33. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser

Year Published: 1900
Pages: 499
First Sentence: When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, which was checked in the baggage car, a cheap imitation alligator skin satchel holding some minor details of the toilet, a small lunch in a paper box and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser | Two Hectobooks

Some books tell you what their premise is on the very first page. Here is what the very first page of Sister Carrie has to say:
When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse.
Theodore Dreiser leaves it up to the reader to determine which of these two things transpire for Carrie.

The year is 1889 when we find Carrie embarking on her journey to Chicago, and the book tells the story of the next ten years of her life. She begins living with her sister, who is married with a baby and lives a life of basic drudgery. Carrie finds a job doing I literally can't remember what involving leather and hours at a sewing machine, because it's the 1880s and the conditions are comparable to what you'd still find today in a sweat shop. Unfortunately she loses this job after a protracted illness and when she gets well her sister's husband threatens to send her back to her hometown if she doesn't find a new job right away. This doesn't seem likely, but fortunately she encounters a young salesman, Charles Drouet, who she met on the train in to the city, and he buys her lunch and then immediately convinces her to move in with him.

Drouet is a fascinating character. He's warm and caring but also he's a travelling salesman who is not particularly faithful to Carrie. She, even at 18, evidently knows that the two of them aren't on the same level intellectually or emotionally but things go along nicely until Drouet introduces Carrie to the manager of a "resort" he frequents, Hannah and Hogg's. (I don't really understand what "resort" means in this context, but I think probably it's somewhere between an English gentlemen's club and a bar?) This manager is a man named George Hurstwood and he is the worst. Drouet is comfortably well-off but Hurstwood is closer to wealthy, which he likes to show off. He has a wife he doesn't like much and a couple of kids who don't think much of him, and pretty soon he decides that he wants Carrie. He starts moving in on her while Drouet is away and convinces her that the two of them should be together.

I'll quit the summary there except to say that Carrie appears in some amateur theatrical production presented by Drouet's Elks hall and discovers that she loves acting, and is very good at it, and there's the stage set for the rest of the novel.

I haven't said much about Carrie herself because she's an amazingly passive character to be at the centre of such an entertaining novel. She only takes action on her own two or three times in the whole book, and then when she has practically no other choice. But I liked her a lot. I liked mostly everyone except Hurstwood, who, as I said, is the worst. Dreiser is very good at character, and Hurstwood is so well-written, that he annoyed me more than anyone since, well, I guess Alex Portnoy in Portnoy's Complaint (I just went through The List to check this, ha!).

Dreiser's a bit long-winded but his chapters are short (and they have titles which, to my dismay, the edition of the book that I read did not include) so the book flew by. It's not profound thematically, but it's a bit more complex than what I quoted at the beginning. There are some issues: Carrie seems to spring into existence on the train and has no connection at all to her family (this is not exactly unrealistic though); Carrie never gets pregnant; Dreiser has shitty opinions about things like suicide and women's affinity for clothes (i.e. women be shoppin). You kind of just have to accept these things and enjoy the story. I certainly did.

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How true it is that words are but vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links they are, chaining together great audible feelings and purposes.
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We do not make sufficient allowance for the natural elements in our philosophy. Our logic is bare of the voice of the wind. How potent is the answer a pang of hunger makes to the cry, "Be good." How subtle is the influence of a dreary atmosphere.
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Lastly, let all men remember that in the main, the world's virtue has never been tested. Wherefore was he good—the heavens rained goodness on the soil that nourished him. Where severe tests have been made, there have been some lamentable failures. Too often we move along ignoring the fact of our own advantages in every criticism we make concerning others. We do this because we are ignorant of the subtleties of life. Be sure that the vileness which you attribute to some object is a mirage. It is a sky illumination of your own lack of understanding—the confusion of your own soul.
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NB: This book is one of the entries on my Classics Club list! -M.R.

Five Years Ago This Month: April 2014

Five years ago this month...

...I reviewed Quantum Thief. I think the level of confusion this book inspired has made it very hard to remember. I haven't gotten around to the third book yet, either, although I plan to.

...I was distracted. Distractions included going to Calgary Expo and also as much self-care as I could manage.

Job sites get muddy in the springtime!

R67. If on a winter's night a traveller by Italo Calvino

Year Published: 1979 (1981 English translation by William Weaver)
Pages: 260

First Sentence: You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler.

If on a winter's night a traveller by Italo Calvino | Two Hectobooks

You are about to begin reading M.R.'s review of Italo Calvino's novel, If on a winter's night a traveller*.

(I will not be able to keep up that conceit, forgive me!)

I hate it when this happens. I'll get it out right up front: I liked this book fine but I think that most of what the author was doing went way over my head. That's extra unfortunate, and the reason why I say I hate it when this happens is that I was really excited to read this book and got my expectations up. Calvino is an author whose work I've never read before, with the exception of this fabulous essay about classics and what exactly they are and why we should read them**. However, If on a winter's night a traveller came highly recommended.

It's a novel about reading on at least two levels and probably a couple more that are entirely beyond me. Half of it is written about the Reader in second-person singular present tense (surely one of the only times I've encountered that outside of Choose Your Own Adventure stories). The Reader—or rather "you"—is/are trying to read Italo Calvino's newest novel, and that struggle makes up the other half of the novel—several aborted attempts to read different texts that keep shifting, beginning, and ending.

There're a fair amount of descriptive passages about the triumphs and trials of reading, which readers tend to really love. I recognize that I'm being pandered to every time this sort of thing comes up (e.g. Of Human Bondage, The Thirteenth Tale), but I still fall for it almost every time. Calvino does a fine job of it here, particularly in an early passage about book shopping. The problem, though, is with his main character, i.e. you, i.e. the Reader, i.e. me. I'm not good at abstraction and symbolism and textual analysis. I just love a good story too much. Calvino starts several good stories in this book but the trouble is he doesn't finish them, and the through-line was much too symbolic for me. I think it has a lot to do with stories and how we make them a part of ourselves, and how often the stories we find aren't what we first expected, and so on and so forth. Way above my head in a lot of ways, like I said.

In fact I'm somewhat hard-pressed now to figure out what else to write about this book.

I felt distant from all of the characters, in both the "novels" and in the framing story. I wasn't that caught up in the action of the framing story, which sees The Reader meeting an Other Reader, a woman named Ludmilla, who maybe the Reader falls in love with except I was just straight up confused by the end of the book.

I think that this is a book for which I'm doomed to like the idea better than the execution.

Has anyone out there read Calvino's other work? Should I give him another try?

* A note on my spelling of the title of this book: "traveller" is on the cover of my edition, and then abruptly switches to "traveler" in the text. I've retained the Canadian spelling in this review, for better or worse.

** Sadly, the entire text of this essay is now behind a paywall, which it wasn't when I first found it several years ago. Brain Pickings offers a summary of its main points, however pale it may be in comparison to the full text. I may or may not have saved a pdf just in case of this circumstance that could be shared with interested parties.

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They have known her since she was a girl, they know everything there is to know about her, some of them may have been involved with her, now water under the bridge, over and done with; in other words, there is a veil of other images that settles on her image and blurs it, a weight of memories that keep me from seeing her as a person seen for the first time, other people's memories suspended like smoke under the lamps.
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And yet the sight of the books in Ludmilla's house proves reassuring for you. Reading is solitude. To you Ludmilla appears protected by the valves of the open book like an oyster in its shell. The shadow of another man, probable, indeed certain, is if not erased, thrust off to one side. One reads alone, even in another's presence. But what, then, are you looking for here? Would you like to penetrate her shell, insinuating yourself among the pages of the books she is reading? Or does the relationship between one Reader and the Other Reader remain that of two separate shells, which can communicate only through partial confrontations of two exclusive experiences?
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If one wanted to depict the whole thing graphically, every episode, with its climax, would require a three-dimensional model, perhaps four-dimensional, or, rather, no model: every experience is unrepeatable. What makes lovemaking and reading resemble each other most is that within both of them times and spaces open, different from measurable time and space.
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NB: This book is one of the entries on my Classics Club list! -M.R.