Literary Corner Cafe

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - This Body of Death by Elizabeth George

Inspector Thomas Lynley is back. Sort of. Elizabeth George’s sixteenth novel revolving around the dapper Scotland Yard detective, This Body of Death, sees Tommy Lynley’s return to London from his compassionate leave and his hike of the Cornish coast after the senseless murder of his wife, Lady Helen and their unborn child.

After the body of an unidentified young woman is found in an overgrown cemetery in Stoke Newington in north London, Lynley, who is already home in Belgravia, is summoned back to the Met by Acting Superintendent Isabelle Ardery, who made an appearance in the earlier book, Playing for the Ashes. Up to London from Maidstone, in Kent, Ardery is one of George’s trademark complex characters. She’s neurotic, alcoholic, and a failed wife and mother, who secrets and drinks small, airline bottles of liquor, usually vodka, in order to keep her on a somewhat even keel. And stay on an even keep she must, because whether or not Isabelle Ardery becomes the permanent Superintendent depends on snobbish and arrogant Assistant Commissioner Sir David Hillier, whose interests, as far as the Met go, lie in realms other than those of his working detectives.

It isn’t help in solving the murder that Ardery wants from Tommy Lynley, though she gets that, of course. What she really needs and wants is for Lynley to be physically present at the Met, so her team, which was formerly Lynley’s team, and still fiercely loyal to the Cornish charmer, stops thinking of him with awe and reverence and gives Ardery half a chance to succeed. And predictably, it’s Tommy Lynley who sees through Ardery’s hard shell to the scared and vulnerable woman hiding underneath. Yes, Inspector Thomas Lynley has finally healed enough to allow himself to be susceptible to the charms of a woman who is not the late Lady Helen. Though Lady Helen had always been one of my favorite characters, I was glad to see Lynley beginning to come to life once again.

Even though George writes about a London-based detective, she always manages to set her books in interesting parts of England other than the City, and so it is with This Body of Death. The identity of the murdered woman leads to the New Forest in Hampshire where Barbara Havers and Winston Nkata (Lynley has remained in London) meet a strange mix of characters in a beautiful and strange world. There’s Gordon, a thatcher and a loner who seems to have no attachments other than to his dog, Tess; there’s Robbie, an agister and brother of one of Gordon’s former lovers; there’s Meredith, a single mother who wants to be a fabric designer, and the mysterious, blonde, and voluptuous Gina, if Gina’s her real name, and the reader has no reason to believe it is, the woman who appears to be Gordon’s current girlfriend. All of these people are connected, in one way or another, with the murdered woman, and of course, it isn’t long until there are multiple suspects, and a string of red herrings, including a psychic, an ice skating instructor, and a mentally ill violinist. Though the New Forest might seem enchanting and even idyllic, in this book, it holds dark secrets whose exposure will lead to tragedy.

Threaded through the narrative of the young woman’s murder is another, seemingly unrelated story told in the form of a psychiatric report revolving around the abduction, abuse, and murder of a two-year-old by three adolescent boys, all of whom had been abused themselves.

At first, this peripheral story, which does mesh with the main narrative near the book’s end, was boring for me. I really disliked having to stop reading the main narrative to read yet another block of dry, boring psychiatric report. So, I made the decision to read the entire psychiatric report all at once (it contains no spoilers, by the way) and get it out of the way so I could concentrate on the main narrative. It was a decision I did not regret.

The main story, itself, moves glacially, at least in the first third of the book, and is burdened by so many different and fragmentary plot threads that I was almost ready to put it down – again. (Two or three times before I’d tried to read this book and was defeated by the extreme slowness of the plot’s unfolding.) I do have to say that George is very, very good at weaving her disparate plot threads into one cohesive whole, however, and when she does, it’s almost always worth the wait.

Most of the characters in this book are well drawn, but so many of them are thrown at the reader in the book’s early chapters that we never get a chance to really know the ones we haven’t met previously. I would just be settling in, taking an interest in a character, when that plot thread I was reading would dissolve into a new one, with new characters. And, while the female characters were beautifully nuanced, the male characters suffered a bit from stereotyping. For example, Tommy Lynley is always boyishly handsome in a tall, blond, Scandinavian way, while another character is this book, Robbie is described as being so toothy he’s ugly. I suppose George wanted readers to feel sympathy for Robbie, but her description of him made me lose sympathy rather than develop it.

And even though I adore Barbara Havers, in this book, some of Havers’ reactions to AS Ardery seem more childish than eccentric, and I really felt Havers deserved better. Although some of Havers scenes, especially with Ardery, are no doubt meant to provide comic relief, most of the time I found myself truly annoyed with Havers’ interaction with Ardery, and I felt guilty about that because I like Barbara Havers so much. And really, it’s time Havers had a love interest of her own, a genuine love interest, rather than following Lynley around like some lovesick thirteen-year-old. Barbara Havers, I think, would have more self-respect than that.

The dialogue, which is typically Elizabeth George, is spare and plain, and it very much fits a police procedural/mystery. The only place I felt let down by the dialogue was during Lynley’s romantic reawakening: “[Lynley] looked at her and she held the look. The moment became a man-woman thing. That was always the risk when the sexes mixed. With Barbara Havers it had always been something so far out of the question as to be nearly laughable. With Isabelle Ardery, this was not the case.”

Why was the thought of a romantic liaison with Barbara Havers laughable? Because she isn’t classically beautiful? Because she’s so eccentric? Is Lynley really that shallow? The dialogue above, besides being kind of laughable itself, made me want to slap Tommy Lynley and tell him not to be so hung up on appearances. I hope in future books George gives Havers a love interest of her own, and that she stops writing the eccentric detective as a stray cat, who will follow Lynley anywhere.

And, has Tommy Lynley, during his walk of the Cornish coast, become something of a Lord Peter Wimsey? I hope not. I like Lord Peter Wimsey, but I also like Tommy Lynley, and I want him to remain “Tommy Lynley.” His old friends, Deborah and Simon St. James make brief appearances in this novel, but they aren’t involved in much of the plot. As I was reading, I began to long for books like the early “Inspector Lynley novels,” books that featured Lynley, Lady Helen Clyde, Simon St. James and Deborah Cotter throughout the entire novel, books like Payment in Blood in which a still single Lynley and the St. James’ who were yet to marry, travel to Scotland to meet Lady Helen, who is acting in a play. I realize the characters must “move on” and I’ve enjoyed the complications among the four. And I’m one reader who didn’t mind too much that George killed off Lady Helen even though I liked her. However, I do like to see the two remaining friends – Deborah and Simon – featured more heavily. The early books, A Great Deliverance, For the Sake of Helena, Payment in Blood, Playing for the Ashes, and Missing Joseph were all tightly plotted, highly atmospheric books that really pulled the reader into Lynley’s world. I felt this cool and detached book, on the other hand, tried to keep the reader at arm’s length.

