Almost two months since I last published here, and before that I began this post. At first, I only got as far as drafting a title and importing the photo below.
A few days later, I added a few paragraphs: The photo's taken from Ali Smith's Winter -- which I managed to borrow, in hardcover print format, from the library. I'd like to have my own copy (along with her earlier Autumn, which I said a very few words about in this post; scroll down to the bottom of the list) because this is definitely one of those books that demands to be reread.
It takes a while to sort what's going on, and then, again if I remember correctly, we dip quickly into different times and places with this protagonist, before shifting to the perspective of another. I felt off-balance for the first third to half of the novel, but enjoyably so, working to puzzle out possible connections. Characters who I was inclined to dislike revealed themselves to be sympathetic or at least more interesting than I'd expected. Indeed, given the novel's work as political allegory or commentary, it's a tribute to Smith's deft pen that the characters lift so convincingly off the page. Especially since, as James Wood points out in this New Yorker review, both Autumn and Winter must have been written very quickly (he calls them "political pop-up books."
Short shrift, I shamefacedly admit, for a book that deserves much more of my attention. but I'm determined to finish this post today or tomorrow, and I've got one more book to mention. . . You might like to have a peek at fellow blogger Mardel's much more sustained review.
And when you've done that, I'll tell you quickly that before I read Smith's Winter, I read George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, which is another book I will have to own in hard copy. So many passages I'd love to underline, to copy out, even, but I'd borrowed this one from the library from the Fast Reads shelf. It deserves savouring rather than fast reading. . .
For one thing, it takes a while to get a sense of the terrain. The novel comprises many substantive excerpts from a number of historical sources; at the outset, these describe a grand reception President Lincoln and the First Lady gave on an evening when their eleven-year-old son was suffering from typhoid fever -- epistolary excerpts and passages from biographies or from newspaper articles published at the time switch gradually from covering the reception to describing the boy's illness -- doctor's report and nurse's and servants' -- then describing the child's worsening, his eventual death, his parents' grief. But the reader is left to assemble the narrative from the material provided. . .
Which would be challenge enough, although manageable, without the short fictional narratives interwoven among these historical texts. These sketches, we gradually realize, are of the ghostly inhabitants of the cemetery to which Lincoln's son has been brought. I've lived this long without knowing that "the Bardo" is, in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of consciousness between life and death (there are other states of consciousness that are also "bardos," as I understand it, but for the purpose of understanding Saunders' experimental novel, I think this works).
The novel's organizing conceit is that Lincoln's son cannot bear to abandon his father to his obvious grief, but the spirits who inhabit the cemetery with him know that he risks being horribly trapped, both physically and spiritually, in this in-between space filled with grotesque characters--whose narratives are being gabbled about discordantly. The collective effort necessary to push the child out of this world and into a better space is worth following. What struck me most, though, were the passages in which one character in particular celebrates the myriad concrete beauties, large and small, that make human life in the world worth the pain he suffered in living it -- and in leaving it.
I do wish I could offer you examples of these passages, and if I had my own copy, I would. (In fact, I'm thinking I might try to check the book out again and add a passage or two here when I do -- some of them are so beautiful and against some of the atrocities we're contemplating daily, in the news, they offer tiny arguments for sustaining hope, for finding worth in the everyday.)
But perhaps you've read it yourself, and could share your own favourite passage. . .
Short shrift again, but if you're not ready to dive into the novel yet, you might check out Hari Kunzru's review in The Guardian.
These two marvellous novels are the 17th and the 19th on my list of books read in 2018. Halfway through the year, I had listed 44 books (a whole slew of mysteries pushed the count up while we were travelling). Simple arithmetic declares that I'm 25 books behind -- yikes! It's pretty obvious that I'm not keeping up with my original intention of writing a bit about each book I read, and I'm seriously wondering if it's worth maintaining this blog separately. I could, instead, just post updates on my reading over on Materfamilias Writes, but I've rarely found the book conversation there to be as convivial as it can be here. We're a much, much smaller group here, but we're all engaged readers, and I've really enjoyed our exchanges. It's pretty obvious, though, that I'm not doing enough to feed this blog and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to do much more.
Thoughts? Either about the two books I've discussed here, or about whether or not I should keep the blog going, desultory and occasional as the posts seem to be, or whether my writing about books would be better placed over on my other blog. (And prepare to be shocked: There will be TWO posts here in one week -- I'm going to post my Halfway-through-the-year list in a day or two, so we can compare notes. I might even manage another post next week to tell you about some really great stuff I've been reading lately. We'll see. . . )