In 2012, when the Pulitzer committee refused to grant a Prize (very readable two-part commentary by juror Michael Cunningham here), my interest in theIn 2012, when the Pulitzer committee refused to grant a Prize (very readable two-part commentary by juror Michael Cunningham here), my interest in the conflict between literary merit and popularity intensified. When I recorded my thoughts about that year's finalist, Swamplandia!, I agreed that female coming-of-age stories were needed, but that the Russell novel wasn't an exquisite enough effort, despite (or perhaps because of) trying very hard. Karen Thompson Walker's Age of Miracles comes closer.
Like 2015 Pulitzer winner All the Light You Cannot See and Station Eleven and 2011 winner A Visit from the Goon Squad, Walker's book starts with something that any truly great one should have: broadly accessible readability. One need not know anything about literature to enjoy this novel, which clicks along mesmerizingly, like the aforementioned trio.
Also like those three -- and perhaps most like Goon Squad -- the novel plays deftly with time, in a literal (obviously) but also a thematic way. Earth's day lengthens, and peri-apocalypse California life seems to drift not frantically but as through a liquid suspension. (Note to self: finish reading The Flame Alphabet, which this reminded me of in several ways.) "But doesn't every previous era feel like fiction once it's gone?" (89) muses Julia, the then-tween who reflects back on that off-kilter era as narrator. And soon thereafter, as her world spins out of control:
One thing that strikes me when I recall that period of time is just how rapidly we adjusted. What had been familiar once became less and less so. How extraordinary it would seem to us eventually that our sun once set as predictably as clockwork. And how miraculous it would soon seem that I was once a happier girl, less lonely and less shy.
But I guess every bygone era takes on a shade of myth. (102)
Thompson's writing is more mature than in the typical good YA novel I half-expected this to be. This is not a YA novel, although a sharp, thoughtful middle-schooler might well love it. Thompson's mode is pensive and understated, and it seems fitting at every turn. The promotional phrase "coming-of-age novel" has come to be a warning for me; this was one of the recent ones I most enjoyed. Indeed, I can see it earning a spot as a high-school summer read staple before long. The narrator's penchant for bald foreshadowing (that's not even the right word -- more like "signposting") jabbed at me a bit, but in the final accounting it made sense. This also felt like something around which teachers (note to self: be one of those teachers) could construct an excellent interdisciplinary literature/science course.
My highest praise for the novel is this: every time I put it dowm after a bout of reading, time felt vertiginously out of joint in my world, just as I was reading about in Julia's. Thompson has unpretentiously done something slightly magical. Only slightly, but (a) that was her aim and (b) that in itself is vanishingly rare.
Yes, this is, at last, a high quality work of both seriousness and page-turning comfort. It wasn't the best novel of 2012-13, so I don't mind that it didn't earn Pulitzer cachet, but something tells me it will be around for a long time....more
Consider this fairly typical segment of prose from poetic memoirist Helen Macdonald's chapter 25, in which she describes taking her hawk, Mabel, out fConsider this fairly typical segment of prose from poetic memoirist Helen Macdonald's chapter 25, in which she describes taking her hawk, Mabel, out for some exercise:
Flocks of fieldfares chak chak and dodge in the hawthorns by the cow field, breaking low when we get too near, bouncing over the hedge and away in thrushy strobes of black and white. It's nice to see them. Proper winter is here. And Mabel is fizzing with happiness, wagging her tail in barely suppressed excitement, tummy feathers fluffed over her grippy toes, eyes gleaming silver in the sun. If this hawk could speak, she'd be singing under her breath. (232)
This passage epitomizes much of what I like and don't about this often lovely memoir. The first sentence, with its rhythm and innovative language, glistens with energy. The prose unfolds in loose constructions (with plenty of periodic ones mixed in, but not oppressively so), jolting the scene forward in a way that imitates the energy and power and beauty of wild things. There's affectation -- the "And", a surfeit of modifier-rich (often over-rich) phrases, the personification -- but it's enthusiastic and honest. It brims with Britishness.
