Everything about Edith Wharton's work is stately, like an antique fainting couch in a museum, its frame hand-carved, its fabric delicately embroidered...moreEverything about Edith Wharton's work is stately, like an antique fainting couch in a museum, its frame hand-carved, its fabric delicately embroidered. But somehow, the stories are not stifling. Some are sly and humorous, like "Roman Fever" and "Xingu," which both make fools of people who think they know more than they do.
What I really love about Wharton, though—and The Age of Innocence, arguably her most famous work, is a great example of this, too—is the way she lays out her characters' conflicts quite transparently, all so readers can admire how inevitably people misunderstand and unwittingly abuse one another. You want to take her characters by the shoulders and translate for them.
I especially love how she dissects marriage, the roles that couples play for each other and how restrictive they can be. "Souls Belated" is an amazing story about how you build a new relationship out of an affair--if you flouted the convention of marriage once, do you just jump back into it? Do you invite the same people to your dinner parties and pretend things haven't changed? "The Other Two" is about a man trying to feel disaffected about doing business with his current wife's last husband. In a way it's all very old-fashioned, but it's also incredibly relatable.(less)
Kaye Gibbons is an author I keep trying to like, because she has a whole pile of books she’s written, and she’s contemporary and she’s Southern. I hat...moreKaye Gibbons is an author I keep trying to like, because she has a whole pile of books she’s written, and she’s contemporary and she’s Southern. I hated Divining Women and I hated Sights Unseen, so A Virtuous Woman, which I mostly liked, is definitely an improvement. The story—about an improbably compatible couple and how their happy marriage is cut short by cancer—was the most interesting one I’d come across of Gibbons’, and the characters the most likeable.
The problem with Gibbons though, is her narrative style. In every book she does the same thing: she creates these nicely detailed voices for characters, and then lets them tell the whole story. The story feels one-dimensional because Gibbons doesn’t provide any context for anything. The characters, the setting, there’s no shape to it, no visual, no sounds other than Ruby talking and Jack talking, and Tiny Fran talking (now there was a character). The work is a disembodied voice. You’ve got to describe things sometimes. I want to visualize, I want some sensory detail. You just don't get that with her.(less)
Ellen Foster, like all of Gibbons' novels, is so driven by the character's first-person narrative that there is no room for atmosphere to build. The e...moreEllen Foster, like all of Gibbons' novels, is so driven by the character's first-person narrative that there is no room for atmosphere to build. The entire novel is just trapped in Ellen’s head. Ellen does justice to some of the elements of the world Gibbons is trying to portray: the differences Ellen perceives in her own life and home and that of her friend Starletta, a black girl, give a pretty good picture of the racial tensions of her town. Ellen’s desperate search for a functional family situation also hints at the culture of dysfunction that is happening around her, the families in a poor, small Southern town torn up by abuse and alcohol and bitterness. But when I compare it to something like Bastard out of Carolina, another story about a neglected and abused girl in the South—one that I didn’t enjoy particularly but in which every moment was vivid and searing and immediate—then Ellen Foster is going to lose every time.
There was one great poignant moment I will mention. It’s kind of a SPOILER if you’re actually intending to read the book. Late in the novel, in conversation with the counselor she’s been required to see, it is revealed that Foster is not Ellen’s actual last name. (Something that probably Gibbons could not have concealed if she was using the third-person narrative I wish she could just try.) At church, Ellen has seen a family of unrelated kids all taken care of by this one kind-hearted woman. Having asked who they are, Ellen has misunderstood what it means to be a “foster family.” So, to better be a part of this magical “(F)oster family” she has renamed herself Ellen Foster. That was kind of a nice, unexpected little heartbreaking moment.
