The ending matters, but so does everything before the ending…The Lost (2007) by Daniel Mendelsohn

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Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million is an extraordinary, moving book…one of the greatest non-fiction books I have ever read in my life.  It transcends what we expect from nonfiction and creative writing…it moves into a realm where legend, epic, 21st-Century realism, and things so personal you thought you were the only one who ever thought them collide, all topped off with scholarly material which would have blown all of our theses from the MAPH year out of the water.

Dr. Mendelsohn, a classicist and cultural (both high and pop) critic, traveled through Europe, the Middle East, and Australia to find Holocaust survivors who knew his great-uncle Shmiel Jager, a man he so resembled that his relatives would cry when he walked into rooms as a child.  Shmiel, his wife, and four daughters all perished in Bolechow, Ukraine, and Daniel wanted to know exactly what happened to them.  However, his search instead led him to value even more the stories of how they lived and thought, who they loved and hated, what they believed, and to see that this story was even more important.  How often do we look back on our own pasts and wonder how our lives changed so greatly just through adjustments of point of view?  What happens when a family, a town, a country undergoes such change?  How can we preserve and value the immediacy of life, so precious to each of us?  The Lost is a reminder of how to treasure our existence.

And it’s funny.  And it strikes multiple nerves as Dr. Mendelsohn muses on family and forms a tight bond with a brother he was never close to before during their journeys.  And it weaves a fascinating study of Genesis into the text seamlessly.  And its cinematically vivid.  And it makes you cry…I dare anyone to read this and not weep.  And best of all, it is beautifully written, especially when Dr. Mendelsohn takes off and writes sentences which become entire paragraphs, words and images flowing with the mastery of poetry.

(It strikes me that I now consider two books about the Holocaust in the Ukraine as two of the finest books of my lifetime…it’s such an absolutely specific subject that it surprises me.  Then again, as someone who believes God has led him to certain things, it shouldn’t.)


Everything is Illuminated (2002) by Jonathan Safran Foer

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"Try to live so that you can always tell the truth."

In his brief but touching acknowledgements page, Jonathan Safran Foer mentions that one piece of advice which strongly applies to literature and life is to “feel more.”  The world can do that easier because of him.  Everything is Illuminated is a book which makes you feel.  Feel a lot.  And you are so swept up by Mr. Foer’s writing that you don’t notice just how subtly he is handling the emotional transitions of the novel.  You just know that you’re laughing at every single page.  Then suddenly you’re not laughing anymore, well, you are, but you’re also feeling empathy and tension in increasing doses.  Then suddenly, during the chapter “Illumination,” you cry.  Unashamedly, in public, and almost wanting to put the book down because you can’t take it anymore…but then it’s over, and it’s cathartic…it makes you hope.

How does a writer do so much in under three hundred pages?

And with one of the most complex structures I’ve seen in a novel?  Because Mr. Foer has three levels of narrative going on…there’s one part where Alex Perchov, a cheerful Ukrainian with an ambitious grasp of English, tells of how he, his grandfather, and his grandfather’s “seeing eye dog” took Mr. Foer on a journey to find his ancestral shtetl and possibly the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during World War II.  Then there’s another level where Mr. Foer narrates the history of his family in that shtetl, Trachimbrod, a chronicle filled with magical events, unbelievable books, and torrents of sexual release and stirring emotion.  THEN we get Alex’s letters to Mr. Foer as they trade portions of their narratives back and forth through the mail.  And everything fits together so perfectly in ways where…I don’t want to talk about the plot, because honestly you should stop reading my blog and just go buy Everything is Illuminated and read it yourself.

And I’m saying that because Mr. Foer joins Jorge Luis Borges and Robert Hunter in the category of “writers I can never write like in a million years even if I tried.” It isn’t so much that he imagined this amazing world steeped in Jewish lore and tradition and a multitude of very beating, very human hearts.  It isn’t so much that he tells this story and handles the emotional shift like a master.  It’s that he has a belief in his storytelling I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in a writer before.  Because if we go by the final chapters, one of the most important themes of Everything is Illuminated is that we have the power, as creators, no matter what our artistic medium is, to create something larger than ourselves, to write something–even if it’s pure fiction–and will it into being by our belief in it.  This is the kind of faith which Jesus talked about in the Gospels, the faith the size of a mustard seed which moves a mountain.  Mr. Foer has that faith, and it is so pure, so real, that I can only approach it if I completely surrender myself…which is something very hard for humans, even if we try. 

And also because of the final pages of “A Parade, a Death, a Proposition,” which feature some of the most well-realized imagery in all of fiction.

(I need to thank my friend Mika Turim-Nygren for planting the seed of my reading this.  I ower her a big one.)

Fragile Things (2006) by Neil Gaiman

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Some people were born to write short stories, to create ideas and concepts so profound and detailed that they would be lost in the larger framework of a novel and work best when spun naturally along the curves of miniatures where no words are wasted and every line rings with impact, where we can depart for an hour into a world far from our own and come out richer for the experience.  Jorge Luis Borges was the master of this, taking thoughts beyond 99.999999% of humanity’s power to conceive and delineating them in just the right length.  John O’Hara and John Cheever told the most extraordinary vignettes in terms of realistic fiction.  And in the middle is Neil Gaiman.

Fragile Things is a string of diamonds and pearls, each exquisite, each so well-shaped and crafted, each tonally magnificent…Mr. Gaiman has written a book which anybody can enjoy and which everyone who reads will find something to love and remember.  The title was not his original choice, by the way, but it works: the stories are fragile in the sense that any changes in their construction would have made their entire edifices collapse.  Pushing some ideas too far would have ruined them, but a lack of detail would have left them incomprehensible.  They’re all, like Goldilocks’s porridge (and that’s an apt comparison) just right.  And Mr. Gaiman is also more accessible than the aforementioned: he’s certainly far more optimistic and light-hearted than Mr. O’Hara and Mr. Cheever, and while Mr. Borges’s gift was to take the ordinary and strip it of every vestige of reality until the reader was overwhelmed and sucked in, Mr. Gaiman takes the fantastic and THEN infuses it with enough realism to make it welcoming, comforting.

Again, everyone will find their own favorites in the book, but in my humble opinion, the closing “The Monarch of the Glen” is a marvelous continuation of American Gods, “Closing Time” is a ghost story perfectly shrouded in mystery, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” not only is a black-comic gem but also evokes perfectly the joys and terrors of teenagehood better than more realistic stories do, and “Bitter Grounds” is a marvelous work which in under thirty pages takes more twists than most novels ten times longer.

Though my four personal favorites are two of Mr. Gaiman’s poems–“Instructions” and “The Day the Saucers Came,” two gorgeous flights of fantasy for the child in all of us–“Sunbird,” a delirious fantasy Mr. Gaiman wrote for his teenage daughter’s birthday and one of the best pieces of food-related fiction ever devised, and “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch,” a string of divine imagery by turns comic and terrifying.

MUST read Smoke and Mirrors in the near future.  Expect another dose of ecstasy.

American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman

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American Gods prompted one of the most complex and shifting reactions I have ever had to a work of fiction, but the one thing which stayed constant was the fact that it is a glorious book.  Neil Gaiman was born to write prose which you can luxuriate in, which you know after you’ve read it you will return to many times in the years to come to savor every word like they are sips of the finest French wines, bites of the most succulent filet mignon.  And his imagination is boundless and soaring to the point where you, the reader, are inspired to try to create.

But yet…my initial reaction was to judge the book the worthiest of failures.  This was tempered after some discussion with two people whose opinions I value maybe even more than my parents’, and I can no longer call the novel a failure, but neither can I give it my total mass recommendation like I can to my favorite contemporary fiction (i.e. Blood Meridian and Bowl of Cherries).

My two problems with American Gods are that first, I dislike the concept of a character who is designed to be a blank, whether to represent me or to allow focus on the Gods, the amazing personages whom Mr. Gaiman creates in loving detail unlike with his protagonist, Shadow, a figure of poignancy from his situation but little else.    If Shadow is designed to be a symbolic human-meeting-the-gods, then he annoys me because he pervades the book more than nay other character when the other characters are so much more fun.  If he is designed to be an avatar for the reader, I am slightly peeved that Mr. Gaiman takes that liberty.  This is a matter entirely of personal preference, but I read fiction to understand humanity more, and that includes finding characters in each work I peruse to latch onto.  I want to make the choice, not have an author make it for me.*

Second, Mr. Gaiman’s ambitions created a flaw which is also a blessing.  There is an overarching story, but Mr. Gaiman keeps breaking it off to focus on things like Mr. Ibis’s writing, or the amazing subplot set in Lakeside, or character moments like the fight between Shadow and Mad Sweeney, Mr. Wednesday’s con jobs, and Sam’s amazing monologue with Shadow in the car–the “I can believe things that are true…” moment.  But these digressions or parallels are so enthralling that I hated to leave them to get back to the story, and the story sort of annoyed me by the time it was over because I felt I was missing everything else. 

Part of me still wishes this was a collection of short stories and not a novel.  But maybe I was slightly let down and angry at myself that after a near-decade of being told to read American Gods by so many people I care for, it didn’t (and probably no book could) match the expectations of perfection.  Which is nobody’s fault, least of all Mr. Gaiman’s.

And you’ll notice I said little of the plot.  That was intentional, because everyone who reads the blog MUST read the book from beginning to end.  Every page.  It’s entirely worth it.  Lose yourself in this world, and you’ll thank me later.

*I can hear people saying “Andrew, you adore Anthony Trollope and he basically was telling his readers how to react through his narration!  Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”  I say that Mr. Trollope’s key precept was that no character was good or bad and all must be judged equally, and by inserting himself into his texts his narrative voice becomes a character which can be taken with many grains of salt.  See my MAPH thesis which no one will probably ever read for more info.

American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1996) by Joseph Ellis

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American Sphinx narrates Thomas Jefferson’s life from birth in Shadwell to death on Monticello, but it is not a biography.  Instead, Joseph Ellis selects five periods of significance to Mr. Jefferson for probing examination to discover a clearer picture of who Mr. Jefferson was and how he thought about life, the universe, everything. This is not an academic pastime: Mr. Jefferson wrote the document from which everything about our nation sprung forth, so to understand who this man is sheds light on who we are.

And what Dr. Ellis finds is that Mr. Jefferson was a man of so many contradictions that, like a sphinx, he is almost unreadable.  Through careful exploration of letters, documents, and context, Dr. Ellis creates a portrait of a man who believed in not just the American Revolution but a perpetual revolution, whose political philosophy demanded continuous upheaval at every generation and who could never fully support the Constitution which his talents helped spark.  At the same time, Mr. Jefferson was a semi-recluse who preferred an abstract, detached life of study at Monticello…a beloved idyll which would bankrupt him as he spent recklessly to improve on it.  He was a man detached from the passions* which lead to revolution…and this, Dr. Ellis says, was the great complexity and tragedy of his character, for Mr. Jefferson was able to separate ideas within his mind and promote those he favored while privately dealing with their unpleasant realities.  Thus his positions on slavery, government, foreign policy, family, agricultural dominance (he made money from a nail factory), and other matters were self-contradictory, and even his desire for seclusion and thought did not prevent his correspondence with John Adams from turning into a public posterity vehicle.

Yet Dr. Ellis, in producing such insight, never wavers from the belief that all Americans should feel, that Mr. Jefferson’s writings helped make America and left us with an ideal which, no matter how impossible, we still strive towards…and the conclusion is not forced.  Dr. Ellis’s Pulitzer-winning Founding Brothers, one of the driest texts I ever tried to read, could have used the power of American Sphinx.

*Dr. Ellis claims that Mr. Jefferson’s sexual life, due to the mind-heart separation, was nonexistent, and spends an appendix arguing against Sally Hemings’s children.  He changed his opinion when DNA testing was done.  Otherwise, the entire book is sound.

Twilight: A Novel (2005) by Stephenie Meyer and a Film (2008) by Catherine Hardwicke and Melissa Rosenberg

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Give me immortality or give me, I'd prefer death.

I worked at one of the largest Barnes & Nobles in the country from March 2008 to June 2009.  It was a pretty good year for book sellers, for in August Stephenie Meyer published Breaking Dawn and then, three months later, the film of Twilight guaranteed massive sales for the Christmas season.  We could never keep any of Ms. Meyer’s novels on the shelves, and our stockroom was filled with hundreds of copies being replenished each week.  I didn’t understand it…all I knew about Twilight back then was “oh, a girl and a vampire…like Buffy but with less fighting.”  And I joined in with people who laughed at the saga, but I always feel a twinge of remorse when I deride that which I have never experienced.

So I read the novel.  And I saw the first two movies in company of my roommate, our mutual friend, and initially a large bottle of gin. What I discovered was an absolutely terrible work of fiction and an unsurprisingly entertaining motion picture.

Stephenie Meyer’s talents as a writer I am not prepared to comment on.  Her plotting is predictable, her characters have very few notes to play, her sense of humor often rings flat, and her command of the English language seems deliberately simplified for the mass audience.  She also has a skewed idea of the ideal man, given that Edward Cullen acts like a superior, sometimes bipolar jerk and women fall at his feet.  This being said, she is not the first writer to succeed with such a weight to carry and she may have more ability than I give her credit for.  However, my ability to judge Ms. Meyer is inhibited by a first-person narration where I ABSOLUTELY LOATHED THE NARRATOR.  Ten pages in or so, I was ready to start bashing Bella Swan’s head against the nearest wall…all she did was whine, simper, and make melodramatic declarations.  How I made it through will remain a mystery.

The film, on the other hand, is a great success…as a comedy, a movie to get drunk to, and a film which provides magnificently goofy background noise on boring days at home.  It is helped immeasurably by the removal of the first-person narration in place of Kristen Stewart’s beyond minimalist performance as Bella (which drives me nuts because I have enjoyed Miss Stewart in several other pictures).  But it is also helped by a delightfully faithful screenplay by Melissa Rosenberg which eschews suspense in favor of misplaced atmosphere and terribly corny and cliched dialogue in every scene (this IS faithful to Ms. Meyer), lousy visual effects (although Catherine Hardwicke is clearly trying to shoot a tight, stylish picture), and actors who are either playing it far too seriously or, seeing this as a joke, deliberately push themselves to extremes.  Robert Pattinson seems to revel in being flat, and after having seen her in other movies, I strongly suspect that Anna Kendrick reveled in being so vapid.  The older actors give off looks every so often of the “What am I doing here?” variety.  The one actually good part of the film is Carter Burwell’s score…only a man who worked so often with the Coens could have wrung odd beauty out of this, so of course only three minutes of his music made the chart-topping soundtrack album of songs as whiny and overblown as Bella’s narration.

But Twilight makes for two hooting hours.  And I won’t go into how New Moon pushed the bar so high that I’ve been afraid to see Eclipse.

Augustus John: The New Biography (1996) by Sir Michael Holroyd

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Dorelia...One of Way Too Many, but the Loveliest

Augustus John was one of the most famous and controversial men of the early 20th century, especially in his native United Kingdom.  He had 37 paintings and drawings in the Armory Show and made the cover of Time magazine.  But I never heard of him until I read a biography of Robert Bolt which discussed his unproduced screenplay Augustus…based on Sir Michael Holroyd’s biography.  In 1996, Sir Michael used access to a trove of recently discovered archives to revise the book, and the result is the least of his four lengthy texts…which means that it’s better than 99% of all other biographies ever published.

The flaw of Augustus John has nothing to do with Sir Michael’s writing, which is as tight, clear, and full of perfectly-chosen vocabulary as ever, nor his sense of storytelling and evoking past eras.  But in reading nearly 600 pages I was confronted with a problem which I think also perplexed Sir Michael: WHY was Augustus John so fascinating?  He was an artist who broke with convention, to be sure, but so many artists defy convention in every age and never reach Mr. John’s reputation or financial success.  And after reading of Mr. John’s multitude of friendships and lovers, I never understood what drew these people to him.  The Augustus John of this bio is a charismatic man, but unlike Sir Michael’s other subjects, he seems to not have the intelligence and conversational styles of Strachey and Shaw, nor the empathetic tumult of Ellen Terry and her family…he’s just unpleasant.  Sir Michael tries to compensate for this by diving deep into every aspect of Mr. John’s life from bizzarrely sad childhood to international celebrity, but the result is only an enigma.

Yet in Sir Michael’s pen, it is a fascinating enigma.  Whatever one might think of Mr. John, strong reactions are aroused by the ancedotes of the painter in a variety of moods, the tragedy of his wife Ida, the lifelong bond with his muse, mistress, and ultimate caretaker Dorelia McNeill, and his relationship with his too-many-to-count children.  And as in all of his books, Sir Michael’s writing puts the reader in a position to live and breathe the air of the Cafe Royal and the fields of Provence.  The past…the era of Augustus John…comes alive again.  If only (and this was also my great complaint of Evan S. Connell’s outstanding life of Francisco Goya) there were more illustrations so I could see these paintings Sir Michael rhapsodizes over!

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