Posts filed under ‘european’

IAN McEWAN – BLACK DOGS and THE CHILDREN ACT

Bookgroupers all really loved both books. we now understand why Ian McEwan is so famous and such a darling of the literati.

Although both are fabulous there are some differences. For example, the point of view of the narrator is very different: Black Dogs is written in the first person and The Children Act written by an  omniscient narrator. However, this basic difference is masked by McEwan’s skill. In both books he is able to constantly switch between the point of view of the narrator and the point of view of whichever character he is speaking of at the time without losing the reader. He is able to mix together, and switch between, detailed accounts of the state of mind of each character as they experience the events depicted, and astute observations about architecture, politics, science, history and religion, without ever making you wonder ‘who is speaking now’, is this him or the character?

 

black dogsBlack Dogs is deceptively named. It is not a novel about depression as you might be tempted to think from the title. Rather this review gives the key quote from the book that shows these metaphorical black dogs are much older than Winston Churchill’s. This wikipedia quote gives the right reference

A black dog is the name given to a being found primarily in the folklores of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a Hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes.[1] It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk),[2] and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.[1][3][4]

The origins of the black dog are difficult to discern. It is impossible to ascertain whether the creature originated in the Celtic or Germanic elements in British culture. Throughout European mythology, dogs have been associated with death. Examples of this are the Cŵn Annwn,[5] Garmr[6] and Cerberus,[7] all of whom were in some way guardians of the underworld. This association seems to be due to the scavenging habits of dogs.[8] It is possible that the black dog is a survival of these beliefs. Black dogs are almost universally regarded as malevolent, and a few (such as the Barghest) are said to be directly harmful. Some, however, like the Gurt Dog in Somerset and the Black Dog of the Hanging Hills in Connecticut, are said to behave benevolently.

At one level its a plainly told depiction of the history of the relationship of a middle aged man’s elderly in-laws. Not promising material you might think, especially as Bernard and June are not particularly extraordinary individuals, and their breakup was not particularly tempestuous or dramatic. Yet the novel is compelling at the level of the characters’ inner lives, and at the level of very big grand ideas.

He manages to extract from the process of minutely detailing the specifics of their personal stories, and the everyday feelings of these two fairly ordinary people, an excuse to beautifully articulate the real human truth, and complexity, of many of the biggest issues there are.

Via Bernard he describes war in the freshest and most truthful way i have ever read: in less than half a page. He does this in context, so it does not come across as an erudite aside in which the author has inserted himself into the story just to have a rant about some issue. it appears to come from the inner life of the Jeremy, the narrator, as he reflects on the experience of Bernard meeting the locals on his honeymoon walking tour through post war rural France, and is all the more powerful for that

 war not as a historical, geopolitical fact but as a multiplicity, a near-infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than anyone could ever begin to comprehend; a weight borne in silence by hundreds of thousands, millions, like the woman in black for a husband and two brothers, each grief a particular, intricate, keening love story that might have been otherwise.

The truth about organised religion he dispenses with in a few lines from June.

I suppose all the great world religions began with individuals making inspired contact with a spiritual reality and then trying to keep that knowledge alive. Most of it gets lost in rules and  and practices and addiction to power. That’s how religions are.

The complexity of our attitudes as humans to a logical rational way of making decisions and behaving versus a more emotional or intuitive approach, seems like a fairly arcane issue for a novel. Perhaps more suited to a philosophy text. But McEwan proves otherwise. This is the issue at the heart of the book. He does not try to encapsulate it briefly anywhere, rather he draws it out across the whole book. He contrasts the attitudes of his two protagonists, and also inserts his narrators thoughts and feelings via both the questions the narrator asks each of them, and the way he describes his own actions. Its beautifully done. I found it very revealing. It made me think and articulate my own approach to making decisions and thinking.

in contrast to rationalism v mysticism, sex is not a surprising thing to find in a novel. However, McEwan even finds  way to make this new, to give us fresh eyes to see through. He does this through June, speaking as an elderly woman he has her describe the attitude of herself and her girlfriends to sex before she met Bernard back in the 1930s.

