Tag Archives: bildungsroman

The Mountain Story: The Book You Wouldn’t Bring if You Were Lost on a Mountain

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If you were lost (on a mountain) what book would you want to have with you? Pragmatic answers about edible plants or wilderness survival have no place here. You certainly wouldn’t want to pack Lori Lansens’ The Mountain Story. Maybe it’s just me (it’s probably just me), but I could have easily done without this one. Lori Lansens is something of a Can Lit showstopper – her novels The Girls, Rush Home Road and The Wife’s Tale have been best-sellers (and not the Canadian kind of best seller where you get featured on the CBC, but fancy New York Times best-sellers). So what is it these readers are gravitating towards?

Sure The Mountain Story has an engaging plot. From page one our protagonist, Wolf Truly, has set out to kill himself (cue conflict) by jumping off a cliff (for real) on the mountain he has climbed and hiked through his teen years. Enter the merry band of misfit women – three generations in three women – who, through a series of unfortunate events (for real), find themselves and Wolf, lost and trapped on the mountain. Plot is built on conflict (or so the books on writing tell me) and this one is full of yawn-inducing man-versus-nature conflict: finding water, finding food, coyotes, broken arms, broken bridges, snakes. Interweaving these necessary hiccups on the road to salvation (and we know they get saved, the story is told retroactively) are pieces of Wolf’s story from before the mountain: why he wants to kill himself, the deal with his father (isn’t there always a deal with the father?), the love interest, the deal with his mother (there’s definitely always a deal with the mother). I had a hard time deciding which parts of the story I found more tedious – the mountain or the backstory, but I’ll go with the mountain because there it felt most like I was working my way through a story arc written in an elementary school writing class.

I suppose these pieces of an adventure story could be interesting if there were characters that offered anything like complexity or curiosity. As it is Wolf (despite his name) is neither. The three women – so forgettable I’ve forgotten their names – are likewise Women Who Get Lost on the Mountain rather than characters with depth. Of course there’s a love story – what more romantic setting might you imagine than being stranded on a mountain as you attempt to kill yourself? And of course there’s familial tension – how could you not bicker with your mother while stranded on a mountain? And sacrifice. And heroism. And yawnyawnyawn.

 

 

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction

My Brilliant Friend

2014-09-13 16.48.27I listen to a lot of podcasts: Longform, This American Life, Radiolab, Slate Political/Cultural/DoubleX Gabfest, Wait wait don’t tell me, Hardcore History, The House, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Planet Money… (& Serial, duh, but back before it was cool, double duh). And most of these podcasts include some kind of ‘recommendations’ section where the hosts will suggest something they’re enjoying and think listeners might enjoy too. Most of the time the suggestions are cultural objects (occasionally they’re hilarious (and lazy) suggestions like ‘nutmeg,’ or ‘leggings’.) But in the past year Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series (beginning with My Brilliant Friend) has been recommended on almost all of them. There’s only so many times a book can be suggested before you feel like you’re ignoring a fated read. So I coopted their recommendations as my own and urged  *my* brilliant friend S. read with me. And then my other brilliant book club friends, too.

So we’ve all be reading it and I’m anxious to hear what these smart women have to say about the book. Because that’s what reading My Brilliant Friend taught me: that we don’t trust our own sense of what we like, or don’t like, or want, or don’t want, half as much as we trust that of our friends.

Back it up – what’s the book about? Written by an Italian author, the novel is set in a working class Naples in the 1960s-ish (I’m guessing a bit on the date). It follows two young girls, Elena and Lila as they mature themselves and in their friendship. Narrated by Elena, the novel focuses on their development from school girls to sexually mature women in the midst of changing social and economic conditions. The novel explores fascinating questions in friendship: how does friendship change when one friend gets married? when one friend has access to (much) more money than another? when one has sex?  [I’ll admit that when this description (or something like it) was offered to me in all of these recommendations I thought *yawn* but the books (at least the first) are well worth the read.]

In the particular setting of Naples the significant division between the two friends is access to education. Both Elena and Lila begin in school together, but as they age only Elena’s family has the resources (and sees the value) in continuing to send Elena to school. While both girls achieve extraordinary academic success, Elena views Lila as naturally intellectually curious (Lila teachers herself Greek!) and sees herself as an academic-imposter, succeeding only by virtue of her proximity to Lila.

The extent of Elena’s envy for Lila bothered me (and S.), at least bothered me at first. I assured myself that I’d never harboured such feelings of jealousy for any of my friends… But the more I considered their relationship I saw that in the envy of Lila’s beauty and her intellectual gifts Elena doesn’t desire something she doesn’t also have (Elena’s potentially untrustworthy narrative includes unimpeachable evidence of her academic success in the form of report cards) – rather she desires the confidence she assumes Lila has, she wants to feel like she’s good enough and to believe it.

Putting thematic questions aside, the book has a complex and nuanced narrative voice as this reader struggled to decide whether to trust Elena, or how far to trust her. Having been in my own 13 year old mind, I can assure you it’s not a  trustworthy place: perceptions of self are necessarily skewed. The novel manages this narrative tension through balancing Elena’s self-depracting, self-loathing perception against demonstrable outward evidence countering this view. Reminding us of the thematic issue of how much we assume we are (the only) deficient one, or that every one else (*cough* Lila) has their shit together. When… they don’t.

As if to prove it – I was tempted to write “It says something about my reading habits in the last four months that S., who had her first baby in the summer, finished the first book before me.” As if it was a contest about reading. Or friendship. Or life. (but isn’t it?)

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Vernon God Little: What we avoid

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There’s no question DBC Pierre’s first novel, Vernon God Little, is an excellent piece of fiction. The book takes a school shooting in Texas (is it Texas? Somewhere near Mexico, anyway) and explores the community reaction to the event – spectacle, denial, scapegoating – through the darkly comedic story of Vernon, falsely accused and prosecuted for the crime. The first person narrator of Vernon is masterfully represented in his fixation on shit and young women, as well as use of diction, phrasing, pace and image that moves past conjuring a character to allow the reader to fully accept and inhabit him (if not identify with – a problem to come to). The narration also does well to explore his complicated feelings around the massacre, the (failure) of adults to take responsibility or engage with grief, his expectations of justice and the justice system and his attempts to reform himself and his relationship with others.

Despite the brilliant narration and the timely thematic questions (what is the role of the press in perpetuating/perpetrating crimes? how does collective culture sublimate grief? how do we understand and make sense of the senseless? what are the effects of poverty on access to justice?) I read this book knowing it was great, but feeling at a remove. If literature is great because (and if) it can allow (or require) the reader to adopt different perspectives, to explore experiences unavailable in lived experience AND because it is masterfully constructed in literary technique, Vernon God Little shines in the latter and wavers in the former.

I should say this book sat on my shelf at work for eleven months before I finally read it. And not because I lacked time or opportunity. I tried reading it twice before. It wasn’t until I’d forgotten my book at home and it was a choice between no novel (a gasp of impossibility) or Vernon God Little that I gave it sufficient time (the 60 minutes of my lunch break) to get invested enough to read the whole thing. It wasn’t a novel that grabbed me. Is it that the first person narrator repulsed me a little? Maybe. (and maybe he’s meant to) It’s not that the experiences in the book are too far removed for me to care about – all kinds of my favourite books are those that I love precisely for their ability to take a seemingly distant experience and make it relevant and poignant for me and to let me see my world and relationship to it differently – it seems more the case that Pierre didn’t do enough to make these foreign experiences connected to this reader. There wasn’t opportunity for empathy, or even sympathy, no chance for identification or care.

So I read the book with a respect for the writing, an understanding that it was an important topic and explored with great literary skill. And yet I found myself unmoved and unchanged in its reading. Uninterested in what becomes of Vernon. Is that a problem of this reader or of the book? You read it and tell me what you think.

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

The Goldfinch: Literary and popular

eve_mason_tgf_123013At just under 800 pages Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch isn’t the kind of book you take lightly. That’s a joke of course, because the subject of the book is far from light itself: the maturation of a boy grappling with the loss of family/innocence, the role of art and beauty in making life worth living, the bonds and responsibilities of affiliative relationships (as opposed to ‘filial,’ or familial relationships, affiliative are those relationships with those we freely choose) and the consequences (or lack thereof) of making ‘bad’ and ‘good’ choices (and whether such choices are, in the end, ours to make).

It is a rich, complex, heady story with masterful plot sequencing and character development. It is a book that has been uniformly celebrated by literary critics  and masses of readers in an unusual congruence of what is both literary and popular as both groups connect with the complexity of the protagonist, Theo, who is simultaneously sympathetic for his orphan-hood and frustrating for his continued terrible decision making. The art heist elements lend a certain suspense, the post-event narration allows an editorializing on events as they unfold that does double duty as assurance to readers and warning that supposedly innocuous events are going to have dire consequences. The atmosphere of the novel – a combination of the dire with the luxurious – speaks to the experience of this contemporary reader: a constant striving coupled with a certainty that at no point will the material objects ever amount to real feelings of security, safety or happiness.

While this reader (I might be so bold to say I am both literary and popular – bam!) delighted in the writing and the genius of the plot and its thematic questions, I found Theo and his story somewhat uneven. I devoured the story in Theo’s years in New York, yet found his time with and post-Boris (his great friend) to be alternately plodding and disconnected. I read Boris’ unpredictability and intensity as in some ways a scapegoat for Theo’s choices and also as convenient ways to resolve apparent impediments in Theo’s life. Boris to the rescue! Boris as catalyst! While the relationship between the two character is far from pat – in fact the evolution of their friendship and relationship is fascinating – Boris’s function in the novel at times reads as too much plot incitement.

So too my sympathy for Theo waned as the narrative continued. A characterization meant to remind the reader that we are only so tolerant of those with addiction, mental illness, those overcome with grief and trauma, that we are willing – for a time – to be gracious and understanding and then we want people to “get over it” to “move on” to “pull themselves together.” The Goldfinch resists this impulse. Instead we are made to suffer along with Theo as he makes, remakes, and makes again the same mistakes and poor decisions – while knowing that he’s doing so. I suppose the frustration and annoyance is, then, that I somehow want my fictional characters to do what I cannot. I want them to be braver, stronger, better than I am. So it’s not a complaint so much as a warning that Theo is not a hero, even if he has heroic aspirations, he is instead utterly human and truthful about what that means: to do the wrong thing over and over and to still (somehow) hope and plan to be better.

I find myself struggling to come out with a definite conclusion/recommendation on the novel. I suppose I don’t have to do that with these posts. I can, instead, give you my impressions and leave it to you to decide. Much in the same way, I suppose (though without the genius of Tartt) as the novel does in asking the reader, in the end, to pass judgement on what makes for a good life, a life good enough, and a life that we somehow fall/stumble into without deciding only to realize – with horror, sadness or resignation – that the last page is fast approaching.

 

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner