I love James Baldwin, and I mean that in the most sincere and least hyperbolic way possible. I also respect and admire him (and his writing), and Nobo...moreI love James Baldwin, and I mean that in the most sincere and least hyperbolic way possible. I also respect and admire him (and his writing), and Nobody Knows My Name is quite as good as Notes of a Native Son. They should probably print his article about Richard Wright as an appendix to editions of Wright's books (are you listening Norton Critical Editions). However, I was honestly shocked at how few women were present in these essays - it was really shockingly few. On some level I can understand why . . . but it was still a gaping hole.
Besides the aforementioned memoir/essay about Wright ("Alas, Poor Richard") which contains many gems, I thought some of the most interesting essays were "Princes and Powers," "Faulkner and Desegregation," "The Northern Protestant," and "The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy." This list reveals a great deal about my own preferences, I realize.(less)
I no-longer-secretly think short stories are the apex of literary genre (and reserve the right to change my mind about this, of course! it's too extre...moreI no-longer-secretly think short stories are the apex of literary genre (and reserve the right to change my mind about this, of course! it's too extreme on opinion to commit to for very long), and writers like Alice Munro are Exhibit A. A good short story should be like a sudden slap, or like the first part of your trip inside a maze (but never out of it). Munro does that, and the stories collected here are as smooth and mysterious and striking as pebbles.(less)
I don't know, really, how to talk about this book without MAJOR spoilers. This is because the spoilers aren't plot-related - the jacket tells you ever...moreI don't know, really, how to talk about this book without MAJOR spoilers. This is because the spoilers aren't plot-related - the jacket tells you everything about the plot (OR DOES IT), so there isn't any question of what will happen next? - but rather are of a much deeper nature. They're the sort of thing you usually talk about when you talk about a book, but the process of uncovering them, or rather of letting Pears uncover them for you, is such an agonizing, exquisite process that it seems unsporting to talk about it here, where unsuspecting prospective readers might stumble upon it.
So, it's a difficult novel to discuss with any kind of veil. I will say:
- I don't normally frantically flip forward for ANSWERS, I NEED THEM and then shut my eyes tight when I might find them. But I did that a lot with this book. - Three quarters of it are in.furiating. Like, Mad Men infuriating? Except worse. The fourth quarter is sad. It's worth it. - The philosophical problems at play here are intensely interesting. Pears has them on a couple of levels, the most obvious being the burgeoning rationalist/empiricist debate. I may have spent a lot of time going, HUME WILL BLOW YOUR MINDS. ALSO, KANT. But the bad faith on display here is - am.a.zing. - There may be a MaGuffin. (view spoiler)[The whole book is a Maguffin. (hide spoiler)] - There is some animal abuse in this novel. It's in the name of science. But still.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
1. These three novels were really formative for me - I read them, I think, when I was ten (I got this collection for my eleventh birthday, and I'd alr...more1. These three novels were really formative for me - I read them, I think, when I was ten (I got this collection for my eleventh birthday, and I'd already read them all at least once).
2. There's a betrayal at the end of the first novel that ruined me for all other fictional betrayals. Caesar? Ned Stark? #KanyeShrug. Probably real life betrayals, too. Whatever happens to me in the future, it won't be as bad as what happened to ten-year-old me at the end of The Riddle-Master of Hed (well, maybe the job market).
3. When you first meet Morgon, he's hungover. Then he has a fight with his family [about his secret life]! Ah, family happiness. Then he leaves them, and there his troubles begin. (No, no, really they started way back, but no one knows this yet.) McKillip owes some things to Tolkien, of course she does, and maybe the strongest overlap is the overlap of the Shire and Hed:
"I'm not even sure the farmers of Hed believe anything exists beyond Hed, and the High One. Of all the six kingdoms, Hed is the only one the wizards never sought service in - there wasn't anything for them to do. The wizard Talies visited it once and said it was uninhabitable: it was without history, without poetry, and utterly without interest. The peace of Hed is passed like the land-rule, from ruler to ruler; it is bound into the earth of Hed, and it is the High One's business, not mine, to break that peace." "But -" Lyra said stubbornly. "If I ever carried a weapon into Hed and told the people of Hed to arm themselves, they would look at me as though I were a stranger - and that is what I would be: a stranger in my own land, the weapon like a disease that would wither all the living roots of Hed."
