Review Fridays: Glaciers

I used to think that books could be firmly divided into two categories: plot-driven and character-driven. Plot-driven books thrive on heart-pumping activity. Car chases! Spies! The search for lost treasure! Character-driven books rely on the characters, their actions, and their personal growth to drive the book along. However, in Glaciers, Alexis M. Smith has added a new category to my list: word-driven.

The best way that I can describe Glaciers is that it is for people who are in love with words. Smith has managed to write an elegant, thin novel about a day in the life of a woman named Isabel, but it is simultaneously about the past. Not just her past, but the past of others: ancestors, coworkers, friends, strangers she finds on postcards and pictures and through their vintage clothing. It is about how to tell the story of this past while in the present.

The characters build upon this by telling each other stories, and the book ends when Isabel is about to tell her story at a party she is attending. Presumably, it will be the story we have just been reading, a fact which makes for a neat ending, but one that I felt like I had read before. It is an ending very like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and, in fact, both books share a lot of themes in common. The difference is that Glaciers keeps us at a distance with a third-person point of view throughout the whole. We can see what Isabel is thinking, but we are not getting the story from her, and we do not get to hear her story as it is told to the people she meets at the party. There is an invisible narrator telling the story for her, and I felt like that sometimes acted against the narrative.

Most of the time, when I am reading a book, I stop to think about the characters. That didn’t happen while I was reading this. Instead, I would pause to consider the language. Although it didn’t take very long to read, I would find myself stopping at points to think about why the language worked as well as it did. I was not entirely enthralled with the plot or the characters, but I did enjoy the writing. This is one of those strange books that I would not recommend for everyone. If, after reading the first few pages, it does not grab your attention, you will probably not want to read this book.

To be honest, after finishing Glaciers, I am not sure that I liked this slim novel.The closure is a bit artificial; we don’t find out what happens between the main character and her potential love interest. We don’t even get much of the background between Isabel and him. Will they keep in touch? Will they even ever see each other again? It is hard for me to care about a book when the characters are not that interesting, when their actions are not explained, and when they do not show any personal growth. Isabel ends the book in the same state she begins it. She will wake up the next week and go to work and sometimes think about her lost love, but I doubt that it will change her everyday life very much.

What I am saying, I guess, is that the focus on language over plot and characters led to a dull story. It was lovely language, yes, but there was not much else of substance going on with the story. There are plenty of books that I would re-read, ones that are not half as well written, because the author knows how to tell a fascinating story complete with complex characters. However, I know already that I will not be re-reading Glaciers.


Happy Jane Day!

On this day 240 years ago, December 16, 1775, Jane Austen was born at Steventon rectory in England. I have written before on this blog of my great admiration of Miss Austen. She was a brilliant writer, one who rivals all of the greats of English literature and one who continues to be beloved with each passing year. Best of all, like most great writers, Jane Austen enjoyed nothing so much as a good novel:

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Many of her characters were avid readers, as Jane was herself during her lifetime.

“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

How does a Janeite properly observe Jane Day? I have made a list of the best ways to celebrate:

  1. Hide your feelings for your currently unavailable love interest while your sister spouts her love for a man at the top of her lungs. Comfort her when he dumps her for a wealthier woman.
  2. Attend a party where your looks are slighted by a haughty, reserved man who will eventually come to admire your fine eyes.
  3. Quietly but faithfully love a man who is blinded by the charms of a beautiful, but not altogether good, woman. Wait patiently until he becomes disillusioned with her.
  4. Play matchmaker! After you make a number of assumptions, you discover that you were completely wrong and have inadvertently made a mess of your friend’s life. Oops.
  5. Read as many Gothic novels as you can get your hands on. What horrors! Unfortunately, your overactive imagination nearly ruins your chance at happiness.
  6. When the man you love proposes, you turn him down because your family doesn’t think he’s good enough. In time, you realize your mistake, but will he forgive you?
  7. Drink tea while re-reading your favorite Jane Austen novel. That’s what this list is all about, after all.


Review Fridays: Giant Days

Esther, Susan, and Daisy probably wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t live near each other in their university dorm. Or so says Susan at the beginning of Giant Days #1, written by John Allison, art by Lissa Treiman (and Max Sarin in later issues of the series). Susan is a cynical medical student with a mysterious past, Esther is a beautiful goth immersed in drama, and Daisy is a naive former homeschooler. In the first issue of Giant Days, Susan makes a bet with Esther that she can’t avoid causing drama.

Esther has no chance to win the bet.

The humor is fresh and off-beat, the art is fabulous, and the characters connect in surprising ways. It is a bit jarring, for anyone familiar with the original run of the series, to go from Allison’s depictions of the characters, to Treiman’s, and then Sarin’s, but the characters are always consistent in their personalities. Secondary characters are also given a chance to shine. Susan has a mysterious past that becomes less cloudy with the appearance of her childhood friend, McGraw. Esther probably has a number of men with unrequited crushes on her, but the most heartbreaking is Ed Gemmell. The series captures university life perfectly: the seeming randomness of relationships, the secrets, the crushes, and the sometimes weirdness caused by a bunch of young people living in the same building.

