Books!

Dec. 8th, 2014 05:05 pm
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
I have quite a few books I want to talk about!

Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield:
I first encountered Katherine Mansfield in grad school, when we read her long story "At the Bay" in a novella workshop I took. I was Mansfield's coolness, by her light touch, by the ease with which she shifted about among an array of perspectives, by the way she built a story out of tiny, ordinary moments somehow turned it into much more than the sum of its parts. Now that I've read more of her fiction, I can say that these qualities are shared by all of her best stories, and the ones that don't succeed are the ones where she loses her lightness or the effortless mobility of perspective. I found some of the stories in this collection to be quite flat, but those that are good are very very good. The best stories of all were the group about the Burrells, the family in "At the Bay."

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel:
What an uneven collection! There were a few standout stories that I loved (the title story, "The Heart Fails Without Warning," and "How Shall I Know You?"), but the rest were either underdeveloped or marred by pat endings. Reading this collection gives the impression that Mantel is much better at starting stories than at finishing--almost every piece here had a promising premise and atmospheric beginning, but most of them fizzled by the time they were over. Although I was sometimes frustrated by Mantel's prose in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, in general I found it more interesting than the style in these stories.

The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt:
Wonderful! A beautiful tiny gem of a book. This book contains only three stories (longish stories, but still), yet it feels very rich and full. And pleasurable! I luxuriated in Byatt's descriptive writing. The characters all felt natural and believable, and though there was considerable thought put into themes and connections, it didn't impinge on the stories' need, first, and foremost, to be good stories. (Hilary Mantel could learn a thing or two.) As much as I admire Byatt as a novelist, I'm beginning to think I might like her even more as a short story writer.

Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet:
I've just started this after having it on my shelf for quite some time. I confess that I'm reading it now more out of sense of mingled curiosity and obligation (if one is going to claim to be knowledgeable about queer literature, one must read Genet!) than out of a deep desire. So far all I can say is that it's a strange book, with very flowery prose applied to base acts, and an unusual relationship between the narrator, the author, and the text.... I am fifty or sixty pages into the book, and still feel like I don't quite have a handle on it yet. We shall see.
decemberthirty: (love in the afternoon)
Oh, the reading. It doesn't end, and there's no keeping up with it. Yet for some reason I have this desperate wish to continue to record my responses to all of it. I've decided that I'll leave aside the articles, essays, short stories, criticism, excerpts, etc (unless one of them should happen to be particularly earth-shattering), and post only about novels and of those only the ones I read in something resembling their entirety. Also, what I end up posting will probably be shorter, vaguer, and more impressionistic than it has been in the past, and thus perhaps comprehensible only to myself. Such is life.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald: This is the most difficult book I've read in ages. Dense, erudite, impenetrable, cold. Sebald builds a vast fortress of prose around the horror that forms the core of the novel: the Holocaust and Austerlitz's gradual discovery of his mother's fate in Theresienstadt. We are allowed to know that this horror exists, but we are kept always on the other side of the fortress walls. Does Sebald suggest that this is only possible way of writing about the unspeakable, much as closing himself behind his learning is the only way for Austerlitz to live with the unlivable? Weeks after finishing it, I am left with nothing but the impression of barrenness, metallic cold, glacial slowness, and fear.

The Guide by R.K. Narayan: This is the first of Narayan's novels that I've read, and I was bothered by it in the same way I'm always bothered by stories that sacrifice psychological verisimilitude for the sake of plot. Raju, the main character, begins the book as an unethical, opportunistic, but essentially likable fellow; as the story goes on he transforms first into a money-grubbing, misogynistic, self-serving asshole, and then into some semblance of a holy man. I don't have a problem with characters undergoing changes, but none of these changes felt organic to me and they foiled my attempts to connect with the book on an emotional level. I will say, however, that the final image of Raju collapsing while he feels the water rising around his legs is poignant, enduring, and powerfully drawn.

Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt: I loved this. Loved it to death. The book is composed of two novellas: "Morpho Eugenia," about natural selection, insects, blindness both willful and otherwise, and love in various guises; and "The Conjugial Angel," about spiritualism, seances, Alfred Tennyson, and love--of the dead, of the flesh, and of the sort that dare not speak its name. I liked "Morpho Eugenia" better, but both novellas are excellently dark and creepy, and rich with meaningful historical detail--the sort of thing that Byatt does best.

If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino: At last, an author who uses his first name instead of initials! I am not sure about this book. I loved the first four or five chapters, loved the way the "novels" drew me in, loved the sudden reversal when I realized that the true story of the book lay in the numbered rather than the named chapters...but then the book started swallowing its own tail. Somewhere around chapter 7 the narrative vanished into a cloud of increasing complexity and self-referentiality, and my willingness to play along vanished with it. I think Calvino has interesting things to say about the nature of reading, but they don't make for a compelling novel.

Baumgartner's Bombay by Anita Desai: Another Holocaust book, and one that is much more in touch its emotions than Austerlitz. Like Jacques Austerlitz, Hugo Baumgartner loses his mother and lives on as a forever-dislocated human. Austerlitz retreats into education, but Baumgartner just retreats into himself, withdrawing further and further from other humans. He has to be one of the loneliest characters in fiction. This was not a particularly enjoyable book, but it was interesting enough to make me want to seek out more of Desai's work.
decemberthirty: (Default)
I finished A.S. Byatt's The Game last night. I don't have a whole lot to say about it. I didn't get much out of it, but in a way I feel that may be my fault for not concentrating on it more thoroughly. I don't know. I feel like the book was trying very hard to say a lot of things about memory, the past, the nature and purpose of art, and other such high-minded ideas, but in the end it didn't really say much at all. Everything was abstract: the characters, the speeches, the relationships... There was nothing for me to grab hold of. A bit disappointing, coming from the author of Possession. One interesting similarity between The Game and Possession is that both books feature very sexless heroines. Cassandra Corbett is a forty-year-old virgin, and although Julia Corbett and Maude from Possession have sex, they both talk about how they don't have much interest in it. I don't want to leap to conclusions about Byatt herself based on this information, but it would be interesting to see if this trend is born out in her other books.

Next on the agenda is How To Be Alone, a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen loaned to me by the wonderful N. Look, Ma, I'm reading nonfiction! I don't know how long it's been since I've read something that wasn't a novel. Anyhow, I've barely scratched the surface, but it seems very good so far. There's something about Franzen's writing that's just remarkably easy to read.
decemberthirty: (Default)
I am still reading Byatt's The Game. It's an interesting experience. While I'm reading it, I find myself quite engrossed, but once I put the book down, I don't feel much motivation to pick it back up again. The result of this is that I will read it for hours at a time, and then not at all for several days. Makes for a rather disjointed experience, which is why I haven't had much in the way of coherent thoughts to post here.

One interesting thing that I've been thinking about recently is that in both of the books by Byatt that I have read (Possession and The Game), there have been main characters who are writers. She is very obviously concerned with the relationship between writers' lives and their art; in Possession this concern manifested itself in the poetry she wrote to accompany the narrative, as well as in the way that her contemporary characters used her Victorian characters' writing for clues about their affair, and in The Game this concern is even more blatant in Julia Corbett and her domestic novels and the feelings of her husband and daughter about those novels. Very interesting. I find it interesting whenever an author writes about a character who is also a writer. Byatt so clearly both identifies with and scorns Julia Corbett... She seems to mock her for writing small, domestic novels, and also mocks her ambition to write something more significant. It's fascinating. And it makes me think about my own writing... But that may be another post for another day.
decemberthirty: (Default)
I finished The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter over the weekend, and I'm still fascinated by it. As I was reading, I had the feeling that there were vast forces massing beneath the surface of the story. There was an ominous quality to the narration, and I was aware of dark currents of race, sex, and class flowing through the book. I kept expecting these issues to suddenly manifest themselves in a huge, cataclysmic event; I thought that the book was building itself up for major tragedy. And although horrible things did happen in the story, there was no single, massive event like the one I was looking for. Nothing happened that unified all the different narrative threads, or that brought all the half-hidden forces out into the light. In a way it felt a little bit anticlimactic, but I wasn't disappointed because it occurred to me that McCullers's story is much more realistic and true-to-life without such a cataclysmic event. Most of us have felt the effects of race, gender, and sex on our lives, but only rarely do these issues manifest themselves overtly in the form of major happenings in our lives. Instead, we do what McCullers's characters do: we try to be conscious as best we can of our thoughts and feelings and the ideas that shape us, we feel deeply about the people and events in our lives, and we keep on going.