The plot in This Body of Death contains too many holes, when compared to the tight plotting of the early novels. I couldn’t buy it that Havers would place herself in peril by not calling for backup in a potentially dangerous situation, for example. And the character of Gina Dickens makes so many illogical choices that a reader has to wonder what her primary motivation is.

The above, however, were mere quibbles, and quibbles alone never put me off any book. What really put me off this book was the fact that the case referenced by the “psychiatric report” threaded through the main narrative was a very thinly disguised version of the James Bulger case that rocked England some years back. I felt sick. Why? Why did Elizabeth George, who has such a fertile imagination, have to include the James Bulger case in her book? Surely she could have imagined a fictional child murder/child murderer that would have no, or less, impact on the family of poor James Bulger. I almost stopped reading the book at that point. I had to put it down for a few days, until I felt I could tolerate it again.

I realize Elizabeth George has an interest in abused children who do not get the proper attention and care and who later commit heinous crimes. Any reader of the “Inspector Lynley” books knows that as most of the books contain a character or two who fits that description. It isn’t that I don’t care about abused children. I do. Every child has the right to grow up feeling safe and loved. I’m just tired of exploring the issue time and time again in George’s books. I just wish she’d “vary the crime” a little so it doesn’t always involve someone who was abused as a child.

This Body of Death is quite long. My hardcover copy is more than six hundred pages of small font. If that small font were “normal” size, this book could easily stretch to eight hundred to nine hundred pages. Still, psychiatric report aside, and once the first one hundred or so pages were read, the book did read quickly as George writes very flowing prose. But don’t buy this book for an airplane ride and think you’ll be able to finish it. You won’t. Not unless you’re a speedreader. Maybe not even then.

Bottom line, this book is a lot better than the meandering Careless In Red, but Lynley isn’t quite back to form. Still, quibbles and psychiatric report aside, for the most part, I very much enjoyed reading this book, though it’s by far not George’s best. I’m looking forward with much anticipation to the new “Inspector Lynley” novel that will be released in January. It’s so good having Tommy Lynley home again. If he needs a little time to settle in, I’m willing to give it to him.


Recommended: Readers of the “Inspector Lynley” series won’t want to miss this book, and they can take heart knowing things have improved. Though all of the books in this series can stand alone, only readers who’ve read them in order will understand the complicated relationships and subtle nuances. For the most part, the series is a good one, and if you’re interested, I recommend starting at the beginning and reading A Great Deliverance, the book that started it all.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book Review - A Summer of Drowning by John Burnside

A Summer of Drowning is John Burnside’s eighth novel. Although it sounded interesting to me, I initially decided to skip it because the previous “Burnside novels” I’d read I was less than taken with. Then I read an article in which Burnside stated that he, himself, was less than thrilled with his own early novels and that he recognized their mistakes. Okay, I decided, maybe it was time I gave John Burnside another chance.

A Summer of Drowning is set on the small Arctic island of Kvaløya, a place of “snow and sullen light” by winter, and “bird calls and wind-sifted murmurs” by summer. It’s narrated in retrospect by Liv, the teenaged daughter of Angelika Rossdale, a celebrated landscape painter from Oslo.

Liv and Angelika live together in a “grey, sunlit house above the meadows,” and Angelika, who is “famously reclusive” and who “didn’t need other people,” rarely emerges from her studio unless it’s for dinner, or Saturday morning coffee, or to garden. Her painting, she says, is her life, and her removal from the world, she insists, is deliberate: “To turn away from the busy world is interesting, up to a point…but to refuse oneself is exemplary. To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame – that is the highest form of art.” Initially, one believes Angelika, but as the reader gets deeper into the book, he or she has to wonder if Angelika has, indeed, “removed herself from the frame,” or if she’s only paying lip service to this ideal.

Liv, however, who has no choice in being “removed from the frame,” who has no vocation, not much ambition, and on that remote northern island, none of the interests that preoccupy most girls her age. Almost by default, Liv has become a watcher, “one of God’s spies.” “I simply look out,” she says, “over the meadows, over the water, and I pay attention.”

The one person on Kvaløya Liv pays attention to is Kyrre Opdahl, Angelika and Liv’s elderly neighbor. Kyrre lives on the island with his boxes of “beautiful junk” and tells Liv Norse folktales, the “old stories,” one revolving around the huldra, a forest creature who lures both men and boys to their death. When two of her classmates – Mats and Harald Sigfridsson – drown within days of each other – Liv begins to wonder if another classmate, Maia, a “dark-eyed, mocking girl with a loose tomboy walk who had always been an outsider” could be the huldra. Maia was, after all, seen with both boys shortly before they drowned, and both boys drowned on clear, still nights. As Liv puts it, “The meadows were quiet, the sky was clear, and the water was still….There was no reason for any of them to die.”

Another person Liv watches is Englishman Martin Crosbie, “around thirty…sensitive, or delicate…a worried spirit.” Crosbie has rented Kyrre’s boathouse for the entire summer, and to Liv, he’s an odd man, telling little, seemingly insignificant lies and going about always distracted, as if drunk. Liv describes him as “elsewhere, in another world, or another time.” In addition, Crosbie seems to be watching Liv as much as Liv is watching him. Crosbie, as Liv will learn, has his secrets, secrets she was not meant to discover.

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that before this extraordinary summer is over, Kyrre, Maia, and Martin Crosbie will disappear as well. Despite the fact that I said “it’s not a spoiler,” I can hear the groans now. Since Liv is telling the story in retrospect, from vantage point of ten years, the reader learns about the disappearances in the first seven pages. And knowing about them doesn’t spoil the story tension, but adds to it, instead. We begin to feel claustrophobic, trapped on the island just as Liv is trapped. And, like Liv, we begin to sense the impending horror of that summer, the summer when “the light was that still, silvery-white gloaming that makes everything spectral…ghost birds hanging on the air.”

In between observing those around her, Liv, as can be seen from the above, is a keen observer of the natural world. She tells the reader about “a new sweetness of grasses and wildflowers, and mountain water gathering in the meadows” and “pockets of darkness” on garden walls. From its opening pages A Summer of Drowning is a hypnotic book, written in beautiful, hypnotic prose. I wasn’t surprised at that. Burnside is also a talented poet, a Whitbread winner, and his prose as well has been praised for its crystalline clarity and poetic cadence. This is very evident in this lyrically written book. Listen to Liv and she imagines Maia:

Maia floating in the Sound somewhere downshore, and a stolen boat drifting on the tide, miles away, empty, barely moving, on water that, to all appearances, was as still and unbroken as the surface of an empty mirror.

Even those who don’t know much about poetry, and I am certainly no poet myself, though I do love reading poetry, will notice the long vowels and the repeated consonant sounds. The beauty of Burnside’s prose actually adds to the feeling of menace and impending doom present everywhere in this book. This is a book about the shadowland between waking and dreams, between reality and myth, and Burnside’s limpid prose is perfect for showcasing that place of mystery.

Naturally A Summer of Drowning is a very atmospheric book, but what, exactly, that atmosphere might be is difficult to pin down. At times, this is a gorgeous book, filled with all the strange light and wild beauty of the remote North. At other times, it’s sinister, as just about everyone watches everyone else, and everyone, it seems, has something to hide. And, there are dips into the supernatural, but dips only. This isn’t a book “about” the supernatural, and when it comes to that subject, Burnside writes with an extraordinarily light touch. The book is definitely not “gimmickly.” As one reads on, past the first third or so, one comes to realize that this is also a book about delusion and self-delusion, and about the untrustworthiness of believing what we see with our own eyes. Once the reader realizes that the central subject of the book isn’t the mystery of what happened to Mats and Harald and Kyrre and Maia and even Martin Crosbie, but Liv, herself, a note of hysteria, or perhaps paranoia, has crept into the narrative, and the book’s title becomes highly symbolic.

And, about that title. It’s “a” summer of drowning, not “the” summer of drowning. Was there more than one? Is this something that happens with any degree of regularity on Kvaløya? Is there something, something important that Liv is holding back? For Liv, herself tells us that there are “two kinds of seeing.” One is about finding “what we have always been told is there,” while the other is about going “out alone in the world,” like “a boy going out into the fields, or along the shore,” a boy who finds that “something creeps in at the edge of his vision.”

Liv is a well-drawn character, but some readers, I think, will find it difficult to identify with her. She’s not your average girl, or what you might think of as “your average girl.” And she’s not nearly as serious as one might think, with all the disappearing and drowning going on around her. At an art gallery showing, she says, “It was immediately obvious [it] was one of those exhibitions that seek to inform and, at the same time, provoke serious thinking about what art is all about and I couldn’t be bothered with that.”

All of the characters are a bit mysterious, but in this book, that doesn’t equate to “sketchily drawn.” These characters serve this novel best by not revealing everything about themselves, by not letting us get to know them better than they know themselves.

So, did I think the book was perfect? Almost, but not quite. I think it’s weighed down – and a book like this should feel weightless – by a subplot involving Liv’s travel writer father in England, a man she’s never seen. We realize that Liv is finally being given a chance to define herself, to “frame” her own life in a way her mother never offered her. But the subplot, though beautifully written and interesting, at least at first, lacks any emotional payoff, and Liv fails to obtain the answers she seeks.

In the end, A Summer of Drowning might be one of those books that raises more questions than it answers. It is deliberately ambiguous, and this ambiguity is disturbing and haunting. This is a book that grabs hold of a reader and won’t let go weeks, months, maybe years after the last page has been turned. I just loved it.


Recommended: To readers of literary fiction, who don’t require every loose end to be tied up.

Note: I know some readers who believe the cover of this book, while attractive, is far too dark. I agree, and I want to point out that the actual cover is far darker than the photo depicts. The book, itself, is dark, but prospective readers must be able to see the scene depicted on the cover to be enticed to pick the book up and page through it. I hope publishers take Julian Barnes’ words to heart about cover art, and that readers will see a surge in quality cover art in the years to come.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending Wins the 2011 Booker Prize

Julian Barnes can finally put aside his fear that he could “go to my grave and get a Beryl,” referring, of course, to the late Beryl Bainbridge, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker award five times and yet never won. Bainbridge was eventually awarded a posthumous “Best of Beryl” Booker for her novel, Master Georgie.

Barnes fared better. Though the Booker eluded him three times previously, on Tuesday evening, October 18, 2011, Barnes won the Man Booker prize for his short novel, The Sense of an Ending.

This was a controversial year for the Booker as many readers accused the judges of putting “readability” and popularity above genuine quality, though no one I know or have read about is critical of Barnes’ beautiful novel. The Chair of this year’s Booker judges, Dame Stella Rimington praised Barnes’ book, saying it had “the markings of a classic of English literature. It is exquisitely written, subtly plotted, and reveals new depths with each reading.”

And, as far as “readability” goes, Dame Stella said, “It is a very readable book, if I may use that word, but readable not only once but twice and even three times. It is incredibly concentrated. Crammed into this short space is a great deal of information which you don’t get out of a first read.”

In accepting the prize, Barnes offered some advice to publishers, “Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you think of its contents, will probably agree it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we've come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the ebook, it has to look like something worth buying, worth keeping.”

Given the plethora of poor and unattractive book covers being churned out today, I heartily agree with Barnes, and I’m glad he issued the challenge to publishers to “up their game” as far as book covers go.

And as for “readability?” Barnes called it a “false hare” and had this to say, “Most great books are readable. Any shortlist of the last ten years that I've read has contained nothing but what you would call readable books.”

Barnes, who once called the Booker “posh bingo” says he hasn’t changed his view, and that what books are shortlisted and who eventually wins the 50,000-pound prize depends largely on who the judges are and what type of books they like. He added that the Booker had a tendency to drive writers mad, until they won, of course, at which time they realized that the judges were the “wisest heads in literary Christendom.” He advised dealing with the madness by treating the prize as a lottery.

Widely praised, The Sense of an Ending, Barnes’ eleventh novel, is one of the shortest winners in Booker history, though it’s not quite “the” shortest. The late Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel, Offshore, which won the prize in 1979, is shorter than Barnes’ book by several hundred words.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of dull arts administrator Tony Webster. The book’s theme is the unreliability of memory, and the way we shape and edit and refine our memories to make them into whatever we need them to be.

“One of the things that the book does is talk about the human kind,” said Dame Stella. “None of us really knows who we are. We present ourselves in all sorts of ways, but maybe the ways we present ourselves are not how we really are.”

It took the judges only thirty-one minutes to decide on Barnes as this year’s winner. When debate began, they were divided 3-2, but all agreed on the Barnes book by the end of what Dame Stella calls “an interesting debate.”

Barnes, who is sixty-five, had been shortlisted three times previously. In 1984, Flaubert’s Parrot lost to Anita Brookner; in 1998, England, England lost to Ian McEwan; and in 2005, Arthur and George lost to John Banville. His win this year makes Irish author, William Trevor the most shortlisted author never to have won.

This year, Barnes was the only author to have been previously shortlisted. The other shortlisted authors were Carol Birch for Jamrach’s Menagerie, an adventure on the high seas; Patrick de Witt for The Sisters Brothers, a picaresque western; Esi Edugvan for Half Blood Blues, a heady mixture of jazz and Nazism; and two debut novels, one from Stephen Kelman, Pigeon English, the story of a boy from Ghana who turns London sleuth, and AD Miller for Snowdrops, a tale of corruption set in Moscow.

