Friday, December 09, 2005

Recent Reading Roundup 2

Yup, it's that time again--time to even up the book-posts-to-TV-posts ratio! Recent reads include:
  1. Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter--Carter's Wise Children has maintained its position as one of the finest books I've read this year, but Nights at the Circus cements my suspicions that Carter is going to turn out to be one of my all-time favorite writers. One of the most refreshing aspects of Carter's writing is that she's not afraid to be funny. Both Circus and Wise Children could be termed comedic books, and ignored in much the same way that writers like Terry Pratchett often are (although Carter's humor is cleverer and more delicate than Pratchett's), but Carter uses humor as a way to penetrate her readers' defenses. In only a few pages, we have lost our hearts to Fevvers, the winged woman born (or hatched) and raised in a brothel, and now the toast of Europe as the star of a circus act, and to the host of strange and heartbroken characters who make up the circus' acts--sad clowns, a lonely tiger tamer, a childish strongman, and a manager who makes business decisions by consulting an oracular pig. Like Wise Children, Nights at the Circus is concerned with questions of legitimacy and authenticity--is Fevvers real, or is she a fake?--but Carter also turns the spotlight on the question of gender politics. Can Fevvers truly be a modern, independent woman, and still find love? Can the journalist Jack Walser, who joins the circus in the hopes of debunking Fevvers, love a woman who is stronger than he is? Nights at the Circus is a romance, an adventure, a farce, a feminist treatise, and an all-around fantastic read.

  2. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov--this is the second Nabokov I've read, after Lolita, and my reactions to both books have been similar. Nabokov is unquestionably brilliant, a genius of language, imagery, and voice. He's one of the few authors who truly get how difficult the first person voice can be, and how well it can work when it's done right. Pale Fire, ostensibly an annotated version of a long poem of the same title and in reality the record of the annotator's emotional and mental collapse, is yet another trip into the mind of a man who sees the world not as it is but as he wants it to be. The book is a sad, pathetic mystery, as the narrator, Kinbote, unravels under the strain of his own delusions and guilt. But for all its beauty and intelligence, I found Pale Fire cold. I had a hard time connecting to the characters and caring about them, and as was the case with Lolita, I found myself recognizing jokes rather than laughing at them. As much as I admired it, I can't help but think of Pale Fire as a cerebral exercise--one that I'd love to think about and discuss, but ultimately, one that I can't love.

  3. Out by Natsuo Kirino--Kirino's 1999 thriller, a prize-winning bestseller in her native Japan, is a comedy as black as the vacuum of space, and a terrifying portrait of gender politics in modern Japan. Four housewives, working the night shift at a boxed lunch factory, form an unlikely conspiracy when one of them kills her abusive, drunken gambler of a husband. In the days and weeks that follow, the four women engage in games of power and wits as they struggle to escape justice. Out is unremittingly grim and, as the body count mounts, deliberately gruesome, although it's hard to tell which is the greater horror--women who chop up bodies in their bathrooms or a modern society in which a woman can still be fired for asking for a raise. For all the absurdity of Kirino's premise--modern Japanese society has made no place for women, and so women will begin moving outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior--there's no denying that she paints a frightening picture of the personal and professional lives of middle-class Japanese women. Unfortunately, Kirino isn't much a writer, and especially when it comes to the psychology of her main characters she frequently tells instead of showing. The indifferent writing and sophomoric characterizations diminish Out's impact (as does the rather annoying ending, yet another rape and death fantasy), but there's no denying that this is an effective, frightening thriller.

  4. The Unburied by Charles Palliser--I read Palliser's earlier and more famous historical mystery, The Quincunx, earlier this year, and although The Unburied is a more modest effort--a simple murder mystery as opposed to a vast, decades-old conspiracy--I liked it a great deal better. Like The Quincunx, The Unburied is narrated by an unreliable, often foolish person--a scholar who spends Christmas with an old school friend--who through his own prejudices and blindnesses misses much that the reader sees. Unlike Palliser's earlier behemoth, however, The Unburied's narrator ultimately cuts a sympathetic figure--he learns from his mistakes and seeks to right the wrongs that he's committed. Characterization was a big problem for Palliser in The Quincunx--I wondered when I read it if, having come up with a brilliant, intricate plot, Palliser had been too tired to create interesting characters for it to happen to--and The Unburied shows tremendous progress in that regard, as well as being a shorter, tighter book. This is a beautifully written, clever mystery, and, even though most readers will guess its solution long before the narrator figures it out, a wonderfully enjoyable read.

  5. The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever--Cheever is one of the names synonymous with post-war American writing, and like many of his contemporaries he focuses on middle-class WASP families in the suburbs during the 50s and 60s. This collection brings together all of Cheever's short stories--over sixty in all--which is both a blessing and a curse. It's a pleasure to watch Cheever grow as a writer, change themes and experiment with new styles, but there's no denying that he had a linited palate--yet more middle class ennui, yet more suburban alienation, yet more middle-aged couples who no longer like or even know each other--and the stories can become repetitive. Nevertheless, Cheever was a remarkable writer, and there are some genuine gems here: "The Enormous Radio", about a woman whose new radio picks up the squabbles and tragedies of her neighbors; "Clancy in the Tower of Babel", in which an elevator operator passes judgment on the tenants of the building he works in; "The Five Forty Eight", a revenge fantasy in which a scorned woman stalks the man who used her and threw her away; "The Swimmer", in which a man makes his way back home by swimming through his neighbors' pools, only to watch as his life crumbles along the way. Unfortunately, as the women's rights movement began gaining power, Cheever's treatment of female characters became more and more reactionary. Housewives wondering what they might have been if their lives hadn't been dedicated to home and family are painted as shrews and harridans, who keep slovenly houses and torment their long-suffering husbands and children. Successful career women are depicted as neglectful, uncaring mothers and wives. It's not entirely fair to condemn Cheever for being a product of his time, but there's no denying that this antipathy towards women made it difficult for me to appreciate the later stories in an otherwise stellar collection.

3 comments:

Andrew Ducker said...

Have you read "We need to talk about Kevin"? It sounds like exactly your kind of thing...

Anonymous said...

Regarding Natsuo Kirino's "Out" - funny thing, I've been trying to get into Japanese popular fiction by Koji Suzuki ("Ring" - yeah, the basis for the movies) and Hideyuki Kikuchi ("Vampire Hunter D" books - the basis for other movies) and they basically have the same problem: a very good sense for the surroundings of their plot, resonable pacing, but they just can't describe a sympathetic, or even remotely interesting character (also, Kikuchi's style isn't that great and could be described as "pure pulp"). This badly hurts the overall reading experience. I decided not to go on with the "Ring" sequels, because the ending of the first book left me completely careless about learning if that tape is going to kill more people or not. I guess I'll stick to another "Vampire Hunter D" book or two, because it shows potential... but even if the style improves, I doubt the problem with the characters will go away.

-Raz Greenberg

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kevin is a book that's come up a lot on Readerville, Andrew, and from what I've heard about it (including being spoiled for the big twist at the end) it doesn't sound like my sort of thing - too deliberately grim.

That's an interesting observation about Japanese novels, Raz, although I think it might not be unique to that country. In general, most people don't go to popular fiction for delicate psychological observations and good characters.

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