Category Archives: Reading Now

Currently reading: City of Thieves

City of Thieves, David Benioff (2008)

Thoughts:

What an absolutely captivating book!  Set in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) during the Nazi siege, the book was unexpectedly one of the best buddy (tragi)comedies I’ve read, with weight and import lent by the historical setting.  The dialogue between Kolya and Lev is so sharp, punchy, fast; their instant rapport only deepens as the book goes on, and is the main reason to turn pages even in a plot-heavy book.  That’s to say that, even though the plot is a powerful driving force, this is really a book about characters and relationships.  I could have read endless dialogue between Kolya and Lev.  It’s no surprise to me that Benioff writes for HBO; his starving WWII-era Russians have the chemistry, charm, and fast-felt and easily-conveyed affection of a fouler-mouthed and quadruply-literary Friends.

A master class in:

This book is a master class in so many elements of good writing.

Time compression and clean plotting.  The whole book takes place over the course of one week, and is propelled by a single goal: find a dozen eggs by week’s end, or die.  Yet the plot doesn’t seem contrived or stale by book’s end; Benioff does incredible work of shunting the directive organically aside as events run their course, without ever completely forgetting it.

But to me, this is ultimately a relationship novel.  In how many different ways does Benioff make us love his characters?

1. Establishing a handful of specific, idiosyncratic character traits, and repeating them from opening to conclusion.  How many days since Kolya has shit; Kolya’s calling Lev “my little Israelite” during the Nazi seige; Kolya training Lev to woo women; Kolya’s love for The Courtyard Hound: all of these recur constantly, but they change and surprise and, depending on the scenario, inflect.  (The Courtyard Hound revelation is particularly well-timed and moving.)  My reaction to this repetition–a feeling of real warmth toward familiar characters–shows what I think is a truth about a reader’s relationship to fiction: we want to feel we know the people we’re reading about.  Repeating traits so often that we’re able to think, Typical Kolya, Classic Lev, is one way to guide us to this level of interpersonal intimacy.

2. Instantly make a character likable by showing him/her being brave or kind in unexpected or quirky ways.  Here’s the introductory description for a very minor character: “Zavodilov, rumored to be a gangster, missing two fingers on his left hand and always whistling at the girls, even if they were homely, maybe whistling louder at the homely girls to keep their spirits up.”  And here’s Lev’s commentary when he is just beginning to care about Kolya: “I was half asleep but I smiled.  In spite of all his irritating qualities, I couldn’t help liking a man who despised a fictional character with such passion.”

3. Instant romantic chemistry– Show characters undercutting each other in a joking tone that suggests how well they know and like each other.  Here’s the introduction for Sonya: 

“This is my friend Lev. He won’t tell me his patronymic or his family name, but maybe he’ll tell you. I’ve got a feeling you’re his type. Lev, Sonya Ivanovna. One of my early conquests and still a dear friend.”

“Ha! Bit of a short-lived conquest, wasn’t it? Napoleon in Moscow?”

Kolya grinned at me. He still had an arm around Sonya, holding her close to him. 

 

Bonus: Benioff is also great as a line-to-line writer of breakneck speed: “I took another step up and Kolya shot out of the apartment, his boots skidding on the floor as he nearly ran past the staircase. He made the turn, hurling himself down the flight, grabbing my collar, and tugging me along with him.”  

Final thoughts:

This novel also got me thinking about the psychology of the happy ending.  Brad Leithauser has a great essay at The New Yorker about viewing fiction as if through a keyhole, in which you conceive of characters as having lives you don’t see beyond the page, or as a box, in which everything that exists is set before you.  Generally, I fall into the latter camp.  But in books I really love, with characters I feel I’ve come to know, I list toward keyhole reading.  And when you’re reading as if a world exists for these characters beyond the book, you want a happy ending for them.  Loss of their happiness affects you (me) on a real level, as if a piece of my own world is shuttered or shadowed.  Upon closing this book, I found myself questioning what kind of writer I want to be — whether I most value leaving keyhole readers with a sense of contented companionship, or box readers with a rich, earned, and perhaps unhappy tableau.

