Saturday, August 18, 2018

Serious Summer Reading. . . and some Not So Serious

I've just finished reading Philippe Sands' East West Street: On the Origins of "Genocide" and "Crimes against Humanity." I'd come across a recommendation to this winner of the 2016 Baillie Gifford Non-Fiction prize and added my name to the Vancouver Public Library's waitlist for it several months ago. When the VPL emailed to say the book was now available, I'll admit I might have winced, even grimaced, at the idea of reading it during weather more suited for lighter fare.

But as difficult as his subject matter is, Sands builds a compelling narrative about the gradual recognition in international law of "genocide" and "crimes against humanity."  His narrative's power owes much to the coincidence that the two men who introduced these crimes into international law -- Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht, respectively --studied under the same professors, at the same university, in a Central European city called by various names: Lemberg, Lwów, Lvov, or Lviv. Further coincidence, also woven into the narrative, is that the author's own grandfather was born in that same city. And the three men shared, also, the devastating loss of home and family as Jews living during the Third Reich.

The book begins in 2010 -- the author has been invited to give a lecture at Lviv University, and is told by an audience member that he should look to the city for clues to his own family's history. This unveiling of secrets long shrouded by his grandparents parallels his research into the lives of Lemkin and Lauterpacht and their (as much oppositional as complementary) efforts to have "genocide" and "crimes against humanity" recognized in international law. The "case study" that Sands constructs his narrative around is the case against Hans Frank as part of the Nuremberg Trials -- and Frank was the governor of the Third Reich conquered territory of Galicia, home to the families of Lauterpacht, of Lemkin, and of Sands' maternal grandfather.

This is such an important book, especially at this historical moment when we are again viewing dangerous incremental changes with horribly xenophobic notes being sounded. It's not easy to read -- particularly the passages when we hear directly from Frank and his co-defendants and when we read testimony from those who witnessed the evacuation and the murders of the Holocaust.

And yet, to repeat myself, it's compelling.  I spread the reading out over two weeks, taking a break in between with some lighter reading, but I never had to force myself back to it; rather, I felt drawn by the story Sands tells, the connections he makes between events and people and places.  I think it also helps that Sands has chosen to write in very short chapters, two or three pages generally -- the natural pauses sometimes pushed me forward into the next chapter, searching the solution to a mystery, and sometimes they offered me respite from witnessing horror.

The closest comparison I might make would be to Edward de Waal's  The Hare with the Amber Eyes, although de Waal's book focuses on the theft/appropriation of the Ephrussi family's wealth, properties, and -- especially -- its art, rather than wholesale destruction of a city's Jews, of a grandfather's family. . .

As for that lighter reading. . . .

Over the last month, I've spent hours plonked down next to a fan, with a mystery in hand. I've read three of Ruth Ware's mysteries: The Woman in Cabin 10; In a Dark, Dark Wood;  and The Lying Game. They're all well-written and tightly plotted enough to keep me sitting and turning pages, only getting up to stretch my legs and pour another glass of mint-lime infused water from the Glug-glug jug in the fridge. The protagonist in all three is a woman -- and I like her women, who are smart and flawed and resourceful. All young (do we need a contemporary Miss Marple on the writing scene? Or is there a Female Detective of a Certain Age mystery series I don't know about? And by "of a certain age," I'm probably hoping for something over 55, as the goalposts have shifted considerably for me -- 40-45 is "young" to me. . . .

I've more mysteries and other reading to tell you about as well, but I'll save that for later and click on "Publish" this Saturday morning.  Let me know if you've read any of these books and, as always, we can chat about books you've been reading as well. The mic's all yours now. . .

Sunday, July 22, 2018

2018 Reading -- Halfway Report

Here's my 2018 reading list, as it was at the halfway mark on June 30th. That we're now three weeks into the second half of the year testifies to my desire to augment the list with some quick comments about books that never got mentioned in a post. I've added a few of these comments and have links to the posts I did manage. . . .

