Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Accidental

I finished Ali Smith’s The Accidental the other night, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it; I’m not quite sure I like the ending, but that’s not a big deal with a book that is not plot driven. Mostly, I liked the book because of the writing, the way Smith captures the consciousness of each character.

I’ve always liked books that tell the same story from multiple perspectives because you can see how people react to the same situation in different ways or how they interpret a situation differently given their varied preoccupations and levels of knowledge. It shows how little solid information we have about anything and how our most prized opinions may be based on very incomplete knowledge. Smith tells her story from four different perspectives, each one appearing three different times: Eve, her second husband Michael, and two children from her first marriage, 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. They are on vacation in a rental house in Norfolk, and in walks Amber, a 30-something woman who wheedles her way into their lives. Each one thinks someone else in the family knows Amber, so no one seriously questions her presence. The story is about the havoc she wreaks as she develops different relationships with each family member and makes them confront who they are as individuals and as a family. There are short sections that are presumably from Amber’s perspective as well, although they don’t tell us much about who Amber is. She remains a mystery.

What works best is Smith’s use of language to capture the distinctive thought pattern of each character. The opening lines of Astrid’s story, for example, are interrupted by the words “Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski. Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski” in parentheses, as Astrid, in the midst of her thoughts on the dawn, also thinks about her own name and identity. She was born Astrid Berenski, but when her mother remarried, her name changed, and she is constantly thinking about what this change means. Eve’s first section is told in questions and answers, which is appropriate as she is a researcher and writer whose books are part biography, part fiction and who undergoes interviews herself. This format nicely captures her uncertainty and self-doubt. There is even a very odd section where’s Michael’s story transforms into a series of poems. Normally I would find this sort of thing irritating, but here it works: Michael is the sort who might start composing poems (bad ones) in his mind as a way of thinking about his life, and so it’s natural for the narrative to follow his mind there.

I found the characters almost equally compelling — which strikes me as hard to pull off when a writer is moving back and forth among four of them — and enjoyed being pulled into the emotional world of the Smart family. I read this book partly because I’ve heard very good things about Smith’s latest novel There But For The, and I wanted to read the Smith book on my shelves before moving on to the new one. I’m glad I did, and now I’m even more eagerly awaiting Smith’s latest.


Filed under Books, Fiction

Recent Reading

This year has started out pretty well for me, reading-wise; it’s not been perfect, but I did finish two novels I liked very much, Anita Brookner’s Look At Me and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This is the third Brookner novel I’ve read, and I think it’s my favorite so far. Brookner captures a certain kind of consciousness so well — the lonely, smart, isolated figure who wants a different life but can’t quite reach it. It’s a first-person point of view, and the narrator is ruthless in her honesty, which makes for a sad story. But there’s something bracing in that honesty that I admire. What’s really hard to read is the process she goes through of figuring out that she was wrong about her relationships. She thought she was doing things right, when it turns out she wasn’t. Sad! But Brookner dissects it all so well.

The Lethem was fabulous as well. Motherless Brooklyn is the second Lethem novel I’ve read, after The Fortress of Solitude, and I think it’s my favorite (perhaps because the subject matter of the other one didn’t appeal as much). It’s a detective novel, and a book I read for my mystery book group, which met last night. In a lot of ways, it’s a straightforward mystery, with murders and detectives and clues, etc. But the main character, Lionel, has Tourette’s, which means he’s not able to control his words and actions as a traditional detective might. I thought Lethem did a great job portraying what life with Tourette’s might be like (not that I know for sure, of course, but his depiction was convincing), and I was fascinated by how imaginative and fluent Lionel was with language. The problem, of course, was that he couldn’t control the outpouring of words, and this frequently got him into trouble. He’s an appealing character — a thoroughly unconventional detective who does the best he can in some difficult circumstances.

I also finished Terry Castle’s collection of essays The Professor and Other Writings, which was a little disappointing. Some of the early essays in the book were good, especially the one on Susan Sontag and another one her obsession with World War I. Other essays I didn’t quite get the point of, and the title essay is much too long, book-length, really, with not enough pay-off. The success of an essay collection comes down to voice, I think, and I was never quite won over by Castle’s.

