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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tragic story with sociopolitical message

"The Yellow Wallpaper" still stands up after more than a hundred years as a terrific story. Coming upon it 100+ pages into the Library of America Fantastic American Tales, it's like we've turned a corner and entered the modern age. Unlike all of the previous "tales" in this collection, it's written in a plain and straightforward colloquial first person. Most strikingly, it's told by a narrator who's obviously intelligent and thoughtful - and not, apparently, deranged. This technique makes the story all the more successful; we buy in to the narrator's voice, she's someone we might know (probably do). Briefly, Charlotte Perkins Gilmore's narrator has leased an "ancestral" summer house. Her husband, a doctor, professes concern about her health - some kind of nervousness or hysteria. We have a whole diagnostic treatise about her condition today, but in 1890s the vocabulary was limited. Over the course of the summer, she becomes increasingly disturbed by the wallpaper in her room, imagining among other things that it has bars, a woman is behind the bars, shaking them, trying to get out. Meanwhile, her husband treats her with the greatest of condescension. The symbolism may be a little heavy-handed, but the story so credible and disturbing that it more than compensates. I've been thinking about the meaning of "fantastic tales." Not sure this really is one - unless "fantastic" means that any of the characters experience fantasies or see visions. The Yellow Wallpaper seems to me a very realistic, tragic story with a strong sociopolitical message.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Don't write in dialect

Only read a little bit last night (other than the Haggadah), finished story in American Fantastic Tales - In Old New England, by Sarah Orne Jewett. A rather dated tale of two unmarried sisters, count their father's gold on the night he dies, then are robbed overnight by a jealous neighbor. He's accused, tried, acquitted - and one of the sisters puts a curse on him after the trial: May his right hand wither, throughout the generations of his family, etc. And lo! That's just what happens - a farming accident, an illness, and injury, each of his descendants loses use of his (or her) right hand. A Biblical curse. The story's ludicrous in some ways, but does convey the hardship of early New England life, especially rural life (story not set in any specific locale, but Jewett wrote mostly about Maine, and very well in the one book I've read of hers, title something about the tall pines?). A lot of the story told in pseudo-rural dialect, and it makes me recall the line in Elements of Style: don't write in dialect unless your ear is good. To which I would add to almost everyone: Trust me, yours isn't. I notice the next story in the anthology is the great Yellow Wallpaper. That's truly a watershed story, in this book and really in American fiction - shifting the ground of the fantastic from the ghoulish and demonic into the domestic, into psychological realism. And it's a much creepier and disturbing story than the earlier tales of monstrous visitations. Reminds me of why the original movie Alien was so scary: because the monster was small, and inside us - more frightening than the huge threat from outside.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What did they fear most in the 19th century?

Anyone who's judge short-story contest, taught a fiction class, edited a magazine has seen these stories: I fell asleep and dreamed I was fighting with a bear and then I woke up and was scratched with claw marks! or I sat down at a bar and had a long conversation with a stranger who turned out to be the devil but when he left the bartender said too bad you spent the whole evening alone! or I know that an evil spirit walks through the old house moving things around and making noises but nobody believes me! or There's a story that I heard/that happened to me and you may not believe it but it's true. These are some of the tropes of horror and fantasy fiction, and they're well on display, in the earliest incarnations, in the Library of America "American Fantastic Tales" vol 1. Most of these early stories, except for the few by the masters (Poe, Hawthorne) are really pretty pedestrian: overheated, overwritten, drenched in atmosphere (gloomy woods, creaky mansions), not particularly rich by today's standard, even for pulps. The editor (Peter Straub) apparently has pretty lean pickings in the 19th century, and he's trying for variety not of subject (there just isn't so much variety, at least before the age of psychological realism), but of setting and authorship: the early stories include two by women, one by a black man; they're set various in New England, New York, California, indeterminate Europe. Nothing from the South, though, surprisingly. These earlier stories are a window on the deepest fears of their time, and it seems, from this small sample, that religious crisis played a much bigger role than it does today and that madness was frightful because so poorly understand: It was seen more as a possession than an illness.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why 19th-century writers were obsessed with madness

Read a few more stories in Library of America "American Fantastic Tales" (or fantastic American tales?), these by some of the 19th-century giants: Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, Melville. The Melville choice (The Maids of Artemis, or something like that) a bit odd, as it isn't truly a horror/fantasy story. The narrator/protagonist takes a long ride through isolated and dismal woods to visit a paper mill and factory. Freezing cold when he arrives (by horse-drawn carriage). He shelters the horse, tours the factory, sees the miserable workers. From Melville's POV, I would say he saw this is social realism. Perhaps he had visit Crane paper, near where he lived in Lenox, and was moved to write about the workers' conditions. The other three stories, including the famous Young Goodman Brown, a truly in the tradition. Amazing, the early 19th-century fascination with various conditions of madness - that's the main trope in these early horror stories. Madness is generally a freefloating and inexplicable malady, in this preFreudian area. Nobody knew the causes, much less the treatment - so madness seemed much scarier, like a visitation or possession. Poe's story in the collection, "Berenice," while still a genre piece, is far superior to others of its type - the main character a truly compulsive obsessive, unable to control himself, and he becomes fixated on his cousin/fiancee's teeth. Extremely wierd and disturbing. Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown is rightly famous - strange and unsettling in a different way, as the young Salem man, on a night journey (a dream?) sees that the upstanding citizens of his time are secretly communicants with the devil - a vision that destroys his life. A lot of dimensions to this story: psychological, allegorical, sociological, historical, theological - could easily teach a whole seminar this one story I think.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A presence in the darkness: Library of America "fantastic" fiction anthology

