Fat Books & Thin Women

Mini-Break? Mini-Break!
April 29, 2011, 3:53 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Things have been, uh, a little quiet around here, and not to give anything away but certain reader favorites (ha, ha) such as Story Sundays won’t be up this week. I’ll probably get some posts up in a week or so but for now I’ve got allergies and can barely lift my head off my pillow long enough to blow my nose, and have some Important Decisions to make about what I’m doing after Peace Corps – so, you know, I will be not posting here for a bit. See you all soon!

(I wish that I was writing this because I was off on some awesome vacation or something – but no, I’ll just be laying on my sofa, skyping my parents and trying to talk them into telling me what I should do with myself come October 2011.)

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Review: Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune

In The Great Fortune, the first volume of her Balkan Trilogy (which is itself just half of her six-volume Fortunes of War), Olivia Manning sets a group of the must repugnant people to be found in fiction in front of a backdrop of looming war. The newly married Harriet and Guy Pringle form the center of this self-absorbed party, and it’s to Manning’s credit that by novel’s end these characters become, if not likeable, bearable and intriguing.

Guy Pringle is an Englishman teaching English at the university in Bucharest, returning from a vacation with his new wife, Harriet. Guy is gregarious, and when the couple arrives in Bucharest Harriet is left largely to her own devices – introduced to Guy’s friends, but having to sort out for herself questions of his relationships with these people and where she fits in this foreign country. The lives of Harriet and Guy are spent shifting from one ex-pat bar to another; but though they’re surrounded by English-speakers Harriet is often left adrift in the wake of Guy’s kindnesses to near-strangers or acquaintances.

One of these acquaintances, Prince Yakimov, spends the novel on the verge of destitution, surviving off the kindnesses of often frustrated acquaintances. Yakimov, or Yaki, stumbles into a brief career as a newspaper man, but when that ends is left with no money, no hotel room. He poses as a refugee to get enough money to pay for a room in a poor part of town, but even that game comes to a close, leaving “poor old Yaki” to wander the streets until Guy Pringle takes him in. Yaki is one of the central characters of the novel, and also one of the worst: he’s a man who for much of the book has no aims and no shame, who realizes himself to have no options but who cannot resist spending any money he comes across in pursuit of the small pleasures that salve his wounds. What’s extraordinary about Manning’s writing is that she never shies from showing characters as they really are – only near novel’s end, when he finds some occupation in a play being put on by Guy, does Yakimov become less repugnant, thanks to his absorption in his role as actor. Manning shows Yakimov making the same mistakes time and time again, in so doing suggesting that there’s a limit to the growth any character can go through, that not every reprehensible feature must be countered by a positive one. She manages, too, to sum up Yakimov’s character in brief but telling scenes, as when Yakimov is left to his own devices after crashing a lunch:

Yakimov had expected the offer of a lift, but no offer was made. As Clarence and Steffaneski drove off without him, the glow began to seep from him. Then he remembered he had twelve thousand lei. He went into the confiserie attached to the restaurant and bought himself a little silver box full of raspberry pastilles. Holding this happily, he called a taxi and set out for his new lodgings, where he would sleep the afternoon away. (139)

Oblivious as Manning’s characters may be, behind them is the growing threat of war, suggestions of German advances and victories. That her characters are so unchanging before all this, so often unconcerned with the course of the war, is in some ways a comfort, as much as it suggests how self-interest and self-absorption blind them to what is, inevitably, coming to Bucharest.

Harriet is often a more sympathetic character than either Yaki or Guy, left largely to herself in a foreign city where she’s unable to speak the language and has to get by on her schoolgirl’s knowledge of French. But she, too, joins in the minor cruelties that the others do, without pausing to think of what those cruelties signify. In one scene Harriet, Guy and some guests pants one of their guests, Clarence, placing his trousers on the balcony and leaving Clarence on the floor in his underpants. When he retrieves his trousers he does so without a word, then letting himself out of the apartment in silence. After:

There was a silence, then Harriet said: “What is the matter with us? Why did we do that?”

