|My subway stop. I've got the Kindle out and ready to go as soon as I see the steps.|
Only 8 books for March. I started a new job, and you know how that can throw a reader out of whack. I am loving the hour of subway travel Monday-Friday which has helped carry me farther into the 19th century than I've been since 1986, when I took both "The Novels of Jane Austen" and "The American Renaissance" classes during the summer semester. That was painful and almost unmade me as a reader, but this has been great, because I'm always briskly happy when I start a new reading project and manage to maneuver into an end seat on the subway.
Here's how it all went down:
1. Little Women - Louisa May Alcott. I love Little Women. Primally, permanently. For some reason though, it got on my nerves a bit during this reading. My hackles rose at Jo's family acting all sniffy about her scandal sheet writing. She was only doing it to bring in money so Marmee could take sickly Beth to the seashore in the summer! They spent her money then told her she should direct her energies towards something more wholesome. It's funny how I have different reactions to the book each time. When I read it in 2005, I was dazzled by the Marches' frugality.
2. The Fortune of the Rougons - Emile Zola. This novel is the first one in the 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series. Zola thought it should be subtitled "The Origin" since readers first come to see how the highly ambitious Pierre Rougon splits with his widowed mother and his younger brother and sister who are the products of his mother's love affair with a smuggler. Zola is also interested in heredity and assiduously notes how Pierre's mother's mental problems manifest themselves in her children and grandchildren. The Fortune of the Rougons is also a political story, detailing the 1851 coup d'etat that marked the beginning of The Second Empire. The greedy, grasping Rougons are waiting and watching, determined to come down on the right side, be it with the republicans or the royalists.
3. Quiet: The Power of Introversion in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain. With every page I read of Quiet, I felt more and more fascinated and also very relieved. Here's a clip of the awesomely-steeped-in-awesomeness author Cain, giving some of the highlights of her book. She has also done a wonderful TED talk.
4. The Kill - Emile Zola. The Rougon-Macquart connection in this novel is Aristide Rougon, who has renamed himself "Saccard". Aristide is the youngest son of Pierre Rougon. In the first novel, he was an inept young journalist, working for an equally unimpressive newspaper, The Independant (sic). A few years have passed and he's sharpened up a little and made a fortune in real estate. To keep up appearances, he lives in wasteful luxury with his young second wife, Renee and his son from his first marriage, the debauched Maxime. The two young people have an affair that kicks off in the family hothouse. Zola almost makes it seem like the flowers made them do it. The Kill was made into a movie in 1966, directed by Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda. The title is The Game is Over. Annoyingly, Vadim made the decision to update modern-day Paris.
5. The Belly of Paris - Emile Zola. Zola gets all foodie and the results are divine. There are two R-M connections in this novel: Lisa Macquart, who is the daughter of Antoine Macquart, Pierre Rougon's half-brother and Claude Lantier, a painter who is Lisa's nephew. (Claude's mother is Gervaise, the main character in L'Assommoir.) Lisa is married to Quenu and they run a charcuterie in Les Halles, the huge food market in Paris. The plot involves Quenu's brother, Florent who was a prisoner on Devil's Island. Although he has served his time, he still has revolutionary dreams despite the firmly bourgeois Lisa's attempts to get him settled. Sometimes Zola gets a little weighted down with too many characters and endless pages of description, but it all works to his advantage here.
6. Blonde - Joyce Carol Oates. Oates' subject for this novel, Marilyn Monroe, and her glass-shards-in-your-skin writing seem fitted for each other. Oates dispassionately relates her version of events based on Norma Jeane's life and inexorably shows how everyone around her was mesmerized by her beauty, but since it was a curvaceous and sexual kind of beauty, it was only a matter of time before they (photographers, Hollywood brass) figured out a way to make it into a product for consumption. Meanwhile, inside there's a smart girl, but she's too trusting and too nice, and the abuses pile up. Unsurprisingly, the character that comes off the best is "The Playwright", based on Arthur Miller, Monroe's third husband.
7. The Conquest of Plassans - Emile Zola. A poorly dressed priest with a dubious past suddenly blows into Plassans, the Rougon-Macquart hometown one day with his devoted mother. The pair rent a room on the upper floor in the house of Francois and Marthe Mouret, who are cousins and both related to the R-Ms. (Pierre's mother is their mutual grandmother.) Although the priest is an object of mockery at first, slowly everyone in town falls under his spell. It's fascinating to watch Zola do crazy, but this novel had too many minor characters and too much small-town politics for my taste. I almost packed it in, but Zola came through with a delightfully savage ending and did Naturalist literature proud.
8. Abbe Mouret's Transgression - Emile Zola. I wish I could read French because I have a feeling that Zola's first translator, E.A. Vizetelly, bowdlerized the text unmercifully. There's a dank, soap-opera feel to the whole thing. The title character, Serge Mouret is a priest and the younger son of Francois and Marthe Mouret. Zola gives the impression that the streak of craziness that runs through the family coupled with a life of chastity seem to be responsible for Serge's high-strung temperament. When Serge cracks up, the cage match between religion and nature is on. In this book, the bulk of Zola's descriptive powers go towards an impossibly fecund garden that is supposed to remind readers of Eden. The cast of characters is much smaller and it's a fascinating group peopled with grotesques. Serge's uncle, Doctor Pascal (the only sane person in the whole bunch) makes an appearance, torn between trying to help and standing gobsmacked, watching the nuts fall out of the family tree.
My plans for April include making more progress with Zola, including tracking down a biography of him. I've also discovered a series of a different kind -- Stephanie Plum. If the Rougons and Macquarts start getting to me, Stephanie will be my palate cleanser. Plum sherbet.