Olive Kitteridge “had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” (“Pharmacy”) She is immediately one ofOlive Kitteridge “had a darkness that seemed to stand beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away.” (“Pharmacy”) She is immediately one of the most compelling and relatable characters I've ever met in fiction. The darkness standing beside her comes out in ways that I see in myself, in my spouse of 15 years, and in many of my friends and acquaintances. It's somehow reassuring to stumble on this writer Elizabeth Strout who grasps this complex state which is not quite depression, and in between bad and good, sickness and health, alienation and amiability.
In “Pharmacy,” we learn how Olive's husband Henry finds refuge from his young harridan wife in the small business he owns and operates, for a time in the 1970s or 80s, with a young Catholic woman named Denyse. Henry and Denyse are tempted to have an affair, in circumstances described with a bravura display of prose that is plain and realist, yet gets at escapist fantasies that we have at times when we can't sort out what we want for ourselves and others:
As he drove home slowly along the narrow roads, the darkness seemed alive and sinister as it pressed against the car windows. He pictured moving far upstate, living in a small house with Denise. He could find work somewhere up north; she could have a child. A little girl who would adore him; girls adored their fathers.
As we suspected from the beginning, there is a lot more to Olive than at first meets the eye. The ending of “Pharmacy” takes us through years of people's lives, like the end scene of the final episode of Six Feet Under, and “Incoming Tide” picks up in the current day, presumably circa 2009. Age brings Olive more wisdom, more wistfulness, and perhaps more potential to help others in her community — as for example a certain young millennial who previously left the little town of Crosby, Maine only to discover that “He'd been attracted to crazy,” and who has now returned to the cliffside coast of his hometown to watch the sea outside his car with dark, brooding thoughts.
The Piano Player
Olive Kitteridge is a portrait of a small town where everybody knows everybody else — to a certain extent. Perhaps every small community has members on the margins:
It was the case with Angie that people knew very little about her, assuming at the same time that other people knew her moderately well. She lived in a rented room on Wood Street and did not own a car. She was within walking distance of a grocery store and also the Warehouse Bar and Grill—a walk that took precisely fifteen minutes in her black very-high-heeled shoes. In the winter she wore very-high-heeled black boots, and a white fake fur coat, and carried a little blue pocketbook. She could be seen picking her way carefully along the snow-covered sidewalks, then crossing through the big parking lot by the post office, and finally going down the little walkway toward the bay, where the squatty white clapboard Warehouse sat.
A Little Burst
Olive's son Christopher is getting married, which is a big burst for Olive:
...Christopher, let’s face it, is gaga over her. Of course, right now their sex life is probably very exciting, and they undoubtedly think that will last, the way new couples do. They think they’re finished with loneliness, too.
This thought causes Olive to nod her head slowly as she lies on the bed. She knows that loneliness can kill people—in different ways can actually make you die. Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.
Harmon the hardware store owner is a similar character to Henry the pharmacy owner, so it's a striking achievement of character creation that he stands out so fully as a giving and loving, if somewhat hapless figure:
“Let me ask you something,” Harmon said. “And don’t tell your mother, for Christ’s sake. But these kids came in the store yesterday, they were talking, casual, you know, and they mentioned ‘fuck buddies.’ You heard of that?”
“You’re kind of surprising me here, Dad. What’s going on?”
“I know, I know.” Harmon waved a hand. “I just hate getting old, one of those old people that don’t know anything about young people. So I thought I’d ask.”
“Fuck buddies. Yeah. That’s a thing these days. Just what it says. People who get together to get laid. No strings attached.”
“I see.” Now Harmon didn’t know what more to say.
“I gotta go, Dad. But listen, stay cool. You’re cool, Dad. You’re not an old fart, don’t worry about that.”
“All right,” Harmon said, and after he hung up, he stared out the window for a long time.”
A Different Road
Olive and Henry are approaching their seventieth years, when one evening violence enters their life in a shocking, sudden way. This story is deeply dismaying, but also one of the most readable of the set.
