First published UK 1967, US 1969
Finished: early May, 2010
Source: Book blogs: Things Mean a Lot and others I forgot to write down
Genre: ?
On The Scales:  Hard to tell.  Depends how on-purpose it was.

I have seen the fatal flaw in my blog-a-book-a-day plan for July.  I keep reading them.

I have been stacking up everything I’ve read by the computer and the pile isn’t getting any shorter, even though I have replaced some of the actual books, like The Magic Toyshop, with pieces of paper scribbled with their titles.

I just now finished Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, and I was gratified to see that she has written a book on Angela Carter, because it must have been a match made in heaven.  I want to read it.  My first Carter has left me even more interested in what other people said about her than what she herself had to say in her fiction.

The Magic Toyshop is a lurid gothic fable of orphans, childhood, male and female power, creativity, class, and sex.

I’m all for lurid gothic fables, brainy books, and neglected classics.  This in mind, and having quickly discovered Carter’s novel was compulsively readable, I expected to have a strong positive or negative reaction to it.  My reaction was more of a mild positive.  The gargoylish awfulness of life in the toyshop–a rotation of claustrophobic misery and heavy meals–and the crowded, compost-y layering of subtle (and not so subtle) symbols and images both contributed to my engaging with it at a bit of an emotional remove.  I think her style of writing did that, too.  It is finely honed.  The book read like something thousands of undergraduates would one day be encouraged to dissect into millions of pieces.  And her post-pubescent main character initially copes with her situation by going passive.  As reader, I followed her example.  It was that or shake the girl.  Then she copes by falling in love with the Irish.

Falling being the operative word.

With her upbringing, Melanie didn’t really see any more active options.  Or at least this is what I think we were meant to believe: that she was so sheltered, it didn’t occur to her that there were outside agencies meant to prevent her despotic artist uncle from doing things like beating his apprentice/brother-in-law, not sending his niece and nephew to school, and keeping his family in a state of near-suicidal fear.  But this was the 60’s.  In London.  And yet she seemed to have grown up in the 1930s.  When I started the book, and was making my way through her virgin-in-the-tower budding-sexuality sighings in her parents country house, I was sure it was set in the 30s.

I want to say it was a bit much, but when the whole book is meant to be a bit much…

I wasn’t looking for realism, but The Magic Toyshop was playing around (on purpose) with a framework of realism, so it kept setting up oddly conventional expectations, fulfilling them, then taking a dive back into the absurd.

I was struck by her many descriptions of how ripe the unwashed grown Irish boys were.  The stink meant something. It was supposed to be sensual?  (The combination of “dirty” and “Irish” always sets off a few alarm bells.  Or maybe she was playing with negative stereotypes as well.)  But then if you switch over to realist mode, you have to admit that really, truly bad body odor is the one thing lust can’t conquer.  Had Carter ever been stuck in an enclosed space with an unwashed teenaged boy for weeks on end?  Hard to think it.

Moyer Bell, 2000

Finished: April or May 2010

Genre: novel of manners

On the Scales: middleweight

A few months ago I ended up at the main library while I waited to pick Der Mann up from work.  I hadn’t brought any of my book lists along, so I started browsing the fiction stacks.  I was feeling rotten–the kind of rotten where you desperately want a book to carry you off, but know from experience that 99% of them won’t do it.  Light fiction is unbearably trivial.  Heavy fiction is too much work.  Science fiction is improbable.  Fantasy is overwrought.  Romance is fatuous.  Young adult and children’s books seem designed to make the reader squirm at the authors’ naïveté.  Not a good day to be without my lists.

I got together a stack I wasn’t sure I would read just to have something to take home.  There I realized my autopilot selections had been two Eudora Weltys, a Booth Tarkington, an Alice Thomas Ellis, and a couple of dystopic science fictions.  Why do I gravitate to Southerners and celts when things are grim?  It’s not on purpose; that’s just how it always seems to work out.  Gail Godwin.  Eudora Welty.  Kaye Gibbon.  Iris Murdoch.  Jane Gardam (not a celt, but North Yorkshire almost counts?).

