decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
On Sunday night, I left my writing workshop and walked a block or two in the same direction as Sara. We talked about the weather--a cliché maybe, but there had been a change, recent and real. She said to me, "I think this is the first year when I can remember the seasons changing exactly when they were supposed to. Everyone talked about the equinox, the last day of summer, and just like that, fall was here."

Later that night, I was at home getting ready for bed when I heard a flock of geese fly over the house. One of my favorite sounds of fall. I didn't get outside in time to see them, but that's alright. It was dark anyway, and I can remember enough other times when I've watched them in their wavering lines, heading south.


A few recent books:

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka: A short, lyrical novel about Japanese women who emigrated to American between the wars as, essentially, mail-order brides for Japanese men who were already living and working here. Otsuka has an excellent eye for detail, but she makes one very strange choice: the whole book is narrated in the first person plural. "We came from this village and that town; we married a migrant worker, a servant, a farmer; we worked in restaurants, as lady's maids, and in the fields." I can understand the impulse to capture the variety of experiences had by these women, the full spectrum of good and bad, rather than suggesting that any single narrative could be definitive. And, like I said, Otsuka's eye for detail is good--she has an impressive ability to pinpoint little telling specificities that bring life to her broad spectrum. But the plural point of view means there are no real characters. There is no one woman whose life can be traced from beginning to end. For me, this flattened the book, reduced my interest, and robbed the story of a lot of potential power.

I Sing the Body Electric! by Ray Bradbury: Last year, I helped one of the high school students I tutor with his work on Fahrenheit 451. I hadn't read any Ray Bradbury since the same book had been assigned to me in my own high school English class. I remembered that I had liked it well enough when I was 14, but as I worked on it with my student, I was surprised by how good it really was. Not just an interesting story, but nice sentences too. So I decided I should read more Bradbury as an adult, and when I saw this story collection at the library I grabbed it. And, sad to say, ended up a bit disappointed. Any collection of 18 stories is going to be a bit uneven, but I didn't find any of the stories here to be particularly memorable. And the prose did not sing in the way the prose in Fahrenheit 451 did. Oh well. I did like the stories better the longer they were, so perhaps this is just a case where Bradbury is better as a novelist than a writer of short fiction.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton: I first this book nearly fifteen years ago. My memory is that I didn't like it at first (mostly due to Paton's prose style), but that by the end of the book I was blown away. Yet, when I look back at my ancient LJ-post about it, that doesn't seem to be the case. So it is a book that has grown in memory over the years between reading and re-reading. (I think it helps that I've read Nadine Gordimer since then--the literature of South Africa, the literature of apartheid--it always helps to have more pieces to put together.) Now that I've read Cry, the Beloved Country again, I think my memory was correcting for the flaws in that initial assessment. It really is a very good book. Maybe not perfect, but very moving. It is the story of an elderly black parson in rural South Africa who gets word that his son is going astray in Johannesburg. He goes to the city to try to find his son, but arrives too late to prevent him from committing a terrible crime. Things become quite dark, but eventually the beginnings of something good are built out of desolation. Paton hops around in perspective, sometimes staying close to one character or another, sometimes pulling back to a very panoramic sort of omniscience. He throws all sorts of things into the story and they don't always cohere, but he always returns to the simple and powerful story of the father and son, the crime and its aftermath. And there can be no doubt that Paton wrote the novel with real feeling--that emotion resonates everywhere in the book.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Adam Gopnik, on memoir in general and the memoirs of Henry James specifically:

The effort to communicate experience rather than to invent it, the feeling that, however distilled and removed it might be, it is still distilled and removed from a river of experience that the author cannot quite dam and alter as he wishes, is the secret of the memoir's appeal. We like an author who gives it to us straight, no matter how fancy his prose style may be. James has a tricksy manner, but his purpose in his memoirs is touchingly transparent: to say how the big moments of his life felt exactly as they happened. Each page is lit up by the bright light of memory, then is crumpled by the aging hand of scruple, only to be smoothed out again by the comfort of fine old feelings: It looked like this! Did it really look like this? Well, it sure felt like this while I was looking.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Happy New Year, friends! Oh, my year is off to a lovely start. I have come down with a cold, it's true, and I would prefer if I hadn't. But other than that it is lovely. I am settling in to my residency; I am working; I am walking in the woods in the afternoons; I am reading Virginia Woolf; I am watching bluebirds outside the window of my studio. I will have more thoughts to share about the residency soon, but for now it is time to talk about books.

So. here is the list of what I read during the past year. Links go to the post that contains the closest thing to a review of each book that I wrote; my orderly reviewing habits got away from me a bit towards the end of the year, so there are some books without links. Oh well. Some of them I still intend to write about; others will just have to be passed over. Books marked with a "Q" are those that I deem to be, in some way, queer:

1. Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet (Q)
2. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (Q)
3. The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi (Q)
4. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
5. The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr
6. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann (Q)
7. Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (Q)
8. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
9. Another Country by James Baldwin (Q)
10. The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín
11. Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris
12. Am I Blue?, Marion Dane Bauer, ed. (Q)
13. H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
14. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
15. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
16. The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
17. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
18. Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
19. The Gathering by Anne Enright
20. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
21. A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr
22. Now and Then by William Corlett (Q)
23. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
24. Lila by Marilynne Robinson
25. A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
26. On the Edges of Vision by Helen McClory
27. The Women by T.C. Boyle
28. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
29. The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
30. How Winter Began by Joy Castro
31. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
32. Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford
33. Watchers at the Pond by Franklin Russell
34. The Shipping News by Annie Proulx (Q-ish)
35. Sunstroke by Tessa Hadley
36. So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ
37. Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
38. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff (Q-ish)

Look at how many Qs there are in the first part of the year, and how few in the second! That's interesting. This is also the third year in a row in which I didn't re-read any books--I'm glad I set myself a goal of doing a bit of re-reading to remind myself that it has real value. Books by women made up 55% of my reading this year, so that's nice and balanced. I only read four works of nonfiction; while that may not be balanced, it is quite typical for me.

