Top Fives for 2009

December 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just like last year, here are lists of my top five recent/lesser-known books read in 2009, and top five books read overall in 2009, including classics.

First, the recent/lesser-known list:

5.  Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  A truly astonishing book/performance art piece.  I suppose I should really have it higher, but it’s like rating Finnegan’s Wake: it barely fits into the same category as other works of fiction.  Certainly worth experiencing, but not exactly a beach read.  (See my four posts beginning here.)

4.  The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.  The second-most-exhausting book I read this year (see above), but much more readable.  Astounding and encyclopedic in the Melvillean senses.  It makes me both look forward to and dread reading 2666, which will surely eat up most of a summer’s worth of reading either this year or next.  (See three posts beginning here.)

3.  Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.  A really cool book about doppelgangers, the weather, paranoia and other delusional states, marriage, and how these things all fit together.  It’s one of those books that doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off as you’re reading it, but sticks with you for weeks after you’ve finished.  (See two posts beginning here.)

2.  The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell.  I didn’t write about this for professional reasons, but speaking completely impartially, this book kicks ass.  A series of questions — odd and banal, rambling and terse, hilarious and deadly serious — addressed to the reader by either the author or a slightly unhinged narrator, depending on how you choose to read it.  It gets under your skin; you actually start pondering your responses to these bizarre rhetorical inquiries; you start examining your life, which is one of the things literature is supposed to help us do, after all.  (I actually considered posting my responses to every question until I realized that this would take me weeks to accomplish and I would be revealing some seriously embarrassing things.)

1.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.  I’m not sure if Bynum is underrated or overlooked or what, but she should be getting press, after only two books, as one of the great writers working in America today.  This slim little book, a series of stories about the titular seventh-grade teacher, is moving like The Savage Detectives is never moving.  It is gorgeous and thoughtful and it says something that my favorite book of the year is more or less realist literature.  If only all realism were this well done.  (See post here.)

And now for my list including classics:

5.  The Interrogative Mood, see above.

4.  White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville.  Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books.  A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages.  The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close.  (See three posts starting here.)

3.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, see above.

2.  Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.  Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work.  Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators.  (See five posts beginning here.)

1.  The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.  It amazes me that this incredible book, enveloped in layers of mystery in both the narrative itself and the history of its writing and publication, is not better known.  (Obviously that’s what happens when you happen to be a Polish nobleman writing in French.)  Exoticism, eroticism, colonialism, metafiction, writing within, across, and between genres, stories within stories within stories, secret societies — it’s tricky and weird and obviously too interesting to be taught in Lit classes though you can teach anything and everything from it.  It helps that I read a lot of it while on a fun vacation to the Pacific Northwest (thanks again, Spiff!); I always remember books I read while traveling.  (See six posts starting here.)

So those are the lists this year; perhaps I’ll post my top-ten of the decade in January.  In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy reading in 2010.

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Wicked Old Women in Parallel Plots

December 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

An interesting development as Dickens rebuilds his plot after Paul’s death: the introduction of a parallel narrative structure.

Florence is left alone in the Dombeys’ house as Dombey goes off with Bagstock to recuperate.  The opening of chapter 23 magnificently illustrates her lonely, heartbroken state with a survey of the loveless house in which she lives: the incantatory opening sentence appears with small variations three times, in this six-page tour: “Florence lived alone in the great dreary house, and day succeeded day, and still she lived alone; and the blank walls looked down upon her with a vacant stare, as if they had a Gorgon-like mind to stare her youth and beauty into stone.”  Surely I’m not the first to draw a line from this portrait of oppressive domesticity — a woman trapped in a horrible house by both society and her own (rather misguided) inclinations — to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s masterpiece, “The Yellow Wallpaper”?

Whatever the case, while Florence could be seen as another of early Dickens’ colorless, selfless heroes/heroines, I think she’s a bit more of a transitional figure: Dickens is starting to understand how to make his good people as interesting as his bad.  While her desire to win her wicked father’s love is undoubtedly annoying (and a little creepy), it’s a desire that’s made palpable enough — and that is unconventional enough — to keep the reader’s interest.  Further, Florence is good in slightly unpredictable ways: doing Paul’s homework to be able to help him at Dr. Blimber’s, promising to keep Solomon Gills company while Walter is gone.  Her constant craving for love is understandable enough, and shown in enough detail, to keep her interesting.

Most of all, though, interesting things have happened to Florence, and therein lies the key to the parallel plot.  Dombey begins courting a young widow, Edith Granger, with Bagstock’s assistance.  We might not have connected Edith to Florence, but for an incident shortly after we meet Edith: she is accosted by a “withered and very ugly old woman,” a fortune-teller who first offers to tell her fortune, and then threatens to, unless she receives payment.  Edith is rescued from this awkward scene — and perhaps from a curse that could’ve dragged her to hell — by evil Mr. Carker, Dombey’s right-hand man.

Right down to the description of a “very ugly old woman,” this scene casts our memory back to the first moment of real action in the book, young Florence being briefly kidnapped by “Good Mrs. Brown,” who steals Florence’s clothes and gives her rags to wear instead.  It’s one of Dickens’s typically memorable scenes of truly awful London street life, the old woman smoking a pipe as she takes a seat on a pile of bones and tells Florence, like any Hollywood bank-robber, “… don’t vex me.  If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you.  But if you do, I’ll kill you.”

With the similarity between these incidents, we draw the parallel between Edith and Florence: good women with the misfortune to know Paul Dombey, Sr.  The fortune-teller even references Florence in the brief fortune she gives Carker: “One child dead, and one child living: one wife dead, and one wife coming.  Go and meet her!”  (At this time, Carker has never met Edith and has no idea that the woman he just helped is the one that Bagstock is arranging for Dombey to marry.)  They both lacked a proper childhood: Florence, looked over by old Mrs. Pipchin, and Edith, married off very young by her hideous mother, Mrs. Skewton, both deprived of the parents’ unconditional love that defines childhood.

Dickens takes his cue from Shakespeare, who used parallel plotting often.  The example I know best is King Lear, where he uses the parallel plots of Lear and Gloucester to heighten emotion and set his themes in high relief.  Here, he does the same, showing us the plight of these young women through a kind of echo chamber of similarities, heightening our emotions toward both of them as neglected human beings and oppressed women.  But the differences, too, allow us to connect to each of them as their own people: even early on, as we are just coming to know Edith, it’s clear that she’s much more embittered than Florence, much more cynical and knowing about the forces that are acting on her.  Edith seems to have given up hope, or very nearly so, where Florence seems to feel nothing but a constant cycle of hope, rejection, disappointment, and longing.  That these two are brought together at the end of chapter 28 — that Edith is to be Florence’s new “Mama” — promises fascinating developments.

Is it possible to imagine a feminist turn by Dickens, here?  Will Edith act as a catalyst for change in Florence, or will she confront Dombey in his coldness, refusing to give him another son?  Or will the women simply comfort each other as they are neglected and abused, and Dombey gets his comeuppance from some other (male) source?  Please don’t tell me Walter’s going to sail to the rescue, here, and make it all better.

Poor Little Nell! Poor Little Paul!

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son.

Here’s a nice 21st-century take on Dickens: Dickens the Assassin with a Heart of Gold.  In his outline for this book, in his notes for the very first part, Dickens wrote: “Boy born, to die.”  And so he is, at the book’s beginning; and so he does, not even a quarter of the way through the work.

Dickens makes sure we know he feels bad about it: in his Preface to a later edition (sorry, this crappy Oxford edition doesn’t tell me which edition this prefaces — Dickens wrote many prefaces for new editions — but I know it’s not to the first), he writes in reference to Paul’s death, “…when I am reminded by any chance of what it was that the waves were always saying, my remembrance wanders for a whole winter night about the streets of Paris — as I restlessly did with a heavy heart, on the night when I had written the chapter in which my little friend and I had parted company.”

Fiction writers write things like this fairly often, trying to convince their readers of the reality they feel in the characters they create, until it becomes inconvenient and they condescendingly remind some dolt or critic, who has made the mistake of acting as though the world they’ve created is real, that fiction is make-believe.  No one wants to believe that writers, writers of the kind of social-pseudo-realist fiction that Dickens wrote, create characters out of convenience, out of something so unseemly as a profit motive, much less kill them off for same.  And yet the fact remains: the death of little Nell in the last part of The Old Curiosity Shop had been an absolute sensation, readers in both Britain and America feeling terrible suspense about her fate, and then expressing deep emotion at her death and Dickens’s artistry in presenting it.  And Martin Chuzzlewit, after that book, had flopped.  And Dickens, needing a hit, crafted a story around a boy born to die.  It feels more than a little unseemly.  Killing, hobbling, and imperiling saintly children was good business, in Victorian England.  It sold books, and still does.