And Alice Thomas Ellis is the greatest of these.

Or at least the witchiest.  Ellis was half Welsh and half Finnish.  A number of her novels take place in Wales.  The first I read, I hated.  “How can they?  How can she?  What a mean lady!” Then I went back for another.  And another.  Now I am just annoyed at her for dying about the same time I discovered her and for not writing fiction until the latter half of her life.

I came across the word “mordant” lately, and that is almost the right one, but not quite.  Reading one of her novels is like hearing the best joke you’ve heard in ages then stubbing your toe and getting a gin-and-tonic thrown in your face while you are still laughing.  No one is nice.  Some characters try to be, but even the well-meaning are too (pick one or more of the following:) stupid, abstracted, compulsive, self-absorbed, passive, or vain for it to do much good.  Or harm.  Ellis doesn’t write catastrophes.  For her, human nature is catastrophe enough.

I make a point of saving her for the right mood.  Also, most public library systems tend to own just one or two of her books.  Both moodwise and book-itself-wise I hit the jackpot with Pillars of Gold.

The setting is a gentrifying neighborhood of North London in the 1990’s.  The main characters are three women neighbors (one of whom never makes an appearance), and a teenaged girl.  The title is from William Blake:

The fields from Islington to Marybone
To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,
Were builded over with pillars of gold;
And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Pancras and Kentish Town repose
Among her golden pillars high,
Among her golden arches which
Shine upon the starry sky.

–which makes me shiver even though I do not like the last line or the break before it, and which was quoted at the beginning of the book.

I puzzled over why she took her title from this poem, and maybe there is no reason except that Ellis liked it, but I think it has something to do with a dreamy, transfixed unreality hanging over the lives of the characters for the week or so in which the story takes place; and possibly (I’m not familiar with London) that frozen, golden moment in time when an old city neighborhood still has a faint grip on reality, before the final plunge into the hands of the very, very rich.  Like characters in a piece of existentialist theater, Ellis’ three women never exit the stage (or in the case of Barbs the New Age-y American everyone secretly loathes, never makes an entrance), only wander back and forth from each other’s kitchens, in and out of the garden.

And they talk.  They talk about their lives, and they talk about Barbs–who disappeared without a trace without taking her purse–but never quite manage to do anything about them.  Constance sells jewelry that she Frankensteins from antique costume pieces and reads widely.  She inherited her mothers’ house, in which her large family of gipsy entrepreneurs store cardboard boxes of dubious origin.  She has Cypriot lover who may not be–but probably is–cheating on her.  Scarlet is the depressed wife of a nouveau riche advertising executive.  Her teenaged daughter Camille cuts classes and wanders around sitting on curbs and cadging drinks in tapas bars with her friends, exquisitely disillusioned and bored.

None of which tells you how good the book is.  This passage might start to give you a clue:

“You’ve got me now, anyway,” said Memet.  I’d never see you short of money.  You know that.”

“Do I?” said Constance.

Memet looked at her, uncomprehendingly.  Being a man, he could not understand why she should sound so doubtful.

“I’d never let you go short of anything,” he said, “and if anybody hurt you, you know what I’d do.”

“Yes, yes,” said Constance.  “I know what you’d do.  Blood everywhere.”

Memet was wounded by this.  “Why do you say it like that,” he asked, “as though you didn’t believe me?”

“It’s not that, said Constance, “I believe you all right.  Only when you’ve got brothers like mine, what you want is a bit of peace.  All my life I’ve had brothers breathing down my neck, watching my every move, checking on who I’m going out with and what time I’m getting home.  If I ever got talking to some man in a pub, it was more than his life was worth.  My brothers’d be watching his every move, just hoping he’d put a foot wrong so they could jump in and scrag him.  It wasn’t so much my virtue they were worried about as their own standing in the community.  They’re very medieval, my brothers.  So what I mean is . . .,” she said after a moment’s thoughtful silence, “it’s very nice of you, but I don’t need any more bother.”

