Friday, May 29, 2009

24. The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

I needed a book. Badly. I roamed the Harvard Coop savagely, lusting at recent release tables, pawing at established classics. My eyes rested on a familiar name: Curtis Sittenfeld. I read Prep a few years ago, around a turning point in my life. She helped me wrestle with my inner Lee Fiora, though, truly, I have never been as naturally cruel as that painfully realistic character, no matter how shy or self-conscious. I somehow felt that The Man of My Dreams would be easier to read, and at least I knew it would draw me in. I needed something to give my undivided attention to.

The book is about that need to give, in the main character Hannah's case, love. To a man, specifically. That said, I don't know how terribly appropriate the title is. Prep wasn't adroitly titled either though. Hannah is familiar, another Lee, but in different circumstances. The book shows Hannah's life in flashes, skipping from eighth grade to college to young adulthood. It is far less intense than its predecessor.

As always, Sittenfeld's social observations are spot-on, though they don't feel as edgy anymore. The reader is firmly ensconced in Hannah's head, and I find it hard to believe any middle-class, white female hasn't experienced most of what she does. Alongside her, however, Hannah's sister Allison and cousin Fig seem to be doing just fine, which enhances her isolation. Fig in particular seemed unrealistically written to me. She is the popular, crazy girl that all the guys fall for, but her actions and words don't seem consistent. She's always ordering Hannah around, using her, and suddenly gives her sound and priceless advice. It's unexpected because it's so contrived.

The ending is disappointing, but typical. How else can you end a real novel about a woman struggling with low self-esteem? In a romance, she could catch the guy of her dreams at last, but Sittenfeld, I feel sure, despises that as much as I do. So, it trails off, perhaps on a hopeful note, but it doesn't really matter. If it ended with her death, it would have been preferable to me, but perhaps that's asking far too much labor of the author.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Transcendental Romeo and Juliet

23. Moods by Louisa May Alcott

Martha Saxton made such a big deal of this novel in her biography Louisa May, that I decided to try it for myself. I might have known, upon her recommendation, that I would be disappointed.

Moods is full of high flown language and characters that are themselves ideals. The "mood" that consistently pervades the novel is one of unnecessary melancholy and melodrama. The first chapter is a pretentious, unnatural dialogue hardly to be borne, when I reached the seemingly more normal second chapter, I hoped it was an anomaly, but was unfortunately wrong.

Alcott takes one of the oldest stories, as Henry James points out in his review, which was included in my edition, and fashions it anew, without altering or addressing any of the original problems. There is a young girl, and two potential lovers. Necessarily, there is a terrible muddle, and the girl marries the man she cares for less. Alcott tries to salvage the essential correctness of all three actors, and there fails. They cannot all possibly behave so admirably as she claims. The only respectable way out is an early death for the two young lovers, of course we've heard that one before. But where Alcott lectures, Shakespeare allowed astute viewers to understand the ridiculousness and immaturity of his characters. She turns Romeo and Juliet into a Transcendental moral tale it was never meant to be.

A few saving graces are a glimpse forward to Alcott's later, and in my opinion, far better works. Sylvia, the main character, is the most realistic of the characters, her actions and motivations are suitably complicated. It is easy to sympathize with her, as it is to feel for Jo March. After the first chapter, the next few chapters are taken up with a trip over the river, with Sylvia, her brother, and his two friends, later, her lovers. These scenes are charming, if a little too laboriously described, and my favorite part was an adventure where they must intrude upon a family gathering of strangers. Alcott makes the scene comic as well as enlightening (perhaps she dwelt too much on the benefits of domesticity), and it is much more the kind of scene one would expect to find in any of the books on the March family or the Rose books.

In his review, James suggested Alcott write more of what she knew. That is where I would judge she has best succeeded. I am not disputing that Louisa may have found Little Women boring, or that she preferred her Gothic works, but that need not have bearing on which works were her best, of which you know my opinion.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Giving a Damn

22. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Tears came to my eyes while reading Gone With the Wind. More than once. I didn't actually cry, but it was still quite a feat. I feel like this is one of those books nearly everyone is expected to have read, but I read it this week for the first time. I avoided it, thinking it would be racist and Confederate-glamorizing and generally uncomfortable for a Northern soul like myself. It was undoubtedly racist and unashamedly proud of the Confederacy, and, even, something not even I suspected, rather supportive than not of the Ku Klux Klan.

I absolutely loved it.

Mitchell wields her powers of description like a sword, sometimes too heavily, but often with just the right thrust. Scarlett O'Hara, our tempestuous heroine, braves the Civil War and the Restoration with her simple-minded devotion to the survival of herself and those she loves most, her childhood home Tara and her childhood sweetheart Ashley. Mitchell reiterates Scarlett's character in so many words, in so many passages, again and again. She is almost never-changing. It occurred to me that Scarlett could be the archetype of the anti-heroine. To my mind, she can be admirable, even pitiable, but never, never likable.

That is why Mitchell gives us Melanie. She is Scarlett's foil, her best friend, and her bitterest enemy. Melanie is married to the incomparable Ashley. Like him, she is quiet, bookish, and the epitome of Southern honor. Scarlett is a young vixen, who will later be officially dubbed a Scallawag. I adored Melanie. Not because she is kind and gentle, but because she demonstrates a strength and loyalty I fervently hope I possess. She never endorses various accusations of Scarlett's feelings for Ashley and loves Scarlett passionately, with the excuse of Scarlett's brief, vindictive (against Ashley) marriage to Melanie's brother Charles. Characteristic of the South, their world is a tangled web of close family and neighbors.

