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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth

Started 4/12, finished 5/1

"...I dreamed a realistic chronicle." (page 89). To me, that's the key, the frame story that makes American Pastoral interesting. The whole thing is fiction, yet we are told by the narrator that since the main character is dead and cannot tell the story himself, the story must be fabricated from whole cloth in order to be understood. And I ask myself, "why should it matter? You knew you were reading a work of fiction, so why should it matter that the narrator is making up the story he's telling you? Even without the frame, it would still be made up, wouldn't it?"


What makes it important is if you're already a reader of Roth's works. Nathan "Skip" Zuckerman is a recurring character, and (not having read any of "his" works) I'm just gonna go out on a limb and assume he has his own way of doing things. In reading some reviews of Roth's other works, I came across a dialogue Roth writes between himself (also a frequent quasi-fictional narrator of his fiction) and Zuckerman. In it, Zuckerman relentlessly questions and needles Roth, challenging him on assertions made in his memoirs, his place in literary history, and his every assumption about the nature of his talent. Zuckerman is an alter ego, and through him we're able to get a picture of how he feels about his subject, "The Swede", and this colors what we read during the sympathetic portrait that follows. The depth Roth is able to explore while writing in Skip's voice is rich and skeptical. When we're later presented with a POV from the Swede himself, it's through Zuckerman, through Roth that we are able to admire how thoroughly Roth understands his craft. His talent is staggering.

I think the plot is tertiary in this book. Rage against suburbia, the ultimate banality of the American Ideal, any number of other things are candidates for what's more important. Tying them all together is the effortless style of an old codger who's been at this long enough that he doesn't need to explain himself. It begins at the end, then wanders back to just after the beginning, then ends just after the climax.

The primary question the book asks me, being a new parent and terrified of the future, is this: what do you do if you end up with a kid you don't like? You're someone who has worked hard to parlay the privilege you've been given, to turn it into gold. You marry a beauty queen, ignoring that she has tried all her life to run from her looks. You were a star athelete in your county, to the degree that, well into your 60s, people recognize you for how well you threw the ball, your prowess on the field.

Your child? A depressed, destructively overweight political activist who hates everything you stand for and everything your country (as you imagine it) was founded upon. She has a speech impediment to boot. She rejects the privilege. Rather than listen, you just pretend she is what she was when she was 12. One morning she disappears, leaving a blown-up general store in her wake. You now have to find out who you are, and how you could have gotten everything so very, very wrong.

You see, I'm terrified of exactly that. My kid is still in a "perfect" state, completely uncorrupted and uninfluenced. I have smatterings of what his personality may be like in the end, but no hard evidence, no tangible preview. The Swede's daughter was fourteen or so before he even recognized there was something wrong. I am the father of a child who could turn out so differently from what I would want. I would like to think my viewpoint is much wider than the Swede's, allowing me to accept it much better than he did. In fact, I fancy myself that different is better than normal, that if he turns out to be something I don't like I'll be able to change what I like so I can still like my son. I think it's the Swede's resistance to his daughter's differences that persuades her to cross over from activist to murderer--that is a mistake I won't make. Or will I? It's terrifying. The Swede's family and friends frequently make the comment that it "would have been better if she had died". Once the gate has swung and people are dead, it's easy for me to look into the book and try to convince him that they're right. But that's not my kid. My boy. I can't see wishing him dead if he were Herman Hesse. Truth is, I might fall apart the same way.

It's troubling.

Book #13 will be The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, by Vladimir Nabokov.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Eleven Minutes, by Paulo Coehlo

Started 4/4, finished 4/12

Ponderous bullshit, and I don't want to waste time on it.

But it was just infuriating enough to make me want to write more.

Eleven Minutes is what happens when people tell you you're a guru and you start to believe it. I read the Alchemist and thought the tone matched what I've done in the Door Carver, except that it was a bit more preachy that I'm trying to be. This is 7 or 8 books later, and it seems that Coehlo has lost the ability to tell a story. He can only preach. I didn't once care about Maria or Ralf or anyone else. I didn't find her situation tragic, difficult, or even noteworthy.

