I wanted to like this book better than I did: it was beautifully written, and most of the characters were interesting, multi-faceted, flawed:...more3.5 stars
I wanted to like this book better than I did: it was beautifully written, and most of the characters were interesting, multi-faceted, flawed: convincingly human. I loved the way different kinds of beauty affected the plots and the characters: without fanfare, the theme was woven everywhere. I couldn't even count the ways the theme returned. It was, dare I say, quite beautiful.
However, I just can't get around Howard. Now, I'm going to admit to my shame (since I'm an English major) I haven't read Howard's End, and I understand that On Beauty refers to it. Perhaps I'm missing something crucial and elegant and intelligent about Howard. But I found him not only repulsive but a failed character. The only trait that inspired my sympathy - his inability to just enjoy things - seemed so overdrawn I had trouble believing such a person could exist. (And I do know academics.) That trait seemed to make him an allegory instead of a man. Other attempts to lend depth and humanity to his character, give him a history, rang false to me. I couldn't believe in him, and he was a poisonous cancer on all the other characters* who I did believe in, and liked, even when they were unlikeable. And he was the mainest main character, with the most screen time. His actions just made him more banal (big points to the character who told him that) and I kept waiting for a train or a meteor to hit Howard and erase him from these poor people's lives. I waited for a plot device to detonate in his face.
I'll admit that I am sick to death of white male middle-aged protagonists with midlife crisis, as well as white male liberal arts professors, let alone New England ones. So Howard hit several sore points, but I am willing to be convinced: I read this book in spite of Howard (who was obviously ticking a lot of boxes from his first chapter, but seemed otherwise inoffensive) and loved so much of it, in spite of Howard. But Howard was Howard, a vast pustule of Howardness, and the end did not redeem him, or really pay off for me. If the book was trying to make a deeper point about this kind of character, or his pervasiveness, it didn't make that point with me.
The book was sprawling, emotionally involving, ambitious, intensely crafted. Characters like Kiki and Zora were exquisitely well-observed, and made my heart ache with their truth. There were even details about Howard that were unusual and winning at first. The huge number of viewpoints were enlightening and fairly well juggled. They even performed an important function: contrasting, over and over, outsides and insides. The book had many telling moments of really interesting discomfort about race, class, and nationality, even if the explicitly political parts of its plot seemed less insightful and occasionally flabby. Ultimately, while I don't regret any of the time I spent on the book, it didn't gel for me, and I think Howard is in large part why.
*There was only one other character I remember really disliking without understanding (V), and I kept waiting for a section from her viewpoint that would explain her better than the sort of shallow sociological gestures I could make myself and Howard made for me. I felt the book was a little unfair to her.(less)
This book started out as a quiet little story, and ended up thundering so loud I had to fall to my knees. It has similar extremes of gentleness and br...moreThis book started out as a quiet little story, and ended up thundering so loud I had to fall to my knees. It has similar extremes of gentleness and brutality, sometimes intermixed in a way that is so, so human.
It's the story of a girl who leaves the known world of Haiti to follow her unknown mother to America, yes, but it's more than that. It is (very explicitly) about mothers and daughters; it's about ways of knowing, the unseen world, cycles of violence and strength and love. It isn't glossy and perfect in the way some novellas and short novels are -- those that leave no thread hanging. This isn't a book that practices perfect conservation of plot, but perfect conservation of image. There isn't a single image or idea, way of seeing or knowing, that wasn't needed. Some recur only a few times, but they appear and reappear just when they're needed, when they'll be most resonant.
One might argue that the male characters are sidelined, but they're not two-dimensional: they have an underside or three, just like anyone. And the inability to completely connect with men is part of what the book is about.
I'll admit that when I was reading along, I thought I'd give this a four star rating: compelling, human characters, beautiful images, thought-provoking stuff. But the ending blew me away completely and transformed the whole experience.(less)
Another book that left me with mixed feelings. This is a multi-point-of-view fictional narrative based on a real series of events that happen...more3.5 stars
Another book that left me with mixed feelings. This is a multi-point-of-view fictional narrative based on a real series of events that happened in Communist Czechoslovakia.
