This was a totally incredible book (until the second to last chapter, but more on that later). This is the only novel of the three that I've read by MThis was a totally incredible book (until the second to last chapter, but more on that later). This is the only novel of the three that I've read by Morrison that I totally understand why people consider a truly gifted writer. The craft of her writing here is fantastic; everything is so carefully constructed for the first thirteen chapters. I found myself just pausing several times while reading to bask in her words. And beyond the poetry of her prose, the storyline is totally riveting too. I'm finishing up teaching it right now, and while most of my sophomores are struggling through the weight of the text, the majority of them have said it's the best thing they've read this year in class! I recently read A Mercy and virtually hated it, and I've read The Bluest Eye, which I loved but didn't realize how good her writing could be until reading Song of Solomon!
Now even though I'm going on and on about how great this book is, the second to last chapter was a bit of a let down. As my friend Ingrid says, Morrison just gets too "didactic" in that section. The storyline is centered on the protagonist finding his identity, and in chapter 14 (of 15), he runs encounters a woman who answers every last question he could possibly ask about who his family is. I literally felt like Morrison's editor read chapter 13 and said, "Honey, we need to wrap this thing up." (She returns to the beauty of the first portion of the book for the final chapter luckily!)...more
This collection of short stories mostly center around coming of age pieces in which African-American adolescent protagonists face important elements oThis collection of short stories mostly center around coming of age pieces in which African-American adolescent protagonists face important elements of self-discovery, although a few also focus on adults and their own struggles with identity. The first story entitled "Brownies" begins with the one of the most fantastic opening lines I've ever read: "By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909." The story then follows a terrifically unexpected trajectory to create a truly delightful opening to this collection. Other stories are well crafted although none quite live up to the perfection of "Brownies." In "Our Lady of Peace," Lynnea decides to become a teacher in an urban district and suffers the consequences; in "Ant of the Self," the narrator travels to the Million Man March with his derelict father; "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" follows young Dina during her freshman year at Yale where she refuses to accept her budding sexuality; and the title character in "Doris is Coming" begins the journey of rejecting her family's oppressive religious devotion at the dawn of the Civil Rights Era. Two stories, "Speaking in Tongues" where a young girl runs away in search of her biological mother and "Geese" in which a young woman moves to Japan where she stays in spite of her destitution and expired Visa, aren't quite as enjoyable as those outlined above, and "Every Tongue Shall Confess" is too deliberately understated to convey the importance of the rest of the book.
This debut collection at times becomes a bit heavy handed, particularly around some of Packer's proper noun choices like "Camp Crescendo" noted above and a teacher named "Mrs. Ampersand," but the narration and perspective of her pieces make it clear why The New Yorker chose Packer as one of their "20 Under 40"....more
This book is truly fantastic. Marketed in the young adult genre, it easily surpasses a vast majority of the fiction geared toward adults. In the styleThis book is truly fantastic. Marketed in the young adult genre, it easily surpasses a vast majority of the fiction geared toward adults. In the style of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Collins has created a horrifying dystopian future, one with a history that she metes out in pieces only as it is necessary to understand the plot. This fragmented exposition creates a tension in the veiled possibility that this reality is too easily linked to our own. The plot sounds outrageously sophomoric--an oppressive government reminds its lowly citizens of the dangers of rebellion by selecting twenty-four teenagers to battle to the death in a televised game of survival of the fittest--yet Collins expertly avoids mediocrity primarily through the likability and charisma of her strong female protagonist Katniss, a delightful mixture of burgeoning adolescent maturity, awakening sexuality, and a fierce independence. While the novel is truly plot driven (there really isn't a whole lot of literary "depth" here beyond the harbingers of a stark future of tyranny), the plot developments and characterizations make it difficult to put this book down. I simply cannot wait to read the next installment!...more
Toni Morrison's most recent and much abbreviated novel is definitely worth a read (as all of her books are), but this one certainly let me wanting morToni Morrison's most recent and much abbreviated novel is definitely worth a read (as all of her books are), but this one certainly let me wanting more. The story follows an Odyssey of sorts as Korean War veteran Frank Money rushes home to save his ailing sister Cee in rural Georgia. Both are dealing with their own demons growing up in the mid-twentieth century American south, and Morrison's telescopic narrative style--something that reminded me of The Bluest Eye--provided some great insight into these complicated characters. Even still, at only 147 pages, the story and characterization merely whetted my appetite. I wanted more and was disappointed when she didn't give it to me....more
