Sunday, November 27, 2011

Book #50 - Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)

It's a beer night tonight, in this case Humming Ale made by my local Anchor Steam Brewery here in San Francisco. It's a nice ale, with a bold strong taste, and since it's made locally it fits in with this book, which takes place within a couple of hundred miles of here, right in the Great State of California, in what is often referred to as "Steinbeck Country". How many other authors can you name that have a geographical region that is named for themselves? I mean, Dickens had England and Dumas had France, but no one refers to Great Britain as "Dickens Country" or France as "Dumas Country". So what am I getting at? That John Steinbeck was a badass, and one of my homies, so back off motherfucker.

By the way, I love using the word "motherfucker" when discussing the great literature treasures of western civilization.

Anyway, I just finished John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" which took me all of two days because it's a short novel...probably the shortest on my list. It was a quick read, and a powerful story, although I could tell after reading the first page or two that things were going to end very, very badly, and I certainly was correct in that assumption. The story concerns two migrant ranch workers living in California during the Great Depression. George is a crafty, wiry, and small man, and his sidekick Lennie is a huge man of great physical strength, but who is mentally handicapped. He's not bright at all, and he loves to pet soft things, like puppies and rabbits and mice. He doesn't care if they're alive or dead, which is for the best since he doesn't know his own strength and usually ends up killing whatever he is petting. In fact when the story opens, Lennie is petting a dead mouse that he keeps in his pocket. At the opening, George and Lennie are on their way to a new ranch near Soledad, California in the Central Valley. They had to leave their last job in Weed when Lennie petted a woman's dress because it was soft, and when she started to get mad he got scared and wouldn't let go, so naturally everyone assumed he was trying to rape her. Which he wasn't, because he wouldn't intentionally hurt anyone, he just wanted to pet her soft dress. This is how it goes with Lennie.

George and Lennie have a dream of saving up enough money to buy a small farm and live off the land. This would also give Lennie the chance to raise rabbits to help satisfy his urge to pet soft things. Lennie constantly asks George to tell and retell the story of how they will live on this farm, and it's clearly a powerful dream for both of them.

Anyway, at their new job there are two threats. One is the boss's son, Curly, who is a former prizefighter, and a very mean and belligerent man. The other is Curly's wife, who interestingly is never given a name in the novel. Curly's wife is young and beautiful, and she's also bored and lonely living on the ranch, and so she endlessly flirts (and maybe does more) with the ranch hands. George's goal is to keep Lennie away from any troublesome situations, because he knows Lennie cannot control his strength. We meet other characters too. Candy is an old one-armed ranch hand, who has to endured his dog being shot because he is old and useless. When Candy hears George telling the story to Lennie of how they will get their land and farm it, Candy tells them he wants in too, and offers his entire life savings if it will help them buy a place. It will help, in fact, and the dream seemingly moves closer to reality. We also meet Crooks, the crippled black ranch hand who is befriended by Lennie (since he's the only one to not understand that you shouldn't go into the black man's sleeping quarters to hang out). Crooks at first scoffs at Lennie's land-owning dreams, but soon he too is caught up in the dream and is asking if he can come work on their farm when they get it.

But of course, trouble does ensue. Lennie is teased by Curly who wants to draw him into a fight. When he does, Lennie crushes Curly's hand, not so much because he wants to harm him, but because when he gets scared he can't let go of things, like Curly's hand. And then Curly's wife comes in to talk to Lennie in the barn as he's petting a dead puppy (sigh...yes Lennie accidently killed the puppy). When she tells Lennie he can pet her hair he does so, and then when she tells him to let go he gets scared, and when she starts to scream he shakes her and accidently breaks her neck. This is not good for Lennie. Anyway, when she's found everyone knows Lennie is the one who killed her, so the ranch hands set out to look for Lennie and lynch him. Fortunately George finds him first, and as he once more tells Lennie the story of the farm they will have, he puts a bullet through the back of Lennie's head, so that Lennie won't have to suffer. Now that's friendship. Yep, a happy story.

There was something I thought about when I read this story, aside from pondering what I would be drinking as I wrote my blog entry. Oh crap, which reminds me, my beer glass is empty. Hold on a second. Ahhh, OK, I switched from beer to an ice old nightcap of Limoncello. I dunno why, I just felt like something sweet, and actually it's tasting really good after that beer. I'll have to remember this pairing.

Crap, where was I? Oh yeah...what I really noticed about the story was how everyone in the book is lonely. I mean, really lonely and isolated. George and Lennie are the only ones who have someone else they can lean on, but we all know how that turns out for them. The crippled misfits, Candy and Crooks, are lonely too, and this is probably why they latch on so strongly to George and Lennie's dream of a farm, and want to be a part of it. But also Curly's wife is lonely, which is what sets everyone's downfall up to begin with because it causes her to end up talking to Lennie in the barn. The book is actually pretty bleak this one is really happy and everyone is lonely and only their dreams keep them looking to the future. Of course, this book was written during the depression, so that was probably the overall ethos at the time. But I think it also speaks to the human condition in general.

The friendship between George and Lennie was also interesting to ponder in light of when the story was written (i.e. the Great Depression years). There's something about their relationship that stuck me as an idealized, almost political version of male-male friendship. It political in almost a socialist way, as in "workers of the world unite". George and Lennie paired up because they could look out for each other (well, at least George could look out for Lennie), much as workers in labor unions look after each other. In 1934, Sinclair Lewis, a writer and socialist, won the Democratic nomination for governor of California, and communists were active in California during the 1930s. Radical (at least in today's views) notions of labor and the plight of the working man were rampant in California and seem to me to have infused themselves into Steinbeck's portrayal of George and Lennie. Yet the story is still read today, even in an America gone almost radically conservative. This speaks to Steinbeck's ability to transcend his time and place (the Great Depression in Steinbeck Country) and speak to universal themes that we all struggle with...loneliness, isolation, the futility of many of our dreams, and the sweet, sweet softness of a dead mouse.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book #49 - The House of the Seven Gables (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Sometimes it's hard to start these blog posts. Whiskey can help, beer can help, martinis can help, but this time all of the above fails me for unknown reasons. If I were a younger man maybe I'd try some "shrooms" or "e" or whatever these crazy kids are taking these days, but that's never been my style and I'm too old to change now. Nope, when good old American booze fails me for inspiration then I'm pretty much fucked, and so are you dear reader, because you have to read this drivel. Anyway, inspiration or not, I've gotta give it a shot, because I have a blog to run here.

I just finished Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The House of the Seven Gables". This was one odd book. Not odd in a bad way (actually odd is never bad in my book), although parts of the book were a bit hard to get through. The writing could get very moody and impressionistic, and there were points where page after page would go by with nothing happening plot-wise. But that was OK because the moodiness of the writing would draw me in, at least for awhile. OK, at some points it got to be a little much, but hey, I'm a modern reader with internet access and cable television, so my attention span to moodiness is probably much shorter than a man living in Hawthorne's time, whose idea of a fast-paced evening would have been sitting in silence in an armchair for hours on end, poking at the fire once in awhile, and watching his wife knit a scarf.

