Wednesday, May 25, 2011

another lovely novel from Natasha Solomons

If just looking at that cover doesn't make you want to devour this book...

VIENNESE JEWESS, 19, seeks position as domestic servant. Speaks fluid English. I will cook your goose. Elise Landau, Vienna 4, Dorotheegasse, 30/5.

Elise Landau is a daughter, a beloved younger daughter, of an opera singer and a novelist. She loves her home, Vienna. She is also a Jew. And it is 1937. Believing that all her family will eventually be able to leave Austria, she advertises for a position in an English household as a domestic servant.

She arrives at Tyneford House in Dorset with a secret hidden in a viola, and gold chains sewn into the hems of her clothes. She will be housemaid for the enigmatic Mr Rivers and his charismatic son Kit. This novel is the story of her journey into womanhood at the same time as the world moves forward into war and as her parents try to join her in England. "The start of an affair. The end of an era." It's got romance, it's got history, it's got thoughtfulness, it's got setting, it's got joy and sorrow, and it seems to me like it's got everything.

I really, really loved Natasha Solomons' first novel, Mr Rosenblum's List. And so I was very excited to receive this in the post yesterday. Yes, I read it that quickly. It was very unhelpful when I am supposed to be poring over my thesis. Did it have to be so captivating?

Natasha Solomons writes really well. I think it's all in the detail. The book is full of enchanting descriptive passages which I do not skim over, as I normally would (to my shame). If I didn't really consider myself wanting to go to Dorset before, I do now.

The plot is beautifully woven together. I really did not want to put the book down. It's a really lovely, bittersweet combination. Moments of profound sorrow mixed with moments of joy, moments to delight in life. It's another historical novel, like my recent favourite Russian Winter, which works as a story with roots in history, rather than history clumsily turned fictional.

There were a few moments that felt a little laboured, but I almost don't want to mention them, because they really don't matter. The book as a whole is wonderful. It's like something delicious that melts in your mouth.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

valueless books

A life being short, and the quiet hours of it few, we ought to waste none of them in reading valueless books. - John Ruskin

I've been thinking about this quote with a sense of an inexorable fate awaiting me, in books that will turn out to be a complete waste of time. As a fiction editor for an online 'zine, this extends not only to books but to a number of interminable submissions which one reads out of a sense of duty although it's obvious from the beginning that they are terrible.* And then it is the modern world, and we are bombarded with constant information, titillating linkage, and the means for procrastination. It's inevitable.

I have, however, made up my mind to change at least one of my ways, because I think John Ruskin, whoever he is, is right. There is so much that should be read out there, and even more that should be ignored. And life is short. And we should be discerning.

So from now on, I will not follow one of my oldest rules. No more will I struggle my way through novels which I hate from very early on, simply because there is some perceived merit in not 'quitting'. As a wizened old 24 year old, I have come to realise that Time is running out!!

This thinking partly comes from a weekend away on a church camp. Now, I am aware that most of the people who find their way to this blog post will probably not be Christians. All the same, I think that a Bible verse that has dug itself into my head over the last week will probably resound with people of many different faiths or lack thereof. It is this verse:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Philippians 4:8

It's an instruction that subverts instruction itself, and I rather like it. The writer (Paul) refuses to set hard-and-fast rules about how we should spend our time, and he doesn't approve of turning pleasure into moralism - and yet, he recognises, much like John Ruskin, that time is limited and that we have choices to make.**

I've been wondering how I can apply these thoughts to this blog and my choice to review books. Generally what happens is this: I receive monthly newsletters from a couple of publishing companies, and I can email a few contacts and ask for a few books off each list. Up until now, my choices have been based on what I think I should be reviewing. From now on, I think my choices will be based on pure enjoyment and/or interest. I've reviewed a few books that were so disappointing that I really felt like I had scored negative points on the Is Your Life Worthwhile test. And the feeling was even more vivid after I finished the fantastic novel Russian Winter recently and felt utterly depressed about picking up any book that was less satisfying.

So... my reviews may lessen. But I will enjoy them more. I hope.

