Like Lars Iyers’s Spurious trilogy (which I’ve only read two-thirds of, though I do plan to rectify that), Wittgenstein Jr is a funny book, and by funny I mean amusing and also strange. It’s partly a satire of academia, and partly a coming-of-age story, but saying that doesn’t give a proper sense of Iyers’s distinctive style, which you can see on his blog that contains notes toward this book. Wittgenstein Jr is narrated by Peters, who’s in his final undergrad year at Cambridge. He’s signed up for a philosophy class that soon turns intimate, going from forty-five students down to twelve in the first month. Peters and his friends call the professor Wittgenstein, and are simultaneously fascinated by him and utterly confused by him. Wittgenstein is paranoid, seemingly on the verge of a breakdown: his brother, who was also an academic at Oxford, committed suicide, and he worries that he, too, will go mad. Their class goes for walks, “to wash off their brains,” and Wittgenstein makes impenetrable statements about logic and rants about academia in general and Cambridge in particular. We get glimpses of Peters and his (all male, mostly white, mostly well-off) classmates/friends both in and out of class, often hilariously. I think my favorite part of the whole book is this, from a scene in which the students don’t know what to do with themselves in the absence of their teacher:

We look up the Wittgenstein entry on Wikipedia. Very long! We search for pictures instead. A glum Wittgenstein, standing by a blackboard. A dour Wittgenstein, walking with a friend. Wittgenstein, gloomy in tartan. Wittgenstein in profile—clearly suicidal.
We google cheery Wittgenstein. No results (130)

Library Books!

May 16th, 2015

Library Books

Top to bottom:
Wittgenstein Jr by Lars Iyer
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler
Nightwalking by Matthew Beaumont
(Oh, and that’s Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle to the right, which I read recently.)

I have been on a bit of a library spree lately, as evidenced by my stack of checked-out books, shown above. I started Wittgenstein Jr today and am liking it so far – it’s the third book by Iyer that I’ve read, and it’s deadpan funny in the same way the others were. I read The Penderwicks and The Penderwicks on Gardam Street in 2008 and really liked them (they’re kids’ books that remind me of Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet —sweet well-written realistic fiction about a family) but I haven’t yet read the next two books in the series, so I decided to get them all and have a Jeanne Birdsall reading spree. The New Yorker said Satin Island is an “experimental novel” that “takes the form of a brilliant series of numbered digressions on parachute accidents, Lévi-Strauss, hub airports, and many other things,” which sounds pretty great. I haven’t read anything by Miranda July or Daniel Handler and saw these two books on the New Books shelf today. And Nightwalking is nonfiction, subtitled “A Nocturnal History of London”: I like both walking and London, so am looking forward to it.

I wonder how I would have felt about Green Girl if it had been around for me to read when I was in college, when I was in my late teens or early twenties. I wonder how much Ruth, the main character, would have felt relatable: “I am a mess, mess, mess she thinks,” on page 13, and then on the same page there’s this: “She is such a trainwreck. But that’s why we like to watch. The spectacle of the unstable girl-woman. Look at her losing it in public.” Ruth is an American in London, working as a temp in the fragrance department at Harrods (which she calls Horrids) and generally being adrift. She lives in a bedsit at first, then moves to a flat with her Australian friend Agnes. She has work angst and relationship/sex angst and friendship angst. She sleeps until three pm on her day off; she goes to Liberty and lusts after clothes she can’t afford. She’s described like this:

She is not political. She is not political yet. She is halting, she is silent, she is unsure. She has not formed any opinions that are her own. Sometimes she hears someone else’s opinion, someone more forceful than herself (which is almost anyone) and she says that’s good for me too. So malleable she changes identity easily. How else does one figure out who one is? She has flashes of who she could be someday. (93)

In an interview at the back of this edition of the book, Zambreno says she sees Ruth as “a mystic character” who “isn’t looking for embodiment or empowerment but rather something closer to its opposite”; various female saints make appearances in the book, as do a group of London Hare Krishnas. At one point the narrative says, “The question is—does she awake? And what does she awaken to?” (95). The question isn’t answered, not quite, but I read the book’s final scene as more hopeful than not.

Wolf in White Van is weird and claustrophobic and alternately beautiful and bleak. Its narrator, Sean Phillips, is the creator of Trace Italian, a text-based game played through the mail. Sean doesn’t go out much: he suffered a disfiguring injury when he was seventeen, in which he almost died but didn’t, and his reconstructed face, twentyish years afterwards, is still a wreck. He doesn’t really get out of his head, and neither does the narrative: he ruminates on choices and the lack of them, reasons and the lack of them, the branching paths that make up a life: things done, things undone, paths and doors closed off by how things went. The game, Trace Italian, is like that, too: a player reads a scenario and makes a move, and that move takes the player in a particular direction, opening particular options and removing others. So right: there’s Sean and his life, and there’s the game, and there are Carrie and Lance, two high school kids playing Trace Italian who decide to take their play into the actual world.

There’s a lot in this book about the life of the imagination and the inner life generally: the things in our heads, the things that stay there and don’t get expressed, the things that do get expressed that maybe shouldn’t have, or that maybe should have been expressed in some different way. Sean talks about his childhood fantasies, about “Backyard Conan, thrown together from half-understood comic books only”: “I ruled a smoking wrecked kingdom with a hard and deadly hand. It was dark and gory. No one liked living there, not even its king. It had a soundtrack. All screams” (7).

I liked the first half of this book a lot, especially some of the passages that are introductions to the story and mechanics and origins of Trace Italian, the way it plays and the way that Sean relates to the players, and some of the passages about Sean reflecting on incidents from his childhood, like this:

I sift and rake and dig around in my vivid recollections of young Sean on the floor in the summer, and I try to see what makes him tick, but I know a secret about young Sean, I guess, that he kind of ends up telling the world: nothing makes him tick. It just happens all by itself, tick tick tick tick tick, without any proximal cause, with nothing underneath it. (107)

But the second half of the book fell sort of flat for me, and I’m not sure why. The story is told mostly in reverse, with other digressions into memory, and maybe that’s part of it: you know the story is working its way toward the full story of Sean’s injury, and maybe I didn’t want to read that story. Maybe, too, it’s that I wanted more of other people, more of Lance and Carrie, who aren’t in the book’s second half. Maybe I was just more interested in Sean’s present/more recent past, everything after the defining event, than I was in the defining event or the lead-up to it.

I don’t think I can write about this book without talking about a significant plot-point that isn’t revealed until partway through it. So if you’re spoiler-averse, you might want to stop reading now.

So, right: I was really really enjoying Dept. of Speculation. The beginning of the book is such a delight: interesting form, humor, moments of beautiful prose. The book’s short chapters are made of short paragraphs, quotes, lists: the opening lines, below, are fairly representative of the style and tone:

Antelopes have 10x vision, you said. It was the beginning or close to it. That means that on a clear night they can see the rings of Saturn.

It was still months before we’d tell each other all our stories. And even then some seemed too small to bother with. So why do they come back to me now? Now, when I’m so weary of all of it. (3)

I love the way the book tells the protagonist’s story, the way it mixes first-person narration and third-person narration and quotes from/allusions to Horace and Coleridge and Hesiod and Keats and lots more. I love that the protagonist is ghost-writing a book about space, and that the narrative includes a lot of bits about astronauts and Carl Sagan that turn out to relate, thematically, to the story of the protagonist’s marriage. I love all the bits about the protagonist’s life in the city and the start of her relationship with the man who will be her husband, the energy of it. In this Paris Review interview, Jenny Offill says this: “What I try to capture as a writer is the feeling of being alive, of being awake.” Yes: there are so many moments of those feelings in this book. I like the way the book explores ideas of change and impermanence: at one point the protagonist talks about how she had a persistent cough that doctors couldn’t figure out, and then after she got married it just went away; at another point she talks about Hipparchus cataloging stars after seeing a new one: what seemed permanent and unchanging isn’t.

But—and here’s the spoilery bit—the protagonist’s husband sleeps with another woman, and suddenly I found myself enjoying the book a bit less. Partly I think this means the book is successful: the narrator becomes a bit unhinged, and her insecurities and fears and worries are so central, and so vividly written, that reading about them is a bit uncomfortable. But at the same time, I didn’t entirely care. This is probably partly due to my personal biases/experiences, but I don’t think it’s just that: the protagonist herself realizes that a partner sleeping with someone else doesn’t have to be the end of the world. There’s this: “Her sister has a deal with her husband. Whatever happens, keep it like in the fifties. Not one word ever. Make sure she’s a nobody.” (126). And this: “If only they were French, the wife thinks. This would all feel different. But no, feel isn’t the word exactly. What is it that the grad students say? Signify. It would all signify differently” (120-121). But OK, the protagonist feels how she feels, and her husband’s infidelity is a moment of crisis in their relationship, and even if I wished it were less central to this story, it still works, in its way, and I still enjoyed this book overall.

This is the seventh Flavia de Luce mystery, and while I still like this series featuring the young chemistry prodigy/sleuth, this book is not my favorite. I enjoyed it, but Flavia is set adrift in this book, and, as a reader, I felt like I was too. It’s hard to write about this book without being a little spoiler-y about some of the events/revelations of the last book, so if you’re reading this series but you’re not caught up, you might want to stop reading now.

