Tag Archives: book reviews

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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