A Most Intriguing Woman: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

breakfast-at-tiffanysI am still not sure what to think of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I read it in a single day, more like two but the bulk of it on a single bus trip, and was left a little ambivalent. On the one hand, I really liked the narrative structure of the novella: it is told by an unnamed narrator who lives in the same building as Holly Golightly, the ambiguous female who yearns to eat breakfast at Tiffany’s (a New York diamond store). The narrator has a changing relationship to Holly and struggles to come to grips with her interruption of his life. Most of the novella is a recollection of his relationship to her framed by his meeting with Joe Bell, a bartender whom both the narrator and Tiffany knew quite well. Bell shows the narrator a photo of an African sculptor posing with what is clearly a sculpture of Holly and gives a similarly strange tale of how she came through this area. On the other hand, I did not like the way that Holly becomes a kind of sexual pariah in the novel. Capote called her an American geisha, but the male characters all treat her as some kind of property whom they wish to own.

The fact hat Holly cannot be owned is what drives the plot of the novel as she seems to get herself into one troubling position after another. The narrator follows her various changes of men with some jealousy as he hopes to get her for himself. Instead, he becomes a kind of brotherly figure for her (she even calls him Fred at one point after her own brother), listening to her problems, helping her when needed, and even offering her an escape from a drunken and angry man. As Capote begins to reveal more of Holly’s back story, she becomes a paradox of a person: a kind of self-made geisha from a rural southern background that becomes the black sheep of New York society’s gossip column. She then disappears from America for good after a naïve relationship with a Mafia boss attracts police attention.

What I think Capote wants readers to sense is the actual absence of Holly herself from the narrative. The character she performs is certainly there, but she herself seems absent in some way. At the very beginning of the narrative she is literally absent, but throughout the rest of the novella she felt missing to me as well. This is, perhaps, Capote’s point: she has been driven into the position of being a bird that various wealthy men would like to trap in a cage (an image that haunts the text). The fact that she doesn’t is, perhaps, meant to be seen as a triumph of the female protagonist. However, I felt like the fact that she had to use sex to get anywhere dislocates any kind of emancipatory power the  novella might have. For in doing so, Holly seems to reinforce the sense that women are simply sexual objects to be possessed, rather than showing women as full and complete human beings. Perhaps, this is an anachronistic criticism, but I just had the sense that most feminist readers would not be happy with the book.

I would recommend the novella for fans of the movie, but I am not sure who else would enjoy it given my ambivalent reaction.

Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 1958. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.

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Interested In Its Own Mythology: Foundation

untitledIsaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of the earliest science fiction works of the contemporary era, being published in 1951. Asimov published four the five sections of the book as short stories in the early 1940s before tying them together and releasing them as a novel. The novel would become the centerpiece of his Foundation series, an alternative galaxy where a galaxy wide Empire crumbles into dust. I quite enjoyed Foundation and its premise, easily reading the five sections in only a few days. However, I think that as a whole, the book does not quite hold together.

This is because, as I said above, the sections were each published as short stories. Each is a world unto itself with some connection between them, but Foundation does not build a coherent, linked narrative across stories. What is does build is an epochal history of what happens in the galaxy after the Empire falls. To be sure, the stories all tell individual pieces of this grand narrative, but they don’t quite amount to an engaging novel-length narrative like some of the other science fiction works I have read this year (say Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). Asimov certainly is not the first writer to produce a less-than-complete novel from a set of short stories. Even today, I often feel like some novels are really just elongated short stories that authors have been forced to expand by an eager publisher (Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil suffers from this among other things).

What Foundation does have going for it is its epochal scope. It refuses to limit itself to a small story and instead aims at a grand narrative of the galaxy. This has its own attractions and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it also means that the novel seems more invested and involved in its own mythology than in telling a story. This aspect of science fiction seems particularly noxious to readers who simply cannot buy into science fiction’s main premises. And to a certain extent, I can understand why. A book like Foundation simply uses a rotating cast of characters to tell a much bigger story, a story that seems to have little to do with our own world. Foundation does seem to be a critique of authoritarian political power, but that kind of reading lessens the total craftsmanship of the book itself. Instead, it is intent on painting its own grand canvas, and if you are not on board, then you will not enjoy it.

I strongly recommend Foundation for fans of science fiction. This is a seminal work in contemporary science fiction and a highly enjoyable read.

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. 1951. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. Print.

