Sirena Reads

reading books to become a better writer

BOOK REVIEW: Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler

You are about to begin reading Sirena’s book review on Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler. Adjust the lighting or the brightness on your phone or laptop, so as not to strain your eyes. You’ve come here because you’ve seen Calvino’s book in a bookstore and you’re currently debating on whether or not you should get it. You decide that you should. You open his book and you find that you are the protagonist. You are the Reader and, the plot of which you read, is of you reading.

Here, your journey may take several paths. You may read this novel in a single day and, at the end, leave the novel never being able to read the same again. You may also have enjoyed the book thoroughly but, having such an ethereal experience in which you are exponentially more aware of the act of reading, you can never read again. Or you may not like Calvino at all.

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I, unfortunately, am only a reader (of which kind, I’m not entirely sure even after completing this book) and an aspiring writer still in need of much development; I’ve such a long way to go before I can share the authority of Calvino to go so far as to tell you how to read this book and what you’ll find. Here is my experience (and I use the word liberally because this novel truly is an experience):

I must begin with the disclaimer that this is my first novel told in second person that I’ve completely read. (I’ve attempted other second person prose—mostly short stories—and never brought myself to finish reading them, largely because I simply didn’t like them. I’ll delve into the mechanisms working in Calvino’s narrator that made me like this novel as opposed to others in my next post.) Next, I must say that this is a genre of metafiction, perhaps not as extreme as Barth, but metafiction nonetheless. As much as I’d love to write which parts of this book worked for me and which parts didn’t, I feel instead that it may be more beneficial, for me to tell you what to expect.

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If you are a reader that views reading as a form of escapism, don’t read this book. The act of reading itself is a central part of the novel, especially how you and “you,” the Reader, take part of the book, thus you are constantly reminded of reading. Some may argue this pulls the actual you out of the book’s world, but the book’s world is the act of reading, so by becoming aware of your own experience, you are taking part of Calvino’s intent.

This narrative is also not smooth nor fluid. Now, that is not a mistake or accident, but the fragmented form (stories never completed, narratives between chapters) is the very purpose of this novel. Calvino explores the relationship between a reader and his or her books; does the reader read each book as its own separate voice or, through the world of literature and our own human bias, do we approach each work of literature looking for something, hoping to gain the invaluable aspect that makes literature so special? If the latter, isn’t reading, therefore, a fragmented life experience, each narrative contributing to our own? If, instead, it is the prior, how often does one read an entire book in one sitting? In between one’s break from books, does our experience in reality not affect how we view a novel’s intent?

All these are questions Calvino proposes through the form of his novel and through the plot of incomplete chapters and the Reader’s search for closure. That being said, to obsess over the technicalities of the relationships (the true Calvino, the actual narrator, the real “You,” etc.) would result in you missing the point. The interlaced connections within and surrounding If on a winter’s night a traveler is meant to blur the novel’s own reality. What is truth and what isn’t becomes irrelevant. If you do approach this novel, a difficult task that should not be intended for the light, easy reader, then focus on the experience of the novel as a whole. The first few chapters does an excellent job of helping you surrender to the dynamics of the world and the “You” that is the Reader. Do not approach this novel critically, but instead focus on your experience and how the broken narrative affects your own views of literature.

Sirena

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On Real Women and Allende

It’s taken me a long while to write this, in part due to the business of life and in part due to my tendency to fully digest a work before offering any analysis. In the case of Allende’s 500-page masterpiece, there is an overabundance of themes, devices, motifs, styles, etc., etc. that needs to be absorbed. I wonder even now if I am entirely ready. Therefore, I’ll tackle a specific subject which is the most invaluable lesson that I believe can be and should be learned from The House of Spirits: how to properly write female characters.

Let me first clarify that I don’t believe every female character for the rest of literature should duplicate, through slight variation, a female character from Allende’s novel. I, instead, urge otherwise because literature, then, would become painfully boring. But the style in which these characters are written, the honesty (because there simply is no other word to describe these representations), is one that should be discussed in every Fiction Writing class.

Let’s observe the first, main female character: Clara. Clara’s role is one that could’ve easily fallen into a pit of clichés like many other psychic or supernatural women in literature, and contemporary culture in general. How does Allende avoid the magical girl stereotypes? Or the witch? Or the mystic psychic? A major and rather simple solution to these pitfalls is that Clara was born with these powers. Her powers are inherent and, from her perspective, a natural part of life. Therefore, the reader views her abilities as an additional characteristic instead of a dictator of her character. That is to say that her abilities remain important and still play a vital role to the story but the narrative does not revolve around her powers except when necessary and is never used as any form of “deus ex machina.”

All the women in Allende’s novel are as deeply flawed as they are loving. Clara, at times, is a neglectful mother, receding into the world of the dead when she cannot handle the living. Bianca is reliant on her wealthy lifestyle so much so that she only joins her love, Pedro Garcia, when her father ensures financial support. Many times, Alba chooses the politics of her lover over the safety of her family and, hypocritically, criticizes their classist lifestyle which she still willingly takes part of it.

A bad mother. A selfish lover. Do these things take anything away from the characters? No. No. NO. These flaws add depth to characters who, overall, have good hearts and true intentions. Reading The House of Spirits, you know that Clara, Bianca and Alba are not horrible people but rather good. But, like all good women, they are flawed. Like all real women, they are not as easily defined as good or evil, as virgin or whore, as ave or eva. They are a complexity of emotions and desires who astonishingly are not as deeply explored as their male counterparts. If you, a writer, would like to do something in your work so often neglected, something different from the male cannon of your high school and first-year English class curriculum, write—honestly—about a real woman.

— Sirena

BOOK REVIEW: Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits

Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits, often compared to Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, holds a, as Publishers Weekly writes, “distinctive voice, however…being clearer, more accessible, and more explicit about the contemporary situation South America.” Existing in multiple dichotomies, focusing on the links and loops of history, story upon story of love and violence, The House of Spirits shows the literary world how women, and men, should be written: honestly. I’ll delve into this more so in another post, but if you are interested in how real women are best portrayed, open this book.

Approaching this book however, with the search for pure magical realism, much like Love and Other Demons, would be a mistake. The magical elements of this novel, especially in the first few chapters, are at first inconsistent or, if the change was intended, may have been explained or signaled too subtly for most readers to notice. Fortunately, the magical elements become part of the characters and are used, if anything, to elevate the strong individuals. The story occasionally alters between a third-person and first-person narrative. In the first person, I found myself questioning why I was reading the view of such a detestable character (which, trust me, is not an understatement in the first three-quarters of the book), especially when there are numerous interesting people introduced. All is eventually explained, with even the third person speaker becoming apparent. And, yes, the first person narratives serve a purpose, although I would argue that there may be better ways to do what these narratives did.

The book becomes intensely captivating when Clara’s story takes over and the other stories following. We then learn about the family that grows from Clara’s marriage and, like the Trueba household, the characters of the women carry the novel. These relationships and the tensions that grow within this family keep your attention and urges you to keep reading; if only, out of love for these characters. Love, after all, is the recurring theme with the love stories being the most interesting. Like the women, the relationships in this novel are treated honestly, revealing more about the personalities of the individuals involved than focusing on the passions of love alone.

A bit of a long read, numbered at a little less than 500 pages, the novel’s pace never feels dragged out and moves quite quickly considering the many characters you meet. I can earnestly say that nearly every character, excluding maybe a couple, serve a purpose and do not at all disappoint.

The book did lose my interest in the final 100 pages when the novel’s focus shifts from the characters to the degradation of the country and becomes even more shifted when more political turmoil ensues. It is interesting to see the historical parallels between Alba’s unnamed country and Allende’s Chile; however, the novel adapts to Miguel’s views, putting political conviction before love. The novel also adapts to the idea that desperate times calls for desperate measures, with many loose ends appearing quickly tied up, and past transgressions simply melting away.

My criticisms, I should point out, lie in the parts of the novel that seem weak in comparison to the rest of the book; however, in relation to many other modern novels, these “weak” sections would seem extraordinary. It’s an excellent summer read, deserving all the love and attention it receives. The only fault with Allende is that her strongest writing creates extremely high standards that is difficult for any writer to match. Allende’s novel is moving, riveting and, all in all, beautiful

— Sirena

A Gift from García Márquez

One of my favorite writer interviews is a YouTube video my Fiction II professor showed our class. The video, directly titled “Neil Gaiman: Where do you get your ideas from,” gives a small look into the most famously asked but vaguely answered question that many writers, and artists in general, come across. As Neil Gaiman quite humorously puts it “we [writers] don’t really know.” Readers or admirers of any artist often wonder how someone could come up with an idea that produces something so beautiful but, more so than writers, we, as onlookers, barely know. Yes, we can often see, at the very least, a loose connection between an author’s life and their writing. But that, after all, is only rooted in assumptions. Even if our assumptions are correct, we cannot, as outsiders, pinpoint the exact moment in time when an idea sparks with life—not without the help of the artist.

‘Stop by there and see if you can come up with anything.’

In reading Gabriel García Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons (translated by Edith Grossman), fortunate readers will find a letter, preceding chapter one, which explains how the idea for the novel was born by García Márquez himself. If you were not so fortunate enough, here is a scanned copy. In this letter, García Márquez states that Of Love and Other Demons developed from a journalism assignment for a newspaper. He highlights the foreman’s indifference to the discoveries of the unearthed tombs, a missing body and the incredible length of a dead female’s hair, reminding his readers that there, in the mundane and the forgotten, might lie something magical. It’s in this moment when García Márquez recounts a legend his grandmother told him. The pages following reveal the result of this encounter, in which reality and legend merge. “Magical realism” goes beyond the definition of magical elements being presented in a realistic setting. In that definition the word “magical” acts as an adjective for reality, “realism.” But as shown in García Márquez’s letter, through the melding of our world and the unknown, both words coexist to create a new form of reality.

Where do we go from here? As readers and as aspiring writers? If there is any lesson to be learned or skill to steal, that is to search for inspiration everywhere. García Márquez’s final line reads “the idea that the tomb might be hers was my news item for the day, and the origin of this book.”  Do not limit your imagination to the limited understanding of our world. Be amazed at the length of a skull’s hair. Create a fantastic reason as to why a tomb might be empty. Bring the dead back to life, even if only to kill them once more.

“The trouble is you can’t forbid what I think.”

— Sirena

BOOK REVIEW: Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez

As you open Of Love and Other Demons  are met by “an ash-gray dog,” you may search the pages for men with enormous wings or the travelling show of an enslaved prostitute or, at the very least, a little town named Macondo.

Stop now, lest you’ll be disappointed.

The biggest complaint Márquez fans may have regarding this short novel is the lack of magic and the fantastical. García Márquez substitutes these elements instead with a mild suspicion of “the otherworldly.” There are, of course in true García Márquez fashion, the unquestioned explanations for medical phenomenon, such as an aching heart, and the mundane turned fantastic, like the addictive drug of fermented honey. However, the novel, revolving around religion and racial divides, does not present its magical elements as García Márquez normally does: without question or explanation. Instead, the characters themselves offer explanations to magic and you must decide whether these characters are correct or if these are the unexplained laws of the world presented.

Sherman Alexie said that all stories revolve around identities. Of Love and Other Demons isn’t so much an exploration or discovery of an identity; instead, it is a collection of reactions to a definite identity. A short and easy read, this is a story of ties between the rest of the world and a young girl. You’ll fall in love with the strange girl, Sierva María, and you’ll long to save her from the world that won’t simply let her be.

If you are looking for the intensely fantastical, search elsewhere. But if you want a heartbreakingly beautiful read, take this book, rest with it beneath a shady tree, and enjoy.

— Sirena