“Girl with a Pearl Earring”

Girl 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]


Tracy Chevalier’s raved-about 1999 historical novel of Vermeer’s famous painting. I read a used Plume paperback which had a price sticker lovingly placed over Scarlett Johansson’s eye.

3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

Seen the Movie: Yes and it made me seek out the book.

The Plot:

To help her family, sixteen-year-old Griet enters employment as a maid in the house of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, soon becoming something of an assistant.

Girl with a Pearl Earring isn’t the heavy, dense historical novel I assumed it would be. It’s a light, breezy, tale of an emotional affair starring a bunch of unlikeable characters. This is the sort of thing you read in waiting rooms and one you can give to people who like “respectable” romance. It’s sexy as hell but reserved (lots of held-breath-staring-at-each-other moments). It’s also extremely one-dimensional. The moment you meet each character, they are as they will be through the entire tale. And, you know what? That’s totally fine.

Chevalier establishes the time period and location without assaulting the reader with references or historical figures. I know nothing about the Netherlands in the 1600s but I hardly had to look anything up. Telling the story in first-person from the perspective of a never-left-town young woman helps a great deal. Griet’s world is contained to few settings and they can be described very simply: home, work, market, church.

I never like Griet and I never like anyone around her but the book is good fantasy escapism. Apparently, that’s a sweet spot for me.

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“Experiments in Seeing”

Experiments in Seeing

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]


A 1961 entry in a Science and Discovery series which seems mostly forgotten (only one rating on Goodreads; less than ten copies for sale on Amazon). I read a 1966 Fawcett Premier paperback which might be the nicest 1960s paperback I’ve ever owned.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The gist:

Harry Asher describes lab experiments examining theories about sight, also giving some experiments you can try at home and, in one chapter, recounts an LSD trip which has nothing to do with his topic and is never mentioned again.

Dr. Asher was working at Birmingham University (England) while conducting the experiments and tests described in this book, though he doesn’t tell us exactly when the tests take place. I assume post-war (mostly the 1950s).

It’s extremely hard to find any information about Asher. The only reference I could find outside of Experiments in Seeing is a mention in the book Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens. Apparently Asher authored an article published in the Saturday Review called “They Split My Personality” about his experience with LSD. I’m not sure how different the article is from what was published in Experiments in Seeing; the quotes attributed to it by Stevens are identical to the chapter “I Go Off My Rocker” in EiS.

It seems like he may have also authored The Alternative Knot Book and Photographic Principles and Practices, but I’m not sure it’s the same man. Continue reading

“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]


C.S. Lewis’ classic fantasy tale, published in 1950. I read a Scholastic paperback edition.

 2 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: At least 4.

Seen the Movie: BBC miniseries, yes (a long time ago). 2005 film, no.

The Plot:

Four children enter the magical world of Narnia and battle against the evil White Witch with the good lion Aslan.

The children themselves do nothing except screw things up for the Narnians. Aslan is coming anyway; it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the kids entering Narnia. His presence alone weakens the White Witch’s power. There’s no sense of real conflict here – the worst thing that happens is a horrific death scene (which is then miraculously and inexplicably reversed).

Between my last reading (about four years ago) and this one, I dropped my rating by two stars. I didn’t read very many fantasy stories as a kid. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit are the only two I remember being exposed to in my Catholic elementary school. But in my late twenties I started to catch up on things I missed (The Neverending StoryThe Last UnicornThe Black CauldronWatership DownThe Wind in the Willows) and found that everyone else did it better than Lewis.

Lion follows New Testament myth so closely that it seems Lewis didn’t really come up with anything in this book. There’s nothing inventive, nothing new. Not even for 1950. The writing itself isn’t very good, conflicts are solved in a snap (if not simply off-screen; we don’t even get to hear what Aslan says to Edmund to turn him around post-Witch abduction). There is nothing satisfying here beyond the great concept of a wardrobe transporting you to another world. (And the Professor gets a few good zings off.)

