December 4, 2013 § Leave a Comment
There is nothing simple about A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. It sprawls over 768 pages. It demands that you keel over and give yourself up completely to the story. It resists a breezy acquaintance and insists that you focus on each and every single word that adds up to its 768 pages. And as far as I am concerned, it’s a story that I just cannot complete in a single sitting—the sort of absolute attention that it requires is exhausting. And yet the deeper I move into it, the stronger becomes its allure.
The setting is turn of the century (the dawn of the 20th century that is) Manhattan. The main characters (from what I can ascertain by reading the first section of the book) are a thief, another thief, a horse that can virtually fly, an amorphous white wall composed chiefly of clouds that extends for miles both vertically and horizontally and that lurks off the shore of the island of Manhattan, perhaps a boy who was presumably dead, a girl who is definitely dead and the city of New York itself.
Here’s what Helprin has to say about Manhattan:
Manhattan, a high narrow kingdom as hopeful as any that ever was, burst upon him full force, a great and imperfect steel-tressed palace . . . [B]uilt upon an island from which bridges stretched to other islands and to the mainland . . . it took in nearly all who wished to enter . . . [I]t was, for sure, one simple structure, busily divided, lovely and pleasing, an extraordinary hive of the imagination, the greatest house ever built.
Its forms and geometry entranced him . . . shoe-black horses trotting airily at the head of varnished carriages . . . the ballet of the crowds as they took stairs, turned corners, and forged across streets; the guttural noises of machinery . . . and acres of beautiful upright women.
I love how generous Helprin is with his words, piling them one on top of the other till I feel intoxicated. I think that I initially persevered with this book purely because of the sentences that make up its girth. Helprin is a master describer. My favourite chapter in this first section is an episode called, “Lake of the Coheeries.” Its setting is a winter landscape that is probably brutal and yet one that Helprin succeeds in making you yearn for with the utter beauty that he renders it.
Beyond the words there are the characters themselves. They’re quite unique and also not quite normal. Not normal not because this is a book filled with magical realism (1. I hope I used that term correctly 2. There is an incident where a pair of adolescent boys are very nervous because they’re afraid that magazine with the pictures of the almost naked women they’d been drooling over would burn a hole through the floor of the room right above them and drop down onto the table where everyone was having the family dinner. That the scene a sentence later alludes to there now being a hole in the floor above was quite funny). The characters are not normal because each of the characters has something going on that makes them appear slightly touched.
I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever come across a thief who steals because he’s held in thrall by colors. The greatest heist that he plans—to seize a cargo of gold so that he can build a room made entirely of gold—has nothing to do with greed or pride:
My plan . . . is to build a golden room in a high place, and post watchmen to watch the clouds. When they turn gold, and the light sprays upon the city, the room will open. The light will stuff the chamber. Then the doors will seal shut. And the goldenness will be trapped forever. . . . In the center, I will put a simple bed, and there I will repose in warmth and gold. . . for eternity.
The book is divided into four sections and I finished the first one today. I’d become confused enough within the first few pages to want a sense of where all this led to and to see if it was worth investing my time into this story. I was careful though to not read anything spoilery about the ending, as it’s supposedly controversial. So I have a 30,000 feet overview of what probably happens. And yet I find myself bemused at this unusual tale. I don’t know what motifs, if any, form the backbone of this book. Given that I’ve finished just a quarter of this compendium that might not be surprising. I’ll be back as I find out more!
November 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Family Roundabout has quite an ensemble of characters—two matriarchs with 5 children apiece. Add the odds and ends that round out the lives of these 12 characters and there’s quite a bit that needs to be kept sorted and straightened. Thankfully, Miss Crompton’s distinct voice for each of her characters makes it easy to do so.
Let’s start with the two matriarchs who embody two completely opposite character types, two completely opposite approaches to parenting and are the heart of the novel.
Mrs. Fowler is a poetry loving, genteel woman whose air of quiet vagueness has been perfected into an effective weapon against the domineering personalities in her life: her husband (who died before the novel opens), her elder daughter Helen and the other matriarch of the novel, Mrs. Willoughby. Her hands-off approach to parenting involves letting her various progeny muddle through their lives and their mistakes on their own while acting as the one constant in their life that offers non-judgmental, sympathetic support.
Mrs. Willoughby’s hands are always occupied and she has a healthy distrust of books. She’s brisk, efficient and practical. Her realm of influence is vast and expansive, encompassing her children, grandchildren, and the poor relations that are never forgotten and always taken care of. She knows the best course of action in every situation and her children are never allowed to forget this fact.
These two women are then the center about whom the merry-go-round of the family revolves and the book becomes an exploration of the shadow that these two matriarchs and their approach to life and parenting casts over their children.
I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed the book. I did not find any of the characters particularly appealing or relatable: the tendency of all the progeny to suffer and feel trapped drove me bananas. Don’t get me wrong. I could see why each of the characters was doing what they were doing but that failure to connect with any of them emotionally did prevent me from enjoying the unfolding drama whole-heartedly.
And then the complete petulization (yes, I made up that word. It denotes the degeneration of a character into petulance and general weirdness, a process that leaves the reader in a slight daze) of Oliver (one of Mrs. Willoughby’s son) felt off-key. I did not understand how his life-long rebellion could take the form it did—that of dandified neuroticism. Or maybe that’s what a suppressed rebellion erupts into? Whatever be the reason it did not feel like the natural evolution of the character.
The “rebellion” by Mrs. Willoughby’s two elder daughters was also abrupt. That’s not to say that I did not feel like shouting out, “Finally!” but after the heavy hand that Miss Crompton had dealt her characters through the entire length of the book these little endings seemed an attempt to end the book on a slightly more cheerful note.
I’ve also been thinking about Mrs. Fowler’s dialogue at the end of the book:
It’s like a sort of a roundabout, isn’t it? You get one lot more or less settled, and then, before you know where you are, it’s all starting again with the next.
She is referring to the themes that played out in the two matriarchs’ children’s lives being played out in their grandchildren’s lives as well and it conjures an image of continuity and a grand design in my mind. And perhaps that’s what Miss Crompton is trying to say—that no matter what one does or doesn’t do as a parent those themes will get played out in the children’s lives.
November 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
So I finally got around to reading Courtney Milan’s The Heiress Effect and I did so love it.
Miss Jane Fairfield is an heiress with a 100,000 pounds to her name—an inconvenience in light of the fact that Jane has no wish to marry, especially till her younger sister reaches an age where she can be free of her guardian. And so Jane transforms herself into an heiress who can beat people to death with feathers. To know precisely what I mean, help yourself to the book—I assure you it’s enjoyable.
For the purposes of this discussion suffice it to know that Jane’s a social pariah, tolerated only because of all those pounds (and also because people love to have a common target to snigger at and feel superior to I think). And so cleverly and deliberately Jane saves herself from the clutches of fortune hunting husbands.
Enter Oliver Marshall, the bastard son of a duke with definite identity issues and someone who is definitely not completely at ease straddling the world he grew up in and the world he has to court in order to further his political ambitions. He crosses Miss Jane’s path in furtherance of those political ambitions—namely, when the “villain” of the story dangles his political clout in front of Oliver as a way to further Oliver’s cause if Oliver agrees to publicly humiliate Miss Jane.
Notice the quotes around “villain?” That’s because Miss Milan does a lot of interesting things with her story. Not the least of which is that the villain is well not really villainous in the sense that you can see his viewpoint and where he’s coming from and that of course makes one feel a little teeny weeny bit charitable towards him, you know?
Speaking of not-so-villanious-villains, if not direct subversions then definitely “interesting things” are being done in this story: the heroine is a 37-inched woman whose fashion sensibilities are most definitely not in in accord with the rest of the world. Garish might be a word one might use to describe her. So does she change herself in the course of the story to a more admirable and likable fashionista? No sir! Granted she does have a few qualms about the whole issue (which I think are normal and make the story that much more believable) but our girl refuses to change herself even when it becomes a contentious issue between our hero and her.
Gutsy, Miss Jane is. And clearly self-aware as well. She knows that acceding to change her dressing sense while having its advantages is really a recipe for disaster—she would come to hate both herself and the sensible Oliver in a very short period of time.
Then there’s the matter of Free, Oliver’s sister and Freddy, Oliver’s aunt, two intriguing side characters. Free is all set to conquer the grounds of Cambridge and when Oliver talking about how hard it was for him and is afraid at how much harder things are going to be for her says—
Going to Cambridge will not be a thing you do, followed by another thing and another thing. Going to Cambridge will define who you are forever after. For the rest of your life, you’ll be The Girl Who Went to Cambridge.
Someone will have to be The Girl Who Went . . . Why shouldn’t it be me? And don’t worry; I have no intention that getting a college degree will be the last of the dreadful things I do. I’d rather be the Girl Who Did instead of the Girl Who Didn’t.
I am so looking forward to Free’s story.
As for Freddy—there’s a really poignant revelation about her at the end. I like to think that despite being confined to that one room (she had an extreme phobia of crowds and rarely ventured out of her single room house) she was perhaps happy in her own way. And though she dies, I would love to know her backstory as well. Are you listening Miss Milan?
As Oliver struggles between “the right choice that is easy” and “the unethical answer [that] is too tempting” there’s a subplot with Jane’s sister at its forefront. I liked how Miss Milan wrote Emily, the sister. Usually such secondary characters are featherbrains, beautiful but empty-headed; however, that’s not the case here. In this storyline as well the heroine rescues herself—quite literally actually.
I like that the hero was almost a second fiddle of sorts and that the heroine came off as having more brains and gumption. That is not to say that the pairing didn’t work for me or that I think it won’t be a marriage of equals. It’s just that so much of our world (from 1800s to now) normally portrays the guy as having the more of everything that this book was a refreshing change. It worked resoundingly well for me.
And the tiny glimpse of Sebastian and Violet that we get to see? Yes, I know that I am being set-up for a sequel and I can’t wait for it to be released!
In conclusion, if you’re any sort of romance reader at all, do yourself a favour and get Miss Milan’s The Heiress Effect.
October 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
It’s been a while since I finished Guy Gavirel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne but for some reason I haven’t particularly felt like writing about it. And then I started feeling that till I reviewed that book I couldn’t read or write anything else—which is just stupid.
I have been reading of course.
Let me start with Patricia Wrede’s Cecilia and Sorcery book 3—a fun and fluffy read that while I enjoyed was also slightly contrived in its plotting in my opinion. I will probably read Miss Wrede’s other books when I’m in the mood for some light historical fantasy.
Then there is Jess Walter’s The Financial Live of the Poets that is quite simply howlarious. I’m about 40% of my way through and have been reading it on the Oyster app that has a lovely interface but that I haven’t found myself using a lot. The app has an instant gratification component to it in that I can start reading any book that I want the very moment I want but I would much prefer a Kindle to Oyster for that. At least the Kindle will let me highlight the text. Plus, Kindle has a bigger screen and feels easier on the eyes. So what exactly is Oyster’s place in it all? What niche, if any, does it cater to amongst the public libraries, Kindles and Overdrives of the world? Perhaps it’s of particular use while commuting? But a Kindle or an e-book reader would do as well as Oyster for that. Not something I am particularly keen to think through right now but I definitely don’t see a defining need for Oyster. I also seem to have discovered a new love for paper books with the New York Public Library. (Perhaps, Oyster would be good for markets that do not have comprehensive library systems? Oyster should certainly look at international markets for that!)
I also finally found my way to Ursula K. Le Guin, starting with A Wizard of Earthsea. Oh what a lovely person she is! I loved that Ged’s quest is more about finding himself (something that I suspected early on) than about a fight between good vs. evil. I would love to recommend this book to my youngster friends and have already put a hold on book 2!
The past month has also seen me letting go of books while half-way through. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had to be returned to the library since someone else had it on hold. I found it a difficult book to start with but once I got in the flow I found it to be a strangely liberating read—there is something compelling and freeing about a life lived only in contemplation of nature. I could read only a few pages at a time—my preferred reading time was right before I fell asleep—and yet it was an immensely relaxing and peaceful experience.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is another book that I found myself enjoying and yet one more book that I could not hurry through. It’s a text that demands a slowing down and falling in rhythm with its cadence to get its full flavor. And then I left it at a friend’s place while visiting and by the time I receive it, it has to be returned. Gilead has so many lovely bits:
Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.
There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. . . . Not that you have to be a minister to confer the blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you.
Parnassus on Wheels is one more book that I’m reading on Oyster—I love the Professor and find myself grinning through his impassioned speeches about ‘the Good’ that books can do! To use a cliché: It’s a delightful romp!
October is such a beautiful month for reading. I’m loving the mantle of chilly weather that’s slowly settling over the northern hemisphere and find myself in a contemplative mood. I was reading about Miss K. Le Guin and also Margaret Atwood (whose Oryx trilogy is now on my TBR pile after seeing her live in a discussion with Carl Hiassen—she is so graceful and wise and erudite) and one thing that struck me about both Miss Atwood and Miss K. Le Guin is their reflective nature.
It’s as if in the allowing of your thoughts and your encounters and your musings to sort of seep through and settle in your experiences become a fertile ground for your writing. I find this fascinating because I’ve always felt that the only stories I would ever write are the ones I dream about (yep, I’ve dreamt stories and while dreaming also thought that hey, this would make a jolly good tale).
On another note, I’ve been contemplating issues of identity. There was an article in NY Times a while back about the “opt-out” generation, a generation of highly successful women in high-powered jobs who left it all to take care of their kids and who for various reasons found themselves returning to the workforce and subsequently found that they had to start at levels that were sadly nowhere near where they had left. There’s a lot to unpack there but the thing that struck me the most was how much each woman’s identity stemmed from what she had done i.e. her work persona. I think this is true for either of the sexes and I have this at the back of my mind as I embark upon Rosalind Miles’s The Women’s History of the World. I’m looking forward to seeing the identities that women have forged for themselves over the course of the last few centuries.
September 30, 2013 § Leave a Comment
So I haven’t read any of Dorothy Whipple’s books and yet when I read about her I knew that I wanted to read The Other Day where she chronicles her childhood from age 6 to age 11. So I ILL-ed it sometime in July and then forgot about it. About a month and a half later I get a notification from NYPL saying that my ILL item is ready to be picked up! Oh my god! The book made its way all the way from Illinois! From Illinois to NY to make its way into my hands. There’s something thrilling about the thought of a book traveling all that distance to come to me.
Sigh. I do love libraries.
Onto The Other Day—it is a peek into another world, another era. A world where children travelled to and fro on trains on their own with the portly (in my imagination) conductor pointing out the station they have to get off at; a world of quaint market places where one knows the hawker from whom one is buying her wares and asks after their family and children while deciding which melon to buy.
The Other Day is structured as a series of vignettes and I’m amazed at the details with which Miss Whipple recounts each of the situations. There’s a vividness to her descriptions that makes for lovely reading and at the same time is also kind of astounding. How DOES she remember all that stuff in so much detail?! Certainly, the book makes one think about the nature and form of memories. And I guess being that observant so early on must have come in handy in her career as an author.
Then there’s the memories themselves—there’s nothing complicated or complex about any of the situations in which the young Miss Whipple finds herself in but they do give one nice insights into the minds and mental make-up of young children. The things that the young Dorothy gets excited about, that fill her with happiness are simple things, in fact childish things at the first glance and yet the way that Dorothy seems to ride the wave of each moment to its fullest—no matter how simple that moment appears to be—is inspiring.
There are bits that struck me as particularly astute:
Grown-ups behaved differently when children were not about, just as children behaved differently when grown-ups were not about. It was strange that we never looked upon grown-ups as creatures we should one day be ourselves, but as creatures we should never in any way resemble.
Now that we lived in the country we entertained differently. In the town my parents had given modest card parties on winter evenings, and we used to hang over the stairs in our nightgear to listen to what seemed the silly conversation. . . . But now it was different. Our friends, parents and children came for the day and we all went about together, parents behind, children on in front. There seemed to be room in the country for parents and children to go about together without friction.
There’s not a lot that happens in The Other Day and what does happen is somewhat mundane. And yet therein lies the book’s charm. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys low-key fares and are ok with not having a lot of intellectual and emotional twists and turns you might enjoy The Other Day. I’m certainly interested in reading Miss Whipple’s fiction now. It will be interesting to see the sort of stories she writes.
September 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
Code Name Verity is set in the throes of the Second World War—a story about two girls who discover friendship in the face of Germany’s assault on England. It’s about how they end up in Nazi occupied France at the height of the War.
The story starts in the form of a confession:
I am a coward.
I wanted to be heroic and I pretended I was. I have always been good at pretending. I spent the first twelve years of my life playing at the Battle of Stirling bridge with my five big brothers—and even though I am a girl, they let me be William Wallace, who is supposed to be one of our ancestors, because I did the most rousing battle speeches. God, I tried hard last week. My God, I tried. But now I know I am a coward. After the ridiculous deal I made with SS-Hauptsturmführer von Linden, I know I am a coward. And I’m going to give you anything you ask, everything I can remember. Absolutely Every Last Detail.
And so our prisoner succumbs in the face of torture and readily gives codes, locations and the like to the enemy. What we read is an account of her confession to her jailers, who include:
The comedians Laurel and Hardy, I mean Underling-Seargent Thibaut and On-Duty-Female-Guard Engel
Yes, she pokes fun at her jailers while she confesses to them. It’s quite quite funny. And heartbreaking. Because you can’t help wondering at the reality of the physical torture that she must have been subjected to underneath the jaunty tone that she maintains throughout her account. There’s slanting references to the physicality of her capture and the enormity of what must have been done to her becomes magnified when she talks about another prisoner, a French girl who refuses to give in and is ultimately guillotined in front of our heroine.
This technique of just hinting at the atrocities leaves quite a lot to the reader’s imagination and can be chilling.
And yet, I’m also glad that Miss Wein doesn’t resort to a full-scale description. With her skills I imagine that would have made for a really difficult reading experience.
To give you an example of Miss Wein’s prowess, here’s a bit in the beginning of the book that had me laughing (a bit of context: Maddie and Beryl had been having a picnic in a field and have just spied a plane on fire, “spinning ineffectively” and plummeting downwards):
The aircraft’s final pass pulled all the litter of their lunch out into the field, brown crusts and brown paper fluttering in the blue smoke like the devil’s confetti.
Maddie said it would have been a good landing if it had been on an aerodome. In the field the wounded flying machine bounced haplessly over the unmown grass for thirty yards. Then it tipped up gracefully onto its nose.
Oh those last two lines—the image that’s pulled up at the use of “hapelessly” juxtaposed with that last line puts in mind the picture of a great, big lummox having a go at ballet in a comic play.
And then there’s the bit half-way through the book when our confessor has just got to the details of her last ill-fated flight:
It’s awful, telling it like this, isn’t it? As though we didn’t know the ending. As though it could have another ending. It’s like watching Romeo drinking poison. Every time you see it you get fooled into thinking his girlfriend might wake up and stop him. Every single time you see it you want to shout, “You stupid ass, just wait a minute,” and she’ll open her eyes! “Oi, you, you twat, open your eyes, wake up! Don’t die this time!” But they always do.
See what I mean? Miss Wein is fiendishly good at evoking the right emotions and the right atmosphere. Tense, lark-like, bittersweet, she writes all of them beautifully.
I don’t want to say anything else about the book lest I spoil it. It has to be read to get the full force of what Miss Wein builds right under the nose of the reader.
Code Name Verity sank its hooks into me and I finished the bulk of it in one sitting. It’s a clever book that will most likely leave you in tears. And for the life of me, I still cannot understand why it’s been shelved under YA because the themes it deals with—from female friendship to the role of women in War—is most certainly of interest and relevance to all ages.
Reading the book, I was in tears at the strength and the generosity of the human spirit that speaks up for what it considers wrong regardless of the danger that speaking up might cause to one’s own self. Code Name Verity is a book that makes you think about what it means to be courageous. Perhaps, being brave is just doing things you think need to be done despite the heart palpitations and the quickening pulses.