Friday, November 5, 2010
In this current session of Sneak Peek, we started with The Blindness of the Heart by Julia Franck (published by Grove Press). I chose this book because it was the winner of the German Book Prize and an international bestseller, and I thought it would be good for us to read a book from abroad and a book for which we were reading a translation. I also thought, since the book deals with World War II, it would be interesting to read a German writer’s perspective.
We were not disappointed. The book spans a time frame starting during World War I and ending after World War II, so we did indeed get some insight into how some Germans experienced the war. What was most stunning was how, in the parts that took place during WWII, there seemed to have been little awareness of or attention paid to the plight of the Jews. Why don’t you go to Mr. So-and-So’s button shop? one character asks. Oh, he’s not there anymore, goes the reply – he moved away. Well, obviously he didn’t move away. Obviously this man with a Jewish name was forcibly removed. Does the fact that all the Jewish shops are closed, that all the Jewish residents are no longer there, mean anything to you, the reader wonders? Are you able to convince yourself that they all just coincidentally decided to move?
Several weeks after our class met, the book was reviewed favorably in The New York Times. The reviewer seemed to downplay the part of the book we all found most shocking and disturbing. The book begins with a Prologue in which a character named Alice, who is a nurse, lives with her young son Peter (he’s about 8) in a war-torn city which they are trying to escape. Life there clearly entails much hardship and trauma, such as when the boy is walking along with a friend and bombs begin to drop, and shortly he finds himself holding his friend’s hand—-only his hand, for that is all that is left of his friend. At another point Alice is visited by, and raped by, enemy soldiers.
Finally Alice and Peter make their escape when a train comes to town. They make their way aboard the crowded train on to the next major station, where they disembark. Alice sits Peter down on a bench, explains to him she is going to find tickets for the next stage of their journey, and tells him to stay put until she returns. And then she walks away, never to return.
It is stunning to read of a mother abandoning her child this way, and stunned we were.
The book then moves to a period just before and during World War I, in a family in another town with two young daughters. Eventually we learn that one of these daughters, although her name is Helene at the time, is the girl who will become Alice the nurse. We are taken through her life and her experience in war-torn Germany, until we are finally brought back around to the moment where she will leave her son, supposedly, at this point, with a greater understanding of the characters, the situation, and their motivation.
The book touches on so many issues: Germany at war and how this shaped its people, German culture and important writers, artists, and thinkers, love and coming of age. And yet for us, the central question was the question of how can a mother abandon her child? As we learned more about Julia Franck’s background, we learned that her father had in fact been abandoned during the war by his own mother, hence we can imagine that this significant item in her family history has for the author, as well, long been a burning and perplexing question.
It’s a thoughtful, well-written and interesting book, although I find that it’s written in a rather emotionally dry tone, keeping one at some remove from the strength of its characters’ feeling. The Times reviewer calls it “remorseless” – a good word for it.
NY Times review:
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
The book is historical fiction (although the author doesn’t like to be pigeon-holed into that category, it’s the simplest way to explain it) and takes place in Spain, during the Inquisition in the years leading up to Columbus’s voyage and the expulsion of the Jews. It hinges around two characters, a converso (someone whose family converted from Judaism, usually to save their skins) named, and a Jewish woman who lives in Southern Spain, an area ruled by Muslims who are tolerant of the Jews and allow them to observe their faith.
My job was to read the book and prepare some hopefully interesting and original questions for the author. Once I got Monty Python (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!”) and Mel Brooks ("The Inquisition! The Inquisition!" – and by the way, you can watch this excerpt from “History of the World, Part I" on Youtube and it’s hilarious!) out of my head, I managed to come up with some good questions. And while Mitchell, the author, told me he’d heard some of my questions before, he said I hit on a few that were new and that he found quite interesting! (I recall Nicole Krauss telling me once before she did a local reading I had arranged that she pretty much got different versions of the same questions every time she did an event. I saw her again recently at the Free Library of Philadelphia [line] and as she listened to questions from the audience, I watched her and, at a certain point in each question, she would nod her head once and I thought – ah, that’s the moment where she’s thinking: ok, I know which question this is, and I have my answer ready.)
Here's a link to the Free Library website. They don't the podcast up yet of her visit but they will soon:
So are you wondering what my interesting questions were? Well, I asked him to tell us about advice he got from his writing mentor, who happened to have been William Styron. Styron told him that the most important thing is to convince your readers of the reality of your story.
Among many other questions, I asked Kaplan about something that happened near the beginning of the book, where participant in a secret study group says to the rabbi leading the group: “I came here to get answers, and all I’m getting are more questions.” The rabbi replies: “If you want answers, don’t look to Judaism. The entire edifice, beautiful and convoluted as it is, is built not of answers, but of questions.” I connected this to something in the end of the book after the Jews are gone from Spain and Ysabel and Fernando have achieved what they call Unification with all Spain under one rule. Kaplan writes: “Unification meant no doubt, no dissent, no debate. . . It also meant that the class of people who posed questions—scholars, astronomers, cartographers, secret agnostics—would not return. The advance of knowledge, especially of knowledge antithetical to the teachings of the Church, had ground to a halt.” I asked Kaplan about the idea of Judaism being a religion that encompasses the asking of questions, and how this was perhaps distinct from how other religions operated, as well as the suggestion that doubt and questioning lead to progress. He really liked that I put these two parts of the book together and said he hadn’t seen that connection before.
