Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is (supposedly) a combination of memoir, genealogy, and historical fiction focusing on the enslaved African ancestor of black American author Alex Haley. While acknowledging the significance of this unprecedented, popular, and culturally important work, I must say I think it fails as a work of fiction.

I expected the book to be more like other historical epics I’ve read. Such works contain seeds of truth and the fruits of long hours of research, but are ultimately stories crafted to entertain, so they have a classic, recognizable rising-falling structure, or many such structures strung together or nested one inside the other.

While reading Roots, I kept trying to sniff out plot points, only slowly realizing that Roots is just a straightforward book chronicling people’s lives. People’s lives don’t have plots, unless you graft them on after the fact, and that’s not what Haley chose to do. You could say he “fictionalized” the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants, but the detail that he added was documentary rather than dramatic in style. From a structural standpoint, Haley’s massive work is little more than an 888-page list of who begat whom.

Sadly, if the accusations against Haley are true, the work also fails as non-fiction; the story may very well be less factual than he claimed.

See below for a summary, what stood out, and my thoughts on the authenticity of the novel.

Continue reading Roots by Alex Haley

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Who doesn’t love a good Cinderella story like Jane Eyre?

I despise spineless, aimless characters like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caufield; Jane Eyre is exactly the opposite. She’s stubborn, she’s principled, and in the end she gets what she wants because she’s worked hard and made the right decisions. Unlike many heroines, she’s not particularly beautiful or smart; what she has is honesty and a strong sense of justice.

The setting and many descriptive details make the book moody and atmospherically (though not thematically) dark; it’s a gothic novel complete with mysterious rooms, storms, eerie sounds and the like.

Jane Eyre is discussed throughout The Weekend Novelist Re-writes the Novel, which points out that the book has an uncommonly large number of antagonists, which means it has an uncommonly large number of subplots. The book’s complexity contributes greatly to its lasting appeal.

When and Why I Read Jane Eyre

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book club for May 2017. I read it in 2011 but I don’t mind reading it again.

Genre: fiction (English literature)
Date started / date finished:  06-May-17 to 15-May-17
Length: 467 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 1260
Originally published in: 1897
Gutenberg link: Jane Eyre

The Story of the Stone aka The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin and Gao E

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club selected this mammoth Chinese classic for discussion at the end of January 2018. I bought the five-volume Penguin paperback edition. Below are the results of my research into the different available English translations.

See also: Buying books in Singapore

Continue reading The Story of the Stone aka The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin and Gao E

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye was not a book I enjoyed. In general, I don’t like spineless characters, and I don’t like unreliable narrators, and Holden Caufield is both!

If your idea of great fiction is a story that successfully produces a powerful emotional reaction, then okay, I agree that Salinger’s book is great. It made me feel absolutely awful. After reading it, I felt I needed to go look at pictures of kittens or something to wash it out of my head. Blech.

More details about the book with SPOILERS below.

Continue reading The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

Dangerous Liaisons is a deeply disturbing book.

I think what bothers me most is the fact that sincere expressions of supposedly private emotions are betrayed to third parties, i.e., that innocent people are being made fools of and don’t even know it. It is horrible to suspect that others are laughing at us; it is even more horrible to find out that we have indeed been laughed at, and that, further, we deserved it, if only because we were naive.

Do you think you can evade vicarious injury by identifying with the clever if cruel miscreants rather their victims? Then you will be pained when the novel fails to conclude as happily for them as they seem to assume it will. No one gets away unscathed!

The ambiguous stance of the book allows readers multiple interpretations. One lesson you could say the book teaches is never to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, though perhaps it’s simply saying that no matter how suspicious you try to be, your trust will always be misplaced. A more benign lesson would be that the ridiculous French loan-word ‘liaison’ has two i’s in it—if I never type the word again, it will be too soon.

Meanwhile, I offer you a presumably accidental pun on the word “affair” in the form of a questionably worded Quizno’s ad.

When and Why I Read Dangerous Liaisons

This work was chosen as the Hungry Hundred Book Club book for February 2017.

Genre: fiction (French literature)
Date started / date finished:  28-Jan-17 to 06-Feb-17
Length: 409 pages
ISBN: 9780140449570 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1782
Amazon link: Dangerous Liaisons

Middlemarch by George Eliot

When I read Middlemarch in 2015, I was surprised when the focus shifted away from the character I thought was the protagonist. In fact, the book has an ensemble cast whose stories are woven together by a variety of relationships all contained within the same geographical area, the town of Middlemarch. Hence the title.

One of the Hungry Hundred Book Club members said the book was about “knowing the other”, though obviously not in the science-fiction sense of knowing aliens from other planets. I very much agree. The plot relies on characters who make assumptions and project their own worldviews on others unknowingly, then find, having hurt others or themselves, that they were mistaken.

The characters are not to be blamed for not understanding each other perfectly to begin with (such problems are perennial human ones), but we can certainly judge them for the actions they take and the attitudes they adopt when they realize they are wrong.

My evaluations of some of the characters below as well as information on when and why I read the book.

Continue reading Middlemarch by George Eliot

Emma by Jane Austen

I read The Annotated Emma when Emma was chosen as the Hungry Hundred Book Club book for November.

There are advantages and disadvantages to reading annotated editions of classics. The advantage is that you get a lot of added historical context (details about clothing, buildings, transportation, manners, etc.) and literary criticism (similarities and differences between related works). The disadvantage is that you aren’t left to see the story and characters reveal themselves to you, or to draw your own conclusions about the author’s themes.

On balance, for Emma, I’d say it’s worth reading an annotated edition if you already know the plot. Knowing the plot made the book a bit—only a bit!—tedious to read, since I spent the entire novel waiting for Emma to discover a bunch of things I already knew… she is, like Cher in the movie Clueless (1995), well meaning but oblivious. Thus, there’s a tinge of “unreliable narrator” syndrome, but in fact the narrator is much wiser than the protagonist, so I’d say the novel doesn’t cause disastrous levels of reader impatience. This is Jane Austen we’re talking about! Her stories are entertaining practically by definition. What more can I say?

When and Why I Read It

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it.

Genre: fiction (literature)
Date started / date finished:  31-Oct-16 to 27-Nov-16
Length: 863 pages
ISBN: 9780307390776 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1815
Amazon link: The Annotated Emma

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Reading The House of the Spirits taught me that “nacre” is a natural material related to pearl. And that I don’t actually like magical realism.

The author is a Chilean-American (born in Peru), the novel was written in Spanish, and—though the narrative never says—its setting is Chile. There are a couple of unnamed real (or real-ish) people in the narrative whom I don’t know anything about without looking them up. (“The Poet” is Pablo Neruda and “The Candidate/President” is Salvador Allende.) Wikipedia informs me that the purpose of the book was “to exorcise the ghosts of the Pinochet dictatorship,” which overthrew President Allende, a Socialist who had been elected democratically. The last name is not a coincidence; he was a cousin of author Isabel Allende’s.

The narration strangely flips between first and third person. I found the narration frustrating because the events are told in a kind of distant, rushed way. Rather than feeling involved in the story as if I was living it alongside the characters wondering what would happen next, I felt as if the events didn’t matter because they’d already happened and the narrator knows it all in more detail than I’m ever going to hear. Not every frame story causes this kind of bored impatience. This one does in part because from time to time the narration drops in facts about later events, which made the story feel even more abrupt and made it even harder to relate to the characters.

Thus, as long as the story is, it feels like a summary of a story and not a story. It feels like a movie of a book, the kind of movie that pogo-sticks through a much longer tale, picking out only the highlights. But at least in such a movie, one that switches from scene to scene with a lot missing in between, the scenes themselves are immersive.

I don’t get it. If the point of the book is to teach those who do not know how bad the dictatorship was, why tell a long, quasi-magical family story that doesn’t actually convey much history? The book seems merely to be using the coup as a dramatic climax for the story… to the extent that the book has a singular climax rather than a series of them.

When and Why I Read It

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it. I bought it by mail from someone on Carousell in Singapore.

Genre: fiction
Date started / date finished:  9-Sep-16 to 23-Sep-16
Length: 491 pages
ISBN: 0552955886 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1985
Amazon link: The House of the Spirits

Why I don’t like magical realism

I started reading Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children back in 1998; it was the first book I recorded in the book log I’ve been keeping ever since. About six months later I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. I just finished reading Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits.

I’ve read more than a thousand books (over seventeen hundred, actually) since my first recorded exposure to magical realism, so I’m better able to articulate an opinion. All three of these strange books are great in the sense that they are literary, cultural touchstones. But I don’t like them.

Probably I dislike these magical realism books in part because I don’t know enough political history to appreciate their settings, but I think mainly I dislike the books because they’re exaggerated. Grotesquely. I don’t like exaggeration as a form of humor—or as a form of literature, apparently.

I don’t mind fantasy books at all. I am willing to suspend disbelief when reading stories about dragons or other planets (or dragons and other planets—thank you, Anne McCaffrey), perhaps because it’s super clear when I’m supposed to. Pretending that wizards or warp drives are normal is a cooperative enterprise I can happily engage in with the author.

In contrast, magical realism makes me feel like the victim of a prolonged practical joke. The author presents what seems to be a realistic world, but then, here and there, nonchalantly distorts it worse than a fun-house mirror. Am I supposed to take the magical bits at face value (which is how they’re presented)? Are the magical bits just literary cleverness signposting some kind of wise metaphor that I’m stupidly overlooking? Is the magic just random nonsense that’s supposed to be funny, precisely because it makes no sense? I’m uncomfortable with all three of these theories, especially because a single book could, for all I know, include a mix of elements that fit all three patterns.*

Is magical realism to be lauded for causing feelings of mystery that reflect the mystery of real life, or is it to be criticized for pretentiously making book-reading as a form of entertainment harder than it needs to be? The former, judging by the sales figures.

However, in fact the sales figures have been used by literary critics to support the notion that magical realist works are not deserving of respect. Regardless of whether it’s about McCaffrey’s Pern or Allende’s Chile, any novel the masses enjoy, the logic goes, cannot be very profound.

Personally, no matter what the sales figures or the critics say, I’d far rather read magic than magical realism.

 


*Or—this didn’t even occur to me but was pointed out by someone in the HHBC discussion—maybe the magical elements are indicative of an unreliable narrator. In other words, maybe the story involves no magical events at all, but is being related by someone who’s lying, confused, or crazy. (I don’t like unreliable narrators any more than I like magical realism, so for me, this theory, while useful, doesn’t exactly fix the problem.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Though I didn’t know anything about the book, the title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the author’s exotic-sounding three-part name were familiar to me for years. I’ve now read the book, but I don’t feel I am familiar enough with Hurston’s historical context or the intervening decades of relevant literary criticism to fully appreciate its significance.

For a plot summary and other thoughts, see below.

Continue reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston