Sunday, 19 July 2009

More about books

I've been having trouble finding stuff that I'm in the right mood to read. I want things that are substantial, but not difficult, and reliably good without being upsetting. I reread some Barbara Trapido, sticking only to happy ones, but the ending of Juggling still made me cry because I could remember what happens in the sequel (very sad things). I reread David Copperfield and Bleak House, and Great Expectations and then I read Little Dorrit, which I hadn't read before. I think nineteenth-century fiction is bad for my morals; the rules of being female were so different back then that I find myself cheering on the mercenary women. Obviously I'd never marry except for love, or expect any friend of mine to behave otherwise, but if you're talking about a system where a bride puts her entire self, her body and all her belongings, into a man's hands such that he may rape and (within certain limits) beat her just as much as he likes without anyone thinking the worse of him, and remove her children from her forever at a whim, then it's hard not to sympathise with the women who decide to look for something more substantial than romantic feelings as their part of the bargain. How could any partnership possibly be based on mutual honesty in such inequal circumstances? Why shouldn't Fanny Dorrit marry an amiable fool whom she can dominate? Can one really look on the future life of Elizabeth Darcy with equanimity? She'll always be King Cophetua's beggar maid. This is why Jane Austen can't write past the marriage scenes; she wasn't stupid. This is why Jane Eyre couldn't marry Rochester until he had lost his sight and one arm, just to even things up a bit. Trollope is better than Dickens in this regard: He Knew He Was Right and Can You Forgive Her? express these problems very well. Wilkie Collins is better than both. I can't find my copy of his No Name, but I've just reread Armadale, and I defy anyone to read it without being on the side of Lydia Gwilt. It's a good book, one of the reliable classics. I wish I could find No Name and The Woman in White.

I've been reading modern books too, in a variety of genres. I shall treat them individually:

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff
I enjoyed this book (even if I sort of guessed the ending). It's about a woman who goes home after an ill-advised affair with her PhD supervisor, and arrives on the same day that a huge dead monster is found floating on the surface of the town's deep lake. It's from the genre "stories of family history", where the grumpy and unhelpful elders in one story are the wide-eyed lovers of the next. The best example of this genre is Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes of the Museum.

Firmin by Sam Savage
I'm always jealous of any novel written in the voice of a rat. (I once described my idea for a rat-narrated novel to a friend who said "That sounds terrible, don't ever write it".) This is quite a good book, though I am getting a bit tired of novels about the life-enhancing powers of literature, etc. The author frequently refers to rats as unable to laugh, which annoyed me because there are good reasons for believing that they do. If you want to hear them you buy a bat detector, because it's too high a sound for humans to hear, and then you tickle a rat. (See this video which I may have posted before: "Then one day we decided to tickle some animals".) I have never tried this.

Escape from Hell! by Hal Duncan
This bored me. It might have been a half-way decent graphic novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I bought this with some trepidation because on the front the Times is quoted as saying it's one to lift even the most cynical of spirits. But it is a charming book, without overdoing it. It treats the immediate post-war period, when rationing was worse than during the war, and Europe was full of displaced persons. The main character is an author, looking for a topic for her next book. The subject she decides upon gave me serious misgivings -- yes in the twenty-first century, but not in the late 1940s. Someone should write a sequel where she's written that book and now lots of people hate her and the people she loves. (This shows that I am the most cynical of spirits.)

La's Orchestra Saves the World, by Alexander McCall Smith
I'm glad I discovered the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series before they were famous -- like with Harry Potter, these things are easier to read pre-hype. (I prefer his other series, although I was shocked that the last of the Edinburgh philosopher ones involved the heroine's blithely doing something which I considered seriously immoral.) This book, however, is vague and forgettable, and has a bit in the first chapter which sounds like a McCall Smith parody. His way of having his characters stop and ponder things makes him seem sometimes like a male, Telegraph-reading, British Carrie Bradshaw: "As we drove past the closed Post Office, I wondered -- is a certain type of Britishness being lost forever?" Anyway, I don't recommend this book, but I have passed it on to my Grandma who is enjoying it, and it is therefore not a waste of time.

