March 20th, 2013
Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome had been on my “this book seems interesting to me” list ever since I read the New Yorker article that Jonathan Franzen wrote, while the specifics of the article faded away rather quickly, the general sense that I should be reading more of her work stayed with me. We have done a version of this book for our public domain ebooks, and I glanced through it briefly, which gave me an idea of the tone and scope of the novel. But upon a closer reading, it’s actually quite incredible what Wharton accomplishes in the novella–she tells the entire story of the very sad, very tragic lives of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and her cousin Mattie with brevity, which actually allows for the weight of what happens to them to settle without it feeling overwhelming.
In short, Ethan’s unhappily married to a hypochondriac woman. Zeena wasn’t always that way–there was a point where she helped Ethan’s family out immensely (the reason they married), but for years they’d been engaged in a psychological battle. Zeena’s “illnesses” defining reasons why their lives are incapable of moving forward. When Mattie shows up, a poor cousin of Zeena’s without anywhere else to go, Ethan’s life changes. And when Zeena leaves for a far-flung doctor’s appointment, the two nights he and Mattie spend together have the potential to change their unhappy lives forever. For upon her return, Zeena means to turn Mattie out, and as she’s his last glance at happiness, Ethan will do anything to prevent it from happening.
Oh, the heartbreak in this little book. It’s truly and completely engrossing. Her choice of words, how she structures the story, it all comes together in a way that elevates the everyday-ness of the events to new levels. Parts of the house is described (and I’m paraphrasing) as “grungy” even for this poor area. Ethan schlumps and slogs through his life despite his relatively young age, and Zeena, with her greasy hair and dowdy clothes remains unbearable from day one. The narrator’s removed–a stranger, an outsider–they’re able to honestly look at what happened in ways that someone intimately involved with the events in the book would be unable to. Does their slight poverty increase the tragic elements in the novel? Absolutely. But it doesn’t define them. They act the way they do simply because they have no choice to otherwise. It’s a novel that explores how limited the choices are for women of a certain class, and it does that expertly. In a way, I enjoyed this little book even more than I enjoyed The House of Mirth or The Age of Innocence, both books I adore, by the way, because of its simplicity and sadness.
May 3rd, 2012
I’ve been reading my bookshelves alphabetically for a while now, not consistently, if someone recommends a book to me or if I’ve got a book club meeting coming up, or if I’m particularly inspired, I stray, but I have managed to read many titles that have been sitting for ages this way, and I’m glad I’m doing it. I bought a copy of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1992. That’s right — that book has been sitting on my TBR shelf for twenty years. I went through a phase in high school where I read all kinds of beat literature, Kerouac, who still remains a favourite, changed my world when I first read him. I didn’t know books could be like that — On the Road was the perfect book for me as a kid, it filled me with a wonderful sense of curiosity, spit me out into the world, on road trips, to different provinces, adventures away from home and I have such fond memories of the physical act of reading those books.
So, I bought Naked Lunch way in the way back from Pages on Queen Street and started it once, twice, three, times, read Junkie in between and loved it, and carted the battered paperback copy around to a half-dozen apartments. Then, when I finally gave in to the fact that I honestly just had to suck it up and read the damn book, it took me a good three weeks because, and I am saying this with all honesty, I could not understand what the heck was going on half the time. So, yes, I know it’s a moderately incoherent, rambling, deeply intense and evocative piece of writing by one of America’s most controversial figures in literature. I can see why it’s important. But maybe I’m so far passed the point now of looking at my life as a long list of the “cool” things that I have read that all I really wanted was the good junkie story and far less of the Interzone oddities.
I really, really liked the Appendix, where Burroughs outlines his drug use, all of the effects, and what worked in terms of him getting clean. His dialogue is terrific, and there are some amazing characters sprinkled throughout the book, but the whole “cut up technique” (as described in my 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die text): “which serves to render the reader equally unable to make full sense of the surroundings.” Indeed. “Narratives begin, interweave, become lost, and are found again; scenarios are glimpsed then vanish from sight.” Exactly. And then all I’m screaming in my head is “What on earth is going on and that’s a lot of naked peeps and body parts and excrement and swearing and shooting up and holy hell I am one tired mother right now.”
