Tuesday, January 28, 2014

& Sons: A Novel by David Gilbert (2013)

I got this copy of & Sons: A Novel by David Gilbert (2013) through the LibraryThing EarlyReviewers program and it has finally risen to the top of my constantly growing to read pile.

This is a tale of men. New York men. Wealthy, literary, intelligent, New York men. At the center of the novel is A.N. Dyer, a famous novelist who is beloved for his first novel, Ampersand, a Catcher-in-the-Rye-esque novel he wrote when he was 27. He is now an old man with a long publishing career, a broken marriage, two grown-up and mostly estranged sons, and one teenage son whose appearance, 17 years ago, was the cause of that broken marriage.

Riding on a parallel track is Dyer's best friend from childhood, Charlie Topper, and Charlie's son, Philip, who has spent his life admiring the Dyer family and being paid back with a mix of indifference (from the senior Dyer) and cruelty (from the two older sons, Richard and Jamie).

Gilbert does a fine job of laying out the complicated past of the Dyer and Topping families, jumping seamlessly from past to present, and in and out of the narrative voices of the five primary men (along with a brief narrative piece from the estranged wife, Isabel, which honestly feels pretty out of place). The plot lets us explore the difficulty of aging, of being a teenager, of having sons, of relating to a father, of getting laid, of staying clean, and of being a famous writer. It also gives us a pretty clever novel within the novel with the plot and passages from Ampersand. What it doesn't give us is any insight into how the ever-present but never developed female characters relate to this twisted narrative.

Gilbert isn't alone in this macho New York genre of broken men held up by solid, admired, lusted after, practical, and completely one-dimensional women, but that doesn't make me respond any more warmly to another one of these books. That isn't to say that the novel isn't entertaining, or that Gilbert isn't good at what he does, just that what he does isn't really what I want to read. Saying you will like this if you like this kind of thing is a bit of a cop out, but I can't think of any other way to put this. Gilbert is good at this kind of thing, and if you like it, then this would be worth picking up.

Archivists note: There is a pretty great aside where Dyer and his agent go to the Morgan Library to negotiate the purchase of his papers, where the archivist and director throw in some barbs at the HRC as their main collecting competitor. There is also a juicy attempt by Dyer at recreating his original manuscript for Ampersand, which he burned years ago, just before the publication of the novel, but which is a key piece of his literary legacy and something the Morgan direly wants (and will pay big bucks for). I love thinking of the archival implications of this self-forgery...

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton (1989, 2013)

"... the archive is like a forest without clearings, but by inhabiting it for a long time, your eyes become accustomed to the dark, and you can make out the outlines of the trees." (p. 69)

When The Allure of the Archives by Arlette Farge, translated by Thomas Scott-Railton (originally published in1989, translated in 2013) came into the library where I work, two different co-workers sent me notes telling me I should check it out. As a self-respecting archivist, how could I resist?

Farge is a French historian who studies social history in 18th century France, mainly using police and legal records to uncover the hidden voices of everyday people during and after the French Revolution. In this slim volume, Farge pays homage to the skills and techniques of archival research and, in a series of vignettes, pokes a little insider fun at the ins and outs of the stoic French reading rooms.

As a "lone arranger" archivist in a small collection in Texas, I find that my reading room procedures don't really match up with the old school antics of the French National Archives. Still, while some of Farge's affectionate jabs at obscure procedures and dictatorial research archivists sting, there are some kernels of truth there and reading this book will definitely bring the non-historian archivist a different perspective on our work.

Beyond the look at the procedural aspects of archival research, Farge shines in her alternately poetic and philosophical look at the practice of historiography. Her descriptions of teasing out meaning and context from incomplete documentary evidence, the need to see what is there and what isn't there, and her ability to bring life to the voices that exist between the official lines of history are a joy to read, and make this archivist feel pretty proud to do the work I do. I can't say I agreed with every word of this book, but I definitely enjoyed reading them.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen, Newly translated and with an introduction by Eva Le Galleinne (1951)

I bought this Modern Library edition of Six Plays by Henrik Ibsen, Newly translated and with an introduction by Eva le Galleinne (1951) some time ago, so when my Debbie Downer book club (which only reads depressing/sad books) decided to give "A Doll's House" a try, I decided to go Ibsen crazy and read the whole thing. I had read three of these plays before, but it was time to revisit them, and I learned that I can never have too much bleak, straightforward, Norwegian in my life.

The translator of this collection, Eva Le Galleinne, is pretty interesting in her own right, and provides a crisp translation and solid introduction to Ibsen and these six plays.

Here's the run down:

A Doll's House (1879)
One of the most consistently performed plays since Ibsen wrote it almost 140 years go, this story of the awakening of a flighty housewife to her own humanity takes on the flavor of the time and place of its production so easily that it never stops seeming fresh. Nora is so annoying, and Torvald so dense, but the play wouldn't work any other way. I've read this one several times, but this time I found myself the most fascinated with Nora's friend Mrs. Linde and her decision to force Nora to tell Torvald the truth about her financial falsehoods. And that door slam!

Ghosts (1881)
In this play you can really see why Ibsen was so controversial in the late 19th century -- venereal disease, adultery, children out of wedlock, sexual assault, arson, religious doubts, and calling out the domestic subjugation of women: it's all here! This is a perfect example of Ibsen's close, domestic staging where the action of the play has either happened in the past or away from the stage, and what we see are the characters dealing with the consequences.

An Enemy of the People (1882)
When Dr. Stockman discovers that the mineral baths his town just spent tons of money constructing for sick tourists is being contaminated by run-off from the tannery upstream, he is sure that his more responsible and stuffy brother, who is the Mayor of the town, and the rest of the townspeople will be so glad he told them that they will throw him a parade. Instead he is torn between the liberal and conservative factions of the town, both of whom want to save the town's cash cow. The mob scenes are disturbing, but the lampooning of the liberal press and the small-town government are often hilarious.

