Friday, September 12, 2014

The Most Dangerous Book by Kevin Birmingham up at EIL

This week my review for Escape Into Life is about the new book The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle For James Joyce's Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham. As I try to stress there, you really don't have to have any interest in Joyce at all to enjoy and be taken up by this multifaceted book on early 20th century culture in the U.S. and Europe.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

a book bundle at Escape Into Life plus a little bit of news about Adrian McKinty

I did something a little different at Escape Into Life for the book review feature on Friday, which was to do some capsule reviews of some books I'd written up elsewhere. In brief I was kind of struck by how I seemed to find myself in the South Seas any time I opened a book this summer. I've reviewed a couple of these books here, but hey, you might have missed them. Anyway, for some capsule reviews, or really more like brief descriptions of Darwin's Armada by  Iain McCallum, The Signature of All ThinEgs  by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty check out my post HERE.

Speaking of The Sun is God,  the American version is out on the 9th, which is just a couple of days away. It should be easily available wherever you buy books these days.

And speaking of Mr. McKinty, word has reached us that the third book in his Troubles Trilogy, In the Morning I'll Be Gone, has just won the Australian Crime Writer's Association's prestigious Ned Kelly Award. If you haven't gotten around to the Sean Duffy books, I personally would start at the beginning with The Cold Cold Ground, but you won't be lost if you jump in on book three.

"Troubles Trilogy" turns out to have been a bit premature, as in an extremely well-timed coincidence, McKinty has recently announced that he is working on number four in the series. Read all about Gun Street Girl HERE, and if you're so inclined, follow the link there to a five chapter preview.

Congratulations, Adrian. As I've often said, we'll say we knew you when.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ten Classics I Haven't Read Yet

Never mind David Foster Wallace or David Mitchell, or Murukami, Bolaño or Javier Marías. What about all those classics I haven't read that have been around all my life?

Just for kicks, here are ten of them. Maybe this will prompt me to read at least one of them before too long:

1. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man--James Joyce

This is probably what started me on this thread. Despite the fact that I am in a longstanding group devoted to reading Finnegans Wake, and despite having read The Dubliners and Ulysses, I have yet to get to this book, proving that it is not always the most formidable work of an author that we have the most resistance to.

2. Treasure Island--Robert Louis Stevenson

This may be one it turns out I have read. I did read one Stevenson classic when I was a kid, I just don't remember which one. Having read Kidnapped a couple of years ago, I am still not entirely sure if I'd read it in the distant past or not. In any case, there are a couple of Treasure Island spinoffs that I'd like to read, but not till I've read the original, so this is becoming an ever deepening spiral of neglect. (The two spinoff novels are Silver--Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion and Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine.)

3. Madame Bovary--Gustave Flaubert

This is one of those books that I've made a start on multiple times. I've even read a very intriguing piece of literary criticism called Crack Wars by Avital Ronell, which studies Madame Bovary as "the first addict". My most recent attempt was after reading Lydia Davis' piece in The Paris Review about translating the book. I bought a copy of her translation. So far, no luck in pursuing it any further.

4. The Scarlet Letter--Nathaniel Hawthorne

How I managed to get through high school and have no contact with this one, I'll never know. I have actually read a fair amount of Hawthorne--stories, The House of Seven Gables, even the intriguing The Blithedale Romance, which explores utopia, 19th century style, but his most iconic work, no. I believe this was even read by a book group I was in, but I still managed to evade it. Demi Moore as Hester Prynne didn't lure me in either. And no, I didn't see the movie.

5.  Lolita--Vladimir Nabokov

As may now be apparent as a pattern here, I have read some Nabokov, Speak, Memory being my initial inroad, and though I wasn't crazy about it (or him) it did lead me to some of the early works (Mary, The Defense), and I liked them. I then attempted Ada for some reason, and was put off. I have a couple of copies of Lolita somewhere, due to various resolutions. So far nothing. I have seen the first movie of this, which I liked, so it's not that kind of resistance. I have heard that Jeremy Irons reading of it is excellent, so maybe this is the way to go.

6. The Forsyte Saga--John Galsworthy

If I was a very strict list maker, this one might not really fit, as it is more than one book, and isn't typically one on everybody's list of must reads anymore. Luckily I'm not a stickler for uniformity so this one gets in as one I've probably been thinking I was going  to read since I was a teen. I think this because I know at some point we were given the first six books as a Christmas present. Pocket books, red and green. What I remember is that for some reason we were given six and not nine, which I think was the set at the time, and told, let's see how it goes. I am not sure that six was the lucky number. I have wanted to read these for various reasons over time, not least because I was in conversation with my aunt about whether PBS had cast the Masterpiece Theatre version correctly. Conversation might be the wrong word, as I didn't watch the show, wanting to read the books first. Yeah, that was going to happen. I have read the initial set up about the house and family at least twice if not more, but I seemed destined not to know how all the dilemmas about the house or property or whatever it is get resolved.

7. The Plague--Albert Camus

I don't know if this quite fits here either, as I have never had all that much interest in reading this book. I suppose I like the idea of saying I've read it more than the actual prospect. I did finally read The Stranger not that long ago, and I thought it very good, although I seem to disagree with most people on what is really happening in it. The book that should probably really stand in place of this one is The First Man, his incomplete autobiographical novel. My aunt recommended this to me, and I had every intention of reading it while we could still talk about it, but alas, that didn't happen.

8. The Death of Ivan Ilyich--Leo Tolstoy

It's short, and I've read Anna Karenina and War and Peace, even the battle scenes, so why is this one beyond me?

9. The Odyssey--Homer

Okay, not a novel. I've read The Iliad, I even learned to say the opening lines in iambic pentameter in Ancient Greek, but The Odyssey continues to be out of reach. Not that I haven't seen practically every version dramatically rendered of it over time. And I must have read some extremely abbreviated children's version or something, because I feel as though I have always known all that happens to our hero. The Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, Penelope--all of it. So maybe it just isn't novel enough. But as someone who has read Ulysses, and plans to read it again, there really is no excuse.

10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy--John le Carré

I hope you weren't expecting some dramatic, perhaps shocking finish. I could have said Moby Dick, but come on, no one's actually read that, have they? No, this is just one that I've meant to read and meant to read and even the lovely new edition and the movie hasn't resulted in that happening. Again, I've read early work, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and I've opened this and liked the writing very much but it just haven't happened yet. Maybe I still don't quite forgive him for his diatribe against Salman Rushdie when the chips were down.

This one I did read.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Death in a Cold Climate, by Robert Barnard

As much as I like to tackle big, ambitious books, there's a time and place for lighter books of entertainment too, and after a spate of the heavy hitters I was in the mood for an old-fashioned mystery novel. I had picked up Death in a Cold Climate awhile ago, after reading about it on Martin Edwards' blog and now seemed like the perfect time to settle into it.

I've read a couple of Barnard's mysteries in the past, and always thought of him as a quintessentially British sort of writer, so was surprised to find that this book is set in the city of Tromsø, Norway. One might think this an odd choice, but in fact, Barnard was a professor of English there for ten years, and in some ways its more surprising that Death in a Cold Climate is the only one he wrote about Norway. I was interested in it partly because, having been published in 1980, it somewhat predates the big wave of Nordic Noir that has swept over us in recent years.

"It was midday on December 21 in  the city of Tromsø, three degrees north of the Arctic Circle."

So, though most of the photos you will find of Tromsø portray a bright sunny city, this is a midwinter's tale.

A young man, a stranger, appears in town, and is shortly after dispatched to his Maker. Winter is indeed a factor in the lag time between his death and the public knowledge of it. In between these events, we get to know those who frequent the Cardinal's Hat--"a Dickensian, cellarlike restaurant" where foreigners meet and mingle with Norwegians who want to practice their English. It's a nice device for bringing in both natives and foreigners into the list of suspects, because it doesn't take too long for Detective Fagermo to discover that the murder victim is an English speaker.

The mystery itself is I think a convincing one, but what I most enjoyed I think was Barnard's observations about the people and the place itself, which Barnard describes as the equivalent of an outback town, and a city of exiles. More wry than caustic, he is not above taking a poke or two at the natives. Not that the British and Americans who appear in his pages aren't in for a few barbs themselves.

The character of the murder victim did seem a little mystifying, though. Fagermo must build up a picture of who he was to even investigate the crime, so we are treated to quite a few past encounters. Some of them are somewhat at odds with each other. In the end, I think we continue to see him through a glass, darkly.

Although there are some amusing asides, not all of them resonated with me. And I still think the slyness of the Author Notes in front is one of the funniest bits:

"Setting a book in a real town always involves the danger that the reader will assume that the characters as well as the topography are based on reality. I should like to insist, therefore, with even more force than usual, that though I have remained fairly faithful in depicting Tromsø, the characters are entirely fictitious: the policemen are not Tromsø policemen, the students are not Tromsø students, and above all the Professor of English is not Tromsø's Professor of English."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Safekeeping at EIL

Just a quick note to say that I put Julie C. Graham's review of Abigail Thomas' Safekeeping: Some True Stories of a Life up over at the Escape Into Life website at the beginning of the weekend. Julie was interested in the non-linear and sometimes dizzying approach to memoir that Thomas takes as she talks about marriage to three different husbands. And I was interested to learn in the process of putting the post up that the father she also describes is Lewis Thomas, he of Lives of a Cell fame. Perhaps talent for the essay is a hitherto unsuspected genetic trait.

I should also note here that Julie  has a two part essay on the adventures of women travelers that just went up at Storyacious. You can find these HERE and HERE .

