acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting


KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t know how you couldn’t read the rest of this book after reading the first line.

As another reviewer stated, this book is a really good companion to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. Like that novel, it concretizes metaphor in order to demonstrate the lasting mental and emotional effects of the trauma of institutionalized racism. As both draw on Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl it focuses on the particular horrors black women had to and continue to face. In this novel, home is a prison, love a trap. The way the novel treats the relationship between Dana and her husband Kevin is particularly powerful and interesting, given Kevin’s inability to completely understand Dana’s experience, even when he has witnessed so much of her and others’ trauma.

It’s hard to articulate a reaction to this novel, it’s so complex. No, it isn’t perfect, but it’s powerful and innovative enough to overlook the flaws.

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Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a wonderful winter read. It requires commitment. It requires attention. It’s not a read-before-bed book, at least for me.

This book was so beautifully-written. There is a lot more that you could say about it, too, of course, but craft is the main reason I read it, and I was richly rewarded. Here’s a little taste, a jaw-dropping description of the Duke of Norfolk (Anne Boleyn’s uncle):

The duke is now approaching sixty years old, but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an ax head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics; in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hard, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyr’s bones.” (150)

I will be studying Mantel’s sentences for some time. Also on the note of craft: the extreme close first-person. Apparently this is a love-it-or-hate-it feature. I am madly in love with it.

I almost hate to bring it up, but I think there are things about this book that would have felt different had I read it before the 45th American president was elected. Henry VIII is a vain, childish narcissist who insists everyone sign a loyalty oath and accept fake facts designed to change the law to suit his whims. Everyone lives in constant fear of upsetting him (though of course, a major difference is that the king can much more easily execute those who upset him). Every once in a while, I would think how it all felt so relevant — not just because of the modern language and sensibilities Mantel provides the characters with.

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Review: Homegoing

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Yaa Gyasi’s skill as a writer is incredibly impressive. This novel is closer in genre, in a sense, to a collection of linked stories than it is to a more traditional novel, and the funny thing is I usually get quite annoyed by linked stories (which often seem like a bit of a cop-out to me). But the reason this works, I think, is for two reasons: first, Gyasi’s theme is the history and consequences of slavery on multiple generations of a family, which is a much more ambitious and meaningful project that, say, “vignettes of a small town” or some such thing, and second, Gyasi is such a skilled writer that she manages to deftly flesh out a character and her story in such a way that this reader, at least, felt just as connected to and moved by the character as if the entire 300 pages had been about her. And as one reviewer noted, the novel is a powerful illustration of why reparations are needed. Yet it manages to be this while never losing sight of the beauty of the characters, as well as their suffering.

I can only imagine how much planning and revising went into this novel behind the scenes–it’s really quite a feat.

I agree with a couple of other reviewers that the early chapters are perhaps the most compelling (although some of the most vivid stories, to me, came about halfway through), and there are parts that could be more fleshed out. The novel isn’t perfect, but what novel is? And some might say that the ending is hokey or contrived, but I actually loved it — I found it poignant, haunting, and beautiful, as well as totally earned. As a writer, I am truly in awe of the achievement, and will remember these characters always.

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Review: The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the minute I picked this one up, it was like, “ah, yes, this is what I want to be reading.” I took some time between reading the first and second books, but from the first page, I felt myself sinking deliciously into the intense world Ferrante has created.

For me, the thing that makes these books so amazing is the level of detail Ferrante goes into to describe the emotions and actions of the characters. She spares no tiny gesture, no fleeting thought. A lot happens in the lives of these young characters, and a lesser novelist would still have a good book on their hands. But what makes these books really great is how Elena, the protagonist, returns to certain events, turning them over in her mind, wringing every bit of meaning out of them, then imbuing them with new meaning as her perspective grows and changes, or as she learns the motives of other characters. I am in absolute awe of this aspect of her writing.

Another thing that makes these books stand out, of course, is the anger and other “negative” emotions of the female characters. Many have commented on this, particularly the rage, but what I also love is how explicitly she talks about jealousy and even some emotions I’m not sure how to name. For instance, (view spoiler) This is what makes the novels great — the way Ferrante never turns away from these kinds of shameful feelings everyone has but no one admits to; not only does she refuse to look away, but she seeks them out, exposes them, exploits them.

Needless to say, I will keep reading!

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Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book made me feel like a kid again, reading A Wrinkle in Time. It specifically reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time — maybe because of the three women (witches)? I don’t have a lot to say about it, because it was just a book I felt, and it is a simple book, but to me, just perfectly put together. It is just what a fairy tale should be: a little wondrous, a little creepy, tinged with the unknowable and filled with vivid imagery that sticks with you even if you forget what the story was. I suppose it could have been a child’s book without the framing device — but the frame, especially at the end, was what really elevated it, for me.

Edited to add: one of my favorite details was when the protagonist was reading his mother’s books about heroines in the 1930s, and the plots kept getting more absurd. Just a great little detail.

