The Best Friends Character, and Animal Farm

If there are any Friends fans out there, you might enjoy my recent article for Headstuff, “It’s Official: Ross is the Best Friends Character” …if you like Ross, that is. But even if you don’t, you have to admit that his velociraptor impression is a thing of beauty.

In book news, I read Animal Farm last week and was surprised to find it thoroughly fascinating. I was actually a little sad when it ended abruptly at the 70% mark on my Kindle. (Usually I do a little dance and celebrate with some sort of baked good when I finish a classic.)

Animal Farm is suuuper short and very easy to read, so you’d only need to set aside a few hours to get through it. For anyone unfamiliar with the book, it’s George Orwell’s pastoral allegory describing the events before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917. And even for someone like me, with so little interest in politics that, for all intents and purposes, we might as well call it NONE, Animal Farm is completely absorbing.

Anyway, whatever book you’re tackling this week, happy reading!

#12 Middlemarch, George Eliot

Middlemarch_1

Middlemarch is a book about marriage.

But this is no story of marital kamikaze (à la Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary), nor is it the script for a “Love Conquers All” press conference penned by Romance’s PR team (à la The Time Traveler’s Wife, or anything by Nicholas Sparks).

Middlemarch is a realistic book about marriage—and it should be, as part of the “literary realism” movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The marriages of Middlemarch are turbulent, naïve, and ever-evolving. After all, none of us really know what we’re signing on for when we commit to a lifetime with another person, other than a lot of ups and downs, eternal toothpaste woes, and the occasional Christmas gift dud.

Lydgate lives outside his means to please Rosamond. Dorothea discovers that Casaubon’s intelligence is a double-edged sword. Fred makes mistakes and works to earn Mary’s respect instead of taking it for granted. It all feels familiar, yet—because it’s happening to other people—intriguing. Maybe it’s the gossip inside all of us that takes George Eliot’s bait.

Eliot's grave in Highgate Cemetery, London

Eliot’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London

Marriage is a funny thing, especially in literature. In the classics, of course, social mores often prohibit divorce. So you, as the reader, spend a lot of time hoping lackluster/inattentive/dumb/abusive spouses will conveniently die so that the hero/heroine ends up with the “right” partner. This is definitely the case in Middlemarch when it comes to Dorothea and Casaubon—Dorothea being a human utopia, and Casaubon being a fusty intellectual elitist. The shiniest moment amid Casaubon’s prevailing dullness was his love letter to Dorothea—a love letter to her mind instead of her beauty:

…Our conversations have, I think, made sufficiently clear to you the tenor of my life and purposes: a tenor unsuited, I am aware, to the commoner order of minds. But I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness, which I had hitherto not conceived to be compatible either with the early bloom of youth or with those graces of sex that may be said at once to win and to confer distinction when combined, as they notably are in you, with the mental qualities above indicated. It was, I confess, beyond my hope to meet with this rare combination of elements both solid and attractive, adapted to supply aid in graver labors and to cast a charm over vacant hours.

But even this crosses a line we don’t see until we’re far beyond it. As it turns out, most happy marriages don’t involve the kind of teacher-pupil/boss-employee role playing Casaubon and Dorothea eagerly engage in. (Eagerly at first, that is.)

Middlemarch is also a book about religion, politics, education, gender, and the consequences of choice. It is broader than it is deep—a sweeping panorama of provincial life in 19th-century England—and it excels exactly as intended, in its quietly profound study of the mundane. In Middlemarch, a novel intent on depicting reality, the worst crime a person can commit is self-delusion. And while it may have its slow moments, Eliot’s masterpiece is remarkably interesting for all its preoccupation with the ordinary.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Virginia Woolf famously called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” It was selected by C. S. Lewis and Julian Barnes as the greatest English novel of all time. None of this would stop me from hating it, but I didn’t hate it—not at all. As classics go, it’s easily among my Top 20.

Favorite Quotes:

“He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James.
“No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader.

Though he “did” his classics and mathematics, he was not pre-eminent in them. It was said of him, that Lydgate could do anything he liked, but he had certainly not yet liked to do anything remarkable.

She seated herself on a dark ottoman with the brown books behind her, looking in her plain dress of some thin woollen-white material, without a single ornament on her besides her wedding-ring, as if she were under a vow to be different from all other women.

For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal—this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life.

It had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.

Read: 2013

#87 Rabbit, Run, John Updike

35406

So far, I have not hated any book on The List as much as I hated Rabbit, Run. Runners up include The Grapes of Wrath and Things Fall Apart—but even they fell short of provoking the kind of thorough and profound hatred I feel for this unintentional horror story.

