Thursday, May 24, 2012

I will never be the same

I was at the Royal Opera House tonight, and I had great seats (thank you student ticket offers), right in the center section. And as I sat there thinking, "wow, this is cool" it struck me: was I sitting where Fosco was sitting when he was spotted by Walter and Pesca?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Historical fiction I didn't hate!

I can best describe this book as a successful version of Clara and Mr Tiffany, which longtime readers will remember I disliked.

The story is framed as a sort of pseudo-memoir, but functionally it's more just a first-person story. Sira, the main character and narrator, is a seamstress in Madrid, engaged to an ordinary guy, living with her mother in a poor neighborhood, when she's swept off her feet by a sexy typewriter salesman. A very sexy typewriter salesman, the sexy typewriter salesman of your sexiest dreams. When he leaves her destitute in Morocco, she has to start again from scratch, reinventing herself as a high-class dressmaker. This mixes her up with influential people and she eventually returns to Franco's Madrid as a haute couturier and British spy.

Maybe it's a matter of reading the book in translation, but I thought Sira's character was a little disappointing given the dramatic twists and turns her life takes and how successfully she handles them. She comes across as a little flat somehow; you'd expect her to be a little livelier and more confident or something. Despite all the changes in her circumstances I had a hard time seeing how her perspective or personality was changing. It's very possible that this is just me, though. The scene where Sira is confronted by her old fiance was genuinely gripping, even though I thought the book gave that phase of her life short shrift.

One of the main aims of this book is, of course, to tell the story of early 20th century Spain, particularly the Civil War and the Second World War, and more precisely to tell the story of Juan Luis Beigbeider and his English lover Rosalind Fox. Yes, there are some clumsy fact-dump conversations, but they have the benefit of being about things I'm unfamiliar with and therefore inclined to give a pass. On the whole I'd say the history aspect is well-balanced with the novel's plot.

Not to say that the book didn't share some of Clara and Mr Tiffany's quirks. If I hadn't been reading this on the Kindle, I would go back and calculate how many of the chapters end with something like this:
But for that we had to wait a few weeks yet, six or seven. And over that time, things happened that--yet again--transformed the course of my life forever.
My estimate is that something like 40-50% of chapters ended with "little did I know that my life was about to change yet again." But the good news, and the #1 thing that differentiates this book from Clara and Mr Tiffany, is that this only happens once:
     I hadn't yet finished my fruit but I accepted. He filled the cups, having first unscrewed the top part of a metallic receptacle. Miraculously the liquid came out hot. I had no idea what it was, this machine that could pour out the coffee that had been there for at least an hour as though it had just been prepared.
     "A thermos, a great invention," he said, noticing my curiosity.
I always assume that translated books must be good, but in honesty I have to think this one was translated largely because English people feature so prominently as Good Guys. But overall it was an enjoyable read and worth picking up if the history appeals to you.

One final detail: in this book, like Mysterious Benedict Society, the spies communicate using Morse code. Why do authors do this? It's not like they have to work out an actual code, they just have to write "I encoded the message". In this book, the rationale is presented as "the Germans keep breaking our codes, so we'll use Morse" -- i.e., since they keep figuring out our codes anyway, we'll just save them time and use one we know they know! In France, I'm pretty sure SOE used book codes, but maybe -- and I have to bow to the author on this -- in Spain they just used Morse. Anyway, I warn you now that the next book I read that features Morse code as a super-secure top secret method of communication will probably get laughed at more than it deserves.

Monday, May 14, 2012

This is the last, absolutely the last, paper book I will buy in London


Mais oui, I have booked my tickets and hotel for Paris. It's mon premier temps, and although I ne parler pas any French (as you will no doubt have guessed at this point), I look forward to my German and Italian making a strong comeback as soon as I set pied on French soil. I was never a girl who had a fascination with Paris, but I enjoy wine, cheese, coffee and croissants, so I'm confident this will be a success.

Plus I intend to go and see this:

I get a strange number of Google search hits for "bayeux tapestry" so let me reiterate: that is a picture of the Bayeux Tapestry, and I am obsessed with the Bayeux tapestry.

