The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

When I think of the Great Depression, I tend to think of either Grapes of Wrath or soup kitchen lines in long ago New York. I don’t tend to think of Hollywood, though it certainly existed at the time and was certainly part of what that time meant for the people of the country. The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West is going to change that for me somewhat, as well as possibly change how I see many people’s dreams.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Michael Connelly.)

In The Day of the Locust we have a painter, Tod Hackett, who has come to Hollywood to design sets, though he is constantly planning and never actually working on a painting that will show what Hollywood taught him about the nature of people. He falls in love with a hard-nosed girl who is dead set (clearly hopelessly) on being a star, but several other men do as well…including a very naïve man from the Midwest who is almost certainly doomed to be hurt. Of course, the poor Midwesterner eventually is.

We don’t really see the studio powerhouses in The Day of the Locust, the stars. We see all the ordinary mass of humanity who move to Hollywood with great dreams…dreams they have no real hope of fulfilling:

But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon….It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that are. But it is easy to sign. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

We know from the very beginning that the characters aren’t going to end well. However, people still dream. Along the course of the book, West comes to some conclusions about those dreams:

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there? They watch the waves come in at Venice. There wasn’t any ocean where most of them came from, but after you’ve seen one wave, you’ve seen them all. The same is true of the airplanes at Glendale. If only a plane would crash once in a while so that they could watch the passengers being consumed in a “holocaust of flame,” as the newspapers put it. But the planes never crash.

Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment…..Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

I’ve seen books that focus on the sleazy side of Hollywood before, but never quite like West’s take. Most look at the underbelly of the glamor, but West looks for the mass humanity that never even gets to the glamor. It simply was never there for them.

In reflecting on that situation in The Day of the Locust, West manages some interesting insights on how much of what we dream never really exists. There is disillusionment, but unlike the norm it only comes to the most hopelessly naive because the rest didn’t even get to have many illusions.

Not only is Hollywood not paved with gold, it isn’t even a trick of light. Even that was only rumor.

The Golden Argosy-A Collection of the Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English language

This is an eclectic collection of short stories. It was published in 1947 and re-released in 1955. It’s now out of print, so I had to interlibrary loan it. And, now I am actually regretful that it is out of print. Because I’d totally tell anyone that was a lover of short stories to run out and get it. It is available on Amazon
as of the writing of this post. If you do love short stories, I recommend getting this book. Or check your library, it might be on the shelves there.

This is listed by Stephen King in his Top Ten. He was the only one to do so. He wrote a short blurb in Top Ten about it, stating that he found it by chance but absolutely loved it.

The collection includes some of the classic short stories that you may remember having read or at least heard of over the years, The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs, A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner, The Lady or the Tiger, The Devil and Daniel Webster by Stephen Vincent Benet, The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. it also includes stories by “greats” that might have been known in the late 40s but aren’t as well known now (making them new to me), like Paul’s Case by Willa Cather, The Red-Headed League by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Rich Boy by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Killers by Ernest Hemingway, The Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley.

The foreword from the collection states: “The compilers of most collections of short stories quite naturally seek to present material which, if not actually new, is at least likely to be unfamiliar to the reader. Frequently, some old favorites are included, but as yet no anthology, as far as we know, has been limited to the tried and true….Yet it seems obviously desirable, particularly for those who have not large libraries, to have in a single book as many as possible of the established classics in the field.”

They end the foreword with “Here, we believe, is a treasury of great storytelling–a reference collection of the best of a favorite form of literature–a book which we hope will prove to be a source of recaptured delight for many and a new and rewarding adventure for many more.”

The short story is often proclaimed as “dying” or “dead”, and there is a significantly limited venue for it. However, short story collections continue to be published, and short story collections continue to be sold. There are also the well-known places to seek out short stories (The New Yorker for example) and the lesser known places (email Dave, he’d be more than happy to point you out to quite a few of them if you’re looking for a place to read some). There are the new places, like the ones being released by Joe Hill and Stephen King exclusively for Kindle (at least initially).

A well-written short story is a testament to an author’s writing ability, in my opinion. Many short story collections that come about nowadays have stories involving already established characters. They’re created for fans of a particular series. I almost see that as a cheat of the short story form. If you’ve already established a character over a series of books, to use them seems to defy the art of short stories. A short story has to be economical with details. But, it also has to create the scene, and flesh out at least one or two characters into a real person.

A lot of these stories have twist endings. A character finding something out at the very end that is a revelation, or the story revealing something to the reader at the very last moment. I love these types of stories (The Gift of the Magi for example).

I definitely will be buying a copy of this book, as some of the stories I want to re-read. It also introduced me to some authors I’ve heard about over the years but have never read. W. Somerset Maugham is an author I’ve toyed with reading in the past. After reading his short story, Rain, I am definitely going to read more of him.

Sorry for all the gushing. It was just a joy to read this.

And for any aspiring or actualized writers reading this, I leave you with:

“You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed.
– Larry Niven”

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford centers on the friendship between two sets of “good people,” the English Lenora and Edward Ashburnham and the American Florence and John Dowell. The couples have been casual friends for almost nine years, regularly meeting at a German health spa for Florence’s and Edward’s respective heart ailments. Only, John suddenly discovers that his wife Florence has been having an affair with Edward for nine years. The collapse of the lives involved and the corruption running throughout, of which John was previously unaware, occupies the bulk of the novel.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Julian Barnes, 1st for Mary Gordon, 3rd for David Leavitt, 5th for Tom Perotta, and 7th for Ann Patchett.)

You’d think John would hate Edward once he makes his discovery, but things aren’t that simple. He seems to come to hate his wife Florence (whom he ceased loving long ago and thought more of as a fragile invalid to protect, not knowing that his marriage had been deliberately set up on this deception so Florence could live the life she wanted) and Edward’s wife Lenora somewhat, but he still seems to think highly of Edward even after discovering the affair:

For I can’t conceal from myself the fact that I loved Edward Ashburnham—and that I love him because he was just myself. If I had had the courage and virility and possibly also the physique of Edward Ashburnham I should, I fancy, have done much what he did. He seems to me like a large elder brother who took me out on several excursions and did many dashing things whilst I just watched him robbing the orchards, from a distance. And, you see, I am just as much of a sentimentalist as he was….”

Florence set up John to be a patsy from the beginning, though that was the only way available in that society to achieve her goals. Edward had a continual problem with fidelity, though he wanted to be good. Lenora was aware of her husband’s failings, but even aided him and was willing to have people destroyed to maintain the marriage her religious principles ordered her to maintain.

I got the idea that John, and Ford through John, thought the whole situation inescapably (and perhaps excusably in John’s view) doomed. For and John seem to leave the question of where the ultimate blame rests, though there seems to be blame, ambiguous:

Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness? Or are all men’s lives like the lives of us good people—like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the Dowells, of the Ruffords—broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by agonies? Who the devil knows?

I don’t think I would have liked The Good Soldier so much if it was just a tale of hidden deception amongst longtime friends who still remained somewhat surface despite the length of the friendship. What I like is the ambiguity in where Ford (and/or John) lays the blame. He seems fatalistic about it, but also seems to lay blame equally on all of the individuals, the conventions under which they operate, and the circumstances of their lives. The blame doesn’t seem to ultimately matter and everyone remains “good people” to at least some extent, “good people” who all have miserable lives.

That ambiguity, particularly as expressed through the main character John, is what makes The Good Soldier particularly intriguing for me. I could ponder over it for a good long while.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I just moved.  Well almost two weeks ago.  But my Top Ten book is in a box somewhere still, with the rest of my books.  (currently residing in my living room).  Thanks to Dave, this entry is happening.

Oryx and Crake was listed by G.D. Gearino. 

This is the start of a trilogy of which I have not read the rest of, the third one just came out.  I read Oryx and Crake for the first time in approximately 2002, about the same time I read Atwood’s book Blind Assassin.  I loved Blind Assassin, but remembered not being as fond of Oryx and Crake.  I didn’t really remember anything about it, other than it was an “end of the world” story.  So, I decided to re-read it and see if I liked it better a second time around.  I did.  But it is still far from being my favorite Atwood book.

In Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood imagines a place where a breakdown of society happened in the past.  She details the dystopian society that sprung up because of that dissolution.  In Oryx and Crake, she has us at the end of an annihilation of the human species.  The narrator is Snowman, who feels he might be the last remaining human.  There are Crake’s children, but they are genetically created in a lab, removing many of the genes that were seen as causing most of the problems in humanity (for example:  the need for a theology has been removed from them.  They grow up ridiculously fast, to avoid the pesky childhood years.  Snowman is the narrator and at the beginning introduces us to Crake’s children, and we find out all the animals are Oryx’s.  Then in the next couple of chapters, we find that all of the animals around are actually genetic splices like the wolvogs, who look like dogs, and retain the ability to act like dogs, but use that behavior to lure victims in and then kill them.

The story switches back and forth between the present and Snowman’s past, starting at the age of five, all the way up to what happened to cause the end of the world and the children of Crake.  We find out that the genetic splicing started before Snowman (previously known as Jimmy) was born and his father was one of the scientist’s doing it. 

Atwood does a brilliant job of slowly peeling layers away as Snowman’s past is revealed and the events leading up to the present day.  You do keep turning the pages, wondering what is the next layer to the answer of the question “What happened?” 

I had quotes from the book to show this, but I am typing this on my laptop and between a slow internet connection and a falling apart keyboard, I am currently typing at 10 wpm (maybe 20) and constantly still having to backspace to correct when the spacebar does not work or the shift button sticks  or the word comes out all messed up.  So, since the last paragraph took me 5 minutes, and I currently want to throw my computer through a window, I am ending RIGHT HERE.

The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

As WWII approaches, a Japanese family is ostensibly run by the household of an oldest sister, Tsuruko. However, Tsuruko’s household does preciously little other than give marching orders in the crisis faced by the extended Japanese family…finding a marriage for an aging middle daughter Yukiko and then one for a younger and increasingly troublesome daughter Taeko. Instead, these problems are primarily addressed by the household of the second oldest daughter in the family, Sachiko, as Tsuruko’s household leaves the family seat for Tokyo as part of an increasing focus on money making and thrift as opposed to family obligations. This is The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Valerie Martin, 10th for David Mitchell, and 9th Cathleen Schine.)

Arranging Yukiko’s marriage is a difficult matter. Many years have passed as suitor after suitor was refused due to inflexible standards due to the Makioka family standing. Yukiko herself creates problems when the family decides to let their standards slip a bit:

Most unfortunate, thought Sachiko. Yukiko’s dislike for the telephone was no secret, and when—rarely—there was a call for her she usually had someone else do the talking and went to the telephone herself on very special occasions. No one had objected up to now, but this was one of those special occasions. Whatever Hashidera’s reasons for calling, it seemed imperative, since he had asked for her, that Yukiko take the call. He would receive quite the wrong impression if Sachiko were to talk to him instead. Yukiko was after all not a sixteen-year-old. Though her sister understood this shyness, they could hardly expect a stranger to understand. They would be lucky if Hashidera was not offended. Perhaps Yukiko had gone to the telephone, timing and protecting? But to go reluctantly after having made him wait, to say almost nothing—she was even worse over the telephone than she was face-to-face—and as a result to have him break on the negotiations—the better alternative might be to let him go on waiting. There was always that stubborn core. Possibly she had refused to go near the telephone, and was waiting for Sachiko to rescue her. Even if Sachiko were to rush home, however, she would probably find that he had given up, and if he had not, what could she say by way of excuse? This was one time when Yukiko herself should have taken the call, and promptly. Something told Sachiko that this trivial incident could mean the end of the negotiations on which they had worked so hard.

Taeko is an entirely different problem. She almost eloped when she was younger (causing a newspaper story), wants to work for herself, sponges off a man she no longer intends to marry, and worse:

Taeko nodded apathetically. “I know what is wrong without calling a doctor.”

“Oh? What is it then?”

Her face against the chair, Taeko looked sluggishly up at her sister. “It looks as though I am three or four months pregnant.” She spoke with the usual calm.

Sachiko gasped, and stared as though to bore a hole through her sister’s face. It was a moment or two before she could ask the question: “Is it Kei-boy’s?”

“Miyoshi’s. I think Yukiko heard about Miyoshi from the old woman.”

“The bartender?”

Taeko nodded. “I am sure that is my trouble.”

This all doesn’t help the family’s attempts to get Yukiko get married, much less help Sachiko figure out what to do about Taeko.

