Friday, August 29, 2014 · 1:15 pm
First of all, let me point you to a review I wrote for Necessary Fiction of Tiphanie Yanique’s new novel Land of Love and Drowning. Take a look over there to see what I thought!
I recently finished Siri Hustvedt’s new novel The Blazing World and found it to be thought-provoking. I’m guessing this is the kind of thing that wouldn’t get published if Hustvedt hadn’t had a long track record of novel publications already (although maybe this is unfair….), since it is unabashedly academic and intellectual, a complicated, philosophical story about misogyny in the art world. The main character, Harriet, known as Harry, is an artist who found herself frustrated at the lack of enthusiasm with which her work was greeted. After much time passed, she decided to try an experiment, to launch a project that would test the extent to which her work was ignored because of her gender. Over a series of years she works with three different men, creating art and then having them present it as their own. It probably won’t surprise you to learn how the work was received. She runs into trouble with the third man, though, who claims that the art was really his.
This story is interesting in and of itself, and Harry is a great character, brilliant, determined, and angry at the world. Additionally, though, the structure of the novel is intriguing. We learn that Harry has died, and the novel itself is framed as a collection of various materials — journals, interviews, statements by the characters — meant to explore Harry’s art, her life, and her relationship with the men who pretended her art was theirs. The compiler of all this material is I.V. Hess, a professor who stumbles upon the story and can’t let it go. He interviews various friends and family from Harry’s life, as well as people from the art world, and gets many perspectives on who Harry was, what kind of art she produced, and whether she really created all the work she claimed she did.
I loved the different voices in the novel, which led to a lot of tonal variety. Oddly, Harry’s own journals were sometimes the least compelling sections, perhaps because of her occasionally elusive, mysterious thought process. But this is only sometimes the case, and as a character, she is wonderful. I felt like I learned a lot about the art world and what it was like — and perhaps still is — for a woman trying to make her way in it.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014 · 1:19 pm
The most recent choice for my mystery book group was Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (Hobgoblin’s choice, in fact), and what a great book it was to discuss. Levin is an author I would happily read more of. The novel is hard to write about, though, because not only are there fun twists and turns of the plot that I don’t want to describe because it would give too much away, but even to describe the structure of the novel and to talk about issues like point of view risks giving too much away. I’ll just say about the beginning of the novel that it reminded me of The Talented Mr. Ripley in the way it creates a strong sense of dread: we are in the mind of a killer and are so close to him that we can’t help — or I couldn’t help — identifying with him, which is an uncomfortable situation to find oneself in. I found myself rooting for him and then berating myself for doing so, and then feeling horribly anxious about whether he — and I couldn’t help but feel that it was I — would get away with it.
But there is so much else to think and talk about as well. It was published in 1953, and World War II hangs over it in important ways, as does post-war economic issues and the idea of the American dream. The portrayal of the women characters is fascinating, as is the rather cavalier way Levin treats mystery genre conventions. The book boasts one of the most compelling unconventional detectives I’ve read in a while, but I can’t tell you who it is because that gives away more than I’d like. The very fact that I don’t want to write about who the detective is tells you something about the wonderful strangeness of this novel.
If you decide to read this, I’d recommend picking it up without reading anything about it beforehand. Just plunge in. It’s a real treat.
Wednesday, August 6, 2014 · 8:03 pm
I listened to Meg Wolitzer’s 2008 novel The Ten-Year Nap on audio and liked it a whole lot. This is my second Wolitzer novel (after last year’s The Interestings), and I think she’s so good! The ten-year nap of the title is the main character Amy’s ten years spent as a stay-at-home wife and mother. She now feels pressure to go out into the world and “do something”: volunteer, get a job, something besides “stay at home.” She worries about people asking her what she does all day. She knows she does a whole lot, but people in careers are always skeptical. Amy is the main character, but there are so many other lives Wolitzer tracks: other mothers, many of whom have chosen not to work outside the home and some who have. She also tells the stories of women’s lives from earlier generations, in some cases stories of the mothers of her main present-action characters and in other cases, stories of famous women and what influenced their careers and decisions about family. Wolitzer is going for a broad view of women, feminism, and family, tracking how things have changed from the early days of modern feminism in the 1960s and 70s up until the early 21st century — what women have gained and what they haven’t. It’s very much an issue novel in the sense that it’s clear what Wolitzer set out to do, but the characters are so well-drawn and interesting, and the satire is so sharp and funny that the issues don’t get in the way of the fiction. Anyone who has tried to balance work and family life will appreciate this. The book made me feel, on a personal level, SO HAPPY to have a job, and also SO HAPPY to have a lot of time at home with my son and SO LUCKY to have the husband I do. Wolitzer does a great job of showing just how complex it is to sort out one’s life as a modern mother, while at the same time recognizing that these are very privileged problems to face.
Monday, August 4, 2014 · 4:11 pm
Some brief thoughts on An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay: Gay seems to be the star of the literary world right now, which is cool; I follow her on twitter and have enjoyed her tweets and her online essays for a while now. I’m looking forward to reading her essay collection Bad Feminist when I can. As for the novel, I had mixed feelings about it. This hardly ever happens, but I ended up appreciating the second half more than the first. I don’t want to get too deeply into it and say too much about the plot, but I thought the second half of the novel headed into territory that is newer than what happened in the first. The first half of the novel is pretty hard to take; before you pick this one up, if you are thinking about it, be prepared for some graphic sexual violence. But the story Gay tells is powerful and it brings up interesting issues about parent/child relationships and marriage and power. However, part of my mixed feelings came from feeling unimpressed by the writing, which was plain and occasionally awkward. It’s plain in a way that drew attention to itself, oddly, rather than being plain in order to disappear in service of the plot, which is what the writing in the best plot-driven novels can do. So while I found the novel emotionally moving at times, I didn’t fall in love.