I'm abandoning this book, with regret for having read it against my better judgement, without more thorough research. And yes, I'm two-starring and re...moreI'm abandoning this book, with regret for having read it against my better judgement, without more thorough research. And yes, I'm two-starring and reviewing an unfinished book. If that offends you to your very core, then stop reading now. You've been warned!
1. There's a trend among reviews of three stars or less on this book to say things like:
I’ll simply attempt to explain why I gave such an accomplished book only 3 stars. It’s just the sort of book I should have given 5 stars....
I am ashamed. I am a foolish reader who, like many, take on a booker short-list, or a booker winner, and expect it to wow me. And it did, and it didn't. I have an unsophisticated mind.
Everyone here is raving about this book including people who write great novels themselves. I'm feeling pretty miserable about the fact that I couldn't get into it, forced myself to read halfway, started again and then gave up in despair.
The Luminaries is a very long mystery novel which did not enlighten or move me. I am probably not a good judge....
I find these kinds of comments sad, but telling. Buck up, goodreaders who don't much like The Luminaries! There's enough conspiring against us to make us feel stupid; we don't need books to do that.
2. I'm way over feeling like it's some flaw in me when I don't like a book that almost everyone else likes. It's not me, book, it's you. I'm just not that into you. We haven't spent that much time together (then again, I've read more pages of you than are in the average contemporary novel), but I know you well enough to know this isn't going to work out. So farewell, best of luck, and I know you're going to find a whole heap o' love out there, coz' you're a real looker, you Man Booker.
3. Man Booker. FFS.
4. This book has two fatal flaws for me: 1) fussy structure over character; 2) metaphor gone wild.
5. Although it's not really metaphor gone wild; more like metaphor that is so subtle as to be irrelevant to most readers...unless they know astrology well enough that they can pick up what she's doing using astrological concepts to illuminate character behaviour/plot. I certainly do not, and did not.
6. I think astrology is fun, but dumb (here, in both senses).
7. On structure, I know it's there because I've been told so. But all I felt while reading, certainly in the first 300 pages, was: why is this language so expositional and why are these actions so overblown? Why do all these irrelevant details matter?
8. They don't. And neither do the characters, although each one is really intriguing. I would have liked them to be central to the plot, and for the plot to be ascendant over structure. I guess it wasn't in the stars.
9. Also, setting: New Zealand, 1860, during a gold rush and early settlement. I was so looking forward to being immersed in it; alas, I got absolutely no feeling for it. Biggest disappointment, by far.
10. The final blow comes from a GR review citing The Guardian's review: "It's not about story at all. It's about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn't invested in its characters?"
12. I'm increasingly factoring opportunity costs into the arithmetic I do to determine when/if to abandon a book. In other words, I could've been reading Shirley. Or Anna Karenina.
So, 12 reflections on The Luminaries. Heh. See what I did there?
Coming back to Alice Munro - she speaks to me in an entirely new way, now. Stories of adult daughters and mothers and sickness and grief; infidelities...moreComing back to Alice Munro - she speaks to me in an entirely new way, now. Stories of adult daughters and mothers and sickness and grief; infidelities and eccentricities; stories of aging - the "sardonic droop of defeat" (Differently, p. 218). Stories of women's friendships. Stories of how life happens to people, and what they become when it does. All perfectly realized, quiet and wise, perfectly told and told completely. Captured into a form over which Munro exerts complete control, making it all look so easy. Stunning.
This is obviously a brilliant book, because [almost] all of my smart friends say it is. The cover says it is the best novel to come out of WWI. And it...moreThis is obviously a brilliant book, because [almost] all of my smart friends say it is. The cover says it is the best novel to come out of WWI. And it's Hemingway, a classic, the Nobel, the understatement, the raw power passion drama horror.
But guess what: I only barely glimpsed the horrors of war, and I didn't buy the love story at all. I don't know if people really talk that way to each other, or ever did, but if so - well, yeccchhh. He lost me at book four, with (view spoiler)[the escape by leaky boat, a pregnant woman and a war deserter, rowing for 16 hours in the cold November rain and hopping up on shore in Switzerland, cheerful as all get out and ready for tea and toast in a nice hotel. (hide spoiler)]
Damn, I really wanted to like this a lot more than I did.
ETA Feb 8/14: updated to add spoiler tag (oops); likely my passive-aggressive way of expressing my resentment at having the ending spoiled for me as I was trying to figure out what was up in book four, with H's dive into melodrama. I really do wonder if I hadn't been 'spoiled', whether I would have been genuinely moved by the ending, or found the relationship betw. Henry and Catherine more authentic. I guess we'll never know.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Just a few notes here before this book evaporates into the ether on me; which is not an indictment of its quality (more, my own poor literary memory....moreJust a few notes here before this book evaporates into the ether on me; which is not an indictment of its quality (more, my own poor literary memory. Hence the need for these notes.) Also, there are not enough reviews, nor readers, for this novel. It really deserves a wider audience.
David Bergen, a Canadian writer, won the Giller for this in 2005 and another of his - The Age of Hope - was a finalist in Canada Reads 2013. I had never read him before.
The Time In Between focuses on a U.S. veteran who returns to Vietnam to exorcise the demons that have plagued him since his time there 30 years before, and who is followed there by two of his three now-adult children. The novel chronicles a family's experience of trauma and vicarious trauma, and their attempts to revisit the past, physically and in memory, as a means to recover from it.