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Review: The Night Circus

The Night CircusThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a stylish book about style. The novel is more about atmosphere than anything else; I did not feel particularly moved by the characters (who spoke and acted in ways that made them almost interchangeable at times) or swept away by the plot (which is almost nonexistent), but the imagery will stick with me for a long time. Besides the fact that it was recommended to me, the main reason I read this was to get a sense of how someone might sustain such atmosphere over the course of a novel, so I definitely learned something from it, and I enjoyed reading it.

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Review: Oryx and Crake

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First I want to establish that I love Margaret Atwood. I read this novel partly because I am going to see her speak next month and I knew the topic of the talk was about speculative fiction. This is a list of works I love by Margaret Atwood, ranked in my personal order of preference:

1. The Handmaid’s Tale (novel)
2. “Spelling” (poem)
3. Alias Grace (novel)
4. Circe/Mud Poems (set of poems)
5. Siren Song (poem)
6. “Happy Endings” (short story)
7. “Death by Landscape” (short story)
8. “This is a Photograph of Me” (poem)
9. Cat’s Eye (novel)
10. The Robber Bride (novel)
11. “Hairball” (short story)
12. “Rape Fantasies” (short story)

While I have not read anywhere near all of Atwood’s work, I have read enough, I think, to call her one of my favorite authors. I love that she was the first author in the Future Library Project. She is truly great.

But I really, really did not like Oryx and Crake. I only finished reading the novel because it was written by one of my favorite authors. I wonder, did I miss something? A lot of my friends like, even love, this novel.

1. I do not generally like dystopian stories. For instance, I am the only person on planet Earth who did not like The Road. (However, The Handmaid’s Tale is dystopian, and that is one of my favorite novels of all time…)
2. I have not read much science fiction/ speculative fiction. Maybe I just don’t like the genre?

Now, here is why I didn’t like O&C (not an exhaustive list):

1. If it had been a short story, I probably would have liked it. Generally speaking, I thought it was a decent idea that just got stretched way too thin.

2. It cribs almost unscrupulously from The Handmaid’s Tale. The tone is very similar, as well as the structure, and even parts of the plot — for instance, the way (view spoiler)

3. Yet, despite the similarities to The Handmaid’s Tale, the things that worked so well in that novel don’t work here. For instance, the tone is that of nostalgia for a lost world. In THT, this made sense, as the flawed world pre-Gilead is so much like our own, full of freedoms and pleasures as well as problems. By contrast, the pre-catastrophe world of O&C already just totally sucks. Why would we mourn it? It’s terrible already. Similarly, the shifts in time. In THT, this made complete sense, as Offred was dreaming of the past so much. But when she is in her present world, things are still happening. She still interacts with people, and we learn about the world and how it got that way through that interaction. By contrast, the present day of O&C doesn’t allow Snowman to interact in a meaningful way with other characters. For me, at least, part of the allure of THT was how much was unspoken between characters: this built tension really effectively.

4. I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy, but I didn’t exactly understand the stakes of the argument. It came off as anti-science completely, and maybe a little fear-mongering. (Have I just drunk the kool-aid?) Take, for instance, the example of the Nubbins. Jimmy is sickened by the sight of them, apparently because the idea is inhumane. Yet, he later eats them. And is factory farming any better? If the point were that we are inhumane to animals, that would be one thing — but it seems to be explicitly related to genetic engineering, not the general well-being of animals. ((Then again, I’m a vegetarian, maybe I’m overthinking it.) Or, why the disdain for the Crakers? Because they’re not human? But aren’t they human? I’m confused. A story like this should be chilling to me, right? I kept feeling like it was being handled in a way that was too simplistic.

5. The structure of the novel really didn’t work for me, partly because the world of the present day was so boring (see #2). If it had been told chronologically, I actually think I would have been drawn into the story much more, and more time could have been spent developing the relationships between Jimmy, Crake, and Oryx, to make the tragedy of Snowman being stuck taking care of the Crakers more powerful. I do not generally object to stories told through flashback, but it was frustrating in this case.

6. WTF did Jimmy and Crake even see in each other? Why were they important to each other? And what about the fact that (view spoiler)?

7. If I hadn’t known I was reading a Margaret Atwood novel, I would have sworn the portrayal of women in this novel, especially Oryx, was sexist.

8. The portrayal of Oryx was problematic on many levels. Somehow she was the most interesting character — yet simultaneously the most undeveloped. How is that even possible?

9. The “catastrophe” was kinda stupid.

10. The ending was a cop-out.

I guess that does it. Tell me I’m wrong. I wish I had liked it, so feel free to share your disagreements.

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Review: The Return of the Soldier

The Return of the SoldierThe Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a very short, easy to read novella (I wouldn’t call it a novel), Rebecca West’s first. Having read (and loved) The Fountain Overflows, one of her later works, I was surprised by the melodramatic tone of this novel, as one of the strengths of The Fountain Overflows, in my opinion, is the way West conveys extraordinary events in realistic prose. I also prefer TFO for its spunky, funny heroine, so different from the narrator of this story, who seems primarily to observe rather than act. But The Return of the Soldier still makes for a good melodrama with some strong images, and given West was only 19 when she wrote it, I gotta hand it to her.

