Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Criticism, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde, Theory

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 5)

Last month, I introduced a five-part project exploring Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as viewed through various critical lenses. I began in Part 1 with Formalism. This week, I take a very brief look at the novel from a Feminist perspective and conclude with some brief, final thoughts. I have to say, looking back at a favorite novel through a variety of lenses has been a challenging but rewarding task. I actually had quite a lot of fun with it and thought about the novel in new and different ways.

Feminism

A theory which need be applied to The Picture of Dorian Gray, but which seems surprisingly lacking, is the Feminist approach. Perhaps the small amount of feminist criticism written about this novel, or at least the difficulty in finding it, is due to the fact that feminist and queer theories are both relatively “new” schools (in terms of the overall history of theory and criticism), coming about at roughly the same time and, naturally, queer theory took firm hold of Dorian Gray. Be that as it may, it seems to me that much should be said about the lack of female presence in Dorian Gray, and also about the disturbing picture of women presented in the minor character roles which do exist for them.

In her essay, “Chloe Liked Olivia,” Virginia Woolf states that, “all the great women of fiction were . . . not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that” (Leitch 1024). This is absolutely true for Sybil Vane. Not only is she seen simply and briefly through men’s eyes (Oscar Wilde, as the writer, but also Dorian Gray and Lord Henry, as observers) but she also must play a boy on stage. Further, her importance in the story is only to the extent that she causes Dorian’s first slip into wickedness.

Other female characters in the novel include: Lady Agatha, Mrs. Vane, Lady Victoria Wotten, and Lady Brandon, all of whom only exist within the story to further the male roles. As a feminist, I wonder how Virginia Woolf must have read The Picture of Dorian Gray; I believe it is doing a great disservice to feminist theory to leave such a marker text out of the discussion. Though Queer theorists may have seized Dorian Gray –and for good reason– there is still room for discussion on many points of feminist theory, especially taking into consideration the role that Oscar Wilde’s own wife must have played on the portrayal of Sybil Vane. And, further, what does a gay man, married to a woman, have to offer the feminist community?

Concluding Thoughts

The possibilities for examining a text like The Picture of Dorian Gray are endless, but one must stop somewhere, at least for a little while. Any school of criticism can be applied to such an extraordinary text, and thus bring about new questions and new modes of examination. Placing many theories side-by-side, or interlacing them, perhaps, is an even greater way of coming up with new ideas, noticing nuances that were once overlooked.

The point of this series is to consider a single novel from a variety of critical perspectives, and to explore how one might go about that process. It demonstrates how The Picture of Dorian Gray has “changed” over time (or how reception of it has changed), simply by being read again and again. I hope that, after thinking of how different generations have read this one novel, we might remember to think more broadly, even more exotically, about other texts we read in the future. It is important to keep in mind that, just as two people reading one text at the same time will not walk away with the same feeling, the same understanding of it, so too will different generations, different cultures, different religions, different classes, and different genders have even further interpretations of that text. The experiment, indeed, arose from my own re-readings of a number of books, many of which I responded to quite differently with each new reading.

This series, I hope, is just a beginning, a tip to the iceberg of understanding. I hope, personally, to continue to ask questions about my reading(s), to re-examine old ideas, and to revisit texts from a new perspective; and, by doing these, I hope to encourage my own growth as a reader (and writer).

Please visit early segments for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism; Dorian Gray and Reader-Response; Dorian Gray and Post-Structuralism; and Dorian Gray and Marxism. If you have any ideas about another novel (or short story) that I should try this kind of experiment on, let me know!

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
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Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Criticism, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde, Theory

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 4)

Last month, I introduced a five-part project exploring Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as viewed through various critical lenses. I began in Part 1 with Formalism. This week, I take a very brief look at the novel from a Marxist perspective. This is the shortest of the series by far because, quite frankly, I have not spent much time with any formal study of Marxism, save reading a few Terry Eagleton books.

Marxism

Another interesting approach of theory, and one that has been taken by critics during their examination of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the study of a text as a historical product, or as a cultural producer. Raymond Williams argues that literature is “a specific historical product, carrying class values” (Leitch 1565). He goes on to claim that, “literary forms and genres are determined by the social roles they play” (1566). So, what does this mean for Dorian Gray?

