Category: Response

A Singular Thought on a Garbled Novel…Emily St. John Mandel’s STATION ELEVEN

Station_ElevenIt was fascinating reading St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven after Sarah Moss’s The Fell, to compare a writer with much talent, little purpose, and lack of control over her material with one of equal talent, clear purpose, and control of her material.

If you’re not familiar with Station Eleven, its plot is one great big jumble of narrative threads with a large cast of characters. I think the GR blurb does the best job of describing it:

Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lake region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

This makes it sound way better than it actually was. I’m not sure they’re “risking everything for art and humanity,” or surviving the way travelling players did in the late middle ages (not sure about the history there), grubby, as much sacrificing for art as eking out a living. As for “suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding,” I’ll give Mandel this: she sure can write and kept my interest for the most part. As the novel went on and I couldn’t see the point of it, her conceit did wear. (more…)

Garbled Thoughts About Sarah Moss’s THE FELL

Th_FellI don’t know how wise it is to write while gob-smacked by a book, but I’m doing it anyway. Sarah Moss. The Fell. My first pandemic lockdown novel. I’m not sure I liked it as much as I did because it’s great, or because I think we’re starved to have some articulated understanding of what we’ve experienced. (Only time will tell, so I’ll have to revisit The Fell when my year-end review comes ’round.) Or maybe I was engrossed and in awe of Moss’s novel? novella? (it’s really quite short) because I’m skittish around litfic, with its dreaded poshy reviewers’ “lyrical” epithet (tells me to stay far, far away). I adore narratives of ideas, meaty with meaning and demanding thought over feeling; hence, not a fan of lyrical…please, no description. No wonder I enjoyed Moss as much as I did and no wonder I’m ordering her entire back-list because now, I have to read all the Mosses. 

So. The Fell. Lockdown 2020 in England’s Peak District: the “fell,” backdrop to the characters’ lives, at least until one of them enters it and another follows. Rob, whom we meet in the first chapter, a divorced dad with an angry, snarky daughter upset when he leaves on a call. Is he a doctor? Moss doesn’t tell, not yet. Sixteen-year-old Matt who lives with single mother Kate, in precarious financial circumstances; their neighbour, Alice, a comfortably-off widow with breast cancer. Sounds mundane and it is: the circumstances of the characters’ lives. They’re in lock-down: Alice hasn’t left her house in weeks; Matt and Kate help out with groceries and meds, but now Kate has to isolate because she came into contact with someone with covid. Kate can’t stand being “locked up”, even for the requisite weeks; she suffers and, stupidly sets off at dusk to walk the fell…it’s empty anyway, she won’t come into contact with anyone. Alice sees her leave. Kate tumbles and is badly injured. Night approaches and her position is, at best, precarious; at worst, fatal. That’s it, them’s the “happenings”. What drives the narrative (and I was so anxious reading it, hold-my-breath anxious) are the characters’ inner worlds.  (more…)

Commentary on Betty MacDonald’s THE PLAGUE AND I

The_Plague_and_II would’ve been intrigued by Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I on the basis of its title alone (thanks to our ongoing “plague”), but what convinced me to read it is a Backlisted episode. I love the way Mitchinson and Miller talk about books and I love their guests and I tend to run out and get whatever they’re reading, or read, with the exception of their latest episode; no matter how much I love Sarah Churchwell, I cannot read Thomas Pynchon ever again #traumatizedbyGravity’sRainbow.

I enjoyed MacDonald’s The Plague and I; it gave me many chuckles, but I wish it could have been revelatory, more than what it was, more given the promise of its magnificent writing. The fun of The Plague and I was in MacDonald’s voice: her satiric observations of human personalities and self-deprecating persona. There’s not much to “what happened?” in The Plague and I: MacDonald received a tuberculosis diagnosis and subsequently spent nine months in a sanatorium, the arena wherein she exercised her inimitable humour.
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Having Read Amor Towles’s A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

