The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Aug 9, 2018 by

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

I finished The Human Stain by Philip Roth this past weekend and at times felt like reading the places where he crammed four pages of internal monologue into 20 it should have been called The Human “Strain.” I read this book on my Kindle and listened to other parts on Audible to help speed things along. I don’t normally do that but there was so much gray on the pages my brain needed a break.

The Human Stain

The Human Stain

The Human Strain

All that said, I did like the story, and more importantly, I learned some important things about writing from reading The Human Stain. That simply must be emphasized here. There were times Saturday when I wanted to drive to Interabang Books in Dallas and buy a hard copy of the book to have to underline in it, so I can go back to passages in time and read them again and pull from them, possibly. But then I got to sections, like when Delphine Roux has her thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … right before the climax of the book and I damn near put it down for good.

This is what one is taught not to do is writing schools. And yet the book was the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. So like in all things, there are rules, but then they are meant for everyone else.

There was a lot of head hopping in this book, things that Nathan Zuckerman could not have known to write it. When he’s supposing in his head about a character, like the example above of Delphine Roux, an antagonist of protagonist Coleman Silk throughout the work, suddenly in the next sentence, we’re in Delphine’s head and we know all about her life in France before coming to America. We know about men she was with. We know about her mom and her mom’s French history. We even get to hear her mom talk. We know about a trip she took to New York. We know how she sent an anonymous letter. We know how she contrived a b.s. story to tie in to the death of Coleman Silk. None of which Zuckerman could have known–yet he presents it in the story as fact. The same for Les Farley. The same for Faunia Farley. The same for Coleman Silk. The same for the guys who take Les Farley to the Chinese restaurant and out to the portable Vietnam Wall.

Yes, this is fiction, but I had a hard time with that, when it’s been drilled into my head, “No head hopping.”

Half-Mast v. Half-Staff

Another point, Roth shows he has vast knowledge of the classics, foreign languages, literature, the psyche of the human condition, etc, (and that’s a big etc.) but he makes the simplest of mistakes which makes me question all the rest of it. The mistake? He says, repeatedly, that the US flags have been lowered to “Half Mast.” Only problem is that masts are on boats, and most flags in the US, particularly the ones on land, fly on staffs, so the proper use of the term is to say, “Flags are flown at half-staff.” So I wonder if his editors, being so overwhelmed with all the other profundity, simply didn’t bother to check. “He must be right!” Or had their minds been so numbed with the 4 pages into 20 monologues they were simply to fried to check out something so simple.

Raising the Stakes – Negation of the Negation

But I came away with a better sense of the proverbial “raising the stakes.” The Robert McKee point of the “Negation of the Negation.”

Coleman Silk has a secret and that secret ultimately isn’t his undoing, but drives the story to the dark corners it sheds light upon. And that’s the beauty of what Philip Roth does with The Human Stain. Race, political correctness, morality, family relationships, secrets, all those themes are woven together and pushed as far as they can be taken. And that is what works in this book. That is what makes it a good read, and a beneficial read as I continue to work toward my goal of reading 101 literary works to help improve my own writing.

Conclusion

Read The Human StainIt won the PEN/Faulkner Award. After seeing Faulkner’s name, yeah, I can see why. (If I could think like that and the synapses and dendrites of my neural pathways were not searing from having spent forty-eight hours of heat-seared Texas summer time sunlight and unseasonably cool evenings surveying the pages of Philip Roth’s book searching for the meaning in his words and trying to find personal meaning and satisfaction in each single solitary one of them for my own beneficial use, I’d write a long and in-depth sentence explaining how that makes every bit of perfect sense to me and how when each new day begins for the rest of my life I will be a changed man because of reading such expansive thoughts that he included on his pages, well, you get the idea….)

 

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Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home

Aug 6, 2018 by

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home

I enjoyed reading Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home, though I must say from the beginning, when it gets to the fork in the road, I was a little split.

The story was, too.

A Long Way From Home

Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home starts off about a race around Australia and then ends up as something far different. It is a good story though. Well worth the read.

Carey’s writing is superb and this is one of those award winning books. It is very much worth the read and enjoyable. There is something smooth about how Carey writes, though I will also admit, I had to jump start my reading of this book three times to get fully into it. That means I picked it up three separate times and tried to get going with it, set it down cos I just could not get into it. But the third time, my ignition started, and we were off to the races, literally.

The story is about a husband and wife in rural Australia in the 1950s who embark on a journey around the continent in their Ford with 200 or so others. To navigate, they take with them their next door neighbor, who has recently been let go for hanging a bratty school kid out the second floor window for being a smart ass. (And I thought I had it bad when I was at Dallas Schools and had to explain away things when a teacher taped a kid to his desk one late May.)

So off they pop and go on the trip and the Bobbseys, the married couple have their differences, but for a glimpse, it looks as though the navigator/school teacher and the missus might have a go at it, but then they don’t. Nonetheless, the hubs gets his head filled with a notion that something happened, and the navigator is sacked. He then winds up in a camp of sorts, teaching Aborigines, which, come to find out, are truly his blood relatives. That he’d been born there, sent away, adopted by a German couple, and this is post WWII and that’s what the smart ass kid had been bugging the teacher about–being a kraut, when he was really not.

To me, that’s where the story went sideways. It was a little too convenient. Too contrived. But it helped bring the story full round and helped the character see a new side of himself, helped him rid himself of demons that had been bothering him all his life, and made for a nice character arc.

Again, I liked the story, but it began about a couple getting into the Redex Race, and then it was about something far different by the end. That’s my main criticism.

 

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Kristin Hannah The Great Alone

Aug 2, 2018 by

Kristin Hannah The Great Alone

I’ve read Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, the first book by her I’ve read. It’s been suggested that I should also read The Nightingale, but I’ve not had the time to do so, yet. The Great Alone has spent 19 weeks now on the New York Times Bestseller Hardcover Fiction list. Once something reaches the 15 week mark, there abouts, I read it to study it.

The Great Alone

Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone didn’t make me want to move to Seward’s Folly, but it is a good read, though there was some interesting work done with POV.

There were some things about this story that I liked. There also were some things that bothered me, considerably. Most of all, the point of view. I’m calling it third/first person omniscient. For me it was weird to read this book. We were in the main character’s head the whole book, except on sub chapter, where we head hopped into another’s, and then we were back only in the lead character’s head, but we weren’t first person in her head, we were third person in her head. But then, even though the book was telling the story from years ago, the late 1970s and the 1980s, there were times when Hannah would say things like, “today,” or “here.” So it was today, but it was years ago all at the same time, and we knew all that was going on in the lead character’s head, but we weren’t in her head. She wasn’t talking to us, the readers.

I also jumped out of the book when Leni, the main character, and her mother, decided after her mother shot Leni’s father in the back, to haul his body off and dispose of it rather than calling the police. There were still about 120 or more pages to go at that point and I’d invested about 300 or more, so I was in, but at that point, I really wanted to stop.

Some of the reviews on Amazon think the ending fit together a little too well, too. That didn’t bother me as much. I was glad to see the denouement  coming together so I could wrap up the book with a bow and it be over. This was a YA book, so it had to have something of a happily ever after ending, don’t you know.

Hannah’s writing is good. Her storytelling, the descriptions of being in Alaska were vivid and raw and made me feel like I’d made the journey and were living there. I don’t have a feeling like I want to rush to Seward’s Folly and stake a claim, but it was a good book to have read.

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Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Aug 1, 2018 by

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

I recently read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler, and was surprised by some of it, discouraged by other parts, and amused at others.

Throughout 2018 I have been reading everything I can find about F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald presents a unique perspective of the life and times of the Fitzgeralds.

From my reading list, where I’m seeking to read 101 works of literary fiction, I’ve devoured several of Scott and Ernest’s books already. And I’ve read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s book where he talks about the Fitzgeralds, (some say this book has been disproved) and I’ve also seen the Amazon Season One series of Z: The Beginning of Everything, which is based loosely on this novel about Zelda.

Seeing the relationship between Scott and Ernest through a woman’s point of view certainly cast new light on Scott’s writing career. In this case, Fowler has taken an interesting twist, to suggest that Hemingway doth protest too much in his machoism and was really a closet homosexual. If you Google such, there is a fair amount of discussion about this topic on the Internet, all written long after Hemingway’s death. In many ways I wonder if this isn’t led by those who were holding grudges for having to read Hemingway and Fitzgerald in high school and college and this is their way of getting revenge.

Nonetheless, the book is fiction and Fowler admits at the end that she merely is speculating based on what she’d researched and drawing her own conclusions about many aspects about the lives of the three.

The book is worth reading. It shed light on Zelda I’d not seen before. Fowler suggests that the blame for Scott not writing was more so on Scott than where Hemingway laid it, on Zelda. That probably is more fair to Zelda, though I have to admit, I’ve tried to live in a home where there is chaos and drama and when it’s there, getting much writing done isn’t possible.

Give the book a read.

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Writing Advice from Ottessa Moshfegh–STAY NUDE!

Jul 25, 2018 by

Writing Advice from Ottessa Moshfegh–STAY NUDE!

New York Times Bestselling Author Ottessa Moshfegh was at Interabang Bookstore in Dallas last night promoting her new book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which is number 15 this week, and when she signed my book, she offered me encouragement to keep writing and to “Stay Nude!”

Now you’re obviously wondering what in the world this could mean. Let me explain.

Stay Nude!

Writing encouragement from Ottessa Moshfegh, STAY NUDE!

During Q&A with Interabang‘s book club master Lori Feathers, the audience was given a chance to ask Ottessa questions. When it came my turn, I had a special question in mind.

You see I recently read Ottessa’s first book Eileen with great interest. It is quite an odd book, with a deeply puzzling protagonist. The woman, Eileen, is troubled, there are few kinder words to offer.

In the writing program at Southern Methodist University, The Writer’s Path, the director of the program, Suzanne Frank, often told us that writers often bare their souls in novels. That we transform large parts of ourselves into our protagonists when we write. Suzanne has called it, “Full frontal nudity of the soul.”

And so, my question to Ottessa Moshfegh was simple. Between Eileen and the protagonist in her new book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, how much of what we’re reading is “Full frontal nudity of her soul.”

She didn’t even reflect very much before she blurted out the answer: “You’re definitely getting some side boob action.”

I blushed.

So when time came for Ottessa to sign my book, we talked about writing styles. She knows I’m a writer as well. I’ve even sent off a query to Bill Clegg at The Clegg Agency and I’m waiting for an answer. The conversation was fun. I enjoyed meeting her, we said our farewells and I walked away happy to have met her.

When I got to my car, I opened the book out of curiosity to see how she had signed it. “To Donny, best of luck with your writing. Stay nude! Ottessa Moshfegh.”

She understood my question in a much deeper sense than she’d allowed in her answer. I’m reading Peter Carey’s A Long Way From Home at present but hope to start My Year of Rest and Relaxation before the weekend starts.

And of course, do some writing. I have a new mantra for when I’m in front of my typewriter making the magic flow onto the page. STAY NUDE! Thanks, Ottessa for the encouragement. You do the same, though I don’t think you’ve had any problem.

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Warlight

Jul 20, 2018 by

Warlight

I read Michael Ondaatje’s book Warlight with great interest and enjoyed it, a lot. What do you when at the end of World War II, you’ve been birthed by two British spies and they’re being hunted by people in Europe who don’t care that the war is over? When their greatest protection for you is to disappear or keep fighting the war as well? When they send you to live with people you’re convinced are criminals?

warlight

Michael Ondaatje’s book Warlight is a great story about post-World War II life in England and how it affected the lives of children of two British spies.

Such is the premise for this book and it read fast. I think it took me a day and a half to read the entire thing. It’s a page turner and as the story unfolds, I felt the emotions Ondaatje wants a reader to feel–how a child left in such a precarious position must have felt–the loneliness, but also the curiosity and longing to figure out just what in the world was going on. From the first pages, the father leaves for Singapore. He’s never heard from again. The mother, however, makes her return and when she comes back, plops back down in the middle of her kids’ lives, but acts almost like she never left. There is resentment, anger, confusion, mystery, and still, the need for secrecy.

Honestly, I do not think there was anything in this book I did not like. It all worked and the story flowed. It made sense. The writing is superb. The storytelling keen and masterful. This is an example of what writing is supposed to look like and how it is supposed to work.

And because I bought my copy at Interabang Books in Dallas, I have a signed first edition. That’s something I’m proud about for my book collection.

I’ve not read Ondaatje’s most notable book, The English Patient, for which he won the Booker Prize, but it is definitely on my list of things to do the rest of 2018.

Conclusion

I highly recommend Michael Ondaatje and his book Warlight. This is a very good book and the story is unique.

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The Immortalists

Jul 18, 2018 by

The Immortalists

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

What if you were told when you were a child the exact day you would die? That’s the premise of Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists. The book shares the story of four brothers and sisters who all visit a fortune teller one day early in their lives and the woman tells them each, separately, the day they will die. The book then goes about telling the four separate stories about how each of the four carry/live out the prophecy of the old woman.

As I’ve said before, I like to read books that make me think when I’m reading them, and makes me keep thinking once I’m done. This is a book that does that, kind of like the death of a loved one makes one think about his/her own mortality while grieving.

Chloe Benjamin’s writing style is good. The story flowed and it took me a day or two to read the book. The cover is beautiful and I’m told mixed with Jewish symbolism involving the Tree of Life. Poetic.

But there were some things that bothered me about the book.

Overt Use of Sex

For one, I don’t know why we needed the description of Varya’s pubic area, breasts and nipples in the second and third sentences. For all the talk in writing schools about needing a winning first sentence and hook, this didn’t set up a dramatic question. Didn’t answer one either.

And then there was the story of Simon, the youngest brother who dies first, of AIDS in the late 1980s in San Francisco. Writer Benjamin decides we need to be taken through explicit descriptions of homosexual love scenes. Call me homophobic all you want, but that’s not something I care to read about and quite frankly, I skimmed through most of that section and it clearly didn’t affect my understanding of the outcome of the book. Ergo, it wasn’t necessary.

Conclusion

I bought the book because I think I saw on Amazon it’s one of the best selling books so far in 2018. As I continue to work toward my reading goal of 101 literary books, I’m varying my scope of what I’m reading. This book was an okay read. Like I said, there were parts of it I could and did do without. But an interesting question nonetheless. Would you want to know the day you were going to die? How would it affect how you lived?

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