When I opened the book, I thought, Here's the inheritor to Annie Dillard, the American naturalist author whose Pulitzer-winning 1974 Pilgrim at Tinker Creek remains one of my all-time favorite books. Turns out, this isn't that. Yes, it has some of Dillard's lyricism and a lot of what the influential education professor Howard Gardner might call Dillard's brilliant naturalistic intelligence. Yes, it is profoundly literate and organized into efficiently elegant essay-chapters. It's got those great elements to its credit, and then it appends to it not one but two forceful narratives: the story of Macdonald's coming to terms with her father's sudden death and the story that T.H. White tells of his own hawking adventures in The Goshawk (plus links into a few other texts).
That all sounds like praise, and it should. My downgrading of this book from magnificent to merely very good has an undeniable personal element to it, and I say this as an avowed sneerer at reader-response theory. I loved the nature, the text-linking, the relationship with the hawk, and the parts about Macdonald's father, but I admit that I tired quickly of her own story. This is unfair, I concede. While I, as someone who has experienced the death of my own father, have empathy for her struggle to reconcile her world after the tragedy, the relentless skittishness wore me down. I rejoiced in the idea of her goshawk, Mabel, serving as an antidepressant, but I was simply battered down by the length of the arc. It's her life, and I have no right, none at all, to complain...but as a reader, experiencing a text, it wrenched me out of admiration and into a desire for those segments of her inner torment to be over. Again: not fair of me, but it was what it was, as far as the reading experience went.
This bothers me all the more because when it is good, this book is superlatively so. Chapters 14 and 15 are especially robust examples of the memoir-chapter as self-contained essay. Descriptions detonate out of small observations and large ones. As in Dillard's best moments, Macdonald surges into philosophy that avoids the obvious and cliche-ridden; it often seems just wrong, just too much, before resolving itself out of air into something tangible that gives a healthy splash to the imagination. What is literature for but to spark the imagination, after all? Consider this:
I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing -- not just from the world, but from people's everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There's little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss? There is a vast difference between my visceral, bloody life with Mabel and the reserved, distanced view of modern nature-appreciation. I know that some of my friends see my keeping a hawk as morally suspect, but I couldn't love or understand hawks as much as I do if I'd only ever seen them on screens. I've made a hawk part of a human life, and a human life part of a hawk's, and it has made the hawk a million times more complicated and full of wonder to me. (181)
Two conjunction-starting sentences aside (I'm sad to be so oversensitive to style, but I am), this is beautiful thinking that made me question and challenge, then come around, and still not be as much fully with her as fully intrigued and animated by her. This passage, in many ways, encapsulates her entire inquiry into love and loss, and into the existential quest. Does rarity constrain meaning? Is her relationship with the world important enough to justify the captivity of a wild beast? Similarly, I loved her disquisition on hunting with Mabel, with its counterintuitive denouement, "Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human" (196), which I suppose could sound like a platitude if it were not organically embedded in the narrative of the hunt. She excels in bursts of the Kantian three-part structure that Thoreau used so productively, starting with raw observation, moving into an explanation of what had just happened, and accelerating into a philosophical abstraction that glides far above the concrete event.
Like anything that operates on a high-wire, there's that jolt when the narrative falls off. Sometimes, for me, it is linguistic: when she tosses off she is "[something] as hell" three times over six or seven paragraphs (260+), I wonder where her editor was. When the skittishness noses its way in again and again (205, 208, etc.), I don't doubt that it's true but I wonder whether it all had to be confessed. Annie Dillard wrote a different book, about nature and beauty, and it's unfair to gauge this one by that standard, but I can't avoid the judgment that the memoir cuts into Macdonald's beautiful book maybe 5 or 10% too much. Judgment does matter.
