Friday, October 29, 2010

Wuthering Heights and Beyond

I have attempted to read Joyce Carol Oates’ essay “The Magnanimity of Wuthering Heights,” which you can find here:

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 have now finished Wuthering Heights, and I really did not like the book. Am I alone in this? I have always heard the book discussed and described with such reverence, that I am confused at my strong dislike of the book. I feel like the fault must be my own – certainly I must have read it wrong not to like this venerable classic!

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. (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

It's Time to Read a Classic

I have a confession to make. This could get me into a lot of trouble with my colleagues and students, but I’m going to be brave and confess it anyway. I’m reading Wuthering Heights. For the first time.

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

The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst (and then I'm moving on!)

I spent a lot of time in my last post writing about what I found on the back cover of The Nobodies Album, which led me into a conversation about book reviews and blurbs. I haven’t said much about my experience of reading The Nobodies Album, except to mention that it didn’t really grab me, and I found the mystery aspect of it to be pretty thin.

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.

Read more:

Thursday, October 7, 2010

More About Book Reviews

I read a lot of book reviews. I enjoy reading them and, as I noted below, sometimes reading the review alone without ever intending to read the book that’s been reviewed is still interesting and rewarding (kind of like reading an obituary when you’ve never met the person it’s about!).

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

Comments on Book Reviews & The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

First, a p.s. to my previous post – I just saw that The Dogs of Babel was published in paperback with a different title. It’s actually not very common that publishers will change a title in a new edition, because it confuses the Library of Congress, not to mention the readers. They really must have thought the title wasn’t very good, or at least not effective. The new title is Lorelei’s Secret. Now it sounds even more like it’s supposed to be a mystery.

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.

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

Still Reading Parkhurst’s THE DOGS OF BABEL

I’m still working on trying to study this book as a writer would… (I suppose one of the reasons I’m reading this book in such a distanced way and focusing on the mechanics rather than the story is that this story and Paul, the narrator, hasn’t really drawn me in.)

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)