acquiring, collecting, reading, adapting

Category: reading

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.

View all my reviews


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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.)

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

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.

View all my reviews

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading The Luminaries, I decided to go with something brief. And yet, despite its brevity, there was something similar about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and it had to do with expecting one thing from the book and getting something very different. Based on the description from the back of the book, I expected a story about a woman whose honesty and sexual daring and pedagogical experimentation led to her tragic self-destruction. However, Miss Brodie’s unorthodox pedagogy stems entirely from a cult of personality rather than a nurturing of intellect. Instead of telling the girls the standard way to think, Miss Brodie simply tells the girls a different way to think. But she still dictates their thinking; despite her proclamations to the contrary, she does not really teach the girls to think for themselves, but rather, she exhorts them to think the same way she does, and she pins stifling destinies and identities upon them based on her own perceptions of them. Her politics reflect her style of teaching.

Of course, one could argue that she actually does succeed, with Sandy, who betrays her. But my sense is that Sandy’s development has little to do with encouragement from Miss Brodie. She already has such an active imagination, fantasizing as she does about having relationships and conversations with fictional characters as well as people from Miss Brodie’s past. Then again, perhaps she is not an independent thinker, but rather just another version of the fascistic Miss Brodie, seeing everything through the lens of her own experiences and knowledge, with no sense of the effects of her actions on other people. One of my favorite parts of the novel is when Sandy wonders whether it is Miss Brodie or her own perception of Miss Brodie that changes so drastically as she comes of age.

Spark’s style is admirable; her use of temporality is masterful and her sentences crackle with a terrible and precise beauty. Though brief, this novel was enjoyable and provocative.

View all my reviews

Review: The Luminaries

The Luminaries
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something strangely ethereal about Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Perhaps this is not surprising, given the celestial nature of the title and the star charts that underpin the structure of the novel. At 848 pages, you might expect something heavier in subject and tone to match the literal weight of the novel itself. Instead, the novel is almost airy, the words—particularly late in the novel—seem almost to rise off pages that are incapable of holding onto them.

The novel gives the appearance at first to be an old-fashioned Victorian yarn of the sensation novel variety: there’s a mystery, a missing person, a possible ghost, several ship wrecks, an opium-smoking prostitute, a fortune teller, stolen gold, a fairy-tale-like story involving women’s dresses, and a young man seeking his fortune in a country far from his home. Indeed, the story even opens on a dark and stormy night, when our fortune-seeker accidentally walks into the back room of a bar where a secret meeting is taking place. And yet, despite these trappings, this is not at all the juicy, engrossing Victorian pastiche I expected. Instead, Catton enchants.

Initially, it was a bit hard for me to get into the book, though I couldn’t understand why, since I am used to reading lengthy nineteenth-century tome with huge casts of characters. In The Luminaries, there are 13 male characters taking turns telling their stories, plus a couple of additional characters that were involved in the stories but not telling them. I found myself re-reading passages and feeling a bit confused about the roles of different (male) characters. I didn’t even bother with the astrological charts, and while I feel a little bad about that, since I’m sure they added something for those who could read them, I knew it wasn’t for me. The novel begins as a bit of a puzzler: wide in scope, crowded with characters, and involved in revisiting details of a mystery over and over with only the tiniest movement toward a new piece of information. But once I gave myself over to it, and once a few very crucial details became known (perhaps we would disagree about what were these crucial details), the story began to take off at a rollicking pace, only to slow down again and focus in again toward the end. At first the effect of the ending is frustrating, as you basically have already inferred the backstory Catton is filling in. But then something amazing happens: the story, the pages, the words, begin to unravel before your eyes as white space begins to engulf the text and the descriptions of what is happening in a chapter become longer than the scenes themselves. And then, the final disembodied words, quiet and intimate after a whirlwind description of the mechanizations of fate. To me, the ending of this novel feels, more than anything else, like blowing on a dandelion and watching the seeds scatter.

I have no idea whether or not this review even makes sense, much less compels a reader to pick up the book. But I wanted to try to capture the feeling of reading this novel. I can say I found it beguiling, and am astounded by the feats Catton achieves. I cannot give it 5 stars, as the technical feats, for me, outweighed the heart of the book too much; though I was intellectually engaged, I was never drawn fully into the novel. But I still recommend it.

View all my reviews

Review: Mary Olivier, a Life

Mary Olivier, a Life
Mary Olivier, a Life by May Sinclair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lovely autobiographical novel by an apparently neglected modernist writer. I am no expert on modernism, but his reminded me in parts of Virginia Woolf, particularly in three ways: the impressionistic early scenes in which Sinclair describes memories of being very young; the swift passing of time combined with descriptions of domestic life; and the struggles of an intelligent, talented woman trapped by the conventional thinking of her family and provincial neighbors. This is described as a story of a mother-daughter relationship, and it certainly is that, but I was surprised by how much it was also about Mary’s intellectual development and her rejection of Christianity—a very bold opinion to hold in the late Victorian era. The story is tragic in its depiction of how someone can be held down by the small-mindedness of those who are afraid of independent thinking, but Mary’s eventual triumphs are not to be dismissed, even if they come late in life. Because it is rather slow-moving, I would not recommend this book to everyone, but I thought it was beautiful.

View all my reviews

Review: Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How does one even begin to write a “review” of Moby Dick, especially if one has a particularly dubious history with this classic? (If anyone cares to read more about my “history” with this novel, feel free to visit my blog post: It has taken me a really long time to write this review because there is at once so much to say and nothing to say.

One of the many reasons I avoided this book after my initial negative reaction was my lack of interest in Ahab’s obsession with vengeance on Moby Dick. To my surprise, this story actually doesn’t take up much of the book. It is one of the only plot points in an otherwise rather directionless novel, so that must be why the book is described as the story of Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick, and of course the book is held together with this thread. But I was surprised by how much time Ahab spends brooding in his quarters, and by how often this would happen: a ship would come by, Ahab would ask if they had seen the whale, they would say no, then he would just snort and them and disappear, after which the story of that ship would be told nevertheless. I’m sure this could be really annoying to some readers, but I enjoyed it. Similarly, there is a lot of Melville “philosophizing,” which apparently led to the book’s initial commercial failure. Among Melville’s many ruminations, my favorite was the assertion that all killing of animals is murder, and all humans cannibals. While there is no implication in the passage that people should not eat meat, there is a strong argument throughout the book that humans should certainly recognize the violence and sacrifice (both human and animal) involved in the eating and use of animal materials (including whale oil and sperm).

For me, Melville is at his best when writing humor (and yes, there is a lot of humor in the book) and really strange, ominous, gothic imagery. Some of the ominous moments that will stick with me from this book: the graveless tombstones of the many New Bedford sailors lost at sea, the Pequod ponderously moving along with the head of a whale strapped to either side of the ship, the sound of sharks bumping recklessly against the side of the ship in a frenzy of feeding on a whale carcass, the witchcraft-like ceremony in which Ahab solicits the sailors’ allegiance in killing Moby Dick. These moments convince me of Melville’s Romanticism, despite the modernist heteroglossia and mixture of genres that also make the book fascinating and challenging at once.

I feel that rating a book like Moby Dick is a somewhat ridiculous endeavor, and if it’s undertaken, should probably only result in either a one-star or a five-star rating: it should elicit only the strongest feelings. Even so, I’m assigning four stars, because even though I liked the book very much and am glad I read it, I have to admit that I balked every time I sat down to read a little, which means I am happy I read it but didn’t always enjoy the experience of reading it.

View all my reviews