Archive for the ‘Review’ Tag

Jacqueline Winspear’s “A Lesson in Secrets” Keeps Many


When I discovered that Jacqueline Winspear had a new Maisie Dobbs novel out, I decided I would buy it immediately, and then read it immediately. I got it the same day it came out and finished it by the weekend. “A Lesson in Secrets” finds Maisie as a professor in Cambridge. However, it isn’t Cambridge University, rather a small start up school founded on private donations and dedicated to promoting peace rather than war. Maisie is asked by the police and Secret Service to go undercover at this school in order to find out more about the school’s founder. He is under suspicion for causing dissension among British soldiers, based on a children’s book that he wrote. As usual, Maisie is wholly dedicated to completing her assignment, along with helping Billy Beale, her assistant, and his family find a new home; rescue a bereaved and vengeful widow; and unsuccessfully trying to ignore her love life. And, also per usual, she succeeds at all her endeavors.

Perhaps it is the breadth of problems Miss Dobbs faces that makes the novel lose focus. Or perhaps it is my own bias towards academia that disappointed me when virtually no mention was made of Maisie as a professor of philosophy. Honestly, I didn’t care for it. The writing and story seemed more rushed. Typically, Winspear’s novels have three parts to it: the job, the family/friends, the personal. This one blurred lines, and had tangents that were sent off into the dark. For example, the young widow who’s husband was mysteriously killed. Sure, she saw something of her own past in this woman, but hardly any attention was given to her and the woman’s difficulties were often a complication of the plot, rather than a fully formed subplot. I think it would have been better just to leave it out altogether. Also, the help she gave to Billy and his family was a kind gesture, but just another thing she had to worry about. I don’t mind subplots, I just like them a little more well-done.

When I read that Maisie was going to go undercover as a philosophy professor I was even more excited than I would be about a new Maisie book. I imagined re-learning philosophy from the perspective of this admiral character and author. I thought I would be re-introduced to a philosophy I hadn’t given much thought to prior to reading her perspective. I see now that I put my expectations WAY too high. The only mention of the class was when Maisie was walking out it, into it, thinking about it, late to it, or just simply missing it. Then I thought that however high my expectations, that I deserved a little bit of philosophy and therefore became disappointed rather that disillusioned (that feeling could be represented in the relationship between projectile vomiting and feeling vaguely nauseated).

I don’t wish to say that I actively disliked it, I only say that it wasn’t one of my favorites. This is her eighth book and you can’t have a winner every time. I would say that “An Incomplete Revenge” (#5) was not the best, nor was “Among the Mad” (#6). Though, I do think that “Birds of a Feather” (#2) was her most powerful, and “The Messenger of Truth” (#5) was solid. ‘The Mapping of Love and Death” (#7) was excellent for many reasons that I can’t share without giving things away.

If you are a fan of the series, go ahead and read it. Sometimes you have to stick with authors through the good and the bad.

Little Bee and Other Thoughts

Some things I’ve discovered:

a. I subscribe to a lot of book review blogs via googlereader, and the ones that go on and on (rather like some of mine), I kinda skip over most of what they say. Unless it’s a book I’m really interested in reading, I just scroll through. So because of this realization, my posts will be a little shorter, more focused, and less rambling.

b. I like links, so expect to see more links. I look to link, if liking linking move…

c. I’ll be posting more often.

So let’s begin.

First, a piece of Wordsworth’s Prelude found in the marginalia of Virginia Woolf’s letters (via Fernham)

“The matter that detains us now may seem, 
To many, neither dignified enough
Nor arduous, yet will not be scorned by them,
Who, looking inward, have observed the ties
That bind the perishable hours of life
Each to the other, & curious props
By which the World of memory & thought
Exists and is sustained. ”
–Wordsworth, The Prelude, 7:458-65

It would seem that this is something in the way of what Woolf was thinking when she wrote Mrs. Dalloway. It is amazing the way that we look at the hours of our days, how they string together, unending, and sometimes we think we cannot face them.  And it suggests, along with Mrs. Dalloway, that all we have are our undignified moments, thoughts and memories to bind us to the outside. That we cannot always be forthright and meaningful in our actions and thoughts is not only something to accept, but something to embrace.