Because I always find this a bit interesting, here is the list broken up by nationality of author. )

Books that will stay with me:

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann: I had been searching for over a year for a book that would sweep me off my feet, and this was the one that did it. It is a flawed book, but it tells an all-consuming story. A muscular, immensely powerful, ferocious story. An indelible reading experience.

Another Country by James Baldwin: A big, messy, and stunningly ambitious book about race, sex, identity, and the way those things intersect and merge in New York in the late 1950s. It sprawls, and some parts of it are more successful than others, but it contains fearless metaphors and more than one scene that I know I won't forget.

Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris: This is the sequel to Harris's book The Southpaw, but it far surpasses it in quality. It's the best baseball book I've ever read. Harris touches on deep matters with a light hand, finds humor everywhere, and bundles it all up into a beautifully bittersweet package.

H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald: I can't remember the last work of nonfiction that held my attention as effortlessly as this memoir. I love books that are in deep conversation with other books, as this one is with T.H. White's The Goshawk. Smart, thoughtful, and written in straightforwardly beautiful prose.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. This book is a tour de force. On the surface it is about four siblings who survive Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, but it is about so much more than that: family, memory, poverty, community, and so many different forms of love.

Other titles that I recommend include Jacob's Room, The Testament of Mary, The Gathering, A Month in the Country, Lila, The Blue Flower, and Sunstroke.

Happy reading to all in the coming year!


Aug. 30th, 2015 02:50 pm
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
The Women by T.C. Boyle: Ugh. What a disappointment. I read Boyle's short fiction relatively regularly, but it occurred to me while reading this book that I haven't picked up a novel of his in years. Perhaps he is just better as a short story writer, when the exigencies of the form force him to be concise. The Women, on the other hand, is wordy: endlessly, impossibly, maddeningly wordy. Right from the beginning I was annoyed by the verbosity. There are details crammed into every nook and cranny of the story, adjectives piled on all available surfaces, descriptions draped thickly over everything. Scenes that might have been affecting or tense or beautiful at three pages, swelled and sagged over seven or ten pages. I couldn't figure out whether Boyle's style had changed since those earlier novels I read years ago, or whether the problem was that, over the past five or ten years, my own taste has been steadily evolving away from this maximalist approach.

So the wordiness of the book was off-putting, and Boyle's decisions about narration and chronology were baffling. The book tells the story of the complicated and controversial love life of brilliant architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Boyle presents the story in reverse chronological order, beginning with Wright's third wife and moving backward through various other marriages and affairs. I can imagine a situation in which this strategy could work, but here it just seems to separate events from their consequences and prevent the work from developing much emotional depth. Not only that, but Boyle makes the bizarre decision to present the work as though it were written by a fictional apprentice of Wright's who (according to the novel!!) did not even meet Wright until long after the events he is ostensibly narrating. What purpose could this possibly serve? How does it make any sense? Why on earth not just tell the story???

I might have put this book down if not for the fact that it was loaned to me by my father (after we toured Wright's home in Oak Park together in July), and for the past few years I have not had a very good record of reading and returning his books in a timely fashion. So I forged ahead and finished it, and then got mad at it for taking up all of my reading time while I was at Stony Lake. Ha! I was quite disappointed to have this frustrating book turn out to be the only thing I managed to read while I was there, and I'm sure that didn't improve my opinion of the book.

Mostly, The Women just seemed like one long missed opportunity. There is plenty of dramatic meat in this story, but Boyle does not seem to have done the imaginative work necessary to make it compelling. Wright's wives come on stage and leave in succession, as though the same actress were going through various costume changes--each of them responds to Wright in the same predetermined set of ways and they never seem like fully-realized individuals. I wish Boyle would have dug more deeply into their characters, or even into the character of Frank Lloyd Wright. Instead of a long recitation of scenes gleaned from Wright's life history, how much more powerful might this book have been if it wrestled with the question of why Wright's life took the path it did.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
I finished reading As Meat Loves Salt last night. The reading experience was extraordinary: profound, all-consuming, in some ways almost as violent as the book itself. Maria McCann does not do things by half measures. Every characteristic of this book is the most: the battle scenes are the bloodiest, the sex is the most ardent, the loving moments are the tenderest, the anger is the bitterest, the pain exquisite. When she writes about a troubled character, he is tormented by the blackest demons imaginable. When she writes a book about obsession, the book will come to obsess me, lingering in my thoughts all day, every day, even when I'm not reading it. Reading this book, for me, was so intense that I can't quite say I liked it.

I am not much for either spoiler alerts or trigger warnings, but this post may merit both. )

I was moving across your frozen veneer
The sky was dark but you were clear
Could you feel my footsteps?
And would you shatter, would you shatter? Would you?
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
1. Just before Christmas, as I was busy packing up, feeding the cats, loading the car, and getting ready to leave for a week at my parents' house, I walked out the front door with a suitcase in my hand. From down the block, I head someone call, "Wait! Don't leave!" It was my mailman, and he had a package for me that wouldn't fit through the mail slot: my contributor's copies of The Chattahoochee Review, containing my review of Family Feeling by Jean Ross Justice. I hadn't been expecting the magazine until January, so it was a lovely and funny surprise to have them handed to me just as I was leaving for Christmas. And it has been a long time since I was published in an actual print publication that I could hold in my hand, so that was nice too. The review is not available online, unfortunately, but you can see my name in the list of contributors to the most recent issue here.

2. My newest review, of Molly Sutton Kiefer's book-length lyric essay Nestuary, was published this morning in the January issue of Literary Mama. This one is available online (though not in a magazine that my mailman can wave at me from down the street), and you can read it here.


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: (tree swallow)
I finished Anna Karenina last night. It took me almost exactly a month to read. During most of that time I loved it, but even in moments when the love faded a bit, the book still felt like such rich nourishment, meat for the mind, the imagination, the soul--whatever part of me it is that reads and writes, and thinks about reading and writing....

It feels like my thoughts are too many and disparate to organize them into a neat review. So, a list:
  • I was impressed by the degree to which this book, so often considered 'classic' or 'timeless,' was actually so firmly rooted in its era. Tolstoy is remarkably specific about the world in which his characters move: they attend musical performances that actually took place in Moscow and Petersburg in the 1870s, participate in the various fads that moved through society at that time, read books that had been recently published or recently translated into Russian, make offhand references to political and social preoccupations of the moment. Many of these details were not strictly necessary, yet they added such texture to the story.

  • For the first half of the book, or maybe the first two-thirds, I loved its length. I was happy to just read and read about anything at all; not even the longest digressions from the two main plots bothered me. It was only as the book started to move toward the conclusion that I began to get a bit impatient. I don't know whether this has something to do with feeling like it had become clear how things were going to turn out and getting tired of waiting for them to turn out that way, or whether it was simply because I had already six hundred pages and was ready to go on to something else.

  • Mostly, I enjoyed the book for Tolstoy's characterizations and the long unfurling of his plots, rather than for any particular vividness of the imagery or prose style. But there were three scenes that were absolute stylistic standouts: the moment in which Kitty and Levin communicate their feelings to each other by chalking mysterious coded phrases (intelligible to no one but each other) on a table; the chapter in which Kitty and Levin's wedding is narrated through the thoughts of the various attendees and onlookers; and, of course, the virtuoso depiction of Anna's state of mind, simultaneously frenzied, muddled, and marked by amazing clarity, leading up to her throwing herself under the train.

  • What would it be like to read this book not knowing the outcome of Anna's story? Her demise has become so famous--one of those things that just sort of float in the culture, to be absorbed even by people who have no intention of ever reading the book--that I don't think it's possible for any contemporary reader to experience the book as a surprise. I wish I could have, though. God, imagine how powerful that final chapter of Part 7 might have been if I hadn't know what was coming!

  • I found it hard to place the book on the spectrum of conservatism. There were these fantastic, Forster-esque moments that seemed to show how authenticity in feeling and action is the highest value of all, and to demonstrate how adherence to social order gets in the way of authenticity (for example, the moment when Anna is gravely ill and, in a rush of feeling, Alexei Alexandrovich experiences true forgiveness for her and absolves her of her infidelity, only later to reverse his position when he begins thinking about how it looks to others. That scene really did read like something out of Forster! Except for being five times longer than anything Forster would write, of course.) But at other moments the book seems to suggest that adherence to convention is necessary, that if only Anna and Vronsky had married their love would have remained secure and happy, for instance.

  • I was surprised by how little the two main story lines had to do with each other. Kitty and Levin move through the same social milieu as Anna and Vronsky, they have connections in common, they know of each other and encounter each other once or twice, but I kept expecting an intertwining that never arrived. Is that just my modern sensibility, shaped by the fact that contemporary authors would be unlikely to fill their books with two stories that simply existed alongside each other in the way these two stories do? Perhaps.

  • The story of Kitty and Levin, which seems in many ways to actually be the main story in the book (it is certainly given far more pages than the story of Anna and Vronsky), also shows Tolstoy disproving his own famous opening sentence: if happy families were truly all alike, why would he bother to so thoroughly imagine and narrate this one, in all its unique particulars?
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians tells the story of a magistrate in a small frontier town on the edge of the Empire. The nameless magistrate is a civil servant of long standing, content with the status quo. The people of his walled town grow grain and fruit, store food for the long hard winters, hunt along the shores of the lake, and coexist peacefully with the nomadic tribes outside the gates. Everything is fine until Colonel Joll arrives from the capital with orders to put a stop to the barbarians--those same nomadic tribes--who are preparing to make war on the Empire. Joll cannot be swayed by the peaceful reality; he conducts raids, brings in prisoners, and tortures them until they confirm the things he already believes. This is the end of the magistrate's complacent existence, as he begins the process of resisting Joll and Joll's methods, and the much slower, longer process of understanding the nature of empire and his complicity, however unthinking or unwilling, in the deeds of his own Empire.

