Friday, February 29, 2008

O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

I found this story incredibly moving. It covers a broad swath of time, and you can definitely see where it's going at points, but I really loved its humanity. It starts with a kitten up a telephone pole, and only gets better from there. I was particularly interested in the variety of languages in play in the community, and the portrait of a multi-ethnic community it created. I was also interested in Alexandra's growth into her own person. Beautiful and well-worth the time both to read and to write about.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Light in August by William Faulkner

This time through, I found this book more misogynistic than I remembered. Faulkner's patronization of Lena Grove was increasingly irritating. But I also found beautiful moments and intriguing moments. Both Gail Hightower and Joe Christmas struck me as more sad than ever--especially when you see Joe so emotionally maimed that he resents Mrs. McEachern's attempts at kindness. I found Joe's "parchment" skin especially telling, because the characters in the story write their own readings of Joe as they consider him in context. I was also interested in the patterns of naming. Joanna and Joe are linked by the first syllables of their names, but one might also remember that Joanna is slightly mis-named, after her father's first wife, Juana (herself relatively dark-skinned as a Spanish woman). Overall, intriguing, but slightly more troubling than I remembered.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers

There are moments in this mystery that clearly identify it as a first novel--places where Sayers hasn't quite hit her stride, or where she has hit, but hadn't expected to. Still, as far as mysteries go, this one is worth reading. Lord Peter as shell-shocked is a bit of a surprise, and there are unexpected moments of humor--like the examination of the unwitting medical student. Not the best mystery in terms of completely twisted plots, but something any Lord Peter fan will want to read.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Sister by Poppy Adams

I found this book a little frustrating because I did not like the narrator. Piecing together her past, and realizing her limitations was intriguing, of course, but the mystery ultimately ended up being too little for a proper mystery and yet too much built up. Mostly, I found the book sad, and lacking redemption.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Strong Poison by Dorothy Sayers

This mystery introduces Harriet Vane, though she's by no means the most compelling supporting character in this novel--that honor goes to Miss Climpson, who runs a typing agency/investigative force. The plot is fairly straightforward as far as mysteries go, but it's endearing to see Lord Peter in love, and it does build up Lord Peter's world quite a bit. The writing is fairly elegant and erudite, as usual for Sayers. A good starting point for reading Dorothy Sayers. 

Requiem for a Nun by William Faulkner

This book is an odd hybrid of prose and drama. The prose fills in a lot of backstory on Yoknapatawpha County through the history of the courthouse and the jail. The drama is a play that continues the story of Sanctuary. While the return to Temple Drake's life is painful at best, and a wretchedly bad idea at worst, I think it's telling that Faulkner did choose to return. This renewed consideration of Temple implies that the "base idea" of Sanctuary was not just one conceived to make money, but one that continued to interest Faulkner in later years. Alternatively, one could suppose that Faulkner wanted to make some more money, but if that were the case, he wouldn't have had to include the prose sections.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit by John Rollin Ridge

This book is not one you'd pick up for its literary style, although at times Ridge uses the technique of enigma quite effectively. Instead, you read it as the foundational document behind the myth of Joaquín Murieta, and as a complicated study of the racial discourses at play in California during the Gold Rush. This book creates the state as Joaquín moves from its Northern to Southern extremes.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

I found this parable very moving. At times Wilder sounded like García Márquez. This book ultimately rejects the attempt to create a greater pattern out of life and God's will, but instead shows the power of a life well-lived and well-loved.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

This novel improved vastly from the first to the second reading. This time around I found more humor (especially from the Snopes side of things) and more humanity (in Popeye, of all people). While not as beautiful as Faulkner's better work, and definitely written to titillate (and make money), this book manages to confront questions of gender and sexuality in what is not a delicate, but is probably a thoughtful way.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

This slim novel is more elegantly constructed than the symphony one of its characters is writing; McEwan shows three men who loose everything shortly after the death of a woman they all once loved. Chilling, beautiful, and powerful, this novel deftly deconstructs their lives and beliefs. Booker award winner, 1998

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Professor's House by Willa Cather

