Books!

Aug. 15th, 2014 04:26 pm
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
I have some catching up to do! And I am spending today on the couch, recovering from having some dental work done this morning, so what better time to do it?

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels: Sigh. I wanted to love this book, and for a while I thought I would. The first third of the book is devastating, full of gorgeous prose and powerful images. But it falls apart as the book goes on, disintegrating until I wondered whether Michaels had any plan at all, or even knew what she was trying to say. Unfortunately, I finished the book quite a while ago--about two weeks, I think!--I think I might have had more to say about it or been better able to analyze its problems if it were fresher in my mind. Regardless, I can say that it was frustrating to read a book that seemed to have so much potential but failed to live up to it.

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer by Wesley Stace: I knew nothing about Wesley Stace before I heard him read alongside Roddy Doyle at the Free Library back in February, but I liked his reading enough that I decided to check out one of his books. This book is a take on a murder mystery, in a way: on the night before his first opera is to premiere, the composer Charles Jessold kills his wife, her lover, and himself. The first half of the book takes the form of a long narrative provided to the police by Leslie Shepherd, a music critic who is also Jessold's friend and librettist; the second half is also narrated by Shepherd, much later in his life, and fills in the many aspects of the case that Shepherd left out of his official account. I liked the first half better than the second, but that is at least as much to do with me as a reader as it with anything about Stace's plot or writing--I always prefer murky uncertainty and strange hints to anything that approaches clear resolution. While reading the first half, I was full of a hundred different hypotheses about what was really going on below the surface of Shepherd's statement to the police (Did he know much less than he thought he did? Or much more than he was letting on?), but the answer turned out to be something much different than I had expected. The resolution ended up being a little too clear for my taste, but the book was still highly enjoyable. I especially loved the historical setting, in the world of English classical music between the wars, and I thought that Stace really used that setting to add a lot of richness to the book.

Leaving China by James McMullan: Oh, lovely. This is a slim little memoir made up of short chapters, none longer than a page, and each illustrated by a watercolor painting on the facing page. In calm prose, McMullan tells the story of his peripatetic childhood during World War II. At times the events are quite dramatic, but the tone of the book remains serene and distant throughout. The watercolors are really lovely and add so much to the text.

Selected Stories by E.M. Forster: And now I am halfway through this volume that collects the short stories that were published by Forster during his lifetime (as opposed to those posthumously collected in The Life to Come, which I read early this year). So far, these stories are more in line with Forster's novels than those in The Life to Come. All of his familiar themes are present: experiences of the sublime, the necessity of authentic life and feeling, the constraining forces of propriety and society. Like all of Forster's writing on these topics, the stories seem to be deeply felt, but I think his novels give him time to explore his ideas with greater subtlety. I've read a few stories that I liked in the first half of this collection, but none that I've loved. We'll see what the second half brings.
decemberthirty: (Default)
I have a bit of catching up to do in the book department! Here are a few things that I read while I was away:

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
The first half of this story collection is made up of stories that grew out of Munro's research into her own family history. The book begins in Scotland; then Munro follows her ancestors across the Atlantic and writes about their lives as they settled in Canada. The second half contains stories that seem to be based on Munro's own childhood in southwestern Ontario in the '40s. It's never entirely clear (in either section of the book) what is fact and what is fiction, but I found that I didn't much care.

As a whole, the book is a bit uneven. The title story was the best by far, a long (at 60 pages, more of a novella than a short story), intricately plotted account of the voyage from Scotland to Canada made by one branch of Munro's ancestors. There are quite a few characters, each with their own agendas and perspectives, and Munro does a tremendous job bringing them to life and managing the various tensions between them. The rest of the stories, unfortunately, paled a bit in comparison. But many of them were still good, and certainly worth reading. I liked the book's long-view approach to history, its acknowledgement of the impossibility of ever truly knowing the past, its reflective tone, and the loose structure of many of its stories, more closely tied to the movements of memory than the need for a climax and a denouement.

The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster
Oh, I do love Forster. This book will not replace Maurice or A Room with a View at the top of my list of favorite Forster novels, but I still enjoyed it a lot. Like most everything by Forster, The Longest Journey is a comedy of manners on the surface, and underneath it is a serious investigation of an individual's struggle between succumbing to the safety of conformity and struggling to maintain an authentic identity. Rickie Elliot begins as a Cambridge student and, although he's not the brightest member of his social circle, he is still free to enjoy the relatively loose student lifestyle: writing short fictions about nature, staying up late talking philosophy in his room, and enjoying what seems to be a deeply coded affair with his friend Ansell. After Rickie leaves school, however, it becomes more difficult to stay true to himself--so difficult, in fact, that he loses sight of who his true self even is.

Ever since I read and fell in love with Maurice, it has been hard for me to resist seeing everything else by Forster through the lens of that book. Obviously this is partly due to the powerful effect that the book had on me, but I think it also stems from the knowledge of Maurice as Forster's secret manuscript; it's so easy for me to imagine it throbbing away in hiding, a toothache that Forster could always feel and that influenced everything else he wrote. Of course it might not have been like that, but that doesn't stop me from thinking of A Room with a View as a heterosexual version of Maurice, and now The Longest Journey seems to me to be what Maurice would be if it had been written from Clive Durham's perspective. Perhaps I would be a better reader if I could do a better job of letting each of Forster's novels stand on its own, but in this case I think a good deal of my appreciation for Rickie's pathos came from connecting him to Clive.

So it was not my favorite Forster novel of all time, and the ending was strange and surprising in ways that I won't spoil but didn't exactly love. Still, I love the way Forster wraps me wholly in his world whenever I read him.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
This book was recommended to me by my friend Krista, and the premise sounded fascinating: it's a book-length meditation on the color blue, written partly as a means of exploring what color is and what it means, and partly as a way for Nelson to process an experience of heartbreak. Nelson draws on her background in both poetry and visual art, as well sources as diverse as Wittgenstein, Goethe, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, Billie Holliday, etc, to help her think and write about her love for and attraction to the color blue, the connection of blue to grief, pain, suffering, and the implications of these abstract ideas when they occur in an actual human life. To that end, Nelson intersperses her musings on color with short snippets about her relationship with a former lover and about a friend of hers who is paralysed in an accident.

See what I mean? It does sound fascinating, and to an extent, it is. But I am just too much of a fiction reader--I need my philosophical questioning grounded in a narrative, or else I feel my attention wandering. So my favorite parts of Bluets were the bits about Nelson's personal life, particularly her injured friend. Those sections seemed beautiful and moving, but much of the rest of it left me cold. I also think I wanted a bit more from the language. Oh well.
decemberthirty: (Default)
Oh, love. Oh, Forster. Oh, is there anything more perfect than Forster on the beauty, the necessity, the transforming force of love? It's enough to make me fall in love with Forster himself. Last night I finished A Room with a View; I wanted to love it and love it I did.

I think my appreciation of this book is due in part to my previous reading of Forster--call it the Maurice effect. When I read Howards End I found it a bit cold; it was clear that Forster had a point to prove, and the novel seemed more like an intellectual exercise than a truly compelling story. It took Maurice (about which I was over the moon a year ago) to show me that Forster's intellectualism is inextricably linked to emotion, and that if he has a point to prove it's only because the point is so deeply felt. So when I opened A Room with a View and in the first chapter found Lucy Honeychurch saying, "About old Mr. Emerson--I hardly know. No, he is not tactful; yet, have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time--beautiful?" my heart rose, and I knew what sort of book I was in for and that I would love it.

A Room with a View begins in Florence, where Lucy is traveling with her cousin. Lucy is a young woman who has led a conventional life, but, because this is Forster, she must wake up out of conventionality and into an authentic life. This is easier to do in Italy, where Lucy meets and falls in love with a strange young man named George Emerson, and harder once she's back in England--Forster does an excellent job of showing us just how hard it is for Lucy to leave the safety of propriety.

It is possible, I suppose, to read A Room with a View primarily as a comedy of manners. It certainly contains enough humor, and Forster is clever enough at satirizing his cast of oh-so-English tourists in Italy. But since I suffer from a life-long case of terminal sincerity, the comedic aspects mattered less to me than the soul-stirring aspects. I believed completely in Lucy's struggles, and in their importance. I loved the delicate touch with which Forster set his most important scenes, and the life he breathed into his best characters. I liked that fact that even Cecil Vyse, representative of all that is repressive about society, turned noble in defeat--his final scene in the novel is really quite touching. I liked the ending too--I should have been able to predict it, but each time I thought I knew what was going to happen some uncertainty crept into me and I questioned.

Really a lovely book. It won't displace Maurice as my favorite Forster, but I'm so glad I read it. I've been having a run of very good reading luck lately: first To the Lighthouse, then Tinkers, and now this!
decemberthirty: (matisse)
Only connect the personal with the universal. Only connect the practical and the passionate in your own nature. Only connect with your fellow human beings. Only connect the self to the larger world. Only connect the past to the future by means of living consciously in the present. Only connect the soul with nature. Only connect the theoretical to the real. Only connect the heart with the mind.

I finished Howards End last night, and I don't think I've ever read a book with a more fitting epigram. The idea of connection, connection in all the forms listed above and more, runs through every aspect of Forster's narrative. To Forster, connection seems to mean living one's life with deep understanding -- of one's self, of society, of one's place in the grand scheme, of the essential humanity that unites mankind -- and it's clear that believes strongly in the importance of this kind of connection. The whole book serves as an extended argument in favor of this sort of consciousness, and of the sorts of activities that Forster believes are necessary to attain it: introspection, provocative conversation, exposure to art, music and literature.

Howards End is a novel of ideas. Connection is the primary concept that drives the book, but it is stuffed full of all sorts of other abstractions as well. Class and nationality figure prominently, as do modernization, the future of England, and a strident sort of proto-feminism. All these big ideas made it a rather uneven book. There were moments when all of the philosophizing got in the way of the story and moments when the characters seemed more like figures in an allegory (the Schlegels representing Intellectualism, the Wilcoxes representing Materialism) than like real people, but these were offset by moments when the characters really did come alive on the page, when the force of the story took hold and all the abstractions dropped away.

The plot was a bit scanty for my taste; I kept waiting for the story to really get going, and it was only when I was halfway through the book that I realized that things weren't going to get going any more than they already had. I was pleasantly surprised when some seriously gripping drama turned up in the last quarter of the book, although I'm not entirely happy about the way things were resolved. I think that's just me being petty, though. I was never able to get over my dislike of Henry Wilcox, and so would rather have seen him end up abandoned and suffering. I guess I'm not a very nice person.

Next up, in yet another effort to find something that truly knocks my socks off, is Roddy Doyle's Oh, Play That Thing. If Doyle is able to achieve anything like the combination of hilarity and heartbreak that he managed in A Star Called Henry, then this will surely be the book that puts an end to my reading slump.
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