Archive for February, 2010

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The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

February 14, 2010

I’ve been reading this book off-and-on ever since it was realized last month, but I’ve only been able to sit down and devote a chunk of time to it recently, once I finished with obligatory reading for book clubs and the like. It’s unusual for me to be so excited about a newly released book that I will pre-order it. This, however, was one of the exceptions. I loved Kostova’s first book, The Historian, so much that I could not wait to get started on her newest book. I wish I could say that The Swan Thieves was a fantastic second novel that was just as exciting and beautiful and the first. Unfortunately, it certainly was not. The Swan Thieves is a good book–the characters are interesting and the story is intriguing. But overall, this novel lacked many of things that made The Historian excellent. Although it focused on some of the main topics–history, foreign locales, art in some form–none of these three things were done very well.

The Swan Thieves weaves together the story of a modern-day psychiatrist and patient with the story of a French female painter in the late 1800s. I love the turn of the 19th century, but Kostova doesn’t bring that time period alive for the reader. In fact, that historic period could have almost been set in any time in the past, that’s how vague the setting was. Except for name-dropping some early Impressionists, most of the things could have occurred 100 years earlier. This is such a dramatic difference from how the past was really brought to life in her descriptions of Vlad the Impaler in Kostova’s first work. I was also disappointed that the descriptions of France, especially the beautiful parts of France known for great painting scenes, were rarely described with much detail. While reading The Historian, I felt like I was traveling to all of those foreign countries for the first time. How I longed to visit the Eastern European cities and to see the Danube. (In fact, I know a couple who were inspired to do just that after reading the book!) However, when she describes both modern Paris and historic France, Kostova doesn’t inspire any wanderlust.

The most significant difference between the two novels, of course, is that The Swan Thieves is focused on painting. SO MUCH PAINTING. It doesn’t stop. Every single character in this novel is a painter: the psychiatrist, the patient, the patient’s ex-wife, the patient’s girlfriend, the historical character we learn about, and the historical character’s uncle. That is, everyone who is ever in the book for more than 3 pages is a painter. It’s really shocking. You almost feel like you’ve stepped into some weird alternate universe where everything revolves around painting. I don’t paint, but I certainly have nothing against the art. I’m actually a pretty big fan. But I can only hear three or four characters talk about the paint under their fingernails or the smell of oils before I go a little crazy. This was actually the only part of the book that really annoyed me. Everything else was fine, just not excellent. But the obsession with painting just became too trite after a while.

This is a fun read, and certainly worth the time. (Don’t be dismayed by the size–it’s not that long at all, the pages just have very few words on them. I think the published wanted the book to seem just like her previous one.) I would recommend waiting for the paperback, though.

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Lady Susan by Jane Austen

February 8, 2010

This year, I’m planning to read all of Jane Austen’s works in the order in which they were written. That means that I started with Lady Susan, an short, unusual novel told entirely in letters. It’s not the sort of letter writing I expected: a sequence of messages that chronicle the back-and-forth conversations between two people. Instead, the letters are mostly one-sided missives from the two main writers: Lady Susan and her sister-in-law, Mrs. Vernon. Most of the time, Lady Susan is writing to her good friend, and Mrs. Vernon is writing to her mother. Occasionally, we do get to read letters from others. But most of the time, we are reading two different views of the drama happening in Mrs. Vernon’s house. The novel opens with the news that Lady Susan will be coming to stay with her brother and sister-in-law for a while. Lady Susan’s reputation precedes her, however, as Mrs. Vernon has heard that Lady Susan is a mischievous plotter who is self-conceited and neglects her daughter. Of course, once Lady Susan arrives at the Vernon’s house, antics ensue. I loved learning about the story from two different sides: the secret thoughts of Lady Susan as she tells her friend the juicy truth, and the layers of dramatic irony that occur when poor Mrs. Vernon writes to her mother about what she thinks might be happening.

The story isn’t perfect–many of the characters are one-sided, and the plot is slightly predictable and sometimes become almost farcical. However, it was fun to see Austen play with the epistolary format. Many of her later themes show themselves in this book, most noticeably, her concern about how a society which only allows women to play the marriage game can destroy people. You know that Austen is doing some fabulous writing when you occasionally find yourself sympathizing with the villainess!

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Some Random Bookish Thoughts

February 4, 2010

1. Does it seem like the whole world is currently reading The Girl Who Fell from the Sky? Or is it just me? This week, I’ve seen the book twice during my commute, then it also showed up on NPR’s “What We’re Reading” site. I haven’t seen much chatter about this book in the blogosphere, so I went poking around to see what I could find out about it, and the nice folks at Algonquin are providing a little online preview of the first chapter. It seems like an interesting book. May also be a way to diversify my reading this year.

2. I finally started by Complete Austen in 2010 project, beginning with Lady Susan. That is really just flying by! Which is good because I distinctly remember disliking this story when I read it the fist time ages ago. I’ve never read a story told entirely in letters (an epistolary novel), and frankly, I don’t have a great track record with books with letters in them. I think that I put Possession down right around the time when the story dissolves into a series of letters. But Lady Susan and her friends have captured my attention. More to come soon once I’ve finished it. Next up will be The Watsons. I figure that these are two of her shortest works, and here it is already February! So I need to get through those quickly.

