Monday, September 29, 2014

Five Thoughts On A First Ever Reading of Jane Eyre

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

This old Bantam Classic is the edition I read.

A few years ago, I wrote a silly post about literary confessions — one of which was that I frequently confused Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. It was mostly a joke, but also when I told people that in real life, they’d always look at me with that particular sympathy consistent only with a self-deprecating joke falling flat on its face (i.e., too stupid to be funny).

For penance, I decided I should probably read them both — so I knocked out Pride and Prejudice last year, and then just a few weeks ago, Jane Eyre. While of course it’s tough to come up with anything original to say about Charlotte Bronte’s tale of woe and redemption, I can certainly come up with five things I thought about the novel. So here you go (and normally, I’d say “caution, spoilers,” but this book’s 167 years old, and so well past the statute of limitations to require a spoiler disclaimer):

5. Jane Throws Shade — On page 33, not even 7 percent of the way into the novel, Jane tells her adopted guardian Mrs. Reed she hates her more than anyone else in the world except her idiot son. “I am not deceitful,” she says. “If I were, I should say I loved you.” This was the first indication that many of my long-held preconceptions (read as: misconceptions) about this story were pretty wrong. I thought, maybe this isn’t just a long-winded, ooey-gooey love story. And plus, that made me laugh, and I decided right then I was going to like this book.

4. Jane’s Friend Helen Imparts Life Lessons, Dies — Jane’s friend at the boarding school basically explains that you shouldn’t let shit bother you because we ain’t gonna be here long, and God awaits. “Why then should we sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over…?” That’s solid advice. So next time my boss forgets the attachment on an email or the dogs pee on the floor or the lady in front of me at the grocery store pays with a check, I’ll think of Helen. Hey, life’s short, and then you die. So just relax. It’s gonna be okay. Except, though, Helen proves the wisdom of her advice by dying young. That was sad.

3. Jane Weathers the Worst Guilt Trips — I was pretty sure I liked Jane quite a bit (see No. 5 above), but I knew I liked her after Mr. Rochester is caught in his web of deceit, (Dude’s married! And to a crazy lady! And she lives in his attic!), and his attempts to guilt her into running away with him anyway fall upon deaf ears. But I DOUBLE KNEW I liked her towards the end when Mr. St. John uses the most unintentionally comic (to a modern audience) guilt trip to get her marry him; paraphrased: Marry me, or God’ll be pissed at you. Strangely, this one almost comes closer to working than Mr. Rochester’s, but it doesn’t.

2. Speaking of Mr. St. John… — What a tool! I loved laughing at this chucklehead. And it’s too bad he’s so clueless, because his sisters seem nice. And that poor rich lady who is (improbably) in love with him seems nice, too. Good on you, Jane — even if took a touch of the supernatural to somehow hear Mr. Rochester calling to you in your head, and withstand St. John’s “unimpeachable” logic, wily advances, and a free trip to mid-19th century India!

1. Happy Endings Are Happy — It was rather an improbable happy ending, transcending time, space, and all known medical reality (Dude just starts seeing again? Now I see where Downton Abbey got the idea to have Matthew just magically start walking again), but how could you begrudge Jane her “happily ever after”? I certainly can’t. And I’m really happy I finally read this. Now onto Wuthering Heights. What? That’s Emily Bronte. Ah, crap.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: Starter Murakami

If you've never read Haruki Murakami and always wanted to, his bafflingly titled new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a great way to wade into his work. That's because, it's a pretty straightforward story on the surface — a 36-year-old engineer living in Tokyo named Tsukuru Tazaki is trying to find out why, when he was in high school, his four best friends suddenly broke off all contact with him, refusing to even give him an explanation for why they'd never talk to him again.

But the novel also includes some of the weird, wild hallmarks of Murakami-ism — there are some strange, often sexually-tinged dreams, a long tangent (or is it?) about a dying guy who sees people's "colors" and only people of one color (nothing to do with race) can save him, and constant questioning of the line between what's real and what's imagined and what's part of this world and what's not.

Tsukuru Tazaki, for all his self-perceived colorlessness, is still a fascinating character. But he doesn't think so — he has a small-minded view of himself, thinking of himself as boring and plain (he's the only one of the group of five friends who doesn't have a name evoking a color), and he's constantly telling people how boring he thinks he is, including his new ladyfriend Sara. But it's Sara who convinces him he needs to dredge up his past and go on his mini-vision quest to find out why his tightly knit group of high school friends suddenly stopped talking to him — an event which sent poor Tsukuru Tazaki into a near death-spiral of depression.

