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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

This is the third historical novel I've read by Hilary Mantel. The first was her little-known novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, which I LOVED and have read three or four times. The second was the Booker Prize-winning and bestselling Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell and the rise of Anne Boleyn, which I found a little disappointing. For me, Bring Up the Bodies - the sequel to the latter, about Thomas Cromwell and the fall of Anne Boleyn - is somewhere in between those two books: definitely better than Wolf Hall, but not quite as exciting and involving as Greater Safety.

Though I prefer her historical fiction to her contemporary fiction, Mantel's writing is invariably excellent: sharply observed, psychologically acute, lightfootedly poetic and darkly witty. She clearly has a fascination with infamous men: both her Cromwell and her Robespierre are sympathetically portrayed, far more human and complex than the usual sinister cameos. I think what distinguishes her best work, for me, from her lesser work is that, in A Place of Greater Safety and in the second half of this book, I felt as if I were on the inside, as if I might have known the people involved. Wolf Hall was doubtless more authentic, certainly in its language and possibly in its history, than Greater Safety, but it was a much more distant reading experience; I felt frustrated rather than enthralled by its perfectly worked prose. The authenticity gave it a veneer of dust that, in spite of the present tense employed throughout, separated me from the immediacy of the characters' actions and thoughts and feelings.

I don't know what happened in Bring Up the Bodies to change that feeling - maybe it was just the story itself that was more obviously compelling (the climax being death rather than merely exile and annulment) than Wolf Hall, or maybe Mantel relaxed more into the telling - but either way I found myself speeding through it, inhabiting Cromwell's cold-eyed, calculating (but also at times compassionate/haunted/wryly amused) mind, breathing the same stale air as the novel's characters.

I also love the way Mantel, who looks so inoffensively hamster-like in all her bookjacket pictures, never flinches - and sometimes even seems to linger with pleasure - on sex and violence and profanity. Bring Up the Bodies, for all its Booker-winning, BBC-adapted respectability, is full of 'splayed cunts' and 'wet quims' and hints of dark perversion. I think my favorite line of all was Lady Rochford's description of her womanizing husband George Boleyn: 'No man as godly as George, the only fault he finds with God is that he made folk with too few orifices. If George could meet a woman with a quinny under her armpit, he would call out "Glory be" and set her up in a house and visit her every day, until the novelty wore off.'

Now that's what I call characterization!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

I ruined this book for myself by falling for unrealistically high expectations. It's touted as a Harry Potter-esque fantasy for adults, and is also favorably compared to the Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret History. All of the quotes of praise in the first few pages told me I would love this book, and would not be able to put it down.

So I was quite disappointed when I found it to be a pastiche, strongly influenced by superior sources: the obvious ones mentioned above, as well as a few others (like The Mysterious Benedict Society, and maybe even Charlie Bone). And the parts that seemed to be original weren't especially inspired.

My opinion, halfway through the book, was that the story was too loosely plotted, and many events were skimmed over so briefly that I wondered why they were even included. The overall effect was dissatisfying, and my opinion remained unchanged throughout the remainder of the story.

It's not as if I didn't enjoy the book at all, though. (Miserable and bitter teenage genius Quentin Coldwater is offered the chance to study at Brakebills, the only magical university in the United States; he jumps at the chance to attend, though he's never heard of the place, and it must be kept a secret from his parents.) The story was entertaining, and it held my interest, but I was frustrated by the knowledge that it could have been so great . . . and it wasn't. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey

I didn't mean to finish this book so quickly. I have a week off work for the holidays, time to relax and spend with family; I should have made my leisurely, lazy way through this nearly-400-page book over a week or more, but I just couldn't help it. It flew by.

This is the story of a middle-aged couple homesteading in Alaska in 1920. (THAT part of the synopsis held absolutely no interest for me. I'm one of those weird people who sees no appeal in the harsh beauty of the cold north.) Jack is working his fingers to the bone in his fields and making no headway; Mabel is desperately drawn to the isolation they've found, but at the same time it is destroying her; and both nurse their unfulfilled desire for children. Winter is coming on, and neither is confident that they'll survive. Depressing, right?

But with the first snowfall, the magic begins. In a rare moment of uncharacteristic high spirits, Jack and Mabel have a snowball fight, then build a snowman--or, rather, a little snowgirl. The next morning, the snowgirl is gone . . . but is that a child they see flitting through the trees?

The story was such a nice mix of fairy tale and mystery, tempered by grim reality. On Monday evening, when I told Sam what I'd read so far and how much I was enjoying it, his assessment was that the story sounded too sentimental. And I assured him that it wasn't at all--if it sounded that way, it was just because I'd described it poorly. However, I did find that it tended towards the sentimental at the end, but by then I was invested enough that a bit of extra sweetness didn't bother me at all.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

This is a quiet little book--or at least it seemed that way to begin with. But it surreptitiously crept up on me (or maybe in me?) and meant much more to me in the end than it did in the beginning. In fact, I didn't especially enjoy reading the first half of this book (though I did appreciate the writing and the thoughts expressed). But I must admit that by the end I had a tear in my eye. (See? I could prove I'm human if I had to.)

Not a lot happens plot-wise (which is mostly what I meant when I called it quiet). Though there are a handful of significant events, there isn't much movement in the story, and certainly no flash or dazzle; but this book impresses in a more muted and meaningful way.

The writing focuses on two characters: Renée, a dumpy, middle-aged concierge in a classy Parisian apartment building, and twelve-year-old Paloma, a privileged tenant. In some ways these two characters are mirrors of one another. Each is highly intelligent, and each strives to hide that intelligence from those around them (though Renée does this to a much greater extent than Paloma). But whereas Renée has a ravenous hunger for continuing the clandestine education she has managed for herself (none of it formal), Paloma has already decided that life has no meaning, and those who pretend it does are fooling themselves.

It's funny how I keep going back to Me Before You in my mind as I read--it's not as if that book could possibly have become my literary touchstone!--but I'm still trying to pin down the reason I can be so accepting of romance and tragedy in some books and so dismissive of it in others. Maybe it's really as Sam says, and it's just down to the quality of writing? I think with Hedgehog, it's also the fact that Barbery doesn't screech Romance and Tragedy, blatant and annoying. Instead she whispers quietly of them, describing them through silhouette and negative space. Or perhaps that's just an example of higher quality writing?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Mick Jagger" by Philip Norman and "Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello" by Graeme Thomson

I've been on a rock star binge in the last few weeks. The Jagger biography was a birthday present from Kathy, the Costello one something I got myself because I've been listening to his first four albums a lot recently in my car and wondering about that period in the late 70s and early 80s when he was so incredibly prolific while at the same time being out of his head on drinks and drugs.

I've always been fascinated by that combination of creative flood and hedonistic frenzy, and particularly involving artists from my two favorite eras in pop music: 1965-70 and 1977-82. I'd already read Philip Norman's biographies of The Beatles and John Lennon, and the Fab Four are perhaps the ultimate example of what I'm talking about: startlingly young men (George Harrison was still only 27 when The Beatles SPLIT UP!) who were ingesting ludicrous quantities of mind-altering drugs, going through traumatic relationships, turning from best friends into enemies, dealing with the most intense levels of fame any working-class people had ever experienced, and somehow, at the same time, writing and recording some of the best music ever made.

The Stones and Elvis Costello weren't quite on the same plane, either in terms of fame or music, but they weren't too far off. The Stones made great singles, while Costello made great albums, and both lived in interesting times. So how could the books not be entertaining?

Well, the main problem is that Mike Jagger and Declan MacManus are both very private people, unwilling to talk to biographers and (I'm guessing) perfectly capable of ordering their friends and associates not to talk to biographers either.

One of these two writers overcame this problem, the other didn't.

