Things have been a little quiet over here at Bookish Habits – I do apologize; it’s been quite a hectic summer! Just this morning I had to run one of our cats to the vet after what I can only describe as a freak-out episode, the first half of which she screamed in what we can only assume was some kind of pain, and the latter part of which she was panting and drooling like a dog that had run an ultramarathon in the Mexican mountains. The vet said she seemed perfectly healthy, all systems normal, by the time I got her there, though. (What? Okay. Sure. Let’s go with fine.) At any rate, not nearly enough time for leisurely reading, and I’ve been choosing long, complicated books to boot (Cloud Atlas – review coming shortly-loved it, by the way; currently, Infinite Jest…)
Once again, I very much enjoyed Wolitzer’s style of writing. It’s wry and warm at the same time. I did not enjoy The Uncoupling nearly as much as The Wife, though, as the plot seemed to be less tightly woven, more meandering in style.
The story is set in a New Jersey suburb called Stellar Plains (think Edward Scissorhands or Weeds or just look at the cover for a visual) where everything is orderly and quaint and comfortable, and nothing much every happens. Life is very safe and routine. That is, until the local high school decides to hire a new drama teacher who wants to stage Lysistrata – the Greek comedy in which the women refuse sex to get the men to stop their warfare. Then, slowly, a “spell” takes hold of the town, one that causes the women inexplicably to lose any desire for physical pleasure – in fact, causing them to be repulsed at the thought of it. Everyone reacts in strange and different ways, depending on the individual relationship.
It also seems to pose a not-so-subtle commentary on the accelerated change our culture experiences with each new wave of technology and connectedness:
You weren’t supposed to think life was worse now; it was “different,” everyone said. But Dory privately thought that mostly it was worse. The intimacy of reading had been traded in for the rapid absorption of information. And the intimacy of love, well, that had often been traded in for something far more public and open.
The novel teases out all the details people tend to keep secret, rising to a crescendo of revelation and forgiveness near the end, a commentary on how little we really know even our closest friends and confidants:
All over town, the spell did its work. No one knew, of course; how could they possibly have known? Even in the absence of a spell, no one ever really knew what went on in anyone elese’s bed. No one ever really knew what went on in anyone else’s kitchen, or bathroom, or upstairs hallway. What actually happened there, and what got said. Couples might put on clown wigs and prance around. Entire families might kneel and chant and eat root soup. Who really knew anything about how other people lived? You might tell a friend some details, but of course you would always carefully choose which ones to reveal, and you would tweak them in some vain or self-protective way.
The magical realism bit of the novel seemed a little forced to me, although without it, there’d be no story to tell, no relationship quirks to shed light on in a new way. It falls only just short of working for me. Still, I’d say this book is definitely worth reading. It’s light and delightful, even if not a riveting page-turner.
2011 is flying by – it’s already over half over, so I thought I’d sum up my year so far, with some very casual “analysis.”
Total books: 25
Total pages: 7603
I’m not a crazy-fast reader, and nor does the whole life bit allow for much more reading than I’ve managed. I’m jealous of all of you that can pull off 7-8 books a month. How’d everyone else do?
I finally got around to reading Mystic River about a month ago at the recommendation of Ben and the casual Lehane fandom of others, and it did not let me down! Even though I saw the movie years ago when it came out, the novel was still surprising (and better than the movie for offering much more nuance and inner psychological turmoil). One problem with seeing a movie before reading the book is the inability to picture the characters as anything but the actors that portrayed them. For example, I could not for the life of me picture Jimmy as light-haired or blond.
The basic plot revolves around three men who knew each other when they were children and drifted apart after a pinnacle incident changed their lives, one in particular, terribly. 25 years later, yet another horrific event brings them all back together, with devastating consequences. The well-rounded characters are painted with depth and precision – well, as much precision as one can get when rendering psychological portraits.
Sometimes Celeste found herself consciously trying to ignore a notion that it wasn’t only the things in her life but her life, itself, that was not meant to have any weight or lasting impact, but was, in fact, programmed to break down at the first available opportunity so that its few usable parts could be recycled for someone else while the rest of her vanished. (123)
The novel progresses with a sort of compassionate suspense, leading the reader to the inevitable outcome he or she knows is coming while still hoping otherwise. The entire story is steeped in foreboding (is that the noir aspect?).
