The Stars Are Fire: Like a Chocolate Biscuit

Thanks to C.P. for this guest post on Anita Shreve’s The Stars Are Fire. C.P. is great for a lot of reasons: quick wit, brilliant ideas (and follow through) and a great dinner (and wine) companion. 

When Erin asked for volunteers to write a blog while she would be otherwise occupied I jumped at the chance – here was an opportunity to give back to Erin who has given so much with her blogs. But once she accepted, I panicked – what would I possibly have to say…

Still here I am then holding the blog baby. I chose The Stars are Afire by Anita Shreve because I have enjoyed reading many of her previous books. Reading for oneself and reading in order to write a blog are not the same thing, it turns out.

I enjoyed this book, much like I enjoy eating chocolate biscuits, sweet, satisfying and indulgent at the time, and somehow decadent. But also like eating too many chocolate biscuits by the end I felt vaguely nauseated and full of regret. Why? This book has a compelling plot, as a young woman, mother of two small children finds herself in a loveless marriage having to cope with unimaginable disaster – disaster involving fire, illness and bad timing, also lots of clothes; it has the ability to pull in this reader at least. 

But once finished and I reflected on it, more so in anticipation of writing this blog than I would usually, I found myself questioning the plot. Was it really that compelling? Were any of the characters drawn with any depth aside from the central one, and did I really care about any of them? The central character, Grace, is married to a man who I thought was gay. I managed to misread the clues it seems, as later in the book this does not emerge as likely. It seemed to me that we are expected to dislike Gene, the husband, and to have little or no sympathy for his fate. I don’t want to spoil this for anyone who would like to indulge, so will try to be vague, but at the same time it is difficult to be specific about my criticism of the book without detail (my admiration for Erin high already has increased….). But actually I wasn’t convinced. We are also expected to realize that Grace is fabulous but wrongly judged by her mother in law and husband. She has a mother who miraculously appears when needed for plot purposes but is not around when Grace would need her if she were a real person, such as when she is in hospital. The mother also vanishes conveniently again when the plot requires her to, leaving Grace in imminent danger with two small children.

The book ends but doesn’t end. Rather like eating what you think is the entire packet of biscuits, feeling rather sick, then discovering there is one more left. The Epilogue is the last biscuit. You know you have had enough but you really can’t resist just one more. And like the last biscuit having read it you really do wish you hadn’t. I don’t suppose I will spoil things by saying that the inevitable happens, more clothes to are described and the central character fails to endear herself any more than she had earlier.

So on balance, this was a pleasant way to while away a few hours, but I am unlikely to remember anything much after a week or two.

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The Vegetarian: A Short Novel With Big Ideas (Guest Post from N.B.)

Thanks to N.B. for this guest post. N.B. is famous for knowing all the trivia answers, cooking incredible bread-things and being a remarkably kind and generous human. Thanks, N! 

The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, is a strange read. You might not know what you think about it until you get to the end, and maybe not even then. Originally published in South Korea in 2007, and translated into English in 2015, it would later go on to win the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for its author, Han Kang, and translator, Deborah Smith. It is a short novel about a woman, Yeong-hye, who has a nightmare that leads to her abruptly becoming a vegetarian, a decision that may seem simple enough, but that for her family is a true and utter catastrophe. She is the stain that refuses to come out, and that then becomes, because of its stubbornness, a destroyer of whole worlds. If this sounds melodramatic, it’s because it is.

The reason that the melodrama in the novel works is because we watch the catastrophe unfold through the perspective of three characters who are not Yeong-hye, and who each get a section of this three-part novel: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. We have very limited access to Yeong-hye’s thoughts, fears, or motivations, so the drama arises from the reaction of those around her as they respond with varying degrees of incredulity to her seemingly bizarre and irrational behaviour. There is a lot of irony in all this, of course, meaning that perhaps the real scandal is how her decision makes her an object of shame, or desire, or pity as the members of her family wring their hands about her transgression of social norms. In other words, her vegetarianism may not be the most important thing here, since the fact that no one else can understand it says much more about the world she lives in than it does about herself, even if her behaviour sometimes really is quite troubling.

And this last point is where The Vegetarian might lose some readers. Because Yeong-hye is so inscrutable, there are valid questions about her behaviour that we probably share with her family members. There may be some who read her vegetarianism less as an allegory about how political acts of refusal become socially misunderstood, which is my take, and more as a symptom that there is something seriously wrong with her. But even so, the novel rides the fine line between these two for long enough to make you think. In this sense, it is a wonderfully unsettling novel, and worthy of the time it will take you to read it.

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Holding Up the Universe: A Recipe for YA Success (and Erin’s last post before holiday)

holding up universe

Here’s how it goes: ‘ill’ protagonist + alienation (from family, school, life) + unlikely romance = bonanza bestseller. So, too, goes Jennifer Niven’s Holding Up the Universe, Continue reading

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A Pale View of the Hills: What a weird little novel

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This is one weird little novel. I read it for book club and I’m so glad because hopefully one of my friends can explain what in the what. Continue reading

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