Day 1078: How to Be Both

Cover for How to Be BothI thought How to Be Both was only a bit experimental until I read that the book, which is divided into two related stories, appears in some editions with one story first and in the other editions with the other first. I can see that switching the order of the stories would change the novel quite a bit.

In the version I read, a Renaissance artist watches a boy who is really a girl look at one of the artist’s paintings hundreds of years after the artist has died. The artist follows the girl through a few incidents in her life. As the painter follows her, we learn about the painter’s own life.

I am purposefully not using a pronoun to refer to the artist, because we learn fairly early that the painter is a woman passing as a man to receive art instruction and be able to work as an artist. Only a few people know he is a woman, and he comes down through posterity as a man.

In the second story, a teenage girl named George is grieving the death of her mother. As she copes with her feelings, she remembers conversations between them. Shortly before her death, her mother took George and her brother Henry to Italy just so she could see the work of the painter from the first story.

This novel is about the role of art in our lives, but it is also about finding ourselves and about the relationships between mother and daughter. George’s mother tries to challenge George by presenting her with provocative ideas. Some of these ideas are difficult to grapple with.

Although during the first pages I didn’t think I was going to like this novel, I found both of the stories and the connection between them deeply interesting. This novel is another surprising shortlister (surprising for me, that is) for the Booker Prize that I probably would not otherwise have read. I’m glad I did.

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Day 1034: Ulverton

Cover for UlvertonBest Book of the Week!
We’re now more familiar with novels written as related short stories, but Ulverton was written in 1992 and may be the first novel of this kind. The novel covers 300 years of English history and is set in one place, the fictional village of Ulverton. Other hallmarks of this unusual novel are that each chapter is written in a distinctly different voice and the chapters are written in different formats, from a tale told in an inn to the captions from a photographic display to the script of a documentary.

In 1650, the novel opens with the return of Gabby Cobbold from the Cromwellian wars. He meets the narrator, a shepherd named William, on his way home, but William does not have the courage to tell him that his wife, Anne, thinking he was dead, has remarried Thomas Walters. Gabby explains that he was away earning money to support the farm. Gabby disappears, and William is sure that Thomas and Anne killed him. But three hundred years later, Gabby gets his own back against a descendent of Thomas.

In 1689, the foolish Reverend Brazier tells the story of a strange night out on the downs, when he, William Scablehorne, and Simon Kistle were making their way through a snowstorm. As related in his sermon, they were apparently attacked by the devil and Mr. Kistle went mad.

Diary entries made in 1717 reveal a farmer’s preoccupation with improvements to his property and begetting an heir. Since his wife is ill, he does not touch her but begins trying to impregnate the maid.

In 1743, Mrs. Chalmers writes letters to her lover while shut away after childbed. Apparently having read her letters, her husband gets his doctor to keep her isolated longer.

And so it goes, stopping in about every 30 years, so that we sometimes hear of characters again. Through time, names are repeated and the story of incidents changes.

On occasion I had problems with the vernacular, although I tried to stick with it. The most difficult stories for me were the 1775 letters of Sarah Shail to her son and one side of the 1887 conversation between a man plowing and two boys. Sarah Shail is illiterate and is dictating her letters to John Pounds. However, this chapter has its own humor as Sarah is writing to her son Francis, who apparently answers her abusively, to the indignation of Pounds, who begins adding threats to the letters. Pounds’ spelling is so bad, though, that the letters are sometimes incomprehensible. In the case of the plowman, his dialect is so thick that I kept rereading parts of it but was unable to understand very much.

This was just one chapter, though. Overall, I found this novel deeply original and interesting. The countryside is so integral to the story that it features almost as a character. The writing is lovely, and the novel contains a great deal of drama and humor.

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Day 1030: Outline

Cover for OutlineIt was hard for me to decide what I thought of Rachel Cusk’s novel, Outline. It is a difficult novel to describe and seems to be an experiment in fiction. It consists of a series of dialogues where most of the time only one side of the conversation is reported.

The almost unnamed narrator, Faye, is a writer on her way to Athens to teach a writing class. Something about her encourages the people she meets to tell her their stories. The narrator herself seems to be exploring the possibilities of passivity so that she doesn’t herself do or say much; instead, things happen to her. But not much, and that isn’t the point.

The characters’ monologues are written as little gems—sparely expressed and containing interesting intellectual ideas. But there are too many of them for me now to remember which concepts struck me. The overall effect is very cerebral, even though some of the characters express strong emotions.

I am not generally fond of monologues. It was hard for me to tell whether we are to assume that the narrator seldom speaks or whether, as one reviewer assumed, her part of the dialogue has been excised. In addition, the monologues are not written as speech but mostly as narrative, lending even more inertness to the work. I remember going to a play called “Danton’s Death” where instead of talking to each other, the characters took turns declaiming. The effect to me was a series of rants. This novel doesn’t have that effect because of the narrative. I was interested in the characters’ stories, but I wasn’t moved by them.

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Day 1001: The Story of My Teeth

Cover for The Story of My TeethHi, all, apparently I actually published this article by mistake last week. It was supposed to come out today. So here it is again.

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I enjoy the occasional experimental novel, especially one that plays with structure, but The Story of My Teeth was a bit too much for me. It begins with a fairly straightforward narrative, although a whimsical plot, but at each section does something different.

Gustavo (Highway) Sánchez Sánchez claims to be the world’s best auctioneer. He has accumulated a collection of teeth belonging to famous people and agrees to auction them off for the church. But his long-lost son Siddhartha shows up at the auction and things begin to get strange.

Perhaps I should have had more patience with this novel, because I quit reading it just before the New York Times review claimed it got really interesting. I stopped reading in “The Allegories,” and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. I just got a feeling of terrific impatience and realized I wasn’t enjoying the novel. So, I stopped.

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