However, I did listen to a lot of Junkie via this great link that Brain Pickings posted via Twitter, and was reminded that it is, indeed a terrific book, especially when read by Burroughs himself. Really all I have to say about this in conclusion is that I am really glad to have finished it. That’s all.
Other books read: The Last Tycoon by Fitzgerald (#39).
March 10th, 2012
So, let’s give up the ghost — I’m working on a massive public domain project at work, and it’s amazingly fun. We’re creating really beautiful ebooks from PD texts, and creating some fun content around events (like the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic) and it’s a really great list. It’s also a little like a cyclone — we whirl around and pile on more books into the never-ending spreadsheet and very rarely come out the other side as the wind whips us along.
As a result, I’ve been reading a whole pile of PD texts, from the utterly strange (John Jacob Astor’s A Journey In Other Worlds, #12), to the utterly brilliant (Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea), to lesser works by great writers (To Have and Have Not [an abysmally bad Hemingway novel, #13] and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Edgar Allan Poe), to a whole host of nonfiction around the sinking of the Titanic (#s 14, 15, 16: The Loss of the S.S. Titanic, The Truth About the Titanic & The Wreck of the Titan), to some classic children’s literature that I had never actually read (The Secret Garden, #17), and the list goes on (well, to a reread of Tender is the Night (#18) even though I was sure I read it in university).
Anyway, by the time I’m finished reading through the books, checking the ePubs, getting frustrated with how Edgar Allan Poe uses so much flapjacking Greek, I don’t feel like blogging about the books at all. However, I am making great inroads in terms of my 1001 Books challenge, which is enough of a reason to continue with the public domain project in general…
PS – I forgot one yesterday, Gulliver’s Travels (#20), which I enjoyed immensely and had a great conversation with my RRHB about, he insists it’s the first of science fiction, I equate it to the rollicking adventure stories of the time, like Robinson Crusoe. I did admit that the end bored me a bit, and that I preferred the first three parts to the fourth, but, overall, it’s probably my favourite that I’ve read since embarking upon this project…
February 20th, 2012
It took me ages to finish this book, another that has been on my shelves since I started working at HarperCollins, which is five years ago next weekend, because, well, I found the voice kind of boring. I know, it’s an awful thing to say. The content of the book isn’t remotely boring — young Jamie becomes separated from his parents during the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong during the Second World War, he’s imprisoned and learns to fend for himself. His evolution from pampered school boy to scavenger and camp “rat” is impressive, as is both his intelligence and will to live. Yet, the book bored me to tears.
In a way, it’s one of those rare times where the movie wholly spoiled the reading experience for me. I couldn’t get Christian Bale’s Jim out of my head, and every time I saw him doing something in my mind’s eye, the movie flashed before me and I was back to thinking I’d just rather watch it again than read the source material. Not a good sign. There’s an emotional depth that’s somewhat missing in the novel, a chord that doesn’t quite strike right, and maybe that’s my own prejudice in terms of storytelling coming forward, but I wanted so much more from the book. The horrific things that Jim endures, like the constant flies at the sores in his mouth, are epic, and overwhelming, and yet, the childlike innocence that fosters the richness of the character from the beginning of the novel wains by the end. And the things that are never explained, the bits of the story in between the lines, that’s what I really wanted.
So, I’m glad I read it. I’m glad it’s off my shelf. I’m glad I crossed another title off the 1001 Books list, but the “Bs” are proving difficult to get through. I have a mammoth undertaking in Cloudsplitter, which I’ve started six times, and my go-to escapism author, Chris Bohjalian, has written a novel that’s impossibly dull as well — in short, I might be stuck in the “Bs” for a while.
