Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"The Awakening" by Kate Chopin

Was I the only person in the world who didn't
know how this book ends? Just in case I wasn't, I won't give any spoilers, but... 'NOOOOOO!' I yelled, as I reached the bottom of the final page. I turned to Kathy: 'Did you know that she...?' 'Uh-huh,' she nodded cheerfully. 'It's about the only thing I remember from that book.'

I hope it won't be the only thing I remember from this book, because it was mostly wonderful. But what a terrible ending! Not terrible in a literary sense - I mean, it was beautifully written and had been nicely foreshadowed in the book's early pages and all that - but this was far more than just a literary experience for me. And hey, I'm not even a woman!

Yes, I know this is supposed to be one of those books - like Sylvia Plath's The Bell-Jar - that is immune to male opinion. In fact, its reputation as a feminist masterpiece almost put me off reading it (I was half-imagining some neo-hippie manifesto or how-to guide on yoga and masturbation), but I'm very glad it didn't.

Purely as a work of fiction, The Awakening is superb: the writing is amazingly vivid and sensual, the settings (Grand Isle and New Orleans) atmospheric, the characters all living, breathing creatures, and the story - after a gentle, uneventful first 50 pages - had me in its grip. As soon as Robert left for Mexico and Edna (if only Mrs Pontellier had been given a less old-ladyish first name!) realized what she felt for him, I was really, really unwilling to put this book down.

But it also felt very personal to me. Not because I saw myself in Edna, of course - I may do a lot of housework and know nothing about cars, but I'm not that in touch with my feminine side - but because I saw elements of Kathy, from when I first met her. There were certain passages that might almost have been about her, and the fact that this was written nearly 120 years ago didn't lessen its relevance: in terms of its moralizing views on men, women and marriage, early 21st century Texas is, scarily, not very different at all from late 19th century Louisiana.

So I loved it, but I wanted (and even expected - so blindly was I reading our story into it) a happy ending. What I got seemed unjustified, unnecessary, ludicrous, melodramatic, devastating... too much symbolism and poetry and not enough life. But maybe I'll come round to it in time. It was certainly memorable. Now I really want Kathy to read this novel again, because I think it will mean much more to her now than it did the last time she read it, in her previous life.

In the meantime, whatever mistakes I've made in life, I'm just really glad I never wrote anything as stupid as 'Good-by - because I love you'.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Blindness" by Jose Saramago

Get me out of here was all I could think through most of this book. The hopelessness, the degradation, the ubiquitous excrement, the cruelty--I didn't want any part of it, but the fastest way out of it was through it. Unfinished books haunt me, and I think this one would have been worse than most.

This is the story of an epidemic of white blindness. It begins with one man who is stopped at a traffic light and suddenly finds that he sees nothing but whiteness. The blindness quickly spreads to others. The government first hopes to contain it with a quarantine, but their plan fails and societal breakdown follows with relentless rapidity. We first see it on a small scale, from inside the abandoned mental institution where the blind are confined, but life as we know it is dissolving outside those walls, too.

I put this book on my TBR list in June of 2010 when I heard that Saramago had died. I didn't even know who he was until that day (and I should probably be embarrassed about that, considering the fact that he was a Nobel prizewinner and the back cover of my copy of Blindness shouts "THIS IS AN IMPORTANT BOOK,") and I don't regret reading this book (finally! you don't know how many times I've almost read it but have chosen something else instead), but I don't feel driven to add any of his other works to my TBR. I'm sure some of you reading this pity me because of this choice, but I'll survive.

The book wasn't boring, the writing wasn't bad (though the overuse of commas in place of full stops annoyed me a bit), and Saramago had some interesting things to say about morality and society and perspective, but I was (forgive me) blinded to these deeper meanings by my impatience to get to the end of the book. I don't even want to see the movie, which is highly unusual for me--I'm normally very eager to see movie adaptations of books I've read, to experience someone else's visualization--but not this time.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Climates" by André Maurois

I first heard of this 1928 French novel a month ago, when I was translating a book of short stories about adultery. Each story was prefaced with a quotation from a famous French author, but the epigraph for the book itself was from André Maurois's Climats, which was completely unknown to me. There was nothing special about the quotation - 'What are you complaining about? That your husband's unfaithful? But men are never faithful...' - but I was intrigued enough to look the book up, and interested enough by what I read about it to buy a copy.

