Recent Fiction Reads: Goosebumps, Boy, and The Book of Dust

Welcome to Dead House by R.L. Stine (3.0 out of 5.0) 

Welcome to Dead House is the first book in the infamous Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine. This one tells the tale of two young siblings and their parents. The family move to a new town after mysteriously inheriting a house from some long-lost family member. The book is typical Goosebumps: fast-paced, thrilling, a little spooky, and a little silly.

I used to read this series all the time as a kid. In fact, these books and The Hardy Boys books are pretty much all I read as a kid (with some of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels thrown into the mix every so often). I was actually not much of a reader at all when I was young (shocking to consider, now!) but the R.L. Stine books always kept my attention. Although I’ve read a number of the series, I somehow missed this one, which is a shame because it is good fun and it is the inaugural tale. 

For younger readers especially, those in the Middle Grade range, this book is bound to be a favorite. At the center of the action is a pair of curious and brave siblings. The primary antagonists are also kids, so the battle of “good versus evil” in this strange new town is, for the most part, taken up by children. What could be more fun for young readers?

Boy by James Hanley (3.5 out of 5.0)

I do not even know where to begin with this book. It is some remarkable work of melodramatic modernism, which really should not work, but does. According to the book’s introduction, this book was suppressed for more than 50 years. The publisher was prosecuted for obscenity, and readers will not find it hard to understand why that would be (considering the original publication was in the 1930s). I was torn throughout reading this between loving it and hating it, between being rather enthralled and being completely bored. These feelings remain unresolved even now, weeks after having finished it. 

That being said, there are a few points that are without dispute. First, Hanley is a wonderful writer who can turn a beautiful phrase and who is far bolder than many of his contemporaries were at the time. His modernism is the bold and brass American type, tackling difficult issues in a bleak and straightforward style. This, contrasted against the British modernists, is a kind of relief. Hanley often fails, too, in his story-telling. He overloads the pathos of nearly ever situation. Yes, certainly many of the scenes should evoke pathos. The “boy” at issue in this story is, after all, raped on numerous occasions, by older boys and older men. His plight is that of the age-old plight of the lower class: he is a brilliant young man with ambition and potential, whose parents force him into near-servitude, which breaks his spirit even despite his best efforts to free himself and find a new path. Throughout it all, he keeps his awful parents in mind and tries to make it for himself, and for them. 

As a narrative, Boy, is not the most compelling read. But as a critique on caste systems, poverty, child labor, and the abuses of the poor, it is a rather remarkable accomplishment. It seems Hanley experienced a similar life and put much of his general biography into the novel, though he denies that anything that happened to “boy” really happened to him. One has to wonder if Hanley was being truthful about that. 

The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman (5.0 out of 5.0)

Having finally finished the original Pullman trilogy, called His Dark Materials and including The Golden Compass, The Amber Spyglass, and The Subtle Knife, I was thrilled to learn that Pullman was at work on a  new trilogy called La Belle Sauvage. The first book in the series, The Book of Dust, released just a month ago, and I got my hands on it as soon as humanly possible! 

What I could not anticipate about the new series, or at least this first installment in that series, is how much more enjoyable I would find it than the originals. I honestly do not think that has ever happened before, but Pullman manages it. I found Malcolm Polstead to be an incredibly interesting young narrator, and his relationship with his daemon, Asta, was as beautiful and touching as the relationship created between Lyra and Pantalaimon. 

This new series seems to have a bit more action than the originals, and it still walks that delicate walk between fantasy and realism. There are witches and magic, mythological creatures and underworlds; there are also lovely relationships between Malcolm and a science professor, and Malcolm and Christian Nuns who live across the river. This book, like those in the original series, continues to explore themes of physics and theology, philosophy and science, humanism and myth, and it is, like the originals, a good old-fashioned coming-of-age tale. According to Pullman, this series specifically tackles the idea of consciousness, and what are we, underneath it all. Matter? Spirit? Neither? Both? I look forward to seeing how the rest of the series continues to address the questions posed by this first installment, which tackles highly relevant and topical issues of totalitarian theocracies, the right to free thought and speech, and the dangers of a militant religious force in control of government and politics. It is reported that the next book in the series is titled The Secret Commonwealth. All I can say is, bring it on, please!

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Thoughts: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

340793A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf
Final Verdict: Perfection
YTD: 22

I finished reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own two days ago, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I imagine that I will be thinking about it for quite some time. It, like the last two Woolf books I read, was not what I expected it to be. Yes, I knew the book developed from lectures she gave on “Women and Fiction” to students at Newnham and Girton in 1928. Yes, I knew that Shakespeare’s infamous sister originated from these lectures, and I knew that Woolf’s renowned declaration that a woman must have “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (4) was the primary theme for the lectures and papers which eventually became this book. So, why was I caught off-guard by this book? What did she give me that I wasn’t expecting? Was there something missing – something I expected to see but didn’t?

I was caught off-guard, first, by the lecture style. I have been reading quite a bit of nonfiction, lately. Essays and lectures about writing, theory, and criticism, as well as histories of sexuality and gender, in literature and other mediums. Most of these, aside, perhaps, from E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, are relatively straightforward nonfiction. But Woolf tells a story with her lectures – in fact, she creates a fictive world and fictive experiences to relay the message she intends to deliver to these young women. Typically, I look for a writer’s genius in their fiction, because, first of all, I’m a reader of fiction and because, secondly, I believe it is more difficult to get one’s point across in a creative way than it is to deliver it face-forward in an essay or lecture, where one can simply state what they mean, give examples, and move on. Fiction is harder – it is more subtle, delicate, and complex. You have to develop it in order to deliver it effectively. Nonfiction, while still taking great effort to make it “worthwhile,” and readable does not necessarily require story, too. But Woolf gives us the story anyway, and she gives us history, and she gives us visions of the future. It is, to put it plainly, simply stunning.

A Room of One’s Own is about the inequalities of sex, certainly. When she talks of needing £500 and a private room, with a lock, she is being quite literal. But she’s also going beyond that – she’s not just talking about women and she’s not just talking about the creative process. She’s talking about brilliance and genius and what it really takes to get there. This is a book as much about class and economics as it is about sexual politics. The great writers throughout most of history have been men because men have been privileged with wealth of their own, property of their own, space of their own. They had access to education and travel, to training and experience. Jane Austen, her ultimate exception to this rule, was brilliant despite this lack and, even so, her works, brilliant as they are, have their limitations, because Austen’s own experiences were limited. Woolf is a feminist, whether or not she would admit it, and that comes across at times in these lectures, but what is really interesting is that she is not speaking to women in general –she’s not really concerned with that population; she is speaking to women of genius.

Where does all this leave me? It is nearly 100 years later and the one theme at the heart of Woolf’s theory still seems to hold true: one needs time, space, and money in order to reach greatness. One must be granted the ability to spend time with one’s self, to give him or herself completely to their craft, to not be distracted by anything else, if he or she is to succeed. Of course, this makes sense and it is something I have thought about for more than a decade. If only I had time, I would say to myself, I could get this book written, that project completed. Or, if only I had the money, I would think, I could travel to Europe, investigate what I need to, experience what I must, and learn what I should, in order to write what I feel. So, knowing this, and reading it in blunt delivery from one of the greatest literary minds to grace history, what do I do with myself? Time? Money? I work 45-50 hours per week. I’m pursuing my Ph.D. full-time, which adds 6 hours of class time each week plus who knows how many hours of research, homework, and assigned reading, not to mention the additional 6 hours spent commuting to and from campus. Sleep factors in there, sometimes.

Woolf, you see, has made me seriously doubt the way I’m going about my life. She says one needs free time and privacy from distraction – but aside from winning the lottery, how does one support a (brilliant) writing life? She says one needs an education – but how far is it necessary to go, and how do you focus on your own work when completing the “required” education? These are the questions she raises and leaves unanswered for me. I don’t consider myself to be a genius, so it’s probably true that Woolf doesn’t intend her lectures for me; still, I do consider myself to be a writer and one who is very concerned with the requirements of time, space, and security. So, it’s a hard book for me. It’s a hard book, I think, for any writer who finds himself in a hard place. But it’s a life-changing book and it has left me with more thoughts than I know what to do with, more doubts than I can afford to deal with, and more desire than I can bear to let go of.

Notable Quotes:

“It is a curious fact that novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten” (10).

“And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse” (11).

“One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man” (32).

“Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband” (44).

“Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman” (49).

“When people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments” (68).

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (76).

“It is fatal for any one who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly” (104).

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters” (106).

A Room of One’s Own is Book 2 completed for the Modern March event.

Thoughts: Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

294459Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 21

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

Miss Lonelyhearts is the journalistic pseudonym for a male newspaper man who aspires to have his own gossip column.  The reader is never told his true name, but it is his journey we follow.  Miss Lonelyhearts has a deep and profound faith in Christ and Christianity.  He becomes depressed by the letters he receives on a daily basis, from sad, sick, abused, and lonely men and women who are seeking his advice.  He believes that Christ is the answer but is continuously mocked by his editor, Shrike, who derides his religion and who believes that art is the true answer. Miss Lonelyhearts has a stone where his soul should be – coldness where he should have passion.  He relieves the ache of this by attempting to make love to women, his own girlfriend as well as others (even having affairs with his boss’s wife & some of his faithful readers).  These affairs, coupled with his inability to connect with other people, will lead to his disillusionment and demise.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

In addition to Miss Lonelyhearts, who is the novella’s main character and Christ-figure, there are a few others who complete the cast.  First is Shrike, Miss Lonelyhearts’s editor – Shrike is a womanizer, a hedonist who lives for pleasure, though he cannot get any from his wife, and, essentially, the novella’s anti-Christ (though he survives and thrives, interestingly enough).  Shrike is married to a virginal woman named Marry, which is kind of hilarious, if a bit heavy-handed.  Betty is Miss Lonelyhearts’s fiancée and she represents the good, the naïve – the sheep, if you will.  She praises the country and hates the city, believing it to be the cause of Miss Lonelyhearts’s anxiety and unhappiness (or illness, as she calls it).  In addition to these are Mrs. Doyle, the story’s Mary Magdalene, and her husband Mr. Doyle, a cripple who Miss Lonelyhearts attempts, and fails, to heal.  The rest of the cast are made up of minor characters, such an elderly homosexual man (whose presence exposes a bit of the early psychoanalytical obsession with homosexual “perversion”), the letter-writers who turn to Miss Lonelyhearts for help, and some co-workers at the newspaper.  West knows what he is doing with his characters and, aside from the letter-writers who all tend to write the same way, despite having different backgrounds and problems, most of the characters serve a distinct purpose and come across with believable, individual personalities.

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

West’s prose is raw, graphic, and emotionally American.  His narration is swift and to the point, with moments of high and romantic description employed at appropriate intervals.  The dialogue is believable even when certain of the situations are not, but the scenes where Miss Lonelyhearts is alone in his room and coming to terms with his fanaticism (he admits to needing to hold himself in check or risk losing himself completely to an obsessive, extreme  zealotry) are the most poignant of all.  The incorporation of letters from the newspaper audience allows for a broader view of the American disillusionment, without necessitating the inclusion of too many characters which, in a novella of approximately 65 pages, is both necessary and effective.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Nathanael West’s works are deeply concerned with Depression-era America.  He, like John Steinbeck, wrote stories about the American Dream and how truly unachievable that dream was.  Unlike Steinbeck, however, West’s characters are not compassionate – there is no one to root for and, in fact, many are masterful grotesques.  He follows in the footsteps of Sherwood Anderson, creating characters who are less individuals than they are the embodiment of a seedy, disappointing element of humanity.  West was a Hollywood screenwriter and novelist and, coincidentally, died the same weekend as his good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, another Hollywood novelist who explored the darker, disappointing side of the American dream.  Miss Lonelyhearts, though short, packs a punch.  West ironically employs the literary Christ figure, as he does in Day of the Locust and, in both books, it is a failed Christ and a failure of Christian faith in general being presented.  SPOILERS FOLLOW: Miss Lonelyhearts himself goes through Christ’s journey (three days of “death”, a “Last Supper”, and a “Resurrection”) only to be killed (crucified) by one who lacks faith in him.  Unlike Christ, who sacrificed himself for others, Miss Lonelyhearts is killed for betraying another man. Other themes include castration (one which would become increasingly important with the Beat generation), the Great Depression, and the frustrated American Dream.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Great Depression, Loss of American Dream, Castration, Christian Allegory, Social Anxiety, Hollywood novel.

