September Yeas and Nays

September brought me the gift of Sarah Waters, whom I’ve been unable to stop gushing about to anyone who will listen. I can’t wait to read everything she’s ever written.

Most everything else was pretty good, too. ;)

The Stranger’s Child Alan Hollinghurst YEA. Great writing, very funny, eye-opening historical fiction.
Persuasion (Annotated) Jane Austen/David Shaphard YEA. I adore annotated versions of books I already know and love.
The Secret Place Tana French YEA. Classic Tana French: great crime-solving procedural enriched by excellent character work.
The Little Stranger Sarah Waters YEA. I just discovered Sarah Waters and I’m already on my third book by her. Beautiful writing, thought-provoking themes, and page-turning plots.
Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel YEA. Such a brief and absorbing book, you might almost miss the care that clearly went into its composition.
Dr. Zhivago Boris Pasternak MAYBE. Sometimes I’m just in the mood for the heady combination of philsophy and romance the great Russian novels provide, and Dr. Zhivago certainly delivered on the former, but the famous romance that I’d always heard the book was famous for was not as central as I’d thought it would be. Zhivago and especially Lara are both great characters, but they’re more interesting on their own than they are together. Still, it has the sweep of the Russian epics: you are reading about many people’s lives and how history bent and broke them. This is one you have to be in the mood for.
The Paying Guests Sarah Waters YEA. HELL YEA. This just came out last month to rave reviews, and it deserves every one. It’s half sweet romance and half nail-biting Hitchcock-style suspense. I finished reading it in a state of such anxiety that I couldn’t calm down for hours afterward.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

I’ll get to saying something serious in a minute, but in the interest of honesty, you should know that my immediate reaction upon finishing The Little Stranger was to throw my head back and proclaim, “Ugggghhhhh, this is siiiiickeningly gooooood omg I caaaaaan’t.”

strangerMy second reaction was to order two more Sarah Waters books. It was one of the only books I’ve read this year that I closed and instantly knew was a favorite. It has subtlety, gothicism, and a strain of feminism, all bound up with some fantastic writing.

As a child, Dr. Faraday was taken by his mother into Hundreds Hall to see the house, but only from the doorway dividing the back and front of the house. His mother was a servant, and it would not have been proper for her son to be above-stairs. He stands entranced by the wealth and beauty of the house while he waits for his mother to return.

Nearly thirty years later, post WWII, he returns to Hundreds Hall as a doctor, filling in for a colleague who is on an emergency case. Colonel Ayres, the squire of the manor, is long dead, but the middle-aged Mrs. Ayres still lives there with her two adult children, Roderick and Caroline. Faraday comes to treat the Ayres’ young maid, who is one of only two servants remaining in the once-bustling home, but returns to perform a series of experimental treatments on Roderick, who injured his leg in the war. Roderick, it seems, also has some anxiety issues from his combat experiences, which are only exacerbated by his family’s dwindling wealth and the house that is falling down around them.

Waters’ plot has a deliciously slow build. At first, there are only hints that something may be wrong, hints so slight they might be dismissed out of hand if they didn’t continue to accrue so relentlessly. Then one day, Gyp, the gentle family dog, snaps and attacks a young child.  Gyp is put down as a result, but the housemaid insists it wasn’t his fault: “There’s a bad thing in this house… and he makes wicked things happen!’ The maid is fourteen years old and flighty; Dr. Faraday tells her she’s tired and silly and considers the matter closed.

But creepy things keep happening. Strange burn marks appear in the walls. A fire breaks out mysteriously. There’s a tapping in the walls. Again, they’re all things that could be explained by natural causes, but cumulatively, they grate on the family’s already worn-thin nerves. Roderick has panic attacks and refuses to sleep, believing he must watch for the house’s mischievous spirit so that he can keep it from harming his mother or sister. Mrs. Ayres starts to believe her first child, who died at age six before Caroline and Roderick were born, is trying to contact her. And Caroline tries to convince Dr. Faraday that the house is no good for any of them, but most frequently meets with a dismissive explanation and a condescending, “You’re tired.”

Dr. Faraday does not intend to be condescending, and as his first-person narration shows, he is certainly not aware that he is being so. It would not occur to him that he could be so: despite his increasing intimacy with the family, he is still reminded periodically that he is not of their class. He learns, to his surprise, that he is rumored to be courting Caroline, and though no one else seems to find it strange, he still thinks of himself as the boy who would not be allowed in the house thirty years ago. Waters uses his relationship with Caroline to show the reader his sexism and insecurity. She does this so subtly that I found myself having to pull back from the book, to consider events from my own perspective, because I was so enveloped in the voice of the novel.

It’s smart and creepy as hell. And the writing itself is just so perfect: clean but warm and elegant, with a slight formality befitting the period. It has the atmosphere of Rebecca meets ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (it’s no coincidence one of the characters is a highly nervous person named Roderick), and the pacing and eeriness of the film The Others. Spooky and sad as it all was, I was smiling as I closed the book. All this, and she has a trilogy of Victorian period novels? I’ve definitely just found a new favorite.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

elevenAfter a plague wipes out nearly the entire human population, and the electrical grid has crashed, one of the characters in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven notices the stars becoming brighter: “One of the great scientific questions of Galileo’s time was whether the Milky Way was made up of individual stars. Impossible to imagine this ever having been in question in the age of electricity, but the night sky was a wash of light in Galileo’s age, and it was a wash of light now.” Another character will muse on the nature of subatomic particles, and how they are “constantly vanishing and reappearing.” Mandel is a lovely and careful writer who makes metaphors of facts, for their functionality as well as for their beauty. In her novel, the characters are the interconnected stars, though they vanish and reappear from each other’s lives or memories, and the process by which they re-connect offers a thread of hope in this sometimes sad, but never pessimistic novel.

Kirsten Raymonde, though she doesn’t know it, connects nearly all of the characters in the book. She is a player in the Traveling Symphony, a troupe that performs Shakespeare and classical music for the various settlements through which it passes. Kirsten was only eight at the time of the plague, and remembers very little of the world before, though she does clearly recall being onstage when famous actor Arthur Leander has a heart attack while playing King Lear.

Shortly before his death, Arthur gave Kirsten a set of comics called “Station Eleven,” about a space station designed to be like a small planet. Because of problems with the station’s functioning, the sun mechanism has stopped working correctly and the planet is forever trapped in either twilight or total darkness.  Dr. Eleven, the comic’s hero, tries to forget “the sweetness of earth” as Kirsten strives to remember what it was like to walk into a room, flip a switch, and see the room become flooded with light.

Now, twenty years later, Kirsten and her group encounter a cult of people who call themselves “the light.” Their prophet takes young girls as wives and kidnaps hostages in exchange for weapons.  In Kirsten’s chapters, Mandel takes us closer and closer to a reckoning between the Symphony and “the light.” In other chapters, we are taken back in time to Arthur’s life, to the life of his first wife, Miranda, and to the life of Jeevan, a paramedic who was at Arthur’s final performance and tried to save his life.  We also see what happens to Arthur’s former best friend, Clark, who is stranded at an airport after the planes are all grounded.

Mandel, with three previous novels to her name, manages these plot threads sure-handedly. Each character’s individual story has its own integrity, yet contributes meaningfully to the whole. Mandel’s aplomb comes through in her prose as well, which can be poetic but is also simple, as if she has nothing to prove.

It’s the kind of book whose subject matter is the stuff of science fiction, but whose focus steers it more in the direction of that broader designation, speculative fiction.  For Mandel, the plague is less of an event in itself than a device for creating a certain set of problems for her characters.  She is more concerned with how her characters are shaped by the new world. There are fewer people in the world now, but the loss of technology means those that are left must depend on each other more closely than ever before. Even as they share a love of performing and a belief in the importance of beauty in a devastated world, the members of the Traveling Symphony experience the same frustrations any group of people thrown into close proximity would. On the inside of one of their caravans, someone has scribbled the quote, “Hell is other people.” (Someone wiser and more knowing of the ways of the world has crossed out “people” and written “flutes.”)

Mandel offers another twist on the post-apocalyptic novel through her refusal to make the end of civilization mean the end of the world altogether, or to make any one obstacle the all-or-nothing battle for survival. Again and again her characters’ experiences confirm that human troubles, though ubiquitous, are transitory. In this way, Mandel forgoes the standard dystopian drama of a struggle for survival in exchange for the thought expressed by the Symphony’s slogan, “Because survival is insufficient.” It’s not whether her characters survive, because we know that at some point or other they will all die. No, Station Eleven is about how they’re going to live in the meantime.

This book was given to me free of charge for review as a popmatters.com reviewer.

Honest Book Synopses: The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst

strangersIn the tradition of Honest Trailers (which are hilarious, if you haven’t watched any), here’s my second Honest Plot Synopsis. Because sometimes the blurb on the back of the book just spins your expectations in the completely wrong direction. For example:

In the late summer of 1913 the young poet Cecil Valance comes to stay at ‘Two Acres’, the home of his close Cambridge friend George Sawle, and of his sister, Daphne. The weekend will be one of excitements and confusions for all the Sawles, a weekend in which a poem is written which will become a touchstone for a generation, an evocation of an England about to change for ever.

Linking the Sawle and Valance families irrevocably, the shared intimacies of this weekend become legendary events in a larger story, told and interpreted in different ways over the ensuing century, and subjected to the scrutiny of critics and biographers with their own agendas and anxieties. In a sequence of widely separated episodes we follow the two families through startling changes in fortune and circumstance.

