Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 book list

Time for a round up of books read in 2012! As always, rereads are not included and I've linked books I've reviewed/mentioned elsewhere to the blog post in which I talked about them. Favourites are marked with a *.

I seem to have read a lot of crime fiction again this year, of all different flavours, and one book of crime non-fiction. Usually I dislike true crime, but this was about the Somerton Man mystery, which I find fascinating, so that is an exception. My blogging was mostly dominated by my Century of Books challenge, which provided one of my favourite books of the year- Swann's Way. My other favourites included some fantasy and Northanger Abbey. Anyway, here is my (annotated) list!


The Tiger's Wife - Tea Obreht
Domestic Violets - Matthew Norman
Kind of male chick-lit? I ended up very much disliking this book, the protagonist was infuriating.
Starlight - Stella Gibbons
Not quite Cold Comfort Farm. Much more strange.
A Room with a View - E.M. Forster
The Man who was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton
The Man of Property - John Galsworthy
Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits - Robin McKinley and Peter Dickinson
Nocturnes: Five stories of music and nightfall - Kazuo Ishiguro
Ten Second Staircase - Christopher Fowler
Take Two at Bedtime - Margery Allingham
Two stories from a Golden Age mystery writer.
Regeneration - Pat Barker
Really enjoyed this story of WWI psychiatry and shell-shock and Siegfried Sassoon.
*Swann's Way - Marcel Proust
Into the Beautiful North - Luis Alberto Urrea
I read this because of Emily at Evening All Afternoon's wonderful review
White Corridor - Christopher Fowler
I am Half-Sick of Shadows - Alan Bradley
Passing - Nella Larsen
Friends with Boys - Faith Erin Hicks
I read this because I started reading the webcomic which is now no longer fully available I think, and I thought it was charming
Wonderful Town: New York stories from the New Yorker - ed. David Remnick
Bryant and May Off the Rails - Christopher Fowler
The Voice of the Violin - Andrea Camilleri trans. Stephen Sarterelli
More different crime flavours! This time it's Italy, and a detective who has to deal with police corruption and organised crime as well as murder
Miss Pym Disposes - Josephine Tey
Back to the Golden Age detectives
Love Lies Bleeding - Edmund Crisp
*Cart and Cwidder - Diana Wynne Jones
How could I not love this book, which combines two of my favourite things- Diana Wynne Jones and a story about a family who travel in a cart and tell stories in the towns they pass through
Drowned Ammet - Diana Wynne Jones
The Shape of Water - Andrea Camilleri
The Victoria Vanishes - Christopher Fowler
Blankets - Craig Thompson
Another graphic novel/memoir about growing up, faith and love
*War for the Oaks - Emma Bull
Apparently one of the earliest urban fantasy books, unlike my usual urban fantasy reads this is set in the US (not London), and it's about music and fairies and it is great
Bryant and May On the Loose - Christopher Fowler
The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
Kraken - China Mieville
Back to the more familiar (to me) urban fantasy territory of London, as usual Mieville is grotesque and often terrifying and always a good read
Faithful Place - Tana French
The Path to the Nest of Spiders - Italo Calvino
The Autograph Man - Zadie Smith
The Three Loves of Persimmon - Cassandra Golds
I found this story (fable?) of the loves of the florist Persimmon a bit overwritten- maybe it's just that I am not keen on fables
The Cat's Table - Michael Ondaatje
A boy's journey from Sri Lanka to England, the friends he makes, the adventure he has, and his understanding of where he belongs
Embers - Sandor Marai
Engleby - Sebastien Faulks
The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
Bring up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel
Cybele's Secret - Juliet Marillier
Whispers Underground - Ben Aaronovitch
I think this series is improving, and I definitely enjoyed this installment. Urban fantasy crime novel set in London, it has so many things to like about it
The Forgotten Garden - Kate Morton
Melodramatic family saga of secrets and drama
Farewell, My Lovely - Raymond Chandler
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Above Suspicion - Helen McInnes
A spy romp against the backdrop of Nazi Germany, which lends it a degree of seriousness. Read because of this fantastic review from litlove
On Literature - Umberto Eco
Love - Angela Carter
Narcopolis - Jeet Thayil
Umbrella - Will Self
Broken Harbour - Tana French
The Lighthouse - Alison Moore
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green
I've heard a lot of glowing reviews of this book, and it didn't disappoint, a funny and moving story of terminally ill teenagers and love. 
Swimming Home - Deborah Levy
The Summer of the Bear - Bella Pollen
Bryant and May and the Memory of Blood - Christopher Fowler
King, Queen, Knave - Vladimir Nabokov
Unnatural Habits - Kerry Greenwod
The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng
The House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende
The Coffins of Little Hope - Timothy Schaffert
Last Night in Montreal - Emily St John Mandel
The story of a girl who keeps disappearing, and a boy who wants to find her. I thought this was very good, but the ending was a little disappointing.
*Northanger Abbey - Jane Austen
I hadn't read this before this year, but it is just so hilarious! There are so many brilliant quotes. I was inspired to read it by Sarah Rees Brennan's parody (they are always so fun)
Black Heart - Holly Black
This is a fantastic YA fantasy series, with a smart conman hero operating in between the world of organised crime and the law enforcers.
Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man mystery - Kerry Greenwood 


This afternoon I am heading off to a New Years Eve party to celebrate the end of the year with some friends (and food and drink), so I don't think I'll be adding anything to this list today. I hope you all have a wonderful New Year and a great 2013!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

1980s - the house of the spirits (1982)

This is a frustrating review to write, because I had just finished writing it, pressed 'save', went to my dashboard and it had entirely disappeared. It's taken me weeks to rewrite, because I do hate starting from scratch again. It's especially difficult because the review I had written finished off with something like: "this is a difficult book to write about, because I had a strong emotional reaction to it". So maybe I should just work backwards from there.

I had a very strong emotional reaction to the book because the events at the end of it were so horrific- basically it covers Pinochet's rise to power (in fictionalised form), and the characters in the book were so heavily affected by it, especially the narrator, Alba. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende focuses on a family in Chile in the 20th century. They're a wealthy family, and the patriarch is involved in conservative politics, but the rest of the family (including the matriarch, Clara) tend more towards socialism and have links to the socialist party, and are therefore at risk from Pinochet. The tensions in the family (and by extension within Chile) lend a lot of drama to the book. Clara and Esteban's different outlooks on life cause great rifts between them, but despite the tensions there is also a lot of love in the family. Alba, Clara and Esteban's granddaughter, is largely brought up by Clara but loves both her grandparents, and the book is her chronicling of the family's history.

