Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Little Stranger--Sarah Waters

I don't like to draw out the time it takes to read a creepy book, so it may be helpful to know that I read The Little Stranger in about a day and a half. (This "compression" method may make such atmospheric books even more overwhelmingly creepy, but for less long, so I keep doing it.)
Waters is known for non-creepy novels about English lesbians in various historical settings.** The Little Stranger is a departure from her previous work in that it is quite plainly creepy, and it contains no obvious lesbians. But fans will certainly recognize her other hallmarks: vivid evocation of place and psyche, and suspenseful storytelling. These elements combine in this book like milk and sugar in tea, to result in a delicious read. (Simile WIN.)

The creepiness in the story is subtle, though, and slips only slowly into the characters' pedestrian lives. We have a somewhat unreliable narrator, though we are not bludgeoned over the head with that fact: very light touches here and there give us insight into his subconscious motivations and feelings. His understanding of those people and situations around him is somewhat at odds with our own, increasingly so as the story progresses. But in addition to its creepiness and psychological veracity, the book has an even bigger thematic agenda: it also manages to explore class in post-war England, a time when the social order was changing.

The Little Stranger also happens to fit into a small post-war-England motif I have going at the moment. Elements of this motif are the book itself, and also my grandmother, who was in the RAF in the war, and with whom I am drinking thrice-daily tea while home. She has lent me another book on the subject, which is much more lighthearted but is rooted in the same truth: life after the war was just as depressing as life during the war. Food and supplies were still rationed, everything was poor and bombed out, and daughters and sons were dead forever, but now life was supposed to return to normal. Its plain inability to do so made some people feel hopeless. Waters also visited this time period in her last novel, The Night Watch. I found that book technically excellent in its Okazaki fragments, but also thoroughly depressing. This marriage of excellence and depressingness is often par for the Waters course. (If you want to put a silver lining on it, the frequency of this combination makes each book more suspenseful. As a reader you never know whether things are going to turn out okay, or--more often--not.)

**Lest this make her sound like a lightweight--she has twice been nominated for the Booker prize, and her first novel was named New York Times Book of the Year.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well-- Tod Wodicka

I read this reassuringly-titled book on the airplane, on the way to visit my family. Detailing as it does the interior life of a horrible mess-up (who messes up his life, and messes up his family, and messes up all manner of things...while blissfully and drunkenly void of self-awareness) is not the most cheerful book to read on your way to visit family. But it is an interesting peek into the combination of grandness and weakness and self-pity that leads the protagonist into doing what from the outside would seem inexplicably crazy stuff.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Birds Beasts and Relatives-- Gerald Durrell

I always check for books by Gerald Durrell at used bookstores, and last week I was rewarded with a library discard of Birds Beasts and Relatives. Durrell, a naturalist, is a close observer of birds, beasts and relatives alike. His adventures with each are hilarious. Like My Family and Other Animals, this book focuses on Durrell's boyhood on the island of Corfu in the 1930's. Originally published in the 1960's, both books were reprinted a few years ago. And good thing, too: each is a book to press on friends, parents and even grandparents. Idyllic and hilarious, these are excellent books for before-bed reading, for reading in waiting rooms, or enjoying with tea. Nothing hair-raising or objectionable...unless you find the specter of laughing out loud in public to be objectionable. In which case, read this book at home!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wiggity what?!

So many of my favorite authors are dead, or have early onset Alzheimer's, that it is super-exciting when a favorite author has a new book coming out.

Margaret Atwood's new novel The Year of the Flood will be released on September 22. Like her most recent novel, Oryx and Crake, Flood seems conceptually fascinating, and so well-written that I will want to speed through to find out what happens, and simultaneously slow down to savor the language.
Oh: and also like Oryx and Crake,Flood is about a dystopic near future in which mankind's godlike power over science and nature has whipped around and bitten him fatally in the ass. I guess there's a lot of story to get out of that setup.

To be fair to the hardworking Ms. Atwood, she has not been sitting idle since Oryx and Crake. No, since the publication of her last novel she published a nonfiction book about economics, Payback, that I did not read; she published a collection of short stories, Moral Disorder, that I did read; she even published a collection of poems, The Door, that I did not even know about until I looked on Amazon when I started writing this post. Also, my favorite Atwood book for many years was the collection of prose and poems and proems and what-not called Good Bones and Simple Murders, which I never ended up buying for myself. Apparently Amazon has used copies for as low as $.01, so maybe now would be a good time.

As a side note, I once named a dog after Margaret Atwood. Fittingly enough, the story is not a happy one. While I don't blame the name, if I had a do-over I might try naming the dog after A.A. Milne or something.

Milne: "'Oh, bother,' said Pooh."

Atwood (from The Door): "That's what I do:/ I tell dark stories/ before and after they come true."

And she does it so well, you know?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Magicians

This book was thoroughly enjoyable. I read part of the first chapter online--this is a genius marketing technique, by the way. Somehow I refrained from buying the book right away, and instead jumped in the hold queue at the library. Soon I was rewarded with The Magicians.

All the reviews will tell you the novel is "blah blah blah, a grownup version of Harry Potter." The "grownup" aspect does not just refer to the presence of adult content, but to the thorough and thoughtful exploration of some adult themes as well. And the book does make very conscious references to Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, etc. (Even to Infinte Jest near the end--I'm telling you, it's everywhere!) But the novel is far more than just a pastiche of these classics. It has a gripping story and some complex, interesting and funny characters. I particularly enjoyed the dialogue, which was witty and incredibly natural. This was a good read.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Triple Whammy III: Infinte Jest

Infinite Jest is just about the biggest whammy possible. Coming in at just over a thousand pages, it's a bonerfied giant tome. As Lenz would say.

And those pages are just packed--packed, I say--with content and ideas and six-course meals for thought. So much so that now the book relates to just about everything I read or hear about. For example, BOTH the other books I finished this weekend reminded me in their wildly different ways of Infinite Jest. (Then We Came to the End: group membership vs isolation, and the redemptive or map-eliminating aspects of each; The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (!): pretty much just unasked-for descriptions of chemistry.)

Finishing the book was a mixed pleasure, as I was tired and pressed for time. For several days I had been referring back to the beginning of the book, eying the dwindling number of pages remaining at the end, and wondering how we were going to pack everything in that would apparently need to happen. The answer is: we don't. We don't do that. We leave it as a bizarre puzzle for the reader to figure out. (Or, alternatively, a puzzle for the reader to say "Oh for god's sake" about and look up quickly on the internet.)

Reading this book was work, but a satisfying and gratifying kind of work. I had, like, equipment. There was my pen and special notebook for jotting down notes, questions, & timelines*, plus also I needed the Dictionary app on my iPhone. So much so that I booted the Phone app out of my iPhone's dock to make room for the Dictionary app, the social implications of which are somewhat disturbing.

If you love to read, don't be put off by the book's length or its esoteric vocabulary or its postmodern (post-postmodern? what does that even mean?) sensibilities.** I'm here to tell you: I've read the book and it is good. Dive in!

* Apparently there are good reader's guides available, which probably take care of the note-jotting and question-noting aspects.

** I took a seminar in college on postmodern lit. On the first day of class, the professor asked us for our conceptions of postmodernism. "Oh shit," I thought. "I thought SHE was going to tell US." I had no idea. However, a more prepared classmate offered his idea of postmodernism: "elitist crap." Those two words have really stuck with me. Even the professor acknowledged he was onto something.