Saturday, April 12, 2014

Lucky Jim

As I read the first couple of chapters of this dryly, bitterly, funny novel by Kingsley Amis, I was afraid it was going to be too much like a Barbara Pym novel:  some sly observational humor that's crushed under the weight of a little too much depressing postwar English ennui.  But around the third chapter I began to enjoy myself.  Jim Dixon, a newly hired history lecturer in a small provincial university, hates his job and his colleagues so much that he is unable to resist sabotaging his career prospects at every turn.  This makes for lots of comic fun.  The cynicism never overpowers, though, as it's balanced by Jim's occasional fits of self-honesty which keep him trying, for instance, to do right by the two women with whom he becomes involved.  Great fun.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer

The Whole Woman, published in 2000, is Germaine Greer's follow-up to her 1970 feminist classic The Female Eunuch.  I had to read The Female Eunuch in college during the 1980s and remember feeling both put off and impressed.  Put off by frankly explicit language and by the bleak, bleak picture Greer painted of men and women.  Impressed by her motif of women unable in a male-dominated society to be real women, forced to make ourselves over as "eunuchs," hairless, hipless, and rail-thin.  I was struck by the truth of that image.

The Whole Woman is a book Greer said she would never write, wanting her original manifesto to stand for her own generation and later generations to speak for themselves, but:
In the last thirty years women have come a long, long way;  our lives are nobler and richer than they were, but they are also fiendishly difficult... when The Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves... it's time to get angry again.
The Whole Woman's governing idea is that women are not understood to be a complete, valid, fully-realized sex on our own;  we are viewed more like lesser or incomplete versions of men.  Our physical, biochemical, emotional, and cognitive differences from men are viewed not as valuable qualities but as problems, as lacks.  The book consists of 32 self-contained chapters, each examining this governing idea and how it plays out in the world today from a different angle. 

Greer's fierce articulateness made every chapter a pleasure for me--even the ones that are painful to read, even the ones I don't agree with.  (I did agree with almost all of them, though.)  Some samples:

On making men into "women" by surgically removing the outward signs of maleness:
No so-called sex change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant;  if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight.
On housework:
Women are still held responsible and hold themselves responsible for what the family eats.  In the matter of nutrition, as in so much else, they are confronted with the typical female dilemma of lack of control combined with total responsibility.
On male abdication of responsibility for all the consequences of sex:
If we ask ourselves whether we would have any hope of imposing upon men the duty to protect women's fertility and their health, and avoid the abortions that occur in their uncounted millions every day, we will see in a blinding light how unfree women are.  
On contempt for mothers and mothering:
"Mother" is not a career option;  the woman who gave her all to mothering has to get in shape, find a job, and keep young and beautiful if she wants to be loved... There are some societies where this (honoring mothers) is understood and women are treated with special respect because of it, but not one of them is Anglo-Saxon.

The Collected Short Stories of Saki

Saki is the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro, an English writer I first heard of when my daughter was assigned one of his stories for her high school English class.  She insisted that I'd like this one.  I do like him;  his stories tend to punish the pompous and favor children and other underdogs.  Highly ironic and often humorous, they are very short and generally end with a punchline of sorts.

I haven't (yet) read this entire collection.  It contains around 100 stories, and I'm not inclined to read them all at once.  They're kind of like little snacks--it's nice to read one or two when the mood strikes.  I'm keeping it in the kitchen.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories

This collection of horror stories by H. P. Lovecraft has been on my shelf for a year or so, and I've been in a mood for cozy creepiness this winter, so last month I pulled this one down and read it.  That it's taken me so long to post about it, or indeed about anything, is due to an increase in both new activities and in migraines.  Am now attempting to get both under control, with some success.

These stories were mostly a pleasure, which is not surprising since I've never met a ghost story I didn't like.  And the straightforward ghost stories were the most successful for me, probably because they gave me what I love:  not-too-disturbing creepiness and graceful prose.  The fantasies interested me less--why do I often find fantasy disappointing?  "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," for instance, just seems overblown. "Into the Mountains of Madness," starts off with a great premise:  that Antarctica, the last uncharted continent, contains a dreadful mystery.  But when the mystery is revealed, it's disappointingly, clunkily, silly.  "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," on the other hand, if a bit too long, scared me nicely with its undead ancestors and raised demons.  The classic "The Dunwich Horror" didn't disappoint either.  Atmospherically set in 1920s New England, and building up layers of mystery, its first half was everything I love.  And the final part was well-handled, the "horror" itself not shown except through the reactions of the few who saw it and lived. 

