Tag Archives: books

“Mother, dear, don’t fuss over me . . .”

Almost one hundred years ago, this was the young Englishman’s declaration of independence from The Mater:

I don’t really want to have my bed choked with hot-water bottles whenever I sneeze, and be given whiskies and lemon last thing; or to have my suits forever reft away to be cleaned, and all that. If I want a whisky I can ask the butler for it . . .”

Ann Bridge, Illyrian Spring (1935)

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“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini

“When we know all of whatever it may be, we can never do anything but forgive, madame. That is the profoundest religious truth that was ever written.”

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BOOK? . . . Scaramouche, by Rafael Sabatini (1921)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Historical fiction, Adventure, Romance

ABOUT WHAT? . . . The French Revolution, what else? Andre-Louis Moreau (aka Scaramouche) is the kind of hero that silent movies were made about in Hollywood in the 1920’s. (That was even before the word “movie” was coined—they were called “photoplays” at that time.) There are also villains, swordplay, and beautiful damsels. There is rapier-like wit on the part of Scaramouche himself (he’s really a very clever guy), and his tongue keeps getting him in trouble in situations that would probably blow over if he held his tongue. He’s not the kind of guy to hold his tongue, though, or to make nice to bad guys just to avoid bloodshed. Hence, a very exciting, romantic novel written in stunning prose by Sabatini, who was only half English and spoke several other languages.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Nothing deep or significant, except that it does a good job of describing some of the chronology of the French Revolution and the complexity of the class struggle, from maybe a little more conservative point of view than we normally see.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yeah, it’s very well written and conceived, the plot is twisty and tangly.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . It would be weird if the novel was translated into French: a French translation of an English novel about the French Revolution?

Truth is “Stranger” than . . .

Albert Camus, gagnant de prix Nobel, portrait en buste, posé au bureau, faisant face à gauche, cigarette de tabagisme.jpg

It may sound like the LAST thing you’d want to read right now, but in a weird way it could be the feel-good novel of the year. The Plague, by Albert Camus, is the story of a major city under siege by a deadly virus. Set in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940’s, it’s a graphic portrayal of a city suddenly infested with Bubonic Plague, strictly quarantined and cut off from the rest of the world. With little outside help, the city and its stunned residents must cope with the unreality of their situation alongside its very real threat to their lives. With contagion and corpses around every corner, the moral fiber of the populace is tested to its limits.

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As in all his major writings, Camus questions the fundamental nature of life and death. As hard as it is to define those questions, the answers are even more elusive. But The Plague is a beautiful, yes beautiful, frightening and inspiring study of human nature in all its imperfection. And while we all want to escape, somehow, from the sadness and fear that right now bombard us from every direction, perhaps a deep dark look into the mirror of literary fiction is a truer escape, one that might comfort us longer and reflect a bit of light upon our path.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Plutocrat, by Booth Tarkington

” Upon the wine list the General discovered a red Beaune, a dear lost love of his, he said—and not only said, but copiously proved by wearing his lost love’s colours, ere long, as his own complexion.”

BOOK? . . . The Plutocrat, by Booth Tarkington (1927)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance, but tempered somewhat by a jaded irony

ABOUT WHAT? . . . A 1920’s Atlantic Ocean voyage and North Africa land tour embarked upon by a young playwright named Laurence Ogle (I had a high school math teacher named Miss Ogle. Probably doesn’t mean anything). Well, for Laurence Ogle, this is a case of first love. They are barely out of U.S. waters before he is unwittingly smitten by a co-voyager, a Frenchwoman roughly a decade beyond his years, but what young man cannot relate to Ogle’s puppy-like helplessness, to the torment, the humiliation, the splendor of his infatuation? Ogle is not a simple character but, seeing only her loveliness, he discovers much more complexity in Madame Momoro’s nature than he is equipped to understand. The most obvious obstacle for Ogle is the gregarious Mr. Tinker, who seems to be everywhere that he, and Madame Momoro, happen to be. A ship can be like a prison when there is a ruggedly-handsome Midwestern plutocrat on board who can’t be avoided. Even North Africa can feel pretty small.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . This book illustrates the difference between realism and romance. Not in literature. In life. Guess which one wins in the end. And guess what the book is really saying about class distinctions in America. And guess how many reversals of fortune you will encounter in its pages. And guess what mysteries will be presented and puzzled over. And guess how many other things you will see in the characters and the plot that I did not see.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uh-huh. Very funny, in parts, but that’s just the icing on the cake. There is sophistication, artistry and astuteness. The Plutocrat is a mislaid American gem of a novel, obscured and overshadowed by Tarkington’s other books only because it is not of very epic proportions. But you don’t find writing like this every day. Hardly ever, nowadays.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . I’m gonna get me some more books by this fella Tarkington because I probably shouldn’t even be writing little Two-bit reviews until I make sure I know what I’m talking about.

