Saturday, September 6, 2008


School started again, which means until December I’ll always have three or more books going at any given moment. That’s a good feeling, though there hasn’t been any unexpected or surprising overlap in the things I’m reading yet. I don’t really care to write here about my school reading, since I’ll have to do that for class, but I’ll jot some brief comments down, trying to whittle my feelings down to their essence. I tend to construct really convoluted and unbelievable arguments in all my English papers, so maybe here I can try to set the precedent of saying what I actually think. Right now:

Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas : So far, it’s the best thing I’ve read in a long while. No one has ever needed writing like Arenas needed writing. There are some fine pieces of childhood recollection, the sexual moments are particularly honest and funny, but the whole thing is damn good.

Complete Writings by Phillis Wheatley : The first published African American woman. Her poetry deals with religious themes in conventional ways, but denies simple readings; it’s a shame that the author is dead, literally and philosophically, because she could clarify much of the ambiguous meaning in these poems. This is all to say that I don’t know what I think yet (so much shouldn’t, but does, depend upon historical context), though I do agree with editor Vincent Carretta’s description of the author as “artful.” Does that make her akin to one of those 18th century literary heroines, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, whose art is both in her writing and her ability to manipulate her own status as a slave (details that won’t be gone into)? I think that’s a way to understand her importance both in terms of her identity and her accomplishments.

Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction
by Nell Irvin Painter :
I’ve only worked through the background and contexts, but it’s a good account so far, with an interesting bit about the contradiction of “national leadership” for black communities after the Civil War.


The Big Money by John Dos Passos : I finally finished this beast, which means I’ve finished the entire U.S.A. trilogy, and that’s a big weight off my shoulders. Joe Queenan had an article in the New York Times Book Review about his predilection for reading, and re-reading, excessively long novels, and being one of the elite few who has read War and Peace however many (too many) times. That article was obnoxious, but U.S.A.’s a book that doesn’t get read much anymore, so I do have to wonder if I’m among the elite (well, not so elite, but it is something) few currently alive who has read all of its 1500 or so pages. I wish I had some grand conclusion about the trilogy now that it’s behind me, but it’s the sort of book that doesn’t really invite grand conclusions, so I’m left with a few unimportant thoughts:

The most noticeable feature of the writing, and maybe most subversive, is the way that Dos Passos denies every moment of potential drama, and lets everything happen at the same emotional pitch, which is to say no emotion. That doesn’t mean there’s no possibility of a reader’s attachment to these lives, but one has to pay careful attention to feel emotionally moved. The characters are relatable because Dos Passos doesn’t shroud them in myths and fictions, and denies the grand narratives commonly associated with America. The Big Money is no Horatio Alger story, after all, and Dos Passos can’t be accused of being overly optimistic. The lives described are shapeless and aimless, justified by their sheer volume. The only thing particularly American about the novel is the way it’s always looking to the future. What else to like? Dos Passos is a master of free indirect discourse (better than Jane Austen?); creates beautiful imagery with basic colors; and while the “Camera Eye” sections aren’t quite feverish enough to convey a single powerful feeling, certain small phrases stick out as masterful: a theater audience described as a “vague cave of faces” (phonetically grand), a “rusty freighter wallowing in indigo.” The seeds of the D.I.Y. philosophy are here, and a bit of John Edwards’ “Two Americas” campaign theme. The characters often say they “want to see life,” and I can’t help thinking of Morrissey’s same sad desire. Every moment is given equal weight in these lives, but while there are no emotional highs and lows (except the ones assigned by the reader), it’s still life. This book is teeming with life.

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