The Weight of a Human Heart, by Ryan O’Neill

The first collection of stories by the Australian writer was given to me by Hayley, who rightly guessed that once I read the first page I’d be hooked. That first piece, “Collected Stories”, remains my favorite, and not just because the protagonist is named Barbara. The mother-daughter relationship struck me as being as true as can be and the writing brilliant. Here is the first paragraph:

My mother, Margaret Hately, was a short-story writer. In the few photographs I have of her she is carrying a book, holding it against her chest as if she were suckling it. There are no photographs of my father. My mother destroyed them when he left her, a month before I was born. I only know him from the parts of him she put in her stories—a limp, a way of reading the newspaper at arm’s length. Whilst my mother wrote, my father was made of words.

The characterisation here bowled me over. The telling details, that wonderful image of suckling a book, and the stunning final sentence left me feeling I knew all three of these people intimately.

The story has an unusual format: it is organised in five parts, each one titled by and referring to one of Margaret’s published books. As we move through her career, we see the relationship with Barbara developing in sometimes surprising ways, always with eminently quotable sentences.

Nearly all of the stories in this collection have some kind of experimental format: one is a series of figures; another a list of rules for writing a short story; yet another an examination paper. Some, such as the one told by labeling the components of a short story, probably appeal most to other writers. However, they are clever and surprisingly effective.

For example, one story, “Tyypographyy”, uses different fonts and a sticky key to tell Amy’s first-person story of grieving for her recently deceased mother, trying to relate to her father who is stuck in his own mourning, and juggling well-meant attempts at sympathy from teachers, including a maths teacher who speaks to the class only in lists of numbers.

Another, one of my favorites, called “The Footnote” tells the story of Thomas Hardie, an aspiring author, who at the age of seven demands to be “called by his middle name, Edward, so there would be no confusion when his first book was published.” We discover from the footnotes that this account is actually being written by his son. Although the footnotes are fairly cryptic at first, the emotion behind them is strongly conveyed by their juxtaposition with the text and by the significant selection of memories incorporated. The footnotes gradually grow longer and we find out why the son’s memories are expressed there. I found the ending enormously satisfying.

As my friend mentioned, the repetition of certain themes and subjects gets a little old. Not another story featuring the Rwandan genocide! I found myself thinking. Not Newcastle again! Perhaps if I hadn’t torn through the book so fast, let days pass between each story, the repetition wouldn’t have bothered me so much.

I also found the cuteness of the experimental formats sometimes overwhelmed the genuine human story within. There are some more traditional stories, including another of my favorites, “The Saved”, about an Australian woman who is in Rwanda teaching English. Mrs. Watt’s efforts to teach the village children and to help another teacher bring her into conflict with the Bishop, the head of the school who makes Mr. Brocklehurst look like a saint.

I highly recommend this collection and am eager to see what else O’Neill has written.

Have you read fiction using experimental formats? What did you think of it? Another example is Jennifer Egan’s popular book, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Howard's End, by E. M. Forster

It was interesting to reread this novel after Forster's Aspects of the Novel. Although it's been quite a few years since I last read it, the story remains vivid in my memory, partly because of the 1992 Merchant-Ivory film starring Emma Thomson, Vanessa Redgrave, and Anthony Hopkins.

Sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel love literature and music and good conversation, all readily available in pre-World War I London where they live with their young brother, Tibby. Secure in the funds left to them by their parents, they occupy a particular niche in the English class structure, the intellectual, somewhat bohemian middle class. They become involved with Leonard Bast, a denizen of the lower middle class, a clerk who aspires to raise himself by attending classical concerts and reading serious books.

The sisters also become involved with a family of wealthy capitalists, the Wilcoxes, first Helen, the younger and more melodramatic sister, who visits their country home. The spirit behind Howard's End is Ruth Wilcox, whose love for her family home has made it a charming country hide-away for her husband and children. Like the heroine of Coventry Patmore's poem, satirized by Virginia Woolf, Ruth is “the Angel in the House”, the woman whose selfless devotion to her family and submission to her husband makes her the unappreciated foundation of family life.

Given these three families from different levels of the middle class, my book club started our discussion with the question stated in the novel: “Who is going to inherit England?” We also asked how Forster followed his own edicts.

Here the plot is indeed “a narrative of events arranged in a time sequence” that are also linked by causality. Our point of view is primarily Margaret, the more practical of the sisters, who struggles to hold within her value system two opposing forces: a devotion to culture and the life of the mind along with an appreciation of the aggressive capitalists who have built the railroads and trust funds and England itself.

If “the test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way”, then Forster succeeds with his main characters. Their sometimes-unexpected choices continue to be credible. The events grow believably out of the characters, avoiding Forster's criticism of Hardy's novels that events are controlled by “the fate above us, not the fate working through us.”

Most of all we wanted to know if Forster incorporated what he called “prophecy” in his lectures, something universal. He says it only comes through subtly, in the writer's tone of voice, “the implication that signifies and will filter into the turns of the novelist's phrase.” It does come out in some of his phrases, such as “Private life holds out the mirror to infinity.” But I found some of his high-flown paragraphs—rare as they are—a bit abstract. Although impatient to get on with the story, I understood that these abstract reveries were the meat of Margaret and Helen's discussions.

But, if I understand it correctly, Forster's prophecy is more generally a theme that makes the story larger than it is, more than just the fate of Margaret or Leonard or any other character. Forster says, “There is more in the novel than time or people or logic or any of their derivatives, more even than fate . . . something that cuts across them like a bar of light.”

