Vanity Fair (Thackery)

Every summer, I try to tackle one big book. This summer, for no particular reason I can recall, I chose Vanity Fair. I remember very little of the movie version ( And this book, a story Thackery (or at least his storyteller) refers to as a “comic history” is indeed just that. It is a carnival of greed and superficiality, and it is, as Thackery’s subtitle previews, “a novel without a hero.”

Becky Sharp is beautiful and manipulative. She has ambitions, achieves them, grows bored, and falls back down the ladder of society. Her schoolmate, Amelia Sedley, is naive – devoted to a husband who has little concern for her. Both become mothers, and their treatment of their children and the behavior of their children suggests that the ferris wheel of society will never end. There are some glimmers of home. They rest mainly on the shoulders of Dobbin, Amelia’s long-time friend and admirer.

Otherwise, life is, to borrow a phrase, “nasty, brutish and short.” People seek money and position, but such goals are, for Thackery, hollow. We are wasting our lives.

Thackery’s writing suits the material well. It’s recursive, funny, and satirical. The insights that are provided by the narrator come in the form of a kind of meta-narrative – pedantic at times, but always relevant. The tone may annoy you, but you can’t deny the accuracy of the insights.

I have been asked periodically if I have a reading plan  – a path I follow. Sometimes, I try to move between American fiction and fiction from elsewhere. Sometimes, I try to move from heavy to light. But I never seek to move from long to long. I have recently joined a book club, though, and the first assignment, Middlemarch, which clocks in at 794 pages, just about 30 shy of Vanity Fair. In other words, it may be some time before I write another review.


Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools (Morris)

Morris is right to say that much time and attention has been paid to the struggles of black males as they get entrapped in the school –> prison pipeline. Consequently, little energy has been spent on girls and their own school –> confinement pipeline. Here Morris does some of her best work. The section on human trafficking is difficult but necessary. (The 11-year-old who voluntarily describes herself as a “ho”. . .) Morris wants us to understand that which is unique about black girls, particularly the way they ask questions, respond to real or perceived disrespect, and process things verbally. I cringed in recognition at some all-too-familiar descriptions of my memories of my reactions to some situations with Black girls. She wants us to understand that people who are harmed do harm in turn and that we all (and Appendix A is useful for this) need to be more prepared for how to address this. Her prescriptions for school security seem pretty ambitious, though I do wonder about the impact of grandmothers doing hall duty. I would add this to my list of required reading for those teaching in any kind of setting that includes Black girls.

Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album (Metres)

As in his incredible Sand Opera, Metres treats the page “as an open field.” If I am reading it thoughtfully, there is a poem that scrolls along the top or header of the page and another along the bottom. In one of his epigraphs, Metres quotes from Osip Mandelstam:

Destroy this album, but save whatever you have inscribed in the margin out of boredom, out of helplessness, and, as it were, in a dream.

The poems I mentioned are in the margin and are thought provoking: the unconscious / is not just the seeing beneath / but the upper reaches”

The ‘normal’ poems – the ones found where we usually find poems – have titles inspired by the movements in Modest Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. (A connection to Mandelstam’s ‘album,’ perhaps?) But the poems are also pictures – in a museum and of the Soviet Union. Metres’ other epigraph, from Paul Griffiths:

Cast in the role of the anonymous observer who, in the “Promenade” music interleaved with the pictures, walks from one painting to the next. . . He seems to have no authority over the parade of images.

Although he clearly has precise control over the form and content of his pictures, Metres plays in the open field of the page. Words are everywhere. So are various forms of brackets. The reader is Griffiths’ anonymous observer. I stopped for a longer time at “Interlude: Letter (Never Sent) to Volodya and Natasha,” “Scratched Track List for Hieromonk Roman’s ‘Holy Psalter,'”Ninth. Ballet of the Unhatched” (“so many wrong ways / to hold a thing / in your mind”), as well as several others.

In the end, this collection reads like a love letter by a lover who is aware of and admires all of the contradictions of his beloved. Metres writes –

here, at the river of never / I want to burn posthumously like a word / to say farewell & beg forgiveness / in one breath & cede you to you

The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town (Grisham)

I was working backstage at a theatre and had a long break near the end of the show. For some reason, probably because I’d heard of it and it had been on my shelf for a while, I started reading In Cold Blood. The way I read it contributed to the powerful impact it had on me, both because of the particular narrative and because of how it was written. I selected this Grisham with that experience in mind. It definitely belongs in the same genre, but Grisham is no Capote. He’s exceptional with the details. He’s clearly done his homework. But he’s too present in the narrative to make it particularly compelling. There’s too much of his voice. There are way too many exclamation points. Good reading for an airport – which is where I bought and read (most of) it.

Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt (Hedges)

I read it a little while ago and had to leave it behind, so this will be brief. I found this a persuasive and inspiring book outlining the necessity for change and what and who it will take to achieve it. I am aware that Hedges has his angle on the world. I read some of his Truthdig pieces ( Given recent events, I hope he is right about all of it, especially the non-violent piece.

The Last Picture Show (McMurtry)

I knew about McMurtry but had never read any of his books (or seen any of the movie versions). My brother sent me an article about him, and since I didn’t have time or space for Lonesome Dove, I tried this one. It is desolate – the characters, their relationships, the setting. Good writing. Spare, like the landscape of the story. I am now certainly curious about the movie. And I will, when I have time, read Lonesome Dove.

Mr. Mercedes (King)

I decided that Thackery was a bit much for my recent trip, so I grabbed this King novel at the last moment. It was probably the recent reviews of the final book in the trilogy that made me think of it. Anyway, it was entertaining. I prefer my bad guys a bit less crazy, but King knows how to keep you turning the pages. It was not wonderful enough to inspire me to pick up the second book in the trilogy, but it was good company for a few days.