Memet was silent too: he was more deeply offended that he could permit himself to show.  Constance, in a few words, had insulted his dignity, his pride, his sense of exclusiveness, his manhood.  He was beginning to get annoyed.

After an unnaturally long pause Constance became aware of this.  She had been injudicious.  Her worry about his probable infidelity had led her to attack him in an irresponsibly dangerous manner.  If she had spoken truthfully and expressed her doubts about his faithfulness, he would have been flattered, gentle, and full of mirth.  She had felt she’d rather die than give him the satisfaction, but now she’d have to be clever, for by implication she had denigrated his power and his commitment to protect her.  Not, she thought, that she needed his or anybody’s protection.  She had been well able to look after herself since she had been about seven . . .  But physical victory was a poor thing to a woman and little to preen herself on: any fool could disable another with a judicious cast of fist or foot, a neatly wielded weapon, or a dirty trick.  Her real power lay in her knowledge of others, her awareness of the weakness of men, the destructive weight of a well-timed laugh.  Telling a man the simple truth could reduce him to wreck, so that, on the whole, she held her punches and her tongue knowing how deeply she could wound. . .

Constance and Camille are the most likable of Ellis’ characteristically unappealing characters.  At least their faults are the natural result of being in love and and being on the cusp of adulthood, respectively; and they are funny.  Camille, especially.  You can tell Ellis spent a lot of time around teenagers.

“You’ve got bags under your pretty little eyes, Mum,” she said in her normal voice.  “I’ll wring you out a couple of tea bags.”

“That’s kind,” said Scarlet.  I think I’ve got a touch of hangover.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Brian, “not after what you put away last night.”

Once upon a time Camille would have dipped her oar in here: she would have turned on Brian for attacking her mother or chided her mother in no uncertain terms for being a drunken slut.  Or possibly, she would have done a bit of both.  As it was, she smiled, rather falsely, for while laughter came naturally to her, smiling, as yet, did not, since only babies and adults can smile with conviction: she realized that her face felt uncomfortable wearing this expression and reverted to her habitual frown.

Scarlet was relieved, since Camille’s adolescent smile had reminded her of the expression on the face of some ancient, alien reptile.  “Don’t be late home, darling,” she implored.

Pillars of Gold also has a definite plot and structure–good ones–which it could almost have done without; I’d have been happy to eavesdrop on Constance and Scarlet’s drunken late-night talks for a whole book twice as long.

A. A. Knopf, 1957 (first pub. Japan, 1948)
Translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker
Finished: April 2010
Source: heard about the author at Chasing Bawa
Genre: Novel with a capital N
On the Scales: heavyweight

The plot was quiet and multi-streamed. The characters were both recognizable and completely themselves. If I tried to describe them, I’d never talk about this book at all. But I did want to tell you what reading Junichiro Tanizaki for the first time felt like: it felt like finding out about a cache of never-before-seen completed manuscripts by Jane Austen.

If you have ever sat around around sighing, “I’m sad that I’ve read everything Jane Austen wrote,” be happy! Because you can read something oh-so-much-closer to Pride and Prejudice than Regency spinoffs.

Tanizaki was known for his European sensibility, but that’s not the connection. Neither is the way the story revolves on a shabby-genteel family’s anxious preoccupations with eligible batchelors, reputation, and the need for daughters be married in the proper order–though it was an uncanny parallel for two cultures so far apart. I believe what made reading The Makioka Sisters so like reading Jane Austen was the way both writers set up the tension between individuals and the constraints of their social circle without placing their authorial selves outside the circle. Instead they draw us in, and they do this so expertly that we can take even the most alien cultural imperatives for granted. I guess what I’m saying is that Austen and Tanizaki have similar voices. Sympathetic omnipotence?

Restrained empathy?

Quite often when I am reading a piece of emotionally complex fiction, I get the feeling that there is no backstage; the author is sweating and strutting along with his characters–which can be fine, but there is a special pleasure in the kind of book where someone is very definitely behind the scenes running the show, and an almost sublime pleasure in the best examples.

The Makioka Sisters is most excellent capital-N Novel I’ve read for years. I am going to parcel out Tanizaki’s other work slowly. For emergencies.

translated from the French by Barbara Bray

Pantheon, 1985

Finished: April 2010

Source: Jenny at Shelf Love

Genre: arty, psychological historical novel

On the Scales: heavyweight

It was strange to read this book so soon after No Signposts In the Sea. The Lover is a very different novel with some shared themes–so different, I hesitate to call it better even though I think it is.  Denser, certainly.  Both are short books featuring voyages by sea from the East to the West and West to East with all that entails atmospherically and metaphorically.  Where No Signposts lacks structure, in The Lover–like a poem–the structure is inseparable from the message.

The Lover is a spiral.  It circles back again and again to a series of events that transformed the narrator–now in unhappy late middle-age–to her adult self.  Imagine a whirlpool or someone who keeps lifting the needle from a phonograph record and putting it back in an old groove, trying to hear something new in the music.  To understand.

On the surface it’s the story of a precocious sexual coming-of-age: a 15-year-old French girl takes up with a young Chinese businessman in pre-WWII Indochina.  Through a set of circumstances relating to her peculiar home life, the affair is an open secret in the small expatriate community.  They look the other way while sneering under their breath.

Race comes up, but it isn’t at the heart of the book.  The “lover” of the title refers not to the besotted Chinese but to the 15-year-old in her schoolgirl pigtails, bargain basement lamé pumps, and her instinctively fetishized fedora.  “How can it be that some are born to be lovers, and never to love?” the narrator seems to be asking the girl, though never in quite in so many words.

The answer comes in the form of the girl’s widowed mother.  Each time we circle back for a look at her, the woman is madder, more pathetic, and more deeply hated by her daughter.  After a while of this we begin to realize that the narrator’s reluctance–perhaps inability–to show us that Her Mom Was Just Plain Nuts until somewhere around the middle of the book is a sign of  how collusive she was in her daughter’s bungled launch and her sons’ fiery disasters on the launchpad.

This book was fantastic.  It might not be for everyone.  I liked Duras for not pulling punches (the novel is said to be a memoir to some extent), but others might find her harsh and self-obsessed.  If you can stand brutal, desperate teenagers without much innocence to lose, fatigued existentialists, cyclical narratives, and the subtle cruelties of family dynamics against a backdrop of crumbling colonialism–and you like gorgeous writing–you will enjoy it, too.

Doubleday, 1961

Finished: May 20, 2010

Source: fate

Genre: existential romance

On the Scales: middleweight

Vita Sackville-West probably wasn’t as smart as her Famous Friend, but she would have been more fun to meet on an ocean liner.

Here is a novel is about love, facing death, and journies by ship.  It is dated.  It is melodramatic.  It is short.  It is the kind of book that smokes Gauloises, affects a beret, and talks constantly about a manuscript with a portentious title which his friends all suspect is the only part he’s actually written down.  Something like . . . No Signposts in the Sea.

The plot device is a big wince, but unfolds into something touching.  No Signposts in the Sea ends a better book than it began.  When I say “ends,” I really do mean ends.  It didn’t like it much until the last 25 pages, but those 25 pages had such great stuff, I was able to look back more kindly on the rest.

The story progresses at an odd, jerky pace.  We’re thirty-some pages into the story before we learn that the narrator is a man.  It’s even longer before we know anything about him–his profession, the nature of his obssession with a fellow passenger named Laura, or even what he is doing on the ship.  At that point we discover that cagey David is a middle aged journalist suffering from a Nameless Malady.  Authors who burden their protagonists with this universally fatal condition never seem to realize how silly it is, or how thoroughly it undermines tragedy.  I suspect Sackville-West knew very well but waved it off with lordly indifference.  “Yes, yes.  I can’t be bothered.  Would you rather I spent my time writing books, or looking up diseases in the encyclopedia?  Come to that, it doesn’t matter which you’d rather!  I’ve a castle and gardens to look after.”

