86. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Ragtime: A NovelUncomfortable Plot Summary: A man and woman find love despite the best efforts of early 20th century celebrities.

Year Published: 1975
Pages: 270

First Sentence: In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.

Ragtime is the second book (from the bottom) of The List that I've already read. I first encountered it in grade 12, on a list of possible selections to be used in formulating the thesis of an in-class essay. I guess the dust jacket on the edition at my old local library was interesting, so I ended up choosing Ragtime.

Unfortunately I couldn't make any sense of it. Fortunately, my second choice was Brave New World (COMING UP in five or so years).

Prior to revisiting the book, the only thing I remembered about it was Harry Houdini's presence. And of course my complete failure of understanding.

Alas, after my second reading, i.e. this one, I'm still at a loss for an interpretation.

On the surface it's very simple. There is a little boy's American family and a little girl's immigrant family. The little boy is a bit strange, and his family lives a sort of bleak early-suburban sort of life. On the other hand, the little girl's family struggles with extreme poverty. And then, in a nice combination of and contrast between personal and world history, there's a hit parade of early 20th century celebrities (e.g. Houdini, Emma Goldman, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit) who appear throughout with varying levels of influence on the families.

There's a lot of awesome stuff in this book, but I just can't find cohesiveness. In the early chapters it reads with the voice of an old-timey radio announcer listing the achievements of the last century's early decades. In that way it calls to mind both the resentment of progress in The Magnificent Ambersons and the vague pride of The Old Wives' Tale. However, despite being a lot sexier, Ragtime isn't nearly as satisfying as those books.

Also, the more of these books I read, the more I'd like to see a Canadian novel on The List. Ragtime ends around 1917, when the United States joined the Allies in World War I, whereas Canada had been at war, along with the rest of the British Empire, since 1914. (Another fun difference that makes me wish for a Canadian perspective: my grandparents on the farm didn't have running water or a telephone until the 1960s.) I haven't bothered to examine The List very closely for any Canadian authors, but I suspect that there aren't many, which is pretty tragic.

I've gotten off track, but it's Ragtime's fault. If I understood this novel at all, I'd have a better chance of writing something coherent about it.

Mother's Younger Brother was in love with Evelyn Nesbit. He had closely followed the scandal surrounding her name and had begun to reason that the death of her lover Stanford White and the imprisonment of her husband Harry K. Thaw left her in need of the attentions of a genteel middle-class young man with no money. He thought about her all the time.

A few professional alienists understood his importance, but to most of the public he appeared as some kind of German sexologist, an exponent of free love who used big words to talk about dirty things. At least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.

The Archduke Franz Ferdinand didn't seem to know who Houdini was. He congratulated him on the invention of the aeroplane.

Rating: 2/3 (meh)

Current Distractions, September 2010 Edition

This is a new "feature" I'm introducing wherein I will attempt to explain why I can't read a book every week. I will tell you a story, and give you four links to things on the internet that have kept me from my books.

A Story

My boss basically likes to make fun of how poor I am (good naturedly, of course), and about a week ago I ended up in a 60 ft office trailer with him, and commented on how it was a lot bigger than I expected. Instead of answering, "That's what she said," which probably qualifies as sexual harassment, he did a quick calculation and announced that the trailer was probably about 650 square feet.

"Probably bigger than your apartment," he said.

So that night at 10 pm, instead of doing my dishes, I took out a tape measure and did a rough estimate of the area of my apartment: 480 square feet.

Some Links

I've been watching The X-Files, which scared the pants off of me as a pre-teen, and honestly still does. My parents watched it when I was a kid, and I guess I must've watched it with them. It started right around the time that Star Trek: The Next Generation was winding down, and I guess it must've replaced TNG as our family genre show. I'm currently watching season 2 and delighting at the times when I remember things from episodes that I haven't seen for fifteen years.

I know I'm like years late to this party, but I finally watched Across the Universe this month and seriously how hot is Jim Sturgess? Good God.

It was my birthday this month, and I received a very nice e-mail message from someone special. I received some other awesome things, too, but I think I'll save them for when I remember to take some legit pictures. Long story short, I have amazing friends.

