Friday, April 27, 2007

Beginning Mrs Dalloway

I first read Mrs Dalloway when I was at university and my memory of it is pretty hazy. I think I enjoyed it but it didn't make a big impression on me. Now that I'm re-reading it I think that I was just too young to appreciate Virginia Woolf first time around. This time I am reading slowly, allowing time for Woolf's gorgeous writing to sink in. The novel is so dense with imagery that I want to let myself think about the words, not race through.

The opening pages of Mrs Dalloway are just stunning. The way Woolf captures the sensations of a summer morning in London, the way she switches between different thoughts and perspectives, seems to capture more vividly the processes of thinking than any other writer I have read. She allows the reader glimpses into the minds of various characters in the scene, always finding fresh ways of describing their experiences. There is such vitality to the scene, such liveliness:
In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
In a few words she can give more depth to a minor character than some novelists achieve over hundreds of pages. A crowd has gathered outside Buckingham Palace to hopefully catch a glimpse of the royal family. Woolf describes one of the onlookers:
Little Mr Bowley, who had rooms in the Albany and was sealed with wax over the deeper sources of life but could be unsealed suddenly, inappropriately, sentimentally, by this sort of thing...
Darker thoughts intrude into Clarissa's mind, despite the cheerful morning scene:
It rasped her, though, to have stirring about in her this brutal monster! to hear twigs cracking and feel hooves planted down in the depths of that leaf-encumbered forest, the soul...
In the next moment Clarissa is admonishing herself for these thoughts ('Nonsense, nonsense!') and entering the florist to choose flowers for her party. This switching between despair and joy gives the scene a psychological realism, reflecting the way minds (well, mine at least, and I suspect others') jump from impression to impression in sometimes contradictory ways.

I only 50 pages into Mrs Dalloway, and there is already so much to think about. I'm so glad to be rediscovering Woolf!

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jane Austen: A Life

I'm about half-way through Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: A Life and really enjoying it. I don't generally read much non-fiction so I've been pleasantly surprised by how engrossing Tomalin's book is. I've just read the part concerned with Tom Lefroy, the young Irishman that Austen briefly knew and probably fell in love with (this affair is the inspiration for the film Becoming Jane, which I haven't seen but which, from all accounts, is pretty dire). Austen mentions Tom in some of her letters and Tomalin's analysis of her writing is sensitive and insightful: is the only surviving letter in which Jane is clearly writing as the heroine of her own youthful story, living for herself the short period of power, excitement and adventure that might come to a young woman when she was thinking of choosing a husband; just for a brief time she is enacting instead of imagining. We can't help knowing that her personal story will not go in the direction she is imagining in the letter; that, as it turned out, it was not Tom Lefroy, or anyone like him, who became her adventure, but the manuscript upstairs. Not marriage but art: and in her art she made this short period in a young woman's life carry such wit and human understanding as few writers have managed to cram into solemn volumes three times the size.

I like the idea that the manuscript (an early draft of Sense and Sensibility) was her 'adventure' in life. And while it seems cruel that two people were unable to marry because of their financial situations (neither Tom nor Jane had money to bring to a marriage), it was probably to the benefit of future generations of readers that she was forced to choose art over love.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A List (because I like them)

I'm not sure why, but I do like a good list. Here is the list of books that I bought at a second-hand book fair last Friday:

1. Open Secrets Alice Munro- I've been wanting to read something by her for a long time now
2. Case Histories Kate Atkinson- ditto
3. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Michael Chabon- I liked the sound of the plot, plus it's a Pulitzer Prize winner (no guarantee, I know)
4. Hawksmoor Peter Ackroyd- I'm always interested in anything set in London, particularly the East End
5. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter Mario Vargas Llosa- Dorothy wrote about this novel recently and I thought it sounded interesting
6. The Point Marion Halligan- I'm curious about this because it is one of the few novels (that I know about) set in Canberra and I have been formulating a theory about how a city needs to inspire art and literature before it becomes a proper city. Canberra is so new that it still lacks soul and a good novel set there might help.
7. Prep Curtis Sittenfeld- which I've already read (see below)

Of course, now that I've bought all these new books I've decided to head back to the shelves and re-read a classic, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

Monday, April 23, 2007

All About School

Two of the novels that I have read recently concern themselves with teenagers growing up in institutions. In Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep that institution is Ault School, an elite private boarding school, and the teenager is Lee Fiora, a scholarship student who describes herself as ' a nobody from Indiana'. Elinor Lipman tells her novel, My Latest Grievance, through the eyes of the charmingly precocious Frederica Hatch whose parents teach and live at Dewing College, a small East Coast college.

