"HG: You are known as a great defender of the nineteenth-century, particularly the words of Dickens and Thomas Hardy. What virtues do you find there that you feel are missing in contemporary fiction, and which contemporary novelists do you think fulfill -- or come closest to fulling -- these virtues?
JI: Thomas Hardy insisted that a novel had to be a better story than something you might happen upon in a newspaper. He meant "better" in every way: bigger, more complex, more connected, and also having a kind of symmetry or closure -- even achieving a kind of justice, or at least an inevitability, in the end.
George Eliot, too -- and of course Dickens. Their novels were *designed*. David Copperfield once remarked that he found real life a whole lot messier than he expected to find it. Modernism in literature upholds the theory that a novel can be a patternless mess (without a plot) because real life is like that. Well, good novels, in my view, are better made than real life.
If I like Dickens better than Hardy or Eliot, it is chiefly because Dickens is also comic. Even the contemporary novelists I most admire are nineteenth-century storytellers: Gunter Grass, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Robertson Davies. They all love plot, developed characters with interconnected stories, and the passage of time and its effects; not surprisingly, given my taste, they are all comic novelists, too.
I think the most modern novelist I admire is Graham Greene – “modern” in the sense that his emotions are inscrutable and, at least compared to the abovementioned four, he is very spare. But Greene was also a good storyteller, and he sought a symmetry or closure to his novels; the architecture mattered to him."
The architecture matters to me, too. Irving put into words so well those elements from 19th century literature that I so appreciate in any work of fiction, 19th-century or modern or otherwise.
The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay - utterly delightful, beginning to end. I just added all of this author's books to my wishlist :-). [Note: I ended up reading Reay's other two books, also. Bronte Plot remains my favorite-I-will-enthusiastically-lend-to-everyone-who-hasn't-yet-read-it. Dear Mr. Knightley was a fun, fluffy read. Lizzie & Jane was just ok.]
Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang (graphic novel book club selection) - Empathy is the goal here, methinks, as this two-volume book recounts the history of the Boxer Rebellion - in one book from the perspective of the Boxers and in one book from the perspective of the Saints (thus, the titles). The author is himself a Chinese American Catholic and he discusses how his identity influences his stories in this Wired interview. Super well done. Super meticulous, tight artistry and dialogue and story narration. That said, not totally my preferred genre ... because ... [at the risk of sounding silly & cliche & not "real life"] ... I like happily-ever-after, and this was, well, MacBeth-y. For a much more fleshed-out review, please check out Seth Hahne's excellent review at Good Ok Bad.
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (graphic novel) - this is the book I wrongly received when I ordered the Boxers and Saints book set. So I decided the "perk" for my inconvenience was to read this book before returning it. I read it, loved it, returned it, and promptly ordered it [at the correct price]. Because a copy needs to reside on my bookshelves and all my dudes need to read it. It's clever, thoughtful, funny, deeply insightful, winsome, full of heart and truth. It deals with what it's like to be "different" and how one straddles the continuum of retaining one's culture/identity versus "blending in".
The Lonesome Gods by Louis L'Amour - I took this book on vacation with me last week (mid June). It was a perfect story to have with me in the midst of mega-distractions (airports, airplanes, car rides, family-watching-tv-shows-not-interesting-to-me) ... because super simple sentences and each idea that LL wanted me not to miss repeated *at least* three times :-}. I enjoyed it for all the detail regarding my beloved CA/AZ desert landscape. I also liked this novel for all the reasons Heidi poignantly pointed out in her review. I also-- perhaps surprisingly-- in equal parts, disliked it - mostly because the writing style itself drove me nutso. It became [unintendedly] comic to me as I repeated to Big Dude at various intervals that the desert was still dangerous, water was vitally important, Johannes' grandfather was still a very scary man, it's important to keep thinking and learning and reading and bettering oneself, change is coming change is coming change is coming, and Indians are very complex. It's not that those things aren't true in the book; it's just that I fully knew it by the first couple dozen times L'Amour told me... Nonetheless, a pretty good, easy-read, vacay book (Vanity Fair stayed at home - grin). Simple story, simply told, with everything simply ending with the good guys winning and the bad guys all dead.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner - a quiet, eloquent, character-driven story exploring friendship, marriage (for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do them part), hopes dashed, hopes fulfilled, deep sorrow, exquisite happiness, questions of "what if", commitment's costs and rewards, enduring, accepting... this story felt ... real. First person narrative, taking place over the course of one day and remembering decades of life overlapping between two couples. "Drama," Stegner writes in Crossing to Safety, "demand the reversal of expectation, but in such a way that the first surprise is followed by an immediate recognition of inevitability. And inevitability takes careful pin-setting. Since this story is about a friendship, drama expects friendship to be overturned. Something, the novelist in me whispers, is going to break up our cozy foursome ... Well, too bad for drama. Nothing of the sort is going to happen. Something less orthodoxly dramatic is ..."
