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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy   

November 17, 2017

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I remember when I put this book on my list—I saw it on my coworker’s desk way back in 2002. He said it was the best book he’d ever read and was reading it for the second time. Of course, I’d heard of it and had seen it on the great novels lists, but had never had the inclination. I finally got around to it.

I listened to it as an audiobook, and I’ll admit it was because I saw there was a new edition with Maggie Gyllenhaal reading it (I would listen to her reading a phone book).

It’s a great book, but it is an undertaking. It’s very long and dense, and after starting it I bought the Cliff Notes just to keep the names of all the characters straight. But the characters are excellent, the plot extensive and the world rich and textured. The settings come to life as much as the characters. Dialogue around the news of the time (Russia in the mid-19th Century), Napoleon and the wars raging, local politics, the fairness of the current economic system all seem exotic but strangely modern and relevant. There is a sense that human themes do not change that much over time, nor the themes that make compelling stories: Love and loyalty, dreams and desires and danger.

We love Anna (and I particularly liked Levin as well) because they are fully-rendered characters with motivations we can relate to, despite the century and a half separating us. They are complex, and even the lovable Anna has tragic flaws. If there is anything that feels archaic, it is the omniscient narrative point of view that takes us in and out of the heads of the characters. We often know their motivations because Tolstoy tells us. But combined with the panoramic descriptions, it leaves us a sense that Tolstoy understands every nook and cranny of this world (including the minds of his characters) and is giving us a tour. It is a testament to Tolstoy’s epic mind.

After finishing this Anna Karenina, I read the Tolstoy chapter of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals and was disappointed to read that Tolstoy was not as likable as some of his characters. He was a man whose ego matched his talents, writing in his diary, “I have not yet met a single man who was morally good as I…” and “I am a remarkable man both as regards capacity and eagerness to work.” He had a god complex, and his friends abandoned him for it. Most frustrating from our vantage point, he didn’t really want to be a writer. He believed art in general a misuse of God’s gifts and only went through three periods of artistic productivity, two of which produced two of the greatest novels of all time. Jerk.

I’m glad I read Anna Karenina before the chapter on Tolstoy—it’s sometimes hard to separate the art from the artist. Nonetheless, Anna Karenina is a masterful book, rightly deserving of its place in the global literary cannon.

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Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

November 17, 2017

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There’s a reason scientists appear in so many Far Side comics. Especially certain types of scientists—theoretical physicists, astronomers, and other scientists who exist on the dark edge of our knowledge. Scientists who dedicate themselves to finding something that may or may not exist. In this case, it’s the story of a group of scientists trying to “hear” two black holes colliding by detecting their gravitational waves.

I don’t understand the science well enough to explain it, but it’s an incredibly poetic notion. Two black holes in the dark reaches of space envelope each other, and these tiny weird nerds on the other side of the universe have somehow convinced the National Science Foundation to fund the most expensive project ever, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), a kind of space “listening device,” and are there at just the right time to witness the event.

Unfortunately, much of this book is bogged down in science politics and reads like a nerd tabloid. Jennifer Senior says it well in The New York Times Review of Books:

“To me, the real drama in this story, which Ms. Levin only flicks at in her seventh chapter but never fleshes out in full, is internal: What kind of blind faith does it require, what kind of terror must one beat away, in order to labor in total darkness — toward an objective that so many of your peers believe is folly?”

It’s unfortunate, because in the end, the scientists do hear what they are listening for. Levin was able to add an epilogue describing the moment, and I was so excited by it that I made an audible gasp. Really. The quest struck me as so quixotic, that I figured the book was going to wrap up with an image of scientists listening to empty darkness and a message of, “And that’s why scientists are so weird.” Instead, it ends with the equivalent of a hail mary touchdown pass to win the Super Bowl of the cosmos (sorry for the spoiler—it was in the newspapers too). That made the slog feel kind of worth it.

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

November 17, 2017

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Lolita is a masterful and unsettling novel. It’s ranked #4 on the Modern Library’s list of greatest novels of the 20th Century. In Slate, Stephen Metcalf makes the point that unlike other novels deemed too scandalous for their time but tame to the modern reader, Lolita will never be anything but disturbing. It’s the story of a professor, Humbert Humbert, who has an affair with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita.

The subject matter may be what made Lolita infamous, but what makes it brilliant is the challenge Nabokov sets up for himself. He creates a character who is revealed to us in the first pages as a criminal pervert, and then he tries to win us back with charm, intelligence, sophistication, wit and self-deprecating humor, all dressed up in beautiful language.

