Friday, October 22, 2010

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


When I first read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, I was in a high school English class. As a result, I was looking for very specific things: foreshadowing, symbolism, allegory, and so on. When you are programmed to scan for these literary concepts, you become less of a reader and more of a machine. I clearly remember sitting splayed out on the floor of my kitchen, leaning back on the dishwasher, holding the school-issued copy in my hands. Oddly enough, I recall my position amongst the household appliances more than the story itself. In all respects, I had become like the dishwasher when it came to reading for school—focused, narrow, and intent. I searched, I found, I got an A on the assignment. Period.

I’m a lover of English classes in general, but I grudgingly admit that the way they taught us to read took the magic out of the action. If I was too busy looking for symbolism, there was no way I could get lost in a story that survived the 19th century novel mills to become the classic it is today. With this in mind, I set forth into Hawthorne’s Puritan Boston once again.

The Scarlet Letter follows the trials and tribulations of Hester Prynne, a woman accused of adultery and sentenced to wear a red letter A over her heart. With her illegitimate daughter Pearl, she lives on the outskirts of Puritan life, embroidering the garments of the rich and holy about town to scrape together a living. In town, Hester’s supposedly dead husband skulks about trying to locate the necessary partner in her crime.

On my second reading, I was entranced with the mother-daughter relationship between Hester and Pearl. After having it drilled into my in school that Pearl was the embodiment of the literal and spiritual wilds around Puritan civilization, I enjoyed seeing Pearl as less of a symbol and more a child. I pitied Hester for her struggles with single motherhood, unable to consult with more learned women while dealing with a little girl with a singular mind of her own. Pearl controls Hester with sheer force of personality, so different than the controlled top-down nature of other Puritan families. A book that I had previously seen as just a bunch of cogs propelling me towards a grade suddenly turned into a human drama on the second reading.

Ironically, this reading of The Scarlet Letter was spent in similar position as the first, my back propped up against a washing machine in my neighborhood laundromat. Yet, the thrum of the outside machinery coincided more with the life of the book than its individual literary elements. All together, it was a wonderful experience of reliving a story for itself. If you’ve read this before as part of curriculum, give it another chance in the real world. You’ll be surprised and gratified at the result.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund


I've picked up and put down this book many times over my course of ownership, lured in by the deckled pages and thrown out by the flowery prose. I've finally finished it and it was decent enough for me to be able to finally put it down, last paged turned, after 24 hours.

Abundance, A Novel of Marie Antoinette, by Sena Jeter Naslund, is, as the title suggests, a book about that ill-fated queen from the time she arrive in France until her death at the hands of the French Revolution years later. Naslund does a decent job at portraying Marie Antoinette's growth from blithe little girl thrust into a political marriage to a mature queen and mother who loves the French people, but doesn't truly understand them. Teamed up with an idealistic but weak King Louis XVI, the doomed queen is swept up into political events that she can't possibly control.

One thing I liked about Naslund's novel is that it shows Marie Antoinette's sympathetic, but romanticized view of the peasantry. At her own secluded hamlet away from the intrigue of Versailles, the queen apes the farming life of her subjects and fancies living a simple life. Yet, milkmaids do not strip milk from their cows into porcelain buckets and shepardesses do not employ nannies to accompany their children on afternoon walks. Marie Antoinette wears diamond and pearl jewelry while preaching taxation of the country's nobility. Her life is a farce.

Still, Naslund takes a very generous view of the queen and grants her faults while also giving her charming characteristics. The book itself is much like the character: well-meaning, but flowery and given to flights of fancy. It can be difficult to work through if you don't have patience with purple prose. However, if you take the time to find the meaning behind the babble, it's a book as charming as its subject.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lush Life by Richard Price

I got to meet another author at work the other day: Richard Price, author of Lush Life. On first glance, I wasn't impressed. Price is an indescript man, neither handsome nor ugly, not someone that would attract any notice, no matter how empty the room. His off-stage demeanor was standoffish, the kind of of attitude that is either brought on by intense shyness or overiding contempt. After leafing through the first two pages of his urban crime novel, the book seemed sure to hold a similarly low place in my esteem. Still, he was a writer for The Wire, so I popped in to hear the end of his lecture.

