**spoiler alert** I don't like to write reviews with spoilers, but I can't avoid it fir this book.
First the good: I very much enjoyed the narrative s...more**spoiler alert** I don't like to write reviews with spoilers, but I can't avoid it fir this book.
First the good: I very much enjoyed the narrative structure, in which several narrators' views merge seamlessly to tell the story. High degree of difficulty, interesting characters, done well. It was easy to read, and pulled me along nicely.
Not so good:Although Jacob's literalism was referred to many times, his narration contains many examples of figurative language. This may in fact be consistent with the way high-functioning people with his condition speak, but it jarred me out of the character several times. Why not have his narration avoid metaphors and similes? It seems a reasonably straightforward editing job; it's not like the writing is so elegant that the book would suffer. That's not what this novel is about.
Finally, the spoiler: the latter half of the book disappointed me. Three bothersome elements in fiction are coincidence, contrivance, and Deus ex machina, and this suffers from the first (Theo's choice of house to break into) and especially the second (we are expected to believe that Jacob never says that the victim was dead when he arrived, or that Emma never asks, ALTHOUGH she does ask if he's innocent and he says no). I'll accept that the lawyer doesn't want to hear Jacob admit the the crime, but the conclusion was so blitheringly obvious that all the characters dissolved for me the further I got into the trial -- and I am NOT a person who tends to anticipate endings. Picoult came up with a cute way to show a "house rule" and thought it was cleverly disguised, I guess, when it wasn't.
Too bad, really: the novel could have survived smarter characters. For me, it doesn't survive the way it is written.(less)
As I read through the library's copy of this innovative novel, I paused every few pages to strip out a sticky-note that a previous reader had attached...moreAs I read through the library's copy of this innovative novel, I paused every few pages to strip out a sticky-note that a previous reader had attached -- maybe one every fifteen pages. Like most readers, I think, when I happen across a margin note in a library copy or a used book, I read it, to see if it contains a nugget of insight that could inform my own reading. Crowdsourcing, you know. Well, I read the early notes and found them entirely unimpressive: banal summaries, aiming to do little more than identify what was happening on a given page. "Jocelyn is a recovering addict." "Noreen is very weird." "The way this book jumps around can be very confusing at times."
I can quote these because I saved them all, simply to avoid littering. I stickied them to each other, into a makeshift bookmark. That was all they were good for. Then I got to the end of the novel, and, on the acknowledgements page, the stickerer left one final sticky-note: "notes by Dean". What a riot! It was a piece of performance art! Whether intentionally or not, it was as desultory and low-quality as much performance art is, but I had to laugh.
Like the previous reader's bizarre little bustle of notes, Egan's novel makes a stab at altering and enhancing the narrative experience; unlike the banal note-bustle, the novel is much more than a mere ploy. This deserves to be considered a postmodern milestone that adds to the narrative landscape for thematic effect, not simply in the way of some self-congratulatory "art" that values newness for the sake of newness.
Each of the wedded, webbed stories enriches the novel overall; as the web broadens, the reading experience deepens. Not all stories are equally good -- "Goodbye, My Love", in which Sasha's uncle Ted searches for her in Naples, was my favorite, while I was less impressed with "X's and O's"; interestingly, both of those stories reminded me of George Saunders in voice and character and action. Egan even delves into some Saunders-like sci-fi that (as with Saunders) isn't really sci-fi at all. "Great Rock and Roll Pauses," done in the form of a PowerPoint from a 12-year-old girl, could come off as self-indulgent, but is an affectingly creative and touching story that just happens to communicate in slides instead of paragraphs, trying (and generally succeeding) to suggest animation and presentation. Egan has a deft touch, like a soft voice the sweetness of which is not appreciated until one hears it up close. Her patience in developing the various strands becomes evident as the book goes on, back and forth through time, into the future.
I wish I could say this was a classic, even a postmodern classic. It is enjoyable to read, fast-paced, full of rich characters, and extremely creative. Its satirical commentaries and themes about connection and disconnection are astutely rendered evocations of the (post)modern world that can be both depressing and enormously engaging to us all. I hope it catches an updraft and floats back into the public and critical consciousness. Not many books in the 21st century have struck me as more apt to it than this one. When I come back to the novel in a few years, I want my reading experience to be as positive as this first read was.(less)
Fast-paced and competitive as our modern world is, experiencing a novel like this one, constructed by the assured master Lahiri, is a gift that every...moreFast-paced and competitive as our modern world is, experiencing a novel like this one, constructed by the assured master Lahiri, is a gift that every adult should cherish. Realistic family-based stories abound in the market of fiction, bringing readers escape and reflection. But it takes a Lahiri, with her surgical precision, to recreate us in the way that only the best literature can.
Were I to categorize the drama in this sort of realistic fiction genre, I would start by posing that some revolve around secrets that are not revealed until later in the book -- we use words like "spoiler" to talk about the power these plots hold -- and others tell the secret early on and make us readers co-conspirators in withholding it from characters. This novel uses the second formula brilliantly: when will Bela discover the story of her birth? How? Will she at all? More importantly, that mystery is not even the most important thing about the novel, which glides and builds and wrenches even as we and Subhash and Gauri know the secret and the other characters do not.
This most adult of adult fiction -- it put me in mind of books like Never Let Me Go and Kaaterskill Falls -- manages time with ache-inducing artistry. Scenes uncoil with painstaking stippling, then shed time like a snake's skin, in huge swathes. Nothing seems overdramatic or otherwise out of proportion. Pain and pity rise and recede, as the several narratorial voices mingle. Scenes to which we had not been privy to appear later, but we were not waiting for them, because we had been well-fed on the dishes in front of us; these insertions are instantly essential even as their omission never seemed to have been a burden on the story.
I was unsure whether to place this on my Goodreads "Historical fiction" shelf. Initially, no; maybe I'll change my mind later. One thing for sure is that Lahiri uses the strands of the World-historical and the Individual to the enhancement of both. The Naxalbari/Naxalite story and the general post-partition history of India develop in ways that are easy to understand. Similarly, science and history and even agriculture are active participants; this novel is hard to pigeonhole, to its credit, and expansive despite its individual focus, to its even greater credit.
But the greatest achievement here is psychological, in the way of the best novels. In straightforward, unadorned, loose-constructed sentences like Allegra Goodman's (but more beautiful), Lahiri has given life not only to several realistic, human, imperfect characters, but to life itself in all its interpersonal and intrapersonal messiness. "In a world of diminishing mystery," she writes, "the unknown persists" (307). It is testament to the novel's greatness that this profound truth about the Modern age can be brought to life so vividly.(less)
I like my humor with intelligence, which is why Fey is an all-time favorite. There's apparently a subgenre of this sort of semi-memoir, semi-humor boo...moreI like my humor with intelligence, which is why Fey is an all-time favorite. There's apparently a subgenre of this sort of semi-memoir, semi-humor book (Mindy Kaling's subsequent book, too, although Fey's is much better). Who knew?
This was a great choice for my first e-read.(less)
The book I finished the day I started this one is Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Hearing that, you surely understand how jarring it was for me to rea...moreThe book I finished the day I started this one is Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Hearing that, you surely understand how jarring it was for me to read Didion's thoughts about self-pity. The privileged life of Didion and her late husband, John Gregory Dunne, juxtaposed uneasily with my own (and I'm hardly without privilege!), let alone Pecola Breedlove's. And yet, Didion won me over with this heartfelt rumination on horrors I would wish on nobody: the sudden death of a spouse, the devastating illness of a daughter.
The action and scope of some of my recent fictional reads (The Bluest Eye, The Interestings, and Go Tell It on the Mountain, all of which have plenty of things to say about privilege, although certainly not the same things) contrast mightily with Didion's nuanced, quotidian musings. Never in my reading life has a read been so impacted by the other reads that happenstance has juxtaposed it with. (I mention how the nearness of The Blues Eye also had an impact on my reading of The Interestings in my goodreads review of the latter; the impact was greater here with Didion...but it occurs to me that the real point this makes is about the power of Toni Morrison.)
The linchpin of this book, for me, is that Didion is not self-pitying. She is real, regardless of the dignitaries she knows, the opportunities she got (and earned), the travel she has done. "I kept saying to myself," she writes, "that I had been lucky all my life. The point, as I saw it, was that this gave me no right to think of myself as unlucky now" (172). She's just correct. To dislike her for her privilege is to engage a lack of empathy that would offend the humanism of Toni Morrison, Meg Wolitzer, and James Baldwin.
The musings on dying and living -- like her remembering John talking about "doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them but because we wanted to do them" (183) -- are simultaneously blunt, touching, and sometimes annoyingly obvious. She is no philosopher; she is a journalist. She is thoughtful because she is writerly, in the best way, but she is essentially writerly. That's perfectly appropriate. The research and characterization engaged me deeply, and I was struck by very thoughtful notes she synthesized into her musings, like Philippe Aries's "A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty" (qtd. on 192), in Western Attitudes toward Death and D.H. Lawrence's poetic line "I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself" (qtd. on 193). "Time," she writes, in a characteristically artistic execution of an almost-banal line, "is the school in which we learn" (198).
I admit that although she wields her art with skill, I was put off by some precious overuse of certain stylistic devices...and then I forgave her because the book is so much more earnest than it is precious. I admit that I'm a little curious to read some of her and Dunne's books, now that I've heard snippets. I admit that I wonder if I could be as strong as she was in the face of tragedy. She is not portraying herself here as any sort of a hero, despite whatever privilege she glibly mentions; her humanity is what is compelling.(less)
This was one of the most disturbing books I have read, but it is also very compelling. Made into a disturbing -- but much less disturbing -- and impre...moreThis was one of the most disturbing books I have read, but it is also very compelling. Made into a disturbing -- but much less disturbing -- and impressive film that has deservedly won high praise, it does not relent. Precious's graphic recollection of incest and abuse is in the same category as chillingly repulsive violence recounted in such books as Bastard Out of Carolina, and probably more wrenching than even that brutal novel.
The character's honesty -- and, at the end, all the girls' stories -- commands every bit of attention and, despite some (understandable) vitriol, Precious is a deeply sympathetic character. Sapphire has created a book that is surprisingly readable despite the intensity of the material.
There is one odd 17-page segment when the narration switches from Precious's misspelled rambling prose to a third-person narrator, and I'm still not quite sure why that shift occurs. It is well-done, and the rest is well-done, but the shift could have been avoided. It doesn't interfere too much, I suppose, but it's a structural question-mark in a book where voice is otherwise paramount.(less)
Toni Morrison's innovation was evident from the start of her career. This, her first novel, begins with the devolution of a Dick & Jane book -- a...moreToni Morrison's innovation was evident from the start of her career. This, her first novel, begins with the devolution of a Dick & Jane book -- a representation of a stereotypical life that Claudia and especially Pecola Breedlove do not lead -- into chaos, simply by the the removal of structure. Such an eloquent mirroring of theme in structure, setting a tone with elegant efficiency, critiquing both society and the expectations of readers: even in her first novel, her mastery is evident on page 1.
The novel is devastating, both in the gruesome parts that censors have hollered over and in the more gently worded but still cutting lines, like Claudia's comment about her girlish innocence: "Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then" (74). Anyone who loves or is capable of loving a child has to feel that like a blow to the chest. There's intelligent subversion throughout, from the opening clause of the first season in the seasonally-organized story ("The nuns go by as quiet as lust") to the unflinching but also sympathetic backstories of villains like Cholly and Junior. Judge not, lest ye be judged...but don't forget that there is indeed evil in the world. It sounds like an unhelpful contradiction until Morrison gets us thinking about it, when it becomes a profound contradiction that speaks to human universals.
Some critics of Zora Neale Hurston, herself entirely unapologetic, disliked her for focusing on women's -- indeed, individuals' -- issues in what they saw as a bourgeois way that minimized the struggle of African-Americans. Morrison starts her career in a way that both Hurston and her critics would have admired intensely. It's brutal stuff, beautifully done.(less)
I may not be an especially religious person, but as a fan of the intelligentsia I am especially grateful when a piece of literary fiction is reverenti...moreI may not be an especially religious person, but as a fan of the intelligentsia I am especially grateful when a piece of literary fiction is reverential of (but not cloying about) religion. It irritates the heck out of me when certain self-proclaimed religious types warble self-righteously about how the educated class disrespects religion as a matter of course -- it goes without saying that this is nonsense, but I do note that there's an undercurrent of skepticism that I don't mind at all (it's just what it means to be human, if you ask me) but which gives a veneer of credence to the irresponsible claim that the educated class is biased against religion. For the sake of civil discourse in civil society, I want that veneer stripped away.
Therefore it cheered me to be able to add this lovely, deceptively complex novel to my short list of literary fictions that are reverential of (but not cloying about) religion. In case you're wondering, that list is topped by the controversial Crime and Punishment. Robinson's narrator is a wonderful character, whose life is enhanced by his faith, even if he is hardly perfect.
The novel takes a while to get moving -- it is almost a third of the way over before the reader gets a strong sense of abiding conflict -- but Robinson is a good enough characterizer and voice-evoker to make the first hundred pages paint the context for John Ames's life be evocative in itself. This is clearly an adults' book: patient, methodical, nuanced, delicate.
One especially intriguing element to me was the historical awareness. To what effect is it to set the novel in 1956, on the verge of a postmodern age? Robinson counts back on the old man's life, to the mildly historical links to an early 20th century and the stronger links to the grandfather's pre-Civil War activity. It is a credit to Robinson's talent for naturalistic prose that this 1950s tail of an olden age -- entertainments like television finally coming into being, isolation in the heartland coming to the last decade or so of its long run -- grows into a reinforcement of her themes. The bridge between the 19th and the 20th centuries seems robust in John Ames and his friend Boughton, even as their robustness has started to fade.
(As someone who is actively searching for female authors' novels to inject into a very male curriculum, I had to grin to find this female author so assiduously involved in the development of a fathers-and-sons motif, from the character to his grandfather to his namesake to his son to Biblical Abraham, etc.)
This novel makes a reader appreciate faith and friendship, and develops a thoughtful conversation about ontology that all of us should be engaging in. A high schooler may not be ready to appreciate this, but it is a very fine piece of affirmative, non-hyperbolic, thoughtful adult fiction.(less)
A title like this one, especially when it refers to what a group of kids at an arts camp call themselves, screams out "I am being ironic!" Meg Wolitze...moreA title like this one, especially when it refers to what a group of kids at an arts camp call themselves, screams out "I am being ironic!" Meg Wolitzer's novel doubles back on that, as expected, and then doubles back again: these are not spectacular lives, but the examination of them does due diligence to the idea of being interested. More than any recent novel that springs to mind, this one has important, interesting things to say about the business (I shouldn't use that word) of being creative, which, combined with Wolitzer's intelligently measured style and structure, makes this a book worth reading.
Jules nee Julie Jacobsen sees herself as unspectacular other than having been tapped to join a cadre of popular kids at the Spirit-in-the-Woods camp in the Berkshires, and feels blessed for having been so tapped. Her humor leads her to an early success on the stage, and the trajectory seems to arc upward. Like so many other things in this novel that surges forward and backward through time in a way that could be disorienting or cloying but works under Wolitzer's sure hand, that expectation does not match the reality.
There is banality under surfaces, brilliant figments of the imagination, questionable and even reprehensible morality, and plenty of plain old human fumbling. Jules's unartistic but good husband, Dennis, whose own connection to the Berkshires is far less glamorous than Spirit-in-the-Pines, sounded the note that resonated most deeply: talking about his worry about getting back into his former work as an ultrasound technician, he muses, "I can't bear the idea of looking deeply. Because you inevitably turn up horrible things" (309).
Yes, well, you do, and that's living, Wolitzer shows. Under the surface lurk a variety of cancers, many but not all of them literal. Among the hidden operators is talent, which is used and abused. The demons plunge their claws deep into a variety of people in a variety of ways, variety being both impressive and natural, as Wolitzer weaves it in.
When I started reading this novel, I was finishing up Toni Morrison's first classic, The Bluest Eye. Morrison's outcast has no group of Interestings, and no privilege of any sort -- certainly not of the sort that Jules's new circle provides. My readerly response to Wolitzer's novel was perhaps a bit tainted by the juxtaposition, what with the indulgence and solipsism of her characters drawn in sharper relief through that comparison. This of course is unfair as criticism, but I mention it because Wolitzer overcame it anyway, developing characters and themes that withstood context's attempt to push them over the edge. There is something ineffably real and even interesting about the Interestings -- that's the aforementioned second doubling-back at work -- as a plainly non-epic story gains an aura of the epic in time and universality. This novel about artists, successful and wannabe and foiled and marginal, is the work of an excellent artist.(less)
This intelligent, sure-handed author understands the universal human even as she picks apart the various human "tribes'" differences with unusual insi...moreThis intelligent, sure-handed author understands the universal human even as she picks apart the various human "tribes'" differences with unusual insight. This novel doesn't have to delve into hyperbolic drama to keep its reader engaged -- better to master the quotidian, especially the often-overlooked quotidian, which Adichie does with the motif of women's hair that starts the novel and weaves itself inextricably through it. The alienness, the distance, the seeking, the change, the morality and immorality: Adichie creates a huge cast that includes many eyes who at first seem superfluous, but are in fact present to "not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness." These people, from whom Adichie works assiduously to separate us innocent readers, ""would not understand why people like [one of the central characters], who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happeend in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty" (278).
So goes this unpretentious but literary novel, which melds imperfect people with idealized yearnings and comes through with great empathy. The Nigeria, the America, and the England that the novel develops are far from utopias. Each illuminates a process, not a destination, which is how Adichie can be so successful designing loops instead of arrows. Along the way, race and power and gender and morality and sex and success and identity go under the microscope, none of them being the target but all being mixed into the essential process of error and error and trial and error. As the novel notes more than once, it is context that we must not lose sight of.
Finally, though, the title is not a red herring: this is about Americanah, both the sort of haughty returnee suggested by that Nigerian phrase and the general sense of someone who has caught some Americanness. There is a certain kind of hoping and striving that is not unique to Americans but that the American myth brings into focus. Adichie knows her myths, and maneuvers them with great subtlety...and sometimes bluntness too.
This reminds me of a few novels I have read or re-read recently, but as literature I think it excels them both. One is Kite Runner, with its Afghan who has to return from the U.S. to his homeland, and the other is the much more recent Ghana Must Go. Like the latter novel, this one plays with time and narration, but does it more deftly; like the former novel, this one has a lot to say about growing up and growing into one's identity. Somehow, the Hosseini novel -- which I quite liked -- became something that young teenagers read, despite its desperately serious worldly subject matter...or maybe because of it. The other two are more definitely novels for adults, but all three deserve consideration by adult readers. It is the story of people "speckled stubbornly with hope" and those few among them who "spun [themselves] into being" (475). The Dream, greater than the mythologized American Dream but less glossy, still wields immense power.
Americanah has already far exceeded Ghana Must Go in its reach; it is unfortunate that it probably won't catch up to the juggernaut Kite Runner in the cultural/literary consciousness. The new novel is certainly the most masterful and profound of the three.(less)
The masterful Margaret Atwood makes a montage of voices and media, of third person and first person, of genres and frame stories and metafiction, to t...moreThe masterful Margaret Atwood makes a montage of voices and media, of third person and first person, of genres and frame stories and metafiction, to the extent that a reader could be excused in thinking of "modernist" or "postmodernist" as a first word to describe this novel. That reduction often cows people, because they see those words as marking form over content. Don't fear, reader, because this story is a story first and foremost, and an exciting and engaging one at that.
Atwood's patience is a wonder. She unwinds this almost-epic tale in measured spoonfuls, each of which is delicious, none of which give the sense "Don't worry about that, it'll make sense later" or -- worse -- "This is important to the capital-A-Art, so bear with it". True, not every element is immediately obvious, but Atwood engages our uncertainty through mystery.
Her command of characterization is especially deft. Characters reek of personality; fiendish acts jab the reader's sensibilities, and others' weaknesses jab even more fiercely. She manages the internal life of her central figures with a firm hand, and even weak characters' makeups round out with complexity and imaginatively logical idiosyncracy that helps the plot surge forward more and more forcefully, despite the fact that some of the key events have been seeded into the reader's consciousness from early on in the physical book.
Through all of this, my favorite element is her mixing of reality and fantasy. Indeed this is the most realistic of realistic novels, but the fantastic book within a book is redolent on its own in addition to providing essential struts underpinning the outer story. (Or, I should say, the outer outer story -- never one to take it easy, narratively, Atwood has layered inside layers, and done it elegantly. The degree of difficulty here is extremely high, which makes her mastery all the more enjoyable.)
After the disappointment of The Robber Bride I found myself doubting the Atwood I admired from The Handmaid's Tale, but this novel redeems my faith in her and more -- it's a truly great piece of literature, rich and complex without being pretentious, although many would assume that those last two adjectives are inseparable from each other. Laura, the narrator's mysterious, principled, literal-minded sister, says at one point, "It's just a poem. You can't always tell what poems mean" (335). The joy in reading this novel is that I forgot to wonder what it meant, and simply enjoyed being enveloped by it.(less)
I am continuing my quest to find fresh new literature for high-schoolers to read. I wish I could say this novel is perfect for that list. It's not, bu...moreI am continuing my quest to find fresh new literature for high-schoolers to read. I wish I could say this novel is perfect for that list. It's not, but not because it's not an excellent novel. It is that.
Unfortunately, this marvelous novel requires the kind of patience and maturity that is rare even among the best high school literature students. That said, these are exactly the qualities that admirably mature literature can engender in the process of challenging our brains (including student brains). I would love to see this novel added to AP Literature lists, and hope that it is, but I'd be surprised. Here are a few reasons why:
1) Long stretches of not much "happening". The narrator, known only as "Reno", is "shopping for experience" (313) and wants "life to happen" (298), but even though she literally attains record-setting velocity, she is strangely passive and quiet for much of the story. During these stretches, she observes and hears theory and weirdness, and seems to be at the center of a whirling world in which almost nothing really significant matters. Sympathy is in short supply, drama even shorter. I can see readers struggling to keep moving through the first half of the novel. (When SparkNotes come out for this, they will probably be atrocious, and make the book sound impossibly solipsistic.)
2) Protectiveness. People who underestimate the ability of teenagers not to be turned into raving lunatics when they (the teenagers) encounter raving lunacy. Reno experiences sex; amoral and even immoral people are not slapped down by fate; capitalism receives criticism; there is some unfiltered language and thought, courtesy of an unfiltered historical "moment" in the history of art. Cautious people will say that this book is unfit for our kids. I understand it -- and there is some truth there, because only the most advanced readers really can get out of this book what Kushner artfully seeds through it -- but on the other hand we should be talking about (in AP) adult-level readership.
3) Postmodernism. Many outstanding literary works illuminate postmodern ideas; this is one of very few in which the literal content -- not simply the structure or themes -- is postmodern (or, is postmodernism). The 1970s art world gets an enormously intellectual treatment here, not without the satire that its characters richly deserve. This material is difficult and abstract. Two analogues that occurred to me are the exquisite The Things They Carried and, to a lesser degree, because its similarity is more in style than in content, White Noise. But this is rare stuff, intellectual stuff, stuff that demands political and historical and art-historical awareness on a scale far beyond that of most literary materials.
Okay. Here are some self-rebuttals, of a sort:
1) As I got to the latter half of the novel, things waved themselves in front of my face, begging to be written down. Ideas, insights, connections: the novel develops patiently but richly, but even when it starts to "move" it is not didactic or stereotypically energetic -- it's just rich.
Moreover, the writing is magnificent. I just finished reading The Yellow Birds by poet-turned-novelist Kevin Powers. His writing is excellent, but Kushner's is superior -- as good as anything I have seen in prose written in this millennium. If a good writer's figurative language, even in the condensed form of a poem, hits a nerve six or seven times out of ten, that's pretty good, as long as none of those other three or four clang. Kushner's batting average is as good as anything I have ever seen in prose. Her images settle snugly into place, reflecting both vision and theme. Garbage hangs from balconies in an ugly neighborhood "like colostomy bags" (271), a porn theater has a tongue-like carpet (176?), Giddle seems wet like "a piece of candy that had been in someone's mouth" (179), Reno describes being led in dancing as like mouthing the words to a song I didn't know (180) in a perfect evocation of being slightly off-balance. Kushner's eye and sensibility are inspired.
And writing being more than just description, it is even more important that Kushner has things to say: her intelligence is also superior. Generalizations never slide out as clichéd or obvious. It fits with the characters' artistic sensibilities, and Reno's quest to figure out the message of the world.
The characters are not savants, but artists, and the stuff they spout makes sense around them as characters, which is important because the large cast of characters is full of distinction and depth. They talk. They think. That's what they do. The novel starts with action, and action arrives when it must, but it never pushes. Yes, the story sometimes seems stalled, but that fits the characters and the scene, and helps develop Reno in particular.
2) On the one hand, we can and should never ignore the legitimate concerns of people who feel that their children will be threatened by language and idea, because to do so would both (a) abrogate our responsibility as educators and (b) deny that language and idea really do have the immense power that lovers of literature ascribe (correctly) to them. On the other hand, if framed as an evocation of an intellectual yet normal young woman's search, this novel can empower exactly the intellectual population who need challenges other than what the standardized-testing-regimen's multiple-choice world tends to provide. A great teacher could lead some profound discussions on this novel, I believe. The level of complexity here overwhelms most of what flows from more straightforward works, and it's not merely self-serving or solipsistic. There are excursions on velocity and time and love and fire and looting and responsibility that do everything that a great book should do. Sometimes, those risks are indulgence, and pay little reward; here, the risk may be obvious, but the reward is as well.
3) Should AP access pomo? Of course (I hope it's a focus during reading of TTTC and The French Lieutenant's Woman, but who knows how often those things get read in high school.) And even I, who have been using pomo to address the late 20th century for strong high school students over the past decade, don't think that a great AP course requires reference to pomo. That said, great literature should make us think, regardless of how a given book might be "categorized" by this critic or that reader, and this one really does. Themes and structures common to pomo, supplemented by the explicit setting in the epicenter of postmodernism (the New York art scene), thrive in this excellent novel. Even if the term never appears, the book speaks volumes about the (post)modern condition as well as the general human condition.
So. This may be the second-best "great American novel" published so far in the 21st century, after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier Clay, and I would venture to say that it's one of the best of the last generation or two to have a young female voice. That in itself is worth its weight in gold. I stipulate that I love this stuff, and did before I cracked this book, so maybe I'm biased. But even if The Flamethrowers is not our parents' generation's idea of a novel for 17-to-22-year-olds, I sure hope that people will be reading and talking about it soon.(less)
When one is at a wedding, one sees the photographer and notices him or her. A good photographer gradually dissolves, leaving only the pictures. An irr...moreWhen one is at a wedding, one sees the photographer and notices him or her. A good photographer gradually dissolves, leaving only the pictures. An irritating one, who may have talent, is always in view.
