"More than a little reminiscent of Woolf in its converging and diverging viewpoints, its serious concern w...moreWhen I'd just finished Part I, I wrote this:
"More than a little reminiscent of Woolf in its converging and diverging viewpoints, its serious concern with the portrayal of social and interior life... and of course the dinner-party scene. That part, I loved. I wasn't as keen on the latter third or so of Part One (too much prolepsis is nobody's friend), and Part Two thus far is slow going--which is surprising, as it's the WWII part! But it's early yet."
Despite being a perfectly good portrayal of men at war and of a dramatic historical moment (the evacuation from Dunkirk) that's mostly overlooked by historical fiction, Part Two never did manage to impress me. Mostly, I think we weren't given enough emotional insight into Robbie in Part One, so being dropped into war-torn Europe with him in Part Two was no more than abstractly affecting. I also couldn't tell how much of the "mystery" from Part One was supposed to be telegraphed, but there were no surprises for me in the final revelations.
That said, I loved the Tallis women, and was particularly impressed by McEwan's insights into what it means to be a woman; see Briony's wry observation in the closing section about the veteran colonel who resents the feminine presumption of writing about war. Overall, Part Three was by far the most compelling as a narrative, and after a lot of vacillating, I was finally sold on the book by the final section, where all its slightly precious metafictive devices were finally justified. For some reason, McEwan writing about Briony writing about Briony learning to write (i.e., her insight while watching the fountain scene) just felt self-indulgent. But when the last level settled into place--McEwan writing about Briony writing about Briony writing about Briony learning to write--I got interested in what he was saying. I don't know how that works.
Moreover, what could have felt pat and cynical in that final section (the author's deceptions and conflations, the rewritten happy ending, the dreaded first-person flash-forward to The Present) was actually quite moving and smart.
Also, this passage was fabulous:
The problem these fifty-nine years has been this: how can a novelist achieve atonement when, with her absolute power of deciding outcomes, she is also God? There is no one, no entity or higher form that she can appeal to, or be reconciled with, or that can forgive her. There is nothing outside her. In her imagination she has set the limits and the terms. No atonement for God, or novelists, even if they are atheists. It was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all.
(The little echo of Hamlet in "The attempt was all" didn't hurt either.)(less)
I'd been meaning to look into Hollinghurst for years, ever since I read a rave review of The Swimming Pool Library... by a writer whose opinion I res...moreI'd been meaning to look into Hollinghurst for years, ever since I read a rave review of The Swimming Pool Library... by a writer whose opinion I respected but whom I can't remember now. Martin Amis, maybe? I want to say John Updike, but given the controversy over his New Yorker review of Hollinghurst's later The Spell, I'm not sure I could handle the irony.
In any case, I always look for Swimming Pool Library in book stores, but they never seem to carry it. So finally I got this instead, to help assuage my sudden lust--inspired by Birdsong, of all books--for contemporary British novels with class concerns. (Which is... kind of every British novel ever, isn't it?)
And I'm so glad I did. I'm still processing my opinion on the novel of a whole, but I know two things:
(1) The majority of reviews praise this book for its social satire, but what I found most admirable was its understanding, at once keenly mocking and deeply humane, of the simple absurdity of being a person, in relationships with other people. In his self-consciousness, his self-pity, and his touching self-awareness, Nick was one of the most sympathetic characters I've encountered in a long time.
(2) The final paragraph make take the prize for most beautiful passage of prose I've read in 2007 (thus far). I kept stopping halfway through--unwilling to reach its conclusion too soon--and going back, starting it over. I probably read it five times before I got all the way through and finally allowed the book to end for me.(less)
Sort of reminiscent to me of late Philip Roth, often too self-consciously artistic, probably too long, and at times too coldly, mockingly glib. The tr...moreSort of reminiscent to me of late Philip Roth, often too self-consciously artistic, probably too long, and at times too coldly, mockingly glib. The treatments of Gary and Enid were particularly off-putting, and I could've done without the repeated moralizing on "self-improvement" (self-started business, self-medicating, self-aggrandizing). I also found Chip and his Lithuania interlude--which seemed to be intended as a sort of fulcrum of the novel--bewildering and not especially interesting.
And for all that, if I hadn't been sitting on a public train when I read the last few pages, I might have cried. What's interesting about this book, for me, is not that it finds (as the blurbs say) some measure of empathy and humaneness in the midst of its bitter satire. It's really pretty acidic. What's interesting is that I read this and I knew these people.
A good book? Nope! One that will stick with me? Quite possibly.(less)
First off: I hate politicizing literature. But sometimes it's inescapable.
It took me weeks to slog through this, and here's why: Helprin is so full of...moreFirst off: I hate politicizing literature. But sometimes it's inescapable.
It took me weeks to slog through this, and here's why: Helprin is so full of shit we'd mistake him for a latrine if he were painted white and dropped on a campground. Maybe I'm just falling into the same wrongheaded liberal trap that he accuses many of his reviewers of wallowing in, but this book feels--if not explicitly political--like an implicit piece of cultural commentary. It's a old-time conservative's wet dream: honor-obsessed (masculine) men and (unconventionally beautiful) women uncorrupted by the softening influence of civilization, struggling against incredible odds and attaining their own private glory in the face of (modernized, industrialized, cynical, cosmopolitan) society's scorn.