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Currently reading: Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez (1981)

Thoughts:

I read Chronicle immediately after One Hundred Years of Solitude, feeling strongly that I could read no one after García Márquez but García Márquez.  As expected, the prose was beautiful–but the book didn’t capture my full emotional attention as OHYoS did.  Maybe because Chronicle seems primarily concerned with narrative structure, retelling a story from its many perspectives.  The scenes I found most emotionally powerful were those that might have fit into OHYoS. (See favorite lines, below.)

Even so, he’s still García Márquez, achieving an admirable hold on my emotions: at the very end, when the impending murder becomes one-on-one and physical, I still felt the Vicario brothers might not go through with it—though I knew from sentence one of page one that they would.

A master class in:

Perspective. Mining further and deeper story from characters and events that already exist. Dispensing information via a first-person narrator who is an observer, rather than a player, in the story’s action.  (My professor Alice McDermott often uses an observer-narrator in her novels, as well.)

Favorite lines:

-“She became lucid, overbearing, mistress of her own free will…and she recognized no other authority than her own, nor any other service than that of her obsession.”

-“Bayardo San Roman took a step forward, unconcerned about the other astonished embroiderers, and laid his saddlebags on the sewing machine.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘here I am.’

He was carrying a suitcase with clothing in order to stay and another just like it with almost two thousand letters that she had written him. They were arranged by date in bundles tied with colored ribbons, and they were all unopened.”

-“Angela Vicario only dared hint at the inconvenience of a lack of love, but her mother demolished it with a single phrase:

‘Love can be learned too.’”

Bonus:

From GGM’s 1981 Paris Review interview:

On truth in fiction– “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

On reading in translation- “My books have been translated into twenty-one languages and [Gregory] Rabassa is the only translator who has never asked for something to be clarified[…] I think that my work has been completely re-created in English. There are parts of the book which are very difficult to follow literally. The impression one gets is that the translator read the book and then rewrote it from his recollections. That’s why I have such admiration for translators. They are intuitive rather than intellectual.”

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Currently Reading: The Magicians trilogy

The Magicians trilogy, Lev Grossman (2009, 2012, 2014)

Thoughts:

Okay, sometimes I set down the literary classics and read something just for fun. Namely The Magician’s Land, the third and final book in The Magicians trilogy.  It engaged me totally, and I’m so glad this last installment (spoiler alert) finally deals with the loss of Alice. This was my biggest difficulty with the last few pages of the first book, and the entirety of the second: Grossman created a character and a relationship we loved and rooted for, then didn’t let the character–and, by extension, the reader—properly mourn her.  The Magician’s Land gives us that chance.

A master class in:

1. The use of time pressure to keep a reader reading.  The heist scene makes great use of external temporal urgency to push internal issues to the fore.  2. Re: Alice- Understanding the reader’s expectations (and managing disappointment at expectations unfulfilled.) 3. Change over time. Quentin starts the series as an essentially miserable teenage existentialist, and ends as a thirty-something with a genuine sense of hope. (See the final quote below.)

Favorite lines:

“It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.” (I have been noticing lately the sheer number of books that are essentially odes to books.  Am reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda to the kids I babysit, the beginning of which largely takes place in a library.  The Magician’s Land starts in a bookstore. As a reader and writer, I’m more than happy to spend more time in these settings!)

“One of the secrets Martin must have learned[…] was how not to care about some things, and there was power in that, the power to live as though his actions had no consequences. It fell to us to witness the consequences, and they were ugly.”

“Quentin thought about how wrong things had gone. Things so often went wrong. Was it him? Was he making the same mistakes over and over again? Or different mistakes? He’d like to think he was at least making different mistakes.”

“The world was a desert, but he was a magician, and to be a magician was to be a secret spring–a moving oasis. […Magic wasn’t] tame, domesticated. Magic was wild feelings, the kind that escaped out of you and into the world and changed things.”

