A few months ago, as a part of my overall campaign to read anything and in particular things I don't necessarily expect to like, I read Left Behind, t...moreA few months ago, as a part of my overall campaign to read anything and in particular things I don't necessarily expect to like, I read Left Behind, the bestselling Christian thriller that took major publishers by major surprise. I thought it would be a good insight into the reading interests of what less restrained New Yorkers call "the flyover states." And maybe it would upend my expectations, as did The Communist Manifesto in 1992, sparking my short but irritating socialist phase.
The surprising thing about Left Behind was the way it juxtaposes opinions and events that seemed entirely normal to me with elements that were baffling or alien. For example, the first onslaught of confusion after the "Rapture" is totally in keeping with your typical thriller, despite its divine cause. In fact, the most unique characteristic of this book's opening is that the cause of the chaos is known to many of the characters and they're trying to explain it to others, not fix it. Also typical is the way the story proceeds from one scene to the next, putting pieces of the puzzle together in different cities at different times; there is no omniscient narrator, the reader figures out what's going on. But just when you're getting used to the book, something strange will happen, like the shocking multi-page discussion of how sorry abortion providers are that there are no unwanted pregnancies to terminate.
The mechanisms by which the characters meet are very familiar, but the characters themselves aren't. Relations between men and women struck me as unrealistically and creepily old-fashioned. The protagonist's smart, loving daughter Chloe is a skeptic, but her lack of traditionalism extends only to religion: in every other aspect of her life she already acts in a much more dutiful, wife-y manner than any non-fictional Christians I know. The conversions of the originally non-Christian characters may ring true to those who cannot conceive of anyone not being Christian in the first place, but to me they seemed psychologically unmotivated, conditioned only by the story's need for them to convert at a certain point.
The book has a pleasing momentum but it doesn't really have any conclusion, unless you count the characters' resolution to fight evil. To find out more you're just going to have to read more volumes, but I decided I wasn't cut out for that when I realized that suave, multilingual, globally-minded Nicolae Carpathia, by far the most intriguing character in the book, is going to turn out to be the Antichrist. When you're sympathizing with the bad guy so thoroughly, you know you're in trouble -- though I'm sure I would sympathize less if I read further into the series, where he reportedly does some pretty bad stuff. Anyhow, I think I've gotten all that I can out of the books, so I won't be reading any more of them. It was very illuminating to read one, and it only took about 2.5 hours, so chalk up another success for the campaign to read books I don't necessarily expect to like.(less)
The author defines a starter marriage as one that ends, childless, before age thirty. She attempts to analyze renewed interest in marrying young, wond...moreThe author defines a starter marriage as one that ends, childless, before age thirty. She attempts to analyze renewed interest in marrying young, wondering whether it has something to do with economic uncertainty, the desire to appear like someone who "has it together," and the effect of parental divorce. She appears to have interviewed some friends, but done no research in the scientific sense. Interesting concept, half-assed execution.(less)
The autobiographical Lucky does a lot to suggest a possible genesis of The Lovely Bones. Sebold goes to college in Syracuse in the early '80s and whil...moreThe autobiographical Lucky does a lot to suggest a possible genesis of The Lovely Bones. Sebold goes to college in Syracuse in the early '80s and while casually walking across the park one evening is raped and beaten. She straggles back to her dorm; the first friend whose help she seeks faints upon opening the door. The rest of the book details her family's reaction, her return to college and her assailant's trial. It is easy to see The Lovely Bones as Sebold's imagining of what might have happened had she been killed; obviously the title of Lucky refers to her survival.
The books share the same sharp clarity and lack of apology; in both books the attacks intrude right in the first chapter, the reader's comfort be damned. The matter-of-fact descriptions of grisly crimes do not make the books cold or clinical. Instead they allow Sebold to concentrate on the wider rippling effect of the crime through the victim and her family. The Lovely Bones is astonishing to read because it is the first book I have read that does not leave the crime victim in the dust. Justly, she remains the protagonist, and the book does not expend too much detail on the search for her killer because she has other concerns. Sebold's words come to her effortlessly and she has a sensitive eye for detail, yet she never overburdens the reader.