As Baker puts it, “Wilde’s chief concern was always with art, the artist, the critic, or the effect of art and criticism on society at large” (350). Thus, it stands to reason that Oscar Wilde set out, in Dorian Gray to have the text act as a cultural producer. He is not simply mirroring his own personality, but offering a suggestion, a warning, to society; beware the wrath of vanity, of imitation, and of idolatry. Baker solidifies this idea, that Dorian Gray is alerting the people, en masse, by stating, “Wilde believed that the progress of society was dependent upon the progress of the individual” (351).

Another case for a Marxist reading of Dorian Gray is an idea posited in “the Dialectics of Dandyism.” Glick presents further discussion on the idea of real versus appearance (as in Dorian and his picture) when she writes, “Marx makes it clear that while the distinction between what appears to be and what really is functions as a smoke screen for capital, the split between appearance and essence is not imaginary” (133). She goes on to explain that appearances are necessary to conceal inner relations, and that these “secrets” are present in The Picture of Dorian Gray as made example by the passage, “I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us.  The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it” (Wilde 7). Thus, Dorian Gray acts as a cultural product and producer, in that it was written to produce a sense of acknowledgment in the reader, and that, since its publication, cultures (especially, as Glick explains, the Queer community) have been affected by it.

The exploration of art and consumerism as both rivals and necessary conspirators is a fascinating one to me; I know there is a great deal of literature on the subject, though I have spent perhaps far too little time engaging with it. My consideration of Dorian Gray as a novel that both rejects and utilizes consumerism has encouraged me to consider other topics similarly. It is especially interesting to me that an aesthete, like Wilde, would so cheekily critique the very concept he personally faults. Wilde wrote for an audience, after all, so he cannot be excepted from his own criticism (as someone like Salinger, say, could be, because Salinger ultimately did reject the spectacle of it all and continued to produce art without making it consumable.)

Please visit early segments for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism; Dorian Gray and Reader-Response; and Dorian Gray and Post-Structuralism. I will return next week with the final installment, Part 5: Dorian Gray and Feminism.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 349-55.
  • Glick, Elisa. “The Dialectics of Dandyism.” Cultural Critique 48 (2001): 129-63.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
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Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Criticism, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde, Theory

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 3)

Two weeks ago, I introduced a five-part project exploring Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as viewed through various critical lenses. I began in Part 1 with Formalism and then considered the opposite perspective, Reader-Response theory. This week, I return to a more textual consideration as opposed to an audience-focused one.

The post-structuralists are most likely to be fascinated by the idea I put forth in part one of this series; that, perhaps, Oscar Wilde was both presenting himself to the public and, at the same time, chastising himself for doing so; it is the idea Jacques Derrida presents in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy” and what he might call “remedy and drug” (Leitch 1837). Derrida writes, “a text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible” (1830). The discussions, then, of whether Oscar Wilde was being autobiographical or not; of whether Dorian Gray were a real person or not; of whether Sybil Vane represents Wilde’s wife or not, would be of great interested to the deconstructionists because they are all unanswerable and ever-changing, they are all “play.”

If it is the case that Wilde knows what he is doing by “[calling] into account the overly self-conscious artist who projects his own personality too severely on the public” only to then “put too much of [himself] into it, would be of great interest and amusement to Derrida and the deconstructionalists [sic] (Baker 350, 352). Similarly interested would be Baudrillard, for two reasons: the presence of a portrait in the story, one which becomes the reality, leaving the person a “simulacrum” and the projection of Wilde onto his own work, confusing reality and fiction. Baudrillard argues that copies and reproductions become more desirable than the original, that they “provide all the signs of the real and short-circuit all its vicissitudes” (Leitch 1733). This is certainly true of the painting of Dorian Gray; “the hideous corruption of his soul” is demonstrated by the changing face of the copy in the portrait, rather than on Dorian’s own visage (Wilde 104). As for Wilde’s projection of self onto the pages of his novel, Baudrillard would find this another means of copying real life and making it more interesting, more accessible, and more desirable than the life itself. Why bother living a life, with all its bothersome detours and “vicissitudes” when one can sit back and read a life, one carefully directed and presented?

