Monday, 30 September 2013

Why I love Bridget Jones

Suzanne Moore's recent Guardian article, 'Why I hate Bridget Jones', pretends to be an attack on the 'anti-feminist' character of Bridget Jones, but it's really an attack on her fans; the 'vapid' women who read chick lit and identify with Bridget, who feel they need a 'man to define them' and like shopping for new shoes. Of course Bridget is anti-feminist, she argues, because she's not an independent woman, she's selfish and self-obsessed, and her worries are trivial (although I'm not sure why Moore believes that the solution to women's worries about when it is best to have a baby is 'just get on with it'). The problem with this is that Moore is implicitly saying that all the women who do enjoy Bridget Jones, romcoms and shopping are just not good enough to be feminists; they must be shallow and stupid, unable to appreciate the collective power of feminist organisation, and - Well, I'm not sure what she wants to do with these awful women, really. Should we just ignore them and hope they are never ever represented ever?

Bridget Jones (and here I speak of the first two novels and the first film, not the appalling second film and the third novel, which I haven't read) is not chick lit. It's social satire. I don't say this because I think there is anything shameful about reading and enjoying so-called chick lit - I certainly do - but because this pigeonholing of the novels as chick lit is part of the problem. As even Moore admits, the novels are genuinely funny, and Helen Fielding uses Bridget's unreliable narration to make them so. Bridget is intentionally presented as confused, often selfish, and a little intellectually challenged, because that's how the character was designed to be; it's not as if she was trying to fit the 'strong independent woman' mould and fell out the other side. Bridget is not a feminist, because it was never the author's intention to depict her as a feminist icon; but (and Moore seems to miss this crucial distinction) one can depict anti-feminist characters in a novel that is feminist, or at least not hostile to feminism. Indeed, if anything, Fielding reminds us why we need feminism, because minus feminism and plus the empty rhetoric of empowerment, you get Bridget Jones.

To this extent, Moore and I are in agreement. But the answer to this isn't to trash Bridget, and the thousands of women like me who love the novels and the first film. Instead, we should question why Bridget Jones has been presented as 'everywoman' when she clearly is not. And we should recognise why her story is so enjoyable, and so comforting. Bridget doesn't give her readers any answers, but she's in the habit of asking the right questions - from why the choice for women seems to be between her miserable single life and her friend Magda's miserable full-time-motherhood, to protesting that it seems to be OK for everyone to ask her 'how's your love life?' when no-one ever inquires into the state of other people's marriages. I'd go as far as to say, in fact, that Moore's article is far more anti-feminist than Bridget has ever been, because she goes out of her way to criticise other women who may have enjoyed the books or the film, without ever considering what they might have got out of it, and assuming that Bridget's 'fans' are just like her. As far as I can see, feminism isn't about criticising other women for bowing to social pressures; it's about asking why women feel that they need a man to complete them. If Moore is concerned that Bridget has been presented as some sort of role model, then she should attack the media - not the character, her readers, or her viewers.

I've used the original book cover for this blog post, rather than the raft of images of Renee Zellweger, because I think it's a good reminder that Bridget didn't start out as a chick-lit heroine. Rather, she was 'a creation of comic genius', according to Nick Hornby. (As I've said before, one wonders what might have been the fate of his novels were he Nicola Hornby). It's a shame that now it's so hard to come to the novel afresh and read it as a comedy - not a romcom or a love story - because that's what it is. And Bridget herself is a key target for her author's social critique.

[In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that I was so inspired by Helen Fielding's novels that I once wrote a Harry Potter fanfic in the style of Bridget Jones. This masterpiece can be read here. Regardless of literary quality, it was enormous fun!]

October schedule

Friday 4th October: Booker Prize Shortlist, #1: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin and Harvest by Jim Crace

Friday 11th October: Booker Prize Shortlist, #2: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Friday 18th October: Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

Friday 25th October: Farthest North and Farthest South, #5: Hunters in the Snow by Daisy Hildyard

Friday, 27 September 2013

Reading round-up

I was scheduled to review Simon Mawer's The Fall today, but it turns out The Fall was one of those novels I simply couldn't force myself through. Having been equally bored by Mawer's The Glass Room, I think this may be the end of my acquaintance with his novels. In place of that blog post, therefore, I thought I'd round up my recent reads:

Stephen Hawking writes in the introduction to A Brief History of Time that he was advised, while writing the book, that every equation he included would halve the number of sales. (One can only imagine how many copies the book would have sold had he decided not to include e = mc2). This advice hasn't deterred Manjit Kumar from including multiple equations in Quantum, a popular history of quantum physics from its beginnings in the early twentieth century to the present day, although the book, framed as a 'clash of titans' between Einstein and Bohr, tails off after the deaths of its two principal protagonists. And indeed, although the outline of quantum physics is tricky for the general reader, and harder to get through than Hawking's summary, I felt upon finishing Kumar's work that I had understood much more of what I had read than I did when reading Hawking's superficially more accessible text. This is probably because of Kumar's attention to the history of quantum physics, which introduces us to why certain research questions were deemed key in the first place and, via wrong turns and dead ends, shows us how novel quantum concepts really were. We also get a mini-biography of the key physicists involved, although I wished I hadn't bought this book on Kindle - it made it far too difficult to check the notes at the back when I forgot people's names.

Readers of this blog will know how I feel about Curtis Sittenfeld's debut novel, Prep. (I also quite enjoyed The Man of My Dreams and American Wife.) I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of her new novel, Sisterland, at the library, and, other than Prep (obviously) I think it's her best yet. Ostensibly the story of twin sisters, Kate and Violet, who possess psychic 'senses', this novel is at its best when exploring themes that impinge only tangentially on the main plot line. Infuriating as I found full-time mother Kate's musings on parenthood - she criticises another mother for spending nine hours a day apart from her child while being seemingly unaware that her own husband spends precisely as long away from his two children - she is another complex, frustrating protagonist from Sittenfeld, and as difficult to like or analyse as Prep's Lee. Sittenfeld is also, unsurprisingly, wonderful on sisterhood and on adolescence, and on the little scores that sisters add up in their conversations with each other, even the most loving sisters. If you can get past the fact that the publishers, inexplicably, have decided to depict Kate and Violet as escapees from a Victorian drawing-room on the cover, it's a great read.

Thankfully - given the expense of the US hardcover edition - this little-known novel is now available on Kindle. I've been wanting to read this ever since I read Nic's review over at Eve's Alexandria, and it didn't disappoint. This is an alternative history with a slightly more unusual twist; what would have happened if Britain had lost the First World War and an alternative Hitler had arisen here? Our narrator, Oxford don Geoffrey Brooke, initially seems to be merely a pawn in this new world, suffering the relentless march of 'Modernism' alongside the rest of the citizenry. Indeed, given that the first scene of the novel sees Geoffrey furtively seeking a rendez-vous with another man in a public toilet, we can guess that Modernism may have been even harder on him than on other citizens. However, as the plot unfolds, we realise that Geoffrey is, simultaneously, more closely implicated in the rise of John Arthur, the alternative Adolf, than we thought initially, and more possessed of agency to stop what is happening. The brilliance of Ian MacLeod's novel lies in what he doesn't alter about 1940s Britain; gay men are still forced to meet furtively in toilets, neighbours tell each other that Jews are perfectly nice people but they don't want them living next door, and Oxford dons are treated with a deference outweighing their actual achievements. (Some may find the most shocking detail about this alternative world the fact that the Bodleian has extended borrowing rights.) Geoffrey's understated narration proves the perfect counter-point to an idea that initially seems a bit sensationalist, a bit Fatherland, and I think this is one of the best alternative histories I've read - if you discount Owen Sheers's Resistance, that is.

To leave the worst till last. I'm afraid I wasn't impressed by this guide to 'slow reading' by American writer Francine Prose. To an extent, the devil was in the details, and any selection of extracts from other novels as good examples for budding writers is bound to divide opinion. (My particular problem was in the extracts from Henry Green as examples of good dialogue: I've never read a full novel by Henry Green, so I cannot judge him as a writer, but the extracts Prose gives seemed to me to be a lesson in how not to write dialogue, as they suffered from a severe lack of commas.) There's also the problem of readers' inevitably different reactions to novels. (Although how anyone can read the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice as evidence that Mr and Mrs Bennett have an essentially happy marriage, I do not know.) There's a dose of literary snobbery (why should we read 'Austen and Bronte' and assume she is referring to Emily?) However, I think I knew I was done with this book when Prose asserted, early on, that 'writing good sentences' is a laudable aim for a young writer. To be sure, I know what she means, and she has found numerous examples of beautiful sentences for us to learn from. But surely the best advice you can give to any writer is to not try and write good sentences until you actually have something to say? And, amazingly enough, all the sentences Prose cites as examples of brilliant prose do have something to say: as she takes pains to point out, they're working sentences, telling us details about character, plot and theme without burying us in clumsy exposition. That's more than writing good sentences; you could write a beautiful sentence in a series of instructions for a flat-pack bookshelf, if you were so inclined, but that wouldn't make the instructions great literature.

