Monthly Archives: March 2013

First Impressions: Louise Erdrich and Tales of Burning Love


Tales of Burning Love

It absolutely astonishes me that I have never once read Louise Erdrich. I studied literature at a women’s college, and have read many varied and wonderful women writers. I’m also not a stranger to Native American writers, though clearly I haven’t read as widely in that area as I should. Erdrich has been on my radar for at least ten years, and I could have sworn I first read her ages ago, but looking through her book titles I was surprised to see that’s not the case. Which is why I’ll be talking about a seventeen year old novel today, and not Erdrich’s most recent, The Round House (though that is ready and waiting on my ereader. I learn from my mistakes and oversights). It also brings me to a new, and hopefully somewhat regular, feature. First Impressions: the first experience I have reading an established author, and why that matters.

Tales of Burning Love is a novel centered around Jack Mauser, a hapless yet curiously lucky man, who has a trail of five wives behind him. After his funeral (despite the fact that he is not actually dead), the four living ex-wives get stuck in a dangerous blizzard, and only keep themselves alive by telling stories of their lives before, during, and after Jack Mauser.

The writing is intensely lyrical and occasionally deeply funny; early chapters show lots of promise. There’s a lot of lovely repeated imagery: blizzards, religious epiphany, physical accidents brought on by sex. The weather is a character of it’s own in  this novel, and I found myself awed by how many descriptions of ice and snow Erditch wove. But Tales of Burning Love is about a hundred pages too long. The symmetry of the imagery hints at a more even book than it turns out to be. The absurd situations the character find themselves in start off touching and funny, but eventually become somewhat ridiculous when added all together. I wasn’t all that surprised when I came across a bunch of Goodreads reviews warning not to start reading Erdrich with this novel.

Well, I’ve already done it and it can’t be undone, but I can’t help but wonder. where should I have begun? I liked this novel well enough to keep going with Erdrich, but first impressions are important. They color how you view an author, and a bad experience can turn you off a potentially great author for good. For years I’ve labored under the assumption that I hate J.D. Salinger because I hated high school and The Catcher in the Rye. It was only after coming across a short story (that I wouldn’t have even read if I’d realized he’d written it) that I realized this might not be the case, and I should try more than just that one novel.

Sometimes, the longer an author’s canon is, the harder it can be to crack into them. This is one way in which reading genre fiction can be helpful: you just find the beginning of a series (they almost always come in a series) and start there. But where do you begin with an author who has ten standalone novels, or fifteen, or even only two? 

I don’t really have a process of figuring out where to start with an author. How I came to pick up Tales of Burning Love went something like this: I was wandering the stacks in my local used bookstore. I’d been hearing a lot of good things about The Round HouseTales of Burning Love was the cheapest thing on the Erdrich shelf. All very scientific, I assure you.

My first Murakami was  Norwegian Wood (an easy choice, it’s my favorite Lennon-sung Beatles song). My first Chabon was The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, because my friends would not shut up about it (with good reason). My first Gaiman was American Gods, which I still think is the best entry point into his canon. My first Nabokov was Lolita, because everyone starts with Lolita. Sometimes I start with an author’s newest novel and work my way backwards. Sometimes I try to find the earliest thing an author wrote and work my way forward. Sometimes it just depends on what the library has to offer, or a novel’s cover, or how I feel about the blurb.

There’s no right or wrong way to start down the road of reading a given author. But what you read first helps you decide to read more. So, how do you make those decisions? (I’m speaking specifically here, not generally. How do *you* first pick up an author? Tell me in the comments!)


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Reading Challenge: Nebula Nominees Update #1

Remember my reading challenge? It’s time for the first update, N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass.

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Review: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan


The Painted Girls


Title: The Painted Girls

Author: Cathy Marie Buchanan

Rating: 2 stars

I would like to propose a moratorium on the first person present tense narrative. It’s vastly overused these days, to the point where it no longer conveys the sense of desperation and urgency it’s supposed to. It’s becoming a useless literary conceit.

