"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Lowland--Jhumpa Lahiri's Almost Great Novel of a Wider World

Jhumpa Lahiri's stories have always pleased me, although when she published her last collection Unaccustomed Earth I complained that her world was too circumscribed.
Only once do outside events intrude: one story  contains a reference to the 2004 tsunami.
And, as I noted in my review, "It seems Lahiri is a little uncomfortable about that even. “The real event just sort of caught my character in there,” she told one interviewer. “I don’t tackle major global events. I don’t like to read about something—an event, a cataclysm—in fiction for the sake of reading it." Better to turn to non-fiction for accounts of events, she said: "that’s what good nonfiction is for. And I think that the fact there is a major global event in (my) book—I don’t know if it was okay or not.”"

At the time I thought it was most definitely  okay. " In the future," I wrote then, " I hope she continues to tell us stories about how the people she imagines fit into a world wider than one of good schools, deadly but well-managed illness and love which sometimes is arranged and sometimes is not."

In her newest book, The Lowland, she certainly has embraced a bigger world view.  The story of two brothers born in Calcutta shortly before Indian independence covers a good 65 years and more than half the globe.  The younger brother becomes involved in an radical group, and is executed by police, leaving a young pregnant wife.  The older brother, who is much less political, comes back, marries the woman, and brings her to the US. The novel explores how this second marriage goes wrong and how the characters struggle with their destinies against political events beyond their control and social context that they only slowly understand.

The lowland in which the brothers grow up, and the seashore where the older one spends his professional life are points off correspondance between one part of the world and another, and I spent some time trying unsuccessfully to figure out what the symbolism of the landscape was.

Neverthless the book is compelling reading and had it not come so highly praised, I probably would have been blown away by it.  But, as noted in the last post, sometimes literary success comes with a down side--expectations too high to be successfully fulfilled.

Lahiri seems to have much better control of her material in the first two-thirds of the book.  But the narrative arc becomes indistinct as she progresses: there are at least a half dozen places she could have ended the story, several of which might have made a tauter book.  As it is she takes us to nearly the end of her major characters lives, gives us a little "lady or the tiger" moment when it looks like one character might end it all, and repeats many times  scenes she's presented earlier. 

The result isn't a failure, but it isn't as completely realized as I'd hoped it would be.  She should be given points, however, for trying to expand her horizons.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Down Side of Literary Prizes: Winners May Get Tougher Reviews

Seems counter-intuitive, but one study reported in The Guardian today shows that prize winning books frequently are more criticized after the awards than they were when they were simply nominated.

Researchers Amanda Sharkey and Balázs Kovács compared  32 pairs of books that had either won big in th UK or the US, and found that Goodreads reviews plummeted afterwards.  This is "because a book's audience – and thus the personal tastes of its readers – increases considerably after a prize win, so "a larger sampling of readers is drawn to a prize-winning book, not because of any intrinsic personal interest in the book, but because it has an award attached to it".

What the study doesn't note is whether there were increases in sales between the nominations and the winning of the prizes.  One publisher I know says that there are very few things that increase sales of books these days, and winning a major prize is one of them. 

So the question arises: is it worse to have more criticism from people who have bought and read a book than not to have the book bought at all?

I'd say that I'd rather have the sales!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Are We What We Write? David Homel Considers Desire Lines

Montreal writer (and a friend from way back, I must admit) is Writer-in-Residence at the Pointe Claire Library right now, and is posting a blog series of musings about writing.  Today he was reflecting on my short story collection Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography. This pleases me, but I'm also a little surprised at what he says.

Here's part of it:

Mary is "something of a mystery. You won’t find her hanging around after meetings or other events, trying to continue the action at the nearest watering hole. A private person, I guess you’d say. And that’s just fine.

"In Desire Lines, Mary Soderstrom shows herself to be a writer of domestic events, though all her books are not like that. In these stories, there is much about people living under the same roof, or about to, or having just finished doing so. The dramatic events are under the surface, or in the next room, or off screen entirely. This is an effective way to work, because it communicates to readers that they shouldn’t think they know all about what’s going on, or even very much. And that the truth is always elsewhere.

"Maybe that style is like the writer herself: you know her enough to know that there are loads of things about her that you don’t know. That can be a situation of great charm – even seduction, I’d be tempted to say, though it would be seduction without the elements of duress. Sensing the secrets behind a person’s façade is a very compelling thing; everybody loves a good mystery."

Mystery woman?  Rather like that, but I've always thought that what you see with me is what you get.   Would be interesting to see if anyone who's also read the book and who knows me would comment.

