Archive for the ‘Modernism’ Category

Book #106: The Girls of Slender Means

Let me preface this by saying that I think just about any book I read after my wild and crazy romp with Douglas Adams was bound to be a bit of a letdown.

I had a hard time taking Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means seriously at first. I kept wanting it to be funny and assuming that everything she said was meant to be sarcastic or witty. I was kind of in the Douglas Adams “this is supposed to be silly” mindset, which wasn’t great for this book.

The Girls of Slender Means is a postwar story about a rooming house in London where literary, smart young women live. They’re pretty much all twenty-somethings, and they all are trying to find husbands and make their way in the world. And that’s pretty much it.

I will say this for Spark – she’s great at creating vivid, believable characters. We meet several girls who live in the hostel, and they are all real and believable, with interesting quirks, flaws, and ideas. They all come to life very well. I felt like I could know or encounter any of them in the real world and not be surprised at all. Almost all of them are fully developed and three-dimensional.

Overall, however, The Girls of Slender Means was a bit “meh” for me. I think I’ll chalk it up to the stark reality of Spark’s novel immediately following the colorful, clever, and zany world Adams created, because I did find myself enjoying it more by the end. I’d even recommend it to people who want a quick, relatively interesting read.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Butcher Boy

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Book #90: Call It Sleep

Growing up and trying to understand the world around you is hard enough. In Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, the young narrator has it even harder as he tries to adjust to life in a new city, in a country he doesn’t understand. The story opens with the young boy and his mother meeting the father in New York City, where he has been working to save up to send for them.

The Jewish family settles into the slums and young David has to adjust to, and attempt to understand, life in the big new city. In a lot of ways, it’s a typical coming-of-age story. Growing up is tough stuff, and David has to do it in two languages. In doing so, he provides a very interesting filter to view the strange, terrifying, and remarkably foreign New York City.

Overall, Call It Sleep is a pretty interesting read. I especially liked the way Roth deals with language in the book. David’s mother never learns English, and Yiddish dialogue is woven throughout the novel. It added an interesting dimension and never let you get too comfortable in the setting. Just when you thought you were adjusting to the narrative and landscape the narrator was living in, the Yiddish would remind you that something about this is still foreign. It never lets you get too at home.

Rating: ***

Book #84: The Glass Bead Game

Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was a really interesting read.

It’s written as an academic retelling of the life of Joseph Knecht, the greatest master of a purely academic society’s greatest achievement – the Glass Bead Game. The plot is almost as hard to describe as the society and Game it involves.

In the future, society has been divided into two classes – the academic-minded who devote their lives to learning and philosophy, and the ‘laypeople’ involved in politics, medicine, and the rest of society. The division is reminiscent of the monastic societies of medieval Europe. Gifted children are chosen at a young age to enter these special schools in Castalia, the academic society.

Joseph Knecht is was a peasant boy who was very gifted in music who entered Castalia and wound up working his way through the strictly regimented learning regime up the strict hierarchical ladder to become Magister Ludi – Master of the Glass Bead Game – the highest rank in Castalia.

The Game is, essentially an exercise in thought and philosophy which tries to synthesize all human learning into one game. The game mirrors the early abacuses used by mathematicians. Everything is boiled down to beads and symbols – an idea, generally philosophical or musical in theme, is introduced as the opening problem to the Game. Then players, using the beads in some undescribed way, state associations and variations on the opening theme, much like musicians alter the main theme of music in compositions.

The rules and mechanics of the Game are never explained throughout the novel, only the Game’s importance in bringing nuance, delicacy, and beauty to the forefront of thought during the annual tournament of the Glass Bead Game that brings together players from all over Castalia.

The story is told in the form of Knecht’s biography. Hesse never loses the academic tone, which fits nicely with the intense, isolating academia that permeates Castalia. It’s hard even to write about the Game and plot of the book without lapsing into the academic vernacular I was used to in college.

This, actually, is part of the point of the book. I got the sense throughout The Glass Bead Game that Hesse was mocking the academic world. In his analysis of a life and the importance placed on the Game and learning as an almost monastic pursuit, rejecting worldly pleasures in favor of strict learning and hierarchy, there is something almost mocking in the tone. Knecht’s life could be (and is!) a great story. But something is lost, a little, with the academic tone. It doesn’t read like an awesome dystopian novel, but instead like a cumbersome biography.

