This is one of those books that makes its own ground; told through a child’s consciousness, the novel explores the life of a city prior to and during World War II. But describing it in that way tells you nothing about the book, which is about the life of the city as much as it is the life of the child, and about many of the specific people in the city, and the pattern of life in the city, and the legends of the city, and the history… One of those books that does something not quite like anything else I’ve read. It reminded me of magical realism, though I think that’s a tired term; the book echoed fairy-tale atmosphere, but the magic in it intersects with the real history of the Italian, Greek, and German invasions of Albania, grounding the fantasy-feeling into the harsh reality of warfare. The writing is full of concise, aphoristic sentences that I read two or three times before moving on, savoring them, letting the thoughts sit in my head, enlarging. It’s that kind of prose, the words linger. But there is nothing heavy-handed or strained; the whole book feels effortless. A bit of magic. The edition of the book I read had a couple of cover-quotes that talked about the primitivity of Albania, which was curious since the word would never had occurred to me in relation to the book. The novel simply chronicled the life of the stone city that still feels, as I think about it, as if it has stood on its mountainside forever, and still stands there, in spite of everything.
Reading this novel was a marvelous experience. The writing is to be admired in all ways; the language is rhythmic, the images verdant, and the world of the book settles around you so that you can let go of your own world and live in Divakaruni’s space for a while. As is mentioned on the cover, the story has the feeling of a fairytale, though this is subdued and carefully executed, never standing in the way of the realism of the work. I thought the story of the rubies and the one ruby that the family holds onto for decades was a perfect microcosmic pattern, both literal and symbolic. The study of the women of the household felt so detailed. Without much effort, the author makes them real and yet through them we see the situation of women in their world, their strength and their limitations, their need for protection from men who take advantage of them. As with most of the South Asian fiction I have read, the marriage of the women is a consuming theme. There is a perfect moment in the work when Sudha’s mother-in-law proves what a monster she is, trying to force Sudha to abort her unborn daughter. I was enthralled until this was resolved. The book became a bit disjointed in its last fifty pages or so; this is one of those novels that feels as though it ends several times before it finally stops. But that is a small worry in a wonderful read.
The pile of books I have been meaning to read has begun to shrink. It is a virtual pile, not an actual one. I gave up on the physical pile and shelved all the books stacked there. Well, truth be told, there were several stacks. There were the books I bought in batches, there were the books I was given by friends on holidays and birthdays. Free books that arrived in the mail from publishers as part of their marketing. Occasional boxes of books from my publishers, or gifts gathered during visits to my editor. Not all the books are what I would have selected for myself but they are mine and it is a sin not to read a book I think or at least try to read it, and so here I am, now that I have time. Sampling and choosing. It is a very welcome era, reading steadily again, but as I write about each of the books it looks to be drawn from an odd old-fashioned eclecticism. That’s part of what makes it fun. I am reading in a way that feels partly chosen and partly random, discovering authors, pleased by most of them. Since I am a nitpicker when it comes to books, the result is always mixed. Something to quibble with. But it is lovely to discover that reading is the same thing for me now as it was when I first started. Not quite as magical, surely. Rarely do I get lost in a book so utterly. Remembering my early days of reading Robert Heinlein, especially. But I fall into the rhythm of reading anyway. I have more patience with difficult books, quirky books, than in the past. Retirement brings that ease of days so I am no longer, at least not so often, chased by the worry that I need to be doing something else. The stack of books to be read is not infinite. I will reach the end. Then I will be free to choose new books, make a new pile. Oh, let it be so.
I have loved Edmund White’s books since I first discovered them. I like this one mildly. I read it with some absorption, but more as a memoir than a novel; the chatty, I’m-talking-to-you-directly quality rarely attracts me in any book. but since I’m interested in White, the quality of talky-talk worked better than usual for me. But I was still weary of the voice by the end. This is not a novel in which the book becomes transparent and one feels the action as though it is happening around one. It is a long monologue. There are some wonderful passages of prose. White is as honest as any writer can be, and just lays it all out. He is like Genet in his unapologetic approach to writing about sex, but not as determined to be seen as a shadowy figure; in fact, he is almost desperately amiable, an aspect of his personality that he refers to directly in the book, his need to be liked, to be loved, by as many people as possible. There are absolutely hilarious passages – Tina chasing him through Rome in her car when he refuses to have sex with her is the best of them, but there are many more. But the sex is wearing. It is one thing to have 3,000 lovers; that would be, perhaps, a pleasant prospect. It is another thing to read about someone having 3,000 lovers, especially when he makes such a gargantuan effort to detail many of them. But White’s purpose is to write this life as it was lived. It is a perfect snapshot of being gay in the seventies. As for the passages about his writing, I never care for reading a book about a writer; there are too many mirrors involved. Nevertheless I admire the book and am grateful to have read it. The lesson I take, for myself: in having sex, only more is more. In writing about sex, only less is more.
I’m mindful here that the rating is about how much I liked the book, not necessarily how good it is. That it is a good book, a great book, is already established. That it was a groundbreaking book is clear from reading anything about it by its many critics, Sartre among them. I don’t dispute any of that. The insistence that the pursuit of evil, of criminality, is a proper literary topic did not begin with Genet but he certainly displays a passion for it. I admired the prose once I gave over to the flow of the book, the fluidity of its shifts in time. Its lyricism is phenomenal. At one point Genet points a finger and says you, the reader, are probably outraged by this book, but I did not intend it as an outrage. I had to stop and wonder what he meant by that, and did not believe his assertion; I think he puffed himself up about the outrage, I think that was the point. The author is a strange beast, intensely self-absorbed. Knowing that this book is autobiographical made me read it differently. In Querelle, for instance, I was not disturbed by the feeling of an underworld. I read the book as a dream, a reverie, a kind of fantasy, and thought it grand. But this book touches onto reality and so I struggled with what Genet claimed for himself, his insistence on telling me his world was different from my world, his morality different from mine. I wasn’t exactly sure why he had to say so over and over again, and I wondered whether it was true, since the kind of predation and thievery he extols is pervasive, and is certainly not limited to the people he knew as petty thieves and shake-down artists. The commonplace morality of virtue that he disdains is neither as easy nor as mundane as this book asserts. I had a queasy reaction to the passages about the luring of homosexuals into hotel rooms and surprising them by taking their money, beating them, and worse. It was all too conventional to take advantage of the weakness and vulnerability of these people, and not particularly heroic. So I wondered where was the dazzlement, exactly. There is the one passage late in the book when he discusses, after his writing has been published and his fame has begun, planning to rob one of the writers he has met. If this were simply a novel I could judge the character more distantly, and might find this moment to be effective. But this was actually Genet speaking of himself in a work that is supposed to describe his life. This is a man I am glad I never met in a dark alley.
What struck me about this book was its depiction of what women went through in Iran over the course of the years described in the book. Nafisi focuses her writing on the relationship between the teaching of literature and her survival in Iran from the end of the era of the shahs to the turn of the millennium. The beauty of this book for an English major and novel-reader like me is that I am familiar with the texts she is discussing; while I know the general outlines of the history she depicts – the Iranian revolution, the rise of the Islamic republic, and the war with Iraq – I had never read a book in which the feeling of those changes was so evident. This is a book I’ve owned for a long time, begun some years ago, but never read all the way through until now. I am sorry for waiting so long. The book is as important now as it was when it was published in its portrait of the lives of women. It is one thing to know that Muslim women are supposed to wear the veil; it is another to read the detail of what that means in a day to day life. Big Brother becomes your neighbor, your police, your family. The mixture of religion into the police state is disconcerting, and gives the book its poignancy in 2021 when my country is feeling the pressure from so many of its citizens to shape itself in line with religious beliefs. The counterpoint to this narrative of surveillance and interference is the passion of these women for literature. It is in discussions of novels that they find scope to explore themselves as people and not simply as objects owned by the state, the mosque, and their families. There are many ways to quibble with the book; there is, for one, the irony that three of the four novels on which she focuses are written by men. It is true that the book will have less impact on readers who are not familiar with the texts Nafisi discusses. But they are certainly books that should be familiar at least by name to most people, and the written discussion of the works offers enough of the plot of the novels to sustain the reader who is not an English major or even one who has not read the books. Lolita, Gatsby, Daisy Miller, and Pride & Prejudice are all movies as well as novels, and all of them have had significant cultural impact even beyond their readership. So I believe Nafisi’s approach is valid. It is a very beautiful book, and it echoes in importance even years after its publication.