So Tsukuru goes back to his hometown Nagoya and then to Helsinki, Finland, to find the truth. Unlike some other Murakami novels, there is an actual, specific answer to his question about why he was suddenly treated as persona non grata. And it's shocking and sad, and brings up even more questions for poor Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki.

Whenever I'm reading Murakami, I'm always in awe of how his prose alternates between sentences that are so clunky and mundane and passages that are amazingly profound and insightful — my favorite of which is this, and which is kind of the main theme of the novel:
In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony."
Not exactly a sunny outlook life, is it? Still, when I'm reading Murakami, I'm convinced he employs some weird sorcery (like something in his novels) to make the pages just fly by. I don't know how he does it. This isn't my favorite Murakami of all time (that's a distinction Kafka On The Shore holds), it's still a really interesting, thought-provoking, entertaining read—a great starting point for Murakami novices, but with Murakami-ness enough to keep his long-time rabid fans happy as well. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Broken Monsters & The Children Act: Two New Releases, Two Mini-Reviews

Let's start with what is officially my favorite read of the year so far — that would be Lauren Beukes's Broken Monsters, which is out today. Set in Detroit not long after the Great Recession set in, this moody, terrifying, mind-blowing, atmospheric story is as difficult to put down as any book I've read in recent memory.

Ostensibly, it's a murder mystery — in the opening pages, our hero, Detective Gabriella Versado, is charged with tracking down a lunatic who has murdered a kid, cut him in half, and glued the top half of his body onto a deer torso. Sick stuff.

But the novel is far from a typical mystery — a wide cast of characters really adds depth and realism to this story about the shattered American dream. We follow Gabi's daughter — a witty, Internet-addicted teen right out of a John Green YA story — and her friend Cas as they concoct schemes, which, tragically, wind up intersecting with Gabi's murder investigation. Then there's the douchey new media journalist named Jonno (even his name is douchey!) whose crusade to reveal all he believes the Detroit PD is hiding from the public is really just a crusade to edify his own ego. And finally, there's the creepy, mysterious truck driver and artist named Clayton who is overtaken by what he thinks of as "the dream." Crazy stuff.

All this comes together in a last-100-pages conclusion that is not just glued-to-the-page riveting, but also profound and smart in a way straight genre murder mysteries never are. I can't recommend this more highly — I loved it.


Next, let's talk about a return to form for one of my heretofore favorite writers, Ian McEwan, whose last two novels, Solar and Sweet Tooth,  I've not been a fan of at all. However, his new novel The Children Act is a short, entertaining piece of totally typical McEwanness. It's told his signature droll, dryly humorous, ultra-logical prose — which is a bit of an acquired taste, frankly, but works really well for this story.

It's about a London judge named Fiona who has arrived at a small measure of fame for deciding really tough family law cases, like the case of twins who had to separated for one to survive, but whose religious parents wouldn't abide that solution, because only God can decide between life and death. So they'd rather let both die. We learn about this case early in the novel — which foreshadows the two main components of the rest of the story.

First, Fiona's husband of many years decides he wants an open marriage — he accuses Fiona of losing her passion, and he wants to reclaim that (read as: sex!) with another (younger) woman. She still loves him, and at first, struggles with whether she should agree to his indecent proposal. (Should she kill a main tenet of a marriage - faithfulness - to save the big picture?) Secondly, a case comes before her court of a 17-year-old kid named Adam being treated for leukemia. He and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and one of the pillars of their faith is that blood is sacred, and therefore a transfusion of someone else's blood — which is required for him to live — is profane.

With the stress of her now-irreparably broken marriage weighing on her, what will she decide? Are Adam's beliefs his own, and even if so, isn't requiring the treatment (since he's a minor) in his best interest? What's cool about this story is that judgment is handed down halfway through the novel, and the rest is about how the decision changes all the characters involved. I really enjoyed this, and I think if you've liked McEwan's more lauded novels, like Atonement and Saturday, you'll really dig this one too. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Lost For Words, by Edward St. Aubyn: Literary Award Hijinks

In the grand tradition of the best literary satire, Edward St. Aubyn's Lost for Words boldly takes its place. That's how the character Sonny might describe this goofy novel that sends up the Man Booker Prize with equal parts snark and silliness. Sonny — an Ignatius Reilly-like fella, who is so distraught that his 2,000-page tome isn't longlisted for the Prize, he decides to assassinate the judges — is just one of a cast of grotesques, both judges and writers, who populate St. Aubyn's comic novel.

