Thursday, September 4, 2014

Start of the academic year

No matter what I try to do, or what I promise myself, the start of the fall semester always winds up consuming way more of my time than I want or expect--thus, no posts for a little while.

I've got a couple of books that I'm close to finishing, including Howard Jacobsen's new novel J., which is on the Booker longlist.  I hope to finish that in the next couple of days and post my comments on it over the weekend. 

Almost done with week two of the semester, so things are starting to settle down and a rhythm is developing for each course.  Here's to returning to this blog!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members

Let me start off by saying that I gave this novel 5 stars.  The novel consists entirely of letters written by Professor Jay Fitger about the quirks of faculty and university life, as well as the complicated matter of writing letters of recommendations for every student who asks.  He writes to the dean, the associate dean, the department chair, scholarships and awards committees, his literary agent, the director of a writers' retreat, and both his ex-wife and his former girlfriend.  He also writes letters of recommendation for students pursuing graduate studies or trying to get jobs.  He writes for his excellent students, and for students who have failed his course.  It's clear that he is fed up with having to write all of these emails, memos, and letters.

The novel is a satire, and for those of us who work in colleges or universities, the letters, memos, and emails he writes are very familiar.  Most of us have written similar documents, or received them.  Schumacher satirizes these extremely well, evoking the form, structure, and voice of these kinds of documents, while simultaneously mocking them.  Each letter or memo in the novel has a consistent voice--as you move from one letter to the next, there is no question that Fitger is the author.

I don't know whether this novel would be successful with a reader who has not lived in the institutional culture of universities.  It seems to me that there are inside jokes and references which would go unnoticed, and I can't decide whether or not the novel would seem tedious to non-academics.  Many of the letters are, however, very funny even if you haven't ever written a letter of recommendation.  It's a hilarious novel, and I hope that humor is evident to all its readers.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dorothy Dunnett, Game of Kings

In her 1919 poem ""In the Days of Prismatic Color," Marianne Moore wrote

complexity is not a crime but carry
it to the point of murki- 
ness and nothing is plain.

Moore's poetry is complex and difficult, but I enjoy the challenge of her poetry.  She successfully walks the fine line between complexity and impenetrability.  One has to work at reading Moore's poems, but the effort yields tremendous rewards.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy DunnettDorothy Dunnett's writing is also complex and requires attention.  I had never heard of Dunnett's work until a couple of weeks ago (now I wonder how that's possible), and then in the course of a couple of days, I found several reviews and references to her six-novel series, The Legendary Lymond Chronicles.  While many reviewers praised the Game of Kings, the first in the series, several panned them, saying that they were too complicated or confusing. Some readers said that they were completely lost in the first hundred pages; others that they could not figure out who all the characters were, and why they were relevant.  The novel, for these reviewers, was complex beyond the point of murkiness, and wasn't worth the effort.

I wondered, as I read the negative reviews, what the Goodreads or Amazon reader reviews would be for William Faulkner's novel, The Sound and the Fury.  How would readers handle the challenge of reading the opening Benji section and not knowing a) that it is told by a mentally challenged man, and b) that the narrative in Benji's section switches time periods often and doesn't give the reader any explicit indications of what year Benji describes.  You have to read through the whole novel and then go back to that section to make sense of the stories Benji is telling.  My guess is that The Sound and the Fury would probably rate somewhere in the lower 3.0 range on reviews, with lots of one-star reviews saying things like "don't waste your money, this is an incomprehensible pile of garbage."  And that about a novel with one of the most brilliantly-conceived narrative structures in the history of the novel. 

So back to Dunnett.  I confess I was drawn to Game of Kings by the claim that the novel was impenetrable.  I wanted to take up the challenge and see whether the ecstatic fans or the detractors were right.  I vowed I would read through the first 150 pages without trying to sort out all the characters and plotlines, and decide then whether to continue reading. What I discovered was that I was hooked by page 50, not because I had figured out who everyone was, or what exactly was going on, but because Dunnett's writing was so compelling.  I wanted to keep reading the sentences she wrote.  Over time, I would figure out what was going on. 

Take, for example, this pair of sentences describing an archery competition:  "The wind, violent and skittish, was making better sport of it than the competitors were.  Buccleuch, shooting third, nicked the post with his first shaft and overshot with his second, retiring bellowing amid a chorus of witticisms" (145).  These two sentences tell us a lot in short order:  the wind is a significant factor, and one that is inconsistent in its effect on the arrows (it's skittish, not sustained); the first two shooters fared poorly because of the gusting wind; Buccleuch misses low and high with his two shots; he is angry because he missed; and the crowd mocks him because of his misses.  To me, that's an extraordinarily economical way to describe a fairly involved scene.  And they are interesting sentences as well, because of the vibrant language (skittish, nicked, overshot, bellowing) and the arrangement of the elements.  I love the fact that Dunnett, in twenty-two words, can show us Buccleuch's turn, from the first arrow to the response of the crowd when he's done. 

But I wonder if Dunnett's economy of words creates a challenge for readers who are used to things laid out at length.  You can't speed-read through those sentences and have a clear sense of what's going on.  You have to attend carefully to each clause; you can't skim.  If you don't read attentively, then you're likely not to follow what's happening.  Henry James wanted readers who would read attentively, and if you've read his late work, you know that you have to read carefully to sort out the syntax.  I think Dunnett wants that kind of reader as well. 

Having said all that, I thought Game of Kings was an excellent novel.  Its complexity is a strength, not a weakness.  When I finished it, I immediately searched the library catalogs in the region to find out where I could get the next two in the series.  To my dismay, I discovered that they are not held at any local libraries, so I plan to buy the whole series.  If the later books are as good as the first, then having them all on hand to re-read over the years will be well worth the investment.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

John LeCarre, Smiley's People

Smiley's People by John le CarrĂ©Smiley's People is the final novel in the Karla trilogy, and the sixth book I've read by John LeCarre.  The first novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was excellent; the second, The Honourable Schoolboy, I thought was a pretty tough slog, though it's possible that I was reading it at a bad time.  I think Smiley's People is the best of the trilogy, and the best of the other five I've read.  I've always been fascinated by Smiley, the academic and accomplished spy master.  He couldn't be more bland:  he's not a flashy Bond character at all.  He's a person who dresses like an academic, who often looks as though he might be dozing off during important meetings, who often says very little, and who appears to have very few pleasures in his life.  If you were to write a summary of his character and ask people whether they'd be interested, my hunch is that they would not. 

And yet, and yet . . . it is fascinating watching how all of his quirky behaviors turn out to be part of a carefully-planned, overarching strategy intended to make people think a certain way or say certain things.  I think this is part of the brilliance of Le Carre novels:  he has built a character based on slight movements and minimal communication, and shown how that character can succeed--and perhaps even more, that only that kind of person could succeed.  There are no theatrics, no fireworks when George Smiley talks.  We never quite know where it will all lead, or more importantly, how Smiley will get to his goal.  Like the people he talks to, we are often in the dark about what he is really asking, what he is really scrutinizing.  He's the anti-hero, or maybe better, he's the introverted hero.

