decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Adam Gopnik, on memoir in general and the memoirs of Henry James specifically:

The effort to communicate experience rather than to invent it, the feeling that, however distilled and removed it might be, it is still distilled and removed from a river of experience that the author cannot quite dam and alter as he wishes, is the secret of the memoir's appeal. We like an author who gives it to us straight, no matter how fancy his prose style may be. James has a tricksy manner, but his purpose in his memoirs is touchingly transparent: to say how the big moments of his life felt exactly as they happened. Each page is lit up by the bright light of memory, then is crumpled by the aging hand of scruple, only to be smoothed out again by the comfort of fine old feelings: It looked like this! Did it really look like this? Well, it sure felt like this while I was looking.
decemberthirty: (love in the afternoon)
I had a somewhat lighter reading load last week due to the fact that my Indian fiction class spent the whole week on class presentations (apparently presentations are quite the done thing around here—I’ve done one on Italo Calvino, one on R.K. Narayan and the history of India, one on Henry Spencer Ashbee, the great cataloguer of Victorian pornography, and one on Henry James’s ambiguous relationships with men. I don’t know whether this is a Penn State thing or whether presentations are some sort of academic fad that has caught on since I was last in school, but to the best of my recollection, I have now done as many presentations in one semester as I did in my entire undergraduate career.)

One of the things that I did read last week was The Master, Colm Tóibín’s novel about the life of Henry James. This was a re-read for me, and some of you may remember how much I loved it the first time around. Sadly, it suffered in the rereading, not because it no longer seems to be as good a book as it did at first, but because I was forced to read it quickly. The first time I read The Master, I spread it out over two or three weeks; that is the kind of treatment that this book needs. One of the things I like most about the book is the way Tóibín’s story is unpinned from chronology, the way you can float back and forth through the events of Henry’s life as if being gently rocked by a warm sea. Hasty reading and pressure to finish prevented this lovely effect from developing. Sad. But even when read hurriedly, it’s evident that this book is a masterpiece. The beauty of Tóibín’s sentences, the utter complexity of his characterization of Henry James—these are the kind of accomplishments that shine through any set of circumstances. I haven’t read anything else of Tóibín’s, although I keep meaning to. I think perhaps I’m putting it off because I’m afraid that none of his other work will live up to this book. The Master seems like the kind of novel that only comes once in a career.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention that prior to reading The Master, I read some of Henry James’s own work: “Daisy Miller,” “The Aspern Papers,” and “The Real Thing.” My only previous exposure to James was The Ambassadors, which I found ponderous, needlessly convoluted, and aggravating. These shorter works from earlier in his career were a revelation. The prose was so light, the plots so sprightly! I liked “The Aspern Papers” best (not least because of the way it resonated with The Master and the issues of privacy, legacy, the destruction of correspondence, etc), and was impressed by the way James built the story from the simplest of all narrative principles: someone wanting something that he doesn’t have. I doubt that James will ever become my favorite writer, but I’m interested in reading more of his work now, something I decidedly did not want to do after The Ambassadors.

Not all of my recent reading has revolved around Henry James, however. I also read After the Quake, a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. The book contains six stories, all loosely connected to the earthquake in Kobe in 1995. My only prior experiences with Murakami were with isolated stories in the New Yorker which never managed to add up to a meaningful impression of Murakami as a writer. After reading this collection, I’m still not sure that I’ve got any sense of him as a writer. The collection is very uneven as a whole, with two real knockout stories, a few middling stories that I suspect I’ll forget in a matter of days, and couple of absolute clunkers. The worse of the stories was “All God’s Children Can Dance”: boring, misogynistic, and essentially empty. The best was “Thailand,” a quietly unsettling story that displays a careful control of tone and wonderfully strategic use of image. I feel like I should read more of Murakami, but I don’t know where to go next. Anybody have any suggestions?
decemberthirty: (henry)
After a weekend of speed-reading and (yes, I'll admit it) some skimming, I finished The Ambassadors in time for the book club meeting on Sunday night. And, my god, was I glad to be done with it! That makes it sound like the book was terrible, and I don't think it was, but by the time I got to the end it had dragged on so long that it was impossible for me to get any sort of enjoyment from it. I'm sure it didn't help that I had a very hard time connecting to the story. The entire plot revolved around intricate social strategies that I found difficult to understand. It was quite clear that every character had an agenda and that everything they said and did was an attempt to further that agenda, but Henry James never made clear what any of the agendas were. Also, James's style, I couldn't help but notice, was a peculiar one in that he appeared incapable, or perhaps just unwilling, of ever finishing a sentence, or, in some cases, even a clause, without interrupting himself so many times that all, or nearly all, of the book read like this tortured sentence. Navigating my way through hundreds of pages of such mazy prose was exhausting, to say the least. I'm curious as to how The Ambassadors compares to some of James's earlier, better known work -- stuff like The Wings of the Dove or Daisy Miller. I'd be willing to pick up more James some day, but not for quite a while.

So, as I mentioned, I went to the book club meeting on Sunday, and I was the only one who went! Well, besides the woman who was hosting it, of course. So I sat around and talked books in a general way with her and her boyfriend (who seems to be a well-read and interesting guy--I wish he'd join the club), ate the dessert that I brought, and talked a little bit about The Ambassadors. I was relieved to learn that she had exactly the same problems with The Ambassadors that I did, because I was beginning to wonder if I was just a moron and that was why I couldn't figure out all of the oblique social intrigue. It ended up being a nice time despite the poor turnout, and we're going to try advertising for some new members just to see if we can't breathe some new life into the club. Also, for those of you interested in my French dessert quandary, I ended up making an orange-cranberry gateau with orange glaze. It's not terribly French, except for the word 'gateau' in the title, but that was enough for me. I figured I could justify the inclusion of the oh-so-American cranberries by saying that the book is about Americans in Paris, so it's only fitting that I have an American ingredient in my French cake.

I got home from the meeting very eager to read something that wasn't Henry James, so I picked up the least James-like thing I had in the house: The Commitment by Dan Savage. And it's just what I was looking for. Light, funny, and very quick -- I'm half done with it already.

I've got just one last, book-related note. [ profile] 39orangestreet pointed me in the direction of this interesting site, and now I share it with all of you: Debbie's Idea. It's a website for people who are trying to decide which book to start with when exploring an unfamiliar author. The interesting thing about it is that all the information about the authors is provided by the users of the site. You can add your favorite authors, submit bios, comment on their books... It appears that the site is fairly new, so there's lots of information still to be added. It has the potential to be an excellent procrastination tool, for those so inclined...
decemberthirty: (henry)
I haven't had much to say lately. I'm still slogging my way through The Ambassadors. It finally does seem to be picking up a little bit, but I think I've just been reading it for too long to appreciate it. I'm at the point where I'm ready to be reading something else, so all I want is to get The Ambassadors over with so I can. But I'm in luck--my much-postponed book club meeting will finally be happening this Sunday, so I've got to be done with it by then.

In other news, I tagged my journal. Check it out! It was a bit of a project, but it should make it a lot easier for me to find things. Plus, it was kinda fascinating to dig back into the really old stuff that I haven't looked at in ages...
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