An Unbearable Review, Being the Reviewer's Literary Life in the Form of a Review: A Scholarly Analysis of the Way Hamish Was Once Easily Impressed (An...moreAn Unbearable Review, Being the Reviewer's Literary Life in the Form of a Review: A Scholarly Analysis of the Way Hamish Was Once Easily Impressed (An Exercise In Pretention): A tl;dr Production
I never read much literature until I finished college. I did, however, love Kerouac in the way that people who don't read much and have at least some vague countercultural connection love Kerouac. Mostly, I just read a lot of comics (and still do). But after graduation I realized that I would no longer have assigned class readings and now would have lots of time to pursue my own interests. So for reasons that I still don't fully understand, I decided I would become "well read" (ignoring the fact that I had scrupulously avoided actually reading assigned literary works in required literature classes and had, Kerouac aside, never shown any particular interest in literature). I had somehow developed an idea that somewhere there was a list of twenty or so universally loved novels and that if I read all of these I would be "well read", and thus never need to read again. No effort whatsoever on my part was made to find such a list, but I felt that I had an idea what was on it and so I began my odyssey (The Odyssey is an obscure book by Homer. I just made what is called a literary allusion, which is an obscure and rarely used literary device. Ask your English professor for the full scoop!). First, The Great Gatsby, which, also for reasons unknown to me, was never assigned in any of my high school English classes. Next: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (Of note: My next choice after that was The Brothers Karamazov which I gave up on about 100 pages in. I was dumb.)
I loved it. I loved it so, so much. Full disclosure: I cried when the dog died. Not only was I young and easily impressed, but apparently extremely emotional too! I want to explain what it was that I loved about the book, but I’m having a tough time remembering. It probably came down to me finding it “moving” and “deep”. But re-reading it seven years (and several hundred books) later, I’m really hard-pressed to find a whole lot worthwhile about it.
A pet peeve of mine is when someone goes “oh the book seems to be about a war between two families, but really it’s about how a rough childhood makes you into an emotionally unbalanced adult. I know the main plot seemed boring, but you have to look beyond that!” I HATE that shit. The author may as well be saying to me “let’s just half-ass the part of the novel that requires imagination and skill, because we’re making a serious point about serious issues!” But these issues usually seem incredibly shallow to me. “Communism is bad. Capitalism is bad. The monarchy sucks. Treat your children well. Finding love is the path to true happiness.” These allegedly deep ideas can be summarized in a paragraph, and yet somehow these things are the important parts of novel? More than the beautiful language, engaging characters, interesting structure, careful attention to detail, complex plot threads and imaginative situations that can engage and delight a reader? Why are so many writers and readers measuring literature by the same standard that we measure preachy after school specials? (If I like a painting, it's because I think it looks beautiful or it appeals to my aesthetic sense in some way. I don't really care if that tree in the middle symbolizes the futility of life or some such bullshit. That's masturbation as far as I'm concerned.) But I get it, Kundera is a “philosopher”, so he’s neglecting the fundamentals of good literature in favor of his rich “philosophical ideas”.
For example, he will frequently tell you why he’s creating a character, and what he wants them to embody and what point the situation they’re in will illustrate. It's like watching a puppet show and seeing both the puppet and the hand going up the puppet's rear at the same time. Without that illusion of reality, a lot of the joy is gone.
At first, I was impressed by his ability to draw unexpected and imaginative connections between things. But it’s the fact that he so constantly needs to tell us these connections, to point out what every little thing means. He has absolutely no faith in you as a reader and will therefore remove all ambiguity and all room for you to flex your mental muscles. You are treated like an idiot who needs everything spelled out for you.
The only thing he does leave up to you is the actual world the characters live in. He doesn’t do descriptions of places or characters. I read that he prefers to leave these things ambiguous so that the reader will create an image for his or herself. I suppose in theory that’s ok, but I think one of the greatest talents a writer can have is to synthesize sense experience into prose, to find a way to word things that can bring it to life for the reader. It’s not a requirement for a work to be great, but the fact that Kundera so cavalierly and completely abandons it speaks pretty poorly of him as an artist. He is a writer so subservient to ideas that all else will be ignored. Instead of placing his characters and ideas in a rich, breathing world, he places them in an empty graveyard.
It’s this attitude towards art that creates shallow, poorly sketched characters that seem like little more that frames for Kundera to hang his ideas on. Please bear in mind that I’m not against ideas in literature (Borges is a great example of a writer who uses them to compliment his fiction). Rather I am against making literature subordinate to ideas; making it play second fiddle to what is essentially a glorified philosophy lecture. There’s nothing wrong with philosophy lectures, but in Kundera’s case he ignores the fundamentals of the art of the novel in order to mercilessly preach to the reader. What we get is an endless string of philosophical aphorisms that sound good, but on closer inspection are totally meaningless (ex. "Physical love is unthinkable without violence.") and accompanying fictional illustration of said aphorisms.
But I’ll stop being relentlessly negative and say that there were things that I liked. Kundera has an easy, pleasing prose voice that moves things along at a nice clip. Despite my overall dislike for the work, it was also oddly pleasing to read. And the ending was quite moving. It’s the only part where it feels like he steps back a little and lets the characters actually live.
