writing · reviews/analysis

Book Review: ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ Elif Safak

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A rich and sumptuous historical novel that is both sweeping and intimate.

Authors who write historical fiction often have strike a balance between being accurate to their chosen period, and developing a distinctive style, between demonstrating proficient knowledge of history and crafting a compelling narrative. Fortunately for her readers, Elif Shafak has no such problems. In ‘The Architect’s Apprentice,’ she uses all of the best gifts a writer can utilize to present a celebration of knowledge and the human spirit, set against one of the most colorful periods in world history.

The story begins in 1540, at the height of the Ottoman Empire’s power.  Jahan, a young boy from Hindustan (India), travels to Istanbul to present a fabulous gift to the Sultan – a white elephant named Chota. Unbeknownst to everyone, Jahan has been coerced into thievery by a vicious pirate who desires a share of the Sultan’s wealth. Jahan finds himself in the royal menagerie, where he meets the beautiful Princess Mihramah, developing an infatuation with her which will prove transformative throughout his life. Jahan and Chota are soon thrust into war, where they meet Sinan, the royal architect, a man of endless brilliance and profound humility. Sinan takes Jahan under his tutelage, as the decades roll by Istanbul changes and Jahan along with it. As they construct one iconic building after another, Sinan imparts upon his pupil the secrets of worldly beauty and the keys to a living a meaningful existence.

There is no overarching plotline throughout the novel. Rather, Jahan’s journey is captured in several key episodes of his life, some spanning only a few pages, others take up multiple chapters. Following a single protagonist over the course of a lifetime can, in the wrong hands, result in a tedious, meandering narrative. Luckily for her readers, Safak is able to inject enough sensitivity and emotional flexibility into Jahan’s character to make his a compelling and uniquely human journey. Sinan takes Jahan in when he is at his most vulnerable, notices the cracks in his spirit and seeks to repair them. What makes Jahan a particularly relatable character is that he is neither a hero nor an anti hero; he does not quest for anything, nor does he seek to rebel against the world. Rather, his journey is about learning to accept his place in the universe. It has been said that when we reach our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change. ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ understands this, and like many other stories which deal with spiritual growth features a protagonist who has seen the worst life has to offer. Over the course of the novel, Jahan is forced to watch his mother marry his torturous uncle, denied any opportunity to express his true feelings for the woman he loves, and thrown in jail for no crime but having ambition. Jahan’s passion for his work and studies acts as a salve against the lacerations on his spirit, healing him, and making him stronger as well. What is more, it is in the scenes where Jahan is working that Safak demonstrates herself to be a wise and well-educated person, expertly enlightening discussions of art, history, and philosophy into her dialogue.

The most fascinating way in which Safak explores Jahan’s spiritual development is through his relationship with Chota. In all the world’s mythologies, animals, being closer to nature, are viewed as bridges between the material and meta physical worlds. So intense is the love Jahan has for Chota, that the purity of the elephant’s soul enters his, awakening him to the beauty of life, and giving him the strength to persevere along the journey of life.

‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ is – and I don’t use this term liberally – a rare gem, a piece of contemporary fiction which is both entertaining and profound; as heartbreaking as it is enlightening. Reading this novel is like being in the presence of a worldly sage, sitting and listening to them impart wisdom of the greatest truth. It has a certain energy running through it, a spiritual presence in its pages that makes readers feel connected to the soul of humanity itself.

 

 

 

 

 

reviews/analysis

Book Review: ‘The Girls’ by Emma Cline

image courtesy: http://www.vulture.com/2016/05/emma-clines-masterful-manson-family-novel-debut.html

The first question one might ask themselves about Emma Cline’s debut novel ‘The Girls,’ is, is this a historical novel? I would argue that for a book to be considered historical it must meet at least two criteria: first, its primary story arc must occur in a period of historical significance, and second, it must prominently feature aspects of cultural significance specific to that time. Taking place in the late 1960s, ‘The Girls’ meets the former, but not the latter,  as many defining features of that period, such as the Vietnam War,  the Civil Rights movement, and iconic artists such as Jimmy Hendrix and the Rolling Stones are mentioned either not at all, or only passing. ‘The Girls,’ therefore should not be considered historical. Instead, I would technically qualify this as a literary thriller, though its capacity to thrill, as-well-as its literary merits is a subject of debate.

