Saturday, August 7, 2010

Recent Reads

The Lady Vanishes. Apologies for the unscheduled break - went off on a wee unscheduled adventure in rural Scootland where I was sans interwebz. It was excellent. We pottered around the coast, had a barbeque on the beach (harissa chicken, cherry tomatoes in tin foil, corn on the cob with epic amounts of butter and salt, nectarines... the nectarines barbequed 'interestingly' but we were tipsy enough to enjoy them that way) and ate the best fish and chips EVER in Anstruther. I feel a 'Food Reviewed' brewing because they were that good!

Anyway, I have got crazy behind on my fiction because I read a lot in Sicily because there was often bugger all else to do. Ridiculous amounts of time spent on trains to get places 30 miles away and 2-3 weeks living the middle of nowhere, not even within walking distance of the nearest 'town' (hah!), meant that I cracked through the portable library I had sensibly bought with me. I'm going to save my favouritest books from the 'holiday' for another post but here is a rundown of some of the other things that I read in those strange weeks. I've gone with a most to least preferred structure so here goes...

1) Music & Silence - Rose Tremain: I love me a good, solid novel and this ticked that box pretty thoroughly. It is set in 17th century Denmark (bring on the historical novels!) and follows King Christian IV and his consort, Kirsten Munk, and the romance between the King's lutenist, Peter Claire, and Kirsten's attendant, Emilia Tilsen. This isn't a straight historical romance though, indeed Peter and Emilia's relationship is sidelined for most of the novel. The book is written in alternating sections, from Christian's childhood, Peter's experiences in contemporary Denmark and his own history, Emilia's young life and most memorably Kirsten's 'private papers'. These sections look at the pressures and expectations of power, the breakdown of the King's marriage, the strain of living in a foreign environment, grief, madness... Many things. Most unexpected though is Kirsten's fairly graphic enthusiasm for S&M and extreme domination in the bedroom with her lover. Did not see that coming! Anyway, a good, chunky novel; if it didn't blow my socks off I still enjoyed.

2) Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey: another semi-romantic, historical novel and another prize winner, the Booker prize this time. This time the setting is primarily 19th century Australia although narrated (can't remember if it is partially or fully) by a modern descendant. Oscar is a religious zealot and gambling addict who travels to Australia, despite his fear of the unbounded sea, to become a missionary. Lucinda is a young, strong-willed Australian heiress and fellow gambler attempting to manage a glass factory in Sydney. Life is complicated for both of them but the characters are beautifully drawn. I got pretty into this and got myself all hyped up and then I was shot down by the ending! Not at all what I was expecting/required - beware.

3) The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of his Friend Marilyn Monroe - Andrew O'Hagan: I first saw this on India Knight's Posterous, I think the author is a friend of her's and she bigged it up. I also got sucked in by the sweet trailer, my enthusiasm for puppy dogs and by Marilyn's irresistable allure. The book is cute and enjoyable if a bit of a non-entity. It looks at a period towards the end of Marilyn's life where she is beginning to really struggle to keep her head up but it isn't a gossip rag or a biography. This isn't really the place to come for an encyclopaedic view of her life, relationships and psychology but the narrator, a Maltese called Mafia Honey, is charming. There are some nice bits on famous dogs in history, art, film and literature too. I'm about to hit up Madame Bovary (which I have been meaning to read for ages, I swear!) because of Maf's endearing attachment to her dog Djali!

4) The Cleft - Doris Lessing: I am slightly ashamed to admit it but I have never read any Doris Lessing before. It is on my to do list but I haven't quite got there yet - there are so many other things on there too! Unfortunately this probably wasn't a brilliant place to start although it was fairly easy reading. It is a creation myth where women sprawled out of the sea and lived for uncounted generations without men, giving birth frequently and spontaneously, before the first male babies start being born and everything starts going wrong. This isn't quite as anti-men as it sounds and it is more concerned with humanity's inability to deal with change. When the first Squirts (boy babies) are born they are viewed as freaks and left on a rock to die. Out of curiosity, fear and disgust the women experiment on and torment these first boys before throwing them away. These boys don't die though (they are rescued by intelligent, giant eagles obv) and they form a colony. Men and women collide, overcome their mutual fears, come together. Women lose the ability to reproduce without men... It is quite interesting but I think that the idea could have been pushed further and more thoroughly examined. It is a neither thing - neither a frivolous beach nor a proper investigation of the issues raised. Also, I found the frame narrative of an ancient Roman historian rather unnecessary - I don't need my social relevance spelt out for me.

5) The Accidental - Ali Smith: so I'm a bit superficial and I got a bit sucked in by the cover here... It is a really nice cover, snaps to Penguin. Also, I had read and enjoyed Smith's novella 'Girl Meets Boy' and I remembered all the buzz around 'The Accidental' when it came out. I found it a bit gimmicky though. The novel is very structured; frame, The Beginning, The Middle, The End, frame. Within the three central sections there is a narrative from each member of the Smart family. I do think that Smith has a way with words, she can have a very interesting/comic/insightful turn of phrase, and she is clearly very intelligent and cultured, the book is almost drowning in sharp cultural references, but I didn't particularly enjoy the book. It often felt more like an intellectual exercise for all its moments of perfect observation and insight.
Also, my travelling companion, who borrowed the book, got hilariously annoyed by the ending - it is rather frustrating!


Glad I've got that all off my chest. There is more to come but first I might need to wallow in something frivolous...

Chuck x

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