April 20th, 2013
|05:59 pm - The sky wept endlessly around him; he had the sense of wounds that never healed.|
In The Heart of the Matter Graham Greene tells the story of Henry Scobie, a police officer stationed in an unnamed British colony on the west coast of Africa during WWII. He is a lone honest man surrounded by spies, smugglers, and corrupt officials, and he defines himself by his honesty. Scobie is stuck in a loveless marriage to Louise; he pities her and feels he must do whatever he can to make her happy, but he longs only to do his work in peace. The drama of the book comes when Scobie's sense of responsibility for Louise comes into conflict with his honesty. He borrows money from questionable sources to send her to South Africa where she hopes she will be happier, and then falls into an affair with a young widow while Louise is away. Lies pile on top of lies, and Scobie begins a long spiral toward his downfall.
There were moments of absolute brilliance in The Heart of the Matter. More than once when I came to the end of a chapter, I had to close the book for a moment to absorb what I had read before going on. There were gorgeous sentences, unexplained details that were compelling in their strangeness, perfectly sketched minor characters, and insights that felt penetrating as I read them. Yet the parts, in this case, seemed greater than the whole. The book just didn't move me.
Some of that, I know, is due to me rather than to any failing of Greene's. My apathy towards all matters of religion is so strong that I can almost appreciate books that hinge on crises of faith. I found the plot totally engrossing for the first two-thirds or so of the book, but that only made it more disappointing when all of the intriguing and worldly elements of Scobie's tangled web--diamond smuggling and blackmail and Wilson the malevolent spy--fell away and were replaced with pages and pages of Scobie agonizing over his Catholicism and how he has damned himself by taking communion without making a good confession first. Sigh. Who cares? Scobie, obviously, and Greene, but not me. It didn't help that Scobie's tortured Catholicism seemed to come almost out of nowhere late in the book; I hardly knew he had a relationship with god until he was tying himself in knots over losing it.
Greene did a better job conveying Scobie's inner life in regard to Louise and Helen, the two women he is involved with over the course of the story. Scobie seems unable to feel love without it eventually congealing into pity; unlike his religious beliefs, this characteristic feels authentic and complicated. Still, I was annoyed by the treatment of the women. Scobie can't bear the thought of causing unhappiness for either Louise or Helen, but he seems to believe it's impossible that either of them might actually be happier if he left them alone to lead their own lives. It's one thing for a character to believe this; the fact that Greene seems to believe it too is a much bigger problem.
Perhaps the greatest strength of The Heart of the Matter is Greene's handling of setting. His portrayal of a narrow, gossipy colonial society reminded me of A Passage to India, but Greene's Africa is more sordid and malignant that Forster's India. The very air of the novel feels unhealthy, and certain scenes are so vivid in their strangeness that the story takes on the feeling of a malarial fever dream.
Perhaps Graham Greene is just not the author for me. The only other book of his that I've read is The End of the Affair, and though I liked The Heart of the Matter better, both books had some of the same problems: a strong beginning that lost steam in the final chapters, an artificial imposition of religion on the story, characters that I can find interesting but can't quite care about...
January 15th, 2013
|03:44 pm - Old book, new book|
Tommy did so much reading that he had to take a nap.
Yesterday I finally, finally finished Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I got so bogged down in it, and it took forever. I wanted to like it, I tried to like it, I am sympathetic to some of Hesse's themes, but I just could not stand Hesse's pedantic and preachy approach to those themes. Hesse seems to believe that his readers are incapable of handling subtlety, so he hectors us with repetitions and lectures and heavy-handed prose. Bah! It didn't help that I found the narrator, Harry Haller, to be insufferably self-absorbed.
Perhaps I should have just put it down, but I didn't. I forced myself to struggle through, and now that it's done, it feels like a relief. Perhaps this is the tail-end of last year's mediocre reading, and I just needed to get it out of the way so I can usher in an era of exciting new books.