Evie, the narrator, having squandered her grandmother’s estate over ten years ago, works as a live-in aide. Currently out of work, a friend invites her to stay in his home on the California coast while he is away. One night, Julian, her friend’s college dropout son, and his girlfriend Sasha show up. After Julian makes a few off-handed remarks about Evie’s involvement with a Mansonesque cult in her youth, she recalls the summer of 1969. Then fifteen, Evie’s parents have recently divorced after her father has an affair with a young employee at his company. Evie’s mother, now half-reluctantly clutching onto feminism, announces to Evie she will be sending her to boarding school in the autumn, thinking it will reign in the girl’s rambunctious behavior. Evie is voracious for a respite from suburban tedium, and through a series of convenient coincidences, finds herself in the company of three liberated young women who speak rapturously about their leader, Russell. While Evie soon assumes the guise of a cultist, growing her hair long and wearing dirty clothes, she never fully succumbs to Russell’s charms, only involving herself with the group so as to remain close to Suzanne, Russel’s apparent favorite.

While Cline’s premise is fascinating, she limits its potential by only exploring it through Evie’s eye. Evie never becomes fully immersed in the cult’s environment, her interest in it seems almost casual. Evie steals money from her mother’s purse to give to Suzanne, then later she and the girls break into her neighbor’s house – without stealing anything. These actions seem more mischevious than malicious. Evie makes frequent reference to the brutal murder which gave the cult its infamy, but while driving to the crime scene, Suzanne suddenly tells her to get out of the car and leaves her on the side of the road, thus ending Evie’s time with the cult. A short while later, she is attending boarding school, where her experiences do not appear to have any palpable effect on her personality, either then, or when Evie recalls them as an old woman. Because of this, one can’s help but wonder exactly what is so important about the cult. Had Cline provide an additional narrative voice – such as Suzanne’s – to provide a richer picture of the cult so as to make it a plot point and not just a backdrop.

While lacking in narrative heft, one area in-which ‘The Girls’ excels is in how it illustrates the traumas and disappointments intrinsic to coming of age as a girl.  The most thematically captivating scenes in the novel are the interactions between the male and female characters: Evie trying to impress her best friend’s older brother, one of the girls in the cult being struck in the face by Russell, Julian forcing Sasha to expose her breasts to his friend. At one point Russel sends Evie and Suzanne to the home of Mitch, a famous musician whom Russel is trying to coerce into giving him a record deal. Suzanne pressures Evie into group sex with Mitch, saying that he’ll be gentle, which causes Evie to think ‘As though that would make it better.”  Evie’s choice to involve herself with the cult is representative of how a girl her age will pursue relationships – romantic, sexual, or otherwise – with people who are not necessarily conducive to their well-being as an act of rebellion. Ironically, such attempted expressions of autonomy often result in states of subservience, where girls will forsake their own senses of individuality and self-preservation so as to better please their men in their lives; in these cases, girls attach themselves to male (or female) figures, because they represent an authority separate from their parents.

Despite its many flaws, ‘The Girls’ should be seen as the beginning of what will surely be an impressive career from an author of superb intelligence and creativity.  Her voice is both touchingly sensitive, and unflinchingly honest.

 

 

 

 

reviews/analysis

4 Novels for Ravenclaws

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Our fourth and final post in this series centers on the house these kinds of lists are made for, Ravenclaw. Ravenclaw’s sigil is a bronze eagle – not a raven – over a blue field; the young witches and wizards Ravenclaw attracts are creative, intelligent, and take pleasure in learning for its own sake. One of the house’s lesser known traits is its acceptance of individuals who are, for lack of a better term unique. From its beginning Ravenclaw has produced some of the most brilliant minds in the wizarding world, such as Garrick Ollivander, crafter of the finest wands in all of Europe, Filius Flitwick, the greatest Charms Master in Hogwarts history, and Luna Lovegood, who, though quite young at the time, proved indispensable in the second wizarding war against Lord Voldemort.

