Rules for novels are more for writers than readers. If a novel is successful, I shouldn’t be thinking about whether or not the writer followed or subverted some set of rules. But one of those oft-repeated rules kept coming to mind while I attempted to read The Ghost Bride: show don’t tell.
While I’m sure there are many examples of successful novels that “tell” rather than “show”, this ain’t it.Continue reading
And now, the first guest post of Franzen in February 2017! The lovely Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses valiantly took on The Corrections, after promising to do so last year. Read on to see how she fared – though the title probably gives you an idea – and do check out her blog. Her Last Week’s Reading series is particularly good, if dangerous for the TBR; she is also a certified poetry concierge!
I’ve read a few of Jonathan Franzen’s essays (hated the one on Edith Wharton, in which he repeatedly comments on her looks; thought better of the one on Antarctica) and I’ve caught the general flavor of his views on technology and the reading public. I’ve also been delighted to read Laura’s spirited posts about the novelist over the last few years. All of this to say I came to Franzen in February wary of Franzen, but willing to be pulled in by his writing. Continue reading
As part of Franzen in February, I asked some of my favourite readers to pick up their very first Franzen novel, and a few of them actually did. I guess I’m what you’d call an online influencer (come at me, brands.) Today, #CanLit poster boy Jason Purcell reviews Strong Motion. For more of Jason’s brilliance, check out his YouTube channel, his Instagram, his blog, or just stalk him on Twitter.
I wonder now if I went into Jonathan Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992) planning to dislike it, perhaps as a way of proving my politics, whatever those may be, however they may speak to Franzen’s. I admit that I approached this, my first Franzen, with suspicion, with my eye already mid-eye roll, pencil poised to write some critique in the margin. I certainly did do these things. But then I stopped altogether. As of this moment, I’ve only made it 116 pages in, and so I don’t have a lot to report. The protagonist is a white male who is a social outcast of one kind or another. There are a number of damaged women who surround him who exist to be critiqued by our protagonist. There are earthquakes. There are several earthquakes.
I may never know why there are so many earthquakes, because as I’ve said already, I’ve given it up. This brings to mind a 2010 piece by Julia Keller called “When to give up on a book” which reads: “Like a spouse who has already made a secret appointment with a divorce attorney, … I found myself smitten with guilt. ‘It’s not you,’ I murmured to the novel. ‘It’s me. Really.’” But in this case, is it me? It appears that this novel received mostly praise, and the criticism is largely concerned with Franzen’s ambition, that he has written too much here. And, when I think of this novel, and of abandoning it, I don’t feel “smitten with guilt,” though I do feel each individually—glad not to be reading it and guilty for not having finished.
But there were too many moments in this novel that caused visceral discomfort that I feel I can’t even fight through it. Selecting the most revolting is a real Sophie’s Choice.
“You’re fucked up,” he said without looking at her. “You’re really fucked up. And you’ve got the wrong idea about me.”
“But you like me, right?” she asked him from the doorway.
“Yeah, sure. I like you. I like you.” (75)
I was warned that this novel is not Franzen’s most mature, and I’m willing to believe that his later work really does deserve the praise they have received, and I’m even willing to believe that Franzen might be worthy of his title as one of the greatest living American novelists. But the first hundred pages of Strong Motion are littered with clichéd Manic Pixie Dream Girl moments rendered in lackluster prose that I don’t feel willing to sacrifice my time trying to understand. Maybe one day I’ll go back to it. As Keller notes at the end of her piece, “I did finally finish Wolf Hall. Part of that was a sense of professional responsibility; the novel won the 2009 Man Booker Prize and is simply too highly regarded by too many smart people to be ignored.” Franzen, too, is highly regarded by many smart people, someone whose work I’d love to read and understand. But Strong Motion is to be shelved until someone is able to convince me it is worth the struggle, that it is a great novel that deserves my attention. There is so much to read. So much so that to spend time reading something as uninteresting as this seems the saddest thing to do.
Okay, so this didn’t work out so well. I’ve advised Jason to give himself time to recover, perhaps indulge in some self-care, and then try again with The Corrections. Stay tuned for another edition of My First Franzen in the next couple of days.
DNF: abbreviation 1. Did Not Finish 2. The book blogger kiss of death
In Back from the DNF, I give previously DNF’d books a second chance, because sometimes, it’s not the book, it’s me. Maybe I read it too young. Maybe I read it while pregnant or postpartum (baby brain is real!) Maybe it just wasn’t the right time.
I made a list of books that didn’t get a fair shake, and will reread and review to see if anything’s changed. If you want to join me, feel free to steal the concept, title, and sweet banner.
My DNF List:
- Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne: Pregnancy brain
- Tinker Tailor Solider Spy by John LeCarre: Baby brain
- The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: Too young (22)
- The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubuois III: Too young (20)
- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies: Too young (17)
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle: Too young (10)
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
My official reason for DNFing The English Patient is “too young,” but at 22, that’s a bit of a stretch. I was an adult. I was living on my own and working at a real job. I was also single after five years of serial monogamy, and in my newfound freedom my maturity level plummeted. I was consumed by shopping, clubbing, and boys for a couple years. Thankfully this was before the advent of social media. I shudder to think of the bar-bathroom selfies that never were.
I tried to keep up appearances in my reading, though. I read a lot of DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen around this time. I picked up The English Patient thinking it was a “serious” book in this vein, and it is serious, but it’s very different from those old-school classics. You can’t just plow through it and you can’t rely on your memory of other similar books because there aren’t any. I don’t know how to classify The English Patient – adventure, romance, a little magical realism, post-colonial literature, war literature, English, Canadian, Indian… I don’t know. On first read, I was overwhelmed and couldn’t follow the threads. I gave up a few chapters in and hurled it into my closet. This time, I was overwhelmed in a good way, and again hurled the book with some violence on the bathroom counter (don’t judge, it was my kids’ bathtime) because the ending hurt my heart so much.
At 22 I couldn’t process this story. I thought I knew lots about love and tragedy and thought of myself as very jaded, but of course I didn’t and I wasn’t. Thankfully I grew up enough in eleven years to appreciate this book.
Verdict: It was me.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
I read this children’s classic as a child, so I can’t just say I was “too young.” At ten, I was starting to read adults books (there was no such thing as YA (thank god)) and I remember picking up A Wrinkle in Time and thinking, well, it’s a kid’s book but it’s for smart kids. I was very invested in my identify as a smart kid, so when I couldn’t wrap my brain around what was happening in this book, it was embarrassing. Shameful. I was also disappointed that I’d never get to read A Swiftly Tilting Planet because it’s a great title.
What I didn’t get as a kid is that Wrinkle is a Christian allegory (I didn’t get that about Chronicles of Narnia either. Wasn’t as smart as I thought.) But I got it this time. Oh lord did I get it. And okay, I’m not religious, but I’m okay with religious themes in fiction (see?) if it’s well written.This just isn’t. A very thin story, stilted dialog that contributes little to the plot, and an author banging us over the head with her philosophy: it’s Atlas Shrugged for kids. And don’t get me started on the ending. All I can do is quote Professor Frink: “The secret ingredient is… love?! Who’s been screwing with this thing?”
I will give L’Engle props for the creepy kids who bounce balls and jump rope in sync. That shit creeped me out today as much as it did 24 years ago.
The verdict: it’s the book.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Alright, I’m cheating a bit. When I tossed The Sisters Brothers aside, I knew I would pick it up a few weeks later for book club. But I did toss it aside. I got about 20 pages in and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I’m currently 200 and some pages in on round two and loving it. I can’t account for the change of heart. There`s one particular line that made me roll my eyes so hard the first time I read it, and now stands as my favourite in the whole book so far: the main character imagines his poor, sick horses’s thoughts, as he’s whipping him, to be, “sad life, sad life.”
I don’t know if it was a full moon or I was suffering from a case of the Mondays or what, the first time round. Now all I can do is join the chorus: read this book. Immediately. If you don’t like it, take a break for a few weeks and try, try again.
The verdict: it was me.
Alright, you know the drill: tell me about your second chance books, or tell me which books you’re thinking of trying again.
I’m still catching up on 2013 reviews, but 2014 reading is well underway. Here’s what you can expect this year on Reading in Bed.
I am pretty dismayed that off all the books I read last year, only 12% were by authors of colour. Here are some of my current and planned reads that will help tip me over 25% this year:
- The Orenda by Joseph Boyden. It’s my current read and HOLY CRAP IS IT GOOD.
- The Bridge of the Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart. nybooks.com says: “This is an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe.” Yeah. Plus, that cover.
- Inside Out: Reflections on a Life So Far by Evelyn Lau. An excuse to write about how Lau’s first memoir, Runaway, changed my life.
- Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor. My favourite calendar girl in Bare it for Books.
Follow book blogger Leonicka for lots of resources on diversity in Canadian literature. She’s going all out and reading 85% authors of colour this year!
My next local read will likely be Come Barbarians by Todd Babiak. As for new #yegwrites stuff, so far I’m looking forward to Marina Endicott‘s fourth novel, Falling for Hugh and Laurence Miall‘s debut novel Blind Spot.
- Frog Music by Emma Donoghue. She’s got a way with titles. I loved Room and Slammerkin, so my expectations are high.
- The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill. I’ve been waiting eight years for O’Neill to write another book. Bring it on!
- Crime Against My Brother by David Adams Richards. Apparently brings the main character of Mercy Among the Children back – one of my favourite books of all time.
I will also solider on with the Storytellers Book Club challenge. It helps that I won a set of all five books in their contest last year!
I haven’t forgotten about The Classics Club! In fact, I’m right on pace. I chose 50 books to read over five years, and approaching the one year mark, I’ve read eleven.
Back from the DNF
I might set this one up as a challenge hosted here on the blog. I’ve abandoned a few books over the years, and this is the year I give them another shot. I’m including books that I straight up DNF’d (did not finish) and books that I finished, but didn’t really appreciate, often because I read them too young. Here is a sampling, with my excuses for not finishing in the first place. Watch for an introductory post soon (and if anyone wants to help me design a button, that would be cool…)
- Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne: Pregnancy brain
- Tinker Tailor Solider Spy by John LeCarre: Baby brain
- The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: Too young. Attempted at 22 or so and got really lost.
- The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubuois III: Too young. Read at age 20.
- Fifth Business by Robertson Davies: Too young. Forced to read in high school, I hated it. Read a description of it recently and it sounds AMAZING.
This sounds like a lot of books, but I’m leaving room for random books, recommendations, read-alongs, and review books; you know, the four Rs.
Obligatory end-of-post question: what are YOU planning to read this year?