Point to Point Navigation – 4/5
This is a second and shorter memoir by Gore Vidal published a few years before he died. It wasn’t right before his death, but you get the impression that he is saying a last few things at least before he begins to wrap up his writing career. His career began when he was about 19 or so when he began writing what would become his first novel, Williwaw, a WWII short novel about a boat in the North Pacific in the lead up to the war. Some things that I learned from Gore Vidal in this book.
-He is the grandson of a senator. The Gore name is taken from that senator-grandfather’s last name. He is distantly related to the Gores of Tennessee, but he and his immediate kin are more famous.
-His father was an airline magnate who, it is heavily implied if barely not directly stated, had an affair with Amelia Earhart. He says he found a mongrammed hairbrush with auburn hair in his father’s bathroom once.
-His mother, not to be outdone, had an affair with Clark Gable.
-Vidal was childhood friends with biography writer Jean Stein.
-Some of the various friends and acquaintances mentioned here: Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Eleanor Roosevelt, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow.
-Sexuality comes up a few times here and there, but despite his novels, he’s relatively reserved on the topic.
-He was trained and worked as an actor in both film and television. I know him mostly from his role in the Tim Robbins movie Bob Roberts, but he’s been in and written many more movies than this.
The memoir is a little scattershot, telling piecemeal stories as they seem to occur to Vidal over the course of the writing. He’s older now and in his last years took a very leftward bend. He was always more or less headed in this direction. One of his series of novels is called Narratives of Empire, and he meant it very pointedly to look at the US as an empire, and not just using the title lightly. The narration by Vidal is excellent. He’s a great reader already, but his work as an actor comes out. He also gladly does impressions of Nixon and Kennedy for you.
“A current pejorative adjective is narcissistic. Generally, a narcissist is anyone better looking than you are, but lately the adective is often applied to those “liberals” who prefer to improve the lives of others rather than exploit them. Apparently, a concern for others is self-love at its least attractive, while greed is now a sign of the hightest altruism. But then to reverse, periodically, the meanings of words is a very small price to pay for our vast freedom not only to conform but to consume.”
A Sorrow Beyond Dreams – 4/5
Peter Handke of course is quite infamous these days for his repeated public apologies for Slobodan Milosevic. There’s a sharp disconnect between someone who does that and someone who writes so beautifully and painfully about his mother’s suicide. His mother was 51 when she died, and Handke wrote this memoir/reflection on her death within a few months after. What emerges in terms of the reflection itself is not the pain, although there’s plenty of that, but the ways in which grief clearly inhabited his soul to the point where it seemed to leak out of his body in various different emotional bursts. I am somebody who struggles to understand what sadness feels like, not because I’ve never been sad, but because sadness is a feeling that my body tries to reject as soon as it creeps in. Handke describes his grief in terms of anger and boredom, and while those seem odd reactions, it’s hard not to take them as honest.
The main thrust of the writing here is to discuss what he knows about his mother. One of the primary threads in her life is that she seemed not to know how to live for a long time. This specifically means that she was someone who seemed destined to live some kind of life of the mind, but she was late to reading and later to serious reading, borrowing books from her teenage son. And while this could very well have been a transformational or liberational discovery, it awakes in her a great sadness at the time she lost. It’s the memoir’s conjecture that this sense of loss broke her in ways that were seemingly irreparable.
“No possibilities, it was all settled in advance: a bit of flirtation, a few giggles, brief bewilderment, then the alien, resigned look of a woman starting to keep house again, the first children, a bit of togetherness after the kitchen work, from the start not listened to, and in turn listening less and less, inner monologues, trouble with her legs, varicose veins, mute except for mumbling in her sleep, cancer of the womb, and finally, with death, destiny fulfilled. The girls in our town used to play a game based on the stations in a woman’s life: Tired/ Exhausted/Sick/Dying/Dead.”
“Horror is something perfectly natural: the mind’s emptiness. A thought is taking shape, then suddenly it notices that there is nothing more to think. Whereupon it crashes to the ground like a figure in a comic strip who suddenly realises that he has been walking on air.”
“The worst thing right now would be sympathy, expressed in a word or even a glance. I would turn away or cut the sympathiser short, because I need the feeling that what I am going through is incomprehensible and incommunicable; only then does the horror seem meaningful and real. If anyone talks to me about it, the boredom comes back, and everything is unreal again. Nevertheless, for no reason at all, I sometimes tell people about my mother’s suicide, but if they dare to mention it I am furious. What I really want them to do is change the subject and tease me about something.”
“She read newspapers, but preferred books with stories that she could compare with her own life. She read the books I was reading, first Fallada, Knut Hamsun, Dostoevsky, Maxim Gorky, then Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. What she said about books could not have been put into print; she merely told me what had particularly caught her attention. “I’m not like that”, she sometimes said, as though the author had written about her. To her, every book was an account of her own life, and in reading she came to life; for the first time, she came out of her shell; she learned to talk about herself; and with each book she had more ideas on the subject. Little by little, I learned something about her.”