So it is with writers. Taiye Selasi has a poetic style, snapping an artful picture quite often, leaving the story-construction to us readers. The gaps are noticeable at first, between the short stanzas of 3 or 5 lines, and then they blur away, and pages pass in clumps.
Ghana Must Go is clearly a novel for adults -- philosophical but not tedious, knowing but not pedantic, cultured but not haughty. It is secure in its gait. It takes shape through stippling, like a photo album, thanks to the reader's knowledge of the world, which Selasi judges with admirable skill almost all the time. "Impressionistic" is the word that lurched to the front of my mind as I made my way through this very stylized, very stylish novel. Even among that subset of novels that aggressively use multiple perspectives, the multiplicity of perspectives here is daunting, which only deepens the stippling effect of Selasi's writing. It's poetic, which is often very good, especially in the first section of this three-part novel. Chapter 9 (p.61) of the first section is a good example.
Overall, unfortunately, it's not as great as it seemed destined to be from its vibrant start. Selasi, the artist/photographer, interferes too much. Structure seems to be an end in itself, and not integrated in a meaningful way; many components, from the family tree to the punnish "Gone", "Going", and "Go" section titles to the withheld-but-hinted-at monstrosity end up seeming manipulative more than organic. I think it would be fair to say that Selasi is a better writer than she is a novelist. (To be fair: few aren't.)
Two crucial plot points -- neither of which I should reveal here -- end up seeming somewhat cartoonish (cartoonishly unfortunate, that is: they are "cartoonish" not in subject matter but in extremity), out of keeping with the best parts of the book, which are elegantly subtle. Throughout the novel arise dozens of lovely passages and insightful observations. Like a gawky colt, the book is beautiful despite it being obvious how hard it is trying.
This novel remains a pleasant reading experience despite the imperfections. Unlike many novels in which the structure and/or plot seem contrived, this one never drags, and Selasi deserves great credit for that. Paradoxically, the novel may have ended up more richly complex had she not tried so hard. (less)
After I finished this book but before I wrote this comment, I googled the author, and came up with this, from Lifetime (who produced the movie based o...moreAfter I finished this book but before I wrote this comment, I googled the author, and came up with this, from Lifetime (who produced the movie based on her story): "The real inspiration behind this movie talks about how to fake a pregnancy, the impact of TV shows like Teen Mom, being on a Lifetime movie set and more."
If the Gaby Rodriguez who wrote this fine book is who she says she is, she was probably disgusted by this tagline. It does exactly what she rails against: it reduces a thoughtful, complex project into a glamorous-seeming bit of celebrity. An instruction manual on How to fake a pregnancy? As if that's why Rodriguez wrote the book? It turned my stomach to see that it's same-as-it-ever-was in the media industry.
I generally find didactic memoirs enormously distasteful, but Rodriguez is so likeable and earnest that even her preachy moments don't come off as preachy. She is clearly a thoughtful young person in the best sense of the word: as much of the value there derives from the "ful" as from the "thought", and the robustness of her consideration and empathy and insight -- and her unwillingness to back off her personal philosophy -- resonates impressively.
Here's a characteristic passage from the book:
It takes hard work to better ourselves and break out of the boxes society wants to put us in. No one should accept a life where they're collecting welfare and scraping by and never really achieving for themselves--and I don't say that in a judgmental way. My mother had times when she was on welfare and got medical coupons and food stamps. There are times when government assistance is needed to survive--but that should always be saved for when it's truly necessary, and only for as long as it's truly necessary. No matter what your lot is in life, you can work to educate yourself and find a job that's satisfying and useful and pays the bills, so that you can be a good example for the people around you. Because they may need encouragement to do the same thing. (214-5)
That statement would come off as too harsh to many in our Manichaean society today and too squishy to others, and both extreme reactions would be a shame. This kid lived this philosophy, and it works. She deserves the platform from which to promote this ideal, because it's not simply an ideal.
But that's not my point, really. Her earnest, candid, clear personal and writing styles are evoked in that passage. The story itself unravels slowly at first, as she details the key elements of her backstory, but then it cooks. Overall, this book is very much worth the short time one needs to read it.
Despite the fervent commitment in her tone, the book should be one that builds empathy in us all. Some on either end of the political spectrum may find it irritating, but we all should admit that Rodriguez devised her project and completed it out of a sense of concern for everyone around her. What more can we ask of our young people today?(less)
The excellent John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars and vlog/tumblr/Nerdfighter fame) recommended this book so enthusiastically in his NYT book review...moreThe excellent John Green (of The Fault in Our Stars and vlog/tumblr/Nerdfighter fame) recommended this book so enthusiastically in his NYT book review that I had to check it out. Now that I have read it, I can say that (a) I disagree with a few relatively minor things in his review and (b) I agree completely with all the major things in his review: this is a scintillatingly enthralling book.
(One interesting sidelight: the review is headed "CHILDREN'S BOOKS", of which this is not one. I have unspooled this Is-YA-Literary a.k.a. What-Exactly-Is-YA? thread before. This novel does not hold back with the kind of unfiltered cursing that characterizes young adulthood and which is generally not accepted when referring to childhood. The themes are much too serious for children, but entirely appropriate for young adults, who, I repeat, are not children. If you are squeamish about very foul language [plenty of f-words and even a cameo by the c-word] and adult themes for pre-teens, this may not be a book for you to recommend. But it is excruciatingly authentic in so many ways that you may want to reconsider that filter.)