That, in itself, is enough to keep one reading, but Bergen does a couple of other things that are truly extraordinary and which *almost* push this into five-star territory for me.
First, he writes with a concision that has been likened to Raymond Carver (whom I've not read) but that I would call Hemingway-esque. There is a deceptive simplicity to his sentences; on the surface, they are sparse and plain, but they reflect exquisite, minutely-observed, and perfectly-chosen details - as simple and stark, but as high-impact, as a fly in one's soup.
The thinness of an ankle emerging from a too-short pant leg. A glimpse of a woman asleep in a storefront seen by a cyclist. A mangy dog, limping in an alleyway.
There are actually three soldiers whose stories are woven together here: Charles, the father and U.S. veteran; a North Vietnamese soldier, who is a character in a book Charles is reading (that book based on a real one, The Sorrow of War); and an artist named Hoang Vu, whom Charles and later his daughter Ada meet and who was also a survivor of (and soldier in) the war.
Each of these stories and characters have commonalities and are interlinked. There are also Charles' son, Jon, and his daughter, Ada, plus a host of other minor characters, all of whom are essential to the plot.
Everything counts in this novel. There's not a line, not a character, not a detail that doesn't matter.
There is something about the complexity of story (stories) and the starkness of the language in which they are told that sets up a vibrating thrum, low level but intense, that lasts and propels this thing forward to its several, inevitable conclusions.
Some more things: stories are critical. Telling one's story can both save and destroy one, but regardless of how painful or what the story does, the telling is necessary.
There is a motif around safety: characters repeatedly say they feel safe, or will keep something safe. The motif resonates both with its opposite, threat and destruction; and with the idea of secrecy - secret acts, betrayals, and shame.
There are horrible scenes of brutality against animals. Anyone reading this who knows me knows that violence towards animals used gratuitously, for manipulation or for mere shock value, will cause me to abandon a book and judge it harshly indeed. As hard as these scenes were for me to read, they are important here. They create an atmosphere and illustrate a general level of violence against human beings that is almost worse for not being described.
Finally, I read a lot of war lit, and am specifically interested in the war in Vietnam and that time in U.S. history. I would consider myself fairly well-read in the literature that has emerged from it.
This book comes at that war from a slightly different angle: while it is concerned with the direct experiences of those who lived it, these are re-told as reminiscences or told indirectly by a generation many years removed from the events. Despite that, or perhaps because of it - and although none of the details shocked or surprised me - the story of the war and its effects retain an immediacy, a sledge-hammer present-tense. As traumatic memories do.
It reminded me what a bloody awful war this was (as they all are, I suppose; although Vietnam feels worse somehow), and how far-ranging its impact continues to be.
As such, The Time In Between is an important work to include in fiction about the Vietnam war. It reminds us what an incredibly brutal, soul-destroying impact that war had on those who lived it, and on those who have been living with it in the time between then and now.
Amazing book that manages to combine myth, magic, shape- and time-shifting with a gritty reality, a down-to-earth humour and an essential sadness. Tak...moreAmazing book that manages to combine myth, magic, shape- and time-shifting with a gritty reality, a down-to-earth humour and an essential sadness. Take the humour and whimsy of Thomas King or Sherman Alexie; the lyrical poeticism and depth of character of Louise Erdrich; the poignancy, raw pathos and passion of Richard Wagamese and Joseph Boyden. Anchor it in a playwright's sensibility for the visual and the dramatic, and you have Tomson Highway: a voice reminiscent of the best in Native Canadian/American literature, but uniquely his own. (less)
Gorgeous slice of life on the Nebraska prairie. Sometimes you just need something like this, y'know? Where it is about characters' essential humanity;...moreGorgeous slice of life on the Nebraska prairie. Sometimes you just need something like this, y'know? Where it is about characters' essential humanity; where story comes from the slow unfolding of time and place, and from the people living then and there: lives of richness and depth, but no overwrought drama, no complex plotting, no dark suspense. Simple, sweet and lovely. (less)
A better understanding of the political events occurring in the background would have enriched my reading of this, but even without, Mistry was able t...moreA better understanding of the political events occurring in the background would have enriched my reading of this, but even without, Mistry was able to catch and hold my attention, weaving layers of story and symbolism together, creating a sometimes farcical, bittersweet domestic tale. I felt like I got to know this group of middle-class Indians and their microcosm of that larger world a little bit better. I certainly got to smell it - from frangipani and sandalwood to rotting garbage and sewage. Mistry is such a sensual writer - he really has the capacity to bring you right into the world of his novels with these amazing details, characterizations and juxtapositions: superstition with philosophy, cruelty with kindness, great beauty with great atrocity. And his characters are so alive, so large, containing multitudes, as Whitman would say.
Really lovely and awful and fantastic and real - all at once.(less)
Four stars for now as a place-holder, as that was my rating for the other two (for some strange reason). The trilogy overall, though, is an absolute f...moreFour stars for now as a place-holder, as that was my rating for the other two (for some strange reason). The trilogy overall, though, is an absolute five. A stunning vision; exceptional execution; provocative themes about greed and ethics, environmental degradation, out-of-control technology ... and maybe a shred of optimism for humanity, such as it is or will be [I'm hoping that someone is working on the Crakers in a lab somewhere]. An upvote for resilience and hope, at least in the short term.
I know most people thought the previous two, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood - the latter in particular - stronger, but I don't know: this one grabbed me and really packed an emotional punch. I think, perhaps, it was the innocence-versus-corruption theme throughout that captured my heart. Also, the drive for story-telling and mythmaking, reinforced thematically and structurally: the critical importance that telling our stories, documenting them, passing them on being all we have to (re)create meaning and provide comfort in a world that is otherwise dark and empty. "People need such stories, Pilar said once, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void."
Maybe being the last in the trilogy, MaddAddam also gets high marks for the resolution: a strange mix of resigned sadness, more like grief, and hope. (view spoiler)[She gives us a second generation. She gives us not the end of the story, but its next chapter. She brings back deer and frogs and bees. She shows us inter-species conflict resolution. She kills the bad guys - but not without due process. She gives the Crakers written language - not just oral story-telling. She gives us the white pebble alternative future to the black pebble alternative future that she's also given us. (hide spoiler)]
The idea that we are oil-barrelling blindly down a road towards this--and that it is too late to stop or swerve--is absolutely fundamental here, as in the earlier two. The details are so specific and so current (fracking in Calgary and pipelines in the Arctic, e.g.) we cannot fail to recognize them. Atwood's postscript emphasizing that everything she describes is part of today's technology or at the least theoretically possible is chilling. And she doesn't need to tell us that - the sense of familiarity and of the inevitable, looming plausibility of it all is visceral.
Atwood leaves us here at the end of this trilogy with enough ambiguity and open-endedness that some interpretation is required; enough to prevent our complacency, perhaps. There may be no hope that we can prevent our fall, but overall, the pigoons and the Crakers and the stories being passed on is maybe enough for our regeneration.
Thank you. Good night. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This novel is such an accomplishment. Emily Brontë, you ROCK.
I say this, even though page for page, my heart and soul belong with Charlotte – specific...moreThis novel is such an accomplishment. Emily Brontë, you ROCK.
I say this, even though page for page, my heart and soul belong with Charlotte – specifically, Jane Eyre and Villette. They are more of a match for me and who I am.
Yet I admire and am astounded by Emily’s talent. That admiration comes from now knowing the broader context of her life (thank you, Juliet Barker and your masterful The Brontës). I certainly didn’t feel it the first time through WH, when I dismissed the achievement because of the over-the-top plotting and characterization. It just seemed so far-fetched way back when; just not my thing.
Yet on re-reading, I was unable to distance myself from the characters, as extreme as they are. I don’t see them, now, as unrealistic - in fact, they are all too real. I felt a powerful revulsion for them and especially, for the child abuse. Meaning, I felt both repulsed by their bad behaviour and also sympathetic for the abuse they experienced that made that behaviour all the more likely, and all the more tragic.
I literally had spasms of anger course through me towards the end. On many occasions, I contemplated whether to stop reading - I found it so painful.
There's a nature/nurture theme here that I don't think Emily got quite right. She did not differentiate well enough the different scenarios and their effects on character. Basically, all the nasty pieces of work were nasty in the same ways, despite various combinations of inborn temperament and parenting/environment.
But even to tackle it (a woman who had about three years of formal schooling and had travelled just barely more than the younger Cathy had by age 13) is such an impressive feat.
And even if you peel away that (unnecessary?) thematic layer, the drama of the story and characters stand. The miracle of a woman like Emily Brontë creating this thing that is 100% a product of her own imagination stands.
As she herself says, through her housekeeper/storyteller (and how clever is THAT!):
“I certainly esteem myself a steady, reasonable kind of body … not exactly from living among the hills, and seeing one set of faces, and one series of actions, from year's end to year's end: but I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy …”.
Virginia Woolf, in A Room Of Ones Own, questioned why the Brontës – and Eliot and Austen, too – wrote novels. Why the novel? She saw Emily, had she lived or lived in different times, as a dramatic playwright: as potentially transcendent as Shakespeare.
So do I.
I am still beyond pissed at Charlotte for destroying Emily’s second novel after her death. I love you, Charlotte; it’s your behaviour I dislike. And (or so), I haven’t yet read her forward to the second edition of WH published after Emily’s death, included in my Oxford World Classics copy, along with a selection of Emily’s poems and some reasonably competent end notes.
Barker’s assumption is that Charlotte ultimately deemed Emily’s second novel inappropriate for what novels should be – which, Charlotte believed, was what would be marketable and what would preserve and protect the integrity and reputation of the sisters. (see comment #2 below for more fulsome explanation)
But Emily didn’t give a fig about what the neighbours – or the public at large – thought.
She had access to the richest, most colourful, most interesting, most stimulating world close at hand, not within or close by the four walls of the Haworth Parsonage, but within her own imagination. Nothing else was relevant to her.
She didn’t need the society of others (but for her siblings and her beloved dog, Keeper); she didn’t need instruction or exposure to ideas beyond the large library she had at hand; she didn't need the stimulation or activities available in a city, because she had wild nature all around her. And most of all, she had an ever-expanding world within her own brain, with none of the limits imposed by mid-19th century Yorkshire or what anyone thought of her or her writing.
Wuthering Heights is a matured version of the juvenilia – specifically, the Gondal world where Emily’s imagination, her life and her soul, lived. Enter it with her: whether you like that world or not; whether you are drawn to it or want to revisit it; whether you respond to its characters or its themes is irrelevant, she will make you feel it.