One of Smiley's great qualities is his ability to stay calm and logical in the face of challenging, dangerous situations.  But Smiley is not perfect:  one of his apparent weaknesses is that there are moments when he hesitates to make big decisions.  Part of the joy I experience reading Le Carre's novels is seeing an extremely intelligent main character accomplish brilliant things while also being clearly flawed


Sunday, August 10, 2014

David Liss, Day of Atonement

Product DetailsDavid Liss's latest novel, Day of Atonement, brings us to Lisbon in 1755.  Sebastian Fox/Sebastiao Raposa, born in Lisbon, has lived in England for ten years and been trained by Benjamin Weaver, the ex-boxer/private investigator who features in several of Liss's earlier novels.  Sebastian has returned to Lisbon to get revenge on the priest who, as part of the Inquisition, caused him to lose everything and flee when he was a boy.  The novel chronicles Sebastian's efforts to build a network of business contacts that will enable him to accomplish his goals.  What he discovers over time is that what seemed like a simple task becomes an extremely complicated project.

This is a very good novel:  I felt throughout as though a master craftsman was unfolding a story at just the right pace, and in a manner that pulled me along.  Liss is not only an excellent writer, he's also a close observer:  he doesn't describe everything and every place in great detail, but he often provides a couple of subtle details that give a very specific quality to the scene.

One of the key elements of the novel is the development of Sebastian's self-awareness:  as the novel progress, Sebastian realizes that he often misjudges people.  Liss shows this through several different encounters Sebastian has, and we watch as the simple world that Sebastian has imagined crumbles and a much more difficult one emerges.  If Sebastian, at the beginning of the novel, is supremely confident in his ability to avenge his loss through his superior physical skills, by the end he knows that those skills, while important, cannot be used to sort out difficult moral problems.  The novel doesn't end with Sebastian having a miraculous epiphany and transforming himself completely.  He has realized that his self-confidence and belief in the rightness of his cause are naive and based on his immature, myopic view of the world.  It's not quite a coming-of-age novel, but Sebastian has matured significantly, and Liss does a fine job of showing us the process that leads to this outcome.

The plot of the novel is straightforward:  Liss does not introduce a large number of narrative threads that ultimately he needs to tie up at the end.  He does maintain, however, a level of complexity that requires the reader read attentively more than a page-turner would require.  I suspect that Liss will follow this novel with another about Sebastian London; I would be interested to see how a mature version of Sebastian would move through the world.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

A note on Henry James's The Princess Casamassima

I want to say, first, that I love Henry James's writing. I have read all but two of his novels, some of them several times, and I've assigned, in different courses, The American, Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, and The Ambassadors.   So I'm not one of those people who dismisses James's work as boring or narrow in focus.

And yet, I recently finished reading The Princess Casamassima (1886) for the fourth time, and the further I read in it this time, the more I was struck by one thing: it's not a very good novel.  For some of you, that may be an insight you came to, say, 150 pages into your first attempt at reading it.  Those who write about James would most likely rank it as one of the least successful novels he wrote.  I did not see it quite so clearly the first couple of times through, because there is so much in it that is really interesting.  In fact, I've been working on an essay on the novel precisely because I think it raises very interesting ideas about cities.  But what really hit me was this:  just because a novel has many interesting ideas/characters/scenes doesn't mean it's a good novel.  Again, that will seem like an obvious statement for many, but it emphasizes for me the fact that people who are in the field of literary studies often evaluate novels and other creative work based on what is interesting in it to us, not on whether it is actually good, very good, excellent, or not worth reading at all. 

The main character, Hyacinth Robinson, is recruited into a radical group and agrees to do some kind of terrorist act at some indeterminate point in the future when asked.  In between these points in the novel, he befriends radical Paul Muniment, falls in love with Princess Casamassima, wonders about whether he loves his childhood friend Millicent Henning, and then finds out that he has been thrown over with the Princess by Paul, and with Millicent by Captain Sholto.  I won't spoil the ending if you haven't read it (though, of course, I'm saying here that it's not a good novel, so you probably won't read it). It's pretty thin as plots go, especially for a novel that ran to 15 or 16 months in serial form, and 600 pages in book form.  The novel is more a collection of notes and sketches of the city and those who inhabit it, and the last 100 or so pages feel like James has run out of ideas for the novel, but extends the narrative anyway. 


Friday, August 1, 2014

Ismail Kadare's Twilight of the Eastern Gods

I had read about Ismail Kadare, the Albanian author, a few years ago when I was trying to pull together a list of novelists from Eastern bloc nations, and my interest was piqued by the glowing words in praise of his writing.  The novel Twilight of the Gods is my first plunge into his work, and it didn't disappoint; I'm ready to read much more of his work.

Part of the appeal, for me, was the skillful way in which he evoked the often subtle, bizarre features of the Soviet world.  One small example is the way the concierge treats him after the police come to visit him.  The way he described her behavior was eerily familiar to me.  I lived in Ukraine (fourteen years after the fall of the Soviet Union), but there were so many things that drove us nuts that were relics of Soviet life.  Being required to pay your utility bills at the bank cash was strange, but stranger still was the fact that you had to have exactly the amount or they wouldn't take it.  I may have told this story before, but the first time it happened to my wife, she had to leave the bank and go get change from a kiosk on the street.

But back to Kadare.  The novel is narrated by an Albanian writer who has been invited to study literature at the Gorky Institute in Moscow.  While this is an honor, the narrator shows us a world of literary work that is anything but inspiring or creative.  He makes clear that success as a novelist, poet, or playwright has little to do with merit, and much more to do with writing works that espouse and support the ideological positions of the Soviet leadership.  And the students surrounding him are, for the most part, quite happy to play that game.  This is demonstrated most effectively in the section of the novel that deals with the day Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the days that followed that announcement.  For several days, the radios and newspapers attack Pasternak mercilessly, and within the Gorky Institute, the students take the party line and criticize the decision and Pasternak.  But Kadare doesn't let his fellow writers off by saying that they were all forced to do this--he suggests that many writers genuinely felt that Pasternak, and any writing critical of the Soviet Union, should be destroyed, not praised.  So Kadare sets up an interesting juxtaposition:  on the one hand, you have Pasternak winning the most prestigious literary prize in the world; on the other, you have aspiring writers at the most prestigious literature program in the Soviet Union who Kadare portrays as nothing more that apparatchiks.  We all know who wins that one:  Pasternak refuses to accept the prize, and the apparatchiks control the writing world.  It's not so much that these are new insights, but more that Kadare does such a fine job of developing characters who demonstrate the Soviet mentality.

One other observation:  Kadare does an excellent job of showing how much he, and his narrator, are outsiders at the institute, and in Moscow.  For all the propaganda that all the nations making up the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, Kadare shows that he and other non-Russians are inferior, and definitely suspect.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies, and Revolution

Let me say this up front:  I thought this book was excellent.  I understand now why she has such a large following for her blog.  She has a powerful voice as a writer, and what she says throughout the book is compelling.  She is rattling the cages of those who have become complacent, or those who think that all gender issues have been resolved--like the person who told me there is no racism anymore.  Sexism, asymmetrical power relations, and a culture of violence against women, Penny argues, persist, and the case she makes is very persuasive.

