Thursday, 10 January 2013

#6: Scotland

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark (Scotland, 1961)
★ ★
"These years are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognise the years of one's prime, always remember that." 
    - Miss Jean Brodie
Every now and then, I come across a book that - while by no means poorly written, or overly long, or even particularly bad - I am very glad I will never have to read or even think about again.

I realise this may not make the most engaging opening to a book review, but I've often felt that if a reviewer convinces you not to waste your time on something they already have, they've done their job. Martyrs to the cause of entertainment, or something like that. 

Muriel Spark doesn't need defending, in any case. Rated by the Times as #8 in the 50 greatest British writers since 1945 (above Lewis and Burgess but below Tolkien and V. S. Naipaul) and twice shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she was awarded a DBE for services to literature in 1993.

I haven't read any other Spark, but I'm led to understand (by the above list, and many others) that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is her finest work. I'm not looking to defame it, or to argue that it shouldn't hold this status - but I admit, I'm struggling to understand why it does.

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life."
- Miss Brodie

To anyone planning on reading Miss Brodie, I have one suggestion: harden yourself, in advance, to repetition. Various characters, over the course of less than 200 pages, will talk about the importance of "being in one's prime" - nod your way through it sagely, in the interest of retaining your sanity. No human being outside of childhood - most of the characters in this story do start off as children, and inexplicably remain so throughout their teens - parrots speech in the way Miss Brodie's pupils do. Spark's art is in using certain words and concepts so frequently, and with such gravity, that you become convinced that they must have a deeper meaning.

I've always found this kind of tactic rather irritating. I don't claim to understand the metaphorical content of every story I read, nor do I blame the author if something goes over my head. But I remain very suspicious of writers who seem at pains to emphasize that motif lies ahead, or please give way for oncoming symbolism. Missing the point is frustrating, but if I have my face rubbed in it and still don't get it, I start to wonder if there really is a point to it at all.

“The word 'education' comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education, I call it intrusion, from the Latin root prefix in meaning in and the stem trudo, I thrust.”
- Miss Brodie

This sort of play with language - an often artful blending of classical and modern, with the occasionally gentle innuendo thrown in - is fun, but tires quickly. By the end of the book, I felt that I knew a whole lot about a fictional woman who was of no specific interest to me. Brodie suffers from what I can't help thinking of as Mary Poppins syndrome - John Keating in Dead Poets Society has a similar affliction - the radical, free-thinking role model who Surprisingly, TV Tropes was unable to help me here: Brodie lies somewhere between the Trickster Mentor and the Cool Teacher.

In fairness, she is a far more interesting creation than either of these (and, I might add, I have a definite soft spot for Keating). She is frighteningly unflappable, at times exhibiting a lack of empathy that borders on the psychopathic. Treated as a character study in isolation, I could probably garner more enthusiasm for this book. It's just a shame the character is so damn annoying.

Was this a good novel to read for Scotland, ah, well... no. No, I feel I could do better than this, not least because this novel really isn't about Scotland (I won't stand for argument on this point... there are a few passages about Edinburgh, some of the most engaging of the whole novel, but the focus is overwhelmingly upon a privileged handful who could really be from anywhere at all). It is set there, and so meets my minimal criteria, but should I ever do a Rushlight re-read, Scotland will have itself a new novel.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

#5: Switzerland

The Black Spider
Jeremias Gotthelf (Switzerland, 1842)
Translation by H. M. Waidson
★ ★ ½
"The sun rose over the hills, shone with clear majesty
down into a friendly, narrow valley and awakened to
joyful consciousness the beings who are created to enjoy the
sunlight of their life. From the sun-gilt forest’s edge the thrush
burst forth in her morning song, while between sparkling
flowers in dew-laden grass the yearning quail could be heard
joining in with its love-song; above dark pine tops eager crows
were performing their nuptial dance or cawing delicate cradle
songs over the thorny beds of their fledgeless young."
It would seem I made a good call earlier this year, when drawing up the original list. I decided to include Palestine, in spite of its non-UN-recognised condition, and purely on the assumption that the Palestinian assertion of national identity must have produced some interesting literature. And now, of course, it's only gone and become a UN non-member observer state - one step closer to being internationally recognised. It'll be interesting to see how many of the countries on my list will still be countries (and how many I will have to add!) before I'm done.

