislike Bazarov, when I am so much like him? Not that I wouldn't rather be more like Arkadii, whose reply is:

"One ought to organize one's life so that every moment in it is significant." -- p. 134

The only thing I didn't like about reading this was that occasionally the language got that forced feel it gets when you just know the original is not quite translatable. One of my goals is to learn Russian so that I can read all the fantastic Russian literature in the original language. I kind of want that to be my first post-law school project. Wouldn't mind taking a job in Moscow, either, come to think of it.

Young Bazarov realizes himself toward the end that the jig is up. Basically, he may have some right ideas, and some of his skills may even save people, but being a jerk who's incapable of some soul-searching never helped anyone. He learns that lesson a bit too late.

Thank you for the invitation, Hofstra Anna Sergeevna, and for your flattering estimation of my conversational talents. But I think I've already been moving in a sphere that isn't my own for too long. Flying fish can stay aloft for a while, but sonner or later they have to splash back into the water. Allow me to swim in my own element, too. -- p. 191

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Century Clubs and Beetle Gazing

now reading: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

When I used to have time to read a lot of books, especially when I worked at Borders and would start books for a million different reasons including being asked to read them by other people for quasi-professional reasons (e.g. getting more free books from the publishers' marketing reps), I needed to come up with a way to give a book a fair shake before throwing it across the room. Yes, it is wonderful and fabulous when a book hooks you on from the first page, but then again, heroin hooks you from the first "page," too, doesn't it? And we see how well that turns out. Perhaps an acquired taste (coffee, beer, marijuana) can be better or at least less destructive.

There is also the sheer length of some books to consider. Do you really know on page ten of Moby Dick what you are going to ultimately think about it? Let alone War and Peace or Infinite Jest. You might already like them or dislike them at that point, but you cannot yet fully understand/appreciate them. At such a fraction of the whole I would be uncomfortable rejecting a book. And we cannot forget either books such as The Corrections. That book starts out weird, and I've had quite a few people tell me they started it and "couldn't get into it" or some such thing. But the first -- I forget how many, twenty? thirty? more? -- pages are in fact "weird" but there is a REASON and it is so genius and I might add part of the point of that magnificent book. Like, part of the point so much that I can't explain why it has to start that way without ruining something for you when you read it. I sometimes wonder if some asshats on the Pulitzer committee that year "couldn't get into it" and that's why they mistakenly awarded the Pulitzer to Empire Falls instead?

But how much is enough of a chance to give a book I hate? I eventually settled on the 100 pages rule. If, after a hundred pages, I really do not like the book and can see no redeeming qualities in it and truly do not want to waste my life finishing it, then I am allowed to throw it across the room. Most recently I did this with Alice Sebold's second novel, The Almost Moon, or, as I prefer to think of it, The Almost Book Worth Reading. I actually got further than 100 pages with that one, but it just kept getting worse, actually. Note that the completion of 100 pages is a necessary but not sufficient requirement. There may be other overriding reasons that compel me to finish a book or for which I will consider going on after 100 pages. Most recently this happened with The Puttermesser Papers, because I had unfortunately and terribly misguidedly chosen Cynthia Ozick for my 'O' author in my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project and so it was Too Late. UGH.

The point is that because of my 100 pages rule, I have decided that 100 pages is also a good time point at which to reflect on what I think of the book I'm reading here on the blog. And it just so happens that yesterday I got to page 100 in Fathers and Sons.

I am reading it quickly -- but it goes quickly. It also REALLY makes me want to learn Russian, because as is generally the case when I read Russian authors, I am so aware I am reading a translation. That was the less the case with War and Peace than others, because I guess in order to publish a translation of War and Peace you do have to be damn good, but even then there were moments. It's just bound to happen because of the patronymics and the way the language is used differently to talk to different people and such. I totally think learning Russian is going to be one of my first post-law school projects.

So in Fathers and Sons we've got Arkadii and his good friend Bazarov -- or is he such a good friend? -- hanging out at Arkadii's father's country estate. Bazarov is basically telling all the old guys, like the father and uncle, that they are outdated and have no idea what's up with the philosophical and political realities of the day. Bazarov is a nihilist, and Arkadii is trying to be a nihilist to be as cool as his friend, and the father and uncle are a mix of baffled and annoyed by this young whippersnapper who does not appreciate anything (including art and nature), and the whole scenario really shows us that generations have always fought with the generation before and the more things change -- well, you know the rest.

"In earlier times, young people had to study -- they didn't want to be taken for ignoramuses, so they had to work hard whether they liked it or not. But now one just has to say, 'Everything on earth is absurd!' and the deed is done -- young people are overjoyed. In fact, they were simply dolts before, whereas now they've suddenly become nihilists." --p. 56

I've been considering going to spend some time in Phoenix soon, what with the end of law school and not having a job or money to pay the rent in New York or any idea what to do next. Basically, I might totally be like Arkadii Kirsanov a mere few weeks from now: returning home to the parents' pad with all my worldly, educated, big city ideas but clearly not able to do anything with them.

