The structure of Silver Sparrow is deceptively simple but allows plenty of room to explore the complexities of the story. That said, Jones' choices ar...moreThe structure of Silver Sparrow is deceptively simple but allows plenty of room to explore the complexities of the story. That said, Jones' choices are bold and her touch subtle. It's a hell of a novel with no easy answers. (less)
I can't believe how much I enjoyed this novel. I read it over three days, which is very unlike me. I typically either savor a book (i.e., read very sl...moreI can't believe how much I enjoyed this novel. I read it over three days, which is very unlike me. I typically either savor a book (i.e., read very slowly) or give up. So three days means I'm hooked. For some context, the only book I've read in 24 hours is Frankenstein, FWIW.
There are so many characters and situations that are too good to be true, yet the story has plenty of reality to bring the reader back to earth. Even in families and schools and neighborhoods gilded by privilege, some folks have to make a living, and bad shit goes down.
As a writer, I admire that the novel gets at--addresses--timely issues through characters and plot. The way events unfold, and the ways characters react, are all believable. The various first-person narrators reveal the complexity of the family's life yet keep the narrative moving forward. The prose is very smart, particularly the dialogue, which is packed with inside jokes and asides as real people talk but that so rarely works this well in fiction. I end up with a strong sense of who the characters are as people. They all mean well, and the author lets us like them without letting them off the hook. In particular, the adults need to grow up and step up. Will they do it? That is the question--again, just like real life.
Most of all, I love how much the character talk and that we're let into the various narrators' minds. We're not allowed in to get all the answers or for easy exposition. As satisfied as I felt with the arc and sense of closure the final scene creates, the novel leaves me with questions. That's as it should be. (less)
I've read some of the classic books on writing fiction (Forster, Wharton, Gardner) and found them unhelpful. They reveal those masters' tastes and giv...moreI've read some of the classic books on writing fiction (Forster, Wharton, Gardner) and found them unhelpful. They reveal those masters' tastes and gives me a sense of why certain novels and writers are great in their opinions, but I don't want to write novels like those, and those books haven't helped me understand how I might use their knowledge to move forward.
Wood's approach--to engage in a conversation with supposedly tried and true advice--is inspiring, providing freshened observations and giving this jaded English major a great model for my armchair criticism.
Wood doesn't show how fiction works in a mechanical sense, as some have complained. I don't have a problem with that. I don't need another treatise that promises to teach me what I really need to explore for myself. He provides some insight for my writerly exploration, focusing on how fiction works for readers, which I think is more useful.
Summarizing Brigid Lowe, he says that fiction's purpose is not to make us believe but, rather, to get the reader to imagine. A goal that powerful helps me better understand the work I need to do as a writer.(less)
**spoiler alert** One of Ours begins as a celebration of pastoral life in Nebraska. But that's not enough. Life must have meaning, and what else does...more**spoiler alert** One of Ours begins as a celebration of pastoral life in Nebraska. But that's not enough. Life must have meaning, and what else does a strapping, corn-fed young man do when he's not allowed to finish college or find fulfillment in marriage but go off to war? Along the way, he has fun as new friends die from influenza and, gosh, there's a lot of local color in war-torn France. But finally, he gets to experience battle with his brothers in arms, apparently providing him with his reason to live just in time to die.
What frustrates me is that I can't tell if Cather intends to show the pointlessness of war or if that's just my interpretation of the book. Because the narrator really seems to get off on every last detail of every landscape and every sunset, and while those details may be very lovely, they make for rambling narrative with lovely scenery, but what else? I tend to prefer writing that is driven by anything other than plot, but I kept wondering where the story was. The answer to that question is packed into the last 50 or so pages. After more than 300 pages of Claude's misery (yes, I get it: he doesn't fit in where he's obligated to live, and he can't stay with the people he's fits in with; yes, yes, I get it), he finally starts getting what he wants. If Cather had gone further with that part and trimmed the first 300 pages (by half) I probably would have been more interested.
Indeed, on the penultimate page is a painful truth I find riveting. The narrator, on behalf of Claude's mother, says about the veterans of the war that "one by one they quietly die by their own hand" because, like Claude, "they had hoped and believed too much" in the cause they fought for. I'm stunned that Cather ends there, as it seems there's plenty more to the story. To end with the hero's mother playing such a dramatic note and to exploit the suffering of veterans seems cheap and rather gutless, as if the whole point of the book is kill Claude off. After spending so much of the book establishing so many characters, Mahailey and Mrs. Wheeler are the only ones we witness responding to his death in the last few pages. We don't get even a brief hint of how his father, brother, or estranged wife take the news. It's really a strange choice, if only in terms of scale.(less)
The journey went further and further out of my--or probably anyone's--comfort zone, and I never wanted to turn back. I kept thinking of all the freaky...moreThe journey went further and further out of my--or probably anyone's--comfort zone, and I never wanted to turn back. I kept thinking of all the freaky academics I know (the one I'm all but married to, the ones I work with, the one I guess I am) and how they'd go to the ends of the earth for their scholarship. I could imagine many of them going to the trouble Chris Jaynes goes to in order to prove himself to the world and especially himself. Why? Well, readers who aren't interested in answering that question may not get this book, but I hope they give it a try. For me, the opening scene hooked me, all the way through the confrontation with Mr. Bowtie. Spot-on stuff!(less)
So I finally read this novel that's huge in a few ways: it won awards, it caused a stir, it's nearly 600 pages. The prose impressed me. I got hooked b...moreSo I finally read this novel that's huge in a few ways: it won awards, it caused a stir, it's nearly 600 pages. The prose impressed me. I got hooked by the details, both in the present action and in learning about how Chip ended up in his predicament. Between about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way through, I felt some fatigue. The narrator seemed self-serving at that point. Yes, Gary is a mess. Denise is a mess. They're all a mess. I didn't need quite the epic catalogue of details provided to me. But I kept going, because it's smart writing, and I wanted to find out where it was going. The structure works beautifully. Overall, I'm satisfied, and even a little stuffed.