Gentleman_In_MoscowI read Towles’s Gentleman In Moscow on the recommendation of two friends whose reading opinions I value. They did not steer me wrong: Gentleman is a wonderful book about a wonderful man, a “gentleman” by birth and a “gentle man” by temperament. It was an opportune time to read Towles’s novel: with Russia playing strongman and all of us emerging from endless lock-downs…what better book to read than one about a Russian character, Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced to a life-time’s house arrest in the Metropol Hotel overlooking Red Square? Yet there isn’t much of the topical in Towles’s Gentleman: to start, the timelessness of the Count’s setting, a storied old hotel which keeps its character through history’s vagaries, offering elegance, steadfast grace and service, comfort and civility to its guests as its denizens. History happens “out there,” in Red Square and beyond: revolution, war, famine, oppression, genocide, injustice, while the hotel carries on. Nevertheless, the snake is never far from the tree: cruelty and evil worm their way in, but in the inimitable characters of the Count and his friends, the Metropol’s loyal staff or devotees, we read about the circumvention of malevolence via cunning goodness, the heart of the novel’s theme. As such, Towles’s Gentleman is a comedy in the Fryian sense, moving toward possibility, towards, as the Count would agree, faith, hope, and love (with his charmingly, parenthetically exclamatory and the “greatest of these is love!”).

From the back-cover-blurb, some of the plot’s detail: “When, in 1922, thirty-year-old Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel near the Kremlin. An indomitable man of erudition and wit, Rostov must now live in an attic room as some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history unfold. Unexpectedly, the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry into a world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships with the hotel’s denizens. But when fate puts the life of a young girl in his hands, he must draw on all his ingenuity to protect the future she deserves,” bringing us from that 1922 tribunal to 1954 and the Count’s 65th year as we turn the final page.   (more…)

Reading Ruth Kluger’s STILL ALIVE: A HOLOCAUST GIRLHOOD REMEMBERED

Still_AliveKluger’s Still Alive is a remarkable book and I thank Dorian of the Eiger Monch Jungfrau blog for bringing it to my attention.

Like most girls of my generation, I read and reread Anne Frank’s Diary (the expurgated version, sadly) in grade six. It led, for years, to more reading about the Holocaust. Until now, however, I’d never come across Kluger’s memoir. It is superb, harsh, and unforgettable. Like Anne, Kluger speaks of a difficult relationship with her mother; unlike Anne, Kluger’s memoir recounts her life at Theresiensenstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Christianstadt. We don’t know what Anne thought and felt when she was betrayed and brought to Auschwitz: there are accounts, I don’t remember where I read them, that Anne despaired, lost hope (how could one not?), but we are not privy. Her diary remains, as my students would say about any book they enjoy, “relatable”: I’m not damning with faint praise, simply acknowledging the universality of the adolescent experience she recounts, despite her unusual circumstances. Anne is not alien to us, attested by my still calling her by her first name. Kluger’s, on the other hand, is an alien experience, but it is her voice that washes over us and takes over, a dominant, indomitable voice. It is, as Kluger insisted about every Holocaust survivor, unique to her, to her individuality, a singular experience: this was a thread I noticed, an insistence on rejecting any uniformity in writing the Holocaust. She is writing, she would insist, not as a historian, but as an expression of herself. I understand her insistence on not “romanticizing” the Holocaust, not museum-fying it, placing it in “amber,” her way to assert the self. And yet, there are moments where she is weighed down by the history she carries, by her struggle never to be defined and yet, acknowledging she is defined, not so much by a monolithic history, but by time, place, and a monumental absence, of those who did not survive.
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Barely Reading Through February

This month’s winter of discontent came with a vengeance: appallingly bad weather, which, in Montreal, consists of cycles of freezing and thawing that leave us with ice-ponds to navigate and barricades of snow to o’er-leap; a non-stop work month from hell for me (I am, blissfully, on a two-week March break as of Friday, though my tax-time piles and dust-bunnies are balefully eying me); a world imploding in war; and reading conducted in the early morning hours when anxiety saw me sullenly awake before dawn. But I did read some books, none of which made anything better, but which I loved, enjoyed, and respected, respectively: Tana French’s The Likeness, Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing, and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

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Having Read Sayers and Greer

Five_Red_HerringsWhen you read a lot of bad prose as a high school English teacher, you hunger for the good stuff, which is how I ended up reading two books this brutal work week (reports to write, papers to grade, meetings to attend, you get the picture), Dorothy Sayers’ Five Red Herrings and, in one Saturday-into-Sunday swoop, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. I didn’t think, going from one to the other, they had anything in common and they don’t, except attractive, blond, wiry, irrepressible protagonists and scenes of macabre or absurd humour.