Mick Jagger was a riot of a read, smoothly and amusingly written, full of stories and quotes and perfectly calibrated in terms of its concentration upon the most interesting years of Jagger's life (the 60s take up well over half of its 600 pages). Complicated Shadows, on the other hand...

OK, it wasn't completely uninteresting. There were a couple of gross/juicy tour stories and a reasonable amount of insight into the beginnings of the 'Elvis Costello' persona (the name was invented by the boss of Stiff Records; the 'angry young man' character was essentially an exaggeration of MacManus's natural personality). But there was so much missing! Call me nosy and vulgar if you like, but surely two of the main reasons people read rock biographies are to find out about the star's sex life and their bank account.

In 450 pages packed with information (we are given the set list for practically every gig he ever played, for God's sake!), I don't feel I got to know the real Declan MacManus at all, and certainly not what he was like in bed, or what his three wives were like, or how much money he (and how little the Attractions) made. It was as if Graeme Thomson was too discreet to divulge such crass facts. Either that, or no one talked. I get the impression, though, that he just had too much respect for his subject, that he wanted Elvis to read the biography and think, 'Well, actually that Graeme Thomson seems like a decent chap'.

Well, I don't care about him being a decent chap. He's a rock biographer! I don't want to read a muck-raking hatchet job (the reason I'm reading these books in the first place is because I'm a fan of their subjects), but I do want some juice, some dirt, some sense of what it was like to be there. It would also be nice to read prose that wasn't dry and clunky and full of clichés. And I must admit I have a serious problem with a professional writer who thanks someone in his acknowledgements for 'correcting my spelling, a task she has been performing since I was old enough to write' and then publishes a book that is FULL of spelling mistakes. I'm not kidding. One sentence sums up everything that is wrong with this book. This is pretty much all the insight we get into Costello's first wife and the mother of his eldest son: 'She was bright, loquacious, funny, temperemental (sic), with a bouyant (sic) sense of humour.' I don't know, maybe I'm being unfair - maybe Graeme is dyslexic - but in that case, FIND A PROOFREADER WHO ISN'T!

Philip Norman is probably the most famous (and best-paid) rock biographer in the world, and (this may just be down to the fact that I read Mick Jagger straight after reading Complicated Shadows, but...) I can see why. He's witty, detached (i.e. his tongue stays well away from his subject's arsehole) without being overly cynical, and he obviously has a bulging contacts book. It's hard to know to what extent the truth is embroidered here, of course, but the book felt plausible and authoritative, and - most importantly - it was never boring. And when you're dealing with a sexagenarian pop star who refuses to talk about the past, that is no mean feat.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"The Lady and the Unicorn" by Tracy Chevalier

I've enjoyed two other books by Tracy Chevalier (my favorite was Girl With a Pearl Earring), so I was looking forward to reading this one . . . though it gave me pause when I opened the front cover and the first thing I read was The Washington Post's claim that The Lady and the Unicorn was a "beautifully rendered romance." Ugh, really? I just finished suffering through a romance! But my distress was unfounded. In fact, as I read, I found myself thinking, This is why I read books. Yay! I love that feeling!

I must say I'm tempted to denigrate Chevalier for reusing the framework of Pearl Earring, again taking a famous work of art and building a story around its origin. But I'm not going to bother--I enjoyed the story too much to put my heart into criticism. (And why shouldn't she try it again, as it worked so well the first time?)

This time the story revolves around a series of tapestries woven during the late fifteenth century and is narrated by the designer (a painting Lothario), the lissier who oversaw the tapestries' weaving, and several of the women depicted in the tapestries (including those related to the lissier, and those related to the nobleman who commissioned the work). WOW, it sounds really dry and dull when I describe it that way. But I promise you it wasn't. It maybe all ended a bit too neatly, but otherwise it was a great story. And I was really glad they had full-color pictures of the tapestries to refer to, as kind of a centerfold in the book: it was good to be able to see the different aspects of the works as they were described.

I couldn't help but try to figure out why I liked The Lady and the Unicorn but not Me Before You. This book had luuuurve in it too. But in Chevalier's book the characters seemed more fleshed-out, more three-dimensional, more relatable. And their relationships were more complex and believable. I don't think the fact that the story seems like it could really have happened (and that it seems much more likely than MBY) is a prerequisite for savoring a book--I've loved many a fantastical and unrealistic story. Somehow Chevalier just works for me. Maybe it's magic.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, a photo of the main tapestry in the book:




Monday, December 8, 2014

"Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

I've never liked Dickens. Well, that's only half-true, I suppose: I enjoyed reading Oliver Twist for O-level English (a lot more than I enjoyed Emma, anyway), and I have loved watching Scrooge - the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim - during many Christmases Past. So, I liked Dickens' stories; what I couldn't stomach was his writing, which generally struck me as pompous and prolix, and his characters, who too often seemed like caricatures and stereotypes designed to represent certain virtues or sins.

So I wasn't all that thrilled when Kathy suggested we read Great Expectations, but she assured me it was a wonderful story, and I trust her. And she was right - after a slightly slow beginning, I ended up LOVING Great Expectations! Technically, I didn't read it: Kathy did, for about ten minutes every evening as our baby son Finn drank down his bottle of warm milk and we cuddled together in our bed. Maybe you imagine that my critical faculties were softened by this sweet bedtime arrangement, but we did the same thing with A Tale of Two Cities, and I thought that was a steaming pile of crap.

So... why did I love the former and hate the latter? Where does the difference lie? I think, in Great Expectations, Dickens the Storyteller won out over Dickens the Rhetorician. Maybe he was just more inspired at the time? Maybe he had more belief in the story? I don't know, but it was, on the whole, very simply told, and the characters felt plausible, like real people rather than cartoonish representations. Sure, the female characters were either ludicrously virtuous (and boring) or ludicrously horrible, as they are in A Tale of Two Cities, but I believed in Pip and his reactions to his fate, and most of the time Dickens resisted the temptation to underline the moral lessons that can be learned from our hero's follies.

A Tale of Two Cities, on the other hand... First of all, I should say that I was really looking forward to this book, partly because I'd enjoyed Great Expectations so much, and partly because the French Revolution has always fascinated me. And I know it's possible to write a great novel based on that subject matter, because my favorite historical novel of all time - Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety - is set in Paris, during those infamous, bloody years.

So yes, I had great expectations of A Tale of Two Cities. And it began quite well, with plenty of mystery and action. But, on the whole, I found it a deeply frustrating read. Partly because the twist was so predictable, but mainly because the prose was so incredibly windy and bombastic. While Great Expectations seemed to be narrated in a quiet, deep voice in a candlelit room, A Tale of Two Cities was declaimed from a pulpit in the middle of a thunderstorm. And no, that is not how Kathy read it.

Basically, it's the difference between drama and melodrama. With A Tale of Two Cities, I thought the proportion of characters and narrative to rhetoric and moralizing was all wrong, like a cake that consisted of 90% frosting. And yeah, some people would love that, but it made me feel sick.

All the same, I haven't given up on Dickens. My expectations of the next book I read by him have been lowered a little bit, but maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Me Before You" by Jojo Moyes

Disclaimer: I think Keith and Pat are really great, and I don't want them to be afraid to give me books as gifts. BUT . . . 
This was another birthday present, this time from my parents-in-law. It didn't look or sound like anything I would be interested in, but Pat insisted that ALL women LOVE it. (Erm . . .) My doubts were not assuaged by the "praise" printed inside the front cover, which included, "Moyes's story provokes tears,"  "read it and weep," and "should be sold with a pack of tissues." I HATE shameless tearjearkers (which is why I shun Nicholas Sparks). Then there was "the perfect modern love story" and "romantic through and through." Not helping. You know how romance makes me gag.