Penny focuses on the fact that women continue to be seen as bodies only, suggesting that this has gotten worse, not better, over the last fifty years.  She writes "You are a body first, and your body is not yours alone; whether or not you are attracted to men, men and boys will believe they have a claim on your body, and the state gets to decide what you're allowed to do with it afterwards."
One consequence of being seen as a body intended only to attract men, she asserts, is that women wind up participating in violence against their own bodies: "When you grow up to find yourself trapped in a body that seems to invite violence, a body that seems to be all you're good for, a body that is suddenly and forever the most important thing about you, there is a grim logic to the attempt to cut your way out of it.  To discipline it and bring it under your control.  The body that hurts, and hungers, and ceaselessly wants things.  The body that betrays you."

Ultimately the root of the problem is uneven power relations:  "Women, like any oppressed class, learn to fear our own rage.  Our anger is legitimately terrifying.  We know that if it ever gets out we might get hurt, or worse, abandoned.  One sure test of social privilege is how much anger you get to express without the threat of expulsion, arrest, or social exclusion, and so we force down our rage like rotten food until it festers and sickens us."  I'm not sure I need to add to what Penny says, except to say that this book should be required reading for teenage boys when they hit the age of fifteen.  Many of them would hate it, some would say ugly things about what's she's arguing, and some would likely fall back on received misogynistic notions about women.  Regardless of all that, the book would be deeply unsettling for almost all of them.  In teenage male culture, how boys behave towards women is often informed and determined by the dumbest guys, and reinforced by constant peer pressure.  To give teenage boys a book like this, and ask them to think about the challenging ideas in it on their own, would mean creating a different space for boys to shape their understanding of gender and sexuality in society.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Edward St. Aubyn's Lost For Words

I had never read any of St. Aubyn's novels before, so when I saw Lost for Words on the "new books" shelf at the library, I grabbed it and looked forward to familiarizing myself with St. Aubyn.  Now that I've read it, I think it was probably not the best choice to introduce me to his work.

Lost for Words by Edward St. AubynSt. Aubyn's writing is sharp, concise, and precise, and I can certainly see why he is highly regarded .  Having said that, the topic and the premise of the book are thin and seem misaligned with his style.  He exhibited tremendous skill as a writer in the service of a spoof that seems, frankly, cranky and mean-spirited.  The novel revolves around a prestigious literary award, clearly intended to be the Man Booker prize.  The novel follows several novelists and judges through the selection process, from the submission phase right through to the final dinner at which the winner is revealed.  There are things that happen with the judges that shouldn't be surprising to us:  the judges take up favorite novels and try to push their favorites through; not everyone reads all the submissions; they all have different ideas about what counts as a relevant, important novel; and they all bring some kind of political agenda to the process.  I thought that the judges were simply types, not people who would interest us.  We have an academic who speaks as the worst kind of academic and pushes for abstract ideals in art; a former Foreign Office employee-turned-(awful) novelist; a journalist looking for gritty novels that will "matter" to "the People" as she defines them; an actor who is charming and never participates in anything; and the elitist former diplomat who is above it all.  They are all stiff characters and at times really ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the authors are equally ridiculous and petty.  The Indian author from an upper-class background is obnoxious and arrogant, and another author sleeps with everyone.  One of the submissions that advances--I won't spoil it--makes everyone look like a buffoon; it's a situation that seems utterly impossible.  Again, the inclusion of that submission is petty, and suggests that St. Aubyn resents the Booker and his fellow novelists.  It positions St. Aubyn as above it all, better than the rest of his peers.

Now some might accuse me of not reading the novel in the spirit of a satire.  I would disagree.  The best satires make one think seriously and perhaps in a new way about the text they are satirizing.  In Lost for Words, the satire is not sharp, insightful, or interesting; it's heavy-handed and predictable.  I came away from reading the novel feeling like I had a greater respect for the Booker prize (which is deeply flawed, I know).  Mission, therefore, not accomplished. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Lauren Owen's The Quick

Note:  This review reveals details about the plot of the novel that might spoil it for those who might want to read it.

The QuickLauren Owen's novel The Quick evokes convincingly 19th-century London and the world of amateur Victorian science, and it's a novel that works at several levels.  First and foremost, it's a vampire story with a cast of quirky, interesting characters.  It's also a story about the unwavering faith of a subset of Victorians in the ability of science and reason to cure or solve any problem.  James Norbury, poet-turned-vampire, is the problem that needs to be cured, and his sister, with the help of vampire "scholars" Shadwell, Adeline, and Howland, spends much of her life trying to find the cure.  And it's a story about alternative forms of relationships:  the relationship between Christopher and James; the relationship between Adeline and the much older Shadwell; the marriage of Charlotte and Howland, which remains unconsummated for an extended period; and of course the relationship between the vampire and his victim/source of life.

Owen's novel raises provocative questions, but it seems at times like he is trying to do too many things.  For example, the short section of the novel which consists of the notebook of Augustus Mould, who is studying vampirism, is an interesting narrative strategy, but looking back from the end of the novel, I'm not sure why we get that, other than that it emphasizes the scientific approach to understanding vampires.  I was also never entirely sure of how Mrs. Price and her crew were directly relevant to the story, though that narrative thread was interesting in its own way. 

The novel rips along at a quick pace, and I often found myself completely immersed in the world Owen creates.  It's a great read, and Owen is clearly a big new talent to watch in the coming years.

Monday, July 7, 2014

John Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps

I learned an important lesson today, one which I knew generally, but was really driven home:  disregard the average rating for books, whether it's on Goodreads or Amazon or another website with ratings.  John Buchan's novel Thirty-Nine Steps doesn't score very well among those who've read it and rated it on Goodreads--in the 3.5 range out of 5.  Thankfully, I didn't see that rating before I considered reading the novel--I was guided to it by Robert McCrum's ranking of it in The Guardian as one of the best 100 novels (number 42 on his list).    After reading his account of it, I found a free copy and downloaded it.

I should say here that, like many of you, I tend to be a little too spontaneous at times, and my Kindle books list can attest to moments when I had a powerful initial urge to read something, but then didn't read much of it after I bought it.  Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day is one of those--I enjoy Pynchon, and finished his longer works (Gravity's Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, V.), but when I downloaded Against the Day, I was not really in a place to read 1,000 pages of Pynchon writing.  Nevertheless, it seemed pressing at the moment I bought it.  My spontaneity sometimes doesn't align with my commitment to reading something, so I bought the free version of Buchan's novel.  Had I not found one, I would have put it on my "to-read" list, and probably forgotten it for a while.

