Thursday, May 28, 2009

Jane Hamilton: A Map of the World and Ariana Franklin: Mistress of the Art of Death

I borrowed the Hamilton novel on a whim, as I said. There was nothing on the cover indicating what it was about, just a lot of positive reviews, so I went for it. Started reading, very happy, good writing - then realised this was about children dying and suddenly was not so keen any more. Hamilton is a very good writer, so I was getting all worked up about it since it all seemed so realistic. I had to put it down. I can't take real horror right now. Which is why I declined to watch the film Grave of the Fireflies that Maxima got from a friend for her 14th birthday. I had a hunch that was going to be about babies dying too, and my suspicions were indeed confirmed when my red-eyed sobbing daughter met me in the hall after watching it the other afternoon. It was the saddest film ever she proclaimed and snivelled off to share her anguish with her friends on msn.

Anyway, I returned poor Jane Hamilton to the library (and of course immediately started to regret it, but done is done, I'm not reading it now so there). I wanted to write about it now though so I can remember to re-loan it sometime when I'm more relaxed (ha).

Which brings me to the second book of this post, an historical crime novel about a serial killer who, ironically, murders children, in a very gruesome way. Why can I take this and not Hamilton's? I think because Mistress of the Art of Death is, in the end, not real. It may be rooted in real history, it may be not flippant about human suffering and pain... yet there is something fundamentally escapist and distant about crime fiction that enables you to read the most horrible things without feeling too touched by them.

I wasn't expecting to like Franklin's novel as much as I did. I suspected that the female doctor Adelia, who comes to Cambridge to help find the murderer by reading the bodies of his victims, would be one of those larger-than-life characters that modern authors like to stick into the past to somehow avenge themselves on all that historical misery. However, Adelia is surprisingly likeable and imperfect, and the society is a rather nice blend of bad mediaeval and good mediaeval. People aren't just super-bigots and dirty xenophobes, but also just... well, people. I'll definitely be reading more of Franklin, it was fun.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go

How can I not have read this author before? I'm partly ashamed, partly happy that I have a number of probably most likely wonderful new reading experiences ahead of me. Never Let Me Go will always hold a special place in my heart I predict, because this my friends is science fiction at its best. The Wikipedia entry doesn't call it science fiction, but I've seen some other sites that recognize it as such. Like all good sci-fi it's not about the technology, it's about what it does to us.

The novel is set in a different Britain, in which sterile clones are grown from childhood to adulthood only to become "donors", to have their organs harvested. The story is told by Kathy, in her 30s, who is on her way to settling down to becoming a donor and subsequently "completing". She tells the story of how she grew up in a boarding school for clones, how she and her friends gradually learnt what they were, and she tells about her relationships with the people she loved best. It's very very good. It's slightly marred towards the end, when Kathy and her lover Tommy confront a former teacher from the school, and she "explains all". It feels a bit too summarizing and lecturing, but it's okay.

Recommended heartily. I'm off to borrow all his other works.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sara Paretsky: Ghost Country

I have some issues with this novel. This is sort of the basic storyline: at a wall in Chicago, a homeless woman thinks that the rusty water leaking through a crack is the blood of the Mother of God. When the management of the hotel, who own the wall (but not the sidewalk) try to drive her away, she is joined by two more homeless women, an idealistic young doctor, an alcoholic former opera diva and a young woman who has run away from an oppressive grandfather. When suddenly a non-speaking, hugely buxom and higly erotic woman called Starr appears, everything really kicks off. Miracles happen around Starr. A local church and some of it's more strident members get more and more annoyed. Ok, so it paints a picture of Chicago that is different, more... fantastical?... than in the Warshawski novels. Fair enough. But the distinct impression I'm left with is that it's an experiment in the genre "what if Jesus came back as...". Starr in this case being Jesus - a non-speaking, extremely sexual creature who can tongue-kiss a woman back to life on an altar. And there is a little bit too much written about her huge bosom and how much she has sex singly and grouply for me to think it altogether flies - simply because I find it unnecessarily "provocative". Possibly I'm just being churlish and over-thinking things.

I really don't like the breast bits though. It's some sort of odd mix between Swedish "sommarbuskis" and US titty bar. I don't get it. I'm missing the love I felt in Bleeding Kansas.

Ursula K LeGuin: The Eye of the Heron

No no no.

I was not happy. Not that the idea is bad - in the future, two different kinds of cultures with their origins on Earth attempt to co-exist on an alien planet. One, the older, is descended from Portuguese-speaking criminals, who were deported when the planet was a prison colony. The younger, "The People of Peace", were also deported, but they are descended from members of a huge peace movement in the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, a movement so large that it threatened the rulers on Earth. Now the older culture, the Bosses, try to dominate and rule the younger, the Shantih, who want to try the theories of peaceful resistance in a revolt.

While I love the imagination present in the description of the alien world, the book gets overly political and preachy. Not subtle enough.

Annie Proulx: Postcards

I'm seven books behind now, so I'm going to have to hurry to make the blog match my reading (I'm on book eight, the Ngaio Marsh I mentioned).

As expected, I loved this book. In the 1940s a young man commits a murder in a corner of his father's (one day to be his) farm. To conceal this he runs away, and spends the next 40 years moving about the West, taking odd and any jobs - mining, trapping, bone hunting for paleonthologists... for a while he has a farm, but loses it. He sends postcards home but never has a return address, so he never finds out what has happened to his family and their farm. Instead he keeps an image in his memory of how it was. We read what happens to him, and to his family, and to the US during these 40 years. It's tremendously moving and I devoured it. One of those books you can't put down.

My one quibble is that the postcards sent, that are reproduced at the start of every chapter, are illegible in the small print of the paperback. It ruins the story a little, to be honest.

The Wikipedia entry on Annie Proulx teaches me that she has written some science fiction stories early in her career. I'd love to read them.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Library visit today

I've been dipping into my small stash of (second-hand...) books I've bought so it was time for a library trip. Oh, I never wrote about my visit to a second-hand book shop in Stockholm not long ago - they wanted more than 100 :- for old Ellery Queens. The audacity. No wonder they had so many. I found a rather worn Ngaio Marsh novel the title of which I forget at the moment and they charged me 20:- for that.

But today I got:

Paretsky: Ghost Country - I was so pleased with Bleeding Kansas that I wanted to give another stand-alone a try

Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go - because why not, never read him

Proulx: Postcards - want more of her, more more

Hamilton, Jane: A Map of the World - on a whim, fell for the blurb

Le Guin: The Eye of the Heron - because I remain faithful and this might be good.

So I'll be alright for a while.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Sara Paretsky: Bleeding Kansas

I have been having a really bad day, for no other reason than a) I'm just feeling very down at the moment, and b) I'm trying to drill three holes in the living-room wall, with less than stellar results. Let's not go there. At one in the afternoon I broke down in tears and decided to take a break and write this blog entry instead to take my mind off wall craters. The instant I sat down my middle daughter rang and wanted me to pick her up from school because she wasn't feeling well. Now it's half-past ten at night, I sit down again, and at the first click of the keys my husband leans over to say that he took a facebook test to determine which ordinary thing he is (apparently he is sliced cheese, which is actually rather funny).

But I haven't lost my train of thought yet. I may if he speaks to me again.

Paretsky writes in the foreword that she grew up in Kansas, something I didn't know. It shows however that she's writing about ... how should I put it ... about people she understands and respects and loves, about a part of the world that she has deep feelings for. Unlike in a Warshawski novel, the main characters here aren't very savvy or politically aware, but "simple" farmers who take a "simple" pride in growing food that feeds people. They are patriotic and trust that the news is reported correctly and that the government knows its business. They are religious and church-going, and incorporate this into their daily lives. This doesn't make them idiots or despicable. There is no sarcasm here, no cynicism. I found this very endearing, very moving, and it gripped me all the way to the end.

