Archive for the ‘ Literary ’ Category

REVIEW: “A Home at the End of the World” by Michael Cunningham

A Home at the End of the World

Michael Cunningham
Farrar Straus Giroux, NY, 1990

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge.

Finished 15 Aug 2010

At last! The drought is over. I have finally finished another novel! Now I have to work hard and see how much I can catch up over the rest of the month. Oh yes, and post this review.

I picked up A Home at the End of the World because, as you will no doubt know, I recently watched the movie adaptation and completely fell in love. From the synopsis:

A Home at the End of the World is the story of two boyhood friends: Jonathan, lonely, introspective, and unsure of himself; and Bobby, hip, dark, and inarticulate. In New York after college, Bobby moves in with Jonathan and his roommate, Clare, a veteran of the city’s erotic wars. Bobby and Clare fall in love, scuttling the plans of Jonathan, who is gay, to father Clare’s child. Then, when Clare and Bobby have a baby, the three move to a small house upstate to raise “their” child together and create a new kind of family.

The story is told in four different voices, alternating between Jonathan, Bobby, Clare and Jonathan’s mother, Alice. Perhaps having seen the movie added to the text for me, because before I even opened the book the characters were already real: they had faces, habits, particular ways of moving and thinking which were already understood. The movie did half the book’s work for it. Still, I agree with those who have said that there was too little character definition in between parts: I couldn’t really get a sense of each character’s voice from their internal perspective, mostly because Cunningham’s style simply overrode any attempt at individuality between sections. Too, I found the sustained bleakness of the narratives depressing and quite stressful to read, to the point where I could only read it in fragments towards the end. It was as if there was no hope or love left in the world: the sheer loneliness of each of the characters was devastating.

However. These things aside, it is worth reading for the majestic prose and insightful observation it provides on the human condition. While it may have set out to be a story of three adults and their attempt to negotiate their own complicated love triangle, to me Home is really about the end of an era, the collision between the ‘free love’ attitude of the sixties and seventies with the hard realities of the 1980s and the start of the AIDs epidemic: “They looked like a pair of beatniks, sloppily dressed in a remote, unimportant place. In their sunglasses and T-shirts and unruly hair they looked like they were standing at the brink of the old cycle: the 1960s about to explode around them, a long storm of love and rage and thwarted expectations. Bobby put his arm over Jonathan’s shoulder. They both waved.” (p.327) It’s about being lost; it’s about growing up; it’s about never quite getting your heart’s desire. It is not a happy book, but it is a powerful one, because it tackles head-on those fears shared by the majority of the human race: of illness, death, loss and failure.

It is also well written enough that I would recommend it to anyone brave enough. Some of my favourite quotes, other than those I’ve featured in previous Teaser Tuesdays:

“How are you feeling, man?” he asks me.

“Great,” I tell him, and it is purely the truth. Doves clatter up out of a bare tree and turn at the same instant, transforming themselves from steel to silver in the snow-blown light. I know at that moment that the drug is working. Everything before me has become suddenly, radiantly itself. How could Carlton have known this was about to happen? “Oh,” I whisper. His hand settles on my shoulder.

“Stay loose, Frisco,” he says. “There’s not a thing in this pretty world to be afraid of. I’m here.”

I am not afraid. I am astonished. I had not realized until this moment how real everything is. A twig lies on the marble at my feet, bearing a cluster of hard brown berries. The broken-off end is raw, white, fleshly. Trees are alive.

“I’m here,” Carlton says again, and he is.

— pp.22-23

“I’m talking about a little truth-in-packaging here. To be perfectly frank, you don’t quite look like yourself. And if you walk around looking like someone other than who you are, you could end up getting the wrong job, the wrong friends, who knows what-all. You could end up with somebody else’s life.”

I shrugged again, and smiled. “This is my life,” I said. “It doesn’t seem like the wrong one.”

— p.148

Overall, a compelling novel but a bit too much on the bleak side to be comfortable. I feel a definite need to read something light and fluffy now, just to cheer myself up! The film is much better; I think if you combined the two of them – the movie’s rich depiction of love and hope in the face of adversity, the book’s sad but still beautiful ending – you’d have the perfect story.

RATING:

REVIEW: “A Home at the End of the World” (film)

A Home at the End of the World

Directed by Michael Mayer
2004

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge

I’m going to be honest here and say that I really don’t care what anyone else thinks of this movie: I loved it. I’ve read some fairly critical responses to it which more or less take it apart from a cinematic point of view, and for all I know they’re right, it’s a terrible movie. As I said: it really doesn’t matter to me. Something about the story and characters touched me personally, to the point where more objective/technical concerns ceased to be relevant.

From the blurb on the back cover, the film purports to be a story about three people – Bobby, Jonathan and Clare – and their attempt to form a highly unconventional family unit together. What I saw was more of a commentary on the end of an era; the children of the sixties and seventies growing into adults in a world that is much harsher and more dangerous than they were lead to expect – the loneliness that comes from growing up and realising the inherent bleakness of the human condition – the bonds that unite and sustain us, however unconventional they may be. The characters were beautiful, interesting, complicated people, their relationships believable and tender. All of them were lost in different ways, struggling to determine who they were and who they wanted to be. In this sense, they were perfect for each other, but inevitably doomed to disappointment as well.

I found myself extremely attached to all of them and very involved in their story. The parts were very well played by the actors, and although they did falter once or twice, I was never jolted out of the story by poor delivery or unbelievable reactions. Because of this, I was devastated by the ending of the movie: it was not only kind of predictable and vague but also utterly heart-wrenching. A film to open the soul, I think, even if it isn’t perfect – one of my favourites to date.

RATING:

REVIEW: “The Angel’s Cut” by Elizabeth Knox

The Angel’s Cut

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 2009

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 30 May 2010

It took me some time to finish this one, largely because I got sidetracked in the middle and didn’t really get back to it until yesterday. Fortunately, I took some notes as I was reading in the beginning, so I am able to put my thoughts on the novel into a more or less coherent order.

You probably already know that I consider the prequel to this book, The Vintner’s Luck, to be one of my favouritest books ever. It’s kind of hard to explain why I love it so very much, exactly, but I was aware from the beginning that it’s the sort of magic that can seldom be repeated. And I will say that, much as I love Elizabeth Knox’s writing, Angel didn’t grab me quite as much as Luck did. It involved different characters and a different, more modern world, not as magical, not as closely woven (though that may be the fault of the format; curse unnecessarily large print and childlike covers). However. While I may occasionally have felt as if I didn’t quite understand, couldn’t quite follow, didn’t quite love it as much as I wanted to – it always managed to pull me back in.

From the front flap:

Boomtown Los Angeles, 1929: Into a world of movie lots and speakeasies comes Xas, stunt flier and wingless angel, still nursing his broken heart, and determined only to go on living in the air. But there are forces that will keep him on the ground. Forces like Conrad Cole, movie director and aircraft designer, a glory-seeking king of the grand splash who is also a man sinking into his own sovereign darkness. And Fiona McLeod, film editor and maimed former actress, who sees something in Xas that no one has ever seen before, not even God, who made him, or Lucifer, the general he once followed – Lucifer, who has lost Xas once, but won’t let that be the end of it.

With Knox’s fiction, I find myself having to stop and think about the weight of things. She will introduce characters, words, symbols, and twine them all together so subtly that I frequently find myself asking, what is the import of this? What does it mean? I have to be in literary analysis mode as well as readership mode, because things often have more than one meaning, and will usually contribute to an overall picture that is grander than you originally expect. This is something I’ve been trying to do with my own writing, so it’s wonderful to sink into her mind and try to follow the trails of inspiration; it gives me some sense of how to go about it myself.

At the same time, there were parts I found difficult – specifically, I kept confusing the two different characters named Conrad. One was Conrad Cole and the other was Conrad Crow, and I kept mistaking one for the other. I am guessing – since Knox is not the type of author to do something like this without reason – that this was perhaps an extension of the ideas that are entangled throughout the plot: that of imitations, echoes, originals and whether Heaven is such a wonderful place if it means leaving what makes us human behind. If that is the case, then it’s really quite brilliant, but I’m afraid the overall effect was one of confusion and irritation rather than a deeper insight into the novel’s themes.

Confusion aside, however, by the time I reached the end of the book I found I had folded down the corners of nearly as many pages as with Luck to mark passages I particularly loved. Every so often I would come across a piece of description or dialogue that hit me right in the heart and made me go, “Oh” in that way that you do when something stirs you deeply. One favourite passage:

Lucifer said, “Listen,” then was quiet as though they were both supposed to be listening to God.

No,” Xas said, refusing again.

“No,” Lucifer mimicked, and moved the angel back and forth above him as fathers fly their babies. Xas had always liked the look of that. He knew that parents only did it to make their babies laugh and-instinctively-to rock their infants’ senses of space, motion and position into health and capability. But to him it had always looked as if those parents were saying to Heaven: I hold this happiness between me and You, and, if they were, then that was instinct too, the instinct humans must have, despite all their ideas about a just and loving God, to preserve themselves from that God’s unloving love of perfection, His exacting beneficence.

— p.179

And its echo at the end of the novel:

She ran into his arms, giggling, still hot from sleep. Xas straightened and raised his daughter up into the air, over his head. She shrieked with happiness. Xas spun, flying her about, holding her up between himself and Heaven.

— p. 433

As well as the writing, I enjoyed the complexity of the new characters, particularly Flora, whose pain I could almost feel through the pages, and Captain Hintersee. Knox has a real gift for creating vibrant, living people out of words. Ultimately, however, I have mixed feelings about the novel. Vintner’s Luck was a book I could happily inhabit for the rest of my life; that I want to snuggle to my chest like a baby or a soft toy and love. I am still waiting for my opinion of Angel’s Cut to resolve itself. Perhaps it can best be summarised with a quote from the novel itself:

And then Xas thought, ‘I did love him, after all.’ Sure, he’d made a mistake with Cole, and had given his heart where he stood to lose it. But that was good, it was right, it was what should happen, it was the way faith worked, it was the proper use of love.

— p.444

Not easy, and perhaps not what I originally expected, but nevertheless a highly recommended read.

RATING:

CymLowell

REVIEW: “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker

The Color Purple

[WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD (among others), 1983]

Alice Walker
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007

CHALLENGE(S): Banned Books Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini), Read the Movie Challenge, Social Justice Challenge, Women Unbound Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 16 April 2010

I got an amazing amount of mileage out of this book. It won an Award (Book Awards Challenge), it is frequently banned (Banned Books Challenge), it features a lesbian relationship (GLBT Challenge) and domestic violence (Social Justice Challenge), was made into a movie (Books and Movies Challenge), it is deeply feminist (Women Unbound Challenge) and it’s set in the early 20th century (Year of the Historical Challenge). Whew!

On top of that, it is also a wonderful book that I highly recommend.

The story is told in epistolary style, as a series of letters from the main character – Celie – to God. When the book begins, Celie is being abused by her father, by whom she eventually has two children. Her mother is dead and the only person she can really rely on is her younger sister, Nettie, who is cleverer and prettier and her best friend in the world. When a man she refers to only as Mister ——- proposes to Nettie, however, Celie’s life takes a turn for the worse. Her father refuses to allow Nettie to leave, and offers Celie in her place; to their horror, Mister ——- agrees. Separated from her sister, Celie’s only consolation is her developing relationship with Shug Avery, a beautiful singer who is the mother of Mister’s children.

The storyline gets more complicated as the novel goes on, but I don’t want to spoil it for you so I’ll leave the synopsis there. I will say, however, that there is a lot of musing about God and the nature of love throughout the novel, which I very much enjoyed. It did tend to get a little philosophical towards the end of the book, which kind of jolted you out of the story a bit, and I agree with many other reviewers that the ending was just a little too neat for me to believe completely. However, these flaws aside, some of my favourite parts of the novel were when the characters started discussing the nature of God. For example:

God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

God don’t think it dirty? I ast.

Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love – and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

You saying God vain? I ast.

Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

Oh, make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

Yeah? I say.

Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

— pp.176-177.

I really enjoyed the way the characters’ shifting affections and developing natures were used as a sounding board to illustrate the fluidity of love and its connection to God. I may not believe in God, but I did appreciate the warmth and strength with which Walker imbued the narrative, and her fantastic ability to give her characters a unique voice. Celie came across strongly throughout, as did her sister Nettie when we read some of her letters to her sister later in the novel. Even the secondary characters, from whom we do not hear directly, have a vibrant inner life that makes them leap off the page and into your imagination.

The book is also profoundly feminist. Its main theme is essentially humanity, both human beings and the quality of benevolence they show so infrequently towards one another, but it focuses particularly on the strength and resilience of the female characters, how they face the obstacles life places before them and deal with abuse from the men around them. That is not to say it is intrinsically “anti-male”, however; one of the most moving parts of the book, for me, is how Mister ——- and his son change and are changed by the strong women in their lives, eventually coming to see their true worth and nature beyond sex and domestic slavery. It is an optimistic book, at heart: it postulates that both sexes can, given time, come to a place of equality and respect, and love each other for who they are rather than who the world would have them be.

A deserving classic, and nowhere near as intimidating as I had originally imagined. If you haven’t read it yet, then I highly recommend that you do!

RATING:

REVIEW: “In Love and Trouble” by Alice Walker

In Love and Trouble

Alice Walker
Harcourt Inc., 2001

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge (mini)

Finished 27 Feb 2010.

Because this is a book of short stories rather than a novel itself, I thought I’d take notes as I read and give a little mini-review of each story. While there were a few I disliked or was confused by, for the most part I really enjoyed Walker’s writing and will look forward to reading some more books by her in the future.

Roselily

I love the way Walker inter-spliced the wedding vows with the narrative on this one; it added an interesting level of meaning to the story. However, I found it a little confusing at first, as it doesn’t seem to take place in a present, as such; it’s more like an internal monologue, which I wasn’t expecting. 3/5

Really, Doesn’t Crime Pay?

Okay, while Roselily may not have struck me with any force, this story definitely did. Perhaps, because the main character is also a writer, I felt for her as I didn’t for Roselily – I don’t know. I loved the way this was set out, with the time being measured both in years and in page count, and I loved the voice of the narrator. In particular, these sections particularly moved me (note: not safe for work):

“After that, a miracle happened. Under Mordecai’s fingers my body opened like a flower and carefully bloomed. And it was stange as well as wonderful. For I don’t think love had anything to do with this at all.” (p.17)

“Last night while Ruel snored on his side of the bed I washed the prints of his hands off my body. Then I plugged in one of his chain saws and tried to slice off his head. This failed because of the noise. Ruel woke up right in the nick of time.” (p.21)

What strikes me is the gentle rhythm of the writing style, and the way each character has a clear, distinct voice; it is both vivid and lyrical. Plus that second quote is a wonderful mixture of humour and tragedy that’s really tricky to pull off. Great stuff. 5/5

Her Sweet Jerome

Oh my. This one was dark; I both hated and felt sorry for the protagonist at the same time. I’m not sure that I can exactly say I enjoyed it, but it certainly caught at my emotions. 3/5

The Child Who Favoured Daughter

Another dark one. I didn’t fully understand it; the writing seemed to slip back and forth without quite saying anything. There were some interesting similes and metaphors, but it was the first one I actually didn’t like. 2/5

Everyday Use

This was a very powerful story; at first glance it doesn’t seem like much, but it draws you into a world on the edge of things, a point where new and old conflict with each other in subtle ways. 5/5

The Welcome Table

I love this one – the use of the quote at the beginning is very apt and the story itself well-written. 4/5

Strong Horse Tea

Very sad story. I really liked the way Walker told the story from two contrasting points of view, and was horrified by the attitude of the mailman even as I understood the reasons for it. I did think the woman’s change of heart was a little too quick though. 3/5

Entertaining God

I found this one disturbing, I’m not entirely sure why. It was whimsical and strange and sad, and frequently a bit confusing, but I loved the part about the gorilla at the beginning. 4/5

The Diary of an African Nun

Absolutely loved this one; the evocative descriptions of the landscape, the nun’s view of sex and sexuality, the way it was all tied in together around dancing was very well done. I also loved the way that Walker built the character without ever really referring to her personally. A powerful story. 5/5

The Flowers

Very short, so there’s not that much to say about it, except that it was extremely eerie, the transition from beautiful summer day to tragedy. Effective ending, lovely descriptions. 4/5

We Drink the Wine in France

Oh. That was very sweet, and again, sad. I want to know more about the characters and find myself wishing for a happy ending for them. I think what I love best about Walker’s prose is the richness of her descriptions. For example:

“She is down low. Her neck strains backward, bringing her face up to his. She is a small, round-bosomed girl with tumbly hair pulled severely back except for bangs. Her eyes are like the lens of a camera. Now they click shut. Now they open and drink in the light. Something, a kind of light, comes from them and shines on the professor of French.” (p.121)

Lovely. 5/5

To Hell With Dying

The perfect end to the book, I have to say. I could vividly see Mr. Sweet and loved the idea of the kids bringing him back to life. A beautiful story. 5/5

OVERALL RATING:

REVIEW: “The Vintner’s Luck” by Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner’s Luck

Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, 1998

CHALLENGE(S): GLBT Challenge, Read the Movie Challenge, Year of the Historical Challenge

Finished 2 Feb 2010

Judging by the polarity of the reviews on this novel, either you love it or you hate it. Fortunately for me, I was in the “love” camp. More than love – I adore this book. I’ve never read another quite like it.

I want to start out by saying that it is possibly best to come to it with no expectations (so if you think the premise sounds interesting, I recommend you go and read it before reading any reviews). I got a copy from the library with no synopsis whatsoever, so I went into it almost completely blind: all I knew was that it was about this guy and an angel who fall in love.

But Luck is so, so much more than that. So much more.

Continue reading

REVIEW: “Anil’s Ghost” by Michael Ondaatje

Anil’s Ghost

Michael Ondaatje
Bloomsbury UK, 2000

CHALLENGE(S): Social Justice Challenge

Finished 27 Jan 2010

I read this book primarily for the Social Justice challenge, although I think ultimately it was less about religious freedom and more about politics and fascist oppression. The reason I chose this one from the list, though, was that I read The English Patient last year and fell completely in love with it, so I was eager to read more by Ondaatje. From the cover:

Anil’s Ghost transports us to Sri Lanka, a country steeped in centuries of tradition, now forced into the late twentieth century by the ravages of civil war. Into this maelstrom steps Anil Tissera, a young woman born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and America, who returns to her homeland as a forensic anthropologist sent by an international human rights group to discover the source of the organized campaigns of murder engulfing the island. What follows is a story about love, about family, about identity, about the unknown enemy, about the quest to unlock the hidden past–a story propelled by a riveting mystery.”

In spite of what the synopsis promises, this is less a mystery or novel with a straightforward plot than it is a lyrical exploration of Sri Lanka and the characters we encounter. As with The English Patient, I loved the prose; elegant and precise, it draws you right in and paints a vivid picture of the landscape and people he describes. I will say that I found it a bit harder to follow than I’d expected – Ondaatje has a peculiar style that often seems to involve jumping back into the past without much warning, so you have to really concentrate to follow what’s going on. This is the sort of book you either read in one sitting, or read in small doses (that was how I read The English Patient, and it made it much more satisfying).

As I said before, the reason for the “Dirty War” was never quite explained, and since this was for Religious Freedom month it kept bugging me that nobody ever mentioned the reason they were fighting (or maybe they did and I didn’t pay enough attention, it’s hard to tell!). Perhaps one needs to know more about Sri Lankan politics and history to understand when the story is set and the events it describes.

In any case, I read most of it in a single sitting and was completely immersed. I loved the characters, and the ending saddened me a great deal, much to my surprise – I wasn’t aware that I’d grown so attached! Altogether a wonderful book, and while difficult in places it is definitely a worthwhile read.

RATING: