19 August 2014

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

One somehow doesn't except eighteenth-century authors -- even if they are Mary Shelley -- to have a good sense of what the end of the world might look like. But the apocalypse might be one of those timeless things that can be just as persuasively portrayed in 1814 as in 2014. Although this novel is way too long and has a lot of pretty boring bits, it also anticipates pretty much every 20th/21st century disaster/apocalypse film/novel in really surprising ways. I am Legend, Children of Men, Atlas Shrugged, even This is the End, amusingly, all owe a debt to Mary Shelley's vision of the final days of human life.

Shelley, meanwhile, is clearly drawing on both the idea and the techniques of her father in his bizarro sci-fi novel, St. Leon, particularly in doing a kind of before-and-after, where the novel begins with an (unfortunately lengthy) description of "normal" life -- so as to give you a sense of what is lost (think, too, of films like Cloverfield -- usually this kind of thing is kept down to 20 minutes or so, because it is basically "thick" description with little to no narrative momentum). Both Godwin and Shelley unfortunately produce rather dreary version of a fairly typical romance to do this, and that's just something you have to plow through. Godwin, thankfully, has occasional moments of comic irony, whereas his daughter tends to be somewhat humorless. But Godwin also doesn't have to patience to really follow St. Leon through centuries of his artificially extended life (ie, to take the device to its natural conclusion). Shelley, on the other hand,  is admirably committed to letting the plague destroy the world s l o w l y (which certainly contributes to the realism, though unfortunately the fervent language of Romantic-era passionate feeling is not extremely conducive to suspenseful terror), and to devote to these epic circumstances a monumental amount of pages, letting the text transpire in what comes to feel like an almost inhuman, planetary time. Although it may come across as overwrought, this is arguably one of the few circumstances that actually merits such lofty prose:

Did God create man, merely in the end to become dead earth in the midst of healthful vegetating nature? Was he of no more account to his Maker, than a field of corn blighted in the ear? Were our proud dreams thus to fade? Our name was written "a little lower than the angels;" and, behold, we were no better than ephemera. We had called ourselves the "paragon of animals," and, lo! we were a "quint-essence of dust." We repined that the pyramids had outlasted the embalmed body of their builder. Alas! the mere shepherd's hut of straw we passed on the road, contained in its structure the principle of greater longevity than the whole race of man. How reconcile this sad change to our past aspirations, to our apparent powers!

At the same time, the book is almost touchingly a product of its own time. Although it's meant to be set in the distant future (2100!), its author simply cannot imagine a time in which the French Revolution will not be a major reference point. Europe is, of course, still battling the savage Orient (the Turk!), and America is  still an uncultivated wilderness. Occasional clumsy references to her own present via things the character has "read about in history books" evoke somewhat condescending smiles in the reader, but they also make the novel a fascinating testament to the central concerns of its own time.

Although it is a real slog, I also think it probably ought to be required reading for scholars of the period.

13 August 2014

Dept of Speculation, by Jenny Offhill

I get frustrated with current fiction, because I read all these reviews that suggest that a book is spectacular, amazing, dazzlingly innovative and tremendously well written, and then I read it and... it's just kind of ok. I guess in the fast-paced world of publishing and book reviews, anything that is better than average is momentous, whereas to me, who does not read much average stuff and reads quite a lot of older, really excellent stuff, it is less noteworthy. But I digress.

Dept. of Speculation is essentially a monologue; a woman's brief reflections over the course of a marriage. It took me awhile to stop being annoyed that she was from Brooklyn (because of course she is. Isn't everyone?), but once I did, I really warmed up to the book. The subtle indicators of the passage of time, the sense of vulnerability and precarious security and happiness, the narcissism of youth -- they're all there, and cleverly and elegantly rendered.