What really struck me was that Helprin likes to write about soldiers and ex-soldiers... and yet, despite the fact that this book was published in 2004, it never once mentions Vietnam or Korea, much less the US's current war. All of his wartime stories are set in the world wars, where idealistic delusions are still possible. (Marginally. Maybe.) Helprin's a romantic, both substantively and stylistically, and it really isn't endearing at all in this context.
So thumbs down, Mr. Helprin. Knowing your fiction, I can finally hate you without reservation for all of your sanctimonious cultural criticism, too.(less)
Need a little more distance on this before I can say for sure, but I think this may be the novel I've always wanted Alan Hollinghurst (or, well, any m...moreNeed a little more distance on this before I can say for sure, but I think this may be the novel I've always wanted Alan Hollinghurst (or, well, any modern gay novelist of similar talent--of whom there aren't many!) to write. Oh, this book, THIS BOOK.(less)
HECTOR: Uncoffined is a typical Hardy usage. It’s a compound adjective, formed by putting “un” in front of the noun or verb, of course. Unkissed, unre...moreHECTOR: Uncoffined is a typical Hardy usage. It’s a compound adjective, formed by putting “un” in front of the noun or verb, of course. Unkissed, unrejoicing, unconfessed, unembraced—it’s a turn of phrase that brings with it a sense of not sharing, being out if it, whether because of diffidence or shyness, but holding back, not being in the swim of it. Can you see that?
POSNER: Yes, sir. I felt that a bit.
HECTOR: The best moments in reading are when you come across something, a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things that you’d thought special, particular to you. And there it is set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.(less)
Well, I didn't hate this as much as I expected to from the first two hundred pages or so? What saved it from complete one-star infamy for me was, prim...moreWell, I didn't hate this as much as I expected to from the first two hundred pages or so? What saved it from complete one-star infamy for me was, primarily, that Leonard finally got his own section... albeit more than halfway through the book. He was still essentially written out of the story in a way that's really troubling, but at least Eugenides bothered to allow him a perfunctory perspective, I guess? (I know, I'm giving him too much credit.) And the one quote in this entire four-hundred-page novel that I marked because I liked it came from that section:
Often he had the impression that the person answering questions from the scratchy armchair was a dummy he was controlling, that this had been true throughout his life, and that his life had become so involved with operating the dummy that he, the ventriloquist, had ceased to have a personality, becoming just an arm stuffed up the puppet's back. (255)
[Later edited to add: No, you know what, it's a one-star book. It's getting one star. ENOUGH BEING A SHRINKING VIOLET ABOUT GIVING ONE-STAR RATINGS, L.]
The treatment of Leonard wasn't the only problem I had with this book. I also find Eugenides's prose, here and elsewhere, incredibly obnoxious, pedestrian, and overly stylized but deficient in substance or soul. I mean, he hits you with this mess on the second page of The Marriage Plot:
Early June, Providence, Rhode Island, the sun up for almost two hours already, lighting up the pale bay and the smokestacks of the Narragansett Electric factory, rising like the sun on the Brown University seal emblazoned on all the pennants and banners draped up over campus, a sun with a sagacious face, representing knowledge. But this sun—the one over Providence—was doing the metaphorical sun one better, because the founders of the university, in their Baptist pessimism, had chosen to depict the light of knowledge enshrouded by clouds, indicating that ignorance had not yet been dispelled from the human realm, whereas the actual sun was just now fighting its way through cloud cover, sending down splintered beams of light and giving hope to the squadrons of parents, who’d been soaked and frozen all weekend, that the unseasonable weather might not ruin the day’s festivities. (4)
Not to mention all the shallow intellectual name-dropping; the stereotype-driven dissection of The (Only) Reasons People Become Undergrad English Majors;* the incredibly offensive interlude where Mitchell's in Paris being tormented by his best friend's Evil Feminist Girlfriend (seriously? seriously?);** and for that matter, the fact that Mitchell--a painfully transparent authorial insert--not only is supposed to be likable(?) / admirable(?!) / sympathetic to the reader but also gives shape to the book, so that the other two protagonists (the woman and the crazy person! easily written off!) turn out to be there mostly just to further his spiritual journey.
But it was how Leonard was dealt with, and Eugenides's take on mental illness, that ruined this book for me. Yep, breaking up with your short-term college boyfriend is like being clinically depressed (page 122)! Okay, sure! And Marriage Plot goes downhill from there!
*She'd become an English major for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read. [. . .] Some people majored in English to prepare for law school. Others became journalists. The smartest guy in the honors program, Adam Vogel, a child of academics, was planning on getting a Ph.D. and becoming an academic himself. That left a large contingent of people majoring in English by default. Because they weren't left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented, and math too mathematical—because they weren't musical, artistic, financially motivated, or really all that smart, these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they'd done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn't know what to major in majored in. (20-21)
Thanks for explaining that one to me, Jeffrey!