The story concerns the Pyncheon family, a wealthy family that built and lives in a large drafty old house with seven gables, located in a small New England town (probably based on Salem, Massachusetts). The land the house was built on was previously owned by a small-time farmer named Matthew Maule. When Colonel Pyncheon decided he wanted Maule's land to build his house on, and when Maule stubbornly refused to sell, the Colonel had Maule accused of witchcraft, resulting in his execution by hanging. But on the gallows, Maule points to the Colonel, and says "God will give him blood to drink". After the Colonel takes over Maule's land and builds his seven-gabled house, he is found mysteriously dead in his easy chair on the night of his housewarming party, with blood in his throat. From there on in the family's fortunes are troubled...they loose a huge part of their wealth as a land grant they purchased from Native Americans gets taken from them in the north, and when one of the Pyncheon descendants asks one of the Maule descendants to help him find the deed to the lost land, the Maule man puts the Pyncheon daughter, Alice, into a hypnotic trance, which allows him to control her at will. This inadvertantly causes her death, much to Maule's dismay, but nonetheless, the curse against the Pyncheons seems to go on. And we learn other Pyncheons over the years die mysteriously, with blood gurgling in their throats.

The bulk of the novel takes place about 200 years after Colonel Pyncheon's death, when the house of seven gables is inhabited solely by Hepzibah Pyncheon. Now there's an old-timey name for you! That's actually one of the cool things about this book...there are flashbacks in the book that take place 200 years earlier, and yet nowadays the whole book is about 150 years old. It makes the events and descriptions in the book seem like they are from the distant though the whole story is musty and distant, which adds to the general moodiness and creepiness and sense of decay in the novel. And that's a good thing.

Anyway, where was I...oh yes, at the book's start Hepzibah lives alone in the house except for a lodger who has an apartment in a remote corner of the house. Then a distant cousin comes to visit, Phoebe, who is an innocent young girl from the country, and one of the few Pyncheon descendants still remaining. Phoebe immediately brightens up the musty dark old house, and helps out Hepzibah with the general store she's opened in part of the house, because while Hepzibah would prefer to remain a hermit, she is almost out of money. Soon Hepizbah's brother Clifford comes to join them. Clifford, we slowly learn, is just out of prison, having been sent away years ago for murder. In jail he has pretty much lost his mind, and is now very much out of it. But Hepzibah loves him dearly, and Phoebe helps to take care of him.

Complications ensue...well, sort of. And they ensue slowly, because that's the way this novel flows. There's an evil relative, Judge Pyncheon, who wants information from Clifford. We eventually learn just exactly how evil Judge Pyncheon really is, and it's pretty evil. It turns out that Clifford and not the Judge was supposed to inherit the family fortune, and that he had Clifford framed for the murder of an Uncle who actually died from the family curse. And then there's the mysterious lodger, who is a dauggereotypist, and who we eventually learn is a descendent of the Maule family. I won't say what happens to all these characters at the novel's end, since I don't want to completely spoil things, except that the novel has a surprisingly upbeat ending for such a moody and meditative book. That upbeatness really took me by surprise actually, since it was quite unexpected.

One of the things Hawthorne seems to be saying in this book, at least according to this half-senile middle-aged white guy, is that immoral deeds done by family members get passed down to haunt succeeding generations. It's almost Darwinian; bad traits get passed down to screw up the offspring, although in this case the traits are evil deeds and not inherited random mutations. Still, it's a bit of a weird concept...that the sins of the father will forever taint his descendants. At least until the end of the novel, where all pretty much seems to be resolved.

And it's also interesting that while Maule casts this curse on the Pyncheon family, and they seem to suffer under it, there also are non-supernatural ways of explaining the curse and its effects. The mysterious bloody deaths of the Pyncheons could be a hereditary condition in the family, like apoplexy or something like that, that Maule recognized. And the Maule family has seemed to have inherited a propensity to be able to hypnotize people, which while seemingly supernatural today, may have not seemed so otherworldly in Hawthorne's day, when Mesmerism was in vogue. The book is a supernatural story with a rational explanation behind it. Which is pretty refreshing, actually, when compared with the current outpouring of vampire and supernatural movies, books, and shows. In any case, "The House of the Seven Gables" may seem strange and supernatural at times and a bit gothic, but the slow, brooding pace of it, while perhaps difficult for the modern reader to get used to, really pays off if one sticks to it and listens to the story Hawthorne tells.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Book #48 - Emma (Jane Austen)

Once again a long void has passed since my last blog post. Speculation has run rampant on the interwebs over the possible death of this slowly aging blogger...was it too much whiskey and fast driving, or did he finally hook up with Chloe Sevigny only to find that she was too much for his middle-aged heart to handle? No, the answer is none of the above...he was just slacking off, busy with work and life, and not focusing on the important things like fine rye whiskey and the greatest literature ever fucking written. And speaking of rye whiskey I'm drinking a glass of the new Bulleit rye on the rocks. I paid $20 for this bottle and it's pretty damn good. It's not Van Winkle rye, but then what else is? For $20, this is a pretty awesome value...quite drinkable and bloggable!

Anyway, where was I before I got distracted by talking about the booze? Oh yeah, I was drinking the booze. Wait no, I just finished Jane Austen's "Emma". Yes that was it. "Emma", Jane Austen. Man, things were different back in Jane's day. Aside from the lack of $20 rye whiskey (adjusted for inflation), people had manners, and society had all these classes that people had to deal with. The upper class ignored the middle classes who turned down their noses at the lower classes. At least in England. And Jane Austen is all about England.

The only other Jane Austen novel I've ever read previously was "Pride and Prejudice". I remember I read this when I first moved to San Francisco about 20 years ago. I was riding on BART (the subway) waiting in a station for a train, and reading the book when an old homeless guy came up to me and asked me what I was reading. I replied "Pride and Prejudice", and he then asked what the book was about. I told him it was about some aristocratic English sisters who were trying to marry eligible bachelors. He replied "Oh, I get it...goldiggers!"

In "Emma" the title character Emma Woodhouse decidedly does NOT want to get married at the novel's outset. Emma is 21 years old, and "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition". She lives with her father, who is perhaps one of the funniest characters I've come across recently. He's the quintessential English eccentric. He hates change of any kind, and when his oldest daughter (Emma's sister) and Emma's governess both get married and move out of the house he's convinced they've ruined their (and his) lives. Emma loves her father dearly, and wants to protect him, and as a result she has determined that she will never get married. Emma is smart, opinionated, and often wrong in her interpretations about other people.

At the novel's opening, Emma's best friend is Harriet Smith, a middle class girl, daughter of a tradesman, whom Emma takes it upon herself to marry into upper class society. Harriet has an offer to marry a local farmer, but Emma convinces her that this just won't do, and then tries to set up Harriet with the local clergyman. She fails miserably when the clergyman first asks Emma to marry him, and then goes and marries someone else. This is typical of Emma at the novel's outset...she has good intentions, but she doesn't read people that well, and often ends up in misguided interactions with others. Later on in the novel she ends up screwing over Harriet again by trying to fix her up with Mr. Knightley, only to find out that he is in love with Emma. Poor Harriet.

And who is this Mr. Knightley? He's the brother of the man who married Emma's older sister. He's also one of Emma's best friends, and has known her since she was little (he's older than her). He's the model of common sense and good judgement, and for the most part is very good at understanding people and their motivations and their character. He serves as a guide and mentor to Emma, and admonishes her when she's thoughtless or mistaken. She doesn't always appreciate this right away, but in the end Knightley always seems to be right. Of course, in the end Knightley marries Emma, after he confesses he's always been in love with her. I suppose this is a case of the times changing, but for me it's a little creepy that an older man who watches someone grow up would then fall in love with her. But hey, Emma is smart and hot, and I'm sure the pickings of women among the local landed gentry in England was not so big.

There are other characters in the book who are central to the novel's romantic intrigues, mistakes, and schemings. Frank Churchill is the son of the husband of Emma's former governess, who has recently come back into the community after being raised by an aunt and uncle. Frank is somewhat of a snake...he's very charming and dashing, and always seems to have the right word for everyone. At first I thought he was going to turn out to be some kind of grifter, but that never comes to pass. Everyone is taken in by him, except for Knightley, who sees through him and doesn't like him at all. We eventually learn that Frank is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, another main character. Jane is a smart woman, and an incredibly talented pianist, but she is very reserved and so Emma doesn't really like her at first, thinking that she is aloof. However, we eventually learn about the secret engagement between her and Frank, and we come to feel for both of them a bit, because they've had to suffer by hiding their love (there's a legitimate reason why they had to hide their love away for most of the book, so it's not just whim).

This all leads to what I think is the great talent of Jane Austen...she has a real mastery of character and human behavior. Her characters are so very life-like...their motivations are as clear and as screwed up as people in real life, and I think this is one big reason why she has stayed in the canon. Her characters are just so damn plausible, and human. And she makes us realize that despite the very different world these characters live in from our own, people are people and their foibles are no different now than they were 200 years ago in the English countryside.

Having made that last point, though, I have to say I was a bit disappointed with the novel's end. Emma marries Mr. Knightley, and a spark seems to have gone out of her. Where is that tempestuous girl who vowed she would never marry? She and Mr. Knightley also decide to live with her father, so he doesn't get upset about losing the last female household member (Dad even balks at this at first, but he likes Knightley and eventually is able to be convinced of the advantage in this situation). And she and Knightley aren't the only ones to get married...everything is tied up in a neat little package of marriages and everyone presumably lives happily ever after. Maybe it's just me but after such a rich landscape of the misguided behaviors and human error, to have it all tied up in such an almost fairy-tale ending seems a bit less than satisfying. Still, I'll let that go because the rest of the book IS so damn satisfying. I'm definitely happy I have more Jane Austen on my list.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

I Am Charlotte Simmons - Tom Wolfe

Everyone needs a break now and then, and after reading through 47 of my top 105 books, with only a few short diversions, I decided to read a novel that wasn't on my list...something that I thought would be fun and interesting and a bit lighter than Tolstoy or James Joyce. So after having let this book sit on my shelf unread for the seven years since it was published, I finally read Tom Wolfe's latest novel "I Am Charlotte Simmons".

Tom Wolfe (no relation to Thomas Wolfe) was one of the influential "new journalists" of the 1960s, probably best known for his book about Ken Kesey and his followers, "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test". At the age of 56 he wrote his first novel "Bonfire of the Vanities", which I read when it came out in 1987. This book was a social satire about New York City in the 1980s, and I remember finding it fun and insightful and a real page turner. His second novel "A Man in Full" (1998) takes place in Atlanta, and tackles the real estate boom of the 1990s, race relations, and Atlanta society. I read this book too, and again thoroughly enjoyed it, although I didn't think it was as good as his first novel. "I Am Charlotte Simmons" came out in 2004, and as I said, it's sat on my shelf unread since then. It didn't get great reviews, which is why I held off, but I needed a break from the canon and so I finally picked it up.

I have to say this book was very much a mixed bag. On one hand, like Wolfe's other novels it was a fairly quick read, even at 670 pages...a real page turner, in fact. It's always enjoyable to read a book like that...a fun read that pulls you along. That said, this is not a great work of literature. In fact, the book has some pretty major faults. Wolfe is known for extensively researching his subject matter before writing his novels...that's his journalism training coming through. But I think he really misses the mark in this one. The story is about Charlotte Simmons, a country girl from a small town in the remote hills of western North Carolina. She's innocent (really innocent) but smart as a whip, and totally excels academically. She gets a scholarship to go to Dupont University, which in Wolfe's fictional world is on par with Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. At college, she's a fish out of water, and doesn't readily fit into the three main social groups: the jocks, the frat/sorority crowd, and the left-wing intellectual geeks. She also doesn't drink to excess (or at all, actually), stay out all night every night, and have casual "hookups" with guys. This is where the first of the major faults of this novel lies: the university Wolfe depicts is nothing like Harvard/Yale/Stanford/etc. (I did my graduate work at Yale, so I have some experience here). At Dupont, athletics rule everything, and the athletes all take the easiest courses possible, live in their own special dorms, and are treated like heroes and superstars at all times. This is not simply the way it is at places like Harvard and Yale...maybe at Ohio State, or some university with a huge athletic program, but the top academic schools don't have this. And the amount of sex and booze and debauchery at Dupont University is too over the top to be believed. I mean, students have always partied in college since the 1300's, at pretty much every college, but Wolfe depicts a place where many students stay out every night, and stay drunk in frat houses at all times, and again this just wouldn't happen at one of the very top colleges in the country. These students would have terrible grades, and the majority of students who have gotten into Harvard or Yale or Dupont are going to be pretty motivated academically. This depiction of college as a four-year bacchanal just doesn't cut it.


The post (above) was written about a month ago. It is unfinished, and I was going to write more about this book, but time and circumstances intervened, and I never got around to it. Alas. And now when I look back, I just don't have the motivation or quantities of booze necessary to get me to continue writing about this book. So it is what it is...the great unfinished post of this blog so far. But I can sum up: this wasn't that spectacular of a book.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book #47 - A Room with a View (E.M. Forster)

For the first time since I started with this blog, I find myself somewhat at a loss for words to discuss a book. I just pounded down an ice cold Modelo Especial with a slice of lime, and yet the inspiration has not welled up within me. Perhaps I need another...

Nope, that didn't work. All it did was make me a little loopy and cause me to surf the web for 37 minutes, looking at videos of beagles howling on YouTube. But now I must focus, and write about this book. OK, focusing. Still focusing. Any minute now. Damn.

Part of the problem may be that it took me a month to read this book. Normally that wouldn't be an issue, but this book is not very long...just over 200 pages. And during those 200 pages I traveled to Savannah, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Cincinnati. So my mind was focused on my sojourn through the American South and Heartland rather than on "A Room with a View". But I digress. Again.

Seriously, though, beagles are damn cute when they howl, especially beagle puppies, and they can really let those howls rip. And it seems like every beagle owner on the North American landmass has posted at least one video of their beagle howling away. And speaking of beagles, if you haven't seen this video of a beagle performing a seemingly impossible escape from his cage, then you're in for a treat:

Please note that there are absolutely no beagles whatsoever in E.M. Forster's "A Room with a View". None. Zero. But I digress. "A Room with a View" is the story of Edwardian England society. The main character, Lucy Honeychurch, is an upper middle class single woman who travels to Florence with her older, straight-laced cousin Charlotte Bartlett. In Florence they meet George Emerson and his father. George is a lower middle class free-thinker, an atheist, a veritable hippie on the scale of Edwardian England society. Lucy is thrown together with George on several occasions, and she unwillingly falls in love with him. Thinking George is beneath her station (and in the powerful eyes of Edwardian society he definitely is) she returns home and becomes engaged to Cecil Vyse, a rich dude and a consummate boor. Cecil ends up boring Lucy, and she finally realizes the error of her ways and admits her love for George. They go back to Florence and are happily in love, despite the fact that almost everyone they know is totally against their getting together, since George is beneath Lucy's station. The End.

So why is it so hard for me to write about this book? Mainly because I kept reading passages and thinking that I just didn't get it. There were passages that I thought were clearly meant to be fact, I would read them and think "Wow, this is probably hilariously funny", and yet I felt like I wasn't in on the joke, because I didn't know what the hell the joke was referring too. At other times, the characters would act in a way that seemed absurd, and I had no idea what their motivation was. And then there were times where one of the characters would say something and I would think "I have no idea what that means. Is that even English?". Is this the boozing and blogging finally getting to me? Is my middle-aged brain becoming ravaged by early onset Alzheimer's? Possibly. But it's also possible that this book is too much of its time and place for me to understand all of its nuances. And that's too bad. It was like trying to read a book through a layer of fog. I'm thinking I need to check out the 1986 Merchant Ivory film version, which may make everything plainer for me.

However, despite my bitching and moaning, there was the basic theme that cut through the occasional obtuseness of the writing. Forster is clearly supporting Lucy in her ultimate breakthrough against Edwardian society conventions. She loves George, but is hindered in her acceptance of this (to put it mildly) because society is vehemently telling her this is not an appropriate match. Lucy goes along with society until the very end, when she has her epiphany, and finally realizes she loves George, and has the courage to act on her feelings. Love, in the end, triumphs over all...although the lives of the two lovers will not be easy because they have been shunned by some of their friends and family. While the writing in this novel, I think, suffers a bit too much from time and place, at least for me to enjoy it fully, this theme of love is timeless. We all know, or have experienced, romances that have died, love that has faded or been cast aside, because of external or internal forces...society doesn't approve, the family doesn't approve, one of the lovers feels guilty or overwhelmed, etc. etc., and these forces thus act on one or both of the lovers to keep them apart. Relationships are hard enough without forces acting against them. Yet some people manage to persevere, accept their love, and prosper in their relationship. Forster applauds them, and so do I. Love really can conquer all, if two people have the strength and courage to see it through. Where there's a will, there's a way. Maybe I'm just an optimist at heart, but I believe if two people really want to make it work, then it can be made to work, even if it seems like it should be impossible. I think that beagle who escapes from his cage would agree.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book #46 - Native Son (Richard Wright)

Holy fuck, what did I just read? I found myself saying that at several points in this book. The past two books I've read..."McTeague" and "Germinal"...have been pretty intense, but "Native Son" by far and away blows them away in the intensity department. Holy fuck!

"Native Son" was Richard Wright's first novel, published in 1940. I can see where it would have had a profound impact on American society at that time. The novel is all about race, and race relations, in late 1930s America (specifically Chicago). This was the era of Jim Crow, a generation before the civil rights era, before black troops could serve with white troops in the army, and a decade before Jackie Robinson. In short, things were bad for blacks in America at that time, and Wright wrote this book to highlight their plight.

I think the subtitle of "Native Son" should be "The World's Worst First-Day-on-the-Job Ever". The story opens, symbolically enough, with an alarm clock going off, which is followed quickly by a scene where a rat terrorizes the Thomas family in their one room tenement apartment. Bigger Thomas, a 20 year old black man, lives there with his brother and sister and their mother. Bigger is thoroughly unlikable. He's tough, he's mean, he's unfeeling, he's totally short, he's pretty much of an asshole. And it's probably not a coincidence that his name rhymes with the "N" word. After killing the rat with a frying pan, Bigger goes down to hang with his friends, with whom he is planning a robbery of a store run by a white man...something he and his thug friends have not attempted before. Now, one of the things I loved about this book is that there are several places where the plot goes off in totally unexpected directions, and this was one of them. At this point I expected the book to be about Bigger and his gang of thugs committing robberies and other crimes. But no...the heist plan falls apart when Bigger gets in a fight with one of his fellow toughs. And then the welfare office finds a job for Bigger as a chauffeur for a rich white family. Bigger reluctantly accepts the job, much to his mother's relief.

So it's Bigger's fateful first day on the job. His boss, Mr. Dalton, lives in the rich section of town. And as an irony, Mr. Dalton also happens to own the slum building in which Bigger and his family live (and for which they are charged an exorbitant rent, because the slumlords keep housing for blacks in short supply so they can jack up the price). But the pay he offers Bigger is generous, and he offers Bigger a little extra "pocket money" as well. Bigger will have his own room in the basement, and get his meals too. Mrs. Dalton, a blind woman who is always dressed in white (Wright is not subtle in his symbolism), even tells Bigger she will help him get an education if he wants. All this confuses Bigger, and makes him very uncomfortable, since he's not used to white people, especially white people being nice to him. The fact that they don't understand why this might make him uncomfortable makes him more uncomfortable...and angry.

Bigger's first job as chauffer is to drive the Dalton's daughter Mary to a class that evening. Once in the car she tells him she doesn't want to go to class, but wants to go see her boyfriend instead. So he takes her there, and they pick up her boyfriend Jan, who is a communist. Jan and Mary try to talk to Bigger, to get his story, because they are sympathetic to the plight of the Negro, and want to hear what it's like to be black. This confuses Bigger, and makes him more uncomfortable and angry. They insist on riding up in the front seat with Bigger. Jan asks Bigger to take them to an "authentic" black restaurant, and so he does. Then they insist that Bigger come in with them to eat, and share a bottle of rum. Jan tries to shake Bigger's hand. All this freaks Bigger out, and makes him very uncomfortable. Mary and Jan mean well, but they don't understand the conditioning that Bigger has been through. A handshake just ain't gonna wipe away all that shit. So now they're drunk on rum and Bigger drops Jan off at a streetcar stop and then takes Mary home. Uh oh, but now Mary is so drunk from all the rum that she can't really get out of the car and into the house and up to her bed on her own. Bigger is not sure what to do, but decides he ought to carry her inside, which he does, and then up to her bedroom, which he does. Remember, this is 1938, and a black man in a white woman's bedroom is clearly a rapist. He cannot afford to be seen there. Bigger puts Mary into bed and actually does get aroused and thinks about molesting her...but then the door to the bedroom opens and Mary's blind mother walks in. Oh shit!! The mother walks over near the bed and asks Mary if she's alright. Mary mutters incoherently. Bigger is standing there, and freaking out because he doesn't want Mary to spill the beans that he's there in the bedroom, so he covers Mary's face with a pillow. She mumbles something again, and he pushes down harder, and then she mumbles again and he pushes down harder, and...oops, she's dead. Oh, fuck. The blind mother, unaware of Bigger's presence, smells the alcohol on Mary's breath, thinks she's drunk, and walks out of the room to let her sleep it off. BIgger stands there, wondering what to do, and then decides to drag Mary's body down to the furnace, where he can burn the evidence. So he puts her in a trunk, carries her body downstairs, and shoves it in the furnace. But won't all fit, the head is sticking out and won't go in! So Bigger finds an axe, chops off her head, and throws it into the furnace. Yep, worst first day on the job EVER. And the book isn't even 1/3 over yet.

It's hard to tell how this reads as a blog, but this is all really intense in the book. And it just keeps on...the family thinks the girl has run off, and then Bigger gets the idea to fake a kidnapping so he can get some money out of all this, so he writes a ransom note, and it all just continues downhill from there. It's the kind of book that was painful to read, but I couldn't stop turning the page. At least for awhile. Bigger gets into even more trouble, becomes even more unlikable, and then he finally gets caught. And that's where the book runs into some trouble. The last third or so of the book deals with Bigger awaiting trial, and then the trial itself, and it's here that Wright gets up on a soapbox, and through the words of Bigger's lawyer, a Jewish communist named Max, makes a long speech about the injustice done towards blacks in America. Max's defense of Bigger is mainly that he couldn't help himself, given all the prejudice and hard times he grew up with. He (and Wright) argue Bigger is a product of his environment, and society had better change that environment or there will be lots more Biggers coming along. It's interesting reading, especially from a historical perspective of what it was like for blacks in America in the late 1930s, but it's not the page turning novel that the first 2/3 of the book was. In fact, it gets somewhat bombastic. On the other hand, Wright had a lot to be pissed about, so you have to give him a pass to some extent.