Boy, I am glad I found the free copy.  I started and finished it this morning.  I've said before that I'm a pretty slow reader, so it is no small feat for me to polish off a 215-page novel in a morning.  I just couldn't put it down.  The story is interesting and the writing is crisp.  There are some interesting twists to the story, but ultimately Buchan makes the narrator, Richard Hannay, a compelling, complex character.  As the story unfolds, you want to know not only what is going to happen next, but also what it will reveal about Hannay.

Buchan also plays with the theme of identity and disguise throughout the novel.  Near the end of the novel, so much of what happens depends on the idea that people can disguise themselves not by making physical changes to themselves, but by placing themselves in new settings.  It also seems to pick up the fundamental premise of Poe's "The Purloined Letter":  that the best place to hide is out in the open, in the middle of things.  Hannay himself is a chameleon who is very aware of the different identities he takes on throughout the novel.  By the end of the novel, it's clear that, to Buchan, seeing is not a reliable way to know someone's identity.

Don't be scared off by the low ratings:  Thirty-Nine Steps is a great read that belongs on McCrum's best 100 novels list.  But don't start it unless you can carve out the time to finishing it in one sitting.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Home again--the road trip is done

It's hard to believe that my last post was more than a week ago.  Since then, we drove almost 1,500 miles, attended a wedding in Charlotte, NC, stayed with friends in Raleigh, NC, and drove 14 hours in a day to get back home.

The driving was tolerable, especially the last day--I kept thinking about getting back to my favorite reading chair, and my books, and drinking coffee while reading first thing in the morning.  I also couldn't wait to see the progress of my big veggie garden--as it turns out, there was lots of rain while we were traveling, so there were lots of weeds to pull when I returned.  Still, when you finish the first four hours of driving, and realize you still have ten hours left, it feels pretty stark, and all those things seem very far away. 

Any bibliophile knows the feeling of leaving one's books, the sense of being separated from a major part of one's life.  One also knows that the reunion with one's books is exciting:  it feels like seeing them all anew.  The morning after our trip, I sat down in my chair and, looking at the books on the shelves nearest to me, time spread out in front of me:  no more trips this summer, seven more weeks until the fall semester begins, and no other major time commitments in the offing.  I imagined myself reading all the ones that suddenly interested me again in the open time that lay in front of me.  It was an exquisite feeling, though temporary.  In that moment I felt, in part, the euphoria of returning from a trip; I always want those first few hours to last for a long time.  They are the reward for the long trip home.  But as time passes, and the reality of life at home breaks through the surface of that euphoria, the reward fades.  But the books are still there . . .

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Question: Henry James novels and movies

Have you seen one of the movies based on one of Henry James's novels, or read a Henry James novel?  Send me a note and let me know about your experience reading/watching it.  If you had read the novel before seeing its movie, which did you enjoy more?

I'd love to hear from you!

Portrait of a Novel -- Michael Gorra

Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American MasterpieceHenry James holds an interesting place in American culture (even though I just mentioned Henry James, please keep reading!!!).  I have never taught a student who actually read, let alone enjoyed, one of James's late novels such as Golden Bowl or The Ambassadors.  Mention James to most faculty members in an English department, and they will act like you just dropped a stinky diaper in the middle of the room.  Someone is buying his more difficult novels, but it's not clear whether anyone reads beyond page 20.  And yet, people have been willing to go to the movie theatre to watch Nick Nolte play Adam Verver in Golden Bowl, or Helena Bonham Carter play Kate Croy in Wings of the Dove.  Clearly there is something about the stories Henry James created that resonates with filmakers and moviegoers.  People just don't want to push through James's complicated, sometimes impenetrable, sentences to get to that something.

The James novel that many readers enjoy is The Portrait of a Lady (also a movie, with Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich).  It's certainly one of James's best novels, in part because his style is still accessible.  In his book Portrait of a Novel:  Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, Michael Gorra offers a biography of the novel, tying the novel to James's own life and to the historical context in which he wrote the novel.  It is an interesting, persuasive explication of the novel, but Gorra accomplishes a more difficult feat.  He has written a book of criticism on Henry James for a lay audience, without sacrificing complexity or nuance.

Gorra's book helps explain the appeal of James to a contemporary audience, and shows readers why James is relevant.  He also gives the reader an excellent, condensed biography without explicitly writing a biography of Henry James.  Academic biographies of Henry James are typically large, multi-volume works.  Just looking at those books on display in a bookstore would send most readers running for something a little more, let's say, manageable.  Someone who reads Gorra's book will come away with a good sketch of James's life, and the people who were important to him.  It's a good read, and worth reading.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High CastleI'm at the beach house, and I read almost all of The Man in the High Castle in a little over 24 hours.  One of the benefits of being on vacation at the beach is that there are not many obligations, beyond applying sunscreen evenly and eating too much.  So it was quite easy, and perfectly acceptable, to commit myself almost exclusively to reading the novel.

And it's a good thing I had that luxury, because I got to a certain point where I could not stop reading it.  I read a comment recently saying that Dick's genius was his ability to imagine worlds and reveal them in his novels, but that he was not a great writer.  As I read through The Man in the High Castle, I kept thinking how much I disagree with that assessment.  His brilliance is in the ideas that form the novels, but Dick also crafts compelling stories, and develops interesting characters.

This novel makes you think. The central premise is that the Germans and Japanese won World War II, and Dick offers a version of what the world they would have created might look like.  It's hard not to think about the implications of that premise the entire time you're reading the novel.  What would it mean if the United States had been split up in 1945, instead of Germany, and governed by different nations living in a tense, fragile peace?  What would happen to "Americanness" in that version of the world?  How long would it take for the "former" United States to lose that identity?  What would happen to the history of the United States?  Where and how would it be preserved, if at all?  And those kinds of questions inevitably lead to questions about the actual post-War world the Germans and the Japanese experienced in the 1950s and 60s.  Dick makes us think, in other words, about life as the conquered, not the victors, and it's an uncomfortable, disconcerting experience. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Follow-up: What are you reading on your for summer vacation?

After I wrote the last post about my book selections for the beach trip, I decided to be conservative. I did load up the Kindle, but I grabbed only a couple of non-Henry James books.  I was quite pleased with myself on the road the first day, as I sat in the back of the van and read.  I completed one of the two books on Henry James, and pulled out the John  Le Carre novel I had packed at the last minute.  After reading a couple of pages, I realized that I had read it already, during our beach week two years earlier.  So I don't have one really fun book to read.  I have a couple of other books in addition to the Kindle books, so I won't lack for reading.  It's just that I was really looking forward to another Le Carre novel. 

When we arrived at the beach house last night, I realized I had made one other, possibly bigger, mistake in my preparations for the trip:  I had forgotten to pack a bathing suit.  That, as the young people say, is an epic fail.  Swimming in the ocean in over-sized basketball shorts just isn't as pleasant.  But then again, I am at the ocean in the first place, so it's nothing really.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

What are you reading on your summer vacation?