The Lovely Bones ends with a sense of redemption and some justice, which I think has made it more palatable to readers than Lucky, some of whose original reviews read more like warnings than recommendations. I think the books suit themselves to slightly different readers, Lucky having rougher edges and a rockier impact; though reading both might be unnecessary, it is certainly worthwhile to read one.(less)
The new book, A Whistling Woman has been a long time coming (and won't appear in the U.S. until December). While it avoids some of the ponderous over-...moreThe new book, A Whistling Woman has been a long time coming (and won't appear in the U.S. until December). While it avoids some of the ponderous over-stylization that made Babel Tower draggier than its predecessors, I found it disappointing as a conclusion to the series. Byatt devotes more attention to tying up small subplots from the previous books than she does to the main entanglements.
The book describes several parallel events: the merging of the Children of Joy and the Spirit's Tigers (two fringe religious groups from earlier books) into a dangerous cult under the charismatic leadership of a new character; protests at the North Yorkshire University and the eventual declaration of an "Anti-University;" Frederica's work as the host of an intellectual television program; the romantic and professional pursuits of Jacqueline Winwar and Luk Lysgaard-Peacock, scientists and friends of Marcus Potter. Several of the deepest and most idiosyncratic characters -- Daniel Orton and his children, and Marcus Potter -- have fallen off the map almost entirely.
The ending is particularly disappointing, a pat resolution to Frederica's romantic problems. If the reader has learned anything about Frederica, it's that she is not one to sacrifice her sexual freedom or "settle," and so the final scene, meant to confer a sense of permanence and peace, falls flat. Stranger yet, the other characters (particularly the academics) disapprove of Frederica's choice to work as a television host, to the extent that I perceive some criticism even from Byatt herself -- who previously had treated prickly Frederica with great sympathy.
This is not a book I would recommend to those new to the series, who probably couldn't follow even how the characters are connected. Anyone who enjoyed the earlier books will probably feel compelled to read it regardless of what reviewers say. Those readers should expect an exploration of ideas in the post-Possession style, but no new insight into the Potter family.(less)
I knew that Tartt's first book was a sort of murder mystery, and since there's a murder in the first ten pages of this one, I expected it to be a trad...moreI knew that Tartt's first book was a sort of murder mystery, and since there's a murder in the first ten pages of this one, I expected it to be a traditional whodunit in literary clothing. It is both less and more than that, slowing talking you out of your expectations and persuading you to accept its presentation.
The book has a disconcertingly languid mood, slow like molasses. Three of the seven chapters are mostly concerned with setting the scene; of those "The Blackbird" and "The Pool Hall" both felt draggy and too long. (I mention this only to hearten the reader, because you might, by the book's end, feel nostalgic for the setting; and because the action is worth the wait.) Two epigrams -- from Aquinas and Houdini! -- epitomize Harriet's ambivalence about the search for her brother Robin's murderer at the end of the book, rather than her fierce quest at its beginning. Ultimately the book concerns itself more with her changing methods and goals than with the actual outcome of the investigation. The reader who expects a pat ending or firm resolution will be disappointed.
The reader who is willing to ride along and appreciate the view, without worrying too much about the destination, will have a good time. Tartt describes the world from low to the ground, so that even with a third-person omniscient narrator, we see everything as twelve-year-old Harriet does. Unquestioning of her family's eccentricities, she has a stubborn conviction in her own suspicious perceptions of outsiders. All the ambivalence of adolescence is here: she sulks, throws off her great-aunts' embraces, then cries when she loses her one remembrance of the housekeeper who raised her. Attempts to teach her about puberty insult her dignity, and she prefers to learn about ancient Egypt or Scott's expedition. She seems to embody all the strength of girlhood.