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“The Cabala” (Post 2/2)

Cabala 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1


[47] Reference: (and a complaint: Wilder is trying so hard that he’s stifling his prose. He’s suffering from first-book-itis; trying to prove his intelligence with every sentence)

He made nice distinctions with grades and corners, took long descents cantabilemente, and played scherzo on cobblestones. The outlines of the Alban hills stood out against the stars that like a swarm of golden bees recalled that haughty Barberini who had declared that the sky itself was the scutcheon of his house.

(p.43)

 

haughty Barberini: The massive Palazzo Barberini in central Rome was begun in 1625 by Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644), who had ascended to the papal throne as Urban VII. (Notes, p.716)

[48] Vocabulary:

Occasionally we passed through a village whose francobollo shop showed a lantern and a group of card players.

(p.43)

 

Store selling postage stamps. (Notes, p.716)

[49] Vocabulary:

There were no (…) savants too occupied but that he obtained their services as ciceroni.

(p.44)

 

cicerone: a guide who gives information about antiquities and places of interest to sightseers.

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“The Cabala” (Post 1/2)

Cabala 01[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Thornton Wilder’s 1926 debut. I read a beautiful Library of America edition, which collects Wilder’s early novels and short story writings. 

1 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A young American spending a year in Rome is taken into the confidences of a group of eccentrics – called “the cabala” by outsiders.

My relationship with Thornton Wilder tends toward extremes. I often love his novels (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Theophilus North), or struggle to finish them (The Ides of March, this one). Even in Ides and The Eighth Day, there are things to admire in the less-than-stellar plots; interesting experimental choices, good prose. The Cabala is his first totally flat note. If it was any longer than 110 pages, I would have given up on it.

Wilder chooses not to use quotations for dialogue and conversations are woven through the narration – though, to Wilder’s credit, it doesn’t take long to figure out when we’ve switched to dialogue or who is speaking. The narrator is never given a name. Some of the cabala call him “Samuele” (after one of the member’s childhood pets), but that’s it. A no-name narrator can work (Fight Club being the most obvious example) but in The Cabala it’s just another indication that there is no character here. The narrator never comes to life.

It’s fitting that The Cabala was Wilder’s first novel and Theophilus North his last because they’re very similar in construction: a young man enters an elite circle and, in each chapter (or, in the case of The Cabala, each “book”), our lead is enlisted to solve a family or moral problem. In The Cabala, the young man pretty much fails each time and the prose is too stilted and serious for the reader to connect to the events or the characters. We can see how much Wilder grows as a writer when we compare this to Theophilus North, which has lightness, wit, and a very vivid and likeable main character.

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“God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”

God Bless You

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]


Kurt Vonnegut’s 1965 novel. I read a Dell paperback edition with a bizarre cover illustration…

2 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 2

No Film Version (as far as I know)

The Plot:

Eliot Rosewater can keep control of his family’s estate as long as he’s legally sane but in a society that sees kindness and unconditional love as irrational, Eliot Rosewater is crazy as hell.

I’m a John Lennon fan, but follow me on this one:

Lennon’s “Imagine” is revered for its Humanistic message; it guaranteed his borderline-sainthood. But on that same album (also titled Imagine) there’s a song called “How Do You Sleep?” Do you know this one? It’s a petty slap-in-the-face to Paul McCartney, sneeringly taunting him for writing popular music (“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead” / “The sound you make is muzak to my ears” and so on). “How Do You Sleep?” is spiteful and hateful and difficult to reconcile with the message of “Imagine.”

And so we have Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. Ninety-nine percent of reviews that quote any part of Mr. Rosewater contain this:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-:

“ ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”

(p.93)

Beautiful, right? It’s Vonnegut at his best: using simple language to break your heart, reducing complex ideas to their most basic elements. Seeing that quote in isolation, it’s easy to categorize Mr. Rosewater as a Humanist tale. In my memory, it was exactly that.

Reading it again, the “How Do You Sleep?” comparison jumped out at me. The narrative of this book is so hateful toward humanity that it’s damn near poisonous. It’s hard to believe Vonnegut’s “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind” when he describes his characters like this:

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