Tuesday, 31 December 2013

January schedule

Having successfully completed last year's New Year's Resolution to post every Friday on this blog, I thought I'd mix things up again for 2014. I'll be keeping my regular Friday posts, but adding a Monday Musings slot where I briefly discuss topical book and writing-related questions (e.g. is 'writing what you know' necessarily a good thing? What do we mean by 'showing not telling'?) Wednesday will become a 'wild card' day where I may post or not, depending on how much I've been reading recently - I hope to occasionally do reading round-ups, for example.

That said, here's the schedule for regular posts in January:

Friday 3rd January: Fallout by Sadie Jones

Friday 10th January: Tigers Nine: The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

Friday 17th January: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Friday 24th January: Farthest North and Farthest South #6: Non-Fiction Medley

Friday 31st January: This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes

Monday, 30 December 2013

My Top Ten Books of 2013

It's time again for me to consider my favourite books read by me for the first time in 2013 - although, unusually, this year's list includes more 2013 prizewinners and shortlistees than I've ever had before. Either prize juries are becoming more effective or my tastes are becoming more conventional… In no particular order:

1. After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold. 

I reviewed this novel, inspired by the relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, in January. I enjoyed her Girl In A Blue Dress, but for me, this heartbreaking narrative of the scars we carry and the scars that do not heal was in a different league. It's not received the critical attention that it deserves, but I hope it will go on to find many readers. I was also impressed by her sensitive handling of her stand-in for Lewis Carroll.

2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

An obvious choice, but this novel really is exceptional, as I detailed in my initially cautious first impressions and my positive final verdict. Tartt's novels are always magnificently flawed, and this is no exception - but by the final pages, I felt she had fully earnt the risky conclusion. Theo's journey from the death of his mother in an explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to dabblings in dodgy antiques is overlong but nevertheless brilliant. (Tartt pulls off a perfect portrayal of PTSD along the way, as well). In 'the year of the doorstopper' this reminded me yet again why I love long novels.

3. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver.

This was my choice for The Prize Formerly Known As The Orange, and although I liked the winner - AM Homes's May We Be Forgiven - for me, this stood out. Kingsolver, despite previous form, is astoundingly unpreachy in this tale of how climate change impacts upon a small community in the Appalachian mountains. It's not necessarily an easy read, but it is a rewarding one. (And am I the only one who feels that the 'Bailey's' Prize is not going to be the same? I'm convinced the Whitbread went downhill after becoming the Costa…)

4. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

To wheel out another doorstop, this was my choice for the Booker and I was thrilled that it won, especially as it saw off some truly terrible efforts from Jim Crace and Colm Toibin. This novel, set in the nineteenth-century New Zealand gold rush, is a complicated, dense narrative that repays close attention, but will certainly be appreciated by those who love the original nineteenth-century doorstops. Although they have so often been paired in end-of-the-year lists, Catton's meticulously constructed mechanism is nothing like Tartt's generous storytelling. But, somehow, they both work.

5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This was another novel I wasn't sure I'd like, especially as I wasn't swept away by any of Adichie's previous works. But Adichie combines all her previous talents into one in this massive story of childhood sweethearts Ifemelu and Obinze, seeking to emigrate to the West to seek the opportunities that are not available to them in Nigeria. One reason why this fantastic exploration of race in the US and Britain hangs together is because their simple love story runs through its heart. However, Adichie's social observations are vital as well.

6. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

This didn't sound like my kind of thing at all - I expected it to be needlessly experimental, saccharine and/or trite. But I loved the tenuous links between the two narrators, and the way the novel plays with time and space. The obligatory references to Schrodinger's cat are perhaps a little obvious, but I loved the footnotes and the way that every page seems joyful and alive, despite some dark narratives. I never expected this to win the Booker, but it would certainly be my runner-up.

7. The Worst Journey in The World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard.

2013 wasn't just about prize lists, however. This 1922 account of Antarctic travel, including Scott's last expedition and Cherry-Garrard's own insane quest to recover emperor penguin eggs, is rightly acclaimed as a travel classic. Cherry-Garrard conveys the horror, humour and beauty of the Antarctic in wonderfully accessible prose.

8. Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

Although I appreciated Wolf Hall on an intellectual level, I found it a slog; the narrative never seemed to spark into life, although the portrayal of Thomas Cromwell was exceptional. Having read its sequel, I now think that all the preparation was worth it, because Mantel hits the ground running in Bring Up the Bodies. Having established the cast, she can indulge in the historical drama of the fall of Anne Boleyn without the need to explain the context.

9. The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Although I'd read all of Gaskell's novels (bar Sylvia's Lovers, which I am reading now) I have never read her biography of Charlotte Bronte. I'm not a Bronte obsessive - I adore Villette but am ambivalent about Jane Eyre, and actively dislike the novels of the other Bronte sisters - and so I'd never seen reason to read this. However, despite its bowdlerisations, this biography conveys the timeless story of the Brontes' short lives vividly. It was the only novel in my top ten I didn't review on the blog this year, so I've linked to my review of Villette instead, where I talk a lot about this biography.

10. Quantum by Manjit Kumar.

To be honest, there wasn't a tenth book this year that made an impact on me equal to the previous nine. But Manjit Kumar's history of the debates between Einstein and Bohr is both absorbing and accessible, and I enjoyed the mini-biographies of the scientists' lives as well as the clear explanations of the content of their debates.

