Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Golden Mean

Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group. The novel tells the story of Aristotle’s life, focusing particularly on his relationship with the future Alexander the Great. It’s told from Aristotle’s first-person perspective, and for me, this was the chief interest of the book: imagining what it might have been like to be Aristotle. We see him disagreeing with his former teacher Plato’s ideas about the nature of reality, developing his ideas about tragedy as a genre, and thinking about the danger of extremes and the importance of the middle way. We also see him dealing with a complicated relationship with his wife and facing disappointment in his career. He runs into political trouble because of his association with Athens at a time when he was living in Macedonia, Athens’s enemy. All of this makes it possible to conjure up an image of life as it might have been so long ago and to think of Aristotle as a real person with regular-person worries and needs, when generally I think of him as nothing more than a brain and a set of ideas.

I found the book disappointing, though. Like Stefanie, I thought it was a little dull. The main problem is the lack of narrative tension. I don’t need an exciting plot, but I do need some kind of tension to pull me through a book, or, failing that, I want some interesting ideas, beautiful writing, and/or characters I enjoy spending time with and thinking about. I didn’t find enough of any of these things. There are interesting things to think about, the tension between being a warrior and a scholar that many of the characters experience, for one. I was also intrigued by the way the first person perspective makes Aristotle come across as a sympathetic human being, one who treats the mentally disabled with tremendous compassion unusual for the time, but who also owns slaves and assumes that women have limited capabilities and value. There is something fascinating about getting into the mind of a person who thinks about the world in such a fundamentally different way than we do today.

But the ideas don’t seem to lead anywhere in particular. I was interested in Aristotle in a general and vague kind of way, but I wasn’t worried about what would happen to him — he was clearly going to get back to Athens eventually — and his thoughts and observations weren’t interesting enough to keep me happily reading. I think I would have preferred the book in the third person with some more insight into the culture of the time from an external narrator’s point of view. The advantage of first person, of course, is getting to see the world through Aristotle’s eyes, but perhaps an exterior view would have helped bring his character into sharper focus and would have allowed more commentary on the social and political values of the time. In the abstract I like the idea of historical fiction that doesn’t get bogged down in explaining all the details of the time and place — where the author isn’t showing off her research on every page — but in this case, I wanted a little more guidance.

At any rate, I started off the book with high hopes and did well at first, and then found myself less and less eager to pick it up. Other people have enjoyed it very much, though, and you can read Lilian Nattel’s very positive review here.

8 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

Book signings and writers who tweet

This is, apparently, my year to go to book signings. Last weekend Neal Stephenson was doing a reading/book signing at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in Manhattan, so Hobgoblin and I made our way there to hear him. I’m not the Stephenson fan in our house; I read the first book in the Baroque Cycle, and it was fine, but I didn’t fall in love and didn’t read any further. Perhaps I should give Cryptonomicon or some other book of his a try? But loving Neal Stephenson’s books was not the point; it was just fun to get out and see someone well-known whom I’ve read.

The reading was subdued. Two of the authors I’ve seen in the last year, Ian Rankin and Joe Hill, were both fabulously entertaining; Rankin told great stories and made us all laugh, and Hill was … wacky. He also told great stories, he had a (grotesquely) funny excerpt from his new book to read, and he performed in a nerdy, enthusiastic, thoroughly-charming way as he read. Stephenson is obviously not nearly as comfortable performing in public as the other two. But that’s okay, of course, because why should writers necessarily be entertainers as well? He started his reading pretty much right away after getting up on stage, and he read for a half hour or so and then took questions. He seemed comfortable answering questions, but you could tell he wasn’t going to mind when it was over. One person who stood up to ask a question offered an interpretation of Stephenson’s work and asked if it was correct, and Stephenson’s answer was basically, “You may be right, but it’s not something I’ve thought about; I prefer to just write and let you all figure out what it means.” I suppose, in a way, that that makes sense — authors write, readers figure out what it means — but it also felt like an odd answer. Doesn’t he think about the ideas he’s working with as he writes? Perhaps he just didn’t want to engage with this particular interpretation. I can understand that.

