Monday, August 31, 2015


Vineland, by Thomas Pynchon

I've been sort of trying to read my way through Pynchon's novels in order of publication, based on the fact that I really like The Crying of Lot 49.  So I read V. last year and that was OK, and over the summer I started Gravity's Rainbow, and at first I liked that pretty well, but I got about 70 pages in and had to quit.  Just, no.  But Vineland was next and I thought, hey, it's another of the 'three California novels' like Lot 49 and maybe I'll do better.  I started Vineland while sitting on Avila Beach and decided that this one was probably a keeper.

....I'm coming up pretty blank on how to describe this, though.  It's pretty weird and surreal (and funny!).  So I'm going to do something I do not do and give you some of the back-cover blurb:
Aging hippie freak Zoyd Wheeler is revving up for his annual act of televised insanity when news reaches that his old nemesis, sinister federal agent Brock Vond, has come storming into Vineland at the head of a heavily armed Justice Department strike force. Zoyd instantly disappears underground, but not before dispatching his teenage daughter Prairie on a dark odyssey into her secret, unspeakable past. . . . 
Freely combining disparate elements from American popular culture—spy thrillers, ninja potboilers, TV soap operas, sci-fi fantasies—Vineland emerges as what Salman Rushdie has called in The New York Times Book Review "that rarest of birds: a major political novel about what America has been doing to itself, to its children, all these many years."
OK, so there are a couple of plots.  One is mostly about Prairie's mother, Frenesi, once a 60s radical filmmaker for the Death to the Pig Nihilist Film Kollective, then an FBI informant, and long gone from Prairie's life.  Then there is her once-best-friend DL, a trained ninja killer, and her partner Takeshi.  Plus, of course, Zoyd and the many other people populating the novel, which goes back and forth in time and place.  Vineland County is up on the north California coast, say north of Arcata, and full of loggers and old hippies and pot (and restaurants called things like the Bodhi Dharma Pizza Temple).  Its opposite number is Trasero County near San Diego, once a beachy college of rock and roll, now turned into a re-education camp.

Vineland has a settlement of Thanatoids, the mostly-dead who can't seem to get anywhere.  TV, always called the Tube, is omnipresent and addictive--there are Tubaldetox hospitals.  Page 238 has one of the most bizarre joke set-ups I've ever seen (and it serves the plot too).  Oh, and there's a secret Army freeway along the tops of the coastal mountains of California!  The weirdness never stops, but it exists alongside the grotesque, or tragedy.

I won't say I understood it, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and will re-read someday (though I still don't like the more vulgar bits).  I also found a couple of essays that I want to read about it.  In Vineland I found what I liked in Lot 49, so I'm pretty happy.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

R. I. P. X

It's that time of year again, when bloggers everywhere look forward to the Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge!  I only joined last year, so this is my second time around.  This year, Carl, inventor of the RIP Challenge, decided to change things up a little, so the ladies at Estella Society are hosting.  The venue has changed but the rules have not:

Without further ado, pick your poison, won’t you? September 1st is here, and we’re ready to begin!

Dark Fantasy.

Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

That is what embodies the stories, written and visual, that we celebrate with the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event.
As time has wound on, we’ve discovered that simple rules are best:
1. Have fun reading (and watching).
2. Share that fun with others.

R.I.P. X officially runs from September 1st through October 31st
Multiple perils await you. You can participate in just one, or participate in them all.

I'm going to try for Peril the First, which asks that we read FOUR books.  We'll see how it goes; I'm going to try to make at least one a Classics Club title, like Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables or Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

I dare you to resist this title.  Bet you can't!

Jon Ronson starts off with his own experience with public shaming.  In a bizarre exercise in online postmodernism, three academics lifted his name and photo and made a spambot (oh wait no, infomorph) that tweeted random stuff all the time.  They wouldn't take it down!  So he got them together for an interview, and when he posted it on Youtube, people criticized the academics until they finally took it down.  Hooray for the voice of the people!  Justice prevails!  But wow, some of those comments were kind of skeevy....

Ronson started paying attention to this whole phenomenon we've got of public shaming, especially (but certainly not only) on Twitter.  Whether it's a large or small offense, a misfired joke or a serious crime, once the Internet mob gets going it can just about ruin a life.  The mob is merciless and it never forgives.  So Ronson talks with some of the people.  He also talks with some people whose lived haven't been ruined, who may even have come out of it more popular than before.  What is shame, anyway?  How do you recover from it?

A lot of the names in this book are familiar.  Jonah Lehrer made up Bob Dylan quotations.  Adria Richards publicly shamed two guys who made a fairly innocuous joke about dongles.  When they lost their jobs, she was publicly shamed and lost her job.  One woman jokingly took a tactless photo at a veteran's memorial and the blowback drove her to spend the next year housebound.  And so it goes.  An awful lot of the time, the punishment is far worse than the original mistake was.  People sometimes argue that Internet mob justice is "punching up" against the patriarchy or the wealthy or whatever, but that's hard to buy.  Mostly, it just feels great to be so righteously angry.

