Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Comparing two books

I'm not sure to what extent it's fair to compare these two books: These Days Are Ours, by Michelle Haimoff, which I read recently and about which I have mixed feelings, and The Bellwether Revivals, by Benjamin Wood, which I'm not quite halfway through and which I'm loving.

There are some superficial and thematic similarities. Haimoff writes about recent college grads, while Wood's characters are largely still students. They both deal with privileged classes among whom there's an interloper — a regular, working guy. Both feature several social events. Same time period.

So why is it that I really like the one (Wood) — I think it's literary, I can't think of a better way to spend these cold, grey March days — and I'm so quick to dismiss the other (Haimoff) as chick lit (or something like it)? (And when I apply these labels, have I already made my judgement?)

For starters, it's clear to me that The Bellwether Revivals has a plot. I'm not entirely sure where it's going, but things are happening, and I want to know what happens next.

These Days Are Ours has less plot — a lot of chatting and meeting up, but not much to drive the reader, beyond wondering whether she'll get the job she interviewed for and which guy should she end up with — more an over-arching theme of directionlessness. In one sense, the novel might be said to be clever for its mostly plotless form matching its content.

For another thing, I'd much rather attend one of Wood's dinner parties than Haimoff's. The Bellwhethers (for that is the name of the family of interest) actully talk about ideas, like mind-body dualism. Hailey's crowd talks small talk, about people, clubs, nothing much at all. Come to think of it, they do as much texting as talking, and I think this reflects the depth of their engagement. Haimoff writes about people of influence; Wood writes about people of intelligence.

When I say I prefer Wood's book then, is it because I like the people in it better? Do people in real life talk about mind-body dualism and debate the existence of God at the dinner table? Yes, but how many? Is Haimoff's dinner conversation more realistic?

Is either book an accurate reflection of the society it takes on? Can they both be right? Is this New York (Haimoff) versus London (Wood)? Haimoff's feels like a small novel, about a small character at sea, small perhaps in contrast to New York and 9/11. Wood's novel feels big and important even though the story doesn't go far beyond the circle of friends. Is Haimoff too subtle for me to appreciate?

I wouldn't be comparing these books at all, I don't think, if it weren't for that I'm reading them within a couple weeks of each other.

I can't wait to get back to The Bellwhether Revivals.

1 comment:

Steven Watson said...

Full disclosure: Michelle Haimoff and I are internet friends. We started a book club together, and sometimes I read her blog. I am defending her book because I love it and I believe it deserves defending.

I don't think These Days Are Ours is a small book, although Hailey feels small against the backdrop of global conflict. That's one way you could find the philosophy.

For example, Hailey and her friends don't know when or if the next attack is coming. They feel that everything they do is meaningless because they could die before they accomplish anything.

On top of that, they grew up in so much privilege that it's hard to top what the previous generation has accomplished. Starting from there, you could make an argument for nihilism and existentialist ideas in this book. Hailey's brother, who works at a hotel and smokes pot, is certainly a nihilistic figure.

But if Hailey's brother came from a different socioeconomic background, working at a hotel and smoking pot would be a perfectly respectable career path. Is that wrong, or just the way things are? Do families like Hailey's have a duty to help those less fortunate?

Hailey's father doesn't think they do. He chews Hailey's brother out for taking the doorman to a baseball game. But the dad told him he could take anyone he wanted. What does this say about the way we use language?

I think there are lots of deeper ideas at play in These Days Are Ours. At one time, I would have written this book off- not because a woman wrote it, but because the main characters are all filthy rich. What problems could they possibly have? But I was able to read this book and pretend I was Hailey. That gave me a whole different perspective. I think that being privileged can be just as much of a trap as being poor. Which is better from a utilitarian view?

So to answer the questions you pose in the 3rd paragraph- I don't know why you are so quick to dismiss TDAO as "chick lit or something like it." It might be because Haimoff is a woman; I don't know enough about you to judge you that way, but it is possible. The chick lit label is problematic, but that's a different conversation; I will say I have read enough ostensible chick lit to say that TDAO does not qualify.

Secondly, yes. When you apply those labels, you have already made your judgment. I know because I did the same thing with George Orwell's 1984. I had to read it for class. I didn't want to, because I normally only read books by women. So I dismissed 1984 as coming from a white male author writing to a white male audience in a world owned (during Orwell's time) by white men.

It's probably no surprise that I didn't like the book. I brought my own prejudices and baggage, so Orwell's work really never had a chance.

Maybe you have done something similar with Haimoff's book. I hope you will give it another chance. It's a fantastic book, one I couldn't put down and will return to again and again.