It’s now 1951, and twelve-year-old Flavia is shipped off to Canada, to go to the same all-girls boarding school her mother attended. From the events of the last book, it’s clear that this is not an entirely ordinary boarding school, in a way that’s reminiscent of Gail Carriger’s Finishing School series. But where the Finishing School books are intentionally over-the-top (and are set in a steampunk Victorian world with vampires and werewolves), the Flavia books are set in our world (albeit with more dead bodies in Flavia’s small village than would be credible). The not-entirely-ordinary-boarding-school plot thread feels a bit odd/out of place/confusing. I mean: Flavia is told that her mother was a member of a secret society of spies (?) and is sent off to Canada with no more information than a code phrase and the knowledge that she’s likely to receive the same kind of training her mother did. She doesn’t know who else at the school is part of the society and who isn’t; she doesn’t know who to trust.

And the question of trust becomes important rather quickly: on Flavia’s first night at the school, a dead body is accidentally dislodged from the chimney in her room. Of course, she’s determined to figure out the corpse’s identity and circumstances of death. But there are false starts and red herrings, and meanwhile Flavia’s also trying to figure out what’s what at school, while also contending with her homesickness.

The book is fun and funny in the same way the others in the series are: Flavia is hilariously bold about sneaking into places she shouldn’t be, and there are some great bits of dialogue with adults, like when a Canadian immigration officer asks Flavia “the purpose of [her] visit” and she says, “Penal colony” (17). I would have liked more of a vivid sense of Flavia’s school life/the other girls—there’s a bunch of that at the beginning but it rather gets swept to the side as details about the body start to emerge. There is a great scene involving ghost stories and a Ouija board, though, and I quite liked this description of one of Flavia’s classmates: “Pinkham stood paused in the doorway, and just for an instant she looked like a girl in a painting by Vermeer: as if she were constructed entirely of light” (122).

The Hollow Land appears under the heading “For Children” on the list of Jane Gardam’s work at the start of the book, but these nine linked stories read perfectly well as grown-up literature, too. The stories are mostly centered around a pair of children (Bell Teesdale, who’s eight when the book opens, and who narrates the first story, and Harry Bateman, who’s a few years younger), and the stories are partly about childhood experiences, but they’re also about landscape/place/culture: the Cumbrian setting of these books feels vivid, even though I’ve never been there.

The first story, “Harry and Bell,” introduces the title characters and their families and their circumstances: Bell’s dad is a farmer, and his grandfather lives with Bell and his sister and their parents, and one summer they decide to rent out the grandfather’s old farmhouse to a family from London, the Batemans. The Batemans almost leave early: they’re at the farm during haying time, and there’s a particularly noisy night when the Teesdales need to work the field past midnight to get the hay cut before it rains, but Bell and Harry between them help to set things right between the families, and then the Batemans keep on coming back—by the last story in the book they’ve been renting the old farmhouse, Light Trees, for twenty years, since 1979.

This book is often quite funny: there’s humor in the circumstances the characters find themselves in, and in how those circumstances are narrated. I loved the start of “Sweep,” whose first paragraph I can’t resist quoting in its entirety:

The chimney sweep, who also kept the fish and chip shop, had said that he would take the big London lads fishing one day and they had said thank you. Smashing. “Oh great,” they had said—and forgotten. They weren’t prepared then on a dark wet August day for a knock on Light Trees’ ancient oak door and the sweep—Kendal was his name—to be standing there sopped through, with floods streaming from his hat and his arms full of rods. (37)

Most of these stories are summer stories, but not all of them: the Batemans visit in the winter, too, at least once, and there’s a lovely wintry snowy icy story, “The Icicle Ride,” which also features this great sentence, about a farmer driving a Land Rover full of sheep: “A wall of yellow-eyed wool looked out over his shoulders” (85). So good. This is the third book I’ve read by Jane Gardam, and they’ve all been pleasing: I look forward to reading more.

I hadn’t heard of this rhyming picture book, but when I saw it at the library, the front cover made me want to pick it up: a solid-looking dog on a ladder, adjusting a mysterious contraption made of pots and pans and colanders and whisks and wires, in front of an old TV that seems to be showing a staticky picture of a poodle. How could I not be intrigued?

