Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Reading Is For Everyone! (2)

The title of this month's column may seem a tad familiar. In my last instalment on this topic, I was lamenting the existence of secondhand booksellers who seem intent on raping your wallet for many times more than a book is worth, even if it is a bit on the hard-to-find side.

In this instalment, I move on to consider the notion of paying for library membership. This is something that I never had to do whilst in Britain but do have to do now that I am in France.

This strikes me as being somehow intrinsically wrong; in Britain, paying for library membership was never something that presented itself to me. Thanks to free library membership, I was able to enjoy many thousands of hours of good quality time reading books that my parents would have never had the space to stash if we'd had to buy them all. I suspect that library membership is even more valuable to those coming from low-income backgrounds: we always had plenty of books at home, but for bookworms who can't actually afford books, a free library card is quite literally a lifeline.

The fee we pay in France for use of our local library is pretty nominal; while I'm guessing it varies from place to place, we pay under €40 a year for the two of us to use the library. It's not that we can't afford it, and it's better than paying for something you won't even use, but it's the principle of it that I object to. For many households, even this is a barrier (although I suspect not in the area where we live), and as I've said before, reading should be for everyone - no matter what.

But, nevertheless, I can see both sides of the story (no pun intended).
So why should we pay to use our libraries?
It's ultimately a business, not a charity. Even libraries that are entirely state-funded still make money from fines that are charged on late books and from flogging old stock to buy new things. You pay someone to stack the shelves for you; you pay someone to put the books in order so that you can find them easily; you pay someone to run a book group or an event at the library; you pay for maintenance of the building and grounds; you pay for the books and other media to be supplied to the library; the list goes on. You receive a service like any other and you ought to pay for it. If library services become free, then an argument is created for other beneficial services, such as museums and swimming pools, to also become free for all. This is perhaps ultimately economically unsustainable.

But now to the reason why I came here in the first place: why should our library service be free?
Local governments (and, indeed, national governments) need to invest in literacy unless they want to have a completely useless future generation. Furthermore, this needs to be a multi-pronged attack: just investing in schools is not always enough, and some schools will always be better than others anyway. As I already mentioned, some families will not be able to afford to further their children's education at home (whether said parents should have had said children to begin with is perhaps another debate, and not one for this blog), and it seems petty and silly but simultaneously monumentally disastrous to exclude people from a library (of all places!) on the grounds that they cannot afford to go. This only sets a downward spiral - library-going, just like going to a swimming pool (to use my earlier example) has to become habitual from an early age, or it is a million times harder to get into a routine with later on in life. And just as participating in sport from a young age sets you up for a physically healthy lifetime, getting into the habit of reading books sets you up for an intellectually healthy lifetime. It seems a shame that such things should be put paid to immediately solely due to a lack of funds.

As with most things, I expect, a middle ground has to be reached. Let those who can afford it pay for it by all means, but some concessions should perhaps be made for those who can't. In my view at least, basic literacy is a basic human right, and one that should not be denied just by the bad luck of one's background.

update August 2010

# of books read in August: 5
Cumulative total: 37

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)
15. Rebuilding Coventry (Sue Townsend)
16. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
17. The Undomestic Goddess (Sophie Kinsella)
18. French Kissing (Catherine Sanderson)
19. Icons of England (various authors; edited by Bill Bryson)
20. Shirley (Charlotte Brontë)
21. Women's Hour Short Stories
22. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
23. Juliet, Naked (Nick Hornby)
24. Reviving Ophelia (Mary Pipher)
25. Nightingale Wood (Stella Gibbons)
26. The Orange Girl (Jostein Gaarder)
27. Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)
28. Gemma and Sisters (Noel Streatfeild)
29. See Under: Love (David Grossman)
30. Swann's Way (Marcel Proust)
31. Le roi des fougères (Jean Anglade)
32. The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio)
33. The Glass Room (Simon Mawer)
34. Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)
35. Missykad, or Britannic Raj Through The Turnstiles (Malcolm Henry James)
36. Where We Going, Daddy?: Life With Two Sons Unlike Any Other (Jean-Louis Fournier)
37. First Grey, Then White, Then Blue (Margriet de Moor)

All reviews now available on this blog for your viewing pleasure; I seem to be better at keeping up with them this year :)

First Grey, Then White, Then Blue (Margriet de Moor)

--The blurb--
"Magda in life - no less than Magda in death - was an enigma. A free spirit, alluring but private, loving yet remote, she effected the lives of those around her in ways beyond measure. For her husband Robert, who wanted to possess her, body and soul, what Magda gave him was never enough. He murdered her, leaving her lover to discover her body. As friends gather for her funeral, the mystery of Magda's life is slowly, tantalizingly, revealed. Who really knew Magda, and what truths has her death revealed?"

--The review--
Dutch writer Margriet de Moor published her first novel in the 1990s, but despite having published three more books since, all of which have been translated into English, is pretty quiet on the British literary scene. It is eminently puzzling, in some ways, as to why this should be the case. Of course this may be out of choice on the part of the author, but it may also be attributable to the work itself.

The latter reason seems to be countered in the negative: de Moor is able to write gruesomely and poetically in equal measure, which makes for a positively unique effect. Sustaining imagery and trains of thought with success, de Moor combines simplicity in terms of the number of characters with complexity as she jumps across time, making the tale of Magda deliberately non-chronological. In addition to spotlighting arbitrary aspects of the lives and relationships of Magda, Robert, Erik, and Nellie, this murder mystery is unlike others in being solved right at the beginning, with the rest of the book theoretically being devoted to unravelling it.

I say 'theoretically' because by the end of the book we are not much closer to understanding Magda. We have already heard from Robert and Erik about their contact with her and their roles in her life, so by the time Magda starts to speak our interest is piqued - her side of the story is already highly desirable and it is possible that the motivation behind her murder may finally be revealed. But while readers are given a lot more detail about her two-year absence prior to the murder, and while this is all very interesting and beautifully described, it does not give any concrete answers regarding the novel's principal premise.

The most intriguing segment is possibly the final one, when Nellie is preparing to go to Magda's funeral with her son Gaby. Even though it is no more illuminating in explaining the causes and background of the crime, it still gives a feeling of tying up the novel satisfyingly, especially since Gaby is finally given a voice here too. But the feeling of a lack of answers is still frustrating, and although this may be partly solved in a reader's mind by further readings of the book, this yawning chasm between mystery and truth, even if part of the book's beauty, may also explain why Margriet de Moor's works are still relatively unknown in the English-speaking world: the work can be as beautiful and poetic and gruesome as it likes, but if it is still too enigmatic for the general population, it may just not make it to the other side.

Other works by Margriet de Moor
Back Views (1988; short stories)
The Virtuoso (1996)
The Duke of Egypt (2001)
The Drowned (2005)

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Where We Going, Daddy?: Life With Two Sons Unlike Any Other (Jean-Louis Fournier)

--The blurb--
"Jean-Louis Fournier did not expect to have a disabled child. He certainly did not expect to have two. But that is precisely what happened to this wry French humorist, and his attempts to live and cope with his Mathieu and Thomas, both facing extremely debilitating physical and mental challenges, is the subject of this brave and heartbreaking book. Fournier recalls the life he imagined having with his sons—but his boys will never really grow up, and he mourns the loss of every memory he thought he’d have.
   Though a devoted father, he does not shy away from exploring the limits of his love, the countless times he is filled with frustration and disappointment with no relief in sight. Mathieu and Thomas can barely communicate, and each in turn repeats learned phrases, such as “Where we going, Daddy?” (a favorite in the car) in what feels to Fournier to be an eternal loop."

--The review--
Having read Fournier's wry and sardonic God's CV, I had a little soupçon of what I thought I could expect from Where We Going, Daddy? However, even when reading it in French (under which it is published as Où on va, papa?), which is not my native language, I was hit with the full force of the emotion and surprise that Fournier packs into this short work, a fiction/non-fiction hybrid, with which to move his readers. And deeply moving it indeed is: perhaps too sentimental for some, Fournier explores all aspects of life as a parent of disabled children, from what happens when they are old enough to vote to how you feel when you think the au pair has done what you sometimes feel like doing and thrown them out of the window.

This little overview of the situations covered shows what Fournier is like as a writer; as well as having the potential to move you, he also has the potential to appall and shock you, dispensing black humour at the most unexpected turns in the road. He reveals unflinchingly his perceived failings as a parent and as a human being, and does not make a secret of his use of jokes to help keep him sane and in some small way to make fun of himself. But in spite of the sense of gallows humour exhibited here, Where We Going, Daddy? is ultimately a tale of the heart-rending variety. It is not in the least cheery and does not seek to be cheesy or inspirational, American-style. It is perhaps self-pitying in places, but as someone without disabled children, you think to yourself: but wouldn't you be, too? Those who manage to rise above such a situation and be relentlessly positive in the face of it are likely few and far between; I would imagine that a greater majority of parents of disabled children feel what Fournier expresses here. It is an assumption, to be sure; but this novella almost certainly delivers a much-dodged insight into the lives of these parents, and thus makes a valuable contribution to the world in enabling greater understanding. Immediately you are inside Fournier's mind and life.

While delivering risky literature in his tone, topic and approach, Fournier also delivers readable literature: there are no chapters as such, but the segments and anecdotes are short, allowing full reflection on each before moving on. While short, it is a book you can take your time over as the subject matter weighs heavily on your mind and heart, thus changing you.

The one question left for me as a reader was the marginalised topic of Fournier's other child, his 'normal' daughter Marie. We are given little or no indication as to how this affected her, or indeed Fournier's wife and the mother of the three children. The book is undeniably self-centred in this regard, but equally this is the source of its impact.

Laden with linguistic devices such as metaphor and repetition, this book is not difficult to read, but rather is strangely compelling as it lays out its images in easily understandable ways. While the narrative is not finished, this is an appropriate way to stop: life, too, for all of us, albeit in very different ways to Fournier, is also often messy, unfinished, and unexplained in its alleged dispensations of justice. It is parents of the disabled who perhaps feel this most keenly. Important to remember too, though, is that this is Fournier's experience - he is not trying to generalise the experience of all parents with disabled children, but if he manages to resonate with a few, he will have done well. And equally, if Fournier's book incites even one person to change their attitude towards disabled people, he has done his job and left his mark on the world. With this being his first and so far only work to have been translated into English, it is hoped that more will follow and that his literary and social influence will continue to spread far and wide.

Other works by Jean-Louis Fournier
Poet and peasant/Poète et paysan (2010)
Blasted God!/Satané Dieu! (2005)
Little Meaulnes/Le Petit Meaulnes (2003)
I'm Not Going To Hell/J'irai pas en enfer (2001)
The Dark Girl/La Noiraude (1999)
My Dad Never Killed Anyone/Il a jamais tué personne mon papa (1999)
I'll teach you to be polite, little idiot/Je vais t'apprendre la politesse, p'tit con (1998)
God's CV/Le CV de Dieu (1995)

50 book challenge 2007 - posts published

They can be found here.
This goes back to my very first 50 book challenge, which I undertook due to finding a group about it on Livejournal and thinking it sounded cool. I've finally imported all the posts from it over here, collating them into one giant uber-post.
Despite having done it in 2007, and completed it for 2009, and in the process of completing it for 2010, I did not undertake it in 2008. I actually sort of regret this; for a book lover, I think recording all your thoughts on the books you've read is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

Missykad, or Britannic Raj Through The Turnstiles (Malcolm Henry James)

available for purchase here.
Cost: 200 Indian rupees, which is about £3. The website above which sells it claims to offer free shipping worldwide, but someone would actually have to test this to see how that panned out.
ISBN: 8188330167

--The blurb--
"Missykad tells the story of Jack David Brewster, who was born out of wedlock to a British planter and a woman labourer of his estate, Missykad in Wayanad, bordering the Nilgiris. His curious love for a woman, Cleopatra, whom he chances to meet in a brothel in Bombay, forms the core of the story."

--The review--
Mr James' first and only self-published novel, issued when the now no longer living author was 71 years old in 2004, promises to "[explore] the conflicting values and the transitional mindset of losers and winners in the struggle for Independence and, analogously, the terminal struggle of life." Interspersed with sonnets by Mr James and taking on narrative as well as history, this is a lofty aspiration. Regrettably, it is not successful in achieving its aims, and perhaps reflects why the novel is self-published and not easy to purchase in the six years since its publication.

It would have benefited, first and foremost, from some good honest editing; the punctuation and grammar needs work in several places (although these errors do not damage the work to the point of making it illegible) and the sonnets, probably the best part of the work for their beauty and grace, would have been better situated at the beginnings of the chapters in which they appear, rather than being integrated into the prose in a manner that appears almost completely random. Repetition of information is also a common problem in some areas.

Secondly, Mr James is not especially even-handed in his approach, with there being too much detail in some places, not enough in others, and irrelevant information included elsewhere. This makes the reader's attention liable to wander. Although a positive impression is made at the start by Mr James' authentic and classically-styled prose, and by the setting and background of Missykad itself, the novella has very little to do with the coffee plantation after the first few chapters, which indicates perhaps a missed opportunity for the author in terms of plumbing a fantastic area of normally maligned history rather than focusing more traditionally on Gandhi and the runup to Independence.

Potentially fascinating characters are also left to fall by the wayside, with nobody really built up enough for readers to care about them. The lasting impression comes instead from the couple who originally owned Missykad and their daughter, after whom the plantation is named, but after the first chapter or so we unfortunately do not hear about them again, or much about the coffee plantation's work. The novella is short but dense and after a while James' overladen style starts to grate. This is perhaps compounded by the fact that the work is not really cohesive, with characterisation and description often abandoned in favour of seemingly unconnected anecdotes. This lack of attention means that little or no emotion is felt while reading, and when the book ends, we are filled only with what could have been about Missykad, rather than what was.

This book is only recommended, therefore, if you have a specific interest in Britain's influence in India, along with a lot of patience. As previously mentioned, the highlight of the novella is the sonnets, which, while eloquent and beautiful, also employ a style that is very much of things past, and unlikely to always resonate with today's readers. Fans of Shakespeare and Keats could be persuaded to seek out this highly affordable book for the poetry alone, and it is a shame only that Mr James is no longer alive to be counselled to instead publish a book of poetry, rather than a slipshod piece of fiction.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)

--The blurb--
"In the spring of 1974, Calliope Stephanides, a student at a girls' school in Grosse Pointe, finds herself drawn to a chain-smoking, strawberry-blond classmate with a gift for acting. The passion that furtively develops between them leads Callie to suspect that she is not like other girls. In fact, Cal has inherited a rare genetic mutation. The biological trace of a guilty secret, this gene has followed her grandparents from the crumbling Ottoman Empire to Detroit and has outlasted the glory days of the Motor City, the race riots of 1967, and the family's second migration, into the foreign country known as suburbia. Thanks to the gene, Cal is part girl, part boy. And even though the gene's epic travels have ended, her own odyssey has only begun."

--The review--
When Homer Simpson decides, in yet another new line of work, to get a fake qualification online that allows him to conduct marriage ceremonies, quite a few people step up to tie the knot under his dubious jurisdiction. One of these couples is composed of Brandine and Cletus, a recurring hick-town couple in the show. Just as Homer is about to pronounce them man and wife, he suddenly stops and says "Hey, are you two brother and sister?!", to which the couple gaily reply, "We's all kinds of things!"

It is this premise of incest, and the disastrous chain of events that it can provoke, that provides the basis of Eugenides' second novel, Middlesex. Even though the novel's approach can seem slightly contrived in places, it is mostly believable, with the author assuming the female voice very successfully. Epic in its scope, the novel is not only detailed in its plot construction and scientific research, but also gives the reader a sweeping panoramic view of twentieth-century American history. This ambition could easily leave the reader lost, but Eugenides not only traverses the different generations and time periods with ease but does well, too, in making the novel accessible as well as unusual. Writing the novel chiefly from Callie's point of view, Eugenides occasionally slips into a more omniscient tone than might be considered appropriate, and yet in conjunction with the resolution of the novel, it does end up seeming appropriate after all.

In spite of the novel's length, and the author's sophisticated use of vocabulary, it has all the momentum of a runaway freight train, compelling the reader to read on. The characters are highly human and the spanning across three generations is something that I believe to have been influenced by Zadie Smith's White Teeth. It is possible, too, that Charlie Anders drew a little inspiration in Choir Boy from the relationships that Eugenides depicts. However, one aspect of the characterisation that will be lost on the vast majority of readers is the naming of protagonist Callie's brother only as Chapter Eleven, which is an obscure political reference that I had to look up in order for it to be explained. Even if it does hold some minor element of foreshadowing, this ultimately does not enhance the story in any way, and hinders rather than helps the reader.

Colm Toibin's introduction to the novel also does not help the reader in any meaningful way: to my mind, introductions to novels should help to explain to the reader or shed further light on issues arising in the novel. Toibin's introduction, however, is more of a book review in itself, and while admittedly it is a good one, his opinion is the sole focus, and this for me has no place in an introduction (or at least very little). In any case, Eugenides' work speaks for itself, with him handling the transition between scenes with dexterity and ease. Particularly interesting is the non-chronological order in which the story is told, which leads to increasing curiosity on the reader's part not only about how Callie has got to the present day but also about Callie's burgeoning relationship with Julie. The last we see of Callie and Julie is when Callie is just about to tell Julie about her past, and even though we don't get to see Julie's reaction, this feels right: we feel as if we ought to creep away quietly and let them get on with it in private.

The novel is neither wholly a sentimental family saga nor wholly an academic treatise on gender versus sex; its blend of various genres and topics makes it more significant than this, particularly as attitudes to sexuality and gender become more open and understood, especially in relation to the recent case of Caster Semenya. In trying to alert people to and inform people about the subject of hermaphrodism and intersexuality, Eugenides certainly succeeds. As previously mentioned, it also serves as a microcosm of American history over the past century, and also incorporates James Bond-style elements, such as car chases and dodgy deals. The reader is left beyond satisfied in virtually all respects, this highly influential work deserving a place on every modern bookshelf.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Glass Room (Simon Mawer)

--The blurb--
"High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor's lover and her child. But the house's story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events become full-circle."

--The review--
Simon Mawer's The Glass Room perhaps did not capture the attention of Booker Prize judges as the ultimate winner of the prize last year, despite making the shortlist, due to its focus on World War Two - a subject on which the cup truly runneth over in British history books and fiction books alike. However, its mass popular appeal is surely instant as a result; not only is the story framed in a context that is very familiar to the majority of the great British public, but it also centres on an elegant, sad, and yet strangely cold love story.

From the very beginning of the novel, we do not have the impression that the relationship between Viktor and Liesel is a happy one. Viktor is a Landauer, of the family who makes cars of the same name, so a marriage to him is surely a good marriage in terms of social status, and it illustrates starkly how a return to traditional values, as so often demanded by the UK's right-wing press and politicians in particular, may not be all it's cracked up to be. Viktor's infidelity in the end also means that we do not much care what happens to him; readers are not as saddened or affected by his demise as they should or could be. This is, however, likely a deliberate device by Mawer to draw Liesel as the heroine.

Another strong character is Hana, but the sexual undercurrent in the relationship between her and Liesel is not entirely realistic, although their strong friendship is. Happily, this weakness is easily ignored as Mawer draws us in to the ever-tightening complexity of the family's relationships, which eventually expand to include Viktor's lover and her child from a previous relationship. The impending doom of wartime Europe creeps up on readers slowly and authentically and provides an effective and dark backdrop, making this more than just a love story.

The setting of the glass room itself is undoubtedly stunning, and while Mawer says in a short foreword that the location on which it is based will be obvious to anyone who has ever visited it, other readers who are unfamiliar with it may well be able to call to mind other similar locations that also fit the bill. For me, it was the house of art dealer Louis Carré, which is located in the French village of Bazoches-sur-Guyonne and was built by Finnish architect Aalvar Alto. The image of the glass room in the novel is compelling and symbolic in itself, quite aside from the positive momentum of the rest of the story. A weaker version of this is the line of music that Mawer repeatedly incorporates, which is delightfully Proustian but does not quite imitate the success of its literary progenitor.

Utterly absorbing, the novel is a superb introduction to Mawer's work, and to my mind is proof that even if the Booker jury do not get it right all the time, they are still achieving their aim of bringing perhaps undiscovered great modern literature to a wider audience, and honouring it.

Other works by Simon Mawer
Chimera (1989)
A Place in Italy (1992)
The Bitter Cross (1992)
A Jealous God (1996)
Mendel's Dwarf (1997)
The Gospel of Judas (2000)
The Fall (2003)
Swimming to Ithaca (2006)