55. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

August 19th, 2010 — 10:04pm

This is my first week back to work after my two and a half month long summer vacation. I spent a majority of those months in the car, visiting friends and having local adventures, which is probably why I gravitated to this book for my next voyage into the book list.

On the Road is a pivotal book from the Beat Generation. There is an apocryphal story of Jack Kerouac’s coffee-and-amphetamine fueled conception of the book, in which he taped together several typewriter scrolls in order to write without the pesky interruption of having to stop to reload. The original scroll manuscript has gone on a tour of college libraries throughout the United States and Europe and was published as On the Road: The Original Scroll in 2007. The stream of consciousness style as employed by Kerouac was used to showcase his semi-autobiographical novel about the adventures that he and his friend, Neal Cassady, had on the road from 1947-1950.

The names of Kerouac’s characters have been analyzed by literary scholars since the book’s publication in 1957. Kerouac based the novel on actual events and subsequently had to change the names of his friends who appeared as characters.

Neal Cassady (left) and Jack Kerouac (right).

The novel begins with Sal Paradise (Kerouac) introducing the concept of Dean Moriarty (Cassady). Sal was obsessed with the idea of the human condition, which included his friends, the jazz scene, the United States outside of New York, and most importantly, women.

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Dean arrives in New York and changes everything for Sal. When Dean first arrived, he met Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), and they bond together and feed Sal’s fascination with eclectic and unique personalities.

In July of 1947, Sal decides that it is time for him to venture to the West Coast, and he hits the road with fifty dollars in his pocket. He travels to Chicago, San Fransisco, and Los Angeles, meeting women and different eccentric personalities along the way. Dean spends some time in prison for stealing cars, which cements his transition into an epic hero in Sal’s eyes.

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”

As their sojourn around the country continues, Sal becomes more and more disillusioned with what he finds on the road. The people that he encounters are from the more poverty-stricken end of the spectrum, including elderly African-American men and Mexican prostitutes. The sense of Sal and Dean’s heroism begins to falter as their lives and experiences turns into a series of failures.

Sal’s final attempt at finding a solution from the road leads him to Mexico City with Dean; they embark on a marijuana-fueled adventure through bordellos with mambo music and prostitutes. But while in Mexico, Sal develops dysentery and becomes feverish and hallucinates. Dean leaves Sal while he’s ill, which gives Sal the realization that Dean is more pathetic than he let on, and that the attributes that Sal originally admired in him were actually symptoms of his insecurity and existential crises:

When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.

Sal returns home and ends the novel sitting on a pier facing west, reflecting on his friendship and adventures.

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

I love this book. I first read it when I was fresh out of high school and had a lot of grand notions of what my life was going to be and I was convinced that my best friend and I would be Kerouac and Cassady but with less drugs. The stream-of-consciousness style helps to convey the frenetic energy and the passion with which the characters, both fictional and their live counterparts, lived their lives. Reading On the Road or poetry from Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti makes me feel cooler than I actually am, which is what the Beat Generation authors were all about — experiencing their lives through means that allows them to become more than they are. The movement got its name from the religious theory of beatification as well as the slang term of being beaten down. The Beat Generation was beaten down, but they were looking up.

Comment » | modern

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

June 22nd, 2010 — 7:53pm

As one of my students told me, “This book goes hard.” Whatever that means.

The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925 and has been read in basically every high school and university English class ever. I personally have read it for five different classes. However, it wasn’t until a reprinting of the book in the 1940s and 1950s that it gained the monsterous popularity that it has today. It’s taught as a parable of the “American dream” and what happens when it’s acheived.

Nick Carraway is the passive narrator to the story of Jay Gatsby, Nick’s neighbor, and Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom. Nick has moved to New York from the Midwest to “learn the bond business” (spoiler alert: stay home from work in October 1929) and moves to West Egg, a community on Long Island Sound. Daisy, who is Nick’s second cousin, invites Nick to dinner with her and Tom and their friend, Jordan Baker. Tom and Daisy live a pampered lifestyle. Daisy is said to have been partially inspired by Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda; the statement Daisy makes about hoping that her daughter is a “beautiful fool” because that is all a girl can hope to be is an anecdote that is attributed to Zelda on the birth of her daughter. During the dinner, Jordan reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress in New York City. Tom has been making frequent trips to New York where he meets up with Myrtle Wilson, who’s husband, George, is an oblivious garage mechanic.