And Morgon, who realizes pretty quickly he's stepped into something bigger than he thought, tries to get back there every change he gets. The Riddle-Master of Hed (be honest: that is an awesome title) takes Morgon through the six kingdoms - this will be important later, I won't tell you how because one of the joys of these books is seeing how something that seems like a lovely bit of detail becomes terribly important later on - and in each kingdom he's confronted with something, and each time he tries to opt out. But he never does, because you can't opt out of heroic quests. But also because he's curious. "Beware the unanswered riddle," we're told, and it's a lesson Morgon has internalized. In fact, he's internalized it so well that he keeps trying to run away from the answer. But that only lasts so long, as it quickly becomes apparent that the entire world, really, is conspiring to make avoidance impossible: "If they kill you in Hed, they'll still be there, and so will Eliard. And we'll be alive, asking questions, without you to answer them," Lyra, the warrior princess points out.
4. I mean, obviously, there are ways in which my feelings and opinions about this series are not to be trusted. I read it at an early, impressionable age - my judgment was definitely clouded forever in some ways. But I really love the women in these books. The second book, Heir of Sea and Fire is Raderle's journey, the answer to The Riddle-Master of Hed, and although she retreats significantly in the third book, she stills gets her own development - it's, actually, importantly, a development that mirrors and echoes Morgon's.
"What in Hel's name do you think I'm doing in this College?" She let her hands fall and wondered if, behind the armor of his solitude, she had at last got his attention. "I would be that for you, if I could," she cried. "I would be mute, beautiful, changeless as the earth of An for you. I would be your memory, without age, always innocent, always waiting in the King's white house at Anuin - I would do that for you and for no other man in the realm. But it would be a lie, and I will do anything but lie to you - I swear that."
Raederle's journey is one of action. She's not passive, even at the beginning, but she is slightly ornamental ("the second most beautiful woman in the Three Portions of An," "the great treasure of the Three Portions") and she lashes out against that - "I've never done anything in my life," she says, long after that's stopped being true.
5. People make a big deal about McKillip's prose, which is understandable, because it's magnificent and slightly tricky. You do have to read every word in a way you don't often have to in prose, because she elides description and action, so something that starts out as setting the tone might turn out to be an important plot development. And McKillip is efficient, economical. The Riddle-Master of Hed is only 187 pages; books 2 and 3 are likewise slim. I particularly love the first lines of the first two books: "Morgon of Hed met the High One's harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season's exchange of goods." and "In spring, three things came invariably to the house of the King of An: the year's first shipment of Herun wine, the lords of the Three Portions for the spring council, and an argument." But I think they understate the humor. Again, understandable - the humor is itself rather understated. It's there, though - and it serves an important counterpoint to the solemnity of everything else. Har, the wolf king, is particularly good for this - he gets some of the best lines, and I always hear him as Peter O'Toole (there is something cinematic about these books, but then, the majority of the decisive action takes place inside people's minds - so there is something much more vital that is quite anti-cinematic). The unruly royal families of Hed and An are also a source of humor, and of love, and of hope, and of fire.
6. Oh, and the other similarity with Tolkien that speaks strongly to me, though I think McKillip commits to it more, is the desire for peace. (less)
It's a bit like Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You and Tell the Wolves I'm Home. I don't just mean lengthy titles/first person narrators/queer content (although those are obvious similarities) or dealing with grief/heavy psychological stuff (although again: obvious). But the outsider status of the main characters is common to all three, and the way they turn to art because people aren't working. There's a culpability here, too: Cameron could act otherwise - she's not able to, but she could. Actually, Cameron Post has a kind of social network - which I found interesting. She's surrounded by people who love her, and who she loves back. But they're all kind of bad at it.(less)
More than anything, the stories in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (which: amazing title, good job, Danielle Evans!) reminded me of Sherman Al...moreMore than anything, the stories in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (which: amazing title, good job, Danielle Evans!) reminded me of Sherman Alexie's short fiction. They have an appealing, wryly funny, rough compassion and an equal proportion of sorrow and hope (mostly). And like Alexie, Evans' work is keenly and critically aware of the social constructions that make life miserable for her characters, who fight back with varying degrees of success and failure.
I also appreciated how connected these characters were to other people. The connections, even/especially when familial, were naturally not always positive - in fact, sometimes they were awful and sometimes they were complete failures. But, there was always a sense of a people universe, and a sense that a vacuum would be a relief but not, after all, possible - might not even be any better.
My favorites were probably "Virgins," "Snakes," and "Robert E. Lee Is Dead."(less)
Bruccoli gives a very good, measured, and concise account of the Fitzgerald/Hemingway relationship. He draws extensively on primary sources - of which...moreBruccoli gives a very good, measured, and concise account of the Fitzgerald/Hemingway relationship. He draws extensively on primary sources - of which there are many. It's entertaining, especially if you are a geeky English major.(less)
Reading Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy I was reminded, strongly but oddly, of reading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty - though I realize TTSS pre...moreReading Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy I was reminded, strongly but oddly, of reading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty - though I realize TTSS predates that by quite a lot, and that they don't really share any qualities beyond a pre-occupation with the main characters' time spent at Oxford (I don't blame them one bit, I rather share that preoccupation) and a sort of tense but off-hand, ever-present homoeroticism.
I like TTSS quite a bit more, but then ... although I know it has Classic status and see why it does, and although I know le Carré does something angry and important, I can't help but feel its ambitions are on a much much much smaller scale than Hollinghurst's. If the "psychology" doesn't convince me, then it's not going to hurt the book as much as it would a weightier one. And again, I should clarify that it's not that I think TTSS is lightweight - it's only that it isn't in the same weight class as some other books (even some JLC books, I guess, though I've only seen films*). Smiley is the most convincing, which is as it should be - if only everyone else didn't seem so ephemeral. I don't often resent reading a characters' point of view, but I wish he'd got rid of Peter Guillam entirely
Unexpectedly, but pleasantly, it's quite a funny book (in a hard, sardonic way, of course - it's a bit like he's checking off boxes sometimes: "bitter, slightly campy one-liner? check!"). But really, when you think about it, Smiley came of age with Noel Coward plays and he's roughly contemporaneous with John Gielgud, so it makes sense.
Also - and the recent adaptation had the same problem! - the plot is difficult to organize. It's quite clear what happened, but the timeline is opaque. Like, are we living in Twin Peaks?
I'm not entirely certain why I'm giving this four stars. I guess for the prose and Smiley and Jim Prideaux (the other Best Character, maybe JLC's only good at the downtrodden and done wrong).
* The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: that is tough.(less)
I'm only interested in spies if they're Elizabethan, I guess. (Or played by Samuel West.) (Oh, for the day these worlds collide!!!)
Anyway, The Firedra...moreI'm only interested in spies if they're Elizabethan, I guess. (Or played by Samuel West.) (Oh, for the day these worlds collide!!!)
Anyway, The Firedrake's Eye is - not exactly derivative, although there are dozens of works like it: bromance between a rough, vaguely depressed military type and a cerebral, conflicted civilian-spy, together they solve crime/defeat Napoleon/find the hand of Franklin! What I mean is, it belongs to a familiar formula, with many variations. If you like the Aubrey-Maturin books, you'll probably like Firedrake's Eye, though Finney's novel is deeply weird in ways Jack and Stephen never had to deal with. I found the weirdness appealing, opening up as it did some unexpected angles of compassion and insight.
Really good historical fiction makes you glad you live in the time period you live in. These people have a lot of problems that could be solved by clean water and penicillin. Finney has a sensitive approach to the 16th century, writing its people and their attitudes in convincing but clear-eyed ways comparatively free of anachronism (though of course anachronisms in psychology are always a difficult call to make).
Probably the best thing about the book is the language, which is rich and evocative without being too literal a recreation of the speech of the time. It's quite beautifully written.
The plot could be tighter. Also, it verged a bit on the Dickensian as far as the intersection of emotional baggage with the events of the plot goes. I get that the main purpose of fiction is to show us those very intersections, but all the same, there are limits. Still: it's not much of a flaw in a mystery when things wrap up neatly. That's what mysteries do.(less)
HORNBECK. I charge you with contempt of conscience! Self perjury. Kindness aforethought! Sentimentality
...moreNot-H.L. Mencken is the best part of the play.
HORNBECK. I charge you with contempt of conscience! Self perjury. Kindness aforethought! Sentimentality in the first degree. DRUMMOND. Why? Because I refuse to erase a man's lifetime? I tell you Brady had the same right as Cates: the right to be wrong! (Turns away.) HORNBECK. "Be-Kind-To-Bigots" Week. Since Brady's dead, we must be kind. God, how the world is rotten with kindness!
This is so so good. For pages and pages it is amazing and heartbreaking and revelatory. And THEN, and THEN the end happens and it is awful. I don't me...moreThis is so so good. For pages and pages it is amazing and heartbreaking and revelatory. And THEN, and THEN the end happens and it is awful. I don't mean in a "how could you do that to characters I love, Jennifer Egan?!" way, because no: that's not the problem at all. Rather, the final chapter is a coda . . . and it is trite. And it's a shame, too, because everything else about the book was perfect. LITERALLY EVERYTHING.(less)
Ostwald's biography is meticulous, sensitive, and extremely interesting. He has a very good sense of his subject, especially the psychological/psychia...moreOstwald's biography is meticulous, sensitive, and extremely interesting. He has a very good sense of his subject, especially the psychological/psychiatric concerns which dominated the last thirty years of Nijinsky's life but also influenced his early life (and superstardom). Sometimes Ostwald makes assertions about emotional connections without seeming to have proven the interpretation he prefers - for example, he will explain the many interpretations of Nijinsky's emotional relationship with Diaghilev but fail to elaborate on why he finds one more convincing - which is confusing. His commentary on dance is less capable than his commentary on mental health, although it is never dull, and some of the literary flourishes fall flat. This is still a good biography - it doesn't attempt to simplify or blame anyone.(less)
Is this a three or a four star book? That's a ridiculous question - I don't think that much of star ratings, except as a kind of mnemonic device (and...moreIs this a three or a four star book? That's a ridiculous question - I don't think that much of star ratings, except as a kind of mnemonic device (and not even a particularly good one) - and yet I'm trying to figure out what I think about the book, and I'm sort of torn. Selvadurai's prose doesn't impress me particularly, in fact I don't think very highly of it at all and it was a significant barrier to my appreciation, but I think ultimately Cinnamon Gardens talked me into liking it. Liking the book, I mean - I'll probably never really like the way Selvadurai writes.
Although actually, I think that ultimately the over-simplified way Selvaudrai writes works, eventually, to the novel's benefit. You get to think about the nuances of the characterization instead of the aesthetic experience - there isn't much of an aesthetic experience here, except inasmuch as all works of art provide them, and I don't want to discount that - so you have to deal with the characters as people. And there's a lot of them to deal with!(less)
Although I think some of the internal monologuing about race is a bit clumsy, I really appreciated Passing for its complicated look at feminine friend...moreAlthough I think some of the internal monologuing about race is a bit clumsy, I really appreciated Passing for its complicated look at feminine friendships. Larsen never feels it's necessary to trivialize or condemn the complicated, thorny, and problematic relationship she writes.(less)
1. I guess this was Alexie's first prose collection? It shows - and I don't mean this in a denigrating way, but rather there is a noticeably different...more1. I guess this was Alexie's first prose collection? It shows - and I don't mean this in a denigrating way, but rather there is a noticeably different style to these stories. Some of them feel like they want to be in verse, and some of them basically are prose poems. This makes them interesting, but, especially when compared to Ten Little Indians, it also makes them less impressive as short fiction.
2. One of the things I really liked was the way Alexie uses a group of characters for the stories. This creates a sense of interconnectedness, and suggests a real world behind the fiction. A downside of this approach, especially when combined with the quasi-poetic approach, is that sometimes the stories verge on the schematic (like "Imagining the Reservation"). I understand that a couple of the characters reappear in the movie Smoke Signals, which makes me more interested in the movie (Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor are both excellent characters, and I want to see more of them). One of the themes this enables him to explore is how much we hurt each other, and what that means about love.
3. My favorite stories from the collected were the ones that seemed closest to Ten Little Indians: "Because My Father Always Said He was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at Woodstock," the title story, and "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation" (a redemptive and devastating story). I also liked "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor" which isn't completely successful, but says a lot about love, and I think the strain of the story is appropriate to the narrator.
4. There are a bunch of really odd stories, though. "Distances," for example, is a post-apocalyptic story I liked - mostly because it improves on The Road, a book I dislike intensely - but which seems out of place. (less)
As skillfully done as An Experiment in Love is - I'm not sure anyone does "mundane and chilling" as well as Mantel, except for Flannery O'Connor - I'm...moreAs skillfully done as An Experiment in Love is - I'm not sure anyone does "mundane and chilling" as well as Mantel, except for Flannery O'Connor - I'm not sure I made it through even half the book without having to repress the urge to roll my eyes.
I know that Hilary Mantel lives in a world much more, um, otherwordly and, perhaps, Manichean than I do. Sometimes I can swallow my incredulity - it's easier with novels that are farther from "this world" anyway (Beyond Black, A Place of Greater Safety) - and it's always worth it. But sometimes I can't, not entirely. And when I can't, then things that should be grim just seem portentous.(less)