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Currently Reading: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (1967)

Thoughts:

One Hundred Years of Solitude may be the best book I’ve ever read.  I cannot think of a more masterful novel.  It has such fullness: an enormous range of human emotion (love, exuberance, contentment, hope, hatred, sorrow, remorse); literary tropes that are the hallmarks of both comedy and tragedy (birth and death, marriages and funerals, war and peace, wealth and poverty, education and ignorance); the magic of the most enduring folk and fairytales; and a sharp sense of humor.

Harold Bloom called it “the Bible of Macondo,” the NYTimes Book Review called it “required reading for the entire human race,” Commonweal called it “the great novel of the Americas”: OHYoS feels contemporary, relevant, and also somehow scriptural and religious.  If I had to choose two pieces of required reading for the human race, I think I’d choose this one and The Little Prince.  (#3 = Song of Songs from the Bible.)

Note: In this post, I wanted to refer to the author as “Gabo,” as many Latin Americans do.  But having spoken to my Honduran housemate who loves GGM, and heard his (much more beautiful) pronunciation of character and place names, I feel that the author-in-translation is not quite mine to refer to so familiarly.  (If you are not a Spanish speaker: hear “Aureliano” in Spanish here.) 

A master class in:

-Form: The novel’s structure follows a perfect Aristotelian arc, charting the birth, rise, fall, and death of the town of Macondo.  The book ends for a clear reason: there is nothing left to be said of this place that “did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

But the brilliance of the form is that, within the ^ shape of the whole, story arcs of many different scales hit their peaks and valleys at times that contrast with the wider narrative arc.  Patriarch José Arcadio Buendía dies at about the 1/3 mark; the first generation dies out about 2/3 of the way through the book; each feels like a definitive end, even as the story of Macondo is rising or cresting.  Aureliano and Amaranta Úrsula hit their sexual and romantic peak—in some ways the peak of the entire book, the most passionate love—at the very lowest point in Macondo’s decline.  As in reality, individual lives are affected by the story of the world around them, but not dictated by it: in times of global tragedy, the individual can experience great joy, and vice-versa.

 

-Theme: In this book about forgetting, about repeating the same mistakes generation after generation, the narrative itself forgets nothing.  Úrsula, the living memory of Macondo, feels that time is going in a circle; once she dies, the names of her descendants recur but the world forgets that Colonel Aureliano Buendía was a real person and not merely a street name.  The town–and the book–ends because she is not there to remind her incestuous descendants of the curse of the pig’s tail.  The aunt-nephew consummation that ultimately dooms Macondo (while redeeming the possibility of true passion) fulfills not only the prophecy of Melquíades but also the aborted love of Amaranta and her nephew Aureliano José.  They are emblems of the forgetting that erodes institutional memory over time, allowing war after war, mistake after mistake, forbidden love after forbidden love.

Yet the narrative itself forgets nothing.  Fernanda’s father in his casket, Rebeca still living in that secluded house, José Arcadio Buendía’s ghost, the Aurelianos’ crosses of ash—all recur even once the reader has herself forgotten them.  García Márquez thereby aligns the reader both with the mortal generations who forget the past, and with the omniscient narrator that does not forget.

 

-Fictional Time:  Closely related to the theme of memory and forgetting is the length of time and number of generations covered in the novel.  Again, García Márquez replicates in the reader’s experience that of his characters: he warps time.  It does seem that “in the past…children took a long[er] time to grow up,” as Úrsula notes in her old age; it does seem that the time between José Arcadio’s disappearance and reappearance was longer than the span during which later generations finished growing up.  I will have to reread the book to better understand how exactly García Márquez accomplishes this magical sense of the changing nature of time over long periods; perhaps he devotes more page space to fewer characters earlier on, and time passes more quickly as the novel (like Macondo) becomes more densely populated.

 

-Magical realism: The magic in OHYoS has real and unalterable consequences.  The four years of rain destroy much of Macondo’s wealth; the ghost of Prudencio Aguilar leads José Arcadio Buendía to his death; Remedios the Beauty, after her ascension, is never seen on earth again.

Similarly, the narrative is not afraid to forecast, well in advance, extreme tragedies that turn out to be accurate and unalterable: the fate of Colonel Aureliano Buendía and his sons, the end of Macondo, the silence of Meme.

