Category Archives: Fiction

While I Was Gone

Cover of "Rilla of Ingleside (Anne of Gre...

Cover via Amazon

Yes, I disappeared for a little while there, but rest assured, I’ve been reading.

This past holiday weekend on a long bus ride, I polished off two very different books, Getting to Happy and Freedom: A Novel (Oprah’s Book Club), and I liked both, for very different reasons. On a plane ride before that, I read two different slices of American history in Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line and For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Jazz Age Chicago; again, both were fascinating and enjoyable, but for very different reasons. Then today, I bought an old childhood favorite of mine, Rilla of Ingleside (Anne of Green Gables, No. 8), and read half of it already.

The problem is that in this frantic, hectic, end-of-the-school-year time, I just haven’t carved out any blogging time. I’ll be back soonish though, so if you want reviews of any of the books I’ve just mentioned, give me a shout here and I’ll whip one up. I’ve got a poetry post ready for the weekend, and will get back on my regular schedule sometime in the near future.

No, really.

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Filed under Children's and YA Literature, Fiction

You’d Love This Book (?!)

Sophie's Choice (novel)

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Once you’ve got a reputation for being a reader, inevitably, people will start asking you for recommendations. To me, this is a fair amount of pressure, but when it’s a student asking? Then the pressure is really on: how many times have we heard those stories of a teacher handing a student the book, the book that rocks her world, the book that changes his life? Yikes!

Recently, a student appeared in my doorway with a copy of Sophie’s Choice clutched in her hand, a copy that I had lent her a few months before. This is a very bright and creative student, and when I brought her the book, I was inwardly holding my breath, hoping that I hadn’t fumbled the ball, hoping that at least, she wouldn’t hate it. Her favorite book was Fight Club: A Novel, after all–what had possessed me to think she would like this book?

“I love it!” she said, and I let out the breath that somehow, I’d been holding since December. She came in, and we chatted about the ending, the characters, the impossibility of anyone casting Nathan correctly, the amount of rich detail in the book that all comes to a shattering halt.

I’m not saying I changed her life, but what a relief to know that at least this time, I’d gotten it right.

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Filed under Favorites, Fiction, Pensees on Reading, Uncategorized

Puppets, not People

Cover of "The Three Miss Margarets: A Nov...

Cover via Amazon

I’ve read two books recently and both struck me in a similarly weird way: I finished them both because I wanted to see what would happen, but I didn’t ever feel like the characters were fully realized or three-dimensional. They were puppets, not people.

The first was a book called The Three Miss Margarets: A Novel which I picked up on a whim. What it had going for it: an unusual setting, twisty and surprising plot (at least for me). What it had against it: too many characters’ voices, waited too long to start revealing essential details, some plot twists were too far-fetched. But the key downfall for me was that I just never really felt like these characters were real; they stayed two-dimensional, flat on the page. I think it also suffered by comparison; the jacket copy compared it to Fannie Flagg and Rebecca Wells, and this novel definitely is not ready to play in that league.

I had more hope for the second book, How to Bake a Perfect Life: A Novel. I love novels and memoirs where food is a major element, bonus points for included recipes, so this book scored on both counts. This novel’s main character is a bread baker, which is even better, as bread baking is both fascinating and intimidating to me. I also enjoyed that the subject matter was a little more realistic, including a pair of vets from the Iraq war and a pregnant teen, and that these characters were treated as characters, not as Afterschool Special characters. The writing was more fluid and less overwrought, but still, the characters never quite transcended the page for me; at least, if they did, they were still essentially stereotypes I had seen before.

I hesitated over whether to review these books, because it’s much more fun for me to rave about a book, but then, it’s also more challenging to try and figure out where a book went wrong, why it didn’t quite work, what could have been done differently. While one of these books was “better” than the other, ultimately, neither succeeded in making me feel like these characters were fresh and compelling.

One of my favorite parts of The World According to Garp (I’m paraphrasing) is when the cleaning woman at the publisher’s offices (what was her name again?) talk about a book being “real,” not based on a true story, but where you read about the characters and think, “Yes! That’s people do act!” Of course, this is subjective, and it might be impossible to predict how many readers will believe in your characters, or why they don’t. Sometimes one strong character is enough to save the book, and sometimes an author hits it just right one book (like Garp) but misses in his or her other work (I’m not a huge Irving fan outside of loving Garp to pieces).

