Martin Dressler: Overview

Martin Dressler coveruh…huh.

Tl; Dr

A Dreiser-esque bildungsroman makes sense until about 80% of the way through, at which point it turns abruptly into a completely different novel written by R.L. Stine. At least, it’s what I imagine a Goosebumps to be like. I was always too chicken to read them.

That’s not a great summary.

Martin Dressler is an entrepreneur. We watch him grow from childhood, get his first job, and climb to heights no one could have predicted. He builds an empire of hotels, which ends spectacularly–in more ways than one.

Writing Style

I will say, the writer is consistent throughout. As I said in a previous post, he writes very much in the style of Theodore Dreiser. You’re really immersed in the world and mind of the characters, but it’s heavy on the facts and light on emotive elements. I love the style. It’s vivid in the way a good expose in Rolling Stone is vivid. And towards the end, even though the story goes full-on bat poop, the writing is the same. It’s just that, now, someone’s writing a good expose on a a circus-themed nightmare he had.

Characters

Martin is the main character, and he’s not likeable. You root for him anyway, because he’s a visionary. He also does some admirable things. His ambition causes him to aim high, and it’s hard not to cheer as he refuses to sell his ideas short. He ignores prejudices of his age and has a competent woman as his closest business confidant. But he’s unfaithful and a bully and entitled and, at the end, melodramatic.

Martin’s wife is also insufferable. She reminds me of Linton from Wuthering Heights–frail, waifish, self absorbed. I will say she isn’t whiny, though. Just a total waste of oxygen. Anyone around her has no choice but to make their lives about her or suffer the consequences. Now, you know I don’t mind unlikable characters, as long as they’re interesting. This one is not. And things end ridiculously with this character. Absolutely absurdly.

Anyway, characters are not the selling point of this book. The story is. Well, 80% of the story is. I don’t even know what the last 20% of this book was.

Highlights

I loved reading about the beginning of Martin’s life. As a bellboy, he notices details like the texture of luggage and the shine of brass, and the way he describes the bustle and brightness of the lobby is entrancing.

It was also great to watch Martin’s empire grow. You get to see the nuts and bolts of how he used new marketing techniques and how he found people with complementary skill sets.

There are good things about this book. I enjoyed reading it. UNTIL.

FWIW (My Opinion)

What in god’s name was this author doing. <– That was rhetorical.

The shift from a grounded, great-documentary-style to this starkly contrasting horror fantasy at the end was so utterly bizarre that I felt like my head was spinning, Exorcism-style (which would have been in place with this ending). Let me explain.

You’re just reading a story where Martin is building more and more experimental hotels, imagining whole villages underground with stores and themed activities and–kind of like one of the more over-the-top cruise ships, frankly. And then, all of a sudden, everything is totally out of control. But not in a way that feels like plot continuation. More like a way that feels like the author had a mental breakdown.

I won’t throw a spoiler out there, but Martin’s wife does something in contrast to every non-fantastic thing this book stood for until this point. After this, we’ll further see that all bets are off for realism. The new hotel Martin builds is like a freak show combined with a brothel combined with a nonstop pagan ritual. It’s like you’re in the casinos in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after taking everything potent in the suitcase and having it go very badly for you–in other words, totally incongruous with the rest of the novel. The switch happens without warning, for the most part. I was turning pages in total disbelief that this was the same book.

I cannot understand for the life of me what the idea was here. I mean, I read a bit about Millhauser, and it sounds like he was indeed trying to transition into the fantastic, but gradually and elegantly. That transition was about as gradual and elegant as slamming into a brick wall at 70 miles an hour. I’d say the ending is unsatisfying, but it didn’t even feel like I was the conclusion of the same story.

Guys, hard pass. Too bad. It was good reading until things went nuts.

Martin Dressler, By Theodore Dreiser…No, Wait

I got a gorgeous new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. I think the things are a little overpriced and, with the Kindle app on the phone, they’re not really necessary. But oh my. It just feels so good to read on the Paperwhite. It’s an aesthetically delightful experience. I find myself picking up this beautiful device all the time, even when I really ought to be getting work done instead. I am having a great time, guys.

Martin Dressler coverIf you read my last post, you know I had it up to here (gestures) with American Pastoral. So I moved on to the next item on the Pulitzer list: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser. I’m tearing through it. I wouldn’t call it engaging on a broad level, and I’m not even sure I’d call it good. But it feels like home to me. It’s right in the center of books I know how to read and know how to engage with, because reading this feels exactly like reading Dreiser.

A Bit About Dreiser

For all I’ve written about Dreiser (check out my tag cloud that hasn’t been cool since 2009 but that I still like anyway), I don’t know if I really ever explained him.  He’s a turn-of-the-century author, quintessentially American and Midwestern and highly sociological, whose novels were often bildungsroman-flavored and dealt with industrialism, urban development, and finding one’s way financially from the ground up.

He was a writer in a school called naturalism, which focused on realism (often the gritty, dark aspects of society) and nature vs nurture. Literary naturalists were fascinated by Darwin and the forces of nature. As they were often journalists, they had a detached but holistic view, seeing issues from many perspectives and reporting what they saw without moralizing. Though there’s a few things I think that keep Dreiser from being a spot-on naturalist, he’s got almost all the characteristics.

Also, here are some of Dreiser’s titles

  • Jennie Gerhardt
  • Sister Carrie
  • The Titan
  • An American Tragedy

Now for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. (See where I was going? It’s a very Dreiser title.)

Similarities Between Dreiser Novels and Martin Dressler

So, first, there’s the writing style. I can’t believe this is a book written in 1996. It is so convincingly turn-of-the-century in language and manner. (I’ve seen criticisms of its historical omissions, but I haven’t noticed anything obvious myself, and I’m fairly well-versed in general American history.) Also, it is so convincingly Dreiseresque, style-wise. There’s the same kind of dry, unemotional third-person storytelling Dreiser employs that allows no manipulation to stand in the way of analysis.

There’s also the bildungsroman aspect, the coming-of-age and discovery of the self found in Sister Carrie, The Genius, The Financier, An American Tragedy, etc. Martin Dressler follows Martin from childhood to success as a young adult. Much of this coming of age is concerned with capitalism and finding one’s way in their career, which is tre Dreiser. And there’s also a similar unflinching portrayal of era-appropriate gender dynamics and the injustices and abuse that male protagonists commit against the female characters. In fact, Martin is very like a Dreiser character in that he’s not quite a protagonist you want to root for. While you feel like you understand him and how he’s developed into this character, he’s moody and rude and unfaithful. Frankly, in many ways, he’s an ugly person. (Can we talk about that scene where he’s so moved by a ten-year-old’s affection that he promptly needs to visit a brothel to lose his virginity? Relevant: this tweet I just saw.)

That’s not all. The subject matter outside of the characters is all Dreiser, too. There’s the young person making their way in a big city, and that big city is growing and changing. There’s new building construction, profits and losses, innovation, industry. No detail is spared in discussing the ins and outs of daily business and the lives of those who run it.

This, too, is Dreiser-like: the level of detail and the inclusion of what we might, as students of literature, see as random scenes. These scenes only serve to help paint a picture of a whole without having any further relevance. I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m always looking for patterns, foreshadowing, things to come back to later. You can’t do that with Dreiser, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to do it with Martin Dressler, either. It took me a bit to get used to this. I always remember the scene in An American Tragedy in which Clyde’s ride with his friends winds up in a terrible accident. I kept waiting for the consequences (or even relevance) of that scene to come back into play later in the novel, and it really never did. In Martin Dressler, there’s that aforementioned stomach-turner with the ten-year-old. I keep waiting for it to be relevant, but it seems to have just been thrown out there and never picked back up. Books like these often have elephants in the room that just hang out, waiting to be acknowledged so we can go about our literary business of treating everything that an author includes as if it has a greater purpose for us to uncover. But in Dreiser’s and Millhauser’s cases, I think it’s just there to be what it is. It’s one more thing to report, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from an assemblage of facts portrayed without the author’s leading or moralizing. It’s the journalism aspect of naturalism.

Anyway, the experience of reading Martin Dressler is so familiar. I feel like I know the book already because of what I think of as my Dreiser period. (You know, like Picasso’s blue period. Except no one considers my reading art. Sad trombone.) As I said, I don’t actually know if I like the book much or if I think it’s well done, but reading it feels second nature to me. It’s strange. Also pleasant. I’m glad to be reading again.

The Trouble With Literary Device Abuse

My sincerest apologies for this prolonged absence. I’m still around and still excited to talk to you about books, I promise.

I was overwhelmed with work for a bit there, and there was little time for reading, let alone blogging about reading. But I did manage to polish off Michael Cunningham’s The Hours about a month ago. 

I’m a little distanced from it now for an overview, but I’m not so distanced that I don’t have things to say about it. This should have been the perfect book for me, folk. It’s got Virgina Woolf. It’s got rage against the cult of domesticity/feminine mystique mindset. It’s got introspection and character-heavy (and non-plot-heavy) writing. Heck, would have recommended this book to me.

So, my personal opinion is that this set of ingredients, which should have formed the most delectable layer cake, was totally wrecked by the wrong chef. (Also, you will be burned out by all cake metaphors by the end of the book, and I don’t know how I even stomached making that one. More on that later). I feel awful saying it. To have devoted so much of himself to a very women-centered, introspective, and deep-feeling book, I’m sure Cunningham is a wonderful man. But The Hours contains some of the most exasperating (professional) writing I think I’ve ever encountered.

Anyway, I looked at what I thought about The Hours and extrapolated to get a list of literary device abuses. These misuses apply to a lot of writing I see.

I Will Never Get Back The Hours I Spent Reading This Book (But Some Don’t Want Them Back)

The Hours CoverQuickly, let me say this: as I was reading The Hours, I thought that surely I must be batty to dislike it, and that was pretty much confirmed. A number of judges thought this worthy of a Pulitzer. I started googling reviews and scholarly articles on the book, and it did nothing to convince me that I’m sane. The overwhelming consensus is that this book is excellent, with me all alone on the sea-salty island of curmudgeon.

So take this all at face value–I personally felt these things, and most other people didn’t. But my minority opinion shall not be silenced, and by that, I mean I have a blog that’s pretty much an Amanda brainstuff soliloquy. I will be the one person to say, albeit nervously, that my thoughts that this was bad writing were reaffirmed on every page as I read.

By bad, I mean excessive. Obnoxiously thorough examination of every thought in a character’s head. Concerted efforts to make everything “deep.” Pushing symbolism past the point of being meaningful and into the realm of bang-you-over-the-head insulting. And that leads us to…

Literary Device Abuse 1: Symbolism

There’s a section where a housewife is cooking her husband a cake, and the author makes it clear that this cake is a reflection of how she felt in her role–imperfect, trying too hard, a failure. Cool. I like symbolism. But this one is drawn out to the point of being rage-inducing. Chapter after chapter is about this cake, I kid you not. The author would veer into another subject, and then there would be a paragraph that started, “She thought of the cake at home” or something and I would think “STOP.”

In fact, I was looking through my notes in the Kindle book as they pertain to this. It moves from “Ug” to “Please stop” to “AHEM, metaphor, are you getting this meeettaaaaphooooooor” to, finally, a big fat “ENOUGH WITH THE [censored] CAKE.” This is what I mean by the writing being exasperating.

This is not the only instance of literary device abuse.

Literary Device Abuse 2: Pretzeling Yourself to Describe a Character

What I mean by “pretzeling” is that an author bends in all sorts of weird ways so they* can include a description of a character without a paragraph that’s something like, “John was medium height with brown hair and bushy eyebrows, and he liked long walks on the beach and ice cream.” The classic (and awful) way of trying to more naturally integrate character description is to have them look in a mirror. I do think there are creative, unusual ways to do this that can work, and I’m not saying no one should try. They just should fix it if they fail.

In The Hours, there’s no looking in a mirror to describe oneself. But there is a character that has been living with someone for many years, and to describe that person she’d lived with, Cunningham says, “for a moment–less than a moment–she sees Sally as she would if they were strangers. Sally is a pale, gray-haired woman…” etc. Ug, this is so obvious and gimmicky! It’s just a hair better then the mirror tactic, and it’s not natural at all. You don’t have to see someone as if they are a stranger to know what color hair they have.

