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.]

Friday, 18 October 2013

When long shadows fall

It's difficult to know what to say about books like this. Like a teacher, you want to say 'tried hard', 'competent' and 'literate', but none of that means much beyond the most damning assessment of a novel: I didn't really enjoy it. And yet it seems a shame that there is so little to say, because Kamila Shamsie has clearly tried so hard to make this an ambitious and thought-provoking read; adjectives that professional reviewers have not hesitated in applying, but which I do not think are true.

At the heart of this novel is the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki at the end of the Second World War. The arresting opening sequence witnesses the swift destruction of Hiroko's world as the man to whom she has just declared her love is killed and she herself is left with severe, bird-shaped burns down her back and the lingering fear of what the radiation poisoning has done to her body. This is an excellent piece of writing - although even here, I was left wondering whether it is possible to write a description of a nuclear attack without it being shocking and memorable. In a sense, Shamsie has taken the easy road with this opening scene, which certainly compels one to read on. However, as I did, I found the novel progressively disappointing. It is broad in scope, touching upon Partition, 9/11 and Guantanamo Bay, but muted in theme and character. The only one of the cast who truly engaged me was Hiroko, despite the array of potentially interesting individuals such as her half-Pakistani son, Raza, and US structural engineer, Kim, who is shellshocked after 9/11, because her engineering knowledge made her certain the buildings were going to fall before they did. So, as Hiroko ages and fades from the narrative, my interest faded with her. The juxtaposition of violent acts in various countries and the different groups of oppressors and oppressed was clearly meant to be saying something profound about the way we conceptualise who the 'terrorists' are, but to me this is a message that has been articulated many times, and I learnt nothing new from this tick-box approach.

Ironically - despite a couple of unjust murders - nothing in this novel ever comes close to the horror of Hiroko's youthful experience in Nagasaki, and perhaps this is part of the point. When Hiroko herself tries to put Nagasaki in perspective late in the novel, stating that the death toll accounted for only 0.01% of the deaths in the Second World War, Kim, the granddaughter of her old friend Ilse, objects: quoting statistics does not reduce the horror of her experience or the fact that it happened to her. Kim is right, but the reader still feels uncomfortable; why does Hiroko's experience seem to matter so much more than the countless deaths during Partition or the much smaller death toll from 9/11? Ultimately, because there is no character that matters to us so much that suffers in either of those two events. Shamsie is getting at something important here, but like Hiroko, the theme fades and is forgotten. Novels are 'supposed' to show not tell, but this is one of the many novels that I feel could have done with a little more reflection; because it lacks it, the characters and their choices become easily forgettable. (Indeed, the only reason I remember Kim's existence is because of the unpleasant and bigoted turn her character takes near the end of the narrative - if Shamsie intended her actions to be understandable, I'm afraid she missed the mark with me.)

I'm unsure why a novel like this, supposed to be one of her best, justified Shamsie's inclusion on the Granta 2013 list, but then I don't feel that most of that list deserved to be there. Having been reminded recently what good writing feels like, however, I'm less inclined to cut slack to novels that feel to me to be paint-by-numbers; well-written and well-intentioned, but with very little to say.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Booker Prize Shortlist, #3: A sphere within a sphere

So, the Booker shortlist first of all, as the announcement is tonight. Although I haven't read all the shortlisted titles, I feel fairly confident in saying that I would like A Tale for the Time Being or The Luminaries to win; both these books were not only better than the other shortlisted titles I've read, but have been among the books I've loved most this year; books so original and daring that they've lifted me out of a reading slump. Unfortunately, I also feel fairly confident in predicting that Harvest or The Testament of Mary will win; the latter would be a slightly less painful option, although I still don't feel it should have qualified for this award, due to length. In the meantime, Robert Crum, not my favourite book critic, has perfectly summed up the opposite of my thoughts in The Guardian; if you're a fan of the Crace or the Toibin, head over there for reassurance.

