25 April 2016

Going to Meet the Man, by James Baldwin

I am slowly working my way through James Baldwin's works (you may recall that I read Another Country in December ), and I recommend that you do the same. Even when he's not that good, he's still amazing. I was not especially impressed by the first three stories in this collection, but then the book started to pick up steam, and then it soared (culminating in an utterly devastating finale, terrifyingly vivid). How one man could have such profound emotional intelligence, and such an amazing ability to render the smallest details in utterly persuasive prose--the mind boggles. Surprisingly, I think shorter fictions may be Baldwin's strong point -- unexpected, given his ability to create a broad, diverse cast of utterly real characters. You'd think that a novel's ability to hold many different people and spend a lot of time with all of them would be perfect for him, but I think he is better with shorter, more concentrated plots. Not that they must be compressed into an abridged time period; one of the masterful things about some of these stories is the way they ramble restlessly across time, interweaving past and present. But the novella length seems to be the perfect size of story for his particular insights. 
Everyone should read more Baldwin.

20 April 2016

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Look, I'm just not the target audience for this. If you're writing a sentimental story about Nazis and Resistance fighters, I am immediately on my guard, and not very sympathetic to your project.

But I will absolutely grant that the prose is astonishingly effective: arresting images that linger, sometimes unpleasantly so (ie, it gave me nightmares). It is a very readable, skillfully plotted adventure story. It is a crowd-pleaser. A blind French girl who loves snails and Jules Verne? Absolutely.

It is also a rather simplistic and cliché take on the Second World War. This is very obviously a made up story that is set in WWII for added thrills, and not out of a genuine engagement with the realities of that time period. And -- this will probably make me seem totally insufferable, and is maybe really weird -- but, knowing French and German, I found myself frequently bothered by the fact that all of this was clearly created and imagined in English. These are sentences that simply wouldn't happen in those languages. Which contributed to my sense of falsity - it's not a story that is genuinely rooted in the lifeworlds of the characters.

I'm not entirely surprised that it won a Pulitzer, and oddly enough, it in no way diminished by interest in reading yesterday's winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer!

08 April 2016

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk got a lot of attention when it came out 2 years ago, and deservedly so. It's one of these curious hybrids -- the author guides you through a surprising constellation of intriguing things, which are all connected in some way, but mostly through her. When Helen Macdonald's father passes away, she copes with her grief by training a goshawk. In the process, she revisits T. H. White's book, The Goshawk, which then takes her down a rabbit hole of learning more about White himself (a somewhat gloomy adventure), and reflecting on his work, and his relationship to himself and his hawk, as a way of reflecting, too, on herself, and her relationship to her hawk and the process of training it, and on the art of falconry, and how humans relate to and write about animals, and all kinds of other things.

I experienced the text as an audiobook, and on the one hand, it was the best way to do so, because it's read by Macdonald, and her voice is melodious and wonderful and she reads it beautifully. Listening to her descriptions of nature as you're driving by Midwestern fields glistening after an afternoon rainstorm, or blanketed in their strange morning fogs, is pretty much perfect. On the other hand, it's the worst way to do so, because the book's intense focus on particular moments, coupled with its overall meandering structure, makes you want to pause, re-read, flip back a few pages, savor. Find some way to do both, friends!

Perhaps that would have made me love it more; if I could have basked in it a bit, and kept better track of the various threads. Or perhaps I would have come to find it slightly precious and overwritten, or gotten a bit (more) tired of the T. H. White bits. Hard to say.

In any case, it's certainly a worthwhile read: a poignant account of grief, an interesting investigation of the relationships between human and animals, and the animal as a category, plus, who would've thunk it, a surprisingly fascinating (albeit depressing) précis of T. H. White biographies.

30 March 2016

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

I listened to this as an audiobook, which, despite the marvelous voice of Juliet Stevenson (who seems to have 18th and 19th century British literature on lockdown, along with plenty of contemporary fiction as well), was not really the best way to experience it. You want to see Austen's sentences on the page to properly appreciate them, and to re-read the good bits. But most of my leisure reading these days has to be done in audiobook form, unfortunately, so, that's what it is. Please, leave your recommendations for especially good ones in the comments.

I've been meaning to read Persuasion for awhile (mostly because I want to read D.A Miller's Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style and I've decided that I needed to get through all of Austen first). To be honest, I also barely remember Mansfield Park, and should maybe revisit it. There is something intriguing about these Austen B-list (Northanger Abbey, which I taught earlier this semester, seems to be back in vogue, so it's not necessarily a stable distinction). What really struck me this time around, in both Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, was just how boring and awful the heroines lives seemed to be. More so in Persuasion, and I suspect this is why people love it less -- it's a pretty misanthropic, pessimistic book. Most everyone in it is either straight-up awful or just sort of unimpressive, except for Anne of course. Even her love interest is a bit bland. Then again, novels that are about smart, interesting people trapped in a dull world, surrounded by idiots and bores, will probably always be loved by someone.

