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Book Addled

To be added when less addled.

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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge - Flannery O'Connor, Robert Fitzgerald



"Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog"

There is no doubt. I am a Flannery O’ Connor junkie. I can’t think of anything she’s written I haven’t loved. Even her letters and essays ring true. She is, to some degree, a product of her environment, and her use of certain words can grate on our 21st-century ears, but a toned-down O’Connor would not be O’Connor. Everything That Rises Must Converge may be her best collection of short stories, including, among others, the title story, “Parker’s Back,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and, my personal favorite, “Revelation.”

Typically, O’Connor takes her spiritually-flawed protagonists and blasts them to hell and back. By the time O’Connor is through with them, they’re emptied out, meek, and ready to receive grace. Some of Samuel Beckett’s characters seem post-apocalyptic, as if they had just returned from the Flannery O’Connor Finishing School. The characters most likely to be squashed flat are the smug, self-righteous, short-sighted, hypocritical, complacent, and intellectually or spiritually proud.

To effect redemption, O’Connor often has her fairly grotesque characters confront circumstances and people that are also grotesque. Given O’Connor’s rather mild aspect, she was asked frequently why she used such shockingly violent means and had such a penchant for the grotesque. It’s doubtful O’Connor ever gave a verbal response; she did not suffer fools lightly, and apparently saw critics comfortably occupying that category. In an essay, though, she does provide an answer: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” O’Connor works to get the religiously distorted back into spiritual alignment or at least into a state of self-awareness, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish her aims. Despite her serious intent, all of her fiction—even the darkest—has moments of humor, and few authors have achieved O’Connor’s level of hilarity.

“Revelation” provides a nice illustration of O’Connor at work; here her target is the memorable Ruby Turpin. I don’t view this summary as a spoiler; while her plots are wildly imaginative, it’s O’Connor’s writing, with its perfect pitch and dead on descriptions, that must be experienced.

Ruby Turpin believes she is a good person. She thinks she believes in God. What’s going on in Ruby’s thoughts and conversation are less than godly, and we’re given a full view of her philosophy as Ruby sits in a doctor’s waiting room, observing the array of people. After scanning the room, Ruby chooses to talk to a woman she knows must be lady, given her tasteful clothing and good shoes. For the most part, though, Ruby is preoccupied with ranking the others in the waiting room.

And Ruby finds most of these people sorely wanting, the dregs of her envisioned hierarchy:

On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them—not above, just away from—were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them were the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged.


Ruby also occupies herself with another favorite pastime: contemplating what she would choose if Jesus said she would have to be either white trash or a “nigger.” Ruby prides herself on her correct, self-sacrificing, moral choice, and tells Jesus to “make her a nigger then—but that don’t mean a trashy one.”

Throughout Ruby’s conversation with the respectable lady, largely dealing with the virtues of a good disposition and strategies for getting the most work out of “colored” people, Ruby notices that the lady’s daughter is showering her with “ugly looks.” The more Ruby talks, the more intensely the daughter stares: “[H:]er eyes were fixed [on her:] like two drills." As Ruby ecstatically thanks Jesus for making her the type of person she is, the young college girl takes her book, aptly entitled Human Development, and beans Ruby just above the eye. Just before the girl is taken away, presumably to an asylum, Ruby, in shock, asks her, “What you got to say to me?” In a voice “that brooked no repudiation,” the girl whispers, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”

Ruby leaves, stunned and outraged. Later that day, she goes out to their state-of-the-art pig parlor to confront the hogs they own, who are “a-gruntin and a-rootin and a-groanin,” and demands loudly, “How am I a hog?...Exactly how I am like them?” Still gazing at them as though she “were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge,” Ruby begins to have a vision of a “vast horde of souls…rumbling toward heaven.”

Surprisingly, Ruby sees the “white-trash,” “niggers,” “freaks,” and “lunatics” ahead of her and Claud, who were at the end of the line along with people just like them, those who always believed in “good order and common sense and respectable behavior.” Further, Ruby could see by “their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

We are not told Ruby’s outcome. We don’t know if O’Connor’s reality check takes hold, but it is clear—if only for a moment—that Ruby sees her goodness as a shell that would crumble in the face of eternity.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die - Peter Boxall

First of all, don't tell me what I "must" do before I die.

Just fuck off.

At fellow reader's behest, I'm writing my reactions to this list (not really the book, but give me a break - the book is just a bunch of pretty pictures and blurbs defending their idiotic choices). What's important is this shit-for-brains list.

Comment no. 1:

 


First, they need a subtitle for “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” I’m thinking “Including Books That Will Make You Want to Die, Peel Your Skin Off, or Shoot Yourself in the Face” might do the trick.

And who the hell just is this Dr. Peter Boxall? Does he know the definition of words like quiddity, esoteric, psychotic, random, fucking insane, etc.? I’m hoping he does because all would apply to this half-assed, biased list.

Comment no. 2:

 


I take immediate issue (no pun intended) to the word seminal, deriving from "semen," and the whole stodgy, turgid prose describing the holiness of this craptastic list: "Each work of literature listed here is a seminal work key to understanding and appreciating the written word. These works have been handpicked by a team of international critics and literary luminaries..."

"a seminal work key to understanding the written word" [like books?:] !!

"literary luminaries" !? And I can just guess which ones they are given the disproportionate number of works by minor major authors. Hey, if someone is about to die, don't make them read every shithead book Ian McEwan or John Barth ever wrote.

Do you really think Roth's very minor and miss-able The Breast is going to put someone in an orgasm over the "written word"?

Comment no. 3:

 


I sure hope this list isn’t in any particular order. I’d hate to think Franzen’s metaphorically and literally shit-impacted book, The Corrections is among the top 100.

Oh, and nice coverage of lit before 19th century. There are a few stabs at SEVERAL CENTURIES at about book number 950 or so, but apparently we can just remain illiterate about Chaucer, Shakespeare, the Bible, Spenser, Donne, and the endless number of “SEMINAL” authors/books that are ignored completely.

A medley of the books that are pleasant reads but hardly life changing:

• The Life of Pi
• Curious Incident of the Dog in Night
• The Hours – how could Cunningham take such a good idea for a plot and screw it up so royally?
• Surfacing – nearly anything by Margaret Atwood is worthy, but why pick one of her earliest novels, where her potential has not yet been realized?
• One of Miller’s Tropic books would have been more than enough thank you.
• Who the hell ever heard of Wharton’s Bunner Sisters? I need to read that before I die? Maybe I should read Ethan – this book sucks – Frome again too. No. For Wharton it is House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence.

 

 


Colossally stupid list made into a giant and equally stupid book.

Addendum

Comment no. 4:

So Dr. Boxall/Boxass, to snatch a line from The Rainmaker, “you must be stupid, stupid, stupid.” You’ve now had three tries (2006, 2008, and 2010) to get this sorry ass list in shape, but you’ve fucked it up every time.

In response to your smarmy introduction, which Paul describes: “…this is supposed to be a loose and baggy overview of The Novel, as opposed to drama or biography or history or biography,” I shout BULLSHIT! I’ll agree with the loose and baggy adjectives, but in no way is this list a representative listing of The Novel (and what’s with the reverential capital letters, asswipe?).

For starters, your various lists have included short story collections (not a novel), a single short story (not a novel), autobiographies (not a novel), confessional memoirs (not a novel), histories (not a novel), creative nonfiction (not a novel) and nonfiction essay collections (not a novel). Is there something mysteriously complicated about a novel’s definition, basically, “an extended fictional narrative in prose containing a plot,” that eludes you? Do you find this definition hopelessly complex? There is a cure. Stop creating these inaccurate, nonrepresentational crap-ass lists that suggest you know something about The Novel. You don’t.

Then, even if Boxass were able to plant the definition of a novel firmly into his not particularly fertile brain, he’d want to work on creating a list that’s representational. Let me explain. The good doctor has decided to use 1001 as the definitive number for our pre-death reading pleasure. Given the number of stellar novels produced, that is a tiny number. Logically, you’d accord an author no more than one book, unless there was an immensely compelling reason to do otherwise. Does Boxall do this? Noooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!

In the list’s most recent incarnation (and this is attempt no. 3, Boxass), the good doctor still doesn’t grasp the idea of representation. In a list of only 1001 novels, should any author be accorded FIVE books? Apparently so. Boxall feels it imperative that we read, not one or two, but a whopping five novels each by J.M. Coetzee, Graham Greene, and Thomas Mann.

In comparison, ground-breaking novelists like Mark Twain, Charlotte Brontë, Nathaniel Hawthorne are accorded respectively 1, 1, and 2 novels apiece. But hey! We need to save space so we’re able to read FOUR books by Georges Perec, two books by Dashiell Hammett, and two books by John Le Carré. Aaaaarrgggghhhhh!!!! I’m not even going to touch all the ESSENTIAL and IMPORTANT novelists you omitted altogether, dickhead, but too bad, so sad…

Three strikes. You’re out...


The Help

The Help - Kathryn Stockett

The Kindle DX I ordered is galloping to the rescue today...

description

AND, for all the book purists (which would include me), this is a need, rather than a want. Post-several eye surgeries, I'm just plain sick of struggling to read the words on a page.

However, despite the visual challenges, I read all 451 pages of The Help yesterday. Clearly, the book held my interest. However, I spent last night pondering why the book wasn't as good as my nonstop reading would indicate.

What was wrong?

Most of all, I think it was the book's ambivalent tone. In brief, a white woman, Miss Skeeter Phelan--one of Jackson, Mississippi's socially elite--convinces a number of the African-American maids to tell her their story. What goes on in the homes of the upper crust? How do these women really treat their maids?

Though the book would be published anonymously and no locations would be given, the stories provide enough detail so that the premise (that the book could be received as being about Anywhere, USA) defies belief. Further, while having the book's source known might subject Skeeter to social ostracism, this is the 1960s in Missa-fuckin-sippi in the middle of the very tense civil rights' battles. For the maids, discovery would mean loss of a job (with no hope of getting another position) and retribution that could include being falsely accused of a crime (and jailed) or even being injured or killed.

Despite the underlying tension and references to violent events that do occur, the book teeters. At times, I was furious and in tears over the effing racism and the tragedies described. But Kathryn Stockett keeps pulling back. It's as though she wants it both ways. Let's divulge the incredible cruelty and violence that black people routinely endured, but let's also show the goodness of some white people and soft-pedal the whole thing into a broader theme, i.e., how difficult it is for two women in any unequal power situation to be "friends."

Nope. Sorry. You can't have it both ways. Though some of the women are kinder to their maids, they did not fight against the "separate but equal" indignities that included building a "nigra" toilet in their home or garage so that the maids' "nasty" germs would not infect them, the separate entrances, the substandard schools, the "justice" system that made a white accusation the same as proof, and on and on and on.

I don't want a book to make me cry and then pull back and say, "It's all right." It's not all right.

If you're going to write a book about this horrible time in our history - and in a country where racism is still alive and well - then do it all out. What these women endured deserves more. Don't put it out there and then pull back and use a Doris Day lens.

It doesn't work.

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (Oxford World's Classics)

Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management (Oxford World's Classics) - Isabella Beeton

In The Awakening we are prompted to sympathize with Edna Pontellier, who feels unfulfilled, a piece of property her husband owns. At one point in the book, Edna steps over a servant, a “quadroon,” and I thought, “What about her life?” In more books than you would suppose, the servants, the lower classes, are presented so fleetingly, they become invisible.

One of fascinating aspects of The Remains of the Day--both the book and film-- was how fully the lives of the servants were depicted. Underneath the whole hierarchy of power and etiquette above, the servants create their own hegemony and lives—lives that are rich with desires and disappointments.

This has little to do with the book at hand, Mrs. Isabella Mary Beeton’s The Book of Household Management, except that, like Remains of the Day it explores codes of conduct, albeit in a very practical manner. Here, though, Beeton focuses on the upper class and lays out—in very prescriptive terms—just how a young woman should manage her household (circa Victorian England). The book is fascinating. The other day, when I was reviewing Frances Burney’s Evelina, I described how Evelina embarrasses herself at a ball, by declining the first gentleman who asks her to dance and then accepting a second dance invitation, from a different man. We can tell—from the dialogue—she’s broken some rule, but it’s not really explained. Beeton provides the background:

In private parties, a lady is not to refuse the invitation of a gentleman to dance, unless she be previously engaged. The hostess must be supposed to have asked to her house only those persons whom she knows to be perfectly respectable and of unblemished character, as well as pretty equal in position; and thus, to decline the offer of any gentleman present, would be a tacit reflection on the master and mistress of the house.


The section on the duties of the mistress of the house are engrossing and provide a wealth of background to the rules of etiquette often unexplained in much of British 18th & 19th century fiction.

I learned that, as a blonde, I should wear pastels, as darker colors would overwhelm a fair complexion. Then, I should rise early, before the servants, to set an example and get the household affairs underway. Following breakfast, and after making sure the children are groomed and the household is in order, I may—without guilt—indulge in some harmless pleasures such as light literature, music and other “elegant arts.” By then, four hours will have elapsed, and it will be time for the luncheon, which should be a light meal, though its “solidity” depends on the amount of exercise I take and how late dinner will be served.

Following luncheon, I make my morning calls. This part baffled me. First, why are calls in the afternoon called “morning calls,” and if all the ladies are making these calls, who in the hell is home to receive their guests? Ah well, having made my morning calls, the “next great event of the day” is “The Dinner.” And tonight, I will be having guests, having sent out invitations—correctly worded—three weeks ago. I’ve given much thought to the seating arrangements as “to form a due admixture of talkers and listeners.”

The half hour before dinner is a moment of great stress. The way in which I conduct myself through this ordeal will mean I either pass with “flying colours, or, lose many of [my:] laurels.” During this time, I’m in agony—worrying about my guests arriving on time and whether the domestics and, most of all, the cook have done their best. However, I show no agitation, but engage in “light and cheerful topics of conversation” so that my guests are at ease.

…You get the point, and though this opening section provides directions for nearly any duty or occasion a the mistress of the house might encounter, it’s really only a small portion of the book. Beeton’s book—over 1,000 pages long—is insanely comprehensive. Following the detailed description of the Mistress’s duties, chapters on each servant are provided, followed by a few hundred pages on cooking. Beeton not only provides recipes but gives us lengthy histories of, perhaps, “the fish” as well as comments on its appearance, and all the ways we might prepare it.

The book ends with pronouncements on the care and feeding of children and a section on the legal ramifications of husbands, wives, and their households. For those interested in literature of this time period it is a treasure-trove, and Beeton’s tone throughout is engaged and practical.

Post script: I just read that Beeton started writing this book when she was 21 and then died, after completing it, when she was 28.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - David Foster Wallace


"a Kilroyishly surreal quality"


...I fell for DFW in the footnotes.

How was I to know? I don't read footnotes. When I edited a couple of books, I told the contributors, in draconian terms, that if the information wasn't important enough to include in their main text, delete the footnote; if it was, incorporate it into the main text.

Wallace puts many of his best lines, and a lot of himself, in his footnotes. They form a sort of counter-essay, hunkering below and complicating the essay above. When I initially read the book's title essay, true to form, I skipped the footnotes. I was ready to hurl the book after the chess-match description. Repeatedly, Wallace reminds us what a good chess player he is, and offers up the information that he didn't even start playing chess until he was in his late twenties. Apparently, this late start is more genuine than that of the nine-year-old girl who defeats him. Her talent, somehow genetic and mechanical, is lifeless and urged into motion by her hateful stage mother. I wanted to yell, "Oh shut up, man up, and get over it. The little girl beat your pants off." Of course in the footnote, countering Wallace's seemingly insufferable behavior, is the comment "only Deirdre's eyes and nose clear the board's table as she sits across from me, adding a Kilroyishly surreal quality to the humiliation" (326).

This is funny stuff, and Wallace underscores his appreciation for the absurdity in a later footnote: "103 - I've sure never lost to any prepubescent females in fucking Ping-Pong, I can tell you" (328).

The alternate "footnotes' essay" of the essay entitled "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's..." beats the main essay hands down. As a former, quite crappy, tennis player, I recall watching some of the players he describes, though not Michael Joyce. That ignorance, however, does not lessen the hilarity of footnote no. 18:

Joyce is even more impressive, but I hadn't seen Joyce yet. And Enqvist is even more impressive than Joyce, and Agassi live is even more impressive than Enqvist. After the week was over, I truly understand why Charlton Heston looks gray and ravaged on his descent from Sinai: past a certain point, impressiveness is corrosive to the psyche." (224)


And then there's this razor-sharp snapshot of McEnroe, whom I do recall watching, in footnote no. 30:

John McEnroe wasn't all that tall, and he was arguably the best serve-and-volley man of all time, but then McEnroe was an exception to pretty much every predictive norm there was. At his peak (say 1980 to 1984), he was the greatest tennis player who ever lived--the most talented, the most beautiful, the most tormented: a genius. For me, watching McEnroe don a polyester blazer and do stiff lame truistic color commentary for TV is like watching Faulkner do a Gap ad." (230)



OTOH, Wallace's dissection of a moderately revised Ph.D. dissertation in the essay, "Greatly Exaggerated," is the sort of shooting fish in the barrel, beneath his talents' stuff that I decried in my original review below, and the title essay, though now beloved by me, is still riddled with death - from his description of the preternatural cleanliness of the ship, hiding the inevitable decay, to the disturbingly electric blue Caribbean sky.

However, I'm ready to go back to Infinite Jest, with far more loving thoughts toward DFW, a fellow agoraphobe.

...Unfortunately, I can't read the teeny font in his opus, and the print in the footnotes is even teenier. I'm accepting donations for a Kindle DX, 9.7" display, $489.

* * * * * *
original rant

David Foster Wallace may tip me over the brink. 160 or so pages into his opus, IF, I decided that the book was in jest, infinitely, and I wasn't going to participate in the joke. I've just finished the title essay from his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and while I found much of it engaging, like a high wire act, virtuoso performances engage only so long.

I'm trying to determine why DFW elicits so much irritation. He's only 33 when he writes this essay about his cruise experience, but his death is riddled throughout the narrative. I may be succumbing to what Jean-Paul Sartre said about how, once lived. we read a life backwards (I need to look this up - Sartre wrote this more eloquently).

Despite that bit of poignancy, most of the time I'd like to reach through the pages and slap DFW. His view, so often, is from on high. He looks down from the high deck at the tourists disgorging from the ship to see the sights. He takes such pains not to be one of the ridiculous American tourists he mocks, and yet, he's a little ridiculous himself - primarily camped out in Cabin 1009, with the exception of the moments he takes mental snapshots of the "others" as surely as if he used a camera, which he reminds us at least three times, he does not use, the camera being such a touristy icon and all.

Perhaps it's all this prodigious talent being wasted on taking potshots at the inanity of a cruise trip - while his snarky comments are often dead on accurate and occasionally hilarious; these glossy surfaces must have been child's play for him. He mocks the commercial-essay Frank Conroy produces for the cruise ship, but DFW may be providing only the photo-negative.

The Middle Place

The Middle Place - Kelly Corrigan

 

So how does this censorship thing work exactly?