In fact, as Ronson is at pains to point out, public shaming is an old punishment that went out of style in the 18th century.  They used to do it with stocks and public flogging and letters, but in the 1700s most everybody decided that those punishments were too cruel, so they were gradually outlawed. 

It's a quick and fascinating read.  Ronson wanders around the topic a lot, so it's not just an endless litany of Internet scandals, which would get pretty old.  There's also a shame-eradication workshop!  And, er, a chapter about some other things.  And the businesses that exist to help you fix your online image, to push that awful incident down a couple of pages so that when you apply for a job, it isn't the first and only thing that pops up about you.

And here's my advice: if you're tempted to join the pile-on in next week's Internet public shaming, resist it, or at least think carefully about what's going on.  Recreational outrage feels great, solves little, and does a lot of damage along the way. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Awakening

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin

This is one of those books that I'm embarrassed not to have read earlier.  I think all the other lit majors I knew owned copies, and I started it at a friend's place, but promptly ran into the nursemaid being called "the quadroon" all the time.  I had no idea what that even meant--it was a nonsense word to me--but the whole story felt completely alien and I dropped it.  But I've finally done it--I've read one of the founding texts of both American feminist and Southern literature.  So there.

Edna Pontellier is a beautiful and wealthy New Orleans matron, spending the summer at a resort with family and friends.  She has never thought about who she is or what she wants; she simply occupies her place in society.  But then, she falls in love and discovers physical desire and a wish to be independent, on her own.  She stops playing her role and goes into art instead.  Edna 'awakens' into an awareness of herself and a desire to be different.

Chopin's writing is intensely physical, especially around Edna.  We hear a lot about her round arms and white flesh, her walk, her sleep, her hair, and her joy in swimming and being in the water.  I almost feel that I know a lot more about her body than about her mind.  She only sort of has a mind, it seems to me; she's only just beginning to use it and she's not always good at it.  Her emotions trample her sense.

The famous quotation from this story is "The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings."  Edna wants to be different, to decide her own life and to be independent, but she makes some bad choices (I think) and she does not have wings strong enough to carry her through the difficulties.  I'm afraid I find myself impatient with her; does she even want to have this affair with Arobin?  He mostly talks her into it.  Does she have any clue about who her children are?  She seems to love them in this physical way but not otherwise.  (I had a similar reaction to A Doll's House; it's all very well to find your own identity but why abandon your children while you do it?  They need you.  Step up already.)

Kate Chopin is considered to figure in the Naturalist writing style, which is after all the August theme.  Naturalist writers thought about societal structures and what people do within them, looking for the reasons behind actions.  That's a pretty good description of Chopin. 

My copy is a free digital download, but I picked this cover because of the painting.  I think most people have seen it around, but it is by P.S. Krøyer, a Norwegian painter who spent a lot of time at Skagen.  I've been to Skagen, which is a really neat spot; it's very flat and shallow, so you can walk a long way out and the water will still only be to your knees.  It's the end of the Danish peninsula where two seas meet, so that there are two sets of waves that cross each other, going way far out.  

I've now started my September choice, Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov.  It's beautiful, I love it, but there is no way I will finish by the end of September!

Monday, August 24, 2015

And the Lucky Number is...

5, so I will be reading V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River.  

Well, this should be exciting!  I've never read Naipaul before.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Classics Club Spin #10

It's Spin time again!  I'm hoping this one will help to pull me out of my slump, which I am only slowly getting out of (but hey, I just finished Kate Chopin's The Awakening, so there's that).

The rules are simple and can be found here.  Just make a list of 20 books from your classics TBR list, wait for the random number to pop up on Monday, and then you're committed to read whatever you get.

All the excitement of roulette, but for free! Better for your waistline, too.

Since it's getting towards fall, I'm going to load my list up with anything remotely scary that I can find, either because of the story or because it's long, or difficult, or unknown.  Hurry up, fall!  I'm tired of being too hot, and this smoke is the worst.

  1. Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum
  2. Edgar Allen Poe, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.
  3. Rilke, Malte Laurids Brigge
  4. Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie  
  5. VS Naipul, Trinidad, 1979. A Bend in the River
  6. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years
  7. Kafka, The Castle
  8.  Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and Daughters
  9. T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
  10. Moa Martinson, Women and Appletrees
  11. Nathaniel Hawthorne, House of the Seven Gables
  12. Unknown, Japan. The Kojiki
  13. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat
  14. Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made
  15. Grimmelhausen, Simplicissimus
  16. On the Origin of Species, Darwin
  17. Murasaki Shikubu, The Tale of Genji.
  18. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (this is cheating; I'm reading it in September either way)
  19. Berthold Brecht, The Threepenny Opera
  20. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks 
Over half of these books are actually sitting around my house, waiting for me to read them....

