October's reading -- note still no progress on my projects!!
Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life  315 pages
After reading Chaplin's My Autobiography, I was looking for a biography to fill in the blanks and correct any distortions. I chose this one because it was one of the most recent, and the author didn't have a string of "celebrity" biographies on his record (his only other book that I saw was on Coleridge.) If I had known more about the book, I wouldn't have chosen it.
To begin with, despite the title, it is not really a life of Chaplin; it only goes as far as his first films with Keystone, and is mostly about his childhood. Secondly, it is written by a psychoanalyst from a psychoanalytic viewpoint. And thirdly, it freely uses Chaplin's early (1915) My Own Story "as told to" journalist Rose Wilder Lane, which he repudiated and suppressed before it came out as an inaccurate account. In fact, the book originated in a psychology seminar studying this early book, which accounts for why this book stops at the time that one was written.
This is not to say that the book does not have some interesting information from other more reliable sources, especially about the British Music Hall tradition in which Chaplin was brought up; and the identifying of early analogies and possible sources for scenes and themes in his films was interesting as well, even if somewhat reductionist -- the fact that a film may have been suggested by some early event in his life doesn't mean that is what it is about, even if it explains why it seems so realistic. I think this book explains well why Chaplin was a good actor, but not what made him a great one.
J.M.G. Le Clezio, Coeur brûle  188 pages, in French
A novelette and six stories. I'm not sure why he calls them "romances" as they seem to be the same genre as his other collections of "histoires."
The title story takes about about half the book. The title means "Heart burns", which seems to be as odd in French as in English; even the Nobel winner site puts an accent over the final e to make it "Burnt heart". However, the title obviously comes from the Provencal epigraph: "When the mountain burns, everyone is aware, when the heart burns, who is aware?"
This collection was published in 2000, just before Révolutions, but it seems closer to his much earlier stories; in fact everything Le Clezio writes has more or less the same tone, a blend of bleak despair and nostalgia. The title story is reminiscent of one of the two strands of Désert, with a female protagonist who grows up in the third world (in this case Mexico) and ends up in the poverty and violence of Marseilles; another story in the collection, "Kalima" is also about poverty violence and set in Marseilles. "Chercher l'aventure" is a kind of surrealistic prose poem; the final story, "Trésor", is in his more mystical vein.
The stories are interesting and well-written but didn't really say much to me.
Richard Schickel, ed., The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian  315 pages
A collection of over thirty essays and reviews about Chaplin and his films, by authors ranging from Winston Churchill to Theodore Adorno (there are two each by Andrew Sarris and Stark Young, but otherwise no authors are duplicated.). Some pieces are contemporary with the films they describe, while others look back from a later perspective.
The editor, Richard Schickel, is annoying; his Introduction almost turned me off from reading the book. A reverse snob, he overpraises the early slapstick films while taking a very patronizing approach to the later masterpieces. He also misses no opportunity to indulge in a very crude pop-Freudian analysis of Chaplin.
Fortunately, the first of the actual essays, by Andrew Sarris, was one of the best pieces in the book and kept me from abandoning it at the outset. As one would expect from a book with such diverse authors there is a good deal of unevenness in the quality of the pieces; but some are good and others are historically interesting, so the book is worth reading.
Unfortunately, there is a totally unacceptable number of typos, including words and whole lines omitted, as well as mistakes such as "can" for "cane" almost every time that prop is referred to, "that" for "than" dozens of times, etc. But no misspellings which aren't words, so apparently they ran spellcheck but did no other proofreading.
Kyp Harness, The Art of Charlie Chaplin: A Film-by-Film Analysis  222 pages
Just what the subtitle implies, an analysis of each of Chaplin's films throughout his career. Unpretentious, sympathetic to Chaplin without being uncritical, this is probably the most intelligent thing I've read about his films so far.
Stephen J. Gould, Ever Since Darwin: Reflections in Natural History  285 pages
This was the first collection of Gould’s articles from Natural History magazine. All the essays have some connection with the theory of evolution, either historically or as exemplifications. I read the book for the first time when it was relatively recent; today, of course, after thirty-five years, the science is somewhat dated, particularly with regard to human evolution. The essays are still fun to read, though, and many of his points are still quite relevant, especially about the misuse of science for political purposes– it didn’t begin with the Bush administration, the Reagan administration, or even the Third Reich.
Stephen J. Gould, The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History  343 pages
Gould's second collection of articles from Natural History. Like the first, very interesting and fun to read, if now somewhat dated. I think that in some of the articles, he tries a little too hard to be a "gadfly" and generalizes his conclusions too much, but he always provokes thought. I enjoy reading articles on evolutionary theory that don't get bogged down in arguing with creationists, but take the facts for granted and discuss the more interesting questions of How and Why things happened the way they did.
Stephen J. Gould, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History  413 pages
Gould's third volume of essays from Natural History.
One of the points he discusses is the way evolution works at different hierarchical levels, at the level of the gene and at the level of the species, as well as the level of the individual. This somewhat applies to my reviews, as well: I could easily review this at the level of the individual articles, or write one review for the whole series, but it is difficult to write a review at the level of the book without simply repeating what I have already said about the first and second books: interesting, fun to read, a little bit too "contrarian" and overgeneralized in places, but definitely thought-provoking to anyone with an interest in natural history and evolutionary theory.
An interesting illustration of how fast the field is developing: in The Panda's Thumb he has an essay on the faunal change in South America after the rise of the Isthmus of Panama; he opposes the "traditional" view that marsupials were inferior to placentals in adaptation, with the "new" view that the placentals had simply been "tested" by "crises" in the North while the marsupials had evolved less in a less competitive environment. In this book, he has an essay written only three or four years later in which he opposes the "traditional" view that the placentals were more competitive because they had been tested in crises by the "new" view that about as many South American genera moved North as Northern genera moved South, and the North American genera simply "radiated"into more derived genera because the cooling climate changes of the time made South America more like temperate North America and favored their adaptations over the more tropical adaptations of the South American genera which moved North.
Shirley Jackson, The Road Through the Wall  271 pages
A novel about life on one street in a suburb of San Francisco, in the summer of 1936; but it really could have been any suburban town, a decade earlier or later, as there are no references to national or international events -- although the families are all economically precarious, there are no references to the Depression or suggestions that times are worse than normal, and all the families are convinced that they are going up in the world.
In fact, the theme of the book is very much about social status -- the families, or more precisely the women, are very concerned with establishing a social hierarchy and improving their position within it. They are all concerned with being friends with those "above" them and avoiding those "below." It's not really about class in the Marxist sense -- these are all petty bourgeois or working class families -- but about income and property; the families are defined by "homeowners" vs. "renters", the size of their homes, the quality of their furniture -- apart from the one Jewish family (the only really positive characters in the book) which of course is defined as lower by their ethnicity. As in the novels of Edith Wharton, the occupations of the men are very far in the background; in fact, I was reminded of Age of Innocence, transposed a half-dozen steps down the social ladder.
One difference, however, is that in this novel there is an emphasis on children, and teenagers; a major theme is the way they establish their own status hierarchy, and the way it is constrained by the parents to become more like the adult hierarchy. The children are ultimately used as pawns in the parents' social game, with ultimately disastrous results. All these families are dysfunctional, some more subtly than others.
This is Jackson's first novel, and there is a certain awkwardness in the construction; the book begins by introducing dozens of characters in a sort of list, or better a map, since they are described in terms of their houses and property before we learn anything else about them. It was hard to keep the characters apart until I learned more about them and began to be interested in them. The final chapter also seems somewhat out of character with the rest of the novel. The writing is very good, especially the characterization -- the people in the neighborhood are all individualized without ceasing to be recognizable "types", who reminded me of people in my own suburban neighborhood of two decades later.
Shirley Jackson, The Lottery, or the Adventures of James Harris  235 pages
A collection of short stories. The title story, "The Lottery", is one of the most famous and most anthologized stories of all time; I had to read it in High School. The stories are uneven, a few were really good, but most did not really appeal to me all that much. The recurrent theme seems to be the insanity and pointless cruelty of modern life, but it was just that -- pointless. Most of the stories have an absent or perhaps imaginary character named "James Harris", to allude to the Ballad of the Daemon Lover; I suppose this is symbolic of something, but it didn't really seem to have all that much point either. The various "James Harris's" didn't seem to be the same character or have a lot in common. Other names were also reused from other stories and from The Road through the Wall (Artie Roberts) but also did not seem to be the same characters. I expected this to be much better than it was.
Shirley Jackson, Hangsaman  272 pages
This novel takes Natalie Waite, the unpopular daughter of an eccentric writer and his mismatched wife who constantly quarrel, from the last month of summer through her first few months of college. Natalie, brought up in a consciously literary but dysfunctional environment, has a strong imagination, and retreats into elaborate daydreams when she cannot cope with the real world. The book begins as a kind of comedy about family and college life, but becomes much darker at the end.
I was somewhat ambivalent about this book. It's not a bad novel, but really not a good one either; it's more of a not quite successful experiment. As with her first novel, The Road Through the Wall, there is a disconnect of tone between most of the book and the ending. If Natalie had been in high school rather than college -- and she doesn't seem quite mature enough to be seventeen -- this would have reminded me of a certain type of Young Adult novel, very full of teen angst -- I almost said, obviously influenced by Catcher in the Rye, until I noticed that they were both published the same year, so probably the resemblance is due to the common experience of teenagers in the immediate postwar period, with its lack of real meaning or direction, and the common influence of the then fashionable existentialist philosophy. Toward the end, it almost seems like something out of Sartre. I think most everything I've read that was written in the early fifties has a certain similarity, the "rebel without a cause" alienation.
To some extent, I could identify with the experiences of college, and the daydreaming, etc. but it was very exaggerated, especially at the end. The book was very heavy on description and very diffusely written, with scenes that went on too long, which may be why it didn't have the impact of Salinger. I think it would have been more successful if it had been shorter and more tightly written -- it seemed far longer than it actually was.
Shirley Jackson, The Bird's Nest  274 pages
Jackson's third novel. This is impossible to summarize without spoilers. Technically, it was much better than her first two; the story built up gradually from the beginning to near the end, rather than shifting genre like the first two. In terms of content, there was no social satire as in the first two, just a good entertaining story.
Shirley Jackson,The Sundial  245 pages
A cynical comedy about the end of the world. Funny in a few places.
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House  175 pages
A psychological horror story about the investigation of a haunted house. I went into more detail (with spoilers) in the discussion in the thread for the book. It was definitely a good story, if you like the genre.
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle  139 pages
A psychological murder mystery. Unfortunately, I knew the whole plot by the middle of the second chapter. The development was well done, but the story was perhaps too exaggerated to be realistic.
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