1. Sara Blaedel, Only One Life (trans. Erik J. Macki and Tara F. Chace
2. Jacqueline Park, The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi
3. Elly Griffiths, The House at Sea's End
4. Aurélie Valognes, Mémé dans les Orties
5. Donato Carrisi, The Whisperer (trans. Shaun Whiteside)
6. Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins
7. Isabel Vincent, Dinner with Edward.  Charming memoir about Vincent's friendship with an elderly widow still grieving deeply for his wife. Much of the friendship -- which sustained both Vincent through a marriage break-up and adjustment to life in a new city and Edward through his mourning -- was built around the weekly dinners he would cook for her.  Wisdom wrapped in the sustenance of good food. . .
8. Peter Robinson, Sleeping in the Ground
9. Lee Child, The Midnight Line
10. Edward St. Aubyn, Never Mind
11. Edward St. Aubyn, Bad News
12. Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
13. Val McDermid, Insidious Intent
14. Edward St. Aubyn, Some Hope
15. Edward St. Aubyn, Mother's Milk
16. Peter May, Extraordinary People
17. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
18. Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (translator, Alexander O. Smith)
19. Ali Smith, Winter
20. Sara Baume, A Line Made by Walking
21. Gary Paul Nabhan, Songbirds, Truffles, and Wolves: An American Naturalist in Italy-- I haven't finished this one yet -- I've been reading it aloud to Paul on road trips or as he cooks dinner.
22. Bernard McLaverty, A Midwinter Break
23. Thomas Perry, A String of Beads I love this mystery series featuring Jane Whitfield, who draws deeply on her Seneca heritage to help worthy candidates "disappear" into new lives. She does something a bit different in this last novel which I recommend -- but first, if you haven't, consider starting with the first in the series, Vanishing Act
24. Liane Moriarty, Truly Madly Guilty Paul brought this home from the library, and I enjoyed it as a quick read which, while light and entertaining, managed to plumb some depths about marriage and parenthood and the tough tug a mother faces in order to sustain a career or to continue as an artist. . .
25. Georges Simenon, Maigret et la Vielle Dame But she was so sweet, that dear old woman. . . hmmmm. Some lovely, nostalgic-but-not-too French-beach-towns here, Maigret remembering his youth. . .
26. Carol Matthews, Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage
27. Elly Griffiths, A Room Full of Bones, a Ruth Galloway mystery
28. Edward St. Aubyn, At Last Last in the Patrick Melrose series, set at the funeral of Melrose's mother, and there's a fairly satisfying -- redemptive, even? -- ending to the series -- which we might have expected or hoped for, given that the narrative throughout mirrored St. Aubyn's personal life fairly closely and the writer is, after all, writing past the trauma. . .
29. Roz Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant Chast's graphic memoir about caring for difficult, colourful, creative and brilliant parents in all their cranky and eccentric infirmity and memory loss. . . at huge expense to her family life and her work. . .
30. Elizabeth George, The Punishment She Deserves I always enjoy a Havers focus in these Lynley novels, and this one is very good. She's forced into close supervision by the Inspector with whom her protector Linley has a history, and this adds an interesting tension to the plot. Plus the notion of Havers tap-dancing? Really, you need to read this if you're up to date on your Elizabeth George mysteries, or start at the beginning of the series (lucky you!) if you're not.
31. Leila Slimane, Chanson Douce Okay, I was quickly skeptical when I started reading this -- published and on best-seller lists in English as The Perfect Nanny. I knew the book being packaged as thriller of the Gone Girl sort had won the Prix Goncourt, but besides the sensational packaging, the first chapter or so seemed to me to be pointing a finger at the guilt of career women who consign their children to others' care. But it's so much more than this, a real indictment of a social divide that allows both fathers and mothers alike to blur the line between family and employee, ignoring the real costs of the relationship, generally paid by the employee. . . Absolutely thought-provoking and compelling.
32. Michael Connelly, Two Kinds of Truth (a Harry Bosch mystery) I'm a Harry Bosch fan from way back, but not so much interested in his "Lincoln Lawyer" series -- this novel brings the half-brothers together and it was okay, but I'm finding Bosch a bit flat these days, to be honest.  Much less development of, and focus on, his troubled personality, his knowledge of music, his relationship with his daughter than in the earlier books, and I guess character's always what draws me into a mystery.
