It was a few seconds after this that the voice came through the loudspeakers—a strained, metallic, squeaky voice that rasped against the quiet rhythm of the band.
“Watch out for the Mad Hatter, boys and girls,” it said.
Sally felt a slight check in Teddy Wise’s step, a momentary tightening of his fingers on her wrist.
“What’s all this?” she asked, as they moved to the last few bars of the music. “A new competition or something?”
“Er, yes. Yes, that’s it,” replied Teddy. “A sort of crazy competition.”
This month, I got some more of Blake’s Nigel Strangeways mysteries from the library. The first takes place at a seaside resort called Wonderland, where a mysterious figure called “The Mad Hatter” plays a set of escalating practical jokes on the guests, beginning with tennis balls covered in treacle and addressed to “Elsie, Lacie and Tillie” (read your Lewis Carroll for the reference) and culminating with someone nonfatally shot. There is no actual murder.
I loved the Alice in Wonderland imagery, and the characters were well-drawn, but the solution left me feeling very dissatisfied. There are too many improbable coincidences, and the “Hatter’s” identity was simply from a list of equally likely motives, supported by very flimsy clues that aren’t really evidence. Read it for the character and atmosphere, not for the crime.
Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, by Plutarch
Cato the elder, speaking to some persons who were praising a man of reckless daring and audacity in war, observed that there is a difference between a man's setting a high value on courage, and setting a low value on his own life--and rightly. For a daring soldier in the army of Antigonus, but of broken and ill health, being asked by the king the reason of his paleness, confessed that he was suffering from some secret disorder. When then the king, anxious for him, charged his physicians to use the greatest care in their treatment, if a cure were possible, at length this brave fellow, being restored to health, was no longer fond of peril and furious in battle, so that Antigonus reproved him, and expressed surprise at the change. The man made no secret of his reason, but answered: "My, king, you have made me less warlike by freeing me from those miseries on account of which I used to hold my life cheap." And the Sybarite seems to have spoken to the same effect about the Spartans, when he said that "they do no great thing by dying in the wars in order to escape from such labours and such a mode of life as theirs." However, no wonder if the Sybarites, effete with luxurious debauchery, thought men mad who despised death for love of honour and noble emulation; whereas the Lacedæmonians were enabled by their valour both to live and to die with pleasure, as the elegy shows, which runs thus:
'Twas not that life or death itself was good,
That these heroic spirits shed their blood:
This was their aim, and this their latest cry,
'Let us preserve our honor, live or die.'
For neither is avoidance of death blameable, if a man does not cling to his life from dishonorable motives; nor is exposure to peril honorable, if it springs from carelessness of life. For this reason Homer always brings the most daring and warlike heroes into battle well and beautifully armed, and the Greek lawgivers punish the man who throws away his shield, but not him who throws away his sword or spear, showing that it is each man's duty to take more care that he does not receive hurt himself, than to hurt the enemy, especially if he be the chief of an army or city.
For if, as Iphikrates defined it, the light troops resemble the hands, the cavalry the feet, the main body the breast and trunk, and the general the head, then it would appear that he, if he runs into danger and shows personal daring, risks not only his own life, but that of all those whose safety depends upon him; and _vice versâ_. Wherefore Kallikratidas, although otherwise a great man, yet did not make a good answer to the soothsayer; for when he begged him to beware of death, which was presaged by the sacrifices, he replied that Sparta had more men besides himself. No doubt, in fighting either by sea or land Kallikratidas only counted for one, but as a general, he combined in his own person the strength of all the rest, so that he by whose death so many perished, was indeed more than one. A better answer was that of old Antigonus, who, as he was about to begin a sea-fight off Andros, some one having said that the enemy's fleet was the more numerous, asked, "And for how many do you count ME?"--setting a high value, as is due, upon a skilful and brave leader, whose first duty is to keep safe him who preserves all the rest.
So Timotheus said well, when Chares was displaying to the Athenians the wounds on his body, and his shield pierced by a dart. "Now I," said he, "when I was besieging Samos, was quite ashamed if an arrow fell near me, thinking that I was exposing myself more boyishly than was fitting for the general and leader of so important a force." In cases where the personal risk of the general is of great moment to his army, then he must fight and expose himself without stint, and disregard those who say that a general should die of old age, or at any rate, when an old man. But where the gain is small in case of success, while failure ruins everything, no one demands that the work of the common soldier be performed at the risk of the general's life.