Here’s a sneak peek at John Updike’s most famous novel, featuring Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom in the role of Dude. It’s filled with spoilers, which should save you the trouble of actually reading the book:

  • Dude quits his pregnant wife, Janice, and two-year-old son, for the same reason he quits smoking: just because he felt like it.
  • Dude tries to cope with the fact that he peaked in high school as the star of the basketball team.
  • Dude solicits sometimes-prostitute/soon-to-be-girlfriend Ruth and whines about using contraception.
  • Dude spends Ruth’s money.
  • Dude hits on minister’s wife.
  • Dude interrogates Ruth about her sexual history and, upon discovering she once gave an ex-boyfriend a blow job, demands one for himself.
  • Dude leaves Ruth (now also pregnant) and goes back to his wife, just in time for her to give birth.
  • Dude tries to ply Janice, a former alcoholic, with whisky so that she’ll sleep with him.
  • When she doesn’t—mostly because she just had an episiotomy, gave birth, and put up with Dude’s abandonment—Dude gets mad and leaves.
  • Janice starts drinking, hits their two-year-old, and accidentally drowns their infant.
  • FINALLY feeling some remorse does not stop Dude from loudly accusing his wife of murdering their baby at the burial service.
  • Dude goes back to Ruth, who threatens to get an abortion if he doesn’t divorce Janice and marry her instead.
  • Dude agrees, then walks out “to the deli”… and breaks into a run.

Most of my animosity probably stems from finding this entire plot personally offensive, but even that could be saved by exceptionally beautiful writing. The Great Gatsby is a gorgeous book about marital infidelity. So is Anna Karenina. The Golden Notebook shares several perverse themes with Rabbit, Run, as well as its bleak perspective—but I loved reading it. Dean Moriarty in On the Road walks out on multiple families and still manages to be a sympathetic character.

But for me, Updike’s style was no redemption. I am not one of those critics who will recognize his exhaustive genius just before I delicately call his more troublesome themes into question. I hated his writing style on top of hating everything else.

I didn’t even get the impression that he tried to write a good book—not even once, not at any turn of this inane plot line. But hey, if you like over-the-top descriptive language, tedious interior monologues, and zero character development, Updike might be just your size.

Maybe I’m conflating writing about a character like Rabbit with glorifying a character like Rabbit. Maybe I’m annoyed that Updike received near-unanimous praise for his work (Updike won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction twice—one of only three authors ever to do so—for his 1982 and 1990 Rabbit, Run sequels), while writers like Jane Austen and Zora Neale Hurston were and still are frequently dismissed. Maybe I’m vexed at being given one predominant perspective on Rabbit (his own), and it being a subhuman one. Because surely he is not quite human, this “realist” character creation of Updike’s tepid imagination?

For the record, I enjoy realist work and support Updike’s intention to “give the mundane its beautiful due.” What bothers me, then, perhaps, is the idea that a character as reprehensible as Rabbit Angstrom is realistic. (Homer Simpson, for his part, is at least satirical.) I give men, and people in general, more credit than Updike does. I believe men can feel compassion and empathy and guilt. I believe their motivations lie, sometimes, outside of self-interest. I believe they’re not pathetic, childish tantrum-throwers. I believe that, somewhere in America’s suburbs, there live men who don’t rely on their own blissful ignorance to be “let off the hook” of life.

I don’t expect every author to share my values or my point of view, but I reserve the right to hate his book if it violates my own personhood. I read Rabbit, Run as quickly as possible, because every passage left me fuming. There has been a mere 48-hour span between finishing the book and posting this review (a new record, and then some; I’m usually, er, two years behind)—all because I never want to think about Updike, and the words that came out of his fingers, ever again.

Let’s get started, shall we?

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

Rabbit, Run is the literary equivalent of a long, loud belch. And I, for one, would like to pretend it never happened.

Favorite Quotes:

NONE. NONE FAVORITE QUOTES.

Instead, let’s look at some of my least favorite quotes:

The ball wobbles up and with a glottal rattle bobbles in.

Ugh, it’s called EDITING, Updike.

Words come from this monumental Ruth in the same scale, as massive wheels rolling to the porches of his ears, as mute coins spinning in the light.

THIS IS DUMB.

His sea of seed buckles, and sobs into a still channel.

EW.

But it is just two lovers, holding hands and in a hurry to reach their car, their locked hands a starfish leaping through the dark.

NO.

Read: 2015

50 Quotes from 50 Classics

50 Quotes from 50 Classics

I spent a lot of time in December amassing, and then culling, unforgettable quotes from 50 classics that appear on the List of 100 Greatest Books of All Time. Here is the result:

50 Quotes from 50 Classics” (Headstuff)

Some of these quotes were easy to select. For example, the Wuthering Heights quote I chose is practically a cliché at this point, but it is literally the only line I liked out of the entire book. Others were much more difficult to judge the “best” out of all the pretty things that particular author wrote at us in his or her most famous work. Dante comes to mind, as do Gabriel García Márquez and Jane Austen. They’re just too Great to make life any easier for the rest of us.

