Early on in this hefty tome, I found myself enjoying it immensely. The approach is more thematic than chronological, so I wouldn’t recommend this as a first introduction to the life of Edith Wharton – the RWB Lewis biography is still probably best for that. But this is still an engrossing new examination of Wharton as an artist, person and influencer. This book also has some of the best insights I’ve found so far into the complex relationship between Wharton, Henry James and his circle.
Once I finished the book, rather wishing it did not have to end, I concluded that likely no one will ever have the complete picture of this complex woman and artist, in part because she destroyed some of her correspondence along the way. As well, her closest relationships were with two equally enigmatic individuals – Walter Berry and Morton Fullerton. As challenging as this book has been, though, I’m glad I stuck with it because I think it is the fullest, most precise and most respectful portrait of the incomparable Mrs. Wharton. It also provides concise yet incisive analyses of all of her major works, including The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth.
An infectious, compelling read … Interestingly, I thought the characters were vibrant and very believable, but the plot premise was rather improbable. At the same time, it was kind of a cliffhanger to see how it would all resolve.
For good or bad, when I’ve gone as far as a chapter or its equivalent in a book, I commit to finishing that book. Perhaps life is too short and there are too many good books out there to possibly waste time with something that isn’t clicking with you as a reader. However, I can’t not stick with a book until the (sometimes bitter) end, on the chance that it is just slow to build and win my interest and confidence, and will reward me in the end. Such was the case with Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas – and I’m very, very glad I stuck with it.
An unnamed African-American man sprints through a four-day period in New York City, scrambling to find jobs, settle debts and just plain score in order to amass enough money to win back his estranged wife and three children by finding a new home and paying his children’s school fees. During that sprint, he struggles with real and perceived demons from the past and present, including alcoholism, professional and creative disappointment, and racism. He also struggles with whether or not he’s actually sprinting after the right things, from his family to his aspirations to what he’s been led to believe are his top personal and financial priorities in this compressed and nerve wracking exercise. The authenticity of the proverbial American Dream is hinted at, and the striving of Jay Gatsby is referred to specifically and yearningly several times.
What initially verges on irritating about this book is perhaps also what is brilliant about it. You can’t get a purchase in this slippery narration, as the beleaguered narrator layers his four-day grocery list of desperate “to do’s” with complaints about why he’s in this situation to begin with, flashbacks to ostensibly pivotal moments in his life and so on. As a reader, it’s disorienting … but then it occurred to me that this effect was exactly the point. The narrator was unable to get his own purchase, kind of like he was tumbling faster and faster downward … ah yes!
Just as it is difficult to get your footing with the narration, it is difficult to get a clear handle on the nameless narrator for, in fact, much of the book. It becomes an increasingly tedious thing to listen to a protagonist bemoan his so-called life as a social experiment. Something or someone other than him is always responsible for his failings and shortcomings – he even blames his dissatisfaction with how he strums a guitar on genetics. As the reader, you rally with him when he reacts to a real insult – someone on a renovation job site singling him out with the n word – but then you shake your head when he also perceives insult from someone inadvertently putting milk in his coffee. As he reaches the end of this breathless sprint, though, he seems to acknowledge that everyone is a social experiment, and it’s all a social experiment. And on that encouraging point with his own character, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the book ends on a significantly hopeful note.
This is a thorny, challenging, brilliant book.
Fawcett serves up a series of memorable and provocative essays illustrating and reflecting on the effects of mass media. The sequence of essays is anchored by a running commentary (placed in the footnotes and intentionally not sync’ed to the beginnings and ends of each essay) on how the Khmer Rouge destroyed the memories and imagination of the Cambodian people and culture.
Cambodia is one of the Canadian non-fiction titles I’ve recommended for Canada Reads 2012: True Stories. If you’d like to support this book as a possible Canada Reads finalist, you can vote for it here, as well as perusing some other great recommendations.
This is an influential, visionary milestone work on information design and information overload. Originally published in 1989 (reissued in 1990 and 1991, and updated in 2000), it is still very relevant today.
Rosemary Sullivan does a superb job of balancing her portrait of the young Margaret Atwood in her childhood, young adulthood and early career with a solid critical assessment of the burgeoning Canadian literary scene and canon. Sullivan also ably dovetails Atwood’s place in the Canadian literary realm, as well as Atwood’s precocious and always growing potential at that point to influence and shape it. Sullivan also captures Atwood’s own sense of balance, grounded in a loving and supportive upbringing, between personal and emotional health, artistic exploration and integrity, and professionalism. Here is an excerpt that expresses it well:
“Margaret made a distinction: personally, art was a vocation, a gift, which required all her imagination and commitment. But publicly, it was also a profession, with rights and responsibilities. Ironically, the romantic notion of the artist confronting demons alone in an attic freed society of any responsibility for art. The artist suffered, by definition, and was placeless in a culture where he or she had no social role. Margaret was beginning to see the artist as completely different from the romantic cliche. The artist was meant to actively shape society, and not be its victim. When the artist actually spoke out, though, society often felt threatened.”
Atwood is and continues to be engaged and impressive (for example, the Globe and Mail just named her Canada’s Nation Builder of the Decade in Arts, and she tweets voraciously at www.twitter.com/MargaretAtwood), and Sullivan is impressive in her portraiture and context setting. Even if one does not particularly care for Atwood’s works (although there is a range of genres and subject to please most omnivorous readers) or politics, “The Red Shoes” is still an absorbing and inspiring examination of a life and a calling well, healthily, optimistically and fiercely lived.
The Red Shoes is one of the Canadian non-fiction titles I’ve recommended for Canada Reads 2012: True Stories. If you’d like to support this book as a possible Canada Reads finalist, you can vote for it here, as well as perusing some other great recommendations.
Meredith Quartermain’s “Matter” has some interesting echoes amongst its selections: Sylvia Legris’ fascination with birds and birdsong, Don McKay’s veneration of the natural world, Erin Moure’s sprightly dissection of the construction of words. Quartermain’s premise of examining words as if they were species and genera is intriguing, but seems to prove overwhelming over the course of this slim volume. Her concern with sticking to the constructs and constraints of the theme of physical and etymological taxonomies regularly bogs her poems down. The results are just too dense and intricate at times. When Quartermain relaxes and just lets the words flow, as she does in “Matter 18: An Albumen of Absence” and in the whimsical “Life List of Words” at the end of the volume, the premise retains its charm but becomes much more accessible.
Amazingly visionary satire on the chemical and electronic hum that surrounds us all, clouds our reasoning and distracts us from what should be important in our lives … but doesn’t distract us enough to ameliorate our base fears. Sometimes downright hilarious and often very touching, this is a stunning book.
Paul Auster’s “Invisible” is a compelling, delicious, nasty read. The reader needs to adjust expectations and be reconciled to not really caring about or identifying with any of the characters, as none of them can be trusted to have an accurate picture of the central story and circumstances, and at least two of the characters are likely guilty of monstrous acts. Auster treats his characters more like moral chesspieces than people, and the book is more a puzzle for the reader to solve than a milieu in which the reader can imagine him or herself. In fact, a reference late in the book to “a laboratory of human possibilities” probably captures it best.
This is a pleasant, lightweight read, competently written with a likeable cast of characters and notable devotion to the heroine’s Airedale terriers