A Tale for the Time Being is about lots of things: stories, and families, and memory, and history, and secrets, and time, and moments (zen and otherwise). It’s sometimes very heavy, but often very beautiful. Part of the novel is the diary of Nao, a teenage girl in Japan whose family lived in California when she was a kid but had to move back to Japan when her dad lost his job. And part of the novel is a narrative about Ruth, a writer living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, who finds Nao’s diary on the beach and is reading it and wondering how it ended up where it did. Nao is bullied in her Japanese school, and her dad is suicidal, and Ruth is mourning her own mother and dealing with writer’s block and wondering if Nao might have been killed in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, hence the heaviness. But also, Nao’s great-grandmother, Jiko, is a hundred-and-four-year-old Zen Buddhist nun who adds a lot of sweetness and light to the story (and to Nao’s life, when Nao spends a summer with her at the temple where she lives).

At the start of the book/the start of her diary, Nao, who’s sixteen when she’s writing, says she is a “time being,” which “is someone who lives in time,” which is to say “you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be” are all time beings (3). Throughout the book, Nao and Ruth both consider time: time passing, the perception of time passing, how much time is in a life. “I’m going to graduate from time,” Nao says, when she’s considering suicide herself (6). Then she amends it: “I’m going to drop out of time” (7). Nao considers what it means to waste time, and later learns about Proust and thinks about time lost, time regained. She describes Jiko as the only person she knows “who really understands time” (24). But she herself keeps moving through time, as we do, and meanwhile, comes into contact with pieces of the past: her great-grandmother’s story, and the story of her great-uncle Haruki, and, eventually, her dad’s story.

I like the way all these stories intersect, Nao’s stories and the stories of her family members and Ruth’s stories. “Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories,” Jiko says to Nao, at one point (246). I like the way the novel includes stories—continued narratives—and also moments. At one point there’s a discussion of how many moments are in a day, how many moments are in each snap of one’s fingers, per Dōgen Zenji, who lived in the 1200s. And in different ways, Nao and Ruth both end up thinking about all the little moments and all the little choices and all the little observations that make up an hour, a day, a life.

There’s so much good writing in this book—I really like Ozeki’s style. I like how Nao talks about telling Jiko about “all the little sounds and smells and colors and lights and advertising and people and fashions and newspaper headlines that make up the noisy ocean of Tokyo” (18), and how Ozeki captures some of that busy-city mood. And I love passages like the one where Nao talks about “the beauty of the plum and cherry blossoms along the avenues in Ueno Park”:

I spent whole days there, wandering up and down these long, soft tunnels of pink clouds and gazing overhead at the fluffy blossoms, all puffy and pink with little sparkles of sunlight and blue sky glinting between the bright green leaves. Time disappeared and it was like being born into the world all over again. Everything was perfect. When a breeze blew, petals rained down on my upturned face, and I stopped and gasped, stunned by the beauty and sadness. (332)

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

December 19th, 2020

Hard Times is about what happens when, as one character puts it, a person (or a society, for that matter) thinks that “the wisdom of the Head” is “all-sufficient” and doesn’t think at all about “the wisdom of the Heart” (222). The lesson—that trying to live by rational self-interest alone is not the best path to happiness— is not much of a surprise; the pleasure of the book is seeing how different characters arrive at that conclusion, or fail to arrive at it. At the start of the book we see Mr. Gradgrind and his children and the school where they’re educated: “Facts alone are wanted in life,” Gradgrind says. “Plant nothing else, and root out everything else” (11). This is quickly carried to absurd conclusions: you shouldn’t have wallpaper with horses on it, or carpets with flowers on them, because you shouldn’t “have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets” (16). Gradgrind won’t let his children read fairy tales or go to the circus; there’s no room in his life for anything fanciful, and there shouldn’t be any room for anything fanciful in anyone else’s life, either. And yet: he ends up taking a girl from the circus, Sissy, into his household; she helps his wife and becomes part of the family—and when things get difficult, it’s Sissy, of course, who’s capable of being both loving and practical, showing that the wisdom of the heart and the wisdom of the head can work together, even without an abundance of facts and figures.