The very last page of the story has a subtle but meaningful (I think ) twist, where Bigger finally makes a small signal that he recognizes one of the white people as a friend (or if not a friend, at least as a fellow human). Wright makes Bigger so unsympathetic that this small, subtle hint at a change in Bigger's attitude, this small gesture of actual human feeling, becomes quite poignant.

But there's an overall question I had about this book: Is it dated? Times have changed SO much in the last 71 years since this book was written. Is this book, as good as it is, relegated to being merely a historical document, describing the terrible past of blacks in America? Sure, there is still prejudice in abundance, but so much has changed and improved since "Native Son" was published...I mean, Jesus, we have a black president now (although the calls from some that he's not American and that he's a socialist who "hates America" seem to hint at a thinly-veiled racist prejudice by not just a few). Yet all one has to do is watch a few episodes of "The Wire" to see that not everything is so different as it was 70 years ago. Many inner city blacks have as few opportunities in life as Bigger did. Things may be better overall, but the problem is not completely fixed yet. Race relations in America is a work in progress. And while it is, society can still produce Bigger Thomases, making "Native Son" still relevant 71 years later. And even if it isn't, it's still a page-turner.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book #45 - Germinal (Emile Zola)

For this blog I'm reading some of the most famous books ever written, so you'd think they would all be utterly enjoyable and fabulous. If that were indeed true, then this blog would be an obsequeous brown-nose fest where I raved on and on about how the book I just read was best thing ever written since sliced bread, except for maybe the book that I read before the one I just read. I'd go on and on about how the prose incited me to rapture, much like the taste of Van Winkle's 13 year old Family Reserve Rye, which, by the way, does indeed incite me to rapture as it's the best rye whiskey on the market in my opinion, and I'm somewhat of an expert if I say so myself. But for those of you poor souls who regularly read this blog, you'll know from my reviews that while indeed I have enjoyed most of the books I've read here so far, there are very few I rave about to the extent that I say something like "Woah, this was an incredibly goddamn awesome book, and calls for another sip of that sweet, sweet Van Winkle rye". But the last two books I have read now are indeed stuplendiferously awesome, and deserve to be toasted with the finest rye on the planet. Yes, I'm talking about "McTeague", reviewed last time, and now Emile Zola's "Germinal".

Who is this Emile Zola dude? First of all, as you can see from his picture above he's ridiculously French. In fact, he's one of those great and weirdly prolific French authors of the 19th century, along with Hugo and Balzac. Zola wrote a series of twenty novels called The Rougon-Macquart cycle, of which "Germinal" is a part. These novels follow the members of a single family, and paint a picture of their lives in France under Louis Napoleon's second empire. But "Germinal" can be read as a novel unto itself, which is what I did. But having done so it makes me want to read more of this twenty novel series, because I totally was blown away by it.

"Germinal" is the story of coal miners in a small French town, and their eventual strike against the mining company. Zola is known as one of the founders of "naturalism", a school which seems like it should include Frank Norris ("McTeague") and Theodore Dreiser ("Sister Carrie"), so it's interesting that I've read all these books recently. Naturalism, according to Wikipedia, the source of all true knowledge, is "a literary movement that seeks to replicate a believable everyday reality, as opposed to such movements as Romanticism or Surrealism, in which subjects may receive highly symbolic, idealistic, or even supernatural treatment...Naturalistic works exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, sex, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth." Well, call me a lover of sex, disease, and filth, but this naturalism stuff rocks.

"Germinal" begins with the arrival of Etienne Lantier to the town of Montsou in the north of France. Etienne is poor and looking for work, having been tossed off his last job for assaulting a supervisor. He soon gets a job in one of the local coal mines, and the antics begin. He befriends a woman named Catherine who works down in the mines, a 15 year old whose puberty has been delayed due to the hard subterranean labor. Etienne is attracted to Catherine, but before he can do anything about it, she takes up with a belligerent asshole of a miner named Chaval. Chaval hits her and abuses her verbally, and is an all around dick-head, but Catherine doesn't seem to care, presumably because her life is bleak and she feels she has no other options. Etienne is bummed about this, and he and Chaval instantly dislike one another.

And indeed the lives of the miners are all bleak. The first third or so of the book introduces us to a number of miners and their families. They are all struggling to make enough money to feed their families, and to suffer through their very laborious and bleak existence. Oh, and they have sex. A LOT of sex. Their only amusement seems to be taking a member of the opposite sex out behind a haystack and getting it on. And sex is everywhere...there's even the owner of a local grocery store who will extend credit to families only if they let him "party" with their daughters. The subject matter of "Germinal" is reminiscent of Dickens...the lives of poor miners...but Zola is clearly not Charles Dickens. I think the Victorian Dickens would have been a little freaked out by Zola's naturalism and frankness. But to me, it makes Zola seem much more modern, and closer to the present day. There's sex everywhere and he's very frank and clear about it.

Anyway, Etienne is taken in as a boarder by Catherine's family, who always need extra money just to get by, even though their children work in the mines. And then the mining company decides to change the pay structure of the miners' wages. Instead of just getting paid for the coal they mine, they will also get paid to reinforce the mine with timber as they go along. They previously did not get paid for this, and so skimped on the work, leading to cave-ins. This might sound like a good deal at first, but the miners soon realized that it was actually a pay cut, because they would now get less money for the coal mined, and this would not be completely made up for by the money they now got for timbering. This pushes the miners over the edge. They were starving before, and this will now make it worse. Etienne, who has been talking to a Russian anarchist Souvarine who also works for the mining company, decides the workers must go on strike, and he helps lead a strike against the mining company.

This is where the story, already a good one, becomes a page turner. The miners go on strike, the company holds out, and the miners begin to starve. Things look grim. And then things start to get violent, as the miners start to go around sabotaging the mine they work for as well as other local mines, to prevent scabs from working there. In one very explicit scene, the grocer who has been extorting the miners to sleep with their daughters falls off a roof escaping the crowd, and splits his head open and dies. The women in the mob then pull down his pants, rip off his genitals, and parade around with them stuck up on a pole. Like I said, this ain't Dickens. Zola is great with these crowd scenes, and really knows how to build up the tension.

Of course, the strike eventually escalates into real bloodshed, as troops brought out by the mining company to protect the mines from more vandalism fire into an unarmed crowd of striking miners, killing some of them. Everyone is appalled, and the company decides to "settle"...they say people can come back to work and they'll then "re-evaluate" their pay structure. Which means that the miners get some cover for going back to work, which they need to do because they are starving, and the company can then eventually just sort of forget about the "re-evaluation", and continue paying their newly lower wages. Not a very happy ending to the strike.

Bu things get worse when Souvarine, appalled that the miners are all going back to work, sabotages the mine so that it will cave in, which it does when many miners are all at the bottom. This is the climax to the novel, and in the interest of not irresponsibly spewing out spoilers, I won't say exactly what happens, except that some miners survive and are trapped...including Catherine, Etienne, and Caval. Thus their love triangle can play the death! It's all very dramatic and very well done. And only one person survives.

And then, rather oddly enough, the novel ends on a surprisingly upbeat note. Zola says, as narrator, that while the miners may be working again, the deaths of their comrades has energized them, and the mining companies will eventually have to fall, or at least become more responsible employers, because next time the miners go out on strike they will be more energized and ready.

This novel is not only a page-turner and a great read, but it's also very relevant to the news in the past few weeks. The protests in Wisconsin, about trying to take away collective bargaining rights from state government workers, made my reading of "Germnal" seem very apropos. It seems like the struggle of the worker versus the owner, of the rich and powerful versus the weak and poor, has yet to be played out completely, and probably will be forever ongoing. Thus the ideas of "Germinal" will remain relevant for many years to come.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

McTeague (Frank Norris)

So you're surfing the web one night, half-bored, half-naked, and maybe a little tipsy, when you decide to go over to "Blogging the Canon" and see if that middle-aged guy has read another one of his "Top 105" books yet or not. So you pull up the page and see a new entry: "McTeague" by Frank Norris. Immediately something strikes you as a little off, and sure enough, when you go over his top 105 reading list you see that "McTeague" is not on it. You immediately entertain one of three possibilities...that (1) the dude has finally started to develop dementia, a common thing among the soon-to-be-dead-and-buried crowd, that (2) the guy was probably totally shitfaced on grain alcohol and rainwater and didn't even know the book wasn't on his list when he picked it up, or (3) it's some sort of monstrous communist conspiracy involving space aliens and bat guano which is so complicated that one person alone could never fully understand it. Either way, you just decide to go with it and see what he has to say about this "McDonalds" book, or whatever it's called.

Well, the truth is, dear reader, that since compiling my list of 105 books that I really need to read before I die, which means quickly because I'm now at the age where I always have at least one ache or pain going on somewhere in my body which is only partially relieved by sipping on a Corpse Reviver #2, I've compiled a separate list of other books that I really should read, and want to read, that are not in the original 105. I debated whether to just add them to the list, making a top 200 or whatever, but then I realized that I just could keep adding things to the list in order to never have to get around to reading "Ulysses" or Henry James. So I decided to keep the original 105 "must read" list intact, but also to throw in an off-list book every now and then. Thus, I find myself blogging about Frank Norris's "McTeague", which was not on my original list. But of course you don't care in the slightest about any of this..."Yeah, yeah, yeah...dude, just get on to the "McTeague" review, because I heard you're old and might croak at any time, and no Corpse Reviver, #2 or otherwise, could pull a review of "McTeague" out of you at that point". Well, OK then, I will.

"McTeague" is a classic American novel, but one that most people probably have never heard of. This is most likely because the author, San Francisco writer Frank Norris, died at the age of 32 of appendicitis. "McTeague" was published in 1899, one year before the publication of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie". The timing is not insignificant, because Norris's novel reminds me in many ways of Dreiser's. One thing is their prose, which could be characterized as "no nonsense", realistic, and naturalistic. Both books also deal with the urban poor, and feature characters that fall from the middle class into abject poverty. But while I liked "Sister Carrie", I liked this book even more. In fact, I absolutely loved this book...for a number of reasons which I will now attempt to explicate.

The book's main character is McTeague (we never learn his first name), a man who is not very smart, but very big and strong. When the story opens he's a dentist living on Polk Street in San Francisco. He was born in a small mining town in gold country, and learned the dental trade not through school, but by being apprenticed to a traveling dentist who also had never been to dental school. The reader gets the feeling that McTeague's dental skills are adequate, but not much more. He has a business called "Dental Parlors" on Polk Street in San Francisco. He's happy with his life, which is fairly simple...doing his dental work, hanging with his friend Marcus, and drinking beer and falling asleep in his dental chair. His one dream is to have a sign with a huge gold molar hanging out in front of his office. This is symbolic, because gold ends up being the undoing of almost everyone in this novel.

McTeague lives in an apartment building where he knows all about the lives of his neighbors...the Mexican cleaning lady Maria, his best and only friend and neighbor Marcus, the two elderly people Grannis and Miss Baker (who are in love with one another but have never spoken), and the crazy Polish junk dealer Zerkow. All of these characters are a bit crazy (at least) fact everyone in the book has their own craziness, but hey, don't we all?

One day Marcus brings his cousin Trina Sieppe, who he is also dating, into McTeague's "Dental Parlors". Trina was in an accident and has broken a couple of teeth, and Marcus brings her to McTeague for dental work. McTeague agrees to treat her, although her case is complex, and she'll need a bridge that will take many sessions to construct. So McTeague starts to treat Trina every few days or so. McTeague has never had any particular fancy for women, and in fact feels uneasy around them, but he soon develops a simple rapport with Trina, and soon starts to fall for the diminutive woman. One day in the chair she is feeling a lot of pain, so McTeague gives her ether to knock her out. Then...

For some time he stood watching her as she lay there, unconscious and helpless, and very pretty. He was alone with her, and she was absolutely without defense.

Suddenly the animal in the man stirred and woke; the evil instincts that in him were so close to the surface leaped to life, shouting and clamoring.

It was a crisis--a crisis that had arisen all in an instant; a crisis for which he was totally unprepared. Blindly, and without knowing why, McTeague fought against it, moved by an unreasoned instinct of resistance. Within him, a certain second self, another better McTeague rose with the brute; both were strong, with the huge crude strength of the man himself. The two were at grapples. There in that cheap and shabby "Dental Parlor" a dreaded struggle began. It was the old battle, old as the world, wide as the world--the sudden panther leap of the animal, lips drawn, fangs aflash, hideous, monstrous, not to be resisted, and the simultaneous arousing of the other man, the better self that cries, "Down, down," without knowing why; that grips the monster; that fights to strangle it, to thrust it down and back.

This passage reveals one of the book's as a complex creature with civilized aspects and brutish, animal aspects. These two aspects are often at war. In this case, McTeague gives in to sin and kisses Trina while she is unconscious. When she awakes he asks her to marry him. She freaks out and leaves hurriedly.

However, soon McTeague begins to court Trina properly, by visiting her family and going on outings with them. Marcus quickly finds out McTeague is in love with the woman he himself is courting, but when he realizes McTeague loves Trina more than he does, he nobly tells McTeague that he should have her. He will come to regret this decision.

So McTeague courts Trina, and they are to be married. Then Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery. WOOHOO! So the couple gets married and Trina puts the money away, saving it for the future and collecting the interest income monthly to supplement their own income. Little does anyone know that the money will destroy them all.

But wait, $5,000...that's not much money, or is it? Well, I tried to look this up, but for some reason all inflation calculators I could find begin in 1913, which is 14 years after this novel was published. But even so, $5,000 in 1913 money would be worth $110,000 in 2010 currency. That's a lot of money for blue collar people.

The book has a curious structure. The first half or so of the novel deals with McTeague, Marcus, Trina and her family, and the other characters that live in the building. At about halfway through the novel I thought "Gee, this novel is really fun because these characters are all so wonderful, and their lives and struggles are comical and quaint". Sure, McTeague is not totally sympathetic (he's not very smart, and he can be brutish and mean when aroused), but his story is fun to watch and his faults are more comical than anything. But there are hints of trouble when Marcus and McTeague have a falling out. Marcus is jealous of McTeague's happiness with Trina, and he's also jealous of the $5000 she won in the lottery, claiming that that money should really be his if only he hadn't given up the girl. Anyway, this book reminds me of one of those Friday the 13th movies, or any other teen horror movie, in that a long time is spent developing the characters and making us love them and their crazy lives. And then...The Shit Storm. In Friday the 13th it's a guy with a hockey mask, but here McTeague has a terrible fight with Marcus, who is still pissed off that he didn't get the girl or the $5000, and in the fight McTeague ends up breaking Marcus's arm. Marcus then decides to leave town, but before he does he goes to city hall and informs them that McTeague is practicing dentistry without having been to dental college. The city forces him to shut down his dental business, and he has to take down his gold tooth. From here, McTeague and Trina descend into poverty. One might think that the $5,000 might help, but Trina has become an incredible miser, and will not part with a dime of the fact she makes enough money for them to live on fairly comfortably, but because she feels compelled to compulsively hoard away a huge chunk of it, they slip further down. She has become overwhelmed with avarice. Her gold is weighing her down.

