Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reading List: Germinal

by Emile Zola

A century ago Emile Zola was well on his way to becoming one of the classic writers.  Of course, he was dead by then, but everyone had started to love him, which was a little bit of a complicated process.  He was a social muckraker who would be perfectly at home today, and probably not as well known.  He famously wrote "J'accuse" to condemn the mistreatment of a suspected traitor, very late in his career, writing books about various injustices.  Germinal is his best-known work, and yet it's pretty obscure, though it deals with coal miners (one would think that more people might rediscover it now, considering).  I came across Zola most recently in a survey of Academy Awards winners, specifically The Life of Emile Zola, released in 1937, a movie which itself has fallen into obscurity.  (In France, Germinal finally became a movie in 1993.)  After reading the book, I will hopefully be able to say whether or not he deserves this fate.

Thoughts on All Shall Be Well...

There's a whole school of writing right now that professes the best stories involve family and how screwed up they are.  They're gawk literature.  You could go back to David Foster Wallace or start at Jonathan Franzen, or simply look at all the nonfiction that has filled up bookstores around the same framework, everyone trying to gain interest and sympathy through the absurd, and no one breaching the obvious solution to any of it: Hey, deal with it already.

Now I know, the point is, we all have our issues, and for some of us those issues are obviously to do with our upbringing (and how many other stories are there were the perspective comes from people who can't reach that conclusion?).  Making a spectator sport out of it only makes a loser out of everyone, though, the accident everyone needs to rubberneck out of morbid curiosity.  Tod Wodicka nearly succeeds in subverting this in All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, about a family whose individual members have done an excellent job of creating walls around themselves, creating barriers against each other, from the crazy Lemko grandmother to the father and main subject who prefers the Middle Ages to the present day to the two kids who grew violently opposed to nearly all of it when their mother dies from cancer.  It's the mother who's supposed to be at the heart of it, but she's the cipher who fails in that position, the opposite of Lisbeth Salander, who gives everyone everything they want without bothering to make any meaningful connections to any of them, leaving all of them just as hollow as when she came into their lives.

Everyone blames the father, of course, and Wodicka spends a great deal of time trying to explain why, and generally concluding that he's always putting everything off, always telling himself that he's going to do the right thing, until he does the wrong thing instead.  But that's not really what's happening here, and Wodicka seems to know that, but he keeps getting distracted, too, first as a matter of course, as a way to tell his story dramatically, then as the characters' own surrogate, especially in the title of the book, which comes from an anecdote that has virtually nothing to do with anything, all as Wodicka attempts to suggest that that's exactly what's going to happen, even though it's clear that all will not end well in a conclusion that leads itself to the reader's imagination.

Perhaps writing a few more books will allow Wodicka to trust himself rather than try and be clever, try and be noticed.  All the the writers quoted on the back of the book write exactly like he does, and I've read a few of them, so that's why I know it's an epidemic.  That's modern literature for you, everyone writing and no one truly reading, and certainly no one thinking.  It's assumed that reading will lead to thinking, but that's not really the case.  When the characters go out of their way to avoid thinking and the writer goes out of their way to avoid thinking, it's asking a little much to assume that the reader is going to break that trend.  Its posturing.  This isn't Thomas Hardy and it certainly isn't Dostoevsky, the models these writers clearly cannot match.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reading List: All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well

All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
by Tod Wodicka

I had no idea what this book was when I first heard of it, only that it had the most ridiculously awesome title I'd ever heard.  I would like to emphasize "ridiculous" at this point, because it now becomes clear that it is in fact another of those books from those new authors who are trying to make a name for themselves by superficially standing out by telling essentially the same story as everyone else, some dude with a quirky problem figuring out both his family and his life.  This is why I generally try to avoid new literature that comes recommended by critics, not so much because the resulting book isn't any good but that I really wish more writers were more confident in their own abilities (or, I guess, publishers).  I realize I'm generalizing, and maybe it's just my disappointment in learning pretty quickly that the story is not as awesome as the title.  Then again, I didn't say it wasn't bad.  But this is a title that demands judging!

Thoughts On 1215: The Year of the Magna Carta

Now this is what I wish A Distant Mirror had been like.  Danny Danziger and John Gillingham present a portrait of the times and events that helped shape the Magna Carta, which at the time I added 1215 to my collection and then actually started reading it had forgotten what that was.  I'm certain my history teachers didn't forget to mention it, but then, the authors made several suggestions that they're writing to a primarily English audience, and so those readers were no doubt as aware of Magna Carta as I am, for instance, of Madison's Federalist Papers (though if you don't know what either are, don't assume they're literally comparable).

Basically, Magna Carta is the forerunner of democratic rule in the modern world.  It was something King John was tricked into endorsing, even though he quickly backed out of it.  King John was Richard the Lionheart's kid brother, and exactly the guy referenced in all those Robin Hood tales.  He was a rat bastard who lucked into securing England's glorious future, and so is probably one of the world's great heroes.  You can read all about him in the book, as well as everything that shaped his decisions as well as Magna Carta (literally the "big charter").  This is also the way that the Tecumseh biography I read earlier this year should have gone, but sometimes writers believe they have to smother a subject in order to cover it.  I'll never understand that.

For good measure, the book includes the text of Magna Carta in the back, but that's another thing I didn't feel like reading.  I do feel a little silly and ignorant now as opposed to when I started reading it, like I've regressed to an earlier age.  But like many books I've been reading lately, there's some interrelatedness going on, with the added insight that people did in fact know that the world was round back then, and that it's only our assumptions about our ancestors that would lead us to believe otherwise.  History is only history if we remember it.  It can become something quite different, a comfortable fiction if you will, much as Magna Carta itself became.  But you can't have everything.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Reading List: 1215 - The Year of the Magna Carta

1215 - The Year of the Magna Carta
 by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham

Knowing how A Distant Mirror turned out, I'm hoping for something a little more lively with this latest historical survey.  Not being British, I'm interested to know just what kind of impact the Magna Carta actually had.  It's something I certainly studied, briefly, in school, a long time ago, but then, it also happened a long time ago, nearly a millennium ago.  I don't claim to be an expert in just about anything, so my interest is fairly loose, even though I love history and know a certain amount of it.  Hopefully it'll be fun!

Thoughts on Thus Spake Zarathustra

Nietzsche is someone I became interested in for reasons other than philosophy.  I suspect that's the same for a lot of people.  In fact, I'm certain that some view him in positively religious context.

For those people, Thus Spake Zarathustra is some kind of bible.

And honestly, I don't know how else to consider it.  The man was a thinker, and he had a lot of ideas, not the least of them being the Superman, what he considered to be the future of humanity, the difference between us and this ideal right now being the same that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.  He was also known for the statement, "God is dead," and that's probably the key transition mark between the Reformation and our modern age of Western skepticism.

The funny thing is, Nietzsche reaches this point not out of a deeply held atheism, but rather believing that humanity has in essence outgrown God.  You won't find this more clearly stated than in the dense Modern Testament that is Thus Spake Zarathustra, a book that does everything it can to replicate your basic biblical experience, blending the Old and New Testament (and only obliquely referencing Christianity; in fact, all references are oblique herein), so that only those who are actually considering making a religion out of Nietzsche will consider reading it all the way through.

What's funny is that he doesn't even attempts to hide his frustrations, even repeatedly damning poets, which is ironic, because the style is basically free verse, and there are even passages presented in the form of poems!  So that's the kind of thing you can expect if you want to read it for yourself.

I was expecting something different, I guess, especially since this was written only about a century ago.  I think Nietzsche went a little crazy.  He was definitely brilliant, and I greatly sympathize with his loneliness, but the bottom line is, this is not the product of a mind that was in complete control of itself, or at least not one that wanted to communicate itself clearly.  Thankfully, I have another of his books waiting in line, so I will have a basis for comparison.

But this is one good reason why most people have developed an aversion to reading older literature.  Or literature in general.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Reading List: Thus Spake Zarathustra

Thus Spake Zarathustra
by Friedrich Nietzsche

In the sixty pages I've spent with this book so far, I can already tell that Nietzsche was a brilliant mind...who was, like many of his kind, still limited by his own times.  It reads like the Modified Testament, a revision of biblical theology by refuting the very beliefs it supports...I will keep reading.  I believe in Nietzsche, as I said, and thoroughly enjoyed the account of the book's creation, as told by his sister, and relate to his loneliness a great deal.  Hopefully it becomes a little more enlightening.

Thoughts on The Enchantress of Florence

To my mind, a good writer immerses themselves in their subject matter.  For some writers, that entails doing an incredible amount of research.  For others, it means getting inside the head of their characters.  Sometimes, it's both.  Such is the case with Salman Rushdie.

His Satanic Verses became one of the most infamous books of the 20th century when it sparked death threats in the Muslim world, even though the story deals mostly with Indian culture.  It was one of the most imaginative books I'd ever read.  Naturally I had to include Rushdie in my future literary adventures.

When I got around to reading The Enchantress of Florence, I had no idea if Rushdie was a one-trick pony.  That's always a possibility after all, and it's not like the book world goes out of its way to celebrate itself the way music, movies, and TV does, at least not as publicly.  It's incredibly insular (as is poetry, only moreso).  I suppose I shouldn't have been so concerned.  I mean, he wrote The Satanic Verses.

Enchantress of Florence is a period piece (Satanic Verses takes place in the present, except for those parts that inflamed Muslims), set during the earliest years of the New World, and features several notable historical figures, including Akbar the Great, Amerigo Vespucci, and Niccolo Machiavelli (I for one was apparently hugely ignorant about Machiavelli's life outside of writing The Prince), all revolving around a trickster who in the end is revealed to have faded into his own story.  This is just one of the many mirrors to be found in the plot, which reflects on itself and on the present without ever referencing it.

Rushdie, as I suggested, did an incredible amount of research for the book, but he spends a lot of time meditating in it, allowing the characters ample time to reflect.  He is a cerebral writer with a labyrinthine plot in mind.  Too many writers only look at the surface of their stories, and it's the narrative that is supposed to amuse their readers, and many readers believe that this constitutes good writing, and in fact most advice you'll find for writers is to "show, not tell," when in fact a brilliant writer can show through telling more accurately than any minute description of scenery and details.  I mean, there's a reason why most art does not evoke a direct representation of reality.

Anyway, that's not really talking about Enchantress of Florence.  But the best I can say is to recommend reading it for yourself.  You may discover more than a set of facts.
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