By December 11, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Choosing a Book Before Finishing It

I’ve never broken the golden rule before.

If I’m asking people to spend fifteen or twenty dollars for a book, and then asking them to set aside some dozen hours in their busy lives to read the book, I need to know and respect the book from beginning to end. It’s obvious to me that many critics don’t make it to the ends of books, and write their reviews anyway. Endings are the most difficult part of a novel. Great beginnings are a dime a dozen, but endings, tying together the important threads but not too many, satisfying without pandering, is a delicate balancing act that spoils many a fine book.

Wait till you hear about the horrible first ending that Gore Vidal slapped on his expose of homosexual life, The City and the Pillar.

Oranges Fruit  Granted, choosing Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as one of the six books to be discussed in our new Seattle Gay and Lesbian Book Club didn’t mean I was declaring it an uncontested masterpiece. This autobiographical tale of a young girl growing up in industrial Lancashire in the 60’s under the tyranny of a Pentecostal evangelist mother is simply full of good topics to discuss, as well as bearing a striking similarity to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a later book club selection, in each case a loving tribute to a troubling parent.

Oranges is the only book by Winterson that isn’t arty to the point of annoyance, and I added it to the book club’s first six months’ list impulsively, at the last minute, after reading only the first fifty pages, because I could see what a masterful writer she was, and here, in her first book, at least, she was being candid and incorrigibly blunt. It was a comedy about real life. It made me laugh out loud on the bus. I wanted comedies to start the club. The first three selections are now comedies.

Yes, indeed, those first fifty pages are startling and funny and impossibly bright. There are only hints of an increasing penchant to interrupt the novel with “meaningful” absurd fairy tales, getting longer and longer near the novel’s end. I wasn’t happy to see so many. They’re intimidating. For my first reading selections in the book club, I want welcoming literature, straightforward prose, accessible emotions. So much of Oranges is vulnerable, embarrassingly honest stuff that the intrusion of arty stories becomes irritating, and the fact that the stories are written in epigrammatic ambiguities that need to be puzzled out makes certain portions of the book a lot of philosophical work.

Would I have looked longer for a better gay women’s novel if I’d read the whole book before choosing it? Maybe. But I’m thinking the golden rule of never judging a book great until you’ve read the last page needn’t apply to classics. Over twenty years ago, Oranges was an honest, state-of-the-art shocker. Now it’s a standard of gay literature.

Jeanette Winterson  I’ve always had trouble with Winterson. She rubs me wrong. She dances around topics with fancy writing rather than saying what she wants to say. But not in Oranges. For the most part, Oranges shoots from the hip. All except for those little inserted fairy tales. They make the reader feel thickheaded for not knowing what Winterson means. Excuse me, did you just tell me a fairy tale? WHY? I don’t like that feeling. I’m a seasoned, reasonably perceptive reader and if I’m struggling to understand her, maybe Winterson isn’t reaching out quite enough. She’s being opaque on purpose.

Well, I know there’s a certain school for that kind of writing, and many love it, and it boasts great names like Joyce and Nabokov. For myself, I love writing that dares to be direct and struggles to simply say what it has to say, like Hesse and Proust.

Fortunately, our club’s literary historian, Brad Craft, adores Winterson’s memoir, and so I can simply enjoy the straightforward parts and question, along with other readers, what the hell those fairy tales are for, not to mention the mysterious Biblical names given to each of the eight chapters. Dang it, I’m far more familiar with Biblical literature than most, and can’t for the life of me figure out why the final chapter is called “Ruth” or why that arty three-page essay is called “Deuteronomy.”

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all like that. This book has too many brilliant scenes to count, and the language sparkles with dozens of wise, wonderful strokes. But as an author Jeanette Winterson is exasperating.

Brad and I will be sparring over this one. What could be better for provoking discussion?

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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