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.