Monday, 21 December 2009

Nine Nights by Bernardo Carvalho

Nine Nights was a random library pick, and as much as I can't think why I picked it up in the first place, I'm also finding it very difficult to write about! I finished it a few weeks ago, and although I've been thinking about it since then, I still can't produce many coherent thoughts about it. I'm only writing this now because it has to go back to the library tomorrow so it won't be sat staring at me reminding me I need to write about it!

The book centres around a young ethnologist, Buell Quain, who went off on an expedition to Brazil to learn about the Kraho tribe of Indians. But during his time out there, something affected him so deeply, he committed suicide, leaving a series of suicide notes for his friends and family, all contradicting each other, so it is never clear why he did what he did. One said he was ill, one said he had been betrayed and other similar life changing events. However, although this event is central to the story, it's not really what the book is about. The book is narrated by a man who is trying to discover the truth about this suicide, and it has become an obsession to him. He believes there was an eighth letter which will give the truth of the events, and it is this he is determined to find.

Our narrator is clearly obsessed with this man, although it is not until the end of the book that we discover why, and this itself throws light on the sanity of the narrator and how much of what he believes is fiction. In fact, the line between fact and fiction makes up a large part of the theme of this book. The narrator himself does everything you would expect of someone trying to discover the truth, and more, but it is clear he is never going to discover the truth, if it is even there to be found. In fact the only first hand account the narrator has, which is interspersed in segments throughout the novel, finishes by saying

"What I'm telling you is a combination of what he told me and what I have imagined, and so in the same way, I'll let you imagine everything I can't bring myself to tell you."

From the information our narrator managed to piece together, it is clear that Quain immersed himself totally in the lives of the tribe he was studying, and it is implied that it was something he did, or that happened to him that affected his mental state but just as the narrator thinks he may be coming close, it all slips away from him again. We never really find out what happened to Buell Quain, and the book feels just as foggy at the start as it did at the beginning. The first page does sort of leave a clue for this though, when it says

"You are entering a place where truth and lies no longer have the meanings they had outside, just ask the Indians. Anything. Whatever crosses your mind. And tomorrow, when you wake up, ask them again. And then the day after tomorrow. Each time the same question. And every day you'll get a different answer. the truth is lost among all the contradictions and absurdities."

Foggy is a good word for how I felt on finishing this book. And it still feels like I'm writing this through a fog. I don't know if that's how it was supposed to feel, or if I just didn't get it, but I suspect it's the latter. Having said that, I enjoyed reading it, I just think there was so much about it I didn't pick up on!

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is only the second Sarah Waters book I've read, the first being Fingersmith, which I thought was fantastic. I enjoyed this too, I just don't think it quite lived up to Fingersmith. This book is set in England just after WWII, and focuses very much on the changing attitudes of the English people towards class and society, with the advent of the new Labour government.

The Ayres family, consisting of Mrs Ayres and Roderick and Caroline, her two unmarried adult children live at Hundreds Hall, a crumbling, dilapidated country house that has definitely seen better days. In fact those better days are described in the first chapter by a small boy attending a function at the house with his nursemaid mother. When the book moves to the post-war period, this same boy is a doctor (Dr Faraday), and is called out to the house in an official capacity. Although he is originally called out to treat the parlourmaid, he soon ingratiates himself with the family, particularly Caroline although it is Roderick he ends up treating, for war injuries. However, during a party, the family dog attacks a small child, and from that point on, the family all report strange goings on at the house, that at first glance appear supernatural although this is never confirmed. At first these events are put down to mental issues, easy because the first person they manifest themselves on is Roderick, who already has a 'nervous problem' from the war, but each as each family member in turn becomes unable to explain what is happening to them, they become more and more convinced it is supernatural.

Dr Faraday acts as the voice of reason throughout this book, and each time a new occurrence is described to him, he manages to provide a reasonable, rational argument for it. At first he is sympathetic, but as the novel progresses he becomes more and more didactic and inconsiderate. Dr Faraday actually becomes quite an unlikeable character. He starts as a man who seems to have worked hard to get where he is, under difficult circumstances, and seems to be helpful towards a family fallen on hard times, but he morphs into a single-minded, selfish and close minded man. He embarks on a relationship with Caroline, which at first seems genuine, but again as the novel progresses, seems to be for ulterior motives and actually shows a pretty grim side of his character.

