I’ve been very faithfully trying to finish Anna Karenina of late (I might have mentioned that already) and it’s taking up more time than I thought. As such, I haven’t had much time for other books, but now that I’ve got some time off, I can plan for next week. I’m also reading Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red which is interesting, to say the least. Anyway, there’s some stuff on my bookshelf I really need to start on.
1) Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders):
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know this one. Man Booker winner last year and all. (I talk a lot about the Bookers on this blog, but as a non-European reader, that’s part of how I keep up with what’s happening over there.) I didn’t actually know anything about Saunders and assumed it was his first novel, but apparently he’s got a lot of short story collections out there, which I’d be very interested to follow up with if I like this one. The ‘bardo’ is a transitional state between death and rebirth (in the Tibetan tradition) where Lincoln’s son Willie finds himself. A fascinating and unusual premise, no doubt; I have to say I’m not entirely sure I’m going to like this and it might just be too weird for me, but it’s definitely a novel concept.
2) Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel):
I borrowed this a couple years back and never got past a couple pages (and eventually had to return it) but it’s been recommended to me innumerable times the last few years. I kept waiting for it to get cheaper online and then finally gave up and bit the bullet so now I have a couple. I somewhat optimistically picked up the sequel too so I really want to get around to this at some point in the (near) future. It deals with Henry VIII’s reign and Thomas Cromwell is a primary character, and that’s pretty much all I know at this point. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of googling for facts once I actually start reading it.
3) 20th Century Ghosts (Joe Hill): I haven’t as yet read anything by Hill but this has been on my shelf since forever and it seems that whenever I remember I should read it it’s always a bit too late (as in, past 9 pm, and I’m not generally frightened by horror but I also value my sleep too much to risk it). I like short stories and I don’t mind horror, so I’m looking forward to this.
4) In the Light of What We Know (Zia Haider Rahman):
I really should be ashamed of myself. I bought this some five years ago, I’ve started it innumerable times, but haven’t made much progress. The sad thing is that the book is in no way boring, it’s just that every time I’ve started it I’ve somehow happened upon something I’ve been dying to read, or I read another dustjacket and end up reading something totally random. I mean, one might say then that the book isn’t interesting enough but I’ve yet to give it a fair chance and every book needs a certain amount of patience. This is supposed to be a novel spanning continents, about the friendship of two men. And I hope that in due time I’ll learn more about it by actually picking it up and reading it.
As always I like to keep my standards low so I hope to finish at least one of these. I get very easily distracted by a good dustjacket pitch. Also I’ve been looking at a lot of those ‘summer reads!’ lists which is dangerous because my TBR list is not getting any shorter and hasn’t been anywhere close to a realistic measure for years, no chance of my fixing it now. If you’ve read any of these/are looking forward to reading anything in particular, let me know!
The days are long, the sun is hard, life is relentless, and books are a lot of jumbled words which a brain as soft as cotton can’t wrap around and breathe in. Take a second. Take a minute. Take an hour. Take as long as you need.
1. Find a comfortable place, a couch, a bed, a corner of floor. I often like sitting on floors, and don’t do it enough. Get a dog, a cat, a drink, whichever preferred. A notebook for a wandering mind (for creative thoughts, sometimes, for relevant ones – it’s okay to wander). A pillow in case you fall asleep.
2. If you’re into music while concentrating, turn on a soundtrack. Listen to the whir of the fan, watch the cool-toned flickering light. Open the book – a book carefully chosen in a slump, a book that’s attractive, with the right, engaging description and a pretty cover. If you haven’t found one, look on Amazon or Goodreads. Ask your friends for their favourite books. Ask the internet, ask your mother. You’ll find the right one soon enough. (It wouldn’t hurt to pick a happy one, life is sad sometimes.)
3. Read a page. If, after a page, you still feel like putting it down, read another. Continue until lost or until you fall asleep, either one is acceptable. (If you must put the book by, do some other things. Call a friend, take a walk, peel a fruit, open the window and start putting together story backgrounds for your neighbours. I’ve decided a lot of mine are official government spies.)
4. If the book is particularly dramatic and involves some carefully-italicised and strongly-delivered lines, feel free to act it out. You may feel silly, so also be sure to shut the door.