The Bloody Chamber – 3/5 Stars
This is a second time reading this collection and I still maintain that the way I tend to confront short stories limits my enjoyment and engagement with fairy tale renderings in general, but especially overly impressionistic and ethereal. My second reading then has deepened my liking of some of these stories, and lowered my tolerance for others. The basic reaction is that when the stories feel deep and real, with the fairy tale as structure, I really enjoy them, but when they lean heavily on the stories for meaning, I tend less to. The very short stories in this collection left little impression.
The Bloody Chamber – This is by far the strongest of the stories, with the close seconds being the follow-up and the late story “The Company of Wolves”. In this story, we take on the “Bluebeard” story from the perspective of the new wife. Bluebeard is an old story and we see a lot of new renderings of it in various ways. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is probably the most well-known version that heavily leans into this one, but even Vonnegut’s ironic rendering in his novel, Bluebeard, is still very good. The Bloody Chamber in the title refers of course to the locked and forbidden room in the castle that the young wife cannot help but be tempted by and of course is purposely set up to be tempted by it. The story is slow in the best of ways and takes it time getting us there.
The Courtship of Mr Lyon – This is our first of two “Beauty and the Beast” stories in the collection, again another common enough story structure. This one takes place in a more modern setting and involves the important addition of the Beauty character needing to make active free will decisions about her feelings.
The Tiger’s Bride – While so many fairy tales involve what is clearly a kind of sex trafficking, this second Beauty and the Beast rendering dives headlong into it in of course creepy ways.
Puss-in-Boots – The first of the stories that feels like a lot of flash and flourish, but not much story.
The Erl-King – Perhaps it’s the less-well known nature of these next three that hamper my enjoyment of them.
The Snow Child – See Above
The Lady of the House of Love – See Above
The Werewolf – The first of three Red Riding Hood stories, another classic structure, and clearly borrowing heavily from the Perrault versions. This one is short, and very satisfying, despite what I said earlier.
The Company of Wolves – The basis of the Neil Jordan movie of the same name and really leaning heavily into the psycho-sexual themes of the story.
Wolf-Alice – The last story and another Riding Hood Variant.
“For all cats have this particularity, each and every one, from the meanest alley sneaker to the proudest, whitest she that ever graced a pontiff’s pillow — we have our smiles, as it were, painted on. Those small, cool, quite Mona Lisa smiles that smile we must, no matter whether it’s been fun or it’s been not. So all cats have a politician’s air; we smile and smile and so they think we’re villains”
“His touch both consoles and devastates me; I feel my heart pulse, then wither, naked as a stone on the roaring mattress while the lovely, moony night slides through the window to dapple the flanks of this innocent who makes cages to keep the sweet birds in. Eat me, drink me; thirsty, cankered, goblin-ridden, I go back and back to him to have his fingers strip the tattered skin away and clothe me in his dress of water, this garment that drenches me, its slithering odour, its capacity for drowning.”
Mumbo Jumbo – 4/5 Stars
If you have never read an Ishmael Reed novel then you have no idea what you’re in for reading any of them. That said, if you have read an Ishmael Reed novel then you still have no idea what you’re in for. I first read this novel in college about 20 years ago. Needless to say a lot of the references and allusions were completely lost on me. Now much older, almost none of the references and allusions were lost on me, or at least I got a whole lot more of them, but then that seemed to not clear everything else up. Reed’s milieu is looking at American history, American forms of writing, and American themes like racism, conquest, violence, music, and language and layering all of those on top of each other in a narrative and trying to tell a straightforward story with it. The story here concerns a 1920s separatist Black movement in Harlem, but that doesn’t stop it from talking about things from the 1960s and 70s, alongside a long retelling of some of the pharaohs of Ancient Egypt.
Anthem – No rating
What should honestly be the only Ayn Rand novel that people still read. This small fable is about a man who lives in a repressive society in which he’s not allowed to know or think about his own identity and seeing himself as an individual. He’s not allowed to think or consider his body. He’s not allowed to choose his own profession, and as a whole science and technology have been more or less lost to the ages. It’s both a dystopia and a post-apocalypse in one. One day he stumbles upon a hidden chamber under the street where he finds a laboratory where after playing around with some of the materials he discovers a rudimentary form of electricity, which produces a light source. Thinking that others might be thrilled by a chance to replace the need for candles, he takes his findings to the council where he is denied, laughed at, and threatened. As happens this embitters him. Alongside all this he falls in love with a woman and works to awake her to the world he now sees. It works and they run away.
There’s nothing too crazy in this book, and I think the basic ideas are good if read in abstract ways, not giving into to specific political ideologies that can distort the otherwise perfectly reasonable ideas.
“The word “We” is as lime poured over men, which sets and hardens to stone, and crushes all beneath it, and that which is white and that which is black are lost equally in the grey of it. It is the word by which the depraved steal the virtue of the good, by which the weak steal the might of the strong, by which the fools steal the wisdom of the sages. What is my joy if all hands, even the unclean, can reach into it? What is my wisdom, if even the fools can dictate to me? What is my freedom, if all creatures, even the botched and impotent, are my masters? What is my life, if I am but to bow, to agree and to obey? But I am done with this creed of corruption. I am done with the monster of “We,” the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood and shame. And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: “I.”
