UPDATE 3/27: Welcome to readers finding this post through my Sunday Spotlight column.
The intro: I envision this occasional series as kind of a “virtual” club of people bound together not so much by common titles but simply a love of reading; I tell you what I’m reading, and you tell me, and we get a sense of satisfaction by knowing there are other people out there who love text in an image-based world. If you share your thoughts with me by Thursday morning, I might be able to work them into my upcoming Sunday Spotlight column.
It’s been a few months since my last book club post, and I’ve been reading like mad. (Is it the colder weather? There’s nothing better than curling up with a book on a chilly night and reading till your eyes droop.)
Since my last post I’ve read some classic literature (two more Willa Cathers and another by my author-of-the-moment W. Somerset Maugham) along with some newer fiction (Ian McEwan’s “Solar” and Wally Lamb’s “The Hour I First Believed”) and a trendy biography (Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra.”) But which book did I devour more greedily than any other? You guessed it, Kathy Mahan, it was “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins.
Fellow Beehiver Kathy — and many other Beehive book clubbers — talked me into this brisk, well-constructed page-turner. It scurries along with the pace of a well-crafted action movie and spins a tale that is close enough to our own world to be chilling – but just far enough way that we can tsk-tsk in worry. In a post-apocalyptic future, the U.S. has devolved into a repressive place, with a tyrannical central government abusing the downtrodden provinces. One way to keep the peasants in line is the annual “Hunger Games,” a sort of “Survivor TV Show Goes All the Way,” in which two contestants are chosen from each province by lottery and fight to the death. Our heroine is Katniss, a 16-year-old from the poverty-stricken District 12, who has thankfully augmented her family’s meager rations over the years by illegal hunting. The twist is that the other teen from her district chosen is a schoolmate with a crush on her.
Collins cleverly frames the contrast between the wealthy excess of the Capitol and the strangled hinterlands with a “fight the power” finesse, and as we get caught up in Katniss’ struggle for survival, we also find ourselves rooting for social justice as well. As Katniss successfully stays alive – without descending to the base levels of her justifiably ruthless competitors – she becomes a sort of moral superhero, someone who might just have a chance not only to keep her life but beat the system as well.
I only tripped up one time seriously while reading the book, and that’s with a plot twist near the end involving the game overseers suddenly changing an important rule (that this year both competitors from a district can survive, presumably to accommodate the viewer-favorite romance of Katniss and Peeta). I found it a cheap, crass plot device that threatened the integrity of the world Collins had created for us. But that didn’t keep me from plowing through to the end. While I’m not in love enough with the series to go right out and read books two and three of the trilogy, I’m still looking forward to seeing how this story plays out.
Some of the other books I’ve recently read or listened to on CD:
** “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff. What does a biographer these days write about Cleopatra, one of the most famous women in history? If you’re Schiff, you pen an eloquent synthesis of all the stuff that’s come before. The author approaches the task as a sort of literary detective, subjecting the myriad sources that came before her to a brisk, no-nonsense fisking – and then adding her own educated speculation. It helps that Schiff is a sharp, big-picture writer who weaves in some fairly sophisticated cultural, gender and psychological analysis.
But the fact remains that everything here has been discussed — exhaustively — many times before. And like any historical figure from more than 2,000 years ago, the sources are contradictory and the details often sketchy. A definitive portrait of Cleopatra never really emerges, not because Schiff isn’t talented – but because she is.
Nevertheless, I was mildly caught up in the book. Among the highlights:
- Alexandria was a pretty cool place: beautiful, cultured, sophisticated, far more impressive in both aesthetics and intellect than Rome. (If anything, the Roman Empire comes across in Schiff’s prose as rather boorish and backward.) The city had 400 theaters.
- Schiff is particularly interesting when she’s talking about gender issues. “It is notable,” she writes, “that when she is not condemned for being too bold and masculine, Cleopatra is taken to task for being unduly frail and feminine.” It’s almost as if Cleopatra is a template upon which to project your own prejudices. This is a consistent theme throughout the book. Cleopatra is often portrayed in sexual extremes: either a sex kitten who can’t keep her hands off famous men; or iron-plated shrew who relies on outright magic to snare her prey.
- The Interesting relationship between Mark Antony and Octavian included “a pitiless talent for defamation.” In many ways, the contest between Antony and Octavian was a political one as much as a military one. We think of 30-second sound bites as being a 20th century convention, but they’ve been around a lot longer than that. Octavian was able to turn Rome against Antony and Cleopatra by shrewdly depicting her as the whore.
- Through it all, Schiff perks up this oft-told subject with stellar writing. In discussing conflicting accounts between the historians Plutarch and Dio regarding Cleopatra’s famed encounter with Octavian (this is near the end, when she’s out of options, close to suicide), Schiff writes: “Plutarch is writing for Puccini, Dio for Wagner.” At another point, she notes that Octavian’s argument “had cleaner lines and better visuals.”
** “Solar” by Ian McEwan. This is another one recommended by a Beehive reader. Here’s one way as a novelist to approach the looming monumental abyss known as climate change: Write an acerbic, dark comic account of a deeply flawed man who might hold the key to salvation. McEwan’s “Solar” takes us deep into the brilliant but self-indulgent mind of Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist with voracious appetites (he’s been married five times, drinks to excess and just keeps getting fatter), an almost absurd sense of self-entitlement, and quite possibly the answer to clean energy. McEwan has a brilliant, writerly, tactician’s touch with a set piece – there’s one scene on a train in which Beard mistakenly thinks a fellow passenger is stealing his potato chips, while the reverse is true – and a cheeky way of one-upping his own farcical elements by going all meta on us. (In the case of the potato chips, Beard later tells the story in a speech, only to be joshed by a professor of urban mythology that the anecdote is a classic example of storytelling.) But there’s a little too much farce in the book as Beard’s life crumbles. The book is rousingly written, but its nihilistic qualities made me want to sigh. Which, come to think of it, is about what you can say for global warming.
** “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham. Before I started reading Maugham, this is the book that I associated with him — but it doesn’t turn out to be my favorite of his. Larry is a World War I fighter pilot who experiences the horror of combat at an early age – and afterward rejects the conventions that a “comfortable” life attempts to impose upon him. Instead he becomes an almost monk-like figure seeking enlightenment. Though he’s engaged to a pretty and well-off upper-crust Chicago heiress named Isabel, who’s obviously smitten with him, he basically worms his way out of her life by doing everything that a well-bred, materialistic American would sniff at. By living on a small but stable income, Larry travels the world studying great thinkers and pondering the big questions.
The story is told in a loose, casual style by a narrator (a writer assumed to be Maugham himself) filling us in on events periodically in Larry’s life. The effect is not unlike bumping into an old friend every so often and getting riveting but incomplete periodic updates on a fascinating mutual friend. The narrator keeps tabs on his friend Elliot, Isabel’s uncle (and the most vividly drawn and brashly portrayed character in the novel), and a snobbish art dealer almost utterly consumed with his social standing. (In a sad denoument to Elliot’s life, his greatest disappointment is not being invited to yet one more exclusive party, and it’s one of the narrator’s kindest acts to procure a counterfeit invitation so Elliot will die happy.) And we learn over the years of Isabel’s still potent love for Larry and her own financial problems due to the Depression.
To grant “The Razor’s Edge” its full impact, I think you really have to think of it as being a product of a certain time when the idea of seeking enlightenment from the philosophies of the East as a cutting-edge concept. Today, that trope is well-established, but when Maugham was writing in the 1940s, it would have been a very big deal for an establishment character to chuck it all and travel to India.
This isn’t my favorite Maugham novel, however. While I find the structure intriguing, the most interesting character turns out to be the narrator rather than Larry. (You could even make the argument that the person who comes closest to enlightenment – or at least sharing the benefits of the quest – is the writer himself.) And that saps the novel of some of its vitality.
“The Hour I First Believed” by Wally Lamb. Sometimes novels such as this one are described as “sprawling,” a nod to the author’s ability to stitch together multiple story threads and often generational elements. And sometimes they’re described as “bloated,” which suggests the author got bogged down in the weight of his or her own words. I’d go with 30 percent sprawling and 70 percent bloated when it comes to this book, which tells the story of a high-school English teacher at Columbine High School whose life is irrevocably shifted by the events of that day.
Caelum Quirk isn’t actually there for the massacre – but his wife, Maureen, is, and the long-term impact on her is predictably severe. Against this contemporary narrative we delve more deeply into Caelum’s past and his family history, the highlight of which was the establishment of a progressive women’s prison by his grandmother. There are plenty of finely crafted moments here, and the central character of Caelum is rich and complex – not entirely likable, and eminently flawed, but with a sturdy humanity. But the historical chunks of the tale – presented as if they’re excerpts from a doctoral thesis written by a woman’s studies student (and Hurricane Katrina victim) who stumbles upon the Quirk family history – feel forced. For Lamb, tackling Columbine (and Katrina!) was a blustery and audacious move, and I don’t think he pulled it off.
“O Pioneers!” by Willa Cather. In yet another brusque, elegiac nod to the slowly tamed wilds of Nebraska, Cather offers up one of her trademarked strong-woman characters in a tale of hardship, sacrifice and success amongst the interior frontier of this country. Alexandra Bergson’s family scraped together a living on the land, and before her father dies, he gives her his blessing as de facto head of the household, knowing she has the smarts and the willpower to hold things together. (Interestingly, Alexandra assumes the position over her two brothers, offering an interesting twist on the contemporary gender expectations.) Like so many clever Americans, Alexandra is shrewd, hard-working and lucky, and she becomes a pillar of the community – even if she does remain unmarried, always a liability for the time.
Like the other books by Cather that I’ve read, there’s an ache in these pages, a stern recognition of the price of hard work – but also an almost giddy realization at the riches of being at one with the land and your dreams. Yet there’s also something dark at work here, a side of Cather that almost says: Enough already with freedom and wide open spaces, there are rules (and fences) that must be erected to keep us civilized and sane. (I was appalled when Alexandra visits Frank, the jealous husband who killed her beloved brother Emil, and she tells him, “I don’t feel hard toward you. They were more to blame than you.”) Why, oh why, would Alexandra side with this dark soul of a man against her own brother? Was Cather really that much of a prude when it came to the bonds of marriage? I can’t help but wish that Cather was conforming more to convention than her own free spirit, although it’s also probably true I’m laying a contemporary template on another time.
More palatable to me than the plot is the feel of the novel, a wide-openness that seems to blow through the text. Cather writes of the frontier: “This land was an enigma. It was like a horse that no one knows how to break to harness, that runs wild and kicks things to pieces.” And this: “There is something frank and joyous and young in the open face of the country. It gives itself ungrudgingly to the moods of the season, holding nothing back. Like the plains of Lombardy, it seems to rise a little to meet the sun. The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other.” So very well put, Ms. Cather.
** “One of Ours” by Willa Cather. The author won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for this novel. Is it her best work? I’m no Cather scholar, obviously, and I haven’t even yet read all her works, but I’d already venture a no. It seems as if the award for “One of Ours” was more an acknowledgement of a body of work – and what a body it was! – rather than the specific title. I found “One of Ours” a well written but disjointed work that blends in somewhat awkward fashion Cather’s gorgeous elegiac ode to her beloved Nebraska with a subtle, impressionistic account of the American experience in World War I.
** “The Women: A Novel” by T.C. Boyle. It’s hard to imagine today an architect being quite so famous as Frank Lloyd Wright. But in his time, he was like the cross between a revered elder statesman and a tabloid target. To think that his extremely messy personal life – and there’s no doubt in this book it was messy – was front-page fodder, right down to journalists staking out his every move when things got extra spicy, is remarkable.
Boyle’s novelization of Wright’s messy love life is intriguing and atmospheric, and though I’m not sure I learned much about him as a person or an architect, this much was for sure: Things sure got messy when it came to relationships. Boyle works backwards through the four major women in Wright’s life, starting first with Olgivanna, a dancer, and his last wife. Before that: the unstable Miriam, drug-addicted and just plain crazy; preceded by the wonder Mamah, portrayed as intellectual soul mate; and starting with his faithful first wife, Kitty, who would have been as happy as a clam to raise his children and be a lifelong mate. Boyle adds another level of technique to his storytelling structure by adding a fictional Japanese narrator, Tadashi Sato, who serves as a kind of archetype disciple of the great architect. Through Tadashi’s eyes we are enveloped in Wright’s great home, Taliesin, where the architect’s force of personality allowed him to tend a flock of devoted apprentices.
By working backwards through Wright’s love life, the author achieves a certain melancholy tone throughout – how else could it be anything else when the remains of a failed relationship have already littered a preceding chapter? By far the most potent character is Miriam, a real piece of work with her morphine addiction and stage-worthy jealous tantrums. How must it have tormented her to move from mistress to wife, only to watch him take on a new mistress and repeat the pattern. What I got most from telling the story from the point of view of Wright’s women is that there is a certain “great man” mindset that can take hold of a person, and passion can be just one more kind of appetite to indulge to excess.
** “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman. Finally, a hearty recommendation. This charming, delicate little novel about a struggling international newspaper based in Rome will first and foremost appeal to journalists, of course. Unlike most books (and movies – especially movies!) that purport to represent the journalistic lifestyle, this is one that actually seems to capture the essence of the endeavor. In a series of finely crafted chapters, we meet the personnel of the newspaper: the hapless Paris correspondent estranged from his children and floundering as his twilight years engulf both his career and mental stability; the picked-upon obituary writer who slowly, surely emerges from his own extended funk even as tragedy strikes; the embattled editor-in-chief grappling with the flotsam of marriage. Their mostly personal stories are only loosely related, but taken as a whole, they manage to convey the soul of a newspaper, if such a thing is possible. This gem of a book was one to savor.
UP NEXT: I’m taking a break with a piffle by P.G. Wodehouse. What I really want to read next is the new biography of the artist Modigliani, but it’s priced at a whopping $18 on Amazon. I might opt instead for David Vann’s acclaimed “Caribou Island: A Novel.”
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN: What are you reading? Tell me in a comment, as long or short as you want, below.