Sunday Salon: the Back in the Saddle Post
On Thursday, I broke out of my reading slump. It was all rather sudden; I looked up at the clock to realise I’d spent the last three hours engrossed in books, which hadn’t happened in forever. Up until then, I’d finished precisely one book all week: the one-CD Neil Gaiman Audio Collection. Since then, I’ve finished nine. And I couldn’t be happier! When I realised the slump had ended, Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle” started running through my head, and it’s been popping back in over the last couple days.
I’d forgotten how glorious it is to be a voracious reader. I suppose I should tell about some of these books, shouldn’t I? (I apologise for being unable to provide any excerpts; I have so many books out of the library in anticipation of the read-a-thon that I have to return whichever ones I’ve read right away!)
I’ve already reviewed The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection, which I think would make a great introduction for someone thinking about audiobooks! So it’s on to The Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, which I read for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. I picked it mainly because I don’t read a lot of Palestinian fiction (in fact, I think this might be my first one), and the summaries mentioned Arabian Nights and “magnum opus” quite frequently. Since I’m in the middle of Arabian Nights, I feel quite confident saying that Khoury’s book isn’t that similar. Whereas Arabian Nights is straightforward story-telling, Khoury took the stream-of-consciousness, unreliable narrator, more than a taste of postmodernism approach. Half the time, in Khoury’s novel, I had no clue what was going on, or what the narrator was talking about. I think the narrator was as confused as me, and I’m sure it’s a comment on how being refugees and people-without-a-country for several generations now is quite confusing, but it did make the reading less enjoyable. There were so many stories in here, about the various sufferings of the Palestinians, and I really connected to.many of them. Khoury does a great job of humanising the victims (and the freedom fighters), although I will say that it’s very one-sided (which isn’t a problem for me in fiction, while it would be in nonfiction)-the Israelis are pretty much always the bad guys. That being said, I couldn’t love the book, and picking it up was often a chore, simply because of the narrator and his confusing style. Now, I love Virginia Woolf, so it’s not the stream-of-consciousness per se that alienated me. And I loved postmodern books like If on a winter’s night a traveller and House of Leaves, so I’m not automatically opposed to the genre. But in this case, I didn’t care about the narrator much at all, so while I often connected with minor characters in stories he told, I got impatient hearing him harp on and on about his life (and the book’s over 500 pages, which is a lot of harping). I’m not sure why that is, and I definitely plan giving Khoury another chance (though I’ll go with a shorter one-probably Little Mountain about the Lebanese Civil War), but I’d only recommend this book to those with enough interest in the subject matter to get through some obscure prose.
Then I finished Anne Fadiman’s essay collection At Large and At Small as part of the My Year of Reading Dangerously Challenge. I mentioned this in my ‘currently reading’ sidebar, but I think it bears repeating: Fadiman and I have a bit of a complicated relationship. While her prose is often beautiful, it also occasionally veers into pretentious territory. So I was a bit nervous going into this one. But I ended up loving it! The essays are written in the ‘personal’ style about everything from flying the flag after September 11th to butterfly collecting to being a night owl. Reading the book, I was struck by how wonderful Fadiman is at writing conclusions; the ending has always been the most difficult part of writing for me, whatever the genre, but Fadiman is a master. Each essay ends on a perfect note. Even the book itself concludes with a mini-essay about a rafting trip that is shocking and thought-provoking and unexpected in the best way. Sure, there were a few sentences that had me roll my eyes, but they were very few-for the most part I was smiling throughout. I was sad to return it to the library, and would love to have my own copy so I could dip into it to reread an essay or two at will. I think this would be a wonderful first book of essays-it’s quite slim (in fact, it left me hoping Fadiman is planning a follow-up collection!), always entertaining, and the prose itself is sublime. This book made me a much bigger fan of Fadiman than Ex Libris did, and now I definitely want to read her journalistic book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.
Now for a more controversial book…I decided to go ahead and keep reading Poe’s Children ed. by Peter Straub, the horror anthology that provoked my post on the portrayal of women in some of its short stories. I don’t want to drag that up again, and you’ll be happy to know that while I read several mediocre stories, none of them enraged me by their portrayal of women, and there were a few that I definitely enjoyed. At the end of the day, I think Straub and I have rather different criteria for good short stories, and I’m not sure I could recommend this book (I’ll be reviewing the rest of the stories tomorrow, in case you’re curious). As a whole, there were far more ‘meh’ (or simply awful) stories than good ones, and I think you could find a better anthology. And if you have any scary story anthology recommendations, please share!
Next up, I read Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance by Lloyd Jones, thereby completing the New Zealand Challenge. But I’d like to write a whole post about it, since it’s the only book I had to read for the challenge. ;) So we’ll move right along to Claudine at School by Colette. This is the first novel of the Claudine quartet, and as I learned in the introductory note from Colette, it was her first work! (That she wrote for her husband, and that was originally published under his name.) This is my second Claudine book (the first was “Gigi”), but I’ve been in love with her as a person for quite awhile, and now I can confidently say I’m in love with her books as well. Claudine is a precocious, provincial 15-year-old, with a dead mother and absentee father, who offers her sharp commentary on her classmates and teachers as well as accounts of the various adventures she gets up to. It’s quite hilarious, and while Claudine is a bit of a brat, I love her. :) I read this for the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and there’s definitely a couple of nontraditional relationships in it (I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself). Claudine herself is equally attracted to women and men, in fact she seems more attracted to women while merely enjoying leading men on. Anyway, reading this book was like drinking champagne-all light and bubbly, but at the same time quite memorable. It’s short, like most of Colette’s works, so I encourage everyone to give it a try! As for me, I can’t wait to read about Claudine in Paris-I’m sure she’ll get up to even more hijinks there!
I expected to love William Dalrymple’s White Mughals (I picked it up as a history selection for the World Citizen Challenge), which was described in the summary as “The true story of a tragic and passionate love affair–and a testament to the Indian conquest of the British imagination.” Riiiiiight. So there is a love story buried in the book, but it rarely receives center stage. It’s more a book about the political machinations of the British in mid-late 1800s India, and unfortunately while I can tell that Dalrymple did a lot of research, he doesn’t seem quite able to form a cohesive book out of it. I was often confused as to who he was discussing (since several of the main people have the same first name), or why I needed to know what he was telling me, and the book jumps about in time, theme, etc. with no real rhyme or reason. And there are lots of footnotes, which I usually love, but since I was already disoriented, stopping to read the footnotes just resulted in me feeling more lost. I think if I already knew more about this period in India’s history, if I already had the big picture in my mind, I would have enjoyed the book quite a bit, since Dalrymple provides quite a few fascinating ‘small picture’ stories. But without the larger context, I can’t say this was a huge success for me. I’m still glad I read it, since the history is fascinating, but it was a bit of a struggle. I’d like to give Dalrymple another shot, though-I’m eyeing his City of Djinns, which is an expat/travel memoir about New Delhi. I’m thinking he might be better at a more intimate style of nonfiction.
Fortunately, the next nonfiction I read was incredible, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone! It’s called Spell of the Tiger: the Man-Eaters of Sundarbans by Sy Montgomery, and I read it as my science book for the month. I wouldn’t say it’s a science book, though: I had imagined more about the tigers themselves. This would have made a marvelous World Citizen read, though, especially for the culture category. Why? Because Montgomery is primarily concerned with how the relationship between the people living in Sundarbans (which is a huge area of mango groves/swamps along the Indian-Bangladeshi border) and the tigers. This is the only place in the world where tigers regularly hunt people. I can’t convey to you how fascinating this book was! It looks at everything from government attempts to cut down on tiger attacks (For example, tigers only attack the backs of people, never the front, so officials distributed masks for the residents to wear on the back of their heads when they went into the forest. This worked perfectly for 5-6 months, when the tigers figured out what was going on.) to the religious significance of the tiger to stories from the individuals who live there. Montgomery never dehumanises the people of Sundarbans with cliches about poverty or development-while she doesn’t speak much Bangla (she couldn’t find a university in the US that taught it), she obviously prioritises connecting with the people she meets, and that really comes through in her writing. The book is also full of a reverence for nature that was wonderful to read. I really, really loved this one, and I will definitely be reading more of Montgomery in the future! (She also wrote a children’s picture book based on the same topic.) My only dilemma is which one first: she’s written about snow leopards in Mongolia, pink dolphins in the Amazon, Jane Goodall, connecting with nature close at home, and most recently about her pet hog Christopher. I think even those who don’t usually like nonfiction should give Sy Montgomery a go!
I then picked up Niccolo Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. I’ve been wanting to read this Italian book all year, and I was so excited to finally get to it! (I always read my OT choices in a certain geographical order.) I had avoided reading any plot summaries, and I think that was the way to go, so I’m not going to tell you much about this. I will say, it’s narrated by a young Italian boy, set in the 70s, and that it had both nerve-wracking and heart-wrenching moments, though more of the latter. This book was quite simply incredible: while it wasn’t as straight-up scary as I expected, it was so much better than I thought! Ammaniti’s writing is wonderful-he doesn’t feel obligated to spell everything out, or answer every question; he trusts that the reader is intelligent enough to put it together. It’s the kind of book that I’ll never forget, and that as soon as I finished I wished I had a book club to discuss it with! It’s short too, at precisely 200 pages, so go read it already! :) I can’t believe this was his debut novel-I hope to read more of his works soon.
Finally, I finished listening to the audio version of Angels and Insects by A.S. Byatt, a collection of two novellas (“Morpho Eugenia” and “The Conjugal Angel”). Byatt is one of my very favourite authors, so while I definitely loved this one, I can’t really give an objective recommendation. But I will say, that those of you who loved Possession should try this out-both novellas are set in Victorian England, and there’s more of that Byatt pastiche here. “Morpho Eugenia” is about sex and class and secrets and insects, while “The Conjugal Angel” is about ghosts, seances, sex, love, and oh yeah-secrets. ;) I’ve read most of Byatt’s fiction at this point, and these definitely hold their own! As far as the audio portion goes, I liked the narrator-her tone fit with Byatt’s style!