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier - oh my. This has hooked me in the very first chapter. Can we say Haunting, Foreboding, Boldly Foreshadowing?!??? Daphne du Maurier is best-known for her gothic Cornish novel, Rebecca; and I dare to suggest that My Cousin Rachel is every bit as good as, and perhaps the superior to, Rebecca. The toxicity of jealousy, the power of love to blind (for "the heart controls the body. and the mind."), the lies we tell ourselves to justify our beliefs/actions, the arrogance of youth ... it's all here. And it's sooooo good.
The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma - I'm not a non-fiction reader. It's just not my preferred genre. Like John Irving brilliantly put-words-to (top of this post), I like my stories to be better than newspaper accounts; I like a book to be bigger, better, more complex, with symmetry and closure ... architecture! But, if you don't have this hang-up like I do, and you like sweet, well-told memoirs written by someone with whom you have no acquaintance (but feel like you "know" by the end of the book), then The Reading Promise may totally delight you. As a bonus, the battle cry of this book is: "... a promise to remember the power of the printed word, to take time to cherish it, to protect it at all costs ... the life-changing ability literature can have ..."
A Widow for One Year by John Irving - It used to be that I always gave a book the benefit of doubt and read to the end even if it started kinda "icky". As I've gotten older, I have less patience (and more discernment, I like to think) with books. I will often abandon a book 50-100 pages in (if not poorly written), or even just a mere chapter in (if poorly written). Then there's this book and this conundrum: it definitely starts icky and quickly gets ickier. As a reader, I hope that the "icky" is merely the background against which the narrative will play. But, no; the icky remains. And the whole atmosphere feels so completely morally bankrupt. But. John Irving is a fantastic writer. In some ways, he seems to me like a modern-day "classic novelist" akin to Dickens or Eliot or Hardy. He can definitely vividly develop a story and a place and people it with non-cardboard characters. Which leaves me wanting to know where he's taking the icky and whether there's going to be anything redeemable about the lives of his book's people or the story. I didn't quit this one. But I probably should have. Despite the last 6-ish lines being genius, I really kind of felt like I needed to wash my brain out from the rest.
**nota bene: I'm sort of a huge proponent of reading the "great books". My dudes will all graduate high school having had a hefty dose of great books. My monthly book club hones in to great books; and yes, we grumble about them, and occasionally don't like them, and find them to be hard slogging, and we even have to fortify ourselves to the eventuality of sometime in the near future finally tackling ... [sigh] ... Moby Dick. The process is hard. The process often sends me personally running in search of light fluffy FUN books to mix things up (my "candy"). The process is ultimately REWARDING and FULFILLING.
I was much encouraged by this talk that Eva Brann, a great books tutor at St. John’s College, recently gave at the Torrey Honors Institute regarding “Why We Should Read”. Sooo much good stuff to ponder in this essay of sorts, but here's one portion I appreciated (especially the delineation of books we "scarf up in a state of pleasant relaxation" vs. the demanding ones - I often find myself running hard between these two!) ...
"There’s reading and then there’s reading. There’s the kind called texting, done on a minuscule tablet with a limit to the ciphers used, which has, in effect, given up the ghost of significance. Then there’s the kind of easy feed, the best-seller, which we scarf up in a state of pleasant relaxation. Then there’s the instruction booklet, infinitely annoying because widget A never does fit into aperture B. I won’t attempt to list all the types of reading we do, but instead, I’ll leap to the list of books to which your program of learning is in fact devoted. These books all share one characteristic: They are demanding. They’re not taken up lightly, nor do they go down easily, nor are they irritatingly inscrutable. They are, instead, difficult. Some, like Hume’s great Treatise, are lucid on the surface and more and more complex as you penetrate it; others, like Kant’s Critiques, are obscure when you first open them but become quite intelligible as you go. All require your undivided attention and repay it with insights that are at once new to you and also welcome to your intellect. They deliver adventitious, that is, novel, matter which nevertheless immediately sits well in your intellect—or rouses energizing opposition. The fictions among these works also require alert being-there. You can’t scan or abstract a great novel: The plot is an extrusion of the characters’ being, not their prop, as in a routine romance. …