Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Friday, April 23, 2010

E.M. Forster's Howards End

Howards End
by E.M. Forster

(10: 19/50)

"Only connect,"

The entry below will openly analyze E.M. Forster's Howards End and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

Something that has come to my attention through writing about each book I read is that, though I read many modern classics, great authors, and well-reviewed pieces of new fiction, I am perhaps too prone to overstatement. Certainly novels such as Maurice, or The Irresistible Henry House are worthy of high praise, but It occurs to me that too often I am perhaps too distracted by literary technique for objectivity. Perhaps. These are the thoughts that come to mind as I sit down and try to explain why Howards End is such a fantastic novel, and how I can possibly give its greatness adequate perspective.

Howards End is a wonderful, successful, and undeniable true literary classic. Now 100 years old, it still has charm, and its characters are still funny. Henry Wilcox is still absurdly obtuse, Leonard Bast still endearing in his skittishness, Dolly Wilcox still a blundering gaffer. These characters are very real, and very flawed. Their dialogs make coming to the novel a pleasure because they are consistent, well-rendered characters. The last time I explicitly mentioned character was when discussing Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and what strikes me now as it did then is what good are characters without true eccentricities? If one were to meditate on the number of-- truly-- rather dull characters in even great literature, the effect would be crushing. Most characters lack the spark of the hyper-real, and its that particular spark that continues to imbue Howards End with life a century later.

That Forster's novel is plotted with equal deftness is another great relief. He allows fate to guide his narrative and does not clutter up the novel with passing, irrelevant years. Forster moves swiftly, and echoes important ideas enough for clarity but never approaching a bludgeon. Here is a master at work.

Howards End is, as one might expect of Forster, concerned with humanistic ideas. Literary critic (and great admirer of Forster's) Lionel Trilling summed Howards End up thusly:
Bringing together people of different classes and nations by way of sympathetic insight and understanding, Howards End eloquently addresses the question "Who shall inherit England?"

Trilling is here as succinct as one can possibly hope to be. Like Forster's other work, Howards End is concerned with personal connection and empathy. It suggests that the only way to live is to put people first but also that we must first understand ourselves before we can understand those around us. The salvation of everything we know is dependent upon it. This is the second point that Howards End argues: That salvation is not only dependent on the connection between people but between our ideals and practicality; the poetry and the prose as Forster calls it; personified by the Schlegel sisters and the Wilcoxes respectively.

Howards End is an immensely complex novel, my grasp on which I am only tenuously certain. Regardless, it is an outstanding, and touching achievement and one of the finest novels I've ever had the pleasure to read. The more I read E.M. Forster the more I come to believe as he believes-- and also I hope the more compassionate and tolerant I become of others-- and the more I want to emulate him in life and in writing. He makes me want to be a better person. I do not know of a clearer sign of a great writer.

Up Next: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Regarding Interviews

The reclusive writer is as much a stereotype as the hack and the tortured genius, but like all stereotypes it is founded in fact. It's a notion that is generation after generation confirmed and reconfirmed by those literary luminaries who shy from public attention. While everyone will point to Salinger, only a handful mention the likes of Harper Lee (How many people are even aware she's still alive?), Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy.

The opinions of writers beyond those in their works have always fascinated me. Today, seized by some unknown impetus, I searched for James Baldwin on youtube. To my surprise and delight the writer conducted a number of recorded interviews in his lifetime. One of which included a contemporary, unmythologized opinion of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King before either was assassinated. The only work of Baldwin's I've read does not concern the African-American condition, though I don't doubt his other work addresses it, but even so there is an unparalleled value to these interviews that writers should not and cannot shy away from.

The popular notion is that a writer is a socital commentator through their work, and that pieces of writing are independent, ideally not requiring greater context or elaboration. I believe this to be absolutely true: A piece of writing is wholly independent but a writers responsibility to the world is greater than simply submitting to the vacuum. Writing should not need a greater context or elaboration but should be supplied corroboration.

A work of literature does not need to be explained, or commented upon. This is unnecessary. However, to simply write and submit is a snub to humanity. As a thinker and a commentator you cannot hide from the world: You help to define an age. Your artistic, social, and political views are imperative. Your novel, your play, your poem is a universal thought that makes your beliefs known but can hide your humanity by presenting you only as a mind, and will often given the appearance of disconnection from the very age you live in the general (though certainly not universal) refusal to comment on specific contemporary people, places or events.

