Recent Reading: In Brief

OK, I got the review in to those taskmasters at OLM and now I can risk doing a little fresh blogging–though at this point I’m just going to play catch-up. I feel as if I’m in another of those reading slumps, which inevitably lead to blogging slumps unless I’m very disciplined: it’s not much fun to write up books you don’t like, or think are OK, and it’s even harder to face giving the full treatment to a book that has been very widely acclaimed that you are luke-warm about. The latter, in this particular case, is Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, and though I concede that the prose is beautiful and the consciousness of the narrator beautifully rendered, there seemed to be a mushiness at its intellectual centre that I couldn’t blame on John Ames. I had a sneaking suspicion, as I read through its limpid sentences and its celebratory passages about life, interspersed with evasive passages about mysteries and the dissatisfactions of demands for proof, that it was highly acclaimed precisely because of those feel-good evasions so elegantly packaged. It’s all very affirmative and small-town nice. I know I’m not doing the novel justice: this isn’t all it has to offer. Also, I know I am influenced by interviews I’ve read and seen with Robinson, which make it impossible for me to hear any delicate irony separating her nice old man’s perspective from her own. Despite some of the blurbs insisting it is not just a book for believers, I think it is, though for the currently trendy New-Agey ones whose religion is not defined by doctrine or scripture but by personal experiences and vague spiritual ideas about God. I did relish many individual lines (for instance, “Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it”).

I finished Sue Grafton’s ‘U’ is for Undertow, which was OK except for the whole TMI thing I wrote about before. I’ve been trying to read The Girl who Played with Fire but I’m completely stalled in it. Do you think all the millions of people who are buying these are actually reading them all the way through? Maybe they skip along to find out what happened and don’t trouble themselves too much about how plodding the prose and plotting are. But I think my copy will go sit on the shelf now. I’d rather read the new Elizabeth George mystery, which I just got from the library–not because I really want to know about the case but because I want to catch up with Inspector Lynley and the gang. I did enjoy the first story in The Penguin Book of Crime Stories Volume II, ed. Peter Robinson, which is Reginald Hill’s “The Dog Game.”

As I only have This Body of Death from the library for another week, I’ll finish that up next. Then I think I’ll see how far I can get in Scott’s The Antiquary, which I’ve pledged to read as part of the Scottish Literature Challenge sponsored by Wuthering Expectations. And that reminds me: something else I’ve been reading recently, with pleasure and interest, are the posts at WE about my anthology The Victorian Art of Fiction. As I’d hoped and expected (unwutheringly), fresh eyes see things differently, and the posts and comments have been excellent so far.

5 Comments to Recent Reading: In Brief

  1. May 28, 2010 at 2:40 am | Permalink

    I’ve tried reading that first Stieg Larsson book–since it’s a trilogy now, and I’ve heard many good things about it, I figured I’d buy the entire set.

    Thank goodness I took a peek at a friend’s copy. I had expected to be drawn from the first page, but it’s been difficult going.

  2. May 28, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rohan, I was wondering if you’d ever read Gilead. Like you, I’m an atheist (in the technical sense, that there are no good arguments for god’s existence) and regard Gilead as one of my all-time favorite novels. However, when Robinson “argues” about philosophy of mind and consciousness, as she’s been doing lately at seminars and in her most recent book, it causes me deep, abiding pain in an undisclosed location. She literally has no clue what she’s saying. She’s grappling w/ issues as if Kant had never existed, etc. Best, Kevin

  3. May 28, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been pleased by the comments, too. Really justifies the whole enterprise, sometimes.

    You’re confirming every dark suspicion I had about Larsson. But I do need to try one of those Elizabeth George novels. Start at the beginning?

  4. May 28, 2010 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    there seemed to be a mushiness at its intellectual centre that I couldn’t blame on John Ames. I had a sneaking suspicion, as I read through its limpid sentences and its celebratory passages about life, interspersed with evasive passages about mysteries and the dissatisfactions of demands for proof, that it was highly acclaimed precisely because of those feel-good evasions so elegantly packaged. It’s all very affirmative and small-town nice.

    You have nailed exactly why I did not like Gilead much when I read it (soon after it came out). I’ve seen some beautiful passages from Housekeeping blogged, and have been wanting to read it, but when I started seeing some of what Kevin mentions (specifically this piece from Commonweal)…well, I too felt deep, abiding pain…in the general vicinity of my brain, I think. So for now I think I will continue steering clear of Robinson.

  5. May 28, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I just can’t get with the whole Larsson phenomenon.

    AR, I do like Elizabeth George, with just one exception. I particularly like Barbara Havers as a character. Because George does spend a lot of time developing the histories and relationships of her central characters, it’s probably best to do the series in order.

    Kevin, I can understand why Gilead would be a favorite novel; I read your post on it, too, and agree about Ames’s character. If I could (and maybe if Nicole could) set aside the real author and just focus on the book, then the qualities I called “mushiness” would belong more specifically to Ames and perhaps I wouldn’t mind that this aspect of his consciousness is not being presented ironically but sympathetically–though it would still seem mushy to me. Still, I had to appreciate a novelist who could win readers over while still citing Feuerbach repeatedly.

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