I bought it in a recent translation by Adriana Hunter (who also translated Amélie Nothombe's Fear and Trembling, among many others) and read it in less than a week, which is unusual for me these days. It is 350 pages long, but does not feel it. The story is not especially compelling, but it is written (and translated) in such a fluid, breezy, conversational style that the pages just kept turning themselves.

It is a book about love and marriage, strongly based on the author's own life and experiences - though with several important differences, as Sarah Bakewell's excellent introduction makes clear. It consists of two 'letters', the first written by Philippe Marcenat to his friend and future second wife Isabelle de Cheverny, about the obsessive love he felt (even then) for his first wife, Odile Malet, and the second written by Isabelle de Cheverny to Philippe Marcenat (who had died three months earlier), about her love for him.

According to the introduction, Maurois summarized his book as:

Part 1. I love, and am not loved.
Part 2. I am loved, and do not love.

This is very neat, but not entirely true. A more accurate précis might be:

Part 1. I am in love with her, but she is not in love with me.
Part 2. She is in love with me, but I am not in love with her.

Really, it is a book about all those flawed romantic relationships (the majority, perhaps?) where there is no balance between the two lovers, where there is always one dominant partner and one meek follower. In many ways, the world of 1920s haute-bourgeois Paris is remote enough from our own (or from my own, at least - maybe you, dear reader, are independently wealthy and spend all your time at parties, discussing science and history and pursuing passionate and barely concealed love affairs with your friends' spouses - who can tell?) that it would seem to have no universality. In most respects, despite being 20th century, the world of Climates is closer to that of Dangerous Liaisons or Anna Karenina than any work of fiction from the past 70 years or so. And yet, love is love. So, while I couldn't honestly see myself, now, in any of those people or situations, there were still feelings and moments that I could recognize from past experience.

And, let's be honest: a happy, balanced, perfectly fulfilling romantic relationship does not make for a good story. I'm incredibly grateful that I've found one, but I wouldn't want to read - or write - about it.

So Philippe's deeply imperfect character - always in search of a 'queen' whom he worships and who tortures him into jealousy by being endlessly coquettish with other men - is kind of engrossing, even if it makes you want slap him around a bit. The book is a pleasure to read for two main reasons:

1. It is full of quotable little epigrams about love and marriage (the one quoted in the book of short stories was not one of the best). For example:

"Should we always hide what we feel in order to keep what we love? Do we have to be cunning, must we devise and disguise just when we want to let ourselves go?"

and

"We love people because they secrete a mysterious essence, the one missing from our own formula to make us a stable chemical compound."

and

"To her, he had all the prestige of those we do not know well, and, their charms not yet exhausted, they seem rich with previously unimagined possibilities."

2. There is a constant fascination in comparing this novel to the author's actual marriages, and in thinking about the fact that his second wife typed it up and helped him edit it. The lines between fiction and autobiography are pleasingly blurred here, stirring up a haze of ambiguity where facts are lost but deeper truths are glimpsed.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Bookshop Book" Jen Campbell

This book is a love letter to bookshops all around the world. 
It's practically porn for those who not only love to read but also love to travel. I already had an unwritten list of bookstores I wanted to visit someday (which included Shakespeare & Co in Paris, which is Sam's favorite, and El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, which I'd seen photos of online). Now, I've just finished reading about SO MANY other amazing-sounding bookshops that I am overwhelmed. I can't add them ALL to my list, but I can't think of a single one that I would choose to leave off it. I don't feel like I can even give you the highlights of my select favorites, because they're all my favorites. I'd have to retype the entire book here, and I don't think Jen Campbell would appreciate that.

But I can tell you about one idea I really loved: Shaun Bythell's Random Book Club, "where customers anywhere in the world can pay an annual fee to have a random second-hand book delivered to their door every month." This sounded perfect to me until Sam pointed out it was quite possible that most of the books would suck. (Not in those exact words, but I must admit, there is that risk.) Not to mention the fact that I still own enough unread books that I might as well just make my own personal Random Book Club for myself.

