Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: July 7th, 2005
Format: Hardcover, 385 Pages
Rating: ★★ To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the second greatest writer of his age after Rudyard Kipling, and George Edalji, a half-caste solicitor from Birmingham whose Parsi father became a vicar in a small Staffordshire village, would unexpectedly change English law and bring about the court of appeal in England. As Arthur rose to fame, taking his family out of the gentle poverty of Edinburgh, getting married, having children, establishing his career, George had far smaller ambitions. He wanted to be a solicitor. He kept his head down and studied, being a decent, not excellent, student. Yet his life was full of strife. His family received hateful and horrible anonymous letters. The local police did nothing, and in fact suspected George of persecuting his own family. Yet George kept his life on track, going to college and then working for a firm in Birmingham, finally setting up his practice and even publishing a guide on railway law. The persecution eventually stopped and life seemed ready to go on as normal. Until the animal rippings started. Animals were attacked so viciously that they had to be euthanized due to their wounds. The local police decided that George was behind these crimes. They had no evidence, no logic, and yet George ended up spending three years of his life in prison. All he wanted was to be pardoned and for his simple life to begin again. Yet it wouldn't. Therefore George took the only drastic measure he ever did in his whole life, he wrote to the creator of Sherlock Holmes asking for his help. Arthur had just suffered the loss of his wife while also feeling guilty that during the past ten years he had loved another and was just waiting for propriety's sake till the day he could make Jean his bride. He was at the end of his rope with waiting and here came George with something to distract him. Arthur was willing to play the detective for the first time in his life, and hopefully George would get his name cleared when they were done.
Arthur and George is one of those books that have been sitting on my shelf for ages. Every time I reorganize my books I pick it up and think that now will be the time I read it, and it inevitably gets hidden in the back behind Barrie and Baum until the next reorganization. It might have taken me a decade, but I finally got around to Arthur and George, a book that I think is better in the abstract. There's lyrical and evocative prose, there's eventually a plot you connect to, but in the end I was more than a little dissatisfied. The book starts with little vignettes of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji growing up. Quickly cutting back and forth between the two in a way that at first is interesting but almost a hundred pages in gets on your nerves for it's gimmickry. You're reading and reading and the one thought that keeps going through your head is "when is it going to start?" Because these little glimpses, no matter how many are piled on top of each other, do not a narrative make. When we finally move into the second part of the book you have had your fill of exposition and when you realize that Arthur and George have yet to meet you start to wonder why bother? There was even a part of me thinking Julian Barnes was using Conan Doyle as a lure and it's going to be a bait and switch all over again like P.D. James and Death Comes to Pemberley. I sincerely thought about just setting aside this book because I couldn't take another story supposedly about one thing and then being forced to endure something else. Luckily the historical record proves that these two men met, so I was willing to hold onto that and push through. And meet they did, and that part was good, that part was something, that part was an all too brief 122 pages that could still have used some editing. So in here, there is a story. It's short, there's too much fluff, but that little bit might just be worth it. Maybe.
Besides this constant tease of a plot hopefully emerging the writing has another serious flaw. It might be beautiful, but it is also flat. It's like the book is on a slow and even keel on every single page. There is nothing pushing the narrative forward and nothing to elicit interest, it just is. One reason I fear is this lack of focus. Barnes is so busy showing us just little glimpses of these two men's lives that he loses the ability to know what is and isn't important. There is no drama, no crescendo. George being set to prison is about as dramatic as his daily commute to work. Barnes dwells on weird and unnecessary details instead of those points which could build the story. For example, you'd think he'd spend time on the ripping of the animals, it is after all the major crime in the book. He might talk about the fear this infuses in the community, the importance of livestock in these people's lives, or the docility of pit ponies in particular, but he doesn't. Instead we get a far more detailed description of Arthur Conan Doyle getting an erection and having premature ejaculation issues the first time he kisses the woman who is to become his second wife. So in the context of this book the heinous crime of animal ripping is second to Arthur Conan Doyle's dick. So why did you write this book Julian Barnes? Because to me it seems that a miscarriage of justice wasn't as important as dragging down the legacy of a writer second only to Kipling in his time.
This flatness carries over into the characterization of these two men making me have problems with both. Firstly there's the problem with George. George Edalji is supposed to be the victim here. The man who lost years of his life for a miscarriage of justice. We should like him. We should feel his plight. We shouldn't be hoping that they just keep him locked up because he is an annoying pretentious ass. So the problem with George is that you don't like him. You're hoping that there's some twist, that he has a split personality, that he has some animus to him that doesn't make the highlight of his life writing a book on railway law! That he's freakin' Jekyll and Hyding us all and IS a cold blooded animal killers. But no. He is a shell of a person. And not in the, he endured great tragedy and there was only a shell left. No, he isn't a full person. He does his work, he gets decent grades, he blindly goes through life as a nobody. If it wasn't for someone taking against him he would have been born and died and no one would have noticed. I can't decide if making George this nonentity was a way in which Barnes is showcasing that the crime George was charged with needed to be judged on the evidence not on the man. But we still need to have some connection to this man. We have to care about his fate, not focusing on the criminal procedures of the day, and yes I'm experiencing some P.D. James flashbacks right now. But the worst characteristic, the ONLY characteristic of George is his naivety. He doesn't think that he will be convicted because he's innocent, he doesn't think he was persecuted because he's half-caste, because people aren't like that. Where did this blind optimism come from? Gaw, you're an idiot George, and for that you paid the price.
Yet the ignoramus that is George is nothing to how Barnes portrayed Conan Doyle. So now we're onto the Arthur problem if you're keeping score. If you know a bit about Conan Doyle a lot of his life story here will be repetitive. In order to break out of this Barnes makes the odd decision that he will tear down this legend. He will make Arthur human and fallible and the butt of jokes, re the premature ejaculation mentioned above. Arthur is obsessed with his image and Jean, the woman who will become his second wife. He comes across as three things, girl crazy, sports crazy, and honor crazy. Here's the thing though, Barnes stresses the crazy. He spends hundreds and hundreds of pages stressing the crazy, which, OK, if you have some weird vendetta against Conan Doyle, I can see doing that. But then in the final section of the book he then does a 180 and builds Conan Doyle back up. That he was a great writer, humanitarian, etc. etc. I just don't know what the point of the book was I guess. If it was insight into these two men, it's a fail. If it's insight into miscarriages of justice, well, it's a fail also. Why, ugh, I just don't get it. My mind is literally rebelling wanting to know the why of it. This could have been a cute and insightful book on the author of Sherlock Holmes taking up the mantle of detective and saving a man's reputation. Instead it's an overwritten mess about the author of Sherlock Holmes misguidedly playing detective to distract himself from the fact that he can't yet marry and fuck the woman he's lusted after for a decade. Crime solving as prophylactic! I really don't think Holmes would approve.
There is so much that could be forgiven though if Barnes had been willing to tie up loose ends. In particular, the hate mail and the ripping. But instead we get 40 pages of George's shallow reflections on the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In his brief afterward, Barnes states that there's a man never mentioned in this book who later claimed responsibility for the letters, no reason given, no analysis, nothing. Just a man years later who did this. Um, a little more please? Secondly, as for the ripping... we are given a very good idea of what could have happened with the Sharp boys, but no real answer. As George himself points out it's the same kind of circumstantial evidence that got him locked up. So yes, in life we have unresolved endings. Nothing is tied up nice and neat with a bow. But here's the thing about Arthur and George... it's FICTION! Barnes felt perfectly fine taking liberties with Arthur's dick, yet couldn't give us an ending worthy of Holmes? Instead we are left with this nebulous morass we have read that has left no real impression other then ew to the ejaculation. Was this some arty post-modern experiment to mimic the spiritualist belief of knowledge only after passing through the veil? Seriously, I could sit here all day making up reasons why this book is as it is. I could justify it, I could throw harsh vitriol on it, I could read so much into the text that it would make your head spin, because the book's narrative just lies there doing nothing that you could read whatever you want into it. But you know what? I've wasted enough time on this book and it wasn't worth it, so in the end, writing one more word...
