Five classics that ought to capture you from page one

I feel great, like extremely good. It’s unaccountable, since I’ve felt pretty not-great for most of the past two months. Can’t explain it. Anyway, early in the history of this blog I used to do lists! My most popular one was eight writing manuals that aren’t a total waste of time. And last night as I was falling asleep I started thinking about the classics, and how most of the time when you sell them to people, it’s kind of like, well you’ve just got to stick with this. But really it’s not always like that. My most favorite classic to recommend is Anna Karenina, and people are usually like, “Oh well I tried starting that, but I didn’t get far…maybe I’ll try again.”

To which I’m like, “No! What’re you talking about? The first page of Anna Karenina is one of the most charming and timeless pages of fiction in all of history. If reading the book isn’t effortless, then don’t force yourself to. Wait until you can appreciate it.”

So Anna Karenina is obviously a classic that should not be work. But what’re some others? It seemed like cheating to use books that were too modern (Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. I mean it’s easy to read, but that’s because it basically invented the modern novel, so in essence we’ve been reading it all our lives). Number two on the list, for me, is clearly Pride and Prejudice. Now this is a book I had to read in tenth grade and found unbelievably boring. I stopped halfway through and just used the Cliff’s Notes instead. But when I came back to it ten years later, I was surprised by how funny it was. This is a book that ought to hold you right from the beginning.

Okay, now here is where it started to get more difficult. Finally I decided that number three would be The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope. I’ve read something like twenty books by him. But he’s frequently long-winded and boring. The Warden doesn’t have that problem. It’s a hundred thousand words long–relatively compact, by Trollope standards–and the plot also isn’t quite so paint-by-the-numbers. Most Trollope novels concern some guy who’s slowly going broke and/or a woman who’s married or about to marry the wrong dude. This one is more complex: it’s about the warden of church-run old folk’s home who comes under fire by a crusading journalist, who says, look, this home only takes care of twelve people, but the warden is earning eight hundred pounds a year! It’s essentially a sinecure! And the whole time you’re like, but Rev. Harding (the titular warden) is such a nice guy! Except…he also really doesn’t do very much for his money. But, on the other hand, nobody has ever asked him to do much. Anyway, it’s a great first introduction to Trollope.

So that’s five novels that are marvelous from page one. What’s a fourth one? Preferably one written before the year 1900? I’m going to go with the Count of Monte Cristo. That’s an easy one. A fantastic and morally complex adventure. It’s like a thousand pages long, and I wished it was twice the length, Afterward I tried to read The Three Musketeers and found it very dull, couldn’t finish it.

And for my fifth book, I dunno, maybe I’ll choose…Dangerous Liaisons? That’s an eighteenth century novel! Bonus points there. It’s an epistolary tale whose plot should be vaguely familiar to you either from Cruel Intentions or from the movie with John Malkovich. But it’s witty and brilliantly structured. I’ve looked for other epistolary novels with a fraction of its complexity and have never found one.

You know what, I’m gonna keep going. You know what book was shockingly non-boring? Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a Chinese novel from the 14th century, detailing the events surrounding the dissolution of the Han Dynasty in the 2nd and 3rd century. I read the unabridged Moss Roberts translation, and it’s romp. It’s like nothing else you’ve ever read: it’s the Annals of Tacitus except not horrendously boring (love you, Tacitus, but you are a dull writer). Time moves rapidly, events succeed events, heroes arise and die the next page, and everything is reported flatly, without moral judgement. The only difficult for a Western reader is keeping track of the thousands of names. For my part, I started developing mnemonics for each character. I’d say the name phonetically (mispronouncing it horrendously of course) and then think what english word the name sounded like, and then I’d relate that word to whatever the character had done. Like if the character was named Cao Dai, then I’d be like..cow died. And maybe the character had made a last stand on some bridge, so I was like “Cow dying on a bridge.” It’s really dumb, and potentially racist? It’s hard to say. But it really helps. If you can keep the names straight, this is an easy read. I mean the easiest thing would just be to have an index of characters, but I couldn’t find a good one.

Other readable classics…hmm…Plato’s account of Socrates’ trial and death, as presented in Eurythro, Apology, and Crito, is some of the finest prose literature from before the 18th century. It’s actually deeply affecting. Read the Benjamin Jowett translation you can find for free online. Definitely worth reading as fiction, even if you don’t care for the philosophy.

Well I could keep going, but would just make me look bad, because it’d be a bunch of white guys (if I hadn’t limited myself to before 1900 there would’ve been more women, I swear). But although their works aren’t quite effortless, I certainly recommend a trio of Japanese ladies: Sei Shonagan, Lady Murasaki (author of the Tale of Genji), and the anonymous author of the Sarashina diary. The last writer, whose book I read under the title As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams, out from Penguin Classics, has probably had as large an impact on my style as any other writer in the language. There’s something about the way she plays with time that’s really artful and affecting. I get chills just thinking about it.

