Harper Collins, 2012
The Larger View
Richard Ford’s “Canada” is a novel about memory. It is about failed relationships. It is about rites of passage. It is about compromises. It is about mortality. It is about defeat. It is about survival. It is about our need for psychological purges by performing acts of self-destructive daring or, if we are desperate, killing ourselves or others to wipe our slates clean of the mistakes of our past.
It is a novel about missed chances, individual choices, and the landscapes we end up in, not always by choice. It is a story about running away and, finally, about settling down. At the core of all our journeys, according to Dell Parsons, the sixty-three year old narrator, are the attempts: “We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.” Continue reading
Night Train to Lisbon
by Pascal Mercier
Translated by Barbara Harshav
Grove Press, 2008
“Last Train to Lisbon” was going to be read in a book club a friend of mine belonged to. The club started it, then decided to drop it. Another friend started reading it and has yet to complete it.
The criticisms were consistent: it was too long; it was too windy; it was too dense; the memoir writing was too tedious and philosophical; there were too many characters; there were too many scene shifts.
Well, I’m here to say. I finished the novel. In fact, I read it twice. What can I say? I was an English teacher. I love a challenge.
On the surface, the story is really quite simple: an aging philology teacher finds a book of memoirs in a book store. He starts to read them. The author of the memoirs was a Portuguese doctor and a resistance fighter during the Salazar dictatorship.
Gregorius, the teacher, has found his fantasized soul mate in this resistance fighter, Amadeu Prado, a brooding and tortured aristocrat, a “goldsmith of words” who destines himself “to rescue the silent experiences of human life from their muteness.” Continue reading
Let The Great World Spin
Random House, 2009
Except for a brief time in Dublin, McCann’s setting for this novel is in New York City during the Vietnam/Nixon-resignation years. And what a city it is: artists, clergy, prostitutes, judges, black/white/latino/Irish, computer geeks and hackers, street magicians—a veritable urban dream world.
McCann uses the famous event of the French tightroper walker and brilliantly fictionalizes it back into existence. It is the event that often grounds the novel (I would have to say that that event loses its force in the last two chapters when Tillie and Jaslyn narrate). Continue reading
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
“….the gods love to eavesdrop on the secret lives of others.” So says the novel’s narrator and mythological character, Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia, the cave woman.
If we’ve forgotten our mythology 101, Hermes is also the messenger. And does he have a story to tell, a very modern story about ordinary human interactions and relationships and a story in the ancient classical tradition about love, larger-than-life genius, death, destiny, unrequited love. Continue reading
Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperbacks
New York, 2010
In all of the reviewing I have done over the years, I don’t ever recall using a statement from an author’s acknowledgment page.
When I read the last paragraph and then went back to look at the last page of the narrative itself, there appeared to be some covert, even tendentious wrapping up, some moral statement LaValle seemed to be making in this part allegory, part fantasy, part gothic, part magic-realism, part gruesome, grim-reality novel. Continue reading
The White Tiger
“Sweet-maker…that’s my caste, my destiny,” says the protagonist, Balram Halwai, in Aravind Adiga’s novel, “White Tiger.” Another character in the novel asks the question, “Do you think sweet-makers can manage fourth gear?”
Western readers are not used to reading about castes, an historically rigid class system in India for centuries. Historians tell us, however, that in urban India, the caste system is breaking down, even though it remains entrenched in rural India. Continue reading
Reading theorists have told us many times that readers take an active part in creating the very narratives they’re reading. A text is not static, no matter what the intention of the writer. Once the story goes out there, we, as readers, begin a kind of paint-by-numbers process of reinventing the narrative to fit our psyches. The broad outline of the story is there, but we color in the personal textures to suit ourselves.
Louise Erdrich’s novel, Shadow Tag, certainly opened up my own politically-correct notions of what I want to read or see in a fictional work about another culture. It continues to be difficult for me to shift out of a rather rigid belief that indigenous cultures should exist in this rarified world of innocence, that they should not accomodate themselves, in any way, to a dominant, sometimes oppressive culture—Japanese art should be pure “Japanese”; Chinese literature should be untainted by Western values; Indian film should always be driven by the country’s Hindu heritage.
Although I have evolved to having made my own accomodations, I find myself sometimes becoming a kind of politically-correct tourist who doesn’t want any ancient culture to change. I am sometimes particularly hard on writers and artists who produce assimilationist works, hybrids that have their sensibilities in two cultures. Continue reading
Too Much Happiness
Alfred A. Knopf, 2009
Alice Munro is one of those rare literary icons who has the distinct reputation as a crossover writer. She is admired by academics for her literary sensibilities, the mainstream for her easy-to-identify-with characters, and fiction writers who continue to be amazed at her ability to construct a strong story out of what Hollywood would consider to be the uneventful and ordinary—an impossible judgment to be made after reading “Free Radicals” and “Dimensions” in Munro’s latest collection, Too Much Happiness. Continue reading
It is difficult to write a review of a novel that has significant events that cannot be revealed without destroying the tension of those events. In the same vein, Internet film reviews often caution their readers that the review contains spoiler information that gives away key plot information.
I jokingly made the comment to a friend of mine that English majors, like myself, seem to revel in literature that’s hard to get the first time round. That doesn’t mean second readings don’t enhance our understanding of a work. It’s just that we sometimes distrust our I-get-it reactions as being superficial because they’re too immediate. For some reason, we seem to require wallowing around in the miasma of linguistic challenges.
Maybe it’s masochism or maybe we just have to prove to the world that we have some kind of secret knowledge of texts that are just beyond the ken of most mortals. And “stream of consciousness” writing is often one of our favorite genres. Similar to academic art theorists commenting on abstract painting, it leaves us ample room to show others just how brilliant we are when the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue what the hell we’re talking about.
Insanity as a literary theme has always had an audience—those ardent peeping-Toms who love to wallow around in somebody else’s mania. And there is something about the draw of a house fire or a mangled car on the Interstate that seeps into our indifference with the power of a jackhammer.
In a recent Harper’s Magazine essay, “Go Forth and Falsify,” William Gass made the comment that a “storyteller’s assignment…was to glorify the past and its daring, protect the family tree, justify male ownership of land…” among other obligations.
It appeared at first glance that Gass had no aesthetic sympathy with the classic role of the “bard” telling what Gass calls “the first stories.” Nor did he seem to support the classic “storyteller’s assignment” in his laundry list of the teller’s obligations. In this sense, he was merely the messenger telling us what the old bard’s role and obligations used to be.