Then we all lined up to get our books signed. I didn’t say much to Stephenson. I rarely want to say things to authors I meet at book signings because I’m too worried about messing up and saying something dumb, so I don’t try. But I’m realizing now that the last three authors I’ve seen — Rankin, Hill, plus Rosanne Cash, who did a talk/signing of her recent memoir at a nearby school a month or so ago — are all on Twitter, and in each case, Hobgoblin or I or both of us said something about enjoying reading their tweets. To authors out there — being an interesting tweeter can make a difference! We found out about Joe Hill’s reading in London because of Twitter, and Roseanne Cash has been on my radar lately only because I find her tweets amusing.

And speaking of writers who tweet, I may go see Colson Whitehead this weekend, who is doing a book signing at McNally Jackson along with Jonathan Franzen, who does not tweet, unless you count Emperor Franzen. I wonder what Jonathan Franzen would do if I said something about Emperor Franzen while he was signing my copy of Freedom?

7 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction, Life

The Man Who Was Thursday

What an odd book this was! G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is going to be tough to write about. The plot is bizarre, and describing what happens even a little way into the book is more of a spoiler than I want to give. There have been interesting discussions going on at various blogs about spoilers, and my feeling (at the moment) is that some books are more easily “spoiled” than others. The back cover of my edition of the book has the right idea when it says only this about the plot:

G.K. Chesterton’s surreal masterpiece is a psychological thriller that centers on seven anarchists in turn-of-the-century London who call themselves by the names of the days of the week. Chesterton explores the meanings of their disguised identities in what is a fascinating mystery, and, ultimately, a spellbinding allegory.

The description goes on, but the rest of it is focused on ideas rather than plot. But those ideas are the other thing that make this book difficult to write about, because … huh? What exactly is going on on the level of ideas is a bit of a puzzle. The book does move into the area of allegory, or, actually, probably not allegory in the strict sense of the term but more like fable or parable. Chesterton clearly has something to say about anarchy and government, about violence and order, about good and evil, and, ultimately, about the value of suffering (I think this is key to understanding the very strange final scene). It starts off as a political thriller pitting police against anarchists, but it ends up in religious or quasi-religious, mystical territory. By the time you get there, you feel as though you’ve gone on a long journey, even though the book is quite short.

But I’m making the book sound serious, when it’s really quite funny, until the very end when the seriousness takes over. It has a witty tone and a kind of joy in the absurd that makes it a pleasure to read. The novel begins with two poets at a party in a London suburb, one who claims to be an anarchist, and the other who claims to be a poet of law and order. The two of them spar over the nature of poetry and their political beliefs until one of them is goaded into proving he is serious about his anarchy, and the other into admitting that he is a police officer. The relationship gets a little crazy from there. But everything is described so briskly, and the main character, Syme, gets to be so clever and witty, that the craziness is fun. It’s enjoyable to follow all the plot twists and turns, to watch the characters undergo dangerous trials and perform amazing feats, and all the while keep their cool and get some good lines in. Obviously, this is not a realistic novel and it does not try to be; it’s more of an amusing romp that also has something serious to say.

So, obviously, I think there’s a lot to enjoy here. This is the kind of book where it’s good to know a little bit about the tone and the feel of the novel, but best to discover the plot on your own. Chesterton takes you on a long, crazy journey, and although I’m not entirely sure where we ended up, it was fun traveling there anyway.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

Alias Grace

Alias Grace is my first Margaret Atwood novel, and I liked it well enough, I suppose. Sigh. I want to fall in love with novels, but these days it doesn’t happen very often. I did enjoy reading the novel, though; it’s long, but it read quickly, and I got caught up in the story. It dealt with interesting ideas and had some good characters, and it was well-written. I liked the variety of voices it contained, including letters from several different characters. It was all good … just not something I fell in love with. I will read more Atwood, though, at least one more, because I want to read The Handmaid’s Tale. That seems like a book I should read.