WRAP UP SEASON 2016: The ten books I liked best this year

The-Lover-by-Marguerite-Duras-Book-Cover

This year’s been a good one for reading. I started it out as part of the jury for an award, which consumed my reading for the first few months. Then I got kind of depressed and couldn’t really read anything: I just had no taste for books anymore. But somehow Proust was the only thing I could still enjoy, so I read all of In Search of Lost Time, and it was amazing! Even better than the first time! Whereas during my first read, I’d sometimes needed to fight my way through the books, with this one that only rarely occurred (except during the fifth and sixth volumes, where there’s a distinct sense of repetition). I’ve posted about Proust at length on this blog, so I won’t discuss it too much here. This time I had more interest in his descriptions of walks and subtle psychological states, but to me the series is still, at its core, a novel of manners. This about the complex relationships of a very tiny segment of society: the highly-fashionable people of Paris, and the social climbers who want to be part of that set. The novel starts on the edges, by showing you Swann, who’s an interloper who made his way into the center of society. Then it circles back around and nibbles its way around the edges. In the second book, Marcel lives in an apartment bloc owned by the leader of fashionable society, the Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes. He attempts to know them and is rebuffed. But he gets in through a side door because of his grandmother’s friendship with a distant relative, the Mme de Villeparisis. Who in turn introduces him to a scion of the house: Robert de Saint Loup.

And so he spends three books circling through these characters, showing them to us in all their complicated relations with each other. Then he turns everything on its head, introducing the passage of time. Suddenly the Fauborg St. Germain we know begins to change. People who were on the outskirts are now working their way into the center. The catalyst is the Dreyfus Affair, which tore apart French society for reasons I still can’t quite understand. Somehow support for Dreyfus became identified with opposition to the nobility and the church and all things traditional, and the Fauborg, in order to shore itself up, starts admitting certain people, so long as they are very anti-Dreyfus.

Then the wheel turns again, and we’re suddenly after the Dreyfus affair, but things are different. The Duke and Duchesse de Guermantes are sadly changed. Mme de Villeparisis is dead. Robert de Saint Loup is fallen. Swann’s widow, who everyone once decried as a prostitute, is at the top of the social heap. And the terrible bourgeois, Mme Verdurin, runs her own highly fashionable salon.

The whole work is an attempt to span time. To catch it, and make us understand its passing in ways we wouldn’t otherwise: not just as the aging of individual people, but also as the destruction and construction of entire systems of relation.

Okay, I said I wasn’t going to talk about it, and then I did, for five hundred words. Sigh.

This year I also read a lot of Anthony Trollope. I read all the novels in his Palliser series. Each one is easily 300-400k long, so that makes something like two million words of it. And the series is so fucking good! It’s all about people falling in and out of love in 19th century Britain (like all Trollope novels), but these people are also Members of Parliament, and Cabinet Secretaries, and, sometimes, Prime Ministers.

In this series, Trollope is at his most realistic. He shows us what can happen to people: the ways they can be twisted and destroyed. He shows us the ways that character matters, not just in national affairs, but especially when it comes to those we are closest to. And you don’t come out with easy answers. In one book, he’ll seem to say one thing is right (you should always cleave to your husband, for instance), and in another book you’ll have a situation wherein that’s absolutely the wrong thing to do.

The first novel in the series is fantastic, but it’s not for everyone. Three years ago, I got a hundred pages into it, and then threw it away because I was so bored. This time I was riveted throughout. The political element doesn’t get introduced until halfway through the volume, so wait for it. The best books, though, are the fifth and sixth. Here everything starts to pay off. You have these two characters, Plantagenet Palliser and his wife, Lady Glencora, and it’s such a delight to see them grow up and change. Neither is perfect. Neither is quite a hero. Plantagenet is too stern and unwavering (he becomes Prime Minister and then messes everything up). And his wife really doesn’t have very good judgement (even as a matron and mother of adult children, she’s getting into weird and poorly-thought-out schemes). But they’re both strong-willed and good-hearted. Highly recommend.

The absolute best book I read this year was Emma Cline’s The Girls. The language in the book is fantastic. Few authors are truly able to create novel combinations of words. Cline actually manages to put things in such a way that you’re like: A) That’s beautiful; and B) I can now see this thing in a new light. Not to mention the story itself is pretty good! I mean it’s a little sensationalistic for my tastes; I didn’t love the whole Manson murders aspect. But I liked the bildungsroman hidden inside, and I think the ending is perfect. I can’t recommend this book enough. It ought to win the Pulitzer Prize. The only other writer who I can compare Cline to, on a sentence by sentence level, is Virginia Woolf. She’s that good.

Otherwise, I have the usual grab bag of books I loved. The latest on my list was added only yesterday. Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan is her earliest complete work. It wasn’t even published during her lifetime. It’s also fantastic, and, in my opinion, significantly better than a couple of her novels. You’ve never read a Jane Austen character like Lady Susan: she’s an amoral schemer who sort of gets away with her schemes! And the whole thing is told in letters too, so you can see her sly asides right alongside the confusion of the people she’s trying to fool. You can read this book in like two hours, and you should.

For the last few months my friend and fellow writer Erin Summerill has been sending me romance novel recommendations, and I have faithfully read all of them. Most are or were initially self-published, and most are mega-bestsellers. The best of the lot, in my opinion, is also the creepiest: On The Island, by Tracy Garvis-Graves, is about a thirty year old woman stranded on an island, after a plane crash, with her sixteen year old pupil. Yeah. They don’t hook up until after he turns nineteen, but that’s still pretty sketchy!

And yet despite all of that, the book is so visceral. The struggle to survive is so immediate that you forget about the age stuff. These are just two different people trying to stay alive for another day. And the age gap serves an important purpose: it keeps them apart. Without it, they would’ve hooked up on day two: the sexual tension is that deep and simmering.

Umm, what else…I read East of Eden. And it was a very good book, but also a little…perplexing. This is the kind of book that hooks you and keeps you reading, but when you look back on it six months later, you’re like, “Why?”

