Review: The Gathering

I’d like to state up front and unequivocally: Anne Enright is a brilliant writer. The Green Road is excellent (more on March 12), but The Gathering is overwrought and pretentious. It’s a hybrid of Gilead and Written on the Body with a curious fixation on genitalia. The book jacket makes it sound more intriguing, however:

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned in the sea. His sister, Veronica, collects the body and keeps the dead man company, guarding the secret she shares with him—something that happened in their grandmother’s house in the winter of 1968. As Enright traces the line of betrayal and redemption through three generations, she shows how memories warp and secrets fester. As in all Enright’s work, her distinctive intelligence twists the world a fraction, and gives it back to us in a new unforgettable light.

I wrote, when reviewing The Narrow Road to the Deep North, that bad sex scenes remind me of my days helping fellow students polish their papers. Students do a funny thing when writing about sex: They want to include it in their stories, but they don’t want it to sound Penthouse-letter-y. The easiest way to avoid this is to make it gross or mundane, throw in a mention of death, and add some non-sequiturs. They try so hard to be inventive and literary that the final result is unintentionally funny. Lit sex has always made me giggle and in The Gathering, where so much anatomy is described at random intervals, it was a distraction.

Though Enright’s voice is beautiful, it’s hard enough to stay focused throughout jumps across time and subject matter without the lit-sex intrusions. Any time I started to sink into the story, BAM! I’m only including a highlight reel below, because if I filled this post with penile descriptions, it might get censored. 😛

But before we get to the lit sex, there’s lit grief:

I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling—somewhere between diarrhoea and sex—this grief that is almost genital. (7)

This is a unique way to describe that weak-kneed feeling, but you know Enright threw in the diarrhoea because if she only compared grief to sex, we’d all be saying: What?? or Such brave writing to risk a misunderstanding like that! or How daring! and these reactions would be even more distracting. As is, it only elicits a WTF followed by an I don’t get it.

On the subject of childbirth, which she likens to “shitting,” Enright throws in some extra oddity to her description of a short gap between siblings:

There were eleven months between me and Liam. We came out of her on each other’s tails; one after the other, as fast as a gang-bang, as fast as an infidelity. Sometimes I think we overlapped in there, he just left early, to wait outside.

Well, that’s a new one. And the award for the strangest paragraph I have ever read goes to…

Drumroll, please!

His sister. Younger than him. She died. The room they grew up in was full of the wet rattle of her chest; the horrible gurgle of phlegm and the shocking bright blood. Nugent can not forget the nightly rosary, said at a terrible, safe distance from her bed; her white knuckles fumbling on the coverlet for the dropped beads, or the dark light in her eyes as she looked at him, like she saw right through to his bones. His own puberty going unnoticed—almost to himself—as her little breasts swelled under the nightdress. She moved towards death and womanhood at the same pace, the nipples like a spreading bruise, the breasts growing, and failing to grow, over lungs hard with disease. And so, she died.
Is that enough for him to think about, while he is on his knees?
That when he holds his penis in the night-time, it feels like her thin skin; always damp, never sweating. Because, in those days, people used to be mixed up together in the most disgusting ways.. (35)

I read this, and said: Is that lit speak for incest? Also, is that two-period thing a rare, non-OED sighting of a two-dot ellipsis or just a typo? Because an ellipsis makes this passage even stranger. But no matter, this paragraph cuts to another reason I struggled with this book: It’s damn depressing. And the wishy-washy writing makes it all the more depressing because you’re left to guess at the gaps between characters, always assuming the worst. The faults of memory are convincingly written, but the endless revisions are a chore to read.

Wait, I spoke too soon. What about this unusual paragraph:

The figures that pass are scribbled with the graffiti of his gaze: everything they have spills over, or droops. An overweight child with breasts—a boy, it seems. An old man with a scab under his nose. A woman with a widening tattoo. A parade of lax flies and stained trousers and bra straps showing under other, shoestring straps. The living, with all their smells and holes. Liam was always a great man for people’s holes, and who stuck what into which hole. (76)

Is that metaphorical? Am I being a pervert if I assume holes is an anatomical reference here? Given the random penises emerging on trains, the anatomical reference seems likely. However, what an odd way to describe a brother—by saying he’s a hole expert. Just for the record, I’m not a prude. I’ve given the “sex talk” to dozens of my peers and once ran a reproductive health site with many mentions of holes. Sex stuff doesn’t bother me—what I’m rolling my eyes about here is how forced and artificial it sounds for the sake of being arty and highbrow.

