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Archive for January, 2008

2007 was the year in which I failed to finish the Indian novels I started.  I read 2 and faltered at the 500 page mark in both.  I found Vikram Chandra’s amalgam of literary fiction and crime in Sacred Games  remarkably tedious. But my failure with Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy was downright weird.  An absolute 5-star epic, I was enjoying it.  Unfortunately I had listened to an abridged audio a few years before, so I knew where it was heading and I couldn’t motivate myself to read the extra 1000 pages I needed to reach the end.

So 2008 heralds a change of tactic. For starters, a short novel by an Indian authoress. 

Desai was born and educated in India and has spent many years teaching in the States.  Well placed, therefore,  to write about the similarities and differences of both cultures and she does this with a text that is by turns witty, farcical, poignant and shocking.  It’s quite a mix and one that kept the pages turning ….. right to the end!

It could be argued that this novel is actually two novellas linked only by the character who moves from India to America.  Each section is  self-contained.  Yet separating them would dilute the impact of the message that modern culture (be it Indian or American)  is dissatisfying with gender inequality rife in both.

In India,  MamaPapa (so in tune with each other, they cannot be divided) are raising their two daughters and a son.  Aruna is beautiful. Uma is clumsy and plain.  But both must be married off.  Aruna has her pick of suitors but finding a bridegroom for Uma is a desperate task and the squandering of two dowries is source of much entertaining farce.   Flip the coin, however,  and the farce becomes tragedy.  A failure to marry means a life of humiliating servitude to parents and a life of spinsterly loneliness and suffocation.  My heart aches for Uma but it bleeds for Anamika (Uma’s cousin), denied her Oxford scholarship and married off to a family who cared little for her.  She endures 25 years of servitude and married loneliness before …. well, you’ve heard the rumours of what happens when unloved wives grow old and a second dowry is required.

Desai barbecues American family life as thoroughly as Mr Patton does his steaks.  America, the land where freezers are full yet the food cannot be eaten because what would we eat in an emergency?  Housewives wear t-shirts with born-to-shop slogans because that is all they are good for!  Keep the cupboards full.  We’ll help ourselves.  The tv is king – forget spending time together and eating at the dinner table.  Eating disorders are both cry for attention and rebellion against the profligate overconsumption of the West.  Mrs Patton, as neglected as many as Indian bride. seeks to keep herself cheerful with the shopping and her sun-bathing.  One day Arun comes home to find her bikini-clad and oiled-up ready for her day in the sun.

She might have been on display in the Foodmart, a special offer for the summer, gleaming with invitation.  Almost, one feels, one might see a discount sign above it.

Surprising that Desai has painted this incident with so cruel a brush?  Yet a major point of the novel is that daughters suffer most when their mothers unquestioningly comply with traditions or the lead of their men-folk.    Actually not only daughters.  Sons too. 

Arun is damaged by the excess of education and the weight of familial expectation.  Seeking solitude and anonymity (the ultimate freedom) when he reaches America, his behaviour unconsciously mirrors that of his sister Uma, back at home.  Just one of many echoes which Desai uses to tie her two stories together.

Shortlisted for the 1999 Booker prize, Desai’s novel was, in effect, the runner-up.  In a rare glimpse of the judging process, Gerald Kaufmann, the chair that year said, “If we could have a chosen a runner-up, we would undoubtedly have given the runner-up award to Anita Desai and Fasting, Feasting; a most beautiful novel, very moving, very funny, terribly illustrative of what happens to women in different parts of the world.”

Serious issues.  Light exposition.  If this is indicative of Desai’s output, then I’m looking forward to exploring her back catalogue in the months to come.

½

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I’ve read the book twice – enjoying it more the second time around (some 15 months ago).  Not the height of literary fiction,  I’m convinced the originality of its material, the focus on Afghanistani issues, accounts for its popularity.  Certainly the sections in America are too sentimental and compare poorly to other novels that have dealt with similar issues.  (Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog for example.)  Still it’s a reasonable read.

There is one scene, however, that my book group decided would have made a perfect but tragic ending.   It would have been simply hardyesque.  (Think Jude the Obscure.) 

