Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides


Book Review
Middlesex (2002)
 by Jeffrey Eugenides

  I bought a hard back copy of Middlesex when it was published in 2002.  I promptly left it sitting on a shelf for the next 15 years.  I just couldn't face the multi-generational story of an American immigrant family, narrated by an intersex hermaphrodite, and written by a white male.  Now I don't know where my hard copy is, so I listened to the Audiobook.  Clocking in at 20 hours plus, Middlesex isn't exactly a fun listen, but at least it's not a forty hour book written in the 19th century.   Eugenides is, by all accounts, a clever writer, and Middlesex was an enormous hit- selling over four million copies world wide according to the well-maintained Wikipedia page.

  Even allowing for the novelty of an intersex narrator, the form of Middlesex seems as dated as a serial written by Charles Dickens in 1858.  Perhaps it's the introduction of the novel intersex narrator, paired with the traditional multi-generational narrative, that explains the wide popular audience for the written book.  Eugenides also makes use of the clever narrative trick, first used by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, wherein the narrator narrates his own birth- in this case-starting the action with the narrator's grandparents/siblings in Greek populated Asia minor.   This allows him to expand the action beyond the inner city and suburbs of Detroit, to encompass some actual 20th century action.   Alas, after an encounter between the narrators grandmother and a Nascent Nation of Islam, the rest of Middlesex settles down into a more or less conventional LGBT coming-of-age tale.   It's nice for the intersex to have a voice, but I'd prefer an actual intersex author.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Notes from Underground (1864) by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Book Review
Notes from Underground (1864)
 by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    I got through the existentialists in high school. Adolescence is a good time to read Russian authors like Dostoevsky and the French existentialist philosopher-novelists of the 20th century:  Like a typical adolescent, existentialists see the world as both a) meaningless and b) very serious.  My only observations about existentialism as a 40 year old is that if life is meaningless then one might as well have fun.  Dostoevsky was not fun.  He is the opposite of fun.   None of this books, whatever their other merits can be called fun, or even funny. At all. Ever.

  The one advantage that Notes from Underground holds compared to Dostoevsky's other major works:  Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov and Demons; is length.  Specifically, Notes from Underground is short, and almost everything else by Dostoevsky is long. Super long. Super long, and super serious.   Having read all of his books in used book store paperback the first time around- and all of them outside a school setting- I've been working my way through them for the 1001 Books project in Audiobook format.  Audiobook is the hot thing in fiction rn, make no mistake about it.  Spotify for Audiobooks- someone will figure that out, and when they do I've got my 10 bucks a month or whatever. 

  The major advance in comprehension that I derive from the Audiobook version when it comes to Dostoevsky is the near constant hysteria of the narrator.   Notes from Underground I mostly listened to while running, alongside the Los Angeles River.   Dostoevsky's unnamed narrator, the Underground Man, so to speak, addresses an imaginary audience for the entire book- literally a man sitting in his below street level garret, talking to an invisible audience as if they were in the room with him.

  Conceptually speaking, it's a mind fuck if you stop and think about it. The reader is, after all, part of a real audience.  That the narrator spends so much of the book decrying alack of an audience is ironical- irony not being a particular strong suit in 19th century literature, this narrative stance begins to flush out what it means to be an "existentialist novel."


  It's also worth noting how unlike a novel Notes from Underground is- it's closer to a 18th century style philosophical diatribe coupled with an early example of the short-story.   To call Notes from Underground an "existentialist novel" is misleading on both counts, while still grasping the essence of the enduring appeal to an international audience of modern readers.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928)by D.H. Lawrence


Book Review
Lady Chatterley's Lover  (1928)
by D.H. Lawrence

  Lady Chatterley's Lover, famously not published in England until 1960 on the grounds of obscenity, has disappointed generations of readers looking for a "dirty book" experience to rival the reputation.  Truth be told, Lady Chatterley's Love is about as prurient as an R-rated movie and can be considered obscene or pornographic only in the very strictest (not to mention obsolete) meaning of those words, since the erotic content basically boils down to a frank description of the physical and emotional content of sex between a man and woman.  Lady Chatterley is presented as a progressive girl- not a virgin at the time of her marriage- who is saddled with a husband who is sent home disabled (from the waist down) after World War I.

  As one might well expect, she is not thrilled about her situation, and she engages in two affairs: One with a young writer who sounds like a straight Oscar Wilde and the affair central to the book, with her husband's groundskeeper. It tells you all you need to know about English culture in the 1920s and 1930s to say that most of the characters- Chatterley's older sister, her father, are more concerned about the class implications of L.C. leaving her aristocrat husband for a groundskeeper, even one who was an officer in the British Armed Forces.

  For all it's specificity to English culture at that time and place, Lawrence showed great presience anticipating some of the major themes of literature that were enabled by the sexual revolution.  While it might stretch good faith to call Lawrence a feminist, or Lady Chatterley a feminist character, he at least demonstrates an interest in women and their perspective on sex.  

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