Further, print interviews, while valid, and helpful, are pale comparisons. They expand on a writers existence but do not provide a complete picture of temperament and cognisance. Watch the aforementioned interviews with Baldwin: How he collects his thoughts, pauses, and responds in complete. A view of the man, and his writing is expanded upon exponentially without the subject of his writing ever being approached. The identity of the writer as it exists only in their work is complete but abstract; misinterpretation, always a valid threat, can be exacerbated.

In becoming a writer, you become a commentator, and that cannot be done only at your desk. There is far too much to say, too much of the present too pedantic to address in such a way, for you to simply content yourself.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lisa Grunwald's The Irresistible Henry House

The Irresistible Henry House
by Lisa Grunwald

(10: 18/50, N: 2/10)

"Did it matter that, over the course of the next few weeks, six different women would sing Henry House six different lullabies? Or hold him in six different favorite positions?"

The entry below will openly analyze Lisa Grunwald's The Irresistible Henry House and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

In mid-century America, an infant orphan is presented to a hard-lined matron named Martha, the instructor of Wilton College's Home Economics Practice House program. The infant, assigned the name Henry House, is the college's new practice baby. The novel follows Henry from infancy to manhood; from the safe post-war forties to the turbulent late sixties, and considers with great clarity the effects of such an unusual beginning. Loaded with a knock-out of a premise, Lisa Grunwald's new novel is a charming, understated accomplishment.

Grunwald's novel is, among a number of things, about the unforeseen consequences of our benign, often well-intentioned actions, and also the difficulty of surviving and forgiving their effects. The practice house upbringing, which was-- factually-- the start for hundreds of mid-century orphans, and the notion of which leaves one aghast today, was considered once a prime foundation for orphan children. Grunwald makes point to outline this notion among others a number of times in her novel. As they say about the road to hell... but how can it be constituted as wrong or evil despite the terrible result?

Even in his youth at the hands of his many mothers, Henry is a creature of mimicry. The product of a fake home, and transitory mothers becomes a child, and then a man incapable of genuine feeling and attachment. It spreads cancer-like into his career ambition. And who is, quite simply, yearning for a true guiding hand.

At its core, Grunwalds novel is simply an argument for a strong, checked, and consistent voice in a child's life. There is an acknowledgement here that mistakes are bound to be made, scarring, terrible mistakes but that seeking forgiveness for inflicting them is all that we can hope do to, and which is, ultimately, the mark of an adult.

Grunwalds novel is not a compulsory read. It's a novel that requires a certain interest and patience to watch come to boil, but ultimately reveals its understated delicacy and heart in its concluding chapter. So I wouldn't call it irresistible, but it's the rare book whose conclusion isn't a redemption but rather a realization. A very good book, warmly if cautiously recommended.

Up Next: E.M. Forster's Howards End

Monday, April 12, 2010

2010 Pulitzer Prize Winners Announced

Pprize.com is humbled: The website, dedicated to Pulitzer Prize speculation, has only been around since 2007 or so, but for the first two years of its existence it accurately included the winner and one of the two finalists in its fiction short list. There was a lot of buzz in the comments there that Jayne Anne Philips's Lark And Termite would take the award, and just a few nods in the direction of Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. The jury seems to have surprised us all.

The award for fiction went to Tinkers by Paul Harding (not even included in Pprize's speculation) and the finalists were Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet and In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Like last year, I know little about any of these books. I'd heard murmurs about Tinkers but nothing substantial. I can tell you though, get your hardcover now if you want it. Seems to be Tinkers was a small press release and as of an hour after the announcement, they're running for $99 used on amazon-- just forty five minutes earlier the cost was half that. That's bound to drop in the coming months, but its rarity will be true in the long term as well.

The prize for Drama was given to Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Next to Normal, which was not selected by the nominating jury. It is now only one of four musicals to have won the Pulitzer prize for Drama. I have not seen Next to Normal, but I have heard its soundtrack a handful of times, and as is the case with a musical, it tends to give you a relatively clear idea of the whole. I can't say I'm disappointed with the selection, but I will say I'm a bit surprised. Next to Normal was generally very well received, but it didn't win the Tony (Billy Elliot did) more over I've always thought its lyrics were lacking; the rhymes are predictable and the profusion of profanity is not only distracting but annoying. Its subject may (though this is an arguable point, I've always regarded it as a bit retardataire; the kind of work needed in the mid-late 90s) be poignant and harrowing but I've begun to regard it as downright unlistenable. But what do I know about music?

The finalists were The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph, and In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl.

The last point of interest, and that which was speculated on the most, was if the awards in Journalism would finally make a notable acknowledgement of online writing after a recent slack in qualifying rules. Well. The award for editorial cartooning went to an online outlet (Mark Fiore, SFGate.com) and the awards for Investigative Reporting and Breaking News Reporting both acknowledge online outlets. Is that notable? I'm not sure. Investigative reporting is the "big" one, so I presume so, but I really couldn't say.

