Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mary Balogh: First Comes Marriage

My sister has a thing for Regency romances. It's a guilty pleasure, and I think it was with some hesitation that she agreed to lend me a book from her collection - it's never fun to have somebody thrash something that you yourself know isn't terribly good but that you like anyway (I feel this way about Marian Keyes or Jean M. Auel to name but a few). However, she's a smart lass and knew what was coming. And I have to say that I can see the appeal of novels like this, but myself I don't think I can stomach more than one (I might check out one of the classic authors of regency novels though, Georgette Heyer). Perhaps more if I get swine flu. I think they're excellent to read when you're bedridden and suffering. You really don't have to think at all, and can skip many pages without missing much. This book in fact could easily have been half as long - the actual substance of each chapter takes no more room than say two pages, and the rest is taken up with describing, in staccato sentences, how the main character reflects on this substance. For example, one chapter is about a new dress. New dress is put on, new dress is admired by self, new dress is walked downstairs and admired by all and husband (the one that was wedded without love, as a sort of business arrangement, and despite this is great in bed and fantastically suitable). Woman wearing dress reflects on whether husband really likes her in dress for two pages, husband reflects over how astonishingly sexy wife is in dress and how unaware of this she is for another two. Exeunt omnes. It's a definition of the word formulaic. Very annoying is that the author uses words and phrases that are wrong for this age, such as gender instead of sex. Also annoying is the excessive use of the word ton. I am not exaggerating when I say that ton might appear up to four times on each page. I couldn't remember what it meant, even though I could understand from the context that it referred to a set of people that our heroine was anxious to fit in with, so I looked it up after reading it. Well, then here's my question: surely the members of a set of people like this do not refer to themselves ever as such? I mean, we may know that there is a jet set but the members of the jet set don't call themselves the jet set. It's an outsider's definition. Please discuss.

So, I can't say I recommend it per se, but that I do understand the guilty pleasure, and that in itself is not an un-recommendation I suppose. There are four or so more in this particular series, about this particular family. All about two people who must marry and have sex despite their first inclinations. Do not read if you are afraid of thrusting. There is no shortage of that. The author is ludicruosly productive, by the way. By the time I write one blog entry she must have three more novels headed to the publishers...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

My husband got this for his birthday, and has been suggesting that I read it for a week or so now, insistently. It's not very long so I did it in one working night. It is the story of an intelligent young Pakistani who, over tea and a meal in a local restaurant, tells an American stranger visiting Lahore about his love affair with America and an American woman, a love affair that has ended with disillusionment and tragedy, respectively. It's a nice story that rings of truth - I've met people like our narrator, and I can understand the complex and diverse sentiments that he feels towards the United States.

I'm not completely mad about it. My initial reaction is that I'll soon forget it, that it's not very memorable. Admittedly it's too soon to tell, but it feels like a trifle to be honest. Well written, not
without poignancy, realism and feeling - but still not all that. I am very distracted by the frame of the novel too. It is written as one continuous monologue, and I've always abhorred that style, the way the narrator tells us what the other person is doing and saying indirectly:

I observe, sir, that there continues to be something about our waiter that puts you ill at ease. […] And if you should sense that he has taken a disliking to you, I would ask you to be so kind as to ignore it; his tribe merely spans both sides of our border with neighboring Afghanistan, and has suffered […} Is he praying, you ask? No, sir, not at all! His recitation - rhythmic, formulaic, from memory, ans so, I will concede, not unlike a prayer - is in actuality an attempt to transmit orally our menu, much as in your country one is told the specials.

Oh how it distracts me. It works on the stage, sometimes. But in a novel it just irritates me and prevents me from becoming immersed. The ending is very open and slightly unfinished, and first I decided that I thought this was good, but then I re-read it on the way home and decided that no, I didn't much care for it. Mostly because, again, the author can indulge - overindulge - in the annoying narrative style, particularly badly suited to an ending that is supposed to be very tense and filled with quiet action. Who is the American stranger? Did he actually come to seek out our narrator, who has made a name for himself as an anti-American? Violence hangs in the air, but one is left unsure as to who is going to perpetrate it. I can't say I don't recommend it, but mostly I suppose to people who have never thought about what motives someone might have for disliking America at all - n.b., not that this book is the best I've read for providing answers and/or cultural insights. I really don't understand the radiant praise this book has received (according to the cover quotes).

Turns out that my husband's quibbles were much the same as mine.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Neil Gaiman: American Gods and Neverwhere

On loan from my sister, natch.