Lush Life is a lot like the Richard Price that I saw on stage: a gem hidden beneath tightly packed layers of preconceptions. That Price was charming, quick-witted, and a little bit dangerous and so is his book. Set in the Lower East Side, Lush Life is a crime novel that has no mystery. Like The Wire, we know who pulled the trigger; we're just waiting for law enforcement to catch on. The real value in the book is the intense look at shifting environment of that area of Manhattan. It's a neighborhood in constant flux: the Asians replacing Jews, white affluent hipsters replacing immigrants, pioneers replacing natives. The only solids in this twisting mass are the desperately prowling young men, trying to find footing in a society that marginalized them from the day they were born, and the desperately prowling police, grasping at any chance to maintain influence in a sea of crime and political intrigue.

If you liked The Wire, you will devour Lush Life. You've seen some of these characters before: kids buying and selling dope on the street corners, the tough female cope, the male officer who has studiously made a mess of every personal relationship, the go-to snitches. Yet, even though you've seen them a million times, Price still makes them terribly compelling. From a book that I figured would turn into a paperweight in under an hour to a novel that I devoured in two nights, Lush Life is forever as shifting as the neighborhood it portrays.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher


The Black Death: A Personal History by John Hatcher encompasses an interesting time within a very oddly structured book. I’ve read quite a few historical fiction novels about the plague (see The Year of Wonders) and I’ve skimmed through a few history books about the subject, but I’ve never seen one combined. Clearly, Hatcher was attempting to appeal to those interested in the thoughts and feelings of individuals that rarely get got recorded in the fourteenth century, but also provide a popular history that elucidates the period for those looking for strictly factual content. Unfortunately, the reader ends up with two very different books encased inside the same binding.

Hatcher, a renowned scholar of the Middle Ages, spent several decades researching the period around the onset of the bubonic plague in Europe. It’s clear from the factual parts of the book that the man knows what he’s talking about. Pulling from primary sources, Hatcher presents the reader with statistics, royal and ecclesiastical reactions, and the aftermath that changed the path of feudal Europe. In the book’s fictional parts, he pulls he story from the manor records of the real village of Walsham and imagines the villagers’ feelings and reactions from there. Most of the story comes from the point of view of Master John, a fictional cleric who struggles to hold his congregation together as doubt pulls them apart.

The problem with this writing strategy is that, while Hatcher presents us with both a Europe-wide view and a focused British view of the plague, he tends to repeat his facts in both accounts. As a reader, it becomes very monotonous and repetitive. I understand that Hatcher needed to cite the facts in his historically accurate account to have credibility, but to hear the same facts repeated from the mouths of his characters was a drag. He must be admired for trying to put out a book that two types of people can enjoy, but also critiqued on the execution. Still, if you’re looking for a book that can give you both an insider’s and outsider’s view of the Black Death, this is the one.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Old School by Tobias Wolff


I’m a public school kid. I spent my elementary years in an inner city school where the teachers manually cranked out math assignments from the old mimeograph and our school books were donated by richer school districts. From sixth until twelfth grade, I moved into one of those richer school districts and enjoyed the novelty of a Xerox, but watched as our 30 year old natatorium began to collapse in on itself. I finished off my educational career at a state university, where funding was ample enough to begin building two new dorms after I had graduated. What I’m try to say here is that I’ve seen friends in their private school uniforms and met up with old classmates who described garden parties on the greens of Princeton, but have never experienced it myself. It’s a mystery, but an intriguing one.

I suppose that’s why I’m always seeking out books about boarding schools, those elite institutions where the rich make contacts and children are separated from their families for the sake of education. During The Magicians and the Harry Potter novels, the magic didn’t interest me as much as life within those closed circles. The Secret History was a trove of insight into a privileged world. So when I picked up Old School by Tobias Wolff, it was love.

Old School follows the literary exploits of an unnamed narrator in a post-World War II school where writing is a sport with very tangible prizes. Each year, three different writers visit the school and meet with the one boy whose literary work as sufficiently impressed them. Competition to be that one boy is great, driving the students to curl over their typewriters night after night in a flurry of concentration. Winning not only gains a famous author’s attention, but the audible admiration and silent fury from the student body. In other words: nothing like a public school.

Wolff manages to lay out a school that seems ridiculously overblown in theory, but tangible in print. He also has a firm grip on the voices of the authors featured in the story: Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. Their conversations with the fictional characters are perfect counterparts to their real-life works. Wolff has a keen ear for voice and has clearly dedicated himself to the Great American Classics.

