nabokov’s favorite word is mauve

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I am obsessed. I was browsing the literary criticism/essays shelves at Barnes & Noble, as one does, when I happened upon this treasure. It was one of those soul-meets-book moments. Like, I had no idea I wanted this book to exist, but once I saw it I knew I had actually been waiting for it my whole life. This is Google Ngram meets human researcher, and the result is delightful.

Blatt examines writing style via statistics, focusing on specific questions to get an idea of the patterns numbers can illuminate. Some of his questions I had asked (with no ready answer) long before picking up this book (like the jumping-off point for the first chapter: Did Hemingway avoid adverbs?), while other questions Blatt addressed had never occurred to me. His survey of written works spanned classics to fan fiction to erotica, and he detailed the process of gathering relevant samples from each category. Tables and graphs, all shaded mauve, accompanied the written summaries of his research. His explanations of the data and parameters were clear and straightforward. This book is informative regarding both literary history and writing technique, and I already want to reread it.

A few gems: The three words appearing together at the beginning of the most sentences in Fifty Shades of Grey are: “Christian Grey CEO” (“My inner goddess” is phrase number three); the most distinctive word in US erotica is “comforter,” while in the UK it’s “wanked”; and 42 of Danielle Steele’s 92 opening sentences mention the weather. In case I’ve just made this book seem judgmental (I definitely have), it actually isn’t. <em>I am</em>, but Blatt presented information alongside respectful commentary. This book is funny, but the humor is not mean-spirited.

Despite the breadth and depth that Blatt covered, I want more. If he ever feels like following the trend of inflation in follow-up books, I’ll be here to read the result.

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the shadow of the sun

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A.S. Byatt is an author whose good books are so good that I keep coming back to her, even though some of her other books are among my least favorites. Like Chabon and Nabokov, I plan to read everything she’s published, despite how frustrating I’ve found some of her work. So far, I’ve read Possession, The Children’s Book, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, The Biographer’s Tale, The Virgin in the Garden, and, most recently, The Shadow of the Sun.*

The Children’s Book was my favorite; it captivated me completely. While I also loved Possession, it was The Children’s Book that cemented just how well Byatt could write, and how affecting her novels could be. I recognize that The Children’s Book, more than Possession, is an acquired taste. But if you’ve got the taste for it? It’s pretty damn awesome.

I read The Biographer’s Tale on the heels of The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, and, I think because I was craving some solid Byatt academia, I tried to like it. By the time I read The Virgin in the Garden, I was ready to admit that maybe not every Byatt book is for me.

The Shadow of the Sun was not a bad book. It ranks below The Children’s Book, Possession, and The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, but I liked it more than The Biographer’s Tale and The Virgin in the Garden. There were sections I could see myself rereading in the future, but there were also sections that I could have done without reading the first time.

As the blurbs quoted on my edition of The Shadow of the Sun** repeatedly point out, this was Byatt’s first published novel. (The back of the book reads like a college writing workshop when the professor asks everyone to say something nice about an esoteric story no one liked: “…there are passages which seem to speak in a maturer voice, the voice perhaps of Mrs. Byatt’s third or fourth novel.”; “Her novel has undoubted merit, certainly enough to make one watch expectantly for her future work.”; “[The novel] suggests that before long Mrs. Byatt may achieve a considerable reputation.”) This edition was a re-release following the success of Possession, and it’s clear that it was rushed to capitalize on that buzz. I lost count of the number of typos, and, while I don’t normally find sporadic typos all that distracting, the ones in this book were numerous and obvious enough that they did affect how I read it. I wish the team responsible for publishing this version had been more careful with it.

The book follows Anna Severell, the daughter of a successful novelist, as she tries to figure out what she wants to do in life and what she will be able to achieve. Everything she does is colored by the identity of her father, and she knows that if she pursues writing, which is the only career she can imagine for herself, she will be seen first as Henry Severell’s daughter. Faced with her father’s reputation and society’s prejudices, she finds it impossible to begin anything.

