Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Report

Because I had a lot of free time over Winter Break, and because I've recently rediscovered the joys of my library card, I've been reading novels again. Being a grad student and then scrambling to teach three new classes this fall (well, two sections of one, and one section of another), I didn't get to read for pleasure a whole lot. But, I've read three novels recently, and I feel like discussing them.

The first one I read was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. The novel was published in 1962, and it's set in the 50's. I can't say that I loved this book, but it was very interesting to read in its historical context. It made me curious about the recent movie adaptation -- how would the tone differ in a movie made in the 2000's? I haven't watched it yet, but I'm curious. The main thing I didn't care for in this book is a problem I have with so much "great" literary fiction, and that is the almost complete lack of sympathetic characters. Yes, I know people are flawed and life is difficult, and I'm not asking for a fairy tale story or perfect hero, but it's hard for me to engage with a story if I can't like, sympathize with, admire, or understand the humanity of the characters.

In terms of character, the second book was by far the best, in my opinion. Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell focuses on a teenaged girl in Michigan, a strange, flawed, fascinating character from beginning to end of the novel. In spite of the title's tone, the story here is harshly real, involving violence, drugs, and sex for many different reasons; in a word, it's about survival, about a girl finding a way to survive and eventually to live in her world. Margo, the main character, is a sympathetic personality in spite of her crimes; she evolves, struggles, wavers, runs away, and while the ending is not exactly wrapped up in a neat bow, she eventually finds a way to live. The rivers and their surroundings also play a key role in the story, which is something I love in a story. I was sad when I got to the end of the novel, wishing it could have been longer, and though it might resonate more for people in this part of the country, I think it's a novel that most readers would appreciate.

The third book I read yesterday, in one day. When I was in Cleveland a few weeks ago, two of my friends recommended Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall, which I think they'd recently read in book club. The novel is generally described as feminist dystopian fiction in the tradition of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale or P.D. James' The Children of Men (both novels I admire and enjoyed), and those are useful comparisons. I'm still thinking about the larger themes of the book in regards to violence and when/if it is necessary or right. This is an uncomfortable book in a lot of ways; the near-future economic collapse and resulting police state in Britain feels all too possible (yes, it's a British novel, and the vocabulary is very British, particularly the vocabulary Hall uses in describing the natural world - while I got a good picture of the place, I'm sure a native would have gotten a better, more specific one) and the women's violence is difficult to admire. Like I said, I'm still thinking about the themes, but in terms of writing, I felt that the narrator was a bit lacking in personality, and the structure felt a bit gimmicky (the sections are presented as retrieved police interview/confession recordings, some with "data lost" in convenient places). The story moves slowly for the first hundred or so pages, but it's a slim book, about 200 pages in total, and I read it in one day. In short, I'm glad my friends recommended it, but I found aspects of the writing disappointing and I'm still processing the larger implications of the story.

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