Two quotations from the novel ricocheted around in my head for a while after I read them -- that in itself marks Rowell's writing as unusually good. One is one that Green clearly loves, because he goes out of his way to quote it in his review: "Eleanor was right: she never looked nice. She looked like art, and art wasn't supposed to look nice; it was supposed to make you feel something" (165). That definition of art fits not only with the characters but with the overall idea of fiction and especially literature, which is certainly supposed to make us feel something complex in the same sort of organically developed way that the relationships in this book come to fruition.
The other sentence (a bit of semi-cheesy wisdom, spoken by Park's Korean mother) refers to the poverty that looms large in the novel: "When you always hungry, you get hungry in your head" (189). Various types of need -- all of them desperate in one way or another, and many (but not all of them) particularly Eleanor's -- pierce the story as essentially as they do other heart-wrenchingly and devastating mature novels about the young and desperate, like Kaye Gibbons's Ellen Foster and Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina. Those were the first two that come to mind.
Park's mother follows up that wisdom by acknowledging that her middle-class son hasn't known that kind of hunger -- and she hopes he never will. The fact that Eleanor does is central to what keeps this from being a more lightweight story, like Matched from the future or The Secret Life of Bees from the past. (Note: Bees addresses many serious themes, I agree, but it never seems like anything but fiction. The heft of human nature doesn't seem to sit on that book as well as it does on this one.) Both of those novels are enjoyable, but neither coheres as well as E&P, and both seem more self-important.
I wish I could say that E&P hangs together as well over its last fifty pages as it does through the majority of its arc; even though it doesn't quite do that, it is still an extremely compelling picture of American teenagerhood. Music, that unavoidable element of American teen existence, plays a large role in the authenticity of the portrait.
One last thing: if I were a teen when I were reading this and The Fault in Our Stars, those books probably would have engendered a powerful inclination toward romanticism, not because they make life seem easy but because they make it full of marvel and notTwilight-melodrama. (Well, not as much, at least.) I'm sure, though, that millions of American youths can't figure out why Rowell's and Green's flawed youths speak so cleverly so often, even as they think of themselves as oafs and ogres. Maybe that's what a new era of literary fiction is doing: placing an honest eloquence juuuuuuust far enough above us that we aspire to it without being able to reach it easily. I have no problem with that.(less)
It almost defies the imagination to consider what a satire of reality TV -- or, for that matter, anything in the world of TV -- might look like, becau...moreIt almost defies the imagination to consider what a satire of reality TV -- or, for that matter, anything in the world of TV -- might look like, because the genre is already so ludicrous. This fast-talking, quick-to-read novel figures out how to do it, though.
The story starts in the dysfunctional world of TV and ends up revealing the world of the dysfunctional protagonist who makes her living there. Or tries to. Surrounded by farcical characters (my favorite is the bombastic, sugar-glider-loving Kyle), she sometimes thinks she's the only sane one...but it soon becomes clear that she is being a wee bit generous when she calls herself sane.
Funny lines, funny characters, great 1980s soundtrack, and plenty of clever reflections on how bizarre the entertainment industry is. I read it in one sitting!(less)
I often inveigh against the promiscuous use of words like "incredible" and "awesome" and even "terrific", partially because I'm incurably pedantic and...moreI often inveigh against the promiscuous use of words like "incredible" and "awesome" and even "terrific", partially because I'm incurably pedantic and partially because that promiscuous use -- to describe pop songs or entertaining movies or articles of clothing, or what-have-you -- leaves us without suitable language to describe things like this story, and the book that Rebecca Skloot has constructed around it. This story, and the achievement of documenting it so effectively, is revelatory about many essential elements of our society and the modern world. It is incredible, awesome, and, perhaps more than anything, terrific...as in, inspiring a profound terror.
I recently read an article in Smithsonian that describes how scientists made the definitive assessment of how chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were in fact...moreI recently read an article in Smithsonian that describes how scientists made the definitive assessment of how chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were in fact harming the environment. What struck me most was not the ingenuity (impressive though that was) but the rigor with which true scientific thought examined the available facts and sought out more when needed. The unfortunate stereotype of academic types as left-wing ideologues -- not that I believed it -- buckled and crumbled.
Kingsolver's new novel, which does have a didactic edge to it, reminded me of this. A novelist and a good reader should not be dogmatic any more than a scientist should. Kingsolver may have turned off dogmatists by writing what may be the boldest literary endeavor into the topic of climate change, but she deserves better treatment. She is a worthy empath, who endows rural Tennessee with great humanity...or, scratch that, she reveals great humanity where some observers might expect to see only Bible Belted dogmatism.
Science, farming, the rural South, immigrants, religion, and environmental activists all get deft and complex treatment in her sure hands. Easygoing and often funny prose weaves literature with poignancy; moments seem ready to tip into melodrama, but those moments are saved, and the salvation supers the assumed path with sobering surprises. (Sorry about all the sibilance -- not intentional.)
Beauty, especially in unexpected places, is one of the things this novel shows most ably. Maybe it's not even beauty but grace or nobility. In any case, Dellarobia Turnbow's Bildungsroman is an engaging piece of craft from a well-established novelist; I may like this book best of all among Kingsolver's many (I have read three).(less)
Perhaps what happened is this: Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie met for lunch one day, and one of them complained that she thought that...morePerhaps what happened is this: Suzanne Collins, Veronica Roth, and Ally Condie met for lunch one day, and one of them complained that she thought that American teenagers are ungrateful malcontents. "We'll show them," said another. And they hatched the following idea. Collins said she'd write engaging novels that will make her teen audience grateful to have their safety and comfort. Roth said she'd write engaging novels that will make her teen audience grateful not to be constrained into one corner of their personalities at all times. Condie said she'd write engaging novels that will make her teen audience grateful that they can do what they want with their emotional lives. Thus did three young-adult authors illuminate the importance of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness for American teenagers.