The novel deals with self-consciousness and self-assessment, addressing how outside forces affect how people see themselves, and how what they see affects who they actually are. Anna struggles against other characters’ impressions of her. She also struggles against societal expectations, whether they are the expectations drawn from her father’s success or associated with the fact that she is a woman and therefore is not expected to have any goals other than to become a wife and mother. These are conflicting expectations: To follow the path of a Severell and do something, or to follow the path of a woman, of her mother, and sacrifice everything she is for her family. Anna finds her future difficult to face, and spends much of the book struck by inaction.

The only person who takes an active interest in Anna and her future is Oliver Canning, a reviewer who befriended her father through a lengthy correspondence but irritates him whenever they meet in person. Oliver coaches Anna and, once she has secured a place at Cambridge, begins seeing her. The plot as it concerned Oliver became fairly predictable, and, while he was very present in the first half of the book, he became pivotal to the second half, which is where it fell flat for me.

While in many ways I understand Anna and the struggle inherent in her situation, I also wanted to shake her. And her mother. And her father. And if Oliver could have been kicked into the Thames, that would have been totally great. I would have given whoever kicked him a few gold stars. All of this character-driven frustration was not a failing on Byatt’s part. The book was, I think, meant to frustrate. But I wanted Anna to be strong, and I grew annoyed that she wasn’t, and by the end I mostly pitied her but also, even recognizing the tone and the way Byatt veers away from happy endings, a part of me expected her to make some sort of effort to help herself.

She didn’t.

What I really appreciated about this book was that we were not asked to like Oliver. (I’ve found that Byatt rarely asks her readers to like her characters, and that makes her books unique and challenging.) If this book had been written by a man, or written as a romance, we would have been expected to be on his side. He would have been the “hero,” the love interest for our dull-but-not-like-other-girls protagonist. This book, particularly in the beginning, reminded me of Glory by Vladimir Nabokov. Both are young books by ambitious authors, and both deal with an unrequited “love” and an ideal that is unrealized and, I would argue, unrealizable. The difference, and what made me like The Shadow of the Sun much more than Glory, is that Nabokov expected us to like his man. Nabokov believed he wrote a flawed but overall sympathetic character. Byatt purposefully wrote a flawed and antagonistic character, whose redeeming qualities—if you believe he has any—are negated within a page. He is the villain, the black hole in the Severells’ lives, and particularly in Anna’s.

This has many of the elements of a typical romance, but it is not a love story. The characters ending up together is not a happy ending. Despite how predictable the plot was, Byatt did achieve her genre-inversion, and this was a well-written book with moments of ingenuity. (Now I sound like a kid in that college writing workshop. It shows such promise! She’ll do great things, next time!) Honestly, though, I did like this book a lot. I wish different things had happened in the second half, but the beginning and the very end were great.

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* I’ve added Still Life, Babel Tower, Elementals, and Little Black Book of Stories to this list since I first wrote this entry, and I liked all of them.

** I thought I kept my copy of this book, but I’ve done a thorough search of my bookshelves and cannot find it. I think I donated it when I moved. Anyway, that’s why the picture for this entry is Little Black Book of Stories rather than the book I’m actually writing about.

tender is the night

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I have a weird relationship with Fitzgerald.

Well, I say weird. I mostly mean I have a superficial relationship with Fitzgerald. While I enjoy his writing style, my decision to read more than just The Great Gatsby is entirely due to the foiled editions of his books that Penguin released at the 70th anniversary of his death. I found a copy of This Side of Paradise for cheap at T.J. Maxx and bought it because I had liked Gatsby and the edition was so pretty. So much shine. Very sophisticated.

Once I read This Side of Paradise and actually liked it, there was nothing to stop me from buying the rest of the collection (except, like, cash money. And also the fact that, while I liked Paradise as a whole, there were parts of it I really disliked). I periodically added a fancy Fitzgerald book to my Amazon shopping cart and eventually collected all the novels (including Gatsby, which I have already read and have no plans to reread). I haven’t yet bought the short story collections, but Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age are both just waiting on a single click.*

My Fitzgerald reading timeline goes: The Great Gatsby; This Side of Paradise; The Beautiful and Damned; and, now, Tender is the Night.