The friend, Bazarov, is kind of a jackass. And if Brian and I go to Phoenix, I won't be bringing a jackass. In fact, for us the roles might be reversed: I might be more of a nihilist (and/or more of a pessimistic dolt) than Brian is. But Bazarov is funny, despite his pretense of not caring about anything and being above it all. He is a scientist becoming a doctor and he likes to wander around the forest examining trees and cutting open frogs. That is more important to him than learning about people and what they feel -- and certainly more important than love or any silly notions of a soul. Things might change after page 100; they are spending quite a bit of time with the beautiful Mrs. Odintsov... but for the moment, he still feels this way.

"And what's all this about mysterious relationships between men and women? We physiologists know what these relationships are. You study the anatomy of the eye: where does that enigmatic gaze, as you put it, come from? The rest is all romanticism, nonsense, aesthetic garbage. We'd be much better off going and looking at the beetle." -- p.34

So what about y'all? Do you stop books you have started? Do you have any guidelines for doing so? Have you experienced the ultimate satisfaction of throwing a book across the room? (Which can also be done at the end of a book, of course.) Do tell!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Still more evidence that I need to give Faulkner another chance

now finished: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron
now reading: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

The word, I believe, is "wow."

My boy Styron is a fantastic writer, compelling storyteller, deep thinker, and furthermore, I think he was a really insightful and beautiful person! That part kind of snuck up on me at the end of the book, but this man was a thinker and a good soul. I want to be his friend!

There are a whole bunch of things I liked, but I will say one of the things I keep thinking about as I reflect is that this is exactly the kind of book I'd been hoping to find when I embarked upon this project. I wasn't looking for another War and Peace, Infinite Jest, or Moby Dick -- you know, something that I knew would be Great. And I certainly wasn't looking for the likes of Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers -- something I'd have to continue to wonder why anyone found it great. I was looking to just read good books, and especially to be delighted to have finally read authors I'd neglected far too long. The difference between Styron and the likes of Umberto Eco and Truman Capote is that I've heard SO MUCH about The Name of the Rose and In Cold Blood, but Styron is a bit less mainstream, somehow. Not that that matters. I don't know, I can't explain it. Let's just say that 'S' = success!

Styron makes me think about a few things I've previously considered. One is place as it relates to writing. I often wonder how much my own personal geography comes out in my writing; I don't see myself as a Tony Hillerman/Edward Abbey/Terry Tempest Williams type in my Southwesternness, but maybe I am? Then again, I have been out of Arizona almost as long as I was there. But then again again, doesn't it always stick with me?

The South has long had an obviously strong, notable, controversial sense of place and self in the U.S., not to mention a slew of amazing writers. In the last part of Lie Down in Darkness the action moves to New York and what happens to Peyton there. Now, if I have not yet been clear on this point, I relate to the tragic figure of Peyton. I've babbled about her father Milton, but Peyton is really where it's at. After all, she has to suffer the effects of her totally screwed up parents. It was in her wedding and in the New York pages I really came to appreciate how much like her I could be. And, I like how Styron via Peyton calls out the New Yorkers on their totally insular New Yorkerness, asking them why they have to be so bigoted against the South and totally closed to the idea that it could rise from its dark and mighty problems, which are still quite recent, into a position of strong and mighty progress.

Styron matter-of-factly calls New York (ers) "provincial and myopic." This caused me to cheer, to pretty much weep with joy.

So, geography, self, progress, and how they interrelate -- we get all this, plus soap operaesque drama and beautiful descriptions. What's not to love?

I am definitely eager to read more Styron. Meanwhile, of course, I'm on 'T' and am happily back in that other region of the world, besides the U.S. South, that has produced ridiculous amounts of amazing writers: Russia.

Which means I'm back to that old familiar problem of really wanting to learn Russian, that I may read some of the world's most amazing literature in the original language. This just might be the year I embark upon that goal.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Here comes the suicide

now reading: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

I've told you that Milton Loftis is a lawyer, right?

"'I'm interested in your work. You tell me about your cases --'
'I don't have many cases,' he interrupted, sitting down across from her; 'they bore even me. I wish I had been a poet.'" -- p. 179

Amen, brother! This is yet another mistake of Milton's that I myself have caught in time, so maybe I won't end up like him? Oh, Milton. I'm three-quarters of the way through the novel now and he is making a fine mess of everything, not the least of which is his daughter Peyton's wedding. Doom, doom, doom is all that awaits this family. We know that from the beginning of the book, but it's still a great read as we watch them fall apart.