Last year’s Booker chairman, Andrew Motion, questioned the absence of Alan Hollinghurst, Edward St. Aubyn, and Ali Smith on the shortlist. Personally, I would have loved to have seen Hollinghurt’s The Stranger’s Child as well as Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side both on the shortlist.

Despite the controversy over the shortlist and the “readability” factor, this year’s shortlist provided record Booker sales.

So, what’s Barnes going to do with the 50,000-pound prize money? He says he needs a new watchstrap, then adds, “I could buy a whole new watch.” He sure could.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Book Review - Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan

Some other reviewers have said Stewart O’Nan’s lovely book, Emily, Alone was “too slow” or didn’t contain “enough plot” for them. I loved Emily, Alone precisely because it was so lovely and leisurely paced and didn’t contain a lot of plot twists and turns or overly dramatic situations.

Readers first met Emily Maxwell in 2002’s Wish You Were Here. In that book, which takes place at Emily’s Chautauqua lake house shortly after Emily’s husband, Henry has died, we also met Emily’s family, many of whom make appearances in Emily, Alone, though their lives have moved on, sometimes in directions they didn’t expect during that final summer together at Lake Chautauqua.

In Emily, Alone, Emily, who “never wanted to be eighty…[and] never wanted to outlive Henry,” finds herself, though relatively healthy and financially secure, eighty and without her beloved Henry, though she does still have Rufus, her elderly dog by her side. She and Rufus rattle around Emily’s Pittsburgh home, “her life no longer an urgent or necessary business,” doing crossword puzzles, listening to classical music on WQED FM, reading the classics of English literature, like Middlemarch, cleaning in anticipation of the cleaning lady’s arrival, scanning the obituaries for familiar names, and noting “the usual troop of jays and nuthatches and titmice in her bird journal.” What Emily loves most, though, is planning for the yearly visits of her children, Margaret and Kenneth, and visiting with her four grandchildren. It’s with Margaret and Kenneth that Emily must tread most carefully, weighing her “Great Depression” values over her children’s outspokenness and self-centeredness of the ‘60s. Margaret and Kenneth, after all, wield the ultimate weapon: access to those four beloved grandchildren, and neither son nor daughter will hesitate in using that weapon, even against his or her own mother.

Emily’s life might seem, at first glance, to be both peaceful and boring. In reality, it’s neither. The Maxwell family has its tensions, and every time Margaret and Kenneth visit Emily, those tensions, though muted, eventually surface. Emily is aghast when she realizes that Margaret has inherited Emily’s own short temper. In fact, the realization that Margaret, who is now divorced and sober after some time spent in rehab, is as volatile as Emily used to be causes Emily to wish “she could go back and apologize to those closest to her…how did her mother and father ever put up with her?”

Despite problems with her children, the fact that Henry is now gone, and despite that fact that more and more of Emily’s friends are dying, Emily considers herself a lucky woman. She still has Rufus, who she treasures, she has her grandchildren, and she appreciates the fact that at eighty, she’s blessed with an unchanging routine.

Writers are cautioned to “start your story on a day that’s different,” and for the most part, O’Nan does. Every Tuesday, Emily Maxwell is in the habit of enjoying a two-for-one breakfast with her sister-in-law, Arlene, at a nearby suburb’s Eat ‘n’ Park. (The Sunday paper had kindly provided coupons.) Because Henry would never let Emily drive, she’s come to rely on Arlene to drive the two of them to the restaurant and then home again, though Arlene, with her poor eyesight and disregard for traffic laws wouldn’t be anyone else’s first choice behind the wheel. But, Emily thinks, she, herself, would be no better: “After a run-in with a fire hydrant, followed quickly by another with a Duquesne Light truck, she admitted — bitterly, since it went against her innate thriftiness — that maybe taking taxis was the better part of valor.”

The “difference” in this day begins when Arlene, her plate piled high with Eat ‘n’ Park morsels, begins to speak, then mysteriously topples over. EMTs are called, of course, and as Arlene is taken to the hospital in an emergency vehicle, Emily is forced to follow in Arlene’s car.

If Arlene provided the first surprise of Emily’s day, it’s Emily, herself, who provides the next. Following the EMTs to the hospital in Arlene’s car, Emily discovers that “she was much less fearful behind the wheel than riding beside Arlene.” To my way of thinking, that shouldn’t have come as such a big surprise.

After learning that Arlene will recover, (not really a spoiler), Emily goes home and backs Henry’s 1982 Oldsmobile out of the garage. The lady’s decided that she’s going to get behind the wheel again, and it’s no spoiler to tell you that this is a decision Emily doesn’t regret. She even trades in Henry’s 1982 Oldsmobile for something more her speed, a bright blue (Emily worries that the car may be too “flashy”) Subaru Outback. Driving, Emily finds, made her feel “surprisingly alive, part of something larger again.” And when Arlene is released from the hospital, it’s Emily who takes charge.

O’Nan specializes in portraying ordinary people, who live ordinary lives. There’s nothing special about Emily Maxwell, other than the fact that she is Emily Maxwell. You probably know a person just like her. I know I do. Like this book or not, Emily Maxwell is a truly authentic character. So many authors write about the young, but I tend to shy away from books described as “coming-of-age” stories. The young, for me, at least, with some exceptions, of course, just aren’t that interesting. They haven’t lived long enough. They haven’t accrued enough history to be interesting. Other authors portray older persons as caricatures, which is just as bad as not portraying them at all. O’Nan, however, is different. His portrayal of Emily is quiet, true, but it’s also sensitive and beautifully nuanced, and to O’Nan’s great credit, he eschews sentimentality. For example, he resists the urge to allow Emily to find true love again, something I greatly appreciated.

O’Nan tells the story of Emily Maxwell is short, crisp, named chapters that are understated and filled with detail, and that take the reader through Emily’s life for the better part of a year. I’m not a fan of “short, crisp” chapters myself, but that’s just a personal “not my cup of tea” kind of thing. They did work well in this book, and there’s certainly nothing at all wrong with them.

This book has been criticized by some as not containing enough plot, and to be sure, Emily, Alone isn’t a plot driven novel. As a character study, however, its scenes present an exquisite little miniature of the everyday joys and sorrows of someone who is close to the end of a long life, but still makes the most of every day. The prose is lean and unadorned, and is characterized by a dark wit that permeates the entire novel.

I love the wealth of Pittsburgh detail that fills this novel. For me, it really made the novel come alive, not that I’m terribly familiar with Pittsburgh, though after reading this book I sometimes feel that I am. I felt I knew the Lake Chautauqua area when reading the darker Wish You Were Here, and to be honest, I did prefer the earlier book, though Emily, Alone is a tighter, more focused work. Maybe that was my problem. I like longer books, with many characters and several subplots as opposed to slim novels that focus on one character only.