That Dickens gets away with it, for this reader at least — not only gets away with it, but actually achieves a genuine artistic breakthrough, and makes you cry in the process — is a kind of miracle of humanity.  Little Paul is so much more a character than little Nell.  Little Nell is one of those typical boring Victorian selfless females, with all the personality of a Precious Moments figurine.  Little Paul is something of a saint, too, I suppose; but he’s a weird little saint, and we get to know him from the inside out.  Shouldn’t this make it worse, Dickens killing him off?  Why should this make me believe that Dickens really did suffer, in writing his premeditated death?

But it doesn’t: Paul becomes a real little boy, like Pinocchio.  He dies because he’s young and sickly and, to speculate on Dickens’s medical beliefs, because he never had his mother’s milk and was weaned from his first nurse far too soon — not because Dickens needs him to die for the plot to work.  I am afraid that, even if Dickens came up with the idea for Paul out of a profit motive, he wrote him into existence.  And it must have pained him to see him die.

Part of the difference between Paul and Nell is surely the Victorian obsession with angelic femininity.  Another part, I’d guess, is the stronger autobiographical impulse Dickens felt towards Paul as a boy whom he’d put into a situation very similar to one he’d been put into as a boy, and the way this connection allowed him to write his way into Paul’s childish point of view.  To Paul, Doctor Blimber’s house is a strange and magical place, where the clock’s working says to him, “‘how, is, my, lit, tle, friend? how, is, my, lit, tle, friend?’ over and over again,” and the patterns in the rugs and wallpaper come to life.  These are the sorts of details we never got for little Nell, who remains boringly angelic.

Beyond that, Paul’s main eccentricity is said to be that he is “old-fashioned,” in a mysterious way that those who call him such cannot quite identify.  He is very polite, and kind, but also very honest — to the point of being rude, such as when Mrs. Pipchin wonders what he’s thinking and he answers, “I’m thinking how old you must be.” In the end, it is implied that people sense that Paul is old-fashioned as a function of his being doomed to death; and yes, child mortality was still a giant problem in the nineteenth century, and was one of the old-fashioned problems Victorian society was most concerned with eradicating.

The way he will stare at Mrs. Pipchin for hours in front of the fire, wondering how old she is, seems to me to be a key to Dickens’s creation of Paul.  Paul knows he is not well; knows he cannot be long for the world; is fascinated by age, by people who have lived ten times as long as he has and seem to get no enjoyment from it; is always asking questions about death, about the voices that seem to live in those waves of life and death.  I think Paul’s old-fashionedness is actually a matter of his being nostalgic for the present, always seeing his own life as if it is already ended; he is always rolling the few scenes and incidents of his short life over and over in his mind, savoring or longing for them, asking to hear about his mother whom he never knew.  Dickens imbues him with an implied, but never stated, self-awareness of his own condition, and he looks upon the world with a ghost’s eyes.  You could dismiss all this as corny Victorian spirituality, I suppose, but I think that reaction is basically a product of years of ham-fisted attempts to replicate the kinds of effects Dickens achieves when he expresses his mysticism.

He definitely does have this mystical streak, and when it works, it seems to produce some of the most beautiful language in literary history.  Chapter 16, the aforementioned “What the Waves were always saying,” really does seem to me to be a point at which Dickens reached a new artistic plateau.  From the beginning of D&S he feels more in control, more sure of his plot, his characters, and his language, than in previous books.  And then comes this, which I know you can read for yourself at that link above, but which I want to write in full just for the glory of it; this must be one of the most beautiful paragraphs in the English language:

When the sunbeams struck into his room through the rustling blinds, and quivered on the opposite wall like golden water, he knew that evening was coming on, and that the sky was red and beautiful.  As the reflection died away, and a gloom went creeping up the wall, he watched it deepen, deepen, deepen, into night.  Then he thought how the long streets were dotted with lamps, and how the peaceful stars were shining overhead.  His fancy had a strange tendency to wander to the river, which he knew was flowing through the great city; and now he thought how black it was, and how deep it would look, reflecting the hosts of stars — and more than all, how steadily it rolled away to meet the sea.

