Filed under: Literary Fiction, Reading Journal | Tags: book reviews, books, cloud atlas, david mitchell, literature, readalong
Last weekend The New York Times ran a review of Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. The reviewer, Douglas Coupland, referenced David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas as an example of a new type of literature that in a single novel crosses huge swathes of time and literary genre. Coupland writes:
This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.
And yeah, that about gets at the heart of Cloud Atlas. I was passingly familiar with David Mitchell’s skill at literary ventriloquism, having read two of his novels, Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, before starting this one. Swan and de Zoet are about as different in style and theme and place and time as two novels can be, so that it’s hard for me to imagine the same author wrote them. But Mitchell seems to do it so effortlessly – he seems as comfortable capturing the voice of a clerk living at a Japanese trading post at the turn of the 19th century as he does with a boy watching a neighbor heading off to fight in the Falkand Islands.
The first section of Cloud Atlas is the hardest to get through. It’s a short section of the 1850 Pacific diary of Adam Ewing, so we’re going with the antiquated speech patterns. Mitchell does it perfectly, of course, and by the time the section ends – abruptly, as if part of the diary has been lost – I was upset to see Ewing go. This is a trick that Mitchell pulls off again and again. The first half of the novel follows five stories (Adam Ewing, Robert Frobisher [1930s, young composer/layabout], Luisa Rey [1970s, journalist for a tabloid magazine, with her first lead for a real news story], Timothy Cavendish [a vanity publisher], and Somni ~451 [a fabricant – a clone – who has achieved consciousness]) and as each story comes to its sudden end – not conclusion, but simply end – I felt torn up again.
I’ve only read half of the novel, so I’m going to hold off making any judgements or guesses about what Mitchell is doing with this structure as a whole. What I’ll say for now is that it’s gorgeous and captivating, and that I totally get, now, why so many people have told me to read this book.
Mitchell connects the segments of the novel loosely. That diary of the first part is found by Robert Frobisher in the library of a composer he’s working for. Frobisher mentions the diary in one of the letters he writes to his friend Rupert Sixsmith, who turns up again as an old man meeting the reporter, Luisa Rey. Luisa Rey’s story appears next as a novel in the hands of the publisher, Cavendish, and Cavendish himself reappears when Somni ~451 describes having seen a film of the story we’ve just read. All the characters express some curiosity for the lives of the characters they read of, and they are also linked together by the prescence of a comet-shaped birthmark they all have. (This comet thing doesn’t strike me as being particularly artful, so I’m curious to see when it will reappear next, and what Mitchell is going to do with this thread.)
The publisher Timothy Cavendish writes:
England could easily hold all the happenings in one humble lifetime without much overlap – I mean, it’s not ruddy Luxembourg we live in – but no, we cross, crisscross, and recross our old tracks like figure skaters.
That quote is, I think, as close as I can come to organizing my thoughts about the first half of Cloud Atlas. Mitchell’s characters interrupt and cross into one another’s lives. They seem marked by some sort of mission, by something they’re seeking: Ewing by the history of the Moriori; Rey by the coverup Sixsmith has told her about, that could be her first “real” story; Somni ~451 by the very ideas of consciousness and what distinguishes her from other clones and from humans. So far, though, they don’t appear to be searching for the same things. His characters do, however, take some comfort in the stories that have come before their own, so that a woman like Luisa Rey can read the decades-old letters sent to Sixsmith from Frobisher and find some suggestion of a life, and perhaps some commentary on her own life.
And, you know, that’s where I’m going to stop for today. Discussing books at the midpoint has never been my strong suit. I’m curious where Mitchell is taking things, how he is pulling everything together, and whether it’s going to become more clear (as he says in an interview quoted over at Care’s Book Club) that these characters are all reincarnations of the same soul (which would sure explain why they all seem so drawn to these stories they pick up at seeming chance). But for now, I’m just enjoying watching the writer work with these huge stylistic shifts. Each of Mitchell’s characters is so fully and perfectly drawn, even in the brief spaces they’re allotted, and each of the genres is done so well. As I’m reading, I’m totally aware of the fact that this is a novel – it doesn’t feel like one of those collections of stories clumsily drawn together into a “novel” – but also feel that in many ways, the sections of Cloud Atlas are complete and perfect on their own.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Commercial Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: aimee bender, book reviews, books, coming of age, literary fiction, literature, the particular sadness of lemon cake
The premise of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is so clever and surreal that it’s hard not to be taken in. A girl, tasting the lemon cake her mother has baked for her ninth birthday, tastes not just the cake but her mother’s emotions. She can barely choke the cake down. After this, she can taste emotions in everything she eats. She stands around the school cafeteria hoping that she’ll be able to pick up food from the lunch lady who adds to her food a solid sort of sadness, becomes a connoisseur of the vending machine, and one day ends up in the emergency room because she is trying to remove her mouth from her face.