That may seem like a lot to tackle in a book that's only 150 pages long. And that's not even the whole of it. There is also a trek across the desert in winter, complete with evocative descriptions of the changing landscape and the hardships of the journey. There is a strange relationship between the magistrate and a barbarian girl who has been blinded and had her feet mutilated by Colonel Joll. There are brutal scenes of torture and famishment. There are the mysterious ruins of an earlier civilization buried in the dunes of the desert, and thin slips of poplar bearing their inscrutable writing. And yet the slim little book never feels rushed or overstuffed. Perhaps this is because Coetzee's prose is so spare and clean, or because he is so economical, bringing characters and settings to life with just a few well-chosen phrases.

In some ways, Waiting for the Barbarians felt almost like a fairy tale. The story seems to take place in the same world where fairy tales are set--in a place where there are towns, deserts, and lakes, but none of them have names; where it is always some time in the past, though never a specific year. There is a sort of fairy tale detachment in the way the story is told, too. Although the books is written in first person, from the perspective of the magistrate, he seems to be telling his own story from a great distance, as though it all happened many years ago. It reminded me most of Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal. Both books are meditative takes on totalitarianism, both are short, both make use of archetypes and feel almost allegorical. Neither one affected me much emotionally; both contain powerful images and plenty to think about.

And now I am reading Anna Karenina, which I expect will keep me busy for a while.


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: (tree swallow)
I have, at long last, finished Memoirs of Hadrian. I have spent three months with the book, but now that it is finished I hardly know what to say about it. I have never had a reading experience quite like this one, in the sense that it felt both transcendent and like a slog, often simultaneously.

Let me say first that the book is undoubtedly a work of genius. The phrase "literary ventriloquism" gets tossed around, but Marguerite Yourcenar has achieved something that goes beyond even that commendation. Memoirs of Hadrian is the perfect distillation of a human consciousness, a work of utter authorial effacement. Despite the incredible amount of scholarly work she did to produce this novel, Yourcenar renders herself invisible and presents to us Hadrian complete: full of his memories, shaped by his time and by his lifetime's worth of work and thought. Not only does she do this, but she does it in absolutely beautiful prose--her sentences are careful, measured, unadorned, but beautiful nonetheless.

So why did long stretches of the book fail to hold my interest? Why did I feel so little impulse to pick the book up again after I had put it down? I found that reading it required immense concentration; I could only handle five or ten pages at a time, and even then I had to continually pull my focus back to the words on the page in front of me. I developed a fondness for Hadrian as I spent more and more time with him, and there were times (though they were isolated incidents) when his thoughts or (even rarer) his feelings resonated deeply with me, yet this never translated in a desire to know what would happen next. I could admire the book intellectually and aesthetically, but could not feel deeply engaged with it.

But it's another form of engagement, isn't it, to spend three months with a character? To sip continuously from a book over a long period, rather than drinking a few deep drafts? It is, of course, even if I can't describe exactly what the difference is. I only considered quitting the book when I was trying to read it in my usual mode. Once I had slowed down, and settled myself into the habit of reading just a few pages at a time I never questioned whether it would be worth it to finish the book.

And perhaps that is the result of my long wrestling with this work: something of value has been imparted, though I can't say now what it was. Perhaps the value, or part of it, is in the wrestling itself.

Reflections on the Composition )
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Tommy and Coco at the window

I drove Ms. E to school this morning and dropped her off so that she could chaperone a group of her students on a three-day trip to the state science fair. She will be home again on Tuesday; until then it's just me and the cats. And it's funny, isn't it, how habits of separation and togetherness become ingrained? She was away so much last summer that I got very used to being on my own. But as we talked about this last night, we counted it up and determined that we had only spent one night apart since last August. One! An extraordinary amount of togetherness, well above what is normal for us. So I am out of the habit of spending time alone like this, and it did feel a bit strange when I got back to the house this morning. But it's good, too: I will write and read, take care of the house and garden, and prepare myself for some longer separations that are coming in the next few weeks.

Clematis after the rain

I finished Ali Smith's The Accidental last night, and I found it disappointing. The book had so much potential to be...well, not great--I don't think it could have been great, but it could at least have been interestingly weird. And in the end it did not manage even that. The book tells the story of a rather ordinary English family and the mysterious woman named Amber who talks her way in amongst them while they're on holiday, manipulates them, lies to them, and pushes various buttons for each of the various family members for as long as she's allowed to stay in their midst. The story had a lot of momentum at first (there were a hundred pages or so in the middle of the book when it came as close to being a page-turner as anything I ever read), but this all fizzled as the book wound down to its rather empty ending. I wanted more from this book: I wanted Smith to go farther and darker and weirder, I wanted more connections, I wanted the story to have more meat.

Next I will read The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. I loved loved loved Olive Kitteridge a few years ago, which makes me fear that my expectations may be too high and I'll be disappointed by this one too. We shall see.

