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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

"Euphoria" by Lily King

I really enjoyed reading this book. Lily King has a gift for subtly evoking settings and characters so it seems you're really there, in the book, an anthropologist on the Sepik river in the years between the two world wars. 

Anthropologists Nell Stone (loosely based on Margaret Mead) and her husband Fen are transitioning from their largely unsuccessful study of the Mumbanyo in New Guinea when they cross paths with fellow anthropologist Andrew Bankson. This intersection brings both a professional collaboration and a personal connection (more commonly known as a love triangle). Each character has a slightly different attitude to their work, and to each other, and the pages crackle with the resulting tension.

I can't remember why, but as soon as I finished reading the entire book (which, of course, included the Reader's Guide at the end), I turned back to the beginning and reread the first chapter or so. It was interesting to see how different an experience this was. The first time around, the characters had a clean slate. The second time around, I could see the quiet clues that later added up to the negative slant of one main character. I think I was even more impressed with the book after seeing this evidence of how carefully and delicately King had crafted her characters and plot.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

"A Widow for One Year" by John Irving

Literary amnesia notwithstanding, I remember that years ago I read The Cider House Rules, and I remember that I liked it. So it came as somewhat of a surprise to find that I didn't especially like the writing style in this John Irving book.

Where to begin? Annoyance. I was annoyed by all the italicized words. (I'm perfectly capable of using the correct emphasis as I read.) I was annoyed by all the brief, inconsequential jumps into the future ("so and so would go on to do such and such") that seemed less like intriguing foreshadowing and more like pointless, truncated rabbit trails. The story loses immediacy that way. And, erm, I was annoyed by all of the parenthetical asides. (I mean, who would do that in a novel?) I was even annoyed by the title, which I will explain later.

And then--beyond my annoyance with the writing style--I didn't really like any of the characters, or even believe in most of them. Quite a few of them seemed amorphous in my mind; I couldn't picture them, and didn't have a firm grasp of their personalities or mannerisms. I guess it's debatable whether that's Irving's fault or mine.

Finally, at times the plot felt so aimless and meandering that I decided Irving must be one of those authors who just "waits to see what the characters will do" as he writes. So it was really weird to read in the author interview at the end of the book that I was completely wrong. He basically plans his novels out in minute detail before writing them. He told his characters exactly what to do in every situation, not the other way around. So I don't know why the book seemed to have a weird "Hmm, let's see what happens next" structure. Not to mention the fact that the plot doesn't feel nicely balanced; in the first part, the two characters who I would have considered the main characters end up being of little consequence in the rest of the book.

The weirdest thing of all is that, despite all of my complaints, I didn't hate this book or find it boring or dread picking it up to read it. It certainly never reached critical mass, and I obviously didn't love it, but I've read much worse. The first part focuses on an affair between 39-year-old Marion and her husband's 16-year-old assistant, Eddie; the rest of the book is taken over by Marion's daughter Ruth, who was a child in the first part but is a grown woman during the remainder. Marion, Eddie, Ruth, AND Marion's husband/Ruth's father Ted are all writers (which was another little tidbit I found hard to believe).

And as for why I found the title annoying: it's a nice title, but it doesn't really exemplify the book the way a title should. Yes, Ruth does end up being a widow for one year (which happens after she publishes a novel by that title), but the book hardly touches on that year--it's certainly not about Ruth's year as a widow.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

"The Book of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber

Sam came across this book first, having chosen it last summer in Emerald Isle. The blurb really appealed to him (if not to me), and we'd both read Under the Skin by the same author (which we both enjoyed). But when Sam finally read Strange New Things last month and found that he couldn't put down, I knew I wanted to read it too. (I had to time it wisely, however; Sam had actually said that, while he read, the story seemed more real to him than real life. I decided that I needed to wait for some vacation time  before reading it myself.) And it's a good thing I chose to read it . . . it's possible that, if I hadn't read it of my own volition, Sam's head would have popped right off. He was pretty eager for me to experience this book. 

The Book of Strange New Things tells the story of Peter Leigh, an English pastor chosen to be a missionary to . . . wait for it . . . aliens on a distant planet. There's more than one thing in that sentence that I have no interest in reading about, and mashing them together doesn't make it any more enticing. Not to mention that it sounded strangely similar to The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. But Sam was right--this book was utterly compelling, and I didn't want to put it down. I actually found myself torn between finishing it in a marathon reading session, and deliberately slowing myself down as I read (you know, so it wouldn't end.) 

The book focuses on Peter's relationships: with the Oasans (aliens) and the other humans who had been transported to Oasis before Peter, but mostly with his wife Bea, who he'd left behind--light-years away!--in England during this temporary stint in a galaxy far, far away. Peter and Bea are able to communicate through email-like letters to each other, but something emerges that neither could have predicted: the choice to travel to Oasis has set Peter and Bea on such different paths that the emotional distance between them soon seems to yawn even wider than their physical distance. It became frustrating to read all of Peter's missteps--as he said all the wrong things and left all the right things unsaid--and to watch his marriage deteriorate. It was also slightly depressing to read about how the world was falling apart back home--not just Bea's world, but the entire world--because it all sounded really, really awful, and too plausible. But despite the frustrations and discomfort the book aroused, it was completely absorbing. Great book!