Sunday, October 30, 2011

one book, two book, three book four... and five

I'm doing this meme again, along with Stuck-in-a-Book. A quick reading round up...

The book I'm currently reading...

Night Waking by Sarah Moss
Erm, so I saw a review of this on Stuck-in-a-Book as well, and it intrigued me so I picked this up from the library. A historian is staying on the small Hebridean island her husband owns with her husband and two small children for the summer, when she finds the bones of a child buried on the property. Incorporates children's/19th C. history along with musings on good parenting and relationships. I enjoyed it (I just finished it... but it still counts, right?), speculating on the narrators state of mind and following her attempts to uncover local history. It did wrap up perhaps a bit too smoothly though.

The last book I finished...

Besides Night Waking that is!
Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
I've been keen on Angela Carter since my friend Georgia lent me The Bloody Chamber, so I was interested to read this to follow up on the circus theme I started with The Night Circus. Also to follow along on the theme of books with 'night' in the title, it seems. It's pretty hard to sum up what I thought of this book, which follows the aerialiste Fevvers, a tall cockney performer who may or may not have real wings. It's kind of grotesque, and also puts a bunch of Marxist/Feminist language in the mouths of the main characters, which has a kind of tongue-in-cheek feel that somehow adds to the surrealism. Overall it's a good read, even if I do not always get along with the grotesque, and deserves more than a paragraph of discussion!

The next book I want to read...

Maus by Art Spiegelman
I really enjoy autobiographies/memoirs in comic book style, and this book in which a holocaust survivor tells his son his story is meant to be hugely influential in this genre, and possibly the first of its kind, so I have been vaguely meaning to read it for a while. I'm going to look it up in the library, but you never know, I might end up reading something by Christopher Fowler (writer of Fantasy/Crime novels!) instead, or something from my fairy tales collection, or...

The last book I bought...

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I bought this after reading a highly persuasive review in The Guardian (who incidentally also pubished an article on Maus the other day) and seeing it promoted in my favourite local bookshop... Too easily swayed. I've written a review of it here, suffice to say that it is a book that creates a magical circus for its readers, in a 19th century world of magic and performers and nights.

The last book I was given...

Ragnorak by A.S. Byatt

I'd really been looking forward to this book, so I was pretty excited when my friend Angi offered to give me her copy. I love both A.S. Byatt and Norse mythology, but I'm still not sure that I'm sold on this book. Maybe it's the difference in religious outlook- I'm a Christian and this book is about a child realising that they don't believe in God, or maybe it's because the Norse myths in this book seem quite static, without much of a narrative sense pulling them forward. There is some beautiful writing in this very short book which combines the story of a young girl growing up in WWII and reading Norse myths, said to be semi-autobiographical, with a retelling (sort of from the girl's perspective) of the myths themselves.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


After much anticipation, I finally read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead earlier this year. I've been doing companion reviews of Gilead and Home with Sam (you can read his review of Gilead here), so before starting to write my review I reread his post. It's amazing what different reactions we had to this book! But while I read through his post thinking "I guess I'll just chalk it up to different tastes", I was struck by one comment which I wanted to dispute, which seems to say that the character of John Ames, the main character of the novel, is lost in the writing, with the reader instead looking through the eyes of his son. Which is interesting, because for me this novel is so grounded in the character of the narrator, his voice comes through so clearly and we get to know him so well throughout the course of the book, that I found it hard to understand this point of view. So maybe we can argue about this point in the comments?

But I am getting ahead of myself. Gilead is written from the point of view of the aging pastor, Reverend John Ames, ostensibly as a letter to his young son. In it he talks about his family history, wrapped up with the history of the small town of Gilead in which he still lives, his faith, and about his life. Eventually his account is interrupted by the return of the prodigal son of his best friend, his namesake Jack Ames Boughton. The narrative runs parallel to the story of Home, set in the Boughton household, and though Gilead was written first there is no clear order to the books. I read Home first, and I wonder how it would change the experience to read them the other way round? A lot of the revelations are shared in the books, so something that was a surprise to discover in one becomes background knowledge when you read the other. But there are still surprises in store in each, and in fact the lightness of plot means that not much is lost by knowing some of the twists beforehand. This is a book where language and character take centre stage. I think one of the things that I noticed about reading Gilead second is that it ends the pair on a more uplifting note, I found Home more bittersweet and I think it would create an entirely different flavour to read them the other way around.