33. Susan Hill, From the Heart.  I love Hill's Simon Serrailler series and when I spotted this at the library, I thought I'd give it a try. More "literary" than her mysteries, it's a slim novel that examines the quiet life of a young woman trying to build a life around her love of literature and teaching in a time and place when the options for a lesbian were to keep that sexuality firmly hidden. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, yet gentle, poignant. . .
34. Anna Quindlen, Miller's Valley Bedside or even beach reading that nonetheless explores some social (and political/environmental) issues that deserve attention. I've always liked the way Quindlen, a former journalist, can do this.
35. Danielle Postel-Vinay, Home Sweet Maison: The French Art of Making a Home I had to return this to the library before I finished it, but I enjoyed skimming it. As much as I admire the French lifestyle, I found the strict definitions of each room's function and decor -- at least as described by this American woman who married a French man and is raising a family with him in France -- more interesting, sometimes even amusing, than aspirational. I can see how this domestic architecture structures a way of life that leads to the satisfactions I note in that country, but I value our own freer arrangements for contemporary daily life. And there's unquestionably a huge influence, in that architecture, of class and of gender. . . .Bourgeois Patriarchy, I'm looking at you ;-)
36. Andrew Battershill, Pillow Okay, this is a stylish and interesting -- hip? -- take on the mystery genre. A parody in which the convoluted panoply of criminals chasing some ancient coins all bear names of French Surrealists. The humour is constant, quick, and clever in this heist-gone-wrong narrative; the misdirected hopes and flailing optimism of the ex-boxer protagonist did endear him to me, somehow, weirdly. . . Finally, I think it was a bit too clever for what I want out of a mystery, but I couldn't help but admire it, and you might too.
37. Elly Griffiths,  A Dying Fall Yes, this is the year I decided to read all the Ruth Galloway!
38. Edna O'Brien, The Little Red Chairs Such a moving book, horrifying, loving, hopeful, daunting. . . the outward ripples of war and its horrors. The setting in a small Irish village and its surrounding countryside is beautifully wrought -- O'Brien's a master, of course -- and she was 85 when she wrote this, so all that experience! -- But also the portraits of immigrant life in London. And the main character's groping her way back to some kind of sanity after an unimaginably brutal experience (although O'Brien's writing makes imagine it, and then pulls us back to sanity as well). The book deserves so much more than this disjointed paragraph, but here's a review that will better tell you why you should, or might want to, read it.
39. Elly Griffiths, The Outcast Dead
40. Elizabeth Berg, Talk Before Sleep, I'd forgotten about Elizabeth Berg, but enjoyed a few of her books way back when I'd take them home to read -- "hand-selling research" in my bookstore days. This e-book caught my eye when I checked into the library online while travelling and it made a nice change from mystery novels (a break from what archaeologist Ruth Galloway was up to!) as a piece of light reading still substantive enough to engage. Indeed, if you're too close to the death of a beloved friend, you might find too much substance here, but I loved the gentle treatment of a close friendship between two women in their 30s/early 40s, the way their respectively changing marital status influenced and was influenced by that friendship. The constant movement between sorrow and humour -- some of the latter wry and contained, some of it goofily explosive. The protectiveness, the anger, the care -- not just between the narrator and her dying friend but within a tight sorority of strong women. .
41. Elly Griffiths, The Ghost Fields What can I say? We were travelling, and I needed something to read, and Ruth Galloway (not to mention Nelson and Cathbad and the little girl Ruth conceives in the first book in the series who grows to school-age by the last I've read . . . I've got one more of this to read -- at the library right now waiting for me to pick up -- and I must say I've really enjoyed getting to know Ruth and her friends, co-workers, lovers, daughter. . . . I think you might as well, although you might agree with me that her regular proximity to danger is perhaps becoming a bit strained. . .
42. Elly Griffiths, The Woman in Blue
43. Elly Griffiths, The Chalk Pit
44. Liam Callanan, Paris by the Book

