Monday, March 21, 2005

50 Book Challenge #16, 17, & 18: Wide Sargasso Sea, Dry, & Invisible Cities

Before my departure last week, I finished two books. While in Venice, I snagged a Calvino to enable me to evade my own well-intentioned attempt at forced studying (I only brought Chemerinsky on vacation). All three were short volumes, but I'm counting them anyway.

Wide Sargasso Sea
is one of the first examples of what has now become a mini-genre: the feminist reimagining of an established work of literature. I actually picked it up because I'd confused it with this book about Ahab's wife. WSS is the story of Rochester's first wife and fills out a backstory for this sketchy Jane Eyre character. I understand from the introduction that Rochester was supposed to be an even more disagreeable and unsympathetic character in this book than he sometimes was in Jane Eyre, but the further I read, the more I sided with Rochester. Antoinette (AKA Bertha, renamed by Rochester in his only really troubling act in the book) is a pathetic, overwrought lunatic, and despite her relatively passive role in their marriage, she still takes part in an act of deception and entrapment, which undermined any goodwill she'd built up with me previously.

Dry, Augusten Burroughs' memoir of alcoholism and drug abuse, was also not what I'd expected. Instead of a tale from the Betty Ford Clinic with a McSweeney's sensibility, it was darker and more superficial than anticipated, with a half a dozen laugh-out-loud moments and just as many horribly uncomfortable moments of insight for Burroughs. As the daughter of an alcoholic, I got little insight into rationalizations for addiction that would have explained some of the events in my own life, but I did enjoy reading about Burroughs' continual inability to draw back from self destructive action. The anecdote about falling in love as a child with a crystal decanter and glasses and saving up to buy it from the store was more poignant than any of his rehab tales, but the Christmas Carol style deus ex machina resolution failed to grip me and the last 30 pages or so felt tacked on.

Calvino's Invisible Cities was a very appropriate book to read in Venice (more I will not say), but the slim tome's greatest strength is its variety of meditations on a single city, on many cities, of the fantastic and humdrum experience of urban life and the repeated joy of entering new places. I found the connective material (interludes between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo) to be unsatisfying pseudo-philosophy. All in all, it was better than Federal Jurisdiction but not as good as If on a winter's night a traveler, Calvino's other novel of interconnected interludes.
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