And I can tell you about one story (of many) that I found interesting: the details behind the Keep Calm and Carry On signs. I'd already heard that this was a WWII relic, but what I didn't realize was that this propaganda poster had never actually been used during the war; instead, it had been "kept back, intended to be distributed if air raids further dampened people's spirits. In the end it was never sent out, and hardly anyone saw it," until it was unearthed by a couple of booksellers in Northumberland  in 2000.

I have a few of my own favorite bookstores that I can write about in my own little mini-edition of The Bookshop Book here:

  • I will always have a special place in my heart for my local Books-A-Million. It may be relatively soulless and sterile, but it's still fun to browse, and it's pretty much the only choice where I live (other than Amazon). More importantly, it led me to Sam. 
  • I loved The Book People in Austin, which felt so comfy and homey and provided hours of enjoyable wandering. It actually got a mention in Campbell's book, but the write-up didn't capture the feeling of the place for me, as it seemed to focus mainly on the store's charitable contributions to the world of reading. Admirable, of course, but that wasn't what I loved about my visit to the store. 
  • A new favorite: The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff (Dallas). It's situated in a rejuvenated old neighborhood with a bohemian feel--a nice, if small, area to explore on a sunny November afternoon. WD is really more of a coffee shop cum bar that sells books, and (very odd, for me) I didn't come across anything that I HAD to buy, but I enjoyed the lovely backyard seating area and the bookish conversation. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"hey, dummy" by Kin Platt

At the risk of dumbfounding Anonymous again, I've read another book that was Not Written For Adults. Just to be clear, I am fully aware that it was Not Written For Adults. And I am also clear that I am generally considered An Adult. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, may we begin?

I picked this book up (for free!) at the ever-remarkable Friends of the Library bookstore in Los Alamos. (I think that's one of my favorite places! Good thing I only visit once or twice a year--otherwise I might have to move out of my house, displaced by books.) Theoretically, I chose it for Bookworm Child (who did read it, months ago) but I hung onto it out of a curiosity which I satisfied in my spare time over the past two days.

I'd read other books by Kin Platt back when I was Not An Adult (I have fond memories of Chloris and the Weirdos) but this book was a bit more edgy. It's the story of a 12-year-old boy named Neil Comstock who (kind of, sort of) befriends a boy from his school who is mentally handicapped. It's a fast read, and more thought-provoking than I expected (not a bad thing), although some of those thoughts involved how unlikely Neil's angry, snarling parents seemed, and how the bipolarity of Neil's teacher didn't make that character seem well-rounded so much as it made him seem made up. (Yeah, I know he was made up, but I don't like seeing the seams in the story. Fool me effortlessly, please! I want to become a part of the books I read without having to force my way in. That's not too much to ask, even of a book Not Written For Adults.)

I'd given myself permission to not write about this book if I got to the end and found I had nothing to say, but when I actually reached the end of the book, the completist in me wouldn't let it go. (Plus, as you know, I did think of a few things to say). Anyway, I need the record so I can know if it's worth re-reading someday. The verdict: it's short enough that it wouldn't hurt to read it again, especially if I have someone with whom I can discuss it and pick it apart. But the weight of my TBR pile--and all of the superior books (For Adults!!) on it--prevent me from the certain knowledge that I will revisit it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

This book was nothing if not fanciful and entertaining. It's an urban fantasy set in London Below (found in the Underground tunnels and sewers beneath, you guessed it, London Above). Peopled by an eclectic and unique cast of characters, none of whom are remotely boring or mundane, the boring and mundane Richard Mayhew of London Above finds his eminently normal life turned inside out when he renders aid to an injured girl from Below. Richard loses everything he had in his dull, comfortable life Above, as if he never had it in the first place, and has nowhere to go but the less-than-comfortable dank darkness of London Below. Adventures, betrayals, courage, and deaths ensue.

