The OF Blog

Monday, September 07, 2015

Vera Caspary, Laura

The city that Sunday morning was quiet.  Those millions of New Yorkers who, by need or preference, remain in town over a summer week-end had been crushed spiritless by humidity.  Over the island hung a fog that smelled and felt like water in which too many soda-water glasses have been washed.  Sitting at my desk, pen in hand, I treasured the sense that, among those millions, only I, Waldo Lydecker, was up and doing.  The day just past, devoted to shock and misery, had stripped me of sorrow.  Now I had gathered strength for the writing of Laura's epitaph.  My grief at her sudden and violent death found consolation in the thought that my friend, had she lived to a ripe old age, would have passed into oblivion, whereas the violence of her passing and the genius of her admirer gave her a fair chance at immortality. (p. 5, Library of America edition)
American crime fiction of the mid-20th century has, due to chance or something else, been often viewed as a male-oriented literary enterprise, with hard-nosed detectives interacting cynically with a dark world.  Yet noir-style fiction was not the only strand of crime fiction and although men like Chandler and Hammett are lauded for their ingenious plots and intricate prose, women then, as they do now, also constructed some memorable crime fiction.  In the recently-released two-volume Women Crime Writers that covers eight novels written in the 1940s and 1950s, Sarah Weinman has chosen works that not only represent some of the best crime fiction of that era, but they also are stories that challenge reader preconceptions of what constitutes a crime novel.

The first novel in this anthology, Vera Caspary's Laura (published in book form in 1943 after an earlier seven-part serialization in Colliers), contains multitudes within its 181 pages.  It is not only an exploration of the titular Laura's apparent demise, but is also a shrewd look at how an independent woman in 1940s New York manages to maneuver her way through social landmines more insidiously planted than those that World War II servicemen faced.  Caspary goes to great pains to insure that Laura is no wilted (wilting?) flower.  In the various points of view presented over the course of the novel, she is neither saint nor whore, but instead something more complex and fascinating.

Caspary's use of these multiple POV perspectives serves not only to delineate Laura's complexities, but the other characters' biases and neuroses are also illustrated in a subtle yet powerful fashion.  This can be readily seen in the very first paragraph, as Waldo, an aspiring novelist of sorts and a former lover, presents a picture of himself that differs significantly from how he views himself.  This situational irony is repeated in other characters, such as Laura's former fiancé, Shelby, and how his rakishness contrasts with his professed love for Laura, or in how the detective assigned to her case, Mark McPherson, presents more personal vulnerabilities than he is aware of doing.

At times, these multiple perspectives can almost be distracting, as these secondary characters are just as flawed and fascinating as the emerging composite portrait of Laura.  Yet by the second half of the novel, Caspary has managed to weave a compelling plot out of them, especially when she introduces a plot twist that turns topsy-turvy our expectations of how this crime investigation is going to play out.  In hindsight, this development is not unexpected; there are several clues placed through the character narratives that foreshadow this development.  But once this twist is executed, the novel becomes more urgent in tone, with the prose taking on a leaner, more menacing character.  The final scenes feel as though they could have the inspiration to countless crime TV series episodes, yet there is more to them than just characters re-enacting struggles for love and understanding that were explored earlier in the novel.

Laura is a fascinating novel not just for how well Caspary explores the innermost motivations of her characters, but also for how adroitly she depicts the social milieu.  Laura is no innocent; she has had her fair share of sexual conquests.  She is in many ways a truly "modern" woman, with values that correspond to her desire to be independent and yet not "masculine."  Some critics see in her a quasi-autobiographical sketch written by Caspary, with their similar careers (advertising) and attempts to balance career and romance.  Despite whatever surface similarities author and creation might have, Laura's character and situation are appealing to readers who see in her inner conflicts a mirror of sorts for their own.  Waldo, Shelby, and McPherson might not be self-aware enough to see the hypocritical social attitudes they hold, yet Laura in contrast was very much aware of them.  She used them as much they attempted to use her and it is in this realization that makes Laura not just a page turner, but also a well-developed exploration of sexual identity during the mid-20th century.

There are few structural weaknesses.  The biggest complaint some might have is that as well-detailed the character discussions of Laura and her life and apparent death are, there are times where the narrative flow slows to a lazy meandering.  Occasionally the prose overreaches, most notably in reading Waldo's more grandiose proclamations, yet on the whole the writing not only supports the deepening narrative, it manages to deepen the tension, making it more palpable.  Laura may not be the "perfect" crime novel, but it comes close enough on occasion to make it a very good, entertaining read that will leave readers satisfied after a couple of hours.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

April-August 2015 Reads

The paucity of books listed here should give the reader here an idea just how little I have read so far this year in comparison to previous years, when I would usually have read 250-300 books by now.  I think I'll be reading quite a bit more in the coming weeks, so there is still a chance of reading 100 for the year, but this will be by far my lowest in a decade (2005 I remember as a year being so swamped with studies and work that I only read about 50 books that year, but I didn't keep a reading log back then, so I'm uncertain of the actual count).  Anyways, here's the list of books read over the previous five months (the reading squirrels were on extended vacation):


19  Milan Kundera, La fête de l'insignifiance (French; will read English translation later and review it then; entertaining)

20  Kirsopp Lake (ed.), The Apostolic Fathers, vol. I (bilingual Koine Greek/English; religious texts)

21  James Shapiro (ed.), Shakespeare in America:  An Anthology from the Revolution to Now (non-fiction; Library of America edition; already reviewed)


22  Mark Doten, The Infernal (will write a mini-review sometime before the end of the year; 2015 release)

23  Jesse Ball, A Case for Suicide (see above)

24  Erwin Mortier, While the Gods were Sleeping (will review on my WWI lit blog later; 2015 US release)


25  Umberto Eco, Numero Zero (Italian; 2015 release; will review after reading the English translation)

26  Umberto Eco, Numero Cero (Spanish; see above)

27  Jeff VanderMeer, Annientamento (Italian translation; 2015 release; already reviewed the English edition)


28  Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (already reviewed)


29  Andrzej Sapkowski, La Saison des orages (French translation from the Polish original; 2015 edition; will review in the near future)

Currently reading the two-volume Library of America anthology, Women Crime Writers of the 1940s and 1950s and I will try to review some, if not all, of those crime novels soon after finishing them.  Hope to finish at least the first volume this month.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Belatedly, The OF Blog Turns 11

Tuesday marked the eleventh anniversary of this blog, but as was par for the course this year, I was a bit too busy (jogging 7.63 miles that night) to celebrate it until now.  But really, there are things to celebrate even now, even though I haven't yet finished a book since my birthday over six weeks ago (that will change this weekend).

A year ago, I had suffered a back injury at work that left me unable to work for nearly six weeks.  I was on a lot of muscle relaxers and other steroid-based medications and my weight ballooned.  I took a picture that night, August 25, 2014, and I looked miserable.  I recall writing a rather pessimistic 10th anniversary post here that day and while I retain some of those sentiments, it is rather amazing that I am still writing, albeit sporadically until now.

I am now able to do stretches that I haven't done since my early 20s.  Balancing on one leg while doing alternating toe touches, followed by a jump scissor kick makes me feel young again (not that 41 is old, mind you).  Spending more time outdoors, even if much of it is on a local track, has also revitalized me in a way that reading alone cannot.  It is interesting to see the changes in my mood doing things that I used to do before I began reading so much.  Although reading is a pleasure, some pleasures can have deleterious effects on the mind and body and I think my re-found dedication to balance between mind and body, between activity and reading, has helped me not just get limber again, but to enjoy those moments even more when I do sit down and read some.

As for this blog, I said earlier this month that I would be "making it new again" and I think that'll mean more, miscellaneous essays, maybe along the lines of a Montaigne, in addition to occasional reviews.  Taking a break from most social media has led me to become more of an observer than an active participant and perhaps there'll be some "heresies" to espouse on occasion.

There is also a professional accomplishment that I'll discuss in the near future, when things are finalized, but it is something I'm excited to discuss when things are complete.

Finally, autumn is coming.  The Serbian literary squirrels are scurrying back to their reading dreys.  You have been warned.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Some more brief thoughts on the 2015 Hugo Awards


No, I have more to say than I did a few months ago when the finalists were announced.  I haven't really had much to say on those awards (or pretty much, any awards longlist or shortlist these past few months) because I have spent much of the year not reading.  It is interesting how one's perspective on things can change when removed from the immediacy of almost any situation.  I didn't care much for the way the shortlists were decided, but I just didn't have much of any real interest because there were some non-slate nominees (at least the initial list before an author withdrew from Best Novel consideration) that I thought were also mediocre to poor works.  