Here’s a slice of synchronicity:  In February I started the seeds of a lovely Mediterranean plant called Pride of Gibraltar (Cerinthe major atropupurrea).  The seed catalog mentioned that this flower was first introduced to many English gardens from Sissinghurst castle.  Before it was given over to the National Trust, Sissinghurst was owned and the famous gardens were made and kept by Vita Sackville-West.  I thought of her every time I watered my starts.  Then one day I was looking up something entirely unrelated on the library catalog, and a typing error brought up this book, which is how I came to read it.

David spends most of the book pulling a Hamlet–a role anyone who isn’t a prince of Denmark ought to leave alone.  “Ooh, I’m dying so it’s all about me, me, me!”  Well okay, diaries are supposed to be about me, me, me; and he is dying–but it was Laura who carried the book.

Projected on the screen of David’s ridiculously exaggerated insecurities, Laura enters as an ice queen.  The more time they spend together, the more human she gets–though it’s David who changes, not Laura.  By the end of the she has stepped down from the screen and become a woman I would have loved to have the chance to know better.  As would David.  That’s what made me choke up in the last scene (if it wasn’t that Turkish tobaco).

There were staggers.  Unconscious colonialism kept popping up and startling me like a bug-eyed whack-a-mole, as did a quaintly stormy let-us-throw-off-our-Victorian-shackles attitude toward sex that made it hard to remember the book was supposed to be taking place in the 1950’s.

There had been the young steward who brings the coffee after dinner; had I noticed him, she asked?
“I can’t say I have,” I said.  “Unlike some of your friends at home, I don’t take any particular notice of young men.  What about him?”

“Well, look how graceful he is; he might be a dancer.  From Bali.  So sinuous.  Look how he weaves between the tables.  And he has a crooked smile, which is very attractive, and one pointed ear like a faun.  A dangerous person to have about.”

At the time I thought she had spoken flippantly, and paid little heed, but now I am not so sure.  What lies under her cool exterior?  Was her appreciation of this boy’s wry beauty indicative of her own sensuality?  One has often been surprised by the discovery of hidden things going on for years in lives of the highest repute–why not in hers?  She is still young, she is attractive God knows, she is free–what is to prevent her from indulging in the most fleeting caprice?  She is deep and secreteive; one would never know.

From here is but a step to remember her comment on Dalrymple’s good looks, and he a man of her own class.  Yes, shis moved by the handsome male, no doubt about it.  She can become eloquent over black dock-hands, naked to the waist.

“Look, Edmund, what a magnificent torso, what shoulders, what muscles!  polished like metal, pure sculpture.  How a black skin enhances color–see how his red loincloth shows up redder than it would on a white man.  Look at their natural carriage, so straight and erect, and their springing walk–like atheletes.”

I wish I could believe her observation to be wholly aesthetic, but the touch of sex is in it.  Or so my disordered mind persuades me to surmise.  And why not, I say to myself, ashamed of my unworthy fancies?  She is very much a woman, and her affinity is man.  Her very frankness should perhaps be disarming: people are careful not to betray that which they have reason to conceal.  It is not exactly that I suspect her of promiscuity; only that I record her susceptibility, and, knowing her distaste for convention and hypocrisy, deduce that a sufficiently powerful inclination would lead her to seek its natural term.  Not the little steward, not a darkie–unless she is more of an experimentalist than I give her credit for–but Dalrymple . . . ah, that’s another matter.

David’s oggles and envies and twitches like a man from the age of psychoanalysis and Josephine Baker, not the atom bomb and Gypsy Lee Rose.  Of course, the problem is that Sackville-West’s war was the first world war, but her characters’ war was WWII, which resulted in the wrong kind of philosophizing and mopes.  Subtly wrong, but still…

It gave the book an artificial timelessness.  War loomed in the past, but which war?  Does it matter?  I don’t think Sackville-West believed it did.  The background was incidental.  No Signposts in the Sea was her last novel; at the end of a life of spectacular loves, she wanted to write about love and mortality.  She takes them on with a mezmerizing confidence.  My complaints dissolve.

“Tell me your recipe for a workable marriage.”

She held up her hand and began ticking off the points.

