I saw (on Twitter) an assertion by no less a person than Joyce Carol Oates that reviews should include a minimum of opinion. I am not sure what all of this means for my ethics or my prospects as a book reviewer. But I’ll say it: It is my opinion that this novel is awful, and I am aesthetically or philosophically opposed to it.
What a narrator! To read him is to hear a 100-year-old joke and get it, even if the terms on which you get it are slightly out of kilter from the original. Right off the bat, Dowell, this placid American, describes for us the Ashburnhams, the male half of which will disrupt everyone’s existence with wandering heart and loins: “They were descended, as you will probably expect, from the Ashburnham who accompanied Charles I to the scaffold, and, as you must also expect with this class of English people, you would never have noticed it.”
What else does Dowell, this Quaker with pudding where his balls should be, not notice? That the Ashburnhams don’t speak to one another; that while he ferries his non-invalid invalid wife to healthful spas at Nauheim and elsewhere, Captain Ashburnham is ferrying her vigorously to Pound-town. Talk about creepy. All slices of underdone beef and quiet chats around the bridge table and a particular shade of blue tie, while coursing through it is illicit sex, death, madness, and strong religious feeling.
“I feel that The Great Gatsby is the most together, the most surgically artistic effort of a novelist who was more exciting when he was not trying to contain the hot, maudlin, meandering mess of his own talent. (For the record, I also sense something phony about Gatsby’s very phoniness — for me the only convincing poor person Fitzgerald wrote was one who lost his fortune, not one who made it. Fitzgerald’s poor people were like his black people or his Jews–all characteristics, no character.)”
Modern Library Revue: #28 Tender is the Night by Lydia Kiesling
“I used to feel that the novel output of Fitzgerald was like the literary version of the Myers Briggs test: whichever one a person favored was some fundamental indicator of his or her personality. Roughly it followed that ordinary and banal people liked The Great Gatsby, snotty, effete types liked This Side of Paradise, and The Beautiful and Damned was for the discerning and unconventional (I’ll let you guess in which camp I numbered myself). Tender is the Night was sort of an unknown quantity, preferred by dramatic people, maybe, or people who take pills.”
Modern Library Revue: #28 Tender is the Night by Lydia Kiesling
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
For the junior reviewer trying to make it in the world, reading James Wood can be a profoundly depressing experience.
#LitBeat: Game Recognize Game at the Goodreads LitQuiz
By Lydia Kiesling
On a drizzly evening last week, I attended the Goodreads LitQuiz, one of 180 events constituting last week’s San Francisco LitQuake, a multi-day, multi-talent logistical marvel. Even contemplating the vast program filled me with anxiety, but the quiz, hosted by Millions staff writer Patrick Brown (also Goodreads Community Manager, also husband of Edan Lepucki), seemed like a safe place to bring my crew (and my neuroses) on a Thursday night.
True to the adage about best-laid plans, I found myself at the Make-out Room alone. But standing alone at LitQuiz felt pretty okay. The space was cozy; there were drink-tickets. Patrick, who exhibited great verve and panache as a Quiz Master, greeted the bar and the invited team-less to unite. A clarinetist named Sophie told me that her friends had bailed, and we shook hands. We were soon joined by David, an aspiring librarian. On the question of names, my new teammates allowed me to impose my will upon them; we became Widmerpool, which seemed to me like a prestige pick. This wasn’t some crappy lowbrow trivia where the questions are about Lady Gaga or baseball: this was LitQuiz.
Unlike many of the LitQuake events, which are meant to showcase great writers (or tell writers how to write better or earn more), LitQuiz was about the readers. And if almost zero people get paid for their writing, even fewer people get paid for their reading. It’s a solitary and unremunerated passion, but readers form a proud, quiet fraternity online. David and Sophie, like many of those present, were avid users of Goodreads; they had heard of the event thus. They were also amazing readers. Every trivia team needs a Ringer, and I discovered quickly that I was not she. And that was really great. Game recognize game.
120 people formed around 25 teams, among them The Virginia Woolfpack, Greater Expectations, Illiterate Basterds, George Eliot was a Chick, the (immodest) Patrick Brown Fan Club, and the (topical) Go A’s. Team Widmerpool got off to a slow start in the first round, Heartthrobs and Leading Men, despite David immediately recognizing The Count of Monte Cristo in a question about Sinbad and German luxury cars. We shat the bed on a question about Outlander (James Frazer: wounded hand, seasick, horse-whisperer); likewise threw away 15 points on Sebastian when we should have said Orsino. Fortunately, Sophie spared us the humiliation of not knowing Daisy was the third in a love triangle between Jay and Tom. Things picked up in the next round, Dystopias, and we breezed through round three, Adaptations. My original teammates showed up during the author photo bonus round and provided crucial support (Alan Moore).
Over seven rounds, Widmerpool hummed along like a friendly, well-oiled machine, free of the recriminations and passive aggression that usually beset trivia participants. We did awkward high-fives and talked about books, and Sophie didn’t bat an eyelash when I flung beer on her during my enthusiastic flailing.
As the A’s met defeat in the jaws of the Tigers, we were in a respectable fourth place, with 220 points. The last, final Jeopardy-style category was Banned Books. Deciding, a la Joyce, that it is better to burn than to wither dismally, we wagered all. The question: “What book was banned in France, Argentina, and New Zealand, but spent two years on the U.S. best-seller list in 1958?” We were flummoxed by the countries. Mein Kampf, hazarded David. Kiss of the Spiderwoman, I said, twenty years premature. A trick, we decided, and agreed that Lolita was the right vintage.
We roared as the dulcet tones rolled off of Patrick’s tongue. Stalwart Widmerpool had risked all and triumphed. In the bathroom later, I commiserated about the injustice of Jeopardy style with a member of Greater Expectations, who had been leading the race until the end. “It does suck,” I said, with the generosity of the victor. It was not a meritocracy, but a Quizocracy, Team Widmerpool parted friends, with gift cards from Goodreads, and ideas of what to buy. It was a banner evening.
Talking about traveling, particularly the rugged variety of traveling favored by the youth, can so quickly become an exercise in witting and unwitting and halfwitting braggartry about the distance from indoor plumbing, the extreme isolation of one’s guesthouse, and the rustic nobility of one’s hosts, that it usually seems better to avoid the subject altogether. And now that I look back at my charmed early 20s and realize the immensity of the gift bestowed upon me — the gift of going places and seeing things — to even speak of those days seems gauche. Better I should husband my accounts as ready capital for some social moment when my footing is unsure. If I meet you and mention Uzbekistan, what am I wearing? Is it a turtleneck? Is there an odor?
In the spirit of Banned Books Month, I checked out Forever from my local library, where it sat serenely in Teen Fiction for all the world to see. I read it on a gray morning, and was transported back to the long gray morning of my adolescence, when Judy Blume was my encyclopedia, older sister, and solace.
Here are some of the words in Forever: fucking, come, abortion, balls. There is sex on a bathroom floor, a handjob on a ski weekend, a penis named Ralph. In light of these, I suppose it’s unsurprising that parents and non-parents across America have lobbied vigorously to pry this book out of the hands of enthralled youth since 1975.