Someday I will read The Last Tycoon, even though I hate reading unfinished works, because I am a sucker for the pretty and therefore the book is on my shelf. Tender is the Night looked so long and chunky and Fitzgerald-y that it took me two years to make myself read it. And, of course, upon reading it, I am conflicted (would someone please find me an uncomplicated book?).

I loved the writing, just like I’ve loved the writing in everything I’ve read by Fitzgerald. If I were to rank his novels (subjectively) Tender is the Night might make the list slightly above Gatsby and This Side of Paradise. I did not like The Beautiful and Damned nearly as much, even though it has similar themes and characters to his other books.

From a modern perspective, much about Fitzgerald is irredeemable. He was sexist, racist, ableist, and homophobic. Or anyway, he wrote protagonists who are all of those things, and, while authors do create characters whose views are different than their own, I’ve never heard that said about Fitzgerald. Most people see his main men as fictionalized versions of himself. The Internet tells me it is widely accepted that Dick Diver, the protagonist of Tender is the Night, is essentially Fitzgerald. So Dick sucked, and while we were expected to be on his side (maybe? I hated him so much it was hard to tell what “we” were supposed to want for him), I was perfectly content to read about his fall from grace.

I loved his wife, though. Nicole was privileged and every –ist listed above, but she also had depth. (As did Rosemary, whom I also liked, although to a lesser extent and for different reasons.) Again, I don’t know if we were supposed to like Nicole. I loved the letters she wrote when she was supposedly insane; I loved that line about Dick being like a cat. I loved how distant she got around people. I did not love how Fitzgerald/Dick sometimes summed her up, and the way Fitzgerald wrote her opinion of herself. I did love that, instead of sacrificing herself when Dick started to fall apart, she found herself a different life. Her decisions were not really her decisions (there was, for the most part, a distinct lack of agency) but the one or two she did make for herself made me proud of her.

Like most books by white authors, and especially popular books by white male authors, Tender is the Night is informed by a severe level of privilege. Its political atmosphere is impossible to escape. Dick’s perspective was in no way atypical of his class during the 1920s/1930s, but it is atypical of the general population. His biggest struggle was that his wife was richer than him and his pride couldn’t handle it; his second biggest struggle was the fact of aging; these conditions led to him becoming an alcoholic, which in turn led to the destruction of his character.

This is not a big book, nor a brave one, nor a particularly important one. Fitzgerald addresses mental illness, primarily from the outside, and the tone is judgmental. Nicole, diagnosed as schizophrenic, is mostly treated as a fragile patient throughout her marriage to Dick. If Dick had not been the main character of the novel, or if he had been written differently, the conflict between wife/patient may have been a progressive focus for the plot. As it was, it was mentioned occasionally, as a shadow to Dick’s personal struggles. There’s this scene near the end where Tommy asks Nicole,

“Why didn’t they leave you in your natural state?…You are the most dramatic person I have known.”

She had no answer.

“All this taming of women!” he scoffed.

“In any society there are certain—” She felt Dick’s ghost prompting at her elbow but she subsided at Tommy’s overtone: “I’ve brutalized many men into shape but I wouldn’t take a chance on half the number of women. Especially this ‘kind’ bullying—what good does it do anybody?—you or him or anybody?”

Of course Tommy had to go and compare his treatment of men and women and make it all misogynist-y, and he doesn’t listen to Nicole and is condescending to her, but I still appreciated the general theme, especially that, “All this taming of women!” You are damned straight with your scoff, sir.

There’s also rampant racism, ranging from the easy cover-up of the murder of a black man in a French hotel to an offhand comment about a man’s skin being “not quite light enough to travel in a Pullman south of Mason-Dixon,” which description actually made me double take. Separating this book from the time in which it was written renders much of it abhorrent. Keeping it sealed up in that time and avoiding addressing these topics does a disservice to the work done in the past 70-plus years. It’s difficult to love this book without reservations, recognizing that almost all of its themes are harmful when not viewed critically.

Fitzgerald was a product of his time and social class, which is not an excuse, but is an explanation. Tender is the Night serves as a microcosm of a historical (and unfortunately not so historical) viewpoint on tense social issues that have still not been resolved. That was, of course, not Fitzgerald’s intent, but the way the book has lasted means that its role will adjust, and it has become educational regarding a very limited perspective of a very limited period in world history.

As far as this being a “classic” and being considered part of the alleged western canon (secondary to Gatsby, of course, and probably only included because of the success of that—but still included), I think that’s a load of bull. I would consider Fitzgerald a strong writer, but I am sure there were plenty of strong writers being published in the 1920s whose work is no longer in circulation. There is nothing about Tender is the Night that makes it stand out from any other tragic story I’ve read. (I am always a little upset over the success and longevity of books like this, versus the trivialization of similar books written by women—I’ve read books with nearly identical themes and good writing published as “chick lit” and demoted to the lines of pink filling bookstore shelves.)

Overall, though, this is one of my favorite Fitzgerald books, and I actually liked the way it ended…this may be the first of his books where I’ve actually liked the ending. Which probably just means that Dick is my least favorite of his characters. (And Nicole one of my favorites.)

I realize this was more of an emotional response than a review. Essentially, if you like Fitzgerald or books from this time period, you’ll probably like this one. If not, or if you have a hard time reading books where characters are unapologetically awful, then Tender is the Night would be a good one to avoid.

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* Yet another example of this entry having been written years ago. I have since purchased and read both short story collections.

summer reads

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As mentioned in my post on winter reads (head over there if you’re in the southern hemisphere), I love to reread books, and I especially love to reread particular books at a certain time of year. The Wheel of Time books will always be winter books to me because I read The Eye of the World over a winter break in high school and the later books in the series over Thanksgiving holidays in college. Anything from the Harry Potter series is a summer book because the books were released during the summer, and I have vivid memories of devouring them in my parents’ living room in July, with the curtains shut to keep it cooler inside, making the whole room dusty and pink.

Since I already did a post on books to read in the winter*, I figured I could start a seasonal series (I acknowledge that I missed spring, but so did the weather). This list is heavy on the children’s lit and YA, because those are the books I tend to reread.

Anne of Green Gables  Lucy Maude Montgomery

The rest of the series, too, but the first book is my ideal summer read. It tells the story of an orphan with a wild imagination finding a new home on Prince Edward Island. It is delightful and emotional, and I will always recommend it.

The Last Summer (of You & Me)  Ann Brashares

I haven’t read this book in a long time, but the first time I read it I loved it so much I started it again as soon as I finished it. It was advertised as a “beach read” so…maybe not surprising it appears on this list. I know it was popular when it first came out, but I think it deserves some belated fanfare. It’s a love story, but it’s also a story about sisters and family, and it made me ugly cry.

Half Magic  Edward Eager

I could have put anything by Edward Eager here, but Half Magic was the first book by him that I read, and I also think it was the first book that he published. He wrote wonderful children’s lit set in the summertime, when magical things tend to happen to ordinary children, and his books were everything to me growing up. I reread all of his books when I graduated from college, and I found them just as charming and wonderful at age 21 as I did at age 8.

This Side of Paradise  F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have read a Fitzgerald book every summer since college (except maybe last year?), embarrassingly for the sole reason that upon reading and loving Gatsby, I bought the fancy Penguin Classics editions of the rest of his books and am working through them. I loved This Side of Paradise, though. Amory struck me as pretentious and obnoxious, like many of Fitzgerald’s protagonists, but I actually thought he was likable in a way that Fitzgerald’s characters often aren’t. There’s this one line where Amory goes, “‘Pale moons like that one’—Amory made a vague gesture—‘make people mysterieuse. You look like a young witch with her hat off and her hair sort of mussed.’” And I have no idea why, but I love that line. It probably has something to do with the whole atmosphere of the scene where Amory delivered it, post-thunderstorm and fascinated.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire  J.K. Rowling

As mentioned above, all of the Harry Potter books go on this list, but Goblet of Fire is the first one that I read immediately after release, so it’s the one that has the strongest summer feeling for me. Also, we get more of summer in that book than we do in many of the others. If you haven’t read the series yet and are planning on it, begin at the beginning. If you’re hopping in for a reread, this one is a perfect one to pick up in the summer.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe  Benjamin Alire Sáenz

This is a stunning book about two Mexican-American boys growing up in the 80s. I am in love with it. It is mostly set in summers and is the ideal book to read while lying out in the sun. Or on a rainy summer day. Or on a hot night with the fan on. Basically, just read it. Since it’s summer, you may as well read it soon.

Words for Empty and Words for Full  Bob Hicok

I love Hicok, and this is my favorite poetry collection of his. I do not remember if there is anything particularly summery about it, but it feels summery to me, and the qualifications for this list are 0% evidence based.

Crush  Richard Siken

If you haven’t read Crush, summer is the time to pick it up. Siken’s poetry is moving and emotive, and I have reread this collection in every season, but it always feels most appropriate in summer. Obviously a lot of that has to do with the line, “So it’s summer, so it’s suicide, / so we’re helpless in sleep and struggling at the bottom of the pool,” but the whole collection feels hot and dizzy, like summer nights that pass too quickly.

The Truth About Forever  Sarah Dessen

This was my first Sarah Dessen book. All of her books are set in the summer, so, as with Edward Eager, I could have put any book on this list, but The Truth About Forever will always be my favorite. It is a book about healing, and its characters are genuine and likable. I also loved Keeping the Moon and This Lullaby more than most of her others.

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* If I’m being honest, I wrote this post well before I wrote my winter reads one. This is circa 2016. I am still working through the backlog. (Astute readers will notice that I can’t even keep to a regular blogging schedule when I have the posts ready to go…good luck to me when my last prewritten post is published.)

station eleven

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Do you ever know that you are going to love a book and then put off reading it? I do this all the time, and I often do it on purpose; I like to have a list of books that I look forward to reading. Up until this week, that list included Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

Here is what I knew about Station Eleven going in: A traveling symphony performs Shakespeare plays in a post-apocalyptic world. Which, yeah, that’s true. But it does not even begin to describe the ground covered by this book.

I understand the reluctance to give a more descriptive plot summary. The storytelling method surprised me, and I wouldn’t want to steal that surprise from anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I couldn’t do the plot justice, either—anything I could tell you about it would fall flat. It needs to be discovered the way it was written.

I will tell you how the world ends: There’s a strain of flu that kills 99 percent of the world’s population. Or that’s the estimate. It is impossible to know the actual number because, when approximately 7.5 billion people die, so does global society. The internet is gone; electricity is gone; newspapers are gone; gasoline goes bad after two years; each highway is a gridlock of unmovable cars. People can only communicate with their neighbors. There is no infrastructure, no easy way of contacting someone ten miles away, and intercontinental communication is impossible.

I could not put this book down. Considering that I waited four years to read it, it is ridiculous that once I started, I risked being late for work daily until I finished it. (I was late for work all three days, actually, but does it really count as late when it’s only seven minutes? (That’s a question I won’t ask my manager.))

What made Station Eleven so addicting, aside from the unique structure, is how believable it is. I could see this happening. There is nothing in this book that seemed far fetched. Every few years (or, recently, more frequently), there is talk of a possible pandemic. Plenty of people won’t board a plane without wearing a mask, and they’re not germaphobes. They’re smart.

What frightened me the most about the future as written by St. John Mandel (aside from the mass death) is the absolute isolation. In most cases, these characters don’t know what’s one mile down the road. I like knowing what’s ahead of me when I’m on my 10-mile commute; I am one of those drivers who relies on Waze for alerts about traffic and cops, potholes and parked vehicles. I love being able to open an app to see whether my drive will be five minutes longer than usual. And if what lay ahead could be an ambush rather than a traffic jam? No, thank you.

Another aspect of the isolation is how difficult it is to go anywhere. Not only does the unknown increase with distance, making it dangerous to leave frequently traveled areas, the more distant a destination, the less likely it is that it is possible to reach it. There’s a Parisian character who is on vacation in the United States when the flu hits. Getting from the Midwestern United States to France in the world of Station Eleven is not just difficult, it wouldn’t just take a long time or cost a lot of money. This character can never see Paris again. And no one in the central United States even knows if anyone in Paris has survived. No one knows if anyone in France or Russia or the United Kingdom has survived. Immediately following the flu, a person in Detroit couldn’t know for sure that anyone survived in Ann Arbor. The isolation is complete.

As I’m sure you can tell, Station Eleven made me think. It made me aware of my privilege (recognizing that the mobility I value and would miss is impossible for many today), and it frightened me. Our world is fragile in so many ways. This book highlighted a number of them.

I would recommend this to everyone (except possibly hypochondriacs). The characters are incredible and the storytelling is magnetic. There is one terrifying degree of separation between the world of this book and reality, and entering that world through fiction is one of the best (and most frightening) reading experiences I have had in a long time.

salinger

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I was in college when I first read The Catcher in the Rye. I know that was late, and I don’t know why I waited so long. I think I would have loved it in high school. I still loved it in college, but it is not the growing-up book for me that it is for many other people. I loved Franny and Zooey even more. The Glass family caught me. I know many people didn’t like Seymour: An Introduction. I did, because I was hungry for anything to do with the Glasses by the time I read it. I don’t know if it would stand up to my expectations now, many years later, but I loved it back then.

All of this is to say that I became a little obsessed with Salinger. Not crazy obsessed, really, and I knew that he was not the person everyone wanted him to be. Not a great role model. But Salinger as a writer, rather than as a man? I loved him.

So, when David Shields and Shane Salerno released Salinger, generating an astonishing amount of hype for a book unrelated to Harry Potter or John Green, I could not wait to read it. I got it for my birthday soon after publication and then…let it sit on my shelves for almost three years.* (Because, again. This is what I do.)

But I finally read it! I didn’t love it, but I’m glad that I read it. The structure of it surprised me. I was expecting a straightforward narrative, but Salinger is a variation on an oral biography. A benefit for the authors—I think a drawback for the book overall—was that they could rely on this structure to make assumptions without having a lot of firsthand knowledge about Salinger. Because he was so secretive, so private, and kept his friends so close, Shields and Salerno played a game of six degrees of separation in order to collect enough material to finish their book. I think this would have been more effective as a biography if it had been less discursive. I think it would have been a more successful book overall if they had not defined it as a biography.

Following accounts of what he “would have” experienced during WWII, the longest and most descriptive accounts in this book come from the women who had been a part of Salinger’s life. His treatment of women and girls is particularly abhorrent; I had not known before how far some of his relationships went. I appreciated that Jean Miller, Joyce Maynard, and his daughter, Margaret, all contributed.

The women could have said worse things about Salinger, and the authors could certainly have been more critical of him. They included a quote from Geraldine McGowan which treats his opinion of women much too kindly, but I tagged it because I thought it provided at least the beginnings of understanding where Salinger went wrong:

…Salinger always treated women like they were unbreakable. He has this idea that little girls especially can be leaned on by adult males. It’s a bizarre, bizarre thing to think. But he does, and in the fiction it’s almost like he’s writing an urban Heidi or an urban Pollyanna. These little girls, who come in and save the world, don’t need any help from anybody, no matter what they’ve suffered. It’s a fairy tale, of sorts. Women have a fairy-tale quality in his work. (335)

That’s a romanticized way of putting it, and the romantic side of it goes out the window when Salinger applies that view of girls to the world outside his books. His relationships seemed to be a mess. But even this book, which at times came across as a tell-all, did not allow anyone to completely eviscerate him. It is amazing how fictional characters outlive and overshadow the character of the man who created them. It amazes me that, even though I was cringing at most of the things this book shared about Salinger, even when he was a young man, but even more when he was an older one, I know I will still buy anything that comes from his alleged vault.

I also felt a great deal of sympathy for him because he was traumatized by the War and its aftermath and then destroyed by the fame he sought so ardently, and it is extremely sad to think of the life he could have had if he had been able to live it quietly from the start, living in the woods and publishing without too much fanfare. A question Shields and Salerno keep coming back to is whether he would have liked that life, or if his hermit-ness was simply a very dramatic and lasting publicity stunt. It’s impossible to know, of course, what Salinger thought, but people are complicated and can want very many contradictory things at once. He may have wanted both intense privacy and immense fame.