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: 1818
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★ To Buy
Victor Frankenstein has had a perfect life surrounded by love and plenty. His curious mind was supplied with everything he could desire focusing his studies on outdated theories of the natural world. When he ventures to university in Ingolstadt he realizes that his opinions are outmoded and he devotes himself to the study of the modern theories and practices of natural philosophy and chemistry. Victor's studies lead him to a discovery that he could create life from death. He succeeds at playing God but instantly regrets his experiments and falls gravely ill while his creation sets out into the world, alone. The consequences of his actions take Victor's life of love and joy and transforms it into a nightmare of his own making. His inability to take responsibility for what he has done and atone with the smallest sliver of empathy will destroy his world. Yet Victor sees the destruction of his world as a sacrifice that must be made to save the rest of the world.
Everyone knows some version of Frankenstein. That's the thing though, it's a "version" of Frankenstein. I'm not naive in that I knew I wasn't going to be reading a book about a green monster with bolts in his neck. Yet there was a part of me that worried that I would be bored and disinterested to the point that I wouldn't want to finish the book because I had heard the story so many times before. I truly hadn't heard the story though. Frankenstein is this amazingly written story that no adaptation has ever gotten right (putting Mary Shelley before the title didn't help you Kenneth Branagh). There is such depth and nuance that I highly doubt that any adaptation would be able to capture the spirit of the book and do it justice.
While I love so many different kinds and genres of books there are some books that just blow you away and your mind slowly melts out your ear. There's the bestsellers with little depth that you devour like popcorn and then there are the books that are a twelve course meal plus dessert. There is so much meaning and thought put into every word and phrase that you finish the book and want to start over again right away because you know you've missed so much. The interweaving of philosophy and science, arts and literature, the book's subtitle, even the origins of the story easily make this book's categorization as a classic almost a forgone conclusion. The sheer richness of the text though is never bogged down though in being indecipherable or overly written (yes, I'm looking at you Henry "Turn of the Screw" James). I think it would surprise the average reader that despite being written almost two hundred years ago this is an easy read, even if some of the concepts delve into the greatest questions that have plagued mankind.
One of the interesting things to come of Frankenstein is the odd quirk that the majority of the people think Frankenstein is the monster, not the creator. Personally I think this is a Freudian Slip that acknowledges the truth, the real monster. Because while the creature eventually does become a monster because of Victor's actions, in truth Victor is the monster. Just look at the evidence? He creates life and abandons it. When the life reaches out to him he "helps" only to give his creation false hope. Also, a thing that niggled at me, if Victor's real horror at creating a mate for his creation was that they would populate the earth with their abominations, well, he was "making" her so he could have just removed the baby making parts. Getting back on track, Victor, knowing of the danger the creature brings to his family he just goes home and waits while carnage rains down on him. The creature is lashing out at the world because all he wants is love. Is that a monster? No a monster is someone who is amoral, lacks empathy, doesn't care about the consequences of their actions, and has an ego that easily has delusions of being a god. IE, Victor.
"Last time I saw you
We had just split in two.
You were looking at me.
I was looking at you.
You had a way so familiar,
But I could not recognize,
Cause you had blood on your face;
I had blood in my eyes.
But I could swear by your expression
That the pain down in your soul
Was the same as the one down in mine.
That's the pain,
Cuts a straight line
Down through the heart;
We called it love."
In his lyrics for "The Origins of Love" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which incidentally is heavily influenced by Frankenstein, Stephen Task retells Aristophanes' myth of primal man from the Symposium which Shelley's husband translated as "The Banquet of Plato" and which Shelley incorporated into her novel. The lyrics are able to poetically express all the concepts that Shelley took from Aristophanes' story and incorporated into Frankenstein. The duality of Victor and the creature being halves of the same whole is again and again brought to the reader's consciousness. They are one whole person that has been separated quite literally by a bolt of lighting into a being of love (the creature) and a being of rationality and science (Victor). They need each other, which the creature sees but Victor is unable to accept. This doppelganger aspect was taken even further in The National Theatre's production of Frankenstein back in 2011 when Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller would alternate nights as to who was Victor and who was the creature, further highlighting this aspect of the work.
These opposing natures, which in one person would form a whole, sets up all the struggling forces in the book. Conflict abounds with man versus monster, god versus science, man versus nature. The last thing I want to touch on is this last aspect of nature, as in the material world, not as in humankind. Up until Shelley Gothic had a very specific look, ie moldy old castles in remote areas; which is probably why so many adaptations of her books has reverted to this trope. But Shelley is able to do what you might think impossible, she is able to create the small and cloistered environment that is shut off from society while still in the glory of nature. The lightning stuck peaks of the alps, the glory of God's creation of ice and snow. These scenes of bleak beauty that bring home all that Victor was flying in the face of when he decided to make a man. Every aspect of this book brings home to me how groundbreaking it was and still is, I could continue to delve deeper and deeper, but I think the time has come for you to pick the book up for yourself.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Published by: William Morrow
Publication Date: June 18th, 2013
Format: Hardcover, 192 Pages
Rating: ★★★★ To Buy
He came for the funeral, but on his way to the wake he wanders the lanes of his childhood. He doesn't know where he's going until he is there, at the Hempstock's farm. There he remembers his friend Lettie, who lived there with her mother and grandmother, until she left for Australia. But his memories are coming back. She didn't go to Australia, she disappeared in the little pond behind her house that she insisted on calling the ocean. He would have never met the Hempstocks if not for the opal miner. The miner came into their house as a boarder and took the family car down to the end of the lane and ended his life. That was the day he first met the three women. Weird things started to happen after the suicide. Money started randomly appearing and he learned that an otherworldly being used the death of the miner to access our world. Lettie tried to stop this threat, but she made a mistake they all will pay for. The being manifests in our world as Ursula Monkton, a new nanny for the boy and his sister. He needed Lettie's help to get her back to where she came from, but that might be very dangerous indeed. They might need help from more otherworldly beings, and their arrival might be more dangerous than Ursula's. The struggle will be fierce, and in the end innocence might not be it's only victim.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an odd little book. It's too long to be a short story, yet too short to really be a novel, instead it's a little meditation on what it is to look back on your childhood. All the muddled memories and half forgotten things that went into shaping who we are. Is this a perfect book? Far from it. Is this Gaiman's best work? No, it's not. But does it connect to something deep within you? Yes it does. It's like a fever dream of your childhood where something triggers a memory and all that emotion floods back into you. All the fears of our childhood. That one nightmare you had where Doctor Octopus killed your parents and no matter how many times they told you that it was nothing but a dream it somehow still feels real. In some reality somewhere your parents died and you were alone. The memory sneaks up on you and for a short time you remember every vivid detail, but over time it fades until you stumble upon it again. When you learn that the narrator has gone back and had his past revealed to him more than once only to forget, you realize the truth at what Gaiman is hinting at. Time, memory, it's mutable. Emotions even change. That which we felt so important as a child is somehow small, but at the same time is still important. As we grow older things disappear and we forget. To regain those memories only to lose them again is bittersweet, much how you will struggle to remember this book.
