Quick update

Turned in the chapter to my committee this morning - now I feel strangely rubbery and weak, psychologically speaking.

More updates, soon, I hope!

The Great Comic Shift

I am enjoying the first of my Hornby-recommended books (Don Paterson's The Book of Shadows) tremendously. It is a collection of aphorisms (a genre you don't see that often nowadays outside of the snooty halls of high theory), and very early into it I started feeling a irresistible compulsion to write down every third or fourth aphorism, squirreling it away for future consumption. I marked down sayings that I felt particularly applied to friends and relatives, and even began whipping out my list in conversation and declaiming Paterson's thoughts in Rochefoucauldian fashion.

So I might impose some of my favorites on you, readers mine, over the coming days.

Here is a particularly striking one, which speaks to Paterson's talent for defamiliarization, his obsession with the world of objects once the human presence and point of view are removed from the equation:

Almost everything in the room will survive you. To the room, you are already a ghost, a pathetic soft thing, coming and going. (22)

A few pages earlier he had reflected on the same topic, but shifted our empathy to the objects' point of view:
All those chairs and bathtubs and cars and shoes which, emptied of us, are immediately returned to absurdity. How many lonely things we make for the world. (15)

Less aphoristic, but thoughtful and true, is his observation on what I would call "The Great Comic Shift":
Writers often end up humorists if they read in public too often. Barring the odd and worthless snort of self-congratulation, laughter is the only audible response we can ever elicit. The silence of the unbearably moved and that of the terminally bored are indistinguishable. (9)

I have never been a public intellectual of the writerly sort, but everything about my experience with acting and teaching resonates in sympathy with this observation. On stage, I always found that my perception of the audience was muted, so nothing but the most uproarious of comic responses was lost to me. Any genre but farce yielded the most isolating of artistic experiences for my young actorly self. The exception of course, was one horrible moment in a production based on tragic historical events: I was in the midst of a soul-wrenching monologue about incomprehension and suffering when I heard a strident voice from the quite small audience - "Why is she screaming?" At that moment, I reconsidered my calling as a thespian.

This impulse towards the audible response is behind the broadening quality of bad comic acting, but it is also a siren song that most teachers have heard. Although students are more "readable" than theatrical spectators, the thoughtfully silent pupil is often hard to distinguish from the abysmally distinterested one. And so I find myself playing for laughs, treating literature (which is what I teach, generally) like really juicy gossip, weaving pop culture references through my analysis. (I recently heard a scholar at a conference remark that "America's Next Top Model" can be a really useful pedagogical tool, and I can see what he meant.) I can't say this has always always yielded the most nuanced classroom discussion, but it certainly does produce a more widespread engagement.

At any rate, expect more aphoristic excesses in the future. I am quite enamored.

New York Times Notable Book Blog

For those of you who are already participating in the wonderful "New York Times Notable Book Challenge" that was started by Wendy at caribousmom, or for those of you who would like to participate, I have just started a group blog to act as a discussion center for the challenge:


At this blog, participants in the challenge can post (and cross-post from pre-existing blog entries) reviews and comments about the books they have read from the list or engage in longer discussions about the challenge and specific books, and anyone who is interested can have access to this discussion in one convenient setting.

Come on over and take a look! Instructions for joining can be found on the site itself.

An odd paralysis

I have the oddest feeling that nothing is moving forward in my life. I have a dissertation chapter that is mere days from being done (this is perhaps the source of the anxiety), and that I fear will never get there (It will. Right?). My reading plan has stalled out completely thanks to Nick Hornby and his ability to distract me with tempting reads. I have had the same three Netflix sitting on top of the TV for over a week, untouched (normally this only happens if I am, I don't know, too ill to open my eyes), and my TiVo is about to collapse under the weight of Ben-Hur, which I am recording later today without having made room for it by watching something else, like Gunfight at the OK Corral.

Well, two initial points I want to make, after watching a whopping 15 minutes of Gunfight. First, even a roughly chronological move through the 1001 Movies you Must see Before you Die list has made me into the most grumpy of movie conservatives. When I moved out of the silent era I groaned and moaned about the conventions that died with the advent of sound. There was a heightened theatricality to silent film, a surreal creativity sparked by the need to do without spoken words, and an delightful odd relationship to the written word, that I had developed a substantial affection for after all those hours of watching. Now, I am sad to say that I am moving into the great age of Technicolor, and I am basically hiding under my sheets, hands over my eyes. So garish, I cry quietly to myself, so tasteless! Oh for the elegant play of black against white, gray against gray, particularly in my favorite, high-contrast, expressionistic cinematography. Alas for the Silver Screen!

Suffice it to say that I suffered greatly through the cartoonish opening moments of Gunfight at the OK Corral. But I was glad to see Kirk Douglas, for whom I have developed quite a fondness. I had recently watched the really excellent The Big Carnival (a.k.a. Ace in the Hole), Douglas's only collaboration with Billy Wilder, which I hope to review soon, and in which Douglas at first seemed overwrought but finally emerged as ferally brilliant. This brings me to my second point: is grabbing women by the hair and wrenching their heads back with sexualized menace Douglas's signature move? In the 4 or 5 films of his I have seen so far, he has made this astonishing, disturbing gesture in at least 3 (The Bad and the Beautiful, The Big Carnival, and Gunfight at the OK Corral). Is this a larger convention of cynical, charismatic men in the cinema of the late 50s? In part, I suspect that it comes up so often because (as a gesture) it is densely expressive of character and relationships of power, but more pointedly, because it frames the two bodies both neatly and dynamically in a relatively tight shot. Thoughts?

More library adventures, inspired by Nick Hornby (Or: Is Sycorax out of Control?)

I returned from the library again today with a haul so large I barely made it to the end of the walk home before collapsing. The muscles in my hands actually began to quiver and ache from the weight of the bags, and I crept along the slushy streets, pausing every 50 feet to lay down my delightful biblio-burden and assess my meager progress.