The book turned into something much more than a look into the foreign world of boarding schools. It inspired me to track down all of those Hemingway novels that I read in high school, to give William Faulkner another try, to continue to avoid finishing The Fountainhead (I’m not perfect, you know). It’s time to bring that public school education back into action. So, thanks, Tobias Wolff.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger


From experience, I can say that sometimes a story suffers from uncooperative characters. You begin building your plot from exposition up, placing your carefully crafted characters in situations that they were designed for. It should be perfect. But characters don't always take the road that you lay out before them. It's usually your fault-- you gave them specific personalities and whims, and changing them mid-story to fit your plotline is difficult. When you bash them into different people, the story suffers tremendously.

That was my problem with Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. She sets up these interesting characters-- two subtly warring twins, an amature ghost, an OCD crossword architect-- then seems panic when their personalities battle with the story. Niffenegger's story is unique, so the contention can be sad to watch. After their estranged Aunt Elspeth dies, mirror twins Julie and Valentina move into her cemetary-side apartment in London and gradually adjust to independence from their parents and each other. They are not alone, however-- Elspeth still haunts the apartment, watching as her two relatives live her life while she floats in limbo.

It's an intriguing storyline, but the characters don't fit the actions that Niffenegger sets out for them. After interacting with the ghostly Elspeth, one twin is warned out of nowhere by her aunt's beau that Elspeth always has an ulterior motive, that she really doesn't have her niece's best interests in mind. This pronouncement doesn't fit with anything that Elspeth has demonstrated so far in the story, yet it foreshadows later events. The OCD crossword puzzle master manages to drive his wife of 25 years away, yet blithely accepts medication from his brand new neighbor girl. It seems like Niffenegger had a goal that the character keep obstructing with traits that she designed, so she shoulder-checks them out of the way for the sake of a pre-planned ending.

I find it strangely upsetting that these characters and the story can't seem to get along. I really want to love this book for the dark, slightly unnerving theme of the transient nature of self, but I can't get over the actions that the characters are supposed to take. I'll end up reading the book again for the descriptions and occasional chills, but it will never be truly great in my eyes.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Medieval People by Eileen Edna Power

(#46, btw)

The problem with owning an e-reader is that you don’t get that closure of money changing hands. You just click through Amazon, pressing the One Click Buy button with impunity while your credit card quietly sobs in your wallet. In an attempt to limit the damage on my bank account, I went through Amazon’s free Kindle books and picked up Eileen Edna Power’s Medieval People.

Power’s book follows six medieval lives based entirely on literature (in this case, wills, poems, and contemporary observations) beginning at the fall of the Roman Empire. Most, if not all, of her information is culled from primary sources, which she cites copiously throughout the book. Based on this information, Power constructs the real life conditions and actions of peasants, housewives, abbesses, merchants, and explorers.

The individual sketches are interesting, but suffer from language that borders of the painfully purple. Power has a tendency to gush, especially over her male subjects. One man, Thomas Betson, is described as perhaps the epitome of romantic manhood based almost entirely on the love letters he wrote to his preteen fiancĂ©. I’m not making a comment on May-December arranged marriages in the Middle Ages, but of Power’s starry-eyed conclusions that surely a man who wrote letters such as these could do no wrong. I don’t want to cast aspersions at Power’s scholarship—she obviously scoured crumbling documents that most regular people have never seen. Instead, I might say that her language and outlook might have something to do with the era in which the book was written. Originally published in 1924, the book may have been trying to evoke a feeling of simpler times, something that people must have longed for in the years between the two World Wars. If this is so, it probably served its purpose.

If you’re still interested in this book, I would suggest finding a hard copy. While the free Kindle version is certainly readable, it’s missing all of the images that probably make the book truly come alive. Though I found parts eye-rollingly painful to read, I will keep this book in my Kindle if only to refer to the primary sources contained within.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Steig Larsson

I finally did it. I finally completed the Millenium Trilogy.

It shouldn't be that difficult-- it's only three books, after all. It's just that it's such a struggle to get to the good parts of all three books that it maked me almost too frustrated to go on. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest sometimes seems more like a treatise on Swedish politics and legal system than any sort of mystery/action/airport novel at all.

