Saturday, July 30, 2011

Half Time Report

It is taking me forever to read Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, even though I am both reading, and listening to it in my car on CD.  Right now I am about at the half way mark.  The first 200 pages were painfully slow.  Then, around page 300, in chapter 27, the story really picked up.

In chapter 27, Amelia, who is married to George Osborn, and an old friend of Rececca Crawley, moves to join her husband and his regiment in Belgium, as they prepare to battle Napoleon's army.  Apparently this was quite common, and the British soldiers had their wives, servants, and household belongings with them.  Soon the battles begin, and our narrator apologizes that he is not a military reporter, so our story will remain with the civilians.  This should have been my first clue that something good was coming.

As I kept reading, the story of the civilians who didn't go to war, but who could hear the battle near them, reminded me of another all time favorite book, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.  In Vanity Fair, Amelia's role is very similar to Melanie's in GWTW, as both women are delicate, well liked, married, and pregnant, as the battle approaches.  Rebecca plays the role of Scarlett, as she uses the war as an opportunity for social advancement and flirting with married men.  Unlike Scarlett, but somewhat like Rhett, Rebecca also manages to make financial gains by selling what she has at inflated prices.

At chapter 33, the story returned to the Crawley family's inheritance watch, as they wait for their aunt to die, and it seems to have slowed down again.  This afternoon, I will resume reading with chapter 36, which is titled "How to Live Well on Nothing a Year".  That could be the title of a current best seller!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Cousin Carton

Last year when I was trying to read books set in Paris to get ready for my trip, someone mentioned that I should read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  I was surprised, because I had always thought that A Tale of Two Cities was about the two classes of English society, and not actually about two separate cities.  I had read Sybil, or the Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli, and thought that it was a later and more politicized version of Dickens' work.  Instead, Sybil, which really does tell the story of different classes within England, came out 14 years before A Tale of Two Cities, and may have been part of Dickens' inspiration. 

In reading Two Cities, I was also reminded of Parrot and Olivier in America  by Peter Carey.  Parrot, likeTwo Cities, is set in the time of the French Revolution, and involves a French aristocrat who leaves France, the English working class, secrets hidden in chimneys, and a strong French wife whose importance increases as the story continues.

What I liked best about Two Cities was that it was a great book that is still suspenseful and interesting, despite being 150 years old.  I constantly wanted to know what would happen next.  The characters who at first seem minor become intricate to the plot, and the characters who appear to be central are in the end less developed than the others.  In this vein, I may have run astray.  I finished the book, and felt like an idiot, because I never learned exactly how Darnay, the character who is at first on trial as a spy, and Carton, one of his attorneys, are related.  I checked Wikipedia to no avail.  I then Googled the question, and was surprised to learn that most readers believe that they are not related at all.  In fact, the few people who I found who asked the same question that was on my mind, were slammed with responses like "you're reading too much into this" or "duh, they're not.  Carton is from England and Darnay is from France."

It is not possible for me to believe anything other than that Carton and Darnay are related, but that Darnay does not know of the relationship.  To this end, I propose that Carton is the illegitimate son of Darnay's father or uncle.  There are several details that support this proposition.  First off, it is important to Dickens to convey that Darnay's father and uncle were twins.  This is stated both on page 129 and 333 of Two Cities as edited by Richard Maxwell, and is referenced several other times.  Why would Dickens stress this detail unless it is important? 

Carton first becomes important to the plot on page 76, when Darnay is facing a witness who is accusing him of being a spy, and Carton suggests that his co-counsel stand Darnay and Carton together, to get the witness to concede that they look very much alike, and by implication that Darnay may look like many other men.  After this trial, Carton insists that he and Darnay go out for dinner and drinks.  At that dinner, after several drinks, Carton asks Darnay if he thinks that he likes him. The thought that Carton disliked him had apparently not crossed Darnay's mind, but Carton answers that he doesn't think that he does like Darnay.  What may be the most important paragraph in the second book follows, as Carton says to himself:

"'Do you particularly like the man?' he muttered at his own image 'why should you particularly like a man who resembles you?. . . A good reason for taking to a man, that he shows you what you have fallen away from and what you might have been!  Change places with him and would you have been looked at by those blue eyes as he was. . .?'" 

I interpret this as Carton coming close to revealing to Darnay that he is an illegitimate cousin, but then failing to do so, while lamenting how his life would have been different if he had been the legitimate child of Darnay's uncle.  Later in the book, when the denunciation is being read, it becomes clear that Darnay's father and uncle were not above taking the wives and daughters of their tenants when it pleased them.  Carton could have been a child resulting from the rape of a servant or tenant.  I think it is more likely that Dickens intended Carton to be a child of the uncle, because that would be the reason for making the father and uncle twins, rather than just implying that Carton and Darnay look alike because they have the same father.