Last year at this time, I had a life-long count of having read 4 Pulitzer winners for Fiction(/the novel). This year I have a life-long count of 7.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reflections on a Run: Gay Fiction

A month ago to the day, I was opening up Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian and beginning a foray into gay literature, which concluded last night with the end of Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. I undertook the challenge of reading the books because, having only what I then perceived as minimal experience with gay fiction, It seemed a necessary step for me to take.

I think perhaps the most striking discovery about the experience is perhaps the least surprising; that a label does not necessarily dictate thematic subject. I had a perception (and thereby a fear) that the fiction (I think maybe because so much African American literature concerns itself with societal condition) would surround common ideas, and more or less reiterate them.

Additionally, I've always had a particular dislike of identity fiction. In the context of literature that speaks to/about a specific minority of people, it makes sense. It fosters a misguided (though not necessarily bad) sense of community; Can establish pride in an aspect of your identity that you might not have but I had always thought there was a certain polarizing effect to identity literature as well. It divides a population into boxes; these people and those people, as it were rather than a universal "Us". Not on an entirely conscious level perhaps but to the extent that certain stories are perceived as more "For" someone than others.

So, to get back on track, it was surprise for me to find that gay fiction wasn't constantly, or at least obsessively, concerned with notions of personal acceptance, and living honestly. Certainly these proved to be pivotal topics in Maurice and Giovanni's Room, and I would expect also in the other pillars gay fiction, but even in these you find more universal thematic concerns. The subjects were as diverse as the deification of mankind in Memoirs of Hadrian, to how denial manifests itself in our efforts to cope with tragedy in Mysterious Skin. However, It appears also and likely by nature, to be a foreword progression.

Forster's Maurice, written at the beginning of the 20th century, was the most concern specific novel I read. While it is a humanistic novel, much like Forster's other work, its focus is almost entirely on a homosexual man struggling to accept his sexuality in a time and place that didn't. It's the sort of novel I had expected to encounter. By the time of Giovanni's Room in the 1950s, concern specific ideas seem to have been minimized: There are still notions of self and societal acceptance but in comparison to Maurice, they have been shrunken down to serve more universal notions. With Mysterious Skin and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, concern-specific notions are in complete service of greater ideas, elements serving story rather driving it.

It may seem strange that I was surprised by that, but I was. Ultimately, this feeds into the point I made earlier, the feeling that identity fiction is divisional. I think that the new reality is that it is: Writers seem less and less inclined to classify themselves by their identity; they don't want to be a Woman/Gay/Black/Asian/Indian/Latino author, they want to be a writer. Toni Morrison and Amy Tan may be some of the last (possibly despite claims, I'm not checking for what they've said, but looking at their subjects) identity specific authors. We're reaching a point, I believe, that identity literature can only retrospectively be a subdivision. The need to present identity specific literature is passing; those stories have been said, in some cases to exhaustion, and the need now is to disassemble the barriers that make "Us" and "Them" without losing the expression that was striven for.

This run of fiction at least did that for me. It has allowed to me appreciate identity literature, and at the same time recognize why I had disliked it to begin with. Specific concerns can still be expressed but they must be done so in the service of a greater concern, generally speaking. There will always be exceptions based on necessity.

This run was a fantastic experience. It has a way of shaping up to be a self-taught class; between the books, the blog, and wikipedia for biographical and historical information is adds up about right. I'm looking forward to another course, as it were. I even have some ideas. I also wouldn't be surprised if I eventually came back to gay fiction for another set, as five books is hardly exhaustive.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room
by James Baldwin

(10: 17/50)

"I was thinking, when I told Hella that I had loved her, of those days before anything awful, irrevocable, had happened to me, when an affair was nothing more than an affair."

The entry below will openly analyse James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and address specifically its possible themes, symbols, and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

Ranking on par with Maurice, James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, published in 1956, is another of the few canonized pieces of gay literature. Its blonde haired American protagonist, David, staggers about Paris in the 1950s, while his would-be-fiance travels Spain, and he begins a liaison with the dashing Italian, Giovanni.

As it is so well illustrated in the quote above, plucked the novel so early on (page three!), this is a novel about the irrevocably of love; That love is something that, once it has been discovered, cannot be forgotten or escaped. It is a revision on the adage that one cannot go home again, which Baldwin uses to illustrate his point as well. David refuses to go back to the United States, and Giovanni cannot return to Italy.

David is essentially a coward, forever running from love; Giovanni's Room, the major symbol of the novel, is representative of Giovanni's past love affairs, and naturally, the situation between he and David. It's wallpaper, with its quaint depiction of 19th century lovers in a garden, is indicative of the love affairs which have come before; ghosts on the wall, omnipresent. The promise of its repair, that laborious construction, representative of the promise of a stable, lasting relationship with its ability to cleanse. And the filth and stench that David despises, its honesty.

The desire to vacate places by the various characters of the novel is futile. These places, which they view as prisons (another fantastic parallel Baldwin incorporates)-- which are prisons, will haunt them wherever they go. Once experienced, there is no escape. Which, I believe, points to a great tragic irony: While the experience of love is irrevocable, the ability to live in it is not interminable.

Giovanni's Room is a novel of elegant precision and craft, that which only a master of the form can wield so expertly. It's characters are raw nerves, aching openly. Their arguments are imbued with desperation and pain, suggesting that their collapse is only a sentence or a word away. A work, in short, of exquisite technical prowess and deep empathetic concern for its characters, perfect to the last sentence and faulty perhaps only in that it is so short.

It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and for that I can only be praised, but what brevity doesn't allow it is time for its readers to entrench themselves with its characters to be equally effected. Still. It's hard to argue against something so well done, and unquestionably, a classic.

Up Next: Lisa Grunwald's The Irresistible Henry House

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Library of America Fail (And Win!*)

Dear friends and loyal readers may remember that a few months ago, after finishing Shirley Jackson's complex and suspenseful The Haunting of Hill House, I mentioned that Library of America would be publishing a volume of Jackson's work which I hoped would include one of Jackson's three (four if you count The Sundial, as I tend to) out-of-print novels.

After two months of checking the Library of America website twice a week for a table of contents for the upcoming volume, it has finally been posted.

I certainly understand that Library of America is a prestige publication, in fact, it is the unofficial cannon of great American authors, and therefore I also understand why it is necessary that Jackson's major work (The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle) be included. However, while I appreciate that the volume will include previously uncollected stories and unpublished short stories, the omission of all of these other novels is a sore disappointment to me.

The consolation is, at least, that I can now spend largish sums of money without buyers guilt to obtain copies of them.

*Check out the comments!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
by Michael Chabon

(10: 16/50)

"'You weren't the same person when you came out as you you went in. Houdini's first magic act, you know, back when he was just getting started. It was called 'Metamorphosis'. It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation.'"

The entry below will openly analyse Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

Back in 2007, author Bret Easton Ellis called The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay one of the three greatest novels of his generation; a strong statement by an author who is himself greatly admired by many. While the man is certainly welcome to his opinion, I can't help but feel that the praise is exaggerated.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a vibrant chronicle of the most exuberant and tremulous periods of a quintessentially American art form, the comic book. It is a portrait that is both inseparable and disparate from one of the darkest epochs of history, World War II and the Holocaust.

Chabon's novel is concerned with escape: From the physical, choking restrictions and dangers of Nazi-occupied Prague, from the innermost secrets of ourselves, from the painful struggle of domesticity, from the hard truths of reality, and from past escapes that in their new reality have morphed themselves into traps of their own. Yes, it's a novel about escape, but more importantly it's a novel about how our escapism is not, as we often perceive it to be, disparate from our reality but rather intimately involved in shaping it. It is a notion that Chabon makes manifest in the characters of Carl Ebling and Tracy Bacon who become physical embodiments of the fictional characters within the world of the novel.

The notion that Kavalier and Clay is Chabon's magnum opus is accurate. It insists upon escapism's importance in our lives, and that the "lower" crafts (television, comics, genre fiction, etc) are in no way inferior to their "loftier" peers. It's a belief that Chabon has enacted upon since the publication of Kavalier and Clay with The Final Solution, Gentlemen of the Road, and the Yiddish Policeman's Union. This is the battle Chabon has devoted himself to, and in Kavalier and Clay there is a passionate, articulate argument for it.

All this may seem rather incongruous considering where we began. Make no mistake, Chabon's novel is a work of exquisite plotting, and literary deftness; it is very enjoyable, and undeniably the technically best of his work I've read, likely of all his work; it is a novel worthy of the Pulitzer it won but it is very often a work that lacks emotional resonance. That is a criticism that sounds harsher than I intend it to be. For myself, the hallmark of a work of genius, the stories that inevitably become my favorites, are those that move me to emotional extremes or are of staggering technical impressiveness. Chabon's novel fails to reach either of these extremes, but it is absolutely a great read.

Up next: James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room