Thursday, June 28, 2012

Falconer (by John Cheever)

A book on Ye Olde Time 100 list, and the shortest one I had left, at 211 pages. It's a novella about a guy in a prison--the prison's name is Falconer. It opens up with some pretty obvious, Old Man and the Sea-level Jesus Imagery. (He has criminals on his right and his left, talks about nails, and innocence, and I was afraid it would be a lot like OMatS where I was like OMG HEMINGWAY I GET IT HE'S JESUS THE OLD MAN IS JESUS I GET IT ALREADY. But instead it works nicely here; it's pretty clearly established and comes back very clearly at the end, but the middle is more vignettes of prison life and the symbolism is more subtle. (Also, the man-on-man prison action is kind of interesting, given Cheever's bisexuality. It's presented semi-lovingly.)

I wouldn't call this a must-read on the level of The Virgin Suicides or anything, but I did enjoy getting to know a little bit of Cheever. And I would give it a thumbs up, if not a wildly enthusiastic one. (In contrast, I am currently reading the endless, endlessly irritating Augie March. Ugh. Saul Bellow.)

"There were the stalenesses of the courthouse to remember, the classroom window shades, the sense of an acute tedium that was like the manipulations of the most pitiless and accomplished torturer, and if the last he would see of the world was the courthouse, he claimed he had no regrets, although he would, in fact, have clung to any floorboard, spittoon or worn bench if he thought that it might save him." (p. 199)


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Sheltering Sky (by Paul Bowles)

A beautifully written novel that is less like a novel and more like a meditation on existence and on death. I was spoiled because I read the preface, which gave away the major thing that happens 70% into the novel (why do they do this, why) but one of the interesting things in that preface was the idea that Bowles wanted to try to write about the experience of death "from the inside." He does a great job with this.

I'm going through my highlights (which is my favorite thing about the Kindle app; how easy it is to highlight passages you want to revisit) and so many of them deal with the metaphor of the sky. In this novel, the sky is a protective covering for the "giant maw" that lies behind it, so a lot of the characters have ominous experiences looking at the sky. And it works perfectly with the novel's idea that we are all covered under this giant illusion that protects us from the reality of death.

The plot is a group of dilletante Americans traveling through Africa, and I feel like there is so much to think about with how they get consumed by the landscape and what the landscape represents. I haven't decided how I feel about how the "natives" are presented; I think Bowles is self-aware about this stuff, and that his characters are the obtuse ones, not the author. He also acknowledges that Kit functions "as an object" during the final, rapey parts of this novel, (she is systematically raped! but she kind of likes one of her rapists! but her identity is slowly being eroded! and she ultimately realizes she has to escape!) but he doesn't really explain why he does this.  So I have to think about this too.

Anyway, do you enjoy pondering mortality and working through various possible post-colonial and feminist readings of a text? Then this book is for you! (Really, it was a great, meaty read.) (Any insights welcomed in the comments.)
Trivia! A quote from The Sheltering Sky is on Brandon Lee's tombstone. It's one that I highlighted too; how could you not?

"Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."

Here's another good one.


Monday, June 11, 2012

The Virgin Suicides (by Jeffrey Eugenides)

So fucking good.

I loved the movie, of course, but it had such a Sofia Coppola tone to it, I wasn't sure that the book would live up to it. Well, it turns out the book is equally great, if not even greater. It's just so melancholy and haunting and beautifully, beautifully, beautifully written. Love the conceit of the narrator being the neighborhood boys. Love the characterizations and the depiction of adolescence. Love the meditative nature of the prose. The best book I've read so far this year.

"We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them."

Friday, June 01, 2012

A Love Story Starring My Dead Best Friend (by Emily Horner)

A YA novel about a girl who has to deal with grief and her own sexuality after her best friend dies. Great title, great premise, what could go wrong? In fact, the central romance of the book is handled really well, and I definitely enjoyed reading it all the way through.

I do have some criticisms, though. It feels a little John Green lite, to me. Like Horner was going for that sensibility, but didn't quite pull it off. The characters (especially the supporting characters) are a little underdeveloped. We hear that Jon is gay and "fabulous" but he doesn't do anything gay and fabulous that I can remember off the top of my head. Oliver (who was her best friend's boyfriend) never seems like anything other than a dick. (I don't think he's supposed to be an unremitting giant asshole, but he is.)

There are also some implausible plot developments and moments and conversations that kept pulling me out of the book. There are a few little ones, like a teacher inexplicably risking his career for next to no reason, but here's the big one: half of the book (the weaker half) is about the narrator, who is 16, going on a bike trip from Chicago to California. And camping by the side of the road! Are her parents crack addicts who don't care abut her? Is she an orphan? No and no--her parents are overprotective Quakers. And yet they let her do this! Right after her best friend has been killed in a car accident! There is no way these people exist. No way. Nope.

(I did enjoy the depiction of Quakerism, though. Quakers rule.)

So there you go. I enjoyed the book more than this blog post might suggest, but it doesn't really compare to John Green. Then again, what does?