Sunday, February 13, 2011

Next Up: Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus

The votes are in, and Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus is--just barely--the winner. Discussion will begin March 31. I'm looking forward to it!

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Time to Choose Another Book!

I am honored to have been 'tagged' to choose the shortlist for our next book choice. As a relative newcomer to the process, I thought it would be a good idea for me to go back over some previous posts and see if there were any trends in the suggestions--and there really aren't! Not just the books that actually won out in the voting but all the books put on the virtual table for consideration show what a cheerfully idiosyncratic group this is. So I decided to go with the "books I happen to be quite interested in reading right now" approach and put a cheerfully idiosyncratic list up myself. I just hope there's something on it that looks good to the rest of you! I've put in links to the Book Depository in most cases, but I think they are all pretty generally available.

1. Colm Toibin, Brooklyn. I haven't read any Toibin before, but I've heard many good things, particularly about this novel. From the jacket: "Eilis has come of age in small-town 1950s Ireland in the hard years following the Second World War. When she receives a job offer in America, it is clear to everyone that she must go. Leaving her family and country behind, Elis heads for unfamiliar Brooklyn, and to a crowded boarding house where her landlady's intense scrutiny and the small jealousies of her fellow residents only deepen her isolation. Slowly, however, the pain of parting and a longing for home are buried beneath the rhythms of her new life--until she begins to realize that she has found a sort of happiness. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future."

2. Laurence Cosse, A Novel Bookstore. I read about this one in the Europa Editions catalogue and it sounds fabulous: "Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence. "

3. Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus. The blurb: "Caroline and Grace Bell, two beautiful orphan sisters eager to begin their lives in a new land, journey to England from Australia. What happens to these young women--seduction and abandonmnet, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal--becomes as moving and wonderful and yet as predestined as the transits of the planets themselves. . . . a story of place: Sydney, London, New York, Stocklholm; of time: from the fifties to the eighties; and above all, of women and men in their passage through the displacements and absurdities of modern life." I've read two other Hazzard novels and been very impressed with her as a stylist; this one won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

4. Alaa Al Aswany, The Yacoubian Building. From the publisher's website: "All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed "scientist of women"; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires. These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany's remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world." I have been interested in this for some time; then I happened across the movie adaptation and broke my "no watching before reading" rule--the movie is very good, very intense! So I'm no less interested in reading the original.

5. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath. This one may not be a great option as it is the first one in a trilogy. If we pick it and love it, of course, we could always read the other two! Anyway, here's the description: "Set in 14th-century Norway, The Wreath begins the life story of Kristin Lavransdatter. Starting with Kristin's childhood and continuing through her romance with Erlend Nikulausson, a dangerously charming and impetuous man, Sigrid Undset re-creates the historical backdrop in vivid detail...Defying her parents and stubbornly pursuing her own happiness, Kristin emerges as a woman who loves with power and passion." The trilogy was first published in 1920-22.

So--vote away! I'll tally up the responses by, say, next Sunday, and we'll aim to have our discussion of whichever one we choose at the end of March.


Thursday, February 03, 2011

'The Summer Book' - Tove Jansson

I am so late getting my thoughts on ‘The Summer Book’ up for The Slaves of Golconda readalong, because I’ve been having some external device + laptop issues in the last few days. Of course these wouldn’t have stopped me posting if I’d written this review right after I read the book at the begining of the month and pre-scheduled it, but I didn’t (no excuses I’ve been equal parts lazy and buried in other books). So instead of joining in with my own post I’ve been catching up on other people’s thoughts. Have I mentioned this is why I love small group readalongs so much? All these other thoughts appearing on a book you finished recently is kind of wonderful in its quiet bookishness. Now I’m putting my own thoughts out there, in the hope that the other members of the group (and you even if you didn’t readalong) will find something to enjoy here.

Tove Jansson’s
'The Summer Book’ is the story of of a young child called Sophia and her grandmother, who spend time together on an island in the Gulf of Finalnd, which Sophia’s grandmother has lived on for forty seven years. Esther Freud’s introduction to my edition explains that Sophia is based on Jansson’s niece and Sophia’s grandmother is based on Jansson’s mother (Freud's introduction is a short piece that combines facts, literary criticism and a personal story about her visit to the island that inspired the book, with Sophia Jansson).

The novella is made up of a series of chapters that are each a seperate, complete story. Maybe each one could be called a vignette chapter, as they’re quite short and capture specific moments of the characters life on the island. In any case, each chapter could be read independently, or out of sequence without any confusion. However, when read one after another in the order Tove Jansson has set them in, connections begin to form between the seperate stories.

As the novella progresses the pronounced seperateness of the individual story each chapter contains emphasises the gaps that surround these glimpses of life. Life outside of the island isn’t refferred to much, but the occassional detail is dropped in that suggests the characters have other complicated, full lives outside of immediate island life that the reader is not seeing. The contained way in which life is presented to the reader, as if little exists beyond the particular incident that they are reading about, encourages readers to feel that they are arriving in the middle of life, because they aren’t given any lead in, explanatory detail of what led to this moment. The third person narrator seems to presume readers are already familiar with the two characters lives, by declining to provide much detail from outside the immediate moments described. This lack of detail, not only intrigues the reader, making them hungry for every detail of the characters wider life, but also encourages the reader to care about the characters, because they are already being addressed with the casual lack of explanation that signals an intimate friendship. I always find this technique of telling the reader that they’re already involved and engaged with a story a powerful draw.