Gatsby is a mystery to Nick for the first few chapters, until he receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s notorious parties. While at the party, Nick hears all sorts of rumors about Gatsby (that he is the nephew to Kaiser Wilhelm, that he’s killed a man just to watch him die, etc) and is underwhelmed when he finds out that a stranger he has been talking to is actually Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby form a friendship of sorts, and Gatsby tells Nick about his life as a war hero who is from a wealthy family, all the while calling Nick “old sport” more times than he uses his name.

Jordan informs Nick of Gatsby’s real story — in 1917, Gatsby was an Army lieutenant stationed in Louisville where he met and fell in love with Daisy. When Gatsby left Louisville to make enough money to support and marry Daisy, Daisy married Tom in Gatsby’s absence. Gatsby then made his fortune and bought a mansion close to Tom and Daisy, hoping that Daisy would somehow make it to one of his lavish parties.


This is where the characters begin to infuriate me. Daisy is shallow. If she wasn’t willing to wait for Gatsby, why on earth would he think that stalking her and hanging around her neighborhood like a creeper would help win her over? And if it DOES win her over, now that he has his huge house and fancy clothes, why would any self respecting guy want to be with her knowing that the only reason she is with him is because of his money? To quote the immortal Kanye West, now I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke, broke. Get down girl, go ‘head, get down.


Gatsby wants Nick to arrange a meeting between him and Daisy, so Nick invites Daisy over for lunch. At first, the meeting is awkward, but once Gatsby takes Daisy and Nick to his house and Daisy has a Scrooge McDuck moment with some of his shirts:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”

Now that Daisy is aware of Gatsby’s wealth and prestige, they become involved in an affair. Everything goes along fine until Daisy has the wonderful idea to invite Nick and Gatsby out with Tom. Tom becomes aware that Gatsby loves Daisy. Tom insists that he and Gatsby switch cars before they drive up to New York for the day, and when he stops for gas, he flaunts Gatsby’s car to George Wilson.

When they get to New York, Tom suddenly becomes a loving attentive husband to Daisy and confronts Gatsby about the affair. Gatsby acknowledges it and informs Tom that Daisy never loved him, as she had always been in love with Gatsby. The scene turns into a bit of a soap opera.

Gatsby walked over and stood beside her.

“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter any more. Just tell him the truth — that you never loved him — and it’s all wiped out forever.”

She looked at him blindly. “Why — how could I love him — possibly?”

“You never loved him.”

She hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing — and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all. But it was done now. It was too late.

“I never loved him,” she said, with perceptible reluctance.

“Not at Kapiolani?” demanded Tom suddenly.


From the ballroom beneath, muffled and suffocating chords were drifting up on hot waves of air.

“Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?” There was a husky tenderness in his tone. . . . “Daisy?”

“Please don’t.” Her voice was cold, but the rancor was gone from it. She looked at Gatsby. “There, Jay,” she said — but her hand as she tried to light a cigarette was trembling. Suddenly she threw the cigarette and the burning match on the carpet.

“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once — but I loved you too.”

Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.

“You loved me TOO?” he repeated.

Ohhh dear.

When they leave the hotel, Daisy insists on driving Gatsby’s car, to calm her nerves. Tom, Nick, and Jordan follow a bit later and as they’re driving, they notice a commotion at George Wilson’s garage. It appears that Myrtle has been struck and killed by a car — when she saw Gatsby’s car, she assumed that it was Tom’s, as he’d been driving it earlier that day, and ran out to meet it. Daisy, who was driving, accidentally hit her.

When Gatsby tells Nick this the next day, Nick urges Gatsby to leave. Gatsby is depressed and is waiting for a phone call from Daisy. Nick tells him that “they’re a rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together!”

Later that day, however, George Wilson has found out who owned the car that killed Myrtle, and shoots and kills Gatsby before committing suicide. Only Nick, Gatsby’s father, and one other person attend Gatsby’s funeral.

At the end of the book, Nick has decided to return to the Midwest and reflects on the cyclical nature of past:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The Great Gatsby is often taught in school as a parable of the American dream, that someone can rise from nothing to achieve greatness. But it’s also a bit of a warning and a critique of the decadence of the time; what you want may not necessarily be what you need. Fitzgerald himself is a testament to that: after living a life of excessive through the Jazz Age, the remainder of his life was spent in financial strife until his premature death of a heart attack at age 44. His wife Zelda, was in and out of psychiatric clinics until her death in 1948. Perhaps Fitzgerald should have written a better ending.

2 comments » | Uncategorized

45. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

May 27th, 2010 — 1:12pm

The first novel from Ernest Hemingway was The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926. The title comes from Ecclesiastes 1:5: “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”

Hemingway is an interesting character. He is the epitome of masculinity, fighting in wars, hunting big game, womanizing, the works. He popularized the “Lost Generation” with this novel; Gertrude Stein is famously credited with coining the phrase to describe a group of young literary modernists who were all expatriates living and writing in Paris.