“It was a joke,” said Guy, though he did not sound sure of what he said.

“Really, we behaved like children,” Harriet said and it occurred to her that they were not, in fact, grown-up enough for the life they were leading. (185)

Manning captures something here – a sense of wanting to be better but knowing that’s impossible, maybe – but doesn’t push it, lets the scene end and stand as is. By leaving the cruelties and half-thought-out acts of her characters to the reader, not elaborating on these scenes but letting them shift one into another into another, is sometimes exhausting, but develops an appeal as the novel progresses. Manning shows us what her characters do and say, without ever telling us what these things mean. Whether Guy cares as little for Harriet as he often appears to, then, is left to the reader, as are suggestions that Harriet is not happy with the arrangement of their marriage, that Guy is not, when surrounded by friends, the man she thought he was when she had him to herself.

Behind all this is the growing threat of war. Guy and Harriet and their circle are often either oblivious or unconcerned with the progress of the war, dismissing it as something that is unlikely to impact their lives in Rumania. Near novel’s end the German advances begin being tracked in the windows of the British Propaganda Bureau and the window opposite, run by the Germans. At this time Guy and the other ex-pats are working to put on one of Shakespeare’s plays, and the reaction to these windows and their displays is eerily similar to the reactions of playgoers:

The map with the red arrows disappeared. The window remained empty. No one was much impressed. The move had not, after all, been the beginning of events. It seemed a step into a cul-de-sac. The audience waited for more spectacular entertainment. (244)

What a damning, nightmare description of war: nothing more than an entertainment. The war doesn’t seem to come alive for Manning’s ex-pats until the shocking change of the newsreels run before films in Bucharest. The French films cease arriving, the English films are blocked, and only U.P.A. news films are coming in:

People sat up at them, aghast, overwhelmed by the fervour of the young men on the screen. There was nothing here of the flat realism of the English news, nothing of the bored inactivity which people had come to expect. Every camera trick was used to enhance the drama of the German machines reaping the cities as they passed. Their destructive lust was like a glimpse of the dark ages. (255)

Manning handles the relation of her characters to the war masterfully. That the reader is seeing events through the characters’ eyes, knowing that the war is more serious and closer than they imagine or want to believe, makes the fall of France a shock not just for those in the book but for the reader as well. The gulf between Manning’s characters and the war is so vast that to see it bridged is a shock, a disappointment. We know it’s coming, of course, but don’t want to see the war make its way into the lives of the Pringles simply because they don’t want to see the war make its way into their lives.

The Great Fortune isn’t an easy book to enter, but it’s one that’s worth the attempt. Manning pulled many details of the Pringles’ lives from her own life, and to read this first volume of The Balkan Trilogy is to gain a truer sense of how the seemingly inevitable German progress of this war could be such a shock to those living through it, or adjacent to it.

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Story Sundays: Kate Chopin’s “Ma’ame Pelagie”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

The title character of Kate Chopin’s “Ma’ame Pelagie” lives much of the story in the literal shadow of her old home, in the figurative shadow of her past. This home is the center of Pelagie’s life, the raising of funds to restore it her life’s work, and the outside world intrudes only with the arrival of her niece: “The coming of La Petite, bringing with her as she did the pungent atmosphere of an outside and dimly known world, was a shock to these two, living their dream-life.” Despite La Petite’s entrance to her world, the past remains far more alive to Pelagie than the present, and the story considers her relation to time and memory and the ways in which Pelagie preserves her memory. Pelagie will ultimately give up the physical monument to that past for her sister’s sake; but does that bring Pelagie’s own life any more into the present day?

Read “Ma’ame Pelagie” online

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#fridayreads: Dennis Lehane

One of my favorite new (to me) book blogs, Picky Girl, is doing a new meme, #Fridayreads take me away. I’m pretty much reading solely for escapism right now so can’t claim that the books I read on the weekends are any different from my Monday – Thursday books, but still….