As we get to the end, we start to see how Petyon, too, is doomed. She is a bit resilient ("to people so young there is nothing final in disaster, the disaster itself often opening up refreshing vistas of novelty, escape or freedom..." -p. 232) but as more and more happens, what resilience she does have clearly won't be enough. And girlfriend NEVER should have come back home to get married, methinks. Totally should have had the ceremony in New York and made any of the Virginians who wanted to see it go north. Not that I'm not enjoying all the comments about how foreign the "New York Jews" are to these coastal Virginian people.

Styron's descriptions of the wedding are awesome. I love how he makes the reader slowly discover what a staged happiness it is, and how he hits the nail on the head. This might be my favorite thing written about a wedding, ever:

"There is a lull in the celebration, for it is the duty of each guest to have some of the cake, although cake goes poorly with whisky or champagne, and it is the last thing the guests want to eat. Few of them would care, really, about eating, but the guests have been to too many wedings. The cake has become symbolic of something and they have to face it: it must be eaten. Besides, it would be a pity to let that huge thing go to waste." -- p. 286

Symbolism and huge ordeals abound at this wedding. It's a great scene because it is just a disaster waiting to happen, the culmination of this family's descent. But also just the first step toward their final tragic chapter. Which, I am about to go read -- the last 100 pages. Have I made you want to read Styron yet? I hope I have.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Alcohol and ancient Greeks

now reading: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

And don't those two things go so well together?

Well, there is no shortage of alcohol in this book as one of our main characters, Milton Loftis, is totally lost in whiskey and his drinking pretty much ruins his family. Well, that and his betrayal and his just general inability to be good and/or deal with reality. But I really relate to him sometimes on the alcohol.

"At the age of fifty he was beginning to discover, with a sense of panic, that his whole life had been in the nature of a hangover, with faintly unpleasant pleasures being atoned for by the dull unalleviated pain of guilt. Had he the solace of knowing that he was an alcoholic, things would have been brighter, because he had read somewhere that alcoholism was a disease; but he was not, he assured himself, alcoholic, only self-indulgent, and his disease, whatever it was, resided in shadier corners of his soul -- where decisions were reached not through reason but by rationalization, and where a thin membranous growth of selfishness always seemed to prevent his decent motives from becoming happy actions." -- pp. 152-153

Of course that obviously doesn't describe me, right? Everybody knows I'm not fifty.

Also interesting to consider is that Styron later wrote a memoir about his descent into depression. And we all know about how many of us self-medicate with alcohol, etc. Not that I think that's any worse than big-pharma-medicating, but I digress. I still don't really care for the memoir genre, but the fact that Styron is a good writer, that he wrote Darkness Visible late in an accomplished life and actually had something to remember in his memoir, plus now the idea that it might contain some insight into grappling with our good friend Al(cohol), make me want to maybe check out that book, too.

This also makes thinks about the whole creative genius/madness issue again, and makes me sad to again think about other writers who haven't been able to write about and/or work through their depression, notably in the last year David Foster Wallace, who hanged himself.

Meanwhile, speaking of writers who allude to all kinds of obscure things, Styron totally busts out this reference, in the middle of talking about Milton's wife's counseling sessions with Carey, their minister:

"Then at times they would talk of Milton, of the sad vanishing of love and passion, and why, Carey explained, using Diotima's discourse as a point of departure, it was necessary, after the falling away of years and the dissolution of the object of love on earth, to search for the lasting, the greater, the eternal love." --p.142

I mean, really? "Oh, you know, just talking to the minister about love, marital strife, and Diotima's infinite wisdom." Hello, had to look that one up. Sometimes I feel woefully ignorant about my ancient Greeks. And then I am sad.

So what this has all taught me is that I clearly need to spend less time fretting about law school and more time reading great novels such as Styron's, studying my classics, and pondering alcohol. Which I will now go do at the bar where we are watching Michigan State in the National Championship game. Hmmm, and I just read the chapter where Loftis really screws up by getting all sloppy drunk and going to the big, exciting Virginia football game in search of his daughter/a friend/elusive happiness while his other, handicapped daughter is dying in the hospital down the street ... what are you trying to say, Styron?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Southity South

now reading: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

This book has spoken to me no fewer than two times. To begin, we have the experience of leaving home. This is something I ponder a lot, particularly now that I've been away from Arizona almost as long as I was there. There are still days, such as today in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as we walked into the desert display, when I get kind of gobsmacked by how much more sense my desert home makes to me than other places. Like New York. Then again, it's spring, and the Northeast never makes sense to me in the bi-polar springtime. I yearn for the Southwest in the spring more than any other season. However, I do know that the South is nice in spring, which brings me back to my point: Styron, the South, the sense of place and who we are.

"You go North -- you become expatriated, exiled. You reach out for the first symbol that completes your apostasy -- you become a Communist or a social worker or you marry a Jew. In all good faith, too, yearning to repudiate the wrong you've grown up with, only to find that embracing these things you become doubly exiled. Two losts don't make a found." -- p. 74

So William Styron gets it. Clearly. He's a great writer, and he has a sensibility that I really like. Next, how about divinity?

"...she thought of God -- painfully -- it was beyond reflection, like trying to picture your remotest ancestor. Who is He?" -- p. 140

That's fun, too. I just like how he puts things like that. I also like being plunged into his story and his Southern setting, replete with mimosas, sycamores, mosquitoes, country club dances, and sultry nights. But I really like the way he grasps what happens to you when you go to a new place.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Ready to 'T' off

now reading: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

While I am still cruising along in my 'S' author, it IS spring break and I do have a a lot of time to read seeing as we're too broke to go anywhere. That means I will probably finish 'S' shortly, and I'm having some trouble selecting a 'T' author! The usual rules apply: I'm reading a novel by an author whose works I have not previously read (eliminating, among others, Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Amy Tan whom I wouldn't want to read again anyway), and I prefer the author to be at least as famous as his/her book(s) and not have just one mega-famous book (I'm using that to eliminate Thackeray's Vanity Fair, just like Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was out).

Therefore, I do believe my choices have been narrowed to:

Hunter S. Thompson -- and if so, The Rum Diary or the more obvious Fear and Loathing..., which I've been meaning to read for years?
Anthony Trollope -- and if so, which one?
Ivan Turgenev -- I do love me some Russian literature. Did you know Fathers and Sons is actually literally Fathers and Children in Russian? I just learned that today.



Thursday, April 02, 2009


now finished: An Essay on Crimes and Punishments by Cesare Beccaria
now reading: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron

So, I read a random book between 'R' and 'S' and while it may sound like a law school thing it actually wasn't. I first became inspired to read Beccaria's important little treatise (it's not long, really) when I read the excellent Voltaire in Exile a few years ago, back in Cambridge, Mass. Voltaire, as pretty much anyone knows who has ever been near me while I think a literary thought, is one of my all-time favorite people and his Candide is my favorite book: the perfect blend of sarcasm, humor, intelligence, zaniness, and deep thought. Anyway, reading all about Voltaire during his time in exile and his epiphany about human rights I discovered that he is not only a literary and philosophical hero but a humanitarian thinking human rightsy hero, too ("Ecrasez l'infame!") The Italian Beccaria's widely published and praised essay influenced Voltaire, and some editions of it were published with an intro by Voltaire or apparently even with Voltaire's name on it when they didn't know at first who the anonymous author was. (Beccaria kept it on the down low at first that it was his work because of his aristocratic family and whatnot, but it turned out the government liked his treatise so it was okay in the end.)

What the essay/short book does is deliver a page or two of thoughts on many, many topics related to criminal justice such as laws, confessions, the death penalty, sanctuary, torture. Frankly, I want to quote his entire torture chapter word for word for all to see; he logically proves why it's no good. I knew I would be very interested to read this ever since I bought it a few years ago, and I'm glad I finally read it. It also has the uncanny effect of making me wonder (AGAIN) if I shouldn't have done a two-year master's in philosophy or history or something instead of law school. But I recall that there weren't a lot of M.A. options for Philosophy, when I looked into it during those aimless twentysomething years of mine; you pretty much had to get a PhD. Hmmm...

Anyway, now it's back to the literary blog project. By the way, I am so senioritised about school it's not even funny. I have stopped caring about whether I "should be" reading something else, and I am considering school and all its attendant work a three-days-a-week job, with the rest of my time available for reading novels if I so choose -- plus figuring out what to do with my life.

So, 'S.' William Styron. I've always been intrigued and I chose to go with his first novel instead of his Pulitzer-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner because I will read that anyway (since it won a Pulitzer) and I had a feeling I'll want to read more than one of his. (Although I took the same approach to Normam Mailer and was really not that impressed with The Naked and the Dead...or at least, not as impressed as I wanted to be.) I also opted to not read Sophie's Choice just yet, partly because I've seen the film. And even as I type that I know it's so terrible. Poor authors whose books get made into films.

Lie Down in Darkness is so far so good. He's obviously a very talented writer and about 100 pages in I am getting caught up in this Southern family, the various characters, the plush country club, the shacks on the edge of the town, the train, the hearse, the servants, and a lot of repressed emotion amidst it all. It isn't luxurious slow moving epic, just a really novel-y novel, taking its time to introduce you to the characters but doing so through both flashbacks and their interactions with one another. So far I like it.

I am also rather intrigued that his late-in-life memoir about depression was called Darkness Visible. Darkness can so clearly be so many things.