Here is the fruit of my struggles:

  • The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby - I am considering following up my "Year of Down Under" with 2008: A Year in Israel/Palestine (other forerunners for next year include Japan and India), so I might not get to this until then.
  • The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
  • Under their Influence by Wayne Buchanan, a drama
  • The Reptile Room, the second in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
  • A mountainous pile of books seductively mentioned in Nick Hornby's addictive book (see below, and this previous entry)
    • Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
    • Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square
    • Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell (many of Vowell's essays from this volume appeared originally on "This American Life," a show which I have somehow [??] never attended to. I have just subscribed to the podcast.)
    • Michael Ondaatje's memoir, Running in the Family
    • Tony Hoagland's What Narcissism Means to Me: Selected Poems
    • True Notebooks, Mark Salzman's teaching memoir
    • Tom Shone's Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, coupled with Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood
    • Don Paterson's collection of aphorisms, The Book of Shadows, of which this is the opening thought:
      Falling and flying are near-identical sensations, in all but one final detail. We should remember this when we see those men and women seemingly in love with their own decline. (3)
    • What Good are the Arts? by John Carey. Oh my god. What good ARE they? I had better read this one fast, to avoid an existential crisis.
    • Christopher Coake's We're in Trouble: Stories
And after all this, two more books crept slyly into my life.
  • I saw a former student in the library and she gave me a copy of the play she is currently directing, Murder, by an Israeli playwright whose name (sadly) appears no where on my text. Would that I could remember what she told me about the author!
  • When I arrived home, a BookMooch package awaited me, covered in charming pictures of Idefix bouncing merrily on Obelix's belly. Inside, I found George Orwell's Burmese Days.
I haven't yet decided whether it should be a source of sadness or rejoicing that I keep bringing home such intriguing books before having addressed their predecessors and colleagues. In fact, of the last haul, I have only finished Nick Hornby's The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, which kept drawing me in against my will (and in direct opposition to my every attempt to read virtuous, dissertationy things). In his collection of columns from the Believer, Hornby achieves the perfect tone for a book journal/column/blog: a wry, blokey * version of Anne Fadiman's erudite humility in the face of her bookish oddity. You might at first be alarmed by his fondness for what he calls "Soviet style intervention in the world of literature" (180) - he demands, for instance, the immediate imposition of a quota for all books about writing - but the next month he almost always comes back, aching with contrition, repealing his former edicts and ready to lay down new ones. Each month also brings with it an acute anxiety about his own failings: he buys too many books, and reads too few; the books he reads aren't sufficiently erudite to represent him to the Believer-reading public; he wishes instead to be summarized as a human being by the mountains of unread collections of authors' letters he has purches; his library has come to represent him TOO well and now every book he picks up just seems so predictable. His is a style of reversals, of fictions and retractions, of egotism followed by self-abasement. And it makes for extremely entertaining reading.

Amidst all of these reversals, he manages not only to write very convincingly about why you must go out and read certain books immediately, but also to squeeze in some very sly, perceptive analysis. Take, for instance, his comments on novelist B.S. Johnson, whose biography he reads one month, as full of virtue as Pecksniff is of the butter of human kindness:

Johnson had nothing but contempt for the enduring influence of Dickens and the Victorian novel; strange, then, that in the end he should remind one of nobody so much as the utilitarian school inspector in the opening scene of Hard Times. Here's the school inspector: 'I'll explain to you... why you wouldn't paper a room with representations of horses. Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality - in fact? ... Why, then, you are not to see anywhere what you don't see in fact; you are not to have anywhere what you don't have in fact. What is called taste is only another name for Fact.' And here's Johnson: 'Life does not tell stories. Life is chaotic, fluid, random; it leaves myriads of ends untied, untidily. Writers can extract a story from life only by strict, close selection, and this must mean falsification. Telling stories is really telling lies.' Like communists and fascists, Johnson and the dismal inspector wander off in opposite directions, only to discover that the world is round. I'm glad that they both lost the cultural Cold War: there's room for them all in our world, but there's no room for Mystic River in theirs. And what kind of world would that be? (107-8)
I have never really been one to read literary memoirs, much less reflections on literature, but Fadiman and Hornby may just have convinced me. As Hornby remarks amidst his argument against literature about literature, a serious problem with writing so much about the act of writing "is, quite simply, that it excludes readers" (161). Three cheers for the resurgence of a genre of reader's literature.

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (UK, 2006)
Nick Hornby

Even more adventures:
  • Wikipedia has pages on Nick Hornby and Anne Fadiman, as well as one on "The Polysyllabic Spree," an earlier (and, naturally, less complete) version of the book. This last page includes Hornby's lists of books bought and read for a number of the months he wrote the column.
  • LibraryThing has informative author pages on both Hornby and Fadiman. It is unclear to me why, in the absence of public domain pictures of these authors, there are instead question-mark-filled silhouettes of what appear to be characters from later Star Trek series.
  • Hornby's official website, brimming over with info, comes to us care of the kindly (and completely disinterested) people at Penguin: www.nickhornby.co.uk.
  • Speaking of disinterested web strategies, you can buy or examine Fadiman's absolutely brilliant book about reading, Ex Libris, or Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree (the earlier edition) at Amazon:

*Did you know that one suggested etymology for the British "bloke" (meaning "man" or "guy") is the Celtic word "ploc," meaning (I am so grateful for the Online Etymology Dictionary for this lesson) "large, stubborn person"?

"Pan's Labyrinth"

I find that I have been rather lax in keeping up with the films and DVDs I have seen this month, so I am seizing the day in a truly uncharacteristic manner:

I fear that Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" may have suffered from the same hype effect that plagued my reading of "The Book Thief." Both were experiences I enjoyed, but I had expected something transcendent, and walked away with a tepid admiration rather than the transformative joy and proselytizing zeal that I felt owed.

Nonetheless, I have very little to criticize about "Pan's Labyrinth," del Toro's dark fairy tale of family struggles and fascist Spain, and much to admire intellectually. The heroine of "Pan's Labyrinth" is the spectacularly named Ofelia, a young girl whose widowed mother has married a fascist officer. Ofelia and her heavily pregnant mother go to live at her stepfather's gothically rural estate, which is filled with dank, thick-walled cellars; crooked, pagan ruins (including the titular labyrinth); and surreptitious rebels. Ofelia quickly becomes ensnared by an elaborate fantasy world whose reality wars constantly and productively with the echoing "real world" events of the post-civil war fallout. Father issues enter the labyrinth of the fairy tale and become self-proving quests, emerging on the other side of the metaphor as a reaction to fascism. But is the fairy tale a metaphor for the civil war, or vice versa?

What, the film asks again and again, is the proper relationship of the individual to "the rules"? In traversing this question, it moves through the entire history of Western myth, from Persephone (SPOILER - The biggest lesson I learned from this film was this: every time you eat a grape, a fairy dies. It has really altered my diet. END SPOILER) to "Labyrinth" (a central film experience of my childhood).

I wish that I hadn't waited so long to write this review, because so many of the details that fascinated me have faded into the vagaries of my mind, but suffice it to say that the movie works very, very well intellectually. Its failings (very minor ones) for me were in aesthetic areas that others praised: the special effects sometimes seemed jarringly integrated into the live action, and the star, Ivana Baquero, is a bit self-conscious in her acting, by which I mean that she seems constantly aware of the camera and the fact that she is acting with special effects rather than real creatures.

Nonetheless, the world that the film creates is engrossing (largely thanks to a brutally creaky soundtrack that leaves you convinced you are covered in insects) and complex. It is no criticism when I say that the "historical" world that del Toro creates seems no more "real" than the fantasy world Ofelia discovers in the labyrinth: the fascist world is exposed as false and contrived in its very underpinnings. The urges and needs of both worlds are the same: hunger, fear, fraternity, connection, individual choice.

"Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)
dir. Guillermo del Toro

Other things that go bump in the night:

  • The official movie site for Pan's Labyrinth is filled with glowing praise for the movie (beware the hype effect!), but also includes an abundance of behind-the-scenes and making-of type content, del Toro's podcast, and information about where you can see the film.
  • Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic both summarize (and quantify) the largely ecstatic reception the film has received from critics.
  • Jim Emerson reviews the film for rogerebert.com, and traces the lineage of "Pan's Labyrinth" from "Alice in Wonderland" to Bunuel.
  • Wikipedia provides a startlingly complete plot summary and a flurry of other information (including some rather interesting points about influences).

Oddity of the Day

I live with a medievalist. (No, this - in and of itself- is not the oddity of the day.) Through her, I have learned many fascinating things about the world, not least of which is this: the only relic from the body of Jesus Christ that can make any claim to legitimacy (barring, I am guessing, toenail clippings and locks of hair) is... his foreskin. Furthermore, the body part in question played a almost lurid (no, definitely lurid) role in a number of medieval visions. And now my roommate has shared a newer chapter in this fascinating historical narrative: in 1983, someone stole Jesus' * foreskin.

*I am also fascinated (in a way that is less likely to earn this blog all kinds of strange Google traffic) by the fact that Jesus (and Moses) are part of the select club of individuals (the rest are mostly classical Greeks, apparently) whose singular names do not take a possessive "s" at the end. I can't account for Moses, but I have a theory about Jesus' lack of possessive "s" that is wholly unresearched: there is a certain aesthetic unpleasantness to hearing the cacophony of slithery "s"es of an entire congregation uttering "In Jesus's [us's...us's...us's...] name we pray" in near tandem, so this (combined with the simplification and elision that accompanies frequent use of a word) led to the elimination of the final "s." Anyone else have a similarly unsubstantiated theory? Any linguists want to bring me down to earth with actual fact?

Sci fi for socialists

China Miéville (who should always have been on my neglected authors list*) has put together this intriguing reading list of sci-fi and fantasy for socialist readers, while hastening to warn us that "their quality ... though mostly good, is variable."

Of these, I have read a few:

  • The Master and Margarita - Bulgakov
  • "The Yellow Wallpaper" - Gilman
  • Beloved - Morrison
  • Northern Lights (American title: The Golden Compass) - Pullman
  • Frankenstein - Shelley
  • Gulliver's Travels - Swift
From this short list you can make a number of deductions. First, Miéville has a broad and inclusive definition of science fiction, and is wide-rangingly well-read. Secondly, although I have read a lot of sci fi and fantasy in my time (I thought), my list reads painfully like a that of a graduate student with the most rigidly snooty reading habits. Sigh.

*and would be now if technical difficulties had not intervened.

Compulsion undermined

So I have been adhering fairly rigidly over the last few weeks to a reading regimen that some might described as, well, regimental. Perhaps even obsessive. Or compulsive. It is a simplified version of a plan that I shared with my blog audience earlier, and, although it leaves me with the painful (and constant) impression that I have fallen dreadfully behind, it also (I can't help but note, with a truly misguided sense of self-satisfaction) means that I read more and a greater variety of books. It looks something like this:

  1. A Play (in keeping with my Play-a-week project, although I almost never get through all seven of these steps in a single week)
  2. A Book Club Book (for my proliferating addiction to Yahoo Book Groups)
  3. The New Yorker (If I don't include my two subscription here and at step 6, I never actually read them)
  4. Challenge Book (Chunkster, Year of Down Under, whatever challenges the future might bring)
  5. Graphic Novel (a recently added step, after I brought home a pile of graphic novels half as tall as I am from the library)
  6. The New York Review of Books
  7. Any old thing I feel like reading. Or need to read because I have fallen behind in a challenge or book club.
But my acquisition of Nick Hornby's The Complete Polysyllabic Spree from the library a few days ago has thrown this well-ordered worldview into disarray. I can't seem to stop reading this collection of columns from The Believer in which Hornby details his adventures in buying and reading books. Perhaps it is his endearing honesty about how he shapes his buying lists so as not to looking like a rampaging, bookstore-haunting, acquisitive maniac (I long ago despaired of hiding this aspect of my personality), or begins reading worthy books to impress his readers (and short books to pad out his monthly "read" total). So convincing is he is his endorsement of many of the things he reads (and indeed, he cultivates a hilarious feud with the committee of cultishly earnest young intellectuals who edit The Believer - the fictional Polysyllabic Spree - who insist that he never speak ill of his fellow writers) that I have bought or ordered from the library a small flock of them.*

So, one compulsion undermined by another. The acquisitive triumphs over the efficient, yet again.

*Here they are:
  • How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer (bought)
  • True Notebooks by Mark Salzman (library)
  • Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (library)
  • What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland (library - a rare venture into poetry for me, but this is not the first time I have seen it recommended)

An Embarassment of Riches

Just returned from the library with a haul so delightful that I actually have to put it down in words:

  • Nick Hornby's The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (which I started over lunch)
  • The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright's reputedly impressive account of Al Qaeda
  • A Fortunate Life by A.B. Facey, for my Down Under challenge
  • Three for the NYT Notable Book Challenge, all of which I recalled from some other poor soul, leaving me with the desperate feeling that I need to read them immediately before they are recalled from me in my turn.
    • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
    • Digging to America by Anne Tyler
    • All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward P. Jones
  • And a bevy of books I learned about from reading other book bloggers' enthusiastic reviews
    • Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, about a man who raises money to build schools in Afghanistan.
    • The satirical England, Their England by A.G. MacDonell
    • Jenny and the Jaws of Life, a collection of short stories by Jincy Willett
    • Tryst by Elswyth Thane (only on loan for a single month, piling on the urgency)
When I arrived home, after a long trudge through snow and wind, what should be waiting for me but more delights from the mail: James's The Ambassadors (ok, perhaps to call this one a delight might be a trifle premature) and Linda Newbery's Set in Stone, which won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) Children's Book Award this year.