As for stats, I read 102 books this year, beating both the previous years' records - I blame this blog.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Mr B's Reading Year, Two: 'The sea is still beneath our feet'

For Ginny Cook Smith, her father's thousand acres has been the bedrock of her life in Iowa, the ground upon which her life, and the lives of her two sisters, Rose and Caroline, and their families has been built. However, early in the novel, her description of 'tile', the plastic tubing that has drained the soil and made it fit for crops, indicates a hidden instability underneath the universal currency of land:  'I was always aware, I think, of the water in the soil… the sea is still beneath our feet and we walk on it.' It is only later in life that Ginny becomes aware of the possible link between the nitrates draining into their well water and the five miscarriages she has suffered, but the image of the underground lake lingers. However, it is also the deep roots of this novel in a particular type of community and its affiliation to the land that allows it to escape both melodrama and the accusation that it is simply a poor reworking of King Lear. Although the parallels with Lear are, in one sense, obvious - the plot hinges on Larry Cook's division of his farm between his two oldest daughters after he cuts the youngest out of his will - I found that as I read I forgot the links with the play and that obvious references failed to occur to me until after I'd finished reading. This is obviously a good thing; and testament to Smiley's excellent writing that incidents that could have seemed grotesque or ill-fitting in a modern-day retelling, such as 'Gloucester's' blinding or Goneril's rumoured poisoning of Regan, worked seamlessly within Ginny's narrative.

Ginny and Rose share the memory of a tormented childhood under Larry's watch, especially after the death of their mother, and Smiley deftly conveys the pain they have both concealed while resorting to very little direct detail from either of this sisters. It is, indeed, one of Larry's mismemories as he descends into madness that provides one of the most vivid images of the past, when he tells Caroline about a brown velveteen coat she once had: 'You didn't like it either, nosiree. You didn't want any brown coat and hat. You wanted pink! Candy pink. You had it all worked out in your mind about that pink velveteen, and you took a pink Crayola to that coat, too!… Your mama had to spank you then for sure!' Ginny, who overhears this exchange, cannot bear it when her father brings this story up again in a court case, after the tables have turned and Larry believes that Caroline is the only daughter who is on his side. Confronting him with the fact that he has reshaped their past, she shouts, 'Daddy, it was Rose who had the velveteen coat! It was Rose who sang! It was me who dropped things through the well gates!' This brief thread demonstrates a number of things about Larry's relationship with his daughters; that he can continually reinvent himself as the loving patriarch, focusing on their mother's light spankings rather than his beatings; that he prefers to forget his daughters' existence rather than recognise what he sees as their disloyalty; and that despite recognising his abuse, Ginny and Rose remain desperate for their father's love.

Despite knowing the plot, I have not read or seen King Lear, and now I would like to see it with this very different take on the story fresh in my mind. Smiley's choice to humanise the two older daughters is not merely a cheap switch in perspectives but allows her to explore the tale afresh, rebuilding it from within to consider the entrapping effect of family ties. Near the end of the novel, Ginny escapes for a few years to an anonymous life working in a highway restaurant, which she loves because of its freedom from the fixed routine of the seasons and of the farming day that she has known all her life: 'there was nothing time-bound… the traffic kept moving. Snow and rain were reduced to scenery… the noise was the same… I saw this as my afterlife, and for a long time it didn't occur to me that it contained a future.' But she is ultimately pulled back by the ties that binder, haunted even by the family that never existed, as she considers when thinking of her lost children 'I see one of my five children on the street, an eleven-year-old, a thirteen-year-old, a fifteen-year-old, a nineteen-year-old, a twenty-two year old' and also of her 'dead young self.'

This novel is relentlessly bleak, and not one I found easy to read or tempting to return to. Smiley's comparison to Icelandic sagas is apt, and there are certainly echoes of the modern Icelandic classic, Halldor Laxness's Independent People, which is also one of Smiley's favourite novels. A Thousand Acres demonstrates the deadweight of land ownership and of fierce family expectations as strongly as Laxness's tale of Gu├░bjartur J├│nsson. Annie Proulx has also drawn on Icelandic inspiration in her tales of rural Wyoming in Close Range. But there are also reminders of Alice Munro's ability to evoke a life in the space of a few pages. I have known about Smiley's work for a long time, but never read anything by her before this; I'm glad to have read it, although I might not read it again.

This book was the second I was sent for my Mr B's Reading Year. My dad is a great fan of Jane Smiley, so I was pleased to be given a reason to finally try one of her novels, and I remember him relating the story of King Lear to me after he read this novel when I was a young teenager! 

