Posts filed under ‘american’

COMMONWEALTH by ANN PATCHETT

Commonwealth is a middle class blended family drama. The custody arrangements mean that every North American summer 6 kids from two families spend several weeks together with couple that created the whole situation, who provide next to no supervision. It's about the long-tail effects of what those kids got up to each summer in 80s on them as adults in the present day, and by implication of the behaviour of the couple. The consequences of their self-absorption.

The Guardian's review begins

Ann Patchett’s seventh novel begins in the early 1960s, at Beverly and Fix Keating’s christening party for their daughter Franny. An unexpected guest turns up, with a large bottle of gin in lieu of an invitation. Bert Cousins is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office; Fix Keating is a local cop. They barely know each other, but Bert wants an excuse to escape a home with three small children and a pregnant wife. With the help of Bert’s gin, everyone gets drunk and many lives are changed. Handsome Bert kisses beautiful Beverly, sparking an affair that splits and reconfigures their families. Eventually Bert and Beverly leave their spouses, marry and move to Virginia, where their six children come together each summer.

Commonwealth crosscuts between the lives of the Keating and Cousins families over the next five decades, as tragedy strikes and life unfolds. In her 20s, Franny Keating begins a relationship with the renowned novelist Leon Posen, a much older man in desperate need of inspiration for a new book. The stories she tells him of her childhood sow the seeds for his bestselling comeback, also entitled “Commonwealth”. The impact of that novel, and the secrets it reveals, spin the threads Patchett uses to stitch together the stories of 10 people: the six Keating-Cousins children and their four parents.

Most bookgroupers liked it. They appreciated that the language did not get in the way. It seemed to narrate events and give insights to behaviours of characters without ever drawing attention to itself. One bookgrouper particularly liked that the dialogue was quite surprising, and everyone agreed. it was like real dialogue in that characters rarely answered the questions they were asked directly, instead making observations triggered by the question or related to it, so their conversations moved from one related thing to the next, as they do in life.

We had an interesting discussion about whether it was a deliberate, pretentious, attempt to turn a pretty ordinary story in to ‘Literature’. It wasn't from the language perspective, as i’ve said the language did its job without being flashy or showy. However, it did do a number of other things that you could argue were deliberate attempts to flag to the prize awarding literarti that this was ‘Literature’: it was non-linear timewise and character wise; and self – reflective or ‘meta’ as some would have it.

It was non-linear time wise because it started from the end, or near it, then jumped to different moments in the history of the family that led to that point. Nearly every book that wants to be ‘Literature’ does this. It often feels quite forced, just adding confusion but no other value. However in this case it did not get in the way. Most of the book was actually in time order, apart from the beginning and the end. And the points chosen were clearly turning points. So you could argue it was ok because it didn't get in the way, it wasn't confusing. but you could also say it was entirely unnecessary, and just included because the author, a former book editor, knows that it is expected for Literature.

Similarly, as a former editor the author would know that all ‘Literature’ these days has to switch point view between different characters to show the author can ‘write’ men and women and whoever. The book is structured this way — with a section from the point of view of one character and then another. But the end most, but not all, of the main characters have had their own section. Again, while you could say its unnecessary and therefore just for show, its also done well, so it doesn't seem to be confusing or distracting. Each section is reasonably long so its not hard to follow, and as you spend time with each character it starts to explain their behaviour as related in other sections by other characters. Although I thought it wasn't entirely successful. For me the men were a little bit stereo typical, without a great depth of character, but the book ids mostly from the point of view of the women characters and they were very good.

It was self reflective in that it featured a book and film about the events described in the book, even with the same name as the book. So it's a book describing a book about itself. As i understand it, this is what some people call meta-narrative, which is very trendy in literary circles. So on this count you can definitely argue that the author was trying hard to be literary. It really wasn't necessary in the story, which is otherwise quite a well-done middle-class family drama with a few surprises here and there; some very interesting lines; and some well observed descriptions of the interactions between people. It is done well enough that it could have stood on its own in that genre without the ‘meta’ bit. Therefore the choice to include it does smack of chasing prizes.

Whether or not it was self-consciously pretentious, i think if you like middle class family dramas, especially about west coast Americans, this would not be a bad choice. However there many many such books. I'm not sure there is anything distinctive about this one.

August 5, 2017 at 7:14 am Leave a comment

ANNIHILATION by JEFF VANDERMEER

Annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeer

There is a tunnel into the earth. Its lit by its own phosphorescence, and dimly showing on the walls is a never ending sentence. It’s an Old Testament style warning written in cursive script,  ‘the strangling fruit of your sins will burst….’. The text is alive. It’s living fungi growing on the walls, and the walls have a pulse. There are tracks on the ground. Is something patrolling these stairs?