Of course, this is all going on as WWII is about to explode. We can see it coming, and the characters think about what they see and hear, but they are inescapably wrapped up in their own family problems above and beyond any of that. They just can’t see how insignificant their personal problems are about to be. WWII will change Japan forever, but until then Yukiko must get married and something must be done about Taeko.

The Makioka Sisters is an enthralling picture of pre-World War II Japan. The characters are vividly human, the described world is tangible, and the interrelationships are meticulously ordered. It involved a declining family as opposed to a destroyed one, and that gives a different kind of urgency to their preservation efforts and struggles. All is not yet lost, meaning that their efforts have more significant weight. All in all, The Makioka Sisters is quite beautiful.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita was listed by the following authors in their top ten lists:

Melissa Bank, John Banville, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Gaitskill, Arthur Golden, Michael Griffith, Donald Harington, A.M. Homes, Walter Kirn, Margot Livesey, Valerie Martin, Bobbie Ann Mason, Susan Minot, Ann Patchett, Jim Shepard and Scott Spencer.

I came to Lolita, already knowing -about- Lolita. I’ve heard about Lolita all my life (or so it feels). I’ve heard that it’s smut. I’ve heard that it’s amazing. I’ve heard that it’s disturbing. I’ve heard that it’s about old men f**king young girls. I’ve heard that it’s actually a love story, not about pedophilia.

Nabokov tells a tale, one prefaced by a fictional character as the “memoir” or confession of the narrator of the story. The narrator is one “Humbert Humbert”, a made up name he created for himself. He does this, as well as change the names of many of the characters to protect Lolita. Though, he has stipulated that the memoir not be published until after she dies, so though he never states it, it might be to protect her memory and also to protect his self-image as her “protector” and to clean a spot or two off of his love for her.

That’s the thing about Lolita. The narrator is complex. He’s a middle European man in his 30s who has come to the United States to live. All of his life, starting with a peer at 13, he has been attracted to what he calls “nymphets”, which he defines as girls who are between the ages of 9 and 14(I think those are the right ages, I didn’t mark the page where he defined it). But not just -any- girls, some of them are just, well normal girls. But some of them, Humbert tells the readers, have that extra “sauce”, a sexuality that is out of character but yet so in character for their age. Humbert has a hard time with sexual attractions to actual women, or even girls beyond the magic boundary age of 14. He finds them too fleshy. (And, I was right about the ages, I found the page. Here’s Humbert’s definition of “nymphet” which is better than mine.

“Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain betwitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets”.”

“Between those age limits are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.”

H.H. talks about himself in the first half of the book, alternating between third person narration about himself and first person narration. He falls in love with the 12 year old daughter of the woman whose house he rents a room from. He then marries that woman, who then dies in a freak accident, leaving H.H. in sole custody of the “nymphet” Lolita. In keeping with his defining of “nymphet” above and my statements about him finding adult women, or women above 14 kind of gross, here he is talking about Lolita.

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a “young girl” and then, into a “college girl”–that horror of horrors. The word “forever” referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood. The Lolita whose iliac crests had not yet flared, the Lolita that today I could touch and smell and hear and see, the Lolita of the strident voice and the rich brown hair-of the bangs and the swirls at the sides and the curls at the back, and the sticky hot neck, and the vulgar vocabulary—“revolting,” “super,” “luscious” “goon” “drip”–that Lolita, my Lolita, poor Catullus would lose forever.”

While Lolita is away at summer camp, her mother dies. H.H. takes care of affairs, in a growing state of excitement to get Lolita, then drives to the camp after requesting they not tell Lolita that her mother has died. He originally tells Lolita she is very ill and they are driving to see her mother. Then begins the “great American road trip”, but unlike stories like On The Road or the goofy Road Trip movie, this is a road trip of pedophilia. H.H. spends pages upon pages talking about historical and societal constructs and how he’s not -really- doing wrong. The first night they are on the road, he plans for them to stay at a hotel. He has planned a whole thing out about giving some sleeping pills to Lolita so he can fondle her safely. Yes. It’s disturbing. The more disturbing thing is how he had originally worked out the plan with mother and daughter both in mind, knocking out the mother so he could enjoy the daughter. He constantly says he was never planning to do more than fondle and caress. However, considering that when the sleeping pills didn’t work and Lolita makes a confession to him and they end up having sex, I think H.H. was lying just a wee bit to himself.

“Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! I had thought that months, perhaps years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me”.

The cross country trip has begun. The trip starts with H.H. controlling Lolita through threats. When she wouldn’t seem conducive to his trysts and romantic gropings, he would threaten her with a farm she had hated to be at, he would threaten her with lurid tales of what happened to girls who went into foster care if she was to tell what was happening to her. Later it becomes money that is bartered.

“she proved to be a cruel negotiator whenever it was in her power to deny me certain life-wrecking, strange, slow paradisal philters without which I could not live more than a few days in a row, and which, because of the very nature of love’s languor, I could not obtain by force. Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed–during one school year!–to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks, O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches; and in the margin of that leaping epilepsy she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she gave me the slip”.

I just realized, you might be thinking that Lolita is the instigator in these things with the quotes I gave, about how she seduced him and the whole money exchange. But there are plenty of instances where H.H. talks about times she is crying or yelling at him or just ways he describes her that you can see the pain she carries because of it. When she’s not trying to be tough and doing what anyone might do in a situation in which you feel out of control, which would be to gain any type of control you can.

The relationship H.H. describes between himself and Lolita will sometimes make you (or it did me at least, maybe you have a stronger stomach ha!) feel ill. You will also hate and revile H.H. during parts of the book (or at least I did). You will find Lolita charming and fun. You will also find her pitiful. You will find her irritating you. You will ache for her.

Nabokov takes you into the heart and soul of a pedophile. He creates a character who is a bad guy, but unlike most novels, the bad guy is the main character and for much of the book does not believe himself to be that bad. He has a little bit of moral absolution at the end, in regards to his molesting Lolita, but still calls what he felt for her, “love”, even though he said the following about her at one point;

“Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth–these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things”.

I was having a hard time articulating what I felt about Lolita, even what to say, and asked Dave. He compared it to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (the movie with Christian Bale came after) and how a book can put you in the head of someone that you would never want to be in. Reading Lolita was like the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance (or at least how I like to think cognitive dissonance is), my brain would struggle with the disgust I felt about H.H. and his urges and his actions, at the same time that Nabokov’s writing was making me feel sympathetic at times towards him. It was the same experience reading American Psycho.

Dave also suggested another book that is similar for the above reason. Tampa, by Alissa Nutting.

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit

The Railway Children is a children’s book that was written in the early 1900s. Kate Atkinson listed it in her Top Ten.

I recently listened to the Railway Children with Amelia. It was interesting to do this, because unlike a lot of the books we read or listen to, I’d never read The Railway Children. By listening to it, it was like experiencing it for the first time with Amelia.

She loved it. I loved it. It was an old fashioned tale, but at the same time still remarkably able to follow. Very rarely did Amelia have to ask me what something was. We listened to a free recording of it from Librivox.

There are so many things that make The Railway Children a great children’s story. There’s the sense of “adventure”, I always loved the stories where the children had to change their setting (Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland etc). In The Railway Children, it’s slightly different as there is no going to a magical land. The children are forced to move due to life circumstances to a much cheaper place to live. That leads to the second thing, a mystery! The children aren’t sure where their father is, where he has gone to. The reader, even as an adult, isn’t entirely sure as there are just small hints.

The children fall in love with the railway near their new home. They run and watch it pass by every day. They befriend an older gentleman passenger who they communicate with in different ways. He comes to be a huge help to them throughout the course of the book.
They make friends with the railway officials. They help save the train.

There is some of the characteristics of children’s books written around this time. There are three children. One of them is constantly concerned with doing good, and trying to do good and how something isn’t good so it shouldn’t be done. And time and time again circumstances show how she was in the right. The book is filled with her moralizing and her constant attempts to make things right and to be “good”.

However, her siblings aren’t denied the glory as they all three help save a train at one point, and at another rescue a schoolboy who is hurt.

Nesbit created an amazing story for children. Adventure, mystery and redemption, all have their parts in this story.

I don’t have any deep thoughts about this story, I liked it, but it didn’t strike any deep chords with me. It’s a charming little tale and it was fun to listen to it with Amelia. I can definitely see how it captured someone’s imagination enough to endure to adulthood and make it onto a top ten list. It just wouldn’t end up being on -my- top ten.