So, as much as I appreciated the gift and the thought behind it, this book and I did not get off to a good beginning. Aaaaand . . . it did not get better from there. I suppose I must grudgingly admit that as romance novels go this one may be better than the usual--or at least different from the usual--due to the challenges faced by its leading man, and the unconventional portrayal of "happily ever after." Louisa Clark, perfectly content in her very small life, loses her snug job in a local café and is forced to reach outside her comfort zone. She finds a new position as caregiver for a handsome quadriplegic. And, what do you know, they fall in love. (Cue regurgitation).

Heartbreaking as this situation might have been in real life, I didn't give a flip for the characters as I read about them. They just didn't seem believable, or even very likable. And as far as the threat of tears: not only did I not cry, but I didn't even remotely feel like I might. I insist that this was just as much a result of the book's shortcomings as it was the fault of my own callous psyche.

This book has sold more than three million copies! Somebody must have loved it (including all women, except for me.) I wonder how it might have transformed my experience if I could have come to this book with an open mind? . . . Nah, it couldn't have made a difference.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Downtown Owl" by Chuck Klosterman

Downtown Owl was certainly a better place to be than wherever I was in my last book. I'm still struggling with ambivalence about the ending (I think it ought to have made me feel something; is it okay that it didn't? I'm not sure if that says something about me or about the book) but I enjoyed the meandering journey it took to get there.

Set in a small town in North Dakota, we know from the outset that the citizens of Owl have a "killer blizzard" in their future. But when we're taken back to the beginning of football season the previous August, we quickly forget what Owl doesn't know is coming. In this town where all 850 residents seem to know everything about each other, we become privy to many of their stories and some of their secrets.

Owl is full of intriguing people (would a random selection of Americans really be this interesting?), and Klosterman manages to avoid the trap of creating characters who are quirky merely for the sake of being quirky. Somehow everyone in Owl is believable and even somewhat normal, all without being boring.

Klosterman also seamlessly blends reality and fiction. Owl does not exist; the blizzard (which hit on February 4, 1984) really happened. The characters who narrate the story are made up; one who everyone in town seems to obsess over, but who we never meet, is an actual historical figure (Gordon Kahl).

Klosterman is 2.5 of 2.5 with me. Sam did a great job by choosing this book for my birthday!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

"The Awakening" by Kate Chopin

Was I the only person in the world who didn't
know how this book ends? Just in case I wasn't, I won't give any spoilers, but... 'NOOOOOO!' I yelled, as I reached the bottom of the final page. I turned to Kathy: 'Did you know that she...?' 'Uh-huh,' she nodded cheerfully. 'It's about the only thing I remember from that book.'

I hope it won't be the only thing I remember from this book, because it was mostly wonderful. But what a terrible ending! Not terrible in a literary sense - I mean, it was beautifully written and had been nicely foreshadowed in the book's early pages and all that - but this was far more than just a literary experience for me. And hey, I'm not even a woman!

Yes, I know this is supposed to be one of those books - like Sylvia Plath's The Bell-Jar - that is immune to male opinion. In fact, its reputation as a feminist masterpiece almost put me off reading it (I was half-imagining some neo-hippie manifesto or how-to guide on yoga and masturbation), but I'm very glad it didn't.

Purely as a work of fiction, The Awakening is superb: the writing is amazingly vivid and sensual, the settings (Grand Isle and New Orleans) atmospheric, the characters all living, breathing creatures, and the story - after a gentle, uneventful first 50 pages - had me in its grip. As soon as Robert left for Mexico and Edna (if only Mrs Pontellier had been given a less old-ladyish first name!) realized what she felt for him, I was really, really unwilling to put this book down.

But it also felt very personal to me. Not because I saw myself in Edna, of course - I may do a lot of housework and know nothing about cars, but I'm not that in touch with my feminine side - but because I saw elements of Kathy, from when I first met her. There were certain passages that might almost have been about her, and the fact that this was written nearly 120 years ago didn't lessen its relevance: in terms of its moralizing views on men, women and marriage, early 21st century Texas is, scarily, not very different at all from late 19th century Louisiana.

So I loved it, but I wanted (and even expected - so blindly was I reading our story into it) a happy ending. What I got seemed unjustified, unnecessary, ludicrous, melodramatic, devastating... too much symbolism and poetry and not enough life. But maybe I'll come round to it in time. It was certainly memorable. Now I really want Kathy to read this novel again, because I think it will mean much more to her now than it did the last time she read it, in her previous life.

In the meantime, whatever mistakes I've made in life, I'm just really glad I never wrote anything as stupid as 'Good-by - because I love you'.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Blindness" by Jose Saramago

Get me out of here was all I could think through most of this book. The hopelessness, the degradation, the ubiquitous excrement, the cruelty--I didn't want any part of it, but the fastest way out of it was through it. Unfinished books haunt me, and I think this one would have been worse than most.

This is the story of an epidemic of white blindness. It begins with one man who is stopped at a traffic light and suddenly finds that he sees nothing but whiteness. The blindness quickly spreads to others. The government first hopes to contain it with a quarantine, but their plan fails and societal breakdown follows with relentless rapidity. We first see it on a small scale, from inside the abandoned mental institution where the blind are confined, but life as we know it is dissolving outside those walls, too.

I put this book on my TBR list in June of 2010 when I heard that Saramago had died. I didn't even know who he was until that day (and I should probably be embarrassed about that, considering the fact that he was a Nobel prizewinner and the back cover of my copy of Blindness shouts "THIS IS AN IMPORTANT BOOK,") and I don't regret reading this book (finally! you don't know how many times I've almost read it but have chosen something else instead), but I don't feel driven to add any of his other works to my TBR. I'm sure some of you reading this pity me because of this choice, but I'll survive.

The book wasn't boring, the writing wasn't bad (though the overuse of commas in place of full stops annoyed me a bit), and Saramago had some interesting things to say about morality and society and perspective, but I was (forgive me) blinded to these deeper meanings by my impatience to get to the end of the book. I don't even want to see the movie, which is highly unusual for me--I'm normally very eager to see movie adaptations of books I've read, to experience someone else's visualization--but not this time.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Climates" by André Maurois

I first heard of this 1928 French novel a month ago, when I was translating a book of short stories about adultery. Each story was prefaced with a quotation from a famous French author, but the epigraph for the book itself was from André Maurois's Climats, which was completely unknown to me. There was nothing special about the quotation - 'What are you complaining about? That your husband's unfaithful? But men are never faithful...' - but I was intrigued enough to look the book up, and interested enough by what I read about it to buy a copy.

I bought it in a recent translation by Adriana Hunter (who also translated Amélie Nothombe's Fear and Trembling, among many others) and read it in less than a week, which is unusual for me these days. It is 350 pages long, but does not feel it. The story is not especially compelling, but it is written (and translated) in such a fluid, breezy, conversational style that the pages just kept turning themselves.

It is a book about love and marriage, strongly based on the author's own life and experiences - though with several important differences, as Sarah Bakewell's excellent introduction makes clear. It consists of two 'letters', the first written by Philippe Marcenat to his friend and future second wife Isabelle de Cheverny, about the obsessive love he felt (even then) for his first wife, Odile Malet, and the second written by Isabelle de Cheverny to Philippe Marcenat (who had died three months earlier), about her love for him.

According to the introduction, Maurois summarized his book as:

Part 1. I love, and am not loved.
Part 2. I am loved, and do not love.

This is very neat, but not entirely true. A more accurate précis might be:

Part 1. I am in love with her, but she is not in love with me.
Part 2. She is in love with me, but I am not in love with her.

Really, it is a book about all those flawed romantic relationships (the majority, perhaps?) where there is no balance between the two lovers, where there is always one dominant partner and one meek follower. In many ways, the world of 1920s haute-bourgeois Paris is remote enough from our own (or from my own, at least - maybe you, dear reader, are independently wealthy and spend all your time at parties, discussing science and history and pursuing passionate and barely concealed love affairs with your friends' spouses - who can tell?) that it would seem to have no universality. In most respects, despite being 20th century, the world of Climates is closer to that of Dangerous Liaisons or Anna Karenina than any work of fiction from the past 70 years or so. And yet, love is love. So, while I couldn't honestly see myself, now, in any of those people or situations, there were still feelings and moments that I could recognize from past experience.

And, let's be honest: a happy, balanced, perfectly fulfilling romantic relationship does not make for a good story. I'm incredibly grateful that I've found one, but I wouldn't want to read - or write - about it.

So Philippe's deeply imperfect character - always in search of a 'queen' whom he worships and who tortures him into jealousy by being endlessly coquettish with other men - is kind of engrossing, even if it makes you want slap him around a bit. The book is a pleasure to read for two main reasons:

1. It is full of quotable little epigrams about love and marriage (the one quoted in the book of short stories was not one of the best). For example:

"Should we always hide what we feel in order to keep what we love? Do we have to be cunning, must we devise and disguise just when we want to let ourselves go?"

and

"We love people because they secrete a mysterious essence, the one missing from our own formula to make us a stable chemical compound."

and

"To her, he had all the prestige of those we do not know well, and, their charms not yet exhausted, they seem rich with previously unimagined possibilities."

2. There is a constant fascination in comparing this novel to the author's actual marriages, and in thinking about the fact that his second wife typed it up and helped him edit it. The lines between fiction and autobiography are pleasingly blurred here, stirring up a haze of ambiguity where facts are lost but deeper truths are glimpsed.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

"The Bookshop Book" Jen Campbell

This book is a love letter to bookshops all around the world. 
It's practically porn for those who not only love to read but also love to travel. I already had an unwritten list of bookstores I wanted to visit someday (which included Shakespeare & Co in Paris, which is Sam's favorite, and El Ateneo Grand Splendid in Buenos Aires, which I'd seen photos of online). Now, I've just finished reading about SO MANY other amazing-sounding bookshops that I am overwhelmed. I can't add them ALL to my list, but I can't think of a single one that I would choose to leave off it. I don't feel like I can even give you the highlights of my select favorites, because they're all my favorites. I'd have to retype the entire book here, and I don't think Jen Campbell would appreciate that.

But I can tell you about one idea I really loved: Shaun Bythell's Random Book Club, "where customers anywhere in the world can pay an annual fee to have a random second-hand book delivered to their door every month." This sounded perfect to me until Sam pointed out it was quite possible that most of the books would suck. (Not in those exact words, but I must admit, there is that risk.) Not to mention the fact that I still own enough unread books that I might as well just make my own personal Random Book Club for myself.

And I can tell you about one story (of many) that I found interesting: the details behind the Keep Calm and Carry On signs. I'd already heard that this was a WWII relic, but what I didn't realize was that this propaganda poster had never actually been used during the war; instead, it had been "kept back, intended to be distributed if air raids further dampened people's spirits. In the end it was never sent out, and hardly anyone saw it," until it was unearthed by a couple of booksellers in Northumberland  in 2000.

I have a few of my own favorite bookstores that I can write about in my own little mini-edition of The Bookshop Book here:

  • I will always have a special place in my heart for my local Books-A-Million. It may be relatively soulless and sterile, but it's still fun to browse, and it's pretty much the only choice where I live (other than Amazon). More importantly, it led me to Sam. 
  • I loved The Book People in Austin, which felt so comfy and homey and provided hours of enjoyable wandering. It actually got a mention in Campbell's book, but the write-up didn't capture the feeling of the place for me, as it seemed to focus mainly on the store's charitable contributions to the world of reading. Admirable, of course, but that wasn't what I loved about my visit to the store. 
  • A new favorite: The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff (Dallas). It's situated in a rejuvenated old neighborhood with a bohemian feel--a nice, if small, area to explore on a sunny November afternoon. WD is really more of a coffee shop cum bar that sells books, and (very odd, for me) I didn't come across anything that I HAD to buy, but I enjoyed the lovely backyard seating area and the bookish conversation. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

"hey, dummy" by Kin Platt

At the risk of dumbfounding Anonymous again, I've read another book that was Not Written For Adults. Just to be clear, I am fully aware that it was Not Written For Adults. And I am also clear that I am generally considered An Adult. Now that we've gotten that out of the way, may we begin?

I picked this book up (for free!) at the ever-remarkable Friends of the Library bookstore in Los Alamos. (I think that's one of my favorite places! Good thing I only visit once or twice a year--otherwise I might have to move out of my house, displaced by books.) Theoretically, I chose it for Bookworm Child (who did read it, months ago) but I hung onto it out of a curiosity which I satisfied in my spare time over the past two days.

I'd read other books by Kin Platt back when I was Not An Adult (I have fond memories of Chloris and the Weirdos) but this book was a bit more edgy. It's the story of a 12-year-old boy named Neil Comstock who (kind of, sort of) befriends a boy from his school who is mentally handicapped. It's a fast read, and more thought-provoking than I expected (not a bad thing), although some of those thoughts involved how unlikely Neil's angry, snarling parents seemed, and how the bipolarity of Neil's teacher didn't make that character seem well-rounded so much as it made him seem made up. (Yeah, I know he was made up, but I don't like seeing the seams in the story. Fool me effortlessly, please! I want to become a part of the books I read without having to force my way in. That's not too much to ask, even of a book Not Written For Adults.)

I'd given myself permission to not write about this book if I got to the end and found I had nothing to say, but when I actually reached the end of the book, the completist in me wouldn't let it go. (Plus, as you know, I did think of a few things to say). Anyway, I need the record so I can know if it's worth re-reading someday. The verdict: it's short enough that it wouldn't hurt to read it again, especially if I have someone with whom I can discuss it and pick it apart. But the weight of my TBR pile--and all of the superior books (For Adults!!) on it--prevent me from the certain knowledge that I will revisit it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

This book was nothing if not fanciful and entertaining. It's an urban fantasy set in London Below (found in the Underground tunnels and sewers beneath, you guessed it, London Above). Peopled by an eclectic and unique cast of characters, none of whom are remotely boring or mundane, the boring and mundane Richard Mayhew of London Above finds his eminently normal life turned inside out when he renders aid to an injured girl from Below. Richard loses everything he had in his dull, comfortable life Above, as if he never had it in the first place, and has nowhere to go but the less-than-comfortable dank darkness of London Below. Adventures, betrayals, courage, and deaths ensue.

I was surprised to learn that this book is a novelization of a 1996 TV miniseries. (This is not obvious, even in retrospect. It's very well-written, unlike the usual Cash In on the Hype novelizations.) It was also performed as a BBC radio drama starring Mr Tumnus and Sherlock (among others), which I think would be fun to listen to if I had 3 1/2 hours free. Maybe on my next road trip?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

"The Quickening Maze" by Adam Foulds

I picked this book up because I liked the trees on the cover and the mysterious, poetic title. I knew nothing about Adam Foulds (other than the fact that The Quickening Maze was shortlisted for the Booker Prize) nor about John Clare (who is now considered one of England's greatest nature poets), and very little about Alfred Tennyson. So discovering that the story of this novel was based on those two poets' stay (Clare as a patient, Tennyson providing company to his mentally fragile brother Septimus) in a lunatic asylum in the 1830s did not increase my eagerness to read it. In fact, I toyed for an evening with reading a biography of Mick Jagger instead.

But, odd as it may seem, this story very soon proved the more compelling of the two. Partly that is down to the prose. Adam Foulds writes as beautifully and truly as any contemporary novelist I can think of. He is a poet, too, which explains the perfectly weighted rhythms and the carefully selected (and often nicely surprising) diction, but unlike some poets' prose, his is not so showily centred on its own eloquence and lyricism that it loses sight of its purpose: to tell a story.

And there is a story here, even if it is not a tightly plotted or obviously appealing one. At times it is grim, at times funny, at times moving. I wished there were more to it, but the narrative is never less than taut and strangely suspenseful. The characters all feel like real people (and not merely because they are based on 'actual persons'), and the events and dialogue ring true. But Foulds' most notable achievement, for me, is the way he gets into his characters' heads. The internal monologues are things of wonder.

Ultimately, I can't think of a better way to convey this novel's near-perfection than by quoting a few lines from it, and hoping that the lack of context doesn't leave it flopping, suffocated, like a fish out of water. This is a short scene in which the first glimmers of the poem 'The Passing of Arthur' (about King Arthur) come to Tennyson from amid the clouds of his grief over his friend Arthur Hallam:

'He had not lit the lamps and in the gloom of the early winter evening his long fingernails shone with the fire's red, a warmer red than the sunset's crimson, which, if he turned, he could see broken by tree shapes, blotting the surface of the frozen pond. Gules, he thought, all gules. That heraldic blood-red. That was something. His mind moved towards it. On the forest floor the shattered lances. The shattered lances lay on the hoof-churned mud. An ancient English wood where knights had ridden, where Queen Elizabeth hunted, where Shakespeare rode, according to the doctor's daughter, to play out his Dream in an aristocrat's hall. Twilight in that place, soft decay, the soft sun finding some scattered remains. There was something there: an English epic, a return of Arthur. An English Homer. Blood and battle and manliness and the machine of fate. He could hear its music, ringing, metallic and deep with inward echoings. His mind approached it, felt along the flank of this thing. It would be worth the attempt, if he ever had the strength. The logs hissed and smoked. The forest outside was again dreary, darkening, factual. There was nobody there.'

Anyone who's ever written a novel, or a poem, or a song, or created any kind of art, will probably know how that feels: the inward flight, the distant shining vision, then the return to the present, to ordinary reality. I've never read a better conjuring of it than this.

All in all, I would say this is a very good novel by a potentially great writer. If he can find a bigger - or less obscure - story to tell, and tell it with the same sort of intensity and truthfulness, Adam Foulds could create something magnificent.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Opening Skinner's Box" by Lauren Slater

This book is a layman's guide to an eclectic selection of the 20th century's most innovative and infamous psychological experiments. Actually, I'm not sure I'm qualified to categorize this as an eclectic selection, as the ten main experiments discussed probably increased the number of psychological experiments I'm familiar with to a total of eleven. But the selection sure seemed eclectic--from rats in mazes to neurons of sea slugs to false memory to lobotomy and beyond.

It's a bit uneven, and sometimes obviously biased, but it is never dry or dull. The author is a bit odd (which is worse: that B. F. Skinner's daughter kept a half-eaten square of chocolate which her father had bitten before his death ten years earlier, or that Lauren Slater also took a bite out of it after the daughter left the room? Did she really do that??) but definitely adds personality and color to her (admittedly unacademic) review of the included experiments.

I was just wishing my memory were such that I would carry with me a kernel of knowledge from each chapter, but lamenting that that was not to be, when I realized I could plant all ten kernels now. So, here they are:
  • B. F. Skinner put rats in boxes and studied reward and punishment. He was able to train a variety of animals to do some amazing things, found that reward was much more motivating than punishment, and further found that inconsistent rewards are more motivating than consistent ones.
  • Stanley Milgram designed a sadistic experiment in which unwitting volunteers were led to believe they were administering increasingly stronger shocks to innocent strangers in the next room. Sixty-five percent of those involved were obedient to the authority in the white coat, continuing to increase the voltage even when they began to hear very real-sounding screams of pain. 
  • David Rosenhan decided to test the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. He and eight other perfectly sane recruits went to psychiatric hospitals across the country and claimed to be hearing a voice that said "thud." Each was admitted on this basis, resulting in stays of varying lengths (averaging 19 days), with the most frequent diagnosis being schizophrenia. 
  • John Darley and Bibb Latané studied the reaction of groups of people to a crisis and found public apathy. An individual's perception of personal responsibility is diluted by the presence of greater numbers of fellow witnesses. 
  • Leon Festinger studied irreconcilable ideas or cognitive dissonance--the way the mind adapts to a breach of faith. For example, what happens to the beliefs of cult members whose ship doesn't come in on the predicted date? "It is precisely when a belief is disconfirmed that religious groups begin to proselytize." 
  • Harry Harlow separated baby monkeys from their mothers and found that the babies preferred a sense of comforting touch over physical nourishment. He further found that more than touch and food was needed; the babies also required movement associated with that touch, and a regular period of play, or they grew up to be freakin' crazy. 
  • Bruce Alexander studied drug addiction in rats, and concluded that a poor environment engendered dependency more reliably than the drugs themselves. Rats raised in the Rat Park (a rat utopia) actually preferred to avoid drugs even after being forced into addiction.
  • Elizabeth Loftus has proven that false memories can easily be implanted by suggestion, using the Lost in the Mall technique. The author had a very obvious dislike for Loftus that was clear in this biased chapter. 
  • The chapter on Eric Kandel begins by discussing HM, the man whose hippocampus was sucked out of his brain in 1953 in order to cure him of his seizures; unfortunately this surgery also left him unable to form any new memories. Kandel wanted to study the way learning and memory is stored in the brain, and used sea slugs with their simplified brains, observing the changes that occurred as he (seriously?!) trained them.
  • Egaz Moniz is the Portuguese neurologist who pioneered the lobotomy. Call me ignorant, but I'd always thought lobotomy was an actual removal of the frontal lobes which regularly resulted in much greater loss of function than this chapter seems to suggest; my misunderstanding was probably the fault of Randle Patrick McMurphy.
My favorite takeaway comes from the Darley and Latané chapter. Slater clearly lists the things an individual must do to overcome public apathy. This is something I hope I can remember myself, as well as something I want my kids to learn--the five stages of helping behavior:

1. You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occurring.
2. You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed.
3. You must assume personal responsibility.
4. You must decide what action to take.
5. You must then take action.

This is meant to be applied to situations where you see a fellow human in dire circumstances . . . is it small-minded of me to note that this exact same sequence can apply to household chores? (Mommy and Daddy need help, child! Notice your dirty underwear on the floor and take action!)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Dinner" by Herman Koch

This book fixed me with its one great dark-rimmed eye weeks ago. Every time I walked by, it stared, watching me pass. I was enjoying The Goldfinch immensely, but I knew what I would be reading next. Even though this book technically belongs to my husband.

When Sam chose The Dinner, he thought it would be funny (though likely also very dark). He still won't believe me (and probably will continue in his disbelief until he reads it for himself), but he's very wrong. Well, OK, he was right about it being dark.

This novel tells a story within the confines of one fancy meal shared by two couples at an expensive restaurant. Our narrator, Paul, slowly dishes out tasty morsels of the plot . . . but no, that's not really true. The lines he feeds us more frequently turn out to be bitter, or sour, or even rancid. Events from the recent past are revealed as each new course is served, and further developments unfold as the evening wears on. A crisis takes shape, and conflict arises when those involved disagree on how to handle the situation. It all made for a rather depressing but ultimately compelling read. (And I can hear Chandler now: "Could you be more vague?")