After my unpleasant experience with Steppenwolf, I am taking a break from my German literature reading project, at least for as long as it takes me to read Toby's Room by Pat Barker. I love Pat Barker; her Regeneration trilogy has for years been the thing I would choose if I could put my name on the work of any other writer. But of course that makes trouble for her other books--none of them quite live up to Regeneration. Toby's Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (although it begins at a point that falls chronologically earlier than any of the action in Life Class), and I'm excited about it because I thought Life Class was a bit thin, full of interesting ideas and characters that needed further development.
I've only read the first 70 pages of Toby's Room, but oh, is it off to a good start! I stayed up later than I meant to last night because I just kept wanting to read a few more pages and then a few more pages... That hasn't happened to me in ages, and it's a fantastic contrast to scarcely being able to keep my eyes open through Steppenwolf. Barker focuses this time on Elinor Brooke, a character I didn't find particularly interesting in Life Class, but this time Barker has given me some very important and intriguing glimpses into her family life, and I am finding Elinor immensely compelling so far. And, as always, I love reading Barker for her brilliant way with detail. So subtle, so nimble--the way each tiny, meticulously chosen observation lights up a scene.
January 10th, 2013
|10:54 am - Let's play a game this morning|
A book recommending game!
I spent most of 2012 in a reading rut. You know the sort of thing I mean--reading all sorts of books, always hoping that I would fall in love with the next one, but never quite getting there. This year, I'd like to feel passionate about my reading again. And I'd like it if you, dear LJ-friends, would help me break out of my rut.
Here's how it'll work: I'll give a general description of my taste and the sort of things I like (longtime readers probably already know more than enough about my taste in books!), and you tell me about an author you think I might like or describe the last book that knocked you head over heels. BUT! This is not a one-way street! If you'd like to receive recommendations too, post a comment that tells us about you as a reader, and if I've got any good recommendations for you I'll share them. Others can chime in too, and soon (I hope!) we'll all be sharing our favorites with each other and adding lots of titles to our to-read lists. If this sounds like fun to you, feel free to pass it around--the more the merrier!
( My literary tasteCollapse )
January 1st, 2013
Happy New Year, folks! As usual, I find myself with the typical backlog of New Year's posts waiting to be written: a book post, a post in which I think about goals and plans for the coming year, a post in which I tell you about the fascinating and strange museum that Ms. E and I visited on my birthday... But I'll start with the books.
This was a rather lackluster year for me in terms of reading. I'm not exactly sure why--I read plenty of books that I wanted to love, books I thought I would love, books by authors whose other works I've loved... And I admired quite a number of them, but very few ignited any sort of real passion in me. I also did not quite meet my goal for the year; I had decided that I wanted to read 33 books, and I only made it through 32 and a half. I considered putting on a push in these last few days in order to make the number, but decided against it. Trying to rush through a book under the pressure of a deadline (and a rather arbitrary one at that) rarely helps me get the most out of what I'm reading.
With no further ado, here's the list (links go to the post that contains the closest thing to a review of each book that I wrote):
1. Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer
2. The Cows by Lydia Davis
3. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
4. Life Times by Nadine Gordimer
5. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
6. Here's Your Hat, What's Your Hurry by Elizabeth McCracken
7. The Birthday of the World by Ursula K. Le Guin (Re-read)
8. Gut Symmetries by Jeanette Winterson
9. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter
10. Towards Another Summer by Janet Frame
11. Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston
12. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
13. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
14. Atonement by Ian McEwan
15. A Fan's Notes by Frederick Exley
16. Ransom by David Malouf
17. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
18. The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
19. The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster
20. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
21. The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst
22. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (Re-read)
23. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
24. The Story of the Night by Colm Tóibín
25. Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt
26. When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
27. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
28. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
29. The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
30. The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín
31. Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin
32. Death in Venice and Other Tales by Thomas Mann (trans. Joachim Neugroschel)
It's very rare for me to read according to any sort of plan or program, so it's often a bit of a surprise to see the patterns that emerge when I put together this year-end reading list. Only two re-reads this year, for instance--I think I often have more than that. And so many short story collections! I wouldn't have said I was focusing on short stories specifically, yet they make up a large portion of the list. For my own interest, then, here is the list divided up a few different ways:
( By genreCollapse )
( By nationality of authorCollapse )
My favorites this year:
Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter: With these three stories, Porter proves that the novella can be just as rich and powerful as the novel. Haunting and deeply felt explorations of memory, family history, and mortality. A wonderful book.