“Mutual respect.  Independence, as I have said, both as regards friends and movement.  Separate bedrooms–no bedroom squalor.  You know how a chance remark may stick and influence one’s whole outlook?  Once, when I was a girl, I heard someone define it as hair-combings floating in a basin of soapy water and I have never forgotten.  Separate sititng-rooms–if the house is large enough.  Separate finances.  I’ve come to the end of my fingers.”

“What about community of interests?”

Nice, but not essential.  What is essential is the same sense of values.”

“Meaning that one must be shocked, or otherwise, by the same things?”

“Exactly.  And amused by the same things too.”

“And what about fidelity?  Is theh liberty of the spirit to extend to the liberty of the body?”

She hesitated.

“I can’t prescribe.  I would say it must depend on the other person.  I feel sure that one should avoid giving pain; it is an elementary part of the bargain of marriage.  After all, I did live up to that principle in a minor way; I never offended Tommy’s conventional ideas because I knew it would hurt him, and short of breaking away altogether I knew that no compromise was possible.”

“How long could you have kept it up?”

She shrugged.

“I have often wondered.  As one grows older and becomes more aware, one also becomes less inclined for self-immolation.  Unless one has a saintly character, which I haven’t.  But in my case Fate intervened.”

Rapid Fire

April 23, 2010

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow
Dial of Random House, 2008
Finished: Late March 2010
Source: Various blogs
Genre: historical fiction
On the Scales: lightweight

How much I loved it: 68%.  I didn’t know it was written by an American till the end, when the co-author credited some Brits for helping tidy the Americanisms out of the manuscript, then in retrospect I noticed some they’d missed.  So good-hearted, its twee-ness was easy to forgive.  Reminded me of mid-20th-century light British novels, the kind my great grandmother loved to read, then found out that my Granny read this recently and liked it.  So, good gift for a granny-aged person who remembers the war.  Made me understand a little better why some people who lived through that time were never able to get over hating Germans.

King of Shadows by Susan Cooper
Margaret K. MeElderry of Simon and Schuster, 1999
Finished: Late March, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: children’s historical fiction with time-travel device
On the Scales: lightweight.

How much I loved it: 50%, or as much as a warm bath and a fuzzy towel when you have the chicken pox in fourth grade, which, sadly, would have been the best time to read it.  I wouldn’t have liked it quite as much if I’d read it when I was a little older than that, even though I was a Shakespearean theater nerd, because it was too short, and I would have compared it to my then-favorite children’s historical novel Lark by Sally Watson, in which the 17th century political intrigue is more life-threatening, and the adventures rompier.

The Unlikely Disciple: a sinner’s semester at America’s holiest university by Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 2009
Finished: ?
Source: Jenny’s Books
Genre: Stunt journalism?  Anthropology?
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I wanted to squeeze this book’s earnest chipmunk cheeks and tell it to fight the good fight: 100%.  An undergrad wrote this amazingly balanced account of his year undercover at at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, delighting me with such expressions as “well-worn scientific canards” and “coltish paternalism.”  Liberal Christians should read The Unlikely Disciple if they want to know what “those kinds of Christians” are thinking.  Secular individuals who wonder how a certain branch of mainstream Christian culture (the most vocal and widely disturbing) sees itself should read it but they should not think it gives them a peek into Christian college life anywhere but Liberty University, or into Christian theology, because frankly Southern Baptists scare the crap out of everyone but Southern Baptists and maybe Pentacostals, who are way less scary, even when they are being slain in the spirit, though their music is worse.  Committed Atheists should read it if they can stand it.  But first you should all read Jenny’s fine review with its stimulating comments, because, as the graduate of a Christian college which did not in any way resemble Liberty University except for a few creepy sociological phenomena (the expression “ring by spring” was not unfamiliar to me) and which I nevertheless hated with a passion, I am quite unequal to the task of writing one.  I should probably just write my own book about Christian college, but then my family, who paid for a large part of my schooling, would have to disown me and there would be no-one to call me on my birthday, which come to think of it I actually loathe.  (Query: I’m no less scared of Southern Baptists after reading this book–is that because I’m a yankee?)

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
also heard part of audio CD version, narrated by Juanita McMahon
Riverhead of Penguin Puntnam, 2002
Finished: April 2, 2010
Source: Various blogs recommending Waters
Genre: historical fiction in Victorian style
On the Scales: welterweight

How much I loved it: 10%.  I had to skip a lot because of the combination of confinement, watertight conspiracy, and psychological abuse (presumably physical abuse as well, but those were the parts I skipped).  I abandoned the audio version because the reader’s dramatization was too perfect, it was flaying my nerves.  I thought could take it in print.  Nope.  I had to skip the whole asylum section in the second half of the book.  I didn’t see the mid-story plot twist coming at all.  Sarah Waters should write movies, and M. Night Shyamalan should direct them, and Ismail Merchant should produce them.  Oh shoot, he’s dead.  I’ll try her other books.

Empress of the World by Sara Ryan
Viking, 2001
Finished: April 4, 2010
Source: Bookgazing
Genre: YA same-sex hothouse romance and coming of age
On the Scales: featherweight

How much I loved it: not much, except for the fact that the protagonist was sincere and wanted to be an archeologist.  It read as though a self-satisfied teenager had written it, which one might argue is a realistic touch in a YA novel, but I think was just a matter of the author still being one, at heart: the kind of teenager, who, had I been at the same smart-kid summer camp, would surely have looked down on me because I used big words and wore two long braids and home-sewn clothing, assuming I was a sheltered homophobe and prude, giggled at me over lunch with her friends, and said “What are you looking at?” when I glanced at her girlfriend’s shaved head to admire it.

Rude Mechanicals by Kage Baker, festooned with barfy photoshop collages by J.K. Potter
Subterranean Press, 2007
Finished: April 5, 2010
Source: I’ll read anything by the author
Genre: time travel science fiction novella
On the Scales: lightweight

I read this book with an overwhelming sense of sadness and nostalgia because I’d just heard Kage Baker had died, and the story was a tribute to Hollywood as-was, where she grew up when it still had bungalows and touching trumped-up glitz and aging silent film stars, when famous German directors might be paid to stage monumental, doomed outdoor productions of Midsummer Nights Dream featuring clueless big-name actors, and when a hardworking cyborg could still get a drink in this town.

Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson
first published UK 1920, This edition Moyer Bell, 1998
Finished: April 6, 2010
Source: book blogs
Genre: social satire novel
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 80% but I don’t know why, because LUCIA IS THE DEVIL AND RISEHOLME IS MY HELL–Riseholme, where the gossips trip across the Elizabethan green and local poets self-publish attractively bound books of verse at the village printer’s, while Lucia the one-woman cultural improvement committee sees to it that an antique set of stocks is purchased from a neighboring village to authenticate the ducking pond.  No mere “duck” pond for Riseholme.  (Riseholme = risible?)   Poor Georgie, I’d pegged him for a buffoon and then Benson turned him into a tragic, sweet capering Harlequin and got all incisive in the last half of the book, and the other characters became something more than just tortuously English stereotypes.  I’ve never been so puzzled and stimulated and repulsed by a piece of light fiction, all at the same time.  And nothing even happens, except Olga, the reality-foil, throwing them into disarray.

Tonoharu Part One, by Lars Martinson
Pliant Press, 2008
Finished: April 8, 2010
Source: husband’s library browsing
Genre: autobiographical graphic novel, first of multivolume set
On the Scales: ?
How much I loved it: 95%

Serially-released graphic novel about a dreamy procession of imported young American English-tutors in a provincial Japanese high school, culture shock, inertia, loneliness, and the weirdness of expatriate culture.  Spare and static.  Literally painful not to be able to go on immediately to the next volume!

Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
read by Ian Carmichael
Originally published 1930, Chivers 1989, distributed BBC AudiobooksFinished April 10 or so, 2010
Source: Jenny’s Books, Nymeth’s and other blogs
Genre: mystery
On the Scales: middleweight

How much I loved it: 99%.  I’m a convert.  I have nothing to add to the great recent reviews, except that we saw the BBC television version from 1989 just a little before we listened to the book.  The BBC version was a pretty faithful word-for-word, scene by scene adaptation, so we knew everything that was going to happen, and Der Mann and I were still laughing aloud and completely enthralled by the audio.

La Perdida by Jessica Abel
Pantheon, 2006
Finished: April 18, 2010
Source: Nymeth’s blog
Genre: graphic novel
On the Scales: welterweight
How much I loved the visual storytelling: 90%
How much I loved the characters and setting: 0%
Overall love: 45%

I think this calls for a little doggerel, don’t you?

In Mexico City
The living is shitty
For an innocent expat.
Commie friends are a rat-trap.
Chicos and booze,
Her ideals confuse,
And she rips up her Frieda
Just when she needs her!

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

February 16, 2010

Knopf, 2009

Failed to finish: early February, 2010

Source: library browsing

Genre: short story

On the Scales: N/A

I have had such a sense of shame hanging over me.  Here is a writer I love, and I can’t even finish his book.  The reasons will make me sound bad.  If this were my old paper book log, I’d just write, “Didn’t finish.  Dumb Americans.  Musicians.”

First embarrassing admission:  I don’t usually like short stories.  I’m hard wired for longer narratives.  Short stories whiz past my slow-moving brain like TV commercials.  There are a few writers whose stories can be so dense and so perfect (Saki, Eleanor Farjeon, Tobias Wolff, Kelly Link, Lydia Davis) that I love them in spite of their length.  I hoped Kazuo Ishiguro might fit into the same category.

Second embarrassing admission:  I HATE the “American songbook” featured in the first two stories.  I have no appreciation for Jazz.  Jazz ballads make me barf.  Oops.  Sorry.  Did I get your tie?  It’s not the schmalz, it’s just something about that particular blonde, glamourous, mid twentieth century kind of schmaltz.  The mystique goes right over my head.

Third embarrassing admission:  While I love classical music, I don’t like classical musicians.  I studied classical piano for eight years, into college, where I began to perceive something alien in the outlook of performance musicians.  My emotional axes were visual and verbal.  Theirs were something else.  They really were like a different species: bafflingly ruthless and inconsistent when dealing with each other; just plain weird when dealing with earthlings.  Ishiguro is describing points along these alien emotional axes in his stories.

Which is quite a feat.  But I am the worst possible audience.

The subtitle of Noctures is “five stories of music and nightfall.”  It could just as well have been “five stories of music and messed-up love.”  The narrators are either musicians or music lovers.  Love, fame, and ambition variously tantalize them, evade them, desert them.  They act a-logically, then seem to regard their actions as inevitable in a dreamy, selfish way that reminds me a lot of music; they’re not writing the notes, just interpreting them.  Performing.

The first story is about what happens when an aging American crooner turns an encounter with an admiring young street performer in Venice into a chance to bare his soul.  The next is a farce about a language teacher who allows himself to be drawn into the marital problems of his old college friends.  The third story, “Malvern Hills” was the most appealing.   The musician/songwriter who tells it has more self-awareness than the other narrators.  He’s flakey, but anyone who has spent time living with or working for relatives after leaving school would empathize with him.  The messed-up love in “Malvern Hills” belongs to a couple of Swiss tourists who stop at his sister’s country inn.

“Nocturne” is the longest story.   It’s about a jazz saxaphonist and a no-talent Hollywood celebrity recovering from plastic surgery in a luxury hotel, but that’s not the reason I couldn’t stand it.  Partly it was the tension of a Brit assuming a slangy American voice.  Ishiguro never quite slipped up, but he was never quite on target either, so the tension never went away.  Mostly I couldn’t bear Lindy.  Her whining self-assertions wore me out.  When they bounced off the saxaphonist’s snobbery and passive aggression, I found myself in the company of two people I thoroughly disliked.

I skimmed the ends of “Nocturne” and the last story, “Cellists”–another about a musical manipulator and manipulate-ee.  And that’s it.  Back to the library.