THE BONE CLOCKS

puppy love

       They call it puppy love

The Bone Clocks
by David Mitchell

I love David Mitchell. I have read most (though not all) of his books with much delight and I was very excited that The Bone Clocks was being released this fall. From what I’d heard, it promised a mix of a solid realist surface story along with shifting narrators, time periods and political backdrops plus a certain amount of fantasy. The kind of thing I wouldn’t have thought I’d like until I read Cloud Atlas (or watched LOST).

And so Supportive Husband and I trundled off to our local indie (shout out to Pegasus Books in Berkeley) where we happily procured a signed first edition, baby. And even though it kinda hurt my hand to prop up the 650-page hardback tome, I plunged in with a glee that lasted through the first half of the book. How can you not be happy when a 15-year-old female protagonist describes a boyfriend’s betrayal by stating, “My heart’s a clubbed baby seal” or when an older man going blind explains his experience as “like searching for your keys in the dirty snow.” My point is that David Mitchell can turn a phrase. And that kind of lovely writing can take a reader pretty far.

But, but, but … and I hate to have a but because I was so excited about this book … a little more than midway through this story that spans from 1984 English countryside to 2043 Irish countryside–with a lot of stops in-between–the book’s earlier, lighter flirtations with fantasy became the central plot of the story. It was at this point that my adoration started to fade. Once it crossed that (here it comes) sci-fi threshold, I found myself in a place I really didn’t want to be: an alternative universe so complex and full of lame jargon that it was all I could do to follow the silly plot devices leading up to an epic battle (described blow by blow, lord help me) in which, guess what, good guys fight bad guys. The characters and storylines preceding all this fell completely by the wayside.

It was at this most vulnerable point, when my own heart was a clubbed baby seal, that James Wood, the smooth-talking New Yorker book critic, came along and articulated my disappointment. Typically, I wouldn’t have looked at the review until I had finished the book and written about it, but I was weak, okay? Questioning my own judgment, wondering what David and I had ever had, I turned to another man.

Here’s the link to Wood’s review, where he sums it up pretty well when he says, “What occurs in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites [the bad guys] and Horologists [the good guys].” Exactly. And this is coming from the gal who went on and on in her last post about how much she loves plot.

For what it’s worth, Mitchell does manage to bring us back, a bit, to a more human component of the story, though his final message is a pretty dark one. For hard-core Mitchell fans, there’s still plenty here to treasure. And despite my disenchantment this time around, I’ll still come running next time he calls.

EUPHORIA

 

Euphoria

Euphoria
by Lily King

My two favorite things about Euphoria: its great feminist heroine and its beautiful writing.

The story takes place in the Territory of New Guinea in 1933 and is a fictionalized re-imagining of the events–both personal and professional–that unfolded when Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands worked together studying the tribes along the Sepik River. As you might guess, a love triangle and academic wrangling ensued.

Nell Stone (the book’s Margaret Mead stand-in) is an accomplished anthropologist whose success overshadows her two male counterparts. But the reason she’s so successful isn’t because she’s interested in outdoing the men, it’s because of her genuine passion for her field and the fresh, relational (some might say female) perspective she brings to the work. As one of these contemporaries explains, “For so long I felt that what I’d been trained to do in academic writing was to press my nose to the ground, and here was Nell Stone with her head raised and swiveling in all directions.” This is what I think of as the Peggy Olson school of feminism: women characters interesting and strong enough to break barriers simply by being true to themselves and their interests.

But unlike dear Peggy, Nell Stone’s intellect is extremely attractive to her male counterparts. One says, “I loved the sound of our two typewriters; it felt like we were in a band, making a strange sort of music. It felt like I was a part of something, and that the work was important. She always made me feel that the work was important. And then her typewriter stopped and she was watching me. ‘Don’t stop’ I said. ‘Your typing makes my brain work better.’” Pretty hot – huh?

I’ve taken the liberty of disproportionately quoting from the book to demonstrate King’s beautiful, clean writing style. It’s a style in which every carefully chosen word evokes the story’s place and people. I find this kind of writing particularly relaxing to read, almost meditative. It’s how I feel when I read Marilynne Robinson.

Since beginning this blog, there’s been an underlying theme to most of my reading selections: the literary woman-in-a-strange-land genre. I could claim it’s something subconscious (my wanderings through Berkeley certainly constitute anthropological research into the customs of burnt-out baby boomers) but given my process for choosing what I read when, it’s safe to say that my recent reading list has been more arbitrary than one might assume.

That said, my next undertaking should be very, very different from the books I’ve written about up to this point. Coming up to bat is My Struggle, Book One by Karl Ove Knausgaard. (That’s book one of six, by the way, though fortunately for all of us he’s still writing them) Knausgaard is an extremely intense Norwegian man whose six-part “autobiographical novel” is the current Literary Big Deal. I can be a little jaded by hoopla but, of course, I’m also intrigued. I’ve heard this book referred to as both “boring” and “Catcher in the Rye for 40 year olds.” I’m banking on the later. You’ll be the first to know.

Karl

Intense Norwegian Man

STATE OF WONDER

IMG_0953State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett

I like Ann Patchett more with every passing interview and quote I read of hers. Check out the video post directly before this one and it won’t take long to see why I’m a big fan. (Lying on the sofa reading books? Avocado sandwiches? Hello? Can we say separated at birth?)

In the attached video, Patchett describes herself as “profoundly uninteresting,” someone who doesn’t “do” anything. And yet State of Wonder is most easily categorized as an adventure story. The novel’s protagonist, a 40-something obstetrician-turned-pharmacologist is tasked with venturing into the Amazon jungle to find a former mentor who is developing a secret new drug for their shared employer. It would be difficult to describe the very interesting and imaginative story that ensues without taking away from the fun of reading this book, which unravels as smoothly and deliberately as the coils of an anaconda. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the jungle reference) So while I can’t get into the specifics, I can promise you well-written mystery, danger and a little touch of fantasy.

But what I appreciated most about State of Wonder was that it served as my companion during my own recent adventure, in which I was forced to get up off the couch and did not have access to a single avocado, if you can imagine such a thing. No, I wasn’t traveling down the Amazon in a canoe, but as I sat in the tropics-like heat of a Yale dorm room last Thursday night sweating between two wool blankets (the only bedding available to separate me from my plastic mattress) while trucks, motorcycles and infrequent blasts of car music tumbled by outside my window, I tried to read just a few pages in a fruitless effort to fall asleep. While I attempted to strategically angle the microscopic “face fan” I’d procured earlier that day at CVS (thanks anonymous CVS shopping partner, you know who you are), it struck me that I too was taking a journey.

As a volunteer writing coach for College Summit, my journey would involve several 16-hour days working with low-income students in an intensive program that prepares them for college, all while being reintroduced to the distinct experiences of sleeping and eating in a college dorm. By the time I arrived at Yale, I’d been traveling for two weeks and I felt utterly unprepared on just about every level, be it my limited supply of remaining clean clothes, my lack of experience with this demographic of students, the unfamiliar structure I’d need to follow, not to mention the challenges an introverted person faces when told that they are expected to be “on” every waking hour of their day. It was daunting. And did I mention the unfortunate haircut I was sporting?

I’ll cut to the chase. College Summit was one of the best things I’ve ever done. There are many reasons why the experience was so positive, but I can’t underestimate the importance of having allowed myself to be uncomfortable. It’s so easy to keep our lives under tight control and feel like the world “turns on” when we charge up our computers (and thank you, by the way, for staring at yours right now as you read this). But we can’t have adventures in the familiarity of our homes. We must venture out, both physically and mentally, if we’re to grow and achieve that state of wonder.