I was surprised to learn that this book is a novelization of a 1996 TV miniseries. (This is not obvious, even in retrospect. It's very well-written, unlike the usual Cash In on the Hype novelizations.) It was also performed as a BBC radio drama starring Mr Tumnus and Sherlock (among others), which I think would be fun to listen to if I had 3 1/2 hours free. Maybe on my next road trip?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

"The Quickening Maze" by Adam Foulds

I picked this book up because I liked the trees on the cover and the mysterious, poetic title. I knew nothing about Adam Foulds (other than the fact that The Quickening Maze was shortlisted for the Booker Prize) nor about John Clare (who is now considered one of England's greatest nature poets), and very little about Alfred Tennyson. So discovering that the story of this novel was based on those two poets' stay (Clare as a patient, Tennyson providing company to his mentally fragile brother Septimus) in a lunatic asylum in the 1830s did not increase my eagerness to read it. In fact, I toyed for an evening with reading a biography of Mick Jagger instead.

But, odd as it may seem, this story very soon proved the more compelling of the two. Partly that is down to the prose. Adam Foulds writes as beautifully and truly as any contemporary novelist I can think of. He is a poet, too, which explains the perfectly weighted rhythms and the carefully selected (and often nicely surprising) diction, but unlike some poets' prose, his is not so showily centred on its own eloquence and lyricism that it loses sight of its purpose: to tell a story.

And there is a story here, even if it is not a tightly plotted or obviously appealing one. At times it is grim, at times funny, at times moving. I wished there were more to it, but the narrative is never less than taut and strangely suspenseful. The characters all feel like real people (and not merely because they are based on 'actual persons'), and the events and dialogue ring true. But Foulds' most notable achievement, for me, is the way he gets into his characters' heads. The internal monologues are things of wonder.

Ultimately, I can't think of a better way to convey this novel's near-perfection than by quoting a few lines from it, and hoping that the lack of context doesn't leave it flopping, suffocated, like a fish out of water. This is a short scene in which the first glimmers of the poem 'The Passing of Arthur' (about King Arthur) come to Tennyson from amid the clouds of his grief over his friend Arthur Hallam:

'He had not lit the lamps and in the gloom of the early winter evening his long fingernails shone with the fire's red, a warmer red than the sunset's crimson, which, if he turned, he could see broken by tree shapes, blotting the surface of the frozen pond. Gules, he thought, all gules. That heraldic blood-red. That was something. His mind moved towards it. On the forest floor the shattered lances. The shattered lances lay on the hoof-churned mud. An ancient English wood where knights had ridden, where Queen Elizabeth hunted, where Shakespeare rode, according to the doctor's daughter, to play out his Dream in an aristocrat's hall. Twilight in that place, soft decay, the soft sun finding some scattered remains. There was something there: an English epic, a return of Arthur. An English Homer. Blood and battle and manliness and the machine of fate. He could hear its music, ringing, metallic and deep with inward echoings. His mind approached it, felt along the flank of this thing. It would be worth the attempt, if he ever had the strength. The logs hissed and smoked. The forest outside was again dreary, darkening, factual. There was nobody there.'

Anyone who's ever written a novel, or a poem, or a song, or created any kind of art, will probably know how that feels: the inward flight, the distant shining vision, then the return to the present, to ordinary reality. I've never read a better conjuring of it than this.

All in all, I would say this is a very good novel by a potentially great writer. If he can find a bigger - or less obscure - story to tell, and tell it with the same sort of intensity and truthfulness, Adam Foulds could create something magnificent.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Opening Skinner's Box" by Lauren Slater

This book is a layman's guide to an eclectic selection of the 20th century's most innovative and infamous psychological experiments. Actually, I'm not sure I'm qualified to categorize this as an eclectic selection, as the ten main experiments discussed probably increased the number of psychological experiments I'm familiar with to a total of eleven. But the selection sure seemed eclectic--from rats in mazes to neurons of sea slugs to false memory to lobotomy and beyond.

It's a bit uneven, and sometimes obviously biased, but it is never dry or dull. The author is a bit odd (which is worse: that B. F. Skinner's daughter kept a half-eaten square of chocolate which her father had bitten before his death ten years earlier, or that Lauren Slater also took a bite out of it after the daughter left the room? Did she really do that??) but definitely adds personality and color to her (admittedly unacademic) review of the included experiments.

I was just wishing my memory were such that I would carry with me a kernel of knowledge from each chapter, but lamenting that that was not to be, when I realized I could plant all ten kernels now. So, here they are:
  • B. F. Skinner put rats in boxes and studied reward and punishment. He was able to train a variety of animals to do some amazing things, found that reward was much more motivating than punishment, and further found that inconsistent rewards are more motivating than consistent ones.
  • Stanley Milgram designed a sadistic experiment in which unwitting volunteers were led to believe they were administering increasingly stronger shocks to innocent strangers in the next room. Sixty-five percent of those involved were obedient to the authority in the white coat, continuing to increase the voltage even when they began to hear very real-sounding screams of pain. 
  • David Rosenhan decided to test the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. He and eight other perfectly sane recruits went to psychiatric hospitals across the country and claimed to be hearing a voice that said "thud." Each was admitted on this basis, resulting in stays of varying lengths (averaging 19 days), with the most frequent diagnosis being schizophrenia. 
  • John Darley and Bibb Latané studied the reaction of groups of people to a crisis and found public apathy. An individual's perception of personal responsibility is diluted by the presence of greater numbers of fellow witnesses. 
  • Leon Festinger studied irreconcilable ideas or cognitive dissonance--the way the mind adapts to a breach of faith. For example, what happens to the beliefs of cult members whose ship doesn't come in on the predicted date? "It is precisely when a belief is disconfirmed that religious groups begin to proselytize." 
  • Harry Harlow separated baby monkeys from their mothers and found that the babies preferred a sense of comforting touch over physical nourishment. He further found that more than touch and food was needed; the babies also required movement associated with that touch, and a regular period of play, or they grew up to be freakin' crazy. 
  • Bruce Alexander studied drug addiction in rats, and concluded that a poor environment engendered dependency more reliably than the drugs themselves. Rats raised in the Rat Park (a rat utopia) actually preferred to avoid drugs even after being forced into addiction.
  • Elizabeth Loftus has proven that false memories can easily be implanted by suggestion, using the Lost in the Mall technique. The author had a very obvious dislike for Loftus that was clear in this biased chapter. 
  • The chapter on Eric Kandel begins by discussing HM, the man whose hippocampus was sucked out of his brain in 1953 in order to cure him of his seizures; unfortunately this surgery also left him unable to form any new memories. Kandel wanted to study the way learning and memory is stored in the brain, and used sea slugs with their simplified brains, observing the changes that occurred as he (seriously?!) trained them.
  • Egaz Moniz is the Portuguese neurologist who pioneered the lobotomy. Call me ignorant, but I'd always thought lobotomy was an actual removal of the frontal lobes which regularly resulted in much greater loss of function than this chapter seems to suggest; my misunderstanding was probably the fault of Randle Patrick McMurphy.
My favorite takeaway comes from the Darley and Latané chapter. Slater clearly lists the things an individual must do to overcome public apathy. This is something I hope I can remember myself, as well as something I want my kids to learn--the five stages of helping behavior:

1. You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occurring.
2. You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed.
3. You must assume personal responsibility.
4. You must decide what action to take.
5. You must then take action.

This is meant to be applied to situations where you see a fellow human in dire circumstances . . . is it small-minded of me to note that this exact same sequence can apply to household chores? (Mommy and Daddy need help, child! Notice your dirty underwear on the floor and take action!)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Dinner" by Herman Koch

This book fixed me with its one great dark-rimmed eye weeks ago. Every time I walked by, it stared, watching me pass. I was enjoying The Goldfinch immensely, but I knew what I would be reading next. Even though this book technically belongs to my husband.

When Sam chose The Dinner, he thought it would be funny (though likely also very dark). He still won't believe me (and probably will continue in his disbelief until he reads it for himself), but he's very wrong. Well, OK, he was right about it being dark.

This novel tells a story within the confines of one fancy meal shared by two couples at an expensive restaurant. Our narrator, Paul, slowly dishes out tasty morsels of the plot . . . but no, that's not really true. The lines he feeds us more frequently turn out to be bitter, or sour, or even rancid. Events from the recent past are revealed as each new course is served, and further developments unfold as the evening wears on. A crisis takes shape, and conflict arises when those involved disagree on how to handle the situation. It all made for a rather depressing but ultimately compelling read. (And I can hear Chandler now: "Could you be more vague?")

