Apr 052011
 

I have been reading this book for weeks. Weeks! I don’t take weeks to read a book. In my defense, the first two-thirds of this book were extremely slow. This afternoon, though, I sat down and swept through the last part and actually sat in the early-evening light, enjoying McCann’s writing and then in the dark, contemplating it. Upon finishing, I partially understood the reason it was named the National Book Award winner. However…

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann is not a plot-driven novel. At all. McCann has essentially written a series of stories revolving around a 1974 incident in New York City, when Philippe Petit orchestrated a walk on a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center. In exploring the lives of those below, McCann exemplifies that even in a place like New York, lives are interconnected. Don’t expect much about the funambulist, though. There is a chapter devoted to the walker, but I found it overwrought and exhausting to read. In fact, I’d argue that the novel actually revolves around another man entirely – Corrigan, an Irishman torn between love of God and love of a good woman. So why the pretense of the tightrope walker? I’m still not sure.

McCann has an absolutely beautiful writing style, but I had to sit back and ask why several chapters weren’t cut as they seemed superfluous. I think McCann was attempting to connect each story, but it felt forced, and it made me wonder why writers often don’t acknowledge the anonymity of life – that sometimes there are no neat endings.

The most successful voices (to me) didn’t come until the end of the book. There’s Tillie, a hooker whose own daughter hooks and uses drugs. Tillie wonders how and why she could have let this life happen to her and her daughter In a prison cell, she thinks about her daughter:

I gave Jazzlyn a bath once. She was just a few weeks old. Skin shining. I looked at her and thought she gave birth to the word beautiful.

Then there’s Judge Solomon Soderburg, a man who has lost his son in Vietnam and whose wife is barely holding it together in their Park Avenue apartment. Being a judge may get him a seat in a good restaurant, but he misses his son and has no real outlet for his pain, but, as he says,

You mourn your dead son and you wake up in the middle of the night with your wife weeping beside you and you go to the kitchen, where you make yourself a cheese sandwich and you think, Well, at least it’s a cheese sandwich on Park Avenue, it could be worse, you could have ended up far worse: your reward, a sigh of relief.

The judge’s chapter was, by and far, the most beautifully-written chapter, and I include some gems below:

On the city:

Every now and then [New York City] … assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.

He had a theory about it. It happened, and re-happened, because it was a city uninterested in history. Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past.

On the tightrope walker:

[The walker] was making a statement with his body, and if he fell, well, he fell — but if he survived he would become a monument, not carved in stone or encased in brass, but one of those New York monuments that made you say: Can you believe it? With an expletive.

Then there were moments in the book that plain irritated me. I read the following passage (which actually goes on much longer) and thought to myself, huh, that sounds familiar:

Plastic bags caught on the gusts of the summer wind. Old domino players sat in the courtyard, playing underneath the flying litter. The sound of the plastic bags was like rifle fire. If you watched the rubbish for a while you could tell the exact shape of the wind.

It took me about 3 seconds to remember one of my favorite scenes from the 1999 film American Beauty, where a young filmmaker films a plastic bag dancing on the wind. This immediately annoyed me, and then the further I read, the more annoyed I became. Dawn at Too Fond of Books and Beth Fish Reads both point out that the prevalence of the plastic bag occurred much later than the 70s. So first, a rip-off and then an inaccuracy. Along with the overuse of similes and the seemingly-pointless chapters, I was extremely disappointed in the whole effect of the book. Many readers have divulged they simply didn’t finish the book, which is, of course, the risk when the first half drags so much. It’s a shame because there are moments that are magnificent. Let the Great World Spin has the pretense of a novel, so I pushed on to find out what the heck happens. Well, nothing happens in the novel, but everything happens in the short vignettes. I just wish that perhaps McCann would have called this what it is – a short story collection – and let me get on with my day.

What do you think? Have you ever read a novel that is not what you expected (and not in a good way)? Have you ever been this torn about a book?

Read this one: immediately / asap / when you get a chance / if you’re bored

jenn aka the picky girl

Other opinions:

The Literate Housewife

S. Krishna’s Books

Man of La Book

Nonsuch Book

Mar 102011
 

How do I really want to review this book? I really want to just say, “This book made me mad!” and stomp off like a five-year-old. However, I’m old enough to have a five-year-old (though I don’t) and certainly old enough not to act like one. Maybe.

You see, right off the bat, I was annoyed when I flipped to the back cover to be greeted by this blurb:

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it, so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice, the kind of choice we hope you never have to face…. Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it.

Um, yeah, I will because I don’t want them to start a book at midnight and read frantically until 3 a.m. only to wind up staring off into the darkness going, “Whaaat just happened there?” Plus, I’m not a five-year-old, so why is the blurb person talking to me like I am? Weird.

Anyway, about all that stuff the blurb writer doesn’t want you to blab? Why not? It totally does not work for the plot for the *BIG STUFF* to be revealed bit by bit along the way. In fact, it makes the *BIG STUFF* seem almost anticlimactic because I knew something *BAD* and *BIG* had happened in the past and that it made all this other big, bad stuff happen. Confused yet? Let me tell you what I can without spoiling it for you:

The book opens in an immigration detention center in the UK. Little Bee has been here since she was 14, and she is now 16. She has measured her moments by enumerating ways to kill herself quickly if “the men” come for her again. (See, bad stuff a-happenin). She is released because another detainee Yevette trades favors with a semi-high-ranking official. Little Bee has figured out her only chance for survival is to speak the Queen’s English, which she does quite well, with the exception of figures of speech. She has one goal: she has a driver’s license for a man she met on a beach in Nigeria where she was running from “the men.” Little Bee arrives at the doorstep of Andrew and Sarah (Andrew’s wife), and the two women must reconfigure their lives in the aftermath of what happened on that beach. Sarah is dealing with *big stuff* and cheating on her husband with a jerkface, and Little Bee just comes into all this like a wisened Samantha Jones off Sex and the City, taking everything into stride.

Cleave lets each woman take turns narrating, which is interesting because Little Bee is pretty much the only character I cared about. As is the case with many non-native English speakers, Little Bee’s insights are full of wisdom and clarity. She thinks she and the Queen have much in common because of the sometimes-violent history of the UK:

The Queen smiles sometimes but if you look at her eyes in the portrait on the back of the five-pound note, you will see she is carrying a heavy cargo too. The Queen and me, we are ready for the worst. In public you will see both of us smiling and sometimes even laughing, but if you were a man who looked at us in a certain way we would both of us make sure we were dead before you could lay a single finger on our bodies. Me and the Queen of England, we would not give you the satisfaction.

She describes the life of a detainee:

Maybe the new color of my life was gray. Two years in a gray detention center, and now I was an illegal immigrant…. That means, you live in a gray area.

She would, in fact, design

a national flag for all the world’s refugees, then the flag I would make would be gray. You would not need any particular fabric to make it…A worn-out old brassiere , for example, that has been washed so many times it has become gray.

Isn’t that a fantastic description? So while parts of this book were incredibly beautiful, I felt manipulated, and I think Cleave is a good enough writer that manipulation just isn’t necessary. If it’s not a mystery, then I want to know the pertinent details up front, and not just because it would make reviewing it a heck of a lot easier. Even in the beginning of the book, I kept flipping back to make sure I hadn’t missed anything because Cleave kept referencing the *big stuff*. I’m all about subtle, and I’m a good reader. DON’T make me doubt my context clue skills.

Additionally, though I am aware that the privileged are often the only ones in the position to help, I think the ‘privileged woman saving the less-privileged, usually woman of color’ spiel is getting old. [See my notes on this sort of thing in other reviews.]

A. I don’t buy it. Sarah is not the most selfless character, and I never saw the sort of evolution of character it requires to give up the luxury of a first-world country and your child’s safety (oh yeah, she has a son) to traipse across a dangerous country as a semi-journalistic reporter.

B. What she does is incredibly reckless and puts Little Bee in a much more difficult position than before.

C. Where does she get all this money from? I am really bored with these characters who always, always have enough money to bribe people or pay for totally-unexpected trips for extended periods of time.

So Little Bee. I expected a lot once I was sucked in, and, in my opinion, it didn’t deliver. On the other hand, I will definitely keep an eye out for Cleave because though his planning/organizational/whatthehellareyoudoingtome sense of storytelling was not up my alley, his writing style definitely was.

jenn aka the picky girl

Read this one: immediately / asap / when you get a chance / if you’re bored

P.S. Isn’t this cover beautiful? The illustration is by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, and I think it is simply incredible. Check out his other covers – really great work. I have seen a lot of hype about this book since I’ve been blogging, though I don’t recall specific reviews or whether they were positive or negative. Often, when a book is that talked about, I tend to steer clear. I don’t really know why, other than I am ornery.

P.P.S. Want to hear some other reviews?

The Book Lady’s Blog

Maw Books Blog

Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’?

Beth Fish Reads

Man of La Book

Jul 192010
 

Note: I do not use red pen on student papers as I have found red ink makes them feel they did worse than they actually did. Like employees given pink slips, students are immediately on the defensive.

Pop Culture Nerd and I had a brief exchange on Twitter last night wherein we discussed our picky astute observations regarding grammar-ly matters. (Yes, I totally made up “grammar-ly” so as not to sound incredibly high-handed). I was bemoaning the overuse of similes, she, adverbs, i.e. he demanded forcefully. You see, when you read as much as I do (and as much as most book bloggers do), certain trends begin to stand out. PCN has a great post up about the tics that bug her the most.

Today, I want to go into a full-fledged rant on the simile. Similes are great. “A comparison using ‘like’ or ‘as.'” Excellent. Fourth graders often employ similes in poetry. Adults, however, tend to have a greater grasp of the English language and should not need to rely as heavily on them for description. Notice, I use the word should in that last sentence. Unfortunately, everything I read lately seems to have an overabundance of the darn things. The one that stands out the most: They folded into the booth “like two spoons in cake batter.” Ugh. I get it; they were tired or comfortable or whatever. I really didn’t need the foodie image. Really. Now I’ll tell you, this came from Adriana Trigiani’s book Rococco, but I’m not picking on her alone. This afternoon, while teaching a class, we were discussing paragraph organization, and here’s a quote directly from the textbook: “… the line of thought in paragraph B swerves about like a car without a steering wheel.” I honestly had to pause to let that one take effect. Like moths to a flame, writers seem to be drawn to similes, and if even the textbook uses these (in my opinion) ridiculous analogies, who am I to complain?

My academic background is in English and technical writing and editing, so these choices get my back up. Once or twice, I guess they’re ok. Any more than that, and the writing is lazy. The opening to Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is one of my favorite, so let’s look at it in all of its simile-free glory:

Barrabas came to us by sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner; but the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.

How different would that phrase ring if we changed it:

Barrabas came to us be sea, the child Clara wrote in her delicate calligraphy like filigreed gold …. Barrabas arrived on a Holy Thursday. He was in a despicable cage, caked with his own excrement and urine, and had the lost look of a hapless, utterly defenseless prisoner like the image of Jesus walking to Golgotha. Like a king, the regal carriage of his head and the size of his frame bespoke the legendary giant he would become.

Like a fly in the ointment, Allende’s lovely passage is, well, less lovely. The imagery and the symbolism in the real excerpt are certainly there (interpret as you wish), but if you make it explicit, the words lose their impact. No more interpretation. Less beauty.

So why are authors still doing it? In PCN’s post comments, many blame the writer, and yes, the writer should be held accountable. However, as an editor (in name only, not career), I cringe to think that a professional editor lets manuscripts slide from her desk with these sorts of stylistic choices. The job of an editor is to take what the author created and make it better – grammatically and stylistically. One of my categories on this blog is “where are the editors,” and I’ve started using the tag whenever appropriate. I mean, I get it: Writers tend to use similar words and word phrases and may not always pick up on them. Editors should.

Stay tuned for more “Where are the editors?” posts…

Jun 222010
 

Let me be straight with you, lest I color your perception of these books: I am a big ole scaredy cat. The biggest. I love reading mysteries, but most do not make me curl up into the fetal position. The last scary movie I watched was What Lies Beneath with Michele Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford. I saw it at the theater and lay across the theater seats of my then-boyfriend and his best friend, crying. (They were not amused.) I cannot watch Law & Order: SVU even though I love it. Law & Order: Criminal Intent? Forgettaboutit. I can handle murder, violence, and mayhem, but sexual torture? Torture in general? Nope. Can’t do it.

Flash forward to the night I stayed up devouring The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I. Was. Petrified. Sexual torture mixed with a basement full of torture devices and Biblical punishment meted out by a madman? I broke out in a cold sweat. I couldn’t get up and check my alarm system because my bed was the only safe haven anywhere, and the light from my bedside lamp, while reassuring, also ensured I was visible to the evil outside my lair. Suffice it to say, I was not looking forward to the other books.

However, a friend whose opinion I trust told me the next book wasn’t so bad. Last week, I borrowed it and read it cover to cover. If you’ve read this far, you probably know a bit about the books, so I won’t spend too much time summarizing. Lisbeth Salander, the antisocial, enigmatic young woman with a violent streak is back in The Girl Who Played with Fire. She has spent time in many different countries and returns to Sweden to determine the best way to have Nils Bjurman, her guardian, declare her competent (some mystery from her past caused Salander to be institutionalized as a child). No worries; she has something to hold over his head, and of course, she has a plan.

Mikael Blomvqist is back as well, sleeping around as usual, and is occasionally curious about Salander. He and two journalists, Dag and Mia, are working on a scoop about sexual trafficking in Sweden. Very quickly, Dag and Mia are murdered, Blomqvist finds them, and in a strange twist, Salander is being hunted as the killer. The tale that unravels involves the Soviet Union, spies, conspiracy, a killer with a disorder that makes him feel no pain, Salander, and a mysterious figure named Zalachenko. (Yes, really). I won’t give any more away, but I will say that the book ends abruptly with quite a cliffhanger. I borrowed the next book and learned that Larsson originally intended the first three books to be one continuous volume.

The other thing I learned (through reading – couldn’t confirm it anywhere) is that absolutely no one chose to edit these last two books. The first book was fast paced and had a tightly-written mystery, although the ending did seem to drag a bit. The second two books were full of such unbelievable coincidences and strange rabbit holes that the lack of editing was glaring. I still enjoyed the books because I am intrigued by Salander’s character and wanted to know more about her. However, the loose ends and the blatant tying of those ends lacked the initial ingenuity of the trilogy and left me again questioning if there was an editor. Was there some argument that since Larsson died, no one could edit the manuscripts? Was it for posterity’s sake? I’m really asking. If you know the answer, please comment. I think, as a writer, Larsson would have preferred the polished end product editing provides.

Instead, the public is left with The Girl Who… mania and not a whole lot of consistency and a bit too much substance, at times. It also struck me that these three books are almost totally different genres. The first book is two parts mystery, two parts thriller. The second book is suspenseful but reads more like a John Le Carre novel than an out-and-out mystery. The third book is pure John Grisham. Salander sits in a hospital bed for most of it, using her personal computer device to track down information and to determine the identity of Ericka Berger’s stalker. Whaaa? There is a laughable trial where the attorneys parade in witnesses but also speak to people in the courtroom who aren’t testifying. Whaa? Then, when the book is presumably over, Salander stumbles upon the killer from the second book and survives. Whaaa?

There is talk of someone taking Larsson’s extensive plot notes and character sketches for the other seven planned books and completing them. I’ll make my formal request to a writer who is alive and kicking and who writes thoughtful, complex, well-edited novels: Ian Rankin. Or, better yet, Mr. Rankin: pleeeease write more Inspector Rebus novels.

Devolving from an intelligent series to a John Grisham pulp, the last two books of The Girl Who…trilogy are not ideal, and I hoped for a lot more from this promising series.

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