Friday, June 01, 2007

May's Reads: Eyeballs In Underdrive

Only three books this month! I'm a little disgusted with myself, but I'll make it up as soon as the end-of-the-semester tasks such as giving finals and posting grades are out of the way. My co-worker Baldy attempted to console me by pointing out that three books is probably 3 more books than most people read in a year, but that doesn't really console me -- it depresses me in a whole different way, but maybe that's Baldy's intent.
Anyway. On with the reviews:

How To Talk To Anyone (non-fiction) -Leil Lowndes
Even though this was a self-help book, I really liked it. A quick read, many of the tips and techniques were useful, and presented in a humorous way. Two that I shared with my students were "Sticky Eyes" and "Epoxy Eyes", both to help with maintaining eye contact. This book is written mainly for those who need help to get ahead in the business world. I'm curious to see what her book How To Make Anyone Fall In Love With You is like.

Down And Out In Paris And London (non-fiction) -George Orwell


What was a nice, middle-class boy like Eric Blair doing in places like these? The book explains that he was giving English lessons in Paris and lost his pupils and ran out of money. When he got to England, his job taking care of an "imbecile" was postponed, so I suspect the journalist side of him went "hmmm, time for a little comparison." Lucky for his readers, we now know what it was like to be down and out on both sides of the Channel in the late 1920s/early 1930s.

In Paris, after Orwell's stint as an English teacher is interrupted, he takes up with Boris, whose shining ambition is to be a waiter and eventually a maitre 'd in a restaurant in a hotel, in spite of his "game leg". The two of them end up working as plongeurs (kind of a dishwasher, cleaner, and go-fer) in a couple of different restaurants, the latter even more wretched than the former, which was pretty damn bad. Orwell's description of the horrible filth in these kitchens is the original "Kitchen Confidential." Read this book, and you'll rethink any fantasies you've ever had about dinner in Paris.

In spite of Orwell's money troubles, his wretched living and working conditions, and nearly starving to death on a couple of occasions, the Paris section of the book seems fun and lively. Orwell meets several characters, and provides his readers with amusing thumbnail sketches, or better yet, lets the characters relate their own amusing anecdotes.

The London section is unrelentingly grim. While waiting for a job, Orwell pawns his good clothing and becomes a tramp, traveling with other tramps to flophouses up and down the country. They have to keep on the move because they aren't allowed to stay in these places more than once every few months. Later on in the book, Orwell points out (quite rightly) that this business of keeping the tramp moving is stupid, artificial and pointless and suggests alternatives such as working farms.

Charitable places such as the Salvation Army get no thanks or congratulations from Orwell. More often than not, their help comes with a bombardment of hateful self-righteous preaching at rather than to the tramps, which cancels out any message of Christian charity. In return, the tramps are less than thankful and mock them at every chance. At the end of the book, a "respectable" man again, Orwell vows that he will not contribute to the organization anymore, and sincerely feels that he's making a step in the right direction.

The tramps are so road-weary that even the harsh conditions in a "spike" (workhouse) seem to have some of the comforts of home. They speak to each other so eagerly of getting to such-and-such location, that the first time Orwell stays in one, he's got a terrible case of culture shock. (He had almost exactly the same reaction I did when I first saw a traditional Korean hotel room:)

"I looked around the cell with a vague feeling that there was something missing. Then with a shock of surprise, I realised what it was, and exclaimed: "But I say, damn it, where are the beds?"

About ninety-nine percent of the tramps Orwell encountered on the road were male, so he was a bit surprised when he encountered a female tramp. This woman is no Boxcar Bertha, proclaiming the love of the freedom of the road:

"there was a woman among us,the first woman tramp I had ever seen. She was a fattish, battered, very dirty woman of 60, in a long, trailing black skirt. she put on great airs of dignity, and if anyone sat down near her she sniffed and moved off.

"Where you bound for, missus?" one of the tramps called to her.

The woman sniffed and looked into the distance.

"Come on, missus," he said. "cheer up. Be chummy. We're all in the same boat 'ere."

"Thank you," said the woman bitterly, "when I want to get mixed up with a set of TRAMPS, I'll let you know."

I enjoyed the way she said TRAMPS. It seemed to show you in a flash the whole of her soul: a small, blinkered, feminine soul, that had learned absolutely nothing from years on the road. She was, no doubt, a respectable widow woman, become a tramp through some grotesque accident.


The structure of the book is interesting, very tight. It reads like Orwell wrote it as one big chapter then broke it into actual chapters in the final stages of editing. The only chapter that doesn't seem to fit is Chapter 32, in which Orwell gives the reader information about the slang that tramps use. Usually Orwell has delightful and insightful things to say about the English language, but this chapter is merely a hodgepodge of notes that leaves a reader wanting more. I wish he'd developed his notes a little more thoroughly or just eliminated the chapter all together.

My complaint about Chapter 32 is a minor one. I enjoyed Down And Out In Paris And London so much and wouldn't have minded if it had been twice as long. George Orwell's prose is so clean and clear. If it were the proverbial kitchen floor, you could eat off of it. The man could write. Although people may be annoyed with much of what Richard Schickel wrote recently in his diatribe against bloggers, he did a good day's work when he mentioned Orwell's name.

I feel as if I can't get enough Orwell now. I'm currently reading Funny But Not Vulgar, a collection of his essays, parcelling them out during bedtime reading to make them last longer. I'm reading the one about Salvador Dali right now. CanadaBoy says that he has a copy of Burmese Days that he'll lend me. With any luck, I'll have enough Orwell to take me through both spring and summer.


Notes On A Scandal (fiction) -Zoe Heller


About forty years ago, Barbra Steisand warbled, "People who need people are the luckiest people..." I'm sure she would've changed her tune or just jettisoned the lyric altogether if she had met Barbara Covett, the narrator of Notes On A Scandal.

Barbara, a sixtyish spinster schoolteacher in a London high school, does her job competently and has a sharp witty tone and says a lot of things that make sense about the state of modern education, but she also has a disquieting habit of wanting to get too close in her friendships with other teachers, so much so that one teacher discontinued the friendship and threatened a restraining order. Also, Barbara has a fear of ending her life alone.

Barbara Covett (did anyone else notice that last name?) is one strange creation. At times she's horribly unpleasant, like when she mentions that a certain teacher wears panty liners every day and discards them in a paper sack that she buries deep in the trash in the teacher's lounge bathroom. How would she know unless....? Icky, very icky.

Somehow, Zoe Heller makes the reader understand that this disgusting behavior is all part of Barbara's desperation to connect with people any way she can. Shortly thereafter, Heller has us rooting for Barbara in a meeting with her creepy and obtuse school principal as she tries to infect him (with no success) with a little of her crisp common sense that comes from a lifetime of teaching.

Barbara soon finds herself becoming friends with Sheba Hart, the new art teacher. Unknown to Barbara for several months, Sheba's been making trouble for herself by having an affair with one of the students, a 15-year-old boy named Stephen Connolly. Although Barbara wisely counsels Sheba that she must stop the affair, she's also privately cherishing the day when the scandal blows sky-high, the world rejects Sheba as a pariah, and Sheba has no one to turn to but Barbara. Again, Heller is brilliant in making the reader realize what Sheba cannot -- her real problem is Barbara rather than the young student lover.

I haven't seen the movie, but I watched the trailer and one of the scenes on youtube. I am going to watch the movie at the first opportunity I get because I really like Judi Dench's work, but Barbara on film seems to be painted with too-broad strokes. She seems to lose the subtle malevolence that makes her an unforgettable character. The movie seems to want to concentrate on her being a lesbian, but that seems all wrong. Barbara's neediness, darkly festering for so many years, is something that goes way beyond sexual orientation.

10 comments:

meli said...

Sounds interesting! It's always hard for films to live up to books...

kookiejar said...

Bybee, I've been wanting to read 'Notes on a Scandal' for a while now, but your review clinches it for me. I didn't get that Barbara's character was a lesbian just from the trailer (which is all I've seen of the movie), I thought she was just a creepy old dame. :)

Bookfool said...

Notes on a Scandal is on my wish list and I've got Down and Out, etc., around here. I think I told you eldest is addicted to Orwell, right? He likes sad, dreary, his life is worse than mine books. Which is funny because he's led rather a charmed life.

I didn't catch that from the trailer, either.

Sorry I haven't visited you, lately. I had this weird total blank thing. I couldn't remember which blog Bybee wrote. It's possible I'm losing it. :)

emasl said...

Just dicovered your blog via Bluestalking Reader. Love the pic of you surrounded by books.

George Orwell is one of my favourite writers. style is exemplary, not a dot or a comma wasted. The Clergyman's Daughter is terrific and so is Keep the Asphidistra Flying. I studied 1984 at school and found it totally chilling.

I will visit again if I may. Elaine

Bybee said...

Meli,
I've been reading your blog. I love it! Unless you write back & say no, I'm going to link it from my page.

Kookiejar,
Notes On A Scandal is so readable. I finished it off in one weekend. Bookfool agrees with you about the trailer. Hmmm. I don't know why my gaydar was going off so strongly when I saw the trailer, but there you are.

Bookfool,
Given his reading tastes, your son would probably like Hunger by Knut Hamsun, unless his sad, dreary lives have to be nonfiction. Don't worry about forgetting which blog is whose -- I do it all the time.

Elaine,
Thanks for the Orwell recommendations. Pablo mentioned Keep The Asphidistra Flying but I've never heard of The Clergyman's Daughter. I tried to read your blog, but you don't seem to have one...is it private or non-existent?

Kimmie said...

You've sold me on "Notes on a Scandal." It hadn't caught my interest until I real your review.

acquisitionist said...

Lowndes does sound fascinating. With a title like 'How to Make Everyone Fall in Love With You' I'd also like to know what is like. It has the same ring to it of another book I've been meaning to investigate 'How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less'
by Nicholas Boothman. Both books sound like they pack a transformative punch on the social front.

I love how your reading spills over into your teaching - you reflective practictioner you! It appears that this month was a quality over quantity month for your reading and you can't knock that!

Becky said...

I really liked this book, but am afraid to see the movie. There's a lot of subtlety in the writing -- can the movies really capture it? I was afraid that Barbara would be too unsympathetic, and she's not entirely, at least in the book. The trailer just made her look evil. So post again when you see the movie and let us know!

char said...

Watch the movie, please! I liked the movie as well as the book, which is very rare, of course.

Judi Dench is TREMENDOUS in the role of Barbara. She's not evil--she's pathetic and lonely and afraid in her twisted little mind. Ms. Dench should've received the best actress Oscar. She was robbed!While I liked Helen Mirren's performance, I LOVED Judi's.

I wish I'd found your blog months ago!

marybishop said...

Howdy...I saw the movie, haven't read the book, but I was pleased with the movie's take on the relationships involved. Lesbianism - I don't know, I saw need and want and fear.