Sunday, April 16, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 5

I'm not ignoring you all--I've just been reading a lot. Here's a small selection:
  1. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth - Unsworth's novel, about the English slave trade in the mid-18th century, is admirable but strangely unlovable. Unsworth has an excellent ear for period voice and a good eye for details, and Sacred Hunger is a fascinating primer on the economics of the triangle slave trade. Without drowning his readers in detail, as other authors of historical fiction are apt to do, Unsworth carefully instructs us in everything from the proper construction of slave ships to survival tricks in the wilds of Florida. Ultimately, however, Sacred Hunger is a meditation about good and evil, about the economic forces that still shape our lives, and about the nature of slavery. Without ignoring the awfulness of this practice, Unsworth treats slavery as a human invention, and its victims as human beings--who are capable, in their turn, of enslaving others. Where Sacred Hunger fails is in its characters, who are all too often used as mouthpieces in Unsworth's philosophical quest after the goodness or evilness of human nature. The two main characters--Matthew Paris, a dispirited doctor on a slave ship, and his cousin Erasmus Kemp, an imperious young man who mistakes possession for love--are well-rounded enough, but the rest of the cast is made up largely of cardboard cutouts whose job is to express a certain philosophical perspective. Well-written and thought-provoking as it is, Sacred Hunger is ultimately a treatise on a very important and interesting subject, but not a novel in any meaningful way.

  2. Waterland by Graham Swift - Swift's novel, which combines the memoirs of a middle-aged history teacher, the history of his immediate family, and an imaginary history of the draining of the English fens, put me very strongly in mind of The God of Small Things. Like Arundhati Roy, Swift switches back and forth between several narrative strands in several timelines, converging on a single event that drives the action of the entire book. Swift uses the landscape of the fens, and the story of its reclamation and conservation, as a metaphor for just about everything: human nature, love, history, and life itself. Waterland is a novel about history and stories, the way that they become confused in our minds, and the impulse to transform the story of our lives into at least one of them. That said, Waterland's crescendo isn't--the revelation is obvious and, since we don't really care about the character involved, not particularly wrenching. Swift does a good job throughout the book of gradually revealing his characters' numerous secrets, first suggesting them and then laying them out for us, constantly complicating our understanding of their personality and history, but the one seminal event that supposedly drives the narrator's life lacks the resonance of previous revelations. Waterland is made up of many gorgeous and at times quite funny parts, but at the last moment, it fails to come together into any sort of whole.

  3. Black Juice by Margo Lanagan - I've been going on and on about Lanagan's short story "Singing My Sister Down", which is indeed a beautiful and wrenching piece, and deserves every award it's been nominated for. "Singing" is probably the best story in Black Juice, and I don't think any of the other stories in it manage to replicate its emotional resonance. The stories in Black Juice take place, for the most part, in primitive or semi-primitive societies, either post- or pre-industrial. These societies are ruled by rituals, traditions, and superstitions, and Lanagan's topic throughout Black Juice is the question of how humans can remain human within the rigid and often unfeeling framework of these traditions. Although there are some fantastic pieces here--"My Lord's Man", in which a loyal servant can't comprehend his master's love for a wild and unprincipled woman; "Sweet Pippit", about the efforts of a tribe of elephants to be reunited with their beloved trainer; "Yowlinin", about a young woman marked as jinxed by her community--I think the collection peaks with "Singing My Sister Down", and all too often I got the impression that Lanagan was more interested in coming up with new customs with which to confront her characters than she was with telling a story.

  4. Smoking Poppy by Graham Joyce - Joyce's The Tooth Fairy is an old favorite, and I've been looking forward for some time to trying another one of his novels. Smoking Poppy, about the attempts of a father to rescue his daughter from the middle of the Thai jungle (not to mention an opium addiction), unfortunately proved a profound disappointment. It's not just that the first person narrative is poorly written, or that the characters are all completely unlikable. It's that the book is entirely, 100% predictable. The narrator is a crotchety, middle-aged, lower-middle-class Brit who is so set in his ways that body piercing gives him apoplectic fits? By the end of the book he'll be toking up and pondering the central concepts of Buddhism. His best friend is a loud, loutish drunk who thinks with his stomach and dick and seems to be a weight around the main character's neck? He'll prove to be an invaluable asset in the narrator's travels, and will no doubt save him numerous times. And so on and so forth - the recriminations between the narrator and his kids, their tearful reunion as they all discover (several hundred pages after we'd reached the same conclusion) that they're all selfish pricks, the cracking of the prissy, evangelical son's tough exterior in the face of the hardships he and his family face. Thirty pages into Smoking Poppy, I could have drawn a flow-chart to describe how the novel's plot would play out, and Joyce did nothing to compensate me for this predictability.

  5. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers - my first Sayers, which as it turns out is coming in rather late in the game, both for Sayers' signature detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and the relationship between Wimsey and Gaudy Night's protagonist, Harriet Vane. I'm not a big mystery fan (which, I suppose, begs the question of why I keep picking them up), so it was actually quite refreshing to discover that the mystery in Gaudy Night--about a campaign of vicious harassment in an imaginary women's college in Oxford--is only a plot device to get Vane and her fellow female scholars to contemplate the question of educated, professional women in the 1930s. Gaudy Night is primarily a romance, albeit a rather cerebral one, as Harriet tries to see her way clear to marrying a man just as opinionated, just as intelligent, and just as independent as she is. It was quite fascinating to explore Sayers' circa-1935 attitude to feminist questions, at the same time hopelessly old-fashioned and disturbingly relevant, and although the question of whether one can marry and still keep from being swallowed up by one's spouse is not an obvious one today, I think it still deserves to be pondered. As an added bonus, Gaudy Night takes place in and around streets and buildings that I had been tramping down just a few weeks ago, and it was quite amusing to be taken on another walk down them by a writer as skilled as Sayers.

5 comments:

Susan Marie Groppi said...

Gaudy Night is the best place to start Sayers, though. In college, I was friends with a number of Sayers fanatics (my roommate had every book she'd ever published, and re-read them all often) and there was a clear consensus that Gaudy Night was, hands down, the best of her books. As a result, it was the first Sayers I read also, and I loved it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

It is a good book, but I'm not sure that I'm going to keep going with Sayers. I'm a little curious about the other Vane/Wimsey novels, Strong Poison and Have His Carcase, but as I said I'm not a big mystery fan. If I read these books, it'll be for the characters, and although Harriet comes away from Gaudy Night seeming like a rather intriguing person, I can't say the same for Wimsey. I get the impression that for people who have read the series from the beginning, Wimsey is the point, and I still don't see why.

Marianne McA said...

Murder Must Advertise is fun too - I think Sayers worked for a time in advertising, and I enjoy her descriptions of office life.

Lee said...

I've just come across your blog and am adding it to my morning reading, because it's thoughtful and bracingly honest. Keep reviewing!

ca said...

I am probably the only person ever who started with Sayers' translation of the Divine Comedy and then from there got to the Wimsey novels. Her Divine Comedy is quite good, although sometimes kind of contrived as she tries to keep the terza rima rhyming (which by itself is a stunning accomplishment), and was a direct cause of my falling in total love with Dante. I prefer Ciardi's translation, though-- the best part of Sayers' translation is the notes/introduction, which are just fabulous. I totally recommend those if you have any interest in Dante at all, regardless of what you think of her mystery novels.

I actually prefer Busman's Honeymoon to Strong Poison or Have His Carcase; in those earlier ones, it seems like she's still feeling out the characters. Gaudy Night was also my first Wimsey, and I like it the best. I'm not particularly interested in her mystery novels that much, though.

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