By Evelyn Waugh
In what is by now, I'm sure, a familiar pattern to readers of this blog, Brideshead Revisited made its way onto my reading list via the community forum here. A then-regular poster described it as "one of the greatest works of twentieth century Christian fiction," and the surrounding discussion piqued my interest. Unfortunately, though I can appreciate the craft that went into the novel, I found that its viewpoint was simply too far removed from my own for me to be able to connect with it.
The bulk of the story is presented as a memory of the narrator's. Charles Ryder, an English Army captain during WWII, finds himself and his unit unexpectedly brought to a new station that turns out to be the former home of the aristocratic (and eccentric and deeply dysfunctional) Flyte family, which he knew and befriended in his younger days. Wandering the grounds and halls of his new billet, Ryder remembers to himself (and, thus, to us) the story of his friendship with Sebastian, the younger son, his increasing involvement over the years with the family, and his eventual estrangement from them.
It's hard for me to know exactly how to interpret this book. On the one hand, it seemed a bit like a deconstruction of English upper-class society and values, since more or less all of the characters that inhabit that social stratum are depicted as shallow, self-absorbed, and boorish. The problem for me was that the contrasting figures--mainly Ryder and Sebastian's sister, Julia--are largely unsympathetic themselves, managing to be just as shallow and unpleasant as the people they sneer at. Additionally, I couldn't help but feel that the author, despite portraying it in what seemed such a negative light, nonetheless had a strong attraction to the upper-class lifestyle.
Most likely, the unpleasantness of the principal characters is meant to give more weight to the religious theme that ultimately is the central focus of the novel. But, here again, I didn't feel as though I had the right context or viewpoint to connect with that focus, especially as it's only fully realized in the closing pages with the conversion of the two main agnostic characters of the story. And even at that, given my own religious leanings, it was hard for me to feel that the payoff as a reader was worth having to endure what was basically an entire novel of awful people being awful to each other. In the end, it simply felt empty to me.
Still, I have to admit that my feelings on this book are largely informed by my own spiritual viewpoint, and I suspect that many Christian readers--especially those with an appreciation for subtlety--will come away with the same feeling of beauty and admiration for the book that the forum poster I mentioned felt. And even though I didn't connect on a religious level with Brideshead Revisited, I have to appreciate just how subtle Waugh's depiction of "the operation of Grace" (as he put it) was. So often writers seem to want to beat the reader over the head with a religious message, where in this book, I suspect that many people might miss it entirely. That may not sound like a virtue to everyone, but for me, all of the most profound experiences I've had with fiction have come from books that made me feel like I discovered something on my own.
Started: 9/13/2010 | Finished: 9/20/2010
The Grapes of Wrath
By John Steinbeck
Considering that Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors and that The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most studied pieces of American literature, you'd think I'd have long since read it. Maybe even more than once. I never took any specific courses in American lit, though, and in my personal reading I just never got around to it. Until just now, that is.
The first thing I was struck with--as I am always struck by Steinbeck's stories--was how deeply concerned with land the man was. Every one of his stories I can recall reading has begun with a description of a place. But "description of a place" doesn't really do it justice, because for Steinbeck, the places where his stories occur are characters unto themselves, and his descriptions are like songs, full of life. I sometimes wonder if a modern author could get away with openings like this, nearly devoid of action or hooks. I suspect they could, if they were writers of the same caliber as Steinbeck.
That's a big if, of course. And sometimes I wonder whether people really appreciate how skilled the man was. He's obviously hailed as a great and important writer, and his stories are read in classrooms from elementary school through university. But how many people actually look at his work for what it is?
Take a book like The Grapes of Wrath for example. It's a fairly simple story, told in straightforward language that makes it quite easy to read. Structurally speaking, there's nothing particularly surprising about the plot--the descriptions of the conditions that the migrant workers had to endure must surely have been shocking to readers of the day, but even at that, an attentive reader would have been able to guess the course of the narrative well before the last page. The morality is clear, even strident. The scenes border on the melodramatic.
All that apparent simplicity belies the subtlety and skill in Steinbeck's writing, though. Take another look, and you see themes developed and woven into the structure of the story, adding depth if you care to find it. And, of course, the characters themselves are so richly realized that you can't help but feel like part of the Joad family, yourself. And something about the way the book cuts back and forth between scenes and descriptive interludes brings it all home in a profound way, even though each individual portion might seem to be beating the reader over the head with message and melodrama. It's a masterpiece.