Another post-structuralist who must be noted, and whose theory need be applied to Dorian Gray is Michel Foucault. In The History of Sexuality, he writes of “a policing of sex: that is, not the rigor of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses” (Leitch 1652). That the sexuality of Dorian Gray and indeed Oscar Wilde was policed, is indisputable. Wilde was sentenced to solitary confinement for his “acts of sodomy.” Foucault would offer that this had to happen. In order for homosexuality to be talked about, it was necessary for it to be publicly punished and, consequently, shoved into the spotlight:  “Wilde was arrested in April 1895 and from that moment a sheer panic prevailed over all questions of sex, and especially of course questions of the Intermediate Sex” (Schmidgall 229). Oscar Wilde’s sacrifice, though not intentional, allowed for debates to be fueled and discussions to be brought about. Then, incrementally, the act of talking about homosexuality allowed for the inclusion of it in new texts.

Please visit Part 1 and Part 2 for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism or Dorian Gray and Reader-Response. I will return next week with Part 4: Dorian Gray and Marxism.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 349-55.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
  • Schmidgall, Gary.  The Stranger Wild: Interpreting Oscar. Dutton: Penguin, 1994.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

 

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Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Theory, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 1)

Original artist unknown.

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde 4). One of my favorite novels is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was thrust into the critical pool upon its first release in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and it has remained in that pool, wading through theoretical waters, ever since. The novel has been critiqued by hundreds of scholars, from all schools of theory and research. But what makes Dorian Gray such a compelling research topic? What can the different theories bring to light about the novel? How do we read Dorian Gray and get what we “should” from the work? Is it important that Oscar Wilde may have written the novel as an autobiography?

To answer these questions, I would like to consider how this novel has been treated by five different theoretical perspectives, which I will divide into a five-part series, as follows: First, a Formalist approach to Dorian Gray, discussing the idea that the best artists put nothing of their own personality into their product; second, the reader-response theory and its implications on The Picture of Dorian Gray over time, such as how cultural shifts and experiences change the way we view the novel; third, the post-structural ideas of “play” and “remedy vs drug”; fourth, the text as a historical product, as informed by Raymond William and Marxism; and fifth, the feminist view, or lack thereof, on Wilde’s work.

This is a source-informed but somewhat recreational attempt to examine, in non-linear fashion, a variety of ways in which Dorian Gray has been treated in literary theory and criticism. I was intrigued by Wilde’s assertion that diversity of opinion about an artwork essentially keeps that artwork alive. Since diverse opinions continue to surround Dorian Gray after nearly 130-years in print, it seems fair to say that this work of art is still very much alive. 

Formalism

T.S. Eliot writes, “no artist produces great art by a deliberate attempt to express his personality” and that a “poet has, not a personality to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality” (qtd. in Leitch 1096). To argue or to agree with Eliot and the Formalists, one must first do two things: define “great art” and decide what favor or disfavor has been done by an artist attempting to express himself in his work. The first of these two things seems, to me, an impossibility. There can be no definition for great art, any more than there can be definition for art in general (how often has this conversation come up?). So, for my purposes, I reject the need to classify art as good or bad, and instead focus on whether Oscar Wilde is autobiographical in Dorian Gray; if so, are the Formalists correct in their argument that a writer’s biography and personality must be kept separate from an artist’s work in order for the work to be, shall we say, effective?

According to one researcher, The Picture of Dorian Gray is all about Wilde. In his essay, “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate,” Nethercot writes that one of Wilde’s methods of self-revelation “was his habit of introducing details from his own life and character into his descriptions of people he was writing about” (Nethercot 835). He goes on to argue that the narrator’s review of the “curious stories [becoming] current” about Dorian Gray in his twenty-fifth year is, in fact, Wilde’s own review of himself: “Wilde was twenty-five in 1879, and by that time the mask which he had at first endeavored to set up before his face in his daily activities and conversation had begun to slip” (841). Even Dorian’s “confession” monologue near the end of the novel can be viewed as an internal-struggle Wilde was having, himself unsure of how much of his personal life to make public, though he had been “confessing in public all along” (842). The mystery is, then, was Oscar Wilde consciously using his own life experiences and personalities in his writing and, if so, did he approve of that practice in general? Should we?