Also, I know I’m behind the ball on this, but Jose Saramago died last week. I think Blindness was one of THE best books I’ve ever read. So good, in fact, that I didn’t want to read Seeing because I loved the pessimism of the first. The excerpt from the interview at Second Pass really illuminates why. Read it here.

And, finally, Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I read this book in two sittings of about an two hours a piece, because I absolutely loved it. It moved very quickly, the pacing and the plotting, even though it switched perspectives. It is the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who has escaped to London and arrived at a woman’s door on the day of that woman’s husband’s funeral. The three of them had meet a year or so earlier on a Nigerian beach and something that happened there changed their lives forever. So you gotta know, what happened? Well, you get Bee’s perspective and Sarah’s. And don’t worry, Cleave won’t let you down. In the meantime, or real time, Sarah and her adorable son, who will only answer to Batman, are dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death. Sarah’s lover shows up and doesn’t take to Bee at all, but Sarah feels it is her duty to help Bee become a legal citizen of the UK.

In addition to the plot, the characters are so wonderful. They are flawed, yet they care. They are complex and thoughtful, they make mistakes. Except for Batman. He only sees “goodies” and “baddies”, though sometimes he isn’t sure which is which. In a grey world, he reminded me of that childlike simplicity of needing to know whether someone was going to help you or hurt you. The effect was sometimes humorous, and sometimes sad.

Other than that, I can’t tell you much about it. There are a lot of surprises and I don’t want to ruin it. You should read it. Go and do it. Now.

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

I honestly cannot tell you why it took me so long to get to this book. I saw it over a year ago, in hardcover and for some reason, never bought it, even though I always wanted to. I think I thought it would disappoint me.  I often dislike novels based on real people, not because I think people shouldn’t speculate on the hidden lives of celebrities, but for a very stylistic reason. The authors repeat the characters’ names too often. As in, “Vanessa said to Virginia, ‘Virginia, my name is Vanessa and I am the sister of Virginia, but you already knew that didn’t you, Virginia?’ ‘What, Vanessa?”, asked Virgina. “That my name is Vanessa.’ “, and so on.  It drives me crazy, it’s as if the author needs to draw more attention to the fact that he/she is writing about a famous person.

This book, however, had none of that. It was perfectly balanced.

More than what this book is about, what happens, the chronology of events, etc., is the feelings and thoughts it inspired in me. It made me reconsider many of my previous opinions and thoughts about Woolf and Bell and brought them into focus as people rather that abstract subjects to study.

This book is Vanessa’s life. It is from her perspective and moves almost like a infrequently-written journal, flitting between place and time without any reference to the fact that time has passed or the location has moved. I did wonder, while reading, whether I understood it because I’m fairly familiar with the events of Virginia Woolf’s life. Either way, it was almost ethereal the way it moved and flowed effortlessly. 

It takes us through the beginnings of Vanessa and Virginia’s life, in the Stephen home and makes reference to all the major events in Virginia’s life, but through the eyes of Vanessa’s. So much attention has been given to Woolf (rightfully so), but Vanessa is so often overlooked. I think that we are too keen to use personal tragedy as the precursor to artistic output, especially in writing. Since Vanessa was not a writer, her tragedies are felt more on a personal level, rather than fiction fodder.

The book also investigates, but does not dwell on, Vanessa’s various extra-marital affairs, and the heartbreak it caused her. Sellers also spends a good bit of time on Vanessa’s artistic process and her feelings as she attempts to compete with her sister’s growing popularity. Even as jealousy and competition mount, the two sisters are ever connected and hold each other up almost without fail.

There is a small surprise at the end, which I won’t give away, because I think it is wonderfully done, and it should be appreciated without bias. It suggests how close the two sisters actually were and solidified in my mind that the ones to mourn after a death are the ones left behind.

It all started with Glover’s Mistake by Nick Laird (Zadie Smith’s husband) a few months ago. While it is about many things, it is mostly about three people’s messed up lives and all the mistakes they make, continuously. I realized at the end, well really at the beginning, that I didn’t like any of the characters.  James Glover was a naive little opportunist who dates and is engaged to a complete narcissist artist, Ruth Marks. They are introduced by a passive-aggressive awkward computer nerd who posts negative reviews of movies, books, and people on his little blog, David Pinner. The fact that he introduced them is the major conflict of the story, he wishes he hadn’t because he’s in love with this ridiculous woman. Glover and Pinner are flatmates, and Pinner fashions himself as a self-created art critic/public intellectual that lords over Glover’s kind nature that seeps into his slowness to make the reader almost pity him, almost. Soon enough, Glover makes a mistake and Pinner is faced with the choice of keeping the confidences of his friend or making an anonymous phone call to Ruth to tell her of the mistake. Which do you think he chooses?

There is nothing, not one thing, that is redeeming about any of these characters. You are not supposed to love them, forgive them, pity them, sympathize with them; they are abhorrent creatures. And I found that I liked them. Not just liked, but loved their bad decisions, the error of the assurance, the misplaced confidence that comes with a truly selfish act.

Then I read Mavis Gallant’s The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories. Gallant’s book has been receiving a lot of reviews lately (here in the Guardian, here at NPR by bookslut.com’s Jessa Crispin) and so I tried it out. Plus, I couldn’t resist the lovely New York Review of Books cover. It is more difficult to discuss short story collection, because one is either reductive and discusses all of them, or too specific and ignores the complexity of the collection. But for space, and because I want to get where I’m really going, I’ll sum up. I didn’t dislike the character in Gallant’s stories, but I didn’t like them either. They mostly made bad decisions that led to uncomfortable or undesired situations. The characters were kind of floating around life, not sure where they were going, but pretty damn sure they weren’t supposed to be where they were. Her stories did not inspire me, or give me good feelings about the world. It actually reinforced my view that no body really knows what the hell they are doing, that everyone is just floating.

So let’s recap: decisions, particularly bad decisions, are very interesting, especially when you experience a character’s bad decisions with them. You are almost a part of their decision, a silent aide, a passive bystander, and forced to take their perspective.

All these thoughts and feelings reached the boiling point in Ian McEwan’s soon-to-be-released novel Solar. The reader is introduced to Michael Beard three times: 2000, 2005, and 2009. I say “introduced” because it is almost like meeting a new person each time; he certainly wishes to reivent his life each moment. Don’t let that last statement mislead you into thinking that  he is some kind of positive-thinking spiritual nut. Oh no, Michael Beard is one of the most self-centered and flawed characters I’ve ever read. He is a Nobel Prize winning scientist for the Einstein-Beard Conflation (which is never really given in detail, only that he improved upon Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), and that was the last bit of science he did, almost 20 years ago. He’s overweight, has had 5 wives and his current wife is happily and openly having an affair. And that’s only in 2000. In 2005 he’s still done nothing in science, and feels he’s falling behind in the new theories, but hides under the laurels of his Conflation. In 2005 he upsets a varying degree of scientists and liberal arts professors by, mindlessly and unintentionally, declaring that there are biological differences in men and women and that they should be developed in light of those sexual differences. Eventually, the press and media start on insults of “eugenicist” and “neo-Nazi”. In 2009, there is a lawsuit being brought against him that threatens his solar energy project.

I don’t want to give anything away, because McEwan always has some surprises and these are significantly larger than the turns in his other novels. But moving with my theme, I will say that I didn’t like Beard. He made decisions that were wrong, selfish, and was punished for them. He had no self-control yet desired it. Never comfortable, always striving, falling short, and rationalizing the shortcoming. But I loved it, despite Beard’s selfishness.

I’m not really sure if my preference for these types of books reflect some kind of inner turmoil, or if it is a larger movement on the part of civilization on an unending quest to find well-written literature about something positive, and failing.  I’m going to go with both, for now.

P.S. I don’t wish to get in the habit of reviewing things that haven’t been released, but I can’t promise it won’t happen again.

First, apologies.

I would first like to apologize for my prolonged absence. I became, briefly, a very busy bookseller during the holiday season.  That, along with personal issues and lack of internet access at home, has kept me away. I promise to be better.

I think I would like to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the sequel/companion to her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake. The Year of the Flood is, by far, one of my favorite books of the year.  I read it almost 6 months ago and it still sticks with me.

Let us begin at the beginning, shall we? The beginning of this world is in Oryx and Crake. Crake, a pseudonym for a young, brilliant mastermind Glenn, creates a new race of people called the Crakers and is helped by an enigmatic Oryx (an Asian girl, who may or may not have been sexually abused as a child) and Snowman or Jimmy to an even lesser extent.  To the Crakers, Crake is god and Oryx is their teacher.  This takes place in a protected and sterile laboratory/facility. Until it doesn’t. There is a disease that kills almost everyone, except Jimmy because he has sealed himself in the lab; and the Crakers because they are genetically modified not to get sick (in addition to other modifications). Because we understand the epidemic from Jimmy/Snowman’s perspective, we do not know what happened or how, though a hint is given and I won’t give it away. After the disease has swept through and destroyed most people and let all the genetically modified animals and people out, Jimmy/Snowman now hangs around the peripheries of the city, scavenging. He has also turned himself into a self-fashioned messenger from god for the Crakers, i.e. they ask him questions about Crake and Snowman makes up answers. The city is a wasteland and is populated by Crakers and animals that are crosses between lambs and lions, wolves and pigs, etc. Jimmy gets an infection in his foot and walks off so the Crakers don’t have to watch him die. However, it isn’t made clear if he dies, so I’m not giving that away either.

Here ends Oryx and Crake. The Year of the Flood runs concurrently with the events in Crake, but through the experience of two women, Ren and Toby. Ren, lives trapped inside a kind of strip club taken to the nth degree and so has been saved from the disease’s worst effects. Toby was able to seal herself inside a spa before the disease hit. The novel goes back into the time before the epidemic or the “flood” of the book’s title. These women are connected by more than their survival. They were, for a time, part of group called The Gardeners, briefly mentioned in Crake as God’s Gardeners. Atwood makes a mixture of their belief system which includes bits of predestination, good works, the current locavore and “go green” environmental trend, and singing. Through their experiences, the reader learns more about what happened before the flood and the events leading up to it. The novel also shows the very personal lives of these two women as they try to make sense of this world that has lost something for the sake of technology.

The reason I didn’t go on about the plot of Flood as I did in Crake is because Flood isn’t as plot-driven as  Crake. Crake, to me, was more of an action story that got the reader to the point of “this is the world we have created, where the only people, if you can call them that, have no emotions and no pasts, because we couldn’t forget the terrible things we’ve done and had to start all over”. Flood has so many moments of beauty, incisive social commentary, and tragedy that listing them here would defeat its distinct wisdom.

It’s also interesting to think about these two novels juxtaposed. Each has a character is trapped inside one of the society’s monuments to genetic modification and are thereby saved because of their entrapment (Jimmy and Ren). Each have a scavenger and a survivor (Jimmy, after he escapes, and Toby). Where Crake has a pseudo-religion that moves from idea to gospel (as Jimmy’s stories transition from just stories to repeated ideas); Flood has a pseudo-religion that moves from peaceful living to almost-terrorist tactics.  Very interesting.

I would recommend that one read Crake before Flood, only because after one has experienced Flood, Crake just seems rather meh. This is the way that I experienced it. I would have preferred to read Crake  first because I would have been taken in by the world she created and then blown away by the genius of Flood.

Lawyered.

Are you ready for my review of “Wolf Hall”? More importantly, am I?

A few weeks ago, I finished Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall. First I’ll give you my impressions leading up to reading it. Then, I’ll tell you how I felt after reading it. And last, I’ll give me review. It’s like eating the bun of a cheeseburger before you eat the meat.

I had been waiting for weeks, checking the release date, making sure they hadn’t moved it up, reading all the excerpts and reviews I could from UK websites, etc. I even listened to her speak about the book at the LRB bookshop along with Sarah Dunant. I don’t even know why I was so excited about this book. It’s not even a time period I particularly care for, the Tudors are overdone, out of the oven and into the bin, really. But it was promised to be a different treatment, a {brace yourself} revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. Probably the desire for something I couldn’t have put me over the edge, more than anything else. So I bought it, hardcover, no freebies this time.

After finishing the book, I have continued to think about it. It’s brilliant subtlety, it’s overt play with perspective, pronouns and language. It is always the curse of a good book. You have to find something that’s really good, but completely different, or else you’ll meld them together in your mind. But you find that nothing is quite that good, so you read something pretty bad to lower your standards, so you can be impressed when you read another great one. So I’ve been slowly meandering through the New York Review of Books and Maisie Dobbs (see my previous post). Not that either of these are bad, they are different and entertaining or informative, while Wolf Hall was brilliant.

Hilary Mantel had quite a task in front of her. Just about everyone of adult reading age knows the story of Henry VIII, six wives, no male heirs, schism with the Roman Catholic Church, the founding of the Anglican religion, etc. But really, instead of rehashing all that, she makes her focus Thomas Cromwell. From my very small bit of memory about Cromwell, I always remembered him as Henry’s watchdog, without much sense, good at being told what to do, and split up the church and helped a misogynist to find a woman of male child-bearing capabilities.

But this Cromwell is a family man, loyal first to Cardinal Wolsley (even after Wolsley loses favor with the king), and then right at Henry’s side. He has travelled extensively into Europe and trained in many professions, and though continuously reminded of his low birth, he is always trusted and feared by those above and below him. He is a businessman and a lawyer, he loves his family, those he loses and those who remain. He is a human, smart and wily, but sad and concerned.

Wolf Hall is more than just a character study of Thomas Cromwell, however. It touches and shares some of the more humanistic aspects of Henry, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More.  The reason Henry wants to be divorced from Katherine of Aragon is because he is in love with Anne Boleyn. They act like young lovers in public and they both get flustered around one another. Anne, however, is not portrayed as this passive little sparrow, who was swept up by the king and then left after she was unable to bear a male child. For Mantel, Boleyn and her family engineered all of this, set it up, played the cards right, and luckily, the king fell in love with her.

Mantel does not quibble about character flaws, she is upfront about who people are, no postmodern ambiguity here. Throughout the book, one comes to hate Thomas More.  He attempted to institute an English Inquisition, and personally tortures heretics throughout the book. His downfall comes when he refuses to sign the Act of Supremacy, which states the Henry VIII is the supreme head of the Church of England. He hates Cromwell and is jealous of his skillful maneuvering.  I suppose More has always been admired for his ideals, his staunch adherence to church dogma, and was willing to give his life for his beliefs. But in Wolf Hall he is damned.

So there’s the characters, what’s the story you ask? Well, it’s history as you know it. We are skipped from Cromwell’s childhood to a point in life where he has already become a trusted advisor of Cardinal Wolsley’s. Wolsley loses favor, lots of others vie for position, Henry has fallen in love, the Pope refuses divorce, Cromwell gets it for him, etc., etc.

Really, for me, the part of the novel that makes it all worth it is the last paragraph or so.  Just to set it up, Cromwell is setting up the king’s itinerary.

“From Bronham-we are now in early September-toward Winchester. Then Bishop’s Waltham, Alton, Alton to Farnham. He plots it out, across country. The object is to get the king back to Windsor for early October. He has his sketch map across the page, England in a drizzle of ink; his calendar, quickly jotted, running down it. ‘I seem to have four, five days in hand. Ah well. Who says I never get a holiday?’ Before ‘Bronham’, he makes a dot in the margin, and draws a long arrow across the page. ‘Now here, before we go to Winchester, we have time to spare, and what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours.’ He writes it down. Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.”

All that. 500+ pages. And the name of the book that foreshadows what we already know is to come. Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. Brilliant. Mantel shows us that the actions of humans are sometimes planned out and sometimes not. That history is human actions, decisions, choices made and unmade. And that people are more than abstract terms of monarcy, government, religion, love, greed, and naviete. You should read it. Really.

The Brilliance of Maisie Dobbs

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is by far one of the best series I have ever read. I don’t usually have a lot of time or energy for series, unless they are something like Harry Potter or the Dark Tower series, which really have more to do with a fast-paced compelling plot immersed in a fantasy world that I have to pull myself out of, almost physically. But detective mysteries that span six or seven books, no thanks. I’m sure I would get bored of the character’s inner musings and how they solve the case, just in the nick of time, to save someone’s life, or reputation, or something.

Maisie Dobbs, while having some of these distasteful qualities, is something quite more. Let me explain. She is, of course, British and living in London (Fitzroy, to be exact) during the inter-war period. She is a psychologist investigator with a twinge of Eastern philosophy in her practice. As a young woman, the daughter of a working-class father and a mother who died young, she is sent to be a servant in Lady Compton’s home (who later becomes her good friend and benefactor). Before the war, she is at Girton (Cambridge) and falls in love. As with many people before WWI, when it began, all life that resembled anything recognizable is wiped away instantly. She becomes a nurse in France through the end of the war. When she returns, she finishes her education. She then becomes apprenticed to Maurice Blanche, a private investigator whose business she soon takes over.

If it is not already apparent, a single woman working as a psychologist investigator is a very unlikely situation in this period, but an intensely desirable one (for the modern reader). She is pretty, but not too aware of it, she is intelligent, practical, methodical, and in control of her emotions and aware of her feelings. Her character is one that inspires imitation, awe, and respect.

To move beyond her character and to the plots of the books is to really look into the confusion and sadness that many felt after the war. The betrayal and loss runs deep and creates all sorts of consequential actions and feelings, not always manifested in depression, but sometimes anger, violence, and pride. The plot of a Maisie Dobbs novel usually has 3 components. One is the case that Maisie is to solve. It has, so far, had something to do with the war: an unexplained death or disappearance that has its roots in the war. Two, a personal obstacle that Maisie must overcome, also related to her time as a nurse in France. And three, a problem with a close friend or colleague, also some issue with the war. Although formulaic, the three components are  interesting and move the plot along quite quickly. And, since the components are thematically related, the reader finds no trouble bouncing back and forth between them. Usually, the friend/colleague sub-plot is given less treatment but the denouement is quite emotional, for Maisie and her friend/colleague. The main case speaks to a larger question of the conduct of the war, what the big players were doing: the military, the government, private but quite rich individuals with a lot of influence. Maisie’s personal journey is the most emotional and has the biggest pay off, because at the end of the novel, you know more about this enigmatic Maisie Dobbs.

I highly recommend them, and while they provide a little something to think about,  they are ultimately light reading, a compelling few hundred pages before going to bed or to take your mind off something more difficult.

They are (because I like to list things):

Maisie Dobbs, Birds of a Feather, Pardonable Lies, Messenger of Truth, Incomplete Revenge, and Among the Mad.

Who Didn’t Win the Booker, but I Read Anyway, Part Two

As I mentioned above, I also read The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, a previous Booker winner for Possession. This one took a lot longer to read, but was very enjoyable. One thing you need to remember about Byatt, there is a LOT of detail. Everything, in this case, ceramic pots and vessels, and German ventriloquist plays, gets the described down to the smallest piece. It’s like she’s showing you what an amazing writer she is, and she is, it’s not a criticism. Generally, the book looks at the Wellwood family’s life from the late 1800’s to the onset of World War I . Olive is a published children’s book writer who also writes a book for each of her five children. She and her husband Humphrey are Fabians and “progressive”, they have five children, of whom we really get to know only two. They put on Midsummer’s plays with progressive Germans who are also their son’s tutors before they go up to Oxbridge. Humphrey has a brother Basil whose family is much more straight-laced and Basil’s wife favors her Germanic heritage a little too much (as time will show). They have two children who are good friends with the hippie Wellwoods. Got it? Here’s where it gets tricky. There are two other families tied up in the tragedy that is to become the Wellwoods and World War I. The Cains, whose patriarch is Major Prosper Cain, a retired general who oversees what will become the Victoria and Albert Museum (I suppose you can see the next connection coming). Cain has two children, a boy who is almost definitely homosexual, and a girl that is good friends with Dorothy Wellwood (of the Hippie Wellwoods). There’s that connection to the Wellwoods, in addition to the fact that they all run in the same circles and participate in each other’s Midsummer cabals. Then, the Fludds. Benedict Fludd is a genius potter who is prone to fits of madness, screaming into the sea and often trying to drown himself. He has a quiet wife and three listless children, though one breaks free and works at a bank in London under the tutelage of Basil Wellwood (of the Anal Wellwoods). Following still?

At the beginning of the book, Julian Cain and Tom Wellwood find a young man from the Potteries in the deep recesses of the soon-to-be V&A.  Philip, the young boy they find, is apprenticed to Benedict Fludd and all of their lives continue to intertwine, twist, begin and end. All this explanation was only to help you see how complex the relationships of the book are, but it’s nothing that you wouldn’t figure out in the course of it all.  I think it really does reflect the kinds of relationships we have in reality. The different stages of knowing a person: recognizing a face, acquaintance, having coffee, spending a day, spending the night, seeing someone every other day, every other week, etc.  I don’t think that most books address that complexity.

In addition to that complexity, Byatt presents an idyllic, rural world that is shattered by so many things. Lies, cover-ups, willful delusions, refusing to grow up, growing up too fast, larger social movements that rock society at its core, and of course, the War. The scope of this book is massive, yet also a microcosm. It is general, yet so specific. You do feel as though you know these people. It is not that there is too much here, it is that there is too little. These are fully realized individuals who do exciting things, some that work and some that don’t, but that really makes them all the more human.

Review: Who Didn’t Win the Booker but I read anyway, Part One

Why not start with a big one? In anticipation of the 2009 Booker winner, which was announced last week, I began reading every book on the shortlist that was available in the States. Being that it is a British literary fiction prize, I was only able to read two of them: A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. (I did, by the way, read William Trevor’s Love and Summer, which was longlisted but did not make the cut; sad, that.) In case, you were wondering (though who does after the winner is announced), the others were The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds, Summertime by J.M Coetzee, The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

The Quickening Maze and The Glass Room did not, and currently do not, have U.S. publication dates, so I didn’t get to read those. I absolutely refuse to read anything new by Coetzee because everything he writes is about an aging writer named James Coetzee, or something or another. I don’t like self-congratulatory writers.

First, I read Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, my first interaction with her. Her novel takes place after World War II in Warwickshire at the decaying and decrepit mansion, Hundreds Hall. It is told from the perspective of a doctor who attempts to rationalize all the strange little happenings that go one there. This perspective lends itself to the early 19th century detective novels and reminds me distinctly of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The doctor goes to investigate a sick servant, sticks around for the rest of the book, falls in love with the daughter of the owner, she falls out of love with him, everyone goes crazy, the end. But the interesting thing and perhaps what the entire novel hinges on is: Waters is never explicit about whether what drove this family to madness was in fact a genetic deformity passed down or caused by the loss of money and prestige; or a mischevious moving into homicidal little demon/ghost/daemon/sprite/spirit, etc., etc. This is the brilliance of her writing. She asks you, do you believe the doctor? Even though he’s a prat, indecisive, and unsympathetic? Or do you believe the crazy people who talk of ghosts that haunt the hall and seek to impart mental and physical destruction on its inhabitiants? Tricky.

Most of the reviews I read were by British critics and reviewers and they seemed to comment mostly on the particular condition of the aristocracy living in post-World War II society, what they lost, how they dealt or didn’t deal with this immense change to their society. I guess I didn’t really pick up on that, being that I’m not British, and did not live through that era, or studied it in any way.

I really enjoyed The Little Stranger  but I believe, along with some of the judges, it was a little too sensational. A ghost story winning the Booker, not that I’ve seen. If anything, it’s made me want to go back and read her others, they’ve got lesbians I heard.