Monday, June 25, 2012

A Spark of life

Strangely enough, I have more short fiction to share with you today. I guess these are what would be called "novellas": The Driver's Seat and The Finishing School, both by Muriel Spark.

If I were at all smart, I would not be talking about two books in one post. It should be pretty obvious that I need all the material I can get these days; with my return to the US looming in the very near future, I've been reading more scholarly stuff and spending my time on the trains staring at the ads fretting (and frankly the future forecast looks like more of the same). The highlight of my bookly life lately has been recommending a book to The Manolo (!).

But it's best for you the reader if I talk about these two short books together, and I am all about you the reader and that's why you love me. Ahem.

The Driver's Seat is a creepy, creepy little story: there's a lot that's off and unsettling but I couldn't quite put it all together until the very end. Whereas...

The Finishing School is lower-key, featuring two characters who are obsessed with each other, and how their obsession grows and impacts the rest of the community. The Driver's Seat was first published in 1970, and The Finishing School in 2004. The Finishing School understandably has that little bit of unreality about the way it portrays its young adult characters. It's hard to put a finger on any particular scene or detail that's wrong; although the characters have cell phones and laptops it just doesn't quite feel organic. Really the effect is to make the time frame of the novel feel vague, which is not such a bad thing.

Reading these two novels... novellas... really brought out an interesting characteristic of Sparks' writing, which is the way she plays with the timeline and with what you know and don't know. For example, in The Driver's Seat, she states fairly early on that Lise will soon be found murdered. She doesn't hint; she states; it's not so much foreshadowing as foretelling. She does this in The Finishing School as well, and there she also will abruptly move into a scene with two characters discussing something whom you wouldn't expect together. Then the camera moves back, so to speak, and Sparks tells you that they're discussing the matter in bed, and they've been sleeping together for the last several weeks. It's an interesting technique, and I think it helped keep both these shortish stories moving.

The Driver's Seat is part of the Penguin "Modern Classics" series and has an introduction -- which is actually really good. Or maybe I'm just saying that because the author tells you to stop reading at a certain point if you don't know the story already. Thanks, introduction writer! It was one of the hard lessons I had to learn at some point in my grown-up reading career, that "introductions" despite the name are rarely any good for someone reading the book for the first time. Ok, maybe that's an exaggeration. But it's an exaggeration I stand by.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Oh hey, it's a book I read

I find it orders of magnitude more difficult to pick a book to read when I'm not currently reading something. Or maybe I should turn that around and say, when I'm in the middle of something I have no trouble at all queueing up three more books with a sense of enthusiasm. My favorite theory (of the five minutes I've spent thinking about it) is that it has to do with a perceived level of difficulty. When I'm currently reading something I'm aware that it doesn't actually take me that long to read a book, and I don't feel like I'm condemning myself to a potentially boring week every time I set a book on the stack. Whereas when my hands are empty, I'm picking something for right now, and right now I want something good. At such moments I am particularly susceptible to recommendations; the possibility of blaming someone else if the book turns out to be a stinker is always attractive...

As you may have guessed, I have recent experience with this dilemma. I got back from Paris (lovely if damp and intimidating) having finished the scholarly Women, Business and Finance in Nineteenth-Century Europe (predictably uneven and ultimately disappointing, although containing invaluable insights into national histories usually overlooked in the English literature). What to read, what to read. Nothing on my Amazon wish list looked any good of course. Finally a blog I read mentioned Evelyn Waugh's Scoop in a recommending kind of way, and off I went.

Sadly there is very little Waugh available on Kindle. As long as I'm complaining about this, I'll note also that Amazon has volumes 2-4 of Sigrid Undset's Master of Hestviken for Kindle... yes, 2-4. This is the kind of moment that makes me feel impatient with "OMG e-readers are killing books" articles. Don't worry, people; the sellers of e-readers are not in danger of making the experience too attractive. But: Waugh's complete stories are available, and for the sake of getting on with something, I bought it.

Now, short stories are not my favorite thing. The format lends itself to more insinuation and ambiguity than I usually like. Furthermore, I tend to think that collections of a novelist's short stories are a bit more for the completist or literary scholar than for Jane Reader. But although that latter assumption was more or less borne out, I did enjoy this quite a lot.

There are some really wicked little stories here, in which people are the victims of monumental irony. There are a couple are are simply howls of rage against contemporary social trends. There are also two chapters of an unfinished novel that are so good I was sad to remember it was unfinished. The sad thing about the Kindle is that it's difficult for me to go back and tell you anything more specific about the stories; but I enjoyed the collection.

After the unfinished/fragmentary works comes the juvenilia -- if there is a better argument against becoming a famous author than the possibility of having your juvenilia published, I don't know it. For the most part this stuff is not particularly good reading, although there is a pretty awesome introductory letter in which the (teenage?) Waugh congratulates himself on overcoming the handicap of a literary family to write a novel. There are no notes or anything on these pieces to indicate when they were written or how old he was when he wrote them, which I thought was disappointing. Sure, maybe there aren't dates attached to the manuscripts but surely some scholar out there has a theory and it would be better for the average reader to offer something rather than nothing.

So there we are; back on the book-horse. Although all this rain is really putting a cramp in my reading-on-train-platforms style.