Saturday, July 14, 2012

Singing for our supper

A dear friend of mine - and my spiritual adviser if I have such a thing - Ann Keeler Evans is looking to publish some of her poetry, and in searching for some resources for her, I came across this post discussing the difference between commercial and literary fiction.   The author of the post poses two questions: Do you think good writing necessarily demands more from a reader? and How obligated should authors be to make their readers "work"?  

The following definition of literary v. commercial is given by Zadie Smith:

"…the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true."

Many of my longtime readers will know that I'm a literature snob.  I like to think and be challenged by books.  I'm not concerned about being transported to some exotic fantasy world with sparkly vampires.  I want to find beauty in sentence construction.  In that sense, I definitely approach literature from the second model.  

I'm not sure, however, that I agree with the dichotomy presented - that literary fiction makes you work for it and commercial fiction doesn't.  There are many masters of fiction - Le Carre comes to mind immediately - who I wouldn't say make the reader work.  They aren't "entertainments" as in dumbed down so far that the brain ceases to be necessary in the reading function, but on the other hand certainly aren't challenging in the way, say, a Joyce or Pynchon is challenging.  But they are still damn good yet still don't quite appeal to a mass audience in the way Dan Brown does. (I can think of many "genre fiction" titles and authors to throw in here that are in this middle ground.)

The post author, Mike Duran, perhaps makes a somewhat better distinction than the either/or of Smith:  

 we want to be acted upon, rather than act. Among other things, the electronic age has heightened our expectations of a given media and lowered the requirements of participationNot only do most readers not want to work harder, many writers make sure they don’t have to.

This certainly seems to be the case.  We want everything handed to us - as a society we seem to have become allergic to intellectual pursuits beyond Words with Friends. And if writers are going to be incentivized to write fluff (you know, incentivized with things like money and sales) of course those interested in such are going to give us the junk food we want.  After all, McDonald's is ubiquitous for a reason.  

On the other hand, as evidenced by my ever expanding TBR pile, there are many contemporary authors who have loftier goals - be they at the level of a Harbach or Franzen, Wallace or Markson, even Haddon or Shteyngart.  Regardless of whether we're talking about deep subjects, philosophical puzzles, postmodern experiments or just novels written above a 5th grade level without a lot of exclamation points, these authors are looking to provide something more to their readers beyond a lazy afternoon alternative to an Adam Sandler movie. (That's kind of an old reference now.  I guess to be hip these days I should say Seth Rogan.)  

That said, I don't believe that authors have an obligation to make readers work.  Given our present culture, I think if there was an obligation to do so, the majority of readers - as in those driving Jodi Picoult and James Patterson to the top of the best sellers list - would give up on reading en masse, and then we wouldn't be any further ahead. But the lack of an obligation doesn't mean that authors shouldn't think about their role in culture, and their ability to raise up the level of discourse instead of driving it down.  Because honestly, I'm sick of having conversations about 50 Shades of Gray.  I want to talk about Scars.   

And though my knee jerk reaction to the first question - does good writing necessarily demand more from a reader - was no.  What about Le Carre?  The more I thought about it, though, I realized that it does demand more of a reader.  A good book might not - I'm thinking of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo which is atrocious writing but a story that thoroughly engrossed me, but good writing really does. It demands an attention span. It demands an act.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I'm Back!

Wow, it's been a while.

I don't know exactly why I stopped blogging.  It's not (like some of my previous absences) that I haven't been reading, because I have been. And reading some really, really great stuff to. Like Lightening by Jean Eschenoz, and AnimalInside by Lazslo Krasnahorkai. And most definitely Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 (What the hell took me so long to get to Pynchon????)

One potential contributing factor to my blogging break was the fact that in the past six or seven months or so, I have discovered a number of really friggin awesome book review sites, and I just can't compete. I have review anxiety. That and work has been...taxing.

