Saturday, September 18, 2010
One part haunting historical event, one part pop lit, stir. Revolving around the real-life round-up of nearly 10,0000 French Jews by the Vichy government, the characters, plot and writing are--unfortunately--the stuff of a mainstream, commercial novel. Hard to put down, in a movie-of-the-week sort of way, but also for the historical content. Strange combination... didn't work for me.
Saturday, September 4, 2010
Denis Johnson, where have you been all my life? Exquisite and singular use of language in this achingly sad story about hardscrabble characters on the wrong side of luck. Johnson used to live in Wellfleet; how did I miss him?? I’ll be reading more of him soon.
Set during the Nigeria’s Civil War of the late ‘60s and the establishment of the short-lived nation of Biafra, this is the story of twin sisters, their loves, their relationship with each other, and how their lives are torn apart by war. Simple, elegant prose and richly explored characters.
Why does everyone think Franzen is the new golden boy of letters??? (Francine Prose, whom I admire—see READING LIKE A WRITER—is among his legion of lit-star fans.) On the one hand, his author-as-wry-cultural-philosopher-as-narrator of this American family drama reminded me somewhat of this generation’s Philip Roth. On the other hand, Franzen is no Philip Roth. His writing can be clever, but too often it’s bloated with tired, fabulously extended metaphors masquerading as literary pyrotechnics, and verbose descriptions of minutiae meant to develop character. The story material is your basic commercial package: the aging suburban parents who offer easy pop shots throughout most of the book, but finish up in a cloyingly empathetic fashion, the failed academic fuck-up of a brother, the successful materialist of a brother, the sexy lesbian sister. Sure, you want to know what happens to them… but you’ve got to wade through a hell of a lot armchair pontificating and excess verbiage.
Still brought me to tears on my third or fourth read. Thinking of teaching it this year… worried about some of the challenges it will present… As enlightened as Lee’s novel was when she wrote it, it’s nevertheless a reflection of its times, by a White, Southern Lady—caps intentional. This might engender exciting discussion, but also might get lost on the many 8th grade students who still think in a largely black and white fashion (so to speak), don’t read contextually… or don’t read books this long at all. I normally teach Part One of Richard Wright’s BLACK BOY instead—one of the best books in the English language, an easier sell to a group of students who read—and think—on wildly disparate levels, and an easier book to read in a spotty fashion without losing the main thread. Nevertheless, would love to sell this book—and rich discussions about language and society.
Metz’s memoir describes her husband’s sudden, untimely death, her subsequent discovery of his adultery, and her reevaluation of her marriage. Kind of a guilty pleasure read. The prose is smooth enough, but the story is more ordinary than the author would have it, and the denouement gets a little self-helpy.
I am a fan of Eggers’ nonfiction. Though his last work of book-length journalistic nonfic—WHAT IS THE WHAT—had more literary zing, ZEITOUN is readable, compelling, and a deeply important story about American politics and prejudice in post-Katrina New Orleans. The protagonist, a Muslim immigrant and successful contractor and builder, is a testament to the American Dream and to decent human values, despite being put through an American nightmare.
A smart, irreverent history of the English language (“Shiite Happens” is one of the chapter titles). McWhorter argues that the accepted story of English focuses on vocabulary—words from Latin, Norman French and German—while the more critical and underexplored story is that of our singular grammar and the way in which it was influenced by a mix of cultures, most notably the Celts, Vikings, and Phoenicians. While the latter part of the book can get a bit repetitive, McWhorter’s writing is breezy, clear and fun. I bought many, though not all, of his contentions, and enjoyed the insight into grammatical points I hadn’t thought about. Worth reading if you love words.