I read this as part of a Global Reading Challenge in 2010. It was one of two books that had to be set in Antarctica. Books set in Antarctica are not iI read this as part of a Global Reading Challenge in 2010. It was one of two books that had to be set in Antarctica. Books set in Antarctica are not incredibly plentiful; they’re out there, but the pickings are slim compared to, say, Europe or Asia. So this book wasn’t exactly something I was panting to read, but even so it was kind of disappointing. I don’t really know anything about this author. There’s a whole list of other books that he’s written on the inside cover of this one—and I’m guessing those books are most likely genre fiction, something that appeals to retired men. Spy novels or war stories or mysteries about gruff, retired investigators. The writing was kind of staid, colorless, obligatory. The story also took this incredibly old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip philosophy to its heart. That is all so out of my wheelhouse that I really couldn’t even comprehend it.
There was the narrative problem. The book had a very specific five-part structure, and what I would consider the emotional climax of the book—when the stranded protagonist basically surrenders to his love for the pristine beauty of the Antarctic ecosystem he’s previously been fighting against—happens in the fourth section. That leaves a fifth section—not an insignificant portion of the book—to wrap up literally every loose end that ever existed, including where, geographically, the main character retires to 50 years after the fact. Some attempt is made to sustain the suspense with the man’s secrets arising late-in-life, but it all just sort of fizzles away. I admit, had I been the editor, I would’ve taken the hatchet to the entire last section.
The book suffered most greatly from my comparisons to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket & Related Tales. Though the stories are not a perfect match for one another (Pym does end up in Antarctica briefly, but under totally different circumstances), a lot of the themes are the same—solitude, survival. It occurs to me that Life of Pi also belongs in this strain (survival lit!). Both Pym and Pi work on two levels—as a suspense story about a character in unliveable circumstances, struggling to stay alive, and as a philosophical study of same. What that kind of intense situation does to one’s mind.
White-Out had the potential for all of that. Its protagonist lives alone in a tent on an Antarctic glacier for months, trying to stave off starvation and lamenting that he can’t remember what the sun looks like. Writing that is one thing—but making it suspenseful is another (this was a non-starter anyway, because we KNOW he survives, because the first chapter sets up his return to civilization)—and making it meaningful is yet another. I would have taken one without the other, but this book did not do either well—or at least not up to the standards of Poe or Pi’s Yann Martel.
Bottom line: the story was not well-written enough to work as literary fiction, not well-plotted enough to work as suspense fiction, or deep enough to work as philosophical fiction. The only point I would really give it is that it was an effective love letter to Antarctica. I mentioned that the climactic moment was when the protagonist surrendered to the wild, pristine beauty of the landscape. There are lengthy descriptions of the seasonal return of the penguins and fish and birds and otters and whatnot that signal for the character both the end of the winter (inasmuch as it’s ever not winter in Antarctica) and the return of other living beings into his life. That section was nice; I enjoyed it. Also, it was the only point in the book that felt like it was really taking place in a strange environment—the only time I felt transported to Antarctica....more
Starting out, this book was giving me a lot of what has kept me away from global literature in the past. Here’s a sample paragraph, narrated by the prStarting out, this book was giving me a lot of what has kept me away from global literature in the past. Here’s a sample paragraph, narrated by the protagonist Kambili:
Lunch was fufu and onugbu soup. The fufu was smooth and fluffy. Sisi made it well; she pounded the yam energetically, adding drops of water into the mortar, her cheeks contracting with the thump-thump-thump of the pestle. The soup was thick with chunks of boiled beef and dried fish and dark green onugbu leaves. We ate silently. I molded my fufu into small balls with my fingers, dipped it in the soup, making sure to scoop up fish chunks, and then brought it to my mouth. I was certain the soup was good, but I did not taste it, could not taste it. My tongue felt like paper.