So what I’m trying to say is that when I first became a reader, I didn’t have the most discerning of tastes. I thought Bukowski was a genius and Dickens was a snore. But I’d like to think that my tastes have refined through the years and now I’m pretty good judge of things. The plus side to never having taken many literature classes (and not paying attention in the ones I did take) was that I was spared the utter and total bullshit that is 95% of literary theory, which doubtless would have clouded my young perception. Soon after my Kundera phase I discovered the modernists and then the Russians and from there on in things got serious. If for nothing else, The Unbearable Lightness of Being will always have an important place in my heart for helping to spark my love of literature.(less)
I TORE through this. As much as I love them, with most (literary) novels I tend to read incrementally; a chapter here, do something else, read another...moreI TORE through this. As much as I love them, with most (literary) novels I tend to read incrementally; a chapter here, do something else, read another chapter, etc. I rarely get fully absorbed. However, (genre) novels that are allegedly "page turners" usually bore the shit out of me instead of exciting me. And, ostensibly, The Sea-Wolf is an adventure novel, but London is (at heart) a literary novelist and it shows in the depth of the work (check out that structural symmetry!) and the quality of the prose. It's got substance and it's got excitement. It's what Cormac McCarthy wants to be, but fails (in fact, Wolf Larsen reminds me a lot of McCarthy's Judge, but more vivid and more frightening). There are more than a few moments that are genuinely chilling, aided by the careful detail London uses to render his world.
The premise is a little ridiculous/improbable and London is a little sloppy at times (it takes him something like 75 pages to decide what tense the narrator is writing in), but I'll still highly recommend this one.(less)
As another reviewer points out, this is Wharton's Jamesian novel. Makes sense to me. It has that extremely slow pace, where every thought, word and ac...moreAs another reviewer points out, this is Wharton's Jamesian novel. Makes sense to me. It has that extremely slow pace, where every thought, word and action of every character is examined in minute detail (and hey, there are American ex-pats in Europe too!). Wharton does it better than James though. Her characters are more engaging, there's more resonance and her prose is stronger. She always finds an unexpected and perfect word or phrase to illuminate even the most mundane things and get you to examine them in a light you never had before. Every part of the novel is put together with a subtle touch and an artist's eye for detail. The plot is a little on the predictable side and the ending is way too drawn out, but those are really the only things that keep this from being a minor masterpiece.(less)
City of Glass - 5 stars Ghosts - 4 stars The Locked Room - 3 stars
I was aware of this book for a long time, but had always avoided it because I was unde...moreCity of Glass - 5 stars Ghosts - 4 stars The Locked Room - 3 stars
I was aware of this book for a long time, but had always avoided it because I was under the impression that it was of the self-congratulatory post-modern fiction type (ie Don Delillo). But I ended up reading the graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass because it was drawn by the great Dave Mazzucchelli and I liked it enough that I opted to give the original a try.
I guess it is a little bit self-congratulatory in its post-modernism, but it's in a playful, stimulating and pleasing way (unlike Don Delillo). It's more like Borges (especially in City of Glass), with a rich web of ideas under the surface. It's not a polemic and it doesn't beat you over the head with those ideas; they're there for you to do with what you will. The closer you read, the more connections and repeating themes and symbols you find. Each connection is like a string that you can pluck. Plucking them together doesn't necessarily create a melody, but when you pluck each one it makes a very pleasing sound. Nabokov used to talk about this and how it gave the reader the truest form of artistic pleasure which they would feel in the base of their spine (personally, I feel it in my stomach).
This is probably why the books work better the more abstract they are. Auster doesn't really excell with character drama, and that's probably why The Locked Room is the weakest of the trilogy. The further Auster pulls away from reality, the more enjoyable it is.(less)
I first read Ada after I had become smitten with Pale Fire and Lolita. I was colossally disappointed, hated the book and almost gave up on Nabokov (bu...moreI first read Ada after I had become smitten with Pale Fire and Lolita. I was colossally disappointed, hated the book and almost gave up on Nabokov (but then discovered Speak, Memory which returned him to my favor). N has since become my favorite writer and, after devouring all of his other novels, I decided to give this one a second chance. Plus that was many years ago and I think I had some questionable opinions back then.
At first I had the same reaction. What I usually love N for is his rich, playful, pleasing prose. In Ada he seemed to replace the fun aspect of his writing with a never-ending series of irritating puns, sequences in other languages, willful obscurity and unpleasingly convoluted sentence structure (kind of like late-period Henry James, though not THAT bad). Reading became like a class you don't want to attend, but do anyway because you need the credits. There's a part where Van and Ada come up with a code to exchange secret letters. If you go back a few pages, you can decipher a phrase written in that code. The phrase is pretty unimportant and doesn't really contribute at all to your enjoyment, but maybe for a second you feel clever for figuring it out. That's sort of a metaphor for N's writing style here: it's kinda clever but doesn't really give you much to reward the effort you put in.
But about halfway through the novel the prose seems to snap back to that style we know and love. Reading becomes a joy again. And even when I had problems with the style, I still loved the story and characters. N almost seems to be intentionally courting controversy (Lolita-style) by having his novel star two siblings on a lifelong romance. But there's no real moral issue here. They may flaunt our cultural (and biological) norms, but we never really feel like they're doing anything wrong (unlike Humbert Humbert). It's charming and endearing and you get a little lump in your throat watching them get old together.
At times it's a slog, but eventually it becomes worth it. I don't agree with those that say this is one of N's best (I can think of at least ten of his novels that are better), but it's still worth your time. Just save it until you've read a fair bit of his work. Equal parts frustration and joy (well, probably a little more joy).(less)
Maybe I deserved this for my recent Dickens idolatry. Maybe I loved him too much and I needed to be reminded that he's only human, 'cause this was hel...moreMaybe I deserved this for my recent Dickens idolatry. Maybe I loved him too much and I needed to be reminded that he's only human, 'cause this was hella weak. Well, A Christmas Carol is pretty good, though not nearly as good as I remembered it being from my childhood. The Battle of Life is vaguely good and The Haunted Man is decent, but The Cricket On the Hearth is weak and I loathed The Chimes.
My theory on Dickens is that longer Dickens is better Dickens. The shorter his stuff gets, the more slapped together it seems (maybe hastily written to make the xmas issue of his journal; incidentally some of these stories aren't even xmas related, they're called the Christmas Books because they came out in the aforementioned xmas issue). Granted his plots are always kind of convoluted and rely very heavily on coincidence, but here the twists don't even make sense. The characters are poorly sketched and everything reeks of being rushed.
You can get away with just reading A Christmas Carol and skipping the rest.(less)
At times the prose reminds me a little of Cormac McCarthy's in Blood Meridian, which I mocked endlessly. You know, that endless s...moreUnorganized thoughts:
At times the prose reminds me a little of Cormac McCarthy's in Blood Meridian, which I mocked endlessly. You know, that endless string of declarative statements that lacks any linguistic skill to bring the images alive in the reader's mind. Faulkner doesn't fall into the realm of self-parody like McCarthy though. And if he's lacking in things like descriptions, he excels when dealing with more abstract topics and in his extremely idiosyncratic and fascinating word choices.
I like the structure. He doesn't use the stream of conscious technique like in As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury, but he still uses the technique of hopping from one characters perspective to another, either by having them narrate it (in this case out loud, rather than internally), or using a third-person narrator that seems to borrow from a particular character's viewpoint. All the characters also seem to exist on a spectrum of a few traits (particularly in regards to religion), and it's fun to see how he compares and contrasts them.
Falls apart a bit around the end. There's a little twist at the end of the climax chapter that rings decidedly false to me. It seems like Faulkner just threw it in for shock value, and it feels painfully forced. Also Hightower's final chapter I think is supposed to be the grand statement of the novel, but I found it just sailed on by without making any impact on me.(less)
I remember hearing somewhere (or maybe my mind invented it) that Nabokov's first novel was a weak first step towards future greatness. Maybe going in...moreI remember hearing somewhere (or maybe my mind invented it) that Nabokov's first novel was a weak first step towards future greatness. Maybe going in with lowered expectations helped, but I ended up enjoying Mary a lot. You can tell it's his first book, in that stylistically the prose is similar to his other work, but it lacks that naturalness he normally has. Nabokov has always seemed to me like an author that never misses in his prose; his wording is always clever, clear and unforced. Here it's clear, kinda clever, but definitely a bit forced. It's still really strong prose, just not the perfect prose you'd expect from 'ol Vlad.
However, I really like that limited focus of the novel, which allows him to make everything vivid: The single setting, the small cast of characters and the charming flashbacks. It never feels rushed.
I kept waiting for the characteristic Nabokov twist. That one scene or revelation towards the end that completely changes how you view all the preceding pages. I waited until the last page; it never came. Which isn't to say I didn't like the ending. I loved the ending. N is normally kind of a spiteful, mean writer. But here, he actually gave an ending that could be described as heartwarming (in a somewhat cynical way). It was unexpected and satisfying.
If you're getting into N, definitely don't overlook this one. I'd argue it's better than some of the more widely-read novels from his Russian language period (such as Despair or The Eye).(less)
Maybe more like 3.5 stars. There's lots to love about it, the concept, the gorgeous prose...but the whole execution is kind of sloppy. It seems like W...moreMaybe more like 3.5 stars. There's lots to love about it, the concept, the gorgeous prose...but the whole execution is kind of sloppy. It seems like Wilde made a list of epithets that he wanted to use and created a character (Lord Henry) that mostly exists just to say them (and to help corrupt Dorian too). At first they're funny, but then they get really repetitive (they all have the same format, something like "the best reviews are the worst ones, and good reviews are always bad!") and don't really add anything. Too many scenes of Henry being "funny", that contribute nothing to the book, hurt the mood and fuck up the pacing. Wilde can be really funny especially in his plays, but he really misses the mark here. The James Vane subplot, which apparently was not in the original version, also seems to serve no purpose other than to throw the pacing off.
It's good, but could have been a lot better if Wilde was a little more disciplined and recognized what fits in a book and what doesn't.(less)