Although the premise is presented to the reader with no real explanation, Rose realizes early on that she can’t tell anyone what she’s tasting in food. There is, really, an entire world in each bite that Rose takes, and from the first bite of that lemon cake, the blessing and misfortune of Rose’s gift are clear.
[…] as I finished that first bite, as that first impression faded, I felt a subtle shift inside, an unexpected reaction. As if a sensor, so far buried deep inside me, raised its scope to scan around, alerting my mouth to something new. Because the goodness of the ingredients – the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons – seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite. I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother, tasting a crowded sense of her thinking, a spiral, like I could almost even taste the grit in her jaw that had created the headache that meant she had to take as many aspirins as were necessary, a white dotted line of them in a row on the nightstand like an ellipsis to her comment: I’m just going to lie down…. None of it was a bad taste, so much, but there was a kind of lack of wholeness to the flavors that made it taste hollow, like the lemon and chocolate were just surrounding a hollowness. My mother’s able hands had made the cake, and her mind had known how to balance the ingredients, but she was not there, in it.
What is so horrifying for Rose in that bite of cake is the way her mother seems to be not entirely there – that Rose can taste not just that her mother is sad, but that she isn’t fully present in her life. At eight years old, though, Rose can barely understand what is happening when she eats food, let alone find a way to understanding her mother’s emotions. Although she knows even the most minor details and disruptions of the lives of those around her, Rose keeps her gift – or curse, depending on your view – a secret, only telling her brother and his friend George. Bender’s writing here, with George conducting “experiments” on Rose to test what emotions she can taste, and how accurately she can describe the people making her food, is entertaining but short-lived. George is a figure throughout the novel, though often in the background, but his interest in Rose’s abilities die off, along with the experiments and any hope Rose had of coming to understand herself.
The weakness to The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is this habit of Bender’s, of dropping details and stories into the novel but not following through. The text feels unbalanced particularly near its close, when Rose is drawn into her brother’s life and his own hidden talents. Hints about the lives of Rose’s family members are tossed to the reader in rapid succession, suggesting that Rose is not so alone as she’s long felt; but Bender never fully explores the lives of Rose’s family members and what their stories mean in relation to hers. The end of the novel is so sudden that it’s hard not to flip through the final pages, searching for something more than is given us; but there’s only a fading away of Rose’s story, not a conclusion to it.
When Bender’s writing is good, though, it’s very good, almost addictive. By the time the novel ends, Rose’s story has shifted into a traditional coming-of-age story, with her ability to taste emotions seeming not so different from someone else’s talent for writing, or painting, or business. Earlier in the novel, though, Bender does an extraordinary job of parsing Rose’s emotions and her unwillingness to see what is forced before her. Others, like George or a friend she has in high school, might view her talents with admiration, but for Rose they’re more of a curse.
I hated it; the whole thing was like reading her diary against my will. Many kids, it seemed, would find out that their parents were flawed, messed-up people later in life, and I didn’t appreciate getting to know it all so strong and early.
Watching Rose grow, and the way she matures – sometimes earlier than she should, thanks to everything she has had to learn, so unwillingly – is fun reading. Bender’s novel may not remake the coming-of-age story, but it does fit itself into its strictures in new and sometimes exciting ways.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Horror | Tags: book reviews, books, horror, i am legend, literature, richard matheson, vampires
Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend belongs on the shelf next to Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Matheson’s book considers the vampire not only as a scourge, but as a sort of new development in evolution, a sudden leap forward for humankind. Matheson asks not just what life is like for the last man on earth, but what life is for those he is fighting against.
The bulk of I Am Legend is about Robert Neville’s daily life: his to-do lists, his efforts to keep up his home, his meals, his “shopping” trips, and his attempts to learn more about vampires – first to learn how to kill them, and then to see if there is any way of curing them of their disease. Vampirism in Matheson’s novel is spread not only by the bite of vampires, but by air. In flashbacks, we see the early days of the plague, when few people had any suspicion that the illness going around was more than a particularly virulent strain of the flu.
One of the real joys in reading I Am Legend is the simplicity of Matheson’s prose, and the way he fits Neville’s attempts to survive into the text as just another part of the day. Early in the novel, removing vampires who have been killed by their fellows – each night they mass outside Neville’s home, sometimes eating one another when no better fare presents itself – is presented as no more notable an activity than gathering other debris from around the house.
He put on heavy gloves and walked over to the woman on the sidewalk.
There was certainly nothing attractive about them in the daylight, he thought, as he dragged them across the lawn and threw them up on the canvas tarpaulin. There wasn’t a drop left in them; both women were the color of fish out of water. He raised the gate and fastened it. He went around the lawn then, picking up stones and bricks and putting them into a cloth sack. He put the sack in the station wagon and then took off his gloves. He went inside the house, washed his hands, and made lunch: two sandwiches, a few cookies, and a thermos of hot coffee.
Neville’s story is told over years, allowing Matheson to fully explore what isolation and waning hope do to a man. I Am Legend is, at end, a story about what makes a person. Neville’s attempts to learn something about the vampires, to in some way help them and in so doing help himself, reveals the depth of his loneliness. When he sees a dog, a fellow survivor, he is caught between joy at the potential for a companion, and some deeper despair that he can’t hope for anything more than a dog.
It’s fascinating, too, to watch Matheson play with traditional ideas of the vampire. When he realizes that it’s vampires, not simply a disease, that he’s up against, Neville’s research pushes him to confront the romanticized images of the vampire in literature, and how those images are both applicable to, and vastly different from, the vampires he faces.
And all without blood-eyed vampires hovering over heroines’ beds. All without bats fluttering against estate windows, all without the supernatural. The vampire was real. It was only that his true story had never been told.
Matheson seamlessly weaves together these two halves of the story: Neville’s attempts to live in “a world in which murder was easier than hope”, and the true story of the vampire. In doing so, he gives us a classic and gorgeously wrought story that faces, in nearly equal measure, the questions of hope, loneliness, and what it means to live – from the view of both vampire and man.
Filed under: Chick lit, Literary Fiction, Ways of Reading | Tags: baby proof, book reviews, books, chick lit, emily giffin, heart of the matter, literature, love the one you're with, reading, something blue, something borrowed, why we read
As a reader who’s been known to rail against “chick lit” as a worthy genre (this despite my weakness for the film equivalents of the books), it is with some shame that I admit I spent eleven full days doing little but reading the oeuvre of Emily Giffin. I know, I know; the distanced tone I’m trying to take here doesn’t exactly fit with the fact that I spent a week and a half devouring her books, forgetting to shower until nearly 4 PM every afternoon (this being when my water goes out), and littering my talk of Albania after the fall of Communism* with references to Giffin’s characters.
I gave Something Borrowed and Something Blue their own reviews on the blog. I was surprised, and really pleased, by how much I enjoyed the two books. Reading them, I felt like I was watching TV – but a clever show, one that delved effectively and sometimes movingly into its characters’ psyches. I might have felt a little ill by the time I finished the books, but that was as much due to the speed with which I flipped pages on the Kindle (I never knew you could tire out a thumb…you can) as to the content of the books. Rachel and Darcy weren’t always likeable characters, but I was able to maintain a certain admiration for them because they were both women with a focus on their careers and on bettering themselves, regardless of what dudes might be hanging around them. Rachel may have been the more sympathetic of the two (mainly because it’s so easy to see myself in her; she lives in a crummy studio apartment, hates her job, and for most of her thirty years is a total failure, romantically speaking**), but both women were so carefully drawn by Giffin that it was hard not to be sucked in by their romantic plights.
As I kept reading Giffin’s works – the other three being Baby Proof, Love the One You’re With, and Heart of the Matter – they began to blend together. Also, I began to suspect that my constant queasiness wasn’t only the result of my sore thumb and inability to tear myself away from the novels long enough to head out on milk and cereal and water runs, but of the novels themselves. The freshness that marked Giffin’s first two novels mostly disappears in her later works. The women in them still feel real, and they’re not bad people to spend a few hours with, but the situations Giffin was writing about seemed increasingly contrived.
Love the One You’re With is probably the best of the bunch, following a recently married woman who runs into her first love on the street, then attempts to negotiate her feelings about this man (who suddenly seems to want her, and care about her, in a way he never did while they were together) and about the compromises she has to make as part of a married couple. In Baby Proof there’s the seemingly well-adjusted and committed married couple who fall apart, and push through the quickest divorce on record, after the husband inexplicably decides that after over thirty years of not wanting children, he does, and becomes kind of an asshat when pushing his wife to want a baby as well. Heart of the Matter is unique among Giffin’s novels for alternating chapters between two women, but the event on which the plot hinges – that the six-year-old son of one of these women falls into a campfire while at a sleepover, somehow managing to burn one side of his face and the opposite hand badly enough that he has to stay over a month in the hospital, and return for repeated follow-up surgeries – is shaky and hard to trust.
