Across Five Aprils: 4/ 5 Stars
This is another Civil War book, and another Civil War book taking place in the midwest, that I read as a kid. I grew up in the South and thought about the Civil War a LOT. It happens. Anyway, like Rifles for Watie mentioned in the previous one, this focuses on the western theater of the war but still deals a lot with the news from the East. This becomes a kind of interesting conceit, where our main character is only about 10 at the start of the war and mostly hears about it through the news from newspapers, letters from his older brothers, and hearsay. And this also deals heavily with the homefront as its setting, but also a story that focuses on those left behind. And so the effect is how remote and alien the goings-on in the war feel through the eyes of a boy who is conflicted about the details of the war. He is thoughtful and intelligent, and even at one point writes to Abraham Lincoln to ask about what would happen to deserters who left the Union army. Throughout the novel there’s a not clear question about what he would do if he found himself in the war.
The thing that works about this novel is that we are not in war and we are not completely dealing with the connectedness or surety about the purpose of the war. There’s a lot of really good dialogues about the war and interpersonal debates that seem intelligent and maybe authentic, without feeling ahistorical. This is a YA novel, but like Rifles for Watie, it feels so keenly aware of its audience.
Little Tales of Misogyny: 3/5 Stars
This is kind of like Patricia Highsmith’s Tender Buttons. It’s a collection of lots and lots of little stories in which women and women’s bodies become the subject of ridicule, violence, sexual depravity, and control. And in each little story that body is placed in highlight against the world that seeks to control it. I think over all this is interesting experiment, but I have the same issue with it as I do with every short story collection with short short stories: ambivalent. I don’t tend to connect with the images and vignettes, I read too quickly, and I feel that minus an impactful ending, I lose the thread almost instantly.
It’s weird because of how precise Highsmith is in her thrillers, that these feel disconnected to me.
Here’s a sample: “The Invalid, or, the Bedridden”
She had suffered a fall while on a skiing holiday at Chamonix with her boyfriend some ten years ago. The injury had something to do with her back. The doctors couldn’t find anything, nobody could see anything wrong with her back, but still it hurt, she said. Actually, she was not sure she would get her man unless she pretended an injury, and one acquired when she had been with him. Philippe, however, was quite in love with her, and she need not have worried so much. Still, hooking Philippe very firmly, plus ensuring a life of leisure–not to say flat on her back in bed, or however she chose to lie comfortably, for the rest of her life–was no small gain. It was a big one. How many other women could capture a man for life, give him nothing at all, not even bother to cook his meals, and still be supported in rather fine style?
Black Dahlia and White Rose: 2/5 stars
I remember being a college junior in 2002 and being in a Faulkner class. We were talking about who were the “real deal” writers in America. In 2002, the big ones were Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, and(since this was a Faulkner class so we’re not getting too crazy) EL Doctorow. When someone asked about Joyce Carol Oates, the professor just said the same thing that I would say about Philip Roth, John Updike, and a few others: I can’t trust someone who’s written that much.
And this is one of those collections that confirms that. It seems so hard to trust the writing here when she seems to put out a new (usually long) novel each year and a collection of short stories.
She’s obviously virtuosic and a genius, but like a lot of geniuses, the output belies the depth. There’s just too much. And this collection is not strong. There’s a few, as there always are, very good stories. Her writing is always plenty good, and yet something is clearly lacking. There’s a lack of impression here. Her writing cannot mask the need to be a more mindful critic and editor. If her goal was more entertainment stuff, sure, but it’s clearly not.
The opening two stories are very good and then it winnows from there. I think the opening story about the Black Dahlia murder does make me more and more interested in Blonde, but otherwise I am good here.
Wide Sargasso Sea – 4/5
I read the previous four Jean Rhys novels in one fell swoop earlier this year, but I put this one off. I could immediately tell in the opening paragraph that this was a completely different kind of story: colonial setting, infamous retelling of Jane Eyre; and a much different sensibility.
What strikes me as very interesting about the whole setup here is that she takes care to privilege a completely forgotten and erased voice, but then completes that erasure through this novel. It’s curious to me because when the novel shifts into the middle section, I was pretty impressed how not the kind of book I thought this was going to be ended up being.
So like I said, this is a retelling or kind of prequel to Jane Eyre, and while Jane was in her school in the opening section, we have Rochester and Bertha meeting and marrying in the Caribbean. The interesting thing about this, aside from everything, is that this is one of the first main examples of this kind of parodic writing, but also that she spends the middle and longest section of the novel writing through Rochester’s voice. In terms of this being a colonial feminist retelling of an old story this feels like a complicated kind of complicity, but in terms of retelling Rochester’s story, it feel revolutionary. Because as I think about Jane Eyre, it’s so narrowly viewed and Rochester seems both beastly and incomplete and the greater story and mystery is not between Jane and Rochester, who end up together, but don’t feel that great of an ending to me. And yet, here we have his side of things. He’s still an ass, but it becomes a more complex version. As much as this is “Bertha’s story” it’s much more Rochester’s.
I am teaching The Crucible to 11th graders starting this week. I needed to create some context for them so they better understood the worldview of Puritans. This book helped me start that process a little in an opening activity. It’s a cutesy and salacious retelling of the Witch Trials with funny pictures and some alarmed language. It’s a prefectly good and limited version of the events. It simply tells the story and provides some backdrop.
I don’t know the last time you read The Crucible, but it’s about a s good as it is bad. It’s a mixed blessing. I guess we read it because it’s a play that tells history, it’s about Justice, and some of the scenes are really good. The awkward “Don’t yell at me any more for cheating on you!” scene is such a funny scene to teach with teenagers because the boys and girls tend to have some funny and strong reactions to it. But it’s also such a whiny book about quotes and stoicism. I would be such a coward. I wouldn’t name names, but man would I sign away mine so quickly.
So anyway, the kids needed something to balance out the heavy-handed thematic elements of the opening of the play, which starts with a FIVE-PAGE intro that tells you some maybe not well-researched “truths” about Puritans. We also played a Witch Hunt game that was just Werewolves with Witches and Witchhunters.