All in all, I thought The Heart Is... was a beautiful book. I was very impressed with the quality of McCullers's writing, and profoundly affected by her story. I am also both impressed and jealous that she was only 23 when she wrote it. Damn! What I wouldn't give to be even half as good as she was! I know I've got to work on my own novel tonight, but I'm not sure I can bear to after reading this.

After finishing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, I started A.S. Byatt's The Game. I read Possession years ago (and again just a few months ago, almost forgot about that), and have not read anything else of Byatt's since then, despite how much I liked it. So when the lovely Ms. E picked up The Game at a used bookstore a week or two ago, I saw my chance to read a little more Byatt and promptly stole it from her. (See, Ms. E, you ought to read this journal; it's the only way you'll know when I steal your books! Heh heh.) Anyhow, I'm not very far along yet, but so far it seems to share many of the qualities I liked about Possession: characterization that is both strong and swift, erudition that is appealing rather than off-putting, and just little hint of creepiness to keep me turning the pages. I'll post more thoughts as I progress.
decemberthirty: (Default)
Well, I promised ages ago to give the rest of my thoughts on The Da Vinci Code, and then never got around to it. Since then, I've read a few more books so I will now try to give some abbreviated version of my thoughts on all of them.

Okay, first The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I guess it was alright, certainly a page-turner, although not nearly as literary as most of the stuff I read. The premise was kinda interesting, but the writing isn't very good, which I found frustrating. I also thought that there were a lot of instances in the book that really strained credibilty. For instance, I had difficulty believing that a dying man would have the time or the presence of mind to create such an elaborate web of secret clues in his final moments. But I suppose that this is the kind of book in which a willing suspension of disbelief is necessary. My major complaint with the book is the fact that it's ostensibly all about divine femininity and not suppressing the role of Mary Magdalen in the early church, and all sorts of feminist-type stuff, and yet the only female character spends the entire book having everything explained to her by two men. It was also completely predictable. But I can't complain. It was a fast read and a good diversion while I was finishing up my nano novel.

After finishing both The Da Vinci Code and my novel, I decided to reread a couple books that I felt could teach me a few things about some of the things I was trying to accomplish in the book that I wrote. The first one that I reread was Possession by A.S. Byatt. I was especially interested in the way in which she tied together her parallel story lines, which, as I remembered, was remarkably well done, but not really the way I want to go with my own book. It had been quite a while since I last read Possession, and I remembered it as being a great, fun book that was very intriguing, but I had forgotten quite what an impressive achievement it is. Byatt really did an amazing job of inhabiting the Victorian mindset, mores, and even writing style of her two poets. To say nothing of all the poetry she wrote for the book! The interesting thing about rereading this book was that I noticed more of the genius of it, but I also noticed certain flaws that I had overlooked the first time.

Next on my rereading list was Regeneration by the amazing Pat Barker. Regeneration is just an incredible book. Remarkably restrained, yet astonishingly powerful. As always, I was stunned by the way in which Pat Barker can convey so much with just a few hints and images. Wow. What a book.

When I finished Regeneration, I was stuck in the Phoenix airport with nothing else to read, so I was forced to resort to the miserable selection at the airport bookstore. I did the best I could, and bought The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. It was okay, although the story was fairly simplistic and not very artfully written. It would have been a much better book if the characters had had a little more depth and dimension to them. In a way it was encouraging, because as I was reading it I kept thinking, "If this is a New York Times bestseller, I should certainly be able to get my book published, at the very least!"

Since finishing The Secret Life of Bees, I've been reading The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, although I'm not really far enough along to say anything about it yet. Also, I'm planning to start the major revision work on my own crazy novel, so I may be posting a little less frequently than I was once accustomed to.
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