 

Final note, as a writer-reader: Perhaps my favorite element of One Hundred Years of Solitude was the joy and proliferation of GGM’s imaginative vision; reading the novel consistently spurred my own creativity.

 

Favorite lines:

“He promised to follow her to the ends of the earth, but only later on, when he put his affairs in order, and she had become tired of waiting for him, always identifying him with the tall and short, blond and brunet men that her cards promised from land and sea within three days, three months, or three years.  With her waiting she had lost the strength of her thighs, the firmness of her breasts, her habit of tenderness, but she kept the madness of her heart intact.”

“[Úrsula] decreed a kind of mourning with no one dead which was to be prolonged until the daughters got over their hopes.”

“After so many years of death the yearning for the living was so intense, the need for company so pressing…that Prudencio Aguilar had ended up loving his worst enemy.  He had spent a great deal of time looking for him.  He asked the dead from Riohacha about him, the dead who came from the Upar Valley, those who came from the swamp, and no one could tell him because Macondo was a town that was unknown to the dead until Melquíades arrived and marked it with a small black dot on the motley maps of death.”

“Aureliano tried to relive the times when they slept in the same room, tried to revive the complicity of childhood, but José Arcadio had forgotten about it, because life at sea had saturated his memory with too many things to remember.”

“He had fled from her in an attempt to wipe out her memory…but the more her image wallowed in the dunghill of the war, the more the war resembled Amaranta.”

“‘It’s coming,’ she finally explained.  ‘Something frightful, like a kitchen dragging a village behind it.’” (On Macondo’s first train)

“…he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in the room.”

 

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Currently Reading: Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2007)

Thoughts:

What brave, daring, complex storytelling!  I would make a very serious case that Adichie is among the best early(ish)-career authors writing today.  Her stories keep reeling out, layer after layer, but never lose the unity of the whole.

Adichie is not afraid to take her characters to incredibly dark, unlikable, complicated, socially-influenced yet personally-determined places.  The front cover of my book describes the narrative as “pitiless,” and the word is apt; she pitilessly depicts the toll that war takes on even her kindest-hearted characters.  It strikes me as incredibly brave to handle Ugwu as she does, risking the reader’s love for perhaps the novel’s most sympathetic character.  She does it, I think, to show that the passivity that’s largely characterized Ugwu throughout the book can demonize him under war’s violent pressures.  (According to reviews, this plot element was excised from the film; I wonder if the film can make the same point about the internal spoilage of war without it.)

Adichie also executes a striking 180 in terms of theme, starting the book as a meditation on romantic love and ending it as a sort of moving elegy to sisterly love.

If memory is the ultimate goal of history (one of my favorite quotes on this subject is H.G. Wells’, who  describes “human history…[as] a race between education and catastrophe”), then Adichie has done an incredibly human thing, as well: preserved the Nigerian Civil War, rarely or never taught in schools, in vivid detail.  I’m not sure whether the present-day rhetoric surrounding a war like Biafra’s is Never forgetthis article and this interview suggest it’s not, but it’s difficult for me to remove that frame of reference, as I come at the question of historical memory as a student and grandchild of the Holocaust.  Regardless, Adichie has enabled future generations, myself included, to feel the horrors of starvation and the disappointment of postcolonial regional hopes in 1960s Biafra.

A master class in:

Scene-setting.  As in Americanah, Adichie opens a huge number of new scenes that require new settings: interior/exterior, weather, time of year, time of day, place details, mood details—and she never skimps on any of them.  The sheer number of new and specific details required to set a scene has been the biggest struggle for me as I edit my novel, and Half of a Yellow Sun is a model here.

Perspectival risks.  But Adichie’s choice of diverse close-third perspectives is what really makes her a writerly model for me.  She takes on the voices of characters male and female, rich and poor, white and black, young and old, ethnically Nigerian and British.

Yet I must say that the ending makes me just a bit uncomfortable when it comes to Adichie’s view of inhabiting diverse perspectives.  Perhaps it’s inaccurate to read morality into a novel that seeks simply to tell a story. (I like what Karen Russell has to say about this, in Glimmer Train 84: that “the best fiction can communicate a truth that’s independent of its writer’s politics.”)  But in the final twist of HoaYS, one moral seems to be that other people’s stories are not ours to write.  Perhaps Adichie is nodding to an anxiety of her own—although in interviews, she tends to say that, though born seven years after the war, its memory was alive in her through her family’s stories.  Perhaps the end is her avowal that the war is her story to write, that she is its inheritance (as she says in this interview, too.) But it’s challenging to square a book whose author takes on personas outside the frame of her own experience, with one that ends on the British character not only unable to write about the Nigerian war but, upon saying, “The war isn’t my story to tell, really,” is met with Ugwu’s avowal that “he had never thought that it was.”

 

Favorite lines:

My brilliant reader-friend Samo and I both noticed the same strange feature of HoaYS: though the prose is precise, vivid, daring, there are unexpectedly few lines that we underlined to reread.  Many of my favorite writers are extremely lyrical (Jeanette Winterson, Marilynne Robinson, Tim O’Brien, Gabriel García Márquez, Jose Saramago.)  I’d have thought this a prerequisite to being a wonderful writer—yet Adichie seems to prove a different lesson: effective prose can be vivid and sharp and get out of the way.

 

” ‘You’re burning memory,’ he told her.  ‘I am not.’ She would not place her memory on things that strangers could barge in and take away. ‘My memory is inside me.’ “

” ‘There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable,’ Kainene said.  There was a pause. Inside Olanna, something calcified leaped to life.”

“[Kainene] pulled a cigarette from the case, but she didn’t light it. She put it down on the bedside table and came over and hugged him, a tremulous tightening of her arms around him. He was so surprised he did not hug her back. …She did not seem to know what to make of the hug either, because she backed away from him quickly and lit the cigarette. He thought about that hug often, and each time he did he had the sensation of a wall crumbling.”

 

BONUS interview quote: “Maybe Half of a Yellow Sun is a war book, but I wanted the war to be secondary. I wanted to write about the characters and the way they are changed by the war—changed in the little ways, the ways that you eat and the way that you look and the way you love.” 

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Currently Reading: Chava Rosenfarb

Bergen-Belson Diary, Chava Rosenfarb (1945)

Thoughts:

This is one of the most stunningly written accounts of life in the immediate aftermath of liberation from the concentration camps that I have ever encountered.  I must look into Chava Rosenfarbs other works; I’ve somehow not heard of her to now, but I am wrenched and moved by this searing diary, which she wrote at only 22 years old.  Perhaps I’m deciding to teach Cynthia Ozick‘s “The Shawl” in my fiction class this semester, after all.  I want Rosenfarb’s diary to be required reading for the world.  This and The Little Prince would be on my syllabus for humanity.

A master class in:

Urgency.  Of course.  This is memoir, not fiction.  Can even the best fiction replicate this kind of urgency?  On a day when I hadn’t so recently been so moved by this piece, I might say yes.

Favorite lines:

Far too many, I’m aware.  The entirety of this diary are my favorite lines.  As it is I’ve probably excerpted too much, but here are some moments of particularly exceptional insight, pain, power, beauty:

“Our liberation has come, but she wears a prosaic face. No one has died of joy. No one has gone mad with excitement. When we used to dream of freedom, we bathed her with our tears. We crowned her with the garlands of our smiles and dreams. Now that she is here, she looks like a beggar, and we have nothing to give her.”

“I saw my friend Yakov Borenstein, just as he was on that winter day when he prepared to leave on his last journey. His eyes were burning: “Don’t be sad, my friend. We will meet again…” Suddenly, my lips started to tremble. “Come with me; come with me, my dearest friend. We will go for a long walk.” “I am coming, I am coming,” I called back.”

“I can see him [poet Bunim Shayevitch] standing by the window of his room. Tomorrow he is going away. In the dark corners of the room there still linger the spirits of his loved ones, who are gone. Soon he too will be gone. The last of his family. He is taking a whole generation with him. Nobody will remember them. Nobody will remember him. A nameless end.”