For now, I'm going to review the first 350 pages of The Luminaries. To my dismay, I have had to return my library copy as it's been reserved by another borrower, and so have only managed to read the lengthy first chapter of the novel so far. But what a first chapter it's been. This section was good enough that I still feel that The Luminaries is a worthy contender for the Booker, despite the fact that I haven't had a chance yet to see how it all turns out, because of the brilliance of the writing on display. Eleanor Catton has done something that I've often toyed with but never thought would actually work; she has written a truly excellent Victorian pastiche that echoes both Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. (Crum's comparison to Wilkie Collins is absurd, based largely on the subject-matter rather than the style of this novel; Collins's patchwork narratives of written accounts, diaries and letters bear little resemblance to Catton). It's difficult to describe exactly what she has managed to do, because the term pastiche is so often abused. For example, Sarah Waters' novels have been described as Victorian pastiches, which they are not; with no disrespect to Waters, who is a wonderful writer, I would suggest that her novels play with conventions of Victorian genre and style in a tongue-in-cheek way, while never intending to read like nineteenth-century prose. In similar vein, the restless, omniscient narrator of Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the While feels far too modern to be familiar to Eliot or Trollope. In contrast, one almost feels that a nineteenth-century reader would not feel jolted upon opening Catton. This is a statement that only goes so far, of course - whore and opium-eater Anna Wetherell would certainly receive short shrift in a Victorian text, rather than receiving the complex attention that she does here, and it seems less likely that the Maori and Chinese characters would take centre stage - but it helps to understand the scale of Catton's achievement.

Because of this, reading the reactions to this novel has been interesting. One of my major concerns about adopting such an approach as a writer myself (I've never tried to do so, so this is all purely speculative) is the worry that modern readers simply approach nineteenth-century novels such as Middlemarch or Phineas Finn with a different mindset. Safe in the smug knowledge that we are tackling a 'great classic', we allow ourselves to take time over the reading of it, and when we do recognise anything of ourselves in the text, we applaud the imaginative leaps made by the long-dead writer with far more enthusiasm than we would if we were reading a modern novel. Catton has received much critical acclaim for her debut novel, The Rehearsal, but she is still a relatively unknown young writer who is asking a great deal of her reader. I certainly think it's a deal that the reader ought to make, but it does open up a series of reflections on how far the writer can, or, should, signal the level of investment a reader needs to put into a novel before he or she opens it. To an extent, the novel must do this itself; I find when I read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, for example, that I am naturally slowed to the pace of her narrator's meditative reflections. In an introduction to the new edition of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco demands this level of attention of the reader explicitly, asking that they slow themselves to the pace of life in a medieval cloister, but I'm afraid such a statement by a writer read to me as arrogant, despite Eco's undoubted success. To return to The Luminaries, however, it strikes me that critics of its length, like Crum, seem unwilling to cut it the same slack as they would were it really a nineteenth-century novel.

To an extent, Catton is imprisoned in the form she has chosen. I'm yet to find out whether the incredibly strict structure of the novel pays dividends, and it seems surprising to me that a writer would wed themselves so closely to something so rigid. More broadly, her pastiche can become, at times, a little repetitive and formulaic. She uses the third-person omniscient to perfection, giving us insightful and interesting descriptions of each of her major characters, but as the novel moves from one man's account to another, it's almost possible to predict where these little paragraphs will pop up. Accurate as they are, I'm afraid, like their nineteenth-century counterparts (George Eliot includes a truly formidable info-dump about our hero in Daniel Deronda) it's possible to see why the novel has largely moved on from this type of introduction, effective as it is in some scenes, such as the first few pages. There are also annoying stylistic tricks that again stem from her literary models. Anna is referred to as 'Anna', 'Anna Wetherell' and 'the whore' in the space of a few sentences, for example. These are quibbles, but I am concerned as to how the style will develop now that the initial set-piece has been completed.

