Vineland by Thomas Pynchon is #176 in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
This isn’t a review of Vineland. I’m not ready for that yet. But I really want to talk about it, so I’ll begin with a shout out to Matt Bowes of This Nerding Life for bringing Vineland to #yegbookswap. I was one of the last to choose an adult book, and there wasn’t much left except for Pride and Prejudice (read it) and The Count of Monte Cristo (too long), and Vineland. I’d never heard of Vineland, and only had Matt’s reason for choosing it to go on. He wrote, “For some reason, I love ’60s burnouts. Hopefully you will too.”
Burnouts are just the beginning. There are also zombies, ninjas, and yuppie lumberjacks, to name a few. The narrative is layered with multiple flashbacks, flash-forwards, dream sequences, and narrators interrupting each other; and full of pop culture references both real and invented. It’s the kind of book you just want to devour. One night I informed my husband that he was in charge, walked to the park, and read for a solid hour, but apart from that, it was read in chunks of ten minutes here, and twenty minutes there. It was hard to keep the plot straight reading this way, so I looked for a reader’s guide, and found Babies of Wackiness.
Babies of Wackiness is not your typical SparksNotes-type reader’s guide. It was created in 1990 by Pynchon super-fans John Diebold and Michael Goodwin. They put the guide online in 1998 – and it shows. Old timers like me remember when most web pages looked like this.
Babies of Wackiness was exactly what I needed: succinct chapter summaries and a list of important passages, with a brief and accessible discussion on the major themes. I was so happy to see that my favourite passage was mentioned. I’ll leave you with that passage while I think about what else I want to say about this incredible book. Stay tuned.
The first time I read this, it took my breath away. I had to put the book down.
So the big bad Ninjamobile swept along on the great Ventura, among Olympic visitors from everywhere who teemed all over the freeway system in midday densities till far into the night, shined-up, screaming black motorcades that could have carried any of the several office seekers, cruisers heading for treed and more gently roaring boulevards, huge double and triple trailer rigs that loved to find Volkswagons laboring up grades and go sashaying around them gracefully and at gnat’s-ass tolerances, plus flirters, deserters, wimps and pimps, speeding like bullets, grinning like chimps, above the heads of TV watchers, lovers under the overpasses, movies at malls letting out, bright gas-station oases in pure fluorescent spill, canopied beneath palm trees, soon wrapped, down the corridors of the surface streets, in nocturnal smog, the adobe air, the smell of distant fireworks, the spilled, the broken world.
And, just because, here are my own babies of wackiness:
Occasionally, I am allowed to listen to the radio in the car between renditions of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” (Ben loves the “hum diddle iddle iddle hum diddle ay” part.) It’s important that I don’t play it too loud, or appear to be enjoying myself, lest Ben realize that we’re not listening to his music and demand that I “PUSH THE BUTTON.”
One day, when conditions were good, I was listening to the local modern rock station (Nirvana every hour, on the hour) when I heard the lyric, “She doesn’t know but when she’s gone I sit and drink her perfume.” I cranked the volume just long enough to figure out what we were listening to before switching over to Disney Soundtrack Hell, as it was clearly a reference to Love in the Time of Cholera, one of my all time favourite books.
“Sixteen Saltines” by Jack White is supposedly a big “eff you” to his former partner Meg White, but this lyric makes me think there’s more to it. In the book, unrequited lover Florentino Ariza drinks Fermina Daza’s perfume to literally make himself lovesick. It’s a powerful image, and I don’t think it was used accidentally. I would LOVE to provide a quote from the book, but I can’t find my copy. I’m a bad book owner.
I love literary allusions in music, and I especially love it when I find them myself, because then I get an “aren’t I clever” bonus. What are your favourite musical literary references?
A few asides:
- In other Bad Book Owner news, my mom finally returned my signed copy of From Away. Yes, that is a FOOTPRINT over the author’s note and signature. This is why I can’t have nice things.
- I love that I got to work “Sixteen” into this post, because today is my 16×2 birthday. Sixteen was quite the year for me. First job, first love, first heartbreak, first… well. MANY FIRSTS. I hope that 32 is just as auspicious and a lot less traumatic.
I read Americas right after a three-month slog through The Idiot, and didn’t know what to expect. I knew it was a collection of short stories, with one for each country in North, Central and South America. I didn’t expect to find magical realism. I associate magical realism with South American authors, and with epic novels that follow a family across generations. It was surprising to find it here, though the opening quote from Jorge Luis Borges should have been my first clue.
For those who didn’t study magical realism in school (thanks Mr. Jefferies of Grade 12 IB English), here’s the wikipedia definition:
…an aesthetic style or genre of fiction in which magical elements blend with the real world. The story explains these magical elements as real occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the “real” and the “fantastic” in the same stream of thought.
Americas starts with Canada and works south. Canada was my favourite, because it was so familiar. Those “A Part of Our Heritage” commercials play a prominent part. I had vivid memories of sitting on my couch at home, watching The Simpsons after school. A nice, safe feeling.
From there, things get weird. Magically weird! By the time I got to Venezuela, I knew something was up. It starts with “In Venezuela, all the children are adopted from South Korea.” In my sleep deprived brain, I actually wondered for a moment if there was some adoption agreement between these countries. Each chapter begins this way; “In [country], [absurd statement].” There’s something really disarming about such a simple structure, and such short stories, taking on the magical realism genre. Chile’s story mixes real life (the Chilean miners who got stuck underground) with the fantastic (window washers stuck in the sky at the same time) and gets it just right.
The stories are really, really short. They’re more like scenes or maybe dream sequences. You will finish this book in one sitting.
Read this if you’re a fan of magical realism. Read this if you want to try magical realism, but are scared of long, translated-from-Spanish family sagas (I don’t blame you.) Four stars!
Further reading: Here are my favorite magical realism books from the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die:
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is in my top five books EVER. I have read this multiple times, and will read it many more. It’s that good. See my post about it here.
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I was forced to read this in grade 12. Everyone in this book has the same name, which is a challenge, but it’s worth it.
Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel. I read this last year in my bid to make it to 100 of the 1,001 books read. It was much quicker, easier, and less dense than the Marquez books, but still has that elusive magical quality.
The House if the Spirits, Isabel Allende. I think I read this for high school English. Mr. Jefferies was kind of into South American literature. This was my least favourite of the bunch, but upon reading the plot summary, I think I need to revisit it. Lots of pregnancy and child birth symbolism!
I came across this article satirizing book clubs on Jezebel. The article had me chuckling, but the comments are even better, and are in the same vein as my “Book Snob” post the other day. Hunger Games, Twilight, Fifty Shades; it’s all there. And Franzen, who I seem to talk about a lot, judging by my “most used tags.”
My feelings are summed up by an article title, referenced in the comments: “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.” It’s a review of Harry Potter by Harold Bloom, full text here. A great moment in book snobbery!
I had better finish The Idiot if I want to have any book snob cred. I ordered a Kobo reading light which should help that cause considerably. In the meantime, I added the full list of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (see “The List” tab up top), with the ones I’ve read crossed off, for your perusal. I love crossing items off lists, so pressing Alt-Shift-D one hundred times (to format the strike-throughs) was quite enjoyable!
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Henry David Thoreau
(A bit of humility before I go into why I’m so good at reading and you’re not: I spent half an hour searching for the above quote. I could remember the jist, but not the actual words or the author. Then I noticed that it is literally the first thing I ever posted on this blog.)
I’m a book snob. I’ve been feeling extra snobby lately, and I blame Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s all I hear about on forums, Facebook, and Twitter. But wait – isn’t it a fan fiction of a young adult novel, not to mention very poorly written and edited? Okay, it’s racy, but so are lots of novels, from romance to erotica. That’s nothing new. So, what gives? And why does it bother me?
“Fifty Shades Fever” feels like the culmanation of a bigger trend towards adults reading “young adult” and/or just plain *bad* novels. And I do not mean “so bad it’s good.” I lurk in a few book challenge discussions online (people trying to read 25 or 50 books in one year), and lots of them are reading chick lit after chick lit book. Why bother? What’s the point of a challenge if it’s not challenging?