5. If you have made enough of a dent that you’re thinking about the circumstances of the characters and drifting away from your own (or if you’ve fallen asleep), congrats, you have successfully avoided life for a couple hours. Good luck when you emerge. I don’t have a manual for life itself, however, you may consult a good book.
PS, this is a fun exercise, it’s not actually meant to be instructive. I was bored. If you become a hardcore floor-addict, I’m afraid I can’t help you, since I’m probably sitting on the floor right now.
Exit West will perhaps never be more pertinent, in its portrayal of two migrants in an unidentified city (perhaps somewhere in the large map of the Middle East) who leave their homeland (stifled by militant control) in search of safer shores. The two are lovers; Saeed, a devout and familial man, and Nadia, an independent, free-spirited woman. They leave their city through mysterious ‘doors’ that can transport people to other places (very Narnia-esque). Hamid received many accolades for this book, the NY Times named it one of the best books of ’17, and it was shortlisted for the Booker for the same year.
And I really, really, wanted to love it.
I’m a bit nervous to say I didn’t, actually. I normally like, or at least can appreciate the Man Booker nominees especially, but in this case, the book – though it deals with such a significant issue that we read about every day – just totally failed to resonate with me. I had to examine it, had to wonder whether I’ve been reading too many books with a western outlook (which is true, I certainly have) and if that’s clouded my appreciation of texts which originate from third-world countries. But I don’t think that’s the case here, and it would be unfair for me to pretend to like it even though it deals with an issue as important as migration and refuge. I don’t regret reading it, and I’m glad it was written, for sure, but at no point was I caught up in the narrative.
Hamid’s style of writing is somewhat languidly mechanical, and I could have liked that, but the pieces just didn’t quite come together for this novel. One of the things that annoyed me most was Hamid’s use of commas. The copy of the book I have is in a well-sized print, and at first I thought it was just a throwaway thing, with one or two sentences in the first fifty-odd pages. But no, the whole book is made up of sentences which just trawl forever. Hamid has at points written a measly three or four sentences to two and a half pages. It was not nitpicking on my part, it’s just something that was quite easy to pick up on, and it made no sense. It didn’t add any urgency to the narrative (in fact, the opposite), and it made the otherwise fluid sentences seem clumsy and badly structured, almost slightly child-like, as Hamid crammed one idea after another into one sentence, separated by commas followed by ands, and so on.
However, my biggest issue with the book is this: Hamid refuses to show us anything. When I talked about Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family, I discussed this as well, and I liked the book in spite of it. However, I should say that Clegg’s characters at least show a little of something. Hamid gives no such responsibility to his characters, and as such, I never believed them. I couldn’t believe Saeed and Nadia in love. I couldn’t believe Saeed’s parents in love. If I’d been given the opportunity, I would have, but Hamid never shows us, he tells. Saeed and Nadia spend time together. They smoke up, they chat about space and travel. Later, they argue. Their relationship is like a secret we’re just expected to be in on. If it hadn’t made up a significant part of the book (there are hardly any regular characters apart from the two) I would have given it a pass, but in this case, where they were the central characters who represented the crisis of displacement, I just couldn’t.
…for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.
Hamid occasionally interspersed the narrative with stories of other people – lovers, escapees and so on, but many of these perspectives didn’t seem particularly relevant to me. I was just wondering, huh, why are we switching tracks? The aspect of magical doors was an interesting quirk and I wanted badly to be invested in the storyline and in the character arcs, but they were deliberately sketched, it seemed, to be isolated from the reader. As we followed Saeed and Nadia through doors to Greece, England, and then America, they simply consistently remained estranged from the reader.
I was fairly disappointed in this book. I do plan to read more of Hamid sometime. The refugee experience is, I’m sure, diverse and expansive and difficult to write about. Hamid occasionally succeeded in capturing these moments of loss, pain, and the search for something close to peace. But would I read a whole book for that, a book which can’t flesh out characters or allow us to be invested in them? Probably not.
I’ve been staring at this cursor for the last five days, haven’t sat down properly with a book for longer. It’s forty-degree weather, sweat gets in my eyes and the air-conditioning runs exhaustively, the machine calm and steady. It’s repetitive, somehow reminds me of the seashells you put to your ear to listen to sea music, an unwavering note, with little ripples of variation you’ve to listen far more closely for. Of late, I’ve been missing the things I love – I sit down with a book and can’t read, click music off after five minutes, and sit down to write with a blank page staring back, even after an hour. Life is difficult sometimes.