The question of the novel: What possible chain of events could lead to a cookbook (yeah, a friggin' cookbook) being considered for the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary prize? (It's prestigious, yeah, but it is now sponsored by the Elysian Corporation, a Monsanto-like outfit famous for its pesticides and GMOs.)

Well, start with five idiot judges, some of whom were appointed to the committee for reasons of pure cronyism, each of whom have their own agendas of vastly varying degrees of sophistication. Add a snafu whereby the cookbook is mistakenly submitted to the committee instead of a novel by a sexpot writer named Kathryn. And throw in a deadlocked panel, most of whom haven't actually read the books, and you'll see how it's not outrageous. (Well, it would definitely be outrageous in real life — but not so in the pages of this novel, where one of the judges even tells her daughter to lay her life savings on a wager of one of the five shortlisted novels. Which of course doesn't win.)

Some of the fun of this novel is the snippets of the nominees St. Aubyn includes. My favorite is one titled All The World's A Stage, written from the perspective of William Shakespeare. Ol' Billy gets in a battle of wits with a romantic rival, who, after Billy reveals he keeps a poem in his codpiece, tells him, "It is a naughty codpiece, for it hath naught in it." Burn! (By the way, another of the nominated novels is titled The Enigma Conundrum — John Le Carre couldn't have done better himself.)

These snippets are short, but allow you to get the general sense of terribleness of all these books. Sometimes they're a bit hit or miss, though, and can drone on a bit. As can the snippets of story told from the perspective of a couple of the characters, like a pretentious French writer named Didier, who is fascinated with paradox. But his pretension is just as boring reading it in this novel as you'd imagine it would be listening to this dude in real life. Another character — the only deserving author on the prize's long list – named Sam is a milquetoast lovelorn wuss, whose neurotic ramblings are also just as annoying to read about as they would be to hear in real life.

But so, if you've read and enjoyed other publishing industry satires like Steve Hely's How I Became A Famous Novelist or Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan, you'll probably dig this too. It's a really short, two- or three-sitting read, and mostly pretty fun. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Short Strains of World War II Story

I've made significant efforts over the past several years to get over my hesitation toward novels that are structured as alternating or intertwined stories. And for the most part, I've been able to overcome that tiny piece of reading neurosis — Jonathan Miles' Want Not was one of my favorite novels of last year, for example.

But then I'll read a story like Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is, by most measures (including its 4.27 rating on Goodreads), a very, very good novel. And I'll again remember why this type of storytelling has a tendency to be hit-or-miss for me.

Doerr's novel is the story of a 16-year-old blind French girl named Marie-Laure, who takes refuge in the coastal town of Saint-Malo with her aging great uncle during the German occupation of France. It's also the story of a teenaged German orphan named Werner, who learns how to build and fix radios at an early age, attends an elite German academy, and is sent to the front with a new device he helped invent, the purpose of which is to locate and eliminate enemy radio transmissions. And finally, and to a lesser extent, it's the story of an evil German named von Rumpel who is on the hunt all over Europe during the war for a massive, priceless diamond known as the Sea of Flames that carries with it a legend of immortality.

Amidst a main theme of the things that connect us and the things that divide us, these stories slide back and forth over one another to build up to the real-time action: All three characters wind up in Saint-Malo. In the opening scenes of the novel, the Americans are bombing the town, Werner is trapped in the basement of a hotel with another German soldier named Volkheimer, and Marie-Laure, who has the diamond in her pocket, is taking shelter in the attic of her great uncle's mansion. This all takes place in early August 1944, but the beef of the novel is how everything will eventually get to that point.

These snippets of story are told in not-more-than-two-or-three page sections. Obviously Doerr did this on purpose and for very specific reasons. One suggestion as to why might be that the shorter, almost poetic, pieces stitch his characters closer together structurally, as they eventually maneuver closer together within the plot of the story as well. As well, perhaps he wanted the whole novel to feel like short bits of memories that sort of bleed into each other.

But for me, the effect was that it pushed me further from the characters, and gave the story a choppy, jolting feel which is certainly not the tone Doerr intended, I'd guess. So really, it wasn't actually the intertwining story structure itself that kept me at arm's length, but that each strain of story is so short.

That may seem like an extraordinarily nitpicky criticism for such a generally well-received novel. So please don't get me wrong — Doerr's novel IS astonishing as a piece of fiction and masterful in its pure literary-ness. This is a writer who is as skillful at constructing sentences as any I've ever read. So I did my level best to get over my silly hang-up with the short pieces of story. I wasn't totally successful all the time, but if you're a fan of historical fiction of the uber-literary variety, this is certainly a novel for you.