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel: I know that a lot people were not in love with this book, but I was. I read it immediately after hearing Bechdel read from it and talk about it, and I'm sure that influenced my feelings about it, but the book gripped me and resonated with a lot of my own personal history. It's thorny and sort of messy and at least a little bit self-indulgent, but I loved wrestling with it.
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: Sprawling, ambitious, and definitely flawed. The ending was disappointing and Murray allowed it to drag on for way too long, but the first two thirds of this book were as fun, inventive, and devastating.
Death in Venice and Other Tales by Thomas Mann: I liked Mann's novellas better than his short stories, but the novellas alone are good enough to earn him a spot in the favorites list. "Death in Venice" is the famous one, and it certainly is brilliant, but my sentimental favorite was "Tonio Kröger."
Other titles that I recommend include Tree of Codes, Life Times, The Birthday of the World, The Waves, Ransom, The Fixer, and The Empty Family.
By far the worst books on this list are Winter's Tale (sloppy, incoherent, way too long, utter nonsense!) and A Fan's Notes (misogynistic, manipulative, unpleasant from start to finish). Stay away from those two!
Here's to lots of great reading in 2013, both for me and for all of you!
December 11th, 2012
Since finishing the disappointing Winter's Tale, I've been reading Thomas Mann--a collection of his shorter works translated by Joachim Neugroschel. It's an improvement on Mark Helprin, for sure. The first five stories I read were sharp little sketches that often focused on the ugly side of human nature. Even though none of them really grabbed me, they were interesting.
But this morning I read Mann's novella "Tristan," and I loved it. It is the story of a writer who falls in love with a young married woman while they are both patients at a sanatorium. It is not a sentimental story. In fact, Mann seems mainly to be poking fun at the conventions of high Romanticism and emphasizing the value of daily life over mythic dreams of love and death. The writer is a self-conscious aesthete whose novel is terrible and whose obsession with Beauty is held up for ridicule, and the woman he loves is a rather unexceptional wife and mother. Yet in the midst of all this, at the midpoint of the novella, this weak, self-important man and this ordinary woman are given one truly beautiful scene together. It is, in some ways, a very simple scene. Everyone else has gone out for a sleigh-ride, leaving Herr Spinnell and Frau Klöterjahn alone in the sanatorium. She plays Wagner on the piano for him while darkness falls over the snow outside. That's all it is, but Mann makes the little details of the scene glow so beautifully and describes the music with such precise phrases that this scene is elevated above the rest of the story--a moment of true emotion in the midst of Mann's irony.
I operate in the mode of sincerity rather than irony, always, so it's no surprise that I loved this scene. I loved its language and the way it held me spellbound in the same way that Herr Spinnell and Frau Klöterjahn are spellbound until they are interrupted by the voices and jingling bells of the returning sleigh-riders. But I also loved the fact that it is fleeting, the way it suggests that even a character as ridiculous and as deluded as Herr Spinnell can see clearly, can feel deeply, can be exalted--only for a moment.
October 16th, 2012
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray, is a big, messy, very very ambitious novel. The book is about a group of teenagers in a prestigious Catholic boys' school in Dublin, but Murray stretches his framework to include lots of history and mythology, string theory, plenty of references to Robert Graves, hints of the occult, and a heaping helping of contemporary social ills. All this, and humor too.