Do you feel how aggressively multi-cultural that is? There’s a choice to be made by authors who expect to have a foreign appeal—or whose editors want to inject foreign appeal, which also probably happens a lot. Either they explain nothing: “Lunch was fufu and onugbu soup. Anyway, moving on…” Or they explain way, way, way too much. I find it very awkward. “I molded my fufu into small balls with my fingers, dipped it in the sopu, making sure to scoop up fish chunks, and then brought it to my mouth.” No offense to Ms. Adichie, but that is one of the most awkward sentences I have ever read, ever. And I wanted to know, is there a narrative purpose in here? Other than, ‘this is how African people eat fufu and onugbu soup? Aren’t we all learning?’ I have dropped a lot of multi-cultural lit because they shoehorn in too many descriptions of food and clothes and religious rites. I want to experience the story world, not read an encyclopedia entry about it.
And yet, the book comes back from this awkward beginning. Some way through the book, Kambili and her brother visit family—a free-thinking aunt who is a college professor, and her independently-minded kids. Kambili is bewildered when she witnesses how her aunt and cousins talk to each other, how they converse freely, casually, and without fear, how they remain open-minded about religious and political conflicts going on in the country. They have been allowed to develop relationships with the grandfather they all share—Kambili’s father cut the man out of their lives because he remained loyal to his ancestral religion. When the old man falls ill, Kambili overhears her aunt pray that God watch over the old man and she is blown away. God watch over a heathen? The idea is, to her, unheard of. The God she has known is—like her father—a rigid and unforgiving figure. She gets a counterpoint to this, too, in the friendly, liberal priest she meets through her aunt, and on whom she develops a mildly inappropriate crush.
Kambili’s understanding of the world gets bigger, and suddenly she has choices to make about how the rest of her life is going to go. Her new knowledge sets up tensions that didn’t exist before. That is a classic setup for a coming-of-age novel and it works great. I loved the aunt and cousin characters—I kind of wanted to live with them, too. So what started out kind of stiff and instructive grew into a more character-driven narrative—just as the protagonist is discovering her own character, who she is and who she can be without the interference of oppressive forces like her father. I am so much more receptive to literary styles and narrative choices that I don’t like if they turn out to mean something. The book began with Kambili an observer, one who catalogues and records but doesn’t interpret; Adichie wrote the character a nice, subtle growth arc. Well done....more
In this collection of three short novels, “Leaf Storm” appeared first, but I read it last because it took me a few tries to get into. It was somewhatIn this collection of three short novels, “Leaf Storm” appeared first, but I read it last because it took me a few tries to get into. It was somewhat difficult to read, not in the least because there were three different first-person narrators who would take over for each other at every section break, and I often didn’t realize the narrator had changed until the little boy suddenly started referring to his late wife and it occurred to me that the little boy was no longer speaking, his grandfather was. That’s a sign of one of two things: either I wasn’t reading closely enough, which is totally possible, because “Leaf Storm” was a very slow, meditative story that I mostly read at night while nearly asleep. Or, the voices weren’t distinguished enough by the narration. This would not necessarily be a slur on Marquez, because the book is obviously a translation of what Marquez actually wrote. Perhaps there were linguistic markers which would have differentiated the voices from each other if I had read the book in its native Spanish.
The second novella was “No One Writes to the Colonel,” an incredibly bleak story about a older couple struggling to make ends meet while they wait for the husband’s military pension, which is apparently something like thirty years late in coming. In the meantime, they are raising a rooster that they hope to make some money off of via cockfights. The wife is sick, they’re both starving, and things just stay the same. Their circumstances change for the worse—move laterally at best.