From here I am not going to discuss the rest of the plot of this book in detail because it is so good that I don't want to spoil it. Suffice to say that it doesn't end fact, every character of importance in this book dies, except for two...the two elderly people Old Grannis and Miss Baker. They have the one happy ending in this book, as they finally get up the courage to speak to one another and profess their love. Everyone else dies, and dies horribly, some not before they're threatened, beaten and abused. I mean, this book goes from funny and almost quaint to brutal scenes of horrific murder. And it's all in one way or another caused by greed over gold and money, specifically the $5,000 lottery winnings. Frank Norris wants you to know that money is bad, and the root of all evil, etc. etc. Greed is bad. He would not like Gordon Gekko.

I also have to say that the final scene of this book, and especially the final sentence, are totally awesome (that's the literary term). Very dramatic, very captivating, very cinematic. Well done, Frank. I will say no more than that.

One side note: in 1924 Erich von Strohein directed a silent movie version of "McTeague". The movie was originally 9 1/2 hours long, but the studio made Stroheim cut the hell out of it, so that in the end it is not cohesive and a lot of characters are missing. But from the cut version and what is known of the long version, it's clear the film was a masterpiece. Unfortunately the cut footage was destroyed, and the movie is considered one of the great lost masterpieces of film. So the movie was lost, and Norris died tragically young. But the book "McTeague" is still out there, and is still a great read, and if you're looking for a book recommendation, consider this to be one. And just pray you don't win the lottery.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Book #44 - Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy)

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Thomas Hardy gets the award for most awesome mustache of any writer read during the course of this blog so far. I mean this dude looks like he played for the 1973 Oakland A's. He could have been down there in the bullpen with Rollie Fingers and no one would have batted an eye. Seriously. But no, Hardy was no ballplayer. Instead he was a bad-ass writer, cranking out some killer prose. That's one of the things that really struck me about this book...that Hardy could write like crazy. He was also a poet, and it shows in many passages, where he'll wax on poetically about the English countryside where the novel takes place. Some might find his style boring, digressing into languid description at certain points, but I loved it. It set the mood for me. I mean, between his writing and his mustache this guy would be a total chick magnet...if he weren't dead.

The novel's plot is sad and tragic, and it takes a bit of understanding for the modern reader like myself not to just think that the people in the story are complete idiots. The story opens when John Durbeyfield, a drunken farmer, finds out he is descended from an old family named d'Urberville who used to be strong and powerful in the English countryside...although the money and power are long gone and the line is almost extinct. Durbeyfield decides this discovery of his ancestry is just the break his family needs, so he sends his oldest daughter, Tess, to meet and possibly get money from a family named d'Urberville, presumably related, who live on an estate in a nearby town. Durbeyfield needs the money because he's too busy drinking to make his own. Tess doesn't really want to go, but does so out of love and duty for the family. Once there, she learns that they aren't really cousins, as they have adopted the d'Urberville name to give them prestige. And she meets Alec d'Urberville, a young man and a scoundrel, who convinces her to come live on the family's estate so he can try to woo her, and when that is unsuccessful he rapes her. Tess goes home, and is of course pregnant. She has the baby, but the baby gets sick and dies soon after. Tess does not get any breaks.

So Tess, now a scandalized woman for having had a baby out of wedlock, even though she was freaking raped, leaves town and goes to work on a dairy farm where she meets the love of her life, Angel Clare, the son of a preacher man. They fall for each other and get married, even though Tess is horrified of her secret past, and has been tortured about whether she should tell him or not. On their wedding night Angel tells her he has a secret and he feels bad for not telling her. Seems like at some point in his past he got horny and fucked someone. He hopes Tess can forgive him. Of course she can, and then Tess feels safe and tells him her secret...that she was raped and had a baby that died. Angel Clare is mortified and shocked and says how can he love her now that he knows she's not a virgin. So he leaves her and goes abroad to seek his fortune in Brazil.

At this point, the modern reader, like myself, is going "WTF is WRONG with this dude? He's got a beautiful wife he loves, and he's going all ape shit over her having been raped?" But that's the way it was back in those days, and we are all products of our environment. It's pretty clear Hardy doesn't agree with Angel's viewpoint, since it brings tragedy to everyone (oops, sorry for the spoiler). And the book's subtitle is "A Pure Woman" in case we don't get it. Victorian morality was harsh and Hardy clearly condemns it. And meanwhile Tess is all forgiving of Angel, and says she understands how he feels and that he just needs to take some time off and think about how much she loves him and then he'll come around and yes, it's all her fault. It's not her fault, of course, and she's a little self-sacrificing...well, OK, not just a little. It's all greatly annoying to the modern reader (I've used that phrase three times now and I hate it, but I can't think of another one...and that's not the booze talking because I've only had one beer tonight, a delicious Christian Moerlein "Over the Rhine" Ale, from Cincinnati, Ohio) but the people in this novel were Victorians, and they had a whole 'nother way of looking at things than we do. It's easy for us to condemn their behavior, although, actually, as I said that's what Hardy wanted the reader to do. So I guess his job just got unintentionally easier over the years.

Anyway, Tess goes to work on another farm, and on her way there she runs into...wait for it...yes, Alec d'Urberville. He's now recanted his former evil ways and is a traveling preacher. But when Tess talks to him, he seems really creepy still, especially after he makes Tess promise never to "tempt him" again. What a dick. Anyway, soon he decides he wasn't really born again, and gives up preaching so he can stalk Tess. He comes and visits her while she's working her ass off in the fields, telling her if she comes with him she can live in luxury and he'll take care of her beloved family as well. He tells her Angel isn't coming back, so why not just come with him since he loves her. It's creepy. He's creepy. He's a fucking Victorian stalker. But then Tess's father dies, and her mother and brothers and sisters are now all in deep financial trouble. So after lots more angst Tess goes with d'Urberville, who gives money to her family and puts her in fancy clothes and has her live in a fancy hotel with him. Presumably he gets what he wants out of the deal too, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

Then Angel Clare, who FINALLY gets over it, has a change of heart and comes back from Brazil for Tess. He finds her at the hotel. "Too late", she says, and turns away. And then...but hey, I don't want to spoil it for you. Let's just say there's suddenly a murder, and fugitives on the run, and a posse, and an execution. Oh, and Stonehenge. All in the last 20 pages or so. Yes, the ending seems oddly rushed. There are some other odd things in the plot of this book...some weird coincidences, like Tess happening to run into Alec d'Urberville when he's become a preacher...that also seem forced. The language in the book may be beautiful at times, but the plotting can be awkward. Hardy wasn't perfect. Just sayin'.

As a biologist, I couldn't help but see not-so-subtle Darwinian references in this book, which is not surprising, because Hardy was a contemporary of Darwin. Hardy talks about the d'Urberville line as going extinct, and seems to indicate that they had some kind of tragic flaw that lead to their eradication from the land. And Tess's downfall simply reinforces this notion that the family is doomed by forces beyond their control (like natural selection). All that remains of the d'Ubervilles, aside from Tess, are fossils...old mansions in the countryside once owned by the family, and dead d'Urbervilles buried in church crypts. Very eerie, and Victorian gothic, and Darwinian.

So did I like this book? Yes. Despite getting frustrated with the characters and their damn Victorian morality, I found myself not wanting to put the book down. And Alec d'Urberville, that rouge and scoundrel and rapist and stalker, is creepy and evil and vile...and it's always unnerving when he turns up. Which kept me entertained. As does the author's mustache.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Book #43 - The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)

If you stopped the average man in the street and asked him about some of the books I read last year for this blog, such as "The Good Soldier" and "Sister Carrie", you'd probably be met with some blank stares before he slowly became convinced you were one of those "elites" and began to beat the living crap out of you. But "The Three Musketeers" pretty much everyone has heard of this book, and pretty much everyone has an idea of what it's about. Of course, it helps that this is perhaps the only work of literature with a candy bar named after it (and a good thing too, because "Bleak House Nougat Roll" doesn't have such an appealing name). Yet despite everyone knowing about this book, and maybe having seen one of the movie versions, I'm not sure how many people have actually read the book. Well, now you can count me among those who have. And I suggest you do to, if you haven't already, because this book is a lot of fun.

Note that I said this book is "a lot of fun", not "pregnant with symbolism and character development and deep insights into the human condition". Dumas is not Flaubert. Which isn't to say that he's not a great novelist (note the use of the double negative here, no doubt facilitated by the Little King's Cream Ale I'm drinking...a tasty beer from Cincinnati, Ohio which comes in 7 ounce bottles, thus allowing high schoolers to brag that they "drank a six pack last night". But in my case I can brag that the beer name is fitting for someone blogging about a novel of royal intrigue. But I digress...a lot. Sorry about that.), it's just that he's great for a different reason. The greatness of this book is the plot and the's like the greatest pot-boiler and page turner ever. It's funny, it's exciting, it's fun. But, as I said, it's not Flaubert.

When the novel starts, we meet the protagonist, D'Artagnon, who at first glance is similar to Julien Sorel of "The Red and the Black" and Frederic Moreau of "A Sentimental Education", in that all three are young men from the boonies who come to the big city to seek their fame and fortune. But Julien and Frederic are complex, richly drawn characters, while D'Artagnan is not. D'Artagnan comes from the countryside ready to kick some ass, and he proceeds to do so. He gets into swordfights, fights duels, joins the King's guards, saves the queen's honor, and later becomes a musketeer. He's a character, and lots of stuff happens to him, but there's no development. This is not a bildungsroman. In Dumas everything is about the plot. And that's not a bad thing, because in this book Dumas is the master of plot.

After joining the King's guard, D'Artagnan quickly befriends three members of the King's musketeers: Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. Well, that is, after he challenges them all to duels. The three of them are brave, honorable men, and expert swordsmen and musketeers. They are loyal to the king, and are thus enemies of Cardinal Richelieu, who is the power behind the throne. And they are fiercely loyal not just to the king, but to each other as well. If one of them gets in a fight, they all get in a fight. They've got each others' backs. Oh, and they seriously like to party. Seriously. Yes, they eat and drink in abundance, gamble to reckless excess, and chase after/pine over women. They're honorable, sword fighting, partying slackers. If they had dope back then they'd probably be stoners too. They get along famously with D'Artagnon, who rapidly becomes the fourth member of their circle, but he's a bit of an odd fit because he's more uptight than the others. He's younger and he has ambition. The others don't...well, at least they don't have ambitions to get ahead in the military...they do have ambitions to marry rich (Porthos) or to go into the priesthood (Aramis).

The novel quickly throws these four characters together and then they start to have adventures. And it's here that it becomes a bit obvious that this novel was published serially. I say that because the novel's structure becomes a bit meandering. That's not to say that it isn't fun and exciting, because it's both of those things, but when the reader takes a step back it's clear that the novel has two main parts, both of which are rather independent of each other. It's like Dumas was making it up as he went along. The first part of the novel revolves around a plot by Cardinal Richelieu to trap the queen into revealing she's been having an adulterous affair with the Duke of Buckingham. The details of the politics are a bit obscure, but the queen is a foreigner and the Cardinal doesn't like her. So when he finds out she's having an affair with Buckingham and that she's given him two diamond tags that the King gave to her, he convinces the hapless King to have a ball and to ask the Queen to wear the diamond tags he gave her. Since she doesn't have them, she'll be trapped and the Cardinal can tell the King of her adultery. The Cardinal insures his plan will succeed by having an accomplice who lives in England, Lady de Winter, to steal two tags from the Duke. The musketeers get wind of all this, and D'Artagnon saves the day by going to England and informing the Duke of the situation. The Duke has new tags made and sends them with D'Artagnon to the Queen, who is very grateful. She wears the tags to the ball, the day is saved, and the Cardinal is freaking pissed. So is Lady de Winter, who becomes the main villain in the second part of the novel.

When the tags episode is over, a new adventure begins. It's not unrelated to the first part of the novel, but it really could stand alone. Basically, D'Artagnon sees Lady de Winter, also known as Milady, in a church and falls in love with her. After dueling her brother-in-law but sparing his life (long story) the brother-in-law introduces them. Soon D'Artagnan tricks her into sleeping with him when it's dark and she thinks he's her lover, the Count de Wardes. After they "do the nasty" she's so satisfied that she tells him to kill D'Artagnon (it's still dark so she still thinks she's with de Wardes). This pisses off D'Artagnon for some reason, who gets his revenge by forging a nasty letter to her and signing it with Count de Wardes' name. Lady de Winter, never one to suffer an insult, is furious and she asks D'Artagnon to kill de Wardes and he agrees to but only if she sleeps with him. So she does and then D'Artagnon, like an idiot, tells her it wasn't the first time he slept with her. Ha Ha! This REALLY pisses her off and she then tries repeatedly to have D'Artagnon killed.

The character of Milady, or Lady de Winter, is pretty awesome. She's SO evil that it's almost a caricature. I won't say what happens, for fear of spoiling the book for anyone who might not have read it, but she's bad bad bad, and kills, or has killed, a number of people before the book ends. She reminds me a bit of a 19th century female version of Lex Luther. She's so evil, and so powerful, and yet so irresistibly uses her feminine wiles to seduce, manipulate, and often kill men, that she's practically a comic book character. In real life no one could be that terrifically bad. Yet Dumas pulls it off. There's a reason this book has been continually read for over 100 years.

As the book progresses towards its conclusion, it gets progressively darker and darker. Again, I won't spoil the plot, but several characters unexpectedly are murdered, causing the reader to think "WTF? Isn't this supposed to be a fun, chivalrous novel?". By the end the novel becomes quite black and frankly somewhat disturbing. And when all is finally resolved, and the bad are brought to justice, the other musketeers eventually retire and D'Artagnon gets a promotion and becomes loyal to the Cardinal. Seriously? The Cardinal? Well, I guess it makes sense, because D'Artagnon and his friends are really just loyal to adventure and chivalrous values. Who they are officially fighting for probably doesn't make all that much difference. Still, the ending is bleak and one raises an eyelid. D'Artagnon has been turned and all innocence is lost.

Dumas wrote two sequels to "The Three Musketeers": "Twenty Years After" and another one that's like 5000 pages long. I probably won't be reading these. But despite that, I highly recommend this book, especially if you're just in the mood for some swashbuckling escapism. It may end darkly, but it never fails to entertain. Maybe that's why it's a classic.