Friday, 13 December 2013

'All she had left of her old life… was attacking familiar targets'

The premature death of Barry Fairbrother, a deservedly popular parish councillor for the rural town of Pagford, has a more significant impact than any of its inhabitants would have thought when Barry first collapses on his way out to dinner with his wife Mary. The occasional clunkiness of JK Rowling's style is never more apparent than when she is writing plot-important action, and this novel stutters awkwardly into life with its cliched description of Barry's last moments: 'Barry was lying motionless and unresponsive on the ground in a pool of his own vomit; Mary was crouching beneath him, the knees of her tights ripped, clutching his hand, sobbing and whispering his name.' However, it is Rowling's treatment of Barry's legacy that was one of the major factors in convincing me that this is an appealing, engrossing and meaningful work of fiction, despite its flaws. Although Barry narrates only the first two and a half pages of this long novel, his example serves as a refreshing contrast to the indifference and spite that most of the inhabitants of Pagford display at one point or another. Importantly, though, Rowling does not lazily depict Barry as an absent saint, but is careful to let us know exactly why Barry could do what he did and why it is so difficult for anyone to follow in his footsteps. I was reminded that Rowling trained as a teacher when one of Barry's colleagues makes this pitch-perfect observation: 'What was it that Barry had had? He was always so present, so natural, so entirely without self-consciousness. Teenagers, Tessa knew, were riven with the fear of ridicule. Those who were without it, and God knew there were few enough of them in the adult world, had natural authority among the young; they ought to be forced to teach.'

The reason I found this passage so resonant, I think, is that not only is it completely accurate about the qualities you need to work with young people, but because it is clear by this point in the novel that most of the harm in Pagford comes about because the characters are so afraid. Gavin, dating a kind and intelligent social worker, Kay, has encouraged her to uproot herself and her daughter from their London life then treated her with indifference since because he is too scared to tell her he does not love her. Sukhvinder, a teenage girl from the town's only Sikh family, is so terrified of letting her parents down and what to do about the cyberbulling she is suffering via Facebook that she takes to cutting herself. Samantha, owner of a failing bra shop and participant in a failing marriage, is so unable to face up to her financial difficulties and all the things she cannot say to her husband that she takes to fantasising about a teenage boy from the latest hit boy band. And most tragically of all, Krystal, a sixteen-year-old who is struggling to hold her family together as her mother battles with heroin addiction and social services threaten to take her small brother Robbie into care, is so frightened of the future that she unwittingly sets off a train of events that will make things even worse.

When I began this novel, I feared that Rowling had not played to her strengths, so determined to demonstrate that she had moved on from Harry Potter that this story would flop, but surprisingly, she leaves herself ample space to do what she is best at. Although this is not a plot-driven novel, Rowling's skill at handling multiple threads comes in increasingly handy as the narrative becomes more complex and small details from one character's story become crucial to another's. Her ability to create memorable characters that the reader cares about strongly is also evident. Although her characters are not exactly complex - even the individuals who get the most screen time, like Krystal, do not really develop - they are more than sketches. Most peculiarly, Rowling's skill at creating a world that the reader wants to continue living in, that they do not want to end, is a major factor in making this overlong novel gripping. This is peculiar because nobody wants to live in a town like Pagford - Rowling effectively skewers its narrow-mindedness and bigotry throughout - and yet this novel never becomes depressing, even throughout its melodramatic ending. In a way, putting the central plotline aside, Rowling does stick to form by rewarding the good and punishing the bad, and perhaps this is why this studiously 'realistic' novel is more satisfying than it ought to be.

This isn't a novel that does anything terribly original, but it solidly delivers on what it promises, and manages to make local politics much more interesting than earlier models of this 'slice of life' narrative - Winifred Holtby's South Riding comes to mind - have achieved. I'm now keen to read Rowling's The Cuckoo's Calling, as I think she may find an even more natural home in crime fiction; and I'd like to escape to another of her worlds.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Goldfinch and The Luminaries: what happened next

The Goldfinch, for me, was one of those rare novels where my judgement of it utterly changed after reading the second half. Although, like any novel this length, it is an imperfect beast, and, not like all novels this length, it could do with losing a hundred pages or so from its first half, I think it was still one of the best books I've read this year. It was an inspired choice by the publishers to include a decent, if small, reproduction of the painting at the beginning of the text. As I was reading, I kept returning to Fabritius's bird and finding new meaning in it, although I have not seen the original, and by the end of the novel, I could almost see the goldfinch taking flight, catching its foot against the chain, circling back down, then beginning again. This novel does not simply become much more gripping as Theo attains adulthood and becomes mixed up in the murky world of crooked antiques dealing and art theft; it becomes much more resonant, as the many sins of Theo's adolescence continue to haunt him. As he says of the goldfinch near the end of the novel, 'what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery…' The two tokens that remain from the moments before Theo's mother's death, the painting itself and the red-haired girl, Pippa, haunt, torture and comfort him throughout the novel, even though he might not have given either of them a second glance if not for the explosion. At the end of the novel, Theo puts forward his thesis that life is an inevitable misery from which we can nevertheless glean some joy; but I couldn't help worrying at the edges of what, for me, is a much more tragic reading, that this is true but only for some of us, and that Theo is a chained bird. Although it seems likely that his mother's death was indeed the catalyst for everything that followed, I found myself remembering as I finished this novel that he and his mother had been off to a disciplinary meeting due to Theo's hanging around with the wrong crowd before the explosion happened, and that perhaps he was doomed from the start, although not doomed to fly and fall in precisely the same way. Tartt paints on a huge canvas, and this novel will certainly be worth re-reading.

My opinion of The Luminaries, on the other hand, has remained as high as it was when I discussed the first half of the book. The thing I find particularly impressive is, ironically, how it is such a flawed mess of a text in some ways - the reader struggles to keep track of the huge cast of characters and the plot is so complex that Catton herself realises the necessity of frequent recapping. And yet, there is something magnetic about it. I've made no secret of the fact that I prefer big, ambitious, untidy novels to perfectly executed, self-contained novellas, and this is one of the reasons why. The Luminaries is a novel that you feel you can really get inside, explore, and re-read over and over again; the tightly-interwoven plot is not a turn-off, but a challenge. It takes great skill to pull such a thing off without completely alienating the reader, and although I dismissed comparisons to Wilkie Collins earlier, there is something of The Moonstone about the solution to Catton's mystery. However, Catton also has what The Moonstone - not my favourite Collins novel - lacks; a fully-rounded cast who never fall into cipher or cliche.  (I still remember how annoying I found the caricature of Miss Clack and the idealised Rachel Verinder.) I particularly appreciated how, despite the range of narrators, the central cast are only ever seen through the eyes of others. Anna Wetherell is a particularly fascinating subject to watch in this way; as new revelations come to light, her character alters, until she finally does get to speak for herself late in the novel. Catton also handles a sub-current of the supernatural with immense style, leaving enough room for doubt but enough hints to send a shiver up one's spine. Superb storytelling and a worthy winner of the Booker. (And thank God it wasn't Harvest or The Testament of Mary, is what I say.) 

See this post for the first half of my review of The Goldfinch and this post for the first half of my review of The Luminaries.             

Saturday, 30 November 2013

December schedule

Having made a New Year's resolution to post on this blog every week this year, I'm amazed that I've pretty much done it as we reach the end of 2013 (with some extra posts to make up for missed Fridays!) Bring on December…

Friday 6th December: The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, #2

Friday 13th December: The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

Friday 20th December: Mr B's Reading Year, Two

[Friday 27th December: No post - holidays!]

Monday 30th December: My Top Ten Books of 2013

Friday, 29 November 2013

The Goldfinch, #1: a tale that goes on and on

NB. I have only managed to read half of this massive tome, so this post will cover the first half of the novel. I will discuss the second half next week when I also discuss the rest of The Luminaries by Eleanor Carron, another epic read.

I was fortunate enough to hear Donna Tartt speak about The Goldfinch at the Cambridge Union recently; but this was before I'd started the novel, and I was puzzled by her comments about what makes a novel 'dated.' As an historian, I've long been suspicious of this term; of course any novel is dated, because to remove all references to any historical period is virtually impossible, and often a thankless task. For example, one of the reasons I disliked Jim Crace's Harvest so much was because he seemed to be trying to capture a timeless rural England but managed only to convey a poorly researched picture of a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century village, with some details that would never have been applicable to England at any point in its history. And as a reader, I actively prefer my novels 'dated', if by dated you mean 'uses historically accurate references.' I refuse to believe that readers are really so lazy or stupid that they will stop reading a book because they do not recognise a product name or pop group, and the reception of novels such as Kevin Maher's The Fields seems to bear this assertion out, as it has clearly been appreciated by many readers who did not experience a 1980s childhood in Dublin. For these reasons, I was surprised to hear Tartt say that she had carefully gone through The Goldfinch to strip it of contemporary references, and one of the reasons she felt that The Secret History is still enduringly popular is because it is not dated. Immediately, I thought that The Secret History is a dated novel - and none the worse for it - and indeed, that much of the power of Tartt's writing lies in an evocation of a particular time and place, as in her misunderstood and in my opinion, greatest novel, The Little Friend. Fortunately, The Goldfinch is no exception. From references to iPods to DVDs to mobiles, it is firmly placed in the twenty-first century, and indeed I think we are meant to view Theo's adulthood as taking place in the future, his theft of the painting 'The Goldfinch' still to come.

The novel opens with an utterly gripping set-piece of the kind Tartt writes so well. The adult Theo, holed up in a hotel in Amsterdam that he cannot leave, recalls his mother's death in an explosion at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was thirteen. Because we don't know the exact details of her death at first, we retrace Theo's steps through that day with a growing sense of dread; is it the missed taxi or the forgotten umbrella that sealed her fate? Would things have been different if Theo had been less interested in the attractive red-haired girl in the gallery and more interested in the exhibition? The explosion itself parallels the destruction of much of Carel Fabritius's work after his studio was destroyed in Delft in 1654; 'The Goldfinch' was one of only about a dozen paintings to survive. In this alternative reality, it survives a second explosion, only to be appropriated by Theo and to remain his constant companion as he is rocketed to some friends of his mother's, to live with his father in Las Vegas, and then back to New York again, where he ends up with the guardian of the red-haired girl, a furniture restorer called Hobie.

Even a brief summary of the first half of the plot indicates how busy a novel The Goldfinch is. Ironically, it is only in the moments before the explosion that we get a chance to stop and breathe. After that, Tartt relentlessly narrates Theo's story, and although individual scenes are carefully delineated, the overall effect is of a sweeping narrative that presses us forward to no apparent purpose. Tartt's skill is fully on display here; characterisation is wonderful, setting vivid, and sentence by sentence, the novel is beautifully-written. However, at the moment, I feel as if there is no wider significance to the story I am being told. Readers complained that The Little Friend was plotless, but for me, it was more than redeemed by its series of skilful set-pieces, and The Secret History obviously possessed a thriller-esque narrative. Although a form of plot seems to be emerging, as Theo worries if the painting will be discovered, I'm wondering whether the novel can redeem itself enough in its second half to make up for the meandering nature of its first. A deceptively easy read, it is in many ways the polar opposite of the equally lengthy The Luminaries; a novel that requires close attention but repays the reader handsomely, and which is perhaps structured almost too rigidly. Next week, I will discuss how both these novels pan out in their final three hundred or so pages.

Update: see this post for the second half of my review of The Goldfinch.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Laura Rereading: 'accept the truth from whomever gives it'

Before re-reading: This book was first published in 2008; I read it on holiday in Scotland in 2009, after loving Notes on a Scandal. I did not have particularly high hopes for it - family sagas, even of the literary variety, are not my favourite type of plot - and I probably wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't already known Zoe Heller was a fantastic writer. However, I ended up being entranced by its observational wit, and particularly interested in Rosa's story.

After re-reading: Although I enjoyed this book the first time I read it, I realised when re-reading how little impression it had made on me, as I remembered almost nothing of the plot and characters. However, this time around, I think I will remember it for much longer; I could feel myself engaging with it much more deeply than I had before, although I'd admired its cleverness.

The Believers was universally acclaimed on its publication as Zoe Heller's most mature and ambitious work, and a chillingly accurate family story. I'm not sure that I like it for those reasons. I'm always a little suspicious of the words 'mature' and 'ambitious' in a book review because, although of course they can be used meaningfully, they too easily translate into 'spans a lot of countries', 'contains a lot of characters' and 'isn't a coming of age tale.' Seeing nothing wrong with a book like Heller's Notes on a Scandal that isn't afraid to be narrow and intense, I don't think ticking off personalities and continents necessarily means that a writer has developed (see my review of Burnt Shadows for further moaning about this.) The Believers is certainly as good as Notes on a Scandal, but it is an entirely different type of novel. Nor is it a novel that I believe is fully described as a 'family story', especially as I am so prejudiced against novels that focus on families - the relationships between the Livitnoffs are caustically and accurately drawn, yes, but so are the relationships between all the characters in this novel, most of whom aren't related. So, having got out of the way why I don't like this novel, I suppose I should move on to why I do.

Rosa Livitnoff, failed socialist revolutionary turned charity worker attempting to turn Orthodox Jew, still remains my favourite character, and although I can see that she might be incredibly irritating in real life, she is the only likeable protagonist in this novel (Karla, her sister, is obviously good and sweet at heart, but I found it difficult to deal with her constant self-flagellation and indecision - although this may be a deliberate irony on Heller's part, given that she seems to be the only character who makes a firm decision by the end). It's Karla who sums up Rosa best: 'Nothing Rosa had ever wanted to do had been significantly at odds with what she knew was right. Even as a little girl, she had been incorruptible… It wasn't that she had lacked the courage for mischief. She simply hadn't seen what fun there was to be had from being bad.' Karla's earlier excruciating memory of a breakfast-time conversation as a child with her father Joel clinches this view of Rosa, as Karla recalls desperately seeking her father's attention while Rosa instinctively knows the right answers to give to his political questions. However, what I like about Rosa isn't her commitment to her left-wing activism, which is failing by the time we meet her, but her continual honesty and self-questioning. Even though her encounter with Orthodox Judaism can occasionally seem patronising, her willingness to learn is genuine. 

The most difficult moments to like Rosa in are those when she is interacting with the members of GirlPower, the club for disadvantaged girls where she works. Insistent that the girls will not dance what she sees as a sexually suggestive routine, she forgets that she's there to help them, not to impose her own set of values, insisting that she won't try and boost their self-esteem until they do something 'estimable'. When she takes them to an anti-war rally, she answers their inevitable questions in didactic vein, and - this is the genius of Heller's writing - you can hear Joel's breakfast quizzes echoing in her words. However, I appreciated these incidents because they so clearly marked Rosa's flaws; her insistence on imposing unrealistically high standards on herself and everyone around her. The brilliant thing is that these flaws are also her strengths; I was glad that she didn't give in and compromise, even though I didn't agree with her line of thought. In comparison to her parents, unable to change, and Karla, too willing to bend, she is a refreshing mixture of self-doubt and self-certainty.

For me, Rosa also best illustrated the themes of the novel, although the joy of such a richly-observed piece is that every reader will find a different character in it who most closely strikes a chord with them. She wants to believe in something, but is too rational to let herself do so. Again, however, it is Karla who sums up the essence of believing, acting as a counterpoint to her more assertive sister. As she finally leaves her miserable marriage (her husband Mike was the most monstrous figure in the novel for me, a passive-aggressive eejit) she hears a busker on the Metro playing 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight': 'a silly novelty number that Karla had always associated with oldies radio stations and kitsch. But now, hearing it sung in this dingy subway car, she was struck by its beauty. How simple and true it seemed! How filled wit the mystery and sadness of life!' Echoing Rosa's spiritual experience upon entering a synagogue for the first time, Karla is the true believer: she allows herself to recognise a truth that is her truth, even if it isn't The Truth. As Lionel Shriver observed in her Telegraph review of this novel, attempts to sum up this novel neatly make it sound terribly banal. That is its joy; it's as messy, inconclusive, and frustrating as real life.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Mr B's Reading Year, One: 'the unknown merchandise at the end of their wait'

When Anna decides to walk home from work a different way one day, she stumbles upon a boarded-up kiosk with a brief line forming. This is an unsurprising sight in Leningrad after 'the Change', with the novel's twentieth-century Soviet setting based, in the author's own words, on 'the repression of Stalin's 1930s, the hopefulness of Kruschchev's Thaw (late 1950s - early 1960s) and the stagnation of Brezhnev's 1970s.' However, Anna is drawn to this particular kiosk, and alongside her husband Sergei and son Alexander, becomes a regular visitor to the line. It is only after visiting for some time that the family discover that the kiosk will be selling concert tickets for the composer Selinsky's triumphal return to his home country to conduct his last symphony a single time, a plotline based on Stravinsky's historic concert of 1962. Anna determines to purchase one for her fading mother, who still recalls her brighter days as a ballerina, but as the family form a rough shift system to hold their place in the line, personal desires begin to take over. As Anna thinks at the very beginning of the novel, when she is set free from her teaching job into 'the glittering white stretch of the afternoon', she will go to the kiosk, where she is filled 'with a sure presentiment of a change… something, she thought, to make her and her family happier, or lend some simple beauty to her everyday life.' The possibilities offered by the kiosk sit in contrast to the Soviet winter, where 'time had all run together for quite a while… like a vat of frozen concrete.'

The use of the American word 'line' rather than the British 'queue' both makes sense, given that Olga Grushin lives in Washington DC, and is more resonant within the novel as a whole, as characters speak of coming 'to the end of the line.' Predictably, waiting becomes an emotional event in itself for Anna, Sergei and Alexander, as Anna battles with her desire to have just one thing that is her own, Sergei embarks on an illicit affair with a fellow queue-goer, and Alexander paints the town red with new acquaintances. The line reflects the realities of their lives in this version of Soviet Russia, where little changes, but hope remains constant that something will. Putting it this way makes the novel sound banal, but the skill of Grushin's writing makes the conceit work. She is particularly good on weather and its emotional resonance, whether that's the sky waving 'back and forward in a skeletal dance of black branches' or the 'skinny parings of sunlight' that squeeze through the gaps in Anna's curtains. She is even better on dreams and dream-like imaginings, a ferociously difficult thing for an author to write well. Whether it's Alexander fantasising about the train he will take to 'a remote, desolate, beautiful shore, and strange birds dipping and rising overhead, and whispers of tall silver trees, and horses running, and the sea' or Anna's mother's memories of 'mermaids sipping frothy drinks from dainty little cups in terraced cafes', Grushin continually finds the balance between the cliched figures (the horses, the sea, the cafes) and the personal detail that characterises all our fantasies.

So there is much to admire in The Concert Ticket, but for all this, the novel remains curiously static. Of course, given its subject-matter, this is deliberate, but I found myself wondering if it might have worked better as a novella rather than something that's over three hundred pages long. It reminded me strongly of Russian absurdist fiction, particularly Gogol's short stories, although it is obviously rooted in a realist tradition as well, and also of folk storytelling, given its quasi-mythical setting and the orderly repetition of certain events. Given this, I felt a shorter form might have worked here as well, especially as the only character I felt I could truly care about was Anna. It's a beautiful read that captures the experience of longing for something undefined that one can't have better than almost anything else I've read, but in the end, the wait is too long and the pay-off too small.

This was the first book from my Mr B's Reading Year, and although I had mixed feelings about it, I'd still like to thank Mr B's for their selection - I would never have chosen this novel for myself, and I'm very glad to have read it.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Farthest North and Farthest South, #5: 'the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time'

It would be easy to consider the highlight of this book, as of the Cambridge Scott Polar Museum itself, where I bought it from, to be the intensely memorable excerpts from Captain Scott's last letters which Apsley Cherry-Garrard quotes near the end of his long text. From Scott's 'Message to the Public', a quotation from which appears on the wall next to the entrance of the Polar Museum, Cherry-Garrard quotes: 'Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.' In more scattered language, but conveying almost precisely the same message, Scott pens his last diary entry: 'Every day we have been ready to start for our depot 11 miles away, but outside the door of the tent it remains a scene of whirling drift. I do not think we can hope for any better things now. We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far. It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more. For God's sake, look after our people.' However, powerful as these excerpts are, it seems to me that they only acquire their true power when the reader is able to look at them outside pre-conceptions of Edwardian bombast and heroism, outside 'the myth of Scott', most recently dissected by Max Jones in The Last Great Quest (2004), and to recognise the truth of what Scott is saying about the qualities these men possessed. It is easy to read a quotation on a wall and believe that it is false, but after the long attrition of the details Cherry-Garrard provides about the true horror of the polar journey and his own 'worst journey in the world', 'the winter journey' to collect the eggs of Emperor penguins, it is harder not to be moved by Scott's words, and to feel much more able to relate to his experience that to that of a faceless imperial hero.

The key quality, of course, that Cherry-Garrard possesses, apart from his first-hand knowledge of the polar expedition, is the ability to write, but the success of this account is not his alone. It relies heavily on excerpts from diaries kept by the other men, most notably, Henry Bowers, who accompanied Scott to the Pole. I find it astonishing that in such conditions Bowers, Scott and Cherry-Garrard himself, who utilises his own field notes, were able to write such lucid and engaging prose, especially as none of them were 'literary' men, and wonder how far this was typical of the nineteenth-century elite. The pressures of travel mean that few of the diaries indulge in the more formal style adopted by Scott in his 'Message to the Public', and instead, get straight to the point, as when Cherry-Garrard writes after their tent is blown from them and recovered, 'When we had lost our tent, and there was a very great balance of probability that we should never find it again, and we were lying out the blizzard in our bags, I saw that we were face to face with a long fight against cold which we could not have survived. I cannot write how helpless I believed we were to help ourselves…' It is the same clarity that Cherry-Garrard preserves throughout his more composed account, beginning with the famous line, 'Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised.' 

Unlikely heroes also emerge; after the first half of this book, I felt possibly closer to the ponies, the devilish Christopher, the strong Nobby and the long-suffering and brilliantly-named Jimmy Pigg, than most of the men, especially after Cherry-Garrard describes how walls were built in the snow each night for the ponies to shelter behind, although often they would promptly kick them down. Worse is to come for several of the poor ponies, though, when three are swept away on an ice floe: 'They were moving west fast,' writes Bowers, 'but they saw me, and remained huddled together not the least disturbed, or trusting that we would bring them their breakfast nosebags as usual in the eying. Poor trustful creatures! If I could have done it then, I would gladly have killed them rather than picture them starving on that floe out on the Ross Sea…' Only Nobby survives. Detailed descriptions of food also suffuse the book, giving a vivid sense of how significant it became to men who had little else to look forward to; particularly memorable is Cherry-Garrard's slavering over his own invention, 'chocolate hooch', which comprised pemmican, cocoa, arrowroot, sugar and raisins. Scott's remark to his friend upon eating this delicacy was: 'You are going far to earn my undying gratitude', although, Cherry-Garrard notes, 'I am afraid he had indigestion the next morning.'

The patchwork approach to this account, with Cherry-Garrard cobbling together bits and pieces from other members of the expedition linked by his own narrative, means that far from becoming the stoic hero, he virtually disappears from the narrative for much of the time. Obviously, he was not present on the final polar journey, and so has to rely on the second-hand accounts of the dead men, but even in journeys where he was conspicuously present, such as the 'winter journey' with Bowers and Bill Wilson, he rarely speaks about himself. Compounding this, Cherry-Garrard rarely clearly marks when he is using a long quotation from his own diary or from somebody else's, so the voices of the explorers seem to meld into one chorus, with only Scott standing alone. All this is to say that it is not what you might expect from a 1922 text on the polar expedition - even the hagiography of Scott is rather muted - and that this very subtlety adds to its intensity.

N.B. My first Mr B's Reading Year book has arrived! It's The Concert Ticket by Olga Grushin, a genuine surprise as although I was tipped off about the author, I thought it would be her earlier and better-known novel The Dream Life of Sukhanov. I'm really excited about reading something I genuinely hadn't heard of before, and will hopefully be reviewing it next week as the first of a series covering my Mr B's books.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Simply unbearable

I couldn't think of very much to write about this (and could not finish it, and feel qualified to write anything), so I initially turned to the internet, to find John Banville's 2004 comments on his re-read of the novel in the Guardian, where he notes that he could not remember very much from his first reading:

Why had so little remained for me? Is it the result of failing memory, or is there indeed an essential weightlessness to the book? The Unbearable Lightness of Being had a remarkable success when it was published in English in 1984 (this autumn will see an anniversary edition from Faber). Here was an avowedly "postmodern" novel in which the author withheld so many of the things we expect from a work of fiction, such as rounded characters - "It would be senseless for the author to try to convince the reader that his characters once actually lived" - a tangible milieu, a well-paced plot, and in which there are extended passages of straightforward philosophical and political speculation, yet it became a worldwide bestseller, loved by the critics and the public alike… What is remarkable, however, is that a work so firmly rooted in its time has not dated. The world, and particularly that part of the world we used to call, with fine carelessness, eastern Europe, has changed profoundly since 1984, but Kundera's novel seems as relevant now as it did when it was first published. Relevance, however, is nothing compared with that sense of felt life which the truly great novelists communicate. And lightness, in art, more often seems like slightness. 

This was an interesting reflection, because my initial response to the novel had been to assume that I found it nearly unreadable because it had dated so badly; that its suggestion that its characters are mere literary sketches had been avant-garde and postmodern at the time, for example, but now appears trite and cliched. Reviewing the novel in 1984, the date of its publication, in The London Review of Books, John Bayley praised it to the skies but suggested, still, that, 'Whether it will last, whether one will want to read it again, are more difficult questions to answer.' Andrew Williams named it a 'Book of a Lifetime' in the Independent in 2009, and so I turned to his article to try and understand what others had seen in the book. In accordance with my first theory, he ties the experience of reading the novel in 1984 to his love for it, remembering his passion for Kundera's novels as a university student. However, unlike Banville, he seems to suggest that it does hold up on a re-reading, although it's unclear whether or not he actually re-read it to write the article. He praises the novel for 'the skill with which Kundera opens up that gap between perception and reality' in his depiction of the mutual incomprehension between Tereza and Tomas, and concludes by saying, 'This is a shamelessly clever book – at times a little cold – but exhilaratingly subversive and funny.'

My response would be: at times? It seemed to me that Kundera was uninterested in writing a novel as we traditionally understand it at all, and that Banville has hit the nail on the head when he suggests that Kundera fails to convey the 'felt life' that is the stock-in-trade of the novelist. But, of course, 'fails' is the wrong word to use, because Kundera never attempted to create a living world in the pages of this novel. It seems to me that there's often too little said, by both professional reviewers and bloggers, about judging a novel by what you wanted it to be, rather than what it is, or what the author was trying to achieve. On that basis, it would be ridiculous to criticise Kundera for the fact that his characters seem flat and contrived, because that was exactly the point he was trying to make. However, it must be obvious from the fact that I've created this post from a patchwork of other people's reviews that I have very little else to say about this book. When one doesn't agree with a writer about what a 'novel' is and what it should aim to do, then it's clear one isn't going to get very far. It's less clear, however, how we can reach such an agreement: but I wish reviewers spoke more often about the fact that often we're using sets of standards that just don't match up.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

November schedule

Friday 1st November: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Friday 8th November: Farthest North and Farthest South #5: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard

Friday 15th November: Mr B's Reading Year, One

Friday 22nd November: Laura Rereading: The Believers by Zoe Heller

Friday 29th November: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Friday, 25 October 2013

The history girl

As an historian, this is an odd book to review. Although Daisy Hildyard is clear in her author's note that this is fiction, it's difficult not to read it as a mix of memoir, methodology and anecdotal history, and to engage with it as one would with an academic text, not with a novel. While this didn't affect my admiration for her remarkably clear writing, it did affect my enjoyment of the narrative, as I wanted so often to stab pencils through the narrator's grandfather's pronouncements on history, forgetting that he is a fictional character serving a fictional purpose, and not an actual historian. This fictional grandfather is both radical and old school. While his focus on single historical figures, or 'great men', is traditional, his selection of individuals such as ex-slave Olaudah Equiano is not. His assertion that the historian's job is to reduce events to a simple sequence of cause and effect is so conservative as to become radical today. He also flies against postmodernist concerns about individual bias by suggesting that by looking far enough back into the past we can remove our own perspective: 'He didn't think that first-hand experience was very helpful for an historian.' Quite often, his pronouncements are completely random: considering his own eczema and that of his granddaughter, he says 'Many of the best historians, of course, have dry skin.' The text follows the relationship between the unnamed narrator and her grandfather alongside a selection of his historical stories, focusing on figures ranging from Edward IV to Peter the Great.

It's impossible to agree with much of this methodology, but of course that isn't the point. Hildyard glosses the novel when her narrator reflects near the beginning that 'My grandfather was a historian because he loved these details, not just some details, but every detail and each for its own sake.' However, she also notes that Herodotus - 'father of history' and 'father of lies', as every undergraduate historian knows - was most inaccurate at the points in his histories where he gives the most detail. So the stage is set for a conflict between complex academic theorising and the living detail of popular history - a kind of Hector-versus-Irwin debate that goes on and on. But rather than resorting to dry arguments, Hildyard lives this conflict throughout the pages of her novel. Recalling a trip made in her childhood, the narrator tells us: 'We passed a Little Chef with a playground in which there was an orange elephant that had a slide for a trunk. Then we switched lanes and sped up past Tadcaster brewery...' The detail of this bothersome orange elephant somehow goes beyond the usual suspension of disbelief we grant to novelists, perhaps because there's no reason our narrator should have remembered it; the pair don't even stop at the Little Chef, and nothing significant happens as they pass it. But at the same time, we recognise the truth of the detail (I'm only a couple of years younger than Hildyard, so much in her account of 1990s childhood was familiar to me). In the grandfather's histories I was reminded that those who seem most enthusiastic about history, most in love with communicating it, are often not professional historians - although the grandfather is supposed to have had a career as an academic. Irwin plays with essay structure, but Hector tells stories, and the stories last longer.

Hildyard is fully aware of the problems with the grandfather's approach, and uses a conspiracy theory about the death of Herbert Kitchener to illustrate this, ending with a good note on invented narratives, that they tell us something about those who wrote them even if they don't tell us much about events themselves. But in the narrator's grandfather's obsession with the gaps in the historical record emerges a sketch of a more interesting point, echoing Robert Darnton's assertion in his wonderful history, The Great Cat Massacre: 'When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem, we know we are on to something. By picking at the document where it is most opaque, we may be able to unravel a hidden system of meaning... I do not believe there is such a thing as a typical peasant or a representative bourgeois. Instead of chasing after them, I have pursued what seemed to be the richest run of documents'. In this way, we cannot write off the grandfather's approach as entirely hopeless and amateur, the work of a man who, as an ex-colleague confides near the end of the novel, 'didn't even have a PhD.' Indeed, his enthusiasm for the minutiae of history may be important as well as refreshing. With this in mind, it is ironic that engaging with Hunters in the Snow feels more intellectual than joyous. Hildyard is deliberately blurring the lines between the conventions of fiction and the conventions of history here, and while I think this is a brave and worthwhile thing to attempt, I also think that no novelist I've read has managed to pull it off yet - AS Byatt's The Children's Book included. For this reason, I hope that Hildyard's next work has a bit more story, and a bit less debate; a bit more Hector, a bit less Irwin.

[NB. This was meant to be a Farthest North and Farthest South post, but I thought the scattered references in this novel to ice archives and icebergs weren't really enough to justify this. I'll make up for it next month with a post on a classic Antarctic travelogue.]