To be caught in these moments of disappointment, of anger, of being at a still point, without any hope of movement forward or beyond should be disconcerting, but by now we’ve all been there so often we just throw up our hands and think ‘well, there’s always tomorrow’. And there’s always tomorrow to be happier, there’s always tomorrow to try again, but sometimes it feels a little trite. I find myself drifting into the comfort world of old TV shows, of friends who don’t demand too much of me, of room corners with pillows in the right place, the dog at my feet. I find myself acutely aware that I need comforting, and that makes it a little bit worse.
What upsets me too is, I write this when I’m out of it. Tomorrow, I’ll probably be in a better frame of mind, shape misery into better words, it’ll sound better, it’ll read and maybe you’ll think, hey, I know that feeling. Today, if you’re reading it, you’ll just ask that I stick to the books.
It’s forty-degree weather, the cursor is annoying. The dog is asleep.
Soon, we will return to the regularly scheduled program. Apologies for the inconvenience.
Why does this blog even exist? I literally don’t know.
I’m too tired tonight so here’s my measly reading progress for April.
1. The Good Daughter (Karin Slaughter):
This is a mystery/crime novel that deals with two separate incidents – two girls, Samantha and Charlie being held at gunpoint, and a school shooting twenty-eight years later, when the girls are successful lawyers and still working through the complications of the point in their lives when everything changed. I saw this all over goodreads, and I wasn’t entire sure if I would like it. It’s not really particularly original, and it can, at times, be a difficult read, but Slaughter (interesting surname) writes well and I like that she focussed on emotional character development to an extent. It wasn’t a bad read and I might read more of her work.
2. To Kill a Kingdom (Alexandra Christo)
Again, goodreads; I saw this everywhere, and I was curious. A siren kills princes and steals their hearts, and a pirate-prince hunts sirens. A romance waiting to happen, of course. It definitely had some original stuff and Christo can write compelling, witty characters, but I didn’t really fall in love with the book. I felt sometimes that the author was deliberately holding back from having the characters get too introspective about issues like murder and violence, and, well, being murderers. I would’ve liked to see a little more depth, but it was a fast, fun read.
3. Vassa in the Night (Sarah Porter)
Well, since I’ve been blabbing about originality I might as well say this was the weirdest but the most original book I’ve read in some time. The Vasilisa-Baba Yaga myth (I mean, who doesn’t like that story) gets a modern twist. In Porter’s New York, the nights are endlessly long and Vassa goes to the local BY’s (a strange convenience store with a habit of decapitating shoplifters) to get light bulbs. If you’re familiar with the myth, the surface allusions are evident. This book is refreshing, and so full of interesting ideas, but the more I read the weirder it got. It has some lovely passages, some lovely imagery, and some great ideas, but it’s by no means a coherent novel. It makes very little sense, but still, I would say if you’re a fan of Russian myths, you might just enjoy the way Porter sets up and plays with a modern, magical world (even if nothing adds up).
YA fantasy is basically the limit of my interaction with YA, but that’s quite a lot, because fantasy seems to be quite a big part of YA. Anyway, I figured I’d read this eventually. I read her Anna Dressed in Blood duo some years ago, on the recommendation of friends, and was impressed. Although I’m not entirely sure if grit-lit is my thing (even if it’s not as murderous as Game of Thrones) I found the concept of this book compelling like everyone else. I’m not entirely sure, still, how I feel about it; there are a lot of issues in this novel that were quite distracting.
There’s no denying that Blake can write, especially with the backing of an interesting idea. Three Dark Crowns, the first book of the eponymous series,is set on the island of Fennbirn, where every generation, a new set of triplets is born, all girls, born with a gift. Progresses into your typical loving sisterly relationship; when they turn sixteen, they fight to the death. The one standing is crowned queen, who gives birth to a new set of triplets, and so on. A kind of family-style Hunger Games.
When the story begins, we’re introduced to the triplets – Mirabella, with an elemental gift using which she can manipulate the elements, Katharine, a poisoner, who can ingest poisons and survive, and Arsinoe, a naturalist, who can exert control over the natural world. Of the three, Mirabella is the most powerful, and the odds are in her favour.