This intensely sad piece of historical fiction centers on the bloody 1930s genocide of Haitian workers in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican RepubThis intensely sad piece of historical fiction centers on the bloody 1930s genocide of Haitian workers in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic. While much of the story lacks a central unifying focus and Danticat's lyrical prose is at times soporific, the final sixty pages provide a swiftly paced resolution for what precedes them. This final portion of the novel isn't enough to provide the heart and soul that fill Breath, Eyes, Memory, but Danticat's voice is still an important one in the contemporary American canon, one that deserves to be heard....more
A few months ago I was complaining to a friend that all the really "epic" contemporary books out there, the ones that leave your head spinning becauseA few months ago I was complaining to a friend that all the really "epic" contemporary books out there, the ones that leave your head spinning because you can't fathom how the author so elegantly keeps so many plates spinning at once, are all written by white men, novels from authors like John Irving and Richard Russo. This friend then told me I simply had to read White Teeth, which she felt fit the bill and is written by a black woman.
The opening of the novel left me totally satisfied. After the first few chapters though, my delight waned with a slight feeling of confusion due to Smith's tunneling technique of connecting present to past, minor character to major. Once I had acclimated myself to her style though, I quickly regained my earlier excitement. As I dove deeper into the text, I found hints of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 in Smith's biting critique of everything that makes up Western society and a mixture of nods to other classic and popular samples of British literature. The literary equation she lays out is an interesting blend of risque imagery, offensive humor, and heart-breaking realities.
Many friends warned me that the ending "jumped the shark" a bit, and I have to agree that I was right there with Smith up until the final page, where I found myself wondering, "Where's the rest of the ending?" The journey there though was really fantastic, and I am anxious to read more of Smith's work!...more
I first encountered Henry James a few months ago when reading Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw in preparation for teaching them to my high schooI first encountered Henry James a few months ago when reading Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw in preparation for teaching them to my high school sophomores. I loved both, and when a friend mentioned that Colm Toibin had written a novel featuring James as its protagonist, I knew I had to read it. What little I've read about James biographical information is fascinating: his early introduction to the expatriate life, his contradictory American-European identity, his struggles with his sexuality. Through his quietly brilliant narrative, Toibin explores the possible lifestyle of this "master" of a novelist.
While elements of the book are reminiscent of Michael Cunningham's own masterpiece The Hours, the structure of The Master is actually less intricate than Cunningham's postmodern fragmentation of Virginia Woolf's life and the women she inspires throughout the last century. That's not to say that The Master is any less complicated in its structure, focusing on James's later years living in the quiet British town of Rye beyond the reaches of metropolitan London while peppering the story with flashbacks throughout to ruminate on the protagonist's inspiration and characterization. The style itself contributes to the complexities of the text, Toibin admitting himself in the acknowledgements that close the book that he has "peppered the text with phrases and sentences from the writing of Henry James and his family."
And that style is what whispers its way into your heart. While there isn't much to propel the plot forward here other than a careful character development, the silent suffering that is evidenced in the subtle narratives depicting imagined elements of James's life. This comes out most poignantly in a scene after the suicide of a friend and fellow writer Constance Fenimore Woolson. Toibin imagines James disposing of Woolson's clothing in a particular spot in the Venetian Lagoon where she would escape the city. James and a fellow mourner watch as at first each dress sinks, only to float "to the surface again like black balloons, evidence of the strange sea burial they had just enacted, their arms and bellies bloated with water." The scenario is a result of Woolson's grieving family leaving James with the responsibility of disposing of her worldly possessions, something he must do virtually alone. This solitary existence and the way in which he is forced to face his loss with the return of the clothing to the surface of the water becomes a metaphor for James's very life. His companions are fleeting, many speaking with a raised brow about his bachelorhood, utilizing innuendo and euphemism to make him feel all the less comfortable with himself. This reflected in the few potential relationships he encounters in the narrative, one unspoken evening of physical passion with a Civil War hero in America and another prolonged yet unconsummated relationship with the sculptor Hendrik Andersen.
