Thursday, 29 December 2011
Saturday, 24 December 2011
Friday, 16 December 2011
How do you feel: There But For The (Ali Smith)
Describe where you currently live: Great House (Nicole Krauss)Your best friend is: The Help (Kathryn Stockett)
If you could go anywhere, where would you go: Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Hardy), perhaps to Tibet, Tibet (Patrick French)
Your favourite form of transportation: Pegasus (Robin McKinley)
You and your friends are: Hearts and Minds (Amanda Craig)
What’s the weather like: Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
You fear: Dealing With Dragons (Patricia C. Wrede)
What is the best advice you have to give: Solace (Belinda McKeon)
Thought for the day: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Philip K. Dick)
How I would like to die: Happily Ever After (Harriet Evans)
My soul’s present condition: The Still Point (Amy Sackville)
Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. I'm really enjoying this, although I think she has committed the same mistake she made in The Observations and overdone the melodrama - obviously, both novels are meant to have a melodramatic tone, but overegging the pudding slightly has made the character of the narrator, Harriet Baxter, a bit less interesting to me. However, I think this is a significant improvement on her first novel, although that was also good, and I'm looking forward to see what she writes next. I'm also reading The Prose Edda, the original source for much of what we know of Norse mythology, which is just insane and wonderful. No-one makes up myths better then the ancient Norsemen...
Last book I finished
Lirael by Garth Nix, which is the second in a YA fantasy trilogy about necromancers that I have been re-reading for fun. It's a brilliant series with a very well-developed world, and I would recommend getting hold of the first in the series, Sabriel, if you haven't read it already.
Next book I want to readHood by Emma Donoghue. I liked Stir-Fry so much I've decided to read my way through her back catalogue; this is her second novel.
Last book I bought
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I thought Freedom was excellent and have similarly high expectations for this one, though I'm not sure when I'm going to get round to reading it!
Thursday, 3 November 2011
A meme borrowed from Elaine at Random Jottings, who borrowed it from Simon at Stuck in A Book...The book I am currently reading
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I'm only about 75 pages in and it feels almost too familiar, although I was not at an American university in the 1980s. I should not read books about university students...
Last book I finished
Run by Ann Patchett. This was very good, although not quite as plot-driven and hence not quite as gripping as State of Wonder, which I think is going to come in as one of my top ten books of 2011.
Next book I want to read
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier. Thanks to Amazon for the free copy via the Vine programme. I enjoyed Cold Mountain, but have not read his second novel, so this third should be an intriguing read.
Last book I was given
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Normally, no-one ever dares to give me books because I have always read them or have an opinion on them. This offering was from my brave friend Peter for my birthday. I'm looking forward to trying a Steinbeck other than Of Mice and Men or The Pearl.
Last book I bought
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obrecht. Or more accurately book-swapped for. I don't think I will enjoy this, sadly, but it's for a reading group and I wanted to see what the hype was about. It just doesn't sound like my sort of thing.
Do pass this on if you fancy trying it!
Monday, 24 October 2011
I wasn't impressed by the Booker Prize shortlist this year, but the debate it has re-ignited seems to me to be phrased in entirely the wrong terms, as exemplified by two recent articles on the Guardian's Comment is Free; the first by Jeanette Winterson, stating that:
Friday, 14 October 2011
And there's plenty to look for here. Hall's incredibly accomplished prose creates four very distinctive voices, which nevertheless echo each other in increasingly interesting ways. The title, 'How to paint a dead man', is fully illuminated only at the very end of the novel, with a long quotation from an early modern artist's handbook on the exact way to convey a corpse's skin colour when painting on panels or walls. This recalls the Renaissance attention to anatomical detail and Vesalius's `Fabric of the Human Body,' and is reflected throughout the novel in the ways the various characters mentally dissect their own living bodies. His foot trapped between two rocks on the moor, Peter gruesomely imagines the possible injury; 'Is the foot dangling loose on just a thread or two of skin... the tendon severed and recoiling up the back of the leg' whereas Suze considers the destruction of Danny's body in the lorry accident that killed him. Annette, having gone blind as a child, has no idea what she now looks like, and her mother refuses even to describe the colour of her hair to her - 'It is a vanity to ask such things... and what does it matter if she can't see it?' However, worried about her daughter's developing good looks, Annette's mother also tells her that any gropes or kisses will leave actual physical marks on her body - black blotches that will convey to everyone that she's been up to no good.
Bodily imagery doesn't only keep the novel continuously connected to the physical world, but is a central element in its theme. The sense of the construction of one's actions in muscle and bone is a reminder that we are all just flesh that will one day rot, but an inactive body is a living death. Suze's friend Maggie has been in a coma for years, and when Suze goes to visit her in the hospital she notices that although Maggie is her age, thirty-five, 'she looked like a girl, the muscles of her face blissful and unused.' However, this is only an imitation of life; `The nurse once told you her muscles are so wasted that if she woke she would not be able to use them. Imagine a moth carrying a tractor on its back, she had said to you.' Suze is left feeling half-dead herself after the death of Danny, her `mirror image', but finds a way to reclaim a semblance of life by embarking on an affair, discovering that sex has the power to reconnect her with her own body again. Her descriptions of her encounters with her lover are almost clinical in their attention to detail; 'In these moments you forget about everything else. You are not bereaved... When you are with him you are here, inside yourself, behind the calcium plates in your chest and pelvis, which rise and move against him.'
Therefore, sex and death are continously intertwined; the body may contain 'the skull beneath the skin', but it also contains the potential for new life, as Suze discovers when she becomes pregnant. Another elaboration on this theme concerns the place of art in life - all four of the main characters are artists to one degree or another. Annette's partial blindness lends a certain quality to her art, questioning the role of straightforward sensory experience, whereas Peter never really connects to the landscapes he paints until he spends a night trapped in the rocks as it starts to rain. 'There is an aspirin flavour to the air, an impending fizz... Peter looks up. There is just blackness and water... He can smell minerals being released from the stones all around, the perfume of the mountain.'
Outside thematic analysis, this novel was also, on the whole, compelling, although I found the 'English' half' - the voices and stories of Peter and Suze - far more vivid than the Italian section. Suze in particular becomes the driving force of the book. The slightly surreal atmosphere of Annette's childlike narrative prevented it from fully coming to life for me, although its ending was genuinely horrifying, and I found Giorgio's section difficult to get through at all, as it lacked the narrative drive of the other three and he never really seemed to come to life as a character, rather than as a bunch of ideas. However, I would still highly recommend this novel; having read Hall's three previous novels, I was eager to give this one a try, and it didn't disappoint. Although a slow read at times, it was consistently challenging and thought-provoking, and, I suspect, will reveal depths on a re-read that entirely passed me by the first time.
Saturday, 8 October 2011
First things first. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. I felt genuinely tense when the characters’ fates appeared to be hanging in the balance, gripped by the gentle, but well-structured, plot, actually interested (all too rare) when Secrets From the Past were revealed, and sorry when I’d finished it. So why wasn’t it a ‘perfect read’? Why – if I was reviewing it on Amazon – would I give it four stars instead of five? At first, I thought I was just being biased. The Help seemed to lack some notion of ‘literary quality’ that I couldn’t clearly define, and perhaps only existed in my head because of the horrendously trashy cover it’s been lumbered with. But after much thought, I decided that there was something missing here – much as it seems unfair to focus on that after such a brilliant read.
The Help is set in Mississipippi in the 1960s, and is narrated by three women, the older Aibileen and Minny, who are black maidservants, and Miss Skeeter, a younger white woman who is newly home from college and concerned about the mysterious disappearance of her own maid, Constantine. Miss Skeeter, who is interested in pursuing a career in journalism, seizes upon the idea of interviewing black maids about their experiences of working for their white employers, and this secret project forms the major plot-strand of the book, alongside the gradual unraveling of each character’s life and secrets. Kathryn Stockett notes at the back of the book that this novel was partly based on her own experiences of the maid her family had when she was growing up, and how she wishes she had been able to talk to her more frankly before she died. (Also, strangely, she notes that ‘I don’t presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississipippi, especially in the 1960s.’ I certainly don’t presume to judge whether she gets it right, although Minny’s and Aibileen’s voices feel authentic – but as a writer, if I wasn’t sure that I could get to some kind of knowledge of ‘what it really felt like’ to be in a situation like this one that is quite alien to my own experience, I wouldn’t write a book about it at all. And I don’t think that what she’s trying to do is impossible.)
