I’ve only read Gone With The Wind once, when I was in 9th grade, but it made a huge impression on me. I still remember its strangely hopeful ending. There was something so perfect about Scarlett deciding to go back to Tara and regroup. It was exactly the right note on which to end the book. That was also the book that taught me that heroes don’t need to be sympathetic; they just need to be interesting. Scarlett was unintelligent, selfish, and cruel, but there was something riveting about her: she demonstrated how far you can get in life on sheer ruthlessness.
I was thinking the other day about Voltaire’s Candide. It’s a famous book, but not as widely-read as it should be. I think this one book that’s seriously suffered from being labeled ‘literature.’ Whenever you hear about it, it’s described as some deep philosophical tract on the education of the youth. But that’s not it at all. It’s a super-fun romp. It’s way more Arabian Nights than Bhagavad Gita. And it’s also weirdly bawdy and horrifying. People die in monstrous ways and if they don’t die, they degenerate and become haggard shells of themselves. It’s definitely worth an afternoon of anyone’s time.
One year, I spent so much time reading Saul Bellow and I’ve retained very little of it. It’s all blended together and left me only a mental picture of a slovenly but handsome man of letters who wanders around making caustic judgments on the people around him. Anyone who’s going to read him should just start with Ravelstein and then maybe not go any further. It’s not only one of his shortest books, but it also feels like his kindest and his least self-absorbed.
I wish George Orwell had written more nonfiction books. I enjoyed Homage To Catalonia, Road To Wigan Pier, Down and Out In Paris And London, and Fifty Essays much more than I enjoyed any of his novels (and I enjoyed his novels quite a lot). No one explains stuff quite as gently and kindly as he doess
On Wednesday, I saw The Silver Linings Playbook, which has a scene where the main character reads the end of A Farewell To Arms and then gets angry and throws it out the window. I loved A Farewell To Arms and I think its last line (one of the most famous last lines in literature) is an exactly perfect one. That line should not have been anything else. It’s deeply affecting and it, obviously, added something to the toolkit of modern literature. But that last line is also very upsetting, because it feels cheap. You have a character who’s cool and collected and slightly shell-shocked and then, at the very climax of the book, you pull away from him and refuse to pierce that dignity. It feels like the book can’t bear to ever allow its protagonist to ever seem less than utterly manly. And I don’t think that books should be solicitous of their characters in precisely that way.
John Steinbeck is so weird. I still find it hard to believe that the author of Grapes of Wrath could’ve also written Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. They’re all about impoverished people, but Grapes is so righteously angry in a way that the other two simply are not. Tortilla and Cannery almost kind of glorify a life of poverty and portray poor people (or at least certain subsets of poor people) as being more genuine and more authentically in touch with life. But Grapes says exactly the opposite: it’s about how poverty destroys families and shreds human dignity. Ever since I read Tortilla Flat, I’ve never been able to get excited about Steinbeck in the same way. It’s a good and interesting book, but it’s also repulsive and cold-hearted one and, honestly, more than a bit racist. I still haven’t read East of Eden. Every description of it makes it sound rather unappetizing to me (a retelling of Adam and Eve using a ranching family in 1930s and 1940s Salinas, California), but I really do need to get around to that someday.
Other strangely-unappealing books that I’m constantly picking up and putting down and which I plan on getting around to sometime in the next forty years:
I kind of fell sick again, but also, even before that, I fell victim to a kind of malaise. Malaises come in many kinds, and I am sure that almost all of them are familiar to you. But, then again, maybe not, because it seems to me like each new malaise is new and even interesting. Each one is a working-out, in inactivity, of some new problem. Inactivity is kind of a luxury, even as it is also sort of a problem in itself. Anyway, you know what I liked? That time when I gave my short reactions to books that I had read recently:
A Short Account Of The Destruction Of The Indies By Bartoleme De Las Casas – In the 16th century, former conquistador and Spanish monk De Las Casas goes through every single province in the New World and gives a short account of the atrocities that took place in each. After every single province, he will usually say something like, “Atrocities were committed such as had never been seen before in the history of the human race.” Which, when you think about it, might be kind of true, at least in scale. As someone long desensitized by Holocaust memoirs to all sorts of ethnic violence, my first reaction was a kind of wonderment at how large the New World was, and at how very many cities and civilizations and tribes there were to decimate and enslave.
Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck – None of these had the raw power as Grapes of Wrath. In fact they didn’t really even partake of that power. There was none of the same anger at social injustice (or even the realistic-seeming social observation). It was like they were written by a different man. But they were still kind of good. What I found interesting is that the two books were both vaguely Knights-Of-The-Round-Table-based books about groups of impoverished men in the town of Monterey, California, but they were actually quite different because they took place in entirely different substrates of impoverishment. Tortilla Flat is about drunken bums, while Cannery Row is about shiftless idlers. The former are unable to hold a job and unable to improve their lives (not that there’s anything wrong with that), while the latter just don’t want to. Both are sad in slightly different ways.
Candy Girl by Diablo Cody – Kind of a great book. Long portions of it are taken up with Diablo Cody talking about how she failed to really ever make it as a stripper, and felt very insecure about that. I was kind of expecting there to be some kind of revelatory epiphany (like there are at the end of addiction memoirs), but there wasn’t one. And that was great. One expects a stripper memoir to be kind of angsty, somehow, and this one wasn’t. It was a memoir about someone who took up a strange job that was inappropriate to her social class…and not a memoir about someone’s dark descent into the sex industry. Also, I dunno…it’s fun to hear about what it’s like to be a stripper, and the economics of it, and the demographics of it, and how it all works…
War of the Worldsby H.G. Wells – Not very different from a modern alien invasion novel, but considerably more impressive, considering that Wells was inventing most of these tropes. He not only invented big tropes, like heat-rays and walking mechanical invasion vehicles, but also little tropes: tropes that one does not realize are tropes. For instance, there is a very stirring scene midway through the book where several alien tripods are menacing a convoy of refugees trying to evacuate Britain for France, and the tripods are successfully defeated due to a suicidal ramming charge by a British cruiser (constituting one of the only military victories over the aliens)….now, I am pretty sure we’ve all read that scene many times, but it is possible that this was the first. Reading the book is a strange experience, the combination of tropes makes it seem like some strange mash-up or parody – like Pride and Prejudice and Aliens or something. I think this is how some people feel when they read Lord of the Rings for the first time after having had extensive reading in the fantasy genre.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – Maybe it’s just because I was sick when I read it (okay, it was probably due to that), but I found this book pretty dull. Maybe I just don’t care for stories about tiny children. When the book is talking about evil beadles or pickpocketing rings, then I am good, but Oliver bored me. He was hardly a protagonist at all. And when the story talked about how good and kind and well-mannered he was, it made me gag. Why couldn’t the nice rich folks have rescued the Artful Dodger?
A Lost LadyBy Willa Cather – I had forgotten how much I loved Willa Cather! I really love her. And I had forgotten that I love Willa Cather even though whenever I read a capsule description of one of her novels it sounds like the most unappealing garbage in the world. For instance, this one is about the wife of a railroad construction magnate. Her husband falls sick and falls on hard times and dies. She goes from being bright and charitable to kind of morally dissolute. It is complicated, and sometimes seems maybe a little bit sexist, but it is also really good. It is about the decline of the frontier and the American West, which is for once not being told through the lens of some idiotic (albeit probably awesome) cowboy parable.