After the first half of this chapter, I will forgive Dickens nearly anything.   The second half of the chapter, at Paul’s deathbed, can be somewhat maudlin in the little Nell style, but even though Nell’s death came very near the end of a very long book, this scene seems to me so much more moving, simply because we’ve seen through the eyes of the sick little boy.  Even at the very end, Paul is “old-fashioned,” using his last words to his father to encourage him to “Remember Walter,” a kid that Paul barely knew but who had helped Florence once — nostalgic for things that happened once upon a time, before he escapes from time forever.

Time’s Malcontents

December 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

Dombey and Son was Dickens’ comeback book: H.W. Garrod tells me in the introduction to my Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition that 70,000 people read the weekly serial parts of The Old Curiosity Shop, while “not a third of that number” bought the monthly parts of Martin Chuzzlewit, the book prior to this one.  The first few parts of D&S (full title Dealings with the Firm Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, in case you were wondering) brought Dickens’s readership back in full force.

None of this really makes much sense to me.  If I had to bet, based on the first 100 or so pages, I would’ve bet that Chuzzlewit was the success and D&S the flop.  Chuzzlewit at least has some action, some forward momentum.  The first seven chapters of D&S are full of light comedy, characters intentionally defined by their lack of personality, and a central plot focused on a baby.  (Not a talking baby or a dancing baby or a baby genius, either: just a baby.  Little Paul Dombey.)  It’s not really gripping stuff.  But the Victorians did love their comedic busybodies, their precocious tiny tots, their colorful servant-folk, and their little bits of scenery and sketches of personality.  (This stuff is what Dickens cut his teeth on, after all.)  I have to admit that I, too, am loving Major Joe Bagstock, who is constantly referring to himself in the third person as “Joey B.,” “Old Joe,” “J. Bagstock,” etc. — maybe the earliest example of this now-omnipresent phenomenon.

Then comes the eighth chapter, “Paul’s further Progress, Growth, and Character,” and the book comes to life.  Dickens is never a waste of time, even when he’s merely trying to entertain or lecturing.  But he can sometimes seem much flatter, even disinterested in his own work.  That’s how the first seven chapters felt, in part because Paul Dombey Sr. is an intentionally flat, cold, mostly uninteresting character: Scrooge without Scrooge’s fire.  We hate him for ignoring little Florence, his unwanted daughter, but even there Dickens’ narration distances us from our fury.  In chapter eight, however, Dickens is fully engaged, and personally invested, and seems to know he’s working on something great.  And it is personal: this chapter is grounded in autobiography.  In a letter to his biographer, John Forster, Dickens said that “It is from the life, and I was there — I don’t suppose I was eight years old…”

The “there” there is Mrs. Pipchin’s, near the sea, where “nearly five years old” Paul is sent in hopes of improving his health in the fresher air.  Pipchin is a typical Dickens grotesque, an ancient widow known for her expertise on “infancy” who lives in a strange, dank house.  Little Paul really becomes the center of the show here, but I think I will reserve my thoughts on him for my next post.  The foreshadowing in this chapter is deep and dark.

There are any number of fascinating aspects to this chapter, but I’m interested in how it got me thinking about time, and about the arc of a life.  The first paragraph is the beginning of one of Dickens’ smart, compact, and lyrical fast-forwards:

Beneath the watching and attentive eyes of Time — so far another Major — Paul’s slumbers gradually changed.  More and more light broke in upon them; distincter and distincter dreams disturbed them; an accumulating crowd of objects and impressions swarmed about his rest; and so he passed from babyhood to childhood, and became a talking, walking, wondering Dombey.

Dickens is one of the best at this: knowing when it’s time to pull back, take out the wide view, and switch from incident to exposition.  He knows his pace; he knows how to stretch minutes (the agony of Jonas Chuzzlewit comes to mind) or speed years.  In this chapter, he manages to balance his summaries with his scenes, and somehow gives the texture of lived life and the experience of a sick young boy.

As Paul’s innocent questions about money and death endear him throughout the chapter — and really, I suppose dear little dying Paul is the reason the book was so popular — time crystallizes as a major theme.  Paul Dombey Sr. wants time to fast-forward to his son’s adulthood in a way that Dickens will not permit (at least not yet); and his dissatisfaction with day-to-day life is one of the sad subtexts which Dickens has handled beautifully, without explicit moralizing (again, at least not yet).  This is one of the best ways that Dickens uses his typically protean and ambiguous narrator: often seeming to chronicle events in a way consistent with the book’s full title, as a kind of business/family history, and therefore often facetiously arguing from Dombey’s perspective, he lets the reader’s own sense of morality and humanity work against the grain of the words.  This usually only lasts so long before Dickens can no longer resist laying into his villain.

