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A Weight off my Bookshelf Wednesday

What I've Just Finished Reading

I want to say something a little more specific and positive about The Aerodrome for 99 Novels, but I'm going to have to put it off again; this week is being eaten into by drowsiness-producing antihistamines.

A couple days ago at work I picked up Holidays on Ice, a very small book of Christmas-themed stories by David Sedaris, and read the whole thing. It helped to pass the time and ranged from ok to pretty good, with a reasonable mix of stuff that hasn't aged well, stuff that was never that great, and good stuff. I liked "The SantaLand Diaries" but thought it hit a few false notes. "Seasons Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!" was never a favorite and hasn't worn well at all, but "Christmas Is For Giving" might be grotesque enough to work. "Dinah, the Christmas Whore" was probably my favorite, with its funny Portrait of the Artist as a Young Holden Caulfield and the discovery of his "boring" sister's secret life among her cafeteria co-workers. It wasn't perfect, but I think it hit the best note for me of all the stories. The one about the guy who writes scathing reviews of children's Christmas pageants made me laugh.

What I'm Reading Now

I've barely scratched the surface of The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary, but I like it so far. It's much easier going than The Aerodrome. The first-person narrator is talkative, staccato, addicted to metaphors and sentence fragments. It reminds me a litle of Doctor Who, thought it's probably not going to be much like Doctor Who. The narrator has just gotten out of jail; he needs money, but he also owes all his friends money, so it's a delicate situation to say the least.

I'm really enjoying The Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties by Edmund Wilson. It's not a memoir as the title suggests, but a collection of mostly short pieces by Wilson on all his favorite and least favorite authors. His review of the original edition of In Our Time is there, along with adorably perky and Midwestern letters from Hemingway, and there's a funny (I think entriely fictional) piece by Wilson making fun of the Village alt-theater scene.

As you might expect, Edmund Wilson writes better when he is writing about genres he has not already decided to hate. In his reviews here he is sometimes fair and insightful, sometimes pointlessly patronizing even toward authors he admires. Sometimes he takes it back: his first essay on Stephen Crane has a footnote from the future, explaining that his opinion of Crane had changed over time and that when he wrote the essay, he was still reluctant to belive that anything wholly good could have come out of the Nineties. Well, a lot of us have been there with something or other, and in the 1920s Wilson is still only. . . well, older than I thought he was, never mind. But it's never too late to change your mind about Stephen Crane, or anyone else.

There are many references to what other critics are doing, and to authors who are no longer well known, so you really do get a partial but vivid picture of (one corner of) American literary life in the 1920s and 30s.

For a completely different lit scene, I picked the Emily Dickinson biography back up and it's still great. Emily's a baby, Amherst is in the throes of an evangelical revival, and the Dickinsons are in debt up to their ears. Right now I'm enjoying the examples it provides of an awkward and badly spelled correspondance -- Dickinson's mother, Emily Norcross, was not a confident letter-writer and replied to her fiance/husband's daily letters with monthly (or less frequent) half-paragraphs vaguely alluding to all the things that kept her from writing more. I love less-than-ideal correspondances from the Postal Age.

What I'm Planning to Read Next

I never really know, so maybe I should drop the heading? I'm going to be picking up Inda sometime soon-ish, but not sure when.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 20th, 2015 01:37 am (UTC)
Best of luck with The Horse's Mouth -- I read it in high school, as a required item, and loathed it as I had rarely loathed anything before. Admittedly, given the circumstances surrounding the assignment, the odds against my liking anything about it were pretty much nil, but the horrid taste in my mouth has never gone away.
Aug. 20th, 2015 02:02 am (UTC)
Oh no! :( Do you remember anything about why you hated it?

(you always have the best icons for any occasion <3)
Aug. 21st, 2015 01:34 am (UTC)
{*g* over the icon love}

I remember very clearly, in fact! It was my junior year in high school, in what was called AP English 11 -- supposedly the "better" track for the brighter students. It would have been a better class if the teacher had not been so damned burned out; I think she was marking time till retirement. The content of the course was sound, but the actual instruction was pathetic.

There was a list of Great Works that were required reading, which included *Price and Prejudice*, *Wuthering Heights*, *The Mayor of Castorbridge*, *Bleak House*, and *The Horse's Mouth*. There *may* have been one or two others, but if so, I don't remember their having existed. You may notice something about that list: only one is a 20th century work.

At that age, I had never read any of them, and I had pretty much never read any "modern" novels. Also: these were basically the only novels we read in that class that year. Dickens in particular, for this group of students, was 100% represented by *Bleak House*.

Now, add to that the kicker: we were handed the books, and we wrote stuff and did some extremely forgettable class discussion afterwards. One thing that absolutely did not happen, at any time, with any of the books, was for us to be given any historical or cultural context. We read *Bleak House* without knowing, or learning, anything about Victorian English society, or the legal system, or the social mores. We read Austen and Bronte without knowing anything about the social or economic structure.

In spite of that, I did enjoy most of them, to a greater or lesser extent, although I was astonished when I re-read *Bleak House* MANY years later and found out that it was 1) emotionally wrenching, 2) acidly devastating, and 3) hilariously funny. That was the point when I suddenly realized just how completely we had been screwed over by our burnt-out bitch of a teacher, who gave us all these lovely packages and never gave us the tools to open them.

As for *The Horse's Mouth* -- well. I had never read a Great Modern Novel. I had never read a Great Novel By an Irish Writer. I had never read any book with a anti-hero/self-destructive hero/rogue-as-hero/whatever you want to call it. I wasn't all that familiar with first person, and I was untirely unfamiliar with the unreliable narrator. And we weren't given any context for this book, any more than we had for the others.

I never did figure out what the fuck this asshole lying thieving bastard was supposed to be doing, or why I should care about his miserable lying thieving bastard existence. I *had* had personal experience with liars, all bad, all damaging to myself, and had no reason to be forgiving or sympathetic to one in fiction. I was completely mystified by the ending -- years later, I looked it up and found out that the protagonist had had a stroke and was dying; had I known, I would have wished he'd started out the book that way.

So, all of this in a class environment where, for the first time in my entire life, I had an English teacher with whom I had been unable to form any kind of friendly connection. I was used to liking my teachers, especially the English teachers; most teachers like you when you tell them how much you love books and reading and learning. This woman did not care.

I doubt I would have liked *The Horse's Mouth* in any case, at least not at that time -- but I sure as hell never had a chance to.
Aug. 21st, 2015 09:18 pm (UTC)
Ugh, that is so unfortunate. Under those circumstances, it would have been a miracle if you hadn't hated it. I was paying no attention at all in HS, but I don't think I ever had an English teacher who was that burnt out.

I'm horrified that you got no historical/cultural context even in an AP course. It would be bad teaching in any course, but isn't that against AP rules? (I don't actually know what the AP Rules are, but AP was represented to me in HS as A Big Damn Deal and I would expect there to be some kind of minimum instruction standard involved? WHO EVEN KNOWS).

(Bleak House is so good, though) :(
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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