Started reading the Library of America tales of terror and fantasy, first of two volumes. Who doesn't like LofA - those great high-quality editions, collecting some of the best American writing ever, and being willing to take some risks and chances and move into the odd corners of the American attic, as with this particular set. Horror/fantasy not totally my thing, but I have some confidence that there will be some gems in this set. Only read the first story, Somnambulist, by Charles Brockden Brown, one of those names I have heard often but not sure I've read anything by him. And I kinda see why. Somnambulist is a curiosity, by no means great writing or great literature, but as a piece from about 1810 it appropriately stands at the head of the list, even though it's not the best - like Beowolf leading off an English Lit survey, I guess. And it does seem to be written in another language, or at least by a writer who hates ordinary speech and has immersed himself in a Thesaurus. I think the pseudo-literary syntax is meant to make the story seem more substantial, literary, of a higher order - what pulp writer would have such a vocabulary? Story narrated by the apparent perpetrator of a murder that he himself wants to prevent - but he's the title somnambulist and cannot control his nighttime behavior. This is obviously one of the ancestral tropes of horror fiction: the zombie, the dual personality, the possessed. Strength of the story is the rather creepy description of the nighttime journey by post when the girl and her father sense a presence out in the darkness but never get a clear glimpse of him. Should they continue on with the journey? Would make a pretty good film, I think!

Friday, March 26, 2010

The most understated novel you're likely to read: Mrs. Bridge

"Mrs. Bridge" is an entirely unconventional novel. I can imagine that some would finish, shrug, think "Is that all there is?" I was quite moved by it, found it very evocative and disturbing. Even S. Connell tells the entire life story, or let's say spans the entire life, of Mrs. Bridge through about 100 concise anecdotes, each a short, titled chapter, a vignette. Some are dramatic - an armed robbery at a cocktail party - some very mundane. A few, but very few, are linked in sequence (the trip to Europe). There's only a whisper of a plot. Over time, we her children grow and move along with their lives, away, her husband and various friends die. Connell deals with the tragic and severe emotions through indirection, obliquely: you don't actually see her husband's death or her friend's death by suicide. You see only Mrs. Bridge's reaction. And she is a very uptight society matron of 1930s Kansas City. She plays by the rules, she doesn't like anything unconventional - yet there's a little bit of a yearning, for something more, for some freedom. Of course it's written in 1959, so that perspective allows Connell to conceive of Mrs. Bridge with a shrewd irony. She was already quaint, a throwback, at the time he created her. He leaves readers with lots of questions: was she happy? was it a good life? Some may see it as a flaw that Connell does not resolve the questions. To say this is an understated novel is itself an understatement. But the ambiguity and lack of resolution are the strengths as well; it's what in McLuhan lingo would be a "cool" novel - requiring our active engagement to heat it up.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What keeps her down also props her up: Mrs. Bridge

"Mrs. Bridge" continues to be an interesting and intelligent read. In the second half of the book, Mr and Mrs Bridge travel to Europe, stopping to visit elder daughter, Ruth, now in Greenwich Village, en route. This was a different world of travel, closer to the 19th-century grand tour than to travel today: 6 weeks, the major capitals/tourist sites, etc. The usually American provincialism expressed. But what makes it interesting is the yearnings and curiosity that Mrs. Bridge feels, and her sense, hardly expressed even to herself, of being stifled, today we'd even say oppressed, by her husband and his conventionality. Of course they're both conventional, and she benefits to some degree, to a great degree, from the system. She may yearn in some inchoate way for freedom, but she is of the upper crust, wealthy and comfortable. The same system that limits her world also makes that world very comfortable and stable. It's not truly a precursor to feminist fiction (Connell wrote it in 1959, after all, even though most of it is set in the 30s in KC), but it's a sister book to Dalloway as noted in previous post but also to the Awakening. There is one amazing scene/short chapter that totally captures the mood and theme of the book: Tornado at the Country Club (I think that's the title). As the Bridges dine at the club a tornado approaches. One at a time, the couples take refuge in the basement, except for the Bridges. Mr. insists in sitting at the table and finishing his steak. Mrs. will never go against the wishes of her husband. She's convinced that's her role. Apparently, she is willing to die in defense of this point.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The American Mrs. Dalloway: Mrs. Bridge

Evan S. Connell's "Mrs. Bridge" (1959?) is something like an American Mrs. Dalloway, its obvious antecedent. Both are about an extremely conventional woman, well married, on or near the upper tier of her society, doing her best to lead an ordinary life during extraordinary times. There, the similarity stops. Mrs. Bridge is a provincial (Kansas City), her life and self-worth to a great extent determined by the success (and conventionality) of her children. Her husband, a lawyer, is barely a presence (though Connell also wrote Mr. Bridge). Biggest difference is that Mrs. Bridge takes place over what appears to be the entire course of her adult life. Completely told in short vignette chapters, each named, as if it were an independent short story. Each is very striking, and the cumulative effect is profound, a full portrait of a conventional (seemingly) life. The novel lacks the interior development of Woolf (and others), however; each chapter is told from an omniscient but cool and distant POV. We'll get a glimpse of Mrs. Bridge's thinking but no great unfolding of her mind at work. Each chapter closes with a sharp snap. The novel entirely lacks conventional plot. I'm about halfway through, and I'm not sure if there will be any sort of development of arc or if we will just follow her through her life scene by scene until the end, her end? I would not want or expect dramatic plot developments, but am wondering if she learns, grows, or changes over the course of the story. At the outset, she is a slave to social conventions and completely unquestioning of the mores of her society. Does this change?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I regret that this blog has caused someone pain

I received a message from an author yesterday who was apparently somewhat hurt by my recent post on his novel. I have to say that I felt very saddened by this. My goal in keeping this blog is to clarify my thoughts on my own reading, to keep a record of what I'm reading and what I'm thinking about what I'm reading, and to share my thoughts with the handful of friends and maybe strangers whom might come upon elliotsreading. Also, I think it's a something of an experiment: most reviews are published only after the reader completes the book and collects his or her thoughts, but in this blog you can read over my shoulder and watch my opinion of the book grow and take shape over time. You can read along with a reader, so to speak. In the post in question, it's true that ultimately I did not like the book, it just wasn't the type of book I usually read - though many thousands of readers have loved the book. But the several posts on the book show, I hope, that I entered the process with enthusiasm and grappled with my evolving thoughts on the novel seriously and honestly. I hate that I've hurt someone's feelings in this blog; that is not my intention, but I do want to be honest about my assessments of my reading. I have been very wounded, too, by reviews of my work and by many rejections, so can certainly understand that. At times I've thought of giving up writing, and I've thought of stopping this blog as well. Is it worth causing someone pain, inadvertently, if that can be avoided by silence?

Monday, March 22, 2010

An improbable wife: Could these things really happen?

Robert Goolrick, author of "A Reliable Wife, and I were in the same class in college (Johns Hopkins), and though we didn't know each other well I remember him as a nice guy and a good student, one of the few seriously interested in literature in that premed hothouse. I admire and honor him for the huge success of Reliable Wife, his first novel, published in his 60s. So many have loved this book, and I wish I liked it more, but as so often I find myself in the minority. As Goolrick notes in the brief interview at the end of the pb edition, the story is somewhat operatic. I'd agree, so reader be forewarned - the style, especially in the later chapters when Goolrick seems to look down at his characters godlike, from above, is way over the top, and there are scenes of the most high-camp unlikelihood: a character drowns beneath the blackened ice, chased across the frozen landscape by his enraged father wielding a fireplace poker while a gray Arabian steed rears in panic. Lots of steamy sex. Flowers blooming as the heroine sets foot on the wintery garden stalks. Goolrick also describes the story as one of sin and redemption, which it is in a sense - each of the protagonists, on initial appearance, is certainly steeped in sin and bitterness, hatred and self-loathing. Some of them do change - but is it a change that is "earned"? Or just imposed by the will of the author and the mechanics of the plot? Though Goolrick uses a simple refrain often through the novel - "Such things happened" - I'm not convinced that these things happened or could happen, horrible people undergoing a complete transformation, within a world in which almost all the minor characters are suicidal or insane. Were the main characters (Catherine Land and Ralph Truitt) really not so horrible in the first place? Possibly, but if that's so I feel rather manipulated and deceived by the initial portrait of each of them as obsessed with evil and the need for vengeance. I don't know. There's a lot here in this book, and I'm glad for Robert that it has touched so many readers, though I wasn't one of them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Junot Diaz issue: Should we accept his portrayal of women?

Is there anyone more fun to read than Junot Diaz? Doubt it. I love his streetwise Spanglish, feel so smart when you can figure out what invectives his characters are laying down, often just beyond the reach of the ability of a non-Spanish-speaker to piece together the phonemes. I love his typical persona, an extremely smart, bookish, Dominican-American teenage slacker, often bullied by/in awe of an older brother who beats him up and steals his girls and is inexplicably adored by the mom, while persona is alone and bewildered and trying to figure out how he can grow up, get the girls, get a life. In some ways, the typical immigrant-son story, but told in a unique voice - we just don't have many writers working in English from the Latino culture, not male writers anyway. I know Diaz probably gets a lot of slack from the PC-crowd (myself included maybe) - the treatment of women in particular in his novel and stories is very brutal, crude, and disrespectful. Could a nonHispanic writer get away with that? Probably not at all - but we accept from Diaz as being true to a culture, his culture. Maybe - wonder what Latina women think of his stories? If we can set that issue aside, though, his stories are really smart - portrait of a culture, portrait of the artist as a young man making his way through the culture. Great and typical story, "Pura," in current issue of The New Yorker shows all his strengths - the vivid character sketches, the beautiful and witty and original language, the unflinching critique of a culture and a family - as well as the problems, women as objects, Latino guys stereotyped as wannabe gangsters.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Gothic tales - built on the flimsiest premises

It's as if "A Reliable Wife" is struggling to find an equipoise, some measure to goodness and nobility to serve as a counterweight against the unrelenting evil and bitterness of all of the central characters. Three characters essentially - Truitt, Catherine Land, Antonio - each obsessed with vengeance, tormented by inner demons, victims of horrible childhoods, pathological. But in part 3 of the book (or just before), a new character emerges - Catherine's sister, Alice - who is as bitter, lost, and evil as the others, and the book becomes engorged, supersaturated with gall, it can absorb no more of the same type of character, and Catherine, somewhat inexplicably, softens, becomes kinder. Truly, it's been hard to accept some of the elements of her character - would a woman raised on the streets as a hooker really devote so much time so self-improvement in municipal libraries, so much that she could create an credible persona as a daughter of missionaries? But now she becomes the great caretaker of her younger sister, we learn in one of the novel's expository chapters of her lifelong devotion to Alice. But Alice spitefully turns against Catherine, refuses her help (apparently), and Catherine decides she cannot carry through with the plan to kill her husband, Truitt. Why the change, the softening? Does she realize that in fact she's got all that she wanted - wealth, security, comfort - in marrying Truitt? Or is she, against all evidence, a good person, resisting the evil around her? Gothic tales such as this are often built on the flimsiest basis of coincidence (the actual plot mechanism that sets the story in motion is dependent on so many improbabilities that it's not worth even troubling about - just accept it) and on sudden redemptions, revelations. Let's accept, then, that Catherine's personality does change. What will become of her? Is she strong enough to prevail? Is her life with Truitt worth saving?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Chacter types: Round, Flat, Deep, Pervese, Obsessed : Reliable Wife

The characters in "A Reliable Wife" are not rounded characters and they're not meant to be. Rounded characters are those who in some way seem to live off the page and outside of the book. They are characters who are more complex than the actual plot lines of the book allow them to be; that is, they are likely to take an action or express a thought or feeling that in some sense has nothing to do with the plot of the book. Imagine you are a character, living within a "plot." There will be a thousand, a million things you do every day that have nothing to do with the plot of your life. A rounded character behaves in the same ways - the plot is their confine, but their life extends beyond it. They surprise us. Distinguish these from flat characters, who are nothing but accumulations of characteristics (effective for satire, and for pulp fiction, in which we want the character to live within certain conventions and we want to know the character by quirks and tics). Goolrick's main characters in Reliable Wife - Ralph Truitt, Catherine Land or whatever her real name is, and in Part 2 Antonio - are not round but they are deep - deep like the needle that pierces Truitt's palm. They are obsessed and perverse to a high, gothic degree - and like all obsessed characters they are driven by one single force. In this case the driving force is self-loathing and the need for revenge. Each of these perverse characters is damaged by a horrible childhood, and each is motivated by a driving need for revenge against an evil parent/step parent: this is pretty primitive stuff, both from a psychological and literary POV, but it's fuel that drives this story forward. Where's it heading? No place good, I suspect.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What is Ralph Truitt's secret?

As Catherine nurses Ralph Truitt back to life and health, warming his body with hers, stripping him, bathing him, we learn in alternate chapters more about the strange background of the two lead characters, the true antagonists, in "A Reliable Wife." We're certainly heading into Gothic territory here, though American style - the remote farmhouse, the lonely and bitter curator of family wealth, the silent and perversely devoted household servants, the mysterious death of the first wife, the hints about a house that nobody visits anymore, the ferocious weather, and, most of all, the arrival in town, in the story, of the mysterious stranger. Strong echos here of the Brontes, and of a whole genre that today mainly lives in romance paperbacks. But it does have a life here, mainly because the writing is pretty strong and original. I do have a problem accepting the history of the Ralph and Catherine - Ralph's horribly tormented life with a religious fanatic mother and a sensualist father, his lifelong self-loathing because of his sexual drive (there's something slightly Proustian here, and I wonder if the whole thing would make more sense if Ralph were a self-loathing homosexual?), he riotous youth, his fervid courtship, his long and agonized celibacy after his wife's death - but does he have no friends, no ideas, no human relationships at all? He is a man entirely driven by hatred, including self-hatred, and it's unclear why this would be so - and why he would break out now and seek a wife. And what an unfortunate choice he's made! Wouldn't a smart and studious man, who's waited so long, made a better decision about a "mail order" bride? I guess anything can happen, certainly in fiction, but I do have a sense that I'm being set up, or asked to suspend a whole lot of disbelief.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Popular fiction, but of a high order?: Reliable Wife

I've only read a little further in "A Reliable Wife," but I can see that it will be a very kinky, creepy novel - popular fiction, but of a very high order. Not too many books fit that niche : A Secret History is one that I loved. Lots happening in first few chapters : horse-drawn carriage (this is set in 1907) nearly overturns, the horses panic, one breaks a foreleg, the "reliable wife" (catherine) steadies the team, her new "husband" (Ralph Truitt) has been tossed from the carriage, huge gash in his head, fierce snowstorm, they arrive at the house, meet the elderly and suspicious caretakers, Catherine has to stitch Ralph's wound with her sewing kit, no anaesthetic, and he never touches alcohol. Sound like a movie? This verges on the edge of trash fiction, and I was initially skeptical of the whole mail-order (male order?) bride premise, which has been used a lot, both for serious and comic effect, but Goolrick has serious literary intentions here, too. He's really giving us some access to the scheming minds of the characters, both of whom seem, so far, perverse and cruel: Ralph literally hated by everyone in town, a nasty man with (barely) repressed sexual fantasies - why did he "order" this bride? - and Catherine, we know, is not the person she's pretending to be. Did she kill the intended bride? Or did she pretend to be another person right from the outset? We suspect that she's hoping to become a rich widow, but lots left to be revealed.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What makes a classy best-seller?: A Reliable Wife

Easy to see why "A Reliable Wife" is both classy and a best-seller, a rare combination. From first three chapters it's obvious that the book is stylish and smart, a solid piece of literary fiction. We get access to the interior life of the (2) main characters, Richard Truitt and Catherine Land (?), there's a real sensitivity to language, setting, period detail - but without laying it on too thick. Most of all, right from the start, lots of simmering tension about sex without, so far, any sex (that will happen eentually) - the metaphor of the woman in a dress with bustles and corsets, depicted on the pb cover in fact, is very apt, as the characters and their world, small-town Wisconsin in 1907, early winter, seem to the outside view bound tight and repressed, but there's a steaming sexuality beneath, waiting to be released. Truitt, a much-loathed mill owner or some such industrial job, apparently 20 years widowed, seems to spend a great deal of time fantasizing about the sex lives of others in town. Not clear whether he's just bitter and lonely or truly perverted and dangerous. He advertises for the eponymous "reliable wife," and the novel opens with Truitt awaiting her arrival by train. In the 2nd chapter we meet her, Catherine, and see that she's not the demure Christian whom Truitt expects - she is apparently a Chicago prostitute. Near the station, she tosses her flouncy dress out the window and changes into plain cloth. A stranger comes to town - one of the great literary tropes. Is there anything new to be done with this genre? Yes, apparently. What makes the novel, by Robert Goolrick (we went to college together and knew each other a bit) so accessible is that the characters, as in all gothics, have deep and strange secrets, but from each other - not from the reader. We are the omnicient. It seems this novel is headed into a cold and strange territory.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Killing heretics and cutting deals: Is Wolf Hall contemporary or medieval?

"Wolf Hall" ends with the interrogation and finally execution of Thomas More. Does this seem strange? This lengthy novel never effectively set up an opposition between More and the main character, Cromwell, so the conclusion seems wrong, the conclusion to another book - or maybe to a play. Isn't this the subject of Man for All Seasons? Doesn't it seem like about a thousand high-brow East End dramas, in which the man of principle (More) refuses to various sign an oath or give testimony that he does not hold to be true. He faces the executioner instead. Yes, okay, high drama, I get it. What I don't get, finally, after many nights of reading, is what exactly is the moral stance of this novel? At times I thought that what's really going on is that we see the strangeness, the craziness of this world - so much time, capital, careers, lives, spent and lost in pursuit of religious fanatics, and to what end? Superficially, so Henry VIII can remarry and have male heir. More profoundly, to seize the wealth of the church and build the wealth of the nation (or of the Tudor family, not the same thing necessarily). Is it a medieval mentality? Do these people really care about heretics? Or is it a very modern mentality, contemporary, in which aides and politicians cynically cut deals and watch out for their self-interest? I guess the strength (or weakness) of this book is that it's both (or neither) - the author, Hilary Mantel, is after all a very "cool" author, in that she doesn't show her hand or take a stance. She tells her story through a thousand snapshots in time, and we're left to make of it what we will.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Updike in waiting: Which New Yorker writer will take over the title?

Who will be the next John Updike? Who will write the Updikean stories for The New Yorker now that Updike's gone? At one time one would've thought maybe Nicholson Baker, or I should say maybe Nicholson Baker thought Nicholson Baker - until he went off the deep end into some really tendentious nonfiction and his early fiction, which started with such great elan, he really seemed to perceive the modern world with an acute and askew vision that did emulate the master's, now looks as if it was all style and no great moral and human vision to fill in the lineaments. The latest foray, in the current issue, is a story by David Means, author of a few books that I've heard of but haven't read. His story, The Knocking, told entirely from the POV of a man in an (expensive?) Manhattan apartment (redundancy?) driven bats by the knocking noises from upstairs tenant - and gradually, in short space, we suspect the turmoil is internal, not external, as he yearns for his wife, his broken marriage and family, his days in Westcester knocking about himself and keeping his house in good repair. So here's the Updike style, the most precise memorializations of things few would have thought merited description, for example, of the sound of a hammer pinging against the head of a nail, as heard through floorboards. But whereas Updike did so lovingly, embracing all that makes up our complex, sensual world, Means is annoyed by everything - or his character is, at least - a self-centered grouch. And his yearning for the past is a freefloating anxiety, unmoored in any earned (or explained) emotion. He wallows in self-pity. Updike stories at their best are full of love, of shrewd self-assessment and remorese, and of appreciation for the complexity of human relations, in which we often hurt one another as we stumble along trying to do what's best. Next?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

How (not) to judge a book

Nearing the end of "Wolf Hall," with a lot of palace intrigue about what to do about Henry's first child, Mary, daughter of Katherine of Aragon, and now out of the line of succession because the marriage was annulled. Also, about the baby Elizabeth - who will be bumped from the line if her mother, Anne Boleyn, gives birth to a son (we know the outcome, so the suspense isn't all that great). As noted in earlier posts, I'm reading out of obligation to my book group. But when do you quit a book you're not enjoying? Some thoughts on that on yesterday's post, but I add this: I was once on a panel, along with a (then) young thriller writer from Providence, Jon Land. Jon remarked that a book has to grip you right from the start (very true, in his genre), and he said pick up a book in a store or on a shelf, read a few pages (maybe he said paragraphs), and if you're not hooked forget about it. I said that some writers, often the best, require more of an engagement from the reader - they're great because they have their unique way of perceiving the world and of expressing their thoughts and emotions. A few pages is not enough to go on to turn away from Faulkner, Joyce, or Melville. You immediately know you're in the hands of a great genius, but to enter that world requires active reading, true engagement. (Jon graciously agreed with my emendation to his remarks.) Some books, sadly, are the opposite, and I find that though I entered Wolf Hall with some enthusiasm because Mantel's style was distinct and concise, I find by the end that she's just banging through plot points and that the style is so repetitious, so unvaried, that it's like I'm slogging across a great empty plain. Sorry - this book is for some, but not for everyone, or at least not for me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

When to abandon a book

As anyone following these posts (?) realizes, I am now slogging my way toward the end of "Wolf Hall," and I'm doing so only out of obligation to my excellent book group. I have very much lost interest in and patience with this narrative. Part of me wonders if Hilary Mantel has, also - now that Henry and Anne Boleyn are married, she's been coronated, she's borne him, horrors!, a daughter, we're just clip-clopping along to the inevitable conclusion. It's as if Mantel studied the history and now is filling in the blanks - not that these scenes are badly written, but it's just an endless (seemingly) procession of them, with no real development of character or arc of narrative. Do others disagree? They must - book is selling well, and of course it won the Man Booker (though that's not political, is it?). Or are people's judgments clouded by books considered to be prize-worthy, serious, good for you? I have a reading strategy (obsession?) through which I set mileposts as I start a novel, to determine how it's going, will I finish: 10% of the way through, 100 pages, and half-way through (sometimes the order is different, depending on length). At any of those 3 points I'm willing to stop and move on to another book (will also give any book at least more than one day/night of reading). I think each of those, depending on the type of book, gives you enough info as to whether the book is for you, whether it's worth continuing. Past those points, I'm either very much liking the book or at least curious about the outcome, and I'll quit reading after those points only very rarely (one book I remember thinking the author definitely gave up on near the end, and so did I).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Bringing history to life - or sucking the life out of it?: Wolf Hall

So someone finally said it, though it was the French (I think) ambassador and therefore a character that no one takes seriously, but he asks if Henry VIII is confusing what's good for the Tudors (i.e., Henry and kin) with what's good for Britain. Very true. All of "Wolf Hall" is about intelligent people wasting their talents in service to the egocentric and the spoiled. Anne Boleyn is now coronated as a queen, and she's pregnant, and everyone hopes it's with a son or else who knows what Henry will do to her? It's a very long novel and by this point does anyone care? I compare this with War and Peace, which I read recently (see posts) - granted, readers endure some longeurs and Tolstoy expounds on his theory of history, but that's a novel that brings history to life and Wolf Hall sucks the life out of it. By this point I'm plodding from event to event, not feeling I have any deep understanding of motivation of character, at the individual or micro level, nor feeling that I am gaining any understanding of the great forces of world history at the macro level. Henry wants a male heir, a hot new wife, and the wealth of the clergy, and some degree of independence from Roman (Papal) authority - while maintaining an alliance with France. Is that it? But this novel seems to trivialize him and his entourage - selfish, backbiting, self-consciously clever. I would not have read this far had it not been for book group; one member, who suggested Wolf Hall, loved the book and could not put it down. Will I once again be in a lonely minority?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why advisers don't have to give advice

I'm finally beginning to see, 300+ pages into "Wolf Hall," that Cromwell, the main character, adviser first to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII, never really does offer any great advice, that's not why they keep him around (although he's good with "accounts" and can evidently help people manage their money). He's got the even more important quality for an adviser: he's discrete, and he can deal with the vagaries of extremely temperamental and spoiled people. Cardinal Wolsey's OK, more like a mentor to Cromwell, and Cromwell serves him well as Wolsey ever-so-tentatively tries to negotiate with the Pope and other European power acceptance of an annulment for Henry. When Wolsey dies, Cromwell spends a lot of time counseling Anne Boleyn, later to become Henry's 2nd wife, and later Henry himself. What we mainly see is how selfish, self-centered, egotistical (do these words all mean the same thing?), narrow-minded these rulers of England are. Years and years of effort devoted to negotiating the divorce/annulment of Henry's first marriage. And all for what? To gratify his lust, and more important his yearning for more wealth and power - not for the betterment of England but for his own luxury. As noted in earlier post, there is not a word about serving the English people, about making anyone's life better in any way. In fact we do see a great deal of poverty - Cromwell himself was the son of an abusive father, a blacksmith, and this is a mark against him for his whole life - but nobody cares about making anyone's life better. Cromwell's rise is an example that anyone can do it (ha!), and his individual acts of charity - he takes a lot of waifs into his vast household - are the closest approach to any kind of social-welfare policy. A Republican paradise! The King doesn't really want or need advice from his advisers. An adviser in this world serves mainly to accommodate the delusions of others.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A shameful episode in history - and not a word about the welfare of the British people

Halfway through "Wolf Hall" it does at last seem like the fog is lifting and the narrative line gets a little easier to follow: no new characters on the horizon, and the plot now begins to settle on its main themes. So I read through about 50 pages last night and actually understood everything going on, though Hilary Mantel never makes it easy for you - you have to reach out to the narrative rather than the other way around. The big flaw remains, however - what does the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, really do to affect the course of history? He has a lot of conversations, but I don't see what sage advice and crafty legal skills he provides or applies. To an American reader, this era of British history has always seemed kind of insane - a whole continent in a dither about whether Henry VIII should be allowed to divorce (annul) and remarry? A big deal about a male heir? Obviously more to it, as we start to realize through this book, as it's about the king seizing for his control and power and treasury all the property of the church in England. It's a shameful episode - so much thought and energy into something that would not in any way improves the lives of the people of England. Nobody ever mentions them - it's all about selfish gratification and grandiosity. Parliament is a joke, basically hand-picked by the king. In its austere way, Wolf Hall makes no judgments, just portrays history in scene after scene. One scene stands out - the burning of a heretic at the stake, one of the few moments in the book when we viscerally experience the actual strangeness of the tie. The rest of the scenes, despite the 16th-century flourishes (Mantel did a ton of research it seems) feel like contemporary conversations, or perhaps more accurately like a teleplay for a BBC costume drama.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Anyone else having trouble following the plot of Wolf Hall?

Slogging along through "Wolf Hall," honestly does it make sense to tell the story this way, scene after scene, hundreds of them, each one short (not more than 3 pp at most), all from the POV of Thomas Cromwell and, most annoyingly, never any background, transition, reflection, stock-taking. I have to laugh at myself here because when I started this book I was impressed by the technique and thought it would be a relief to read a historical novel not bogged down in exposition - but this one's the opposite. I'm half-way through and still at sea about what's happening here, why, and why I should care. Obviously we all know that Henry VIII wants an annulment of his first marriage (Katherine of Aragon) so he can marry Anne Boleyn and, he hopes, have a male heir. The church (i.e., the Pope) has to sanction the annulment. But that can't be all - there's obviously a global struggle for power, for the wealth that the Roman church controls in England, which Henry would like to seize. Very little is made of this - it seems to be a story, such as it is, of petulant and spoiled people. And what exactly is Cromwell's role? He listens to a lot of different people - Cardinal Wolsey, Henry, Anne, Katherine, othere courtiers - but we don't see his so-called great mind at work. He seems to try to help Wolsey work out a deal with the church, but Wolsey dies (offstage, so to speak), then Cromwell is closer to Henry - but what exactly is he doing? What role is he playing in these historical events? I'm half-way through and have no idea.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Help me find my way through Wolf Hall! What's happening?

Cromwell - always referred to as "he" with never an antecedent noun - travels back and forth to various courts, visiting Cardinal Wolsey in York, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, as we reach the midpoint in "Wolf Hall." For the outset, I have admired that Hilary Mantel takes a rigorous approach to her material and doesn't pad it with exposition and background. And yet - this does make the book very difficult to follow (esp of an American?). For example, there are references to Wolsey's planning to take the crown or something to that effect. What exactly is he doing or planning? Talk of the alliances with the Emperor (Holy Roman?) and with France are way beyond my ken. There are lots of household spies, extremely strained conversations in which the characters face off as antagonists (Cromwell has lots of enemies). But for all that, I don't totally see what Cromwell is doing - Wolsey is his great patron, and Wolsey seems to be obstructing Henry's quest for an annulment. I guess. It's not that clear, nor is it clear what Cromwell's role in all this is. A little exposition would help! For a novel like this to work, we have to see exactly what the characters' motivations are and then follow them along the sinuous and devious path as they try to achieve their ends. Not that Wolf Hall is written as a screenplay, but I keep thinking it should be one - some of the obscurity would be clarified if we could watch the characters and hear them, and if the plot were tightened and simplified. A very difficult book - some have loved it but it's definitely not for everyone.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A strange tale of two poets: Ginsberg, Wieners

Old friend Rusty Barnes posted on his FB page that he's become interested in the poet John Wieners and that he may write a piece on Wieners. Great idea! I told Rusty that I have a story to tell about Wieners and Allen Ginsberg. I'm posting it here for all who may be interested in these two American poets:

In the late '60s (school year 1968-69) I was an undergrad at Johns Hopkins and enrolled in one course, poetry writing, in the graduate writing seminars. One of the grad students was a poet named Charles (Charlie) Plymell. Charlie was about 30, a few years older than most of the other grad students. He's had a long career in poetry, and is sometimes cited as a sort of Zelig figure in American poetry, not really famous himself but turning up in so many life stories and anecdotes of other poets. This is another one. Charlie came into the writing seminars with recommendations from ferlinghetti and Ginsberg - he'd hung around the beat scene in SF and was already published in some of the better magazines of the day (Evergreen, if I remember). This set him well apart from and ahead of the rest of us. We looked up to him. And he was the nicest guy imaginable - generous to other writers, encouraging, not stuck up in the least.

Sometime during the year, Ginsberg came to the area to give a reading at Goucher College, our "sister school," about 10 miles away. They did a series of major readings before a very large audience. Charlie of course knew Allen Ginsberg, and said he could maybe get Allen to come into our seminar for a reading. And he did - Allen came in for a two-hour session with the 15 or so of us. He read, talked about his work and about other writers, answered questions - absolutely terrific, smart and personable, totally friendly and encouraging to all of us emerging writers.

Afterward, the head of the seminars, an old gentleman named Elliott Coleman, temperamentally the polar opposite of Ginsberg, offered to pay him - the seminars invited writers in pretty often and paid a modest stipend. Ginsberg - so true to his character - declined, said he was being paid well by Goucher, didn't need the extra money. Coleman was persistent, and Ginsberg suggested that they use the money to invite another writer - helping everyone, including the students. Coleman agreed, and Ginsberg suggested John Wieners.

Wieners had published a few books by then - his latest was a strange book called "Nerves." We'd all read some of his work and were looking forward to the reading. I would say it was the worst reading I have ever heard before or since. He sat at the head of the table, intoned as if he were reading to a stadium full of people, read straight through his work, no questions, nothing. He was shaking with "nerves" I think - it was as if he'd never given a reading in his life. Awful. I felt terrible for him, a suffering man.

Wieners's career, for most part, sputtered after that - he's best known, if at all, by his early works.

About 20 years later, sometime in the late '80s anyway, I was books editor at the Providence Journal when Ginsberg's "Collected Poems" came out in a fine edition from I think Harper & Row. I learned that he was doing a promotional tour, so I eagerly booked an interview with Allen in Boston. I went up with photographer and met Allen in his room at the Four Seasons. He was finishing up a room-service breakfast, and a man sat across the table from him, literally slurping up some eggs - John Wieners.

Ginsberg introduced us and, without telling how memorable the Wieners reading was, I recalled the story of Johns Hopkins. Ginsberg was touched by the memory.

Throughout my interview with him (I think I still have a tape), Allen kept trying to draw Wieners in; for example, I asked Allen which contemporary poets he was reading, he'd answer, then say: Who are you reading, John?

Wieners, sadly, was a totally destroyed man at this time. He looked like an alcoholic street person, ragged and emaciated, with stringy hair and a bald crown. He couldn't answer any question - just kind of giggled and shrugged his shoulders. I'm sure he rarely ate any meal, let alone a room-service breakfast. Oddly, he carried with him a small pb copy of Eliot's "The Cocktail Party." I asked him about it, but he couldn't tell me why he was reading it (I wondered later if Allen had given it to him).

Wieners did not have too much longer to live, sadly.

After the interview, Allen Ginsberg signed my copy of his Collected Poems, noting the date and location, and finally writing: Interview, with John Wieners. Of all my signed books, it's probably my most treasured.

Friday, March 5, 2010

How much do you think about a book when you're not reading it?

I have to say that, despite a strong start, "Wolf Hall" does not "stick" with me - by which I mean, I don't think much about it when I'm not reading it. That's a good gauge, I think, of the power and influence of a book. How much do you think about it when you're not reading it? Books that I'm very absorbed in, I find myself thinking about the style, the characters, the story - when I'm driving, in the shower, wherever. I want to talk about them. I wish I could do that more - think more about what I'm reading, talk more about what I'm reading - but the press of daily life pushes reading into a corner all too often. I feel that so much of the reading I did when I was younger was just to have read the book, to check it off - I didn't think enough about what I was reading, I was just moving on to the next book. I'm more reflective now, which is good - but still too much of a Type-A reader. Anyway, Wolf Hall just doesn't do it for me, and I'm not sure why not. It's well written scene by scene but the scenes don't add up to much. It's as if it has a veneer of being important, significant, because, hey, it's a big deal to be reading about Cromwell and More and Henry VIII, surely we're learning something. But really, not much has happened. I think of some other historical fiction I've read - Gore Vidal, say - not that I loved his Lincoln or Burr, but you really see how these men made public policy, what they wrestled with, their crises of public life. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell has not done anything of interest - offered good advice, played a key role, even observed anything of great interest or complexity. The one saving element so far is that we learn or observe a lot about Cromwell's family background and domestic life, an area usually ignored in historical film and fiction, esp about a long-ago era. Perhaps the book will pick up in the 3rd section.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Why the New Yorker is like Harvard: This week's story