And what have I been reading, you ask? Well, several things. A Robert Barnard mystery, a new book on censorship and Ulysses, a Swedish political thriller, and another classic British mystery centered around a school. But all in good time, my friends. All in good time.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This was the fourth of the long novels I somehow found myself reading at the behest of one reading group or another during the late spring and early summer, and I thought I'd tackle my 'review' of the book in a slightly different way than I usually do. My regular book group decided to make this a two part read, and so, though I finished it several weeks ago now, it is still up for me in some way. As I await the upcoming late August meeting, I find myself somewhat reluctant to attend and talk about it further. So this post will be some sort of exploration of why that may be.

I never read Eat, Pray, Love, which launched Gilbert onto the bestseller list. During my years with the bookstore, I suffered from what I like to call the bookseller's disease, which is a kind of aversion to books that soar to mass popularity. Part of it has to do with the fact that those books don't need any further help from me and that other books could benefit from my endorsements. But I also had a sense that grew over time that books with such mass appeal were popular for other reasons than purely the quality of their writing. In the case of Eat, Pray, Love, I had a feeling that it spoke to a particular readership--'women of a certain age', as they say, and that as inspirational as it might be to that apparently very large group, it was probably fairly standard in its prose.

So I was surprised on opening The Signature of All Things to find that I was in the hands of an excellent writer, one whose sentences took surprising twists and turns. It was only after starting the book that I realized that before there was Eat, Pray, Love, there was a short story collection called Pilgrims, which was a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway award, and a novel, Stern Men, which became a New York Times Notable Book. In other words, despite two or three non-fiction works recently, Gilbert's initial aspirations were more literary than journalistic.

I am not going to reveal too much about the plot here, or any more than I can help to discuss my impressions, but the story begins with Henry Whittaker, a poor English boy who no one is much looking out for. Henry is the type to pull himself up by his own bootstraps if ever there was one. His adventures and misadventures take him to sea, and through shrewdness and other things not so admirable, he manages to amass a fortune and move to America, where he and his rather formidable Dutch wife have one daughter. The rest of the novel is about the life of this daughter, Alma.

Now, many readers will fall in love with Alma, who, though curiously constrained in many ways, especially for the heiress of a vast fortune, proves to be a pretty formidable person herself. For me, though, the book loses a fair amount of steam when it stops chronicling the rascal Henry Whittaker and turns him into just a mean old irascible patriarch. The opening chapters of The Signature of All Things approach Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in energy, because they follow a similar dynamic figure. For me, it was a little hard to take a lot of interest in the fairly passive Alma after such a dynamic scoundrel, especially as it seemed to be more the author's decision to render her so rather than something that grows naturally out of her character. Alma has her innings, but they don't come early.

There was another peculiar quality of the book for me. Periodically through the course of Alma's life other characters are introduced, and with the exception of one or two, all quite vivacious. Gilbert actually writes very compelling dialogue, but instead of using this gift to give Alma companions, she seems to go out of her way to stifle these relationships in their infancy. I don't want to give away plot points, but it's a bit as though  in Little Women, which is set in an America close in time to Alma's own, Jo had had to go and live with Aunt March and never really gotten to know her sisters, or Laurie had made a brief appearance, only to be sent to boarding school. The remainder of the book would be about how Jo managed to occupy herself in the brief intervals of time when Aunt March didn't need her. She might have found a botanical avocation similar to Alma's. But even Jo March couldn't make grass growing that exciting.

Now don't get me wrong. I looked at a few of the copious reviews of this book on Good Reads, and most of them are not in agreement with me. My criticism is not of craft but of plotting decisions, and that's a very subjective kind of judgement. But when I had reached the halfway mark, I was struck by how oppressed I felt by a curious joyless quality. Things actually livened up a bit shortly after that, fortunately. Though as it's Alma we're talking about, not for long.

The title is taken from a book we learn about after this halfway mark. It is Jacob Boehme's The Signature of All Things that's being referred to here--Boehme being a mystic who believed that God is constantly leaving us clues in nature. This is not very much down Alma's alley, for better or worse. She's a sort of early Darwinian. I mention the title partly because the other day I happened to come across a rather famous passage from Ulysses, where Stephen Daedalus is walking along the strand and thinking:

"Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if  no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane."

And here was me thinking he'd come up with that himself. It turns out that Joyce too is using Boehme to illustrate an idea, and according to this commentary it was Boehme's sense that a thing could only be encountered through its opposite that Stephen is thinking about, which, if I recall right, Gilbert delves into a bit too. Alma Whittaker certainly does meet her opposite, but whether she knows herself better as a result I will leave it for other readers to decide.

In any case, for a long book, and one I had some resistance to, The Signature of All Things was not at all a  slog, so don't let me put you off it. Give it a go, and if you're so inclined drop a line here and tell us what you think. It's not going to hurt my feelings at all to find out you loved it. 


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Line of Fire by Barroux reviewed at EIL

Just a quick note to say that my review in remembrance of the opening of WWI is up at Escape Into Life. I chose a graphic novel by a French artist named Barroux because it chronicles the opening days of the war, when so much that we know now was unknown and even unimaginable. As a graphic novel, it is a quick read, but also because it is a graphic novel, it will be worth revisiting to notice elements you haven't before. Read all about it HERE.