A wide reading suggests Wilde does put much of himself into his writing, and perhaps Dorian Gray was a type of public, yet veiled, “coming out” for the author. However, it is likely that Oscar Wilde knew the danger in which he placed himself by putting so much of his own personality into the pages of his text. Houston A. Baker writes that Wilde’s own view on the artist is that he “must have a strong personality, but he cannot simply thrust upon the world his own raw emotions in the work of art” (Baker 352). This opinion also seems to be made clear in the pages of Dorian Gray when Basil Hallward admits that he cannot exhibit his own work because he has “shown in it the secret of [his] own soul” (Wilde 8). Perhaps, then, The Picture of Dorian Gray is answering two of Wilde’s needs: to present himself honestly to the public and to publicly admonish himself for it. If this is the case, then Wilde confounds the Formalists not only by inserting himself into his fictional work, but by admitting he has done so and using the same work to reprimand himself (ultimately a kind of meta-insertion).

I’m uncomfortable with the Formalist’s approach to literary criticism. The suggestion is that one can (or must) study a work for structural purposes only, rejecting any other context or outside influence that might have helped to create that text. While I see the benefits of this type of consideration in terms of critiquing the success or failure of plot structure, for example (or pacing, or narrative time, etc.), as a single method for evaluating the text it is too limited because it necessarily omits a number of important elements that influenced and allowed for the creation of the work in the first place. To me, a piece of literature (or art) should not be dissected from its context, be that social, economic, or cultural. 

Come back soon for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Reader-Response theory!

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 349-55.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 
  • Nethercot, Arthur H.  “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate.” PMLA 59.3 (1944): 833-50.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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2018 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Classics, Contemporary, Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Joan Didion, Non-Fiction

“Joansing” for Didion

While Halloween has always held a coveted spot in my heart and imagination, the truth is, I used to get almost as excited for the 4thof July. It was like the summertime version of my favorite autumn day, where the rules were bent and the pure joy of living was the day’s entire purpose. I distinctly remember people from my childhood commenting about my love for this holiday, and about how patriotic I must have been. But that was never the reality.

What I loved were the barbecues and the being outside with friends all day, playing kickball and having water balloon fights, and getting so bloated on hot dogs and ice cream that I thought I’d burst before the big city fireworks show. I loved the morning parade, being in it as a Boy Scout and, when Boy Scout days were over, arising early to save the family seats along the sidewalk, close enough to grab candy and other goodies from the parade participants.

And I can still hear the sound of the ice cream truck, softly in the distance. I can see my friends’ faces as they heard it too; we’d look at each other at just the right moment, realizing it was time to pause the game, rush home to beg for a dollar, and then get back out into the street in time to stop the truck as he came tinkling down the road. But more than anything, it was the fireworks.

Reading Joan Didion is like reading the 4th of July. It is fireworks in my brain and sitting down with an old friend to chat about and think about everything and nothing, and leaving exhausted by the pure and exhilarating experience of being together again. There’s no special magic to fireworks, once you learn they’re little more than powder, a match, and some cleverly timed fuses. In the same way, one can “figure out” the technical and creative style of Didion in order to explain just how she does what she does, and why it is so compelling. But even now, that knowledge, about fireworks and Didion, remains subliminal, and I continue to be, above all, caught up in the spectacle, in the color and rhythm and choreography of it all.

The White Album is a collection of essays written in the “aftermaths of the 1960s.” Her subject matter ranges from personalities like Doris Lessing to events like the Manson murders. What holds it all together is the skeptical and, in hindsight, sobering but accurate perspective of an often-mistaken view about the United States’ “greatest decade.” Didion takes an unflinching look at the optimism of the 1960s, the supposed freedoms, and the many breakdowns and reckonings of that idealism, the unmasking, as it were, of one decade by its disillusioned successor, the 1970s.

In the first essay, from which the collection takes its title, Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live . . . we look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” In other words, the writer’s work at this time was to try to make sense of the senseless, and the 1970s more than any other time revealed that, sometimes, the narrative is simply wrong.

In later essays, she writes about architecture, like governors’ mansions and museums, as signifiers of our culture’s shaken and superficial, even misleading, view of our own past. In “The Getty,” for example, she writes, “the Getty tells us that the past was perhaps different from the way we like to perceive it.” If the collection has one unifying theme, it is this critique on what we Americans think we know about our own past, and how quickly truth and reality seem to slip through our fingers. To read this collection now, in 2018, is a particularly painful and humbling experience.

One of the most under-rated essays in the collection is its last, “Quiet Days in Malibu.” In a way, this piece, written between 1976-1978, is the logical concluding piece not just because it comes near the end chronologically, but because Didion writes about the personal experience of living in Malibu in order to reveal that it, too—the reality of her hometown—is different from how it is perceived by those who live outside of it. Malibu, California has an aura about it that relates to nothing real, according to Didion, just as the 1970s exposed the truth of the 1960s, puncturing its aura forever. Aptly, and somewhat ironically, at the center of her experience in this essay is an immigrant who runs a local flower shop for decades. His are some of the most expensive, sought-after plants in the world and, like everything else, their position is precarious. Danger and uncertainty, instability and tragedy, are always lurking. And yet, so is hope—inexplicable, untraceable, blind hope.

I adore Didion’s writing, so beware my bias. That said, this is perhaps her most tightly themed collection. Despite an essay or two with which I had some intellectual or emotional disagreement (there is one titled “The Women’s Movement” that left me feeling more than conflicted), I felt a fierce and powerful sense of grounded awe while reading these essays and after finishing the collection. This is what I’ve come to expect, personally, from my time with Joan Didion.

The rocket’s red glare. The bombs bursting in air.


This was the fifth book read for my TBR Pile Challenge.


All work found on roofbeamreader.com is copyright of the original author and cannot be borrowed, quoted, or reused in any fashion without the express, written permission of the author.


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Book Review, Classics, E.H. Gombrich, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Mario Puzo, Non-Fiction, Potpour-reads, S.E. Hinton, Young Adult

The Outsiders, The Godfather, and A Little History

In this fourth “potpour-reads” post, I put together some thoughts on three classics, including two works of fiction and one of non-fiction. The first fiction classic is classified by Penguin as a “modern classic” and is sometimes categorized further into “young adult,” although I don’t think that is necessary. The second fiction classic is notoriously known for being simultaneously the author’s least successful stylistically but also the most successful commercially. Finally, the non-fiction classic is an adult adaptation of a history book that was originally written for children, then updated many years later. Each of these books was read in June, 2018, and the covers shown are for the editions that I read.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a book that I have had on my “TBR” shelf for probably 20+ years. I honestly have no idea what took me so long to read it, especially considering how many people love it. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension, actually, because who wants to be “that guy” who hates a book everyone else finds so amazing? Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965. At the heart of the story is its narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that’s his real name) whose parents have died and left him and his elder brother Sodapop in the care of their eldest brother, Darry. The three teenagers are members of the lower-working class and belong to a type of gang called “Greasers.” Their rivals are the wealthy gang from the better part of town, called the “Socs” (short for “Socials”). One of the more gripping elements of the novel is the intimate look at family and friendship, and especially the way that young men take care of each other when they have no parents or guardians willing or able to do the job. The boys often refer to each other with terms of endearment usually restricted to romantic partners, which provides insight into how close they are and how much they would be willing to risk for one another. They are “boys,” though, and masculine stereotypes abound: duty, honor, manhood, etc. These “values” get the young men into plenty of trouble, from gang fights to murder, to a questionable suicide. What makes the almost clichéd nature of it all (a girl named “Cherry”?) worth it is the complexity of character that so many of the Greasers have, especially the sensitivity of the poet and the artist, Ponyboy and Johnny. By the end, almost without realizing it, I had begun to root for these kids, just as many of the townspeople do. This is a book that has certainly “stayed gold” after all these years. (I’m killing myself after learning that Hinton wrote the book when she was in high school and published it when she was 18 – my god!)

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

This is another book I have been meaning to read for years, ever since I discovered that it was a book and not just a movie. The Godfather trilogy is my favorite film series of all-time; so, much like The Outsiders, I suppose I was subconsciously reluctant to read it because I wondered if it would withstand my close scrutiny. I mean, I basically grew up on this movie! Unlike The Outsiders, though, Mario Puzo’s book was just “okay,” for me. It is one of those rare instances where the film really outdoes the original material, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola and the many incredible actors hired for the film(s). The novel itself is interesting and I did enjoy it, and probably would have even if I weren’t already so familiar with the story. Some of the positives, in fact, include the detailed sub-plots that did not make it into any of the movies, such as the storyline for Johnny Fontaine. At first, I wondered why he was getting so much page time since his character was so insignificant in the film, but the book does more than make it work. I also enjoyed reading this as an American immigrant story. Even though Vito Corleone’s back story does not get nearly as much attention as is provided in The Godfather II, there are enough recognizable bits of it. I was reminded, while reading, that this is one of the few books in college I was assigned to read but never did. The point was to read it as an immigrant novel, and I think having done so (in an academic setting) would have been interesting. Instead, I focused on other things while relying on my knowledge of the film to get me through discussions. Whoops! I did find that the book was fairly well written, though not the kind of evocative prose or description I was expecting. Puzo himself expressed that he wrote this book for money and in desperation, so I’m confident that he would agree with me that this isn’t a stellar work. Still, it’s a good one and it lent itself perfectly for the franchise it would birth.

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

This book is, well, how can I put it other than to say, it is darling. Who knew a history book could be precious? As it turns out, Gombrich originally wrote the book in German and for children, and it was a wild success, until World War II happened and the Nazis banned it. Many years later, he rewrote and expanded the book for adults and translated it himself into English for a bigger market audience. One can tell by much of the phrasing that it was originally written for children, but I did not find this a distraction. The history is accurate and thorough enough (though very concise) for an adult reader to appreciate it, and yet there is a strong sense of wonder and awe in the prose and style. Gombrich invites the reader to engage with multiple historical events as they happen concurrently, which has always been my favorite way to approach the study of history (otherwise I can never remember what was happening at the same time as whatever else). In this way, it is one of the favorite pieces of popular history I have ever read. That said, it is clear that Gombrich studied art (his doctorate was earned in art history), because he spends a lot of time focusing on the artistic elements of each event and looking at what was happening in history through an artistic lens. Many of his analogies have to do with art or music. This style might not work for everyone, but it was fine for me. I also appreciated two important features: first, Gombrich writes about the many religions with equal respect and detail. This is really uncommon in many popular histories, and even academic ones, so call it a pleasant surprise! He also treats religion as the historical feature it is, within the context of each culture, yes, but also in relation (drawing the lines between Christ and Mohammed, for example.) I found this beyond helpful, and so fascinating! The second important feature is that he corrected information in previous editions. Where he had made an error, he explicitly pointed it out and amended that information for the new edition. In both ways, he demonstrated a trustworthy ethos–always important, but even more so these days. This is a book that will remain on my shelf permanently.

 

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Book Review, Christopher Phillips, Death and Dying, Fiction, George Saunders, Grief/Recovery, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Potpour-reads, Will Walton, Young Adult