And thus ends today's rant. October schedule will be posted shortly!

Friday, 20 September 2013

Graduating in grief

I knew this novel was about a fictionalised version of the Lockerbie bombing before I started it, but (as I was a two-year-old in America when this horrific event took place) I have only realised recently how closely it maps the details of Lockerbie and its aftermath. Finding this out has made me feel simultaneously less comfortable with, and less impressed by, the narrative.

Alan Tealing is, officially, a professor of English Literature, but as his on-and-off girlfriend Carol points out, it would be more accurate to call him 'a professor of Truth'. Alan's thesis concerns the origin of the bomb that killed his wife Emily and six-year-old daughter Alice when they were flying to New York eighteen years ago, and he has put far more effort than he ever put into his actual PhD pursuing the theory that the man who was publicly held accountable for this crime, Khalil Khazar, was in fact an innocent scapegoat. But if Alan has been working all these years to discover the truth, this novel could be seen as his viva; he has to defend his thesis to two examiners, first, the sympathetic Ted Nilsen, who has decided to admit his part in the cover-up, and second, Martin Parroulet, who was bribed to give the key evidence in Khazar's trial.

James Robertson skilfully deploys a fragmented backstory at the beginning of this novel, drip-feeding the reader the details of Alan's theory and his memories of his family life and the day of the bombing, which makes the first half of the narrative both gripping and interesting. However, I felt that this novel was one of the disappointing reads that delivers brilliantly at the start, but fails to deliver anything more by the end. The second half reads more like a straightforward thriller than the earlier focus on memory and truth, and although Robertson is always a generous writer, fleshing out his minor characters realistically, I had expected more from the excellent opening. The theme of Truth/truths becomes rather too laboured and obvious, and although Robertson matches his opening with a memorable ending, I found myself vacillating over whether I liked this novel or not. As I suggested at the beginning of this review, it was the close similarities to Lockerbie that pushed me towards 'not'. These both made Robertson's plotting less impressive and original - as he is largely cribbing details from a real-life and well-known case - and made me feel uncomfortable about the ethics of using a real event in this way, especially one that is relatively so recent.

I would recommend Robertson's earlier novel 'The Testament of Gideon Mack' over this (although steer clear of 'The Fanatic' and 'Joseph Knight') but, to be fair, this is still an enjoyable and engaging read. My expectations for it were simply rather higher than it deserved.

Friday, 13 September 2013

More English than the English

Marina Farkas's biography reads similarly to Charlotte Mendelson's. Both share Hungarian relatives - although Mendelson's grandparents always referred to themselves as Czech - and an educational background at a reasonably prestigious boys' school that went co-educational recently before they arrived (for Marina, that's the fictional Combe Abbey; for Mendelson, the King's School, Canterbury.) Mendelson studied Ancient History at Cambridge but hated it; as Marina is advised in the novel, she thinks she would have been better off doing English at a newer university like Leeds. Marina, of course, is one of the heroines of Mendelson's latest, and Booker-longlisted novel, Almost English - the other being her long-suffering mother, Laura. The notes on Hungarian at the back of the novel make its autobiographical origins obvious, and I haven't exactly done hard-hitting investigative research to trace the parallels to Mendelson's own life (Google is your friend). But I went searching in the first place after reading the endnotes because I wanted to confirm something I had suspected throughout the novel, which reads curiously like a debut, even though it is in fact Mendelson's fourth; whether it was the fact that this novel seems so autobiographical that made it fall so flat for me.

If Americanah was an example of how to write about one's own experiences well in fiction - although Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's book reminds me of Charlotte Bronte's novels in the sheer power she draws from her own life, so 'writing well' is putting it mildly - this novel exemplifies why I was suspicious of semi-autobiographical novels in the first place. Professional reviewers have praised it for its observation, humour and flowing prose, and I don't really disagree with any of this, although I didn't find the novel especially funny (its most humorous moments are centred around Marina's three ageing Hungarian relatives, Rozsi, Zsuzsi and Ildi, who haunt the narrative like the trio of Norse crones, crushing both Marina's and Laura's romantic hopes unwittingly). The problem for me was that I didn't feel that Mendelson was offering anything especially new. Marina's travails at Combe Abbey are well done, although the blurb made me expect rather more drama than eventually unfolds and this is a poor shadow of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep as far as adolescent school life goes. Mendelson is very good at awkward dialogue; Marina's struggles for speech in the face of people she wants to impress are almost unbelievably hopeless and painful, but utterly realistic. The Combe Abbey plot, however, is much too predictable, and the same can be said for the sub-plot about Laura, which I started skimming after a while. 