On the plus side, Catton is masterful at pacing, and I read this section swiftly, despite its length. The introduction of the ghastly apparition glimpsed by Walter Moody at the beginning of the book is an irritating hook that keeps us reading on, but we are also gripped by the separate stories that diverge from Moody's tale, and satisfied when all the threads come together at the end. Crum sneers at the short summation at the end of this section, but I wish more authors were wise enough to know when to recap. And it is genuinely rare to be so gripped by a story that is very complex and confusing. I can't say that I have all the characters straight in my head yet, which is one of the reasons I'm glad that my copy has gone back to the library - I may re-read from the beginning when it returns. The reason that I put such faith in Catton's ability to tell the rest of the story well is simple, however: she has convinced me that reading this story so closely is worth it. This is something that few authors achieve.

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

Friday, 11 October 2013

Challenging gender stereotypes: it's a girl thing

I loved Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender, which I read in a couple of days (even more brilliantly, she's the daughter of Anne Fine, the woman who wrote Bill's New Frock, the best way to introduce the concept of gender stereotyping to a primary school pupil) but I was concerned by the cover. Like Natasha Walter's Living Dolls, it's presumably intended to be ironic, but - due to the social coding that both books take pains to point out - the publisher's choice of cover design suggests that this is a book for women. Despite the clever composition of the covers, the passing male buyer will see pink and dolls and not feel inclined to buy - and even so, the cover design doesn't really position these as serious sociological texts.

However, when I noticed the cover designs of the feminist texts that Amazon wanted to recommend to me because I bought Delusions of Gender, I began to think that Fine and Walter had got off lightly. It seems that gender, as a subject, is coded pink. Why else would texts such as The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf have covers dominated by pink lettering? Then there are texts such as Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot, which takes a similar tack to Fine's book by challenging the cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology behind ideas of gender immutability. Despite this being, arguably, a more scholarly work than Fine's, it receives similar treatment from the publishers; an image of two pre-school children with pink and blue lettering spelling out the title (although I love that 'Pink Brain' is blue and 'Blue Brain' pink). Wrong as this is, the two cute children on the front seem designed to attract a female audience, and suggest that the book is not scientifically serious, but more of a child-rearing manual. Compare it with a standard textbook that ambitiously states that cognitive neuroscience is 'the biology of the mind'. Although Eliot's book is obviously aimed at a more popular audience than this text, I see no reason why it couldn't have a less cutesy cover.

Most annoying, however, was the treatment of Kat Banyard's text The Equality Illusion, which is not only afflicted by pink, but styled using a cliched image that has been identified as a staple of trashy women's fiction; the 'headless' woman. Not only is the cover gendered, but it's suggested that the content is not serious. (Interestingly, an earlier cover is much more 'serious' in black). Here it is, with Philippa Gregory's Tudor bodice-ripper, The Other Boleyn Girl, for comparison.

The problem with jacketing books like this is twofold; it ensures that the author is only speaking to the converted and it positions them as part of a genre that is not intellectual or important, but girly and frothy. The irony is that the jacketing confirms the very reality that such texts are concerned with challenging. I'll leave you with the taglines for the Banyard and the Gregory:

'The Truth About Women and Men Today'

'Two sisters competing for the greatest prize... the love of a king'

Monday, 7 October 2013

Booker Prize Shortlist, #2: My kind of time being, too

Ruth - the coincidence of names is deliberate - discovers a diary on the beach in British Columbia, washed up in a barnacle-encrusted lunchbox. Opening it, she is drawn into the world of fifteen-year-old Nao, who herself dances between cultures; her story encompasses ancient Buddhist nuns, the horror of her contemporary Japanese schooldays, and her idyllic existence in the aptly named Sunnyvale, California, where her dad worked as a computer programmer before losing his job. Nao tells Ruth - and us - that as a child, she was obsessed with the word 'now', its immediacy, the impossibility of truly experiencing it and pinning it down, and fittingly, in her diary, she is constantly dancing on a cliff edge. Suicide is a theme from the start, as early in the novel, we learn that Nao's dad tried to throw himself in front of a train, and Nao implies that her life will be a short one. (Indeed, she is soon attending her own funeral, but to explain how would be a spoiler). Nao's story becomes an obsession for Ruth, who feels lonely and isolated in her windswept home, where generators frequently blow and neighbourhoods are plunged into darkness, and she is soon neglecting her own work to run complicated internet searches, hoping to prove the real existence of the people and places Nao mentions. However, even as she uncovers clinical records and academic articles, they melt away at the click of a mouse, and she is forced to read ever further forward to try and hunt out answers.