Oh, The Caine Mutiny! Herman Wouk is one of those writers, like Margaret Mitchell, who were hailed as literary in their own day (his book won the Pulitzer Prize) but now seem to only be real by average people who’re looking for good books (i.e. not critics). The Caine Mutiny is unbelievably complex, though. It does the interesting trick of actually showing you, within the narrative, the situation in which the titular mutiny arose, and then making you see that mutiny in a completely different way when it gets picked apart in the courthouse scenes. In the end, it makes you see how multi-faceted reality is. And in the end you’re left wondering, “Were they right to mutiny? Was Captain Queeg really incompetent?” You’re never quite sure.

I also read Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar and Youngblood Hawke and found them both to be extremely worthwhile.

Oh wait! The Girls was NOT the best book I read this year. As I look at my notes, I realize that the best book was actually Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. This is also a book with questionable sexual and racial politics. It’s about a fifteen year old French girl, a colonial in French Indo-China, who has an affair with a Chinese man who’s in his thirties. The book is short and amazing. The narration loops around on itself, threading forward, through World War II and into the narrator’s current life, and then going back into her girlhood. And it’s about a girl coming into her sexual power. Which sounds terrible, I know, but it’s about how double-edged that is. She’s now seen as a sexual being, and that’s enticing to her in some way, but it’s also dangerous. Agh, I explain it all better in my original blog entry about the book.

The only novel on my best-of-the-year list that I haven’t yet mentioned is Henry James’s The Bostonians. It’s really good, but it’s also Henry James, and you have to like that sort of thing. It’s early Henry James though, so it actually does kind of tell a straightforward story! It’s one of his political novels (don’t snicker, he was very political). I thought the novel, particularly the ending, was both brutal and very true.

Okay, so that’s my short-list. If I had to recommend five books you should seriously consider trying to read, they would be, in order: The LoverThe Girls, Lady SusanThe Caine Mutiny, On The Island, and the first Palliser novel Can You Forgive Her?

 

 

Been really enjoying Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels

374371I spend a lot of time with nerds and geeks and hipsters–the kinds of people who get really passionate about pop-culture. And…that’s not me. At one point I attributed it to getting older, but I don’t think that’s it. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as passionately consumed with my media choices as many people are. Even when I was twelve and reading a lot of Mercedes Lackey and Orson Scott Card and Anne McCaffery and Marion Zimmer Bradley (yes I know she’s a child molester, but that doesn’t change the fact that when I was twelve I liked her books!) and David Eddings and all that other stuff, I still don’t think I was obsessed with the worlds themselves. For instance, I never had much of a temptation to write fan-fiction.

My media choices don’t feel alive to me in that particular way. I don’t feel betrayed when a character dies. I don’t concoct fan theories or insist on my own headcanon. It’s just not the way that I approach books and movies and TV shows.

It does feel weird to me, at times, that I became a writer. Books have always been very important to me, but I’d be lying if I said that the social role of the writer wasn’t a huge part of my decision. Writers get to be different. We get to do what we want. We’re free, assuming we can hustle up the money, to live without a conventional job. And we also get a lot of social status. It’s great.

Without that, I don’t think I’d be a writer. I never made art for art’s sake. I didn’t write little stories just for myself. And I never drew or dabbled in music or did anything like that.

But I do really like books! I just think that I incorporate themselves into myself in a different way. They don’t get assimilated whole, instead they get torn to bits and thrown together into a big stew.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I am really loving Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels. This is his political series: six fat volumes (200-300k words each) about the lives and loves of a bunch of Parliamentarians in Victorian Britain. The novels are connected by Plantagenet Palliser, who you meet first as a dignified, but very young, Member of Parliament. He subsequently rises to become Chancellor of the Exchequer by the end of the first book. But sometime around the fourth book he must resign his post because his uncle, the Duke of Omnium dies, and Plantagenet inherits, and now he can’t be in the House of Commons anymore. In the fifth book, a turn of events has Plantagenet, now in his mid-forties, becoming Prime Minister. And the sixth book, which I’m not reading, deals with him as a retired politician who now has to deal with all of his feckless children.

Of course this is only one relatively small plotline in the series. Plantagenet is a more minor part of the first book, and he hardly appears in the second, third, and fourth books. Even then, his wife is a much more substantial character: Lady Glencora aspires at times to be a Lady MacBeth, but she’s so much more complicated than that. She’s ambitious, but only to a point. It’s all a game to her. Much of life is a game, but at the same time she’s kept in check by her stern, unemotive husband. Their relationship is truly one of the joys of the series.

Since it’s Trollope, the actual business of running the country takes a back seat to the issue of figuring out whom to marry. This is of course the theme, so far as I can tell, of almost all Victorian literature. It was a weird era in the history of courtship. Arranged marriages were falling out of fashion, and yet, as gentlemen and gentlewomen, there was still a strong imperative to make matches that would be financially, as well as romantically, successful. Usually Victorian novels sidestep these potential issues through, well, happenstance. I’m talking about all the time somebody inherits money at the last moment, for instance, and is able to finally wed the person they love. Or the times, most famously in Pride and Prejudice, where the boorish wealthy gentleman turns out to be the person of true worth, and the penniless man with good manners turns out to be a cad.

In his previous series of books, the Barchester series, I got a little bored with these kinds of incidents. Every single book, it seemed, was resolved in the end by a fortuitous coincidence of this sort.

But the Palliser novels are completely different! I mean they are so different that it’s like they were written by a different man! Where the Barchester series is comedic, in the vein of Dickens or Eliot or Thackeray, the Palliser series almost approaches realism! I mean it’s in these books that you can very clearly see the English novel groping towards a more psychologically real treatment of motivations, actions, and conflicts.

For instance, in one book, the woman marries a rich guy instead of the guy she loves…and the rich guy turns out to be totally incompatible with her, and her life is destroyed as a result! She’s forced to leave him and go live in exile in Dresden! Shit, that’s the kind of thing that’d never happen in Eliot (where he’d just conveniently die, a la Mr. Causabon). But in another book, the woman marries the rich guy instead of the guy she loves…and it turns out great! The guy she loves was a cad, and the rich guy becomes the love of her life (albeit in a quieter way). I can’t tell you how many times this book swerves and does the sideways thing.

In most Victorian novels, for instance, if there’s some looming risk (a person bets twenty thousand pounds on a race, for instance), you know it’s going to hit and ruin them. But not in Trollope! In Trollope sometimes the disaster just goes away. They win the bet and are saved! But then a few books later, someone will do something very similar and be ruined! It’s so good.

I can’t imagine how exciting it must’ve been to be a young writer in the late 19th century and to read authors like this (and Gissing and Zola and Howells and Henry James and Tolstoy and Chekhov) and to suddenly see a whole new way of writing. I mean Trollope’s novels would never be mistaken for modern novels. He doesn’t use much in the way of descriptions; they’re all in the third person omniscient, with heavy authorly editorializing; and they have very out of control, unstructured plots. But in his treatment of emotion, character, and psychology, he is absolutely modern! The modernest!

I’ve just been so goddamn depressed about President Trump

Sorry my posting has been sporadic. I’ve just been so depressed about Trump. It’s really odd, I started off feeling relatively okay, and then I got more and more unhappy. My fiancé is out of town this weekend, and I was like I can’t be alone, so I made a spur of the moment trip to LA to see my old roommate, and now I’m here until Wednesday.

Ummmmmmmmmm I’ve been reading a bunch of Anthony Trollope. Right now I’m reading the fourth of his political novels, Phineas Redux, which is also a direct sequel to the second book, Phineas Finn. It’s nice to read about a political system that is genteel and functions relatively well, although it’s hard for me to believe that the running of the effing British Empire could’ve possibly been as smooth and genteel as is portrayed here. I mean, one of these parties, the Tory party, wasn’t even legal in the UK until pretty late in the 18th century. Surely there’s gotta be a hangover from that shit.

 

Do you think that authors really dislike their villainous protagonists as much as they claim to?

6a00d8341c69f653ef019affcdee3a970cI started reading Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds, which is about the machinations of a very wealthy and dishonest and villainous widow. And I love her. She’s pretty much the best. But Trollope does not love her. He’s constantly talking about how evil she is and shit.

In fact, lots of Victorian novels are about very evil characters, and they always have this very moralizing tone. For instance, Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp has to be one of the most vivid characters  in literature, but Thackeray clearly very much disapproves of her and is constantly giving you these sly little asides (an authorial intervention that was much more allowable in Victorian literature) about how awful and unfeeling she is.

But I don’t believe him. Thackeray constructed the novel. He chose to write her. I don’t see how a person could write an entire novel about Becky Sharp without, in some way, thinking that she is awesome. In some ways, I feel like he just inserted the judgmental tone so that his audience would let him get away with writing the novel. It’s like how you can write a crime novel about a character who gleefully kills and steals and cheats and rapes…as long as they get their comeuppance in the end.

Personally, many of my protagonists are awful people. I don’t really intend them to be that way; it’s more that I just don’t think about morality when I’m writing, which means that all my work exists in a pretty amoral universe. I would never consider having a character not do something because it’s “not the right thing to do.” But I’ve learned to disguise that, and to play tricks on the reader in order to artificially build sympathy. For instance, if you put the protagonist in a pitiable situation, they’ll come off more sympathetic. And if you have them do something good for someone early on in the story, then the reader will give them leeway. And if there’s a perception that the protagonist is fighting against some greater societal evil, that can also help  (this is often the reason why crime novels get a free pass, for instance).

But, to me, all of that stuff is just tossed in because, for some reason or another, most readers can’t sympathize with characters that are not, in some way, good.

For instance, at AWP, I was talking to someone about that interview in which Claire Messud talked about how she didn’t think characters need to be likeable. In that interview, the primary character under discussion was Nora in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. And I have to say…I didn’t find her unlikeable at all. I sympathized intensely with her feeling of being abused and toyed with and ignored. And so what if those feelings mostly came out as inchoate rage? What’s wrong with that?

What I think people ignore about “unlikeable” characters is how likeable they actually are. For instance, I found myself dazzled by Scarlett O’Hara and Humbert Humbert. They’re amoral wretches, but they’re actually exactly the sort of people that one would want to be friends with, because they seem like they’re charismatic and they always have something to say.

Actually, Scarlett O’Hara is one of my favorite characters, because rarely has there been a heroine with fewer redeeming characteristics. And yet the novel revels in her. She doesn’t really come in for much, if any, oppobrium. If anything, the novel gradually reveals that Ashley Wilkes and Melanie whatserface are hothouse flowers who can’t really exist outside without the privileges accorded them in the antebellum south. And Scarlett comes out looking pretty good in the end. Her ruthlessness, the book argues, is exactly what a person needs to have if they’re going to survive.

The mark of a good writer, I think, is that meaning comes through even when you don’t intend it to. Take Dickens, for instance. He wrote the broadest characters imaginable, but sometimes you can’t really tell whether they’re scoundrels or not. Take Mr. Micawber for instance. He’s perpetually penurious, and he constantly borrows money without intending to pay it back. His family suffers because of his flightiness. And he eventually ends up transported to Australia. But he still gets a very loving portrayal in David Copperfield. And, in the end, it’s hard to say whether he’s a hero or a villain.

Still, there’s a level of esotericism there. I don’t think that most readers are sophisticated enough to hold opinions about a character that are different from what the book tells you. Most readers will say that Mr. Micawber is a great guy, and that Harold Skimpole (from Bleak House) is awful, even though the two characters are pretty much exactly the same, because Dickens tells you that one is good and that the other is bad.

So when you’re writing a book, you have to determine a surface interpretation of the character (will I portray them sympathetically or unsympathetically?) and then allow the opposite interpretation to remain buried in the text, for the benefit of readers who care to dredge it up. And somewhere in the intermingling of the two interpretations, you end up with a more complex and true portrait of a person.

[Wrap-up 2013] Nine books (including 3 YA novels) that I really enjoyed reading but never blogged about

coverThe Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan – Kelly Link used to say that the thing she liked about zombies was that you could tell a ton of different zombie stories, depending on how many zombies you use. Like if you’ve got one zombie in a town, that’s one story. And if you’ve got a town surrounded by a worldful of zombies, that’s another story. This is a YA novel that has all the virtues of the zombie genre: the claustrophobia, the hopelessness, the sense that your primary enemy is your own weakness. It’s about a town that’s surrounded by a big iron fence. And on the other side of that fence are HELLLA zombies. And the town has reverted to a weird theocracy that’s reminiscent of Puritan New England. The protagonist is a woman who’s reached her nineteenth birthday without receiving a proposal of marriage (oh no!) and is now doomed to become a nun.

Every Day by David Levithan – This YA novel is the most ridiculously high-concept book I’ve ever read. It’s about a being who wakes up every morning in the body of a new person (temporarily displacing its usual inhabitant). And each day he hops into a body that’s one day older than the last one. Thus, the being’s bodies age as it does. And right now it’s sixteen years old! It’s content to hop through bodies, experiencing a hundred high schools and a hundred ephemeral lives, mostly going with the flow so that people don’t find their lives too disrupted once it leaves. But then it falls in love! And it starts going to greater and greater efforts to spend each day with one particular girl….now if that doesn’t make you want to read it, then I don’t know what will. Also, it’s a ridiculously queer book. Way more than 4% of the characters in this book are some variety of queer.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart – A fifteen year old tries to infiltrate her boarding school’s (normally all-male) secret society. A very angry book. Angry in a way that you don’t often see. It’s a bracing anger. Also, a very feminist novel. Notable for the interesting way its romance plot braces and reinforces the themes of the surrounding plot.

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford – This is the saddest story I have ever heard. An early modernist work about four couples, one American and one British, that meet while they’re making a lazy tour of the continent’s spas and vacation spots. They’re all idle, feckless, wealthy, do-nothing people. They gravitate towards each other and spend years together and it’s only towards the very end of their association that one of them realizes the huge number of secrets they’ve all been concealing. A structurally amazing novel: the telling loops inward and outwards and back on itself and your opinions of each character are constantly being revised.

Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope – Not exactly sure why I am writing about this, since I doubt that anyone who reads this blog is going to go and read through the whole six book Barsetshire series (of which this is the final volume). But if you are thinking about it and if you need some reason to keep reading past Framley Parsonage and Doctor Thorne, then rest assured that there is an amazing book at the end of the journey. This novel just goes all up in there and wraps up all the loose ends. All the characters come back and intermingle, and you see what’s going on. And people die! And it’s always very sad, even when you don’t like the people. And the actual plot of the book is unusually fresh, for Trollope. It’s about a clergyman who’s accused of stealing a check. And no one, not even the clergyman himself, knows if the accusation is true or not! Very few series have ever had a more satisfying ending.

Lucky by Alice Sebold – Not sure why I read Sebold’s memoir instead of her vastly more popular novel The Lovely Bones, but I was glad that I did. This book is brutal! The author was raped, by a stranger, in some kind of tunnel, while an undergrad at Syracuse. Later, she actually finds the guy and he stands trial! Rape is deployed pretty casually as a device in fiction, but I’ve never read a book that just went at it, in a factual way.

Lucky Girls: Stories by Nell Freudenberger – I believe that four of these five stories are about white women and their travails while travelling in South Asia. Sounds like a recipe for an awful and racist book. But it’s not! Very much avoid the Lost In Translation problem of using a foreign country purely as scenery. There’s much more to these stories. Also, there’s lots of having sex with Asian men. That by itself is revolutionary. You won’t read many stories (especially one written by white people) where white women have sex with Asian men.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – Not sure why this book got so much hate. Yes, it is primarily about the problems of upper-class and upper-middle-class professional women…but those are the problems that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg knows about. And yes, it is primarily a manifest for personal, not political, change. But it certainly doesn’t discount the need for political change. I mostly read it so that I could have a good laugh at Sandberg’s expense, but I actually found it to be a very fascinating look at the problems that women have in managing both a worklife and a family life. The book contains many shout outs to The Feminine Mystique, which is a comparison that people have tended to be pretty dismissive of, but actually it’s very much in conversation with Friedan’s book. The Feminine Mystique was also more of a call for personal than political change. And Friedan was, basically, saying that women need to go out and find meaningful work—that homemaking is not enough to satisfy a person’s emotional needs. And now Sheryl Sandberg is trying to deal with the fallout from Friedan’s all-too-successful efforts.