The great redeeming story was the third, “Chronicles of a Death Foretold.” The basic story is about a small town that is shaken up when two brothers kill another young man of their acquaintance, due to a misunderstanding about their sister and her virginity. What was really amazing about it was the narrative choice—it unfolds like a documentary, with an unidentified narrator describing the process of collecting eyewitness accounts and piecing the story together. The story opens with the murder, and then moves backwards and forwards in time depending on whose perspective we’re getting at that moment. Here’s a sample:
Victoria Guzman, for her part, had been categorical with her answer that neither she nor her daughter knew that the men were waiting for Santiago Nasar to kill him. But in the course of her years she admitted that both knew it when he came into the kitchen to have his coffee. They had been told it by a woman who had passed by after five o’clock to beg a bit of milk, and who in addition had revealed the motives and the place where they were waiting. “I didn’t warn him because I thought it was drunkards’ talk,” she told me. Nevertheless, Divina Flor confessed to me on a later visit, after her mother had died, that the latter hadn’t said anything to Santiago Nasar because in the depths of her heart she wanted them to kill him. She, on the other hand, didn’t warn him because she was nothing but a frightened child at the time, incapable of a decision of her own, and she’d been all the more frightened when he grabbed her by the wrist with a hand that felt frozen and stony, like the hand of a dead man.
The documentarian has the greatest storytelling challenge of any filmmaker, because he or she has to take a huge amount of information and characters and events and draw a relatively straight narrative line through it. The choice made by Marquez—to imagine a whole outside context for this story of some guy making an exhaustive investigation into this event via interviews, anecdotes, paperwork—is amazingly effective. And he uses it with such a light touch. It reminds me of all those novels from the 19th century that claim to have been compiled from letters found in mysterious diaries and stuff, just because it was in vogue at the time to pretend you found your story instead of creating it in your own head. I like these kinds of techniques, because they don’t fence in the story. This one bleeds out in all directions. It’s saturated with context, with different paths, with inner lives. In short, it’s wonderful....more
A novel narrated by a middle-aged guy stranded in an airport, trying to get to his daughter’s wedding. He starts composing an angry letter to the airlA novel narrated by a middle-aged guy stranded in an airport, trying to get to his daughter’s wedding. He starts composing an angry letter to the airline and all of his neuroses and past regrets come spilling out in the process. A funny idea, which is why I picked it up in the first place, but I think it was about three times longer than this slender concept could support. After long, serious passages describing the main character’s reckless youth, his drinking problems, how things went sour with his daughter’s mother, he would go back to speaking directly to the airline about wanting his 352 bucks back or whatever. It felt a little erratic. It's worth noting that I listened to an audio version of the book, so I don’t know if the formatting of the book smooths the transitions out—is it formatted like a letter all the way through? I can say that the voice actor who read the book was terrific, though, playing drunky when he needed to, and exhibiting just a hint of a southern slur for a character born and raised in Lou’siana....more
I read The Remains of the Day—arguably the most famous novel by contemporary writer Kazuo Ishiguro (or maybe Never Let Me Go has eclipsed it?)—first.I read The Remains of the Day—arguably the most famous novel by contemporary writer Kazuo Ishiguro (or maybe Never Let Me Go has eclipsed it?)—first. I backtracked to read An Artist of the Floating World, which he’d written five to ten years before, and in the early chapters I felt that he was shooting for the same target as he had in The Remains of the Day, with an aim not quite fully developed. This happens sometimes when you read an author’s breakout novel before you read their early stuff: the early stuff feels like rough drafts of what’s to come.
As it went on, though, it took its own interesting journey in a fresh direction. It’s a sort of experimental narrative, meandering and circle-y. Following along with this style was an adjustment for me, but once I gave into it, I really enjoyed it, and it actually felt like I was really getting the point of multi-cultural reading, if you know what I mean. (I know Ishiguro was raised in England, but this one is set in Japan, and Japanese concepts of culture, history and self-image are all important to the themes at work.)
The characters, and their interactions with each other, were likewise incredibly foreign. The book is set in the late 40s and early 50s in Japan, amidst the process of rebuilding postwar. The main character is a retired artist, one who provided a lot of pro-Axis powers artwork back when it was patriotic and is now dealing with the fact that some people consider it misguided, even traitorous. Early on, another character describes to the artist how the CEO of his company has killed himself as a means of apology for involving his company in the war effort.
The cultural differences are reflected in less dramatic fashion, too. The artist, Ono, has interactions with his grown daughters, one of whom has a young son and one who is involved in marriage negotiations. Culturally they owe him complete deference, which is hugely visible in their dialogue together, but he feels that they sometimes manipulate him between the lines. A lot of the story is the character reflecting on his past, so we also get his youthful experiences as a working artist and as a teacher, called “sensei,” by his students and lavished with praise and compliments. Later, he remembers being apprenticed himself to a major artist who expected this kind of submission from him, who complains to him when his artwork begins to exhibit its own personal style. The goal seems to be to replicate the artist’s work exactly. Ono’s sensei paints nothing but geishas in soft light, and doesn’t like that his student is painting soldiers and children in poverty.
This is where “the floating world” comes in: Ono has to decide whether his art belongs in the practical world or in the world of beauty without purpose. The non-linear timeline muddies up this question entirely, because we already know that in the future he’ll regret the politically-minded work he provided during the war. He looks upon both his past and his present with ambivalence, unsure if he did any of it right. The entire book reveals the transitory nature of the world, presenting a guy, who, if he ever did fit in with his time, has lived far past it now.
Which come to think of it, expressed that vaguely, could easily describe The Remains of the Day, as well. Maybe that’s just Ishiguro’s main preoccupation. Anyway, the book is sad and strange and wonderful. The only drawback—if I am to be forced to think of one—is that it describes so much artwork that readers can’t see with their own eyes. That’s the one situation where I would be on board for this multi-media fiction that is supposedly just around the corner: books about art, and probably books about music, too. As long as the media was a contribution to the literary work and not a distraction. But we’ll be debating that forever....more
**spoiler alert** What a strange and interesting story.
I think its greatest contribution as a novel is the way religion and philosophy are woven into**spoiler alert** What a strange and interesting story.
I think its greatest contribution as a novel is the way religion and philosophy are woven into the story–both above and beneath the surface elements. This is one of those novels that tries to pierce to the heart of what makes man, man. I tend to connect more with fictions that address smaller, closer, more personal questions, so this was not an immediate selling point for me. However, the story is great on its own–even if you don’t care for Pi’s ruminations on whether civilization can exist in a lifeboat, we still get the incredibly compelling narrative of How Pi Eats, How Pi Survives.
Of course, the end of the novel changed the stakes considerably by suddenly casting doubt on the reliability of Pi as a narrator. Without warning, the story we had been told became (possibly) a cover for even more horrifying events. Of course, this dovetails beautifully with the whole question of how a human being copes with being reduced to his animal instincts. By telling stories to himself. And harnessing the potent power of denial.
It was a twist, an honest-to-God twist, one I did not suspect was coming, and which, rather than making me angry for the mislead, made me rethink the ninety percent of the novel that came before it. Well-executed, well-earned....more
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. HeFuller’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....more
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 fantasyIn 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....more
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 aThe 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....more
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 isI 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....more
The story starts with an intriguingly damaged main character: an artist who is in dire straits, financially and emotionally after a divorce. He holesThe 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....more
I read this for a class way back in my undergrad days. The class was based on the modern British novel, and it's part of a pretty popular subgenre calI read this for a class way back in my undergrad days. The class was based on the modern British novel, and it's part of a pretty popular subgenre called "lad lit" AKA "What hell hath Nick Hornby wrought?" It's like chick lit, except it's worse because it's full of misogyny. (Not that I would include Hornby in that category. He, unlike most of his contemporaries, can write a troubled man who is nonetheless decent.)
This particular novel is about the baffling need for men to hold onto friendships that have outlived their lifespan, as a last-ditch effort to hold onto their youth. The main character here has three buddies who, every year, reenact the same pointless adventure they had once when they were young. But one year it conflicts with his girlfriend's birthday! Oh no! The choice between past and future!
First of all, any girlfriend worth her salt has no trouble celebrating her birthday the day before or the day after if there is a legitimate conflict. Second, the fact that he doesn't even like these guys anymore suggests that maybe the tradition might as well be retired.
I don't remember the writing being anything special, but it has been a very long time.
So: pass it up and read something better by Nick Hornby, or maybe some early Michael Chabon if you're American. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh does better with similar themes, as I recall....more