Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Beginnings of Lists

Three is a start, although I am apparently missing the point of a top ten list. "What's on that top ten list?" "Oh, you know, just my unranked three."

But it's my blog and I can fail to live up to my own expectations if I want to.

So, three to start:

1. Darcy and Elizabeth, Pride and Predjudice

Like, duh! Sure, Colin Firth's smoldering sexpot eyes in the BBC adaptation helped this romance leap into the hearts and VCRs of women worldwide. Still, the romance has a merit of its own.

It's easy to forget that in the book the outcome seems uncertain because the D/E courtship certainly helped establish the romantic comedy genre of "hate at first sight, then fall in love later but only after some serious issues and the guy totally comes back and gets the girl so she doesn't seem too undignified, but then she totally apologizes for thinking he was a brute or a snob or whatever his deal is when it turns out he is sensitive and so much fun all the time."

The genre has made our expectations of eventual reconciliation and romance somewhat less than suspenseful, but in the novel it's not that simple and Darcy and Elizabeth overcome some genuinely difficult differences to establish their luuuuuvvvvv. They hate each other. Darcy does a genuinely uncharitable, (and, to Elizabeth -very bad) thing, and then they
both change - independently, but because of what they've confronted because of the other.

Which, as I re-read this, makes it seem so pragmatic and mature. There are sparks. Big sparks. Don't believe me? Have seven hours to spare? I have a BBC mini-series that will put your bloomers in a bunch.

And, ha! I am out of writing time! So there is just ONE!

Here are some more as memory creaks into gear.

2. Oliver and Susan, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
3. Gabriel/Gretta/Michael, "The Dead" in Dubliners
4. Jack Burden and Anne Stanton, All The King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

I didn't say they had to be happy.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

First Countdown! How exciting!

First countdown: 10 Best Literary Romances.

I am not going to write the top ten list right now, because I have to think about it for a little bit and get my horrible memory into gear. I do have a horrible memory - to be honest, that's one of the reasons I've started this blog. I find these days that I can't remember the endings to books I read, or even important plot points in some of them. I get nervous about this. Very nervous. Nervous enough to start a blog to remind me of what I've read.

I do not know a lot about memory, but in my unscientific conception of its operation, I've always sort of assumed that one had a set amount and cramming in new knowledge pushed out older knowledge, or just things that your brain currently wasn't using. This is probably absolutely wrong. I may have read somewhere that it is wrong, but, well, I can't remember. I've read a lot of books in my lifetime, so it's probably totally normal that I don't have complete recall of them, but I wish I did.

If you are reading, though - please start proffering candidates for the top ten list. And this need not be an academic endeavor - sure, Romeo and Juliet are practically a genre within themselves, but that doesn't mean they have to make the list. A good argument as to why they shouldn't make it is just as interesting.

One argument to that effect might be that Romeo was a total narcissist just looking for some drama and lovin. At the beginning of the play he's pining after Rosalie. Rosalie! She didn't go for him and she turned out just fine. Two kids, a house in Winnetka, and uninspiring marriage to a perfectly nice project manager at Montague Mortgage Financing. They're happy, though. Lately they've been learning to play tennis together. She owns a store where you paint ceramic mugs and plates. And when you bring up the subject of Romeo...well, she's glad she didn't go there.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Books Like Sports

If you watch sports shows, and sometimes I do, when I am at bars, you may have also noticed that a hallmark of any good sports show is the countdown: best last-minute touchdowns, worst (and thereby the best) sports blunders, top ten plays of the night, etc etc. These are fun lists for multiple reasons. One, because they come with a video highlight. Two, because they are the fruit of many a good conversation: why did such and such get #1 when everyone knows blah blah blah got it. The third reason the lists are good would be something like "it helps reinforce our collective memory of important moments in sports history." This reason would be valid if I could have used an example instead of saying "such and such" and "blah blah blah."

Why don't we talk about books the way we talk about sports? Probably because book people think any list is reductive. Or, when a list DOES come out, like the Modern Library's list of the best 100 books of the twentieth century, everyone gets upset because that list is seems to miss out on the point of books, which is that each one can hold especial importance to us regardless of certain literary features or merit. People also get upset because no one has ever read Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowery.

I propose this: let's be stupid and make some lists. And then let's argue about them over beers. But not cool beers. Crap beers like Miller Lite. And let's wear a lot of merchandise that displays our loyalty. Instead of a Cubs t-shirt that says something like "The Cardinals take it in their Pujols" we can wear jerseys that support Austen and slam Bronte. Like "Your crazy wife has a purple face." SLAM! Take that Bronte.

Next post: some countdown ideas.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Oracle Bone

This is an Oracle Bone, a tool of divination used by emperors during the Shang dynasty in China. They would heat turtle shells or ox scapula until it cracked and diviners would read the cracks to answer the emperor's queries. Later, the question, and perhaps the answer, would be inscribed on the bone. There is something poetic and ominous in the queries and answers - Hessler cites the following common phrase: In the next ten days there will be no disaster.

Divining China's Future From Its Past

Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler

If you're familiar with my previous blog effort (Summer '04 - remember when?) you know that I went to China. The trip to China got me very interested in China, because, frankly, I knew almost nothing about it. I remembered learning a little bit about it in freshman and sophmore year world history courses but I knew almost nothing about the country's absolutely fascinating modern history.

