DNF: Mudbound, Hillary Jordan; or, watch in real time as I lose all heart for reading about racism

The beginning: Hurrah, multiple points of view! (In retrospect, the multiple points of view is probably the reason I added this book to my TBR list in the first place.) Mudbound (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) opens with two brothers, Jamie and Henry McAllan, hastening to dig a grave for their father before the rains start again; while Henry’s wife, Laura, barely conceals her relief at the old man’s death. Then we jump back in time a few years, to the time when Laura and Henry met and married and moved to Mississippi to run a farm there. Laura hates it, and hates even worse that she has to live with her sexist, racist, interfering father-in-law. We also get point-of-view chapters from Henry and Jamie, as well as various members of a black sharecropper family, the Jacksons, who work the McAllan farm.

Hillary Jordan is a gifted writer. The opening few chapters of Mudbound, which take place after the main action of the book, hint at what’s to come without drawing attention to the cleverness of the foreshadowing. This is a trick many authors struggle to accomplish. Jordan does it, I think, by not seeming to care what the reader knows or doesn’t know about the events of the book. Here’s an excerpt from Laura McAllan’s first point-of-view chapter:

But I must start at the beginning, if I can find it. Beginnings are elusive things. Just when you think you have hold of one, you look back and see another, earlier beginning, and an earlier one before that…

 

[M]y father-in-law was murdered because I was born plain rather than pretty. That’s one possible beginning. There are others: Because Henry saved Jamie from drowning in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Because Pappy sold the land that should have been Henry’s. Because Jamie flew too many bombing missions in the war. Because a Negro named Ronsel Jackson shone too brightly. Because a man neglected his wife, and a father betrayed his son, and a mother exacted her revenge. I suppose the beginning depends on who’s telling the story. No doubt the others would start somewhere different, but they’d still wind up at the same place in the end.

That is a well-written and economical way of telling you, Expect tragedy. Okay, Hillary Jordan! I am duly primed for tragedy!

Cover report: I don’t love either one. I guess I will go with the American cover, because it’s a smidge less generic? I don’t know. I don’t feel happy about it.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want to know): This is not my first rodeo. Good outcomes are unlikely in books about sharecropping and racism in 1946 Mississippi. Duly, the end of the book indicates that the the Jacksons have packed up everything to leave the town, following some kind of racism-related violent thing that has befallen their oldest son. It also appears that Jamie killed his father. I paged backward to find out why and really really wish I had not, because the murder motive is tied to what happened to the Jacksons’ son, and it’s much horrible than I was imagining. If I had not been reading this book for book club, I’m not sure I’d have finished it. I do not have the stomach for this kind of ugliness.

The whole: Mea culpa, friends. I couldn’t finish this book, even though it was a book for work book club. The ending was brutal, and when I got far enough into the book to observe that it was going to be brutal all the way through, and culminate with the horrible thing I read about at the end, I just couldn’t take it. This:

[Ronsel, a black World War II veteran] tried to step around them, but Orris moved to stand in his way. “Well, looky here. A jig in uniform.”

 

Ronsel’s body went very still, and his eyes locked with Orris’s. But then he dropped his gaze and said, “Sorry, suh. I wasn’t paying attention.”

Y’all, I don’t know, it has been a rough month and maybe I am emotionally fragile, but when Henry McAllan went to the Jackson’s house later, and made Ronsel apologize to the men who called him “boy” after he fought for his country, and made him leave the store through the back door, I don’t know. I couldn’t handle it.

Nonfiction

I have been reading a lot of nonfiction this summer. It’s been fun, but I am also a little starved for fiction, and I have a massive backlist of books to investigate when I get home.

Juliet Gardiner: The Thirties and Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here

When I read Gardiner’s Wartime, I wished it had said more about the experience of being an American GI in England during World War II. Turns out the reason it didn’t is that Juliet Gardiner wrote a whole book about being an American GI in England during World War II. Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here (the book in question), a short book with lots of pictures and excerpts from diaries, letters, and journals, held me over until The Thirties got in at the library.

