Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer
After I had finished reading this book, my sister asked me if it was good and if she should get it on tape so she could listen to it as she drove to Asheville. Without hesitation, I answered that it was very good, but that she should definitely not get the book on tape. The power of Foer’s novel about a precocious boy’s fascinating journey to process his father’s death would be entirely lost if it were only listened to. Much of what makes “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” interesting is the book layout itself. Foer is not shy with graphic gimmicks–the book contains a number of full-page photographs, typographical absurdities (in one section, the words begin to run into each other until they completely overlap, creating an almost entirely black page of unreadable text), even several sections with red-lined edits included. Essentially, the book is a publishing designer’s nightmare. At first, I wasn’t sure what I thought about this. It seemed on par with an amateur magician’s tricks to keep a waning audience interested. But the more I read, the more I realized Foer knew exactly what he was doing.
Oskar Schell is nine years old. His beloved father, Thomas, was killed when the World Trade Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001. Oskar goes on a personal quest to discover the details of his father’s last moments on earth. He scours New York City, following a trail of obscure clues and joining with a team of randomly encountered strangers. In the end, we are not exactly sure if Oskar has found what he has been looking for, but he is content. And so we are as well.
It’s been a long time since I read a book that made me cry. Somehow, it was good to find one that could accomplish that.
READ IF: You want to know the intricacies and depths of sorrow while ending with the lightheartedness of a boy who was able to make sense of it all.
Vanessa and Virginia
By Susan Sellers
Anyone who knows me knows about my now four-year preoccupation with Virginia Woolf. My presents for just about any holiday often have some tangential relationship to Woolf. Last Christmas, my mother gave me an umbrella with her face on it. This Christmas, she gave me this book: Vanessa and Virginia, by English professor Susan Sellers. Aside from other Woolf readings for my thesis, I didn’t have much else to read over the winter break, so I figured I’d give this a shot.
Sellers imagines the profoundly deep relationship between Woolf and her elder sister, painter Vanessa Bell, in a series of intimate letters. Vanessa writes the letters to Woolf, who is addressed only as “you” throughout this novel. I’ll admit that I was initally skeptical about this treatment of one of my literary heroes. But Sellers has a surprisingly commanding grasp of loose-limbed prose, the kind of watery, light-infused writing that is appropriate for the (former) Stephen sisters.
The letters cover their lives from childhood until Virginia’s suicide in 1941. It was interesting to gain a broader perspective from Sellers’s imaginary Vanessa–the elder sister who was gradually overshadowed by Virginia’s brilliance, despite being brilliant in her own way. Sellers’s Vanessa is a tragic character, but one who avoids any declarations of self-pity. She is a fascinating person to encounter, but one that we are left without a tangible understanding of at the end of the novel. Vanessa here seems as fleeting and visionary as Sellers’s prose, which may be fitting for a novel about two now deceased genius sisters, but overall, I found the book lacking. It was beautifully written, but presumptuous. I should not be allowed to write about it, for I am clearly far too opinionated about and devoted to Woolf to read any fiction about her objectively. Overall, I am doubtful of Sellers’s license to recreate Vanessa and Virginia in fiction–just as I was extremely doubtful of Michael Cunningham’s license to do so–but if anyone treated their lives with an appropriate style of prose, Sellers seems to have been able to do so.
READ IF: You’d like a fairy-tale reenactment of the relationships of two utterly fascinating sisters.
The Color Purple
By Alice Walker
I first tried to read this book when I was 14. I couldn’t get through the first three pages without being thoroughly freaked out and deciding it was way too intense for me. I thought I would never pick it up again. But this winter, I returned to my aging copy of “The Color Purple” and was grateful I did. It may have still been too intense for me, but it was certainly a book I consider worthwhile.
When I remember this book, I will remember it as a testament to the absolute tyranny of patriarchy and the inspiring endurance of women. Celie is a difficult character, but one who is thoroughly endearing. Her letters, first God and then to her sister, are raw, just as her life is raw. Celie’s love affair with Shug is an equally compelling story of how love can soften bitterness and how women find havens in one another.
Shug and Celie have simple yet beautifully revealing conversations. In one of their most memorable, Shug is trying to reassure Celie of God’s goodness.
Listen, God love everything you love—and a mess of stuff you don’t. but more than anything else, God love admiration.
You saying God vain? I ast.
Naw, she say. Not vain, jus wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.
Walker’s novel is primarily a cutting look at the social place of a black woman. In America, she has been regarded as the lowest of the low. Yet the women that fill Walker’s pages are anything but. Her characters are not beaten-down, submissive women; they refuse to meekly obey and accept their positions.
READ IF: You want to read a compelling portrait of feminine strength.
By Joseph Heller
During a debate in high school, I remember using the phrase “catch-22” to describe a problem with the other team’s case. It caught on quickly, and before we knew it, every other speaker in the round was talking exclusively about whether the case was a “catch-22.” I realize now that I had no idea what I was talking about, because I hadn’t read the book. But now that I have read it, I wonder if it actually mattered.
Nick and Rachel have been urging me to read this book for a long time now, and over exam week, I finally got around to it. (Although I was a little stunned at how long it was; for some reason, I thought it was around 230 pages. You can imagine my surprise when it weighed in at 560.) I have to say my initial impression up front: It was entertaining, but it didn’t change my life. In fact, I got a little tired of it.
Heller is funny. And he knows he’s funny because he’s dealing primarily in the medium of irony and paradox. A commanding grasp of irony is, naturally, what makes some authors funnier than others. Heller, however, seems to overuse his talent for contradiction. By the end of the novel, I didn’t know which way was up and which was down–but that, I suppose, is the way Heller would have wanted it.
READ IF: You need some lessons in paradox.
By Leo Tolstoy
This is not so much a novel as it is a treatise of Tolstoy’s imagination for reform of Russia’s criminal justice system. Tolstoy chooses a reluctant, sinning savior to illuminate what he perceives as the mockery of justice that we call criminal law. We track the spiritual journey of the nobleman Nekhlyudov, who is called to serve on the jury for the trial of a prostitute accused of theft and murder. As he looks at the accused, he is startled to realize that she is Katusha, the poor girl who was once his childhood sweetheart, whom he raped, impregnated and abandoned 15 years ago. Nekhlyudov comes to terms with his guilt and, in the process, becomes an unwilling social justice reformer.
It’s not the story you want it to be. Despite his attempts to rectify his unspeakable crimes against Katusha, she doesn’t want to marry him; she wants nothing to do with him. Nekhlyudov follows her to her imprisonment in Siberia after she is wrongfully convicted, but she still rebuffs all of his requests of forgiveness. When he first comes to her in jail and reveals his identity, she sees directly through his pose of penitence, and cries out:
“Go away from me! I am a convict and you are a prince, and you’ve no business here,” she cried, her whole face distorted with anger, snatching her hand from him. “You want to save yourself through me,” she continued, hurrying to pour out every feeling in her heart. “You had your pleasure from me in this world, and now you want to get your salvation through me in the world to come!”
Nekhlyudov, however, is persistent and remains devoted to Katusha and to the task of improving her lot. The more time he spends with Katusha and her lot, the more he realizes the universal injustice that is perpetrated against her class. He is appalled by what he recognizes; it is as if he was learning to see again. The great moment of illumination for Nekhlyudov comes when he realizes his own culpability:
“We do not merely do nothing to get of the conditions in which such people are born—we actually encourage the institutions which produce them. We all know what these institutions are: the mills, the factories, the workshops, the inns, the pot-houses, the brothels. And far from wiping out establishments of this sort—considering them necessary, we encourage and regulate them. We rear not one but millions of such people, and then arrest one and imagine that we have done something, protected ourselves, and that nothing more can be required of us, now that we have transported him from Moscow to Irkutsk,” reflected Nekhlyudov with unusual verve and clarity…
This fresh understanding ushers in a spiritual revolution in Nekhlyudov’s life. The problems of humanity are not distant and unsolvable to him anymore; they are issues that he is both responsible for and capable of transforming. It only takes one person to change the trajectory of a life.
“It only needed one person,” though Nekhlyudov, looking at the sickly scared face of the lad, “to take pity on him when poverty made his father send him from the village to the town, and lend a helping hand; or later, after he had come to town—if there had been someone to say, ‘I wouldn’t do that, Vanya, it isn’t right,’ when at the end of twelve hours’ work in the factory the older men were tempting him to go to the pot-house—the boy wouldn’t have gone, or got into bad ways, and would not have done anything wrong.”
We follow Nekhlyudov through 560 pages of this personal revolution and patiently wait for him to change the laws, to petition the corrupt government to overthrow its criminal justice system. But these macro-level changes never come. The only macro-level change we witness is within Nekhlyudov himself. But, Tolstoy whispers, that is enough, isn’t it? The last lines of the novel read with power and conviction:
That night an entirely new life began for Nekhlyudov, not so much because he had entered into new conditions of life but because everything that happened to him from that time on was endowed with an entirely different meaning for him. How this new chapter of his life will end, the future will show.
Tolstoy’s answer of how to initiate change is to begin within; seek first spiritual rightness, achieve resurrection, and effect that resurrection in others. It’s the story of the gospel in Tolstoy’s imagination.
READ IF: You want to know the prerequisites for changing the world.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
By Annie Dillard
I think this is the first book I’ve written about here that is a re-read. I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when I was a freshman in high school; my English teacher loved Annie Dillard and had us read An American Childhood as well. I’m thankful that she did, because Dillard still ranks in my list of most beloved American authors.
I chose to return to Pilgrim this autumn for two reasons: One, because it seemed like a very fall-appropriate title; and two, because I imagined it would make a different, more substantial impression on me than it did six years ago. I’d say I was right on both counts.
It is disarming to read a book with no people in it. I confess that it took me a while to get into her rhythm. I kept waiting for a narrative to burst onto the scene. But that’s not how Dillard works here. She’s patiently drawing you into her voracious, restless mind by sharing her observations, her impressions of the natural world. She is surprised by everything; she never stops asking questions. The book is peppered with references to every imaginable source–an etymologist’s memoir, Thoreau, Pliny, Inuit legends–all of which Dillard weaves together with skill and swiftness. She knows how to use just the right word at just the right time–a talent, I’d suspect, she learned from nature itself. The seasons come and go and we follow Dillard through her landscape, crackling through the forest, collapsing in a field to watch praying mantises mate, crouching by a river bed to wait for the muskrat to emerge in a flash of golden water. She asks us to follow her–and, even though we feel that she might be crazy–we do.
As I was reading this book over fall break, I was sitting at my kitchen table and was distracted from a page by the sound of a dozen rooks bursting out of a tree. I wondered what Dillard would say about them, what she would glean from their cries, from the patterns of their flight. And I began to wonder how my life would be different if I had her boundless curiosity. Fuller, perhaps; more saturated with joy in the small things.
As with most of her books, Pilgrim is soaked with the spiritual. She does not imagine that anything is separate. God and nature depend on one another. Some of her most gorgeous passages come from her reflections on this union.
On the dispersion of the divine:
It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem. In making thick darkness a swaddling band for the sea, God “set bars and doors” and said, “Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?
On having to stalk the spirit:
Just a glimpse, Moses: a clift in the rock here, a mountaintop there, and the rest is denial and longing. You have to stalk everything. Everything scatters and gathers; everything comes and goes like fish under a bridge. You have to stalk the spirit, too. You can wait forgetful anywhere, for anywhere is the way of his fleet passage, and hope to catch him by the tail and shout something in his ear before he wrests away. Or you can pursue him wherever you dare, risking the shrunken sinew in the hollow of the thigh; you can bang at the door all night till the innkeeper relents, if he ever relents; and you can wait till you’re hoarse or worse the cry for incarnation always in John Knoepfle’s poem: “and Christ is red rover… and the children are calling/come over come over.” I sit on a bridge as on Pisgah or Sinai, and I am both waiting becalmed in a clift of the rock and banging with all my will, calling like a child beating on a door: Come on out! I know you’re there.
Dillard wants to make me learn how to see again. She’s the modern naturalist, trying to unify all things, inviting us to sojourn a while with her. We would be remiss if we turned her down.
READ IF: You too would like to look more closely.
Interpreter of Maladies
By Jhumpa Lahiri
(My apologies for missing a week. I was living in luxurious excess in Asheville for the weekend.) Much in the same vein as Junot Diaz, Lahiri has selected her token group and writes almost exclusively from the perspective of Indian immigrants to the U.S. Her characters are more disoriented than Diaz’s–who appear to assimilate with less external tension, although a host of forces are perpetually competing beneath the surface–and somehow less compelling.
I don’t know what it is about this collection of nine stories. I know that it was her first big published work and that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction when it came out in 2000. But I just wasn’t that crazy about it. I was far more charmed by The Namesake, which was my assigned summer reading as a first-year at UNC. With the exception of the title story, all of the people here are easily forgettable–because their issues are fairly indistinguishable from the rest of Lahiri’s characters. They all struggle to reconcile their Indian identity with an American one; they all have relational discord; they all seem lost.
The story “Interpreter of Maladies” was the outstanding piece. It follows a tour guide, Mr. Kapasi, who is squiring an Indian American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Das, and their young children around India for their summer vacation. On the weekdays, Mr. Kapasi is an interpreter for a doctor, a position he explains in detail to Mrs. Das, who is detached from her husband and children but takes a passing interest in Mr. Kapasi’s life. Within the course of a few hours, Kapasi falls for her and envisions a fantasy of reuniting with her in an international romantic liasion. She confides in him about her own affair, telling him that her eldest son was born out of an adulterous relationship. Kapasi is an intriguing, driven character who sees what he wants from life but always sees it eluding his grasp. Mrs. Das is unsympathetic, but magnetic for her eccentricities and her unmatched allure to the compassionate Kapasi. A monkey attacks one of the boys and the story ends with Kapasi looking on as they tend to the child, separated once again. It is a compelling and well-written glimpse into an unusual intersection of lives and Lahiri manages her diction and her presentation with a deft hand. But it is, regrettably, the only memorable, outstanding story in the collection.
My general perspective on Lahiri is that she is a very strong, very talented stylist and storyteller, but she seems to almost limit her creativity with this typical stock of characters. I think she could write bigger, broader novels if she looked beyond this favored subgroup and into other swaths of society. That said, I’ll still probably read Unaccustomed Earth. Because she’s still good at what she does. And that will always bring me back.
READ IF: You want to enjoy the story “Interpreter of Maladies.” The rest of it you could probably do without.