Still no matter what, I seem to always find myself writing a review of something, at least in my head. And even when it's very, very difficult to do so. Most recent example: Jonathan Franzen's How To Be Alone.
It's one of the most challenging book I've ever read in my life. But my friends from Bachelor of English would probably breeze through it like a Porsche on a deserted highway.
I got to know Franzen through his third novel, The Corrections (another unsuccessful review, I've already written two drafts of it). I was fascinated by the book, which seems to discuss a lot of things gone awry in America today, while disguising itself as a "comedy" (Franzen's own word) about a Midwestern family weathering the changes in their lives. Some of the observations made in the book the include the dwindling of the marriage institution, 'hands-off' parenting (an interestingly apt description), the pervasion of technology (the new 'religion') and the influence of pharmaceutical giants in people's lives.
The Corrections was picked by Oprah Winfrey in 2001 for her Book Club selection (which only the BIGGEST book club in the world). That was actually a start of a controversy. Franzen later expressed his uneasiness at seeing the Oprah's Book Club logo on the cover of his book and he was disinvited from the Oprah's show. I didn't see what all this were about until I finished both The Corrections and How To Be Alone.
How To Be Alone is Franzen's collection of essays, which surprisingly covers many topics. He tackles topic like the postal service (Lost in the Mail), mental disease treatment (My Father's Brain, also a theme that appeared in The Corrections), maximum security prisons (Control Units) and the sex advice industry (Books In Bed) with his dry wit, imaginative trope and lots of big words (see this post).
The book itself is a mixed bag. There are parts that I enjoyed going through and there parts where I have little idea what Franzen is going on about. But one undeniable fact is the book reveals much of Franzen's soul. And despite the big, uncommon words he throws constantly at the readers, Franzen often makes interesting and poignant observations about the topic he covers.
Meet Me in St. Louis is probably the most personal essay in the book. In it Franzen recounts his brief experience as an 'Oprah author', before he got disinvited. He expresses his anxieties about several things include having to pose for a footage to be shown on Oprah and having to revisit his childhood home. It was an especially arduous emotional ordeal having to act and unearth long buried memories just for the camera.
And it slowly becomes clear to me why he didn't like being known as an Oprah author. The Corrections was intended to be a social commentary novel. Oprah, being the media and commercial force herself, is probably one of things Franzen confronts with The Corrections. I can understand how the the sight of Book Club logo would be unsettling for him. (It's on the cover of my copy.) At least that's my theory. Franzen wrote that shortly after his book was picked by Oprah there were people who came to him saying, "I like your book and I think it's wonderful that Oprah picked it," and, "I like your book and I'm so sorry Oprah picked it."
There's no spewed poison here, however. Instead of bashing Oprah or anybody, Franzen tells his side of the story in a "do you know what I mean?" kind of way but with a layered choice of words. And The Corrections is still in the Book Club's 2001 selection list.
As I've said, it wasn't an easy book. However, I really enjoyed the parts I understood. It's going back to the shelf for the moment as I wait for a suitable time to reread it. Or until I can get one of my Bachelor of English friends to read it and explain it to me.
(To be continued. The last part, insya-Allah.)