For fiction writers, I would think this is one of the most challenging tasks, and without success here, I think the work ultimately fails, even if other parts succeed.

Have you read books like this before?  Does it bother you that much?  If you’re a reviewer/blogger, do you review every book you read, or only the ones you enjoy? I think I will only review books I didn’t enjoy if I feel like there’s a greater point to be made, or the books were thought-provoking for me in some other way.

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Filed under Fiction, reviews

Review: Great House

Cover of "Great House: A Novel"

Cover of Great House: A Novel

The time has come, the Walrus said, to write my first ambivalent review.

You know how each year, there are those books that “everyone” loves? Remember when it was The Corrections: A Novel, to choose a well-known example? Well, in the past few years, one of those books was written by Nicole Krauss, and it was called The History of Love.

And I didn’t like it very much. I still feel weird saying that aloud, but I just didn’t. It was too….modern? Too disjointed in its narrative? Too idea-driven? And it isn’t that she was too pretentious, because I didn’t know that yet (the “last real American childhood” in your Olmsted-designed garden? Really?).

But “everyone” loved it, so I was willing to give her second book, Great House: A Novel , a fair shot (especially since I got my copy for free from a dear friend who often gives me her book overflow). This time, I found more to appreciate, like her use of verbs in new and unusual ways, that make them seem both fresh and inevitable. The story follows a large wooden desk as it travels between different owners, each of whom takes a turn on the novel’s stage and delivers his or her own impassioned monologue. There were some really powerful passages that have left more of an impression on me than Krauss’ entire previous novel did, and some really heartbreaking turns and twists from the different narrators, especially the older man who discovers a shattering secret kept by his dead wife.

However. I still did not really enjoy it too much; the book jumps from voice to voice in what seemed to me an unpleasantly fractured and disjointed way. I did not always know who was talking, and it took me too long to figure it out each time, which prevented me from becoming fully immersed in that particular stream of consciousness. I think in the end, I wanted to like the book more than I actually did, as the sum of its parts did not add up to a memorable or enjoyable whole.  Maybe it’s just a style-chemistry thing, and admittedly, I’m not always on board for the truly post-modern, cutting-edge, avant-garde, pick-your-jargon kind of fiction. Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds right up my alley!”

If so, I’ve got a nice hardback copy I could give you.  I don’t think I’ll be needing it again.

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Filed under Fiction, reviews

Books Into Films, 2011 Edition

Leonardo DiCaprio

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Like many bibliophiles, the idea of a book-to-film adaptation can cause me both joy and great distress. Will it be like The Godfather, where the film is clearly superior to the book, or will it be the opposite, miscast and unfairly butchered? Modern version of The House of Mirth, I’m looking at you here.

NPR just did a great round-up of film adaptations that will be coming out this year. I’m most interested in seeing Jane Eyre, Water for Elephants, and The Help, though this also reminds me to bump We Need to Talk About Kevin up higher on my wishlist.

For me, it’s easier to take a chance on a film version when it’s of a book I’m not entirely that in love with in the first place. I keep hearing rumors of a film adaptation of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, one of my favorite books of all time, and the possibilities for tragedy make me shiver. I’m equally wary about the new remake of The Great Gatsby, another of my favorites, shot in 3-D in Australia with Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby. Will it be an entertaining trainwreck, or does it actually have a shot at doing the film justice?

Only time will tell.

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Filed under Favorites, Fiction

Review: Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited (film)

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My experience with reading Brideshead Revisited was yet another moment recently when I realized that challenging myself to broaden my reading circle is making me empathize more with my students, and what their experiences are often like with the literature they read for my classes.

I found Brideshead on a shelf in my classroom, left behind by a previous occupant, and since the title rang a bell and the description seemed intriguing, I took it home and gave it a shot. I knew nothing of the recent and controversial film version, much less the original miniseries that apparently put Jeremy Irons on the path to stardom after playing Charles Ryder, the novel’s narrator and protagonist. I also had no idea whether author Evelyn Waugh was gay or what real-life figures appear disguised in the novel. Frankly, I didn’t know much about Waugh’s work at all. I came to this book relatively cold, with none of the careful preparation I usually give my students.