Sisterhood

Two fine feminist novels from two of the Bronte sisters. Both novels extraordinarily ahead of their time and written with that Bronte elegance of prose that is practically unmatched. And both novels relatively unknown, or at least unappreciated. And my reading both of them within a six month window (and usually within six feet of a window) was unplanned and unexpected. But I am quite unsorry.

Shirley was the novel that Charlotte Bronte (I don’t have those two little dots) published next after Jane Eyre. Naturally Shirley was a bit overshadowed by her older “sister”. And she was a less romantic novel, and less cohesive and way less compelling. Well, Charlotte had just lost a brother and two sisters to illness, which should account for some shortcomings in her written work product. But Shirley was, I think, a more feminist novel than Jane, which is saying something. Shirley, the title character, was a strong-willed independent and outspoken woman. Caroline was her friend, and Caroline was quiet and cautious. But not a pushover. They shared a romantic interest, Robert. Guess which one won. I’m not telling. You have to read the book. That’s not a heavy burden, it’s a beautiful novel, with plenty of themes besides feminism: friendship, love, political and economic struggle, human decency. It deserves to have the Bronte name on it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was one of Anne Bronte’s novels (Anne was the youngest sister), and the title character could possibly be called the Mother of Modern Feminism. I don’t have the historical facts to back that up, that’s just my gut feeling about how amazing this book was for its time. The reason I got the book from the library is that my sister and brother-in-law loaned us a DVD of the movie and I wanted to read the book first. We haven’t watched the movie yet. Maybe Thursday. Anyway, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should have made Anne just as famous as her sisters, but it didn’t. It has romance, but that’s not the main thrust of it. It’s really a social and psychological study of three characters, this time two men and one woman. The romance isn’t triangle shaped, it’s a line. Helen, the woman in the middle, is the Tenant. And, though she doesn’t know it, for my money she’s a heroic feminist of the first order. The reason she doesn’t know it is that she’s too busy dealing with the Victorian male chauvinist system and a husband whose character was inspired by the dissolute life and death of Branwell Bronte, Charlotte and Anne’s only brother.

I haven’t mentioned Emily. I read her book in college. Even though this little essay doesn’t give equal time to her book, I don’t think we have to feel too sad about where she stands in the halls of literature. She’s right up there with her sisters.

An Intimate Journey

In social situations, I often see myself as the last planet in our solar system. Like the theoretical Planet X, I revolve around the periphery, I take longer than anyone else to get around, and, even if I’m part of their system, no one else knows for certain whether I exist.

It takes three things to make a good memoir: interesting life experiences, deep insight (see above excerpt), and the ability to narrate with eloquence and honesty. In They Only Eat Their Husbands (a reference to a certain species of spider), Cara Lopez Lee gives us all three ingredients of great memoir.

Her early life, marked by parental neglect, abuse and abandonment, was one that few individuals could come through unscathed. In a sense, the memoir had to be written, if for no other reason then for the cathartic relief of getting all that hurt from childhood out and onto a printed page. But Cara Lopez Lee writes her story with such insight, eloquence and honesty that the finished product is a work of art, as well as a brilliant statement about life and love. There is humor in her writing (note the title), there is keen imagery. And ultimately this personal narrative, by an accomplished world-traveling journalist, author and editor, gives us an overriding truth. It’s the truth we need to know about confronting emotional pain and building strength of character upon it. And then getting to the part of life that brings satisfaction and self-acceptance.

