Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An Unfortunate Reading Experience

Last week, I encountered an unfortunate reading experience.

This unfortunate experience occurred while I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. After having finished Anna Karenina and some critical reading from James Wood earlier this summer, I thought I was in the mood for something different: violence and bloodshed, open spaces and descriptions of land, people living hardscrabble lives. I also looked forward to opening my first McCarthy novel, as I had heard much about him and quite enjoyed the film version of No Country for Old Men. But I had sold myself short on my own reading desires.

At first, things were going well. I loved McCarthy’s idiosyncratic writing style, and I liked the lead character, John Grady Cole, and his traveling companions, Rawlins and Blevins. The story intrigued me, and the scenes in the middle where the boys struggle to survive in a Mexican prison, made fantastic reading. But as I got to the last thirty-five pages of the book, I had a revelation. I didn’t really care about these people anymore. Rawlins had left the action earlier, and upon his leaving, I just didn’t really care enough about what remained to finish the book.

I’ve quit lots of books in the middle of the action. Life is too short to spend my time reading books I don’t like. But I’ve never gotten this close to the end of a novel before stopping in my previous book-quitting experiences. It took me awhile to figure out what was the problem. And when I finally got my best answer, I felt a little bad about it. I was frustrated with reading a book about men, for men, by a man.

The last thing I’d call myself is a feminist. But I have a pretty stubborn streak of feminine pride, and I often tire of reading books where the only female character, the love interest, exists with no inner life beyond standing on a pedestal for the main character and boring the hell out of me. And that was how I felt about All the Pretty Horses. Good writing, good action, great settings; but ruined by my own gender boredom. Once my favorite character (Rawlins) left, the only thing left was the wrap-up of the love story and the final violent outbursts of the male characters. And by that point, I just didn’t care what happened anymore.

I feel guilty about this reading experience because on any other day, in any other mood, I probably would have liked this book or at least fairly enjoyed reading it. But because I was frustrated with such heavy masculinity dripping off the pages (made worse by an up-close encounter with a fairly misogynistic snob I’d recently met), the entire thing had been ruined. I am sure I will return to Cormac McCarthy eventually (he’s too important and interesting a writer to miss), but I think I will just write off All the Pretty Horses as an unfortunate experience and move on with my life.

And on that note, I am trying to read mainly women fiction writers for the next few weeks in order to get a taste of what I’ve been missing lately. So you can expect entries on Marilynne Robinson, Louise Erdrich, and maybe Anne Tyler. Hopefully I enjoy the next few books I read and don’t get bogged down too much by my own neuroses. Happy Reading, everyone!

Work Mentioned: All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy

P.S. Please take a look at a fellow reader's blog and join in on the July Quotation Month! I plan on participating every day, and I will try to fill you in with my choices and reactions here. Have fun!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Book Nerds Unite!

There may be no greater delight in my life these days than meeting a fellow book nerd. I am not talking about the people we all know who enjoy a good story and spend a lot of time reading before bed at night. I'm talking about the people who live for words, the kind of people who get up in the morning and think about what they're going to read today. These are the people who fall in love with a single sentence or even a single word in a piece of fiction or poetry. I love book nerds. They are my people.

So as soon as I settled down with the literary critic James Wood and recognized a master book nerd, I knew I was in love. In his new book, a short and breezy read entitled How Fiction Works, Wood attempts to understand what goes into good fiction. He explores good narrative (it's all in the usage of "free indirect style" apparently), character development, language and details. He even takes on the idea of realistic fiction being out of style and argues that it will never be out of style to create something from which readers recognize truth.

It was a good read - interesting, fast, and well-organized. But what really got me about How Fiction Works is the respect with which Wood treated literature. This man really, really loves books. He gets breathless when speaking about favorite passages or when talking about how Flaubert changed the novel forever 150 years ago. He's a giant book nerd, and his passion for words and sentences and the things they build - characters, places, worlds - is extremely exciting. It was like talking with a good friend about favorite literary moments. And even though Wood could get a little too academic (read: snobbish) at times, his excitement kept him from feeling pretentious.

And here is where the book really sold me, with it's explanation of why reading matters. Wood writes:

"...In our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, in film and drama, which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit's house to its foundations."

When I think about my reasons for reading, for the way I can never seem to get enough of words and stories and language, I cannot think of any better reason than the one stated in this quote. I read for those glimpses of truth and understanding. Sometimes it's a single sentence or the way a word is placed in a sentence. Sometimes it's the way the writer describes a character walking into a room or eating soup. It's about those things we recognize in humanity but may not have been able to say ourselves.

For a true book nerd, reading isn't just about enjoying the story or falling in love with a character (more on that later this summer). It's about the little things, the small moments that really pack a punch. It's the moment Prince Andrei Bolkonsky smiles coldly like his father in War and Peace. It's the extremely sad final conversation between Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Or the final, pleading sentence of John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany. Hell, it's even in the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald gives gray eyes to doomed Kerry Holiday in This Side of Paradise. There are a million moments that make reading important and necessary and wonderful

In conclusion, book nerds unite and share the love! Wood's book is a good place to start.

Work Mentioned: How Fiction Works, by James Wood

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Damn You, Tolstoy! : Reading Anna Karenina

Last autumn, I took a class called “The Great Novel,” which quickly became the best class of my college career. The professor conducted the class as if it was a grad-school-level course, but every moment of the class and every page read was completely worth the hard work and intellectual exhaustion. In that class, we read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. At first, I hated the book. I thought it was slow, boring, and heavy-handed. But as the book went on, I fell in love. War and Peace might be the greatest novel I have ever read (although I’m still reserving the right of favorites to The Great Gatsby). Of course, Tolstoy did not consider his magnum opus to actually be a novel. It was so complex, so long and involved and busting at the seams with humanity, that he thought it defied category. Which, trust me, it does.

Tolstoy actually considered his first novel to be Anna Karenina. Before “The Great Novel,” I never had much ambition to read Anna. I already knew what happened at the end, and I knew the book worked in the same plane as Madame Bovary, which I read a few years ago. But after reading War and Peace, I was unable to get Tolstoy’s writing out of my head. The way he enters into the existence of every single character is unlike anything I’ve read before. I needed more. It was no secret in the English Department that the favorite book of my “Great Novel” professor was Anna Karenina. In fact, it was something of a running joke there. So I knew that book needed to be my first summer read.

So after three weeks of amazement, occasional boredom, and a lot of “fuckin’ Tolstoy” moments, I finally finished the book a few days ago. And I have to admit, I like War and Peace better. The characters of War and Peace were more attractive to me than the characters here, who were often frustrating to understand. I “got” them, but they were often so untrustworthy as characters and people that I couldn’t enjoy every moment I spent with them. But because the details and the flashes of extreme humanity in both all its glory and grossness were so perfect, I still admired the book greatly. Tolstoy is just so damn good at getting into every inch of a situation, a person, a moment. He’s an obsessive God, constructing every perfect inch of his novel and then going all-out to make us see his world. It’s ridiculous, and I will probably envy the way he shows us his entire imagination until the day I die.

But here’s the problem with Tolstoy: he has opinions. A lot of them. And he’s not afraid to nearly destroy an otherwise good book with them. The epilogues of War and Peace were so overcooked in Tolstoy’s “philosophies” that I could hardly stomach them. It’s his constant intellectual probing that makes his novels so good, and yet at the same time, it’s what so often turns readers off of him. It’s a prickly area for me when someone mentions Tolstoy. How can I love him so much as a writer, as an observer of people and place, but hate him so much as an ideologue? Tolstoy was the kind of person who honestly believed that listening to Beethoven could lead to a life full of wantonness and sexual destruction. He both loved and hated religion and spirituality. He was a bit of a misogynist, even though what people consider his greatest literary creation, Anna Karenina, was a woman. As a contemporary reader, it’s a little hard to get behind this kind of writer.

So how do I deal with my love/hate relationship with Tolstoy? The same way I deal with friends and family members; I try to love him despite all his faults. It’s hard at times. (All I have to do is think about the epilogues of War and Peace and my blood starts to boil). But a writer who so perfectly describes thoughts and emotions that every person has felt or understood at some point cannot be brushed aside. He gets so into the thick of human existence that it’s impossible to hate him as a writer and as a person. Do I want to punch him in his bearded face every time I read him? Yes. But I also want to kiss him and worship at his feet. The only way I can deal with Tolstoy is by getting over the bad and looking at the good. Because, Holy Shit, there is soooo much good in Tolstoy’s work.

Which brings me back to Anna Karenina. Despite my frequent frustration with the book and its characters, there were too many beautiful moments and sentences in it for me to discount it as a masterpiece. Here’s just a few amazing pieces:
- how Tolstoy describes a new parent’s pride after a newborn’s first sneeze
- the scene between Anna and her son, which is one of the most moving passages of literature I think I’ve ever read
- this: “Kitty did in fact conceal her new views and feelings from her mother. She concealed them not because she did not respect or love her other, but simply because she was her mother. She would have revealed them to any one sooner than to her mother.” Even 150 years ago, despite being a man, Tolstoy understood young girls didn’t think their mothers knew anything. (And if you’re reading this, Mom, of course Tolstoy’s wrong).
- Vronsky and Anna’s visit to the painter
- Levin reaching out to God when his wife’s in labor; gorgeously written
- the passage where Levin mows with the peasants
- most of all, the last few chapters before Anna’s [SPOILER ALERT] suicide, where Tolstoy completely enters her frantic mind; incredible

So there you have it. I wouldn’t necessarily go around recommending Anna Karenina to everyone (although I certainly plead that everyone try Tolstoy at least once), but I still enjoyed it as it was.

And now, onto something a little more fun….

Books Mentioned: Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (translated by Constance Garnett)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hello Everyone!

Hi everyone! Due to some problems with my Google account, I've had to restart this blog. So now, you can find it at www.yourmamasbookshelf2.blogspot.com. Sorry for the inconvenience. But seeing how I had pretty much abandoned the old one, I have decided to start afresh and begin anew. So now you can all look forward to some awesome posts coming soon, starting with one in the next couple days about Anna Karenina and Tolstoy in general. And here are some exciting things to come:
- A discussion about my embarrassing love for fanfiction
- Talking about fictional crushes
- A summer-long love affair with the west, with books by Cormac McCarthy and Louise Erdrich
- Some notes on the theme of re-reading

I am excited about what the summer reading will bring to this blog! I hope you will all enjoy it as much as I do.