Monday, June 24, 2013

1933-1934: Anthony Adverse by Hervey Allen

          William Hervey Allen, Jr. (1889-1949) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he later attended the U.S. Naval Academy, but was given an honorable discharge after having “overstrained himself in athletics” (Kunitz 18).  He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1915, then joined the Pennsylvania National Guard.  He served as a lieutenant in the infantry in World War One and was severely wounded. 

            After returning to the U.S., Allen settled down in South Carolina and began his career as a teacher and a writer, teaching English at Charleston High School and founding the Poetry Society of South Carolina.  He later lectured at Columbia and then Vassar where he met Ann Hyde Andrews, whom he married in 1927. 

So what's this book about?
            Anthony Adverse was published in 1933, and was to be Hervey Allen’s best-known and most successful work.  Nearly penniless by the time he finished the novel, the royalties alone allowed him to buy a manor in Maryland.

            Anthony Adverse tells the life-story of the eponymous Anthony.  And when I say life story, I mean it covers his entire life in near-exhaustive detail, from the circumstances surrounding his conception in 1770’s Europe, to his death in Mexico at what I would guess to be the 1820’s or later. 

            This is an adventure novel, following the orphan Anthony, the son of a noble Scottish woman and her lover, abandoned at a convent by his mother’s husband, the evil Marquis Don Luis.  Coincidence finds him the ward of his maternal grandfather, a wealthy merchant in Livorno, Italy.  From there, his adventures include everything from African expeditions to owning a Southern plantation, to doing battle with Native Americans. 

            Two things about this book immediately jumped to my attention.  The first was the style.  It’s written in a style that seems to fit in more with the Romantics.  For example:

            There could be no holding back now.  Had he not followed her all the way from Paris?
            After the crushing of all hope by her marriage, after a year of foreboding and life in death,
            to find this full cup of life held out to her, waiting as it were just around the next turn in the
            road, intoxicated her, thrilled her through every fibre and flamed up with a sudden blaze
            and hope of fulfilment in the very core of her being. (Allen 47)

            The second thing that struck me was the length.  I’m reading a first edition copy which totals 1224 pages.  Part of the length is due to the at times excessive attention to detail, in regards to dress and architecture and landscape.  Then again, if I were to have read this for a different purpose, I would have been able to take much more time with it. 

Why was it so popular?
            While I feel the detail may be excessive, it certainly paints a good picture of the fashions and styles of the time.  Not only did this offer escapism (an orphan with a wealthy benefactor who goes on great adventures) but it has the added attraction of history.  Historical novels have been popular in American literary history (e.g. 1926’s The Private Life of Helen of Troy, 1928’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1930’s Cimarron, 1931-2’s The Good Earth, etc.).  Somewhat of a rags-to-riches, wish-fulfillment story, this historical adventure novel was the perfect type of escapism during the economic turmoil of the Great Depression. 

            Anthony Adverse had another thing going for it.  “Issued with great publicity just in time to catch the summer reader, Anthony Adverse provided him (or, more usually, her) with three books for the price of one…” (Hart 261).

Why haven't I heard of it?
            It seems to me that unless a book is a classic or contemporary, most people aren’t interested in spending the time necessary to read twelve-hundred pages.  Anthony Adverse was also, to some degree, a harbinger of its own doom.  While historical fiction had always been popular, Anthony Adverse ushered in a new fervor for the genre, resulting, most notably, in the popularity of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind

            Perhaps the current obscurity of Anthony Adverse and the continuing popularity of Gone with the Wind are due to their respective movies.  A film version of Anthony Adverse was released in 1936 starring Freddie March and Olivia De Havilland.

Although the film won four Academy Awards and was nominated for three more (including best picture) it’s worth taking a look at its page on Rotten Tomatoes: A 13% fresh rating with only 48% of audience approval (as opposed to Gone with the Wind, with 96% fresh rating and 91% audience approval). 

Should I read it?
            If you’re looking for a long book with a lot of adventure and don’t mind the anachronistic prose, you’d like Anthony Adverse, but you’d probably be better off with Dumas.

Also published in 1933 & 1934:

Samuel Beckett - More Pricks Than Kicks
James M. Cain - The Postman Always Rings Twice 
F. Scott Fitzgerald - Tender Is the Night 
Robert Graves - I, Claudius 
Henry Miller - Tropic of Cancer   


Allen, Hervey. Anthony Adverse. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. 1933. Print
Hart, James. The Popular Book: A History of America's Literary Taste. New York: Oxford
               University Press. 1950. Print.
Kunitz, Stanley. Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern 
                Literature. New York: H. W. Wilson Company. 1942. Print.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Robert Coover's "A Political Fable" or, the Strangest Little Book You'll Ever Read

      Novellas don't really seem to get their fair share of attention, often cast out of the limelight by novels and short stories.  In fact, Coover's A Political Fable was originally published in 1968 as a short story with the much more descriptive title The Cat in the Hat for President.  An odd premise, sure, but what you can't understand until you read this is how terrifying that would be in actuality.  The Cat in the Hat is unlimited by the laws of physics or reason.  His antics drive people to insanity.  He can and does anything, seemingly without rhyme or reason (well, not without rhyme), but there always seems to be some deeper, unfathomable purpose to his actions, whether they're flooding a convention hall and having everyone swallowed alive by giant fish or turning hundreds of coon-skin caps into live raccoons.  
      The story itself is, as the title suggests, a fable, with a message to be learned about politics and order and society, etc.  Still, the story is very, extremely, and totally weird.  The blend of the mundane (party politics, voter demographics, etc.) and the bizarre (a magic anthropomorphic cat) creates a very unsettling effect which is only magnified by the way the mundane seems to not only accept, but welcome the bizarre.  And that's part of what makes this the strangest little book you'll ever read: the way the ordinary blends with the unbelievable, the way the innocuous blends with the obscene, the way reason meets nonsense until the difference becomes muddled.  It's a short, quick read, but one hell of a trip. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thoughts on the Slaughterhouse-Five Film Adaptation

            Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is one of my favorite books.  A testament to the futility of man’s will in the midst of war, of the lack of volition and agency that envelops mankind when put in an incomprehensible situation, all told in a voice that yoyos between heartbreakingly sincere and sarcastically hilarious.  Published in 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five is a modern classic, ranked 18th on Modern Library’s list of the 100 best twentieth century novels.  In 1972, the world received a film adaptation directed by George Roy Hill (The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and starring the then unknown (and now obscure) Michael Sacks as Billy Pilgrim.

            The first thing that popped into my mind upon hearing of the adaptation is, “How do you film this book?”  The second question is, “Should it even be attempted?”  There have, of course, been films that are as good as, or better than, their literary source material (e.g. The Wizard of Oz, Jaws, The Godfather, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, etc.), but very rarely are the books these are based on masterpieces (notable exceptions being Apocalypse Now, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and A Clockwork Orange, based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Burgess). 

            I don’t subscribe to the belief that a film version can retroactively ruin a book, nor do I believe that a film version will result in less people reading a book (quite the opposite, in fact).  My point of view is: Make the best film you can.

            The fact is, Slaughterhouse-five was a good movie.  I wouldn’t say it’s a masterpiece, but then again, most films aren’t.  The basic story and premise is the same as in the book, though the famous first chapter is, understandably, dropped.  The Tralfamadorians don’t appear onscreen, because they are only visible in the fourth dimension (an explanation coherent with the book’s take on the Tralfamdorians).  There were many such little changes that really didn’t affect the quality one way or another (e.g., instead of being lost with two scouts and Roland Weary, he’s lost with Weary and Paul Lazzaro).  There were two places where the movie improved on the book.