Plutarch’s Lives is maybe on the second tier of the Greatest Books Ever Written, but it influenced a whole lot of the very best, including Shakespeare, Rabelais, Boccacio, Montaigne and Gibbon. At a minimum, everybody needs to read the accounts of Caesar and Alexander once, and there were very few out of the 50 mini biographies that didn’t have me pausing at least once to scratch my head over the human condition.
Plutarch’s standard formula is to pair one Greek with one Roman, write a separate biography for each, and to close with a couple of pages discussing which of the two was most virtuous. The overwhelming majority of “nobles” are military or political leaders, and the comparisons are not the strongest points. So-and-so won more battles, Plutarch typically says, but then he had the advantages of a better army, and the other guy did braver things and took more risks, with success, using only the inferior forces available. And this general made a lot of conquests, but he was a vicious warmonger, while his counterpart only fought when he had to. This political leader got more worthy things done, but that may have been because the other one constrained himself by actually following the law. And so on.
Plutarch is very big on morality. Everyone’s life is to be taken as an opportunity for instruction, either as an example and inspiration, for those who behaved well and enjoyed great success, or as a warning, for those who behaved badly and failed. He has little to say in comment about those who behaved badly and came out on top, or who were virtuous and got killed, and, human nature being as mixed as it is, there is much to be found of all of them among the Lives.
It took me five months to get through it all, one life at a time, typically reading a Greek on Saturday and a Roman on Sunday, spilling over into the work week frequently, as the Roman bios are typically much longer than the Greek ones. In fact, the Greeks get short shrift. Their lives tend to be placed singly, without much overlap. The Romans, especially during the last years of the Republic, not only overlap, but interlock. Although each of the bios stands alone well, the cumulative effect of watching the Gracchi brothers, then Marius and Sylla, then Lucullus, Crassus, Pompey, Cato the Younger, Caesar, Brutus, Cicero and finally Antony fall to one another, one at a time, is like watching an entire nation die, 200 years before it climaxes. I note wryly that, though Plutarch lived well into the second century AD, the only emperors he dared to touch were Galba and Otho, two guys who ruled for just a couple of months each before being ventilated, in the interval between Nero and Vespasian. The lives of Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, apparently, were either unsuitable for moral readers or dangerous to discuss.
Orations, by Cicero
But my hatred towards Clodius is not greater this day than it was then, when I knew that he was scorched, as it were, by those most holy fires, and that he had escaped in female attire from the house of the Pontifex Maximus, after attempting an act of atrocious licentiousness. Then, I say, then I perceived, and foresaw long beforehand, how great a tempest was being raised, how great a storm was threatening the Republic. I saw that that ill-omened wickedness, that that intolerable audacity of a young man, mad, nobly born, and disgraced as he was, could not be hindered from breaking through the bounds of tranquility; that that evil would certainly break out some day or other to the destruction of the state, if it were allowed to remain unpunished. There has not been much done since to add to my detestation of that man. For he has not done anything against me out of hatred to me, but out of hatred to strictness, out of hatred to dignity, out of hatred to the Republic. He has not insulted me more than he has the Senate, or the Roman knights, or all good men, or the whole of Italy. Lastly, he has not behaved more wickedly towards me than he has toward the immortal gods. In truth, he has polluted those gods with his impiety whom no one before ever did. Towards me, his disposition has been the same as that of his dear friend Catiline would have been, if he had been victorious. Therefore, I never thought it necessary for me to prosecute him, any more than that blockhead, whose very nation we should be ignorant of, if he did not himself say that he was a Ligurian. For why should I pursue this animal, this beast, bribed by the food and acorns thrown him by my enemy? A fellow who, if he had only sense to know to what wickedness he has bound himself, would be, I doubt not, most wretched; but if he is not aware of it, there is some danger lest he may save himself by the excuse of stupidity.
Cicero was the greatest lawyer of the ancient world, winning many acquittals and gaining fame and fortune for himself. I ought to be able to learn a lot about public speaking and persuasion from reading his speeches, right?