There you go -- I must admit I'm inordinately pleased with myself for adding these few notes to the bare-bones reading listt of what I've read so far this year. Yay, me! I hope my "cheap and cheerful" comments might guide you to pluck a title or two for your summer reading  -- let me know if that happens, and perhaps tell us where you're reading these days (some of you, I imagine, might be curled up in an armchair, perhaps by a fire, cozy against the New Zealand or Australian winter outside. Many of you, though, are trying to find some shade or a breeze to cool down, and perhaps there are a few splashes of saltwater rippling the pages of that paperback. . .

Of course we're all eager to compare reading notes, so if you have recommendations, do spill. . . .And in case you haven't already seen it, Sue has another book post up at High Heels in the Wilderness. I think that might be where I first learned of Elly Griffiths' books and I've made a few must-read notes from her latest suggestions.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Random Reading: Plant Life and Paris Romance

I'm going to post these excerpts from "my other blog" here because they're about books and I think I'd like to keep that material together here rather than just including a link. Hope you don't mind the duplication.

I'm reading Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. The subtitle is Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, and the book offers brilliant narratives of plant life based on all the science you could hope for from a Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology at SUNY. Fascinating stuff about the ways that pecan trees manage to synchronize their irregular fruiting, about the marriage of algae and fungi that is lichen, about the surprising discovery that some plants -- sweetgrass is her prime example -- do better for being harvested. . . But it's the book's rich spirituality that keeps me turning pages, the "indigenous wisdom" she draws from to lament what's been lost, yes, but also to point to harmonious ways of being in the world, ways that humans can (and do!) play a positive ecological role. Ways that helping Nature (and admitting that we're part of it) helps us. . . .

 So much of what I've been reading in her essays over the last week resonated even more forcefully yesterday as my husband and I watched Leave No Trace, a beautiful, moving, and powerful film directed by Debra Granik (who last brought us A Winter's Bone).  Superb acting by a new sure-to-be-star Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie and Ben Foster, but the implicit commentary about home and homelessness in America is given a rich emotional weight, arouses (in me, at least) such a nostalgia, an atavistic longing for a "natural" home in the world. . . The forests of the Pacific Northwest might read differently to me, as they did to Paul last evening, because we have spent some time in them, although we haven't camped for decades. But the contrast between the world that humanity, our indigenous selves, was once born into, and what we've made of it. . .  That's me, though. The film's nowhere near as heavy or preachy as those last sentences might suggest, and I highly recommend you see it -- and the lush gravity of the forest scenes really deserve a big screen and good sound system.

And for a lighter read, a perfect summer book (although I'd also enjoy curling up with this in an armchair some rainy fall day. . . 
 Liam Callanan's Paris by the Book.  Love, romance, Paris, a mysterious disappearance, Paris, a 40-something mother re-building her life by managing a(n English language) bookshop in Paris, a 30-something gallant courting said mother, two adolescent daughters who quickly acquire texting/SMS skills in a second language, numerous well-drawn and quirky characters, and um, did I mention Paris?! The book is satisfyingly but not ponderously rife with literary and filmic allusions -- fans of Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline books and of Pascal Lamorisse's brilliant film The Red Balloon will be pleased.

I know! Two posts in less than a week. (and there's another in the pipeline. . . )

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Liminal Fictions -- George Saunders' Bardo and Ali Smith's Winter

Almost two months since I last published here,  and before that I began this post. At first, I only got as far as drafting a title and importing the photo below. 

A few days later, I added a few paragraphs: The photo's taken from Ali Smith's Winter -- which I managed to borrow, in hardcover print format, from the library. I'd like to have my own copy (along with her earlier Autumn, which I said a very few words about in this post; scroll down to the bottom of the list) because this is definitely one of those books that demands to be reread.

We're confronted with this head from the novel's opening, if I remember correctly (it's been too long and I don't have a copy here to double-check) -- a stone head, it seems, that floats along wordlessly beside one of the novel's protagonists. I appreciate that we're not flinging the term "magical realism" around as constantly and ubiquitously and promiscuously as we were ten or fifteen years ago -- but let's just say that the Britain this protagonist occupies might be a bit more porous to other realities than the reader perhaps expects.

It takes a while to sort what's going on, and then, again if I remember correctly, we dip quickly into different times and places with this protagonist, before shifting to the perspective of another. I felt off-balance for the first third to half of the novel, but enjoyably so, working to puzzle out possible connections. Characters who I was inclined to dislike revealed themselves to be sympathetic or at least more interesting than I'd expected. Indeed, given the novel's work as political allegory or commentary, it's a tribute to Smith's deft pen that the characters lift so convincingly off the page. Especially since, as James Wood points out in this New Yorker review,  both Autumn and Winter must have been written very quickly (he calls them "political pop-up books."

Short shrift, I shamefacedly admit, for a book that deserves much more of my attention. but I'm determined to finish this post today or tomorrow, and I've got one more book to mention. . . You might like to have a peek at fellow blogger Mardel's much more sustained review.

And when you've done that, I'll tell you quickly that before I read Smith's Winter, I read George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo, which is another book I will have to own in hard copy.  So many passages I'd love to underline, to copy out, even, but I'd borrowed this one from the library from the Fast Reads shelf. It deserves savouring rather than fast reading. . .

For one thing, it takes a while to get a sense of the terrain. The novel comprises many substantive excerpts from a number of historical sources; at the outset, these describe a grand reception President Lincoln and the First Lady gave on an evening when their eleven-year-old son was suffering from typhoid fever -- epistolary excerpts and passages from biographies or from newspaper articles published at the time switch gradually from covering the reception to describing the boy's illness -- doctor's report and nurse's and servants' -- then describing the child's worsening, his eventual death, his parents' grief. But the reader is left to assemble the narrative from the material provided. . .

Which would be challenge enough, although manageable, without the short fictional narratives interwoven among these historical texts. These sketches, we gradually realize, are of the ghostly inhabitants of the cemetery to which Lincoln's son has been brought. I've lived this long without knowing that "the Bardo" is, in Tibetan Buddhism, a state of consciousness between life and death (there are other states of consciousness that are also "bardos," as I understand it, but for the purpose of understanding Saunders' experimental novel, I think this works).

The novel's organizing conceit is that Lincoln's son cannot bear to abandon his father to his obvious grief, but the spirits who inhabit the cemetery with him know that he risks being horribly trapped, both physically and spiritually, in this in-between space filled with grotesque characters--whose narratives are being gabbled about discordantly. The collective effort necessary to push the child out of this world and into a better space is worth following. What struck me most, though, were the  passages in which one character in particular celebrates the myriad concrete beauties, large and small, that make human life in the world worth the pain he suffered in living it -- and in leaving it.

I do wish I could offer you examples of these passages, and if I had my own copy, I would. (In fact, I'm thinking I might try to check the book out again and add a passage or two here when I do -- some of them are so beautiful and against some of the atrocities we're contemplating daily, in the news, they offer tiny arguments for sustaining hope, for finding worth in the everyday.)

But perhaps you've read it yourself, and could share your own favourite passage. . .

Short shrift again, but if you're not ready to dive into the novel yet, you might check out Hari Kunzru's review in The Guardian.

These two marvellous novels are the 17th and the 19th on my list of books read in 2018. Halfway through the year, I had listed 44 books (a whole slew of mysteries pushed the count up while we were travelling).  Simple arithmetic declares that I'm 25 books behind -- yikes! It's pretty obvious that I'm not keeping up with my original intention of writing a bit about each book I read, and I'm seriously wondering if it's worth maintaining this blog separately. I could, instead, just post updates on my reading over on Materfamilias Writes, but I've rarely found the book conversation there to be as convivial as it can be here. We're a much, much smaller group here, but we're all engaged readers, and I've really enjoyed our exchanges. It's pretty obvious, though, that I'm not doing enough to feed this blog and I'm not sure I'll ever be able to do much more.

Thoughts? Either about the two books I've discussed here, or about whether or not I should keep the blog going, desultory and occasional as the posts seem to be, or whether my writing about books would be better placed over on my other blog. (And prepare to be shocked: There will be TWO posts here in one week -- I'm going to post my Halfway-through-the-year list in a day or two, so we can compare notes. I might even manage another post next week to tell you about some really great stuff I've been reading lately. We'll see. . . )

Friday, May 11, 2018

Three Titles in Search of a (Belated) Blogpost. . .

An entire month has slipped away since I last posted here -- although I did write about my friend Carol Matthews' book Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage over on my main blog. In case you missed that, I will say that this book is near and dear to me, and I think you'd all find it worth reading.

I did, during that month, begin a post on George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo and Ali Smith's Winter. That is, I uploaded a photo and I drafted a title.  Four weeks ago, that was, however, so today I was determined to write that post, and I got four paragraphs written. Progress, right? But four paragraphs does not, sadly, a post make, and I can see it will take me a few more days to say anything meaningful about these two brilliantly imaginative novels.