An interesting premise, but it’s very easy to nitpick here. First off, an issue that is never addressed, is that there’s a sixteen-year interval between queens. There’s the rule of a Council, but why is a queen required if you only have one every sixteen years? Second, Blake gives us no indication of the origin for this bloody tradition; this is still acceptable, because after all her focus is on the present storyline (and honestly, an origin to justify this weird mess might be difficult to come up with, but not impossible I’m sure). We follow the assumption that the island has some kind of magical force because, after all, the chosen queens always birth triplets (What happens to queens who don’t want to marry, who don’t want to give birth, who are infertile? Why is it always girls? These go unaddressed too). Third, the integration of the tradition with the existing society feels incongruent somehow, and, as with many dystopia novels (although this isn’t really a dystopia, it’s squarely in the fantasy genre) you wonder how no one has broken out of this system already.
It’s a violent tradition with no seeming rationale behind it. Why this ridiculous waste of life? Elaborating on the tradition-society incongruity, people of the island seem fairly relaxed. They don’t seem enthusiastic about it, but neither do they want to turn their backs on an age-old custom. I know there’s a strong element of willing suspension of disbelief with these novels, but the society by and large seems…not exactly uneasy, but out-of-sync with the custom. A lot of the people who surround the three queens (with some exceptions, of course) are not bloodthirsty. They seem totally normal. Again, I’m aware that I’m assuming a fair bit; Blake of course focusses on specific characters and not the society at large. However, when we read books the relatable element for us is a common spirit of humanity, and I feel that Blake could have twisted that around to suit the situation, because these people are not really so drastically unlike us that they would be okay with this kind of senseless murder. They like the feasting and the rituals. The killing, we can’t be sure, and if we can’t be sure, I don’t really know why they would support it.
“For it is too cruel otherwise, to force a queen to kill that which she loves. Her own sisters. And for her to see that which she loves come at her door like wolves, seeking her head.”
Each queen is assigned to a foster family. For Mirabella, dutiful and powerful, it is the Westwood family, and, informally, the Temple priestesses, who have chosen to back her for her strong gift, despite their duty to impartiality. For Arsinoe, who is stubborn and less pliable, it’s the Milones, all naturalists with familiars. Arsinoe’s closest friend, foster-sister and a major character apart from the queens, Juillenne Milone, or Jules, is one of the most powerful naturalists on the island (with a mountain cat, Camden, for a familiar, very His Dark Materials, I liked that) and Arsinoe’s gift pales in comparison to her easy exertion of her ability. And Katharine, quiet and under-nourished from years of being poisoned (fun stuff), lives with the Arrons, an influential family of poisoners who head many of the posts on the Council. I’ve just rattled off the character traits for you, but these are more traits that Blake wants us to think the girls have rather than what is evident for us. Usually, it’s other characters commenting about this that informs us, and not necessarily character-behaviour. Blake definitely made an effort in this direction, but character traits don’t seem to emerge totally clearly.
Roughly the first half of the book is pretty slow. We meet the girls and their foster-families, and because there are three queens, each chapter narrates for a different one, which means the plot moves at a snail’s pace. It’s not really as politically ambitious or as violent as you’d think; the girls are mainly honing their powers, preparing for The Hunt, The Disembarking and The Quickening (the three major events at the festival of Beltane, after which this weird murder game begins). Things start to speed up in events leading up to and at the Beltane festival, but there’s not as much intrigue or bloodshed as I thought. There’s also an undercurrent of several romances, with the girls meeting their ‘suitors’.
Seeing as I’ve not said anything about positive the book yet, I should clarify that I thought it was quite readable. I think the originality of the idea is something to be praised, it definitely can’t have been easy to execute, and Blake does pay quite a bit of attention to world-building considering the other elements she’s juggling. She’s able to create a well-imagined world with interesting social dynamics. The characters (especially the girls) seem a little similar at times, though. She introduces several subplots which are handled well simultaneously; she’s dealing with three different sets of characters in three different locations (Greavesdrake Manor, the poisoners’ home, Wolf Spring, for the naturalists, and Rolanth for the elementals and the priestesses). She plays with other concepts which are also of interest, such as low magic (a kind of magic that is largely disapproved of) and the Gave Noir (a poisoned feast where the poisoner queen puts on a show and consumes a rich, poisoned banquet; although I can’t quite see the point of the poisoner sect, it’s not really a power is it – and I can’t see the point of their refusing to eat untainted food either, it’s not like henbane is so delicious you can’t forsake it for a dash of oregano). I actually wish she’d added more details like the Gave Noir, this is clearly an island with some very perverted, different traditions and I would’ve liked to see more, and it would’ve added a sense of richness to the world.
