Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, January 12, 2019

"The English Patient" by Michael Ondaatje

The English Patient was recently voted the Golden Man Booker Prize winner, theoretically making it the best novel of the past 50 years. It's certainly an interesting and beautifully written story, but I think it's too flawed to deserve that title. Ondaatje was a poet before he became a novelist, and it shows, both in a good and a bad sense. His prose is so lovely that it occasionally gave me little shivers of pleasure, but as a storyteller he is not that great.

That's not to say that there isn't a great story here - just that it's told in such an uneven, obscure way that the best parts of it are almost buried. I watched the movie version last night and I thought Anthony Mingarelli did much a better job than the author of identifying the emotional high points and weaving them into a satisfying narrative. 

Essentially this is a double love story: there is the tempestuous affair between Almasy and Katharine in the desert, and the gentler romance between Kip and Hana in the Italian villa. In the book, neither is given the focus it deserves but Kip and Hana's is certainly evoked in more detail. Which is weird because the adultery in the desert is obviously a much more dramatic subject. There are hints in the book of the outline of a great, heartbreaking tragedy, but for the most part Almasy and Katharine's story is skimmed over, told in a passive, cursory way, as little more than a backstory. 

Mingarelli, on the other hand, recognised that backstory as the epic, sweeping romance it really was and shifted it to the center of the narrative, inventing a host of strong scenes that are barely even hinted at in the book. He also gave Katharine a personality (in the book, she is a curiously blurred presence) and made Almasy thinner and better-looking. But that's Hollywood for you! At times, it's true, the movie veers into melodrama ('I always loved you,' says Katharine in a choked-up voice, before the orchestra swells), but on the whole I think that kind of overstatement is better-suited to this subject matter (World War Two, doomed love, the desert) than Ondaatje's oblique understatement.

Saturday, December 29, 2018


Just wanted to share a snap of this thicc stack of books my wonderful husband gave to me for Christmas:

"Hiddensee" by Gregory Maguire

I was ultimately a bit disappointed in this retelling of The Nutcracker. I saved it to read at Christmas time, but the majority of the book wasn't very Christmas-y; in fact, the actual nutcracker story that everyone knows from the ballet didn't play a large part, and could only be found in the last thirty pages or so. And so much of the story was ethereal, floating just out of my grasp, more similar to the dreamlike portions of Mirror, Mirror (not a favorite) and less like the gripping intrigue of Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (the Maguire I've enjoyed the most).

The book focuses largely on Herr Drosselmeier, maker and gifter of the well-known nutcracker, but even though the book tells the story of his life, it doesn't allow the reader to become intimate with him. I reached the end of the book feeling like I didn't know any more about him than I knew at the beginning. I think this is one of those books that asks more questions than it answers.

Cool cover art, though. Both on the dustcover (above) and underneath:

Sunday, December 23, 2018

"We Others" by Steven Millhauser

Discovering new authors that you love is great, but it's even better when you discover an old author you love -- because you don't have to wait for the next book to come out, you can just dive into the author's backlist. This has happened to me in recent years with James Ellroy and Patricia Highsmith, and now it's happened with the somewhat less famous Steven Millhauser. In all three cases, it was movie adaptations that drew me in: LA Confidential, The Talented Mr Ripley, and - in this case - The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton.

I rewatched The Illusionist recently and, curious about its source, read the credits and found out that it had been adapted from a short story by Steven Millhauser. I had never heard of Millhauser, though apparently he is now in his seventies and has won the Pulitzer Prize. He has written a few novels, but is more renowned as a short-story writer. I generally don't read many short stories. The only ones I can think of that I've ever really loved are by Kafka, Borges, Calvino and Poe, because, in all four cases, they're like novels or entire encyclopedias miraculously shrunk down into a few pages: the universe in a grain of sand. Now, guess who Millhauser's stories were compared to in the first review of him I read online? Kafka, Borges, Calvino and Poe!

So I bought We Others, which is a selection (by the author himself) of the best of his published short stories over a 30-year career, plus a collection of six new stories. And I loved it. Maybe not every single story. On the whole, I thought the shorter stories were by far the weaker: unlike Borges, for instance, Millhauser seems to need at least 12 pages to create a world and/or a narrative that really sucks you in, and his very best stories are more like 25-50 pages long. But at their best they are truly wondrous, and I am still thinking about several of them now, weeks after finishing this collection.

On the whole I would place him on the Borges/Calvino end of the supernatural fantasy spectrum: whimsical and miraculous rather than dark and gothic, though there are certainly some nicely dark moments here, particularly among the more recent stories. At his best he is subtly disturbing, haunting, but also inspiring, with just the right blend of fantasy and reality. His prose is beautiful and concise; it reads as though it's been lovingly polished, planed down to a perfect smoothness.

His stories tend to take place either in late 20th century America or in late 19th century Europe. Many of his characters are either inventors and illusionists  or ordinary adolescents, and he is equally deft at evoking fin-de-siecle Vienna or the porch gliders and suburban back lawns of what I assume was his own childhood. He also appears to have a thing for girls who push their sweater sleeves up to their elbows. I really enjoyed the recurrence of these autobiographical and obsessive details throughout these wildly different stories. Without them, the whole thing might have come across as an exercise in style, a little too abstract and intellectual, but with them you have a sense of his life and personality.

He can also be quite funny. A few of the stories reminded me of David Mitchell, who is one of my favorite contemporary novelists. The one that really lodged in my mind, though, was 'The Next Thing', a sort of dystopic vision of a world taken over by a brilliantly convenient company a bit like Amazon. It's all too plausible, and it's made me feel guilty every time I've pressed 'BUY IT NOW' recently. But given that I discovered and bought this book on Amazon, I guess I'm not quite ready to give up the habit altogether.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

"Girl in Hyacinth Blue" by Susan Vreeland

This is the story of a painting with the style and expertise of a Vermeer, but it's been kept hidden for decades. Could it actually be a Vermeer, or was it just painted to look like one? Each chapter takes the reader farther back in time, slowly revealing the painting's origins.

At first glance this might seem like a knockoff of Girl with a Pearl Earring (the story of the creation of Vermeer's painting by that name) but it's interesting to note that the two books were published the exact same year (1999). And books like these don't just appear the way I feel James Patterson novels must, so it's not as if one of the two books might have been published in early 1999 and the other author thought, hey, I can do something like that, and hurriedly dashed off a similar novel.

In fact, Girl in Hyacinth Blue started as a short story (the first chapter) that was later followed by a related short story (the last chapter) and then filled in by two more short stories in the middle; Vreeland continued filling in the gaps with short stories until she realized what she had was a novel.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it well-written and interesting, but I must admit I preferred Girl with a Pearl Earring. (The two books are actually not that similar and are really only linked by Vermeer, but I can't help comparing them.)

Friday, November 23, 2018

"The Paying Guests" by Sarah Waters

This is the story of Miss Frances Wray and her mother, two upper middle class British women whose fortunes took a turn when all the men in their family died. Now it's 1922, and in order to keep their house, they're forced to take in lodgers: a young married lower middle class couple named Leonard and Lilian Barber. At first this change feels like an intrusion that Frances bears quietly, just like all the other burdens in her life, but it isn't long before life brightens with Lil's new friendship. And things just keep getting brighter and brighter . . . until suddenly they don't. It's a page-turner that is full of suspense which constantly teeters on the edge of depressing hopelessness. And if I weren't so tired I might actually be able to think of more things to say about it. As it is, this will have to suffice: I liked it.

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Conversations With Friends" by Sally Rooney

This book did for me what the previous book was supposed to do and didn’t. How is it that I can read a book about something painful that I have endured and the book doesn’t touch me, but a book I have nothing in common with does? And how did I identify so strongly with a main character who was so different from me? Maybe she and I had a few characteristics in common. And where we differed, I admired her. Maybe wherever I wasn’t her, I wanted to be her; she may have alienated everyone around her, but she didn’t alienate me. I didn’t envy her life--I would much rather have my life than hers (lucky for me). It did fascinate me, though.

This book tells the story of Frances, a 21-year-old Irish university student, poet, and all-around cold, intimidating and intelligent person (as seen by others)--or someone formless and void, marked more by absence than presence of personality (her own assessment). Frances has a best friend (and former girlfriend) named Bobbi, and the two often perform readings of Frances' poetry. One of their readings is attended by Melissa, a classy photographer and published author, and the three end up forming an odd friendship. And the rest is just too exhausting to summarize.

I find myself wondering, how does this book differ from Women’s Fiction--or its slightly more fluffy sister, Chick Lit--which I tend to scorn? (Look at that cover. This LOOKS like Women's Fiction.) Take Me Before You, for example. I felt nothing for that book, and as a result I wondered if maybe I wasn’t human. But this book made me feel more human than human.

I haven't done this book justice. I feel like it's one that will stick with me. Not necessarily in the details, which are always difficult for a literary amnesiac to hang on to, but for the sweeping sensation it left me with . . . swept away? swept up? swept out?

Friday, November 9, 2018

"Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation" by Rachel Cusk

I thought I would really connect with this book, that it would strike a deep chord with me, that it would bring raw emotions back to the surface. Which might be a bit difficult or uncomfortable, but wouldn't be wholly unwelcome; I thought enough time had passed that it would feel more cathartic than painful. So I was surprised to find this book didn't really resonate with me. Maybe this is just, to paraphrase Tolstoy, because all happy families are alike but every divorce is unhappy in its own way?

I'm not sure there's any real need to summarize this book, as it's all right there in the title; it's basically the author's autobiography covering this very brief and specific period of her life. And while I'm glad I read it, and I am appreciative of Cusk's writing, I doubt I would pick this title up again.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

"The Little Stranger" by Sarah Waters

I had so much fun reading this book. It was like a ghost story in Downton Abbey (if Robert Crawley had died and the house had fallen into disrepair), only the house was called Hundreds Hall and was owned by the Ayreses. The story is told through the eyes of the family doctor who has lived in the area all his life and can remember the Hall as it was when he was a child. Dr Faraday is shocked at seeing the state of the house thirty years later, when he is called to see to a young housemaid complaining of a bellyache. Over the following weeks and months he finds himself back at Hundreds Hall more and more often, and as the Ayres family become accustomed to his presence, they begin to reveal to him the strange things that are going on in the house.

It's frustrating in a delicious way when I want to devour a book but I also don't want it to end. I wish I could still be reading this book now. And while I find in retrospect that it doesn't necessarily stand up to much scrutiny, that does nothing to diminish my agreement that (like the cover says) this is "a classic gothic page-turner."

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

"Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe" by Bill Bryson

I enjoyed this one much more than I remember enjoying my previous (and only other) Bill Bryson read. Bryson harshed on a few cities pretty hard and (maybe I'm just too sensitive?) I imagined that the people in those cities might be a bit insulted by what he wrote, but since most of the disparaging comments seemed to be about the inanimate cities and not specifically about the people in them, maybe it would be easier to avoid taking it personally. Either way, this time none of the comments were about me or about any city I would consider mine, so I was better able to laugh with Bryson. In fact, I actually literally laughed out loud more than once (but after the first time--p41 with the dead beaver in Paris--when I tried sharing the humor with my husband and he just stared at me, unsmiling, while I snorted with laughter, I decided to keep the rest of it to myself).

Obviously I haven't been everywhere in Europe, and just as obviously this book doesn't cover everywhere in Europe, but my past travels had surprisingly little overlap with Bryson's catalogued "travels in Europe." However, I wrote a little list of places I haven't been to (yet) which this book made me really, really want to see:
  • Bruges, Belgium (p60)
  • Sorrento, Italy (p144)
  • Capri, Italy (p148)
  • Como, Italy (p174 . . . and are you starting to see a theme?)
  • Split, Yugoslavia (just kidding . . . Croatia, p218) 
There were also quite a few places the book made me NOT want to see but I didn't write them down and now the only one I remember is Brussels, Belgium. Sorry, Brussels! It's Bill Bryson's fault, not mine. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

"Grief is the Thing with Feathers" by Max Porter

This is a unique little novella. (Despite the fact that the cover claims it is a novel, it just doesn't have enough pages or enough words or enough breadth to truly be
a novel.) And though I found it impressive and worthy (in a good way), it was not what I expected.

It's the story of a man who has just lost his wife and is left alone with their two young sons . . . until a giant crow moves into their flat with them. (To avoid confusing you with my next sentence, I must explain that the widower is writing a book about Ted Hughes, and Hughes wrote a collection of poems called Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.) Now, I know very little about Ted Hughes and even less about his writing, and maybe my ignorance skewed my expectations, but I expected Crow to be a physical manifestation of grief. And maybe it was sometimes, or mostly? But not always, and not to its greatest potential.

In general, though the writing was striking and interesting and vivid, I found it easy to skate over without really feeling the grief of its characters. Maybe that's just evidence that I'm a replicant? But as I read, I couldn't help thinking, this is written by a man who has never lost his wife. (I didn't even know if that was true, and how should I know what it's like? I've never lost a wife--or had one, either--and I was prepared to feel very bad if I looked Porter up online and found that he had indeed experienced the death of his spouse.)

Maybe this is just too neat--too easy to blame the book instead of the reader--but I did find a little bit about the book's background, and I feel like I've hit upon the reason the man's grief did not seem raw and real to me. I found nothing about Porter having lost a wife . . . but at the age of 6 he did lose his father. I wonder how much more deeply this book might have touched me if he'd written it largely from the perspective of the boys, drawing more upon his own experience?

Friday, October 5, 2018

"The Hazel Wood" by Melissa Albert

I LOVED the first half of this book. It tells the story of Alice Crewe, a 17-year-old student at a posh private high school in Manhattan. Alice hadn't always lived in a penthouse apartment, though. Life surrounded by snooty rich people was a recent development, and one that Alice wasn't entirely comfortable with. Before Alice's mother Ella married her rich stepfather Harold, mother and daughter had spent Alice's entire life moving from place to place, mooching off any friends they could find, until they overstayed their welcome and had to move on. Or, as Alice put it, until their bad luck caught up with them.

Alice didn't fully understand the reasons behind their itinerant lifestyle, though she knew it had something to do with her grandmother, Althea Proserpine, whom she had never met. Althea was the author of a book of fairy tales called Tales from the Hinterland. Book and author alike were surrounded by an air of mystery. The book had somehow become both very famous as well as extremely hard to find, and Alice had never read it. Even if she could have gotten her hands on a copy, she knew her mother wouldn't approve.

But one day Alice comes home to find that her mother has disappeared, and she doesn't know who to turn to. All she can think to do is travel to her grandmother's estate, The Hazel Wood--maybe there she will find clues that will lead her to her mother. She's joined by Ellery Finch, the closest thing to a friend that she has. It isn't long before bizarre fairy-tale circumstances start creeping into real life.

And up to this point, this was the best book I had read in a long time. The story hummed with energy. It was taut and tense. But it was exactly on page 199 that the book began to go wrong. It's like the thread was cut and the tension was lost and the story made all the sense of a dream. The thread that had been strung so tightly up until that point became a jumbled, tangled mess. I wouldn't say I didn't enjoy the rest of the book, but it was disappointing that it didn't live up to the expectations set by the first half.