Time for some quick-fire book reviews. If you want to see what I'm reading these days, check out the Books tab and scroll down to the bottom for my 2017 reading list.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (read for book club): To say this is an experimental novel is an understatement. Ostensibly, it's about a woman who becomes obsessed with a man (an English literary/culture critic posing as some kind of cowboy artist), but that's really not what the book is about. I found it easier to like this work by thinking of it as a piece of performance art concerning feminism, art criticism, and most of all, who gets to speak. I Love Dick is Kraus's living answer to that question. I'm not sure how they managed to convince Amazon to make a TV show based on this book, but I can't comment on that having not seen it. If you do decide to take the plunge with I Love Dick, I would recommend skimming the section about the paintings. As far as I can tell, a lot of this book wasn't intended for the every-day reader, being more specifically geared to Kraus's peers (art and literary critics in the most academic sense of the word). It's a hard book to finish, but you should because the ending is fabulous and there is a lot great insight sprinkled throughout.
Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (read for an upcoming Adichie talk): I'll be honest, this book was a bit of a struggle for me until the latter half. It's about a Nigerian family, well-off and highly respected because of the father's business success, his support of the free press in an oppressive and dangerous political landscape, as well as his generosity and extreme catholic piety. To outside observers, he is the perfect figure-head to the perfect family. But what no one else knows is that he regularly beats and terrorizes his wife and two children, usually for some kind of perceived sin, however inconsequential (or non-existent) it might be. The father is a fairly interesting character because you can only wonder how he became this way and why he hurts his family even as he so clearly loves them. I suppose it's because he's been taught to believe by missionaries that he will lose them if they aren't able to uphold every rigid, arbitrary rule of Catholicism, much in the way he's "lost" his father who simply refuses to convert. Anyway, you can already tell from this review whom I'm more fascinated by in this book, even though it's told from the perspective of his daughter. And I feel a little bad about that, because it's clearly not her fault that she's so passive and weak - she's been terrorized into silence by her father. So her passivity is understandable, but also very frustrating to read. Most other characters outside of her family also get annoyed by her for these same reasons, so I suppose my reaction isn't entirely out of place, but we at least know why she's so weak, and so we know how unfair it is to judge her for it. Once the daughter is more or less removed from her home by her aunt, she begins to improve, but it was a slog to get there. I just got very tired of reading the lines "I wanted to say..." over and over. But again, I understood why she couldn't say it either. It definitely made you feel complicit in the plot, like you were just another character passing judgement on the poor girl, making her life extra miserable. So her passivity made it hard to push through Purple Hibiscus, but I'm glad I did. Can't wait to hear Adichie's thoughts about it and what I may have missed.
Would definitely recommend you try both of these novels. Like I said, they're kind of difficult books in different ways. Purple Hibiscus is certainly the more readable of the two, but the narrator was less compelling compared to I Love Dick's (who most of my book club hated, so this may be a taste thing). Anyway, check them out if you're in the mood for some heavier reading. I probably wouldn't have finished either if I hadn't been reading them for very specific reasons, but I'm glad I did. Definitely enjoying the accountability of my book club for that reason.
I'm just going to be honest with you, I'm only writing this review in hopes of saving you $15. And before you question my motives, I also want to point out that I am a massive (massive!) Star Wars fan, and I think Carrie Fisher is actually a pretty good writer. But this book is clearly a money grab and you don't need to buy it.
The Princess Diarist received a brief whirlwind of publicity last year when it was published, primarily because in it Fisher (aka Princess Leia) revealed that she and Harrison Ford had a secret affair while making the first Star Wars movie. And if that information alone is enough for you to enjoy a book, then by all means, go ahead and read it. But for anyone else who was hoping for a little more, something that you know a personal diary might actually reveal, I'm afraid you're out of luck.
And if you're interested in how Star Wars was actually made, the first third of the book does provide a few interesting insights from Fisher's perspective, but not nearly enough. For instance, she does explain how she got the part, how she was asked (and failed) to lose weight for it, and boy does she bang on about that hair. But there's not much beyond that. Personally, I would have loved to know what it was like to film the garbage compactor scene, stuff like that, but she never really mentions any that specific from Star Wars.