Murray makes no attempt to surprise readers with the fate of his main character. Skippy dies. It says so in the title, and then it happens in the very first scene. Murray then backtracks and spends 450 pages filling us in on all of the various events that swirl around Skippy and the forces that act on him in the months leading up to his death. The material here is great. Murray is, at times, gut-wrenchingly accurate on the horrific emotional muddle of teenagerhood. You will not want to go back to the days of your youth after reading this book. He also does a great job controlling the tension in this portion of the book, winding it up tight sometimes, then letting it out a bit so you can catch your breath, and then winding it just a little bit tighter. Skippy is the heart of this part of the narrative; I liked him so much and found it so easy to get involved in his day-to-day trials and tribulations that I kept forgetting that everything I was reading was moving inexorably toward his death. So the experience of reading that first section of the book was peppered with little moments of shock when I suddenly remembered that Skippy was going to die, and I had to stop and wonder when and how and why it would happen.
Last time I wrote about this book, I was coming to the end of the section in which Skippy is still alive. I talked about how the book was full of humming undercurrents and unseen forces, how it felt full of magic and darkness and infinite possibilities. Then, far sooner than I expected it (with 200 pages to go), I found the story looping back to that opening scene and Skippy was dead again. Instantly the book slammed into a wall of reality, and all that heady and fantastical sense of possibility came crashing down around the ugly truth of what really happened to Skippy. That felt right, even while I was reading about things that were horribly wrong. The book should by changed by what happened; it should shrink and limp forward to its end. The world should be changed by Skippy's death too but it isn't, and I admire the way Murray digs into that fact, showing us exactly how a terrible event can be painted over and everything can continue as though Skippy had never even lived, let alone died. I was as riveted for 50 pages of this stuff as I had been for the preceding 450, but after that the book began to feel too long. There were still wonderful moments, but they were surrounded by scenes that felt artificial and/or unnecessary. It felt like Murray was piling on a bit at the end, perhaps out of uncertainty about how to bring the whole thing to a close. And of course I wouldn't have been nearly so disappointed in the lacklustre ending if I hadn't so thoroughly loved everything that came before.
So Skippy Dies is a flawed book, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't run out and read it. Murray has a lot to say and he takes risks and it's thrilling to watch a writer do this. His prose is fantastic--he writes the sort of sentences that make me want to sit down and work just so I can try to write those sorts of sentences myself--yet so easy to read that the quality of the sentences is sometimes in danger of slipping by unnoticed. Although it is easy to read, it can be emotionally harrowing. Murray is not afraid of making bad things happen to children. The book features parental neglect (both benign and not), drug abuse, eating disorders, sexual abuse, violence, mental illness, and of course death. It flips back and forth rapidly between being fun to read and being awful to read. Murray makes a couple of missteps--the hijinks sometimes seem just a little too wacky, and his attempts at parodying the lyrics to rap and pop songs are not close enough to the real thing to have the necessary satirical bite--but these are pretty minor flaws in what is, overall, a pretty major achievement.
September 6th, 2012
|05:44 pm - A taste for the sublime is a greed like any other|
I wanted to love Teaching a Stone To Talk, Annie Dillard's collection of essays and occasional writing. I wanted to love it and be challenged by it, to wrestle with it, to be raised up by it and at the same time to be humbled by it as I had done when I read Pilgrim At Tinker Creek three years ago. The first piece in the book, an essay called "Total Eclipse," seemed to promise that I would get what I wanted. The essay is a description of Dillard's experience of watching a solar eclipse near Yakima, Washington in 1979, but of course it is also more than that: a meditation on death, on life, on human perception and what happens when that perception shifts radically and suddenly. The essay is breathtaking, brilliant. Dillard observes so carefully and then brings those observations to the page so precisely that the precision itself becomes thrilling to watch.
