Tuesday, March 04, 2008

book thoughtz

March has started well wrt books. I've had time on my hands lately, and not the slightest inclination to write. Here's a book log:

Juggling, Barbara Trapido

Reading Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, planted her firmly in my list of favourite novelists. Temples of Delight and The Travelling Hornplayer did nothing to pitch her out thence, and now I've read Juggling, the novel that connects Temples and Hornplayer, although each book is a stands alone, too. And -- I don't know how she does it. I really don't. Her books are slight, flippant, defiantly masochistic narratives by and about brilliant but frustrated women, full of humour and self-deprecation and an insane need to balance out the cold facts of every story she tells with an awareness of its opposite -- there's no sex without death, no grief without laughter, no success without compromise anywhere in her books. Her wit sparkles; her ability to choke you with sadness does, too. There's a certain amount of chatty subversiveness in her books that I find quite feminist, but her writing is generally too self-conscious to be really political [and it's self-conscious enough to be vaguely apologetic about that, too, I think].

She is also an accomplished critic. Music and literature are central to her novels: Temples of Delight is a re-telling of The Magic Flute; The Travelling Hornplayer leaned heavily on Schubert's "The Beautiful Miller's Daughter" song cycle. Juggling is structurally modelled about and concerned with Trapido's palpable love of Shakespearean comedy. It is a novel improbably full of girls who are not what they are said to be, boys in the midst of crippling identity crises, startling co-incidences, and unfinished stories. I had problems with the stubborn whimsy of Hornplayer, but thankfully Juggling is a lot more like Temples of Delight in its clarity and compassion.

I was looking for Trapido on the Internet and I found an interview in which she was asked how she felt about her being compared to Jane Austen. Before pointing out that it was kind of lame [although Trapido, bless her, would never use the word 'lame' to mean anything other than someone ill-disposed to walk] how every woman writer who wrote novels about women invariably received that compliment, she said:

I think I sense in her, a woman prone to depression who uses the force of her intelligence to hammer the unbearableness of life into a shape so perfect, that the dexterity of the artifact forces the story into upbeat mode and leaves the reader thinking, "a happy ending—hurrah!"

Which is kind of what she does, too.

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

Now here is an author who will use the word 'lame' at every given opportunity. I've been enjoying Chabon's work more and more as he grows older and cooler -- I can't believe The Final Solution got the bad rap it did, because it accomplished, if not to perfection, then to something exceeding expectations, what it set out to do, which was to tell the damn story. I couldn't believe Kavalier & Clay got the near-universal critical critical worship it did either, to be frank - and I say this as a flag-waving K&C fangirl - because it relied, imho, a little too heavily on the fact that geeks now rule the world, and will consequently adore stories about geeks and their geek obsessions, and was, while superbly-written and emotionally sound, still a little fearful of getting on with telling the damn story.

And oh, Michael Chabon, if only you had left the afterword out of Gentlemen of the Road, how admirably you would have succeeded in your sole goal of telling the damn story, because it is the best attempt at storytelling I have seen you make yet. It's like you've pared down every writerly tic, every attempt at "showing" character and history, every impulse to bung in some "revealing" dialogue, some significant poetic parallel, some attempt at demonstrating the marriage of romance and realism AND JUST GONE FOR THE STORY OMG. THANK YOU. Jesus Christ, that was a good book. A fun book. And a very Chabon book in its concern for -- emotional justice? [I don't know how else to describe it]. I can't even begin to imagine how bloody hard it must have been to write.

Yet, for some reason every review I've read has been a reflection of the four-page afterword Chabon wrote to the book, in which he talked about his motivations re: writing a book about Jews with swords etc. and other stuff you knew he's always been concerned about his writing. This afterword attempts in no way to alter your perception of the book. Yet every other review in the papers started off on some variation of the words, 'OMG, Chabon has written a Jewish book about Jewish people with Jewish swords. What is he trying to tell us?' Um, he's told you that in the afterword already. In the Village Voice this reviewer actually took umbrage at Chabon having the temerity to be a Jewish writer about Jewish people and not at all being like Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud and being just like Jonathan Safran Foer. Which was totally uncalled-for, I thought. It is a Jewish novel, but not one that happens to have some adventure thrown in as background to all the omg!forrealz stuff. It's not even that his biggest success is about getting Jews to go adventuring -- it's that he lets it happen in this gentle, distant, totally unlaboured way so that both the Jewishness and the adventure just about sink into each other. And that has got to be the biggest benefit of his coming along this far in his quest to just, simply, merely, only tell a good story.

Oh, and it has some lovely old-school illustrations -- very much out of the cut-price Arabian Nights schoolbooks they used to study a few generations ago.

I loved it, and I can't wait to find a copy of Yiddish Policemen's Union now.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy.

I haven't read this book since I was about thirteen, so when I started on it I suddenly remembered that the final third of the book relies heavily on 'Reuben the Jew' and was seized with a sudden terror -- what if memory had failed me and I was about to read something with a section as disgusting as that pawnbroker scene in The Grand Sophy? I am relieved to say that this was not the case [although the book is no shining beacon of fin-de-si├Ęcle ethnic tolerance, either]. And, in fact, I enjoyed this every bit as much as you could imagine. I mean, come on. He kisses the steps! And the balustrade! 'Cuz her feet rested there! And he can't let her know because he's so proud and she's so fine and they're too cool for each other, and she tries to save his life and everything! They were, like, the Posh & Becks of the eighteenth century, you guys.

leading fashion and society in europe
a little imagination and you can almost see his lace jabot and her fichu, see?

Basil, Wilkie Collins

Needed a cup of tea and a quiet lie-down after this. It's hysterical and depraved, and all the sexual underconfidence and incestuous confusion is almost like reading DH Lawrence [or, erm, one of the Rossettis]. It is also, sadly, not half as much fun as his later work, although his sneaky obsession with putting together the most ridiculous things in a normalising kedgeree of first-person narratives and newspaper reports and letters and a multiplicity of voices is all here. In fact, it's almost impossible to believe that the guy who wrote this went on to become the coolest cat ever and Dickens' best friend and the writer of those big awesomesauce novels that set Victorian society's ears on fire. It is easy to believe that the guy who wrote it was on drugs, and possibly a virgin.

I do not recommend it if you are a. - easily shocked b. - not interested in the Victorians c. - likely to fly into a rage at antiquated sexual sterotyping of women. I do recommend it if you are a. - interested in the Victorians b. - interested in Wilkie Collins c. - interested in the really batshit insane d. - have tea-making facilities on hand for when you finish it.

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