I'm left unsure about what Mendelson was trying to achieve with this novel; is it meant to be a comedy of manners, or something more? Mendelson's focus on the minutiae of social life certainly situates her novel in a firmly English tradition and makes the title even more ironic than it already is. Marina may be half-Hungarian, but her floundering attempts to imitate upper-class manners and become one of the more popular girls at the school are quintessentially English. Mendelson plays with this theme well, with the ending of the novel inverting our previous assumptions about what it is to be English, and suggesting that those who know they are playing a role are often the ones who inhabit a certain identity most convincingly - but it doesn't seem enough to hang a novel on. My heart also sank when I realised that Mendelson's earlier novels - Love in Idleness, Daughters of Jerusalem and When We Were Bad - trace similar themes. I think I'll be striking When We Were Bad off my reading list - unless anybody has read both and feels that it's very different from this one.

Friday, 6 September 2013

'This story really needs closure'

When Italian fisherman and hopeful hotelier Pasquale meets American starlet Dee Moray, it's an encounter that he will never forget, even fifty years later. However, Pasquale already has one doomed love affair behind him, separated from his first love, Amedea, and from his son Bruce. In the present day, Claire Silver struggles with her role as a film development assistant, longing to be involved in the production of at least one movie she really believes in; will aspiring scriptwriter Shane's pitch about the controversial historical figure of William Eddy be the one? Meanwhile, her boss, Michael Deane, has written a failed memoir of his own. A few years earlier, musician and comedian Pat also struggles to restart his career by a last-ditch tour at the Edinburgh Festival, while around the time of Pasquale and Dee's first meeting, writer Alvis Bender reworks the single chapter of his novel that he has managed to produce over and over again. As this suggests, Jess Walter's sixth novel is a complex mess of sub-plots and separate threads, which weave only partially into a whole. But then I suspect that this is entirely what he intended for this novel, which spends so long dwelling on audience's expectations of Hollywood blockbusters. As Deane's editor puts it in his critique of the opening section of Deane's memoir, 'Look, it's your life and I'm not trying to put words in your mouth. But this story really needs closure.'

The title of this novel is one indication that readers are not going to receive the neat and perfect endings that they might want for any of these characters. Taken from a journalist's description of Richard Burton in 1980, Walter is explicit by the end of the novel that all his characters' lives are 'ruined'; none of them achieves exactly what they hoped for or escapes without making some compromises. To an extent, this can make Beautiful Ruins a frustrating read, especially when you feel you most strongly identify with the set of characters that the author appears to be least interested in. The fascinating essay by Walter that appears at the back of my copy of this book, 'In the Time of Galley Slaves,' certainly suggests that for Walter, it's all about Pasquale and Dee; it's their meeting that haunted him, and they are the two characters that forced him to keep on going with this book across its fifteen-year gestation period. Pasquale and Dee certainly stand at the heart of this novel, linking all the other threads together, although some are more tangential than others. However, the 'galley slaves' - as Walter refers to his characters - that really captivated me in Beautiful Ruins were those that had aspirations beyond the personal. The parallel stories of ruination traced across the lives of Alvis, Pat and Shane seemed to me to speak most interestingly about the questions raised by Walter's concept of lives as inevitable 'failures'. I also loved the way he incorporated the fragments of fiction into the mix - a technique reminiscent of Jennifer Egan's equally wide-ranging A Visit from the Goon Squad - and found myself drawn into Shane's pitch about the Donner Party and Alvis's first (or last) chapter of his war memoir. Ironically, I think it's these stories within a story that will stay with me longest.

All this is not to say that Walter's handling of Pasquale's and Dee's relationship is a failure. Indeed, he skilfully manages to avoid cliche, despite treading awfully close to it at time. Both characters are as realised and nuanced as the others in the novel. I guess what I resented slightly about the focus on this couple is that they were the only ones who really seemed to receive 'closure', despite Walter's swift whip-around of his characters' destinies in the final chapter of his novel. I wanted to know more about Claire, Shane, Pat and the rest, and less about the slightly-too-predictable ending to the central plotline. However, perhaps this is the point; in ruined lives, there cannot be an obvious ending, and the solid finale we get for Pasquale and Dee is a device to ensure that readers don't feel too cheated about the rest of the loose ends. In that case, I would have preferred their story to be incomplete, as well; but I understand that others may feel differently. At any rate, this is an engaging, gripping and reasonably ambitious novel that I would highly recommend.