Cather has written quite the elegant novel, deftly illustrating the life-changing power of a story within a story. I heard a lecture on space and narrative form in this novel and Absalom, Absalom!, and immediately knew I had to move this book up my reading list--once I got my hands on a copy I read it in one sitting. The story of Tom Outland in itself might be enough for a read--my opinions on that section are the stronger for having seen the old pueblos of New Mexico for myself--but all together this novel is quite moving. I know I will return to this story with joy and excitement.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Teaching Literature by Elaine Showalter

In this book, Elaine Showalter reflects on the process of teaching literature. After going through some common anxieties (which was not entirely helpful--I know that I am anxious and why I am anxious, thank you very much), she spends most of the book reflecting on strategies of teaching. She has many suggestions for different sorts of classes (in terms of genre, number of students, lecture/discussion balance) and has interviewed several other professors, whose advice she incorporates generously throughout the text. The end result is more like a hodge-podge than anything else. I would recommend skimming, taking new ideas that might work for you, and discarding the rest.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

This book repays re-reading insofar as it's gotten better, not worse, since the first time I read it, but it's neither Faulkner's best effort nor one of my favorites. Still, this time around, I paid particular attention to the tension between the epic and the mock-epic in Faulkner's tone, Darl's eerie omniscience in his narration, and Addie's infliction of trauma on Darl. Worth reading, and even more worth a re-read.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Evelina by Frances Burney

This novel was both humorous and engaging as it traces the story of a naive, young girl's gradual exposure to 18th century society. Although Evelina's extreme innocence is at times infuriating, she slowly, if erringly, corrects her ways and finds her virtue rewarded in the end. The end itself is a bit troubling; the central absence of the book seems a bit contrived, and while the ending has Evelina rushing home to correct it, this haste seems inappropriate for her changed circumstances. Great fun--keep an eye out for the monkey, especially.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

This book seriously addresses questions of politics and free will under the guise of science fiction. While there's a lot of technical information about the communications systems and ballistics used by Mycroft (the artificial intelligence that coordinates the revolution), the book takes on the question of political self-determination. Written in a dialect supposed to have developed on the moon, the prose isn't the most elegant I've ever read. For me, the most compelling relationship in the book (and the most compelling reason to read the book) was the friendship between Mannie and Mike. I'm grateful to the friend who lent me his copy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt

This book is a remarkable and complex text. A mystery of sorts, the story of the discovery of a love affair between two fictional, Victorian poets unfolds against the love affair of two modern scholars. It took me close to five months to finish (obviously, I've been reading other things)--and while I certainly found it compelling, it was strangely hard to get into at places. Byatt has constructed all sorts of texts for this novel: letters, journals, poems--and while I love the feel of the paper chase and am dazzled by the wide array of background material to the text, at times the format hinders the flow of the story. Overall well worth reading. Booker winner, 1990.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

I read this book in two sittings, which is to say, once I was twenty pages in, I couldn't put it down. Némirovsky's elegant prose, subtle connections and juxtapositions, and graceful attention to nuance all contribute to this book's remarkable power. Set in the heart of the Nazi occupation of France, the book remains strikingly incomplete (Némirovsky wrote only two of five planned sections before she was arrested and murdered by the Nazis), yet one wonders whether it could have been finished, given the conditions of its creation. Her ambition is equal to that of Tolstoy or Proust, and the book is one I most enthusiastically recommend.

Laura by Leonora Sansay

I found this example of the American Gothic very interesting. It starts in a European convent a generation in advance, and involves a doubling of the escape from paternal oppression (both in the protagonist and in her mother). The book's description of its own plot I found a little misleading.

The Secret History or the Horrors of St. Domingo by Leonora Sansay

This semi-autobiographical novel is framed as a collection of letters from the sister of a wife of a French planter to Aaron Burr when she, her sister, and the husband return to reclaim his plantation during the 1803 interlude in the Haitian Revolution. The status of language (which are being learned and spoken) is vexed, as is the domestic position of the narrator and the sister, who feels she has been mis-matched in marriage. I found the editorial arrangement of the letters (which, for one thing, obviously omits Burr's reactions) troubling.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Faulkner called this novel his most splendid failure; I am inclined to find it his most perfect book. At times the novel seems almost over-determined, and Faulkner has set up his story to cruelly highlight the losses of each of the three Compson brothers, even as their sister, Caddy, remains elusively absent from the text. Her absence was more painful and pronounced than ever, this time through.