Cranesbill geranium

The garden is as imperfect as it always is, yet it is making me so happy these days. Clematis are blooming; coral bells are blooming; the hydrangea was not killed by its hard pruning just before a hard winter, but instead is growing back in compact and healthy and beautiful; tomato seedlings are becoming strong tomato plants; I am cooking with herbs from the herb garden. All of this, it seems, is enough to make me overlook the problems, the plants I am worried about, the ways in which I would like to invest time and money that I don't have at the moment.... So it is lovely right now and I will enjoy it.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Today I am thinking about the question of believability in fiction. A vital question--if you can't make your audience believe in the story you are telling, then what's the point of telling it?--but also a slippery one. What makes one story more believable than another? Why can one writer make me believe things that seem entirely implausible from another? What makes a story feel true when I know perfectly well that it is a fiction? It can be easy to assume that the answer is realism, or that believability and realism are interchangeable ideas, but I don't think that's true. There are works of fantasy, strange dream-like works, outlandish bits of magical realism that have felt more believable to me than stories that take place in the most realistic of settings.

So what is it? Consistency is part of it, of course, and character is perhaps the most important component of all--it I don't believe in the characters, if their actions seems artificial or their words ring false, then forget--there is not likely to be anything that will redeem the story for me. But it's not just that, of course. It is a quality unto itself, something ineffable, something fundamental to the act of creating fiction. Some stories don't strive for it. Satire, for instance, is rarely rooted in believability. And some writers actively undermine it, like Ian McEwan, who seems to have made his name in literature by writing stories that purposely highlight their own artifice. And that's fine. Stories can be entertaining without being believable; they can have interesting things to say; they can be ironic or clever or funny or beautifully written. But I have never felt a deep emotional resonance with a story in which I could not wholeheartedly believe. I have never loved a story I did not wholeheartedly believe.

I am thinking about this today because last night I finished a book with a believability problem: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. The book concerns three women: Tony, a tough-minded historian; a flaky New Ager named Charis; and Roz, a garrulous but highly successful business woman. The three are ostensibly friends, though we scarcely see them interact with each other and they seem to have nothing in common besides the fact that, at one time or another, all three of them have been manipulated, duped, and had a man stolen from them by a mysterious and mysteriously powerful woman named Zenia. Atwood gives us the back story of each of the three friends in turn--first her childhood (each one difficult in its own way), next her relationship with the man in question (each one dysfunctional in its own way), finally the fateful entry of Zenia.

And it seems funny that I had trouble believing these stories because none of them, on the surface, are that farfetched. It's not impossible for people to fall in love with people who are bad for them. It's not impossible for people to want desperately to keep a relationship alive, even when anyone can see that the relationship was unhealthy. It's not impossible for people to believe a whole pack of lies, especially when the lies are specifically constructed to be something they want to believe. It's not even impossible for people who are intelligent to do all of these things. Yet when the women in Atwood's story did them, I couldn't believe in it. What is missing from the story that would make me believe? What would it take to get me to feel for these women whose lives are so stagnated that they can't get over what Zenia did to them so many years ago? I don't know. I couldn't feel for them. I could only say, "Are you kidding? It's been decades, and all three of them still think about this shit every day? Are you kidding? None of the various abuses, abandonments, and deprivations they suffered as children taught them the resiliency to deal with this situation? Not one of them has taken the time to reflect on whether or not the man that Zenia stole was really all that great to begin with?"

Not everything about the book was awful, of course. There were individual scenes that were highly compelling, and I really liked the way Atwood presented Charis's nutty New Age beliefs sincerely, in the same way Charis herself would have presented them. Tony was an interesting character, and her individual narrative the strongest of the bunch. But in the end the fact that I could not believe in the story or the characters sunk the book for me. Ah well. It is interesting to note that Surfacing, my favorite of the Atwood novels I've read, tells a story that, on the surface, is much more far-out than the story of The Robber Bride, yet I had no trouble at all in finding that one believable....


Mar. 19th, 2014 05:15 pm
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
I have been reading Binocular Vision, a volume of short stories by Edith Pearlman. The book is covered with blurbs praising Pearlman as an unsung master, an underrated but brilliant craftswoman of short fiction; there is an introduction by Ann Patchett that says basically the same thing. And it's true that I had never heard of Pearlman until my friend Krista recommended this book to me, despite the fact that she has been quietly publishing in a great many journals for years now, and winning "best-of" awards, and appearing in various anthologies.... But I'm not quite sure I'm ready to call her a master.

I have read about fifteen of the stories and they were all strong specimens of the form, all interesting, all utterly competent. I like her characterizations; I like her frequent use of historical settings; I like the way she handles her themes. Yet Pearlman's competence leaves me a little cold. What are these stories missing? What allowed me to love Tessa Hadley's short stories a month ago, but does not allow me to love these? Is it an element of risk? Of looseness? Of sprawl? Or perhaps it is simply beauty. Pearlman's prose is smooth and perfectly adequate--I couldn't tell you anything that was wrong with her sentences, yet they do not rise up off the page and take flight, and the stories don't either.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
A man worries vaguely about his sister while stuck in the Paris airport after his flight is cancelled. A young couple pay two separate visits--first to his parents and later to her family--and they each react differently to the way the presence of the other causes contexts to shift and familiar things and people to seem strange. Three strangers return to the house of their godmother, where they all spent time as children, to sort her possessions after her death. A daughter-in-law spends a weekend in the country with her husband's family.

It's difficult to summarize the stories in Tessa Hadley's collection Married Love. The plots are too wispy and too subtle to be captured in a sentence or two. Anything I write seems to say both too much and too little. The stories are richer than any summary can convey, but also finer and more delicate. But this is what I loved about the stories--the way they are little ineffable things themselves, brushing at the ineffable things of life. They reminded me of stories by Alice Munro in the way they felt so complete (each one a world unto itself) and the way they ranged so widely, encompassing entire lives' worth of memories and backstory in the space of a few thousand words. And they reminded me of A.S. Byatt's short fiction in their disregard for the conventional structural expectations of short stories.