Lolita is a book about seduction, but not the seduction of man and girl. We, the “dear reader,” are the targets of the seduction. Humbert addresses us directly often in his long-winded attempt to earn our empathy. And in the moments when we find ourselves seeing Humbert’s humanity, enjoying his jokes or admiring the writing, we are jerked back in revulsion when we remember Humbert’s true nature. But in those moments, we, the reader, become the target of our own revulsion.

It is a good trick. It would be campy or ham-fisted to try it with, say, a cannibalistic serial killer as the protagonist. A pedophile is a greater, audacious challenge—a high wire. A high wire upon which Nabokov strolls, twirls and flips, winking at us all the while.

Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

October 23, 2017

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I liked Frankenstein when I read it in high school. Last year I read a book about artificial intelligence that mentioned Frankenstein and it gave me an itch to read it again. It’s a great book, and a little maddening that it was written by Mary Shelley when she was just a teenager (first published anonymously in 1818).

Frankenstein has been somewhat ruined by Hollywood, with its lumbering, dim-witted version of the monster. In the novel, Frankenstein is the name of the protagonist—Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who creates life through a scientific experiment and is then horrified by what he has created. The creature in the novel is athletic and intelligent. Shunned by his creator, driven out by other people, the monster teaches himself what it means to live, though he comes to understand that he’ll never be human. He’ll never be accepted by society. He’ll never understand love or have a creator who loves him. But beyond these weighty themes, Frankenstein is also just an enjoyable horror story and maybe the first great science fiction novel.

 

The Orchard Keeper by Cormac McCarthy

October 16, 2017

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I first read this, McCarthy’s first novel, in 2014. In the spring I joined the Cormac McCarthy Society and have been reading quite a bit of literary analysis of his work. Though most of the academic work focuses on his later novels, it was enough to pique my interest in this novel again. The Orchard Keeper was published in 1965, which is hard to imagine. It won the William Faulkner Foundation Award for notable first novel. McCarthy’s most recent novel, The Road, was published in 2006 and won the Pullitzer Prize for fiction. Both are, in very different ways, about man’s assault on the natural world.

The plot is the braided path of three men living in the mountains of Tennessee, where McCarthy grew up. They are all connected by a murder, though none of them realizes it.

On second reading, a few more of the details of man’s encroachment on nature stood out. I’d read one essay completely about the significance of the tank on the mountainside, so that definitely carried more meaning. Once a theme is pointed out to you, small details will emerge everywhere, which makes the re-reading full of small delights.

I also like to think I caught a little more of the wry humor on my second pass, enjoyed the eccentricities of the characters a little more. Like when Uncle Ownby, the mountain hermit, is visited by the well-meaning welfare agent. The agent says they have overlooked Ownby for some time, that he might be entitled to some assistance. To which Ownby, as independent a man as there ever could be, says he didn’t guess so. “I’m what you might call brushy-bound.”

As always, I enjoyed the vivid metaphors: “…a small stream looping placidly over shallow sands stippled with dace shadows, the six-pointed stars of skating waterspiders drifting like bright frail medusas.”

McCarthy’s description of the land is as good in his Western novels, but different in that the novels of Texas and beyond are vast in their descriptions, open and wide. Here we find gnarled brambles of prose, and even the simplest sentences contain clues of man bent by nature: “East of Knoxville Tennessee the mountains start. Small ridges and spines of the folded Appalachians that contort the ongoing roads to their liking.”

Then there is the odd mythology of the region, the quirky mountain religion that lies somewhere between superstition and folklore. Ownby describes without a hint of incredulity that when someone dies, their soul might sometimes take up residence in a cat “for a spell.” But, he assures his listener, the person in question died many more than seven years ago, so he’s not worried about him still being around.

But in the whole book, I have one favorite passage. A magnificent description of a local watering hole:

At that time there was a place in the gap of the mountain called the Green Fly Inn. It was box-shaped with a high front and a tin roof sloping rearward and was built on a scaffolding of poles over a sheer drop, the front door giving directly onto the road. One corner was nailed to a pine tree that rose towering out of the hollow­­—a hollow that on windy nights acted as a flue, funneling the updrafts from the valley through the mountain gap. On such nights the inn-goers trod floors that waltzed drunkenly beneath them, surged and buckled with huge groans. At times the whole building would career madly to one side as though headlong into collapse. The drinkers would pause, liquid tilting in their glasses, the structure would shudder violently, a broom would fall, a bottle, and the inn would slowly right itself and assume once more its reeling equipoise. The drinkers would raise their glasses, talk would begin again. Remarks alluding to the eccentricities of the inn were made only outside the building. To them the inn was animate as any ship to her crew and it bred an atmosphere such as few could boast, a solidarity due largely to its very precariousness. The swaying, the incessant small cries of tortured wood, created an illusion entirely nautical, so that after a violent wrench you might half expect to see a bearded mate swing through a hatch in the ceiling to report all rigging secure.

Could there be a more textured description of a place? How long did it take McCarthy to craft a paragraph so fine? It is only outdone by the description of the incident where the Green Fly Inn does finally give way. But to enjoy that, you’ll have to read the book.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

October 13, 2017

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When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, she made a rule—although it was dystopian speculative fiction, she would not include futuristic gadgets, no robots. And every oppressive law, every atrocity, had to be something that had happened at some point in the history of the world. “If I was to create an imaginary garden, I wanted the toads in it to be real,” she said in a New York Times interview. This eliminates the ability of the reader to dismiss the book as mere fabrication. There is no “that would never happen,” because it all, incredibly, has happened.

The book imagines a post-coup United States, now called the Republic of Gilead, a puritanical theocracy in which an entire caste of women is relegated to the role of concubines (the handmaids). Because the environment has grown toxic, fertility rates have declined sharply, so the handmaids are believed necessary and a luxury for the elite.

The main character, Offred (“Of Fred,” as she is owned by a man named Fred), is our vehicle through this horrific world. It’s through her eyes that we witness atrocities common in her society, like the abortion doctors hanging after a public execution.

Some of it feels a little forced, despite the “everything happened” rule, but the real brilliance of the novel is the revelation that the story we’re reading has been discovered and is being dissected by anthropologists far in the future. It is jarring, but places the story in a historical context alongside The Diary of Anne Frank. And after being emotionally invested in the story, intimate with the characters, the cold distance of future historians is disturbing.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a bleak but very good read. It deserves to be included on the list of best speculative fiction.

The M Train by Patti Smith

October 10, 2017

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“It’s not so easy writing about nothing,” a cowboy writer tells Patti Smith in a dream. But she makes it seem easy, to write about whatever topic is at hand. And I will read it, even if she’s just describing the way the steam floats off her coffee on an overcast autumn day.

While Smith’s Just Kids, about her relationship with the photographer Robert Maplethorpe, has more focus, I love the whimsical meandering of this book. It’s not exactly a memoir, more just a collection of thoughts.

Smith shifts from hilarious observation to aching melancholy to beautiful description with ease, every random thought held together by her undeniable skill with the language and penchant for astute observation, her ability to conjure the meaningful from the mundane.

A woman is sitting next to her arguing on the phone about a tracking number for a lost FedEx package. Smith quips, “If this were an episode of Luther, she would be found face-up in the snow with the objects from her purse arranged about her, a bodily corona like Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

While traveling, she finds a bronze bust of Nikola Tesla, “the patron saint of alternating current.” Smith then notices a ConEd truck parked within eyesight. “’No respect,’ I thought.”

She displays the quirkiness of a lovable old aunt. She doesn’t wear seatbelt on plane, doesn’t like to use the automatic check-in.

She travels all over, visiting coffee shops and friends and hotels. She writes in coffee shops.

She bums around Mexico. Berlin. Greenwich. She does readings and performs. She still does interesting work of all kinds—she takes us with her on assignment to Iceland where she photographs a chess table where Fischer played Boris Spassky.

I loved reading about her reading, particularly when her book list overlapped with mine—Henning Mankel, Murakami, a fascination with Roberto Bolaño’s dark epic, 2666.

Smith’s house house survives Hurricane Sandy, but she sees her neighborhood strewn about. Her heart aches at the devastation.

But of all the fantastic passages, I found this one simple, lament about the change in her own life to be lovely and profound:

I have lived in my own book, one I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall into the sea, and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty—Fred buttoning the khaki shirt he wore for his flying lessons, doves returning to nest on our balcony, our daughter Jessie standing before me stretching out her arms. “Oh mama, sometimes I feel like a new tree.”

We want the things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children, hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me. Weeping from a bad dream. “Please, stay forever,” I say to things I know.  “Don’t go. Don’t grow.”