This is one of those stories that appeals to the intellect, an exercise in cleverness, of which I am rarely very fond. In the case of this book, the writing moves forward in terms of instinct, and one page will often contradict the next; polar bears speak and read when convenient, don’t when not. The reader is not supposed to care about any of this due to the value of it all. Or something of the sort. There are moments of wry enjoyment, as when the panda in the third section ridicules Knut for speaking of himself in the third person. Knut’s is the most pleasing part of the book to me, given that there is some attempt to write about character and a hint of narrative takes place. There is the showy stuff in which the writer comments on the writing through the device of having the characters write their autobiographies which turn out to be what we are reading, ta dah! The word boredom occurs quite often in the novel, never a good sign. The polar bears feel like Disney animatronics. The result is stultifying. Why should I feel any need to interpret a novel that is bored with being a novel? This kind of surreality compares so poorly with a novel like The Intuitionist, for instance, in which the merging of real and unreal works so well.
This is the most recent reading project I have undertaken, having heard that Jane Austen admired this novel; it is a late 18th century novel about the inevitable young woman of immense virtue, beauty, and wealth, and the extraordinary lengths to which she must go in order to marry as she chooses. Her uncle, who left her a fortune, made the money contingent on her husband taking her surname; the man she comes to love has an obdurate father who will not consider such a possibility. The book is a phenomenally good read in spite of a couple of quirks brought about by the style of fiction written in the era. Burney’s best passages are her comic sequences; the conversational passages that include the tradesmen and lower class folks are wonderful and funny. The funniest sequence is the slapstick-worthy episode surrounding Cecilia’s first attempt to marry her beau in secret. On the way, in secret, to the wedding, she encounters nearly everyone she knows in London. The wedding does not work out, of course; Burney has a heavy-handed touch with plot, throwing up obstacle after obstacle to nearly every move Cecilia makes during the course of the novel. The result is is a potboiler at high steam; occasionally the pot boils over, however. I was forced to skim some of the higher emotional passages where the lovers part forever with long, intense speeches praising one another’s virtue. And the last hundred pages (of nine hundred or more) were almost unendurable as Burney repeats much of what she has already done in terms of overripe speech and plot. She wrings out the last drop of sentiment and melodrama from the conclusion. Nevertheless the novel is worthy and the satirical dialogs (Lady Honoria wins the championship) are acidic. She had a great ear for comic speech, did Burney. One has to wonder if the higher-flown passages of conversation are in any way an accurate depiction of the way people spoke to one another. I am glad to have read the book and might essay another of Burney’s novels in time.
Have been watching the various Oxford detectives on Masterpiece because it is very difficult to find television that is not cringeworthy within minutes. Murder mysteries are at least reliable. The BBC versions of detectives have the virtue of wonderful accents, which elevates the massive amount of exposition the poor actors are challenged to enliven. They are also quite long, ninety minutes or so, which slows down consumption. I am making my way through the Inspector Morse spinoffs, Lewis and Endeavour; it’s hard to find the original Inspector Morse series without having to pay for it by the episode. I’m not that desperate yet. Have come to the conclusion that Oxford town and university are the most dangerous places on earth. Constant murders in the schools, in the pretty parks, in the lovely houses, usually in sets of two or three. It’s amazing that no one in town ever talks about the crime rate. “Hello, Inspector Lewis, and who’s dead today? You don’t say! Another Oxford student. Another Oxford tutor. Another past Oxford student. Another visitor to Oxford.” People are dropping like flies there. And apparently have been doing so for decades. Horrible conspiracies of hidden posh-types to bugger this and that and then slaughter it for a whole assortment of reasons. Revenge, infidelity, poor grammar, failure to know Shakespeare well enough. It’s worse than the pandemic. (Well, not actually. But I need to release some bile.) My advice to everyone is, don’t apply to Oxford, don’t study there, don’t visit the city; in fact, don’t even say the word. You are likely to die horribly. Often by means of a blunt blow to the back of the head. But on the positive side, if you do expire in that wonderfully picturesque city, your murder will be solved by very witty people who like to listen to opera.
I read this book when I was in college and recently picked it up again to reread. No fear that the book would hold up; it’s one of the six great books of Chinese literature, a set of classics that have been taught for generations. There’s really nothing else I’ve read that compares to it in terms of subject or style. This is an hilarious depiction of snobbery, academia, and pretension; also of sincerity, generosity, and humanity. The whole of the Chinese world falls into these pages. Well, that sentence sounds a bit pretentious, since I don’t know the whole of China; but the book is exhaustive and convincing in its depiction of every sort of daily life from the era. The structure of it is intricate and unusual; it’s described as being more like a collection of stories than a novel, but the real structure is more complicated than that. We meet a character, follow his life through a problem, maybe for an extended period of time, and then something happens – often a meal, a drinking session, a feast, a poetry-writing contest – and a new character enters. There is a kind of fadeout of the old episode and then we follow the new character. As though as readers we are meandering through the world ourselves. The world itself is fascinating. In every context there is a means of reinforcing the social hierarchy; at dinner parties, for instance, the guests sit in ranked positions. There are constant discussions of who should bow and who should not. Characters exist in terms of family obligations, friendships, social position, and debts. And food. There is so much food. After three days of reading I’m starved for pork dumplings. This is the kind of writing that Isak Dinesan refers to as “tale” rather than modern story; the inner lives of the characters are absent except for occasional glimpses. The story is driven by events, by the plain outline of what happens, and in this way covers an enormous territory. It falters in the last third in my opinion; the episodes become less certain and more muddled. But it is a magnificent book. This particular edition has gorgeous woodcut illustrations in it depicting the various scenes. A treasure.