For me, one of the trickiest parts was in remembering exactly when it was taking place. Given the Joads' humble background and folksy speech, it's easy to picture them as belonging to the age of horse and buggy, possibly even as far back as the Civil War era. Yet Steinbeck wrote the novel in the mid-to-late 1930's, and he set the story contemporaneously. Consider, then, that by the time of the events depicted in The Grapes of Wrath, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong had already been recording for over a decade. Benny Goodman was already the King of Swing. Hitler had already come to power in Germany. James Cagney, Mae West, Clark Gable, Walt Disney, and the Marx Brothers were all already household names. If anything, the abject poverty of the migrants is even more striking in that context.
The Grapes of Wrath was acclaimed a "great work" by the Nobel Prize committee, and has been both praised and damned by critics and readers for over 60 years. You may not have the same reaction to it that I did, but whether you're already familiar with it or whether it's new to you, I'd say that there's enough there to make it worth your while.
Started: 8/18/2010 | Finished: 9/1/2010
By Ed Park
The title of Ed Park’s debut novel, Personal Days, is one of those perfect, HR-generated paradoxes. On the one hand, personal days offer the opportunity for freedom, for escape from the humdrum routine of desk-job life. On the other hand, that freedom is contained within a neat, organized little box, usually requiring a form to be filled out and approved to be taken, and in most offices I’ve heard of, you get precious few of them. And, of course, when you do end up using them, it’s more often than not for errands anyway. It’s the kind of title that so perfectly encapsulates the mentality of certain types of jobs, anyone who’s spent even a moderate amount of time working in an office will, seeing it, either smirk or grimace.
Personal Days is the story of a group of co-workers at a faceless sort of “everycompany”--we’re never told the company’s name, or even its business--that is in the midst of a brutal round of layoffs. By the time the book begins, the company is already a shell of its former self, reduced to a handful of sarcastic, distracted, or fatalistic employees and their inept manager. We’re introduced to the characters and the banality of their situation through a series of vignettes, discussions about the differences between the two nearby Starbucks, for example, or a description of the lunchroom dynamics. Eventually, the company is purchased by a group of “Californians,” and the firings resume. The employees become by turns frantic or simply resigned to their fates, being laid off one by one with no apparent logic behind any of it--the Californians and the local management are left quite opaque, with only overheard snippets of conference calls and hastily scribbled notes retrieved from trash cans providing any clues to what’s going on. The real story, revealed in the last of three sections, is even more absurd than anyone guesses.
Park divides his story into three sections, each structured differently from the rest. The first section is a collection of fragments separated by bold-faced headers, while the second reads like a software EULA, complete with paragraph and subsection numbers. The third takes the form of an email from one of the peripheral characters of the first two sections to another who has recently been fired. I was immediately reminded of Douglas Coupland’s novel Microserfs, both from the idiosyncratic formatting and the presentation of office culture. Personal Days cuts harder, though, I think. Much of Coupland’s story is about his characters’ attempt to start their own company, while Park’s characters are never given that kind of agency. Everything about corporate life in Personal Days is dehumanizing, disjointed, and ultimately purposeless.
There’s a lot of humor in this book, and Park is spot-on and merciless as he skewers every aspect of cubicle life. I had a hard time laughing, though. The outlook is just too dark, and there’s never really any hope or redemption given. Even the glimpses we’re given of life after being laid off seem hopelessly mundane. And though we are given an outpouring of emotion and humanness in the stream-of-consciousness email that comprises the final section, it ultimately only serves to make the ending that much more poignant, as we come to realize that the email never reaches its destination.
As a satire and as a portrait of everyday life for so many of us, I have to say that Personal Days is pretty successful. It does feel gimmicky at times, but Park tells the story skillfully enough that I was able to see through the writing tricks well enough to draw me into what I found to be a compelling work narrative. I’m interested to see what he does next.
Started: 5/4/2010 | Finished: 5/11/2010
The Shadow of the Wind
By Carlos Ruiz Zafón
"I still remember the day my father took me to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for the first time."
That's the first sentence of Carlos Ruiz Zafón's novel The Shadow of the Wind. It calls to mind the opening line of Gabriel García Márquez's masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude in the way it manages to be simultaneously simple and yet powerfully evocative of a huge story yet to come. The name "Cemetary of Forgotten Books," of course, immediately brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges. And the spooky undercurrent, the hint of intrigue, can't help but make you think of Umberto Eco. If that one sentence isn't enough to hook you, well, I'm not sure that reading my reviews will be particularly useful to you. It was all it took for me to become totally enraptured by this book.
Following that first sentence, the narrator--young Daniel Sempere, the son of a Barcelona bookseller--finds and is enthralled by a book that few others have heard of, the eponym of the Ruiz Zafón's novel. In fact, Daniel finds that he may have the last copy of any of the author's works, as someone has been determinedly finding and destroying every copy of everything the author--Julian Carax--ever wrote. The story of the book and its author is steadily revealed, layer by layer, and the more Daniel discovers, the more drawn into the events leading up to the disappearance of the other books and Carax, himself.
