TOB 2012 – Reviews of Contenders

March 2, 2012

For fans of the Tournament of Books, I have collected reviews of each of 2012’s contenders. And, don’t forget, get your TOB 2012 Contest entries in by midnight on March 4th. In the order they appear on the brackets:

The Sense of an Ending:

Mine: “The life we remember is not, after all, the life we have lived. A new narrative must patch the rip in the fabric formerly weaving emotion and events together. Barnes masterfully explores this reconciliation in ways that I have not quite seen before…Barnes has moved the stakes of the subject outward a smidge.”

A Rat in the Book Pile: “As a meditation on memory the work would carry more conviction were the differential between history and memory more subtle, the divergences smoother. Although there are shadings of memory there are also jarring inconsistencies which smack more of an unreliable narrator than a nuanced memory. Memory is not so much reinterpreted as reinstated.”

The Asylum: “[W]hat cannot be in doubt is that this is Barnes’s most death-pervaded book since, well, his last one. Death, getting close every day, is always personal. In Frank Kermode’s work of literary criticism from which Barnes takes his title, “the sense of an ending” refers to apocalypticism, the end of the world. Barnes’s concern here is far more serious than that.”

Kevin from Canada: “Barnes does not waste a single word in this wonderful short novel…..I will add a caveat to my positive assessment: I cannot set aside my own age when it comes to appreciating the way that Barnes has captured the process of looking back into what produced this current stage of life and left the trails of “remorse” that he explores in the book…..For me, The Sense of an Ending was a very special book that demanded — and got — an immediate second reading.”

Tony’s Book World: ” It is not very often today where a novel starts with a premise and follows that premise through to its logical conclusion….[I]t is such a pleasure to read a novel that is smarter than we are.”

The Devil All the Time:

Mine: “Aside from the fact that Pollock uses the trope of serial killers, only employs male characters who (by the end of the book, almost to a man) have killed, and (except for Grandma Emma and saintly Charlotte) only employs female characters whose greatest pleasure is dropping their panties for fat slobs, the book is reasonably well-written…..These are characters, overtly “good” or “bad”, who serve primarily as vehicles for scenes involving either sex or violence, and often sex and violence together.”

Mostly Fiction (Brodie): “It’s heavy, horrific, beautifully written and filled with studies of people one hopes never to meet. There were times when I felt like a voyeur, watching something that was meant to be private and not shared but I read on anyway, fascinated and sometimes disgusted, but always riveted and totally impressed with the quality of the writing. The tenor, weight and tension of the novel never lets up.”

Mostly Fiction (Van Horn): “The prose is sleek, tight, and tidy with the spills of human degeneracy and base desires. But there is a taut and tense plot, too, a story that will have you biting your nails to the quick while you gasp with mortified pleasure at every single page.”

Lightning Rods:

Randall Reads: “It’s an unnecessary fleshing out of an absurd premise. The skeleton of a story that stands as the novel, to me, shows that there’s not a lot of substance behind it. Of course, this may all very well be the point of Helen DeWitt in how she wrote it. The characters are extremely thin, which would be a sign it’s all to the point. But I didn’t get the point.”

Salvage the Bones:

Randall Reads: “Ward does a great job of drawing her scene and characters. “The Pit” and its inhabitants are memorable and likable, warts and all. Esch and her brothers–Randall, Skeetah, and Junior–are the primary family members through which you experience the story, with their deceased mother’s spirit playing as big a role emotionally as their Daddy does physically. You’ll instinctively love Big Henry and be suspicious of Manny. In fact, I think those two secondary/tertiary characters are as memorable as any I can think of.”

1Q84:

ANZ LitLovers LitBlog: “But did I like it? Not very much. Do I think it’s a significant work illuminating some aspect of the human condition? No, not really, there’s nothing very original about any of the themes.”

Mostly Fiction: “Murakami shirks conventional expectations, refusing to answer the questions he poses and tie his loose ends into pretty little bows. He breaks from craft wisdom – stick to the essentials – with gratuitous descriptions and his characters repeatedly mull over the same plot points. He even challenges Chekov’s famous maxim by introducing a gun that never goes off. But I can’t help but feel that’s the point; life isn’t pared down to essentials, and insofar as our lives have meaning, they’re necessarily narratives, stories just as mundane – and hopefully just as magical, if not as fantastical – as this one.”

The Last Brother:

Mine: “The themes of brotherly love and familial bonds are predominant in this book, as well as the inherently tragic nature of life itself. This is not a light and happy read. Prepare for an emotional wringer. And, yet, the feelings Appanah elicits do not feel falsely won. There was a real story and there is real art in Appanah’s rendering.”

Moving Under Skies: “This was one of the titles from the Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen that I was most excited to read, an anticipation that was somewhat disappointed as this one made no huge impression on me. I liked it, I was happy to have read it once I had finished…..[I]t worked until the ending, which–spoiler, I suppose–nearly destroyed the book for me.”

The Stranger’s Child:

Kevin from Canada: “It is not for me — the prose started out flat, moved on to annoying and became even more self-indulgent and tedious as the novel wore on. I like Proust (and his style) but I am afraid the characters and world that Hollinghurst portrays never came to life for me. Unable to enrol in either story or style, I found the read a difficult slog.”

The Tiger’s Wife:

A Rat in the Book Pile: “The story-telling is good. Suspense is maintained, although I am not a big fan of the abrupt cut from one story-line to another. There’s a lot to be said for a discursive style which conceals its diversionary intent…..I should mention that Obreht uses dissimilar styles for her different voices, and does so convincingly. And I should refer admiringly to the depth she brings to the daughter/grandfather relationship.”

another cookie crumbles: “I was struck by how direct and wonderful the writing is – it’s emotive without being sensational, and it’s beautiful without being hyperbolic…..I loved this book, and would recommend it greatly.”

Mostly Fiction: “Even if the somewhat disparate threads in the book fall slightly short of tying into a seamless whole, this debut novel is easily one of the year’s best….Obreht tackles large and complex issues here: war, loss, the sense of place and how it forms who we are.”

Sasha & the Silverfish: “I was fascinated by this novel, gripped by the near-mythical events that only lore-tinged narratives can accomplish—but I took away nothing coherent. That is, if someone asked me what the book was about, I would have no choice but to say, “See, there’s this, well, I really can’t say it neatly.” That is, “Holy pandas, I have no fucking clue.” That is, “Oh, I like it well enough, but please don’t ask me what it was about—what it’s supposed to be about, what it’s supposed to accomplish.” That is, “There’s a tiger in there somewhere. I think.””

State of Wonder:

Mostly Fiction: “Patchett at her best is a magician of wonder, and this is indeed among her best. I count her Bel Canto as one of the best books I have ever read…..I found myself reading State of Wonder slowly and more slowly, allowing myself to sink into her depth of character, enjoying the deliberate pace of her revelation, reluctant to start another chapter until I had digested the one just finished.”

Sasha & The Silverfish: “Frankly, the cause of whatever failure State of Wonder has, I’m all to willing to heap on its lead Dr. Marina Singh’s shoulders…..Again and again, I had to witness her sheer nothingness. She’s a blank slate, she’s nothing. There’s supposedly all this wonder around her, but she is always a victim to that wonder’s underbelly, she never reciprocates what wonder the setting and the story throws her way. She’s technically part of something revolutionary…, but what does she do? She just stumbles around, prey to insects and stubborn scientists and her own fool self. Ugh.”

The Sisters Brothers:

Mine: “[The] glimpses of the everyman struggling with the world are, actually, much more exciting than the gunplay. It is a struggle for good and evil that is inside us all, a struggle with no clear winner (though sometimes a clear loser)…..Eli’s is the common struggle to make the best of an often harsh world.”

Kevin from Canada: “deWitt is a strong writer; the narrative is fast-paced and even the awkwardness in some of Eli’s wording is effectively deliberate. Unfortunately, for an action-based book, most of the incidents are quite predictable and even when the story becomes more contemplative you can only take the notion of a hired gunslinger with a heart so far.”

Reading Matters: “My problem with the novel lies mainly with the story arc. The first half is essentially a series of set pieces strung together. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, because they demonstrate the brothers’ less obvious differences and their rivalries…..But the second half, in which the brothers find Warm and then set about the task for which they’ve been hired, falls a bit flat. It doesn’t all go according to plan — that would be far too obvious — but it does get a bit melancholic. This isn’t helped by Eli doing a little too much soul-searching.”

Swamplandia!:

A Rat in the Book Pile: “[B]ereavement in its own right is the primary theme. It drives the novel, and Russell charts the journey through grief with unrelenting bleakness. It is hell, it is denial, and it is vulnerability. It is solitary and it never ends.”

Mostly Fiction: “With her energetic prose, quirky settings, and fantastical plots, Russell is a writer’s whose style forces you to sit up and take notice, sometimes at the cost of emotional involvement with her work. However, Swamplandia!, with all its flashing-neon prose is an insightful (and surprisingly funny) exploration of the loss of innocence that inevitably follows the death of a parent.”

Tony’s Book World: “To me the Swamplandia! story is irresistible. Some of the reviews I’ve read refer to the story as magical realism. I disagree. I’m here to tell you that there really are woman alligator wrestlers, and there are families running alligator farms. The daughter Osceola believes in ghosts, but there are a lot of real people who believe in ghosts. There is talk of ghosts in the novel, but no actual ghosts. I would call Swamplandia “improbable but not impossible” realism. Between that and magical realism, there is a world of difference.”

The Cat’s Table:

Mostly Fiction: “It is a beautifully rendered story of growing up and living with the memories of youth. The novel’s language, the tone, the images and the tender approach to his subject suggest that this is probably Ondaatje’s most personal and intimate novel in many years.”

Kevin from Canada: “The Cat’s Table does not so much tell a story (although it does do that as well) as sketch the outlines of another one — for me, the best part of it was the way that it set my mind rolling on similar aspects of my own history and encouraged me to fill in those gaps. That is a substantial accomplishment for any novel…..The Cat’s Table was a most rewarding achievement.”

Reading Matters: “This not a plot-driven novel, nor is it a character-led one. But its interleaved storyline, switching between the past and the present, is strangely compelling — even with Ondaatje’s cool, detached tone…, you want to keep turning the pages…..Despite its strengths, I came away from the book not feeling any great love for it.”

The Marriage Plot:

Mine: “[T]he most interesting parts of the novel were Roland Barthes and the ways Leonard was like DFW. The less like DFW Leonard was, the less interesting the novel became…..The interior [of this novel] is more than mere curiosity, but not sufficiently more that I have any inclination to press it into the hands of passersby.”

A Momentary Taste of Being: “[T]his was a compelling, interesting, fascinating look at very intelligent people making mostly very poor choices……The prose of the book is, at times, quite lovely.”

Mostly Fiction: “With devastating wit and a nod to intellectual and academic influences, Jeffrey Eugenides creates a fresh new way to approach the predictable marriage plot, revealing its relevance in today’s world. It is an achievement.”

Kevin from Canada: “The second half wasn’t bad, it simply did not realize the potential that the first half showed…..[The Marriage Plot] makes for very good escapism, but doesn’t deliver on the promise of the opening paragraph with its reference to all those great authors.”

Sasha & The Silverfish: “Recently, a friend asked me, on Twitter, if I’d read it and liked it. I told him it was a college novel, and a love triangle, and that it was lovely. I add now that it brought me back to college and its sneaky little promises of infiniteness, of love, of the golden life beyond it…..But what can you do when you read a book that lends you a voice? That shares not just your love for some very specific object, but allows you to express that love, if only by pointing at a passage?”

Tony’s Book World: “The novel ‘The Marriage Plot’ is itself a marriage plot, but I can tell you that Jane Austen has not a thing to worry about. One thing that is missing in the plot is a central character who is a little older, who can look at these graduating college seniors with a little distance, a little irony. As it is I felt mostly claustrophobic disdain for these youthful characters.”

Green Girl:

Mine: “For me, with fashion and hookups doing most of the work of plot, the novel lost its way. I became disengaged and felt removed from Ruth by the end…..I lost the thread. I would say the end was disappointing, but the story had unraveled to the point I was no longer invested in the outcome.”

The Nervous Breakdown: “Kate Zambreno has written a powerful, hypnotic, and lyrical book, with Green Girl. There have been comparisons to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and I think that is a good place to start, but somewhere in here there is also the violence and danger of the misanthropic American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, and the work of Mary Gaitskill, as well. It is not just a cautionary tale, but also the baring of a soul—in all of her complex, damaged and vulnerable glory.”

The Art of Fielding:

Mostly Fiction: “Was the book intended as satire, I wondered? But the humor is not consistent. Harbach writes well for the most part, but now and again you see him reaching a little too hard…Then there are the implausibilities…But what finally sunk the book for me were the sexual relationships, none of which I could believe.”

Kevin from Canada: “[A] book that is not only entertaining but, in its own way, thought-provoking. A good “college” novel takes you back to your own experience…..That, though, is the “depth” of the novel: on an entirely satisfying surface level, it is a story that features a largish cast of well-developed characters, every one of whom I found interesting.”

Open City:

Mostly Fiction: “Open City, with its meandering ruminations of disparate topics, is not for readers who look for books with specific plot lines and incidents. And while Julius discusses many subjects of immediate interest at length (even the New York City bedbug epidemic gets an airing here), he is less than forthcoming about what seems to have been a less than straightforward past.”

Kevin from Canada: “Perhaps because I liked the tone and surroundings of the first third so much, I became increasingly frustrated as the novel proceeded…..For me, Cole had not established Julius well enough as a character for his memories to be sufficently interesting and the “thoughtful” conversations he engages in lacked the depth required to produce true insight or engagement — I found myself eager for him to move on to the next one.”


The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

October 19, 2011

Augie March tells his own story beginning with his childhood in depression-era Chicago. His family is poor and his mother weak. The decisions are made by a domineering and realist grandmother. Augie’s description of her early in the novel gives a taste:

If wit and discontent don’t necessarily go together, it wasn’t from the old woman that I learned it. She was impossible to satisfy.

She does her best to ensure that the boys do well in school, stay out of trouble with the law, and learn to lie effectively to obtain medical care or food despite not qualifying for particular programs. Her goal is not so much “good” boys as successful boys. She wants for them whatever will get them ahead in the world and, hence, allow them to help with the family bills.

[T]he old lady, following her own idea of what that fate would be, continued to find various jobs for me.

Saying “various jobs,” I give out the Rosetta stone, so to speak, of my entire life.

Augie bounces from job to job, from mentor to mentor, from love to love, never able to settle into a position in life. He strives for something extraordinary, though he is not sure what that something is. His brother, Simon, is neither as idealistic nor as unfocused and, thus, generally makes more money. But this is plot and I like the writing most.

Bellow is particularly good at identifying and conveying the essential quality of a person. Describing a hulking, good-natured man called “Five Properties”, the narrator follows a few examples of the way Five Properties jokes and interacts with people with this nice summation:

He gave himself an awful lot of delight.

I like this guy as minor as he is to the story.

But the minor characters are important, Augie realizes that, particularly at a young age, he is more a product of influences than an independent agent.

All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself.

As skillfully created a narrator as you can find, he tells us, of course, all about himself in the way he describes his “influences”. Bellow has that felicity with language that allows an author to speak on multiple levels simultaneously. For example:

William Einhorn was the first superior man I knew. He had a brain and many enterprises, real directing power, philosophical capacity, and if I were methodical enough to take thought before an important and practical decision and also (N.B.) if I were really his disciple and not what I am, I’d ask myself, “What would Caesar suffer in this case? What would Machiavelli advise or Ulysses do? What would Einhorn think?” I’m not kidding when I enter Einhorn in this eminent list. It was him that I knew, and what I understand of them in him. Unless you want to say that we’re at the dwarf end of all times and mere children whose only share in grandeur is like a boy’s share in fairy-tale kings, beings of a different kind from times better and stronger than ours. But if we’re comparing men and men, not men and children or men and demigods…if we don’t have any special wish to abdicate into some different, lower form of existence out of shame for our defects before the golden faces of these and other old-time men, then I have the right to praise Einhorn and not care about smiles of derogation from those who think the race no longer has in any important degree the traits we honor in these fabulous names. But I don’t want to be pushed into exaggeration by such opinion, which is the opinion of students who, at all ages, feel their boyishness when they confront the past.

If you suspect Einhorn is not quite as superior as Augie believes, you win a gold star. Augie does not, however, and that is brilliant. With a blindspot in his self-awareness, Augie scoffs at the “boyishness” and naivete of others who, incorrectly, believe men are different now than they were then. It is clear that Augie has caught a touch of hero-worship, a malady of youth if there ever was one. He uses the then-fashionable “N.B.” for “nota bene”, which became fashionable because a (then current) hero comparable to Ceasar or Machiavelli, namely FDR, had used it in one of his fireside chats. Augie is all enthusiasm and praise when, as Bellow also deftly conveys, the truth is much more messy and complex.

We learn something about Augie and something about Einhorn while being prodded with an observation on the world and history. Who are the great men of today? Or, alternatively, would intimate analysis of all great men bring them down to earth as flawed, sometimes petty or weak or selfishly grasping? From history to metaphysics and back through philosophy, Bellow peppers this novel with a learnedness as impressive as it is unobtrusive.

Bellow is, as James Wood has said, one of the “really great prose writers.” He was as eloquent writing about cars as people or ideas:

[E]arly in the morning Joe Gorman picked me up in a black Buick; it was souped up, I could tell the first instant, from the hell-energy that gives you no time to consider….[I]n and out of Gary in two twists and on the road for Toledo, where the speed increased, and the mouth of the motor opened out like murder, not panting, but liberated to do what it was made for.

Slender, pressing down nervous on the wheel, with his long nose of broken form and the color running fast up his face and making a narrow crossing on his forehead, Gorman was like a jockey in his feeling toward the car. You could see what pleasure he got out of finding what he needed to wrap his nerves in.

Bellow’s are sentences to touch and stroke. His prose has a distinctive sensuousness even as it burrows to sharp, slicing truths. The Adventures of Augie March manages to surprise with little stocking-stuffers on each page. And that is the least of the achievements here.

Not everyone, apparently, fell in love with Augie. That I can believe. Augie is not a conventional hero who prevails over all obstacles. Life treats him like a rugby ball, punching, kicking, and grasping at him. Bad guys win while Augie loses. Mostly, though, the characters lose as people usually, eventually, do. In the decades since Augie entered the scene, many critics have marked this book as Bellow’s arrival as a serious man of letters. The novel marked a less restricted approach than he had used in his first two novels. He is quoted later as saying about Augie March:

I took off many of these restraints…I think I took off too many, and went too far, but I was feeling the excitement of discovery. I had just increased my freedom, and like any emancipated plebeian I abused it at once.

And he was probably right. The story itself is a many-armed seamonster. Augie is buffeted about like a mote of dust in a droplet of water. He is acted upon more than he acts, making him a frustrating protagonist. His powerful but diffuse ambition stymies itself, pushing in too many directions or none at all. This is conveyed well, but perhaps there is too much of it. A partial listing of Augie’s jobs gives a flavor of how widely he ventures: newsstand clerk, book thief, dog groomer, eagle trainer, salesman, bodyguard, smuggler, and merchant marine. Augie March does not have the same tightness of Bellow’s later Seize the Day. A little more authorial tyranny might have improved the book. Or not.

Bellow acknowledged “the great mass of sand and gravel” in the novel but seemed pleased, as am I, that he “took [his] chance.”


Summer Vacation

August 28, 2011

While I have not really had a summer vacation, only a busy schedule which has interfered with my blogging (and reading), the blog itself has been on vacation. I plan to begin posting regularly again on September 6th and, if nothing else, each Tuesday thereafter for the foreseeable future. Actually, I hope to continue the posts a fair bit beyond the foreseeable future, as I cannot see far into the future at all.