Mitchell Kaplan and Jewish Outreach Partnership and I also did something interesting – we made a video introduction for the event about the author. You can view it here:
(It’s on the right side partway down.)
Friday, October 29, 2010
Oates’s depth of understanding of the book and her articulateness and intelligence in analyzing the book is quite intimidating! I won’t even attempt to summarize, but she has many interesting comments on Heathcliff as the anti-Gothic romantic hero and why this works so well. She also looks at the marriage of the second Catherine and Hareton as an optimistic statement about the future, as they move out of Wuthering Heights and to Thrushcross Grange to build their life together.
I like what she said about what she calls the “Chinese Box” structure of the story, the way the historical part of the story (the story of the relationship of Heathcliff and Cathy) is placed within the contemporary story that is playing out (the second Catherine and Hareton). Oates says that while Bronte didn’t invent this technique, she uses it masterfully. I had found this approach to be distancing and felt that it detracted from the emotional immediacy of the story, but Oates points out that this overall structure of the book enables the author to so successfully contrast the early Gothic style of the book with the later Realism, and the earlier failed relationship with the present ultimately successful relationship.
And now I will leave this classic behind, although it remains rich with material for study and interpretation, and get back to my present day reading. I have filled you in on most of my summer reading, and meanwhile I have been very busy this fall with many more books and am eager to get back to the present! Yesterday was my birthday. I had a lovely day, thank you! Went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art with my husband and then to lunch at a French bistro on Rittenhouse Square. The weather was lovely and we sat outside! Then spent the evening with husband and kiddies, working on Halloween costumes and raking leaves and enjoy the beautiful evening.
And today is a new day, I am one year older, and I have many books on my reading list!
Saturday, October 16, 2010
I suppose my main objections were to the unsympathetic characters as well as to the mode of storytelling. Most of the story is in an “as told to” mode. Most of it is the servant Ellen (Nelly) Dean telling the visitor, Mr. Lockwood, of things that happened long ago to the central characters, filling him in on the grumpy and downright unsociable landlord he has just visited and met for the first time at Wuthering Heights. A few other parts are narrated by others, such as the long letter to Nelly from Isabella Linton, but very few are, as one says in this internet age “live time.” It’s a common enough way to tell a story ( also employed in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), but it makes the reader feel removed from the story and feel less of the emotional impact of the tale, at least it does this reader.
Of course the story is unremittingly sad, and meant to be so, full of crossed fortunes and errors and “if onlys.” But to speak more intelligently about its merits and its classic qualities, I shall turn to some literary experts.
Lynn’s Critical Research on Wuthering Heights
I’ll start with some really basic research on Wuthering Heights, as basic as Wikipedia. Here’s what it tells us, some of which I did already know! Published in 1847 under a pseudonym (knew that – the three sisters Emily, Charlotte and Anne published as Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell). It’s a gothic novel (knew that) and Emily’s only novel. “Wuthering” refers to turbulent weather. The novel certainly had lots of that! And according to Wikipedia:
“Wuthering Heights met with mixed reviews by critics when it first appeared, mainly because of the narrative's stark depiction of mental and physical cruelty. Though Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was initially considered the best of the Brontë sisters' works, many subsequent critics of Wuthering Heights argued that its originality and achievement made it superior.”
Now I’ll turn to SparkNotes (I’m acting like a high school or college student and starting with the easy stuff!).
[Note: Here’s the correct citation for all SparkNotes quotes below (which SparkNotes provides for us, knowing those college students do forget to give credit where credit is due!)
SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Wuthering Heights.” SparkNotes LLC. 2002. http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/wuthering/ (accessed August 3, 2010).]
What I learn here:
When published, the book didn’t sell well and got mixed reviews. Victorians were disturbed by “its depiction of passionate, ungoverned love and cruelty” (although there isn’t any sex). Spark says the novel has “unapologetic intensity.” I like that phrase, and I think it’s accurate, and may go to the root of what disturbed me about the book (although I like to think I’m slightly more relaxed and less easily offended than the Victorians, but perhaps not). The characters were cruel to each other. Even the ones who loved each other were cruel to each other. They willfully and intentionally destroyed the lives, hopes and prospects of others for their own gain. Of course that happens all the time.
I think my reaction was more specifically confined to how I felt about Heathcliff. I wanted to try to like him. He was tall, strong, handsome, even if he scowled a lot. He’s a perfect fixer-upper for some girl who thinks she can make him happy. He was wronged by his adoptive family – a perfect underdog. He was smart and also rugged. But he so clearly pushed away anyone who tried to help him, so determined was he to keep himself apart. He did not respect or abide by any common social courtesies or behaviors. He did not in any way want or seek the sympathy of any character or of the reader. And perhaps that is one of the things that makes this book bold and significant – the daring use of a totally unlikeable, unredeemable and ultimately unredeemed central romantic figure. He’s not withdrawn from society because the world has used him cruelly and discarded him, he’s withdrawn from society because frankly, Catherine, he just doesn’t give a damn. What an interesting protagonist for a gothic romance. A dark prince of sorts, like no other (or like any others? Examples, please!)
He also has the perfect romantic hero name: Heathcliff! Just hearing that name you can imagine what he must look like. Dark and stormy (wuthering), of the earth, yet dangerous, precarious. And an early one-name celebrity. Nelly says that when he died they didn’t know what to put on his tombstone because he didn’t have a Christian name, and they didn’t even know his date of birth, so they wrote only his date of death and the one name, only Heathcliff.