One of the problems I have in assessing this story is that it didn't read like a novel. It has some remarkable strengths. I loved the two main viewpoint characters: Emil, a charming scientist from a privileged background who is secretly anti-Communist; and Amina, a somnambulist factory worker who becomes very attached to the captive giraffes. I found the setting fascinating -- I've never read anything set in Czechoslovakia before, let alone Communist Czechoslovakia.
I thought the prose was very fine. It employed a certain amount of repetition, which I rapidly became fond of. There are certain phrases and images that appear over and over: "the Communist moment", people sleepwalking through Communism, Czechoslovakia's lack of wind, rivers as veins, humans and giraffes being "vertical creatures". These repetitions gave the story a dream-like quality, so that the reader enters into the somnambulism of the setting and accepts the recurring images, the similarity of events in Africa and Europe, the way different people's internal lives can rhyme.
However, there were some problems. It had very slight conflict, and passive characters. I find that acceptable, but some would hate it. The end is rather unsatisfying, though an argument could be made for that being the point: the author communicating the meaninglessness of events rather than trying to give them meaning through his work. Also, a lot of characters seemed to be interested in long, discursive discussion of thematically related material, such as the history of captive animals in Czechoslovakia. I'm willing to accept, even embrace, two main characters who are introspective, dreamy and ruminative. But several supporting characters who spout paragraphs of historical research? Not so much.
My biggest problem with the book was some of the points of view. I found the initial section, from the main giraffe's perspective, a trifle overwritten and sometimes encumbered with human knowledge and concepts. Any animal POV is a big risk, one I think you need to take all the way -- writing animal sections throughout or exclusively -- or not take at all. I also didn't think we needed the butcher's point of view at -- he added nothing to the artistry of the story, repeated events we already understood. His only essential role was to connect to the last, foreign correspondent's POV and thus explain the existence of the book. I didn't like the foreign correspondent, I didn't think his POV added anything, and I don't need the existence of the book explained. In fact, given its ethereal charm, I'd almost rather it went unexplained.
In short: a beautiful, enigmatic book I enjoyed listening to. The events are troubling and there's not much resolution, but it's a quick read, so if you want to be challenged and transported, give it a try.(less)
I have a problem with Great Expectations. The problem is, I believe I haven't read it. I have, three or four times, but the very first time, I didn't...moreI have a problem with Great Expectations. The problem is, I believe I haven't read it. I have, three or four times, but the very first time, I didn't finish it (we were reading it aloud on a class trip, and the trip ended) and somehow, no matter how often I read it, I think I've never finished it. It's been my secret shame.
So I'm writing this review to remind me. I have read Great Expectations. The parts of it I cherish are the sidelights: Magwitch, Wemmick and his Aged Parent. Even the Pockets tumbling up. In the introduction to this edition, John Irving mentions that the language shifts when the plot takes off. Perhaps that's why I stop remembering it: the sidelights fade. I've never had too much use for Mr. Pip (as opposed to young Pip, who is rather charming) -- none of his repentance and retrospective self-deprecation was enough for me.
While I see the craft in this book, and the rich imagery that makes it so beloved of English teachers, it is not my favorite Boz. It's well worth reading though, if only for the images -- the ruined wedding feast, the clerk 'posting' bits of toast through his mail-slot mouth, the family of gravestones by the marshes -- that will stick with you, even if the denouement insists on fading.(less)
This is a quick read, once you've had a few pages to soak into the dialect. I enjoyed the frame, which placed the narrative firmly in a storytelling t...moreThis is a quick read, once you've had a few pages to soak into the dialect. I enjoyed the frame, which placed the narrative firmly in a storytelling tradition, and gave us enough clues about Janie's eventful life that we could easily realize it was the life, not the events, that mattered.
The dialogue throughout the book is spritely and delighting, marked by inventive habits of wordplay, and the text of the book itself is often beautiful, evocative, and skeweringly apt. I love the images that pervade it, like bright threads glinting throughout the fabric.
It's short, and much of its work of character and language is expertly begun early and tied off neatly at the end. Therefore, I'm tempted to class it as one of those short novels of jewel-like, novella-style perfection (like The Great Gatsby). However, there are a few episodes that still seem like unexplained detours to me, so it escapes that classification. I'll be studying the book a little more in coming days, so I may have further realizations.
It's an interesting story with well-realized characters, universal relevance, and beautiful writing.(less)
In my World Lit class as a freshman in college, each professor taught the set curriculum plus one book of their choosing. One of my professors chose t...moreIn my World Lit class as a freshman in college, each professor taught the set curriculum plus one book of their choosing. One of my professors chose this.
I can't be sure if I would make more of the writing itself today -- I often find translated prose flat -- but I can say with certainty that the characters are uniformly unappealing, the plot brutal, and many scenes nauseating. I remember the book mainly for its revulsion factor and because I wondered so intensely why it was chosen.
I believe the book was trying to depict the inhumanity that harsh conditions (flood and famine in 1930's China) can foster, but if there were greater goals in mind than cheap shock and visceral disgust, it failed with this reader and in this translation.(less)
I'm not a great poetry authority, but I found these somewhat disappointing. My other major reference point for Eliot is his Four Quartets, which I lov...moreI'm not a great poetry authority, but I found these somewhat disappointing. My other major reference point for Eliot is his Four Quartets, which I loved. Both works are dense with allusion and require some intellectual work to unlock, but Four Quartets felt (naturally) more mature, and rewarded me more than amply for my time and attention. Perhaps the comparison put it at an unfair disadvantage, but The Waste Land, while symbolically rich, beautifully atmospheric and linguistically clever, did not seem as meaningful or coherent. I felt it demanded much and yielded too little.
My favorite part was "What the Thunder Said", which had some beautifully resonant references and lasting images.(less)
I've already been an Atwood admirer for a few years, but The Blind Assassin is too gorgeous to merely admire. I love it. Where it isn't exquisite, it...moreI've already been an Atwood admirer for a few years, but The Blind Assassin is too gorgeous to merely admire. I love it. Where it isn't exquisite, it's precise. It moves expertly between the dry, the brutally truthful, and the passionate, and brings the keenness of the author's eye to them all. Atwood describes both the elusive and the everyday with a transforming grace.
All that is merely on the level of prose, of paragraph. Her narrator is human, complex, and honest. The other characters are interesting, Laura chiefly so, of course, and I appreciate the way Iris acknowledges and interrogates her own inability to do others' characters justice. I particularly appreciated the way that Atwood drew us into the book with the mystery of Laura, and then gradually made us (well, me, at any rate) fonder and fonder of Iris. A beautiful literary bait and switch.
All this and a compelling plot. Really, if I try to think of something wrong with this book, the first thing that swims to mind is that it's more than a little intimidating to a young author. My consolation is that she was 61 when it was published. I still have some years to practice.(less)
I have read that critics, still charmed by The Great Gatsby, were disappointed in Fitzgerald's next novel, Tender is the Night. I both understand why...moreI have read that critics, still charmed by The Great Gatsby, were disappointed in Fitzgerald's next novel, Tender is the Night. I both understand why and think they were very wrong. Gatsby has a crystalline unity, almost like a novella. It is thematically clear and focused. Tender is the Night, on the other hand, sprawls and contradicts. It doesn't have a single driving thrust, it has a set of questions it is exploring. It is not another Gatsby, but a complex, ambitious thing of multiple points of view and rich ambiguities.
There is much to admire in this book. All Fitzgerald's lyricism and irony are here, and the writing is skillful. Even the book's eccentricities seem meaningful on closer inspection: the way the protagonist is Rosemary Hoyt in Book I and Dick Diver in all the other Books may seem odd, but it allows us to see Dick first from the outside, the effect he has created. It makes the questions of self versus social image that much more explicit. The plotting also seems expert, the counterpoint of inconsequential but memorable and often violent event with the main emotional arc of the characters. It's a thought-provoking book that shuns easy answers in favor of hard questions.(less)
An excellent model for shnovel or collage, written with a delicate touch. I like the way the focus on the main character grows over time, as the child...moreAn excellent model for shnovel or collage, written with a delicate touch. I like the way the focus on the main character grows over time, as the child grows and differentiates himself and his personality from his community. I also appreciate the willingness to show the protagonist's folly and foibles. From a modern perspective, the clumsy attempts at female characterization are rather cringeworthy, and I also found the 'grotesque' angle somewhat overplayed. (less)
Any novel in the form of short stories about the life of a small American town probably invites comparison to Winesburg, Ohio. In Stygo's case, the...moreAny novel in the form of short stories about the life of a small American town probably invites comparison to Winesburg, Ohio. In Stygo's case, the comparison is not all that apt: Stygo is not a sleepy town full of quiet desperation, but a desperate town in its own right. No main character emerges from the novel or leaves at the end (in fact, the only young man we know to have struck out from town is a spree-killer.) It's its own book.
What I enjoyed most about the book was the way it spiraled outward, each story bringing the reader farther into the margins of town, farther from the apparent heart of the community. By the time the chapters come back to the center, back to the bar and Willa Moon, it's clear that neither a place nor a person is the center of this community, but rather an unanswered need, a void.
My favorite stories in this volume were those of teen and tween girls, especially "Corsage" and "Calliope." Hendrie does a great job with these lives and voices, on the edge of self-consciousness and the edge of transformation. Individual stories in the book may end too easily or too pat, but the images and people stick with you, and it's an engaging read. Push on beyond the establishing shot of the first story, and you'll be well-rewarded.(less)
I wonder if the dominance of bildungsroman narratives in the shnovels (linked books of short stories) I've surveyed indicates a modern realization abo...moreI wonder if the dominance of bildungsroman narratives in the shnovels (linked books of short stories) I've surveyed indicates a modern realization about the nature of growing up. It isn't linear or clean, a smooth line of story unspooling over years, and the collage approach of books like Local Girls and this one seems a better fit for our current understanding of memory and childhood.
At any rate, a bildungs-shnovel is more or less what this is; along the way, a portrait of place and yet another story where the heart is half-hidden in the untold. I liked that Perry's story includes his brother's, the way real people's growing does intertwine and contrast with the growth of those around them. I liked the elements of the unreal or quasi-mythic in the neighborhood, in the stories of the men who drink at Zip's. I like the way the young people are explicitly interested in understanding their lives as stories and writing their own identities.(less)
I've only read a novel by Murakami before, and I found his declarative prose style worked better in short stories. Some of the stories did feel rather...moreI've only read a novel by Murakami before, and I found his declarative prose style worked better in short stories. Some of the stories did feel rather slight. That moment of turning, of transformation, on which such subtle character-driven fictions rely, was often quite understated; while occasionally gross lyrical flights can seem an overblown attempt to sell an underfed story, here sometimes the understatement worked against the stories, leaving you feeling little movement or effect from having finished a tale. Sometimes, though, despite not feeling entirely arrived, I did feel I'd enjoyed the journey.
My favorites, I think, were "Honey Pie" and "Landscape with Flatiron". In their quiet ways, they seemed true, right through to the end, and the images woven through made them lovely, too.(less)
Imbued with a charming voice, these very short stories draw you into the story of Gretel Samuelson's adolescence and keep you flipping pages. I finish...moreImbued with a charming voice, these very short stories draw you into the story of Gretel Samuelson's adolescence and keep you flipping pages. I finished it in practically one sitting (airport, airplane...that's about one sitting.) A quick and moving read.
It does move, over the course of the book, from mostly first-person stories to third-person stories, as the content becomes more serious. While this saves the author from having to render dramatic, emotional events in a first-person voice that might overwhelm, it seems, by the end, a possible misstep. We lose the Gretel we loved from the first page. Even if losing her was part of the journey, I wanted, and felt I deserved, to have her again by the last page.(less)
I have a hard time saying why this book is so charming. Perhaps it's Jason's naked honesty as a narrator, the way he lays bare his own insecurity. Per...moreI have a hard time saying why this book is so charming. Perhaps it's Jason's naked honesty as a narrator, the way he lays bare his own insecurity. Perhaps it's the way he anthropomorphizes his own impulses and problems, or how the initially de rigeur contempt/resentment relationship with his older sister rapidly becomes something more respectful and interesting. Perhaps it's that he writes poetry under the name of Eliot Bolivar.
At any rate, Black Swan Green manages to make a memorable voice and an individual story out of what seems like very ordinary material: young boy struggles with identity and social acceptance in small English town in the 80s. The plot does have its predictable moments, but also its surprises. I enjoyed the book, read it quickly, and liked Jason much more than the average teen protagonist.(less)
A delicately painted portrait of a Nigerian girl coming of age in a tightly-controlled, wealthy Catholic family. While the pace is somewhat slow, and...moreA delicately painted portrait of a Nigerian girl coming of age in a tightly-controlled, wealthy Catholic family. While the pace is somewhat slow, and the main character's devotion to her autocratic, violent father is as frustrating as it is well-drawn, the book is interesting and deeply believable.(less)
I don't give star ratings to books by faculty members of my MFA program.
Claire Davis's first novel builds from the small to the epic, an engaging read...moreI don't give star ratings to books by faculty members of my MFA program.
Claire Davis's first novel builds from the small to the epic, an engaging read that moves along quickly. It's a story told from several different perspectives, one of them increasingly twisted, written in Claire's full-throated and inimitable style.
It's particularly notable for the sense of place. I enjoyed the artistry in the way two places were depicted; rural Montana, throughout, and softer Midwestern farmland through Ike's point of view. The latter place emerges partly through definition, partly by contrast with the main setting; an interesting technique. Moreover, the lasting impression of the uncaring Montana wilds isn't personified. Claire Davis manages to paint the landscape in all its fury while leaving it empty. (less)
At least until I graduate, I am holding off on giving stars to my professors' books.
Mr. Lesley has a habit of inscribing this book "I hope this honors...moreAt least until I graduate, I am holding off on giving stars to my professors' books.
Mr. Lesley has a habit of inscribing this book "I hope this honors the rural, small-town West." I think it does.
It's a story that starts small, in the details of a working-class life lived close to the bone, and opens up into the camaraderie, suspicions, and humor of a rich small-town life. The characters in the town and on the neighboring reservation are engaging and real. The plot draws you on from the narrator's concerns to town mysteries, and is ultimately driven by the cataclysms that can either shatter or cement a community.(less)
I don't give star-ratings to books by my professors.
I read this book upon my acceptance into a program where the author teaches. I was trying to get a...moreI don't give star-ratings to books by my professors.
I read this book upon my acceptance into a program where the author teaches. I was trying to get an idea for the stuff each professor wrote, so I strayed outside my normal fare. I am not, as a rule, attracted to stories about fathers' and sons' relationships, recently divorced men, or, in fact, fishing. However, this book was luminous and beautifully written, full of lasting images and authentically human moments. It also managed to jump around in time without being confusing or affected. Basically, this book was so lovely I didn't really care what it was about, I just enjoyed it. That's some kind of magic.(less)
I found this book well-executed but ultimately emotionally unsatisfying. I enjoyed reading it very much, found it intelligent and rigorous, but when I...moreI found this book well-executed but ultimately emotionally unsatisfying. I enjoyed reading it very much, found it intelligent and rigorous, but when I finished, I felt untouched and disappointed.
A lyrical, time-jumping book, quiet somehow in its precision, its private emotions. The larger strokes -- the way isolated people manage to work toget...moreA lyrical, time-jumping book, quiet somehow in its precision, its private emotions. The larger strokes -- the way isolated people manage to work together and the way violence intrudes on solitude -- are all the more effective for being struck across a fabric of such beautiful and hushed detail.
A historical novel in the form of the rough and rustic memoir of real 19th century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Sometimes bleak, sometimes funny; the...moreA historical novel in the form of the rough and rustic memoir of real 19th century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. Sometimes bleak, sometimes funny; the story of the first and second generation of poor Irish settlers in Australia.
Quote: "They arrived in broken cart & drays they was of that type THE BENALLA ENSIGN named the most frightful class of people they couldnt afford to leave their cows & pigs but they done so because we was them and they was us and we had showed the world what convict blood could do. We proved there were no taint we was of true bone blood and beauty born."(less)