Wednesday, 31 March 2010

update March 2010

# of books read in March: 5
Cumulative total: 14

1. The Blessing (Nancy Mitford)
2. The Plato Papers (Peter Ackroyd)
3. The Hours (Michael Cunningham)
4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows)
5. Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford)
6. En passant (Raymond Queneau)
7. The Story of God (Robert Winston)
8. Ye Gods! Travels in Greece (Jill Dudley)
9. The Man in the High Castle (Philip K Dick)
10. La Chine Classique (Ivan P Kamenarovic)
11. White Teeth (Zadie Smith)
12. The House in Norham Gardens (Penelope Lively)
13. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)
14. Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)

Average number of books per month: 4.6
% by male authors: 42%
% by female authors: 58%

Again, not too bad, but I did also spend time rereading Jamila Gavin's Surya trilogy (worth it, but doesn't count towards my total).

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Bookish Bits & Bobs: "The Knowledge"

London taxi drivers are famed for "The Knowledge": the encyclopaedic memory that they are supposed to have that enables them to navigate every tiny crevice of the capital's streets, without the help of a TomTom. As teachers, we are also expected to have "The Knowledge", but of an arguably even more demanding sort: we are expected to know everything possible about our subject, which, while it may not cost us our jobs (unless gaps in knowledge are serious), may cost us the respect of our pupils if we do not.

Teaching English, and invigilating English examinations, is a bit like being a participant in some sort of weird parallel universe where the object of life is to win a constant spelling bee. This I can deal with; spelling has always been a strong point for me, and I can rattle off correct spellings without even thinking. Being expected to know about every minute detail of Western literature, and being earmarked by twelve-year-olds as being an object of suspicion for not liking JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, or Nicholas Sparks makes things a bit more difficult. Get something wrong occasionally and it can be potentially disastrous.

Now, I'd like to think that I'm well-read: my bookshelves contain (just at a glance) tomes as diverse as Stella Gibbons and Jeffrey Eugenides, Jane Austen and DH Lawrence (fiction); Jacques Prévert, Boccaccio, Milton and Homer (poetry); Molière, Shakespeare, Churchill and Stoppard (drama); literary criticism, history, music and travel books, as well as philosophy, autobiography and self-help, to name just a few other genres. This brings nothing but pleasure 99% of the time. The other 1% comprises pain (mainly physical, associated with moving boxes of books between residences) - 0.5% - and awkwardness or embarrassment (the other 0.5%). The latter situation seems to occur whenever someone asks you a question about literature and you are expected to know the answer but don't. It's like that moment on University Challenge when a literary question is asked and the heads of the other seven team members, several hundred audience heads, several thousand viewers' heads, and the almighty head of Jeremy Paxman, swivel to look at the one literature student in the game. Surely they MUST know the answer to that, is the feeling in the air; it's their reason for being alive. When they don't know, there is a sense of redundancy and sheepishness.

Occasionally this happens on a smaller scale, to English teachers (except that your audience is less sympathetic, and even more harsh than Paxman in telling you what a duffer you are). And such was the case today when my lack of knowledge of Dickens let me down. The kids were reading an extract from Nicholas Nickleby, which had been reprinted in their text book. We'd read it, and they had to answer questions about it afterwards. There came a point where a few of them weren't sure about Nicholas' role in the story: was he a new pupil, or a new teacher? Ironically, if I weren't an English teacher, I might have got this one right: while we were supposedly reading this extract as a class, I spent more time trying to get half the class to be quiet, stop doodling, look at their textbooks, stop swinging on their chairs and so on than I did looking at the text book. My answer therefore relied on my best guess based on the text itself. My best guess was unfortunately wrong (as I'd have known if I'd read the foreword, but which was a reasonable guess anyway based on the text itself - ignoring the fact that I had a 50/50 chance of being correct regardless). Just as London taxi drivers are expected to get by without a satellite navigation system, for the most part teachers are too.

A couple of my students picked me up on this, but I was too busy telling other students not to argue to fully address it. Worse than perhaps getting something like this wrong is dealing with the fallout (telling your students that you were indeed wrong and still getting them to respect you afterwards), and admitting that you and "the knowledge" are not infallible. I'm not sure if there is a solution to bibliophiles' quest to acquire "the knowledge", as surely the quest is a never-ending one. Maybe I'd just better work on my table manners for when I have to eat that humble pie instead.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosnay)

--The blurb--
"Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family's apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.
Paris, May 2002: On Vel' d'Hiv's 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France's past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl's ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d'Hiv', to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah's past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life."

--The review--
Despite having written prolifically in French, Sarah's Key is, thus far, this bilingual author's only English novel (with the second English-language attempt being released later this year). Given the overall mediocre quality of French contemporary fiction, to have found an author whose English-language work proves an encouraging starting point for francophone readers is something that fills me with hope.

In truth, in picking up this particular find at the library, my expectations were not that high: on a topic that I already knew plenty about (the Holocaust, cf. my earlier comments on restrictive history curricula in British schools), the novel is short and with easy-to-read prose. I had consequently chosen it only as a "filler" companion to longer and more challenging library book choices. However, it proved itself to be utterly absorbing, not only thanks to de Rosnay's talents in terms of crafting characters and merging the stories of two parallel sets of characters with absolute fluidity, but also in terms of the novella's interesting approach, with its use of the roundup at the Vel d'Hiv at its centre. Despite the prevalent teaching of the Holocaust in schools, and despite there being an information board about the events that took place there at one of the metro stations that my train goes through each day, I had known nothing about the Vel d'Hiv prior to reading Sarah's Key, and I suspect that this might be the case for many other former history students, too.

Initially it is not clear how the two stories will intersect, but de Rosnay manages to bring the two together successfully, tying 21st-century France to wartime France as she goes. The characters are realistic and human, and the level of pathos that suffuses the novel does not detract from this, and nor does it make the Holocaust's events seem overly saccharine or martyrish. The overall tone is genuine and sincere, and though the novel's events do resolve themselves, this is not always done happily, and the overall message seems to be that it is our lives' principal crises (whether marital, in the case of Julia, or of a level of trauma of the first order, as in the case of Sarah, or otherwise) - or rather, how we deal with them - that can change the overall course of our lives.

The novella is at once concise, touching, accessible and definitive, and its organic rather than stylistic approach will appeal to a number of readers looking for something new. This introduction to Tatiana de Rosnay's work is a highly welcome one, and if you are a francophone reader, this also holds another inherent advantage: on your next trip to the library or bookshop, you will now at least be able to stray into the contemporary literature section and pick up something by this author without even the slightest hint of trepidation.

Other works by Tatiana de Rosnay
A Secret Kept (2010)

Monday, 15 March 2010

Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl)

--The blurb--
""Special Topics in Calamity Physics" is a mesmerizing debut. As teenager Blue van Meer tells her story, we are hurled into a dizzying world of murder and butterflies, womanizing and wandering, American McCulture, The Western Canon, political radicalism and juvenile crushisms. Structured around a syllabus for a Great Works of Literature class (with hand-drawn Visual Aids), Blue's wickedly funny yet poignant tale reveals how the imagination finds meaning in the most bewildering times, the ways people of all ages strive for connection, and how the darkest of secrets can set us free."

--The review--
Picking up a book just on the basis of a wacky or intriguing title doesn't always work. Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America, for instance, was one of the weirdest and most incomprehensible things that I have ever had the pleasure of trying to get my head around. However, sometimes the golden goose lays the proverbial egg: the eerily similarly-titled Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, by Paul Torday, was one of the most original, funny and innovative books I've read, and Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics also did not leave me disappointed.

Pessl has been accused by other reviewers of having a bit of a tin ear for prose. I can see how this accusation can be made: Pessl is overly fond, for example, of the simile as a writing device. In moderation this works fine (as the works of Stella Gibbons show us), but when it ends up being literally a simile per page at some points, it begins to wear a little thin. However, this does not make her a bad writer (and believe me, as someone who tries to teach English for a living, I see plenty of bad writing pass under my eyes). Her characters are intriguing and well-crafted even if the chances of meeting people like this all in one place are slim; starting with the murder/suicide and then trying to unravel the mystery is a nice technique; and a further dimension to the novel is added by the use of famous novel titles as the headings for each chapter. Again, the formatting of the novel meant that this was not always appreciated (if you don't format it so that the chapter titles are at the top of each page, you can't expect your readers to always follow the thread and see the parallels), but it was an interesting extra; and, furthermore, another advantage of it was that you didn't necessarily need to have read the books by which the chapters were titled in order to have a full understanding of the novel as a whole.

Blue van Meer is a personable character, if a little insipid, and is made by the author to seem like the only normal one compared to all of the nutters that she falls in with. Hannah Schneider is also made to be suitably enigmatic. Blue's father is likeable, and readers are given the impression that he has a good, solid relationship with him, which means that her outburst at him later on in the book does not seem at all in keeping with how we have been led to perceive them thus far. What is more realistic, though, is the novel's ending. The mystery may not be solved, but ultimately this is how it so often is in life. While a mystery novel without a solution may initially seem to be a copout, the crafting of this epic project does at least achieve one thing in hooking the reader onto Pessl's idiosyncratic work. The fact that she was only 29 when this novel was published may account for a few of its weaknesses, and her unique voice can surely only develop more, and positively, with time.

Other works by Marisha Pessl
Night Film (2010)

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The House in Norham Gardens (Penelope Lively)

--The blurb--
"Clare's grandfather brought back a shield from New Guinea seventy years ago, and now Clare's dreams are haunted by images of New Guinea. It is up to her to lay the ghost of an encounter between a Victorian anthropologist and a Stone Age New Guinea tribe to rest."

--The review--
Penelope Lively has proved herself during her career as being one of the few authors who can appeal crossgenerationally (Roald Dahl is another famous example), not only by writing several books that were distinctly for adults (e.g. Moon Tiger) and several that were distinctly for children (e.g. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe), and being successful in both arenas, but also by writing books that appeal simultaneously to adults and children alike. A book to fall into this latter category is The House in Norham Gardens; while it may appeal more narrowly to older children (age 10+), it equally has many appealing aspects for adults, with its various historical settings and serious characters.

Lively interweaves the historically academic yet slightly wilder and more countrified setting of North Oxford with aspects of New Guinean history, twinning them via an artefact that seems set to change the protagonist's outlook on life for good, combined with the timely appearance of a new lodger. The author tames this at times complex historical setup (in addition to which the narrative itself is non-chronological) by reining in the rest, keeping the description blissfully simple (while still eloquent) and keeping character numbers and interactions down. The images of Norham Gardens leapt to life with ease, but it should be noted at this stage that my perceptions are biased given that I spent a year of my life living on this North Oxford street (and hence my attraction to this particular novella). Whether the house and road would come to life with such ease for others is arguably a different question.

Dream figures heavily in the story as Clare's subconscious concerns rise to the fore, and Lively does not keep readers hanging, instead allowing the novella to culminate in a satisfying climax, the reader feeling that all has been resolved. While the author has written a few series for children, I do not feel that a sequel (or indeed a prequel) would work well in this case: we have seen Clare through one of the most significant historical and emotional learning curves of her life, and anything else would seem a letdown in comparison. Penelope Lively's talents in the eccentric and the wonderful, in the borders between illusion and reality, are exploited in this novella to their fullest, making a delightful read for children and their parents.

Other works by Penelope Lively (selected)
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973)
The Voyage of QV66 (1978)
Dragon Trouble (1984)
Good Night, Sleep Tight (1995)

The Road to Lichfield (1977)
Treasures of Time (1979)
According to Mark (1984)
Moon Tiger (1987)
City of the Mind (1991)
The Photograph (2003)
Family Album (2009)

Monday, 8 March 2010

White Teeth (Zadie Smith)

--The blurb--
"One of the most talked about fictional débuts of recent years, WHITE TEETH is a funny, generous, big-hearted novel, adored by critics and readers alike. Dealing - among many other things - with friendship, love, war, three cultures and three families over three generations, one brown mouse, and the tricky way the past has of coming back and biting you on the ankle, it is a life-affirming, riotous must-read of a book."

--The review--
When a book is so densely surrounded by hyperbole, it is easy to become quickly cynical (partly, perhaps, a form of self-protection: we don't want to believe the hype in case we are disappointed), particularly when the author's youth is so publicly lauded as part of it. Is the book being praised just because of its prodigious origins? Or is the buzz that has been generated accurate?

Happily, in the case of White Teeth, its various compliments and accolades are entirely deserved. As well as being engaging and colourful, its characters are well-drawn and very human, and the novel is interspersed with appropriate humour while simultaneously remaining true to what seems to be, ostensibly, its original purpose without being didactic: the idea that we cannot escape our heritage and our past. Smith effectively combines the notions that we can take control of our own lives and that we are at the same time tethered to a loosely defined destiny that is owned by our personal history. The old "nature versus nurture" chestnut is thus rehoused in an innovative way, and Smith's talents are successfully manifested.

Many different cultures are united in this novel, without it seeming contrived, and the result is a realistic yet positive boost in the name of multicultural Britain (but again, Smith manages to achieve this without seeming preachy). The slightly unresolved nature of the ending is also appropriate, and we find out later the origins of the novel's title and the way in which this successfully encapsulates the gaps and similarities between modern Britain's various cultures, as well as (perhaps) the aspirations of those who come to Britain seeking something better.

If there is any criticism to be found here, it's that the jumping back and forth between different time periods can be a little overwhelming, even though this ultimately serves a useful purpose. The novel is an ambitious project and rereadings are therefore merited in order to get a fuller sense of it. However, the accomplishment held between these pages is not invisible even on first reading, and even though I never was keen on the idea of Smith's parody of EM Forster as her second novel, I would perhaps be keener to read more of her work now; the girl done good.

Other works by Zadie Smith
The Autograph Man (2002)
On Beauty (2005)

Monday, 1 March 2010

La Chine Classique (Ivan P Kamenarovic)

--The blurb--
"China is coming to us: prestigious texts are now available in translation, plays introduce us to Chinese legend and history, and feng shui has arrived in Europe. But what do we know about the civilisation which has created these? Classical China comes to life through even the culture's most modern rituals. To know it badly would be to travel blindly where there is so much to see."

--The review--
Part of the "Guides to Civilisations" series, this examination of ancient China (extending from the Han dynasty - 200 BCE - to the Tang dynasty - 907 CE) joins a host of equally attractive works on places and peoples as diverse as the Siamese, the Venetians and the Khmers, to the Quebecois, Etruscans and Nabateans. However, China stands out from this collection as being a country with an especially fraught history, which remains still comparatively traumatic even in modern times. In helping readers to understand how China's ancient roots affect the country today, then, one could argue that Kamenarovic's work is characterised by trepidation and challenge.

He has, though, faced the challenge head on, making it his speciality, both in terms of his work as a researcher at the Sorbonne and in terms of also marketing this work to interested members of the public. In his mission, several different cultures collide bizarrely, and this is perhaps part of the appeal of this academic's work, with a man of Russian heritage partly seeking to unite the world by writing in French about China (even though the world's scholars cannot be united by his oeuvre, since his works are unavailable in English). The author says that the approach China's awesome history and mentality, great humility is required, and this is something that is well-reflected in this respectful and considered history book.

The work is comprehensive in its scope, covering the Chinese world and the Chinese being in several clearly divided chapters, and approaching all aspects of Chinese life, from ancient Chinese economics and politics, to Chinese arts and feng shui. This sheer range of topics may make the extended essay seem daunting, but it is easy enough to select the chapters that are of most interest. Equally, while Kamenarovic can offer insights into a typically Chinese outlook on life, and how this thread extends from ancient life to where we are today, these links are not always explicitly made, and it is admittedly better when he does, especially for those who are new to Chinese culture and history. Those looking for more direct insights into today's China may in some ways be better off looking elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the work is helpfully formatted, is not over-long, and carries plenty in the way of helpful illustrations and charts - and all without being patronising. The flip side of this, however, is that readers are sometimes assumed to be more knowledgeable than they actually are - so while this book may prove a helpful reference volume, one may perhaps profit from its knowledge best when it is accompanied by other books, too, from a range of authors covering even more aspects of China's lineage.

Other works by Ivan P Kamenarovic
Arts and letters in Chinese history (1999)
Conflict: Chinese and Western perceptions (2001)
To act and be passive in China and the West: the inactive sage and the man of action (2005)
Journey of a Chinese man of letters (2008)