I’m far from alone in my reaction to Heathcliff. Even Emily’s sister Charlotte (author, you know of course, of Jane Eyre) didn’t like Heathcliff:
“In a preface to the book, which she wrote shortly after Emily Brontë’s death, Charlotte Brontë stated, ‘Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know. I scarcely think it is.’”
More from SparkNotes:
“As a shattering presentation of the doomed love affair between the fiercely passionate Catherine and Heathcliff, it remains one of the most haunting love stories in all of literature.”
A suggestion perhaps that the hero is presented as dark and unlikeable for a strong purpose:
“The desire to understand him and his motivations has kept countless readers engaged in the novel."
“The novel teases the reader with the possibility that Heathcliff is something other than what he seems—that his cruelty is merely an expression of his frustrated love for Catherine, or that his sinister behaviors serve to conceal the heart of a romantic hero. We expect Heathcliff’s character to contain such a hidden virtue because he resembles a hero in a romance novel. Traditionally, romance novel heroes appear dangerous, brooding, and cold at first, only later to emerge as fiercely devoted and loving. One hundred years before Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, the notion that “a reformed rake makes the best husband” was already a cliché of romantic literature, and romance novels center around the same cliché to this day.”
“However, Heathcliff does not reform, and his malevolence proves so great and long-lasting that it cannot be adequately explained even as a desire for revenge against Hindley, Catherine, Edgar, etc. As he himself points out, his abuse of Isabella is purely sadistic, as he amuses himself by seeing how much abuse she can take and still come cringing back for more. Critic Joyce Carol Oates argues that Emily Brontë does the same thing to the reader that Heathcliff does to Isabella, testing to see how many times the reader can be shocked by Heathcliff’s gratuitous violence and still, masochistically, insist on seeing him as a romantic hero.”
I didn’t see him as a romantic hero – I just thought he was a jerk!
(written July/August 2010)
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Ok, maybe this is not such a big deal to all you non-English major types out there (oh be real, Lynn – if anyone’s reading this blog it’s certainly only going to be English-major types) but I just never read it before. Never even saw a movie of it. I’ve started it numerous times, but just never got past the first few pages. Didn’t like it. Of course I’ve heard people talk about it – Heathcliff and Cathy, tragic romance, so beautiful, so sad, blah blah blah. So finally, inspired by you, blog readers, and my desire to be a well-informed guide to literature on your behalf, I decided it was time to plug this hole in my reading.
I still don’t like it. I don’t like him—Heathcliff, that is. Am I supposed to? He’s a nasty fellow. Of course the way the book is written, from the point of view of the servant, Ellen Dean, and a few other points of view – letters, Mr. Lockwood’s, Isabella Linton – he is purposely presented as awful, mean, hardhearted, cruel – downright despicable in fact (except where Cathy is concerned – well, maybe even then). So I’m thinking, ok, Brontë is going to present Heathcliff as unlikeable but it’s going to turn out he was just misunderstood and a good guy after all. But that ain’t happening yet. And Cathy’s no great shakes herself—she’s self-centered, hot-tempered, and condescending. But we’ll see – right now I’m in the superficial mode – just reading it for the story. I’ll finish, analyze, rethink, look at some criticism – gotta do all those good English major things to make up for my negligence!
One thing that puts me off is the art on the cover of the edition I’m reading. It’s an old edition (dates from my childhood – the first time I was supposed to have read it and didn’t) – a New American Library pocket-sized hardcover – they don’t make those anymore. And the cover price is $1.60 – that certainly marks it as being old! It has the two figures of Heathcliff &Cathy on the front, him in front in a big black cloak and cravat, she in back, only her upper torso and head showing above his shoulder, in a black gown with a low décolletage, her head turned away from him. Not very compelling. And his hair is red! Heathcliff is described over and over as black – his moods, his scowls, and certainly his hair!
It would be interesting to make a study of the various covers of this book. Perhaps I shall do so…
Oh look! It’s already done for me on Google – a collection of Wuthering Heights images:
Ooh, a movie version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche – I’d watch that. I think I’ll skip the Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon 1939 version – I just watched a trailer from it and it’s too overwrought for me (although Olivier was very handsome then and does look the part).
Back to my reading…
(written 7/23, posted 10/14 – still catching up on writing about my summer reading!)
Saturday, October 9, 2010
Another thing that bothered me in this book and bothers me in general when authors do it is the deliberate withholding of some key piece of information. I find that this technique can so often be manipulative and doesn’t really contribute to the narrative power of the book.
Here’s what I mean. In this book, Parkhurst tells the reader bit by bit that Octavia, the novelist who is the central character, is widowed and has lost a daughter, but the author doesn’t tell us how she lost these important people in her life until almost the end of the book. It is alluded to over and over, but by the time the actual catastrophic event is finally revealed, I have almost lost interest. At this point, I thought “ok, that’s sad, tragic even, but was it worth all that long drawn-out suspense?” I believe that I would have had more sympathy for the characters and a better understanding of the relationship between the remaining mother and son if I had known how they lost their husband/father and daughter/sister earlier in the novel.
