Sula

Sula, Sula, Sula.

Oh, Sula.

My heart ached reading Toni Morrison’s second novel.

In it, I saw shades of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (a personal favorite) and the melodrama of Douglas Sirk. Centered around the lives of two little girls in 1930s Ohio, Sula explores the power of friendship, betrayal, and perception. Upstanding, obedient Nel and wild child Sula have the kind of friendship that seems to only exist between children. They are inseparable. They complete each other. They are a force. And soon, they are bonded even more closely by a terrible secret.

Not content to stay in their aptly named home, The Bottom, grownup Sula makes a break for it as soon as she can. When she finally returns, Nel is married with kids of her own and their happy reunion is marred by a betrayal that threatens to end their friendship forever.

Having read Beloved and The Bluest Eye in high school, I almost wonder if Sula might be the better introduction to Toni Morrison. Less epic than Beloved, quicker than The Bluest Eye, I could see how Sula would be more palatable. But then as soon as I think that, I remember the weight of it and feel baffled that any high schooler reads any Morrison at all.

She’s one of those rare authors who just feels prolific in everything she creates. Sula is a short book, but in just 174 pages, Morrison is talking about all of America and the black experience and what it means to be a woman and the very nature of good and evil. I am bowled over by her scope.

I was easily sucked in by her beautiful writing, too. The beauty just brought the whole world alive for me, even with the smallest details, like:

“When Eva spoke at last it was with two voices. Like two people were talking at the same time, saying the same thing, one a fraction of a second behind the other.”

or:

“Then summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. . . . And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.”

But what struck me the most wasn’t any one phrase or passage, but a thought.

It occurred to me midway through the book how essential race is to any piece of realistic fiction about African Americans. I know, I know—not exactly earth shattering stuff. But in that thought, I was hit by another and I think it was the first time I really understood the privilege I have. A book that reflects my experience has the luxury of ignoring race if it wants to. Morrison doesn’t have that luxury. For a book to attempt to reflect her experiences but to leave out race would be to cut out a part of her. It’s one of those forces with the power to shape everything. And while I know this, I don’t think it had ever completely sunk in before.

With that, I already had my first concrete sign of my experiment doing its job. Hearing different voices had me not just thinking, but opening up my mind to something I thought I already knew.

Though I wouldn’t put it on the same level as Beloved, Sula was too quick and too satisfying not to recommend. It had me looking forward to reading the entire rest of her bibliography. Whether it’s your first Morrison or your fifth, it’s worth it.

The Intuitionist

My appetite for mystery is what led me to The Intuitionist. Hungry for another mystery, I gobbled up Flavorwire’s list of 50 Essential Mystery Novels That Everyone Should Read. Colson Whitehead’s neo-noir tale sounded so deliciously different, the book soon skyrocketed to the top of my to-read list despite the fact that no one else I knew had ever heard of it.

I imagined it to be a high-minded unraveling of a complicated world that would still keep me rapt in the story, eager to turn each page.

My expectations were wildly off base.

The Intuitionist is more allegory than mystery, more Ralph Ellison than Agatha Christie.

The story takes place in a sort of steampunk, pre-civil rights New York (although it’s never named). There, elevators are not only regulated by the government, but are well-recognized symbols of social mobility—after all, the elevators make the tall, glittering cities of the future possible. Lila Mae Watson is the city’s first black female inspector. She’s also an Intuitionist, a school of inspection looked down upon by the Empiricist majority for the way it relies on psychic sensations rather than tools for its inspections. When one of the elevators Lila’s given her seal of approval suddenly plummets, she becomes determined to figure out who set her up and why.

If this little synopsis has your head spinning, don’t worry—you’re not alone. There’s a lot going on in the world that author Colson Whitehead has built, but it’s really not difficult to fall into.

Slick city streets, dark underbelly politics, and nefarious thugs all have their roles to play while Whitehead toys with concepts of racial identity. He uses the characters’ discussion of “verticality” to force the reader into thinking about the social strata and how racism has shaped it. He then wraps this blatant allegory of the black experience in a dark, noir style that’s more Raymond Chandler than Toni Morrison.

Unfortunately for me, I would generally rather watch noir than read it. There’s an iciness to the language, something almost mechanical, which leaves me feeling detached. Here, it absolutely works to match our aloof protagonist, but I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length in a way that worked against what Whitehead was trying to achieve.

