Saturday, March 18, 2006

Some reads, new and old

I remember writing way back when, when my blog was still in its infancy and I was still new to Newfoundland (a newfie newbie, as it were), that I was in a reading rut. Not so much right now -- never mind the endless articles, essays, and parts of books that all get funnelled into whatever I happen to be writing, I have been running through a fairly large number of books for both teaching purposes and for my own pleasure and entertainment. I have been striking a nice little balance between books I love that I have been rereading, and new stuff.

I guess that this is one of the small payoffs of working through my various degrees and into this job -- both of my courses this semester have reading lists assembled to a large extent based on books I love. So I have had the exquisite pleasure of immersing myself back into narratives that were deeply affecting the first read-around, and have lost nothing for their familiarity -- quite the opposite, in fact. It is like renewing acquaintances with old friends. Here's Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice; the screechings of Mrs. Bennet and the wry interjections of Mr. Bennet, the obsequious pomposity of Mr. Collins and the imperious absurdity of Lady Catherine DeBourgh. I felt anew a sentimental triumph when Mr. Darcy rounds on Elizabeth in frustration and declares, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me and this subject for ever."

Too cool.

Or the surreal, nightmarish southern gothic of William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, where one is never certain where the nightmare ends and the reality begins, where the doomed Quentin Compson desperately tries to unravel the tortured tapestry of his family's history and the history of the South.

The haunted scarecrow faces of the migrants in The Grapes of Wrath -- Steinbeck's sustained howl of rage at the indignities visited by humans on one another, which is yet eminently hopeful in the depiction of community and commitment.

We begin Time's Arrow next week in my first year class, speaking of howls of rage. There's novel that loses nothing upon rereading: Martin Amis' backward narrative implicitly agrees with Theodor Adorno's statement that "there can be no poetry after Auschwitz" by running time backward -- from the death of a Nazi death-camp doctor, through a baffling world in which everything runs in reverse and where the world does not make sense until we are back in the camps ... and then the Germans call down the souls of the Jews from the smoke-filled skies to be made whole in the ovens, and where for the first time the doctor appears to heal his patients rather than inflicting wounds on them and sending them back out through the doors of the emergency rooms in which he worked under assumed names in America.

This was, I think, my fifth reading of Amis' novel -- and, having finished it just this morning, I am still in the haze of shock that my first reading gave me some ten or twelve years ago.

I have also recently had my first-ever encounter with Ian McEwan in the form of his most recent novel Saturday, which follows the events in a single day in the life of a London doctor; it is February, 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq and the day of the massive protest that marched through London. We follow the doctor as he runs errands and prepares for a family dinner, and are carried by his thoughts as he muses on the imminent war and the change in the world since 9/11. McEwan has a remarkable talent for depicting the mundane: though there is action and conflict at points, the most compelling parts of the novel (for me) are the quotidian details.

On a lighter and more humorous note, I've also recently finished Royal Flash, the second instalment of the "Flashman Papers," a series of historical novels that follow the eventful life of Harry Flashman -- war hero, raconteur, world traveler and acquaintance of kings, lords, ladies, politicians and generals. Decorated by Queen Victoria, known to the Duke of Wellington, Otto von Bismark, Robert E. Lee, and a host of other historical luminaries. Except that these papers are his personal candid memoirs: written in his eighties and not discovered until the mid-twentieth century, they reveal that Flashman was, in reality, a coward, a cad, a drunk, a womanizer and general rotter. Our hero cheerfully recounts his failings and his many escapades in which he unscrupulously stole, wheedled, lied, seduced, fled, and occasionally murdered his way through almost every major conflict and historical upheaval of the nineteenth century, and somehow managed not only to come through these rather terrifying adventures without revealing to the world his true nature, but actually comes out smelling like a rose and covered in glory.

In Royal Flash, good old Flashy gets himself embroiled in a series of German intrigues masterminded by no one less that Otto von Bismark himself. All seems bleak for our hero: but with his usual cowardly vim, he manages to flee danger whenever it rears its ugly head (though he does get caught up in some unavoidable swordplay), as well as add a few more notches to his already well-notched bedpost.

I was first turned on to these books by my friend Sean, and I have in turn gotten my father hooked. A lot remains to be read: Royal Flash is only the second book in a series now up to its twelfth instalment. That's a lot of fleeing from danger, drinking to excess and womanizing to get through ... but I'm sure our man Flash is up to it.


FanglyFish said...
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FanglyFish said...

With Morgan around we have been reading some very challenging and insightful books.

The Fluffy Chick, and Friends:

We visit our friends The Chick, The Duck, The Sheep, The Horse, The Cow, The Goat, The Pig, and The Goose in the barnyard as they tackle many everyday issues such as what noises to they make and what do their coats and feathers feel like. A real page-turner. 2 Thumbs up.

Pat the Bunny. Sleep Bunny

We follow the nighttime rituals of bunny as he prepares himself to go to sleep. Diving into some of societies hottest issues like putting his toys away, and having a yummy snack this book is sure to open your eyes to what really goes on in the rabbit society that is kept so secret.

Goodnight Moon:

We watch the cow jump over the moon, and say goodnight to a bowl full of mush.... Need I say more?

Anonymous said...

Dulce et decorum est pro patria rogeri.


Lesley said...

Ok what English Teacher school did you go to because all the books I had to read in University and High School were boring, boring, and extremely boring. We didn't have any cool books. It was all boring sonnets, boring Shakespeare plays (not all are boring mind you, just the ones we had to read) and literature from the dark ages that required a translator to decipher.

Although, the line about being able to speak to strangers in Pride and Prejudice has become my favourite...what was it again..."I haven't a talent for conversation with people I am not acquainted with" or something of that sort. Or was that just in the movie. Feel free to point out my short comings in the Jane Austen arena.

However, one of my favourites that is a must in any English class was of course Wuthering Heights. And also Jane Eyre. That has to be my all time favourite. Along with The Heart of Darkness.

And fanglyfish, Goodnight Moon is a classic. Especially when Morgan learns to read some of it and entertains you with her vast knowledge of the characters in the book. I believe my niece read it front to back four times to me one night. The magic in the kids books comes out when they're able to tell you what they remember of the story. And if you're looking for a new one, try "A Tree Named Steve". Tears me up every time I read it.

clarence-jer said...

LOL! Rogero, rogeras, rogerat...

Flashman was also a character in Tom Brown's Schooldays and, if I'm not mistaken, the inspiration for Lord Flasheart ("where've you been?" "Where HAVEN'T I been?")

Chris in NF said...

Spot on, Jer -- the first instalment of Flashman begins with Flash being drummed out of the Rugby School for drunkenness, and, with few other options before him, taking a comission in Horse Guards and being sent to Afghanistan. And the rest is history ...

And I hadn't made the Flasheart connection, but ... of COURSE. Too true.

"She's got a tongue like an electric eel, and she likes the taste of a MAN's tonsils!!"

"Queenie!! Am I happy to see you, or did I just shove a CANOE down my trousers!!"

I swear, the brilliance of Blackadder was in its peripheral characters. Let's not even get into Stephen Fry's portrayal of Wellington.

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