Colm Toibin on The Novel

“The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.”

–Colm Toibin (from Mark Athitakis’ Fiction Notes blog) #books #purpose


March 2018 Wrap-up

Force of Nature by Jane Harper. A follow-up to Harper’s The Dry, an Aaron Faulk mystery set in Australia. Force of Nature does not quite live up to the first book in the series, but it’s still a solid mystery with good characterization and plot.

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Connell. A family saga and romance that gives readers a multi-perspective experience. It might not all come together, but the individual chapters show us the characters’ inner lives and overall, it’s a fun and sweet book.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag. Best read of the month. This a novella about a Bangladesh family who comes into some wealth after living in sparse poverty for decades, and what happens to the family’s disposition when they’ve grown accustomed to doing and buying whatever they desire. Do not read any spoilers for this book, just jump in. This book appears to be the only of Shanbhag’s works that have been translated into English. I hope that soon more work will be available.

Hoping for a more productive reading month in April.

February 2018 Wrap-up

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. Published in the mid-1980s, this is a well-crafted family saga about a widow and her three self-concerned children. She wants to return to her childhood village for a last remembrance, and none of her adult children will come with her. Over the course of several months, we are allowed to look back at her life during wartime, new marriage, true love, and the devastating loss of her parents. The back story is rich and interesting; the modern story, less so. All in all, it is a fine book, but unremarkable.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro. This novel is a booktube darling, but it is a book where a greater context, how the characters fit into the modern post-9/11 world, is lacking. A woman isn’t terribly satisfied with her lackluster marriage (kind husband who doesn’t know how to communicate his needs nor be curious enough to ask her, and the main character, who forbears and then withdraws.) The second she meets a writer who can talk to her via email about theology and literature, she is snagged into a cozy world of infidelity. The letters they write back and forth aren’t particularly interesting. She shows him poetry (which I like) and he makes some comments. In the long run, the relationship peters out and she writes a sermon about it, a sermon I found unpersuasive.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti. A teenage daughter slowly learns about the fate of her dead mother and the ribald life of her father, Samuel. He has been shot twelve times, and each bullet hole symbolizes one of the adventurous stories. He is a criminal, unconcerned with society, unable to make many friends, and trying to hold on to his daughter. The action scenes are fun to read. Overall, the book comes together, though again, I like the old timelines better than the contemporary one.

Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam. Here’s a novel of infidelity that is truly mired in the politics and social class struggle of 2012. It’s the summer before the presidential election, so the world hasn’t yet been inflicted with Trumpism, but you can feel it coming when the protagonist has an affair with a funder of right-wing causes that have insinuated themselves into U.S. politics. The characters are richly drawn and the main character is deeply flawed and guilt ridden. He’s a one-hit wonder cartoonist, teaching at a writing conference. If you’ve ever been surrounded by writers, you will recognize some of these types of people, some talented, some not, but a good portion who are neurotic and jealous of the success of others, and scared of losing luster. It’s a funny novel, but also buttressed by deep melancholy. And it’s a more moral novel than Fire Sermon.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The purpose of this novel is not to adjudicate the corruption of the legal system of the South, but to show how being falsely convicted and jailed for a rape can harm the already tenuous bonds of a rocky marriage. It is not perfect, but deeply moving and honest. The couple, Roy and Celestine, grapple with realities as best they can, neither failing but neither succeeding.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Fourteen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. A memoir that expertly weaves together chance encounters and illnesses that could have caused the author, O’Farrell, to die. These range from an almost-drowning to encephalitis. The chapters are not arranged chronologically, but they do all culminate in a devastating final essay about O’Farrell’s daughter. This is some of the best writing I’ve read in a long time.


Page 112 evaulation: Thoughts

Shawn the Book Maniac came up with a fascinating tag for his booktube channel that is based on a French prize wherein the judges bestow their prize solely on the text of page 112 of the submitted materials. He has several variations on the tag and one is the ‘totally blind’ version where his viewers send him the text of page 112 for three books and then he decides whether or not he’d read the book on that page alone. It’s fun to watch his reaction to the texts and think about how subjective reading tastes are.

But it gives an awful lot of weight to one page that may or may not be indicative of the greater novel or even the author’s body of work as a whole. The thrill of choosing what book to read next is based on so many influences. I would hate to write off an author entirely based on three hundred words.

The motto of this exercise should be, “They’re only books.” I do enjoy these videos and hope they keep going for as long as it’s fun for the booktuber.

Link to Shawn’s latest 112 video where I submitted three excerpts. 

January 2018 Wrap-up

Glory be! This has been an incredible reading month. The world might be grinding down to pure misery, but the worlds of the books I read are complex and weird and in one case, pious. Also, all women authors. Take that, New York Times By the Book.

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard
Remarkably progressive for its time and laden with characters, both children and adults, upper and lower classes, as they fret and wait to see if England will fight against Hitler. Yes, it’s soapy and some of my friends didn’t think there was a plot, but for me it was so satisfying to be in the heads of all these characters, so well developed and individualized. I can’t erase the pure pleasure of this book and I intend to keep going.

Improvement by Joan Silber
This slight novel connects several characters over decades and shows them in various states of moral ambivalence and one fateful decision that will affect them all. The metaphor of a butterfly flapping its wings to change the course of history is worn out, but in this novel, the idea does apply.

The Bell by Iris Murdoch
An unhappily married couple ends up hanging out with a small lay community in 1950s Britain. The community is connected to an abbey where cloistered nuns live inside the walls. Sexuality, morality, fidelity, and thwarted maturation are themes, and there’s wit and passion and dysfunction galore. Can love survive such a state? Can the mystery of ritual bring inner peace? Can the bell bring everyone together or rend the idea of communion?

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel is masterful in building immersive worlds inside her novels, and this one is no exception. It’s perhaps overlong, but the main story is rolled out meticulously over 400+ pages. The element that works best is the abject loneliness of Alison, the novel’s sad, bereft, and ultimately outcast protagonist. She’s a psychic whose life is possessed by terrible ‘fiends’, grotesque and surprisingly corporeal holograms from her past. There’s also the post-9/11 anti-immigrant politics of Britain and the acknowledgment of the earth’s climate changing for worse. This was written in 2006 and all the gloom of those years has only multiplied to our current political disasters, making the novel prescient. Uplifting, it’s not. But Mantel’s talent for detail and human interaction rises up and makes it perhaps a perfect encapsulation of our time.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani
This isn’t a murder mystery. It’s the anatomy of murders you read about on the first page, the first line, even, of this novel. But the detached, clinical, fable-like language used to explain the actions of nanny against children, mother and father against nanny, the strata of classes in Paris that strangle any chance the nanny has to treat her severe untreated mental health issues, is key, and for me gratuitously leaves the ultimate victims, the dead children, as nothing more than blanks to project fears upon by the other characters. You know those kids are going to die on the very first page, they’re already dead, and their humanity within the novel’s world is elided. Furthermore, we are made to spend so much time inside the mind of the mother and then don’t get to see her in the aftermath, nor her husband. It’s as though they were killed, too. It doesn’t matter that they were made to look utterly selfish and clueless, but we still were owed the chance to see them through the crime. After all the buildup, this is terribly dissatisfying.

Best Reads of 2017

Not all of these books were written in 2017. Here are the ones I enjoyed most.
  • The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. This is a retelling of Patroclus and Achilles and Achilles’ extreme spite.
  • The Leavers by Lisa Ko. A novel about a Chinese immigrant and her son, and how they are separated and must cope.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Two sisters in 1700s Africa are split up and this novel tells us what happens to their family lines. Emotionally resonant in a short work.
  • House of Names by Colm Toibin. A retelling of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. Full of rage and murder.
  • Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. The Osage Indians of Oklahoma strike oil and then are systematically murdered for their fortunes. A true story.
  • The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. A Victorian era novel about friendship, faith, and science. It’s warm and unexpected.
  • Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li. This is an essay collection about the writer’s battles with depression, strained family relationships, and her love of literature. It’s not chronological, and can be disorienting. Just go with it to see the way a brilliant woman thinks about her life.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This is the story of immigrants from South Korea (then, Korea) to China. It’s a generational family saga.
  • Re-reads: The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields; Commonwealth by Ann Patchett; The Red Pony by John Steinbeck; Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier.
  • Classics: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell; The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell; Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens.