I hoped for recommendations for ‘good’ books from What to Read and Why by Francine Prose but I gained much more than that.
The essays in this collection hone in on what Prose believes makes certain authors, artists or works to be great. In one section, she focused on what makes particular sentences great. Usually, this is clarity.
While I enjoyed the entire book, I found the chapters where I knew the book being discussed to be more interesting and inspiring than those I didn’t know. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein was a terrific example. The essay started with an explanation of why Frankenstein was written and a description of Shelley’s fascinating childhood and life, then discussed the story’s genre, showed how the author avoided ‘plot holes’ by telling the reader that she wasn’t going to tell them certain things for their own safety, and ended by pointing out that the monster was used as a device to examine horrific human behaviour. I’m busting to reread Frankenstein with my new-found insight.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations was another chapter that I particularly appreciated because I had recently read this book for myself. Prose marveled at how prolific Dickens’ was, at his skill in holding in connecting every single scene in the book with the entire story and drew attention to the novel teaching readers about the difficulty of improving themselves because of personal attachments to their own faults. I was delighted by Prose’s description of Great Expectations as “fun, it’s got an engaging plot, it’s smart and beautifully written.”
The Jane Austen chapter was preaching to the converted. George Eliot, Middlemarch would also have convinced me to add this book to my next Classic Club list had the book not already been on it, along with the Kafka essay.
I was surprised to find two essays discussing the works of photographers, Helen Levitt’s Crosstown and Diane Arbus’ Revelations, but was intrigued by both and searched out works by both artists.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle is an intriguing look at six (!) autobiographical novels written by a Norwegian writer. I can’t decide whether to read these or not. While these books sound fascinating, I get the feeling that reading them might be too voyeuristic, like reading someone’s diary.
I’m also now on the lookout for anything by Mavis Gallant and Patrick Hamilton, Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, but despite explaining what makes Lolita a great novel, Prose couldn’t convince me to re-read this book even if it came with a life-time supply of chocolate.
A chapter titled On Clarity seemed to be speaking directly to me. All I can say is that I try.
I can’t finish this review without commenting on the author’s surname, Prose. What else could this author have been but a writer? There was an impressively long list of non-fiction and fiction books written by Prose on an inside front page and perhaps not surprisingly, I have added her name to my list of authors to seek out.