At which point I’m afraid I was woefully disappointed. I gave up on The Thirties about a third of the way through. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or just aimed in the wrong direction. Gardiner writes a lot about labor and the dole and other bleak, depressing economic things, and I got bored. I persevered ages longer than I wanted to, because I had whined so much about the library not having the book when I wanted it.

William Harris: Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity

Harris examines classical texts from Homer on forward to get a grip on what kind of dreams the Greeks and Romans had and what their dreams meant to them. He devotes a whole chapter to discussing what he calls “epiphany dreams,” dreams in which an authority figure shows up, gives a message to the dreamer, then leaves again. These appear to have been very common up until around the eleventh or twelfth century, at which point they declined precipitously. All very interesting.

A. D. Nuttall: The Stoic in Love (essays) and Dead from the Waist Down

I’m going to be getting Nuttall’s last book, Shakespeare the Thinker, in the mail pretty soon. I got it because I want to be friends with Shakespeare again. I hate that we’re in a fight. But once it was already ordered, I started to worry that I wouldn’t care for Nuttall, so I went to the library and got a few of his other books. Y’all, as I was reading these books, I kept thinking that if A.D. Nuttall hadn’t died tragically prematurely of a heart attack in 2007, I would have move to whatever university he taught at and become his disciple.

Nuttall read Mods (roughly, that means classics) and English Literature at Oxford, and The Stoic in Love warmed the classics and English literature ventricles of my geeky little heart. There is an essay on Virgil’s use of the causal-but-simultaneous dum (generally translated as “while”) in the Aeneid, which, Nuttall argues, reveals a lot about Virgil’s perception of life-after-death. I also particularly liked the essay on Hamlet and the sources of its uncertainties in previous Hamlet stories as well as in Latin and Greek sources.

Dead from the Waist Down was weird but entrancing. Nuttall writes about sexuality and scholarship in literature and life, taking as his subjects two real scholars (one, Isaac Casaubon, an early modern, and one, Mark Pattison, a contemporary of George Eliot) and the fictional Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch. Fortunately the half of Middlemarch that I read was sufficient to carry me through this with a reasonable measure of comprehension, and Nuttall doesn’t assume the reader’s familiarity with the other two dudes. He also discusses three things I did not get enough of during college: Robert Browning, Tom Stoppard, and image clusters. In particular I appreciated his compliments to the (wonderful) Stoppard play Invention of Love: “It is a work of breathtaking brilliance….knockabout comedy laced with intense pathos,” etc.

The word [scholarly], I think, connotes a quality of completeness: at the lowest level, complete literacy (never a colon where a comma should be); complete, though not redundant documentation; complete accuracy even with reference to matters not crucial to the main argument, and, together with all this, a sense that the writer’s knowledge of material at the fringe of the thesis is as sound as his or her knowledge of the core material.

Exactly what I like in Nuttall, although he could just be giving the impression of being sound without really being, and I do not know enough to be sure. Though just as I was contemplating flinging myself in the river so that Nuttall could teach me classics in heaven, he said:

It will be said that I am describing the literary canon, which has been shown to be an instrument of oppression. I would have had none of that then and I will have none of it now.

Come on, dude. At least give some respect to the arguments of the people who are completely unrepresented in and disempowered by the literary canon. You are part of a privileged group, and the literary canon hasn’t been an instrument of oppressing you. Hrmph. But apart from this, I think A.D. Nuttall is very, very brilliant and interesting. He talked briefly about a Greek writer called Diogenes Laertius, who wrote gossipy, bitchy lives of philosophers and bad poets, so y’all should expect to be hearing from me pretty soon about that.

DNF: Castleview, Gene Wolfe; and what I thought about the new kid

The jacket copy on the Gene Wolfe books at the library assured me that Gene Wolfe’s most famous books are a series with the word Sun in them, but failed to explain to me which book was the first of that series.  Yes, I could have looked it up on the library computers, but I was only getting his books in the first place because he was right there under W, and Sexing the Cherry was not, so I couldn’t be bothered expending a lot of effort.