Alias Grace is a historical novel, set in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, and it tells the story of Grace, a woman convicted of murder and serving time in prison, although she is let out during the day to work as a maid, where people stare at her in fascination. Her crime was murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who is also his mistress. She was believed to have worked in tandem with James McDermott to commit the murders, but he was hanged while there was enough doubt about Grace’s case to lead to a prison sentence.

But Simon Jordan, a young doctor out to prove himself in the as-yet-unidentified field of psychology, decides that Grace is worthy of investigation, and might just be the case to make his reputation. He is hired by some charitable church types to investigate her case and see if he can prove her innocence. So he spends many afternoons interviewing Grace, and her story as she tells it makes up the bulk of the narrative.

All this gives Atwood the chance to explore the beginnings of psychology, which she does quite well with dream sequences and free association exercises and attempts to understand rather than just condemn criminality. She also writes about the nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism and little-understood mental phenomena: some of her characters participate in seances and some are eager to hypnotize Grace to see if they can discover her guilt or innocence through her unconscious self.

Atwood keeps the narrative structure varied; sometimes Grace tells the story in the first person, sometimes we follow Simon Jordan in a close third person, and at other times we get letters that Simon, his mother, and various other characters write. All these work together to give depth to the story, especially in the way the various perspectives clash and contradict one another. We get the letters Simon writes to his mother, which do not tell her much of what he is actually experiencing, and, more significantly, we get Simon’s and Grace’s very different accounts of their conversations as Simon tries to win her trust, and Grace resists him.

Atwood does a good job of keeping the tension up throughout the book. Grace is an enigma; even though we get her first-person narrative of the murder story, there is much about what happened that she doesn’t understand — that, or she isn’t telling us what really happened. We have no idea, really, how reliable she is. But her story of working as a maid, trying to make her way through a world very inhospitable to women unprotected as she is by a father or a husband, is interesting even if we don’t know to what extent we should trust her.

So there is a lot to enjoy and admire here. I was just hoping to love it more than I did. Other Atwood fans, is this one of her better ones, do you think?

23 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

Finishing the Little House books

I finished the Little House on the Prairie books a couple weeks ago, shortly after the hurricane craziness (it was comforting, somehow, reading The Long Winter during the power outage, because even though our lives had been thoroughly disrupted by bad weather, it was nothing like what the Ingalls family experienced. We weren’t in danger of starving!). I like the early books in the series, but I love the later ones, and those are the ones I reread most often as a kid. Laura gets more interesting as she gets older and starts to grow up. Now she has to confront the fact that she can’t do whatever she likes with her life; instead, she has to become a school teacher in order to put her sister Mary through college. She takes on sewing jobs that she doesn’t like. She deals with social difficulties such as Nellie Oleson’s competitiveness and general nastiness. Since Mary became blind, Laura has been responsible for “seeing” the world for her, and she has taken on the responsibilities and worries of the oldest child. She is still energetic and high-spirited, but she must hold these spirits in check because young ladies are not supposed to do things like play with the boys at recess. She has to fit the code of femininity that she does not like and that feels uncomfortable to her. Things are not as simple as they once were, and the stories become richer as Laura figures out how to negotiate the changes.

Reading the Wilder books was a whole lot of fun, but reading about the Wilder books in Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow has been much more complicated. Fellman’s book, which I am about halfway through, is very good; it’s an academic book, but one that is jargon-free and extremely accessible to general readers. I find the ideas in it fascinating and the arguments convincing. But it’s uncomfortably self-revelatory. I’m seeing now just how influential Wilder really was for me and how much I learned from those books as a young person, without meaning to learn anything. I recognized some of these things as I was reading Wilder herself this most recent time, but it took a critical perspective for some of it to really sink in.

There’s the matter of being uncomfortable with femininity, for example. Laura was expected to be docile and quiet in a way I never was, but I still knew how she felt when she longed to be out playing in the sunshine rather than sitting quietly with the other girls during recess. I hated the thought of having to fit someone else’s expectations of proper feminine behavior. I also identified with her longing to be like Pa and keep traveling westward. Ma and Mary both wanted to settle down near a town and school, but Laura knew what Pa felt when he looked longingly west and wished he could have more adventures on the frontier. I thought I knew what that felt like too.

But more significant than those things is the description of the relationships among the family members. Members of the family obviously felt warmly toward each other and it’s clear that they loved and felt loyal to each other, but they are not verbal about their feelings. They don’t hug or say “I love you” or share many of their innermost thoughts. They are all very stoic; they keep their thoughts and worries to themselves for the most part, and they try not to show it if they are scared or angry. When Laura does show strong emotion, she gets reprimanded for it. And, interestingly, she reprimands her little sister Grace for showing emotion when Mary leaves to go to college. It’s startling the way she keeps repeating “for shame! for shame!” to poor Grace as she very understandably cries at losing her oldest sister. Fellman describes the difficult relationship Laura had with her daughter Rose, and part of the problem was Laura’s refusal or inability to show affection toward her daughter.

So, yes, all of this reminded me of my family very much, both strong the sense of loyalty and love and the fact that it was rarely acknowledged. And then there’s the extreme individualism that runs strong throughout the novels. This is really the subject of Fellman’s book, which argues that the Little House books and their conservative ideology were powerful although largely unrecognized influences on American conservatism of the 80s and onwards. The Ingalls family take care of everything on their own, thank you very much; they rely on each other and occasionally are helped out by friends and neighbors (and they help others), but they don’t need a community or a government to take care of them. They create who they are and are responsible to no one but themselves. As a young person, this appealed to me very much, as, I would guess, it probably appeals to many young people. I had an (exaggerated) sense of my own strength and independence and a reluctance to trust or rely on anyone else. Independence and self-sufficiency are certainly not bad things, but Fellman points out how Wilder and her daughter (who heavily edited the books) leave out details that show the importance of community in their lives. She argues that the two of them regularly exaggerated the isolation of the family in order to make them seem more self-sufficient than they actually were.

There are more examples, but I think I’ve given plenty to show just how much these books have made me think. I’m left wondering how much the books taught me vs. how much I loved them for reflecting what I already felt, or how these two possibilities worked together. I’m not entirely sure, but I have learned that rereading childhood favorites can be dangerous, so watch out!

17 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

Name change

I’ve been thinking about dropping my pseudonym for a while now, and I’ve just about decided I’m going to. It doesn’t serve any purpose anymore, and, in fact, the only purpose it ever served was to ease my fears about blogging when I first began back in 2006. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about and what I was getting myself into, so I thought I might take on a different name, just in case. It’s been kind of fun having a pseudonym. It’s nice to be someone else, or at least have the potential to be someone else. But, as it turns out, Dorothy isn’t anybody else; it’s just me with a different name. And it’s getting more and more complicated having a pseudonym, given the fact that I interact with so many blogging people on Twitter, Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc., and I use my real name on all those sites. So, for the sake of simplicity, you’ll see me around the blogosphere as, well, me!

18 Comments

Filed under Blogging, Life

Lying

I couldn’t decide for a while whether I loved or hated Lauren Slater’s book Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Finally, maybe a quarter of the way into it, I decided I loved it and I never changed my mind again. But it’s the kind of book I would think carefully about before I recommended it to anyone, as it strikes me as potentially hateable. It seems that Slater has a talent for stirring up controversy (whether this is what she intends or not, I’m not sure). My first introduction to her was the 2006 edition of The Best American Essays where she was the year’s guest editor. Her introduction to the anthology told the story of how her book Opening Skinner’s Box provoked all kinds of anger from all kinds of people, but especially professional psychologists, of which she is one herself. Apparently, people didn’t like her portrayal of famous psychological experiments, and they disliked it enough to start an email listserve called “Slater-Hater,” which she followed for a while. The openness with which she discussed this episode, which surely was extremely painful, impressed me, and I’ve been intrigued by her ever since.

So, as you can guess from the title, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir is no traditional memoir; instead, it’s a book where she claims to have epilepsy, but also refuses to tell you whether that’s actually true or not. It might just be a metaphor for something else she is trying to communicate about her life, something about mental illness. She describes the experience of epilepsy in great detail, though, telling about her first seizures and the process of figuring out the disease, describing the various forms of treatment she received, and describing the way she would pretend to have seizures or purposely induce seizures for dramatic effect. The most dramatic part of the book comes when she describes surgery to have her corpus callosum severed — the part of the brain that connects the right and left hemispheres. Her doctor believed that this wouldn’t cure her fully but would cut down dramatically on the number and severity of the seizures, which is did — or which she says it did. It also left her with some strange side effects, such as not being able to read with her left eye closed, since the right side of the brain processes language.

All this is described in a totally convincing way, but the reader has no way of knowing what to believe. Slater discusses this directly, though, telling the reader why she’s writing the way she is:

Is it possible to narrate an honest nonfiction story if you are a slippery sort? I, for one, am a slippery sort, but I believe I’m also an honest sort because I admit my slipperiness. And, therefore, to come clean in this memoir would be dishonest; it would be to go against my nature, which would be just the sort of inauthenticity any good nonfiction memoirist, whose purpose is to capture the essence of the narrator, could not accommodate. I truly believe that if I came completely clean I would be telling the biggest lie of all, and at heart I am not a liar, I am passionately dedicated to the truth, which, by the way, is not necessarily the same thing as fact, so loosen up!

I love this. She writes a book called Lying in which she refuses to tell us the facts but says she is not a liar! Which is totally possible, of course — she’s exploring lying, or she is revealing the truth indirectly, using lies, or the possibility of lies, to tell a kind of truth. This passage comes from a memo she (supposedly) wrote to her editor about how to market the book, which shows her other interest: reader’s expectations of genre. She says in this memo that her purpose is:

among a lot of other things, to ponder the blurry line between novels and memoirs. Everyone knows that a lot of memoirs have made-up scenes; it’s obvious. And everyone knows that half the time at least fictions contain literal autobiographical truths. So how do we decide what’s what, and does it even matter?

For me, it didn’t matter much. I didn’t care whether she really had epilepsy or not; the book was meaningful to me whether the epilepsy was literal or a metaphor, and I liked going back and forth between the two possibilities. There’s an emotional honesty that comes through all the playfulness. I came to trust her, oddly, for just the reasons she said we should trust her: she may be telling lies, but she never claims to be telling the truth either.

She also tells some riveting stories, especially the one about her time at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. She applies during the summer before she begins college, lying on her application that she is 19 years old, the minimum age. She gets rejected. She is sure this is a mistake, however, so she changes her name and applies again, making sure she gets a different reader. She gets in this time. But the fact that her writing sample is erotic in nature and that her new reader is male are both significant to what happens next. And then there is the story about accidentally joining AA, a group that becomes hugely meaningful to her but which she has joined under false pretenses, and she doesn’t know how to come clean.

There is so little that’s certain in this book, beginning with the introduction and continuing through to the end, but living with that uncertainty was surprisingly enjoyable, and even exhilarating. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that some readers find Slater to be unbearably coy, and some might find her tricks irritating, such as putting her acknowledgments page in the middle of the book. But I loved all that, and I admire Slater’s courage, for surely it takes courage to refuse to give the reader solid ground to stand on, and surely it takes talent to make such a book so fascinating to read.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Nonfiction