Little Paul and Florence want their mother back; Mrs. Pipchin feels better about her age by sucking the childhood out of children; even Solomon Gills, in the primary subplot, longs for the days when his nautical instruments were in demand.  Future perfect, past perfect: who’s living today, here?  When is a life’s living overtaken by a life’s waiting?

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #2: My Top Five Songs of the Decade

December 8, 2009 § 3 Comments

It’s impossible to distill a decade’s worth of music into five songs; but here are the ones that seem most memorable to me, at the moment.  Ask me in a month and I’m sure the list will have changed.

Here’s my #5 song of the decade: “Rise Up With Fists!” by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins.  (Sorry about the Hee-Haw laffs in the video, which can throw off the mood a little if you don’t already know the song.  But hey, you’re cool — of course you know this song already.)  The songs on this album (Rabbit Fur Coat) are straight-up incredible.  They nail a particular blend of deadpan humor, irony, and heartfelt emotion that is purely of the decade, for me at least.  Not to mention those perfect opening lines: “What are you changing?  Who do you think you’re changing?  You can’t change things.  We’re all stuck in our ways.”  Yeah, that’s 2006, all right.  But the best is when the Watson Twins chime in with “Not your wife.”  Soul/alt-country: in a lot of ways this was one of the two or three albums in the decade that felt made just for me, hitting that aesthetic sweet spot.

#4 comes from another: The Greatest, by Cat Power, far and away the best album of the decade to me.  I’ve had at least five different favorite songs from this album: right now I’m on “Lived in Bars.”  (Two days ago, I had “The Moon” in this spot.)

God, this song is incredible.  Chan Marshall has always had this unbelievable voice, and I think on The Greatest she finally figured out what to do with it.  There always seemed to be something missing, in her previous work: say, a glimmer of hope, a ray of sunshine, or an inkling of a smile.  Here, she’s working with absolutely flawless Memphis session players (damn, those horns!), and the material, I think, is her best, too.  Frankly, to be against this album is to have given up on beauty in this world.  This song blows me away: it’s somehow epic and gritty and mundane and lyrical and joyful and sad all at once.  There must be a jukebox in a bar somewhere that always plays this at last call.  How could you not shimmy your way out the door to that, with a tear in your eye?

#3 is “Unless It’s Kicks,” by Okkervil River, from The Stage Names.  If you get a chance to see them live, do it: this song is fantastic in person.  Seeing them (at Cat’s Cradle, in Carrboro, NC) was probably my second-best concert-going experience of the decade.  Such an awesome riff.  Such a steady build.  When Will Sheff sings about “the ghost of some rock-and-roll fan,” and they launch into that solo… the roof could’ve come down.

#2 is “Hey Ya!,” by Outkast.

Flawless.  A perfect song about the impossibility of monogamy that is now an integral part of our national fabric — probably got played at the Republican National Convention at some point, it’s so omnipresent and joyful-sounding and universally loved.  The epitome of the decade’s hyperactive reworking of old styles, old genres, old techniques into something fresh.

#1 is “Black Tambourine,” by Beck.

This song grows… and grows… and grows on you.  Pretty soon it becomes the best thing you’ve heard in an entire decade.  I’d more or less forgotten about it until we saw Inland Empire at the Music Box in Chicago; it’s used in, hands-down, the best (and creepiest) musical montage of the decade.  And suddenly, you realize what a strange song it is; how it sounds old and new, digital and analog, folkloric and popular.  Mostly catchy, and eerie, as hell; and timeless, and mysterious.  I don’t even think Beck would think of this as his best work — in this decade, Beck has certainly become the closest thing to Dylan that this generation will stand for — but it’s the song I’ll remember most.

As a special bonus song: my favorite concert-going experience of the decade was Head of Femur at Schuba’s in Chicago, their CD-release party. Their cover of “The True Wheel” just barely missed this list; do yourself a favor, pick up a copy of Ringodom or Proctor, and listen to pure joy. This YouTube clip is from last year, and isn’t quite as awesome as when I saw them way back when, but it’s still pretty rad; they fill up that tiny stage, and it’s incredible when everyone starts jumping around.

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