I’m on a two-year best-laid plan to reread Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books, Five Red Herrings (1931) followed one of my favourites, Strong Poison. Herrings is Vane-less, sadly, and contains a significant number of scenes sans Wimsey too; ONLY ONE HILARIOUS BUNTER SCENE, a tragedy, because we can never have too much Bunter.

I don’t care for the whodunnit variety of murder mystery: one murderee, an artist named Campbell, a hateful dude, truculent and dour, and five suspects, also artists, implicated in hating/resenting/plain-disliking Campbell. Set in a Galloway artists’ colony, Lord Peter Wimsey is taking a hol, doing some fishing (thank goodness he doesn’t seem to ever play golf), and solving a murder. Bunter is nonplussed by what the Scots call their cuts of meat and Sayers’ talent to draw character and write vernacular are brilliant. And yet, I didn’t love it. A paucity of Wimsey scenes and the detailed rendering of plottish points about who was where, which train they took, and who saw them when, take narrative precedence.   (more…)

Reading Maggie O’Farrell’s HAMNET

HamnetIt has been a long time since I read literary fiction and the opening pages of O’Farrell’s Hamnet reminded me why: because of style over substance, meandering non-plots and vague characterization. Always, at the forefront, the author’s writing and never being able to be absorbed in, or by, the narrative. O’Farrell’s Hamnet proved me wrong; it was absorbing, moving, and contained sharp, delineated, compelling characterization.

I have loved William Shakespeare since the day my grade 7 teacher handed me a tiny, hard-bound copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have taught him every year of my more than 30-year teaching career and I have, with a few exceptions (sorry, Troilus and Cressida), read his plays and sonnets many times over. I have trekked with students and friends to the Shakespeare festival at our Canadian Stratford and watched, enthralled, characters who rave, rant, quip, orate, harangue, roar, bellow, pun, banter, declaim, sob, and sing. His language has always washed over me to say everything I fail to articulate.

I was scared O’Farrell would flatten Shakespeare to idealized genius, but I got something alive and interesting and much more than I wasn’t expecting. I knew going in that the novel would focus on Shakespeare’s son and play and I knew, from years of teaching, that his son had died, young, and that he wrote Hamlet some time after both his son’s and father’s deaths. But at the centre of Hamnet is the woman we know next to nothing about, except she was Shakespeare’s wife, bore him three children, lived apart from him until the last years of his life, and became his widow. (more…)

Reading Laurie Colwin’s HOME COOKING

Home_CookingI want 2022 to be a reading year where I read more and from a variety of genres. Given that I’m now on holiday from work/school (my work is school, I teach hyper-anxious, overachieving teens) and have abandoned all hope of catching up on grading, I thought I’d get an early start. I want to read more non-fiction, but since falling off the serious-reading bandwagon, I’m daunted by some of the titles in my non-fiction TBR, witness Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, or Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, to name a few. I thought I’d start easy, short, and discrete. I read Laurie Colwin’s collection of essays, Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, and thank the Twitter-friend who suggested it.  (more…)

I Read Lucy Parker’s BATTLE ROYAL

I have, of late, like Hamlet, lost all my mirth and romance seems stale and, dare I say it, puerile. I read one of my favourite contemporary romance authors, Lucy Parker, to get my romance-mojo back, her latest and first in a new series, Battle Royal. While there were aspects I loved, and it sustained my interest throughout, by the end, I was left with “meh, it was all right.” I loved the baking-rivals-turned-lovers, Dominic De Vere and Sylvie Fairchild, and it satisfied my great love for the The Great British Bake-Off, but it was 100 pages too long and unravelled in a disappointing way. (more…)