I needed to really think about what I want to say about these books, which led me to question what I was reading, why and what I hope to find. I've never intended my posts to be reviews. There are scads of places to find a standard synopsis of plot and general impressions about books. I don't want or need to try to replicate that. But in thinking about what I'm trying to get out of the books I read, I've been able to zero in on my choices and read much more closely. I plan to talk more about my reading objectives in my next post.
For now, I want to get this list out and provide a few thoughts about these books. If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear what you thought.
On Beauty, by Zadie Smith This book was the start of my problems in talking about books and I may do a separate post about it. I have not read White Teeth, but I have read a number of articles and essays by and about the author. My expectations were high and this was a very good book. What makes this book (and others that fall into the high expectation category) difficult to talk about is that I read them much more closely and tend to be a tougher critic. Zadie Smith is unquestionably a great talent. On Beauty is filled with richly drawn characters and is dense with plot and subplots. There is a point at about the halfway mark where I sensed fatigue on the author's part. I had the strange notion that the author was under tremendous pressure to finish the book and to live up to the early reputation she'd garnered. I also learned, once I'd finished the book that if one happens to be familiar with the works of E.M. Forster, one might have noticed some parallels. I'm disappointed to have not read any Forster and wish I had. I'm certain it would have further enhanced or even changed my experience with this book entirely.
God Knows, by Blayney Colmore I can never resist reading books written by people I know. By sheer chance I found this book, written by the Episcopal priest (now retired) I best remember from the church I attended through adolescence. I was delighted to find that he's also a blogger and I am very happy to be back in touch with him. I nearly finished this book in one sitting. It captures beautifully many of his thoughts and ideas about life and the nature of the world and what it's all about
Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee When I saw the blurb from Annie Dillard on the cover (I never see Annie Dillard blurbs, so this one I paid attention to), I knew I was in for something special. You can find a short plot synopsis here. Reader reactions about the story itself are conflicted, but I believe the tough subject matter has been a factor. There is no debate about the beauty of Chee's prose. I recently heard that he was a poet before he attempted long form fiction, which would explain the lyric, almost hypnotic effect the book had on me.
"Fifteen. I lose my voice. My new voice sounds like a burned string rubbing. Singing is touching, you bang the air and the air moves something inside you and the thing moved registers, says, That is a sound. When we sing to each other we are touching each other through this sleeve of air between us. When my voice changes I know this new creature is capable of no significant touch, no transformations. This voice cannot erase me, take me over and set me aside. This new voice has no light. It can barely push enough air aside to tell people, Hello, Good Morning, Good Night. I stop talking as much."
Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan This book is about the disappearance of an eighteen year old girl in Ohio and the impact the disappearance has on her family, friends and community over the course of a year. The NYTBR said this. I am sure it's a matter of taste that this book didn't satisfy me, because the reviews have all been very positive. I have no criticisms about the way the book is crafted, I just felt something was missing. Stewart O'Nan is immensely popular and I believe this is his eleventh novel.
Living by Fiction, by Annie Dillard This book changed my life and was the impetus for a complete change in perspective about reading and writing. I wrote about it briefly here. In Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard talks about the art of literature. She has inspired me to seek out the works of many of the modernists and post-modernists and to study how the best examples work. She has caused me to slow down and study novels, rather than tear through them. Dillard's approach to fiction is scholarly, yet she never takes herself too seriously and in fact, is quite funny at times. Exploring the question of whether or not fiction interprets the world:
"Complexity, subtlety, and breadth are the virtues here. If a writer is going to engage in the intellectual business of assigning meanings and showing relationships, he had better think very well. The novel of ideas had better be good...On the other hand, a novel is not a very long-playing but lightweight television set. We are no longer children, and we no longer enjoy fiction with our eyes only. We seek, as I say, a complex, subtle, and broad set of ideas...And-- importantly -- writers who have only an ear for prose and a taste for subtle surfaces may be credited with having a good deal more. We may actually assume such writers have something on their minds."
I will never see fiction again in the same way, and for that I'm grateful.
Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust I was excited enough about this book while reading it to dedicate a post to it before I was even finished. Committing to reading the whole of In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past is to the reader what running the New York Marathon is to the casual jogger. Swann's Way is the first of seven volumes that make up the whole novel and it initially took some time to learn how to read Proust. I read with a highlighter and dictionary at hand and was constantly checking the end notes. Over time, Proust taught me how to read him and to truly love his work. The book was originally self-published and one publisher's rejection was something to the effect of "I don't see why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep." If you've read Proust, you're probably laughing. In contrast to the modern novel's get to the point within fifty words or less approach, this languid style takes some getting used to and I imagine, most people don't have the patience for it. But if you can weather the initial shock of bumping up against Proust's style, there is something wonderful here.
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by Marcel Proust Although I intended to spread the seven volumes of Proust's novel out over a long period of time, I was engrossed enough after Swann's Way to move on to Volume 2.
