Thursday, December 07, 2006

cranky reader

Not fun: cutting clumps of hardened litter from my cat's back toes because I am an awful awful pet owner and have let the boxes go too long without cleaning them.

I could just say that I have been dissatisfied and disappointed by almost every book I've finished recently, but it's more fun to complain in depth, and because I can't sleep, I'll give some cranky and blurry comments.

Still Life by A.S. Byatt -- Very well written and intelligent, but also completely unfulfilling. The large event at the end is alluded to in the prologue, and so is no surprise and had little emotional impact on me. I hated the main character, Frederica, and do not know if I will continue with the quartet based on this alone. She isn't even unlikeable in an interesting, villainousness, deeply psychological way. No, she is just self-absorbed and emotionally shallow beneath all of her intellectual posturing. I realize that this is probably intended -- a friend of mine commented that Byatt is hardest on Frederica because her life is meant to parallel Byatt's own -- but I dislike her in the kind of way that makes it difficult for me to read the book and care about its plot. Not that there was much plot to this one. I really liked two of the minor characters, and interest in them kept me going with momentum despite my disgust with Frederica, but there was almost no resolution for any of them. I realize that it is very much a piece of a larger saga, but that's no excuse. Just imagine how frustrating it would be to read this book when it was first published! I would probably absolutely hate it if I'd read it then; right now I am just left with disappointment and the desire to reread Possession.

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by someone whose name I can't remember and am too lazy to look up -- Started out promisingly. I was riveted from the first chapter, maybe even the first page. It had all the makings of a great murder mystery that would also teach me some novel, easily packaged facts about snow and ice and Greenland. I got seriously bogged down in the middle, though, when the plot seemed to stray vastly from the investigation into a small boy's mysterious death to some huge international conspiracy spanning generations. Again, disappointing.

The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan -- I liked, but didn't love, McEwan's Atonement, and so when I read a synopsis about this book I was looking forward to read it. I almost wish that I hadn't asked my mother to procure it for me because I hated it so very much. The story is basically a clumsy marriage of Lord of the Flies and Les Enfants Terribles, all about four orphans who descend into rotten decadence after they encase their mother's corpse in a block of cement to conceal her death from authorities. I will admit that I knew from the start that it would be twisted and rather terrible in this way; that's actually why I read it in the first place. At some point last fall I was half-decided that I would write my undergraduate thesis on incest in literature. Now, I know this sounds weird, but really it was a veiled excuse to write about Dorothy and William Wordsworth without overtly writing about them. In general, theoretically, I don't have a problem with incest in literature, but it has to be written gorgeously or handled thoughtfully or portrayed truthfully for it to work, and even though Atonement wasn't particularly linguistically stunning, I had hoped that McEwan might at least present an interesting and worthwhile examination of the issue. I was so wrong. The book was obvious and heavy-handed, but not even in a moral sense, which might be a good thing for the believability of the narrator, but which left me feeling disgusted and bitter about the day I spent reading the book.

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri -- I suspect that I would have been massively impacted by this book if I'd read it five years ago, but now I have read other, better, discussions of the meaning of writing and the philosophy of aesthetics. I yawned and skimmed more than I should have, but I did read the whole thing through. Must decide on what to say to the uncle who gifted it to me.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters -- This book was probably the most satisfying of all that I read, which is a little sad because it is fluffy lesbian historical fiction. Once I got used to the frequent and needless use of semi-colons I was engrossed. I found it as delightful a romp as the first time I read it, though I do still like Affinity better.

Right now I'm reading The Book Thief and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I am -- surprise, surprise -- not thrilled with either of them. Contemporary fiction is failing me, but I'm not sure what I do want. Something meaty and old and difficult? Or something lighter but still with an arresting plot? Both, probably: contemporary and fluffy for night and classic for daytimes. I am thinking of rereading a few of my favourite books from my science fiction and fantasy phase, but I'm afraid that I might hate them and feel disillusioned and sad.

I am officially taking book recommendations.


Impelled said...

I don't read modern stuff because I just don't get it. It's like walking into a conversation among old friends that's been going for the past four hours.

I am slowly trying to read all the basic stuff first -- Iliad, Aeneid, Paradise Lost, Nabokov, James, that kind of thing. Maybe then I'll get it. In any case they're all new to me, and I'm slowly learning a ton.

Mrs. Chili said...

Oh, GOD, Woman! Go out - right now! - and buy Outlander by Diana Gabaldon!

It's the first book of a six book series, and is a sort of cross between historical fiction and romance, but it's not got any of the awful bits about those genres that make me turn up my nose at them. I'm a snotty English teacher with unreasonable standards for my enjoyment reading, and I've not been able to put this series down. They're like literary crack. Seriously.

I will be bone-deep shocked if you don't love the story. I'm just starting book five, and have YET to be disappointed in the least.

feather said...