Tuesday, 27 September 2011
Wednesday, 7 September 2011
PS Posting more frequently has failed for the time being due to a lack of internet access in my new flat, but I should have full reviews of Last Man In Tower by Aravind Adiga and How To Paint A Dead Man by Sarah Hall coming up.
*This is particularly annoying because usually when I have read books from the longlist they are never shortlisted, leaving me with the full six still to read if I want to have a go at pretend-judging it.
Sunday, 28 August 2011
I loved Aravind Adiga's first novel, `The White Tiger', despite its flaws. I thought that it was a bit too simplistic, too neat, and relied too heavily on stereotypes when depicting most of the characters other than its brilliantly entertaining and vivid narrator. Hence I was keen to read this - his next full-length attempt - in the hope that it would amend these niggles while continuing to demonstrate his obvious talent. The puzzling thing is, it does. In `Last Man In Tower', Adiga gives us a much larger and more complex society in which no character can be accused of being anything less than fully-fleshed out, and his writing is more than up to par. I can't point to anything that's wrong with it, exactly, and yet for me, it just didn't work. I kept on thinking of Irwin's line from `The History Boys' - `It's not bad. It's just boring'.
The major conflict of the novel is very simple. Mr Shah has offered each resident of Vishram Society Tower A a windfall in cash to move out so he can demolish the tower and build afresh, as long as all the residents agree and take the money. After some demurring, they all accept, except recently-widowed `Masterji', a retired teacher who has previously commanded everyone's friendship and respect. Initially equivocal over the sale, Masterji eventually embarks on his own personal crusade, embodying the idea that not every man has his price and it is possible to want for nothing. This single strand - Masterji versus the world - dominates the novel, and made it collapse, at least for me, into something far too schematic. The large cast list at the beginning led me to expect a far more complex network of relationships, alliances and betrayals among his neighbours, but most of the families are never or rarely mentioned and only a few characters in Tower A other than Masterji are fully utilised; notably Mrs Puri, who desperately wants the money for her son who has Down's Syndrome; dim but affable internet-store owner Ibrahim; crooked broker Ramesh Ajwani; and Masterji's long-time elderly friends, the Pintos.
More importantly, these characters come to form a chorus of resistance rather than a fractured whole, with their individual motivations skated over, although briefly sketched earlier in the novel. One of my major problems with the cast was that I felt no real sympathy for any of them, including Masterji, and although I don't think at all that a novel needs a truly sympathetic character, in lieu of that, unpleasant characters should at least be interesting. The only interesting figure for me here was Masterji, and gradually I found him more frustrating than fascinating. His stand is principled - perhaps too much so; it is the hostility of his neighbours and the corruption of lawyers and the police that seems to drive him, rather than a truly desperate desire to stay in Tower A. While his neighbours lost my initial sympathy (I couldn't see what was wrong in their general desire to achieve a better life for themselves and their families) after they gradually descended into underhand and violent acts in an attempt to force Masterji's hand, I did not transfer this sympathy to Masterji, whose position seemed increasingly pointless. Late in the novel he tries to argue that Tower A holds too many memories of his dead wife and daughter for him to leave, but as this was never brought up earlier, it appears to be a reason developed after he had already established the fact of his staying put; a good reason, but ultimately not the true cause of his intransigence. Perhaps focusing on Masterji is misleading - perhaps the interesting point here is how his essentially normal neighbours are warped by the situation to commit appalling acts - but with a lack of detail on each of them, this seems to me to swing the novel back towards a schema again. And the number of pages, not to mention the title, devoted to Masterji, does seem to indicate that he is Adiga's major focus.
I suppose I'm writing another of those reviews that essentially say: this is not a bad book and Adiga is not a bad writer, but it emphatically wasn't for me. The elements of his style that I appreciated in `The White Tiger' are still here. Mumbai is brought to life in his descriptions of the city, especially of food - from the cheap snacks on sale at market stalls to the security guard's sandwiches to the expensive fish consumed by Mr Shah - and transport, in Masterji's hellish experience of travelling by train during rush hour. So by all means give this novel a go, as long as you aren't expecting something too similar to his first one. Just don't spend too much time on the character list at the front.