Toibin himself is openly gay, so it makes sense that he would focus on this historic figure and imagine the ways in which his struggles would influence his work. The end result is certainly touching and sad, but well worth the read....more
I haven't ever read an entire book of "flash fiction," short works no longer than two pages each, and I found the experience so fun and rewarding. TheI haven't ever read an entire book of "flash fiction," short works no longer than two pages each, and I found the experience so fun and rewarding. The "Editor's Note" for this collection is invaluable, most notably because it suggests reading the pieces like poetry. Each piece is so short, that a reader can't simply swiftly comb through it and expect to gather everything the author intended. These pieces are not driven by the traditional elements of the short story, but in many cases they are just as rewarding.
Some of my favorites included "Mandela Was Late" by Peter Mehlman, where a despicable parole officer waits impatiently for a meeting with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison; "Currents" by Hannah Bottomy which is a tragic beach scene told in reverse; "Rose" by John Biguenet, a carefully crafted portrait of parental loss; and "The Wallet" by Andrew McCuaig, a piece that uses a traditional story arc in just under two pages. There are dystopian pieces here like Jim Crace's future world of manipulative shopping in "21" and there are witty plays with form, like G. A. Ingersoll's "Test," which is formatted completely like a standardized test. My favorite of all though is certainly the final piece, J. David Stevens' "The Death of the Short Story," an obituary for short story genre that describes, among other fabulous personifications, how "the loutish Novel got drunk on cheap Chardonnay and babled about the good times he and the Story had shared" (227).
This is a wonderful collection, and I'm eager to read more!...more
I began this book totally disgusted. The opening chapters are incredibly grotesque. Narrator and protagonist Alex spends the first portion of the bookI began this book totally disgusted. The opening chapters are incredibly grotesque. Narrator and protagonist Alex spends the first portion of the book on a drug-induced rampage of violence: he begins by leading his "droogs" to beat a man until he vomits blood (1), claiming afterward that they "hadn't done much...but that was only like the start of the evening and [he makes] no appy polly loggies to thee or thine for that" (8). They then go on to continue to mercilessly attach both innocent victims and fellow criminals, as well as break into a young married couple's country cottage where they attack the husband and gang rape his wife. Soon after, Alex independently drugs and rapes two ten-year-old girls and then murders an old woman before being sent off to prison.
If all of this sounds gruesome beyond comprehension, that's because it is. Burgess's brilliance--something I didn't comprehend until Alex begins the second of three sections of the novel in prison--is his dystopian setting. Most of Burgess's themes on the nature of violence and society's responsibility and philosophies on counteracting that violence could be conveyed without the futuristic society in which he places his novel. However, with the setting, he creates a future World State in which teenagers use a version of slang call Nadsat that is a sort of combination of cockney colloquialisms and Russian vocabulary. This is initially jarring as the novel reads almost as though it were written in an entirely different language: the opening page reveals the setting of "The Korova Milkbar [which] was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brothers, have forgotten what these mestos were like, things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget" (1). This slang is so jarring in fact, that it provides a buffer between the reader and the graphic violence that opens the text. By the time reader is familiar enough with the jargon to continue reading at a moderate pace, the majority of the violence has passed. This seems a deliberate and ingenious use of narrative style.
As the novel progresses into the debate over the origins and malleability of evil, it does get a bit preachy. Aside from the obvious yet ironic parallelism between Alex and Jesus, various characters' interactions with our narrator bear out the novel's thematic content while he is in prison and faced with the opportunity for an early release if he submits to an experimental procedure called the Ludovico technique. The process has the potential to deprive him of free will--a free will that allows him to so mercilessly behave like a sociopath. The Prison Chaplain discusses with Alex, "What does God want? Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him?" (95), which didactically spells out the book's major thematic questions.
