acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Category: book on my shelf

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 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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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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Review: A Gate at the Stairs

A Gate at the Stairs
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like other reviewers here, I am more familiar with Moore’s short stories, which I absolutely adore. Ultimately, I found the book to have the same brilliance and razor-sharp wit of the short stories even though I found it uneven.

At first, I was disappointed by this novel and found it difficult to get into because Moore was making what seemed like a series of rookie mistakes. (God, does it make me sound like an asshole to say that or what?) The first problem for me was that Moore didn’t give us enough information about the narrator before putting her into the situation of being interviewed for a job by the other main character in the book. So what happens is, we then get a rumination or further explanation from the narrator after every interview question the employer asks. The problem with this is twofold: it disrupts the flow of the conversation, and it means that we are thrust too quickly into a situation where the stakes could be high for the protagonist but we don’t yet know what those stakes are, because we don’t know the protagonist well enough. So, for example, if we had known Tassie’s background as the daughter of a potato farmer before the conversation begins, then when Sarah gets excited about the potatoes (yes, she gets excited about potatoes), it would make so much more sense and would allow us to feel something along with Tassie. Instead, we simply learn more about Tassie’s opinions on her father and the potatoes (really this does make sense in the novel) THROUGH the conversation, which maybe sounds like a good idea, but it just slows down the conversation itself and makes it hard to see how Tassie is interacting with Sarah in the moment, which should be the important thing. Then, right after that, Tassie goes home for Christmas, which has the weird effect of making you feel like Moore is stalling something. I have mixed feelings about that one, because I do understand the importance of having her go home, but it made the whole thing a little harder than it should have been to get hooked.

BUT, once I did get hooked, I was REALLY hooked! The bizarre and hilarious and poignant interviews with pregnant mothers, the critiques of the adoption industry, the commentary on America’s particular brand of racism—these were all provocative and insightful and certainly as darkly witty as any of Moore’s short stories. She does try to pack a great deal into a very short book, so in some ways it feels like the story of Tassie’s job as a nanny and the utterly tragic and heartbreaking victimization of her young charge does not gel with the story of Tassie’s family and her brother’s decision to join the army. And for me, since the story of Tassie being a nanny was so incredibly interesting, I just wanted more about that and less of the other part. But at the same time, this is a coming-of-age story, and in a sense, the story of Tassie’s brother runs parallel to Tassie’s story. Not understanding the world and not knowing what they want their place in it to be, they both enter into it with a kind of oblivious trust and optimism, to disastrous results.

This novel gets a bonus star for some nicely-done, quasi-subtle references to Jane Eyre. (The use of “quasi” in that sentence is my own reference to A Gate.)

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Review: The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, it took me pretty much all summer to read this book, which means Trollope probably wrote it faster than I read it. Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but he did only take eight months to write it. That’s, like, more than 100 pages a month. The man was a writing machine.

This is only the third Trollope I’ve read (Barchester Towers and The Prime Minister were the other two and yes, yes, I do know it’s weird that I only read book two of the Barsetshire Chronicles and book five of the Palliser series; blame my grad school advisor). I’ve often wondered why no one seems to read Trollope these days (more on that in a moment), and I do think that reading The Way We Live Now would be satisfying for anyone interested in the Victorian novel or a generous, leisurely-paced story.

The thing I think was best about this novel was how thoroughly and convincingly Trollope is able to inhabit each character’s perspective. Even the vilest characters have their own point of view, and Trollope seems able to convince me of those characters’ motives and grievances; I would find myself often understanding and even sympathizing with characters even when I knew they were wrong or irrational. Someone once told me that Trollope really loves his characters, and I believe it. As a consequence, he does psychological realism really well; in fact, I would say he is on par with the best Victorian novelists in this regard. It was disappointing to see the female character diminish into romantic gushiness and nearly all the best characters expelled from the community toward the end, but those things are fairly typical of a Victorian ending.

So why don’t people read him anymore? Well, it might just be the length of the novels, but I think it’s something else. This novel, perhaps considered his masterpiece, is beautifully done and fun to read, and his characters, especially the female characters, are mostly more psychologically complex and realistic than, say, those of Dickens. But in addition to a certain stylistic bravado Dickens has that Trollope doesn’t, it also lacks that weirdness, that ability Dickens has to make things creepy and strange, his interest in compulsion and masochism that makes those novels, in turn, so compulsively readable. Trollope lacks the wildness of a Bronte, too, though Marie Melmotte seems transplanted from a Bronte novel, which is why she’s so great. I would say Trollope is more like George Eliot than Dickens or Bronte, but even then, there is a lack of profundity to his work that makes Eliot’s so gorgeous. Like Gaskell, another little-read Victorian novelist, Trollope fills out the Victorian literary landscape and perhaps even exemplifies what people think of when they think of Victorian literature, but without the things that really make the writing stand out.

In any case, I still loved the novel; it was a really enjoyable read with memorable characters. My favorites were Marie Melmotte, who claims her father can “cut her to pieces” but she won’t give up her (feckless) lover, and Lady Carbury, for whom “if there was anything in life she could not forgive it was romance.” And the satire of contemporary economics could almost have been written today. There was quite a bit of repetition—perhaps reminding serial readers about where they left off—but I still enjoyed the pace. I would recommend it to anyone who likes Victorian novels or history. Personally, I plan to read more Trollope.

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Bronte Sisters set

It’s been a while since I posted about my book collection.

The Novels of the Bronte Sisters

The Novels of the Bronte Sisters

Set: The Novels of the Sisters Bronte; 12 volume set. This is a complete set of the finished seven novels by the Brontes — Villette, Shirley, Jane Eyre, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are two volumes each — plus the famous biography of Charlotte Bronte by her friend and fellow novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.

Authors: Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Anne Bronte, and Elizabeth Gaskell

Publisher: John Grant, Edinburgh

Publication Date: 1905

Acquired: $60 for the set, purchased at a flea market in Rowley, MA. It was hard for me to spend that much money, but after some internet research, I’m starting to feel a little guilty… because I think I got a major steal.

Comments: I have mixed feelings about grouping the Bronte Sisters’ works in a set or as a literature course. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense: their novels have similar themes, the settings are influenced by places they grew up together, they gave each other support and feedback on the first few novels. On the other hand, I always feel like they get dismissed to some extent when they are lumped together–as if any of the books could have been written by any of the sisters. You, dear reader, know that’s not true. Each sister had her own obsessions, perspective, and distinct writing style.

Still, it does make some sense to group them, and it was exciting to see a set–although I was not surprised such a thing existed, I had never personally seen it before. This set is a muted red color, with pretty gold lettering and a flower symbol on the spine. Very ladylike. The set is in decent condition; the bottoms and some of the inside pages have age spots, but everything is intact and the spines are in good shape.

Spines of a few of the books

Spines of a few of the books

Each book has one or two illustrations. I was expecting scenes from the books, but instead these were illustrations of the supposed “originals” of various characters or settings in the novels.

Title Page for Agnes Grey

Title Page for Agnes Grey

A portrait of Charlotte Bronte's best friend Ellen Nussey, supposedly the "original" for the character of Caroline in Shirley

A portrait of Charlotte Bronte’s best friend Ellen Nussey, supposedly the “original” for the character of Caroline in Shirley

A lovely set, and I think it’s worth way more than I paid for it! Antiques Roadshow?

Review: The Country of the Pointed Firs

The Country of the Pointed Firs
The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I need to be honest in my reviews, right? For the sake of transparency?

I found this book so incredibly boring when I started it that I almost quit a number of times, often avoided reading it, and typically fell asleep while attempting to read it. It took me much longer than it should have to read for that reason. This made me feel like a bad person and worry that I had lost patience. I thought I enjoyed slow narratives.

It was quite amusing to me when, early in the book, the narrator realizes at one point that she had gotten bored with an old sea captain’s stories and had stopped listening. If the narrator can’t pay attention to the stories, how can I be expected to?

But then, the narrator realizes that she has been rude and refocuses her attention, so I tried to follow her lead and did grow to like the book more. I still didn’t love it, but eventually I became used to its pace and lack of plot enough to enjoy certain things about it. Certain stories, such as that of “poor Joanna,” are haunting, and I did enjoy the bonds between women and the regular referrals to herbal remedies. Still, I was overall disappointed by the structure, which consisted a lot of character sketches and individual monologues. It was as if people were just waiting around for someone to show up so they could tell a story. Which, I mean, might not be that unrealistic, if you are lonely and live in an isolated place. But if you contrast this with Elizabeth Gaskell’s _Cranford_, which is what I thought the novel might be like (since both focus on rural areas with aging, mostly female populations that are visited by younger but not exactly youthful female narrators), you will find it has much less humor and liveliness. While Cranford’s women dwell on the past, they also interact with each other and have new adventures, which certainly seems like a much preferable way to age.

While the main book is largely stagnant, I found some of the additional stories in my edition much more enjoyable. “The Foreigner” is another Dunnett’s Landing story, and while it has a similar basic structure (Mrs. Todd telling our narrator a story about someone who has died), there is something richer and more beautiful about it, for my own taste, than the stories in the main part of the novel. “Martha’s Lady” was, for me, the most enjoyable story; it deals with an entirely different set of characters and tells a beautiful story of romantic friendship. I am glad I had the endurance to read these additional stories, as they were my favorite parts of the edition.

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