WHITE BIRD, by RUTA SEVO

“It’s an adventure you haven’t had yet, Thomas. Sit.”

Thomas smiled. He was thinking of his dog Sally.

For a long time I’ve had a fascination with westerners who expatriate themselves to remote places in the Asian Subcontinent. The way they make full and rich lives for themselves, steeped in eastern tradition, and yet often accomplish great things for the welfare of the local inhabitants, somehow intrigues me. I’ve heard some pretty amazing stories. Well, here’s a pretty amazing book:

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In her novel White Bird, writer-scholar-translator Ruta Sevo skillfully explores the unusual demographics of present-day Nepal and the clash of cultures that confronts an American visitor and raises some very fundamental questions about what life is, or ought to be, all about. Thomas Rusak, the American, has come to Nepal with his brother’s ashes in search of the most meaningful spot for scattering them to the wind and rain. This mission turns, necessarily, into a search for his brother’s mysterious past in Nepal, a past that Thomas feels he must unearth in order to finally understand his brother and the lifelong complexities of their relationship. And Thomas cannot open up that past without intruding intimately into the lives of two extraordinary women.

As it turns out, Sevo tells this story with such pungent detail, such a “sensory onslaught” of Nepali life and landscapes, that it becomes more than just a story about individuals. It becomes a story about cultures. It becomes the equally mysterious search for the essence of that great magnetic pull that eastern philosophies have over westerners, who sometimes chuck it all for the rustic spiritual life in places like Nepal. Thus, White Bird is a dazzling, swooping mystery that lifts itself to different altitudes. Like all good mysteries, there may be answers for every question on one level, but ten questions for every answer on another.

Trees and books

Books are made from trees. . .

It is nice to read a book under a tree. . .

There are many good books about trees. . .

This tree (giant Australian Fig on Exposition Blvd near California Science Center) was big enough to overlook the L.A. Times Festival of Books on Saturday and Sunday. . .

It just didn’t seem necessary

I started reading a book by Walter Mosley, whom I had heard about and never read. I liked the style, I liked the dialect, I liked the way he develops his characters. But then a few chapters in, I got turned off—by gratuitous obscenity. By which I mean graphic sexual description or language. And I’m not talking about realistic dialogue by characters who simply use obscene words habitually in their speech. These were sexual episodes described in some detail. It wasn’t the worst I ever read, but it didn’t seem necessary to the plot. Perhaps it was, I’ll never know. But it seemed, in the context of the story, to be thrown in as pure embellishment. For no legitimate reason related to the book as a work of art.

I’ve cast away books by other great writers for the same reason: Philip Roth, John Updike, Martin Amis. Books that are probably terrific but, to me, are spoiled by stuff that seems out of place and purely prurient. It’s unfortunate, it makes me disappointed, whether in those writers or in me I’m not sure.

This is unlike Henry Miller, where sex is graphic and constant, but is treated in a matter-of-fact way without any highlighting and is absolutely essential to the plot, to understanding the character himself. The joys and hard realities of life (including sex, and other primal needs) are what his books are about.

And there are plenty of great writers who manage to tell fine stories without obscenity thrown in simply as a spice. If sex is germane, they manage to tell us all we need, or want, to know in artful ways. Those books I do not put aside. I get to read them to the end.

Three Billboards

It was violent. It was about violence. That’s why. And to me Three Billboards is probably the best movie since Crash.

I’m reading Song of Solomon (my daughter recommended it), and here’s something Toni Morrison said about anger, through one of her characters:

“Listen, baby, people do funny things. Specially us. The cards are stacked against us and just trying to stay in the game, stay alive and in the game, makes us do funny things. Things we can’t help. Things that make us hurt one another. We don’t even know why. But look here, don’t carry it inside and don’t give it to nobody else.”

I think the whole country needs Anger Management. I think it should be a required class in high school.

Follow-up to preceding post re: The Help

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”

He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.

I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.

Book, film, life

Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.

I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.

I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.

It just isn’t the same.