Wuthering Heights is Emily’s brain on a page. She didn’t create a world and send it out to the reader through the mundane conduit of publication, as much as she opened a door to her soul and invited the reader in.
That said, she did write and publish it, pouring out her thoughts – strange and dark and disconnected (but not really) from the outside world; an alternate universe, but a universal and lasting legacy in a novel – her only one – and one that remains in print and among the very best of a century of best novels.
Take Dickens, multiply the filth, poverty and desperation by five; multiply the cast of characters by five; multiply the number of plot twists, betray...moreTake Dickens, multiply the filth, poverty and desperation by five; multiply the cast of characters by five; multiply the number of plot twists, betrayals, double-triple-quadruple-and-quintuple-crosses by five; and multiply the multiple identities by five.
Add a speculative real estate scheme, a couple of phony front companies, a banking and credit crisis, a raft of lawyers, lenders, borrowers, beggars and stealers; and then run the whole thing through a sieve of the major moral, political, social, and economic philosophies of the last couple of thousand years exploring the big questions, ethical dilemmas, and theories of distributive justice, e.g.: When do the ends justify the means? Is life random or by design? Are human beings capable of altruism or motivated solely by self-interest? When is stealing and lying acceptable? What creates the greatest good: trickle-down economics or a welfare state? Is money the root of all evil?
Throw in opium addiction, prostitution, money-laundering, grave-robbing, duels, murders and mayhem; plunk it down in (extremely well-researched) early 19thC London, divide it up into five books representing five families, and spin it all around a will, a codicil to a will, another will, and an heir: a young boy, John, who doesn’t know who his father is and whose life, quite literally, depends on his ability to figure it all out … and you have The Quincunx.
ETA: my rating has gone all over the map as I've struggled to pin down my response to this book. See comment #5 for context of why this book is now ra...moreETA: my rating has gone all over the map as I've struggled to pin down my response to this book. See comment #5 for context of why this book is now rated 5! Sheesh.
Original review (Dec 27, 2013): There were parts of this I liked; not least of which is the melancholy ache it left in me, which I can only attribute to the quality of the writing, the atmosphere McCullers creates and the characters she brings to life.
Holy hell, this book is sad.
I loved Mick’s descriptions of what music meant to her; how she felt hearing it; the longing she had to “write it.” I loved her outlandish dreams and her inside and outside worlds.
I liked how all these characters circle Singer like planets around an uncaring, uncomprehending sun.
There’s something niggling at me, though, about this book, something not sitting well with me; something not resonating.
I think this book is just a little too existential even for me.
I can recognize its artistry at the same time that that artistry feels a little shallow, and a lot purposeless.
Part of me says, m’eh. I like a cast of quirky, eccentric Southern characters – and these are done up well. But there must be more to it than this.
Even Mick – the one whose ‘coming of age’ story this really is – doesn’t really come into anything. Her big finish is a kind of denouement. Her dreams are dashed, but not in any dramatic climax, rather in an inexorable narrowing of opportunities until, there she is with runs in her stockings working in Woolworth’s.
Poignant, yes. Bittersweet, yes. But nothing really happens; nothing full out blossoms or bursts. It feels one note to me.
Southern gothic and I rarely get on well together. It’s kind of like a whole lot of what I love – eccentricity and the grotesque in characterization; social issues laid bare in all their unsentimental glory; a sense of past and impending doom – gets baked up together into not a layered masterpiece, but a lumpy, undercooked mess.
It’s like looking into the heart of darkness solely for the purpose of looking into the heart of darkness, to view it in all its festering decay, to document it, to say “I was there and I survived looking at it” while retaining that sense of observational distance. The drive-by accident scene. The grainy Holocaust photos. I get the fascination. I get the adrenalin rush of horror and the sweet salve of it’s-not-me-or-anyone-I-know relief.
For me, there’s a lack of purpose or closure in it, or any sense that there’s a moral to the story beyond “life’s a bitch and then you die.” First, you suffer. Then you die. Or you don’t; you just live a life of unremarkable plainness.
These kinds of stories really are just a place for the characters to be fleshed out: for all that they are (and this is a fabulous set of quirky, eccentric, full-of-potential characters), they aren’t given a plot in which they can fulfill their potential. Even punctuated by scenes of trauma or violence, the characters themselves absorb the punches and don't change or effect change.
That's what she's saying - that these characters are powerless and ineffectual - but there's an irony here: she makes them so damn apathetic, so ineffectual, that I - as a reader - become just as apathetic in response.
It seems that McCullers is too good at her own game.
The characters and their pointlessness are the point, but it's not enough for me. It's enervating. They are the guns introduced in Act One that never go off.
And even when [the gun] does go off, it’s a bang and a whimper, and Baby never gets to be beauty queen but, oh well, the chances of that happening were pretty slim anyway, weren’t they?
These characters drift into plot points and then drift back out as seamlessly and quietly as kudzu takes over abandoned railroad tracks.
Their cafés serve endless meals to empty souls who are acutely observed.
The café’s owner – who is quite possibly a pedophile – replaces the cellophane-wrapped, fly-encrusted dinner special on display in the plate-glass window with an artfully-arranged vase of flowers.
The black medical doctor-revolutionary (view spoiler)[whose estranged son’s feet are cut off after being tortured in prison – a scene that gets a couple of paragraphs, no more, but is retold indirectly and obliquely and mostly offstage in the chapters that follow – (hide spoiler)]goes quietly and tubercularly crazy and is shipped off to a relative’s farm in a wagon led by a 19-year old mule who has worked and lived on that farm, even given a sun hat to wear when it’s hot. For a mule, 19 years is a long time to work and suffer and live – even with a sun hat and a kind owner.