This was also one of those books that really made me think (and not just in the usual "what is going on here?" way). I couldn't help but try to work out what I might have done when faced with some of the choices presented. In some ways, the narrator was so very different from me that I knew I would never react as he did (and it's quite a relief to be sure of that). But the issues of blame and sympathy and a parent's protectiveness left me ambivalent and conflicted.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

Sometimes the books we read let us down, and sometimes, more rarely, we let down the books we read. I feel like I didn't do a very good job of reading this novel. I'm not going to kill myself over it - it happens sometimes. I kept having to break off to do speed-reads of books in French, and it got to the point where I would begin reading where I had left off two or three nights earlier and would have absolutely no clue what was going on.

As I said, this is mostly my fault, rather than the book's, I think, but it has to be said that this is a peculiarly demanding novel. I don't mean that in a bad way. I consider myself a Michael Chabon fan, having loved the previous two novels I read by him - Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - and even in spite of my erratic reading habits during this one, I still enjoyed it, still regard it as an original and beautifully written detective story with a speculative twist (what if the state of Israel had collapsed in 1948 and the world's Jews had moved to Alaska?). But I have a feeling I didn't get as much pleasure and satisfaction out of it as I should have. Tellingly, when I got to the end, I turned the page, expecting another chapter, and felt an odd mixture of disappointment and relief at realizing the book's remaining pages contained only interviews and biographical material.

So, what made it so demanding? Partly the style, which is similar to Chabon's other works (dense, poetic, witty, a startling blend of slang and lyricism) but with more compressed sentences and a fairly thick sprinkling of Yiddish (and made-up Yiddish) words. Partly the plot, which is extremely complex and (unless I'm just misunderstanding it) pretty improbable.

I also have to admit that the title was a bit of a turn-off. Maybe it's just me, but I can't help thinking that 'Yiddish', 'Policemen' and 'Union' are three of the least sexy words in the English language. (I have no problem with 'The', though. In fact, I'm a big fan of 'The'. Old-fashioned it might be, but a good 'The' at the beginning of a book title always makes me think I'm in for a real story, rather than just a clever collection of observations.)

Anyway, I'm not going to describe the plot, because it's too complicated and absurd, but I would just like to say that the bookjacket comparisons to Chandler and Hammett are way off the mark. This is much more literary than a simple noir thriller. Maybe there's a hint of homage to it in places, but it's a long way short of a pastiche. The characters are real, the emotions are real. It just happens to have a detective and a mystery (involving a murder).

I'll probably read it again one day (one day when my life is less busy), just to see if the problem really was me rather than the book.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

I received a copy of The Goldfinch from my lovely parents-in-law for my birthday last November, but both my husband and a sweet friend of mine borrowed it before I got around to reading it. That's really only part of my excuse for leaving it for so long before I picked it up myself, though. It was one of those books so hampered by great expectations (it was receiving rave reviews, and I'd read and loved Tartt's first novel, The Secret History) that I feared to pick it up lest it let me down. It didn't help when Sam's assessment was that it lost momentum halfway through--this brought my expectations down to a more realistic level, but didn't make me any more eager to read it.

Happily, when I recently overcame my fear enough to read it, I was not disappointed in the least. Far from losing momentum halfway through, somehow I was relentlessly propelled through the entire thing. Even during the times when (as Sam said) "nothing happened," I was suffused with an expectant tension. It certainly wasn't a thriller like Gone Girl, but there was a constant sense of needing to know what was going to happen next, even if I knew I was only waiting for one character to say something to another. And it's both satisfying and sad to have reached the end of the book--pleasantly fulfilling, yet I wish I was still in the midst of reading it.

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, thirteen years old at the beginning of the book, and the major influences in his life (as Theo is the sort of person who finds himself influenced much more often than he exerts influence on others): his mother, her death, various friends, and art. I was going to say something about the way one great and terrible day changes the trajectory of his life, but then I realized that's not really true: his direction doesn't really change. It's more as if that day speeds him along his way. Theo is deeply flawed, and as I watched him grow into an adult, I found I couldn't muster much respect for him--I was, instead, disappointed in who he was becoming. The reader is privy to all his failings which are hidden from those closest to him and only guessed at by others.

