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Wednesday World in Flames

What I've Just Finished Reading

I've been trying off and on for about a year to finish a book called Catastrophe Planet by Keith Laumer. The Tolkienist challenged me to read it because its first-person narrator has no interiority at all, a condition that sounded interesting to me at the time but is actually very boring in this case. It is interesting how many cheesy metaphors a narrator can use without building any picture of his own personality, but it's not interesting enough to sustain a 200 page book.

The plot is remarkably shapeless. It's full of "twists," sometimes two or three in a chapter, but it's just a big pile of parts rather than an organism. There are a lot of geological disasters, and a guy finds a weird coin and a mysterious woman, there are boats, some frozen people from the distant past get unfrozen and there's a lot of desultory male-gaze stuff and mammoths. At the end, the narrator shoots a bunch of non-humans and muses on The Feminine Art of Persuasion. It's surreal, but not really in an interesting way, more like listening to someone painstakingly describe the events of a dream. I'm glad to have finally finished it, but it didn't leave much of an impression other than the now-familiar "maybe I do care about plot after all."

The Power and the Glory was all right. It only came into focus for me toward the end, when the priest was put in jail for buying contraband wine. It was one of those things where the main character has a revelation, in this case a revelatory experience of compassion, during a crisis, and when the crisis has passed it recedes slowly the way a dream recedes, and he goes back to his old ways. For some reason this pattern was one of my favorite things about War and Peace, but here it left me almost cold, maybe because I never could like the priest as much as I liked nearly everyone in War and Peace.

This is a little shallow of me; I shouldn't want to read stories only about characters I like. Greene's priest is neither loveable not a monster, just petty and small in an uncomfortable human way.

What I'm Reading Now

For Whom the Bell Tolls would probably be slightly better if I could get the Metallica song out of my head, but maybe not that much better. It's ok! It's set during the Spanish Civil War, and there is an American engineer/ volunteer who has to blow up a bridge, and some people he meets along the way. The way Hemingway chooses to represent Catalan, as it sounds to an English speaker who understands and speaks it but is not fluent, is interesting; he uses "thee" and "thou" forms and no or very few contractions, which mirrors some actual forms in Catalan but also makes it sound as if Robert Jordan has walked into a fantasy novel. Which I guess in his own mind maybe he has? I can't tell at this point how much the exotifying distance Hem. gives the Spanish characters and setting is a reflection of POV or an authorial indulgence or just an artifact of the Hemster's bricks-and-brushstrokes style, or a little bit of all three.

I have the same reaction to Hemingway's prose style today as I had twenty years ago: it's great for short stories, and REALLY TIRESOME after more than 30 pages. My suspicion is that this might be one of those books that was topically very exciting but doesn't hold up as well as everyone thought it would. But it is a 99 Novels book, so I am going to stick it out, and maybe it'll be good!

I just started My Wars are Laid Away in Books, a biography of Emily Dickinson by Alfred Habegger. It contains, among other things, this excellent footnote:

"Cynthia Griffin Wolff's life of Dickinson offers a textbook example of how a weak factual base can turn a biography into unadmitted fiction. Claiming without evidence that [Dickinson's father] Edward was a 'superb student,' Wolff wonders why his father didn't praise him for his 'excellent work at Yale.' The gratuitous problem then leads to a ringing psychological insight: 'Samuel Dickinson did not much lay the father's role with Edward. Instead, he treated the boy as someone to lean on and confide in. . . .Edward was left to "father" himself.' "

And I'm crawling along through Life Mask, not because it's bad -- though the infodumps do tower -- but because I keep getting distracted by other things.

What I Plan to Read Next

It depends on what I can get from the library and how much I decide to procrastinate on work. I have Emma already in the house, but I might try to finish a few other things first. Plus I have to travel in a few weeks and I might want to save these tidy Austen paperbacks for the plane.

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