Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Amateur Marriage

Author: Anne Tyler
Genre: fiction
Publication info: Ballantine, 2004
Pages: 317 (including an interview with the author and discussion questions)

 Finally! I’ve read an Anne Tyler book.

This is an author I’ve been aware of for many years. She’s a favorite of my parents’, and I know she’s acclaimed as a great modern literary author. I was so confident she was good that I even recommended her books to more than one person—without reading them myself. One of these people is my wife, who finally got me to read Anne Tyler. I’m glad I finally made it.

The Amateur Marriage is a chronicle of a failed relationship. I hope I haven’t spoiled it for anyone, but the interest of the story lies not in the fact that the marriage is a failure but in how and why it fails. It’s the story of Michael and Pauline, who meet the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and, in all the excitement, think they have fallen in love. And perhaps they really have at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that they are not well suited to each other. At Pauline’s insistence (and to his mother’s chagrin) Michael enlists in the army, but when he comes home early after a training accident, he proposes to her. She accepts even though she has already started to lose interest during his absence. They get married, and it’s all downhill from there.

The novel spans many decades, checking in periodically to show the different crises Michael and Pauline go through. By the end of the book I feel like I’ve been on a lifelong journey with them. And it seems so real. What Tyler does so well, I think, is showing life as it really is, people as they really are. This isn’t like your popular romance or thriller with a perfect plot arc and a stunning conclusion—this is an intensely believable look at real, messy life.

And that’s what I find so disturbing about it. Sometimes as I read it, I felt like their lives were my own and I was doomed to the same fate as they. Are all marriages hopeless? Even if it isn’t a disaster, are married people bound to drift apart like Michael and Pauline? After thinking about it for a while, I realized that the answer is no.

What I think this book shows, even if it doesn’t come right out and say it, is that a marriage succeeds or fails based on the choices the spouses make. And while the choice of who and when to marry is certainly a significant one, it is not the only one that matters, nor is it the last. Marriage, just like life in general, is a continuing series of choices. It’s a nonstop effort, ideally, to improve. The reason Michael and Pauline fail is that they stop trying.

I see it particularly in Michael’s character. He’s easy to side with at first because Pauline is emotionally turbulent and even unfaithful. But after a while it becomes clear that Michael simply isn’t invested any more. He decides that he doesn’t really like his wife and pulls back emotionally, instead putting all his energy into his grocery business. He doesn’t abuse her or anything—in fact quite the opposite, “no doubt scoring points in heaven for his restraint,” as Pauline sees it. It’s an interesting point that really hit home to me: You might be proud of your emotional self-control, but if it comes at the price of coldness and distance from the ones you should be closest to, it can be just as damaging. Michael was guilty of that, perhaps making him the worse of the two parties.

The saddest part is that even after the marriage has ended (again, hope I haven’t spoiled it), neither of them recognizes their mistakes. As they reflect on what went wrong, they see themselves as victims of either fate or each other and fail to see what they need to change about themselves. There is a serious lack of contrition throughout the novel, including other characters who do hurtful things. But that’s one of the most important traits you need to have to make a marriage work: the ability to recognize when you’ve done wrong, take responsibility for it, and earnestly try to do better. Michael and Pauline fail in this regard, making their story a sad one indeed.

I highly recommend The Amateur Marriage if you don’t mind a story that isn’t terribly uplifting. It’s a tragic story, but it gives you a lot to think about. That’s not to say the book isn’t funny. Even with all the sadness, there’s plenty of humor to give you something to smile at. Anne Tyler is an excellent writer. I definitely plan to read more of her work in the future.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Case for Books

Past, Present, and Future
Author: Robert Darnton
Genre: nonfiction, history
Publication info: PublicAffairs, 2009
Pages: 218

It’s been a little tough figuring out what book to read after finishing Les Misérables, so I went with a book about books. I actually just spotted this book on a shelf in the library and picked it up on a whim. The subject of books interests me, especially dealing with the rapid changes that are occurring in how people consume them.

Robert Darnton was, when he wrote this book, the director of the Harvard University Library. The Case for Books is a collection of essays, some written expressly for this book and others previously published. I expected it to be mainly a spirited criticism of the rise of the digital book, but what I got was something quite different. Darnton has actually been something of a champion of digital publishing, spearheading a project called Gutenberg-e to increase the prestige of digital publishing in academia.