Bob and Jane Houlton are another aging married couple, and Bob is a callous liar, though Strout writes him with such fineness of detail that we are at first reluctant to see this. And Jane knows, and loves him anyway, in what feels like the real way of a marriage that survives past the raising of the children and retirement: “...what did they have now, except for each other, and what could you do if it was not even quite that?”
Olive's life takes a turn for the truly painful when Henry suffers a debilitating stroke. To a younger married reader, this story feels important and touchy and may induce a bout of indigestion and worry.
Basket of Trips
Olive must buck up and continue to live in her town, often surrounded by other wives who have experienced other tragedies. This makes her very reflective.
Ship in a Bottle
This drama of a dysfunctional family on the edge of town reminds me strongly of Cheever, who is perhaps just a touch better than Strout at capturing an entire family history in one short story. Still, so much of the skilled descriptive writing here will capture any reader who has lived in marginal homes, full of the inconveniences of remoteness and poverty:
Their house didn’t have a shower and a bathroom the way most houses did. There was a shower stall off the hallway, and across from that was a closet with a chemical toilet, a barrel-shaped plastic thing that made a whirring sound when you pushed a button to flush it. There wasn’t any door for this closet, just a curtain to pull. Sometimes if Anita walked by, she’d say, “Whew! Who just had a movement?” If you wanted to take a shower, you told people to stay out of the hallway, otherwise you had to get undressed inside the metal shower stall and toss your clothes out into the hall, then wait for the water to warm up, as you pressed against the stall’s metal side.
Olive visits her son in New York and meets his new wife, Ann, who reminds the reader of Olive's comment in the first story, that all men marry their mothers.
We meet Rebecca Brown, a delicate, traumatized young woman inept at life and just smart enough to struggle unsuccessfully for meaning. She is essentially similar to Denyse, Henry's assistant in “Pharmacy,” and also reminds me of the hapless young innocent, Lara, in “Sweet Dreams” by Peter Stamm (listen to this story read by Tim Parks for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast).
By now I'm a little tired of reading about injured and worried women, I must admit.
Henry has passed away and Olive, now well over 70, is alone. In one of the most fulfilling testaments to the power of life that I have read in 2015, she finds her way to love again. ...more
As I finish this book with my students and prepare to begin looking at Oryx and Crake, I hope to emphasize a sentence from chapter 9:
Homes of the des
As I finish this book with my students and prepare to begin looking at Oryx and Crake, I hope to emphasize a sentence from chapter 9:
Homes of the descendants of corps and division commanders abut those of aligarchic commercial magnates, and everywhere is a sense of unyielding order and arboreal grace increasingly atypical of your city, much of the rest of which seethes outside this fortified garrison enclave like some great migratory horde besieging a royal castle.
Readers of Oryx will recognize that this portrait of the world today is a perfect prelude to Atwood's portrait of OrganInc Farms, the HealthWizer compounds, and the sprawling PlebLands surrounding. Every day of our lives is a chance to fight against this sordid, yet almost inevitable vision of ever-amplifying and self-destructive inequality. ...more
“All the light we cannot see” is a phrase that can mean the non-visual spectrum of electro-magnetic radiation, which is to say most of the frequencies“All the light we cannot see” is a phrase that can mean the non-visual spectrum of electro-magnetic radiation, which is to say most of the frequencies available, including all of the ones used by radios. One goal of Doerr's work is to imagine and visualize scenes we cannot see but which science says exist. The novel is a space where such scenes can take on complex emotional qualities:
We all come into existence as a single cell, smaller than a speck of dust. Much smaller. Divide. Multiply. Add and subtract. Matter changes hands, atoms flow in and out, molecules pivot, proteins stitch together, mitochondria send out their oxidative dictates; we begin as a microscopic electrical swarm. The lungs the brain the heart. Forty weeks later, six trillion cells get crushed in the vise of our mother’s birth canal and we howl.
Beneath her fingernails, the frost makes billions of tiny diadems and coronas on the slats of the bench, a lattice of dumbfounding complexity.
Marie-Laure imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of Michel’s machine, bending around them, just as Etienne used to describe, except now a thousand times more crisscross the air than when he lived—maybe a million times more. Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mail, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and prebaked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I’m going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscapes we call nations. And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths?
At times the visualization turns aural and tactile as sensed through the mind of blind Marie-Laure:
On the back wall of Dr. Geffard’s lab are cabinets that contain more drawers than she can count, and he lets her open them one after another and hold seashells in her hands—whelks, olives, imperial volutes from Thailand, spider conchs from Polynesia—the museum possesses more than ten thousand specimens, over half the known species in the world, and Marie-Laure gets to handle most of them.
“Now that shell, Laurette, belonged to a violet sea snail, a blind snail that lives its whole life on the surface of the sea. As soon as it is released into the ocean, it agitates the water to make bubbles, and binds those bubbles with mucus, and builds a raft. Then it blows around, feeding on whatever floating aquatic invertebrates it encounters. But if it ever loses its raft, it will sink and die . . .
These scenes supply a graphic quality that somehow suggests two tones at once, one the indistinct tones of landscapes in watercolor or pastel, the other crisp and digital, like CGI. In most cases this amplifies the strength of the novel's central, touching (albeit familiar) story of goodness and redemption during and after the terror of World War II in France and Germany. At its very best, the book is able to get at some of the terrible doublethink that clouds us in war:
In technical sciences, Dr. Hauptmann introduces the laws of thermodynamics. “Entropy, who can say what that is?” The boys hunch over their desks. No one raises a hand. Hauptmann stalks the rows. Werner tries not to twitch a single muscle. “Pfennig.” “Entropy is the degree of randomness or disorder in a system, Doctor.” His eyes fix on Werner’s for a heartbeat, a glance both warm and chilling. “Disorder. You hear the commandant say it. You hear your bunk masters say it. There must be order. Life is chaos, gentlemen. And what we represent is an ordering to that chaos. Even down to the genes. We are ordering the evolution of the species. Winnowing out the inferior, the unruly, the chaff. This is the great project of the Reich, the greatest project human beings have ever embarked upon.” Hauptmann writes on the blackboard. The cadets inscribe the words into their composition books. The entropy of a closed system never decreases. Every process must by law decay.”
Such a passage is a model for reminding us how many and various are the ways to live in contradiction. ...more
Greatness is not simply a gift from God, or Richard would still reign. So where does it come from? Maybe Prince Hal is right that the beApril 15, 2015
Greatness is not simply a gift from God, or Richard would still reign. So where does it come from? Maybe Prince Hal is right that the best way to *be* great is first to be the very opposite of great. Something about the idea seems untrue...
The best verse can describe the most execrable persons — nothing proves that more than Richard II. The sheer arbitrariness of the EnglisApril 15, 2015
The best verse can describe the most execrable persons — nothing proves that more than Richard II. The sheer arbitrariness of the English nation is evident everywhere in this play — and yet paradoxically, the scholars say that it the work helps establish the emotional basis for thinking of oneself as of the English nation. More to come, I'm sure.
I've acquired The Complete Arkangel Shakespeare: 38 Fully-Dramatized Plays, which presents all the plays as audio-only ensemble productions, acted with aplomb on wonderfully crisp and clear recordings. The original score by Dominique Le Gendre is a captivating fusion of modern TV-drama style with a nod to Elizabethan dances and songs. I'm extremely excited to re-experience plays I've read before and take in for the first time many of those plays I've never gotten around — like Richard II! ...more
So much depends upon an earthquake that razed an entire region, right beside its dying king. James Palmer is at his best with journalistic prose descrSo much depends upon an earthquake that razed an entire region, right beside its dying king. James Palmer is at his best with journalistic prose describing exactly what happened in Tangshan, China on Wednesday, July 28, 1976 at 3:42:53:
Li Hongyi was a nurse working on the late shift at the No. 255 hospital, the biggest in Tangshan. At 3:30, she decided to get some fresh air, and went outside to sit at a stone table underneath a large oak. Everything was unnaturally still, and she felt nervous in the dark on her own. Suddenly, she heard a shrill sound, ‘like a knife cutting through the sky’. Scared, she ran back inside, sat down and bolted the door. Then the sky turned a bright red, and there was another noise ‘like hundreds of trucks all starting at once’. She’d heard the same sound before, because she’d been caught in the Xingtai earthquake ten years previously. As the building shook, she struggled to unbolt the door, but could only force it open a few inches. Squeezing out, she ran instinctively to the shelter of the tree as the hospital collapsed behind her, hugging on to the trunk with all her strength. The earth roared, and she and the tree both collapsed into an open pit. (from chapter 4)
The earthquake was devastating to the city of Tangshan and the surrounding region, so the book falls within that somewhat dubious genre of books about disasters. But the full story of the wreckage involves more than seismometers, compasses, and fault lines; one should understand that China turned down international aid for the disaster, because it was basically a closed country at the time, though one struggling through a transition of power that would eventually end the 37-year period of political revolution and point the nation-state in the direction it remains facing today, towards free enterprise without political reform.
The fact that ancient custom associates earthquakes with major power shifts makes the disaster narrative always already a political narrative. Palmer's account follows the association to its logical end, telling a shifting story about the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the new era, and giving Tangshan its due as a generous window on the political, the social, and the personal.
Heaven Cracks is a deceptive achievement. Full of steadfastly anti-Communist pronouncements, summaries of previous historical research, and good-old gumshoe journalism, it feels like a book any committed traveler could write. Maybe everyone should. But its delicate and efficient prose style folds together personal stories of pain and suffering with an account of the political intrigue at the top to give us a richly-textured portrait of China. Such work is never easy. ...more
“Fuck lived in the air and flew around like a bird, which was how he could be with Zeb one minute, and then with Crake, and then also with Snowman-the
“Fuck lived in the air and flew around like a bird, which was how he could be with Zeb one minute, and then with Crake, and then also with Snowman-the-Jimmy. He could be in many places at once. If you were in trouble and you called to him – Oh Fuck! – he would always be there, just when you needed him. And as soon as you said his name, you would feel better.”
The Crakers bog this story down, at least in its opening sections, with their constant questioning and stilted, tedious dialogue. The effect of tedium which we were supposed to feel Toby feeling proves too contagious. Eventually, though, as the passage above shows, witty word-play, Atwood-style re-infects us with the need to keep reading.
Also, we ask at the beginning, is the post-flood world no more than a motley crew of survivors making the absolute minimal gestures at re-building society while spending most of their time sniping, accusing, and flirting in the unsexiest way possible? At points, I just want the Pain Ballers to come wipe them all out and take me down the path of some more interesting narrative.
Luckily, Zeb supplies much-needed relief in the form of narratives about his -- no surprise to any readers who made it this far -- life before the Waterless Flood. It's arguably the coolest of the back stories, especially when it takes us up in the arctic tundra.
I'm so happy to have finished the series. Oryx and Crake, I'm convinced, will have a longer after life than its two sequels, but looking back, they do justified the push to the very end. The gradual maturation of the Crakers and the deepening role of the pigoons help us picture the possibilities for the new world after the Flood. And that's as much spoiler as I'll put here. Gosh darn, do I ever want to talk with someone else who read this far right now!...more
Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other's minds. The ability comes so
Simply by making noises with our mouths, we can reliably cause precise new combinations of ideas to arise in each other's minds. The ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is.
And Pinker's exposition of just how ideas become language, and how it became so that ideas could be come language, reads so naturally that we are apt to forget how subtle are the connections over such a vast number of fields: psychology, linguistics, and the cognitive science of PET and fMRI scanning just for starters. The book itself is a miracle, and I know that I just won't stop until I've read all of Pinker's other work, book by book. ...more
The high school curriculum, I now notice, really highlights the one-hit wonders of the American short story world: The Most Dangerous Game, Marigolds,The high school curriculum, I now notice, really highlights the one-hit wonders of the American short story world: The Most Dangerous Game, Marigolds, and now "The Scarlet Ibis." Each of these stories gives a bravura performance in feeling manipulation, but none of the authors went on to compose much else that has stood the test of time. How many other writers out there might "have a story in them," as writers so often say?
I looked at this once before, years ago when my mother took a class on women's writing, but it was interesting to review the novel after getting intoI looked at this once before, years ago when my mother took a class on women's writing, but it was interesting to review the novel after getting into the MaddAddam trilogy. Atwood has evidentally been planning for the downfall of late capitalist modernity for a long time, but where she projects forward on genomics, overpopulation, inequality, species decline and climate change in the latter trilogy, her vision back in the 1980s mainly turned on a coup implemented by the paranoid Christian right in the USA. All these years later, it's still hard to say which factor is most likely to ruin the world, at least for the time being.
The Handmaid's Tale is also an incredibly thoughtful meditation on the state of feminism and equality of the sexes, pointing out over and over that radical sexist oppression and patriarchal authoritarianism are perfectly rational results of letting fear-mongering power-hungry right take over, and this is very natural when we, all of us, choose to stay out of progressive social movements and protest and resistance movements because of a concern for stability and safety in our lives. Our concern is misguided, and political participation is necessary.
On the other hand, as the coda to the novel implies (spoiler alert, I suppose), authoritarian regimes do fall, eventually. It's a great thrill to teach Ms. Alcott's work in China, because everything about her political stance is a castigation of some of the deepest assumptions of the working political philosophy around here. ...more
Getting to know Toby, Ren, Amanda and Adam One was...thought-provoking, funny, at times grave and awe-inspiring. Atwoods talent for writing in the lanGetting to know Toby, Ren, Amanda and Adam One was...thought-provoking, funny, at times grave and awe-inspiring. Atwoods talent for writing in the language of Christian practice is never so keenly applied as in her descriptions of the Gardeners and in Adam One's many wonderful sermons.
But the story-line of this second volume was not as thrilling as Oryx and Crake. The world of the pleeblands is filled in with greater detail, but it is essentially static over the course of the second novel, where in Oryx and Crake, it looms in dynamic, enigmatic glimpses from the Compounds.
The audio version of this book features multiple readers for the main characters, and hilariously well-recorded musical renditions of the Gardener's hymns. I listened to the book while on vacation in Thailand, where the crises of climate change, overpopulation, and wealth inequality seem...still around the corner, but imminent. ...more
Miss Lottie's marigolds were perhaps the strangest part of the picture. Certainly they did not fit in with the crumbling decay of the rest of her yard
Miss Lottie's marigolds were perhaps the strangest part of the picture. Certainly they did not fit in with the crumbling decay of the rest of her yard. Beyond the dusty brown yard, in front of the sorry gray house, rose suddenly and shockingly a dazzling strip of bright blossoms, clumped together in enormous mounds, warm and passion and sun-golden. The old black witch-woman worked on them all summer, every summer, down on her creaky knees, weeding and cultivating and arranging, while the house crumbled and John Burke rocked. For some perverse reason, we children hated those marigolds. They interfered with the perfect ugliness of the place; they did not make sense. There was something in the vigor with which the old woman destroyed the weeds that intimidated us. It should have been a comical sight -- the old woman with the man's hat on her cropped white head, leaning over the bright mounds, her big backside in the air -- but it wasn't comical, it was something we could not name. We had to annoy her by whizzing a pebble into her flowers or by yelling a dirty word, then dancing away from her rage, reveling in our youth and mocking her age. Actually, it was the flowers we wanted to destroy, but nobody had the nerve to try it, not even Joey, who was usually fool enough to try anything.
So goes the tipping point of this terrible little tale, explaining and not explaining the big question: why does Lizbeth have to destroy the marigolds? What are they to the children, what are they to her? The urge to destroy is somehow very familiar to us, and we may even guess that this urge is connected to stress, desperation, hopelessness, is even the natural result of these, but why exactly does stress make us destructive?
I suppose the chance to discuss such questions is what keeps this short story in high school anthologies down to 2015. As I prepare to teach it tomorrow, I have high hopes that it remains an excellent question with which to gather young people together in seminar mode....more
Going back to Vonnegut's first major book after reading *Slaughterhouse Five* makes it a little clearer just what a Kurt Vonnegut novel is all about.Going back to Vonnegut's first major book after reading *Slaughterhouse Five* makes it a little clearer just what a Kurt Vonnegut novel is all about. They are loose assemblages of philosophical anecdotes draped over story structures. If Denis Johnson modeled his stories on the kind of stories you can tell someone next to a bar, then Vonnegut is like a half-drunk crank trying to tell jokes.
Or at least that's the way the books look on the surface. *Cat's Cradle* actually has a linear story line that it develops with tightness and wonderful momentum. Slaughterhouse Five, the more mature work, is a deconstructed story structure re-fashioned as a kind of autobiographical essay in the guise of a bunch of jokes and anecdotes. I venture to guess that as with Hemingway, Vonnegut's style is attractive enough to inspire imitation, but not with any results of much promise. But that's just a guess, I really have no idea if anyone else in American or world literature writes like this guy.
Here's my favorite passage from the book; I think it does as well as anything in Benedict Anderson's work to elucidate the essentially imagined nature of the concept of nation:
“Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was. I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana name. She was from Indiana, too. “My God,” she said, “are you a Hoosier?” I admitted I was. “I’m a Hoosier, too,” she crowed. “Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier.” “I’m not,” I said. “I never knew anybody who was.” “Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I’ve been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything.” “That’s reassuring.” “You know the manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?” “No.” “He’s a Hoosier. And the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo …” “Attaché,” said her husband. “He’s a Hoosier,” said Hazel. “And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia …” “A Hoosier?” I asked. “Not only him, but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too. And that man in Chile …” “A Hoosier, too?” “You can’t go anywhere a Hoosier hasn’t made his mark,” she said. “The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier.” “And James Whitcomb Riley.” “Are you from Indiana, too?” I asked her husband. “Nope. I’m a Prairie Stater. ‘Land of Lincoln,’ as they say.” “As far as that goes,” said Hazel triumphantly, “Lincoln was a Hoosier, too. He grew up in Spencer County.” “Sure,” I said. “I don’t know what it is about Hoosiers,” said Hazel, “but they’ve sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they’d be amazed.” “That’s true,” I said. She grasped me firmly by the arm. “We Hoosiers got to stick together.” “Right.” “You call me ‘Mom.’” “What?” “Whenever I meet a young Hoosier, I tell them, ‘You call me Mom.’” “Uh huh.” “Let me hear you say it,” she urged. “Mom?” She smiled and let go of my arm. Some piece of clockwork had completed its cycle. My calling Hazel “Mom” had shut it off, and now Hazel was rewinding it for the next Hoosier to come along. Hazel’s obsession with Hoosiers around the world was a textbook example of a false karass, of a seeming team that was meaningless in terms of the ways God gets things done, a textbook example of what Bokonon calls a granfalloon. Other examples of granfalloons are the Communist party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows—and any nation, anytime, anywhere. As Bokonon invites us to sing along with him: If you wish to study a granfalloon, Just remove the skin of a toy balloon.”
This predictable and sweet story "filled my eye sockets with warm tears" as the Chinese saying goes, which just confirms once again what a sentimentalThis predictable and sweet story "filled my eye sockets with warm tears" as the Chinese saying goes, which just confirms once again what a sentimental streak runs through my own tastes. ...more
Compared to Slaughterhouse-Five, many another book is going to seem a weak, thin, thing, pallid as the kind of underfed and introverted teen boys fromCompared to Slaughterhouse-Five, many another book is going to seem a weak, thin, thing, pallid as the kind of underfed and introverted teen boys from the midwest which we see in Billy Pilgrim. Sophie's World, which was a delightful metafiction at the time, now seems paradoxically lacking in humor and too much full of piffly silliness. And I can't resist an unfair dig at The Dream Weaver: One Boy's Journey through the Landscape of Reality, because it has some of the same specifically philosophical aims as Slaughterhouse, but proves an all-too-shabby bedsheet when set beside the grand, voluptuous drapery of Billy's quest for re-balance within reality.
And The Goldfinch was 700 pages long, but littleSlaughterhouse-Five is the bigger book. It's a bold experiment in language that remains clear enough for a high school student to read. It's a deconstruction of basic narrative structure that still makes perfect sense as a story. It's a deeply personal tale that resounds with cosmic dimensions, with questions about truth and time and good and evil. It takes a hard look at the depths of human depravity and finds humor and grace and beauty anyway. It's coarse in its elegance, crafted in its vulgarities. I can only try to spin witty generalities at this point in an effort to get something down because the book has hit me like a subtle ton of bricks, and I will need to process it and re-read it. Also I'm already well underway in reading Cat's Cradle which is a different animal but similar enough to be clouding my brain at this point.
The audiobook on Audible.com is read by Ethan Hawk, to great effect even though he doesn't attempt to imitate voices as thoroughly as David Pittu does in The Goldfinch. Clearly, audiobook recording is an art all its own, perhaps quite analagous to acting, with multiple styles and schools. ...more
Theodore Decker hits those of us who teach young adults like a very slightly moonier-than average Judy Blume teen at first, all worries about destructTheodore Decker hits those of us who teach young adults like a very slightly moonier-than average Judy Blume teen at first, all worries about destructive behavior and disintegrating family, at least when he's not gawking like a dork at the first cute girl he sees in the museum. But then the familiar formula of American coming-of-age story is literally blown apart by a bomb. If what follows is less picaresque and more a steady, language-obsessed contemplation of our interiors as we lurch and trip towards something we still call 'adulthood', more out of habit than anything else, then so much the better. Call it the super, adult-version of Judy Blume, skipping the sex but never sparing the issue of drug and alcohol abuse. Forgive and forget when the narrative is too drawn out, because the narrator is simply all-too-much like the depressive worry-worts we are:
It didn't occur to me then, though it certainly does now, that it was years since I'd roused myself from my stupor of misery and self-absorption; between anomie and trance, inertia and parenthesis and gnawing my own heart out, there were a lot of small, easy, everyday kindnesses I'd missed out on; and even the word kindness was like rising from unconsciousness into some hospital awareness of voices, and people, from a stream of machines.
Theo, who can never speak as articulately as he thinks, must madden the colorful cast that surrounds him: Boris the Polish-Ukrainian-Russian-American by way of half a dozen other places, Hobie the giant Greenwich Village furniture craftsman, the Barbours, a family of overly-rich and (overly-broken) Manhattanites. As he grows, we are distressed and delighted at once to find Theo resembling his own father, Larry Decker, a class-A asshole who seems prone to self-destruct at any moment.
I remember this time last year I read Middlemarch as my first novel of the year. The Goldfinch is rich and as Dickensian as they all say, but somehow remains always a bit too perfect in its symmetry between paean to the arts and catalog of sociopathy. Middlemarch will probably stick around with me longer because Ladslaw, Dorothea, Lydgate are more like the functional hallucinators we are, and not the beautifully shattered souls of The Goldfinch. Theo, Boris, and Hobie risk seeming a little precious at times, and Pippa is a rather annoyingly pale shade compared with even the least of George Eliot's characters. But to compare The Goldfinch to Middlemarch at all is to suggest that the English novel is alive and well, thriving even. If only I could find something this interesting to read in contemporary China! Until then, there's always Dream of the Red Chamber
A note on the Audible.com version: David Pittu is one of the best readers I've ever encountered, a true voice actor who creates vivid, memorable versions of Boris and other characters. Even months after reading, my husband and I still say "apparently" in our impression of Pittu's spot-on Xandra voice....more