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!