David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

Is it heretical to say that I appreciated Black Swan Green more than I did Cloud Atlas? Parts of Cloud Atlas completely captivated me, and there is no denying the Russian doll ingenuity of the overall construction, but I found it frustrating being jolted from one plot and genre to another, and as it went on I became distracted by the craft of the book and thus less and less able to get involved in its connecting themes and continuing stories. Mitchell is clearly a stylistic virtuoso, with a particular gift for inhabiting different voices. In Black Swan Green, though, we get to stay with one voice from start to finish, and though I suppose in some ways that makes it a more conservative or conventional novel, it also makes it a more immersive and, for me, more compelling read.

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Summer Reading Wrap-Up: Mitchell, Genova, Paretsky, Nordstrom

September 12 is the last day for counting books towards our goals for the public library’s summer reading club. Maddie and I were aiming for 25 each. I’m not sure I’m going to get four more titles in by Sunday, what with classes starting and all. There’s hope: I’m currently reading the latest (and I guess the last, since it’s posthumous) in Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series, and Parker’s books have very few words in them. I’m also about half way through a couple of others, including Reginald Hill’s latest and Isabel Coleman’s Paradise Beneath Her Feet. Actually, I suppose there’s no reason I can’t count More All-of-a-Kind Family, which I reread a couple of days ago–so if I finish all three I have already started, I’ll make my quota!

I haven’t written detailed posts about all the books on my summer tally, so I thought I’d at least put a few thoughts together about some of them, if for no other reason than that I find I remember books much more clearly once I’ve written about them (plus, of course, if my memory dims, I can amble through the archives and perk it up).

One book that I read with interest and, for a while, some real enthusiasm is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. But as I mentioned before, I hit first ‘An Orison of Somni-451’ and then ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,’ and my reading never recovered its momentum. Mitchell is clearly a brilliant and virtuosic writer, but after a while I found I was more aware of  his virtuosity and the ingenuity of the nesting narratives than I was actually engaged in them. The multiple genre trick is a risky one, I think, because after all, not all of us enjoy quite such a range of genres or styles, and this book rather insistently refuses to care about that. That kind of challenge to our reading habits may be good, and in fact for the first third of the book I found it invigorating to be wrenched out of one story into another, to adapt to the new style, and to puzzle over how the parts would ultimately interrelate. I’m fairly sure they do, but by the time I was finishing the book up, I wasn’t excited enough about it to figure out how or why.

I read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice on a friend’s recommendation (you know who you are, you lurker!) and while I can’t really say I enjoyed it, since it was extremely depressing, it was certainly moving and probably important, too. I thought it read a bit too much like a case study, or a novelized reenactment, especially through the first few chapters in which a number of fairly technical issues of symptoms, diagnoses, and medications need to be covered. But as Alice’s disease progresses, the tactic of recounting the story from her point of view became increasingly effective and is handled with wise understatement. After I finished it, I was pretty anxious every time I couldn’t remember something! My excuses, after all, are always the same as Alice’s: I’m busy, I’m distracted, I’m juggling multiple demands and tasks most of the time…and I’m too young to be demented–aren’t I?

I read Sara Paretsky’s next-t0-latest V. I. Warshawski novel, Hardball, with interest (her most recent, Body Work, has just come out). I liked it quite a bit. A while back I wrote a bit pettishly that I wasn’t sure my interest in this series could be sustained any further, mostly because I found it too predictable that the villains are always corporate leaders or businessmen, or corrupt politicians. Though this continues to be the case, within variations, in Hardball, I’m inclined more favorably to Paretsky’s overtly political worldview these days. One factor is just the sheer amount of time I’ve spent on my mystery and detective fiction courses, and in prowling around looking for interesting books to assign for them. I appreciate that Paretsky has a worldview, that she uses her novels quite deliberately to explore it: an awful lot of mystery novels are formulaic but without the compensations of actual ideas. I hadn’t taught Paretsky in my lecture course until this past year, when I substituted Indemnity Only for Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi as an example of feminist revisions of hardboiled conventions. (In my ‘Women and Detective Fiction” seminar, I’ve always done both, which allows from some productive comparative discussions.) Grafton’s book is much wittier, but Indemnity Only seems to me to have aged better in some important ways. For instance, Grafton’s detective, Kinsey Millhone, embodies a certain kind of liberal feminism that Grafton called ‘playing hardball with the boys’ (hey–I just noticed the correlation with Paretsky’s title–but I don’t think there’s any deliberate interplay there). Kinsey is strongly male-identified; she refuses to dress up (her indestructible black dress that she keeps balled up in the back of her car for emergency girlishness is a running gag in the series); she takes pleasure in pumping her own gas; and so on. I like her tomboyish character, her refusal to play nice–and in ‘A’ is for Alibi and many of the other books in the series, I think Grafton does a lot of smart things with Kinsey’s struggles to maintain her autonomy, especially in romantic relationships. But the books are only implicitly political, and then only at the individual level: Kinsey won’t put up with shit, from men or anyone else. Paretsky’s idea of feminism seems to me a more complicated one; she pays a lot of attention to systemic problems, connecting women’s efforts to achieve or use power to social structures that also disadvantage people because of race or class. She puts a lot of emphasis on women’s relationships as potentially empowering allegiances, but she also seems more positive about the potential for equity in romance, though she doesn’t pretend it comes easily. The crimes of her novels are always intricately related to this nexus of issues: in Indemnity Only, for instance, the central mystery turns on fraud and corruption among powerful men, but the climactic confrontation at the end is nearly fatal for Vic and her love interest, Ralph, because he has not been able to take her work seriously. Though Vic is very tough, she is also very feminine in some conventional ways: we had some lively discussions in my class in the winter about her emphasis on what she’s wearing, the overt pleasure she takes in nice clothes and in looking good, and about the relationship of this interest (which Kinsey Millhone vehemently rejects) to different ideas about feminism and femininity. I was a little peeved to learn V. I.’s cup size in Hardball: it figures (so to speak) that she’d be a 36C. So as far as that goes, she still conforms to certain standards of female beauty–but that’s OK, some of my best friends are curvy.

The last book I wanted to say something about is Dear Genius: The Collected Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. But you know what? It was such a great read, and has so many delicious quotable bits, that I think I’ll put that off for its own post (also, I really should be prepping class notes by now…).

Recent Reading: Johnson, Mitchell, Sage, and Mitchell

Somehow that post title ends up sounding like a law firm! Its somewhat miscellaneous character matches my recent reading experiences well, though.

Diane Johnson’s Persian Nights is the first book on my blogging catch-up list. I picked it up on a recent trip to Doull’s because I’ve been spending a fair amount of reading time in Iran lately and also remembered having read Ahdaf Soueif’s review of Persian Nights in her collection Mezzaterra, so it just seemed like a good book for me to try. Soueif seems to have liked it better than I did: she found it ” a serious tale, a tale of altered perceptions and of moral responsibility.” I’m quite prepared to believe that she is a better reader of this book than I was, but I was disappointed precisly by the lack of seriousness and by the sideways, slightly satirical way it touched on issues of moral responsibility. The book clings closely to the point of view of Chloe Fowler, an American doctor’s wife who ends up spending alone what was meant to be ‘together’ time for them in Iran. I felt that her limitations became the novel’s limitations, that the opportunity for a complex narrative about cultural misunderstandings and crosspurposes was handled instead as a rather sour comedy of manners. I agree with Soueif that Persian Nights “is a story about the limits of change — and, finally, its impossibility,” but I would press a little on that, or add in that it is about the limits of change that are possible for someone like Chloe.

The first ‘Mitchell’ on the list is for David Mitchell: I’m reading Cloud Atlas. Notice that I say “reading”: it’s a work in progress. I was doing really well until “An Orison of Sonmi-451.” I’m not a science fiction reader, largely because I find the elaborate artifice of ‘world-making’ tedious, and while I accept intellectually that the genre at its best works as an indirect way of exploring themes or problems in our actual world (though of course I’m sure it doesn’t always, or have to, do this)–still, there’s a machinery to it that I don’t read well. Still, I persevered with Sommi 451 and eventually became adept enough at the futuristic dialect to feel a pulse of readerly excitement as it came to its (interim) conclusion. But then Mitchell hit me with “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” and ground to a halt. Egad. It’s like reading “Caliban Upon Setebos” but for 100 pages. Still, the novel as a whole is clearly genius, and I know my expectations and reading habits are just being tested. I’m going to return to it and just read, even skim, if I have to, until I feel that pulse again, because I’m quite keen to return to all the other narratives, each of which caused a terrible hiccup of interrupted attention as I began it the first time–like grinding gears!–but each of which also had drawn me right in within a few pages. I enjoyed seeing the threads of connection gently laid down for us, too, and I’m pretty confident that the experience of following them back out of the labyrinth of stories will be quite thrilling. I just have to get past “Sloosha.”

‘Sage’ here is for Lorna Sage, whose memoir Bad Blood I’m also stalled in the middle of. I’m not sure why, except that the atmosphere of the book was depressing and I have been discovering, also, a strain of resistance in myself to memoirs as a genre.

And the second ‘Mitchell’ here is for Margaret Mitchell: I’ve just finished reading Gone with the Wind for (and I’m not making this up) the 32nd time. I know this exact number because GWTW was a favourite of mine in my misspent youth and I used to note each rereading on the inside cover (the copy I now have takes me from 23 to 32). I have many thoughts about how this book looks to me today–but I’m saving those for what I hope will become an essay for Open Letters on just that experience of rereading something in a different way, from a different time–almost, as a different person. I’m thinking of drawing (not too heavily, I hope) on Wayne Booth’s discussions of books as friends in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. In this case, not to spoil the ending of my future essay or anything, I have to say that this friendship right now is under a lot of strain, but I think, despite myself,  its longevity may sustain it. Don’t we all, after all, have a friend (or a relative) we still love, warts and all, in spite of everything that’s wrong with them? We’ll see.

In the meantime, because clearly I don’t have enough unfinished projects on the go, I’m about to start work on this nice bookish sampler from Little House Needleworks. I’m going to try and sneak “George Eliot” in instead of “Wilder”–not that I didn’t read and love all the Little House books as a girl, but really, if it’s going to hang in my office when it’s finished, she just has to be there. There’s some nice lurking irony in this project, given how many of these writers felt about needlework! Canadian readers with a crafty tendency may want to know that I ordered my copy of the pattern from the Button & Needlework Boutique in Victoria. You Yankees are on your own.