21 September 2007

Random Thoughts on Things Recently Read and Soon to Be Read

Scott Esposito has posted a list of books he's hoping to get to in the next few months, and I thought, "Wouldn't that be fun!" -- of course, there are many books I'm hoping to get to, but I have no idea how much I'll be able to read, especially as November and December are particularly busy times at my new job, and I'll also be in the midst of helping shepherd the next Best American Fantasy into some sort of shape. (I'm currently cultivating a couple new guest reviewers for this site to pick up some of my slack. I feed them whenever possible and sometimes even let them have light. It will be fun to watch as they blossom...)

In putting together a list of books I'm hoping to read, or finish reading, soon, I realized there are a handful of books I've read and not written about. I'll start this rather random and rambling (and staggeringly opinionated!) post, then, with a few of those.

I don't often finish reading books I don't like. Undoubtedly, this tendency has caused me to miss books I would, eventually, have found fascinating, but I can think of very few books that I have disliked during the first 100 pages that have, later, proved rewarding. Resentment ruins the experience of reading, and once I have built up resentment of a book for wasting my time, I'm unlikely to be able to notice its virtues as I continue reading.

Nonetheless, I somehow managed to read three books recently that I quite vehemently disliked from pretty early on, and yet I finished them. The books were The Exception by Christian Jungersen, Forgive Me by Amanda Eyre Ward, and The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson. I disliked them all for similar reasons, and I'm trying to pin down my feelings so as to write an essay, because what bothered me was each book's use of violence as a way of manipulating the reader's sympathies or judgment. The first two books seem well-intentioned but tasteless and crude, the Thomson more interesting in the structural and narrative gambles it makes, though ultimately I wasn't able to discover any meaningful purpose to those gambles, so the whole thing seemed merely absurd, and if the sentences weren't so plain the novel might have caused me to giggle throughout. (I loved Thomson's Divided Kingdom, and just wrote a review [probably for Rain Taxi] of his new novel, Death of a Murderer, which I had mixed but not terribly negative feelings about.)

After The Exception and Forgive Me, I knew I wanted to try to write something about why those two books seemed to me to reduce atrocities to kitsch, and so I began to seek out novels that might offer more thoughtful approaches to the presentation of terrible violence in fiction. This led me to Gillian Slovo's novel Red Dust, which I'd just watched the movie of. While the movie is better than the oddly similar but less engaging In My Country (both are about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission), it turned out to be a real lessening of the book, because the book's strength is its even-handed presentation of very different characters' points of view. While this is no great innovation for a novel, the differences between the movie of Red Dust and the book show why, for this material, it's an excellent choice. The floating viewpoints of the novel are lost in the movie, which puts most of its emphasis on Hilary Swank's character while still trying to maintain the novel's moral complexities. Reading the book shows how significantly the movie fails at that.

Red Dust
makes for a good comparison with The Exception, where multiple points of view are a gimmick that never brings us beyond the fact that Jungersen's novel sets us up to equate obnoxious office workers with the victims of genocide. The Exception obviously and monotonously yells the theme of "we are all capable of atrocities"; Red Dust lets characters and events suggest complexities and ambiguities, but the presentation is generally without the schematic moralizing or melodrama that fills every chapter of The Exception. Red Dust is superior to Forgive Me, too, on a number of levels -- the prose and dialogue don't gleam with superficial polish or sag with ponderous attention to the obvious, the characters are less stereotypical, and the difficulties of South Africa's post-apartheid years are not an excuse for the protagonist to discover great truths about herself or decide that being an independent, adventurous woman is less appealing than being a dull mom in Nantucket.

I'm now reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, a tremendously engrossing novel about which I'm sure I will soon have a lot more to say. [Update 11/6/07: Alas, I found that after an engrossing start, Half of a Yellow Sun didn't really hold up for me, and though I got halfway through, I didn't end up finishing it.]

Somewhere in the last month or so I read Tobias Wolff's Old School, which disappointed me, especially because I have liked many of Wolff's previous books. But Old School hardly left any impression on me -- I really can't remember much of anything from it.

I haven't finished many books I've been intending to finish for some time, including Kelley Eskridge's Dangerous Space and the collection of recent Caine Prize winners, Jungfrau and Other Short Stories. I seldom read short story collections straight through; instead I dip in, come up for air, dip again ... later... I've just started dipping into two collections of Ryunosake Akutagawa's stories, Rashomon and Other Stories and Mandarins. Much of this is Jeffrey Ford's fault, because ever since I read Jeff's essay on "Hell Screen", I've wanted to read it. (And he's right; it's worth it. The story is in the Penguin collection.) It's also Dustin Kurtz's fault, since he recommended Mandarins at the McNally Robinson site, and when I saw a copy sitting on the Archipelago Books table at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I couldn't resist it. The collections complement each other well in their selections (there's very little overlap), and both are quite beautiful paperbacks. The stories are extraordinary -- the title story of Mandarins reminds me of (and is as good as) Chekhov's best early stories.

Finally, some books I hope soon to read or finish reading: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner, Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger, The Changeling by Kate Horsley, Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet, From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad by Jacqueline L. Tobin and Hettie Jones, Foreigners by Caryl Phillips, The Assassin's Song by M.G. Vassanji ... and many more...