I wanted to feel like I was with Lila every step of they way, not just watching her from afar as in passages like this:

“Her place was as she left it: raped. She pulled her suitcase from under the bed and packed again, this time for a much longer stay. . . . She lingered in the doorway. She thought she had forgotten something. Hadn’t. She did not possess any lucky rabbit’s feet or childhood dolls to ward off the monsters of the adult world. Just clothes.”

It’s hard for me to explain why I don’t connect with this passage. It should be tense, I should feel Lila’s anxiety or her fear, but I just don’t. The text just couldn’t take me there.

Yet I can’t fully blame Whitehead for this failure. My expectations were sky high for this book, I went in with the wrong mindset, and I was ill prepared for the in-your-face nature of its themes.

“White people’s reality is built on that things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism. They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light.”

Had I come into the book more prepared, my experience might have been slightly different. I needed an emotional connection to the story, and an allegory was not the place for me to look. As it stands, I still appreciate everything The Intuitionist is trying to accomplish, but when I couldn’t care about it, I realized I didn’t care for it.

Persuasion

Does everyone introduced to Jane Austen invariably compare everything she writes back to Pride and Prejudice? I’m sure some don’t, but the task felt impossible to me. Austen’s last book, Persuasion was only the second of her works I’d ever read (after P&P of course). While I certainly enjoyed it, it must be said that our heroine Anne Elliot is no Elizabeth Bennett. Our hero Frederick Wentworth no Mr. Darcy.

When Anne was 19, she fell in love with a dashing young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick proposes and Anne happily accepts until she breaks the news to her status-obsessed family who disapprove of Wentworth’s low rank. Heartbroken, Anne ends the relationship and when the novel picks up, it’s eight years later and Anne’s still single and fast approaching 19th-century spinsterhood. Her feelings for Wentworth stay buried deep until news comes that he’s back in town and she’s forced to confront him along with her old feelings.

Themes of persuasion (obviously) and repression run throughout the book, as do examinations of class and social constructs, but the same can be said of most of Austen’s work. I’m perhaps selling her a little short here, but these just weren’t the most interesting angles for me.

I was freely carried away by the story the same way I am when watching a romantic comedy–where I become enraptured in the tale and the question isn’t if our couple will be together, but simply when. That’s where my enjoyment came from. With every turn of the page, I knew I was just a little bit closer to the payoff, to the love story’s triumphant conclusion.

In movies, all the great rom-com’s share one essential quality: charisma. The two leads have chemistry and a spark together, as well as their own individual charm. When there’s no spark and when the performances fall flat, so does the story, no matter how well it’s written. In a way, this ended up being my main issue with Persuasion.

When Anne represses her true feelings she does so willingly as an act of self-preservation so there’s none of Elizabeth’s firey wit. Instead, Anne is prim, introspective, and even has a bit of a hang-dog mentality that kept her from endearing herself to me in quite the same way Elizabeth did. I still felt for her and was wholeheartedly on her side, but it was harder to see anything of myself in her.

Similarly, Wentworth lacked Darcy’s air of mystery. His intentions and emotions were still hard to read, but this ended up frustrating me more than intriguing me. I wouldn’t call him a poor love interest by any means, but something was missing for him to really make an impression on me.

Ultimately, Persuasion is more of Jane Austen doing what Jane Austen does best: lambasting British society while telling a love story. But it didn’t stick with me the way Pride and Prejudice did and I didn’t encounter the same joy while reading it. I originally read the book a couple months ago and my memory is already hazy. I recall enjoying it, but not to what extent. Because of that, I don’t know if I can honestly recommend it as it didn’t make much of an impression on me.

I don’t mean to overstate my love of Pride and Prejudice either, though. I liked the book quite a bit, and it marked the first time I reread something I hated in high school only to end up completely changing my mind about it. But I wouldn’t put either of these books on any kind of favorites list.

I’m still eager to try reading more of Austen’s work, but only time will tell if any of it is capable of having a more profound impact on me.

Persuasion is a solid read and worth the time, but I wouldn’t bother bumping it to the top of your To Read list any time soon.

House of Leaves

House of Leaves

What can I make of House of Leaves? Where to start? How to say enough without saying too much?

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and from the moment I picked it up, all I wanted to do was talk about it with someone, anyone. But everywhere I looked, even among my most literary friends, I couldn’t find a single person who’d read it. The compulsion to share this thing I’d discovered was overwhelming, but despite all that, I still have an almost impossible time putting my feelings into words.

At it’s core, most call House of Leaves a horror story. Some call it a love story. I call it a bit of both along with something else entirely. Something unnameable.

Before even the introduction, instead of a dedication the book begins with a warning:

“This is not for you.”

In this way, the book pulls us in with one hand and pushes us away with the other. If it’s not for us, then who is it for, we wonder?

There’s only one way to find out.

The book centers on three main characters: Zampanò, Johnny Truant, and Will Navidson.

Elderly, blind Zampanò spent his life writing a scholarly analysis of a 1993 documentary called The Navidson Record. In the documentary, Will Navidson realizes that the inside of his house is bigger than the outside and decides to tape his increasingly terrifying exploration of the anomaly. After Zampanò’s death, Johnny Truant discovers the pieces of the manuscript and becomes obsessed with completing Zampanò’s work, adding footnotes for clarity or, more frequently, to share his thoughts and discuss his life since discovering it. And if that weren’t enough, Johnny insists that The Navidson Record doesn’t even exist.

The process of reading this book was quite possibly the single most challenging and rewarding experience with a book I’ve ever had. Danielewski experiments not just with narrative construction, but with the very page layout itself. Some changes seem to be for coherence, while others are part of a masterful attempt to manipulate the reader’s emotions.

Example of the text’s shifting layout style

As the text jumped around the page and the footnotes became more entangled, I was struggling to keep up. I would read and re-read portions, searching for my place, feeling lost and bogged down.

But none of that was without purpose. Ultimately, Danielewski (or should I say Zampanò?) led me to the answer:

“In order to escape then, we have to remember we cannot ponder all paths but must decode only those necessary to get out. We must be quick and anything but exhaustive. Yet as Seneca warned in his Epistule morales 44, going too fast also incurs certain risks:

This is what happens when you hurry through a maze: the faster you go, the worse you are entangled.

. . .

Therefore anyone lost within must recognize that no one, not even a god or an Other, comprehends the entire maze and so therefore can never offer a definitive answer.”

It’s not meant to be possible to follow every thread in House of Leaves on a first reading. You can only go where it’s possible for you to follow. Some passages may feel inscrutable, others obvious.

That confusion and frustration? That’s how Danielewski wanted me to feel. I was just as lost as the characters, just as uncertain. My empathy for Will and Johnny was being thrust upon me. I had no choice because it was as if we were on this journey together.

More than this though, I felt that in reading House of Leaves, I was seeing for the first time what a writer could do with text, how differently a story could be told. It was thrilling and suspenseful and above all else emotional.

Though it certainly appeals to a specific kind of reader, I can’t recommend House of Leaves enough. It’s rocketed straight to the top of my list of my favorite books of all time. It’s something incredibly special that deserves all the energy it takes to get through it.

Revolutionary Road

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I haven’t thought too much about Revolutionary Road since finishing it back in February, but not unintentionally. I can’t think about Revolutionary Road. Reading it nearly sent me into a full on emotional crisis. I was questioning everything about my life and whether I was happy or could be happy or was living up to my potential or my relationship’s potential or was maybe everything really just bullshit after all? Was I lying to myself and was I doing it as well as Richard Yates’s volatile couple, Frank and April?

The book–which was released in 1961 and loved by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Kurt Vonnegut before being more or less forgotten until the film adaptation in 2008–is a story about suburban malaise and the broken promises of the American Dream.

Frank and April Wheeler live in a tidy Connecticut suburb. Frank works in a boring, meaningless office job in the city. April stays at home, playing house and raising their two children. Neither of them are happy, and neither of them know what to do about it. The novel plays out in a series of explosive arguments between the two as they look for an escape from the white-picket prison they find themselves in.

As the book delved deeper into themes of disillusionment and identity, it became increasingly difficult to get through. I couldn’t bring myself to pick the book up for an entire weekend because it depressed me too much. I left it sitting untouched on my bedside table. I’d look at it, considering it, before shaking my head no. “No, not tonight,” I’d think, “I can’t. Maybe tomorrow.”

Finally, on a Monday morning I was able to pick it up again, reading it amid the bustle of my morning commute. At home that night, I raced through it to the end in a mad dash to see where the story would take me. Where would April and Frank end up? What would I see when I reached the end? Would it be myself?