“The Secret History” by Donna Tartt   

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image courtesy of: https://www.abebooks.com/book-search/title/secret-history/author/donna-tartt/

This is hands down my favorite book of all time, so as a Slytherin, I was tempted to put it on my own houses list, but the grand intellectual ideas this novel infuses into its plot just makes it perfect for Ravenclaw. Richard, a perpetually melancholic young man travels from his no-name town in California, to a private arts college on the East Coast. While there, he becomes involved with an exclusive and secretive group of scholars whose charismatic classics professor inadvertently leads them down a twisting path of ever increasing darkness. There are two things I feel Ravenclaws will appreciate about this gem: first, Tartt’s superb writing: she manages to strike the perfect balance between style and narrative substance, crafting an elegantly structured plot while also feeding readers rich, beautiful prose. Second, the hefty dose of intellectualism: throughout this brisk story, we are treated to a wide range of fascinating ideas, ranging from theories of art and philosophy, to history and literature, something the house of learning and creativity will love.    

“American Gods,” Neil Gaiman

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image courtesy of: https://www.amazon.com/American-Gods-Tenth-Anniversary-Novel/dp/0062472100

Neil Gaiman is a Ravenclaw, right? He certainly strikes me as one: prolific creator of genre defying literary masterpieces, highly intelligent and articulate, with a sense of humor all his own. Endlessly creative, and rich with the DNA of world mythology, Gaiman’s magnum opus, “American Gods,” embodies much of the spirit of the house of Rowena. Shadow Moon, a recently freed ex-convict finds himself in the employment of Mr. Wednesday, the self proclaimed King of America, who is traveling cross-country recruiting soldiers for a coming war between the Old Gods – deities which have traveled to America with immigrants but have lost their power as people’s belief in them has waned – and the New Gods – personifications of new forces in American culture, like technology, media, etc. What I feel Ravenclaws will enjoy about this brilliant work is how Gaiman is able to apply his deep knowledge of history and mythology to such an entertaining narrative, as-well-as the subtle commentary he makes about American immigration and the importance of storytelling to the human condition.   

“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” by Michael Chabon

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image courtesy of:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Amazing-Adventures-Kavalier-Clay/dp/1841154938

What better fit for Ravenclaw than a novel about the journey of artists trying balance creativity with the demands of real life. Beginning in the golden age of comics, Michael Chabon’s pulitzer prize winning masterpiece centers around Joe Kavalier, an aspiring escape artist with a talent for illustration, who flees Europe during the rise of Nazism, taking refuge with his relative, Sam Clay. Overtaken with entrepreneurial drive, Joe and Sam set out to create an iconic superhero in the vein of Superman, an endeavour which they accomplish gloriously.  As the years go by, Joe and Sam find themselves embroiled in the politics of war, deal with the stresses of love and family,  reap the rewards (and consequences) of their success. Ravenclaws are creative, and naturally drawn to anything with a unique style or aesthetic, and so I feel they will appreciate the colorful writing Chabon employs to capture a period in American history which is often unexplored in fiction.

 

“The Golden Compass,”  by Philip Pullman

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image courtesy of: https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Compass-20th-Anniversary/dp/1101934662

Merging science fiction and fantasy in way which has yet to be rivaled, the first installment in Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy centers around Lyra, a headstrong young girl in an alternate version of our world, the most striking characteristic of which is that every human has a daemon – a physical manifestation of their soul which follows them around in the form of an animal. In addition to being thoroughly enchanting, Pullman’s novel features a magic system unlike any other, functioning almost like science. As Ravenclaws, being a logical bunch, will appreciate such a meticulous approach.       

   

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Book Review: ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane,’ by Neil Gaiman.

image courtesy of: https://www.bookdepository.com/Ocean-at-End-Lane-Neil-Gaiman/9781472228420

A highly inventive story that will remind adults how terrifying childhood can be.

I find it ironic that science fiction and fantasy are often dismissed as cheap entertainment by literary elites, when the authors of these genres draw from a wider range of skills and inspirations than their “more serious” literary counterparts, in addition to often being as well educated as, and better read. Due to the style he injects into his works, Neil Gaiman is one of only a few genre authors to escape this stigma.  Like all of Gaiman’s works, ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ comfortably occupies multiple genres at once: horror, myth, character study, and can successfully blend them into a cohesive work which also incorporates fascinating insights about human nature.

While attending a funeral in his hometown, the novel’s unnamed narrator, now a middle-aged man, wanders away from his family and stumbles upon a pond which triggers a set of memories which are interesting to say the least. He remembers back to the year he turned seven, when he was a lonely young boy with a fondness for stories and kittens. At this time, his parents, strapped for cash, take in a South African opal miner as a boarder, who later goes missing, along with the family’s new Mini Cooper. After much searching, the Mini is found near a pond, with the man’s dead body inside. While the narrator’s father deals with the police, he goes to a nearby house where he meets Lettie Hempstock, a young girl from a mysterious family who claims to be older than the moon, and who tells him the pond is actually an ocean. While enjoying breakfast with the Hempstocks the boy is taken by Lettie to the otherworldly forest outside their home, where he watches Lettie battle a monstrous creature made of rags. That night, he goes home and discovers a worm has burrowed into his foot, he pulls it out, and a few days later his family hires Ursula Monkton, a live-in house keeper whose beauty and charm are only masks to her supernatural malevolence.

What I enjoy most about Gaiman as an author is the lack of embellishment there is to be found in his prose. While lush, flowing prose can be a joy to read, some authors will use it to compensate for the inadequacies of their work, smothering the inner beauty of a story. In the case of ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane,’ a minimalistic approach not only proves pleasurable on a stylistic level but contributes beautifully in terms of theme. Children, even ones as clever as our narrator, have a limited understanding of the world, and are easily hindered when trying to articulate their reactions to it, thus, use of simplistic language is perfect when recreating the voice of a child. What is more, our narrator’s description of the fantastical events have a hazy, dreamlike quality to them, that leads one to question whether or not what they are reading is actually true, or just a product of the narrator’s imagination. It is easy for adults to dismiss children for the wild imaginations, what Gaiman tries (and succeeds) to do with this book, is remind us how much children rely on their imaginations to make sense of things which frighten them. Children are small when everything else around them is big. To a child all adults are monsters, and everything seems older than the moon.

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Novels for Slytherins

Image courtesy of: https://www.deviantart.com/art/Slytherin-660086425

I know it’s been about a year since the previous installment of this series, but I’ve restarted the blog, and plan on posting at least once a week from now on.  

This week’s post focuses on perhaps the most misunderstood house at Hogwarts: Slytherin. Slytherin has for its sigil a silver snake on a green field, and attracts students who are ambitious, cunning, have a strong sense of fraternity, and who value strong leadership. Slytherins have a reputation for being prejudice against wizards who are of mixed magical and non-magical heritage, a trait which dates back to their founder, Salazar Slytherin, who left Hogwarts after disagreeing with the other three founders about allowing non-pure-blooded students to study at the school. The prejudice is completely irrational, not only because most wizarding families have at least some muggles in them, but because purity is in no way an accurate indication of a wizard’s talent or abilities. Hagrid remarks in “The Chamber of Secrets”: “Neville Longbottom’s pureblood, and he can barely remember which end of the cauldron goes right side up.” Slytherin is also known for producing more dark wizards than any of the other houses, one of which was Lord Voldemort himself. This doesn’t mean Slytherins are all evil, many have gone on to become great witches and wizards, like Horace Slughorn, the greatest potions master in Hogwarts’ history, mentor to Harry Potter’s mother Lily, and the only serpent to fight against the Dark Lord in the Battle of Hogwarts. Severus Snape, Slughorn’s successor as potion’s master, became hated by many after killing Albus Dumbledore at the end of “The Half Blood Prince,” but was later revealed to be a hero, secretly protecting Harry until the time came that Voldemort was able to be defeated. And then there’s Merlin. That’s right, Merlin, the most famous wizard of all time was not only a Slytherin, but was the prodigy of Salazar Slytherin himself.

 

“The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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image courtesy of: http://www.scribnermagazine.com/2015/04/in-my-younger-and-more-vulnerable-years-on-first-reading-the-great-gatsby/

The quintessential novel about the American dream, “The Great Gatsby” is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, who moves next door to the eccentric Jay Gatsby, whose lavish parties are the stuff of legend in the West Egg area of Long Island. The book’s themes of greed, ambition, and reinvention, fit hand-in-hand with Slytherin sensibilities, and Jay Gatsby practically bleeds silver and green.  One aspect of this novel that should have particular resonance with Slytherin fans, is its commentary about the relationship between old and new money. Jay, who desperately seeks the lovely Daisy Buchanan, has spent a lifetime trying to achieve the wealth and status that will make him worthy of her. While the money he earns affords him many decadent luxuries, the one thing he will never be able to buy is the prestige and respect that only those born into high society enjoy. We find an interesting parallel in the prejudice shown to Jay by his blue blooded neighbors, and superior attitude pure blooded Slytherins have over their classmates of mixed heritage.    

 

“The Picture of Dorian Grey,” by Oscar Wilde

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image courtesy of: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-picture-of-dorian-gray/oscar-wilde/9781435129757

Another short work, Wilde’s classic is both a terrifying gothic tale and a celebration of the decadence movement which dominated British high society in the late nineteenth century. This novel’s characters rebel against the romantic and natural, fixating themselves with the superficial, those aspects of life which arouse the senses, but don’t quite satisfy. The plot concerns Dorian Grey, a young man blessed with exceptional beauty, who sells his soul so as to remain young forever.  I’ve chosen this novel because Slytherins, like Dorian and his friends, take great care to maintain their personal image, and are highly concerned with their social standing. Ravenclaws may enjoy the wit Wilde infuses into this work, but the insightful anecdotes about marriage, class, and art will have an undeniable appeal to Serpents.     

 

“The Lies of Locke Lamora,” by Scott Lynch

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image courtesy of: http://camorr.wikia.com/wiki/The_Lies_of_Locke_Lamora

The first installment in Scott Lynch’s masterpiece fantasy series is too intricately constructed to sum up in a paragraph, but I’ll do my best. The story is set in Camorr, a fantastical version of Renaissance Venice, where corruption is law, and thieves hold the true power; a place where only those with the longest knives and the sharpest wits can survive and thrive – basically, it’s a city run by Slytherins, for Slytherins.  Our “heroes” are the Gentleman Bastards, a gang of elite thieves who have amassed a fortune conning Camorr’s well-to-do out of their riches. The novel’s structure is positively brilliant, intercutting scenes of the Bastards planning their most ambitious heist yet, with transformative events in their lives, as-well-as several compelling episodes in Camorr’s history.  While the fiendish intricacies of the Bastard’s plots will garner the applause of any self-respecting serpent, it’s the fierce sense of brotherhood shared by Locke and his friends that will make this a compelling read.

 

“The Magicians,” by Lev Grossman

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image courtesy of: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/magicians-lev-grossman/1100309808

I don’t like putting two fantasy novels in the same entry, but this is just such a perfect fit for the house of the cunning and ambitious. Part parody, part adventure, part exploration of the existential crises of heroism, this first installment in a trilogy centers around Brakebills, secret university in upstate New York, where those of the highest intellectual caliber are taught the secrets of magic – not the soft and cuddly magic of your childhood adventure stories, but real magic, the kind of stuff that would make Voldemort shit his robes. Over five psychologically trying years, we see Quentin Coldwater and his emotionally disaffected classmates repeatedly try to out do each other, as they learn increasingly powerful and complex forms of magic, for no apparent reason other than to know they are better than everyone else in their class, taking breaks only to engage wanton Hedonism. Basically, it’s like if  Hogwarts were a university, and all the students were hard-drinking sex-crazed Slytherins.    

Life · writing

Movement for the Body, Mind, and Spirit

 

This is an essay I wrote after returning from trip to Lewes, England

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, there is a rapture on the lonely shore, there is society, where none intrudes, by the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not man the less, but Nature more – Lord Byron. ”  

 

The history of many religious and philosophical movements are built around stories of their founders and prophets achieving spiritual transcendence while embarking upon grueling physical journeys: Jesus wandered through the desert for forty days and nights without food or water, during-which he found the strength to resist the temptations of the devil, the Buddha spent his whole life roaming across India, collecting all the wisdom he could from the country’s holy men, depriving himself of even the most basic physical pleasures, eventually realizing true enlightenment comes from equal engagement with both the internal, and the external realms. Even in Norse mythology, Odin, the Allfather, was known as a wanderer, protecting any brave souls who sought adventure wherever the seas would take them. Though these different systems of belief are constructed of differing values, one common feature among them is that their most spiritually powerful figures are those who detach themselves from stability and comfort, so as to experience the full breadth of life on Earth. Though nowhere near as arduous as the aforementioned journeys, my trip to Lewes had a profound effect on me that transcended the program’s academic nature, and imbued me with new perspectives on life.

England is a small country, but coming here gave me a sense of how small I am in relation to the rest of the world. Where I was born and raised, everything is developed, and paved over; everything is right next to everything else, and the only way to go anywhere is by enclosing yourself in a tiny metal box and driving there. I’ve spent my whole life stepping aside to make room for machines ten times my size or squeezing myself into spaces that weren’t designed to fit a human being. Walking through miles of open country has given me a new perspective of how profound an effect space can have on my state of mind, something I realized on our walk to Charleston, when we climbed the steep hills which surround Lewes, reaching the top, I gazed out upon a seemingly endless field of green: miles of grass, dotted with flowers of every color, fields of wheat waving in the gentle breeze, creating ripples of light as the sun shone on them, trees which had stood strong for hundreds of years, old before before my parents or grandparents had even been born.

The simple act of being present in such a large amount of unspoiled space, with no barrier between myself and the natural world felt cleansing, as though all the gunk had been removed from my spirit. Out in the fields, I felt no sadness, no frustration, no anxiety about the future or past; and I believe that the physicality of our outings contributed significantly to the introspective change I underwent, as I was forced to put all my energy into strenuous exercise, and not into chasing whichever thoughts happen to conjure themselves up in my head. During and after our hikes, I endured a hefty amount of pain, in all parts of my body: my muscles, my bones, my heart and lungs; I was sunburnt, dehydrated, and often so exhausted I could barely speak. And yet, none of it felt like suffering to me, instead, I took the discomfort as a sign that I was becoming stronger, that a weaker, less self-actualized version of myself was melting away to make room for a better one. Profuse sweating removed toxins from my system, heavy breathing and an increased heart rate sent enlivening blood and oxygen to all parts of my body; my body was growing in power, and as a result, so was my mind.

I found myself able to contemplate great ideas, chief among them, those concerning impermanence. While exploring the hills and valleys of southern England, I thought of all the history the land had seen, the countless souls who had walked these paths before, now all dead, just like I would be one day. I can achieve great things as a writer, and as a person in general: write great works of literature which sell millions of copies and touch countless lives, amass great sums of money, and become exquisitely educated, but none of those things will negate the reality that one day my body will slowly deteriorate and die.

