Thursday, 27 May 2010

Books: Reservations etc

Every now and then I go through patches of insomnia, and when I do I read too much. Here are some things I've read recently, excluding some books by Kage Baker, which I will blog about separately sometime, because they are great.

Medicine River, Thomas King
This is one of those novels which is essentially a series of installments building up a picture of life in a particular community. The narrator has returned to Medicine River, a Canadian reservation where he lived when he was young, and the book tells the stories of his past and of the people around him. A very good book, enjoyable despite the fact that plot-wise it doesn't go anywhere much.

Truth and Bright Water, Thomas King
The Montana town of Truth faces the Alberta reservation of Bright Water across a river. This is a coming-of-age story about a boy called Tecumseh who moves between the two. I was expecting it to be very funny like Green Grass, Running Water, and it's not, but by the time I realised this I was hooked on it because it is so well written. There's an excellent crazy artist character.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
I probably wouldn't have bought this if I had realised that it was YA fiction, but I'm glad I did because it's good, and all the more moving for being pretty matter-of-fact about its subject. The narrator is a teenage boy on a reservation, whose parents are both alcoholics but generally good to him, who realises that the only way he can get anywhere in life is by leaving the reservation. So he transfers to another school, where he's ostracised at first for being the only Indian apart from the school mascot, and sometimes has to walk 20 miles home if his dad's run out of money for petrol and he can't hitch a lift. The things that happen to the kid are pretty depressing, not least the community's reaction to his desertion, but it's not written in a self-pitying way, and the narrator intersperses frequent cartoons. Given that the books you read as a "young adult" teach you about the variety of the world as well as just being entertainment, this would be a good one to have in school libraries. And as I understand it, it's pretty autobiographical as well. I have enjoyed essays by Sherman Alexie in the past and I think I'll look out some more of his work. For example, I liked this reaction to testifying in a court case even though I care nothing about basketball.

The Hunt for Sonya Dufrette, R. T. Raichev
The Death of Corinne, R. T. Raichev

The author is a Bulgarian who wrote a thesis on English Golden Age Detective Stories, and now writes them. These are set in the present-day, but very much in the Golden Age world. Although for both of these I did guess what was coming quite a while before the detectives, I still enjoyed them, and I'll probably read further books by him if I come across them.

Brixton Beach, Roma Tearne
Good but bloody depressing.

In the Footsteps of Harrison Dextrose, Nick Griffiths
Has the following quotation on the front: "This book is cooler than David Hasselhoff in a room full of otters --". This conveys two things very accurately: 1, just how irritating this book is; and 2, exactly what particular moment of time it comes from (a couple of years ago). It's a grotesque travel book set in imaginary places among peoples called things like the Innit and the Ikeans. Usually I like books to have chutzpah but this one tips over into annoying. I kept forgetting I was reading it and starting other books instead, though I did finish it eventually.

The Reflections of Ambrosine, Elinor Glyn
Montacute House has a display about its last tenant, Lord Curzon, and his mistress Elinor Glyn, of poetic fame:
Would you like to sin
With Elinor Glyn
On a tiger skin?
Or would you prefer
To err
With her
On some other fur?

This is because she wrote a book called Three Weeks in which a young man has an affair with a tempestuous older Russian countess; he sends her a tiger skin on which they later make mad passionate love in front of a roaring fire. It was pretty racy stuff for the time, apparently; Curzon saw the play based on it, and sent to Elinor Glyn the skin of a tiger which he had shot himself, after which they became lovers. Then he installed her at Montacute, in the freezing cold, where she spent eighteen months trying to make it more of a home, while he spent most of his time in London. Eventually in 1917 she read in the newspaper that he was going to be married to Alfred Duggan's widow (mother of the somewhat tedious but accurate historical novelist of the same name), which devastated her pretty thoroughly. In a nice instance of karma, in 1923 Curzon was expecting to be made Prime Minister but was passed over in favour of Stanley Baldwin, which apparently made him cry. By that time Elinor Glyn had moved on and was having a successful Hollywood career, including being one of the first ever female directors, and had come up with the term "It", by which she meant not so much sex appeal as the quality that tigers and cats have, and also the term "It Girl", for the actress Clara Bow. Anyway, because she sounded interesting I decided to look up some of her stuff online, and found the texts of several novels. I really enjoyed The Reflections of Ambrosine; it's about a half French half English girl who is brought up very strictly by her grandmama in the ancien regime style. Her grandmama is not well, and makes some stern arrangements for the girl's future, which pitches her into a tremendously bitchy world. Some of the society scenes are great, particlarly a character called Babykins, and remind me of E. F. Benson. It works pretty well as a novel, mainly because of its sweet main character who retains her innocence even when she has comprehensively lost her naivety. Now I am about half-way though Three Weeks, which is not as good. Titillation is one of those things which does not age well. Of course it's pretty tame stuff nowadays, and to be honest I find it hard to work out quite what was ever supposed to be shocking. Had they not read any Wilkie Collins, or Sterne, or Shakespeare? Was it because it was written by a woman, and supposed to be autobiographical? I'm not sure I wil finish it, but one can see why she did so well in Hollywood -- the fadeout on the crackling fire in the tigerskin seduction scene might be one of the earliest instances of this cliche.

Aztec, Gery Jennings
Can you criticise a novel set in the Aztec world for being grotesque? This book is pretty chunky, at over a thousand pages in mass-market format, and does at least give its narrator an excuse for relating horrible details, in that he enjoys shocking the Spanish clerics to whom he's dictating the story. There's a lot of sex as well as violence, but overall it's reminiscent of the Sinbad stories in the Thousand and One Nights, as the hero travels around the many different peoples of pre-Spanish South America, sometimes making himself fabulously wealthy by fortunate trades, sometimes losing all his possessions and nearly his life, and being pretty matter-of-fact about the various customs he encounters. This is the sort of thing you read by the pool and then leave behind for some other traveller. I do wish I had realised while I was reading it that it has a map at the end.

Inglorious, Joanna Kavenna
One of those alienation from modern life stories. On the back described as "a slow, comic fall from modern grace", and "somewhere between ... Bridget Jones and Philip Larkin". The problem with buying things unseen off of the internet is that in a bookshop I would have read those things and put the book straight back. They're both true, if you substitute "arch" for "comic". I found the book insufferable and couldn't get past the first forty pages. I read the end just in case but that didn't seem to be any the less insufferable either.

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