I think this could have been better done with something like “Sally’s gray hair, the harsh features–all were as familiar to Clarissa as her own face, yet an unspoken distance between them made her feel almost like a stranger” or something like that. You can integrate description in natural ways.

I didn’t find character development and description done right all throughout the The Hours. All of the tactics used to develop characters seemed obvious, not just the tactics used to describe them physically. There was a scene where Virgina’s relatives come over, and they find a dying bird. “Oh boy,” I thought. “Here comes a character-development device.” You could just sense it. Reader, we are about to enter a character’s brain and learn over the next three pages of inner monologue (see device three) that Virginia thinks things, deep, life/death things, because of this bird. Sigh. Indeed, that then happened. Color me unsurprised.

Literary Device Abuse 3: Inner Monologue

The dialogue in this book was excellent. It was minimal, curt, and left a ton to the imagination. Unfortunately, there was about a 1:10 ratio of dialogue pages to inner monologue pages, and the inner monologues contained so many literary sins.

First, everyone’s inner monologue was exactly the same voice. A depressed, self-consumed, prone-to-overthinking voice.

Second, we got to hear many characters’ inner monologues, even the ones that barely show up in the book. That’s a problem when combined with the first sin of them all having the same voice. It’s also a problem because it gives the reader whiplash. We are in and out of way too many heads. I picture the reader as a spirit being plunged in and out of brain after brain, eventually needing to reach for the Dramamine.

Third, god, inner monologue: there’s just so much of it, and it’s so, so tiring. There would start to be a scene–someone would walk into a room to say hi to the occupant there. But as they entered, they would need to pause for two pages and have big thoughts. Then comes the hello. This is not only exasperating, it’s hard for a reader to reconcile with real time. No one would walk in the room, think quietly to themselves for five minutes, and then greet the person on the couch.

Fourth, inner monologue will quickly send you into the danger zone of telling and not showing. An author needs to be careful not to diffuse a potentially powerful scene with a “Character realized she felt sad and depressed.” I found The Hours to be brutally tell-y and almost never show-y.

Conclusion: I am a Bummer

I feel bad, getting so negative on so universally loved book. I loved the idea behind it, and I especially loved the cultural message behind it. But I just could not deal with the writing. I thought about sharing my notes from the book, but just the sample I shared with you is probably enough. Most of them are like that. There is a lot of cussing. It was a tiring, eye-rolling read, despite the subject matter being serious and, to me, invigorating.

Anyway, if you loved The Hours, please crucify me in the comments. Just kidding. Please don’t. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

*I am taking a cue from all the style guides changing over to the singular “they,” and now writing is like one big sigh of relief, not having to re-read and look for spots that should unnaturally say “his or her.” You should try it.

Interpreter of Maladies: Overview

Interpreter of Maladies CoverI’ve actually had Interpreter of Maladies on my bookshelf since it was published. I think maybe my grandmother gave it to me right when it came out. The cover is very familiar to me, but I’d never read it until now. My loss.

This will be short, but don’t take it as a knock on the book. It’s good. It’s no Crime and Punishmentof course. But I liked reading it.

Tl; Dr

This is a easy, quick read. It’s series of short stories that focus on the intersection of Indian and American culture. Many stories are about marriage and the comforts found in reminders of home.

Writing Style

Though the book is vivid at times, it’s mostly subdued and quiet. The first story, about a couple who has experienced a recent miscarriage, was the most haunting for me. But many of the stories had the same echoing resonance as this first one, kind of clanging around in my head after they’ve concluded.

Lahiri’s style is indistinct to me, but that’s not really a criticism. Her writing does not get in the way of the stories. She conveys them with ease, without including the distractions more amateur writers will throw in. She is a teller of interesting tales, and while her style is elegant and serious, it is also not the kind of voice you would recognize if you read something she wrote.

Characters

There aren’t a lot of characters that stand out to me. It’s hard to develop deep characters in a short story, and I think only the most masterful of short story magicians (ah, Karen Russell!) can do such a thing. There are some unusual and interesting folks that you’ll meet in Interpreter of Maladies: the observant interpreter himself; Bibi Haldar, the outcast old-maid-in-the-making; and eccentric Twinkle, who so obliviously leaves her husband feeling alone in the marriage. But I had to really think about it to remember characters that I thought stood out. It’s the stories that stick with you.

Highlights

I kind of think that these are nicely ordered from fantastic to medium to good, story-wise. The biggest snoozers in the middle, and the first three stories are especially gorgeous.

Story one, “A Temporary Matter,” is the pinnacle of Interpreter of Maladies, to me. The couple’s sorrow and emptiness is heartbreaking, though not as heartbreaking as their hope, if that makes sense.

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” the second story, is about a child whose family has a visitor that treats her with kindness. Over time, she realizes that he has his own family far away and she could never serve as a replacement for his flesh and blood. It’s piquant and sweet.

The eponymous story, story three, is about a translator turned tour guide. For just a moment, he becomes wrapped up in a family’s life as he drives them around India. But in the midst of the trip, he sees to the heart of the family’s dysfunction.

These three stories especially are worth reading, though I also have a soft spot for “This Blessed House” and “The Third and Final Continent” as well.

FWIW (My Opinion)

Most stories contained in Interpreter of Maladies are sad ones, tinged with homesickness, showing characters reaching out to the place of their roots. There is lots of cooking and lots of market shopping in the books, and there are many ways that the characters feel caught between two cultures, even if they can’t articulate what they’re feeling. I thought it was a great read. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for something short, especially if they have interest in Indian culture. It isn’t lighthearted, that’s for certain. But most good lit isn’t.

Aaaaand Updates!

Moving on…lord, I’m trying to read The Stranger. It is going badly.

The Pulitzers came out recently, and I figured I had a bit of catching up to do (plus I missed one when I was skipping through the early 2000-aughts). So I snagged The Stranger, winner of 2016’s prize, thinking I’d take a detour for a more recent bearer of the gold seal. I don’t know if I can make it. It is utterly uninvolving.

Also, the husband and I are audiobook-reading Dan Simmon’s sci-fi opus Hyperion. That is going way better. I’m thrilled with the imagination of this author. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. But more on that later.

 

 

Empire Falls: Overview

A Twitter user with the handle @writing_class tweeted this picture:

Problem

That’s a perfect way to describe how I’ve been feeling about everything I’ve been reading lately, Empire Falls by Richard Russo being no exception.

Tl;Dr Synopsis

In Empire Falls, a mild-mannered but frustrated Boomer protagonist watches his life fading away. He wonders how to reach for more than running a diner in the small, fading town he never really left, full of people he grew up with. Over the course of the book, he begins to understand things about his past and how people in the town may be more strangely interconnected than he first suspected, and he sees that he will have to fight to give his daughter something better.

Writing Style

Russo’s style is dry. You won’t get a lot of editorializing from the author, certainly. But that’s not necessarily a knock. The thoughts and speech and actions of the characters are what move the book, and the author does a really great job of letting the conversations sculpt the characters instead of their stories or the author’s description. His style’s ancestor is Hemingway, and a more recent comparison I’d make is to Elizabeth Strout. The main thing that sets him apart is humor. Russo is funny, in a serious way. This shows up right near the beginning of the book:

Whiting men, all of whom seemed to be born with sound business sense, each invariably gravitated, like moths to a flame, toward the one woman in the world who would regard making them utterly miserable as her life’s noble endeavor, a woman who would remain bound to her husband with the same grim tenacity that bound nuns to the suffering Christ.

And the characters he’s really poured love into (those will be obvious when you read the book) are immensely snarky. They’re passive aggressive and get walked all over, but it’s great when they talk back. It’s another way he puts humor into the book.

This story moves very slowly, and Russo is a quiet writer. Much like his characters, you have to listen up to hear him.

Characters

Empire Falls CoverMiles Roby and his daughter Tick are the previously mentioned characters the author loves. Really, nearly everyone else in the book is perfectly hateable. Janine, Miles’ ex-wife, is vapid and childish, though it’s sometimes easy to take her side when you see what she’s been handed. Her fiancee (who likes to call himself the Silver Fox) is a preening boar. Jimmy Minty, the town cop, is close to pure evil–a result of crippling insecurity and a never-ending persecution complex. Ug, and Miles’ father Max is just insufferable. He’s so pathetic and obnoxious that it almost makes it hard to get through the book. Luckily, Miles and Tick are there to quietly hate on everyone under their breath for our amusement.

In this fading, formerly industrial world located in rural Maine, there’s still a Rockefeller figure that owns half the town. She, too, is pretty evil, but she’s very fun to read. Clever, jaded, and sharp as a tack, this old queen of Empire Falls plays puppetmaster throughout most of the story. The plot involving her, Miles’ mother, and the old mill-running family is the real draw of the book, but there are a number of good things happening throughout. There’s a strand that follows Janine and one that follows Tick at school. There’s of course the day-to-day for Miles, though that’s hardly interesting. And maybe that’s the point.

The pulse behind all the characters in the book is that they feel trapped in a town that’s dying and the’re powerless to do anything except watch minute after minute go by, everything always decaying–fast enough to depress you but so slow enough to be boring. That’s what molds all the characters into who they are.

If they made Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” into a book, Empire Falls would be it.

Highlights

Miles retells a story from his childhood, when he and his mother went to Martha’s Vineyard and she met someone that made her blossom. The vacation, as told from the child’s perspective, reveals so much–including Miles’ fascination with the place as an adult. It’s really beautifully written, and I can vividly remember much of that chapter because it was told in a way that was so memorable.

Who Should Read the Book

Not everyone. As I said, the book is slow. The characters are largely infuriating and not at all a joy to experience. Even Miles is a frustrating character to read. It’s hard not to want to shake him.

But despite all this, I loved Empire Falls. I think a lot could be said for the symbolism of the river that the powerful family in the book tries to reroute–so much of what makes Empire Falls tick is how fate and free will plays a part in the characters’ lives. There’s a great discussion to be had there, and if I were better at blogging more frequently, I’d love to have started it.

The people who will enjoy this are people who like minimalist style and slow-moving plots. Think slightly faster than The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is a long book with lots going on but a base plot that could be boiled down to a sentence. It’s a subtle book, minus the kick-you-in-the-face climax. Deep thinkers and introverts will connect. People who like a lot of zest and action will absolutely not. And that’s okay.

FWIW (My Opinion)

This was a sensitive, sad piece with a lot of complexity and just the right amount of straight-faced humor to not make things too maudlin.  I really enjoyed some of the more undercover strings running through the text. This puppy could really come alive for people through discussion and analysis.

Have fun getting “Peter Frampton Comes Alive” out of your head now. Wait, here.

Piano Man!

Start humming. That’s really the song you should leave Empire Falls with.

Middlesex: Overview

CaptureBy way of introduction, I’ll say this: the first thing I did upon finishing Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex was buy another book by Jeffrey Eugenides. I mean, the instant I closed the book, that was the very next thing I did.

Tl;Dr Synopsis

An intersex male-identifying protagonist describes a family history from his grandparents up to the present, featuring his current life events.

Wow, I can’t believe that long, winding, beautiful book can be summed up in a single sentence.

Writing Style

Eugenides is funny and easy to read. Yet there’s a literary voice and knowledge of device that differentiates his book from a comedian’s journal. He combines the ancient with the modern (which, incidentally, is a huge theme in the book) by using turns of phrase found in the literature of Greek antiquity to describe his story. And his writing packs a punch right from the beginning. He starts with “I was born twice.” (What!? So good!)

Here’s the introductory sentence in its entirety:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Now this is the way to start a book.

Eugenides had something going on in Middlesex that I at first wanted to call a giant hole in his writing abilities, and that was the treatment of a first-person perspective as omniscient. If you can’t quite recall all the terms from your junior high reading courses, that just means that he was writing as an “I” but saying things an “I” couldn’t possibly know–what other characters were thinking, exact conversations that were had while he was in the womb. But he addressed this in the most interesting way. He portrayed himself as actually being the mutation lying dormant in the bodies that came before him, allowing him to be present at all previous events through ancestors. This suits the novel so well, since so much identity comes to him through not just his Greek heritage and family values, but also the gene that makes him who he is.

–And now, a quick break for who he is–

Here’s a quick rundown of the non-cis-gender identities, as best I know. (This was probably the best source I found.) I needed a primer, so maybe you do, too. Please, anyone, correct me if you find these to be wrong, and I’ll update.

Transgender–Umbrella term for those who don’t feel the gender identity assigned to them at birth reflects who they really are. (See Caitlyn Jenner, or better yet, read the awesome letter from Lilly Wachowski of The Matrix fame)

Transsexual–sometimes used to describe a transgender person that has chosen to make biological changes via hormone therapy or surgery. The term is becoming passe and is, frankly, a little personally invasive.

Transvestite–Ye olde term for a transgender person that meant “cross-dresser”: considered offensive today.

Intersex–Formerly “hermaphrodite” (a etymologically misleading word not really used anymore), this means that a person was born with ambiguous anatomy. Cal from Middlesex is intersex. When born, he appeared to his half-blind doctor to fully female and was raised as such. A closer look would have shown some anatomy to be atypical, and he carried an XY chromosome pair–the set used to classify humans as male.  See here for more detail, or just read the book. The narrator is very open about what’s going on.

Note: none of these things have anything to do with what gender an individual is attracted to. That’s something else entirely.

–End break–

Another thing that really makes the writing in this engaging is that the author communicates so well about things that not many people understand. The description of Cal growing up and trying to understand bodies and attraction and identity brings to life a kind of struggle many people could never imagine. I couldn’t.

Eugenides also puts within reach the kind of things that happen slowly and are therefore hard to pinpoint: the development of superstition, the attitudes toward race, the slow decay of love. I feel like I look around at the people around me sometimes and think, “How did you even get to this place?” But after reading Middlesex, I don’t know…it’s just seems easier to understand things that happen even around me, outside of the book’s scope. 

Characters

Cal is a beautiful, empathetic narrator. He’s the perfect person to tell the story of the family. He does so with such humor and compassion, and you never quite forget that it’s him talking, but he never takes you out of the story. Cal himself builds up to his own life–he doesn’t become a major part of the action until the end–but you feel very much as if it’s him telling you a story the whole way through.

Desdemona and Lefty are fleshed out characters that live full lives, though their marriage is kind of sad and their stories are a bit tragic. I don’t know that either is exactly likable, but you feel like you know them and their struggles, especially Desdemona’s old world superstition and Lefty’s pull away from Desdemona and toward the excitements he remembers from youth.

Cal’s parents are less remarkable. Their courtship is, well, interesting. But neither character really seems developed. The mother is especially unmemorable, and if it weren’t for Milton’s notable racism, he wouldn’t stand out, either. The section that focuses on them is the lowlight of the book.

Highlights

The magic of this book is that it deals with so many issues at once without becoming lecture soup. I mean, gender identity, immigration, Greek culture, family dynamics, racism, religion, war, incest–it’s all covered. But none of it is sermonizing. It’s all just part of the story.

My favorite two parts were near the beginning, with Lefty and Desdemona growing up, and near the end, when Callie spends her days with who she calls “the object.” Both parts left me enraptured. The middle of the book is a little bloaty, but nothing that didn’t stop me from going straight for the next book. (I picked up the Virgin Suicides, which is so far wonderfully written but lacks the humor of Middlesex.)

Who Should Read the Book

This is hard. I want to say everyone will like it, but that’s probably naive of me. If you like coming-of-age stories or stories about families, this will probably tickle you. If you like feeling like someone you know is telling you a story when you read a book, this may be up your alley. But if you like fast-moving, action heavy plots, this isn’t probably your speed. It’s long and, at times, slow going.

You will probably know whether or not you like the book in the first few pages. The writing style is clearly established early on, and the type of characters you’ll meet are met quickly.

FWIW (My Opinion)

This was a very bright spot in my Pulitzer journey. I loved the whole experience of reading Middlesex. It’s pretty clear to me that this won the Pulitzer because of its treatment of social issues (being born different, issues of prejudice), it doesn’t hurt that the writing is fantastically entertaining and entirely pleasing.

Gilead and the Hidden Sparklies

2005’s Pulitzer winner is Gilead, a novel from an author named Marilynne Robinson. Well, it’s more a letter than a novel. A old preacher knows he’s dying, and he’s begun to write to his young son. This book is his letter. A long, long letter.

This letter is filled with thoughts about life and sermons and writing and staying up late and the way water glistens in trees and how language isn’t really sufficient to describe the world. It’s sweet. Introspective. Solemn. The narrator is sad, but he finds such childlike wonder in the world around him. It should be a very nice book, very nice indeed. It’s like a muddy, lazy current running slowly over rocks, and if you’re patient and pan through all the modest, simple prose, you’ll find gold in your pan.

I love to see what it is that works about writing and what doesn’t, and I’ve usually got it down. But this one has utterly turned my head. If someone described it to me, I’d know instantly: Gilead is exactly the kind of novel I would love and everyone else would hate. It’s quiet, thoughtful, deep prodding. It’s full of inner life and psychology, and plot takes a backseat to character. This should be my book. This should be the book that I look at and say “It’s heartbreaking art, beautiful art, and no one will like it but me, and that’s okay.”

The exact opposite has happened. What is the holy alternate universe is going on?

I’ve been reading this one since January, and it’s just been a slog. I don’t care about what’s on the next page, and I never want to pick it up.  I finally said, “Okay, litero-universe. Redeem this book.” And redeem it did.

I looked up the New York Times book review.

Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s rare in contemporary fiction…’grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.’

And

Gradually, Robinson’s novel teaches us how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details.

Well, that makes me want to keep going.

Okay. On to Slate.

It is as spare, and as spiritual, a novel as I think I have ever encountered. Yet reading it is enough to inspire missionary fervor: You must read this book…What Robinson has written is, in fact, a mystery—not merely a spiritual meditation on the mystery of God’s grace, that “absolute disjunction between our Father’s love and our deserving,” as Ames phrases it at one point, but a literary, and a literal, mystery.

Woah. Okay.

So now here’s the president of the United States on it.

One of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book,

That’s right, Obama adores this book.

When I read what people had to say about this book, my faith was renewed. There’s something here. Something glittering and golden was in this book, waiting to be discovered, if you just looked. I was going to go after it. I was going to understand the key that made this such a moving experience for everyone. And now, welp, I’m right back to not picking up the book.

Here’s the Struggle…

…and it’s a struggle every high school student that doesn’t want to read Hamlet will deal with. People say a certain book is worth something. People say I will be better if I read it, that it will enhance my experience of life somehow if I can look past my disinterest and really try to engage with it. There are gems to uncover.

Of course, teenage you is like, “naw!”

Great Expectations comes to mind. I read it my sophomore year and thought it a outrageous waste of my time.  But I gave it another go about 10 years later, and I just saw it, saw every moment of brilliance, saw every reason the book had lasted, all the archetypes it had laid out with such cleverness and–OH–the humor. Great Expectations absolutely cracked me up. I should have trusted everyone. It was full of as many treasures as they told me it would be. I just had to be open to it. And now I’m trying to take the lesson to heart.

I want to crack through the shell of this book and understand why people love it with the passion they do. I want to see the depths they see. But I  just don’t think Gilead is going to be my Great Expectations. When should I trust people enough to plug forward, trusting that I’ll find the reward they promise? I don’t know.

I think in situations like this, I’m scared I’m missing something. It isn’t insecurity, I don’t think. It’s the dreaded FOMO. I’m more wondering, “What if there’s some beautiful thing lying in this book that I just can’t get to? Maybe if I just tried harder,  I could unlock that treasure chest that everyone else found here.”

But I think I just have to accept that book-glitter is sometimes–not usually–but sometimes just something that’s in they eye of the beholder.

Anyway, if you want to check out Gileadbe my guest. I want to hear that someone real, not just a president someone or a book reviewer someone, found what I looked for and couldn’t find.