I read a library copy of this, and the book is classified as a ghost story, although there is never definitively a ghost in the story. There is definitely a suggestion of supernatural activity and the occupants of Hundreds Hall all, in their turn, come to believe in the presence of a ghostly presence in their house. In fact, the latter part of the novel seems to talk of the house itself as a character, its the house itself producing the delusions (if that's what they are). That 'If', is the crux of this story. Even after 500 pages, it is left very ambiguous at the end as to what actually happened at Hundreds Hall. Dr Faraday's conversations and musings seem to imply that it is family delusions, from a family who are struggling to come to terms with the changing class structures of England. But there are elements that even a rational mind would find difficult to explain, apart from Dr Faraday, but his actions in the latter stages of the book make him a very unreliable narrator anyway. And this is all narrated by him so what exactly are we supposed to believe? I could go on and on with the questions I was left with, but I'll leave it that.

As to whether I liked this book, the answer would be yes. I was gripped and wanted to know what would happen. As I said at the start, it's not as good as Fingersmith, but as I haven't read any others, I don't know how it compares to Sarah Water's other books. I'd have liked this to be slightly less ambiguous at the end. I usually like ambiguity, but I think there was just a little too much here.

Friday, 18 December 2009

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I picked up People of the Book mainly because I thought Year of Wonders was fantastic and I wanted to read something else by Brooks. I enjoyed this too, possibly not quite as much as Year of Wonders, but not far off. It is almost two different stories, although the book of the title connects everything.

The book itself is the Sarajevo Haggadah, which resurfaces in Bosnia after years of being thought missing/lost, and Australian book conservationist Hanna is called in to assess the condition and make any necessary restoration to the book before it is put on display. Approximately half the novel is narrated by Hanna, as she attempts to discover the book's history from the tiny fragments of debris left in the book, such as a butterfly wing, a hair, salt stains and a wine stain. Although these discoveries lead Hanna to some knowledge of the book's whereabouts, a lot of what she concludes is just supposition based on the area she can place the book to, and what she knows or discovers about life at that times, particularly for Jews, since it is a Jewish book. There is also Hanna's personal story that develops over the course of her work with the book, including a turbulent relationship with her mother, but I actually found this the least interesting part of the book.

However, that is only half the story. As readers, we are treated to a lot more information than Hanna is party to and these were the most interesting parts of the book for me. We read detailed accounts of Jewish persecution throughout the ages, and in each account we learn how and why the book disappeared, so that it would be saved for future generations. We move from fifteenth century Spain to seventeenth century Venice, nineteenth century Vienna and finally onto twentieth century Bosnia. Each time, the book is under threat, rescued and then disappears whilst mass persecution of Jews goes on in all its horrific details.

The historical chapters are written beautifully and really evoke the sights and sounds of the day, and the fear that the Jewish population in each place lived under. Most of them are totally fictionalised, but it is easy to imagine them being true and I feel fairly certain that lives were as described for a lot of persecuted Jews, and that people took extreme risks to save precious books and such like. And the book demonstrates with absolute clarity that although methods may change, persecution of minority races, particularly Jewish pogroms are not a new thing and the same situation repeats itself throughout history. The justifications used are different, but it all had the same end. Death and destruction, right up until 1990's Yugoslavia.

It was an interesting read, although I did find myself wishing that Hanna could have known the detailed historical stories that we were told, but I also thought it pushed the boundaries of possibility that she knew as much as she did! I also found it really interesting to read the notes that explained which stories were based on fact and which were totally fictional. The Haggadah does exist, and knowledge about it's creation and whereabouts for large chunks of time are sketchy, to say the least!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Spuds, Spam and Eating for Victory by Katherine Knight

Obviously, Spuds, Spam and Eating for Victory is a book about rationing during WWII. I probably didn't really need to say that! It gives a fantastic overview of rationing, including the details of setting it up, running what was necessarily a quite complex system, and the effect it had on the population as well as the basic details of what each person was entitled to. I learnt all sorts about rationing, from what was rationed and what wasn't to other methods set up to feed people and how much food was produced at home. For example I never realised that bread and potatoes were not rationed until after the war, and that children had an extra sweet ration at Christmas!