I’ve been going through a big Dennis Lehane thing lately. I read A Drink Before the War in late February, then took a respectable break – but I’ve been sick, with lots of time to lay around reading, and in the past week or so have put away Darkness, Take My Hand, Sacred, and Gone, Baby, Gone. The last was my “fridayread” for this week, only it’s halfway through the day and I just finished it, so I guess I’ll be moving on to the fifth book in his Kenzie/Gennaro series, Prayers for Rain.

At some point I’ll probably do a real post on Lehane, an improvement over the review I did of A Drink Before the War. For now, I can’t say a whole lot except that it feels good to remember the way it feels to discover an author with a healthy backlist, to fall into the lives of characters who I know I’ll be able to read about for two more books. Lulu over at What Book Today? is pretty crushing in her appraisal of the focus on the personal lives of Kenzie and Gennaro in the latest installment in this series, Moonlight Mile, but for now it’s something I’m enjoying. Lehane is great at character development, and the occasional glimpses into their private lives adds something to the books – it makes it easier to understand why Kenzie and Gennaro treat their work or certain classes of criminals the way they do.

Besides the character development, my god, Lehane pulls off the gore well. Darkness, Take My Hand has a serial killer torturing and butchering his victims, then leaving little bits of them scattered around, like when Kenzie finds a pair of eyeballs in his kitchen cupboard. I didn’t like Sacred as much as that second book (it would be hard to match it) but again, Lehane has this skill for characters who are almost out of this world in terms of their moral views, but who I believe in absolutely. He casts his net wide, too, and it’s alternately fun and disturbing to see the way those in power (politicians, the rich, the police) influence or mastermind the crimes Kenzie and Gennaro investigate.

I’m telling myself now that I’m going to read the Orange Prize nominee White Woman on the Green Bicycle next, but let’s face it – it’s going to be Lehane’s Prayers for Rain. I want to delay reading any more of these novels to make them last longer, but now that I’ve fallen prey to Lehane it is really, really hard to find my way out.

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Books That Scare the Bejeezus Out of Me
April 19, 2011, 9:33 am
Filed under: meme | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these Top 10 Tuesdays from The Broke and the Bookish, but this week they’re letting you pick any of the topics from their past weeks. Awesome, because I’m picky and a control freak and this degree of choice allows me to feel I have some control over a world which has infested my home with mice that resist my best efforts to kill them and have forced me to sleep in a different room to escape the sound of their nighttime mouse parties, which are starting earlier and earlier. (Clearly they are not scared of me, not even slightly.)

My choice for this week? The ten books that intimidate me most. Writing this brings up some interesting questions about how and why we allow books to scare us, and why we read books that scare us – there’s value in it, but where does it come from? – but I’ll save the philosophizing for another day, and today just give you the list.

  1. Gravity’s Rainbow – I’ve read a couple other books by Pynchon (Vineland and Lot 49Vineland is, by the way, a terrible choice). There are elements to his books that I love, like the names and the songs, but all his characters read like cardboard cutouts – like they are interchangeable and meant to be that way. Also, one of my professors told this story about the first time he tried reading Gravity’s Rainbow. He hated the book so much that he duct taped around the entire book before throwing it out, so that no one would ever have to suffer through what he had. He reread it eventually and loved it, but I am not quite convinced that I will.
  2. Infinite Jest – I’ve already read Infinite Jest so maybe it’s a stretch to put it on this list, but I didn’t get it the first time I read it and I’m terrified that when I reread it I’m going to not get it again. DFW is one of my favorite authors, and I want to be able to understand this work, not just his essays and short stories. But what if I can’t?
  3. Ulysses – I halfway believe that Joyce is one of those authors everyone claims to admire but no one ever reads, or when they do read they don’t understand him but claim they do. I haven’t even read Portrait, so the thought of Ulysses has me going “oh my god oh my god oh my god.” When I don’t understand a book I usually react by turning against it and declaiming against everyone who finds something worthwhile in the work. If you see me protesting against Ulysses on this blog in a couple years, you can be pretty sure that I tried reading it and didn’t succeed.
  4. House of Leaves – After reading a review of this at Sasha & the Silverfish I thought, “huh, I better read this one day,” but knowing that “one day” would be pretty far off – not till I get back to the states at least – I didn’t feel too intimidated by the book. Only then I found a copy of it in the Peace Corps office here, and I had to take it – what was I supposed to do? – and now it’s been sitting on my shelf for a couple months and I’m too scared to even open the book let alone read it. I’m calling it my summer reading project now, but just the thought of it makes me want to curl up in a little ball and read nothing but murder mysteries the rest of my time here in Macedonia. I’ve been on a good streak with the mysteries lately. Why mess that up with a book like this?
  5. Pale Fire – As with Infinite Jest, I’ve read Pale Fire before. Vladimir Nabokov is my favorite author. And as with Infinite Jest, those are the reasons I’m so scared of Pale Fire: having read it once before, what are the odds that I’ll read it again and understand it? Isn’t it sort of lame to claim an author as one of my favorites if I haven’t even managed to understand one of his best works? But this is the sort of reading that I’m reluctant to admit I fall prey to. I should read what I read, think what I think, and not worry what other people think, but I can’t escape this vague fear that one day I’ll go on a date with a guy who has read, loved and understood Pale Fire and treats me like a fool because I didn’t. Still, I’ll be tackling this with the help of Brian Boyd’s critical work on Pale Fire when I finish with Peace Corps. We’ll see how this goes.
  6. 2666 – I enjoyed Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, but that doesn’t mean I understood it. Which means, of course, that I now approach 2666 with some trepidation. My copy is currently sitting in a storage facility somewhere in NJ, but when I get home I’m going to have to read it… This may be the time to seek out a good book group, right?
  7. In Search of Lost Time – When I started this blog I was a little more prone to going on jaunts about time and memory and how they worked in books. I’m more used to the idea of “reviewing” books now than treating them as something to analyze, college-style (I think, I hope), but my interest in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time grows out of my interest in how time and memory work in literature. As with so many other books on this list, the first three volumes of In Search of Lost Time are sitting in a box somewhere in NJ, hanging over me like the sword of Damocles. I’m anticipating that my “readjustment” period from Peace Corps is going to include a couple months living with my parents, paying daily visits to the gym and reading these books I’ve been intending to read for years, but knowing that Proust’s works are among them is enough to make me think I’m better off forgetting the readjustment period and moving straight to New York, finding a full-time job, and never reading again.
  8. Charles Dickens – Dickens doesn’t intimidate me in the same way that some of the other authors and works on this list do. I’m sure that if I take the time to read Dickens I’ll understand his work and maybe even like it. What I’m worried about, though, is that I’m never going to get to that point – that his verbosity will turn me off, as it has for so many years past. I’m planning to read some Dickens for the upcoming author showdown at the Classics Circuit, to maybe get me over this hump – but for now, Dickens remains a victim of my desire to like an author being so strong that I never read him, for fear that I won’t.
  9. War & Peace – I loved Anna Karenina. Do you sense a theme here? Can you see where this is going? But…. having liked that book so much, I’m scared I won’t like this one. Anna Karenina wasn’t always easy going, and I vaguely remember a couple months stuck on a hundred pages or so, falling asleep every time I tried reading it. Whether I end up enjoying War & Peace or no, I know it’s sometimes going to be a hard slog, it’s going to put me to sleep, it’s going to break my back as I carry it all over town (to the gym and back home, according to my post-Peace Corps plans). Right now I want to read books that are fun, and the thought of reading to better myself in some way is intimidating, to say the least.
  10. Dostoevsky, pretty much the complete works – I have this bad habit of building a collection of an intimidating author’s work, despite never having read a word by him, so I have a good collection of Dostoevsky’s writing back home. The last time I tried reading him I was in about the seventh grade, with a signet classics edition of Crime & Punishment. I think I read 70 pages, and ever since then I’ve been studiously avoiding the man, while pointing to my bookshelf and saying, “But see? I’m going to read him one day.” Of course, I’m now 25 years old and better acquainted with Russian names (things like the -ski/-ska endings now make a lot more sense to me, given that I live in a country where most of the names end like that and sound identical to the untrained ear) and have better translations of his works.

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Book vs. Movie: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

Book: There is a frenetic caffeinated energy to this novel. Nick and Norah take alternate chapters and after reading the wretched doubled narration of Megan McCafferty’s Bumped it was such a relief to see this working. Nick and Norah both seemed older than they are, even when they’re reminding me of how old I am getting. (I kept doing the math, not quite believing it. I know that being 25 doesn’t exactly make me ancient, but I still find it hard to believe that I am seven years older than either of these characters.) Nick’s been dumped by his girlfriend of six months but she shows up at one of his band’s shows anyway, so he asks Norah to be his girlfriend for five minutes to throw Tris off. Norah agrees, which leads into a night of music, debating what this means for either of them, how they feel about their exes, what they are going to do with their lives, whether it’s possible to meet someone and know, that night, that they are the right person. Norah especially sometimes reads as too screwed up to be eighteen years old but I couldn’t slow down reading long enough to really care about that.

Movie: It wasn’t until rewatching this after reading the book that I realized how much the film departs from the book. Unlike the book, the movie goes for the gross-out in its focus on Norah’s friend Caroline (the scene of her vomiting into a bus station toilet, dropping her phone and gum in, reaching in for the phone – then the gum) and it turns a few of the characters into caricatures, which works better in some cases than in others. Nick’s ex-girlfriend, Tris, loses the humanity she has in the book; here, she’s nothing more than a lying, cheating, Lindsay Lohan-style Mean Girl, and watching her is never not painful. One of the pleasures of watching the film, though, is to see what they’ve done with Tal – he wasn’t a real sympathetic character in the book so there isn’t much departure there, but to see Jay Baruchel who is always so adorable and puppy-like (have you seen Undeclared or Knocked Up or She’s Out of My League?) play the part of a raging asshole is kind of wonderful.

Maybe because we can’t access the inner monologues of Nick and Norah as we can in the book, the movie makes its focal point finding Where’s Fluffy rather than Nick and Norah finding each other. I mean, they do, of course they do, but that’s all kind of secondary, a benefit to their efforts to find Caroline and then the band. The movie gives you what you want, which is finding the band, Nick and Norah realizing they like each other, Tal and Tris getting their comeuppance, and lots of good jams and potty humor. My one major complaint is that Kat Dennings is so much prettier than Tris – and in the book she’s not, not by a long shot. I guess when you make a film you gotta have your leading ladies be gorgeous, but it’s still kind of a disappointment even though I like Kat Dennings.

Verdict: Tie.

These two versions of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist don’t seem like the same story so much as they do riffs on a theme. They’re good in different ways and in different places and I can’t say that one is better than the other. They’re different, that’s all.

Both the book and movie also serve as a healthy glimpse of what I’m headed back to once I finish my service here in Macedonia. Things that wouldn’t have annoyed me too much before (like Nick driving a Yugo – such a teenage hipster move, imagine the effort required to find a Yugo in the States) drove me nuts now that, you know, I live in a country that was part of Yugoslavia and where a lot of people, including my host family, drive a Yugo if they’ve got a car. I wanted to tell Nick to stop using his Yugo (a) to tell the world he doesn’t have enough money for a different car, and (b) as an expression of irony. I am not sure how well I’ll do living in Brooklyn when I get back, or anywhere for that matter. Maybe I should give the two Nick & Norahs a win and me a lose, for now.

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