The Sun Also Rises itself is mildly autobiographical. Several occurances in Hemingway’s life inspired the plot and the characters:

In July 1925 Hemingway went to the San Fermin fiesta in Pamplona. That year he and his wife Hadley were joined by a group of ex-patriates that included his friend Harold Loeb and Lady Duff Twysden who was estranged from her husband. A level of tension developed during the fiesta that permeated the group: Hemingway was interested in Lady Duff; he was jealous when he learned she spent a week with Loeb in France; Loeb argued about money with another member of the group; and Hemingway and Loeb almost had a fist fight. Against this background was the influence of the young matador from Ronda, Cayetano Ordóñez, whose brilliance in the bullring affected the spectators.

Thanks, Wikipedia!

The plot of the novel is fueled by alcohol, sex, and violence. The characters fight with each other, get incredibly drunk, and Lady Ashley has sex with pretty much every man she meets. The narrator, Jake Barnes, has been made impotent from a WWI injury, so he seems to just be a reporter, observing his friends and writing down their exploits. It makes sense that hemingway was a war reporter, as the book is fact drivien and doesn’t leave a lot of room for emotion or description.

I originally read this book in college, but one of my juniors was complaining about how much he hated having to read The Great Gatsby, so he’s reading The Sun Also Rises so I don’t have to hear him whine so much. Of course, he loves it. Fitzgerald and Hemingway are like the yin and yang of the Lost Generation era literature. Where Fitzgerald wrote of lavish parties and beautiful dresses, Hemingway wrote of bullfights and bloodied capes. Fitzgerald makes sure you know what everyone is feeling and thinking, while Hemingway will barely let you know the character’s name.

There are a lot of timestamps on this book. Racial and religious slurs, for example. Robert Cohn, the token Jewish character, is told to keep his “Jew nose out of it.” Lady Ashley is also supposed to be a modern “new woman” of the time, but she goes from man to man — she is unable to sustain herself outside of a sexual relationship. If she doesn’t have a man, she calls Jake and muses about “what could have been” if he only didn’t have that darn war wound. That’s the reason why they can’t be together; never mind the fact that, you know, feelings or emotions could be involved. Feelings are for sissies.

However, the lack of description does give birth to this gem of dialogue:

“You weren’t bored, were you?” asked Bill.

Cohn laughed.

“No. I wasn’t bored. I wish you’d forgive me that.”

“It’s all right,” Bill said, “so long as you weren’t bored.”

“He didn’t look bored,” Mike said. “I thought he was going
to be sick.”

“I never felt that bad. It was just for a minute.”

“I thought he was going to be sick. You weren’t bored, were
you, Robert?”

And that is not the only time that occurs. Oh no. It happens quite frequently throughout the novel. If someone says something once, they say it at least three more times for good measure.

“They come from Biarritz,” Mike said. “They come to see the
last day of the quaint little Spanish fiesta.”

“I’ll festa them,” Bill said.

“You’re an extraordinarily beautiful girl.” Mike turned to Bill’s
friend. “When did you come here?”

“Come off it, Michael.”

“I say, she is a lovely girl. Where have I been? Where have I
been looking all this while? You’re a lovely thing. Have we met?
Come along with me and Bill. We’re going to festa the English.”

“I’ll festa them,” Bill said. “What the hell are they doing at
this fiesta?”

“Come on,” Mike said. “Just us three. We’re going to festa the
bloody English. I hope you’re not English? I’m Scotch. I hate the
English. I’m going to festa them. Come on, Bill.”

Oh. My. God.

However, some good has come out of my study of the book. When my American Novel from 1870 to Present professor taught us this book, he informed us that the reason the characters drink so much champagne is that champagne is what gets you drunk the quickest — the bubbles effervesce in your bloodstream. My classmates and I were the classiest college students at parties, with our bottles of champagne. And Ernest Hemingway’s legacy lives on.

3 comments » | classic books

64. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

May 13th, 2010 — 1:53pm

I’m cheating. Again.

It’s getting toward the end of the school year, and quite frankly, I am sick of students at this point. I have spring fever more than they do. And if I hear one more student complain about not wanting to read, I won’t be responsible for my actions.

My junior class has finished reading The Great Gatsby, which is on the curriculum, but because there are three weeks left of school, I’m having them read The Catcher in the Rye, which is not on the curriculum. If they complain about it, they’re going to be sorry. But I figured that since I’m having to read it with them, then I might as well skip ahead and count this as a plus in the read column.

