January 31, 2007

Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue

I picked this novel up in the library because I have been reading Quindlen's How Reading Changed My Life (as part of my exploration of the genre of 'books about books for actual readers') and mostly enjoying it. It's a gripping novel but I thought it was also manipulative, in the way We Need to Talk About Kevin is manipulative, that is, you are carried along by a fearful prurience about how bad it might get before it's over. As a dramatization of domestic violence, it's very effective, and its realistic assessment of Fran's vulnerabilities, especially as a cop's wife, was enraging, but she and the other characters never seemed particularly complex, and the analysis of her motives for both staying and leaving carried no surprises. Maybe the most poignant part, for me, anyway, was the portrayal of her son's struggle to reconcile his mother's experience with his own loyalty to his father. For lots of reasons, I would have preferred a different ending, but I have a strict 'no spoilers' policy so I won't discuss that issue any further...

January 24, 2007

Cynthia Lee Katona, Book Savvy

According to its jacket blurb, Book Savvy is "an effective guide for the burgeoning book-club community as well as a tool for literature teachers struggling to spark the interest of their students." I certainly hope book clubs and teachers will choose better guides than this volume. For one thing, it is superficial, even shallow, in its approach to literature and to readers: do people literate enough to join book clubs really need icons indicating whether a book is one to be read "for information," "for suspense," or "to know oneself"? The author also rates each book for its "level of challenge"--at 5 we find "challenging masterworks of literature" (Madame Bovary or Hamlet, for instance, at 4 "works of literature with enduring qualities" (The Merchant of Venice, for example, or ... The Robber Bride?), at 3 books that, while "thought provoking," can be "read by almost anyone" (Sister Carrie or Bleak House...??), etc. Well, OK, the categories are idiosyncratic and the application of her standards sometimes suggests the author has not herself read the books in question very carefully, but I suppose for really insecure readers, it is helpful to be guided so as not to set your sights too high. And maybe, just maybe, it is odd but not unthinkable that The Picture of Dorian Grey should be brought up as an "example of a book to read primarily for thinking, writing, and conversational skills"; after all, as she goes on to say, Wilde "was a well-known wit and man-about-town" (p. 33), and wouldn't we all like to be so quotable? Never mind what the novel is actually about! But when I came across this bit, I lost patience with amateur hour in the reading room: "One of the great innovations of twentieth-century literature was a movement away from telling the stories of kings and queens and other quite extraordinary people to the telling of stories of average people..." (p. 49). Innovations of twentieth-century literature? You see why I'm not sure she has read Bleak House, never mind, say, Moll Flanders? If Book Savvy does spark a student's interest, then that's all to the good, but it won't take most savvy readers long to figure out that they need to look elsewhere for real insight and reliable information.

This book has set me back a bit in my enthusiastic quest for ways to write about literature that fall in between the dreary erudition of professional criticism and the free-for-all of Amazon.Com reviewing. On the other hand, I suppose I could view it as motivating--inquiring readers deserve better. I've started Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, which looks much more promising. It interested me that early on she registers her own antipathy towards literary criticism academic style: "Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school...." (8).

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Middlesex is a compelling read with memorably distinct and eccentric characters and a rich blend of comedy, pathos, and social commentary. At the same time, however, it seemed hollow to me at the center: what was the thematic principle drawing its various elements together? Though the premise of a narrator who shifts genders is intrinsically interesting, why do that for this particular story about a socially mobile Greek-American family? At first I thought the Greek-Turkish divide of the Smyrna sections was setting up an argument about the arbitrariness of the lines we draw between ourselves and others, but it did not seem to me that this was ultimately how wthe ethnic aspect, or the cultural aspect, of the novel played out. Why have Calliope declare herself "really" a boy, as well, as if reasserting biological determinism instead of exploring the limits of the social construction of gender? why is her desire for women the primary device for asserting her male identity, rather than a way of showing the complications of desire--the potential for sexual identity to challenge or conflict with gender identity? The novel's writing shifts registers unevenly as well: the extraordinary scenes of the sacking of Smyrna near the beginning, for instance, with the heart-stopping account of the fate of the doctor's family, turns out to be incongruous in a novel that is much more social comedy despite its other serious elements. So (like White Teeth) Middlesex seemed to me exuberant, brilliant, but intellectually undisciplined, almost as if it could use another round of revisions to give its elements the feeling of necessity that makes a book great rather than a great read. Still, I was impressed enough that I've ordered The Virgin Suicides to see what else Eugenides can do.

January 21, 2007

Sara Nelson, So Many Books, So Little Time

Unlike Nick Hornby's Pollysyllabic Spree (see previous post), Sara Nelson's book is really a memoir. Because she is a book enthusiast, she talks a lot about what she reads (or, sometimes, does not read, or reads only part of), but she does not seem to know very much about books, or to be able to put her own reading experiences or tastes into any besides personal contexts. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, for instance, lead her to reflections on unreasoning passion, marriage and infidelity in her own life (no, she does not confess to having been unfaithful--except figuratively, as she concludes what I thought was a laboured conceit about her relationships with books, which are "the affairs I do not have"). The chronicle of her attempt to read and write about a book a week for a year is moderately entertaining, and Nelson's style and personality are generally engaging, but for someone looking for literary insight, this book has little to offer.

January 20, 2007

Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

In addition to the reasons laid out in the introduction to this blog (see left), I wanted to try writing up informal notes on my reading because of my ever-increasing dissatisfaction with the kind of writing about books I am expected to do professionally, namely literary criticism. Although I believe that literary criticism has its own kind of interest and value, as an avid reader I often find it frustrating and bizarre when the conversation about a book becomes remote in both form and feeling from the conversation I think the book itself is supposed to be a part of. My own area of academic expertise, for example, is the Victorian novel, and if any one quality could be said to be typical of so many books so widely varying in subject and style, it would be a sense of engagement with the world--not that they aspire to represent it mimetically (any reader of Victorian fiction knows there is nothing naive about what often gets called its 'realism'), but that these books challenge their readers to think and care about all aspects of social, political, economic, and romantic life. "Dear reader!" Dickens concludes his polemical anti-Utilitarian novel Hard Times. "It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be!" And of course his "Let them be!" is a call to action, not to complacency or passivity: let the world be the way you and I can imagine it to be, better, more just, more loving, more humane. But current literary criticism communicates little of this urgency, and none of Dickens's humour, or, as he would have it, fancy.

My concern is not so much that literary criticism is often written in difficult, obscure prose (after all, every specialization requires its own jargon)--although I have finally achieved the courage and professional security to adopt Nick Hornby's poetry-reading philosophy for my own reading of criticism and theory ("If something doesn't give you even a shot at comprehension in the first couple of readings, then my motto is "F--k it" [p. 91, my polite hyphens]). My objection is more that we have distanced ourselves so completely from ordinary conversation about books that we have become irrelevant to all readers but ourselves. Of course, there are some exceptions, academics who have produced the textual equivalents of cross-over albums. But most of us know that when we write and publish even our most supposedly ground-breaking article, it is destined straight for the dustbin of other scholars' footnotes. Most of us are presumably OK with this result, or there would be a revolution. Or perhaps the necessity of publishing such material to secure and keep our jobs and our professional credibility drives doubts away. But Dickens, to stick with my example (not least because he is one of Hornby's favourite examples as well), certainly hoped his words had more life in them than that.

All this is by way of saying that I wanted to experiment a little with writing in a different way about books, a way that would reflect my experience of reading them and thinking about them in a more immediate, personal way than academic writing allows without letting go altogether of the analytic habits built up by years of professional training. Surely there can be an informed, educated conversation about literature that allows, for one thing, for judgment, for values, for affect, for liking and disliking. And, of course, there is such a conversation--indeed, there are many such conversations today, just not in the pages of academic journals. One contribution that I have just finished re-reading is Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree.