"Poor me, I don't understand the meaning of love. I'm gorgeous. I can have any man I choose. I became a prostitute because it sure was easier than getting an education or working hard. Isn't it horrible when bad things like that happen to good-looking people?"

This reminds me of what used to be one of my favorite blogs. It used to be "Sarong Party Girl", but has since changed to "Miss Izzy". Izzy pontificates, philosophizes, and makes queries about every emotional reaction she's ever had when she's been in love or in lust. She draws conclusions that I thought only a 19-year-old could draw, taking her experiences and making generalizations about how "this must be how it is for everyone, and since I've had so much experience, I must be gifted. Since I have so many readers, they must love to hear me tell them what it's all about." She was much, much better when she described what she did in an average day. She was very good at describing her experience in living, vivid language. It was a pleasure to read. Now it's difficult to get through a single entry.

That's fine. It's her blog. I'd never tell someone else what to do with their blog... I just may not read it as much or very closely. I doubt she cares. The universe is balanced appropriately.

Coelho, however, has no such excuse. I bought this book. He published something that purports to explain "the sacred nature of sex withing the context of love", but which really amounts to a 19-year-old's journal about a year in the life of a prostitute, thrusting her own boring experiences onto us as though she's learned something that we are dead until we understand.

At no point is she threatened. At no point do we fear for her life, her health, or even her happiness. Nothing is ever taken from her. She only ever grazes unpleasantness, and never really experiences it. I don't know who said it, but a great writer once said, "I don't ever want to write about someone who isn't at the end of his rope." Eleven Minutes is a good example of why this is a good guideline to follow.

If you're into banal and immature musings on the supposed nature of love (and there seems only to be one supposed nature, by the way), this is the one to check out. Me, I'm going to hold Coelho at a long arm's length, and I'm going to make sure I read the first few pages of his books on Amazon before I buy them. Also, I'm going to read the reviews on Amazon, because the editorial reviews all hated this thing like I do. The users loved it, and I think that speaks to the fact that Coelho has something of a following as a guru. They can have him. I, for one, am very glad to have a glimpse into what could have happened if I were to publish the Door Carver, have people all over the world clamor to hear the sound of my voice, then just turn the same didactic tone to other topics, leaving out any real introspection. Eventually they'll all start to sound the same, but hey, at least I'd have a following and my books would sell through.

Book #12 will be American Pastoral, by Philip Roth, and I think it's gonna be a good one. Thank God.


Friday, April 07, 2006

Momentary Detour from the 25

The UK judicial system seems to have its collective head on straight. I doubt, considering the emminent domain decision in our supreme court, that a US court would have ruled against Dan Brown.

As much as I dislike Dan Brown's writing (even though I enjoy his books), it was unconscionable to me how these Holy Blood, Holy Grail authors tried to go after a piece of his earnings. My bet is, they sold more copies of that book in the last 3 years than they did in the entire ~20 years previous, as a direct result of his mention in DVC. And that's the key: plagiarism usually has something to do with trying to pass someone else's work off as your own. DB mentions Holy Blood, Holy Grail at least once in DVC, as well as several other works which have seen their sales shoot up since it was published. It should be clear to anyone that it was a source of information.

Here's a quote from the judge: “It would be quite wrong if fictional writers were to have their writings pored over in the way DVC (Da Vinci Code) has been pored over in this case by authors of pretend historical books to make an allegation of infringement of copyright,” Smith said in his 71-page ruling.

Absolutely. I have in mind the novelization of a notorious assassination that took place in the early 1970s in Spain. Yeah, there have been several books written about it, and I've read them. If I write a novel about this, will I get sued? If someone in one of those books arrives at a tasty conclusion loosely based on facts, but they're not crafty enough or they don't have the desire to court the fiction market, should I be forced to share my revenue with them? Particularly if I mention who they are, what they wrote, how they reached that conclusion, and that they forced a rethinking of the whole case?

Here's a quote from the story: "[Baigent and Leigh's] 24-year-old book is selling 7,000 copies a week in Britain, compared with a few hundred before the case began. Baigent’s new book, The Jesus Papers: Exposing the Greatest Cover-Up in History, has an initial print run of 150,000 copies in the United States."

If someone I don't know ever sells nearly half a million copies of my book a year, 20+ years after it was published, you can bet that my lawyer will only be used to complete the paperwork for a scholarship in that person's name.

These jackasses have already shared in the revenue of DVC, because in the culture of wanting to follow this absurd book's conclusion to the end, people have thrown money at anything that would shed light on it.

If you wanted to make a ton of money off of a mountain of research and hard work, you should have packaged it up in such a way that it's possible to make money off of it. My bet is, they loved doing this work, considered it a lifelong pursuit, were happy that a non-fiction book would do as well as it did, and figured that was the ceiling for making up a bunch of Oliver Stone-like conclusions about Jesus. Dan Brown came along and made a billion dollars, and now they're slapping themselves.

These guys should be on their knees thanking Dan Brown. He made them into stars. Until people do about 7 minutes of research to find out just how stupid "the Magdeleine conclusion" really is, they're intrigued by the possibility that everything they know about Christianity is wrong. Luckily, people spend the money on crap like HBHG, The Girl with the Alabaster Jar, etc., before they start to question it.

I hear Leigh and Baigent stand to pay $1.75 million in lawyer's fees. Glad Dan Brown sold so many copies of their damn book so they could afford it.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Commentary on the Dialog between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh

I'm going to try this on my kid one day:

MARCUS: "There's no way I'm going to allow you or your sister to eat that broccoli!"

ALEX: "Dad, I hate broccoli. Broccoli sucks. I'd never consider eating stupid broccoli."

M: "Don't insult me. I know you've had your eye on the broccoli. What do you take me for? a simpleton?"

A: "I just told you. Don't worry about me eating broccoli. I can't imagine anything I'd rather do than not eat the broccoli!"

M: "Imagine the scandal! My son, sitting here, eating broccoli. What would our neighbors think?!"

A: "Look, I may have had an eye on the broccoli, but I already decided several minutes ago that I wasn't going to eat it. I'll probably never eat broccoli as long as I live!"

M: "And to think how generous I've been, offering you french fries and letting you drink water. To repay me that you would go off and do something scandalous like eat broccoli, when you know as well as I do how horrible that would be!"

A: "Even if I were to consider eating the broccoli, I wouldn't give you the satisfaction of eating it in front of you, and my eating it or not eating it will never have anything to do with anything you say. I will or I won't eat the broccoli, of my own volition. You won't have anything to do with my decision."

M: "Your sister is sitting there staring at it, and you know she's thinking about eating it, and I can't help but blame you. This is all your fault, impudent boy! Just imagine what my parents and siblings would think, having so ungrateful a grandson and nephew, that he would even consider eating that ridiculous vegetable!"

A: "Whether or not I plan to eat broccoli, you're not getting in my way. I have every right in the world to eat this broccoli, and so does my sister. I'm certain that the two of us will be happy eating broccoli whether you like it or not!"

M: "I'm so upset about this, I'm going to go lay down. I'd better not find out later that you two have eaten the broccoli, or I shall be mightily upset and snub you during dessert! I'm not giving you a kiss, I'm not even saying goodnight, I'm just going to walk away. I am most unhappy."

(Exit Marcus)

ALEX (chewing broccoli): "Doesn't broccoli kick ass?"

MEREDITH (Alex's sister): "Man, it wasn't until dad objected to our eating broccoli that I realized I wanted it all along. It does indeed kick ass."

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

Started 3/17, finished 4/4

Yep, they're starting to stretch out a little bit - I'm glad I did 5 in January... with what I've got coming up this may get tight.

Whenever I read a book with strong characters I begin to think of myself as being like them somehow. I want to be the hero/in, I want to be the one people think of when they hear the title and they've read it before.

I am nothing like Mr. Darcy, so I just just fucking get over it. This realization makes me sad. I watch Lawrence of Arabia and I feel like my inner conflicts belong to that man. I read Captain Alatriste and I feel like with proper training and some prison time, I could parlay my awesome hand-eye coordination into some practical skills (for XVIII Spain). I read the Da Vinci Code and I could give a shit about Robert Langdon, because I said strong characters.

