Sunday, June 1, 2014

What I'm [Kinda] Reading

I'm reading three books. Or browsing one, ambivalent about the second, and loving the third. The first was produced by a famous Emmy Award-winning film director. The second won the Pulitzer Prize for 2014. The third is a nonfiction history of a medieval book. Each has been waved in the air with halos and stars. But, in my mind, they are not all equally good.

I got excited when I first read about this much-hyped book: S. is written by Doug Dorst, and produced by the director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek fame, among others). And when I bought and received my copy I was still excited. I slit the paper seal that keeps the thick hardcover book in its slipcase and opened the book. The whole package is lovely: it is meant to look like an old book that has been filled with ephemera and marginalia by a young grad-student man and young undergrad woman who get to know each other and try to solve a mystery. The plot turns a bit, which is nice. What you see or read is not always the truth.

Now I have read six pages (plus 14 pages of preface) and know I will not finish. The old book, meant to be written in a style from 1949, seems a bit purply. A few sentences in: "A man in a dark gray overcoat walks the Quarter's streets, a tangle of cobblestone passages that spin from the harbor and thread themselves through neighborhoods where the smells of cooking spices vary but the sad decrepitude is shared." Next page: "She sighs and turns her thoughts to that miserably thin brown soup bubbling in the kitchen, and how she can make it last for an entire week" (6). The prose was so melodramatic that I decided instead to read all the exchanged notes in the margins to see what that story was like. Boy meets girl, they work together, trust is involved, something is revealed, love wins in the end. This is too silly for me. But it would work for light summer reading if you have a good place to prop it up. It's hefty at 456 pages. 



The postcards and charts and letters tucked into the book are put in the same place in every copy and they relate to the pages where they are placed, so don't drop the book! There are no page numbers to tell you where they go. I'd have to rate this two stars, primarily for the intriguing visual impact.

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), by Donna Tartt has gotten mostly glowing reviews, although no one I know (except the reviewers) has ever finished all 771 pages. I asked my local librarian and a friend who works in a bookstore. No one they know has read it all, either. I have, at this writing, read 160 pages: that is 20%. First, I must say I am in awe of someone who can write 771 pages, with a plot, get it published, and win the Pulitzer Prize. But that is rather irrelevant to whether I will continue to read it. 

It is written as a flashback; in the opening section, the narrator is about 24, but the story actually begins when he is 13. Tartt paints the scenes in vivid, sometimes microscopic detail, just as she describes visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the characters (down to "narrow lace-up shoes as shiny as glass" [26]). The characters, for me, are more like caricatures out of Dickens or Harry Potter ("His eyes were close-set, and his nose beaky and birdlike; he walked with a limp" [26]), which are fun to read in a fantasy or nineteenth century setting, but unbelievable when contrasted with the real depictions of New York City (my crush). The words "unnerved" and "punch-drunk" come up fairly often in the beginning. I read on page 51: "many people held cell phones aloft." I don't think I've ever heard the word "aloft" unless ships were mentioned. And, I'm sorry, I don't know people in this century, even the end of the last one, who talk like her characters talk. Does anyone else find this creepy? "'My. You're just a cub, aren't you?'" (127). Hobie, the character who says it, is actually a likable guy. 

That the work revolves around a painting interests me. Except the painting is a MacGuffin, the means to push the plot along, which is a coming-of-age story of a boy who is grieving. Those who have experienced intense grief may not feel it on these pages. Or maybe they will. But I didn't. The people and their feelings are held at a bit of a remove. I did feel that her description of the accident was well-written and compelling, though. Tartt has created her own world, which is fair, which is what fiction writers do, but I just am not sure I want to walk around in this one. Ultimately, I had to turn to the last page to see where it was all going and found a rather quick and trite ending: life is short. Really? I'd give it somewhere between three and four stars.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt, is a terrific book. Greenblatt writes history the way it is meant to be as hiSTORY. I'm only on page 46 of 263 pages of main text (the rest is notes), and I am captivated. Here is a world that draws me in. Just because the text is about a book doesn't mean I will automatically like it; I just showed that a book about a painting didn't quite work for me. 

Greenblatt is an engaging writer, he connects to the work and to the reader emotionally, and the story feels rooted and immediate, like you are there with him and his story of the real guy Poggio Bracciolini, although it is the year 1417. The book that has been rediscovered and that apparently changed how people thought in a big way was a poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, written in 50 BCE. Coincidentally, one of the things Lucretius wrote about was death, that we shouldn't fear it, that we are made up of atoms like everything else in the universe, and that there are no miracles, but there are clinamen (Latin for "swerve") an "unexpected, unpredictable movement of matter" (7). 

I remembered that I'd seen this word clinamen before, in connection with OuLiPo, writers who create restraint-based work. In fact, Lucretius and clinamen are mentioned in Daniel Levin Becker's book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature. He writes that the OuLiPo see the clinamen as "a voluntary breaking of a self-imposed rule" (87). So, it seems, everything is connected. And here is proof that Lucretius had an impact even today.

Back to The Swerve. I'm very interested in Poggio: he is a book hunter and a scribe. I'm curious what happens next, how this one poem in this one book affected a culture. That's part of it, too. Unlike the other two books, I want to know what happens next in this one. Thank you to Marie Dern for recommending it! Five stars. 

So, those are my opinions, for what they are worth. For those who live near me, The Goldfinch is currently in the Alameda County Library, Albany branch in a section of "no holds and no renewals," and there were a couple copies. Me? I've got two more weeks to decide what to do with it…

Prior to these books, I finally finished Moby-Dick: or, The Whale. I think it deserves the hype.

8 comments:

Kelly Kilmer said...

If you drop "S", there's a link that shows where everything goes: http://sfiles22.blogspot.com/2013/01/list-of-inserts.html?m=1 I guess there's a youtube video, too. My copy is sitting on my shelf. ;) Thanks for the heads up on The Swerve. I'll keep my eyes out for it.

Alisa said...

Thanks, Kelly! Excellent to know!

valorie grace hallinan said...

I am reading reading The Goldfinch, and I find the grief searing. The man who says "You're just a cub, aren't you," seems like a bit of an eccentric to me, but I don't find anything remarkable or unusual about his comment. I hardly noticed it. I wonder if it is our difference in generations reading this book?
Always enjoy your posts!

Kate Burroughs said...

I have read all the way through both "S" and "The Goldfinch". Both books had parts that I just wanted to put the book down and forget about it but in the end I did finish both of them. The ephemera is a little crazy in "S" and I, too, am glad to know there is a link of where to put it back. But both stories were intriguing and I think that is why in the end I finished reading them both. It can be done!
Aloha, Kate

Alisa said...

Kate,
Glad to hear from someone who has actually finished them!

Alisa said...

Valorie,
I suspect my pickiness about word choices is really the problem.

Velma Bolyard said...

alisa, i have s and am totally bored already. the tartt book seems about as uninteresting as can be, and maybe the swerve would be something i'd finish. my copy of s sits, with a bookmark about 15 pages (maybe) in. sigh.

Trish J said...

I finished The Goldfinch, but it was sometimes a trial. The prose was uneven, the plot rather contrived. I cannot understand all the hype about it.