Category Archives: reviews

What I’m reading now

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

This story of a young girl in Nazi Germany during World War II was the other great historical novel that I read at the end of last year, cover to cover in one go on a transatlantic flight. The most important thing I can tell you about it may be that even though the narrator tells you how the book will end on page 22, and reminds you a couple more times during the course of the book, I still had no power to stop tears streaming down my face at the end.

There are two big ideas in this book. The first is about the dangerous and beautiful power of story telling, and the way story shapes action, for better or for worse. The second, and more interesting, is about the consequences of these actions. The heroes of this book perform with the best of intentions acts which sometimes have very good ends, and sometimes very tragic. It struck me today as a result of a conversation about something quite different, that Zusak’s attention to this problem of our actions and their results may be derived from the way Hannah Arendt connects freedom to action. The characters are only free when they act, when Eric Vandenburg protects Hans Huberman from battle, when Hans gives bread to a prisoner from Dachau, when Leisel Meminger writes a book in the basement.

This book commands us to do good even in the worst circumstances, not because doing good will change the world and make it good, but because doing good and not just thinking good, knowing good, and believing good, is the only way to be free. In a culture that believes anything is possible if you only try hard enough, this message may resound as pessimistic, but I found it intensely hopeful.

What I’m reading now

Sarah Dunant, In the Company of the Courtesan.

I read a fair amount of rather middling historical fiction in 2007, trying to figure out what worked for me, why, and why not, but two wonderful novels I read at the end of the year made up for all the previous suffering I did for my Art. The second, I’ll write about in my next post (which will be soon, I promise) but the first is Sarah Dunant’s tale of the dwarf Bucino, and his life as companion to the talented courtesan, Fiammetta, in sixteenth-century Rome and Venice.
Why did this work? First of all, I felt that Dunant has an excellent period sense which is beautifully conveyed through her writing. I found the world she created entirely satisfying and convincing. I know just enough about the period to be tiresomely opinionated, but Dunant won me over from the first page. The mood she created reminded me very much of novels like Helle Hasse’s The Scarlet City or Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion.
The other great strength of this novel is Dunant’s main character, Bucino. He is a sidekick in the drama that is Fiammetta’s life, and he knows and accepts he’s a sidekick, but Dunant pulls him out of his ancillary role into the spotlight. The story is about his development as a human being, how he comes to term with the fact he is a dwarf, how he learns to love and to live for himself and not always through others, the sacrifices he makes, and the price he pays. The dramatic and exciting events that happen over the course of the novel serve as catalysts for the development of this memorable and appealing character.

Carol Shields

For my birthday, my sister gave me Eleanor Wachtel’s Random Illuminations, a collection of interviews Wachtel did with Carol, and letters Carol wrote to her, beautifully introduced in a generous and thoughtful essay by Wachtel called, “Scrapbook of Carol.” I was wary at first. Knowing too much about an author can put you right off otherwise beloved books. But I dove in. Depsite her Pulitzer and her Governor General’s award, I think she is a hugely underestimated author.

I have always identified with Carol’s heroines on some deep, emotional, slightly embarrassing and not fully expressible level, an identification encouraged by a few surface similarities, self-cultivated to a degree. I think the first novel of hers I read was Swann, given to me by my mother, and though I was not at the time, like its Sarah Maloney, a single women teaching at the University of Chicago, now I am. I have insufficient shelf space, but two copies of The Republic of Love, neither of which I can give away, because one is signed by Carol and the other, a paperback, has a photo of Fay, its heroine, exactly as I imagine her. It was only after reading it that I started photographing the stone and painted mermaids I found on travels through Europe, but now I can’t stop. And then there’s Beth, with her deep interest in medieval women saints and her involvement with —

So I admit that after reading Random Illuminations, that sickly over-identification has transferred itself to Carol as well. I am willing to grant that there may be others than just the two of us who lived life through books as children. But how many other children have thought about the peculiar problem of seeing through their noses? From Random Illuminations:

When I was a child, I used to wonder why, when I looked sideways, I could see through my nose. This was a big secret, and I didn’t tell anyone else because I kept looking at other people who had perfectly ordinary noses, without this odd phenomenon. I thought, I can’t possibly ask this question, so I lived with the mystery.

And all these years, I thought I was the only one who noticed that.

For all I learned about Carol, I didn’t discover as much that was new about her books as I thought I might But that is probably to be expected. When Wachtel asks Carol what she discovered about Jane Austen’s when she wrote her biography of Austen, Carol replies that she learned you “can’t really look to a writer’s novels to decipher a writer’s life.” It seems the reverse is also true.

Tolkien and Beowulf … in 3D

I let my son persuade me to take him to see Beowulf this weekend, and truth be told I didn’t need too much persuading when I found out that Neil Gaiman was involved with the screenplay. I’m not going to talk much about the technical aspects of the film, except that it reminded me of how my father told me a long time ago that one day computer animation would be used to make movies with lifelike people. I thought he was mad — this was over twenty years ago, we’d barely moved from Pong to Pacman (perhaps I exaggerate), and at my house we owned a Commodore 64. Some might say we haven’t quite reached the “lifelike” part, but we’re closer than I could have imagined then.