Neil writes best when writing for children. He has some magical connection to his own inner child that speaks to that within us all. While this book isn't for children, it's about them. The Ocean at the End of the Lane feels like a snapshot of Neil's own childhood, but it has a universality to all reader's childhoods. There's a nostalgia with the time period. Even if you aren't of his generation, there is still that feeling of looking back, when your imagination ran riot and a clearing in the woods was a home you built and the rocks a fireplace, or when the roots of a tree were a vast city for people to live in, or even when a pond was an ocean. So while the book relies heavily on the fantastical, there's another reading of the text. That the fantastical is nothing more then a way for a child to process ideas they don't quite yet understand. This can be seen most with the relationship between the father and Ursula. They are obviously attracted to each other and the younger sister even hints later in life that perhaps their father had an affair. So even if you find the evil that is Ursula a little fantastical, with her otherworldly attributes, look at it another way. She is an outsider with the power to break up the family by her relationship with the father. Everything "other" can have a more mundane explanation. And that is what I really connected to re-reading this book. That the text has these multiple layers, that it isn't just the supernatural, but the natural hidden underneath.
The problem with the book is that it overstays it's welcome. When Ursula has been vanquished and the hunger birds remain you can't help but feel that the story should have ended. The hunger birds are varmints that serve no real purpose in the story and lack the originality of everything that has come before. The narrative seems to have gotten away from Neil and we are just biding our time. This is where you realize that the "book" might have been better served as a short story. Or even interlinked short stories that completely skipped over the hunger birds. This lackluster ending more than anything else makes the book very forgettable. You have an immediate connection, but that connection is slowly severed as you care less and less for what is happening. But in a way, it works. Because you are left with the same problem as our unknown protagonist. You have vague impressions of what you have read, but no real memory. This, of course, doesn't aid in the writing of a review. Trying to catch your feelings for this book is like trying to bottle lightning. The words are running through your hands like water and you're not sure if you have anything to say. After reading this book twice I feel like I have a better grasp on it, but still, it's floating away even as I type this.
Neil wrote this book for his wife Amanda. To dig deep and create not just his typical story, but something different, something brimming with emotion. What I find interesting is that his end result reminds me very much of Terry Pratchett. Seeing as Terry and Neil have been friends for years and years and wrote Good Omens together, there is an overlap in their writing style. But whereas Neil has always struck a more solid narrative line, Terry has always had looser narratives that flow with emotion, that are very dreamlike and profound in their way. Good Omens is an odd little book because I'm not sure it feels very collaborative, with Terry's voice being more prominent, much like his later writing with Stephen Baxter. Prior to picking up The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a second time I was immersing myself in Terry's Tiffany Aching books. Going from those specific stories to The Ocean at the End of the Lane and the Hempstocks, one can't help but feel the similarities between the Hempstocks and the witches, though they are anything but. Therefore I was left with this interesting feeling. By having Neil dig deep and write a book more rooted in painful truth and emotion he has created a book that is, in my mind, the most true collaboration between the two writers, though it's all Gaiman. Terry somehow helped him see another way to write and his wife made him open up and you get this book that cuts to the quick like Terry, but is a wonderful new kind of story.
Though what I connected to most was the sense of loss in the book. Not just the loss of innocence and memory and our childhood, but true devastating loss. When the little kitten is killed by the cap driver the day the opal miner arrives my heart broke as well. This I think, more than the opal miner's death, is when this little boy's life starts to change. Everyone has some time in their life when the happy dream of childhood is shattered forever. It could be the death of a friend or family member, your parent's divorce, a friend moving away, something comes into your perfect golden bubble and shatters your world and you have to start to face the reality of the harshness of existence. For me I had to face reality young, like the narrator, with my mother getting sick. Yet I still look back on my childhood as sunny days playing with my dolls and making up adventures. Though loss has changed me, I'm not the same person I was. This book was like a mainline to all those feels. Things I hadn't thought of in years came back, but nothing hurt more than that little kitten's demise. My best friend was a little black and white cat. We had twenty-two years together and it still hurts everyday that he is gone, and I know that perhaps I can never move on. Neil got straight to the heart of the matter, "the ball of dark fur pressed itself into my chest, and I wished she was my kitten, and knew that she was not." I will never see his like again. Like my childhood it is gone forever.
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Published by: Vintage International
Publication Date: 1942
Format: Paperback, 123 Pages
Rating: ★★ To Buy
Meursault's mother has died. He makes the long trek to her funeral, it was cost prohibitive to keep her with him and they had nothing more to say to each other. He feels that he should feel something, but there is nothing but the heat of the day and the inconvenience to his daily routine. The day after his mother's funeral he begins a long desired affair with Marie, a co-worker, going to a silly movie and having sex. Things are going along swimmingly with Marie, though she presses for marriage. Meursault says if she wants to get married they should get married, it makes no difference to him. He is passivity personified. He even helps his neighbor Raymond pen a missive to his mistress, seeing that there's no harm in it. Meursault's naivety as to his situation with Raymond will be his undoing. One day at the beach Meursault shoots and kills the brother of Raymond's mistress. The day was hot and the gang of men were following Raymond and Meursault and Marie to the beach. They had an altercation but everything seemed to be over. Then Meursault wandered back to the cool little cove where they first encountered the men, hoping to rest. The Arab was there and then he was dead. Killed by the gun Raymond gave to Meursault. Meursault confesses to his crime. He puts up no protest. The trial is tiring, but he is sure that he will get off. The sentence passed down is a shock to him.
If you read for pleasure versus reading for a class you quickly realize that just because a book is defined as a classic doesn't mean it actually has to be good. In fact some of the most lauded and praised classics might be the most deathly and dull books you'll ever read. While I wouldn't classify The Stranger as the worst "classic" I've ever read, I will say that of all the members of my book club I liked it the least. Though my ambivalence to the book and how it influenced existentialism doesn't preclude it from being a good book to discuss. So while the book might not have met my expectations the discussion that arose from it was engaging, and I think that's why this book has stuck around. It's not perfect but it is perfect to get people talking. As to why The Stranger didn't blow me away, I've read similar books that are better written. D'entre les Mortes by Boileau and Narcejac, which was the basis for the movie Vertigo, captures existentialism and fatalism far better than The Stranger ever does. And it also has that very French vibe as well. But seeing as this book is written later, it was probably influenced by Camus. Therefore I suggest looking to a contemporary of Camus, mainly Daphne Du Maurier. Her short stories succinctly capture the feeling of The Stranger but with better writing. Just because she has been erroneously labelled as a "romance writer" it has lead to her being overlooked. Camus might be a good discussion topic, but for true existentialism go to Du Maurier.
Despite preferring Du Maurier, I am not going to argue the "classic" status of The Stranger. The truth is it is a classic. The reason this is is there is a timelessness to the book. Aside from the method of Meursault's execution and one mention of a movie star, I challenge you to pinpoint the time period of this piece. Not only could it have been set anytime during the past century, it could easily happen now. As my friend Mike pointed out, Meursault could just as easily have been going to a movie by Adam Sandler. Think of that. Could a man be condemned for enjoying an Adam Sandler movie? Now that would add an interesting modern take to the book without changing any of the underlying themes that Camus is trying to get across. Camus was all about the absurdity of life, that a man could be condemned for not showing what society thought as proper grief at his mother's death. If Camus were still alive I think the absurdity of being condemned for laughing at one of the worst comedians of all time would appeal to him. Plus, can you imagine the stir this modern take would create? It almost makes me want to make it into a film myself.
What is odd about The Stranger is despite having a first person narrator it almost feels like it was written in the third person. The reason for this is the passivity of Meursault. He outwardly has no emotions, no desires, he doesn't even really have a personality so to speak. He just follows the ebb and flow of life never really questioning anything until he is faced with his imminent death. One of my friends pointed out that this leads to a refreshing narrator because he does not have any ego. I personally would disagree. Yes he is passive, but being passive doesn't mean that at the bottom of all that there isn't an ego. The truth is he has a very well defined id. An id that is more animal than human. He only goes with the flow if it isn't an inconvenience to him. But look at his train of thought, it's all about food and sex and swimming. He only thinks about stuff that provides gratification to himself. He has an ego, but an animalistic ego that is all about his comfort. Sure he'll marry his girlfriend, what difference does it make to him, all he cares about is having someone around for sex. If marriage will secure this, then why not? The only incident in his entire life that isn't about his own pleasure was the murder he is accused of. He just did it because.
But really, why kill this man? This is an action completely out of character. Meursault derived no apparent pleasure from it, and that was how he lived his entire life, so why do it? My theory is that there is something seriously wrong with him. Yes, you could look at the entire book as an emotionless man fighting against the inevitability of death and finally finding fire within, but I think that it is a study in a man who was seriously ill. I think that Meursault had a brain tumor. The book oddly backs this up. Firstly, people who have brain tumors often seem off, they don't understand how society works and are therefore often detached. Like people with aspergers they don't get social cues. They also don't understand dangerous situations, often having a childlike naivete. Therefore not crying at his mother's funeral doesn't seem odd to Meursault, while it's a "hanging" offense to the jury. His single-mindedness with devotion only to his own pleasure would also indicate that he has a tumor. But what I think is most significant is his reaction to the sun and heat. The sun is always too bright and overwhelms him. His brain can't process the light streaming through his eyes and he often complains of the sun and his head, much like someone with a migraine would. Only I don't think this is any migraine. I think that Meursault is a sick man because of something inside. This something doesn't see anything wrong with shooting a guy full of holes because it has no mechanism for censure of right and wrong. It lends an entirely different spin to the story but oddly backs up the futility of life. He is inevitably going to die so why fight? In fact he might not have had long to live even if he wasn't executed.
Obviously talking about life and death and this book being the epitome of existentialism, God will enter into it. The first half of the book leading to the murder followed by the second half of trial and condemnation, don't quite fit together. It's like Camus was trying to just show us this man's personality in part one but part two was where all the moral and philosophical reasoning reside. Which makes the second half far heavier. We only see Meursault lose his temper once and that is to the priest who visits him. Obviously this is the important part highlighted by English teachers the world over as the crux of the book. But by the time I reached this point I just didn't care. I didn't care if our antihero did or didn't accept Christ into his life. I didn't care if he was executed. I didn't care if he lived or died. That is the fault at the very center of this book. Yes we can discuss it, yes it might be a fascinating discussion, but a book comes down to the readers investment in the hero or antihero. I could not care less what happened to Meursault! But maybe that's the point? Maybe Camus is playing a double game? For those actually invested there's Meursault's struggle to come to terms with his death, and for the reader there's the struggle to actually care about the book. Or maybe I'm seriously just reading too much into things and applying meaning where there is none because so many people I know liked it and I thought it was just meh. Yep. Still meh.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Published by: Delacorte Press
Publication Date: April 28th, 2009
Format: Hardcover, 374 Pages
Rating: ★★★★ To Buy
At Buckshaw, the ancestral home of the de Luce's, Flavia spends her time lovingly researching poisons and thinking up ways to exact revenge on her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. What else can one do with a distant philatelist father interested only in his stamps, a dead mother, and sisters more concerned with reading and makeup then forging sisterly bonds? Add Mrs. Mullet, a cook who keeps plying them with her unwanted custard pies, and Dogger, the shell shocked comrade in arms who saved the Colonel in the war and is now the house's general dogsbody, and you can see why Flavia likes the uncomplicated world of chemistry to that of her fellow man. Lucky for Flavia the long dead Tarquin de Luce had a fervent love of chemistry equal to hers and she has inherited his envy inducing laboratory in Buckshaw, where even the china has a story to it. But their peace is soon to be disturbed, and not by the shrieks of Feely as her pearls are disintegrated by Flavia, or the muffled sounds of Flavia trying to extricate herself from the closest where her sisters imprisoned her. No. Murder is about to strike Buckshaw, foreshadowed by a dead jack snipe with a postage stamp skewered on it's beak. In the middle of the night, Flavia is woken by her father arguing with a man in his study. She is taken back to bed by Dogger and she blasts music to lull herself to sleep rather than stewing in her habitual discontented and inquisitive mindset, but not before she heard her father say he had murdered a man by the name of Twining twenty years ago.
In the early dawn hours she awakens and goes out into the garden to find the intruder almost dead in the cucumber patch, his last words uttered into Flavia's face. The authorities are called and the investigation begins. But Flavia has her own investigations to conduct, starting at the public library and the death of this man named Twining. To her trusty steed, Gladys, her mother's old bicycle that Flavia uses to race off to the library. Which is closed... but soon a librarian approaches. The retired Miss Mountjoy, the bane of the village, has returned to help the current librarian. But her arrival is felicitous, she happens to be the niece of the murdered Twining, who was a teacher at Greyminster, the school Colonel de Luce attended. Twining committed suicide in front of all his students by jumping off the top of the school tower after a prize Penny Black stamp was taken from the headmaster and destroyed in front of his eyes. Flavia, intrigued, then goes to the local inn, assuming that the mystery man had to be staying there. In his room she finds the stamp that was supposedly destroyed... and it's twin! But back at Buckshaw it might be too late... her father has been arrested! Can Flavia save the day and her father before Inspector Hewitt and the other detectives? Or will she need saving herself?
When the dearly departed David Thompson from Murder by the Book casually mentioned a new and unique mystery that he thought I'd like I had little inkling that it would be the start of one of my favorite book series. Six years have passed since he sent me that email, five years since I first read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and David died. I can't believe it's been that long, but the sheer joy with which I've devoured the following six volumes attests to the fact that time hasn't stayed still. Flavia de Luce has worked her way into my heart. Part Addams Family, part Eloise, she's precocious but in a way that isn't cloying because it is balanced by her fondness for the macabre. Bradley's world is populated with overtones of Christie and Du Maurier,
which I'm sure he would gladly embrace. He has given us a wonderful mystery that reads like the best of the
British whodunits but with a unique narrator in the guise of Flavia. Her
family and their estate remind one of a dysfunctional Larkin family,
they all have their little quirks and obsessions. Whether it's Flavia
and her chemical compounds or Daffy and her books or the Colonel and his
stamps, Bradley has created a myriad of interesting folk and their
foibles who you can't help but love. But their bizarre personality
quirks aren't just their for the sake of creating a semblance of depth
in these people, they are integral to the plot and to the solving of the
mystery. Only those with the experiences and backgrounds that the de
Luce's possess would be able to see the greater picture.