Any book that spurs me to write so much about it must have done its job, don't you think? I do feel mean-spirited to complain about Helen Macdonald as memoirist when I so admire her as naturalist, hawker, writer, reader, historian, daughter, and thinker. As solipsist -- like most solipsists -- not so much. ...more
Easy-to-read, well-organized, and teeming with interesting examples, Jacquet's book was more than worth my time. It is too bad that it was overshadoweEasy-to-read, well-organized, and teeming with interesting examples, Jacquet's book was more than worth my time. It is too bad that it was overshadowed by more-famous Jon Ronson's similar book published at the same time...but maybe it got more attention for being part of a movement. Who knows -- but I recommend this book heartily.
Jacquet, an NYU professor, starts her examination of the use of moral conscience with important definitions/distinctions that would satisfy a philosopher: shame ("exposing a transgressor to public disapproval" ) vs. guilt (more about the conscience and the "internal voice nagging its owner", so less group-focused; described by Jacquet as more suitable "for cultures that champion the individual" ), another distinction from embarrassment (described mainly through its external markers, which may sound like a cop-out but which struck me as thoroughly respectful of the slimness of the distinction, on 37-39), East vs. West, norming, etc. Her emphasis on clarifying her terms was very satisfying.
The anecdotes are essential. She starts the book with the story of the shaming of the tuna industry for the slaughter of dolphins and wrings useful stories out of a tremendous range of research (some of the best details, which include her Dan Ariely-like explication of various social science experiments) and historical events (Bhopal, Haiti, various tribes, Occupy Wall Street, Martin Luther King Jr., California tax dodgers, Alan Sokal, Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus, inflatable rats, Ted Haggard, Bruce Ismay, the list goes on and on). There are philosophers like Martha Nussbaum, politicians, religious figures, activists like "Jude Finisterra", literary figures like Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. The examination of various aspects of shaming incorporates lucid, fascinating data and words, such as Theodore Roosevelt's 1913 comment about the importance of unimpeachability for the prestigious person whose moral weight can be leveraged to move people: "No man can lead a public career really worth leading, no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character" (112). Such erudition -- illuminating topics far beyond "Shame" -- serves this book very well: it is always aggressively, concisely sparking thought and connection.
The book is more than simply entertaining or informative. It wants us to know how to get shaming to work and avoid ways that it undermines its best prospects. Jacquet gives (and repeats) a set of 7 "Habits of Highly Effective Shaming":
the transgression should... 1. concern the audience 2. deviate widely from desired behavior 3. not be expected to be formally punished the transgressor should... 4. be sensitive to the group doing the shaming and the shaming should... 5. come from a respected source 6. be directed where possible benefits are highest 7. be implemented conscientiously (100, 173)
Jacquet introduces enough exceptions to undermine this apparently comprehensive list somewhat, but the point is still made. "The more social the transgression," she writes in summing up, "the sweeter the shame, because the audience is inherently interested in the bad behavior. Ultimately, shaming might not be enough to solve the problem, but the greater fallacy, particularly for collective-action problems like climate change and overfishing, is the idea that we can individualize them." This is a clear-eyed, respectful, and ultimately practical book.
The first question that occurred to me when I stepped into this sequel to the excellent Wolf Hall was "Why was that book titled Wolf Hall? This one shThe first question that occurred to me when I stepped into this sequel to the excellent Wolf Hall was "Why was that book titled Wolf Hall? This one should be titled Wolf Hall!" Okay, well, Bring Up the Bodies is also an appropriate title here; the appropriateness of the title -- admittedly, a relatively minor thing -- is one of several crucial ways that this novel is in fact superior to its forebear. The essence of my review of both, however, is that these are two beautiful, important novels, both magnificent achievements.
This novel continues the story of King Henry VIII and his wife Anne Boleyn and court, as seen through the eyes of the impressively able Master Secretary (among his many titles) Thomas Cromwell. Mantel's Cromwell may someday edge out Machiavelli as a model for the political operative of the House of Cards generation. Let's hope not, though; despite plentiful principle on the part of the central figure, not to mention several of the other characters, this story is in large part the tragedy not only of Anne but of Cromwell as well.