The book opens with Wilma and Walter Wimbledon being woken up by a weird noise. Walter goes and checks it out, and comes back to say it’s just their dog, Stanley, howling at the moon. As the night continues, each of the four Wimbledon kids gets woken up by something, and each time Walter checks it out but comes back saying, “It’s only Stanley.” Walter doesn’t seem at all perplexed by Stanley’s nighttime activities, offering a straightforward explanation for each weird noise or smell: Stanley “fixed the oil tank” or is “making catfish stew,” as if these are perfectly normal things for a beagle to be doing. What Stanley is actually up to is … considerably more interesting.

The art of this book is fun: I love the way each kid who gets woken up piles into their parents’ bed, which obviously gets a bit full by the end, and I love the wordless spreads where Walter goes to see what Stanley’s up to, accompanied each time by the family cat, Max, who seems to know more about what’s going on than Walter does, and whose curiosity means that he returns to bed in a slightly different state after each investigation. Those wordless spreads are totally my favorite part, especially the one with Stanley in the kitchen with a crazy setup of beakers and retorts, determinedly stirring a pot bubbling over with a mysterious green liquid (which the cat, of course, laps up from a spill on the floor).

This was a really good read for a Sunday when I was home sick with a cold/fever: it was good enough that I didn’t even feel too bad about not being able to partake in my usual Sunday evening activity (rock climbing). I think it’s better-written than the previous Veronica Mars book (The Thousand Dollar Tan Line) was: there was only one sentence I noticed that was so horrible that I had to stop reading and comment on how bad it was to my boyfriend. (Describing Veronica watching a surveillance video showing another character: “She headed to the elevator. Inside, the close-up of her face showed her carefully made-up face” (122).) But the writing isn’t the point of these books, for me: it’s the chance to be surrounded, again, by familiar characters from the TV series: crime-solving Veronica, her PI dad Keith (who’s currently fighting corruption in the local sheriff’s department), former biker-gang leader Eli Navarro (who’s fighting a series of charges in a situation in which the police department planted evidence on him), basketball-player-turned-basketball-coach Wallace Fennel, and others.

The crime in this one is pretty gruesome: a local 19-year-old woman is raped, beaten, and left for dead in a field at the edge of town. She’d been drinking at the bar of the fancy Neptune Grand hotel, and she claims that it was a hotel employee who assaulted her. Veronica is hired by the hotel’s insurance company, who clearly want the victim’s story not to be true. There’s DNA evidence, but the hotel employee has since been deported (the victim had brain trauma and claimed not to remember anything about her assault, but later claimed to have regained some memories, and the accused was an undocumented immigrant), so it’s not as simple as just getting a sample from him to prove his innocence or guilt. And despite the hotel’s many security cameras, there’s no footage of the victim leaving the hotel. So who was her attacker, and what happened, exactly? Meanwhile, subplots: after his criminal trial concludes, Keith encourages Weevil to bring a civil suit against the sheriff’s department about the planted evidence, and a new contender appears in the previously-uncontested sheriff’s race, meaning that maybe the corruption in the Neptune police department has a chance of getting cleaned up. And oh, Veronica and her boyfriend get a puppy, aww.

Coffin Castle, the setting of this fairy-tale-like book, is not a happy place: it’s cold, and the thirteen clocks of the book’s title have all stopped, and the Duke who lives there with his “niece” (she’s not really his niece: she’s a princess he stole away from her family when she was a baby) is fond of killing people and feeding them to his geese. He relishes telling knights they can marry Princess Saralinda as soon as they finish some impossible task; meanwhile, he’s biding his time and planning to marry her himself as soon as she turns twenty-one. But you know how stories like this go: there’s one prince who’s clever enough to do the seemingly-impossible task set for him. Except actually, he’s not: the prince in this story (who’s disguised as a minstrel, but not for long) succeeds only because of the help of a kindly double-agent called the Golux, and really only because his success has already been foretold. Which makes this kind of a funny book: you know the shape the plot will be, because of what kind of story it is, and the characters don’t particularly feel like real people so much as types, so what’s left is the way the story’s told, the rhythm and humor and language of it.

In the introduction to this edition, Neil Gaiman talks about how he read this book when he was a child and noticed the language, how it “slipped into poetry and out of it again in a way that made you want to read it aloud, just to see how it sounded” (8). He writes about how Thurber “wrap[s] his story tightly in words, while at the same time juggling fabulous words that glitter and gleam, tossing them out like a happy madman, all the time explaining and revealing and baffling with words” (9). Which is a pretty excellent way of putting it. Thurber plays with rhyme and meter, but I think what I liked best was the humor. One character tells the disguised prince that the duke “breaks up minstrels in his soup, like crackers” (24). The Golux, talking about how his mother was a mediocre witch, says that “when she changed her rivals into fish, all she ever got was mermaids” (43). And there’s a great moment when the Duke says, “We all have flaws,” followed by, “and mine is being wicked” (114).