“I know that back in those days when I was to share their fate, they did not pain me. They were with me, not in fact, but in essence. Somewhere on the way we got separated; at some unknown moment they left me. I went on the road to life.”

“A blade of grass, trodden down under heavy boots has a hard job righting itself again and must wait until the sap in its veins starts to pulse with new life. We are that trodden grass. We are preoccupied with ourselves, with straightening our bent bodies.”

“One can hear again the almost-forgotten sound of women’s laughter, a laughter meant specifically for men. Sometimes when I hear this laughter I have the impression that it will suddenly turn into a wild cry, into the painful longing wail of a woman’s soul, a woman who tries to find in the eyes, hands, and smiles of a stranger some small trace of the beloved man she once knew. […] “Look, I have forgotten!” the cheerful voices call. But it is enough to look into the women’s eyes to know something different.”

“How can one construct an artistic history of the ghetto? […] Is not the form of the novel too elegant, too peaceful, too comfortable, too quiet?”

“Where are you, Bunim? Where are all our friends? Where are the writers and painters and musicians of the ghetto? We are lonely. […] What are we going to do with this gift of life?”

“They describe their dear ones. Don’t they know that the picture they carry in their hearts has long ago been altered, that every day of the many that were spent in the camp changed one’s appearance beyond recognition?”

“Sometimes a couple walks past us. A man and a woman. They are holding hands, awkwardly caught between pain and joy. They are the lucky ones. We look after them with strange expressions in our eyes.”

“Tateh [Father], this very moment I am calling you with all the power of my being. If you are alive somewhere then surely you feel my anguish. Surely you hear my call. Do not lose hope. If you are alive there is no road too far for me to travel. If you are sick, do not give in. Wait. We will come.”

“We scan the lists of names of survivors of the camps. The long pages are crumpled from passing through too many impatient hands. There are finger marks on every single sheet of paper, like anonymous signatures. My fingers wander over the welter of names, my heart thumping wildly. Behind these names are actual human beings, Jews saved from death. They call to us. “Look, I am alive! I am here! Come find me, brother. Find me sister, friend …” How many of these names will not find an echo in any heart? Strange, solitary, lonely names; hundreds of them.”

“Now I must find all kinds of refined means to deaden my pain. I am going to make a lot of noise. I am going to run, laugh, busy myself with work, do everything I can to stifle the constant longing in my heart. But where does one get the strength for joy? How does one poison longing?”

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Currently Reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (1925)

Thoughts:

What can I possibly add to the wealth of literature surrounding this book?  I read Mrs. Dalloway primarily because I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it yet.

I’ll say this: I am currently reading Ulysses (1922) with a small book group of friends from the MFA.  Thus far, I share Woolf’s eloquent reaction: “[Reading Proust,] The pleasure becomes physical–like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and have thank God, now finished– My martyrdom is over. I hope to sell it for £4.10.” (More here.)  My difficulty with Ulysses thus far owes to the representation of women as breasts and bodies.  I read literature to identify with or learn about some element of the human condition; too often in Ulysses, I am pushed away at the moment of identification by the coarse representation of the body I possess.  But I digress.

Some have read Mrs. Dalloway as Woolf’s response to Ulysses.  (One example here.)  I certainly view Mrs. Dalloway as a more economical, more gender-equitable version of the same impulse that motivated Joyce: to capture the banal, existential, lyrical, beautiful, sad, joyous, manic, strange, explicable and inexplicable thoughts and emotions of the everyday.

I found the book most successful when dealing directly with Peter and Clarissa; the forays into Septimus and his mental illness did not feel, to me, wholly part of the same book.  Or, more accurately: to square Clarissa and Septimus, I felt I had to shift modes from lay reader to English major.  Then I could think about mental versus physical illness, the two ways illnesses can go (recovery, or…out the window), death in one part of London and parties in another, the biographical Woolf as both Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus.

A master class in:

Precisely tracked psychological realism.  True narrative omniscience.  That amazing thing fiction can do, taking us into the inner lives of every person on the street and proving that everyone has a story–and that everyone’s story and experiences are worthy of attention.  For that reason, I think there’s something immensely humane in Woolf’s project here.

