Tag Archives: american lit

We Are Not Ourselves: Why You Shouldn’t Read Book Reviews

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The only book assigned to me in high school that I didn’t finish reading was Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. I made it far enough to write a term essay and also to know I didn’t need to finish reading it (to be fair, Pamela was published as a serial and Richardson probably wanted to finish the thing eons before he did, but popularity being popularity, the guy couldn’t say ‘no’ to churning out another excruciating letter).

I may not be in school anymore (!), but the guilt I feel in not finishing a book remains a combination of panic that I’ll be found out and a sort of bafflement that this terrible book had been assigned in the first place. Sure no one “assigned” Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, but they may as well have: the book reviews proclaimed its excellence and compared it with the genius of Franzen.

And this is why you shouldn’t bother with book reviews. As I committed another day’s worth of reading to this interminable and ponderous novel I kept reminding myself how well it was received elsewhere. Kept urging myself to find in the insufferable level of detail something akin to beauty or marvel. Kept assuring myself that this book had been awarded prizes and so had to be of some quality. The fault was mine, I thought, for being an impatient reader. Well, no more. 250 pages into an infinite waste of time, I stopped. I’d figured out where the plot was going (to give it it’s airing: an Irish-American family lives its life: the mother wants a bigger house, the father has early onset Alzheimer’s and the son is an undefined, ill-described mess of wanting to hit someone) and I didn’t care enough to force myself through the purchase of the overly expensive house, the unravelling of the Alzheimer’s mind and the (one can only assume) eventual character development of the son.

It’s very possible I’m wrong. That in my impatience for excruciating detail and an absence of conflict I’ve missed a gem of a novel. That said, I’d in no way encourage you to read this one. But then, this is a book review, and you’ve already stopped reading it.

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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner, Worst Books

City of Light: ‘Allegory’ doesn’t mean what you think it does. Or what I think it does.

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The thing about an allegory (like a metaphor) is that the comparison is made between two unexpected things (pigs and communist leaders; shadows on the wall and ideas). So when reading Lauren Belfer’s excellent City of Lights I struggled to figure out whether the novel was allegory or something else. A literary term that escapes me, but exists, I’m sure.

So tell me what this literary term is that I’ve missed out on. I’m looking for a term that describes when the fictional plot events/setting/character parallels a contemporary and real plot event/setting/character. Not parallels in an unexpected way, but parallels in a way you recognize the contemporary thing. You’d like an example? Sure.

So a bit to set this example up. The novel is a few things: historical fiction, murder mystery, romance, tragedy of manners. The plot goes something like this – it’s 1901, Buffalo is playing host to the pan-american exposition. Industrialists and engineers are developing hydroelectric power at Niagara Falls with all sorts of complications: union organizing and labour conditions; nature-preservationists and eco-terrorism (that the development of the Falls was protested on environmental grounds was an absolute revelation to me); public versus private ownership of resources. Our protagonist, Louise Barrett is headmistress of an exclusive all-girls school and passionate about the way education can transform individual women and reform society as a whole. She’s also afforded unusual social liberties because of her ‘spinster’ status; a status she’s had to assume for good reason (which I won’t spoil here) to do with gender-based violence and independence for women. A man gets murdered. The hydroelectric project gets complicated. The cast of characters and their secrets and lies thickens.

Right, so in this example Louise is talking to a reporter (masquerading as a photographer – because performativity and identity is also a big thing here), Franklin (who is also a potential love interest). Franklin explains his cynicism as to why he doesn’t think the industrialists care about the ordinary people when the choice is between the people and the extraction of a resource:

I served time in the Philippines, remember? I saw our fine and honorable American soldiers using the too-aptly named ‘water cure’ to exact confessions from prisoners; of course the prisoners weren’t ‘white’ so it didn’t matter. (135) He goes on… Electricity should be a public service, not a commodity sold to the highest bidder. The electricity created at Niagara belongs to the people. Not to the industrialists, not to the nature preservationists […] but to the people” (136). 

It parallels waterboarding, right? Electricity – throughout – parallels oil extraction with immediate gains prioritized over long term environmental damage. But it’s not an allegory because it is – in the fictional past – a recognizable reflection and deepening of our understanding of the present. Am I just describing a term called ‘the beauty and wonder of historical fiction’?

Anyway. I really loved this one. The murder mystery, while a driving plot point, wasn’t the focus of the text so much as Louise’s journey to understand her past and present. The historical details about Niagara and hydro development are genuinely fascinating. The socio-political-economic context that underpins the plot is as rich a character in its own right as any. Including the one moment Louise doubts her self-reliance and thinks how lovely it would be to rely on a man, she is a model of feminist independence. So yeah, please read the book and tell me what the term is that I’m looking for. Or maybe you don’t have to read the book because it’s so obvious. It’s probably alliteration. Kidding. (Am I?)

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Mystery, Prize Winner

I am Pilgrim: Arrogant

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Terry Hayes wants you to know he’s written screenplays. He really wants you to know that Nicole Kidman was in one of them. And that he’s kind of a big deal. How do I know this? Well, not just from the eight pages of acknowledgements (thanking, get this, his Norwegian editor ‘the first of many international publishers’ to pick up his book) and the author biography, but from his self-satisfied, falsely-modest, made-for-the-movies protagonist. Our polyonymous protagonist who on every page reminds the reader of what an exceptional spy he is (but oh-no, he really didn’t want this kind of responsibility and power), how materially privileged he is (but no really, he was adopted so he understands alienation and he never really wanted to be a billionaire anyway) how patriotic and brave he is (but seriously, the firefighters on 9/11 were the *real* heroes),  what a genius he is (no for real, he dropped out of Harvard medical school because it wasn’t meaningful enough) and how self-sacrificing he is (of course not, he’s just too dangerous for friends or permanence). Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, British literature, Mystery, Popular Posts

Canada: Plodding

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I expect Richard Ford thought he was writing some substantial when he penned *Canada,* and if the weight of the book is to be the sole judge of success, it is indeed of weighty matter. Alas, we readers take more into account than the weight of the book (and perhaps this will be of increasing truth as the ebook encroaches on our habitual Sunday effort of hoisting books above our heads while sprawled out on the couch with the concomitant cognitive dissonance where we think the book incredible if only to justify the sheer physical effort of reading it) and find this book curiously short on the vital elements we might expect from a Pulitzer prize winner such as a compelling plot, developed characters or something approaching a complex or compelling thematic question. 

Instead we’re left with 300 odd trying pages about the parent’s bank robbery (no spoiler, it’s all revealed on the first page). In fact, I’d rather it was a spoiler because then it might feel like the 300 pages were leading up to something, rather than, as they are, a painful effort to cloak plodding plot in weighty short sentences that herald the end of another short chapter: “I felt it was so.” “I never saw him again.” “I wanted it that way.” etc. etc. that all culminate in what we knew was coming the whole time and had only hoped would be done already.

The second part – the murder early alluded to (also on the first page) – might be expected to be more interesting were it not for the improbability of the events, the lack of interest I had for the protagonist and the total inconsequence of what transpires: it appears that even Dell doesn’t care what takes place, so much so that the novel – in another demonstration of heavy-handed abrupt chapter ending – moves off to the “epilogue” third chapter that (I suppose) is meant to deal the blow of “we all have ordinary lives” or perhaps “there are stand-out moments in our lives, but they happen early on and are often not of our doing.” So that, in the end, the moments that make our lives consequential – at least for Dell (that’s another problem! the book doesn’t in any way speak to a “human” condition or create a character believable enough for me to think it could happen, more a well physically described, but poorly realized character)  – are not our own, but happen *to* us. 

This book happened to me. And I’m hopeful that nothing of consequence will come from it. 

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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner