Wednesday, October 26, 2016

"We Could Be Beautiful," by Swan Huntley

A little romance. A little domestic drama. A little social commentary on life in upper-class Manhattan. And elements of a thriller, perhaps of the general genre of “Gone Girl” or “Girl on a Train,” although a little more literary and a little less overtly dramatic and frightening. These are the strands of “We Could Be Beautiful” (Doubleday, 2016), by Swan Huntley. Unfortunately, some of the story, and the writing, are squirm-inducing. And the many portentously presented hints and clues are not very subtle, so readers start to see the denouement of the narrative coming far in advance. Catherine West is a rich, beautiful, art-loving 44-year old woman living in an expensive Manhattan apartment. She desperately wants to get married and have a child, but has been unlucky so far. At the beginning of the novel, she meets the older, handsome, seemingly perfect William Stockton, and it turns out their parents had known each other long ago. Before we know it, they are engaged. But there is a note of something “off,” which Catherine tries to ignore but eventually cannot. There are a few twists in the story, including, I must admit, some I had NOT expected, but still the substantial majority of the ending was quite predictable. This is a somewhat creepy quick read that might be entertaining if you are in the mood for it, but not something I recommend.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Enough "Comfort Reading" For Now

I wrote on 9/12/16 about reading several novels that were the equivalent of comfort food: not necessarily very good, and not literary fiction, but enjoyable and easy to read. I give all credit and thanks to these novels (which I did not review on this blog); they provided reliable pleasure and distraction during a difficult time involving a family member’s health. But now I realize I have had my fill of that type of novels, for now at least. The first sign of this was when I noticed myself getting impatient with the sloppiness of the writing itself. In one case, I was listening to the book on CD in my car, and that may have magnified the problems with the writing. I noticed a lot of repetition of certain phrases, way too may extraneous adverbs, and a general talkiness, not to mention excessive use of clich├ęs. Not that I had not been aware of these shortcomings from the beginning, but I was willing to overlook them for their easy comfort value. But that could only last so long. I began to hunger for better writing, and so I have, for now anyway, changed my reading diet back to my usual more literary novels and memoirs.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

On the Attempt to "Out" Elena Ferrante's True Identity

I was upset to hear that an Italian “investigative reporter,” Claudio Gatti, is trying to unmask the identity of Elena Ferrante. Ferrante is a pseudonym for the author of the highly-praised and internationally bestselling Neopolitan Series and other well-received novels. She has given a few interviews, but for the most part has been adamant about preserving her privacy. She feels it allows her to be freer in her writing, and to keep readers focused on her work rather than on her as an author, her appearance, her marital status, and all the other things that readers often want to know about famous writers. But now Gatti has chosen to investigate her identity and to write publicly, first in Italian and then in English, about his conclusions about her true name and identity. (I will not give the name here, as I disagree with this kind of involuntary “outing,” but of course if you really want to know, you can Google it.) Most fellow writers, and many of us readers, are outraged and unhappy about this intrusion on Ferrante's wish for anonymity. Gatti may or may not turn out to be correct, but in any case, it is a sort of violation of Ferrante’s intent, and of her privacy. A sample response from the writer Roxane Gay is her tweet that “You are entitled to curiosity but you aren’t entitled to having your curiosity satisfied.” To add to the outrage, Gatti seems to intimate that the author he identifies may have been aided in her writing by her writer husband. So his actions are not only violations of privacy but also sexist. I know that some people may argue that writers are public persons and don’t have the right to privacy, but I don’t believe most people would agree with this. This may be true for politicians, but not for writers.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Nobel for Bob Dylan!

The headlines this morning about the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature certainly got my attention, with a small gasp of surprise. Bob Dylan! Really? I must admit I feel torn about this. Of course I grew up with Bob Dylan, listened to his music for many many many hours when I was young (not so much later, except very occasionally when I was feeling nostalgic, or happened upon his music on the radio), and greatly admired (and still admire) him. Who of my generation can forget some of his greatest songs? And yes, his songs were and are poetry, and represented the concerns and emotions of our generation and beyond. But out of all the amazing novelists, poets, playwrights, memoirists, etc., in the world, is he really the best, the most deserving of this uniquely prestigious award? I understand the Swedish Academy’s rationale. The committee says they awarded Dylan the Nobel “for having created new poetic traditions within the great American song tradition,” and their representative, literary scholar Sara Danius, calls him “a great poet in the English-speaking tradition” who can be compared to Homer and Sappho. (Wow!) According to the New York Times, some say this award is for Dylan as a representative of an art form, and that it is a recognition that “the gap between high art and more commercial art forms” has narrowed. I understand and agree with most of this (not sure about the promotion of "more commercial art forms"), but there is still a part of me that can’t quite accept that there are not more deserving literary writers around the world. Am I being a fuddy-duddy? A snob? I need to think more about this…

Thursday, October 6, 2016

"Siracusa," by Delia Ephron

Reading the novel “Siracusa” (Blue Rider Press, 2016), by Delia Ephron, was a rather unpleasant and unsatisfying experience. I am not sure why I kept reading it, but I guess there was just enough suspense to keep me going…and I thought it would get better. But no, it got worse. It is the story of two couples who, with the ten-year-old daughter of one couple, travel together to Italy, first to Rome and then to Siracusa (Syracuse) in Sicily. Although the couples are friends, sort of, they are very different. One connection is that Finn, of one couple, and Lizzie, of the other, used to be in a romantic relationship many years before. Finn’s wife Taylor is completely, unhealthily, caught up in the life of her daughter, and doesn’t care much about anything else. Lizzie’s husband Michael is a semi-famous but stalled writer who is having an affair with a woman back in New York. Not one of them seems very happy, all of them have secrets, and none of them seems to have very robust moral compasses. All seem selfish. The daughter, Snow, is very strange: beautiful and smart, but barely talks, and is portrayed as rather creepy. Long story short, events build up, and there is a disaster which implicates, in one way or another, all of the main characters. What they do, or don’t do, afterward makes the reader like them even less. In other words, although this novel is compelling in some ways, it has a nasty taste.
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