Excerpt from The Middle Place [with "f-bomb" censored:]:
                                               description
Just after reading The Middle Place, I stupidly started reading some of the reviews. I got madder by the minute. Far too many reviewers seemed to miss the fact that Kelly Corrigan, the mother of two young girls, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Instead, they fretted about the f-bombs. In particular, the paragraph (below) by this reviewer caught my imagination:

A few things bothered me. I didn't like reading with a pen in my hand to mark out the offensive language. I am not a prude, and I even think that some basic swearing can occasionally add to the realism of a situation, but one thing that gets to me is the use of the so-called f-bomb. I don't want to qualify when it should be used (if ever), but it is especially off-putting when it's thrown into an average scenario or situation. Not loving that. I just think there is a better, classier way to communicate. (If you'd rather borrow my censored copy, just let me know). Another thing is she takes the Lord's name in vain so much that I started blacking that out, too. I found it interesting that for someone who doesn't believe in God, His name is her favorite swear word.


Strangely enough, I never noticed the fucking language. And as tempting as it is, I’m not going to comment on this women’s assertion that she is “not a prude.” However, consider this censorship process.

First, you must hunt carefully for the f-bombs, and in this nearly 300-page book, there are actually only 9 instances, not the dozens some reviewers reported. Also the Lord’s name is taken in vain only 5 times. If you want to get anal about this, there are also 3 instances of damn, 5 instances of shit, and 9 instances of hell. Golly gee! So all right, step one is hunting down these words that apparently sear the brain of the reader.

Then, you need to take the time to scribble out the offensive word. Using a pen, this takes a bit of time. Consequently, the word FUCK, for example, must first be spotted, then painstakingly marked out, and then what? Is the book now ready for consumption? The reviewer does offer, very kindly, to pass on the censored copy. However, when you read this copy, doesn’t each instance of words marked out make you hyper-focus on that word and wonder what it is? It would seem that this process accentuates, rather than eradicates, this “salty,” “foul,” “rough,” (etc.) language, to quote some of the adjectives reviewers used.

Reviewers also commented on Kelly Corrigan’s lack of faith, which they also found off-putting. Apparently, if her family is Catholic, she should be as well. One reviewer, apparently missing the fact that this was nonfiction, complained about yet another book about cancer. What a downer. I guess Corrigan should have come up with a happier disease.

Further, as the book develops Corrigan’s character changes. She’s not saintly, and, at times, she seems downright selfish. However, in retrospect, my three star rating climbed to four stars because of that fact. Corrigan does not present herself in a flattering light. Though she is often brave, she has cancer. And, when you have cancer—particularly a form that can be fatal—a little self absorption is downright normal (as is saying “fuck” now and then). Also, for cancer victims it’s often not the big events that finally make you crack, but the little indignities, the new restrictions, and the daily uncertainty of it all. You’ve been invaded, and you’re not in control. Corrigan’s reaction is often to try to control what she can, much to the exhaustion of all around her.

Yet, the memoir is both funny and honest.

*Possible spoiler alert*


When Corrigan finds out she can have no more children, her husband, Edward, makes her laugh by reminding her of…

this funny, plainspoken guy we once met at a wedding in Georgia. This guy had a chicken named Red who laid five eggs a week, sometimes six, eggs that this guy would cook up and eat. When Red stopped laying eggs, he planned to break Red’s neck. Edward said it looked like my days were numbered.



My 4-star rating may be a tad high, but it’s a form of protest. I fucking hate censorship.

Murphy

Murphy - Samuel Beckett

Thought I'd review this as so few have, and this is Beckett's first, best, and funniest novel.

 


Many people think of Beckett's characters, and they come up with something like this:

 


     description

 


These post-apocalyptic, hollowed-out characters sitting around in the blank landscapes of Beckett's plays have been blasted to hell and back; they patiently accept whatever happens to them and seem to be waiting for some form of grace.

In contrast, Murphy (the title character of the novel) isn't going anywhere, but he couldn't be happier. Unlike so many of the characters in Beckett's plays, Murphy is bursting with life. He might be one hell of an odd duck, but he's alive and hopping. Murphy has no desire to be housebroken by society or to parcel out his days and nights as productively as a character like Robinson Crusoe. Murphy isn't alarmed by the void that sends Lucy Snowe (Villette) into a near frenzy, but rather seeks out these unstructured spaces actively.

To achieve personal bliss, Murphy sits tied--by seven scarves--and naked "in his rocking chair of undressed teak, guaranteed not to crack, warp, shrink, corrode, or creak at night." This rather bizarre arrangement works to give his body pleasure and "free his mind": "For it was not until his body was appeased that he could come alive in his mind....And life in his mind gave him pleasure, such pleasure that pleasure was not the word."

In short, Murphy isn't heading anywhere in a hurry; his lack of what we might view as motivation parodies time, a point one could gather from the book's opening line, which neatly lampoons all the novels with predictably dull first lines about weather and time, and also lets us know we aren't in Kansas anymore:

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.



I've been thinking a lot about humor this summer because I'm pondering whether to teach a course on the topic. While I think Murphy is one of the funniest books in literature, it's hard to define why. Like explaining a joke, which falls apart upon examination, nothing destroys humor faster than theorizing its characteristics. And it's pretty telling that those who have tried to define humor--Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, and Immanuel Kant, to name a few--are some pretty humorless dudes. Perhaps funny people know better than to try to define funny-dom.

Prodded by Celia, his good-hearted but mercenary prostitute girlfriend, Murphy reluctantly sets out to find employment: "Murphy on the jobpath was a striking figure..." Beckett goes on at length about the qualities of the green suit Murphy sports:

"His suit was not green but aeruginous....No less than the colour the cut was striking. The jacket, a tube in its own right, descended clear of the body as far as mid-thigh, where the skirts were slightly reflexed like the mouth of a bell in mute appeal to be lifted that some found hard to resist....With regard to the material of the suit, the bold claim was advanced by the makers that it was holeproof. This was true in the sense that it was entirely non-porous. It admitted no air from the outer world, it allowed none of Murphy's own vapours to escape.


Murphy's unusual aspect is noted by some of his potential employers. He's turned down for the job of "smart boy" at Gray's Inn Road, where he's assessed harshly:"'E ain't smart...."Nor 'e ain't a boy" [and:]"'E don't look rightly human to me." But luck shines on Murphy and he gets a job as a male nurse at Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, "a hospital for the better-class mentally deranged." Unaware that Murphy is happily employed by M.M.M., most of the book's characters are busily searching for him.

Despite the rather elaborate plot--which mocks plots in general--the book is not about the story arc. Whatever absurd situations confront Murphy are ultimately beside the point. The book's focus is on Murphy and his desire to avoid the sound and fury, all the tomorrows and tomorrows and tomorrows that natter at us and make us conform to a world that fits about as well as Murphy's green suit. As Murphy explains, "I am not of the big world, I am of the little world."

* * *

And, as a added boon, some of Beckett's better phrases:

"mercantile gehenna" - the work world
"long hank of Apollonian asthenia," "schizoidal spasmophile," "seedy solipsist" - words to call your friends
"jacking their jaws apart with the gag, spurning their tongues aside with the spatula, till the last tundish of drench is absorbed" - Ticklepenny describing how he feeds the patients at Magdalene Mental Mercyseat




How to Be Funny

How to Be Funny: The One and Only Practical Guide for Every Occasion, Situation, and Disaster (no kidding) - Jon Macks Edited 8-21


Though shy, my husband tells jokes well and is a good speaker. He instinctively gets the pacing right and doesn’t meander. One of his favorite jokes is “Good news/Bad News,” because it can be adapted as a segue into nearly any speech. The basic joke goes as follows:

Two friends John and Dave were two huge baseball fans. Their entire lives, John and Dave talked baseball. They went to 60 games a year. They even agreed that whoever died first would try to come back and tell the other if there was baseball in heaven.

One night, John passed away in his sleep after watching the Yankee victory earlier in the evening. He died happy. A few nights later, his buddy Dave awoke to the sound of John's voice from beyond.

"John is that you?" Dave asked.

"Yes, it's me," John replied.

"This is unbelievable" Dave exclaimed. "So tell me, is there baseball in heaven?"

"Well I have some good news and some bad news for you. Which do you want to hear first?"

"Tell me the good news first."

"Well, the good news is that yes there is baseball in heaven."

"Oh, that is wonderful, So what is the bad news?"

"You're pitching tomorrow night."


What’s funnier, though, is when my husband tries to tell a joke when his mother and brother are present. His brother is profoundly deaf, and my mother-in-law yells each line—but screws it up—as my husband tries to proceed.

For example, if he started with the first line of the joke above: “Two friends John and Dave were two huge baseball fans.”

She would yell, “THERE WERE TWO GUYS – DAVE AND JERRY!”

My husband would say, clearly irritated, “No; that’s not the point! They loved baseball, and they were good friends.”

She would yell, “YEAH, AND THESE TWO GUYS WENT TO BASEBALL GAMES!”

...This would continue until my husband was mad, I was laughing, and the joke was in tatters.

Jon Macks’ book is designed for people who want to inject humor into their everyday conversations. I bought the book because I’m working up a course on humor and thought it might be relevant. However, the book’s premise is interesting. I wonder how well this really works. My husband—who’s already funny—would probably balk at the non-spontaneous nature of much of Macks’ suggestions, such as pre-arranged funny things you can say on an elevator, like “I swear; I’m going to beat this indictment,” or “Is that a chalk body outline in the corner?” My mother-in-law who’s unintentionally hilarious would be unlikely to profit from the book. My own hunch is that you’re either funny or not; using a book like this might just make you both unfunny and obnoxious.

I thought Macks’ style was good—breezy with lots of examples of humor. However, because he wrote for Jay Leno and clearly is chummy with a number of the other comics he mentions frequently—such as Carrie Fisher, Dave Barry, or Rita Rudner—too much of the book comes across as an homage to these comedians. Macks is at his best when he explains and provides examples of the principles of humor. When he tries to invent scenarios in which to use this rather scripted humor, such as in the elevator, when trying to pick someone up, in an argument with your spouse, or in the workplace, the humor and premise get a little strained.

If you want to understand some of the techniques of humor, the book is a quick, light read, though rather scant. However, if humor’s never been your bag, this book isn’t going to turn you into Groucho Marx.

Old School

Old School - Tobias Wolff



Want to read something funny and literate? Read this memoir.


There are few books that provide this much hilarity, wisdom and grace.

Old School, though categorized as a novel, is a thinly veiled memoir of Tobias Wolff’s own experience as a scholarship boy in an elite prep school. The action largely centers on the boys’ writing competitions. Three times a year, a famous author would visit the school and choose one boy’s writing as the best. As a reward, that boy earned a private audience with the author. In less adept hands, Wolff’s description of the boys’ frenzied, adolescent writing, within the hothouse climate of the school where every action becomes magnified, could have become overly sardonic, sentimental or condescending. Wolff, though, balances parody with compassion, and sentimentality with honesty.

In one of the many sections that made me laugh out loud, Wolff, describes the boys’ adulation of Ernest Hemingway. Wolff’s parody of Hemingway, which also captures the boys’ seriousness about this legendary writer, is pitch perfect:

We even talked like Hemingway characters, though in travesty, as if to deny our discipleship: That is your bed, and it is a good bed, and you must make it and you must make it well. Or: Today is the day of meatloaf. The meatloaf is swell. It is swell but when it is gone the not-having meatloaf will be tragic and the meatloaf man will not come anymore” (14).


In similar fashion, Wolff describes the boys’ various writing efforts. For anyone who remembers his/her own not quite ready for prime time adolescent writing or has read the occasionally overwrought writing of young adults, Wolff’s descriptions ring true. But Wolff doesn’t overdo it. These are bright boys who have talent. Instead, Wolff shows us their slightly angst-ridden writing by taking it down just a notch. It’s not horrible stuff [well, some of it is:], but is unformed, filled with enough adolescent fervor to be hilarious and heartbreaking.

Wolff’s dead-on writing emerges from the first page. There, he explains how the epic 1960 battle between Nixon and Hemingway garnered less attention than the writing competition and the impending arrival of Robert Frost. After dismissing Nixon, as a somewhat tattered “scold,” Wolff captures the way the boys view Kennedy’s mystique in two crisp sentences: “Kennedy, though—here was a warrior, an ironist, terse and unhysterical. He had his clothes under control” (5).

In addition to Wolff’s impeccable writing, for [good:]readers, much of the book’s enjoyment derives from the many descriptions of famous literature. Wolff’s trot through Hemingway’s short stories brought back their humanity and contours so sharply, I felt as though I’d just finished re-reading them.

However, Wolff’s section on Ayn Rand, the second visiting author, proves unforgettable. The protagonist, referred to as “the boy” becomes infatuated with Ayn Rand, and reads The Fountainhead four times. The book’s effect proves unfortunate.

On a vacation break, the boy views his grandfather and (second) wife with bemused pity. Aghast at their provincialism, the boy flees from their house at every opportunity. Armed with cigarettes, the boy walks the “glistening streets in a fury of derision, wet and cold, sneering at everyone except the drunkards and bums who’d at least had the guts not to buy into the sham” (69). Though filled with confidence that his writing will rise above the mundane prattle of the collectivist herd, instead, the boy faints in class and winds up in the infirmary. He wakes to find that he’s missed most of Ayn Rand’s visit, except for her final interview, which he sneaks out to see. There, he sees a different Ayn Rand than the one he’d envisioned. Rather than brave, she is cold, and when Rand looks at the boy, still very sick, he can see her distaste:

…I saw her face…the face she’d turned on me when I sneezed. Her disgust had power. This was no girlish shudder, this was spiritual disgust, and it forced on me a vision of the poor specimen under scrutiny, chapped lips, damp white face, rheumy eyes and all. She made me feel that to be sick was contemptible. (91)


As flat-out funny as the Rand episode is, Wolff treads a fine line. We see what the boy learns, but it is an evolution rather than a hammer blow.

I can’t pin down everything that made this book work so well. It isn’t flawless. At one point, Wolff’s narrative stitching comes undone, and it’s clear that the book—written in seqments—could use more cohesion.

* * *

PROOF: In reference to the comments made on Jon Gruenning’s review of Ex Libris, here is a snippet of what my husband—the highlighter and vocabulary seeker—did to Old School after he thought I'd finished reading it.

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Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life - Martin E.P. Seligman [snarls:] It didn't work...

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway - Virginia Woolf, Maureen Howard

 


Perhaps being a visual learner/thinker is just shorthand for being an aural idiot, but Ansel Adams' photograph captures how I see Mrs. Dalloway:

 


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When I was reading the book, I kept thinking of splintered glass. What Virginia Woolf does so deftly here is move you from the mind of one character into the thoughts of another. There’s no discernible transition, and yet, as she focuses on another character it’s as though the light shifts slightly and a different shard is illuminated; the edges are sharp and distinct. You don’t mistake the thoughts of Clarissa (Mrs. Dalloway) for those of Richard or Peter or Septimus. Each of them thinks in a very different way and at a different tempo.

Clarissa is all movement and sensation, up and down, and unfiltered. Completely unfiltered. I envied Clarissa this ability to take in the world without reservation. Clarissa absorbs life with all her defenses down. One moment she sees something – a bird, some flowers perhaps – and her joy is absolute. In a moment or two, she’s crushed by an invitation she didn’t receive. Up. Down. Total immersion. Ostensibly, Clarissa might be seen as shallow. Her life revolving around getting flowers, wondering if her party will be a success, but from an interior angle, her mind is active. While the compass of her life might be small, her thoughts are rapid, often subtle:

But suppose Peter said to her, “Yes, yes, but your parties—what’s the sense of your parties? all she could say was (and nobody could be expected to understand): They’re an offering; which sounded horribly vague…She could not imagine Peter or Richard taking the trouble to give a party for no reason whatsoever.
But to go deeper, beneath what people said (and these judgements, how superficial, how fragmentary they are!) in her own mind now, what did it mean to her, this thing called life? Oh, it was very queer. Here was So-and-so in South Kensington; some one up in Bayswater; and somebody else, say, in Mayfair. And she felt quite continuously a sense of their existence; and she felt if only they could be brought together; so she did it. And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?”



When the sun glints on a different shard, overlaying another one, the differences are both slight and distinct. Consider the slower, more plodding tempo of Richard’s mind, as he contemplates handing Clarissa flowers and telling her he loves her (which he is unable to do):

Here he was walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her. Which one never does say, he thought. Partly one’s lazy; partly one’s shy. And Clarissa—it was difficult to think of her; except in starts, as at luncheon, when he saw her quite distinctly, their whole life. He stopped at the crossing; and repeated—being simple by nature, and undebauched, because he had tramped and shot; being pertinacious and dogged, having championed the downtrodden and followed his instincts in the House of Commons; being preserved in his simplicity yet at the same time grown rather speechless, rather stiff…”



The primary action consists of Clarissa’s party, but bumping and jarring against that is the anguish of Septimus, suffering from the shocks of WWI and his wife, whose love conflicts with her hatred for what Septimus has become and what she must endure. Peter, a former suitor of Clarissa returns, and he thinks of Clarissa, nostalgically wondering what they could have been like and half hating Richard for the stolid security he represents.

Though Septimus’s story is perhaps the most dramatic, the book isn’t about action, but an interior world, the nuances that ripple below us. This book could be read again and again; like one’s fleeting thoughts, it is impossible to grasp the whole of it in one reading. Though often dark, this book embraces life, “What a lark! What a plunge!” even as Clarissa recognizes that she’s moving toward death – “Narrower and narrower would her bed be.”

I wallowed in this language…

Shit My Dad Says

Shit My Dad Says - Justin Halpern


On Today’s Hairstyles

“Do people your age know how to comb their fucking hair? It looks like two squirrels crawled on their head and started fucking.”

On Canine Leisure Time

“The dog is not bored. It’s not like he’s waiting for me to give him a fucking Rubik’s Cube. He’s a goddamned dog.”

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My father-in-law, also Jewish, looked like a less fierce version of Justin Halpern’s dad, and although he didn’t use the word “fuck” nonstop he also dispensed some acerbic wisdom here and there.

Sh*t My Dad Says has an interesting genesis. Halpern started writing a Twitter page to record the “shit” his father said. For a while, he had few followers. “Then one day I woke up to find a thousand people were following me. The next day, ten thousand. Then fifty thousand, two hundred, three hundred thousand…Literary agents were calling, wanting to represent me….”

The book is no heavyweight – literally or figuratively. It took me fewer than a couple hours to read (176 pages with not a lot of text), but made me laugh out loud – frequently. Halpern organizes the book with short quotations on particular topics (such as the two at the beginning of this review) followed by longer vignettes.

Of the longer sections, Halpern’s description of moving from his parents’ home in San Diego to L.A. provides both humor and poignancy. Halpern has no idea what to expect in L.A. other than the characterization his father provides: "Los Angeles is like San Diego’s older, uglier sister that has herpes.” Halpern moves to L.A. to try to become a screenwriter. His father is encouraging, “Get ready for a fucking of biblical proportions,” but supportive (he offers to pay for Halpern’s first three months of rent):
I figure, what’s the fucking point in dying and leaving you money when you probably won’t need it? Might as well give it to you now when you need the help. Plus, I plan on blowing most of it on stupid shit when I get senile.


For all his gruffness, Halpern’s father loves Justin unequivocally or nearly… “You always got us. We’re family. We ain’t going anywhere. Unless you go on a fucking killing spree or something.”

And, a couple more gems:

On Being Teased

“So he called you a homo. Big deal. There’s nothing wrong with being a homosexual…. No, I’m not saying you’re a homosexual. Jesus Christ. Now I’m starting to see why this kid was giving you shit.”

On Making a Christmas List

“You ranked the twenty-five presents you want, in order of how much you want them? Are you insane? I said tell me what you want for Christmas, not make me a fucking college football poll.”





Holidays on Ice

Holidays on Ice - David Sedaris


My mother was a little crazy.

She saw people looking through our windows, heard them whispering under our porch, spotted private family conversations in the newspaper, unexpectedly screamed profanity at people who looked suspicious (sometimes while we were in a restaurant or some other very public location), and thought the writing on trucks and other vehicles that passed us on the road were coded messages just for her. … It was a bit creepy.

My father didn’t help. Rather than acknowledging my mother was crazy (she had paranoid schizophrenia, which I didn’t know until my late teens), he said she was “nervous.” This verdict suggested her visions were normal, and to my young mind, validated the notion that there were indeed people peeking into the house. It made me rather skittish.

However, as a bright side to my mother’s fickle mental state, she was brilliant and often savagely funny when lucid. Form letters—letters sent at Christmas generally boasting of a family’s all-around success and wholesomeness—were targets of particular glee. My mother would read these saccharine missives with just the right amount of over-the-top chirpiness, and then would compose her own, much darker, Christmas form letter about our family. For example, “Last summer, mother was institutionalized again at Grover’s Sanitarium. It is a lovely tree-lined facility, and who can forget the shock treatments!? Whee!!!” We had a highly evolved sense of humor. However, even in her darkest moments, I doubt my mother could have matched David Sedaris’ send-up of form letters in his essay, “Season’s Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!!”

Humor has always been about pushing the envelope. How far can you stretch humor before it tips over the edge and becomes disturbing? There’s no clear answer. I had a friend once comment vigorously, “You think the movie Fargo is funny? That’s not a funny movie!” Well sorry. I think it is. But humor is also deeply idiosyncratic. In Sedaris’s mock form letter, and this is not much of a spoiler given that you know something truly amiss is going on with the Dunbar family early on, the baby grandson is found—lifeless—in the dryer, having died while in the washing machine (but mercifully and most certainly, our letter writer assures us, before the spin cycle)… It’s not an essay that would appeal to everyone.

I doubt few would debate the humor of Sedaris’ classic “Santaland Diaries” or “Jesus Shaves,” which also appears in his collection Me Speak Pretty One Day. Yesterday, I was trying to describe and then read a couple of short excerpts from the latter essay, when I found a YouTube clip of Sedaris reading the essay. Humor is wickedly difficult to write; you’re confined to prose to convey the pacing and intonation comedy requires. And then there’s Sedaris’ voice, slightly nasal, droll, and deliciously snarky. When my husband heard the essay, read by Sedaris, he laughed so hard he had tears running down his cheeks.

“The Cow and the Turkey” is another wonderfully funny essay, slightly reminiscent of James Thurber’s wild fables. There’s no way to convey its humor adequately. Just think of a barnyard, the problems being a Secret Santa might pose for the animals, and a very sinister cow. My mother was that cow, and yes, Moira, I know this has Faulknerian echoes:

“My mother is a fish.”

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle - David Wroblewski



I think this is an interesting question. Why do we [occasionally:] like books even when we realize they’re deeply flawed? Now I’m not referring to books in fairly formulaic categories, such as romance fiction, where the author knows the book will be evaluated within that genre. I’m referring to fiction—such as Robert James Waller’s Bridges of Madison Country--which I hate beyond words—that aspires to be whatever serious literature actually is.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle would fall in this category. Clearly, David Wroblewski intended to write a book of serious fiction. …Having Hamlet as its subtext is a big clue.

Yet, I liked this book. I enjoyed reading it. For me, it may have been the book equivalent of comfort food (soup or mashed potatoes) or movies I watch, such as The Legend of Bagger Vance, Finding Forrester, or August Rush that I know aren’t technically superior, but I like anyhow.

Yes, Lobstergirl, the book is often maudlin, mawkish, and overwritten. Yes, Eh!, the Hamlet bit doesn’t work, and for all I know, Almondine is Ophelia. And yes, Ruth, anthropomorphism almost never works—even if you’re a dog lover. The book is filled with loose ends, scenes that are absurd, and possibly the dimmest mother ever created. I probably liked the dog scenes as well as any of the others, but I'd also be hard put to explain the significance of the intricate dog training.

Factors that may affect our judgment—no matter how enlightened we might feel we are---are the conditions under which we read a book. I was in a book wallow when I read Sawtelle, and it got me through a tough time. Normally, I read books within the constant everyday scrim of interruption. In contrast, books I’ve read on airplanes (especially those experiencing delays), in hotel rooms when I’m hiding out from a dull conference, on vacations, or other rather distraction-free zones, often get a more favorable impression or at least of level of patience and attention I don’t always have time to give to books.

It’s a bit like those times when you start reading a book, and think, “This is boring the holy hell out of me.” Later—in a better mood? in a more receptive state? what? –you start the same book again, can’t put it down, and find it excellent.

It’s nice to think we use consistent criteria to judge books, but I wonder…

The Passage: A Novel

The Passage - Justin Cronin


Later, Keith Olbermann’s words, “WORST PERSON IN THE WO-O-R-R-L-L-D!!!” would echo in my head.

The other morning, my daughter called, crying, and said, “I just did something terrible.”

I froze. As a parent, these words could mean anything. I waited.

“I hit a car. I was trying to move over because the street was narrow. I hit someone’s mirror. I panicked. I just took off. I’m late for work already. They’ll fire me if I’m late. I know I damaged the mirror. I feel awful.” This was all delivered in pieces, as she was weeping by now.

During this, I go into parental stream of consciousness: "Thank God. No one’s hurt. She’s not hurt. She left the scene. What does that mean? What do I do? What do I do? Trouble? Fines? Tickets? Jail? Oh my God. Money. Trouble, Money, money, money. Trouble, trouble, trouble.... ...Then, the devil’s words: Did anyone see you?

But that’s not what I said. I heard myself say, “Can you go back and leave a note on the windshield?”

More wailing, “Noooo. I’m late now. They’ll fire me. I know it.”

“All right. Okay. You have to report this. I’ll find out what you need to do. It’s okay. Go to work. It’ll be okay.”

Of course, I had no idea if it would be all right. I’m in Wisconsin; she’s in Minneapolis, and I started to make phone calls. The first officer was a huge help. He said he didn’t know what the rules were, but she’d LEFT THE SCENE OF AN ACCIDENT. I said she panicked, she feels terrible, she’s sobbing. He said, “It doesn’t matter whether she's crying, laughing, smiling. She LEFT THE SCENE OF AN ACCIDENT. That’s a crime.” My heart was pounding, and I wanted to say, “Look you Neanderthal fuck. She killed a mirror. Could you be human for a moment?”

An hour or so later, I finally reached the right people, and the sergeant assured me she was not in trouble, took my name, number and hers, and said she should report it as soon as possible.

…Situation handled, I suppose. But I kept thinking of my first thought, and what I almost said, Did anyone see you? Epic fail.

I’m drawn to apocalyptic fiction, and one of the reasons why is that characters are often tested, and The Passage is no exception. Faced with temptation or in the clutch of terror, characters succeed or fail. While the book has compelling moments, too often Cronin starts to develop a character but never really completes the task. With such a large array of characters, this needs to be done. You want to empathize with the characters, and they need to be distinct enough so that you can keep them all straight.

One problem – and this may sound minor – but it drove me crazy, was Cronin’s inability to handle dialogue. With the exception of the soldiers, who spoke in an exaggerated military fashion, many of the characters sounded the same. Also, they seemed to have one expletive: flyers, which referred to something horrible in their midst. Accordingly, most of the characters, when excited, would begin a sentence by saying, “Flyers, what will we do?” or “Flyers, did you see anything?” It was absurd.

Picture, for example, something horrible in our lives. Sarah Palin, for example, and then picture her being able to survive, as she is, for decades.

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Would we all suddenly start using “Palins” as our only expletive, and then placing this word only at the beginning of a sentence? “Palins, hot enough for you?” or “Palins, we should get moving!”

No, for starters, though Palin has been on the international scene just shy of two years, we’ve been pretty creative in coming up with variations on her name:
~ Caribou Barbie
~Failin’ Palin
~the Thrilla from Wasilla
~Palin bailin’
~Bible Spice
~Deranged asshat (…sorry, that’s just me)


Imagine the variations we’d conjure up after decades.

Just why Cronin thought having most of his characters use this one expletive (flyers) baffled me, but I also started to wince every time someone used it.

I wanted to like this book. I’m a sucker for apocalyptic books where science-screws-up-big-time, starting with books as intellectually thoughtful as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein right down to Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. And, the book gets off to a good start. The first third of the book is quite good—the plot moves forward, and characters are developed.

Then, you reach Part III, which begins with a long military report that sucks out whatever momentum the book had attained. And Cronin does this sort of thing far too often. He’ll get the plot moving and then deaden it by letting a military report or pages and pages of someone’s diary (in italics! I hate fucking italics!) stand in for the plot he should have developed. This is poor writing, poor pacing, and piss-poor editing. For a couple hundred pages, the book crawls. It gets into gear in spurts, which are again deadened with dull reports or italicized diaries.

Cronin’s book, which had promise, lacks the rich characterization needed for such a long book, fails to sustain momentum, and has moments – particularly at the beginning of new sections - of horribly overwritten passages, such as this sentence fairly early in the book, which introduces Chapter Fifteen:
”When all time ended, and the world had lost its memory, and the man that he was had receded from view like a ship sailing away, rounding the blade of the earth with his old life locked in its hold; when the gyring stars gazed down upon nothing…”

This sentence, already painful, continues for another 37 words.

Worst book in the world? Not at all. Cronin has talent, which he needs to develop, and—most of all—he needs to learn how to pace a novel, and not cheat by having climactic scenes told in the form of dry reports or diary entries.



The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle - Laurence J. Peter;Raymond Hull

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The other day, out of nowhere, one of my sons asked me, “What’s the Peter Principle?” I scrambled together something about people tending to get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Then, of course, curiosity compelled me to find the book. And I did—quite a feat considering the number of books we own and the lack of any discernable organization. It was, as I remembered, a slim, black hardcover; it was also the 1969 edition, the year it was first published. Even if the book were a first edition—it doesn’t appear to be—its worth would be diminished. As usual, my husband marked and underlined the crap out of it.

My answer to my son was reasonably accurate. Early on, Peter & Hull provide the principle: “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." It was only afterward that I wondered why my son had asked the question. But it was too late; he was already out the door.

While much of the book is taken up with permutations on the original principle, the book is much more and pretty wise at that. I’d also forgotten the book includes wonderfully droll Victorian-looking black-and-white pictures. Intrigued, I found out the authors got permission from Punch to publish the pictures without their original captions.

But back to the wisdom. Most of us are competitive enough to view a promotion favorably, and perhaps accept a new position without enough reflection. I was pretty happy as a college teacher, but flattered when I received one promotion and then another. Now I’m mostly in administration and miserable. I’m not sure I would have accepted Peter & Hull’s advice had I remembered it pre-promotion: “Lasting happiness is obtainable only by avoiding the ultimate promotion, by choosing at a certain point in one’s progress, to abandon one-upmanship…” Hmmm…

The book is also wickedly funny. Consider this section on the distinction between Pseudo-Achievement Syndrome and Final Placement Syndrome. They provide a useful selection of choices based on the question, “‘Is the person accomplishing any useful work?’ If the answer is:

a) ‘YES’ – he has not reached Final Placement Syndrome and therefore exhibits only the Pseudo-Achievement Syndrome.
b) ‘NO’ – he has reached his final level of incompetence, and therefore exhibits the Final Placement Syndrome.
c) DON’T KNOW – you have reached your level of incompetence. Examine yourself for symptoms at once!”


Answer “c” cracked me up.

While the book lapses into occasional cutseyness (a new word, and don’t you dare refudiate it!) and the self-evident, I’m thinking employers should re-read it now and then and take a look around.

The last chapter, “Creative Incompetence” was my personal favorite. Here, Peter & Hull explain how to avoid getting promoted by practicing a bit of harmless incompetence such as picking up rubber bands and paper clips out of the wastebasket in a show of “niggling, officious economy” or occasionally parking your car in the place reserved for the company president.

A light read that provokes more thought than you’d imagine.