The scene and the problems preceding it are simply skipped in the screenplay.  Perfectly reasonable.  There’s no way the film could have retained its 12A rating.  

Judging from the way my friend to the right (the one who had read the book) was flinching knowing what was to come, and the way my friend on the left (the one who hadn’t read the book) was looking at the screen through her fingers, I’d say that the director displayed sound judgment in the treatment of the more violent and controversial material.

My friend on the left (the one who hadn’t read the book) left the cinema commenting on how sad it was.  I wonder what she would have said had that hardyesque scene been included.

The Book  / The Movie  + 1 just for the completely adorable Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada (Hassan as a child).

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Is it coincidence,  a subconscious at work or simply a symptom of the modern world? But a seemingly random selection of novels return me again and again to the faith vs atheism debate and last month’s book group choice felt like climbing to the top of that particular mountain.

Graham Greene’s widely-acclaimed masterpiece, The Power and The Glory, is set in the Mexico of the 1930′s – a time when the Catholic church was viciously persecuted by an atheistic government.  This seems, these days, to be a little known facet of history – of the 15 book group members, noone knew of it before reading the novel.

At the time of Greene’s novel the catholic clergy have fled, been forced to marry, or executed.  Only one priest remains – he has no name as befits his symbolic status.  Yet he’s also individual, a deeply flawed and extremely unsaintly priest.  A “whisky” priest who has fathered, in a drunken moment, a daughter, at once the cause of his greatest joy and sorrow.  To obtain salvation, he must repent.  But how can he repent, when his sin has produced the greatest love of his life?  Not that he spends much time with her.  He is on the run and has been for eight years.  Yet, while he can escape, he chooses not to.  Because the people need him – for confession, to administer the sacraments.  There is no doubting the sincerity of his belief, the seriousness with which he takes his vocation.  Time and again, instead of making his escape, he turns around to administer to the spiritual need of a fellow human being.  The analogy with Jesus Christ is clear.  “No greater love hath a man that he lay down his own life in behalf of another” Yet the whisky priest is in a state of mortal sin and, if he is to die a saint, he must die in a state of grace ….

New Testament analogies appear throughout.  Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Judas and Barabbas figures all make their appearance.  The Judas mestizo figure is particularly unpleasant.  The lieutenant, the atheistic counterpart of the priest, is also finely drawn.  He is acting according to his principles – wanting to rid his country of the church, which luxuriates in its own glory, never providing for the physical welfare of the starving masses.  Yet, while his motives may be sincere, he too is imperfect.  His zeal leads to impatience and frustration at the lack of cooperation from the populace.  This eventually leads him to murder.  The lesson worldly power corrupts?

The complexity of the characterisation, the paradoxical nature of the proponents on both sides of the religious divide, unforgettable key scenes (black comedy while wine purchasing, the world in microcosm in the prison cell, the half-world or limbo of the deserted village, the final ideological showdown between priest and atheist), and the irony inherent in the history of the traditional saint are all elements that showcase the skills of a great author.

As a whole, though, this was not an entirely pleasurable reading experience.  As the priest progressed in circles through the countryside,  the narrative pull was slow and agonising and repetitive.  Absolutely intentional.  As hard on the reader as on the priest?  And I was relieved to reach the end.  But thinking about the novel is an entirely different experience – there is much to dissect and analyse.  Layers and layers of paradox to tease out, discuss and debate.  The similarities of the two main characters.  The positives and negatives of alcohol. And the title …. where is the power and the glory in this novel?  Determine that and you’ve understood the heart of the matter.

Group rating: 1/2

Personal rating:  

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The search has begun.  Who will occupy the place that has been reserved for Michael Dibdin these last 10 years?  Returning to Faber and Faber, the same stable that bred Zen,  seemed like a reasonable move and so it was that I encountered R N Morris.

There’s been a lot of blog buzz about Morris’s historical crime series. In a courageous move, he has resurrected Dostoevsky’s supersleuth Porfiry Petrovich.  Of course, my intention was to reread Crime and Punishment  before embarking on A Gentle Axe.  But then I discovered a second novel is to be published imminently and Faber and Faber kindly sent me a review copy …. Dostoevsky was put on the back burner and any comparisons I might make thus reduced to what I (mis)remember from 30 years ago!

