Thursday, October 3, 2013

Sophie's Choice - William Styron

The problem with book blogging is...well there are many, at least for me. The key problem, though, is that you really need to post regularly, which can be a problem for me given that I generally like to post when I've finished a book, and share my thoughts.  I don't read all that fast these days.  Often the bulk of my reading is done on my work travels - on travel day.  I read every night, but it seems I start falling asleep after only a couple of pages.  So, yeah, this can be a problem.  And I stopped blogging for quite awhile, because it seemed pointless when I was finishing a book a month...and I've grown tired of all the memes.  But...I did find the gem in blogging that really has nothing to do with keeping a bunch of readers (which obviously I want TOO).  And that is that after ignoring this for a year or so, I enjoyed going back and reading my former posts on books I've read, and the reading life in general. 

So it's been over a month since I've posted, and that brings us to Sophie's Choice by William Styron.  You see?  It took me a month to read.  It's a pretty thick, wordy book, with a some pretty unsavory material to cover.  But I did finish it, so here I am to post about it.

I have NOT seen the movie.  I've heard of it alot, but somehow I didn't even have a clue what is was about.  I also did not know it was was literary based, OR who the hell William Styron was.  Possibly, I lead a sheltered bookie life?

The story follows the exploits and, in the case of the titular character, backstory of three characters.

Stingo is a young, early twentysomething writer from the South, who ventures to New York hoping to find himself as a writer.  He is forced to move from Manhattan to Brooklyn when he loses his supportive employment at a publishing house.  It is at the Pink Palace boarding house of one Mrs. Zimmerman, that Stingo meets the other main characters of the novel -  Nathan and Sophie.

Nathan is a mentally ill, Jewish genius.  Leading a false life as a "research scientist".  His illness goes unrecognized by Stingo, despite MANY disturbing incidents including his initial introduction as Sophie's abusive lover.  Nathan becomes kind of a big brother to Stingo, and a big cheerleader, constructive critic for the novel Stingo is writing.  Save for those times he is caught in one of his spells, in which case Nathan is nearly as abusive of Stingo as he is of Sophie.

Sophie's story is heartwrenching.  She is a Polish immigrant, survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.  The interesting, or perhaps interesting choice Styron made in creation of the character, is that Sophie is not a Jew.  To make her a Jew would be the obvious choice in telling the horrific tale of the concentration camps, but I think Styron's choice made the story more powerful for the many conflicts Sophie's situation introduced. 

The story is narrated in the first person by Stingo.  Yet much of the novel is Stingo's third person recital of Sophie's story from her point of view.  Made even more interesting, or confusing (I liked it) by the fact that Sophie, who is dealing with guilt over many of her choices during her times at Auschwitz, is somewhat of an unreliable narrator.  She is timid of confessing the ways in which the evil of the concentration camps transformed her.

There was much to like in Sophie's Choice.  Not the least being that the reader is left to ponder which of the choices give the novel it's name.  There are several, but two are presented near the book's conclusion.  I understand from my perusal of the worldwide internets that the Choice is much more dwelled on in the movie, but I think it's best to let the reader decide. 

<<somewhat abstract spoiler beyond>>

Is it the horrific choice that Sophie must make in Auschwitz? One no parent should ever be faced with.
This dilemma pulls the veil back on evil like almost no other literary passage I've come across.

Or is it simply the choice Sophie makes regarding the two men of the book, which forms the basis of the book's climax?

The story has a lot to say about racism, living with guilt, evil, the holocaust - including the oft forgotten collateral prisoners, the South, coming of age, etc.  I guess it's no wonder it's such a thick, wordy book.

The book is not without its flaws.  Styron is overly wordy and his prose style leaves much to be desired.  Also, his use of the profane seemed to say more about the writer than his characters.

Ultimately, I liked the book, and feel like it will stay with me for a long time.  Probably moreso, than a lot of books I enjoyed much more.  I can't see me ever re-reading it, but I'm glad I made it through a first reading.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

To say I am not a Seamus Heaney fan is only true, because I'm no poetry expert, and not overly familiar with his work.  But with the announcement of his death came the memory of a great song, a favorite of mine, by a favorite artist, who claims to have been inspired to write the song by Heaney's poem, "Skylight".  It's been awhile since I've listened to it:

Maybe you will like it.  Maybe Mr. Heaney did, if he ever heard it...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter (+)

There are three contemporary authors that I consider favorites that have all received enormous hype for their recent novels.  Those authors are:  Gillian Flynn, Philipp Meyer, and Jess Walter.  Until now, I have not read any of these books.  I think I have a healthy aversion to hype.  However...

I'm a big fan of these authors, and while I am STILL trying to broaden my reading horizons, there is something to be said for reading what you like.  So, yeah, I picked up Walter's Beautiful Ruins.  The book with the horrendous, Chick-lit like cover.

So is the hype warranted?

That depends, have you read Citizen Vince?  It's the better book in my opinion.  But with Beautiful Ruins, Walter appears to be doing what I'm attempting to do with my reading...broaden his horizons in the form of his readership. 

From the start, I didn't think he was going to pull it off.  The first chapter laid the groundwork for the global hopping, character hopping story that will come, and was mostly scene setting.  As a result, the chapter lacked much of the Walter's fabulous voice that is the primary reason for my adoration.  Fortunately, in the next few chapters Walter's witty magic eased back into play, so that by page 50 or so I was again exalting his talents.

The story follows an unlikely group of characters through many decades and countries, establishing the unlikely ties binding them altogether.  Ultimately the story is ABOUT an Italian villager seeking out they beautiful American actress, who came to stay at his hotel, some 50 years earlier.  Tangentially, it is also about the sleazy Hollywood producer that caused their initial meeting by trying to cover-up the actress' affair and resulting pregnancy with Richard Burton; the Actress'-Burton's illegitimate son's recovery from addiction and artistic failures, a production assistant to the sleazy producer who is hanging on to her dreams of making "good" films in Hollywood and changing her beefcake boyfriend with the porn addiction, and a wannabe screenwriter trying to pitch a movie about cannibals to the sleazy producer.  Of course, there is also Burton who is a victim to the sleazy producer, his own vices of sex and booze, and primarily his narcissism.

The themes seem to be about getting past regret and dealing with artistic failure.  Or possibly redefining artistic success in such a way that maybe, there is no regret.  And then just extend that to love.

It's not Citizen Vince.  But it is pretty damn good.