I first read sections of this book last year, when a graduate student passed it on to me thinking (rightly) that I would enjoy Hornby's infatuation with David Copperfield (thanks, El!). Since I began thinking about alternatives to academic criticism, partly through my work on 19th-century literary reviewing, I have begun looking for examples of contemporary writing about books that achieves something like the balance I am interested in between analysis and immediacy, and going back to Hornby's collection this week, I think he gets fairly close. Unlike those in Sara Nelson's So Many Books, So Little Time, for example, which I am reading now, Hornby's commentaries, though engagingly personal and idiosyncratic, focus primarily on the books and not on himself. He attends to questions of craft, though my academic side wishes he would introduce some technical terms here and there for greater precision, and he thinks about the books in terms of the means they use to their ends while still considering also the value of those goals. For all his breezy style, he has a knack for summary judgments, as when, after recounting a particularly horrific detail from a rape scene in Pete Dexter's Train, he objects that it seemed to have happened "through a worldview rather than through a narrative inevitability" (97). For me, the great charm of this collection is its combination of these moments of intense literary and moral scrutiny with irreverence and humour. Who says you can't be both serious and funny? I loved his idea of the "Cultural Fantasy Boxing League" in which, he supposes, "books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. 'The Magic Flute' v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six..." (58). Of course!

But Hornby really won me over when he articulated what I think book lovers everywhere feel: the extent to which our own libraries are extensions or reflections of our identities. This is why we recoil from well-intentioned and practical advice to 'clear some space' on our existing bookshelves to make room for new purchases! "I suddenly had a little epiphany," he says, as he files away some volumes: "all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. . . . with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not" (125).

January 19, 2007

Ian McEwan, Saturday

I approached Saturday with caution because of its rave reviews, but I found this novel entirely engrossing, genuinely interesting, original, and moving. Part of the surprise it held for me was Henry Perowne's cautiously supportive attitude towards the war in Iraq. I've become so accustomed to anti-war perorations from literary luminaries that I had no expectation that McEwan would offer anything different (I should have known better); the enormous uncertainty, the high stakes, the intolerable complacency of a pacifism that is content to leave Saddam in power, the difficulty of separating ends from means when responding to the call to arms made by leaders whose real motivations are surely mixed...I think McEwan did justice to the complexity of the judgments--the mental and moral balancing acts--called for by these circumstances. I thought the use of "Dover Beach" as a frame and model was brilliant: I can't believe I didn't recognize Perowne's situation at the beginning as analogous to that of Arnold's speaker until the poem appeared directly in the action. I'm curious about how or whether the initial encounter between Perowne and Baxter stands as its own analogue to the international situation: surely it does, and so Perowne's feelings of responsibility for the violent consequences also have some application to the wider issues, including perhaps his stance towards the invasion of Iraq. Why is he a neurosurgeon? At what level is the fascinating issue of the relationship between physical and mental states raised by Perowne's work on the brain also part of either the problem or the solution he posits for the world that lacks 'certitude' or 'help from pain'? The turn from the window to the lover in "Dover Beach" has been criticized as an objectification of the companion, sought not as an individual but as solace, as a solution to the ignorant clash of armies. Has McEwan avoided that solipsistic impulse on the part of his protagonist? Does his family have the solidity Arnold's love lacks? It is not credible in a simple realistic way that Baxter should be turned aside from violence by poetry, but how far is McEwan appealing to us to see some poetic essence (yearning, as Henry considers it?) as the saving grace in a world racked with 'confused alarms of struggle and of flight'? The novel seems far too political to be satisfied with an aesthetic turn away from the clash itself. McEwan's writing here seemed flawless to me, with all the richness of detail that made Atonement dazzling in its own way, but without the tendency I felt in that novel to abstraction or aesthetic self-indulgence: this book reads as if all of its details are necessary, and as if it is equally necessary that they be clear and concrete.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The Writing on the Wall