Now what would that be?  An impoverished student, a pawnbroker, an axe murderer and a detective willing to bide his time and draw out his criminal. Precious little really but it is all present and correct in Morris’s A Gentle Axe.  Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg, dirty, cramped and sordid is also colourfully portrayed in Morris’s novel.  The murder victims are found in the frozen expanse of Petrovsky Park; one hanging from a tree with a bloody axe tucked in his trousers;  the other (a dwarf) stuffed in a suitcase, his skull split open by an axe blow.  Murder and suicide then?  Far too obvious for Petrovich and his search for the real answer takes him through the various echelons of St. Petersburg society exposing the seemier side of Russian life (prostitution, pornography, hypocrisy) in a graphic but not voyeuristic way.  When the impoverished Raskolnikov-equivalent student makes his entrance,  Petrovich sees him, not as a murder suspect, but as someone who needs to be saved from hunger, poverty and himself.  While he knew that Raskolnikov was evil, so he feels that this student is not and, instead of arresting him, gives him a pair of watertight boots.

While A Gentle Axe is good, A Vengeful Longing is even better!  The writing is richer.  The characters are fleshed out and in Petrovich’s case there is less reliance on his fluttering eyelids and chain smoking (which, I felt,  was overdone in the first novel),

A Vengeful Longing is divided into three sections; each beginning with a murder and an obvious suspect.  The modus operandi different in each case: death by chocolate (!), death by gunshot and death by stabbing. It is only while interviewing the second suspect that Petrovich detects the whiff of a link and from there on he’s on the scent, towing with him an inspecting magistrate in training.  THe trainee’s naivety (what more than one case at a time?), shock at what he sees and questioning of Petrovich’s methods provide a foil to contrast against the experience and political astuteness of the master - even if the mind games played are sometimes brutal.  Yet the methods of Salytov,  the impatient, bully boy cop, serve only to highlight Petrovich’s comparative enlightenment.

St. Petersburg remains a moral sumpf and this time its decadence stinks to high-heaven – quite literally.  It’s high summer and the city’s sanitation is in crisis.  It is disgusting  and Morris does not shirk from entirely realistic descriptions of flooded basement flats where the inhabitants are dying of cholera.  All this while a few streets away the aristocracy enjoy a life of luxurious excess.

There is much more to discuss, including the integration of the heavier Dostoevskian elements,  faith vs atheism for example. Morris also cleverly inserts an episode from Tolstoy’s life, who handed over his bachelor diaries to his wife to be.  However, for all the homage,  it’s important to emphasise that these novels really do work well in their own right.  As history they transport the reader back to the St. Petersburg of the 1860′s, as crime they’re intriguing and intelligent and, last but definitely not least, as entertainment, they’re grrrrrrrreat!

A Gentle Axe

A Vengeful Longing (to be published 7.02.2008)  

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Having enjoyed 3 BBC adaptations in the last 10 years – Wives and Daughters (1999), North and South (2005) and most recently Cranford (2007) – it really was about time I acquainted myself with Elizabeth Gaskell in written form.  Why do today what can possibly wait until tomorrow?  First let me listen to the unabridged audio I borrowed from the library.

Cousin Phillis (1864) in unabridged audio comes in at around 4.5 hours – perfectly listenable during the course of a week’s work runs. Fabulous northern English accents – reminders of home! In many ways standard Gaskell fare.   A rural setting with a nearby railroad under construction.  The havoc not wreaked by the railroad per se but certainly by its chief engineer, Mr Holdsworth.

The narrator, Paul, 19, naive and a little in love with Phillis himself, is an earnest fellow.  A man with his heart in the right place.  Yet even so, he causes poor Phillis more grief than the object of her affection.

This novella is enjoyable but it doesn’t have the humour of Cranford.  Neither did I warm to Phillis, a bit unfairly perhaps.  A product of her time, she has nowhere to go and nothing to do to take her mind off her grief and so she too much of a damsel in distress for my liking.  Of course, if you see her as an allegory for a way of life that will never be the same after the coming of the railroad, things move to a different level altogether. 

The Grey Woman (1861) was, by contrast,  a complete revelation!  Only 60 pages long, yet Gaskell takes us on a  trip from the German Neckar to the French Vosges and back as our heroine is whisked away from her parents by a dodgy French count and installed in an isolated French castle where she endures an unhappy marriage with only a maid for company.   Fortunately said maid is very resourceful when the husband’s secrets are revealed and the two must flee for their lives!  What starts as a rural idyll transforms into gothic madness par excellence.

The structure of the main narrative is framed by the sub-narrative – in this case, a mother trying to persuade her daughter not to marry a dodgy Frenchman.  This structure is traditional in a German novelle and as part of the action is in Germany, it’s very apt. 

This story is included in an anthology of C19th Women’s Writing published by the Folio Society.  It contains novellas by Eliot, Braddon, Austen, Bronte, Chopin and loads of other authoresses I have yet to read and who I’m sure will pop up during my A-Z exploration of shorter fiction.

However, if The Grey Woman is anything to go by, the standard of the stories will be such that I’ll be adding madly to the TBR rather than reducing it.  Look at what has found its way into the electronic shopping basket.

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It occurs to me that I have somehow collected many, many anthologies.  Whether the contents are short stories or novellas, I know not.  (Please leave a comment if you know the cut-off point.)  This picture shows a collection I gathered from the shelves in about 10 minutes.  If I’d spent half-an-hour hunting through the many cardboard boxes,  I would have doubled it!

Anyway it is nothing short of a scandal that so many books remain unread in this household.  So I am now embarking on the following project:  Lizzy’s A-Z (by author) of shorter fiction.  I may read a full collection by one author (currently reading and enjoying Matthias B Freese’s Down to A Sunless Sea) or I may read a selection by the same author (cue the 3-volume collection of Tolstoy!) or it may just be the one story by someone whose name begins with X (suggestions in comments please!). Or I may do something else entirely!

Of course,  this would be an ideal option 5 for Kate’s short story challenge.  However, I’m not joining because there is a time limit on it and I just want to meander at my own pace through the landscape of shorter fiction.  Besides I’m told that the best way to read a collection of shorter fiction is to read one story and then put the book down.  I’m sure it true …. and it’s no doubt why I’ve only ever read 3 collections of short stories cover to cover. 

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Death: I know, or I think I know that death will only be nothingness, but I don’t want oblivion yet.  I want to smell honeysuckle in the dark, I want to hear my cat greet me with her special purring new.  I want to smell old books.

So speaks 12-year old Gussie, in a rare moment of frustration - a child on the brink of adolescence, longing for life but waiting patiently for a heart-lung transplant.  She has a maturity beyond her years.  She is, of necessity, self-taught. Unconstricted by the school syllabus, she has a wonderful depth of knowledge, listing among her top 10 books Middlemarch, The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield and The House at Pooh Corner.

As adorable as she is for her love of literature, it’s Gussie’s love of nature and her curiosity for the world surrounding her that adds a literary dimension to this novel.  Her observations regarding the pet cats, wild birds, spiders, lizards and insects are not only educational, but an object lesson in descriptive writing.  The trials of the young seagull on the roof as he learns to fly are humorous and yet, within a sentence the mood completely changes:

I feel like that young gull: songless and ugly, unable to fly: totally dependent on my parent.

My personal favourite:

 Umbrellas go up and are blown inside out like ravens squabbling.

The Bower Bird of the title is Gussie herself.  Her bower, her room in the attic which she decorates with trinkets and sea-shells and bird feathers in an attempt to attract the love of her life: Brett, a school friend who shares her fascination with birds.  He is also a bit of a heartthrob and Gussie has a rival: Siobhan upon whom Gussie heaps much (warranted) invective throughout the course of her frustrated wooing.

Given her problems, she maintains her equilibrium remarkably well. experiencing only rare moments of depression due to her health.  Although she is too sick to experience adolescent denial, she is still determined to enjoy the time she has.

Being alive is a bit like speed-reading.  I have to experience everything, pack it in while there is still time.

Gussie’s sadness stems from the breakup of her family.  Her father is not on the scene, having left her mother for a younger woman, TLE (The Lovely Eloise) and Gussie feels his departure keenly.   Her relationship with him is reduced to a number of telephone conversations for despite her life-threatening condition, he doesn’t make time to visit.  And it’s heartbreaking to listen to the excuses that Gussie makes for him, even blaming his leaving on her sickness.  (She’s too young to make the rat analogy.)

Her relationship with her mother is fortunately heartwarming.  Her mother is 51, therefore old (!). And Gussie’s eyes miss nothing and her observations are a little close to the bone, particularly when her mother strikes up a new romantic relationship.  In a reversal of generations,  Gussie would rather her mother wore less makeup and shorter skirts! 

I found this novel highly-original in many ways and have only one small criticism, regarding the use of the new-word-of-the-day device.  Isn’t it something that’s overused in fiction these days (or is it just me?)  That said, these are Gussie’s words and she is an auto-didact.   So the device does have a legitimate place in Kelley’s novel.  Not only that,  one of the words brought back my own adolescent experience.  Gussie’s headmistress calls her a sophisticate.  Looking up the dictionary definition is shocking …..

The Bower Bird  is the sequel of Kelley’s 2005 debut The Burying Beetle, though it is successful as a stand-alone read.   A worthy winner of the 2007 Costa Children’s Novel award, I would suggest it is a strong contender for the overall Book of the Year award.

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Rarely does a paperback cover hint so atmospherically at a novel’s content as this one.  A middle-aged woman,  stands alone, staring out to sea.  Atmosphere in droves.  Loneliness …. desperation …. waste.

Waste?  It’s the psychology behind the red suit.  The woman wants to make a mark.  She wants to live.  She’s not ready to retire into the background.  She’s still has hope but she’s fading and not showing the best of judgement. She is a woman of a certain age and in the Belfast of the fifties derided by the less charitable as “mutton dressed as lamb”.  Which may well be true because the portrait Moore paints of her is, I feel, sympathetic, but not flattering. 

The novel opens as Judith moves into new furnished accommodation – a bedroom in a B&B.  She brings with her two cherished belongings: a picture of her great-aunt and an iconic Sacred Heart.  The former is placed on the mantelpiece, the latter above her bedhead.  Doing so, makes the room home.  It is the first hint that Judith has been on the move for a while.

At the lodgings she meets a variety of subsidiary characters.  All are memorable.  Her landlady and her son have a very unhealthy relationship.  There is another middle-aged spinster there – an absolute female dog (I do wish to keep this polite).  And there is Madden – the landlady’s brother, widowed, recently returned from the States ….

a man, available and with an aura of adventure (let’s face it there’s nothing adventurous in the Belfast that Moore paints).   Judith is the only one that finds Madden’s past fascinating.  She engages him in conversation and a friendship develops – a friendship, unfortunately based on wrong assumptions by both parties.  It would be a comedy of errors, if it wasn’t so tragic.  For both are, in separate ways, as desperate as each other.  Madden wants only a business partner, Judith wants much more – even though she knows that Madden is not an ideal catch and not good enough for her.  But she spent her marriageable years caring for her sick old aunt.  She didn’t get out much.  Incidentally those years coincided with the Second World War.  Now that her aunt is dead, so too are most of the men. Circumstance dictates that any man will do.

And so the crisis cometh and both succumb to their secret vices.

Interspersed with the “romance” is a more serious subtext.  That of Judith’s loneliness and the comfort/redemption she seeks in her Catholic faith. But the Church is unable to provide that which Judith needs and the dissolution of her relationship with Madden precipitates the dissolution of her faith – her crutch – her sanity? Yet, while the Church fails, a “friend”,  Moira practices a living, breathing christianity, extending a lifeline to Judith in her hour of crisis.  This is a bitter sweet pill for Judith who understands, with demoralising clarity,  that she has moved from the realms of friendship into those of charity.

Moore’s prose is lucid, direct and uncompromising and, I suspect, with regard to the religious themes,  heavily autobiographical.  I winced at times at the searing honesty of the dialogue.  There are no easy solutions.  Particularly heart-rending are the scenes depicting Judith’s tragic loss of faith; a faith which has kept her above sea level. Without it she will drown.

And so I return to the book cover.  I don’t remember such a scene.   Then again,  I may have been reading too quickly; despite the depressing subject matter, this is a pageturner. Moore is a master of pace.  Aspects of character are revealed in a measured, controlled and, at times, shocking way.  Neither Judith nor Madden are fully sympathetic characters yet I felt for them both. These characters live and breathe, jump off the page and punch me in the gut with their flawed humanity.  What more can I ask?

(Originally posted on TheMooreTheMerrier 1.12.2007)

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Moving swiftly on from a novel in which grief is an unaffordable luxury (Mildred Pierce) to one in which grief pervades every page.  Edward’s Docx’s 2007 Booker longlisted second novel documents the impact of the death of a mother. 

Elizabeth Glover resides in St. Petersburg.  She has returned after many years of exile.  Her family has been scattered to the four winds.  Her husband is living in Paris, her son in London and her daughter in New York.  The husband is a promiscuous hedonistic bisexual (hence the separation!), the son, Gabriel,  is torn between two lovers (poor soul!) and the daughter, Isabella,  is living with an amiable yet unlovable partner in New York.  A fractured, deeply alienated family, therefore,  with problems of its own making.  Despite this when Masha (as she is fondly known) dies, the family falls apart even more.  The fragile stability of each existence is rocked as one by one, the survivors are stripped to the bone.  Can they pull themselves out of their self-indulgent preoccupations and provide each other with comfort and support?

So much for Masha’s western family.  What about her Russian one?  Her secret illegitimate son - Arkady,  born and abandoned to the orphanage system before her marriage, has problems, not of his own making, serious obstacles of circumstance. (Gorbachev didn’t deliver good things to everyone,  it transpires.)  Yet, when Arkady is offered a solution to his problems, his chip on the shoulder prevents him from accepting it.  Fortunately he has a guardian angel – Henry – the most unlikely guardian angel you’re ever likely to meet, one incapable of helping himself, yet with altruism in abundance and a capacity for self-sacrifice, born from recognition of his own monumental failings.  It’s Henry who manufactures Arkady’s meeting of his half-siblings and his final chance of success. But will Arkady take it?

While the woman at the centre of this woe remains mysterious, the characterisations of this wide range of characters are colourfully drawn.  Christopher, Masha’s husband is the man I love to hate (don’t get me started!). But, as his own health deteriorates and his vigour reduces, it’s impossible to remain unsympathetic. The reduction of the man is so vividly drawn. Neither did I understand Henry for a while; I didn’t believe his heroin addicted brain could be capable of such self-sacrifice.  Yet as his motivations become clear,  his character is invested with authenticity and saddening poignancy.

Similarly colourful is Docx’s portrayal of urban Russia – Henry’s addiction ensures our introduction to the underbelly of Russian society.  The comfortable material existence of Christopher, Gabriel and Isabella pales in comparison although most of Docx’s satire is reserved for it; the prime example being the magazine that gives the novel its title.  Gabriel, the most incapable, lethargic and useless of the protagonists,  is the editor of Self-Help! – a monthly spin-off from the embarrassingly successful series of Randy K Norris Self-Help book – “translated into sixty languages and the first step on the road to recovery for millions”.  

Once I’d realised I was allowed to sympathise with the flawed characters, even if I could not like them, the 523 pages flew by. It speaks volumes about the author’s talent that, in a novel about family secrets and lies, he diverts the reader’s attention so effectively that the final twist appears from nowhere.  One final point – I’m not going to draw the inevitable comparison with Edward St Aubyn, even if it’s begging to be made.  For a start I have only read “Mother’s Milk” which I found laugh-out-loud funny (as opposed to  the wry smiles of Self-Help).  I have, therefore, still to sample St. Aubyn’s heroin-addiction scenes.  No rush.  Self-Help imparts more than enough information on that score. 

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