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Vinegar-girl-1-198x300Vinegar Girl

Anne Tyler

Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play.  In the mad rush to “Kiss me, Kate!” we leave behind and forget the two scenes of the “Induction,” in which a hoax is played on a poor sleeping drunkard, after which the whole merry company settles in to watch the comedy.  Christopher Sly wakes to find all around him proclaiming him a wealthy man, the bald lie a neat parallel to Petruchio’s method of taming his wife-to-be by insisting that Katherina tell lies and proclaim the sun the moon.

In her contemporary retelling of the play, Anne Tyler’s Pyotr requires no such absurd proclamations from Kate, though she does have to lie.  There is no attempt to modernize the subjugation of a woman by her father or by her groom.  I am a sucker for modern retellings of classic texts, and in that regard fairly easy to please, but Anne Tyler’s handling of the marriage plot is a stroke of genius.  Dr. Battista asks his daughter Kate to marry his research assistant Pyotr Shcherbakov so that Pyotr can continue to live in the US and help Battista with his life’s work.  A looming deportation because of an expired visa is the obstacle, the green card is the quest, and US Immigration is the unseen enemy.  US Immigration is also the unseen audience for whom Kate and Pyotr must perform, yet another stroke of genius from Tyler.  Here is the play within the play.  Aware that they could be asked to produce evidence of real courtship and marriage, they have to perform and stage and record it.  Tyler gets a lot of comic mileage from the awareness that they are being watched.  With US Immigration, Tyler kills three birds with one stone: the quest for the green card is the premise for their lies, for their marriage and for their performance.

Vinegar Girl takes its title from the saying “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  When Kate teaches him the saying, Pyotr wonders why a person would ever want to catch flies, and gives Kate the nickname Vinegar Girl endearingly.  It’s a celebration of her prickly personality, a condemnation of the gender politics that make sweetness an attractive feminine attribute, and a welcome subversion of Katherina’s monologue at the end of Shakespeare’s play.  Katherina is utterly changed at the end of the play, affirming a husband’s right to rule.  Kate changes but is not tamed.  At the beginning of the book, Kate is adrift and lonely and beginning to be bitter.  She does not have a life plan, and the impact that this lack of direction has had on her self-esteem makes all the more believable her agreeing to marry Pyotr.  It is, at the very least, a way to leave her father’s house.  She is an indifferent housekeeper and cook at the beginning of the book and at the end, and this is exactly as it should be.  Tyler’s Kate is not interested in making house or making nice, and she does not have to.  She does not have to change in order for this marriage to do the work it has to do.  And, while Shakespeare’s Bianca is sickeningly dutiful to her father, Tyler’s Bunny is a rule-breaker, a layabout and a poor student in need of hours of remedial tutoring.  It’s this last aspect of the modernization of Bianca that is my only quarrel with Tyler’s book.  Why make Bunny an airhead?  She could have had swarms of tutors coming and going for gifted enrichment just the same….

But “gifted” is not where this book is aiming.  This is easy and delightful reading.  It’s clever and charming and fun.  I loved every minute of reading it.

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murderA Murder of Magpies

by Judith Flanders

2015: St. Martin’s Press, New York.

It’s March Break, which means pajama days, which means days to read for hours on end.

I curled up this morning with a find from Ben McNally Books, where I never fail to find an Anglophilic read, and even better, one I’ve not yet heard of.

A Murder of Magpies is a murder mystery by Judith Flanders, best known for her work on Victorian lives and times.  Her award-winning The Invention of Murder examined how the Victorians turned what was actually a rare crime into ubiquitous press and entertainment.

Flanders’s own foray into the murder mystery genre is set in London, and its protagonist, Samantha Clair, is an editor at a publishing firm housed in a draughty building and staffed by bright young things who are not so bright.  She scorns fashion, believes passionately in the value of her work, is cheerfully independent, funny and she is sexy.  When she asks one of the powerful men in the story to account for why he had wanted to help her, he replies

“You have balls.”  He looked at me as though he’d just paid me a compliment.  Of course, in his mind, he had.  I’d just never wanted balls.  Silly me.

Sam won my heart early in the book when she described her days: they are long, they start early, and only occasionally with a run:

There are supposed to be endorphins or whatever that make you feel great when you exercise.  I don’t think I have any, because I only feel great when I’m lying on the sofa reading a book, possibly while simultaneously eating biscuits.  That’s why I work in publishing, not athletics.

Sam is about to publish a tell-all about the crimes and misdemeanours in a large fashion house, when the book’s author and her friend, Kit, goes missing.  DI Jake Field comes to her office to ask about the death of a bike courier who was carrying a copy of the manuscript, and although he is at first dismissive of her concern about Kit’s whereabouts, things soon heat up on the action and attraction front.  Sam’s mother is a very well-connected lawyer who completes the detecting trio, and together they take us through a quick and very pleasurable read.

The book was riddled with improbabilities.  No way would the detective on the case tell Sam so much.  No way would a veteran editor but rookie crime-solver investigate and solve the crimes inside a fortnight.  Now way is Sam’s mother so well connected.  None of it mattered.  I was completely willing to suspend disbelief because Sam is a hard-working, book-loving, feminist spark, and I loved her.  I also loved the casual way in which she falls into a relationship with Jake in which neither of them play the other or get caught up in games.  She’s just so smart in so many ways, and I loved her company.

The book was published in England as Writer’s Block.  Neither title works particularly well; there was no case of writer’s block, nor was there a discussion of collective nouns involving death, more’s the pity, but since it’s the story that counts, the titles are neither here nor there.  The good news from England is that there will be more.  A Bed of Scorpions will be published in England this week.  Even better, it’s a campus novel.  It’s ticks each and every one of the boxes in my list of highly desirables, and I will be on the lookout this time when it does cross the pond.

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untitledLost for Words

Edward St. Aubyn

New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

The whole time I was reading this book, I was thinking what fun St. Aubyn must have had writing it.  I loved St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels.  They were so beautifully crafted, but, because the semi-autobiographical novels dealt with child abuse and substance abuse, they were also really rather bleak.  Lost for Words is a departure, a very pointed satire about the book prize industry, the kind of book prize St. Aubyn narrowly missed winning in 2006 for Mother’s Milk, one of the Melrose novels.

The novel follows members of the jury for the Elysian Prize (none of whom actually read the books in the running) and some of the possible winners of the prize (their psychological disorders run the gamut).  For most of the book, not one of them is in any way likeable, and if I have any quarrel with the book, it’s that three-quarters of the way through, the narrator decides that someone must emerge sympathetically from the blanket of his malice.  The softening for two of the characters at that point does not quite ring true, and I kept waiting for another skewering.

The novel is peppered with excerpts from the short-listed novels as well as the works of the jury members and their lovers.  They are, by far, the best value for money.  St. Aubyn imitates academic discourse, precious prose and trendy grammarless dialogue with uncanny precision.  Accomplished parody is not an easy thing to pull off, but he gets the tone so perfectly.  Here he is as Didier, a French cultural critic:

Nietzsche announced the death of God; Foucault announced the death of Man; the death of Nature announces itself; with no need for an intermediary.  As these three elements of our classical discourse dissolve in the acid rain of late Capitalism, we are offered the consolation of its own pale triumvirate: the producer, the consumer and the commodity.  Thanks to advertising, the producer sells the commodity to the consumer; thanks to the Internet, the consumer is the commodity sold to the producer.  This is the Utopia of borderless democracy: a shift of signifier in the desert of the Real. … In this desert it is forbidden to think.  Even if Capitalism is the crisis, Capitalism must be the solution!

Didier paused, waiting for a second preposterous paradox to pop into his head.  (132-35)

Sad to say, my laughter at this kind of absurdity was not all comfortable innocence.  I felt well rid of my own academic baggage reading that drivel.

The way St. Aubyn satirizes politicians, parents, academics and the press is sizzlingly good.  For most of the book, there’s really no one to like or to root for, and that can make it feel somewhat rudderless, but the plot has such a powerful engine that it’s not a big missing piece.  I devoured it and wanted more.

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untitledThe Word Exchange

Alena Graedon

Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2014.

This is the perfect bibliophile’s beach read!  It has all the thrills and spills of a blockbuster summer read, but what the characters are fighting for is the fate of The Word, or words, in the shape of protecting the most recent and most comprehensive edition of  the North American Dictionary of the English Language.

The novel has 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, and each chapter begins with the definition of a word, but none of these is quite right.  Take A:

Alice n: a girl transformed by reflection

Alice, it turns out, is the code name for one of our narrators, Anana Johnson, whose father has vanished:

On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.  And not only from the big glass building on Broadway where its offices were housed.  On that night, my father, Douglas Samuel Johnson (!), Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, slipped from the actual artifact he’d helped compose.

That was before the Dictionary died, letters expiring on the page.  Before the virus.  Before our language dissolved like so much melting snow. … Before my father vanished, before the first signs of S0111 arrived, I’d reflected very little on our way of life.  The changing world I’d come of age in–slowly bereft of books and love letters, photographs and maps, takeout menus, timetables, liner notes, and diaries–was a world I’d come to accept.  If I was missing out on things, they were things I didn’t think to miss.  How could we miss words?  We were drowning in a sea of text.  A new one arrived, chiming, every minute. (3)

In this near future, we drown in words but they all lack meaning, and much of that absence of content can be blamed on our increasing dependence on our devices.  Instead of phones, the ubiquitous device is a Meme, and it serves not only as a means of communication, but also as an extension of self and a substitute consciousness.  When the narrator enters a restaurant at the beginning of the novel, her Meme brings up the menu, but it then overrides her drink order, replacing a tea with a hot toddy, because it knows that she needs a stiff drink.