It's the eve of our annual beach trip to Ponte Vedra, FL, and I'm wrestling with all the possible choices of books to bring.  We have taken this trip for the last nine years, and every year I bring way too many books.  I pack as though I'm going for six weeks, when in fact I'm going for six days.  I always fantasize about spending long hours under a tent, reading 500 or 600 pages in an afternoon--probably would be hard for me to do, since I read 30-40 pages an hour on average.  It's also much hotter on the beach than I remember when planning at home, so I rarely want to spend long stretches out of the water, which means I spend lots of time in the water, and thus not reading on the beach.  So much for 600 pages.

Still, even knowing that I'm likely to bring too many books, I always feel like I'm going to get to the beach and suddenly have a powerful urge to read the last book I decided to leave at home.  In this age of instant gratification, the danger is that, in my impatience to read it (six whole days!  how could I make it that long?!), I'd download a book I already own on my Kindle.  Not a good spending strategy. 

I've decided definitely to bring two books Henry James.  Not exactly vacation reading, but reading I want to get done nonetheless.  But what about actual vacation reading?  I've got the Kindle loaded up with options, and I'm leaning towards finishing Lauren Owen's novel The Quick.  I also borrowed from the e-library Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, and have made a start on it.  I also want to bring a few more  physical books:  I like them for my 20 minutes of daily beach reading.  I'm thinking about adding a John Le Carre novel, and maybe the final book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Regardless of what I decide tonight, though, I'll inevitably cram a last-minute inspiration into my bag tomorrow as I'm walking out the door.

So what are you reading on vacation, and how do you decide which books to pack?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My biggest failure this year: Magic Mountain

I have to confess:  I have not gone back to read more of Magic Mountain since, well, the end of my first read-a-thon the first Saturday in January.  I'm stuck at 250 or so pages, and every time I look at it on the bookshelf next t o my reading chair, I feel a) guilty about not finishing it, and b) not interested enough to get going again on reading it.  Why?

Yes, indeed, why?  When I told one of my colleagues, a medievalist, that I was starting MM, and she got very excited.  She told me it is her favorite novel, and how much she loves it.  I haven't been able to see the source of that excitement yet.

I know it's an important modernist novel.  And at some level, it is (somewhat) interesting.  But, uh, I haven't pushed through it.

I feel like I can't abandon this one--especially because I made very public my progress through it during the read-a-thon.  I feel like I have to finish it.

So what book have you started over the last few months that you can't seem finish?

JG Ballard's Millennium People

Millennium People by J.G. BallardI picked up J. G. Ballard's Millennium People, and was hooked immediately.  Ballard does an excellent job, in the novels I've read, of laying out up front an idea about modern society that identifies a fundamental problem but views it from a unique angle.  Crash is an example:  it takes our obsession with cars and explores that obsession in the form of a sexual fetish related to the destruction of cars. Millennium People captures a problem of displacement caused by market forces in a capitalist system.  In this case, however, it is not a matter of the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods that results in working-class families being pushed out and left without a place to live.  Here, Ballard takes up the issue of middle class professionals being pushed out of London as prices for housing and consumer goods continue to skyrocket. The novel, then, works at the level of satire:  it's a novel about revolution, but the revolutionaries have, and want to protect (or ideally increase) the value of what they have.  In this sense, it makes a case for the hollowness of modern society.  But at another level, it asks a serious question:  what are we being led to do by the forces of consumer culture around us?

The novel works up to a point, but towards the end it seems like Ballard has played out the idea without having wrapped up the narrative.  Overall, however, Ballard's novel forced me to think about modern society in a new and interesting way.  For this reason alone, it is worth reading.

How Paris Became Paris

How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern CityHow Paris Became Paris, Joan De Jean's history of the transformation of Paris into a modern city, is a compelling, fascinating read.  She focuses on the changes that took place in Paris during the 17th century, a time when the city's architecture, monuments, and physical layout were developing into what we see now in contemporary Paris.  She also discusses the evolution of style and fashion--la mode--during this period, and with it the emergence of new types, often people who could use fashion to disguise their low birth to gain social position:  "La Parisienne," the coquette, and the "aventuriers."  She weaves all these elements into a broad argument that persuades the reader that modern Paris owes much of its identity to the changes in material culture that occurred in the seventeenth century.

The book is clearly grounded in primary documents and archival research, giving it historiographic authority, but it never reads like a dry academic monograph.  Dr Jean has accomplished a very difficult feat:  she has written a fascinating scholarly history that a non-scholar can read easily and profitably.

Friday, May 16, 2014

R L Stevenson's Kidnapped

Kidnapped by Robert Louis StevensonI enjoyed the beginning of Kidnapped, but I have to confess that I thought it dragged in the middle and the ending was a little too neat.  I think this is due, in part, to the fact that I have never really caught the sea-story bug.  Kidnapped is not solely a sea tale, but a good part of the action takes place on the ship on which the main character, David Balfour, has been taken captive.  Stevenson uses much of the last third of the novel to put the manners of the inhabitants of the Scottish Highland on display for the reader.  The picture is not flattering.  In fact, there are some interesting similarities between Stevenson's descriptions of the Highlanders, and many of the stereotyping descriptions that exist in travel accounts of the American South in the mid-19th century.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory by Iain BanksI came to The Wasp Factory  by way of two of Iain Banks' Culture novels, Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games, so I assumed it would have a science fiction angle.  I never expected a novel filled with brutal, violent stories, and narrated by a chilling, cold, rational, and deeply disturbed character.  But as the novel unfolded, I was struck most by how good this novel is despite being unsettling.

The novel is impressive because of the powerful narrative voice. As I read, I kept thinking how strange it was to be drawn to the stories of such an apparently disturbed mind.  The sense of order and control are strong, and Frank, the narrator offers perfectly lucid explanations for what he does or has done in the past.  And yet, all along, there are also moments when I paused and thought about how wrong those explanations, and the events, are.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel, it becomes painfully obvious that the novel will end with some stunning revelation.  I was not able to anticipate the revelation, and was very surprised by the twist the narrative took.

The Wasp Factory is an excellent novel, but one that leaves one wondering whether it's wrong to like it so much.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Mid-event survey

I'm well past the halfway point, but thought I'd complete this mid-event survey anyway.

1. What are you reading right now?
Still working on Henry James: The Mature Master.  Only 25 pages left, however.

2. How many books have you read so far?

3. What book are you most looking forward to for the second half of the Read-a-thon?

4. Did you have to make any special arrangements to free up your whole day?
It was mostly free, but I wound up taking advantage of the beautiful weather and was outside more than I had planned.

5. Have you had many interruptions? How did you deal with those?
Nothing more than the usual, other than the delicious weather.

6. What surprises you most about the Read-a-thon, so far?
How much more difficult it is to do this when the weather is ideal.  The last one I did was in the first week of January, and that was quite easy.

7. Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?

8. What would you do differently, as a Reader or a Cheerleader, if you were to do this again next year?
Nothing comes to mind right now.

9. Are you getting tired yet?
Yes, but I want to push on if possible--we'll see.

10. Do you have any tips for other Readers or Cheerleaders, something you think is working well for you that others may not have discovered?
Nothing comes to mind right now.

