The Judges and book selections for the 2013 Tournament of Books have been announced. Enjoy!
I apologize for not posting this sort of notification earlier. Life circumstances have conspired to prevent me from devoting the attention I would like both to this blog and to reading fiction generally. I do plan to return to regular posting, but have no estimated date of return.
Please do visit the wonderful blogs in my blog roll and, hopefully, maintain the RSS feed because I will return. Eventually. This year is looking like a complete wash, however. Thank you to everyone who continues to check in on me and my blog, who supported the blog with visits and comments when I was doing my part, and who continue to keep the online book world going in various ways, including by continuing your own wonderful blogs.
May the next book you read be a new favorite. Happy Reading!
I apologize for the infrequent posting. I am swamped right now, so have not been able to give the attention I would like to fiction generally or this blog in particular. I will post a review of <I>The Buddha in the Attic</i> late next week.
Book bloggers are at their best when generating enthusiasm and discussion about a book that, otherwise, has gotten little press or attention. Whether it is John Self at the Asylum generating, via his esteemed and laudatory opinion, sales for Hugo Wilcken’s Colony or Reading Matters’ “Australian Literature Month” or Kevin From Canada (and his fellow Shadow jurors) raising the profile of the Giller Prize (inspiring many, well-executed imitators), book bloggers are becoming more and more instrumental in the process of helping readers locate worthwhile books with which they will connect.
Skylark is a good example of the power of blogs to promote novel deserving a wider audience. I only read this book because of the high praise it has received from other readers:
Coverage did get a little kick from mainstream outlets:
However, only with the boost from the trusted bloggers noted above did Kosztolanyi’s novel break out of my “to be purchased” list to my TBR, and, finally, to my “read and loved” list.
Originally published in Hungary in 1924 (preceding the Hungarian masterpiece Embers by a couple decades), Skylark is a very quiet novel focused on the painfully real Vajkay family. Father and Mother live with their adult daughter, Skylark. Skylark runs the household in lieu of employment or a social life outside the family. Her parents love her, but theirs is tinged emotion:
Skylark was a good girl, Akos would often say, to himself as much as anyone else. A very good girl, his only pride and joy.
He knew she was not pretty, poor thing, and for a long time this had cut him to the quick. Later he began to see her less clearly, her image gradually blurring in a dull and numbing fog. Without really thinking any more, he loved her as she was, loved her boundlessly……
He ambled along in his mouse-grey suit until they reached Szechenyi Square, the only square, the only agora, in Sarszeg, where instinctively he strode a couple of paces ahead, so as not to have to walk beside her.
Skylark is a disappointment, an embarrassment. Her parents are unsure how to deal with her in public. The few suitors she has had no longer show any interest in her. The facts indicate she will remain unmarried for the foreseeable future. The Vajkays view this is as mostly tragedy with, perhaps, a silver lining in the time Skylark spends with them as a result, the meals she cooks, and the order she brings to their lives.
Skylark, too, is disappointed in her lack of marriage prospects, but similarly takes some consolation in the help she provides to her parents.
There is a building sense, though, the love they feel is, if not forced, at least strained. Father has dreams in which terrible things are done to Skylark.
He could still see before him the figures from his dream, whom he had encountered so many times before. But even now it staggered him that his precious daughter, who, poor thing, lived such a quiet life, could be the focus of such a horrific and dramatic dream.
After these nightmares he would love Skylark still more dearly.
The lives of this small, unhappy family would likely continue indefinitely in the melancholy existence to which they have become accustomed but for an invitation to Skylark to visit some relatives. Father and Mother are hopeful that Skylark may find a potential mate while she is away, though they dread her absence. Skylark, too, anticipates a refreshing change of scenery and society. The parting at the railway is awkward, none of the three is eager for change, even if for only a week.
The dynamics of the Vajkay family are forever altered by the week apart. They discover things about themselves, the lives they had been living, and the lives they could be living that alter their perceptions of each other and the world. The way in which Kosztolanyi carefully builds the initial state of things and the internal changes of the characters reminded me of The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck. From some perspectives, nothing at all has changed.
In Steinbeck’s novel, Ethan Hawley makes a decision that, ultimately, alters nothing in the external world or in the perceptions of those around him, but it completely shatters his prior self, the narrative of his life. The Vajkays are similarly altered by a week that is, externally, uneventful. Whether the family will be propelled into externally observable change is doutful, but we know that the family relationships and the way the Vajkays view themselves have been irrevocably twisted into a new, more painful shape. Just as Ethan Hawley will never be able to see the same man in the mirror, neither will the Vajkays recognize their former selves or each other after Skylark’s week away.