Dickens also drops strong hints that Carton is not really from England, but was French born.  Specifically, the wood-sawyer calls him out as being "not English" on page 324, and Carton concedes that he was a student in France.  Similarly, when Carton decides to visit the Defarges, he says that it was "not difficult for one who knew the city well" to find their store, implying that he was more familiar with the town than the average English attorney.  He then feigns in the store that he does not understand French, and doesn't know his way around the town.  I will admit that if Darnay's uncle had an illegitimate child, that person would have been of great interest to the Defarges.  But what if the woman who was raped was married so that the child appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary?  Then, when the child grew to resemble a Evremonde, the family may have fled to England to try to keep safe.  Carton speaks of his father's funeral, which could defeat my argument.  But really, wouldn't it be normal for him to refer to the man who raised him, rather than the man who provided sperm alone, as his father?

So there you are.  I have decided that Carton is the illegitimate son of Darnay's uncle, and I think the text supports that interpretation.  However, this book has been discussed over the course of 3 centuries, and very few people seem to have reached this conclusion.  Therefore, if you have stumbled on this blog while researching a paper on the book, use my ideas with caution.  But if your teacher buys it, and I get an A, be sure to let me know!

Next up on CD:  Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.   Yep, you got it.  I am double teaming Thackeray by reading the book AND listening to the CD in my car.  I'm not very far into the book yet, and I am hoping that listening to a little bit of it every day will help me get through the slower parts.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My Husband's Autobiography

My husband has always had another love.  He doesn't even try to deny it.  If he walks into the room and sees Rob Lowe on the TV screen, he simply cannot keep himself from saying "Now that's one good looking guy".  The best compliment that you could give my husband would be to say that he looks just like Rob Lowe.  Truth be told, I think he does.  However, when I told our friends that the other night they burst out laughing.  I guess I'm wearing my rose colored glasses again.

Any who . . . when Rob Lowe's autobiography, Stories I Only Tell My Friends, came out, my husband reminded me daily that he hoped to get it for Father's Day.  Mind you, during our 16 year marriage, my husband has only read 2 other books that I can think of.  My kids and I got him the book, and he started reading as soon as he got the chance.  Let me tell you that if Rob Lowe ever needs a new PR guy, my husband is available.  I can't even guess how many copies of this book he has sold by telling everyone he knows about it.

I, on the other hand, have never been all that into Rob Lowe.  He's fine, and I've liked lots of movies that he has been in, but his poster was never hanging on my wall.  I started reading his autobiography with a certain degree of skepticism.  I mean really, how good could it be?  I have to say, it was that good.

Throughout the book, Rob tells stories of his growth as an actor and as a person in a way that seems both honest and believable.  He is candid, while not burning any bridges.  He drops tons of names, but when he is really bashing a person, that name is not mentioned.  I have to think that any person identified in the book will be able to read it, and still like Rob.  A love fest doesn't generally make for a good story, especially in an autobiography, but in this case, it works.  While he's not trashing anyone, Rob is providing a lot of back stories that never made the tabloids, and still mentioning the scandals that the tabloids devoured.

For me, the most surprising part about Stories I Only Tell My Friends is that Rob wrote it.  (Notice how I slipped into using his first name?)  I flipped back to the front cover more than once to confirm that no ghost writer was credited.  I am sure that he had really good editors, and I did find 2 tiny typos, but I have to say, he is a great writer.  Rob talks to the readers as though they really are his friends.

When I was just about finished reading, my husband mentioned that we should take a trip to Santa Monica and Malibu and "all the places that Rob Lowe lived".  While I am not exactly ready for The Rob Lowe Tour, I have put a hold on "About Last Night" at the library, and can't wait to see "The Outsiders" again.

Next Up:  Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.  Yes, I have delayed reading my BFB for more than half of the summer.  It's time that I got started!

Still listening to:  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Don't Avoid The Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is unusual.  It is a fun, timely, quick read, that is also an award winner.  AVFTGS won both the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2010, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011.  With credentials like that, one would expect an amazing, but maybe a difficult book.  Instead, AVFTGS is a page turner and a perfect summer novel.  In short, it is everything that it's cracked up to be.

