Sunday, November 29, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Ubik


PKD was a weird guy. That’s my summation after having now read only two of his novels.  I chose Ubik for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 – “Read a genre classic”.

In reading this book, it became very clear right away that PKD had a lot of fun imagining what one would wear in his projected future. It is all pretty outlandish, such as:

 “A young stringbean of a girl with glasses and straight lemon-yellow hair, wearing a cowboy hat, black lace mantilla and Bermuda shorts…” 

or this

 “a beetle like individual wearing a Continental outfit: tweed toga, loafers, crimson sash and a purple airplane-propeller beanie”. 

Dick imagines a (colorfully dressed) world where telepathy and pre-cognition are commonplace. There are organizations created to harness these powers and other organizations that exist to curb them. Glen Runciter is the CEO of Runciter Associates, a company that uses telepaths and pre-cogs to counteract the nefarious actions of companies, like the Hollis Agency, that use these abilities to steal business secrets from corporations. When Runciter ends up killed in a job gone bad and his team desperately try to get him to a mortuary in Switzerland before his brain activity goes cold, where he may live on as a non-corporeal entity. Only nothing goes as planned and fabric of time and space seems to be disintegrating. 

Similarly to the other Dick novel I’ve read The Man in the High Castle, when I got to the end of Ubik, I was left wondering what had I just read? What does it all mean or is it just the rambling of a fertile imagination? Is Dick having the reader on or is there some deeper meaning to the text that I am missing?

It is interesting to note that Dick may have been a visionary in his prediction of a corporatized world of tomorrow in this book (everything has a cost – everything is commoditized), but like Asimov in the Foundation Series, he could not envision a smoke-free future. Even when I had a two-pack-a-day habit, I assumed (probably influenced by Star Trek) the future would not include tobacco smoking. It does make you appreciate it when a writer does get at least bits and pieces of the future (that we now live in) “right”. Not that we currently live in a smoke-free environment, but in Ubik, there’s more lighting up that in an average episode of "Mad Men". 😀

I enjoyed reading Ubik, but I have to admit that the book didn’t quite work for me as science fiction due to its farcical, over-the-top tone. It’s all pretty madcap but never very convincing. And the ending is either mind-blowing or just plain confusing. It’s almost like a koan, one could meditate upon it for eternity. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Justine


I had ambitious plans to read Lawrence Durrell’s entire Alexandria quartet for the challenge in 2020 but unfortunately, I’ve only managed the first book and don’t see myself tackling the other three in 2020. My blogging friend Major called it, when he commented on my January 3, 2020 opening post for the challenge, 

I found it impossible to understand, I was totally lost, I had no idea what the writer was doing. I was routed, utterly defeated. Not even Pynchon challenged me so.”

I’ve only read one book by Pynchon and it was pretty tough going, so I’m giving the point to Durrell here, BUT I do know what Major meant. Much of the dreamy, plotless, non-linear narrative of Justine was incomprehensible to me. 

Here’s what I did get: Everybody loves Justine. Justine loves no one but has affairs left and right, possibly because she was sexually abused by an uncle as a child, the book suggests. Justine has an affair with our nameless expat British narrator. He, in turn, is in a relationship with a tubercular prostitute with a heart of gold, Melissa. Justine’s husband, Nessim, is tolerant of his wife’s behavior, until he isn’t and then he takes up with Melissa.

Here’s what I think I got: Justine is supposed to represent the city of Alexandria. Or maybe all three of the main characters supposed to represent facets of the city: Nessim the Coptic Christian, Justine the Jew, and Melissa the Greek (The Arab and Muslim population are pretty much ignored by Durrell). 

Here’s what I did not get at all: At some points, Durell switches to the past…maybe the Napoleonic invasion of Alexandria or maybe the Persian invasion or the Ottoman invasion…all which were centuries apart from one another. Who knows? It’s all very dreamlike and enigmatic.

As a reader, I need a lot more plot than this book provided. I usually have a tin ear for gauzy, poetic writing.  But I think the biggest problem was that even when I did understand what was happening, I didn’t care a whit about any of these people or what happened to them.  However, I know and respect other readers who LOVE these books, so I do think this is very much a matter of “reader taste”.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 category “20th Century Classic”.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Evelina


It might be a stretch to include Frances Burney’s Evelina as a “Classic about Family”, but hear me out. 

Told entirely in letters, Evelina is the story of an abandoned child who is raised by her guardian, the Reverend Villars, who was also the guardian of Evelina’s deceased mother, Caroline. When Caroline came of age, Rev. Villars, against his better judgment, allowed her to join her rich but dissolute mother, Madam Duval, in Paris. Mme Duval, in her laxity, allowed Caroline to elope with Sir John Belmont. The product of that legitimate union was Evelina. But Caroline died soon after Evelina’s birth and Sir John refused to recognize the marriage publicly. So Evelina, now 17, has been raised in the country, far from wicked London or Paris and knows little about her true parentage and no one in society knows who she is.

But that all changes when Evelina is allowed to travel to London with family friend, Mrs. Mirvan and her daughter, Maria, who is Evelina’s closest friend. In London, because she grew up so sheltered, she puts her foot wrong many times. And, coincidentally, she also runs into her grandmother, Mme Duvall, who has decidedly questionable goals for her newfound granddaughter. 

Most of the letters are from Evelina to her guardian, the Reverend Villers. Villars most naturally worried about his ward’s ability to navigate the treacherous waters of high society and remain morally upstanding. Not only is Evelina exploited by her déclassé French grandmother and her middle class London cousins, there are also the boorish Captain Mirvan and the predatory Sir Clement Willoughby to contend with. Apparently, the book was favorite of Jane Austen, so let the name “Willoughby” be a warning to you, if you have read Sense and Sensibility

Take heart, however! All is not totally dire for Evelina.  Not only does she have the support of Mrs. Mirivan and Rev. Villars, she also meets and charms the rich and handsome Lord Orville. And the complications of her parentage are eventually sorted out to her advantage. That’s my stretch: this is a book about a naïve girl with essentially no family who ultimately is recognized by her family. Ta da!

It was an interesting book to read because, thankfully, Evelina does get wiser as the plot advances and I really enjoyed the tour through London’s 18th century pleasure gardens and other entertainments depicted in the first volume. And the book really underscored just how vulnerable a woman was in this society if she had no father or brother to protect her. But, ultimately, the book is a romantic comedy that used artifice to ensure the lovers are kept apart, which isn’t my favorite thing to read from any century and the “comedy” aspect of it was often too farcical for me to appreciate.  Many of the scenes meant to be humorous, came off as mean spirited and not funny to me. How much of this is my personal taste and how much of this is changes in society over the last 200 plus years, I don’t know.

I read the Oxford World Classics paperback which was annotated, thank goodness. The florid style of dialogue was hard for me to parse at times and the explanations of what was acceptable behaviorally as a young woman in Georgian England were immensely helpful in understanding the plot. 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Giovanni’s Room


Giovanni’s Room is the third book that I’ve read for this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge that takes place in Paris. And it is even contemporaneous with The Dud Avocado.  Similar to Sally J. Gorce, the main character, David is also an American in post war 1950s Paris, living off a trust fund while he figures himself out and there is lots of drinking and casual sex.  But that is where the comparisons end. 

One of the things that David is trying to figure out is his sexuality, though he may not always be consciously aware of this as a narrator. His father wants him to return to the States and settle down.  He has proposed to his American girlfriend, Hella, who says she needs time to think. And then when out and about at a gay bar in Paris with a family friend, Jacques, who is homosexual, David meets Giovanni.  

Up to this point, David considers himself to be heterosexual, despite having had a brief homosexual experience as a boy. He has frequented this gay bar many times before with Jacques, but always as a person apart from the rest of the crowd; not “one of them”. In fact, David’s attitude towards the transsexuals or more feminine men that are also at the bar is downright hostile.  He spends a lot of time comparing himself to other men and worried that he doesn’t appear sufficiently masculine.  But despite this, David begins an intense relationship with Giovanni and moves in with him while Hella is out of the country (hence the title of the book).  But when Hella returns, David goes back to her and doesn’t (a) tell Giovanni he is leaving him and (b) doesn’t tell Hella he had an affair with Giovanni. 

Clearly, David has a lot of problems. And his behavior and inability to come to terms with his bisexuality/homosexuality has negative repercussions for everyone in the book.  Needless to write, this is not a happy story. Maybe that’s why I kind of hated it? I feel terrible for not liking such a well-respected classic like this title. But it just left me cold. I could believe David’s self-loathing and indecision but I didn’t feel like Hella or Giovanni’s actions were real. It was too melodramatic for me to swallow.  I think this is a case where if I were to experience it in another format (on the stage or screen) I would love it, but in print, I couldn’t read the passion into it, even though there are some beautifully depicted scenes. 

I read this for the Back to the Classics Category “Classic by a POC Author”. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: The Dud Avocado

 

You know, these American girls are just like avocados….” His avocado arrived and he looked at it lovingly. “The Typical American Girl,” he said, addressing it. “A hard center with the tender meat all wrapped up in a shiny casing.” He began eating it. “How I love them,” he murmured greedily. “So green—so eternally green.” He winked at me.

Interestingly enough, three of the books I have read for a Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 have been set in Left Bank Paris.  Moving up a century and half from Trilby, The Dud Avocado takes place in the Latin Quarter in the 1950s. And similar to George du Maurier, Elaine Dundy knew of what she wrote, since like her protagonist, she too moved to Paris after World War II to live off her allowance for as long as she could. I don’t know exactly what the exchange rate was back then, but as I understand it, the dollar was amazingly strong and one could live pretty well in Western Europe on a modest U.S. income. 

This was my second stab at The Dud Avocado, which I’ve owned for probably at least a decade. It was kind of a cover-buy because I really loved the pictured Virago naked hard back and sort of Gollum-like, I felt a need to possess it, regardless of its contents. I am glad I gave it another chance because I really enjoyed this novel about a footloose, slightly zany young American woman named Sally J. Gorse. Also, like Trilby, this book is pretty frank about sexual mores in the mid-20th century, though again, there are still different expectations placed on women compared to men. Possibly because the author is female, she is a little sharper in her condemnation of this gender gap. Fittingly enough, the category I read this for is “Classic By a Woman Author”. 

Judging from the goodreads reviews, this is a bit of a marmite book, where either the reader gets Sally and her brand of humor and adventure, or they don’t. I did find Sally occasionally frustrating but I also I laughed out loud more than once as I read about her days and nights with the pseudo-intellectuals and American ex-pats at the Paris cafes, how she gets an acting job in a local English language production, how she is duped into a vacation in the South of France and ends up as an extra in an international film production, etc. There is a little bit of a plot arc, but really the joy of reading the book is just following Sally and wondering what she is going to do or say next. 

This book gets compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s a lot, which is interesting because actually both books were published in the same year: 1958. I can see some similarities between Holly Golightly and Sally J. Gorce in their way of living without thinking of consequences …ah youth.  Ultimately, however, they really aren’t very similar and I don’t think they would like each other, were they to meet. Sally is, for all her worldliness, fairly naïve and she lives off of a trust fund. Holly grew up poor and is a call girl (in my opinion – I know others interpret her way of living through rosier glasses) and lives off of tips from her men clients. 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge: Trilby



For Back to the Classics 2020 category "Classic with a name in the title", I read Trilby by George du Maurier. This would have also worked for Paris in July, had I participated...though I actually read this back in April. Reading Trilby was intriguing to me before I even read the first paragraph because:

1. It was written by Daphne du Maurier’s grandfather,
2. It is the origin of the term “Svengali”.

I doubt many people know what “Svengali” means now or use it casually, but it was once as common as the term “Romeo” or “Scrooge” - one of those words where you know what it means but you don’t necessarily link the origin of it with a book. I wonder someday if that will happen with, say “Indiana Jones” or “Scooby-Doo”? A Svengali is someone who manipulates another (usually an older man and a younger woman), often using his hypnotic powers, for a sinister or selfish purpose.

