REVIEW | Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie | #readwomen2014

Sightlines-Kathleen-Jamie

title:  Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Kathleen Jamie
genre: essays/narrative nonfiction
pages: 245
published: 2013
source: my personal library

“That’s what we see.  What we listen to, though, is silence.  Slowly we enter the most extraordinary silence, a radiant silence. It radiates from the mountains, and the ice and the sky, a mineral silence which presses powerfully on our bodies, coming from very far off. It’s deep and quite frightening, and makes my mind seem clamorous as a goose. I want to quell my mind, but I think it would take years.” (4)

I love reading about nature and the environment, but I’m fairly hopeless when it comes to the complexities of the sciences.  Math has never been my strong suit, and as soon as any scientific article veers into the land of formulas and equations, I can already feel my heart start racing and the tears welling up in my eyes. When my high school physics teacher announced to my class one day that most people did OK one our latest assignment save a few who, in his opinion, had the scientific insight of a pile of leaves waiting to be raked in his backyard, he was referring to me (unfortunately, a true story). For these reasons, I tend to gravitate toward more lyrical than strictly academic writing on the sciences, which is why I love Kathleen Jamie.

Jamie’s work reminds me a lot of the work of Elizabeth Kolbert, whose environmental journalism strikes the perfect balance between the narrative and the academic.  In Sightlines, Jamie is able to take us to parts of the global off-limits to those of us who happen to not be field-biologists, archeologists, or millionaire travel enthusiasts.  Within the span of 300+ pages, Jamie takes us to see the Aurora Borealis, to the remote archipelago of St. Kilda off the coast of Scotland, to the Hvalsalen (or Whale Hall) in the Bergen Natural History Museum of Norway.  With each page and each essay, I kept thinking to myself “I absolutely picked the wrong career.  I want to have that experience and write about that!”

St. Kilda

St. Kilda

What really drew me in to Jamie’s work was her gift for descriptive language.  She has an ability to really paint a clear, vibrant, vivid picture of these amazing, remote places…and her prose!  Perfect balance between the poetic and the academic.  Comme ça:

“Gannets glitter.  They’re made for vision, shine in any available light, available to see and be seen.  Their eyes are round and fierce, with a rim of weird blue, and they are adapted to see down through the surface reflections of the sea. There, they take what they need–and what they don’t.  Less patrician poet, more bargain-hunter. ‘A butter scoop, a battle-door, a golf-ball, some toy whips, some little baskets and a net- makers needle’ are just some of the oddities found in gannets’ nests,–but that quaint list was compiled a century ago, when an ornithologist called J.H. Gurney published an earnest, learned book called simply The Gannet.  All that was then known of the bird’s history and natural history is there. A battledoor is a sort of tennis racket, and what would a gannet want with one of those? But the acquisitive habit continues, hence the shredded polyprop rope and nylon net.  Sometimes the youngsters get entangled in this stuff, and die like that, hanged from their natal cliffs before they can fly.” (82-83)

A gannet mid-flight

A gannet mid-flight

Rubric rating:  8.5.  Absolutely picking up Findings, Jamie’s other collection of environmentally/travel-themed essay collection.

2014 goals:

  • Read 75 books (7/75)
  • Read titles from 6 continents ( 2/6 continents read:  Europe, North America)
  • Read titles from 20 countries ( 4/20 countries read:  Italy (Sardinia), America, England, Scotland)  Jamie is native to Scotland, and the majority of the pieces are focused here…I don’t think it would be quite fair nor in the spirit of my goals to count all of the countries she visits!
  • Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (6/10)  Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann, Caroline Blackwood,  Doris Lessing, Kathleen Jamie

REVIEW | The Summer Before the Dark by Doris Lessing | #readwomen2014

image via Strand

image via Strand

title:  The Summer Before The Dark [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Doris Lessing
genre: literary fiction
pages: 273
published: 1973
source: my personal library

GENERAL SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never read The Summer Before the Dark, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here. Since it was published in 1973, and because Lessing is a NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR,  I’m writing with the assumption that I’m the one late to the party (which is usually the case) and many of you lovers of literary fiction have probably either read it already or are super familiar with the plot. So, if not, stop. Now. You’ve been warned.

“All those years were now seeming like a betrayal of what she really was.  While her body, her needs, her emotions–all of herself–had been turning like a sunflower after one man, all that time she had been holding in her hands something else, the something precious, offering it in vain to her husband, to her children, to everyone she knew–but it had never been taken, had not been noticed.  But this thing she had offered, without knowing she was doing it, which had been ignored by herself and by everyone else, was what was real in her.”  (page 140)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I couldn’t help but call to mind Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) (which I’m coincidentally currently rereading) as I read Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark.  Though Lessing’s piece takes place in the 1960s, she’s covering familiar territory: Lessing’s heroine Kate Brown has reached a point in her life where she has the chance to figure out who she is, outside of her roles of dutiful wife and nurturing mother.  What’s powerful about Lessing’s work is how Kate’s feelings of superfluousness drive the narrative.  Kate has done what she’s supposed to: she supported her husband by raising their children, running their home and entertaining their guests. Now her children are grown and her husband is abroad; no one needs her anymore.  There is nothing she is supposed to be doing.  At a time where she has the unique opportunity to reassert herself and explore her own passions and interests beyond the expectations of others, it becomes clear she doesn’t remember how.  As a result, even as she steps away from the confines of the home, she continues to let her life be dictated by the decisions of others.  (e.g. a friend of her husband suggests she takes a job as a translator and she does; a handsome stranger she meets in a hotel lobby suggests she accompany him to Spain and she does).  Kate may *think* she’s making decisions for herself, but she’s still largely being guided by the whims and needs of those she meets (i.e.men).   Then, midway through the novel, finding herself in the middle of the European equivalent of Hicksville in Spain, she gets sick.  Like, debilitatingly, life-threateningly sick.  She flees back to London, and spends weeks upon weeks in bed in a crazy-expensive hotel, completely neglecting her appearance and overall cleanliness and health…Kate seems to have completely LOST HER SHIT. (n.b. What I found equally as disturbing as Kate’s transformation was the lack of contact from her family and their general lack of concern for her well-being.  They’re all off, doing their own thing, not at all curious as to how she is or what’s she’s been up to.  It just struck me as really sad.)  By the time she gets out of bed, Kate is emaciated and unkempt, and decides to greet the world as such.  Her clothes are falling off of her.  Her gray hair has grown in and her red-dye job has faded, and the gray has reclaimed the majority of her hairline.  She no longer projects “Mrs. Michael Brown.” She is someone else entirely.  She finds herself ignored.  Invisible.  And she’s fascinated by this experience, by being able to face society as someone other than “herself.” This sensation is the thing that seems to trigger a bit of clarity and productive self-reflection…but then she relapses (growth-wise).   Kate, on a whim, decides to rent a room in a flat belonging (??) to 20-something Maureen, who in time comes to stand in for Kate’s daughter Eileen.  Kate quickly resumes the maternal role of nurturer during Maureen’s existential crisis of sorts (i.e. SO MANY MEN LOVE ME!  WHICH ONE DO I MARRY??? And I’m kind of like, meh, about most of them).   And in the interim, Kate comes to the following conclusion:

“The mood she was in when she walked in at her front door again would be irrelevant: now that was the point, it was the truth.  We spend our lives assessing, balancing, weighing what we think, we feel…it’s all nonsense.  Long after an experience which has been experienced as this or that kind of thought, emotion, and judged at the time accordingly–well, it is seen quite differently.  That’s what was happening, you think; and what you thought or felt about it at the time seems laughable, jejune.

How was her summer out of the family going to seem to her in a year or so’s time? She could be quite certain that it would not seem anything like it did now.  So, why bother to assess and weigh, saying, This is what I am thinking, and therefore I should do this or that, this or that is happening…at which point in Kate’s deliberations (for she was, of course, doing what she was deciding was pointless) Maureen came in, and said, “Kate, you know what it is? It doesn’t matter, that’s what it is.  I can’t feel that it matters. Whatever I decide to do.” She went quickly out again.” (page 256)

Uplifting, right?