As I fiercely wish to catch up here before I'm off travelling in two weeks (when I started writing this post, the travel was two weeks away; now it's only one!), I'm going to take another tack for now and list some titles. Here goes:

Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. The trouble with being able to borrow books from the library and then not writing anything about them until weeks and weeks later is that the details begin to fade and I can't go back to check the source. However, I will say that this novel engages the reader from the outset, that it presents some strong, likeable, characters, that it captures many aspects of setting (bourgeois suburbia, very comfortable, very settled) well. I also thought Ng caught aspects of teenage exuberance and angst together very well, and offered some solid perspectives on the challenges facing the creative individual living in a conventional community.  What I didn't enjoy, what actively irritated me, in fact, was the tendency to caricature certain characters -- the bourgeois suburban mother, in particular. I found it tough to reconcile the mother's intelligence and sometime generosity, her ability to juggle family and career (however much the narrator might sneer at the safety of the kind of small-town journalism the woman settled for in deference to family life) with the appalling attitude -- and actions -- she displays and takes toward her younger daughter. Still, I'd be happy enough to pass on a copy if I had my own, knowing another reader would pass a few hours caught up in the story -- and then we might grumble about it together . . . Have you read it? Agree or disagree with me?

Sara Baume's A Line Made By Walking. You know I loved Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither, so you'll know I came to her latest book with high expectations. And at the level of style, of imagery, and of engaging and thoughtful content, an exposure to new ideas, new knowledge, the novel doesn't disappoint. But this is a bleaker novel, no question. The protagonist is a young woman who has retreated to her deceased grandmother's very rural cottage. Besides mourning her grandmother, she's experienced some kind of breakdown -- there are hints throughout of some kind of trauma, perhaps a romantic disappointment, perhaps something more sinister.

As an experiment in rendering the prolonged depression of a young woman, the novel is very effective, but it's tough to keep reading although there's so much spare beauty in Baume's lyrical descriptions of the countryside, even through her depressed character's eyes. The protagonist has always thought she'd be an artist, went to art school, but has become paralysed by the fear that she won't be able to transcend mediocrity. Throughout, she rouses herself from her depression through a project she's set herself, with her camera (but oh, it's a morbid project), and also by regularly -- rhythmically, even -- setting herself the task of recalling contemporary works dealing with a particular topic or theme. Conceptual art. I found this part of the novel both fascinating and, ultimately, a bit tedious, I have to admit. And yet . . . something about it hooked me, and again, if I had my own copy of the novel (I read it as an e-book, borrowed from the library, so there was a time limitation as well), I think I'd have lingered, and probably would go back to reread sections.

This one might read well with Eimear MacBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, another novel about a troubled young woman, also by a female Irish novelist. Also difficult to read but worth the challenge.

And while we're in Ireland, I'll tell you quickly about Bernard McLaverty's award-winning A Midwinter Break. . . A long-married retired couple whose only son has moved with wife and child to Canada embark on a short trip to Amsterdam -- with very different goals in mind, although the husband doesn't realize this. His quiet, contained, but undeniable alcoholism has his wife mulling her options.

The writing is so precise, and the observation so apt, exquisitely so. The novel is rich in setting, in the careful pacing, the unrolling of this couple's backstory, in their respective private ruminations and expectations and assumptions. The way a couple can be so much more than either of them know, individually. . . The way that a crisis can threaten even at a stage when it might look as if a couple is in a last, settled, copacetic state. In some ways, the novel reminds me of the Roger Michell/Hanif Kureishi film Le Week-end, but its palette is more muted and arguably more effective for that.

Here, two pages that give an idea of the unexpected range the novel claims (accurately, in my experience with longterm marriage) a couple might experience. Note that we only go from page 158 to 161 to see this shift -- Not only do they "ma[k]e love again," but they talk about it, about how she "take[s] the notion more often when [they]'re away" not having to think of dinners, the "bane of [her] life." And she says, "sometimes I wonder if that [lovemaking] was the last time," and her husband teases "Wonder or hope?"  . . and he says, "I would have loved to have known you when you were younger. . . . you and me at the same primary school. . . . I feel I've missed a lot of you." Such tenderness.
 Then a scant day or so later, merely two pages for the reader, he's mocking her belief in the power of a hair product, making fun of the "girls in white coats wearing lip gloss" who advise her at "the chemist's." And there's no doubting the bitterness in the words she flings back: "Sometimes I think you're the worst misogynist I've ever met."

Marriage is complicated, says McLaverty, or his narrator, longterm ones not excepted. . . And the novel poses complicated questions about what loyalties we owe, to our partners or to ourselves. . . especially in the dwindling numbers of our last decades. Highly recommended, this one, but only if you want a book that will make you think and feel.

Not sure when I'll post again, but I have those four paragraphs on Saunders' and Smith's books, so I might surprise us. . .  Meanwhile, as always, I'd love your comments about any of these books, if you've read them, and I'm always interested in hearing what you're reading these days.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Patrick Melrose Novels, So Painful, So Funny. . .

I haven't only been reading mysteries recently, although I've been lucky enough to have borrowed a number of good ones from the library these past several weeks.

I've also read the first four Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, pointed towards them by a friend whose recommendations I always trust, and perhaps especially motivated by her telling me that BernardBenedict Cumberbatch will be playing the protagonist in the upcoming Sky Atlantic/Showtime series. I read these four -- Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk -- in a special edition that bound them together; I have yet to read the final volume in the series, At Last.  I wonder what it might have been like to have read each novel as it was published,  what the effect might have been to close that rather slim (just over 200 pages) first book with its arch, aphoristic, stylish wit which shockingly manages to describe too precisely the details of a young boy's rape by his father. Then to learn, through the various interviews surrounding the novel's publication, that the fiction was disturbingly autobiographical.

As it was, reading the four bound together, I went from that strange mix of the dense and the dark and stylish and the aphoristic directly into the next book, jumping forward to see the young boy, not so shockingly, I suppose, become a heroin addict. A heroin addict with enough funds to cushion himself from the full depredations of that addiction. Again, the stylishness of the writing mesmerizes, gruesome details of needles and veins and dangers ignored in desperation for the next fix, the out-of-control behaviour of an addict who imagines himself to be in control.

And it's not that the writing is merely stylish in its prosody, its word choice, its rhythms. It's stylish also in its content, in the knowingness, the aptitude of its observations about this privileged class of 1960s England, for a start. If it merely sneered, that might be entertaining enough, but there's something so disarming about the blend of intimacy and distancing that the writing effects. It shares the intimacy of such close observation, but even as the writer lets us see Patrick Melrose seeing, there's something of that young boy we met at the beginning that sticks. There's something about looking and mirrors and cloaking that is wound right into the aphoristic style. The gleeful grabbing for a pen to copy down yet another amusingly worded skewering is arrested often by the reader's awareness of the trauma that has saturated Patrick's life.

I know that some of you will not want to read any book that includes such a traumatic event, and I can understand that. And yet there are so many delightful moments, so much sheer fun, in the novels. Hard to believe if you haven't read them, and hard to explain even though I have, but wait until you meet Patrick's precocious children -- their brilliant and delightful laying-out of the terrain between innocence and experience.  Or until you read of Princess Margaret as an honoured guest at a dinner party, the table full of sycophants -- she does not come off as any more appealing than the sycophants, and if you were inclined to admire her or pity her after watching The Crown, you might feel less so after this depiction.

This, of course, is an absolutely inadequate response to St. Aubyn's work in this series, and I can only excuse myself by saying that I'd rather read than write, and that there are so many clever, professional reviews of the books out there already. I will mention, before closing, that I haven't seen this series compared yet to Elena Ferrante's or Karl Knausgaard's series, but all three blur the lines between fiction and autobiography, all three draw long narrative arcs of a protagonist in a family context against while revealing something about the social and/or political national culture (Whoops! I did a bit of Googling after I wrote that last sentence, and I found this article on Serial Storytelling in the 21st Century, by NYU's Karen Hornick.)

If you're at all intrigued, you might want to read Mick Brown's review of the series and interview with St. Aubyn in this 2014 Telegraph article. I hope some of you may have read the books already and/or that some of you will read them now, so that we might chat about them a bit. I've requested At Last from the library, but I think I'll end up buying my own copies of at least some of the volumes,  simply because there are so many sentences, paragraphs, whole sections that I want to read aloud to others (my poor family! the travails of living with a passionate reader ;-)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Three More Mysteries

First, the three mystery novels whose titles I promised you last post. I haven't only been reading from this genre, recently, but it makes sense to group them this way, before moving on to books from other sections of the library. . .

1. Val McDermid's Insidious Intent, the latest in her Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series, borrowed in hardcover from the library. Such a treat to read it this way for free; as much as I find e-reading convenient, I do love the additional sensory pleasures of reading a paper copy, especially in nearly-new, hard-cover format. The smell, the feel of the pages, and the growing tension of gauging how many plot twists might be contained in the dwindling number of pages beneath my right hand. . . .

Someone recently commented on a post here that they were finding this series a bit tedious, and I would agree that the last few might have benefited from tighter editing.  The plots are interesting enough, but there's a certain rhythm in "serial-killer" mysteries that can feel a bit protracted. I've got such a fondness for Tony Hill, though, and for his fondness for Carol Jordan. She's not as easy to like, but she's bright and interesting and principled, and she's gathered a solid crew of loyal colleagues around her. In this novel, some chickens are coming home to roost for Jordan, and while she's working hard to maintain her hard-won sobriety, she and her colleagues are being hounded by a journalist determined to expose both Jordan's earlier transgressions and the way her superiors brushed these away for strategic/political reasons.

This pressure builds to a shocking conclusion, and McDermid makes a special plea in an Afterword, asking readers not to spoil the ending's surprise for others. So I won't -- you'll have to read it for yourself. And after you do, perhaps you'll speculate with me on which of the other characters in this series might deserve either her/his own volume or at least a much larger role: Computer whiz Stacey Chen, for example, or DS Paula McIntyre who, with her physician partner Elinor, has taken on the guardianship of a teen-aged boy.

2. Peter May's Extraordinary People is the first in a series of mysteries featuring the half-Scottish, half-Italian forensic expert Enzo MacLeod who teaches university in France.  When we were together in Palm Springs last month, my sister recommended the "the Enzo files," each volume of which has our protagonist betting he can solve yet another cold-case. I enjoyed May's Lewis trilogy last year, and I'm an unabashed France-lover, so I put the title on hold at the library as soon as we got back. The mystery is well-plotted, although in the end you'll have to decide if you think the motive is credible enough. The puzzle aspect of the novel is perhaps its most satisfying element -- you'll be well rewarded if you have an esoteric knowledge of French history, or even if your coverage is just Jeopardy-level solid.

As well, there's a promising entourage of credible and entertaining characters, although I suspect I'm not the only female reader who is slightly annoyed, at times, by a sexism which might be Enzo's but might also be May's. I'll definitely read more of the series, but if the sexism becomes more evident, I'll probably not continue. Another minor complaint is that in this first book in the series, the author is grappling with how to be sure his readers will follow the use of the Internet. Perhaps that was necessary in 2006, when the book was first published, but it's tedious if not laughable now.

3. In my last post, I commented that it had been a long time since I'd "been thrilled by a particularly elegant and satisfying plot in a mystery novel." At the time, I'd just begun Keigo Higashino's The Devotion of Suspect X, Higashino's mysteries having been recommended to me by Frances of Sydney in a recent comment. The title is the first in Higashino's Detective Galileo series, and at 320 pages, it's as elegant as you could want for a novel that also deftly sketches its setting--both physical and cultural--in urban Japan. The best mysteries, to me, are ones that reveal something about our humanity while also offering us a puzzle to solve or distracting us from the everyday with their tightly-wound plots. This is one of those in the way it describes the "devotion" of the middle-aged math teacher to the single mother he admires from a respectful distance. The man's lonely existence is brightened by the presence of this mother and her teenaged daughter in his building, and when her ex-husband comes to threaten her and is killed, the neighbour offers to help dispose of the body and to deflect police suspicion. And the final twists of the novel -- the last fifty pages or so -- are truly surprising and are heart-rending as well. Read this one. Tell me what you think.

If you'll remember, I fretted about book-blogging math last post, calculating that while I reported on two books in that post, I had read another nine I needed to tell you about. Today, I've crossed three of those nine of the list, but, of course, I've picked up new books since then. Still, I'm making headway. Next post, I expect to offer a brief survey of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, for a four-with-one-blow effect. I'll probably throw in a quick summary of my response to Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere and mention the dazzling concatenation of following George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo with Ali Smith's Winter.  Or not. It may be that this is all the mention those books get here, which would be a shame. They deserve so much more disciplined a blogger. . . .

Ah well, back to the books now. Over to you. . .