This is the world of Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. Area X has been occupied by some kind of biological presence. The Authority has quarantined it, and sent in teams to investigate. So far none have returned unchanged, or unharmed.

The book is a first person narration by the Biologist on the most recent expedition. She tells us about her colleagues the Psychologist, Anthropologist, and Surveyor. None of them have names. She also tells us about Area X: the woodland that surrounds the tunnel; and the swamp, abandoned village, crumbling lighthouse and sand dunes that lie between the tunnel and the coast.

She does not tell us why the Authority has sent them, or what is going on in Area X, because she does not know. The reader can only speculate.

As the book progresses she does tell us about why she chose to come, and what Area X is doing to her while she is there. But this explanation only raises more questions.

The combination of this depiction of a mysterious landscape, and little or no information about the how and why of it, is both fascinating and frustrating. It gives the book a brooding moody atmosphere, but it leaves you desperately wondering who you should be supporting. What does Area X want, what does the Authority want, and on whose side is the Biologist?

Of all these questions, the key one is do you care about the answers? Books in the sci fi and fantasy genre usually reveal a back story. They usually tell you what is at stake, and what might happen if things don’t go well. They also usually create a few characters with whom you can empathise and if not like, at least understand. They do all this to make you care, and make you keep on reading.

This book dispenses with most of that. Area X remains a mystery, It’s intentions and its future, like those of the Authority, remain unclear. And the more we learn about the Biologist the more alien and unlikeable she seems.

All this uncertainty, mystery, and strangeness is evocative and intriguing, but with little in the way of plot or any characters to care about should the reader be bothered finishing the book, let alone the rest of the trilogy?

The answer from bookgroupers was a universal yes. Even those unfamiliar with, and usually very opposed to, books of this genre. Bookgroupers were puzzled and interested, they wanted to know what was going on in Area X, and what would happen to the Biologist. We had fun speculating about this, and also talking about our various mental images of the weird environments depicted in Area X.

So does the book succeed? One bookgrouper who is an avowed anti sci fi and fantasy person not only finished the book but moved straight on to the second part of the trilogy. That is high praise for a book of this kind. Those of us who had read more of the genre were less inspired but still happy enough.

So if you are a reader that does not enjoy traditional fantasy, but you want something that stimulates your imagination and takes you out of the real world, at least for a little while, this might be just the book for you.

September 15, 2015 at 1:39 am Leave a comment

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN by COLUM McCANN

spin

Apparently it’s true – one morning in the early 70s a guy walked, skipped, jumped, ran and lay, on a rope – between the two world trade centre towers. You can YouTube it so it must be true. However, New York is big city,  so lots of other things were happening in the city on that day – tragic, happy, powerful, lonely and beautiful things. This book imagines in great detail, a collection of characters that act out some of those other things. Things that would have happened that day, just like that happen on every other day when there is no man on wire 100 stories up.

Each chapter is written in the voice of, or at least from the perspective of, one of these characters. Because of this, one book grouper described it as like a writing exercise. Maybe the writer, an Irish born American was testing himself – can I, as a writer, put myself into the mind of a grieving judges wife her only child dead in Vietnam, a black hooker and grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter, an Irish monk, or his brother, a pair of wealthy wastrel wannabe avant gardists – and make the reader believe?

For me, and for all the bookgroupers, McCann succeeds wonderfully. He varies his style a little between chapters to suit each character. He uses the first person for some, not others. Some characters are describing the events and their thoughts as they happen, others are reflecting back and describing what happened to them on that day, or at least how it affected them, from far in the future. In all cases you can physically picture them, and you feel you can guess what they will do next, because you feel you know them so well.

Surprisingly, none of them are saying much about the man on the wire. There is one chapter written in the voice of that man, but it is mostly set in the weeks and months prior to the big day, and also long after reflecting back. Interestingly we don’t get the man himself at the time. Nevertheless, this chapter this chapter made him sound so intriguing I really wanted more, but the book does not go there.

Instead what you get is a slow realisation that there are connections between the other characters, but not through him or his walk. They are connected through the emotion his walk induces – fragility. He could fall at any moment, and that’s what has happened to them all. They have fallen, sometimes quickly and surprisingly, in other cases slowly, but inevitably. They all discover, and remind us, that we are vulnerable – like the  tightrope walker.