Rosmersholm (1886)
I hadn't ever read this one before, and I found it the hardest to like. The story of the wealthy Mr. Rosmer, whose sickly wife recently took her own wife, and his relationship with Rebekka, his wife's former nurse and companion who is still living in the house, comes off as melodramatic and old fashioned, which is so much different than the crisp realism of his other plays. After some reflection, the story grew on me, and I'm definitely not one to turn down a suitably tragic ending, but I still found this the hardest play in the collection to really get some traction for me.

Hedda Gabler (1890)
Hedda Gabler! Hedda Gabler! When I read this play in high school, it completely blew my mind, and it amazes me no less now. Hedda is a bad person, but complicatedly so, and watching her manipulate, lie, and play with the people around her is like a fascinating train wreck. In case you haven't noticed, I love a perfect ending, and Hedda Gabler definitely has one of those. If you haven't ever read this play, go read it right now. In her introduction Le Galleinne mentions that actresses love Ibsen because he created roles like Hedda Gabler, and there is no denying that this is an amazing character.

The Master Builder (1892)
I hadn't ever read this story of a prominent architect and his complicated family and work relationships before, and it goes down as one of the strangest plays I've ever read. Master Builder Solness has a successful business designing homes, two long-ago dead children, a distant wife, and a series of mistresses and near-mistresses. When Miss Hilde Wangel enters the scene -- seeking out Solness ten years after he made an off-hand comment when she was a little girl that he would make her his princess in ten years time -- the slate is set for some familial tragedy as well as some unexpected humor. I'm still not sure what to make of this one, but I definitely liked it.

Ibsen! You should read this wild Norwegian inventor of theatrical realism if for no other reason than his truly amazing hair.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 2 (1792)

If I want to make better progress on the 12 volumes of the Works of Samuel Johnson that I'm reading as part of Harold Bloom's western canon list, I should probably have taken less than two years between reading Volume 1 and finishing up The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 2 (1792). At this rate it will take me twenty years to finish the whole set!

This volume contains documentation of some of Johnson's greatest known works -- the proposal and preface to his Dictionary of the English Language, and the same for his definitive edition of the Works of Shakespeare, both of which give him cause to comment on the scholarship of one of his contemporaries:

In his preface to his edition of Shakespeare, he writes about his use of the work of the scholar Lewis Theobald (who he describes as "a man of narrow comprehension, and small acquisitions, with no native and intrinsic splendor of genius, with little of the artificial light of learning, but zealous for minute accuracy, and not negligent in pursuing it."):

"Of his notes I have generally retained those which he retained himself in his second edition, except when they were confuted by subsequent annotators, or were too minute to merit preservation. I have sometimes adopted his restoration of a comma, without inserting the panegyrick in which he celebrated himself for his achievement. The exuberant excrescence of his diction I have often lopped, his triumphant exultations over Pope and Rowe I have sometimes suppressed, and his contemptible ostentation I have frequently concealed; but I have in some places shown him, as he would have shown himself, for the reader's diversion, that the inflated emptiness of some notes may justify or excuse the contraction of the rest." (p. 119)

Beyond insanely complicated dictionary compilations and extremely thorough Shakespearean editing, Johnson's works in this volume jump from prefaces to other writers works, plans for a curriculum, political histories and commentaries, moral allegories, and a lot more. And all of them are witty, moving, and/or interesting. The man could write, and the man had opinions. Take, for example, his ideas about Canada, which I have to quote at length because they are so great:

"The French therefore contented themselves with sending a colony to Canada, a cold uncomfortable uninviting region, from which nothing but furs and fish were to be had, and where the new inhabitants could only pass a laborious and necessitous life, in perpetual regret of the deliciousness and plenty of their native country.

" Notwithstanding the opinion which our countrymen have been taught to entertain of the comprehension and foresight of French politicians, I am not able to persuade myself, that when this colony was first planted, it was thought of much value, even by those that encouraged it; there was probably nothing more intended than to provide a drain into which the waste of an exuberant nation might be thrown, a place where those who could do no good might live without the power of doing mischief. Some new advantage they undoubtedly saw, or imagined themselves to see, and what more was necessary to the establishment of the colony was supplied by natural inclination to experiments, and that impatience of doing nothing, to which mankind perhaps owe much of what is imagined to be effected by more splendid motives.

"In this region of desolate sterility they settled themselves, upon whatever principle; and as they have from that time had the happiness of a government by which no interest has been neglected, nor any part of their subjects overlooked, they have, by continual encouragement and assistance from France, been perpetually enlarging their bounds and increasing their numbers." (p. 301-302)

The French and Indian War may have colored his sentiments a little there...

Overall, Volume 2 was pretty entertaining and interesting in retrospect, and I'm not sure why it took me so long to read it. Since volumes three and four are already waiting for me on my new bookcase, I should scold myself into making more of an effort to show a little love to Dr. Johnson and his wonderful works.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Walking Dead, Volume 19: March to War by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2013)

The latest volume of the Walking Dead series, The Walking Dead, Volume 19: March to War by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2013) is another one of those water-treading volumes that connects two big sections of plot but doesn't do a whole lot else. Rick continues to be Ricky, Carl continues to be Carly, and Negan continues to be his verbosely evil Negany self.

Just as the title promises, the gangs here (both good and evil) are finally stopping their pretend dance of getting along with one another and ratcheting up the conflict to an all-out war. Alliances are secured, double-crossing is rampant, and there is a little taste of violence (including some tiger utilization) to cap things off. Not bad, not great, but (I'm assuming) necessary to get us to the not-yet-released twentieth volume.

Zombie on!