Anyone who’s read the book will understand the frightening melodrama in that thought. No one wants to see themselves in that relationship. Even at the time I knew the thought was ridiculous, and it had less to do with the plot and more to do with the emotional rut I was in. But still. The fear was there.

In the book’s difficult final scenes, I somehow managed not to shed a tear. This is surprising for me because (as you’ll soon see if you keep reading these reviews) I’m a crier, and I always have been. My favorite books tend to tear me up inside, and I avoid reading them in public when I suspect a rough patch might be coming. But not with Revolutionary Road. There was just a sort of… deadness. Which I suppose is actually pretty fitting considering what the characters wrestle with. But it was also satisfying.

My only real complaint is that while the novel shifted perspective, I felt that entirely too much of it was focused on Frank instead of April. It wasn’t that I wanted less of Frank, but that I thought there should have been more of April. I wanted her side of the story to carry exactly equal weight to Frank’s. It was disappointing to see Frank so favored over her and I still have a hard time understanding why this was the case.

It’s certainly clear to me that neither Frank nor April is meant to be a villain. Neither one is right or wrong, they’re just two people grappling to come to terms with who they are in a marriage that’s constantly threatening to disintegrate. For that, I applaud Yates (especially when considering when this was written).

But it wasn’t quite enough. I think the disproportionate amount of focus on Frank’s inner dialogue runs the risk of having more readers identify with him and vilify April. And that is something I have a major problem with.

But ultimately, I loved this book. It hit the sweet spot for me in my reading preferences: realistic, dramatic literary fiction. Yates’s use of language is lovely, and for however flawed the characters were, I empathized with them. It might frighten me to compare myself or my relationship to one so dysfunctional, but I think it’s only human to understand what it’s like to compare reality with your image of what you thought your life would be or what it was expected to be. We all have to deal with such confrontations eventually; we’re just not all quite so doomed to shatter once we do.

[updated from original posting on 3/25/14]

The Secret History

I don’t quite know why it took me so long to realize it, but I love a good mystery—the subtle sense of danger, the page-turning pace, the questions of how and why. I think for a long time I thought of the Mysteries section at the library the same way I thought about the Romance section and even Fantasy, in that I, as a serious person, read serious books by serious writers and those writers weren’t sent to mingle in such subsections. Serious books were with the rest of the fiction where they’d at least have a chance of sitting on the shelf next to a Hemingway or a Brontë. But as I’ve gotten older, I hold myself to far less rigid standards. Great writing takes all forms. You just have to know where to look.

When it comes to mystery, I think Donna Tartt’s The Secret History might be one such place to start. The story hits you with full force from the very first sentence on the very first page:

“The snow in the mountains was was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

Immediately, we know where we are and begin to see where we are going.

Our protagonist is aimless, small-town boy Richard Papen, whose older, wiser self narrates the story. He tells us of his junior year of college at an elite liberal arts school tucked away in the mountains of Vermont. There, he manages to ingratiate himself with a group of misfit students in an exclusive Greek program. But the more intertwined he becomes in the lives of the others, the more things start to unravel.

The Secret History does not feel like a beach read. It does not read breezily. Instead, it is a book to bury yourself in. It’s a book suited for the dead of winter, and it’s the book I read throughout back-to-back polar vortexes. With the first page telling us the “who” and some chapters later giving us the “why” the central interest in The Secret History comes from our need to see the full picture. How is this resolved? Where do these characters end up?

That said, it was missing some of the immediacy I’ve come to love when reading mysteries. While I was eager to see where the story would go, I didn’t fly through the novel. Thoughts of it didn’t dominate my mind, and it was easy to set it down for a day before picking it back up again.

I admit, I was a little disappointed at this, though I don’t really blame the book. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but my expectations got in the way. It was hard to adjust to a book that felt more like the literary fiction I was intending to take a break from than the lightning quick read I thought I was about to get.

Overall, some sections moved a bit slower than other, but nothing really felt superfluous. The book’s language is rich and packed with Greek literary allusion (which I am not ashamed to admit regularly flew over my head). The characters are largely all terribly unlikeable people who do unspeakable things. There is, quite simply, a lot going on in it, and I think a second read might do me good on this one.

Even though it’s not quite what I expected, I’m glad I read this before trying The Goldfinch. If you walk into it prepared for its intricate language and a somewhat slower than rapid fire pace, I think you’ll be as happy as I was.