His main concern is with Google Books, not because he disagrees with its mission to digitize books from libraries across the world and make them accessible to everyone, but because he doesn’t like the idea of Google controlling it all. He makes a good point. Information should belong to everyone, not be controlled by a single entity. But because Google beat everyone to the punch by aggressively scanning books, the opportunity may have passed to make this information more open and democratic. In Darnton’s view, this type of service should be provided by libraries, whose first priority is the advancement of knowledge rather than profit.

Anyway, that’s not actually what I found most interesting about this book. The subtitle is Past, Present, and Future, and it was the “past” part that intrigued me the most. Darnton is an expert on eighteenth-century France, so in his essays he gives a fascinating look into how the book trade worked back then. One of my favorite parts was an exposition on something called the commonplace book, in which people would compile quotations from books they read and from people they talk to. These commonplace books give historians great insights into how these people viewed the world around them, what they thought was most important. It would be great to bring back the commonplace book, but I guess that’s what people use Pinterest and Facebook for nowadays. Makes you wonder what historians will think about us hundreds of years from now. What will they think we hold most important?

I enjoyed The Case for Books. Robert Darnton is an incisive thinker and skilled writer. It wasn’t particularly life-changing, but it did make me think about some things.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Les Misérables—Part 2

Les Misérables is simply to good a book for me to write only once about it. Plus, I have spent so much time with it that I haven’t yet figured out how to read a book that isn’t Les Mis, like what happened with The Lord of the Rings last year. So in this post (and possibly more), I’m going to delve a little deeper into the many fascinating themes that make up this monument of literature.

In this novel, Victor Hugo asks a lot of questions, both directly and through the story. These are difficult questions, and there are lot more of them than answers. One question I find myself asking after reading this book is this: Am I willing to do the right thing, even if it means making others think I’m the bad guy?

Let me explain. In the very first part of the novel, we get to know a character known affectionately as Monseigneur Bienvenu, the bishop of Digne. This is the man who will eventually change Jean Valjean’s life forever. Before Jean Valjean, shows up, however, we get to know just how good the bishop is (this is one advantage the book has over the musical). Although he receives a substantial salary from the church, Bienvenu gives almost all of it to the poor. He moves out of his bishop’s palace so the hospital can move into it. His door is always open, and he always gives freely to people that ask him for help.

But then he meets a challenge that is almost too much for him. He learns that a certain old man in his diocese is dying. This man, whose name we never learn, was a member of the Convention during the French Revolution. Therefore, everybody in the village considers him a wicked man, because they are all staunch royalists. Even the bishop is a little repulsed; he looks back on the infamous beheadings of the Revolution with nothing but disdain. What’s more, the dying man is an atheist. But the bishop feels that it’s his duty to go visit the man in his final hours, and so he goes.

It takes him three-quarters of an hour to get to the man’s home on foot—the bishop has long since given up his carriage. When he arrives, an animated conversation ensues that pushes even the good bishop’s Christian love to the test.

Here’s the thing that really strikes me. The Conventionist asks the bishop where he put his carriage. He then launches a tirade about the luxurious life the bishop no doubt enjoys, having all the bounties of life afforded by his generous allowance from the church. Remember that the bishop at this point is living on next to nothing. He walked to this man’s remote house. The only luxury he grants himself is a small set of silver, which becomes significant later.

But what does the bishop do to correct this man’s mistaken views? Nothing. He doesn’t say a word. Actually, he pretty much goes along with it, all but admitting to this luxurious lifestyle that he doesn’t really have. As a result, the Conventionist goes to his grave thinking that this incredibly virtuous, humble, selfless clergyman is just like all the other clergy he supposedly has known—the exact opposite of those qualities. The conversation they have does soften the man’s heart somewhat, but never does the bishop insist on how good he actually is.

How many of us would do that? How often do we want to let people know just how good we are? It’s natural to want to be recognized for what we do. But this bishop rises above his human nature and reaches instead for the divine by keeping quiet. The teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about laying up treasures in heaven rather than on earth were central to everything he did.

This is the man that helps Jean Valjean change from bad to good. As it happens, Jean Valjean eventually does something similar, sacrificing his estimation in the eyes of those around him in order to server the greater good. When he does so, the stakes are much higher, to the point where he is sabotaging his own happiness. I don’t want to give away too many details because I’m talking about the climax of the novel. But the point is that Jean Valjean, like the good bishop before him, lead me to ask myself how far I’m willing to go to do the right thing.

What is the price of being good? How much of that price do I have the courage to pay? Compared with the bishop of Digne, not very much, but I think this novel has inspired me to do a little more than I would have before.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Les Misérables

Author: Victor Hugo
Translator: Julie Rose
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Publication info: Modern Library, 2008 (originally published in 1862)
Pages: 1194 (plus notes)

It has been a long time since I’ve reviewed a book, but not for lack of reading. I just recently finished reading probably one of the longest and most complex novels I’ve ever read, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. I feel like I’ve been on a long journey, one that took up a good chunk of this year. And what a journey.

Thanks to the hugely successful musical (which, contrary to a strangely prevalent myth, was not written by Andrew Lloyd Webber), many people are familiar with this story. And since there is a new movie coming out this Christmas, many millions more will soon become familiar with it. Before reading the novel, though, I myself knew next to nothing about the story. I think I’m glad about that, because every part of it was a discovery for me.

Since this book is so massive, both physically and in scope, it would be extremely hard to give a good summary, but here goes: Released after nineteen years in prison, Jean Valjean feels like the world owes him, until a remarkable act of kindness from a bishop changes his heart forever. Now he sets out to do the most good he can, and when he adopts an orphaned girl named Cosette, it seems he has finally found happiness. But his past continues to haunt him, thanks in part to a relentless police inspector, and threatens to destroy all the joy he’s ever known.

There’s more to that, of course—a lot more. The cast of characters, for one thing, is enormous, and many of them have a lot of depth. It’s even hard to tell sometimes which one is actually the main character. But even with the epic scale (even though I usually hate the word “epic,” it applies here), Hugo manages to expose some deeply moving human conflict.

Les Misérables is famous for being really long, and many might say that it’s long for no good reason. It contains many passages that are best described as essays, only tangentially related to the overall story (Hugo himself even admits sometimes that they have no bearing on the story). It includes a lengthy retelling of the Battle of Waterloo, descriptions of an uprising that occurs years after the setting of the novel, and—my personal favorite—an opinion piece on the Paris sewer system. It’s easy to get bogged down in these parts, or skip them altogether. I don’t blame anyone that wants to skip them. But if you give them a chance and try to read the entire novel, even the seemingly pointless stuff, you’ll find that there is a lot of interesting writing in there. Hugo is a fascinating writer, especially when he gets openly opinionated about the issues of his time. I didn’t always understand the historical context, but I found it interesting to learn what kinds of things he cared about.

But, of course, it always comes back to the characters. That’s where this novel shines. Jean Valjean is a deeply troubled man who experiences a wide range of emotions. All he wants is to do good and to live in peace, but the world seems bent on destroying his peace. It’s a dark, twisted world that Hugo describes, one in which the virtuous people are convicts and prostitutes and the just people show no mercy. It’s a world, and a story, and characters, that I will be thinking about for a long time.

I can’t recommend this book enough. I you love the musical, read the book. It will make the show immensely more meaningful to you. There’s still time to read the book before the movie comes out! If you do read it, I highly recommend this recent translation by Julie Rose. There are a lot of translations out there, some in the public domain, and while I can’t compare Rose’s to the others, I can say that it is beautiful and full of energy. Give it a try.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Author: Emma Donoghue
Genre: fiction
Publication info: Little, Brown and Company, 2010 (2011 paperback by Back Bay)
Pages: 321

I'm back! I'm still very behind, but I don't want to miss out on a chance to write about this remarkable book.

This novel was a bestseller in 2010, but I just now read it because I'm always a little behind the times (did you hear about that new book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?). I don't remember when I first heard about it, but when I did the idea intrigued me. I kept forgetting about it, though, until I came across it at the library and finally read it.

Unfortunately, I started reading it at the end of last semester, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. This happens to be a very engaging novel, and when you have other more important things to be engaged in, well, you're in trouble. There were a couple of days last December when I seriously could not put this book down. It's a great feeling to be engrossed in a book, but it can also lead to some serious stress later.

Room is the story of a boy named Jack who lives in a place called Room. Room is, well, a room, and it is Jack's entire world. As the story unfolds, you discover that Jack's mother, whom we know only as Ma, has been held captive by some creepy guy for seven years, and she gave birth to Jack in the same room they've been living in all this time. Room is all that Jack knows, and so it's going to take a lot of convincing for Jack to believe that there is a better world outside. And Ma needs to convince him, because she needs him to do what to him is unthinkable in order to help them escape.

This novel is the ultimate example of a naive narrator. Everything is told from Jack's point of view, present tense, with the limited vocabulary and understanding of a five-year-old whose entire world is a single room. Thankfully, the dialogue is unfiltered, but there are plenty of times where it's hard to figure out what's going on simply because he doesn't get what's going on. I thought at first that it would be annoying to have a five-year-old narrator, and it's true that sometimes Jack is irritating because of how uncooperative he is sometimes, but most of the time, it's just fascinating. Donoghue does a splendid job with imitating the language of a young child. I also really liked his perception of time: any period of waiting usually lasted "hundreds of hours" in his mind.

The book isn't meant to be a thriller; it's a story about people, and a young boy's coming to grips with the harsh reality of life. That said, there are some moments that are truly thrilling. Without giving too much away, I want to say that during the part where they attempt their escape, I could hardly breathe as I read it. The narration is so simple and straightforward, but my heart was pounding and I was totally immersed. I'm not going to tell you how it turns out, of course. You'll just have to read it for yourself.

I do recommend this book. It's simply fascinating. Although it has a claustrophobic feel to it because of its subject matter, it never gets tiring. When you get to the end, you're going to feel that you've taken quite a journey. You'll learn a lot about the psychology of kidnapping victims, and you'll learn about what it means to grow up. I'm really glad I read this book, and I hope you do too.

Just one note about the content. Even though it's told through a child's voice, it's not exactly appropriate for children, simply because of the kind of situation the characters are in. But I think the sexual issues are rather subtly and gracefully done, and it doesn't seem superfluous at all. But it's there, so just take note of that.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Future Minds

How the Digital Age Is Changing Our Minds, Why This Matters and What We Can Do About It
Author: Richard Watson
Genre: nonfiction
Publication info: Nicholas Brealey, 2010
Pages: 213

I wish everybody would read this book, and I mean everybody. If I had the money to do it, I would buy a copy for everyone I know. Anyone who knows me is welcome to borrow this from me. This is a topic that I care deeply about, especially lately, and I wish everyone would give it some thought.

The subject of the book is clear enough from the subtitle: the omnipresence of digital devices and social media in today's society is fundamentally changing the way we think and interact with other people. I've talked about this before in my review of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (which Watson references multiple times in this book). Basically, we are so constantly filling up our time with instant information and digital diversions that we leave no time for deep, reflective thinking.

And it is deep, reflective, original, creative thinking that sets us apart as humans. Here is the scary thing that Watson points out. We know that computers are getting smarter. Google and Facebook know who you are. They can identify you in photographs and can figure out where the pictures were taken. But they became that smart only because humans made them that way. As capable as computers are, they are only good at solving predefined problems and processing data that is given to them. But they have no ability for dreaming up new ideas or asking original questions. As Watson puts it, "In the future a computer might be able to recognize a picture and tell you that it was painted in 1643 by Jan Josephsz. van Goyen [actually, it probably already can], but even then, you are unlikely to get an emotional response and even less likely to find that the computer becomes inspired and rushes off to paint something itself." It's the humans' place to do that.

But we are forfeiting our own thinking. We are increasingly relying on computers to do all our thinking and remembering for us, and we are always frantically searching for the next new bit of information. We're pulling out our phones in the middle of conversations, at the dinner table, in every quiet moment that we have. With all this, there is no time for original thinking, and without original thinking, there is nothing to set us apart from machines. Our obsession with the digital world is destroying what makes us who we are.

The point is that we need to scale back our fanaticism with everything digital. That isn't to say, as Watson states, that everything electronic is intrinsically evil, but we shouldn't be so eager to let it replace analogue forms of media and real, physical interaction with people. There needs to be a balance. There is an important role for physical books. Say what you will about how much more convenient ebooks are, you simply will not do the same calm, reflective thinking with those as you will with print media. Your mind is just not in the same state. Call me crazy, but physical books are irreplaceable. Just because something is more convenient doesn't always mean that it's better.

The great thing about this book is that it gives us ideas for what we can do about this crisis. The most important, I think, is that we just give ourselves time and space to think. That means putting away the phone, turning off the computer, and just thinking. When was the last time you just looked out the window in the car (when you're not driving, of course)? When was the last time you went for a walk and did nothing but look at the world around you? When was the last time you just sat and daydreamed? We need more of this as humans, but the trend is that these activities are diminishing.

Watson expresses all this much better than I do (although he does seem to ramble a bit sometimes, and possibly contradict himself), so I will end with another quote from him: "Given the fact that we seem to be capable of inventing more or less anything these days, perhaps a question we should be asking ourselves more frequently in the future is not whether we can invent something but whether we should."

Please, please read this book. And even more important, after you've read it, think about it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Author: Daniil Kharms
Genre: fiction, short stories, drama, essays
Publication info: Serpent's Tail, 2006 (first published in 1993)
Pages: 240

I've fallen a little behind again. Three books, to be exact. I would like to blame it on school again, but if I did I would have to ask myself why I've been reading for fun anyway. The semester got pretty hectic toward the end, but still I found myself reading books just for fun. Perhaps it's not the wisest thing to do, but I guess I just can't help myself. And although I'm behind in my reviews for this blog, I intend to catch up with them. I've gotten to the point where I almost feel guilty if I finish a book but don't write about it here. I have my fan to please, after all!

So, Incidences. You've probably never heard of this book. I certainly hadn't until a good friend gave it to me for a wedding gift. He's a fan of Russian literature, and he told me this book blew his mind. Being somewhat of a fan of Russian literature myself (well, at least of Dostoevsky), I was interested. These short pieces by Daniil Kharms (whose real name was Daniil Ivanovich Iuvachov) were never published during his lifetime because such writing was illegal during the Soviet era. In fact, Kharms's writing got him thrown in jail. So you know it must be interesting. And since he uses the short-short story form, you know it must be weird.

And weird it is, much weirder even than I expected it to be. These are some of the most bizarre stories I have ever read. The first, and by far the longest, story of the book, "The Old Woman," tells of a young man struggling to find a way to dispose the body of an old woman that just came into his apartment and died. Most of the stories are much shorter, including the numbered sequence of thirty "incidents." "The Plummeting Old Women" is just what it sounds like—old women plummeting out of an open window one by one. And lest you think all the stories are about old women, consider "Pushkin and Gogol," a story in the form of a play that portrays Pushkin and Gogol repeatedly tripping over each other and expressing their astonishment about it. These are just a taste of the supreme strangeness of this book.

One theme that really stands out in this book is violence. Absurd violence. People suddenly get furious with each other and brutally beat each other up. An argument about whether 7 comes before 8 is interrupted by a boy falling off a bench and breaking both jaw-bones. I don't know what it all means, but Kharms certainly seemed to have a fascination with bizarre death and spontaneous violence. It got a little tiring after a while, to tell you the truth, but I kept reading because a part of me wanted to figure out what was going on in the author's head.

In the end, though, I had to give up on that. I have no idea what point the guy was trying to make, or if he was trying to make a point at all. Even the allegedly non-fictional essays toward the end of the book make Kharms seem like a caricature. I guess you can't fully appreciate what is going on here without some understanding of what life was like in Soviet Russia, of which I have very little.

Did I enjoy this book? Yes and no. Anyone that reads this blog knows that I have something of a penchant for weird literature. Sometimes I enjoy when a story is weird without any apparent reason. But I also wished I could appreciate the meaning better. And, as I mentioned earlier, I did get tired of the outrageous violence. Sometimes it was absurd enough to be funny, but sometimes it was just disgusting. And speaking of disgusting, there is a section of the book titled "Erotica" that I entirely skipped over.

I can't say that I would recommend this book to anyone, unless you also like really weird stuff, or you are really interested in Russia. That said, I'm thankful to my friend for giving me this book. I feel like, if anything, my eyes have been opened a little bit more.