This was also one of those books that really made me think (and not just in the usual "what is going on here?" way). I couldn't help but try to work out what I might have done when faced with some of the choices presented. In some ways, the narrator was so very different from me that I knew I would never react as he did (and it's quite a relief to be sure of that). But the issues of blame and sympathy and a parent's protectiveness left me ambivalent and conflicted.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

Sometimes the books we read let us down, and sometimes, more rarely, we let down the books we read. I feel like I didn't do a very good job of reading this novel. I'm not going to kill myself over it - it happens sometimes. I kept having to break off to do speed-reads of books in French, and it got to the point where I would begin reading where I had left off two or three nights earlier and would have absolutely no clue what was going on.

As I said, this is mostly my fault, rather than the book's, I think, but it has to be said that this is a peculiarly demanding novel. I don't mean that in a bad way. I consider myself a Michael Chabon fan, having loved the previous two novels I read by him - Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - and even in spite of my erratic reading habits during this one, I still enjoyed it, still regard it as an original and beautifully written detective story with a speculative twist (what if the state of Israel had collapsed in 1948 and the world's Jews had moved to Alaska?). But I have a feeling I didn't get as much pleasure and satisfaction out of it as I should have. Tellingly, when I got to the end, I turned the page, expecting another chapter, and felt an odd mixture of disappointment and relief at realizing the book's remaining pages contained only interviews and biographical material.

So, what made it so demanding? Partly the style, which is similar to Chabon's other works (dense, poetic, witty, a startling blend of slang and lyricism) but with more compressed sentences and a fairly thick sprinkling of Yiddish (and made-up Yiddish) words. Partly the plot, which is extremely complex and (unless I'm just misunderstanding it) pretty improbable.

I also have to admit that the title was a bit of a turn-off. Maybe it's just me, but I can't help thinking that 'Yiddish', 'Policemen' and 'Union' are three of the least sexy words in the English language. (I have no problem with 'The', though. In fact, I'm a big fan of 'The'. Old-fashioned it might be, but a good 'The' at the beginning of a book title always makes me think I'm in for a real story, rather than just a clever collection of observations.)

Anyway, I'm not going to describe the plot, because it's too complicated and absurd, but I would just like to say that the bookjacket comparisons to Chandler and Hammett are way off the mark. This is much more literary than a simple noir thriller. Maybe there's a hint of homage to it in places, but it's a long way short of a pastiche. The characters are real, the emotions are real. It just happens to have a detective and a mystery (involving a murder).

I'll probably read it again one day (one day when my life is less busy), just to see if the problem really was me rather than the book.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

I received a copy of The Goldfinch from my lovely parents-in-law for my birthday last November, but both my husband and a sweet friend of mine borrowed it before I got around to reading it. That's really only part of my excuse for leaving it for so long before I picked it up myself, though. It was one of those books so hampered by great expectations (it was receiving rave reviews, and I'd read and loved Tartt's first novel, The Secret History) that I feared to pick it up lest it let me down. It didn't help when Sam's assessment was that it lost momentum halfway through--this brought my expectations down to a more realistic level, but didn't make me any more eager to read it.

Happily, when I recently overcame my fear enough to read it, I was not disappointed in the least. Far from losing momentum halfway through, somehow I was relentlessly propelled through the entire thing. Even during the times when (as Sam said) "nothing happened," I was suffused with an expectant tension. It certainly wasn't a thriller like Gone Girl, but there was a constant sense of needing to know what was going to happen next, even if I knew I was only waiting for one character to say something to another. And it's both satisfying and sad to have reached the end of the book--pleasantly fulfilling, yet I wish I was still in the midst of reading it.

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, thirteen years old at the beginning of the book, and the major influences in his life (as Theo is the sort of person who finds himself influenced much more often than he exerts influence on others): his mother, her death, various friends, and art. I was going to say something about the way one great and terrible day changes the trajectory of his life, but then I realized that's not really true: his direction doesn't really change. It's more as if that day speeds him along his way. Theo is deeply flawed, and as I watched him grow into an adult, I found I couldn't muster much respect for him--I was, instead, disappointed in who he was becoming. The reader is privy to all his failings which are hidden from those closest to him and only guessed at by others.

Despite Theo's disreputable choices, I was unwilling to give up on him. Not only did he have some interesting thoughts on good and bad and whether one can come from the other, but my interest was principally due to the golden thread running through his story: the title of the book refers to a painting (one which really exists! but which has probably had a much less eventful history than it receives at the hands of Tartt) and the visceral connection Theo feels with it. It was gratifying to read about Theo's reaction to the painting, because I understand how it feels to love--and own--a work of art.

The Goldfinch seems to be a really polarizing book: it has sold more than a million copies and won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (among other awards), and has amazed and entranced many readers, but it seems to have as many harsh critics as it has champions--so many that I don't believe all of them can be explained away by literary jealousy. The Goldfinch has received scathing pans from some very important sources, as well as from many of its readers with smaller spheres of influence.

This makes me want to examine my reaction to the book more closely. Am I just another one of the sheeple, appreciating the book due to its success? If its critics are correct and it's crap, what does that say about my literary tastes? If it's really so poorly written and full of cliché, why didn't I notice? And is the idea of literature as entertainment really a problem? I'm sure I'm glibly misinterpreting the viewpoint, but a book shouldn't have to be boring to be serious or important or great. I don't think the definition of a great book can be boiled down to one word, but I do think the majority--if not the entirety--of great books could be described as thought-provoking and well-written. And I see no reason why a book can't be entertaining as well as thought-provoking and well-written--in fact, so much the better if it is. If that makes me hopelessly inelegant in the eyes of world-renowned book reviewers, well then, so be it. I can only imagine how much more fully I am enjoying my life than someone who eschews literary entertainment.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"The Deptford Trilogy" by Robertson Davies

I'd never heard of this book until Sam mentioned it to me. Someone had once asked him if The Amnesiac was influenced by The Deptford Trilogy, but the title (and its author) was unfamiliar to him, so the answer was no. However, I can see how the two works are similar. They're both written in a sort of memoir-like style, each dancing back and forth in time rather than being laid out chronologically, each slowly revealing clues to a mystery. Not only that, but both can apparently be categorized as "slipstream fiction," which is a new term to me, and a great discovery--it's nice to finally be able to place Sam's books in a genre that is slightly more descriptive than "fiction". 

Each of the three parts of The Deptford Trilogy describes the lives of the same small handful of characters, but a different one becomes the main focus each time. The first and third books are actually narrated by the same character, though in the third book he is relating someone else's story. There are distinct voices between the first and second books, as there should be, but I didn't find that the voices of the narrator of the first and third books matched up. In the first book he sounds slightly pompous and fussy, while in the third he seems more content and quietly confident. I suppose it's forgivable as he is older and perhaps more mellow by the time the third book rolls around, but I couldn't help but view it as a flaw anyway. A minor flaw, though, despite which I was able to immensely enjoy reading.

Fifth Business

Swinging from childhood to present, encompassing secrets and mysteries and sainthood, Fifth Business tells the story of boyhood friends and the butterfly-effect-like consequences of one errant snowball. The narrator, Dunstable "Dunny" Ramsay, is "neither hero nor heroine, confidante nor villain," but he is linked to all of those and is an essential element of the story in his own way.

The Manticore

The grown son of the former snowball-thrower travels to Switzerland for Jungian therapy, through which we revisit much of what was revealed in Fifth Business, but from another perspective, Something his therapist said caught my attention: "Between thirty-five and forty-five everybody has to turn a corner in his life, or smash into a brick wall." Is this true? This sounds like a glorified description of midlife crisis, which I generally regard more as an excuse than a reality, belied by the fact that my life certainly turned a corner (an understatement, I think) at thirty-seven. 

World of Wonders

The indirect victim of the snowball, Paul Dempster, was swept away by a traveling carnival when he was a child. We learned this in the first two parts of the trilogy, but World of Wonders is where we hear the way he was transformed from Nobody into Magnus Eisengrim, magician extraordinaire. My favorite quote is from the final page: "Where there's a will, there are always two ways."

