These are powerful stories carved out of real stuff. Everything I respect and love about writing is embodied here. Jones can write a first line that gives a full frame to every story, often with a note of forewarning, even forboding. “On an otherwise unremarkable September morning, long before I learned to be ashamed of my mother, she takes my hand and we set off down New Jersey Avenue to begin my very first day of school.” This is the opening to “The First Day,” one of the most perfect stories I have ever read. Heartbreak is there from this beginning, and yet the story that follows is never sentimental, never over-reaches; simply one detail follows another, perfectly encapsulated. Every story in the collection is at this level. “Young Lions” is a fearful exchange. “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” is a lucid exploration of parenthood, but also the story of a world contained within the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of its setting. I have read some of these stories over and over again, always seeing some sentence I had never noticed before. There is simply and truly no one who writes better than Edward Jones. Nor any one who writes stories of more importance.
I do appreciate the quality of the writing, especially its careful choice of sentences that reveal moments that in their turn resonate in several directions. Compared to Victorian writers, Galsworthy shows a masterful elegance in his constructions. He is not quite able to avoid the need to speechify from time to time, and this is a step down in the writing for me; his speeches are more conventional than his observations and feel uninspired. When he writes knowingly of love, his writing reaches its weakest point; as opposed to the passages when he writes narratively of love, which are among his best. It is as if he hovers at the edge of a modern voice but cannot quite leave off the nineteenth century. Though one should be skeptical of ideas of modernity in writing. His Forsytes are enigmatical, prosaic, untrustworthy, frugal, proud; they are a family drawn to be examined, and the mass of them is, at times, overwhelming. Like many people, I come to this book having seen the television version of the saga, not the classic 1960s version but the second adaptation, which was also quite fine. So the cast of characters was already familiar to me, for the most part; though it was a delight in the book to see the full array of Forsytes, including Timothy and Swithin and Frances the songwriter, who is one of the more vivid of the younger set. Her curious hovering between art and commerce is a gem of writing. There is nothing to complain of here except that the writer drubs us with the word “Forsyte” over and over, insisting on reminding us to see them as a type, a class, a moral lesson, and such. One gets the message and then the book goes on tapping it out till my poor head was sore and I winced at most readings of the name. But I was struck to read that Galsworthy won a Nobel prize for his long preoccupation with this family. When I think of the British writers whom he had as contemporaries, I am amazed that he was the one to achieve the laurel. Will leave it at that. The work is quite fine but I cannot tell how well I admire it, given that I encountered it first as well-done television. The story is not fresh to me because of that, spoiling the effect. I wish had read the novels first.
This is a very old novel, the actual date of its writing in dispute, its authorship also in dispute, written out by hand, copied so many times that the state of the manuscript itself is the subject of much scholarship; the novel was revised by a writer in the Ming dynasty who, according to the translator, improved the novel greatly in form. It is a magnficent piece of work; like much that is magnificent, it exists in its own terms. Its ambition and scope sit like a mountain on the literary landscape. There is truly nothing else like it. The story of the collapse – or rather the long, slow death – of the Han dynasty and the emergence of three stable kingdoms from the wreckage. There are at least a thousand characters in the book, many of them major, all playing a vivid, palpable role in the proceedings, whether for a paragraph or for many chapters. The bulk of the book takes up the long conflict between Cao Cao, a noble who captures the last of the Han emperors and uses him as the center of a northern kingdom, and Liu Bei, a distant relative of the Han who attempts to defend the dynasty and reunite the many parts of China that have fallen away from the emperor’s rule. This is not a modern novel in which characters deliberate about their actions and reveal themselves in psychological detail; this is a saga, an epic, in which the people are indicated by their deeds, their pronouncements, with an occasional reference to their private moments, their thoughts, their longings. Such a vivid piece of writing, it was exhausting at times to read it, coming in at over 2200 pages in four volumes. This is a book to study, one of the central texts of Chinese history and culture, helping to define the nation’s ideas of legitimate rule, politics, honor, and military craft. There are moments of startling savagery: a meal in which the host, starving in a time of famine, cooks his wife to serve her up for dinner; the killing of a eunuch in the bedchamber of an emperor in which his murderers eat his raw flesh. There is no other experience in reading like this one. The kind of novel that a writer devotes decades to producing, the bulk of his life’s energies, perhaps – though the reputed author is also said to have written The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh), a book that is equally long.
This is a very fine young adult debut; I am only beginning to read books in this field, but this certainly ranks as one of the best – perhaps the best – I’ve read so far. What makes this book distinct is the solidity of the family core, the use of first-nations themes and stories, and the lack of emphasis on romance; the main character declares herself to be asexual, and the book makes that both important (in terms of breaking new ground with the use of the term) and unimportant (in that everyone in the book accepts her as she is). It was refreshing to read a character who was not looking for a partner in that sense. The relationships in the book are strong, nevertheless. There is a lot of magic, as has been the case with most of the books I’ve read in this genre, but the magic has freshness here, borrowing from the characters roots as an Apache. There were the inevitable vampires, but one of them provided a really unique moment in the book, in which the vampire attacks, and the Apache mother declares it to be unwelcome in her home, which in her case includes most of Texas. The vampire, unable to escape the ensuing curse, simply dissolves. Darcie Little Badger is an important voice, and leaves the door open to more novels.
This book came to mind after reading another attempt at a surreal novel; Whitehead’s tale of two opposing schools of elevator maintenance has stayed with me over the years as an example of how a book can make its own reality. In exploring this idea the writer stays true to the partly magical idea that an elevator can best be understood by feeling it rather than by examining it. But at the same time the world expands to include the history of the dichotomy between the empirical and intuitive schools of elevation, and then to embrace, from a different angle, the idea of racism and its effect on both versions of the truth. I can’t find my copy of the book at the moment so I can’t quote names of characters, but the protagonist’s journey is lucid, detective-like, and meaningful. Much as I liked the novel, it felt to me that the ending faltered, employing maybe too much mechanics, too much exposition; but this is a very slight problem in a very good book. This novel stands as an example of what modern writers do with elements of fantasy to make the real, mundane world more vivid.
This is one of those stories that appeals to the intellect, an exercise in cleverness, of which I am rarely very fond. In the case of this book, the writing moves forward in terms of instinct, and one page will often contradict the next; polar bears speak and read when convenient, don’t when not. The reader is not supposed to care about any of this due to the value of it all. Or something of the sort. There are moments of wry enjoyment, as when the panda in the third section ridicules Knut for speaking of himself in the third person. Knut’s is the most pleasing part of the book to me, given that there is some attempt to write about character and a hint of narrative takes place. There is the showy stuff in which the writer comments on the writing through the device of having the characters write their autobiographies which turn out to be what we are reading, ta dah! The word boredom occurs quite often in the novel, never a good sign. The polar bears feel like Disney animatronics. The result is stultifying. Why should I feel any need to interpret a novel that is bored with being a novel? This kind of surreality compares so poorly with a novel like The Intuitionist, for instance, in which the merging of real and unreal works so well.
This is the most recent reading project I have undertaken, having heard that Jane Austen admired this novel; it is a late 18th century novel about the inevitable young woman of immense virtue, beauty, and wealth, and the extraordinary lengths to which she must go in order to marry as she chooses. Her uncle, who left her a fortune, made the money contingent on her husband taking her surname; the man she comes to love has an obdurate father who will not consider such a possibility. The book is a phenomenally good read in spite of a couple of quirks brought about by the style of fiction written in the era. Burney’s best passages are her comic sequences; the conversational passages that include the tradesmen and lower class folks are wonderful and funny. The funniest sequence is the slapstick-worthy episode surrounding Cecilia’s first attempt to marry her beau in secret. On the way, in secret, to the wedding, she encounters nearly everyone she knows in London. The wedding does not work out, of course; Burney has a heavy-handed touch with plot, throwing up obstacle after obstacle to nearly every move Cecilia makes during the course of the novel. The result is is a potboiler at high steam; occasionally the pot boils over, however. I was forced to skim some of the higher emotional passages where the lovers part forever with long, intense speeches praising one another’s virtue. And the last hundred pages (of nine hundred or more) were almost unendurable as Burney repeats much of what she has already done in terms of overripe speech and plot. She wrings out the last drop of sentiment and melodrama from the conclusion. Nevertheless the novel is worthy and the satirical dialogs (Lady Honoria wins the championship) are acidic. She had a great ear for comic speech, did Burney. One has to wonder if the higher-flown passages of conversation are in any way an accurate depiction of the way people spoke to one another. I am glad to have read the book and might essay another of Burney’s novels in time.