Read-a-thon update #2

Currently reading:  Sheldon Novick, Henry James:  The Mature Master
Books finished:  0
Pages read:  28
Running total of pages read: 71
Amount of time spent reading: 75 minutes
Running total of time spent reading: 175 minutes

Read-a-Thon update #1

Currently reading:  Sheldon Novick, Henry James:  The Mature Master
Books finished:  0
Pages read: 43
Running total of pages read: 43
Amount of time spent reading: 100 minutes
Running total of time spent reading: 100 minutes
Snacks: 1 Pop-Tart

Dewey's 24-hour Read-a-Thon--opening post

I'm participating today in "Dewey's 24-hour Read-a-Thon," so here are my responses to the opening prompts:

I'm currently in central Illinois, enjoying an absolutely gorgeous spring morning.  I'll likely spend some of the day reading out in the hammock out back.

I'm looking forward to finally finishing Sheldon Novick's Henry James:  The Mature Master, which I will complete early in the 24-hour period (hopefully this afternoon).  I also look forward to finishing RL Stevenson's Kidnapped.

I've participated in read-a-thons in the past, and what I've realized is that having one big book to push through is the wrong approach.  This time, I plan to work on finishing a couple of books, and maybe start something light, fun and relatively short towards the end.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Christopher McDougall's Born to Run

Born to Run by Christopher McDougallI've been puzzled, several times in the past, when I've read a review of a non-fiction book (typically history) that describes the book as a "page-turner" that pushes the reader forward like a good mystery would.  I confess that I've not had that experience except in one or two instances, and such a description frankly sounds ridiculous to me.  Maybe that's because I agree with Henry James, who believed that great writing requires a level of engagement from the reader that goes well beyond the "page-turner" level. 

Having said that, I now want to announce that Christopher McDougall's Born to Run is a page-turner, without being a book of fluff. It explores some big questions about human willpower and capacity for physical exertion, but the way McDougall writes the story makes it very difficult to put the book down.  Apparently I've come to this book, and that conclusion, late in the game, however:  according to one website I read, I'm one of the remaining six runners on the planet who had not read the book.  The number is now down to five.

Part of what I love about this book is that it makes a compelling case for the idea that anyone can run an ultramarathon--50- or 100-milers, or more--if one chooses to do it.  That's not an easy idea for me to wrap my head around, because like most people, the idea of running/jogging/walking for 10-20 hours is a crazy one.  And yet, McDougall writes in a way that is seductive, and it made me literally want to leap out of my chair and go for a long run (I didn't, by the way, and instead continued sitting and reading).  Before reading the book, I thought of a marathon not as something you enjoyed doing, but something you enjoyed having done.  McDougall's book makes me want to work on enjoying the long run itself and for its own sake, not in the service of a bigger goal.

I think this is a terrific book about a topic that likely seems exotic to most people, even those who run long distances. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Complete stop

Over the last couple of weeks, I've almost completely stopped reading, especially during the week.  Last weekend I read a good bit and finished a couple of books, but other than that, I've put up a big goose egg most days for pages read.  I'm not sure how to account for it--stuff at work definitely, but that typically doesn't shut the whole reading endeavor down. 

I've got several partially completed books lying around right now, and I need to get back into them and finish.  I always know that I'm in a cluttered, distracted state of mind when I have lots and lots of partially read books everywhere.  And because I've not been reading much, I've posted less than I had been--less to say about books when you don't read them.

I'm not sure how to flip that switch and get going again.  I'll see what the week brings.

Friday, April 4, 2014

March Madness wrap up

So I thought I would do much better on this one.  I started out very strong, but faded in the middle.  Last weekend I picked the pace up again, and finished strong, but I didn't get much on my original list completed

Here's the list of books that I completed in March:

Conrad, Joseph Under Western Eyes  (on my original March list)
Pullman, Philip The Subtle Knife  (on my original March list)
Cather, Willa My Antonia  
Greene, Graham The Quiet American  
Zafon, Carlos Ruiz Shadow of the Wind  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Graham Greene's Quiet American

I cruised through the first half of the novel, and then set it aside for a couple of weeks.  As I read the second half, I found it somewhat challenging to reconstruct what had happened earlier.  In some ways, I think my experience gets at a fundamental element of the novel:  there is Fowler's life with Phuong and without Pyle, and then there is his life with Pyle.  They are very different lives.

To put it bluntly, Pyle is a painfully obnoxious character.  Greene does a brilliant job of showing Pyle's earnestness and righteousness as offensive qualities.  Pyle is a New England Puritan who believes that Phuong should be treated a particular way.  That's to say that Pyle wants to Americanize her, and thereby raise her out of what he sees as her benighted state.  He thinks the Vietnamese are childlike, and his condescension is palpable.  But unlike other versions of American superiority in the novel, Pyle's is complicated by his apparent innocence.  What comes out clearly is that those who are innocent, righteous, and earnest are more dangerous than those who explicitly claim and try to impose their superiority.

Greene does an excellent job of making explicit the formula for imperialism:  the desires or deaths of indigenous people matter much less than the abstract good the colonizers think they bring.  To put it differently, Pyle and his kind think that losing a couple thousand Vietnamese as "collateral damage" is a cost worth taking if it leads to a Vietnamese society arranged on an American plan.  In The Quiet American, the names of the colonizers appear to be changing, but regardless of the names, the Vietnamese are still the colonized.

I think Greene does an excellent job of showing, in Pyle, the ability to compartmentalize one's experiences and beliefs.  Pyle imagines Phuong as the mother of his children, and earnestly desires her as a companion.  He lectures Fowler on appropriate relations between men and women.  And yet, Pyle has no compunction about being part of a plan that kills women and children.  These two things take up different parts of his brain, and he keeps them separate.  I think the novel shows that this kind of mental and emotional distinction is possible if one sees people as abstractions.  The Vietnamese are an abstraction, and Pyle does not care about them, only about the desired political outcome.  Phuong is a real person, and he sees her differently--but in the end, he sees her as an object to be raised up into a state of American "civilization."

Friday, March 21, 2014

Trying to read during March Madness

I've come to accept one proposition:  if you create a bracket for the NCAA basketball tournament, it's unlikely that you'll read anything for the first four days of the tournament.

I wanted to read over the last couple of days, but I've been completely unsuccessful.  I've been completely enthralled by the tournament, which has been outstanding, and have watched lots of games.  Last night I kept thinking I was going to turn off the TV after one game ended and start reading.  I'd get to the end, decide to watch a couple of minutes, and then . . . the outcome was no reading.  Same thing tonight.  I decided to post something to the blog to force myself to turn away from the TV for some period of time.

The whole week has been a very light reading week, due mostly to some distractions at work.  I have fallen behind on my reading challenges, so I need to get started back up again. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Week 2 of March Madness: shift in reading focus

This week I've turned my reading focus to literary criticism and urban studies texts.  I'm skimming through a stack of them as part of my research for a book on cities in nineteenth century lit.  It's a field that's pretty full, but having grown up in NYC, I'm fascinated by city environments and the ways in which people attempt to make sense of the chaos of a city. 