Discovering these new review sites, though, not only completely made me feel inadequate, it also made my reading list EXPLODE. update you, here are some mini-reviews. (I expect a review of Juan Jose Saer's Scars to come next week…)

AnimalInside - Fucking amazing. Just find a copy and read it

Tiger's Wife - Includes some interesting fantastical elements, but works better viewed as a YA novel. Even for a first outing for the author, I thought it was lacking.

Austerlitz - Left me asking Shawn (fueled by some whiskey) if he would have put Brendan on a kindertransport, leading to an unproductive conversation.

Everything that Rises Must Converge - The final piece in my O'Connor trilogy that I've been working through for years. I definitely enjoyed the short novels Wise Blood and The Violent Bare It Away more than this one, but for a Southern lady, O'Connor was NUTS in a really fantastic way.

Principles of Uncertainty - This is the inside of my mind in book form.

Red Shift & Dream of Scipio - Kind of a long story. My friend Steve recommended Dream of Scipio, which oddly sounded like Red Shift which I had just acquired. In reality they are nothing alike, and I enjoyed Dream of Scipio much more than Red Shift. In fact, I really didn't like Red Shift. Dream of Scipio made me feel really, really sad and I'm not sure why - I should be pretty immune to it by now, I would think.

Roseanna - Swedish detective fiction pre-Steig Larsson. There were actually a lot of plot points that were similar, and I'm not sure if that's because detective fiction is that formulaic or it's a Swedish thing, or if it's Larsson's problem.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Hour of the Star (Plus How Should a Person Be)

A while ago, I'm not sure when, exactly, but sometime last summer, I started to read about Sheila Heti and her novel, How Should a Person Be?.  I looked it up, and saw I couldn't buy it (even though it had recently been published), but I was successful in obtaining a copy through interlibrary loan.  I believe that it was actually on released in Canada two years ago, which is why I couldn't buy it or otherwise locate a copy.  But, it arrived thanks to my lovely library.  I read it.  At times I liked it…there were some really great parts (I think – more on that in two sentences) but in the end I wasn't blown away, and returned it to the library feeling just ho-hum about it.  At that point I still hadn't realized that it wasn't yet published in the U.S.
I said, "I think" there were great parts, because I don't really remember.  I remember the basic story outline and how it was put together, but I couldn't tell you much else.  It was good, don't get me wrong, but forgettable. 
Lately I've been seeing all this buzz about it…excitement about its impending release this summer.  Many have read it and loved it.  But I keep asking myself, what really was so great about it?  Yes, it was unique in structure and form, but overall I wasn't changed.  And maybe I'm at a point where I want a novel to influence me in some way.  I don't know…for all it was, it just wasn't "it" for me.
Which brings me to The Hour of the Star. 
I don't know where I first heard about The Hour of the Star.  But I got a gift card to Barnes and Noble from my mother-in-law for Christmas, and needed something besides the Christopher Hitchens essay collection to use it up.  I came upon the just-released new translation of Lispector's short noveland immediately bought it. 
I started reading it back in February after We Need to Talk About Kevin. I needed something light (or at least non-dense) after that gauntlet.   I don't think it took me long to finish it…maybe a week or so.  But having read the many essays currently being published about it (Quarterly Conversation just published a few more this week), I couldn't help but wonder –what was all the fuss?  And all these people were moved by it.  Chad Post, on the Three Percent Podcast (my new obsession) called it "goddamn amazing" and likened it to Virginia Woolf. Did we read the same book?  I was deeply troubled by this.  Clearly I was missing something… (which is why this post begins with the same issue I had with Heti)
So…not wanting to miss something like I clearly did with Heti, I went back and read The Hour of the Star again. (I would not have done this had the book not been 77 pages.) I truly appreciated and enjoyed it more the second time around.  And this time, it only took me one day.
The Hour of the Star is told by the narrator, Rodrigo S.M. who had once seen this poor girl named Macabea (thinking about the structure of the novel, it's possible that the narrator invented that name for her) at a cafĂ© and fell in love with her.  Rodrigo feels compelled to tell this urchin's story, or rather to make one up for her.  The novel is a tragic tale for Macabea, with a rather humorous (though it shouldn't be) interlude when she has something of a boyfriend, Olimpico, but it's also Rodrigo trying to tell the story.  He doesn't know how to write, so makes frequent interruptions, at one point telling the reader he needs to take a three day break.  It's a beautifully rendered slice of life.  It's not supposed to be uplifting, but somehow it is.  One of the articles I read at Quarterly Conversation states that Lispector's characters "walk out of hiding from themselves" which is apt a description of this book as I could hope to give. 
I kept waiting for Shawn to ask me why I couldn't just finish this slim book already, since to the unknowing eye (that I was actually rereading this weekend) it would seem like I hadn't finished it three weeks ago.  And had I not reread it, this post would have continued on its Heti-problem trajectory, which is what I planned to begin with.  I could have scrapped the whole beginning about Heti, but in the end decided to keep it; maybe for future reference, maybe to remind me when the US version is released to find a copy of How Should a Person Be and try it again.  Sometimes perseverance, and not giving up on a text the first time around really does pay off.  Sometimes it doesn't, though.  Overall, I did end up really enjoying the story and am looking forward to the other Lispector novels that New Directions will publish in 2012.  But I will warn you: if you read The Hour of the Star, you may have to read it again. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

It’s taken me quite a long time to write this review.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is brutal and unforgiving. It’s terrifying. Disturbing. To the core. It will make people ask you if you are ok. And you will not be ok. Trust me.

The novel is comprised of a series of letters that Eva – mother of Kevin – is writing to her (ex?) husband Franklin. Kevin was the perpetrator of a high school massacre and is now serving time in a detention facility. Eva is looking back over her son’s life, trying to figure out if she was to blame…what she could have done differently along the way. What was wrong with Kevin? Was he “wrong” from the start, or did something happen that made him the way that he was? Shriver’s novel shocks over and over again…and even when it feels to be winding down, finally coming to “Thursday” there are still more shocks to come.

It’s not often that a novel can really, really stir up emotions…particularly emotions that are completely contained, shall we say, within the action of the novel. This isn’t a case where I’m reading my own life – thank god! – into the action, seeing myself in the characters. This is sheer rage, sheer sorrow over what Shriver puts to us. You have to have the stomach for this novel. And even after every twist and turn, I had to restrain myself from balling my eyes out at the ending. I did not see that coming, though I should have…it was hinted at but I chose to think, “no…it cannot happen.” It did. I’ll leave it at that.

It’s rare – very rare – that…that what? So many things – that you meet a character that is so horrifying in a very human way. I know what I’m trying to say here, but it’s a difficult idea to form and verbalize. A story might be scary – even horrifying. A ghost story. Halloween, the Ring, the Shining, whatever. But a lot of what is horrifying isn’t real…on a human scale you know it’s going to hurt you. Michael Meyers might be a sociopathic psychokiller… but the idea that you can’t kill him? It’s not real, and on a human level you know that.

Kevin is the type of person you hope that you never have to meet in life. I’ve seen pieces of him in others before, but this full-on sociopath who is so bored with life that the only things that they find interesting are things that hurt other people. And they just don’t give a shit.

In my mind, I’m comparing this to the villains in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…they were very real – their crimes were human. And they were sociopaths. But the horror is different than in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Where Dragon Tattoo’s villains too one dimensional? Is it that they were seeking out victims in a relatively random way? Kevin is targeted: he will tell you the thing that will make you want to kill yourself. He will do to you what will damage you most, and then let you live. Or, maybe, he’ll just kill you himself. He’s terrifying on a primal level: as a homo sapien, I think we have evolved to be horrified and repulsed to the gut by people like this…who don’t get that we are supposed to work together as a society, who just say fuck you to the social contract.

But while it’s Kevin that I am scared of, it’s his father – Franklin – that I was angry at. Franklin is so completely in his world of Andie Griffith, Oh gee pop that sounds great - that he completely misses his son. He is not seeing Kevin, he is seeing his dream child. And anyone who dare suggest that the dream child isn't the dream child, there is something wrong with their assessment. I know people like this. I know people who have almost gotten people fired from their jobs because their kid is a hellion and they refuse to see it. Even when it's on video. I understand loving and being awed by your kid. What I do not understand is being so utterly blinded by it, or by your own weirdness that you don't see your child at all.

Children don’t come with a manual. And the best advice is conflicting at best. Every child is different, and the trick of parenting seems to be figuring out your own kid – what they need, when, how, by whom. The trick is, though, that this isn’t something you simply light on when your child is 3 months old, and it serves you the rest of your life. It’s not that simple. This story of watching Eva struggle as a mother to find how to interact with and control her son is unsettling, and I found myself measuring Brendan's quirks and outbursts with Kevin's...this book will not allow you to escape the idea that you too may have raised a murderer.

As I mentioned earlier, this is definitely not for really have to be able to stomach it. Shriver is cruel, and her cruelty will take a toll on you. But I'll tell you, when I finished it I immediately went and bought some other Shriver novels, and they look about as bleak as We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Monday, January 9, 2012

2011 Reading Year in Review

This is a bit late but oh well.

The last few years, I have been caught up in lists.  This year, I gave up.  Well maybe not gave up, but went on a list hiatus.  And it has been very, very freeing.  Suddenly, I’m able to pull a book off a shelf and just read it.  Because I wanted to.  And not have a list to cross it off at the end.  Wow.

The year started out with a whiz bang from Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  The Shipping News was something of a disappointment.  The Piano Teacher shocked me, but the questions about power play still remains. New York Trilogy left me cold and wondering.  Wittgenstein’s Mistress was a comfort and along with Noel Coward’s play Still Life got me through a rough time.  Anagrams – what a beautiful, beautiful piece. Naïve.Super made me want to buy a wooden peg board and set it on my desk. Enduring Love started out fabulous, but ended like a deflated balloon.  The Hound of the Baskervilles reminded me what good writing could achieve. The Shining reminded me what bad writing can’t achieve.  The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reminded that bad writing isn’t always a death knell.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

What exactly made me jump on the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo bandwagon, I'm not entirely sure.  People around me have been reading it for quite some time, but as you know I'm deathly afraid of anything popular. 
But something made me finally buy it (probably the trailors for the movie), and when I couldn't latch on to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I picked up Larsson's novel. 
Here are some things to keep in mind throughout the rest of the review.
FACT: The book is not well written.  Or at least not well translated into English.  I'll leave it at that.
FACT: I agree with THIS article that Larsson never figured out the "show, don't tell" part of novel writing. 
FACT: There are some pretty thin plot points. I've known some very religious people in my life, and I doubt that they would pick up that five sets of five digit numbers were references to bible verses.  It's messy…in quite a lot of places. 
FACT: Everyone knows that Mikael is a very thin veil for Stieg.  Which makes his animalistic attraction for women a bit weird and narcissistic.  That is unless Stiegl really does look like Daniel Craig - then it is understandable.  But he doesn't. 
I'm sure you know where this is going, right? 
There are many elements that make up a novel.  Plot, prose, character development, voice, etc.  I focus on prose…that's what I enjoy in reading.  So if a novel is lacking in prose, it better damn well be really strong in at least one of the other elements in order to distract me.  Otherwise, I just end up picking it apart piece by piece.
You are now expecting me, dear reader, to go on my usual diatribe against popular fiction.  But wait. Listen to this: this book held my attention so much that I once sat for four hours in one night – until after one in the morning – reading this book.  I could not put it down.  Do you remember the last time I did that?  Maybe never. 
I can't put my finger on exactly I became so engrossed in this novel.  I just wanted to know what was going to happen!  But one thing made the novel worthwhile: Lisbeth Salander.  Without her, I'm sure I would have detested this novel.  She was such a fabulous character that I immediately latched on to her…and what's so surprising about it is that she came out of a novel written by a male that is so obviously smitten with himself – it makes me wonder if Salander was all accident.    
I'm not sure when I'll pick up the other books in this series.  Maybe soon.  Maybe never.  I'd bet money that I'll read them before summer though.  It's just a hunch.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Shining

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what I want to read in the next forty to fifty years.  I'm sure that sounds strange.  But I've been an obsessive-compulsive list person for the last decade or so, utilizing the top 100, or top 1,001 as guides and checklists.  This has sometimes felt constraining, leaving me missing a lot of new and contemporary fiction, as well as non-fiction entirely, in pursuit of a specific goal.  On top of that, it has "forced" me to read a lot of books that simply weren't worth my time investment.  It's "forced" me to read some books that weren't worth the paper they were printed on.  Yes, there have been triumphs as well, being "forced" also to read books that I ended up thoroughly enjoying, but never would have picked up on my own.  But there have been real stinkers.
This problem, the stifling nature of the lists was brought home to me by what I will call my Crash problem.  I have Ballard's Crash.  I've picked it up a few times intending to read it, getting a few pages into it and putting it away.  It makes me sick.  I don't want to read it.  But if I ever want to finish this one particular list, I have to read it.  So I've been asking myself: is the goal worth the torture and the wasted time? 
Which brings me Stephen King's The Shining.  I've read Carrie, which wasn't bad.  I've read quite a lot of his short stories, which to be honest I didn't like.  I've tried to read The Green Mile, but didn't like it.  I've tried to read The Stand but didn't like it.  And I'm someone who once enjoyed, to some extent, a number of the movies that were based off his books.  I've always said that King has great ideas, can create great atmosphere and suspense, but is a terrible writer.  The Shining confirmed that, and then some.
I'm not sure where to start about my dislike for this book.  Jack Torrance is despicable; I had absolutely no sympathy for him.  The idea that these ghosts have to drive Jack insane to kill his son, but at the same time they need him to keep the boiler in check…not really logical.  And the fact that this wonderful hotel, obviously making plenty of money, can't afford to upgrade their boiler?  If your hotel could go sky high because a few hours go past without someone checking the boiler…maybe it's time just to get a new one?  And by the way, there aren't caribou in Colorado.
Perhaps I wouldn't have had time to consider these things, but I was bored through the majority of the novel.  The Shining is teaming with unnecessary information and poorly executed exposition – so much so that by the last quarter of the novel I was skimming whole pages.  It's not that I don't like wordiness.  I love wordiness.  But I want it matter; I want it to be essential.  Probably 100 pages of this novel could have been axed by a good editor without negatively affecting the story.  I believe it would have enhanced it.
There were good points about the novel.  It was creepy.  The hedge animals that moved (but come to life, just too weird).  The woman in 217.  The elevator.  The seclusion.  The atmosphere of the novel.  Those were good.  But all of that did not add up to enough to make the novel worth it.  I recently finished Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was just as atmospheric, creepy, otherworldly.  But technically much better executed, and much more enjoyable to read.  It has always felt sacrilegious to say this, to disparage Stephen King, but I'm not alone.  In 1977, the New York Times review of The Shining said that King, "is a writer of fairly engaging and preposterous claptrap….Mr. King is a natural, but he lacks control; he simply rears back and lets fly with the fireball, and a lot of wild pitches result."  I concur.
Perhaps all this is because I'm a parent now.  Perhaps it's because I've grown more sensitive in my "old age."  I think mostly I've just gotten impatient and have decided that my reading time is too precious to be spending it on books that I don't like.  Which brings me back to my Crash problem.  Immediately upon closing The Shining for the last time, I put on my discard pile.  Then I went to my bookshelf, picked up Crash (along with a few others) and put them on the discard pile as well.  My experience with The Shining answered my question.  The goal of finishing a list is not worth the wasted time.