For Colored Girls…5/5 – The classic multifarious stage play that gives different Black female characters space to speak their stories to an audience in the form of monologues. This was first performed in 1975 but you can tell it’s been updated over the years as various contemporaneous references and stories have been added. As much as I enjoy the writing, what I particularly liked about this audio edition is the longist introduction by Ntozake Shange, who spells out her vision, the history of the play, and her various other writing projects as well.
“The poems introduce the girls to other kinds of people of color, other worlds. To adventure, and kindness, and cruelty. Cruelty that we usually think we face alone, but we don’t. We discover that by sharing with each other we find strength to go on. The poems are the play’s first hint of the global misogyny that we women face.”
Madea – No Rating – The classic Greek play about pain, betrayal, and revenge. And because Madea is the embodiment of a woman retaliating against the betrayal of her husband, this play is rupe for remix and recasting. Madea is married to Jason (of the Argo) with whom she has several children. Her place in the world is threatened when Jason is offered one of the daughters of Creon of Corinth (of Oedipus and Antigone fame) to marry. He accepts, casting Madea out. For revenge she decides to murder their children and curse the gods.
Again, this play and story occurs in lots of modern versions, the most famous for in Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment (where, spoiler alert) no children are harmed luckily.
Is that which rages in the place of dearest love.”
Waiting for Godot – 5/5
Endgame is sometimes described as a play in which something almost happens. Waiting for Godot is described s a play in which something almost happens twice. These two fools, it’s almost impossible not to love them. Estragon (Gogo) and Vladimir (Didi) are waiting for the man. He might show up today, or at least they think he might, but it turns out that he might show up tomorrow. Regardless, what is one day from the next? Especially if you cannot remember yesterday? This is a play about death of course, as a literature is about death, and it’s about the lives we lead and how sometimes, that’s all we do with them. It’s very funny in its ways too.
After all “That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.”
Never Let Me Go – 4/5
I am rereading this book for the first time in about 15 or more years. I picked up the audiobook (I assume the same one I just listened to) from the library in 2006-2007 and listened to it while walking the dog in the woods near where I lived them. I was younger, but I was really sold on the book. I was completely taken aback when I learned the secret at the heart of the book and the mystery that plagues our narrator. The novel takes place in some kind future and Cathy is a “carer” which is not spelled out fully until about 1/4 through the book. She and her childhood schoolmates spend their days playing games, making art, and going to class. Sometimes someone will leave and not return and the adults in their lives seemed pained. Her two closest friends (and frenemies) are Tommy and Ruth. One day Tommy is told by one of the teachers that it’s ok that he’s not creative. This devastates him, because the creative output of each student carries a heavy currency in the school, especially since yearly they have a fair where their items are sold or taken by adults, sometimes even the headmistress. The theories as to why this head takes their art forge into a set of shared myths about the world. As they grow older, they learn more about their existence, but the dramatic irony (and why I won’t disclose) between what they know and understand and what we know and understand creates a mass gulf in their lives. The novel works repeatedly with themes of youth and ignorance, and the curse of knowledge.
Oddly, I was also rereading it because one of my colleagues teaches it for a class I will also be teaching next year, and I am VERY split on whether and how I could teach this book to high school seniors. Even as mature as they might be there’s a few moments where I got a little cringe feeling at the thought of it. Tabled for now.
Beowulf – Trans Heaney and also Trans Headley
I am rereading the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf, which is still highly regarded. Overall, I find it pretty satisfying in the ways that I want it to be for an edition to use in a high school class. What I most want out of it is readability and adaptability to discuss in different classes. The Burton Raffell one (which is very widely available hits the same notes).
The Headley translation, well, I am less convinced about and certainly couldn’t use it in a high school classroom.
Here’s the opening:
““Bro! Tell me we still know how to speak of kings! In the old days, everyone knew what men were: brave, bold, glory-bound. Only stories now, but I’ll sound the Spear-Danes’ song, hoarded for hungry times.”
She justifies her use of slang and curses in a longish introduction that I think does show a high awareness of her choices and her reasoning, but I was also struggling with elements of her choices. This isn’t a place for me to get into it, as I am still processing, but it struck as something I was of mixed feelings about.
Ancillary Sword – 3/5 Stars
The second of the Imperial Radch series, the series of books I might feel most cursed to feel compelled to read and finish. At the end of the first book Breq goes from the precipice of attempting to kill Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch to being adopted into service, where unbeknownst to the lord, Breq is an ancillary (a single body unit of a hive mind) bent on killing them. This the more transitionary of the two novels so far spending a lot of time expanding our understanding of the universe. Breq is sent to a farflung post and develops further friendships as they try to figure out next steps. As with the first book, the concept of one mind occupying more than one body, if not near infinite, is deeply unsettling for me.