A fairly random collection of modern/recently published literature that I have read in the past year, May to November 2013;
Beautiful Ruins, despite being touted as “superb” is underwhelming. The primary issue here is one of tone- the novel has two separate narratives going on at the same time and flips between them. This device sometimes works well, but unfortunately not here. There is plot A- the superior one that is set in Italy in the 1960′s and includes a struggling actress and a charming hotel owner, Pasqual. Plot B is set in contemporary Hollywood and pertains to some shallow and uninteresting characters with the barest skeleton of a “mystery” to keep the action moving. These two plots are so different in characterization and tone that they make each switch between them jarring. I kept wishing that the novel was just about Dee and Pasqual in the 60′s. I think that the author may have felt the same- plot A feels natural and well-crafted, as if it was written independently, and then plot B was just slapped together at the last minute to make the book more marketable.
I did not think I would like Where’d You Go Bernadette? as much as I did, as I was skeptical of the style the book was written in- the narrative is told through a series of emails, memos, news articles, and recalled conversations- but it works very well. The title character, Bernadette, has disappeared and her daughter, Bee, is trying to piece together where she has gone, using any document she can get her hands on to search for clues, and making the style that the book is written in actually make sense and not just some cheap plot device set up in order to seem “edgy”. I think that the primary reason that this book is so good is that it feels much more natural than most other books written in the last year- this is entirely due to the characters. Bernadette is interesting because she is flawed, fascinating, an architectural genius who became a recluse, a struggling mother adored by her daughter. Bee is also a fully realized and delightful character, despite being a child (a rare thing, since most child characters are either utterly obnoxious, or speak and think in an obviously un-child-like manner to serve as foils for adult characters). The book kept me engaged until the end, wanting to know more about Bee, Bernadette, and just where she had disappeared to and why. It makes the reader think, as Bernadette does; “How did I get here, in this moment, and how have I become what I am? Can I change any of this?”.
A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize- and with good reason. The surface plot is already interesting and well-written enough to deserve notice. Ruth, living on a remote island with a severe case of writers block finds a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on the beach. The lunchbox is part of the flotsam that washed away with the 2011 tsunami and contains the diary of a Japanese teenager, Naoko. Naoko is lonely and isolated, severely bullied by classmates and ignored by parents preoccupied by her fathers recent unemployment. She decides to commit suicide, but first wants to write the history of her great-grandmother, a remarkable and innovative woman who became a Buddhist nun. She writes in a style that addresses the reader directly- in this case her lone reader is Ruth, who becomes obsessed with Naoko’s story. Eventually these two threads of story begin to wind around one another, and it becomes a bit metaphysical. Throw in some magical realism, Buddhist philosophy, and scientific musings, and you have a fully developed and engaging story. No matter what will happen and what has happened we are beings existing in a moment of time.
It is best to steer clear of My Education if you don’t enjoy explicit content (I mean sex, and I mean bunches of it). Its pretty saucy, but this book is not about the sex, per se. Regina is a new grad student that knows she is smart and thinks she is a mature, complete adult. She hears rumors of the sexual exploits of a certain professor and, instead of sensibly staying away, decides to become his TA out of a morbid curiosity and to test her own maturity and prowess. This leads her into an affair with him. Then with his wife. Regina is passionate, selfish, inexperienced, and behaves quite childishly at times. Sometimes she and her lovers are downright unlikeable. But that is ok- because this is a story about what we do when we are young, ignorant, and selfish, and how we have to deal with these actions later. Who has not loved as deeply, or thought that they did, when they didn’t know themselves?