I think what it was, though, wasn’t so much what was happening in these novels, as what Giffin’s women began to look like. She has the habit of bringing former characters back in minor walk-on roles, presumably to allow her readers the pleasure of seeing where everyone wound up years later. (Not unlike the lame epilogue J.K. Rowling tacked on to the final Harry Potter book.) Rachel, Darcy, Ethan, Dex – all these characters from earlier books appear unreasonably happy and well-adjusted when Giffin reintroduces them, and this in some essential way cheapens their earlier stories by suggesting that after a few emotionally wrenching months, they are able to settle down to uninterrupted happiness. There’s the fact, too, that Giffin seems to take some pleasure in removing her women from the workforce. Miserable as Rachel was at her job in Something Borrowed, it’s unpleasant (at best) to see her reappear as a contented housewife, hanging out with the kids while Dex is at his high-powered job.
When Giffin writes about her later characters, though, they often struggle with these decisions about work that Rachel apparently has made so easily. Ellen of Love the One You’re With attempts to give up her New York home and career (and, yeah, another thing about Giffin – she gushes about New York like nobody’s business – kind of cheap, but also appealing to someone like me who sometimes gets mopey and misses the States on rainy days) to live with her husband Andy in Atlanta, Georgia, but fails miserably as she realizes that she isn’t happy in the life that Andy is happy with, or that Andy’s sister and her best friend is happy with. Tessa, of Heart of the Matter, has given up her job as an English professor to stay home with her children, and the degree to which she feels trapped by her decision is suffocating to the reader as well as the character.
If I read these books for escapism – and what else was I reading them for? – I have to wonder if I preferred Giffin’s earlier books because they were about lives I could better imagine for myself. These were women who were a few years older than me, who were making decisions (about where to work, where to live, who to love and who to settle for) that I can see myself making when I am having my version of Rachel’s thirtieth birthday party. Giffin’s other characters, though, are all a bit too far from me; it’s not that their lives are too good for me to imagine at this stage of my life,*** but that their lives are so far from anything I ever want to imagine for myself. If I was reading Giffin’s novels to escape from the two weeks of rain Tirana saw (seriously. My entire apartment was leaking by the time it let up), the last thing I wanted was to escape to a stifling world of talking with four-year-olds and debating the best way of getting kids into the private preschools that would make their future. Part of me admires and appreciates that Giffin’s characters have changed over time, and that she is not simply writing variations on the same story, told by the same few characters, again and again. But the rest of me – let’s be honest, the bigger part of me – wants exactly that of Giffin. As well-read and culturally advanced as I may claim to be, it turns out that sometimes what I really want is the literary equivalent of Knocked Up**** – a story that I can turn to, again and again, with thanks for its repetitive qualities.*****
* To make myself feel cultured, I
allowed forced myself to read Albanian history as a counterpoint to the hundred pages of chick lit I was reading an hour.
** I should here mention that I actually live in a very nice apartment and have a jealousy-inspiring job (to sit around reading about Albania, and sometimes writing about Albania, with regular walking breaks), so what Rachel’s life really reminds me of is when I was 22, living in a poorly placed and tiny apartment in Philly, with a not-exactly-dream-job job.
*** Being a 26-year-old fortunate enough to have lived abroad for coming up on three years, but with no prospects on the husband or baby fronts.
**** Which I have seen, probably, over twenty times by now. It is almost time for me to watch it again! And let me add, here, that one of my dream jobs is to one day be a writer for Judd Apatow’s movies. How to achieve that?
***** With Knocked Up gaining those “repetitive qualities” (I am being so honest today) mostly…okay, entirely…because I’ve seen it so many times.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: albania, book reviews, books, gjirokastër, ismail kadare, lit, literature, reading, WWII
Ismail Kadare’s Chronicle in Stone follows a southern Albanian city, Gjirokastër, through the occupations of the Second World War. Kadare, who grew up in Gjirokastër, offers as narrator a boy slightly older than Kadare himself at the time of the events he writes about. Although the narrator offers little real understanding of the war or the occupations, or of what these things mean for his town and for Albania, in its place he gives a certain personhood to the city itself. Chronicle in Stone is divided into chapters, featuring the boy’s first-person narration, and of pages between those chapters composed of either anecdotes from the boy or selections of the local papers. These selections from the papers at times offer the reader a way of better understanding and placing the events the boy writes about, but even without them the novel would be one notable for the ways Kadare views history as almost a part of the landscape, and that landscape as having a selfhood all its own.
Time and again Kadare writes of the life the city holds. Although it would be hard to think of the Albanian mountains as offering any tenderness, over the novel’s course the city begins to take on a sympathetic cast, appearing not so much harsher than the people living in its confines, despite Kadare’s early description of the city and its people.
Everything in the city was old and made of stone, from the streets and fountains to the roofs of the sprawling age-old houses covered with grey slates like gigantic scales. It was hard to believe that, under this powerful carapace, the tender flesh of life survived and reproduced.
Kadare’s prose manages to be both solemn and lighthearted, shifting easily from these moments of almost ecstatic description to jokes and off-color observations. Although the novel has been translated twice – from Albanian to French, from French to English – the translator, David Bellos, has done an admirable job keeping intact the text’s unique style and description. See the continuing description of Gjirokastër:
It was a slanted city, set at a sharper angle than perhaps any other city on earth, and it defied the laws of architecture and city planning. The top of one house might graze the foundation of another, and it was surely the only place in the world where if you slipped and fell in the street, you might well land on the roof of a house – a peculiarity known most intimately to drunks.
Yes, a very strange city indeed. In some places you could walk down the street, stretch out your arm, and hang your hat on a minaret.
Gjirokastër during the Second World War is marked both by its occupations – with Italian, Greek, and German soldiers changing places so often and quickly that residents sometimes wake to find a new occupying force has moved into place – and by the growing forces of Communism. Enver Hoxha, the man who would make himself as Albania’s dictator for forty years (entirely shutting the country off from the outside world, so that the only televisions and cars were owned by the State), came from Gjirokastër, and he and his partisan forces receive some attention near novel’s end as the city’s young men and women join the partisans in the mountains.
The narrator’s version of these events, again, are curiously limited. This is a boy who never ventures out of the city, who early on questions, “What were the villages like? Where were they and why didn’t we ever see them? To tell the truth I didn’t really believe the villages existed.” The world he describes in Chronicle in Stone seems formed as much by his reading of Macbeth as by the war; the city, and all the inanimate objects in and around it, take on their own personalities and reasoned actions in our narrator’s eyes. When the occupying forces build an air field outside of the city, the boy writes lovingly of one of the planes:
Only the big plane was free of all suspicion. Even if all the other planes were evil, my plane couldn’t be. I still loved it just as much. My heart swelled with pride when I saw it lift off the runway, filling the valley with its impressive din. I especially loved it when it came back exhausted from the south, where there was fighting.
Even memories and sentences take on a physicality, suggesting some sense of being:
Bits of memory, fragments of sentences or words, splinters of trivial events swarmed about, shoving and catching one another by the ear or nose with a brusqueness sharpened by the speed of my steps.
This sentence echoes an earlier one, when the boy is still reading a borrowed copy of Macbeth. It’s the sense of the action contained within the book’s covers that in time seems to spill out into the boy’s world, rendering everything in it worthy of note and suspicion, down to the neighbor who regularly carries cabbages (reimagined as human heads) past the boy’s house. The boy views the book with an absolute wonder that in time encompasses everything in his world.
I couldn’t get to sleep. The book lay nearby. Silent. A thin object on the divan. It was so strange … Between two cardboard covers were noises, doors, howls, horses, people. All side by side, pressed tightly against one another. Decomposed into little black marks. Hair, eyes, legs and hands, voices, nails, beards, knocks on doors, walls, blood, the sound of horseshoes, shouts. All docile, blindly obedient to the little black marks. The letters run in mad haste, now here, now there. The h’s, r’s, o’s, t’s gallop over the page. They gallop together to create a horse or a hailstorm. Then gallop away again. Now they create a dagger, a night, a ghost. Then streets, slamming doors, silence. Running and running. Never stopping. Without end.
That is the same sense that emerges from the novel as a whole. Not of a story without end, but of a place without end. As the occupying forces move in and out, as the partisans become a part of daily conversation, the city sustains itself, carries on without end. There is a tremendous, indescribable beauty to the life Kadare has given his city in this novel, to the way even a war can seem a bit player next to the city’s life. Kadare doesn’t just offer beauty, of course; his description can veer sharply, shockingly, in the other direction, as when one character is shot while eating and “[m]orsels of half-chewed meat mingled with blobs of Azem’s brain as they rained down together onto the low dining table.”
Chronicle in Stone is a gorgeously imagined and written novel. The strength of the narrator and the ways he considers his world will stay with you long after you return the book to your shelf, as will Kadare’s Gjirokastër, improbably holding strong to its mountainside perch, guarding its inhabitants but with little care of the world surrounding it.