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lilah78 has commented on (3) products.

The History of Love: A Novel by Nicole Krauss
The History of Love: A Novel

lilah78, October 7, 2006

Nicole Krauss? The History of Love has received widespread praise for its characters, particularly Leo Gursky, since its publication. After reading the novel, it?s easy to see why.

Reading the chapters narrated by Gursky, a lonely Holocaust survivor who fears dying on a day when no one else has seen him, I could hear this old man speaking. With succinct, sentence fragments like ?When they write my obituary,? Gursky narrates exactly the way people talk and think. One or two-word lines ? ?And yet,? ?But,? ?Tomorrow? ? add punch to his commentary. They also embody his abrupt persona, one that makes a scene at Starbuck?s and poses nude for an art class just in case he dies that day. Slightly longer lines ??I?m surprised I haven?t been buried alive? ? also offer great insight into Gursky?s person while inviting us into his eccentric mind.

Luring us into his head is, perhaps, what Gursky does best. Never does he permit readers to question his friendship with Bruno, his elderly childhood friend who lives upstairs. Bruno bakes him a cake and leaves flour all over his apartment. He brings Leo a peculiar package. Though Bruno doesn?t hear Gursky when listening to his Walkman, the two develop a knocking routine to make sure the other is alive. Only in the novel?s final pages do we learn that Bruno has been dead since 1941. We, too, have been seduced by Gursky?s uneasy mind. It has become ours.

Where The History of Love falls short is its adolescent narratives. Several of the chapters are narrated by Alma, a 15-year-old named after Gursky?s lifelong love. Krauss succeeds in making the two narrators distinctive, never allowing Alma to use one or two-word lines like ?And yet? or ?But.? Still, Alma rarely sounds like an authentic teenager. We?re led to believe she?s intelligent ? her purpose in the novel is to inspire and solve a mystery, and she reads about nature and survival. And though their content often concerns her brother Bird?s strangeness or learning how to kiss from her Russian friend Mischa, her sentences are flawless. Succinct lines like ?Once or twice I passed her door and heard her talking aloud to it? or ?Other times I imagine I?ll never be able to leave at all? lack the ramblings, pauses, likes, ums, and slang that typify adolescent speech.

Likewise, Bird?s journal, from which extensive excerpts are read in two of Alma?s chapters, lacks the authenticity of an 11-year-old. Many of his sentences ? like ?I pressed my face right against the window and suddenly everyone turned to look at me so I waved and that?s when I lost my balance? ? are more long-winded than Alma?s. And all reflect pre-adolescent concerns. Yet, they contain no spelling errors or slang. They are even grammatically sound, as his use of ?if I were normal? suggests.
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Patrimony by Philip Roth

lilah78, October 7, 2006

Reading the opening six-and-a-half-line sentence of Philip Roth?s Patrimony, you wouldn?t expect this memoir to be an exemplar for simplicity. But Roth, in this 230-page memoir of his father?s terminal bout with a tumor, makes comprehensible the most unsimplifiable, unexplainable of human experiences. Through a series of visual images and scenes propelled by four-word lines, he shows us the power of brevity. And showing.

Using pictures of his father?s brain, Roth illuminates the incomprehensibility of medical terminology. He, unlike Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, has no interest in making sense of every medical detail. Rather, as he recalls,
? now it was being compressed and displaced and destroyed because of ?a large mass predominately located within the region of the right cerebelloponstone angles and prepontine cisterns. There is extension of the mass into the right cavernous sinus with encasement of the carotid artery ?? I didn?t know where to find the cerebellopontine angles or preponstine cisterns, but reading in the radiologist?s report that the carotid artery was encased in the tumor was, for me, as good as reading his death sentence ?

While Roth elucidates the inaccessibility of medical language in its spoken and written form, he also highlights the intelligibility of the visual. In doing so, he paves the way for his own simple written word and encourages his readers to use their imaginations to visualize his father?s rare facial condition.

At the same time, in one of his book?s most beautiful feats, Roth uses the scan of his father?s brain to develop his character. As Roth explains, ?This was the tissue that had manufactured his set of endless worries and sustained for more than eight decades his stubborn self-discipline, the source of everything that had so frustrated me as his adolescent son, the thing that had ruled our fate back when he was all-powerful and determining our purpose ?? Here, in a seemingly effortless use of metonymy, Roth has rendered human that which is incomprehensible for both himself and his readers.

Likewise, the narrator illuminates not just the power of brevity and conviction with four little words, ?Do as I say.? The repetition of and hyperbole surrounding these words brings to life both his father?s stubbornness and the nature of their relationship. The command of compact prose ? written, spoken, or otherwise ? cannot be ignored when he recalls, ?I ? spoke four words to him, four words I?d never uttered to him before in my life. ?Do as I say? ? And they worked, those four words. I am fifty-five, he is almost eighty-seven, and the year is 1988. ?Do as I say,? I tell him ? and he does it. The end of one era, the dawn of another.?
Roth, in a conversation with his friend JoAnna, later emphasizes four other words: ?I don?t understand anything.? He tells us, ?I took a shower later, repeating those words ? the first thing in days I?d been able to concentrate on other than him ? repeating those words. Four words again, very, very basic stuff, but that night ? it sounded like all the wisdom in the world ? I didn?t understand anything.? It is as if Roth, himself a master of language, has suddenly come to grasp simplicity?s potency. The reader cannot miss this point either. And yet Roth employs repetition just enough to convey his point, not enough to annoy us.

Speaking of Roth?s conversation with JoAnna, this dialogue proves quite informative for my writing. By sharing their extended dialogue, one that spans seven pages, the narrator enables readers to see how he characterizes his relationship with his stubborn father to a more intimate audience. Though Roth is quick to point out his father?s stubbornness throughout the memoir, he brings that trait to life, divulging details that couldn?t come out elsewhere in the narrative. By switching from the anonymous audience ? his readers ? to a conversation with a close friend, Roth also switches the narrative?s pace. The incorporation of this storytelling technique precludes the reader from putting down the book and enables him or her to get inside Roth?s head, to empathize with the narrator, to partake in this discussion with JoAnna.

But this dialogue falters in its perfection. Roth offers very little commentary on the conversation. Rather, he allows the words he and JoAnna shared to tell the story. While such a technique might prove compelling in an interview, this talk, we can assume, was neither recorded nor documented. It could have just as easily appeared in one of the author?s fictional works. Consequently, Roth?s flawless account undermines the chat?s aura of authenticity. While, in the actual conversation, he may have shared his most intimate feelings with his friend, Roth loses his trustworthiness here. How do we know he hasn?t censored their conversation, or at least his side of it?

The problem with specificity also arises in Roth?s recollection of his father?s first hospital stay. There, he refers to his father?s roommate as Oriental and, more often, the Chinaman. While political correctness isn?t the writer?s obligation, precision is. Yet neither of the terms Roth uses to describe this man tell us anything about his character or appearance. They merely attest to Roth?s unusual willingness to resort to oversimplified, nondescript monikers.

Patrimony, in spite of these shortcomings, proved to be, for me, an inspiring model. With exquisite lines such as ?There was my patrimony, not the money, not the tefillin, not the shaving mug, but the shit,? and ?It was his Deuteronomy, the history of his Israel ? very few who wound up sitting across from him for any length of time didn?t get at least the abridged version of his sacred text,? Roth displays an outstanding mastery of metaphors. Yet his metaphors exceed mere metaphor; they also tell the reader something considerable, partly through hyperbole, about his persona, one we as readers still can't live without.
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Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship

lilah78, October 7, 2006

In her finest work yet, Patchett paints a poignant picture of friendship, one that all of us can, on some level, relate to. By weaving Lucy Grealy's letters throughout this brutally honest narrative, Patchett gives the reader another level of insight into their sometimes tumultuous friendship. At the same time she keeps Grealy alive and allows the late poet to speak for herself in a memoir where Patchett's version of the story can, at times, seem to overshadow Grealy's redeeming qualities.
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