Though re-reading it all these years later with the sheer number of books I read per year details have become hazy and it was nice to refamiliarize myself with Flavia's origins. The truth is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is rough around the edges. Bradley has matured as a writer over the years to be more polished and to tell Flavia's story in a more assured and competent manner. With his development over the past few years he has definitely secured Flavia's place among the cannon of British whodunits, even if he's Canadian. But here this assurance is lacking and there are times when I was distinctly put out. Flavia waffles between being mature for her age and being very slow on the uptake. This results in her inner monologue occasionally becoming repetitive and simplistic in her deductions when the answer is actually right in front of her. While the mystery isn't really the driving force of Flavia's story, it is hard on the reader when they are so far ahead of Flavia that you start hoping that she'd get on with it already. But then again, this slow style is typical of the cozy genre and for a first outing, it's better then some writers achieve in their entire life. Yes, it might be a little clunky, yes, it's not perfect, but it does lay the groundwork magnificently for a solid series to come.
What really strikes me coming back to the beginning is just how British this series is. It's not just that this story could only happen to this family but also this could only happen in Britain. My love of Lark Rise to Candleford has made me more then a little obsessed with running a small rural post office in Victorian England, and the history of the postal service and the issuance of stamps and the Penny Black and it's connection to revolutionary forces and how it oddly ties into the climax of the movie The Young Victoria; well, the Anglophile in me was doing a happy dance. I find it interesting that in my original review, which I might have liberally borrowed from here, I found the reminisces of Colonel de Luce over long and unnecessary. But the truth is his unburdening in that little jail cell is the core of this book. Not only do we get this postal history but how much more British can a book get then long reminiscences of boys going to boarding school? The halcyon days of Greyminster and Colonel de Luce's mentor, Twining, are the stuff of Waugh and Powell, but here, here they take a deliciously dark twist. These settings, this time period, it just makes you long to dwell in the world, to walk the crumbling Buckshaw estate and wade out to the little folly. It is a world that is gone and we long to recapture, and here it is thanks to Bradley.
And then there's Dogger. Dogger is a product of this time and this place and he is the heart of this book. Knowing, as I now know, Dogger's full past, seeing the clues, the little crumb trail that Bradley started here makes me realize what a long game he was playing. But it's not just Dogger, it's the way the de Luce's take care of him and even shelter him. They know Dogger is special and they treat him as such and let him do as he does in order to recover. Dogger is also the balancing force to Flavia. Flavia spends so much time talking about death and poisons and how she would eliminate her siblings, she's a bit out there. In fact, some people might be put off by her love of these deadly arts and that she solves the murder by rather gruesome knowledge. Inspector Hewitt doesn't even want her to finish her demonstration on her articulated skeleton Yorick because he's more then a little spooked. Therefore Flavia needs some way to humanize herself. While anyone who was a young girl would attest to the fact that young girls do spend much of their time planing the downfall of their enemies, it might not be so palatable for readers, and here is where Dogger comes in. Flavia helps Dogger however she can. She helps him through his attacks in whatever way he needs, whether it's a helping hand, a cup of tea, a lie down in his bed, or acting as if everything is OK, Flavia just knows what Dogger needs and does it. He humanizes her and she anchors him, they are the true dynamic duo of this book, sorry Gladys.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison
Published by: Tor Fantasy
Publication Date: April 1st, 2014
Format: Paperback, 502 Pages
Rating: ★★ To Buy
Maia never expected to be Emperor. Forth in line for the throne, the half goblin son of the Elvish Emperor Varenechibel IV has spent his life in exile with an abusive cousin. When his father and elder brothers all die in an airship crash Maia is plunged into a world of court intrigue he was never prepared for. Maia has a good heart and has had a lonely life; he finds the transition to court almost unbearable. He doesn't know who to trust and those he does are to be viewed as servants not friends. Then there is his remaining family, people he has never met and who make it clear they are not happy with his rapid and unexpected ascension. The earnest youth has to deal with plots and plans and the startling knowledge that the airship crash that changed his life was sabotage and that his family didn't die because of an unfortunate accident, they were murdered. As Maia tries to find out the truth his own life might very well be in danger. After all, in an elvish realm who wants a goblin as emperor?
I don't lightly contemplate giving up on a book. Once I pick it up I am in it for the long haul. I am there to the bitter end. Like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory contemplating adding a new television show to his life, no matter what happens or how bad it gets, we are committed and can't back out; it's a facet of our personalities, though I'm not fictional. Therefore when I got about sixty pages into The Goblin Emperor and started seriously thinking of backing out, well, you can get an idea as to how I feel about this book. Seeing as this book was a selection for my book club I stated my feelings on our Facebook page and was strongly encouraged to carry on. I waited about a week and started the book over again. I struggled and I cursed, I occasionally chose sleep over reading, I had panic attacks that I would never finish, and then, I stumbled into the finish line abruptly. Occasionally I glimpsed the greatness that caught my friends imaginations, but overall this book failed to achieve even the most basic needs of a book, legibility.
The Goblin Emperor is full of dense almost impenetrable text. If you can get past these trappings there is a story with a very slight narrative in there, but if you don't look closely you might miss it. Katherine Addison has created the most convoluted language with unpronounceable titles and honorifics possible. At times I thought that she just literally hit keys at random on her keyboard to come up with some of the names of her characters. In her "Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands" she oh so kindly points out that "there are no silent letters in Ethuverazhin." Oh, so all those random consonants and vowels, I say them all? OK, let me just mentally rename all the fifty million characters in the book to something legible to preserve my sanity. And then Addison has some fun with masculine and feminine names and does some slight Scandinavian manipulation so that husbands and wives have different surnames! And all these woman have the same-ish title, which could for a couple hundred pages be mistaken for their forenames, of dach'osmer, or dach'osmerrem, or even dach'osmin! Rarely does a book make me feel stupid. This book made me feel stupid.
I struggled so much that at times I was brought to tears and conversely I was occasionally brought to the edge of panic with my heart racing as it felt like it was climbing into my throat. The only time of the day I found it mildly productive to read this book was when I was half awake. In this almost dream state I just didn't care enough to have my ire raised. But if I was fully conscious; well that's another matter. Here's the thing about creating a world with a different language; it might be helpful if that different language has some basis in, oh, any language on earth. The reason a fantasy writer like Tolkien is embraced is because as a historian of dead languages he was able to create languages that had the same basis as our own. The names and words made sense. Got that? You can't just make up an entire new language with no touchstone to reality. There's a reason language formed as it did over time, we can speak it! We understand it! We don't look at it and go, what they hell is this!?! That is what I spent the majority of this book doing; ripping out my hair and saying what the hell is this!
Addison spent so much time creating this made up etiquette and title system she forgot that worldbuilding is more then just made up words and it's generally a good idea to have a plot. Even if we were to take the theory that this was a character study... well, no one but Maia is more then two-dimensional, some barely make it that far, being just signifiers of emotion. All I kept thinking while reading this book and looking askance at the rave review on the front cover from author Scott Lynch guaranteeing court intrigue was that someone, ie Addison, needs to bone up on their court history or read Patrick Rothfuss's A Wise Man's Fear to see a successfully executed fantasy court. Because really, strip this book down, strip the stupid Ethuverazhin language, strip the emotive ears, strip out every time someone says "Serenity" (that alone should make the book two hundred pages shorter) and what do you have? Literally Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne, which is milquetoast to the Medici's! Seriously, all this book is is a kernel of real history tarted up with all these fantastical and nonsensical trappings and spewed back at us with no depth and no umph. Everything is surface.
I know this review might cause uproar, and it probably will make some of my friends wonder how we are friends with such different tastes in reading material, but I just couldn't like this book. I begrudgingly gave it two stars because Maia does have a good heart and it is rare to have someone kind and thoughtful and not at all malicious or vindictive as a hero, but think how much better this book would be if Addison could write? Because that is my biggest take-away from this book. Addison can't write. She can spew nonsense, she can write impressive lists of horrendously annoying made up names, she can spend hours going on and on about Maia's clothes, but she can't write. I so wanted this book to be good if just to thwart those Sad and Rapid Puppies out there who got this book a Hugo Nomination most likely because of the anti gay societal values, but alas, it isn't so. And as a parting salvo, I want to ask, who the hell thought to categorize this book as Steampunk? Pneumatic tubes and airships do not a Steampunk book make. You might be able to argue that it fits in Baroque Punk... but like my overall opinion of this book, um no.
How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
Published by: Harper Perennial
Publication Date: June 16th, 2011
Format: Paperback, 320 Pages
Rating: ★★★★ To Buy
The only reason I ever found out who Caitlin Moran is is because of a good book cover. Yes, we've all been lured into picking up a book because of a fabulous cover, sometimes to our detriment, but for me it was really all about that hand lettering. For about six months straight How to Be a Woman was featured almost daily in my Waterstones email and I seriously clicked the link every time to admire the lettering. What I wouldn't give to be able to do hand lettering, but sadly it's not in my wheelhouse. Despite my insane case of cover lust I didn't feel compelled to buy the book. I'm not into nonfiction, I'm not into books that explore feminism, so I wrote off this book as not for me. Then all of a sudden within the last few weeks Caitlin Moran got on my radar again. One of my friends was reading another of her books, Moranthology, I have an e-galley of How to Build a Girl languishing on my Kindle, and Caitlin and her sister Caroline wrote a show based loosely on their childhood, Raised by Wolves, which has been airing on the BBC. It was really this last one that got me interested in reading more of her work. In twenty minutes I was able to gauge her humor and realize, that while uneven, it might just be for me.
How to Be a Woman was a great companion piece to Raised by Wolves, I got deeper insight into what might be a funny throw away line on the show by hearing the full story. It was like spending a little holiday in Caitlin's brain, which was oddly restful, relatable, and fun; and like all holidays, had it's crappy moments too. While I've seen many reviews saying how she is the British Tina Fey, I'd actually compare her writing style, and also her upbringing, more to David Sedaris. I had the same feelings reading this book as I did when I first read Me Talk Pretty One Day. The insights are something I've thought of but never really been able to verbalize. Their writing style makes me wish that I was more polished, that I could write like this. Because the truth of the matter is, while yes, I might have a book in me, I know in my heart of hearts that it would never be fiction. My book would be more memoir or a Roman à clef, and I would hope it would be like this. More even... but still, like this.
What I admire most about this book is how she simplifies the definition of feminism. Feminism has almost become a loaded word. Even women like me think of the strident feminist burning bras, not half the population just looking to be treated equally. So to simplify, here are Caitlin's instructions. "Put you hand in your underpants. a. Do you have a vagina? and b. Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said "yes" to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist." So simple and so true. I think Caitlin would probably now encourage me to stand on my hair and shout it, but due to wobbly chair and lack of coordination, this could end badly, so I will just say it here I AM A FEMINIST! But what saddens me is to look at this hopefulness in this book, this idea that we are all humans living together and hopefully we'll be bros and be just one of the guys and pal around in a world of equality and to see the reality of what has happened in the few short years since Caitlin wrote this book.
The truth is that this book is sadly dated. There's hope and progressive thought and in just four years so much progress has been undone. Rights of women are flowing out of our hands faster then water. How can we women be "one of the guys" when not only the government is turning against us but more and more vitriol is being spewed on the web against us? Look to Gamergate and all that has wrought! Gamergate is the newest horror in the ongoing culture war of men and women. What started as backlash for supposed preferment for a woman game designer has descended into sheer madness. Death threats, doxing, hate mail, threats of physical violence, in particular rape. This has created a culture of fear and hate, where even me writing about it gives me pause, because anyone who takes a stand and speaks out against Gamergate could be their next target. Caitlin Moran has even tweeted about this, but sadly the movement hasn't failed and is just as strong as ever, so maybe it's time to switch the conversation? I can't do it on a global scale, but I can in this review.
How to Be a Woman is the best when it's relatable, when Caitlin's experiences are shared by her fellow women, obviously me included. Her tackling what it's like to get your first period, which for me also happened on my thirteenth birthday, to dealing with the emergence of hair all over our bodies, I wanted to scream YES, but from my comfy chair (remember, bad balance, so no standing up on said chair here). Though I haven't experienced everything she has, no marriage and kids for me, these are such universally feminine issues that as a woman you get it, you understand. But the truth is Caitlin had a very interesting foray out of Wolverhampton and into the greater world at large, writing for Melody Maker at the age of sixteen. It's when she starts to dwell on specific events that happened to her that couldn't ever in a million years happen to you when the book loses that relatablity and starts to lose your interest. In particular I am thinking about Caitlin going to a very German bar with Lady Gaga. Yes, Caitlin's extrapolation of Gaga as a feminist icon works, but it's almost too specific and too much relating to her sitting in a banquette with Gaga falling asleep in her lap. Yes, it's an interesting if odd story, but I don't think it works in the context of the book.
But even if it's uneven and occasionally meandering, it's a book that every woman and every man should read. Seriously, I think guys would understand us a lot more just from a few key scenes in this book. And she's not afraid to tackle the big issues, like abortion, and she's not afraid of making herself look bad, she tells it like it is. Sometimes it can be preachy, and it is definitely NOT for everyone, ie abortion, but I feel somehow more connected after reading How to Be a Woman. It's not about "Girl Power" or anything so trite. It's about knowing that what I feel is somehow universal. That even if we are totally different people, and that my and Caitlin's life are so different you can barely compare us, there is literally an ocean that divides us, but underneath everything we are the same. If nothing else, this book will truly make you think. And laugh. A lot. Out loud.
The Winner was How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. But other titles in the hat were:
Old Man's War by Dude guy, commonly known as John Scalzi, writer of Redshirts and the last three entries, called by the various titles, A.A. Ron's Choice! That Goblin Book Thingy and The Goblin Emperor by the Author, is actually The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, aka Sarah Monette, and is our second read for the month (if anyone feels like reading it that is).
Edit: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison has been made our book for June!
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
Published by: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: August 9th, 2011
Format: Hardcover, 309 Pages
Rating: ★ To Buy
had suggested fedoras and rumpled suits, unfiltered cigarettes, tie
clips. Annie thought perhaps matching black suits and Lone Ranger masks,
crushed-up amphetamines, manicured fingernails. Buster, it seemed,
wanted to be a detective and Annie wanted to be a superhero. They
finally agreed that they needed something that would not draw attention
to them, understated but still uniform in some way. Buster donned a
white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up past his elbows, a pair of dark
blue jeans, and black leather sneakers. Annie wore a white V-neck
T-shirt, dark blue jeans, and black leather flats. On their wrists, they
wore the kind of watches that scuba divers swear by, heavy and solid
and waterproof, synchronized and precise. In their pockets, a heavy wad
of cash, pens that were half the size of regular pens - for
surreptitious note-taking - a handful of Red Hots to keep them sharp,
and the address for Hobart Waxman, their best, their only, chance at finding their missing parents."