I see, however, that my "Currently Reading" list is getting, well, somewhat long, so perhaps I should concentrate on finishing up some stuff before I jump into this new pile feet first.

"O, who would be a puddin' "?

"I wouldn't be a puddin'
If I could be a bird,
If I could be a wooden
Doll, I wouldn't say a word.
Yes, I have often heard
It's grand to be a bird.

"But as I am a puddin',
A puddin' in a pot,
I hope you get a stomachache
For eatin' me a lot.
I hope you get it hot,
You puddin'-eatin' lot!"

"Very well sung, Albert," said Bill encouragingly, "though you're a trifle husky in your undertones, which is no doubt due to the gravy in your innards. However, as reward for bein' a bright little feller we shall have a slice of you all round before turnin' in for the night." (42)

That was just a quick taste of The Magic Pudding, a text-heavy picture book (along the lines of "Alice in Wonderland," to which it is frequently compared) by Norman Lindsay that was recommended to me for my "Down Under" challenge by the blessed Lizzier on LibraryThing, and has proved to be one of the most delightful books I have read in some time. The sprightly, distinctly Australian world of The Magic Pudding has proved to be most similar to a Don Quixote or Faerie Queene in which the characters are a husky koala of distinctly Edwardian demeanor and diction (Bunyip Bluegum), a belligerent yet sprightly penguin named Sam Sawnoff, a former pseudo-pirate named Bill Barnacle, and their magic steak and kidney pudding that never diminishes (who prefers to be called Albert - "It soothes him" [22]). In other words, it is a rollicking, rambling adventure in which the characters alternate between battling those who covet their precious (if cantankerous and explosively insulting) pudding and breaking into jolly bouts of versifying.

They had a delightful meal, eating as much as possible, for whenever they stopped eating the Puddin' sang out -

"Eat away, chew away, munch and blot and guzzle,
Never leave the table till you're full up to the muzzle."

But at length they had to stop, in spite of these encouraging remarks, and, as they refused to eat any more, the Puddin' got out of his basin, remarking - "If you won't eat any more here's giving you a run for the sake of exercise," and he set off so swiftly on a pair of extremely thing legs that Bill had to run like an antelope to catch him up.

"My word," said Bill, when the Puddin' was brought back. "You have to be as smart as paint to keep this Puddin' in order. He's that artful, lawyers couldn't manage him. Put your hat on, Albert, like a little gentleman," he added, placing the basin on his head. He took the Puddin's hand, Sam took the other, and they all set off along the road. (22-23)
Thinking of other errant adventurers like the heroes (apologies for the gendered language, Britomart) of The Faerie Queene or The Wizard of Oz, for that matter, I inevitably began to wonder whether this was all some grand allegory for the state of the Australian nation. Is the battle for Albert (whose magic is the ability to regenerate himself continually, regardless of how much of him is eaten) in fact an examination over the drive to possess a monopoly on renewable resources? Surely the climactic scene, which takes place in a corrupt courthouse, where the judge cannot try their case because he is too busy eating Albert, examines the rapacious sluggishness of the legal system! Is the frequent use of the national anthem and declarations of loyalty to the monarch a portrait of the fraught imperialist relationship between "puddin' thieves" and "puddin' owners" (who themselves stole Albert from his creator before pushing him off an iceberg)? Is property, inevitably, theft?


If it is a grand allegory, as so much children's fiction ultimately is, it is among the best in that its meaning is quite difficult to pin down. So we are left in a charmingly labyrinthine game of meaning making, marveling in the recalcitrance of the characters (who never fall into sentimentality or cuteness) and the charming oddity of the illustrations, which do as much work towards characterization as the text. A bandicoot carries a melon so large that it obscures every part of him but his legs, leaving the distinct impression that the melon is running away from our heroes on its own two feet. Sam Sawnoff displays his irrepressible zest for life (and "supreme contempt" for other creatures) by flipping over a walrus's head and balancing on his nose using a single wing (in a move that would easily qualify him for the Winter X-Games - he's got serious amplitude and really stomps the ending*). Or, in perhaps the best fusion of verse and illustration, Binyip Bluegum's koala Uncle Wattleberry (known for the egregiously Victorian "importance" of his whiskers) seeks to relieve his indignation at being interrogated as a potential puddin' thief by reciting a verse while "bounding and plunging," arms aloft in uncontained rage, much to the amusement of the wallabies and kangaroos who come out to watch this sport:
"You need not think I bound and plunge
Like this in festive mood.
I bound that bounding may expunge
The thought of insult rude." (96)
Wholeheartedly recommended to parents, children, and whimsical childfree adults alike.

The Magic Pudding: Being the Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum and his friends Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff (Australia, 1918)
Norman Lindsay

A Year of Down Under candidate!

Further bounding and plunging:
  • An Etext exists at Project Gutenberg, if you would like to sample the joys of The Magic Pudding further, but it lacks the eccentric and in fact essential drawings. There is a New York Review edition with the illustrations in print, and you can buy it or take a look at it here: The Magic Pudding (New York Review Children's Collection).
  • Lizzier tells me (in the LibraryThing link above) that The Magic Pudding is appropriate for ages 9 and older. I would say children who are tackling Alice in Wonderland without problems (or with parental assistance) should have no problems with this.
  • The Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum features the work of this author. You can get an idea of the delights to be gleaned from Lindsay's illustrations of The Magic Pudding from this part of the site, which features a very cranky portrait of Albert the Pudding.
  • Apparently Sam Neill played Lindsay in the 1994 film Sirens, of which I have only the vaguest of recollections.
  • Wikipedia has entries for The Magic Pudding and Robert Lindsay. The latter entry alludes to the one serious blemish on The Magic Pudding's greatness, an anti-Semitic slur uttered late in the book by an admittedly none too attractive character. According to the article, this couplet is often excised from modern editions, although it was present in my 1968 "Jubilee" edition (the book was originally published in 1918).
  • Very shortly after I posted this entry, I discovered larrikin's post on the Magic Pudding as national metaphor of Australia via MetaxuCafe. Metaphor it is, then.

*Did I mention that I love the Winter X-Games?

An Unread Authors Challenge?

Loose Baggy Monster has made an intriguing suggestion in response to my last post on unread and under-read authors: could a challenge possibly emerge out of these gaps and lists? I think this is a marvelous idea, and I thought I would feel out whether others share my enthusiasm. I must also ponder what form it will take, and when it could occur, in the Challenge saturated world of blogdom. Perhaps the Fall?

What form do you all think would be best for an "Unread Authors" challenge? How about something like (Sept.-Feb.) "read six books by six authors whose work you have never read before." This would leave open the possibility of focusing on one (or a few) unread author(s) and reading multiple works by them, or reading a single work each from six different authors. The emphasis would be on reading authors who you feel form regretful gaps in your reading thus far, authors who you have long MEANT to attempt.

Let me know what you think.

Alas! Ian Richardson

I am sad to note that the brilliant actor Ian Richardson has recently died. I suddenly feel inspired to revisit his phenomenal turn as a insidious and vicious politician in "House of Cards" (the very moment I have fewer than the maximum 500 DVDs in my Netflix queue). He was also excellent in the recent production of "Bleak House," as the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes in "Murder Rooms," and in the brutal "Marat/Sade." I haven't seen some of his other films and series, but am now eagerly awaiting the Netflix space to watch them, in particular "Dark City" and "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."


Spent a little time last night and (inspired by Book World, who was in turn inspired by Francine Prose) made up a couple of new lists which you can see at bottom right, after the LibraryThing widget and my list of books read so far this year.

The first is a list of authors whom (to my shame) I have never read (not a single work, be it a short story, book, poem, play...). I am baring all my weaknesses to you, kind readers, so... be kind. The second is a list of authors of whose work (because I enjoyed what I have read so far or because their work is so gosh darn canonical) I would like to read more. I put these lists up in the hope that, at some distant point in the future when I am seeking out a new book, I will be inspired to take up one of the authors I have never read, or to expand my knowledge of those I have already sampled. [Both lists are somewhat foolishly organized in alphabetical order by the author's first name. This is a silly organizational method, but I am now quite fond of it, since it is, in essence, a sort of organized shuffle that puts authors out of the order in which I am used to seeing them.]

I must admit that this second list is also inspired by a LibraryThing discussion about what encounters with authors have inspired you to read everything that author wrote. Although from time to time I get this urge when I read new authors (most recently with Pat Barker and Paul Auster), I almost never follow through in any kind of exhaustive way. As I say on LibraryThing, Jane Austen (and, for that matter, Tom Stoppard) is the rare author about whom I can claim any kind of extensive knowledge. Maybe a few other authors I covered for my orals would also count, like Shakespeare or Congreve, but even with the kind of enforced devotion to single authors that qualifying exams evoke, I only managed to cover parts of these writers' canons.

Are there egregious gaps in your reading? Authors you have always meant to try but haven't yet gotten around to? Tell me about them....

[Loose Baggy Monster's comment has inspired the possibility of a challenge relating to these lists, and the gaps in all of our reading. Go here for more details.]


The new year has brought me a substantial number of demonically themed films, from the very first movie I watched (The Devil Wears Prada) to John Huston's Beat the Devil and Lau and Mak's Infernal Affairs. [If you count descent-into-the-underworld tales and back-from-the-dead stories, you can add "Pan's Labyrinth" and Volver to the list.] And of course, let us not forget the glorious (if somewhat tardy) triumph of my beloved Tar Heels over the insidious Blue Devils (although I am currently watching a less encouraging game between the two women's teams on TiVo).

But now, an addition from my "1001 Movies you must see before you Die" list: Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Diabolique." In this classic of suspense, the wife and mistress of a sadistic headmaster plot his murder, only to find that he is no less controlling in death than he was alive. I will say no more, especially since the film specifically exhorts its viewers not to spoil the plot for their friends, but it is quite a gruesome, claustrophobic romp. Unfortunately, the headmaster's weak-hearted wife (played by Clouzot's real life spouse) is almost too mewling and swooning to bear, and I found myself sympathizing, never with the boorish husband, but with the abrupt, competent mistress, for whom no task is too ghastly. For God's sake, I found myself repeatedly thinking, if you are going to kill someone and lug around his body in a giant wicker chest, do it with some enthusiasm and vigor! It recalled the time I (appalled) found myself arguing to my roommate that if the models from "The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency" had signed up to be ring-girls at a boxling murder or tournament, then they were honor-bound to perform the job with flair. Professionalism is more important than personal dignity, I found myself implying, when what I meant to argue is that (in a tough situation, like Clouzotesque spousal slaughter or boxling) professionalism is the only thing that can salvage your personal dignity.

"Diabolique"/ "Les Diaboliques" (1955, France)
dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot

More of my ramblings (with links! and information!):

  • Wikipedia has entries on both "Les Diaboliques" (very brief) and Clouzot - go there to learn or to affect the nature of wikiality with your additions.
  • James Berardinelli reviews "Diabolique" for ReelViews, and places it in their Top 100 of all Time.
  • Michael Sragow of Salon.com has a slightly longer and more detailed review of the film, in which he calls it "hands down, the dankest movie of all time."
  • Criterion has an informative essay that accompanied its release of "Diabolique," which goes into the details of the dynamics of influence between Clouzot and Hitchcock. Don't read it before watching the film if you are spoiler-averse. And really, with this film, the fewer spoilers you ingest, the better.
  • Jenny Jediny's review for Not Coming to a Theater Near You examines how the wife functions as a (perhaps mad) protagonist for the film.
  • You can get the Criterion Collection release of "Diabolique" at Amazon, among other retailers: Diabolique - Criterion Collection .

Dickensian kindness-butter

A brief interlude, courtesy of Martin Chuzzlewit, chapter 3:

It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff’s gentleness of manner to adopt the common parlance, and say that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He rather looked as if any quantity of butter might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart.

Is there anything that Dickens is better at describing than pomposity?

"The Book Thief"

For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it's so they can die being right. (The Book Thief 469)
If there is any book that is getting more universal praise from bloggers than Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, then I don't know about it. Almost everyone who has read it (and then blogged about it) describes a profound, even transcendent, experience and praises the inventiveness of the writing. So (of course), I rushed off and got it from the library, delighted that (because Zusak is Australian) I could account for the pleasure of this read under the virtuous mantle of my "Year of Down Under" challenge.

At first I found it somewhat alienating: it is a tale of Holocaust-era Germany narrated by Death himself, who has an abrupt and unusual prose style, marked by verbal knots that are not quite neologisms but are certainly unsettling distortions of the words' normal use. But hey, he's Death (the argument goes), so why should he sound like a conventionally impassive narrator or obey the laws of grammar? In fact, he likes to throw the conventions of narrative structure to the wind as well (and I'm all for that), telling us in the opening chapters how this story will end, and regularly reminding us that major characters will inevitably die in gruesome, unfair ways. Rather than undermining our sense of suspense or empathy (which is not about the outcome, really - we are all going to die someday - but about how this outcome unfolds), this ratchets it up.