Despite how messed up the characters the Lambert children are, things do seem to come pretty easily for them. They have big opportunities, e.g., jobs, cash, etc., that come just in the nick of time. They're never in real danger and never have to face consequences for their choices because someone with money appears just in time to save them. The corrections come when it's narratively convenient, which gets tiresome. They're kind-of-miserable-but-not-that-miserable boring middle-class people with a tad more drama in their lives than the ones who live on my street. Perhaps this is the point, but it's hard to believe one of these characters doesn't suffer a more significant fall.
The only character who believably suffers is Enid. She's an entirely believable product of her generation and circumstances, as is Albert, her husband. She oozes denial that cushions but distances her from all of the people she wants to love her. She's not horrible to people, although if I knew her, I'd want to stay away from her. But as a reader, I'm fascinated by how she suffers for having hope while making choices that prevent positive change. She works constantly to correct her situation, chugging along like the little engine who can't, but she never admits it. She's a classic example of a character whose story makes horrible living but great reading. (less)
George seems very much a gay man of his time, living an open secret but not free to declare who he is or who he loved. Of course, there are too many g...moreGeorge seems very much a gay man of his time, living an open secret but not free to declare who he is or who he loved. Of course, there are too many gay men who live this way, fiercely analytical but cut off from others most of the time, sometimes because they must, or maybe because it helps them feel safe.
I'm intrigued by the third person narration that moves closer to and further from the protagonist as necessary, and that sometimes transforms into first person narration. (less)
I bought this book for three reasons: 1) A friend of mine has been reading about Columbine, so the topic was on my mind. 2) I've never read a book by...moreI bought this book for three reasons: 1) A friend of mine has been reading about Columbine, so the topic was on my mind. 2) I've never read a book by Coupland. 3) I got it cheap at a library book sale, so I figured what the hell.
The first few pages grabbed me, and I became obsessed with reading it and finished it within two days. That kind of intensity is very rare for me. What I admire most is the structure, which quite effectively, IMHO, conveys how deeply one event and one person can affect so many people's lives. They all try very hard to make things work in their lives, but there's only so much they can do. They do crazy things, some of which don't work but sure as hell enlighten them. This all rings true to me.
The first-person narration is at times pointed to specific audiences, as if they're monologues or letters (at least one section is clearly a letter). Some readers may balk at such a presentational approach, but I loved that the characters were so honest about the subjectivity of their stories. And there is sufficient consistency of details among the four narrators' sections to make the novel cohesive. (less)
Reading this novella felt like looking at old jewelry at a flea market as the salesperson talks about who owned it--I didn't feel much emotional inves...moreReading this novella felt like looking at old jewelry at a flea market as the salesperson talks about who owned it--I didn't feel much emotional investment, nor did I get a sense of whether the narrator came anywhere close to the truth.
The title suggests that the cool surface belies what's going on beneath. That's sort of true, but the protagonist seems content, if not happy, to be trapped by her emotional reserve. She doesn't so much take chances as consider taking chances in the future. The one legitimate attempt she makes to reveal feelings results in an opportunity to pine for someone she won't see again for months, if ever. At the end, she is on the verge of sharing something, her emotional investment presumably greater and the stakes supposedly higher. Conveniently, the author and protagonist are not committed to following through.
**spoiler alert** This novel tells the story of every artist I've known who feels unappreciated, that the establishment is against them, that life is...more**spoiler alert** This novel tells the story of every artist I've known who feels unappreciated, that the establishment is against them, that life is unfair. At various points in my development, I would have strongly identified with Nora, the protagonist, and considered the events of this novel as proof that there are others like me.
Thankfully, feeling jaded comes in waves for most of the artists I know, rather than being a permanent way of life as it seems to be for Nora. I find myself unable to buy into Nora's paranoid worldview. Because she doesn't confront others--except for third-graders who misbehave--I just don't buy many of her interpretations of others' words and deeds because they don't have opportunities to confirm or deny, show signs of offense or discomfort.
It comes as no surprise to me that, among the catalog of ways the world has wronged her, the pièce de résistance comes just pages before the end of the novel. Instead of then confronting Sirena when they meet for lunch, Nora goes the gutless route by not calling Sirena to confirm their date. She says her piece to the reader, then she's done.
However, given how Nora's private solo moment was captured on video, it seems likely that Sirena also got footage of Nora and her husband having their private moment. Perhaps Sirena's betrayal is payback for Nora's. Or it's possible that Sirena and her husband set Nora up, as Nora believes, but it's not clear why Sirena would have gone to so much trouble or why she would see Nora as important enough to betray. If indeed Messud intends the reader to believe that some master plan drove the story, it's a shame, because it's a rather boring plan.
Despite all that disappointed me, I love Messud's prose. She writes gorgeous sentences and paragraphs, and her word choice at times is appropriately surprising. And my take on the novel is that the characters seem believably flawed but decent people. They have wants and needs, but none of them seems bent on abusing other people to fulfill their dreams. Nora is so invested in her Woman Upstairs persona--to the point of glamourizing it--I'm left wondering why Nora wouldn't or couldn't voice her expectations, or at least take some responsibility for how things went wrong. Ultimately, she's a 40-something adolescent, and that's just not interesting to me.(less)