These questions are masterfully explored in the plot, one in which readers question the very nature of the good of the individual versus the good of the society. Should we eliminate in Alex all traces of violent behavior at the cost of his own individuality and humanity? How many people does one have to hurt and kill in order to lose the right of free will?
Interestingly, the book was originally published in America without its final chapter, one which extends Alex's thoughts on the inevitably of violence as a youthful rite of passage, claiming that "being young is like being like one of those malenky machines" (190). This final chapter however completely discounted the darker penultimate chapter that concluded the text in its original American incarnation and actually provides a macabre and disillusioned focus on the inevitable absence of empathy in our world--something with which I completely disagree as an English teacher and a lover of fiction. If things are so dark, why do we read?
This final chapter ultimately reduced my rating from five stars to four, but it's still a difficult yet intriguing read that provokes a lot of insightful discussion!...more
Having read Savage's memoir-style books The Kid (about the process of adopting a child with his boyfriend) and The Commitment (about gay marriage) andHaving read Savage's memoir-style books The Kid (about the process of adopting a child with his boyfriend) and The Commitment (about gay marriage) and absolutely loving them--especially the former--I've wanted to read Skipping Towards Gomorrah for a while now. Thanks to my Kindle, when the whim struck me to finally read it, I had it in my hands in 60 seconds!
Skipping Towards Gomorrah is a lot more political than anything else, and Savage has some pretty interesting politics. Many of his ideas lean to the left but with a significant libertarian slant. This mixed with his fairly witty turn of phrase made for a mostly enjoyable book. Throughout the book he details his attempts to live the seven deadly sins, loosely interpreted with the following chapters:
-Greed: The Thrill of Losing Money [Gambling:] -Lust: The Erotic Rites of David and Bridget [Swingers:] -Sloth: I Am Not a Pothead [Pot:] -Gluttony: Eating Out with Teresa and Tim [Obesity:] -Envy: Meet the Rich [The Uber-Wealthy Who Pay to Live in Poverty:] -Pride: Jake and Kevin and the Queen of Sin [Gay Pride Parades:] -Anger: My Piece, My Unit [Guns:]
As he does well in The Commitment, Savage brings in a lot of external research, quoting the conservative talking heads and then using legitimate data to debunk their theories. Some of his logic ends up being a bit convoluted, but in the end much of what he says makes sense--even though all in a slightly perverse way. I can't say I agree with him 100%, but many of his ideology at least gives me lots to think about....more
Even though I laughed out loud several times while reading this novel, Shteyngart's first, it is a painfully long satirical romp that could not sustaiEven though I laughed out loud several times while reading this novel, Shteyngart's first, it is a painfully long satirical romp that could not sustain its sardonic wit over the course of its whopping 500 pages. The irony begins with the title, which has nothing to do with a sexy and stylish young immigrant as the cover art would suggest but rather a nerdy Russian-born Jewish American whose self-deprecating demeanor and loose scruples hardly provide for a compelling protagonist; in fact much of Vladimir's antics border on the offensive, including his numerous acts of adultery, cheating on the likes of live-in girlfriend and full-time dominatrix Challah, wealthy socialite Francesca and her uber-liberal parents, and Midwestern girl-next-door turned terrorist Morgan. Perhaps his struggles with understanding the trappings of heterosexual romance stem from an early determination that "a man and a woman can claim to love one another, they may even rent real estate in Brooklyn as a sign of their love, but when they take time out of a busy day to walk through the air-conditioned aisles of a drug mart to pick out a nail clipper together, well, this is the kind of relationship that will perpetuate itself if only through its banality." In spite of these amusingly awkward thoughts on the subject, he is strangely successful in attracting the opposite sex, albeit usually women with questionable pathology, which makes it all the worse when he so quickly self-destructs these liaisons.
Similarly, his homophobic reaction to an indecent proposal from a closeted drug czar and his subsequent attempts to evade said suitor in which he dupes a psychotic Russian immigrant and starts a ridiculously successful expatriate pyramid scheme in Eastern Europe provoke further feelings of ambivalence for the subject matter. These situations all provide the perfect setups for some hilarious punchlines, but lack sufficient character development to create a truly engaging overall narrative. Along the way he learns the inherent truth in the "useful axiom: it is far better to be patronized than to be ignored" and his father relates to him that "ultimately...making compromises may be a necessity, but it's the constant weighing and reweighing of these compromises that becomes an illness." Little pearls of wisdom like this, each slightly twisted with a wry smile, are peppered throughout the text in a strained effort to amuse.
The entire work reads like The Corrections meets The Namesake as Shteyngart captures the mocking tone of Franzen early twenty-first century work and Lahiri's immigrant-in-search-of-identity sensibility, the combination illustrated in the omniscient narrator's initial assertion that at the end of his journey, "he would have reached, all by himself, the final destination of every immigrant's journey: a better home in which to be unhappy."
This all is perhaps simply due to my particular tastes when it comes to satire: I like it short and sweet. I am the type of person that relishes Yossarian's plight in Catch-22 but wishes that Heller has stopped at 200 pages. (I adore Voltaire's Candide for example.) Shteyngart has a terrific wit, one that I look forward to experiencing in his well-reviewed Super Sad True Love Story, but one that becomes overly politicized and far too personal in this first novel for my liking....more
When I was living in New York, the best thing about my time there was seeing great non-musical plays. Ever since college, I've been heading into the cWhen I was living in New York, the best thing about my time there was seeing great non-musical plays. Ever since college, I've been heading into the city and going on these whirlwind tours of Broadway musicals, easily packing five shows into one weekend. When I moved there and started working in the industry, I had the opportunity to see LOTS of non-musical shows both on Broadway and off, and I realized how truly fantastic these shows can be. I've always been a fan of theater in any form, but I never felt the compunction to go out and pay a huge amount of money for a non-musical show. Since I left New York, I'm better about seeing these shows in Boston and occasionally in New York when I have the chance, but now with kids my trips to the theater (especially in New York) are incredibly limited and I've lapsed again in my "straight play" adventures.
Reading Rabbit Hole though totally reminded me how great these plays can be. It's a really simple piece focusing on the aftermath of a family losing a young child to an hapless accident. The setting takes place actually in the time following the typical "grieving period" that immediately follows the death. I think I find myself so attracted to this setting because having lost my mother over a year ago, that period after everyone stops asking how you're doing and after you are "expected" to talk about your loss is really the most devastating as you consider what to do with yourself and how to cope with the vacancy inside of you. And then also, I'm going on two plus years as a father now, so the idea of losing a four-year-old is both incredibly unimaginable and entirely real. So for these reasons I think I was especially in tune with the subject.
Knowing the original cast of actors fairly well helped in imagining how great the original production likely was. Cynthia Nixon and John Slattery are two of my favorites, and imagining them as this bereaved couple struggling to reinvent their marriage when they suddenly find themselves childless helped to realize the intent of the piece.
I can't say that I've ever been a huge fan of David Lindsay-Abaire in what I've read and seen of his work, but this changed my perception of that. The other pieces I know by him are pretty light, and this carried such a sincere weight. There are moments of levity amidst this weight, and I think that holds so true to actual experience. Again, the setting focuses on the extended time period that follows that initial grieving process, and humor is such a necessary and appropriate coping mechanism. And with these humorous points are coupled some truly brilliant assertions about loss. At one point, the protagonist's mother (who has also lost a son in her lifetime, although an adult one) says, "At some point the [weight of loss:] becomes bearable. It turns into something you can crawl out form under. And carry around--like a brick in your pocked. And you forget every once in a while, but then you reach in for whatever reason there it is: 'Oh right. That.' Which can be awful. But not all the time. Sometimes it's kinda...Not that you like it exactly, but it's what you have instead of your son, so you don't wanna let go of it either. So you carry it around. And it doesn't go away, which is...fine...actually." So true.
I'm teaching this play this fall as part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning literature seminar for a select group of students, and I think this is going to make a brilliant addition to our slate!...more