Embers by Sandor Marai – An old, retired Hungarian general is visited by a long-lost friend from his military academy. In their youths, they were very close, even though the general was considerably wealthier than their friends. But then, one day, they had a mysterious falling out. Now, before he dies, the General wants some answers about what happened on that long-ago day. Structurally, this is a thriller. The nature of their falling-out is pretty obvious: the thriller part is “What is the general going to do? Why has the friend come back?” The story is told in a very fast-paced, but circuitous way, you’re always looping back on yourself. And it’s all shot through with the atmosphere of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire. Man, why is all Austro-Hungarian literature about the decay of the empire? Isn’t there any literature about the glory and power of the empire?

The Small House at Allington (by Anthony Trollope) and Election (by Tom Perrotta)

I really don’t know why I continue to read Anthony Trollope’s novels. There can’t be anything more infuriating than his plotting. All of his novels are love stories, and all the love stories are terrrrrrrrrrible and awkward and horrifying in their implications. In this one, Lily Dale is wooed by and then affianced to the dashing man-about-town Adolphus Crosby. Then he dumps her in favor of a countess’ daughter. And Lily just sort of pines away for the rest of the novel. You think she’s going to accept her other suitor, the sort of bumbly and awkward (but rapidly maturing) John Eames, buuuuuuut, she doesn’t. Because she just doesn’t love him.

It gives me the shivers to realize that Victorian novelists actually did believe in love. But, given the financial realities of the time, that just seems so crazy to me. I mean, the lady novelists–Austen and Eliot and the Brontes–elide over the problems of love by making sure that the love pairings always have enough money to make things work. But Trollope repeatedly comes to the edge of the abyss by either setting up a very financially comfortable match that is refused for lack of love or by setting up a love-match that can’t work out, financially.

And he never really provides a satisfying answer to these situations. For instance, in Framley Parsonage, the Crawleys are deeply in love, but they’re also destroyed by the constant hard work it takes to keep afloat. But, in the Trollope universe, marriages of convenience also have terrible results: without love, the two spouses soon fall upon each other and make each other miserable.

It seems like the only thing Trollope’s protagonists are allowed to do is to hope that they’ll fall in love with someone who has money. Given how accurately Trollope represents the realities of a gentlewoman’s life–she’s not allowed to work, so she just has to hope that she marries someone with a significant income and no expensive habits–it seems, to me, a bit insane that he comes down so hard in favor of the love-match.

But, whatever, the novel still had plenty of fun stuff. In this case, both the male leads were civil servants, so we got to see a little bit about how that world works. And there were some delightful subplots involving the virginal uncles of Lily Dale and their maneuvering and scheming and pride.

 

           Oh, I also read Tom Perrotta’s novel Election. I really liked the movie Election, and I’d always wanted to read the book. It was super short. I read it in less than an hour and a half. It can’t be more than 40-50,000 words long (my copy of the book was only 200 pages long). And it’s told through so many first-person narrators: I think there are at least five.

The most interesting of them is Tracy Flick, the Machiavellian high school junior who’s running for student council president (played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie), but she also gets the least speaking time. Aside from the teacher, who’s fairly interesting and complex, the other characters are a bit insipid.

When I got to the end, I kind of wondered, “What was this all about?” In the movie, you’re carried along so fast, that you don’t really think about it, but in the book, you start to feel like it’s just a bunch of plots and events that are thrown together.

However, in the end, there’s kind of a deep logic underlying it all. The main character, Mr. M, is questioning his place in the world, and the student council election becomes a proxy for his feelings.

 

Ugh, okay, you know what is nice about having mah own blog? I can just put a little note down here if I want. I got my wisdom teeth extracted more than a week ago, and my teeth still hurt. At least it’s finally getting better. For like five straight days, it only got worse.

In the midst of all this, I did go to DarkoverCon though, which was fun. I had dinner with Nalo Hopkinson! And I also met some other awesome people. So yeah, that was super sweet.

Three Books, Six Paragraphs: Drop City, Framley Parsonage, and The American

Drop City by T.C. Boyle – A novel about a fictionalized 1960’s utopian community that starts off somewhere in Sonoma county and ends up in backcountry Alaska. Ever since I read Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, I’ve been meaning to read another commune novel. I’m still fascinated by communes and am on occasion somewhat disappointed that I never went that route in life. I know, my Synergy friends will probably be shocked by that, given how dismissive I was of 1960s utopian visions. But you know what? Peace and love and vegetarianism and kombucha and home-brewed beer and tie-dye and oneness with the universal spirit are not the real draw of the communal lifestyle; the draw is a lifestyle that involves a lot of day-to-day freedom and very little work.

Of course, the ‘very little work’ part is what brought many communes down, and I think that Drop City does a good job of showing the conflicting impulses that are at work here. But Boyle sort of shies away from condemning the whole affair. It’s a very interesting book. It’s also one of the most ostentatiously well-written and dense books that I’ve read in awhile. Boyle is clearly very interested in the stuffness of life: he cares about how people do things and what they’re wearing and where they live and a hundred and one other tiny little details. If I’d written this book, it would’ve been only half as long. But in Boyle’s hands, I kind of enjoyed it.