While these are very different novels (more on that shortly) they are both to some extent concerned with the teenage experience. I think it's interesting that so many films, books and TV shows are about teenagers. While we can assume that some of these are produced with teenage audiences in mind, clearly their appeal extends beyond that market. Why do the rest of us want to watch the goings on of teenagers? As a devoted fan of the teen film, I've given this some thought. I think that, firstly, being a teenager is something that we have all experienced. We've all been to school and we all feel familiar with that environment. Secondly, it is interesting to look back on teenage experiences with an adult perspective. I'm sure we all think that we could have handled certain situations more effectively with the knowledge of the world and the confidence that we have gained as adults. So as we read novels about teenagers we both relate to the protagonists and feel superior to them.

In Prep the protagonist, Lee, is painfully self-conscious and instantly recognisable. She is paralyzed by self-doubt and spends most of her time at school analysing others for their slightest reactions. The novel is an interesting insider's perspective on an environment of wealth and privilege that is only vaguely familiar to most of us. The WASPs of Ault have ridiculously preppy first names like 'Gates' and 'Cross' but as you'd expect they carry their money and status with relaxed ease. Unfortunately Lee is quite an unlikeable narrator at times and this lead me to sympathise more with some of her classmates than with Lee herself. Her self-consciousness and paralysis mean that much of the novel is spent examining the smallest gestures for meaning and until towards the end there isn't much of a plot. While this is probably a realistic depiction of a teenage mind, a more ruthless editor might have made this a shorter, punchier novel. Ultimately Prep was an interesting but unsatisfying read for me.

My Latest Grievance is also narrated by a teenage girl, but Frederica Hatch is a very different creature to Lee Fiora, and Elinor Lipman is a very different writer to Curtis Sittenfeld. Like Lee, Frederica is interested in those around her, but this time it is the adult world that fascinates. Frederica is the daughter of Aviva Ginsburg Hatch and David Hatch, left-wing intellectuals and fervent unionists who are staff members and dorm parents at a small, not-very-good college in the 1970's. Their idyllic world is upset by the arrival on campus of the glamourous Laura Lee French who turns out to have once been married to David. Lipman pokes gentle fun at all her characters, particularly Frederica's folk-music-loving, cause-fighting parents. Frederica herself is an interesting character, one who is blissfully un-self aware, over-confident and relentlessly nosy. The plot moves along briskly and there are many genuinely funny moments. This is a light read but well-written and insightful. Lipman can laugh at her characters at the same time as showing affection for them and this made the novel a real pleasure for me.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

To Autumn

Autumn seems to be lasting forever this year. The days are still warm, the trees have changed colour and the footpaths are covered in leaves. The light has become soft, diffused; the sunsets are outrageous shades of pink and orange. I know that one day soon winter will hit but until then I'm in blissful denial.

Must be time for some Keats...
To Autumn (John Keats)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Power of a Good Title

At the moment I am reading Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, a book I was drawn to purely by its title. In fact, I knew nothing whatsoever about it except that several times in book shops my husband and I had picked it up and laughed about the title. In the end he bought it for me and it has been interesting to actually begin reading it. It turns out Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is actually a pretty interesting memoir. In it Nick Flynn describes the path that led to him meeting his father for the first time in a homeless shelter in which Flynn worked. The book is told in a fragmented kind of way, so the reader has to piece together various anecdotes, building a picture of both Nick and his father's lives.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City has made me think about the importance of the title of a book. The other book I'm reading- Jane Austen: A Life- seems to be at the other end of the spectrum: a purely functional title. Lots of my favourite novels have fairly dull or just straightforward titles: Cold Mountain, David Copperfield, Middlemarch. The only other novel I have that has appealed to me quite as much as Another Bullshit Night in Suck City purely on the basis of the title is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. I think I was more prepared to like Eggers' book because I liked the title, and I think it probably got his book more publicity.

