Posts Tagged ‘books’

Reading Roundup: Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things


I don’t do enough reading reports/book reviews as you’d think. Sometimes I’m reading a book because I’m “digging,” i.e. reading the book to extract material to use in a particular project. And so my literary analysis lens is turned off. But some books — like The Luminaries and The Signature of All Things — I read for whimsy, curiosity and pure pleasure, and are compelling enough for me to sit down and outline my response to them in some way. I actually enjoyed both, and thought they made for interesting companions — though clearly I loved one over the other. But if you’re looking for quasi 19th-century literature, this is your entry…

Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries

If there’s ever one literary stunt I’d be inclined to, it would be reading all the Booker Prize winners ever. I’m not sure why — maybe because I’ve inadvertently read a lot of Booker Prize winners and enjoyed many of them. Maybe it’s an extension of my latent Anglophilia, I don’t know. It just seems like a “thing” I’d do. I’m inclined to look at a book, go “Hey, this was shortlisted for the Booker prize,” and see that as an imprimatur for some kind of quality or taste level.

But for the like of me, I cannot see why The Luminaries won this year’s Booker Prize (especially over Jhumpa Lahiri!) Not that it is a bad book by any means — it is a highly admirable novel, with a complex, narrative structure where intertwined stories fold up and nestle against one another. All of them concern a man’s death, a hoard of treasure and a whore that seems to have inherited it all in some way or another. And the milieu is fascinating — a 1800s mining town in New Zealand — and there’s definitely some beautiful prose. And I am always in favor of authors essentially aping the feel of classic 19th-century novels, with more formal, constructed prose and a certain formality in the structure. (Indeed, with a strong emphasis on structure!) If written in the actual 19th century, The Luminaries would be a kind of adventure yarn you’d read from someone like Jack London, Herman Melville or the like. But it’s written in the 2000s, which means it lacks the buoyancy, verve and genuine bawdy spirit of a true yarn. The narrative and writing is way too controlled to rollick and roll, and the result feels strangely undramatic and much more internal than you’d expect.

That sense of interiority, though, doesn’t quite form a bridge to developing an attachment to the story or characters in general. Call me old-fashioned, but I could not fully invest emotionally in any of the novel’s broad cast of characters or the relationships between them. Maybe it’s the result of the novel’s somewhat fussy, complicated structure and broad cast of characters? I was interested enough to want to know what happened and why, which propelled me to finish the book — kind of an accomplishment, especially since I’ve vowed not to finish books out of a sense of obligation anymore. But after I finished this 800-plus-pager, I shut the covers and felt just a pale shadow of poignancy, which faded into the everyday business of the usual day.

I felt oddly disappointed in my own reaction. But when I thought about it again, I finally put my finger on what the act of reading books means to me now, and why The Luminaries failed to fulfill it. As I get older, I have somewhat returned to the old relationship I once had with books and novels and stories — I like to feel as if they are companions in my life. I don’t expect to “relate” to them or even “like” them, but I want to feel as if we’ve taken a journey together, or had a conversation that in some small way altered my way of seeing, understanding and feeling, if only for some time. And though it concerns journeys and discoveries, I did not feel that journey or sense of uncovering a new land or idea with Catton’s novel. That made me a little sad, to have spent so much time with it and to feel so little resonance at the end. The Luminaries is a bit like a monument — you can look up and admire it and understand its importance and accomplishment on a cerebral level, but it doesn’t quite feel as if you’ve lived through or with it, and in that strange way, ultimately disappoints.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

I read Eat, Pray, Love like everyone on the planet who ever had to buy a book at an airport bookstore because their freaking e-reader ran out of power on an unexpectedly long layover. (Okay, maybe that was just me?) We all know what it is about, right? Middle-aged lady in the middle of a midlife crisis and divorce travels the world, finds her center and then finds true love amid exotic locales.

I don’t begrudge anyone their personal journey towards love and enlightenment, but I sort of found the “voice” of the book annoying, a bit like being trapped on a long flight next to an overly chatty lady who was trying her hardest to be super-interesting and deep and wanted you to like her really, really badly. Which is sort of odd, because in the interviews I’ve read and seen with Liz Gilbert — including her great TED talk — she seems like a lovely, smart, amiable person that I’d love to chat with. But chalk it up to one of the strange mysteries of life: I read Eat, Pray, Love, enjoyed it in several moments and just sort of had to take a break from it a lot because I felt so bombarded.

I was wary of reading her next book, Committed, but the subject of coming to terms with matrimony interested me enough to pick it up. I don’t think it was as personally compelling or alive as Eat, Pray, Love was, but I did come away feeling a kind of a respect for Gilbert’s flinty, feminist intellect. The woman clearly did her research and analysis, and the decision she made at the end was compelling.

With the surprising reaction I had towards Committed, I had hope for Gilbert’s newest book, The Signature of All Things. For one thing, it is a novel, and her personal “voice” of her memoirs would not be an obstacle. And it centers around botanists, which I have a strange affection for. And it is also a bit of an impersonation of a 19th century novel, which as you read earlier I am ALL for, since all my favorite books are basically from the 1800s. (Is this a bit like when all those bands in the early 2000s sounded like Gang of Four? Like a nostalgia for an old sound, combined with a longing for new material?) And I’m writing here to tell you: I unabashedly, passionately loved The Signature of All Things. I sometimes hate when people use this word, but it was fabulous.

It’s basically the life story of a central character, Alma Whitaker, born in 1800 in Philadelphia to a wealthy, self-made English tycoon and a stern, flinty Dutch mother. Alma is “homely,” ungainly and awkward, but she is also radiantly curious and brilliant, and devotes her considerable intellectual powers to the study of botany, then one of the few “polite” sciences women were allowed to access. She’s also a child of her historical period, and her life and development mirror the changing status of women, the rise of science and the general age of discovery in the world.

Alma has her struggles: she grows up with a distant, icy yet beautiful adopted sister, falls in unrequited love, falls in love with someone who seems to reciprocates and then has her heart terribly broken. But the real arc is of a woman deeply engaged with the world, one whose intellectual, sensual and emotional journey propels her to greater communion with the world, with a universe larger and more expansive than she can even comprehend. In this respect, the novel is deeply feminist — it respects the role that vocation and livelihood plays in the lives of women. It is also unabashedly earthy, sensuous and emotionally rich. It manages to combine the sharp intelligence Gilbert displays in her interviews with the same expansive heart and emotional generosity that made Eat, Pray, Love so resonant with so many — and yet completely avoids the sentimentality and schmaltz that made the Eat, Pray, Love movie so annoying. And it’s often stunningly, beautifully written, combining the beautiful formality and rigor of typical 19th century prose with modern sensibilities and frankness, especially towards bodies, sexuality and appetites of the flesh.

The Signature of All Things is not perfect — there are points in the plot that pretty much strain incredulity, as they say. But Alma is a character who feels very much alive, so vital and rich and vivid. I reached the end of the book and felt devastated in the best way: devastated that the book was done and I would no longer spend any time with Alma anymore, devastated that Alma wasn’t real, devastated and shattered to feel as if I’d lived the whole of a lifetime in one reading. Honestly, I shut the book when I was done and just cried. Alma’s trajectory offers such a rich, important lesson: that deep, passionate curiosity and study of the world, and the role it plays in self-determination and sovereignty, is reward in and of itself, enough to balance the disappointments of love and compromises of life. Signature isn’t perfect, but it’s storytelling at its most alchemical — and pretty much the reason why I read books in the first place.

Reading Roundup: The Rules of Civility, Night Film, Country Girl

You know what’s also wonderful about fall besides apple cider donuts at the orchard, Neil Young’s birthday, riding horses and cozymaking in the kitchen? Reading books. Which I always do, but there’s something about doing it when the air is brisk and you’re curled up with some tea and a blanket that makes it an especially sensuous activity. Just burrow under a cozy throw, light a candle for some company and read away into the night, wind biting at the glass in the windows. Books becomes especially beloved to me when it’s colder, and I relate to them more sharply as companions — friends for the longer, darker nights. These are a few I’ve read in a tear recently — they were all good friends for a weekend, a few evenings or a week, and I greatly enjoyed their company:

The Rules of Civility, Amor Towles

Someone mentioned reading and liking this book here in an earlier post’s comments…or maybe it was also Twitter? Or Facebook? Ach, I can’t keep this electronic output straight. Either way, dear person who mentioned this book, THANK YOU — because of your mention, it caught my eye at the library, so I checked it out and I loved it. The story of a woman who finds herself moving in increasingly elevateed social circles, it evokes Fitzgerald, but with tinges of James Salter and Edith Wharton. That’s a cocktail of influences that would catch my eye anytime, and it makes for a pleasurable, chic, elegantly mournful read. Not a perfect book by any means: the plot kind of gets muddled and stuck at a certain point. Honestly, if you asked me what happened in this book, I would say, “A young woman in Manhattan has a series of love affairs, neither of which come to a satisfying conclusion” — and that would be entirely accurate. Amor Towles can really turn a phrase and conjure an atmosphere, and my memory of this book is like a gorgeous late night out, hazy, strewn with cigarette smoke and the smell of whiskey in the air. If you like melancholic nostalgia of the sophisticated, New York variety, this is lovely.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

I think I am one of the few people who wasn’t entirely captivated by Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Pessl’s first book. I am not sure why; perhaps I was overly distracted by film school at the time, but I just didn’t feel very attached or intrigued by the characters, and felt I was reading a clever exercise for a creative writing seminar versus a story about flesh-and-blood people. (Perhaps I was just way too deep into my own MFA program at that point, I don’t know.) But I sort of knew that I would love Night Film, even before I read it: it’s about the mysterious suicide of the daughter of a cult horror filmmaker, and early reviews were touting its suspenseful plot and beautiful writing. First: Pessl really is a great storyteller, and the story pulls you along in that “YOU MUST FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT” way. I couldn’t really put it down, and when I had to, I was itching to get back to it again. I loved the imaginative bravura of Night Film, and wow, I have never wanted to see the nonexistent films of a made-up filmmaker so badly before. (Please let this book inspire a bunch of handmade Etsy posters for Cordova movies, yes?) The work and persona of Stanislaus Cordova was so beautifully imagined — and I loved the “clippings” and articles that formed the “evidence” of the story. This was one instance where extratextuality didn’t bother me. I’m sure people will think the whole thing doesn’t quite hang together satisfyingly at the end, and like many tight-plotted books, the third act is like a pell-mell of excitement, drama and pow-pow-pow that sometimes careens and wobbles if you really think it over. I think people will be sad this isn’t more avant-garde or whatever, but if you are a fan of old-fashioned, campfire-type storytelling and the primal pleasures of suspense, horror and mystery, this was a fantastic read. I loved it unabashedly.

Country Girl, Edna O’Brien

Edna O’Brien was once described to me as an “Irish Colette,” and that was enough for me to pick up a book of hers. I loved reading Country Girls ages ago, with its combination of rich natural detail and feminine yet brutal sexuality, but I was not sure what to expect from her memoir Country Girl other than richly beautiful writing. O’Brien’s prose works in a special kind of way: a sentence will hum along, piling beautiful detail upon beautiful detail, and then something will twist or turn enough to really stab something into your heart. It’s gorgeous yet unexpectedly violent sometimes, and it feels very much like how her childhood and coming-of-age sounds. O’Brien’s writing is as powerful and prodigious as ever, and she can conjure startling images and phrasings that take your breath away. Her writing’s most compelling in the parts detailing her early life — her religious upbringing, her family, her early marriage. And then she gets famous, and suddenly we are hearing how she went to spas to break her writer’s block and her one-night stands with some famous men — all told in a very classy, elegant yet frank way.

In a way, when I read memoirs and other first-person “real” narratives, I try to think of myself as a guest in their living room for a night, picturing them on a sofa, talking to me late into the evening. Sometimes it’s a friendly, chatty gossip, sometimes it’s a deep discussion of what their experience means as a philosophical text. I’m on the writer’s side, for the most part, and am willing to play by the rules of their game, but I’d very much like to feel like a friend. In this respect, Country Girl was like being enchanted by a charismatic, world-weary, glamorous doyenne, a woman with a rich voice and even richer memory — a woman who has spent a life enchanting and dazzling, but in the end, when you come home and think over the night, you realize you actually know very little about her. She offers beauty but no real intimacy, glamour but not wisdom, but still good company over some cigarettes and a bottle of wine. Taken on that level, Country Girl is a glamorous read, much like being a courtier of a queen in her own court. But if you’re looking for a kindred spirit to illuminate the strange path of being a woman making incandescent, incendiary art and life in a brutal world, there’s little here to help you map your own terrain.

Not Quite Through the Woods Just Yet

Just when I thought everything was okay after a string of unfortunate incidents — a bee sting, an infection and other tumults — I just got hit with something new. I developed a severe allergic reaction to the antibiotic I was taking for my infected finger. “Severe” means a sudden fever, chills, painful hives all over and my throat and airways swelling up — really, really not good. Like, Whoa, I have to get myself to the ER, stat not good. And just when I thought everything was going to be okay! Sigh. I got a crazy shot to stop the allergic reaction and an antihistamine to control the hives. No major insight here; I’ve wrung myself dry trying to make meaning from ordinary-grade human suffering. I accept it: I’m just a mess.

So I’m going to spend Labor Day weekend completely resting. No writing, no working, no planning, no blogging. Just resting and existing. I hope to spend some of it reading, actually: I just inhaled Karen Russell’s new book of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and I thought it was just wonderful, full of elegant prose and antic imagination. (Any story collection with a fable about a stable of horses that are actually the reincarnations of dead American presidents is marvelous in my eyes.) If you have any suggestions of books that have rocked your world recently, please let me know here, and danke! Have a beautiful one, and hopefully we will see each other on the other side. Until then, here are some extra pictures from my rather melancholy summer.

In Which I Commit Literary Sacrilege and Stop Finishing Books

I recently checked out a novel at the library — a contemporary book, just published, and getting great reviews so far. The back jacket featured blurbs by writers I’ve admired and read before, all praising the novel’s craft and comic wit. I was looking forward to reading it; I don’t read nearly enough modern fiction and am always angling to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.

So a few days ago, I started it. It has an interesting premise, very zeitgeist-y you could say, and very hip. I could admire its craft, its subversion of narrative expectations; a lot of careful thought went into the story and language, and I admired that. I read on, and I read on some more…and about halfway through, I decided I was finished with it.