Category Archives: Fiction

The Wilder Life

I very much enjoyed Wendy McClure’s book The Wilder Life, which tells the story of McClure’s return to her childhood obsession with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the Little House on the Prairie series. I have no idea what someone who wasn’t obsessed with the series would think of the book, but I was obsessed as a child, and so her story sounded very familiar to me. I read and reread all the books, imagining what it would have been like to be Laura and live in her time and also what it would be like to introduce Laura to late twentieth-century life. I don’t remember when I started reading these books and when I stopped (I haven’t reread them as an adult), but I know I reread them over the course of many years. I watched the television series too, but it was always clear to me that it was only very loosely based on the novels. There was no danger I was going to get them mixed up, as many people do.

My experiences were similar to McClure’s — she read and reread the books and thought of Laura as a friend. Now, as an adult, she comes across her childhood copies of the novels and becomes fascinated by them all over again. The fascination quickly turns to obsession as she decides she wants to try some of the things described in the novels, such as churning butter, folding hay into sticks to burn, and making candy out of molasses and snow. She also decides she wants to visit the Ingalls and Wilder homesteads, which, since she lives in Chicago, isn’t too, too hard to do.

So she sets forth on numerous trips to Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota. She even makes it to the town in upstate New York where Almanzo, Laura’s husband, grew up. In between all these trips, she researches Laura’s life and the culture that’s grown up around the books, and she contemplates what her personal and the larger cultural obsession with Little House on the Prairie means.

So the book is part travel narrative, part biography, part memoir, part cultural criticism, and probably some other things as well. I was fascinated to read about the ways that the novels do not reflect what actually happened in Laura’s life; for example, Laura was too young to remember the events in Kansas in Little House on the Prairie, so that book was fictionalized and based on family anecdotes. The stories from Little House in the Big Woods took place after the ones in Little House on the Prairie, after the family had retreated from Kansas back to Wisconsin, even though it’s first in the series. And there are other shifts and omissions that are surprising for someone who took the novels as faithful to real life. McClure is good at discussing the significance of all this.

She is also very good at describing what the home sites are like. She times a couple of her visits to see Laura Ingalls Wilder pageants and festivals, which involve look-alike contests and stagings of the family story. She is decidedly spooked by fundamentalist, survivalist, end-times people who have latched onto Laura’s story and to pioneer ideals generally as a way to deal with the coming apocalypse. She also meets many people whose religious views aren’t quite so extreme, but who admire the Ingalls family for the simple, self-sufficient, godly life they led. Which I think is hogwash. Not that their lives weren’t simple and self-sufficient, and even godly, but this admiration comes from nostalgia for a simplicity that never really existed and rests on a misunderstanding of what the Ingalls’s lives were really like. I suspect at least some of the Ingalls family wouldn’t have minded trading some simplicity of living for greater comfort and security, or at least that’s true for Ma Ingalls.

McClure has an informal, breezy style, and I’m not really a fan of informal, breezy writing, but her voice never gets irritating or over-the-top cute, and she pulls it off pretty well. She comes across as warm and interesting, and a great guide to what she thinks of as “Laura World.” I was certainly very happy to return to the world of the books in her company.

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Among Others

Jo Walton’s novel Among Others was a lot of fun. I also felt it had a number of kind of obvious flaws, but, still, it was absorbing and enjoyable. It has a fabulous book club in it and a teenage girl who is obsessed with books, and it also has magic and fairies, and it takes place partly in Wales. Those are all very good things.

Morwenna, otherwise known as Mori, is the protagonist, a teenage girl who just lost her twin sister in a car accident. Mori herself suffered a hip injury that has left her with a limp and in need of a cane. It was more than just a car accident, though, as it happened when the twin sisters were battling their mother for reasons that are mysterious through much of the book but involve magic used for evil purposes. Mori has run away from her home in Wales to escape her mother and has found refuge with her father in England, whom she has never really known. Her father lives with his sisters who decide Mori should be packed off to boarding school as soon as possible. So she goes, and is (not surprisingly at all) miserable there. She not only has a limp and can’t participate in sports with the other sports-obsessed girls, but she is Welsh and doesn’t come from money.

Her only consolation is that she gets to spend the hours normally devoted to athletics reading in the library. She is an avid science fiction and fantasy reader, and this forms the one connection she has with her father, who has the same reading tastes and sends her books frequently. She also discovers the joy of interlibrary loan, and keeps both the school and the town librarians busy recommending and ordering books. The best moment, though, is when she finds out about the science fiction book group run through the town library. Here she finds her community: a group of people equally obsessed with books as she is.

But there is another sense in which she is an outsider: she sees fairies and knows how to do magic. The fairies were in much greater abundance in Wales, but she finds them in England as well and tries, with mixed success, to communicate with them. She also, with equally mixed success, explores her ability to do magic. In desperation one day, she casts a spell in order to find some friends to help her cope with her loneliness and unhappiness. This leads to a lot of uncertainty, though, because when she finds those friends in the form of the book group, she’s not sure if they are genuine or there just because of the spell she cast. Magic, she knows, is complicated and dangerous, with unknown consequences. Not least, of course, when used with malicious intent by one’s own mother.

All this is a lot of fun. The flaws I mentioned earlier have to do with the meandering pace of the plot, in part; while I enjoyed reading about all the book group meetings, the details of how she gets there, how she gets home, how she gets to the bookstore, how she gets home, etc. take up an awful lot of space. There is a lot of action at the novel’s end, but it’s all bunched up in a way that feels rushed and unsatisfying. And then there’s Mori’s love interest, Wim, whom I was not terribly fond of. I found their relationship unconvincing.

That said, this is still a book I read quickly and contentedly. I haven’t read much science fiction in my life, and Walton made me want to read more. That’s a pretty good recommendation for a book, I think.

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Spurious

To give you a sense of what Lars Iyer’s novel Spurious is like, here is the opening paragraph:

I’m a terrible influence on W., everyone says that. Why does he hang out with me? What’s in it for him? The great and the good are shaking their heads. Sometimes W. goes back to the high table and explains himself. I am something to explain, W. says. He has to account for me to everyone. Why is that?

Even though the novel opens with a statement of what “everyone says,” it’s quickly obvious that this is really what W. alone says and that it’s W. speaking from the start. The novel is a story of a friendship of sorts between W. and the narrator, Lars, a very odd friendship where W. insults the narrator but seems to like hanging around him anyway, and the narrator simply reports the insults and doesn’t seem to mind them. Insulting the narrator seems to be mostly a way to fill the time, something to do when life isn’t very interesting.

The entire novel (which, I have to say, is about right at 175 pages — any longer and it would get dull) continues on much like the opening paragraph: the narrator describes his not-very-exciting doings but mostly reports what W. says to him. They are philosophy professors in England, and they travel around together to conferences when they can and struggle along with their work when they can’t. They are desperately searching for an idea to make their names as thinkers, but it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen. W. is forever reading a book he can’t understand and the narrator spends too much of his time on administrative work. As nasty as W. can be to the narrator, he’s equally hard on himself:

‘When did you know you were a failure?’ W. repeatedly asks me. ‘When was it you knew you’d never have a single thought of your own — not one?’

He asks me these questions, W. says, because he’s constantly posing them to himself. Why is he still so amazed at his lack of ability? He’s not sure. But he is amazed, and he will never get over it, and this will have been his life, this amazement and his inability to get over it.

The narrator moves seamlessly back and forth between quoting W. and taking on W.’s voice to report what he says (as in the first paragraph above), and pretty soon it comes to seem like they are actually the same person. It takes a while to catch on to what the pronouns mean, but soon enough you get it straightened out, and then it’s like living in both the characters’ minds at once.

Which is kind of a scary thing. They are obsessed with apocalypse, convinced the world is falling apart around them. They also talk a lot about messianism, their crazy hope that something will save them, although this seems highly unlikely. Much more concrete and believable is the apocalypse that is coming soon to the narrator’s apartment: it has the worst infestation of damp and mold you can imagine, and it gets worse as the book progresses. The narrator has carpenters and plumbers and everyone he can think of come and try to figure out the source of the damp, but they can’t. So he lives with crumbling plaster and mold spores and tries not to get too sick from it. All the attempts to work, the conferences, the trips and conversations with W. are a distraction from the mold, a symbol, of course, of everything going wrong with the world.

This is a strange book, but it’s fun: the conversations are entertaining, even as they are kind of sad. It reminds me of a Beckett play where two warped characters have warped conversations in order to distract themselves from their painful lives. And what’s not to like about that?