Rationing is something I knew very little about (until I read this book), apart from the fact that it existed and that it was what it said. It rationed the amount of food available to each person. Oh and I knew it worked through a system of coupons. But that was it. This book starts by listing the actual quantities of each restricted food allowed, and I was finding myself trying to work out how that fits with the amount of food I would use. The only one that surprised me was the sugar ration because, at 12oz per person per week, I thought that was quite a lot! But I am assuming there was a lot more home baking then (at least more than I do). The only thing that it was impossible to do this for was the meat ration, because this was sold by price, and with inflation and decimalisation it's virtually impossible to know what this would equate to today. That fact though did bring it home to me how fair rationing was. Sold by price, it was a choice with the meat whether it was a small amount of good quality meat, or a larger amount of a cheaper cut. And I never realised that the ration was different, so that some specified workers got extra cheese, mainly manual trades.

This book is really just full of really interesting information, not just about quantities, but how people actually made their food stretch, how the government spread the word (through radio broadcasts and leaflets mainly), what people were encouraged to do and similar. I also thought it was really enlightening that the author used a lot of personal accounts and reminiscences to tell the story of rationing, and it seems as if everyone really got into the swing of things and did what they could for the war effort and the good of the country. I've tried really hard to imagine it, and I just find it difficult to imagine that a whole nation would accept something so life changing now!

I think that was the most striking element of this book for me. I loved all the facts and details about rationing, but it was the community spirit and willingness of everybody to be involved and do their best. And all the voluntary organisations that either developed or expanded because of rationing, the Women's Institute being the most high profile of these. And there was some stuff that just made me chuckle, almost at the absurdity, but more the ingenuity of it all! For example

"In towns there was a pig bin in almost every street, where you were expected to put food waste-though a keen-eyed inspector checked that there was nothing that could have been consumed by humans. One hopes his sense of smell was less acute than his eyesight."

I finished this book with a sense of amazement that we pulled together so much, with, according to this author at least, very little complaint, and a feeling that the less waste ethic is something we could use today, although perhaps not to the extreme of pig bins! And that possibly a little more self sufficiency and thought about our food wouldn't do us any harm.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Black Juice by Margo Lanagan

Earlier in the week I wrote about Singing my Sister Down, the first story from Black Juice, this collection. Although it is undoubtedly the best story in the collection, I enjoyed all eleven stories a lot and I am glad I read this book.

All the stories are set in a world that we think we recognise, but doesn't seem quite familiar. It's either supernatural elements, merging of cultures or bizarre events that don't happen in the 'real' world yet we are compelled to accept as reality for that particular story. For example, one is told by a group of elephants who break free and go searching for their old master because they believe something terrible must have happened to him for him to leave them. The strangeness of this story comes not only from the fact that the story is narrated by an elephant, but also the unfamiliarity of the world they describe where they attempt to rescue the man.

Also contained in the book is a story about a serial killer who is killing the upper classes (I think), who seem to make a habit of dressing up as clowns and performing. The killer is in league with another person, but there is a surprising and disturbing twist to this story. It also is the only story I think I've ever read where the sympathy lies with the killer! Another one is concerned with a funeral in a futuristic and toxic world where every journey is a major undertaking, and yet another deals with angels helping a boy see what he must do after the death of his grandmother. But the angels are not like any usually represented in literature. He's frightened of them for a start!

There were two main things that struck me about these stories. The first was that the majority of them seemed to be concerned with death, or change and if there is a thread running through the stories, it would be that the world is a huge force and impacts upon the lives of people who live on it. I think these stories try to get across the viewpoint that nature and the world will impact upon individual lives. There really is no getting away from this. The other thing I keep thinking is that it is what is not said, or explained, in these stories that is more important than what is. It is the very strangeness and unfamiliarity of these stories that makes us think about the world as a whole and how people treat each other and the world, and how the smallest of decisions can have an impact on lives.

These stories make you think. I found myself constantly trying to imagine the wider world in which the events in each story take place, and what sort of world that could be. As in Singing my Sister Down, each story has just enough about it that it is familiar to us, but then goes on to describe a world that we can't understand, although we may understand the human emotions brought about by the events.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Mark The Spot

What items have you ever used as a bookmark? What is the most unusual item you’ve ever used or seen used?

I'd love to have a large collection (or any collection really) of bookmarks to pick and choose from whenever I start a new book, but unfortunately, I don't. I do possess a couple but the only one I use regularly is one my daughter made me. It's just so much easier to grab the first bit of paper available, usually receipts, and use that! Laziness and disorganisation really, maybe that's something I ought to remedy and fulfill my desire to have lots of pretty bookmarks and actually use them! I'll keep you posted on that one!

And I've never used anything unusual, or even seen anyone else using anything unusual. I think I might keep a look out now though to see what I can spot. What other people use as bookmarks is not something I'm nosy about. Much more interested in what they're actually reading. And for completely useless information, my current books are marked with a train ticket, my daughters homemade bookmark, and the information leaflet from a packet of painkillers. It's almost a bit of an insight into what I was doing when I started each book!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Short Story:Singing my Sister Down by Margo Lanagan

Singing my Sister Down is the first story in the collection entitled Black juice (full review to come soon). It's undoubtedly the best story, and also the one that's haunted me for weeks since I read it. The basic premise is that a young girl has been sentenced to die for the murder of her husband, and that execution takes the form of a slow swallowing by a tar pit, surrounded by her family, whilst the victim's family look on. It takes her all day to be fully swallowed by the tar, and her family accompany her and, very strangely, almost have a party, with food, chat and singing!

Now whilst this could be seen as too unrealistic to be disturbing, the way it is written makes it seem all too real. It doesn't have a definitive setting, although there seems to be a chief, which would suggest some kind of African culture, but also flutes and guns and crabs which would suggest a more western setting. This mix of cultures, and also mixing the familiar with the unknown is what makes this story disturbing. Any concept of; this couldn't happen here or this wouldn't happen now is not present. It is just an event, with no definitive time or place so we are left totally to focus on the feelings of the family.

The story is seen through the eyes of the younger brother of the condemned girl, and it is clear that we are supposed to feel the confusion, bafflement and horror that he feels. But although the story is narrated by him, we do get to see the event through the eyes of various family members. We feel the panic and fright that Ik feels, as well as the pain her mother feels.

But although the story itself disturbed me greatly, it is the attitudes of the spectators that give this story it's power. Although narrated by the young boy, the joy and party atmosphere of the spectators to this bizarre execution is terrifying.

"Everything went slippery in my mind after that. We were being watched so hard! Even though it was quiet out here, the pothering wind brought crowd-mumble and scraps of music and smoke our way, so often that we couldn't be private and be ourselves."

"and they tell me I made an awful noise that frightened everybody right up to the chief and that the husbands parents thought I was a very ill-brought up boy for upsetting them instead of allowing them to serenely and superiorly watch justice be done for their lost son."

I could say lots more about this, but it is only a short story, and I should leave some of it for you to read for yourselves! And it is worth reading, but very disturbing!

Friday, 4 December 2009

Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

Cold Earth was a random library pick, it was just there on the library bookshelves and the cover looked attractive. Shouldn't judge a book by its cover, I know, but I did read the blurb too, before I took it home! It's the story of six people who go on an archaeological dig in Iceland to try and discover the fate of the ancient Icelanders who lived there. Five of them are archaeologists, but one, Nina, is a literary student, and friend of the expedition leader, who is just kind of along for the ride!

The story is told through the characters own narratives, the first of these, and by far the largest portion of the book being Nina's narrative. Nina is a strange character, present on the dig for her own personal reasons, to get some time away, although totally prepared to work (although refuses to touch any human remains,which I would have thought was pretty central to discovering the fate of a race of people)! We are told early on that she has previously suffered from some mental health issues, and it is not long before she is seeing and hearing things in the night, which she is convinced are the ghosts of the Icelanders objecting to their graves being desecrated. This, and her obsession with the poor quality of the food provided by Yianni (the group organiser), soon puts her at odds with all the other team members.

As we hear from the other members of the group in turn, it becomes clear that although the rest of them share an interest in archeology, they are conflicting characters in other ways, and that they are all present in Iceland for very different reasons. Personal conflicts arise, but these are overshadowed by a much bigger issue, that of isolation and issues in the outside world. Fairly early on in Nina's narrative, we are made aware that there appears to be a mystery virus sweeping the world, which the group are keen to keep updated on, via the laptop and satellite connection available to them. The news gets constantly worse as the time progresses, and then as the connection is lost, the group start to panic more and more that the world is devastated and they will never get home.

The feeling of desperation comes across in the narratives of the other members of the group. As each person has their say, the narratives get shorter and shorter and more urgent. All the narratives are written as letters home, but as their situation worsens, the letters become more like last letters, and less hopeful and more desperate. How and if the situation is eventually resolved is something you'll have to read the book to find out, but I'll just say that I thought it was a bit of a quick finish.

I really enjoyed this book. I thought the format of individual letters was a brilliant way to tell a story, and seeing the relationships between characters through their own perspectives and each other's was really interesting. It was also interesting to see the attitudes towards Nina's conviction that there are supernatural elements at present on the island from the other group members develop and how the different characters justified it to themselves. And just generally seeing the relationships between them deteriorate as their situation worsens, and their very different attitudes to the situation they find themselves in. Some were immediately negative, some more positive, but they definitely come across as a cross section of society in their reactions, which I'm sure was intentional.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Me Cheeta by James Lever

Me Cheeta is the sort of book I would normally avoid. Books 'written' by animals don't usually appeal to me. And I did avoid this one for a while, but finally gave into pressure from various people telling me I should read this. And I am still trying to decide what i actually thought about it, because although I enjoyed it whilst I was reading it, and at no point considered not finishing it, I didn't feel much of an urge to keep picking it up, and was quite happy to read other things whilst reading this.

As most people probably know, this was supposedly written by the chimp who starred in the Tarzan films in the 30's and 40's, and is his autobiography. Written as a 'tell all' memoir, starting with his childhood Cheeta talks about his 'rehabilitation' from the jungle, his career in films and what happened to him after his fairly brief stardom ended. Peopled with the movie stars of the day, Cheeta talks very frankly about what goes on during the glittering social scene of the film stars. Sex and drugs feature highly, obviously, although in a much more matter of fact and almost bored way than if this was told from a human perspective. From Cheeta's perspective, the debauchery present is seen purely as animal behaviour, and therefore the author can get away with saying a lot more than would be said in a normal autobiography, as the chimp sees no taboo. A lot of the humour in this book comes from the way Cheeta describes human behaviour, the one that sticks most in my mind being his description of marriage;

"He had one of those lifelong monogamous arrangements (his third) going on at this time. These arrangements were sort of ritual periods of reduced sexual promiscuity, which the dreamers indulged in, often for years at a stretch, as a kind of relief from their natural state of undiscriminating sexual appetite"

The book is littered with comments like this that simultaneously illuminate the supposed differences between us and animals, yet show that we are not that much different, even if we profess to be! Cheeta's voice is genius at showing the horrible way we treat each other, and other animals. Another example is his insistence that in being taken from the jungle, brought to America and moved from cage to cage he is being rehabilitated and humanity is doing a good thing!

But as well as satirising the stars themselves, it is poking fun at the trend for writing celebrity biographies. A long paragraph at the start, where Cheeta is discussing what he wanted to call his autobiography made me chuckle, with him running through all the classic titles, such as My Life, My story, my loves or any combination of these., finishing with the following statement

"Who could possibly want another memoir by anyone? Let alone another ex-movie star's reminiscences? How presumptuous to assume that a celebrity's hoary old Hollywood war-stories could be of interest to anyone but himself!"

I think that sums up this book perfectly! A satire on Hollywood, both as an entity in itself and the individuals concerned. But also, a very touching story of friendship between human and animal even with the cruelty inflicted on them in the name of entertainment.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Bleak House (in bits)!

I've said before that over the years I've started to like Dickens less and less. As a teenager, I loved any that I read but I started to enjoy him less with each one I read, and the older I got! I really don't know why and I'd like to find out. So when I found THIS site that will send classic novels in the parts they would originally have been published in in serial form, I thought 'd give it a go! I've always wanted to try reading something the way it would originally have been published 'soap opera style', but its always been difficult to find out exactly where the cut off points were, and of course, if I do happen to get into this, there's less of a temptation to read ahead!

I'm hoping I might get a new found appreciation for Dickens this way, or at least decide once and for all that he's just not for me! One way or the other, it should prove an interesting experiment! So it's Bleak House, in bits, for the next forty weeks for me! Oh, wish me luck!