The book is better than my rating of it for at least a third of its length, so much better that I ought to rate it higher; but the two-thirds that are not better make the rating fair, I think. This is the close of the Mars trilogy, and I put off reading it for a while because so much of the second book made me tired through its sheer, dogged plodding. Page after page of extremely detailed traveling over Mars in one kind of conveyance or another. Very readable in a small sample, and utterly convincing, but by the third volume I felt as if I’d driven around Mars for a century myself. But the positives of the third book are really wonderful. This is the gentlest, least plot-driven of the books, and what made me love it (when I loved it) was the author’s rhapsodies on science. Even more than the story of Mars this book (and its predecessors) are a hymn to science. The character Sax is such a concoction, his head full of etymologies, formulae, theories, constant cogitation. A dozen of him could solve any problem. And this is what happens, really. Science and reason have their way on Mars in a nearly utopian fashion. The story is about how some of us sometimes can get it right by means of science and technology. It is hard to make this kind of story happen. The writer who can pull it off is very great. And this book pulls off such a remarkable ending. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy that the two antagonists finally come to terms with each other. But it’s what I wanted to happen. So here is this book that I had to slog through for page after page because it had somehow captured a smaller, more rhapsodic novel inside its bulk. The ferreting out of the good here was altogether worth it. But this is a book that I could never, ever reread. Really needed a sense of when enough Martian geography was enough.
A phenomenal short story collection by a writer whom I have admired and read with respect and admiration since I first encountered him. Randall Kenan died a couple of days ago, after publishing a new book of stories that I have not read yet. But reviewing this book feels like a way to find some solace in his passing. Randall’s writing was exquisite; the world of his stories is beautiful; the last story in this volume is a transcendent piece of short fiction. He was a child of eastern North Carolina, as I am. As a writer he reminded me of Toni Morrison and Faulkner, though Faulkner is someone of whom I am not so fond any more. Maybe also of Nordan in the way his writing blends reality and extra-reality. He will be greatly missed. But his work will always be with us.
This is one of the essential books in the world of gender fluidity, published long before the current discussions of transgender issues, carving out a space unique to itself, a pure piece of fury at times, a heartwrenching search for the truth about one person’s self. The range between man and woman is a spectrum, not a pole of opposites. The story that Feinberg tells begins in the 50s and carries itself forward into the ensuing decades as protagonist Jess Goldberg makes her decision to live as a man. The decision proves to be earthshaking. This is the way bars felt in the sixties and later, whether they catered to men or women or the space between. A time when a woman could be “she” and “he” in the same day, switching back and forth as often as conversation or circumstance dictated. (The same was true of men but that’s not what this book is about.) The writing is straight out of the furnace of Feinberg’s being, and there are only a few books I have ever read that accomplish that feat.
Picked this one because someone recommended it and really, at this point, desperate for stuff to watch. Roommate is very picky but did not veto. I spent the first hour counting the tropes and predicting the next line of dialog, with a pretty good average. You always know what’s coming next in this kind of movie. The men have something to prove in every scene. They’re mavericks, they don’t take orders, do things their way, blah blah blah. We’d all be better off if somebody could figure out how to make a good movie about men who play by the rules. But that’s not really the American image. Giggled at Matt Damon’s accent, howled at Christian Bales’s. For a while all I could do was watch them make the accents and be pleased with themselves because they nailed it. The smugness of celebrity. The actress playing Bales’s wife was great because I had never seen her before, mostly. She had nothing to do but wifey stuff except for the wild driving scene which was her Moment. Everything was stock and cardboard. Nevertheless I finally slid into the story when the evil corporate type did what evil corporate types always do. My reaction was so predictable. But it was pleasant enough. Once the story kicked in, the acting no longer appeared so thin. Nice to watch Ray McKinnon but how couldn’t somebody figure out how to do a different turn with the wise old redneck? Roommate said, I wish that guy (Damon) would stop chewing gum so hard. Her only comment. Would not give it any stars. Roommate played Hay Day while she watched, and I thought about what to do with the book I’m working on, and the movie did what it did, and it ended with some tears, of course, and a heartwarming boy on a bicycle. We have now made so many movies (as a people; I haven’t made any myself) that they all recycle the same old stuff because there’s no choice. Especially this kind of movie, which depends on famous faces to carry it. Famous faces are so tired. The only way this movie could have been more mediocre was if Tom Cruise had played the race driver, which was the plan. This movie belongs to the category Wall of White Men Who Do It All. Unmake this film if possible, and the world will be less crappy.
This book is not at all well known but fascinated me when I ran across it, in the course of doing research for a novel about New Orleans. It is the published journal of a woman who lived in the city in the years after she was ruined by marrying a man who already had a wife, unbeknownst to her. She realizes that she is lost to polite society and makes a compromise that she finds liveable: she becomes the mistress of a married man who buys a house for her. She sets about living in her house and creating a life for herself. Gardening, attending church, hearing sermons in which women who live as she does are condemned, but nevertheless continuing to attend church because her beliefs were important to her. Her journaling is readable and moving for its revelation of her quiet courage. She realizes that she has compromised herself but understands that she has little other option. Her love for her protector is marred by his eventual lack of interest. When he breaks off their relationship and attempts to reclaim the house, she sues him to prove that the house was given to her as a gift, wins her lawsuit, and eventually leaves New Orleans to live in California. The whole story is poignant, and her strength of character quietly underlies the diary entries. I give the book four stars because of the importance of this woman’s story. She is a kind of woman who is not often represented in the fiction of the time except in terms of her destruction, her fall. Madaline never accepts that her morality is identifiable with the ostracism which she suffers. Neither does she pretend that she is perfect, or create a victim of herself. She is a study in strength and resilience.