Thursday, 18 August 2011
But then it parts ways. First and foremost, this is a historical novel, and although certain of the historical aspects might be called into question - I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the early nineteenth century, but it struck me that Mitchell was more interested in big, bombastic storytelling than strict accuracy - this sets it apart from the rest of his work from the start, except perhaps for the small section of Cloud Atlas that is the 'Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing'. Secondly, it has a great narrative drive, which is not something I've really found in his other books - they're readable, certainly, but not page-turners. And it turns out that Mitchell writing page-turning historical fiction is really quite fantastic. I had the impression (which may be wrong, as I haven't been keeping a close eye on reviews) that the reception of this novel was quite muted in the press, especially when it wasn't shortlisted for the Booker, but I'm going to step up and say that it might be his best yet (OK, a quick Google establishes that the Guardian at least agrees with me).
The book falls essentially into two sections - Jacob and Orito - and on first glance the most gripping story is told in the middle part of the book, which deals with Japanese midwife Aibagawa Orito and her imprisonment in a bizarre shrine where she gradually learns the horrific fate that awaits her and the other Sisters. This is certainly where the novel becomes most unputdownable, but I can't help thinking that The Thousand Autumns of Aibagawa Orito would have been a little shallow by itself. Not because Orito is under-developed as a character in the slightest, but because the horrific-cult-imprisonment story has been told before, and more specifically, it's been told before by Mitchell in the 'Orison of Somni' section of Cloud Atlas. To go too closely into the similarities between the two would be to spoil both stories, but they were immediately obvious to me. Apart from Orito and Jacob, another standout character is the interpreter Ogawa Uzaemon, who gets a sub-thread of his own, but this is essentially part of the Orito narrative, and so doesn't offer much balance.
This is where we need the framing narrative of the book, that of Jacob de Zoet, unfortunately-honest clerk for the Dutch East India Company in 1799. Jacob is not as immediately compelling a character as Orito, but he certainly has his moments. His adventures are a mismatch of foiling corruption within the Company, brief encounters with Orito before her imprisonment, horrific experiences with eighteenth-century medical practice, and a final showdown when the British sail into Dejima, and hence form a panorama of different impressions of the trading port during this period. I also appreciated the light and subtle touch that Mitchell brought to the brief thread of his relationship with Anna, whom he left behind in the Netherlands to make his fortune in trade so he might return and marry her. The less-than-a-sentence that wraps up Anna's story in the final pages of the book is heartbreaking, and proves that Mitchell isn't only good at flashy writing. A brief note on the ending itself, without giving anything away - I can appreciate that some readers might have found it unsatisfying, but I liked the looseness of it, and the fact that Mitchell didn't draw in the connections between the two halves of the book too tightly, while linking them together sufficiently that it doesn't feel like two stories in one. My only query would be that I wish we could have seen the conclusion to Orito's story, rather than its being recounted by hearsay.
If I had a criticism of the book, it would be that I struggled to follow many of the Dutch and Japanese characters, who are often referred to by first or last name depending on whose company they are in - but then I realised that the proper edition of the book has a character list, which my proof copy lacked. I think this would have been a big help, so won't mark it down too much for the confusion. At first, I also thought I would have preferred more description of Nagasaki and the other locations in the novel, but by the end, I found I had formed my own impression of the port without a great amount of information, and was glad to have skipped the carefully-researched historical scene-setting we usually get. Overall, this is a brilliant read, and Mitchell's take on the historical genre is truly refreshing. More please!
Saturday, 13 August 2011
Sunday, 7 August 2011
- The Poor Man and the Lady (1867, unpublished and lost)
- Under the Greenwood Tree (1872)
- Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)
- The Return of the Native (1878)
- The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
- The Woodlanders (1887)
- Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891)
- Jude the Obscure (1895)
This isn’t what’s happ
ened when I’ve assessed the works of other nineteenth-century writers in sequence, but the interesting thing was it seemed almost schematic; Far from the Madding Crowd and Return of the Native sharing beautifully-realised rural settings but with the grimness of the plot amping up a notch in the latter; The Mayor of Casterbridge much heavier on plot and tragedy, rather than locality, but not quite as fate-ridden as Tess; Jude, unlike even Tess, unremittingly bleak. The key point, for me, was that from book to book the characters gradually lose their ability to affect their own lives and their ultimate destinies.
The main features of this schema that stood out to me were [spoilers for these five novels]:
1. Fate. As mentioned above. Far from the Madding Crowd is almost entirely free of this theme, with the heroine, Bathsheba’s, choice between three different suitors placed at the centre of the narrative, although there are still ironic twists that foreshadow the interventions of the hand of fate in the later novels, such as Fanny turning up at the wrong church to marry Sergeant Troy – if this marriage had taken place, one of Bathsheba’s options would have been removed and Fanny’s tragedy averted. The Return of the Native forces its characters further into a pre-determined pattern, but they still seem to have some freedom of will. However, The Mayor of Casterbridge allows the eponymous mayor, Michael Henchard, exactly one choice – selling his wife at the beginning of the novel – and the rest of his fate follows from there, whereas Tess and Jude are simply accounts of individuals being unable to escape their destiny, and that's that.
Hardy keeps drawing our attention back to Tess’s ultimate fate, and the descriptions also have a habit of focusing back towards Tess herself, who is pictured innumerable times in the novel; there is never a change for the reader, or Tess, to make up their own mind as to how to view her or her future. As for Jude and Mayor, they burn through plot so fast that they leave less space for setting.
3. Heroines. I’m tempted simply to type ‘They get more annoying’, but I feel the novels deserve a bit more analysis than that. Sue Bridehead, however, is simply one of the most irritating characters I have ever encountered, and I have nothing more to say about her. Unfortunately, Tess is almost as bad. Although Hardy implicitly criticises Angel and Alec for their idealised and incorrect versions of her, he only manages to substitute his own idealised picture for theirs, as noted above. She is frustratingly passive, and ultimately her own victim as much as a victim of fate, by deciding that her lot has to be grim and refusing to accept Angel’s help when she is poverty-stricken. Although I’ve read critics who claim that she is the only fully-rounded character in the novel, I found Angel’s internal conflicts far more interesting. The Mayor of Casterbridge lacks a real heroine, juxtaposing the weak, compromised Lucetta against the perfect Elizabeth- Jane. Eustacia Vye in The Return of the Native is almost interesting, but feels like a sketch – although the novel was written later – for Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd, by far the best-drawn and strongest female character I’ve seen in Hardy’s work, despite her vacillations. Hardy seems to fully engage with her mindset, fleshing her out as a person in her own right, and although she makes some poor choices, they do make sense. For me, her original and realistic character crystallised after reading a statement she makes late in the novel, a truth that could also help to explain Tess, Eustacia and Sue: ‘it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.'
4. Tragedy or tragi-comedy? It is impossible to find more than a glimmer of humour in Jude, Tess, or Mayor, but an aspect of the earlier novels I really appreciated, intentional or not, was how the tragic fates of the characters often have a humorous element to them. For example, I can’t think of almost all the remaining cast drowning in
the weir at the end of The Return of the Native without smiling, even though this is hardly a happy ending. Far from the Madding Crowd is even better, beginning with the memorable image of all Gabriel Oak’s flock of sheep running over a cliff in the dark – although disastrous for him personally, it struck me as a wonderful way to lose your business. A later scene involving Troy mourning at Fanny’s grave is my favourite – although false to her in life, he decorates her grave with expensive flowers to show how much he minds now she is dead. Unfortunately, heavy rain that night means that the water from the church roof is all directed in a single stream through the mouth of one ‘gurgoyle’ (gargoyle), and this floods the grave. I think the humour here, at least, is intentional, mocking Troy’s pretentions, especially as Hardy chooses to title that particular chapter ‘The Gurgoyle: Its Doings.’ Perhaps the fact that I’m laughing at misfortune is a weakness in the earlier novels, but I appreciated these jumps into melodrama; it makes the plots distinctively Hardy-esque, without being utterly hopeless.
So in conclusion… Under The Greenwood Tree must be fabulous, and The Woodlanders poor, and I need to read them to prove my thesis! I have doubts about the former, which sounds good, but sketchy, but as Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Hardy, describes The Woodlanders as ‘a black version of Far from the Madding Crowd’, I may be right after all.