Mantel, whose restraint characterizes her writing perhaps more than anything beside her command of history or character, trains her readers. Patience, patience, revel in the subtle details, notice the sly humor. She is like a chef who sneers at fast food and strong flavors and insists that we can be connoisseurs; she instructs us in delicacy. The meticulous development of scene and character then leaves the intense conflicts all the more ripping good when she opens the throttle. The dark, detail-rich palette is reminiscent of a Rembrandt. It's a joy to behold.
Complexity rules the day. Few things are black-and-white. The loathsome George Boleyn, whose unclassily classist screed that pompously and ignorantly warns Cromwell not to meddle with "those set above you" (60), shows scraps of nobility and cleverness when he is up against the wall; the hubris he exhibited foreshadowed an ugly fall -- although history doesn't always reward that sort of "merit", we know -- and yet the schadenfraude that ensues in the denouement is complicated by new flavors that Mantel sifts into the mix.
While George and his sister the queen each find tragedy to pay them for their plentiful hubris, there is no overall sense of justice to be found. Henry's hubris boggles the modern mind, giving perhaps literature's best example of absolute power corrupting absolutely. And yet even Henry is not fully at fault: there is something repulsive in the system itself, slightly outside the commoner Cromwell, who holds the ideal perspective for us to share. It has poisoned Henry, but also his victims, and peers of all stripes.
There are plenty, to be sure, and many of these are limned magnificently. The doomed ex-queen, Katherine of Aragon, has sharp wits and words; Henry's second queen, Anne Boleyn, is masterfully self-righteous and demanding; the soon-to-be third queen, Jane Seymour, may be perceived as mild and plain by her family and the rest of the ignorant nobles, but her sly, humorous quietness is a triumph of Mantel's art. Dozens of vibrant characters, set apart and memorable: Henry, the queens, Jane Rochford, the snakelike Bishop Stephen Gardiner (even when he is not present, as in the scene where Henry refers to him while addressing and trying to plot with Cromwell on 55-58, he is a powerful presence), the smarmy and too-smart-for-his-own-good Mark Smeaton, Ambassador Chapuys, the brutish Norfolk and even his ass of a son, the various pompous cocks among the courtiers (George Boleyn and Francis Weston, in particular), the list goes on and on. It's a cavalcade of riches.
It's more than fun; it's informative. The history, of course, but also the statecraft, the management, the lawyering, the internal politicking, and so on. I was especially enamored of the lawyering -- Cromwell as the one who schools the others because he appreciates the importance of understanding both sides of the argument (179), and who says "We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use" (285). Those who follow him, like Wriothesley and Rafe, will learn and prevail; those who disdain him will fall under the wagon wheels. Thomas Cromwell is a man of the postmodern age living in the dawn of the Renaissance, where his amoral appreciation of strategy overwhelms those whose "natural" hereditary advantages are starting to spiral away.
Therein lies the tragedy. Henry, whom the monarchy has endowed with the prerogative to be a massive id (notwithstanding his intelligence and skill in certain areas), looms above them all. Many of the characters -- Anne in particular -- perceive a logic and an arc that Henry's power invalidates. But Cromwell remains the most interesting figure because, despite his ability to control some aspects, he is not the puppetmaster, and his soul is doomed, too. The once-mythic principled-ness of Thomas More, who died at the end of the first novel, is re-shattered early in this one, when Cromwell describes how More's body flopped in the driving rain at his execution. Although there is no dignity in Tudor England, but there is plenty to love in Mantel's depiction.