And here is where Forster excels. For this is not just a novel about class differences or about love and marriage. It is not even just about the fate of England, as symbolized by the shifting ownership of Howard's End. This novel is about how we connect to each other and begins with Forster's famous epigraph: “Only connect”. What could be more fundamental to the human condition?

What do you think of Forster's idea of “prophecy”?

Aspects of the Novel, by E. M. Forster

I hadn’t looked at this small book since university, so was intrigued when one of my book clubs selected it. The nine chapters are based on lectures Forster gave at Trinity College, Cambridge, and retain the somewhat casual syntax of speech. They are also surprisingly humorous.

When reading a book from my youth, I’m often surprised to find ideas that have become so deeply incorporated into my assumptions and expectations that I’ve forgotten their source. Here, too, I found much that I recognised. For instance, Forster takes the idea of suspense, which makes readers want to find out what happens next, and extrapolates to say that “what the story does is to narrate the life in time.” Then he adds that good novels also incorporate the life by values, meaning “something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity.”

I agree that a novelist who abandons time—”the thread of his story”—risks becoming unintelligible. You can have time that moves backwards or that jumps around, but you have to find ways to help the reader hold onto the thread. As one writing teacher once told me, you have to teach the reader how to read your book. I mentioned earlier that Jen Michalski’s The Tide King is a great example of how to do this effectively.

I also love this quote from Forster, which he has paraphrased from an essay in Système des Beaux Arts (the quotes are his):

“What is fictitious in a novel is not so much the story as the method by which thought develops into action, a method which never occurs in daily life . . . History, with its emphasis on external causes, is dominated by the notion of fatality, whereas there is not fatality in the novel; there, everything is founded on human nature, and the dominating feeling is of an existence where everything is intentional, even passions and crimes, even misery.”

This reminds me of a discussion I had with some friends this week about whether the extraordinary coincidences that have happened to all of us could be used in a novel. For example, my brother found a jigsaw puzzle at a yard sale where the picture is a photo of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and among the people milling around are my family, quite clearly. I maintained that such coincidences could not be used, but one of my friends felt you could get away with one.

Forster goes on to say that to make your characters real, the writer must know everything about them. He will not, of course, share all of that information. “But he will give us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable, and we get from this a reality of a kind we can never get in daily life.”

There have been many articles lately about the benefits of reading. I enjoyed this recent one by Lauren Martin. She cites psychologist David Comer Kidd: “‘What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.'” She goes on to say of readers: “Their ability to connect with characters they haven’t met makes their understanding of the people around them much easier. They have the capacity for empathy. They may not always agree with you, but they will try to see things from your point of view.”

Another quote from Forster about character: “Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character . . . characters, to be real, ought to run smoothly, but a plot ought to cause surprise.”

I’ve just given you a sampling of some memorable bits. There’s much more, including chapters on prophecy and fantasy. It reads smoothly, with examples from novels as varied as Pamela and Ulysses to illustrate his ideas.

What book has most helped you understand the craft behind the novel?

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I did not want to read this book. Yes, it won the Pulitzer Prize but that has not always been a reliable barometer for me. Even though it came highly recommended by several of my most trusted reading buddies, I resisted. Why? Because it’s 775 pages!

No book needs to be THAT long, I thought. Either it’s full of extraneous (but possibly interesting) information, like Moby Dick, or the writing in the middle must be really sloppy and nobody had the nerve to tell the author that it needed to be cut. I felt the same way about the later Harry Potter books. They were so long that I didn't want to read them, though I was happy to listen to the wonderful Jim Dale read them to me on long road trips.

Then a similar situation arose: a long flight. I wanted something that would keep me engaged for the whole flight, since I don’t like to go immediately from one book into another.

The Goldfinch was perfect. From the first sentence to the last, my attention was absorbed by the world of the story; I fell into it like a dreamer falling off a bridge, submerged, enclosed. During the last hundred pages I kept trying to slow down because it was so beautiful, some of the best writing I’ve read in a long time. I wanted to savor everything about life and death and art. But no, I kept tearing ahead to find out what would happen next.

At the beginning of the book, thirteen-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother in a horrific accident. That scene took my breath away, a perfect example of writing in the moment. I could tell you what happened in a sentence, but the buildup and Theo’s moment-by-moment experience make the scene unforgettable. In the aftermath, Theo comes into possession of a heavy gold ring and a small painting by Dutch painter Fabritius of a goldfinch chained to a shelf.

Told in Theo’s first-person voice, the story captivated me. The author’s sure hand kept the suspense high and the plot moving. But even more than the plot, smart and unexpected as it was, what held me were the characters. I adored Theo from the beginning, from his description of his artistic and adorably freckled mother. He tried my patience at times, as teenagers will, but I couldn’t give up on him.

Even more than Theo, I loved his mother. Then there are Theo’s schoolfriend Andy and Andy’s mother, a rather scary society matron who likes her gin and lime; they both developed in ways that surprised me and endeared them to me. One of my favorites is his teenaged buddy, Boris, a scruffy Ukrainian who starts out the proverbial bad influence—though hilarious—and ends up showing more depth than I’d have thought possible.

Best of all, for me, is Hobie. An older man who shuffles about, completely incapable of running the antique business for which he’s responsible, Hobie works magic as a restorer of old furniture, a trade he teaches Theo, and maker of wonderful meals. Eccentric and often solitary, Hobie yet has a close circle of friends and an unfailing insight into flaws and how to fix them.

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot. Don’t read about it anywhere. Let it just unfold. Set aside a day or two. Let go. Fall in.

What kind of books do you like to read on a long plane ride?