Alas, none of the other pieces manage to live up to this stunner. Mostly, I think the problem was that they were too short. That's a little strange for me to say, because ordinarily I love short writing--little slips of stories that gesture rather than speaking, pieces where much remains veiled because there is no room to explicate, bits and pieces with a poetic compression of meaning, where each word does the work of a sentence... But in Teaching a Stone to Talke, the shortness of many of the pieces just left me feeling unsatisfied. I wanted more from Dillard; I wanted the digging, the depth, the grand language that I know she's capable of.
The second best piece, after "Total Eclipse," is the last one, an essay called "Aces and Eights" about a weekend Dillard spent at a cottage somewhere with a nine-year-old girl (a niece, perhaps? The relationship is never made clear.) I'm not sure whether I liked this essay because I read it in a cabin in the woods with my own little two-year-old niece, or because it explores questions dear to my heart: questions of time and memory, the way moments distort in memory, the way the foreknowledge of memory distorts moments even as they're happening. It felt more substantial than many of the other pieces in the book, and was a good strong note on which to end.
I wouldn't tell you to run right out and buy this book, but if you ever come across a copy of "Total Eclipse," read it, my friends. Read it!
August 1st, 2012
|06:02 pm - Books, books, books|
I have a bit of catching up to do in the book department! Here are a few things that I read while I was away:
The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
The first half of this story collection is made up of stories that grew out of Munro's research into her own family history. The book begins in Scotland; then Munro follows her ancestors across the Atlantic and writes about their lives as they settled in Canada. The second half contains stories that seem to be based on Munro's own childhood in southwestern Ontario in the '40s. It's never entirely clear (in either section of the book) what is fact and what is fiction, but I found that I didn't much care.
As a whole, the book is a bit uneven. The title story was the best by far, a long (at 60 pages, more of a novella than a short story), intricately plotted account of the voyage from Scotland to Canada made by one branch of Munro's ancestors. There are quite a few characters, each with their own agendas and perspectives, and Munro does a tremendous job bringing them to life and managing the various tensions between them. The rest of the stories, unfortunately, paled a bit in comparison. But many of them were still good, and certainly worth reading. I liked the book's long-view approach to history, its acknowledgement of the impossibility of ever truly knowing the past, its reflective tone, and the loose structure of many of its stories, more closely tied to the movements of memory than the need for a climax and a denouement.
The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster
Oh, I do love Forster. This book will not replace Maurice or A Room with a View at the top of my list of favorite Forster novels, but I still enjoyed it a lot. Like most everything by Forster, The Longest Journey is a comedy of manners on the surface, and underneath it is a serious investigation of an individual's struggle between succumbing to the safety of conformity and struggling to maintain an authentic identity. Rickie Elliot begins as a Cambridge student and, although he's not the brightest member of his social circle, he is still free to enjoy the relatively loose student lifestyle: writing short fictions about nature, staying up late talking philosophy in his room, and enjoying what seems to be a deeply coded affair with his friend Ansell. After Rickie leaves school, however, it becomes more difficult to stay true to himself--so difficult, in fact, that he loses sight of who his true self even is.
Ever since I read and fell in love with Maurice, it has been hard for me to resist seeing everything else by Forster through the lens of that book. Obviously this is partly due to the powerful effect that the book had on me, but I think it also stems from the knowledge of Maurice as Forster's secret manuscript; it's so easy for me to imagine it throbbing away in hiding, a toothache that Forster could always feel and that influenced everything else he wrote. Of course it might not have been like that, but that doesn't stop me from thinking of A Room with a View as a heterosexual version of Maurice, and now The Longest Journey seems to me to be what Maurice would be if it had been written from Clive Durham's perspective. Perhaps I would be a better reader if I could do a better job of letting each of Forster's novels stand on its own, but in this case I think a good deal of my appreciation for Rickie's pathos came from connecting him to Clive.