The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell This pop-culture exploration of the Puritans and their journey to America to become John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" could not have been a more radical departure from Proust! Sarah Vowell was best known to me as that quirky voice often heard on NPR's This American Life. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (may it rest in peace) called her "a Madonna of Americana". Despite the unusual style and the humorous insights, The Wordy Shipmates draws an excellent historical picture of early American figures like Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop, Rhode Island's Roger Williams and activist Anne Hutchinson that is informative and surprising. At times, the analogies to pop culture were intrusive -- but that's me. I think this book and this approach have made legitimate history more accessible and palatable to younger readers who might not otherwise be interested in the subject.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus I'd read Camus and Sartre in early adolescence and despite my cigarette-sneaking, black turtle-necked, angsty, brooding nature, I'm afraid the philosophical implications were lost on me at the time. I picked it up again after having watched a series of lectures on DVD about Existentialism and it made much more sense the second time around. For more The Stranger, look here.
Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee After reading Disgrace, I became a fan of the South African born Coetzee. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegorical tale about oppressors and the oppressed, set in a fictional country in an indeterminate time period. One can't help but wonder about Coetzee's roots in South Africa when reading this story, but it's not long before one's musings about the story become broader even than that.
Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov I'd read Lolita (more than once, actually) and although I'd heard of Pale Fire, I knew nothing about it when I began to read. The novel is structured around a 999 line unpublished poem, written by a recently deceased fictional poet and narrated by his fictional friend and neighbor. This is an amazing example of successful metafiction. I am not a huge fan of metafictional novels because so many are (in my opinion) more style than substance. Not so with Pale Fire. This novel is one of those few where I was dazzled by the concept, the prose and the elegance of it the entire way through. I would imagine there are scholars who've spent entire careers studying and interpreting this work.
The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow Reading novels written decades ago is sort of like getting off a freeway, driving into a rural village and getting out to stroll. I have an almost visceral change in posture when I pick up one of these older, bigger books and I feel like I have all the time in the world to give to them -- and they generally do need more time and patience.
English-born writers and literary critics Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis have both noted that The Adventures of Augie March is certainly on the short list of Great American Novels if you consider the definition to encompass a story that focuses on life in America within a given time period.
"I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus,, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles."
Wikipedia describes the novel this way: "The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a novel by Saul Bellow. It centers on the eponymous character who grows up during the Great Depression. This picaresque novel is an example of bildungsroman, tracing the development of an individual through a series of encounters, occupations and relationships from boyhood to manhood."
Bellow, like Proust is a writer who demands patience. I read this novel with highlighter in hand, as I do Proust as the author frequently makes references to historical figures and events that aren't necessarily well known (at least not to me). I recently read a quote from Norman Mailer about Saul Bellow where he accused him of reading a million books, but not really having any ideas. I thought was an interesting comment as Bellow's familiarity with a huge body of literature comes through quite clearly in his work, but I don't know that I agree with the second part of his comment.
I kept the highlighter handy for a second reason. Bellow was an incredible writer. I often like to highlight especially fine passages in books I read to refer back to them later, but in the case of this book, I found myself tempted to highlight nearly everything! His descriptions of people, in particular, captivated me.
"He was a beer saufer; droopy, small, a humorist, wry, drawn, weak, his tone nosy and quinchy, his pants in creases under his paunch; his nose curved up and presented offended and timorous nostrils, and he had round, disingenuous eyes in which he showed he was strongly defended. He was a tio listo, a carnival type, a whorehouse visitor. His style was that of a hoofer in the lowest circuit, doing a little cane-swinging and heel-and-toe routine, singing, "I went to school with Maggie Murphy," and telling smokehouse stories while the goofy audience waited for the naked star to come out and begin the grinds. He had a repertory of harmless little jokes, dog yipes, mock farts; his best prank was to come up behind and seize you by the leg with a Pekinese snarl."
Throughout Augie March's journey, he encounters and often returns to dozens of characters. The dialog and discussions between them are full of ideas.
"Boredom starts with useless effort. You have shortcomings and aren't what you should be? Boredom is the conviction that you can't change. You begin to worry about loss of variety in your character and the uncomplimentary comparison with others in your secret mind, and this makes you feel your own tiresomeness. On your social side boredom is a manifestation of the power of society. The stronger society is, the more it expects you to hold yourself in readiness to perform your social duties, the greater your availability, the smaller your significance. On Monday you are justifying yourself by your work. But on Sunday, how are you justified? Hideous Sunday, enemy of humanity. Sunday you're on your own -- free. Free for what? Free to discover what's in your heart, what you feel toward your wife, children, friends, and pastimes. The spirit of man, enslaved, sobs in the silence of boredom, the bitter antagonist. Boredom therefore can arise from the cessation of habitual functions, even though these may be boring too. It is also the shriek of unused capacities, the doom of serving no great end or design, or contributing to no master force. The obedience that is not willingly given because nobody knows how to request it. The harmony that is not accomplished. This lies behind boredom. But you see the endless vistas."
I loved this book and will be reading much more Saul Bellow.
The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates I'm an enormous Woody Allen fan and bought this book some time ago because his characters in "Hannah and Her Sisters" mention it. With all the talk about Revolutionary Road recently, I decided it was time to read Richard Yates.
The Easter Parade is the story of two sisters, who live different, but individually tragic lives and is told over the course of four decades, beginning in the 1930's. The book has one of the best first sentences I've read in a long time:
"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce."
The book is told from the point of view of the younger sister, Emily and I was quite taken with the intimacy and accuracy the author brought to a female character. The writing is spare and beautiful and the story was poignant and painful.
On a separate note, this book is the type of story that I believe people are talking about when they claim that literary fiction is depressing.
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