To the matter at hand: Switzerland. A short review for a short and disappointing story. I'd heard a lot of good things about The Black Spider, in spite of its relative obscurity. Thomas Mann once said that he admired Gotthelf's most enduring story "almost more than anything else in world literature", which makes me wonder if I missed something crucial by reading it in translation. The opening passage quoted here suggests a rather elegant, mellifluous prose style, but in my edition this was not sustained.

The story - perhaps best described as a parable, although the moral is at least a little ambiguous - sees a handful of medieval Swiss peasants make a pact with the Devil, who agrees to help them meet their lord's impossible demands in exchange for an unbaptized child. Although the Devil holds up his end of the bargain, the villagers are understandably reluctant, and try to circumvent their agreement by baptizing the first newborn immediately. This, as even (or especially?) the medieval peasant could surely have foreseen, makes the Devil pissed. He unleashes a plague upon the villagers in the form of a black spider which kills everything it touches. The menace is only stopped when a woman gives her life to trap the spider beneath a window post.

There follows a short second narrative, which tells of how the spider is briefly released by a malicious and ignorant farmhand, but then imprisoned again in essentially the same way as before.

"But what power the spider has when men’s spirits change is known only to Him Who knows everything and allots His strength to each and all, to spiders and to mankind."
So, what is the moral? "Don't make pacts with the Devil"? Or, "If you must make pacts with the Devil, you should at least stick to them"? I actually found this question more interesting than the content of the story itself, which, in my opinion, was too hung up on detail and could have been much shorter without losing anything worthwhile. Clearly, given the nature of the story (and that of Gotthelf, as a pastor) pacts with the Devil are a definite no-no. But the Devil, as a character, appears wholly reasonable in his actions - indeed, his role in this cautionary tale is an amalgamation of God and the Serpent in a Garden analogy; he is both tempter and the arbiter. I almost felt that he regretted having to request an unbaptized child; he's the Devil, and that's how he rolls, but he doesn't have to like it (as with all stories featuring the Devil, he steals the show completely).

The second narrative is not entirely useless - it helps to reinforce the sense in which the villagers' plight is self-inflicted. The theme of human agency is prominent; the villagers, seemingly helpless victims of higher powers, forgo the punishment of their lord and choose instead to risk damnation. And it is only by their own sacrifice that they are able - twice - to stifle the evil that they themselves have unleashed, without appeasing the Devil. God is conspicuously silent in this story, and characters who at one moment seem to hold the moral high ground are easily brought low. Perhaps the ethical ambiguity was Gotthelf's intention.

There's probably much more depth to this novella than meets the eye, but it didn't make a stunning first impression. I expect if I went back to it again, I'd find additional layers of meaning, and if I didn't have 195 countries left to read, I might give it another try.

For now, Scotland awaits!

Friday, 17 August 2012

#4: Vanuatu

Tales of the South Pacific
James A. Michener (USA, 1947)
★ ★ ★ ★ ½
"The island made no impression on me. It was merely a handful of sand and rock in the dreary wastes of the Pacific. I have since thought that millions of Americans now and in the future will look upon Guadalcanal, New Georgia, and Kuralei as I looked upon Midway that very hot day. The islands which are cut upon my mind will be to others mere stretches of jungle or bits of sand. For those other men cannot be expected to know. They were not there."
I'm growing increasingly interested in the ways cover art is used to deliberately mislead us, and the reasons behind it. It's foolish to think that we can avoid judging a book by its cover. What else do we have to judge it by, until we've read it? Well, hearsay. Reviews. Critical acclaim. But however much of this we're exposed to, it remains subjective and questionable information - the cover, however, is part of the book itself, whether the author approved it or not. We may look at the cover with a critical eye, but it still gives us a powerful and often lasting impression of the book's content.

I'm talking about the old order, of course. It rather baffles me that e-books have so far retained the good old rectangular cover art - I imagine that this is in the process of changing even as I type this. Still, as yet I haven't read many e-books, and since the book being dealt with here was penned long before their advent, I still take it as a point of interest.

So when I went to pick up Tales of the South Pacific from my university library, expecting the usual austere, sleeveless hardback, I was intrigued to find that it was actually, well, this:

As I see it, broadly, publishers approach the cover in one of two ways. There's the 'honest' approach; producing a cover that plays to the book's strengths, and ensures that it will reach an appreciative audience. Then there's the 'mass market' approach; use the cover to place the book in a convenient selling category, regardless of how well it actually fits it. This latter approach seems to have been used with my library's copy of Tales of the South Pacific.