After Lisbeth Salander's failed attempt to kill her father, she lands in the hospital with a bullet in her brain. Journalist and apparent lady magnent Mikael Blomkvist once again strides forth into the underbelly of the government to proved Salander's innocence and bring down an insidious government agency. Seems exciting, right? Well, the only things that got me engaged in the novel were Erika Berger's stalker, Salander's hacking skills on a Palm, and the paragraphs on women warriors before each new section of the book. The rest was an exercise in restraint as I tried to keep my thumb from pressing the "Next Page" button on my Kindle at warp speed. I honestly don't care if Blomkvist is some sort of Swedish Don Draper and journalistic savant. Seriously, I never want to hear about it ever again.

Now, I have to be fair here. The novel might have been much better written in its original Swedish and its eccentricities much better understood by a native Swede. The phrase "Knights of the Idiotic Table" might have sounded so much less ridiculous when read the way it was meant to be read. And I also have to tell the truth: if Larsson had lived to write another book, I might have read that too, if only to satisfy my curiousity about Camilla Salander. I'm ashamed.

If you're still interested in reading this book, Amazon has a new thing where you can preview the whole first chapter right on your computer. I'm not shilling for Amazon-- I just thought it was a cool thing.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson

(Review #44)

It's interesting how mentally sitting on a book for a while can make a difference in your opinion of it. A while ago, I reviewed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first entry in Steig Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, and gave it pretty positive treatment. Months later, I've had a chance to think beyond the initial thrill that comes with finishing a book and really think about it. It wasn't a grand addition to Western literature; it wasn't even a masterpiece of airport mystery rags. The story was engaging enough, but it was so strangled by product placement and ridiculously irrelevant details that it's all I can do to remember the plot. But I remember how many Billy Pan Pizzas Salander ate, oh yes, I do.

The Girl Who Played with Fire suffers from similiar issues. I could probably draw up a catelogue of items from Ikea that Salander purchased for her 25 million kronor apartment or the jacket/sweater combination Blomkvist wore on any given day, but the little plot details have been lost. The plot itself can be gripping at times, but it suffers from the kind of coincidences (mostly centering around Salander) that make it incredibly unbelievable. I don't want to take away the "seriously?" factor for new readers, so I won't spoil them here. To give the book its due, I was reading furiously through the last few pages, which is where things climax to a nasty end.

Since I'm a pathological completist, I will be reading the final book in the trilogy. There are a number of plot points that still need to be tied up, so perhaps I might be able to come away with a satisfactory feeling of accomplishment. I'm not going to warn people away from reading this because there are some parts that are suspenseful enough to raise the heartrate. I will, however, caution you that just because all three books spent a bazillion weeks on the bestseller lists doesn't mean that they are any better quality-wise than the box of damp medical mysteries I picked up from the side of the road the other day.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

Any reader of my reviews knows that I’m a sucker for historical fiction. If it sucks, I will finish it anyway, bitching all the way. If it’s good, I thank the fiction gods above. Sometimes it’s hard to find that good novel that makes an honest attempt at historical facts and attitudes while also maintaining an engaging writing style. Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts has it nailed.

I’ve read several of Dunant’s novels before, all set in Renaissance Italy. She has a fascination with women, art, and the Counter Reformation. This one is no different. Set in Italian convent of Santa Caterina, it explores the world of high-born nuns who aren’t necessarily in the convent for spiritual reasons. Because the price of dowries skyrocketed in the 16th century, many noble women were placed in nunneries at a far reduced price, imprisoning women who had no desire to enter a marriage with Christ. To alleviate these woes, Dunant’s Santa Caterina convent allows these women to be nominally nuns, but to also pursue the art of music, writing, and conversation. Amidst all of these noble nuns is Zuana, the herbalist in charge of the infirmary. Steady and faithful, she is put in charge of a troublesome, duplicitous, frightened novice. As Zuana struggles with her own beliefs, the structural hierarchy begins to fall around her as the Counter Reformation picks up steam.

Sacred Hearts is so well-written that you feel encased in the walls of the fictional convent, even a little frightened when you get brief glimpses of the outside world. You follow these nuns in their ecstasies, in their hysterias, and in their struggle to preserve their way of life from infiltrating fanaticism. It’s almost a shock when the novel comes to its inevitable end because it’s like leaving otherworldly sisters behind. Maybe it’s because I went to an all girls camp for 10 years, but I was comfortable in that women’s world, their haven from the rules of patriarchy. Whatever it is, I look forward to re-reading this book when I have the time.