AVFTGS is the first book that has made me wish for a Kindle.  Each chapter is a part of a complete story, including some, but not all of the characters in the book, from a random time.  The story flashes back and forth, without obvious clues such as dates indicating where we are in time or in narrative.  Each chapter contains subtle and obvious hints as to what will happen in later chapters. One of the characters introduced in the first chapter, for instance, doesn't become important to the story again until the last chapter.  A Kindle would come in handy here, because I spent a ton of time flipping back when a new character was introduced to see if that character had been mentioned before.  As I understand Kindle, no flipping would be necessary, and I would just be able to search for "Lizzie" or "Noreen" to see if they had been mentioned earlier and I missed them. 

Most simply, AVFTGS is the story of an aging producer, his protege, his girlfriend, and a groupie/klepto turned producer's assistant turned mom.  Other story lines involve a failed publicist, a failed writer, a failed actress, a failed dictator, a failed rock star (or two?), a failed presidential hopeful, and the children of all involved.  Some of the failures find success, and some of the successful fall to invisibility.

This is a great book.  I am adding it to my favorites list, and buying it for my daughter to put away until she is old enough to read it.  One short chapter details a groupie/girlfriend's regrets in a way that is poignant and memorable.  Another great chapter is written entirely in powerpoint style slides from the point of view of a teenager trying to understand her parents.  I might let my daughter read that chapter now.  The final chapter predicts the near future in which rock stars cater to babies, known as "pointers" for their ability to point to interesting things on an ipad-like touch screen, with the parents following the children's choices.  Somehow, this doesn't seem too unlikely.

I've said it before, and I hope to say it lots more:  Go. Get. It. And. Read.

Interested in rock and roll stories?  I've read more biographies in this area than fiction, although this seems like a topic ripe for fiction.  A really good biography that you may have missed is Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be by Jennifer Trynin.  Unlike other rock and roll biographies, this is the story of an "almost was" instead of a "has been", and is really interesting in that regard.

By the way, today it's been a year since I started blogging regularly.  What got me started was being really upset with one of my kids' teachers, and wanting to send a vicious email to him that I knew I would regret.  Instead, I broadcasted my rant onto the world wide web, and no one was harmed in the production of this blog.

Next Up:  Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe.  My husband just finished reading this one, and he was pestering me to read it before he even got to the end.  I have a hunch that the characters in this book will be easier to keep track of, because I know them all from People Magazine.

Still Listening to:  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  Talk about a great book with characters who are mentioned and then show up in more important roles later . . .apparently this style has been around for a while!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

All Was Vanity

There are three books that I have read more than once, on my own both times.  There are many others that I read first for a class assignment and then later to see what I missed when reading on a deadline.  There are still others that I read first because I wanted to, and then again because my son wanted me to read them to him.  But the three books that I read twice just because I wanted to are Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and now All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz.

When I first read All is Vanity, my kids were really young, and I didn't have much time for myself.  I remembered it as being a great book, but I've never met anyone else who read it, let alone liked it, and I wasn't sure if my impression of it may have been overly enthusiastic because I was so starved for grown up books.  On my second reading, I liked it even more than on the first.

All is Vanity is the story of Margaret, a woman who is smugly convinced that she is destined to be a novelist, and Lettie, her childhood friend who is now a stay at home mom to four children.  Margaret quickly finds that writing a novel isn't as easy as she thought it would be.  Lettie, meanwhile, is thrilled that her husband has accepted a new, higher paying job, and is anxious to improve her standard of living.

Both Margaret and Lettie feel a sense of entitlement.  They feel that they are not living at the level where they should be at that point in their lives.  While they don't realize it, they are on parallel tracks, where neither is satisfied with her position as compared to her peers.

What I remembered about A is V was Lettie's outrageous and uncontrolled, but somehow understandable, spending.  I remembered Margaret as the more reasonable of the two, who was guilty of encouraging Lettie's spending, but not really responsible in the end.  Truth be told, if more people had read A is V prior to 2008, the Great Recession would have been prevented.  Ben Bernake's warnings are nothing compared to Lettie's example.  But in this reading, I really understood Margaret better, and saw her faults which far exceeded her schadenfreude. 

All is Vanity is a really well written book, with interesting characters who will seem recognizable.  While it is a completely different story, The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walters is likewise a great book tackling the topic of a character's self created financial ruin.  What is impressive is that Schwarz was savvy enough to see the future of American consumerism and write this indictment five years before the cracks in our economy were discussed on daily talk shows.  Walters looked back in 2010, and wrote his story with 20/20 hindsight, but in 2003, Schwarz was dead on in telling the story of what would soon be.

Next Up:  A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Still Listening to:  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
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