The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

Book #43

Reviewer: Naomi

The Corrections
The Corrections is the second book of Jonathan Franzen’s I have read, and I enjoyed it immensely. I read it quickly over a few days during summer, and while it may not be some people’s idea of holiday literature, I think had I read it during ‘normal life’ it would have resulted in some very late nights and bleary eyes the next morning.

Some aspects of the story are so innately American it can be hard to pick up the nuances that a US audience may get from aspects of the writing. For instance the novel is set predominantly in a small town in the Midwest, and in Philadelphia and New York. Franzen makes the reader very aware of what the Midwest presents in terms of values and lifestyle, but I suspect that many of the preconceptions of place that an American reader has would contribute in a richer way to how the characters interact and what they are trying to achieve by locating themselves where they have. This didn’t in any way diminish my experience of The Corrections, but it does make me wonder what more I could have discovered. (The Corrections was written and published before the attacks on 9/11 and again I think this distinction would have more meaning for an American audience.)

The Corrections centres on the lives of Lambert family. Alfred is the father, an emotionally distant man whose sense of success and value within society has come from his work as a railroad engineer. As we meet Alfred he is beginning a decline into Parkinson’s following his retirement. His wife Enid is the long-suffering housewife and mother who is maintaining a willful ignorance about his condition and is increasingly frustrated by the difficulties of living with his erratic behaviour. Eldest son Gary is a banker and a mummy’s boy who has married a woman who manipulates and bullies him with the help of the two eldest of their three sons. The middle son Chip is a disgraced university professor who is rudderless and careening from one disaster to the next both professionally and romantically. The youngest sibling is Denise a successful chef who seems to have inherited some of her father’s emotional isolation.

The story is set near the end of the twentieth century and consists of interweaving story lines focusing on each character, moving back and forth between past and present, finally converging on Christmas morning in the parental home.

Thematically the novel deals with a greedy, capitalist society where entertainment and technology are seen as means of subduing the less wealthy in a post industrial economy. It focuses on the breakdown of family values and generational misunderstandings and differences. Like many other modern novels there was also a strong feeling of isolation in each of the character’s lives. The relationships of the children’s generation are shallow, transitory and based on a transfer of power or status. The relationships in the parent’s generation seem to be stagnant, disconnected and filled with the pretense of keeping up appearances.

Franzen as a writer seems to me like a person who might build model railways in his spare room. Every detail is meticulous, every character is carefully placed, every conversation rich with underlying thematic resonance. He does however seem like the god who watches from a distance, and sometimes there is just the touch of coldness in his treatment of his creation. In saying that, it did not detract from what a thought provoking, clever and engrossing commentary on modern western society The Corrections is.

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The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger

Book #529

Reviewer: Naomi, of Create-Believe-Dream


TCITRThe Catcher in the Rye has the distinct reputation of being both the most-censored and the second most assigned book in the same year in American schools (1981). It is said to sum up perfectly the city of New York in the fifties and has been acclaimed as one of the “three perfect books” in American literature alongside The Great Gatsby and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (source Wikipedia). It’s a book whose reputation precedes it and title evokes much. And I loved it.

Despite its reputation and popularity I had never read it before and only did so at the suggestion of my husband who thought I would enjoy it. He reads to me in bed each night and suggested it for this purpose (yes, we are totally, sickeningly adorable). I think hearing it read by a male voice really accentuated the wonderful characterisation of the protagonist Holden Caulfield.

The Catcher in the Rye is a book more about people than plot which always appeals to me. The main action of the book takes place over two days and is recounted by Caulfield from a hospital bed after the fact. A disillusioned and confused Caulfield has been expelled from his fancy private school Pencey Prep and decides to leave before the end of the term and spend a few nights in New York until his parents expect him home from school. He meets a range of characters in the city, some of whom he knows and some whom he doesn’t including nuns, a prostitute and her pimp, the mother of a school friend, tourists, friends, and family members. Each of the interactions he has tell us more about him as a person and serve to highlight his downward spiral eventuating in some sort of breakdown after he returns home.

