Amy Brown Won’t Read Anything That’s Been Made into a Julia Roberts Movie: FIERCE ANTICIPATION [Book Week]
Oh, Fierce and Nerdy! How I’ve missed you. Thanks for letting me visit you again — this missive comes to you from the west coast now, where I am fiercely anticipating the start of a new job in Los Angeles. As a reader I tend not to delay my gratification (actually, that’s pretty much a good description for my life) but I do tend to have a list in my head that I refer to when the latest book is finished. Welcome to my list!
I have begun to wish very much that there were a literary Pandora, where you could enter the novel you just loved and come up with a series of suggestions. Did you love Howards End? Then may I suggest Brideshead Revisited for its similar themes of inter-generational family conflict. Amazon will do this for you, but it won’t explain why you like the books you do – or why you don’t like the other books on the same themes. The suggestions often devolve into listings of authors writing at the same period. Like Margaret Atwood? Why don’t you read some Kazuo Ishiguro or Ian McEwan? (This is a terrible example – I think if you like Atwood you’d love either of these authors. Maybe Amazon really has solved all my problems.)
Periodically I review the lists of books that I’ve loved to find qualities in common: intellectual families, overlapping storylines, bildungsromans, magical realism, settings in London, thwarted and inconclusive romances, a certain preoccupation with death. They’re the kinds of themes and features I would include in my own imaginary novel – the one that I write in my head when I’m feeling particularly angst-y.
Some examples? A.S. Byatt’s Virgin in the Garden quartet, which follows red-headed Frederica Potter as she travels abroad, studies at Cambridge and lives in London. Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight, which is a modernist illumination of the myth of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Any of my beloved Robertson Davies’s trilogies give you an excellent escape to Canada, which comes in a close second to England in my heart.
All of this is to say that it’s strange I have yet to read The Infinities, by John Banville, where the Greek gods visit a family headed by a dying patriarch. Perhaps it’s too many of the things I like at once? Perhaps my many moves have made me unfocused? Anyhow, I am still anticipating this read, perhaps after I finish this next one.
On my Kindle for the past few months I kept coming across my copy of Shakespeare by Bill Bryson every time I ran out of reading. It looked so boring – nonfiction! On a topic where the consensus is that we know basically nothing!
I must have purchased it in a one-click binge, the kind that I rarely allow myself, but when I do, I evidently break every rule I usually make for my reading. In this case it was a lucky choice; the pace of the book is quick and pointed, funny and charming – all the good stuff you expect to find in Bryson’s work. (It’s not exactly that I went out on a limb here.)
What Bryson wants to do is collect the prevailing knowledge of Shakespeare’s life, but strip from it the legends and mystique that previous biographers have painted on, from early scholars to PBS. The book is brief, he writes, because our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life is brief. Bryson condenses Shakespeare’s history with trademark wit — it’s a highly enjoyable read.
WOULDN’T READ IT IF YOU PAID ME
A friend recommended a short literary discussion called All Things Shining. The authors, professors of philosophy at Harvard and Berkeley, make the extraordinary claim “the world does not matter to us the way it used to,” and proceed through careful illumination of great literary works that a modern Nietzschian view of life’s meaning compares poorly to earlier interpretations of life through gods. It’s fascinating, even if I did occasionally feel like Oprah was a silent coauthor.
Their analysis of Moby Dick made me grateful to have slogged through that masterwork one jury summons long ago, even if I properly identified not an iota of the thematic content they describe. Similarly, the authors single out David Foster Wallace as typifying a Nihilistic view that made his interpretation of modern life particularly bleak. Foster Wallace, they write, “wrote enormous, ambition novels, stories, and essays that were dedicated to showing his readers how to live a meaningful life.” The chapter on Foster Wallace nearly made me return to try again at Infinite Jest.
Basically, anything the authors of All Things Shining described made me hungry to read or re-read the works with new eyes. Except one. Dreyfus and Kelly also include Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love as an example of a modern attempt to interpret life’s meaning. “Gilbert’s approach to writing is driven by the same kind of human ambition that motivated Wallace,” they blaspheme. And let me tell you, I nearly retched. Anything that can be made into a movie featuring the toothy grin of Julia Roberts describes no part of human existence that needs to be examined. Bugger off, Elizabeth Gilbert. I wouldn’t read you if you paid me.