There's so much to love about this book. To begin with, the writing is just a joy. I'm not kidding when I compare Ruiz Zafón to Borges and Eco and García Márquez--some of my favorite authors. In style, in plot, in the wonderful depiction of the setting--Barcelona in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War--Ruiz Zafón belongs in the same pantheon as those men. The story becomes, at times, so grandly convoluted and so full of passions and revenge and tragedy that in the hands of a lesser writer, it would have been completely over the top. Yet Ruiz Zafón manages, through a combination of exquisite language and precise control over the layers of plot and how they're revealed, to craft a simply marvelous story.
Of course, what I loved most about The Shadow of the Wind were the parts between all the rushing around and tragically doomed love and madness. The parts about Daniel. I've mentioned before what a sucker I am for bildungsroman, and certainly I related to Daniel's journey into manhood. But it's in the quieter moments of the novel that I found something really great. The tenderness of Daniel's father and all he does for his son--and, of course, how little the teenaged narrator appreciates it at the time, and the regret Daniel later feels about that. The friendship between Daniel and the vagrant he takes in, Fermín Romero de Torres. The strain that develops between he and his childhood friend, Tomás. There's a delicacy and a deep understanding of youth and growth and relationships underpinning everything that resonated with me in a way I haven't felt from a book in some time. Between that and the excitement of the main plot, it's no wonder that I ended up staying up until 3 in the morning to finish the last half of the book in one sitting.
I'm not sure what more I can say about The Shadow of the Wind without sounding hyperbolic--in fact, I may have already crossed that line. But if I must sum it up somehow, let me put it this way: this is the best novel I've read in years.
Started: 3/8/2010 | Finished: 3/12/2010
By Pete Hamill
Reading Forever immediately after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay made for an interesting comparison, since both books are about New York, both written by men who obviously have deep and abiding love for the city. But where Kavalier & Klay is more a portrait, a snapshot of the city at a particular moment, Forever is more like a time-lapse film. And while Michael Chabon's novel exudes the vigor and excitement of the post-war era, Pete Hamill's book has that sense of solemnity that I associate with Old-World legends and, perhaps, magic realism. Actually, Forever probably fits that latter camp pretty well, given both its premise and its execution.
Forever is the story of Cormac O'Connor, born in 1723 outside of Belfast. At the age of 17, Cormac makes his way across the Atlantic to New York to avenge his father's murder, in the process of which he's mortally wounded. He's brought back from the brink of death by an African shaman, who gives him the "gift" of eternal life, though with the condition that he can never leave the island of Manhattan. Thereafter, we follow Cormac through the history of the city, straight through until the present day. Cormac sees the Revolutionary War, the Great Fire of New York in 1835, the corruption of Tammany Hall, and the destruction of 9/11, and Hamill presents it all with a sharp eye for history.
I found this book interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the main character. In some ways it's tempting to see Cormac as heroic for his moral stance against slavery and injustice and his actions in helping the little guy. He appreciates art and music, accumulates a wealth of knowledge, and loves the city that he's watched grow from its infancy. Too, the tragic nature of his solitude plays on our sympathies. And yet, the genius of Hamill's characterization is that as alluring a character as Cormac is, he's more complex than that. He reveals himself to be selfish, even mean at times. And his adherence to the code of his Gaelic ancestors--requiring him to seek revenge not only on his father's murderer, but also all of the man's descendants--leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth. Or mine, anyway.
All in all, Forever is a great read, the prose constantly evolving and changing along with the history it recounts--the opening chapters, recounting Cormac's youth, read like a fable, but before the end of the book the style catches up to the modern day. The whole thing is just beautiful.
Pete Hamill seems to get called "a New York legend" with some frequency--which you'd expect of a man who was editor-in-chief of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News. I'd say, though, that even if he'd done nothing else, the strength of this book alone might just be enough to earn him that title.
Started: 2/23/2010 | Finished: 3/5/2010
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
By Michael Chabon
This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. And recently Entertainment Weekly named it one of the ten best novels of the decade. Well, I thought it was pretty great, too.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is about a lot of things. It's about the title characters, of course. When the story opens in 1939, Joe Kavalier arrives at the home of his aunt and her son, Sam Klayman, having escaped Nazi-occupied Prague. When I say "escaped" in that context you might think of something like Casablanca--forged travel papers, traveling under the cover of night, and so on. And all that is the case here as well, but Joe's escape is made all the more spectacular because he's a trained magician and escape artist. He's also a talented artist of the more normal type, and he and Sam end up becoming influential figures in the development of the modern comic book. The novel documents their rise to fame during the pre-war years and the events that lead up to and then follow the break-up of their partnership.