The biggest example I can think of with this sort of thing is in The Kite Runner. It drove me crazy how the narrator repeatedly alluded to the terrible, life-changing event that had occurred years ago, but doesn’t let us know what it was until well into the book. Now that event, when it was finally revealed to the reader, was actually a stunning, shocking, and extremely dramatic event. But did I really have to wait so long and have it referred to in such a heavy-handed way so many times? Isn’t this just an artificial way of building suspense that wouldn’t be needed by a more skilled writer (e.g. Egan, about whom I’ll post soon!)? In Kite Runner, the event turned me strongly against the narrator, which might be why the author withheld it, but I suspect I didn’t like him much to being with.
Regarding The Kite Runner, I’m pretty much the only person I know who didn’t like that book, so if you’re in my camp please let me know! I found it filled with lots of clunky foreshadowing. I felt the writer could have been more subtle and the reader would have followed him; there was no need to hit us over the head with elements of the plot. We readers are smart and we can figure things out!
But back to the nobodies… I read a review in The Philadelphia Inquirer that very nicely summed up how I felt about the book, so rather than further reinvent the wheel, I hereby give you that lovely review, especially emphasizing the part where she says:
As a reader who loves Parkhurst's inventiveness, I wish she'd dumped the murder plot and just stuck with the main theme of the book: A middle-aged writer decides to rewrite the endings of all her novels and publish the alternative endings in a book called The Nobodies Album.
Thursday, October 7, 2010
This actually reminds me of a funny story I read once. A new book comes out, and the book gets good reviews. A person is at a cocktail party, and happens to meet the author of this book. The person says to the author: “Congratulations on the great reviews of your new book.” The author replies, somewhat haughtily: “I didn’t write the reviews.”
Obviously authors would like us to read the books, not just the reviews!
It’s always interesting to me when how I feel about a particular book differs from published critical opinion. There have been numerous cases recently where a book that I thought was mediocre and whose writing I did not admire got great reviews. (I could name examples, but should I? There’s that fear again of criticizing people in print. Maybe I’m just too damned polite!)
Sometimes I get a little belligerent about this when I think reviewers got it wrong (along the lines of: how could they?! what were they thinking?! did they read the damn thing?!), as if it’s a personal insult to me that the reviewer didn’t properly take my opinion into account. But mostly now I just shrug and let it go – and determine to counteract the review by telling as many people as I can, including my students, not to read the book! (He he – I’ll show them!)
On the back cover of The Nobodies Album I found, as is common, praise for the author’s previous books, in this case a long list of quotes of praise for The Dogs of Babel, rave reviews from very respectable sources, like The New York Times, sources with whose reviews I often agree.
Here are some of them:
The New York Times: “A captivatingly strange book… TDOB rises to reach a final moment of pure, stirring grace.”
LR: Actually, now that I think of it, that’s hardly a rave – sounds more like the marketing folks tried to squeeze out a few good comments from a less good review.
From Time Out New York: “A searing portrait of grief that’s also a love story and an engrossing mystery.”
LR: Hmmm… that’s not really a rave either. Why did the marketing people put these quotes on this book? The reviewer did find the mystery engrossing, which is a good thing for a mystery to be (although I beg to differ), but I wouldn’t choose a book described as “a searing portrait of grief,” would you?
From author John Searles (I don’t know much about him but he’s also the book editor of Cosmopolitan magazine) “TDOB is the most unique and imaginative book I have read… Parkhurst is a wonderful writer…”
LR: Well, she is a good writer, and a book about trying to teach a dog to talk certainly does have to be described as unique. I suppose unique and imaginative doesn’t necessarily mean good, although I’d be happy if someone called me unique and imaginative.
“edge-of-your seat read” (Redbook) LR: Uh uh!
“elegant and ingenious” (Boston Globe) LR: Maybe the latter but not the former.
“Transports the reader to an unexpected and strangely powerful place” NYTBR LR: Possibly true…
“Parkhurst packs a serious literary arsenal...” Entertainment Weekly LR: Don’t agree.
So, how to account for this discrepancy between my opinion and theirs? Is it simply, as my mother would say, that “that’s what makes chocolate and vanilla”? The insecure part of me is tempted to think that I missed something, or that I’m not as smart a reader as these reviewers are. But you know what? After two degrees in English literature and many years in the book publishing business and now a number of years successfully teaching book discussion classes, I think I’m finally able to feel confident in my judgment. I think I’m a smart and insightful reader. So never mind about them—you stick with me!
(posted 10/7, written 7/8)
Sunday, October 3, 2010
On to the next Parkhurst book, her third novel. I’ve read and written about novel #1, The Dogs of Babel, below. I skipped book #2 (Lost & Found) because I started it and there was something I encountered in the plot at the beginning (teenaged girl gives birth at home, alone, and then brings her mother into her room, mother having had no idea daughter was pregnant – and I thought : “not really in the mood to go there right now”). Maybe I’ll go back to book #2 if I feel the need to have a comprehensive study of Parkhurst but I’m fine without it for now.
I didn’t particularly like The Nobodies Album. While I was reading, at several points I wanted to put it down and abandon it because, while I liked the characters okay, the plot just was not grabbing my interest. And yet, I kept going, so either I liked it more than I thought, or the murder plot, straightforward as it was, was more captivating than I realized. (Actually, it wasn't! I figured it out and if I can figure it out, you know it's pretty obvious! I'm not much of a whodunnit sleuth.) Most likely I just didn’t know what book I wanted to read next so just kept going because it was something to read!
But now that it comes time to write about the book, I face the following question: how do you write about a book you didn’t like? Some critics have no problem with this. They are perfectly comfortable slashing a book. Some do it cruelly, some thoughtfully and intellectually, presenting lots of evidence, and some are absolutely hilarious and brilliant in doing it. Here’s one of my favorite examples of an entertaining pan of a book, a review of Pat Conroy’s most recent book, South of Broad (which I thought was an awful book, btw). This review is by Chris Bohjalian and it ran in The Washington Post.
When I was on Page 322 of Pat Conroy's 514-page new novel, "South of Broad," I began to feel that the characters were crying a lot, which wouldn't have bothered me if the characters were children. They're not. So, I began noting in the margins each time an adult let loose with the waterworks. The finding? Characters cry, sob, tear, weep, wail and well up on the following pages: 322, 330, 340, 354, 367, 382, 393, 395, 396, 403, 418, 419, 420, 429, 439, 440, 444, 448 (twice), 452, 462, 463, 465, 466, 467, 477, 490 (twice) and 493. In addition to the main players in the novel, Meryl Streep is tearful on Page 447 and God weeps on Page 476. Bear in mind, these are only the tears I tracked in the last 200 pages of the tale. Hurricane Hugo, the storm that ravaged Charleston, S.C., in 1989 and figures prominently in the novel's final pages, might not have dumped quite as much water on the city as Conroy's characters.
I’d like to learn to be a better book reviewer, and one of the skills needed is the ability to make a decision what one thinks of a book and then present it articulately and with back up. I wrote a review a few months ago for The Philadelphia Inquirer and I was so hesitant to be critical (why? I don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings? I’m afraid I might encounter her and she’ll be mad at me? Not likely! And why do I care?) that after I submitted my review my editor called me up and said “so, did you like the book? I really should know after reading your review if you liked the book or not!” He was very nice about it, but he makes a good point!
There are so many types of reviews. For instance, the long book coverage pieces in The New Yorker aren’t really reviews, but rather summaries and explorations of the topic presented in the chosen book. The writers of these pieces do plenty of their own research on the topic and bring in information that might not be contained in the book. It’s lots of fun to read these pieces without ever having any intention of reading the book they’re about.
The best reviewers, obviously, know a lot about literary history, and can pull a book into a context or literary genre. For example, a review by Jennifer Gilmore in the 7/4/10 edition of The New York Times Book Review of American Music by Jane Mendelsohn begins:
From “The Thorn Birds” to “Brideshead Revisited” to “White Teeth,” the multigenerational family tale can almost always be described in certain ways: it will be long, it will take place over several decades or centuries, its narrative will be tethered to the history of a particular place.
Good reviewers are also not just reading one book by an author. If the author has previously published, they need to display familiarity with his or her other works, and talk about how this new book fits into a pattern or differs, shows or does not show typical themes and approaches of this author, etc. Take Dave Egger’s recent review of David Mitchell’s new book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, also in the 7/4 NYTBR:
If any readers have doubted that David Mitchell is phenomenally talented and capable of vaulting wonders on the page, they have been heretofore silent. Mitchell is almost universally acknowledged as the real deal. His best-known book, “Cloud Atlas,” is one of those how-the-holy-hell-did-he-do-it? modern classics that no doubt is — and should be — read by any student of contemporary literature. That book, like much of Mitchell’s fiction, plays with narrative structure while never abandoning a traditional love of story¬telling and an unmistakable affection for historical, and adventuresome, settings.http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/books/review/Eggers-t.html
This is why I’m trying to read more than one book by the various authors I write about here. Doable perhaps with Carolyn Parkhurst or even Ann Patchett, but when I get into Joyce Carol Oates or that sort of territory, I’m in trouble!
[More soon on what it takes to be a good book reviewer.]
(posted 10/3; written 7/7)
Saturday, October 2, 2010
The book has very short chapters, and they jump around in time. The keep the reader straight, in most of the chapter openings the author tends to provide the time and place in the first sentence of each chapter.
Here are the first twenty chapter openings:
1. Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24. . .
2. Perhaps you’re familiar with…
3. There’s a talking dog joke… (we’re still in the book’s present – he’s setting up his dog-related topic).
4. A friend of mine from college (so we’re getting a story from younger, post-college days)…
5. Here’s another talking-dog joke…
6. Ah, but I’ve already let it slip, haven’t I, that our first date lasted a week…
7. I became a linguist in part because…I was born… (going all the way back)
8. I’ve heard that…
9. I’ve mentioned the books …Lexy rearranged on the day she died…
10. Back in Disney World…
11. … Since Lexy died… (2nd sentence)
12. The first time I asked Lexy…
13. Here’s the thing… (back when he asked me)
14. I think it was fairly early in our courtship…
15. Lexy and I had a small and lovely wedding…
16. I’ve had a dream that…
17. After our honeymoon…
18. I think I may be making…
19. During that first winter of our marriage…
20. When I was a little boy…
The author, for the most part, lets us know where we are in time/place at the outset of each chapter. Very considerate of her to help us get our bearings. Necessary? Should it be necessary? Should the reader be able to figure it out without being told? Does the reader want to have to figure it out without being told? Something to be considered… (I happen to be one of those readers who doesn’t want to be told, as you’ll know if you read my comment below about not liking to read back cover or flap copy. I like a literary challenge. One of the reasons I like The Time Traveler’s Wife so much is because of the fun of putting together the chronological puzzle it presents. This is also a reason some readers disliked that book and other books that play with time. Total aside, but really disliked the movie of the Time Traveler’s Wife, in large part because it tried to eliminate that confusion and tell a more straightforward story, which I felt totally ruined it.)
Another thing – the narrator occasionally addresses his audience, as in page 122, when he’s describing a visit he receives from his ex-wife and he interrupts to tell the reader: “Don’t worry. This isn’t heading where you might think.” Another literary device that has to be used judiciously and carefully. I often enjoy this breaking through the fourth wall, as they say in theater, but here where it was only used once it jolted me a bit.
(posted 10/2– written 6/24)
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
But I’m starting to try to learn and to teach myself, at least I hope I am. Here’s a simple thing I’ve noticed: how much logistical information the writer provides on what a character is doing – he parked the car, he got out of the car, he walked slowly to the hospital doors… I’m making that up, but it’s a question of how you get a character from here to there and how much of that info the reader needs, right? Parkhurst seems to think we need a lot of it, at least more than Ann Patchett thinks we need. IN the early parts of The Dogs of Babel, the reader gets quite a lot of information about how characters get from here to there, more than I really care to read. But then she starts to cut back a bit, like here on page 80: “Lexy took the phone book down from the top of the refrigerator, and she looked up veterinarians. When she brought her back home from the vet…” It goes on from there to discuss what the vet told Lexy, but we the reader didn’t have to actually get in the car and go to the vet with Lexy – what a relief!
However, the author is very stingy with other information, like anything about the two main characters in this book – how old are they, how long have they been married. You learn early on that Paul is 39 and Lexy is younger, but how much younger we don’t know until p. 187 when we finally learn that she’s eight years younger than he is. You also know that they got married when Paul was 39, but you don’t know how long they’ve been married for a while – it could be 2 years or twenty. On page 108, Paul, who is narrating this book (in his straightforward boring professorial voice – oh, but I guess that’s another thing a writer would evaluate in this book –is he a reliable narrator?) says he is 43, so now we know – 4 years of marriage. A relatively new relationship. Especially hard to lose a spouse so young and after such a short marriage.
(posted 9/29 – written 6/23)
Got to the part where he talks about how his first wife bugged him because she always needed to talk everything out – uh oh, sounds like someone I know!
(posted 9/29 – written 6/22)
Today I started reading The Dogs of Babel. I know absolutely nothing about it— except the author’s name! – and I didn’t try to learn anything, just opened to page one and started to read.
I’m not a fan of back cover copy or flap copy – and I’ve certainly written my share of both in my career! The goal of back cover and flap copy is to catch the interest of someone who might happen to pick the book up knowing nothing about it – to capture their interest in the few fleeting moments they turn their attention to this book when they come across it in a store. As such, this copy, like a movie preview, needs to be sparky and compelling, needs to provide some quick info that will make the browser want more. As such, again like the movie trailer, it tends to give away too much. So I don’t read it. I sometimes read it after I’ve finished the book! Of course this sometimes causes challenges for me – like the novel I read not too long ago, in which I spent the whole time I was reading it looking for clues to figure out what city it took place in, and what decade it was, because both were unnamed in the book. I eventually did figure it out, and was proud of this – then I finished the book and glanced at the back cover where it quite plainly said “in Brooklyn in the 1970s.” Ah, well.
So I’m reading The Dogs of Babel with no clue what to expect. In the very first paragraph, the narrator’s wife dies by falling out of an apple tree. The police come and rule it a suicide. But then, a page later, the narrator mentions that in the days after her funeral he starts to find things that make he him think the day his wife died was not an ordinary day. Am I about to read a murder mystery? The book’s cover has a picture of a mask on it – could be a mystery. Well, I’ll find out (but not by reading the flap copy!)
One other thing before I delve further into the book. I’d like to present to you here a few parts of sentences from said the paragraph of the book:
“. . . it was a weekday afternoon, and none of our neighbors were at home. . . None of them were working in their yards…”
Ok, am I the only one who notices? Does anyone care anymore? None were? How about none was, as in “not one of them was”? Why can’t anyone be grammatically correct anymore and why doesn’t anyone care? Lynne Truss, where are you when I need you (see Eats, Shoots & Leaves if you don’t know what I’m talking about)?!
(posted 9/29 - actually written 6/21)
I enjoyed The Magician’s Assistant very much. Her books just flow by and I love her storytelling abilities. That, said, here are some details:
Things I like about Ann Patchett and The Magician’s Assistant:
The skillful way she goes off on seamless tangents and then weaves right back into the narrative.
The way she understands and describes the emotional lives of her characters.
When she describes to a “T” the way I feel about something or something from my own experience (see examples below).
Things I don’t like about Ann Patchett and The Magician’s Assistant:
Well, I’m just not so sure about the ending. I seem to have had the same problem with Bel Canto. In my opinion, Patchett tells these stories that are so good they could just go on and on forever. Maybe she just doesn’t know how to wrap up? Maybe she sees that she’s gone on long enough and the end must come and she starts looking around for ends to tie up? No, I highly doubt that. It’s just in these two books (Magician and Bel Canto) she seems to make last minute romantic connections between two characters and in both books I personally don’t feel that those connections would naturally have been made by the characters as I have come to know and understand them. In this instance, the connection even involves a change of sexual orientation. Not to say it couldn’t happen, and maybe that was her goal all along, but to me it’s the one part of the story that doesn’t feel smooth.