What interests me is the story. As someone who often teaches Beowulf, the poem, I was curious to see how it might be translated to film. I don’t find it an easy poem. A rare remnant of a lost cultural world, it points outward to so many vanished histories and tales that it feels incomplete. Its narrative seems episodic; the scenes with Grendel and his mother are disconnected from the final battle with the dragon. How would modern audiences respond? The first thing that struck me was that what has prepared audiences to appreciate this film is seeing JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series brought to the screen. Visualizing the world of the Rohirrim will allow audiences to accept the world of Heorot, of the Danes, Geats, and Frisians. And this is no accident since Tolkien’s Middle Earth was itself an attempt to work backwards from scraps found in Anglo-Saxon literature to a half-forgotten earlier world of elves, dwarves, and dragons that he found in elliptical and opaque fragments of ancient European literatures.

The movie is in dialogue with the poem; it purports to be the “true” story of Beowulf which the poem distorts with heroic praise. But it is a fantastical vision of truth. This is a very different Beowulf than the one we saw in The Thirteenth Warrior, the 1999 movie version of Michael Crichton’s very clever Eaters of the Dead, both of which attempt to rationalize the monsters, to give them a scientific or historical explanation, albeit in different ways. No, in this Beowulf the monsters are really real, and in this claim, I believe its authors are true to Tolkien’s vision.

Its authors are especially to be praised for the ethical question that is raised by these really real monsters, a question that is implicit in The Lord of the Rings and in almost every good guy/bad guy fantasy novel and movie, namely, what makes the good guys good and the bad guys bad, other than the fact that we are rooting for one side rather than the other? Why are Grendel and his mother bad and Beowulf good? Both sides live for violence and treasure, and attempt to kill and destroy the other. One could argue that Grendel attacks first, but his mother would probably counter that her kind lived in Denmark long before humans arrived, and since they have been hunted almost to extinction, they are the real victims. Beowulf, the character in the movie, recognizes this dilemma after the monsters are vanquished and he is at the height of his heroic reputation when he says, “We have become the monsters. There are no heroes anymore.” In a nation grappling with waterboarding and Abu Ghraib, it may be hoped this message will have resonance.

What I’m reading now

Steven Brust, The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.

I have to admit that my interests in the fantasy genre are both specific and narrow, hovering mostly in the fairy tale end of the fantasy spectrum and branching no further afield than Charles de Lint. I started as a child with Czech folk and fairy tales, like those collected by Karel Capek, moving through Andrew Lang’s rainbow as I grew older. But I forgot about them as I entered the dull slog of adolescence — we’re too old for fairy stories, right? — until I fell upon the Fairy Tale Series edited by Terri Windling when I was in graduate school. I pounce on each one the moment I see it and I have read most in the series by now. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin will probably always be my favourite, but there was one that proved elusive, Steven Brust’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, which was also the first in the series. I finally read it this weekend.

At first glance, apart from the Hungarian folk tale about how the gypsy Csucskári killed three dragons and rescued the sun, the moon and the stars that is told in stages throughout the book, it is hard to see why this novel belongs in the series. On the surface it is a story of five struggling artists sharing a studio as told by Greg, one of their number. By the end of the book, it looks like the five are going to put on a show, and Greg has finished a very large painting. Explicitly, it is a book about the creative process and Greg’s musings on the subject are as valid for writers as they are for artists. There is more to be learned about the craft of writing from this novel than from many a how-to book.

But it isn’t a book about every kind of artistic creation, whether in words or oils, and here’s where the fairy tale comes in. It is a book that argues for myth-making, mythopoeia, a genre far less in vogue when Brust published his novel in 1986 than it is now, in our Harry Potter, LotR world. Greg isn’t just painting any old thing; he’s painting the death of Uranus, the old god, at the hands of Apollo of the Sun and Artemis of the Moon, a tale that mirrors the folk story of Csucskári that comes from Greg’s Hungarian background. Brust shows how the real life struggles of his five artists gain life and expression through the myths of tale and image.

What I’m reading now

Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games.

Did you know that English literature as an academic discipline was invented in colonial India?

While schooboys in Britain were still having Latin and Greek beaten into their backsides, in British India the locals were being taught the classics of English literature, as a way to create a class of people with an appreciation for the culture of their northern rulers. And could this be the reason that two of the best examples of novels that promise to become classics of our time were written by people named Vikram? For I think the least interesting point of comparison between Seth’s A Suitable Boy and Chandra’s Sacred Games is their common Indian setting since the plots that unfold in each are so different. Much more interesting is the way they both felt like classics the moment I started reading them. By classics I mean novels that are widely popular in their own day and have the quality of writing, depth of theme, and breadth of vision to speak to each generation anew. I fully expect Sacred Games to be read by my great-grandchildren. I think a conscious or unconscious awareness of this kind of enduring appeal is what has earned the novels of these Vikrams comparisons to Tolstoy and Dickens, more than their intricate plots or their length.