The Tralfamadorian Zoo

          One thing the film improved on was Billy’s relationship with poor old Edgar Derby.  I’d say their friendship is better realized in the film than the book.  The second is Billy’s obsession with Montana Wildhack.  In the book, we learn that Billy found a blue film with her in it, but that’s seemingly the limit of his non-Tralfamadorian relationship to her.  In the film version, it’s a little closer to obsession and just tinged with creepiness.    

            I rarely ever find major fault with a small change in a movie adaptation.  The only cases where I do is when it completely recontextualizes or leads to a limited reinterpretation of much of the story and/or its characters.  In the case of Slaughterhouse-five, this change comes when the plane carrying Billy, his father-in-law, and a bunch of other optometrists is about to take off.  In the film version, Billy tries to stop the plane from leaving by warning everyone that it’s going to crash.  They don’t listen to him, and it does. 

            While the events in the rest of the story may not be altered, the interpretation of them must be.  Because Billy Pilgrim tried to use his knowledge of the future, we know something that is true in the film but (in my opinion) not true in the book: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

            Perhaps I should elaborate.  I think the best supported interpretation of the novel is that Billy Pilgrim has not actually come unstuck in time.  From the first page of chapter two (i.e. the first page of the story, chapter one being used to introduce the rest of the novel):  

            Billy Pilgrim has gone to sleep a widower and awakened on his wedding day.  He has
            walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941.  He has gone back
            through that door to find himself in 1963.  He has seen his birth and death many times, he
            says, and pays random visits to all the events in between.  
            He says.

If an author devotes an entire paragraph on the first page of the story to just two words, you better believe those two words are important.  The fact is, the narrator after chapter one is not the same narrator.  This is an alternate Vonnegut (Alternegutt?) who served with the fictional Billy Pilgrim and is simply telling us what Pilgrim has been claiming.  This is not third person omniscient, nor even first person omniscient.  This is first person limited. 

            It’s worth noting that Billy didn’t start talking about the Tralfamadorians until after the plane crash that resulted in his coma.

            Every time something science-fictiony happens, the narrator describes it in terms of how similar it is to a Kilgore Trout novel.  While Billy was recuperating from a nervous breakdown, he became a fan of Kilgore Trout.  So, what you have is a man who has been through hell, had seen his only friend in the war executed, and later had a nervous breakdown, during the recovery from the lattermost of these misfortunes, becomes a fan of a science-fiction writer and starts to go through events similar to the man’s novels.
            My point is that there’s ample evidence to support a PTSD interpretation, as opposed to a time traveling.  In the film version, we have to accept the time traveling, because Billy proved that he did have future knowledge and was therefore not just having a flashback. 

            But overall, I enjoyed the movie.  It had its flaws, but so does everything else. It seemed that the filmmaker had a lot of respect for the source material, without letting himself be shackled by it, which is great.  If you like the book, I’d recommend the film.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

1931-2: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

Pearl Buck (1892-1973), while born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, spent most of the first 40 years of her life living in China as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries.  Affected by the Boxer Uprising and the race issues that were prevalent between Westerners and Chinese, Boxer still remained close to Chinese culture.  As an adult, she briefly returned to the United States and went back to China as a missionary herself and in married fellow missionary John Lossing Buck in 1917, both of whom became professors at Chinese colleges.  They had a daughter in 1920.  The Bucks ended up fleeing China for a year following the Nanking Incident, in which many Westerners were murdered. 

            In 1929, she published here first novel East Wind: West Wind and met editor Richard Walsh.  In 1934, she resigned as a missionary after scandal resulting from a speech she gave arguing against the necessity of an institutional church in China.  She left China in 1934, leaving John Buck behind.  She divorced and married Richard Walsh in 1935.  In 1938 Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the third American (and first American woman) to do so. 

            Buck died of lung cancer in 1973.

So what's this book about?
            The Good Earth follows the life of Wang Lung, a poor farmer in Northern China.  Starting with his wedding day as a young man, the novel spans the rest of his life, painting a portrait of rural Chinese culture at that time.  Wang Lung’s wife, O-lan, was a slave girl from the House of Hwang, one of the ‘great houses.’  Said House is in worsening financial conditions as the story progresses, slowly selling bits of land to Wang Lung. 

