Note: this post is very, very late. But, as ever, a good excuse: Jaci got home earlier than expected! While in the long run this is not positive news (she’s leaving again soon, for longer), it was wonderful to have her home for Ben’s graduation and Christmases in North Dakota and Maryland.
Jaci: For our most recent books, the contrast could not have been more extreme. First, due to my Kindle fat-fingering, we had to skip forward to Blue Angel by Francine Prose (which, oddly enough, got us back on schedule), a two-week read that took me more like six days due to the pairing of addictive writing and a new assignment as the “Ship’s Lady” (i.e. the officer so close to transfer that she has no job to speak of). Then, for a complete change of pace, we moved on to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity, a dense philosophical defense of the ethical grounding of existentialism. I think. It turns out that being away from this kind of reading for over two years made it harder than ever it was for me completely to follow the intricate explanations by which she differentiates a humanistic existentialism from a dark, hopeless nihilism.
Ben: I’m more to blame for the delay of this post rather than delay of reading books. I finished all of these books (well, most of Ethics) by the deadline, including Game of Thrones, but was hard pressed to find the time to write this post. And to be honest, these two books inspired such a wide array of emotions and criticism that I may have been subconsciously avoiding the post in my “angst of the now”.
Jaci: I had read one book by Francine Prose earlier–a nonfiction piece about how to read like a writer. By the end I knew I wanted to read one of her many fictional works, and I always like a good campus novel, so I chose Blue Angel for the bookclub.
Ben: So I heavily resisted adding Blue Angel to the reading list. I imagined that this was a book Jaci was putting on the list to punish me- some sort of pseudo-feminist, anti-man, coming of age story about girl students and their evil male professors. It turned out I was right, but what was unexpected was how much I enjoyed the book- and I flew through it. It’s a credit to Prose that her writing is so fluid and engaging, that even while you’re being beaten by a seriously uncomfortable plot, you just keep hoping that things will end well. (Spoiler: they did not.) And yes, for those of you critiquing my critique, it was a coming of age story — just because the male professor, who was the protagonist (pseudo-feminist), was upper middle aged doesn’t mean it wasn’t coming of age for him.
Jaci: Reading Blue Angel was a strange experience: I wasn’t certain I wanted to know how it would end (the ending is clear from the beginning, and I think she planned it that way). But despite not really liking or respecting the main character, a has-been novelist working as a writer-in-residence at a small liberal arts college, I found myself in some way on his side.
Ben: I dreaded every paragraph that I devoured- it was like watching a train wreck, fascinating in that you can’t look away, but you desperately hope that superman will show up and pick one of the trains up! I was actually kind of empty at the end, just from shear hope exhaustion. Most of this was because Francine Prose (a woman) managed to tap into a deep-seated male fear and insecurity in such a spectacular way (sorry to reveal secrets) that it became less about the surrounding characters in the book, and really just the reader (of any gender) identifying completely with the protagonist.
Jaci: In short: the tone of the book was fresh despite the well-used subject matter; the writing is addictive; the reader’s emotional response is marvelous. Read it!
Ben: And then it was time for Mademoiselle de Beauvoir.
Jaci: Ben claims I snuck this book onto the list without his knowledge during the bargaining phase; I claim I added it after he added Heaven so that we would have a nice pair of nonfiction books on the list, and if he didn’t know I had added it, well, then, he needs to pay attention when I’m babbling along! In the end, though, I think he ended up enjoying it more than I did.
Ben: Luckily I do have some philosophical education, as well as a background in existentialism (like most teenagers), so I was ok with the ideas in the book. It’s just unfortunate that the prose was so dense. As I was reading (on a flight from Seattle to North Dakota), it kept putting me to sleep! I wondered out loud (on the plane) if this was due to the heavy material, or if perhaps there was a better way to communicate these particular ideas (they are mind-bendy), but authors choose to present it a certain way (Descartian drama paragraphs) just to give weight to their ideas.
Jaci: While it was a challenge to hold my greatly-shortened attention span in check, I found that I did learn things from this book. Reading actual philosophy (as opposed to second-hand descriptions of the positions of a philosophical camp) is always illuminating, and there were some amazing things written. Most of my notes from this book are simply direct quotes. And I was glad to find that despite difficulties I could still draw something from a challenging (and long) argument.
Ben: And she definitely reinforced my postion as a Kierkegaardian existentialist. I had never considered her definition of ambiguity before — (although exactly what was ambiguous led to a rather ambiguous debate between Jaci and I!) — and I was interested to contemplate my current philosophical outlook from this new perspective. I highly recommend this book along with some sort of stimulant!
Jaci: So there it is: morals and ethics, all in the space of three weeks’ reading. Skipping forward in our own story, I was able to restore Game of Thrones to my Kindle in Rome. And now, for once, we’re waiting on me to finish a book. It turns out that a fantasy of this type goes easier for me when I’m someplace I’d really rather not be–reading it during my extended vacation has been difficult. Once I finish it, we’ll be temporarily closing shop and updating the inventory in preparation for my next long time away. Until then…