Yes, I liked this book. And I would love to see it made into a movie, which is a first for me since I shun movies made from books I love. In fact, I’d like to see it filmed three different times. The first should be a big Hollywood blockbuster, fast-paced and dramatic. The second should be a meticulous BBC production in many, many parts so every scene and every line of dialogue of Chandra’s could be lovingly represented and we could savour it over months. And the last, of course, is a big, splashy Bollywood number with an intermission, and songs and dancing, and tragedy and despair, followed by love and a happy ending and everyone in the audience, men and women, crying.

Bob Dylan

I caught the final concert of the autumn tour last night at the Chicago Theatre. Elvis Costello opened (as did Amos Lee but I’m afraid I missed that part) and he was political, acoustic, and intense. I am a big Elvis fan from way back, mostly through my sister. When I hear him live or otherwise I always think of her and I am taken back to summers in North Hatley, covered in sand, munching popsicles, and listening to John Colapinto bang out “Watching the Detectives” and “Girls Talk.”

However Bob is a taste I have acquired in my old age, along with olives, JRR Tolkien, and men with beards. In my pathetically minute experience (compared with real Bob fans), last night’s concert was the best one I had ever attended. He started out strong and got better and better all night. But, as someone else remarked in a review of an earlier concert on this tour, no matter how carried away I was by the music and the experience, there was a moment when I paused and just thought, “Oh my God, that’s Bob Dylan up there. That’s really Bob Dylan and here I am, in the same room.”

Historical Fiction Sites

I want to write soon about Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games but it is taking me a long time to finish it, not because I am not enjoying it, but because it is so wonderful that I am savouring it slowly, like a box of Vosges truffles that you eat one a night for fear they’ll be gone too soon. So in the meantime, I thought I would list a few of the websites discussing historical fiction that I have found and liked over the past few months. I am doing this because many of these I did *not* find through a simple google search, but rather by tracking my way through a forest of links.

The first place to start is the Historical Novel Society. They publish reviews of recent historical novels (in print, for members) and have a twice yearly magazine. They also hold a yearly conference that seems to move between the States and the UK.

My favourite site for historical fiction, however, is the blog, Reading the Past, which is maintained by HNS reviewing stawart, Sarah Johnson. She is a university librarian with a knowledge of historical fiction that is both deep and wide-ranging, and I have spent many fun hours digging through her archives. She keeps track of reviews, deals, book covers, gossip, and much more.

I am intrigued by another blog, C.W. Gortner’s Historical Boys, which plans to concentrate on men who write historical novels. I am enjoying his author interviews so far. And how can I resist the blog of someone who has written a novel about Juana la Loca? What a wonderful figure to explore.

Historical Fiction is a bulletin board/web forum whose members discuss historical novels about all times and places. They also have a section where they post reviews. I haven’t spent much time here, but I like the breadth of what they talk about.

That’s probably enough for today.

What I’m reading now

Doris Lessing

I woke up to good news this morning.

By coincidence, I recently finished rereading a couple of my favourite novels by Lessing, so I am vividly aware of all the reasons why this Nobel prize is so richly deserved. One of these was the volumes that make up The Diaries of Jane Somers, the tales that Lessing famously first submitted under a pseudonym to her usual publishers. They rejected it. It’s a story that, depending on temperament, either cheers or depresses beginning novelists. Rereading the novel as I did, right after The Golden Notebook, it is impossible not to recognize it as Lessing’s work. The relationship between Jane and Joyce, her boss at the shiny upscale magazine where they both work, in the Diaries mirrors and develops that of Ella with her magazine boss, Patricia Brent in the Golden Notebook. They’re both books about women, about how women work and love and tend friendship and despair and grow.

But by saying Lessing writes books about women, and that is why I love her, is putting her in a box too small to hold her. The Golden Notebook is a perfect example of how she evades simple characterization. It is a great feminist novel, and has been hailed as such. It is also a novel about Africa, a novel about mental illness, a novel about post-war disillusionment with Communism. Any of these alone would have been a triumph. But all of these subjects that make up the preoccupations of Anna Wulf are married to an exciting experiment in form, the five notebooks and the novella, “Free Women,” through which Anna attempts to knit back together the fragments of her shattered self, to revision herself as an individual living in society.

Som of the reports of Lessing’s prize are dwelling on her underwhelmed, to say the least, reaction to the honour, like this report from the Associated Press. But I thought this part was great:

Lessing brightened when a reporter asked whether the Nobel would generate interest in her work.
“I’m very pleased if I get some new readers,” she said. “Yes, that’s very nice, I hadn’t thought of that.”

It’s about the books and the readers, not the prize. I like Doris Lessing.