I think every reader has had this experience: you pick up a book and immediately fall into its pages. Something--the plot, the setting, the style--enc...moreI think every reader has had this experience: you pick up a book and immediately fall into its pages. Something--the plot, the setting, the style--enchants you, and you speed on, certain that this is going to be a five-star read, one of those books that you make sure you can always find on your bookcase so it is easily retrievable for a re-read. Or maybe it might even--you can scarcely hope--become one of those wonderful rare books that you don't ever dare to visit again just to keep the magical feeling of discovery intact. Whatever your plans for the book, you turn the pages faster, with a great big smile on your face and then...something happens, and you can feel your smile starting to drop away. Maybe one of the characters says something that seems out of place, or there's a kink in the plot that you just can't accept, or there is a stylistic hiccup of the author that becomes a tad wearisome. More often, though, the story just seems to run out of steam slightly. Something seems to have gone ever so faintly wrong, but you're not quite sure what it is, and you end up closing the book with a trace of a frown on your face and a vague feeling of disappointment in your heart. You still like the book, perhaps even sort of love the book, but it is not going to make your list of all-time favorites, and you spend more time wondering what went awry and why you are feeling a bit baffled than thinking over the many aspects of the book that thrilled you in the first place. These are the hardest books for me to read, and the most difficult reviews for me to write, because I'm kind of fumbling around to express my reservations about a book that I did enjoy. A great deal. So much of Deathless was absolutely terrific, but for me the novel went off the rails somewhat, and ended up being not all that this greatly gifted author could have made of it.
Deathless is Valente's re-working of the classic Slavic fairy tales, starting in the last days of imperial Russia, and carrying through the events--or I should say cataclysms--of the revolution, collectivization, WWII, and ending with the purges under Stalin. All the famous figures of the folktales are here--Baba Yaga the Boney Legged, Vassilisa the Wise (OK, here she's called Marya, and there's a subplot over the name that comes the closest Valente gets to a sly, long-running joke), the intrepid Ivan, and Koschei the Deathless and his brother Viy. Plus there are rusalki, and domoviye and leshy and firebirds--all present and accounted for. In fact, that might be part of the problem; there's almost too much wonderfulness crammed in here; too many colorful characters, too many gleaming samovars, too many birch-whipped saunas; it ends up being almost indigestible.
Rich, too, is Valente's language. It's been described as poetic, maybe even rather purple. I happen to like this sort of style, but I can understand that other readers might find it a bit much. What's more, you know that Valente knows that she's a superb stylist; there is, perhaps, just a shade of self-awareness in the linguistic games she's playing that borders on the arch. You've heard of authors that could re-write the phone book and make it compelling? Well, here's Valente's take on slicing a loaf of bread:
"The crust crackled under his knife and the slice fell, moist and heavy as earth. He spread cold, salted butter over it with a sweep of the blade, and scooped caviar onto the butter, a smear of dark eggs against the pale gold cream...The taste of it burst in her mouth, the salt and the sea. Tears sprang in her eyes. Her empty belly sang for the thickness of it, the plenty..."
Well, I found the description rather mesmerizing, but other readers might deem it rather gooey. Back to the plot, and trying to analyze the book without spoilers:
As I've said, this is Valente's re-telling of the classic Russian fairy tales in a modern setting. Sometimes the two worlds are braided together, sometimes they are fused, and sometimes they lay together side by side, not quite touching. It's a complex system, but no one ever said that Valente doesn't demand a great deal from her reader. Much of the time this works well, with the real-world realities and the dream world of the fairy tale reinforcing each other and adding to each world's power. It's especially effective in the middle of the book, when the Deathless One whisks Marya off to his kingdom (and this is no spoiler; this is the fairy tale part, so you know there will be a Spiriting Away) and Marya must do her Three Appointed Tasks to win Koschei the Deathless. This is the best part of the book; "Chairman" Yaga is a scream--but how can she not be--she's Baba Yaga--and her edicts to "almost-soup" Marya are laugh-aloud funny. Marya's helpers, too, are great, especially Lebedeva, with her eyelids carefully painted to match the soup of the day.
And then Ivan shows up (and this in no spoiler either, this is a fairy tale, so you know there will be a Rescue, even if the sort-of princess doesn't seem to be too enthusiastic about the plan) and here, perhaps, was where my interest started to falter. Ivan is so dull, and I realized, during her interactions with her erstwhile rescuer, that Marya is, too, a bit. The blandly heroic twosome and the enigmatic Koschei function best in the fairy tale world, where the reader doesn't expect depth in the characterizations, or any consistency--or any real sense--in their actions. Fortunately, however, after some less than enthralling lovers's chit-chat, there was another fairy tale-ish adventure, and I could feel myself getting really interested again. There's something very hypnotic about the power of the three-three-three, and Valente takes advantage of it as Vassilisa--I mean Marya--and her lover travel back to Leningrad. And then they're back--just in time to face the siege of Leningrad, and my real problems with the book began.
Nataliya, in her excellent review here on GR, quite rightly singles out chapter 23 as the emotional heart of the book; the "real world" part of the book, anyway. The first part of the chapter is devastating, even though Marya and Ivan--especially Ivan--continue to be as flat as the paper they're printed on. (Perhaps, at this part of the book, the plot demands more than the two can deliver; they're excellent and satisfying when they are paper dolls performing against the fairy tale backdrop but the worst siege in world history deserves a more flesh and blood response. There's no point, however, in demanding three-dimensional behavior; they are, after all, figures from a fable.) The fates of the pair that share their house, and of the people that share their city are described very movingly. But then, just as things go from terrible to horrific--people are scraping off wallpaper paste and boiling it down to eat, and one doesn't even want to think about what kind of meat is being bartered for jewels in the marketplace--Valente shifts gears again. It seems to me that this would have been the place to reintroduce the task of the three, and instead she goes for...a little light bondage. What? Huh? Maybe her editor said "Catherynne, I know of a way to really boost your sales--you need to aim for the angsty-love with-flowing-dress-on-the-cover market, so just add this spicy interlude." Or maybe she's been influenced by the Twilighting of our times. Who knows--maybe she just wanted to explore her inner dominatrix. All that I can say is that it just did not work for me.
And then Valente skitters away from the starving city as if she just cannot bear the realities of the war and the world she has copied. There's another jump, another interlude that is fascinating, but bewildering, and then another lurch back. And this time, instead of the two halves strengthening each other, it just undercuts both plot lines. I ended up not caring as much about what happens to the characters as I should have.
It also left me a little confused, to be honest. What was Valente trying to say, exactly? I don't really know, and I am not sure that she knows, but that could be just me not fully grasping the point she was trying to make. All that I do understand is that the end is messy and ambiguous--like the real world. Which is fine if it's just about the real world, but maybe a bit of fairy tale tie-everything-up-in-a-neat-bow certitude might have helped the book, and given it that feeling of timeless wisdom that fairy tales can do so well. What I do know, too, is that "Deathless" did not pack the emotional wallop that The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (and yes, the style is as impossibly twee as the title suggests, but it suits the story Valente is crafting) had for me. I admired the risks that the author took, and I'll be reading more of her work, but I won't be mentally shelving this book in the row of my absolute favorites.(less)
I was on the selection committee of a bi-country "real world" book group, and one of the two books that my fellow committee members and I were determi...moreI was on the selection committee of a bi-country "real world" book group, and one of the two books that my fellow committee members and I were determined to push through the overly complicated process for picking the following year's reading list was Richard Ford's "Canada". We were so resolute, in fact, that we were willing to split off from our European counterparts if "Canada" did not make the final cut. (In fact, the group did break up, but it was over a book that we *had* to read, which proves, I suppose, that loathing a title choice is an even more powerful force that anticipating a hyped-up book; there's a moral in there somewhere if you want to find it.) I loved the The Sportswriter trilogy and the reviews for Ford's latest book were laudatory. I was sure that our book group brinkmanship would be worth it.
The novel starts off with a bang, as all the reviews will tell you. You know there's going to be a bank robbery, which is always an interesting prospect. And I liked the depiction of Dell Parsons. I have a son almost the same age, who is also a bit diffident and self-contained, but with an inner core of toughness, just like the main character. (I actually started the novel as an audio while I was walking with my son, and when Dell became obsessed with the idea of keeping bees, I snapped off my book and asked my son what he thought about having his own personal beehive; he immediately got excited, as I knew he would be.) But this novel, which I wanted to love, and was willing to fight for, turned sour for me very quickly. It was a terrible disappointment in so many ways.
I tend to write reviews mostly in response to my own experience of the world; there's a lot of great analysis here on GR, and if someone else had all ready made the points that I would make, I don't really see the need for yet another review. Some other readers loathed this book as much as I did, and we did so for the same reasons. But deeper than my dislike of Ford's dreary, self-important posturings was the major stumbling block that I just couldn't accept the basic construct that Ford sets up. It just didn't work for me on so many levels.
First: his depiction of a military family. I just knew, after listening to Ford throwing in every tired cliche of the military (the socially isolated, the rootless, the peripatetic living practically out of suitcases,etc.etc.) that the author had been in the military just long enough to think that he knew the military, and to dislike, it too. Now negative portrayals of the military, when accurate, don't bother me in the slightest; in fact, I enjoy them. But Ford doesn't understand the military, not at all. (A writer doesn't have to have been in the military to get it; Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff portrays the accelerated nesting--the koa rocker-German cuckoo clock-Polish crockery jumble of furious unpacking--the usual military experience--extremely well.) We military people tend to carry an immense amount of stuff around with us like a snail with a shell; it's what we do to prove we've been around. So...it's highly outside the norm that a military officer's family would live such a stripped-down life; during my husband's career I met just a few--a very few--people with homes like that. It's not likely, but it IS possible.( It's also, quite frankly, the way a lazy writer who really doesn't much about the military would imagine such a lifestyle to encompass.)
It is also highly unlikely that the Parsons family would be so isolated within the Air Force itself, particularly in that time and place. I understand that the family was supposed to be eccentric, even dysfunctional, and that the mother thought she was supposed to be better than everyone else, that she didn't want the kids to mix with anyone. So...I accepted--with difficulty--this far-fetched scenario, too. The moment I just couldn't buy, however, the moment when Ford's cardboard miltary family came crashing down for me was when Dell's father stated that as Air Force brats they knew nothing about the world, or where they lived, and spent too much time indoors. What? WHAT? I don't know of any military parent anywhere who would think that, or say it. It's one of the things that makes the military life bearable, what EVERY military parent says to themselves, and to the kids, that moving from base to base every few years gives the kids to see more of the world than most civilian kids ever do. So I call BS on Ford's whole negative, erroneous, stereotypical views of the military, which I believe come from his own less than positive experiences.
There's another personal reason why I don't buy Ford's book. You see, one of my uncles by marriage robbed a bank, in the same region as Montana, during the same year that "Canada" is set. It's quite a story; both my youngest aunt and my older brother, who accompanied my grandparents on their journey to clean up the mess that their daughter had made of her life, felt compelled to tell me, the last time I talked to either of them, exactly what happened according to their point of view. My aunt, the third sister, had run off with a convicted felon whom my grandparents understandably despised (my mother's family was used to drama, as my own mother had eloped with a Brother of the Catholic Church to Las Vegas, but my aunt's spouse selection was too much for even them to accept) some years before my uncle's botched attempt at armed robbery. My aunt hadn't been heard from--at all--for the better part of a decade. Social services called my grandparents up when they hauled away my uncle and my aunt fell apart. Whether she had had a true nervous breakdown (my second aunt's opinion) or was just flakey and lazy and couldn't get her act together (my mother's opinion) is moot; the point is that someone called family members right away; they just didn't walk out the door and leave the kids all alone in the house, as Dell and Berner are left alone in the book. So no, I don't think Ford's plot twist is realistic, and that (and I'm not being spoilery here since the entire novel is a flashback) Dell's mother, who isn't estranged from her family, would entrust her kids to some near stranger, or that it is likely that the police wouldn't report what was going on immediately to social services. Of course, it could happen--most anything can happen--but when a writer resorts to that feeble excuse, he's just messing with the reader, and being rather contemptuous at that. I can only say that from my own personal experience the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
So, at this point of the novel I was doing a lot of eye-rolling, when I came upon *the scene*. You might know what I mean. Thank God it's not explicit but what the hell is this creepy, totally unneccesary, totally gratuitous (view spoiler)[ depiction of incest (hide spoiler)] doing in the book? Is this Ford's attempt to be edgy? Please. It's completely forced--pretty much like the entire novel--and seems utterly out of character for Dell.
Even with all my objections-the Air Force family by way of Mars, the preposterous unlikelihood of Dell and Berner being abandoned after their parents's arrest--I could have accepted the book. Maybe. I don't know every military family in the world, and thank God, I only have one uncle who robbed a bank in 1960 in the Upper Midwest. But deep down, I don't feel that Ford respects his reader. He repeats things. Over and over and over. Dell's father is tall and bombastic. His mother is dark and "ethnic" and superior. The making of every baloney sandwich is described in excruciating detail, and every piece of laundry flaps slow-mo on the clothesline. Ford connects the dots between every theme point he's making--there's some weird blather about the differences between the United States and Canada that's especially puzzling to this American with a Canadian mother--and underscores these lines again and again so that you, dear reader, will get the grand themes that the author is supposedly wrestling with and which you are too dim to understand on your own. It's as if Ford is afraid of letting the reader draw his or her own conclusions--which might be, in fact, be ones that the author doesn't want you to draw. So no, I didn't find the book a moving allegory on life, and the sins of the parents being visited on the children, blah, blah, blah. I found it a highly artificial, schematic work, by an author who makes the mistake of confusing grimness for profundity, and portentousness for insight. And you know what? It's just plain DULL. That's the worst sin of all.
My vote for the most over-rated book of 2012.(less)
I'm enjoying this, but I am finding myself reluctant to listen to it. Perhaps it is just Malcolm Graeme's voice--he's OK, but he makes a grim book sou...moreI'm enjoying this, but I am finding myself reluctant to listen to it. Perhaps it is just Malcolm Graeme's voice--he's OK, but he makes a grim book sound even drearier. Or perhaps it's because I spent a long weekend in the area the book takes place, stuck in a medieval barn with a three-week old and a two-year old, after I unwisely opted for the Coronation chicken sandwich at a lorry lay-by.I might have to switch to the written word--or get a new narrator--just to keep from slashing my wrists in sympathy with the main characters.(less)