Most of this book did not surprise me—I was spoiled for the authors’ “big reveal” by the buzz that surrounded this book when it was first published in 2013, and I knew going into the book that Salinger was not the man the world wishes he was. The biggest flaw here was whenever the authors decided to include their own opinions. Anytime I saw “Shields:” or “Salerno:” followed by a block of text, I automatically tensed. The people they interviewed, the articles and criticisms and letters they excerpted, all had individual arguments to make about Salinger and his writing. Shields and Salerno curated what they included in order to support their theses, but the way they themselves expressed those theses within the book came across as juvenile and sloppy.

On the same page as the quote above about Salinger and the way he fairy-tailed young women, Shields is quoted:

David Shields: It’s as if he is pulling an immense blanket over himself: from now on he will keep himself warm by the heat of this impossibly idealized, suicidal, genius, alternative family. This will become his mission: to disappear into the Glasses. (335)

This is not scholarly language. This is not a researcher making an argument; this is a person looking at a hero and trying to understand his life. It’s esoteric to some extent and impossible to prove. The argument of this book, an attempt to solve and define the mystery of Salinger through ten “conditions,” including “Anatomy,” “Oona,” “Wives,” etc., misses the mark, or it did for me. It’s a kind of psychology that doesn’t work, because this book is not about Salinger, himself. It’s about the world outside of Salinger and how it shaped around him. What the world did to Salinger was only ever on the periphery—what he did to the world was central to the book.

If the authors had made an argument about how outsiders were affected by Salinger, they would have been more successful. As it is, they attempted to map an unforthcoming man who had never been public in any way, and I think they failed. I liked this book more for its historical details than anything else. The authors certainly had ambition and a vision, but they went too far in their attempts to prove their thesis and ended up losing their man among all the myths of him.

*A hint that this review was originally written in 2016. Why, yes, I am still working through my backlog of blog posts. Thanks for checking.

letters from a stoic

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In 2014, I started watching booktube videos. Listening to people talk about books while I was making dinner or getting ready for work or trying to fall asleep was not a bad way to fill the airspace. It has resulted in me reading some “fun” (read: emotionally traumatic) series, Throne of Glass and The Raven Boys probably the most notable.

At some point in 2015, I watched a video on this channel, which mentioned Letters from a Stoic by Seneca. I don’t remember which video that was, and I’ve just done a quick search and can’t track it down, but I was apparently intrigued.

I’ve never read much about ancient Greece or Rome, beyond reading some Sophocles and studying mythology in high school. I am interested in the classics, but in a very surface way. A collection of letters from Seneca to Lucilius is not something that I would have picked up if that video hadn’t done such a good job selling it and if, probably more importantly, Penguin hadn’t released a hardback edition as part of their Classics imprint and if, less important but still a reason, Amazon hadn’t stocked that edition at a nice price. Those three factors met on whatever day I added this book to my Amazon cart, and I hit buy at some point, and the book showed up in my mailbox.

And then got added to my to-read shelf because, well. That’s the story of my life and books.

I eventually picked this up in January and just finished it in April (of 2016). It was a good book for sporadic reading, which makes sense, since it is a collection of letters, with an informative but brief introduction which provides a background on Seneca and some of his philosophical ideas. Once I made it through the introduction, it was easy to just read one or two letters every few days.

The topics Seneca covers are wide-ranging and, while he does seem to be lecturing, there are also moments when his tone is chatty. Or, the translation makes it chatty—I don’t know how true the translation is to the original, but it read very well. Some of the things he mentioned, like the treatment of slaves, are abhorrent to today’s readers and some, like the risk of shipwrecks, are not relevant to most people, but he also discusses fear of death (at length) and how to endure suffering with dignity and how to better absorb information, and I really enjoyed those discussions.

All in all, I have no idea what I was expecting when I picked this book up, and also have no real idea why I decided to order it in the first place (aside from that previously mentioned mélange of pretty and cheap and recommended), but I ended up liking it very much. There was some prescient advice, and then some extremely not good advice, and a whole lot of throwaway comments about life in ancient Rome that totally charmed me.

Three lines I particularly loved:
“Let fate find us ready and eager.” (235)

“One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others, instead of being set to rights by reason. We’re seduced by convention.” (272-273)

“No man’s good by accident.” (276)

There were so many sections of this book that just made it clear that, even though it’s been two thousand years, people are still very much the same.