For some people, I think, this could take away from the book. However, I didn’t think so. I enjoyed it and thought it was a bit of a clever commentary on academia, and it was interesting to read this cool story through the academic lens.

Rating: *****
Up Next: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Book #82: To Kill A Mockingbird

This marks, I believe, the third time I’ve read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

The first time, I was in seventh grade. I remember reading it for Mrs. Kraus’s Lit II class in the spring. That was the year that I was really angsty and obsessed with Pachelbel’s Canon in D. I can remember a specific weekend afternoon when sitting in the back of my parents’ van, listening to Pachelbel on my walkman and reading the part when Dill says he wants to marry Scout. Back then, the book felt very important, but I wasn’t sure why.

Eleven years later, on another weekend afternoon, I’m laying on the couch in my apartment, finishing the trial scene and well-aware of what’s going to happen next. The book feels very important, but I’m still not sure why.

I think it’s safe to say that if you went to high school in America, you’ve read (or at least heard of) To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s THE Great American coming-of-age story. In the racially-charged south, Scout grows up in a town dealing with racism and bigotry.

While Scout grows up, she, along with her brother Jem, learns that good people are still subject to evil things, and that things don’t always work out the way they’re “supposed to,” even if they are right, true, and just. It’s a complicated world that’s not as black-and-white as Scout and Jem think, and as they deal with the mystery of their neighbor Boo Radley and watch their father, Atticus, take on a racially-charged case, they become painfully aware of this.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a very, very beloved book. I know many people who’ve read it and loved it. Many of my English professors and classmates at school cited it as an important read during high school. I’ve felt that, too. The first time I read it, in seventh grade it seemed like the most important book in the world. The second time, in college, it also felt very important and meaningful.

This time, I tried to understand why this book is so important to so many people. Here’s the thing – I can’t figure out why. Generations of students have read and loved this book. But I don’t know why. It’s reasonably well-written, but not one of those books where the writing bowls you over and makes you want to quote everything. The plot is decent, but it’s not shocking and, while it deals with racism, that’s not a huge part of the story and, really, it’s just kids growing up. But somehow, this book means something to so many people, all over the world. Myself included.

If it wasn’t a book I loved so much, it would feel a little overrated. Scout’s innocence is touching, and the children’s righteous outrage at the unfair way the world works is touching, but To Kill A Mockingbird, in all honesty, isn’t that different from many other coming-of-age books. The difference, I think, is that we can all relate to those moments in childhood where real-life things, important things, don’t work out how they’re “supposed to.” It’s a heartbreaking part of growing up. Those of us who first read the book when we were young understood what Scout was going through. And now that we’re older, we can always take up the book again and, for an afternoon, feel that way again, even though by now, we know how the world works.

Maybe that’s why To Kill A Mockingbird is so important. Maybe that’s why we’ll keep making kids read it and keep going back to it.

Rating: ****
Up next: Austerlitz

Book #74: The Lover

Ah, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Yet another book that I have next to nothing to say about.

I’ve read reviews on Goodreads and other places, and it seems like a lot of people love it, but an equal amount of people didn’t really care for it or didn’t have much to say about it.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about it.

The basic plot is that a young French girl takes a much older Chinese lover while she and her family are living in Saigon. The story is told from the point of view of the girl as she reminisces about her adolescence and complex family life.

The girl’s life is restricted and controlled by her mother, and her dysfunctional family leaves much to be desired. Her lover is a well-off, established Chinese man whose family has strong connections. They start hooking up, and things (obviously) go awry.

The narrator’s voice is almost-disconcertingly removed. She describes events with arrow-sharp detail, while at the same time managing to make things very vague and unclear. She is distant and separate from the narrative, which is often disjointed.

This narrative style made it really hard to get a clear sense of what, exactly, was happening and hard to feel any sort of emotional investment in the story. I didn’t feel for the girl at all, and I didn’t really care what happened to anybody in the story.

In short, The Lover did absolutely nothing for me. At least now I know it’s behind me.

Rating: *
Up Next: LaBrava

 

Book #71: Regeneration

The first book of this set was Regeneration by Pat Barker. Regeneration is the first book in a series of novels dealing with the psychological effects of World War I.

It’s not your typical war story book. The brilliant young doctor W.H.R. Rivers is a psychiatrist at Craigslockhart War Hospital in England. There, he deals with many men suffering from shell shock and other mental injuries they got in the war. Prominent among them is Siegfried Sassoon, a real-life character, who does not have shell shock, but is strongly against the war, though he does not want to be “sacrificed” to the pacifist cause.

Other characters suffer from mutism, shell shock, amnesia, and other various forms of breakdown due to their participation in the war. In treating all of them, especially Sassoon, Rivers’ opinions about the war and whether or not it is justified are challenged.

Regeneration is a different war book, because it focuses on the home front. Instead of putting his characters in the trenches and showing off the horror of war, Barker has them fighting a different war inside their heads – a war caused by the war they were sent to fight.

Rivers, then, who hasn’t been to the front lines, arrives at the hospital only knowing what the newspapers and reports say of the war. He’s heard the war glorified and idealized and seen men return heroes, until he sees the men who have faced the horrors of war and not emerged mentally and emotionally unscathed.

From the man who can no longer eat because an explosion through him headfirst into the body of a corpse, where he got a mouthful of flesh, to the bipolar man who suffers from selective mutism, Rivers can no longer hide from the reality that the war is madness. Like Sassoon, he begins to wonder what, exactly, the war is being fought for and if it is really worth it.

The most interesting issue in Regeneration for me was the moral issue Sassoon faces. He doesn’t believe in the war. He’s not a pacifist and isn’t against violence – he’s just not sure that this particular war or this particular violence is worth it. He doesn’t think there’s a point to the war. However, though he doesn’t believe in the war, he also still feels a duty to take care of his men who are still in France. If he goes back, then, he will be a sane person knowingly returning to a completely insane war, which he doesn’t agree with.

The internal conflicts of all the characters in Regeneration are interesting, real, and often painful. Barker’s work reads a lot like a Catch-22 sort of novel, in that there is a war and it is insane, and it seems like nearly everyone fighting the war is also insane. It’s unique in that in this case, the actual fighting never appears in the book. Instead, there is a separate war – sanity against insanity – that comes to the forefront.

Rating:  ****
Up Next: The Driver’s Seat

Book #69: Crome Yellow

Crome Yellow is Aldous Huxley’s first novel. I don’t like to refer to writers like Huxley as “one hit wonders,” because all their stuff is generally pretty good. But when it comes to writers like Huxley who have one book that everyone’s heard of, it feels a little bit like that’s what they are. Huxley’s name is pretty synonymous with Brave New World, just like Orwell, who wrote many other great things, is pretty much only known for/associated with 1984. It’s different than, say, Austen or Dickens, who are known for pretty much every damn thing they ever wrote.

Anyway, I always like when I read a book by a “one hit wonder” author that isn’t that “one hit.” It’s almost like they hid a secret book from me that now I get to read. Like, imagine if J.K. Rowling had written an eighth Harry Potter book, published it quietly, and just waited. Just imagine.

Crome Yellow was a delightful read. It’s such a fun little book. Every character is a parody of some trope or stock character of the time. The main character is Denis, the pretentious would-be poet who can’t quite figure out just how to be a brilliant poet (or how to get the girl he likes to fall in love with him).

Denis visits the Wimbush home, a place known for its gatherings of brilliant young minds and artists. I read that it’s based off of the Garsington Manor, where Huxley, T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell, and other artistic minds used to hang out. Huxley playfully parodies the larger-than-life pretension and crazy characters that met there.

There’s Mr. Wimbush, the dull, brilliant-minded historian obsessed with ancestry and the history of the house. There’s Mrs Wimbush, the psychic-obsessed spiritualist who insists on holding seances. There are their daughters, one charming and flirtatious, the other reclusive and thoughtful. The Wimbushes’ guests include flamouyant libertines, literary “giants”, and many other “great minds.”

Denis, all the while, observes the visitors and the high-society, “literary” lifestyle and tries to blend in, adjust, and absorb the ridicule he receives from the others about his failures to write a romantic novel.

The parody and characters are what make the novel, but my favorite part of Crome Yellow was when Denis finds another character’s journal and reads it. At this point, the startled young man realizes that other people exist in the world, and that they have their own thoughts and opinions about everything – including him.

He is startled into a depression when he realizes he never thought that anybody besides him had intelligent thoughts of their own.

This is a funny thing that I think we all realize, forget, and realize again. It’s easy to forget that every other person you meet has his or her own thoughts, feelings, and opinions. They aren’t just the people you think they are. And you never know, they might think things about you, just like you think things about them.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Island of Doctor Moreau

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