Taking Stories Where Stories Have Not Gone: Pastoralia

PastoraliaMy friend had really hyped up George Saunders and his work, so I was excited to pick up Pastoralia. I was also a little sad because this is the last collection of short stories that I will read this year. There is something about the shortness and conciseness of this narrative form that I really like. I guess I only have a month and week or two before I can read them again anyways. Pastoralia was something completely unexpected and I guess I am having an ambivalent reaction to it. I think Saunders is very clearly performing satire and critique on a number of levels, but after reading Munro I felt like the stories in Pastoralia were not quite as satisfying. Perhaps this comes down to character as Saunders is much more interested in satirizing contemporary North American culture than writing genuine characters with problems, emotions, depth and complexity.  Perhaps I am being too sweeping in this judgment because it is not as thought there are no memorable characters in Pastoralia (Morse in “The Falls” and Mickey the barber in “The Barber’s Unhappiness” are complex and enjoyable characters) or that there is no satire in Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades (her whole collection is quite critical of the small-mindedness of rural Ontario).

At the same time, Saunders does show some intriguing story-telling abilities. In the title story, we are introduced to a strange amusement park where visitors can see humans from different time periods living/acting out those lives. The narrator lives and works in a pre-historic cave with a less-than-willing co-worker named Janet. The whole story mocks our desire for “authentic” reproductions of old ways of life, but also corporate culture in general. It works amazingly well because on the surface it seems to have no relation to reality but the more you dig into it, the more you see it in the world we live in. Similarly, “Sea Oak” presents a dystopian world where the narrator works at a male strip joint/restaurant. His sister and cousin live at home with their two children while their spinster aunt slaves away at a drugstore to keep the roof over their heads. However, the aunt soon dies but comes back as a re-animated corpse to help them escape poverty. With this story, Saunders is quite critical of the work world, in a very funny way, and yet I cannot help but feel like the world he paints is not too far off from the low-income areas of many cities. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the narrative straddles the line between the fantastical and the real, constantly asking readers to question our own reality.

In writing this, I realize that what Saunders is doing is very subtle and extremely effective. He is speaking to our world in the way he knows best: by creating a magical place that seems like unreality but is in fact far too close to reality. I can see why he has won many awards – including a MacArthur “genius” grant – but I am still not sure where I stand in relation to his work. This is more a question of taste, but at the least I can say that Saunders is a prophet preaching his message to a world that desperately needs to slow down and think twice about the place we find ourselves in.

I would recommend Pastoralia to fans of Vonnegut and other satirists.

Saunders, George. Pastoralia. New York: Penguin Group, 2000. Print.

A Difficult Read: The Conservationist

downloadNadine Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist may have won the Booker Prize, but that does not make it an easy read. In fact, I get the sense that it won the award precisely because it is a difficult book. Difficult from both a methodological standpoint and from its themes and motifs. The novel centres on Mehring, a rich South African industrialist, who has purchased a farm out in the country to provide himself a place to seduce his mistress. However, he quickly becomes attached to the place and its beauty and spends more and more time here. The farm is operated by blacks and is near a black settlement, or more properly what the novel calls a “location,” and there is a palpable tension throughout that is bred by apartheid. As Mehring reflects on his life, it becomes more and more clear that his personal life is in shambles, he deludes himself about the very questionable politics of South Africa under apartheid, and remains willfully ignorant of the general humanity of anyone other than himself. Published 20 years before apartheid officially ended, Gordimer’s novel very clearly intends to unsettle any convenient or self-serving notions about justice in South Africa.

From a narrative standpoint, the novel is also quite difficult because Gordimer uses a roving narration that is by turns third-person limited (rotating between a few different characters) and first person (mostly of Mehring’s thoughts). The narrative almost moves fluidly between the present in which Mehring visits his farm and his past where his relationships to his wife, his mistress, his potentially gay son, and the farm’s workers, are explored. It is almost like stream-of-consciousness writing, but not quite that intense. What I think this roving point of view does is continually show us how blind Mehring is not only to his own privileged position as a wealthy white male South African, but it also shows us how others alternatively buy into his self-image and reject it. I’m thinking particularly of his relationship with Jacobus, his black overseer who runs the farm. On the one hand, Jacobus admires Mehring for his Mercedes, his actions, and his lifestyle but, on the other hand, there is also a sense that Jacobus knows Mehring does not possess the land. Mehring’s name may be on the deed, but he has very little claim to the land itself unlike Jacobus and his companions who work in it everyday. When there is a catastrophic flood, Jacobus is unable to get a hold of Mehring and the farm begins to shift subtly as the blacks believe they are on their own again. Of course, Mehring comes back when the roads are fixed, but there is a subtle shift in the relationship as both Jacobus and his fellow workers seem to see through Mehring.

