09 July 2010

7. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth

I can't believe how long it has taken me to read anything Roth has written. I was so into Goodbye, Columbus that I immediately went to the library and took out Portnoy's Complaint and American Pastoral. And the hype was definitely worth it.

Portnoy's Complaint is actually a complaint: Alexander Portnoy ranting about his parents to his psychoanalyst. The whole book seems like a first meeting between therapist and patient.

And it is hilarious. I thought Goodbye, Columbus was funny, but that was nothing compared to this. At more than a few points I was actually laughing out loud, laughing so hard I had to put the book down and wipe my eyes.

Alex has grown up to be a successful lawyer working for NYC as a Commissioner of Equality, or something. But, he feels, this is not good enough for his parents. He feels trapped by their expectations of him. They have raised him to be a perfect gentleman, to be so nice, and kind, and polite, but whenever he exercises any free will, makes any decision of his own, they act like he is murdering them with his lack of gratitude. And there's his trap: he wants to be himSelf but he also wants to be a good son (mostly, it seems, to keep the bitching to a quiet minimum).

And mostly he expresses himself in two ways: whacking off (the title of the famous second chapter) and having sex. No woman is ever good enough, physically, socially, emotionally, or culturally (even when he goes to Israel), and so he winds up treating his girlfriends like his parents treat him: carping on them, insulting them, never letting any praise sink in long enough to be felt, if any is to be dished out in the first place.

The end left me a little unsatisfied; it ended kind of abruptly for me. But don't get me wrong, the journey was very satisfactory and I'm looking forward to American Pastoral.

06 July 2010

6. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

My first experience with Philip Roth, who I have been wanting to read for so long. I'm definitely headed to the library for some more, maybe Portnoy's Complaint, or American Pastoral.

Goodbye, Columbus is a novella about the summer love affair between Neil and Brenda. And as Neil tells us the story, we realize it's also a story about the different experiences of Jewish immigrants as they get more experience points in American culture.

Neil lives with his aunt, an immigrant who still leans on her Yiddish speech patterns and vocabulary. He is done with college and has also spent a year in the Army.

Brenda's family has been here a few generations, and they have assimilated into American culture and built a successful business manufacturing sinks. She is going to Radcliffe, the woman's college of Harvard (this I did not know).

And so we have the conflict of class. Brenda and Neil don't think of it that way, they just want to hang out and have fun. Brenda's mom doesn't quite like Neil in that he's-not-good-enough-for-my-daughter way. And Neil's aunt is suspicious of Brenda's family in/with a working-class snobbery kind of way.

The writing was great: Roth has a subtle use of detail that, like Dickens, makes you realize how awkward people, or certain situations, really are. And he's also very funny. I won't copy out any text, because out of context I think it would lose some of its rich flavor.

Goodbye, Columbus is one of Roth's early works, and it won the National Book Award in 1959. It's short, too, and you should be able to read the whole thing in those quiet hours you spend drinking coffee waiting for your wife to wake up.

04 July 2010

5. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

I heard so many great things about this book that even as I collected significant evidence to the contrary I finished it anyway. Beware, a SPOILER lurks below:

The plot/setting: Okonkwo is a great warrior and leader in his small African village. He thinks everyone around him is soft, especially his son. Unfortunately for him, he accidentally kills someone on a high festival day and so must be exiled for seven years. In this seven year absence Christian missionaries come and ingratiate themselves to the villagers. When he returns Okonkwo realizes that things have changed too much, that things have fallen apart, that the old traditions and cultural rules are lost forever. So what does this fearless warrior do? He hangs himself from a tree behind his hut. Lame!

The story sucked. The writing was very average. I suspect (white) college undergraduates who feel bad about European colonialism in Africa and the slave trade have given this book way too much credit as a means of appeasing their pointless, guilty feelings.

4. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

You've read this gem, too, I'm sure.

3. Hard Times by Charles Dickens

I have a lot of catching up to do! I'm way behind and plan to spend some time during this very busy week getting current.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens was a great book! Dickens uses this book and its characters to satirize Utilitarianism and capitalism's naked pursuit of profit no matter what. There's also a certain whiff of criticism about government looking after business concerns before or rather than the people.

And there's a great quote in there that I think a lot of successful North Americans carry around as their general philosophy on life: if I can do it, then so can you. Unfortunately, as you already realize, a lot of being successful is based on chance, luck, racism, and timing.

"This, again, was among the fictions of Coketown. Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it?"

Great characters; great writing.

10 March 2010

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

This was a very difficult book to read, particularly in the beginning. It clocks in at 350,000 words and 770 pages, with 79! characters. The first 100 pages took me about a week. I do have to say, though, that it was very good. And the climax was a very fast read, say, pages 600-750 went by in a quick clip.

But what's it about, Redwing, you ask me. Well, it's Dickens, so it's about a bunch of stuff.

There are two main plots here, and a lot of smaller eddies.

First, we have the legal case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. This is a case between two friendly brothers who, in their best effort to be fair to each other, have asked the Court to determine a question about their father's Will. Countless years and 70,000 pounds later, the case is still undecided. The original brothers have died, and now their heirs are awaiting judgment, even though it hardly matters anymore.

Second we have the story of our...wait for it...orphaned narrator, Esther. I won't say much about her story because to say anything would be to spoil the many discoveries you know Dickens has laid before you. Of course, the two narratives are intertwined - Esther is the ward of John Jarndyce.

There is some really spectacular writing here; Dickens is a master craftsman.

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

And there are some really great characters. None as good as, say, The Artful Dodger, or Fagin. But some very close. I loved the policeman, "Bucket of the Detective," the character who does the most to weave together all of the loose strands of Dickens's narrative. Dickens has a way of putting character details just so, so you see the character as if he was walking across the room you're sitting in. He's a genius.

09 February 2010

1. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

My second Dickens novel! I have read Tale of Two Cities a couple of times now, and have taught it once (you really get the feel of a book's structure after teaching it. I highly recommend it!). But while I had never read OT, I was kind of familiar with the story.

Here were my expectations: an orphan asks for more porridge, he gets kicked out of the orphanage, and he is impressed (in the Navy way) into a band of thieves.

What I got was much, much more.

Young Oliver is born in a work house, not an orphanage. And he does ask for more of the thin gruel the boys are barely fed in order to keep them barely alive. And he is kicked out and sent to work for a coffin maker. But even there he is met with more cruelty and abuse, and so he runs away to London. On the way to London he meets Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger himself, pickpocket extraordinaire, who takes him back to what I would call the Thieves Guild. And here is where the real narrative begins, with all its Dickensian twists and turns.

For the gamer, you have a great book for research on pickpockets and rogues of all kinds, especially Fagin, the evil, manipulative, and exploitive Guild Master. You get descriptions of the seedy side of the city: thieves hideouts, great pubs, and the back alleys of a grand urban area. And there are quite a few bad guys in here for any kind of campaign: Sikes, Fagin, Monks, and Noah Claypole.

For the English teacher you get essentially three kinds of narrative twisted into one challah of a story (and I am borrowing heavily from the essay by Janet Larson in my Norton anthology, because she puts it so succinctly): basically, OT is three parables. The first is the story of the triumph of good over evil, that Virtue will be rewarded and Vice will be punished. This is true of many of CD's novels. Second, we have a long-running parable of the Good Samaritan. Dickens uses this to demonstrate to his readers that there is a big gap between saying you're a Christian and acting like a Christian. And finally, the critique of social conditions. Dickens showing just how deplorable the conditions of the workhouses are and the absolute misery and hopelessness of 19th century poverty.