Things Ann Patchett clearly likes that are recurring themes:
Beautiful homes (In Jungian psychology, the house is a symbol of the self, so I think the literary houses Patchett builds are important.)
(posted 9/29 - written 6/19)
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Then the copy of The Magician’s Assistant I had requested from the library arrived so I figured this was as good a time as any to take the next step in my Ann Patchett read-‘em-all project. Her books also are easy-entry – you’re pulled right in and along, at least I am – and enjoyable reading. First of all, she’s a very good storyteller. I know I say plot is overrated, but good storytelling is important and a valuable skill that I greatly respect (and don’t yet know if I have) and not to be underestimated in my snobby search for what I deem to be “literary.”
I do think Patchett also writes beautifully, uses words beautifully. Her books have long passages that are woven in between the story elements where she explores a particular idea and I never resent these forays, never feel like they’re taking me away from the story like I do with some books. These pieces always feel seamlessly integrated and interesting and beautifully-expressed and I’m always right there with her for as long as she goes on any particular journey or tangent. There’s one in this book while the main character, Sabine (the magician’s assistant) is driving from one place to another and Patchett does this page-plus riff on why Sabine loves living in Los Angeles, and it’s just a beautiful tribute to the city and so well-expressed. (There are more but now I can’t find them. I usually mark up my books but I’m reading a library copy and I didn’t want to make too much of a mess of it. Should have kept some Post-its nearby!)
There’s another quote in the book I love where one character, a woman in her 40s who is the mother of two sons (like me), is discussing how her mother worries about her. It’s a comment that rings very true for me!
“She worries about me too much, though. I don’t like that. I have to worry about the boys and worry about myself, and then I have to worry about the fact that I make my mother worry. Wears me out.”
And another line from the book that perfectly describes how my mind works (and why I’m so stressed!):
“Sabine made lists, things to buy, things to make, things to practice. All day long the list propelled her forward. When she went to bed at night her mind would reel through all she had forgotten, all the things there hadn’t been time for.”
More to come once I’ve finished The Magician’s Assistant!
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Friday, July 23, 2010
All Other Nights is a story that takes place during the Civil War and explores some of the Jewish war experience. I had heard good things about Horn but never read her, so I looked forward to reading this book. Before I had a chance to read the book, I went to hear the author talk. She has a very impressive resume. Here’s just a bit from her bio:
Dara Horn received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. In 2007 Dara Horn was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the Best Young American Novelists. Her first novel, In the Image, published by W.W. Norton when she was 25, received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. (this is from her website, www.darahorn.com)
The talk she gave was terrific. It was a very thoughtful, complex presentation – you could tell she had spent a lot of time preparing her remarks, and I appreciated that. I see a lot of author presentations and readings. Recently I went to a writers conference where the keynote speaker just kind of played it by ear. She had a few notes of things she wanted to touch on, but she just kind of casually chatted about her writing life in a way that sounded to me like she’d discussed the same thing over and over at other workshops. I didn’t feel like she had done any special presentation for this particular conference. I really appreciated that Dara Horn seemed to think we were an important audience, an audience worth working for!
One of the things she discussed that stayed with me most had to do with why she chose to set her novel during the Civil War. She said that when an author writes an historical book, they’re not necessarily writing about that period in history, but instead using that historical period to comment on contemporary life. She felt the Civil War was very fitting to discuss America today (red states, blue states, lots of partisanship…). I thought it was really interesting to look at historical fiction this way.
I finally got around to reading the book recently. The history is interesting, and I learned more about the Civil War and something about Jewish life at that time, but as a whole the story was a bit of a romance, with a bit of the overwrought language of the genre. (Many writers have certain word or sentence quirks, I find. I read a book recently where characters were always wincing. Someone or other winced on practically every page! I started to notice this because it’s a strangely-spelled word and doesn't look like it would be pronounced the way it's spelled, and then before I knew it I was just looking for the winces and not the actual plot. This book had its heroine “brushing another loose curl back behind her ear.” It drove me crazy. I thought: if that chick brushes a curl behind her ear one more time I’m going to recommend getting her a haircut! And then sure enough, she’d do it again!)
I decided not to give up on the author, however, and now I’m reading the book everyone says is her best one, The World to Come. So far, so good. Much better than All Other Nights. This is writing you can admire, interesting sentences, unexpected plot turns. None of the above in All Other Nights (sorry, Dara).
Reading The World to Come, by the way, I feel a course shaping up here – if I did a course on contemporary American Jewish writers, a great combo would be The World to Come, Away by Amy Bloom, and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. They feel like they all fit together really well. Then maybe throw in some Shalom Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Ready to enroll, anyone?
Thursday, July 1, 2010
In The Ghost in Love, Ben, our protagonist, has an accident—he slips in the snow and falls and hits his head, hard, on the concrete. Ben is supposed to die, and a ghost is quickly dispatched to earth to check in with Ben and commence any necessary post-death follow-up haunting. Ben, however, for unexplained reasons, does not die, and thus commences a jolly romp through an alternate reality that would do Harry Potter proud. I’m not at all saying it’s the same kind of book, it’s merely similar in that the author has imagined an alternate reality that is smart, well-thought-out, interesting, entertaining, and later in the book when it gets more psycho-babblish, thought-provoking. There is one Harry Potter similarity when Ben begins to see life through someone else’s eyes, where I am reminded of Harry seeing through Voldemort’s eyes, but the book is truly original and charming. Oh and there’s also a whole animal theme so dog-lovers will love this book.