I'm also nothing like Elizabeth. I think I could pick out a couple of traits and say, ah yeah, there's a similarity there. Maybe the self-awareness, maybe the fact that on occasion I flatter myself as somewhat clever. Maybe I can think on my feet. Maybe. But the thing these two have that I'll never have is this: the ability to shut the hell up and let idiots dig their own graves.

At the end of P&P I want to see these two as super heroes, going all over Europe, purging the gentry of idiocy and ignorance through their use of silence and death-blow one-liners that render their opponents impotent. They could be secret agents. But they come by it honestly - it's something they're born with, not something they develop intentionally. I get the feeling that Elizabeth understands Her Power, but only teaches Mr. Darcy to be aware of it in the end.

If you're ever trying to disabuse a man of the notion that this is a chick book, just tell him it becomes a suspense thrill-ride at the end, where you just can't put it down until you figure out how the hell Mr. Darcy could ever be persuaded to accept this family - how he could ever stomach Wickham as a brother-in-law, how he could ever spend 30 seconds with Mrs. Bennett, and what must be constant worry that the Collinses will one day be invited to stay. Tell him he doesn't have to admit later that his heart went a-flutter when she finally accepts him. Tell him, "don't worry you won't cry. You won't even be tempted to," and that he doesn't have to tell you when he realizes that he most certainly will if he ever reads it again. Tell him you won't tell any of his friends if he wants to watch the movie when he's done - wait, not just the movie, but the 6-hour BBC version with Colin Firth, followed by the Laurence Olivier, the Keira Knightly, and then even the Bollywood version, just to do a comparative study.

If all that fails, tell him he reminds you of Mr. Darcy, and all women love Mr. Darcy.

I mean, the guy's a badass. He says fewer words than any of the major characters, but if you're in a crowded restaurant while you're reading, and you come across one of his dialogs with Lizzy, everything is silenced. If you were having trouble concentrating before, that ends immediately. These conversations crackle, they live. I'm convinced they're the reason Jane Austen wrote novels - to hit moments like that. I'm sure she took a lot of pride in them. In keeping with a long tradition of "spot the author", I wonder who her Mr. Darcy was. Again, something I'm sure nobody's ever thought of before.

They're not the only two well-drawn characters, but they're the only two anyone would want to hang out with. Except maybe Mr. Bennett.

Speaking of dear old dad, my friend Shy points out to me that Mr. Bennett is a much more interesting character than I originally thought he was, that the Keira Knightly movie hits a note with him that the other films fail to, and which is very subtly done in the book: he's a lousy father, he realizes he's a lousy father, and he's drawn up as a study in the evolution of a wit. His wit is the only universe he has. He can't interact with the silly people in the world... he has his books and his one-liners, which, if Lizzy wasn't around, would be like a tree falling in a forest. He'd use them just to amuse himself. He should probably be a novelist.

As a new parent myself, I often wonder if I'll only be a good father to a good child. I'm sure Lizzy would say he's the perfect father, just because she's low-maintenance and he's exactly right for her.

"I'd be a better father if you kids would just shut up!!"

It's a cautionary tale... until Shy pointed this out I just thought of him as a good father who happened to have a horrible wife and 3 (the youngest) sub-optimal children of increasing wildness - which he is completely unwilling to fix. He realizes this during the Lydia episode, he says one or two sentences which color all his other behavior. He doesn't want to care, but he wants to want to care. As I'm sure nobody has ever analyzed his character at all, maybe I should spin off a separate essay about him one day. Maybe.

There's plenty more here to recommend - Austen's feminism, her social commentary, her overall and understated brilliance, and again I'm sure that's never been touched upon, but as usual I just wanted to get down my initial emotional reactions, then move on.

One last comment is about how I have this weird and annoying habit of adapting my writing style to that of an author's if their writing is powerful enough. That should explain the comma grenade that went of in this entry, in case you were curious.

Book #11 will be Eleven Minutes, by Paulo Coelho