Spurious began as a blog, which Iyer adapted into the novel. I haven’t read many of the blog posts, so I’m not sure about the differences between the blog and the novel, but I like the idea of using a blog to develop ideas to turn into a book. The blog says there’s another novel coming out in 2012, Dogma, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

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Our Tragic Universe, continued

So, what is Our Tragic Universe about? (By the way, I first wrote about this book here.) It tells the story of Meg, a thirty-something writer living in a small English town in Devonshire. She makes a living, or sort of makes a living, writing reviews and formulaic young adult science fiction novels. Based on some early successes, she got an advance a long time ago to write a literary novel, but she hasn’t been able to produce it. She writes and then she deletes, writes and deletes, and gets nowhere. Her boyfriend is looking for a job, although he is extremely picky and not actually looking all that hard. He is so wrapped up in his unhappiness that he has no time to think much about Meg and hers. They live in a damp cottage that makes it difficult for Meg to breathe, but her boyfriend never notices.

What gets the action going is Meg accidentally reviewing the wrong book; it’s a silly mix-up, but it leads in interesting directions: the wrong book turns out to be the kooky science (or “science”)  book I mentioned in my last post, which leads Meg, once she submits her review of the wrong book, to an assignment reviewing a whole bunch of kooky science, health, and self-help books, which gives her interesting fodder for a whole series of conversations with friends. And that accounts for much of what takes place in the book: there are a lot of scenes where people are sitting around having interesting conversations about all sorts of things: end-of-the-world theories, how placebos work, local legends of dangerous but elusive monsters, how to write novels, how and whether to get out of bad relationships, and the relationship of stories to real life. There’s action in the book, too, but it’s pretty desultory and not really the point.

The best part for me, and the aspect of the book that most made me like it (in addition to liking Meg very much), was the conversations about stories and the debates about genre vs. literary fiction, debates that are so serious they almost cost Meg a friendship. Meg’s friend Vi is an anthropologist who has been developing a theory of the “storyless story,” a narrative that resists the typical form of stories: a beginning, middle, and end that add up to some kind of coherent meaning. Storyless stories don’t add up to anything; they might possibly just wander on, going no place in particular, or they might have an ending that seems to come out of nowhere. Zen stories are examples of storyless stories, as Vi explains; they are:

… are constructed to help you break away from drama, and hope and desire. Some of them are funny. All of them are unpredictable. They’re not tragedies, comedies or epics. they’re not even Modernist anti-hero stories, or experimental narratives or metafiction. I lost count of the times someone would say, “I’ll tell you a story,” and then recite something like an absurdist poem with no conflict and no resolution. One of these “stories” was about a Zen monk who, on the day he was going to die, sent postcards saying, “I am departing from this world. This is my last announcement.” Then he died.

Meg feels ambivalently about Vi’s theory, since it threatens the work she does, writing those young adult sci-fi books:

I didn’t pay too much attention to this stuff any longer, considering that my entire existence now depended on me being able to take a good but unhappy character from bad fortune to good fortune in a credible way, and give them a bottle of oil — if that was what they wanted — as a prize at the end. I wanted to make my ‘real’ novel less formulaic and more literary, of course, but if I listened to Vi’s theories, then my only narrative strategy would be ‘shit happens’.

In a way, this forms the fundamental tension of the novel: how will Meg reconcile her success at genre fiction with her desire to write something “less formulaic”? What is at stake when pursuing one form of writing versus the other? What would it be like to have as one’s only narrative strategy, “shit happens”? When Meg and Vi get into a dispute over the value of Meg’s writing, it’s not just an argument; it’s an attack on Meg’s livelihood. She teaches classes in writing genre fiction, after all, covering the “rules” for good narrative arcs and the most fundamental types of plots: the hero overcoming an obstacle, the quest narrative, etc. It takes her much of the book to work through exactly what she thinks of Vi’s ideas about narrative, and this isn’t just a cerebral exercise because her thinking about narrative involves thinking about the relationship between stories and life, her life specifically, and the difficult choices she needs to make.

I still think this is a deeply flawed book — too much going on in it, too much awkwardness as I wrote about last time — but it turned out to be a very enjoyable flawed book, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to read more of her work.

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Our Tragic Universe

I don’t know what to make of Scarlett Thomas’s writing. I liked, but also felt ambivalent about, but at the same time have fond memories of, her novel PopCo. Our Tragic Universe is evoking much the same response, although I had more doubts as I was reading it than I had while reading her earlier book. I often found myself shaking my head over the awkwardness of the writing and the structure, and I seriously considered putting the book down at around page 50. I’m glad I kept reading (this is why I hesitate to put books down — because I do sometimes change my mind!), but I have to conclude that either Thomas is an awful stylist or she doesn’t care about style and is going for something else. I think the latter is true, but the awkward moments do get painful.

For the first 100 pages or so I got annoyed at the way she would move into lengthy passages of back story without giving you enough of a reason to think the back story matters. I found myself wanting to skim these sections. I don’t know how writers do it, exactly, but somehow it seems that if you want to leave the main narrative to move back in time or to tell someone else’s story or explain something or whatever, you need to make the reader see why it’s important and make the reader willing to go there. Instead I thought, okay, when are we getting back to the main story?! I’m bored, and I don’t get what’s going on here! Starting on page five, which is actually the third page of the book, we get a two-page description of a bizarre science book the main character is reading, and it’s unclear why that description is there. It turns out that the book is important to Thomas’s story, but there’s no way to know that at the time, and when I read it, I had no idea why some kooky author’s bizarre theories about the end of the world mattered to the plot. I know getting information across to the reader in a natural, graceful way is difficult, but surely an established literary novelist could do better than this?

And yet I did end up enjoying the book. I became fond of the main character, and I loved the long conversations the characters have where they talk about crazy scientific ideas or the end of the world or how stories work. I love the fact that the main character is a writer who is struggling to figure out how to make the switch from writing genre fiction, which she can do easily, to writing literary fiction, at which she is stalled. She spends a lot of time thinking about differences between the two and why those differences matter and those ideas are great.

But, my god, the dialogue is so awkward! The characters lecture to each other, going on for pages sometimes in a completely unrealistic way. And I was unsure of Thomas’s use of first person. The main character, Meg, tells the story, and is self-aware to a certain extent, or at least her voice is calm and thoughtful, but the boyfriend with whom she is living is clearly depressed and his behavior toward her is emotionally abusive. I found it frustrating and hard to believe that she hadn’t left him a long time ago. She is depressed herself, but I couldn’t quite reconcile her actions with the intelligence and insight of her voice.

I’ve spent most of this post telling you the problems I saw with the book, but the truth is that it won me over, and once it did, I became interested in the question of why I liked it when it’s obviously so flawed. I guess I’m intrigued by the idea that Thomas isn’t interested in trying to follow what we might think of as the rules of good fiction (realistic dialogue, coherent structure, convincing characters). She’s most interested in the ideas the book explores, and since the book explores the question of what fiction is and what its effects are, it’s fitting that she gets a little experimental.

I’ve hardly told you what the book is about, I see. Perhaps I’ll do that in another post.

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Cakes and Ale

Cakes and Ale is the fourth Somerset Maugham novel I’ve read, and with each book I keep changing my opinion of him. I really liked Of Human Bondage, which was my first book, and then I listened to The Painted Veil, which I loved. So far so good; I thought at this point that I should eventually read everything he wrote. Then I got to The Razor’s Edge, which I didn’t like at all. It felt dull and ponderous. I like idea-driven novels, but in that one, I didn’t care about the ideas and didn’t like how they were presented. With Cakes and Ale, I’m beginning to think Maugham may not be quite as good as I thought. There were interesting aspects of the novel and enjoyable moments — particularly the discussions of authors and writing — but I was hoping to love it and I didn’t.

The novel tells the story of the Driffields — Edward Driffield, a famous author, and two Mrs. Driffields, his first wife, Rosie, and his second, Amy. (My edition has a preface by Maugham that says Edward Driffield is most emphatically not Thomas Hardy, in spite of what anybody says, which meant that I spent the entire novel thinking of him as Thomas Hardy, of course.) It’s narrated by William Ashenden, a writer himself who knew Edward and Rosie at various points in his life. There’s another writer involved as well, Alroy Kear, who is planning on writing a biography of Edward, who in the present tense of the novel has passed away. Alroy approaches the narrator in an effort to gather information about Edward’s life, which sends him off on long reminiscences of his time with the Driffields.

The difference between what the narrator remembers about the Driffields, what he chooses to tell Alroy, and what Alroy will actually put in the biography is the novel’s source of tension. The Driffields — Edward and Rosie — were…not quite proper. The narrator first meets the couple when they move into Blackstable, his hometown. Edward’s father was a bailiff and Rosie had worked as a bar maid, which was a big part of the problem, but they also never quite followed the rules as they were supposed to, and everyone knew it. Eventually Edward’s fame as a writer comes to make up for his social deficiencies, but Rosie was always a bit of a scandal.

The novel is really Rosie’s story in many ways, in part because of the narrator’s fascination with her and her bohemian ways that stayed with him all his life. But there’s also the problem of what to do about the troublesome, sexually-suspect first wife after she is gone and the second wife is trying to establish her husband’s reputation as a respectable, important writer. How should that first wife be portrayed in the biography, and what to do about episodes such as the time the Driffields skipped town with debts and servants left unpaid? And what about Rosie’s sexual history?

It’s all a question of class, of course, about how Alroy and Amy Driffield try to transform Edward from his working-class roots into a solid bourgeois, respectable writer and how the narrator questions and resists them. It’s also about writers and writing. Alroy Kear is the object of much scorn from the narrator; not only is he going to whitewash Edward’s past in what is sure to be a bland biography, but his writing, at least according to the narrator, sounds blandly boring as well:

I could think of no one among my contemporaries who had achieved so considerable a position on so little talent. This, like the wise man’s daily dose of Bemax, might have gone into a heaped-up tablespoon. He was perfectly aware of it, and it must have seemed to him sometimes little short of a miracle that he had been able with it to compose already some thirty books. I cannot but think that he saw the white light of revelation when first he read that Thomas Carlyle is an after-dinner speech had stated that genius was an infinite capacity for taking pains. He pondered the saying. If that was all, he must have told himself, he could be a genius like the rest; and when the excited reviewer of a lady’s paper, writing a notice of one of his works, used the word … he must have sighed with the satisfaction of one who after long hours of toil has completed a cross-word puzzle.

There is no room in Alroy Kear’s world for the exoticism that someone like Rosie Driffield can offer, and so the narrator scorns him.

I was disappointed in part by Rosie as a character; the back cover of my edition promises that she is Maugham’s “greatest heroine,” but she never quite came to life for me. It was the moment when the narrator tells us what she wasn’t a big talker that did it: I had pictured her as vivacious and voluble, and when I tried to picture her being quiet, I couldn’t do it. Then I began to doubt that I had really understood her at all. I’m also not entirely sure I like the narrator. There are times his mildly ironic tone is amusing and I can’t help but agree with his dismissal of Alroy Kear, but there’s something off-putting about the voice, something distancing. I suppose the mildly ironic tone gets a little wearying after a while. I don’t think that we are meant to read the narrator uncritically; as a writer himself, he is not exactly a disinterested observer of the fates of Driffield and Kear, and his detached, judgmental attitude toward his subjects seems self-serving. But critiquing the narrator in this way wasn’t enough to make the book a satisfying read.

I read this book for the Slaves of Golconda and am jumping over to join the discussion right now. Please feel free to join in!

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The Daughter of Time

My mystery book group met this past weekend to discuss Josephine Tey’s mystery The Daughter of Time. In a way, I’d like to write simply that while it’s not a historical novel, it’s all about Richard III, that you have to be prepared for some serious history, and that it’s really good and I liked it a lot, and leave it at that. Because that it wasn’t historical fiction but was all about Richard III is all I knew about it when I picked the book up, and I’m glad I didn’t know more. So if you’re interested in reading this book, you might stop here.

I was glad not to know more because I was delighted to discover the structure of the novel: the fact that it takes place solely in a hospital room and that nothing happens action-wise except people coming and going, bringing books and having conversations about them. What an unusual structure for a mystery novel, and how cleverly done! I love that the mystery is entirely historical, about the question of whether Richard killed the two princes in the Tower and if he didn’t, then who did. (As a side note, I was in the Tower just a few weeks ago, and now I wish I’d read this book beforehand. They had an exhibit about the question of Richard’s guilt, and you could vote on who you think the murderer was. Alas, I can’t remember who the other options were.) I love that the mystery is solved solely through historical research and logical deduction. Although there’s a lot of intuition involved as well, as the whole mystery gets going when Tey’s detective, Grant, decides that Richard does not look like a murderer. He has this feeling, based on his years working with criminals, that Richard isn’t one.

I also loved how the mystery branches out from the question of who killed those princes to questions of history and history writing. As much as the characters research historical events, they also think a lot about how we learn history, what we remember and don’t remember from our history classes in school, the various ways history gets written, and why historical untruths get perpetuated. Tey is great at covering a whole lot of ground answering these questions without making it seem formulaic or contrived. Grant and his fellow researcher, Carradine, get a hold of history textbooks, historical fiction, scholarly tomes, and contemporary accounts and documents, and they survey various types of people on what they remember and what they believe about history, all without awkwardness in the narrative. And it turns out that history is shockingly unreliable. People believe things they’ve heard from authorities they no longer remember, and often those “authorities” turn out to be biased or lazy researchers or too busy looking at the larger picture to get the details right. And once people believe a certain thing, they resent finding out otherwise. Rather than accepting correction and being grateful for the truth, they get angry at the person bringing the news.

The book’s epigraph is “Truth is the daughter of time.” Wikipedia just told me that the full sentence is “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority,” from Francis Bacon. That explains the title — the idea that time will eventually lead to truth and will win out over so-called authorities — but I wonder how much the book really backs up that idea. Grant and Carradine are on a quest for truth, and at least within the frame of the book they find it, and yet theirs seems a lonely crusade in a world that seems determined to cling to falsehood. Carradine has decided by the end to write a book against “tonypandy,” their term for received versions of events that turn out to be false, but who can really win against common opinion that’s been passed down for generations? I’m not quite sure if this book is undermining the idea that time will bring us closer to truth, or, more simply, celebrating Grant and Carradine as savvier, smarter seekers of truth than most other people. What it certainly does do is celebrate the joy of research and discovery. Rarely in a novel is scholarly research shown in such detail and made to seem so much fun.

Grant is very suspicious of the way history gets written as narrative. He wants facts, concrete bits of information gleaned from primary sources, not the stories woven around those facts — or woven around no facts at all, which is often the case. But we can’t do without narrative — without turning history into a story. All Grant is doing is creating a counter-narrative to the one historians and textbooks have been telling all along. And that is what Tey is doing as well, of course, making the argument that by delving into facts and turning those facts into a narrative, the detective and the novelist — neither of whom are “authorities” — can reveal something true. Whether we believe it or not is another matter.

The opinions in my book group were generally positive, although not everyone liked Grant’s rather arrogant manner. The question arose of whether this book works well the second time around, and I’m wondering as well if I would like it as much if I were to read it again. Once you understand the premise and the trajectory of the book, it might not be as much fun to wade through all the historical details, which do take quite a lot of wading through. Anybody out there who has read this multiple times have opinions?

This is the second Tey mystery I’ve read, and both have done such interesting things with the genre that I’d like to read more. This one has practically no action directly described, and Miss Pym Disposes only turns into a mystery in the last 1/4 of the book and is as interested in psychology as an academic discipline as The Daughter of Time is interested in history. I’m looking forward to seeing what other unusual things Tey has done with the mystery genre.

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The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

I read this book (courtesy of NetGalleys) while in London and on the way home, so it was a while ago now, and it’s high time I say something about it. It tells the story of a couple, Sabine and George Harwood, who move from England to Trinidad in order to advance George’s career. They don’t know it at the time, but they are on the last ship to bring British colonials into the country (Sabine is French, but has married an Englishman). Shortly after they arrive, change begins to happen: Trinidad eventually gains its independence under their charismatic although ultimately disappointing leader, Eric Williams, and the white colonists will lose their status and power.

The novel has an interesting structure: for the first third or so, it takes place in 2006 and portrays an elderly George and Sabine, describing how their marriage has evolved, how their children have turned out, and what their lives have become. After this section, we move back in time to read about their arrival in Trinidad in 1956, and we follow them in later sections through the 1960s and 70s. This backwards structure works well to show how George and Sabine end up where they do: we see the results of their lives in Trinidad first, and then we look back to the causes. So we read about their unhappiness — their overwhelming feeling of listlessness and pointlessness, their estrangement from their children, their isolation, their sense that it could have been completely different — and then we turn to their younger selves and read about the series of decisions that led to their remaining in Trinidad even when nearly all other British families left. They never intended to stay longer than a couple years, or at least that’s what Sabine believed. She was always eager to go, but George fell in love with the place and resisted a move. Eventually, they become part of the island and could no longer fit in back in England if they were to return.

The novel tells the story of their marriage, and also of the political and social changes happening in Trinidad, and the two stories come together in the figure of Eric Williams, the first Prime Minister. In the 2006 section, George finds a collection of letters Sabine has written to Williams — tons of letters, describing her life, her marriage, and her feelings about Williams’s administration. These letters bewilder George — why did she write him so much? Did she know him? It turns out that she met him a few times and they had a couple conversations, but mostly the relationship was carried on in her head. Writing the letters was her way of making sense of the changes happening in her life and in the country, and also of getting a little bit of revenge on George, who was unfaithful to her. Williams is one of the book’s main symbols: a symbol of hope at first, of possibility, and then of disappointment and disillusionment. He becomes a way for Sabine to focus and express her hopes and then her anger.

The other main symbol is the green bicycle of the title: the bicycle Sabine used to ride to explore the city and meet her husband after his day’s work. This was a highly unconventional thing to do, although Sabine didn’t know this at first; she thought she was just enjoying herself and being free-spirited, when she was getting a reputation that stuck with her for being different from all the other British women. As Sabine loses her youthful energy and happiness, the bicycle appears less and less until it is abandoned.

Roffey does a very good capturing the complexity of the situation and telling the two stories — the personal one and the political one — so that while they are connected, they are not conflated or collapsed into each other. The Harwood marriage is powerfully affected by the political context, but it’s not simply a way of making a political point, and the political context takes on a life on its own and is not merely a device with which to tell the story of a marriage. And Roffey also describes the landscape of Trinidad beautifully. In fact, both George and Sabine personify that landscape and talk to it so that it becomes a kind of character in its own right.

Roffey does so much well here, and I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t have that feeling of excitement about it that I always hope for. I didn’t fall in love with it, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think I’m feeling some boredom with contemporary fiction — not all of it, but with more straightforwardly realistic contemporary novels. I suppose that while Roffey’s use of language is accomplished, it didn’t bowl me over in the way I want. But there is much to praise in this book, still, and it kept me good company while I was traveling.

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Open City, by Teju Cole

I just finished Teju Cole’s recent novel Open City last night, and although I had some doubts about it early on, it ended up winning me over and by the time I finished, I was loving it. Open City is often compared to W.G. Sebald’s books, and I felt about Cole the same way I feel about Sebald: I love the idea of the books but am not always sure about the execution. What bothers me at times is the reticence and emotional distance of the narrators. That is exactly what bothered me about Peter Stamm’s novel Seven Years. At times the writing in all these books crosses the line from being calm, quiet, and meditative into being dull.

But I do admire much in Sebald, and Cole’s novel finally won me over. It is about a man in his 30s, Julius, who is a psychiatrist in training and who spends his free time walking around New York City and, briefly, Brussels. The novel has no plot, but simply describes the narrator’s experiences and thoughts as he observes and interacts with people and with the city’s art and history. His thoughts keep returning to similar themes, so the various stories, descriptions, and meditations, rather than a plot line, provide the book’s coherence. Julius is fascinated by cities and the way their history is built in layers, with traces of the past existing underneath the present, like a palimpsest. As he walks, he notices traces of history: monuments and plaques and old buildings that don’t fit in their new neighborhoods. He describes the changes shops, buildings, and blocks have undergone. He is also interested in how people interact in cities, the way the crowds look and what it feels like to walk down streets and in and out of shops. He is extremely observant but is not only an observer; he often strikes up conversations with people or finds people talking to him. Although he comes across as reserved, he makes friends, or at least acquaintances, easily.

He also thinks about issues on a larger scale: the long and sad history of human violence, religious  and racial conflicts, the way identity is constructed and how that construction can lead to social and political tension. He has conversations with a recent acquaintance in Brussels about orientalism and east/west tensions, and the anger many immigrants in Europe feel at their often unwelcome reception and uncertain status. Inevitably, back in New York, he thinks about the World Trade Center and everything the empty space where the towers used to stand says about human conflicts that just won’t go away.

We also get his thoughts on his own history and personal experiences:  his relationships with his German mother and his Nigerian father, what it was like going to his boarding school in Nigeria and moving to America at 17, the racial tensions he experienced in both places, the grandmother he would like to reconnect with but can’t find. It’s in search of this grandmother that he goes to Brussels, but he only looks for her halfheartedly, and he doesn’t explain this reasons for his halfheartedness. I got the feeling as I read along, that there were a lot of things Julius wasn’t really explaining. He and a girlfriend have just broken up, and he describes his ambivalent feelings about her and his sorrow at their ended relationship, but there’s a sense he is not plumbing the depths of his feelings with us. He tends to stay on the surface of things, as one walking around a city observes from the outside and only gets brief glimpses at the life going on inside the houses and shops.

What makes this novel work is the way its themes and motifs weave their way in and out of the text, creating repetitions and echoes that resonate the whole way through. It’s easy to miss these connections if you read too quickly; this is a book that asks you to slow down and savor its images and juxtapositions. There is often a quietly ironic tone as one anecdote contrasts or obliquely comments on another one, and it’s a pleasure to follow the path of Julius’s thoughts, which are as suggestive as his walks, even if they are the same time disorderly and directionless.

Or perhaps the thoughts and the walks only seem directionless. There’s certainly a craft to creating the impression of drifting while at the same time actually getting somewhere. We don’t arrive at any new place or at some new realization or lesson, but we end up at a feeling of completion, of the pieces fitting together, the ideas connecting to one another. The novel reminds me of one of my favorite essays, “Street Haunting” by Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s tone is much lighter than Cole’s, but both writers use the occasion of a city walk to meditate on subjects large and small, moving (seemingly) effortlessly from the mundane to the philosophical in the space of a paragraph. It’s quite a trick to do that, and it’s a trick I admire very much.

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Seven Years

My Ireland trip is fast approaching (this coming Thursday), and I’m losing my motivation to do anything but read and nap in preparation for vacation sloth. But I wanted to write something at least about Peter Stamm’s novel Seven Years before too much time passes. This novel is written in a distanced, emotionally-detached style while taking as its subject matter emotional detachment. It makes me wonder the extent to which those two things necessarily go together. Perhaps it is possible to write a heated, passionate novel about emotional coldness, but Seven Years is written in the first person from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know much about what he feels and wants, which makes a certain amount of detachment and distance in the writing inevitable.

The story is about a love triangle involving the narrator, Alex, his wife, Sonia, and Ivona, a woman with whom Alex has an inexplicable attraction — inexplicable to him as well as to everyone else who knows them — ever since he met her. Alex and Sonia meet in architecture school in Munich and go on to run an architecture business together. Their relationship begins in a halting, uncertain manner. There is more awkwardness than passion between them; it is as though they know intellectually that they are suited for one another rather than feeling it emotionally.

Alongside the development of this relationship is Alex’s conflicted, on-again, off-again obsession with Ivona, an illegal immigrant from Poland who works in a bookshop. Ivona is unattractive, everyone seems to agree, and also uninteresting. She has nothing of Sonia’s intelligence, style, and poise. She is described in harsh, unforgiving terms as lumpish and bovine. And yet Alex can’t forget her, and he keeps returning to her again and again through his courtship of and marriage to Sonia. Alex is cruel to Ivona and doesn’t seem to care much about it; he knows that she has latched onto him and pinned her hopes on his leaving his wife for her, but still he keeps coming back, not caring much what emotional turmoil she experiences.

This, as you can see, is one of those books where none of the characters are likable and there is no one to sympathize with, except perhaps Ivona, although even there I found her naivete and stubbornness irritating. I don’t mind at all not having anyone to like in the book, however, since the intellectual puzzle of the characters is interesting enough. Alex himself is the biggest mystery, both to himself and to the reader, but Sonia is a puzzle as well, what she knows about Alex and how much she cares. Both characters are living out the life society expects of them, running their business, acquiring a home, raising a child, but they do all this listlessly, carelessly, and only slowly and in the smallest steps do they discover who they are and what they want.

What I found disappointing about the book was that it was hard not to feel as detached and uncertain about the characters as they felt about each other and themselves. Detachment is interesting as a concept, but it doesn’t make for very engaging reading. Here is Alex thinking about Sonia’s past and her personality:

Sonia never did talk much. It often felt as though she had no previous life, or whatever it was had left no traces except in the photograph albums on her bookshelf, which she never took out. When I looked at the pictures, I had the sense that they came from another life. Now and then I asked Sonia about her time with Rudiger, and she gave me monosyllabic replies. She said she never asked me what I’d done before either. It doesn’t bother me, I said. After all, you’re mine now. But Sonia was stubbornly silent. Sometimes I wondered if it wasn’t that there was just nothing to say.

That there might be just nothing to say is an interesting proposition, although a sad one, but it’s interesting — in this novel at least — only in an abstract, analytical way. Still, Stamm captures well the state of not knowing oneself and the consequences that result. At the heart of the book is an emptiness that is frightening. It surely took some courage to try to capture that emptiness on the page.

For another take on the novel, see Michelle’s review of it at the journal Necessary Fiction.

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The Tragedy of Arthur

Arthur Phillips’s new novel The Tragedy of Arthur was great fun. I’ve seen comparisons of this book to Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and the comparison works to a certain extent — they have a similar structure, both made up of a primary text and a commentary on that text — but it’s a rather unfortunate comparison for Phillips’s sake because who can compare to the great Nabokov? This book doesn’t have the insane brilliance of Pale Fire, but there’s a charm and wit to it that are appealing.

The text in Phillips’s case is a “newly discovered” long-lost Shakespeare play, printed in its entirety in the back of the book. The commentary takes the form of a memoir and fills up the first 250 or so pages. This commentary/memoir was supposed to be a standard critical introduction, but the guy who owns the manuscript, a character named Arthur Phillips, agreed to publish the introduction himself and decided to do it exactly as he wanted. It takes the unusual form of a long self-justification including his entire life story and an argument about the play’s authenticity. This question of authenticity is at the heart of the book, and it’s a particularly vexed question because the man who “discovered” the play, Arthur Phillips’s father, is a notorious con man who spent much of his adult life in jail for various forgeries (another book hovering in the background is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which is also about artistic forgeries and a difficult father/son relationship).

In this memoir of sorts — which describes a life at least superficially resembling the real Arthur Phillips’s life, both people having published the same novels and lived in at least some of the same places — Phillips tells the story of what it was like to grow up with a criminally unreliable father. This is a father who woke his two children up in the middle of the night, Arthur and his twin sister Dana, and dragged them around a field with strange, heavy machinery for hours and hours in order to convince people that aliens had left crop circles. Arthur grows up not knowing whether anything his father gives him — a signed baseball for example — is real or a forgery. As you can imagine, Arthur has some psychological issues to work out.

His father’s legacy wasn’t all about forgery, however. The cons and forgeries had at their root — or at least this is how the father would explain it — a certain creativity and love of creating experiences of wonder. Thinking about the crop circle and the farmer who originally found it, Arthur writes,

My father didn’t want to make people stupider or mock stupidity or celebrate stupidity. When the farmer said, “The shape. The shape is so … beautiful, so …” and trailed off, my father was right there with him in spirit. I suspect that he wished, of all the participants in this whole enterprise, to be that farmer, to be fooled. My father had given him (and the world) this glimpse of something hidden. He was only dissatisfied to be the giver and not the recipient.

The father is also, along with Dana, thoroughly obsessed with Shakespeare. Arthur grew up with Shakespeare’s language forever in his ears. But this also is a complicated legacy. Arthur decides early on that he doesn’t like Shakespeare much, and while he correctly points out that this isn’t at all unusual, in his case it has at least something to do with the fact that Dana and their father bond over a love of the playwright and Arthur feels left out. He loves his sister dearly and feels he has some very weighty competition for her attention.

So, when his father bequeaths Arthur the lost Shakespeare play, Arthur has some serious thinking to do. Is it possible that this one time his father is telling the truth?

The memoir part of this book is a mix of a whole bunch of things — in addition to memoir, it’s also an anti-memoir, as Arthur complains about the genre every chance he gets, although it’s clear he needs the genre in order to make his point about his father and thus about the Shakespeare (?) play. It also contains a synopsis of the play, because that’s what an introduction is supposed to do, of course, and in that same spirit, it discusses the play’s themes and background. In addition to being all mixed up with the personal stories, however, this critical material is shaped in such a way as to further Arthur’s arguments about his father. It all ultimately revolves around Arthur himself — is the character Arthur in the play The Tragedy of Arthur supposed to be him? Was his father sending him a message?

Arthur writes notes for the play as well, and here it’s personal too: some of the notes speculate on where his father might have gotten his material from, if indeed he did write the play himself. In addition to Arthur’s notes, there are notes from a Shakespeare scholar, and these two voices contradict each other. In addition to everything else going on in this book, it’s also about the uncertainty of scholarship and the impossibility of finding a truly objective point of view. Arthur is obviously a biased reader — given the circumstances there is no way he could be anything else — but the scholar’s readings struck me as questionable as well. It’s clear that he wants the play to be authentic  and some of his justifications and explanations seemed just as unreliable as Arthur’s speculations.

As for the play itself, it’s not bad. Those who claim it’s authentic say that it’s clearly very early Shakespeare, which means readers should not expect greatness of the Hamlet level and that is most certainly not what you get. But for what it is — whatever that is — it’s entertaining, with some fine speeches, interesting action, and a little bit of humor.

This is a playful book — complete with author biographies and publication lists of both Arthur Phillips and Shakespeare, because Shakespeare deserves credit, of course! — and I love that spirit. Give me a highly literary, self-reflexive, self-aware book that’s good but doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I’m a happy reader.

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Maisie Dobbs: A Lesson in Secrets

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is the only series of mystery novels I’ve read in its entirety and that I make a point of keeping up with. I always enjoy them, although I don’t think they are top-notch novels. They are fun, but mostly I keep reading them because I want to find out what happens to the character, and I also find the process of reading through an entire series interesting. I like watching what happens to her over the years, the relationships that begin and end, the jobs that come and go, the ways her personality and experiences change. I like seeing just how much Winspear will develop her character over the course of one book and how she ends certain stories and begins new ones.

I also like seeing how Winspear deals with the changing historical context — the 1920s into the 1930s — and how that context shapes the mysteries Maisie attempts to solve. The earlier books focused on the lingering consequences of World War I, especially veterans suffering from war wounds, both physical and mental, that they couldn’t quite recover from. More recently, and especially in this latest book, Winspear is beginning to shift her focus onto the new conflict on its way, although World War I still plays an important role in the story. There is a heavy sense of foreboding in A Lesson in Secrets; the more perceptive characters are aware that the situation in Germany is looking more and more dangerous, and people are beginning to discuss Hitler and the Nazi party.

In A Lesson in Secrets, Maisie is approached by the British Secret Service. They want her to take on a job teaching philosophy at a college in Cambridge to keep an eye on possibly subversive activity there. The college was founded with the goal of promulgating peace by bringing students from many different countries together. As will be no surprise to mystery readers, it’s not too long before someone gets murdered, at which point Maisie has two jobs — her original undercover work and her efforts to solve the murder. Her detective work leads her in interesting directions — she learns about a man who wrote young adult books espousing pacificism that were so powerful that disillusioned soldiers in the trenches of World War I stopped fighting. She also investigates students and staff from the college who attend pro-Nazi rallies in London. Maisie is worried that the Secret Service is not taking these meetings seriously enough.

I described her as having two jobs, but really, of course, she has three, which is the thing that drove me a little crazy about this book. In addition to her complicated detective work (there is another subplot about a missing friend, although she is not in charge of that investigation), she is becoming a teacher for the first time. I just could not believe that anybody could take up teaching quite as easily and naturally as Maisie does, all the while spending most of her time on her investigations. She has no worries or angst about what goes on in the classroom; she carries around a stack of papers, but doesn’t seem to spend much time reading them; and we don’t learn much about how and when she prepares for class. And this after being out of an academic environment for many years. Oh, and she gets the job very, very easily, although that may have been because of connections and the Secret Service pulling strings. But she only needs to spend a week or two preparing for her interview and her new classes, apparently having forgotten absolutely nothing of the curriculum from her Cambridge years.

This touches on something that has bothered me about Maisie before — she is just too perfect. Yes, she has flaws, but they feel fake — not really flaws, just struggles that come out of her poor childhood and her World War I nursing experiences. She would feel more human to me if she did stupid things occasionally, or if she forgot something important, or if her amazing intuitive powers failed her now and then.