February 5th, 2012
My copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die characterizes Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot as such: “This is a fascinating jigsaw puzzle of a book.” And while it’s not an untrue statement, it’s also a little dismissive of what I feel is the real, true accomplishment of this novella — Barnes’s complete ability to broadly reimagine the constructs of the “novel.” In a way, if you were reading critically, you could define the book in so many different ways: a post-modern collection speaking back to one of the greats of Western literature, Flaubert; a finely tuned, self-referential critique of the Ivory Tower nature of literary history and criticism; a highly personal story of a man (a doctor) relating so deeply to a story and characters (in Madame Bovary) that it allows him the space to come to terms with the state of his own life; and the more you read it, the more you see in it — that’s the utter brilliance of this work. (more…)
May 31st, 2011
I have spent three days this week at various doctors appointments and sitting waiting for blood work, and managed to read three books in five days. It’s almost like I’m breastfeeding at all hours again, only I’m not. Actually, it’s nothing like that at all. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Regardless, here are some short reviews of books I’ve read lately.
#44 – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Allan Sillitoe
Sometimes, when you see the filmed version of a book first, it’s almost impossible not to replay the movie in your head as you read. In the case of Allan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, this was entirely the case. Luckily, both the book and the film are excellent, so I wasn’t disappointed by anything happening in my own head as I read. Sillitoe’s portrait of a young man, a working class, philandering, hard-drinking, impulse-driven, anti-hero remains captivating over 50 years since its publication. I found myself violently engrossed in the film, at times disgusted by Arthur Seaton’s behaviour, his attitude towards women, his own selfishness, and yet utterly thrilled by his voice, his hard-driving anger, and his youth.
Set in a working class section of Nottingham (and forgive me if it’s all working class; I am not familiar with the geography), Seaton works at a bicycle factory, where he gets paid by the piece. Work too fast, and you make too much money, the big bosses will come down on you; work too slow and it isn’t worth your while to get up in the morning. There’s a tender balance Seaton strikes between boredom, completely shutting off to the redundancy of his tasks and letting his mind wander (usually to the state of his love life, which is complex, and full of many married ladies). He served in the army but has no faith in it; he drinks not just because it’s the only thing to do but because it IS the thing to do; and all of his relationships with women are based on lying, cheating and his own awkward concepts of love. Yet, as a character, I couldn’t help but adore him — a prototypical bad boy when it still meant something to buck the system, and the dichotomy of the two parts of Seaton’s life: the Saturday nights spent drinking and with his hand up the shirt of his many married lovers; and the Sunday morning when he goes fishing and perhaps decides upon one girl, nicely contrast the tenor of life in England after the war. Everyone needing to find their footing, their voice, after the collective “pulling together” (Keep Calm and Carry On) as a universal decree. All in all, it’s an excellent novel. (Also exciting is that it’s on the 1001 Books list, whee!).
#45 – State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is one of my favourite American novelists. I adored Run, enjoyed Bel Canto, and had my heart broken over Truth & Beauty. But State of Wonder is in an entirely different class — if I had to find a comp, like someone (I can’t remember who) mentioned on Twitter, I’d too suggest Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. But, truly, the unbridled success of this novel lies in Patchett’s almost post-colonial “talking back” to Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness. Now, I read Conrad’s book in first year university and haven’t revisited it since, so it’s hazy, to say the least in my memory. I recall more of Apocalypse Now than I do the novel itself but that doesn’t mean that I can’t theorize that Patchett set out to write back to Heart of Darkness, tackling not necessarily themes of colonialism and “going native” (shuddering to write that sentence) but more so the toll and cost of medical research takes from on our “modern” world.
When Dr. Marina Singh’s workmate and lab partner, Dr. Eckman, is pronounced dead in a far flung letter from Dr. Annick Swenson, a research doctor who has been in the field for almost decades developing and studying a very particular tribe in order to create a fertility drug that could revolutionize women’s reproductive health, she (Dr. Singh) is sent out to retrieve the true story and maybe, just maybe, bring both the body and a report of where the work actually is back to the company for whom they all work. Things go wrong for Marina right from the start — her suitcase is lost, her clothes taken by the Lakashi tribe when she arrives in camp, and soon every vestige of Western life has disappeared from around her. She wears her hair plaited by the Lakashi women, the only dress she has comes from them as well, and without sun protection, the half-Indian Marina’s skin bronzes so deeply that even she notices how different she looks than when at home suffering through a long, terrible Minnesota winter.
Classically trained as a OBGYN, Marina gave up her medical practice due to a terrible accident, and has been a pharmacologist ever since. Yet, once she finds Dr. Swenson (and the path that got her there was no less than difficult), her skills as a doctor are called upon — an in unclean, unhygienic and utterly disorganized (in terms of performing surgeries), and Marina’s life takes a turn in a direction she never imagined. The novel’s ending, both spectacular and breathtaking, has perfect pacing — I couldn’t put it down, and it brought me to my knees. I found myself reading and reading, any chance I could get, morning, deep into the night, just to find out what happens. And the last sentences, just like the amazing ones that end The Poisonwood Bible, stayed with me for days. Highly recommended; it’s perfect summer reading in my humble opinion.
#46 – Faith by Jennifer Haigh
I’m going to be honest — the subject matter of this novel remains difficult for many reasons — the church and its history/current struggle with pedophilia doesn’t necessarily equate “light,” “breezy” read. Yet, the tone and undercurrent of Jennifer Haigh’s novel, while neither light nor breezy, is both generous and kind, a difficult balance to achieve when discussing Catholic priests and the matter of faith in general. The narrator of the story, a self-proclaimed (at the beginning of the novel) modern-day “spinster,” Sheila McGann retells a story her half-brother Art, a priest who has found himself embroiled in a scandal that threatens not only his livelihood but also his life, and his core beliefs.
Sheila returns to Boston to help her family in the time of crisis. Art, accused of an unspeakable act with a young boy, the grandson of the rectory’s housekeeper, with whom he has a parental-like relationship, shakes everyone to their cores. I know it’s a cliche — family comes upon tragedy, novel unravels whether or not the accusations are true — but Haigh has a gift for character, and while this novel remains very traditional in its narrative format, I was impressed at how she tackled the subject matter. Haigh never shies away from the difficult nature of it, and I like how faith as a concept remains interwoven throughout the narrative. Arthur has never questioned his calling. But, like anyone, it’s impossible to know when something might happen to rock your beliefs, earthquake-like, and send you reeling in another direction. Innocent, even naive, to the ways of the world, Art finds himself questioning everything he has ever known: the church, his ministry, the idea of love, when he comes to face to face with Kath, the mother of the young boy he is accused of abusing. It takes the entire novel to truly find out what happened. And no one is left unscathed, not even the reader. Faith is a novel that forces one to evaluate one’s own relationship to God, to the church, even if you’re a non-believer. It’s impossible to stand in judgment, of anyone’s life, and I think that is the eloquent point that Haigh makes throughout this book. It’s one that definitely got me thinking. And I’m a girl who got the majority of her religious schooling from Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? when she was a child. Of course, I read more widely about religion in university. (I still remember sitting with a particularly obnoxious Religion major at Queen’s who honestly said to me, “You know, it’s not as if I’m totally obsessed with God or anything, I just think Jesus was a really cool guy.” Seriously. That was her take on her entire degree. Good grief.) Regardless, the kind of storytelling that Haigh purports in this novel usually drives me crazy (the retelling of a story when one could choose just to tell the damn story) but it’s subtly balances nicely with the seriousness of the subject matter and I don’t think she could have written it another way. By the end, I was a little heartbroken, which, for me, is always the sign of a very good novel indeed.
#47 – Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa
This is a Vicious Circle book club book, and I’m so pleased that I’ll get to discuss it with a great group of women. It’s a women’s novel (as you can see from the awful cover [I’m sorry but it really, really isn’t reflective of the book]) rather than dreamy chicklit as the cover suggests. I know what it’s going for — there’s a pair of siblings that the novel centres around, but the cover adds a layer of Hallmark Movie of the Week that dumbs down Zeppa’s sharp, instinctive and eager writing.
