Wednesday, 28 April 2010

More books

Continuing to catch up on blogging about books I've been reading:

Nation, Terry Pratchett
I do like Terry Pratchett. This is the first non-Discworld book of his which I have read -- to be honest I have no idea if he's written other non-Discworld books. It's set in an alternative eighteenth-century world, and is about a boy in the South Seas who is out in a canoe when a huge wave comes and wipes out his entire island, and an English girl who is the only survivor of a shipwreck. More survivors join them, and the boy wrestles with how to fulfil the directives of his ancestor-worshipping religion. This is clearly Pratchett working through his own dilemma, which is very interesting to see. On the one hand Pratchett loves Story, and the transforming power of story, which is why A.S. Byatt loves Pratchett, although he has a rather lighter touch than she does -- on the other hand he loves rationality and scepticism, and breaking down received ideas. You can see him being on Dawkins' side about the God stuff, but horrified at some of Dawkins' wackier anti-"lies" suggestions that it's wrong to tell children stories with unicorns in, for example. So the boy in Nation spends a lot of time torn between the powerfulness of the ancestors' story and the ancestral way of doing things as a symbol of continued life after the tsunami, and his sense that the whole thing is futile nonsense which didn't prevent the tsunami in the first place. It all turns out to be OK when it transpires that the ancestors were actually terribly rational themselves. Anyway, I may be over-analysing -- it's an enjoyable book.

Sacred Hearts, Sarah Dunant
I would be willing to bet large sums of money that she got the idea for this book from reading Mary Laven's excellent non-fiction Virgins of Venice (which I lent to my hairdresser and which he then returned signed by the author because he cuts her hair too, which was pretty cool of him), although this novel is set in Ferrara. Essentially in the late medieval/early modern period it became more and more expensive for the Italian nobility and gentry to marry, and in any large family only one or two of the sons and daughters might find spouses, the sons because it was expensive to set up a full married establishment, and the daughters because the father couldn't afford more than one or two full-grade dowries. Younger sons had various ways of earning their living, but respectable fathers really either had to marry off their daughters or to put them into a convent, which would take them for a much lesser dowry than a husband would demand, and there was not much consultation of the wishes of the women themselves. The convents became sort of like a girls' boarding school but all-age, and the nuns could be visited by their families, put on concerts, keep pet dogs and other luxuries, and generally have a reasonably good time. If they didn't mind being spinsters -- the big advantage being no threat of death in childbirth and no beatings -- then it wasn't too bad a life, and if it's true that both options involved obedience, either to a husband or an abbess, at least you had a chance of working your way up to be abbess, whereas no one was ever going to promote you to be husband. But after the Reformation in northern Europe the Council of Trent etc led to reforms fighting back against criticism of various aspects of Roman Catholic life, and the nuns were sitting ducks for stringent crack-downs on anything against the spirit of the most austere monasticism, because it is just one of those things about nunneries that throughout the ages bishops have been worried that they are not sufficiently under the bishop's control. This novel is about a girl who is put unwillingly into a convent in Ferrara after the man her father has chosen as a son-in-law chooses her younger sister. It is largely from the point of view of an older nun who does not particularly want to be in the convent but had no other socially acceptable option after her father died. The book is quite good and not too heavy-handed about exploring the convent's life and the young novice's attempts at rebellion. I think I might lend it to my grandma.

Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver
I do like this book, which I have read at least twice before. It's largely a novel about ecology, and I read an interview with her where she said she tried to make the ecosystem one of the characters, something at which I think she succeeds more than you'd expect. It has three separate strands, set around the same area, and although the three main heroines don't know each other there's a strong sense towards the end that they will meet before long, which is a nice ending because you know they will like each other. A happy book, but not in a soppy way.

Instruction Manual for Swallowing, Adam Marek
A collection of quite good short stories, some pretty striking. Some don't really seem to go anywhere much, which might be deliberate, but makes them harder to read. There's a pretty memorable one with a giant talking centipede.

A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel
I remember the fantastic reviews this book got when it came out, a long time ago, but the subject matter always put me off before. It's about three of the main movers in the French Revolution. Mantel writes very well, and it's probably a good thing that I'm sufficiently ignorant about the revolution not to be able to remember in which order people died. It's one of those books which fills you with a sense of relief almost as soon as you start it, because you know it's going to be reliably good, and because it's nice and fat enough to last you a long time. I used to feel that way often as a child, when I was able to read any sort of trash, but now it's quite a rare experience. The relationships of the characters are very convincingly traced, both in their initial friendship and their fallings out. I love the bit where Robespierre remarks wryly that his presence turns everyone into a hypocrite. This may have been horrendously conceited of me, but I did used to feel like that sometimes as a sixth-former. I still haven't read Wolf Hall, out of a sense that I don't want to waste something I'm going to enjoy.

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