One or two chapters do use a style very close to that Joyce-Proust type of ungrammatical stream of consciousness approach –  which in my view can be very annoying, but he usually doesn’t stay in that mode long enough to make you put the book down. Most of the chapters are not written in that style but in the opposite. The hemingwayesque style favoured by modern American literary types.

In this book the style works very well. It rarely feels formulaic. It particularly works when the character herself takes on the style and makes it her own. The chapter in the voice of Tillie the black hooker and grandmother is just delightful from this perspective. The similes and metaphors she uses are so novel they are shocking. The overall effect of the chapter is vibrant and funny, even though the thoughts and events she describes are despair inducing.

Initially it seems the book has no plot. It’s just series of unrelated characters talking about their lives on, or around the day of the walk. But as the chapters flow by, it becomes clear there are some connections. As each chapter passes you get very interested in what these connections will be. Thankfully the last few chapters do more or less tie all the loose ends together, and give you something resembling a happy ending. This might annoy some people but I was very grateful for it.

Bookgroupers who have been to New York also said it was very evocative of the downtown area. It was apparently very easy to imagine all the places the characters inhabited.

So for a great escape to the New York of the 70s, in the body of a range of characters spanning black hookers, expert tightrope walkers and Jewish judges I would strongly recommend it.

Let the Great World Spin by Callum McCann – Both Wikipedia and Good-reads also have a lot of info on it.

spin2

November 12, 2014 at 7:02 am Leave a comment

THE SLEEP BOOK by DR SEUSS

sleep book Wikipedia says – This book begins with a small bug, named Van Vleck, yawning. This yawn spreads (as yawns are terribly contagious) and then the book follows various creatures, including the Foona Lagoona Baboona, the Collaspable Frink, the Chippendale Mupp, The Oft, and the Krandles, throughout the lands who are sleeping, or preparing to sleep. Towards the end of the book the sleepers in the world are recorded by a special machine (“The Audio Telly O-Tally O-Count”). A Warning is printed on the inside cover of the book that “this book is to be read in bed” as it is intended to put children to sleep. The final line of the book is a simple, unmetered “Good night”.

December 23, 2013 at 1:03 am 1 comment

CATHAY by EZRA POUND

cathay

At the Modernism Lab Andrew Karas says of this work
In 1915, Ezra Pound published a slim volume of poems which he called Cathay and which contained, according to its title page, “translations by Ezra Pound for the most part from the Chinese of Rihaku.” Yet in writing the poems contained in Cathay, Pound set out to do much more than transcribe Chinese poems word-for-word or line-for-line into English. He set out to redefine poetic translation itself, replacing long-held ideals like “accuracy” and “faithfulness” with a conviction that one could use old—even ancient—texts to make English poetry look and sound quite new.
Critics have spilled a good deal of ink identifying the numerous inaccuracies of Cathay’s translations, many of which stem from Pound’s almost complete dependence on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, an American scholar who studied the Chinese poems while living in Japan. (Pound was not himself proficient in Chinese.) Fenollosa’s notes on the poems are terse, occasionally cryptic, and easy to misinterpret. For instance, Pound’s conflation of two distinct Chinese poems into one English piece, “The River Song,” most likely arose from a misreading of Fenollosa’s notebooks. Yet, even when Fenollosa’s notes on a poem’s content are unmistakably clear, Pound shows a remarkable willingness to alter that content in order to craft, in his judgment, a better English poem. Thus Pound often changes details of images or omits pieces of the text altogether. Such omissions often result from Pound’s decision to eliminate instances of complex literary allusion which, though characteristic of Chinese poetry, would probably confuse English readers not versed in the Chinese poetic tradition (Kenner 204-10).
Hugh Kenner is the most prominent of a number of scholars who argue that readers who criticize Pound for Cathay’s variations from its source texts miss the point of Pound’s effort, which was to produce innovative English poems using the ancient Chinese texts as an inspirational springboard, not a constraining template. The “real achievement” of Cathay, according to Kenner,

lay not on the frontier of comparative poetics, but securely within the effort…to rethink the nature of an English poem. It consisted in maximizing three criteria at once, criteria hitherto developed separately: the vers-libre principle, that the single line is the unit of composition; the Imagist principle, that a poem may build its effects out of things it sets before the mind’s eye by naming them; and the lyrical principle, that words or names, being ordered in time, are bound together and recalled into each other’s presence by recurrent sounds.

