BIBLIO CURIO

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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.

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 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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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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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.

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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.

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