In case it's not already obvious, I found Married Love unendingly pleasurable to read. I wanted it to go on forever and ever. But what I loved most about it (and what I envied beyond belief) was its effortlessness. I wrote earlier about Hadley's prose, each sentence obviously carefully crafted yet in such a way that the work never showed. The whole book was like that, in every element: the characterization, the plotting, the movements backward and forward in time. Oh, that my work could ever feel a fraction as effortless as these stories! Beautiful, beautiful.

The edition of Married Love that I read had one of those sections of supplemental material that are occasionally found at the backs of books--the sort of thing that sometimes contains discussion questions for book clubs, or previews of the author's next work, or whatever. This one contained a little four page autobiography by Tessa Hadley and a short essay on the writing of the stories in Married Love. One thing I learned is that Tessa Hadley is one of the late-in-life writers who I find so encouraging (and who we were talking about last week, [ profile] marchioness): she was nearly 50 when she published her first book. She said a few other things I liked too.

About the years she spent raising children before going back to university and then pursuing her writing career, Hadley writes

I'm sure my daughters-in-law can't imagine a retreat so complete and dull-seeming as those years of shopping and cooking and cleaning and waiting in the school playground. They're right, probably. Though there's something to be said for all that slow invisible work the mind does when it isn't buoyed along by anything outside.

About short stories:

For me short stories represent a wonderful kind of writing freedom. In a novel, each element as you introduce it will have to have its fulfillment later and be woven into the created whole fabric of the book. In a short story, you can be irresponsible. The short form is so good at catching life on the wing, flashes from the intensity and mystery of people's inner lives, their strange motivations, their yearnings. [...] I think you have to feel that you can hold a story in one hand, however it sprawls. It's a single thing; it's a single room, if you like, in the house of fiction. Whereas a novel is a whole house, and the writer (and reader) can move around inside its different spaces.

If you had to wait until the end of a novel to find out what to make of it, the novel would fail. But you can hold a short story in suspension as you read, waiting to see: Where will this go? Where must it stop? What does it mean, that it stops there? [...] a moment comes that seems to clinch something or change something, but it's not obvious what or how.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Happy New Year, friends! I have to confess that I love this time of year on livejournal, as everyone posts their summaries and reflections, their resolutions and goals, their lists of books and movies and what have you... I've already shared my goals for the coming year, so now it's time for the annual reading list.

My reading seemed to go in phases this year: I had stretches of time where I loved every book I read, and other stretches where I spent ages slogging through two or three lackluster books in a row. In 2012, I narrowly missed my goal of reading 33 books so I set the same goal for 2013. I made it this time, but it was surprising to see that for the first half of the year I was on pace for a much higher total, and then slowed down significantly in the last three or four months. Interestingly, at the same time that my reading pace slowed, I decided I need to get a handle on my ever-growing pile of unread books and so forbade myself from checking anything out of the library. So that means I just couldn't get as excited about the books I own? Or I made the wrong choices from my shelf?

Enough talk! Here is the list (links go to the post that contains the closest thing to a review of each book that I wrote):

01. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
02. Toby's Room by Pat Barker
03. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
04. Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
05. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
06. Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx
07. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
08. Art and Fear by Ted Orland & David Bayles
09. The Last of the Handmade Dams by Bob Steuding (never posted a review--oops!)
10. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
11. The Real and the Unreal: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin
12. Tenth of December by George Saunders
13. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
14. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
15. Plainwater by Anne Carson
16. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
17. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee
18. Inscriptions for Headstones by Matthew Vollmer
19. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
20. Historic Tales from the Adirondack Almanack by John Warren
21. Ireland by William Trevor
22. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
23. Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser
24. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
25. A Humument by Tom Phillips
26. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
27. The King Must Die by Mary Renault
28. We the Animals by Justin Torres
29. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
30. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
31. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
32. Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag
33. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
34. An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

Not a single re-read this year--how unusual! Only 12 of my 34 books were by women, which is also unusual--I usually come closer to a 50/50 split. Far more nonfiction than usual, and fewer short story collections. For my own interest, here is the list divided up a couple of different ways:

By genre )

By nationality of author )

My favorites this year:

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood: Two closely linked novellas with narrators that are highly observant of others and intriguingly effaced themselves. Clever and compelling and full of beautiful prose. A pure pleasure to read!

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. A brilliant example of the novel-in-stories, this book provides a complicated portrait of two families over several generations. I loved Erdrich's variety of narrators and the way she subtly traced the long ripples of history through her characters' lives. Erdrich's use of language is so rich it feels decadent.

Tenth of December by George Saunders. Brilliant, brutal, heartbreaking, funny. This is on everybody's "Best Books of 2013" lists, and it belongs on all of them.

The Charioteer by Mary Renault. Fun, fun, fun. A soap opera, sure, but it grabbed hold of my emotions and made me feel like a teenager. It's a flawed book, but I loved it anyway.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I hated the first hundred pages, but now I'm ready to call it the best book I read all year. This book is so smart, so sharp, so gripping. It's full of fantastic characterizations and sly humor. I can't remember the last time I was so engrossed in a book.

Other titles I would recommend include Every Man Dies Alone, The Real and the Unreal, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Bring Up the Bodies.

The biggest disappointments were Steppenwolf and A Gesture Life, which were just plain boring, and Gone Girl which was utterly, inexcusably moronic.

Here's to great reading to 2014 for all of us!


Nov. 7th, 2013 04:37 pm
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
A wet and grey afternoon in the middle of a week that has been busier and more stressful than anticipated. But now I am home from running errands in the rain and wind, and I'm going to make a cup of tea and tell you about some books.

I. "The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied"

It's been over a week since I finished Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rölvaag, and I still don't quite know what to make of it. The books is centered around Per Hansa and his wife Beret, a pair of Norwegian immigrants who travel from Minnesota to settle in the Dakota Territory. Per Hansa is ideally suited to life on the prairie--he's hard-working, optimistic, and neighborly. But Beret struggles with their new life. She feels isolated, hates the endless unbroken prairie around her, and turns to strange forms of religious fanaticism to comfort her in her misery. There is much that's interesting in the book, from Rölvaag's detailed accounts of daily life in the Dakotas in the late 19th century to his sensitive depiction of Beret's unhappiness, but somehow the book never came together into a compelling whole for me. A few great set pieces, lots of interesting historical detail, but no real emotional resonance. And I hated the ending. Really hated. I can't think of the last time a book's final ten pages had such a negative impact on my opinion of the whole work.

One interesting fact about Giants in the Earth: despite the fact that it's set in the United States and tells what seems to be a quintessentially American story of settling the Great Plains, Rölvaag wrote the book in Norwegian and it was originally published in Norway. Only later was it translated into English so it could be read in the US.

II. "...and the button, too, there, still, only not where I am."

Still dipping my toe occasionally into the cool, eddying waters of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Still enjoying my intermittent immersions in Davis's meticulous prose and quirky thinking. I've been thinking too about how fortunate I am to have had the chance to hear her read on two occasions. She is a fantastic reader of her own work, and I find myself trying to hear these stories in her voice when I read them.

III. "...all the years of decline and renewal..."

I've started reading Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, a book that has been sitting on my to-read shelf for years. It's interesting to finally read it, because I'm realizing how little I knew about it. I had no idea, for instance, that it was such a Californian novel (though I'm well aware that Stegner's famous fellowship is at Stanford, so I don't know why that came as a surprise). For some reason I also imagined that it was a difficult book, but I've found the first 80 pages to be accessible and engaging. The book seems to be starting somewhat slowly and I wasn't sure at first that I liked Stegner's narrator, but I'm warming up to him now. Plus, the book is about one of my favorite themes: family history, and the things we know and those we will never know about the people who came before us. I think I'll like it.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel tells a long, many-threaded story: Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his re-marriage to Anne Boleyn, the beginnings of the English Reformation, the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the rise and rise and rise of Wolsey's servant Thomas Cromwell. All of these plots are important, but it is Cromwell who is at the center of the book--appropriate, perhaps, since it seems he was also at the center of virtually every political development and intrigue in England in the 1530s. Mantel follows Cromwell from his low beginnings--the book opens with a scene of fourteen-year-old Cromwell being beaten nearly to death by his brutal drunkard of a father--to the lofty heights of King Henry's council chamber, showing us every twist in his fortunes along the way.

About that opening scene: it's effective. It would take a cold-hearted reader not to feel sympathetic toward a main character when we first meet that character battered and bruised and struggling to crawl out of the way of his father's boot. It worked on me, anyway--I loved Mantel's version of Cromwell, I wanted to hang out with him, I rooted for him even when he was at his most manipulative and morally ambiguous. And why not? He is an amazing character: eminently capable, intelligent, ambitious as the day is long, full of contradictions, possessed of a fine sly sense of humor which spreads outward from him to fill the narrative. In Mantel's telling, it almost seems as though Cromwell amasses power simply by always being the most imperturbable person in the room. Yet there is something unknowable about him too, a mystery that shrouds his innermost thoughts and motivations. We get hints, but we can never be quite sure--it's always possible that each of his machinations is just part of larger machination happening on a level too deep for us to see...

This review got really long. )

I didn't want to give in to the hype surrounding Wolf Hall. But in the end I had to admit that it was great. I've was talking with a writer friend recently about the extent to which a writer's job is to give the reader pleasure, and Wolf Hall gave pleasure in abundance. I couldn't get enough of it. So much so that as soon as I finished it, I picked up the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. So far Bring Up the Bodies does not quite live up to Wolf Hall, but I have great hopes that it will improve.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
Martin Dressler, Martin Dressler... Or, to use the book's full title, Martin Dressler: the Tale of an American Dreamer. I picked it up because I've read several of Steven Millhauser's short stories in The New Yorker recently, and I liked them enough to want to read one of his novels. I finished it yesterday, and I'm not entirely sure I know what to make of it.

Martin Dressler, the dreamer of the title, begins life as a hard-working helper in his father's cigar and tobacco shop. As a teenager, he gets a job as a bellhop in a hotel and rises quickly through the ranks. He saves his money and, while working at the hotel, he opens a successful cafe that soon becomes a chain of cafes. Before long he buys the hotel where he used to work, then begins building his own, ever grander and more outlandish hotels. Martin's success in business seems effortless; everything he touches turns to gold. His personal life is a different matter. Martin is tenacious in his pursuit of him business goals, but he seems unable to focus on the other side of life. He meets a pair of sisters, aimlessly falls into a marriage with the wrong sister, and then acts like he's too distracted to remember that he has a wife.