The point being that these people are mules, no more no less, and you don’t have to be an agitating Commie labour organizer to know that’s wrong, just plain wrong, and sad too – but my point is that the mule is given about equal treatment in terms of focus and paragraphs to the black doctor's estranged son.
It's all conveyed at about the same emotional pitch.
There is a weird sort of genius in that, and in using the flat affect, the lack of any modulation in drama or plot, to illustrate how absolutely impotent these characters are to change their circumstances, even when they know – they have the one true purpose – and want nothing more than to change it.
Another gun goes off, this time into the heart of the heart of the lonely hunter.
And that relentless, interminable sense of ennui – muggy and hot – descends.
Despite all their protesting, their random acts, their talking talking talking at someone who can’t hear them, nothing happens. Things go on much like they were.
There is no sense for anything having changed as a result of the story being told or having happened.
So, I'm left sad ... and I'm left admiring a piece of writing that ultimately feels as empty and lonely as the lives it describes.
And that's great, I guess.
It’s not for me, this Southern gothic, is what I think.
Okay, I'm going to try this one again in honour and in memoriam of DFW.
I suspect this book is going to become like James Joyce's Ulysses for me: a li...moreOkay, I'm going to try this one again in honour and in memoriam of DFW.
I suspect this book is going to become like James Joyce's Ulysses for me: a literary albatross around my neck.
I cannot tell you the number of times I've picked up each, but been unable to sustain the effort or make any headway. And yet, they both peck at my conscience like crows, holding out shiny baubles in the form of other readers' accolades and the gnawing belief that, as an English lit graduate, I am somehow incomplete for not having finished--and enjoyed too, dammit!--either.
I will be back with more ...
Words of encouragement, if you've read these and are reading this, much appreciated. :-)
I now get what many of the reviews of this are referring to, like there is -- as Kelly says -- a secret club of people who have read this, but who can...moreI now get what many of the reviews of this are referring to, like there is -- as Kelly says -- a secret club of people who have read this, but who can't talk about it; yet who want nothing more than for you to read it and join them in being unable to talk about it too.
It's difficult to talk about purely from a plot spoiler POV. But it's also difficult to talk about because in those plot twists, and especially the last 150 pp., this book hits you like a sledgehammer in the heart.
jo has done a masterful job outlining how and why this book is so special, but let me add lucky #13 to her list: it's about the most incredible bravery and courage and selflessness. Elizabeth Wein's fictional story is one of extraordinary, humbling truth.
I feel grateful on any number of levels for having read it. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
It's amateurishly told with a main character, the titular wife, who is some weird combination of a bored 1950s soap opera housewife and a 14-year-old teen with no self-esteem who cares only for hair, make-up and clothes. And this is supposed to take place in 1856 (post-Revolution) Paris and Algiers? As convincingly rendered as ... oh fuck it, I can't even bother coming up with a simile.
Above all else, this is a love story. It is a story of family and friendship and loyalty. It is Dickens at his most florid and most rhetorical, his mo...moreAbove all else, this is a love story. It is a story of family and friendship and loyalty. It is Dickens at his most florid and most rhetorical, his most humane, his most [melo]dramatic; yet in many ways, his most precise. I vacillate between this and Bleak House as my favourites of his. I would tell you, if you've not read Dickens, to start here. This is as seminal a work in English literature as King Lear or perhaps a more apt comparison, Romeo and Juliet.
For this is a love story.
The last three chapters are intense and so evocative they take my breath away. Beyond the suspense and drama (I'm so glad I have such a bad memory - I only vaguely remembered the book, so was able to enjoy the unfolding of the story despite knowing the general gist of the outcome), they show Dickens as the consummate story-teller that he is, and a masterful rhetorician: the stand-off between Miss Pross and Mme. Defarge is absolutely stunning in its telling and as it reveals Dickens' choices about how to tell an important part of the end - how to bring to completion the themes of loyalty, friendship and love; the positive and life-giving power of allegiance to an ideal as opposed to the destructive and death-inducing allegiance to ideology.
"[Mme. Defarge] knew full well that Miss Pross was the family's devoted friend; Miss Pross knew full well that Madame Defarge was the family's malevolent enemy.
It was in vain for Madame Defarge to struggle and to strike; Miss Pross, with the vigorous tenacity of love, always so much stronger than hate, clasped her tight, and even lifted her from the floor in the struggle that they had."
(my underline - I just love that phrase: "the vigorous tenacity of love")
There is something, even, of Paradise Lost here. There is something on that grand a scale in depicting the fight between good and evil. Among so many dualities, set up from that absolutely extraordinary beginning paragraph that many of us can quote by heart and the title itself, good and evil/love and hate/life and death is what this book comes down to.
There is also an acknowledgement of the grey area between the polarities. There is an understanding that evil people are doing evil acts, but that these are fomented within a social and historical context: "Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seeds of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind."
It's very big: thematically, historically. And yet it's also very (for Dickens) concise. That combination is extremely potent, and probably the central reason I love it so much.
Something else to be said is the relative absence of humour or caricature as is common in Dickens, with the exception of Jerry Cruncher. Dickens - with, again, that precision - uses Jerry throughout the novel as a character that unites and advances the plot in specific ways at specific points; but he also allows him to evolve and grow in a way that he doesn't always, even in Bleak House.
I notice this time 'round that Dickens has the jaw-dropping audacity to insert what is, I believe, the only sustained comical scene in the novel (Pross and Jerry trying to make a plan; Jerry's "wows") right before its most tragic. And it IS funny, and a few pages later those tears of laughter turn to tears of anguish. This is incredible writing.
The dualities in A Tale of Two Cities could be the focus of an entire review, but the duality alluded to in the title - the two cities, at two different times - allows Dickens to make a separate, more practical and equally important point. The Dickensian point. (As an aside, the cities, the years - places, times, inanimate objects (Sainte Guillotine) are personified; occupations (knitting, shoe-making, wood-cutting, road-mending) take on an importance beyond the pedestrian, become representative in a way that supports its epic feel.)
While Miss Pross represents England and a sense of English superiority, Dickens is not merely dredging up the ages old English-French conflict; he's saying something more subtle: that London at the time he was writing was a hair's breadth away from Paris during The Terror in terms of social inequities. That these conditions, in which human brutality and cruelty arise and dominate - for a time - are predictable, repeatable. That there is a dark side to the coin: the best of times and the worst of times; wisdom and foolishness; hope and despair exist side by side across all times, all places.
The point of Carton's prophetic observations at the end is that this, too, shall pass; that, in the blink of an eye, positions will be switched (view spoiler)[(his self-sacrifice being an example; and then much can be said about Carton as a Christ-figure here) (hide spoiler)]. Yet as constants, Dickens is also always the optimist: people have the capacity for great good, as well as great evil; retribution and vengeance will be matched and outlasted by generosity and goodness; and love will, in the end, triumph.
For this is, above all else, a love story. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This book was so profound and had such a deep impact on me that I couldn't write about it. Coinciding with all the nonsense of the past several weeks,...moreThis book was so profound and had such a deep impact on me that I couldn't write about it. Coinciding with all the nonsense of the past several weeks, I couldn't - and wouldn't - write about it at all.
So, this is my last review on goodreads - and it's not really on goodreads. It's on booklikes here.
I realize this is a rather inelegant solution to the problem, but for me it illustrates that reading and reviewing, no matter how off-topic or tangential the content is, are inextricably entwined.
I simply can't, and won't here on goodreads, review Beloved without talking about why it's so hard to review Beloved.
Goodreads offers me data to understand that reading/reviewing pattern, btw. Thirty-six of my friends have read it. Thirty-two have rated it four or five stars. Only four have reviewed it (and that's well before people started pulling their reviews).
As goodreads continues to devolve, that data is going to start to dry up.
These books are so life-changing, and the act of writing about them and talking about them with others has come to be so important to me, that I can't continue to do it under the circumstances that goodreads has created.
How these books connect to our life; why they resonate the way they do; what meaning they create and compassion they inspire: that is what writing about them allows the reader to know.
For me – perhaps for you? – books are not fully understood until they are written about.
Which is why I often can’t move on to a new book until I write even just a sentence or two, which may be unhelpful in a commercial sense, and indeed, off-topic or irrelevant in goodreads Terms of Service/Review Guidelines sense.
And which is why reviews of the type that goodreaders have so generously given over the past six-plus years are so valuable, and mean so much to me - to all of us.
They've provided insights, inspired thoughts and feeling, expanded the scope of books I read, and my understanding and ability to read and write myself.
Most of all: they've created connections - in the full sense of the term - that add much-valued and much-appreciated layers to the joy and companionship that books themselves provide.
This - this socialization of reading - is something that clearly goodreads does not understand or appreciate, and is no longer interested in fostering.
For all of you who have rated and reviewed and built this place into the thing it was, I thank you.
For all of you who are leaving now to places where your thoughts, writings and creativity can continue to flourish, I support you and will follow you.
I will likely be using goodreads solely for its database and whatever ongoing socializing might occur here, but like many others, I'll no longer contribute substantive content of my own until and unless goodreads clarifies its review guidelines/ToS and desists in its policy of censoring reviews.
Count me among those who are blown away, moved, enraptured by this novel. It worked for me on at least six different levels: plot/narrative; structure...moreCount me among those who are blown away, moved, enraptured by this novel. It worked for me on at least six different levels: plot/narrative; structure; voice; theme; symbolic/linguistic; genre.
It worked in the grandest sense of its philosophy (its dismantling of the Nietzchean 'will to power' concept) and the plainest: it's damn fine story-tellin'!
In fact, I loved this novel so much that it's going on my "for the desert island" shelf. By which I mean, if stranded on a desert island (interesting resonance there), this is a book that will sustain me; keep me thinking; keep me interested on repeated readings.
Many others on goodreads have written fabulous reviews for this - I've liked a slew of them; sorry if I missed yours. I can't add much to them except to note that it's interesting which sections are pointed to as favourites. Me, I can't pick one - although Sonmi-451 was perhaps the most disturbing, and I'm not sure I've fully understood it. So that one scratches, scratches at me.
Here is one, overarching comment: the thing needs to be read as a whole (and in the order presented, breaks and all); none of these sections would stand up particularly well (I don't think?) on their own AND it needs to be broken down in its parts to the most micro-level to suck the true goodness out of its marrow.
