Saturday, July 26, 2014

"The Other Language," by Francesca Marciano

Is Francesca Marciano’s new collection of stories, “The Other Language” (Pantheon, 2014), “an astonishing collection,” as a Jhumpa Lahiri quote says on the front cover, and “sublimely crafted,” as Julia Glass claims on the back cover? In a word, yes. I chose to read this book because of its excellent, almost rapturous reviews, reinforced by these and other blurbs on the book itself. And in fact I found it to be a beautifully written and fascinating collection. The characters are diverse and very real;the settings all over the world (Italy, East Africa, India, New York, and more) add to the diversity and interest;the author explores very human situations, relationships, issues, problems, and feelings; the writing itself is masterful. I found the stories deeply engrossing, each creating a small, focused, intense world in which I became thoroughly caught up. Marciano, who is Italian but has obviously lived in and traveled to many other places, captures particularly well the tension between being connected to one place and feeling drawn by other places one has lived or has cultural connections with. Her characters tend to have lived in several places, and desire to put down roots, yet feel restless. In other words, they are like a huge portion of the world’s population in this regard, although, granted, her characters only represent the more prosperous segment of this unsettled population. In any case, I, like the reviewers and blurbers, highly recommend this book. But this book and its reviews also got me thinking about how much I (or any reader) am or am not influenced by reviews. Yes, reviews help me decide what to read in the first place. And once I have chosen and read the book and then begin to write about it here, I don’t go back to the reviews, as I don’t want to be unduly influenced by them; I want to give my own take on the book, and on connections I have or feel with the book. But here I am getting at the fact that once I have read very positive reviews, I can’t forget the basic positive feeling, and I probably have a predisposition to think the book is good; I wonder if I picked the same book up without having read anything about it ahead of time, I would have a different take on it. I hope I am not too influenced by these reviews, yet I admit I probably am at least somewhat influenced. My main counter-argument to this is remembering books that have been vastly praised that I have then not thought good at all. A recent example is Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”; I wrote here (11/10/13 and 2/7/14)about my not understanding at all what all the fuss was/is about this, to me, seriously disappointing and flawed book. In any case, it is good for me to be aware that I/we rarely read books in a vacuum, and that on some level I/we may be influenced by what is in the ongoing public conversation about any given book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives us context, and something to agree with or push against, but it is important to be conscious of those influences.

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