Friday, January 20, 2012

Daisy Miller (1878)

Author: Henry James
Title: Daisy Miller
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Price: $1
LCC: PS2116 .D3 1900 

Is Daisy Miller a slut or does she just act like one? A crude way to put it, I know. This is the question that Henry James's protagonist Winterbourne cannot seem to answer. Nancy Bentley has written that so much of James's novels consist of "girl watching." I'm sure the category works for James's other works, but it seems to me to be a most apt description of his novella Daisy Miller. For most of the text concerns Winterbourne watching Miss Miller, thinking about her actions, and questioning her motives. Is Daisy a good girl or a bad girl? Winterbourne just has to know.

Traditionally, critics have seen the novel in terms of manners. Winterbourne has them; Daisy does not. Winterbourne is an American expatriate who has long traveled throughout Europe under the pretense of pursuing his education. Although he hasn't gained much formal education, his European experience has transformed him into a decadent figure, familiar with all the intricacies and pleasures that European society has had to offer him. He is a cosmopolitan by training and thus something of a professional appreciator. As such, when Winterbourne first meets the Millers he is immediately taken with them and views them, somewhat condescendingly, as the picture of American innocence. The Millers seem to him the portrait of American innocence. Daisy's little brother, Randolph, is not so dissimilar to his fictional contemporary Tom Sawyer in that they are both scamps. Mrs. Miller, Daisy's mother, is a naive, matronly woman concerned about decorum but blind to social convention. And then there is Daisy, who Winterbourne views as a harmless American flirt.

In her flirtatiousness Daisy manages to offend the social customs of the American expatriate community. Much to Winterbourne's frustration, Daisy seems unaware of what she looks like to her fellow Americans. Thus, she hasn't a care when she goes off in the company of the strange Italian named Giovanelli. Winterbourne would like to protect Daisy and her reputation, but he is too passive to either take a strand against society or to express a sincere interest in her. Winterbourne is not a man who lives either by his words or by his hands; he is a man that lives by his eyes. Thus he's more content to watch Daisy and Giovanelli parade around the Coliseum at night, but he won't stop her, or try and protect her from the night-borne illness that will eventually take her life.

But is Daisy so innocent? Winterbourne insists on Daisy's innocence and her ignorance, but because James's narration is so bound to Winterbourne's consciousness, I don't see any reason to trust him. Indeed, we do see Daisy quite unhappy when one American matron gives her the cold shoulder. But this is just a gesture, one of many that Daisy makes. What did Daisy Miller know? Maybe Daisy did know how she looked and didn't care. Maybe Daisy did not know how she looked and the classic reading concerning manners holds up. I do know Daisy Miller knew how to have a good time, but I don't know what she knew beyond that. And fun is one thing worth having.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Blankets (2003)

Author: Craig Thompson
Title: Blankets
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Price: Free (Public Library)
LCC: PN6727.T48 B58 2003

Forgive me, Internet for I have sinned. It's been one week since my last post. I am guilty of the sin of prejudice. I have judged a book unfairly by its cover and by its press. The sin of iniquity is upon me.

When Craig Thompson's Blankets came out, I was reluctant to read it. Upon its release in 2003, Blankets seemed to gain instant buzz for Thompson's frank discussion of his Evangelical Christian upbringing and his struggle to maintain his faith in the face of teenage sexual desire. Internet, you have to understand; by 2003, I was no longer the DC Comics fanboy I once was. I wanted to read graphic novels that contained sophisticated "adult-storytelling." Really, I did. I became a devoted fan of Love and Rockets and reveled in the now forgotten, Unstable Molecules. However, there was something about Blankets that initially hit me the wrong way, that made me resistant to giving it a shot. Maybe it was the title. Maybe I thought Blankets sounded too much like "wet blankets," as in no fun. Maybe, it was the size and the expense of the thing. Blankets is 582 pages and has a $30 cover price, which is a lot to throw down on a story by an author whom you've never read before. Regardless, Internet, the reason for my transgression matters not.

I know the real nail in the coffin came when I read some Internet review (it was so long ago, that I cannot find the link) that described the book as "emo." And suddenly, it became clear to me that I was never going to pick up this book. Emo. . . Evangelical. . . these were two American subcultures that I just could not get into. The first was whiny and wore eyeliner and the second thought I was going to hell. So, although friends and most critics raved about Blankets, I decided to take a big pass.

However, I was driving in the car the other day and I was listening to NPR's On The Point. (Hey, what do you want from me? I'm a member of the PMC; I can't help it). Tom Ashbrook was interviewing Craig Thompson who was promoting his recent graphic novel Habibi. Much to my surprise, Thompson proved that he was not a total hipster douche. In fact, he seemed like. . . dum dum dum. . . a very nice, open-minded, nonjudgmental guy.

Internet, I have seen the light.

I picked up Blankets from the local library that week. Is it nothing more than emo, narcissistic navel gazing? Well, you can describe it that way if you want. But that is not the way, I would choose to describe it. Yes, Blankets is introspective, but it is not ponderous. Yes, Blankets is lyrical, but it is not pointless. Blankets provides an honest account of trying to grow up and finding that your own ideas may be very different than those that you were brought up with. That's something that most readers can relate to, but most of us cannot express it half as well as Thompson does. If there is any real faults to the book they are that Thompson makes little effort to imagine how other characters might feel and, as Girl Detective points out, there's not a lot of humor to be found.

So, Internet, what do you say? Am I absolved? What if I promise to read this year's Harvey Award Winner for Best Original Novel? Will we be cool then?

Thursday, January 05, 2012

New Year's Resolution: Library Edition

Dear Five People on the Internet who occasionally glance at this site: 

Last year I managed to read 52 books that had almost nothing to do with my dissertation research. Much of that progress had to do with being only sketchily employed and picking some thin volumes at the end of the year. My library still remains overstuffed from books that I neglected when I was in graduate school and I want to continue to work my way through them. I'm going to make a list here of every book that I own that I has gone mostly unread.


Are you ready?


Leave a comment and let me know what you want me to read from the list.  List up to three titles and I'll read them. I'll read those books that get the most votes first.  You control my unrequired syllabus.

So here we go:

Philosophy and Psychology:
1. William James, Essays in Pragmatism
2. Theodore Adorno, Aesthetic Theory
3. Sigmund Freud, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis
4. Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death

5. James Frazer, Golden Bough
6. Martin Buber, I and Though
7. Jack Miles, God

8. Susan Orlean, The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup
9. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future
10. John Hersey, Hiroshima
11. Evan Wright, Generation Kill
12. Michael Herr, Dispatches
13. Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (I've read parts, but not most).

Memoir and Biography
14. Arthur Schlesinger, A Life in the Twentieth-Century
15. -----, Journals 1952-2000
16. Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men

American History
17. Robert Penn Warren, Who Speaks for the Negro
18. Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, Poor Richard's Almanac, and Letters
19. U. S. Grant, Personal Memoirs
20. Rick Perlstein, Nixonland
21. Lola Vollen, et al., Voices from the Storm

Social Sciences & Political Theory
22. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations
23. John Kenneth Galbraith, American Capitalism
24. -----, The New Industrial State
25. Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man
26. Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology
27. Priscilla Long, The New Left
28. Barbara Ehrenreich, Fear of Falling
29. Edmund Wilson, To Finland Station 
30. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (only read excerpts)
31. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution 

Media Studies
32. Newton Minow and Craig L. LaMay, Abandoned in the Wasteland
33. Robert McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy
34. David Halberstam, The Powers That Be

Russian Literature
35. Elif Batuman, The Possessed
36. Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych
37. ------,  Anna Karenina 
38. -----, War and Peace

Yiddish Literature
40. Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles
41. I. B. Singer, Collected Stories vols. I-III
42. -----, Scum  

Literary Theory and Criticism
43. Roland Barthes, Pleasure of the Text
44. Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature
45. Eric Auerbach, Mimesis
46. Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious
47. Henry James, Literary Criticism vols. I & II
48. Eric Bentley, Theory of the Modern Stage
49. Cleanth Brooks and Robert B. Heilman, Understanding Drama
50. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double
51. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Fiction
52. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
53. Bruce Jay Friedman, Black Humor  
54. Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction   
55. Denise Gigante, Taste: A Literary History
56. Constance Rourke, American Humor

British, Irish & South African Literature
57. E. M. Forster, Howard's End
58. D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover
59. -----, Women In Love
60. Roddy Doyle, Star Called Henry  
61. J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year
62. Nadine Gordimer, Burger's Daughter

19th-century American Literature
63. Mark Twain, Mississippi Writings
64. -----, Autobiography of Mark Twain vol. I
65. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
66. Harold Frederic, The Damnation of Theron Ware
67. William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance
68. Henry James, Novels 1871-1880
69. Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man 
70. Frank Norris, The Octopus

Early 20th-Century American Literature
71. Saul Bellow, Humboldt's Gift
72. -----, More Die of Hearbreak
73. John Dos Passos, U. S. A. 
74. T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party
75. William Faulkner, Novels 1942-1954
76. -----, The Portable Faulkner\
77. -----, Absalom, Absalom!
78. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night    
79. Lillian Hellman, Six Plays
80. -----, Scoundrel Time
81. Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls 
82. William Inge, Four Plays
83. Mary McCarthy, The Group
84. Norman Mailer, The Deer Park
85. -----, The Executioner's Song
86. -----, The Naked and the Dead
87. Katherine Ann Porter, The Collected Stories
88. Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 
89. Gore Vidal, Palimpsest
90. Edith  Wharton, Summer

Late 20th-Century American Literature & Beyond
91. Michael Chabon, The Mysteries of Pittsburg
92. -----, Wonder Boys
93. Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street
94. -----, Libra
95. -----, Undeworld
96. Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
97. E. L. Doctorow, Billy Bathgate
98. -----, City of God
99. -----, The March
100. Stanley Elkin, The Magic Kingdom
101. Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero
102. Jonathan Lethem, Chronic City
103. Bernard Malamud, Dubin's Lives
104. -----, Pictures of Fidelman
105. -----, Rembrandt's Hat  
106. Flannery O'Connor, Wise Blood
107. Thomas Pynchon, Mason and Dixon 
108. Philip Roth, Letting Go
109. -----, The Great American Novel
110. Susan Sontag, Death Kit
111. John Updike, Bech: A Book
112. -----, Bech at Bay
113. -----, Rabbit Redux
114. -----, Rabbit is Rich
115. -----, Rabbit at Rest 
116. Glen David Gold, Carter Beats the Devil
117. Alice Seybold, Lovely Bones
118. Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante's Handbook
German Literature
119. Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children

So, know any good books that I should read?