One thing that really intrigued me about the novel was the relationship to land in it. Mehring delights in losing himself in his third pasture, laying amidst the grasses in different seasons. But this seems like a false calm because buried nearby is an anonymous black corpse that mysteriously turned up one day. The landscape seems to allow Mehring to escape the turbulent politics of apartheid, but not quite either as the flood disrupts his sense of pastoral innocence, revealing the partially-decomposed corpse again. This also makes me wonder who the conservationist of the title is: is it Mehring who wants to preserve a nostalgic and romanticized farm? Or is it the blacks who work in the land and can lay claim on it? Is it an ironic sense of conservation whereby Mehring is trying to keep alive a flawed and dying system of justice? I have no answers to these questions, but I find them intriguing nonetheless.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in South Africa, but be forewarned that it is a difficult read.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Conservationist. London: Penguin Books, 1974. Print.

Murder in Rural Quebec (And a Dollop of Nostalgia): A Fatal Grace

352921This is the last of the detective/crime fiction books that I will be reading this year. So I was a little disappointed that Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace was not as good as I hoped. I am not entirely sure why I did not enjoy it, but I’ll try and explain it below. The novel, the second in Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, takes place in a small rural village south of Montreal. A woman whom nobody liked, even her husband and daughter, is murdered in what seems like an impossible way. Gamache is called to the scene and is forced to fight the cold of a Quebec winter, a tight-knit community that is hiding some big secrets, and some political maneuvering in his department.

This last point leads into one of my major problems with the book. Penny keeps dropping hints about unrest in the Sûreté du Québec, the provincial police force. I have a strong feeling that most of these would be explained by reading Penny`s first book, Still Life. However, this annoyed me because I feel like books in a crime fiction series should be able to stand on their own. And, to be clear, A Fatal Grace makes sense and works on almost every level without any prior knowledge of the previous book. However, I found the constant hints and name-drops became annoying, particularly near the end of the novel where nothing really comes of it (except for a big revelation about one officer`s loyalties which I won`t spoil for you).

I think my second problem with the novel is that I just could not get into the setting and tone. There is a fair amount of nostalgia for a more idyllic rural life in this novel. Three Pines, the small village, could be a town in a snow globe. Its inhabitants all live in close harmony and there is plenty of Christmas cheer and community throughout. Of course, CC de Poitiers, the murder victim, stands outside the community and lives in a large Victorian estate looming over the village (okay I just have to say that this was a poor decision. Do we really have to rehash Gothic cliches?). Gamache, the central character of the series, is a likeable, noble-hearted investigator who is content with his position and seems to have no faults of any kind (except for being a genuinely good person). Now I’m not saying he has to be a hard-boiled detective with a crippling vice or a mean streak or a genuine case of misanthropy. But he comes across as too good to be true. I kept thinking he should just move to Three Pines and he would fit right in (he even fantasizes about this at one point).

Finally, I just was not on board with the little community of Three Pines. There is way too much nostalgia for a more relaxed pace of life and a tight-knit community where people don’t knock on doors. The list of characters includes a gay couple who own and operate a Bed and Breakfast, a painter couple, a Governor-General’s Award winning poet, and three elderly women who live in close harmony. Where are the people who make things run here? Is everyone in the village just affluent bourgeois? In a way, this is what makes A Fatal Grace appealing and is probably part of the book’s success. I just couldn’t get into it.

So, I would possibly recommend this book for hardcore detective fiction fans. But others should look elsewhere.

Penny, Louise. A Fatal Grace. New York: Minotaur Books, 2006. Print.

Returning to a Master: Dance of the Happy Shades

dance-of-the-happy-shadesIt has been too long since I’ve read Alice Munro’s work. I corrected that with her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades. It shows all the hallmarks of her long, illustrious, and now Nobel prize winning career: southern Ontario, rural life, women’s concerns, stories of children, and, of course, a fox farmer. Okay, the last one might not actually be a hallmark of her career, but I feel like she might be the only writer to ever write about fox farming (and she does a really good job of it in “Boys and Girls”). I was a little hesitant given that some writers’ first books are less than stellar, but Munro’s hardly skips a beat. I think there are a few less-accomplished stories here, but “Boys and Girls,” “Walker Brothers Cowboy,” “The Peace of Utrecht,” and “Dance of the Happy Shades” are well worth the cost of admission.

I first read “Boys and Girls” while working as a teaching assistant four years ago. I guess at the time I did not think too much of it (it could also be I read too many poor essays on it), but coming back to it now, I kept wondering whether I was blind. Munro is such a careful writer, and her sentences are so finely tuned that they resonate like a finely plucked harp string. I feel like in this collection, Munro as a young writer, was obsessed with a carefully positioned moment, almost always at the end of the story, where she pulls the whole narrative together and ties it off with a poetic bow. I loved these moments and I’ll quote one below. I worry that this won’t make sense without everything that comes before it:

“So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine” (18).

That is one sentence folks, the second last paragraph of “Walker Brothers Cowboy.” Even typing it, I cannot quite wrap my head around how well Munro paints the paradox of a parent to a child: you know them intimately and yet you also don’t know them at all because of the years they lived before and away from you. I am willing to bet that each story has a moment like this. As a young writer, this might be the one place where you could catch Munro following a script in her stories. And yet they work so well! This is a great collection and well worth digging up from your local book store.

I would highly recommend this book to all fans of short fiction.

Munro, Alice. Dance of the Happy Shades. 1968. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1997. Print.

*Again, the cover image is not the one from the edition I used, but it was so good I couldn’t not use it.

Writing for Our Time: Grass, Sky, Song

downloadI have read Trevor Herriot’s two previous books, River in a Dry Land and Jacob’s Wound, and really enjoyed both of them. So I had high expectations for his latest release Grass, Sky, Song. Needless to say, I was not disappointed. In this book, somewhat of a departure from the previous two, Herriot takes a much more political stance in his critique of agribusiness, consumer practices, and political policy, all of which are causing a massive decline in grassland birds on the prairies. Grass, Sky, Song is also a more slim volume than his previous two, making it a shorter read. It seems like he had an editor or reader who helped him to pare down his writing. Where in Jacob’s Wound, Herriot takes his time exploring ideas, Grass, Sky, Song is much more concise. That’s not to say that this book is less readable.

One of the strengths of this book is that it uses a personal narrative – Herriot’s purchase with friends of a property on Cherry Lake – to anchor his exploration of why grassland birds have been declining in the last 40 years. In the process of explaining his plans for the property, he also discusses his relationships with various Saskatchewan naturalists and the development of his wife`s breast cancer. Herriot is a very personal writer, seemingly giving readers full access to his life and thoughts. It is one of the things that I like most about him because it turns what could dry scientific data into more meaningful anecdotes, stories, and images. I should also admit that I am anticipating a move to Saskatchewan next summer, so Herriots material was, perhaps, more compelling for me.

I also think that another strength of Grass,Sky, Song is that Herriot refuses to take a one-sided or simplistic view of the problems causing the decline of grassland birds. He points out that science struggles to provide answers when problems are complex, yet he also refuses to believe that no one is to blame. He goes further and suggests that all of us are to blame, in part because we as consumers demand cheap food and are too lazy to change our consumption habits to encourage more sustainable and environmentally friendly modes of agriculture. He does not free farmers or the government from blame either, but he is careful and measured in his suggestions for how we can change current systems.

Even though he seems justified in becoming pessimistic, Herriot refuses this position. Instead, he draws on the optimism of a mentor of his, Stuart Houston, to remain hopeful of a better future for the Prairies. And this might be the most valuable part of his book. It is too easy to become depressed, apathetic, or burned out by the litany of environmental damage currently happening. We need to remain hopeful or environmental damage will continue unabated until we find ourselves in a position similar to the inhabitants of Easter Island. Although theories vary on their demise, it seems likely that their desire to cut down trees led them to clear cut the entire island, permanently changing the ecosystem and leaving the islanders with no way off the island or any way to survive. We need to do everything we can to avoid finding ourselves in this position.

I highly recommend Grass, Sky, Song for anyone interested in the Prairies and anyone looking for one of Canada’s most engaging and readable naturalists.

Herriot, Trevor. Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.