These things had been done before but not simultaneously. (199)

December 23, 2013 at 1:00 am 1 comment

THE POLAR EXPRESS by CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG

polar express

Wikipedia says – The Polar Express is a 1985 children’s book (ISBN 0-86264-143-8) written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, a former professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. The book is now widely considered to be a classic Christmas story for young children. It was praised for its detailed illustrations and calm, relaxing storyline. In 1986, it was awarded the Caldecott Medal for children’s literature.[1][2] Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the book one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.”[3] It was one of the “Top 100 Picture Books” of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.[4]

December 23, 2013 at 12:59 am 1 comment

ACCIDENTAL GUIDE TO DOMESTIC BLISS (part 2) by TOM CELEBREZZE plus a little PROUST

domesticbliss

It was fascinating to read an unpublished manuscript and talk to the author about what we liked and didn’t like, and which bits he thought he might cut or change. It was a real insight into the sheer amount of work involved in producing a book.

I guess if we readers work hard we can imagine that it must involve a lot of writing and rewriting, over and over, but the challenge of endless decision making is not so obvious. Every bit of a book must be created, edited, positioned, kept or cut, and each decision, once made, can be revisited at any moment. It’s a heavy burden on a writer, like living in a world with no givens. In writers’ world, in order to walk a step you must first create a world on which to put your foot. Imagine doing that act of creation again and again, with each step, so that these new worlds burst into life and ripple out, up and around every time your foot comes down, only to be replaced with the next maternal step.

The book itself was also a great insight, from an insider, into the gay party scene, and the complexity of long term relationships, gay and otherwise, within that scene.

This was the second part. We read the first part for the bookgroup before last. At one level the second part is a romp around the world with a couple, rob and Alex, who have a lot more sex, drugs, money and travel than most of us will ever manage.  At another level it’s a sappy love story that seems to say, gay or not, just stop agonising. If you love him/her, keep doing it as best you can.

Like the first half, the second also has several other levels. These include good humoured attacks on very legitimate targets like the Catholic Church, and post-modern academia, along with some crime, laughs and adventure.

However the shining moment is the end. Its a joyous chapter where all these levels come together in a glamourous, adventurous, feel good scenario, involving a wedding in Dubai with the best vows of all time.

Prior to this there are many other, briefer, shining moments. The whole book is peppered with surprisingly inventive sentences, that get your attention with colour and insight. It also assaults the reader with something I’m not sure I have ever seen a writer get right before – that moment when two  people meet and there is instant chemistry. The history of the novel in some ways is the history of growing the myth of love at first sight. Writers across the centuries have built this myth from the seed of truth we all recognise – when we meet someone that disturbs our senses, if that effect seems mutual. Here the truth behind the myth is respected, not turned into an imaginary scene involving Princes, or white picket fences. It’s done accurately, it gets the physical gestures we do, and the social manoeuvres we use, when in that situation, just right.

The disturbing thing, though, was that despite all these virtues there is still a lot of work that could be done on the book to improve it. Bookgroupers gave feedback about pacing, particularly at the start, and structure, and some characters. With all the work that had gone into it, and the high quality of a lot of it, the fact there was still a lot more that could be done, did remind me that the task of a writer is not easy

Our other task for this bookgroup was to read a little Proust. Those of us present had actually done this, and it made for a good discussion. He is so famous, and so discussed by the literati, it was great to read a bit and taste what the fuss is all about.

He would not have been a good dinner guest, self obsessed, verbose, sickly, overly sensitive, and humourless. Judging by his writing he may have been one of the most annoying men to ever live, but he may also be one of the most insightful.

His famous, and enormous novel, A la recherche de temps perdu, begins with over 6 pages describing – wait for it – the second or so between between sleeping and waking when you are not sure which is which. He manages turn this moment in to the story of his life, the history of the world, and time itself. Later, I’m told he spends 70 pages on his break up with his girlfriend – wait for it – the girlfriend he had very briefly when he was 14.

I won’t spend time on the obvious negatives. Germaine Greer has demolished the whole thing in the Guardian in a more entertaining manner than I could manage.

Despite Germaine’s entertaining, and accurate, protestations the positives are undeniably there. For example the tiny bit I read did hold a lot of truth and beauty, so much so that I can see why people might say it captures the essence of being human. I would say though, that in 2,000 pages it might be hard not to get something right a some point. From what i could gather the moments of joy, while real and deep, would not be enough to keep me going though the whole tortured thing.

Like Germaine Greer, I don’t care who you are – Joyce or Proust – sentences that cover a whole page are bad writing.

 

 proust

insearch   swann

October 9, 2013 at 11:07 am Leave a comment

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