I realize that these feelings make me a snob of the worse kind. Why do I care what people read? Who am I to decide what’s worthy of a reader’s time? But… I can’t help myself! As the Thoreau quote suggests, there are SO MANY good books. More than anyone will ever read. I’ve been working at the 1,001 books list for FIVE YEARS and I’ve read 10% of it. And I started at around 5%. I get that people are looking for a fun read or escapism, but it’s unfathomable, and even offensive, that people spend so much time reading terrible books!
Of course, like most snobs, I think it’s okay to go slumming as long as it’s done ironically. Some work colleagues are running a fantastic bad book club. I was lucky enough to sit in on a discussion of “Flowers in the Attic”, that classic and horribly overwrought ode to family dysfunction (and incest.) But, most of us read it for the first time as children, not adults. (Which, upon reflection, is pretty messed up – due to all that incest!)
It will probably surprise no one that I’m also a music snob, and in a former (pre-kids) life a clothes and bag snob. What can I say? I appreciate quality. And I’m judging you. Sorry. But, if you must read bad books, at least William Faulkner’s got your back:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”
What do you think? Do you consider yourself a book snob? Why are people freaking out about Fifty Shades and the like?
Reading is bed is dangerous. I called this blog “Reading in Bed” after an Emily Haines song, and also because I do 99% of my reading in bed. Most nights I read in bed until my eyes begin to cross and words start to blur.
The danger is that I forget at least the last page or two of what I’ve read, and, that I never blog about my reading because I lose consciousness immediately after I’m done. I often think to myself “oo! Must blog about this book/chapter/passage/line” but when I wake up, the motivation is gone.
So, I haven’t been blogging, but I have been reading. I am on #94 in my quest to read 100 of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die before the end of the year. And I’m really excited about what I’m reading now (The Grapes of Wrath) and what I’m going to be reading soon:
I’m going to be really proud of myself if I reach 100 books by the end of the year. When I set my goal I didn’t count on getting pregnant, with the attendant exhaustion and stupidity. I didn’t count on us moving and all the craziness that will (hopefully) ensue. It’s going to be a tough go but maybe I can save my hormone-addled brain with a few- say, six- good books.
The Corrections is #43 in the 2007 edition of The 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Freedom is not on the list yet, but odds are it will be.
Freedom was only $10 on the Kobo, a steal compared to buying a hardcover and much faster than waiting for a hold at the library. But it’s really hard to blog about a book read on Kobo. I can’t flip back and find plot points and quotes. It’s been weeks since I finished and my memory is abysmal. I couldn’t remember the word “norm” tonight. And then I lost my keys. So, bear with me.
I am not nearly as impressed with Freedom as I feel I ought to be. I felt the same way about The Corrections (hardcover sitting on my bookshelf; Wee Book Inn score). Jonathan Franzen is a great writer, but I can just feel how hard he’s trying to say something smart/ironic/witty/whatever. I keep thinking, “oh, I see what you’re doing there”.
I wish the whole book was about Patty, a natural urban mama before it was cool to be one, and Richard, the hipster musician she loves and can’t have. Franzen uses their story to explore different meanings of “freedom” – from worry, from commitment, from love – and the whole thing is just drop dead romantic. He writes an album for her. Enough said!
But there’s a LONG interlude about her husband’s environmental crusade and affair with his young assistant. The environmental crusade becomes a bit of a soapbox for the childfree movement. I felt like I was reading Atlas Shrugged; I couldn’t tell if we were still on the story, or if I was now just reading someone’s political views (Franzen’s? He is childfree, but by default; it’s his wife who didn’t want kids). While this was all rather interesting, it was jarring and out of place. Or maybe, being a breeder and all, I don’t wanna think about how my precious babies will destroy the planet and just wanna read about loooove.
Weeks later, I’m struggling to remember everything important about this book, but the characters, particularly Patty, have stuck with me. I’m not as impressed as I ought to be, but I’m very impressed when a childfree guy like Jonathan Franzen creates such a real and complex character who happens to be a stay-at-home-mom.
“She had all day every day to figure out some decent and satisfying way to live, and yet all she ever seemed to get for all her choices and all her freedom was more miserable. The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free.”