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Review: The Light Years

The Light YearsThe Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My mother recommended this series to me quite some time ago, but it has taken me a while to begin reading it. She was right that I would love it. It reminds me a bit of the Forsyte Saga, only because of the type of somewhat nostalgic historical novel it is. One thing that fascinates me about this is how there is almost no overall plot whatsoever, unless it becomes clear throughout the series. Each character has things that happen to them, but I could not really say what the plot was. This aspect of the novel reminds me of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s *The Corner That Held Them* — though they have totally different styles and topics. Howard lets us in on the intimate details of these characters — some might say it is overloaded with detail, though I enjoyed it — and the way she is able to continue telling the story from various characters’ points of view, even when we see terrible things about certain characters, is impressive, as is the way Howard subtly lets us know when something bad is about to happen or be revealed. I’m sure I will be studying how Howard does this from a craft experience for some time.

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Review: Stoner by John Williams

StonerStoner by John Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars


I had more mixed feelings about this book than I’ve had about a book in a long time.

I loved the book at first. The story of a farmer’s son, the first in his family to go to college, who ends up falling in love with literature instead of the agricultural techniques he was sent to school for, was immediately compelling to me; as someone who grew up in a place where expectations of going to college were low and the pursuit of humanities and arts studies were suspect, I found Stoner’s predicament both familiar and somewhat unusual in literature. I appreciated that Stoner never seemed entirely like he “belonged” in academia, yet somehow couldn’t imagine what else he would do. The ending of the novel also pulled me in; the description of Stoner’s last days was beautiful and moving. And in general, the prose and pacing of the novel were beautiful; I certainly still admire John Williams’s skill in moving between specific scenes and time passing, and the construction of his sentences are lovely.

However, the novel really lost me somewhere in the middle. The biggest reason for this was the depiction of Stoner’s wife, Edith. I will admit I have a perverse tendency to feel sympathy for characters that perhaps the reader is not intended to feel sympathy for, but I think Edith’s story is utterly tragic and that she was wholly misunderstood. It was very difficult for me to continue to care about William Stoner after numerous scenes in which he “tenderly” rapes his wife, and it was difficult for me to understand John Williams’s project when he seemed entirely tone-deaf to the fact that it doesn’t matter that they are married, that she “submits” to sex with Stoner, that it was a different time, etc—sorry, it’s rape when she clearly doesn’t want to have sex with him—and I am pretty sure I’m just supposed to think this is normal and Edith’s fault for being frigid. (Even the writer of the introduction calls them “sexually incompatible,” which doesn’t accurately describe their relationship to me.) Edith’s sudden desire for sex when she wants a child seems utterly absurd. And Katherine Driscoll is such an ideal love interest—she even conveniently disappears when their affair begins to affect Stoner’s job—that she seems equally impossible as a character. Then there’s the plot of Stoner’s feud with his colleague Lomax. While the scene of Walker’s disastrous oral exam was utterly riveting to someone who went through orals, and while the takedown of someone who didn’t do the reading was also satisfying (how often I wished some of my own grad school colleagues had been called out on this!), ultimately the plotline is suspect because, basically, Lomax, who is disabled, has decided to mentor Walker based, it seems, solely on the fact of Walker’s own disability, and then tries to destroy Stoner by accusing him of prejudice. This is such typical white-male-conservative-paranoia-fantasy that I really had to question Williams’s choice in making Lomax and Walker disabled. The petty department politics are real and believable, but Williams strikes a low blow in making Lomax petty in this particular way, as well as by depicting him as mysterious, perverse, and suspect from the moment he arrives on the scene.

Is it possible that John Williams is fully aware of these flaws, and of Stoner’s inability to understand other people? It’s possible. After all, there is this passage: “For a moment he saw himself as he must thus appear […] He had a glimpse of that figure that flittered through the pages of cheap fiction—a pitiable fellow going into middle age, misunderstood by his wife, seeking to renew his youth, taking up with a girl years younger than himself” etc. In this moment, Stoner sees the cliché of his life, and yet sees that in fact this is what happens—sometimes we are living what would seem a cliché, but it is real and new and deeply felt to us. So, maybe I just missed the entire point of the novel. But it really just felt like pages and pages of poor, misunderstood, harmless Bill Stoner and the bad people who make life difficult for him for no reason.

Finally, as just a side note, it made me a little angry that Stoner suddenly and mysteriously becomes a better teacher (meaning, for the record, a better lecturer) when he “lets go” (incidentally, while his wife is out of town) rather than anything he actually tries to do in order to improve, and that he obviously sees teaching freshman comp as a punishment unworthy of him and “real teaching” as teaching literature. This is a widely held opinion but annoying nonetheless. So while I liked the way the novel depicts his colleagues as being contemptuous of Stoner’s “dedication” to teaching—that felt very true—it was also annoying that there was nothing about Stoner that seemed particularly dedicated to teaching as I see it.

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