A Bit of Catching Up

Aaahh.  So good to go and so good to be home.  I ended up taking these books on my trip: Home by Marilynne Robinson, A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor, Against Happiness by Eric Wilson, and Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan.  I got the first three read (and half of one my friend gave me while I was there), so I feel oh-so-accomplished, especially because all of these were on my TBR shelves.  I also had a few books still waiting to be commented on, so this week will be all about catching up on unfinished business.  I'll start with a few brief reviews.

A Woman of Means by Peter Taylor

I took this little book on the train to Figueres thinking it would be the perfect length for the short trip outside Barcelona.  Turns out, it was perfect - but only for the outbound trip.  Taylor here introduces us to Quint, a boy whose mother died giving birth to him and who has been raised by his father.  We know of their early poverty from their boarding house rooms and other social cues, and just as quietly, we gather that Quint's father has worked his way up from a traveling hardware salesman to an executive in the company.  Along the way, he meets and marries the extremely wealthy Mrs. Lauterbach, who becomes the mother Quint has never had.  Ultimately, this story is about the love between Quint and his mother and the ways in which she is able to give him an identity and watch him rise into adulthood as she experiences a rapid and disorienting decline into madness.  I've already used the word quiet to describe this book, but I must repeat it.  This book whispers of urgencies - class, money, family, health, love, and power.  Seriously - it is all present in these 140 simple pages.  Reflecting on it, I'm actually more impressed with it than I was during my quick read of it.  This book was good, quietly so, but unmistakably good.

Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson

Eric Wilson is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University (a named professorship!!), and this book is utterly terrible.  What can I do with that information?  I just don't know.  The premise here is that there are two types of people in America: the empty-headed majority that exists in a drug-induced cloud, fearful of sadness, and focused only on maintaining an unnatural happiness AND the utterly morose, depressed, and melancholy thinkers, writers, and creative geniuses.  Not surprisingly, Wilson counts himself among the latter group and argues that we should all strive to be more like him.  I'm not kidding.  That is actually the whole point of this book.  To make matters worse, he writes worse than some of my first-years.  Really disgustingly verbose and florid prose covered with a sneering condescension.  Sounds good, right?  Here's an example:
Initially, we probably fear that this hunger for happiness at the expense of sadness is somehow unnatural, a violation of how the cosmos conducts itself.  Again, what is existence if not an enduring polarity, an endless dance of limping dogs and lilting crocuses, starlings that are spangled and frustrated worms? (22)
Frustrated worms?  These two sentences make me weep.  Here's another example:
But some people strain all the time to break through their mental manacles, to cleanse the portals of their perceptions, and to see the universe as an ungraspable riddle, gorgeous and gross.  Happy types, those Americans bent only on happiness and afraid of sadness, tend to forgo this labor.  They sit safe in their cages.  The sad ones, dissatisfied with the status quo, are more likely to beat against the bars. (24)
There's no place in Wilson's world for someone who is capable of grasping the gorgeous mystery of the world while maintaining a fairly contented sense of self.  There's no place for someone who is happy while also seeking to change the injustices in the world.  This us-against-them standpoint is offensive in its immaturity, but it could have been forgiven if he'd just been a better writer.  Unfortunately, he does not demonstrate any such writing talent.  This lack is a notable argument against his thesis that melancholics are the only ones capable of creative masterpieces. He refers to such minds as Keats, Blake, Melville, Hawthorne, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Beethoven, and Virginia Woolf as melancholics (like himself!) who found a "gloomy disposition" to be "especially well suited to the philosophical mood, perhaps even to intellectual brilliance" (72-73).  I had already lost all respect for this work, but at this point, I almost heaved the book across the plane.  I contented myself with a mere Ha! in the margin.

This book is really screamingly bad.  Poorly argued, poorly reasoned, poorly written.  If you are a melancholic genius, trust that you already agree with Wilson and move on.  If you are one of the "happy types" wandering aimlessly around the mall in a vapid cloud of perfume samples and gap ads, you can't read anyway, so you're in no danger.  For the rest of you . . . oh no, wait . . . there is no rest of you.  Oh well. 

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