P.S.: One of my peckish complaints about WH was about the confusion engendered by Mantel's insistence on referring to Cromwell as "he" even when several male figures were operating in the scene. I suspect that someone spoke to her about this (I didn't! I swear!) because "He, Cromwell" now shows up dozens of times (pages 22, 25, 40, etc., etc.). The whole style thing still makes me curious. (So curious that, after I recorded my thoughts here, I kept thinking about it and even read a few book reviews. The NYT review, by Charles McGrath, made the same observation. I disagree with McGrath about inevitability being a problem, by the way: that's kind of the point!)...more
I admit, I'm not quite sure why I didn't like this book more. I picked it up with the highest of hopes, having loved Eleanor and Park, the author's eaI admit, I'm not quite sure why I didn't like this book more. I picked it up with the highest of hopes, having loved Eleanor and Park, the author's earlier effort that generally falls under the rubric of YA. This one isn't YA...and maybe Rowell should have stayed there.
The pages turn easily in this book, which is something but not everything for me. As so often happens when intelligent, talky authors try to clever their way into Aaron Sorkin-ville (a place where not even Sorkin hits every note), the book ended up much less funny than it was earnestly, diligently trying to be. This is a bit of a problem when two of the central characters write TV comedies and a third was a cartoonist. It occurs to me, flittingly, that this may be a critique of the dim state of TV comedy...but no, that is not what's happening. It's just not funny.
Pleasant enough, predictable enough, with characters who are reasonably drawn if not especially distinctive, this was a moderately successful work from an author from whom I expected more. Not worth a recommendation, to be honest, but not a waste of time....more
Hilary Mantel knows how to write for adults. Her novel demands fastidious attention, and is enhanced by greater background knowledge. Indeed, this speHilary Mantel knows how to write for adults. Her novel demands fastidious attention, and is enhanced by greater background knowledge. Indeed, this spectacularly rich novel, which nudges along through history like paint being layered atop other paint by an artistic master -- the better to establish shades and nuance -- compelled me several times to do research, which was not necessary for my understanding but was the outgrowth of curiosity Mantel sparked with her delicate portraiture.
The author characterizes dozens of personages deeply and engagingly, the better to afford her reader a healthy shot at keeping the massive cast of characters clear. Thomas Cromwell, of course, is her star, playing a role as close to that of narrator as a third-person-narrated novel's character can. The story of Henry VIII and Thomas More and the surrounding drama is best known (to this reader, as to many others) through Robert Bolt's masterwork A Man for All Seasons and the excellent film made of it in the mid-'60s. To see the same story through Cromwell's eyes may be unnerving, even infuriating, to Catholics, but from a pure story value it enhances the drama, not to mention the characterization. Cromwell certainly comes off as Mantel's hero, while More, characterized early on as a sexist brute for his unseemly treatment of his wife and as less than heroic for his enthusiasm for the rack, benefits from later episodes that broaden his portrayal. Cromwell, indeed, seems as human and decent as one might be at the time -- almost modern, surrounded by a society that both sees itself as advanced and yet does grotesque things in the name of king and church. His love for his daughters and wife, his forbearance in the face of tragedy, his incomparable skill in law and strategy, his taking in of various waifs (whom he treats honorably, incurring the only real loyalty the desperate era seems to witness...although it is also true that there is a crafty pragmatism involved), and his own loyalty to the doomed Wolsey make him a man among children, not unlike Bolt's More.
And yet those around him are more than caricatures, for the most part. Well, maybe they're just very compelling caricatures. Colorful, might be the word. Mary Boleyn, Anne Cromwell, Rafe Sadler, Gregory, Katherine, Princess Mary, Thomas Wyatt, Christophe, and ambassador Chapuys are among the interesting ones featured in the cast, while figures like Norfolk and Thomas Boleyn and Walter Cromwell come across as more simplistic devices, which is not problematic. Clearly the hub of the story -- around which Cromwell navigates with his famous dexterity -- is with Wolsey, More, Henry, and Anne Boleyn. Henry's portrayal will not please any royal-ophiles: the king's ego, petulance, and desperation bespeak the marriage of power and immaturity; still, even he has his human moments, such as when he visits the ill Cromwell, breaking through the wall of regal/common because of his need for his advisor. Anne is perhaps the most intriguing of all, with her measured strategy during Henry's hysterical courtship of her devolving into something much darker. She and her sister Mary, whose story tiptoes on the rim of the tragic, compelled my attention most forcefully. One wonders if a male novelist could have managed the sisters as well.