But while reading it, I think I wondered what they often do: does this mean what I think it means? Is there a subtext here, or am I making it up? Did Sebastian’s teddy bear represent a lost innocence, or was it a symbol of decadence, its childish connotation highlighting the adult activity going on all around it? Was Charles in love with Sebastian, or Sebastian with him? Did Charles marry his wife, Celia, to serve as a beard, and were her children actually his, or did they have another father? I felt some confidence in trusting my instincts and my ability to make inferences and educated guesses, and many were proved correct by the end, but would I have felt so confident without the decades I’ve spent strengthening my reading skills? How can I help my students feel more confident, and trust themselves more?

As you can see, there’s a lot to puzzle out in Brideshead, a book that is richly layered and dense with subtext and elegance, an artifact of a disappeared world in a certain time in a certain place, with dramatic characters and complicated romantic dynamics. The novel centers around the life of Charles Ryder, who becomes entangled with the Flyte family when he meets Sebastian at Oxford and first travels with him to Brideshead, the ancestral Flyte manor. Over the next decades, we see Charles marry and divorce and fall in love with Sebastian’s sister Julia while Sebastian spirals out of control, wrestling with a drinking problem and silkily manipulative mother. While there are no explicit mentions of homosexual behavior or emotions in the book, it has become generally accepted that these overtones exist in the connection between Sebastian and Charles, and that Sebastian, at least, spends much of his life struggling to reconcile his family’s Catholicism with his own nature and “inclination,” as the society of his time might have worded it.

I found Brideshead to be engrossing for sure, and it also reminded me strongly The Great Gatsby. I think Ryder shares some similarities with Nick Carraway, another somewhat cagey narrator who finds himself entranced, even fixated, with a decadent wealthy world that in the end, repulses him with its excess and ability to destroy its inhabitants. Julia Flyte, while a decidedly more moral character than Daisy Buchanan, seems just as trapped, as doomed, as Daisy is, unable to escape or embrace the only world she knows. Does that make Sebastian a Gatsby figure? That I’m not as sure about, but I think the comparison could certainly be fruitful, in the right group, in the right hands. There’s certainly precedent for queering elements of Gatsby, and juxtaposing Gatsby and Brideshead could open new avenues. Of course, this might also just be my former life as a cultural studies scholar cropping up again!

All in all, Brideshead Revisited was a wonderful read, captivating and thought-provoking for any audience, but especially those concerned with gay themes, England in the early-mid 20th century, or just plain great literature.

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Filed under Fiction, GLBT Literature Challenge

Review: Old New York

Cover of "Old New York"

Cover of Old New York

It’s no secret that Edith Wharton is one of my favorite authors. Like many, I first fell in love with her work after reading The House of Mirth, Ethan Frome and The Age of Innocence, but once I plunged into her other works, like The Custom of the Country, my love for her work only grew deeper and truer.

I’ve set myself the task of reading all of her books, which is no small feat considering how prolific she was during her life. Most recently, I read Old New York, a collection of four novellas set in/about different decades in the late 1800s. Each stands alone, but also is contained within the greater “Old New York” universe readers will recognize from her greatest works. Indeed, several characters and family names–Sillerton Jackson, Mrs. Manson Mingott, the van der Luydens–are straight from the pages of The Age of Innocence, and the last novella in the collection, “New Year’s Day,” almost seems like a sketch towards the story of Ellen Olenska.

The other three novellas included are “False Dawn,” “The Old Maid,” “The Spark,” of which I think “The Old Maid” is probably the best. It concerns two friends who work in concert over a period of years to hide the true origins of a “foundling” girl they adopt, and is classic Wharton, with finely drawn characters and a clear but nuanced portrayal of the Old New York society and the rules and boundaries that governed it. “False Dawn” is the story of a young man who dares to celebrate the new age, represented by the vanguard of Italian art, and pays a heavy price, and is also notable for a sly set of references to Edgar Allen Poe, shown here mainly through his absence from his family. Walt Whitman, another giant of American literature, pops up in “The Spark,” which portrays a young man who idolizes an older gentleman with a shallow and feckless wife. The older gentleman is also a Civil War veteran, who remembers seeing Whitman on the field of battle in his nursing days, but is less impressed with Whitman’s legacy than his younger counterpart seems to be.

Does this collection stand up to the best of Wharton’s work? No, but then, in my opinion, not much does. Is it worth reading? For me, absolutely, as it puts me one step closer to having read Wharton’s entire catalog. If you just want to see what Wharton’s short fiction is like, then first try Roman Fever, one of my favorites. If you’re a Wharton fan like me, then Old New York should be on your bookshelf too.

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