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.