Saturday, August 12, 2017

What I'm Reading

Despite the piles of work that surround me, I am still reading obsessively. What else can I do, with our blowhard joke of a president threatening nuclear war, and the white supremacist fuckwads who support him marching in Virginia, shouting, "Jews will not replace us!"

Oddly, not a single Trump supporter has denounced this march, which devolved into the white supremacists beating counter-protesters, including members of the clergy, with flaming torches and spraying them with mace and other chemicals. Rather than mentioning this, one conservative asshat we all know and love is still screeching endlessly about the persecution of that dudebro at Google.

Update: Dreher, uncharacteristically, condemns the White Nationalist protesters, though he doesn't seem to grasp that Nazi = White Nationalist. And of course his comment stream is filled with those defending the Nazis.

But anyway! Here's what I'm reading lately:

Anthony Trollope, The Small House at Allington, Can You Forgive Her?

Given that George Eliot, once of my favorite 19th century writers, was heavily influenced by Trollope, and given that we own about sixteen of his novels (Dr. Skull likes him a lot), it's odd that I had never read him before.

These are big fat novels, which -- like Middlemarch -- deal with the interwoven lives of an ensemble of characters in mid-19th century England. (Usually -- there are  few set in Ireland, I understand.)

First, novels about a small group of people and how their lives and fortunes interact: that's my jam. Almost all my favorite writers (Jane Emerson, Kate Atkinson, Richard Russo, Octavia Butler) write this sort of novel.

Second, Trollope writes excellent characters.  Austen is good at characters, as we all know; but her ethics and her plots are (forgive me) simplistic. You always know who is right and who is wrong. There is nothing complicated about good and bad in Austen. Charlotte Lucas might have her reasons for marrying Mr. Collins -- but she is clearly wrong to do so, nonetheless, and Austen's narrative punishes her accordingly. Same for Wickham, same for Mary Crawford or Frank Churchill.

In Anthony Trollope's novels, both the characters and the ethical examinations of actions and motives are far more realistic, and thus more interesting. For instance, in Can You Forgive Her? we meet two women, Glencora Palliser and Alice Vavasor. Glencora has married a man she does not love, rather than the one she does love, because her relatives and friends persuaded her it was for the best.

Alice Vavasor, Glencora's cousin and friend, has refused the man she does love, an eminently suitable match, because she also loves -- or did love -- another man.

How does this play out? What becomes of these women? In Austen, you would know. Glencora would be doomed to a terrible fate for listening to sense instead of to her heart -- for marrying a wealthy man she does not love, and abandoning the man she does love. Alice would discover she had been wrong, and marry the better man (whichever one that is).

In Trollope, because he is interested in how situations play out realistically, you don't know what will happen. Often, you don't know who is right -- just as in reality.

Also, though he does go on and on -- including many details I'm just not sure we need (an entire chapter on hunting foxes) -- he's quite good at plot and wonderful at realistic dialogue.

I've read two of these great fat Trollopes, and have started a third, The Warden. More on that in the future.

Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

I'd also never read Paul Auster before, though apparently he is a big deal, having won multiple awards and also having published The New York Trilogy with cover art by Art Spiegleman

This is a good book to start on, I think. (Though how would I know, having read nothing else by him!) It's the story of four iterations of the same character, a child and then young man named Archie Ferguson, growing up in and around New York and New Jersey from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Each Ferguson has the same relatives, but as different events play out, the actions taken by those relatives change; and different events happen to young Ferguson as well -- for instance, one iteration falls out of a tree and breaks his leg as a five year old. Thus, each iteration of Ferguson differs from the others.

It's a study in how characters are formed; but it's also a study of the culture of the New York area and of America in the 1950s and 1960s. And it's very well written.

Highly recommended 10/10 will probably read again.

Marian Cockrell, Mixed Blessings.

This one I'd read before. Marian Cockrell only published three books, this one, The Misadventures of Bethany Price, and The Revolt of Sarah Perkins.

It just occurs to me as I'm writing this that Cockrell shares something with Anthony Trollope -- she too writes about ethical situations realistically. She was publishing from the mid-sixties to the late 1970s, writing about mid-19th century America, but as with Trollope the reader is not given easy questions to think about.

Also, Cockrell also writes about an ensemble of characters whose lives interact, though she usually focuses on one main character, the woman at the center of the story.

Mixed Blessings takes place in 1902, in a small Southern town. There's a little too much sympathy for the South's part in the Civil War, but other than that this is a lovely story about a young girl (she's 18 at the start of the story) whose mother has died, leaving her and her younger brother with only three hundred dollars cash and a large house. Freddy, the young woman, decides to turn the house into a boarding house, in order to conserve the cash and use it to send her younger brother to medical school. She's almost-engaged to a wealthy young man in the area, and hopes he will soon defy his father and marry her, as he has promised to do.

No villains here, and no easy answers. Also wonderful characters. Plus, unlike Trollope, it's short. 10/10, if you can find a copy.


Nicoleandmaggie said...

I love Trollope, but have not had time for him since college. My favorite is barchester towers. I wonder how I would feel about can you forgive her now that I'm middle aged-- I suspect I might react less intellectually and with more understanding.

I probably shouldn't spoil, but I find with Trollope everyone gets about what they deserve (and good people who do stupid things often get second chances after learning their lesson). He's very satisfying in that respect.

delagar said...

(...good people who do stupid things often get second chances after learning their lesson)

Yes, I'm liking that part especially! Making mistakes, in Trollope, doesn't mean you have an irredeemably bad character. It can just mean you made a mistake. (I've always disliked vehemently Austen's treatment of Frank Churchill, for just that reason.)