Framley Parsonage ­by Anthony Trollope – I’ve never read a Trollope book that was as good as The Warden (which has rapidly become, in hindsight, one of my favorite novels). But his other novels are at least good enough to keep me reading. All Trollope novels have, at their center, some really stupid love plot. In this case, it’s the fact that the mother of the local lord doesn’t want him to marry the parson’s sister. On a sidenote,  this was the exact same plot as Doctor Thorne, except that the parson was a doctor and the sister was his adopted daughter. But at least in Doctor Thorne, the whole thing more sense because the lord’s family was penurious and needed him to marry into wealth. Here, the mother’s prejudice against the daughter is fairly blind.

But if you can look past the stupid love plots, then, in my opinion, Trollope’s got everything that a person could want in a novel. All his characters are hilarious, well-drawn, and somewhat realistic. And, best of all, Trollope always shows you where the money is! For him, pretty much everything in the world is driven by money (and idiotic love). For instance, one clergyman is prideful and intensely resentful of the other clergy because his living is so tiny. Another clergyman has gotten all puffed-up and reckless because he’s come into a fairly rich living (800 pounds) at a very young age (26 or so). And there’s this member of Parliament who’s lived for thirty years by accumulating more and more and more debt. And there’s his sister, a well-connected politician’s wife, who schemes in order to try to get him. The best scene in the book is the one where the MP’s sister goes out and proposes marriage, on his behalf (because he’s such a chickenshit) to a wealthy heiress. I can’t actually recommend this book to you though, because it’s the fourth in the series. Seriously, though, guys…just go out and read The Warden. It’s like 70,000 words long and it contains everything that is good and right with the world.

The American by Henry James – For the past two months, I’ve been making a stealthy sidewise assault on Henry James. On paper, he seems perfect for me. Like my other faves, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola, he writes novels that are intensely concerned with money and social position. However, his writing style is known for being a bit baroque and I know that my reading taste is heavily reliant on first impressions. If I have a bad first experience with an author, I often forgo them entirely. Thus, I had to be sneaky. I started with his most accessible novel, Washington Square, which was fantastic (it’s about a father who plays cruel psychological games on his somewhat plain daughter when a man tries to marry her). Then I dipped into the novellas, reading The Beast in the Jungle and The Aspern Paper. I was going to move on to Daisy Miller and Turn of the Screw, but I decided to make a bold advance back into novel territory.

Nor am I unhappy that I did so. The American was excellent. It’s about an American industrialist who moves to France and tries to woo a Countess. The love object is a bit insipid, but I loved the industrialists’ bromantic friendship with the countess’ brother. And I thought that the industrialist was portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic manner. He is kind of a rough-hewn Benjamin Franklin who wows French society with his strength and sense of purpose. It’s not what you expect to see. Normally, in novels, I expect industrialists (even when sympathetically portrayed) to be Huckleberry Finns: people who are reflexively allergic to the finer things in life. For instance, in Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady and Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth (which bears many similarities to The American), the industrialist figures are definitely crippled by their encounters with civilization.

I read another one of Anthony Trollope’s bricks, and I enjoyed it quite a lot

Most of Anthony Trollope’s enduring work is bound up in two series. The Palliser novels follow the life of a fictional British politician. And the Barchester novels examine life (predominantly clergical life) in a fictional provincial town. Oh, and almost all of his novels are long. They are brutally long and have the kind of leisurely, digression-choked pace that was only permissible during the Victorian era.

After I read and loved the first (and fairly short) Barchester novel (The Warden), I looked with horor upon the 200,000 word behemoth that was the second novel. I didn’t really want to get enmeshed in a series of lengthy books. Instead, I tried the only one of Trollope’s stand-alone books that is said to be worth reading (The Way We Live Now). It was good, but it was also a long and brutal slog that was, in many ways, lacking in much of the softness and charm of the quaint provincial life portrayed in The Warden.

And that’s where I left things with Trollope for several months. I sensed that there was some goodness in the rest of the Barchester novels, but I wasn’t sure I could commit. But finally, after slogging through a dense, dreamy short novel (John Cheever’s Falconer), I looked at the second volume (Barchester Towers), and thought, “Sure it’s long, but it’s so readable. Wouldn’t it be nice to just sort of sink into a book?” Yes, this is the mindset that drives the sales of epic fantasy.

Well, I did read Barchester Towers. And it was nice. It was an extremely pleasant reading experience. The plot involves many of the same persons as the first novel. The kind, bumbling bishop has died and a new bishop who bumbles in a different way has been installed. And with him comes a prideful and avaricious chaplain who plots to marry a girl, and there’s alot of flailing about and maneuvering about who will get this preferment and that deanship. It’s not much of a plot at all, really. Nothing is at stake. Never do you get the sense that the girl is going to end up with either of the two villains who are plotting for her hand. Nor are the villains even that villainous. One is just kind of greasy and greedy. The other is a fop who’s in debt.

But the characters are all very well-drawn. They’re larger-than-life, like Dickens characters, but not nearly so farcical. There’s Mr. Harding, a beloved but kind of ineffectual curate who keeps worrying about whether he’s carrying out his duties well (but makes no effort to actually ramp up his energy-level in undertaking them). There’s the Stanhopes, a family of amoral dissipates, who are the subject of some of Trollope’s best descriptions, such as:

The great family characteristic of the Stanhopes might probably be said to be heartlessness; but the want of feeling was, in most of them, accompanied by so great an amount of good nature that their neighbours failed to perceive how indifferent to them was the happiness and well-being of those around them. The Stanhopes would visit you in your sickness (provided it were not contagious), would bring you oranges, French novels, and the last new bit of scandal, and then hear of your death or your recovery with an equally indifferent composure.

There’s Archdeacon Grantly, who seems quite irreligious and primarily motivated by family pride, but who seems to so genuinely love his family–including his father-in-law (the aforementioned Harding) and his sister-in-law–that you can’t help but like him. There’s Mr. Quiverful, a clergyman who has fourteen children and desperately wants a better posting, but is unwilling to seek it dishonorably. And there’s his wife, who has no such compunctions, and of whom Trollope writes:

Whatever the husband might feel, the wife cared nothing for the frowns of the dean, archdeacon, or prebendary. To her the outsides and insides of her husband and fourteen children were everything. In her bosom every other ambition had been swallowed up in that maternal ambition of seeing them and him and herself duly clad and properly fed. It had come to that with her that life had now no other purpose. She recked nothing of the imaginary rights of others.

And there’s the secret main character of this (and all) Trollope novels: money. He’s one of the only novelists (other than perhaps Jane Austen), who seems to really care about money: what people will do get it and how they will use it. There’s a marvelous scene where he describes the difference between a social-climbing farmer whose wife spends his money on lace and school-lessons for his children and his solid yeoman neighbor–equally endowed with money–who saves up in order to buy farms for all his sons. Trollope can describe how clergyman will live and die with anxiety to move from a 200 pound a year posting to a 400 pound a year posting, and how another clergyman can easily give up an 800 pound a year posting. He is able to describe money as both a marker of status and a divider of social classes and a real, concrete thing that is used to purchase the things that people need (or desire so strongly that the desire seems akin to a need).

And finally, the novel has the wonderful Trollopean narrator, a first-person character that interjects itself into the novel and frequently runs away on its own awesome digressions, like this one:

‘New men are carrying out new measures, and are eating away the useless rubbish of past centuries.’ What cruel words these had been; and how often are they now used with all the heartless cruelty of a Slope! A man is sufficiently condemned if it can only be shown that either in politics or religion he does not belong to some new school established within the last score of years. He may then regard himself as rubbish and expect to be carted away. A man is nothing now unless he has within him a full appreciation of the new era; an ear in which it would seem that neither honesty nor truth is very desirable, but in which success is the only touchstone of merit. We must laugh at every thing that is established. Let the joke be ever so bad, ever so untrue to the real principles of joking; nevertheless we must laugh—or else beware the cart.

Anyways, yep, it’s hard to recommend this book. The book I’m really recommending is the first book in the series. The Warden is half as long and twice as good. But if you like The Warden, you should not be shy about reading Barchester Towers. It’s pretty good too.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

Okay guys, so, I don’t know if I told you, but the theme of this year’s reading is 19th Century English Literature (the theme of last year was Proust and the theme of the year before that was The Russians, okay). And in keeping with said theme, I recently read Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now. This book is really, really long. And it wasn’t until I was about 60% of the way through (maybe 700 pages, if I’d been reading a paper book), that I decided I liked it.

The book is basically an all-encompassing indictment of the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the social, business, political, and personal mores of British society. The plot revolves around this financier who’s basically running a Ponzi scheme involving stocks of an American railroad company. But all of that is completely unimportant.

The amazing part of the book was a subplot involving the rapidly aging 29-year-old gentlewoman Georgiana Longestaafe and her engagement to a 50 year old, widowed, Jewish banker named Ezekial Brehgert. Basically, all Georgiana wants is a husband who’ll be rich enough to give her both a townhouse in London and a house in the country. And to get those things, she’s even willing to marry a Jew. But she definitely regards it as a pretty major concession on her part.

However, to her family, this is totally beyond the pale. But Georgiana holds firm against them, and, slowly, begins adopting all this egalitarian rhetoric about how Jews are just like everybody else and what does religion matter, it’s not like anybody goes to Church anyway. She actually does her best to hold out against some fairly determined opposition from her family. And she slowly comes to realize that they don’t really care about her quality of life. They want her to be respectable, but she wants to be rich. It’s a slow sort of emancipation.

I thought it was delightful. Anyone can write a story where True Love overcomes prejudice, but it takes a genius to write Greed overcomes prejudice.

Beware, though, lest anyone think that this book is not anti-Semitic, that is absolutely not the case. The book repeatedly implies that the aforementioned shady financier is Jewish. Trollope suffers from that weird Dickensian anti-Semitism where he hates the Bad Greedy Jews but is willing to point out some Good Honest Jew and say, “Oh, look, some Jews are honest and don’t love money.” (It’s kind of like how some straight guys who don’t like feminine gay men will go out of their way to try to prove their lack of homophobia by pointing at a more masculine gay acquaintance and saying, “Oh, he’s a real man, even though he’s gay”).

Anyways, I am not sure I can recommend this book. But it has lots of things in it that are really interesting. The book is not nearly as comedic and exaggerated as most 19th century British classics, and it’s much more concerned with actualities: money and the practical mechanics of things like earning a living or proposing marriage. Thus, it many incidents within it provide a sort of counterpoint to Dickens, Austen, and Thackeray.