Notable Quotes:

“At college, and perhaps for a year afterwards, they had believed in literature, had believed in Beauty and in personal expression as an absolute end. When they lost this belief, they lost everything.”

“He read it for the same reason an animal tears at a wounded foot: to hurt the pain.”

“He felt as though his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion, wrecking the world without rocking it.”

“Art Is a Way Out. Do not let life overwhelm you. When the old paths are choked with the debris of failure, look for newer and fresher paths. Art is just such a path. Art is distilled from suffering.”

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 1 completed for the Modern March event.

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 11 completed for the Classics Club Challenge.

Miss Lonelyhearts is Book 134 completed for the 1,001 Books TBR Before You Die Challenge.

Thoughts: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

394731The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 12

Graham Greene is considered by many to be one of the most important 20th Century English writers. His novels are always highly masculine and usually carry a complicated but unambiguous Catholicism. For me, either of these “types” of literature could be highly repellant, but there is something about Greene’s ability that draws me in, something about his works that speak to me – even though I’m appalled by the misogyny and unreceptive to the religious overtones. The End of the Affair is, as its protagonist states at the outside, a story about hate. This, of course, means it is really about love – but a love which causes pain and heartache. The story takes place in England during the bombings of World War II, so there is always a sense of the uncontrollable – the powerlessness of man and the fleeting nature of life. The main character and narrator, Maurice, is a writer who falls in love (which, for him, means possession – sex!) with a woman named Sarah, who just happens to be another man’s wife. The two have a torrid affair which ends (not a surprise, considering the title of the book), but in a rather unconventional way. When it is over, Maurice and his lover’s husband become strangely close, almost coupling in a transitive way through Sarah.

The story is narrated in the first-person, from Maurice Bendrix’s point of view. Maurice’s anger and biases, as well as his own admission that he will choose what to include and what to leave out of the story, make his narration somewhat unreliable. That being said, he does come to an ultimate truth at the end and, despite his anger, admits to himself, to Sarah, and to the reader the very thing he had hoped to avoid throughout the story. Sarah, the love interest, as well as her husband, Henry, and a private investigator (Parkis), plus an atheist leader (Smythe) are all very well imagined and executed. They each have distinct personalities and their own parts to play in the story (as do other of the minor characters, such as the Catholic Priest and Sarah’s mother). For those interested in masculinity studies, for instance, one can clearly find representatives for the four principal categories of Hegemony, Complicity, Subordination, and Marginalization.

Like much of Greene’s work, The End of the Affair is a story about power and its prose matches that theme. Greene’s style and language are strong, direct, and highly “male.” He struggles a bit, I think, with the first-person narration. This was his first novel written in first-person P.O.V. and the story is also based on his own affair – the book was dedicated “To C”, which refers to his mistress, Lady Catherine Walston; so, given the first attempt coupled with the very personal nature of the story, it is not surprising that Greene may have been a bit uncomfortable. Still, the story would have been very different in the third-person – the anger may not have come across as genuine, the jealousy filtered through a narrator might not have been as raw, and certainly the condescension Maurice hold for all other males would not have been as pronounced.

What I enjoyed most about the book was its purity of sentiment. What I mean by that is, in this book, anger is anger. Jealousy is jealousy. Kindness is kindness. The book is like one raw, exposed nerved, pricked in different ways by different characters. It is also a good example of modernism, particularly in its structure (starting the story not at the beginning, but after everything has happened, the narrator trying to make sense of it all after the fact – reminding me of The Great Gatsby and The Good Soldier). Ultimately, I responded well to this book, as I did to The Power and the Glory. And, I must say, this troubles me greatly.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Adultery, Catholicism, Religion, Jealousy, Sin/Redemption, Power, Masculinity.

Notable Quotes:

“What happens if you drop all the things that make you I?”

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

“I hate you, God. I hate you as though you actually exist.”

“I refused to believe that love could take any other form than mine: I measured love by the extent of my jealousy, and by that standard of course she could not love me at all.”

“It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death: I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.”

“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”

“Pain is easy to write. In pain we’re all happily individual. But what can one write about happiness?”

“Insecurity is the worst sense that lovers feel; sometimes the most humdrum desireless marriage seems better. Insecurity twists meanings and poisons trust.”

“I measured love by the extent of my jealousy.”

The End of the Affair is Book #10 for my Classics Club Challenge & Book #5 for my 2013 TBR Pile Challenge

Thoughts: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

512704Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 11

I first read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in graduate school (2007?), as part of a 20th Century American Literature class. I loved that class, and the professor, because we read primarily unexpected texts – important ones, and ones which said much about the culture and politics of the time, but books which are nonetheless often overlooked, particularly in the classroom setting (such as Nathanael West’s, Day of the Locust, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, etc.). What I loved about the book when I first read it was its humor. Anita Loos’s protagonist, Lorelei Lee, a genuine flapper and perhaps America’s first sensational gold-digger, is also the epitome (perhaps the originator) of the all-too-recognizable “blonde joke.” Her story is one of “education” and “morals” – a girl who is on a journey to improve herself, except that improvement, in Lorelei’s case, simply means getting her hands on as many jewels and as much money as she possibly can.

Along for the ride is Lorelei’s best friend, Dorothy, who, while a flapper, is much more sensible than Lorelei and truly is in search of love, rather than money – a claim Lorelei makes of herself all along, but the evidence repeatedly says otherwise. Dorothy is outspoken and direct about what she wants, and this attitude – though feminists might champion it- cause Lorelei to think that it is Dorothy who is in need of “education” and “improvement.” The joke, of course, is that it is Lorelei whose choices are highly suspect and rather immoral.

Upon reading the book for a second time (this time for a Gender Studies course in my doctoral program), I find that I love all of the same things, including the humor, the wit, and the wild adventures, but I also responded strongly to the bond between Dorothy and Lorelei and also to the subversive themes, particularly women in traditional male roles (dominating sexual/romantic relationships, traveling abroad without chaperones, etc.). Much of what this book is about, and why it is so great, can be summed up by the following passage:

So Mr. Jennings helped me quite a lot and I stayed in his office about a year when I found out he was not the kind of a gentleman that a young girl is safe with. I mean one evening when I went to pay a call on him at his apartment, I found a girl there who really was famous all over Little Rock for not being nice. So when I found out that girls like that paid calls on Mr. Jennings I had quite a bad case of histerics and my mind was really a blank and when I came out of it, it seems that I had a revolver in my hand and it seems that the revolver had shot Mr. Jennings.

The spelling and grammar errors, the flippant attitude, the game of conceal and reveal (quite prevalent in this book – she has a lot of sexual encounters, for instance, though she never, ever specifically mentions them. She does, however, mention that this “diary” of hers might be given to a gentleman, one day, so we know she’s not revealing everything), the faux-innocence, it’s all here. What is interesting about Lorelei is that she seems to think that everything is a result of fate. She never takes responsibility for the things she does, though she is a character of extreme agency. For instance, when the above scene is referred to again later, Lorelei never says “I shot the man;” instead, see says that “Mr. Jennings came to be shot.” This victim-esque mentality comes about in many ways, as when she is “abused” by wealthier men and women, whom she will later exact revenge upon (though she was in the wrong in the first place), or in her general gold-digging nature – she believes she is a girl “that things happen to,” which leaves her free to make all sorts of dubious decisions and not feel any kind of guilt or remorse about them. She is a woman with a bad reputation (which even Dorothy jokes about, though Lorelei never “gets” the joke) – she’s understood by others to be sexually corrupt and morally bankrupt, yet she doesn’t see these things in herself; ironically, she ultimately seeks “saving” (rather than “education”) by marrying a religious man who works as a censor (hilarious considering both Lorelei’s personality as well as Anita Loos’s career as a screenwriter).

Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_(1953)_film_posterThis book has received wide and varied reactions, from James Joyce who fell in love with it and reserved his ailing eyesight for the serial installments (the book having first been published in chapters, through Harper’s Bazaar) and Edith Wharton, who called it “the great American novel;” to William Faulkner, who absolutely loathed it. Many people are familiar with the 1950s film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. The film, too, is brilliant, but readers should keep in mind that the two are very different. Much of the book’s essence is changed to suit the 1950s mentality and to strengthen the friendship between Lorelei and Dorothy (a relationship which is often stained in the book, but which is paramount in the film). Leaving the film aside, which one might argue is perhaps more feminist, the book is deceptively complex. Lorelei comes across, in her diary, as a type of brainless valley girl, full of “Like’s” and “So’s;” but this is Loos’s genius. She exposes the underbelly of 1920s hypocrisy and morality in a raw and humorous way. As Loos herself mentions in the introduction, this book was enormously popular in Russia, where it was likened to the dreary, often fatalistic social works of Tolstoy and this is because, leaving out the humor, Loos’s depiction of the world, of capitalism, sexual commodities, body image, and the treatment of women, is all very bleak. It’s a fun ride but, somehow, a dangerously serious one, too.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +
Interest: Gender Studies, Feminism, Women’s Literature, 1920s American Literature, Flappers, Jazz Age, Modernism, Epistolary.

Notable Quotes:
“Kissing your hand may make you feel very, very good but a diamond and a sapphire bracelet lasts forever.”

“Does this boat go to Europe, France?”

“Memory is more incredible than ink.”

“I always think that the most delightful thing about traveling is to always be running into Americans and to always feel at home.”

“Fate keeps on happening”

“A Modern March” Reading Event

Modernist_Lit_ButtonI’ve been waiting for this!  Allie (A Literary Odyssey) is hosting a Modernist Literature event this March, and I’ve been saving two books specifically for it.  Now, the announcement post is up and I can officially “plan” my reading.  I will absolutely get through these two texts, but hopefully I’ll manage to get through one or two extra.  Spring Break is in March, but I have papers and presentations due for class that month, too, so who knows?

Important Note: This is for Modernist Literature / Literature of the Modernist Period.  It is not for contemporary fiction, what some might call “modern” or “current.” 

ANYHOO! The books I plan to read are:

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

If I have time, I might also tried to read some poetry, perhaps The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot.

Allie says of Modernism:

If you have no idea what constitutes a piece of “Modern” literature (and whenever I say Modern, I don’t mean contemporary lit), it generally refers to literature written between the very late 19th century and the halfway point of the 20th century. In general, Modernist writers experimented with style, form, and theme. They broke away from the traditional viewpoints found in literature until that point and strove to focus on the darker and more unpleasant sides of life. This is also the time period where stream-of-consciousness made its roaring appearance.

I would also add, some things to look for are the lack of religion in these works (conspicuous, given the fact that much of the literature in periods before Modernism were rife with religion & religious morality) and also the fascination with “the new.” 

Thanks to Allie for hosting – I’m ready to go!