We used to huddle up and talk about it a great deal. If you were going to be married sex was the price you must pay. After the wedding. It was a tough bargain, but reasonable enough. You couldn’t have something for nothing.

‘And then, everything changed. Within days of meeting Bernard my feelings were . . . well, I thought I was going to explode. I wanted him, Jeremy. It was like a pain. I didn’t want a wedding or a kitchen, I wanted this man. I had lurid fantasies about him. I couldn’t talk to my girlfriends honestly. They would have been shocked.

The final big issue he manages to deal with is capitalism v communism. As long term leftie I have always found it hard to understand why so many of the older generation of left leaning political activists continued to support communism well into the 50s and 60s. Long after the deaths and killings had become well known. This book, for me, explained for the first time, through the vehicle of Bernard and June, why so many members of their generation, the ‘great generation’ born in the 20s or 30s, remained attracted to communism for so long.

the routing of fascism, class struggle, and the great engine of history whose direction was now known to science and which had granted to the Party its inalienable right to govern, all merged to one spectacular view, a beckoning avenue unrolling from the starting point of their love, out across the vast prospect of causse and mountains which reddened as they spoke,

children actThe Children Act is aptly named being about a high court judge dealing with family law issues as outlined by The Guardian. The story about betrayal and duty, both in love and at work. It is largely told through the eyes of Fiona: the judge of the family court specialising in child protection. She begins as the duty bound and self righteous betrayed, and slowly transforms into the confessional and repentant betrayer.

It’s beautifully written and wonderfully observed, full of complex realistic characters in the middle of personal, legal and moral questions with no easy answers.

Fiona’s husband, understandably, wants ‘ecstasy. Almost blacking out with the thrill of it. remember that? I want one last go. Even if you don’t. Or perhaps you do?’ Whereas Fiona ‘could think only of disruption, assignations, disappointment, ill timed phone calls. The sticky business of learning to be with someone new  in bed, the newly devised endearments, all the fakery.

Fiona’s marriage is falling apart and reforming as her life at court gets consumed by yet another insolvable legal question. A lively and bright, young Jehovah s witness is dying of cancer and only a blood transfusion will save him. He is choosing to remain loyal to his faith rather than to remain alive. But he is under 18 so  Fiona can allow the hospital to transfuse him against his, and his family’s wishes, if she deems it to be in the interests of his welfare.

The interactions between them are gentle and personal in tone rather than polemic or political but in this gentle way they do hold up for scrutiny a romantic faith and family focussed world view, alongside a secular utilitarian one.

In the process McEwan also holds up scrutiny to his own readership, people like me and the bookgroupers. He could be pointing the finger at us when Fiona describes the spectrum of views people held on her most recent major case.

at one end people of the secular utilitarian persuasion, impatient of legal detail, blessed by an easy moral equation: one child saved better than two dead.

The narrator informs us very early in the book that it was this case that had caused the turmoil in her marriage:. It concerned conjoined twins, destined to die without medical intervention. She had to decide whether to authorise doctors to separate them, knowing one would die in the hope that the other would live. The trauma of the decision to kill that child, and the ensuing hate mail and media frenzy, had caused her to withdraw emotionally, but she never explained this to her husband, and never does at any stage.

The book ends however, with her talking to him in intimate detail about the Jehovah’s Witness boy. This, to me, makes the book a beautifully crafted redemption story, where or hero, heroine, in this case has learnt a lesson and everyone is better off for it.

Another great line I liked appears before the concluding reconciliation, while Fiona is contemplating life as a deserted wife, 60ish, a judge, living a the law courts. How does one behave, where will she go and who with?

To be the object of general pity was also a form of social death. The nineteenth century was closer than most women thought.

By the end, despite all these complex moral ambiguities, McEwan had not radically changed my world view, probably because it already largely aligns with his. He did though leave me feeling like a softer, less dogmatic human. In any moment the betrayer, the betrayed, and the call of duty, can seem very clear to us, but they rarely are.  There are many types of betrayal and many duties. One betrayal may cause another, and fulfilling one duty may mean failing another.

June 30, 2015 at 12:50 pm Leave a comment

THE TESTAMENT OF MARY by COLM TOIBIN

 

testament of mary

I told him before he departed that all my life when I have seen more than two men together I have seen foolishness and I have seen cruelty

I love that quote, and this book contains a few others that are nearly as good. Unfortunately these highlights are rare.

A famous irish author chooses to re-write the new testament in the voice of the catholic church, and ireland’s, number 1 saint – the mother of jesus. A courageous decision Sir Humphrey might have called it, but given it was shortlisted for the booker in 2013 i guess you could say the gamble worked. It didn’t work for me however, or the other bookgroupers.

we didn’t hate it, but its a very hard book to love. In a way its because toibin is too good. he has to make a lot of choices in this book. he has to invent mary, what is she like, what does she want to say, what did she see, and how did she interpret it. His choices are brave at every turn – to a fault. he never makes an easy choice so the mary we read, the mary of toibin’s creation could very well be real but she is not likeable, wise, insightful or entertaining. he is scared, reclusive, resentful even bitter. In modern terms we would say she is depressed.

This makes the book hard work and quite frustrating. All the famous, and spectacular, events are related in the flat drone of a very sad old lady, and we don’t understand why she is like that until the end. Some months after witnessing the crucifixion, and narrating us through it from a mothers perspective, she says

I had been made wild by what I saw and nothing has ever changed that. I have been unhinged by what I saw in daylight and no darkness will assuage that or lessen what it did to me.

At this point you can see why some people think the book is a literary triumph for toibin. he is so truthful, so determined to imagine a version of the ageing, reflective mary that could be real, he makes no attempt to give us a good read. Instead he gives us a trauma survivor. A woman living in a police state, who has been in hiding and in fear of her life for years, who watched her son mutilated in public and stood by doing nothing. A woman who is now visited by people determined to make him their saviour rather than her son, and worst of all, that may be the choice he himself made – to abandon her.

you can see why she might be depressed, but it doesn’t make the book fun to read. as one bookgrouper said its a bit like cormac macarthy’s the road in its relentless bleakness.

It did raise an interesting idea for me however. there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of trauma survivors, from places like rawanda, sudan, congo, afghanistan that may have been through similar things – forced to  stand by while their loved ones are hacked apart by one crazy regime or another. Some of these people end up in places like australia as refugees, where we expect them to become normal happy citizens. having read this book i think its a miracle that some of them do.

 

April 13, 2014 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment

Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehog

Redemption. What does it take to redeem a book, or a life? Page after page and day after day of struggle, either searching for or talking and writing about meaning and beauty, but failing to find it. Can 10 beautiful pages justify the previous 300? Can an ending, or our ending,  redeem what came before? Can the long view of hindsight outweigh the page by page reading experience, or the moment by moment day by day experience of living ?
Perhaps it can. Most bookgroupers were very positive about the hedgehog. Two of us were not. We complained loudly that it droned on, took too long to get to the point, and could have started half way through, etc. Whilst the enthusiasts agreed it took a while to get going, they felt it was more than worth it. Fascinatingly though, the negative among us had not finished the book, while the positive had.
So the positives were reviewing the book in hindsight, post the emotional, but redemptive ending. In contrast, we negatives were still in the tortured moment, without the benefit of looking back and weighing the sum of our frustrations and insight.
I will focus more on the positives and negatives of the book later.
It’s an open question whether the positive bookgroupers would have been negative if asked before the ending. As a negative that subsequently completed the book I find myself agnostic. I would like to believe in the redeemer, to acknowledge i could not have found meaning in the end without all the pain of the journey, but I cannot. i find myself with residual resentment. All those pages of pain and frustration could have been spent doing something else. Did I really have to go through them for the heartfelt beauty of the ending?
Perhaps not. Perhaps Renee’s life of hidden intellectualism was a sad waste, un-redeemed by a few weeks of companionship at the end? The problem is that it is hard to deny that her life was not redeemed by her impact on Paloma.
Is that it? The point is not to weigh the sum of our pain and pleasure and ask whether at the end, in hindsight, will I be in the red or black, but rather is anyone else better off because of me? Not have I been saved, but has anyone else?
The trouble is Renee can never know whether Paloma was saved or not. So whilst the fate of Paloma may be a redemption for us as readers of the hedgehog, it may not be for us as people, because we can never know the impacts we have on those around us, the readers of our lives.
Still undecided about the hedgehog? Here is some more on the positives and negatives.
For the negative bookgroupers the big issue was that three quarters of the book is the setup. The action and plot only start after this lengthy introduction. Not only was the introduction too long, it was also too hard to swallow for us negatives, though not for the majority of bookgroupers i should say.
Our two protagonists are a super intelligent 12 year old bent on suicide, and a concierge, building caretaker, hiding her true enlightened cultured nature from the upper class residents of a Paris  apartment block. I found them both annoying. Firstly, the kid is a black hole of negativity, although perhaps many of us were as teenagers. Secondly, the premise of the concierge hiding her true self, well it had me baffled throughout. I never understood the point of it as she never had a reason, or reward, for doing it.
Within this, one way of expressing what annoyed me was their lack of generosity. Both characters were constantly banging on about bad grammar for example. I’m not sure I believe someone can be considered some sort of elevated soul just because they are really keen on art and beauty for their own sake, if at the same time they are still accusatory and dismissive of everyone around them.
Yet the author appears to want us to believe her two protagonists are a higher caste than the other residents of 7 rue de grenelle. This lack of generosity and constant judgement, illustrated by their obsession with grammar, however, suggests they might just be pretentious elitists trying to tell themselves they are better than everyone else by claiming they are super sensitive and knowledgeable about Art and Beauty. In short, they seem to be great examples of exactly the kind of fakery and self deception they are critiquing in the other residents of 7 rue de grenelle.
This set-up also seems very old fashioned and hypocritical. Why make a big fuss over the idea that a concierge could be intelligent? It is extremely patronising. It is the kind of thing you might expect to read in a romantic nineteenth century novel. It implies a multitude of nineteenth century romantic ideas on the part of the author, such as: the nature of the members of each class is different and fixed; both the lumpen proletariat and bourgeois are obnoxious, only the sensitive artistic soul is important; the normal laws of behaviour don’t apply to exceptional sensitive artistic souls who see so much more in the world than others.  In this sense the hedgehog is a pre-modern novel.
After pages and pages of this i felt like  both protagonists deserved to get their comeuppance for their obnoxious ungenerous reverse snobbery.
On the  positive side it is a very intelligent book. There are lots of lectures on art and philosophy, lots of sharp social observation and criticism.  Many book groupers found it to be well written, even though we were reading it in translation. They also found the characters engaging and the set-up interesting rather than frustrating.
Even for we negatives there were some delightful moments, particularly towards the end. For example, when the hero of the book, Monsiuer Ozu, discovers her secret he says to Renee what i had been wanting to say to her all along – ‘its the twenty first century for goodness sake’. This was great moment and credit to the author she gave Renee’s character no answer. Similarly towards the end, Renee christens Paloma the ‘Judge of Humanity’. This very neatly captured what had been annoying me so much about Paloma throughout.
These two moments were a great relief because they revealed, after three quarters of the book, that the author was aware of the flaw in these characters. It revealed that these  flaws had been deliberately created to make a point, and that the characters were not just simply speaking for the author.
On the whole it was a very worthwhile read and most people will love it. If you find the start slow, as i did, skip to the half way mark and carry on from there. It is definitely worth reading from there to the end.

This fantastic book site has a lot more stuff about it.

April 27, 2013 at 6:41 am 2 comments

THE ODYSSEY by HOMER

When rosy fingered Dawn rose over the wine dark sea Dave and his strong grieved companions, each in their fine palace, appointed with good things, grunted and rolled over.

When Coffee, the beloved offspring of Helios and Rumour, had ministered to the companions they gathered together in counsel. The stewards brought bread, and placed many good things upon it. They brought strong wine from the far country where the men play with balls all day and are fearsome to look upon. Then when the noble strong companions had put away their desire for eating and drinking Donfrancisco addressed them in winged words.

Beloved companions, the resolute Leannarkos, the never failing Markopoulos, the astute Petermaous, we have a Journey that only heroes and gods would attempt. Our dear companion, the most loyal of all friends, the resolute and enduring Trishanikis, whose perseverence rivals even that of immortal Sisyphus has summoned us to her strange country where dwell not eaters of bread, men as we know them, but eaters of maccaroons. We must cross the wide ocean where the fishes swarm, and Posiedon earth shaker rules. We must enter upon the roads where Eternal Traffic, despiser of men and most fickle of gods, the trickster daughter of Fate and Luck, can entrap men for many lifetimes.

And so he addressed them in winged words and they spoke back and forth among them until brave Karlaniphous spoke. Noble Donfrancisco, best of men, and all my beloved companions, this is the plan that seems best to me. We must summon the stewards from our well appointed palaces and see that all things are made ready, all provisions are stowed in the well benched black ships, then must make libations and hecatombs to the great god Google, only he can show the best way to make our journey to avoid the briny arms of Poseidon earth shaker and ruler of fishes, to defeat wily Traffic and all her allies.

And so it goes on – its a very long book and its at least 3000 years old and wasn’t written down for about 500 years after it was composed – so you have to cut it a bit of slack.

All the repetition and the unnecessary length and detail are believed to be there because it was an oral tradition. It was entertainment through the long nights so in some ways, back then, the longer the story the better. At least that is what the intro to my translation said.

There are lots of other interesting things to observe about it including the translation issue, the colour issue, the hospitality issue, the gods issue and the hero figure.

However, the first third is quite dull. The parody above is based on that section. It goes on and on like that. The book really only gets going in the middle when odysseus starts to tell the story of his adventure. While this part is still a bit annoying because odysseus himself seems to be quite obnoxious, it does have a lot of action and it does introduce a lot of greek gods. This is quite useful because we have grown up with these gods but most of us dont know them in detail.

So i would say that section is worth reading, but skip the rest – unless you have a need to feel you have read what is probably the foundational piece of literature for our western culture.

In which case, you may be interested in this  study guide and/or these observations.

The translation issue

A big question when approaching homer is which translation to read. This guide to the main ones is the best decision aid i have found. if you want to totally confuse yourself check out the full list of every english translation ever. one of the issues is that it was apparently recited in iambic pentameter (the same rhythmic structure often used by shakespeare) in the ancient greek, so is it more authentic to read a translation that is in verse or is it better to read prose which is more likely to get the translation closer because it doesnt have to worry about rhythm and loud and soft syllables etc.

The colour issue

While reading it I was listened to this radiolab podcast which had a segment about why the colour blue is never used by homer anywhere in his books. The segment said
What is the color of honey, and “faces pale with fear”? If you’re Homer–one of the most influential poets in human history–that color is green. And the sea is “wine-dark,” just like oxen…though sheep are violet. Which all sounds…well, really off. Producer Tim Howardintroduces us to linguist Guy Deutscher, and the story of William Gladstone (a British Prime Minister back in the 1800s, and a huge Homer-ophile). Gladstone conducted an exhaustive study of every color reference in The Odyssey and The Iliad. And he found something startling: No blue! Tim pays a visit to the New York Public Library, where a book of German philosophy from the late 19th Century helps reveal a pattern: across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue always comes last.
i thought it was fascinating. more on the issue here just to prove the strange folk at radiolab are not the only ones to notice this. however the translation I read does use blue. the sea is ‘wine-blue’ throughout not ‘wine-dark’ – bit of ad-libbing by the translator?

The hospitality issue

Most of odysseus’ adventures are based around the idea of people being to hospitable to guests or not hospitable enough, or guests taking advantage of their hosts. For example the central issue is that odysseus is away for 10 years and is annoyed that the ‘suitors’ abused he hospitality of his house all that time. He kills them all for this. The guest/host relationship is an odd thing to be the central theme in an adventure story to people of our time. The intro to my translation claims this is because homer was a wandering poet and effectively lived off hospitality, so it was in his self interest to encourage hosts to be generous.

The gods issue

It is very obvious from the odyssey that the ancient greeks very sensibly just made every inexplicable natural phenomena into a god. Then they made all these gods very fickle and interactive so they could make lots of stories of how various gods related to each other to explain various events. Its a great system if you have no science and its much the same approach that nearly all pre-scientific cultures adopted allround the world. The book puts you inside the head of people like that, of religious people in modern times also perhaps, so that is interesting.

The hero figure

Odysseus is literally the archetypal hero for our culture. What is interesting about that is that he has lots of characteristics we still regrd as heroic – physically big, capable and beautiful. He also seems to have quite a few we might not think of highly – reckless, vengeful, selfish, impetuous, self indulgent. Its quite interesting to compare him to arny schwarznegger, bruce willis, russell crowe or tom cruise type heroes.

July 14, 2012 at 12:28 pm Leave a comment

THE EMIGRANTS by WG SEBALD

It was like a reverie or that moment you notice on a Sunday afternoon when you’re falling into sleep. The focus was elusive much of the time but as a fey tone this wasn’t necessarily a flaw but a deliciousness. only once or thrice I wondered if I was going to be able to grasp something that would stay with me for more than a few more blinks of the eye.

WG Sebald is a well known german author who died in 2001 after living in england since 1966. he published The Emigrants, in 1993 about four different jewish germans that emigrated, mostly in the early twentieth century, well before the holocaust. if he had been me, and had written about our bookgroup meeting on his book, it might have read something like this.

We gathered at the apartment of Mr D only a short walk from the railway station at M. It was a clear bright winters day but I arrived out of focus having just heard, simultaneously, that my elderly mother was very ill and that i was much closer than i expected to a woman who had been much in my thoughts. she was still young and beautiful, still in a time and place when youth is not quite yet a memory, not yet just a series of images about which we can talk and imagine the feelings we may have had at the time, but can never be sure that really was how we felt. I can recall the smell of grass clippings in summer in L where i grew up. L was a tropical place so i imagine the sweat, and the itchy feeling of grass clippings on tanned skin, even the resentment i may have felt at being forced to do the mowing again – maybe i thought ‘why didnt i have a dad or brother or somebody who could do it’. Memories, i was thinking as we knocked on the door, are like a country from which we have emigrated, the beds, the bread, the houses, every time we go there in our minds we remake all these things anew. was the bread fresher, were the summers longer did everyone smile, was it always more perfect than today. we will never know for sure sure because it was then and we are not that person anymore, we can only imagine ourselves into the remembered picture like we imagine ourselves into the heads of characters in a book.

Mr D, as usual, had wines with a story, a pinot noir from a particular region that i took a liking to and a shiraz that left me wondering why all wine could not taste like that. equally Mr K had desserts from an obscure corner of the metropolis and just when i was thinking i know where these men come from so what could explain this sophistication, Ms A asked the same question – what food had we grown up with and how many books we had in our houses. The answers may have been guesses, one can never be sure.

part way through a dessert somebody said something very interesting but i only got half of it because I was thinking mildly of mother lying in hospital, wondering if she was thinking back, had there been a time in her life when she was too young and too beautiful for someone?

That really was interesting what they’re saying about the book, that it was so beautiful but it was so slow, like grey hands moving in a grey mist, so you cant be sure how many there are, or if they have, or they are just about to, grasp something, or if they never will, they will just keep moving in the mist, twining and untwining, back and forth, up and down in a dance both beautiful and dull, ceaseless, and beyond beauty, purposeless.

in the end the book was like that, soft, dreamy, grey, beautiful, intensely human but disturbingly pointless. long sentences that lasted whole pages and lengthy dialogue in which it was not clear, always, who was talking – was it the author, or the character, was the author talking to the character, or reminiscing for the reader, or just dreaming on the borrowed memories of his characters.

July 16, 2011 at 6:37 am 1 comment

LUDMILLA’S BROKEN ENGLISH

Ludmilla’s broken english by DBC Pierre
ludmilla If you are looking for a book in which every sentence contains a surprise, this is the book for you. every sentence contains a surprising adjective or a noun used as a verb, or a comparison between things any reasonable person would never have thought to compare.

It is remarkable how consistent the linguistic fireworks are, they go from page 1 to the end, and don’t let up.

I loved it for this reason and the Bookgroup agreed, but i had to agree with those groupers that thought the plot was a long way from believable. If you a looking for realism this is not the book for you.

The book is set in a version of the 1990s closely resembling the historical period but not exactly. It’s three central characters are
– Blair and bunny. two conjoined twins surgically separated in their 30s, after living all their lives in an institution in north England, and then released into London; and
– ludmilla. A beautiful young woman living in a warring ex-soviet republic, in about the most dysfunctional family and community known to literature.

It is clear from this set up that the world of the book is going to be strange and that getting these characters together will require a bizarre and probably unbelievable set of circumstances – and so it does.

But that’s not the point. The point is the language. The bizarre characters and plot are an excuse for the fresh and exhilarating language, they are just a device to justify outlandish phraseology.

Blair and bunny speak to each other in a particular way – gin isnt gin for example, its ‘a juniper infused restorative’. Similarly, in ludmilla’s family nobody says please or thank you – its all ‘cut your hatch and stopping gassing to the front of my face, your cleverness and bravery is only outdone by this clod of earth beneath my boot.’

i found the settings, characters and language very entertaining, but the bizarre settings also serve another purpose. they provide an opportunity to comment on globalization and privatization as it was back in the 90s. Blair is a kind of naive booster for the coming age of of opportunity, whereas bunny is a cynical recalcitrant, naive in his own way believing they will be taken back to the institution any minute. Ludmilla likewise has naive visions of the west and escape from her poverty and war devastated ex-soviet family.

So if you want to be surprised and delighted by remarkable words, with a dash of politics, this will be for you, but if you can’t get past a plot driven by one unlikely event after another then stay away.

September 8, 2009 at 11:56 am Leave a comment

CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN

mandolinCaptain Corelli’s Mandolin is an archaetype of the perfect modern novel. It tells the story of grand historico-political themes through the eyes of beautifully rendered individual characters.

It starts with short pieces told from different viewpoints seemingly unrelated, but you know because so many novels are now written this way, that eventually these stories will come together. And they do with devastating effect.

It’s a great achievement. This is because it manages to both present a lot of historical scholarship, in the form of detailed accounts of what occurred in the second world war between Italy and Greece and fascinating pieces on Greek history and culture, and at the same time provide interesting characters that undergo beliveable changes and struggles like love and unlove.

It’s so good that at times I got a bit bored. It almost seemed like a cliche of the perfect novel. The kind of novel all readers dream of writing – a grand historical story told through the eyes, loves and lives of a series if quirky characters in a remote little village with a cute and bizarre, but comforting culture.

The bookgroup was unanimous that it was really good but I sensed a lack of real passion for the book, and that is the feeling I had also. Everything about the book is so great I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t more enthusiastic.

I think it was because we were reading it 15 years after publication. In that time there has been a flood of tv shows, movies and books based on quirky little towns and bizarre characters – so we kind of knew what to expect.

Nevertheless it is a wonderful book and if you don’t read many books this is one that is worth the effort. It’s got the horror of war, the beauty of first love, the heartache of parenting, the mystery of music, and most of all the struggle that each of us must face. The choice of what is best to do right now, in the circumstances.

September 6, 2009 at 11:03 am Leave a comment

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