2. My Antonia
Beautiful book, especially the first half. Hadn't read much Cather before, just "Paul's Case" (early sympathetic analysis of narcissism) and "Neighbor Rosicky" which is along the same line as this novel. One of the things I'm proudest of having done is a drawing of a car from a sideways angle, back in high school - it was very difficult to convey three dimensionality. Cather attempts something similar by writing life events sans plot, succeeds far past anything anyone else could have done. To her the ordinary things were exciting, and it's exciting anyone could share that so well.
3. Goodbye Columbus
Second time. I'm not sure how much of the message I caught back in 2004 - this time I was presenting on it, so read it carefully, and it turns out it's aimed at close reading as much as those stories they pick out for 101 textbooks are. Every single detail means something beyond its descriptive function, like in major poems by Bishop and Frost, and a lot of Chekhov's stories. I found it pleasant the first time but it wasn't one of my favorites - this density of oblique content that didn't flag itself as content probably made for a paradoxically distracted effect. Makes me somewhat apprehensive that the rest of Roth is like this too, but I don't think so, since Roth's switch to voice-based writing with Portnoy necessarily took him away from symbols. Not that there aren't any, but this is practically a mosaic. And a good one. I like what he's saying, against the worst, runniest part of America - it's a more impressive debut than I'd known.
4. An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition
Picked near randomly for a class assignment - started a couple longer Bishop books but was turned off by academic-ese and pretentious poet-ese, respectively. Hit and miss critical work, to some extent criticizing Bloom but very much contaminated by him. A large percentage of the Bishop monographs were from c. 1990, so most are written out of the same feminist moment, where the Adrienne Rich-type scorn for Bishop's supposed meek gentility gets replaced by insistence that she's instead sneakily subversive of patriarchy.
This author, Jeredith Merrin, also tries to argue that it's okay that Bishop and Moore are influenced mostly by male figures, for her Herbert and Browne, respectively; Gilbert and Gubar decided women can influence one another in sisterly, unagonistic fashion, and Merrin suggests Browne and Herbert were sisterly too, somehow. She does realize Moore and Bishop are continuators of Romanticism, but insists that it's there their subversion comes in. It's also there that agonism comes in, at least for Bishop, which Merrin might agree with but doesn't address. Moore might be an exception - see below.
5. Poems of Marianne Moore, ed. Schulman
Here's below. I'd mostly avoided Moore: of the poets who are clearly saying something, and something not idiotic, I found her by far the most difficult. In class once I compared reading her to having the shit beaten out of you for ten minutes then handed a thimbleful of really good ice cream. Having made the effort to grasp her in toto I don't think I'll ever feel so beaten up again, but I'm still not sure it was worth it (though I do thing everyone should take a stab at her thirty or so most anthologized pages). She's beyond amazing at times, but those times are usually restricted to passages, even in Marriage, which I read a dozen times and agree is her best. At other times she made me wince all over my body by being way too right about what goes wrong with me: Old Tigers, To a Steamroller. She wrote a whole stack of poems like that, self-castigations where the self's our shared one. So even the really good ice cream can be You Suck-flavored.
I didn't need to make a real effort here - few of my fellow students seem to have, judging by their talk before and after class. Mostly I wanted to see if she's truly a presence in Bishop, and truly she is. She's a ridiculous, exasperating, bizarre figure with something amazing in her. Often Bishop cherry-picks the amazing and carries those bits over into her own pure amazingness parade. But she doesn't get all of it. And it's not at all clear to me who Moore's essential influences are. She's writing her own genre, something that wanders through the sublime sometimes but then back out, across backyards in several worlds alien to me.
6. The Grapes of Wrath
I'd seen the movie a couple times so much was overfamiliar, but the parts that weren't filmed impressed me a lot - the platonic scenes, the ending. Steinbeck had some immense strengths. I think his main flaw was not realizing when he was being awkward. Time and again he achieves supermimesis for a passage or two then puts his foot in it. I read most of this aloud to Julie, as it's one of her favorite books, and was impressed at how vocally distinct the main figures were. He's good with characters, dialect, incidents, meaning, everything really. He just falters in magicianship, in sustained command, and it's sad how much that seems to matter. I was reading him at the same time as Cather, and boy did she win in that department. And that department was the only one that mattered: other things only matter as you can get them onto that blue guitar, and Steinbeck's kept flashing brown and violet.
7. Miss Lonelyhearts
Gazillionth time. His shock metaphors don't stop shocking. Most because of thingness, the way we fall into just things. And all so well done - I'm reading Chandler and Bishop now and there's no contest whatever with Chandler, despite how neat his can be, and an astonishingly close one with Bishop, who just nobody beats in metaphor. The perfect book of the worst of our several moods.
Unlike Steinbeck and Moore, who are peerless in their corners of strength and just weird otherwhere, West's book is very influenced, especially by "Young Goodman Brown" and Bartleby. And it sires promiscuously: Crying of Lot 49, when fused with "Lottery of Babylon" and Bartleby again; Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn't There, among tons else in the Coens; and a major strain of Roth's, even in Goodbye Columbus I'm seeing. Central, slicing, fantastic story.