Dec 152018
 

The second book in The Broken Earth trilogy shifts the narrative in ways that I found disorienting for the first half of the book.

In part this was because—as was the case in The Fifth Season—narrative point-of-view is so central to the effect the book is aiming for. Again the principal point-of-view is a disorienting second person and it’s used to put identity—who is speaking? to whom?—and my efforts to “identify with” on centerstage as questions. By the end of the book, I’d finally clued into the fact that in being constructed as challenges, these concepts were also being thematized.

I was also slow to catch on to the new narrative stakes. Narrative lines established in the first book seemed to have faded into the background here without me having a good sense of what was taking their place. With the point-of-view holding me at arms length from the characters, my uncertainty about the direction of the story initially made for shaky (pun intended) reading.

Only once I was past the mid-point had I settled back in enough to catch on to the true source of my problems: the scale of the story had changed dramatically. What I’d understood as a of coming of age fantasy—a young country woman is brought to town, educated, discovers she’s important—wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t simply that familiar story and resemblances to it were a distraction. The stakes here were social, historical and philosophical and the narrative was reaching for and attempting to establish the cultural resonances that support strong allegory.

I’ve already read The Stone Sky as I write this, so I should probably go ahead and admit that this second book in the series remains my least favourite. But seeing how successfully the final book arrives at the deep allegorical force this book is building toward makes me admire this one for all the work it does to make that final triumph possible.

Dec 082018
 

I stumbled across a reference to The Snow Leopard a year and a half ago reading something somewhere about Buddhism. I bought a copy, read it, read it again, and have continued to read it, a bit here a bit there, right up to the present day. That is a long time to spend with a book, and yet it remains as fresh to me, as extraordinarily beautiful, and as deeply moving as it did when I first picked it up.

The story it tells is simple enough. Matthiessen and his friend GS, a wildlife biologist renowned for his field research, hike from Katmandu in Nepal up (and up and up) into a remote region of the Tibetan Himalayas to observe the rut of a little understood mountain goat. If they are fortunate, they also hope to see one of the elusive snow leopards known to live in the mountains. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, would like to visit the aging Llama of the Crystal Monastery as well. Weather threatens them continually on the ascent and both supplies and the porters to carry them are limited, but the men eventually make it to Inner Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, much later than planned but in time for the rut. GS studies the goats; Matthiessen visits the monastery. The men then descend back down into the world of the lower altitudes.

Within the frame of this simple story, Matthiessen experiences something that feels like the entirety of a life and his writing evokes that experience anew each time I read it. In this the book echoes Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps.

The foundation here is a spare taut prose with breadth and sweep enough to capture an immense natural world while also remaining grounded enough to read as the language of a particular man and of his mind’s workings. The writing is always stunningly concrete even as he moves within deeply philosophical considerations of love, death, family, friendship, the nature of reality, and the existence of the self. His mind is strong, energetic, even stubborn yet also (amazingly) open, pliable, and generous.

I’ve spent eighteen months with Matthiessen’s book, and I’m certain he was a difficult and imperfect person, but as strange as it is to say, I suspect that many of the people who knew him fell in love with him and that, if I had, I would have as well.

Jun 232018
 

Elizabeth Kostova’s novel is a baroque return to and elaborate reimagining of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, only this time without any pretense that the women are desperate souls needing protection or that the men can save even themselves. It’s also extremely well written: the narration follows (in every chapter save one) a fixed pattern of frame and flashbacks recounted trough letters, journals or stories told over dinner that, once established, lends real energy to what is a very long book. The complicated reworking of the history of Ottoman Europe is completely fascinating.

I’m a sucker for vampire fictions whether written or filmed, so I often doubt my judgment about stories like these. For this book though, I feel confident recommending it to friends. For my part, as soon as I finished it, I ordered The Swan Thieves.

Jun 232018
 

Octavia Butler’s novel tells of a modern black woman, drawn back through time to save a slave owner’s young son from drowning before returning to her own time. Over the course of the novel she will be drawn back to save the boy repeatedly, will watch him as he grows older. Because time moves at different rates in the two narratives, the protagonist is never sure how long she’ll be trapped living as a slave. Sometimes it’s years. And when her white husband travels back with her in the middle section of the novel, he finds himself trapped alone in the past and grows old there while only a few days pass for his wife.

I didn’t know Butler and didn’t know what to expect, but this book is writing of a very high order. I started reading and couldn’t stop, finishing the novel at a breakneck pace over the course of a single evening. It was that powerful.

Jun 042018
 

Ruskin would have hated this book as pathetic fallacy pushed to the far reaches of decadence. Many of my students were skeptical of it for the same reason but without realizing there was a name for what they saw simply as unscientific bias. Those who loved it were mostly silent, only sharing in their essays how deeply moved they were by Wohlleben’s celebration of forest communities.