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Old Straight Track

The Old Straight Track: Its Mounds, Beacons, Moats, Sites and Mark Stones, by Alfred Watkins

Hi everybody!  I'm back.  I took my kids (and mom) down to the Central Coast for about a week, and we had a really nice time.  When I get around to getting the pictures off my camera I'll show you some.  Once we were home, it was time to get serious about preparing for the school year.  Today was our first day of school, and I now have a 7th grader and a sophomore, which seems a bit preposterous but it's true. 

As you may imagine, I didn't do a lot of reading while I was gone (I read my friend's daughter's Nancy Drew story, and not much else!) and so far it's been a little difficult to get back into my groove.  I've got two or three huge tomes going and I'm being reeeeally slow with them, oh! and I started Thomas Pynchon's Vineland while I was sitting on the beach, and I like that, and I tried Lev Grossman's The Magicians --because I liked the spine design--but it's pretty much Harry Potter if everyone was a disaffected and grouchy young adult, and everyone was unpleasant to each other, and there was no Voldemort or apparent purpose in doing magic (as far as the novel goes, I mean obviously magic is cool).  I'm sure it gains a point sometime, but I got about 100 pages in and I still disliked everyone, so I quit.  But I DID finish The Old Straight Track, so here goes.

In the 1920s this fellow Watkins came up with a new theory about Neolithic man in Britain--well everywhere really, but he was focused on Britain.  He posited that the inhabitants had developed a sophisticated system of tracks for trading purposes.  These tracks were planned by skilled surveyors who carried two staffs to sight with, and marked with stones, beacons, and various other landmarks.  Anyone could tramp around their countryside, armed with a detailed map, and search for the signs of these tracks, or you could even do it at home.

Watkins called the tracks leys, and although he did not attach any supernatural significance to them (he did figure that the surveying skill became part of the Druidical religion), others soon did.  You probably know ley lines as a New Age-type idea of lines of power networked over the earth, connecting nodes of special energy.  None of that came from Watkins.  He was all about the trade networks.

And he really piles on the 'evidence' in this book!  There are chapters for each kind of landmark--stones, ponds or moats, groves of trees, tumuli, churches, and so on--the idea being that many mark stones eventually were built over by mounds, churches, or other later structures.   He really gets enthusiastic about etymology, pointing out place names that seem to him to refer to surveying, beacons, or the goods carried along the tracks.  (He never does explain how Neolithic terms stuck long enough to enter English.)

While you're immersed in the book, it all sounds like there must be something to it.  So many straight lines can be drawn over the English countryside!  But, to quote the introduction:
None of it was true, of course...Watkins' work was an example of what is known as 'apophenia' or 'patternicity,' which [is] 'the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise'...
The problem is, there are an awful lot of stones, tree clumps, mounds, and churches, and you can draw a line practically anywhere in England and hit a bunch of them.  Watkins' own maps are suspiciously prolific of leys; he's often got so many on one patch of land that you wonder why on earth anyone would bother with them all.  And the answer is that nobody did; it's random.

It was a wonderfully seductive theory, though.  People loved it.  For one thing, it made a great hobby; anyone could tromp around with a map.  It was inexpensive and fun, and it felt like being on a quest for secret treasure.  Watkins told everyone to go out and find leys too; after all, he really only knew Herefordshire well, and there was all of Britain to explore.

Even the reader who wants to be persuaded will eventually notice Watkins' leaps and assumptions.  His etymology is often incredibly wishful, and he's prone to saying things like...
[An acquaintance] reported a fine mark stone at Burfa, and on visiting it I found that the line which (on other evidence) I had marked on the six-inch map went precisely through it.  The rock outcrop must have been a primary point (I have marked it as such), and was presumably a station for assembly or Druidical practices....
Now, come on.  Really?  There's an outcrop of rock, and therefore it was a gathering place for Druids?  

Clearly an ancient surveyor of ley lines.

It's an interesting read because it was such a popular theory for a while, and because he's so enthusiastic.  So it's kind of enjoyable, but in a sad way, and also it's kind of slow going because I, at least, kept stopping to look at Google Maps and try to figure out these lines.  Which is nearly impossible, by the way.  Half of his landmarks are not catalogued on Google Maps at all, and the lines don't really fit on the screen.  I wish somebody with a lot more knowledge and interest than I have got would make an online map that features all the lines Watkins came up with, but we looked around for one and couldn't find any.

It's an eccentric book and not one that will appeal to many, but I've been wanting to read it for years so I'm happy to finally have gotten the chance.