Since much of my Twitter feed is comprised of SF/F fans and authors (although I have several squirrel and sports feeds I follow there as well), I quickly grew bored with the same sentiments being reiterated over and over again.  Had nothing really to say; I have never really put much stock into the Hugo Awards because their finalists/winners rarely overlap with what I considered to be recent years' best fictions.  So I decided to wait until around the time the awards were announced (here's a link that shows the votes/nominations) before I would say anything really about this year's slate/winners.

I am very pleased to see that Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem won Best Novel.  Before it was added to the shortlist after Marko Kloos withdrew his novel from consideration, I thought every single one of the Best Novel nominees were not worthy of award consideration.  Needless to say, when it was added, I thought it was by far the best of the bunch and a deserving winner.  

As for the other categories and No Award winning over all of the slate nominees, nothing much to say other than people exercised their voting rights and that (like the slates did in nominating them) was that.  Nothing controversial about it in terms of procedures being followed, but I suppose there'll be months of factional arguments over next year's nomination/voting process and then maybe, eventually (right?) this will die down into the usual internecine sniping about age, group voting identities, and all the picayune things that can make SF fandom so tedious for outsiders.

But then again, I'm probably not the person to turn to these days for scintillating coverage of SF fandom awards.  I was too busy either getting in a late night 5.5 mile walk/jog or watching a replay of NXT Takeover:  Brooklyn (by the way, the Women's Championship Match was one of the best matches I've seen this year) to pay any attention to Twitter until hours after the winners were announced.  Priorities and all.  With that being said, time to rest, as I have another 10 miles I'd like to walk/jog before work Monday. 

Monday, August 03, 2015

Renovatio blogis

I said four months ago (using April Fool's Day as a cover) that I was contemplating shuttering this blog after nearly eleven years.  There were many reasons why I had reduced my blogging frequency (and by extension, my overall online profile) since mid-January:  focusing on weight loss/fitness improvement; burnout on reading much after a decade of reading on average 400 books a year; general ennui with the circular nature of tangentially book-related discussions; increasing discomfort with the sorts of "conversations" I was seeing on social media; etc.  I didn't really go into detail then and I'm not going to now, but being the sort of person who prefers thesis-antithesis=synthesis in the realm of ideas to rehashing ad hominem attacks or feeling pressured to give "hot takes" on ephemeral social controversies du jour, it was easier to just bow out than to continue to be inundated with repetitive crap.  I'm also much more of an extravert than many, so it was easier to find stimulating conversation at work and elsewhere than it was online, so naturally I gravitated back to things that gave me much more pleasure and less irritation and aggravation.

But there is something in the art of communicating one's assessment of ideas and people via a written, electronic medium such as a blog that continues to have some appeal to me.  Oh, it's not about the number of "hits" I draw for certain pieces or about who is talking about what I said as much as it is about expressing something that might aid another in his/her search for greater understanding on a topic (especially if it's one as august as squirrel adulation).  It is interesting to see which posts draw a steady stream of visits, month after month.  One such example was a March 2014 entry where I posted my 1994 university course-assigned translation of the final 100 lines or so of Book I of Vergil's Æneid.  As of this writing, it has been viewed 768 times, more than almost all of the 2014 releases that I reviewed that year.

It is not an anomaly; more often than not, the "classics" and older literature have stronger, longer "tails" than recent fiction when it comes to views here.  My William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston reviews (which were first posted at Gogol's Overcoat and which receive even greater views there than here) average in the high hundreds or low thousands for page views.  Doubtless a good portion of this traffic involves high school and college students seeking something they could utilize (plagiarize?) in a report/paper, but I suspect there is something more to it than just that.  I know that from time to time I search for others' opinions on works that I'm reading and it is so difficult at times to find something that isn't linked to Amazon or Goodreads, but instead is more of a "proper" length review of the work in question.

Realizing that some, even if they rarely (if ever) comment here, see value in what I write about older literature (or even the snippets that I translate into an English-language first draft) makes it easier to continue writing in spite of the above-mentioned irritants, which likely will never completely fade away.  So while I probably won't be writing more than a handful of times a month for a while still (my desktop's motherboard failed last week and my Macbook at six years is ancient; blogging via my iPhone is out of the question), I believe that when I do resume writing on a more regular basis that there might be a renewal of spirit to be found.  After all, I'm the critic whose opinion is the only one worth considering here, so the new content will reflect my interests more so than anyone else's.  So there might be some language-related material mixed in with discussion of which Library of America editions I've bought lately, topped off with occasional scandalous squirrel pornography.

Now excuse me while I try to decide which books I'm going to keep and which 150-200 I'm going to sell/trade this month.  Maybe I should post photos of those?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A serendipitous discovery

A little over a week ago I went shopping at my favorite Nashville used bookstore, McKay Books.  As usual while waiting for my books to be processed for trade credit, I browsed through the Foreign Language section (typically, somewhere between half and 100% of the books I buy during these visits are non-English-language works) when I stumbled upon a curious slipcased book:

 When I pulled the book out of its slipcase, I saw that it was leatherbound and that it looked similar to a certain set of high-quality, higher-priced French books that I had pondered ordering online whenever I had enough money to justify spending $70 or so.  So I opened this book of Paul Claudel's poetry to its title page to see that my suspicions were confirmed.

Yes, I had a 1967 Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition of Paul Claudel's poetry in my hands, with only the slipcase, yellowed with age, bearing any marks.  I glanced again at the price.  Only $4.  While more expensive than most foreign language books I buy there (most French and Spanish fiction paperbacks are 10¢ or 15¢ in price), I would have to say that finding a very good to excellent condition Pléiade edition for 1/16 of its list price to be quite a bargain.

Any of you have similar discoveries of expensive books being sold dirt cheap (and in good condition) in a used bookstore?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman

In evaluating certain literary works, conventional, tried-and-true approaches sometimes must be jettisoned.  This certainly has proven to be the case with the recently-released Harper Lee novel, Go Set a Watchman.  Much (e-)ink has been spilled on the origins of this 1950s trunk novel that later begot To Kill a Mockingbird and how after a half-century of near-silence the dubious fashion in which it came to be published has come to light.  Those lines of thought are more the provenance of journalists than literary reviewers, however.  It is more than fair to raise the issue, but when it comes to the text itself, then it comes to the text itself and all else should be ancillary.  Yet in cases like this, attempting to remove oneself from the uproar would be a Sisyphean task.

When I began reading Go Set a Watchman, I found myself thinking of the various posthumous works that I had read or listened to:  Vergil's Æneid; Jimi Hendrix's post-1970 releases; Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again; among others.  Vergil reportedly made a deathbed request that his "unfinished" epic poem be burned after his death.  While obviously this was not the case (another such example would be the majority of Franz Kafka's work that his friend and literary executor Max Brod published despite Kafka's occasional declaration that they should be burnt), the debate on the merits of publishing, whether posthumously or in a situation where an author potentially could require a conservator to make legal and business decisions, is an interesting one.  I believe that if an appropriate framework is established for evaluating the works in question, then there is little to quibble about in the case of a work that almost certainly would have been published immediately after the author's death if not beforehand.

Go Set a Watchman's complex textual history makes for a fascinating study.  Readers familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird are going to see several parallels in descriptions, characterization, and plot development.  Jean Louise/Scout Finch's journey home to Maycomb, Alabama sometime in the immediate aftermath of the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling contains several flashbacks that the germ of numerous events in the latter novel.  In a weird sense, the first novel becomes a quasi-sequel to the latter, not so much for the flashbacks (which in some cases were revised and altered in To Kill a Mockingbird), but for readers' understandings of how certain characters have developed.  Although much ado has been made about Atticus Finch's seeming character shift in Go Set a Watchman, there are certain other characters, Calpurnia in particular, whose actions here in this novel may be surprising or even unsettling to those readers who approached To Kill a Mockingbird as a mostly nostalgic, mildly "heroic" Southern novel despite the heartbreak of the Tom Robinson case.

Certainly there are grounds for being startled throughout.  Go Set a Watchman slays its gods, strewing about disillusionment in the wake of its revelations.  This is no accident, as it appears that Lee originally conceived of the autobiographical Maycomb milieu as being a way of retelling the civil rights era upheavals within a slightly fictitious family account.  Lee's father, A.C. Lee, was also a lawyer who became caught up in the counter-protests common throughout the South after 1954.  But in the case of Atticus Finch, what is interesting is seeing just how fully conceived his character was in this earlier draft:  he is just as wry, courteous, and humane as in To Kill a Mockingbird, but the key difference is the narrative perspective through which he is viewed.  Young Scout's first-person narrative in To Kill a Mockingbird portrays him as a sort of demi-god, a father who may not always understand his children, but whose wisdom and humanity inspire them to be the best they can possibly be.  Go Set a Watchman, written in a limited third-person point-of-view, demonstrates this lingering hero worship that Jean Louise has for her father, but it also reveals the cracks in this façade and also how much Jean Louise has changed while becoming an independent, opinionated young woman in her late 20s.

Go Set a Watchman deconstructs these earlier views of Scout through the liberal use of flashbacks (many of which were later transported, virtually unchanged, into To Kill a Mockingbird).  Although they are invaluable in demonstrating just how Lee initially constructed this coming-of-age tale and how it later morphed into a sometimes very different "daughter" novel, at times these flashbacks weaken the narrative thrust considerably.  For example, more space is devoted to discussing Jean Louise's first period than in connecting that to her complex emotions regarding the former family cook, Calpurnia.  The near "as in" presentation of this 1950s draft as the published Go Set a Watchman does an injustice to the "new" scenes, as an occasional judicious pruning of extraneous scenes could have heightened the narrative tension that builds throughout the course of the novel.

Yet despite this uneven narrative pace and its numerous digressions, there is a strong, questing core that should captivate most readers.  The revelation of Atticus's views on race, while disappointing to his daughter (and readers), are only the tip of the iceberg.  What Lee focuses more on is how Jean Louise tries to process this sudden upheaval of her world.  It is not always a pretty sight, as 21st century readers might find Jean Louise's arguments and rationales to be rather antiquated, if not bigoted themselves.  But perhaps that is exactly a point behind this novel.  Maybe for white Southerners, especially so-called Southern progressives of the mid-20th century, there are some hypocrisies that still need to be exposed to the light. 

The final two parts of the novel are the strongest, most attention absorbing, because they distillate these inner and familial conflicts into a series of dialogues (Jean Louise-Jack, Jean Louise-Alexandra, Jean Louise-Henry, and most especially Jean Louise-Atticus) that present a wide spectrum of white Southern thought during this period.  There is little that is facile about them; Atticus's counterarguments, when viewed within the context of the times, prove to be challenging to his daughter's more idealized views.  As a reflection of contemporary social views, these concluding sections are very well realized.  However, it is difficult not to see flaws in how Lee arrived at these final scenes.  It is not just the meandering flashbacks that clog up the narrative flow, but also those false steps, such as Jean Louise's impulsive visit to Calpurnia and her rebuffal there,  where much more could have been said to even greater effect than what was ultimately achieved.

Go Set a Watchman perhaps should be judged primarily as an ur-text; it represents a genesis of thought that led to a modern classic.  It certainly shows enough in character and plot evolutions to serve as an example of how to develop a story.  But with the majority of events taking place after those of To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is in many regards its own story.  It contains characters that shift somewhat in presentation, yet on the whole these are characters that are easily recognizable as being those who appeared in the earlier tale.  No, it does not contain the same narrative magic that made To Kill a Mockingbird dear to tens of millions of years, but what it contains, warts and all, is a story of confusion and conflict that speaks most clearly to white Southerners who have tried, like Thomas Wolfe's George Webber, to "come home again," only to discover that "home" is a more repulsive, conflicting place where hatred and love make for strange bedfellows.  This is not to say there can't be other readings for this novel, but only that the central conflict, or at least how it is phrased and conducted amongst its participants, might be foreign to non-Southerners or at least not as vital to them.  As it stands, Go Set a Watchman is a flawed yet occasionally riveting work that does not weaken or ruin Harper Lee's legacy, but rather is a testament for just how deeply she conceived this retelling of how an independent-minded, idealistic daughter comes to terms with the complexities of a father she had adored and worshiped her entire life.
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