At the centre of this often richly comic history of sexual mores and literary reputation runs the story of Daphne, from innocent girlhood to wary old age. Around her Hollinghurst draws an absorbing picture of an England constantly in flux.

I mean, throw me a a book about rich English people pre-World Wars and I’m there. I am an ideal product of Western education in that I love reading about some Rich White People Problems. Oppress me, my masters! I in turn will muse longingly on your castled existence of sloping green lawns and halcyon summers, your inability to resolve basic issues by simply talking to one another, and your utter obliviousness to flagrant homosexuality.

Here’s a better description of this book:

In The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst affectionately laughs up his sleeve at the “subtleties” of the likes of Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster, beginning in 1913 when sixteen-year-old Daphne gets her very first crush on a gay dude. Named Cecil. He’s her brother George’s “friend” from “Cambridge”.

Okay, they actually do go to Cambridge.

Hollinghurst shamelessly uses symbolism and in-jokes to nudge the modern reader into chuckling at Daphne’s näiveté. When George and Cecil go out for a post-prandial walk, she follows them to see if she can get a bit of a chat in with Cecil. She can’t see because it’s dark, but she follows the smell of their cigars:

“Oh, are you here?” she said, and she pushed on, under the low branches that screened the hammock on that side. “I’ve left my books out here, in the dew… Isn’t Cecil with you?” she said artfully.

“Ha…!” said Cecil softly, just above her, and pulled on his cigar…

“Are you both in the hammock! …Well, I must say…”

Guys, they are in the hammock together smoking cigars.

“Oh, I thought it was Cecil’s cigar,” she said simply… “So it was,” said George, in his most paradoxical tone. “I’m smoking Cecil’s cigar, too.”

“Oh really…” said Daphne, not knowing what tone to give the words.

Later, Cecil will joke-make-out with her (he’s kind of a jerk) and she will feel what she believes is “the hard shape of the cigar case in his trouser pocket thrusting against her stomach.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Not in this book.

This poor girl will marry Cecil’s brother after Cecil dies in WWI and then go on to marry two other gay dudes.

Before he dies, Cecil writes a crappy poem supposedly for her, but actually for George. The poem becomes famous after the war, when people are so nostalgic for pre-war times they’ll seize on any sappy shit to help them remember Ye Olden Times. Kind of like people who put fake Marilyn Monroe quotes on their Facebook profiles because they relate to how beautiful and tragic she was, because they, too, are too beautiful for this world only no one, not even we can understand that.

As the book jumps forward in time decade by decade, we see characters in more recent times try to puzzle out the mystery of Cecil’s personality, and we get an overview of the advance of gay rights and acceptance in England.* And we have the luxury of laughing at how dumb people used to be and also the discomfort of knowing that one day people will laugh at us for how dumb we are.

 

 

 

 

 

*Okay, this stuff is actually pretty interesting. And Alan Hollinghurst is a really good writer and you should read the book. But not because of the stuff it says on the back cover.

The Secret Place, by Tana French

secretplaceTana French is known amongst her fans for her ability to link character to time and place, and to make her characters a mystery along with the murders those characters solve. But she’s also always had a certain fascination with the supernatural, with that which cannot be solved or explained, and in The Secret Place, for the first time, she gives a freer rein to this proclivity.

Another recurring feature of French’s is her use of secondary characters from one book as main characters in another book. Here, Detective Stephen Moran, of 2010’s Faithful Place, is drawn into an unsolved murder by sixteen-year-old Holly Mackey, the daughter of Detective Frank Mackey from that same book. A year ago, a boy from the neighboring boys’ school, Colm’s, was killed on the grounds of Holly’s elite girls’ boarding school, hit in the back of the head with a long-handled garden hoe. The police were unable to find the killer. But just this morning, Holly has found a picture of the boy, pasted over with cut-out letters: “I know who killed him.” She found it on a bulletin board known as “The Secret Place,” where students are allowed to post anonymous messages.

On the surface, Stephen is personable; people like him. But French shows the complexities behind his seemingly simple persona. Some people use friendliness as a way to draw people to them, but Stephen uses it to keep others at arm’s length. In the meantime, however, he is lonely. When Holly comes to him with the photo, he takes it to Murder Squad Detective Antoinette Conway, hoping to impress her enough to keep him on the case and thereby cross over from Cold Cases into Murder. He finds, however, that he respects her and hopes to win her respect in return. They launch a series of interrogations at Holly’s school, the focus of which is Holly’s group of four friends, and a rival group of four other girls.

The chapters alternate between Moran and Conway’s one-day investigation, and flashbacks featuring Holly and her friends, showing us gradually how the murder was committed and how it is solved. It is a testament to French’s plotting that both threads are equally interesting, and we’re never disappointed to have to temporarily drop one in order to pick up the other.

Conway, as the only woman on the Murder squad, maintains a cold exterior as a means of protection against the derision and discrimination she faces from the rest of the squad. When another officer grabs her ass, she doesn’t laugh it off and pretend to be one of the guys. She bends his finger back and tells him next time, she’ll break it. (One hopes Conway will appear as a main character in a future French novel.)

Holly and her friends, as young women, navigate related difficulties. After her friend Julia is sexually assaulted by a boy at the neighboring boys’ school, Holly, along with Julia and their friends Rebecca and Selena, swear off men until college. The oath has more than sexual implications: it is their pact that they will not meet the expectations others have of them.

“Oh God,” Julia says. “I can hear it now. They’re gonna say we’re some kind of lesbian orgy cult.”

“So?” Selena says. “They can say what they want. We won’t have to care.”

A breathtaken silence, as that sinks in. Their minds race wild along its trail. They see Joanne wiggling and giggling and sneering in the Court to make the Colm’s guys fancy her, they see Orla howling helpless into her sodden pillow after Andrew Moore and his friends ripped her apart, they see themselves trying desperately to stand right and dress right and say the right things under the guys’ grabbing eyes, and they think: Never never ever, never never never again. Break that open the way superheroes burst handcuffs. Punch it in the face and watch it explode.

My body my mind the way I dress the way I walk the way I talk, mine all mine.

A commitment to such a way of being has enormous power for any woman, but the girls start to notice a more tangible form of power as lights go on and off, seemingly at their command. A metal key turns hot enough to be painful to the touch. Small objects levitate. French never states whether these occurrences are imaginary or real, but she does make it clear that it doesn’t matter either way. She understands that there are things we believe in absolutely as children, that as adults we might disbelieve with equal certainty. She takes one risk in allowing a certain space for the impossible to happen, and takes a further risk in allowing Stephen, as an outsider to Holly’s world by sex, age, and class, to peer at this alternate reality sideways and glimpse how it might work. His ability to change perspectives mirrors the leap he will have to make in looking at his own relationship with Conway, and is essential if he is to solve the murder.

The Secret Place is perhaps the most fantastical of French’s novels. It is not as gritty in atmosphere or scenery as Faithful Place, or as bleak in its outlook as Broken Harbour. In this novel, French asks her readers for more of a leap than she has ever asked before, to see that certain relationships create their own higher law that stands outside of consensual reality. It is an act of great trust, to be sure, but it is more than worth it.

The Known World, by Edward P. Jones

knownworldThis past August, I spent nearly all my reading time and attention on Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. It was more than worth it. It is a work of fiction inspired by the fact of there having been black slaveowners in the United States before emancipation.

Henry Townsend is the former slave and spiritual son of white slaveowner William Robbins. Henry’s parents buy his freedom from Robbins, but it is too late: Henry has already decided to follow in Robbins’ footsteps and become a farmer with slaves of his own. The book opens on Henry’s death and the ensuing upheaval. It meanders in and out of moments in each character’s life, sometimes leaping forward to tell you the end of someone’s story, and sometimes looking back to tell you how he or she got there.

Though I’ve read books about American slavery that powerfully illustrate the atrocities visited on slaves, I don’t know if I’ve read a book that shows so well how owning slaves changes a person, the transformation that occurs when we allow ourselves to think of human beings as property. Jones’ pacing is slow and measured. The book is made occasionally surreal by the strange and sometimes supernatural events of the book, and creeps by like the worst kind of anxiety nightmare, only there is no moment of relief. There’s no moment of waking up and saying, “Oh, it was only a dream. Thank God.” This happened, and there’s no taking it back or making it any less real.

I can’t review a book like this. I can only tell you what the experience of reading it was like. One scene that will stay with me forever is the image of Augustus Townsend, Henry’s father, being captured to be sold back into slavery after he was freed. He tells his captors that he is free. He produces legal documentation of his freedom. And his captor literally eats the papers before putting Augustus in chains. Telling someone he’s free doesn’t mean anything if he can’t actually be free. There’s a lot in that for us to think about in our world right now.

August Yeas and September Preview

So, I only read three books in August, but one of them, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, required a lot of my time and attention. I will have a short piece up on it Friday, only because I couldn’t say nothing. It was too big a book, figuratively speaking. And it was a decided Yea.

I also re-read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and The Magician King in preparation for my review of The Magician’s Land. All three are big Yeas for me.

With the release of Tana French’s new novel and a bunch of other stuff I picked up at the bookstore this week, I hope to have a bunch of new reviews up for September! Here’s what’s on my table right now: Photo

 

Yes, I’ve read Persuasion before. Like, at least four times. But this is annotated. ;)