Friday, January 8, 2010

How to Read Two Books at Once

The only thing better than reading a book is reading two books. You don’t hold a book in each hand; you read a story-within-a-story, a novel-within-a-novel. It’s a fairly simple literary technique--a character in the book reads or writes or finds or remembers a book of his or her own and you, the reader, read them both--but the result is an intricate web of stories that weave in and out of each other, merging and dividing and running parallel to ultimately complement each other. And the reader gets two stories for the price of one, the best of both worlds, and some of the most creative and innovative novels on the bookshelf.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, 2000, McClelland and Stewart (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Winner of the prestigious Booker Prize, The Blind Assassin is one of recent literature’s most successful variations on the novel-within-the-novel. It’s the story of two privileged sisters who share a secluded, uneven upbringing in the years between World War I and World War II. Laura, the younger sister, dies when her car goes off a bridge. Iris, the elder, is the survivor—of Laura, of her parents, of her husband, and of her history, which she narrates to us in all its failed glory. Iris is an old woman when she looks back on her life; she’s writing her memoirs to record the truths of her life. One of those truths is her sister’s book, published posthumously and titled The Blind Assassin. We get Laura’s novel in small doses scattered among Iris’s memories. It’s the story of a young socialite and her passionate affair with a blue-collar man—and there’s a bonus story-within-a-story here too, as the nameless man spins a science-fiction tale of violence and romance for his equally nameless lover. Every storyline within author Margaret Atwood’s pages is gripping, but it is Iris--long-since disillusioned by the cruel and subtle realities of life--who really has our attention. Atwood writes Iris with a sharp intelligence and a sympathetic eye, but it is through all the combined and nested stories that we fully understand how often we purposely overlook what’s in plain sight, and how poignantly we regret it when we see the truth at last.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, 2008, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, originally published 1962 (Literary Fiction)

Anna Wulf is a writer. In a black notebook she writes about her experiences in African years ago; in a red notebook she records her thoughts about politics, particularly her leftist and Communist leanings. A yellow notebook is an autobiographical novel. Anna’s diary is a blue notebook. The reader reads all the notebooks, as well as a novel-within-the-novel called Free Women, which tells Anna’s story from an omniscient narrator’s point of view. All these stories are intricate and complex, which reflects the book’s post-World War II England setting. Anna and the women of her generation experienced unprecedented freedoms during the war, and the population is waiting to see how that independence will play out and where it will ultimately lead. As Anna ruminates on motherhood, romance, and friendship (particularly her relationship with her best friend, Molly), her fragmented writing styles merge with her complicated lifestyle. With the weight of the postmodern world on her shoulders, Anna ties the threads of her many lives together in one final notebook, a golden notebook that will make sense of it all. When The Golden Notebook was first published in 1962, author Doris Lessing was hailed as a new feminist voice. But in the forty-plus years since its publication, it is the story's intimate prose and strong narrative voice that have rung true for readers. 

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, 2005, W.W. Norton and Co. (Literary Fiction)

Leo Gursky is an old man waiting for the last big event of his life: his death. He’s so alone in the world that he goes out and makes a minor spectacle of himself—dropping his change, spilling his popcorn—just to make sure someone has noticed him. Alma Singer is a fourteen-year-old girl trying to find a cure for the permanent sadness her mother’s been wrapped in ever since the death of her father seven years ago. Alma thinks the answer might lie in the book her mother is translating, an obscure story called The History of Love. The narration alternates between Leo and Alma and the reader also gets glimpses of the moving, elegantly written History of Love and its mysterious author. As the threads of the storyline weave together in the most intimate ways, the novel becomes unputdownable. Leo and Alma are an unlikely pair—Leo pines for his long-lost love; Alma’s little brother thinks he’s the Messiah; Leo escaped to America from Nazi-occupied Poland; Alma’s hobby is identifying edible wild plants—but they are both survivors of great personal loss. Author Nicole Krauss writes about her characters with tenderness and real feeling, and it doesn’t take long before we’re deeply invested in their lives. So invested, in fact, that we’ll be thinking about the beautiful interlocking stories of The History of Love long after we’ve turned the last page.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer, 2002, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

Everything is Illuminated begins with the comically fractured English stylings of one Alex Perchov, a cocky young Ukrainian man who manages to think he’s God’s gift to women even while his cranky grandfather hollers at him and his grandfather’s faux-seeing eye dog slobbers nearby. But Alex is irresistible as he narrates the story of how he translated for “the hero,” an American student named Jonathon Safran Foer (yep, just like the author) who searched for the Ukrainian woman who may (or may not) have saved his Jewish grandfather during World War II. Alex sends his musings on their travels back to Jonathon and receives chapters of a novel that Jonathon is writing, a novel about the history of a small Eastern European village that begins in 1791 and is as chock-full of quirky characters and haunting histories as the real story of finding (or not finding) the Ukrainian woman. For the villagers of the novel-within-the-novel, the horrors of World War II are waiting in the future; for Alex and Jonathon, those same horrors are ready to rear their heads from the ugly past at every turn. Despite the overshadowing presence of war and tragedy, Everything is Illuminated is at heart a kitschy, endearing work that blends fables and magical realism into the kind of truly original story that we all long to read.

(Note: Jonathon Safran Foer is married to Nicole Krauss, author of the aforementioned History of Love. There are distinct similarities between their works—Jewish characters seeking for clues in the World War II-scarred past, for example, plus the whole novel-within-the-novel thing—but the books vary greatly in style and tone. Still, it certainly is intriguing to imagine this highly gifted couple living and writing together in New York City.)

Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, 2005, Harper Perennial (Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction)

It was a dark and stormy night. Sitting around the fire in the rainy gloom of 1816, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her poet-boyfriend Percy Shelley, and their host told ghost stories to scare the bejeezus out of each other. Mary later became Mary Shelley and her ghost story became the legendary masterpiece Frankenstein. Shelley himself, we know, quickly gave up his ghost story to encourage his new wife to publish hers. Their host on that fateful night was none other than poet extraordinaire Lord Byron. He wrote a few hundred words about the mysterious death of an old man, and left it at that—or did he? Thus we reach the premise of John Crowley’s Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land. We get to read this long-lost novel, painstakingly imagined by Crowley, as a mad, gothic story about the sensational life of one Ali Sane. It is accompanied by thoughtful footnotes from Byron’s daughter Ada, who, besides saving her estranged father’s manuscript from her scorned mother, was a brilliant mathematician in her own right. And finally, we read emails to and from Alexandra Novak. Alexandra is researching Ada’s life for a website about women scientists, and she stumbles across a series of complex numerical columns that Ada wrote in the mid-19th century. To decode this mystery, Alexandra must turn to her own estranged father, who is also an expert Byron scholar. This circular plot pairs the romantic style of Lord Byron with modern communications and advanced math—no easy feat. But Crowley almost perfectly mimics Byron, and he breathes real life into the characters of Ada and Alexandra as they attempt to reconnect and recreate a vision of their lives that they never fully had. Rewriting an actual lost novel is one of the more intricate ways to incorporate a story within a story, but Crowley is well up to the challenge.

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, 1993, Everyman’s Library, originally published 1979 (Literary Fiction)

This book opens by telling both you and the character of The Reader what the experience of reading If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino is like. After a few pages, however, The Reader realizes that his copy of this book has a printer’s error. He goes back to the bookstore to get a new copy, meets Another Reader who has the same problem and flirts with her, and is told that all the Calvino books are hopeless misprinted and what he’s been reading is actually a book by Polish writer. The Reader goes home with what he hopes is finally the right volume, reads for a few pages, and then discovers that no, this book is the wrong book too. Back to the bookstore, back to another tantalizing interaction with Another Reader, and back home again with a new book that’s supposed to be the book he’s been trying to read all along—but isn’t. This happens ten times (talk about novels within novels!) and we, the readers (not The Readers), are very content to go along for the ride. It may sound confusing, but the real author Italo Calvino (who died in 1985) has long been revered as a master of avant-garde and experimental fiction. It’s not every writer who can begin ten separate novels that differ in tone and style and genre and still make them entertaining; it’s not every writer who can marry the solitary (and at times frustrating) act of reading with a story about a blooming romance that’s sparked by that very same solitary (and at times frustrating) act of reading. But Calvino does it—with wit, with charm, and with superior skill.

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