What I didn't know but probably should have, is how much Stephen King owes to H. P. Lovecraft.  It's obvious that King was heavily influenced by Lovecraft, he borrows so much--isolated New England towns with secretive inhabitants, Indian burial grounds as tainted places, foolish humans calling up ancient evils.  Some imagery and the name of a demon from "The Dunwich Horror,"  I'm pretty sure, appear in King's novels The Tommyknockers and Needful Things

After reading these stories, I googled Lovecraft and found a terrific website for fans of Victorian horror called Gaslight.  The site has archived hundreds of gothic/horror/mystery stories as well as essays and criticism written by both famous and unknown authors between 1800 and 1919. 

Classics Club

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Eugene Onegin, Chapters 5-8

I've been awol the last few weeks, for a lot of little non-serious reasons, and I'm here to catch up.  So glad I haven't missed the entire second half of the readalong. 

This final half of the poem begins with a shocking event:  Eugene, in a fit of irritation with Lensky, dances and flirts with Olga (Lensky's fiancee).  Neither Eugene nor Olga sees this as anything serious, but Lensky does.  Quite uncharacteristically, it seems to me, he challenges Onegin to a duel.  Eugene haughtily agrees, and Lensky is killed.  Stricken with remorse, Eugene leaves his estate and spends several years traveling.  Shallow Olga recovers quickly from her loss and marries a soldier. Lensky is forgotten and his grave neglected. Tatiana, feeling that life no longer holds any joy for her, agrees to marry an elderly general, and enters St. Petersburg's social elite.  On his return to society, Eugene sees her at a ball, is struck by her grave beauty, and (at last) falls in love with her.  He writes her a letter that is a wonderful counterpart to the one she originally wrote him, in which he recognizes that he turned her away in the past only because of "my tedious taste for feeling free."  Though she still loves Eugene, Tatiana refuses to betray her husband, and Eugene is left standing thunderstruck.

Question from Marion, our readalong host:  Chapter 6 finds us in the middle of sudden disputes and high drama.  What might be the characters' motivations for such extreme actions?  Is it substance, or superficiality?  Is anybody right or wrong - and if so, who?

I want to respond to this because it's what struck me also--what on earth got into Lensky and Onegin?  I just cannot see sweet-natured, easygoing Lensky even noticing Onegin's flirtation with Olga, much less assuming on no evidence at all that a seduction was attempted, much less demanding a duel!  Likewise with Onegin--he's just too bored and can't-be-bothered-about-it-all to agree to anything as real and dangerous as a duel.  Not to mention his genuine love for his friend, the only sincere emotion he appeared to have up until that point.  I would expect him to laugh at Lensky's challenge, and tell him not to be ridiculous.  Honestly, I can't account for this part of the plot.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Eugene Onegin: Chapters 3 and 4

We've now met  Eugene's neighbor, Victor Lensky, Victor's fiancee Olga, and Olga's sister Tatiana.  Tatiana, having conceived a passion for Onegin, rashly writes him a letter telling him of her feeling.  Onegin somewhat detachedly tells her he does not return her feeling, and suggests she not write anyone such a letter again, for other men may not be so gentle with her.

Impressions of Tatyana and Olga?  Olga is a simple, friendly, pretty girl;  ideal for good-natured and romantic (and possibly undemanding) Victor.  Tatiana is deeper--reserved but passionate, a dreamer and reader of romances. 

What do you make of Onegin's reaction to Tatyana?  It seems in character.  Onegin is not cruel, but he is far too jaded and self-centered to appreciate a heartfelt gift of love.  It wouldn't occur to him to give of himself, and he is not interested in the offering of another's heart. 

How does the story, thus far, compare or contrast with another classic romantic novel (of your choice)?  Anna Karenina comes to mind;  I read it last fall.  I'm reminded of Kitty and Levin--his offering of marriage, heart full of passion, and her initial thoughtless rejection.  Will Eugene come to his senses as Kitty did?  He did notice Tatiana when he first met the sisters...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Eugene Onegin: Chapters 1 and 2

My first reaction, as I haven't read many (any?) novels in verse, is that it's almost making me read faster than I want to--the rhythm is carrying me along with it, and I'm having to go back, sometimes, and reread some lines to clarify.  Not that it's difficult at all;  but the rhythm gives it a rather lighthearted feel, as if even things like Eugene's coldness about his uncle's death aren't supposed to really get us down.  I wonder how the tragic events later in the story will come across?

First impressions of Eugene?  A rake; a young, wealthy, jaded, man-about-town. 

What do you make of the narrator's commentary?  An old man looking back on his youth, reminiscing about this Eugene with fondness.

Thoughts on the characters sketched out in Chapter 2?  I'm very interested in Tatiana.  I know from the back cover of the book, lol, that Eugene will seduce her.  But rather than a young innocent girl who will be easy pickings for Eugene the jaded rake, she looks like one who has had a lot of life experience and learned from it.