It would be easy to become bedazzled by the technical brilliance and intellectual fireworks of this novel. Like Cloud Atlas, it seems to turn up original ideas on every page, and is unafraid to play with time, causality and quantum mechanics. However, to analyse A Tale for the Time Being simply by reference to its engagement with the theory of multiple universes and the Copenhagen interpretation would not be to do it justice - thrilled as I was to see references to these fascinating hypotheses after my foray into the world of physics. A novelist engaging with the idea of Schrodinger's cat is fun, but hardly novel - and simply to name-drop these famous conundrums would be shallow. For this reason, my least favourite part of this novel was the appendices, where I felt that Ruth - both the character and the novelist - felt far too much pressure to, as Charlotte Bronte put it, '[draw] a picture and then [write] underneath it the name of the object to be represented.'* The real power in Ruth and Nao's narratives comes from their literary, rather than theoretical, brilliance; they are both genuinely absorbing, filled with fascinating detail, and alight with a sense of place, where ever that place might be. For this reason, I would still warmly recommend this to those scared off, or bored by, quantum physics - it can be read without reference to Schrodinger at all.

This is not to say, however, that I wasn't captivated by the way that Ozeki plays with time. Pressing against the boundaries of the novel is something that novelists do too little of, and I loved the various devices that she uses in Nao's narrative to draw us into the text, including her missing pages, direct addresses, and sketches. Because the novel is so wonderfully written, these devices did not feel gimmicky, because Ozeki does not need to grab the reader's attention; she already has. However, there were two factors that perhaps made my reading of this book even more immersive and frankly, weird, than it will be for most readers. Firstly, I received a proof copy of this book via Amazon Vine in which Ozeki's editorial comments on the typesetting could still be read in the margins. Far from ruining my experience of the novel, however, these annotations enhanced it (especially as I thought until I was about halfway through that they were meant to be a part of the text, and had to check a bookshop copy to make sure... amazing.) Secondly, this, which is a note from Ruth to Nao at the end of the novel: 'I picture you now, a young woman of... wait, let me do the math... twenty-six? Twenty-seven?... Wherever you are, I know you are writing... I suspect you might be in graduate school, studying history...' As a history graduate student who had her twenty-seventh birthday while reading this book, I couldn't help feeling this might be addressed to me as well. Such is the ridiculous power of this novel. It may just have restored my faith in reading, and in Booker shortlists.

*This quotation comes from Charlotte's correspondence with her editor, WS Williams, on Villette, quoted in Mrs Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte. It's well worth reading in full; the relevant paragraph is: 'You say that she [Lucy Snowe] may be thought morbid and weak, unless the history of her life be more fully given. I consider that she is both morbid and weak at times; her character sets up no pretensions to unmixed strength, and anybody living her life would necessarily become morbid. It was no impetus of healthy feeling which urged her to the confessional, for instance; it was the semi-delirium of solitary grief and sickness. If, however, the book does not express all this, there must be a great fault somewhere. I might explain away a few other points, but it would be too much like drawing a picture and then writing underneath the name of the object intended to be represented.'

Friday, 4 October 2013

Booker Prize Shortlist, #1: 'Words, words, words, I'm so sick of words'

In the first of two posts, I'm going to discuss what I think of the 2013 Booker shortlist before the winner is announced on the 15th October. Although there are, obviously, six shortlisted novels, I will only be discussing four of them. I've had a lot of difficulty getting hold of Jhumpa Lahiri's Lowland or NoViolet Bulawyo's We Need New Names from the library, and I'm afraid neither novel has grabbed my attention sufficiently to warrant purchasing a copy. Having read neither of them, I may be completely wrong, but Lowland's plotline sounded cliched to me and, as for We Need New Names, I have a long-standing prejudice against child narrators with 'fresh' or 'original' or 'quirky' voices.

This post will be a bit of a rant, I fear, and perhaps my ranting has more to do with my own recent experiences of contemporary fiction than anything else. Despite some fantastic exceptions, such as Sisterland and Americanah, I've felt for a few months now that I've entered a reading slump. Like rubbish boyfriends, the new novels I begin promise much at the start but ultimately fail to deliver in depressingly similar ways. I wondered for a while if I was becoming jaded and bitter, deliberately seeking the worst in everything I read, but this seems unlikely when I genuinely greet good novels with joy. However, perhaps it is my fault, to an extent; perhaps I've been letting my reading tastes become too conservative and not trying enough that's different from what I usually read. The two novels I'm about to discuss certainly provide evidence of this. Although I always thought I enjoyed lyrical, timeless prose, with plotlines allowed to be slight and inconsequential compared to the importance of character, I hated both of these books, and they fit the bill perfectly.

Harvest has certainly been burdened by its publishers with a completely inappropriate thriller-esque cover and blurb. My expectations were raised far too high by the promises of a dramatic plot twist on the inside flap, and this isn't what this novel is about at all. I've never read anything by Jim Crace before, but I gather from the reviews that he has a very distinctive voice. And yes: Harvest is not only beautifully written, but bears comparison with some of the very best prose on nature that I've read, from Robert Macfarlane's The Wild Places to Kathleen Jamie's Sightlines.

Unfortunately, this is not a series of elegant essays, but a novel, and although I initially felt willing to be immersed in Crace's timeless English village, I became increasingly frustrated by the meandering narrative. Harvest sounds like it should be great, and even having read the book, the numerous positive reviews in the press have me questioning why I didn't like it. A nameless English village, a narrator, Walter Thirsk, who is simultaneously an insider and an outsider, accusations of witchcraft, a violent response to the threat of enclosure... And yet, Crace seems to have mistaken the idea of not naming a specific time and a specific place for not having to have any historical fact in mind at all. I am usually the last person to criticise fiction on grounds of 'historical accuracy'; being an historian reminds you that it's devilishly difficult to nail down anything as anachronistic. However, when Crace introduces the threat of witch-burning into his supposedly English village, despite the fact that this would never have occurred in England, I felt hopelessly jarred. Crace also fails to negotiate the line between timelessness and history with sufficient skill; after mentions of puritans, we can tie our story down to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries, but, due to the lack of precision in the rest of the narrative, the overall feel of the novel is that Crace simply hasn't bothered to do enough historical research. This also sits uncomfortably beside Crace's extensive knowledge of the natural world. Aside from all of this, however, I simply found the novel dull; nothing happens, and what does happen seems to have happened before in so many stories. Walter is not a sufficiently interesting individual to carry the slight plot, and I could not force myself through the last fifty pages.

Readers of this blog may remember that I didn't like Naomi Alderman's recent attempt at a retelling of the life of Christ, and will not be surprised that I didn't like this one either. This is a shame, because - like Crace - Colm Toibin is a wonderful writer, and I loved his Brooklyn. Nevertheless, I'm finding it hard to fathom why this even merited inclusion on the Booker shortlist; it's not a novel. There are moving passages in this first-person account in the voice of Mary, such as her early, fragmentary recollections of her son's crucifixion, where she cannot remember what they 'want' her to remember, and the vividly disturbing account of Christ's resurrection of Lazarus. However, much of it felt empty of content or emotion to me; like Harvest, it was just words, and most of them weren't necessary. I am also so tired of reviewers commenting that it is somehow 'daring' to challenge the biblical version of the life of Jesus, when it seems to me that it would be much more daring to do the opposite - and I'm not a Christian. I still await the novel-length version of the wonderful Carol Ann Duffy poem that I linked to in my review of Naomi Alderman's book. Instead, this seemed to be a very familiar tale of Mary's loneliness and disbelief; as a short story, it might have worked more effectively.

End of ranting; the second post on the Booker seems likely to be much more positive, I hope...