Caleb and Camille Fang have spent their life making art performed in a public sphere that takes people out of themselves. The art is in the act, in taking common people and shaking up their lives in some bizarre and strange new way. Whether it's a father on fire calmly walking through a mall cradling his infant son or their two children playing the leads in a school production of Romeo and Juliet to add additional meaning and a new dialogue to what Shakespeare wrote. Their children, Child A and Child B, Annie and Buster, have been integral to their success. But their children aren't grateful. Annie's movie career is unraveling and Buster's writing failed before it really had a chance to succeed. They both need to find a place to recover and lick their wounds. For some reason they decide to both go home. Their parents are glad of their return until they realize they aren't getting the band back together. This isn't some new performance, this is their children reaching out to them for the first time ever. So Caleb and Camille do what they think is natural. They disappear. But is it a new piece or did something really happen to them?
Wes Anderson captivated me in 1998 when I went to our local "art house" cinema at Westgate Mall and saw Rushmore. I remember after the movie my friend and I drove to several different stores in an attempt to find the soundtrack to the film which left an indelible impression on us. Two years later I fell even harder for The Royal Tenenbaums as I spent a late Sunday night watching the movie in a cold theater on little Christmas. Wes Anderson's storytelling and artistic sensibilities and aesthetic became a way of life for me. In fact my library is painted the same pink hue as the Tenenbaum residence. To find a book thought of as the spiritual successor to The Royal Tenenbaums and touted as the next big thing made me rush to the bookstore to pick up The Family Fang. As with many books I purchase it has spent some time languishing on my shelves waiting to be picked up.
This book had so much potential, and much like Child A and B just prior to their parent's disappearance, it was squandered and wasted. The book does one thing right, and that's parody the art world, everything else veers between schlocky predictability and trying too had to actually be Wes Anderson. It's like Wilson never even tries to find his own voice but is trying too hard to be everything other then what it is. And when he just apes Anderson, see the excerpt above that proves my point, it's a sad echo of true artistry. Also, I am not even going in depth on all the continuity errors that add to the half-baked nature of the book. But the fatal flaw in this book is that it is not a book for an empathetic person to read. I couldn't distance myself from the pain that Caleb and Camille inflicted on their children. I was unable to move past this to embrace the wry dark humor. In those last few pages I developed such anger towards the adult Fangs that I could not contain it. I literally had to set the book down and walk away for awhile. How could anyone be so cruel and callous?
The fault with the Fangs, Caleb and Camille, is that they are shallow and cold-hearted people. They have long believed that children ruin art and while you'd think this attitude changed with how they incorporated their children into their art, you'd be wrong. Their children are nothing more or less to them then living props. They are their possessions. Extra ironic because so many of their pieces were staged in malls, the home of those who worship consumerism and possessiveness. When Annie is born Caleb only sees her as the destruction of his career until he is able to turn her to his advantage with "A Christmas Carol: 1977." When one of their performances with an infant Buster is described wherein Caleb is on fire walking with Buster in his arms I couldn't help think of Brian Eno's song "Baby's On Fire." The lyrics I think are more then apt for this book:
"Photographers snip snap Take your time, she's only burning This kind of experience Is necessary for her learning"
The baby in that song is reduced to ash and Caleb and Camille are the idiots in the song who don't even see the damage they are doing to the baby, or in this case, their own offspring. And if they did I doubt they'd care. They never think of their children's emotions or well being, even willing to force incestuous situations in order to help their art. Then their children return to them broken and in need of help and what do they do? They leave them. Their children left their lives the day they decided that they didn't want to participate anymore so why help them? They just up and disappear. And to disappear in such a manner? It makes it even harder for Annie and Buster because they know it's a trick but their parents are too clever by half. The reveal at the end. That is where my anger stems from. To see what their parents never let them have, never gave them, to see everything is just art and their is no love there. Heartbreaking.
This emotional reveal would have had even more impact if the characters of Annie and Buster had been more then cookie cutter characters in the "present" scenes. They, quite literally, are just Child A and Child B, nothing more then simple simulacra of real children. You develop an affinity for Buster as the sad sack who really took the brunt of the performances as a child, but only within the context of the performance art. In the present he's very flat and one dimensional as a failed author. But nothing can compare to Annie. She's like a stereotypical failed actress. Lindsay Lohan at the beginning of her fall. Annie leaves her boyfriend, who is Eli Cash from The Royal Tenenbaums, she poses nude, sleeps with a few of the wrong sort of people and experiments with lesbianism before taking to drinking and going home. OK, there's nothing there that gives me depth or makes me care. Horrid parents with cardboard children, yeah, this is so a book I want to read again.
Yet for all the many wrongs this book inflicted on me I have to say Kevin Wilson knows how to parody the art world. I had to take two classes in undergrad that were entirely focused on modern and post modern artists. Performers from William Wegman to Chris Burden. I've never really been a fan of this type of art. There are those artists who fit within these categories who have actual talent, but by and large they are poseurs, much like my teacher for the class, who went in for shallow sensation and reveling in their own genius. Caleb and Camille Fang fit PERFECTLY into this group. Their work is exactly the type of sensation that would have been taught in this class and made my teacher drone on and on about their genius. If The Family Fang had stuck to these vignettes and was made more out of the performances then the dissolution of a family I think it could have been brilliant. This though isn't brilliant.
But the book did make me think more about post modern performance art. In it's way I think this book could be qualified as post modern, deconstructing the novel and rebuilding it in a way that doesn't work but comments on society. Back to performance art though. The type of "happenings" that the Fangs staged, especially the one where they shot their professor, couldn't survive in today's culture. These acts in a post 9-11 world would be viewed as too incendiary by the world at large. Yes, Caleb and Camille would love being labelled as terrorists, but the art itself, it just wouldn't work. They would be viewed as a threat and in this vigilant society I don't think they could ever get to the point of the art happening without being stopped. Perhaps that's the real reason they disappear. It's not that they can't do their art without their children, it's that the place in the world where they and their art fit no longer exists and they have become superfluous, much like this entire book.
Our book club members get inspiration from everywhere! Note on our lovely model Adam, he is reading the book club selection for our March meeting and his lady Flavia would like it known "that that man with the book is compromised to the bones with the fairest of all maidens."
The Winner was The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. But other titles in the hat were:
Fester the Cat by Paul Magrs Maplecroft by Cherie Priest The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution by Brett Martin Harry Potter Fan Fic And whatever Michael's Book was, which is how we got The Family Fang!
The Swallow by Charis Cotter
Published by: Tundra Books
Publication Date: September 9th, 2014
Format: Kindle, 322 Pages
Rating: ★★ To Buy
Polly and Rose live next door to each other. Polly's house is too full of people and her macabre tastes make her long to see a different kind of person, one who is no longer alive, ie, a ghost. Rose's house is the opposite of Polly's and is always empty and Rose has the dubious ability to see ghosts. The two soon strike up an unlikely friendship and Polly is right jealous of Rose's "gift." Yet maybe there's a reason she can see ghosts? There's a tombstone behind their houses with Rose's name on it... perhaps Rose herself is a ghost? One thing is clear, there is something strange going on and Polly thinks that the two of them need to get to the bottom of the spooky goings on; because one of them might be a ghost.
If you've ever thought, wow there really needs to be a middle grade version of The Sixth Sense set in 1960s Toronto, then I have good news for you! If on the other hand you're looking for a story that isn't predictable like, oh, anything ever done by M. Night Shyamalan, look elsewhere. The main problem with The Swallow is that everything is so obvious. It's not like there was one of two things that surprised me. Oh no. Every. Single. Thing. Was. Expected. It's like Cotter has no ability to dissemble. She can't hide her story
structure, and she certainly can't hide her big reveals. From the second Polly went into her attic I knew that
there'd be a secret passage, because I'd read C. S. Lewis's The Magician's Nephew. Yeah, you didn't do a good job of hiding where that attic came from Cotter, much like everything else.
But as to each reveal, they were delivered exactly when you'd expect it. There was no flow to this story, no chance for surprises. It felt as if Cotter sat down and wrote the most rigid structure she could to tell her story, with each reveal carefully placed, and when she went from outline to prose not one thing was allowed to vary from that outline. I felt at times as if the book was more a rigid structure of steal that had words around it then an actual narrative. You could feel the story gripping the spine trying to be a real book. A good author transports us and makes us not see the craft behind the work. Cotter pulled back the curtain on the wizard and showed us that writing isn't magic, it's labor intensive, and not just for her, but for us as readers as well. The only positive that can be said for this book is that it was a short read so the pain was quickly over.
Though what is most aggravating to me is that this could have been a unique story! We have the 1960s, we have the ghostly aunt/doppelganger, vintage shoes, creepy pictures of Rose and Winifred dressed alike, and yet it felt like it could be happening right now because none of these interesting aspects are delved into or exploited for the benefit of the story! Instead we get two girls, Polly and Rose, who are just as annoying and whiny as any kid today with no sense given to us readers of how they fit into their time to better explore the sixties. They are completely unlikable in the beginning, and even if you grudgingly like them a little later, the jeopardy they get placed in is so badly contrived that they are never able to rise up and save the book. In a true sign that shows how utterly commonplace everything about the book is, the girl's voices are basically the same. If it weren't for their different situations and the little label saying who's head we're in, I doubt you could tell which girl was which.
As for the ghosts. Well, I have problems with them. First, let's take the ghosts as a whole, and I won't talk about how thick Rose is, we'll just accept that as a given. The ghosts seem to have been given stupid characteristics, like the ability to eat and touch so that we wouldn't know that Polly was dead all along. Oops, I hope you hadn't planned on reading this book, because yeah, spoilers! Though with Cotter's writing if she'd been allowed to write the book's blurb, well, she would have signaled you into that twist in just those few short sentences. Since when can ghosts eat? Like seriously, I think this would be the number one thing on my "things ghosts can't do list." Haunt, yeah, move objects, yeah, give me nightmares, yeah, eat my food, NO! Also more specifically, Winifred is like the worst developed ghost ever. She's angry and crazy and remorseful and a loving sister? Yes, people can be a cornucopia of different personality traits, but, you know what? It has to be explained. Just having her go from crazy to contrite, it doesn't work.
But what I really want to know is was this book a teaching moment? So many of the reviews and blurbs talk about how this book will help kids with concepts like grief and acceptance. If this book was written to tell a rigidly plotted story and it just happened to help with grief and acceptance, well, I'm ok with that. On the other hand, if this book was written just to teach kids about these concepts? NO! I am not a fan of the "teaching moment." I want learning to be a byproduct of reading not the be all end all. Plus, when did everything have to be made "improving" for children? All literature had to teach them lessons. All toys had to be educational. WTF people! How about literature is there to teach kids the joy of reading? And how about toys being there to grow their imagination? I loved toys but I was slow to books. If I had read this book as a kid, it would have put me even more off reading, it's middle grade meh.
The Winner was The Swallow by Charis Cotter. But other titles in the hat were:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie My American Unhappiness by Dean Bakopoulos Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins (NOT the creepy actor)
Whatever Flavia Picked (The Swallow by Charis Cotter) and it was actually picked twice!
Whatever the NY Times #1 Bestseller Is (Gray Mountain by John Grisham)
Harry Potter Fanfic
Bark by Laurie Moore
We also did a Secret Santa, where the recipient had to guess who bought them their book.
The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier
Published by: Virago Press
Publication Date: 1957
Format: Paperback, 384 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★ To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
John has spent yet another holiday in France walking the history that is his passion and his reason for living. As he gets ready to return to England to teach yet another term at school he looks at all the people and wonders how apart he is from them and if his life of no connections is really a failed life. In the crowd he sees one face he didn't expect to see. His own. The two men, John and Jean, strike up a conversation based on their eerie similarities. They are true doppelgangers. The night is spent drinking and talking and come morning Jean is gone with John's identity, leaving the lonely Englishman an encumbered life filled with family and a failing business. Without really knowing what drives him to it John takes on Jean's life. The bachelor now has a pregnant wife, a daughter, a mother, mistresses, and a complicated life. But soon John doesn't want to leave this new life and if Jean were to decide to return, what would happen?
Daphne Du Maurier has always employed doubling and duality in her writing, but never so obviously as in The Scapegoat. Here she openly embraces the trope of people who have switched places. Though in lighter fare it is done willingly or comedically, as in The Prince and the Pauper, The Parent Trap, and Moon Over Parador. Here it is a situation thrust on John, combining the switching with a case of mistaken identity. Though in any other case mistaken identity would be easier to prove if you weren't the doppelganger of the man they think you are. By combining these two plot devices into one Du Maurier is able to delve into the darker aspects of who we are and what would happen if we tried to escape our life by taking up the mantle of someone else's.
By having the opportunity of becoming someone else, someone known, what would you do? Seeing as Jean is the one who thrust this situation on John, it's pretty clear that he does this just to amuse himself, a humorous what if. But John, John is more complicated. By going along with Jean he is made complicit in this scheme he doesn't want. Yet being put in a situation where the repercussions fall on another's head means that for the first time in his life John is free of responsibility and guilt and is allowed to make mistakes and be taciturn or angry or whomever he chooses to think Jean is.
John's first embracing of the situation is the fact that he can't be held accountable. Du Maurier here is bringing up the darker nature of humans. What would we do if we could get away with it? For some people it would be anything and everything, theft to murder. Putting someone in this situation is testing their mettle. Given a free pass what would you do? It shows the goodness of John that after the initially heady response of being able to say what he really feels that he tries to better the lives of Jean's family. His deepest desires aren't dark and perverted, his deepest desires are to have connections, to have people to care for and love. At the start of his journey he can't come to terms with his driftless life. He wonders what does he do with failure. After spending time in the shoes of Jean he wonders what do you do with love.
John's question has changed, but the search for an answer is still there. That is what it is to be human. To always be questioning and searching. While John spends his time as Jean picturing him as this evil man who viewed the demands of family as the demands of his "captors" life is never this black and white. People aren't just good or evil, they are filled with grey areas. We have spent so much time with John that we see the world through his eyes now but it isn't till the end, that slight shift in perspective that makes us realize, John's point of view isn't the only one. Life is complicated and messy and we are left with questions, but it is never just black and white.
Speaking of someone living in the grey areas, Du Maurier spent most of her life, and a significant amount of her writing, not just dealing with these weighty issues of the nature of man but as an extended therapy session for herself. She viewed herself as two energies, male and female, which understandably makes her obsession with duality make sense. But there is another force that ruled her life and her work, and that is her father, the actor Sir Gerald Du Maurier. The relationship between Jean and his daughter Marie-Noel is a loving, yet odd and at times downright disturbing relationship. The scene where Marie-Noel asks her father to whip her... I defy you to find a more disturbing image then a grown man being asked by a small ten year old to be whipped for her imagined sins.
The question one is left with is how much did Daphne put of herself in her books? Her father was a dynamic and possessive man. They had a love hate relationship and he often wished that Daphne had been a boy, perhaps starting her duality issues. Incest was often hinted at. It is even believed that perhaps they shared a lover, Gertrude Lawrence. Whatever is and isn't true, one thing is certain, the creepy dynamic that they had is shared with Jean and Marie-Noel, further fanning the flames of what was real in Du Maurier's world and what was play acting.