Monday, October 25, 2010

When to Quit

After six and a half long, weeks, I finally finished Franzen's Freedom, a novel I have been awaiting ever since I read the last line of The Corrections. I am normally a fast reader, and expected to have the book devoured in a matter of days. I even contemplated taking a day off of work to get a large chunk of it done. And yet I read slow. I told myself that I worked two jobs and didn't have time to read. True. I told myself I wanted to savor the book, not let it go before the wait for a new tome began. Also true. I secretly worried that I was not liking the book. But that was not true because it was all I could think about, talk about, post about on Facebook. ("Kelly really has a fancy for this Franzen fellow," I could hear my mother say.) And even knowing all of this, I still read slow. I felt like one of those movie situations where the main character finally gets the girl of his dreams in bed and cannot perform. Here I was, curled up in bed with the sexiest of all sexies, a great writer, and all I wanted to do was to go to sleep. This was a man I journeyed miles and miles to see, who made me swoon with his sentence structure, who was a damn Simpson character! What was happening?
And the truth, much like a shocking change in a Franzen novel, came at me simple and shocking: I am getting old and cannot read like a 20-year-old anymore. Gone are the days of 5am finishes. No longer can I sneak a book into a meeting, a line, in bed. Reading is an active experience, and it requires all of my focus. And I realize that, unlike a sprinter, I am in this for the long-haul. I want to be a careful reader, an attentive reader, and that cannot come with speed. So, Freedom took me 7 weeks to read.
With this knowledge comes the realization that I cannot read everything I want to. Picking a book is no longer a casual fancy. I need to choose wisely. Which brings me to my point: Slow reading means putting a book down that I am not devoted to. I have to quit. Whereas I could never fathom putting down a novel I started years ago(What if I miss something? what if I am not getting it?), I now routinely leave works unfinished. When do I decide to quit? This is where I suffer the most anguish. I once heard, from Oprah I believe, that if one is 50 pages into the book and not in love, it is time to stop. While 50 pages is a significant amount of pages, I am not sure a hard and fast number of pages is a wise indicator of when to stop. A work like Freedom is near 600 pages, and a 50 page chunk is only a taste of the whole. Quitting after 50 pages of that work is an insult.
I quit Nicole Strauss' The History of Love after 70 pages. While Strauss got the brunt of my post-Freedom depression, I knew, almost from the first page, that Love was not for me. While Strauss' self-conscious, self-reflecting style (call it post-post-modern) often opens itself up for pure emotion, it leaves me feeling manipulated, guilty. I suspected this before I began the book, and knew it as soon as I started the novel. So I put it down. On to the next one.
But, still afraid I was missing out, I gave it to a friend, whose opinion I trust, and asked her to read it and let me know what happened. Maybe this is a way to ease my guilt. Quitting is never an easy thing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Awaiting Freedom

The new Jonathan Franzen novel Freedom will be here in a matter of days! Early reviews can be found here and here, and Franzen will be featured on the cover of Time Magazine with the issue hitting newsstands this Friday. (The issue is now online.) It is the first time in 10 years that a living American novelist has been featured on the mag's cover, according to the NYT. I for one cannot wait to get my hands on a copy, and will surely devour the book in a matter of day. I read The Correction at a feverish pace, even going so far as to skip class one day to finish a section of the novel. (I actually went to the university, but decided to sit in a desk just outside the classroom to read.) From the two excerpts that I have read so far, Freedom will be on track with that thrilling novel. Bring it, Mr. Franzen!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore

When the Lorrie Moore Society eventually assembles itself, and after the euphoria of sharing your favorite of the author's puns and play on words begin to wear thin (my favorite is "throw cushions to the wind"), the inevitable factions will begin to form. There will be those who, having read her heart-wrenching story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," will be interested in uncovering the author's personal motivation for writing a story about a young couple ("whose narrator is a female writer nonetheless!") dealing with their newborn child's diagnosis with cancer vs. those who choose to read the author's many works on their own, separate from the writer's life. There will be those who see Moore's earlier works as full of life and her current endeavors as increasingly bitter vs. those who think the author has gracefully moved away from a naive but humane vision of the world to a mature and grounded observer of modern life. But by far the most vociferous groups, and those who will never see eye to eye, will be those who prefer Moore's short stories vs. those who see her novels as her towering achievements. Having published three story collections, and three novels, Moore has given her fans near equal opportunity to choose sides.

Finally, there will be those who, aware they might be thought of as too weak to choose a side but not willing to engage in a literary pillow-fight, will throw cushions to the wind and quietly hold out their dogeared copies of Anagrams, Moore's first "novel," published in 1986. I use the word novel loosely here because Anagrams is, on the surface, a short story collection disguised as a novel. The book is comprised of four glorious short stories and a beautiful and understated novella. Each of the selections revolve around the love affair of Benna and Gerard, characters who take various poses of love and confusion in the course of the novel. And while each piece could stand on its own (many have been published elsewhere previously), the works possess a unique narrative momentum that makes them a cohesive whole.

In the first story, "Escape from the Invasion of the Love-Killers," the two characters live across the hall from each other in an old apartment building. Gerard quietly loves Benna, a nightclub singer with a bit of an alcohol problem, from behind the closed doors of his apartment. He listens for her to stumble home after work and talks to her through their shared bathroom wall. He ventures over to her apartment to discuss science fiction movies and his childhood acting roles. Benna, however, has no interest in Gerard, and rebuffs his sweet-natured advances. She is careless with his feelings, and her brashness eventually places an emotional wall between them. The story ends with a heartbroken Gerard venturing back to his own apartment, alone and depressed. Moore's solemn narration in this story gives show us Gerard's tremendous heart in only 6 short pages, and we are left flipping to the next story in hopes of some kind of resolve for this character we have quickly come to love.

The second story, "String Too Short to Use," switches gears however, and we are given a different side of the story, only this time from Benna's point of view. She and Gerard still live across the hall from each other, but something has changed. In this story, it is Benna who is in love with Gerard, and seemingly not the other way around: the two are dating, but it is Gerard who suddenly is not interested in the relationship. How have these two characters found themselves in this new situation? Has time passed in between stories? Did Moore play a trick on us in the first, third-person narrated story? This jump is jarring and confusing, but before any objections can be raised, Moore reels us to this new but familiar world, which is as crisp and clear as the one we were abruptly taken away from. As the details begin to emerge, what one eventually notices is that Gerard is not even the same Gerard from the previous story. Neither, we soon see, is Benna. What we soon discover is that in each piece, while all the basic components remain the same such as the characters and setting, the larger picture has been rearranged. Much like Benna, who obsesses over rearranging the letters of the words that occupy her life to find new meaning (my favorite is bedroom/boredom), Anagrams switches up the lives of the characters to give the reader different sides of love. While this initially sounds like a parlor trick of literary showmanship, a bad MFA proposal, Moore tells her stories with such an emotional force that we embrace a concept we would normally sneer at in a less gifted writer.

And what a gifted writer she is. Moore is not just throwing her Scrabble pieces in the air and watching to see where they land. Her stories are carefully constructed rearrangements, fitting into each other in unexpected places that are both new and exciting, as well as comfortable and ultimately revealing. Threads that are left open in one section are resolved in others, even if the string that hold them together are different from place to place. Conversations are echoed from different cliffs. Characters jump from position to position, often becoming the person they least want to resemble. And we are left to marvel at Moore's precise yet emotionally flowing prose.

Why then is this work called a novel? A novel by definition is an extended work of fiction, while a short story is something to be read in a sitting. Shouldn't this be classified as a short story collections with connective ties, much like the 2008's Olive Kitterage, which consisted of linked stories involving a retired teacher, or this year's superb The Imperfectionists, which told of the lives of staffers at a failing newspaper? Is Anagrams really what we consider a novel? My initial hunch is that the book's publishers were weary of publishing a collection of short stories, which are historically low-selling, and instead decided to call the piece a novel, in hopes of not scaring off those who would pass over a story collection. A trick such as this runs the risk of not only causing confusion in the reader, but of also potentially backfiring; a reader's memory is long, and any kind of emotional forgery is not easily forgiven. And yet in the end, Anagrams reveals itself to be a novel, even if not in the traditional sense of the word. What hold it all together is neither character, nor place, nor even a few tidy, well-placed sentences that change the reader's perspective. Moore mixes up what we expect from a novel and a story collection to give us something wholly original.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater, the hero of Lev Grossman's second novel, The Magicians, should by all accounts be a happy young man. He is at the top of his graduating class; his parents are both successful, and have provided him with a comfortable living; and he is surrounded by a close group of like-minded friends (even if his best friend is dating the girl he secretly loves). But early on in the novel we find that Quentin is not a happy boy. On his way to an interview with Priceton, he passes a neighborhood filled with life. Upon seeing the "hipster boutiques" and a patio bar filled with old people drinking at three forty-five in the afternoon, the reader is given this account of Quentin's predicament: "All of it just confirmed his belief that his life, his real life, the life he should be living, had been mislaid through some clerical error by the cosmic bureaucracy. This couldn't be it. It had been diverted somewhere else, to somebody else, and he'd been issued this shitty substitute faux life instead."
Where has this disappointment come from?
Quentin, it seems, has spent his childhood lost in a Narnia-like fantasy series about a magical world called Fillory. The five book series follows a family of children who "have adventures and explore magical lands and defend the gentle creatures who live there against the various forces that menace them." Quentin longs to be in this secret world, or more accurately, he longs for his own world to contain the adventure and purpose of the fictional Fillory. The world he sees and the world he dreams of don't match up, and it is this disconnect that has put Quentin in such a funk.
It is only a matter of time before Quentin discovers magic does exist and it is taught at a secret school named Brakebills. He is quickly entered into the school, and off on a degree in Magicianship. But Quentin soon discovers Brakebills is more community college than Hogwarts, and this is where Grossman's truly original concept begins to take shape. The magic Quentin thought would set him free is just as mundane and meaningless in Brakebills as his life in the real world is. The adventure and sense of purpose Quentin thought he would find does not present itself in his new life. Magic worlds are not all they are summoned up to be.
Grossman's novel is divided into four sections, with the first section -the longest and by far the best- devoted to Quentin's life at Brakebills. It is in this section that Grossman takes Quentin out of his fantasyland idea of what magic should be, and brings it into the real world. In reviews, Grossman is often described as a hybrid of J. K. Rowling and Jay McInerney. It is no stretch to describe the novel as combination of the Harry Potter and Less Than Zero, which many critics easily did. And to a degree, this is an accurate description of what The Magicians tries to be.
The Rowling comparisons are easy to understand, even if Grossman lacks her full-tilt imagination. The Magicians is populated with a few haunting images that best illustrate Grossman's adroit understanding of what we look for in a fantasy novel, and how those tropes can easily be turned on their heads. Early in the novel, Quentin finds a cabinet reminiscent of Lewis's transporting wardrobe. Sensing a mystical quality in the cabinet, and admittedly lost in his own drunken Fillory mind, Quentin moves the cabinet, looking for a door to another world. What he finds instead is a wall and a cabinet full of liquor. His fantasy life smacks right up against reality, and reveals nothing but disappointment. Later, in the book's surreal second half, Quentin discovers a bar straight out of Tolkien. Grossman does his finest work here, giving us a peach schnapps swilling bear named Humbledrum, who, instead of offering sage advice to his new friend, only ruminates on the his memory of honey, and an Ork-like birch tree named Favrel who alleviates the destruction of his homeland with a cigarette, even at the risk of setting himself on fire. Moments like these take us to the darker side of a magical life, and subvert our standard beliefs about these worlds have to offer. I wish the entire novel were this good.
It is the McInerney side where the novel develops its most original ideas, and where Grossman begins to falter. Reading the college section of the novel, I felt as if Grossman were restraining himself from going to far, as if he was worried what his out of control magic might do to his novel, or better yet, what a publisher might say. In a wicked scene near the beginning of the novel, Quentin discovers a fellow classmate engaging in a subversive and shocking sexual act. Instead of running, Quentin hangs around to watch a little longer than he should, even wondering why he was not chosen to participate. This scene, thoughtfully placed in the early in the novel, shakes up the format, jolting and alerting the reader to the type of book The Magicians tries to be. Grossman, however, fails to deliver on this early intrigue. (The scene is never mentioned again, nor explained.) In fact, he rushes over several other several other explicitly "adult" scenes in his novel, such as drug and alcohol use, an (imagined?) threesome, and even a moment of what could easily be described as date-rape, which Grossman gets out of by having his characters assume the form of foxes. And while the novel does not need excessive and lurid moments to flourish, some counterpoint the surreal fantasy world would feel refreshing, especially given our current chaste literary world, where vampires and werewolves fight over frigid humans. In fact, stacked up next to some other fantasy novels in the decidedly non-"literary novels," The Magicians feels another tween series.
Where the novel really fails is with its characters. Quentin is attracted to an exclusive group of student, known as the Physicals (named for the type of magic they are able to perform), and quickly gets accepted into their coven. At the center of this group is Eliot, whose penchant for expensive wine, elegant shirts and cutting wit makes him the group's natural leader. Eliot gets all of the best lines in the book, and is a character Grossman clearly has fun with. But Eliot, like almost every other character in the novel, fails to become fully realized. We see him on the outside, but never feel who he is, never get to that moment that makes us know him, the moment of connection we crave as readers. Grossman piles on his characters by the novel's end, over-populating his magic world with even more faceless names, instead of focusing on the characters he has staged his novel around, the character we want to care about. A case can be made that this is his point of the novel, that magic life, much like real life, is filled with masses of people who we see everyday, interact with, but never really know. In this "real life," we trivialize others, ignore their minor problems and possible bad breath, gossip about them at office parties, and then forget them when they are gone. If in fact this is Grossman's point, his novel is a failure of execution. Grossman, it seems, does not remember why Quentin was so drawn into the world of Fillory in the first place, or why we as readers want to connect with him. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with a book knows that the world of any novel should not only be as fully realized as the one we actually inhabit, but somehow give us something tangible to help us see our own world more clearly, to realize ourselves, even if it is through goblins, talking trees or mighty wizards. Lev Grossman has written a novel for anyone who knows what it is like to immerse yourself in a fantastic and magical universe. In the world of The Magicians, however, the looking glass needs a little more reflection.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

To begin...

So, I am going to try to start a new blog. Last one did not hold up so much, but hey, I didn't have a focus. This time I do, and it is one I am passionate about. All my life I have been an avid reader. I cannot remember a time in which books were not involved. I will spare you the "as a child, I would stay up with a flashlight to read" story; I don't want to bore or make this too much about me. The purpose of this blog is to discuss what I am currently reading, and why the book is something you should/must/absolutely-have-to right-this-now read. I love nothing more than talking about books and recommending them to others. So many of my favorite books are no longer in my possession because I have given them to others, all so we can share the experience, the pleasure, of a particular book. Reading is a solitary journey, an experience between the person and the written word. Sharing books expands that pleasure to the social, and that is what I hope to accomplish here. I read almost a book a week, which will make my commitment to updating this site weekly rather effective. I am a lover of modern fiction, which I will mostly focus on, but also am an avid reader of The New Yorker as well as the online magazine Salon. I can tell you my reading taste varies, but a list of my favorite books will paint the clearest picture of who I am as a reader. In no order, here are the books I love love love:

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (where this blog takes its title from)
Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger
What is the What by Dave Eggers
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Middlesex by Jeffery Euginedes
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
Let the Great World Spin by Colum Mccann
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Known World by Edward P. Jones
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please by Raymond Carver
A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor

Here are 20 that I love. There are tons of books that have moved me in someway not listed, and I apologize to those I forgot. (A more telling list would be those books that I detested, but that will have to be for another day.)

So, let's begin this. I just got back from a trip to Powell's and have a ton of books to read and discuss. Here's to books!