The diaries themselves don't even appear until about one third of the way through the book, which I found confusing given the way the book was marketed as a diary. But frankly, that had to have been a very conscious decision because these journal entries really weren't worth publishing. I mean, if you like reading pages and pages of vague teenage angst, by all means go ahead. But I found them to be incredibly underwhelming. Mostly they repeated ad nauseam about how little she meant to Ford and how powerless she felt to end things with him. (Because he's Harrison Ford I guess? If nothing else, this book was a good lesson in why it is not ok for a person to mistreat you even if they are ridiculously good-looking.)
Also, when this book came out, both she and the media really glossed over some issues of consent between her and Ford, which is frankly inexcusable. I first heard about this book on NPR's Fresh Air, and as far as I remember, not once did Terry Gross ask Fisher about the night in question. Not ok, Terry.
The final third of the book takes a big leap into the present day, which Fisher spends complaining about her fans. Those comic book conventions you go to in hopes of getting her autograph? She calls them "lap dances," and freely admits she only does them for the money and could not care less about the fans. Actually, that's a nice way of putting it. It's not that she doesn't care about her fans, it's that she has open contempt for them.
I mean, I can kind of see where she's coming from. Yes, it would get obnoxious to have everyone compare your present day appearance to how you looked forty years ago, but did we really need to hear her mocking fans for 30 pages? And if she felt trapped into signing autographs for money, maybe she should have tried spending a little less instead of blaming people for enjoying her performance? It all left a bitter taste in my mouth, and it seemed so completely unconnected to the previous two-thirds of the book that I had to wonder whether this wasn't some massive meta-commentary. Like she was laughing at us, the readers, for buying into her lap dance of a book.
Or maybe, and this would be much worse, this writing is a serious reflection of her self-acknowledged bipolar disorder, in which case I don't feel comfortable having funded such a gross exploitation of her mental health issues. This book really does feel like it was barely edited. I guess why bother, the publisher knew it would sell regardless.
Anyway, I bought and read The Princess Diarist for a book club I just joined, and I was happy to learn that everyone else shared my opinion. We all had been looking forward to this book, and then were really disappointed upon reading it. We felt like we'd been tricked by marketing once again (see Ready Player One and The Martian). Is this phenomena unique to science fiction fans? It seems to keep happening to me. Maybe it's happening in every genre these days. Basically you can sell a lot of crappy books as long as you market them right. The reader might feel cheated at the end, but what do publishers care, they've already got their $15.
Yay book review! First in a while for me. Guess I must be feeling a little better :)
Too bad though that I didn't much care for The Sirens of Titan. I like Vonnegut a lot. I'd even put Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle in my top 10 favorite novels. But unfortunately Sirens of Titan wouldn't even crack my top 100. It's an early novel for Vonnegut and it really shows.
There's a maddening amount of descriptive detail about trivial objects and people who have little or nothing to do with the story and don't add much to the atmosphere either. The characters aren't particularly compelling to begin with and even less so after they have their memories erased and for all intents and purposes become new characters mid-way through the novel (who does that?). The prose isn't terrible, but it's not great either, and while the ending is somewhat clever, it's not clever enough to be such a great punchline to save the story. And frankly, it's an emotionally frigid book, and it's this kind of writing that gives science fiction a bad name.
So it goes.
But that's ok. In fact, it's kind of interesting to read an author's catalog and see how their work changes over time. From that perspective, The Sirens of Titan was a fantastic read because you can see how clearly it functions as a prototype for Slaughterhouse-Five. Both novels feature characters who live in multiple times and places at once. The prismatic Tralfamadorians that appear in Slaughterhouse also show up in a slightly more pathetic form in Sirens. Even some of Vonnegut's interest in how religions are formed and why, which is so central to the plot of Cat's Cradle, appears in Sirens as well, if much more clumsily so.
But as a young novelist, Vonnegut clearly didn't yet have the technical or artistic experience to do these ideas justice - but he didn't dump them either. Basically, Sirens is a practice novel that clearly evolved into Slaughterhouse, which is easily one of the greatest American novels ever written (yes, even if it's science fiction).
And it isn't that a comforting thought? That just because you didn't manage to get your ideas quite right in your first novel, it doesn't mean you can't give them another go in your second?
It sure takes the pressure off anyway.
Sirens of Titan, did you read it? Did you like it? Or did you get the sense of an amateur on his way to greatness?
Happy Friday! Although, it doesn't really feel like a Friday to me. My family and I just got back from a once in a lifetime sailing trip in the British Virgin Islands (post on that next week), so I hardly feel like I need the weekend to rest. I'll probably end up working through it in order to catch up on some editing jobs instead.
Meanwhile, I thought it would be fun to start a new Friday series to alert any interested readers to good Kindle book deals that I've found on Amazon. A few months ago, I stumbled on a fantastic kindle bargain ($1.99) for Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island. I've only gotten around to reading it now, and of course it's hysterically funny (as Bryson always is), which reminded me how useful it is to hear about these kinds of deals when they roll around.
I did a quick scan of the Literary section of Amazon's monthly kindle book deals and found out they're running a great sale on Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun for $2.99. This is one of those books I think everyone should read.
It's about an American WWI soldier who is horribly disfigured in combat and wakes up in a French hospital without his senses of sight, hearing, or smell. He can't even talk, which kind of gives you an idea of the awful extent of his injuries. It's pretty horrifying, especially as he slowly figures out how badly hurt he is, and how he's essentially incapable of communicating with any of the hospital staff. To make things even worse, he's also lost his arms and legs...
Johnny Got His Gun is a book that's unequivocally about war and pacifism. It's written in the first person, which gives it a particularly frightening edge (and in fact, I think I first heard about it on a list of the scariest novels of all time).
Interestingly, the author, Dalton Trumbo, is probably more well known as a classic Hollywood screenwriter, who secretly wrote the Audrey Hepburn film, Roman Holiday, for which he won an Oscar while still technically blacklisted during the McCarthy era. It's a fascinating story. If you're interested, there was a recent movie called Trumbo (staring Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston), which documents his and other blacklisted screenwriters' experiences during this time. Unfortunately, the movie is only OK, but not great, mostly because the screenplay and dialogue are fairly weak (ironically enough). The substance and the story, though, depicts a very interesting moment in history that's worth learning about if you're keen on writing.
Anyway, check out Johnny Got His Gun if you're up for a classic piece of literary/horror fiction. I don't think you'll find it cheaper and I'm not sure if this deal will last beyond the end of the month.
So Happy Friday and Good Reading :)
I had so many blog posts planned prior to the holidays, but in retrospect, I don't know how I thought I would have the time to write them. December just gets busy, but at least it's busy seeing people we love. This year my husband and I did what I like to call the "I-95" Christmas, which is a trek up to DC/MD, then CT, and back to DC/MD for a few days before returning home to NC again. Basically, we drove a total of 20+ hours on I-95, which is the major highway of the East Coast, running all the way from New England to Florida. It's about as exciting as you're probably imagining (in other words, not at all). But it's the only way to see all the family.
On top of that, we take the dog and cats with us, so it feels a bit like a traveling circus. One of these days, we're going to make enough money to hire a good pet-sitter, but as of now we tend to exchange pet-sitting favors with friends. That system works well until everyone leaves for the holidays...then it's a mad circular dash of "Can you watch my cat?"
Anyway, despite all the driving and celebrations with family and pets, I did manage to finish the book I was reading - Ringworld by Larry Niven. This is a classic science fiction story that I've seen floating around my parents' house since I was a little girl (for other recent reviews of classic sci-fiction novels, you should definitely check out the blog, Thank the Maker). I think my Dad periodically re-read Ringworld over the years, so I was familiar with the book's cover, but not the story itself. Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I borrowed it from him over Thanksgiving.
Essentially, Ringworld is a story about a mixed group of humans and aliens that explore a strange artifact in space - the Ringworld - an enormous ring structure that circles a distant star at the scale of a planet's orbit. The interior of the ring that faces the sun contains an earth-like surface, but of much larger area. The main protagonist, the earthling Louis Wu, has a lot to say about just how hard it is to conceptualize the Ringworld's scale. When you're standing on it, there's no horizon since the ground essentially curves "up," resulting in the illusion that you are standing beneath an inconceivably large arch.
While exploring this strange artifact, the heroes end up crash-landing on the surface and then spend the rest of the book trying to figure out how to leave again. What they find is a decayed civilization of strangely human people. Most of the story is trying to understand the mystery of who made the Ringworld, how it fell, and why.
This was one of those books I nearly gave up on several times, because I found the two human characters fairly annoying and undeveloped, but then each chapter would lure me in again with an interesting idea. Prismatic sunflowers. Floating castles. Artificial mountains. And I'm a total sucker for a story about ancient advanced civilizations. I also really enjoyed the two alien characters, Speaker to Animals and Nessus, because Niven did a great job of fleshing out their biology and inserting them into the context of a millennia-long galactic history. The world-building was pretty interesting, I guess is how I would sum up this book.
But although I enjoyed the broad scale of the story, I really struggled with how women were treated and described, which I think is just an unfortunate consequence of when the book was written (late sixties, published in 1970). There were only two women in the story and one of them is chosen to join the adventure because she's "lucky." That's literally her only quality - she's inhumanly lucky (although there's continuous debate about it). It's such a passive character trait, and it would manifest as her doing something stupid or ditzy, yet surviving anyhow. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Then the remaining female character is quite literally a whore, and that's it. She has no other defining features or qualities.
So in the cast of Ringworld, you have a self-important man, two somewhat interesting aliens (one a dangerous tiger-like creature, and the other a cowardly, yet insane tripod "puppeteer"), a lucky ditz, and a bald whore. It's a good thing Niven's world-building is so strong, because he doesn't have much of a sense for character, which I think is a criticism you can apply to a lot of classic science fiction. It's definitely one of the main reasons I've often struggled to enjoy it.
Over the break, I found the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers, at my parents' place and I very nearly picked it up, because after finishing the first book, I did sort of want to know more about who made the Ringworld. But I need characters I can "inhabit" to enjoy a story, and mysteries alone will only occupy my interest for so long (that's my main issue with the Harry Potter books). So I left the sequel on the shelf, though who knows, maybe I'll read it in the future.
In summary, Ringworld was good, but not great. I think it's worth reading if you're interested in science fiction as a genre and in its history, or if you want to try some "hard" science fiction that doesn't completely ignore characters, but be warned, they're nothing special.
Have you been reading any classic science fiction lately? I'd love to hear about it in the comments :)
So, I finished The Shell Collector yesterday, which is a book of short stories by Anthony Doerr (who won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his novel, All the Light We Cannot See), and honestly I was a little underwhelmed. That's unfortunate, because The Shell Collector happens to be one of my mother's favorite books, and she's been trying to get me to read it for years. (I'm always about three to five years behind on any book recommendation, though I eventually get to them). The fact that I didn't like a book that my mother probably ranks in her top ten just further supports my theory that reading is a lonely thing, and you should never expect to bond with anyone over your favorite books. What's sublime to one reader is tedious for the next.
Personally, I just don't care for hyper-descriptive prose, which Anthony Doerr is admittedly very good at. I can see the talent, but it's not my cup of tea. I found the descriptions of every little thing distracting from the story, but maybe that was intentional, because except for "The Hunter's Wife" and "Mkondo", I didn't think any of the stories were very interesting. They felt repetative, particularly in terms of plot and character.
Mabye Doerr wanted to focus more on the prose style, which was lovely at a microscale, but also overwhelming at the macro-level. I can only imagine how many hours he spent getting each word just right, but it was too much for me. I guess I'm more of literary minimalist. I find that a single beautiful line in an otherwise functional paragraph has more impact than pages and pages of pretty words strung endlessly together. The only other book I've read by Doerr is Four Seasons in Rome, which again was beautifully written, but I was pulling my hair out by the end, wondering how anyone could make Rome sound so boring. Something has to happen for it to be a story, and it has to be believable .
For this reason, of all the stories in The Shell Collector, I disliked "The Caretaker" the most because it was utterly ridiculous. It's not possible to live in the woods for months eating beries and seaweed. You will starve to death, or more likely, give up and find someone who will give you food. Krakauer did a pretty good job of explaining the research on that in his excellent book, Into the Wild. So I think it's misguided to tell stories in the style of realism about people who hide in the woods and neither freeze nor starve. Sorry, it's just not happening. Please find some other way for your character to "grow."
Anyway, despite these criticisms, there's no arguing that Doerr's a great writer. He's just not the writer for me.
The Shell Collector, however, is just the latest book of short stories I've been reading. I don't know if it's because of my job, but I've been finding it harder to focus for long periods of time when I read. If I had any major complaint about making a living as an editor, it's that it has made reading into a job rather than a pleasure, and that feeling spills over into my down time.