Impelled -- I've been trying to do the same thing. I'm deeply committed to the improvement of my mind. I wouldn't say that I don't understand modern literature -- not that I would count any of these recent books, except perhaps Byatt, as anything near capital-L Literature -- but I strongly believe that no true and complete comprehension of any work of literature can be attained without a full knowledge of what has come before. One of the problems that I have is that it's difficult to decide what is essential and what is not, and hard to stop once I've begun. Take your example of Homer's Odyssey or Iliad. Both are certainly important in the evolution of literature as we know it, but so are Plato and Socrates and Aristotle, and the various playwrights, and Sappho, and Pindar, and Roman historians -- and by the time you've done all that you're partway through with a degree in classics.

It's impossible to deeply explore any particular period without devoting years of scholarly study to it, but at the same time I dislike taking the purely canonical Norton anthology tour through the history of literature. Outside of classes I do a lot of aimless skipping around between countries and centuries and genres.

I wonder, though, what your definition of modern literature is? I know people who would label Nabokov as modern, and I think that his work is on the same level as the only slightly-more-recent Rushdie and Kundera.

You didn't ask for my opinion, but I think that the three most crucial direct influences on 20th and 21st century literature are Ezra Pound, James Joyce's Ulysses, and Freud. It sounds like you've already read it, but the Bible is probably the most important thing to read for the understanding of all western literature of the past two thousand years. A professor once told me that she thinks every english student should be required to study the Bible, various mythologies, and Shakespeare, in order of importance, before getting their undergraduate degrees.

Is that Henry James you mean, or his brother William? I've not had the strength of will to read William's psychological texts, but he was also incredibly influential on a number of writers, including, I've read, Emerson. And I hope that you've read more Nabokov than just Lolita? It's a great book, incredibly brilliant, but so cruel and painful to read. He is always excellent; definitely an author who deserves a lot of time. But again, it is perhaps a mistake to read Nabokov without first having read Gogol and Pushkin. Nabokov always mentioned them when asked about his influences and favourite authors, and he actually did a translation of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin which he was convinced would be considered as his greatest work, along with Lolita.

The more I read the more connections I find, the more new influences I uncover, the more books I find I have to read. It's a lifetime's work.

feather said...

Mrs Chili -- You're the second person in the past week to suggest that series to me. The first was actually the dental technician, and I admit I was skeptical because of the romantic elements, but I'll check the books out now for sure. I think one of the libraries has them, and if they don't I can always ask my mother to order them for me.

Nora said...

I love playing matchmaker between books and people. My reccomendations:

1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Suzanna Clarke

If the books from your sci fi/fantasy phase prove too disillusioning (or if the fear that they might prove so is too off-putting), this'll restore your faith. It reads like the illegitimate child of Jane Austen & Charles Dickens, if that child had been stolen away by faries. Or something.

If you're not up for something giant and footnoted, Clarke's recent collection of short stories (The Ladies of Grace Adieu)is also good.

2. Speaking of short stories, I reccomend anything by Kelly Link (she has two books of short fiction out: Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners). You can read one of my favorite stories of hers here.

3. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel has everything you could want in a book: family disfunction, literary insight, and pictures. It's seriously one of the best things I've read this year.

4. A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch is just one of those books I reccomend to everyone.

5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt also falls into this category. Every slightly-too serious, bookish twentysomething liberal arts major needs to read this (as does anyone who's ever been or aspired to be a slightly-too-serious, bookish twentysomething liberal arts major).

Impelled said...

I haven't yet read "Lolita". I've never found modern literature very engaging -- I really don't have a narrative mind and I don't see the point. For me starting with older stuff and working up is important because I don't easily catch the thread of what later writers are saying.

I also think that a lot of stuff does ignore what has gone before, which seems like a waste of time. But since I really don't understand what they're saying, it's hardly a fair opinion.

feather said...

Nora -- I have read and enjoyed both The Secret History and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and so will certainly look for your other suggestions as soon as I can! Well, fairly soon. My slightly-too-serious lit student streak is rearing its head in rebellion to my current book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I think I'm going to read something long and pretentious next.

I didn't actually read J. Strange, actually; I started it and got bored. But sometime last spring a friend sent me the audio file of the book on tape and I adored it. Usually I am ridiculously picky about books on tape, but this one pleased me at every turn. The narrator was excellent and really perfectly captured the blend of quirkiness and dark mystery. Love.

Impelled -- Interesting. My mind is, I think, too narrative. It's a struggle for me to think in anything but plot and prose.

I don't count books that ignore what has come before as true literature. No author can divorce him or herself from the cultural and intellectual environments that form their work, and the ones who are blithely unaware of those connections rarely, if ever, create anything lasting. I still read loads of this sort of book as my brain-candy. But I would never place any of it on the level of Kundera or Gogol or Borges, or even Byatt or Murakami.

General observation: I am an unrepentant book snob, but I do not actually take myself as seriously as I seem to.