Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

Sophie’s Choice brings together Nathan, a charming, manic-depressive addict, Sophie, a beautiful concentration camp survivor, and Stingo, the young Southern narrator,in Brooklyn in 1947. Long sections of the book are flashbacks as Sophie tells the story of her time in Auschwitz to Stingo. Sophie and Nathan have a troubled, abusive relationship. Passages detailing the abuse, stemming mostly from Nathan’s drug use, were hard to read. Stingo befriends the couple and falls in love with them both. Nathan’s jealousy and instability doom the trio, though.

The flashbacks to Poland and Auschwitz show horror that is mostly psychological. I understand that at the time of publication, Styron got some flack for daring to write fiction about the Holocaust. Some said that only survivors had the right to pen memoirs, that no one who wasn’t there could truly understand the horror. I’d have to side with Styron on this. I don’t think it’s ok to say that any topic is off limits to writers. And this criticism gives too little credit to the human imagination. The book was also controversial because Sophie is a Holocaust victim, but not Jewish. Though more Jews were killed than any other group during the Holocaust, it is just not true that they were the only ones who suffered. I see no problem with telling the story of those people; it does not  take anything away from the respect and sorrow we feel for the loss of the Jewish people.

The passages that upset me most in the book were not about Auschwitz’s horrors, but Stingo’s trysts with Leslie Lapidus and Mary Alice Grimball. Because these young ladies were content to kiss for hours but refused to have sex, the narrator goes on for pages about how he is tormented by these “cock-teases.” I have nothing but contempt for this sentiment and anyone who would call a woman this name. A woman always has the right to decide for herself what level of intimacy is acceptable to her, and it’s ok for her to draw that line wherever she wants, regardless of her partner’s feelings, and even regardless of any promises she may have made or been understood to make in the past. She can allow one act and not another, and she needs give no justification for doing so. Any man who tries to get her to move that line, just because it’s oh so hard for him to stop once he gets going, is an asshole, pure and simple. Stingo seems to think he has the right to have sex with any woman who will let him kiss her for more than five minutes. He takes it personally when he’s rejected by them, looking in his mirror for physical imperfections to explain it. He doesn’t understand that it has nothing to do with him. Why should it? In these scenes, Leslie and Mary Alice draw very careful distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable touching, which shows that they decided long before the evening began what they wanted to do and didn’t want to do. There is nothing Stingo can do to change these decisions, and the more he tries, the bigger asshole he becomes. This idea that a man is entitled to sex and that a woman is obligated to “put out” after a certain physical line has been crossed contributes to rape culture. It was unacceptable in 1947, when the book is set, in 1976, when the book was published, and today. The only thing that kept me from putting the book down in disgust after these scenes was the narrative distance between Styron and his narrator (this differentiates Styron from a true misogynist writer I’ve reviewed here). I did not get the feeling that Styron thought that Stingo was entitled to sex. In fact, being generous to Styron, I began to hope that these scenes were meant to show Stingo’s flaws and his selfishness, as well as to build up steam for his final release with Sophie at the end.

The book’s ending was tragic in a classical sense, and I appreciated the inevitability and despair of it. It was foreshadowed perfectly, and “felt earned,” as they say in workshops. Stingo (Styron) makes some big universal statements about the meaning of tragedy and the Holocaust on the final pages, some numb with disbelieving grief (“No one will ever understand Auschwitz.”), some blackly despondent (“did not Auschwitz effectively block the flow of that titanic love…or…reduce to absurdity the idea of loving, in [such] a world…?”) but the final image is of hope and morning light. That’s important, I think. A book of tragedy so bleak and far-reaching must have a taste of hope in the ending if we are not all to follow Sophie and Nathan to suicide.

I really have to praise the language of this novel. It’s very stylized, approaching grandiosity, and there were definitely times when I wanted to go back in time and burn Styron’s thesaurus, but as a whole it created a voice and a character that were engaging and charming. Stingo’s unique way of talking comes from his illusions of grandeur, but it also demonstrates an intellect and an artistry that are incredibly appealing. I listened to an audiobook version narrated by William Hope, who did a great job switching between Stingo’s Virginia drawl, Nathan’s tough Brooklyn accent, and Sophie’s Polish lilt.

The book really made me want to see the movie that got Meryl Streep her Oscar. There’s definitely Oscar-worthy material here. It’s not on netflix streaming, though, and that makes me wish Blockbuster still existed.


Flip by Martyn Bedford Flip is about a teenager who wakes up one day in another kid’s body. He’s a “psychic evacuee,” and his real body is in a coma. The YA novel relates what happens as he tries to live another boy’s life and then follows him on his quest to return to his own body and life. Bedford did a good job of taking a pretty unbelievable situation and making it believable. He also definitely didn’t make it too easy for his protagonist, Alex, stuck in Phlilp’s body: when he tries to visit his “real” family, they are so suspicious of him, they have him picked up by police. Alex’s fear, anguish and searching are believable and related well.

The worst thing about the book was that it seemed to hew to stereotypes about teenage groups and identities. Philip (“Flip) is a jock, and Alex is a nerd. We know this because Flip plays cricket and Alex plays chess and the clarinet. Flip is strong and good-looking, and Alex is mousy. Flip has about three girlfriends strung along, and Alex has never had one. Many of the book’s problems are created by Alex trying to deal with the reality of Flip’s life, which is shown to be pretty shallow. It would have been nice to see these binaries complicated a little, and to have discovered a less selfish, more creative side to Flip.

The sentence-level writing was good, even poetic at the climax. The story is set in England, so there are lots of fun Britishisms. The ending was happy and appropriate, though there was a missed opportunity to show how Flip had grown as well as Alex. A solid, enjoyable read.

Readerly movies coming out in 2012

There are several movies coming out this year that I consider “readerly” in that they’re based on books or stories.

I’m not sure that I’ll be able to see all of these, and probably not on opening weekend or anything. But If I do get to see them, I’ll drop in a review!

Dr Suess’s The Lorax comes out on March 2.

I’m a sucker for some good computer animation, and doesn’t rhyming make everything better?  And isn’t the environmental message more important every day?

The Raven comes out on March 9.

My recent viewing of Nevermore really showed me the dramatic possibilities in Poe’s life and works. John Cusack stars in this flick about Poe’s last days. Apparently it’s pretty fictionalized and features Poe hunting for a serial killer. Still has potential.

Mirror, Mirror comes out on March 16.

If you can’t tell from the poster, Julia Roberts as the evil queen is the main attraction of this adaptation, one of two coming out this year. It seems comedic and technicolor, based on the trailer. I like fairy tale adaptations a lot. I like the many allusions and verbal witticisms that often fill these retellings. And I love when a writer (or screenwriter) turns a tale on its head and makes it empowering and feminist. Here’s hoping that’s what happens to this one.

Also, Nathan Lane.

The Hunger Games comes out March 23. 

This is the movie I’m most anxious to see this year. I loved all three of the Hunger Games books and really want to see justice done to them. The trailer promises great things: good acting from the young, unknown stars, stunning visual effects, nonstop action, good writing. This might be worth fighting sleep through the school day after a midnight showing.

Snow White and the Huntsman comes on out June 1.

I’m ambivalent about this one. The concept (the huntsman who was ordered to kill Snow White trains her to take down the queen) is interesting, but…Kristen Stewart. I just hope her poor acting in Twilight came from the poor writing.

Jack the Giant Killer comes out on June 15.

More fairy tale adaptations! Fun times!

Brave comes out on June 22. 

Yay! After 17 years of movies dominated by male characters, Pixar is finally doing a movie for girls! And it’s not a “princess” movie! Well, Merida is a princess, but she’s more interested in her bow than her tiara. And the story is more about having adventures than about landing Prince Charming. That’s what I’ve heard anyway. And just look at Pixar showing off how good they are at animating hair now. It’s crazy how pretty it looks.

I know it’s weird that I’ve listed more new movies than books, but I think it’s because production companies do a much better job of publicity than publishing companies. They also plan farther ahead. I guess I might not know about some good books that are coming out, especially not in the second half of the year. Also, this is a fairy-tale-heavy year for movies, it seems. And that’s just fine with me.

New books coming out in 2012

There are lots of great books coming out in 2012! Here are a few I’m eagerly awaiting!

Pure by Julianna Baggott comes out on February 8! 

I met Julianna Baggott when she visited UC for a reading. She’s incredibly sweet and generous, and she gives hope to everyone who wants to both write and mother. I’ve followed her blog ever since. Pure is a post-apocalyptic YA novel that has already been picked up for adaptation. Here‘s a cool book trailer.

Pandemonium by Lauren Oliver comes out on February 28!

Like most of the books on this list, Pandemonium is continuing a series I have already enjoyed.  I chose Delirium as one of my favorite books of 2011.

Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore comes out on May 1!

Bitterblue is part of the Graceling series, and the first two were also in my favorite books list.

Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris comes out on May 1 too!

The Sookie Stackhouse books are hit and miss with me. I got into the series while watching the first season of True Blood.  I’ve grown to like the show more than the books, though, and that’s rare with me. I think it’s because TV is a better medium for adapting a novel than a movie. There is more space in a season of hour-long episodes to expand and deepen characters, while a movie can leave too much good stuff on the cutting floor. The main problem I have with this series is that Harris turns them out too quickly, and the series doesn’t seem to be driving toward any particular conclusion. Without an end goal, Sookie just ends up bed-hopping between Bill and Eric and whoever else, and the relationships feel kind of pointless. This is the 11th installment.

Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness comes out on July 10!

This is the sequel to A Discovery of Witches, which was another of my favorite books of 2011. I can’t wait to read all about Diana and Matthew in Elizabethan England! I know Harkness’s knowledge will make it fascinating!

Rules for Virgins by Amy Tan comes out on July 31!

This novella is set in pre-war Shanghai. It feels like it’s been a while since Tan released anything, so this is exciting.  I think it might be only released on the Amazon Kindle.

Have I missed any? Please tell me about any interesting books you know are coming out this year!

It’s going to be a great year!

Erin Morgenstern book talk

Last night’s event at the Nashville Public Library was magical! After a reception of circus-themed treats, Erin Morgenstern talked about writing, read a piece from her novel The Night Circus, answered audience questions, then signed books.

I learned a lot of fun things about Ms. Morgenstern. She is a visual artist as well as a writer, which explains why her book surrounds readers with so many beautiful images. She said that often when she writes, she’s translating pictures in her head into words, and that her theater background also makes her think about directing and staging of the events. She began the book as part of NaNoWriMo, and worked on it for about 3 NaNoWriMos in a row, revising so much that the book was probably written at least two or three times over. She credited NaNoWriMo and its huge word count goal for silencing her inner critic. When asked the inevitable question about advice for new writers, she repeated Neil Gaiman: Keep writing and finish things. Some of the things she said were actually very reassuring for beginning writers, like when she said that she used to just think about writing but never actually did it, that she had no plan or outline for the book when she started, and that she didn’t write every day, but in “binges.” 

She read the scene from the book where Bailey explores the tent with the scented bottles, a fun and imaginative scene. I had listened to the recorded version of the book, and so comparisons of her voice with the narrator I remembered, Jim Dale, were inevitable. Morgenstern’s voice was more high, sweet, and girlish. When questioned about the audiobook, she said she got to meet Jim Dale, probably one of the best recorded book narrators working today, and she said he records everything in just one take. Amazing. Other audience questions focused on the book design, her influences (Shakespeare, The Prestige), her favorite circus tent, the book’s unconventional timeline, the upcoming movie, and her next novel (already started, a noir Alice). The audience was smart, engaged, and very female, a real gathering of community. Isn’t this what libraries are for?

The Night Circus, one of my favorite books from last year, joins my collection of signed books. These really are fun things to collect, especially since they each signify an author I’ve met in real life!

Erin Morgenstern at the Nashville Public Library

I loved The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, so I was excited to hear she’s coming to Nashville! I’ll be there tonight as she speaks and signs books.

Here’s a description of the event from the library website:

Erin Morgenstern

Main Library Auditorium
Thursday, January 26

Reception at 6:15 | Author talk at 6:45

Erin Morgenstern, author of The Night Circus, will discuss her work. Book signing will follow talk. Books will be available for sale through Parnassus books.

One of the most highly anticipated novels of the fall season,The Night Circus follows the story of a mysterious circus which appears unexpectedly in different parts of the world, open only at night. The circus proves to be truly magical, as it is in fact an elaborate competition between two magicians, Celia and Marco, whose fates were decided for them as children.

Among the critics praising the novel was Ron Charles of The Washington Post, who wrote, “With no more lust than a late volume of Harry Potter, Morgenstern manages to conjure up a love story for adults that feels luxuriously romantic. When Celia calls their circus a ‘wonder and comfort and mystery all together,’ she could have been talking about this book.”

Readers have already made the book among the bestsellers of the year, and a film is in the works for a 2013 release by the production company responsible for the  Twilight films.

  • Ticket distribution – 5:45 p.m.
  • Reception – 6:15 p.m.
  • Author talk – 6:45 p.m.
  • Book Signing – 7:30 to 8:30 p.m


Trapped by Michael Northrop

This YA novel is about 7 high school kids who get stuck at their school during a blizzard. A serious blizzard that lasts for seven days and dumps over 18 feet of snow. It’s a good, suspenseful read, keeping you wondering whether they’ll make it and how they’ll escape.

The group of students is a random assortment, which reminded me of The Breakfast Club, but the worst moments in the writing were when the author went out of his way to point that out, telling instead of showing. Otherwise, the sentence-level writing was pretty good. It did the job of relating the plot.

There’s a little teen crush love story here, but it’s one of the less interesting parts of the narrative. What I liked about it was how it humanized the narrator and showed you he was just a normal kid whose life got interrupted by this freak storm. It makes sense that a small part of a 15-year-old boy’s mind would consider being snowed in with a hot girl as a romantic opportunity he should seize. Not that he does a good job of it.

I was a little disappointed in the ending. Honestly, I expected things to get a good bit worse for the kids before the end, both physically and emotionally. There was a cliched white-light-you-think-is-death-but-really-rescue. And then the book ended without giving any details of the aftermath: Did anyone lose their parents or siblings in the blizzard? Did anyone lose a finger or toe to frostbite? Did they get in trouble for destroying school property? How did the students treat each other a few months later?

But despite those small disappointments, the experience of reading the book and not being able to put it down was pleasurable enough that I’d recommend it to any teen who likes adventure stories. It was a fun, quick read.

Trapped is a good, suspenseful survival story. Not amazing, but good.

Happy Birthday Edith Wharton!

Today is Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday! So here’s a salute to the lady who gave us The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence

Professor Manheim at Centre introduced me to Wharton with The House of Mirth. I remember thinking she was the writer Jane Austen would have been if she were an American born 100 years later who hated happy endings. Three years later, I read The Age of Innocence and was absolutely blown away by the ending. It was one of those where I had to just put the book down and stare into space for a while, coping with how radically my expectations had been reversed, and yet how true the sadness of the conclusion was. It’s the kind of ending that makes you rethink your expectations not only of literature, but of life.

Here’s a quote that gives a hint of the emotional weight of that ending, which I can’t bear to spoil: “His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.”

And a couple quotes that just show how wise and real Ms. W was:

“If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.”

“Ah, good conversation – there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”

Worst book of 2011: #1 I Am Number Four

#1: I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore

This came from my Amazon recommendations, since I like YA, and that makes me wary of following Amazon’s idea of what I might like ever again. It makes sense, though, because the book felt like it could have been written by a computer. “Pittacus Lore” is not a real person, but a pen name for a committee. This book was written by James Frye’s content farm, which exploits recent MFA grads to ghost-write and committee-write formulaic YA novels, as if teens can’t tell the difference between good and bad writing. The sentence-level writing was so bland and boring I had trouble making myself pick it up. The main character was the opposite of unique–and if you can homogenize an alien with superpowers, there is something wrong. The love story had no spark. The sci-fi explanations of the alien tech got bogged down, and the new developments in the main character’s superpowers were overly convenient to the plot, to the point of idiocy. The climax reminded me of something I once saw in a movie that was being parodied on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I read it to see if I could respect the work Frye and his minions are doing, regardless of the exploitative labor arrangements, and concluded that I cannot.

Worst books of 2011: #2 A Fan’s Notes

#2: A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley

I read this because one of my old teachers from UC, Brock Clarke, wrote a novel called Exley, which made frequent reference to this book. This book was like a character in Brock’s book. So I wanted to check it out. I was really disappointed in it, though. I really had a hard time getting past the misogyny and the way the protagonist, an author stand-in, treated women and talked about women. That was by far my biggest issue with it. It was so blatant and shocking that I really wish I had a copy with me so that I could quote it. I summarize the sense that remains with me of the novel’s attitude toward women this way:  “Women are stupid and only good for fucking.” No joking, no exaggeration. Sure, these ideas were contextualized in the character’s life, which included major mother issues and mental hospitalization, but that didn’t outweigh or justify the misogyny to me. I even read a biography of the writer to try to figure out his appeal to Brock and others, but he seemed like a pretty reprehensible, pathetic human being as a whole. I guess I can see how his posturing could be appealing to a white guy of a certain class, region, and time period, but that’s not me, and Exley made no efforts to relate to anyone who wasn’t just like him. (I can’t help noticing that the people who positively reviewed the book on its page are overwhelmingly white males, judging by their names and pictures.) Exley might have seen his lack of consideration for other viewpoints as a point of pride, but for me it made the book less enjoyable, and even disgusting at times.

There were a lot of satisfyingly fun and virtuosic sentences in the book. When he wasn’t talking to or about women, I liked the sentences.

I concluded that Frederick Exley and A Fan’s Notes are not worthy of the hero’s treatment they get in Brock’s heartfelt, decidedly non-misogynist novel Exley. Here‘s a short essay where he explains his choice. The book was meaningful to him personally at a certain time in his life when he needed to read about someone who was “even more of a loser” than he was. I can understand that kind of personal response to a book, especially a book that seems to speak precisely to a problem that is currently consuming your life. I’ve been there. In fact the things that Brock points out in the essay, Exley’s ambition and his failure, are the things that I related to the most as well. I guess the difference between my reading and Brock’s is just that every time I saw some shockingly misogynistic remark, my emotional investment and appreciation of the language just evaporated.

I hate to be the PC police or something, but I notice that Brock doesn’t mention Exley’s misogyny anywhere in this essay. Can he really not have seen it? Does he deem it less important than his personal reaction? It is a short essay, and the misogyny might seem irrelevant to the question of why he wrote a novel about Exley’s book. I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Brock is much smarter than me, and I really hesitate to judge a former professor, especially one who has been so personally generous to me. The next time I see Brock I will have to ask him what he thought of the misogynistic portions of A Fan’s Notes, and why they did not interfere with his ability to have such a strong personal response to the book.