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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon

Started 6/12, Finished 6/17

I'll be frank, I missed a lot here. Sure, I followed the plot, "got" the puns with the characters' names, and I understood a lot of the pop culture references. What I did not "get" was the subtext. I didn't get it, I didn't get it, I didn't get it (when was the last time Harold Bloom said that?) I tried. I read reviews on various sites, I read the wikipedia entries on Pynchon, on the book itself, and some of the other things he referenced. Still, I couldn't figure out what the big idea was. Yeah, I feel pretty dumb. And this is supposed to be his most accessible book? Somehow I fear the day I end up reading about the erection-inducing-rockets.

So instead of praising what was evidently a very important Literary Event in my young life, I'll just talk about Pynchon and what an interesting fellow he is. I'll pick this one up again once I've learned more about life in the 60s, Southern California, the history of the postal system, and Jacobean revenge plays. It's not a hard read for the words, just why they belong in this particular order.

Legends abound about him, the recluse, the revolutionary-cum-counter-revolutionary. I say leave the man the hell alone. Just trying to go fact-diving for him, I dug up with a great quote from wikipedia:

"[Thomas Pynchon] simply chooses not to be a public figure, an attitude that resonates on a frequency so out of phase with that of the prevailing culture that if Pynchon and Paris Hilton were ever to meet—the circumstances, I admit, are beyond imagining—the resulting matter/antimatter explosion would vaporize everything from here to Tau Ceti IV." (Salm 2004)
Sounds about right. People act as though they have a right to his story and his life when they should just acknowledge that he's given us all he wants us to have.

Wish I had more on this one.

Book #18 will be Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Started 5/29, finished 6/5

Ian McEwan has been described as a "master prose stylist", but I think it should be more like "master prose artist". He's not Nabokov, and he's not Philip Roth, and he's not like the great capital-W Writers you think of from literature classes. What he does is more restrained and transparent than usual: the prose becomes invisible and you forget you are reading at all.

I'm a slow reader... when I finish a book like this in five or seven or ten days it represents a lot of time spent reading. Since I never read when my boy is awake, it only happens between 8pm and about midnight. For Atonement, I spent three days in a row reading from the moment the lad's head hit the pillow until 11:30 or so, at my customary pace of 20 pages per hour. Usually my neck hurts, I have to adjust pillows in the couch or the bed just to stay comfortable. Usually I don't get more than 25-30 pages a day.

But this book flowed like Niagra Falls... and I didn't up my pace. It's not like Vonnegut or many of the journalism-style writers. The prose is dense and layered and so very involved in its period that I still read slowly, but with more pleasure than usual.

Having said all that, I'd really recommend reading the book before reading any more of this. I went into it blind and that's the way Atonement should be read. Anything you read below will likely take away some enjoyment from first contact.

The structure of the book is enjoyable, but it led me to some questions: why spend so much time with Briony and Cecilia before the war? I understand you want to build up the characters through the long languid scenes, but why do you need so much of it? Then, after "the crime", why jump ahead so far? Is it to build suspense about what happened? Is it to give the characters some years to age?

The questions continued. Why go through 50 pages of pre-war English society and 50 pages of the harrowing retreat to Dunkirk and 50 pages of brains and pus in the hospital?

I read with faith that McEwan would explain it, and he did. Those pages are the atonement, the price the characters and even we the readers pay for Briony's crime. He is trying to make it very clear: twenty-one-year-old Robbie wouldn't have to steal an insignia from a dead officer, Eighteen-year-old Briony would never have to put a soldier's brains back in his head, if it weren't for what the thirteen-year-old Briony did.

But what ties the novel together, probably the single element that merited all the prizes and recognition, was the end after the end, the part that takes us past the fourth wall and into some fundamental questions about the nature of literature and history. If you don't write it down, it never happened. If I [eighty-year-old Briony] hadn't told you what a wonderful ending Robbie and Cecilia shared, you would never have heard their story. You might have found out one version of the truth (the events that actually occurred), but you see, that way you would have remembered the unimportant thing. The important thing is not that they died before they ever got to reconnect, but that I told you they did get to reconnect, and that's what you get to remember.

