Category Archives: Books

A Spool of Blue Thread and The Moor’s Account

I have now finished books #3 and #4 in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, Lalai Lalami’s The Moor’s Account and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I listened to on audio. As a side note, the only way I’m making it through the 13-book list if I make it at all is by listening to some of them on audio, although I would prefer to read them in print. On the one hand, it’s hard to compare the experience of an audio book with sitting down with the printed text, but on the other hand I can squeeze audio book listening into parts of my day where the reading of a book or ebook is impossible. So I’ll be listening to Anne Enright’s and (most likely) Marilynne Robinson’s novels on audio as well.

I think audio book listening may have improved the experience of reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I liked more than I expected. This is generally the case with audio books, that I’m less likely to be critical of them than print books, as the experience is more immersive and emotional with an actual person telling me the story. I’ve read a couple other Tyler novels and thought they were fine but nothing special, and I feel that way about this novel as well. Her prose is especially well-suited for listening, as it’s crystal clear, easy to follow, and never draws attention to itself. It’s always in the service of the story. I generally look for the opposite in novels — I like it when the language is interesting and new and even when it calls attention to itself, at least in certain ways. I’m not likely to be impressed by a novel that is a straight-forward story without anything interesting going on stylistically. I’m guessing that Tyler-like prose is much more difficult to write than it seems, but even so, I don’t think I’d choose it to win an award.

But Tyler can certainly tell a family story well. This is a multi-generational story, focusing particularly on Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children. It’s very much a story about their house, longed for and finally bought by Red’s father and now lovingly cared for by Red. There are the kind of rivalries, secrets, betrayals, and family lore that one expects from a family saga and it’s all insightful and true to human nature. The plot lagged a little in the middle, but the last quarter or so, which took the novel in surprising directions that I won’t spoil here, were satisfying.

It’s all fine, but nothing I get excited about. I felt the same way about The Moor’s Account, although I liked it less than the Tyler. Lalai Lalami’s novel is historical fiction, telling the story of Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico by others, who is sold into slavery and sails from Spain to the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition is in search of conquest and gold, and Estebanico is in a complex position as a member of the (supposedly) conquering party but only a member as a slave. The expedition fails spectacularly and the process of things falling apart is compelling, at least for a while. The history was interesting and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what life in that time and place might have been like. The novel’s writing was fine, although, like Tyler’s, not particularly noteworthy. I enjoyed the first half or so, and then my energy and attention flagged. When it comes down to it, historical fiction is not really my thing. I like imagining the past, but if there comes a point — as there did in this book — where the described world is pretty well established and all that remains is the unwinding of the plot, I begin to lose interest. By the end, I just didn’t care what happened to the characters. I agree with Teresa’s assessment that this is not the kind of book I’d expect to see on the long list of a major prize.

Now I turn to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family and Anne Enright’s The Green Road on audio. As things stand now, I would put A Little Life on my short list and maybe The Fishermen, but definitely not The Moor’s Account and A Spool of Blue Thread only if the others were no good at all. Which I know is not the case!

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A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My second book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I figured I should get one of the super-long books out of the way, particularly since this one is bound to be a subject of much discussion when the Shadow Panel gets its deliberations underway. And what a reading experience it was. I’m still sorting out my thoughts about the book; it strikes me as the kind of novel I might feel differently about a month or a year or a decade from now. We’ll see. But I was thoroughly absorbed in the story, all 700+ pages of it. I kept happily reading even as I noticed some awkward things about it — strange point of view shifts, repetitions, sections that went on too long, odd descriptions. But for me, the story retained its power, even though I started to feel itchy reading about so much wealth and privilege, so much about huge New York City lofts, about jaunts around the world, about fabulously expensive apartment remodels. There is so much suffering alongside the wealth; the central drama of the novel is the slow uncovering of the main character Jude’s horrific abuse as a child and the effects this has on himself and his circle of friends. Jude lives in constant pain, both physical and mental, and his three best friends, whose lives the novel follows through the decades, only gradually discover this. A Little Life is a novel about pain and suffering but equally about friendship, the various types of friendship and how they can change and develop over time. It’s about the pleasures and the limitations of friendship, and about the unfortunate way our society doesn’t take the relationship seriously enough (close friendships can never, ever be as good as marriage, supposedly). It’s about the extent to which it’s possible to recover from trauma and how much other people can and can’t help the victim.