How hard can it be to discover the best new talent in American (or for that matter, world) fiction writing - if you're the New Yorker? And if every aspiring writer, editor, agent sends you their best work because, like it or not, you still set the standard and pay the most and have the highest prestige? Kind of like being Harvard: do Harvard grads succeed in life because a. Harvard can select the best applicants b. Harvard gives them the best eduction or c. a Harvard degree ensures an extra measure of respect and attention throughout a lifetime? Answer: not b. New Yorker stories are (or should be) great because they can pick the best, and New Yorker picks stars because publication therein guarantees that attention will be paid. It's kinda like a Yankee scout once said about Koufax: It's not amazing that he won 27 games, it's that he lost 3. It's not amazing that the New Yorker publishes great stories, it's amazing that sometimes they don't (like that absurd one about the ants by EO Wilson a few weeks ago). Last week's story, by, oops, I can't possibly spell this right, Said Sayrayfeizedah?, looks like one of these New Yorker discoveries. Who is this guy? The story gives no obvious autobiographical clues, but he's certainly a sharp and funny writer, with echoes of Alexander Hemon and George Saunders, but a style of his own. His story, "Appetite," is about a 25-year-old slacker wasting his life as a cook in a mediocre restaurant. Many very funny riffs: His rehearsals preparing to ask for a raise, his memories of watching his high-school valedictorian. He's lonely, alienated, seemingly displaced - but without the driving ambition or the cyncisicm or the pathos of other alienated-youth narrators. He's a bit older, for one. Not clear whether this is a story or a novel excerpt - good guess that it's an excerpt, as the story doesn't really complete a narrative arc and it seems more is in store for the narrator and the "anorexic waitress," as they drive off together - though so many stories do end with ambiguity and uncertaintly, a New Yorker trait. We'll look for more by this guy.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Getting to know Cromwell - or not - in Wolf Hall

Henry VIII wants to dump wife # 1 (Katherine of Aragon) and move on to wife #2 (Anne Boleyn), and it's up to others, Cardinal Wolsey I guess, to get him the clearance from the church to do so - annulment of the marriage. Wolsey depends on Thomas Cromwell for advice, and that's the basic setup or premise of Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall." It helps to know something of the history because Wolf Hall throws you right into the events and doesn't lard the story with lots of expository background - the strength of the novel but in a way also its weakness. I'm getting to know Cromwell through glimpses of his family life - tense relation with his bullying father, the sorrow of the death of his wife from some kind of flu or plague, his relation with his children, hints now (about 125 pp in) that he may be seeking to remarry (parallel to Henry VIII in a way). Usually historical novels are built more on the facts of the public life, and so far that element is pretty thin in Wolf Hall. I don't really see what Cromwell is doing, what his place in history is, and so far despite initial promise this novel is looking to be neither fish nor fowl, so to speak - I don't have a strong enough sense of Cromwell as a character to be deeply interested in his personal life, nor do I (yet) see his political and legal genius at play, I don't see what role he's played in shaping these remote historical events. This novel should be giving me a new and deeper understanding of the course of history, but right now the waters are kind of shallow.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

When will the protagonist (Cromwell) do something?: Wolf Hall

I'm kinda stumped, without a lot to say right now about "Wolf Hall," and about 400 pages ahead of me. As I noted in my post yesterday, Wolf Hall is an exemplary piece of historical fiction in that it really does have a literary style and it conveys historical events through well-crafted scenes, all involving the central character, Thomas Cromwell, sometimes in private conversation with his (first) patron/boss, Cardinal Wolsey, sometimes in family or domestic conversation. Good, because we don't have the long re-creations of well-known historical events, nor do we have lengthy monologues or stagy dialogues that serve no purpose but to disgorge exposition ("As you know, Thomas, the Duke of Somerset was the youngest son of the bastard king ... "). That's all to the good, but at about 100 pages I don't entirely find myself engaging with Cromwell, either. I see that he's a tough guy, raised as a brawler on the streets, who's become a shrewd lawyer and counselor (to Wolsey). The two of them have engaged in some extensive discussion about Henry VIII - his womanizing, his quest for a male heir/son, his desire to dump first wife, Katherine of Aragon, for new wife, Anne Boleyn - and how this places a special demand on the church, which is not keen on nullifying longterm marriages, especially if that means declaring the children (daughters) to be bastards. I assume the book might pick up when the protagonist, Cromwell, actually has to do things - right now, he just talks with Wolsey. The writing is really sharp, and I know it would translate well to BBC, maybe already has.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Exemplary historical fiction - Wolf Hall

I don't read a lot of historical fiction (although I did spend several months reading War and Peace, which is the Prius/hybrid version of historical fiction, fictional characters living through world-historical events and sometimes interacting directly with historical characters, e.g., Napoleon). Most of the time I find that it's full of lengthy exposition, which often makes the novel seem like history-lite, a more palliative way to spoonfeed us the "facts" of history. One way to measure the success of historical fiction is: how well does it stand up as fiction? Would you be interested if the protagonist were not a real person? The slew of recent novels about modern artists, architects, robber barons, test pilots - how many of them are good works of fiction in and of themselves? I often feel that it's too easy a trick for the writer, and that the writers therefore get lazy in their craft. If the plot and character are already laid out for you, you should work with extra care and diligence at crafting the scenes, the dialogue, the peripheral characters. "Wolf Hall," by Hilary Mantel, so far seems to be an exemplary work of historical fiction. Set in the early 16th-century and telling the life story of Thomas Cromwell, focused on his relation (so far) with Cardinal Wolsey - these are themes that most Americans know about (esp the wives of Henry VIII), but we're not too familiar with the intricacies and personalities. Mantel does not bog us down with long expositions. She tells this story through scenes, sharply depicted, with smart dialogue. We learn about the history through extrapolation, through learning about the characters and seeing them in action. This book cries out to be made into a TV movie, and it probably will, in the inimitable British style. She has an odd tic of always referring to Cromwell as "he," making it difficult at times to follow the narrative - sometimes "he" seems to refer to Wolsey or other men. Good read, so far.