While I was emotionally attached to the characters in the book, I struggled at the start to read through the chapters about Esteban Trueba, the grandfather. His main characteristic is his anger, and though in many ways his anger is understandable, when he starting raping the young servant girls it got pretty hard to sympathise with him. While the book is largely driven by Alba's love for her grandfather, it's also very clear that she doesn't always approve of him, and she doesn't usually take his side, which adds an interesting dynamic to the book. 

But one thing which I really noticed was how well the magic realism and family saga genres work together. Something about the telling of family histories, which often end up embellished and are bound to be partial, works well with a little bit of the fantastic for me. I think in this book the earliest parts of the story are the most fantastical, and since those parts are set at around the turn of the 20th century, a time which always seems a bit strange and sepia tinted to me, the magic blended nicely into the imagining of history. I know Allende is not the only writer to use these two genres together, it's a similar blend in 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and maybe it is actually quite common? I haven't really read enough to know. All I know is that I thought it worked well as a way of telling a family saga story, and though I started off reading this book feeling that I was not in the mood for magic realism, I ended up enjoying it.

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Clearly I am a bit behind with my century of books, I still have one decade to go and only a couple of days left in the year! The 1990s might be a bit late I'm afraid. I will be writing up my annual list of books read, and picking out my favourites, soon, but the 1990s post is likely to come in 2013. I also have a new challenge planned for next year, so I will post about that too.


I'm also a bit behind in wishing everyone a happy Christmas! I hope you had a good one and have a happy New Year as well.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

the rest of the booker

I may have finished a while after the winner was announced, but I have made it through the Booker shortlist! Part 1 here. Now to round up the rest of the Booker books:

I may have finished a while after the winner was announced, but I have made it through the Booker shortlist! Part 1 here. Now to round up the rest of the Booker books:

The Lighthouse - Alison Moore
Without knowing much about it, I was really looking forward to reading this book, it just piqued my interest. Unfortunately, I didn't end up enjoying it as much as I'd hoped. It felt a little hollow to me, kind of lacking in emotion or narrative force I suppose. I did like how Alison Moore built up the story by replaying the same events in Futh's life over and over with slightly more information, from his memory while on holiday in Germany. It wasn't so much that secrets were revealed, more that the characters were built up a bit more, and the use of scent as a trigger for memory was used effectively, though signposted through Futh's job in creating perfumes and even the character name of Ester. Ultimately, despite the layers of memory, the book couldn't overcome it's hollow-ness for me, and it left me a bit flat.

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy
I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book, and when I read the first page I prepared to be unimpressed, but it ended up being perhaps my favourite. It has a lot of familiar elements- it's about a wealthy couple (a famous poet and his famous journalist wife) who go on holiday with their daughter and some friends, but have their holiday interrupted by a young woman who is charming but possibly mentally unstable, and a big fan of the poet. But by the end these things were turned on their head, or at an angle, changed slightly and altogether rounded out. I read a review/blurb for this book that talked about the things that are left unsaid, and I think that's an accurate way of talking about it- it's a book that's shaped by silences. There are things that are never explained fully, but you see the shape that they leave and that is enough. I ended up really enjoying this book, and if I didn't already know who won, this might have been the one I would have cheered for.

The Garden of Evening Mists - Tan Twan Eng
This book made me have one of those moments where I realise how much history I don't know. In this case, it's the history of Malaysia. The story is told in flashbacks- to the period after WWII, and back to WWII itself, but there are also echoes of a broader history, with colonialism and migration the ultimate backdrop. The main character is a Malaysian-Chinese judge, Yun Ling Teoh, who recalls her relationship with a Japanese gardener who she came to know through wanting to build a memorial garden for her sister, who died in the Japanese internment camp they were both held in during the war. It's fascinating (and sometimes devastating) material. Even after studying WWII in the Pacific in high school there is so much that I don't know- it was like reading When the Elephants Dance (a book about WWII in the Phillipines) from that perspective. The themes (war, enmity, colonialism etc.) were thought-provoking and the writing was mostly very good. But there were jarring moments too- most significantly the relationship between Yun Ling Teoh and Aritomo, the Japanese gardener. This book leaves a lot unsaid, but it left the nature of their relationship unsaid to a point that I didn't even realise they had one, until it was revealed in a way that jarred me. The relationship between two Japanese pilots during the war was much more moving to me, and the depiction, while understated, worked a lot better. Overall there was a lot to like here, but also a few moments where I thought it fell down, which meant that in the end it would not have my Booker vote.
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In the end, I think my vote would go to Swimming Home by Deborah Levy. But the actual winner was Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, and that's fine with me, she's a great writer and the only thing I really have against the book is that it was a sequel to a previous Booker prize winner. I'm kind of impressed with the wide range of books that get shortlisted- there's a lot of variation in style and subject matter, a lot of experimentation and all in all an interesting bunch of books.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

lists of books

Lists seem to be an ever-popular feature of the book world, from Awards shortlists to lists of books read through the year (yep, both of those have appeared on my blog). There are an infinite variety of lists to choose from, such as lists that tell you a bit about a person (like Simon at Stuck-in-a-book's 'My Life in Books' series) or books are about topics (like this Christmas-gift version at Booksellers NZ), but the most controversial are the 'Best-of' lists. Some people hate the idea of imposing a ranking on books, some people like to use them as a jumping off post for thinking about their own favourites (see Book Snob's take on Stylists list of must read's) and sometimes they are just good for inspiring reading choices (or Christmas shopping). So for your enjoyment, I found a list of all the best of lists of the year (i.e. I think someone posted it on Twitter but I forget who):

Largehearted Boy's 'Online 'Best of 2012' book lists

One of the lists that I enjoyed is Nancy Pearl's Picks for the Omnivorous Reader.

Do you love or hate 'best of' lists, or are you somewhere in the middle?