Perhaps the most enticing thing I can say about this Book Critics Circle Award finalist and PEN/Hemingway Award-winner is that it pairs very nicely with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In my opinion, these were, by a wide margin, the two strongest novels of the 2012 Tournament of Books, though only Open City made it to the Finals.
The pairing works because both engage in issues relating to the construction of personal identity, guilt/culpability, and history. In blogging serendipity, both Whispering Gums and Pechorin’s Journal posted reviews of The Sense of an Ending on the same (April 25) day and both have sparked considerable discussion. If you have read A Sense of an Ending, or even if you haven’t, I recommend both reviews and the following discussions.
Open City warrants equal attention. Julius, the narrator, is a psychiatrist in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship. He has taken to walking around New York City aimlessly. Much of this novel is filled with his ruminations while walking, such as about bird migrations and whether his interest in bird migrations is connected to his new habit of wandering the streets. He considers what New York looks like from the perspective of geese and, importantly, when he sees no migrating geese from his apartment window:
I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.
There is, of course, more than birds. The passage is important because memory haunts this book and this is one of the first hints of its importance and malleability. The climax of this book is a revelation about the past that alters the reader’s understanding of everything that has gone before.
Along the way, Cole weaves his story with strands of fascinating minutia, from those birds to Herman Melville to classical music to Nabokov to the slave trade to terrorism and all manner of other things, literary and otherwise. The references are not just random bits thrown on the canvas, though, each is carefully selected for how it will impact the whole. Julius, telling this story in the first person, is not as aimless as his wanderings suggest. While he is “conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly”, he shows very little emotion throughout the novel. He gains some trust with his detachment, a reservedness that suggests open and objective reporting.
Julius is a wonderfully astute observer, which also strengthens his credibility. He highlights little details of city life in thoughtful, sometime humbling ways. A man walking home alone after finishing the marathon is, at first, pitied for having no friends or family to share in his accomplishment, but, as the marathoner and Julius walk beside each other, Julius considers the strength of will it takes to finish a marathon. He moves from the burst of energy at the end of the marathon to the pain of the “the nineteenth, the twentieth, the twenty-first mile[s].” Completing a marathon is, he says, “still remarkable no matter how many people do it now.” After having really considered marathoning, Julius realizes that the marathoner walking gingerly home was not a sad figure, but a triumphant one.
It was I, no less solitary than he but having made the lesser use of the morning, who was to be pitied.
These little illuminations of the beauty of the routine make this novel sparkle. They also each build towards that radical late shift. The story of the marathoner provides a miniature of the bigger story: An initial scene creates a particular impression, in the case of the marathon it is the pitiful man trudging home anonymously, but reflection and revelation shift the meaning and, hence, the final impression that is left.
Whispering Gums (link above) makes an interesting connection between The Sense of an Ending and The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Open City is not really anything like that. Julius is, unlike Tony, not a bystander to life. He is sufficiently ambitious to make it from his native Nigeria to America through medical school and what appears to be a very solid, if not spectacular, career. Julius had to assert himself to make these things happen and he is much younger than Tony. Tony’s “melancholic tone” based on opportunities missed is absent here, but oddly mirrored in Julius’s clinical detachment from his own life.
The books are not exactly the same, however much the focus can turn to “what really happened?” Neither The Sense of an Ending (see Pechorin’s Journal link above) nor Open City are primarily concerned with presenting a mystery to be solved. The actual facts are, in at least some sense, irrelevant.
In Barnes’s work, this is because a major focus of the book is on how memory, all memory, is faulty. Constructing an “actual” past is a fool’s errand, in some ways, because, to borrow from Heisenberg’s insights into quantum physics, the mere recollection (observation) of one’s own memories alters them. It is impossible to perfectly reconstruct the essential variables of events in one’s past.
Cole has a slightly different focus. While I do not think this Copenhagen interpretation of memory is irrelevant to the story Julius tells, because there is some uncertainty there, it is more sideshow than main feature. Cole is more concerned with how personal narratives are constructed, particularly including value judgments, than with the unreliability of memory (or narrative). This is one of the more interesting parts of Barnes’s work too. After all, what really is interesting is how the recognition of the incompleteness of Tony’s memories reorders the value judgments placed on prior (undisputed) actions and inactions. Villians may be heros, or not. Cole confronts the reader with a similar principle of moral uncertainty. There are depths to be spelunked.