Isn't that wonderful? It kinda reminds me of Roth's American Pastoral, "I dreamed a realistic chronical." I'm reading fiction in which the narrator informs the reader that what they're reading is only made up. Two degrees of fiction. I feel almost like I'm near the edge of a profound discovery, and that someone out there knows what I'm getting at and will be able to put the final analytical piece in place for me, but I can't seem to get through to it. There's something far more interesting about this concept than I've been able to give justice. Maybe one day, if I read enough Harold Bloom, I'll be able to hop onto it.

As a side note, this book contains the single best literary rejection letter I've ever read. I promise if I ever get one like that I'll do everything it suggests. I will not feel incensed or even particularly rejected. In fact, it's 9/10ths of an acceptance letter, and it's probably the only thing in the book that asked me to suspend disbelief.

I hope the movie doesn't suck. Is it me or is Keira Knightly (Cecilia) a little overexposed and a little too overworked to become the actress she wants to become? I didn't particularly like her fiery Elizabeth Bennett... thought it was more Pirates of the Carribean than Jane Austen.

Book #16 will be Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut


Sunday, June 18, 2006

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

Started 6/6, Finished 6/12

Reading Vonnegut is a pleasure, because it seems like he took great pleasure in writing it. The characters materialize, the plot is shot from a gun, and you finish the book before you realize how much fun it is. Hijinks rush past as though the levee was built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Now, I'm not exactly sure I was supposed to have this much fun reading about the end of the world, but here we are. I think I missed a lot, symbolism, themes, references to things from the era that whiffed by my head, but I'm not going to worry about it. So far it's the kind of book that seeps into my head and rattles around a bit. As I later read the Crying of Lot 49 I found myself thinking back to Cat's Cradle, comparing the two, finding parallels, and seeing more of what Vonnegut was going for.

Specifically, I really took to the concepts of Bokononism, the religion born of a calypso singer on a remote (fictional) Carribean island. It's interesting to read something that picks apart religion so effectively that it takes on a life of its own. You look up, proud of yourself for standing with Vonnegut, looking out at the sea of sheep following one thing or another, then you find yourself, just for a moment, quoting Bokonon as blindly as ever did a Scientologist quote Hubbard.

busy, busy, busy

It would be dishonest for me to sit here and break this story down, to tell you my take on the brilliance of Vonnegut and his take on the politics, fears, and insecurities of the day. If I did that I would be engaging in the sort of pseudo-intellectualism I hate, because I would be making most of it up. A lot of this went over my head, I'll be honest. I think it'll merit a re-reading later in life, because it's easy to see how deep the subtext goes. For this reading I was content to get the broad strokes, to understand the world-view perspective he took. Which is to say, I really *got* the last 100 pages. Before that there was some serious satire going on, most of which seems to have been context-sensitive. If you look out at Amazon, most of the people there dismiss this book entirely based on the seeming randomness of the plot, but I refuse to accept that. I'll just have another go later when I've read more of him and other writers of the period.

Not my strongest review, but save the real criticism of my "technique" for the next one.

Book #17 will be The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon


Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, by Laila Lalami

This isn't one of "The 25", but I want to help promote it any way I can. I read it last October when it came out.

I'm reviewing this because, by the fortune of coincidence, I was in Washington, D.C. last Thursday (6/15) on the same day she had a signing at Olsson's in Dupont Circle. I'm high on that meeting like I was high after meeting Greg Iles--not that they have anything in common outside of Having Been Published, but that for different reasons I value their opinions on the direction of the Door Carver above just about anyone else's. Iles writes how I want to write in terms of process and variety in his career path. Lalami is Moroccan, a native speaker of Arabic, a new novelist, and would have a great deal of insight into the subject I'm attempting to research. They both possess a deep love of books, whether or not it's to their personal tastes.

I didn't have much time, so I just came out with The Big Question (i.e. "What does a Moroccan person think about White Guy From Texas writing about their country?"), and she told me I could go nuts thinking about it, self-censoring, trying to get it exactly right. If I'm my own Ideal Reader, I'm the audience that matters. That's fantastic. It's a load off. Now, I'd love to think, "that's what I've been waiting for", but that's not it. It's a step, but I'm not sure it's enough.

She told me not to self-censor, but that's not the same thing as saying she'd automatically love it. Not that I was expecting that. The problem is I don't know, given even her blessing, whether or not I can really write the hell out of this story anymore. This lack of confidence is probably non uncommon with writers, I've just let it bother me more than I've let any other single factor bother me.

I feel a kinship to Ms. Lalami, though I doubt the feeling would be mutual. Like others who read her blog I have a lot of respect for the amount of work she puts into understanding the world of publishing, and for her ability to spin varying opinions with clarity, kindness, and enough vitriol to keep things interesting. What was great was seeing the Human Being--all that anger and frustration and intellect poised on a dais, delivering forth answers to moderate-to-hard-ball questions. But more than that was a strong element of worldly charm. She smiled most of the time (if I were a real Writer I would use the expression "smiled knowingly"), and has a great belly laugh that reminds me of my boy when he's being tickled. I was glad to see that the anger behind a large percentage of her posts is not all there is to her. The cool thing was when that anger came crackling out in response to a question about "Arab Perception in American Media"--her voice went up about a third, her word rate doubled, and I saw Moorishgirl, The Angry Blogger standing there, not just Laila. It was great to see those two sides.

I was also happy to hear she has a Ph. D. in Linguistics, and that her 30th birthday was what motivated her to pursue writing as a full-time career. I only have a B.A., and my 30th birthday was the same minus the "full-time" bit, but it was validating.

I think, in all honesty, I was more intimidated and more eager to ask her questions than if I met any living president. I can identify with her (the writer part of her, that is... not the Arab, the immigrant, the woman, the academe, in those I'm a child in the very shallowest end of the pool of understanding). We're roughly the same age, but she was able to do something in this arena while I'm still just starting out. But I have so many questions to pepper her with, I don't know where to start in my one opportunity. The fact that I got the Big Question out and answered was a huge victory for the ultra-shy part of me that takes over anytime I'm around someone who would get more than 10 Google hits on their name.

Huh, I didn't talk about her book, just me. Typical. I'll cover HODP in another entry.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Detour: Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep

I've recently rediscovered some things I've posted elsewhere, and in the spirit of keeping a single archive of my literary opinions, I'm going to give them a new home here.

Raymond Chandler

I don't write with a lot of description. Some people like that about my style, some people hate it. I do it because a) in the things I've written so far, I want the words to flow faster than water, and b) I don't think I'm very good at it.

I read a lot of stuff written by past writing groups (nobody who reads this blog), and there's usually a certain tinny sound to it when it's rolling around my head. After a while it all sounds the same... "wind-swept praries", "the coming glow of dawn glanced off of something or other", and so forth. Bottom line: it gets in the way of the story. It brings me out and makes me wonder how long it will continue before I learn something relevant. Call me impatient.

Take Anne Rice for instance. We've read her, loved her at first, then sorta got sick of it, am I right? Her renderings of New Orleans, Paris, San Francisco, and a hundred other places stick in our minds and make us feel the emotional weight of the environment. But after a while it all runs together. I want to reach into the prose and pull the story along: a lot of it seems to be description for the sake of description. I can't bring myself to skip whole sections of the books, so I just don't read her anymore. The setting used to play a character in her environment. Now that character has become typecast: predictable and boring.

Enter my new hero, Raymond Chandler. It's criminal that I'm only now getting around to reading him, but, well, I've been busy. I still haven't read any Tobias Wolf. Pick your jaw up off the desk.

Chandler uses description as a method of character development, almost exclusively. We ultimately don't care about the setting because we're concerned with learning the details of Marlowe's psyche. "Show, don't Tell".

Here are some examples, just from the first few pages of The Big Sleep (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperback edition). Most of these examples tell us three things: 1) what it looked/sounded/smelled like, 2) how Marlowe feels about it, and 3) how Marlowe looks at the world in general:

  • A stained-glass panel shows "a lady who ... didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair." - p. 3
  • "The plants filled the place, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. They smelled as overpowering as boiling alcohol under a blanket." - p. 4
  • "She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn't often seen in bookstores" - p. 23
  • "He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn't owe too much money." - p. 43

It may just be me, but my brain fills in all the details he leaves out, and I get the more important information with only a little extra effort.

The way I write it would take years to create prose so dense. I don't know if Chandler revised a lot, or if he just thought this way. Either way, I find it pretty admirable. And I still have half a dozen books of his to read.

With all that said, here are some questions, for general discussion:

  • I suspect Chandler mainly appeals to men. There's a sticky machismo about this guy that would make Hemingway blush. Am I wrong?
  • What other authors are good at this? I've probably read some, but not since I started writing. Any ideas?