Tag Archives: intertextuality

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Literary review pretentiousness to get out of the way: beautiful, spare prose. Interesting structure: a series of almost-vignettes with loose connections via the characters. A sense of continuity and yet incompleteness as we get only glimpses into each of the lives portrayed. I can see why it won the Pulitzer.

It’s the kind of book you read for the construction of it, for the writing. It’s not the kind of book you read for character, and certainly not for story. If you are in the habit of reading for character or story, there will be difficult moments when you’re trying to figure out who’s narrating. Sometimes it’s first person (and hence unnamed); sometimes it takes ages to establish the connection between chapters. And it’s not just the characters: time jumps inconsistently between chapters, and that can also be difficult to adapt to.

I can’t unequivocally say that I enjoyed it, in part because I don’t think I “got” it. (Not that full understanding is necessary for enjoyment: there are things that I enjoy without really understanding them, like the works of T.S. Eliot.) I would, however, like to study it. Structure is something I’m becoming more and more interested in, and this book is very structurally interesting. I want to map it.  I want a bubble map or spider map of the characters in each chapter and how they’re connected. I wonder how flexible the chapter order is, and how much Jennifer Egan and her editor played with that before publication.

There are also a couple of themes that I’d like to review on rereading, to see if they carry through or if they’re coincidental. The main one is the theme of pauses. The chapter that I found most interesting deals very explicitly with pauses. It’s in the form of PowerPoint slides, so white space is very important. It also describes pauses in various songs, sometimes very technically. Personally, I thought it was not only the most interesting chapter in the book, but also the one that I understood the most. The characters were all very clear, even the ones who were fairly peripheral to the chapter. One part of the structural map I’m eventually going to make, then, is going to determine the pauses of the chapters. I can think of at least one other chapter off the top of my head that ends with a pause, and I wonder if there are others.

And now, onto something more narratively straightforward, less mentally taxing.

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The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure

I miss Decorah. There’s a bit at the end of this book where they’re staying in Decorah (after seeing the Laura stuff at Burr Oak) and they stay at the Super 8 and go to Bookends and Beans – which isn’t named, but anyone who’s spent time in Decorah knows that’s where they went – and now I want a raspberry chai from Bookends and Beans and to wander through their carefully selected shelves where I always saw a book that I’d been craving. And then I’d take the chai and the book and go to Dunning’s Spring and read (if it were warm enough) or maybe up to campus and sit by Pioneer Memorial or up to Phelps Park or walk along the river….

Anyway.

I quite enjoyed this book. It helps that I’ve been to most of the sites myself, although a few of them I only have hazy memories of. I always enjoy books that reference places that are familiar to me, as long as they get the details right. (See also: Housewives Eating Bonbons, or whatever it’s called, also presumably set in Decorah, but an unrecognizable version of it, and if you’re going to change such an important feature of the town as the college that has been there since 1861 – just change the name of the town already.)

If you don’t know, this is a book about one woman’s journey around the Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, in an emotional search for “Laura World” – the sense of recapturing the world of the series as she experienced it when she was a child. It’s not a particularly calculated journey. She didn’t set out to write a book or a travel guide about the Laura sites. And I like that. There are plenty of books out there that serve that function. This is much more personal. It’s about the journey, the exploration, and in some ways the pilgrimage aspect. She’s trying to recapture her childhood connection with Laura and her old sense of the world Laura lived in. The book doesn’t really try to evoke that world – although there is some of that – as much as it does her reaction to that world, or what is left of it, and trying to fit Laura into her adult urban life.

And I think she’s pretty successful at it. She discovers along the way what she needs Laura to be – an example of girlhood and exploration – amd what she doesn’t – a lifestyle example to help prepare for the End Times. She meets some interesting people, in both good and bad ways, and learns how to do quite a lot – cooking some of the Little House recipes, twisting hay, surviving a Midwestern thunderstorm.

The only thing I didn’t like was a vague sense of condescension to the more rural people that she met and some of the small town things she experienced. It wasn’t really explicit, but I got a feeling that she saw small towns in the Midwest as a kind of foreign country and “oh, aren’t their customs quaint and cute!” That could just be oversensitivity on my part, though, seeing as I grew up in small Midwetern towns – large by local standards but smaller than the university where I did my MA.

The main thing that I came away from this book with was a desire to reread the entire Little House series. It’s been years since I’ve read them. I also want to give them to some young girls I know. I think they’re at the right age to start them, and one of them at least will get a kick out of the history of it all.

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One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, by Jasper Fforde

You may remember that I love Jasper Fforde. Hearing him speak on the Shades of Grey book tour is still one of the highlights of my literary life, and I’ve been looking forward to the fifth Thursday Next book for literally years. I love the world of Thursday Next and it’s so much fun to be back in it.

This one is a bit more complicated than the other Thursday Next books (and if you’ve read them, you know that that’s saying quite a lot). The world of Thursday Next is an alternate reality to our world, first of all – a world where literature is the primary form of … everything. Political parties are formed around adherents of specific authors, Richard III is “interactive” in the same way that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is in our world, and there is an MI5-type organisation which has books and book-related activities under its jurisdiction (forgeries and the like). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: there’s so much more to this world than that, but those are the easiest to relate.

And within the alternate reality that is the Thursday Next world, there are books about Thursday Next. These books are similar to, but not identical to, the Thursday Next books that exist in our world.

Oh, and also? There is an alternate reality within the alternate reality, where books are actually real, where characters exist when they’re not being read. In this Bookworld, there is a Thursday Next who is the written Thursday, portraying Thursday’s adventures to her readers in the “real” Thursday Next world. (There was a previous written Thursday, but the real-world Thursday didn’t like how the previous written Thursday was being read, so they got a new generic character to become Thursday, Thursday-approved.)

Confused yet? I swear, it makes more sense when you actually read through the series.

So, anyway, there are several versions of Thursday. And one of them is missing in this book. And one of them has to figure out where the missing one is, as well as various other issues that the missing Thursday was involved in, and, to some extent, who she is as well.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is the previously-mentioned complications. The other Thursday Next novels weren’t stand-alones, by any stretch of the imagination, but they didn’t rely quite as much on previous readings of the series. The reader, if I recall correctly, was reminded of quite a bit more detail in the middle three books , where in this book there are references that assume that you’ve read through the rest of the series. Let’s be honest, if you’re reading the fifth book in a series you’ve most likely read the previous books, but this one is not going to bring in many if any new readers.

It also didn’t have quite as much of the “fun” stuff of the other four books: the footnoterphone, Mycroft and his inventions, some of the intrigues of the “real” world. They were mentioned, but not used, and that was vaguely disappointing.

It’s good, though. It’s got a bit of a different feel than the others (although I definitely need a massive reread. You know, to make sure….) and some of the more philosophical/psychological issues that are explored by the end are very interesting. It’s one of the things that Fforde does really well: the blurred lines between fiction and reality. It’s a theme he’s explored in all of his books, not just the Thursday Next ones (although it is most explicit in Thursday Next) and he does it better than most. However, you definitely need to read the entire series before you read One of Our Thursdays Is Missing.

Of course, everyone who’s at all interested in British literature and/or wordplay needs to read The Eyre Affair anyway….

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Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore

I usually think Christopher Moore is a very funny writer. Lamb made me laugh out loud more than once (as it did my religiously-conservative grandfather, which is pretty impressive given the book’s subject matter). I tend to read Christopher Moore when I want something substantial but not too dense.

Coyote Blue is not really that funny a book, though. It’s about a Crow who has – sort of unwillingly – abandoned his heritage, right up to the point where Coyote, the trickster, comes back to his life and he is dragged back into it. The book still has the relatively light style of the other Christopher Moore books that I’ve read, but the irreverence of books like Lamb or Fluke just isn’t there. It maybe is meant to be, but I couldn’t find it.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad book, it’s just … less funny than I expected from Christopher Moore. I liked Sam, for the most part, but I didn’t really know Calliope as a character, and what I did know I couldn’t really identify with. The storyline got to be a little bit manic, and I’m still not sure why some of the things at the beginning happened, unless the entire motivation was to get Sam’s attention.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. It had some of the same themes: ancient, almost forgotten American gods who originated in Africa (spoiler! and actually something which in retrospect kind of bothers me*) forcing their attention onto the human that they have chosen to tell their stories. I like Anansi Boys better; I think it’s a more logical story (within the constructs of the story, at least).

But, again, it’s not a bad book. I did quite like it. It’s just that if you’re looking for something like Lamb, you might be disappointed.

*Why does one of the more common American gods (Coyote) need to have originated in Egypt, to be the brother of Anubis? Why can’t the American gods and the various American cultures have originated in parallel with that of the rest of the world, instead of being an off-shoot of them? It seems like an unnecessary addition. Sam could have gone to “The Spirit World” to bring Calliope back; it didn’t have to have a random Egyptian connection to make it valid. And if you’re going to throw in random lines about Mormonism being valid (I did kind of laugh at Coyote’s reaction to that), why not also play with the idea that the Vikings were the first “white” people to settle in North America, and have it be Valhalla that Sam finds himself in? Having it be Egypt doesn’t really make sense to me, on a number of different levels. I may not know that much about the Crow beliefs, but I dislike the fact that he went outside an American context when the rest of the book is so focused on the Crow and the “Native American” culture. (Yes, I put “Native American” in quotation marks. They’re not a homogenous group.) I think he probably could have – and, in my opinion, should have – found a different path to the same thing, one that didn’t implicitly diminish the value of native American beliefs and cultures.

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Do You Come Here Often? by Alexandra Potter

Writing a book that’s based, in plot and/or structure, on another work, is very difficult. There’s a fine line between an homage/inspiration and blatant stealing. Personally, I like the similarities to be there, but relatively subtle – although as I say that, I think of The Edge of Reason which lifts scenes almost word-for-word from Persuasion, and yet somehow I loved that and thought it worked pretty well, while I couldn’t get past the first chapter of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty because I kept hearing Howards End in my head and yes, I know that’s deliberate, but it didn’t work for me. Maybe I just know Forster too well – although you could say the same thing about Persuasion since the scene that tipped me off in Edge of Reason, while a major scene, isn’t one of the more obvious ones.

Anyway. For the most part, let’s say, I prefer things to be a bit more subtle. Or creative if they’re not subtle. The other Alexandra Potter book that I’ve read – Me and Mr. Darcy – is creative, but not really subtle. But then, it’s not meant to be. The title is “Me and Mr. Darcy”. The main point of the main character’s trip in the book is so that she can live out Pride and Prejudice. And she does. But it manages to be creative and interesting, which is why I kept it in my last book cull (even though there are a few British/American speech pattern things that don’t quite work, and I can’t believe that someone who’s so interested in Jane Austen really knows that little about England in general. Or packing for an air journey) and why, when I saw “new” Alexandra Potter books at the library and at the bookstores, I wanted to read them.

I put new in quotation marks because Do You Come Here Often? is a 2009 reissue of a 2004 book that was written probably in 2000/2001. There are a few year markers in the first part of the book, which is actually kind of annoying – if you’re going to specify the year, then the year should have some significance, should be meaningful somewhere else in the book. The type of references that these were, though, would have been just as effective if they’d been general and non-specific, instead of “look how I’m setting my book in a specific place and time!”  I forgot about it by the end, though.

Anyway, it’s a retelling of When Harry Met Sally, and it’s a lot more subtle about it than Me and Mr. Darcy was with Pride and Prejudice. There are also enough differences in the story to make it more of a homage than a retelling, including an extra subplot. But the basics are there: Hate at first sight between the main characters; lengthy gap before they see each other again, in a fairly random circumstance; they become platonic best friends; their best friends end up meeting and falling instantly in love; they sleep together when the heroine is in emotional turmoil over her ex, and then don’t speak again for weeks; the hero makes a big romantic gesture at the last minute. They even watch When Harry Met Sally together, and the hero quotes it near the end.

It’s not a perfect book, by any means. It starts very slowly, Jimi isn’t really a likable character at the beginning (at least, his self-description made me shudder and go “Oh, one of Those Guys.”), the prologue was oddly coy/vague (until it was explained about three-quarters of the way through the book, at which point I had to go back to the prologue and go “….ohhhhhh.”). There were any number of things that, looking back on it from the distance of six hours, I wouldn’t have done if I’d written it, or would have done differently.  But, by the end, it works. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did (around the point where Grace leaves Spencer) I raced through to the end. (Plus, I felt smart when I figured out the When Harry Met Sally thing.)

I’ll keep it around, at least for now. I will also probably try to find Who’s That Girl at the library, and read it next time I’m there.  I’ll probably also watch When Harry Met Sally in the next day or so…..

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The Fourth Bear, by Jasper Fforde

Man, meta stuff is fun.  It’s one of the thing that I love about Jasper Fforde’s first two series (Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime Division). There are characters who are aware that they are characters, conversations about what plot device to use, the understanding that, in some cases, you just have to let the story play out to its inevitable conclusion.  Those are the moments in The Fourth Bear that made me literally laugh out loud.

Other things that intrigue me about Jasper Fforde, and which I unashamedly have tried to do myself:

  • Turning what, at first glance, might just be a running joke, into a plot device.
  • Taking fairy tales and cultural memory stories, in this case Goldilocks, and completely altering the perspective of it without changing the actual story.
  • The inside jokes for those who do know the literature, and the craft of writing, and the theories and interpretations of it.

It’s one of those books that gets funnier the more danger that the characters are in, without actually diminishing the danger – and then, in a subplot, he throws in things like this:

“…networks are everywhere. The road and rail systems, the postal service, the Internet, your friendships, family, electricity, water – everything on this planet is composed of networks…..because it is the way you are built – your bodies use networks to pass information; your veins and arteries are networks to nourish your bodies. Your mind is a complicated network of nerve impulses. It’s little wonder that networks dominate the planet – you have modeled your existence after the construction of your own minds.”

And it made me think, “….Wow. That’s true. We are a collection of networks. Networks areeverywhere. I’d never thought of it like that before.”

I especially appreciated the way that he included electricity and water in the list – we talk about them as grids so often that we – well, I – lose sight of the way that that’s just another network. It’s not linear (at least, not in the way that the aliens in The Fourth Bear are linear). I wonder if that’s one reason that we have such philosophical questions about time – we perceive time as linear, and that is imposed on our network, almost web-like, mentality and worldview.  It could be one reason that time travel is such an intriguing concept for us – if we could travel back in time, it would make time more of a two-way (multi-way) network than it is now, and that would be more comfortable for us.

(Or maybe I’ve just been watching and listening to too much Doctor Who….)

The only thing that I’m not happy about, upon finishing The Fourth Bear? I have to wait a year for the next Jasper Fforde book. I may have to go through a rereading binge sometime soon.

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Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett

Quick thoughts on Wintersmith, the only book I’ve finished recently that’s worth writing about. (I also have reread quite a few Suzanne Brockmann books, but there’s not a lot to say about them that doesn’t also get into a recent Huffington Post article about romance novel and the ensuing responses from various blogs like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books…..another time, perhaps.)

Anyway. Point. Wintersmith.

I really like continuity in books. Series are great, obviously, but I also really like books that are connected in less-obvious ways. Like Discworld. There are some ‘series’ in the Discworld. There is a chronology of sorts. But there’s also books like Wintersmith which, while part of the Tiffany/NacMacFeegle series, also throws in a few things that tie it into the rest of the Discworld. The Tiffany series is, of course, connected to the Lancre series but I also smiled at the really brief – one paragraph – mention of Assistant Postmaster Groat, from Going Postal, which I just listened to in November, and the mention of the land of Djelibeybi, from Pyramids, which I’m currently listening to on my commute. This is the type of continuity that I like, that makes me feel intelligent and well-read, even if it’s only well-read in Terry Pratchett. It’s like the allusions that you find in more ‘literary’ works (see: TS Eliot for extreme examples; the man’s genius was in creating new poems entirely out of older ones) but more obvious. And the nice thing about this kind of continuity – unlike the allusions in Eliot – is that, if you aren’t familiar with the source (i.e. if you haven’t read Going Postal or Pyramids or the other books set in Lancre), you’re not really missing anything – but if you have, then it adds an extra layer.

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