I read American Gods first, since I wanted the background to Anansie Boys, and because I find the whole idea of the ancient gods walking the not-so-paved-with-gold streets of the United States, desperate for somebody to worship them at least a little, very imaginative and appealing. However, let me do the negatives first. In my post about Anansie Boys I wrote specifically I believe that Gaiman might have a problem with writing novels as though they were comics - that is, with too much focus on describing a scene, you can tell as a reader that the writer has imagined a comic frame and now wishes to put this frame into words - but that he always stays on the right side of the line. Well, frankly I think he toes it a bit here. Possibly he was a bit new to the novel racket and hadn't learnt that you don't always have to be supervisual? The upshot is that the book, in my opinion, is a trifle long and I actually found myself a tad bored towards the end. However, it's entertaining and clever. He's possibly the only writer who could ever have conceived of ancient fertility/sex goddesses working as prostitutes to find worshippers. And not make it seem cheap, mind. I also like that we never get a firm grip on exactly why Shadow, our hero, ended up in prison, except that it had something to do with assault, a robbery and his wife being "left out of it". The story is that just as Shadow is set to get out of prison and go home to said wife after doing his three years, the warden summons him to tell him that she's died in a car crash. Feeling adrift, Shadow agrees to work with Mr Wednesday, whom we find out is the god Odin in his North American form, left over from the Vikings early visits. Oh, and that is another of my positives - I really like the bits where there is a story about how the gods ended up in North America, the "historical" fiction as it where. There is the story of an early Viking settlement, before Leif Eriksson. The men joyfully sacrifice the first Native American they meet in Odin's honour, and obviously get killed in retaliation. Or the first people to cross onto the continent from Asia, who sacrifice the skull of a mammoth, and how this god is gradually abandoned by the people's descendants. Or the twins, boy and girl, who are shipped over on a slaving ship, bringing a whole religion with them, a religion that the girl to her frustration watches become reduced to merely magic and witchcraft. These parts must have been thoroughly researched and show wonderful imagination, and Gaiman deserves great praise for this. I'd recommend it, definitely, on the whole. Plenty of blood, gore, maggots and sex. I don't know if you think this is good or bad.

Neverwhere is a book written after a TV series that I've never seen, but that my sister watched an episode of and says is a bit rubbish. The book might therefore be better, since there are no rubbish special effects in a book unless your mind creates them, in which case the fault is your own. But the book seems too obviously chained to its predecessor. I get the feeling that a lot is put in just because the writer doesn't want any fans to miss a favourite scene, and this includes comedy oneliners. Also, the comic book as novel thing, again, although here the problem is the TV thing. I don't really need a description of the heroines gothy-something clothes, in layers of ragged lace and velvet and what have you. More than once. Not being a Londoner I don't find it quite as oooooohhh to have the normal London echoed in a darker, magical Underworld, in which Knightsbridge is Night's Bridge and you DIE crossing it, and an angel is called Islington (incidentally, I picture the angel Islington as looking like the archangel in Lennart Hellsing's classic ABC-book). I suspect there are many jokes in these comparisons that I didn't get. But it's entertaining enough all the same, and stays on the right side of too long.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West

I thought I'd mentioned Cormac McCarthy earlier, when my husband was reading his entire oevre, but a quick search reveals that I hadn't - another example of a blog entry only written in my mind... I have never doubted that the books were worth reading, but I didn't really feel in a rush to do so as I felt that they were probably quite demanding, mentally, and for a long time I haven't been up to more than Janet Evanovich. Blood Meridian is, according the the quote from the Irish Times review on the cover, a "violent lyrical masterpiece [ … ] It is a barbarously poetic odyssey through a hell without purpose" - not light reading then. You kind of have to be in the mood for the plunge, I reckoned. However, mr Bani really wanted to share his reading experience with me, so he forced me into a deal. I would read Blood Meridian, and he'd read anything I chose for him. I chose Annie Proulx, and so far he's read a few of the short stories I think but not an entire book so as deals go I lose - doubly so maybe, because I wasn't entirely in the mood for Blood Meridian, and have found it a bit hard to focus sometimes. It's not an easy book to read: more on that later. When I said as much to my husband he did say, to do him justice, that I didn't have to read it if I wasn't enjoying it, but by then it was too late, I was reading it. Hm. And my thoughts on it are a little confused, a little torn - I suspect it's the type of book that I'll have to come back to in a few years and re-read, just to get it. It's convoluted and heavy on the unsaid and implied, even though the language can be sparse and measured.

Blood Meridian is about a band of men who get contracted to kill Apaches in Mexico and the neighbouring American states. We especially follow "the kid", a sixteen-year-old from Tennessee who despite being the son of a schoolmaster can neither read nor write and has "a taste for mindless violence". He drifts towards the West and joins the company of Apache hunters as a means to get out of imprisonment in the city of Chihuahua. The company is led by Galton, but the most prominent figure in the book really is "the judge", a man named Holden, who is huge, completely hairless and very learned. He leads the band of slayers as much as Galton does. After leaving Chihuahua they embark on a tour of extreme violence, of utter descent into violence and cruelty. Wherever they go they bring this havoc with them, ruining everything they touch. The kid doesn't seem ever to show any remorse or to hesitate when the company massacre Indians, or, when no Indians can be found, any people whose scalps will pass for Apache. Yet towards the end the judge seems to imply that he alone was the one with a conscience, the one who felt any sort of sympathy for "the heathen". I'm not sure I followed this development… maybe because for a while the kid sort of fades into the background, while the narrative centers more on other members of the company.