I must say a word about the "darkies" as Mitchell typically calls the slaves and later, freed men and women in the book. Other, less wholesome words are used as well. I was frustrated by the dialect in which she has them speak and the diatribes comparing them to children and monkeys, and insisting upon their sterling treatment and care at the hands of their Southern masters. Yet, for all her generalizations, some of the most intelligent and strongest characters are slaves. Scarlett's Mammy is brilliant, a true lady-in-waiting if ever there was one, and much more of a fine lady than Scarlett herself. And Uncle Peter is the man of the family who practically raised Melanie and Charles after their parents died, and solicitously looks after their childlike Aunt Pitty.

And how could I write a word on Gone With the Wind without mentioning Rhett Butler? The quintessential bad boy looks like a pirate, and acts like it, he is a blockader during the war, and shamelessly profits from the Confederacy's ruin. Rhett is without a doubt the most complex character, and the one who evolves most over the course of the novel. He is, naturally, Ashley's foil, and notes himself with his wry irony that they started as similar men with similar opportunities, only Ashley chose to value his honour over such chances. But Rhett is so much more than that. In the beginning, I, like Scarlett, was disgusted as much as fascinated with him. But though she comes to appreciate him only because she wants his money and appreciates his acceptance of her grasping nature, he seduced me with his distance, his propensity to amuse himself at his own expense as well as others', and, no matter his other faults, his essential honesty.

In the end, it's all about Mitchell's ability to build anticipation for a rich love story. Rhett dips in and out of Scarlett's life, infuriating or salvaging her as needed. He corrupts her slowly, encouraging her love of finery and material gain, and patiently tutoring her not to care what the neighbors think. His kisses, when Mitchell indulges us, are scintillating. I thought I would die for such kisses. And finally, finally, when they marry, after Scarlett has buried two other husbands, he initiates her into the realm of carnal pleasure. And it is not until years later she experiences the full force of it. Rhett is unpredictable, the reader must always wonder what he will do next.

I wanted Rhett, like in the movie, to have the last word, but Mitchell gives us a last glimpse of Scarlett's indomitable spirit instead. Everything but that is, unfortunately, gone with the wind. Though I would give much more than a damn for some more.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Only the Fans Will Understand...

21. Dune: House Atreides by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson

I've been skeptical of the prequel Dune books by Frank Herbert's son and Anderson, a science fiction writer in his own right, but I liked the new Star Trek movie, so why not give the Dune "remakes" a chance?

I wasn't disappointed, this book retains all the complicated features and plots within plots of the original Dune series, and I got to meet familiar characters and learn more about the details of their histories, which are alluded to in the initial books.

The Afterword was tantalizing, as I learned that Frank Herbert had intended to continue with a 7th Dune book, and his notes and outlines were mysteriously delivered to his son from an unknown PO Box soon after his death. Before this, I had accepted that Chapterhouse: Dune was really the end, even though it ends with all the main characters shuttling off into space...

Friday, May 8, 2009

Carrying on the Russian Tradition, Bengali-American Style

20. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

I've wanted to read this book for many years, and it was not quite what I was expecting. This is the story of Gogol Ganguli's life. Gogol is the American-born son of Bengali parents, whose father is inspired to explore the world by a terrible accident and the author Nikolai Gogol.

The book is well written, in a style that reminds me of Haruki Murakami. However, Lahiri's language is less complex and her descriptions less weird for the sake of being weird. Yet, it is the same clean, direct sentence structure that creates an insular world from which the reader is held just a little aloof, the better view from which to appreciate it.

I am very interested in Indian culture, particularly Bengali, since a good friend of mine is Bengali. Therefore, many of the foreign words, usually describing food, were familiar to me, but they may not be to most readers.

Much of the story takes place in Massachusetts, and I can relate to the detailed descriptions of Cambridge and Boston. That gave me a thrill, as I'm sure it will anyone familiar with the area.

Lahiri writes for a particular kind of reader, the same kind that enjoys the work of the Russian writer she pays homage to. This is for someone who loves development of character, the accurate portrayal of life with all its accidents and detours. There is no plot other than that, so this is not for the bestseller readers. For those who enjoyed War and Peace.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Lucy Parsons Center

Well, I didn't end up having time yesterday to buy a book after all.

However, I did get a sneak peek at the Lucy Parsons Center in the South End.

I've walked past there dozens of times, but they're always closed. I've been very interested in them since I found out that they're an anarchist commune that communally own the bookstore.

My friends and I were walking home from a late dinner in Chinatown, when we noticed the lights were on at the Lucy Parsons'. We crossed the street, but the sign said "Closed."

We prepared to leave, when two women who were closing up saw us and opened the door. They let us inside and it turned out one of my friends knew one of them, so that gave us several minutes to explore. There were predictable manifestos and guides to, for example, teenage emancipation, but most of the literature there would never be found anywhere else.

Sections were on Feminism, Radical World History, Anarchism, Communism, Socialism, and the evils of George W. Bush. They had an entire bookcase full of the last offering, no joke. Places like this need to exist everywhere. The employees were very friendly and helpful too, they explained a bit about how the store works, volunteers run whatever shifts they want, and the group makes all the decisions. Obviously, this makes for it being closed or open at rather random times, though they do have theoretical hours. Wednesday nights are radical movie nights, open to the public.

I have to go back sometime, to buy The Open Veins of Latin America and maybe a feminist text that doesn't look too dry.