If I had to guess, I’d guess that Jonathan Carroll is very well-read himself and also that he has been in therapy. The ideas that bounce around in this book strike me as ideas that come from someone who has thought a lot about Meaning-of-Life type questions, and has his own complex system of understanding these challenging questions, which he tries to present through this lively and quirky story—ideas having to do with alternate versions of ourselves at different ages and what we can learn from our experiences, questions of memory and what we retain and what we lose and, in losing memories, what is lost in life. Questions of self-worth and value, and how badly we often treat ourselves. And questions of love and relationships and what we can expect from them and how we can make them work. All of this is woven into this book, some lightly and, in the denouement, a bit more heavily. You can follow this thread of self-evaluation through the book, or you can just appreciate it on a lighter level as a fun story. I did a bit of both.
I may look into some of Carroll’s earlier work. . .
Monday, June 21, 2010
The Falls begins in 1950, when a bride and groom arrive at the Falls for a honeymoon. This honeymoon goes awry, however, when the groom throws himself into the falls. The bride, now a widow, refuses to leave until her husband’s body is found, and for 7 days she haunts the area, following police and basically creeping everybody out. With her thin frame and her red hair, the bride, whose name is Ariah, earns the name “the widow bride of the falls.” She also meets Dick Burnaby, a local lawyer and bon vivant, who is strangely drawn to her.
The husband’s body is finally found, Ariah returns home to Troy NY to continue the spinsterish life she was living prior to her ill-fated marriage, but Burnaby tracks her down and proposes to her. She marries him and returns to Niagara, where they live a happy, passionate, well-to-do life, have hot sex, and bring three children into the world (the first one born suspiciously early – a remnant from her brief marriage? We are led to wonder but never told.).
And so it goes, and the time passes, until Dick, at nearly 200 pages into the book, becomes involved in a new legal case called Love Canal. And suddenly I know, or think I know, what the book is about.
It’s very interesting to me to learn about Love Canal this way, reading what I assume is pretty accurate information as Dick’s eyes are opened to the horror of what is happening. But at this point, I put the book aside. Suddenly I am deluged by books I must read for classes I must teach, and my pleasure reading must be put on hold.
I do not pick the book up again for almost eight months. When I do, I skim the first 200 pages again to refresh myself on the details. And then I continue. We see what happens as a result of Dick’s Love Canal case, both in the courtroom and in his marriage. And when that episode ends, we are suddenly plunged about sixteen years forward in time, where we are now seeing the story from the point of view of the Burnaby children. We learn some of what happens to them, and we are thrust about among varying points of view. This section comprises the final third of the book, and I’m still not sure it was needed, even though the author pulls it all together in the very end. To me it made the story sprawl so far afield that it began to feel diffuse. It also made me see Ariah differently. In my eyes, she went from being quirky and temperamental to abusive, so losing my affection for the central character had an impact on my overall feelings about the book. However, no question that the writing is very good so if you need a Niagara Falls book, I can recommend this one. Or if you know any other good ones, let me know!
Also, if you’re an Oates fan, tell me which of her many books you recommend most highly. Thanks!
Thursday, June 17, 2010
I finally read Bel Canto. It’s been on my “been meaning to read” list since, well, when was it published? 2001. For a while. In the meantime, I read a few other Ann Patchett books. My introduction to Patchett started when I was teaching a class about memoirs. I teach adult education book discussion classes, a program I call “Open Book.” We meet in my home and have lovely, passionate discussions. For this memoirs class, I was trying to introduce my students (mostly women, ranging in age from 20s to 60s) to the late 90s wave of wonderful memoirs that kind of got this whole current memoir craze going. I assigned Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and then I assigned a pair of books, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face and Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty. What a great opportunity to get two different perspectives on the same topic. And when, despite my misgivings about Ann going public with her version of Lucy’s story after Lucy’s death and whether her motivations were pure, when I found myself liking Ann’s version of Lucy’s story better than Lucy’s own version, I decided to read more of this writer’s work.
I next wound up reading her book What Now? which started as a graduation speech and evolved into one of those cute little small trim-size hardcovers publishers are always putting out as graduation gifts, and I really liked what she had to say (especially since “what now?” is what my mother said to me at my graduate school graduation, before the ink was even dry on the diploma, as it were, or the champagne was even downed). Then I read Patchett’s novel Run, or rather listened to it on audiotape, and enjoyed it, and figured, three down, I might as well try to read all her books. That would be a nice accomplishment, to have mastered one author’s complete oeuvre.
And so, Bel Canto. Good story, very compelling. I really enjoyed being in the midst of it, and was drawn into it right away. Interesting setting, great concept, great characters and well-developed. Patchett knows how to structure a story, and she has a beautiful way with a sentence. When she describes music, it almost has physicality, and you can feel the impact the opera diva’s singing has on her listeners. You become enmeshed in the setting: the house packed full with people and sound, the garden lushly overgrown and going wild, the heavy fog that blocks the view from the windows, the cacophony of languages being spoken by the occupants of the house who hail from all over the world. I think this is a very good book (if not profound), although I was totally thrown by the epilogue which felt tacked-on and very unexpected (which, perhaps, was the point).
More Ann Patchett to come!