We were visiting the Seattle Public Library recently and walking down its amazing Spiral of Books, and it made me try to think deeper about what our society is doing to our children and grandchildren. If you are a parent, are you raising your children to read and write primarily on paper? Are you limiting their use of electronic devices, making such implements secondary to books and handwriting? Every year and every time a new thought-controlling device is unloaded upon the public, it gets harder for old-schoolers like me to sit back and not start ranting about Big Brother and Fahrenheit 451.

I don’t want to get overly schmaltzy, but books have dignity, identity. That book sits or, more correctly, stands on your shelf. It stands for something. The voice of its author is undying, and is ready and waiting to tell its story to a new audience. How many other readers have touched that book? How many times has that book returned the favor?

A book can lie on your desk, open to an important page. You can write your name in it and pass it along to family, friends. Give it as a gift. You can run your finger down a page. Feel the paper. Books and paper might be our most noble invention. And one of our highest art forms. A book is a permanent record, an original document. It is evidence. It cannot be clicked away, can’t be deleted, cannot be powered-off.

Toddlers everywhere are delighted when picture or story books are put in their little hands. They also delight in anything electronic, with buttons to push. That’s what worries me.

Learning about love in Alexandria

“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.” 

I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.

Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.

Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.

I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.

Comparative Lit on the brain

Comparative European Lit 101. We all took at least one course in college with a name something like that. But there was always, in the back of my head, a small nagging question: Why do we compare literature? We read it, we enjoy it, we try to understand it. But compare it?

But now as I think about it, I realize that the only way to completely understand books is to analyze the history, culture, language, and personalities that go into them. Besides influencing one another, writers change society, and society returns the favor.

And I find myself, probably more and more as time goes on, doing comparative lit in my head. Spontaneously. Even obsessively. I compare genres, I compare authors, I compare centuries, eras, hemispheres? I need to know where the books I read fit into the world. It means something. It’s important.

But sometimes (oftentimes, really), my mind comes up with pretty goofy groups of books or writers that, for some crazy reason and certainly out of abject ignorance, it wants to read and compare. The silly thing is that these books have no valid reason for being grouped together and being compared. But the surprising thing is that, once in a while, the comparisons turn out to be quite apt.

Well, this is embarrassing, but it won’t be clear unless I give you examples:

Group A: Room at the Top;  Dark at the Top of the Stairs

 

Group B: Lost Horizon;  Teahouse of the August Moon;  The Ugly American

 

Group C: To Have and to Hold;  To Have and Have Not

 

Group D: Samuel Johnson;  Samuel Richardson;  Samuel Butler

 

Group E: The Power and the Glory;  The Sound and the Fury

 

Group F: Rebecca West;  Nathanael West;  Jessamyn West

 

Group G: Thomas Wolfe;  Tom Wolfe;  Tobias Wolff

 

You get the picture. . . Silly, huh? So what I wonder is: am I the only one who makes up these odd, goofy groupings of famous books or authors? If not, I’d be curious to hear the groups that other readers have put together in their own heads. It may be a whole new discipline in the mysterious field of comparative lit.

Books about people who like books

I’m finding, more and more often, that the books I’m reading lead me to other books, by the power of suggestion.  For example, I read Cast a Giant Shadow by Ted Berkman, the biography of Mickey Marcus.  Mickey’s favorite book was The Green Hat (Michael Arlen), which by coincidence was already on my future reading list because I had come across it while browsing at the library.  So I knew I had to read it, and I have to agree with Mickey that it is indeed a literary gem.

If you need suggestions for late 19th century or early 20th century fiction, read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.  The book is very autobiographical, and the young protagonist and other characters spend a fair amount of time mentioning the books they read.  They were quite prolific.  In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell’s persona works in English book “sellers”, and he expresses a great many opinions about the particular books, both good and bad, that customers ask for.  Some of the “good” ones I’ve added to my future reading list.  OK, a few of the “bad” ones, too.

Right now I’m reading The 42nd Parallel by John Dos Passos (a pretty amazing book).  One of his main characters read Romola, by George Eliot.  She’s one of my favorite authors, so Romola has moved way up on my reading list.

If anyone has any other examples of books leading to other books by the power of suggestion, I would love to hear about them.  Thanks!