The story revolves around the childhood of young Liesel, whose mother leaves her with a cantankerous foster family to protect her from governmental retribution for her parent's politics and past. Along the way, Liesel develops a compulsive penchant for thievery, but one that is pretty exclusively played out in the realm of food and literature. My initial alienation (and even disengagement) ultimately gave way to an affection for Liesel and her friends (almost everyone in her town seems to be warm-hearted and to harbor secret anti-Nazi doubts), and by the end of the novel I was both rapt and moved.

But my initial discomfort with Death's narratorial gymnastics (which many consider to be the great strength of the novel) never passed: I found myself dreading his abstract interventions in Liesel's story, which tended to cast it in a rather melodramatic, even maudlin light. Often, his linguistic convolutions seem to me to be overwrought, or (more specifically) too obviously wrought, too self-consciously artsy. (I hasten to add that I am no opponent of formal innovations and eccentricities.) But in young adult literature as in other genres, I will always support overwrought attempts at complexity over mere submission to convention.

The Book Thief (Australia, 2005)
Markus Zusak

A Chunkster AND a "Year of Down Under" candidate! Hurrah!

January Films and DVDs

In the reverse chronology of my watching-order (or, less pompously, the most recently watched films first):

  • "Grave of the Fireflies" (1988, Japan) dir. Isao Takahata ***1/2
    • [For the Filmspotting Animation Marathon] This is the last of the films from the marathon that I have left to watch, since those that remain ("Spirited Away" and "The Iron Giant") I have already seen. I dreaded "Grave of the Fireflies," which Adam and Sam of Filmspotting warned me was one of the most depressing movies of all time, and when I finally was ready to confront it, I was impressed by the delicacy and unsentimentality of it. In part it speaks to a ubiquitous childhood fantasy (the stuff of a long tradition of Narnia-genre children's fiction) turned nightmare: what if, in a world of adventure and peril, children had to make a life on their own terms, apart from adult supervision. The answer of "Grave of the Fireflies," set amidst the constant bombing of Japan in WWII, is grim, to say the least. Amidst, this admiration, however, I felt a creeping annoyance, both with the social structures that failed these children (the same roiling irritation I feel when I read naturalist novels in which the heroine is ground down by economic hardship until she is forced into prostitution and/or suicide) but also (horrifyingly) with the childlike dependence and complaints of the younger sister. What kind of a curmudgeon am I??? I will sooth my conscience by blaming the English dubbing (with absolutely no proof that the Japanese version is less grating) - I almost never listen to English version of anime, which tend to be somewhat more saccharine, but on this occasion I did. Foolhardy!
  • "Bubba Ho-Tep" (2003, USA) dir. Don Coscarelli **
    • What a delightfully weird premise, and how poorly, even irritatingly, executed it is: two men join forces to combat a soul-sucking mummy that is preying on their "retirement community": a man who is convinced that he is JFK, dyed black, and a man who maintains that he is Elvis, having switched lives years before with one of his own impersonators in his haste to escape the pressures of fame. Unfortunately, this film was too broad, too simple, for its own realm of possibilities.
  • "Infernal Affairs" (2004, Hong Kong) dir. Andrew Lau and Alan Mak ****
    • This ode to the double-cross was the inspiration ("original" might be a better word) for Scorcese's "The Departed," and I look forward to making a comparison of the two when I have seen both. "Infernal Affairs" was compelling. Its complexities crept up on you, woven slowly into the two sympathetic characterizations: the gangster who is embedded in the police force by a ruthless Triad boss (Andy Lau) and the cop who goes so deep undercover with the Triads that he finds it hard to distance himself from his own criminality (Tony Leung Chiu Wai). Both struggle to reclaim a moral stance from their Triad associations, and the freedom to mold your own life becomes the central issue of the film. The only misstep is in the romantic plot lines, which are incomplete and even supernumerary, when what really interests us is the relationship of the two men to one another. Perhaps these plots are expanded, complicated and justified in "Infernal Affairs 2" and "Infernal Affairs 3" - we'll see.
  • "Ivan the Terrible, Part II" (1944, Russia) dir. Sergei Eisenstein ***1/2
    • Several months ago, I watched "Ivan the Terrible, Part I," and felt like all of my skin had been grated off. I used many reviewer's assurances that Parts I and II stand perfectly well alone as an excuse to leave Part II in TiVo purgatory until the New Year, when I finally faced it again. This tale of Stalin (by which I of course mean Ivan the Terrible, the tsar who unified Russia in the sixteenth century), is set to a famous score by Sergei Prokofiev and is best viewed (I finally discovered in the more lively Part II) in an operatic mode. The acting is broad (largely marked by long exchanges of bulging-eyed stares) and the mise-en-scene spectacular. Brilliant settings in thick-walled crypts filled with religious frescos mean that God and angels are constantly looming over the paranoid, conniving Muscovite court. By contrast, the decadent, Europe-coddling Polish court is filled with glassy checkerboard tiles, enormous Elizabethan ruffs and sleeves that transform their wearers into dandyish butterflies. This part is much less straightforwardly propagandistic (which is why Stalin cast a baleful eye on it after embracing the first part), less stiff, and more filled with bizarre pageantry: a public beheading, an odd sort of mystery play in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burn in a miniature fiery furnace while Ivan suspects that he in fact is Nebuchadnezzar (and of course, Stalin is the true Claudius in this dumbshow), a cryptic song about a wonderful beaver sung by a power-hungry mother to her innocent fool of a next-in-line-to-the-throne son. So, in the end, the abundant strangeness of the film and its cryptic (ha ha! punnery!) settings, won me over.
  • "Sharpe 8: Sharpe's Sword" (1995, UK) ***1/2
  • "Ghost in the Shell" (1995, Japan) dir. Mamoru Oshii ***
  • "That Touch of Mink" (1962, USA) dir. Delbert Mann **
    • Insubstantial, and inconceivable that Cary Grant would ever be interested in the gratingly irritating and only nominally chaste Doris Day. Oh, Cary Grant, you are so like the little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. Oh, Doris Day, what IS the deal with your hair?
  • "Quinceanera" (2005, USA) dir. Glatzer and Westmoreland ***1/2
    • Creaky in its opening, but ultimately engrossing. A fourteen-year-old finds out that she is pregnant as she is preparing for her quinceanera, and (despite her repeated assertions that she has never had sex) is thrown out of her house by her strict preacher father. She goes to live with an ancient, abundantly tolerant uncle and her cousin Carlos, who has himself been thrown out of his parents' house for being gay. It is Carlos (played by Jesse Garcia) who (enraged and sullen) draws you in to this movie, and forms the most profound and supportive relationship with our pregnant heroine, a utopia of youthful self-reliance. The film's ending (about which I will say no more) is the major false note, supporting values which you cannot imagine the rest of the film would endorse, and gliding merrily over Carlos's struggles.
  • "The Office: Season 1" (2005, USA) ****
    • My favorite television comedy since "Arrested Development" (which was my favorite television comedy of all time). I have come to this slightly belatedly, because of my discomfort with the (admittedly more scathingly satirical) British version, but the American office is both gentler and more realistic. In fact, it is this aching realism that makes the central (the only?) plot line, a repressed romance between a salesman (Jim) and the receptionist, Pam, the most beautiful love story on television. The rest is pure character, with almost no plot in slight. Dwight (Rainn Wilson, also brilliant in "Six Feet Under") provides excruciatingly delicious departures from this realism as the power-mad Assistant (to the) Regional Manager.
  • "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986, USA) dir. Woody Allen ***1/2
    • I must admit that I find Allen's movies, particularly of this sepia-apartments-and-infidelities genre to be amusing but unimpressive. For me the only striking aspect of "Hannah and her Sisters" was that it was filmed in Mia Farrow's apartment.
  • "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954, USA) dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz ***1/2
    • Again, Bogart is charming here, and (refreshingly) is not condemned to be a woodenly amorous romantic interest. This is sentimental, overwrought stuff, however, and I found Ava Gardner as cold and fishlike as in "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman." There are some catchy lines, however, including a description from sweaty publicist Oscar Muldoon of the parasitic quality of the French Riviera set. Would that I could still remember that line, but I am left with nothing but the memory of Gardner pretentious speeches about freedom and miraculous inability to emote.
  • "The Bigamist" (1953, USA) dir. Ida Lupino **1/2
  • "Sharpe 7: Sharpe's Battle" (1995, UK) ***1/2
    • The addition of the caddish Lord Kiely and his bizarre attitude towards fatherhood and pregnancy lends some spice to this episode in the long-running but not wholly engrossing series of TV movies. The most recent installments are languishing on my TiVo, so I am in the midst of a long slog (leavened by the charms of Sean Bean) through the series.
  • "Beat the Devil" (1953, USA) dir. John Huston ***1/2
    • This is supposedly a biting satire on the genre that gave us "Casablanca," starring Bogart himself, but the wit is neither sharp nor mean enough to lift the film out of a broad imitativeness. The cast, however, is phenomenal, featuring not only the always endearing (if dubiously amorous, here, faced with an impossibly batty mistress) Bogart, but also a portly Peter Lorre and the prolific Robert Morley (of "The African Queen" and "Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?").
  • "Wordplay" (2006, USA) dir. Patrick Creadon ***1/2
  • "Bad Day at Black Rock" (1955, USA) dir. John Sturges ***1/2
  • "Tokyo Story" (1953, Japan) dir. Yasujiro Ozu ****1/2
  • "Akira" (1988, Japan) dir. Katsuhiro Otomo ***
  • "Only Human" (2004, Spain) dir. Pelegri and Harari ***
  • "Volver" (2006, Spain) dir. Pedro Almodovar *** 1/2
  • "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006, USA) dir. David Frankel **1/2
    • A fluffy movie, filled with not-entirely-palatable lessons about friendship, love, and materialism (is demeaning yourself worthwhile for nice swag and proximity to cool people who exploit you? Ask Ugly Betty.). On the other hand, Meryl Streep is something to behold, and not merely because she looks absolutely stunning with her silver hair. Some reviews (many of them, in fact) have criticized the breadth of her characterization here, but I found it surprisingly subtle. Anyone who finds her cutthroat demean0r implausibly villainous needs to spend some time in certain New York industries (show business, publishing, fashion).

Animation - 3
Foreign language/Foreign (i.e. not Anglo-American) - 8
  • Gold medalist: Japan, Silver medalist: Spain, Bronze medalist: Russia
New (to me) directors - 11
Films from the "1001 Movies you must see before you die" list - 9

NYT Notable Books Challenge

And another challenge, because I am out of control and possibly in need of a bookish intervention:

Inspired by Wendy at caribousmom, I will attempt to read 12 books from the New York Times Notable Books List of 2006 before December 31, 2007 (Wendy, like a champ, is aiming for 20).

I have already read my January "selection" (luckily for me, since January is now over), the excellent and light-imagery-evoking "Suite Francaise", and am about to move on to another while I am here in LA for the week: "Beasts of No Nation" by Uzodinma Iweala, whose brilliant sister happened to be in my high school class.

Wendy posts the full list (at the link above), so I will content myself with a shorter list of books I specifically want to attempt:

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes
The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai
Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg
Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala
All Aunt Hagar's Children, by Edward P. Jones
Gate of the Sun, by Elias Khoury
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell
**Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky** - finished!
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl
Digging to America, by Anne Tyler

I may make changes over the course of 2007, but let us call this my provisional list.

The Non-fiction five

So I am joining another challenge. But I will say this in defense of my overweening listiness of spirit: this challenge doesn't start for several months, giving me plenty of time to worry away at the Chunkster challenge, my Year of Down Under, and my other varied New Year's resolutions. This time I am committing myself to the intriguing Non-Fiction Five Challenge started by Thoughts of Joy. Joy challenges us to read one nonfiction book a month from May to September, for a total of five, with a particular exhortation to vary the types of nonfiction you read and push the boundaries of genres you normally encounter.

My preliminary list (subject to change before the end of April) for the challenge is as follows:

1) "Send in the Idiots" by Kamran Nazeer
2) "1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare" by James Shapiro
3) "Commonwealth of Thieves" by Tom Keneally (overlap with my Year of Down Under)
4) "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote
5) "This Boy's Life" by Tobias Wolff

Extra credit/Alternates:
* "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt
* "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson
* "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser
* "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi
* "Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century" by Barbara Tuchman
* "Watching the English" by Kate Fox

January Books

A brief review of the books I read this past month, including comments on those I didn't get a chance to review at length:

1) "A Child's Book of True Crime" Chloe Hooper ***

2) "The Cyclops" Euripides **

3) "Le Grand Meaulnes" Henri Alain-Fournier ****

Luminous (do I use this word too much? It is the only word I can think of for this glowing novella of youth and love) tale of a schoolboy friendship struck up in the early years of the last century between the narrator and Meaulnes, a charismatic older boy. The heart of this very short, dreamlike work concerns the incident in which the runaway Meaulnes (lost miles from home) stumbles upon an eccentric party in a ruinous estate, and falls (equally ruinously) in love with a girl he meets there. This is a green world tale along the lines of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but (more pressingly) it recalls the sinister, infinitesimal lightness of Gatsby's entertainments. So pressing was this association, in fact, that it completely obliterated a more obvious parallel; it was not until much later that I realized that the charisma of le Grand Meaulnes and the Great Gatsby (and the fraught loyalty they inspire in the narrators of their tales) is contained within the very titles of the two books.