The chaos of the city was really driven home to me last fall when I passed through on my way to visit family on the tip of Long Island.  I flew into LaGuardia thinking that I could catch the Long Island Railroad from there.  I forgot that the LIRR leaves from Jamaica station, which is linked with JFK airport, not LaGuardia, so I had to take a taxi from one airport to the next.  The trip was no fun, because 1) we were in traffic most of the time, and b) my cab drive and the drivers around us drove like they were crazy or tripping on acid--maybe both.  When I finally got to Jamaica station, I had two hours to wait until my train departed, so I sat and watched people move through the station.  The sheer number was striking--no different from when I grew up and did the same without thinking about it, but startling after living in small towns for the last 20 years (except for the year in Kyiv).  The experience was overwhelming, and gave me my first glimpse into what it must be like for people who move to NYC from elsewhere in the country. 

I can't imagine raising children in that environment, and yet my parents raised us in midtown Manhattan, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were no cell phones and midtown was not Disneyland.  My youngest son is in 5th grade right now, and he seems young to me; and yet, when I was his age, I walked 12 blocks to and from school each day with my younger brother, and that seemed completely normal.  The occasional addled person would yell at us, and the Hari Krishna folks would try to talk to us (the scene in the airport lobby at the beginning of Airplane reminds me of those encounters), but we had very few problems.  My brother was struck by a car moving at a very low speed which was turning onto an Broadway, but we made it through those years.

I can't imagine the daily anxiety I'd feel letting our boys do that.  I can't imagine the daily hassle of completing basic tasks like getting to and from work, or buying groceries.  But then again, my boys don't know the exhilarating feeling of being independent in a big city, and being able to move freely through it.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

March Madness Read-a-thon Update: Week 1

I'm one week into this challenge, and I've completed two of the books on my list: 

Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes
Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife

I've added in Cather's My Antonia because I'm in the middle of teaching it--sure, I could have looked at my syllabus last week when I put the March list together and added it then--and will likely finish that today.  So I'm off to a great start on this challenge.  The big books, though, are still ahead of me.

Philip Pullman's Subtle Knife

Spring break started today, and over the next several days I hope to finish several books that I started earlier this year.  It's not quite spring cleaning, but it is a tidying-up phase.

First up this morning is Phil Pullman's The Subtle Knife, the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  Simply put, I thought it was excellent. When I started the first book in the trilogy, The Golden Compass, several years ago, I found it difficult to get into it, and wondered what I was missing that others were seeing.  It was included on the Guardian's 100 greatest novels of all time list (under the UK title Northern Lights), so I figured I was reading it at the wrong time or in the wrong way.  I put it aside, and picked it up again last year.  The experience was completely different this time, and I started to see what I had missed before.

But I found The Subtle Knife even more compelling than The Golden Compass, and I'm excited about reading the final book in the trilogy soon.  The story moves along briskly, in large part because Pullman is economical when he sketches a scene or describes an event.  He doesn't overwhelm the reader with information.  We get just the right amount of information--through description or dialogue--to see what's happening and understand how things are unfolding.  And yet, at no point did I feel like Pullman's economy made the novel was simplistic.  I think one of the great gifts of a writer is having the ability to employ successfully simple syntax to create complex ideas.  Pullman clearly has this gift, as does Willa Cather, who I've written about recently.

Another element of the success of this novel is the fact that the outcome is not clear.  Unless I missed something, the first two books don't make it clear where good and evil reside.  Clearly Mrs. Coulter is evil, but it's not clear that Lord Asriel is good.  We know Lyra and Will are good, but what is their mission exactly?  I find this more interesting than Lord of the Rings, for instance, where the reader knows from the beginning who will triumph; the only question is how that will happen.  In this trilogy, I am less certain about that, and that makes it all the more interesting.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Cather follow-up

Sure enough, first thing this morning in class I was reminded of what I posted last night about teaching books you love.  Right before we started, one of the students said "I don't know how reading My Antonia is ever going to help me in my life."  Ouch.  It led to a good conversation, but in that first moment, I thought that my decision to teach Cather had been a bad one.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Willa Cather: Teaching what you love

I've had the pleasure this week of teaching Willa Cather's My Antonia again in my American Lit II survey.  It's one of my favorite novels, one that I find deeply moving, beautiful, and beautifully wrought.  I'm not sure how many times I've read it--4? 5? more?--but I always come back to it and marvel at the effect such lean prose can have on a reader.  I should also say that, each time I get ready to teach this book or Marianne Moore's poetry (my favorite poet), I am reminded of advice I was given by a professor in grad school:  never teach books or poems you absolutely love.  I have never actually heeded the advice, but I have had  many moments when I wish I had.

I think that professor meant that the beauty of the thing you love will likely not be appreciated by those who you are teaching.  You will insist on it and show evidence--"look at this evocative passage . . ."--but fail to get most of them to see what you see.  You bring the work to a group of people who cannot possibly love it the way you do.  Some may come to enjoy it after their first readings; others will think it boring; and worse, still others will not care at all.  A chasm opens between your strong feelings about the text and their indifference, and that frustrates and angers you.  Why expose such a beloved thing to such rejection?

In part, I do it to show students a work of art that I think is superior.  But more than that, I do it to show students that it is possible to be passionate about literature.  I make it clear to my students that I love My Antonia.  I know they won't immediately, if ever--in fact, if I assign a large chunk of the novel, they will dislike it because they will associate it with too much work.  But some of them do like it, and in the course of the class conversations, come to understand more clearly why they do.  And that makes it worth teaching it.

When I was teaching at Auburn, I had a football player in one of my courses who enjoyed literature, and what we read in my course in particular.  At the end of the semester, he invited me to the "Top Tiger" banquet, an event that celebrated the academic success of outstanding student-athletes.  During dinner, one of my English department colleagues asked him what book he enjoyed reading most in my course.  The student said Henry James's The American, another one of my favorites.  I was stunned.  I never expected to hear any student--EVER--say Henry James was a favorite.  But he went on to talk about why he liked it.  I came away from that experience convinced that I had to keep teaching books I love deeply as well as others that I just think are important.

And so I am teaching My Antonia; things have gone only ok this time.  I'm not sure my students are reading much of it right now.  Spring break is one day away, and the weather has depressed us all.  The conversation about the book sputters and flounders often.  And yet, I find myself experiencing the joy of re-reading the novel, and speaking passionately about it to my students. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes

During the summer before my junior year in high school, my English teacher Mr. Hull assigned us Joseph Conrad's Nostomo to read before the school year began.  I purchased the book in the middle of the summer, read enough to be miserable (I was only 15 at the time), and put Conrad behind me until last month.  I have NO excuse for having ignored Conrad for this long:  in the intervening time, I also finished a Ph.D. in 19th-century literature, and have taught literature in college for many years.  By this point, I should have read some Conrad.    

One of the things I value in the reading challenges I've discovered this year is the way they make me rethink my reading habits.  Thanks to the Classics Club challenge I discovered in January, I gave a lot of thought to the holes in my reading as I created my 5-year challenge list.  Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes wound up on the list.