And now I’m reading Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which has been very good so far. It tells a story from multiple points of view and follows the characters’ minds closely in a stream-of-consciousness style that captures their different experiences well. I can sometimes be put off by writing that seems labored or self-consciously poetic, and I postponed reading this book for a long time because I was afraid I would find that kind of writing here, but that hasn’t been the case at all.

Before I go, a quick note on cycling: since January 1st, I’ve done 11 rides with 410 miles total in over 26 hours on the bike. That’s perhaps one reason I haven’t posted here much!


Filed under Books, Reading

Best of 2011

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all have had a fabulous weekend. It’s time to write up my best of 2011 list, and I thought I’d do it in categories rather than a simple list. I’d love to be able to pick the best book of the year, but there isn’t really one that stands out. Instead, there were a bunch of great reading experiences:

  • Reading the Little House books and books about the series, including Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life and Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow. It was great rereading Wilder’s books, of course, but also fascinating to read other’s responses to and interpretations of them. I don’t usually read multiple books about the same subject all at once, and it was fun.
  • My Dorothy Wordsworth reading, including her letters, her Grasmere and Alfoxden journals, and Francis Wilson’s biography of her, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth — another example of reading into a subject more deeply than usual. The Wilson biography is fabulous.
  • Two books by Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking, this last one connected in my mind with Joyce Carol Oates’s book A Widow’s Story. Didion is amazing, and reading the Oates book was a powerful experience.
  • Two books by Scarlett Thomas, PopCo and Our Tragic Universe. Both of these books I felt ambivalently about as I read them, but they made me think so much I couldn’t help but admire them, and just recently I bought The End of Mr. Y. I love how strange her novels are, how they break the “rules” of good fiction, or at least the ones I have in my mind, but are great and fascinating anyway.

Some great nonfiction:

  • Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, an absolutely fabulous essay collection, one that got me interested in whatever subject Dyer took up, no matter how far from my usual interests.
  • Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, How to Live, a model of a great biography.
  • Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution, a memoir with a wonderfully understated, funny, fabulous voice.
  • Lauren Slater’s Lying, a book that got me to think about truth (and lying) in memoir like no other book I’ve read, plus one that’s simply a wonderfully entertaining read.
  • Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, a book that has inspired my dedication to aimless reading purely for pleasure in 2012.
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I have become a huge fan of William James’s calm, thoughtful, incisive, tolerant persona.
  • Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, an incredibly entertaining and thought-provoking meditation on what it means to read and not read.
  • Honorable mentions: Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, Andre Dubus III’s Townie, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book.

It wasn’t the greatest year for fiction, but here are the novels I liked best, other than ones mentioned above:

  • Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. The quiet power of this book has stuck with me.
  • Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. She’s a challenging, strange novelist, qualities I think I like very much.
  • Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur. I loved the playfulness of this book, and Phillips’s gentle mockery of memoirs. Plus he wrote a fake Shakespeare play, which takes guts.
  • Teju Cole’s Open City. The story of a guy walking around New York City, thinking about stuff. But more complicated than that, of course.
  • Lars Iyer’s Spurious. This book is funny, witty, strange, a little like a Beckett play. All good things.
  • Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A wonderfully strange, Gothic novel that uses first person point of view to great effect.
  • Honorable mentions: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, with a protagonist I came to love; Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending for its mix of excellent plotting and philosophical musings; David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, for its, well, strangeness is the word of the day, it seems, and this book was one of the strangest of them all.

Best mysteries:

  • Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women
  • Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time
  • Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman

Biggest disappointments:

  • Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. Lots of people loved this book, but it didn’t work for me at all.
  • Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. I was all set to love this book, especially since I like The Painted Veil so much, but I’m beginning to think Maugham isn’t a favorite of mine after all.
  • Maria Edgeworth’s Helen. This book has some good points, but I really loved Edgeworth’s Belinda and wanted to feel the same about this one but didn’t.

I think I’ve mentioned at least 1/3 of all the books I’ve read this year, so this is hardly a best-of list. But I would be at a complete loss to come up with a list of the 10 best or whatever, so a larger survey felt like a better thing to do. All in all, it was a great year for nonfiction and an okay year for fiction. Perhaps I’ll dedicate myself to finding as many novels to fall in love with in 2012 as possible.


Filed under Books