As for David, here's how he ends up the piece:

"Then I had to wonder about how much of myself I give away without knowing it in the pages of my novels. That sentence, that paragraph – who could have written it? The authorship seems distant from me because I’m probably distant from myself. Anyone who knows me a little is saying to himself or herself, “There goes Homel again, doing that thing he’s always doing…” I shudder to think. Like most people, I prefer to remain a little bit hidden."

The Simple Message and the Complicated Style: Cloud Atlas

The third of my book groups to discuss David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas did so last week, and I've been musing about our discussion ever since.

Each time I've read the book I've been able to make a bit more sense of it.  There are six interlocking stories, as you may know either from reading it or seeing the movie.  Five of them are told in two parts, separated by the sixth which is a dystopia set hundreds of years in the future where humans are confined, it seems, to Hawaii.

The first part of the first five stories ends in a cliff hanger, at least once literally.  Things go from bad to worse and our expectations aren't great, but we're compelled to keep reading. The stories are all told in different styles, from a pseudo-documentary 19th century travel diary through a Ross Macdonald-type West Coast mystery and a Kingsley Amis satire through Russel Hoben-like science fictioin.  This  allows Mitchell to show off a bit, and also keeps the doom, gloom and suspense from being unbearable. 

Mitchell indulges in some fancy symbol-dropping, too.  References to sixes (the sign of the Beast?) abound, a birthmark  reoccurs over generations,  several of the characters muse about clouds and souls and their resemblances.  The group this week found looking for this sort of thing satisfying the way solving puzzles can be.

In the second part of the book things look up: I'd figured that much out before our discussion.  The actual end of each story is hopeful, a way toward a less terrible world is sketched out.  And, as we talked, it became clear that gestures of kindness were always rewarded, that terrible things might happen, but individual acts had implications far beyond the immediate. Indeed the book ends with the 19th century traveller vowing to go back and fight against slavery in the US, because while one person's actions might seem no larger than a drop  of water, the ocean in made up of nothing but drops of water.

Okay, that's a pretty good take-home lesson, one I'd subscribe to.  What each of us does matters.  The question I found myself asking is this: why did Mitchell go to such trouble obscure it?  Why does he make us work so hard to arrive at the heart of the matter?

Because, I've decided, in doing so he makes us take if far more seriously.  Which is what a writing wants most, I think.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Unyielding Clamour of the Night: from a Snow Covered Picnic Table in Quebec City to Revolt in the Tropics

Neil Bissoondath says that he couldn't get started on the book that would become his prize-winning The Unyielding Clamour of the Night until he drove down to the waterfront park on the St. Lawrence river in Quebec City, cleared the snow from a picnic table and began writing.

In interview in Quill and Quire, Bissoondath--born in Trinidad, nephew of Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, and a professor of création littéreaire at l'Université de Laval--explained "  this thing just flowed out of me. It went on, very unusually, for days and days, and I found that by the end of it I had about a hundred handwritten pages. And the whole story was there.”

 Creation like that isn't very common, but it seems even more unusual when you realize that the book Bissoondath was writing takes place during a civil war in an island nation that sounds a lot like Sri Lanka.  Was there some alchemy involved, some impulse to escape the winter?  Or a recognition of the safety of the corner of Canada that Bissoondath has called home for three decades?

He's never said to my knowledge, but obviously for him the process of writing a novel has somewhat mysterious life of its own.  He says he doesn't plot his book, and that in this case the idea of a young man with a wooden leg came to him casually when his brother-in-law showed him an old prosthesis he'd found in a barn in the Quebec countryside.  The object becomes essential to the story which ends in a way that will surprise many. To say more would be to spoil an experience that is far more than a simple story about insurrection.

Because that's what lies behind the story:  Arun, young educated man comes to teach in a village where the government is struggling to put down revolt: young man is disillusioned, young man learns some nasty secrets, young man takes sides. 

Bissoondath says he didn't do any special research for the book, and avoided reading about Sri Lanka to give himself the freedom to invent.  But I think he also drew skillfully, if unconsciously, on his experience in his peaceful adopted country.  Reference is made to the insect noises that fill the air on tropical night: Arun says at one point how the sound meant peace and comfort to him when he was a boy, but now in this war-torn country the insects are silent.

Sit at a picnic table on a Quebec summer night and you'll hear a similar nearly deafening symphony of crickets, cicadas and other creatures (the photo was taken in such a place.  The sound of a certain peace that Bissoondath  cherishes and which he has found far away from his imaginary country, and from the Trinidad of his childhood.

A very good book.. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Enforced Downtime Means More Reading Time

This last 10 days have been marred by a back/leg problem which has kept me from the computer except for very short periods.  This means that I haven't posted any new material about books. 

But all that downtime has meant that I've been reading a lot.  Expect some new reviews as soon as I catch up on all the other stuff I was supposed to do.