I've also been watching a lot of Brad Jones/The Cinema Snob's stuff, via That Guy With The Glasses (maybe I'll link to him next month, but you can find him on your own, I'm sure). Actually not much for The Cinema Snob, more just his new movie reviews and a few "Brad Tries". I find him totally hilarious, and I love how, like, pumped he gets about everything. If you feel like you need more enthusiasm in your internet, definitely check him out.

R14. The Earth's Children series by Jean M. Auel [classic]

Jean M. Auel's the Earth's Children: The Clan of the Cave Bear, the Valley of Horses, the Mammoth HuntersContext: I feel bad because the actual review is so sparse, so I'm going to try to give some extra context and thoughts about this. I'm also writing this without consulting the content of my old review, just knowing that it's about five lines long, so forgive me if there's any overlap.

A couple of weekends ago at the bookstore, I came across a book called The Fire in the Stone about prehistoric fiction, and resolved to add it to my list of things to read, because I obviously don't have time for detours like that just now. Does this sort of thing qualify as archaeology? Because if it does then it's one of those areas that I'm sort of interested in (meaning I haven't actively sought out any further information just yet), but don't know a lot about. I also love the wild hypotheses of evolutionary psychology, and things like that. Eventually I'll be finished reading all these novels, and can take some time to immerse myself in non-fiction.

But anyway, I really did love the Earth's Children series. I'm not positive when I started reading it, although I think it was sometime after grade ten or eleven, and I finished it probably a couple of years ago (that's if there isn't another book after The Shelters of Stone). These books are pretty enormous, even by my standards, and a lot of that volume is taken up by listing the flora and fauna of the Ice Age, and, in all the books after The Clan of the Cave Bear, sex and more sex. There was actually a lot to dislike, for example the main character's apparent prescience. Yuck.

Whether they were spectacular works of art or not, though, I think I value the series more for the things that it made me think about than the actual experience of reading it. These books made the most distant human past feel immediate in the same way that the worn steps in an old castle can make you suddenly aware of the feet that made them that way. Jean M. Auel's prehistory is so bright and optimistic, too, which may actually be more realistic than the struggling and squalor, given that we survived and have the internet, what may or may not be the crowning achievement of civilization so far. I read an article last weekend that got into the whole modern man and thought thing, which is here in case you want to have a look.

Oh, and one last thing! If you thought "Renesme" (sp?) was a horrible choice for a name, try "Jonayla." That would be like if Angeline Jolie and Brad Pitt named their baby "Brangelina." Why would anyone think that this is a good idea?!

Year Published: 1980-2002
Pages: 3139 (based on numbers from Wikipedia and Google)

First Sentence: (from the first book) The naked child ran out of the hide-covered lean-to toward the rocky beach at the bend in the small river.

July 25, 2005 - Okay, here's where it starts: this series is good, except for the fact that after the first book, Ms. Auel seems to have gotten extremely horny and interested in describing large volumes of sex. I don't read these books for smut, I read them for their ... everything other than that. Their stories, their facts, their fictions. If I wanted smut, I would find it in Harlequin romance novels, not books about prehistoric humanity.

That is, at this time, the extent of my review for this series (into which I'm three books deep). Later, I'm sure I'll have more to add.

August 13, 2006 - I really enjoy these books, even though they're pretty much ridiculous. At least half fantasy, but they make me wish that I was a cavewoman.

Despite Auel's portrayal of prehistoric humanity as a bunch of hippies, the Earth's Children books can really make you (or me, at least) think. They've made me realize that these people were actually people, just like you or me. But, I'm not in the mood to complete another review right now, so blah. :|

In Which I Lose Even More Of My Readers' Goodwill

K, you guys aren't going to be happy with me.

I've been having a really hard time lately keeping up, even though I'm on my break from the romnovs. I guess when I started this blog I really didn't think I'd ever find a job, or else I thought that while working I'd be able to read at least one book per week, which simply isn't the case (depending on the length of the books, obviously).