So, I've started reading a lot about China. When I am not reading fiction, I am probably reading non-fiction about China. I don't know why. I may never live there. I feel like I'm the equivalent of the 18th/19th century Brit who just couldn't get enough American travelogues, deToqueville, etc. "My goodness, as a consequence of democracy their manners are frightfully informal! Ahem! More Tea!" It's armchair sociology - trying to match up current behaviors and trends to historic or cultural origins. With China, everyone has a field day doing this, because China is really just entering the modern era, like, right now and it's so compelling to trace a theme of China's history - like, say, geographic isolation- and ascribe all your modern conclusions to it.

Peter Hessler's books (and articles in the New Yorker) are a fantastic introduction to China and to the frameworks through which we are trying to learn and understand China. He goes one better than that, though, by including, in all of his books, stories about his Chinese friends and students. So, in addition to the constructed narratives Westerners create to try to understand China, we get their stories. Rivertown, his first work, is a memoir about his time in the Peace Corps teaching English in a small city on the Yangtze. It's great, because as Hessler learns and acculturates himself, you, another ignorant laowei, journey with him and learn bit by bit.

Oracle Bones is just fantastic too. It combines three or four stories, really: the story of the discovery and excavation of the Shang dynasty Oracle Bones, the life of a preeminent scholar who wrote the groundbreaking study, stories of a Uighur immigrant to the US, and the narratives of Hessler's old students, now making lives for themselves in China's bustling and booming cities.

That was a dumb paragraph. But, I am going to try to make it less dumb. Also, in general, these post will probably be dumb for a while until I get in the habit of writing every day.

They won't let me insert another picture so I am going to make a new post.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Susan Minot -Evening

Synopsis: Upstairs, in a house in Cambridge, MA, a woman lies, dying of cancer, and remembering scenes from her life. Downstairs, her family and friends gather in the twilight of her life, trying to understand their mother's true self, which is complex and lyrical especially since no one uses quotation marks. In a studio apartment in Chicago, a young woman vacillates between crying about it and being sort of sweaty without air conditioning.

This is a beautiful book that deserves to be read in one mood. Pick it up on an evening (yes, evening!) twinged with a touch of heartbreak, a calm sunset, and a waft of nostalgia. Then finish it. Try not to stop and pick it up in the middle of the next day when you are feeling crabby and uncharitable to the dying woman.

If you read it in the first mood, you'll be touched by rememberance, youth, and the sense of irreprerable loss that marks even the fullest lives. If you read it in the second mood you may think nasty things like "I'm so sorry your life in Tuscany with hubbo #3 didn't live up to the romantic evening you shared with that total shithead."

So, I recommend it, under proper conditions of wealth and leisure. It's beautiful. It contains life, a real picture of a vibrant difficult life with some really nice vacation homes.

I also have six pages left to go, so maybe I'll be charmed back into the single tear weeping that made my first encounter so vibrant.

Blog intro bit: This is a blog where I am going to write about what I read. It's a summer project. Maybe when winter comes we can engage serious questions about the role of the critic and blogosphere and blah blah blah.

Tom Perrotta's Little Children.

A friend described the book to me as a slightly lighter version of the movie which was, according to him, "like someone was punching you in your cock over and over again." I have not seen the movie, because I haven't been itching to get punched in my metaphorical wang of late.

But, apparently, I still wanted to be mildly depressed. And that's what Little Children does so well: it mildly depresses you at the speed of a beach read. I started it at ten in the morning. At six at night, only eight mildly depressed hours later, including breaks to ride the train and eat a sandwich, I was done. Tom Perrotta has a gift for conveying character archetypes through the contemporary medium with which we judge each other: clothes, cars, collegiate extra-curriculars. As a result, you feel like you know these people and simultaneously feel completely estranged from them. It's Mary-Anne - the uptight neighborhood busybody, the former perfect type-A sorority woman, and without a single scrap of empaty. Even the female protagonist, Sarah (and let me tell you, it is creepy to read a novel where the protagonist shares your first name*) is quite precisely described as a woman launched into her femminine consciousness by the virtue of women's studies classes. She marries because she doesn't know what else to do with her life and is destined to live at odds with whatever true version of herself exists under the surface. Perrotta tells you all this stuff - but you just don't see it. Each character is carefully assembled to fulfill their narrative function, which makes them, in many ways, just lighter, more comedic and contemporary versions of the classic naturalistic protagonists. It's Madame Bovary with Cheerios - and to the credit of the author, quite consciously so.

The version of the book I read came with book club questions, which I found very funny since there was a book club about Madame Bovary in the book. What is that called? When a thing is in a thing? I used to know this word. Anyway, here are some of my book club questions for you.

1. Does eating a roast beef sandwich help or hurt your understanding of Todd and Sarah's relationship?
2. How does your current level of self-pity affect your attitude toward the characters in the book? Inverse? Direct?
3. Why is there a fish on the front of the book?

So, there you go, blog. We're up and running!

*Which, oddly enough, even with the popularity of my name, is rare. This book....Sarah Plain and Tall (not a fan of that title)....Sarah Bishop....