Well, maybe. The speeches suffer today for want of a counter-argument. In most cases, from the facts as set forth by Cicero, you wonder why there was ever a case brought in the first place, if the facts are really as Cicero says. His description of the crimes of Verres, a corrupt Governor of Sicily, has him all but emptying the treasury for his own purposes, requiring every comely peasant virgin in Syracuse to be debauched by him, and dismantling the army for private gain without permission. For beginners. It’s hard to see how anyone who did all that would not have been summarily executed or mobbed long before going to trial, unless he was so protected by corrupt higher-ups that no trial was possible. The people he defends are so manifestly innocent from the facts that there is not even a scrap of evidence that it is necessary to refute. Give me facts like that and I’d win, too!
Further, Cicero comes across as a bit of an asshole. His speeches were delivered in court on behalf of his clients, and they often read more like political smear speeches than like legal argument. No court today would allow personal attacks on judges or opposing counsel, and few juries would stand to hear the number of “funny” digs on an opponent’s poverty, or the chastity of his wife, or his reputation for drunkenness, without being offended to the point of tuning out the merits of the case.
For all the talk in the Tusculan Disputations and Offices (See March and April bookposts, respectively), Cicero turned out to be quite the waffler when it came to sticking to one’s principles or friends. During the last years of the Republic, he played more sides of the fence than the fence had, managing to support at different times Pompey, Caesar, Brutus AND Augustus. The last speeches, the Philippics against Antony, were what eventually got him killed, as Augustus didn’t find it worthwhile protecting someone who had his finger to the wind so often. The Orations are worth reading for historical value, and for examples of how rhetorical devices work and don’t work. To me, they said more about what not to do than about how to speak in public. O tempera, O mores and all that.
Strange Wine, by Harlan Ellison
What happened next happened so quickly, no one was later able to describe the actual motion. But it seemed as if Bird laid his fist against the attackers sternum, bent at the knees and twitched his hips. The behemoth was suddenly catapulted backward through the air, a scream torn from his throat. He flailed helplessly as his trajectory carried him over two tables of books of poetry by Rod McKuen. He thundered through the merchandise—which fluttered into the air as light as beignets from the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans and settled like faerie snowflakes on a February morning in Vermont—and, still screaming, he hit the far wall. He lay there in a hideously twisted pile of arms, legs, and trailing visceral material. The surgeon’s report later verified that the impact of Bird’s movement had shattered the spleen, liver, gall bladder, pancreas, kidneys and pylorus. The heavyweight had also, inexplicably, contracted sugar diabetes. An intern suggested it was from the exposure to McKuen.
Harlan Ellison was one of the first science fiction writers whose work I ever encountered, and Strange Wine is one of his more famous collections. I must have read it first when I was around 12 or so, after I saw some of the stories described in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I found them fascinating at the time.
Years later, I find that they didn’t age all that well. It may be that the genre surpassed him in the meantime. An Ellison story tends to focus on one idea—“What if all the aborted fetuses are down there in the sewers with the alligators?”, or “What if a wrongly lynched murder suspect wrongly went to Hell just because everyone believed her to be guilty?” or “What if gremlins wrote your stories after you ran out of ideas?”, and it stands as a vignette, never going much farther than illustrating that premise. That idea would be but one piece in a jigsaw puzzle of a story today.
Then there’s Ellison’s habit of writing long introductions to all of his stories. Out of a 260 page book, about 60 pages are introductions. Angry introductions, often taking a big dump on the reader. In one introduction, he reaches out and scolds me for my excessive television viewing—“Don’t tell me you’re any different! I know you do it too”, completely unaware that the Internet has long since replaced the vidiot box, which Ellison despises largely because you can’t talk back to the programs. I wonder what he thinks of comments sections. Wait, no I don’t. I’m pretty sure he hates them too.
The best thing in the book is “From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet”, 26 vignettes that are short enough that they’re not expected to have several dimensions. Second best, if you don’t mind the over the top stereotyping, are the stories like “Mom”, involving stock Jewish-American schlemazel prototypes. Everyone should read this collection once, preferably when young.