**[Claire, after a discussion of the menstrual mikvah:] "The whole institutionalized form of Western religion is all about telling women they're inferior, unclean, and subordinate to men. And if you actually believe in any of that stuff, I don't know what to say."
"You're not having your period right now, are you?" Mitchell said.
Claire's expressive face went blank. "I can't believe you just said that," she said.
"I was just kidding," Mitchell said. His face was suddenly hot.
"What a total sexist thing to say."
"I was kidding," he repeated, his voice tight. (138-139)
And on and on. How dare feminist readers ever critique "certain once-canonical writers (always male, always white)" (141)? How dare they accuse sensitive men of misogyny? How dare they object to being objectified? etc, etc, etc.(less)
What tipped me over the edge from like to love was this passage:
He'd been a little thin boy with a head too big for his shoulders and sharp, dark eyes...moreWhat tipped me over the edge from like to love was this passage:
He'd been a little thin boy with a head too big for his shoulders and sharp, dark eyes, sharp enough to prick. He was always getting left behind. Liza remembered him running down the street after the other boys, calling, "Wait. Wait for me." But they'd never waited. They'd gone off: to the playground, the river, the slag heap, the sea. And he was left to follow....
...[T]he attack that gave him a bullet in his throat had wiped a battalion out. He'd lain for three days in a shell-hole before he managed to crawl back to the British lines and ask for his regiment, only to be told that they were gone. Almost to a man. Gone. And as he was carried to the dressing station behind the lines perhaps he'd said, Wait. Wait for me.
One of Barker's best novels, I think, especially in the strength of its characterization and the purity of its prose, which is lucid and poetic and de...moreOne of Barker's best novels, I think, especially in the strength of its characterization and the purity of its prose, which is lucid and poetic and devoid of artifice. Look at this:
He drank [coffee] sitting by the window, the hot fluid delineating his oesophagus, another part of his living body reclaimed from the dark.... All the time he was debriefing himself, sorting out the dream. He knew if he didn't take time to do this, it could stain and corrupt the whole day.
Also notable: the thoughtfulness of its examination of art and the position of spectatorship, particularly related to war photography. "The shadow says I'm here"; the observer effect is inescapable. When you consider how much Barker writes about war and violence (and how she had the audacity to write a war she didn't even witness in the Regeneration trilogy), it's a pretty daring commentary.
And finally, there is nothing, nothing, that I don't love about this description of Justine:
No mention of grades. Bright and modest, or so perfectionist that no grades were good enough? There was nothing sharp or quick about her, nothing obviously clever--she seemed, if anything, rather hesitant. Young for her age. Painfully young. He kept getting this sense of pain from her--and yet she sounded cheerful enough.
Read the Regeneration trilogy first, especially if WWI is your bag; but after you've absorbed that, come back for this quieter book.(less)
In a word: post-Joycean. This is one of those cases where I wish we could give half-stars; this is more like a 3.5 in my head. Very smart, very intere...moreIn a word: post-Joycean. This is one of those cases where I wish we could give half-stars; this is more like a 3.5 in my head. Very smart, very interesting, but somehow I didn't love it quite the way I'd expected to (given the subject matter).(less)
Didn't enjoy this book the way that most people assured me I would. I thought it picked up a bit toward the end, but in general... too in love with it...moreDidn't enjoy this book the way that most people assured me I would. I thought it picked up a bit toward the end, but in general... too in love with its own cleverness while not actually being that clever. I liked the bits with the Object best, but otherwise, blegh.
I read this as a teenager, and loved it; then I reread it in the spring of 2010, and was somewhat disappointed. The plotting and characterization are...moreI read this as a teenager, and loved it; then I reread it in the spring of 2010, and was somewhat disappointed. The plotting and characterization are a little facile, honestly, although there are still moments of lovely prose.(less)
A novel that feels as though it was penned by a short-story writer, with all the attendant flaws and strengths: a keen eye for detail and an ear for p...moreA novel that feels as though it was penned by a short-story writer, with all the attendant flaws and strengths: a keen eye for detail and an ear for phrasing, but a tendency to wrap sections up a little too neatly, I think.(less)
I bought this book not because it's my genre of choice--it's decidely not--but because the man behind the pseudonym was my professor for one of the mo...moreI bought this book not because it's my genre of choice--it's decidely not--but because the man behind the pseudonym was my professor for one of the most brilliant college English courses I've taken. I have no idea what his crime novels are like, but we'll find out.(less)
Susanne Alleyn's sequel to A Tale of Two Cities, filling in the gaps in Sydney Carton's history. Two Cities is my favorite Dickens, and I spent most...moreSusanne Alleyn's sequel to A Tale of Two Cities, filling in the gaps in Sydney Carton's history. Two Cities is my favorite Dickens, and I spent most of my adolescence in love with Sydney, so I loved the idea of this book; not so much the execution. I need to give it a reread to be able to comment in depth (it's been at least ten years since I read it), so consider this "review" a placeholder.(less)