The use of first person present awkwardly interspersed with past-tense recollections is just one of the structural problems of Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls. Buchanan is a bestselling author and The Painted Girls is getting rave reviews, but it’s difficult for me to see why. To me it read like an MFA student’s first draft, unpolished and occasionally nearly unreadable. I have to wonder if I read the same book as everyone else seems to be.

The Painted Girls follows sisters Antoinette and Marie as they grow up in 1880s Paris, struggling with crippling poverty, sexual coercion and threats, and the demanding standards of the world of the Opera. Antoinette, the stereotypical “bad” sister, is a liar and petty thief who is soon swept off her feet by a charismatic lover who brings out the worst in her, and eventually leads her to a life of prostitution and crime. Marie, the “good” girl, is a passive, insecure character obsessed with physiognomy and the idea that, because she is ugly, she is destined to become a criminal. Despite working hard and succeeding as a dancer, an artist’s model, and the de-facto savior of her family, she too eventually degenerates into a life of debasement. It is only seeing Marie laid low that breaks Antoinette out of her cycle of bad decisions, and eventually the two sisters reconcile, there is a drippingly sentimental postscript, and all is right with Antoinette and Marie, although the systematic problems of their era remain unaddressed.

The bare-bones plot of The Painted Girls offers many points of interest. Antoinette and Marie are ballet dancers of the Paris Opera, they exist on the edges of the world of great artists like Degas and Zola, their poverty-stricken neighborhood is full of criminals and violence. The sheer drama of two very different sisters trying to lead their own lives but coming into conflict with each other should create a compelling narrative in itself. But the writing does not hold up. There are a few engaging and memorable scenes (specifically, the first scene of Emile’s seduction of Antoinette, and some of the scenes in Degas’ studio). The rest of the book is a muddle of too many styles, bad pacing, and unsympathetic characters.

The two sisters swap off first person present tense narratives, interspersed at random with newspaper accounts and Degas sonnets. Marie’s sections are the better of the two, even though she sometimes weighs the narrative down with her many anxieties. Antoinette’s sections are in large part difficult to read. The dialogue is laughable, the narrating language stilted and full of errors. This is apparently supposed to convey that Antoinette is the less educated of the pair, but instead of creating an authentic dialect, Buchanan just layers on tortured, awkward turns of phrase.

Most distracting for me, for some reason, Buchanan seems not to believe in possessive nouns. Instead of “Marie’s hand,” “LeBlanc’s stare,” “Charlotte’s mouth,” the reader must stumble around “the hands of Marie,” “the stare of LeBlanc,” “the pouting mouth of Charlotte.” Used sparingly, this structure can add a delicate beauty to scenes, but it was used so overwhelmingly that I came to dread seeing it.

The pacing is also a mess. The early chapters wander, as the sisters delve into long tangents and timelines overlap, while the end is rushed. The use of two narrators means that chapters towards the end of the book often span no more than three paragraphs long, roughly jolting the reader between viewpoints when one or the other would do. The sentimental ending completely negates all the work of the rest of the novel; instead of seeing the characters grow and change into what they are fifteen years later, the reader is presented with an expository infodump about how sisterly love trumps all adversity.

Ultimately, The Painted Girls fails to come to any real resolutions. It’s a bunch of set pieces on a stage, with little depth and nothing memorable except its errors.

(This book was read as an uncorrected proof. I can’t speak to how any changes to the text may have affected my reading experience.)

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So many books, so little time

There probably won’t be a review or book talk post this week because of real world concerns, but in the meantime, here’s my to-read pile:


guess it’s good I got rid of cable

That oughta keep me busy for awhile. Keep an eye out for my review of The Painted Girls next week, along with an update on my Nebula reading challenge. And remember to check out Short Story Sunday. I hope you all are liking that feature as much as I am!


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