March 31, 2011

Book 8: Eugénie Grandet

Eugénie Grandet
Honoré de Balzac

This installment of Honoré de Balzac's Comédie Humaine promises a realistic look at rural France in the early 19th century, advertising a well-fought contest between two rival families for the hand of an unthinkably rich miser's eligible daughter. Surely this promise will maintain the slowly dwindling hopes of readers as they maneuver through the dense exposition that occupies a good deal of the book's opening stages. Rather than opening directly upon the action, or even alluding to action, Balzac takes readers through an agonizingly monotonous and just slightly tedious history of Felix Grandet and the acquisition of his millions. The lot makes for a fascinating look at post-Revolutionary French economics and certainly paints a story of a very keen, very cunning man, but without anything to break the tedium, readers whose strong suits lie outside economics may find themselves lost in the details. The story shows a bit more promise once events catch up to the present, but even then it seems unsettled and a bit unsure of what, exactly, the story is. Various framing devices suggest that the story centers around the potential suitors of Eugénie, and indeed this is initially borne out in some of the book’s funniest moments, but a series of events detracts from that narrative and makes the book seem to be something else altogether. This is, of course, fine if the desired outcome is a history of Eugénie Grandet, but readers are justified in feeling a bit misled by expectations of a different sort altogether.

For modern eyes, the book also suffers from its location in literary history. Balzac’s idea of a three dimensional heroine is rather flat, and though the injustices suffered by Eugénie at the hands of the various men in the book are effectively enraging, she is hardly a character to root for. Even Grandet himself barely transcends stereotype, relegated to the part of an uncompromising miser but somehow spared full indignation in a number of awkward moments. It is difficult to see where Balzac stands in all of this, and difficult to see what he is driving at as the novel time and again changes its tone and focus; the novel is undoubtedly about the history of a particular provincial family, but it is a bit more difficult to get a handle on what aspects of this family readers are meant to focus on. This overall incoherence masks a dry wit that is at times quite entertaining and which, one suspects, would be well-suited to some of the narrative paths the novel embarks upon, only to hesitate and retreat into a dull stupor. Within the jumble, there are also some interesting observations about money and miserliness, and about gender relations in early France. The book is undoubtedly a valuable historical artifact, but it can be tough going for some modern readers as it presupposes some familiarity with economic concepts and nuances of French society and, more importantly, as it dances around its themes without really settling upon a few to explore in further depth. At book’s end, it is difficult to tell what, precisely, readers are supposed to get out of the experience.

The experience isn’t all unpleasant, however, and there are some good points to the book, most notably when Balzac displays a bit of exasperation at a particular habit. Neither Parisians nor provincials are entirely immune from his barbs, and though they are small and easy to miss they break up what can otherwise be a dull or confusing narrative thread. Likewise, the hints of plot that emerge occasionally from the atmosphere induce readers to keep reading, if never quite paying off, and the book certainly illuminates many of the facts of life in both rural and urban France in the early 19th century. Abundant details, however, are lumped together and easily become meaningless, lost among the muddle. Ultimately, however, though the (male) characters (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a female servant) are generally well-drawn and the plot threatening interest at various intervals, the book might prove more trouble than it's worth. Eugénie Grandet is an excellent historic artifact but the book's lack of pace may prove too dull and disconnected for many readers.

Grade: B

March 10, 2011

Book 7: In the Land of Invented Languages

In the Land of Invented Languages: A Celebration of Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius
Arika Okrent

Though it irks my inherent cataloger, the fact that this lovely book bears the library's "Fiction" sticker is quite apt, as it deals with that purest realm of fiction, the invented language. As much as our own natural language patterns evoke within us and to our conversational partners a sense of who we are, it quickly becomes apparent that life In the Land of Invented Languages is far from unbiased, much to the chagrin of the intrepid language inventors that form the core of Okrent's engaging, humorous book. Concentrating on broad trends in language invention but adapting a narrower focus to zoom in on particular iterations of certain larger schemas about language and, by extension, the world, the book neatly falls somewhere between historical survey and case studies. Though this form naturally suits the subject matter (it is, after all, difficult enough to grasp the basics of any given language, much less to understand its mechanics well enough to place it in historical or linguistic context), a balance is not always struck and the book seems to lack overall structure despite the author's clearly sound instincts. A desire to provide examples and to entertain betrays Okrent as each of the book's sections begins with an individual anecdote, often tracking a certain language inventor, a practice good for drawing readers into the action straightaway but which is executed here so effectively and to so much depth that the inevitable withdrawals toward the larger picture inevitably seem abrupt. There are few transitions between chapters within broader sections, and where they do exist they don't quite make sense; it seems wasteful, for example, for the second section to dive straight into Okrent's (hilarious) recollections of her recent stint at an Esperanto convention only to abandon that language for several chapters. The thematic threads that link each section's eventual redemptive chapter with its neighbors and with its opener are thoughtful and rendered well throughout each segment, but the transitions are apt to induce vertigo. The trick works for the book's introduction and concluding chapter, but the effect is, sadly, not scalable.

In the Land of Invented Languages actually is. The book is nothing short of delightful as the author proudly embraces the oddities that define those people crazy enough to invent languages, crazy enough to learn or use them, and the complete lunatics who find all of this intriguing enough to embark upon a book project. The scope of invented language history is massive, and though it the book's primary exhibits are obviously trimmed off of a far larger whole, its focus can be awfully specific, occasionally at the cost of greater elucidation. Okrent does, again, clearly have the right instincts in grouping trends together and placing them within their respective historical paradigms, illustrating them thoughtfully and peppering the combination with the truly weird anecdotes she seems to have a nose for and obviously enjoys. The book, however, feels at times like a loosely tied whole and is in danger of falling apart, united more by the author's enthusiasm than by some small, thematically-minded touches that would serve to make the book much more coherent for linguistic newbies.

Strange, then, that the book is a genuine pleasure to read. Okrent’s obvious enthusiasm for the material combines with an appropriately skeptical eye to create a book that is full of pep and which successfully deploys an array of zingers. It is obvious that the work is, to a large extent, a labor of love, but it is one deployed with a sense of underlying purpose and humor. Nor does it lack all technical sophistication; while the book is far from a dry academic exploration of language invention, it contains enough of a technical vocabulary to be useful to those more versed in the language of linguistics. Importantly, however, the material is absolutely accessible, with linguistic nods a bonus for interested readers and spanning a number of topics that should be of interest to audiences various and sundry. There is a bit of inevitable history that informs various linguistic choices, some geography and study of perceptions of Chinese scripts, and a range of sociological considerations. Okrent seeks to place invented languages in both the context of their historical era as well as the particular concerns and motivations of their creators, and in the process she delivers a thought-provoking collection of individual case studies that begs, but never desperately, relevant larger questions. In the Land of Invented Languages is a witty, engaging book that makes up for its organizational anarchy with interesting, well-delivered content.

Grade: A-