For further comparison, that small moment of poignancy is one up on Bastard Out of Carolina, which is almost too vivid to develop those kinds of small moments. That entire book is figurative punches in the reader’s gut. It all depends on what you, the reader, are looking for, what speaks to you.(less)
**spoiler alert** I LOVE Dracula. I’m not a vampire person. But with Dracula, you don’t need to be an aficionado. You don’t need to be addicted to the...more**spoiler alert** I LOVE Dracula. I’m not a vampire person. But with Dracula, you don’t need to be an aficionado. You don’t need to be addicted to the lore and the gothicism and the undercurrent of unfettered sexuality. (Although if you are still into those things, you will still find them.)
For me, Dracula is a straight-up thrill ride. I’d set it beside any mainstream mass-market BS in terms of being a page turner. Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to close a business deal and before he can say, “Things here are weird,” he’s been imprisoned by the count and is trying to negotiate an escape for himself. And things get crazier and crazier from there. Not vampire baby crazy, but good crazy.
Characters die. Respectable gentlemen break into houses and dirty their cuffs by fighting. A mental patient eats flies. And the count hits harder and harder—and more personal, and close to home—until a group of men that some literary types have dubbed the “Crew of Light” just go to find the count and kill him dead. It’s full of action, really, but also not short on creepiness. One of my favorite moments is when the crew is traveling up the mountain towards the count’s castle. It’s nighttime and the men are asleep en route. Van Helsing wakes up to see Mina, who has already been victimized by the count (see: infected though not quite vampired yet), sitting up, just staring at the campfire. Just…staring. Van Helsing has already noticed that she’s been sleeping a lot during the day—he thought from illness—but here he catches on to what’s really happening. She is slowly and gradually becoming nocturnal.
It’s that insidiousness—the way that the vampire sneaks up on its prey, slithers in through an open window and has a woman under his thrall before anyone, including her, realizes it—that has kept the vampire a prominent cultural symbol for this long. And let me tell you, Stoker’s book has got power, and it’s going to last. We’re talking about it a hundred years later and we’ll be talking about it a hundred years after that, when emo abstinence vampires are a cultural footnote. Nothing against them, understand. They don’t need to compete, which is something we literary snobs sometimes forget. ( And that’s good for them, because they totally couldn’t.)(less)
**spoiler alert** I had been meaning to read Allende for a long time; her personal story was well-known to me even though none of her written work was...more**spoiler alert** I had been meaning to read Allende for a long time; her personal story was well-known to me even though none of her written work was. Her father and stepfather were both high-ranking government officers in South America during her childhood, and her cousin was briefly the president of Chile around that same time. He killed himself during a military coup in 1973, and she was exiled from the country. She’s lived in California for the last twenty years or so, and that’s where the other half of Daughter of Fortune is set.
This story actually provides a really interesting backdrop for the novel itself, which is about a wealthy young woman, Eliza, who has a clandestine affair with a young revolutionary and then follows him to California during the Gold Rush. The passage is insanely harrowing (she’s stowed away on a ship, oh, and also pregnant) and once she gets dropped onto the California coast she’s got kind of a “now what?” situation going on. From a historical perspective it was extremely interesting, and it had two unique perspectives on this, too-a lovelorn woman navigating this tricky, dangerous, lawless world because she thinks she’ll die if she doesn’t find her man. Eliza latches onto this somber Chinese doctor from her ship, and he’s dealing with the different but similar issues of racism and assimilation. The more accustomed they become to the ways of the west, the less they feel the pull for home. And then they sort of fall in love, and Eliza has to choose between the doctor and this phantom guy she’s tracing all over the American west. And it gets quite soapy, no question, but the characters and setting are unique enough, and the story’s compelling and well-paced.
The first half in Chile, is thematically important (if not so much narratively). Eliza’s childhood and family history—especially her aunt Rose’s reckless elopement with an English actor—gives the book the feel of a saga, the same stories playing out over multiple generations. The key change is the woman at the center of the story, and Eliza, though not a particularly dynamic character, is touched by luck and happenstance. A reader can’t doubt that she’s going to “make it” even though where she ends up could conceivably be anywhere. Allende has been classified as a writer of magical realism, but this book is not an example of that particular style—this luck that Eliza carries with her is virtually the only mystical element in the book. (Oh, and the doctor sees visions of his dead wife.) It’s actually a really solid and readable historical romance.(less)
**spoiler alert** Frankenstein is not as awesome a read as its thematic soulmate Dracula, because Dracula has more action. Victor (AKA Dr. Frankenstei...more**spoiler alert** Frankenstein is not as awesome a read as its thematic soulmate Dracula, because Dracula has more action. Victor (AKA Dr. Frankenstein) is an incredibly passive character to hang this novel on. Early on, he narrates almost feverishly about the years that he spends studying, researching, experimenting to discover how to recreate the spark of life. Then he does, and his creature lives. He’s terrified of the creature, so he runs away—literally—and when he returns to his house, the creature has disappeared. And then a year passes while he tries to forget what he did. Later, after he’s seen the creature again, and the creature has demanded that Victor build him a female companion, Victor agrees. He spends a few months arranging a trip to England to work with some scientists there. He travels there slowly—in a downright leisurely manner–with a friend. Then they spend a few months traveling the English countryside.
From Derby, still journeying northwards, we passed two months in Cumberland and Westmorland. I could now almost fancy myself among the Swiss mountains.
Really, Victor, is that so? GET TO WORK. They’re here and there and Victor keeps describing scenery—mountains and rivers and fields. Look at the men of Dracula comparatively—Seward, Harker, Van Helsing, the other guys—they’re all working, all the time. They’re staying up all night doing blood transfusions on Lucy, then they’re staking out the cemetery, then they’re planning to infiltrate the Count’s house, and they’re jumping on and off trains. They’re dynamos. I’m not saying that Dracula is an inherently better book for that, or those men inherently better characters. Victor’s ambivalence and fretting over what he’s done is complex and interesting. It just makes the book a bit less suspenseful than Stoker’s. Supposedly Mary Shelley originally composed the story to be told around a roaring fire. Maybe she put in all the aimless wandering later.
Philosophically, it’s incredibly interesting—tons of circuitous little routes to follow. The most obvious is the question of the man of science playing God. In high school, which was the first time I read Frankenstein, I wrote a paper about how the debate about technology and ethics was still relevant to the modern world, using the cloning controversy as my example. (Remember Dolly, the first cloned sheep? She was new then.)
This time, I was fascinated by the part where the monster demanded that Frankenstein make him a mate. He basically lays blackmail at Victor's feet—he says, I am unloved so I am unhappy. As long as I’m unhappy, everybody DIES. Make me a girl and you’ll never hear from us again. If you don’t, everybody DIES. I started thinking about the idea of the outcast, the pariah, and what their retaliatory rights actually are. If society disenfranchises a person (or a race, or an ethnic group, or a gender or a class, etc.) does that person/race/group have the right to turn to violence? Or should they turn the other cheek? You could trace a lot of different philosophical perspectives all congregating in this one scene.
I don’t know why Victor doesn’t just kill the monster, though. He has many opportunities; presumably one good shot to the head would do it. Then he DOES decide to kill the monster. But he waits until morning, and then he walks on the beach to think about it, and then he takes a nap. This is maybe the most meandery book I’ve ever read. Still, the hype is true. It’s a masterpiece of the English language.(less)
I read this as a reference guide to mythology before taking my Master's exam, and as such it was excellent. It's well-organized, almost encyclopedic....moreI read this as a reference guide to mythology before taking my Master's exam, and as such it was excellent. It's well-organized, almost encyclopedic. Unfortunately, that very quality, plus the stilted, charmless prose, renders it a tough read, a bit of a slog. I'm sure there are primers for mythology with more literary substance out there, so if that is what you are looking for, you should continue looking. If you just want to know who Teiresias is, you'll find it here.(less)
The story starts with an intriguingly damaged main character: an artist who is in dire straits, financially and emotionally after a divorce. He holes...moreThe story starts with an intriguingly damaged main character: an artist who is in dire straits, financially and emotionally after a divorce. He holes up in a friend’s country house to paint and takes his developmentally disabled brother with him. The audiobook performer narrates as the artist, Michael, his brother, Hugh, and as someone called “the Butcher.” This character was sort of an amalgam of the artist’s father and his own artistic temperament/id. The passages by the Butcher and by Hugh should have been thematically very interesting, but I was kind of turned off having to listen to them—a “slow” guy’s voice, wondering allowed if he can read The Magic Pudding again (And that’s a real book! Who knew? Australian people, probably.) and a Cockney-accented madman raving about art in the depths of hell or whatever. This is one of those books that would have been much better to read, in my own silent consciousness, so I wouldn’t have had to think, “What in God’s name am I listening to?”
I especially disliked the character of the woman, too—the mysterious woman who suddenly appeared in her gazillion dollar shoes to seduce him and get him involved in fraud and forgery and this whole mess of crime, the specifics of which I don’t remember because it was convoluted and unmemorable. She seemed to be cut from the femme fatale swath, but it didn’t fit. A professional review I read says that the painter goes along “never understanding his role in her grand design.” And yeah, that seems about right. She’s this sort of unfathomable beauty, this powerful manipulator, this woman who leads other men by the nose. She’s not a character, she’s a fantasy. It seems to me that, in general, men and male authors in particular, have more interest in this kind of fantasy woman than I do.
Still, it was a kind of interesting look inside the professional art world—agents and openings and galleries and whatnot—and it was well-written. And I still think that Carey is worth looking into more. I have True History of the Kelly Gang on my to-be-read shelf now; let's see how that goes.(less)
I read this as a companion to Northanger Abbey (as do most people who read it these days, I suppose) but found Udolpho to be a definite slog. Emily is...moreI read this as a companion to Northanger Abbey (as do most people who read it these days, I suppose) but found Udolpho to be a definite slog. Emily is not a particularly spirited heroine, and novels from this era are not known for having a lot of structure plot-wise. Sure enough, there is tons of driving around and musing upon the scenery by the characters. Nearly more than I could stand...
And then I came upon the section in the late-middle when Emily is living with her aunt and Montoni at Udolpho--and the book became compelling! Suddenly there was conflict. Suddenly there was suspense. Suddenly there was story!
The book has got a great pedigree as one of the key ancestors of Gothic literature, and as one of the earliest examples of the modern novel, too. It's worth looking at as a historical artifact--and for those too-brief chapters at Udolpho, for its own sake as well.(less)
Of the two narratives (the serial killer and the World's Fair), both were successful for me. As much as I liked the murder stuff—I confess to having a...moreOf the two narratives (the serial killer and the World's Fair), both were successful for me. As much as I liked the murder stuff—I confess to having a penchant for reading about crime—I was also incredibly interested in the building of the fair. The architects and engineers who got together, campaigned for the rights to the fair, found the land, had to figure out how to build on it (it was a swamp onto which they wanted to build these massive, impressive structures), faced insane obstacles and setbacks with the construction of the buildings and still managed to pull the thing off. I love business narratives—rise-to-power stories, stories of impossible tasks with high stakes, and this was a first-rate version of that. Larson also does a great job of reinforcing the cultural significance of the fair, the way Americans set out to compete with Europe (we have culture too!) and the way the best and worst of humanity was on full display at the largest public gathering the adolescent country had ever put together.
It was a little less successful as a portrait of a killer—the book didn’t really get to the heart of Holmes, possibly because he was cold and soulless. Or possibly just because that wasn’t Larson’s objective. The scenes devoted to Holmes were not hard to picture, however: he was described as being short and boyish, but incredibly handsome with stunning blue eyes. My imagination cast him as Tom Cruise, which really worked.(less)
The tone of The Women is somber and reverent. I don’t know if this is typical of Boyle (I’ve never read anything else by this author), or if it was a...moreThe tone of The Women is somber and reverent. I don’t know if this is typical of Boyle (I’ve never read anything else by this author), or if it was a stylistic choice meant to signal the reserve of the narrator, one of Wright’s assistants speaking through his own Japanese-to-English ghostwriter. It definitely gave me a sense of the character’s respect for Wright as well as reinforcing the public/private dichotomy that dogged Wright throughout his fame. As readers, we’re on the inside of the relationship with Frank and Olga (or Miriam, or Mamah), but we’re also removed a step. The narrator is not Frank or Olga or Miriam or Mamah, so we have to take every detail with a grain of salt. The choice works really well for a piece of historical fiction, which is based so much in history but which also is completely Boyle’s interpretation.
I’m fond of narratives that screw with chronology, though sometimes I think it’s just being done for the hell of it. In the first section (about Wright’s third wife), I thought that’s what was happening here, too. But then, as I read the second section (about Wright’s second wife), I saw interesting connections. Every relationship Wright had informed the relationships that came after. By the third and final section, on Frank’s first mistress Mamah, I was sold: it had the narrative force of a train barreling down the tracks, largely because I was already spoiled as to how Mamah will meet her end. Logically, knowing what’s coming should take away suspense, but, on the contrary, every little piece of dialogue, every plot change was a portent of evil to come.
Definitely an undertaking—this is not a book to be surfed through in a weekend—but an amazing achievement. Big and sprawling and complicated like one of Wright’s many legendary houses.(less)
In Atkinson’s pre-Jackson Brodie works, the emotional thrust of the story is always subtle and realistic, but she often includes these nods to fantasy...moreIn Atkinson’s pre-Jackson Brodie works, the emotional thrust of the story is always subtle and realistic, but she often includes these nods to fantasy, or even magical realism. Supernatural elements or fantasy elements are sparingly sprinkled throughout the plot just enough to make you say, “Wait, what?”
Anyway, this is her second novel—not quite as amazing as her first, Behind the Scenes at the Museum—but still quite worthwhile. The character is a girl, Isobel, growing up in a family with a fractured past. She thinks that her best friend may have birthed a baby in secret and given it to a neighbor, and her stepmother is slowly going mad. She’s collecting clues about her mother, who disappeared long ago. And occasionally, Isobel takes a step and finds she’s been transported back to the Regency or some such nonsense. Just for a second, and just often enough to make herself feel like she’s out of control in some way—like she’s on the cusp of something important.
Isobel is a bit of a snot, but wistful, romantic but sensible. She’s loads of fun, and the way the mysterious elements compound as the story goes on really gives the narrative some urgency. The novel kind of loses it at the end, admittedly; the explanation for events is ultimately a bit prosaic. Not that it wasn’t foreshadowed—I looked back, and, yeah, I probably would’ve known, but I was just reading too fast, too absorbed by the characters. Certainly not something worth complaining about.(less)
Fuller’s book, about her childhood in Africa, is wonderful; I have to thank her for bringing memoirs back to me after some bad reading experiences. He...moreFuller’s book, about her childhood in Africa, is wonderful; I have to thank her for bringing memoirs back to me after some bad reading experiences. Her prose is fluid and poetic, and she doesn’t pile the anecdotes on top of one another. Things happen slowly, they evolve, and that pace helps to build onto the two great selling points of the story: the characters and the setting.
The characters are Fuller’s parents–white adventurers who persist in trying to be farmer-ranchers out in the African bush even while drought kills the crops and violent revolutions keep forcing them to move across the border again–and her siblings. The political context makes for some treacherous footing, because in every war Fuller’s family is on the side of the colonial oppressors (because, of course, their own ancestors were the oppressors themselves), and not the African revolutionaries. Fuller doesn’t gloss over their racist attitudes, but she also paints in enough of the picture that you can feel how rooted those attitudes are in the social and economic insecurity felt by the family.
The book is personal but not overly confessional. Fuller very delicately renders the people and the era and the place and demonstrates her own love for all of it. The African setting is crucial to everything that makes her family who they are–this is why they never leave, even though their lives are sometimes pretty dire there. It feels insightful without ever needing to make any big “I am now being insightful!” statements. In fact, it reads like a novel, which, coming from me, is the highest praise.(less)