December 2016 Books

december2016books

The Europeans, Henry James

Okay, sure? I don’t think I got much out of this other than a sense that I would not necessarily be averse to reading more Henry James, but based on The Europeans, I have no idea what his deal is—some clever cross-cultural observations and interesting repartee, I guess? It seemed like this was going to culminate in some sort of big reveal or sinister twist wrt to the titular Europeans’ identities and intentions, but nope, it just kind of ended?

I suspect this would be very few people’s recommended gateway to Henry James, oops; it was one of those impulse decisions at the library where I was like, “hmm, I should get around to Henry James at some point, right? The Europeans has an appealing title and length, so let’s go with that rather than, say, The Portrait of a Lady.

Selected quote:

Mr. Wentworth was liberal, and he knew he was liberal. It gave him pleasure to know it, to feel it, to see it recorded; and this pleasure is the only palpable form of self-indulgence with which the narrator of these incidents will be able to charge him.


The Mint, T.E. Lawrence

Oh man, this was great. Unexpectedly, because if someone had tried to sell me on “T.E. Lawrence autobiographical account of serving in the 1920s Royal Air Force” any time prior to, like, a year ago, I would have immediately shot them down, because:

  1. Non-fiction is (mostly) boring.
  2. Military history is always boring.
  3. Who the fuck is T.E. Lawrence? (And once the person clarified “Lawrence of Arabia,” this becomes: why would I give a shit about Lawrence of Arabia?)

But then I read some letters between E.M. Forster and T.E. Lawrence and looked at the sections of his biography on Wikipedia not regarding Arab Revolt, and suddenly I did give a shit. And enough of a shit, apparently, to render objections  1 and 2 irrelevant. (Plus, the beloved E.M.F. discussed The Mint in one of his BBC talks.)

From the first sentence, “God, this is awful,” I was intrigued; that’s such a weirdly compelling opening line, isn’t it? The indication there, that this is going to be conversational and honest, and not just a dry listing of facts or, like, a super macho and patriotic celebration of military service. And when that continued into:

God, this is awful. Hesitating for two hours up and down a filthy street, lips and hands and knees tremulously out of control, my heart pounding in fear of that little door through which I must go to join up. Try sitting a moment in the churchyard? That’s caused it. The nearest lavatory, now. Oh yes, of course, under the church. What was Baker’s story about the cornice?

A penny; which leaves me fifteen. Buck up, old seat-wiper: I can’t tip you and I’m urgent. Won by a short head. My right shoe is burst along the welt and my trousers are growing fringes. One reason that taught me I wasn’t a man of action was this routine melting of the bowels before a crisis. However, now we end it. I’m going straight up and in.

I was fully in.

Note the background here: Lawrence did all of his stuff in Arabia from 1916 to 1918, returned to England as a massive public figure and continued to do some political work, [had a lot of Feelings about his involvement in the Arab Revolt, his reputation, his ability to write, etc.], and then in 1922, rejected all of that fame and enlisted in the RAF under a false name (although he definitely pulled some strings to make this happen). And now he’s starting his account of that time with a detailed description of his bowels: amazing.

In general, the lack of propriety in the narration is very refreshing and an interesting juxtaposition with the subject matter, since at least externally, the RAF is all about the rules and decorum. And Lawrence was super into the RAF–he put a lot of work into enlisting (and then re-enlisting after getting forced out when his identity was exposed), to the point where it probably would have been easier to accept a prestigious political position or something–and he was probably, like, a very rule-abiding aircraftman. Still, that doesn’t stop him from beautifully and, presumably, faithfully transcribing the salty language of his fellow enlistees, having a whole chapter entitled “Shit-Cart” (describing garbage collection duty), calling out the sadism of certain commanding officers, and just maintaining a sense of humor and irreverence throughout.

Cook, the ex-seaman, staggered through the door. At once his pals took charge. One hasted to put down his bed while another stretched him on the hut form and stripped him. Together they tucked him up: in turn they held his basin while he vomited. Some laughed at his plight, but the seniors checked them, saying, ‘Poor bugger: he’s properly loaded.’ The sense was that one of us had met misfortune. James, our young and very proud acetylene-welder, sneered with the uncharity of the not-yet-fallen. ‘Cunt shouldn’t bastard-well drink if he can’t carry it.’ ‘Wait,’ said Peters angrily, ‘till you grow up and a man offers you a wet.’

As I lay dozing, snatches of these Saturday conversations shouted through the din on three sides of my lying-place assaulted my ears. ‘Jock had a pot tonight in the wet canteen.’ ‘Bollocks: the barman only shook his bloody apron at him, and he went arse-ways on the fucking floor.’ ‘They do the hesitation and the chain in the same movement.’ ‘Golly, I didn’t half want it: she fair lifted.’ ‘He swore he’d been on sherry and bitters all fucking night, and it was only bastard-well twenty-past-six, and the bloody bar hadn’t opened till six.’ ‘Her eyes were starey, like a haddock’s: gave my fucking arse-hole a headache.’ ‘The poshest guy had white shoes, and white flannel slacks, and his blue tunic. Boy, he looked bloody smart.’ ‘If we’re daft they’re fucking lunatics at Rugby.’ ‘What about the brooches loast? The M.C. calls Silence, any Lady lost a brooch. See all the tarts grab their tits.’ ‘Stoke’s famous for cracked pots.’ ‘Anyway, it doesn’t take six cunting towns to make our burg.’ ‘One snaky piece had a low dress, and she shimmied.’

“Bastard-well” and “cunting” are some particularly interesting discoveries here. And I got to add two more examples to my [auxiliary] [pronoun] fuck collection. The fascination initially mentioned here has become a bit of a compulsion, sure.

(Also the next person in the Outlander comments section who tries to claim that the profanity used by Claire–a WWII-era British Army nurse–is anachronistic, can in fact, FUCK RIGHT OFF.)

Lots of interesting insights into T.E.L.’s psychology. The perspective of feeling mentally burned out and wanting to abandon intellectual life to just follow orders for a while is v relatable.

Also why was I in the R.A.F.? I explained that I’d overdone the imaginative life, as expressed in study, and needed to lie fallow awhile in the open air. That meant earning a living by my hands, as I had no resources, and my scholarly hands weren’t worth a meal at any trade. So I had enlisted. I spared him my urge downwards, in pursuit of the safety which can’t fall further: and the necessary compulsion to re-learn poverty, which comes hard after some years of using money. I reckon I’ve got my wishes, so far as being bottom-dog and poor are concerned: but perhaps few doctors would have prescribed Hardy or Sergeant Poulton as a remedy for nerves.

And mannn, Lawrence’s relationship to the fleshy body: fascinating. One wonders how much of it is rooted in getting brutally tortured in Deraa during the Revolt? Or his experiences growing up as a bastard in Victorian-Edwardian Britain? Versus what is just “his deal” not due to the major expected external factors. In any case, it’s kind of unexpected for someone who really, really wanted to enlist in the RAF. I mean, yeah, dude is full of contradictions and this is probably a well-known thing.

We are now hardened to P.T. and avoid its acerbities. The younger irks can laugh and play among the half-made beds, when they come off it: but I am distressed till the afternoon. Of course it is partly mental, this distress. I have wished myself to know that any deliberate exercise or display of the body is a prostitution; our created shapes being only our accidents until by taking pleasure or pains in them we make them our fault. Therefore the having to be attentive to my arms and legs is the bitterest part of the bill I pay for this privilege of enlistment.


Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri

Definitely meant to be reading The Namesake and didn’t realize my mistake until, like, halfway through the second story of this, when it became clear that this was a collection of unconnected short stories and not a novel about a dude named Gogol, oops. As always, I must state: I don’t really like short stories, because if the premise or the characters are compelling enough, I’d rather have a full-length novel about them, and if they’re not, then I’m just forcing myself to read the thing for completion, so…why? I can recognize that these are mostly very well-constructed short stories or whatever, but yeah, let’s actually pick up The Namesake next time.

Selected quote:

When he finished writing his address Mr. Kapasi handed her the paper, but as soon as he did so he worried that he had either misspelled his name, or accidentally reversed the numbers of his postal code. He dreaded the possibility of a lost letter, the photograph never reaching him, hovering somewhere in Orissa, close but ultimately unattainable. He thought of asking for the slip of paper again, just to make sure he had written his address accurately, but Mrs. Das had already dropped it into the jumble of her bag. (from “Interpreter of Maladies”)


Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan

Read this over the course of several months and would probably need to re-read (and maybe re-re-read) to fully absorb some of the language and comprehend it as a whole. Some of McLuhan’s terminology is, I think, needlessly confusing and maybe hasn’t aged well (the concept of “hot” and “cool” media forms is mainly what I’m thinking of here). But a lot of it still felt super relevant–particularly the stuff on visual vs oral cultures and specialization, but also just the general attitude towards technology?

When machine production was new, it gradually created an environment whose content was the old environment of agrarian life and the arts and crafts. This older environment was elevated to an art form by the new mechanical environment. The machine turned Nature into an art form. For the first time men began to regard nature as a source of aesthetic and spiritual values. They began to marvel that earlier ages had been so unaware of the word of Nature as Art. Each new technology creates an environment that is itself regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns its predecessor into an art form.

Overall, would conclude that McLuhan is both a super prescient visionary and super full of shit.

Marshall McLuhan is a Super Prescient Visionary:

Perhaps the most obvious “closure” or psychic consequence of any new technology is just the demand for it. Nobody wants a motorcar till there are motorcars, and nobody is interested in TV until there are TV programs. This power of technology to create its own world of demand is not independent of technology being first an extension of our own bodies and senses. When we are deprived of our sense of sight, the other senses take up the role of sight in some degree. But the need to use the senses that are available is as insistent as breathing—a fact that makes sense of the urge to keep radio and TV going more or less continuously. The urge to continuous use is quite independent of the “content” of public programs or of the private sense life, being testimony to the fact that technology is part of our bodies. Electric technology is directly related to our central nervous systems, so it is ridiculous to talk of “what the public wants” played over its own nerves. This question would be like asking people what sort of sights and sounds they would prefer around them in an urban metropolis! Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don’t really have any rights left.

Marshall McLuhan is Super Full of Shit:

Hupty-Dumpty is the familiar example of the clown unsuccessfully imitating the acrobat. Just because all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again, it doesn’t follow that electromagnetic automation couldn’t have put Humpty-Dumpty back together. The integral and unified egg had no business sitting on a wall anyway. Walls are made of uniformly fragmented bricks that arise with specialisms and bureaucracies. They are the deadly enemies of integral beings like eggs. Humpty-Dumpty met the challenge of the wall with a spectacular collapse.

The same nursery rhyme comments on the consequences of the fall of Humpty-Dumpty. That is the point about the King’s horses and men. They, too, are fragmented and specialized. Having no unified vision of the whole, they are helpless. Humpty-Dumpty is an obvious example of integral wholeness. The mere existence of the wall already spelt his fall. James Joyce in Finnegans Wake never ceases to interlace these themes, and the title of the work indicates his awareness that “a-stone-aging” as it may be, the electric age is recovering the unity of plastic and iconic space, and is putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again.

The fuck, man?


Texts from Jane Eyre, Mallory Ortberg

Eh, funny enough, but the schtick–rewrite interactions between characters from classic literature in text-speak, with some additional meta-commentary and modern values–sort of lost its effectiveness after the first twenty or so pages. Especially since almost every one was like, one person saying outrageous in-character things and the other person responding as a generic straight man, and so it becomes more about recognizing that tone than the specific literary references and starts to feel a bit lazy? I don’t know, it’s the sort of thing that seems super funny when you see it on the internet, but not quite clever enough in a physical book, even if it is the same content. (Almost…as if…the medium is the message.)

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