            The main story arc is Wang Lung’s rise to wealth and power, and how this affects him, his family, and Lung’s relationship with his family, neighbors, and the Earth.  One thing that comes through very powerfully is the love-hate relationship Wang Lung and the other families have with the Earth.  In a good year, the Earth will provide enough food to eat and sell; in a bad year, there will be famine and desperation. Overall, Lung’s connection with the Earth is, to him, the most important relationship he has. 

            His relationships with his wife and children are, from the perspective of a twenty-first century American, pretty terrible.  While we see that Lung is acting according to custom, and even then is not as bad as others, the culture’s misogyny is pretty unsettling.  Young girls are routinely bought and sold.  In some cases, the words “slave” and “girl” are used interchangeably. 

            The novel doesn’t glorify these cultural norms, nor does it outright attack them.  Rather, it serves more of a documentarian function.  It records both the good and the bad, the honest and corrupt, the noble and ignoble aspects of the culture as they appeared to Buck.  And in that regard, it is a success.  It also succeeds in creating an emotionally compelling story.  Even with the very negative cultural values Wang Lung embodies, he still manages to be a sympathetic character. 

Why was it so popular?
            One of the major through-lines in The Good Earth is a conflict between the rich and poor.  While millions of farmers and laborers are starving, the extremely rich are profiting or, in the case of the House of Hwang, deteriorating due to their own opulence, and, in the end, “when the rich are too rich there are ways, and when the poor are too poor there are ways…”

            The bestselling novel of 1931 and 1932, The Good Earth was released during the Great Depression, when millions were out of work due a combination of the collapse of the world economy due to (at least in part) the actions of bankers and government officers and investors, etc., leading to many banks going bankrupt, and millions to lose all their savings.  Additionally, a years-long drought began in Oklahoma in 1930, destroying the agriculture business in the region.  A story about a poor farmer who gains power and prestige by buying (or taking) it from the wealthy would be a popular story.  Perhaps it’s worth noticing that, of the eighteen other books reviewed so far, only Edna Ferber’s So Big is a rags to riches story, and one that also is based on farmers. 

I think I've heard of this one...
           The popularity of The Good Earth has surged and waned over the last eighty years, in 2004 reaching the bestsellers list again after an endorsement from Oprah.  Like most of the bestsellers I’ve covered, The Good Earth received a film adaptation. 

            Released in 1937, The Good Earth, starring Paul Muni as Wang Lung, won the Oscar for best actress (Luise Rainer as O-lan) and best Cinematography at the tenth Academy Awards ceremony.  It was nominated for best picture, but lost to The Life of Emile Zola, starring Paul Muni.

Should I read it?
            Yes.  Quite simply put, it is a good book.  It has an emotionally compelling story, a historical function, and themes that are still relevant today.

Also published in 1931 & 1932:  

Sanctuary - William Faulkner
Light in August - William Faulkner
1919 (second book of U.S.A. trilogy) - John Dos Passos
Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
Mourning Becomes Electra - Eugene O'Neill

Friday, June 14, 2013

50th Anniversary of La Planète des Singes

            Several modern classics were published fifty years ago.  1963 saw the publication of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Thomas Pynchon’s V.  It also saw the publication of a science fiction novel by the French author Pierre Boulle La Planète des Singes, released in England as Monkey Planet.  In the United States, the very underwhelming book cover deems calls the book Planet of the Apes.

            After looking at that book cover, some of you may be wondering why a science fiction author penned a war novel.  What you should be asking is why a former secret agent wrote a sci-fi novel.  During World War II, Boulle assumed a false identity and helped support resistance forces in Asia but was eventually captured by enemy forces.  Le Pont de la Rivière Kwaï is only semi-fictional. 

