Saturday, January 25, 2014
The story is narrated by young Bethea Mayfield (completely fictional), the daughter of one of the original English colonizers of Martha's Vineyard in the 1600s, and it is very loosely based on a real Wampanoag man who was the first native to graduate from Harvard College. Bethea and Caleb meet clandestinely as children and become friends, but events conspire to bring Caleb into the Christian mission as a student of Bethea's father. The remarkable young scholar is trained to join the first class of natives at Harvard, a project of benefactors still living in England for the most part. That is the backbone of the story, which beautifully details the yearnings of a gifted young woman who craves learning for herself and the complications of a friendship between two people divided by their cultures.
This novel is right in my wheelhouse -- well-written historical fiction set in early colonial America. It is one of those novels that I was completely enamored by until the very end, when the painstakingly detailed journey of the characters flashes suddenly forward to their various ends. It was just a weird pacing for me, especially after having come to sympathize so much with the main characters. Their stories were dispatched, I thought, with a rather cold brevity. Perhaps I'm nitpicking here, because there is so much to like. For me, a so-so book with a flat ending is all of a piece and soon forgotten; however, the better the novel is in the beginning and middle parts, the more disappointing it is when the ending goes splat.
This happens all the time (perhaps more frequently) in other mediums. Television is rife with them: Lost. Need I say more? Ditto, Twin Peaks. I can't count Deadwood, because they didn't get a chance to wrap it up before cancellation (for shame, HBO!). On the other hand, I thought Breaking Bad's finale was brilliant and so was MASH's. Getting the ending right is what distinguishes a classic from mere entertainment.
Have you had this experience with books -- when you liked everything about it except the end? I felt the same disappointment in Donna Tartt's otherwise terrifically creepy The Little Friend. I literally couldn't put it down; I read it until my head hurt. Perhaps nothing could sustain my level of intrigue at the finish. I'm not even sure what it was about it that made me feel let down. On the contrary, endings that I loved were Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and Meyer's The Son. What about you? I'd like to know which books jump out at you for having either very satisfying or bad ends.
Wednesday, January 01, 2014
Maybe my family's reading mania was due to growing up in a rural area where opportunities for cheap entertainment weren't that numerous. Our tastes were catholic -- mouse-nibbled copies of Shakespeare lay cheek by jowl with Harlequin romances and Hardy Boys mysteries. We had those old books of fairy tales -- the most dark and twisted kind with terrifying illustrations. My early grounding in stories of witches tossing little kids into the fire and ogres grinding up the bones of other unfortunates prepared me for the grown-up horrors of George Orwell and Cormac McCarthy.
The foregoing is a long-winded explanation of what feels like an extremely old-fashioned thing to do: a retrospective of books read in the previous year. It's not exhaustive, but I'll mention some of the notable ones, which I would recommend to others.
While immersed in 19th century literature, I read the biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne by James Mellow and re-read Moby Dick. A novel that neatly fell into the midst of these interests was Joyce Carol Oates' The Accursed. A sprawling, Hawthorne-haunted tale of ghosts and demons in turn of the century New Jersey, Oates packed in maybe one too many plot threads, but overall the story was a fascinating mix of purely fictional and historic characters crossing paths during Woodrow Wilson's tenure as president of Princeton. The spine of the novel concerns an old New England family, the Slades, and the curse that afflicts them. Spooky weddings, murders, vampires, and all manner of supernatural disasters lie in wait for the unhappy Slades. If you can manage the layered plots (some more successful than others), you'll encounter not only Wilson, but Upton Sinclair, Mark Twain, Jack London, and Grover Cleveland.
Keeping with my theme of classic American literature, I read Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood and then got caught up in the collection of her letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald, Habit of Being. The letters are a revelation, if you are an O'Connor fan. The sharp-edged humor is expected, but the thoughtful explanation of her Catholic faith and stoic attitude to her declining health are truly engaging. It is also a wonderful testament to the craft of writing, which she never tried to disguise as anything other than a discipline that required sustained work and attention, and the confidence to insist on her own unique vision. She greatly valued the input of trusted editors, but stood firm when it came down to preserving the integrity of her original ideas. Her letters are instructive and inspirational for any would-be writer.
And in the dwindling days of the year, I returned to one of my favorite settings in American lit, the Old West. Going old school, I read Elmore Leonard's Hombre, the basis for the movie with Paul Newman. It's a classic Western, featuring Leonard's signature stripped-down prose and heroes who don't quite fit the standard heroic mode. Oh, just read it; it only takes a few hours!
My very last entry for the year took a bit longer, but is a great American novel. Thomas Berger's Little Big Man deserves a wider readership than it is probably getting these days. I suspect that it has been pegged as merely "Western" genre fiction, but it is far more than that. Narrated by it's 111-year-old narrator, it is the picaresque adventures of Jack Crabbe, kidnapped by the Cheyenne at age 10, he claims to be the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn, and in between, meets iconic Western figures -- Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickock, Wyatt Earp, and Custer himself. It is immediately engaging, humorous, moving and will make you think deeply about America's history with Native Americans. Published in 1964, it is the basis for the movie with Dustin Hoffman. It was especially interesting to me, having read this year's acclaimed novel, The Son, by Philipp Meyer. The protagonist's experience as a young boy, kidnapped by the Comanche in 1846, closely resembles that of old Jack Crabbe, but the two novels are as different as night and day in general tone and narrative style.
These are the books that most affected me in 2013, and I haven't quite decided how to begin 2014. I'm eager to get to Donna Tartt's Goldfinch, but there are always tremendous back logs of books that I've neglected.
What books do you have in mind for the new year? Tackling the classics or catching up with what's new?