It’s easy for us to get so wrapped up in ourselves that we become out of tune with the Earth’s natural rhythms, failing to recognize the forces at work in the universe which are larger than ourselves.  Given that we enjoy a relatively short period of time on Earth, I believe the most productive use of our energy is the augmentation of the spiritual aspects of life. This is best done through giving one’s self ample amounts of open space to explore, so as to become more tuned in with the universe’s natural rhythms. Americans don’t realize how lucky we are, to live in a large country, with such a splendid plethora of environments to experience, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Redwood Forests, places which constitute a sizable portion of our national heritage, and which I, lamentably, have never seen in person. After my adventures in the Southdowns, I have a new found hunger to explore the world on foot and feel the transcendent power that comes from being present in the raw wilderness, removed from the trappings of civilization. This is something I realized on our excursion to London, when I was struck by the disparity between the two settings; the noise and activity of London proved somewhat jarring after I had gotten used to the calm and consistency of Lewes, and while the city still retains a glamorous allure to me, extended stays there are not conducive to achievement of ephemeral transcendence. As I move forward in life, I plan to make the most of my home country’s magnificent landscapes, to break the gaudy bonds of comfort and familiarity, and venture beyond the borders of what I have come to know as my home. I choose to embark upon further pilgrimages of the mind, for to allow one’s body to remain sedentary is to cause the stagnation of the spirit.  

reviews/analysis · writing

Book Review: ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ By Elizabeth Strout

A bite-sized novel whose exquisite prose can’t quite transcend its bland protagonist.

Elizabeth Strout strikes me as every stereotype of what the moderately well-read American thinks a ‘serious’ literary novelist to be.  Beginning life as a wispy-haired child on the New England coast, she knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life. Later, as a wispy-haired adult, she spends her days teaching at an obscure liberal arts college, writing stories about the emotionally disaffected. My first foray into her work, ‘My Name is Lucy Barton, is precisely the kind of book one would expect such an author to write.

We begin with the eponymous narrator, recalling a few days she spent in a New York City hospital, recovering from what was supposed to be a routine appendectomy. At the request of Lucy’s husband her mother flies in from rural Illinois to be with her, prompting Lucy to recall her impoverished childhood, eating nothing but molasses on bread for dinner, being mocked for not bathing, having to live with her family in a garage until she was eleven. From there the story jumps back and forth between various episodes in her life: college,  attending workshops with a famous author, the AIDs crisis of the Eighties, etc. The stark language Strout uses to weave her way through this stream of consciousness narrative lulls the reader into a state where they are easily susceptible to the novel’s atmospheric charms. There is a certain calmness to the book, a regal elegance that makes it easily digestible, but also work against it in certain ways. The entire story is told to us in Lucy’s voice. Generally, this serves to build intimacy with the audience. However, the simplicity of the language used is insufficient to convey the emotional depth necessary to become properly invested in her character. What is more, it provides glaring inconsistency with her backstory: someone who is college educated and makes their living as a writer should be able to more richly vocalize the psychological nuances within her head.

Lucy’s imparts her journey with a resigned stoicism that makes her frustrating as a protagonist, we see the full breadth of her life from childhood into middle age, and yet never truly feel like we know her: the dramatic contrast between Lucy’s humble beginnings and her transformation into a cultured member of New York’s literary scene is harrowing, but only to a point, as the watery sketch she draws of herself robs transformative moments of much of their cerebral heft. This broad-strokes-approach is most problematic in how the novel deals with Lucy’s estranged relationship with her mother. Lucy experienced abuse at the hands of her parents, including frequent insults from her mother – when Lucy began to develop breasts, her mother told her ‘You look like a cow’ – and being forced to spend nights locked pickup truck as punishment. Being forced to stay in the same room as her abuser draws up a bevy of complex emotions in Lucy, while she is intrigued by the stories her mother has to tell about life back home, she feels a palpable need to address the bad blood between the two of them, but just can’t bring herself to; she tries to get her mother to say she loves her, but can’t muster enough assertiveness. Throughout the novel, Lucy remains detached, devoid of personality, a character type, not a character.

For all the faults in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ one aspect which is undeniable while reading it is the skill of its author, Strout demonstrates a keen ear for style in her prose, as-well-as a superb gift for crafting realistic dialogue. As with any artist, to judge Strout’s entire body of work against the weight of one piece would be a diseased way of thinking – especially since I haven’t read anything else by her – in this novel I see an intelligent, sensitive writer, who had the ambition to craft a provocative character study, but instead wrote the literary equivalent of a spring roll, light, tasty, but not substantial enough to be thoroughly satisfying.