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

In this third “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in June. Somehow, none of these books are ones from any of my challenge lists. Go figure. I read Lincoln in the Bardo because it is getting a lot of attention and because it sounded interesting. I read Socrates Café because I have been pivoting toward philosophy and history pretty heavily in the last couple of months (since January, really, when I began my focused study of Stoicism); and I read I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain largely based on the recommendation of the incomparable Andrew Smith, who has not steered me wrong, yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike anything I have ever read. It is a contemporary postmodernism married with black humor and historical fiction. As a first novel, it seems a stunning achievement, though this is the first Saunders work I have read at all, so I do not know how it compares to his short stories. (I’ve had Tenth of December sitting on my shelf for years, having purchased it only a few weeks after it was published; it is safe to say I plan to get to it sooner rather than later, now.) Essentially, Saunders combines historical accounts of Lincoln’s life and presidency with fictional ones that he creates, and then interweaves in almost testimonial fashion between the narrative portion, which is told by a trio of bizarre ghosts who meet one of Lincoln’s sons and, through him, the President himself. I’ve read a number of reviews that found the humor in this book to be off-putting and even inappropriate. I can understand their point, as some of the bawdy comedy does seem to come out of left-field. And yet, I can’t help thinking about what I’ve learned about Lincoln’s sense of humor over the years. It seems to me that he would actually appreciate the irreverent take on his life and legacy, particularly as it highlights the elements of human nature that Saunders explores, here, including fear, sexuality, death, mental health, and loneliness. It is safe to say that I did not know what to expect of Lincoln in the Bardo, even after reading the description and other reviews. Then, when reading the book, it somehow managed to be even more different than I thought it would be. In this way, I think, it deserves all the praise it has received as a contemporary masterpiece and a novel approach to, well, the novel. I was also thrilled that Saunders explored a lot of contemporary issues that are actually historical, yet would have been “taboo” for discussion in Lincoln’s time

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I have been reading much more non-fiction, lately, including history and philosophy. I stumbled upon Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Café while perusing the philosophy section of Barnes & Noble for contemporary overviews (I’ve been in a kind of “self-help” exploratory approach to the history of philosophy, I guess.) Despite reading the blurb, this is another book that caught me slightly off-guard and was not what I had expected. It is in many ways a reference guide to creating your own Socrates Café, something I had never considered and yet left the book feeling, “well, why the hell not?” I loved Phillips passion, though I did sometimes feel like the examples he gave from his own cafes around the country seemed a little far-fetched. Maybe they did happen, I don’t know, but he himself says that most of this was reconstructed after the fact, so I can’t help thinking he added a bit more flair and impressive insight than might have occurred originally. (So many of his café participants seemed to know so much about philosophy, for example, and could quote a range of philosophers from memory.) In this way, I found the book might be setting false expectations for people who are using it as a guide to beginning their own Socrates Cafe. That said, as a generally interested reader, one who is on his own journey to learn more about ancient philosophies andto think more thoughtfully about the current world, this book does an excellent job of putting the two together. In the end, it did make me want to get out there and engage with other thoughtful people, to ask big and small questions without expecting concrete answers, and to wonder gleefully about all manner of things. I think, then, Phillips does what he set out to do: make philosophy exciting again.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Will Walton’s young adult novel about grief and loss, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a creative approach to narrative (and verse) fiction. It was also not what I expected from the blurb and from reading other reviews, and yet somehow ended up being much more satisfying, much more curious, than I imagined it would be. I’ve been let down by “hype” on too many occasions, as I think we all have, but in this case, I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain lives up to the hype without necessarily living up to expectations. I’m not sure how to clarify that except to say, even though the book did not meet my expectations, I ended up appreciating it and what it does in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. This is mostly due to its construction and to the fact that, somehow, Walton manages to create that sense of grief in his text, the confusion, the sense of drowning, the psychological wandering we do when we have lost someone important to us. There are a lot of books about grief and loss, some of them are beautiful in the way they treat the subject or in the language they use to explore it. Walton’s is beautiful because, inexplicably, it simply reads like the experience of grief. I think back to a time when I most felt a terrible loss and can easily connect those feelings to the way this narrative is told and the way it unfolds, in choppy segments, in distant characterization, and in the interplay of concrete prose and transcendent verse. My only personal critique was that I felt, sometimes, like some of the segments read as if they were creative prompts inserted for the sake of it, and not as if they developed along the course of this particular story. That said, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a special book that explores a difficult topic in a unique way. It is unlike anything else on the market this year.

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