Like Collins's Hunger Games and Catching Fire and Roth's Divergent, Condie's Matched starts a trilogy with a female protagonist in a dystopian future America, and it (the book) is very good. Condie's writing is solid, just as the others', and the characters and plot are complex enough to be richly engaging. Her dystopian America resonates a lot more immediately as a possible version of our current one, given the extremity of the other two series' visions. But all three are well worth the read -- as my teen/tween daughters heartily agree.
This was the only dystopia among the three to consider the intellectual life along with liberty and individuality. Condie's use of poetry and knowledge is not only clever but internally consistent. Her characters' concerns fall closer to the "first-world problems" topics (I want to think for myself, I want to be able to make my own decisions, my job is boring, movies today suck, I want to decide whom I love...), and the physical intimacy between the teenagers is more demure, which combine to make this a bit more accessible to modern American suburban teens and tweens in one sense...and more intellectual and slower in another sense. The emotional drama is satisfying, though.
Only fatigue keeps me from wanting to delve again into my ongoing examination of literary value vs. reading value. This book matches HG, CF, and Divergent for the intellectual depth it poses. I was saddened to hear (from trusted fellow reader Alexis Swinehart) that Condie's second book, Crossed, did not live up to Matched in terms of quality. I'll probably read it anyway. A YA novel as good as Matched deserves both attention and forebearance.(less)
Fraught. That's the word that sticks with me when I think back on this novel, the first sequel to the utterly entrancing Divergent. The character Tris...moreFraught. That's the word that sticks with me when I think back on this novel, the first sequel to the utterly entrancing Divergent. The character Tris is, and all of her actions are, fraught.
Too much fraughtness is never a good thing, I think. It barges into the realm of melodrama. Of course -- and this continues my occasional consideration of what is (and isn't) in the Young Adult genre, and how YA melds (or doesn't) with "literature" -- fraught is exactly what the teenage years are, in many ways.
Somewhere after book 1 and before the middle of book 2, Tris's dilemma converts her into a person who is simply over-filled. Emotion spills over, everything is a disaster, or something to be surpressed, or both...any why not? She's dealing with the imminent destruction of herself and everything she loves/loved/knows/knew. It may be an allegory for being a teenager, but I don't think so, because Roth is hunting bigger game than self-referential genre critique.
Like its predecessor, this book is relentlessly entertaining. Roth's concept of a futuristic dystopian society in which people are divided/divide themselves into factions is brilliant. My 12-year-old and 14-year-old daughters both loved the book, and I didn't want to put it down.
As great as the reading experience was, I am feeling a bit of loss, because I thought -- during Divergent -- that this was better than an enjoyable and thought-provoking action story. It really was entrancing, in the way that only literature really is. The trilogy is still fun, but in this volume, it tips from entrancing into machine-like. The nuance and elegance are gone, and everything (well, almost) devolves into being in service of the plot. McGuffins loom a little bigger, as does the hand of deus-ex-machina.
Fortunately, there is a glimmer at the end: the setup for the third book is intelligent and intriguing. Although Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wasn't exactly a trilogy, it is an example of a three-book arc that recovered from an uninspiring middle to a strong end; on the other hand, there's Hunger Games, which may have peaked in the middle before losing most of its steam in its third piece.
Let there be no doubt that I'm going to read Roth's third, probably very quickly, and that I'll have to fight my girls for it. I wonder, though, if it will be memorable or just an adrenaline rush.(less)
It just so happened that I picked up this novel during the week when I was working on David Copperfield. Connections revealed themselves to me through...moreIt just so happened that I picked up this novel during the week when I was working on David Copperfield. Connections revealed themselves to me through the fortuitous juxtaposition, from the trivial (only two books I know with a character named "Uriah") to the socio-politically resonant ("faction before blood" raising hackles in this novel, while the phrase "We must have Blood, you know" -- spoken ominously by some classist fiends at the Waterbrookses' party, with similar satirizable sentiments dripped forth from Steerforth and others -– sets a different but also dark feel in the Victorian novel).
That's all well and good. The fact is that I couldn't put this novel down...and neither could my 14-year-old daughter before me...and neither could my 12-year-old daughter before her. All three of us read the book in 72 hours of clock time. 480 pages. Meanwhile, I am also enjoying the Dickens, even though I am two weeks into that behemoth. The question occurred to me: why is the one relegated to YA and the other considered canonical?
The question is not rhetorical for some, although after plenty of contemplation -- not to be repeated in this space -- it is to me. Three-quarters of the way through the Roth novel, it was Brave New World, with a much faster pace. It is hardly a dismissal of Roth's outstanding effort to say that the end didn't quite hold up to that surprising peak; I am very excitedly looking forward to book 2 in the series.
Still, maybe Roth was weighted down a bit by the gravitational force of the YA genre and audience. She respects both tremendously, and is an impressive talent, apparently on par with Suzanne Collins of The Hunger Games and short of only a few exalted YA titles (I would rank JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the [Noun] of [Noun] and John Green's quite different The Fault in Our Stars as the only ones clearly superior). The intelligence and intellectual value of Roth's design made this read a joyful experience. Yes, the end dragged down, as the demands of plot and generic limitations on complexity held the novel from continuing on its superlative trajectory...limiting it to merely great.
It really was an enormously enjoyable book. The whole canon-versus-YA thing continues to tweak my curiosity. I hope Roth can keep the insightful design rolling through the rest of this series.(less)