I can understand that this is the first of a series, so it’s easier to accept that events may not unfold as quickly as I’d have liked, and the characters weren’t as psychologically complex as I’d have liked them to be, because she was dealing with so many at one go. Now that the groundwork is laid, I think the series has potential, but it’ll take some work on Blake’s end to realise it.
The bit that annoyed me a little was that several things went unexplained at the end of the novel. However, I know a lot of people find that exciting so that’s probably on me. It’ll be interesting to see how the dynamics develop and change between the three sisters. I’m not entirely sure if I’ll read the next one (I wasn’t disappointed; more underwhelmed), but if the series premise looks inviting to you, and you, too, would like to murder your family, I would say go and ahead and read it. Then get help.
It’s not really fair to cheat on this one and do it next to next month, so here are the other 8 books I bought. First post here.
1. The Probable Future (Alice Hoffman)
I have a sort of curiosity about Hoffman’s novels (though I’m not really sure how I feel about some of them). I haven’t read too many of her older novels, and this falls somewhere in between I suppose, published 2004. It’s about three generations of women who can see the past, present and future, which is fairly interesting as premises go. It also involves a murder somehow.
2. The Sentimentalists (Johanna Skibsrud)
I may have overcompensated on novels with a war theme or set post-war. I’m not sure why. A daughter attempts to discover some secrets about her father, a Vietnam war veteran. Apparently Skibsrud’s writing is beautiful but not for everyone (as I gather from the reviews).
3. Enduring Love (Ian McEwan)
To date, I’ve not read anything by McEwan. I picked this up more to amend this than out of any specific interest in the novel. I can’t quite figure out what this is about, it apparently involves two men, obsessions, and a hot air balloon freak accident, which does sound intriguing. However shortly after I bought this a friend told me she really disliked it. Regardless, I’ll probably end up reading more by McEwan even if I don’t like this; I particularly plan to read The Children Act and Atonement.
4. Dreams of Leaving (Rupert Thomson)
I picked this up primarily because the pitch was intriguing, but also because I suspected it might be too strange for me, which I took as some kind of challenge I guess. It’s apparently about a village which no one gets to leave, except a baby who grows up to be a man living in a nightclub. I haven’t seen very positive reviews for this, so I think it will be too strange for me. I have an awful feeling this might be one of those books I put off for another five years, but I hope it won’t be.
5. Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson)
This is a pretty well known one I think, hence it sounded familiar to me. It won the 1995 PEN/Faulker Award and deals with anti-Japanese sentiments on the fictional San Piedro Island, going back WWII. This may be another case where I was sold by the title again. Hey, it’s a good title…
6. Quarantine (Jim Crace)
By some coincidental miracle this is actually on my TBR. This was a Booker nominee in 1997 and attempts to retell a landmark event in the Gospels: the temptation of Christ during his forty day fast in the Judean desert. I’m actually really looking forward to reading this and was thrilled that I found it second-hand, it sounds interesting and I haven’t read too many fictional works which deal with religious history.
7. The Way Things Were (Aatish Taseer)
Going back and forth between several important years in Indian history, ths book ostensibly deals with a man living in Manhattan, Skanda, who is forced to return to Delhi to complete his father’s last rites. In the process, he learns more about his parents’ estrangement and his family histowry. I hope this isn’t a book that’s diasporically inclined – it’s not my cup of tea, personally. I don’t think it is, but we’ll see.
8. William and the Moon Rocket (Richmal Crompton)
Everyone in my family is a fan of the Just William books and I grabbed it when I saw it at the bottom of a teetering dusty book stack. In case you’re unfamiliar, this is a series of books dealing with William and his friends (the ‘Outlaws’) who are always getting into trouble. An age old premise, and easy, fun reads.
If you’ve read any of these, or are planning to, let me know!
All images (c) and never arriving. (I should’ve ironed my sheets. I know, I know.)