Best managed by Mantel are two extremely challenging aspects of historical fiction: dialogue and dramatic irony. The latter is art in the master's hands: her extraordinary patience weaves weighty details into the tapestry without drawing too much attention. Her Jane Seymour is managed especially deftly, while the whole arc of Anne Boleyn echoes ominously. The former crackles with voice, wisdom, and a crisp pace; never cloying or obvious, it's as good as any dialogue I can think of in recent fiction.
Which brings me to my one disappointment in this novel. The innovative narratorial use of Cromwell revolves around Mantel's use of "he" that almost resembles another novelist's "I". It is apparently intentional that the Cromwell he is left near less distinguished hes, in a way that we readers are supposed to figure out. No matter how carefully I read, I found myself often confused by this, which was unfortunate. I appreciate Mantel's design of the narration, but I'm afraid I have to rate the melding of the hes as a failure of execution.
That stymies this momentous novel from being an instant classic, in my view, but there is simply too much to admire for the penalty to be permanent. Politics, power, classism, social details, food, negotiation, lust, envy, jealousy, grief, ambition, vengeance, disloyalty, admiration, humor, corruption, fear, faith: all are molded masterfully into a seamless whole. There is suffering to go around, dishonor borne nobly and ignobly, images and objects built elegantly into resonant symbols through the mind of Cromwell. I felt more intelligent and more wise, and perhaps a bit oily, after sharing his view....more
What exactly does it say about us that we have bred so many notable pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction, especially in the past generation? It seems toWhat exactly does it say about us that we have bred so many notable pieces of post-apocalyptic fiction, especially in the past generation? It seems to be a shout at the postmodern condition, which also springs from the same well as the idea that studying abnormal psychology gives us the most profound insights into the workings of the brain. In any case, Mandel’s novel is a worthy addition to an already profound list that includes such wide-ranging imaginative triumphs as Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and McCarthy’s The Road plus lesser but still mesmerizing efforts like Brooks’s World War Z, King’s The Stand, and James’s The Children of Men.
Although many of the characters – all drawn quite effectively – are male, Mandel’s crushed-world vision seems to be somehow a more feminine one than, say, McCarthy’s. On second thought, feminine is too stereotyped a word. She focuses not on death or action or even fear but perspectives and relationships and connections, which is not to say that The Road doesn’t care about the relationship between its two male characters or that Mandel avoids anything visceral. What her book lacks is a bluntness and a coarseness and a restraint that for McCarthy seemed stylistically fitting to the end of the world, and all the more powerful at those rare moments when he dissolved into lyricism and emotion.
But it’s unfair to assess one novel mainly in comparison to another. This book, which has its clunky expository moments after the wonderfully written opening at a King Lear performance overlaid with a new demise, and which reaches perhaps once or twice too often into the bag of Coincidence, is mainly elegant and spry. Mandel’s several perspectives – the actor Arthur Leander, somehow nexus of it all; the child-actress-cum-traveling-player Kirsten Raymonde; the paparazzo-cum-paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary; the consultant-cum-curator Clark Thompson; the shadow artist Miranda Carroll – don’t differ much in voice, even if all the characters are easily differentiable. There’s pleasant but not sickening sensitivity, luckily impressive talent, plenty of reflection. They are literally the 0.01%, although not purely in the financial sense.
What I like most about this novel is that it is unusually interested in art. Out of the fell clutch of circumstance, dark as the pit from pole to pole, it is civilization that saves civilization: graphic art, drama (and not just any drama, but Shakespeare), music, history. The villain is dogma and savagery, which somehow is kept at arm’s length in Mandel in a way that McCarthy refused to let it do. I have to say that McCarthy’s vision strikes me as the superior one in terms of intensity and logistics, but Mandel’s – different in the way that fiction has to be, to breach our assumptions about the world in the way that fiction can – is also a worthy package. As she writes, "Survival is insufficient."
This is not a great novel, but it is a very good one. It adds to the post-apocalyptic canon in a meaningful way. After all, it is always healthful to be shoved off our complacency and our dogmas, and be reminded that art can save us....more
After several years of teaching this book, it wound its way out of my affections as few books before or since have done. At its best -- as in many earAfter several years of teaching this book, it wound its way out of my affections as few books before or since have done. At its best -- as in many early chapters, especially the one about her grade-school graduation and the Joe Louis fight -- this is as marvelous as anything I have read. The prose for which she is renowned grew cloying, though, and many of the later chapters failed to retain my attention. It's hard to say this about a life so fraught with deprivation and victimization, but there's a self-indulgence in Angelou's writing that makes it fail to bear up after repeated readings, the way a great book should.
All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, which I re-read recently, remains my favorite of her books, although several of her poems still speak as sharply as they ever did ("On the Pulse of Morning", despite its evocative title, is not one of them). I remember Angelou fondly for her descriptions of the store in Stamps, AR and for Bertha Flowers and the impact of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" on a childhood tainted by discrimination, much more than for her flood of confessions....more
I don't remember much about this novel now -- thirty years after I became yet-another-high-school-honors-student-to-read-it -- but I remember liking iI don't remember much about this novel now -- thirty years after I became yet-another-high-school-honors-student-to-read-it -- but I remember liking it very much as a story. The philosophy was distasteful in some measure, even then, but the story chugged along. Other Rand books (Anthem was clumsy; Atlas Shrugged couldn't hold my attention for even a tenth of its prodigious length) seemed to fall more on the message side of the art/message divide, but I retain a fond memory for this novel. I am wary about reading it again, though: I hope it holds up...and I sorta doubt that it will, me being no longer a teenaged boy and all....more
Thoroughly engaging: I received this book as a Christmas gift and had finished it by the end of Boxing Day.
Lepore strikes me as the epitome of the puThoroughly engaging: I received this book as a Christmas gift and had finished it by the end of Boxing Day.
Lepore strikes me as the epitome of the public intellectual. A professor of history who is also a prolific contributor to The New Yorker, she is aware of the need to channel the skills of the former through the medium of the latter: her history, which seems rigorously documented, thunders forward like the best longread essays...and unlike often-ponderous academic writing that takes its importance as a given. That an intellectual appreciates the need to reach the public cheers me.
I did not write down the few things that stand out as glitches to me (oh, yes: one was a casual conflation of "lie-detector" -- the test that W. M. Marston is credited with devising -- and "polygraph" -- a later competitor that has clearly supplanted the "lie-detector" in both history and the public imagination). Lepore's various theses are clearly and convincingly laid out in the text, rendering as trivial any critiques of method or style. She is persistent in linking Margaret Sanger and Olive Byrne to Wonder Woman, pointing out the set of contradictions that churned in Marston's own character, and placing Wonder Woman in a context of American feminism. Indeed, as a teacher of an interdisciplinary American studies course, I saw several segments of this book (especially Lepore's early chapter about the suffrage movement, feminism, and the "female superiority" branch of thinking that even today many people seem to mistake for feminism) that I would love to use with my students. Approachable, thorough, and well-documented, the book clicks.
This is not a hagiography, by any stretch of the imagination. Neither Marston nor Wonder Woman -- nor anyone else, for that matter -- comes off as perfect. It works as history, including social history and personal history in equal excellent parts. A fascinating history it is....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 s**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....more
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 attachedAs 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....more
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 everyFast-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 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....more
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 booI 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....more
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 reaThe 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....more
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 impreThis 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....more
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 -- aToni 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....more
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 reverentiI 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....more
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 WolitzeA 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....more
This intelligent, sure-handed author understands the universal human even as she picks apart the various human "tribes'" differences with unusual insiThis 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, whom Adichie works assiduously to separate us innocent readers from, "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....more
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 tThe 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....more