But it's about more than that. Reading this book, the main story was almost incidental to my enjoyment. Because it's also a history of the golden age of comics, a portrait of war-era New York, a meditation on sexuality, family, friendship, and fathers and sons. It's about escape, both literal and figurative, and about magic, both the sleight-of-hand of the stage magician and the everyday magic of life. And it's all done masterfully. Scenes from this story broke my heart, while others had me laughing out loud--no mean feat for a book. The prose at times borders on purple, but instead of feeling over the top it gives the whole thing a lyrical quality, at once realistic but reminiscent of a fairy tale. Other authors have managed that feeling--Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind--but I'm not sure any have done it better.
If there's anything I didn't like about Kavalier & Clay, it would be the ending. There's little in the way of denouement and, in my opinion, even less of resolution. I'm not sure what I was supposed to feel, because I suppose there is resonance with the themes of escape and freedom, but what I ended up feeling was disappointment and sadness.
Despite that, I wasn't disappointed in the book as a whole. Maybe it's because there was so much more to love about the book than just the plot and the characters. Maybe I just didn't need the ending to live up to the rest of the book, and maybe there wasn't really any way it could. In any case, I'm glad I read it, and I'm happy to give it my whole-hearted recommendation.
Started: 1/27/2010 | Finished: 2/22/2010
By Thomas Pynchon
This may be the best book I've ever read that I didn't like. Thomas Pynchon is described by some as the one of the world's greatest contemporary writers, which piqued my interest. And his reputation for dense prose didn't scare me too much, after all, I adore Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Gene Wolfe. So, I figured, what the hell? Well, over five months passed before I was done with V, and despite the fact that the book was beautifully written, it was a real slog. I just didn't connect with it. Most of the time I didn't even really know what was going on. Individual lines or even entire scenes would be great, but seemed to have only the most tenuous connection to the rest of the book. Things just happened, for no apparent reason and with no apparent direction. I think that was likely the point--after all, life is, for the most part, aimless and random. But by the end of this book I didn't feel like it was really a worthwhile trek--rather than feeling entertained or enlightened or otherwise enriched, I felt like the author had been messing with me. Maybe I'm too much of a philistine to be able to appreciate a book like this, but if that's the case, I can live with it.
Started: 2/1/2008 | Finished: 7/11/2008
Love in the Time of Cholera
By Gabriel García Márquez
Having previously read García Márquez's most recent novel, Memories of my Melancholy Whores, it was interesting to go back in his career with this one and see the similarities. Both novels explore old age, but where Memories is more concerned with nostalgia, this one is about love. We follow two characters from youth to old age: Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza. The latter declares his eternal love for Fermina Daza at a young age and eventually waits most of his life to pursue it after she marries another man. Sort of--in the intervening years he goes on to have 622 affairs. It's this kind of dichotomy that makes the novel--such is García Márquez's skill that we are lured into sympathizing with Florentino Ariza despite all of his flaws. The novel expertly blends the comic and the profound, commenting on the progression of age, the struggle between progress and tradition, the relationships between men and women. And, as always, García Márquez delivers a strong sense of place, managing to be both critical and reverent of the city and country in which the story takes place. An excellent read that I highly recommend.
Started: 9/4/2007 | Finished: 11/5/2007
The Virgin Suicides
By Jeffrey Eugenides
I think that what I love about Jeffrey Eugenides is the way he can so perfectly evoke the feeling of being a young person. My own childhood was rural instead of suburban, but there's a certain feeling to youth that I think must be universal, and Eugenides really knows how to capture that feeling. He did it in Middlesex and he did it in this book. What's different about this one, though, is that the narrator remains faceless. Despite that, or maybe because of it, we get a very good sense of the narrator--the story is told in such a personal way that you get the feeling that you're being told a story by a real adult looking back on real events from his past. I connected very strongly with the story, which of course made it all the more depressing in the end. In that respect it was perhaps not the best book for my current frame of mind, but it was nonetheless a beautiful, haunting story.
Started: 6/4/2007 | Finished: 6/17/2007
Sons and Lovers
By D. H. Lawrence
I think I'd say that I liked this book more than I enjoyed it. I found the characters and their relationships intriguing and I loved the descriptions of the working-class towns in the English Midlands of the 1900's. Still, the prose style made things kind of difficult for me--I had a particularly hard time keeping up with the changes in perspective and the passage of time. All in all, though, I can see why this is the sort of book that is so often taught in lit classes and I'm glad I read it.
Started: 3/26/2007 | Finished: 6/3/2007