Favorite lines:

“Then, just as it happens on a terrace in the moonlight, when one person begins to feel ashamed that he is already bored, and yet as the other sits silent, very quiet, sadly looking at the moon, does not like to speak, moves his foot, clears his throat, notices some iron scroll on a table leg, stirs a leaf, but says nothing–so Peter Walsh did now.”

“And this has been going on all the time! he thought; week after week; Clarissa’s life; while I–he thought; and at once everything seemed to radiate from him; journeys; rides; quarrels; adventures; bridge parties; love affairs; work; work, work!…”

“Well, I’ve had my fun; I’ve had it, he thought, looking up at the swinging baskets of pale geraniums.  And it was smashed to atoms–his fun, for it was half made up, as he knew very well; invented, this escapade with the girl; made up, as one makes up the better part of life, he thought–making oneself up; making her up; creating an exquisite amusement, and something more.  But odd it was, and quite true; all this one could never share–it smashed to atoms.”

On “Looking back over that long friendship of almost thirty years”: “Brief, broken, often painful as their actual meetings had been what with his absences and interruptions…the effect of them on his life was immeasurable.  There was a mystery about it.  You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain–the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding, after years of lying lost.  Thus she had come to him; on board ship; in the Himalayas; suggested by the oddest things…She had influenced him more than any person he had ever known.”

“For she had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying–what one felt.  Cleverness was silly.  One must say simply what one felt.”

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Currently Reading: Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

Thoughts:

I tore through these books in about a week and a half.  Mohsin Hamid‘s prose has got it.  Not only was I totally invested in his characters’ lives–I could have spent hundreds more pages in every book, particularly the most recent–but I also learned about civilian life in Pakistan, too rarely covered in American media.

I am so thoroughly fascinated by Hamid’s use of the second-person point of view in all three novels, and in the progression of that perspective from book to book.  In Moth Smoke, “you” are invited to be the judge, literal and figurative, of protagonist Daru’s crimes; in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, “you” are both the listener and perhaps the assassin of protagonist Changez; in How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, “you” are the protagonist, the recipient of self-help advice over the course of a lifetime.

Hamid is doing something wonderful here, forcing the reader into the story, bringing him/her closer to its heart every time.  I will be thrilled to see what he does with perspective in his next book.  I think I’ll have to reflect on this further in a separate essay.

A master class in:

Variations on a theme.  To my mind, all three books are love stories masquerading as rags-to-riches narratives, featuring foreign (usually American) higher education, upper-class tawdriness, religious fundamentalism, nuclear rumblings–and a girl.  Always a girl around whom the desire for wealth becomes a secondary concern, even if the bulk of each book’s page space is devoted to that more mercenary desire, examining what money means both for the character and for Pakistan.  But the element we’re really rooting for in all three novels is the love story.  That’s a very human message Hamid is championing, beneath the trappings of cars and drugs and investment portfolios.

Favorite lines:

“And how strange that when I imagine, I feel.  The capacity for empathy is a funny thing.” – How to Get Filthy Rich

“The day you texted the pretty girl on her mobile to inform her of your impending wedding, the pretty girl was surprised, given how little you and she had come to speak in recent years, by the strength of her sadness. …Still, she texted you back to wish you happiness.” – How to Get Filthy Rich

“Your sister turns to look at you. …She smiles and you smile in return, your faces small ovals of the familiar in an otherwise unrecognizable world.  You think your sister is trying to reassure you.  It does not occur to you, young as you are, that it is she who needs reassurance.” – How to Get Filthy Rich

“I wanted my share of that respect [accorded Americans] as well.  So I learned to tell executives my father’s age, ‘I need it now‘; …I learned to answer, when asked where I was from, that I was from New York.” – The Reluctant Fundamentalist

“There’s a reason prophets perform miracles: language lacks the power to describe faith.” – Moth Smoke

“…learning that I was a good writer…[was like] feeling new muscles growing in my back, wing muscles, the kind that mean you’re learning to fly.” – Moth Smoke