The other thing I found myself thinking about was how Austen's books seem really interested in delusion and misunderstanding, and especially in self-deception. Someone must have done a study on this? I am particularly intrigued by the connections between that, the representation of love, and the representation of literature (because Austen always has a few shout-outs to novels, or comments about what is good or bad about them). My next book, perhaps...

28 March 2016

A House of My Own, by Sandra Cisneros

Sandra Cisneros' Loose Woman was a major influence on me as a teenager. A voice I both identified with and aspired to be: a tough, smart, independent woman; one who enjoyed solitude but also relished a good time; who never defined herself by her relationships, despite being a romantic who seemed to fall in love fairly often; who seemed both rooted and cosmopolitan, an immigrant everywhere; who was alive to injustice and full of grievances for the wrongs suffered by women, but also treasured her femininity and saw it as a strength. I certainly read her other books, and am fairly sure that I enjoyed them -- but I confess that it is less her writing that I remember than some kind of sense of her as a person, someone whom I felt like I knew and understood and also wanted to be. So of course I was interested in reading this collection of essays. But what an additional treat I found -- not only does this book collect many wonderful pieces of hers in one place (and with gorgeous color photographs!), but each has a little introduction where she reflects briefly on the piece and the moment of writing it, and how she has grown and changed since. The result, for me, was this incredible palimpsest: as I read her, reflecting back on an earlier moment in her life, I found myself thinking back as well, to the moment in my life when I had read some of her earlier writings, and who I was then, and how I have changed, and how her writing has shaped me.

Not every reader can have such a wonderful experience with this book. But I nonetheless want to buy a copy for every woman I know (I already bought one for my partner's mother). Such wisdom, such grace, such strength. I could hardly love this book more if I tried.

14 February 2016

Radioactive, by Lauren Redniss

I love Valentine's Day. Although I have historically dated people who refuse to celebrate it (or who have to work so that other people can celebrate it -- shout out to all the servers busting their asses for what are generally seriously sub-par tips today), I like to honor it in little ways, generally by cooking myself a nice dinner, and watching a good movie or reading something romantic. This year, an afternoon on the couch reading a beautiful book and listening to Herb Kent play love dusties on the radio seemed like a good way to go.

I say this partly to give you a sense of what I was looking for when I read this book, which may explain why I felt slightly disappointed. This is not really a love story about Pierre or Marie, at least, not after the first 40 pages. It's more like a notebook full of stuff related to radioactivity, chief of which is Maria Skłodowska's life story. I'm cool with that idea, my gripe is that it wasn't presented or organized as effectively as one might like. You're humming along with the story of Pierre and Marie, and suddenly, there's a detour into Oppenheimer and Irving Lowen and Hiroshima. Woah. What? Yes, they are related to the topic, and I fully appreciate the sense that they belong in this book, if that's what the book wants to do, I just didn't realize that that's what it was doing, so it came across more like a rather rude intrusion.

The focus of the narrative ultimately seems to be a sketched out assemblage, more than anything else. It's a somewhat cursory account of Marie's life* and the asides, too, are brief, more suggestive than developed. The idea is neat, I just think that more needed to be done with it.

Meanwhile, though, the artwork is gorgeous. A really interesting combination of styles and techniques, drawings, paintings, photographs. Really lovely stuff. It may not be the love story you'd hoped for, but it is nonetheless a pleasure to page through on a snowy Valentine's Day afternoon.


*But if you are interested in Marie Skłodowska-Curie's life, I highly recommend Barbara Goldsmith's incredible biography, Obsessive Genius. 

29 January 2016

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

This book will sneak up on you. It seems like a perfectly typical Coming to America story -- a very pleasant one, but totally stock and largely forget-able -- until you suddenly realize that it is a quiet, subtle, but utterly brilliant character study. You have to marvel at Toibin's ability to create this woman who is intelligent, tough, and independent, but whose life never seems to be entirely under her own control. We often admire novels for showing us how a given character is a product of History -- this one presents us with a woman who is trying to find her way among a thicket of social norms and expectations. Not in that dreary, oppressed by sexism and conformism sort of way, but in a far more subtle, and interesting, push and pull of expectation, ambition, convenience, and inertia. So much of your life is barely up to you, even -- or perhaps especially -- the seemingly most 'major' parts of it. The brilliance of Toibin's book is that he manages to illuminate the way that even the most strong-willed and independent person can be carried along by life, taken in unexpected directions.