Some other book titles that appeal to me are:
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera- I like the paradox of lightness being 'unbearable'
  • Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas Tom Robbins- a nice, surreal image
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell- simple but powerful
  • White Chappell Scarlet Tracings Iain Sinclair- an interesting title with lots of different resonances such as the London area, Whitechapel, the blood suggested by 'scarlet', the contrast between the colours in the title
  • A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters Julian Barnes- I like the ambition of this title, and the 1/2 chapter is amusing
  • The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams- a fun title that leads nicely into the idea of the book within the book
  • The Wide Sargasso Sea Jean Rhys- I'm a sucker for alliteration in a title, this one rolls off the tongue nicely, and isn't 'sargasso' a good word!
Although the title has little bearing on how good a book will be, it obviously doesn't hurt to have an interesting one. Clearly I am drawn to quirky titles, some of which border on the gimmicky and probably turn some readers off. Feel free to tell me your favourite book titles, as I'd be interested to see what appeals to other readers...

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Cold Mountain

It is not often that I finish a book and want to start re-reading it immediately. It is not often that I am reduced to tears by a novel, that I feel so much a part of the world the author has created that I feel the characters' pain as though it is my pain. Part of me wants to not review Cold Mountain because how can I possibly explain the profound experience of reading it?

I'll try, because I want to tell people how much I loved this novel, but you will have to take some of my praise on faith because I don't think I can do Cold Mountain justice.

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier takes place during the Civil War. Inman is a Confederate soldier who has experienced the horrors of some of the worst battles of the war. He begins the novel in hospital, recovering from a gun wound to the neck and is resolved to no longer fight in a war that he doesn't believe in. Therefore he begins his long, painful and dangerous journey back to his mountain home and to Ada, the woman he loves.

Frazier alternates between Inman's story and the story of Ada and her battle to survive on the home front. Ada's father has died leaving her alone and penniless on their farm. She finds a life of relative wealth has ill-prepared her for the subsistence lifestyle she must now face. Her saviour comes in the form of Ruby, a resourceful young woman whose tough, impoverished upbringing has prepared her well for these difficult times. The two women develop a close, symbiotic relationship that transcends their class differences and allows each woman to discover her ability to adapt and survive.

Frazier writes wonderfully about people and about the natural world. His work is meticulously researched, so that the reader feels intimately acquainted with the landscape that Inman passes through. His local knowledge is reminiscent of the novels of Annie Proulx in attention to detail. Frazier's descriptions are always fresh. He is a master of the simile in particular; snow and cold smell 'like sheared metal', snow comes down 'soft and fine like ground cornmeal falling from between millstones'.

Inman's journey through the countryside and his encounters along the way allow Frazier to show various aspects of the rural South and the effect that the war has had on it . Frazier touches on the issue of slavery, but his focus is on the effect of the war on those white Southerners who had little or nothing to begin with, the poor men who fought a war designed to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. Inman encounters ignorance, cruelty, eccentricity and kindness in the people who help, and hinder, his passage home. And all the time the prospect of his reunion with Ada, with whom he has a tentative but powerful connection, draws him on.

Cold Mountain is filled with an ache. It is the ache of Inman and Ada for each other, an ache for better times, times in which acts of random violence don't intrude on life with astonishing frequency. It is the ache of hunger and physical pain, the aching beauty of nature in its softness and its cruelty, the ache of hope and the ache of despair. This pain, this rawness, fills each page and made reading this novel such a powerful and moving experience. Cold Mountain effected me more powerfully than almost any other novel I have read. It is an amazing literary achievement, particularly considering it is Frazier's first novel. The beauty of his writing, the sensitivity of his characterisations and ultimately the irresistible pull of the narrative made this my new favourite novel and one which has raised the standards by which I will judge all other novels I read from now on.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hope and Despair

I began an interest in the American Civil War a few months ago when my husband bought a copy of Ken Burns' documentary, The Civil War, at our local ABC shop. The Civil War is an amazing documentary series and watching it helped me to fill some of the embarrassingly huge gaps in my knowledge about the war (it is not generally studied in Australian schools). As seems to often happen when you start thinking about something, afterwards the Civil War began coming up in all sorts of places, including in the fiction I read. I started reading Geraldine Brooks' March but found it flat and uninteresting and gave up half way through. Around the same time a friend recommended Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain and I was lucky enough to find it in a second hand book store.

I'm about two thirds of the way through Cold Mountain now. It's the kind of book that you hope will never end, it's so full of beautiful images and intense emotion. The novel alternates between the story of Inman, a soldier who has deserted and is making the long journey back to his mountain home by foot, and Ada, who must survive at home on her father's farm. In an early chapter Frazier beautifully captures the faint but desperate hope that Inman has of ever returning home or of escaping the despair he feels as a result of his war experiences:

He thought on homeland, the big timber, the air thin and chill all year long. Tulip poplars so big through the trunk they put you in mind of locomotives set on end. He thought of getting home and building him a cabin on Cold Mountain so high that not a soul but the nighthawks passing across the clouds in autumn could hear his sad cry. Of living a life so quiet he would not need ears. And if Ada would go with him, there might be hope, so far off in the distance he did not even really see it, that in time his despair might be honed off to a point so fine and thin that it would be nearly the same as vanishing.

But even though he believed truly that you can think on a thing till it comes real, this last thought never shaped up so, no matter how hard he tried. What hope he had was no brighter than if someone had lit a taper at the mountain's top and left him far away to try setting a course by it.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Books Purchased, Books Received

A good present says a something about the giver and something about the receiver. I'll leave you to consider what the following books say about me, and about my husband who gave them to me for a recent birthday:

Let the Right One In John Ajivide Lindqvist
My Latest Grievance Elinor Lipman
The Jane Austen Book Club Karen Joy Fowler
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City Nick Flynn
A Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine Marina Lewycka

The following books were bought at special night for teachers at my local book store in which they used free wine and a 20% discount in order to get us to part with our money:

American Pastoral Philip Roth
Jane Austen: A Life Claire Tomalin

And, somewhat controversially, this is the first free book I have received as a result of this blog:

The Secret Twin Denise Gosliner Orenstein

The ethics of accepting free books have been discussed at length in the litblogosphere, however I do think it is important to let readers know that I will always disclose when I've been supplied with a free book (assuming that it ever happens again). I accepted The Secret Twin for two reasons: firstly, the author contacted me directly after reading my review of her novel Unseen Companion; secondly, this is a book I would have purchased anyway because I loved Orenstein's earlier work.

Much exciting reading awaits!

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Hollow Lands

Strangely enough, one of my favourite parts of Sophie Masson's young adult novel, The Hollow Lands, was the afterword. This is because I was intrigued by the setting of the novel, which although it is fantasy, draws heavily on Breton folklore and history. The Hollow Lands centres on the fate of young twins, Tiphaine and Gromer Raguenel, the children of noble parents in fourteenth century Brittany. The twins are drawn into the dangerous world of the korrigans (fairies) from which they must escape or risk losing their humanity forever.

Brittany is an interesting place to set a fantasy novel. It allows Masson to explore Celtic mythology and tradition, particularly the concept of fairies and their interaction with the world of humans. She has also drawn inspiration from the Arthurian story of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady and from the real life story of the relationship between a poor hedge-squire who rises to military fame in the Hundred Years' War (Bertrand du Guesclin) and his noble wife, who, legend has it, was part fairy.

The novel begins with great promise. There is some lovely hypnotic prose and the suggestion of wonderful and mysterious events to follow. Early in the novel the twins read from a beautiful manuscript of traditional fables. They fall asleep...
...leaving the book lying open on top of the chest, instead of putting it away, as they usually did. And there it stayed, quietly, in the dark of the night, and the moonlight, until, in the very depths of the night hours, something swift and silent fluttered on to the pages, like a moth, then settled deeper into the book, which received it with a kind of shiver.
Unfortunately this is one of several incidences that seem to lead nowhere and the second half of the novel falls short of its early promise. Whilst the first half is atmospheric and magical, the later scenes, mostly set in fairyland, seem hurried. This is a shame given such a promising scenario and such obvious attention to research.

The Hollow Lands is interesting enough for me to want to read more of Sophie Masson's work (her novel, The Tempestuous Voyage of Hopewell Shakespeare, sounds particularly interesting) but I can't help feeling there is something missing in this novel. Given more length I think this could have been a very good fantasy novel. As it is, it does not distinguish itself enough to stand out from the many other novels in this genre.