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Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Shadow of the Wind: Literary Labyrinth of Character Connections

Carlos Ruiz Zafon makes an at-first perplexing choice regarding the structure of his novel The Shadow of the Wind. The plot of this mystery novel has two separate strands; the first is the present-day (well, present-day is 1950s Barcelona) story of Daniel Sempere and his quest to track down the author of the first book he's truly loved. The second is the story of what actually happened to that dashing young novelist named Julian Carax about 30 years before.

Instead of telling his story as two separate alternating narratives, he tells Daniel's story in the present in first person and the rest of the story in flashback or other non-in-scene devices.

So as I traversed the first several hundred pages, I was annoyed — I'm not a fan of the flashback device anyway, and I was dreading another 400 pages of backwards-looking storytelling. What's more, as I was still meeting the characters, it was hard to know what was truly important and what was just background info. For instance, in the first 100 pages, Daniel falls in love with a blind woman named Clara — but then Clara quickly exits the novel. And the reader is left to wonder if she's a significant character for something later on or is she only serving as a sort of cautionary tale of unrequited love? Additionally, one of the first flashbacks tells the story of how Julian's parents met, and the early days of their marriage. Important, or not? I had no idea.

What does emerge as the novel progresses, though, is a complex tangle of character relationships and plot twists in both the present and past. But the story is complex in the sense that it's fun to try to do the detective work yourself and make the connections before Zafon makes them clear. It's not complex in the sense that it's at all difficult to understand what's happening. As you learn more about the twists that explain how the characters are connected (and there are some shocking ones!), the novel becomes more and more difficult to put down.

Frankly, I struggled through the first couple hundred pages for the reasons mentioned above, as well as the fact that, at first, the prose is a bit clunky and it does take some getting used to. And there are several strange translation decisions (or maybe just funny typos — "the dice [sic] had been cast", for example) and some anachronistic prose ("Young man, you're a bit slow on the uptake, aren't you?" — in 1950s Barcelona?). But by about the midpoint of the novel, the translation hits its stride, and the reader is treated to some wonderfully atmospheric and beautiful writing. In fact, for a novel in translation, for the most part, the narration and story-telling is surprisingly smooth and easy-to-read.

So even though this novel violates one of my all-time literary pet peeves — telling story through flashback — (and yeah, like Zafon cares about MY pet peeves!) I will still begrudgingly admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it, because I understand now why Zafon made the choices he did.

(One piece of advice if you decide to pick up this novel: Don't read the cover and inside blurbs. They do the novel itself a vast disservice.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Have You Ever Heard Of: A Post About Obscure Favorites

In my mind, there's only one thing worse than the "what's your favorite book?" question. It's when you actually answer that near-impossible question and get stares so blank you wonder if you'd just been speaking Sanskrit. What? You've never heard of one of my favorite books of all time? What in the name of Edward Bulwer-Lytton is wrong with you? 

Surely, most literary nuts have a book or two on their favorites list that no one else in their literary circles has read, or even heard of. If you love an obscure book, you've probably deluded yourself into believing that it's not as obscure as you might think. Either that, or you take pride in the fact that one of your favorites IS obscure. Of course, what "obscurity" means is as relative and fluid as the "favorite book" question itself. So sometimes it's fun to stick a toe in the literary waters and find out how obscure your obscure favorites really are.

For me, the obscure book and my answer to the dreaded "favorite book" situation above was The Power of One, by Bryce Courtney. This inspirational coming-of-age story about young boxer Peekay is set in appatheid-era South Africa. It's probably better known for its (AWFUL) movie version, but the book is absolutely mesmerizing. Even if you hate boxing, you'll be glued to the pages. It's just a heart-wrenching, beautiful novel.

Another of my favorite obscure novels (though not necessarily favorite overall) is Gospel, by Wilton Barhardt. This long adventure novel about a graduate student's modern-day quest to find a lost gospel is just simply lots of fun. There are also a few scenes that poke subtle fun at fundamentalist Christian doctrine, so if you're into that, you'll probably laugh out loud. I read Gospel soon after I read The Da Vinci Code, and actually liked it much more. But, here's how obsure this one is: It's out of print. If you're interested, though, I've seen it frequently at used book stores.