So for the last few months, I've mostly been reading short stories, because they're fairly quick and I can switch around between different collections. It's just one way that I've been unconsciously dealing with my shorter reading attention span, which I think is understandable given that I spend hours every day reading very critically for other people. I only ever list the books I've completely finished in my reading list, so you don't see all the Cheever, Breece D'J Pankcake, and Phil Klay stories I've been reading at the same time, but anyway, that's been my reading pattern for the last few months.
Last night, I felt a little tired of short stories and annoyed at my inability to settle down into a novel, so I picked up The Left Hand of Darkness, but I couldn't get into it. Then I found a paperback copy of Ringworld that I borrowed from my Dad's library collection over Thanksgiving, and fortunately that one has sucked me in. Thank god, because I needed to shake up this pattern, especially after the disappointment of The Shell Collector.
What are you reading these days?
Actually, I have no idea what this blog is about; whatever I fancy, I guess. But the sub-title is "for the word nerds," so I thought it might be fun to do some rapid-fire reviews of two books I recently finished.
The first is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It's an epistolary novel (written in letters), about a group of British men and women who lived on Guernsey Island while it was occupied by the Nazis in World War II. At first, I was very pulled into the story - which is basically about how this group of friends got through the war within the companionship of a book club. I love a good epistolary novel, and the early letters cheerfully describe a version of postwar Britain that interested me. But after about 40 pages, you can't help but notice that all the letters, written between characters of vastly different backgrounds, sound exactly the same. It made it hard to keep track of people, or care about them. The plot starts off gently enough, the main character decides to travel to Guernsey to write about the occupation and the literary club, but then it turns ludicrous and almost creepy (for people who've read this book - didn't you think it was weird how Juliet essentially co-opted the deceased Elizabeth's life? She gets her house, her place in the community, even her kid!). I could go into the details, but the book really isn't good enough to bother with. Let's just say this: at one point, the main character gets jealous of a concentration camp survivor. wtf.
Interesting idea for a story (I had no idea Guernsey was occupied during the war), but the authors completely lose track of the main plot, so the reader gets a particularly inept ending. Two thumbs way down.
On to better things, I made a rare check off my "Books I Want to Read" list. The Time Machine is my first H.G. Wells book, which is insane considering he is more or less the father of modern science fiction and I'm a massive science fiction fan. I guess I worried the old-fashioned writing would put me off, and to be honest, it almost did. I found the first 30 pages a struggle to push through, and almost gave up, but I'm so glad I didn't. Once I got past the somewhat tedious setup, I was totally hooked. The way the Eloi were nearly as disturbing as the Morlocks was a really interesting touch. I also especially loved the ending with its descriptions of the far, far future, when the earth stops spinning, like the moon, so it always faces in one direction at the dying red sun. What an image!
It was interesting to read these two books one right after the other, because it made me think of a reading hypothesis I don't think I would have thought of otherwise. So here's my theory:
If a book has a really strong opening, that totally hooks you, it's probably going to peter out and disappoint you by the end. But if a book has a slow opening, push through it, because the rest of the book is usually pretty strong.
Master and Commander (one of my first blog-posts!) was definitely that way. It had the slowest opening, but it only got better, until I was having a blast by the end. Same with The Name of the Rose, which was supposedly written with a slow first 100 pages on purpose* to reward the readers who pushed through. And that medieval mystery has a mind-blowing ending.
Meanwhile, Gone Girl, had quite the opening hook, yet it's one of the worst books I've ever read. Just badly written garbage with nothing redeeming about it.
So that's my takeaway. Strong opening - be wary, slow opening - push on.
*According to my high school English teacher, who knows if this is true.
In an effort to improve my writing, I've been trying to take my own advice by working on more simple stories. I finished my first novel this past spring (and am almost finished editing it), and it's nothing more than a trashy romance story, which is all I asked it to be. It was my practice novel, and despite its total lack of literary merit, I found it very informative to write. It taught me a lot about setting up character and plot, and most of all, it gave me the confidence that I could finish a coherent 50,000 word novel.
I've since begun my new WIP, a light hearted novel that's supposed to be a step-above my practice novel, but by no means my intended masterpiece. It's a comedy, and I've been having a lot of fun writing it.