Again I say unto you: It is not a good strategy to get a book by an author you have heard a lot about just because you happen to be standing in that section.  I picked up Castleview because, well, because it had a castle, and figures from Arthurian legend.  I like a castle.  I like figures from Arthurian legend.  I read two-thirds of it on Easter Sunday, and seriously, you could offer me a million dollars right now and I would not be able to tell you what was going on in that book.  Characters come and go with terrifying rapidity, and I lost the thread of the plot after about two chapters.  By chapter three my only reaction was: “What?  What?  What?”

With which convenient segue I turn to the subject of Matt Smith and his Saturday debut as the Doctor.  I am happy to report that my not inconsiderable efforts to come to terms with David Tennant’s departure have worked brilliantly, and I was hardly at all resentful of Matt Smith for dashing about being the Doctor.  I didn’t even get that feeling with Matt Smith that I had when David Tennant first showed up, that he was only pretending to be the Doctor.  He was the Doctor straight away.

I liked (’ware major spoilers):

  • How they’ve made Amy such a perfect stand-in for the audience, with her years of dreaming about the Doctor, while also giving her a backstory that provides a good reason for her to go with the Doctor when he asks her to go.  Plus I just love it that she’s from a small town where everyone not only knows her but knows about “the raggedy Doctor”.
  • The Doctor treats little Amelia exactly the same way he treats grown-up Amy, Geoff, Rory – everyone really.  It’s easy to win viewers’ sympathy by being extra nice to a lonely little kid, but it wouldn’t make sense for the Doctor to be different with her than he would be with a grown-up human.  He’s over 900 years old, for heaven’s sake: All the humans he meets would be like children to him.  “Do everything I tell you, don’t ask stupid questions, and don’t wander off.”  Yup, those are the rules.
  • We still don’t know what was going on with the crack in Amelia’s wall.  Scary scary.  I like ongoing plotlines.
  • The Doctor’s about-faces on the question of back-up and whether having it or not having it meant they were safe.  I do enjoy undercutting of tense moments.
  • “This matters, this is important.  Why did you say six months?”  “Why did you say five minutes?”  Quite right too.  Poor little sausage, waiting for her magic Doctor.  Grown-ups are so disappointing.
  • “I’m the Doctor; I’m worse than everybody’s aunt.”  Love it.
  • The Doctor rings up the aliens on the phone and makes them come back.  To fuss at them for threatening Earth in the first place.  I could not possibly be happier about this.  I was so happy about this that I felt only a small amount sad to see David Tennant’s face in the Doctor Montage, and didn’t mind at all the new kid walking through his face at the end.  It didn’t feel dismissive.  And I always like it when the Doctor can stand there, all human-looking and alone, and intimidate the hell out of a massive alien threat.  You know if he had to, he could put paid to those eyeball aliens forever.  “Basically – run.”
  • “You kept the clothes?” “I just saved the world.  The whole planet, for about the millionth time, no charge.  Yeah.  Shoot me.  I kept the clothes.”  “Including the bow tie?” “Yeah, it’s cool.  Bow ties are cool.”  Can I just say again that I love the clothes?  I love the clothes.  Including the bow tie.  I have long been a secret fan of bow ties, on people who can carry them off.  The Doctor and Justice Stevens are two people who can absolutely carry them off.

I did not like:

  • (Here is where that segue comes in.) When the Doctor said “What? What? What?” in that blatantly David Tennant way.  Did not like, do not want.  That marked the only time in the whole episode that I got truly cross at the new kid.  I snarled, BACK OFF, YOU.  AND GET OUT OF HIS CLOTHES.  (Not, um, not in a dirty way.)
  • “Who da man?”  Bleargh.
  • The new TARDIS.  I am surprised at how much I miss the old TARDIS.  I do not currently like the new decoration, but I am curious to see some of its other rooms.  The only time I can remember seeing any other TARDIS rooms during Russell T. Davies’ tenure as showrunner is when David Tennant was picking out his clothes. TARDIS rooms, please.  I would like to see the library.
  • The fact that we didn’t really get to see the layout of Amy’s house before the extra room showed up.  Or did we, and I missed it?  I think it would have been creepier if we had had to make note of there being only five rooms, before the Doctor makes Amy count and realize there are six.

I have concerns relating to:

  • This being a rather by-the-numbers Doctor Who episode.  As first outings for new kids go, this episode is shades of “Smith and Jones”, “The Girl in the Fireplace”, “The Christmas Invasion”, “42” – oh, well, you know.  I’m not fussed about it as long as the others aren’t the same way.
  • Steven Moffat’s apparent penchant for swooshy romance.  I don’t want River Song back (for four episodes), I’m not convinced there was any reason Ten had to fall in love with Madame de Pompadour, and overall I would prefer it if Amy and the Doctor were just very, very, very good friends.  The nice thing (for me) about Donna and Ten, and Rose and Ten even, was that they were really good friends having a fantastic time together and enjoying each other’s company.  Martha kind of brought me down, moping around all the time.
  • In a related note, the executive producer Piers Winger said this about Amy: “The whole kissogram thing played into Steven’s desire for the companion to be feisty and outspoken and a bit of a number. Amy is probably the wildest companion that the Doctor has travelled with, but she isn’t promiscuous. She is really a two-man woman and that will become clear over the course of the episodes.  Sci-fi has a long and happy history of sexy female characters and long may that continue.”  Oh, really, she’s not promiscuous?  THAT IS SUCH A WEIGHT OFF MY MIND.  Dear Piers Winger, We are at least temporarily not friends anymore.  Kisses, Jenny.

THE END OF THE SPOILERS.

Overall I was solidly in favor, and now I wish it were Saturday again.  I only started watching Doctor Who after the fourth series had ended, so I’ve waited for the specials but never for a proper season.  It is strange and wonderful that there will be new episodes every Saturdays for the next lots of Saturdays.

Did you like it?  If you haven’t watched Doctor Who before, may I suggest you start?  This episode isn’t a bad one to be your first: plot a bit thin but the characters get nicely introduced and the Doctor is classically Doctory, and if you’ve never seen the TARDIS before you might like it even though I do not.

Winter Rose, Patricia McKillip

I simply cannot get on with Patricia McKillip.  I don’t know what it is about her books that displease me.  The writing is lovely, her characters are likeable, the plots are interesting – and still, every single time I pick up one of her books, I end up stewing in displeasure and finally asking myself, Jenny, why are you torturing yourself like this?  Just put the damn book down and read something else.

Winter Rose is a retelling of Tam Lin.  I love that story!  As previously mentioned, I am reading a bunch of retellings of that story.  And there was nothing wrong with this book.  Rois is a clever and inquisitive heroine, trying to find out what kind of a curse Corbet Lynn is under, and whether his father killed his grandfather, and why he’s come back to rebuild his family estate.  I was interested in knowing all of these things!  I was interested in Rois’s demure sister Laurel, happily engaged yet strangely drawn to Corbet.  At least, I was for a while.  Then after a while, I didn’t care enough to finish the book, or even to read the end.

Riddle me this: Nobody was boring, but I got bored.

Walking Through Walls, Philip Smith

I picked this up at the library a little while ago, and realized when I got it home that I had read about it here before checking it out and completely forgotten.  Weird.

You wouldn’t think I’d be able to manage being uninterested in a memoir about someone whose father was a faith healer.  But I just never got interested in this.  For someone with such a colorful life, this guy has written a book that was surprisingly bland (yeah, I mixed that metaphor.  Got a problem?).  Even before I began to suspect that Mr. Smith genuinely believes in his father’s faith healing ways, I was a bit tired of the book.  I didn’t finish it.  Maybe I’ll try again some other time.

In the Springtime of the Year, Susan Hill

Blech.  Everyone’s been reading Susan Hill lately, and her books all sounded so creepy and cool, but I couldn’t finish this.  I stayed up late last night reading it, because I kept thinking I would read it until it got interesting and then I would go to sleep and have something to look forward to in the morning.  What a stupid idea.  I mean, that was always going to be a stupid idea, but it was particularly stupid in this case because the book never got interesting at all.  Two-thirds of the way through, I figured out that I was never going to like it, and I chucked it into my papasan chair and went to sleep.  Bah.  Oh, and then, and then?  Instead of getting up at 6:30, and reading the news in leisurely fashion, and watching an episode of Torchwood that seems to have totally stolen its idea from Buffy while working on my cross-stitching, I was so sleepy I reset my alarm for 7:30 and I had to get ready very very fast and go running into work.

THANKS A LOT SUSAN HILL.

So anyway I now feel too cranky to review this book properly.  Suffice it to say: it’s about a woman who spends a lot of time being very, very unhappy because her husband has died; and if you are waiting for something interesting to happen, you may be waiting a long time.  In addition, Susan Hill’s use of multiple staccato clauses drove me insane.

P.S. I may be being unwarrantedly harsh, because I had high expectations of a particular type, which did not align with the reality of the book.  Never a recipe for loving a book you read.  Bah.

The Hills at Home, Nancy Clark

“Did someone die in here or what?” ….

“Yes,” she told Andy, “somebody die die in here but I have, of course, since changed the sheets.”

I read about this book here, and felt smugly certain that I would not be, as Powell’s review suggested some would be, “deaf to this novel’s considerable charm”, thus would not have “wandered away long before those scenes [the ones with plot in them] arrive.”  They said it was like Jane Austen, and I suppose I thought that meant gently satirical and not very exciting in a Scarlet Pimpernel way, but nevertheless containing various things for its well-drawn characters to do.

It’s all about a family of Hills, and they all come to live with their Aunt Lily in her large house.  Lily’s brother Harvey comes, and he doesn’t like damn liberals; and histrionic Ginger with her teen daughter Betsy; and out-of-work Alden and his wife Becky and their four children; and Arthur and Phoebe, who are someone’s nephew and his girlfriend but I can’t remember whose because my brain doesn’t have the capacity for all this; and finally a distantly-related sociology student called Andy who wants to study the Hills.  And I think that’s all of them.

I got on pretty well for a while.  The characters were indeed entertaining, if too numerous to be bothered keeping track of (Ms. Clark appeared to feel the same way), and the dialogue could be funny, and everyone thought a number of humorous thoughts, and all.  But seriously, nothing ever happened.  I mean nothing.  They would eat breakfast and go into town and come back from town and talk, but there was nothing ever actually happening.  I appreciate having characters at whom the author pokes gentle fun, and at the same time, that doesn’t make a book.  After a while I found myself flipping through pages trying to discover whether anything, ever, was going to happen to induce change, and when I had pretty well figured out that nothing ever would, I returned the book to the library.

Oh well.  Then I no longer had it to worry about, and I settled down instead and read Tom Finder, which I liked a very great deal more.

Giles Goat-Boy, John Barth

This book and I got off to a rocky start. Last time I was at the library, I picked up a bunch of books that I thought might be good, by authors who are all those weird fantasy realists and postmodern and metafictiony. I got the rest of Salman Rushdie’s books that I haven’t read – except, annoyingly enough, The Satanic Verses, which is the one I wanted to read first because I was pretty sure I was going to like it the least – and I got several books by Italo Calvino, and I got Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. (And Invitation to a Beheading, which is neither here nor there.) So I asked my sister what I wanted to read, The Baron in the Trees or Shalimar the Clown or Giles Goat-Boy, and she thought Giles Goat-Boy was a sweet little children’s story so she said to read that one so I did.

I mean, I don’t know if you know this, but it’s about a kid who’s raised as a goat, and the university is the universe; so there you have the central conceits. There are a lot of things like the Second Campus Riot and then the west side of campus and the east side of campus had the Quiet Riot and like – okay, whatever, I will admit that the long segment of world history refigured for a university became a little trying (I guess if I’d thought it was funny, it might have been better), and the I-am-a-goat bits irritated me. I kept having to put the book down and have a brief silent soliloquoy about Why, why, why, why? which is how I sometimes feel about postmodern things. This book is damn weird, and I didn’t like it at all, so I set myself a goal: Read until chapter four of the second section, and then you can quit. After I decided that, I had a dream in which I was in jail for something, and they took us on a field trip to the bookshop, but they wouldn’t let me look at any of the good books. I could only look at the lame books. And inside my head I was thinking I will not let them break my spirit!