About a third of the way through the book I started to wonder if I was being severely hampered by the fact that I had little or no previous knowledge of the historical setting and people and of the geography of the region, or if it was possible to understand the book without knowing this. When my husband read it he spent a lot of time looking things up, everything from the untranslated Spanish to information on the real, historical, Glanton. I understood the Spanish well enough to follow the book, but felt a little adrift in the whole context. For example, when the kid first sees the gang, riding through the streets of Chihuahua, Glanton and the judge are both described to us. Later the kid's companion, Toadvine, says that "his name is Glanton" and explains his plan to join the band - well, I read a good three of four pages more before copping on that Glanton wasn't the name of the judge; I'd simply gotten them confused. The sparse writing style mixed with longer paragraphs of a biblical, metaphorical style is quite demanding on the reader, and I hadn't been concentrating enough. Now, had I known my history of North and Central America in the 19th century (beyond what I remember from Lucky Luke) I might not have made that error, since the name Glanton would have meant something directly. I also didn't first understand that "the Delawares" meant Native Americans from the East, possibly Lenapes. And so on and so on - the names of famous Apache chiefs, the places they go to, references to renegade American officers... if most if this is unfamiliar to you you have to concentrate that little bit harder to understand what's going on. Basically, I'm going to have to re-read this some time in the future, because now I got better and better at understanding as the book went on, and I'd like to see what I think if I'm with it all the way.

However, I don't read this as a historical novel, in fact I was surprised to see that McCarthy has based a lot on real historical events, not to mention the writings of Samuel Chamberlain, who was a member of the real Glanton Gang. Although I understand that there is fact in this fiction, the point isn't whether or not things happened as they are described, just as the point isn't assigning roles of victim-villain or good-bad. Although Glanton and quite a few others we meet are more or less ideological, hardened racists of the genocidal sort, the kid and his companions are just killing. There is a black man in the gang, casually referred to as "the nigger" but otherwise not much different. So they kill, and the Apaches kill... a clue I think is one of the quotes from the beginning of the book, a news report
from 1982. In this the members of an archeological expedition claim that they have found evidence of scalping on a 300,000-year-old human skull. We are humans, and we kill and always have killed. Although we don't have to - quite a lot of the people the gang or the kid encounter on their travels seem to be ordinary, non-murderous, peaceful; but they are almost all killed and overrun by the violence and by war. Is that what it all must come to? And between bashing the brains of infants against rocks the gang sit and discuss morals and ethics, bizarrely enough, and most of them seem to know that they are committing heinous acts, that they are doomed if there is any such thing as a God. All except the judge who holds forth on his idea that war is God, the greatest, or possibly that he is God, and war. (These were my husband's favourite bits, the philosophical discourse, while I tended to drift more than a little here - in my defense I was reading at work.) Incidentally, I have no idea how they're planning to film this. Leave it alone I say.

It's pretty much a must-read.. oh before I finish I have to state my one huge quibble: there's an awful lot of spitting. Spitting into the fire, spitting dryly on the desert sand etc etc etc. Every single page almost. Does my head in a bit. Maybe I'm the only one who gets distracted by that? Anyway, I do like this. And it falls into a cathegory of books I'm very fond of, a cathegory Annie Proulx also falls into, namely tales of America. There's something about reading these tales of people who have no context, who have uprooted themselves (by choice, force or chance) from their European or other roots, and are now drifting on an alien continent that they try to make theirs - drifting not only in person but also in mind or in morals. I think it helps us understand a lot about the modern US - but that's a topic for a whole other post.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

E.L. Doctorow: World's Fair

Years ago I read The Waterworks by this author, whom I'd never heard of, and was surprised by how much I liked it. I think I only read it because it was the only English book for sale at the tourist resort in Bulgaria (apart from a collection of Star Trek short stories, which we also bought, yes ma'm), and in those circumstances I wasn't expecting a good book (because, n.b., the Star Trek stories). But Doctorow is really a great writer. So some time or other I saw this secondhand somewhere and remembered how well I liked The Waterworks, whereupon I brought it home to save for a rainy day. Reading up on Doctorow on Wikipedia reminded me that I'm sure I've seen his book Ragtime somewhere... did my parents own it? If so, how could it get missed when we cleared up after my father died? Ah well. I'm going to keep a keener lookout in the future.

This is a novel that seems like memoirs of Doctorow's own childhood, as a little boy named Edgar. It is only towards the end that we find out what the family's surname is (Altschuler), and that brings home to the reader that although a lot may be biographical, there may also be a lot of fiction mixed in. It is quite simply memories, in a fairly chronological order, from a very young age and up until the visit to the NY World's Fair at the age of nine or so. It brings to life a lost New York, a lost America, in the most wonderful way. How the children buy cheap toys, made in Japan, and roast sweet potatoes from street vendors, how a journey from Bronx to Brooklyn would take forever, with train changes and bus rides... The first half or so has inserts in other voices, chapters in which Edgar's mother, brother and aunt relate a few things of what they remember. The second part loses these voices, and is perhaps more fictional?

I hope this writer isn't too soon forgotten.