Posts Tagged ‘romance’

This novel sits on my fence. To be a good novel, or not to be. That is the question.

Winfield has crafted a novel about a masters student, at UC Santa Cruz, who is more interested in drugs and sex than writing his thesis. His life is set on a path by the fact that his name is William Shakespeare–and his master’s thesis is about, guess who, Shakespeare. While Willie moves closer to completing his thesis, his life is paralleled by that of the historic Shakespeare. Winfield brings Shakespeare’s youth and accidental impregnation of Anne Hathaway to life and makes a case for Shakespeare practicing Catholicism during a time when papists were being hung, drawn, and quartered by the Queen of England.

I think the parallel structure of the novel is clever, and the imagination of Shakespeare’s youth was well drawn up. I particularly loved the inclusion of many Shake’s quotes in a relevant and illuminating manner. This novel also shed to light the political situations that Shakespeare would have grown up feeling oppressed or frustrated with.

My issues with the book come from another area. First, the descriptions are flowery. Rarely do I find myself skimming sentences, but it became so bad at points that I even skimmed whole paragraphs. Winfield isn’t verbose, but his first novel includes many details and scenes that do not add to the texture of the story. The long winded scene at Berkeley Campus, for example, felt as though it were merely telling us what it was like to be a student at Cal. The experience could have been cut down to one or two pages, but instead it sucked up page after page telling us about picketing, people shouting absurd chants, and tabling for myriad causes. While these are all a part of Berkeley culture, it was primarily irrelevant to the novel.

“My Name is Will” is Winfield’s first novel, and it was well enough crafted to ensure that he will continue to write, and be read. As I said at the beginning of this post, I can’t recommend this novel, but I also can’t condemn it. Read it yourself, and tell me what you think.

Jess Winfield’s website

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Audrey Niffenegger’s novel The Time Traveler’s Wife was a national bestseller and was made into a major motion picture. A friend’s comment on facebook inspired me to purchase Niffenegger’s debut novel before seeing the flick on my 37″ flatscreen at home. The friend had posted a comment about how the movie was disappointing after reading the book, and now I’m not sure I want to see the movie. There were few moments in reading The Time Traveler’s Wife that I didn’t feel like closing the book and picking up the Cormack McCarthy novel Suttree instead.

So lets start with the good. The plot was a novel idea. Heh. Pun intended. Henry, the c0-main-character, has chrono-placement disorder CPD, aka he time travels and he has no control over it. The book is written generally chronologically in time, Clare’s time, from the first time she (at six) meets her future husband, to her at 82 years old. Nifennegger jumps about a bit, to give the reader a sense of Henry’s disorienting experience of life. It’s a new way of telling a story, so that was good.

Unfortunately, Niffenegger, lacks a few essential skills as a writer. Hopefully this novel isn’t the best idea she’s thought of, because her prose is lackluster. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few beautiful moments, but they were overshadowed by her poor understanding of metaphor. There was one metaphor that stood out as deeply egregious in my mind. Henry takes his daughter(s) out for ice cream and states that they eat their banana splits like vacuums. Metaphors are very visual usage of words, so lets zoom in and have a look of what a vacuum eating a banana split would look like. Oh, vacuums don’t eat. Good point. And most vacuums don’t suck liquid either. So really it would just mash the banana and ice cream into the carpet making a giant sticky mess. So children often make messes when they eat, but the point is–it was a bad metaphor, and the book is loaded with them.

Additionally Niffenegger doesn’t seem to mind relying on the cliché. Clare has heard things a gazillion times. I wonder, mathematically, how much of your life would be spent listening to the same thing in order to hear it a gazillion times. These phrases generalize rather than painting a clear picture of what’s happened. Maybe she actually heard it ten times and was feeling frustrated with the repetition. Niffenegger could be more suave with her word choice and metaphors.

Finally, and most importantly to me, Clare and Henry both speak with the same voice. Sometimes I would have to search around to figure out who was speaking to me. At least the sections are labeled as to who is speaking, but they still both speak with the same voice. Working in first person is not easy, but every person thinks differently, and since much of The Time Traveler’s Wife is in thought it seems natural that Henry and Clare should have different thought processes and different tones, different voices.

All in all, if I’d picked this book up when I wasn’t on vacation I probably wouldn’t have expended the energy to finish it. The story itself is excellent, but Niffenegger’s execution isn’t.

The English Translation, “Philosopher or Dog?,” was originally written in Portuguese under the title “Quincas Borbas.” This Portuguese title is perhaps more applicable to the narrative; at the least it does not lead the reader to believe the dog is in any way a philosopher, nor does it suggest that the dog plays a vital role in the novel. The dog’s name is Quincas Borbas, named after it’s original owner Quincas Borbas who was a philosopher. I can only speculate that the English translation title was a simple question in the translator’s mind: did the original title, Quincas Borbas, refer to the philosopher or the dog? Don’t make the same mistake I did, looking for the dog to have any importance in the novel whatsoever. It was a character that was really inconsequential to the narrative.

Although this novel was written more than a hundred years ago, the prose is fresh and interesting. The narrator is occasionally intrusive, and the point of view changes often. This is a fabulous technique because it allows the reader to see differing viewpoints. For example, the reader knows that Rubaio is in love with the beautiful, sophisticated (and married) Sophia, but we might have read the entire novel believing it was mutual if Rubiao’s voice had spoken to us alone. This technique allows the reader to watch the protagonist’s mental decline through the vision of his social climbing leach-like friends.

De Assis did a fabulous job displaying love in the fashion they would have found enchanting in “Love an the Time of Cholera.” His use of chapter breaks is interesting, and I might reread this novel at some point to try to understand what de Assis was attempting. Sometimes a day or several months elapse between chapters, but sometimes they break up a scene. And finally, the end was odd. After also having read Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” recently, I’m not sure what to make of the ending of this novel. At the same time, I don’t want to give any spoilers. If you love literature, then I recommend reading Philosopher or Dog?. He is considered one of the greatest classic writers in Brazil [thanks Melissa, for noting my mistake in writing Portugal], and his work is assigned for almost every schoolchild. Unfortunately, not all of his work has been translated into English.

Purdue’s link about de Assis

NYT Article on de Assis