My thought? Most of my students have never been in woods thick enough to block their view of clear land. I’d be surprised if any of them had ever walked through a genuine forest. So language that pushes them to imagine trees as something other than biological machines for pumping water and sucking up carbon is good for them. And by that I mean good for their souls.

Jun 032018
 

When my mother came up last year, I bought her the first book in Louise Penny’s series of murder mysteries.

They’re set in the Eastern Townships, and I thought it’d be a nice reminder of Quebec when she was reading it back home.

Turns out she loved the first book and has now run through the entire series.

When she was midway through and praising them on the phone, I decided to give the first book a shot, even though I don’t usually like mysteries.

And what a nice surprise, it was great and I’ve bought the second and third for a rainy weekend sometime.

Apr 142018
 

A marriage comedy set in a world in which witches and future tech are at war with each other.

The lovers are kept apart in their youth by parents and counselors, all of them people with agendas. When they are older and have settled into their separate world views, they are kept apart by their mutual incomprehension and learned distrust. When in the final scenes, they come together, their totems—a magical tree, a powerful social network—merge, saving the world.

Apr 062018
 

Carson McCullers is interested in the feelings and the states of understanding of adolescents and other marginal people who are on the cusp of self discovery or transformation. She also writes in slow motion, capturing their subtle emotional variations and incremental changes in perception. She sets the tiniest stages of a thought in sharp relief. As a result, following her narration of a scene takes patience.

McCullers’s novel made me conscious of how—during  important periods of my life, yes, but also in ordinary days and boring weeks, in conversations with others but also when I’m alone—my feelings operate as a process and develop through variation. Yet in memory, the process isn’t retained. I remember my feelings as nouns rather than verbs. McCullers’s novel reminded me of the busy work of feeling that I continue to forget and restored (at least for a moment) the complexity and significance of that work to my sense of the fleeting moments of daily life. (Aciman’s in Call Me by Your Name reminded me of this as well.)

Frankie, the novel’s young protagonist, is difficult and cantankerous. Yet everything about her bristles with life and enthusiasm: she is alive to herself and is working as hard as she can within her limited means to make the materials of her childhood into a Self. She’s fierce, takes risks and is playing for stakes, yet she remains open to being touched by others as she struggles to be different, elsewhere and better, three terms that to her are largely synonymous. How can you not be charmed by that?

Finally, it’s worth saying that McCullers’s diction here is a feat of strength. Without resorting to odd neologisms or showy deep-dives into the OED, she describes subtle difference of emotion and of setting while maintaining a consistent register of lanugage. If this novel were a painting it would be richly monochromatic. The effect is so seductive that, by the end, I found myself nostalgic for a Georgia summer heat I’d fled years ago because her description of it convinced me that I’d somehow missed its beauty. I hadn’t—I’m sure of that—but if you’ve ever endured that heat without air conditioning for any length of time, you can appreciate what a powerful spell McCullers must weave in order to make me think I had.

Apr 022018
 

I experienced this book like a delirium.

This is the Antebellum West, the Civil War and Reconstruction viewed through the eyes of a gender fluid gay soldier who cares less about history than the soldier he loves and who loves him back. Because he’s the narrator, the book follows his lead, never questioning the nature of their affections and presenting the physicality of their relationship bluntly from the outset.

The result is dream-like and utopic and is disturbed only occasionally by outsiders. For example, after meeting with the couple on official business and saying nothing about the narrator wearing a dress, a military official later writes to schedule a second meeting and requests that the narrator come dressed as a man.

Yet however idealized the narrator’s relationship, the world he lives in and the wars he participates in are brutal and cruel. The book draws a great deal of its energy from the narrator’s casual disengagement from this bloody (and often genocidal) violence. I couldn’t sort out the tone of this distance.

Eventually though I began to wonder whether the other people caught up in the violence—especially the Native Americans—were simply wind0w-dressing and whether this was symptomatic of the author’s outside position vis-a-vis the American conquest of the West. Could it be that he set out to write a western, and from across the Atlantic, the detailed historical backdrop appears to serve primarily as a generic (but literary) setting? I don’t know, and find this aspect of the book troubling.

Apr 012018
 

This book is populated by characters that became real to me as I watched them live for forty years or so in New York. They aren’t interesting in any extraordinary or flashy way—which makes the title odd—but I cared about them and became involved enough in their lives to lose track of the fact that the book would end.

Now that it has, I feel torn up and sad the way you do when you lose people.

Update: That last bit surely sounds exaggerated, but it’s not. I miss Ethan, Ash, Jonah, Jules and Denis. There’s no other way to say it, and I’ve been in a funk all day from their story being done.