So, what are we to expect? Well, if the cheery, open-shirted young Westerner leading a beautiful native by the hand (although I suspect the reason for the lurid orange overlay is to lend some ambiguity to her skin tone) doesn't give it away, the blurb will oblige:

"soldiers, sailors, and nurses playing at war and waiting for love in a tropic paradise."

A romance set in a colourful and exotic world, against the backdrop of a major war - what could be more enticing? An undemanding piece of escapism for the bored 1940s housewife.

It's sad that this has had such a lasting effect upon the perception of Michener's Tales. Joseph Heller covered himself against such possible misinterpretations; what little romance occurs in Catch-22 is as blackly cynical as the rest of the novel. The same could be said of All Quiet on the Western Front, a work whose dark humour is more subtle yet no less potent. But Michener makes the cardinal error of allowing romance to be a recurring motif in his novel. Never mind that it's one of many - it is, of course, the one that sells.

The Tales are really less a collection of short stories than a novel in patchwork. Much of the action is reported by an unnamed firsthand narrator who guides us through the strange world of the U.S.-occupied South Pacific even as he finds his own feet. While each story draws you in, making you care deeply about the character or landscape being explored, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. There is a real feeling of completion to this novel, a satisfaction upon finishing that is rare even in undeniably great works.

And yet it is not a novel of romance. Quite the contrary: it is a novel of isolation. The romantic interludes enjoyed by the Americans rarely end happily. There is mental breakdown, rape, and of course death. It is near-impossible at any point to step back far enough from the darker themes to settle into a cosy love story.
"There is no other island in the South Pacific like Norfolk. Lonely and lost, it is the only island in the entire ocean where no men lived before the white man came. Surrounded by gaunt cliffs, beat upon endlessly by the vast ocean, it is a speck under the forefinger of God, or Admiral Kester."
If there is any romance to be found here, it is not so much of the man/woman variety (or any variant thereof) but in Michener's recollections of the landscape that are embedded in the text. Clearly - and unsurprisingly, given how soon after the war Tales was published - these memories are sharp enough to cut. He sees the coasts, beaches and headlands just as he sees his characters - painfully, vividly real, but each beautiful in its own tragic way. One wonders how much of the Tales is fabricated, and how much transcribed from direct experience.

Tales of the South Pacific presents a brutally realistic and humbling portrayal of the terrible loneliness of war, and the extremes to which ordinary men can be driven when forced to live in such an environment. It must have disappointed many readers over the years, who were hoping for something quite different from what they got - but Michener can hardly take the blame for that.

Friday, 6 July 2012

#3: Australia

Oscar and Lucinda
Peter Carey (Australia, 1988)
★ ★ ½
"Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier. We bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it. We calculate the odds, the return, that we shall sit with the saints in paradise. Our anxiety about our bet will wake us before dawn in a cold sweat. We are out of bed and on our knees, even in the midst of winter. And God sees us, and sees us suffer." 
    - Oscar Hopkins
This was a slow read. Five-hundred pages shouldn't have been too daunting to a regular reader of epic fantasy, but I have to say that after the first few it was clear to me that Oscar and Lucinda was no page-turner. However, I was determined to persevere - not only is this the Rushlight selection for Australia, but I'd also had it recommended by tutors Will Eaves and China Miéville as being thematically relevant to a project I'm working on called The Glass Architect.

Is Oscar and Lucinda a book about Australia? Not really. Is it set in Australia? Well, mostly. The story follows two children - duh, Oscar and Lucinda - through to their meeting in young adulthood. Both have experienced death early in life. Both have developed gambling habits - "one obsessive, the other compulsive." They are damaged, flawed, often dislikeable individuals, drawn together by this one shared passion - or weakness.

Before reading, I had understood Carey's Booker Prize winner to be about a man and a woman transporting a glass church across Australia for a bet. What I didn't realise was that, although this is indeed the part that people remember most - there's a film, which I haven't seen, but I'm guessing it focusses most heavily on this aspect of the story - this plotline doesn't come to the surface until the last hundred pages of the book. There's plenty of foreshadowing and pre-construction, but this doesn't change the fact that most of the book reads as slightly directionless. Even when the two titular protagonists' lives begin to intertwine, we are given little indication of what this portends. Had I approached the book with no prior knowledge, I would have been bemused and probably rather bored by the lengthy descriptive passages with no obvious purpose.

The biggest and most obvious defect of the book was, for me, the author's excessively minute descriptions of his more peripheral characters. I often felt that he was engaging in unnecessary padding, and sometimes even using these passages to avoid the business of progressing the story. But this is precisely why I'm glad I never leave a book unfinished. Much - though not all - of what I had considered irrelevant does eventually present a purpose, and we see by the end how many of those characters besides Oscar and Lucinda - Dennis Hassett, Mr d'Abbs, the unforgettable Mr Jeffris - are in fact integral to the story.
"My great-grandfather drifted up the Bellinger River like a blind man up the central aisle of Notre Dame. He saw nothing. The country was thick with sacred stories more ancient than the ones he carried in his sweat-slippery leather Bible. He did not even imagine their presence. Some of these stories were as small as the transparent anthropods that lived in the puddles beneath the river casuarinas. These stories were like fleas, thrip, so tiny that they might inhabit a place (inside the ears of the seeds of grass) he would later walk across without even seeing. In this landscape every rock had a name, and most names had spirits, ghosts, meanings."
Peter Carey's prose is consistently sublime, and the sheer amount of crafting that has gone into this book is evident. It seems too easy to go for the glass church metaphor, but I'm going there anyway: Oscar and Lucinda is a colossal, fragile work, built on a hundred contingencies, constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of its own improbability. The shocking gravity of its conclusion, which I don't want to spoil here - because, in case you were wondering, you should definitely read this book - is dependent upon the multitude of set pieces that have been painstakingly put in place over the sedate, sometimes sluggish course of 400 pages.

In this sense, Oscar and Lucinda is a wager. The stakes: your time and engagement. Whether the return is ultimately worth it depends upon the reader. You may find yourself questioning whether the story is really going anywhere. You might lose your faith in it entirely. My advice would be to stick with it to the end; leave before the game's over and you'll only wonder what you missed.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

#2: Eritrea

To Asmara
Thomas Keneally (Australia, 1990)
★ ★ ★
"Asmara seemed to be, to her, Eritrea focused on a mountaintop. It never gave over to the ancient kingdom of Axum. It permitted the Turks to build towers in its foothills but never declared itself theirs. It was awarded to the Italians, in the time of the European carve-up of the Horn, but only because it was so resistant to the Ethiopian Emperor. Through the Italian and British years, sixty-two of them, Asmara - in Amna's interpretation of history - kept its clear, high head."
- Darcy

For the next novel we travel right across Africa from the west coast to the northeast, from the savanna and mangrove swamps of Guinea-Bissau to the dust bowls and highland plateaus of Eritrea.

This was rather more what I expect from travel-writing than Whispers of a Secret God - perhaps because this, unlike the former, is in fact travel-writing. Well, "an attempt at fiction" is how Keneally himself, author of Schindler's Ark, describes it.

The novel presents the fictionalized account of one Mr. Darcy (I tried to find literary significance in the protagonist's name, but it seems to be incidental) a BBC journalist travelling from Khartoum to Asmara to report on the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. Along the way, he accumulates an unlikely group of companions, including Christine Malmédy, a young Frenchwoman in search of her elusive cinematographer father, and Mark Henry, an American aid worker whose motives are unclear.

Anything would have tasted good after Whispers of a Secret God, but I still had quite a few problems with this book. I'm always suspicious of anything that is self-consciously partisan, and Keneally leaves little doubt as to his own views on the conflict. That said, he's not uncritical; a recurring narrative technique has the group's Eritrean guide telling what appear to be tall stories of the Ethiopians' barbarity, only to then be verified by the narrator's own eyes. All of this is based upon Keneally's own experiences of Eritrea, so I'm loath to doubt him. But clever or not, well-informed or not, this is a piece of pro-Eritrean propaganda for a Western audience.

"Don't you know the West has to believe famine's an act of God? If they believe that, they only have to make a donation. But if they believe it's an act of bloody politics, they have to really do something, and that's too, too complicated. So what's the story? The story is you guys will fall on your own fucking swords, because you've got this crazy idea that the world will allow you to be perfect!"
- Mark Henry

My biggest problem, though, was in the way he chose to tell the story. Keneally's gone for a realistic structure which befits the journalistic tone, with little direction and no clear resolution. But, perhaps to give it more of a novelistic feel, he's chosen to intersperse the action with flashbacks - in the form of a diary - to Darcy's failed marriage, and occasional 'Editor's Interjections' from a third party.

Neither of these techniques worked for me. The marriage storyline was drawn out and, unless there was some extended metaphor that I missed (it's probable), largely irrelevant to the Eritrean storyline. The narrator consistently draws parallels between Australia (Keneally's native country, where the flashback sub-plot takes place) and war-torn Eritrea, and I consistently failed to see them. As for the Interjections, these were even more destructive to the pacing. Though blessedly few, each one felt like running up against a brick wall, and sadly the action in Eritrea was not compelling enough to make me want to power through these sections.

Overall, this book was something of a plod. Keneally is a master of portraying inhumanity and brutality, and I would never deny him that. But the fact that the book addresses serious issues in a well-researched and evocative manner doesn't change the fact that, structurally, it's a bit of a mess.

Monday, 21 May 2012

#1: Guinea-Bissau

Whispers of a Secret God
Ed. D. Jerry Wheeler and Robert Dunn (USA, 2004)
I don’t believe it was Allah who helped us today. I thought at first it was the spirits of the trees, but it was different. I have never seen them perform with so much power. I thought I had seen everything possible to see, but who knows, maybe this secret God is real….” 
- Fijudi
Perhaps it was the overtone of Christian evangelism. Perhaps it was the conspicuous absence of any kind of proofreading or editing. Or perhaps it was the fact that, for reasons best known to the publisher, the text of the ebook I downloaded was all in eye-frazzling red.
Whatever the reason, I really did not get on with Whispers of a Secret God, my entry for Guinea-Bissau in the Rushlight List.
When Fijudi, king of the Fula tribe, has a vision predicting his own death, he begins preparations for the relocation of the tribe, and the succession of his eldest son, Monatu. Matters are complicated by Chief Elder Lorenko, whose insatiable hunger for power leads him to twist the tribe's Muslim faith to his own ends.

As Monatu and the tribe set out on their journey, Fijudi remains behind along with his wife Augoosta and younger son Saaku. Before he dies he tells them of a 'secret god' that has been passed down the royal line through several generations without the elders' knowledge.
The blurb (considerably better-written than the book itself) promised not only "intrigue, romance, and fierce battles" but even "brief glimpses into the world beyond, contrasting temporal and spiritual reality". What little intrigue there was became lost under the weight of some truly terrible writing. The romance was dry, the characters utterly flat, and the author lacked the descriptive ability to render "fierce battles" beyond a cursory sentence stating that they've occurred.

That said, it wasn't impossible to get invested in the very simple storyline, even bearing in mind its stately pace. Saaku is a sympathetic protagonist, and it feels as though the book was written with good intentions. But the writer's skill is limited to say the least, and the tribe's "finding God" is therefore entirely unconvincing and childish. And for any Muslim readers, there's plenty in here to take offense over. Being neither Christian nor Muslim, I found myself pretty appalled at times by how flatly and smugly the latter was dismissed.
I only let you live so you will know the difference between the mercy of my God and the vengeance of yours.”  
- Saaku
Sadly, I don't feel that the Rushlight has got off to a very good start with this. Guinea-Bissau was, as one might expect, a rather difficult country to locate a novel for. Beyond a general feel for the savanna and the rainy/dry seasons, which could all apply to many other African countries, this was really not the most evocative book. I'm also strongly disinclined to trust anything it says, as its basic agenda is clear: the Christian God is the true God. The Fula people, whose beliefs are rooted in both tribal and Islamic custom, are ultimately shown to be in folly for having rejected the "secret God" (he has to be kept secret so that the Chief Elder - a Disney-villain reprint complete with gormless sidekicks - won't accuse them of blasphemy, which he really really wants to do) and, as could be predicted from the beginning, convert to Christianity and live happily ever after. Yawn.

The novel was rewarding in one respect, though: to compensate me for the financial and emotional damage of Redgate, Amazon gave me a £5 gift voucher (more than I'd actually spent). Even so, I can't help but feel I should have been paid more than £1.01 to read this book.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012


...fellow bibliotraveller.

I've only just started this project, and am currently hunting down the first book on my list, picked at random by an integer generator. The book is for Guinea-Bissau, and is called Whispers of a Secret God by Robert Dunn and Jerry Wheeler (ed.). Any help in procuring it would be GREATLY appreciated.

Watch this space for reviews in the very near future - I've a full two-hundred books ahead of me!