But as I reread sections, I couldn't help but notice that something wasn't working. Things that sounded funny in my head were anything but when they were set down on paper.
Fortunately, I started reading Nick Hornby's novel, Funny Girl, around the same time, and it helped me diagnose my problem. Basically, you can't write comedic timing, and if that's what your jokes are based on, they're going to fall flat on the page like mine were.
I'm actually a big fan of Nick Hornby's. I rank About a Boy as one of my favorite novels, though I don't know exactly why that is. It's not great literature, but it's entertaining, and it makes me feel more for the characters than most of the stories I read.
At first I enjoyed Funny Girl, which is Hornby's first novel in five years, but after a while it started to get really tedious. I had a hard time distinguishing characters, and the main character, Barbara, the eponymous Funny Girl, especially had this strange way of suddenly speaking up in scenes where I didn't even realize she was present. The whole thing was written in this very detached way, with little insight into the characters heads or even basic descriptions of the setting, but worst of all - almost none of the jokes landed. You can't call a book "Funny Girl" and then have it be unfunny.
But I realized I was making the same mistake as Hornby in my WIP: trying so desperately to write comedic timing. Here's an example from Funny Girl:
"We were asked to come up with a show about marriage," said Dennis.
Let's break this down. The "said Sophie" part is the closest to a physical pause in the dialogue as the author can create, which I suppose is meant to add more tension to the subsequent line, "So why didn't you do that?" I can imagine a gifted comedic actress making this sort of funny, but on the page it kind of reeks of desperation.
And the author knows it doesn't really work, so he has to describe Bill laughing and clutching at his heart. Personally, I think anytime we're reduced to describing physical actions and gestures as writers, it means we're not feeling confident in our ability to communicate to the reader. We're worried they won't "get it," so in response we try and show every physical thing that is happening (the writer's version of micromanagement), and it's just a slog to read. It's certainly not funny.
You might notice this attempt at transcribing comedic timing in your own writing (I see it in mine everywhere). It's apparent wherever you have to indicate a pause with blinks or facial contortions for comedic effect. Or you might mention that someone is being sarcastic, but that doesn't work either. The reader can't hear the sarcasm. They can't hear the pause. You have to be brave and let that stuff go. It does more harm than good.
The truth is, you can't write a book as though it were a movie, as much as we might want to. That's where Funny Girl really messes up. The characters always seem to be speaking up from out of a vacuum. It's almost entirely dialogue, which is probably because Hornby's gotten used to writing screenplays these last few years (he wrote the script for An Education), and has forgotten how to setup a scene that a reader can't physically see.
I actually had to stop reading Funny Girl because I was worried it was going to reinforce the bad comedic timing habit I was clearly writing into my own story. Writers have to read, I think, because we imitate other writers to some extent. Unfortunately, Funny Girl was not a book I wanted to imitate, consciously or unconsciously.
Do you struggle with this? I really have to stop myself from attempting to transcribe the movie that plays in my head when I'm writing. It just doesn't work.
Now please excuse me while I go back and edit out all those damn pauses and blinks from my WIP.
I wanted to like this book. I thought I did like it for the first few essays, but in the end I found Slouching Towards Bethlehem to be a big disappointment and waste of time. Joan Didion is one of those authors I'd always vaguely heard of, but never read, and then became much more aware of after the fashion brand Céline used her in an advertising campaign, much promoted on Instagram. Who is this chic old woman? I asked myself. Ah, Joan Didion. I kind of know her.
Except, I didn't, and there's nothing I hate worse than an intellectual phony. So I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem to remedy that.
The book is a collection of essays and magazine articles written during the 1960's. And when Didion acts like a journalist, reporting narratively driven facts in what we'd call longform writing today, I think she succeeds. She's a good writer, I'm not going to argue that.
But Didion gets bored with facts and stories and quickly the essays devolve into the tyranny of feelings. Practically, every other line has the intellectual depth of "How it felt to me" (134), or "because I'm talking about myself" (226). Maybe we should call her Mother Blogger. Or maybe just St. Joan, patron saint of millennials. It's hard enough being a part of that generation. I don't need to read her particular brand of it, fifty years ahead of its time.
And then there are the California references. She must mention that she is from California about two dozen times in this book, as if that's some kind of personal achievement, like winning the French medal in high school. "It's hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles..." (220) - oh spare me your West Coast snobbery. My least favorite essay in the collection was about her experience growing up in Sacramento, though I recommend everyone should read it just to learn for themselves why it's not very interesting to write about your home county, no matter how unique a place you think it was. Trust me, it won't translate.
And I'm not alone in thinking this book is overrated. The Amazon reviews seem to fall into two categories: I think I was too old for this, and I think I was too young for this. That's quite a trick to alienate every age group, but it also says something about the book's self-indulgence. These essays were written by Joan, for Joan, and I think she got away with it at the time because she was an attractive woman; the intellectual's California party girl. Today, her work fits neatly into personal journalism, Instagram quotes, Lena Dunham, and every other Web 2.0 application (like blogging!), having of course spawned all of it. I'd have a lot more respect for St. Joan if I believed she meant to do that on purpose.
I haven't done a book review in a while, and seeing as I just power-read my way through the last 150 pages of Atonement on Saturday, I figured now is as good a time as any to get back into it.
Atonement is one of those novels that has been on my to read list for ages. I've been an unwitting fan of Ian McEwan since I was in the fifth grade when I read his excellent kids book, The Daydreamer. Several years after that my mother recommended Atonement to me just after it was published, in 2003. However, I thought the synopsis sounded a little dark, so I never picked it up. Many years later, I did read McEwan's more recent book, Sweet Tooth, which I moderately enjoyed. The writing was excellent, but there was something a little off with the plotting, all of which made me even more resistant to reading McEwan's acknowledged masterpiece.
For whatever reason, I finally got over my hesitation and dove into Atonement this month, 13 years after it first entered my literary radar, and now I wish I had picked it up much sooner.
Let's get a few things out of the way. Yes, it is dark. Downright grim. In 1930's England, a little girl, Briony, incorrectly accuses a young man, Robbie, of raping her cousin, utterly ruining his promising life. To double the injury, Briony also manages to ruin everything for her sister, Cecilia, who'd only just realized she and Robbie were in love. None of that matters to the law of course, and Robbie is sent to prison and Cecilia left to wait for him.
Briony doesn't realize her mistake until several years later. Meanwhile, Robbie gets out of prison only by volunteering to join the army just as World War II is about to begin. What follows is a terrifying description of what it may have been like to retreat from France and evacuate at Dunkirk. McEwan also treats us to some pretty graphic storytelling about Briony's experience working as a nurse during the same wartime period.
As a work of historical fiction, I think Atonement is one of the best books I've ever read, probably because I have a morbid fascination with fictional descriptions of retreat. I live such a comfortable and predictable life, yet periodically through history (or even today in parts of the world) there have been events so horrible that the only recourse people have is to grab whatever they can carry and run for their lives. This is about as terrifying and disorienting an experience I can imagine. McEwan approaches these scenes with the novelist's sense for allowing discrete details to tell the story: limbs in trees; German airplanes attacking columns of fleeing civilians; the thirst when even water is a luxury.
Where I think Atonement fails is in its main character, Briony, whom we learn is also the narrator of the book (as in Sweet Tooth, McEwan has a soft spot for meta stories). Briony grows up, becomes a writer, and promises to confess her error in her last work of fiction. Meanwhile, she's celebrated and loved as a successful novelist, and because of some legal trip up, her final confessional will be published posthumously. No one will ever have to know her crime while she's still alive. That's convenient.
I found Briony's character unlikable and self-obsessed from the very beginning of the novel, and she never really improves. For all her claims of atonement, she never made any real attempt at it. If she'd really cared, she'd have consigned herself to the same fate of Robbie and Cecilia and thrown herself off a bridge. At the very least, she could have limited her life to penance, helping others as she had when she was a war nurse. Instead she gets to do exactly what she'd always wanted. Sometimes, I struggle with the idea that to be a writer is a selfish aim. The character of Briony certainly exemplifies that.
Anyway, to have an unlikable character is not a bad thing at all, but when you title a book "Atonement" and then do nothing of the sort, there's a stink of irony that doesn't sit right. On the other hand, maybe Atonement is a great book because clearly that bothers me enough to care.
Writing Streak: 3 days
My Books on Amazon:
Waking Lions by Avelet Gundar-Goshen
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro