I think I’ve gotten The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf out from the library at least three times and returned it unread. I keep getting it because I loved his novel Remembering Babylon and wanted to read more of him, but somehow I never got around to picking it up. Finally, a couple of days before it was due yet again, I decided enough was enough and began reading.
It only took a few pages for me to fall under Malouf’s spell: this book is so, so good. Taking place in the nineteenth century, set partly in his native Australia, set partly in Ireland, the novel is structured around a night spent in the remote Outback, at Curlow Creek, where an outlaw will be hung by four policeman in the morning. Three of those are lower class Australians who have been ‘cleaning up the bush’ as officials for weeks and happened to capture a gang of Irishmen who escaped from prison duty. The fourth, Michael, has been sent from Sydney to oversee the execution; he’s the Crown’s representative to make the hanging more official, but it quickly becomes clear he has a personal investment in conversing with the convicted man. Woven in between the Australian scenes are Michael’s remembrances of his Irish childhood, in which the reader learns more about why he’s in Australia and who he’s hoping to find.
This is one of those exquisite novels that combines a variety of characters who all feel powerfully real (and have distinct voices) with a plot that raises profound philosophical questions in a marvelously drawn setting that brings the reader to the place and is told in a perfectly controlled tone of voice. It’s the kind of novel that makes me reach for ever more adjectives and adverbs, even though I know they’re a sign of weak writing, to try to convey just how wonderful it is. And it’s the kind of novel that I never describe to my own satisfaction and in the end can only throw my hands up and say “go read it already!”.
I can’t recommend it enough to those who enjoy smart but compelling stories, literary fiction, international fiction with a strong sense of place, or readers who love novels that tease out the nuances of relationships between people and ideas. And I know I won’t be waiting four years until to read another Malouf!
I shudder to think chance alone introduced me to Patricia McKillip last summer when I was browsing my library’s fantasy section. In a brief six months, I’ve now read five of her novels, and she’s become a firm favourite of mine. Thank heavens she has quite a back list to her name and is still publishing! I have yet to read any of her series, so have just been picking books at random from the catalogue to request. I love not knowing what to expect as far as plots and characters go, while always knowing it will have McKillip’s incredible writing and rich imagination.
Song for the Basilisk has a powerful opening:
Within the charred, silent husk of Tormalyne Palace, ash opened eyes deep in a vast fireplace, stared back at the moon in the shattered window. The marble walls of teh chamber, once white as the moon and bright with tapestries, were smoke-blackened and bare as bone. Beyond the walls, the city was soundless, as if even words had burned.
And the rest of the book lives up to it! There’s a child secreted away, a rocky island home to the bards, a cruel ruler and his lizard-eyed daughter, and musicians who love their instruments as much as life itself. There are secret plots crisscrossing each other with every chapter, and even the minor characters are portrayed in memorable ways. It’s a strange, thrilling, enchanting book that made me deeply glad of my new ‘read fiction in as few sittings as possible’ approach. This one only took me two, and that was because I had to drop my mother off at the airport in between.
One of my favourite little bits in the book has to do with ‘muses.’ Giulia, one of the main characters, is a master musician who both performs and teaches at the capital’s school of music. A fellow teacher and performer, Hexel, is a handsome composer whose students frequently throw themselves at her. Hexel considers Giulia his muse, and thus imagines she should be at his beck and call, but Giuilia has none of it. Here’s a dialogue from early in the book:
“I need your inspiration. Tonight.”
“For the prince’s opera, what else?”
“Oh. Hexel, I can’t. I’m playing the picochet in the tavern tonight.”
He gazed at her, exasperated. “Not again.”
“It’s this day every week.”
“But I need you!”
“You are merciless.”
“So you are always telling me. Why can’t you find someone else to be your muse instead? All I do is inspire you with horror, headaches, frustration, and despair.”
“That’s why I need you,” Hexel said briskly. “Without proper proportions of despair, how can I tell if I’m doing anything right?”
I’m not sure if that’s as much fun out of context, but I loved how their relationship was one of equals and good friends, who are both artists and creators, rather than the traditional male active artist/female passive muse one. Let’s be honest: fantasy, like every other genre of literature, can have some gender problems. It’s wonderful that McKillip is both such a stunning, evocative writer and the kind of author any feminist can happily read.
Like all of her novels I’ve read, I recommend Song of the Basilisk to anyone who loves the fairy tale side of fantasy. Which I think covers at least half of the blogosphere! ;) She has fascinating characters, page-turning plots, vivid descriptions, and a fae-like mystery that I find irresistable. I can’t believe she doesn’t have a Gaiman/DWJ-esque cult following, to be honest. Yes, she’s that good. Promise!
There are so many things I adored about Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. It’s not really about crows, although her observations of neighbourhood crows and various crow facts are sprinkled through the book. Instead, it’s about Haupt’s attempts to reconcile her life in a city with her love for animals and nature. I loved her honest exploration of our concept of ‘nature’ being something out there, untouched, other than ourselves. And I really, really loved her solution of becoming an amateur urban naturalist. She looks at historic naturalists, includes plenty of tips for becoming a naturalist yourself (and helping the children in your life to do so), and shares her own observations. It was terribly inspiring. I also connected with her tensions about the environment and ecological issues, feeling a bit hopeless and useless but at the same time doing all the little things you can.
Strangely enough, although I was completely in love with Crow Planet at first, though, by the end I found myself the tiniest bit disenchanted. Not hugely, just enough to make it four stars instead of five. I can’t put my finger on precisely why. I think a bit of it was privilege: Haupt is an upper middle class white woman who chose to become a stay-at-home-mom after her daughter was born, who lives in a lovely part of Seattle, and can afford luxuries such as trips abroad, twice annual visits to a Benedictine monastery retreat, and organic groceries. None of that is to pass judgement on her, or blame her for those circumstances, or imply that her life is somehow perfect. But in her stories and advice to people living in urban environments who want to connect more closely with nature, it would have been nice to see anything addressed to people who work full time (and sometimes multiple jobs) or are from different classes or really anyone who was in different life circumstances than her. I also found her assumption that all her readers would be surrounded by crows a bit odd. I have no idea if crows live in south Texas, but they are definitely not the wild animal I see most frequently (in fact, despite her mention of deer as rare sightings, I see far more of them than crows!) or even on a daily basis. They’re not even the bird I see most frequently; that would be the sparrow. I love crows, so I would be terribly excited if only I did see them every day!
Anyway, those quibbles were small, and it seems a shame I wrote a longer paragraph about them than about all of the things I loved! I don’t want to give anyone the wrong impression: I really, really enjoyed Crow Planet, intend to read Haupt’s other books, and happily recommend it to anyone who loves nature or animals or Victorian amateur naturalists. :) I think my deep, crazy love for the first few chapters of the book (I kept thinking of it as a ‘soul book’) ended up setting my expectations too high for the rest of it. I connected so instantly with Haupt’s personal stories in the beginning, it surprised me all the more to learn we actually have different lives. ;) Anyway, I marked tons of passages in Crow Planet that I loved, which is always a sign of excellent nonfiction. I’m just excited that she’s written two other books. If Crow Planet wasn’t quite perfect, it was still excellent, and I imagine I’ll be rereading it in the future. In the meantime, it’s inspired me to pay even more attention when I go on my walks, and to get a field book or two from the library. Time to start learning the species around me!
P.S.: Yes, I chose to publish this on Earth Day on purpose! ;) This would be an excellent part of an Earth Day book display in a library or bookstore. Which could then be kept up year round. If I’d been thinking, I would have created an Earth Day reading list. Will try to remember next year!
Suggested Companion Reads
- Suburban Safari by Hannah Holmes : another kind of personal naturalist book that focuses on everyday nature.
- From the Forest by Sara Maitland : haven’t blogged this yet, but it’s a beautiful look at the way our native environments and cultural stories intertwine.
- The Age of Missing Information by Bill McKibben : another one I haven’t blogged about yet (I have yet to finish publishing posts on all the books I read in January!), but it was written in the early 90s and McKibben contrasts all of the information we get from mass media with the kind of information we know longer have about the natural world all around us.
I knew that it had to happen. Eventually, my streak of reading all four or five star reads would have to come to an end. I didn’t realise it would be such a spectacular crash and burn, though. It’s not merely that I didn’t care for The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe. No, I loathed it.
It started out well enough; I enjoyed the straightforward prose style combined with the fantastic plot events (the main character sets off on a vacation and never returns), and I loved the line drawings sprinkled throughout (done by Abe’s wife). After a couple of chapters, I realised it was going to be an existential parable, but I can appreciate that when it’s done well. And Abe’s powerful imagery, of a man stuck in a hole in the sand, with sand constantly falling and being blown in and getting everywhere and sticking to everything, was certainly well done. The metaphor between spending all day shifting the sand so that the ‘house’ wouldn’t collapse, only to have to do it all again tomorrow, rather than simply leaving the hole and finding a new house, was one I could easily connect with modern society. I was concerned about the potrayal of the woman, who has been in the hole for a longer time, but I’ve dealt with sexism in novels before and it’s not always a deal breaker for me. All in all, I expected to end up thinking of it as a worthwhile read, if not a beloved one.
So what changed my mind? Well, the narrator became more and more focused on sex, with meditations that I found more than a little tiresome. I also had to roll my eyes at the idea that any woman would sleep naked and let sand pile up on her; only a male author would think cleaning sand out of female privates is easier then wearing some undies. But still, I could deal. Until this scene happened (trigger warning, this is graphic & terribly dehumanising to the woman involved):
The woman, who had been entreating him at first, manifested obvious fright at this frenzy. He was seized by a feeling of prostration, as if he had ejaculated. Again he spurred his courage, forcing himself on by a series of helter-skelter lewd fantasies, arousing his passion by biting her breasts and striking her body, which, with the soap, sweat, and sand, felt like machine oil mixed with iron filings. He had intended to let this go on for at least two hours. But finally the woman gritted her teeth, and complaining of pain, crouched away from him. He mounted her from behind like a rabbit and finished up within seconds. Then he threw water over her to wash off the soap; he forced her to drink a teacupful of the cheap sake along with three aspirin tablets. She would sleep straight on through without awakening until night…
What. The. Fuck. I almost never swear on this blog, but sometimes it’s necessary. Words cannot begin to describe the fury, revulsion, and filthiness I felt upon reading that. Having to reread it & type it has brought them all back up, and I only put it on my blog because I felt that a summary could not convey just how problematic the writing was.
I did actually finish the book, which went on for another eighty pages, although I read more quickly than usual. I finished it because I was trying to find a redeeming factor, something that would account for all of the positive, glowing reviews I’d read of this, something that would make the book worth reading, valuable, despite Abe’s complete portrayal of women as repulsive sex objects. I didn’t find it. I was also shocked that of the six blog posts (including a Guardian article) I read discussing it, only one (Tony’s) described up Abe’s portrayal of the woman as troubling. Seriously? I can understand not having as extreme a reaction as I did, but to completely overlook it when writing about the book? And one or two mentioned the book’s ‘climactic sex scene.’ For the record, I would not describe the passage above as a ‘sex scene.’ That is a rape scene, or a sexual assault scene at the very least. Despite the narrator’s later delusional imaginings that the next morning the woman will wake up smiling, happy that she’s been satiated (and yes, this infuriated me even more).
I will clearly not be reading any more of Kobo Abe’s work (I feel towards him as I do towards his compatriot, Yoshiro Tatsumi, whose book also made me feel as if I needed to scrub myself clean). I would not recommend him to others, despite the fascinating & well written sand house of this book, because he has crossed my intellectual line from ‘problematic gender issues’ to ‘completely unacceptable.’ Apparently, though, this is a well-regarded and enjoyed novel. So, take that for what you will. Personally, I would rather spend my time with the myriad of intelligent, talented writers who don’t subject me to scenes like the one above. I have read rape scenes that are portrayed sensitively, even by male authors, and which are part of books that explore the psychological and physical consequences for the victims. These are important books, valuable books. I have also read books that portrayed misogynistic characters in a way that made it clear that their philosophies and practices are separate from the author’s beliefs. These are also books worth spending the time and extra mental or emotional effort reading. The Woman in the Dunes is the antithesis of that and thus roused my unapologetic wrath. I will not be including suggested reads in this post, since I don’t want to sully books I loved by association.