The Catcher in the Rye is the only novel by J.D. Salinger, who wrote mostly short stories, especially those concerning the Glass family. It was published in 1951 and is both lauded and lamented, as it appears equally on lists of the greatest novels of all times and is one of the most frequently challenged and banned books. Teachers have been fired for teaching the book in their classes. Oops.

The narrator is the apathetic Holden Caulfield, who has just been expelled from yet another prep school. The greatest insult Holden bestows on people or things is that they’re phony, and pretty much everyone or everything he encounters is labeled as such. His roommates are phony, the school is phony, his teachers are phony. As he’s expelled from the school, he packs up and leaves for New York City in the middle of the night, but as he doesn’t want to face his family with the news (it’s Christmas vacation), he goes on a lost weekend of sorts as he wanders around New York City.

The title of the book comes from a misinterpretation of a line from a Robert Burns poem, Comin’ Through the Rye — where the poem says “gin a body meet a body/comin’ through the rye,” Holden hears it as “gin a body catch a body/ comin through the rye,” and imagines a scene of children playing in a field of rye with him standing watch, making sure they don’t fall off the cliff. He wants to be the catcher in the rye. The rye field in this case is metaphorical for innocence, especially the innocence of children. There are several accounts throughout the nvoel of Holden trying to protect children; in one case, he rubs the words “fuck you” off of the wall of Phoebe’s school because he worries that someone will explain to the children what it means.

As the novel reaches the end, Holden’s breakdown is becoming more and more apparent. He is overwhelmed by what he perceives as the ugliness and phoniness of the world, including the graffitied profanity on the walls, vulgar Christmas tree delivery men, and visits with his younger sister and his former English teacher that don’t satisfy him and leave him feeling lonely. Holden takes his sister, Phoebe, to the carousel in Central Park and as he watches her, feels deliriously happy:

I felt so damn happy all of a sudden, the way old Phoebe keptgoing around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around adn around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.

The novel ends abruptly — the last page is Holden revealing that he’s been writing this story from a rest home to recover from his breakdown, and that a psychoanalyist keeps asking him if he’s going to return to school in the fall, which he thinks is a stupid question. His facade of apathy and misanthropy is beginning to crack in the final lines, however:

About all I know is, I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everything.

The thing that is the most notable about the novel is the language; not just the liberal use of profanity, but the slang of the time and the stream-of-consciousness form that Holden uses to narrate. Having taught teenagers for two years, this really is how they write, like the pencil and paper are an extension of their thoughts. There is very little planning with my students; they basically sit down, start writing, and turn in whatever comes out, regardless of spelling or grammatical errors or content that should really be saved for Oprah. Reading the book really does seem like you’ve picked up a diary of some emo kid named Holden Caulfield who is annoyed with the world.

J.D. Salinger is known for his writing as well as his publicized recluse status. He gave his last interview in 1980 and refused to let any of his work be adapted into movies after what he considered to be a disasterous movie adaptation of “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” However, movie studios have been dreaming of turning The Catcher in the Rye into a movie pretty much since its publication. Given that Salinger passed away in January 2010, a movie is probably in the works right now.

Comment » | modern

97. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

May 5th, 2010 — 1:45pm

My local library is changing their database system, so the online library catalog and book reserve system has been down for two weeks. Panic seized my heart, until a trip to Half Price Books when my friend Caitlin and I had an adventure in downtown Houston. I found a copy of my next book. Oh joy! Rapture!

The Sheltering Sky is the first novel by Paul Bowles, who was well-known for his musical composing before he began writing. Bowles was an American expatriate living in Paris with Aaron Copland when he made his first visit to Tangier, Morocco in 1931. He traveled through North Africa extensively, but settled permanently in Tangier — when he died in 1999, he had spent 53 of his 88 years in Tangier.

The Sheltering Sky reflects aspects of Bowles’ life; Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York, travel to North Africa with their friend Tunner. The journey, initially an attempt by Port and Kit to resolve their marital difficulties, is quickly made fraught by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. According to the blurb on the back cover of my copy, it is a psychological thriller. Tennessee Williams reviewed the novel glowingly when it was released, so bring on the sweltering desert.

Comment » | modern

98. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

April 29th, 2010 — 5:06pm

This week, the students at my school are taking the state standardized test, so I had three hours stuck in a classroom with seniors who were not testing. Plenty of time to read and tell the kids not to bother me.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a crime novel (the 1946 film is a film noir starring Lana Turner) that was published in 1934 by James M. Cain. It is rather short, only about 100 pages, but those 100 pages were scandalous enough to get the book banned in Boston, randomly enough.

It starts out rather abruptly. There’s no exposition; in fact, the narrator doesn’t introduce himself until three pages in. Frank Chambers begins the novel by being thrown off a hay truck (he’s a tramp) and wandering into an “auto court” that is half restaurant-half filling station. It’s run by Nick Papadakis, who Frank calls “The Greek” for basically the entire novel and who speaks in stilted English, and his beautiful wife, Cora. The Greek offers Frank a job, since Frank knows a thing or two about automobiles, and Frank repays his generosity by sleeping with Cora, who seems to have a few screws loose herself. When Frank kisses her for the first time, a red flag goes up:

I took her into my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers………”Bite me! Bite me!”
I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.

Um. Ew.

As you’d think, Frank tries to convince Cora to run away with him, but Cora has this aversion to being homeless, I can’t imagine why. So her great idea is to kill the Greek so that they can stay and run the auto court without him. What could go wrong?

The first attempt to kill the Greek involves Cora bashing him in the head with what is described as a twisted beanbag full of metal. She plans to hit him while he’s in the bathtub, to make it appear that he fell in the shower and hit his head, with the added bonus that he’ll drown if the blow to the head doesn’t kill him. But at the exact moment that Cora hits him, a cat steps on the fuse box and blows the fuses in the house, making all the lights go out and Cora panic, for some reason. Frank fishes the Greek out of the water and they call an ambulance to take him to the hospital, telling the cops and the doctors that Nick fell and hit his head. So the Greek survived and doesn’t remember being bludgeoned, so he goes back home with Cora and Frank.

But Frank and Cora! They are so in love! Their love is so true! And Cora reeeally wants the auto court. So they try the same plan in a different venue — this time, they get the Greek sloppily drunk, bash him over the head with a wrench, and then crash the car, leaving themselves with injuries. There is also a very inappropriately timed sex scene after the car crashes into the ravine and Frank has punched Cora in the eye to make it look like she was injured in the crash and it turns them both on. Cora is one twisted sister.

The police and the ambulance report to the scene, and the police are instantly suspicious of what has happened. It turns out, unbeknown to Frank, the Greek had taken out a $10,000 insurance policy two days before the accident. The prosecutor, Sackett, interrogates Frank and gets him to sign a complaint that by crashing the car, Cora attempted to kill him as well. And when Cora finds out, she is PISSED. She writes out a confession that tells everything about her affair with Frank and how he had been involved with attempting to kill Nick.

A lawyer is hired for Frank and Cora, and there is a lot of lawyerly speak involved that I think boiled down to him proving that the Greek had insurance policies before and the accident insurance was just part of the insurance package and that Cora had no idea about it. Or something. But it ended with Cora receiving a suspended sentence and no jail time — her confession was squashed by their lawyer and the prosecution never knew about it. But the fact that Frank signed the complaint and that Cora tried to point the finger at Frank sown some major seeds of discontentment at the auto court.

Frank and Cora return to the auto court, where Cora has major plans for its improvement but Frank just wants to sell it and move on. Then there was something about Cora leaving to visit her mother and Frank met and had a brief fling with a woman who trained and kept wild cats and sends Frank a puma kitten. Okay, then.

They drive to the beach together and Cora tells Frank that she’s pregnant, and they plan a life together, and on their way driving back home, boom, car accident. Cora is killed, and the description is thus:

When I came out of it I was wedged down beside the wheel, with my back to the frontof the car, but I began to moan from the awfulness of what I heard. It was like rain on a tin roof, but that wasn’t it. It was her blood, pouring down on the hood, where she went through the windshield.

UM. EW. Boston, you got this one right.

The cops arrest Frank and pin him with the deaths of both Cora and the Greek, and the end of the book reveals that the story you’ve been reading has been written by Frank in jail as he awaits news of his sentence, whether he gets the death penalty or not. He finds out that there is “no stay,” meaning he will be executed, and asks people to pray for “me, and Cora, and make it that we’re together, wherever it is.”

For as short as the novel is (about 100 pages), it was rather rough to get through. The writing style is very concise and matter-of-fact with very little details. It wasn’t really enough to keep my interest, especially since none of the characters are sympathetic.

And throughout the entire book there is no postman, ringing twice or otherwise.

Comment » | classic books

The Dirty Ginger Man

April 26th, 2010 — 4:33pm

What to say about The Ginger Man.

Sebastian Dangerfield is the ginger man in question. He is an American living with his British wife, Marion, and their baby, Felicity, in Ireland. But that doesn’t keep Sebastian from drinking his way through their finances and sleeping with any woman who will have him.

The writing, by J.P. Donleavy in the 1950s, is very stream-of-consciousness, to the point where there are places where the narration changes from third to first person without any warning.

Sebastian rolled near, pressing the long, blond body to his, thinking of a world outside beating drums below the window in the rain. All slipping on the cobble stones. And standing aside as a tram full of Bishops rumbles past, who hold up sacred hands in blessing. Marion’s hand tightening and touching in my groin. Ginny Cupper took me in her car out to the spread fields of Indiana.

There is no designation to warn you that the point of view is changing. It makes skimming very difficult, I’ll tell you that much.

Once you get past the shock of Sebastian drinking until his liver gives out and having sex with anything that moves, the book is really rather boring. Because nothing else really happens. And Sebastian is kind of a jerk. As in, he pawns Marion’s things and then spends the money to buy alcohol. Donleavy tries to alleviate Sebastian’s jerkiness by having him realize that he is a jerk, that he’s self-aware and feels bad about the things he does. But that doesn’t make him a lovable rogue. He’s almost amoral in his quest to flee from his responsibilities. There are comedic sections, and Sebastian is indeed charming at times……but he still basically manipulates everyone he knows. It’s frustrating because Sebastian doesn’t change and doesn’t seem to learn any lessons. It really honestly is mainly about a man who likes to drink.

However, I can see how the book came to inspire a chain of pubs. And I look forward to going to the one in Houston.

Comment » | modern

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

April 16th, 2010 — 7:22pm

So I kind of cheated this week.

There was a release of a new printing of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle with an Edward Gorey-esque cover that was irresistible. So I forsook The Ginger Man briefly and read that instead.  Ooops.

Most people are familiar with Shirley Jackson by either her short story “The Lottery,” in which a seemingly modern village holds an annual lottery to choose who will be sacrificed and stoned to death by the townspeople, or her novel turned Owen Wilson/Catherine Zeta-Jones/Liam Neeson movie The Haunting of Hill House. And if you are familiar with those works, you know that the Shirley Jackson oeuvre can be downright creepy.

Such is the case with We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which opens with the narrator, Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood, stating that the villagers have always hated them (them being Merricat, her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian Blackwood). Indeed, the first chapter goes on to describe Merricat making her weekly errand run in the village and being harrassed by children and adults alike, the children who taunt her with a playground rhyme:

Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea?
Oh no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.
Merricat, said Connie, would you like to go to sleep?
Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!

The rhymes origin is from an event at the Blackwood house that occurred six years earlier — one night at dinner, the girls’ parents, their younger brother, and Uncle Julian’s wife were all murdered by arsenic that had been mixed into the sugar bowl and used by the family to sprinkle sugar over their dessert of blackberries. The only ones to survive were Merricat, who had been sent to bed without supper, Uncle Julian, who didn’t use a lot of sugar but has been ill from aftereffects of the poison since then, and Constance, who never took sugar on her berries. Because Constance fixed the dinner and had washed the sugar bowl, she was the main suspect, even going through a murder trial until she was acquitted of the charge.  However, the people of the village still believe that Constance was the murderer and have since ostracized the family, turning Constance into an agoraphobe; she hasn’t left the confines of the house and the yard in six years.

And so they have lived in their somewhat peaceful existence. Merricat is a bit of a feral child, or at least a whimsical one — she makes little protection spells by nailing her father’s old things to a tree or burying things, like a box of silver dollars, and she runs around the land around the house with her cat, Jonas. Constance seems to spend her day cooking, taking care of Uncle Julian, and shaking her head and saying, “Silly Merricat.”

But of course, there is a change in the air. The change in question is the sudden arrival of their cousin Charles, who claims to be their father’s brother’s son. He tells them that his father would never allow him to contact them while he was alive, but now that his father is dead, he has come to do his family duty by showing up at the their house, moving himself into their father’s old room, appraising all of their things, and making thinly veiled threats to Merricat, who is instantly suspicious of him:

“Cousin Charles?” I said, and he turned to look at me. I thought of seeing him dead. “Cousin Charles?”
“I have decided to ask you to please go away.”
“All right,” he said. “You asked me.”
“Please will you go away?”
“No,” he said…”As a matter of fact,” he said, “come about a month from now, I wonder who will be here? You,” he said, “or me?”

Okay, maybe not so thinly veiled. But Merricat retaliates by listing all of the poisonous mushrooms in their yard, so that shuts him up for a while.

