Monday, February 20, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

I'm halfway through Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. You can always count on Murakami to be strange and to disappear some animals, but you can also count on him to be mesmerizing, which this novel is so far.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I happened to be half-way through this novel when Sittenfeld's essay on book clubs appeared in the NYTBR. One of her points was how difficult it is to visit a book club and hear how much the readers disliked her narrator (who is not her, but hers, Sittenfeld points out). I had to laugh because my reaction to the book at that point was, this girl is annoying. I have no problem, though, reading a novel about someone I don't especially like. What I found interesting about Sittenfeld's novel is that it, like Curious Incident..., has been a popular book club book, instead of what I think it ought to be ... a good book for young adults. The reason Prep's narrator is so annoying is because she's a teenager, and like many teenagers she's self-absorbed, embarrassed by her parents, obsessed with her place on the popularity scale, and alienated by large swaths of her world (in this case, an elite prep school). Probably many of us had her annoying personality and self-absortion for a good 3-4 years of our lives. And then we grew up. Novels about teenagers for adults can put us back in that world--causing pleasure and pain--but ultimately they seem most meaningful if they tie our past teenage selves to some adult present. Without much reflection, and without any unusual dramatic events (some teen novels work by putting the teens into adult worlds), this seems a novel best suited to those who are living it, rather than those who have lived it already.

Categories aside... as a writer, I found interesting the familiar structure that Sittenfeld employs--an outsider giving us an inside view of an exclusive world. Like a lot of readers, I like fiction that shows me a world I can't otherwise experience. And like a lot of readers, I identify best with someone who, like me, doesn't identify with that world, but who has infiltrated it and is now sending out dispatches. From what I know of boarding schools, Sittenfeld gives a very real portrayal of its rituals, etc. (this novel, unlike chick lit, is absolute realism). But as much as the structure is tried and true, I found myself wondering if it's time to let the insiders have a say. At this point, I would be interested to hear the popular, rich kid's account of boarding school.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

I'm so happy to have found Lydia Millet. Finally, a woman writer who takes on the social, political concerns, the big ideas, that are most often left to male writers. There is definitely some Don DeLillo in this novel (his observations on crowds in Mao II are overtly echoed here), but Millet is totally her own stylist, and I can't wait to read more.

This novel pairs the personal story of Ben and Ann, a gardener and a librarian respectively--gentle folk, obviously--with observations on nuclear war, cult behavior, and religious fanaticism, by dropping three atomic scientists from the 1940s into Ben and Ann's lives. The book is great on character, on language, and on observation, but, to my taste, a little wacky with plot (also a DeLillo trait), but still, it's now one of my favorite books of the past few years.

My undergraduate workshop has been talking about when to show and when to tell, and Millet is really great with telling. She uses lines of intellectual observation to add a deep layer of beauty and thought to what would otherwise be only a clever tale.

A bold example: "As she walked she became all abstract./ The opposition between the small and the big, the idea of the miniscule and the idea of the vast, she thought, is not far removed from the opposition between the mundane and the sublime./ And if the question were asked: What is more real, the mundane or the sublime? most would hesitate before they gave an answer./ On the one side details: say, the aftermath of a breakfast, dirty chipped plates in the sink, their rims encrusted with egg yolk. Against this, the unnameable: small aching heart with boasts, what can you know? Outside the cage of everything we ever heard or saw, beyond, outside, above, there lies the real, hiding as long as we shall live, there stretch and trail the millions of names of God burning across the eons. When all through this our end will come before we even know the names of us./ For many the egg yolk prevails."

For a more subtle example, see my reading in progress entry below.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Ssh, Reading in Progress

My most recent discovery is the novel Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet.

Sentence I wish I had written: "It was the music of nostalgia, she thought, pure sentiment with words only for placeholders--as though that was the only function of music, to convey either nostalgia or longing, the same emotion in different tenses."

The March by E.L. Doctorow

Doctorow's Ragtime was a novel I read at just the right age--I found a beat-up copy sometime during junior high and then got to take a day off of school to hear Doctorow speak during senior high (the kind of expedition that, at my school at least, only so-called gifted students got to make, and yet the kind of expedition that would make learning so much more engaging for all students)--and it probably set me up for a lifelong interest in historical fiction (that and that romance series about the founding of the west that started with Independence! and then went through all of the states (to-be-states) on the wagon trail).

Historical literary fiction always seems, to me, a little more important than contemporary literary fiction (unfairly so, probably), and more likely to have a lasting presence. Even novels of recent history (like Morrison's Paradise, Roth's American Pastoral) seem more weighty than up-to-the-minute novels. This may simply have to do with attaching personal stories to moments in history that have proven to have significance. A novel attached to Bush II and Iraq II written right now might feel as important as one written ten or twenty years from now.

Anyway... The March, Doctorow's most recent novel, is written in the collage structure that has grown quite popular with post-post-modernists, and I loved it as I read it...and with so many collages, when the end didn't find a way to complete the picture, the book didn't feel entirely successful. It doesn't, for example, find that one image that brings all of the narratives into one final cohesive unit, the way Edward Jones managed to do in The Known World, with his amazing final image of the quilt. But it's still well worth reading for the evocative writing and the wonderful images throughout.

The March, like Ragtime, uses real events and real people interspersed with fictional events and fictional people. In this case, all connected to Sherman's march across the South during the American Civil War. I've meant for a long time to try writing historical fiction, and this is a good reminder to move that idea up on my list of projects. When I was a graduate student, one of my colleagues (Elissa Minor Rust--go check out her new book of short stories) used to write historical fiction and we would all discuss this with amazement-- "You mean, she goes to the library and does research before she writes?" we would ask each other, wide-eyed. It wasn't that the concept seemed so crazy but that we couldn't imagine where she found the time. But I think grads and undergrads alike would benefit from occasionally attaching the personal to the historic--it could broaden the scope and increase the depth of their otherwise well-crafted language.