Coming Down off a Good Book

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You know that feeling, when you’ve just finished a novel that touched your soul, that made you think, that made you laugh and cry at the same time–and then you turn to the stack of books to read next, and your just feel so depressed?

No? Just me? All right then…

I’m a person who gets really overly invested in my imaginary people, so when I finish the book its hard to let go. Unfortunately, this means that I can have unrealistic expectations of the next book I pick up. Sometimes I end up abandoning two or three books before I settle on a story that really resonates with me.

On the one hand, I think this is good because life’s too short to waste on mediocre stories. On the other hand, maybe my expectation of greatness makes me impatient with slow-building stories, or I’m just too easy to bore after having read a rollicking good read. 

It’s a puzzler. 


The Content of a Life: “Flaubert’s Parrot”


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What does it mean, to have lived? What have we left behind when we go? If someone were to tell the story of our life, which story would they tell? Which one is true? What does that all even matter?

These are the questions that Julian Barnes tried to answer in writing “Flaubert’s Parrot.” The title refers to a stuffed parrot Flaubert had on his desk, of which two authenticated versions are displayed in France. Which one is real? Who even cares?

Just as the narrator of the novel seeks to figure out which parrot is real, he spends most of his book turning the life of Flaubert over in his head, looking at it now from the angle of a critic, now from the angle of Flaubert’s longtime lover. Every dissecting piece of the novel is true, and yet not true–if everything’s true then what does true even mean after all?

I may be recounting this in a really confusing way, but I promise Mr. Barnes is way better at it then I am. He adds humor in unexpected places, poignancy where there could easily be silliness, and a fantastic sketch of life. Because in the end, the story itself isn’t actually about Flaubert. It’s about the narrator, the man who is spending his days thinking about a dead man, a writer, and trying to figure out what a “pure story” is.


Don’t read the beginning of the book first.


I mean it. Don’t.

Most books begin with quotes. No story exists without other stories, without other words, so it’s only proper for books to start with shout-outs to other stories.

These quotes go on the first pages of a lot of novels to introduce the reader to the themes, to signal to other writers the soul of the book.

They don’t belong on the first page of a book. They belong on the last page of a book.

Once you’ve read a book, once you followed the author along his plots, her themes, once you’ve understood the emotional truth of the novel, then and only then should you read those quotes.

I don’t know about other people, but I never remember the quotes that start a book. I get caught up in the narrative, and forget whatever preceded it, whatever line was there before the story actually began. But when I finish a book and then flip back to read the quotes, I understand them. I can’t get the emotional truth of an isolated sentence and its relevance to the novel until after I’ve read the novel.

So don’t read the first thing in a novel first. And even if you do, remember to flip back to the beginning after you’ve finished the last page. You won’t regret it.

Map of the Invisible World


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There are all sorts of reasons to remember a book. Sometimes I remember a book for the location. This book is set in Indonesia, a land of volcanic islands, stunning beaches, and treacherous jungle. But the book takes place mostly in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capitol, where human geography is on display. Jakarta is a place of abject poverty and contained prosperity, of rich and poor living isolated from each other but right next to one another.

Sometimes I remember a book for it’s time, for the changes it depicts. This book is a story of a revolution, a a country torn between hatred of its imperialist past and trepidation at its possible Communist future. A country divided among itself, with ethnic and religious tensions always threatening to break out. The city is filled with people reacting to their time: a protest becomes a riot, and men and women who stumble are trodden to death. Military exercises take place in the street, a warning to anyone thinking of taking action.

But I think I will remember this book for the characters. The people of this book are haunted by each other’s ghosts, but memories of lost love. The Invisible world is the world that binds us together, the roads of love that lead us to each other. And the characters in this book are all people capable of loving and being loved. They are complicated, layered; what you see in the first chapter is not all of them.

The Crafting of Other Beings: The Children’s Book


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What does it mean, that we are shaped by the people around us? By the stories we tell ourselves, and are told by others? What does that create?

Those are some of the questions AS Byatt considered as she wrote “The Children’s Book”. The title comes from the practice of one of the characters, Olive, of writing a story for each of her children, a special magic story in which they are the hero or heroine. That’s not the only story Olive’s large brood of children are told, and the process by which those stories shape them is the psychological centerpiece of the book.

But the book isn’t just a psychological unpacking of development: it’s also a fantastic piece of historical fiction. The bulk of the book is set in the late Victorian and early Edwardian period, and Byatt makes the time come alive. She delves into the lives of men and women of all classes, into their hopes, aspirations, and desires, and she creates a cast of characters whose ways of interacting with the world are each unique and fascinating.

The best historical fiction is not about “modern women/men stuck in the past,” but rather about people, people who no matter what time they are born in have their own hopes and dreams, fears and desires. In each period, the way their lives are shaped by their selves changes. Sometimes, as in the Victorian age, women who wanted a career were not allowed to marry. Single motherhood is a difficult option that women, nonetheless, have been willing to make sacrifices for in many different periods.

Not only has Byatt brought a period alive in this book, but a staggering cast of characters. There must be two dozen, with an ever-changing web of relationships knitting them together–not a book for the faint of heart.

In an interesting way, “The Children’s Book” is inarguable an epic. It’s big, and has a big cast. But it bucks the conventions of an epic, choosing depth over breadth, focusing on a small period of time and a handful of locations. And this focus is the novel’s strength, because when calamity strikes in the looming First World War, the true fragility of this complicated world becomes painfully clear. It’s a work of beauty, and anyone who like a good doorstopper book should read it.

Did You Knoe About Edgar Allen Poe


With my vast lack of experience I feel totally qualified to agree with people way smarter than me that he’s the best short story writer in the history of time. I’m very, very slowly working my way through a complete Ed Allen Poe, and Here’s some things you may not have known about his stories, because I know I didn’t:

Poe invented detective stories with the story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. One of his most famous stories, “The Purloined Letter,” is actually the third in a series that began with Rue Morgue.

With “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” Poe demonstrated what would happen if “the inmates were running the asylum.”

Poe wrote from an unsympathetic character’s perspective so often I suspect he invented the trop.e

Poe was preoccupied with how to commit the perfect murder: where to hide the body, how to fool people, how long the preparation should take (years).

Poe murderers were heartless monsters who killed for insane reasons (that seemed perfectly reasonable to them)–proto serial killers.

You haven’t experienced body horror until you read “A Predicament,” which describes eyes popping out such that no one else ever need write on the subject. Please.

Poe had a very low opinion of publishers and editors, and spent a lot of ink satirizing them.

He wrote a good zombie.

Poe stories are freaky, often end with someone falling down dead in a surprising and dramatic fashion, and at least 80% of them are pure gold.

Investing in a Book


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EM Forster called these books well-plotted novels, which particularly demand attention and memory. They  require serious investment. Not everyone enjoys that sort of thing, and that’s okay–I know I can barely remember real people’s faces and names, much less fictional people’s.

I’m reading AS Byatt’s “The Children’s Book” now, and it demands a huge amount of investment. This is a writer at the top of her craft, and in just the first hundred pages she introduces an enourmous cast of Victorian anarchists and socialists, men and women who seem like an innumerable crowd but are all distinguished from one another.

This is the kind of book that demands you wait for the payoffs. You have to be patient and remember. For instance, two marionette plays have been put on so far. I have no idea why. None of them seem to have any direct relationship to the story–they just happen to be there.  I trust the writer, so I trust that the reason for the short stories will become clear–in about three hundred more pages.

It’s a difficult thing, trusting a writer that much. I can’t do it with all writers–once you’ve been burned a few times, you can get skittish. There are books that ask for thousands of pages of investment, and then completely fail to pay off. A lot of novels fail to conclude as well as they begin, but after the reader puts in hundreds of pages, hours and hours, as well as intellectual and emotional investment, it’s perfectly acceptable for them to demand a good ending.

That’s part of the social contract between a reader and a writer: the reader will put in the time to get to know the world the writer has created, and the writer will do his/her best to give everything a good payoff and conclusion. In a good long read, questions are there to be answered, characters are there to be remembered for they will play a pivotal role in events, and everything will become clear in time.  In a way, every long book is a mystery: why is it so long?