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The Quiet Tragedies of British Schoolchildren and French Families

May 19, 2009
Never Let Me go

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro

I think all of Ishiguro’s genius lies in one quality: subtlety. He somehow manages to say a lot in very few phrases and gestures. Kathy, the narrator of this chilling and quietly disturbing novel, is an ambiguous protagonist. At the end of the story, you’re not sure if you actually know her any better than you did when you began. But she upsets and fascinates you. That’s at least certain. Kathy and her friends have to cope with a unique set of issues. Hailsham, a boarding school where the story begins, seems like any other English primary school at first. But as Kathy softly reveals the details, you start to realize these aren’t ordinary kids. If you haven’t read it, I won’t give it away, but it’s worth your time. I think I’m a bit more partial to the other novel of his that I’ve read, “The Remains of the Day.” But Kathy and the butler seem to be characterized mirrors of one another: the quiet and unsettling Brit with a secret that begs to be mined. 

READ IF: You want a well-written page-turner that doesn’t act like a page-turner.

Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette
Honoré de Balzac

After months of modernists, it is refreshing to return to the conventional realist novel: a novel that gives you the satisfying chaos of family drama, sex and tragedy. Balzac certainly delivers. I read half of this 400-page story while trapped in the courthouse for seven hours, and it was absolutely absorbing. Balzac is funny and an accurate portraitist of people, especially sad, evil people. Cousin Bette, the ugly spinster with a vendetta against the Hulot family, is a fascinating creation, and she seems to compete with her accomplice, the indefatigable coquette Madame Marneffe, for the position of villain. The entire story hinges on money: money and sex, money and family, money and tragedy. It’s an engrossing, thoroughly satisfying story.  

READ IF: You’d like a long, if enjoyable, introduction to Balzac. (I think I liked this better than “Pere Goriot,” but both are worthwhile.)

In the past few weeks, I also read two Chekhov novellas (“In the Ravine” and “Peasants”) and a handful of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, along with a bit of Robert Hass. But I’m going to hold off on the reviewing until I get to Denver. I have a fairly ambitious list to accomplish while I’m working there this summer:

Middlemarch, Eliot
Within a Budding Grove, Proust
Between the Acts, Woolf
Three Guineas, Woolf
The Confessions, Augustine
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan
The District and Circle, Heaney
Selected Poems, Anna Akhmatova

Until then!

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