November 2, 2011

October Reading Recap

I did a lot of reading last month, getting through most of my planned list and even adding an extra book.

LONG DRIVE HOME by Will Allison - This novel starts with a fatal car accident, and the situation just gets worse from there. At the beginning of the book, the narrator is driving his daughter home from school when a chain of incidents leads to an accident in which a stranger dies. The accident is a fluke, but the narrator isn't entirely without fault, and in his attempt to cover up the truth, his life spins out of control. I inhaled this story in about twenty-four hours and then wondered why I've read so many depressing books lately. The writing is powerful and heart-breaking. Recommended if you're up for a harrowing read.

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I keep feeling uncultured because there are so many classics I've never read. Then when I do read a classic, I feel uncultured because I usually don't like it very much. So although it may not reflect well on my tastes, I must confess that I wasn't a big fan of JANE EYRE.

I did enjoy some aspects of the novel: Jane is an interesting character and narrator. I was fascinated to learn about life in mid-1800s England, particularly the strong class distinctions and very different etiquette (it apparently wasn't rude to openly comment on someone's unattractiveness). The middle section of the book has a quite engaging story.

Unfortunately, the overall pacing left me and my modern expectations bored and impatient. For example, if I were editing this book, I'd cut out Jane's entire childhood (one-fifth of the book) and start the story with her arrival at Thornfield. I'd explain to Charlotte Brontë that all that backstory about Jane's abused childhood and education is great for her to know as the author, and that she could sprinkle references to it throughout the novel, but that the reader doesn't need to see it all unfold on the page since the incidents have little specific relevance to the plot and only offer some insights into Jane's character.

Like I said, my expectations are modern ones. JANE EYRE will still be revered as a classic long after my work has been forgotten, even if I don't understand why. I'm interested in understanding, though, so I still hope to discuss the book with some more enthusiastic readers and learn what I'm overlooking.

THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde - After I finished JANE EYRE, I realized that it's featured in this first book about literary detective Thursday Next, so this was a perfect time to check out Fforde's series, which I've heard a lot of good things about. What I knew was that this is a humorous mystery series set in an alternate world where books are both more important to society and less separated from reality than in our world.

I know I've already alienated a bunch of readers with my disrespectful remarks about JANE EYRE, and now, alas, I must provoke the disappointment of some more: I wasn't impressed by THE EYRE AFFAIR. The book wasn't as funny or clever as I'd been led to expect, but more than that, I found it unfocused and uneven. There were intriguing concepts, such as the whole mechanism behind the villain's evil plot, and some great scenes, like the brilliant Rocky Horror Picture Show-style performance of Richard III. But the story took too long to get to the point, and it went off into many unrelated tangents that irritated me.

Here again, I'd like to hear from fans who can tell me what I'm missing. This is the first book in a long series -- maybe they get better, or I'd appreciate this book more in the context of the whole?

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I didn't make much progress this month because I was busy with the other books.

ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead - I've read about a quarter of the book so far, and I'm enjoying it. This is a zombie novel, but it's the farthest possible book from the other zombie novels I read this year, the Newsflesh trilogy by Mira Grant, which I've praised and ranted about for being an exciting story poorly told. ZONE ONE, on the other hand, is unequivocally a work of literary fiction, with the requisite long, carefully crafted paragraphs and an endlessly musing protagonist. Those are the facts about the style, and maybe it doesn't make this book sound very compelling, but I assure you that I'm fascinated by the main character and his post-apocalyptic world, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Beyond the Margins, Stuart Horwitz tackles the difficult problem of story endings in How Not To End Things: "For those of us who have struggled to end a piece of writing, we know that there are a series of pitfalls that the ending can fall into."


laurenhat said...

I read THE EYRE AFFAIR without having read JANE EYRE, and didn't think much of it. At the time, I wondered if I was missing a lot from the original classic that would have made it much funnier and more enjoyable. Sounds like that's probably not the case.

Lisa Eckstein said...

I thought the JANE EYRE storyline was the best part of THE EYRE AFFAIR and that the whole book would have been better with fewer other subplots. I don't imagine I would have appreciated it much at all if I hadn't read the original. So yeah, you probably were missing a lot, but you still might not have cared for the book.

Karen said...

Jasper Fforde's stories always have these really fun premises yet generally turn out to be not that fun. I think I read two Thursday Next books and a Nursery Crimes (which I think I liked better than Thursday Next, but not enough to remember what it was about) before I gave up.

Although I don't know why I picked it up in the first place, I was very surprised to discover that I really liked Shades of Grey. It doesn't have the fun premise... Read the summary on the Amazon page -- it's completely unintelligible. But it turned out to be fun after all and kind of made sense, though there was a whole lot left unexplained. I believe it's supposed to be the first book of a series and I'm really tired of waiting for the next one. It's been YEARS.

I have the modern expectations problem too. Like with Lord of the Rings. He stays with one set of characters for a third of the book, then goes to another set of characters for the next third, going back in time to do it. Drove me insane. I've never been able to finish that series.

Lisa Eckstein said...

I can see the germ of a good premise in SHADES OF GREY, but like it you said, it's a little hard to follow from the summary. Maybe I'll check that out, or maybe I'll wait until the series continues. I think I am always particularly hard on a book when the premise sounds great but doesn't deliver.

I've heard enough about LotR to recognize that I wouldn't enjoy reading the books. The movies were the right way for me to consume that story.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't too impressed with Jane Eyre either. I kept thinking that I was supposed to like it, but, well, no. It's just such a weird book to me, weird structurally and all that. And I honestly did not get the romance.

I did enjoy the most recent movie adaptation. It was spooky and cool. Though it's was still a very weird story to me. So weird.

Lisa Eckstein said...

I have the recent JANE EYRE out from Netflix and am looking forward to watching. I've heard it's a great adaptation, and I expect the story compresses well into movie-length.

Thanks to everyone who's letting me know I'm not alone. Comments from fans of the books I didn't like are welcome, too!

Anonymous said...

I love Jane Eyre! I read it many many times. It probably helped that when I first read it I was a (pre-)adolescent girl, though. You may have simply missed your Jane Eyre window.

I'm happy to talk about it, but I'm not sure I can articulate why I liked it specifically. I loved the character lots and was never bothered by having different substories within it.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yeah, that experience of reading a book when you're young can make all the difference. There are so many books I loved during my childhood that I'm afraid to reread for fear that I won't like them anymore.

Sally said...

First I want to comment on The Eyre Affair briefly. I found it mildly amusing, with a clever idea (or even several clever ideas!), but the protagonist was just not compelling--and for me that's a fatal flaw. There was no deep character development. As a result I didn't especially care about the plot.

As you know, I love Jane Eyre, even though I did not read it until my late 30s. On the other hand I love lots of classic British literature, so perhaps I don't have the same issues with expectations. I see your point about the backstory, but that didn't bother me about the book. However, I do tend to reread the middle section and ending more than the beginning or the section with the Riverses.

I can maybe articulate some of why I love it.
First of all, I came into it as a devout Jane Austen fan, and with strong doubts about anything by a Bronte, since I'd hated Wuthering Heights (melodrama with no sympathetic characters). Jane Eyre converted me:
1. The protagonist is fascinating, especially for the time when it was written. How many strong female characters like that do we see in literature from that era? I especially love her absolute rejection of the role of "kept woman", even as wife. She wants--nay, insists upon--a relationship of equals. And it is her refusal to be dominated that Rochester loves.
2. In Jane Austen, the sympathetic female characters are all pretty, and except in Emma, the only obstacle to their finding husbands (which is the only major goal) is a lack of wealth. Elizabeth Bennet may not be the prettiest in her family, but she is second only to Jane Bennet, and has the more vivacious personality. By contrast, Jane Eyre is neither pretty nor rich. Yet she, too, is lovable; she too finds love and happiness and marries a man she is deeply in love with. This, to me, is pretty revolutionary.
3. And, fundamentally, so is the purpose of the book. Austen was merely telling amusing stories, entertaining the reader by poking fun at society. Charlotte Bronte was trying to change society. The harsh critique of certain forms of Christianity (which, nowadays, isn't that big of a deal, but at the time attracted accusations of moral depravity, even though the book has a very clearly articulated Christian morality), the happy ending for a love between a married, wealthy gentleman and a penniless, plain, low-born woman, and the clearly stated belief that the rich and the poor, and those of every different social rank, are of equal worth... all of these were pretty unheard-of for the time the book was written, but I can see why a modern reader, taking those things for granted, would not necessarily be struck by their importance. The description of love as a meeting of souls as equals is powerful, and in direct contrast to the shallower nature of love described by Austen.
4. I think that when an author addresses the reader directly, that means something. Austen never does this; Bronte does. By doing so, she establishes a relationship with the reader, or more accurately, a relationship between her unusual, proto-feminist protagonist and the reader. She is trying to transform the reader. Also, Jane Eyre is mostly in the past tense (it was supposedly written after the narrator had been married 10 years), but at particularly emotional moments she shifts to the present tense to convey a more immediate sense of her feelings at the time. This, I believe, is calculated to make the reader identify with her more fully in those moments and experience the same emotions she does. I find it very effective.