My apologies for not making a similar announcement before now, but I was not sure when I would be able to resume. Of course, I should have announced a break, but I kept thinking “next weekend I will post something”. Events would conspire against me, or I would feel they had, and I postponed posting another week until, I see, I took a whole summer off. Oops.

On Tuesday the Sixth of September: Siri Hustvedt’s The Blindfold.


Random Statistics from 2010.

January 3, 2011

The search term which most often landed people on this blog, if you aggregate both singular and plural:

gnuppet

This term from Chronic City beat out my blog’s name and (third on the list) “obstinate dust” to take top honors. I also mischievously pulled in traffic from likely spelling errors by those looking for Wolf Hall but who typed “woolf hall”.

Due to the above, it is unsurprising that my most popular post was my review of Chronic City. Much to my dismay, my second most popular review was of The Help.

This has been “Random Statistics from 2010″.


The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

June 28, 2010

I read this book before reading Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. I am only writing this review now because I had not been entirely what to say on finishing The Good Soldier. It is an outstanding work full of memorable quotes, intense scenes, and engaging characters. I hesitated to write anything, then ended up reading What I Loved which contains so many parallels to this work that I lost confidence that I could separate my appreciation of the two works.

The two books involve entangled families in which the story is related by a male protagonist trying to make sense of what went wrong in the families’ intertwined histories. The non-narrating male lead is a charismatic good guy who, nonetheless, remains emotionally remote from, if not everyone, at least the reader. The narrator seems more able to relate the emotions and significance of his counterpart’s wife than his own. And both involve psychological intrigue of a darkly disquieting nature.

Other than these points of contact, however, the novels are completely different. Well, nearly so.

John Dowell is the narrator of The Good Soldier and tells us early why he is telling this story:

You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unkown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; of, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.

The tragedy is the dissolution of the small coterie made up of the two couples and the lesser satellites they trap into orbit. Almost immediately in his narratirion, John tells us that there will be no unscathed survivors. Everyone is either dead, insane, or irrevocably broken. As for John, he tells us:

I know nothing – nothing in the world – of the hearts of men. I only know that I am alone – horribly alone. No hearthstone will ever again witness, for me, friendly intercourse. No smoking-room will ever be other than peopled with incalculable simulacra amidst smoke wreaths.

And John is the one that gets off somewhat easy. Three others are dead.

The whos, hows, and whys of the trio of deaths leads the reader into a labyrinthian social circle from which there is no safe escape. Captain Edward Ashburnan, the “good soldier” of the title, provides the central gravitational pull of the group.

Good God, what did they all see in him? For I swear [his regally charming appearance and abundant carrying cases] was all there was of him, inside and out; though they said he was a good soldier….How could he arouse anything like a sentiment in anybody?

…Ah, well, suddenly, as if by a flash of inspiration, I know. For all good soldiers are sentimentalists – all good soldiers are of that type. Their profession, for one thing, is full of the big words, courage, loyalty, honour, constancy…..He would say how much the society of a good woman could do towards redeeming you, and he would say that constancy was the finest of the virtues. He said it very stiffly, of course, but still as if the statement admitted of no doubt.

What John Dowell does not see, the reader can see almost immediately. Captain Edward Ashburnham has a suave bearing and an understated instensity that women adore. Once they have fallen and Edward has caught them, he is loathe to let them go. This sort of fidelity is, of course, immensely attractive to the opposite sex. And, as if to retain his mistresses’ hearts with secure permanence, Edward worships his wife.

John is a somewhat dull and impotent character who does not understand why Edward is so compelling as he, John, remains a steadfast friend even after Edward’s death and the revelation of painful truths. In circumstances which will make the average reader cringe with revulsion at Edward’s conduct, John gives him a pass. Edward is that kind of man, he has that sort of effect. And, in the end, he may have that effect on the reader too.

