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

Thursday, January 31, 2019

"The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson

I've been familiar with Jackson's short story, "The Lottery," for decades, as it was a staple in school curriculum while I was growing up, but I don't think I've read anything else of hers before now. I watched the 1999 movie adaptation of THoHH when it came out in the theater and was not motivated to read the source material (or was I even aware at the time that it had started as a book?). But recently Bookworm Child convinced me to watch the new TV series on Netflix (which was actually pretty good, apart from the last episode, as it was was way too sweet and neat and . . . heartwarming?? and completely out of tone with the rest of the series) and my Netflix experience made me curious about the book.

So I bought the book as a Christmas gift for Bookworm Child . . . so that I could read it myself. (Because isn't that always the reason we give books to family members? That seems to be why my husband gave me such a great stack of books last month, anyway! Not that I mind; I completely understand. But I digress.) I found it a good story that went by quickly, though I think it was more about madness than haunting. And, as you probably already know, the book couldn't be more different from the Netflix series (apart from a few characters with the same names, and the creepy house). The 1999 movie was much more similar to the book, but even that (or what I remember of it) had its deviations.

In the book, Dr Montague has rented a house with a reputation for being haunted; he wants to gather data on any phenomena that can be observed, and gain renown for the paper he will write about the experience. He has hired free spirit Theodora and shy mousy Eleanor to help, and Luke (nephew of the house's owner) is along as a chaperone of sorts. Over a week that seems to last for years, the four record some odd incidents, but more questions are raised than are answered.

I'd say my biggest criticism of the book was the lack of character development. The four main characters (who'd only just met) would all sit around together and entertain one another with silly fantasies; it would have made complete sense for one (or maybe two) of the characters to have this affectation, but I couldn't suspend disbelief enough to allow all four main characters make a habit of this. It made them seem too similar to each other, as if they didn't have their own voices. And then the characters who did have their own voices (Mrs Montague, Mrs Dudley, Arthur) were unfortunately one-dimensional.

But, you know what, I satisfied my curiosity and enjoyed my time reading. So who am I to complain?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

"Convenience Store Woman" by Sayaka Murata

The first words out of my mouth as I closed this book and laid it down were, "That was weird."

Convenience Store Woman tells the story of Keiko Furukura, who is 36 years old and has worked part-time in the same Tokyo convenience store for half her life. Her friends and family can't understand why she has never married or had children--has never even had a romantic relationship--or why she hasn't made an attempt to have an actual career. She hides behind little white lies to make others feel better (she vaguely mentions that she has a medical condition that makes her frail, so she is unable to handle more serious employment), but the truth is that her very existence revolves around the convenience store. It's the only thing in her life that she finds meaningful. She doesn't understand the way the minds and lives of most people work, and no one would understand if they knew what really goes on in Keiko's mind and life. She closely observes others and mimics their words and mannerisms so she can pass as one of them, but this only serves to mask the true extent of her other-ness.

I don't really know whether to take this book at face value or whether to look for hidden meaning. At face value, Keiko is probably autistic and no one around her understands or accepts this. Everyone in her life wants her to be more like them so that she can be happy and fulfilled; they don't understand that when she is at work in the convenience store she is happy and fulfilled. The ending is at once happy and sad . . . Keiko is happy, but in a way that seems sadly limited to anyone else. But maybe the story is actually saying something more? It definitely gets into some deeper ideas, voiced by Shiraha but understood and shared by Keiko, about the expectations of society.

I enjoyed reading this book (despite the overabundance of annoying cliches in its dialogue) but I'm ultimately uncertain about what I think of it. As I neared the end, my husband asked me if the book was funny. I thought about that for several long moments before I could answer. I slowly said, "It's quirky . . . I guess it's funny in a weird way . . . or maybe it's just weird?"

"How to Stop Time" by Matt Haig

Kathy and I were in Books-a-Million, looking through the Fiction section. She asked me to show her the book I was holding; I had already picked this one out and I held it up to her, feeling pretty pleased with myself. 'Oh yeah, I looked at that,' she said. 'But you didn't want to read it?' I asked. 'I read a couple of sentences at random and decided the writing wasn't good enough,' she explained. I frowned. I, too, had read a couple of sentences at random (or maybe it was the book's opening sentences?) and decided the writing seemed fine. I could have taken the warning and read a few more sentences, but I was feeling stubborn: I liked the idea of the plot - man ages at one-fifteenth the speed of everyone else, meaning that he could live for nearly 1,000 years - and I hadn't seen much else in the store that interested me, so I bought the book.