The novel centres on three Kansas families that long ago settled together, worked together and fought slave-owners together, but now are estranged. The main families are the Grelliers, the "normal" family, and the Schapens, members of a deeply conservative church and run by a xenophobic and hate-filled matriarch. The main subplot is the birth of a red heifer at the Schapen farm, something with deep significance to a group of Orthodox Jews and to the conservative Christians (seriously, this is, what, the third novel I read featuring a red heifer. I should have kept track and added labels. Mental note.). There are a lot of other little plots and ideas - like how ludicrous it is to imagine that you can live in solitude in the country, where everyone talks about your affairs, how the Iraq conflict tears families apart, how grief can destroy a person, how religion can be twisted.... It's quite boxily written, yetI really liked it. There is something so true and respectful at the base of it. The boxiness is part of the whole aura. Oh, I can't explain myself, I can see that. Forget the literary criticism (attempts at). I actually cried reading this. I was touched at the pain the parents felt when their son died in Iraq. The simplicity of it, the way the world is changed for everyone and they don't know how to handle it - it's well described without in any way being too political and righteous. I would have expected Paretsky to be more cynical towards these Bush-following Republicans, but no. She understands, she respects, she grieves with them. When they sin, she doesn't judge. She tells the story. I had a great reading experience with this. Objectively, I can see that this is not the most astounding novel the world has seen - emotionally, it struck a deep chord. Funny how that happens. I'd recommend it now to anyone.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Annie Proulx: The Shipping News and Close Range

I’ve been reading all this Proulx at that time of year just before the new greenery has started growing, when it’s as though only the skeleton of nature is there. The bare bones of it all, ready for sculpting as it were. Even though the forest is full of trees you can see so far. No leaves obscure your line of vision. The ground is flat, covered in dead grass, and it feels as though I could walk anywhere, just fix my gaze on a spot far away and start hiking. I can’t see any obstacles – or rather, they are all in plain view; they haven’t been hidden yet. Even though I can tell that it’s all ready for new growth, bursting with life, it also seems so vulnerable. It’s such a contrast to the almost perversely opulent wealth of foliage brought by July. Walking into the forest then you are surrounded by different shades of green, it all closes in on you and I for one get these ideas of building a secret house deep in among the trees (an idea that has stuck with me for many years, ever since I read The Prince of Central Park by Evan Rhodes as a child). In these months of spring such an idea seems ludicrous, there is no secrecy no matter how much you’d want it. You can’t even thrown an apple core under a bush and expect it to be hidden – all rubbish comes out in the open.

This may sound like a post about Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, but no, I do have a Proulx-y point: I wonder if part of how much I’ve enjoyed her books is the fact that I’m experiencing a similarly bare landscape as the ones she writes about. Or, at least it feels like bareness is a huge part of it – a wide open sky, endless plains or endless sea … sparsity and rough weather (the last bit perhaps doesn’t apply to my situation. It’s been a bit cold and windy, sure, but that’s it.). I suppose in a way I’ve only had to look out the window to relate, to get my own illustrated version of what I’m reading. Nature suiting the tone of the novel.

I’ve seen the film made of The Shipping News, some years ago. I can’t remember that it made a great impression on me. I think I was kind of interested in how it had an edge of grit and pain, even though it was mostly lost in Julianne Moore’s lovely face. This edge was an echo of the book, I see now, of all that Annie Proulx writes. Like I said before, she writes about people. And bad things happen to people, and yet they go on living, and perhaps they even turn out wonderfully well, considering. Possibly Lasse Hallström was a good choice of director, since when he’s at his best he does a fine job of showing real people. But the novel is much more complex, shows a lot more nuances and delves more into the many more or less quirky characters that populate the pages. A scene in the book that’s a little bit funny would in the film become slightly cheesy I think, “local odd-balls dropping one-liners in pub” typ of thing. But it all works on paper. It’s very very good.

Close Range is the collection of short stories that includes Brokeback Mountain, of cinematic fame. I still haven’t seen the film, but the short story is great. All of them are, but some I like more than others. There are more marvellous names, by the way and of course: Scrope, Freeze, Muddyman, Wrench. Some of the stories are realistic, others, like A Pair A Spurs have a fantastic edge.

I've been thinking about all the things I would like to say about Proulx for more than a week now, but they slip my mind. I'd like my words to be a punch in the face, a command to read this author, but I fall short of that. So just take my word for it. I seldom read authors that really touch me, that make me remember so much of what they've written, but this is one of them. One of those that make you genuinely glad that you haven't read all the author has written yet. You still have some to look forward to.