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!