I should have listened to Kathy.

I am particularly drawn to mostly realistic novels that mess with time or natural laws or the realms of possibility in some way. 'Life After Life' by Kate Atkinson is maybe the best example of this, or 'The Time Traveller's Wife' by Audrey Niffenegger. But this novel, sadly, was not in that class. In fact, it was pretty bad - the characters glib, the plot predictable, the writing all cute and contrived - and I had to force myself to keep reading it every night. Maybe it will spark into life, I kept hoping. Instead of which, the narrator met Shakespeare. Ten pages of eye-rolling and excruciating dialogue later, I gave up.

I tend to think you shouldn't review books if you haven't finished reading them, but I am making an exception for this one. Don't make the same mistake I did. Save yourself $25 and numerous wasted hours. It has a nice cover and a cool premise, but it's crap. Put it back on the shelf and walk away.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

"Berlin" by Jason Lutes and "Belonging" by Nora Krug

I don't read many graphic novels, but I read an article that featured these two late last year and thought they sounded interesting. Both are about Germany and its Nazi past, although they deal with the subject in very different ways. And their artistic styles are completely different, as you can see from the respective covers.

On the whole, I preferred Berlin, particularly in artistic terms. It's a bold, sweeping, black-and-white portrait of the city in the early 1930s, when Germany was still a democratic state and its capital a hotbed of art, theatre, sexual experimentation and free expression. It follows the intersecting stories of a young female art student named Marthe Muller, who arrives there from Cologne, and an idealistic but increasingly world-weary journalist named Kurt Severing, among a cast of dozens of other characters. Both the main leads are intelligent, real-seeming and likeable, and the portrayal of the city itself is beautifully done.

But I did feel the book was a little swamped by all those other characters, many of them communists and Nazis, who felt less three-dimensional and who tended to blur together in my mind, not least because many of them looked too alike. Almost all of the women have short hair, for example, which makes them hard to distinguish, and too many of the working-class characters simply looked dirty or old beyond their years. Berlin is not ruined by these flaws - it's still a wonderful achievement - but I do think it might have worked better as a narrative if the author had kept a tighter focus on his central protagonists.

Belonging is actually a non-fiction book, a sort of memoir/investigation. Written by a young German woman who lives in the United States, it begins brilliantly: a chance meeting, soon after her move to New York, with an elderly Holocaust survivor, which leaves the author squirming and ashamed of her country's past. It then goes back in time to the end of the Second World War, with a couple of reproduced documents that I knew nothing about and that were fascinating and revelatory.

The first was an excerpt from a 1945 US War Department training film written by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss. 'The German people are NOT our friends,' writes the author of The Cat in the Hat. 'However sorry they may seem, they cannot come back into the civilized fold just by sticking out their hand and saying, "I am sorry". Don't clasp that hand! It's not the kind of a hand you can clasp in friendship. Trust none of them.'

The author, Nora Krug, grew up next to an American air base and there are personal recollections of the locals' relationship with the US soldiers. There is also a harrowing photograph of naked, skeletal corpses being paraded through a village street on the backs of horse-drawn carts, with the caption: 'In some towns, the Allied forced local farmers to drive the bodies of the dead through the streets on the way to the burial site, for everyone to see.' Something else I knew nothing about.

The book does not quite live up to this initial promise, however. Essentially, it is the story of the author's investigation of her own family's past: how much they did know about what was going on? How implicated were they in their country's guilt? As with all such real-life investigations, the story comes up against the limits of what can actually be found out, and the possibility of a slightly bathetic conclusion. I feel like Krug tries to dramatise some fairly undramatic material by over-emphasising her inherited guilt, her horror at the crimes of the past. And, while the scrapbook-esque style of the art works quite well with the historical material, I'm not mad about her actual drawings.

On the whole, although neither novel has put me off graphic novels as a genre, neither made me eager to plunge back into it right away either. I guess ultimately they're just like non-graphic novels: everything comes down to how good the story is and how well it's told. They do look very handsome on my shelves though.

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.