So what are your favorite obscure novels? Why do you like them? 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Postmodern Conundrum

During one memorable episode of The Simpsons, Moe the Bartender revamps his tired dive bar to keep up with the times.When Homer swings by his favorite watering hole, he's confused by the upside down bar stools bolted to the ceiling and the televisions showing only a blinking eye. He asks Moe to explain. Moe (enthusiastically): It's PoMo. (Homer: Blank stare.) Moe: You know, postmodern. (Homer: More silent confusion.) Moe: It's weird for the sake of weird. (Homer: Ohhh, I get it.)

I'd be willing to bet that "weird for the sake of weird" is how many people view postmodern literature as well. In fact, most people (me included) don't really understand exactly what postmodern literature really is. It's certainly one of those overused phrases often bandied about by faux intellectual hipsters trying to appear more intelligent than they really might be.

There are a few writers usually mentioned as the prototypical postmodernists: Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges and Don DeLillo. But that doesn't really answer the question of what postmodern literature is, or what all those writers have in common. In my mind, in a word, postmodern literature is complex -- often needlessly so, a general reader would say. Wikipedia helpfully supplements that notion by telling us that postmodern literature relies heavily on "fragmentation, paradox, questionable narrators, etc."

That's still pretty general, but in my limited experience with postmodern literature (mainly, DFW's Infinite Jest), that description hits the nail on the head. And I bring this up now because I'm still grappling mightily with Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. It is really, really difficult, and saying I'm enjoying it wouldn't be precisely accurate, but I am enjoying parts of it. When I put in the necessary work to understand a passage, and come out on the other side with a sense that I really get what Pynchon is trying to do, I'm elated. I feel like the hard work is worth it. But there are other times when I read a passage, reread it, reread it again and just have to put the book down, throw up my hands, and send some expletives Mr. Pynchon's way. I guess what this boils down to is that I really have to be in the right frame of mind to truly enjoy the novel. When I get it, I love it, but when I don't, I'm really frustrated.

So what's your take? What's your sense of what "postmodern literature" really is? Are you a fan?  Why or why not?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Stuck in Germany!


You'd think an unplanned, several-day-and-no-end-in-sight "vacation" in Berlin would afford plenty of time for literary pursuits. Unfortunately, between spending hours on the phone with the airline trying to rebook my flights about three times, and exploring this beautiful, lively city, I've had almost no time to read. But I did find a German book store or two, and spent some time browsing. If your German ain't great, that book is David Foster Wallace's Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.

I have a flight out of Berlin through London scheduled for Wednesday, so please send out some positive thoughts about ash clouds dissipating and planes flying safely. Prost!

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bloodroot: Tragic Family, Brilliant Novel

Don't be surprised if you see Amy Greene's Bloodroot make its way onto several of the literary prize short lists later this year. It's that good; a wonderfully engrossing story by a debut novelist who writes with amazing clarity, emotion, authenticity and beauty.

Bloodroot is a plant that has the power both to cure or kill; it's the central symbol throughout a novel rich with dichotomy (love and hate, life and death). Bloodroot is also the name of the mountain in dirt-poor East Tennessee where the novel takes place. Much like the Mississippi River in Mark Twain's works, Bloodroot Mountain stands as both the setting for the story and a "thing" with which the novel's characters have a real, tangible relationship. The mountain itself is a character.

These tragic characters, all with an inseparable connection to Bloodroot, take turns telling this story about the importance of family heritage and the dangers of fate. Blue-eyed, beautiful Myra Lamb is the central character. She is her family's hope for breaking a century-old curse. But Myra herself seems also to be cursed, and marries an abusive jerk who does everything he can to sever her roots and destroy her sense of self. Her only saving grace is her hope of one day returning home to Bloodroot. "You might leave one day," Myra says, "but your blood will whisper to you."

Bursting with symbolism and Biblical allusions, but maintaining a wonderful sense of "country mysticism" and superstition, this novel is about as literary as literary gets. That's not to say the book is difficult — it's actually one of the most brilliant types of literary novels: Even if you don't get all of it, you're still totally engaged in the story and the writing, because the story stands strongly on its own merit and the writing is so fantastic. Taking time to think through and understand the "literary adornments" only adds to the enjoyment of the novel.

I'm not in a book club, but if you are, this would be a fantastic novel. It's one that begs to be discussed, and therefore, savored.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Found in Translation: Overcoming a Fear of Non-English Novels

A few years ago, as an idealistic mid-20s reader, I made a goal one summer to conquer War and Peace. So I set out for Barnes and Noble to make what I thought would be a simple book purchase. Two hours later, I emerged bleary-eyed and frustrated...and with no book.

So what happened? Well, that was the first time I had really seriously looked into War and Peace at all, and as I poured over the four or five different versions of the novel on the shelf, I couldn't figure out which translation was the "best." One version seemed to be several hundred pages shorter than others, there were some pretty major differences in the line-by-line prose, and one version even included long passages of untranslated French. I started to wonder how much those differences would affect my comprehension and enjoyment of the novel. Eventually, I convinced myself (rationalized?) that there was really no point to spending three months with a book and constantly worrying if I was missing something because I'd picked the "wrong" translation.

I know it's a touch xenophobic, but that experience pretty much put me off all books in translation for good. What if all translated novels only represent approximations of the author's tone and intent? Would the novel be nearly as good when I'm missing all the subtleties and "inside jokes"? What if these novels are really only the literary version of those terrible (and terribly funny) Japanese kung-fu movies over-dubbed into English?

I've read exactly ONE novel in translation in my entire life — a crappy mystery by Arturo Perez-Reverte titled The Club Dumas, which I read at the height of Da Vinci Code-mania. However, since I've started blogging and reading others' literary blogs, it's becoming increasingly clear that this fear of books in translation is a neurosis I need to overcome to really consider myself a well-rounded bibliophile. It's caused me to miss out on some pretty fantastic novels by non-English writers like Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), Roberto Bolano (2666) and Jose Saramango (Blindness).

So, as I leave for a week-long work trip to Germany on Saturday, I figured what better time to work through this literary stumbling block than when I'm in a foreign country. Book of choice, about which I've heard tons of good things:  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Explanation for that choice: Since this fear of books in translation isn't exactly reasonable in the first place, I'm going to overcome it by reading a Spanish novel in Germany. Take that, sense. I've also just purchased the first two books in Steig Larsson's "The Girl Who..." trilogy, and plan to read those Swedish-to-English books before the third novel The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is published in the U.S. May 25th. 

So, what else have I missed out on? What are some of your favorite in-translation books? Anyone else ever have to overcome a similar silly, irrational fear of books in translation?

(Note: Wikipedia's War and Peace entry has a full list of translations. My copy — which, if you're reading this on the site and not on Google Reader or email, you see to the right in the "Dork at Work" photo — is the Anthony Briggs translation. I still don't know if that translation is the "best" one, so would welcome any input on any "reader preferred" translations.)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hope Springs Eternal: Baseball in Literature

Happy Opening Day! For my international friends, as well as American readers who don't know a bunt from a base on balls, today marks the start of the 2010 Major League Baseball season. For baseball geeks like me, it is the first real sign of spring, and bar none, one of the best days of the year. 

Sadly, though, merging two of my favorite things in the world — baseball and books — isn't that simple. While there are a ton of good baseball movies (Bull Durham, The Natural, Field of Dreams, Major League, to name a few), there seems to be a dearth of good baseball-related books. But I have come across a few. And I wanted to post about this today to find out if there are any I'm missing, so please get ready to comment below if you've encountered a good book centered on our national pastime.

Here are a few baseball-related novels I've enjoyed:
1) The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth — This hilarious satire, and one of Roth's lesser-known novels, chronicles the trials and tribulations of a homeless baseball team in 1943 called the Rupert Mundys. The team includes a drunken first baseman, a one-armed center fielder, a "little person" relief pitcher and a 14-year-old second baseman. Most of the meat of the novel is introducing each of the characters and giving their back stories, but there's plenty about the Mundys ignominious season, as well. This a must-read for any baseball fan!