…Jimmy felt that mean certainty again.
You felt it in your soul, no place else. You felt the truth there sometimes–beyond logic–and you were usually right if it was the type of truth that was the exact kind you didn’t want to face, weren’t sure you could. That’s what you tried to ignore, why you went to psychiatrists and spent too long in bars and numbed your brain in front of TV tubes00to hide from hard, ugly truths your soul recognized long before your mind caught up. (115)
Lehane manages to capture what just about anyone might be capable of, given the right experiential contexts and scenarios. It reveals both the depths of humanity’s compassion/love and horrific evil, and it explores the tenuous morality and honor most of us strive for in our own way. All in all, it was a fantastic read, and I look forward to reading more of Lehane’s work.
Should literature have a social, political, or any other type of agenda? Does having a clear agenda enhance or detract from its literary value?
To respond to the first part of the question, literature does not need a clear social, political or other agenda in order to be great. Sometimes telling a fantastic story is enough. Most great works have some sort of theme or message, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the authors had an agenda obvious even to themselves while writing them. Well-crafted mysteries would be an excellent example of what I’m talking about, unless you consider revealing the edges of what humans are psychologically capable to be an agenda of some kind, or consider themes to be synonymous with agendas. All great works, of course, have some kind of theme or message – I don’t consider those terms to be quite as strong as the word “agenda.”
That said, having a strong social or political agenda can easily go either way – it can either detract or enhance a work’s value. Though I have not yet read Jane Eyre, I’d say Connie’s point illustrates how an agenda, when done poorly or too explicitly, can diminish one’s enjoyment. We don’t need to be hit over the head with an author’s motives or political leanings – it can feel like the author doesn’t trust the reader to “get it” and has to spell it out. I would disagree with her about Animal Farm though – I read it for the first time a month or so ago and found the obvious agenda to be a little too over the top for me. I did think that was the point, exposing the faults of a corrupt communism with a simplistic and thinly-veiled depiction of a “communist” farm, and despite that, I enjoyed the book to an extent, though not nearly as much as 1984. Ayn Rand is another example of an author whose political motivations completely overpowered the literary merit of her books, with her characters going off on 50 pages monologues of propaganda.
Authors, of course, can weave their agendas well into their stories. Margaret Atwood, Jane Austen, Kurt Vonnegut, Jose Saramago and even Tom Wolfe (I’m thinking Bonfire of the Vanities) are just a few examples. The Handmaid’s Tale has clear message about the dangers of what our current society is so easily capable but the dystopian future is merely a carefully constructed backdrop of what might come if we don’t attend to problems today. Atwood never explicitly announces what those societal problems are.
Overall, though, an agenda is just one factor in assessing a work’s value, or in determining how much enjoyment a reader might experience. Much depends on an individual reader’s purpose in reading and what they bring to the experience themselves. Perhaps some readers need things explicitly spelled out in order to get the message. Thoughts?
We are fortunate to live just a half mile from the closest library. The library is open past 6pm only 2 nights a week and I never seem to get which nights right… until tonight! It’s built into the side of a hill and looks more like a bunker or a bomb shelter than a libraryI managed to pick up some good books, including:
- Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell for an informal Reading Buddies parallel read with Erin, Ellen and Anita.
- Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane since Mystic River was very compelling (review forthcoming), and the library had this Lehane just waiting there on the shelf for me.
- Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami because it’s probably time for another Murakami.
- Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris – it’s summer and I need a easy, light read in here somewhere.
I’m considering committing to Infinite Jest at some point this summer, but I think I’ll need to get through Cloud Atlas first.
Some “real” posts should be coming up on here shortly! Free time has been at something of a minimum lately, in a good way, though things should be slowing down a bit soon. Well, as soon as we assemble our new Ikea shelves, go to the circus, climb, run, visit some friends across the river, and explore the City Museum by flashlight. After that I should have some time.