I found Conrad's exploration of the complexity of right and wrong compelling.  The novel hinges, generally, on two acts:  Haldin assassinates a Russian official, and Razumov helps the police capture Haldin.  Both things take place in the first 100 pages of the novel, and that's basically the extent of the action in the novel.  What follows, however, is a story about how Razumov tries to escape his guilt, how his act is revealed, and the effects of both the guilt and the revelation on him.

The reader is tempted to see Haldin, the revolutionary, as the hero who has acted against the Russian empire, and to see Razumov as a traitor because he gave up Haldin.  But as the novel unfolds, it becomes difficult to hold these positions.  Haldin sacrifices his life to a revolutionary cause, but he has also committed murder.  By turning Haldin in, Razumov betrays the revolution but also rejects the idea that murder is consistent with a righteous cause.  And yet, Razumov also has a moment where he behaves violently towards a helpless man.  The revolutionaries Razumov meets in western Europe are not saints.  There is no absolutely good or bad person in this novel--only people who respond to discreet things in good or bad ways.

I'm actually glad that I waited until this point in my life to read Conrad again.  I'm not sure I would have enjoyed this prior to 2000, when my interests turned to Russian literature and history.  As I read Under Western Eyes, I kept hearing echoes of Dostoevsky and his obsessions, and that helped place Conrad in a useful context.

Friday, February 28, 2014

March Madness Read-a-Thon

I just found a month-long read-a-thon at Cedar Station, and I think I'm going to participate.  I've fallen into a bit of a reading rut over the last ten days, and this is the perfect way to get out of it.  I'd like to complete 8 books in total.

First, I want to complete several books that I have begun over the last two months:


I'd also like to work on a couple of TBR books for that challenge:


Finally, I need to finish my Classics Spin book by the end of the month:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Reading Philip Pullman

In my reading life, I am like a golden retriever that gets distracted easily by any new object thrown down the hall.  In the midst of reading what seems like 39 other books simultaneously, I picked up The Subtle Knife, the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.  (Note:  I had a golden retriever for 12 years, and loved it like crazy, so please don't take what I just said as a criticism of golden retrievers; they simply can't help being distracted by new possibilities.)  I'm about half way through it, and for the first time that I can remember, the book actually matches what the blurbs on the back say:  this book moves at a "ferocious" pace. 

I've been struck by one thing in particular:  the fact that Pullman's writing in this second book shows confidence and a clear purpose.  It demonstrates, in short, a writer who has hit his stride in the middle of a trilogy.  What do I mean here? Certainly not that the first book, The Golden Compass, was a mediocre or chaotic book.  It was not; in fact, by the end it swept me along to the climax.  Instead, I sense a clear trajectory to the story now--I don't know the ending, but it's very clear that Pullman does, and as a result the story is crisp and fast paced.  The introduction of Will into the story as a companion to Lyra sets up the notion that there are multiple universes, separated by time, that exist simultaneously.  Access to them, at least at this point, comes from a window into a neutral world.  It reminds me of Connie Willis's novel Doomsday Book, another novel about Oxford and time travel.

Tolkien's Two Towers, the second in that trilogy, also reads briskly.  Perhaps it's the case that the second novel offers a writer more freedom.  The characters have already been established, the reader is hooked, and there's not the need to tie up all the narrative threads yet.  It offers the chance, in other words, to explore the narrative without the constraints created by having to complete it. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tire fires replaced by votive candles in Kyiv

In my last post, I expressed my fear that Euromaidan would not survive the onslaught of Berkut and militsia troops that had overrun Hrushevskoho Street and surrounded Maidan.  I thought it was over, and was grieving inside for the lost chance for Ukrainians to overthrow a thug government.

I was wrong to be so pessimistic.  I'm watching streaming video right now of Yulia Tymoshenko speaking to the crowd at Maidan, sitting in a wheelchair.  Even though I can't understand much of what she is saying, it's an incredibly powerful and moving scene.  Who could ever have thought, on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, that we could be watching this on Saturday?  They stood their ground when their government labelled them terrorists and vowed to use any means necessary to clear Maidan.  The people standing in Maidan Nezalezhnosti stared down troops itching for sustained violence on Tuesday.  They stood their ground even as they saw their peers being shot and killed randomly by snipers on Wednesday.  In the end, they won, and now it's back to 2004 again:  Yulia Tymoshenko on the stage addressing people willing to give up their lives for basic rights. 

At this moment, Yanukovich has been stopped at Kharkiv airport as he was trying to flee to Russia.  His Interior Minister--the one in charge of the Berkut and militsia--has also been stopped at the border trying to flee.  Yanukovich's house has been invaded, and the public are seeing how he lived (including a gold toilet).  The police have disappeared from Kyiv.

It is a remarkable outcome, determined by incredibly brave men and women.  I hope that, this time, Ukraine will not slip backwards to the kind of government Yanukovich created in 2010. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Disturbing day in Kyiv

As I write this, police ("militia" and Berkut) have overrun the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street, and taken control of Ukrainian House on European Square once again.  The protesters had taken control of both in late January.  The convoy of buses carrying hundreds of Berkut troops is staged to move through the "checkpoint" established on Sunday on Hrushevskoho.  The Minister of Interior Affairs has promised to "clean up" Maidan tonight.  Euromaidan PR reports that police have surrounded Maidan on all sides.  It's hard to see how the Euromaidan movement will survive through the night.  If Euromaidan falls, Viktor Yanukovich and his police state win.

The script has played out exactly as some feared.  The opposition leaders agreed to clear Hrushevskoho for traffic to move again, and return four state buildings, including the Kyiv City Administration building.  One fear voiced at the time was that opening up Hrushevskoho would make it possible for Berkut buses to eventually drive down Hrushevskoho in large numbers and threaten Maidan.  The process of clearing the street included clearing huge piles of debris and the large ice field that had formed in the no-man's land between the police and the protestors.  As an obstacle, it was formidable.

The small opening that was created through the barricades Sunday was about 4 meters wide, but that was all the police needed today.  I watched a webcam live this morning as the police overran the barricades, using sheer numbers to push through the Euromaidan defense.  Control of Hrushevskoho also meant that the police had a clear path to Ukrainian House, and the manpower to capture it.

As it stands right now, a large crowd has gathered in Maidan, and from the stage the opposition leaders have urged Ukrainians to come to the Square.  Meanwhile, the Kyiv metro was shut down earlier this evening, making it difficult for people living in suburbs like Nivky and Sviatoshin to get there.

And if Maidan fails, what's next?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lean week

I had a slow week reading last week, and as a result, I've not finished any books for several days.  I'm trying to finish a couple of the big books that I had started in January, including the Evans book.  I also picked up (unnecessarily, but there you have it) Conrad's Under Western Eyes, which is on my Classics Club list.  I've pushed through a good bit of that, but then I got the second book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (even more unnecessarily) and started it.  So I'm all over the map right now.