There is so much that I loved about this book, it is a book that I want to read through again and savour more slowly. If anything I feel that I was maybe in a slightly too impatient mood to read through it the first time, and there was a little bit of theology that I may have skimmed through. But I think that was my fault rather than the book's. I thought John Ames was a great character, I loved reading the delight he took in his existence, his joy and his resignation, his wisdom and his vulnerabilities. I also loved the language. Something that I noted in my review of Housekeeping by Marilynne Gilead was the language of water and light- something which I didn't notice in Home but was certainly present in Gilead. Water is often associated with baptism here, and the Ames thoughts on baptism and communion, the way he seems to see them as so personal, were so refreshing to me. But light is really everywhere the quality of light seems to evoke the beauty Ames sees in his surroundings, as well as a kind of nostalgia often:

                          But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.

or a moment that has remained significant in Ames' memory of his father:

                        Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great skeins of light suspended between them. I wanted my father to see it, but I knew I'd have to startle him out of his prayer, and I wanted to do it the best way, so I took his hand and kissed it.

It seems as though the light that Ames sees suffuses the book and his character. Though it's clear that he has seen some dark times the presence of his wife and son see him content with life. 

The other thing that I wanted to mention in this post was the treatment of race in the book. It's so important in the history of the town, in the histories of the characters (or at least of Jack), and yet it is not overtly present. There are no black people in Gilead, though it came into being as part of the underground railroad, because their church burnt down. There is so much that is unspoken here and yet it makes itself felt- the way that people don't see it and yet it is still there. This novel is, after all, set in the 1950s, when America was still segregated. I think this novel does a good job of showing how that segregation affected everyone, even a small town in the mid-West with only white folks in it.  

I think there is more in this book than I can possibly cover, I will have to read it again and if you do want more reviews, there are some lovely ones at Stuck-in-a-Book, Book Snob, and Evening All Afternoon's discussion of Home and Gilead, as well as Sam's aforementioned companion review

Monday, October 10, 2011


'The Night Circus' by Erin Morgenstern has been reviewed all over the place, and a lot of those reviews have said very similar things- basically that the plot and characters were not stunning, but the setting was amazing. I love an amazing setting, so I went out and read it straight away. The basic premise is not particularly new: two ageless magicians set up a contest between their protege's, the rules are not defined and the participants have no choice in the matter (or knowledge of the other's identity). The setting, which becomes the contest itself, is a circus which involves not just the duelling magicians but a host of other performers, including a contortionist, living statues, acrobats, a fortune teller, and lion tamers. 

The circus is indeed enchanting, but I think the critics are a little harsh on the plot- for the first half at least it unfolds in a similar way to the circus itself, following different tracks without revealing its secrets. It reminded me a little of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell', with its 19th century setting, duelling magicians and sense of secrets lying just out of view. It does get a little hazy toward the end, and I'm not sure that all the loose ends add up, but I cared enough about the characters and the circus to get there. I think the circus had the most charm at the beginning as well, but it remains a brilliant creation. The night circus, as its name suggests, opens only at night. It is entirely black and white, tents, costumes and decorations, smells of popcorn and caramel and contains a myriad of different attractions, both real and magical. This is how it opens:

"First, there is a popping sound. It is barely audible over the wind and conversation. A soft noise like a kettle about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.

All over the tents, small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. The waiting crowd quiets as it watches this display of illumination. Someone near you gasps. A small child claps his hands with glee at the sight.

When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears."

I love a good literary circus, here are some of my favourites:

The Carnival from The Last Unicorn, sinister and slightly sad, with its enchanted menagerie:

"There were nine wagons, each draped in black, each drawn by a lean black horse, and each baring barred sides like teeth when the wind blew through the black hangings. The lead wagon was driven by a squat old woman, and it bore signs on its shrouded sides that said in big letters; MOMMY FORTUNA'S MIDNIGHT CARNIVAL. And below, in smaller print: Creatures of night, brought to light."

Margaret Mahy short stories: Margaret Mahy has the most amazing fantasy worlds, and her short stories  really capture that. 'The Door in the Air' and 'The Green Fair' are among them.