Seven Gothic Tales, by Isak Dinesen
He smiled as he thought that this little bottle had played its part in making him go to Italy. It had belonged to a maiden aunt of his father’s, who had been the beauty of her time, and to whom he had been devoted. As a girl she had traveled in Italy, and had been a guest in that same rose-colored palace, and every dream of romance and adventure was in her mind attached to it. She had faith in her little smelling-bottle, thinking that it would cure any ache of the teeth or the heart. When he had been a little boy he had shared these fancies of hers, and had himself made up tales of the beautiful things to be found in the house and the happy life to be led there. Now that she was many years dead, nobody would know where it was to be found. Perhaps, he thought, some day I shall come across the bridge under the trees and see the rock and castle before me.
Isak Dinesen, who wrote Babette’s Feast, made into one of the greatest culinary movies of all time, is described as something of an enigma, and very highly regarded in literary circles. This collection of tales was certainly puzzling. For one thing, most of them are not particularly gothic (see Rebecca, below, for gothic). For another, most of them are the kind that begin with a page or two describing some characters, one of whom tells the main story, and that beginning is all the reader gets of those meta-characters. They don’t comment on the action, like the Marlow character in Joseph Conrad’s work, and they don’t appear at the end to give some sort of moral. I’m not sure why writers do that tale-within-a-tale thing under those circumstances.
The tales are Scandinavian, melancholic, and often have a theme of clashes between generations and romantic hearts being crushed by tradition and stifling society. The book was written in 1934, and featured events set in the 19th century. I tended to imagine a gloomy fog hovering over them.. If that’s your thing, go for it.
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem
Obviously he was drunk and raving. My anger rose. I should have controlled myself and left the room, but I had lost patience. I shouted: “That’s enough! How could I know where he is since I’ve only just arrived? Snow! What is going on here?”
His jaw dropped. Once again he caught his breath and his eyes gleamed with a different light. He seized the arms of his chair with both hands and stood up with difficulty. His knees were trembling.
“What? You’ve just arrived...Where have you come from?” he asked, almost sober.
“From Earth!” I retorted angrily. “Maybe you’ve heard of it? Not that anyone would ever guess it.”
“From Earth? Good God! Then you must be Kelvin.”
“Of course. Why are you looking at me like that? What’s so startling about me?”
He blinked rapidly.
“Nothing”, he said, wiping his forehead, “Nothing. Forgive me, Kelvin. It’s nothing, I assure you. I was simply surprised. I didn’t expect to see you.”
“What do you mean you didn’t expect to see me? You were notified months ago, and Moddard radioed only today from the Prometheus.”
“Yes, yes indeed. Only, you see, we’re a bit disorganized at the moment.”
“So I see”, I answered, drily.”
This one is one of the better known heavy-duty science fiction novels of the 1960s, and deserves to be considered as a work of philosophy and psychology as well as a space exploration/first contact story. It’s also one of very few science fiction books I can name that was not originally written in English.
The Solaris of the title is the name of a planet with a big ocean that may be a living organism. The narrator, Kelvin, is sent to a space station there to do some research, and finds disorder, mayhem and apparent death have preceded him, as the people on the station encounter manifestations of deceased loved ones. Has the planet constructed these “visitors” from the memories of the scientists? And can they be trusted?
There are conversations reminiscent of the Day of the Dead episode from Babylon 5 (which may well have been influenced by Lem’s book), and long passages of the history of discoveries and speculations about Solaris for hardcore SF people. For the less hardcore people, you can skip to the love scenes between the narrator and his visitor, who takes the form of his lost love. It starts off a little slow, picks up in the middle, and then tapers off to end, not with an orgasmic climax, but with a blank.
Minute for Murder, by Nicholas Blake
"The trouble with you, Harker," began Jimmy Lake, but he got no further with it. Nita Prince suddenly interrupted him with a paroxysm of coughing.
"Cough it up, ducky," he said, leaning across and patting her on the shoulders.
Nita Prince did not cough it up, though. The coughing at once turned to a painful choking; the beautiful face was distorted; the eyes desperately stared; Nita's hands clutched and tore at her throat, then jerked feebly in the air before her. They were all staring at her incredulously. Before anyone could move, she had fallen forward across her desk. an ink bottle overturned, rolled slowly off the desk and onto the floor, dabbling her bright hair with ink as it went.