2) Play for a Kingdom, by Thomas Dyja — This inventive Civil War novel features a Union company from Brooklyn who takes on a Confederate company from Alabama in a daily baseball game during a semi-stalemate at the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness. Dyja (who most of you have probably never heard of) is a wonderful storyteller, creating fantastically vivid characters. As you'd expect, the story relates how baseball becomes a welcome distraction and a common denominator for these supposed enemies. But it never becomes cliche or cheesy. I loved this novel because it covered two of my favorite topics to read about: the Civil War and baseball.

3) The Brothers K, by David James Duncan — One of my favorite novels of all time, this story follows the Camas, Washington-based Chance family through the mid 20th century. Duncan uses baseball as a central theme and a metaphor for life as it constantly brings the family together. Father Chance played baseball at the University of Washington and was a blue chip prospect until he is drafted into the Korean War and hurts his shoulder. He spends much of the novel managing minor league players and trying to make a comeback. Additionally, the second-eldest son Peter is a naturally gifted ballplayer, but his politics intervene and he renounces baseball. If you haven't read this novel, or even heard of it, or even if you're not a baseball fan, please take my word that this will be one of the best books you'll ever read, too.

So what are your favorite baseball novels? Any recommendations I should start today, in honor of Opening Day?

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs: Metaphor Mania

Like practically everything else in Lorrie Moore's novel, the title A Gate at the Stairs is a metaphor. No matter your station in life, there are always obstacles. But some "obstacles" -- like race, or past mistakes, or ignorance, or preconceived notions -- are harder to climb over than others. In and of itself, that's a great message, but the plot with which Moore frames this idea is such a tangle of subplots, digressions and varying styles, that this idea almost gets lost amidst the din.

In a thinly veiled fictional version of Madison, Wisconsin (Moore teaches at the University of Wisconsin), freshman Tassie Keltjin lands a job as a babysitter for the adopted, mixed-race child of Sarah Brink and her husband Edward. But Sarah and Edward's marriage is rocky, and they have secrets. But Tassie gets a boyfriend who isn't what he seems. But Sarah is a restauranteur. But Tassie's farmer father and Jewish mother are a little kooky. But racism exists, even in a liberal college town. But Tassie's brother is joining the army. But nothing is ever what it seems in a paranoid post-9/11 world.

Moore seems to have the literary version of attention deficit disorder. The style and story shifted so often that it was hard for me as a reader to get comfortable. When Sarah has meetings with other parents of mixed-race children, Moore writes these scenes as pages of modifier-less dialogue. But then the next section might be a long description of flowers and nature, practically bursting with over-adorned, metaphor-laden prose. And even when the plot is moving along, Moore will key off a single word or phrase, and spend a several-paragraph digression making jokes or describing further or generally trying to "wow" you with her words. (Here's an example: "Contents may shift during the flight, we had been told. Would that be good or bad? And what about discontents? Would they shift, too? And what if the oxygen deprivation in the cabin caused one to think in idle spirals and desperate verbal coils like this for the rest of one's life?")

When I did get comfortable enough to slow down or reread to get some of the jokes (like the one above about "contents shifting during flight"), I did enjoy them. Moore is frequently a clever and witty writer. But more often than not, these seemed like spaghetti-at-the-wall gimmicks. If it stuck with the reader, great. If not, well, Moore had amused herself. Similarly, with the multiple themes Moore tries to tease out of her many subplots, there just seemed to be too many balls in the air. Instead of trying to catch one or two of them to give them the appropriate attention and treatment, Moore actually just drops them all. 

So, now this is a bit awkward. I get to announce the winner of my giveaway...of a book I didn't care for. That'll learn me to have a contest for a book before I've read it!  Anyway....and the winner is....Lisa, at bibliophiliac. Congratulations! Also, I'd highly recommend checking out Lisa's blog -- she writes with great enthusiasm and flair, and it's a lot of fun to read!