But still, I enjoy reading these books, and they always give me things to think about, even, sometimes, if it’s thoughts about what didn’t work.

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Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda

It’s been a while since I finished The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda, published by Open Letter Books, so details of individual stories are a little hazy, but overall, the collection impressed me. The stories are full of drama and passion, not at all like the quiet stories with small epiphanies that you find so often in American short fiction. I like quiet stories as well, but it was a nice change to have more action, more bright, vibrant characters and overpowering emotions.

Rodoreda is a Catalan writer who died in 1983; these stories come from three collections published in 1958, 1978, and one that (as far as I can tell) was collected after her death. These stories are published in chronological order, and become more experimental toward the end, moving toward a more impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness style. I was less taken with these stories than with the more realistic ones, but it was interesting to see her moving in new directions and experimenting with new styles.

Most of the stories are short; there are 30 stories in 255 pages, and some of them are only two or three pages long. Rodoreda captures a wonderful depth of emotion and life in such a short space. For example in the story “Ice Cream,” only a little over two pages long, a man and woman get engaged while eating ice cream but have entirely different responses to their engagement, responses that foreshadow years of unhappiness. The man cannot bear to be parted from his lover:

It was always the same: As the moment of parting approached, it seemed as if a bucket of sadness was being poured over him, and he would hardly utter a word during the time they had left together.

While she, on the other hand, feels trapped:

She spread her fingers to look at [the ring], stretched her arm out, and turned her hand from side to side. With secret regret she thought about her hand only a moment before, without a ring, nimble and free. Her eyes welled up.

There are many similar moments in these stories, moments when people can’t communicate their emotions or feel trapped by them. In one of my favorite stories, “Carnival,” a young man and woman meet unexpectedly on the street when she asks him, previously a stranger, for directions to the taxi stand. When they can’t find a taxi, they decide to walk. They are both in costume for the carnival, and there is a feeling of possibility and excitement in the air. They walk for hours as though they are in another, magical world. But the illusion of other-worldliness is destroyed when it begins to rain, they become exhausted, and are accosted by a man demanding money from them. The young man describes his disappointment with the night:

I wanted to make this evening … I don’t know how to explain … a night like this! I wanted a memory, something I could cling to, keep for the future. Because I will never take any trips, or write poetry. And it’s not true that I study. I used to, now I work. I have a younger brother and I’m head of the household. So, now you know it all. You also know what a bad impression I’ve made. I’ve made a fool of myself.

For her part, she is filled with sadness at his disappointment, but also wishes he would just disappear — his intensity is almost too much for her to take. Both of them are overwhelmed by the journey — a journey through the city but also a journey into their own hearts.

There is a wide range of situations, characters, and perspectives in these stories, but each one has an intensity to it that makes for exciting reading. I enjoyed these stories very much and am curious what her novel-length fiction is like.

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The Transit of Venus

I was not entirely sure what to make of Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus while I was reading it, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it now. I enjoyed the book very much in the way that I enjoy reading slow, demanding books occasionally, and part of that enjoyment comes from the fact that I don’t mind feeling a little bit at sea. It’s not so much the complex language that made me feel that way, although the language certainly is dense. It’s that it took me a while to figure out the mood and the focus of the book, and I’m still figuring it out.

As I read through the first half or so of the book, I kept wondering exactly where Hazzard was taking the story. In the beginning, we learn about two sisters who grew up in Australia and are now living in England. One of the sisters, Grace, is engaged to be married. She is a fairly conventional young woman who is happy to follow the traditional path of marriage and motherhood. The other, Caro, is more complicated, not gifted with Grade’s ability to please others without effort. She is independent and a little prickly. It is clear from the beginning that her life will be more difficult.

So I thought it would be a novel about the relationship of these two sisters and how Grace’s marriage affects it — which is partly what the book is about, but it’s not really the main point. Then we come to a flashback about the sisters’ childhood in Australia growing up with their emotionally manipulative and truly awful half-sister, Dora. I thought then that the book would move back and forth regularly between the past and the present, showing how the one created the other. But that’s not really what happens, either.

Instead, the book expands outward from its opening scenes, moving forward through many years to cover long stretches of the main characters’ lives. And it also shifts from character to character, moving away from the two sisters now and then to tell other stories. It expands outward in terms of place as well; there are sections in New York and in South America, as well as the flashbacks to Australia.

Ultimately, I think, the book is about relationships and the various ways they develop, mostly, unfortunately, in sad ways. Grace’s relationship with her husband, Christian Thrale, ends up complicated. Caro marries happily, but … something goes wrong there too, something entirely different from what happens to Grace. Ted Tice, a character introduced to the two sisters early on, spends his whole life longing for Caro, who is indifferent to him. And then there is Paul Ivory. He is engaged to be married to a neighborhood woman, but he and Caro begin an affair, one that reveals Caro’s depths and Paul’s harshness.

All this sounds a little soap opera-ish, and if I were to give away the entire plot, it would sound even more so. But that’s not the way the book feels. Instead, Hazzard captures the experiences and emotions of her characters with depth and subtlety. One of the most memorable sections for me is when Caro is living alone in London working as a lowly secretary to a horrible, sexist, stingy man. She is lonely and has no money. When Dora is suffering and needs help — Dora, the half-sister who was supposed to raise her and failed utterly at it — Caro raises money and sets out to help her even though it’s a huge sacrifice. Christian Thrale, Grace’s husband, doesn’t lift a finger to help, even though he has the means to do so. The depths of Caro’s isolation seem bottomless. Her life does improve, but it’s hard as a reader to forget just how bad things once were. It makes sense not to trust happiness in this book.

I’ve been discussing the book with other Slaves of Golconda readers over at the discussion boards, and the consensus seems to be that it would richly reward a rereading. There are a couple crucial moments where the narrative flashes forward, and without catching those moments, the reader might be lost at the end. But I hear there are other instances of foreshadowing that I didn’t catch the first time around that would be great to explore on a reread.

If you would like to read more about the book, there are lots of posts on it over at the Slaves site. It’s an excellent book for a group discussion!

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Mystery Man

My mystery book group met this past Saturday to discuss Mystery Man by Colin Bateman. It was a good discussion, as always, about a book that struck me as strange. The book didn’t quite come together for me, but it was very funny, at least in places, and kind of a puzzle to think about. What made it so odd was the fact that it’s written in first person from the point of view of a man who is mentally disturbed, to one degree or another. It’s a little hard to tell just what’s going on with him because, of course, he’s the narrator and we get no other perspective on the story. This made reading the book as uncomfortable as it was amusing.

The narrator is strange, paranoid, and often kind of nasty, although this is presented in a funny way. He lives in Belfast and owns a mystery book shop, and he’s the kind of guy who sells a customer a map when they ask for directions, even though he could easily point the way. He needs to make money after all. And there are scenes like this one:

So he gave me their number and said they were on the Newtownards Road and I thanked him for his time and still suitably enthused, or bored, I was about to phone them when the shop door opened and a man came in and asked if I could recommend the new John Grisham and I said, yes, if you’re a moron.

It’s enough to make me wonder how in the world this guy (unnamed) ever keeps a bookstore open. His methods of drumming up business involve hosting events like Serial Killer Week, and inviting the famous author Brendan Coyle to teach creative writing classes. Coyle is a local author of literary fiction who “dabbles” in crime writing every now and then (and could be, as Emily points out, John Banville/Benjamin Black):

He is a vain, boorish snob, and sometimes I wonder why I ever bothered inviting him to teach a monthly creative writing class in No Alibis.

Then I remember that it’s because he does it for nothing and that I also sell a lot of books off the back of his visits. The only reason he does it for free is that I convinced him that he should be giving something back to ‘his’ people, and he was sucker enough to fall for it. I like to think that every minute he spends talking twaddle in No Alibis in one minute fewer spent trying to write crime, which is a blessing for us all.

The narrator turns into a detective when the real detective in the shop next door disappears. The missing detective’s customers wander over into the mystery bookshop hoping they can find some help there. The narrator is skeptical of their plaintive requests for help at first, but he soon gets caught up in the fun of solving cases, all of which he gives a name such as The Case of Mrs. Geary’s Leather Trousers or The Case of the Fruit on the Flyover. Eventually a really big case comes along, The Case of the Musical Jews (or, in earlier editions of the book, The Case of the Dancing Jews — Bateman changed details in later editions to make his story different from the real-life story of a woman named Helen Lewis).

The narrator needs to be pushed into taking on this big case, however. As a paranoiac, he is utterly afraid of just about everything, and he knows this case could be dangerous. It’s the woman who works across the street, Alison, the woman whom the narrator has had a crush on and has spied on for years, who is enthusiastic enough about taking on detective work to push the narrator into it. He keeps calling her his sidekick and getting upset when she takes too much initiative, but it seems pretty clear that she provides much of the brains and just about all of the energy and ambition of their operation. The two of them, along with the narrator’s assistant, Jeff, work together with varying degrees of competence and sanity until the case is solved.

Bateman’s sense of humor isn’t exactly mine, but still, there was an awful lot in this book that was funny, and the book seemed even funnier during the group discussion, as we retold the best stories and laughed over them. Hobgoblin loved this book and particularly the narrator, but for me, there was something about him that never quite came into focus. I wasn’t sure exactly how reliable he was, if at all, and if he’s completely unreliable, then where does that leave the reader? There weren’t many opportunities to see the narrator from other people’s perspectives in order to begin to figure him out, and there was a lot he never told us about himself. The book is very much a spoof of detective novels, which is part of the fun of it, but it was hard to tell whether it was merely a spoof, or whether there was something more serious going on at the same time.

I also had trouble believing the relationship between the narrator and Alison. He has had a crush on her forever, pretty much, and the story of how they meet is fun. But after that, there are a number of scenes where he treats her quite badly, and she is always ready to forgive and forget, unrealistically, worryingly so. But, again, I was unsure how seriously to take all this. Is the author mocking wildly unrealistic relationships in novels, or … not? I kept hoping for some answers to these questions and never really found them.

I wonder whether I would have had these problems had the author’s sense of humor been more like my own. We discussed in our group the possibility that Irish readers might find the book funnier and more coherent than American readers. Bateman seems to be writing for an Irish audience (which makes sense, of course) and does little to help readers from elsewhere along. Maybe it partly boils down to a matter of culture.

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E.F. Benson’s Mrs. Ames

Mrs. Ames is the second book by E.F. Benson that I’ve read; a couple years ago I read his Queen Lucia and enjoyed it quite a lot (I received Mrs. Ames through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program). Mrs. Ames, published in 1912, covers much the same territory as Queen Lucia, published 8 years later. Both books are about small-town English life among the leisured classes. They are about gossip, dinner parties, and social rivalry. Neither book delves into anything terribly deep, dramatic, or tragic. In both books Benson shows affection for his pampered, petty characters, while at the same time making it clear just how absurd they are.

Queen Lucia is about Lucia’s struggle to maintain her control over the local social scene, and Mrs. Ames finds herself doing the exact same thing. The threat to Mrs. Ames takes a while to emerge, but it turns out to be Mrs. Evans, the doctor’s wife, who is relatively new to town. She has ideas for entertainments — masked costume parties! — that the town has never seen before. She also, more ominously, begins to spend more and more time with Mr. Ames, and the two of them begin a flirtation. It is entirely innocent to begin with, but over the course of the book grows increasingly serious.

Mrs. Ames sees what is going on and does her best to win her husband’s attention back, although, at the same time, she begins to wonder just how happy she is in her marriage. Her attempts to win back her husband’s affections provide some of the book’s uncomfortable comedy: she tries a wrinkle cream and colors her hair to get rid of the gray, but, sadly, her husband doesn’t notice and the women think she looks odd and see right through her attempts to regain youthfulness. It’s kind of pathetic, and yet perfectly understandable and sad.

In an effort to regain her place at the center of society that Mrs. Evans took away with her costume party, Mrs. Ames takes up the cause of women’s suffrage. Here’s where the book gets particularly interesting, and where the comic tone wavers a bit. Mrs. Ames began not caring at all about votes for women, only wanting to make a splash and force people to choose sides, but over time she finds she is genuinely concerned. The suffragist movement speaks to her vague feelings of dissatisfaction with her life and her marriage, and she sees that having greater independence and political involvement could bring a new meaning to life.

This part of the story climaxes in a scene where Mrs. Ames is forced to choose between, on the one hand, her loyalty to her husband and the codes of politeness she has spent her whole life blindly following, and, on the other, her new-found belief in votes for women. Her husband has invited a local politician to dinner, the very same man, unfortunately, that the suffragist group has decided to heckle during his speech later that day.

How Mrs. Ames resolves this dilemma and whether her unhappiness and her husband’s love affair will rip apart the social order provide the drama for the rest of the novel. I enjoyed the book very much, although it’s the book’s unevenness of tone that, strangely, made me like it: I found it fascinating that Benson was willing to take the story in a darker direction than anything in Queen Lucia, even if it disrupted the tone of light comedy established earlier in the book. The novel’s portrayal of women’s fight for the vote is mixed, but Benson does write some moving passages about Mrs. Ames’s self-awakening, and he is far from dismissive of her unhappiness. So, while this may not be a brilliant novel, it’s an entertaining, funny one that offers much that’s serious to think about.

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Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is already fading a bit from memory, since immediately after it I read Mrs. Ames by E.F. Benson, and the two books have some major similarities. They are both about English village life, they are both examples of the novel of manners, and they are both extremely readable with charming and gently ironic narrative voices. More on Mrs. Ames later.

Simonson’s book tells the story of Major Pettigrew and his friendship with Mrs. Ali, a Pakistani woman who owns a shop in town. It’s the type of small town society we’ve all heard about if not lived in ourselves, where everybody knows everybody’s business and the life of the town revolves around social events and gossip. Being a novel of English small town life, it’s very much about class and also about race. As Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali begin to spend more time together, the gossip begins and some ugly attitudes emerge.

The novel is also about family dynamics. As the story begins, Major Pettigrew has just lost his brother Bertie; once the funeral is over, it’s time to start thinking about what will happen to Bertie’s antique Churchill gun, one of a matched pair, the other of which the Major owns. It’s no surprise to learn that while the Major’s father clearly wished the pair to be reunited upon the death of one of the brothers, the new widow is reluctant to give the valuable weapon up. Conflicts ensue.

The story is a pleasurable one; Simonson handles the romance between the Major and Mrs. Ali very well, and she brings her characters together in entertainingly dramatic scenes. What I enjoyed most, though, is the narrative voice. Simonson is excellent at creating an understated, quiet, but nonetheless very funny satirical tone. The Major’s son Roger is particularly ridiculous: he is obsessed with appearances and social climbing and he and his American girlfriend (yes, the Americans in this book are the horrible clueless Americans of the stereotype) are self-absorbed, rude, and generally awful. For example, in this passage Roger asks the Major whether he will vouch for him as he and his girlfriend try to rent a cottage. Roger says:

“The issue is the widowed Mrs. Augerspier. She wants to sell the cottage to the ‘right’ people. I need you to come with us and be your most distinguished and charming self.”

“So you would like me to come and kiss the hand of the poor widow like some continental gigolo until she is confused into accepting your meager offer for a property that probably represents her entire nest egg?” asked the Major.

“Exactly,” said Roger. “Is Thursday at two good for you?”

Simonson is also particularly good at handling the issues of race and colonialism that underlie the story. The Major is a little out of his depth as he meets Mrs. Ali’s extended family, but his politeness gets him through his encounters with an unfamiliar culture. Mrs. Ali shows grace and patience as she deals with the clueless and rude townspeople who don’t quite manage to acknowledge her as a real person with thoughts and feelings. Simonson deals with the colonialism issue partly by having the Major and Mrs. Ali read Kipling together. As they discuss him, they delicately touch on the colonial legacy that shaped both of their lives:

“I used to consider myself a bit of a Kipling enthusiast,” said the Major. “I’m afraid he’s rather an unfashionable choice these days, isn’t he?”

“You mean not popular among us, the angry former natives”? she asked with an arch of one eyebrow.

“No, of course not …” said the Major, not feeling equipped to respond to such a direct remark …

“I did give [Kipling] up for many decades,” she said. “He seemed such a part of those who refuse to reconsider what the Empire meant. But as I get older, I find myself insisting on my right to be philosophically sloppy. It’s so hard to maintain that rigor of youth, isn’t it?”

“I applaud your logic,” said the Major, swallowing any urge to defend the Empire his father had proudly served. “Personally, I have no patience with all this analyzing of writers’ politics. “The man wrote some thirty-five books — let them analyze the prose.”

The Major and Mrs. Ali are such charming characters. I’ll confess that I got some of the minor ones confused now and then, but the Major and Mrs. Ali are wonderful company to keep while reading a novel. There is much to admire and enjoy in this book, particularly if a quiet love story and a book about small town conflicts appeals to you. Simonson does an excellent job with her material.

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The Matchmaker of Kenmare

Frank Delaney’s novel The Matchmaker of Kenmare didn’t strike me as a particularly good book, although I found myself absorbed in the last 100 pages or so wanting to know how things turned out. But I did enjoy it at times because it’s set in the part of Ireland Hobgoblin and I will be traveling to this May (we were supposed to go last year but the trip got canceled — this year it’s on — yay!). We will be staying in Dingle, which gets a mention now and then, and much of the action takes place on the coast and in the countryside near our little town. It was fun to read about the place we will be staying.

As for the novel itself, it’s set during World War II and tells the story of Ben McCarthy, a folklorist who travels around the country collecting stories and is trying to recover from a broken heart after his wife mysteriously disappeared, and Kate Begley, the matchmaker of the title, a young woman learning how to ply the matchmaking trade from her grandmother. The two meet and strike up a somewhat combative friendship. They meet the American intelligence officer Charles Miller, and Kate falls in love. She also starts working for Miller, or so Ben surmises as he watches them having mysteriously intense conversations. Kate’s involvement with Charles takes them first to London, and later into France, Belgium, and Germany. Even though the war is winding down and Ben and Kate are partly protected by Ireland’s neutral stance in the war, they find themselves in way over their heads.

It was interesting to read about how the war affected Ireland; it remained neutral throughout, but was still in danger as both England and Germany saw it as important strategically. The characters have to figure out what they think about both sides and how they can best protect themselves. The work the two characters do when they aren’t off on their war escapades is also interesting, both the stories Ben hears and records and the couples Kate brings together.

The problem with the book, I thought, lies in the way the first person narrator, Ben, tells the story. He is writing to his children from the vantage point of old age, filling them in on his life story, and he constantly hints in ominous tones about the very exciting things that are about to happen. We get lots of comments of the “little did I know …” variety:

That was the moment at which two strangers walked into the dance hall — and that was the beginning of so many things, and the continuation of so many things, and the end of so many things….

A couple of hours later, when the afternoon had grown quieter, the rest of our lives began. We all heard the engine, we all listened from our respective chairs, and I swear to this day that I knew who had arrived — the two young American soldiers from last night. A third man rode with them, and he was the world changer….

Indeed I can say now that however rambling they may seem, my Digressions will serve a purpose.

I think you get the idea. The book would have worked better if told in a more direct manner, without all the editorializing from the older version of Ben. I’m fine with the set-up of a character telling his children the story of the most exciting part of his life, but it needs to be done in a much smoother way and it needs to keep the reader more consistently immersed in the action.

The book does have its pleasures — as you can imagine, the love triangle that develops between Kate, Ben, and Charles is consistently interesting — but, unfortunately, the quality of the writing kept interfering with the fun.

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Destiny and Desire

I’m afraid I have another negative review to write, and in this case, it’s a book I couldn’t finish. I made it about 160 pages out of over 400 into Carlos Fuentes’s new novel Destiny and Desire (which I won from Goodreads) and decided to call it quits. I’m not one to abandon books often or easily, and I really wanted to finish this one, to see if the pace would ever pick up or if my interest would sharpen, but during the last ten or twenty pages, I was beginning to positively hate the book, so it was time to stop.

This is another case, like the novel The Illumination I wrote about yesterday, of not liking a book I’ve read only positive reviews of. The New York Times, for one, reviewed it glowingly last week. My problems with it, though, were multiple. Part of it is that the book struck me as very unfriendly toward women. It’s about two young men growing up in Mexico City, attending school, having intense philosophical debates, reading books together (that’s what I read about anyway — the plot was soon to take them in other directions), and all that’s fine, but their friendship as they grow up is more and more built on bonding through degrading women. The women characters were either sex objects or evil, nasty parents and guardians. I didn’t hold out much hope that this would change.

The other problem was that I did not enjoy the writing, which struck me as overblown and ponderous. There were a few too many passages like this one, which comes from the first page; it starts off fine with some nice images, but takes a turn for the worse:

The Pacific really is a tranquil ocean now, as white as a large basin of milk. The waves have warned it that earth is approaching. I try to measure the distance between two waves. Or is it time that separates them, not distance? Answering this question would solve my own mystery. The ocean is undrinkable, but it drinks us. Its softness is a thousand times greater than earth’s. But we hear only the echo, not the voice of the sea. If the sea were to shout, we would all be deaf. And if the sea were to stop, we would all be dead.

Okay, the last two lines are fine, too, but I don’t know how “answering this question would solve my own mystery.” It’s the kind of vague sentence that drives me nuts, and the book was full of similarly vague sentences. The novel is narrated by one of the two main characters, and he’s altogether too satisfied with himself to be enjoyable company.

The novel has an interesting conceit: the first-person narrator is actually dead — he’s a severed head washed up on the beach. We learn he is twenty-seven at his death, so the novel, as far as I can see, is supposed to tell the story of what led to such a gruesome end. I can see that this book is supposed to say something about Mexican society and politics, and I’m sure that if I could have gotten into the story, that would have been interesting. But it’s not for me to find out.

So, clearly, I am not the best reader for this book. I’m curious if others have read Fuentes before and liked any of his books. Are there ones I might like better, particularly short ones? And now that I’ve written such bad things about this book, would anyone like my copy? Such a generous offer! You very well might like it better than I did, though. Just let me know; the first person to express interest gets it.

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The Illumination

Reading Kevin Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination has been an interesting experience for me because I didn’t much like it, and when I took a look at some reviews, I found a bunch of glowing ones and a couple that were negative, so opinion seems to be inconsistent but mostly positive. I didn’t, however, do a very thorough survey, so I don’t really know. But it’s interesting to me to read glowing reviews of a book I didn’t like; it doesn’t make me doubt my feelings about the book, but it does make me wonder … what was going on in other people’s heads. Not that I doubt their experience, either; I just wonder, as I often do, about this whole business of reviewing. Does anybody really know what makes a good book or a bad book?

Anyway, the book is really more a series of linked stories than it is a novel. The are six stories, each with a different main character, and they are united by two things; the first is a book full of love notes from a husband to his wife that gets passed from character to character. We meet the wife in the hospital just as she is about to die from a car crash. In a gesture of sadness and defeat, just before her death she passes the book on to the woman with whom she shares a hospital room. The book contains copies of daily notes the husband had left telling his wife something that he loved about her:

I love the ball you curl into when you wake up in the morning but don’t want to get out from under the covers. I love the last question you ask me before bedtime. I love the way you alphabetize the CDs but arrange the books by height. I love you in your blue winter coat that looks like upholstery fabric.

There are pages and pages of these notes, and together they tell the story of a marriage. The book travels from character to character, getting stained and ripped and losing pages along the way. The book means different things to the various characters, but it makes them all think about what it means to love another person.

The other unifying factor in the book is that all the sudden for no reason anyone knows of, pain becomes visible as light, hence “the illumination.” It’s now possible to see when someone is ill, or if they are suffering from arthritis or kidney stones or scrapes and bruises. The more severe the pain, the brighter the light. This makes a simple walk down the street an entirely different experience. Now, you’re confronted with pain at practically every moment; you can see just how much everyone is suffering, how common it is to live with pain. No one can hide illnesses anymore; your cancer is immediately obvious, as is your migraine.

Brockmeier’s characters are all very different types: there is an author, a young boy who is troubled and refuses to talk, an evangelical missionary, a homeless man, and a photographer. (The illumination is a boon for professional photographers: imagine the amazing photos you could take if people’s pain were visible.) The range of characters and situations is impressive.

In spite of all these interesting things going on, however, I never connected with the book. Perhaps there is simply too much going on. It remained an intellectual exercise for me, and the intellectual exercise wasn’t a particularly satisfying one. Brockmeier is exploring the meaning of pain and suffering, and the narrative occasionally stops to ponder such questions as how pain changes us and what suffering does to our faith in God. I didn’t find that this questioning led anywhere, though, or added up to much.

It would have helped to know in advance that this was basically a collection of linked stories rather than a more traditional novel (generally I prefer not to know much about a book I’m going to read, so I avoid it when I can, but this is an exception — it’s good to know whether you’re going to get a traditional narrative arc or not). But I’m not sure I would have liked it that much more if I had known; there was something a little lifeless and dry about the book that made me reluctant to pick it up again.

But other readers have thought this book is wonderful, so it’s possible that you will too.

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