Sally said...

[Continuing where I left off! My comment was too long.]

The book is not flawless: in particular, I object to the deus ex machina of Jane hearing Rochester's voice from hundreds of miles away when she is debating whether to accept St. John's offer of marriage and co-missionary work. I think it is a very contrived way to solve the narrative problem of how to get the couple back together again... but that's my main complaint I think. Yes, there are some parts that seem exaggerated and cliché, but I suspect that's only because they would be if they were written today. (And the horrendous Lowood Institution is modelled after the school that Charlotte Bronte attended and where I think two of her sisters died, so I suspect it is not actually much of an exaggeration.) The mad wife in the attic is another issue, but one I'm willing to accept at face value for the sake of the rest of the book.

As you can probably tell, I generally read more for characters and language than for plot.

laurenhat said...

Sally -- I found your comments really interesting, even having not read JANE EYRE. It momentarily made me want to read the book. But then I remembered that I read for both characters and plot (and language mostly irritates me if I notice it, though there are exceptions). I think the things that bothered Lisa would also bother me. Still, it's really interesting to hear about why the book was revolutionary for its time.

OTOH, I tend to perversely enjoy stories of children being mistreated at school (e.g., Roald Dahl's tales of his early childhood, or Harry's interactions with Umbridge), so perhaps I should read just the first bit... :)

Lisa Eckstein said...

Sally, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts, which I've been very interested to hear.

I haven't read much British literature contemporary to JANE EYRE (including no Austen), so I wasn't able to put it in context and see how it distinguishes itself from and other work of the time. I can see how that would improve the reading experience. The one book I have read is WUTHERING HEIGHTS, for a high school class, and I didn't think much of it.

I did like Jane as a character very much, and I probably didn't give her enough credit for being an unusually strong woman for her time. I also didn't appreciate the extent to which Brontë was critiquing her society. To me, that makes the book more deserving of its classic status.

I wasn't really bothered by the unrealistic events and coincidences in JANE EYRE. Funny how different elements are problems for different readers. It did amuse me that in THE EYRE AFFAIR, a plausible (in that world) explanation is created for Jane hearing Rochester from so far away.

Again, thanks for standing up for JANE EYRE!

Sally said...

Actually, I agree that The Eyre Affair's justification for that supernatural incident was a faintly redeeming feature of an otherwise mediocre book!

And, as a note, Jane Eyre was published about 40-50 years later than Austen's novels, so perhaps it isn't fair of me to compare them. But it's interesting to note that Austen's novels, unlike Jane Eyre, pretty much completely support the status quo. You might consider reading P&P to see what I mean about this; it's a light, reasonably quick read and I'd be curious to know you think of it. As far as the structure of the book, I think it's reasonable to assert that Austen perfected that aspect of novel-writing, but Charlotte Bronte was working on something else.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thanks for clarifying about the eras of Austen and Brontë. I think it's still reasonable to discuss them together -- Brontë was presumably responding to what she'd seen of existing female characters in literature.

I do intend to read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and I'll definitely let you know what I think.

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