As I say, this is my first time, and I don't have an enormous list of must-sees other than

for good measure
so I have set myself the excitingly low bar of (1) walking around a bit and (2) going to the Louvre.* And this particular guidebook is (or seems like -- not like I've tried it out yet) the perfect book for such a person. It is made up of a series of walking tours that take you through the various neighborhoods, with a particular emphasis on the architecture and architectural history. The walks link up, which is an interesting approach. In theory, I guess, you could take the back half of one and the front half of the next one together, I guess.

The book is pretty stripped down; it's certainly no DK Eyewitness Guide (my parents' guidebooks of choice). The main decoration is in the form of simple pen sketches by the author of some of the buildings. Nearly every two page spread has a sketch so it's not completely plain but the only color comes from the headings and so on being in dark blue ink. On this aesthetic point, my only real objection is to the cover; what works well for the interior is not so great for a cover. The main contents are generally good (again, as far as I can tell), and there's a little glossary of architectural terms with explanations of the major styles, plus a "further afield" section which is always a nice feature. If you want the usual sort of guidebook things like hotels and restaurants you'd have to look elsewhere, but that's no big deal. My only complaint is that the little map of "Paris Districts" just has them labelled by number, while the walking itineraries only give their colloquial names and don't mention the numbers.

And now I will completely contradict my post title and say that I'm open to your suggestions of what I should read in Gay Paree, since, despite my lack of previous attachment to the city, I admit that it does seem sacrilegious to read a Kindle by the Seine. Preferably not history (I took two French history classes for some reason in undergrad, and they dented my GPA), and preferably something light or at least not depressing. I already read The Dud Avocado. I'm thinking maybe I'll just pick up some kind of cheap disposable paperback for the trip, something that, despite all previous experience, I'll be able to just give away or leave behind somewhere without being tempted to fit it in my suitcase.

*Incidentally, it seems cruel that everyone says you can't possibly cover the Louvre in a day and yet they don't sell any sort of multi-day ticket.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Holtby Week, the thrilling conclusion (it's a two-day week)

This is very probably the best feminist novel I've ever read. I wanted to assign it to a group of students, although that's impractical (I prefer the term "ambitious") on several levels.

Mine's the Persephone edition, but you know what that looks like

How can I describe what I loved about this book? It manages to convey what it would actually mean for a girl's whole life to be aimed at marriage, and it does so in such a way as to present several different possible paths. Muriel is a shy, dull girl, socially incompetent, who spends most of her life "at home" on the straight-and-narrow which is supposed to culminate in marriage. It's her mother who drives this, and yet Holtby manages to convey the mother's motivations and mindset in such a way that even as you see how awful and destructive her ideas and actions are, you can understand why she does them. You get a wonderful sense of how Muriel passes her time and how her life progresses; it would be ideal for students. Just like South Riding, this book has wonderful characters and beautiful writing, and it's therefore engrossing even though the heroine is so much less lively than Sarah Burton or the other South Riding main characters.

In the Persephone preface, Marion Shaw writes:
Yet Muriel is not quite right in saying that nobody wrote about someone to whom 'nothing ever happens'. That kind of novel, usually featuring spinsters, had been popular from Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1853) through George Gissing's The Odd Women (1893) to contemporary examples such as FM Mayor's The Rector's Daughter (1924). And waiting in the wings, of course, is that most formidable of post-war spinsters, Agatha Christie's Miss Marple, who will first appear in The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930. The Crowded Street thus joins these and other similar novels in making the life of the woman who does not marry of interest; sad, amusing, daunting or mystical, these spinsters are made significant to the reading public.
Assuming that we can take the character's comment as reflecting something on the book she's in -- and granted that I haven't read any of these other books (except the Christie) -- I think this somewhat misses the point. Muriel isn't just a spinster; she's someone who doesn't manage to develop social skills in her marriage-oriented environment. It's not just that she doesn't get married. She doesn't get asked to dance; she doesn't have a romance; she's even hesitant about referring to her best friend from school as her "friend" because, well, Clare never said they were friends in so many words. When she finally escapes to London, Muriel discovers that she has "tastes and inclinations and a personality" -- as long as she was stuck in her home circle, trying to figure out and follow the rules, she was stuck being a kind of non-person in every way, not just a non-wife.

Holtby's point seems to be that a girl like Muriel ought to be given a real education, but more importantly she ought to have opportunities to live away from her mother, to devote her labors to support and benefit herself, and to meet and mix with people outside of the marriage market. This seems very significant to me, given when the book was written; although the marriages in the book have their dark sides (sometimes very dark), Holtby isn't really saying that marriage in itself is a bad thing for women -- which is an important distinction to make, I think, when talking about interwar feminism versus the "second" wave. It's more about giving women the chance to be their own (rounded, educated, individual) person before entering a marriage, however that needs to happen.

Also interesting is that the character who ends up unmarried because her fiance dies isn't a victim of the First World War despite the time period of the novel: the man is hit by a car. I don't know if that's actually significant, but still.

I should note that the book ends on an up-note. I think that's one of the strengths of this book and South Riding: Holtby makes you feel how bad things are but not in that impossibly bleak way that turns the book into blatant polemic. At the same time, she doesn't trivialize the badness by giving an easy solution or making everything all right at the end.

In sum, I strongly recommend this book. I certainly didn't know it when I started out, but I ended up leaving the best of my Persephone purchases for last.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

I'm declaring this International Winifred Holtby Week

What? It's precisely as legitimate as "National Soyfoods Month".

I didn't mean to read two books by Winifred Holtby in a row; it only happened because the one was so expensive and the other was so cheap. The first one I bought was at Persephone Books, but I forgot it one rushed Sunday morning and ended up buying this one from a bargain books shop, because it was the cheapest option of the books I thought sounded decent.

The blurb on the back is misleading; it's all Sarah Burton is a determined schoolteacher... Robert Carne stands for everything she hates... Yet she finds herself drawn to him... This doesn't really sound like it deserves being called a "masterpiece" twice in the pull-quotes. But it turns out the quotes are right and the synopsis is wrong.

I am convinced that Sarah Burton and Robert Carne can only be called the main characters insofar as we're all programmed to view a man and a woman with a romantic connection as the "main characters" of whatever book they happen to inhabit. South Riding is about a whole community -- there is a six page character list in the front of the book and nearly every one of those names has a little plot of his or her own to act out. Oh sure, the conclusion of the book, the last couple of chapters, are infused with the emotions that connect Robert and Sarah; but I insist that this book is not actually, really about them but about those six pages of characters who make up the inhabitants of the fictional South Riding.

And Holtby makes you care about all these people. Each chapter is like a vignette, with a different character at its center (there's an omniscient narrator rather than being written in the first person, but each chapter has a definite shift in perspective). At first I found this a little uneven but that didn't last long. Not even I could charge through this book, because at the end of each chapter you know the next one will shift, and I often wanted to just sit and digest whatever I just read. Very often on my train ride I would put the book away early.

Holtby is a really gorgeous writer, and again this was something that built up for me as I read. She has the knack of telling tragic stories without making them bleak. Even when love leads to suffering, you can still really feel that love, the good intentions at the heart of a bad situation.

It's hard to pick quotes (partly because I wasn't particularly good about marking them in the book -- oh Kindle!) but here's an inadequate taste. When I looked back at the sections I remembered being breathtaking, I had a hard time picking something that would work out of context.
For though, apart from the death of young Roy Carbery, she had suffered less from the war than many women, seen less of it, remained less keenly conscious of its long-drawn catastrophe, the farther it receded into the past, the less bearable its memory became. With increasing awareness every year she realised what it had meant of horror, desperation, anxiety, and loss to her generation. She knew that the dead are most needed, not when they are mourned, but in a world robbed of their stabilising presence. Ten million men, she told herself, who should now have been between forty and fifty-five, our scientists, our rulers, our philosophers, were mud and dust, and the world did ill without them.
I first found out about Winifred Holtby from that disappointing book about the First World War and single women; Holtby's childhood sweetheart came back from France unable to live a stable life, and Holtby herself died, never having married, at only 37.

South Riding is a real gem, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all of you. I will be reporting back on The Crowded Street... shortly.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

In which I review a book that was not for me on every level

The kid-lit thing is usually Alice's beat, but when The Mysterious Benedict Society was on Kindle sale for 99¢ I couldn't say no. Ironically, the first time I came across the book was when I picked it up at a Goodwill, where it was also 99¢. FATE.

I know I'm wildly inconsistent as far as warning you about spoilers, but I want to discuss some of the "secrets" of this book, so if you want to find out what's so mysterious about Benedict for yourself, you might want to skip this post.

Not THAT mysterious Benedict! (I crack myself up)

The Mysterious Benedict Society seems to have been produced for the precocious "smart kids" of elementary schools everywhere. Its heroes are a group of misunderstood gifted children with various special abilities. In a world where the vast majority of adults and children are being brainwashed via TV and (quaintly enough) radio, only clever Reynie, acrobatic Kate, stubborn Constance, and Sticky, who remembers almost everything he's ever come across, can save humanity from a mad scientist.

I liked the four members of the Society, and I thought the book did a good job of highlighting their various strengths without being too tidy about the diversity factor. I did not guess Constance's secret strength until it was revealed at the very end. The children's sad backgrounds were well-done too, I thought, and when Kate was reunited with her father I may have been a little choked up.

There was a lot about the book that felt sort of homey and classic to me; surely the "adults don't pay attention to kids or give them their due" business is about the hoariest chestnut in the box (or wherever hoary chestnuts would hang out). When I was a kid, I got to join Gifted classes (when I attended schools that had them), and our Weekly Readers always featured kids who'd done amazing things and got to meet the president or whatever. The 90s were really into celebrating overachieving kids; so much so that I actually thought I was sort of a slacker because I wasn't on track to graduate college at 16. So, personally, the idea that all adults are dumb clods who don't pay attention to kids never rang true with me; but apparently it's still going strong.

Going a little further down the "I'm an old curmudgeon" trail, I was struck by the way much of the dialogue in this book sounds like it was written for a sitcom.
"A canary in a coal mine?" Constance mumbled without looking up.
     Sticky failed to notice Reynie's warning look. "Oh yes-- miners used to bring canaries with them to gauge oxygen levels in the mine. If the canary died, they knew the oxygen was running out and they'd better get out of there."
     "If the canary died?" Constance repeated.
     Sticky looked suddenly regretful.
     "That was perhaps an unfortunate comparison," Reynie said.
"Whatever happened to asking?" Sticky said. "Whatever happened to please?"
Maybe this particular aspect only struck me because it's been all 19th century, all the time around here lately; but I stand by my reaction that this is rather ironic given that TV is one of the villains of the book.

So overall, I thought the book was fun if decidedly part of the books-for-the-smart-kids genre. But I can't say that I would whole-heartedly recommend it for any child of my acquaintance and that's because of a bewildering moral hole in the center of the story. I feel like an awful bore just writing that sentence but it must be done. I would not buy this book as a gift or recommend it to a child.

I know what you're thinking, and I do not care
 The book sort of sits on the line between sci-fi and fantasy, in that the villain uses some sort of crazy machine to broadcast subliminal messages, but only those who have an unusual love of the truth can resist them. At one point in the story, our heroes, who are embedded as spies, are instructed to cheat in order to get ahead and penetrate the secret organization faster. Reynie rightly struggles with this; he even wonders whether the message could be a fake. Later, when he has cheated and lied even further, he wonders whether he really can have such an "unusual love of the truth" after all. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and... nothing. The kids accomplish their mission, they go home, and they're all rewarded with family reunions; cheating and lying were apparently the right things to do. On a purely functional level, it's pretty bizarre that the author would raise these (really rather thorny) moral issues and hint at how they could affect the plot in very promising ways (I was especially intrigued by the possibility that the cheating instruction could be phoney). Going further, I think it's baloney to endow "unusual love of the truth" with near-magical qualities and then write off any possible negative effects of cheating and lying on that love of the truth. "Love of the truth" therefore appears to be some kind of inherent quality, possibly linked to intelligence or possibly just genetic, and unaffected by actual actions or choices made. That's problematic for me, particularly in a book where, again, "love of the truth" is being upheld as a heroic trait.

I have one last minor quibble.
That morning, as they'd said their good-byes over breakfast, Mr Benedict had pointed out that if they said "Binnud Academy" aloud, it would remind them his thoughts were with them always.
Okay, I have said "Binnud Academy" aloud about twenty times and I don't get it. It... has... some of the same sounds as "Benedict"? If you hate me for panning this book you are welcome to go ahead and think I'm a moron now. I was also unimpressed by "Ledroptha Curtain" as a villain's name. "Let drop the curtain" is almost painfully clumsy -- the author should have just named him "Percy Glyde". Much more repellant.