Told from multiple perspectives, the book follows three generations of Turner women, some blood, some married to blood, who each struggle with the idea of family, what it means to be a mother, and the difficult restrictions society, at different times over the last 50 years, for people of my gender. I fell particularly in love with Grace, a woman forced to leave her son behind to make a better life for herself in the city. Her strength, ability and the way she came into her own was particularly breathtaking. There’s a lot in the novel that isn’t necessarily fresh (troubled fathers, difficult women that seem cut from Lawrence, “women’s” troubles) but Zeppa finds a way in that is both refreshing and real — and I enjoyed this book immensely. I just have one tiny criticism — there’s a main character, Vera, a matriarchal figure, that we never hear from, she’s only portrayed through other people’s stories. I would have enjoyed knowing more about her point of view, her perspective, but I understand how too many voices could also ruin this novel. Regardless, it too is a perfect summer read. Funny how that works out, isn’t it?
February 9th, 2011
When I was younger, much younger, the first time I went to university, I sort of decided that “old” books weren’t worth studying. I did my whole English degree trying to avoid anything remotely written before the 21st century. It wasn’t easy. I think I had to do a Romantics and a Victorian class, along with Shakespeare, but I filled every elective with Post-Colonial, American, Modern British, anything to avoid what I perceived to be “boring” books.
No one ever said I was particularly smart in my youth.
But what it means is that I haven’t read all of Jane Austen. I’ve barely scratched the surface of some of the best work in the English language, actually. And it’s a good time of my life, two degrees later, working in publishing, to be reading these books for the 1001 Books list. So, in my quest for alphabetical order in my off the shelf reading, Emma came up first.
We all know the story: Emma Woodhouse makes all kinds of matchmaking mistakes, often puts her foot in her mouth, gets jealous, and sometimes becomes a person she doesn’t like very much. Emma takes the young, impressionable, yet pretty, Harriet under her wing (a girl with lesser prospects and an unknown lineage) and finding her a suitable husband (first Mr. Elton, then Mr. Churchill, then, disaster when Harriet falls for Mr. Knightley and Emma is not particularly pleased with this turn of events) becomes her goal. Throw in a little petty jealousy when the talented and accomplished Miss Jane Fairfax arrives on the scene and there’s plenty of picnics and parties to entertain the romantic in everyone. Of course, there’s a happy ending, and much emotional development upon Emma’s part. In a way, it’s a little bit of a coming of age novel — as we watch Emma develop from girl to woman.
Any critical analysis of the novel on my part would be ridiculous, I’m sure there’s nothing I can add to the conversation. We live in a society that’s already Austen-obsessed: There are mugs (of which I own four), multiple movies, numerous (far inferior) books, and a whole host of ivory tower work surrounding her life and her novels. But I will say this, from a format perspective, in terms of pacing, humour, theme, and depth of character, Austen certainly defined the novel for, well, just about every novelist to come after her writing in this genre. The more I read, the more I am astounded at the depth of her structure, how it perfectly suits the characters, and reaches a conclusion, while completely predictable only because I’ve seen Clueless about a half-dozen times, that made me smile.
I read in the introduction that Jane Austen, while writing Emma, that she was creating a character that people wouldn’t like very much — and I heartily disagree. I loved Emma, couldn’t stand Mrs. Elton (as I am sure I was supposed to), and thought that Jane Fairfax should just come clean already — she’d feel so much better. See, how you just get caught up in them like they’re real people? Sigh. So, I’ve got two more Austens on my shelf, so by the time I get back to the 1001 Books section, I’ll have two more delightful reads before I get into the real down and dirty stuff that I’ve been avoiding reading for years (like Murakami — I honestly have zero desire to read Murakami, but it’s on my shelves and I will at least attempt it. But, luckily, it’s in the “M’s” so it’ll take me months to get there. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the first letter of the alphabet on any shelf).
WHAT’S UP NEXT: I’m reading the new Per Petterson, I know, it’s out of order, but I’ve got to read the books sent to me from the publishers — they do get priority. Then I’ll be back on my Canadian “A’s”, which I think is a novel by Jason Anderson from ECW.
March 5th, 2010
My goal for February was to read a couple books for Black History Month. Not surprisingly, I managed one: Ralph Ellison’s classic, Invisible Man. The novel is substantial, both in its scope and narrative approach. It took me ages to read–and I abandoned it at one point and picked up a different book, read magazines, anything really to escape the relentless story.
The title, metaphorical, not literal, refers to the narrator’s lack of identity as a black man. He can walk down a street and no one sees him. He can stand on the street and people will pass on by as if he wasn’t even there. Invisibility — blessing and a curse — defines his life. And what a troubled life, kicked out of school (not his fault), and settling in New York City, things go from bad to worse for the man. The novel, which was first published in 1952, and it was interesting to read it now, over fifty years later. Ellison’s writing style, while imbued with the tone and tenacity of the time, doesn’t feel dated. In fact, the book reminded me a lot of The Best of Everything, not in its subject matter, characterization or plot, but more because of its uncanny ability to bring the story to life and embed in a very particular time and place.
My 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die tome suggests the novel has existential themes, and I’d agree, the narrator can’t help but contemplate his existence; it’s the purest form of a Manichean dialogue, race goes beyond allegory, it’s essential and he’s essentially being defined against it by just about everyone he comes into contact with him. There were moments when the cruelty of the world became almost too much for me to bear — I turned away like I did when I watched Inglorious Basterds, when the violence, meant to be too much, shocked me into tears.
I was first supposed to read Ellison’s masterpiece in university. At the time, I was too wrapped up in Faulkner, a writerly obsession I carried with me from high school. Since then, I’ve carried my same copy around with me from apartment to apartment, keeping it on that metaphorical ‘to be read’ someday shelf with many other books from school. Slowly but surely, I’m working my way through a lot of them. Because I read so much modern Can Lit, and let’s face it, books that are published by the houses where I worked over the last five years, I’ve been rebelling a little. When I go to the shelf I’m inspired to pick up big, heavy books like Invisible Man and give my brain a work out. I imagine writing a paper filled with literary theory, can smell the air in the library as I do research, and think that Invisible Man does exactly what a classic piece of literature should do, it lasts.
READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books, natch.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: I can’t blog about the book I read this week, Emma Donoghue’s Room (#13), because it’s not out until Fall 2010. But I will say this, it’s exceptional — a literary page turner of the likes I’ve never read before, and it’s become one of my favourite new books of the year. I can’t wait to talk to people about it once it’s actually published. So I’m going to try to finish the totally absurd The Third Policeman (also a 1001 Book), and a couple other Irish writers because it’s March and my theme is, well, Irish writing this month.
January 8th, 2010
For the majority of my life, I’ve associated with Dracula (the character) with scary things I’d rather not imagine thank you very much. “I vant to suck your blood” refrains and the truly awful Francis Ford Coppola movie that I remember seeing in the theatre did nothing to help the cause. Bram Stoker’s (pictured left) book was mentally filed, “never going to read.”
#2. 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die happened.
#3. The Strand happened (and I fell a little in love with the TP edition I found sitting a top a pile of totally unrelated books).
#4. “My RRHB read the book in one sitting and wouldn’t stop talking about it” happened.
Which meant I simply couldn’t ignore it any longer.
And rightly so. It’s an excellent novel. Echoes of one of my all-time favourite books, Frankenstein, are found within the epistolary format; the novel contains a truly kick-ass female heroine (why was that never portrayed in any film who actually stands up and fights both for her life and for her friends [in a totally appropriate 19th century way, of course] in a way a certain, modern character [ahem, starts with a “B” and ends with a “hella” er “ella”] never does); and there are some really fun, creepy scenes of Dracula making his way to England (the boat, ahhh, the boat) that actually made me shudder and I flipped the pages. Put all of it together and I’m kind of shocked to say that I’m really glad I finally finished Dracula.