            Not only did Boulle write two bestselling novels that were adapted into critically acclaimed films (both Planet and Bridge have been added to the National Film Registry), but Boulle won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai.  This is a particularly remarkable achievement when you take into account that Boulle did not know English.  The actual screenwriters, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, had been blacklisted in the Second Red Scare.  The Academy attributed the award to them in 1984.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Four Quick and Easy Ways to Write a Genius (and Why You Shouldn't Use Them)

            Based on various books and movies and TV shows, I have identified a few ways to introduce a character and make it immediately apparent that s/he is a genius (even if s/he is not). 

#1 Trust me, I know what I'm talking about.

            It’s a sunny day in the park.  Kids are playing soccer, young couples are walking their dog, some old ladies sit at a bench and gossip.  Suddenly, a man collapses, clutching his head and screaming.  People turn and stare, someone shouts “Call 911!”  From the gathering crowd, our protagonist emerges, leans down over the thrashing victim.  A moment later, the protagonist stands and declares that, “There’s a foreign body lodged in his vitreous body.”   

            This guy clearly knows what he’s talking about.  I mean, would you be able to determine that just by looking?  Do you even know what a vitreous body is?   This guy must be a brilliant doctor!  But let’s try it again, except with layman’s terms:   

            “Suddenly, a man collapses, clutching his head and screaming.  People turn and stare, someone shouts “Call 911!”  From the gathering crowd, our protagonist emerges, leans down over the thrashing victim.  A moment later, the protagonist stands and declares that, “There’s something stuck in this guy’s eye.”

            Both versions of that statement say pretty much the same thing.  In fact, the latter would probably be more useful simply because the people the protagonist is addressing aren’t medical professionals. 

            This is a good way to display professionalism or an area of expertise, but unless it is backed up by actual evidence of genius (not just competence in a specific field), it’s not enough.  

#2  The Smartest Guy in the Room

            A team of FBI agents are sitting in a conference room.  It’s midnight, they’re all tired and frustrated.  There’s a serial killer on the loose, his calling card based on his ocular fixation.  The agents raided a suspect’s apartment, but it was empty except for a few posters and some old books, all bagged, tagged, and on the table.  Suddenly, a young upstart agent fresh out of Quantico bursts into the conference room.  Ignoring the protests and questioning of the senior agents, our protagonist lifts a copy of a book: The Complete Poems of T. S. Eliot.  He reads excerpts of the eye symbolism in “The Hollow Men,” he reads the stanza about eyes in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  He picks up a copy of The Great Gatsby and begins a short lecture on the eye symbolism.  This guy’s a freakin’ genius!  

            To best demonstrate why this is wrong, I’ll use a brief anecdote about how I accidentally convinced an entire class that I was some kind of mathematical genius.  In my Writing about Literature class, we read a play called Proof by David Auburn.  In the first scene, as a proof of the protagonist’s genius, she immediately recognizes the number 1,729 as being the smallest number “expressible as the sum of two cubes two different ways.”  I pointed out in class that this was The Hardy-Ramanujan number and explained the story behind it.  After that, I was asked for my opinion on the veracity of every mathematical assertion in the play.  I’m not a mathematical genius.  I just happened to watch an episode of Q. I. that discussed that number a couple nights prior to the class.   The reason it seemed to be an indicator of genius is that I was amongst English Majors, just like the young upstart FBI agent is among investigators.

            You wouldn’t expect a FBI investigator to know the prevalent themes in T. S. Eliot poems any more than you would expect an English Major to know about the Hardy-Ramanujan number.  The protagonist here isn’t necessarily smarter than the other people in the room, rather, the protagonist knows things that are generally trivial at best for the group being addressed. 

#3 The Smartest Person in the Room (Version B)

            Same situation as above.  The young upstart FBI agent comes in and tells the other agents what they missed.  After hours of racking their brains for clues, the genius protagonist figures out what they all missed within seconds. 