The alternatives to Edward are John, in his drab guilelessness, the conniving and disgusting Jimmy, or solitude. Edward is a respectable man, a man to emulate, to envy. The others are only to be pitied. Of course, John does not realize this. He gropes through life unable to decipher the quiet maneuverings of man. His naivete is the tool through which Ford promotes the central theme of the novel, which, if it is not the ephemeral quality of truth, is the duplicity inherent in civilization.

Through a narrator who is constantly having to revise his understanding of the world and the people around him, Ford demonstrates the contingency of knowledge. By the time the story is finished, as John tells us early on, other people begin to appear to John as “incalculable simulacra among smoke wreaths.” The theme is driven home with beautiful language and an intricate plot, much as in Hustvedt’s What I Loved. The strength of this work relative to What I Loved is that The Good Soldier relies on a naively trusting narrator observing more worldly wise companions to demonstrate the fragility of truth. Hustvedt’s relies on an pathologically deceptive character for similar purpose. Thus, The Good Soldier is more powerful in demonstrating that ordinary social intercourse undermines the childlike view that appearance is reality, whereas What I Loved relies on the extraordinary to do the same.

This is not to say that What I Loved does not have its strengths as well, but I believe this review has helped me determine what it is about What I Loved that did not quite work for me. Or maybe it did work, but I took less pleasure in it. In important ways, the works are not similar, but opposites.

But finally, what I have to say is this: If you have read and enjoyed The Good Soldier, you should pick up What I Loved for a delightful comparison. If you have read and enjoyed What I Loved, or if you have not, but have yet to read The Good Soldier, I highly recommend you do. This book is a classic for a reason.


TOB 2010: Wolf Hall vs. The Book of Night Women

March 30, 2010

“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is flat pretending to be round.” – E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel

These two historical novels make a good match. Hilary Mantel demonstrates what can be achieved, Marlon James demonstrates the difficulty of achieving it.

The protagonist of Wolf Hall is, by Forster’s standard, round. Most readers will have some familiarity with the name and deeds of Thomas Cromwell, though, for many on the west coast of the Atlantic, details may be sketchy. Even considerable familiarity does not bleed Cromwell of convincing surprise. Cromwell is round and he is brilliantly invented.

Mantel manages to fill the novel with other convincing characters as well. Thomas More, King Henry, Queen Anne, Thomas Cranmer, and Cardinal Wolsey, to name a handful, are characters who “are ready for an extended life”, as Forster puts it in describing Jane Austen’s characters. Partly, this is because of the original method Mantel has of narrating the novel. “He” refers to Cromwell unless context suggests otherwise. By this fairly unique method, Mantel is able to make the third-person peculiarly intimate. We know the other characters as Cromwell knows them. They are alive.

Marlon James is freed somewhat by having chosen entirely fictional characters, but manages, oddly, to be less inventive. His narrator is, one assumes, supposed to be surprising, but feels less original, less insightful than Mantel’s narrator. The main character, Lilith, comes closest to full roundness, but, ultimately, I did not find her convincing. She felt like she was being directed to make a point, rather than acting and feeling naturally. I am all for characters being subject to authorial control, but they must be controlled convincingly. Homer and the other supporting characters have the same problem Lilith has. To the extent their actions are convincing, they tend not to surprise. To the extent surprising, they tend not to convince. Homer’s personality, her revealed motivations, her intelligence, and her actions do not combine in a convincing fashion. The legs are not all the same length; her character wobbles.

This probably sounds like a slam of The Book of Night Women, but it is not meant to be. I did find the book entertaining and worth reading. However, a comparison to Wolf Hall demonstrates precisely how short of perfection it comes. Wolf Hall is not perfection, but it is sufficiently close to act as a measuring stick for The Book of Night Women. One of these is a lasting monument of literature, the other is a very good book.

Wolf Hall must win.


My Favorite Lit-Blog Things: February 18, 2010

February 18, 2010

Fiction’s Job is discussed over at A Commonplace Blog

Sasha reviews Zoe Heller’s The Believers

VQR Online discusses Amazon v. MacMillan: The Commoditization of Art

Notes on Bartleby and Zero

The Best Translated Book Award Shortlist is out, The Mookse and The Gripes has the scoop.

The secret behind hot sales of The Road to Serfdom.


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