Memes can also, crucially, give their owners the words or definitions they need if they have difficulty remembering a word or its meaning.  Five cents a word.  Touch of a button.  This exchange is where the novel plays out: in the space between our use of language and its digital and corporate control.

Definitions and their ownership are the territory over which the characters battle, and the book is a fun and rollicking ride through an alarmingly corrupt future.  I was reminded often of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and especially of Oryx and Crake in which Atwood does the heavy lifting of her world building.  They share the same kind of hysterical exaggeration of nefarious corporate interests that frightens, nevertheless, because, yes, people can be that stupid and that greedy.

At first, the struggle seems to be over the ownership of words and their definitions, but when a virus that corrupts spoken as well as digital communication begins to spread, the stakes get suddenly and critically higher.

This is a first novel for Graedon, a graduate of Brown and of Columbia’s MFA programme, and while the novel reveals its author to be whip smart and savvy about what makes a page-turner, I felt that her editor could have been more firm about eliminating some redundancies and tightening up some of the plot.  There are double and triple agents, but I never quite felt that the revelation had had the proper build up.  There was a bit too much slack in the reins, but not enough to spoil the ride.

Add this to your beach read haul for summer, though, and you’ll be reading well past sunset.

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jeevesJeeves and the Wedding Bells

by Sebastian Faulks

London: Hutchinson, 2013.

I’ve been on rather a run of “in the style of” books lately.  I don’t know that I’ve ever read much “fan fiction.”  There was one, very terrible continuation of Pride and Prejudice that follows Elizabeth and Darcy into marriage.  I read that and swore I’d never go down that road again.

Val McDermid’s rewriting of Northanger Abbey was so clever, and Jo Baker’s alternate view of life below stairs in Pride and Prejudice was so compelling, though, that I am less and less afraid of venturing into fan fiction territory again.

And really, let’s face it, there was never any question as to whether I would read a (contemporary) homage to P.G. Wodehouse, which is what Sebastian Faulks prefers to call his Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.

The novel begins with a role reversal: Bertie Wooster is Bunburying again, in this case, pretending to be valet to Jeeve’s Lord Etringham.  This, in itself, is a wonderful plot idea: to make the gentleman and gentleman’s gentleman relationship a bit more appealing to contemporary readers by putting Bertie below stairs, or on an uncomfortable bed up in the attic, as the case may be.  The story that follows is a fun and diverting read, true to the spirit of Wodehouse, if never quite measuring up to his ability to provoke belly laughs.

It is no insult to say that my favourite bit of the book was Faulks’s introduction, where he explains that the novel was written in order to introduce Wodehouse to a younger readership:

To the old hands, meanwhile, I would say only this; that yes, I did understand the size of what I had taken on; and yes it was as hard as I expected.  Wodehouse’s prose is a glorious thing; and there’s the rub.  I didn’t want to write too close an imitation of that distinctive music for fear of sounding flat or sharp.  Nor did I want to drift into parody.  What I therefore tried to do was give people who haven’t read the Jeeves books a sense of what they sound like; while for those who know them well I tried to provide a nostalgic variation–in which a memory of the real thing provides the tune and these pages perhaps a line of harmony.

The novel does not betray his struggle; it does provide the sought-for line of harmony.  If I have anything with which to quarrel it is that there is too little of Jeeves, but then, I suspect, that is precisely the point.  Send the people back to the original for more.

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isLongbourn

by Jo Baker

Toronto: Random House, 2013.

Jane Austen and her characters were focused on marriage; Jo Baker and hers have their eyes on the linens.  The opening sentences of Baker’s novel say it all:

There could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September.  Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household’s linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah.

A far cry from “a truth universally acknowledged,” and more true to the spirit of Jane Eyre, which also echoes through this passage.  Sadly for Sarah, the Bennets’ maid, there is every possibility that a walk will be taken that day, and that the ladies will return with their petticoats three inches deep in mud.  The book is full of the details of the lives lived around the events that coat petticoats in mud, around the glittering glory of the Bennet girls at a dance or a dinner: the hours of preparation and clean-up that go into the glitter.  We learn that the velvet ribbon that trims the dress must be unpicked before every wash and then sewn on again so that the dye will not bleed.  We learn that the housemaids had to coat their hands in goose fat to soothe the chilblains that were caused by all the washing of linens.

Longbourn tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from below stairs, and we have the story (re)told in neat parallels.  A James Smith arrives in the household at the same time that Bingley arrives at Netherfield Park.  Sarah, like Lizzie, has two men to interest her.  There is mystery and romance and an awful lot of lovely detail.  Baker is marvellous at packing the novel full of sensory information: the sounds in the hedgerows in the early peppery-cold morning, foxes barking, the smell of spearmint, the pain of chilblains.

There is a good deal about reading in the book, too.  Sarah reads a lot, and often reads aloud to the servants.  Lizzie lends her Pamela, she burns through triple decker novels, and she learns a great deal about the mysterious footman, James Smith, by secretly looking through his books in his bedroom.  It is clear that books are a mixed blessing, though.  Through books, Sarah learns about the world beyond the walls of Longbourn,  and she chafes against the restrictions of her role and her sheltered life.  She yearns to travel and to get out from under the work that defines her.  Here she is during one brief escape, in the company of Ptolemy Bingley, a black servant of the Bingley household:

he drew her along into the little wilderness, and they followed the path through the tangled dead grass.  He lifted a low-hanging branch to let her pass.  The rowans still had a few scarlet berries unpecked by the birds, and everything was hung with raindrops, and smelling of rot.  Behind her, in her absence, the house was grinding along, its cogs turning and teeth linking, belts creaking, and there must come a moment–any moment now–when a cog would bite on nothing, and spin on air; some necessary act would go unperformed, some service would not be provided; the whole mechanism would crunch and splinter and shriek out in protest, and come to a juddering halt, because she was not there.

Mrs. Hill (she always gets the honourific) is a kindly woman, scrupulously fair and trusting, but she wants none of this kind of hanky panky from her staff.  She comes marching along to put a stop to what could easily have been a threshold moment for Sarah.  Sarah, to her credit, is smart enough to weigh her options as far as the men go, and while the plot travels neatly along the lines of the original for the first two volumes, the plot’s twists open up considerably in the third.  Wickham comes off decidedly less appealing than in the original.

I was transfixed at how well and apparently seamlessly Baker shaped her novel in neat parings and echoes of the original.  In addition to the lush detail about the house and its setting, I absolutely loved all of the information about life below stairs.  I often find myself wondering who is doing the cooking in the finer fictional households, and this book gives all the details that we might desire.  Baker also introduces into this retelling issues of race, slavery, class, inheritance, gender and homosexuality.  Refreshing, to be sure, but a little forced if I am to be honest.  I think that this book might have ticked fewer politically correct boxes and have been the stronger for it.

That is my only quibble, and it is a small one.  A delightful read.

Longbourn is released in paperback this week.

 

 

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SansomMr. Dixon Disappears

Ian Sansom

New York: Harper Perennial, 2006

The second in The Mobile Library series of mysteries by Ian Sansom, Mr. Dixon Disappears is full of misanthropic charm and bookish goodness.  The titular mobile librarian, Israel Armstrong, BA (Hons), is disenchanted:

He was sick of the excuses and lies.  He was tired of the evasions and the untruths, of people refusing to stand up and speak the truth and take responsibility for their own actions.  It seemed to him like yet another symptom of the decline of Western civilization; of chaos; and climate change; and environmental disaster; and war; disease; famine; oppression; the eternal slow slide down and down and down.  It was entropy, nemesis, apotheosis, imminent apocalypse and sheer bad manners all rolled into one.

People were not returning their library books on time.

And if that’s not bad enough, hapless Israel finds himself arrested for the disappearance of department store proprietor, Mr. Dixon, and 100,000 pounds from the store safe.  When he wakes in jail, he faces a dark night of the reader’s soul: there is nothing to read, and, worse, he begins to doubt the very value of reading:

Library users were exactly the same as everyone else, it seemed, and this came as a terrible shock to Israel.  He had always believed that reading was good for you, that the more books you read somehow the better you were, the closer to some ideal of human perfection you came, yet if anything his own experience at the library suggested the exact opposite: that reading didn’t make you a better person, that it just made you short-sighted, and even less likely than your fellow man or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not centre around you and your ailments and the state of the weather.

Things improve marginally for Israel once he’s sprung from jail and can investigate the mystery himself, but he still finds himself woefully short of reading material.  He reluctantly picks up a murder mystery from the shelf of the room into which he’s had to decamp:

He’d never read a lot of crime fiction before; it was the covers, mostly, that put him off.  He was very anti-embossing.

I’m anti-embossing, too!  Mr. Dixon Disappears has no embossing on its cover, and on its insides, it’s a fairly meandering sort of a mystery; it’s wry and clever about books and bookish enthusiasm gone wrong.  The mystery plot never really grabbed me, however, so it’s not a book to come to if you want a good mystery with which to wrestle.

I read the first in Sansom’s new series of County Guides Mysteries last week, The Norfolk Mystery, and it felt a bit flat.  There was a lot of setting up of the series to come, I think, so I’m glad that I started with the second in the Mobile Library series.  I will go back for more non-embossed helpings.

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