            Even taking into account what was discussed in the previous section, the agents in this example would probably have at least skimmed the books, or found the Cliff Notes on them, or called an English professor, or something.  All too often, the smartest man in the room ends up being the least incompetent man in the room.  Just look at any crime procedural where the protagonist has some special ability (e.g. Psych, Monk, The Mentalist, The Dead Zone, Sherlock, etc.).  Ninety-nine percent of the time, they only solve the crimes because they either don't operate by police procedure (breaking and entering, warrant-less searches, etc) or because the detectives missed something that should have been obvious to them, not because of any particular genius on behalf of the hero.

#4 The Smartest Man in the Room (Version C)

            The protagonist is face to face with the serial killer in an empty warehouse.  A fistfight, a struggle over a gun, a gunshot, and the serial killer crumples to the ground.  A moment later, the FBI agents rush in.  They had received a note from the killer earlier in the day that hinted towards a carrot farm as his safe house.  The protagonist tells the FBI agents that carrots do not actually improve eyesight.  In World War Two, the British fighter pilots had found a way to put radar devices in their planes, and were therefore able to shoot down the German planes at night.  Not wanting to give up their secret, they claimed that eating carrots improved their night vision.  The protagonist knew that someone so obsessed with eyes would know this, and that the carrot farm must have been a distraction.

        This has a lot of similarity to the first “Smartest Man in the Room” entry, but is so prevalent I think it deserves its own spot.  Busting an urban legend or breaking out a neat piece of history is an incredibly common way to show a character’s intelligence by demonstrating that they don’t think like everybody else.  Putting aside the reasons in the earlier “Smartest Man in the Room” entries (which are perfectly valid), you should avoid this one because when people do this they are, very frequently, wrong.  The two big ones that I see a lot are the “truth” behind Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech and the NASA multimillion dollar pen vs. Russian pencil stories.  The former story says that when John F. Kennedy said “Ich bin ein Berliner,” he was really saying “I am a jelly donut.”  While there was a jelly donut called a Berliner, this would be like hearing someone say “I am a New Yorker” and assuming that they’re calling themselves a magazine.  This is repeated not only in countless TV shows, but even in Pulitzer Prize nominated books like Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.  The (condensed) NASA pen story goes as such: NASA spent millions developing a pen that would write in zero gravity.  The Russians just used a pencil.  NASA didn’t actually spend money on developing the pen.  Additionally, pencils are terrible in a zero gravity situation, because the tips break off and you get graphite and wood dust whenever you write with them.  I guess my point is, this particular method of displaying genius is usually done so poorly that it has the opposite effect of what’s intended.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

1930: Cimarron by Edna Ferber

            Edna Ferber (1885-1968) appears twice on my bestsellers reading list, the first time for 1924’s Pulitzer Prize winning So Big.  Ferber was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and had a brief stint in journalism before moving on to fiction-writing, penning classics like Giant and Show Boat

            Ferber never married nor had children and her personal life and professional life were largely overlapped.  Along with critics, writers, and entertainers like Harpo Marx and Dorothy Parker, Ferber was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal group that met daily at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. 

So what's this book about?
            Cimarron takes place over a span of nearly three decades, from the opening of the Oklahoma Territory to homesteaders to the late 1910’s.  Its focus is on the Cravat family, especially the matriarch, Sabra Cravat.  Her husband, Yancey, convinced Sabra to leave “civilization” for the new frontier.  Yancey is a larger than life figure, a quick-draw sharpshooter with a mysterious past and wild ambitions.  He sets up a newspaper in the town of Osage, which Sabra ends up running, as well as raising her family and becoming a powerful figure in the town. 

            There are two main stories in Cimarron: Sabra and Osage.  Sabra goes into Oklahoma as a naïve girl, but grows self-sufficient.  While the characters in Cimarron are layered and fascinating, there is a lack of character development.  Sabra does become confident and, I’d argue, bitter.  However, for the most part, her opinions and beliefs don’t change as a result of any personal growth, but rather adapt to the circumstances around her. Seeing the novel as a story about the growth and development of Osage is at least as interesting as a story about the characters, as it goes from a lawless tent city to a new metropolis.