Enjoy the quotes at your leisure. Be warned, though: some of them are not representative samples. In other words, the merit of a specific quote is not necessarily indicative of the quality you’ll see in the rest of the book—like my Wuthering Heights example above. Another example: I may have perked up for a minute or two reading The Aeneid, but I yawned the rest of the way. Don’t let those tricky tricksters trick you with their shiny word traps.

Oh—and happy reading!

Quote of the Week

“I think the climax of the book will be the execution of poor old Edgar Derby,” I said. “The irony is so great. A whole city gets burned down, and thousands and thousands of people are killed. And then this one American foot soldier is arrested in the ruins for taking a teapot. And he’s given a regular trial, and then he’s shot by a firing squad.”

–Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

I met Nick Hornby!

Guys, I met Nick Hornby yesterday. We talked about books for 47 seconds, and it was AWESOME.

Look at us laughing together! We're BFFs like whoa!

Look at us laughing together! We are obvious BFF candidates.

Don’t know who Nick Hornby is? Well, here’s a gift from me to you (and, of course, from Nick Hornby): He’s the hilarious, insightful author who gave us High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Fever Pitch, among other popular works. Starting to sound familiar? That’s probably because those three little books were adapted into hit films starring John Cusack, Hugh Grant, and Jimmy Fallon.

Hornby was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay An Education (adapted from journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir), a critically acclaimed 2009 film starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard. He collaborated with Ben Folds for the album Lonely Avenue in 2010. He also adapted the screenplay for 2014’s Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon.

And, last night, he came to the Union Square Barnes & Noble in New York to do a book signing and promote his latest novel, Funny Girl.

20150205_083657

After a short reading, he sat down with Barnes & Noble Review editor Bill Tipper for a chat about obsessive fictional characters, British TV, and life in the 1960s.

20150204_190913

British accent o’clock.

Before the signing, he took questions from the audience, addressing them with his trademark thoughtfulness and wit. When asked how and why he writes female characters so thoroughly and authentically, he answered that it was a conscious effort to expand on his writerly skills after his first few books were deemed male-centric. One audience member wanted to know how he felt about his books being taught in schools (it happens occasionally), and he said the worst thing that can be done to a book is to subject it to testing. (Examination, he added, necessarily kills all potential for enjoyment.) On the subject of music, he said that it was Ben Folds’ contribution to Lonely Avenue that carried most of the weight of success, and not his (Hornby’s) lyrics. “You can have a good song with bad lyrics,” he said, “but you can’t have a good song with bad music.”

I stuck around for the book signing—something I have done/would do only for a small handful of writers—and waited my turn. When we had a chance to talk, he was both gracious and friendly. I asked him to name some of his favorite writers (who better to ask for book recommendations than one of my own favorite writers?), and he rattled off a dozen names in rapid succession. I only remembered the first three:

  • Ann Taylor (NOT, I assume, the one who makes business attire for women)
  • Elizabeth McCracken
  • Dave Eggers

So now I must drop everything and read their entire bibliographies.

16273241947_6ba5c3f3ed_o

Me gesticulating wildly, him listening intently.

In case I haven’t sold you on Nick Hornby yet, here are some excerpts from his books:

That’s the worst sweater I’ve ever seen. I have never seen a sweater that bad worn by anybody I’m on speaking terms with.

As a writer, I don’t normally have much patience for the ineffable—I ought to think that everything’s effing effable, otherwise what’s the point?

That’s the thing with the young these days, isn’t it? They watch too many happy endings. Everything has to be wrapped up, with a smile and a tear and a wave. Everyone has learned, found love, seen the error of their ways, discovered the joys of monogamy, or fatherhood, or filial duty, or life itself. In my day, people got shot at the end of films, after learning only that life is hollow, dismal, brutish, and short.

What are the chances, eh? One in a million? One in ten million? I don’t know. But of course even one in ten million means that there are a lot of women like me in the world. That’s not what you think of, when you think of one in ten million. You don’t think, That’s a lot of people.

My mother, after all, belonged to a generation that danced—danced and smooched—to “How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?” and if she felt able to be snooty about “Get It On,” then surely snootiness is a weapon available to all.

For me, Nick Hornby combines all the essential elements of exceptional writing: intelligence and humor, without any high-brow nonsense or sentimentality. And, of course, there’s a certain special pleasure in enjoying the output of a contemporary author—the possibility of meeting him/her, obviously.

I am now the proud owner of a signed copy of High Fidelity

20150205_083621

Life: fulfilled.

…and Funny Girl.

Love!

Holy shit, he signed “LOVE!”

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do some reading.