3. I haven’t made any progress on my James Family project. I’ve been in the mood for The Turn of the Screw recently, though, so that may change soon.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

February 3, 2010

Today, I welcome Zora Neale Hurston as part of the Harlem Renaissance tour that is happening this month in the Classics Circuit. In her foreword, Edwidge Danticat calls Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God a “brilliant novel about a woman’s search for her authentic self and true love.” That’s just about the best short summary that I could possibly find. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Although we may know her best for her novels and short stories, she was actually a trained and practicing anthropologist. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 while she was living in Haiti to research the people and culture of that country. While she was writing, Hurston was a popular writer, but she never benefited monetarily for all of her hard work. Sadly, she died penniless in a welfare hospital. For decades, her work was lost to us, because her writing was not deemed appropriate for correct political opinions of the time. But in 1975, Alice Walker published an article about her attempt to find Hurston’s unmarked grave, and ever since then, her books have been popular again. Aren’t we lucky that they are?

Hurston’s anthropological eye is one of the things that makes this novel so wonderful to read. As we learn about Janie and her adventures in Florida, it feels like we are transported to a different time and place. Hurston does such a great job of making us feel like flies on a wall. As soon as I finished reading this novel, I knew that I loved it simply for the realistic characters, the beautiful story, and the impressive writing. But once I started thinking about it more, so many questions came to mind. It’s great that Janie was so independent and didn’t care what other people might think about her actions, but why did it sometimes take her so long to stand up for herself when men were treating her badly? Why did it sometimes seem like all of the people, with the exception of the main characters (Janie, Joe, Tea Cake, Pheoby) always acted goofily? What role does family play in the culture we are reading about? Sometimes it seems so expendable to Janie, yet at other times, we hear of touching stories of families helping each other out.

There’s a lot to ponder in this book. It seems like such a brief, beautiful glimpse at an entire time, place, and people that I would so love to learn more about. I almost wish that Hurston had written a whole catalog of books just like this, Zola-style, that examined different characters in different novels.

Can anyone recommend a second Hurston book to read after this? Has anyone seen the Oprah production movie of this book? Is it worthwhile to watch?

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Howards End by E.M. Forster

February 2, 2010

Have you ever finished a book and then wanted to flip the book right around and start it again? I don’t know how I went so many years without reading any Forster. Howards End examines the relationship between two families who meet in a hotel: the Schlegel sisters (Margaret and Helen) and the Wilcox family. The two groups couldn’t be more different, yet once they are both back in England, life keeps throwing them together. Chance meetings lead to involvement in the others’ lives, and by the end of the novel, the two families are entirely intertwined with each other.

The odd thing about this novel is that although I know very well what happened, plot-wise and character-development-wise, I am not quite sure that I know what I am supposed to think about what happened. I suppose that some of that uneasiness that I feel is because I read so many heavy Victorian books and have become accustomed to an author being quite clear about the right point of view and the wrong point of view. In Howards End, however, I was never sure whether I was reading a character’s thoughts or the narrator’s opinions. In A Room with a View, it was quite clear who was supposed to be laughed at, who was supposed to tut-tutted to for being wrong, and who was supposed to be the one with the “right” thoughts. But Howards End is much more ambiguous. At certain times, it seems like Mr. Wilcox’s practical approach to life is satisfactory, but then at other times, he’s obviously perfectly crazy. Likewise, Margaret’s opinions about beauty and connecting seem so eloquent and ideally true. Yet, we see her falter several times herself.  And some of her opinions about how a woman should act around her husband change dramatically at the end of the novel. And what of Mr Bast, a lower middle class man that the sisters sort of befriend? He certainly has strong opinions about the way life should be lived, but I could never tell if the narrator was treating Bast with sympathy or contempt. This is why I wanted to reread the book so soon after finishing it–now that I know what happened, I want to read slowly so as to understand the smallest details of each character. Surely, though, one of the things that makes this novel such a great work is that raises more questions than it answers. Here is this unusual situation with all of these unique characters, and what can the reader learn from all of them? All I can say is that several days later, I’m still pondering that question, and I occasionally find myself thinking about these characters and agreeing or disagreeing with things that they thought or did. Howards End is certainly a door into a different time, culture, and society. I look forward to picking this book up again when I’m at a different stage in life to see how I may react differently.

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All That May Become a Man by Louis Auchincloss

February 1, 2010

The literary world lost several of its favorite writers last week. I was dismayed to see that the news about Louis Auchincloss, despite his prolific output, was rather buried in the headlines. Ah, well. So it goes. Actually, I’ve never read anything by Auchincloss before, so when I was poking around looking for a good short story this weekend, I picked up my copy of Manhattan Monologues. Given his recent death and my recent reading of Edith Wharton (a writer to whom he is often compared), it seemed like a perfect fit. Would it be anticlimatic to say that I was rather disappointed in the story?

Unfortunately, I was. While the plot and the characters of All That May Become a Man were actually rather interesting, I found the writing style to be severley flat. The story concerns a young man, Ambrose, whose father was a wild, courageous, wealthy man. Ambrose grows up learning to idolize Teddy Roosevelt and to always put courage before personal feelings. As he grows older, though, Ambrose’s relationship with his father changes, and the story is really about Ambrose talking about that situation. Perhaps the “Monologues” part of the title was supposed to be taken very seriously, and that’s why I disliked the story so much. But the entire time, I felt like Ambrose was just telling things about his life instead of showing them.

I’m not going to give up on this collection yet, because the storytelling may improve. So far, it seems that Auchincloss may cover the same topics and people that Edith Wharton did, but he doesn’t do it nearly so elegantly. However, I did find this alternate review that seems to rather like the “monologue” style of writing. If you’ve never heard of or read Auchincloss before, this review is worth reading to get a different opinion.

In other bookish news, I finished Howards End last week. It was lovely and I miss the characters. I’ve nearly finished with Their Eyes Were Watching God, and I am surprised with how quickly it reads. What a great cast of characters.