“There are two social classes in Pakistan. …The first group, large and sweaty, contains those referred to as the masses.  The second group…exercise vastly greater control over their immediate environment and are collectively termed the elite.  The distinction…is made on the basis of control of an important resource: air-conditioning.” – Moth Smoke

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Currently Reading: The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of TitanKurt Vonnegut (1959)

Thoughts:

In his foreword to While Mortals Sleep, the latest posthumous Vonnegut story collection, Dave Eggers calls Vonnegut “a moral voice.”  That’s what most struck me in Titan, and it’s what struck me about Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle: Vonnegut is so unafraid to be moral–though that’s often a lethal authorial position in the world of writing workshops.  The back of my edition says that Titan is  “about The Meaningless[ness?] Of It All,” but it’s really about the utmost in what’s meaningful; Vonnegut seems to be saying, Be nice to each other, you tiny idiots, because life may have no greater purpose than that!

Vonnegut is one of my dad’s favorite authors, and I read this on his recommendation.  His take on the book, which I find more convincing than mine, is:  “In the beginning, and in the end, ‘somebody up there likes me.’  That is the main takeaway of the book…it may be a little robot creature made by other robot creatures, and his goals may not be understandable or include liking Unk (me,)  but who’s to say this is not the way God works?”

A master class in:

Quirky irreverence, of course!  As well as the lyricism possible therein.

…And the space that does exist for morality, even in good, nonpolemical fiction.

Favorite lines:

“Sometimes I think it is a great mistake to have matter that can think and feel. It complains so. By that same token, though, I suppose that boulders and mountains and moons could be accused of being a little too phlegmatic.”

“…and there would be only one moon, Unk thought, and the moon would be fat, stately, and slow.”

From the dedication page: “No names have been changed to protect the innocent, since God Almighty protects the innocent as a matter of Heavenly routine.”

Bonus lines:

From a writing assignment to his students at Iowa:  “As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. ”

And his letter to a friend about to teach at Iowa:  “Every so often you will go nuts.  All of a sudden the cornfields get you.”

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Currently Reading: The Sense of an Ending

The Sense of an EndingJulian Barnes (2011)

Thoughts:

Grad school and my own reading have taught me never to propel a reader’s interest through secret-keeping, not if you want to write a literary novel.  The literary novel is meant to reveal its secrets early on; the readerly (and writerly) interest lies in the complexities of dealing with that secret.  Barnes breaks that rule here, and it does make for more plot-based heart-thumping than I expected from a novel literary enough to win a Booker.

A master class in:

Dramatic irony.  The element of the book that most interested me was Tony’s relationship with his ex-wife, Margaret: the reader’s sense that she still loves him far more deeply than he knows or is willing to tell or acknowledge.

In fact, this book is all about the power of the first-person to reveal or conceal important information.  Early on, in the middle of a paragraph, Tony tells us that his letter to Adrian and Veronica “told him pretty much what I thought of their joint moral scruples”–a mild, if mildly incensed, description.  Much later, we find out that the none-so-mild letter actually began: “Dear Adrian–or rather, Dear Adrian and Veronica (hello, Bitch, and welcome to this letter),” and followed tonally from there.

I sometimes feel limited by the first-person perspective in my stories, because I can’t reveal information the narrator doesn’t know without making the narrator appear stupid for not knowing it. (This is my main problem with The Hunger Games series, and why the internal-monologue-less movies are better than the books.)  But Barnes here is showing there’s a power in letting the narrator know a great deal, and strategically doling out that information to the reader.  Much like Ishiguro’s narrative restraint (he called it “emotional frostiness”) in a personal favorite, The Remains of the Day

Favorite lines:

The Margaret scenes.  Here’s one:

She leant across and patted my hand.  “It’s nice that we’re still fond of one another.  And it’s nice that I know you’ll never get around to booking that holiday.”

“Only because I know you don’t mean it.”

She smiled.  And for a moment, she almost looked enigmatic.  But Margaret can’t do enigma[…] If she’d wanted me to spend the money on a holiday for two, she’d have said so.  Yes, I realise that’s exactly what she did say, but…

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