The vignette style also creates a sense of time passing, without often directly mentioning the time that has passed between each chapter. The absence of description of life outside the island, or life outside of the specific moments readers are allowed to see, as well as the way readers are dropped into situations with little introduction, suggests that other things have happened around the events that readers have been shown. At the same time Jansson creates small connections that remind you that while you haven’t been watching the characters their lives have been continuing, for example Sophia’s grandmother’s illness escalates during the novel and quick mentions of her condition inform readers she is getting worse, but the escalation seems to happen faster than it should from what the rest of the text describes. A simple couple of sentences suddenly makes it clear that she is actually ill, not just frail:

'They crawled on through the pines, and Grandmother threw up in the moss.

"It could happen to anyone," the child said. "Did you take your Lupatro?" '

but it seems as if she must have been deteriorating outside of what is described in the text for some time to have reached this severe stage. So I began to think that chunks of time must be passing outside of the text.

The contained nature of the individual stories in each chapter somehow emphasises the absence of writing around those moments. There are quiet hollowed out spaces you can almost feel the shape of, in between each story, even though they’re unwritten spaces. There’s a push, pull tension in this novel, where the completness of each story makes the reader more aware of these spaces of silence and the spaces accentuate the completness of what Jansson has written.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

In Grandma's Footsteps

I have to say there is a particular pleasure in reading about the sweet still heat of summer when we are in the depths of midwinter. It gives a person hope, you know, to be reminded of the endless summers of childhood, and their dependable charms. The Slaves chose as their group read this month, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, one of a handful of books that she wrote for adults. Jansson is far better known for her children’s books about the Moomins, which I can remember distantly from my own early reading days. In fact, for me, there wasn’t so very much difference between The Summer Book and Moominsummer Madness, say. Family and its quirky ways are fundamental to both. There’s something mythic and yet intimate going on here, something eccentric but philosophically grounded, something quite sharp and occasionally melancholy, but deeply lovable nevertheless. The Moomins used to ponder life and its meaning and wrap up their thoughts in axiomatic utterances (like Little My: ‘Possessions mean worries and luggage bags one has to drag around.’). And essentially, The Summer Book performs the same sort of metamorphosis, taking the strange and sometimes disconcerting experience of the world and making it manageable, tolerable and sometimes quite delightful.

The Summer Book recounts a series of stories about life on an island off the coast of Finland. It’s home to motherless Sophia and her grandmother, oh and also Sophia’s father only he features mostly through his absence, given that he is always writing and ignoring his womenfolk. I suppose in all fairness we should include the island itself as a character, flat, volcanic, scrubby, designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, and yet rich in wildlife and fauna, possessing its own beauty. We hear the voice of the narrator most of all in the descriptions of the island, and that voice is attentive and appreciative, viewing both the landscape and the characters that inhabit it with loving benevolence. The grandmother and Sophia are both beautifully drawn characters. Sophia is passionate, engaged, quick to fear, quick to excitement and always ready to rage against the obstacles and difficulties that befall her. Grandmother is pragmatic and slow-moving, accepting and stolid, cunning and wise. Each of the vignettes that make up the book show the two of them in a kind of tableau of learning, as Sophia meets the blunt edge of the world and has it smoothed for her by her grandmother’s wisdom. Not that Grandmother really wants to have to do this; as an elderly lady she often feels tired and ill and not necessarily up to a child’s longing for adventure. The two of them argue and clash as much as they cooperate and comply. But watching Grandmother use clever strategies to soothe, placate or instruct Sophia is definitely a key part of this book’s appeal.

What the book brings out quite brilliantly is the richness of a child’s fantasy life and how hard that can be to handle. Sophia has no knowledge of the world, only familiarity with some of its basic practices and a great number of fears and fantasies. Grandmother, by contrast, at the end of her life, has very few fantasies left to her; instead she is right up close against the reality of things. Generally, sleeping, reading and enjoying nature are all she really wants to do (I could sympathise), but she leaps into action when the summer starts to fade, and the island dwelling has to be secured for the winter months. Then she is immensely busy with things, with bringing household objects in for safety, setting out candles and cigarettes in case any visitors are forced to take shelter on their island while they are away. ‘With an odd kind of tenderness, she examined the nameplates of boats long since broken up, some storm indications that had been written on the wall, penciled data on dead seals they had found, and a mink they had shot… How can I ever leave this room, she thought?’ For Grandmother, life has been reduced down to a tide of significant flotsam and jetsam, all of it resonant with memories.

For Sophia, life is still bursting with fantasies, like what it might be that has crawled into her father’s old dressing gown and is terrifying her, or her own personal vision of religion, or what might have happened at a party to which she was not invited, or the thought that because she prayed for excitement, a devastating storm is her responsibility. In each case, she turns to her Grandmother (often angrily) in order to have her fantasies tamed and turned into images that don’t overwhelm her emotionally. Grandmother’s ability to turn Sophia’s nameless dread into stories that reassure because they invoke a known reality is a real joy to watch. This must be wisdom in its purest form; the transformation of proliferating fear into a sensible, grounded, truthful representation of what might be; the valuable use of knowledge, of what genuinely is, to boundary and contain the menace of the unknown. We love Grandmother because she understands how necessary this is for Sophia, and even when she’s not particularly up for it, she accomplishes this feat anyway. That’s real love.

Not that this is in any way a saccharine narrative, thank goodness. No the exchanges between Sophia and her Grandmother are often harsh, and both behave as ordinary, flawed, imperfect human beings. The Summer Book enchants precisely because it is so honest and innocent. Even though I’m not that keen on episodic structures, this series of short tales was perfect for its subject matter, and in fact made me think more of Eastern teaching parables than anything else. Definitely one I would reread again in the future, as a reminder that even the simplest life contains many ups and downs, but that managing them is exactly the task we must learn how to do.