Why was it so popular?
            Cimarron, like So Big, is a story of the growth of the American Midwest.  On one hand, it’s a story about the history of Oklahoma specifically, and America in general, on the other it’s an escapist Western with Indians and gun fights and bank robberies.  Although published in 1929, Cimarron became the bestseller of 1930.  The Great Depression began in the U.S. in late 1929, leaving a large percentage of the population out of work, and financially ruining many more.  In 1930, a severe drought began in Oklahoma, harming farming industry in the area (and paving the way for the Dust Bowl).  At a time when people were at their lowest, a novel that could provide escape while reminding them of the harsh trials overcome in their nation’s past would be popular.   

Why haven't I heard of it?
            Much of the action in Cimarron (bank robberies, shoot outs, etc.) are don’t occur on the page, but are told by one character to another.  The classic western hero is deeply flawed, as are all the characters (by which I mean they have human flaws, not that the characters are constructed poorly).  The parts of the novel concerning Native Americans are interesting: it’s not the politically incorrect murderous savage Natives of Zane Grey, but it’s not the dignified wise men of more modern popular culture.  None of the above are negative things, but they make Cimarron less of a fun and easy read than the likes of Zane Grey’s novels.  I don’t have a lot of experience with Westerns, so I can’t say with any certainty whether Cimarron maintains any sort of popularity within that community. 

            Film buffs may recognize the name.  The 1931 film version starring Irene Dunne and Richard Dix won Best Picture at the Fourth Academy Awards.  The 1960 version was nominated for two Oscars and starred Glenn Ford as Yancey Cravat.  (Glenn Ford, incidentally, played the lead in the 1962 version of 1919’s bestselling TheFour Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Should I read it?
            If you’re a fan of Westerns, definitely.  If not, I’d say there’s a fifty/fifty chance of you liking it.

Also published in 1930:
The 42nd Parallel (first book of U.S.A. Trilogy) - John Dos Passos
As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner
The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
Not Without Laughter - Langston Hughes

Ferber, Edna. Cimarron. 1929. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest. 1971. Print.
Gilbert, Julie Goldsmith. Ferber, a biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. 1978. Print.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: A Spoiler-Free Review

           The only Haruki Murakami book I read prior to 1Q84 is Kafka on the Shore.  Like Kafka, 1Q84 alternates between narratives, and casts the protagonists as instruments of forces that they do not understand.  The biggest difference between the two is about 700 pages. 

            Perhaps that’s unfair.  The story in 1Q84 is distinct and its elements of mythology and metaphysical ponderings were entertaining and engaging.  But the length was, in my opinion, a detriment to its overall strength.  However, looking back, I can see that while the pacing of the novel as a whole was a slow trudge through the moors, the pacing of any individual chapter was a gentle walk down the road.  If I could give one piece of advice on how to read this novel, it would be to read one or two chapters at a time, and then put the book down, go outside, run some errands, take a nap, and then read another one or two chapters.  Unless you are completely in love with 1Q84, it won’t be an easy read if you try to go through it in long sittings (as I did).  

            One thing I’ve seen quite frequently in reviews and discussion about 1Q84 is how it changed people’s perspectives on (or at least got them thinking about) the nature of reality, the universe, etc. etc.  While I certainly saw all those themes and ideas, I don’t think there’s any there that I haven’t come in contact with before.  If this type of subject isn’t your usual fare, I think it will have a much more profound impact. 

            One question I hate answering is “Would you recommend it?”  I don’t like making blanket recommendations.  If you like long books (I’m talking nearly 1200 pages), if you like or are interested in reading books which question the nature of reality, of morality, of metaphysical existence, if you are okay with a slow pace, then I would recommend 1Q84.  If you don’t fit one or more of those categories, then I probably wouldn’t.