If I have but one criticism of Stoker’s work, it would have to be the bits of the book told in colloquial dialogue. I found Van Helsing’s sections hard to understand and the way he spoke to be kind of silly and affected (not his character; that’s exactly the opposite of this). But I got over this quickly as the book’s action and pacing ripped me along on another part of the adventure. The story’s so rich, so layered and so utterly engaging that my own preconceptions about affected speech/dialogue in novels can be set aside.
Also, it’s pretty neat to see the literary evolution of the vampire from the sort-of beginning. I’m sure there were earlier moments in terms of the vampire appearing in literature, but I like thinking about all the moments in pop culture that has sprung from this particular text. Annywaaay, I just loved it.
READING CHALLENGES: 1001, baby.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: Reading The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, Clean by Alejandro Junger, the first Sookie Stackhouse book and Sometimes a Great Notion. Yes, we’ll see which one I actually finish first. Your guess is as good as mine.
November 13th, 2009
I’m not keeping any secrets here when I admit that I had a really, really hard time reading American Pastoral. In fact, I would say I was very anti-Philip Roth after finishing that novel. Never wanted to read another of his books again. Openly gave my copy of The Human Stain the stink-eye for littering my TBR shelf. Yet, I’m also addicted to lists (for reasons I’m still trying to work out, seriously, in therapy), and decided to give it a shot — after all, I didn’t hate the film, and I really liked the beginning of the book when it landed on my desk about four years ago.
Fast forward a few years. As I’m trying to clear off my shelves before bringing any more new books into the fold, I took The Human Stain OFF the giant TBR shelf and moving it to the bedside table. And am I ever glad that I did (how many of my book reviews start out this way? With my preconceived and often wrong perspectives of the various books on my shelves?).
In short, I loved this book.
The Human Stain tells the story of Coleman “Silky” Silk, a semi-retired Classics professor is forced into full retirement over the disgrace after using the word “spooks” (meant as ghosts; read as racist). The novel’s narrator, a writer who hides up in the hills of this small Massachusetts town, slowly reveals the deep, and shaded, history of this broken man. An odd friendship between the two develops as Coleman’s disgrace becomes at once both unbearably personal and utterly absurd at the same time. No one, least of all the woman who was married to him for years, and who subsequently died during the whole fiasco, knows the truth about the man — (and if you’ve seen the movie this isn’t a spoiler, if you haven’t then SPOILER) that he’s actually black and has been passing as a white, Jewish man for over 40 years.
At 71, Coleman has found a renewed interest in life post-incident in the relationship he’s been having with 34-year-old Faunia, a janitor at the university who lives at a dairy farm, milking the cows to pay for her rent. Damaged by a disastrous relationship with her ex-husband, who has severe PTSD after returning home from Vietnam, Faunia is also coping with the tragic losses of her two children who died in a fire.
No one escapes untouched in Roth’s world, characters are flawed, ashamed, damaged, destroyed, suffer physically, mentally, anguish over all kinds of things, and yet, in this novel it all works. At first, I thought he really didn’t like women, when I read that Faunia was molested, illiterate and beaten, I did roll my eyes a little — but then as you go deeper in the novel, she’s actually one of the stronger characters. Sure she makes up lies to get through the day, but who doesn’t. And sure she hasn’t had a very nice life, but she also doesn’t make excuses for herself. Regardless, their relationship seems almost redemptive in a way, for both of them. Which means, of course, SPOILER, that drastic, awful things must happen.
The narrative structure of the novel is simple — a writer tells the story of Coleman’s life, so close sometimes that we forget he’s even there — and that leaves way for Roth’s complex and rich sentences to pull you deeply into the lives of these characters. It’s an effective, literary novel, one that rewards the reader by the quality of the writing and not just simply by the essence of the story, if that makes sense. All in all, the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list didn’t let me down this time. But Roth’s still one-for-one: I’m still not convinced he’s entirely an author for me.
READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books.