The novel is probably too long, but I stayed under its power the entire way through. I liked the way Yanagihara slowly revealed the characters’ histories. I appreciated her willingness to take her time with the characters’ lives, even when they followed the same pattern again and again. The novel made me think more deeply about what it’s like to suffer from chronic pain. This is something a long novel is particularly well-suited to do, to really get into someone’s mind and show us what it’s like to live there. The experience of living in Jude’s mind over the course of an intense week of reading made me feel compassion for him in a way I might not have otherwise.

I don’t think I’d want to reread this book, though. It seems like the kind of novel that is something to experience — whether you like it or not! — just one time. I wonder whether it has staying power, whether the rewards make the book’s length worth while. But, at any rate, I feel under this book’s spell. I’m not sure how hard I would fight to get it on a prize short list, but it seems worthy of serious consideration. But where I stand on this depends on the quality of the other books I’m about to read. Up next is Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, as well as further listening to Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread on audio.

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The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

I’ve finished my first book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel: The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma. I’m going to follow Frances’s example and keep my posts on these books short, mostly because of my normal time constraints, which are now compounded by this reading project. I didn’t fall under the spell of this book, which I was hoping to do, especially since I suspect it casts a spell on some of, maybe many of, its readers. I admired it, didn’t love it. It’s self-consciously working in the tradition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, so much so that the book becomes a plot point. This means, of course, that I can’t help but compare it to Achebe’s masterpiece and it’s not surprising that it doesn’t live up to it.

The novel tells the story of a family in Nigeria, specifically about four brothers in that family and what happens after they hear a prophecy from a local wandering mad man. The novel can be read as the story of what happens when the father-figure moves away, so about the loss of patriarchal power — the removal of their father leads the boys towards greater and greater rebellion against their mother and against the family rules generally. I’m guessing it’s possible to read the novel as a political fable as well, as a story that gives insight into Nigeria’s history, but I don’t know enough about the subject to say for sure. It’s also about the power of prophecy and of superstitions and folk beliefs and the relationship of these things to Christianity.

I admired how the author handled the point of view, which is from the perspective of the youngest of the four brothers, Benjamin. Seeing the story through his eyes increases the sense of dread and powerlessness that pervades the narrative. The novel has emotional power — there were scenes that made me gasp — but there were also enough moments that seemed awkward or meandering or with unnecessary detail that I kept a certain amount of distance from it as I read. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the tightness of the storytelling in Things Fall Apart, but that’s what happened to me. Still, there’s lots to think about here. Perhaps enough to justify its inclusion in the Booker long list.

And so now it’s time to start my next read, which I think will be A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’m concerned about taking on such a long novel, but as soon as I finish my current audiobook read, I can start listening to some of the books on the long list, including the Anne Tyler and Anne Enright. That way I’ll be able to read two books from the list at once.

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Better get reading…

So it appears I’m doing this? Craziness.

Yes, I’m going to try to read the Booker long list in the next six weeks and be a part of the (Wo)Man Booker shadow panel. I’m almost certainly going to fail to get all the reading done, but I’m going to have fun trying, and I’ll be in good company, with Frances, Teresa, Nicole, and Bellezza.

I’ll be posting here about my reading, although only very briefly, because I have lots of books to read as well as other reviews to write.

And now back to the books!

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Reviews and podcasts

First of all, I’ve had some reviews published elsewhere that I haven’t yet linked to here. I had two reviews appear at Full Stop: Samantha Harvey’s amazing novel Dear Thief and Virginie Despentes’s feminist take on crime fiction Apocalypse Baby. At Bookslut I reviewed Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, a rivetting account of a Australian murder trial. And, finally, I’m proud to make my first appearance in Open Letters Monthly with a review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s dark, troubling novel Hausfrau. Check them out!

I’ve written about podcasts here before, but not since the success of the amazing podcast Serial. I was hooked on Serial, as were so many, many other people. Last night I had the chance to see the host and producer, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, at an event in Hartford, Connecticut. It was really great. Koenig and Snyder told their story in a casual but polished way, keeping it light with their jokes — I was surprised at how much I laughed — but giving a good sense of how tremendously strange, difficult, and anxiety-inducing the whole experience was. They had no idea how popular the podcast would get and how strong people’s responses would be. They couldn’t have anticipated how other people would pick up the investigation they began and take it in different directions, often without their careful journalistic standards. They seemed distressed that personal information about the people involved in their story became public and their lives were changed. But they made a strong argument for the importance of what they were doing and are now hard at work on Seasons 2 and 3.

All that was great, but the evening will also be memorable for another event. As I watched people enter the auditorium and take their seats, I noticed a woman who looked vaguely familiar. It occurred to me that she might be Julia Pistell, one of the hosts of my favorite bookish podcasts, Literary Disco, and someone I know from listening to the podcast lives in the area. After I heard her very distinctive laugh, I was almost certain it was her. So afterwards I mustered up the courage to ask if she is indeed Julia. I always agonize about this sort of thing. I like meeting people but worry about saying the wrong thing or looking silly, or bothering someone who doesn’t want to be bothered. This situation was particularly odd, since Sarah Koenig had just talked about the experience of being recognized by her listeners and how it can make her feel uncomfortable. The whole thing was just a little too meta — I wanted to introduce myself to a podcaster at an event about podcasting in which the podcaster talked about people introducing themselves to her. Strange! But I did it, and Julia Pistell was lovely. In fact, she was super-excited and thought it was hilarious that I recognized her by her laugh. So thank God, I hadn’t made an ass of myself and instead have a fun podcasting experience tucked inside another podcasting experience to remember.

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Books I want to read NOW…

…except I don’t own them and don’t have much time to read them in. But if I did have the time and felt like going on a book-buying binge, I’d buy:

  • Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock. I loved this interview with Julavits on a new podcast called Lit Up, and her book sounds fascinating — a diary of sorts, with a unique structure.
  • Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Yanagihara appeared on the Lit Up podcast as well, and that conversation was great (the podcast is excellent so far — and run entirely by women. I love it). The truth is I own a copy of her first novel The People in the Trees that I need to read first, but ideally that would be followed by reading her second book in short order.
  • Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Nelson is just the best. I’ve read two of her books so far (Bluets and Jane: A Murder). Both are amazing.
  • Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk. I’ve read lots of grief memoirs (for no particular reason — probably just because I read a lot of memoirs and memoirs are often about grief), but this one sounds particularly good.
  • Elisa Albert’s After Birth. A novel about childbirth and motherhood? I’m in.
  • Patricia Park’s Re Jane: A Novel. This is a retelling of Jane Eyre set in Queens. Sounds like it could be fun.

Well, maybe this summer I’ll get to these…

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Eugenie Grandet

I should admit before writing about Honoré de Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet that this is my second Balzac novel, and I didn’t get along with my first, Cousin Bette. Fortunately, I liked Eugénie Grandet much better. Those of you in the know, is Eugénie Grandet simply a better book than Cousin Bette? Or have I changed somehow, or am I simply in a different mood this time? I found Cousin Bette unsatisfying because I missed the depth of character I love in 19th-century novels. The characters were either perfectly good or completely awful and without some complex, interesting character to latch onto, I lose interest. I should confess, also, that I don’t remember a thing about Cousin Bette and am basing these remarks on a paragraph I wrote in an old blog post. The book just didn’t stick with me.

I’m not sure how much longer Eugénie Grandet will stick with me, but I did enjoy the reading experience much more [lots of spoilers ahead!]. Like Cousin Bette, it’s a critique of society’s obsession with money and the way the hunger for money corrupts and ruins lives. But perhaps Eugénie as a character is more memorable than anybody in Cousin Bette. Yes, she is drawn in broad strokes and the very large changes she makes throughout the course of her life are described quickly, but I think the shortness of the book and the relative brevity with which many of the events are described work well. We can see the larger point Balzac is making about greed, enjoy the satirical way he portrays many of his characters, feel pity and horror at Monsieur Grandet’s miserliness, and even suffer a little at Eugénie’s fate, all in a book that’s only about 200 pages. I like long novels very much, but perhaps I don’t like long novels by Balzac.

I seem to be confessing a lot in this post, so let me keep going: I had a hard time with the novel’s opening pages, the description of the town of Saumur and the Grandet home. I read and reread those pages, and I couldn’t pin down the details in my mind. I also couldn’t keep many of the minor characters straight, those Cruchots and des Grassins. It didn’t seem to matter much as I read along that I couldn’t remember who was who and what their relationships were. Those characters are there to make a point collectively, to illustrate the greediness of the town generally and the atmosphere in which Eugénie lives — one in which everyone is after the Grandet money but everyone generally loses their money to the Grandets instead. These characters spend their whole lives trying to ingratiate themselves into the Grandet family, hoping Eugénie will marry one of them, or her parents will marry her to one of them, and it doesn’t seem to matter to them that they are spending decades in this one pursuit.

The heart of this book seems to be the relationship between Eugénie and her father Grandet, and then the ways that Grandet haunts her even when he is gone. Through the influence of her mother, most likely, or just through strength of character, Eugénie passively resists her father’s greed and miserliness, keeping a freshness and innocence throughout her young life. When her cousin Charles appears on the scene, she finds a reason to actively resist her father: romantic love. She wants to provide for Charles, to give him the comforts she has grown accustomed to living without herself, and she doesn’t care about the money involved. And then she commits the act that her father finds it nearly impossible to forgive, giving away money itself.

But what does she get in return for her generosity and love? She gets to do the thing so many women get to do in novels: wait. And she is waiting for a man who fell in love with her, yes, but who is not worthy of her. He was a young dandy when they first met, vain and foolish, but after his father’s bankruptcy and his desperate need to make money, he becomes truly corrupt, making that money through slavery and wanting only to reappear in Paris a fabulously wealthy man. Poor Eugénie keeps believing in him as long as she can, but her faithfulness gains her nothing. Or perhaps it does gain her something — it seems to insulate her from corruption herself. She stays true to idea of love, even though she doesn’t ever experience it again herself.

Ultimately, the book seems to be exploring what greed does to the emotions, the way it shrivels them up and kills them. Or if it doesn’t kill them, it turns them against the one feeling them, becoming a burden:

and yet that noble heart, beating only with tenderest emotions, has been, from first to last, subjected to the calculations of human selfishness; money has cast its frigid influence upon that hallowed life and taught distrust of feelings to a woman who is all feeling.

This is a melancholy tale, but it is kept lively by Balzac’s wonderful descriptions, like this one of Grandet:

Financially speaking, Monsieur Grandet was something between a tiger and a boa-constrictor. He could crouch and lie low, watch his prey a long while, spring upon it, open his jaws, swallow a mass of louis, and then rest tranquilly like a snake in process of digestion, impassible, methodical, and cold.

Or this one of the Cruchots and des Grassins:

All three took snuff, and had long ceased to repress the habit of snivelling or to remove the brown blotches which strewed the frills of their dingy shirts and the yellowing creases of their crumpled collars. Their flabby cravats were twisted into ropes as soon as they wound them about their throats. The enormous quantity of linen which allowed these people to have their clothing washed only once in six months, and to keep it during that time in the depths of their closets, also enabled time to lay its grimy and decaying stains upon it. There was perfect unison of ill-grace and senility about them; their faces, as faded as their threadbare coats, as creased as their trousers, were worn-out, shrivelled-up, and puckered … A horror of fashion was the only point on which the Grassinists and the Cruchotines agreed.

These people are just horrible. Balzac is wonderful as describing horrible people! This seems to be where much of the book’s energy lies: in capturing just how truly terrible people can be.

This novel was the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda group, so make sure to check out other posts there.

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