I don’t typically review books I don’t finish, but I had this on my queue for the month and felt obligated to not let this date pass without some remark on The Gathering. As I would like to read all the Man Booker Prize winners (this was the 2007 recipient), I plan to keep it on my shelf for a few years. Maybe it will sit better with me in a decade.

Lastly, because Enright does actually have talent, here’s a well-written passage for you:

Don’t tell Mammy. It was the mantra of our childhoods, or one of them. Don’t tell Mammy. This from Midge, especially, but also from any of the older ones. If something broke or was spilt, if Bea did not come home or Mossie went up to live in the attic, or Liam dropped acid, or Alice had sex, or Kitty bled buckets into her new school uniform, or any number of phone messages about delays, snarl-ups, problems with bus money and taxi money, and once, catastrophically, Liam’s night in the cells. None of the messages relayed: the whispered conferences in the hall, Don’t tell Mammy, because ‘Mammy’ would—what? Expire? ‘Mammy’ would worry. Which seemed fine to me. It was, after all, of her own making, this family. It had all come—singly and painfully—out of her. And my father said it more than anyone; level, gallant, There’s no need to tell your mother now, as if the reality of his bed was all the reality that this woman should be asked to bear. (9)

Book 3 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge

Next Up: The Green Road by Anne Enright

Previously On:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

 

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

picture of dorian gray_coverOscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those classics that everyone knows even if they’ve never read it. If you’ve been pushing it down your queue because you think you know enough about it—stop pushing! Even when you know the premise—that Dorian Gray retains his youthful, innocent appearance while his portrait ages and withers in his stead—it’s compulsively readable. The writing is sharp and descriptive, riddled with the kinds of one-liners that have made Oscar Wilde so quotable.

Despite the importance of the portrait in the storyline, its creepy attributes don’t show up for a while. Much of the book is spent building Dorian’s character and his friendship with Lord Henry (Harry). Harry is full of the kind of observations that sound more clever than they really are and Dorian, young and inexperienced, is susceptible to his philosophies. Harry’s greatest hits include pleas for self-realization and the importance of beauty:

“The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.” (13)

and:

“You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Each month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly….Ah! realize your youth while you have it. (17)

This latter speech has an immediate impact of Dorian who has something akin to a mid-life crisis when his portrait is unveiled. He says:

“I am jealous of everyting whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now! Why did you paint it? It will mock me some day—mock me horribly!” The hot tears welled into his eyes; he tore his hand away and, flinging himself on the divan, he buried his face in the cushions, as though he was praying. (21)

Frankly, if you’re anywhere near a mid-life crisis, this may not be the best reading material. The descriptions, not just of age, but of Dorian’s horror and fear, are persuasive. Wilde continuously finds new ways to press this point again and again. It’s almost too much, but only Dorian’s extreme anxiety makes the story plausible. There are no explanations provided for the supernatural portrait beyond Dorian’s wish and desire—it just works. This is a simple story and too many explanations would complicate it and make it flimsy.

In addition to showing Dorian’s age, the portrait takes on a twisted, terrifying expression as Dorian becomes ever more corrupt and sinful. His situation is untenable; even a pretty face can’t go on forever as a terrible person with a corrosive secret.

If this was the whole story, the book would be solid. What takes it to the next level is the inclusion of witty descriptions and social commentary:

On people who prattle endlessly at dinner:
Like all people who try to exhaust a subject, he exhausted his listeners. (30)

An excellent character introduction:
She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest. She was usually in love with somebody, and, as her passion was never returned, she had kept all her illusions. She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy. Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church. (35)

And astute social commentary:
“Faithfulness! I must analyse it some day. The passion for property is in it. There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.” (38)

I read The Importance of Being Earnest last year and laughed all the way through, but it’s built on a single joke without much shading. By adding smiles amongst the horror, the writing in Dorian Gray is more impressive.

My only quibble is that some characters pop up at the mid-point with only a few throwaway paragraphs to explain their history with Dorian. Why couldn’t this history have been given in real time or these characters been included sooner? When someone that Dorian appears to trust more than anyone else showed up, I did a search on my Kindle for the name, worried I’d missed something. I hadn’t missed anything, hurrah, but how could someone so important not have elicited an earlier mention in such a detailed book? Maybe some of the time spent with Harry’s diatribes could have gone towards peripheral characters…

Overall: 4.7 It’s funny, creepy, and hard to put down. Sometimes reading the a classic can feel like reading a clichĂ© because the original doesn’t always feel “new” after seeing tributes and references everywhere, but even with the ending in mind, I really enjoyed this book.

Translation: Read it. Then read The Importance of Being Earnest as a chaser.

Book 2 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge

Next Up: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Previously On:

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

reading-ireland-month_2017

Review: Gulliver’s Travels

gullivers travels_cover

At school, reading assignments could be likened to a game of Bingo: I noted whichever passages fit the professor’s lecture, then dug for a theme to tie a paper together. Reading the classics is almost fun again now. I say almost because Gulliver’s Travels goes on too long after making its points, but the first two sections, when Gulliver meets the tiny Lilliputians and the giant Brobdingnagians, are brilliant. The Writing and Style are very dated, but the Reader will adjust within a Chapter or two.

From the back cover:
Shipwrecked and cast adrift, Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself on Lilliput, an island inhabited by little people, whose height makes their quarrels over fashion and fame seem ridiculous. His subsequent encounters—with the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the philosophical Houyhnhnms and the brutish Yahoos—give Gulliver new, bitter insights into human behaviour. Swift’s savage satire views mankind in a distorted hall of mirrors as diminished, magnified and finally bestial species, presenting us with an uncompromising reflection of ourselves.

Gulliver washes up on Lilliput with a rich sense of entitlement and allows the Lilliputians to attend to his every need. He goes to great lengths to describe their provisions as though he isn’t an enormous blight on their society. Everything on the island is miniature, even the plants and animals, so it’s true he’s limited in his food prep abilities unless he wants to eat whole animals, but the Lilliputians cook and deliver his meals:

He ordered his Cooks and Butlers, who were already prepared, to give me Victuals and Drink, which they pushed forward in a sort of Vehicles upon Wheels until I could reach them. I took those Vehicles, and soon emptied them all; twenty of them were filled with Meat, and ten with Liquor, each of the former afforded me two or three good Mouthfuls, and I emptied the Liquor of ten Vessels, which was contained in earthen Vials, into one Vehicle, drinking it off at a Draught, and so I did with the rest. (31)

Gulliver eats food for 1700+ Lilliputians daily and sleeps on 150 beds. In exchange, they draw up what amounts to a chore list and expect him to contribute to society. Gulliver is stunned by the indignity of the tasks, most of which involve ferrying Lilliputians or their resources short distances—short by his standards. Once he proves his worth in a sea battle, he uses his war-hero status to wiggle out of his least favorite chores (which are pretty much all of them).

If you’re reading this book before writing a paper on satire and British Imperialism, you really only have to read this opening section because it has everything. It showcases a British man lording his ‘natural advantages’ over the inhabitants of a tiny island while receiving foods and gifts in exchange for protection. That’s a lot to focus on. When I was in school, we rarely touched upon the best part: the humor. Gulliver is ridiculous and a jackass. He’s inordinately proud of himself for his minor contributions which tend to come at little or no cost to himself. His obliviousness is a key part of the satire and keeps him from being too appreciated by the Lilliputians.

Part 2 is amusing in the sense that it turns Gulliver’s time with the Lilliputians on its head. Among the Brobdingnagians, Gulliver is the little one and he sees them as the Lilliputians saw him: huge and disgusting. He can’t stand to see their blemishes and signs of infirmity blown up to monstrous proportions:

This made me reflect upon the fair Skins of our English Ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their Defects not to be seen but through a Magnifying Glass, where we find by Experiment that the smoothest and whitest Skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured. (87)

But despite his size, Gulliver keeps up his positive self-image. He narrates his skirmish with a rat in the same grand tones as a legend. Though he’s kept around as a bit of entertainment, he flatters himself that his company is charming. His pluck is admirable, but he still malingers whenever it suits him. His laziness isn’t problematic in this section because it doesn’t put anyone to much trouble—the Brobdingnagians aren’t as inconvenienced by his needs or whims. As a result, he becomes a bit more likable.

These first two sections complement and balance each other so well that Part 3 can’t help being anticlimactic. The biting social commentary that makes Gulliver’s Travels a classic is all present in the first half; as you read, you’ll think: “Oh, right, I understand that [random cultural reference] now.” With the exception of calling idiots “yahoos,” I’m not sure many people reference the second half. It’s just not memorable. Even with Swift’s incredible wit, it loses its lively spark as it winds down to a surprisingly grim ending. With flying cities, immortals, and talking horses, the story becomes too fantastic for its own good. To offer a good social critique, a story should be grounded in the real world. If the exaggerated flaws and vices of the fictional world go too far, some of the sting is lost. For all their strangeness, the Lilliputians keep a grip on relatability, which makes them the best part of the book. They hold up a bizarre mirror to the social faults that Swift wishes to mock.

Overall: 4.0 Surprisingly solid and it’s still funny after all these years. The score would be higher, but with the second half of the book dragging it down, I can’t go over 4.

Translation: Read it! Er, part of it, I mean.

Book 1 of the Reading Ireland Month 2017 Challenge
Next Up: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

reading-ireland-month_2017

 

 

Reading Ireland Month 2017: Sign Up

reading-ireland-month_2017Hooray! It’s time for the Reading Ireland Month 2017 challenge hosted by 746 Books and Raging Fluff. I really enjoy this challenge since it pushes me to read new authors and it’s wonderfully laid back without frantic check-ins or that horrible sense of “falling behind.” Blogging is supposed to be fun, right? 😛 If you’d like to join in, take a look at Cathy’s announcement on 746 Books for more information and an enticing list of Irish authors.

Since 2017 is the year of Planning Ahead, I started early with my reading and lined up a bunch of posts for the month. Last year I was a little slow on the reading/reviewing, so this list includes some from last year that I finally read.

March 3: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

gullivers travels_cover

Shipwrecked and cast adrift, Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself on Lilliput, an island inhabited by little people, whose height makes their quarrels over fashion and fame seem ridiculous. His subsequent encounters – with the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the philosophical Houyhnhnms and the brutish Yahoos – give Gulliver new, bitter insights into human behaviour. Swift’s savage satire view mankind in a distorted hall of mirrors as a diminished, magnified and finally bestial species, presenting us with an uncompromising reflection of ourselves. (Goodreads)

All books read for homework back in the day are so much better now. Sure, I assign myself reviews (read: Book Reports), but they’re far more relaxed than term papers and the feedback is friendlier.

 

March 6: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

picture of dorian gray_cover

Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centers on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world. For over a century, this mesmerizing tale of horror and suspense has enjoyed wide popularity. It ranks as one of Wilde’s most important creations and among the classic achievements of its kind. (Amazon)

From last year’s list to this year’s. The only reason I have for my procrastination is that I forgot how good this book is. I read a kid’s version a long, long time ago, but the “grown-up” unabridged version is far better. (No surprise there, but I did miss the illustrations.)

 

March 9: The Gathering by Anne Enright

the-gathering_cover

The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned in the sea. His sister, Veronica, collects the body and keeps the dead man company, guarding the secret she shares with him—something that happened in their grandmother’s house in the winter of 1968. As Enright traces the line of betrayal and redemption through three generations, she shows how memories warp and secrets fester. As in all Enright’s work, her distinctive intelligence twists the world a fraction, and gives it back to us in a new and unforgettable light. (back cover)

At some point, I’m going to set up a page for the Man Booker Prize and commit to reading them all. It hasn’t been around nearly so long as the Pulitzer so it’s one of those “attainable” reading goals. In the meantime, the first half of this book is beautifully written in spite of how painful the writing is in a few places. Some passages sound as though she worked so hard to be different/profound that she came up with bizarre or unintentionally silly phrasing. I’m still trying to work “genital grief” into conversations and it’s going as well as you’d imagine. Plus, there is a line about sex that beats the strange armpit-biting thing from The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

 

March 12: The Green Road by Anne Enright

the-green-road_cover

In The Green Road, internationally acclaimed author Anne Enright presents her most unforgettable novel to date. Spanning thirty years, The Green Road tells the stories of the Madigans, a family on the cusp of either coming together or falling irreparably apart, and their indomitable matriarch, Rosaleen. In masterful prose, Enright weaves together a spell-binding story of family and fracture, selfishness and compassion. (back cover)

Before encountering Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant), I would not have picked up a book with this type of descriptions, but she sold me on books about families. Once I put this book on my list, I started seeing Anne Enright’s name everywhere. I prefer her writing style in this to The Gathering, so if you’re still trying to decide between Enright books—I’d recommend this one.

March 15: Dubliners by James Joyce

dubliners_cover

Joyce’s aim was to tell the truth– to create a work of art that would reflect life in Ireland at the turn of the last century and by rejecting euphemism, to reveal to the Irish their unromantic reality, which would lead to the spiritual liberation of the country. Each of the fifteen stories offers glimpses into the lives of ordinary Dubliners– a death, an encounter, an opportunity not taken, a memory rekindled – and collectively they paint a portrait of a nation. (Amazon)

I’ve read a few of these stories, but never the whole collection. I’ve heard such wonderful things about “The Dead” that I worry it won’t live up to expectations. I’m trying hard to stuff those down before I pick it up. So far, so excellent, however.

 

March 18: Dinosaurs On Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

dinosaurs-on-other-planets_cover

In a raw seacoast cabin, a young woman watches her boyfriend go out with his brother, late one night, on a mysterious job she realizes she isn’t supposed to know about. A man gets a call at work from his sister-in-law, saying that his wife and his daughter never made it to nursery school that day. A mother learns that her teenage daughter has told a teacher about problems in her parents’ marriage that were meant to be private—problems the mother herself tries to ignore. McLaughlin conveys these characters so vividly that readers will feel they are experiencing real life. Often the stories turn on a single, fantastic moment of clarity—after which nothing can be the same. (Amazon)

I will admit it: I wanted to read this the instant I saw the title/cover. Shallow? Maybe. But it looks (and sounds) amazing. I’m not expecting literal dinosaurs, but I do hope…

 

March 21: The Master by Colm TĂłibĂ­n

the-master_cover

Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours, Colm TĂłibĂ­n captures the extraordinary mind and heart of a great writer. Beautiful and profoundly moving, The Master tells the story of a man born into one of America’s first intellectual families who leaves his country in the late nineteenth century to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers.
In stunningly resonant prose, TĂłibĂ­n captures the loneliness and the hope of a master of psychological subtlety whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed those he tried to love. The emotional intensity of this portrait is riveting. (back cover)

I read Brooklyn late last year and enjoyed TĂłibĂ­n’s writing style. I was torn between The Master and Nora Webster then noticed this edition had an excerpt of Nora Webster so I get one and a teaser for the other. Also, I was in a used bookshop and the copies of Nora Webster were covered in notes. I can barely tolerate my own notes in books, let alone someone else’s. Notes rarely age well and crooked highlighting makes me nutty.

 

March 24: In the Woods by Tana French

in-the-woods_cover

As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past. (Amazon)

I read this book a long time ago, about when it first came out, and didn’t like it. Then I started blogging more regularly and seeing Tana French’s name everywhere when she had a new book out. Seems like a good time to give this one a second chance (and possibly read all her others).

March 27: Without My Cloak by Kate O’Brien

without-my-cloak_cover

When Anthony Considine creeps into Mellick town with a stolen horse in 1789, it sets the destiny of his family for decades to come. By the 1850s, through thrift and hard work, his son Honest John has made the Considines a leading Mellick family. With his father’s money, John’s son Anthony builds a grand country house for his wife and children – but especially for his youngest son Denis, who he adores, little knowing that one day Denis will threaten the toil of generations with his love for a peasant girl . . . (Amazon)

I don’t read as many classics as I should so I Googled “Irish classics” or somesuch to round out my list and ran across Without My Cloak. I flipped through it and the writing was so beautiful that I picked it up despite many reviews calling it a slow read. (But I did schedule it for the end of the month, just in case.)

March 30: Monthly Round-up: March 2017

 

So what do you think? Have you read any of these?