Despite Theo's disreputable choices, I was unwilling to give up on him. Not only did he have some interesting thoughts on good and bad and whether one can come from the other, but my interest was principally due to the golden thread running through his story: the title of the book refers to a painting (one which really exists! but which has probably had a much less eventful history than it receives at the hands of Tartt) and the visceral connection Theo feels with it. It was gratifying to read about Theo's reaction to the painting, because I understand how it feels to love--and own--a work of art.

The Goldfinch seems to be a really polarizing book: it has sold more than a million copies and won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (among other awards), and has amazed and entranced many readers, but it seems to have as many harsh critics as it has champions--so many that I don't believe all of them can be explained away by literary jealousy. The Goldfinch has received scathing pans from some very important sources, as well as from many of its readers with smaller spheres of influence.

This makes me want to examine my reaction to the book more closely. Am I just another one of the sheeple, appreciating the book due to its success? If its critics are correct and it's crap, what does that say about my literary tastes? If it's really so poorly written and full of cliché, why didn't I notice? And is the idea of literature as entertainment really a problem? I'm sure I'm glibly misinterpreting the viewpoint, but a book shouldn't have to be boring to be serious or important or great. I don't think the definition of a great book can be boiled down to one word, but I do think the majority--if not the entirety--of great books could be described as thought-provoking and well-written. And I see no reason why a book can't be entertaining as well as thought-provoking and well-written--in fact, so much the better if it is. If that makes me hopelessly inelegant in the eyes of world-renowned book reviewers, well then, so be it. I can only imagine how much more fully I am enjoying my life than someone who eschews literary entertainment.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"The Deptford Trilogy" by Robertson Davies

I'd never heard of this book until Sam mentioned it to me. Someone had once asked him if The Amnesiac was influenced by The Deptford Trilogy, but the title (and its author) was unfamiliar to him, so the answer was no. However, I can see how the two works are similar. They're both written in a sort of memoir-like style, each dancing back and forth in time rather than being laid out chronologically, each slowly revealing clues to a mystery. Not only that, but both can apparently be categorized as "slipstream fiction," which is a new term to me, and a great discovery--it's nice to finally be able to place Sam's books in a genre that is slightly more descriptive than "fiction". 

Each of the three parts of The Deptford Trilogy describes the lives of the same small handful of characters, but a different one becomes the main focus each time. The first and third books are actually narrated by the same character, though in the third book he is relating someone else's story. There are distinct voices between the first and second books, as there should be, but I didn't find that the voices of the narrator of the first and third books matched up. In the first book he sounds slightly pompous and fussy, while in the third he seems more content and quietly confident. I suppose it's forgivable as he is older and perhaps more mellow by the time the third book rolls around, but I couldn't help but view it as a flaw anyway. A minor flaw, though, despite which I was able to immensely enjoy reading.

Fifth Business

Swinging from childhood to present, encompassing secrets and mysteries and sainthood, Fifth Business tells the story of boyhood friends and the butterfly-effect-like consequences of one errant snowball. The narrator, Dunstable "Dunny" Ramsay, is "neither hero nor heroine, confidante nor villain," but he is linked to all of those and is an essential element of the story in his own way.

The Manticore

The grown son of the former snowball-thrower travels to Switzerland for Jungian therapy, through which we revisit much of what was revealed in Fifth Business, but from another perspective, Something his therapist said caught my attention: "Between thirty-five and forty-five everybody has to turn a corner in his life, or smash into a brick wall." Is this true? This sounds like a glorified description of midlife crisis, which I generally regard more as an excuse than a reality, belied by the fact that my life certainly turned a corner (an understatement, I think) at thirty-seven. 

World of Wonders

The indirect victim of the snowball, Paul Dempster, was swept away by a traveling carnival when he was a child. We learned this in the first two parts of the trilogy, but World of Wonders is where we hear the way he was transformed from Nobody into Magnus Eisengrim, magician extraordinaire. My favorite quote is from the final page: "Where there's a will, there are always two ways."

Did anyone else totally picture Edward Norton playing Eisengrim the entire way through this trilogy? The Illusionist is entirely to blame, I'm sure.