There is a certain kind of book that makes me crazed. Well, exaggeration, of course. But which irks me. The chatty, wise first person narrator. Constantly pausing the drama to give me observations on LIFE. “I do like bean burritos,” I said, and the whole morning distilled, the sun through the window, the breeze, the smell of old tortillas, and I thought to myself, what am “I” but an idea of myself, and what is liking but a small emotion of comfort, and what are beans but something sprouted full and ripe from the good earth, and as for burritos, well, the good people who taught us how to eat them also gave us their way of life, their dreams, the omniscience of their communal desires. Which is all well and good, of course, except that presented with a burrito I want to eat it and not to contemplate it, because they are no good cold. When a first person novel decides to talk to me directly and offer me opinions, memories, snippets of poetry, wry puns, along with that sonorous rhythm of rhetoric that makes any sentence sound like a platitude, I feel as though I am being shoved slowly flat against a wall. Here is a book that is desperate to convince me about its existence, the value of its prose. These are the books that are obsessed with telling you what their protagonists think, hour after hour, in the middle of every kind of moment – staring at a woman whose husband has died and being reflected backward into perfectly composed memories about the husband – walking into a bedroom and remembering walking into another bedroom and perhaps then remembering that walking into that older bedroom triggered another memory of walking into yet another bedroom at some other time, and all of it ripe with pondering, lyrical if possible, in which the character, who is speaking on behalf of the author, runs on and on about what life means and what the struggle of day-to-day comes from and what it leads to, crests and troughs of empathy and understanding and metaphorical dazzlement. The sort of sentence that makes the reader pause in epiphany, fingertip on lip, and close the book for a moment, blazing with enlightenment. Oh yes, it’s just that way. A certain amount of this kind of claptrap is understandable and palatable and occasionally I am actually struck by a sentence to the point that I have to stop and think about it. But it is usually a turn of phrase or a moment of drama that strikes me. Not someone’s opinion. Especially not the five hundredth opinion of the reading session, stuffed into every paragraph and cluttering every action. There is a dreadful need of so many writers to explain their characters or, worse, to have the characters explain themselves.
This is my introduction to Shelby Hearon; the book was very readable, clear, and moved forward nicely, the story of a woman who must reinvent her emotional life after a divorce. The most interesting part of the book is that she chooses to train a companion dog for a year, leaving home and her job in a pharmacy to do so. Along the way there is the story of a reunion between an orphan and his birth parents, some comic scenes with the protagonist’s parents, and other encounters that are interesting. But the drama rarely risks anything dangerous or hard and is not very well drawn in emotional terms. I can see the budding romance but cannot feel much of it. The most puzzling lack, however, is the dog of the title. I wish Hearon had leaned into this part of her story more. The passages about the dog, the owner/borrower’s distanced relationship with her, and the need to raise the dog exactly as required for the service life she will lead, all these are some of the best writing in the book, and certainly the freshest, but this side of the book is also hard to feel. I want to say this aspect of the book should have been much larger but that is me rewriting someone else’s novel again. Despite my quibbles, this was a good read and I would like to encounter more of her work. She has some very impressive credentials as a writer.
For the pure pleasure of reading prose this book is at the top tier; the writing is strung through with paragraphs that are glorious, evocative of landscape, making me feel as if I am walking through a country that I actually know only barely. It would be tempting to say that the landscape overwhelms the book, but my own brief experience of Wyoming was much like that. The geography dominates everything. The countryside insists on itself in every possible way, and you live in a feeling of space that is incomparable; all this Henderson depicts in minute splendor. The novel succeeds in spite of its story but does not quite abandon story in the way that some books manage to do when they focus on language. I have changed my rating several times while typing this. I suppose it is hard to understand a character who can simply walk away from her mother, yet remain prone to reveries about her, and never make the least effort to find her again. There is the irony of the fact that Augusta’s own daughter leaves her in the same fashion. The characters are so very articulate in their spare way. The dialog in general feels composed and organized in a way that does not evoke their voices, though there are some beautiful and understated scenes throughout. The story has a monotone quality. It makes very risky choices about coincidence. The story drifts away at the ending; I’ve read so much about Gussy and still don’t know who she is; she feels like a part of the landscape, scoured by all that wind and weather. These may well all be positives, in fact. It’s a book I will have to think about for a while. But I wish the drama were a bit stronger.
Now that I have all my time more or less to myself, reading has become a reward rather than a duty. Now when I read it is an act without obligation. I find that I am kinder to fiction, more willing to meet a piece on its own terms. There is always the running critique in my head, not articulate, just a thread of response, liking this and disliking that, drawn forward by the motion of the sentences, then moreso as the drama beguiles. Reading is so many experiences. Reading fiction is what I am really talking about here. When a story becomes compelling, what has happened? I am inside a certain book at a moment. I have opened it with that bit of trepidation. Will the writer know what to do? Will I understand it? What kind of prose will I find? I can read in service to the use of language, the placement of words, their sound and form and beat. If the writing is very strong it hits unexpected notes and that’s what keeps me sitting at the book. It might be the slightest sort of moment as long as its sentences are well-arranged. If the piece manages engagement with a story, with a sense of person, and this goes well, I want to hold onto the reading, to continue as long as I can. If the story is one that touches my boundaries, shares something like what I know (or want to know) then I am suspended inside the writing. I think of this as the most pleasurable experience of all, and engagement of the whole. My emotions are exercised. When I read for the intellect it is a cooler experience. Some writing ignores drama in favor of thought and weight. I enjoy these books more than I used to but nevertheless find it easy to put them down. I might respect the book without liking it very much. Yet the reading is still a comfort. I am improving myself by the act.