My favorite issue so far in the series is #5, where Esther, Susan, and Daisy attend a pre-Christmas ball with chaotic results. The later issues tend to end with a cliffhanger, a moment that leads to the drama in the next issue. Giant Days is going to be an ongoing series now, and anyone who likes realistic comics with a good sense of humor should check it out.

Review Fridays: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Justine Sacco made a bad joke, got on a plane, and discovered, when she got back on ground, that she had not only been fired but was the subject of outrage on the internet. Lindsay Stone made a bad joke, was shamed on the internet, and also lost her job. Jonah Lehrer self-plagiarized, fabricated quotes, had two of his books pulled, and issued an apology in front of a screen of people shaming him on Twitter. They all share something in common. Their careers were derailed by a very public judgment of their mistakes.

In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson explores the idea of public shaming, how social media has changed it, and how a mob atmosphere can develop. There are examples, unlike the ones above, of people who have made it through a shaming relatively unscathed. Ronson wonders what the difference is between those who are seemingly ruined by their shaming and those who seem less affected by it. He compares the treatment of various people who have been shamed, interviewing them for insights into their personal reaction to the shaming and offering some ideas about the best way to handle a similar situation.

What I got most out of the book is the idea that a public shaming says more about us than it does about the subject of the shaming. As a society, we have an obsession with perfection and tend to tear down others for their flaws. The people Ronson talks about in his book have made mistakes, but the public reaction seems to be all out of proportion. Outrage turns into a mob that demands justice. People’s lives are ruined. Those who called for them to be ruined feel a moment of satisfaction and then move on to the next subject.

At one time in history, criminals were publicly punished by being put in the pillory or stocks. With social media, the audience for public humiliations has grown, the word of a mistake can spread from one person to another in an instant, journalists write articles about the mistake, and a person is quickly condemned. Then that person is punished when their crime was a stupid comment, a stupid joke, a flaw, something that is not criminal, but which we feel the need to incite rage over and see that person ruined, professionally, financially, and personally.

This book was not only very intelligent and thought-provoking, it was a quick read. The examples Ronson provides effectively illustrate the problems with public shaming. After reading this book, I will think more carefully about my own response the next time I see someone publicly shamed.

Cassandra Austen and the destroyed letters

Not much is known today about the life of Jane Austen, largely because her beloved sister, Cassandra, reportedly destroyed two-thirds of Jane’s letters. The ones that she kept are as sharply funny, observant, and well-written as any Janeite could hope, but the fact remains that Jane Austen is a shadowy figure. Some have tried to recreate various periods of her life. One such work is Becoming Jane, in which the biographer speculates about a romance between Jane and her neighbor’s nephew, Tom Lefroy. It makes for a nice story, but it is unsubstantiated. We simply cannot know for sure.

Some Janeites mourn the loss of the destroyed letters. Cassandra Austen loved and wanted to protect her younger sister, but in the process she destroyed a connection with her readers. I have been thinking more about this as I read The Silent Woman, which is about the attempts at writing biographies of Sylvia Plath and more generally about the difficulties of the genre of biography. It discusses how Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn had been turned into villains by biographers, set against the helpless Plath. Hughes destroyed her last journal and claimed that another had disappeared. Hughes and his sister were the gatekeepers, the inheritors of an intangible legacy. And, like Cassandra Austen, they chose what they wanted the public to know and what they did not want them to know.

The situations, however, between Plath and Austen could not be more different. Plath was separated from Hughes at the time of her death. She had discovered that he was having an affair. Olwyn Hughes apparently did not like Plath, but she became the literary agent of Plath’s writings. On the other hand, Cassandra Austen was and remained until death the beloved sister of Jane. Where the similarities lie is that both Hughes and Cassandra Austen inherited after the deaths of Plath and Jane, and both chose to destroy a portion of those writings. Why, as readers, do we protest against this? Why do we feel that we know better, that we have a right to read and know all about the writers we venerate?

Perhaps it has something to do with the intimacy of writing. When we read, another person is inviting us into their world. When we read another’s personal journals and letters, the gap is further lessened. It is as if the letters or journals were written specifically for us, despite the fact that they are completely private and should be considered separate from the public novels and poems and short stories. The line becomes less clear to some readers, and they feel the need to attack the idea that something about the writer’s life has been hidden or destroyed.

When I meet another person who loves Austen’s works, we gush about our mutual admiration of Jane. We feel as if we know her from the words that she wrote, from her characters and wry descriptions. But it is interesting to think about why we try to dig deeper, why we look for letters or journals or anything else to tell us more about the writer’s life.