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Moral of the story:  it’s healthy to be a bit selfish.  It’s dangerous to completely surrender our entire selves to one thing, whether it be to our job, to our children or to our relationships…because if that outer thing, that image that we’ve allowed to define us, is suddenly removed, what remains?

Rubric rating: 8.5   Depressing, but thought-provoking.  (Plus .5 was awarded for the recurring seal dreams.  Because SEALS.)

Baby-Sealjpg

2014 goals:

  • Read 75 books (6/75)
  • Read titles from 6 continents ( 2/6 continents read:  Europe, North America)
  • Read titles from 20 countries ( 3/20 countries read:  Italy (Sardinia), America, England)
  • Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (5/10)  Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann, Caroline Blackwood. Doris Lessing

REVIEW | Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart

 

image via Strand

image via Strand

title:  Little Failure: A Memoir [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Gary Shteyngart
genre: memoir
pages: 349
published: 2014
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review

“There is a photograph of me at one year and ten months taken at a photo studio.  Wearing a pair of children’s jogging pants with their outline of a cartoon bunny on one of the front pockets, I hold a phone in my hand (the photo studio is proud to exhibit this advanced Soviet technology), and I am getting ready to bawl. The look on my face is that of a mother in 1943 who just received a fateful telegram from the front.  I am scared of the photo studio. I am scared of the telephone. Scared of anything outside our apartment. Scared of the people in their big fur hats. Scared of the snow.  Scared of the cold.  Scared of the heat. Scared of the ceiling fan at which I would point one tragic finger and start weeping. Scared of any height higher than my sickbed. Scared of Uncle Electric Current. ‘Why was I so scared of everything?’ I ask my mother nearly forty years later.

‘Because you were born a Jewish person,’ she says.” (pages 24-25)

I have yet to read a book that has generated so much attention from strangers on the subway.

Little Failure has been my commuting companion for the past couple weeks, and SO MANY people have stopped me to ask about the book.  Probably because I was clearly, audibly enjoying it.  Seriously.  Laughing out loud.  I almost wish I was handselling copies…

Shteyngart is anything but a failure.  I’ve long been a fan of his writing and often found myself wondering how much of his own experience moving from Russia to Queens at a young age found its way into his work.  Short answer: a lot.   Longer answer:  read the memoir.  Well, read any of his novels first, then read the memoir.  I’d start with The Russian Debutante’s Handbook…but that’s just me.

One of the things I admire about Shteyngart’s work: he is a master of strong, consistent narrative voice.  Even when reading his fiction, I got the sense that there was a lot of him in the piece.  It lends a sense of authenticity to his work, even when his characters are involved in bizarre situations. And when retelling the story of his early childhood in Russia, his journey to America via Vienna, his epic experiences at the Solomon Schecter School of Queens, his time at Oberlin, his early years in New York and his periodic travels back to Russia, Shteyngart approaches each era with honesty and humor.  He is equal parts self-deprecating and self-reflective…but where the use of humor can feel like a deflective technique, Shteyngart wields his wit to build a sense of intimacy with the reader.  Despite having spent the better part of his life feeling like an outsider, he has a gift for allowing the reader to feel like his confidant.

Rubric rating:  8.5  This memoir has solidified Gary Shteyngart’s place among my short list of favorite contemporary writers.  He is absurdly talented.

Other books by Gary Shteyngart:

Gary-Shteyngart

1. The Russia Debutante’s Handbook

2. Absurdistan

3. Super Sad True Love Story

2014 goals:

  • Read 75 books (5/75)
  • Read titles from 6 continents ( 2/6 continents read:  Europe, North America)
  • Read titles from 20 countries ( 3/20 countries read:  Italy (Sardinia), America, England)
  • Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (4/10)  Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann, Caroline Blackwood

REVIEW | Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford #readwomen2014

image via Strand

image via Strand

title:  Madame de Pompadour [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Nancy Mitford
genre: biography
pages: 292
published: 1953
source: my personal library

If you’re looking for a sterile, fact-forward, speculation-free, scholarly biography of Madame de Pompadour, this is not the book for you.  With Nancy Mitford at the helm, Versailles of the eighteenth century comes back to life in all its glory and decadence. The entire biography reads like having a glass of wine with a very intelligent, very gossip-y confidant, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.  This is a world that Mitford, of all people, understands a bit more than those of us born outside of the aristocracy.  She carries this perspective and insight into the narrative and is able to infuse  a sense of empathy and access into one of the most exclusive eras of French history.