So what is the book about you ask? Shut up already about word origins! It is a nostalgic look at la vie Bohème in 1850s Paris which du Maurier experienced firsthand in his youth. I have not doubt that the book’s popularity, when it was published in 1894, must have been in part due to its scandalous depiction of bohemian life with its more casual mores about sex and nudity compared to that of Victorian England. 

In it, three young men, Laird (who is Scottish), Taffy and Little Billee (who are English) share a Left Bank studio in Paris where they meet Trilby, the beautiful, jejune orphan whose alcoholic parents, an Irish gentleman down on his luck and a Scottish barmaid, more or less left her to grow up on her own on the streets of Paris. Now, she models (in the all together, naturally) for painters and sculptors to support herself and her younger brother. All three of the men, who hope to become artists themselves, are in love with Trilby. And Trilby is a lovely character, generous and uncomplicated, she has a real zest for life. Especially enamored is sensitive soul, Little Billee, whose love she returns. Unfortunately, she has also caught the eye of the manipulative musician Svengali. Alas, Trilby knows she can never be Billee’s wife, even if she goes straight and stops modeling, since he is British middle class and she is little more than a street waif. This may be bohemian Paris, but the rules are still different for men and women. Are you smelling the melodrama here? Because it is cooking! The plot goes cuckoo when Billee returns to England a broken man and he runs into Trilby again. But I don't want to spoil it...

I am glad to have read it, I hope someday it will serve me well in a pub quiz or a round of Trivial Pursuit. But it was a bit meandering - there was lots of description that slowed me down (George re-living his salad days, no doubt). Not to mention the untranslated French, also not to mention the untranslated French written phonetically in a German accent. Sacré bleu! I usually dislike it when authors write in dialect. 

Also, it is very anti-Semitic. Svengali, like Fagin in Oliver Twist is not a bad and a Jew. He is bad because he is a Jew. This isn't uncommon to encounter in older books but still, it is discomforting to read. So be forewarned. However, if it sounds interesting to you, it is free for download from Project Gutenburg. 😃

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: The Winds of Heaven



Weirdly, working from home not been conducive to my on-line life. I apologize that I haven’t been reading and commenting on my friends' posts in the last couple months. Moving forward, I will be better and get back to the swing of things because I do miss it!

I have been reading, however, and for the Back to the Classics category “A classic with nature in the title”, I read The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens in my lovely Persephone edition, pictured. The disinterested storytelling style of The Winds of Heaven reminded me a tad of Dorothy Whipple, another Persephone author, but I think I’ve enjoyed the Whipple novels I’ve read so far more.  I found the quiet interludes compared to the melodramatic moments a little too uneven for my tastes. Despite this quibble, I really did like the novel and will read more from Dickens in future.

First published in 1955, the story is about Louise, who is widowed at 50 something. Louise’s husband bullied her and left her with only debts upon his death. Since she cannot afford to support herself, she is shunted between the homes of her self-centered grown daughters in the spring, summer and fall while spending the winters in Portsmouth on the charity of a school friend who runs a hotel. Louise’s only occasional solace is her awkward granddaughter Ellen, her son-in-law Frank and her newfound friend, Mr. Disher.

Her eldest daughter, Miriam, lives in upper middle-class comfort in a London suburb with the aforementioned Ellen and two younger grandchildren, who are clearly more favored by their parents.  Louise’s youngest daughter, Eva, is an aspiring actress who lives in a London flat and her middle child Anne, lives with her farmer-husband in the country.  All three daughters see their mother as a burden, even though all three have space enough to allow her to live with them permanently. Louise longs to live independently, but that would require her taking a job, which is an anathema to her daughters. They don’t want her around, but they also don’t want the shame of their mother having to work for a living. 

It’s all very bleak with a few moments of brightness for Louise. Louise’ interactions with Ellen are touching, particularly since it is clear that Ellen sympathizes with her Grandmother because she too is unwanted. And Louise’s relationship with Mr. Disher is delightful, from the moment then meet by chance in a tea shop and she learns he is a salesman by day but in his spare time a writer of lurid, pulp fiction paperbacks. I think that Dickens excelled in her characterization here, which is why it was sometimes so sad to read, because the reader really feels for the characters when they suffer. But I will say, without spoiling things, that the book was satisfactorily resolved for me.