A nice mystery! And by “nice”, I mean cleverly done, and uncharacteristically tragic. A whole lot of murder mysteries are all about puzzling out the solution and the thrill of the chase, and tend to gloss over or minimize what it means when someone gets killed. In this one, despite the witty comments of the clever detective Strangeways and the almost as clever, witty suspects, there’s a real element of pathos, emotional horror, and wrecked lives that I found perversely refreshing.
It’s the end of the European part of WWII, and Strangeways is part of a civilian English government agency that handles classified information. One member is killed with a suicide cyanide capsule in a cup of tea during a gathering with Strangeways and seven other members. Revelations of love triangles, blackmail and other shady activities ensue, while Strangeways needs to find out who did it and how the remains of the capsule were disposed of.
This one is everything that Murder with Malice is not. It’s a fair mystery, with fair clues, and the characters are masterfully enough drawn to upstage Strangeways—in particular, the character of Charles Kensington. Highly recommended, and second only to The Beast Must Die (bookpost, July 2011) in quality among those Blake novels I’ve read so far.
Changes, by Jim Butcher
It was probably a damned good thing I had gone into shock, because I could feel emotions that were stirring somewhere deep inside me, gathering power like a storm far out to sea. I couldn’t see them. I could only feel their effects, but it was enough to know that whatever was rising in me was potent. Violent. Dangerous. Mindless rage got people killed every day. But for me, it might be worse.
I’m a professional wizard.
I can make a lot more things happen than most people.
Magic and emotions are tied up inextricably. I’ve been in battle before, and felt the terror and rage of that kind of place, where it’s a fight just to think clearly through the simplest problems. I’d used my magic in those kinds of volatile circumstances—and a few times, I’d seen it run wild as a result. When most people lose control of their anger, someone gets hurt. Maybe someone even gets killed. When it happens to a wizard, insurance companies go broke and there’s reconstruction afterwards.
What was stirring in me now made those previous feelings of battle rage seem like anemic kittens.
Right on page one, we get a spoiler for earlier books in the Dresden Files series, with several more to follow, and so I’m going to be vague about what happens in it. I will tell you that the title isn’t kidding. Things change. Boy, do they ever change. Old alliances and enmities shift, major characters die, and Harry Dresden faces the biggest battle with the highest stakes he’s ever known. The climactic Ultimate Battle reads like a first-person shooter video game, with Dresden and a handful of allies mowing down unfathomable numbers of Bad Things that just keep coming, wave after wave after wave. In fact, this battle is the weak link in the book, because it’s so over the top.
The things leading up to it are well worth it. This is Butcher’s masterpiece of the series so far, which has run the gamut from Awesome to Oh Jim Butcher No. Probably my favorite urban fantasy writer is Seanan McGuire, and Changes is maybe the first Dresden book that I can say is the literary equivalent of McGuire at her best (keep in mind that Butcher had about a decade head start).
Like Rocky, Dresden just keeps on leveling up exponentially. The Rocky movies begin with Rocky as just another amateur nobody, and I think the final one has him travel to Hell to fight Satan for ten rounds and win. Dresden goes through something similar. By this point in the series he’s locking horns with the biggest of the big, to the point where I wonder how much farther he can go. Does he eventually take down Lucifer Prince of Darkness, having given God a thorough tongue-lashing for not having taken care of it Himself? We’ll find out...there are at least two more to go, and I don’t know how many still in Butcher’s mind.
As always, it’s not for everybody. The series is undeniably macho, and unfortunately you have to get through several less-than-satisfactory episodes to get to this jewel of a book, but I for one found it worth it. To me, there’s Good Macho, like Robert B. Parker, and Bad Macho, like John Ringo, and it is possible to go from one to the other. Dresden has found his groove.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
The support group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.
I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in christ’s sacred heart and whatever.
So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, gazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story—how he had cancer in his balls and they thought he was going to die but he didn’t die and now here he is, a full grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancerastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life.
AND YOU TOO MIGHT BE SO LUCKY!
This is the newest of John Green’s five YA novels so far, and the third one that I’ve read. Green is incredible. He redefines Awesome for America’s youth so well that my enjoyment of his books is tempered by a faint resentment that, when I was at the best age to read Green, he wasn’t yet writing and I had to make do with Catcher in the Rye and The Breakfast Club, neither of which I can stand today, although when I was a teen I thought they redefined Awesome.
Green is sometimes criticized for creating teen characters who know more than actual teens do and are therefore unbelievable. Not true. First of all, there really are smart teens who know these things and who talk and think closely enough to Green characters to resonate (I was blessed with my daughter’s choice of peer group). Second of all, YA characters are not required to be “realistic”. Sometimes, it is enough that they be great role models. Third, the characters are AWESOME. I figure if the abstract concepts of Margo Roth-Spiegelman (Paper Towns, Bookpost, November 2009) and Augustus Waters (The Fault In Our Stars) mated, their offspring would metaphorically walk on water and beat up Chuck Norris. So. There.
And so I borrowed my daughter’s copy of The Fault In Our Stars on a special occasion when I felt like having a delightful romp with Awesome Characters. I’d seen several people reading the book with the distinctive, eye-catching cover. I had no idea what it was about. It has Awesome Characters, but it’s not a delightful romp. The protagonist, Hazel, is a teen with terminal cancer, who is going to die one of these days and who is struggling to be big about it because her parents despite their good intentions are understandably all broken up and Hazel is more burdened with guilt than with her own limitations. And then along comes Augustus, who is every bit as Awesome and fascinating to Hazel as Margo Roth-Spiegelman was to Q, and nothing is the same. In fact, it gets Awesome, but it also gets tinfoil-chewing, gut-wrenching painful.
My, how amazing John Green is at depicting young love.
I appreciated how Green depicted disabilities and terminal illness. Too many stories on this theme devolve into Very Special Gimp Episodes where the character with the disability has to be rescued from perpetual self-pity wallows by a perky, fully able-bodied person. I withhold judgment on the subplot involving Hazel’s favorite author. I can only imagine the kind of fan mail John Green gets from young YA readers who elevate him to godlike status in their imaginations, and I suspect Green had perverse fun with Van Houten. Very high recommendations, but don’t read it when you’re in the mood for light fun.
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Once, when Gary had wondered aloud if giving Caleb so many gadgets might be stunting his imagination, Caroline had all but accused him of slandering his son. Among her favorite parenting books was “The Technological Imagination: What Today’s Children Have to Teach Their Parents”, in which Nancy Claymore, Ph.D., contrasting the “tired paradigm” of Gifted Child as Socially Isolated Genius with the “wired paradigm” of Gifted Child as Creatively Connected Consumer, argued that electronic toys would soon be so cheap and widespread that a child’s imagination would no longer be exercised in crayon drawings and made-up stories but in the synthesis and exploitation of existing technologies—an idea that Gary found both persuasive and depressing. When he was a boy not much younger than Caleb, his hobby had been building models with popsicle sticks.
For some reason, I had been told that this was a book about a mafia family. I’ve forgotten who told me that, but the Corrections have nothing to do with the Sopranos.
This is one of a small handful of books written in my lifetime that became instant classics almost as soon as they came out. Seems to me, it deserved it. Jonathan Franzen really did write the Great American Novel, a an epic clash of American values between the Norman Rockwell Midwest and the Trendy Urban Metropolises of the coasts, distilled into the misadventures of one family. On the surface, the theme seems to be that America has strayed away from something valuable in its heritage from the age when people scrimped and saved and fixed things (and marriages) when they broke, instead of throwing them away. The younger generation, shown here in the form of struggling siblings Gary, Chip and Denise Lambert, are in New York and Philadelphia, chasing the American dream in different ways and becoming very unfulfilled in the process. On the other hand, their aging parents, Enid and Alfred, clinging to the past in their little Midwestern town, are equally unfulfilled, and not just because of the world changing around them.
Had I tried to write this book, I would have gotten it completely wrong. I would have filled it with alleged Red State/Blue State differences and the kind of contemporary political controversies the talking heads discuss on television. Franzen thankfully doesn’t go there. Charcaters have money troubles, but they do not blame them on the one percent, or on government action or inaction. Some characters are religious, but they do not build their identity on the need for secular culture to match their church beliefs. A character has a homosexual relationship, but is not relentlessly focused on equal marriage rights. There is a racial incident that does not become a key defining moment in the white protagonist’s existence. There is a place for stories that go there, but it is not here.
What is here are characters who struggle on every level of the Maslow pyramid, from basic life-threatening struggles with disease and poverty to the need for self-actualization. Struggles, successes and failures in career and family. Mobility and the opportunities and dangers it presents, from business opportunities in Europe to fighting over whether to host family Christmas or travel to mom’s house. Loyalty to family members, employers and employees. Betrayal or protection of trusts (if the book has a weak point, it involves the inclusion of the tired old trope of the brilliant young professor self-destructing on the verge of tenure by sleeping with a student, told as always in a way that is supposed to make the reader pity the poor, oppressed, horny professor and fails). Aging and loss of physical and financial independence. Capitalist sharks descending on rural America on small patent holders, and on fledgling former Soviet nations. And above all, drugs, prescription and illegal and hybrid. Drugs as a path to happiness or as a cheap shortcut. Drugs as a potentially profitable investment. Drugs as a potential altering of one’s self, with profound philosophical and ethical implications.
I found myself constantly comparing The Corrections favorably with Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Bookpost, January 2012), which also attempted to write the Great American Novel and which annoyed me to no end. The main difference between the two is that, while Franzen captures a specific period in history, his characters and themes are timeless and inclusive. Through flashbacks, we get three generations of Lamberts with different childhoods to compare and contrast, and with different takes on the same event. Franzen takes some characters and expands them to include much of humanity. DeLillo, on the other hand, attempts to take most of humanity and compress it into a given period in history as though that period, and one viewpoint about what it meant, is the only one that has ever counted. Highest recommendations and an invitation to other fans of The Corrections to discuss it online or off. I imagine it’s been a frequent book club selection all over the place, but I loved it anyway.
Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner
It seems that this demaon—his name was Sutpen--(Colonel Sutpen)—Colonel Sutpen. Who came out of nowhere and without warning upon the land with a band of strange niggers and built a plantation—(Tore violently a plantation, Miss Rosa Coldfeld says)—tore violently. And married her sister Ellen and begot a son and daughter which—(Without gentleness begot, Miss Rosa Coldfeld says)—without gentleness. Which should have been the jewels of his pride and the shield and comfort of his old age, only –(Only they destroyed him or something or he destroyed them or something. And died)—and died. Without regret, Miss Rosa Coldfield says—(Save by her) Yes, save by her. (And by Quentin Compson) Yes. And by Quentin Compson.
I rank this one second tier among Faulkner’s works, behind his masterpieces The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, and The Hamlet. Some critics apparently call it his best book of all; I found it too annoying to appreciate whatever literary greatness it has.
Faulkner is clearly trying to construct an epic Greek-style tragedy within the confines of rural Mississippi. Unfortunately, being set in rural Mississippi (as opposed to, I guess, *urban* Mississippi), the plot must necessarily revolve around slavery, racism, miscegenation, incest, squalid poverty and limited education. Few of the characters are likable; the people of Jefferson before, during and after the civil war, are the type who form mobs to lynch suspicious looking people before getting around to asking whether they did anything wrong.
Into that environment comes the mysterious stranger Thomas Sutpen. Nobody knows anything about his past, but they assume it must be a bad one. Sutpen’s first act in town is to swindle a drunk Indian out of 100 square miles of virgin land outside of town. His second act is to bring in a bunch of slaves and fancy furniture, and to build the biggest antebellum mansion this side of Tara.. His third act is to arrange a marriage and to set about begetting children.
Sutpen, you see, wants to be a paterfamilias. And he is Faulkner’s idea of a “Great Man”, by which we mean one who is by golly supposed to be admired for his single-minded determination and sense of purpose, his fixation on meeting his special dream, and never mind that his means to get there are atrocious and that he brings misery and destruction to anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way, or even to be standing by.
Fitzgerald did this much better with The Great Gatsby.
We’re never told exactly how Sutpen gets the land from the Indians, or where the lavish furnishings of his mansion come from, or the details of his courtship. Most of the story consists of characters who were peripheral to the Sutpen story or not yet born for most of it, discussing it decades after the fact without knowing the details. However, it seems clear that Sutpen never offers anything of value; he merely acquires what he wants, for he is a single-minded great Man, to be admired, except when he is to be pitied. I neither admired nor pitied him, though I did feel some pity for the entire region, which was apparently targeted for destruction by Sherman’s army solely so that history could witness the destruction of the Great Man’s mansion so soon after it was built.
The non-sequential telling of the saga of Sutpen and his children isn’t quite as confusing as the narration of The Sound and the Fury; however, there is a helpful chronology of the main events supplied by Faulkner in the back of the book, and a genealogy of the family. I don’t recommend turning to it unless you need help unraveling it; it contains major plot spoilers. If you know that Absalom was the son of High King David, who wailed Absalom’s name twice in agony on learning that the boy had been slain while making war against his father, you do have some idea of where the plot goes.
Trigger warnings for racism, from frequent use of the n-word to narrative that assumes without assertion that dusky-skinned people are no more civilized than monkeys, nor any more deserving of rights or dignity. Whites in Faulkner country consider incest more acceptable than mixed race relations, though they practice them anyhow, as they devolve from antebellum cultured gentry to tea party crackers and Jeff Foxworthy jokes. To be read only when you’re in a certain mood.
Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier
There was the book of poems lying beside my bed. He had forgotten that he had ever lent them to me. They could not mean much to him then. “Go on,” whispered the demon, “open the title page, that’s what you want to do, isn’t it? Open the title page.” Nonsense, I said, I’m only going to put the book with the rest of the things. I yawned, I wandered to the table beside the bed. I picked up the book. I caught my foot in the flex of the bedside lamp, and stumbled, the book falling from my hands on to the floor. It fell open, at the title page. “Max from Rebecca.” She was dead, and one must not have thoughts about the dead. They slept in peace, the grass blew over their graves. How alive was her writing though, how full of force. Those curious, sloping letters. The blob of ink. Done yesterday. It was just as if it had been written yesterday. I took my nail scissors from the dressing case and cut the page, looking over my shoulder like a criminal.
I cut the page right out of the book.
No need to worry about how Seven Gothic Tales isn’t all that gothic. The story of the unnamed narrator, the brooding, solitary man she marries, and the departed first wife who continues to dominate them both from the grave, has all the gothic darkness a fan of such things could want.
The narrator is a naive young lady who begins the story as the paid companion to an insufferable, garrulous old rich bitch. In Monte Carlo, she meets Mr.
One problem with the book is the culture shock. Rebecca came out at just about the time the last of the British landed gentry class was going the way of the dinosaurs, and the lifestyle of the De Winters with their entire wings of unused rooms, their fancy dress balls, and their tenants and servants, was hard to accept today. Why did they have a car? Surely cars hadn’t been invented when people lived like that? Equally jarring was the description of the protagonists’ marriage. No courtship, no ceremony, no reception, no honeymoon. If Max was that well off, and cared enough to marry, you’d think he would put a little effort into the celebration.
The biggest problem, though, is that once again here is a book in which nobody is likable. The narrator is the worst. She spends most of the book dithering and trembling at shadows and acting as though the late Rebecca is an actual ghost haunting Manderley (despite the thick atmosphere, there are no manifestations of the supernatural in the book). It’s not clear whether the people she encounters are actually talking about her and comparing her unfavorably with Rebecca, or whether she’s so self-centered that she simply imagines everybody must be talking about her. She faints at inopportune moments, attempts to jump to uncharitable conclusions and fails, getting her feet wet and needing to be rescued. One big faux pas she makes in the middle of the book is completely predictable and avoidable, and probably brought about by her constant comparisons with Rebecca and her need for attention. Mr. De Winter treats his new wife abominably, going from the initial dashing romantic to permanently cold and unavailable in an instant. And then, if you have any doubt about his essential nastiness, he goes and has gorram fer chrissakes MRS. DANVERS look after her. The more plot spoilers come to light about Rebecca herself, the less likable she is. And then there’s the old rich bitch, the gossipy neighbors, the smarmy, blackmailing cousin, and Mrs. Danvers herself. Even Manderley is not a place you’d want to be friends with. In spite of all that, though, Rebecca is justly famous, and a good read for a dark and stormy night when you’re in the mood to feel creepy. High recommendations.