Review: Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 43


Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays is included in Time magazine’s “100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923 to 2005.” The protagonist (although, from here out I may call her simply “main character,” as protagonist implies a positive agency of some sort) is Maria Wyeth, a disillusioned, mentally troubled, emotionally scarred 31-year-old woman.  The story begins at the end, with Maria writing down episodes from her life in an attempt to reconcile certain events and to heal, mentally and emotionally (think Catcher in the Rye).  The crux of the story seems to be Maria’s lack of purpose in life, coupled with the loss of her daughter (who is alive but who has been institutionalized, something Maria likens to a type of imprisonment).  The primary conflict is Maria’s desire to reconnect her daughter, to bring her home and take care of her, but it is usually clear that, even if Maria were to gain custody of her daughter again, there’s no way she would be in a condition to care for her, or for anybody.  The story’s resolution can be read in two ways, either as hopeful or as perpetually doomed – arguments for both readings can absolutely be made (and this is, perhaps, an Americanized complexity –or playful approach- to the French Existentialist problem).  


Characterization:
3 – Characters well-developed.

Most of the narrative time is spent with Maria, which makes sense as she is writing a journal of sorts, remembering certain events from her own life.  She comes across as submissive, physically and sexually, to strong male characters; but, the irony is that she truly admires strong females, such as a powerful Italian woman she reads about in a magazine, and also the resolute character she herself plays in a minor movie.  All of the other characters are minor ones which serve the novels larger purpose, which is to expose a type of American existentialism, wherein all meaning and purpose in life has been lost (or the meaning of life, which is that there is no meaning, has been discovered).  The thing to take away from these characters is the sense of resignation to a disappointing fate – a theme present in other “Hollywood” novels, such as West’s Day of the Locust and Fonte’s Ask the Dust.  There is a clear commentary on Hollywood culture (fake, detached, sad, and superficial) and also on the realization that the great west, the final frontier, is gone, leaving nothing left to be discovered, no hope to cultivate, and no dreams to believe in.


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Most of the novel is made-up of short, episodic chapters of stringently controlled third-person narration which is strengthened by rather visual and biting prose.  Near the end of the novel, the third-person chapters are interrupted by very short first-person reflections, inner-monologue of a sort, which represent Maria’s emotional awakening and new (or relearned) consciousness.  Maria Wyeth is, for most of the book, emotionally disconnected and sees things in simplistic ways.  This suits Didion’s style, one which is clearly inspired by Hemingway (Didion’s literary hero), Fitzgerald, and other American modernists, particularly those of the ex-patriot Lost Generation.  The reductive, sparse prose is striking and powerful, particularly in the most intense moments, such as the description of Maria’s abortion and the suicide of Maria’s friend.  These types of scenes would traditionally be either inferred, but not described, or described in detail (with or without metaphor – but in a highly descriptive way).  Didion lays them out in a bare, straightforward way, which make them all the more real and terrifying.


Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements are present and enhance the Story.

For such a sparse novel, it is absolutely littered with meaningful symbols and motifs.  The most obvious and recurrent of these is probably the rattlesnake.  As would be expected, they’re typically present in times of danger, but they also represent the male dominance, mimicked in Maria’s relationship with all men in this book (men who are ultimately responsible for the destruction of female relationships and the separation of mothers and daughters).  There is also the symbol of the Hummingbird, which might represent Maria’s re-awakening to “real” life and emotions.  There are many times throughout the book where people, Maria and others, feel suffocated by “fake” items, such as an artificial lemon (which someone almost eats) and plastic plants, which Maria believes suck away the oxygen, rather than giving off oxygen as actual plants would.  This is clearly another indication of the suffocating non-reality of Hollywood life, where everything is a copy of a copy of… etc.  There is also the motif of the freeway/roadways and Maria’s attempt to find meaning and direction by driving aimlessly which, in true existential fashion, does not work.  Games, gambling, and “playing” work in the same way that plastic copies of living things do, in that they are moments which pretend to be meaningful real life events, but which are actually avoidances.  Other things to look for are the presence and meaning of dreams, the nature of madness, and Maria’s obsession with whiteness and cleanliness.  


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: American Existentialism, Modernism, Hollywood, Abortion, Sexuality, Gender Dynamics, Cultural Studies.


Notable Quotes:

“What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”

“I am not much engaged by the problems of what you might call our day but I am burdened by the particular, the mad person who writes me a letter. It is no longer necessary for them even to write me. I know when someone is thinking of me. I learn to deal with this.”

“By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.”

“One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.”