* I would just like to say that this does not apply to the majority of the submissions we receive, thank goodness.
** Disclaimer: I do not think that the writer is saying that we should ignore everything that is hard or sad or horrible in the world.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

on London


I've been missing London recently. I was there for a sum total of about six weeks in August-September 2009 - an unimpressive period of time - and yet I can still claim to miss the place. It must have imprinted itself on me.

While I was there, I absolutely loved the sensation of walking down a street and stumbling across proof that yet another cultural icon existed or was written about Here - whether it was wandering past Baker Street accidentally, or purposefully visiting a place like Handel's old house or the treasure trove of manuscripts at the British Library.

I sort of wish I had thought through exactly what I wanted to see a little more. I did very little conscious tourism. I knew that I wanted to visit the National Gallery, and Highgate Cemetery. I also knew I wanted to see a play at the Globe, and never got around to it. Everything else was an accident, or planned on the day it happened because I felt like it. Perhaps if I had made a detailed plan before I left New Zealand, I would have seen a lot more. Then again, I rather liked that everything just appeared in front of me - almost as if it were a mistake.

Now that I'm back, the reverse is happening. I'm stumbling over London in the cultural greats, and I think this is what has brought on my London-sickness.

Jane Austen on London, in a letter to her sister:
Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted.
Bram Stoker's Dracula:
'These friends' - and he laid his hand on some of the books - 'have been good friends to me, and for some years past, ever since I had the idea of going to London, have given me many, many hours of pleasure. Through them I have come to know your great England; and to know her is to love her. I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is.'
I love the creepiness of this seemingly sentimental statement coming from someone who likes to attack people and drink their blood, for goodness' sake.

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend:
It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither.
OK, so I googled that quote. I've always found it difficult to get through Dickens novels. Having said that, I am intending to read Oliver Twist soon because I feel that I should give Dickens another chance.

And, of course, some Conan Doyle:
It was a September evening, and not yet seven o'clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-colored clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light,--sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more.
And again:
'It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.'
And again:
I had neither kith nor kin in England, and was therefore as free as air -- or as free as an income of eleven shillings and sixpence a day will permit a man to be. Under such circumstances, I naturally gravitated to London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained.

It's odd that these quotes which, for the most part, are rather unflattering should make me feel so sad to not be in London.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

the absolutist

My grandfather was a conscientious objector in the time of the First World War. He refused to take up arms, but agreed to support the troops, and so he went to France with the New Zealand forces as a medic, and he was wounded at Bapaume, in the battle of the Somme. He didn't really like to talk about it. One of the only things my dad remembers him saying is that he once saw an Allied solider shot for desertion. And that when he got home to New Zealand he went up to the Port Hills, sat on a special seat that had been erected in honour of the soldiers from his childhood school, and cried, because he was the only one of his school friends who had survived the war.

And so John Boyne's new novel, The Absolutist, holds a certain interest for me.

The novel is narrated by Tristan Sadler, a young man who survived the WWI trenches but whose friend Will Bancroft was shot as a traitor when he laid down his arms and declared that he could no longer be a part of the war effort.

Tristan, now twenty years old and living in England again after his return from the war, visits the town of Norwich to meet Will's sister, who grieves for a brother whom her town remembers only with scorn for his 'cowardice'. Tristan grieves for Will too, for the friend who was secretly much more than a friend, while he holds a different secret, a secret of his own actions on the battlefield which will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Tristan's flashbacks to the trenches are rather well done. Of course, in theory, you know that it was horrible. You've been told about the people dropping like flies around each soldier, and the meaninglessness of each advance, and the mud, rats, lice, and gore. But this novel certainly provides you with some moments of insight, knowledge that hasn't quite sunk in or stayed sunken in.

The crisis point for Will Bancroft, the moment of clarity for him, is very, very intense for the reader despite the simplicity of Boyne's writing style. I think John Boyne has done pretty well at describing quite fairly the range of people involved in the war and the effect it must have had on many soldiers - although, of course, how can anyone really know what it was like except the people to whom it happened?

The story of Tristan's past is almost as painful. His family's rejection of him at age fifteen after they discover one of his secrets ... well, it's just horrific. I would like to say the world has come a long way, but I know this still happens.

Despite the strengths of this novel, however, I cannot enthuse over some major elements of it. Roughly half of the book is taken up by the events and discussion of a single day in Norwich, with Will's sister Marian, and to me it feels rather amateur in comparison to the rest of the book. Marian came across as very clichéd to me. She was such a mass of overwrought dialogue that I just couldn't get a clear idea of her as I read. Maybe Boyne is not so good at writing in the past tense he uses here? Perhaps his simplistic language is better suited to description than to records of long conversations? I am unsure.

Also, the deep dark secret Tristan has hidden from everyone, even the reader for most of the novel, did not really work for me. It felt like this plot was trying to be Atonement, on top of being a story of sexuality and a story of conscientious objectors and a story of families and so on and so forth. Perhaps it was just too much at the same time. Again, I am unsure.

So for me this was a very interesting read with some strong redeeming features, but it was also confusing to me - the quality was so variable. About two thirds of the time, I wanted to read it; the rest of the time I had to force myself through. So from me it's two and a half stars.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

damsels in distress and manipulative women

It's no surprise to learn that there is a gender bias in children's literature, even if it's reported in Medical News Today as a 'new finding'. Here's an article from 1976 on the same subject.

It's a concerning issue, because children don't necessarily have the defences adults build up against any old idea. I don't mean to say they have no judgment at all because in my experience it's surprising how much children are able to judge ideas and see through bad ones. (And of course it's also surprising how many adults are completely incapable of judging ideas and seeing through bad ones!)

All the same, there is quite a lot of truth in the following statement (quoted in this article): "Everything we read ... constructs us, makes us who we are." It's one of the great strengths of literature. Literature opens our eyes to see what it's like in someone else's head. I think it's a fundamental part of learning empathy. But I do believe that it's also one of the dangers of literature. Children assume that what they read is how the world is, or even worse, how the world should be. Just as a teenage girl watching movies, TV and reading magazines might be overwhelmed with the message that she isn't pretty, skinny or cool enough. Or just as an adult music fan in the 21st century might look at mainstream bands and assume that women are allowed to sing and look attractive but they can't be very good at drums or guitar. It's the messages that come to us subliminally that are hardest to shake.

I don't see this as always a feminist issue, or a political correctness issue. Many of the subliminal messages of literature would be rejected by feminists and non-feminists alike. Even the modern anti-feminist movement would look askance at some of the lessons taught by fairy tales - The Princess and the Pea, for example, seems to teach that there is an actual physical difference between royalty and commoners and that, if you're not a 'real' princess, you're simply not special enough. I also seriously doubt that anti-feminists would agree with the message that women who attain power or influence in the real world are automatically cruel or manipulative and that they always corrupt and emasculate men (i.e. Hansel and Gretel's stepmother, Cinderella's stepmother, every single stepmother ever known to fairy lore). And I don't think they would agree that a girl must be radiantly beautiful in order to be worthy of love.

So - we should think very carefully about these issues (especially if we have children or are in charge of children). And yet I feel strongly against the rabid censorship of literature. I hesitate against throwing away old, well-told, legendary stories simply because they feature characters or ideas we see as less modern or less progressive. Firstly, children should be allowed to understand their culture and their past. Also, if feminism really is about equality and diversity, we as feminists should allow that some stories will have boys as heroes and that in some stories women will come across as weak. It's a reality of everyday life that there are different types of personalities among both genders. All we ask is that there is a more even spread. It would be nice to see more:
- heroes who are girls and do cool things. For example - Jane and the Dragon. Matilda. The Ordinary Princess. And so on.
- Groups of formerly male-dominated character types who have got more than the one 'token' female in them.
- Powerful or intelligent women who aren't villainous or manipulative.

I've always wanted to write a children's book one day. These are things that I will be mulling over. For now, though, I have a question for those of you who have kids or who look after kids on a regular basis. Does this kind of thing trouble you at all? How do you make sure your kids are learning that the lessons you want them to learn?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

better book titles

Just came across this awesome tumblr site, the idea for which is not all that different from my "life lessons from literature" blog post a while back: It's called Better Book Titles.

Some of my favourites are the alternative titles for:
Jane Eyre
James and the Giant Peach
Oedipus the King
The Very Hungry Caterpillar