Much of the book focuses on two of Gradgrind’s children, Tom and Louisa, both of whom have been educated to value reason above everything else, and neither of whom is particularly happy. Their stories intersect with the story of Stephen Blackpool, a mill-worker who ends up having professional troubles added to personal ones. There are melodramatic moments and heavy-handed moments, and I could have done without the phonetic representations of Stephen’s accent and another character’s lisp, but I was engaged enough with the story and setting that I didn’t mind too much. (The book is set in a fictional town called Coketown—”a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled” (30). The descriptions of the travails of the mill-owners there cracked me up but also seems far too relevant, still: “they were ruined when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.” (115-116))

Also too relevant: a schoolroom exchange from early in the book where a teacher says this: “Now this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this a prosperous nation, and an’t you in a thriving state?” (64) and a child later tells of her reply like this: “I thought I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine” (ibid.)

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

November 11th, 2020

Piranesi (not his actual name) thinks of himself as the “Beloved Child of the House” where he lives: a house that is, as far as he can see, the entire world (163). It’s a strange world: Piranesi can walk from one gigantic room to another for miles upon miles and still only have traversed a small fraction of the space; the lower floors of the House are flooded, and the sound of the tides against the walls and staircases is a constant; aside from Piranesi and a man he calls “the Other,” the House is populated only by fish and birds and statues. But for Piranesi, it’s home: he gathers seaweed for snacks and for fuel; he catches fish for his meals; he records the tides and catalogs the statues and also helps the Other with his pet project: as Piranesi explains early in the book, “The Other believes that there is a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World” and he thinks that if they can only somehow find and unlock it, they’ll have “enormous powers” (8). Piranesi isn’t particularly interested in those theoretical powers, though, and it becomes clear pretty early on that there is more going on than the Other is telling Piranesi. The book, which unfolds as a series of entries from Piranesi’s journal, is the story of Piranesi’s days and also the story of the knowledge that he uncovers, quite separate from what the Other is trying to find.

I was pretty sure from the start that I was going to like this book a whole lot, and I was correct. I love that we’re reading Piranesi’s journal, and the way that things start slow and pick up in intensity as Piranesi learns new things about himself and the Other really works for me. And the writing is lush. I love passages like this:

It was the very depths of Winter. Snow was piled on the Steps of the Staircases. Every Statue in the Vestibules wore a cloak or hat or shroud of snow. Every Statue with an outstretched Arm (of which there are many) held an icicle like a dangling sword or else a fine line of icicles hung from the Arm as if it were sprouting feathers. (26)

Or this:

A lattice of wire was strung across the courtyard. Paper lanterns were hanging from the wires, spheres of vivid orange that blew and trembled in the snow and the thin wind; the sea-grey clouds raced across the sky and the orange lanterns shivered against them. (245)

There are so many lovely images and phrases throughout the book: “a Staircase that had become one vast bed of mussels”, or “a Wall ablaze with so much golden Light that the Statues appeared to be dissolving into it”, or someone who “wanted to go to university to study Death, Stars and Mathematics” (55, 56, 114).

Emma by Jane Austen

November 1st, 2020

I’m pretty sure I tried to read Emma in high school and didn’t get very far: I think I found it dull and put it down in a hurry. This second attempt at reading it was much more enjoyable, maybe in part because I saw Autumn de Wilde’s film adaptation of it earlier this year and felt better able to keep the characters straight because they were fairly fresh in my mind.

You probably already know the story: Emma is 21 and sheltered, and likes to think of herself as good at matchmaking. But as she tries to get people together, she oversteps in various ways, and learns the danger of trying to meddle with affairs of the heart, especially when you don’t even know your own desires.

What I like about Emma is how excellent the dialogue is, throughout, and how many very funny moments there are—especially around poor Miss Bates, someone’s spinster aunt who is forever rambling whenever she opens her mouth. Austen clearly had a keen eye for social interactions, and the way she captures moments between people—and the gaps between what people think and what they say/do—is great. Overall, though, Emma is not the kind of book I love best: I often read for setting and mood as much as for character and plot, and I’m a sucker for beautiful descriptive writing, which isn’t really Austen’s style.

Summer by Ali Smith

September 21st, 2020

“I wanted to send you an open horizon,” one character writes to another in this book (121). They’ve never met; they may never meet. The character doing the writing is a teenager who is 1) worried about climate change, 2) protective of and infuriated by her sometimes-difficult/provocative younger brother, and 3) dealing with life in England in 2020, with Brexit and COVID-19 and lockdown and remote schooling. The recipient of the letter is an immigrant, probably/possibly still in a detention center, though Sacha, the letter-writer, doesn’t know for sure. She writes, anyway: about the arrival of the swifts in England as the start of every summer, about how “if you were to open a swift, metaphorically of course, the rolled-up message they carry inside them is the unfurled word SUMMER” (119). Summer is that open horizon, at least in imagination or memory, though summer is also heat and stink; another character thinks about how “the whole season is like the smell round a garbage truck as it moves through the city and like you’re stuck on a bike behind it going way too slowly down a too-narrow street” (100). It’s “the briefest and slipperiest of the seasons,” the one that “won’t be held at all, except in bits, fragments, moments, flashes of memory of so-called perfect or imagined perfect summers, summers that never existed” (290).

In Summer, characters and themes from the prior three books in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet recur: there is a lot about family, and memory, and art; we get wordplay and arguments and news clips and politics. And connection, by chance or by choice. Late in the book, a different character talks about having “a chance to make the world bigger for someone else. Or smaller. That’s always the choice we’ve got” (364). So: summer, the sky wide, birds and stars overhead: possibility, even amidst everything.

This second installment in the “Thursday Next” series is as fun and funny as the first, and I was delighted to read about Thursday’s continued adventures. In this one, there’s a found Shakespeare play, a lost husband, and several near-death experiences, as well as time travel, travel into various books, and an all-too-brief reappearance of Spike, Swindon’s SpecOps agent dealing with vampires, werewolves, and the undead in general. And in this one, Thursday learns about the world of Jurisfiction: agents focused on protecting literary integrity, much like her own LiteraTec SpecOps division, but from within books rather than outside them. There’s a lot of great detail to do with that side of the plot: Miss Havisham and the Cheshire Cat make appearances, and footnotes figure as a means of communication; Thursday even has an appointment in a Kafka work. There’s great detail in general, actually: at one point Thursday’s at an art exhibition and sees “a model of a matchstick made entirely out of bits of the houses of Parliament” (236), which totally cracks me up. Also: I love Thursday’s whole family, especially her dad but also her uncle and brother and grandma—the latter of whom is 108 years old and at one point explains that she “got mixed up with some oddness” when she was young and “can’t shuffle off this mortal coil” until she’s “read the ten most boring classics” (134)—the only problem being that she can’t figure out which ones they are.

I really enjoyed this collection of eighteen stories about love/relationships, which my boyfriend checked out from the library back in February, and which I’d been meaning to read for months now, since the night when he was reading it and I somehow ended up grabbing the book and reading the story “Rufus” (which is narrated by a dog and is simultaneously funny and poignant) aloud to him. It took me a while to get back to the rest of the book, but I’m glad I finally did. The stories range in length and form (one is a rhyming poem that’s a valentine/anti-valentine; another is a list of bullet points), and some are naturalistic while others have fantastical elements. There’s one about a couple who are stressed about planning their wedding, in a world that is almost ours but definitely isn’t: there’s mention of a family dinner at an Olive Garden and a trip to a Rite Aid, but a lot of the plot revolves around how everyone expects their wedding to have more sacrifices to the Stone God than they were planning on. (That story, “A Most Blessed and Auspicious Occasion,” was one of my favorites.) There’s another that features a theme park called Presidentland and some poorly-thought-out genetic engineering, and another in which a door to a theorized “anti-universe” doesn’t have the results the narrator expects. I like these weirder stories a whole lot, and I like the writing style throughout the book, with sentences like this: “Dorothy quickly whittles the word “furious” into a verb and furiouses at me” (27).

Or something being described like this: “Kind of as a joke and kind of for real, the way eighteen-year-olds do everything” (90).

Or this: “Every conversation was punctuated by long awkward silences—but punctuated the Spanish way, so every sentence was followed by a long awkward silence and preceded by the same awkward silence upside down” (186).

Also: I totally love the last story, which is a play on a misspelled sign about a store being closed, and which describes a day as “a moment, a twenty-four-hour trick of the light” (242). And I totally totally love that the story called “Missed Connection – m4w” was originally posted on Craigslist.

I first read The Eyre Affair in 2014 and didn’t love it at the time (I felt like it was too plot-driven, too zany) but this time around it was exactly what I was in the mood for, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the series at some point sooner rather than later. As previously noted, this book is set in an alternate England where time travel is possible and literature is Extremely Important. Thursday Next is a special agent in the LiteraTec department, dealing with forgeries and manuscript thefts, and the theft of a manuscript that’s a very big deal is what sets the plot of the book in motion: Martin Chuzzlewit has been stolen. Thursday finds herself in pursuit of the suspect, Acheron Hades (a supervillain who faked his own death in years prior); her genius uncle Mycroft and his newest invention, the Prose Portal (which lets a person enter a work of literature) end up being part of the story as well. Hades’s idea is to use the Prose Portal for purposes of extortion: if he or his henchmen enter an original manuscript and harm one of the characters, all the copies of the book in the world will change as the original manuscript is altered. And he’s not just interested in Martin Chuzzlewit: his next heist is to steal the original manuscript of Jane Eyre, at which point things get really personal for Thursday, who has her own connections with that book and its characters.

I think part of why I enjoyed this book more this time around (aside from being pretty happy to read for plot and humor, at the moment) is that I watched the National Theatre production of Jane Eyre online in April, so the characters and world of that novel were fresh in my mind in a way that they definitely weren’t when I first read The Eyre Affair. Because of that, I think I was better able to enjoy the way that the events of this book shape the plot of Jane Eyre in Thursday’s world. And all the details I loved from my first read still made me grin: pet dodos created via cloning kits, kids trading bubblegum cards with Henry Fielding characters on them instead of baseball players, Baconians proselytizing door to door, a production of Richard III that’s acted entirely by audience members and features audience participation in the style of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and more.

For me, Normal People wasn’t immediately absorbing in the way that Conversations with Friends was—maybe partly because of the third-person narration of this book as opposed to the first-person narration of that one—but once I got into the story, I didn’t want to put it down, even as some of the narrative choices made me squirm. The chapters of Normal People alternate between focusing on Marianne and Connell, schoolmates from a small town in the west of Ireland who both go to Trinity in Dublin for university. Though their social lives in high school don’t overlap (by which I really mean: Connell has a social life; Marianne is an outcast) and they’re from different backgrounds (Connell is the kid of a single mother who cleans for a living; Marianne’s family has money—and Connell’s mom cleans their house) they end up becoming friends, and then end up having sex, though Connell makes a point of not wanting anyone at school to know. Their relationship ends up being an on-and-off thing that continues while they’re at Trinity; they keep miscommunicating and messing up, but they also keep finding themselves drawn to each other. The book captures the intensity of their connection really well, the way that their private interactions let them make a separate space for themselves, away from everyone else, but also how that separateness can cause problems. (Early in the book, there’s this: “Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him” – and I think the narrative explores the appeal of and the problems with that.) On the subject of narrative choices that made me squirm, I’ll just say that I’m tired of the novelistic trope of female submission being tied to a traumatic family life and/or deep insecurity. But I do really like Rooney’s prose style, in passages like this:

In the afternoon it started snowing, thick gray flakes that fluttered past the windows and melted on the gravel. Everything looked and felt sensuous: the stale smell of classrooms, the tinny intercom bell that sounded between lessons, the dark austere trees that stood like apparitions around the basketball court. The slow routine work of copying out notes in different-colored pens on fresh blue-and-white lined paper. (17)

Or this:

Dublin is extraordinarily beautiful to her in wet weather, the way gray stone darkens to black, and rain moves over the grass and whispers on slick roof tiles. Raincoats glistening in the undersea color of street lamps. Rain silver as loose change in the glare of traffic. (261)

The Starless Sea is a sprawling book full of stories, and it’s about stories too, about how stories work, though for a novel about how stories work I think I prefer Scarlett Thomas’s Our Tragic Universe. As a book in which to lose myself right now, though, The Starless Sea was a total delight. I like Erin Morgenstern’s writing for the lush descriptions, the startling and perfect images: this is definitely more of a setting-driven book than a plot-driven or a character-driven one, and I’m fine with that. I mean, there is also a lot of plot: Zachary, a grad student who studies video games, finds a mysterious book in his university library, and is shocked to find that he’s in the book, though it seems older than he is. The book leads him, eventually, to a vast subterranean library, which used to be full of visitors but is now nearly empty. Figuring out why the library is the way it is leads him to other stories, which interconnect in various ways. There are quest elements and fairy tale elements and video game elements, and there’s danger and romance and humor, but I was really there for things like: a hallway in which doorknobs hang on ribbons from the ceiling; a dumbwaiter that can bring you any kind of food or drink you ask for; a candy that is also somehow a story—that makes you taste/experience a story in some weird synesthetic way; a lavish party in another time in an ornately-decorated ballroom; a whispering hallway that tells stories; a boat that is itself partly made of stories. And oh, sentences like this: “A dense forest of cherry trees in full bloom fills the cavern, all the way up to the edge of the river. Twisting tree roots disappear below the surface of the honey while stray blossoms fall and float downstream” (366).