The Caliban Shore: The Fate of the Grosvenor Castaways, by Stephen Taylor
In the late eighteenth century an East Indiaman on its way home to England wrecked itself on the east African coast. The ship broke up in a strange way which meant that almost everyone got to shore safely, including a very large number of passengers who had paid large sums to put their fate into the hands of an idiot. (Including three unaccompanied children, the youngest of whom was three.) The coast was not at all uninhabited, and the most interesting parts of this book deal with the castaways' encounters with the local peoples. It's good stuff, and there's some very interesting material about later evidence for what happened to some of them. It comes from the genre of terrible stories of historical sea survival.

Batavia's Graveyard, by Mike Dash
This has some things in common with the previous book, in that it's about the wreck of an East Indiaman, in this case on some small shallow islands not far from Australia, and in the first half of the seventeenth century. Unfortunately for all involved one of the crew was an antinomian psychopath. Very interesting but grim.

Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman, by Frances Stonor Saunders
This is a very good read, about the period when Italy was swamped by mercenary companies. I liked that his name got italianised as Acuto (among other spellings). There's a bit where the author talks about a contemporary picture of Hawkwood in the margins of a chronicle where, among his banners, is one with the keys of St Peter; she takes this as evidence that he a) had a banner carrying this image and b) that this is corroborating evidence that the pope was paying him at this time, as rumoured. This is strange, because the artist is hardly going to be simply reproducing an actual scene he saw -- he's put the banner in the picture because he thinks Hawkwood was paid by the pope. Here the author is being oddly naive about medieval art; like she thinks it's their attempts to make up for not having invented photography yet. It made me think of early books, before punctuation, where texts were written out in scriptura continua, i.e. without spaces between words and with no punctuation. The idea was that they read aloud the noises represented by the letters and then listened to the resulting sound, which they understood as language. Similarly the author here is taking a picture, turning it into a real scene, and then decoding that. Whereas we can go straight from letters to language without sound, and they could go straight from picture to meaning without having to imagine some real-life scene inbetween. Anyway, this book has some pretty revolting actions by popes, and Catherine of Siena doesn't come out of it well either. There is a terrible terrible massacre at the Italian town Cesena, ordered by a cardinal after a town butcher defended his shop from plundering by papal mercenaries, involving the systematic slaughter of thousands of civilians, including women and children without distinction. The cardinal went on to be pope.

An Expert in Murder, by Nicola Upson
This is one of those odd books where a real-life person is made a detective. Josephine Tey is not my favourite golden age mystery novelist -- I've never quite understood her popularity. Her stuff doesn't have much heart. This one is set in the world of the theatre as well, which doesn't help. It's OK, but I won't be queueing up to read the sequels.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif
This I really liked. Its got a sort of Catch 22 feel to it.

The Bellini Card, by Jason Goodwin
I quite enjoy these books, not least for their upsettingly well-described Ottoman recipes. But they do have some wierd mood bits in sometimes. I'll continue to read the series, I expect.

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by G. W. Dahlquist
Cheap and nasty. I gave up on it after about 80 pages and left it on a train.

The Storyteller, or The Hawakati, by Rabih Alameddine
This is a very good book, as long as you don't mind that the narrative sections all have nothing whatever to do with one another. The present-day story is about a well-off Lebanese family, displaced from Beirut by wars, and about their recent ancestors, some of whom were storytellers. Interlaced with this there are various 1001-nights-style narratives with genies and such, which are never linked with the rest at all. But it's interesting and readable.

The Story of Forgetting, by Stefan Merrill Block
Quite a good novel about Alzheimers. Yet another one where stories are told about the last three or four generations of the narrator's family, here because of a genetic variant like in Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex; plus there are fantasy bits like in the previous. There is nothing new under the sun. Maybe I should draw a big diagram, rather than actually reviewing these things in words.

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