Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael Innes: Carson's Conspiracy and The Gay Phoenix

Okay, neither of these are very good. They both followed the stolen-identity-sinister butler/manservant formula I saw in The New Sonia Wayward. What's up with that? Why the repetition of the same theme... I was bored. Too bad.

Well, Carson's Conspiracy was not really stolen identity, but about a man who has the brilliant idea of faking his death to escape pecuniary problems. But sort of stolen identity, since he has an employee travelling under his son's name to do it. Enough of that. The Gay Phoenix is about two brothers on a boat, one dies and the other assumes his identity for the money.

That's all you need to know about them. No need to read them, really.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Ishiguro sum-up

Oh noez, another author who has disappointed me. It started out so well, with me loving Never Let Me Go, and liking The Remains of the Day a lot. The next three however, failed to tickle me quite as much, and I'm going to be honest with you - no. 4, The Unconsoled, it's just never going to be read. I've reached page 54 or something like that, and the narrator seems to be caught in a reality that's a bit like a dream, with events randomly following one another, and people suddenly saying and doing odd things that nevertheless seem sensible and that you accept, and dialogue that is just making no common sense and leads nowhere. I was reminded of the really surreal stuff, like Flann O'Brien. As I've written before, this is a type of genre that I can't take. I get really annoyed. I'll just come right out and say it - I like my reading to be linear, and if not linear in time necessarily then linear in sense thank you very much. Call me unimaginative if you want, but no dwarfs in red velvet rooms for me (yes, I also get unreasonably angry if forced to watch David Lynch films). So The Unconsoled is out. It'll be there when I'm ninety if I get the urge.
Going back to the ones I have read though, I think part of the problem is that I overdosed. Ishiguro is rather formulaic. You have a narrator, and the narrator is remembering the past while going about his or her business in the present. You therefore get two narratives one might say, that merge into one as the past unfolds to explain the present. Ishiguro also has a special way of writing these memories, which is part of what makes his novels so appealing - he understands that no-one remembers an exact chain of events, or precisely what led to the memory being retold. A memory will often just be a snippet of the larger event, for some reason stuck in the brain. So the narrators will often discuss this, sort of wonder aloud what the circumstances surrounding a particular memory might have been, or even backtrack and realise that the dialogue they remember must have not been spoken like that, that they are confusing two memories. It sounds tedious, but in my opinion it works very well most of the time, because it adds to the realism. When you read five or so novels pretty much back-to-back however… Like I said, I think I overdosed. Ironically, the one I am not going to finish, The Unconsoled, does not follow this formula (some tendencies to it do exist, but by no means as strongly). And the one I thought was oddest (apart from Unconsoled), When We Were Orphans, also had less of it.
So let me write about that book first. The story, as it is told in a mixture of present happenings and memories, is as follows: an English boy, growing up in Shanghai, loses both parents in what is believed to be some sort of kidnapping. First the father disappears, then after some weeks his mother. He is taken back to England to live with his aunt. We get to know him as an adult, when he is making a name for himself as a (private) detective. He becomes very well known and respected, and subsequently has the opportunity to return to Shanghai. The idea is that he will manage to crack what is behind the surging instability of the region (this is just before WW2). Okay. Problem 1: he is a detective. Now, if you change that into "vampire hunter" you get a job title that more accurately fits the tone of the novel. Something just seems off about it. I get a kind of Van Helsing (the film) meets Sherlock Holmes meets The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vibe. Problem 2: he comes to Shanghai with some sort of assumption (which seems to be shared by the majority of the English colony there) that solving the current problems will solve his parents' abduction. Not only that, he will any day now find them alive and well. To blithely assume that his parents will be found in such a state after being missing for twenty-odd years is just too queer. It makes no sense. The last chapters of the book has him leaping to conclusions in the war-ravaged sections of Shanghai, scrambling through rubble to get to a house where he believes that his parents are being held (still! after all this time!), finding a Japanese soldier whom he thinks is his childhood friend, and just generally not making much sense. I do admit that I've been racking my brains over this book for a while after finishing it, which I suppose is some credit to it. I'm leaning towards some sort of theory that the narrator never really grew up. His whole detective career is a sort of fantasy, born from his childhood games and desire to find his parents. Because the way he behaves and reasons once he is in Shanghai is just too far out to be based in reality, in my opinion. Sadly, that theory flies out the window somewhat since there's an epilogue that disproves it. Ah well.
I've also read two novels set in Japan. There is something that feels a little bit wrong about the tone of these too. I pondered for a while if I was picking up that Ishiguro, having lived in the UK since he was five, is actually writing about a society that he only knows second-best - a bit as if I were to write a book set in Ireland. This idea is supported by the fact that the same names keep popping up in both books, as though Ishiguro doesn't really know that many Japanese names (just like my hypothetical Irish novel would be populated by Dermots and Aoifes). This could of course be entirely wrong. The oddness in tone that I feel could be just a faithful rendering of the tone of a society and culture rather alien to me, the identical names could be anything - those names are very common, perhaps, or else it's a tribute to the author's family members.
I liked An Artist of the Floating World best, I think. Set in the 50s, it's about a retired artist whose work, we are led to understand, helped kindle the war-mongering in pre-war Japan. He has understood that if he does not in some way recant it will affect the well-being of his family. His younger daughter will perhaps never find a husband unless he can show that he is no longer a member of the "losing side". As he remembers we see that his praise of the traditional values that were so heavily emphasised before the war is to some extent a defensive measure, as he does not always like to be reminded of the sadder things that happened because of his political choices. There is a nice twist at the end, when his daughter comes with a different interpretation of events that make the artist less important. What she says implies that he has, to us, aggrandised his importance, perhaps so he'll have a reason to publicly repent of actions that he feels guilty about.
A Pale View of Hills was stranger. I'm still thinking about what it meant, what the underlying tension was about. Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in England, is visited by her younger half-English daughter following the suicide of her elder daughter by a previous, Japanese husband. (God that was an unwieldy sentence but I can't be bothered changing it. It's half twelve at night and I'm writing from work, after all… ) During the visit she remembers the summer in Nagasaki when she was pregnant with Keiko, and she was friends with a woman called Sachiko, who lived with her daughter Mariko in a tumbledown house near the new apartment blocks of the suburb. There is something more being said between the lines of this book, and I'm missing it. It has something to do with the mentioned fact that children were being murdered in Nagasaki that summer, and the parallell between Sachiko planning to go to America with her American lover, and Etsuko later taking her daughter Keiko to England when she herself marries a foreigner. Why are the murdered children mentioned unless I'm to suspect that I know the killer? Is it Etsuko's bullying husband? Is it Sachiko, who tries to drown the kittens? I don't get it. I must scour the internet for other thoughts. Starting with Wikipedia, maybe. Enigmatic indeed.
Despite my OD:ing, I still like Ishiguro and would recommend him. I'm going to take a break from him now though, and return to him some other time with a fresh mind.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In between books sort of

Today I was rudely awakened to bring my son to daycare, despite trying to plug the idea that my husband could do it. I now have to go back to bed, because I'm working tonight and need to be fresh-ish, but since I got up and dressed I'm a bit too perky. So what to do? Sandwich and a cup of warm nutmeggy honeyed milk in front of the PC for a bit, of course, in the hope that it will help. I'm not quite awake enough for a proper blog entry, but I've been reading a bit so I really should. Perhaps tonight at work I can find the peace to tap them down. What I wanted to do today was go to the library to borrow something, but I don't think I'll have the time. Which leaves me with the book I'm reading, Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. Which I'm not sure I like. But given that I was actually getting to be quite a bit annoyed with how formulaic his novels is I should stop complaining and get on with it, since at least this one is not about someone remembering. Hm. You have until say six p.m. to convince me that it's not worth it/worth it a lot. I have also got Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss at home, which should be right up my alley but which I found extraordinarily hard to get into. Ditto for that one, regarding the convincing me that is. Chop-chop.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seth Grahame-Smith (and Jane Austen): Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Jane Austen is one of the absolutely best writers ever. Really. I know this must be true, because even Harold Bloom has said so (lolz). Of all the reading experiences I've had, this has therefore got to be one of the most dire. It is with pain that I realise that this entry is actually my first Jane Austen entry. And I say this while directing a mental apology to my dear sister who lent me the book. She has actually payed money for it, thinking it to be quite a fun idea to add the scourge of the undead to the comedy of manners that is an Austen novel. I remember her saying that it wasn't completely consistent and that there are illogical bits in it that annoy her a little (such as the English housekeeper in Mr Darcy's Japanese-influenced household hobbling to meet the guests on bound feet), but that she found it quite humorous. My sister, clearly, is a more forgiving and generous soul than myself. I want to drag Grahame-Smith naked through thistles and then make him listen to a Glaswegian slowly read a combination of Little Nell and American Psycho. While I rub his scratches with salt. No, on second thoughts, I'll make him rub the salt into his wounds all by himself. That'll larn him.

The idea would have worked in a comedy sketch show on TV. It would have been quite funny. Every week a new scene from the zombie version of Pride and Prejudice - I can see that working. But as a novel it's awful. You end up skimming it to get to the bits that have been changed just to see how they've been changed. Possibly it might be feasible that someone who has only seen the film or TV series could stand to read it and appreciate the humour. Personally I think that the author would be better off spending time and energy on saving the whales or some similar laudable effort.

It is possible to use well-known characters that have passed out of the realm of copy-right with good results. Jasper Fforde is an example of a writer who does this. What he doesn't do is copy somebody elses novel and stick his own bits in it. He creates something new. There is only one instance in P&P&Z where there is a hint of "more", and that is when Lizzie Bennet refrains from killing a zombie mother and infant-in-arms, out of some sort of feeling of mercy, perhaps. It is entirely out of place with the rest of the book really, which in no way ever delves deeper into how it must really be to live in a zombie-invested Georgian England. Of course, the moment ends there. The only deeper emotions and feelings and true dilemmas in the novel, not to mention storyline, is Austen's. So read Austen, people. Please. Let this one die.

The book cover is fabulous though. Props for that. I'm not churlish.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I DN om deckare

Jag måste bokmärka detta för de författare som nämns längst ner ska jag läsa tror jag.

P.G. Wodehouse: Very Good, Jeeves

Mr Bani mumbled something about wanting to read Wodehouse, so when I was in the library I picked up a book that seemed to be an early one albeit not the first, reasoning that surely one wants to start as close to the beginning as possible. Turned out that Mr Bani really wanted to start at the very very beginning (but he might have changed his mind now), so I read it instead. I've never read any Wodehouses, only watched a few episodes of the series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. I do know that there are people who praise Wodehouse as among the finest of comedy, on a superior level altogether. I dunno myself - sure it's funny, but is it the best ever? I didn't laugh out loud - oh tell a lie, I did, once. I was wryly smiling a lot though.

Being fond of detective fiction from this era it's hard for me not to like this sort of stuff though. There's country house parties, dressing for dinner… familiar terrain all. It's all fresher than you'd think too. My favourite really is Bertie Wooster's inane slang. Such as being server breakfast by Jeeves, and "tucking into the eggs and b.", only to two sentences later be helping himself to "another portion of e. and bacon". That's really very funny.

This is the one with the story of when his friend is in love with a dog-crazy girl and joins in a violent football game to try to win her. (Obviously that's just one story of several, but should be enough for me to recall the book…)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Ngaio Marsh: A Man Lay Dead

This is the infamous paperback I paid 20 kr for in Stockholm. Apparently her first novel, which I didn't realise at the time - I just noticed that I didn't recognise the title so I bought it.
In the early days Alleyn has a journalist sidekick named Nigel Bathgate, who makes his appearance here. Bathgate gets an invitation to a week-end house party through an older cousin. The weekend is going to be spent playing a variation on a murder game - and you guessed it, there's a real murder.
While this has that lovely Marsh touch as far as language goes, and even some of the wry humour, it's still a bit rough. Alleyn is much too quick to feel certain that Bathgate's alibi is solid (based on three cigarette butts in an ashtray - I mean really), and even odder still he takes him completely into his confidence and allows him to join in a spy hunt. That's a bit absurd. But I still enjoyed it well enough.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Jeanette Winterson: Written on the Body

I'm taking a break from cleaning the bathroom to write an entry. Let's see if Minimus wakes up before I'm done, shall we?

Oh yes he did. So short version then.

Basic story: person who has always gone from relationship to relationship finds love, and mistakenly gives it up.

Good bits: gender of narrator never mentioned. Yay for Germanic languages where this kind of game can be played! Very clever, very subtle.

Bad bits: well, like I've mentioned earlier Winterson's poetry and depth can be a bit much for me. Possibly I was annoyed that narrator was an eejit. Read it and see.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach

It is, I suppose, really a rather moving little story (more novella than novel) of how desire, inexperience and fear of sex drive a wedge between two young people on their wedding night. In his customary manner McEwan tells the short tale in minute detail, handling and turning over every detail of what is being felt and thought and sensed and said, and afterwards finishes off with a sort of epilogue where we find out how it all ended for the two. Did they sort things out or was this it?

Of the McEwans I've read I actually think it's the best one. There is no discrepancy in it really, no bit that seems shoved in there leaving me wondering whether it belongs. I'm still debating inside whether he's overrated or not - right now leaning towards not. I'm kind of struck by a feeling that he has done historical research even for this little thing set in 1962 - there's a description at the start of how mediocre English cuisine of the time is, and how their wedding dinner's starter is a slice of melon with a glacé cherry on top. Somehow seems rather detailed, as though he'd read an old hotel menu.

I didn't hate it, nor was I that enamoured. I suppose he's not really my kind of writer. Something is lacking. Mostly I'm annoyed that I finished the book before 2 am and I didn't finish work until 8. What was I supposed to do - play Bubbleshooter all that time? Like, omgz.

Zoë Heller: Notes on a Scandal

This book is in many ways better than The Believers, the first Heller I read. It's tighter, tenser, more succinct. Very much a thriller, actually, not that anything particularly violent happens. It becomes a thriller thanks to the narrator, Barbara. Barbara is the friend and confidante of Sheba, the forty-something pottery teacher who has had an affair with a fifteen-year-old pupil. When we enter the story Barbara is living with and caring for a devastated Sheba. She talks about the hounding by journalists, how they write lies and how they exaggerate. She knows the truth, because Sheba has told her everything. So she tells the story of how Sheba started working at the school, how Barbara immediately sensed that here was a kindred spirit, and how Barbara gradually makes herself Sheba's closest friend. Subtly we become aware that Barbara isn't just a normal friend. To remember everything that has happened, she writes, she has made a timeline and marked important events with little gold star stickers. That's our first clue to Barbara's oddness. As the story continues there are more, but since it's Barbara's story the incidents aren't dwelt on, just matter-of-factedly reported. It's very well done. Slowly we learn just how sinister Barbara's desire to be a BFF, to be needed and wanted and loved, can be.

Ironically (or something), one of the reviews quoted on the first couple of pages states that this novel "shares many qualities with Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day." I seem to be swimming in a regular duck pond lately.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day

I saw the film of course - I've probably seen it a few times actually. Based on the film I was expecting something a little more passionate and tense, but my impression of the novel is softer, more humorous, although obviously melancholic. There are parallells to Never Let Me Go; as in that book we find out gradually, as our narrator in analytical detail remembers the past, that there was a dark shade to it, something that wasn't as safe and reassuring as you might think. Here the German sympathies of Lord Darlington provide the unpleasant backdrop, as he, easily led, becomes more or less a Nazi puppet while his butler shakes off any personal responsability, certain that Lord Darlington knows what is best and that serving such a great man is a reward in itself.

You read almost the entire book without fully realising why Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, reacts so passionately towards some of the things Mr Stevens does, why she takes things so personally. After all you're reading Stevens point of view, his reminiscing and justification over and of the past. Then at the very very end, there is the bit where Miss Kenton, who is now Mrs Benn, says to Stevens that the reason for her feeling unhappy at times is because she can't help thinking about what a life she might have led.

"And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr Stevens. And I suppose that's when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave."

And Stevens admits to himself and us that at that moment, his heart breaks. But he rallies and hides it, and says his cordial goodbyes. This is beautiful. It's wrenching in its simplicity and in its understated emotionality. The great thing about Ishiguro's novels is how you don't understand everything that's been going on until the end, and that unmasking of what it seems is quite important.

It's quite as lovely as Never Let Me Go. Now I wish I had another Ishiguro to read. I feel this wish to stay in that mood or spell that Ishiguro's writing conjures up. Unfortunately I didn't make it upstairs to the English section when I was at the library last, because I brought Minimus and the pram, so I settled for the paperback swivel shelf (with selected novels) they have at the foot of the stairs. I picked up quite a few books then, and the other one in my bag is a Zoë Heller, Notes on a Scandal. It's probably going to be good too, but it's a whole different mood. Hm.

Incidentally, flipping through the last pages of The Remains of the Day I was reading the blurbs about the other books that Faber & Faber Ltd have to offer - I was thinking about how those days must surely be over now, when people read a paperback and proceeded to order another one based on these summaries and reviews, using the order form on the very last page, and I wonder if anybody ever did that at all? Surely people have always gone to book shops? Maybe this was a service used by lonely readers on isolated islands or something? and I noticed how this book was printed in 1999 and the order page has an e-mail address and a web URL for reference, so this must be the dying gasp of an old paperback tradition - anyway, I was reading the suggestions and got quite interested in a much-endorsed novel by Peter Carey called Oscar and Lucinda, "also a major film starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett", and I was a bit amused by the fact that Cate Blanchett's face adorns Notes on a Scandal, since she was in that film too. Such little coincidences form the fabric of life, eh?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Michael Innes: Appleby at Allington and The New Sonia Wayward

I was very surprised at our local library branch to come across these two books, I thought I'd read everything the library had to offer during my last Innes phase. But not so. Goodie.

(After writing those sentences there was an eight-hour pause, during which Minimus and I watched trains on YouTube and splashed in puddles (PLASS IN DE PUDDEL!) and made dinner etc. FYI.)

Appleby at Allington is a bit of a classic whodunnit, featuring the retired Inspector Appleby solving crimes in his neighbourhood. He is invited to Allington Hall to dine with the owner, a former scientist. Towards the end of the evening they go out to admire the son et lumière show that has been set up in the ruins of the original hall, and come across a dead body. Then there is a village fête, and another dead body is found, fished out of the lake. I liked this one, it was funny and well-planned. I enjoy this kind of dry humorous old-school British bantering. The New Sonia Wayward is a stand-alone, more psychological thriller, about a man who finds his successful writer wife dead, and tries to pass her off as being alive but out of the country so he won't lose her money. The tangled web of lies grows ever more dense and complicated for him, and his staff start to blackmail him. It's not at all bad, but unfortunately we see where it's going the minute he spots his wife's doppelgänger on the train.

I'd love to have a Michael Innes collection though, perfect feeling-a-bit-down reading.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies and Ellis Peters: Death to the Landlords!

Ha, forgot about this! Which sadly summarises my view on the author - absolutely lovely writer, empathic, moving and so on, but somehow not quite as memorable as I expected. Now that my memory was jogged I started thinking about the people in this short story collection again, an I do remember a lot about the characters, I can separate the different stories in my head and so on... yet it just wasn't the kind of book I thought about an awful lot when I'd finished it. That said, it's still quality writing. I'm absolutely going to read more of her. Just something not completely absorbing about it. It is her debut of course, I should read her more recent work.

It is refreshing to read about a "normal" India. By which I don't necessarily mean normal from a Western point of view "oh look they have indoor toilets and electricity in India too the darlings", but an India and Indians that are described matter-of-factly. Lahiri writes mostly about the middle-class, in other words the Indians we meet, the ones that travel and emigrate. I recognise myself and yet it's different. It's very good writing, I was just hoping for a little bit more. Maybe in the next one.

Incidentally (and what jogged my memory) I'm reading an Ellis Peters' novel set in India at the moment. She describes India in much the same way as she describes 12th century England - there is an air of aloofness and romanticism that removes the reader from the reality of what she is describing somewhat. This is part of her charm, oddly enough. In Death to the Landlords! the son of her hero Inspector George Felse, Dominic Felse, is travelling in India. The group of people he travels with cross paths with a terrorist bomber group, whose aim, simplified, is to kill land owners. Haven't finished it yet, so don't know if it will be one of his travelling companions who are guilty.

I think I've previously read Mourning Raga from the same series, also set in India. But now I can't find it in the library catalogue... maybe that just means they had to get rid of it. Pity.