4) "Topdog/Underdog" Suzan-Lori Parks ****

5) "Killing Pablo" Mark Bowden ***

6) "Equus" Peter Shaffer ****

Reread for the umpteenth time for my dissertation, this play has recently made the news (of course), because Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) is about to appear as the troubled (and abundantly naked) young horse-mauler Alan Strang.

7) "Silk" Alessandro Baricco ****

8) "Crave" and "Skin" Sarah Kane ***

I have slowly been making my way through Kane's plays of late. "Crave" is considerably less lucid than "4.48 Psychosis" while being less formally experimental. Which is not to say that formal risks are unimportant to this play - they are its central concern. "Crave" is like a musical composition divided into four voices, which only sometimes demonstrate cohesiveness of character and only sometimes respond to one another. "Skin" is a very short (ten minutes long) teleplay about a skinhead who becomes enamored of his black neighbor (what a quaint phrase, inadequate to the complex emotion he feels, a combination of self-hatred, desire for the different, and rebellious humanity). She then wreaks a pedagogical revenge.

9) "Joys of Motherhood" Buchi Emecheta **1/2

10) "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" Anne Bronte ***

11) "Uglies" Scott Westerfeld ***1/2

There are a number of young adult novel in my TBR list this year. This is the first and probably the lightest. It concerns a society that prides itself on its egalitarian approach to beauty - everyone gets a series of surgeries on their 16th birthday that transform them from "uglies" to "pretties," at which point they can devote themselves wholeheartedly to partying. This is highly readable stuff, but the obsession with prettiness (rather than beauty, for instance, which implies both a wider range of possibilities and a greater depth or complexity) necessitates some highly unsympathetic characterizations. Both pretties and uglies (including our heroine at the novel's beginning) are so narrow minded and self-deluding that it is hard not to despise them a little bit even as you sympathize with them. The fact that the next novel in the trilogy is called "Pretties" doesn't inspire confidence in a reprieve from some of the more inane dialogue, but I am rather attached to the narrative now, and will probably forge ahead.

12) "La Perdida" Jessica Abel ***1/2

I have a minor fascination with graphic novels of the "guilty tourist" genre (which, to a certain extent, includes the guilty-writer/journalist-seeking-inspiration-in-less-privileged-countries) - "Carnet de Voyage," Joe Sacco's work, and now, "La Perdida," a fictional account of an American who tries to get back to her Mexican roots and ends up in a dangerous spiral of poverty-glamorizing self-abnegation. The dilemma of this genre is always compelling for me - the inadequacy of travel which seeks out education and understanding but never escapes the shadow of exploitation and stereotype. This is a worthy member of tradition, but in the last third the emphasis on detail (both of culture and character) gives way to a kidnapping caper plot line that is ill at ease with the gorgeous mundanity of the rest.

13) "Phaedra's Love" Sarah Kane **1/2

My least favorite of Sarah Kane's plays thus far. I understand the subtle seductions (!) of the tale of Hippolytus and his besotted stepmother Phaedra for an author, but what has Kane added to this tradition (besides onstage blow jobs)? Please enlighten me, fellow Kane admirers!

14) "Suite Francaise" Irene Nemirovsky ****1/2

"Important events— whether serious, happy or unfortunate— do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves." (167)

It pleases me that my month was bracketed by two excellent French novels by authors I had never read before. At the same time, I am immeasurably saddened to find that both authors were cut off in the prime of their lives and the apex of their talent by events of world wars - Alain-Fournier in the battles of the first, and Nemirovsky in a concentration camp during the second. "Suite Francaise" is a an impossibly lucid (more light language! Time to expand my critical vocabulary.), detailed study of the occupation of France, written as the events were unfolding. The humanity of a broad cast of characters (broad on the scale of a Russian novel, showing the profound influence of Tolstoy on the Franco-Russian Nemirovsky) is underscored again and again, for good and for ill. German soldiers, living in French homes and requisitioning French property, are both eager to please and defensive about their actions. The upper classes (and particularly the upper middle class) come in for a scathing critique of their selfishness, but people from all walks of life manage to be alternately poisonous and self-sacrificing. Ideals like patriotism and piety have their roots in a profound selfishness. It is the details that scar and sear, a particularly striking feat since this novel remains unfinished and largely unedited by its author. In one nightmarish scene, a priest who agrees to take charge of a group of orphans from an institution under his family's patronage. They beat him to death after he leads them through the evacuation of Paris, and leave him mired in much on the grounds of a decayed estate.

Some other scathingly honest observations on the occupation:

On the French response to defeat -
"They feared a German victory, yet weren’t altogether happy at the idea that the English might win. All in all, they preferred everyone to be defeated." (270)

And, from the terrifying appendices of the book, which provide Nemirovsky's notes for the work as a whole and the correspondence that traces her family's struggle with occupation authorities who sent both Irene and her husband to their deaths in Nazi camps -
"The French grew tired of the Republic as if she were an old wife. For them, the dictatorship was a brief affair, adultery. But they intended to cheat on their wife, not to kill her. Now they realise she’s dead, their Republic, their freedom. They’re mourning her." (344)

[I have to note, at least tangentially, that this was the first eBook I have ever read in its entirety, and it was a laborious endeavor. It was very hard to maintain a rhythm of reading when you have to wait for the next page to load, or cannot see the whole page at once. I hadn't fully realize before how darting my reading style is - rather than proceeding methodically and linearly down the page, I frequently retrace my steps, reading a phrase here and there from different parts of the page. Don't ask how this makes for a coherent reading experience; I don't completely understand it myself.]

Prose Fiction/novels: 7
Drama: 5
Graphic novels/comics: 1
Non-fiction: 1
1001 Books I must read before I die: 2
Chunksters: 2
Year of Down Under: 1
New (to me) authors: 8 (Nemirovsky, Abel, Westerfeld, Emecheta, Baricco, Bowden, Alain-Fournier, Hooper)

All in all, an appropriate January: a month of new encounters.