Have been watching the various Oxford detectives on Masterpiece because it is very difficult to find television that is not cringeworthy within minutes. Murder mysteries are at least reliable. The BBC versions of detectives have the virtue of wonderful accents, which elevates the massive amount of exposition the poor actors are challenged to enliven. They are also quite long, ninety minutes or so, which slows down consumption. I am making my way through the Inspector Morse spinoffs, Lewis and Endeavour; it’s hard to find the original Inspector Morse series without having to pay for it by the episode. I’m not that desperate yet. Have come to the conclusion that Oxford town and university are the most dangerous places on earth. Constant murders in the schools, in the pretty parks, in the lovely houses, usually in sets of two or three. It’s amazing that no one in town ever talks about the crime rate. “Hello, Inspector Lewis, and who’s dead today? You don’t say! Another Oxford student. Another Oxford tutor. Another past Oxford student. Another visitor to Oxford.” People are dropping like flies there. And apparently have been doing so for decades. Horrible conspiracies of hidden posh-types to bugger this and that and then slaughter it for a whole assortment of reasons. Revenge, infidelity, poor grammar, failure to know Shakespeare well enough. It’s worse than the pandemic. (Well, not actually. But I need to release some bile.) My advice to everyone is, don’t apply to Oxford, don’t study there, don’t visit the city; in fact, don’t even say the word. You are likely to die horribly. Often by means of a blunt blow to the back of the head. But on the positive side, if you do expire in that wonderfully picturesque city, your murder will be solved by very witty people who like to listen to opera.
I read this book when I was in college and recently picked it up again to reread. No fear that the book would hold up; it’s one of the six great books of Chinese literature, a set of classics that have been taught for generations. There’s really nothing else I’ve read that compares to it in terms of subject or style. This is an hilarious depiction of snobbery, academia, and pretension; also of sincerity, generosity, and humanity. The whole of the Chinese world falls into these pages. Well, that sentence sounds a bit pretentious, since I don’t know the whole of China; but the book is exhaustive and convincing in its depiction of every sort of daily life from the era. The structure of it is intricate and unusual; it’s described as being more like a collection of stories than a novel, but the real structure is more complicated than that. We meet a character, follow his life through a problem, maybe for an extended period of time, and then something happens – often a meal, a drinking session, a feast, a poetry-writing contest – and a new character enters. There is a kind of fadeout of the old episode and then we follow the new character. As though as readers we are meandering through the world ourselves. The world itself is fascinating. In every context there is a means of reinforcing the social hierarchy; at dinner parties, for instance, the guests sit in ranked positions. There are constant discussions of who should bow and who should not. Characters exist in terms of family obligations, friendships, social position, and debts. And food. There is so much food. After three days of reading I’m starved for pork dumplings. This is the kind of writing that Isak Dinesan refers to as “tale” rather than modern story; the inner lives of the characters are absent except for occasional glimpses. The story is driven by events, by the plain outline of what happens, and in this way covers an enormous territory. It falters in the last third in my opinion; the episodes become less certain and more muddled. But it is a magnificent book. This particular edition has gorgeous woodcut illustrations in it depicting the various scenes. A treasure.
The book is better than my rating of it for at least a third of its length, so much better that I ought to rate it higher; but the two-thirds that are not better make the rating fair, I think. This is the close of the Mars trilogy, and I put off reading it for a while because so much of the second book made me tired through its sheer, dogged plodding. Page after page of extremely detailed traveling over Mars in one kind of conveyance or another. Very readable in a small sample, and utterly convincing, but by the third volume I felt as if I’d driven around Mars for a century myself. But the positives of the third book are really wonderful. This is the gentlest, least plot-driven of the books, and what made me love it (when I loved it) was the author’s rhapsodies on science. Even more than the story of Mars this book (and its predecessors) are a hymn to science. The character Sax is such a concoction, his head full of etymologies, formulae, theories, constant cogitation. A dozen of him could solve any problem. And this is what happens, really. Science and reason have their way on Mars in a nearly utopian fashion. The story is about how some of us sometimes can get it right by means of science and technology. It is hard to make this kind of story happen. The writer who can pull it off is very great. And this book pulls off such a remarkable ending. Yes, it’s a bit cheesy that the two antagonists finally come to terms with each other. But it’s what I wanted to happen. So here is this book that I had to slog through for page after page because it had somehow captured a smaller, more rhapsodic novel inside its bulk. The ferreting out of the good here was altogether worth it. But this is a book that I could never, ever reread. Really needed a sense of when enough Martian geography was enough.