Monday, November 26, 2012

liebster award

Liebster2
Helen over at A Gallimaufry has given me a Liebster award! Which is basically a meme for small blogs (with under 200 followers) where you answer 7 questions and then ask a new set of 7 questions to 7 people. I enjoy both memes and A Gallimaufry (she has a series on the Grimm Fairy Tales which I particularly enjoy) so I am excited about this. The questions:

1. Describe your ideal home library/study. 
I'm going to base this on my ideal home library as described to a friend 10 years ago, while doing my final exams at school. Because obviously I have spent a lot of time thinking about it. For starters, this library is situated somewhere near the sea. I'm thinking of a remote Hebridean island, but a cliff-top anywhere would probably do. One wall of the room is double-glazed glass, looking out at the ocean and the storms that roll in from the distance. The opposite wall is covered in bookshelves which are full of books. The floor has rugs and beanbags scattered round, and there is a big armchair. In one corner, there is a large desk. In the other, some sort of music playing device and a snack fridge/cupboard (because what is better than reading while eating chocolate and listening to music?). The view of the sea would make the room feel all the cosier, while also being a reminder of the wider world.

2. With which literary character would you spend a week’s holiday in the location of your choice? 
I've just finished reading The Garden of Evening Mists, so I'm going to say that I would like to visit the garden. But I think I would prefer to stay with Magnus and Emily than with Aritomo the gardener, they seem a lot friendlier. Some books are like that, they revolve so heavily around a location that you wish you could see it yourself, but when they are fictional you know there is no chance. And fictional locations are always the most impressive. A Japanese garden surrounded by Malaysian jungle would be a lovely place to visit I think.

Alternatively I would like to visit the UK with Lord Peter Wimsey, because who wouldn't like to spend a week on holiday with him?


3. Name two new authors whose work you think will last the test of time, and explain your choices. 
Ooh, this is a tough one. Picking classics is hard, and every time I try to choose one, I realise they have been writing for decades and aren't exactly new. For instance, I love David Mitchell and I think his range and distinctive style will make him stand the test of time, but his first book was published in 1999 so I'm not sure if he qualifies as new.

But there are a couple of relatively new novelists whose books I read recently, one a first time writer and one with only two novels, so I'm going to say they qualify- Erin Morgenstern and Sarah Moss. I really enjoyed The Night Circus and Night Waking (moral- put the word 'night' in the title and I will read your book) and I hope they write more books for me to read. Whether they stand the test of time I can't say for sure, but I'm interested to see what else they write.

4. If you could live in a novel, which one would it be and why? 
Maybe a Phryne Fisher novel- she's wealthy and socially conscious and has a wonderful outfit and a lot of really nice food. Plus it's set in the 1920s, which is a period of time I like. But then again, maybe I'd prefer to take a holiday there than live there. Alternatively, Possession, for my alternative dream life as an academic solving academic mysteries.

5. Is there a literature from a particular time and place (medieval Chinese, nineteenth-century Russian for instance) which is a favourite of yours?
I love Anglo-Saxon poetry- I did study it after all- but it's not a thing that I tend to sit down and read out of the classroom. I am a bit of an Anglophile all round though, some of my favourite specific English settings/periods are Golden Age detective novels and urban fantasy set in contemporary London. I keep trying to expand my literary horizons, and I keep coming back to England. *sigh*

6.What book have you read in the last year or so which you feel so evangelical about you would press it on everyone you meet? Explain further... 
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas has, sort of accidentally, seems to have been passed around to most people I know. I really really like David Mitchell, although my favourite of his books is probably number9dream, but after I lent Cloud Atlas to one friend it got passed on to another, and then another, and I'm not sure if I have it back yet.

I do get enthusiastic about books, but I will usually only press them on people I think will like them- I've bought Gilead and Home as a gift, I've recommended Wolf Hall, I've raved about Cold Magic and I don't know what else. I guess that's part of the joy of reading, sharing it with other people. But David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson probably have gotten the most recommendations from me.

7. If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why? 
If I was preserving it for myself, like a desert island book, I suppose it would be Possession, because that is a book I can read over and over again, and it has a lot of the things I want in a book: romance, mystery, adventure and a lot of literary allusions. If I had to be realistic in this question, that would be way beyond my abilities- it's a large book, and I haven't even managed to successfully memorise Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan', though I did try.

If I had to memorise something to preserve it for posterity, for the survival of culture, I wouldn't mind passing down 'Kubla Khan', but I would probably try to memorise 'Beowulf'- because I wouldn't want Anglo-Saxon culture to be forgotten, and I think it's important to understand where we came from. Also I really like it, and I think the elegiac tone and the themes of the poem would be well suited to a society that was losing its culture (like in Fahrenheit 451).


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Now I have to tag seven people and ask them seven questions. One of the problems about being a small blog with less than 200 followers is that I'm not sure I have seven followers with small blogs to tag. So I'll just tag Ronni and Sam and throw this open to whoever would like to answer it, even in the comments if you like.
  1. Have you ever read a book that changed your life, or your reading habits?
  2. If you could recommend one book to the world, what would it be?
  3. Do you read when you're out and about or just at home?
  4. Is there any genre that you don't read, and why? Or do you only read one particular type of book?
  5. What is the first book that you remember reading?
  6. What is the last book that you read that was outside your comfort zone?
  7. and I'm stealing this last question because I'm interested in what other people have to say:
  8. If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why?  
Over to you!

Monday, November 05, 2012

extracts from my notebook 6

"Did you move to Scotland for a woman?"
"No, for money"
"Oh, I understand. It's hard in Turkey. Everyone's wearing burqas!"
- American tourists to owner of Turkish restaurant in Inverness

Rowley died in 1806, leaving the estate in trust for his 5 natural children 'begotten on the body of Elizabeth Selwyn' and one sixth for his wife 'so long as she does not live in a state of co-habitation or marriage with any man and continues to take care of my said children'.
-From an article on early Stanmore history- a little cold

"He's at a funeral"
"Who died now?"
"Oh no, he's been dead two years"
-Overheard

In many cases, fiction over the last 35 years has eschewed the novel's traditional attempt to render depth, preferring to tell a story, which, instead of seeking to offer truth, deep meaning or philosophical belief, depicts particular aspects of the modern world refracted through the life experience of individuals.
-Peter Childs, Contemporary Novelists: British fiction, 1970-2003

"It's her brother? Hot.
...
So you're not really related?"
- Phone conversation overheard in Berkelouw Books cafe

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

halfway to the Booker

The Booker Prize winner gets announced sometime today, and I am still only halfway through the shortlist! Oh well, I can still read the rest, I just won't be able to make predictions. And there's still time to write a halfway point blog post before the winner is announced. So, a short recap of the shortlist so far... 

Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel  
I loved Wolf Hall, so it's not surprising that this is probably my current favourite Booker book. Reading the second book of a series after loving the first is always a tricky thing, and I don't know how I would rate this in comparison to the first. The writing remains excellent and fresh and the plot remains tense, but this time there's a greater sense of ambiguity in Thomas Cromwell (and many of the other characters). His thoughts don't match up to his actions, and it's not clear why- is he motivated by revenge? Survival? A political trade-off to achieve his reform goals? All of the above? I felt like he was harder to understand than in the first book, yet as fascinating as ever. Despite how much I enjoyed it I don't really want this to win, since Wolf Hall already did and this, while a great continuation, doesn't surpass the first book enough to warrant a second award, I think.  

Narcopolis - Jeet Thayil 
I started reading this immediately after I finished Love by Angela Carter, and there was a certain similarity in feel- with a meandering structure and in writing that represents an unusual mind-state. In this case, it's a drug induced haze, that floats you through the stories of a bunch of characters centered around a Bombay opium den, and it feels a lot less sinister. Starting from the perspective of Dom, returned from addiction in America to try out opium in India. He's almost a tourist in the slums of Bombay, which seems an appropriate viewpoint for the reader. There were some uncomfortable moments reading this, but I thought the characters were great (though I hated Rumi with a passion), and it really mixes lightness and despair well. 

Umbrella - Will Self 
My least favourite of the shortlist so far- it took me 50 pages just to get over the author's use  of italics (are they for inner thoughts? quotes? what exactly?). I've heard the writing described as 'stream of consciousness' but it is more of a jumble- third person, first person. The viewpoint shifts between two (or three) characters and three loose time periods- Audrey Death in the beginning of the twentieth century (and a little bit of her brothers), Zachary Busner in the 1970s and Zachary Busner today. The shifts are very abrupt- turning on a phrase or a word- and I actually kind of liked that concept, but overall I felt like the book added up to less than the sum of its parts. There are a proliferation of umbrellas, historical events, mentions of the name 'Death', but for what? I was interested when it looked like the book was going to talk about the history of the way mental health has been seen for a bit, but that just seemed a bit flat. I didn't really care what happened to the characters most of the time. I think at the end when he kind of suggests that the encephalitis is brought on by mechanisation, and I kind of got the sense of history as a machine that grinds up the people in its path, or factories as machines, it all came together in my mind a bit more. But the process of reading this is a bit like being caught up in a machine yourself.

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Other than that, life has been pretty eventful lately. I finished my last assignment for my Masters last Monday, and my sister was married on Friday. Exciting times! It's been a bit busy, but quite happy, around here. Just thought I would mention a little congratulations to them.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

1970s - Love (1971)

Love by Angela Carter was a difficult book to read. For starters, it's title is misleading- the plot centres on three people: Annabel, an art student, her husband Lee and Lee's brother who also lives with them. All three are disconnected with reality in their own separate ways, and seemingly incapable of really knowing or interacting with each other, but none more so than Annabel. When the book opens she is overcome by terror when walking through the park by seeing the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time. The book then moves around in time to look at the doomed relationship (love?) between Annabel and Lee. The first thing that really struck me about the book was the style it's written in. It's full of long run on sentences that don't seem to end the way you'd expect- with the end twisting away from the beginning. Take, for example, this sentence:
All was as it should be in the kitchen and she gave him a smile of such unexpected sweetness that he turned, put his arms around her and hid his face in her hair, for he was having an affair with another woman, as was only to be expected.

The having an affair is a twist, but 'as was only to be expected' throws in a certain feeling of oddness. The copy that I read has a quote on the cover: "Angela Carter writes like a dream... sometimes a nightmare" and I really can't think of a better description. She writes to disorient- the story shifts in time, from place to place, through perspectives and sometimes seemingly from reality to fantasy. Sometimes the narrator is unobtrusive and sometimes they forebode. The effect is most pronounced at the start when the focus is most closely on Annabel, when it shifts to Lee it all seems clearer. Anyway it is an effective way to relate a story about madness. It's also an effective way of building atmosphere- this is such a Gothic story. I mean, the main characters names reference Edgar Allan Poe, and on the first page we read, of Annabel,:
...Annabel rarely ventured there because serenity bored her and the Mediterranean aspect of this part of the park held no excitements for her. She preferred the Gothic north, where an ivy-covered tower with leaded ogive windows skulked among the trees.
There's a lot of interest in objects, in things and in surfaces- with long descriptions of the room that Annabel and Lee live in and all the stuff that fills it. After all, the characters often interact seemingly at a surface level, and that is the way Annabel understands the world. Objects are not just objects, they are symbolic and full of meaning, but not necessarily a meaning anyone can understand. And there are allusions to myth and folklore. I liked this:
...how was he to know, since he was so young, that he would become a Spartan boy and she the fox under his jacket, eating his heart out. The Japanese peasantry had an awed respect for foxes, who, they believed, could enter a person's body either through the breast or else the space between the flesh of a finger and any one fingernail. When the fox was inside, it would harangue its host until he lost his reason but Lee felt no need to beware of her.
That last sentence is a good example of the twisting sentences, actually. I don't think I've ever quoted a book so much in a blog post, but really it seems the best way to get across the sense of this one. It's all in the way that it's written, the way that it bends your perceptions.

The shifting nature of the story is not the only reason it is a difficult book, though. It's difficult because of the way Lee treats Annabel. He is presented sympathetically for the most part, more or less, which makes it more uncomfortable. It's not easy because clearly he is in a difficult position, but I really didn't know what to make of the way the characters were treated. A couple of times I had to double check that the story was written by a woman. It seems silly but there were some moments that were brutal. I was comforted to read the afterword, where Angela Carter describes the book as an "almost sinister feat of male impersonation." It's a dark book, Gothic and often disturbing, which doesn't always treat women well. I wish I knew to what end, but I don't know quite what to make of it. All the same, I was impressed by the writing, the way that no two Angela Carter books I've read feel quite the same- though they have a common sense of lushness verging sometimes on grotesqueness. In the end, I would be really interested in hearing what other people thought of this!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

to read list

I'm not always someone who has a clear list in my mind of what books to read next, and that means I don't tend to have piles of books waiting around to be read, like lots of bloggers that I read seem to do. This is great for not having unread-book-guilt, but terrible when I finish one book and have no idea what to read next. The panic! Happily, at the moment I do happen to have a large reading list lined up, and I'm a little bit excited about it. Now I can rush through trying to finish them all and put off having to worry about where my next book's coming from for a little while. So I thought I would share my current TBR list with you:

I borrowed a few from my friend (the lovely Georgia), which I have started on:

On Literature by Umberto Eco
I just finished this- really enjoyed the change of pace (it's non-fiction essays, I usually read fiction). Had some nice arguments with him about reviewing and symbolism and felt very inspired to read a lot more classics (for the intertextuality mostly).

Essays  by George Orwell
More essays! I think I am in a non-fictiony mood at the moment so looking forward to these

Love by Angela Carter
Borrowed to fill in my '70s decade for my Century of Books reading project, so should be blogging about this one. I've just started it and it looks like this will be an interesting read...

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov
Haven't read any Nabokov, despite hearing wonderful things about his writing, and have no great desire to read Lolita. This should be good!

With the announcement of the Booker prize shortlist this year I had the vague idea that I have every year of trying to read all the shortlisted books, preferably before the winner is announced. This year might be the year? I've already read Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (and I really love this series of hers) and I went to my library website to see what was available. I now have holds on:
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Umbrella by Will Self
Just have to track down The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and The Lighthouse by Alison Moore.

I also put a hold on the latest Tana French Dublin Murder Squad book, Broken Harbour, a little while ago. There's a bit of a queue for that though so I'm not sure when I'll get to it. No matter! Plenty to keep me occupied in the meantime.

And I also noticed that there is a new Kate Griffin out, so that will go on the list, and I thought I might try some Pushkin, because I have always been intrigued by him but never read anything at all. But those might have to wait a while.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

1960s - Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut is one of those books that people have been recommending to me forever, and yet the title has always put me off actually reading it. That and the fact that I have always kind of mixed it together with Catch-22 (which I have also never read) in my mind. But in the spirit of this Century of Books challenge I thought needing a '60s book to read was  the perfect opportunity to put my misconceptions behind me and actually see what this book is all about.

In short, this book is all about the life of Billy Pilgrim- traveller in time- and sort of revolves around his experience of WWII and, in particular, the bombing of Dresden. The book proceeds in a linear way through Billy's war experiences, but these are inter-cut with his travels to a range of different moments in his life, sometimes for a brief impressionistic moment and sometimes for longer, from his time in hospital to his time as an alien abductee on the planet Trafalmadore. The time and space travel can be read as fact, or as products of the war-shattered mind of Billy, who has after all read a lot of bad science fiction. Or at least that's how I read it. The time travel and encounters with an alien culture prompt musings on the nature of time and fate, which might be read as Billy trying to make sense of his wartime experiences.

The character of Billy Pilgrim almost seems to run on rails, fated to end up where he does, accepting of all events that come his way, a sort of fool, an innocent caught up in an incomprehensible situation. This really picks up on the book's subtitle, The Children's Crusade, but it's a ludicrous sort of innocence- at the climax of the book Billy emerges into the bombed landscape of Dresden wearing a number of cast-offs from a POW camp production of Cinderella, including silver boots and a sort of toga. He doesn't seem to give any thought to it, though people around him are amused by his appearance. His reaction to the aftermath of the bombing is similarly wide-eyed- it's described as 'like the surface of the moon' and Billy Pilgrim spends one of the happiest moments of his life asleep in a wagon drawn by a donkey in the desolate ruins of the town.

The effect of all this is what makes it a powerful anti-war book. It's devoid of heroism or scenes of military prowess- Billy Pilgrim goes into the war unarmed (he is trained as a Chaplain's assistant) and is captured by a rag-tag bunch of soldiers. War in this book is ridiculous, it is horrible but not tragic, because there is romance in tragedy. Instead it is a farce, and the idea of justified war is undermined by the centre-piece of the story- the destruction of the entire city of Dresden. It's not that the Nazi's are portrayed positively, the corpse candles for instance are a sharp reminder of how bad it was, it's just that the war is not a positive thing.

It's an interesting scenario, I don't think that the Dresden bombing is something that I really knew or thought about until I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johnathan Safran Foer (which I loved). The descriptions in that book are more horrifying because it is not avoiding the tragic, the images of liquid fire, the idea of large-scale death came through so strongly in that book that Slaughterhouse Five seemed flat by comparison. Recently I read Above Suspicion by Helen McInnes, a spy novel written during the early years of WWII and set in the lead up to the outbreak of war. That book was heavily shadowed by the idea of appeasement, and expressed a sort of moral disgust at not acting against Germany earlier. Obviously it's written in wartime, but it's hard to read it and see how you could not go to war- after all, not only was Nazi Germany an awful regime, it was also actively invading other countries. But then you read books like Slaughterhouse Five, and remember Dresden (and Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and wonder how anyone can get through a war with their conscience intact?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

1950s- The End of the Affair (1951)

I was already late writing up this one, and then I found that the draft of the post I'd been writing has disappeared, so that is partly my excuse for such a long blog silence. I have run so far behind schedule on this project but I haven't given up, in fact I'm already reading my 1960s book. Hopefully I will post on that in a more timely fashion! But I digress, back to The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and hopefully I haven't forgotten too much of it...

I haven't read any Graham Greene before, but when I noticed this book in the bookshop while looking for something completely different (The Door in the Air by Margaret Mahy, but that's another story) and realised it was written in the '50s it seemed like the perfect time to start. When I started reading the book my feelings of serendipity diminished somewhat. It wasn't what I felt like reading, it was too ironic feeling, too much emotional distance, the kind of book that makes me want to start grumbling that all contemporary literature is the same- all infidelity and unsympathetic characters. The 1950s was clearly not long enough ago to escape this.

I tend to feel that such a reaction reflects badly on me rather than the book, and means that either I need to take a bit of a break from the genre or read something exceptional that makes sense of the genre again. It bodes ill for writing book reviews. But! The story does not end there. I kept reading and eventually the book turned around for me. I was reading along, grumbling at how unbelievable the love between two characters often seems in books that are centered around being in love, and thinking about manic pixie dream girls, and generally not getting along with the central character, when Sarah's diary started, and everything just made much more sense to me. Then the story moved into the tragic, and I thought it was the better for it.

Short digression for a plot summary: Maurice runs into Henry in the park, and is reminded of his ended affair with Henry's wife, Sarah, which ended when a bomb fell on his house and Sarah inexplicably left him. This reminder reawakens his obsession, and he set about trying to understand what happened, and following Sarah's movements by hiring a private detective to follow her, and eventually to steal her diary. And I don't think it's too much of a spoiler (though look away if you want) to say that Sarah ends up dying- Maurice attends the funeral and then falls into a strange sort-of friendship with Henry, who is rather a pathetic figure.

It's funny reviewing books by your reactions to them rather than what they are trying to do, but then it's not easy to do anything else. Maurice introduces his story by saying "this is a record of hate far more than of love", and yet what I want is a story of love, and it is for the parts of it that made sense of the book as a love story that I particularly liked it. Sarah's diary did that for me, because she was able to express love, because through her voice I understood how Maurice could be loveable. Maurice, on the other hand, is clouded by pain  and insecurity and obsession. He goes on from the sentence I quoted before to say "... and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near truth, even to the expression of my near hate." But to the reader, or to this reader anyway, this sentence only underlines how much he cannot be trusted, his hate is complicated by his love. The way the love affair plays out seems very real, and really underlines this complication- the obsession and the insecurity and the tedium of it. But for me, the tedium and the negativity of the affair only made sense once I could see the love.

The book goes on to talk more about the relationship between love and hate, not only in terms of the relationship between Maurice and Sarah but also in terms of their relationship with God. Both start out as confirmed atheists, but have to confront what they actually believe over the course of the book. Whether they believe in God, and what they believe about God, turns out to be the destructive force in their affair.

Towards the end the tone changed again, from the tragic to the more everyday, and it lost me a little bit again. But it seems unfair to try to make a book that is trying to undermine in some way the idea of a grand love affair into a grand love affair. It's just that with the loss of Sarah, just when I had come to find her so important, I lost interest a bit.

So a lot to think about there, clearly! All in all I really enjoyed this book, despite feeling less than excited by it to begin with, and maybe I will look up some more Greene in future. In the meanwhile I'll be reading Slaughterhouse Five and hopefully this blog will not be neglected for so long again!

Monday, July 23, 2012

travelling

Gardens at Nijo Castle, Kyoto

Clearly I am not very good at blogging while traveling, since I have been back for weeks but have not blogged since before I left. I also didn't read a lot while I was away. I had intended to bring an e-book reader with me but it turned out I couldn't buy any books for it due to being in the wrong country, so I just grabbed A.S. Byatt's Possession from my shelf and hoped for the best. When I got really desperate for reading material, we stopped in a second hand bookshop in York and I bought a copy of Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt. So all I did was reread books by A.S. Byatt while I was away, and I still need to find a 1950s book for my century of books challenge.


I did enjoy rereading Possession though, it's particularly nice to read in England, since it does seem quite English. And it's about a quest and about books- what could be better holiday reading than that? Babel Tower was a bit more of a challenge, I'd forgotten about the book-within-a-book and how off-putting I found it (it is a story about utopias becoming dystopias, and draws on de Sade I think, so it contains some sexual violence and overall gruesomeness). It's also the third book in a series, and while I have read them all before it took a while to get oriented. But having no other reading material, I continued to read it, and ultimately I think it is an interesting and thought provoking book, dealing with judgement and permissiveness and I guess how the socially accepted order can affect individuals.
Reading Possession while waiting for the TT race to start on the Isle of Man

Stones of Stenness, Orkneys
Brief overview of holiday reading aside, I really enjoyed my trip. I'm not sure how to sum it up in blog post form, but one thing that did really blow me away is just how inventive human beings are, and have been for a long time, all over the world. Looking at what people created 5,000 years ago in a tiny set of islands north of Scotland, and how complicated their worldview must have been (though our ability to understand what it was is extremely limited) was incredible. But this sort of thing was happening all over the world, with people building stone circles in Stenness and Stonehenge, and monumental tombs in the Orkneys and Japan. What would we be without thousands of years of inventions and culture and society and economics behind us? I know these thoughts are not exactly new, but I was really struck by it.
The entrance to Maes Howe, a chambered tomb in the Orkneys built around 5,000 years ago.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

1940s- the path to the nest of spiders (1947)

When I was trying to find inspiration for books to read for this challenge this year, it really struck me just how many books in the 20th century were written about the world wars. Not surprising perhaps, but still it is incredible to think of the enormous influence those wars have had on literature (as well as the broader culture, history, society etc.). So it seems fitting that I read a book about WWII for the 1940s. It's an interesting perspective too, Italo Calvino wrote The Path to the Nest of Spiders in 1947, not long after the war ended, and according to his preface it was inspired by his time with the Italian Resistance. That's not a part of the war I have heard much about before (and isn't it amazing the number of different stories that came out of the wars? So many people affected in so many different ways), so it was quite an unfamiliar experience. 


The Path to the Nest of Spiders starts by following Pin, a kid who is apprenticed to a cobbler and brother to a prostitute, who doesn't fit in with the other kids but doesn't really fit in with the adults either. His response is to view life with animosity, although he likes entertaining adults with his songs and his barbed jokes. He is a child who sees everything but doesn't understand anything fully, so he is well placed to play the fool, entertaining others by making fun of their dark secrets. When he heads to the bar to entertain his friends one day, he becomes involved in a plot to steal the gun from the German soldier his sister is seeing. From there on he becomes more entangled, ending up joining a group of partisan soldiers camped out in the wilderness. 


The focus of the novel becomes wider and wider, with Pin becoming less and less central to the telling of the story. At one point it jumps into another characters head altogether. It's as though the book is more interested in telling the partisans' story than Pin's, and so gets side-tracked. I found this a little disconcerting, but then again this is Italo Calvino (and his first book) and he is not know for straightforward storytelling. 


Pin is so naive, and yet knowing, sometimes the lack of understanding he showed could be frustrating. But it was occasionally heartbreaking to see how he was taken advantage of, or bluffed his way into trouble through not knowing what he was talking about. Pin is not exactly a victim though, he has a love for provoking trouble and a knowledge of what will most get under people's skin, as well as an occasional intense hatred for humanity. In fact the the whole book seems to swing back and forth with Pin's moods, from a disgust for humanity to a deep affection for people. Apparently Calvino based the characters on people he knew when he was with the partisans, but made them grotesque, and maybe that is what makes these characters so easy to love and to hate at the same time. It didn't convey to me a sense of real alignment with the partisans' cause though, more a sense of chaos, so many different sides fighting, with many men choosing a side arbitrarily or moving between them. I wasn't sure what to make of passages like this:


Ferriera mutters into his beard: "So you think the spirit of our men... and the Black Brigade's... the same thing?"
"The same thing, the same thing... but, if you see what I mean..." Kim has stopped, with a finger pointing as if he were keeping place in a book, "The same thing but the other way round. Because here we're in the right, and they're in the wrong. Here we're achieving something, there they're just strengthening the rivets."

Because on the one hand it seems ironic- surely men and both sides of the fighting would feel the same way- but on the other hand it is written after the war, the fascists have lost and Kim is vindicated. On the one hand it feels like all the sides are the same, made up of the same men divided arbitrarily, on the other there is a right side and a wrong side, as a reader I do not want the fascists to win. But maybe that is just the confusion of war, even if one side is clearly in the wrong, it doesn't mean their soldiers are automatically evil.


Overall I think this feels like a first novel, it's a bit uneven, and I didn't love it. But it does have its compelling moments, and it's an interesting story and a window into a tumultuous time in history.


...


On another note, I'm not sure if I will manage a 1950s post in June since I will be away, but if not I will write one up in July instead. And it's getting so close to June, yay!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

crime, comfort and tropes

One of my favourite comfort read genres is crime, particularly murder mysteries. Sometimes I feel strange about that- why are books about murder and horrible crimes comforting? It's a strange balance, and it's the reason I tend to shy away from true crime and towards the milder end of the crime spectrum. I think I really enjoy crime because it's so plot driven. When reading is hard or my brain is foggy what I usually want is something fast paced and absorbing that I won't be able to put down until I reach the end. It's a puzzle that I want to solve, or have solved for me in most cases.


There are some other things that make crime novels a good read, and a good comfort read. Firstly, crime fiction always comes to a resolution, the mystery is solved, the bad guys found out and usually punished. I was just reading an interview with Tana French where she says "mystery... is a genre very much based on morality" and I think that's true. Sometimes that plays out in straightforward ways, sometimes it gets twistier (particularly in noir or similar types of novels), but really in most crime novels morality is explored to some extent, and the concept of justice. Even in cosy mysteries. Secondly, a lot of crime novels are part of a long running series, which means they have a level of familiarity and you know what to expect from them. Each series will have its own tropes, and they fit into the larger picture of 'crime tropes' or 'literary tropes' or 'specific subgenre tropes'. I thought it might be fun to look at a couple of series that I have been reading recently and look at what makes them distinctive/what tropes they use. I might have to split it over several posts though...


Dublin Murder Squad - Tana French
This isn't so much of a comfort read for me because it's not as cozy as many of the books I like to read, the morality tends to be twistier and the crimes grittier. But I just finished reading Faithful Place (book 3 of the series) and I thought it would be interesting to talk about, so here you go.


I'm not sure if The Dublin Murder Squad is the official or unofficial title for this series, it's interesting because it's fitting in some ways (the books are largely set in and around Dublin, there's always a murder, the mystery is solved by a different member of the Dublin police each time) and not in others (it sounds almost cheery, and not all the detectives who star in these books are from the murder squad). Following a different main character each time means each of the (three so far) books in the series is quite different, but there are definitely some key themes/tropes that make this a clearly identifiable series. Some spoilers (especially for In the Woods) may follow.


Recently I read this review for Faithful Place at Raging Biblioholism and one word they used made a lot of the tropes click into place for me- Gothic. This series uses a whole lot of Gothic tropes, as well as the thriller/crime genre, to create its distinctive feel. First, and perhaps most striking, is the use of the uncanny. There are hints of strange, and perhaps supernatural, things happening, that never really get examined head on. This is really frustrating in In the Woods, where the intriguing mystery of what happened to Rob as a child that left him alone in the woods with a shoe full of blood and his fingernails embedded into a tree, is never fully revealed. The idea of a doppelganger is part of the setup for The Likeness, but it's a question that's not answered, and that the book isn't interested in answering. While there may be hints of the supernatural, there is nothing that is actually definitely shown as such. I'm not sure whether this is more effective or infuriating, but I do think it's part of the effect. Interestingly the uncanny element seems to be missing from Faithful Place (as does the concept of a surprising twist), although there are several other Gothic tropes lurking there.


Secondly, the past and the idea of a past coming back to haunt people, is pretty key in this series. Basically the main characters are the focus here, rather than the crime at hand, and the crime they are investigating is always specially designed to push all their buttons and dredge up memories. The mystery element, really, is whether they will crack under the pressure. So the crimes are usually personal, the characters are too personally involved to really legitimately be involved in the case. 


This past involvement trope is often used in crime, particularly in TV, to up the stakes in a series (like someone the detective loves being threatened)- a kind of 'this time it's personal'. I think it's used a little differently here, not least because it's part of the premise of the whole series. It's a definite device for character change. But the past is not just personal, it's broader than that. In the Woods invoked a broadly ancient, almost mythic, past, while The Likeness riffed off class and town/country tensions in the 19th century and Faithful Place looked at urban poverty of the 20th century. The broader past is not exactly the focus, it's just clear that it has contributed to the tensions, dangers and general shape of the present and its murders. The effect of all this is that the past is a looming presence in the stories, it almost feels that Ireland itself is a malevolent character, that holds grudges and doesn't forget. If not Ireland, there is something working against the detectives, a dark and numinous force of time and place.  Together with the elements of the uncanny, I often feel when reading these books that there is a second villain lurking just out of sight beyond the pages.


In Faithful Place the personal past is represented not just by the main crime, a cold case, the killing of undercover detective Frank Mackey's childhood sweetheart, but also by his family. The nearest the book comes to the uncanny is in its portrayal of family resemblances, the things that are passed down and shared, the way that Frank and his siblings try to escape certain traits of their parents but are shaped by them. There is a scene between Frank and his brother Shay towards the end of the book that really spells that out. In other Gothic tropes, there is an almost haunted house that is significant. 


Read Dublin Murder Squad for:
Pyschological thrillers with a Gothic edge, with the protagonists driven to breaking point to see if they will crack. I need to pysch myself up to this but they are real page turners with an effective mood and often characters I care for (mostly Cassie). Less focused on the case than the main character.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

planning adventures

Today marks an important milestone- it's one month until Andrew and I set off on an overseas trip! I'm pretty excited, it's been 10 years since I last left Australia, after finishing high school, and I have probably been planning on my next trip since then. For this blog this means that either I will be posting a lot of photos and talking about my travels, or I will not be posting anything at all, depending on how much time/internet access I have. I'm travelling to the UK and Japan, and while I do a lot of UK based reading, I haven't read that many Japanese books, so any Japanese author recommendations to read in the lead up would be appreciated. Or Japanese history book recommendations. Or places to see in Japan or the UK. In general: recommendations welcome.


But before that, I have a 1940s book to read and review sometime this month (as well as two assignments to write, a lot of uni readings to do and travel bookings to make). It's going to be a busy month, but there is adventuring to look forward to at the end of it!

Monday, April 23, 2012

1930s - the big sleep (1939)

Image source
I've been reading a lot of crime fiction lately, so it seemed kind of fitting to read The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler as my book for the 1930s. It was also something of a change for me, since my usual preferred crime subgenre is murder mysteries/whodunits, preferably cozy and/or Golden Age, and almost invariably British. The Big Sleep is none of those things (apart from being a crime novel and in fact a contemporary of a lot of Golden Age novels)- it's American, hardboiled and not particularly cozy. It's hard not to pick up on a lot of the hardboiled tropes though, through movies and spoofs and all sorts of cultural references, and reading this book for me was all about enjoying the genre experience. It's a pretty fantastic genre experience, with dames and liquor and wise-cracks and so on.

Philip Marlowe is our detective, introduced in a powder blue suit "calling on four million dollars" to take on a case. The case is to suss out some notes that purport to be gambling IOUs from the millionaires daughters and check out whether there's any blackmail intention behind them, though everyone he meets thinks it is to find the millionaires missing son-in-law. Things quickly get complicated, with the millionaires two daughters, pornographers, gambling and some murders, of course. 

The plot is perhaps a little too complicated. When I told my friend Sam I was reading book he told me that one of the murders is never solved, and when Raymond Chandler was asked who did it even he didn't know. It doesn't matter in the end, matters are resolved and most loose ends are tied. The atmosphere is so full of crime and corruption that an extra murder kind of gets lost in the murk. A lot of the criminal activity almost ends up as red herrings, although it does lead to the case being solved in the end.

In a sense the book is more about the detective than the plot. He is the one honest man in a corrupt town, though he doesn't look like it (which I think is characteristic for the genre?). He may be a detective for hire, who drinks scotch at all hours of the day and night and talks back to the toughest guys in town, but he acts on different principles to everyone around him, the racketeers and the corrupt policemen of post-Prohibition L.A. He's also college educated and a chess player. The first page sets the tone with the image of a stained glass picture of a knight rescuing a lady:

The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn't seem to be really trying.

There's something appealing about the reckless but honest hero/detective. But to be honest, it's not the incorruptibility that I read it for. It's the wise-cracking, danger-seeking tone and the general 1930s atmosphere. Those moments when you feel you are deeply immersed in noir. Like these:
I sat down at the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble.
The coffee shop smell from next door came in at the windows with the soot but failed to make me hungry. So I got out my office bottle and took the drink and let my self-respect ride its own race

I missed the accumulation of clues and suspects of my murder mysteries, but this was a fun trip into a different type of crime (and a very different world), I might have to get more familiar with the genre.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

1920s- Passing (1929)

It's taken me a while to get around to blogging about Passing by Nella Larsen, even though I started writing up notes for a blog post a while ago, so it's now April even though this was my book for March for the Century of Books. I think there are a couple of reasons for that, one is that I really didn't have particularly strong feelings about it, and the other is that I just left it for a while and when I think about a blog post for too long I tend to lose enthusiasm for actually writing it. But it's definitely an interesting book, and there is a lot I could talk about, so it's worth the blog post (and worth a read).


I first heard about Passing through a review over at Evening All Afternoon, and it just sounded fascinating. Passing follows the perspective of Irene, who reconnects with a friend from childhood, Claire, through a chance meeting in Chicago. Both Irene and Claire are of mixed race, which in 1920s America means they are both classed as black and therefore subject to segregation. But while Irene lives the life of a middle class black woman in Harlem, Claire is 'passing' as a white woman, married to a white (and fairly racist) man and dividing her time between New York and Europe. Claire's path is is a dangerous one, which fits with Claire's somewhat reckless personality. Irene, on the other hand, values safety and stability very strongly, and their friendship is somewhat strained from the beginning by the clash of their values and personalities.


As someone who doesn't know much about this area of history, it was interesting to read about the black middle class milieu that Irene lives in- I would love to read more about 1920s Harlem in future. The 'one drop' rule- that meant that anyone with "one drop" of non-white blood was not considered white, and was therefore segregated- just seems to ludicrous. I mean, if it is so difficult to distinguish between different races how do you even justify such a law? But it's fascinating to see how that shapes peoples identities as well as defining social status. 


The character of Irene was the most interesting for me, it's hard to judge (particularly towards the end of the book) how reliable she is as a narrator. Certainly there seem to be some discrepancies in her world view- she is critical of Claire for 'passing' yet is happy to do so herself in situations where it suits her, she is proud of being black and values security but can't understand how much her husband Brian hates living in a country of lynchings and segregation. But Irene is comfortable in her world, and feels safe there, she dislike anything that represents instability.


Irene's love of stability is one of the things that creates a rift between her and Claire. Claire represents risk and instability to Irene- and always has. The many differences between them set the stage for the dynamic of their relationship, which seems to be in tension between sympathy and lack of understanding. A lot of the commentary about this book has talked about a homo-erotic subtext in the relationship of the two women. I didn't really read that (though Larsen may have intended it to be there)- it felt like such a good representation of an uneasy friendship- what I noticed when I was thinking about their relationship is that Claire very much stands in for the 'other' for Irene. At one point Irene talks about Claire's "mysterious eyes", and since those eyes at other points indicate Claire's race and gender it is almost as though those elements that the two women share are also the things that make them so different. They both have such different relationships to race, they are both such different women.


Claire is a mystery to Irene- she can't fathom her motivations or true thoughts and feels, and this makes her uneasy. It also means her motivations and feelings are not really revealed to the reader, and Irene's increasingly sinister interpretations of Claire's actions may or may not be trustworthy. Claire remains distant and mysterious to both Irene and the reader (or me, at least)- I felt like she was almost an archetypal 'mystery woman with damaged past', even as the character of Irene had so much depth. Though it's unusual to see that archetype presented from a female perspective I think. 


Overall, there's a lot to think about in this book! I haven't even discussed what happens in the ending, which could be a discussion in itself. And it's a fascinating insight into a different world. Even if I didn't love it, I certainly didn't hate it, and I'm glad I read it.


Now... Any recommendations for the 1930s?


ETA: I came across this link in my library course- it's a digital archive of life in Harlem from 1915-1930. It focuses on the lower class and crime records, but still if you're interested in Harlem (or in representing archives) it might be worth a look.