Category Archives: literary

Rebecca Dinerstein — The Sunlit Night

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This is another “literary” novel that I enjoyed. I need to stop prejudging books by their genre. I don’t believe you should judge a person by what group they belong to, what they look like, or where they come from. So why should I choose book by genre? Each group has authors I enjoy and those that I don’t.

The Sunlit Night is a delightful tale about two young people who end up in northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle in the land of the midnight sun. Frances is a twenty-two-year-old artist from New York City who has accepted an apprenticeship for the summer to Nils who paints only in yellow at an artist colony and museum in the north of Norway. Yasha, seventeen and just out of high school. is a Russian boy living over his father Vassily’s bakery on Brighton Beach. Vassily plans a trip to Moscow to look for Yasha’s mother who stayed behind ten years earlier when father and son moved to the United States. Vassily dies of a heart attack in Moscow and his last wish is to be buried at the top of the world. The artist colony and museum in northern Norway is the closest to his father’s wish that Yasha can find.

Dinerstein paints the stark Arctic landscape as beautiful and colorful. She surrounds us in ever-present light.

In addition to Frances and Yasha, all the peripheral characters are entertaining—from the artist Nils to local blacksmith to staff and manager of the museum. We have glimpses of Frances’s dysfunctional family. Her sister is marrying a man her parents don’t like, and they refuse to attend the wedding. Yasha meets Frances’s family looking over her shoulder at a computer screen. Yasha’s uncle from Moscow and his lost motherarrive for Vassily’s funeral. His mother stays on, working at the museum, and the man she has been living with in New York turns up later.

Everything about the book is entertaining—characters, setting, story. I highly recommend it.

Literary vs. Mainstream Fiction

I have a problem distinguishing between literary and mainstream fiction. And sometimes genre fiction seems to overlap into those categories. I spent some time poking around the Internet trying to find distinctions or definitions of the two and it only confused me more. The general consensus seems to be that literary fiction is more about style of writing that about plot, while mainstream is plot driven. I found that many believe that a crossover exists between mainstream and literary (and even genre). One suggested that literary was for the “elite” reader. Janet Paszkowski on absolutewrite.com tells a writing professor described non-literary fiction as “artless.”

Some of the interesting articles I read:

I claim I don’t enjoy most literary novels, but I have found several books that are classed as literary that I liked. I’ve reviewed some here on my blog; check the literary category. Some of them may be classified as “Women’s Fiction” rather than literary. Is that another crossover?

What sent me to the Internet to define literary vs. mainstream is a book I read recently (The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi) with a blurb on the front cover saying, “A gripping literary thriller….” To me this is an oxymoron. Thriller to me is definitely genre. The book was good and very plot driven, with good characterization. I would probably call it genre/thriller. Possibly mainstream since the writing didn’t exactly follow the rules for the genre. The one thing I see that probably classifies it as literary is the lack of quotation marks. This style of writing drives me crazy. Literary or not, I don’t see the purpose of eliminating quotes except to make a book more difficult to read.

The next book in my pile (All that Followed by Gabriel Urza) turned out to be literary in my mind. It is a twisted tale set in the Basque Country of northern Spain with three main characters POV: an American expat teacher, a young man almost accidentally involved in revolutionary activity, and the wife of an upcoming politician. Great reading! (He didn’t eliminate the quotation marks.)

I still don’t know the answer on how to define literary vs. mainstream. I think the definitions change with time and with the person defining.

Thrity Umrigar — The Story Hour

This author drills into the minds and hearts of her characters. She crafted a story that kept me reading until three o’clock this morning.

The book is built around two characters from diverse cultures and backgrounds. One woman is a professional (psychologist) in a comfortable almost idyllic marriage. The other is an immigrant wife, unappreciated by her husband, who works her hard and gives her nothing (emotionally or materially). The two women’s lives come together and they become friends.

Ms. Umrigar looks into the best and the worst of both women—their desire to help others, their hopes and dreams, passions, and ambitions. She also shows us their mistakes or “sins” as one of the women classifies them, despair, guilt, loneliness…

Whew! I make it sound dark and depressing, but it’s not. It’s a delightful story with all the three H’s I talk about other places in my blog—head, heart, and humor—and a new “H” for hope.

It’s also in the women’s fiction (or literary) genre I claim to not like. Yet I keep finding good books in that category. Another thing this novel has in common with others I like and have reviewed is the switching back and forth between two main characters.

All I can say is this book is a good read. Remember it kept me reading until 3 a.m.

Marie-Helene Bertino — 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

A delightful novel filled with a neighborhood of characters — from old reprobate musicians to a rule-minded Catholic school principal, shopkeepers, beauticians, policeman, teacher, dog, and more —all touching the life a motherless nine-year-old girl (almost ten) who only wants to sing. Most of these characters end up at The Cat’s Pajamas, a run-down jazz club in Philadelphia, at 2 A.M. on Christmas Eve.

The story takes place in one day and night, “Christmas Eve Eve,” swinging between disappointments and hope, realities and fantasies. Bertino brings the people to life and makes you feel you are wandering the streets of Philly, popping in and out of shops and homes. The book is filled with laughter and sadness, setbacks and triumph, love, music, and dreams.

(I believe the genre is literary again. I know…I said I don’t like literary. But it seems I’m running into more of them that are excellent writing. I guess it’s like any other genre — they come with a large variety of good, bad, and in between.)

Jenny Offill — Dept. of Speculation

This is a very different novel. It’s a collage of thoughts pasted together to paint a picture of a marriage and family. The reader lives inside the mind of “the wife,” as the main character is referred to in the novel. She jumps around through unrelated thoughts, times, and events. The story is loving, sad, funny, angry… It keeps you reading.

One strange thing the author does is to use first person in the first half of the book and a strange sort of third person in the second half, which feels like first person with the main character referring to herself as the wife, as if she is on the outside watching her life. She doesn’t use names — “the husband” she adores, hates, loves; “the daughter” she would die for but who can be difficult and more than frustrating; “the sister” who gives advice; and “the philosopher,” “the old boyfriend,” etc.

This is a literary novel. I know I’ve said before that I don’t like literary novels and mostly that’s true. But I keep finding exceptions. Dept. of Speculation is a good read. I will look for an earlier novel by Jenny Offill.

Carol Cassella – Gemini

I am impressed. Cassella is an amazing writer! Gemini is a captivating story switching between two main characters with very different stories and lives.

A doctor becomes involved, against her better judgment, with discovering the identity of a “Jane Doe” in her care. “Jane” lies in a coma in the hospital after she is found alongside the road almost dead from a hit-and-run.

The author also follows a young artist growing up with her grandfather in a backwoods small town. We see her first love, marriage, motherhood, her frustrations, struggles to survive, her spirit, her connection to grandfather, son, husband, to the land.

The genre is medical mystery, but I think it could also be classified as women’s fiction or literary. There is so much to grab you and keep you reading—hopes and fears, love and loss, heartbreak and joy, family, communication, morality, medicine, genetics…

I’m going to find Cassella’s two earlier novels, Oxygen and Healer, and spend more sleepless nights reading her work.

Peter Heller — The Painter

What a great writer! I loved this book. First person, in-his-head, emotional — sad, happy, angry, love, sorrow, hate, frustration,  rage, confusion, delight, disappearing into the moment. It’s all there.

The story is written from the point of view of an artist-slash-fisherman. The setting is Colorado and New Mexico. Heller captures the setting, atmosphere, weather, wildlife, surroundings, whatever, like no one I’ve read. I saw it and felt it, even smelled it, while reading. I grew up in Colorado and it was easy for me to put myself there. But I believe you would be able to picture it even if you’d never visited the region. The painter protagonist was in tune with the environment around him, loving it and getting lost into it as he fished and painted.

But I make it sound like a gentle story and it wasn’t. It was full of roiling emotions, passion, stalking, and murder. I almost didn’t read it because of the way it began. A two-page prolog had the painter drinking in a bar and shooting the man on the stool next to him for making a comment about his daughter. (I guess it was a prolog. It wasn’t labeled that way.) I continued reading because I read Heller’s The Dog Stars and liked it. So I gave the book a chance. It only took a few more pages to capture me.

I’m not going to give away any more of the plot. Try it. You’ll like it.

Richard Powers – Orfeo

Orfeo is a musical composition transformed into a novel. It is at times lyrical, at times dissonant. It is full of joy and pain, love and frustration. At times I feel I’m taking a course in music appreciation as I read it. I find myself searching for and listening to classical music works mentioned in the story as I go along. One reviewer (Ron Charles, Washington Post) suggests the book could be expensive, even if you check it out of the library, due to the desire to purchase music mentioned in the book. It may not be possible to enjoy this novel if you have no connection with music, either as a performer, writer, or at least an involved listener. Yet Powers is a master with words.

It is the story of Peter Els, a retired musician, composer, professor, who is mistaken for a terrorist and pursued by Homeland Security because of his hobby in bioengineering. In his amateur lab he is trying to design music into DNA. It is also the story of Els life interwoven with his current dilemma. It also has social, political, and cultural underlying themes.

About the writing…
I realize that in my last post I was complaining about literary novels and the lack of quotation marks in some. This is definitely a literary novel with not one quotation mark to be found (though he did use italics for dialog). Yet it held my attention and kept me reading. Granted, it was difficult reading at times (not because of the lack of quotes) and it wasn’t a book I finished in one night…or two or three. In my opinion, this man can write way beyond the capabilities of most of us.

Richard Powers is new to me even though he is a highly acclaimed author winning numerous awards for his novels, including the National Book Award for Fiction. [Wikipedia] I looked up Powers, his work, and reviews of Orfeo because I was curious and intend to read more of his books. Below are some links to reviewers who cover the book in more depth if you’re interested. There are many more if you search.
Jim Holt, New York Times
Steven Poole, The Guardian
Heller McAlpin, NPR
Goodreads.com(reviews from the crowd)