Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Middlemarch - first half

I'm about half-way through Middlemarch, by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Something I love about Eliot is how funny she is, and sarcastic - and I find myself laughing out loud all the time.
"Oh, my dear, you are so hard on your brothers! It is the only fault I have to find with you. You are the sweetest temper in the world, but you are so tetchy with your brothers."
- "Not tetchy, mamma: you never hear me speak in an unladylike way."
- "Well, but you want to deny them things."
- "Brothers are so unpleasant."
Middlemarch is a small town, and the book follows the stories of several families within the town, as well as some political issues regarding, if I'm not mistaken, landlords and renters. The political aspect is the only part that's not really holding my attention. My favorite story line is of Dorothea, who finds herself in an unhappy marriage to Mr. Casaubon. What I find most interesting about Dorothea (Dodo - how perfect!) is that she constantly doubts her own intelligence - no doubt due to being raised by her fond but misogynistic Uncle, who consistently reinforces the idea that women are frail and less inclined toward serious thought.
"But there is a lightness about the feminine mind - a touch and go - music, the fine arts, that kind of thing - they should study those up to a certain point, women should; but in a light way, you know. A woman should be able to sit down and play you or sing you a good old English tune."
I hate to say those sentiments are not unfamiliar to me or the small community in which I was raised. A few posts ago I joked about writing an homage to Middlemarch, and more lately I've been thinking seriously about doing it. I think after I finish, I'll read Howard's End and try to figure out how Zadie Smith did it for On Beauty. Middlemartinsville? I think something's there... Anyway, I have such high hopes for Dorothea, and want to see her explore the possibilities of her mind (if you've read it, don't give it away!)

Another theme I'm enjoying is the acknowledgement of change. Two young men argue about whether painting or literature is the higher art:
"Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere coloured superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing; they change from moment to moment."
Eliot seeks to prove the impossibility of capturing anything - just a breathe changes everything.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Other Side of You

This book started out pretty good, but got worse an worse 'til I could barely finish it. It's about a psychiatrist who ends up spending seven hours in a session with this suicidal woman, she tells her lame-ass lost-love story and how that led her to attempt to kill herself and he sort of falls in love with her. The author, Salley Vickers, has clearly never been to a therapist in her entire life - she presents our hero as just that - a sensitive, thoughtful man - when, clearly, he's a nightmare of a mental health professional - he has no boundaries, he gets improperly involved with his patients, and he gossips about his clients over dinner at parties. Also, he's homophobic.

I think it's the rare author who can pull off writing in the voice of the opposite sex. and Vickers does, to borrow an English phrase, a piss-poor job at it. But The Other Side of You suffers more from a weak plot and one awkward turn of phrase after another:
"Thank you for listening to me. And for telling me the truth."
"Thank you for telling me what you have told me. And for telling me to tell you the truth." Yelch.

Vickers attempts to jump on the bandwagon of best-selling books that allude to or depend on a relationship to famous paintings (like Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Da Vinci Code, and my favorite: The World to Come). Her characters find a bond over their shared admiration of Caravaggio's work - but the repeated references to Caravaggio are one-dimensional and do nothing to move the plot forward or provide insight into his life and work. The story pales next to the heightened drama that is found in nearly every one of Caravaggio's paintings.

The title, by the way, is pulled from a TS Eliot poem:
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
-But who is that on the other side of you?

I guess what bugs me the most about the book, and is summed up in the Eliot poem, is that the characters are defined by their relationship to others - and the characters also define each other by their third-party relationships as well - those "on the other side" - in life, and art, I'm interested in the real thing.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Remembering Kurt Vonnegut

Far be it from me to be the only book blogger not to book blog about Kurt Vonnegut. I haven't read much of his work - Slaughterhouse Five, and it's been awhile, so I can't really write intelligently about it. I remember Player Piano better - very good dystopian future stuff. I saw him speak once when I was at Indiana University. I was dating this guy who was kind of all into appearances. And he had something else to do, but he wanted to pop in to the lecture by Vonnegut, probably just to say he'd been there. And I wanted to hang out with him, so even though I didn't know who Vonnegut was, I went along. It was in the IU auditorium, which is quite large, and Vonnegut (a Hoosier!) was up on stage all alone, all tweedy and beardy - he couldn't look more like a writer if he tried. The audience was packed. The appearances boyfriend got up to leave after five or ten minutes, but I was so enthralled with Vonnegut I hardly noticed him leave.

I'm putting Breakfast of Champions and Cat's Cradle on my mental to-read list.

Here's an audio of one of his lectures - this is from around the time I saw him speak. And here's a more recent lecture where he lays the hammer down on conservatives.

In other book news - just heard today that Michael Chabon has a new book coming out (May 1, 2007), The Yiddish Policemen's Union. I hope it's half as good as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I've been reading Middlemarch since - oh - December. I don't know when it's taken me so long to read one book. In my defence, it's dense, it's over 800 pages, and it was written two centuries ago. I'm loving it, but I keep thinking, wow, there's so many books to read, and this one's taking so long. It reminds me of this thing I heard Zadie Smith say once, that she thought it was better to know one book really well than to have read tons of books. That book for her was Howard's End, upon which she based On Beauty. Maybe one day I'll write a masterpiece based on Middlemarch.

I did break down and start reading another book at the same time - The Other Side of You, by Salley Vickers. So far so good, but two things annoy me. 1) It's shrink-sploitation, which I'm not really into and 2) it's written by a woman, but the POV is a man. Yelch. I really didn't intend to start it in the middle of Middlemarch, but I ordered it from England (why do they get paperbacks before we do?) with my Harry Potter, and they mailed it early.