Charles argues with Uncle Julian, who is constantly confused between what is and what isn’t reality (at one point, he says that “my niece Mary Katherine died in the orphanage of neglect” when she’s standing in the room with him, which makes you wonder for a split second if you’re having a “The Sixth Sense” moment), and Merricat runs off to their old family shed and talks with her dead family members, who all fawn over her in a way that is super super creepy. She returns to the house for dinner, and when Constance sends her upstairs to wash her hands for dinner, she notices Charles has left a lit pipe in his room. She pushes it into the wastebasket that is filled with newspapers and innocently reports to the table for dinner.

Of course, a fire breaks out and Charles freaks out and runs to the village to get help, as if the fire burns down the home, then where would he get any more money? The villagers come to help, but they are overcome by the mob mentality and their hatred and fear of the Blackwoods, and they begin destroying the downstairs rooms, breaking and smashing things, all the while chanting the playground rhyme. Constance and Merricat hide in the woods, where they can watch and listen to the mob from a safe distance. Charles attempts to steal the family safe and it’s reported that Uncle Julian has died, presumably of a heart attack. While they’re watching the chaos, Merricat lays a bomb:

…and I said aloud to Constance, “I am going to put death in all their food and watch them die.”
Constance stirred, and the leaves rustled. “The way you did before?” she asked.
It had never been spoken of between us, not once in six years.
“Yes,” I said after a minute, “the way I did before.”


Yes. It turns out that Merricat was the one who poisoned and killed her family. But that’s really all that the book gives you. There’s no explanation, no reasoning behind it. Just an admission that’s almost an aside. All she says is that she put it in the sugar because she knew that Constance never took sugar. I don’t even know.

After the villagers leave, Constance and Merricat go back to the house and salvage what is left. Only the rooms in the top floor of the house burned, so they make do with the bottom floor and whatever material goods they have that the villagers didn’t destroy. Speaking of the villagers, they appear to be contrite about how they’ve treated the girls and begin to leave offerings of food and casseroles on their front porch. Constance waits until the cover of darkness to retrieve them, to make sure they’re really gone and no one can see them. The sisters live in the house on their own, and the final lines of the novel are:

“Poor strangers,” I said. “They have so much to be afraid of.”
“Well,” Constance said, “I am afraid of spiders.”
“Jonas and I will see to it that no spider ever comes near you. Oh, Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.”

Um, yeah. Okay.

To me, the most frustrating thing was the lack of explanation of the family’s murders. Merricat is a textbook example of an unreliable narrator. She’s eighteen years old, but has definite childlike qualities, such as her “protection spells” and the way she plays in the yard and in some ways the way she talks to Constance. But does that have something to do with the reason behind her poisoning the sugar? There was obviously some sort of intent behind it, as she tells Constance that she purposefully chose the sugar because she knew that Constance wouldn’t eat it. And, hi, why is Constance not freaked out about her little sister being a killer? The language is very straight forward, which also adds to the appearance of Merricat being an innocent child. Until she starts listing off how many ways she can poison you.

3 comments » | modern, Uncategorized

99. The Ginger Man by J.P Donleavy

March 30th, 2010 — 9:21pm

Cheer up, ginger kid.

A quick Wikipedia search of the next book on the list, The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy, reveals what I have to look forward to when it comes in at the library:

It follows the often racy misadventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, a young American living in Dublin with his English wife and infant daughter and studying law at Trinity College.


A movie adaptation of the book was rumored in development with Johnny Depp playing the protagonist.

A book about someone who resembles Johnny Depp having racy misadventures? Hey-o!

The book, which was published in 1955, was first published in Paris and was originally banned for obscenity by the US and Ireland. However, the US and Ireland warmed up to the book — there are several pubs inspired by The Ginger Man in Dublin and several places in the US, including one in Houston. When bars are inspired by literature, everyone’s a winner.

Comment » | modern

The Magnificent….whatever.

March 28th, 2010 — 5:55pm

George Amberson Minafer is one of the most insufferable characters I have encountered. He made it impossible to get through this book. In doing some research for the book, I found out that in addition to the Orson Welles movie, The Magnificent Ambersons was also a made-for-tv movie in 2002. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays the role of George Amberson Minafer. If you are familiar with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers you will realize how perfect that casting was. No one plays a whiny bitchy snob like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, god bless him.

Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as George

The Ambersons are an aristocratic family that made their money in the years after the Civil War; the way that the money was made is never really explained, just that they have lived in “magnificence” since 1873. None of them have really done much since then — one Amberson is in politics, but the rest of them just live off the family money. Isabel, Major Amberson’s daughter, married Wilbur Minafer, after stringing along him and another beau named Eugene Morgan, and gave birth to the unholy terror that is George Amberson Minafer.

What the book basically boils down to is George is a spoiled brat who is accustomed to getting whatever he wants. Of course, the deeper meaning is that time and money are fickle, as the Amberson family is losing their fortune and are unable to catch up to the Industrial Age. George pugnaciously refuses to give any stock to the “electric carriages,” opting instead to use horses.

George returns from college, and several people in the town remark on the fact that he is just as horrid as before and how they had so hoped that he would have “got what was coming to him,” and attends a party thrown by his grandfather. There he meets Lucy Morgan, and is instantly enamored. Lucy is the daughter of his mother’s former boyfriend, Eugene Morgan, who has moved back to the town to open a garage and start manufacturing automobiles. Lucy evades George’s seduction, the methods of which are basically one step up from him clubbing her over the head and dragging her back to his lair.

Meanwhile, George’s father, the emasculated Wilbur Minafer, has been in declining health for years, and he dies. (George doesn’t mourn much.) How convenient that Isabel’s old flame has arrived into town! Isabel and Morgan reacquaint themselves, much to George’s chagrin. George hates Morgan, because he doesn’t like cars and Morgan disapproves of the fact that George doesn’t work and has no aspirations to do anything but live off his good looks and family name. Because Morgan has sense. So George, who has his mother wrapped around his finger, becomes even MORE of a jerk. He has a giant temper tantrum when his aunt tells him about Isabel and Morgan becoming chummy, and when he bitches at a town gossip for gossiping, even though she wasn’t, he realizes that things have gotten out of his control. So he does the only logical thing — he convinces Isabel to take a trip with him to Europe and basically guilts her into staying, holding her prisoner by her own motherly affection.

While in Europe, Isabel grows sick. George is forced to bring her home, where she has a lovely deathbed scene, though George doesn’t let Morgan see her before she dies. Dick. Isabel’s father, Major Amberson, who is the patriarchal head of the Ambersons, dies soon after, and the Amberson land and money becomes entangled in legalities; it turns out that the Ambersons weren’t very good with keeping their wills updated. George is forced to get a job in a chemical plant, which pays him fifteen dollars a week. He has finally received his “come-uppance,” according to the people in the town. He has had to sell most of his possessions and is living in an apartment with his aunt Fanny, his father’s sister.

One day, while he’s walking through the town, he thinks he sees Lucy, who he hasn’t seen since he severed all ties with her due to his anger about his father dating his mother. He walks across the road to see if it was her, and he is hit by a car, proving that instant karma is indeed going to get you. However, the narration cuts to Morgan, who gets this weird feeling that Isabel wants him to go to see George in the hospital, so he does. And George asks for forgiveness. And Morgan accepts. And Lucy is at the hospital, facilitating this kumbayah circle, because she still loves George, I guess, I was annoyed at this point and wasn’t paying much attention.

There are a lot of great passages and reflections about time and youth that were pretty interesting, especially in regards to romance.

Youth cannot imagine romance apart from youth. That is why the roles of the heroes and heroines of plays are given by the managers to the most youthful actors they can find among the competent. Both middle-aged people and young people enjoy a play about young lovers; but only middle-aged people will tolerate a play about middle-aged lovers; young people will not come to see such a play, because, for them, middle-aged lovers are a joke — not a very funny one.

When I read that, I immediately thought of It’s Complicated, the romantic comedy last year with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin. Every time a movie with “seasoned” actors in the romantic roles come out, there is the question — does it appeal to younger generations? Or is it just, “ew, old people,” no matter what the story line?

Tarkington also has another zinger in regards to gossip:

“Gossip is never fatal, Georgie,” he said, “until it is denied. Gossip goes on about every human being alive and about all the dead that are alive enough to be remembered, and yet almost never does any harm until some defender makes a controversy. Gossip’s a nasty thing, but it’s sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”

Gossip is like fire — don’t fan the flames and it won’t flare up and singe your eyebrows off.

Overall, The Magnificent Ambersons was a good book. Once I realized that this wasn’t a story of George becoming human and stopped waiting for him to redeem himself. I can see how it was important at the time, when there were these huge Rockefeller-Hurst-Carnegie families who had tons of money for generations, but rather than the changing of the guard, I found the relationships, both of the mother-son dynamic and the romantic relationships, to be the most translatable to today’s society. Dating your parent’s boyfriend’s daughter is just awkward, no matter what year it is.

1 comment » | classic books

Back to top