I’m a bit of sucker for coming of age/ teenage angst stories, even as an adult I can still remember what a tumultuous and overwhelming time of life it was. It is also such rich territory for character development and this is where the beauty of this book lies. Caulfield is an intelligent, rebellious and astute character, easily able to see through the “phony” world of adulthood for which his school is attempting to mould him. He is alienated from his peer group and shows a wistful attachment to the innocence and simplicity of childhood. The title of the book comes from a passage where he expresses his desire to protect children from the seeming horrors of adulthood. He was a very real, believable and sympathetic character and I was very moved by the book because of this.

Salinger’s writing style would have been, I imagine, very provocative for a fifties audience. The stream of consciousness style of the narration, the use of (by today’s standards very tame) bad language and colloquial speech, and Caulfield’s open and frankly expressed views on sex could possibly overshadow the purity and simplicity of the story and the character of a lost young person trying to find their place in the world. This is what has stayed with me most, and I can understand why this book still resonates with readers today.

The Mayor of Casterbridge – Thomas Hardy

Book #821

REVIEWER: Naomi, of Create-Believe-Dream

TMCThomas Hardy is the master of the missed moment. If one were to make a pie chart of the plot elements of a novel such as The Mayor of Casterbridge the sum of the parts would be infinitely greater than the whole.

Essentially The Mayor of Casterbridge turns on one crucial moment where Michael Henchard in a fit of drunken pique auctions his wife (Susan) and daughter (Elizabeth-Jane) off to a sailor in a bar at a fair. As a result Henchard resolves not to drink again for as many years old as he is (21) and we return to his story 18 years later when he is the Mayor of Casterbridge, and a successful business man. Susan and Elizabeth-Jane return to Casterbridge after the death at sea of the sailor who bought them and has husbanded and parented them since that moment. What follows is a tangled web of events where Henchard ‘marries’ Susan, after breaking off the engagement he had with a younger woman Lucette Le Sueur. At the same time Henchard takes into his employ Donald Farfrae who develops an attachment to Elizabeth-Jane. He makes an enemy of the man he had promised the job to, Joshua Jopp and his business starts to decline, Susan dies, Lucette returns, Henchard’s sobriety ends and the ensuing events would be a soap opera in the hands of just about any other writer.

When you start to read a Hardy novel, you do so in full knowledge that most of the characters will be left unhappy and full of regret, if they are alive, by the last page. However his work is not maudlin or sentimental and one of the main reasons his work never descends to this is his pithy, reportage style of writing. His descriptive passages are taut and real, the landscape comes alive around you as do the multitude of minor characters who colour the landscape. The plot while complicated and full of twists is, at its most essential, the tale of a flawed man trying to redeem himself for one glaring mistake and getting caught in the net woven from the smaller ones he makes in the process.

Having read a number of Hardy’s novels and short stories I knew what I was getting in to. However, although Casterbridge is regarded by some critics as Hardy’s greatest novel it was not, for me, his most appealing or moving. This could be for a number of reasons. Firstly the protagonist, Henchard, is not an overly sympathetic character. He is arrogant, argumentative and cold. And in addition I found the women characters quite weak, especially Elizabeth-Jane who was downright insipid. Maybe I’m just geared to the higher levels of injustice and melodrama in Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd. However, it justifiably earns its place on the list, along with most of his other character based work. Hardy is a writer, reporter, anthropologist, moralist and psychologist rolled into one and as a result, quite a worthwhile person to spend several hours of your time with.

The Accidental – Ali Smith

Book #13a

Reviewer: NAOMI, OF CREATE-BELIEVE-DREAM


This was one of my stand out reads for the year (one of the others being There But For The, also by Ali Smith) so this is a review I’ve really been looking forward to writing. The Accidental is written with wit and originality, has varied and complex characters and an engaging and surprising plot – contemporary fiction at its best. Shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Man Booker Prize, it won the Whitbread Novel Award in 2005, the year every man and their blog had this as a must read or book of the year.

Set in Norfolk where the aptly named Smart family are taking their summer holiday together, it’s a study of how chance can affect the lives of ordinary people. The family in question consist of mother Eve, step-father Michael, teenage son Magnus and pre-teen daughter Astrid. Each of their lives are pulled apart and put back together again in an almost unrecognisable way by Amber, an unexpected houseguest.

The Smart family are on the surface a somewhat smug, tight unit, however underneath all is not as it should be. Each character is struggling in some way whether it is from guilt, boredom, insecurity or total lack of direction. Amber’s arrival is the catalyst for change and throughout the journey of the novel the reader sees the impact that this change has on the character of each of the family members. At play here are also factors like the power of assumption and the ease with which people can be unwittingly manipulated and controlled. What I found interesting was that although Amber is not necessarily a ‘good’ person, all of the characters are changed for the better from having come in contact with her.

Ali Smith is a writer who obviously loves writing – this may seem like a rather redundant statement, but by it I mean that from reading her work, you gain an appreciation of the technique of good writing, and that the telling of stories and the way in which we do this seems to be a consistent theme of her work. The Accidental begins with a page of quotations from John Berger, Nick Cohen, Jane Austen, Sophocles and Charlie Chaplin. These quotes allude to the themes of the book, some of which are accident, history, and storytelling.

This book is divided into three main sections entitled ‘the Beginning’, ‘the Middle’ and ‘the End’ in which all five characters have their say. Michael is a professor and poet who specialises in the sonnet form and his entire Middle section of the book is a sonnet cycle which I found both charming and incredibly clever. Eve is also a writer who writes fictional interviews with famous or infamous people who are no longer living. Much of her dialogue with herself is conducted in a question and answer form, another clever writerly technique.

The narrative of the book is mostly driven by internal monologues from each character so as a reader you experience the course of events from four vastly different perspectives. As a consequence the book is more driven by character than plot, and as a person who enjoys reading from this perspective I found it intensely satisfying. That is not to say however that the plot is light or weak. I definitely didn’t see the clever twists at the end of the novel coming and they gave the novel an almost a circular feeling that paralleled the beginning, middle, end form neatly.

I felt that this is book deserving of its place on the list in light of how rich, unique and incredibly well written it is, and I urge you to read it.

A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

Book #141

Reviewer: Naomi, of Create-Believe-Dream

I feel the need to start this review with a disclaimer: I love reading big books. I get out doorstoppers from the library and when purchasing books often look to get the most pages per dollar. A Suitable Boy clocks in at 1488 pages (if you’re reading the paperback version as I was) and is one of the longest novels published in the English language. This was the second attempt I have made to read it.

The author makes light of A Suitable Boy’s length both in the rhyming couplet introduction and more obliquely at a book reading within the novel:

‘… I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.’ 

Unfortunately this book falls into the ‘panting with the effort of holding it up’ category for me (especially as there is NO electronic version available, a glaring oversight by the publishers in my opinion…) But, to the story.

Best described as an epic novel, at its simplest A Suitable Boy is the story of Lata and the efforts of her family to find her a husband. On a broader scale it deals with the lead up to the first independent election in India after the end of British rule. Intertwined are the lives of four families. Spanning 18 months, the novel is divided into 19 sections each dealing with a different character than the previous section. This does make for confusion at points and I found myself often referring to the family trees at the beginning of the book to remember who was who.

There were some charming descriptions of characters, for example Mrs Rupa Mehra making gift cards by recycling cards she herself has been given. There were other moments in the novel, however, when the characters seemed almost un-humanly rational. When Lata finally wed her suitable boy she seemed to choose the suitor she liked the least and had the least in common with.  In fact for a large part of her narrative she had been almost derisive of him.

Much is discussed from a political perspective including land-rights, partition, the Hindu-Muslim struggle and the empowerment of women. Some of the 19 sections are set entirely in parliament sessions debating such issues. While interesting from an historical perspective I felt this element of the novel ground the pace of an already slow-moving narrative to a total halt. I also struggled to see how this contributed to the titular plot of the search for a suitable boy.

I am aware that I am critiquing a book that is beloved by many which is why I felt the need for the disclaimer at the beginning. It is not the length of this book that I found a struggle; it was the writing, which I found emotionally disconnected. A Suitable Boy is often described as a love story, but for me it read more like an historical novel written by a newspaper reporter. It left me, for the most part, completely unmoved which is the worst criticism I can ever make of a novel.