Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Isabel Swift comments on Summer Reading

I was listening to my itunes podcast from The New Yorker...

(Side note: many free podcasts can be downloaded and enjoyed @ iTunes. I just add it to my iPod, but if you have a smartphone with MP3 player, think you can download them there. All kinds of free content--learn about music, cooking, manners, philosophy, comedy, news, whatever).

...and one of the stories was about this out-of-work kid who told everyone that he was reading great books over the summer & was delighted to find everyone was very impressed. No, he wasn't actually reading any, but I decided this was a worthy goal and I should start filling in the chinks and read stuff I had never gotten around to reading.

I thought I'd start with one classic, one recent literary type bestseller. My first toe in the water: PORTRAIT OF A LADY/Henry James & A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS/Dave Eggers.

My rules are that you can have an opinion about a book you've read, but can't have an opinion about the author unless you've read at least 3 of their books. It seems fair.

So I found AHWOSG a bit tedious--perhaps colored by having seen Eggers on panels at conferences. And Henry James, who I had never read (yes, watched Wings of the Dove, though my enjoyment was colored by the uncanny resemblance of Daniel Day Lewis in that role to my older brother). Portrait seemed a good start--one of his more well known novels, and the heroine's name was Isabel. Can't get more relevant than that!

OMG. It was a fairly hard slog. Then I realized I couldn't complain about Henry James because I hadn't read my requisite 3 books. Back to the Library. Wings of the Dove was just too long, and I wasn't sure I wanted to sit through that story again. So I went with Washington Square--short, but as the introduction notes, not one of his more popular stories. And for good reason. I was one book away from an opinion. Luckily, there was Turn of the Screw--famous (I'd even seen the opera) and a novella! They even had to toss in a couple of short stories to fill the book out.

I was off an running. Well, if you've ever read James (I can now say that) "running" is not a word one would associate with his prose!

Despite some very active ghosts, TOTS (cute, eh?) was fairly tough going. But I needed to be able to have an author opinion! I even read the short stories. Also a good bit of the various scholarly preambles. Holy Toledo, if they don't turn you off reading the book, nothing will. In fairness, I actually really like getting a sense of context, a quick cliff notes on the writer, the history, the critical thought. But obviously, there's a similarity between the writer's style and his or her academic fans, so prefaces were a bit of a slog too.

OK, here's my assessment. After really not getting it for 3 novels (what is the big deal with this guy, etc.), the penny finally dropped thanks to the very last short story I read, "The Jolly Corner." Whew! I could have an opinion that wasn't just HUH?

So what's the big deal? I haven't done research beyond the above fairly pathetic efforts, but here are my insights.

First, he seems to be one of the first writers to deeply explore a sense of the character's conscious, their emotional makeup and the psychological causes behind their actions. Freud was born 13 year after James & lived over 20 years longer, but there's a strong connection with the birth of psychology. That seems pretty big as a new writing vision.

He also straddled the 19th and 20th centuries and offers a well rendered vision of the sense of past graciousness, limitations and social norms and proprieties that were being broken down, but still were powerful forces in an aristocratic or wealthy life. "The Jolly Corner" really presents a vivid metaphor of a man caught between two worlds, trying to find himself. Finishing it, I actually felt warmly towards James, though he definitely read as being a bit mysongenistic, which can be irritating.

So now that I've explained James, what's on your summer reading list?