So it was not my favorite Forster novel of all time, and the ending was strange and surprising in ways that I won't spoil but didn't exactly love. Still, I love the way Forster wraps me wholly in his world whenever I read him.
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
This book was recommended to me by my friend Krista, and the premise sounded fascinating: it's a book-length meditation on the color blue, written partly as a means of exploring what color is and what it means, and partly as a way for Nelson to process an experience of heartbreak. Nelson draws on her background in both poetry and visual art, as well sources as diverse as Wittgenstein, Goethe, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holliday, etc, to help her think and write about her love for and attraction to the color blue, the connection of blue to grief, pain, suffering, and the implications of these abstract ideas when they occur in an actual human life. To that end, Nelson intersperses her musings on color with short snippets about her relationship with a former lover and about a friend of hers who is paralysed in an accident.
See what I mean? It does sound fascinating, and to an extent, it is. But I am just too much of a fiction reader--I need my philosophical questioning grounded in a narrative, or else I feel my attention wandering. So my favorite parts of Bluets were the bits about Nelson's personal life, particularly her injured friend. Those sections seemed beautiful and moving, but much of the rest of it left me cold. I also think I wanted a bit more from the language. Oh well.
July 14th, 2012
|02:48 pm - Time blew like a steppe wind into an empty future.|
In The Fixer, Bernard Malamud tells the story of Yakov Bok, a poor Jew living in Ukraine during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. The novel opens with Yakov at a point of frustration in his life: he works as a "fixer," a sort of all-around handyman, but he can't make enough money and is always broke; he wants to be a father but his wife, who has been unable to conceive in five years of marriage, has just run off with another man; he is tired of the poor, grinding misery that surrounds him in the shtetl where he has lived his whole life. Thinking that life can't get much worse, Yakov leaves his shtetl and goes to Kiev where he soon finds out just how much worse it can get. A young boy is found murdered and the authorities, acting out of the deep anti-Semitism of the era, decide that he has been killed in a Jewish blood ritual. Yakov is targeted as the murderer and thrown in prison.
Malamud spends the first half of the book bringing us to the point of Yakov's imprisonment. He gives us descriptions of Yakov's life in the shtetl, long conversations between Yakov and his father-in-law, and lots of detail on the various adventures and misadventures that Yakov has when he arrives in Kiev. All of this is necessary stuff--it gives us a sense of Yakov's character, makes us aware of the world he moves in, and shows us exactly how he comes to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and therefore accused of a murder he didn't commit--but none of it grabbed me. Yakov is a likeable enough character and there are some moments of sly humor in Malamud's descriptions, but the quality of the writing is nothing special and I felt no strong connection to the story.
But then Yakov goes to prison and book is suddenly raised to another plane. It is no longer about the daily tribulations of life as a Russian Jew in the early 20th century; instead it becomes a book about suffering, endurance, injustice, innocence. The plot shrinks smaller and smaller as Yakov's world shrinks to the cell where he is held in unending solitary confinement, but somehow the miniscule incidents of the prison cell are vastly more compelling than the big events of the first half of the book. After a while, I realized that the book it most reminded me of was Cormac McCarthy's The Road. There was the same awe at how much a person can survive, the same sense of an unending bleak existence broken only by minor fluctuations in fortune, the same awareness of death as a constantly hovering presence. I read the second half of The Fixer in the same way that I read The Road--with my heart in my throat, waiting for anything good to happen to Yakov, no matter how small, so that I might put the book down and feel that he had a chance of surviving until I picked it up again.
I don't want to say too much about the ending. Not knowing how the book would turn out, or how Malamud could possibly bring this story to a conclusion was, I think, an important part of why I got so wrapped up in the book. So I don't want to ruin it for anyone else.
I'm so glad I kept on with this book. When I was 150 pages in, I was utterly convinced that it was a book I would decide had been worth reading even if it never really meant that much to me. And then it caught fire.