BIBLIO CURIO

acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

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.

Caveats:
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

NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!

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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Review: My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant FriendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found My Brilliant Friend engrossing, a fast read for sure. I don’t usually read series, but I don’t see how I could not read at least the second book given how this one ends! A compelling story of childhood friendship, fueled as much by jealousy and competition as affection. One of the most convincing things about the story is how the protagonist, Lenu, always sees her friend Lila’s life as more exciting, even though Lenu herself is doing something no one else in her neighborhood is doing — going further and further in school, and excelling at it (though education is not highly valued, which ends up making her feel like a misfit). The novel makes clear how difficult it is for both girls not only to make their own choices and live their own lives, but also to have intelligence and creative vision in a world where their attractiveness is what is most valued. I only wish I could have read it in the original Italian — obviously you always wonder what you’re missing when you read something in translation, but in particular there were things with this translation that felt awkward.

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Review: The Corner That Held Them

The Corner That Held Them The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very beautiful book, rather different from Summer Will Show or Lolly Willowes. After reading those two novels, I began to think of Sylvia Townsend Warner as a writer whose novels set up a very believable, realistic world and then, very slowly, take you into an entirely different, somewhat less realistic world, so that by the end of the novel, you’re in a completely different place than you were before. This aspect of her plotting was what began to convince me that she actually was a modernist writer, even though she seems in many ways to be quite different from other modernists; her sentence-level style, for instance, is gorgeous (I was compelled to read aloud more than once) but not particularly experimental, and she tends to write historical fiction, not especially popular among modernists.

The Corner That Held Them , she does not have the subtle plot shift that the other two novels have. In fact, in a sense, there is no plot — or at least, no overall plot. The individual characters do have story arcs, and things DO happen (a lot of things, actually). But generally, this is really a study in the passage of time. Many of the characters are almost interchangeable, or at least, take a very long time for the reader to distinguish; they often emerge slowly, almost imperceptibly, as characters. And then, sometimes the reader will be told of gossip from the villagers in which certain nuns or priests have taken on a mythical meaning, different from the more mundane existence they actually led. It’s hard to explain — almost like a piece of music, how maybe there is a kind of background of strings from which a theme will emerge and recede, replaced by another, and then be reprised in a slightly different way.

The world Townsend Warner creates here is somehow both brutal and banal. The pervasive tone, in my opinion, was a sense of impending doom, mainly due to the way the convent was founded, which is followed by the mortal sin of Sir Ralph, which affects all of the nuns. Even so, my favorite parts of the novel — aside from hints of witchcraft and odd little rebellions from the nuns — were the elections of new prioresses, during which things never go as planned, the right person is rarely chosen, and even when she is, somehow she is not quite the leader everyone had wished for — so like politics. As with Lolly Willowes,, Townsend Warner draws a particularly vivid picture of remote English locales; as with both of the other novels of hers I have read, the world she creates is utterly immersive, convincing, and troubling. This was a strange and beautiful reading experience.

Addendum: I spoke briefly with Sarah Waters about this novel when I attended her book signing for The Paying Guests. She was so gracious. I credit her with my interest in Townsend Warner, as well as with helping keep her in print.

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Review: The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I want to start by saying I have loved all of Sarah Waters’s previous novels and consider myself a big fan. She is one of the few contemporary novelists whose new novels I actively anticipate, and I was fortunate enough to get to see her in person when this book was released in Boston.

That said, I did not love The Paying Guests. Is it I who have changed, or is it Sarah Waters? I honestly do not know. Is this novel just engaging in a genre I don’t care for and that’s the problem? Perhaps.

This novel seemed slight to me, unlike her other novels, which are so rich in detail, character, and plot. I was interested in both Frances and Lilian as characters, but in some ways I feel I never got to know them fully. For Frances, it is as if the “real” story of her life has already passed by the time we meet her character. Every time we hear about Frances throwing a shoe at a police officer or having escapades with Chris, I think, why couldn’t we have had this story instead? I feel like a novel about Frances before and during the war would have been so much more interesting. I realize the problems with this; after all, this novel is explicitly about what happens when that part of yourself you thought was dead is reawakened. But for one reason or another, the love story was never terribly convincing to me, and the setting seemed somehow staged for the purpose of the love story rather than something that made it inevitable.

Another problem for me was the use of close third person POV. At first I enjoyed it, and in some ways it is necessary, since as readers we should probably be unsure about Lilian’s emotions and motives. But ultimately the problem was that it often seemed to make Frances into a spectator in her own life. There were so many passages where Frances is just observing and describing what other people do rather than doing anything herself. This is an annoyance of mine about many novels; if the character is just going to observe most of what happens in the story, why have everything filtered through her POV?

Still, with all this, I did like certain aspects of the novel: the wonderful opening, the historical detail (of course), the importance of the house and the way Frances and her mother are annoyed by having lodgers upstairs (as a quiet person who lives in a first-floor apartment, I can relate to the annoyance of hearing footsteps upstairs!), the slow build, the introduction of a whole new storyline late in the novel that made things a little more interesting. But something about the novel overall felt very forced, and the ending really seemed like a cop-out. I am giving this four stars instead of three just because I don’t want to bring down the star rating, since I still love Sarah Waters despite everything.

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