I was very, very close to abandoning the entire enterprise. But I sensibly consulted The Internet, and The Internet assured me that I was quite right. Giles Goat-Boy does get off to a weird start, and the university-history thing is dated and weird. The Internet also told me that The Sot-Weed Factor might be more my thing, and that John Barth, in spite of all his weirdness, does some damn good storytelling. And I am all about plot. I know a lot of people just rejoice in the joyous joys of writing, and I do too, but honestly, if there’s not a good plot there, and if it’s not being advanced well, it’s just no good. That was why (I know it’s not the generally-held opinion) I like The Ground Beneath Her Feet so much better than Midnight’s Children, which was a very cool idea and a beautifully written book but sort of carried the plot along in fits and starts. Whereas The Ground Beneath Her Feet goes steadily along, with things happening – love story, goats, photography, and all the rest and so forth.

I really was determined to get to my chapter-four cutoff point, and the thing is, I just didn’t do it. After a while I tipped it off my bedside table in my sleep, and then I read Ender’s Shadow and Ender’s Game, and then I obtained from another library branch The Satanic Verses and read that, and then I wanted to read Walk Two Moons which I always see all over my house so I looked and looked and I couldn’t find it so instead of that I read Chasing Redbird and then I hunted for Walk Two Moons some more and the damn book was nowhere but I did find Back Home, which I’d been frantically hunting for after I read Good Night, Mr. Tom earlier this month, so I read that, and then my mother got Understanding the Borderline Mother, which my family’s been dying to read because we love reading about BPD, on PaperbackSwap, and I was halfway through that and I realized that there is just no part of me that even remotely wants to read Giles Goat-Boy.

So I stopped trying.

Oh well.

The Chatham School Affair, Thomas H. Cook

Meh.

Everyone kept comparing other books to The Chatham School Affair with favorable-sounding opinions, so I picked it up at the library a little while ago and started reading it, and I have to confess that I found it somewhat trying.  I couldn’t get into the story because of all the frantic foreshadowing.  It kept being all Little did we know when first we beheld that peaceful landscape how much BLOOD AND DEATH AND MISERY there would be there later on, and I only read a little bit of it, but I just got fed up with the way Mr. Cook was caking on the foreshadowing.  Like those cakes with that vanilla frosting where normal people have to scrape off the flowers and leaves but some people love it so much that they demand to have the pieces with flowers and leaves on top and even accept your discarded frosting flowers and leaves.  I am scraper-offer, and this foreshadowing was way the hell too much.

(I am apparently really really into dessert similes.  I am now putting a one-month embargo on dessert similes.  Or metaphors.)

Maybe sometime I’ll try to read this again.  Maybe not.  We’ll see.

Saturday, by Ian McEwan

Okay, I didn’t pick this up wholly at random, but it was the only Ian McEwan book at the library although I actually wanted Atonement to see how different it was to the movie, so that’s why I decided to read this one.  Anyway I didn’t finish.  I have a massive big stack of library books to read, and this one wasn’t impressing me at all, and I was way way in and still waiting for something to happen, and I hate those books where a dude wakes up in the morning and starts to think all about his entire life in massive detail, so I was like, Well, shit, life’s too short, I’m going to read something that I find interesting or well-written.

But maybe I was just in the wrong mood for this book.  So perhaps I’ll try it again someday (probably not though).  Definitely I will try another Ian McEwan book sometime – I hate it when someone’s a highly acclaimed writer who has written a number of books and I really, really, really want to love them because that would be exciting and open up new vistas of joy for me but then I hate their books.  That’s why I never read Joyce Carol Oates, because I’m afraid of that very thing happening.