Harriet's grandmother and three great-aunts -- Edie, Libby, Tat and Adelaide -- are a hilarious gaggle of Southern ladies who radiate gossip, Shalimar, affection, lace and baked goods. They reminded me instantly of every exasperating little old lady I have ever loved, and Harriet's relief, when she leaves her own chaotic home and enters one of theirs, is palpable. They also provide fascinating insight into how members of an old plantation family cheerfully but incompletely entered the post-Civil-Rights era. They, and the housekeeper Ida Rhew, are the emotional underpinning of Harriet's life and the novel.
Most of the funniest bits come from outside Harriet's family. Tartt gets details of accents and seemingly meaningless social interactions dead-on. There's a mortifying Baptist summer camp that Harriet is driven to
"Welcome, ladies," he crowed, leaning into Edie's rolled-down window. "Praise the Lard!" (350)
which is made even funnier by the fact that she only agreed to go in order to escape the long arm of the law. There is an entire family's worth of no-good trailer-dwelling Ratliffs -- who, in their essential irredeemable badness, reminded me of the Herdmans in the The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. (For excellent children's book references, see A.O. Scott's review.)
In short, I greatly enjoyed this book. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give it, though, is to confess that I can't wait to read it again and see what else I find; this is the kind of book where page 1 just naturally seems to follow page 555.(less)
A book with a bibliography that goes on for thirty pages may seem daunting, but this one is indeed rewarding. It has another well-executed opening: th...moreA book with a bibliography that goes on for thirty pages may seem daunting, but this one is indeed rewarding. It has another well-executed opening: the story of Jacqueline Henley. This orphan, under the age of two, was given by her aunt to the authorities in 1952 because "the child possibly was a nigger [in fact, biracial:]" (3). Because she was registered as a white person at birth, however, the law prevented her adoption by the black foster family that wanted her. Jacqueline lived in limbo, ironically sent to a blacks-only orphanage, before eventually being adopted by a black family in another state. Laws to prevent miscegenation were extended to adoption and had a devastating and unintended effect on this small child.
This moving story is a launching point for Kennedy's discussion of marriage and adoption between the races (mostly between white and black people). It starts with coercive or transgressive relationships before emancipation, and goes up to contemporary discussions of whether intraracial adoption is preferable. Topics include passing, the "one drop" rule, barriers faced by interracial couples wanting to marry, the problems faced by biracial people in a divided society and reasons blacks sometimes oppose intermarriage. Kennedy repeatedly shows how the law affects the choices we are able to make in our daily lives, and exposes the appalling degree of prejudice behind the law. Though I took pleasure in the rigor of his language, I found a few of the chapters skippable, diverging from the main argument to talk about specific cases when he'd already made the point sufficiently. I think the book is important, more as a provocative opening discussion than as a comprehensive, definitive study. Page after page reveals fascinating facts and interpretations central to the development of our society.(less)
Well, one of them I read beforehand, and it's been a while now, I will just write about it briefly. B.R. Myers recommended What Makes Sammy Run? (1941...moreWell, one of them I read beforehand, and it's been a while now, I will just write about it briefly. B.R. Myers recommended What Makes Sammy Run? (1941) by Budd Schulberg (who wrote the screenplay for On the Waterfront) so I decided to give it a try. The first five pages are among the most grabbing I have ever read -- funny, pithy, intriguing. It opens:
The first time I saw him he couldn't have been much more than sixteen years old, a little ferret of a kid, sharp and quick. Sammy Glick. Used to run copy for me. Always ran. Always looked thirsty.
The narrator, a journalist by the name of Al Manheim, follows Sammy's progress from copy boy at a New York newspaper to movie studio bigwig, from the Lower East Side to Hollywood. There is all the glamour of early Hollywood; it's like reading a great black-and-white movie. It's also a psychological study of a type we all know: someone who is driven to the point of self-destruction.(less)