What I’ve Been Reading

Time to take a breath! For the last month I’ve been thinking of all the reviews I want to write, because I’ve been reading some terrific books. Tomorrow! is always the day I’m finally going to write a post on this or that book. Today I realized I am so hopelessly behind that it’s never going to happen. Pretty much every book I’ve read this last month or so deserves its own post, but I suppose something is better than nothing, so here goes:

A Fine Balance CoverA Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. This is such a sad and wonderful book. Mistry is a wonderful storyteller. A Fine Balance follows the lives of four characters: Dina Dalal, Ishvar Darji, Omprakash (Om) Darji, and Maneck Kohlah. The main part of the story takes place in Mumbai, India during The Emergency, a period from June 1975 to March 1977 when Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi suspended civil liberties and elections and established rule by decree.

Ishvar and Om are untouchables who travel from their village to Mumbai to find tailoring work. After struggling to find a job, they are hired by Dina, a widow with poor vision who has taken in piecework in order to remain independent. Dina, who is from a wealthy family, has also sublet her bedroom to a college student, Maneck, who is the only son of a former classmate. Maneck’s father is a merchant in the mountains of northern India. Their backgrounds could not be more diverse, but after much struggle and misunderstanding, they become a sort of family.

The Emergency and its direct effects on each of the characters frames much of what happens in the story, but the book never falls into the realm of political discussion. It also does not use The Emergency as a device for telling the story; instead, it’s an organic part of the plot. Even though Mistry is most certainly helping readers to understand the struggles that Indians of all backgrounds faced from post-independence in 1947 through The Emergency and to show India’s struggles as a country (religious intolerance, caste systems, poverty, and so forth), the characters’ personal stories remain the author’s primary concern. I bring this up because the style is so very different than what happens in a book like Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, where the author has very deliberately taken something real in the form of Judaism and Kabbalah and used them as devices to tell a story in a very particular way. I essentially read these back-to-back, so it really got me thinking about what I enjoy in storytelling, and I realized that ultimately I prefer not to have the author on the page with me. When I read The Autograph Man, I was constantly aware that I was reading a very deliberately constructed narrative, which actually distanced me from the main character, Alex, and made me twice removed from the characters in Alex’s life. I think a constructed narrative can work in the first person, because the construction can belong to/be organic to the character, but in the third person, it can be difficult to tell whose story I’m reading: the author’s or the character’s.

All that is just to say, Mistry never gets in between the reader and the story, which might be easy for an author to do, especially when his audience might be one that is not familiar with Indian politics and history. He could have–how shall I say this?–pulled a Tolstoy and given the reader a lot of information about the history of what actually happened, but instead, he just lets the characters lead their lives, and that is more powerful than anything. So if you haven’t read this book, you really, really should.

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity Third Edition/Expanded CoverZen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. Obviously, this is a book about writing. Confession: I’ve never read a thing by Ray Bradbury, not even Fahrenheit 451, which is really the only book of his I knew at the outset. I didn’t realize he’d written Something Wicked This Way Comes, not to mention countless other novels, stories, and plays. So why pick it up? Well, it’s a book I see recommended over and over again for fiction writers. While I can’t say I learned anything hugely profound, what I liked about this book was Bradbury’s complete joy and excitement about writing. Most books about writing focus on the suffering, the difficulty of getting something on the page. Bradbury doesn’t deny the difficulty–or rather, I should say, he’s not unrealistic. Sometimes–much of the time–your writing will be bad. But only by working and writing badly will you ever write well. This isn’t so different from advice by Stephen King or Anne Lamott, but it’s certainly delivered more effusively. It reminded me of a quote from an interview with George Saunders that I read recently: “Fun is an aspect of fiction that often gets undersold…Fun is hard to talk about. It doesn’t ‘teach’ well. … All those literary things we learn about? Theme and character and all that? My experience is you can’t get there without fun.”

This book is quick to read and definitely worth picking up if you’re interested in any kind of  writing, I think. But even if you’re “just” a reader, Bradbury talks about reading–and watching television and movies–and holding on to what you love.

Divergent (Divergent Trilogy #1) CoverDivergent, by Veronica Roth. I might be the last person in the book blogging world to have read this book, but I’m glad I did. If you haven’t read it yet and you enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy, definitely pick this one up. I admit I didn’t like it quite as much as The Hunger Games–the love story is more central here, and Beatrice/Tris, the heroine, not quite as strong as Katniss–but it still has an interesting premise. Society has been divided into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. At the age of 16, children are tested to determine their aptitude for their particular group, and they can choose to join any faction–but choosing a new faction results in leaving behind one’s family forever. Candidates go through initiation, and those who are unsuccessful (or somehow otherwise break the rules of their faction) become one of the Factionless, who live outside the bounds of the city (dystopian, future Chicago) and do menial jobs to support themselves. Some people have no test results–they are Divergent, and they are also considered dangerous.

Unbeknownst to Beatrice/Tris, some of the factions are preparing a war to wipe out the other factions. This book ends with Tris’s discovery and the initial battle. It was a gripping, quick read, and I look forward to reading the next in the series, Insurgent.

American Salvage CoverAmerican Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The short story collection American Salvage was a National Book Award finalist in 2009, and it’s so apparent why–these stories are terrific. Campbell is a natural storyteller in the vein of Flannery O’Connor. Given her material, I could see that some people might also want to compare her to Raymond Carver–certainly no insult.

These stories are about hard-working, small town people in upper Michigan. Most of them are poor, several are plagued by meth addictions that affect so many people in small towns. A family returns to their summer home to find it has been invaded by meth addicts. An overseer at a former construction yard realizes he is unable to arrest the natural course of things in life and marriage. A young girl who hasn’t spoken in over a year finds a way to let her shotgun speak for her. A man pines for an old girlfriend he saved from an abusive father, only to find that she considers him just another in a long line of abusers. A woman with a higher degree in agriculture tries to make a go of it as a farmer’s wife.

Campbell shares a sensibility with another one of my favorite authors, Kent Haruf. Her characters’ stories are tough, but they are also beautiful. Campbell allows her characters their dignity even in the worst circumstances, and her writing is seamless.

This collection got me thinking about how many people there are out there who don’t enjoy reading short stories. This is a collection I’d want to get in their hands to make them see what stories can be at their best. O’Connor and Munro and Carver are wonderful, but their reputations precede them and put a sort of pressure on the reader to enjoy them in a certain way. In reading this collection, readers place themselves in the hands of an able storyteller who also has the luck of being someone who has not yet become a name, someone to be imitated (although she most surely will be, because how could any writer help but want to write so well as Campbell does?). Highly recommended. I cannot wait to read her latest work, the novel Once Upon a River.

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2 comments

  1. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed A Fine Balance. It is my all time favourite book! I agree with you about the way he just lets the characters tell their own story – such a special skill that few writers manage. Now you can move onto his others 🙂

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