Tuesday, March 26, 2013

THE CHILDREN'S BOOK – A. S. Byatt

This 675 page (with small print) multi-generational saga of a bohemian style family in Kent, England took several days to read over Christmas. I was so looking forward to this book since it had been well promoted and seemed to be just my style. I did like it but not as much as I thought I would. So much food for thought, historical insight, art appreciation, intrigue, social engagement, and storytelling all wrapped up in a beautiful cover (including a beautiful broach which is part of the story) and promising many hours of being enthralled by unusual people and a different lifestyle.
The characterization is phenomenal and the intersecting plot lines are interesting. Period family stories have always been a draw for me and this one took not just the family but a whole community from the end of the Victorian era into the Edwardian period so I was happy about that. The overall story revolves around Olive, the matriarch of a wealthy family. Olive was raised in poverty but married well and worked her way into a world of privilege becoming a popular and respected writer of enchanting children's stories. Her books are fantasies containing not only fairy creatures but also darkness and foreboding plots. A very British look at the arts and crafts period and the free lifestyle of the art communities.


I really want to put this in a nutshell but there is so much! Olive is very preoccupied with her writing, her children very nearly raise themselves on their huge estate, and her husband is not faithful, but there is adventure, joy, and much love. The community is burgeoning with beautiful art and made up of writers, actors, and artists, including a depressive and perhaps crazed potter/sculptor, a museum curator, orphans taken in, and many children. There are midsummer parties, Shakespearean puppet plays, art exhibitions, women's movement meetings, and then to bring the novel to an end the Great War. It is both enthralling and exhausting.
One subplot that is particularly fun to follow is Olive's stories for her children. They each have their own personal story, unpublished and continually being written. How cool would that be?
My favorite character is Dorothy, who is Olive's “different” daughter and unusually in tune to the world she lives in. She is bright, kind, and interested in the new politics of the age as well. Even though there are many characters, mostly children, they stay real and vibrant and one does not have time to forget who they are as the plot progresses. I would say that one of the themes Byatt explores is the free-love of the arts and crafts movement communities and the discontent and confusion it bred in the children of those families. While I did like The Children's Book very much I will once again state my premiss that some of the new books could take a bit more editing. Some of the meandering of the subplots become tedious and there is something to be said for the writer who can tell a better tale by making it shorter. However, that being said be assured that the writing of the British storyteller here is beautiful and interesting and if you tackle it you will be glad you did. I much regret being on a time crunch and reading it too fast, for you really should be able to put it down and digest it a bit. Or even better read it with someone else so you can discuss the history included, characters, and plot turns.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS – John Green


Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together until all living humans read the book. And then there are books… which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.”—Hazel, from The Fault in Our Stars

Is the above (from page 33) not the best book quote ever? My second favorite quote is used many time in TFIOS and is, “The world is not a wish-granting factory.”

I've meant for some time to read a John Green book because he gets such good reviews and he has several books on the New York Times best seller list. Also, he has great short instructive videos on Mental Floss a favorite web magazine to which I subscribe. Therefore, I purchased a copy of The Fault in Our Stars yesterday to read while waiting on a vehicle repair. After staying up until after 2 a.m. and then doing the “leave me alone I'm very busy” routine with my family this morning I, and my box of tissues, completed my quest. (deep sigh) Loved it.

You will need tissue. How Mr. Green has so successfully written about terminal illness is something I ponder but also fear I don't want to know the answer. Of course I myself have not ministered to a dying person who was not older, and have not lost any children, so I cannot say 100% that his portrayal of terminally ill people and their families is totally accurate. All I can say is that the reviews are positive and the story feels real. Even though you will need tissues don't fear the maudlin or over dramatic here. While there is sorrow there is happiness, wit, wisdom, creativity, sarcasm, and the joys to be had of following characters you care about and who are very much like people you know or are. This novel is so well crafted that the reader feels relief upon finding that dying people don't want you to be crying for them all the time, they just want to be happy and get the same things from life that everyone else gets.

Of course you know going in that both main characters are dying. They meet in a support group for terminally ill teens. It is also clear that this is not a fantasy and there will be no life-saving wonder drugs or superheros whisking off the dying. Hazel is 16 and has been fighting death since her terminal diagnosis of thyroid cancer when she was 13. She meets and falls in love with Augustus, 17 who has had one leg amputated because of cancer. They are both smart, good students, and well-read. Their repartee and loving banter while hysterical to them is sometimes annoying to others but is so fun for the reader. Hazel and Gus bond in several ways but one major interest for them is a book. A fiction book called An Imperial Affliction has meant so much to Hazel that the teens go on a quest to meet the author. The meeting goes not at all as the characters nor the reader expect and is quite shocking actually.

Many of my friends will not read this book and they will say they don't wish to read "sad." They want to escape and be entertained. Well you will be entertained, but you will also be educated, and perhaps you might exercise your ability to appreciate irony and sarcasm a little?

A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD – Jennifer Egan


A novel in vignettes, and if you like a book that bings you around the lives of the characters like you are riding a pin ball then this is for you. A little unsettling sometimes maybe, but a really creative ride it is. Egan toggles the reader around between 1970 and sometime in the not too distant future after 2020, and through a myriad of protagonists. Their lives are all connected and do come together in the end so there is that to keep in mind. Perhaps we are doing one of those “six degrees of separation” things here? I am not familiar with Egan but I found whole chapters that were so intense and characterization so colorful that leaving them to romp off with another while many years passed left me somewhat irritated. It would be possible for me to go back and reread for instance all the “Sasha” chapters and be happy. All the characters come and go over the years and seem to bang around and into each other over and over.

Sasha begins the book. She is a kleptomaniac who is compelled to steal personal items and who is also working for Bennie, a record producer. They have their middle-aged dilemmas. Bennie is trying to keep his career together, have a normal relationship with his child, and fight impotence. Sasha tries to keep Bennie in tow, date, and fight her mental illness. When people from the past enter the scene like Scotty, a Flaming Dildo band member who has been living on the street, Sasha's college lover Drew, Jules a celebrity journalist, Lou an amoral entertainment mogul, and Stephanie, Bennie's ex-wife, then the book rockets into the 1970s. Sasha had been a runaway to Europe working as a prostitute and Bennie was the guitarist for the band Flaming Dildos. There is also a bloated has-been rocker trying to be resurrected, a genocidal dictator, and an aging starlet to contend with.

The rocketing around from character to character and back and forth between four or five decades takes 13 chapters but only 288 pages so you know it goes fast. At first I thought this piece could never hang together but it did and I liked it. Before I read it I saw a reference to A Visit From the Goon Squad as a “mash-up.” Possibly that is a good description but it is more than that too. If you are, as I am, in your “middle age” you may be called upon to remember the 70s and 80s and try not to judge the characters too harshly. There is sadness, irritation, but also humor, irony, and sarcasm written here with skill. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

THE PALE KING - David Foster Wallace


A paperback copy of The Pale King has been sitting on the table by my reading chair for several months now. After several tries of being faced with run-on sentences and “stream-of-consciousness” type writing with which I never do well, it occurred to me that it might not be worth the effort it was going to take to complete the 545 page tome. Therefore, I stopped to go in search of reviews. Bolstered with the thought that better thinkers and readers than I have given this piece superb recommendations, and that it is possibly Pulitzer material I soldiered on. Also the Kennedy Library book group in Muncie, Indiana was scheduled to discuss it this month and wanting to go I decided it would be good to finish it before attending. I have to say that now I am very glad I did. That being said this is probably a book that if it ever gets recommended by me it will be with trepidation. This piece has some brilliant writing, enthralling plot lines, and wonderful characters. However, it is very difficult to read for several reasons.

First of all this book is referred to in most reviews as “unfinished” due to the untimely death of the author, and in reality it does feel fragmentary and chaotic. Also the average reader may not have enough understanding of what the IRS does and of tax code to follow some of the plot and dialogue. There is no set plot line, not much exciting action, and many characters. Finally, the interjection of the author himself into the story via ponderous footnotes apparently is also off-putting to many readers.

When I got to book group there were only two of us that had finished the book and all, to a person, had basically the same impression of the book being too fragmentary and rambling. Knowing ahead of time that it was published posthumously did nothing to excuse what some felt was a disservice to the author. We discussed whether better editing could or should have resulted in an arrangement of the vignettes that comprised the chapters into a piece that made better sense. As it is, it remains very hard to follow. This is a novel-in-stories. Every chapter is different; in perspective, style, theme and even the font. Some chapters are monologues or dialogues, some are third person vignettes, some are in the past and some present tense. Sometimes the reader will be several paragraphs or even pages in before it is clear who is talking or whether the chapter is in the present or the past. I so much longed to have the chapters titled with at least the name of the character whose thoughts we were examining. I have to confess I wrote the names in my book as soon as I figured out who was talking.

An acquaintance told me that probably one could skip the whole beginning and just start with chapter nine and be better off. Well, knowing that could not be right I didn't follow his advice. He was spot on. After reading the whole book and suffering through those first eight chapters I do wish I had simply skipped them. Chapter two is Claude Sylvanshine's musings and wonderings while being captive on an airplane. He switches from mundane daily observations to the recitation of accounting problems that are going to be on the exam that he is on his way to take, and which will be very important for advancing his position at work. I think as a reader we are supposed to understand that Claude has no control over a constant data flow that runs through his mind. The second paragraph of this chapter is ten pages long, which must be the longest paragraph I have ever read. However, in this paragraph Claude remembers his roommate, Reynolds telling him that, “Reality was a fact-pattern the bulk of which was entropic and random.” Therefore one simply needs to figure out what “facts” are important. That I took to be indicative of this whole novel and I decided to simply read it fast and try to remember the parts that are relevant.

Trying to encapsulate the premise of the novel I will say this, it is about a bunch of IRS employees who are each unique with stories to tell of their lives and travails. While you are privy to their tales you also will struggle with them in their jobs while working to set up a new IRS office in Peoria, Illinois sometime in the 1980s. There are some great characters here. I loved the Toni Ware chapters and wanted more about her. Her childhood was sad and often very scary but she is smart and strong. Leonard Stecyk is and always was a true selfless nerd who seemed so “good” no one could ever stand him and yet he becomes an inspiration to others. Lane Dean has been a devout Christian but is questioning his beliefs. My favorite chapter is Chris Fogle's life story most of which takes place in the 70s. It was fun for me because there was a lot of 70s slang and reminiscing about things that went on then. The death scene of Chris's father is bizarre and so vivid. I still think about.

There is a lot here and a lot to think about. One other thing I did not like at all was the interjection of the author into the story including many annoying and useless footnotes. My friend Mike says this is a horrible piece of drivel and he would never recommend it to anyone. I do not agree. There is much here to enjoy and I can see in the future many excerpts of this book being included in college anthologies for study. I would love to discuss this book with someone else who sees its value. I may go back and make notes in my own book telling anyone who reads it after me what parts to skip which could end up being half of the piece.

As I said before there is in this novel much great writing, many beautiful thoughts, witty and interesting language. I think my favorite line is on page 438 in chapter 44, “To be, in a word, unborable.... It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.” the very reason I may like it so much is because when my own children were young and complained of being bored I always told them, “Only boring people get bored.” which is my way of saying that the secret to success is to be immune to boredom as apparently also thought David Foster Wallace.