Anyway, I'm going to switch to posting two reviews per month, the Top 100 review on the 1st and the random and/or romance review on the 15th. Given that all anyone ever tells me is to read faster, I know this won't be a popular decision. I think it might improve the quality of the reviews, though (and by the way, I've been thinking really hard about what to do about the whole romance novel thing and I think I've made a decision about that, too, but I'll wait 'til the retrospective post for the 80s or whatever to make the official announcement).

I'm also going to try to do some additional posts during the month about books and engineering and why I think it's notable that I like both, and whatever else I think is reasonably relevant, to make up for the less frequent reviews.

Anyway, I hope you'll all stick around!

87. The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett

Based on a friend's suggestion (thanks Anne!), I'm adding Uncomfortable Plot Summaries to my reviews of the Top 100 novels. Credit for the concept/idea/whatever you call it goes to postmodernbarney. I'm not terribly good at them yet, but I hope to improve as the project progresses. Also, this book is available through the highly awesome Project Gutenburg HERE.-M.R.

Year Published: 1908
Pages: 615

First Sentence: Those two girls, Constance and Sophia Baines, paid no heed to the manifold interest of their situation, of which, indeed, they had never been conscious.

Uncomfortable Plot Summary: Two sisters outlive their usefulness to the patriarchy and then die.

The Old Wives' Tale is a weighty tome and very pleasant surprise. The edition I read is burdened with an introduction by John Wain, who I've never heard of, which claims that "[i]t is standing proof that a writer of the male sex can write with real perception about the imaginative and emotional lives of women." As you might imagine, I had to raise my eyebrow at a statement like that, made by one man about another man's writing. But despite the reservations that caused, I enjoyed the novel immensely.

It's too huge to summarize, but the premise is extremely simple. Two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, begin as beautiful young women, live their lives, and then die. (Spoiler brought to you by the table of contents: the last two chapters of the novel are titled "End of Sophia" and "End of Constance.") Constance is older than Sophia by one year; she stays at home in St. Luke's Square in the fictional Potteries town of Bursley (England) married to Samuel Povey, who amicably took over her father's shop. Meanwhile, Sophia elopes with a travelling salesman, Gerald Scales, and they go off to live the high life in Paris.

The style is, I think, quite similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, i.e., a sort of fond mockery. Arnold Bennett, though, is less bitter about the march of progress than Booth Tarkington seemed to be (although the latter was writing a decade or so later, about the United States).

There isn't much in the way of plot, exactly. It's more episodic, and there are lots of nice parallels and contrasts between the sisters' lives, some that you have to look for, and others you don't.

The themes (topics, whatever) are even clear enough that I managed to grasp them: life, aging, death. Three things that every single person has in common, no matter what you might believe it means, or hope will follow. This is something that I know I'm still too young to really appreciate, but age preoccupies me constantly, and this book definitely got me thinking about some things even harder than I did previously. It's also blessedly free of the "death in fiction" issues I had with Ironweed and The Sheltering Sky.

As for the whole "dudes writing about ladies" thing, I'm kind of on the fence. I'm not sure exactly what differences exist between how men and women actually experience life, but I'm not convinced they're that extreme. In fact I think it's more of a stretch for a young woman of 2010 to try to write about an old woman of 1910. I can barely contemplate what it would be like to be mostly dependent and unable to vote, etc etc. (John Wain even admits that his claim is a bit outrageous, and adds that he's gotten his "women friends" to read the book for the past 25 years, "and the suffrage has been overwhelming: it is good; it tells the truth; it sees us as we are." Emphasis mine. Holy loaded term, Batman!)

FYI I tend to think of most books that are explicitly about women as "lady books," having less universal appeal than something with a more evenly distributed cast, but I think this one is an exception.

Samuel had never correctly imagined the matter of its heralding. He had imagined in his early simplicity that one day Constance, blushing, might put her mouth to his ear and whisper—something positive. It had not occurred in the least like that. But things are so obstinately, so incurably unsentimental.

He was adopting the injured magisterial tone of the man who is ridiculously trying to conceal from himself and others that he has recently behaved like an ass.

They tried, in their sympathetic grief, to picture to themselves all that she had been through in her life. Possibly they imagined that they succeeded in this imaginative attempt. But they did not succeed. No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her.

Rating: 3/3 (read it!)