Did anyone else totally picture Edward Norton playing Eisengrim the entire way through this trilogy? The Illusionist is entirely to blame, I'm sure. 


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Orphans

THIS is my last catch-up post! I could find no common category for the last lonely books on my Have Read, Must Blog list, so what links them is that they have no ties to one another. Hence, my orphans:

HHhH by Laurent Binet. This book was originally written in French, but I (of course) read my husband's brilliant English translation. It tells the true story of the 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, high-ranking Nazi official, by two soldiers (Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík) who parachuted in to Prague for their mission. Did their mission succeed or not? If your history is as spotty as mine, do yourself a favor and don't look up their story before reading this book--not knowing the outcome added to the reading experience for me. As did the thing that makes this book unique when compared to other historical fiction: the author does not remain hidden, nor does he even attempt to convince his readers to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The story of Kubiš and Gabčík is shot through with the author's own experiences in researching and writing their story. (Meta-non-fiction?) I really don't like war books but this one was worth reading.


Bluebird, or The Invention of Happiness by Sheila Kohler. My memory of this book is (not surprisingly) not vivid; I suppose it didn't make much of an impression on me, whether positive or negative. It's the story of Lucy Dillon, French aristocrat, escaping the French Revolution by sailing across the Atlantic with her young family to start a new life on a dairy farm in upstate New York. I seem to remember the sea journey being fraught with trials and tribulations, and the new life being a bit bleak and barren, but through it all Lucy was strong and unwavering. I could be completely wrong, though.


Silk by Alessandro Baricco. I know for a fact that I read this novella more than three years ago. I can still remember, however, the simple and poetic form of its writing, and the way it disguised strong undercurrents of passion. At times it almost seems like a fable or a fairy tale. It's the story of a Frenchman in the late 19th century who travels to Japan in search of silkworm eggs and becomes enslaved by all-consuming love along the way (but it's not so gag-inducing as that makes it sound).


Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. This novella is worthy of much more than the tiny blurb I'm about to give it, which may be why I avoided writing about it earlier--could I do it justice? I'd read it years before but, true to form, hardly remembered it. It's the story of a pair of itinerant workers, George and Lennie, during the Great Depression. Lennie is mentally deficient and dependent on George, and George is protective of Lennie. It's a powerful story, very short, and a satisfying read (or re-read).


And now my blog is up-to-date! I no longer have a Have Read, Must Blog list! Unfortunately there is a distinct possibility that I've completely forgotten about some books . . . just last week I realized that two of my (relatively) recent reads had not made it on to my HRMB list. Both were re-reads for me, one being Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the other Lady Chatterley's Lover (which Sam has blogged about). Both of those books are special to me. I first read them during college (though for my own enjoyment rather than as assigned reading), and I remember why I chose each one. Tess first caught my eye at Blockbuster Video (!!)--the synopsis interested me, and when I saw it had originated as a classic novel, I wanted to start there. And LCL was on the reading list for my senior English class in high school, but my teacher wouldn't let me read it because he knew my mom would not approve! So, less than a year later and glorying in my new independence, I got to see what all the fuss was about. And I enjoyed re-reading both books, not least because I'd first read them during what were (for me) my formative years.

Any other forgotten books are destined to remain forgotten, but it feels great to be caught up on my blog again!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D.H. Lawrence

This is a strange novel. It is famous, of course, for the controversy and censorship surrounding its publication (it was first printed in 1928 but not freely available in England until 1960), for its themes of class and adultery, and for the use of certain four-letter words. But reading it purely as a novel, it strikes me, more than anything, as bizarre.

Actually, it makes me think of the Sex Pistols: a band inextricably linked with the whirlwind of controversy that blew around them. Listen to their music now, though, and it just sounds odd, for the most part: there are inspired moments, and John Lydon’s sneer is distinctive, but many of the songs are clichéd, old-fashioned, poorly played and produced, almost boring. You’re left wondering what all the fuss was about. But the fuss, of course, was not about the music per se, but about the band’s impact on their times.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a similar case in point: there are lines, paragraphs, scenes that are striking and well-written, but others that just seem contrived or ludicrous or dull or plain embarrassing, and throughout the story, the author’s voice intrudes, not only as an omniscient narrator thundering from the clouds but as a sort of ventriloquist, making his characters think and spout what are clearly his own opinions, not even trying to conceal the movements of his mouth. The overall effect is just a weird hodge-podge of good and bad, brilliant and banal.

This is the first D.H. Lawrence novel I’ve read, although I did also read a collection of short stories (The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories) and a collection of his letters. I remember particularly enjoying the latter, as the non-narrative form gave him free rein to joke and declaim and hypothesize about life and the world without any need to invent characters or fit it all into a story. I found myself liking and admiring him as a person and even a writer (and I also felt some affinity, as we both grew up in what he calls, in Lady Chatterley, ‘the smoky Midlands’ – or, more specifically, Nottinghamshire), and I agreed (and still agree) with many of the points he makes in this novel about the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, the need for tenderness, the balance between mind and body, and so on. I just didn’t enjoy being lectured to, somewhat haphazardly (or so it seemed), as I was reading a novel – particularly as I was genuinely interested in the story.

So… the story. Upper-class woman meets lower-class man and falls in love, in a nutshell. However, the contrast between Lady Chatterley and her lover was less obvious and striking than I expected: she is not aristocratic, but upper-middle-class (back when such distinctions actually meant something) and she was brought up with fairly liberal views about sex too, while Mellors, the gamekeeper – although with a working-class background – is an educated man who has been an officer in the British Army in India. I was also surprised that everything was made so easy: Lady Chatterley’s husband is wounded in the war and consequently impotent; he even gives his wife permission to go off and have sex with another man so she can bear a child, and she has a casual affair before meeting Mellors anyway. So, in many ways, the tension and conflict and drama that you expect from the basic set-up are not there. As a novel of adultery, it seemed less satisfying and persuasive than, say, Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. It was almost as if Lawrence found the theme too simple and melodramatic, so he felt the need to undercut it, blur the black and white to grey, as well as using it as a sort of platform from which to air his opinions.

As for the sex… well, there were a couple of erotic passages. There were also some very repetitive and purple ones, some amusingly clumsy and realistic ones, and others that were kind of embarrassing. And I suppose that in itself is an achievement: for an author to make a (pretty open-minded) reader squirm almost a hundred years later merely by writing about genitalia and orgasms. 

But I think what embarrassed me most – far more than any graphic detail – was Mellors’ use of Derbyshire vernacular. Mellors is capable of speaking ‘normally’, yet for some reason (a reason that baffles most of the characters in the novel) he occasionally reverts to ‘broad Derby’. And it is in this voice that he makes most of the obscene pronouncements that made Lady Chatterley’s Lover so infamous. Some of those passages are almost unreadably bad, though not ‘bad’ in the moral sense that led to the book being outlawed for thirty years – just bad in the sense of being excruciatingly awful.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally read it, but even gladder that I’ve finally finished it and can now move on to something else.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Dark and Light

I'm getting near the end of my Have Read, Must Blog list (hooray!), but it is becoming a stretch to find a theme between the remaining books. The best I can do for six of them is to highlight their contrast.

First, from the shadows.

The unquestionably dark: The Road by Cormack McCarthy, full of post-apocalyptic dirt and horror. It's the story of a father and son's grueling journey in search of safety in a world where they're not even sure it exists anymore. It's horrible and hopeless and sad, but also compelling and strong.

The dark and beautiful: Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett. I was first introduced to Patchett's excellent writing in her novel Run. T&B is non-fiction about her relationship with an amazing, larger-than-life, self-destructive friend. I bought it because I loved the cover and because I love Patchett's writing, even though the concept of the book was not overly appealing to me. Luckily for me it turned out to be quite engaging. And, as I expected, very well written.

The darkly humorous: Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. I really enjoyed reading this book, even if the protagonist--part small-time thug, part detective . . . with Tourette's--seemed so odd that I'm not sure I was ever really able to identify with him. He was certainly unique, anyway. And I'm excited about this!






And now, in the sunshine:

The Cat-Nappers by P G Wodehouse, which is nothing if not silly and tongue-in-cheek. Though if you've read any Jeeves and Wooster books, this is exactly what you might expect (along with a few high-jinks, many complications, and a misunderstanding or two). This is the sort of book to read in one rainy afternoon of house-sitting.

The Darling Buds of May by H E Bates. This book has a bright and cheerful tone with an undercurrent of earthiness. It tells the story of the carefree, easy-going Larkin family, eternal optimists and general free spirits, and the way they convert an uptight, timid tax clerk to their way of life. I'd never heard of this book (nor the early-90s TV series it sparked, which starred Catherine Zeta-Jones!) until Sam told me about it: he loves the family he grew up in, but if he were forced to choose a different one, he would have chosen the Larkins.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. This was a broad overview of science through the ages--kind of gossipy, and more about the scientists and their rivalries than about the science itself-- but I was really disappointed in my inability to retain information from this book. I mean, just after I'd finished reading the physics section I was asked to provide the answer to a crossword clue about the scientist who first proposed the currently understood atomic model, and I drew a complete blank. I want to remember EVERYTHING! But alas, that is not what fortune has in store for The Literary Amnesiac. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The WYSINAWYG Edition

Or, You Can't Judge a Book By Your Preconceived Notions About It.

We all know you can't judge a book by its cover (though, if my own propensity is any indication, we all tend to do so occasionally). But, covers aside, there have certainly been times when I've read a book and found it was nothing like I expected it to be. I'll tell you about five such books from my past three years of reading.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Any book with the word "castle" in the title sounds good to me! There seems to be something so magical about castles. Not those that are sanitized and soulless like Neuschwanstein, but real, lived-in ones like Hohenschwangau, where you can almost feel the spirits of those who formerly resided there.

I came across I Capture the Castle when I was searching for this book, and I didn't know much about it beyond the title and the fact that readers spoke highly of it. My mistaken expectation stemmed from my interpretation of the word "capture". I imagined some sort of war would be involved, or at least a minor siege, so I was actually quite pleased to find out that the main character is "capturing" the castle in the sense that she is writing about it and capturing its ambiance and daily life on paper.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. This book and I did not get off to a good start. Have you ever been reading during an ordeal in your life and found yourself kind of hating an otherwise perfectly good book? That was the beginning of The Handmaid's Tale for me. I had to set it down for about a week, until I stopped hating it. But once I convinced myself that it wasn't the book's fault, I found it quite an intriguing read. I definitely plan to read more Atwood at some point. I've heard I ought to.

Ever since I was very young, I have soothed myself with the notion that most huge changes happen slowly. By the time an event that I feared has come to be, I'll have had time to adjust. That's not necessarily a good thing (as the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto may have been able to tell you on their way to Treblinka). But it was chilling to read Atwood's account of what it might be like if things changed virtually overnight. (It does happen in real life, though generally not on so large a scale. I just try to ignore that fact until it happens.)

Rebel Without a Cause by Robert M. Lindner. I was very mistaken in my assumption that this was the book form of the famous James Dean movie. The subtitle should have made that clear (The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath). Disclaimer: in the next paragraph, please keep in mind that I have no idea what I'm talking about, so if you are a trained psychiatrist/psychologist and this book is your bible, my apologies in advance.

I was very skeptical of this book. First, I've never seen any evidence to suggest that hypnosis isn't a load of crap, and Lindner's descriptions of his patient's statements and antics while under hypnosis made me very suspicious. I felt certain that Harold was telling Lindner what he wanted to hear, and Lindner fell for all of it. Second, I'm quite doubtful of the possibility that Harold's psychopathic tendencies could have stemmed from having seen his parents having sex when he was a toddler. I neither believed that this was a true memory, nor did I believe that the situation could have been as traumatic as Lindner suggested.

Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly. Daly was seventeen when she began writing this book (which always impresses me. Seventeen was more than half my life ago, and I still haven't written a book). It's about a teenage girl and her first love, and I kind of expected it to be a bit naughty--but it is not, at all. It's very chaste and sweet. Which I guess isn't too surprising, considering the fact that it was published in 1942.

Then there was Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell, which I have thrown into this blog post merely to show that sometimes WYSIWYG. Sigh. I had absolutely no interest in reading this book--it looked like a poorly-written, run-of-the-mill thriller--but I did it because I loved my book club. And unfortunately my expectations were met: it was a chore to read. I didn't like Kay Scarpetta (the main character). The writing was mediocre (it was the type where I was constantly distracted by thoughts of better ways to word each passage). I guess it wasn't a boring story, but I certainly didn't turn the last page thinking, Hey, that was worth my time!

I won't be reading anything else by Patricia Cornwell. I mean, if hers were the last books remaining on earth, I might read them for lack of anything else, but there are SO MANY books I'd rather read (many of them languishing unread on my very own shelves) that Cornwell won't be an author I seek out any time in the near future. Except for maybe her book about Jack the Ripper?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton

I finally got around to reading the second of the two books Sam gave to me for my birthday last November. I think I put it off for so long because it's quite monstrous in size, but I shouldn't have--once I actually began reading, its length was forgotten. As a well-deserving winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, the writing is excellent and the story is absorbing and, had it been even longer, I wouldn't have minded a bit (except that it was already slightly ungainly for reading in comfortable positions).

I'm not sure I can describe the plot in a handful of sentences in a way that could do the book justice. There are 20 major characters, which seems like a lot to keep up with (especially considering the fact that you hear the story from the perspective of at least half of them at one point or another) but isn't, really. The story takes place during the New Zealand gold rushes of the 1860s, which probably wouldn't have made my list of Top Ten Most Interesting Settings, not least because I'm not sure I even knew there had been goldfields there--when I hear New Zealand, I think sheep. But--though it is integral to the plot--gold is not the focus of the story (thank goodness, because that would have been boring). The Luminaries is kind of an unconventional mystery, with thirteen amateur "detectives" trying to solve a death that may or may not be murder, the disappearance of a man who may or may not be dead, and the theft of a fortune in gold which--you guessed it!--may or may not have been stolen.

For me, the book started slightly slowly. Not that it was dull reading, but Catton zoomed in so closely on a room of thirteen men that time seemed to slow down. But it wasn't long before I was very intrigued. Mysteries and secrets kept stacking up. For every link that was exposed, two new questions arose. I found myself wanting to draw a diagram to keep track of all of the information as it was revealed, but I simultaneously feared it would be as elaborate and confusing as that of the obsessed, half-insane film detective who tacks photos and evidence all over his wall with strands of red yarn spiderwebbing all of the links.

I don't know why the entire book couldn't have been that exciting, but in the second half (I use the term "half" loosely--I didn't really notice exactly when the change occurred) Catton takes us back in time one year, and from there the story is told in a much more straightforward manner, explaining most (but not all!) of the mysteries by laying down the sequence of events that led up to the death, the disappearance, and the theft. It felt like a very long denouement, and it was a bit disappointing--kind of like a magician's secrets revealed--though I feel certain that it suffered more due to comparison with the excellent first half. I certainly did not lose interest, but it seemed less cleverly put together than I had come to expect.

Even so, I truly enjoyed the reading experience and came out of it with a very high opinion of the book and its author. You must read this book!