Tuesday, August 30, 2011

 

The Children's Book

Another Byatt–how delightful! This one was very good, especially if you have read or read about E. Nesbitt. This is about a Nesbitt-like character who writes for children and lives in a household comprised of more than two adults and children who belong to one of two possible mothers. The Fabian world and mindset is illuminated; this very interesting period of history (end of Victoria, beginning of new century) in England and Europe is examined through the lens of children growing up and differentiating from their parents. (An argument thereby being made about the beginning of the modern age: that’s a dinner conversation right there.) Byatt does a good job of showing how children in a large family relate or don’t and find space for themselves or don’t. Byatt plays her checkerboard of related families and characters very adroitly, jumping this one forward, then that, to carry us forward through history; and the culmination in WW I is brilliant: sketchy, but deeply felt because, in the end, so shockingly few of the golden children we have come to care for survive.

I will confess that I skimmed through the purely political passages fairly rapidly. I am sure they are very good, too, if you like that sort of thing.

In other news, I felt it necessary to pick up something from the reading list accumulated by one of my book groups (after all, this was my idea!) and chose the first of the Simon Serrailler mysteries, The Various Haunts of Men. Meh. Maybe it gets better, but the character of Simon in this book is a bit of a blank: he’s just the boss of the main character and also the object of a sudden and unwanted crush. And then that character is killed off—doesn’t that seem like a strange way to begin a series? I guess he’s supposed to be mysterious: hints of a past, family black sheep, personal but cultured tastes demonstrated by a beautiful apartment in an unlikely neighbourhood. But nothing about Simon was compelling to me, and neither was the writing—not enough to drive me to book two. And in a final note, how does one pronounce Simon’s last name? I want to go French with it, but I know the British will have some wonderfully woolly way of saying it, so I just kind of mentally mumble over it, and that bugs me. Oh, and one last last note: there were about half a dozen words in this book that I had (gasp!) never read before—not fancy words, slangy ones. Shtum, for example. I wish I had noted them all—this doesn’t happen very often.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

 

Smut

I enjoyed Alan Bennett’s reading Queen (you know I am partial to the Queen, dear Readers) and so picked up Smut, which was a quick read and most entertaining. Light and clever and not marketable if it were written by someone unknown. And such fare is necessary—I don't always want or need Meaning but do want and need good writing, however frivolous the topic. This book is two long stories about alt lifestyles in the proper bedrooms of suburban or maybe smaller-town Britain. One thing I found odd: the author or the editor seemed averse to commas, which made some of the sentences a reading challenge. British style employs fewer commas to start with but this book was extreme.

Also read in the last few weeks: 
The White Garden by Stephanie Barron, on the recommendation of a colleague/professional friend, with whom telephone meetings always start out on business matters and devolve into satisfying chats on everything. I like my myths unmythified, generally, but Barron used Virginia cleverly and Jo, her main character, was so different in nature that it worked. I’ll try the Austen mystery series next.
Good to a Fault by Marina Endicott; can’t remember how I learned of this title. It was wonderful. The writing was careful and measured and the story well built. The genius in it was how I believed in and liked the main character, Clare and yet, when the fault in her good works was revealed and shook her AND the novel, I also believed that, and recognized that Clare as well. It was remarkable. 

In a nutshell: a long-divorced, living-alone, looking-at-middle age woman gets involved in the lives of a struggling family. Her community (an Anglican congregation, mostly) looks with favour on her good works; she’s uncomfortable with their approval, because she’s aware of how much caring for the family’s three children is giving her. But she doesn’t examine it too closely, until she’s forced to: and then the truth is galling and she almost doesn’t make it back to life. I loved the book, couldn’t put it down, but don’t tell me if you try it and can’t get into it. The earth-shattering truth of the book is so subtle, anyone might miss it; I think it entered into a very personal place that has nothing to do with the book, and I don’t want to explain or even look at that place. But this book is very, very good.

Now I’m reading The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. It’s wonderful if you know about E. Nesbitt and her milieu—the children’s writer in the book is obviously based upon her. The Fabians, tra la—what an interesting time in Britain this was, the time when Canada was granted its wish for independence. So far, I am observing that Byatt captures large-family life well, utterly avoiding the preciousness that creeps in so often when, for example, a writer is trying to portray the layered conversation full of internal reference that large witty families engage in. I think because, conversely, she invest more time in the less obvious part of large-family life: the layered and very strong interior lives of at least some of the siblings involved. I know I am going to enjoy this novel.

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