And amid all this, those delightful observations of small things:
The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.
I will leave with one last, sort of spoilerish conjecture. I am not sure of the meaning of those last 175 dead wrens. That so many birds died despite the fact that “the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark” suggests something sinister about the flame, about the statue of liberty itself. Freedom comes up several times in the book. Julius finds freedom in his wanderings, there is the story of the shoeshiner who purchases the freedom of his sister, his wife, and himself, and the Brussels discussion of freedom, including the comparisons of freedom in Europe with that in America. American freedom “form[s] and sharpen[s]” people in unique ways, Julius suggests. For some, of course, the contact with American freedom is radicalizing.
I have not formed a clear idea of how this sinister side of American freedom fits in with the story-altering revelation. Julius is very careful to construct this portrait of a respectable, if disconcertingly aloof, man who cares about the arts, philosophy, history, and his fellow man. He is always polite, if not very warm, and he has come from difficult circumstances in Nigeria to success in America. That final detail brings new meaning to his demeanor, making it seem frosty rather than reserved.
My first impulse had been to equate the disorienting light of the Statute of Liberty to our own impulse to believe in our goodness. Like the promises of America, our own freedom of memory can disorient and destroy. The flame can guide some to safety and opportunity, others it destroys.
The error I have made, I think, is in trying too hard to boil Cole’s excellently crafted ending into a nicely summarized philosophical point. The birds simply are dead and the emotions there are quite similar to the emotions upon learning that final fact about Julius (and his own reaction to it). There is an inchoate sadness; the tragedy feels unfinished, an explanation is needed. But all we have are wrens, dead for reasons unknown.
I have already griped about some of the slips of detail in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel. Errors of detail shake the trust an author must have from her readers. I was shaken by some of Ward’s specifics, but stirred by others.
The beautiful evocations of late childhood in Salvage the Bones offset the mistakes of tractors that drive like cars and oddly formal playground basketball. Ward deftly sculpts mental images of those things she knows best.
A fifteen year-old* girl named Esch narrates this novel of a struggling black family in rural Mississippi. The family consists of four children (Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior; three boys and a girl) and two largely absent parents. Esch’s mother died giving birth to the baby, Junior, and her father is usually unavailable in any productive sense due to perpetual drunkenness. With the tragedy of their mother’s death behind them by several years, we watch this kids as Hurricane Katrina, twelve days away at the start of the novel, looms ever larger over their lives.
The older siblings are all preoccupied with something outside the family: Randall is trying to obtain a basketball scholarship, Skeetah’s pet pit bull (China) is pregnant, Esch is in love with and pregnant by a handsome boy named Manny. Junior tags along with whoever will let him.
Ward captures sibling dynamics and the harshness of life for Esch and her brothers while capturing the bigness of teenage life, as it is experienced by teens, at least. When the older kids and some friends go camping, Skeetah shoots a squirrel for dinner. At the campsite, Skeetah butchers the small animal. He starts by cutting off the head, then:
He pitches the head into the underbrush like a ball…
On an adventure to a nearby farm, the reader feels like he too is crouching on the edge of the pasture watching Skeetah making his way past cows to a barn. Memories of playing in sheets hung on a clothesline feel almost like the reader’s own:
Mama washed all the sheets for both houses at once, and there was so much bedding that Daddy had to hand extra lines…The sheets were so thin we could almost see through them. They made cloudy rooms, and we played hide-and-seek in them. In the winter, they made our faces wet and achingly cold, but in the summer, it was so hot the sheets didn’t stay wet long, but we smashed our faces into them anyway, trying to find the hidden cool….[W]e let our hands hover over them, shoved our noses into them to see if we could see the other person running down the next billowing hallway.
There is much to love about this book. The characters are very strong. Esch and her siblings are excellently round characters. Skeetah, particularly, strolls out of the book as a fully formed person. Ward has great talent.
Despite my praise, I do feel the need to point out that there were aspects I found distracting (small details amiss), the sort of thing that tips off inhabitants of The Matrix to the artificiality of their world. Not everyone notices, of course. The strengths of characterization and story, which are considerable, override the minor failings for many. Shoehorning the story into twelve days did not work so well for me and gave too much focus to the hurricane. This is not a “Hurricane Katrina” book. I think the book would be stronger if it placed less focus on the storm.