And I mean down to the sentence, even word, level. The repetitions in symbols/objects and connections at the sentence-level were extraordinary; and fun! Did you play the same game I did, trying to spot them?
And then another layer: each section in the first half started with a fall; each in the second with an escape.
And then another: can we escape the fall?
It's a tapestry ... and it's a piece of music: themes appear and re-appear, threaded together by single notes, by motifs.
I see in it what motivated the movie. I see why the movie may have been crap (I don't know; I haven't seen it - but will). This novel is very visual, as well as visionary -- although I say that, and I'm not sure how original it really is, except again as viewed as the sum of its parts. It was published the year after Oryx Crake and perhaps that reference is fresh for me thanks to Moira's recent reading/posting about it, but there are striking similarities (CorpSeCorps v. Neo So Copros - freaky, huh?). And then both of them, Cloud Atlas in particular, harken back to A Canticle for Liebowitz. Maybe that is the way of post-apoc dystopias. Even in the future, nothing is original. Hah!
Cloud Atlas begs to be understood by being taken out of its element and plopped into a new one. Or maybe not for the understanding so much as the experience - that Matryoshka doll thing. The genres are one thing, but I'd like to see a sextet of translations of the novel into other artforms entirely, aside from film: musical (of course); the aforesaid tapestry; a painting; a play (?); a poem; would sculpture work?
And then all of those artforms would be presented as one piece of performance art, delivered in a marathon 12 hours.
Two hundred years to grow; two hundred years to live; two hundred years to die. The idea of growth, life, death in an endless cycle. Cowardice and courage and choices. Rises and falls. Entrapment and escape. Damnation and salvation and states of limbo in between.
This novel is in 6/8 time.
"It ain't savages what are stronger'n Civ'lizeds, Meronym reck'ned, it's big numbers what're stronger'n small numbers. Smart gived us a plus for many years, like my shooter gived me a plus back at Slopin' Pond, but with 'nuff hands'n'minds that plus'll be zeroed one day."
This is the first read, the taking-in of it all, the macro-micro view that skips details.
This novel gets the early nod for the 2013 EccentricMuse Skippy Dies Award (a novel starring adolescent males that I’m completely surprised I enjoyed...moreThis novel gets the early nod for the 2013 EccentricMuse Skippy Dies Award (a novel starring adolescent males that I’m completely surprised I enjoyed as much as I did).
Coady balances gritty realism with literary flourish to carve a portrait of a young man who grows up to become something other than everyone thought he would; and one who excavates his past in a series of emails spurred on by reading a former friend's novel in which he plays either a major or a minor role (it's not clear which; it doesn't matter).
In telling Gord Rankin Jr.'s story ("Rank" - a hockey-scholarship-earning/bouncer/enforcer who seems fated for a life of "innate criminality"), Coady creates a beautifully nuanced portrait of an adolescent boy who's endured traumas and been pigeon-holed by, among other things, his size - his sheer physical presence, or maybe just his presence itself - into a life he doesn't fit but doesn't seem able to escape. But she does a whole lot of other things, too, including painting an introspective, mid-life musing on identity - the shaping of it; the truth of self-fulfilling prophecies and the falsehood of fate; the early patterns and events that seem to lead inevitably in one direction and then, just as inevitably, veer off in another.
It's a novel about tragic, random events that seem like omens - at least, to 20-year-old Rank; conclusions that seem foregone but aren't, as it takes a series of unanswered emails and and additional 20 years to reveal to him. It's a novel about how stories can seem to be our own, how stories are important, but how stories never tell the whole story. It's a novel of deep feeling, of friendships and how fragile they are - like a human heart, Rank! - of adolescent boys inside of grown-up bodies, and how fragile they are.
Lessing herself came to view The Golden Notebook as a failure, and I think she was right.
What she meant was that the innovation and experimentation s...moreLessing herself came to view The Golden Notebook as a failure, and I think she was right.
What she meant was that the innovation and experimentation she intended as the novel’s central point and raison d’être was misunderstood by readers with an infernally stubborn insistence on wanting to figure out its theme, meaning, intent, and relevance to their own lives.
Readers invested - and continue to invest - it with whatever agenda they bring to it in the first place, and interpret it conventionally. I’m sure Lessing would agree that, in so doing, many have missed her point entirely.
The problem for me is: what exactly IS the point?
She never intended it to be a feminist treatise, and yet, that’s what it has become (check out any of the 'feminist novels' listopias here on GR; it's always there). Why this book is claimed as a bastion of feminist thought completely eludes me.
A book that is this hateful to women simply cannot be a feminist treatise – and no amount of “Second Wave” excuse-making will make it so. If you see it this way, if you see yourself in it, well then...I am sorry for you. Read Charlotte Brontë. Read Virginia Woolf. Read Margaret Atwood. THESE authors will empower you. Lessing will not; she has no intention of doing so.
Self-pitying, self-hating codswallop is what it reads like to me. Its moral lessons – when they are not contradictory – are ambiguous to the point of insensible. Where the hell does she STAND, Lessing? This is always the trouble I have with her books and her characters; they are so morally confounding and inconsistent that you have to believe their author is setting them up as an example of something. Or writing satire.
Yet at the same time, she makes them “Everywoman” – as though they represent all of us; or there’s some twisted way of divining their essential goodness or rightness, and if you can’t understand it, well you’re no better than The Man, or The Society, or The System.
I can’t understand these characters’ psychologies. In her zeal for realism, Lessing saps them of any clear psychological truth (and ironically, has one of them engaged in interminable psychoanalysis. At least, I read that as irony). Without any otherwise useful or believable clues to motivation, I'm left to see the slow decline to madness as a direct and inevitable consequence of this woman’s - Everywoman's - attempt to claim her independence, personhood, right to exist as a healthy, happy, whole person.
This just makes me sad; sadder still when I think that women are internalizing this message in some way, even taking comfort from it.
Another thing that sticks in my craw with Lessing is that her characters are so passive. They seem to be victims of their circumstances and their fate, entirely without agency to change their situations - with Lessing sitting back and seeming to say: see, this is what happens when good people exist within a corrupt, inequitable, dehumanizing system. Isn't that just despicable. Aren't they or he (there's a lot of man-hating in this novel; another place we must agree to disagree, Lessing and I) just evil and we must band together, we women, and condemn them.
Condemn, but not take action. Taking action - actually trying to change anything - comes to no good end in Lessing. It turns to violence and hate; sometimes outwardly (as in The Good Terrorist), and here, inwardly. Whether internalized or externalized, activism - and specifically, individual activism - is a flawed response to a corrupt system; it's deeply dysfunctional and destructive.
It's almost as though Lessing is saying that taking action would feed right into the system you're trying to change, and therefore strengthen it. That one must be a martyr to the cause - because the cause is bigger than any individual, and individualism is, by definition, antithetical to the collective.
I think this book actually succeeds well at showing the two-steps-forward-one-step-back process of disaffiliating with a political system with which one comes to disagree, or a gender stereotype against which one rebels.
If this is the innovation she's trying to achieve - making a kind of fiction that better reflects messy, non-linear reality - then ok.
But Lessing's bleak nihilism ends up beyond frustrating to me. She doesn't provide any hope that there's a positive, constructive alternative to societal - or interpersonal - woes.
I guess I like my fiction more fictional. "What you mean is more conventional, easier," I imagine Lessing spitting condescendingly back at me.
Maybe so. But one more thing:
The nail in the coffin for The Golden Notebook, for me, is that it is structure above and in deliberate, intentional exclusion of considerations of plot or character.
In achieving her vision of a never-before-written fiction that expresses reality more realistically than the conventional novel had achieved, Lessing wedges her characters into a plot that is spread thin to the point of transparency over a framework that shows through at every turn.
Maybe it's not fair to evaluate against 50 years of post-modernism, but it reads about as sophisticated as a 14-year-old’s journal scribblings, and so contrived as to be laughable.
And perhaps it's forgiveable, at least understandable, that there is leakage across the red, blue, black and yellow diaries so the structure itself, as a way to achieve her literary goals, is muddy.
If that's the point - if what she's saying is that it's not so easy to compartmentalize different aspects of one's life and that doing so leads to complete fragmentation (as shown in the golden notebook, natch), then mon dieu! That was a pretty long way around to that point.
Their 180-degree political differences aside, what this reminded me of was Ayn Rand with a little more literary polish. At least with Rand, you know what drum she’s banging and can dismiss her (or, if you’re so inclined, accept her) on that basis, and for those of us who find her politics and worldview disgusting, then on the basis of just plain bad writing.
The renowned, redoubtable, Nobel-prizewinning Lessing, on the other hand, is not as easily dismissed. Case in point, my ability to get deeply immersed in a review of a book I didn't enjoy and that I read more than four months ago.
For that - and a couple of other bits that I won't go into right now - two stars.(less)
An extraordinary novel about a time/place that I know little about except - as the author mentions through one of her characters - as the device used...moreAn extraordinary novel about a time/place that I know little about except - as the author mentions through one of her characters - as the device used by Western parents to get their children to finish their dinners.
What is amazing about this novel is how Adichie creates a set of characters involved in regular domestic affairs (working, studying, falling in love, being in love, cheating or worried about cheating, finding an identity, growing up, just generally living, etc. etc.) within the context of Nigeria's civil war and the creation (and starvation) of Biafra.
Then, within the set of characters, she subtly arranges them so that they exist in social strata that we rarely see or give credit to, when conducting our armchair political analysis from afar. Ever so gently, but oh-so-directly, she explains the West's complicity in allowing a level of suffering that is almost unimaginable. Yet - she stays within the framework of a conventional, domestic drama.
She takes us back and forth in time from the pre-revolutionary early 60s to the midst of the Biafran war in the late 60s. This structure works for a whole bunch of different reasons, one of which is that the events of the novel unpeel in a way that both reveals and adds layers of complexity, with the effect that we really get to know these characters over time - without the thing bloating up to be a huge, epic, family drama. We live their history with each other, with them. We see their shifting alliances, their conflicts, their individual idiosyncrasies, their humanity.
But with each switch in time (and a couple of other devices that I'll leave you to find out) - we also see the day-to-day horror as it unfolds. Subtle details that foreshadow and then recall key events that mark each phase of each character's decline as the war unfolds.
So it is a domestic drama - very conventional - within a novel about a truly horrific series of events, with these almost surreal, grisly details shown to the reader through the eyes of these characters - privileged characters, for the most part.
We see how their relative privilege declines - how society 'evens out' in a time of great deprivation. We see, as one character says, "There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable."
Technically, I think this novel is almost perfection. But ultimately what I love most about it is how much I cared for these characters, how much I felt for each of them as their stories unfolded.