I found Martin's messy relationships more interesting than his charmed life as a hotel magnate. There were powerful moments of foreboding, when it felt like things were about to go seriously wrong, and hints of some dark and strange sexual currents flowing between Martin and the sisters. But Millhauser seems to find this stuff less interesting than I do--he would rather spend his energy describing the crazy features of Martin's latest hotel: the underground parks with full of flowing trout streams and live squirrels and chipmunks, the forest on the 27th floor where woodland cottages take the place of hotel rooms, the Moroccan bazaar on the 7th floor staffed by actors trained in the art of haggling like real merchants. All of this stuff is fine, and Millhauser's prose is a pleasure to read no matter what he's writing about, but I often found my attention wandering. I couldn't help feeling like there were rich veins in this story that Millhauser failed to mine.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book for me was the setting. The story ostensibly takes place in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is actually set in a sort of historical dreamtime. Some of Millhauser's historical details are accurate, I'm sure, but accuracy does not seem to be his goal. There is very little about Martin's story that is believable, and the same is true of the era. Millhauser isn't much concerned with representing what day-to-day life was really like; instead he gives us a dream image of New York at the turn of the century. Paul Harding's Tinkers was like this, and 'historical dreamtime' is, in fact, a phrase I have begun to use in thinking about my own book and its relationship to historical fact.

Besides Tinkers, Martin Dressler reminded me of two other books: Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which I found completely aggravating when I read it about six months ago, and Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, which was stranger and better than either Helprin's book or Millhauser's. The connections with Helprin are obvious: the same New York City setting, the same historical era, a similar sprinkling of magical realism over the narrative. The relationship with Ondaatje is harder for me to tease out. Perhaps it is in the slightly loose connections with which both Millhauser and Ondaatje bind incidents to each other. Or else it is in the focus on cities, growth, construction--Millhauser's scenes of Martin's hotels being built are reminiscent of Ondaatje's Toronto bridge-builders.

I think that I will seek out more of Millhauser's work, despite the fact that Martin Dressler was not quite what I hoped it would be. Perhaps I'll read a collection of his short fiction, instead.

In other news: Ms. E gets home from Arkansas today, and all her summer travels will be over! Her flight lands in just under an hour, so I need to get ready to head to the airport.
decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
In The Heart of the Matter Graham Greene tells the story of Henry Scobie, a police officer stationed in an unnamed British colony on the west coast of Africa during WWII. He is a lone honest man surrounded by spies, smugglers, and corrupt officials, and he defines himself by his honesty. Scobie is stuck in a loveless marriage to Louise; he pities her and feels he must do whatever he can to make her happy, but he longs only to do his work in peace. The drama of the book comes when Scobie's sense of responsibility for Louise comes into conflict with his honesty. He borrows money from questionable sources to send her to South Africa where she hopes she will be happier, and then falls into an affair with a young widow while Louise is away. Lies pile on top of lies, and Scobie begins a long spiral toward his downfall.

There were moments of absolute brilliance in The Heart of the Matter. More than once when I came to the end of a chapter, I had to close the book for a moment to absorb what I had read before going on. There were gorgeous sentences, unexplained details that were compelling in their strangeness, perfectly sketched minor characters, and insights that felt penetrating as I read them. Yet the parts, in this case, seemed greater than the whole. The book just didn't move me.

Some of that, I know, is due to me rather than to any failing of Greene's. My apathy towards all matters of religion is so strong that I can almost appreciate books that hinge on crises of faith. I found the plot totally engrossing for the first two-thirds or so of the book, but that only made it more disappointing when all of the intriguing and worldly elements of Scobie's tangled web--diamond smuggling and blackmail and Wilson the malevolent spy--fell away and were replaced with pages and pages of Scobie agonizing over his Catholicism and how he has damned himself by taking communion without making a good confession first. Sigh. Who cares? Scobie, obviously, and Greene, but not me. It didn't help that Scobie's tortured Catholicism seemed to come almost out of nowhere late in the book; I hardly knew he had a relationship with god until he was tying himself in knots over losing it.

Greene did a better job conveying Scobie's inner life in regard to Louise and Helen, the two women he is involved with over the course of the story. Scobie seems unable to feel love without it eventually congealing into pity; unlike his religious beliefs, this characteristic feels authentic and complicated. Still, I was annoyed by the treatment of the women. Scobie can't bear the thought of causing unhappiness for either Louise or Helen, but he seems to believe it's impossible that either of them might actually be happier if he left them alone to lead their own lives. It's one thing for a character to believe this; the fact that Greene seems to believe it too is a much bigger problem.

Perhaps the greatest strength of The Heart of the Matter is Greene's handling of setting. His portrayal of a narrow, gossipy colonial society reminded me of A Passage to India, but Greene's Africa is more sordid and malignant that Forster's India. The very air of the novel feels unhealthy, and certain scenes are so vivid in their strangeness that the story takes on the feeling of a malarial fever dream.

Perhaps Graham Greene is just not the author for me. The only other book of his that I've read is The End of the Affair, and though I liked The Heart of the Matter better, both books had some of the same problems: a strong beginning that lost steam in the final chapters, an artificial imposition of religion on the story, characters that I can find interesting but can't quite care about...
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