But then DRAMA strikes, and the story becomes strangely much less interesting. Time seems to slow down, the prose feels more cliché, and it just isn't as compelling a narrative. Yes, the struggle to preserve a marriage -- and to figure out if you want to -- is a fascinating topic, but this rendering of it seemed somehow rote to me. The fragmentary nature of the book became an impediment, making it harder for me to get drawn in and really care about what was happening. It is hard to render female rage and woundedness in a compelling way; it often comes across as whiny and self-absorbed. Offhill teeters on the edge of that, and perhaps the brevity of the narrative keeps her just this side of tolerable. After the promise of the early-to-middle third of the book, however, this feels like a let-down. Then there's a little twist at the end, which I still don't know what I think of. It might be a smaller version of the internal deliberations I'm having about the book as a whole. Poignant? Clever? Obnoxious? Gimmicky? Or largely forgettable?

07 August 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing, by Mira Jacob

I got this as a GOODREADS GIVEAWAY. Which was awesome -- I will totally trade a review for a book. Keep 'em coming.

Book clubs are going to devour this one. Multi-generational, moving immigrant story? Yeah.

Which is not to say it's not a good book. Jacob has a fantastic ear for dialogue, and her characters are amazingly well realized. It's been a long time since a work of fiction has made me cry. I cared about these people. I grew extremely attached to them and their flaws and foibles, and I was very invested in what was going to happen to them.

...but that was not enough to prevent me from noticing that what was happening to them would have benefited from the wisdom of an editor who could rein it in a bit. The book is a fast read, but it is also 500 pages, and it would have been better if it were 300. There are 5 major plotlines, and while they add some depth to the characters, they also converge in ways that make you aware of just how neatly everything is coming together. Especially because most of them get wrapped up in the last 30 pages. I actually started to wonder if I had been given a faulty copy as I approached the end because I couldn't see how on earth it could conclude in so little space. It was really irritating, after having stuck with the story for 480 pages, to be whisked out of it in such a fashion.

More frustrating was the novel's tendency to veer towards the rom-com-esque; simplified solutions and an excess of sentimentality. Do we need a scene with that character binge drinking in order to understand how upset she is, or is it just that such scenes are easy shorthand to express trauma (does she really need to be extra traumatized in the first place)? Is a romance plot really necessary, or is a happy ending possible without one? So many things about this book are truly creative and unique, making it all the more disappointing when it slouches into stock plot devices.

Nonetheless -- it's a charming, pleasant book. Give the characters 150 pages and they will almost certainly win you over, even if you do roll your eyes from time to time. And I will definitely look forward to seeing what Mira Jacob does next.

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, by Liana Finck

This is so, so lovely. A lyrical reflection on immigration, assimilation, and how the second generation grapples with the history and passed-down memories of the old country. But also, or perhaps more so, a wonderful story about life, love, marital problems, troublesome neighbors...

A Bintel Brief is based on archival materials; an advice column in a Yiddish newspaper published in the early 20th century. The novel is framed around the encounter between Finck and the author of the responses to the letters (and maybe some of the letters themselves), Abraham Cahan. It might sound gimmicky but it works beautifully, a playful and subtle reflection on changing times and how we relate to the past. The real stars, of course, are the letters themselves, and their funny, slightly melancholic questions, which give you an astonishingly vibrant glimpse into the lives of their authors. It's a wonderful way of preserving and celebrating a slice of history and way of life that has been mostly lost.

The story is wonderful, and it is beautifully complemented by the gorgeous artwork. I do not always pay as much attention to the visual aspect of graphic novels as I should, because I am impatient to get on with the story, but this one I just sat and looked at, admiring the way that the images conveyed certain aspects or emotional undertones of the story. At one point the narrative pauses to give you a series of portraits based on photographs. Done in grayscale, looking like watercolor with ink detail, perhaps? they are the perfect intersection of realism and abstraction, wonderfully evocative and strangely touching. The book is just a brilliant mixture of image and word, history and invention, humor, sadness, and joy...

It is a wonderful book. Buy it.