It's odd and a bit disconcerting to see that a category of "9/11" fiction is emerging, but of course it is only right and natural, too, that this moment in our history should become part of our literature. The Writing on the Wall seemed to me a delicate, even elegant, engagement with the big issues of loss, survival, and recovery that broke over America that morning...delicate in the sense that the horror and pathos is understated, elegant in that these emotions are brought out through recurrent touches like the 'Missing' posters so poignantly itemized. As McEwan evokes so powerfully in Saturday as well as his essays written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, most of us are bystanders at the crises of history, and yet even that witnessing creates change in our lives--perhaps most irrevocably, in our thinking about our lives. I think this sense of how we think differently is a big part of what Schwartz's novel is about, as her characters (so distinct, so individual, with their own complex pasts) are shaken up by the visitation of terror on the once familiar streetscapes of their city. Is this really a novel "about" 9/11, in the way that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is? I'm not sure, though both novels are certainly about Renata's favourite storyline, 'Transformed Lives'. Twin sisters, twin towers: how far, thematically, are we supposed to pursue these parallel stories of ruin?

Books on Iraq

In preparation for teaching Ian McEwan's Saturday in my first-year class, I read a lot of non-fiction in the fall, including Fouad Ajami's The Foreigner's Gift: while it was fascinating and often illuminating, I also found it jumbled and disappointingly anecdotal when I was hoping (given the author's academic position) for more orderly analysis. Paul William Roberts's A War Against Truth is a terrible book: surely we don't need to be told that war is violent, cruel, and often tragic; we need to figure out when it is nonetheless the right, or the only, option. Roberts offers as wisdom the sophomoric statement that "the only thing war prevents is peace"--we might put on the other side of that, just for starters, that war ended the Nazis' "Final Solution," and that determined armed intervention might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Rwanda--and these are just the most glaringly obvious examples. The collection edited by Thomas Cushman, A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for the War in Iraq, is by far the most thought-provoking and responsible book I've read so far on this topic; Pamela Bone's essay alone makes it worth recommending, especially in the face of the current wave of demands to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan. George Packer's The Assassins' Gate is very interesting but often seems slanted: when describing incidents involving both American errors of judgment and Iraqi decepton, for instance, he places all the blame on the Americans, even when he admits (as he often does) their good intentions. It's hard not to see a double standard at work: he does not seem to expect Iraqis to assist sincerely in the project of building their own free, safe society and takes almost for granted the sabotaging of reconstruction efforts, attitudes which surely are less complementary to Iraqis than the American idea (naive as perhaps it was) that they would rise to the occasion of their liberation from Saddam (the opportunities and assistance encompassed by Ajami's image of the 'foreigner's gift'). Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower was also interesting, and depressing; it helped me a lot in terms of clarifying the historical antecedents of the current array of crises, but the complex relationships between various Islamic factions and their competing interpretations of fine points of doctrine (concerning jihad, for instance) becomes almost too arcane to keep track of. At a certain point, these nuances matter far less than the results and their reception on the "Muslim street." There's a lot of public protestation about Islam being a religion of peace and about the differences between extremist (or "Islamist") versions of this faith and the beliefs and practices of typical Muslims, but until the marches in the streets are to protest, not cartoons or Papal speeches, but beheadings and suicide bombings in the name of Islam, I think my patience for such claims will continue to be limited. Reading these 'current affairs' books, which are most often by journalists rather than academics, I have been struck by the absence of systematic analysis or perspective on what often seems to be largely anecdotal material. John Keegan's The Iraq War, in contrast to these others, was clearer about contexts and historical connections and at least seemed more neutral in its presentation of events, though of course its insights are constrained by its timing (as it was published soon after the initial invasion was completed). Still, those who can't bring themselves to give credit for the ending of Saddam Hussein's appalling regime to the Americans and their allies could do worse than remind themselves by way of Keegan's book of the many reasons not just the U.S. but Iraq's neighbours should be glad to have this murderous and apparently delusional sociopath removed once and for all.

January 18, 2007

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

First of all, The Year of Magical Thinking is a strange kind of book. It is intensely personal, and thus poignant and compelling in the intimacy of its revelations about Didion's grief, but thus also the reading experience seemed to me oddly voyeuristic--which made me puzzle over why someone would want to publish such an account. I didn't notice that this issue is ever explicitly addressed, though I suppose we can fill in some good guesses, such as the therapeutic effects of writing it all out, the opportunity to pay a kind of literary tribute to her husband, or just the idea that writing is, after all, what a writer does. The book is full of mundane details, those that arise because of what Didion evocatively refers to as vortices, moments that propel her into chains of memories. The very ordinariness of life becomes extraordinary when you realize, as the events of this year bring Didion to realize, that all is subject to dramatic, irrevocable change without warning: you sit down to dinner, as she says, and life as you know it ends. In such reflections lie the book's message for its readers, the ideas about the fragility of everything and everybody we take for granted. These ideas seem commonplace themselves, and yet through the very particularity and idiosyncracy of her account Didion gives them new urgency. "I didn't appreciate it enough" is one of her refrains. While there is something inevitably egotistic about supposing there's an audience for such a personal account of a year in her life, writing of all kinds always has at least a shade of such arrogance. And as the many quotations and allusions woven into her text remind us, loss has often become literary. Didion never quotes "In Memoriam," but many moments in this book reminded me of Tennyson's image of his own verses as "short swallow-flights of song that dip / their wings in tears and skim away."

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated

I did not find this novel as engaging and exhilarating as Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close--not as a whole, anyway, though it was impossible to resist the Ukrainian translator's brilliantly comic and touching narrative. I think it would help me to read some commentaries by other reviewers about the fable-like story that accompanies the fictionalized Jonathan's quest: I became impatient with its elaborate artifice and tired of trying to grasp what it was saying about the history of Jewish communities. I did discern (I think!) that it offers a kind of allegorical account of the way a community builds meaning around tradition, myth, and relationships; and I felt that perhaps the element of disbelief it evokes in readers (or in this reader, anyway) was related to the inability of the inhabitants of the fabulous village to understand the direction of their own history and, ultimately, the fate that awaits them. Here it seemed interestingly linked to other Holocaust stories (such as Night) that similarly rely on dramatic irony to generate tension and mourning in their readers: we know, or imagine, only too well what lies in the characters' futures. Here as in his second novel, Foer seems preoccupied with the proximity of love to grief and suffering. If there's a redemptive message in either book, I'd say it is that the pain becomes worthwhile (if you can say that) because it is a measure of love. Suffering seems in both books to be what makes love most tangible: if this perspective is essentially a tragic one, I suppose that is the consequence of setting these books around human catastrophes.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

White Teeth

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel, which seemed as generous and humane as I expected from its reviews, and from the comments of other readers I had talked to about it. On the other hand, though I have heard the term 'Dickensian' applied to it--perhaps because of its length, and the diversity and eccentricity of its cast of characters--White Teeth struck me as more worthy of the 'loose baggy monster' epithet than such genuine Dickensian candidates as Bleak House or Little Dorrit. Where was the unifying pattern, whether of plot, imagery, or idea? Compare the climactic (?) shooting incident near the end of White Teeth with Krook's spontaneous combustion in Bleak House, for example. While the former was high in drama and yet somehow comic, and while it brought elements of the story around to a kind of neat circularity, the latter (despite being entirely outrageous in realist terms, despite Dickens's famous defense of it) is much more richly emblematic of the social and moral crises of its novel. Though I would not have expected to say quite this about Dickens, his is by far the more compelling moment aesthetically as well as intellectually.