It is not a perfect book. I liked it, though. I loved it best when it was about kids making their way in a teenage world or remembering a few short years ago when they were playing in “billowing hallways”. This is not the “Great American Novel”, but, if you read it, the characters are so real that you will genuinely hurt along with them.
*The promotional materials say “she’s fourteen”, but the math does not seem to work. Junior “is seven, and he is curious” while Esch was “eight [and] of no help” when her mother dies giving birth to Junior. Esch cannot be fourteen because she must turn fifteen on or before Junior’s seventh birthday (on his first birthday, she had to be nine, etc.). (This is also the summer after her tenth-grade year which, ordinarly, means an American student is fifteen or sixteen.) Bloomsbury how can you not know the age of the protagonist of the novel you publish?
I will be brief, because this novel has received widely laudatory coverage and I do not have much to say about it. Magical realism tends to have too much magic and too little realism for my taste. The mix here, though, was not bad. I also did not find, as others have, that the novel felt like two short stories (“The Deathless Man” and “The Tiger’s Wife”) duct-taped together to form a novel. Perhaps the most I can say is that I was not particularly moved.
Obreht has some beautiful imagery and intriguing ideas on offer. For the imagery, try this:
[H]e was the kind of boy who caught bumblebees in jars and then harnessed them carefully with films from cassette tapes so that it was not uncommon to see him walking down the main road with dozens of them rising around him like tiny, insane balloons while the film flashed wildly in the sun.
I also enjoyed the “sour little shudders” of a boy’s heart and the need, in cold and snow, “to wipe the sting out of his eyes”. Obreht paints exquisite details into her novel.
As for ideas, one of her most important characters is “the deathless man” who has been cursed with the inability to die. This idea has been often used before, though Simone de Beauvoir explored it with the most philosophical rigor in All Men Are Mortal. De Beauvoir uses Raimon Fosca, an immortal character, to examine what mortality means for our ethical systems and how it shapes human experience. In her rendering, immortality presents problems of its own, demonstrating that frustrations with limited time are, in some ways, based on false assumptions. The darkness and the light at the heart of existentialism is further explored through Fosca’s inability to create any lasting progress or improvements in the world. Whether man dies or not, meaning is ephemeral.
Obreht takes a light approach in bending the venerable myth of a man cursed with immortality to her purposes. Partly, this is by giving the deathles man a supporting, rather than leading, role. Natalia, Obreht’s narrator, learns from her grandfather’s interactions with the deathless man the lesson of hope in death. The deathless man proves that death need not be feared because there is something afterwards, something even to be longed for by one who knows best what to expect. Death, in other words, is not really death.
The primary problem with death, in Obreht’s telling, is that people are always worried they missed something that would have prolonged their life.
”But the greatest fear is that of uncertainty,” Gavran Gaile is saying. “They are uncertain about meeting my uncle, of course. But they are uncertain, above all, of their own inaction: have they done enough, discovered their illness soon enough, consulted the worthiest physicians, consumed the best medicines, uttered the correct prayers?”
I am not sure this could be written or believed by anyone over the age of forty. By that age, denial of mortality is generally no longer really possible. The greatest fears tend, then, to be those with which de Beauvoir and her character Fosca engage. The question is not so much “have I done enough to avoid death”, but “have I done enough with my life?” The brilliance of All Men Are Mortal is that Fosca’s life demonstrates that the thing we tend to mean when we ask that question is not really all that important. There is no monument a person can erect to herself that will insulate her from annihilation. All accomplishment is, in the longest of runs, illusory. Ozymandias may have been the king of all kings, but boasts of eternal greatness are always mocked by time. Impermanent beings must satisfy themselves with evanescent significance.
Obreht, meanwhile, demonstrates admirable skill, but never delivers the sort of depth her premise suggests. The deathless man serves as a kindly guide across the Styx. One needn’t fear death, because a friendly man awaits. He will start you on the path to find your previously departed loved ones. You will meet them again. Death is not death, but a mere transition. Obreht’s is too facile a solution to the unpleasantness of finitude.
The Tiger’s Wife is a promise to us that Obreht is an author worth reading now for the greatness she will give us in the future. This book provides pleasant diversion, but no real weight.