This is not to imply that this book is not thoroughly researched.  Though it may read more like a novel at times, Mitford did her due diligence research-wise. In fact, her study turned up information that ran contrary to the popular historical opinion of the day; most historians argued that Madame de Pompadour had little political influence, whereas Mitford uncovered that she had more power over the King than previously thought, though Mitford is honest about the scope and scale of de Pompadour’s contributions:

“Madame de Pompadour’s excursion into politics will not give much satisfaction to the feminist…To her, as to most women, politics were a question of personalities; if she liked somebody he could do no wrong–a good friend was sure to make a good general, a man who could write Latin verses, and amuse the King, a good minister.  Political problems in themselves were of no interest to her, her talents did not lie in that direction.”  (p. 188)

So she may not have always directly weighed in on the issues of the day, but she was primarily concerned with making sure the king was happy and amused, and did exercise the influence she had as to who the King surrounded himself with, which was bound to have political repercussions in a roundabout way.  Her power came from her extensive access to the King. She was his confidant and many times, his secretary.  Not as much his lover, as one would imagine.  Theirs was a relationship built on deep love, affection, trust and friendship.

Madame-de-Pompadour.1

To give a bit of context (for those of you who may not be French history buffs), Madame de Pompadour was the mistress of Louis XV until her death.  In fact, when she was just a young girl, a fortune-teller prophesied that she would “reign over the heart of the king,” and that she did (p. 22).  After her death, the King took a new mistress, who held that position until his death, which ushered in the era of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (and, as we know, that era didn’t exactly end well for the royal family).  When reading about Madame de Pompadour’s cultural tastes and hobbies, it was hard not to see the stage being set for Marie Antoinette and the infamous misquote of “Let them eat cake!”

“Croÿ describes a visit to Trianon with the King, who showed him the hot-houses, the rare plants, the hens (which he specially liked), the charming pavilion, the flower and vegetable gardens; all arranged so prettily.  Croÿ is full of admiration, but deplores the fact that Madame de Pompadour should have given the King ‘an unfortunate taste for expensive little things which cannot last.’ This view was shared by the public.  Madame de Pompadour excelled at an art which the majority of human beings thoroughly despise because it is unprofitable and ephemeral: the art of living.” (p. 128)

One of de Pompadour’s largest contributions to court life was the establishment of a theatre company composed entirely of ladies and gentlemen of the court.  It was invitation only, for the actors as well as for the audience, and access to their productions became another huge indicator of status in courtly life.  This excess, this emphasis on the importance of pleasure and leisure, is why I find this era of history so fascinating.

When I visited Paris in high school, I fell IN LOVE.  With the spirit of the city.  With the architecture.  With the art.  With the romance.  With the energy. With Rick, our tour guide (HUGE unrequited crush…he read us POETRY IN FRENCH and knew about ART and LITERATURE, all of which I found incredibly attractive).

me, at 16, at the Musée d'Orsay (I believe)

me, at 16, at the Musée d’Orsay (I believe)

My heritage is French, Irish and Iroquois, and when our tour guide read my last name, he told me that there was a good chance that the “de” in my last name indicated that somewhere along the line, my family had received that title from the King. Well, that hooked me.  Whether that holds to be true or not, I have found myself completely enthralled by French history ever since.  The notion that there was an entire class of people who spent their entire life in service to art and beauty and pleasure…the excess and the courtly rules and the intrigue! And the CLOTHES!!! God, the CLOTHES!!!!

*catches breath*

I’ve read quite a few biographical pieces on this era of French history, and I thoroughly enjoyed Mitford’s work.  To me, it felt like a great translation reads:  she truly captured the spirit and essence of the time.

Rubric rating: 8

I read this title in 2013, so I can’t count it toward my 2014 goals.

REVIEW | Never Breathe a Word: The Collected Stories of Caroline Blackwood #readwomen2014

image via Strand

image via Strand

title: Never Breathe a Word: The Collected Stories of Caroline Blackwood [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Caroline Blackwood
genre: short stories/essays
pages: 366
published: 2010
source: my personal library

“‘Have you ever seen the way that an elm dies, Theresa? An elm doesn’t die like other trees, you know. An elm dies from the inside. An elm dies in secret.  You should always remember to be careful when you walk underneath elms, for they can be dangerous. Elms are the only trees which give no warning signs of their own decay. They can just come toppling down with a fearful crash while all their branches still look glorious and intact and all their leaves are still in bud. Once they are on the ground it can be quite frightening to see what has happened inside their trunks. Once they are dead you can see how the rot has eaten into them so hideously that they are completely hollow. People who allow themselves to become trivial and humdrum are like blighted elms.  Eventually they are destroyed by being so filled with their own hollowness…’  The more she would speak about dying elms, the more I would start to feel like one.” (How You Love Our Lady, page 30).

Before I talk about the book, I want to talk about the back cover copy and a general issue I find with the marketing of notable women writers:  the contextualization of their accomplishments in relation to their famous husband(s)/lover(s)/sibling(s). This drives me NUTS.  From the back cover:

“Though perhaps better known for her tumultuous marriages to the painter Lucien Freud and the poet Robert Lowell…”

This is her book.  A collection of her short stories and essays.  And the FIRST SENTENCE on the back cover insinuates that, even though Blackwood was an accomplished writer, the most IMPORTANT thing about her is who she was not-necessarily happily married to. The copy that goes on the back of a book is a very strategic marketing decision. The marketing team is banking on the fact that even if you’ve only vaguely heard of Blackwood, you’ve absolutely heard of Freud and Lowell, and their accomplishments will be the thing that compels you to pick up the book. That’s beyond insulting. She’s been nominated for the Booker Prize.  She was the daughter of brewery heiress Maureen Guinness. Yet that’s a biographical footnote.  I’m just really sick of accomplished women being defined by society by the men in their life.  #patriarchy

Anyway, onto the collection itself.  It’s solid.  The first 3/4 of the book are short stories, while the last 1/4 is comprised on non-fiction, mostly biographical essays.  But the through-line that links all the pieces all the pieces together are the disturbed characters at their core.

“The eyes of the dying can become cold as the lens of any camera.  They take mechanical pictures of those who surround them.  They focus on their doctors and their nurses.  They shift their glassy stare to the grim and rigid faces of their distressed friends and relatives as if they have some need to photograph only their uselessness–to capture some last image of their inadequacy which they can blame, retain, and carry to eternity.” (The Eyes of Lenora, page 265)

Blackwood is a master of characterization, and the subjects of her stories are often dark and deeply troubled women.  Her characters are morally-stunted by their self-absorption, and their preoccupation with their own needs and wants predominates the narrative.  A few of the stories that stood out to me:

Marigold’s Christmas: (fiction) This story broke my heart.  A young woman, facing the prospect of spending her first Christmas alone with her daughter, has what I consider to be the most depressing/pathetic Christmas eve/Christmas morning ever.  Her choices are so desperate and so blatantly self-interested…this is the stuff that childhood trauma is made of. Poor Marigold and her glitter pinecones.

The Baby Nurse: (fiction) What happens when you take a new-born baby, a woman with a desperately sad case of postpartum depression, an arrogant, self-aggrandizing baby nurse, and a disinterested father with a vendetta?  A brilliantly disturbing story.

Who Needs It?: (fiction)  The uplifting story of a salon owner who fires her newly hired shampoo “girl” after a customer takes notice of the tattoo that marks her as a concentration camp survivor.  Listening to the salon owner’s logic as she explains her decision to her sex-deprived husband is deeply unsettling.

The Answering Machine: (fiction)  The sad tale of a woman who, after the death of her husband, makes daily trips to the local pub to drink one beer and leave herself messages on her own answering machine, so that upon her return home, some sound will fill her apartment. The story Blackwood crafts is a heartbreaking portrait of loneliness, examining what we do to fill the voids in our lives.

Never Breathe a Word: (nonfiction)  Blackwood relays the beyond creepy childhood story of their family’s groom, a former jockey, who tried to lure her into the woods in the middle of the night with the promise of pills that would make her a better horsewoman.

Piggy: (nonfiction)  Blackwood shares the story of Piggy McDougal, the Catholic-hating albino-esque redhead with a thyroid problem (got a clear visual yet) who ruled the halls of Stoneyport Preparatory School during her brief childhood tenure there during the war, giving the reader a much-needed break from the cruelty of adults to focus on the cruelty of children.

If you’re feeling awesome about humanity and want to be knocked down a peg, this is the book for you.

The honesty with which she approaches the work is astounding and worthy of merit in and of itself.  Yes, her characters are dark, but the situations she crafts are so mundane or so universal (the birth of a child, the loss of a loved one, the first Christmas after a separation) that despite the darkness, you’ll walk away looking at the world in a whole new light.

Rubric rating: 7.5    I want to read Great Granny Webster STAT.

2014 goals:

  • Read 75 books (4/75)
  • Read titles from 6 continents ( 2/6 continents read:  Europe, North America)
  • Read titles from 20 countries ( 3/20 countries read:  Italy (Sardinia), America, England)
  • Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (4/10)  Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann, Caroline Blackwood

REVIEW | Transatlantic by Colum McCann

image via Strand website

image via Strand website

title: Transatlantic [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Colum McCann
genre: fiction
pages: 
published: 2013
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review

To describe Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic as merely historical fiction doesn’t seem quite accurate; it attempts to be a bit more than that. The piece spans multiple eras in history but at its core is TIME:  the link between our collective past and how it continues to shape our present.  And in the 1800s and 1900s, one of the biggest factors that indicated that the times they were a-changin’ was the increasing ease and accessibility of overseas travel.  As technology advances, our world becomes increasingly smaller and our sense of global community greater.  This novel attempts to capture the experience of those huge shifts through the experience of one family, but with only partial success.

Each section of the novel focuses on a different era in history, and reads almost like a short story, starting in the first chapter of Book One where McCann reimagines Jack Alcock & Teddy Brown‘s first flight across the Atlantic after World War I, reported on by one Emily Ehrlich and her daughter, Lottie.  As the novel continues, each chapter takes on a new historical figure/era/event (such as Frederick Douglass‘ trip to Ireland and former Senator George Mitchell‘s work in Ireland during the Clinton era where he helped broker the Good Friday Agreement) but McCann always brings the story back around to the experience of one of the relatives of the Ehrlich women. As I read through Book One, it was hard to see how all the eras and stories related to each other, but the loose ends are tied together and the family connection are made much clearer in Book Two.

What I appreciated about McCann’s piece was the path he chose to take with the narrative:  it would have been super easy for him to write a story populated with solely white male historical figures (history is RIFE with them), to laud their accomplishments and tie that history with a family of white men, especially with the piece set primarily in Ireland and America.  But McCann chose to write about a family of women, and wrote from the perspective of servants and icemakers and reporters, as well as from the perspective of great men such as Frederick Douglass.  It was nice to see a diversity of people and voices incorporated into the narrative. That said, the women were still predominately at the periphery of the story, and seemed, at least to me, almost a plot device to weave together McCann’s reimaginings of these GREAT MEN of history.  These MEN and their EXPERIENCES and CONTRIBUTIONS, great though they absolutely are, really form the core of Book One. McCann spends the bulk of that part of the narrative humanizing these historical figures, making them flesh and blood again, allowing us to peek into their minds and experience the era through their eyes.  Few things happen, but we really gain insight into these specific characters.  To really get a sense of the family whose history ties all the portraits of these great men together, we have to wait until Book Two.  And when we finally get there, the chapters seem far more focused on connecting the dots through events than on developing the women as fully as the GREAT MEN of the first half of the book.  The balance from Book One is almost reversed: SO MANY THINGS happen in Book Two, but we don’t quite get a complete sense of who these women really were to the same extent and depth of access as the men. In fact, the most comparable, fully developed, strongest depiction of a woman from that family line doesn’t come until Book Three, the final 42ish pages of the novel.  Whether intended or not, who these women were, compared to the men, almost seems beside the point.  They have served their narrative function.  Back to the periphery of history they go.

Prose-wise, there were a few really beautiful passages in the book…but there were also many verbal flourishes that seemed superfluous and showy and took me out of the story.  Some of the allusions to flight worked well, some were a bit shtick-y.  All in all, I found the book a bit bumpy.  It didn’t feel quite finished, quite polished, quite balanced.

Rubric rating:  6   It was an easy, quick, fairly enjoyable subway read.  Only upon reflection did what I perceive as an imbalance bother me.  That said, I understand why McCann is a popular writer and why people gravitate to his stories.

2014 goals:

  • Read 75 books (3/75)
  • Read titles from 6 continents (continents read:  Europe, North America)
  • Read titles from 20 countries (countries read:  Italy (Sardinia), America)   McCann was born in Ireland, but lives in New York, and since this books is as American as it is Irish, it feels unfair to treat it as an “Irish” novel…the intention of this goal was to read more authors hailing from and living in other countries, with their countrymen as the intended audience, written in their native language.
  • Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (3/10)  Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann

REVIEW | Report From the Interior by Paul Auster

image via Strand website

image via Strand website

title: Report From the Interior [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Paul Auster
genre: memoir
pages: 341
published: 2013
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review

Last week, I shared with you my thoughts on Siri Hustvedt’s The Sorrows of an American, and this week, I’m talking about her husband’s new memoir Report From the Interior, though memoir doesn’t seem to be the correct term.  Scrapbook?  Exploration? Contemplation?  In Winter Journal, Auster tells the story of his physical self, whereas in Report From the Interior, he begins to map his intellectual, moral and emotional development: his childhood in New Jersey, his familial relationships, the movies and books that left their thumbprint in his consciousness, his time at Columbia and the letters he wrote to first wife Lydia Davis, who’s writing I also adore.  What drew me to this book?  I really enjoyed Auster’s novel Oracle Night, and was really interested in any insight into the creative development of the author.  Few things interest me more than peeking into the mind of an artist to try to gain any insight, no matter how small, into where the impulse to create comes from and what fuels that passion.

A few things I really appreciated about this book:

  • there was a part where Auster describes a movie that had a huge impact on him as a child, but he doesn’t just reference this movie.  No, he describes the action, scene by scene.  Now, movies are inherently visual creations, but Auster’s retelling is so vivid I left that sequence feeling as if I had seen the movie as well.
  • he includes his correspondence with Lydia Davis at the beginning of their relationship when he was at Columbia and she was in Paris. Auster relates that he recommended to her that she read the work of Flaubert and Proust.  Later in life, she went on to translate both Madame Bovary and Swann’s Way…and is my personal favorite translator of French literature.  Now, this inclusion…I can’t tell if he’s taking a bit of credit for her current literary success or not.  She is his ex-wife, and our exes are exes for a reason, and I think even the most generous among us are guilty of taking the low road from time to time as far as our mutual past is concerned…that said, I don’t pretend to know enough about their marriage or their current relationship to suggest I have any particular insight into this matter.  It’s merely an observation and a wondering…maybe Auster really was the impetus for a part of her writerly formation.
  • the last third of the book is a visual photo album of many of the references Auster makes, further aiding my visualization, really taking the internal journey and making it a bit more three-dimensional (especially for this child of the 80s).

Report From the Interior was my train read for about a week, and I averaged 30-40 pages a day…the pace and the flow just lent itself well to a 45 minute uninterrupted stretch of time.  That said, it was also easy to dip in and out of.  If you’re a fan of Auster’s work, it should prove to be an enjoyable, insightful read.

Rubric rating:  7.5   I am absolutely adding Winter Journal to my epic “to read” pile.

2014 goals:  I read this title in 2013, so in the spirit of honesty, I can’t count this book toward my 2014 goals.