Monday, June 3, 2013

1929: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

            Erich Paul Remark (1898 – 1970) is better known by the pseudonym Erich Maria Remarque (Maria being his mother’s maiden name).  The son of a poor bookbinder, Erich was born in Osnabrück, Germany.  He was attending school to become a teacher when, in 1916, he was called to fight in World War One.  At the Battle of Flanders, in July 1917, Remarque was wounded by British grenades and taken to a field hospital in Duisberg.  After returning from the war, Remarque worked as a school teacher then an ad-writer.  In 1920, he published his first novel, Die Trambaude (The Dream Room) under his own name.  He later stated in an interview that “I published an early work, a novel, whose title I will not name, even under torture.  For this reason Remark became Remarque.”  From 1927-8, Remarque’s second novel, Station am Horizont (Station at the Horizon) was serialized under his real name. Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) was published serially from November to December 1928, and published in book form in January 1929.  It was an overnight success.  It was also one of the books included in the first Nazi book burnings.  Remarque fled to Switzerland in 1933, at an indefinite point remarrying his ex-wife so she wouldn’t be forcibly repatriated.  He later moved to the United States, becoming an American citizen in 1947.  In 1957, Remarque divorced his wife, and married again a year later.  Remarque passed away in Switzerland in 1970.

So what's this book about?
“We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces” (87-8).

            All Quiet on the Western Front tells Paul Bäumer’s experience of World War One.  From the front lines to his hometown, from the hospital back to the front, All Quiet is the story of one man trying to make sense of a world gone to pieces, where the difference between life and death is luck.  It is the story of how war destroys youth. 

            The passages describing the war are awe-inspiring.  Frequently horrific, they somehow retain a strange semblance of beauty and romanticism.  “There is no escape anywhere.  By the light of the shells I try to get a view of the fields.  They are a surging sea, daggers of flame from the explosions leap up like fountains” (66).  While the cover of my copy declares that this is “the greatest war novel of all time,” it is also one of the great anti-war novels.  The war is beautiful in the same way a hurricane or erupting volcano is beautiful.

Why was it so popular?
            There were two other World War One novels on this list, H.G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees It Through and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  Both were published in 1916 and therefeore don’t cover the end of the war, and only the latter has extensive battle sequences.  Wells’s novel takes a hoepful view of the war, suggesting that people may (or at least could) create a better society out of the wreckage.  Ibáñez doesn’t suggest that war can ever be defeated, but views World War One as a necessary fight against German militarism.  Remarque better reflects the postwar perspective: the war was a tragic waste of human life.

This one sounds a familiar...
            Besides A Farewell to Arms, All Quiet on the Western Front is the only major World War One novel still read and talked about.  It has also aged spectacularly well, and in many ways is as relevant today as it was when it was written:

            “Almost all of us are simple folk.  And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers,
             workmen, or poor clerks.  Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French
             shoemaker want to attack us?  No, it is merely the rulers.  I had never seen a Frenchman
             before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as
             regards us.  They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”
            “Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.
             Kat shrugs his shoulders.  “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”
            “Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.
            “Not you, nor anybody else here.”
            “Who are they then?” persists Tjade. “It isn’t any use to the Kaiser either.  He has
             everything he can want already.”
            “I’m not so sure about that,” contradicts Kat, “he has not had a war up till now” (205-6).

            In 1930, a film version was released, winning the Academy Award for best picture and best directing.

Should I read it?

            Yes.  It’s a classic for a reason, and that reason is quality.

Also published in 1929:

William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury
Mahtma Gandhi - The Story of My Experiments with Truth
Ernest Hemingway - A Farewell to Arms
Virginia Woolf - A Room of One's Own


Barker, Christine and Last, R. W. Erich Maria Remarque. London: Oswald Wolff, 1979. Print
Remarque, Erich. All Quiet on the Western Front. 1929. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Print. 
          Trans. Wheen, A. W.