Writer Frank Norris dismissed realism as “the drama of a broken teacup” in a reaction to the “parlor dramas” of Henry James, and gravitated toward the much harsher naturalism. O’Nan is definitely writing “the drama of a broken teacup” in Emily, Alone, but Emily is such a well drawn and beautifully nuanced character that most readers, I think, won’t mind that the harsher realities of life have been dealt with outside the pages of this book. Emily is just “too real” to dismiss, and in the end, the reader, like O’Nan, comes to respect this graceful woman who makes a life of “simply carrying on.”


Recommended: To those who like character studies as opposed to plot driven novels. This book contains very little plot, but the beautiful portrait of Emily Maxwell makes her a character well worth knowing.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review - The Master by Colm Toibin

I've been a longtime fan of Henry James and I've read almost everything he ever published. Not quite everything, but almost. My favorites are The Golden Bowl, the novella, The Turn of the Screw, and the exquisite Portrait of a Lady. Henry James is the only man, other than Jose Saramago, who can grab my attention at the beginning of a sentence and hold it until he concludes that very same sentence several pages later.

Talented Irish author, Colm Toibin's The Master, a book about Henry James, is very different from what I thought it would be, but it fulfilled all of my expectations for an engrossing and very serious book. As one reads The Master, one must be aware that this is a novel, a novel in which the central character is Henry James, and not a biography of James. To view the book as a biography would be doing it a grave disservice.

The Master opens in London in 1895, at the dreadful premiere of James' play, Guy Domville, a play James, himself, was too nervous to attend. He went, instead, to see Oscar Wilde's comedy, An Ideal Husband, but returned to the theatre in which Guy Domville had been staged in time to hear the humiliating jeers and boos from the audience. The book ends in Rye, in southern Sussex, at James' beloved Lamb House, as the 19th century is ending and his brother, William, William's wife, Alice, and their daughter, Peggy (a lover of the works of Dickens), are departing for the sunnier and warmer South of France.

While no previous knowledge of James is required to understand The Master, I think this is a book that's best appreciated by those with some familiarity with the works of Henry James and with his personal life as well. For example, it helps greatly in your appreciation of The Master if you know that James' cousin, the vivacious Minny Temple, as well as his own hypochondriacal sister, Alice, formed the basis for many of his heroines, Minny for Daisy Miler and Isabel Archer and Alice for the little girl in The Turn of the Screw. In fact, Toibin even goes so far as to suggest that James actually preferred his loved ones dead, rather than alive, so he could resurrect their ghosts as characters in his stories.

In what is the most heartbreaking section of the book, The Master explores James' tragic relationship with the American novelist, Constance Fenimore Woolson, a talented, elegant and highly intelligent woman (but one given to much deep melancholia) who was, in all probability James' soulmate, but a woman to whom James could not give the physical intimacy she so craved. In heartrending set pieces, James visits Constance in Florence, then later travels to Venice after learning of her suicide there to view the place where she threw herself from a palazzo window and died, broken and bleeding, on the pavement below.

Toibin portrays James as a man who always let down those he loved, particularly women. Besides laying the blame for Constance's suicide squarely on James' shoulders (he allegedly refused to join her in Venice during a particularly dismal winter after indicating that he might), he also places the blame for Minny Temple's death from tuberculosis at James' feet, pointing out that Minny wanted to join James in Rome:

Think, my dear, of the pleasure we would have together in Rome....

...Minny wrote to James. What Toibin doesn't tell us is that Minny knew her fantasy of traveling to Rome, or anywhere else, for that matter, was just that...a fantasy, for in a postscript to her letter to James she wrote:

I am really not strong enough to go abroad with even the kindest of friends.

Toibin leaves us with the idea that James was a cold, selfish and self-centered man, when in fact, while certainly not a gadfly, he may very well have been a kind and sympathetic friend.

Toibin is probably at his best when exploring James' repressed sexuality. It is well known that James was horrified at the fate of the very open Oscar Wilde, and Toibin assumes, probably correctly, that James' fear of the same consequences kept him from exploring and expressing his own feelings.

Toibin does manage to write in the same style as did James, but he wisely stops short of giving us James' pages-long sentences. The Master is, however, a melancholy, wistful book, and if anything, Toibin puts too much emphasis on the solitary, tragic aspects of James' life, while ignoring the author's more sociable, witty side. Toibin weaves his story into eleven chapters, each one containing an incident that triggers a memory of the past in James. A remark made by the Archbishop of Canterbury's son, for example, triggers a memory in James that later becomes The Turn of the Screw.

The book is beautifully detailed, something that further served to bring James to life. When describing James' room in the Florentine palazzo of a friend, Toibin tells us it had a:

...pompous painted ceiling and walls of ancient pale green damask slightly shredded and patched....

Despite a few misgivings, I found The Master to be a beautiful book, as graceful and delicately nuanced as a watercolor. For me, its only failing, if it can even be termed a failing, is Toibin's insistence on concentrating on James as an essentially tragic figure. He paints James' life as a life devoid of passion. While it's true that James lived during a time in which it would have been difficult for him to explore his sexuality, Toibin doesn't seem to consider the passion, or the redemptive power, inherent in a life dedicated to art. Still, this book is so well written, and so elegantly written, that I can't justify giving it any fewer than five stars.


Recommended: Yes, especially to lovers of the works of Henry James. Those readers, I think, will be enthralled.

Note: This book won the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Literary News - Swedish Poet Tomas Transtromer Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, 80, is the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize for Literature, “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality, said the Swedish Academy in announcing his win in Stockholm on Thursday, October 6th, while the assembled journalists cheered. Mr. Tranströmer has written more than fifteen collections of poetry, many of which have been translated into English and sixty other languages. Critics have praised his work for its accessibility and elegance, even in translation, taking special note of his beautiful descriptions of the long Swedish winters, the rhythm of the seasons, and the atmospheric beauty of nature.

Even though many of Mr. Tranströmer’s works have been translated into English, in the United States, very few persons have even heard of him, much less read him, however that is about to change. Jeffrey Yang, editor of Tranströmer’s The Great Empire: New and Collected Poems, published by New Directions, said, “It was already in a third printing – now we’ll probably do a quick turnaround short run, and a bigger run.” Yang estimates that because of Tranströmer’s Nobel win, New Directions will need to print an additional 5,000 to 10,000 volumes of Tranströmer’s book. New Directions published the first English translation of Tranströmer’s poetry in 1966 in its annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, No. 19.

Green Integer Press, based in Los Angeles, California, plans to do just what New Directions is doing. Green Integer has a bilingual edition of Tranströmer’s Snow Gondola, with the poems appearing side-by-side in both Swedish and English. Demand for the book should be high all through the rest of the year, and perhaps beyond.

“I kind of thought it [the Nobel winner] should be a poet,” said Douglas Messerli, Green Integer publisher. “It’s been so long since a poet has been selected.”

On Friday, October 7th, Ecco announced that it would reissue the two collections of Tranströmer poetry it previously published: For the Living and the Dead: A Memoir and Poems, published in 1995, and Selected Poems, published in 1998.

Daniel Halpern, president and publisher of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, praised Tranströmer’s win, saying, “So much poetry, not only in this country but everywhere, is small and personal and it doesn’t look outward, it looks inward. But there are some poets who write true international poetry. It’s the sensibility that runs through his [Tranströmer’s] poems that is so seductive. He is such a curious and open and intelligent writer.”

Mr. Halpern said that Selected Poems, which was originally published in 2000 by Ecco, would be re-released within days, while online retailer sites reported that print copies of Tranströmer’s books were already on backorder, and electronic versions were difficult to find.

Tomas Tranströmer was born in Stockholm in 1931 to a schoolteacher mother and a journalist father. He studied literature, history, religion, and psychology at Stockholm University, and graduated in 1956. He then worked as a psychologist at a youth correctional facility. In 1990, he suffered a stroke that left him, for the most part, unable to speak, though he eventually began to write again.

Journalists reported that Mr. Tranströmer, who appeared in the vestibule of his Stockholm apartment with his wife, Monica, was visibly overwhelmed at the news of his win. Speaking on behalf of her husband, Monica Tranströmer said, “That you happened to receive it is a great joy and happy surprise, but the fact the prize went to poetry felt very good.” she said.

Swedes, most of whom have read Tranströmer’s work since his first volume of poems was published, celebrated the win. Ola Larsmo, a novelist and president of the Swedish Pen Association said, “To be quite honest it was a relief because people have been hoping for this for a long time. Some thought the train might have left the station already because he is old and not quite well. It felt great that he was confirmed in this role of national and international poet.”

John Freeman, editor of “Granta” said, “He is to Sweden what Robert Frost was to America. The national character, if you can say one exists, and the landscape of Sweden are very much reflected in his work. It’s easy because of that to overlook the abiding strangeness and mysteriousness of his poems.”

When making the announcement of Tranströmer’s win, the Nobel committee noted that it had been many years since a Swede had won the prize. The last time was in 1974 when Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson shard the prize.

While Swedes celebrated Tranströmer’s win, others again criticized the Nobel for being too Eurocentric. Tranströmer’s win made him the eighth European to win in a decade. The last time an American won the prize was in 1993 when Toni Morrison won.

Peter Englund, responding to the “Eurocentric criticisms” said that the literature jury has increased its number of scouts to scour for books in non-European languages. In recent years, American novelist Philip Roth has been a favorite, but has not been selected.

Once again, the literature jury proved its unpredictability. Ladbroke’s, the British-based bookmaker, had favored France-based Syrian poet, Adonis, who writes in Arabic, for the win with odds of 4-1, though Tranströmer was the bookmaker’s second choice at 6-1. In previous years, the choice of relatively unknown writers like Germany’s Herta Müller surprised everyone, better and non-better alike. In other years, winners like Turkey’s Orhan Pamuk, have had some people questioning whether the Nobel is overly political. The first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in 1901 to the French poet and philosopher, Sully Prudhomme, whose poetry showed the “rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect.”

Mr. Tranströmer’s other prizes include the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Bonnier Award for Poetry, the Petrarch Prize in Germany, and the Bellman Prize.

The Nobel Prize carries an honorarium of nearly $1.5 million.

Below is a poem from Tranströmer’s collection Selected Poems: 1954-1986, edited by Robert Hass.

The Scattered Congregation

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.
Inside the church, pillars and vaulting
white as plaster, like the cast
around the broken arm of faith.
Inside the church there's a begging bowl
that slowly lifts from the floor
and floats along the pews.
But the church bells have gone underground.
They're hanging in the sewage pipes.
Whenever we take a step, they ring.
Nicodemus the sleepwalker is on his way
to the Address. Who's got the Address?
Don't know. But that's where we're going.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Book Review - Pulitzer Winners - Empire Falls by Richard Russo

I really don’t know why I didn’t read Empire Falls when it was first published or even right after it won the Pulitzer because it was sure to have caught my attention at that time. It might have been because I’d been living in Switzerland and then France for so many years, even going to school there, and I’d been immersing myself in European literature for at least a decade. Contemporary American writers were still “foreign” to me. I’ve been living in the US for several years now, and I’m an American. American literature is my heritage, and lately I’ve had the desire to make a fuller exploration of it. Empire Falls is a book many people have been recommending to me, and it did not let me down.

As in previous books, Russo, in Empire Falls, is writing about small town, blue-collar life, but this time, rather than setting his book in upstate New York, he’s set it in Maine, in the imaginary town of Empire Falls. Empire Falls is one of those small New England towns that never managed to recover after the textile mills moved south. The wealthy Whiting family controlled Empire Falls, and three now defunct factories, for more than a century, and though the patriarch, C.B. Whiting is now deceased, his widow, Francine, ensconced in C.B.’s Spanish style “hacienda” that’s so out of place in New England, still controls what’s left.

The protagonist of Empire Falls isn’t Francine, however, it’s Miles Roby, a forty-two-year-old man who was lured away from college in his senior year by Francine Whiting and back to Empire Falls in order to care for his dying mother, Grace Roby, over Grace’s strenuous objections. Grace, who was employed by Francine Whiting, wanted Miles to escape Empire Falls and make something more productive of his life. Francine, however, prevailed upon Miles to take over management of the Empire Grill when the previous manager died, though if the truth be known, Miles’ crush on a waitress named Charlene was probably far more effective than Francine could ever be. In an effort to keep Miles in the diner, Francine promised to leave the business to him in her will. But why, the reader has to ask, would anyone want it? Like the rest of the businesses in town, the Empire Grill is facing extinction, and Miles knows if he ever were to become the diner’s owner, the only profitable thing to do would be to sell it.

When the book opens, it’s been more than twenty years since Miles left college and returned to Empire Falls, and the diner is far from his only problem. His wife, Janine (Charlene married another, but she’s still around), feels that Miles has been an unsatisfactory partner sexually, so she’s divorcing him in order to marry Walt Comeau, a/k/a the “Silver Fox,” the “preening peacock” owner of the local health club, which may be Empire Falls’ only successful business. And, though Miles is far better suited to parenthood, Janine will get custody of the couple’s only child, a delightful sixteen-year-old daughter named Tick, who has several problems of her own, including a menacing ex-boyfriend and possible anorexia.

I disliked Janine when I first encountered her, and she never did grow on me. I found her to be shallow, vain, and humorless, and I was sorry she’d been portrayed as a woman of such meager depth. It takes courage to leave a marriage of twenty years, especially when the reason is lack of sexual satisfaction. I felt I should have admired Janine, but there’s really nothing admirable about her. Rather than blame Miles for his inattention to his wife, I found myself blaming Janine for being so coarse and dislikable.

Though Janine’s “romance” with Walt has deprived Miles of his home and relegated him to a fume-filled room above the diner, Miles doesn’t seem to bear anyone any ill will. This is highlighted by the fact that Walt spends a great deal of his own free time in the Empire Grill arm-wrestling Miles and asking him to break hundred dollar bills, or playing gin rummy with Horace, another patron of the grill, while preaching about the ill effects the grill’s burgers to the very diners who are eating them.

Miles still has family members who rally round him, however. There’s his younger brother, David, who lost the use of one of his arms in an alcohol-induced accident. Now sober, David helps Miles in the Empire Grill. While Miles is more or less content to maintain the status quo of the grill, David is interested in actually making the restaurant profitable. To that end, he talks Miles into keeping the grill open on weekend nights so they can attract the students and professors in nearly Fairhaven for “International Nights,” which consist of no more than twice-cooked noodles one night and flautas another. And, David wants Miles to persuade Mrs. Whiting to apply for a liquor license, and though Miles knows David is on the right track, he also knows the grill’s profitability is something about which Francine Whiting hasn’t the slightest interest.

Although Grace Roby is dead by the time the book opens, Max Roby, Miles’ father is still alive and kicking, and he’s probably the only person in Empire Falls who does exactly as he pleases. There are no obstacles in life for Max Roby; he abides by no man’s rules. A chain smoker, who has disgusting personal hygiene, Max says what he wants and does what he wants, and if others don’t like it, that’s their problem, not his. At one point, Miles even asks David if he thinks their father has a conscience. “Sure he does,” David replies. “No slave to it, though, is he?” When we meet Max, he’s as unlikable as characters come, but to Russo’s credit, Max does grow on the reader. I know some readers who’ve identified Max as their favorite character. I wasn’t one, but you might like Max more than I did. Truth be told, I did find some of his actions amusing, but I also found him, at times, to be more caricature than true character.

It might seem so at first, but Miles Roby hasn’t entirely let go of this dreams. He spends two weeks each summer on Martha’s Vineyard, the place where he vacationed as a boy, and he’d love to own a restaurant/bookshop there. It’s not in his budget, however, and anyway, life always seems to pull him back to Empire Falls. Still, Martha’s Vineyard exerts a strange pull on Miles as well. As he dreams, he remembers one boyhood trip there and a mysterious man named Charlie Mayne, a close acquaintance of Grace’s. And, as Miles dreams and questions the past, he begins to learn the secrets Grace took with her to her grave, secrets he must know in order to make sense of his life. He begins to unravel the tangled history that’s bound him to the Whiting family and Empire Falls.

Even though I made a few criticisms about the characterization of Max and Janine, for the most part, Russo’s secondary characters, and there are many of them, are beautifully drawn. I was pulled into their story and their lives so easily, and I continued to think of them long after I turned the final page. And Russo extends much compassion and dignity to the people he’s created. No matter how far they stray or what mistakes they make, he appears to respect their humanity, though that doesn’t mean he exempts them from their well deserved, and often humorous, comeuppance.

Russo weaves plot and subplot, and past and present, together wonderfully, as he tempers the seriousness of his book with a wry levity. The only misstep comes late in the novel when a horrific, though well set up, event occurs. I thought the book was so well written, and the denizens of Empire Falls so compelling, that the “shocking incident” was overkill. It simply wasn’t needed. The characters and themes Russo had been developing previously were enough, and they were far more interesting.

Empire Falls is told from the perspective of several of the book’s characters. Russo seems to like omniscient narration, and I’m glad he does. He’s created a big, old fashioned book in Empire Falls, one that depends on great characterization and great storytelling, with none of the gimmicks the post-modern authors often employ. This is just the kind of book I love, sprawling, with many characters and many subplots, and one that takes its time in telling its story. Not that the book is slow. It isn’t, though it does have a small town unhurried feel. As Tick observes at one point, “Things happen slow…if they happened fast, you’d be alert for all kinds of suddenness, aware that speed was trump. ‘Slow’ works on an altogether different principle, on the deceptive impression that there’s plenty of time to prepare, which conceals the fact, that no matter how slow things go, you’ll always be slower.”

When I was scanning reviews of this book, I noticed that different reviewers would identify different themes. I think that’s only natural in a book of this size and scope. For me, the theme revolves around the difficulty of escaping our personal “family curse.” Every family in Empire Falls seems to have one. The Whiting men all marry a woman like Francine, “the one woman in the world who would regard making them miserable as her life’s noble endeavor.” The Robys all want something better for their children, but that never seems to happen. Grace wanted a better life for Miles, and now Miles wants a better life for Tick. And then there’s Francine Whiting’s minion, the corrupt cop, Jimmy Minty, who’s every bit the bully his own father was. His own son, Zack, though aspiring to be Chief of Police, promises to be just as corrupt as his father. Russo seems to be saying that blood is definitely thicker than water, and in ways we probably haven’t even considered.

Despite my little quibbles, and they are quibbles, I think Empire Falls is as perfect as any book gets. I appreciate the fact that Richard Russo cared more about something that’s becoming a rarity in the literary world – good, old fashioned storytelling and character development – than about the gimmicks offered by those “slim little volumes” that so many minimalist authors today are producing. This is the kind of book that will stay with a reader, the kind of book that he or she will return to from time-to-time, if only to flip through and read selected scenes. You really can’t do better than this book; Empire Falls really is American literature at its finest.


Recommended: Definitely, without hesitation. This is contemporary American literature at its finest.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I sometimes have discussions with my friends about which book epitomizes “the great American novel.” For most of my friends, the answer seems to be Huckleberry Finn or Moby Dick. For me, however, “the great American novel” is, by far and away, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s gorgeous book, The Great Gatsby. Although The Great Gatsby is set during the 1920s and America’s “Jazz Age,” for me, its title character, Jay Gatsby, is, and forever will be, “the” symbol of “the American dream” gone wrong.

The Great Gatsby opens during the summer of 1922 in posh West Egg, Long Island. We “see” Gatsby through the eyes of the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s neighbor, a Midwesterner who has come to New York to study the bond trade. By using Nick Carraway as a narrator, Fitzgerald successfully distances us from Gatsby a bit and increases his air of mystery.

Nick, the son of a wealthy family, is, above all else, fair and non-judgmental. Although Nick deplores the hypocrisy and shallowness of America’s upper class, he can’t help but admire Jay Gatsby, for Gatsby has charm and charisma in abundance. In fact, Nick finds Gatsby’s personality “gorgeous”:

If personality is a unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament”—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.

Nick Carraway first encounters Jay Gatsby as he’s (Nick) returning to West Egg from a dinner party given by his cousin, Daisy, and her husband, Tom Buchanan in the even-more-opulent East Egg. East Egg is the home of “old money,” of privilege and class, while the residents of West Egg are the nouveau riche. And this distinction is very important because The Great Gatsby is a book that encompasses class distinctions, social status, and elitism. Tom Buchanan, who attended Yale with Nick, has grown up with privilege. He’s domineering, hypocritical, and totally without scruples.

Tom’s wife, Daisy (Nick’s cousin), seems, at first glance, to be the antithesis of her husband. Delicate and diminuative, Daisy almost always dresses in white, accenting both her transparency and her seeming purity. She’s not at all coarse (just the opposite, in fact), but she does affect a deliberate air of languor and jaded sophistication.

Returning home from East Egg, Nick sees his good looking neighbor, Jay Gatsby, standing on his lawn, reaching out toward a green light, shining across the bay.

From the novel’s opening pages, we know Jay Gatsby is, in many ways, a man of mystery. He’s enormously wealthy, but the source of his wealth is never made completely clear, though it’s not difficult to surmise that it’s something illegal.

Gatsby also claims to come from “old money”, i.e., a prominent family in the Midwest. When pressed, however, Gatsby says he’s from San Francisco. Supposedly an Oxford graduate, he speaks with a very affected English accent. Although there’s much about Gatsby of which Nick disapproves, he still admires him and finds him irresistible.

While Nick finds Jay Gatsby “gorgeous,” he can’t find anything at all to like about Tom Buchanan. Tom’s hypocrisy is shown to its fullest in his affair with Myrtle Wilson, a married woman who lives in “the valley of ashes,” a barren, dying area that lies between West Egg and New York:

About half-way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screen their obscure operations from your sight.

The decaying neighborhood is dominated by an equally decaying and grotesque billboard displaying a pair of gigantic eyes. These eyes belong to Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, an optometrist who used to have an office in the area. The eyes of Dr. Eckleburg seem to see and know all, much like the all-knowing eye of God:

But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, form a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.

Myrtle Wilson’s husband, George, owns a garage in the valley of ashes. Despite the poverty in which she lives, Myrtle is, at least outwardly, far more alive than is Daisy. Voluptuous, sensuous, and vital, Myrtle much prefers flamboyant colors to the pure white usually worn by Daisy, and unlike Daisy, she doesn’t chose her words carefully or act with artifice and affectation. Neither woman, however, seems capable of deep emotions or selfless action. While Daisy lacks genuineness, Myrtle is vulgar. In many ways, this makes both women ideal companions for Tom Buchanan.

Jay Gatsby is in the habit of hosting lavish parties every Saturday night, parties that showcase sumptuous food, unlimited supplies of alcohol, live musicians, and Gatsby’s legendary yellow Rolls Royce. They are, in short, a symbol of the decadence of the Jazz Age.

Even during his parties, Gatsby remains a man of mystery. He doesn’t mingle with his guests and doesn’t even appear to know half of them. His parties are, however, legendary, with guests arriving from West Egg, from East Egg, and even from New York City:

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and women came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the hot sun on the sand of his beach while his two motor boats slit the foam. On weekends, his Rolls Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

While there is much about Jay Gatsby that is affected and artificial, we do learn that there is also much about him that is genuine. He is, above all, a man of contradictions.

Gradually, Nick comes to learn more and more about Jay Gatsby. Most importantly, he learns that Gatsby bought his house in West Egg for the sole purpose of effecting a reunion with Daisy. Five years earlier, Daisy, who had been a Red Cross volunteer, had met and fallen passionately in love with Jay Gatsby, then an Army lieutenant. And, although she accepted Gatsby’s marriage proposal, Daisy didn’t wait for him as she’d promised; she married Tom Buchanan instead.

At this point in the novel, Nick realizes that the green light toward which Gatsby yearns is the light on Tom’s and Daisy’s dock. It’s also the point where Nick becomes even more involved in Gatsby’s life when he agrees to arrange a meeting between Gatsby and Daisy.

The reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, which takes place in Nick Carraway’s house, shows us clearly the fundamental flaws of character possessed by both Gatsby and Daisy, flaws that will, before the novel’s end, lead to several tragic events.

Gatsby is a man who cannot seem to move forward in life. He wants to live in the past; he wants to recreate the past. If he could, he would freeze his first meeting with Daisy and live in that moment forever. He’s a dreamer; he’s a visionary; he’s a romantic of almost mystical proportions. While there can be no doubt that Gatsby does, indeed, love Daisy (he’s willing to sacrifice his life for her), he doesn’t love her in a healthy, realistic manner. Instead, Gatsby idealizes Daisy. She is, for him, the epitome of all his dreams: wealthy, sophisticated, privileged. Gatsby even idealizes himself. When Nick tells him, You can’t repeat the past, Gatsby responds by saying, Of course you can!

The set piece in which Gatsby shows Daisy his English shirts is not only one of the most famous in all of literature, it’s also the one in which we see Daisy at her most “human,” her most unaffected, her most vulnerable:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”

Daisy, though, like Gatsby, is possessed of a fatal flaw that precludes genuine love.

While Daisy does have genuine feelings of love for Gatsby, there is something she loves even more—status and privilege—things she can share with Tom Buchanan in East Egg, but things Jay Gatsby, no matter how wealthy he becomes, can never provide.

After the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, events in the novel quickly begin to spiral out of control and the lives of the characters become more and more entwined. The reunion seems to affect Gatsby most profoundly—he stops giving lavish parties, he fires his household staff, and, for the first time in his life, he begins to care about the gossip swirling around him. While Gatsby becomes more discreet, Daisy, however, seems intent on throwing caution to the winds, inviting the inevitable disaster.

The novel’s climactic event takes place on the first day of autumn, in Gatsby’s swimming pool. It’s not simply for dramatic effect that Fitzgerald made these choices. The first day of autumn brings a chill to West Egg, but Gatsby, in characteristic defiance of the future, chooses to float in his pool, despite the cool weather. For him, the passage of time does not exist; he lives in eternal summer:

There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of a compass, a thin red circle in the water.

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, perfectly constructed and written in gorgeously shimmering prose. It’s filled with symbolism and even with religious overtones. Gatsby, himself, can be seen as a Christ figure, a lamb on the sacrificial altar of “status.” The book also presents a vivid, though quite unflattering, portrait of the decadence and sumptuousness excess of the Jazz Age.

More than anything, The Great Gatsby, to me, represents the death of the American dream. Gatsby was a dreamer, a visionary, a romantic. He represented all that America, in her infancy, represented.

The final line of The Great Gatsby is one of the most famous in all of literature:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Like the green light on the Buchanan’s dock, like Daisy, herself, life for Jay Gatsby was a dream, but always a dream just out of reach.


Recommended: Absolutely, with no reservations. This is a beautifully constructed, gorgeously written book, set against the backdrop of the Jazz Age, and telling the story of the death of the American dream.