Sunday Salon: the Year-Bridging Post
Since I took a break over the holidays (which extended to not being bothered to type out any passages before returning books to the library: hence the sad lack of excerpts in this post), I haven’t yet talked about the last books of December. So, cast your minds back to that already half-forgotten year, 2010, and prepare from some brief (even compared to my usual TSS) thoughts.
I got The Habit by Elizabeth Kuhns on a whim from the library, primarily due to the neat cover. I enjoyed the more historical look at nuns and their clothing attire, but in the last third of the book Kuhns’ scholarly analysis falters. It discusses post-Vatican II habits, and suddenly it feels much more personal. I understand that it’s difficult to maintain objectivity, but Kuhns also seems hesitant to really delve into the meaty topics as she did for the more historical periods. For instance, when nuns talk about receiving less respect, and in some cases being met with blatant repugnance by lay Catholics, in reaction to shedding their traditional habits, Kuhns is apparently unwilling to connect any larger (dare I say patriarchal?) dots. I found this quite disappointing after such strong opening chapters. Her writing style is informative and readable, throughout, so it’s worth a go if you’re curious about the subject. But it lacks the deeper, rigorous exploration I was hoping for.
Photo Finish by Ngaio Marsh also left me with lukewarm feelings. Marsh is one of the Golden Age mystery authors I’m least acquainted with (I’d only read the first two Alleyn books). I was hoping that since this one was set in her native New Zealand, it would give me some more insights into her. It’s a classic ‘locked room’ crime, with a big isolated house full of secrets and suspects, but somehow it just feels stale. Once I finished it, I discovered that Marsh wrote it in 1980; perhaps that accounts for some of my impressions. While a year isn’t precisely named, it felt like it was set more in the swinging 60s rather than the interwar period these kinds of mysteries are usually from; the contradiction between style and setting jarred me. I also didn’t like the way a minor gay character was portrayed. I’ll probably give Marsh another go one of these days, but I’ll be sticking with her earlier works.
Eating India by Chitrita Banerji was a lovely piece of nonfiction! While it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting, I very much enjoyed it and I plan to read more of Banerji in the future. Originally from Calcutta, but now living in the States, Banerji decides to travel around India on a culinary adventure. She’s a marvelous food writer, able to describe the dish and its smell and taste and appearance so well my mouth was constantly watering. These descriptive powers extend to the cities she visits; I loved seeing different areas of India through her eyes. There aren’t any recipes in this, and it’s not written as a kind of ‘study guide’ to Indian cuisine, but as a travelogue driven by foodie it’s wonderful.
An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis is a fascinating little book, the kind that had me marking up a million passages, even while I swung between complete agreement and complete annoyance with the sentiments being expressed. Lewis manages to be both democratic and a complete snob, and his chauvinism is nicely on display with his inexplicably frequent references to ‘women’s magazines.’ But he’s such a passionate reader, and he’s so erudite, and his prose is so evocative, that I loved reading this anyway. In fact, I’m contemplating rereading it before returning it to the library; there’s much to digest here. Perhaps after a reread I’ll feel better equipped to do a full post on it! ;) I’d highly recommend this to those who enjoy thinking about different ways of reading books and different ways of talking about them. Even if you don’t agree with Lewis’ conclusions, it’s a valuable thought experiment. I imagine if I was going to start a book club, this would be the book I’d want for the first discussion!
I expected to love Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna: an intergenerational tale of women set in a country I don’t know much about…where do you sign me up? Unfortunately, it turned out to appeal to me more in theory than in practice. Forna is Sierra Leonan by birth, but lives in England and this book was obviously written for a Western audience. It’s as if there was a certain amount of issues that she had on a list somewhere, and as she wrote the novel she ticked them off one by one. The characters feel like tools rather than people, and the book itself is disjointed. I think Forna might be better with short stories, but she knew that novels are more popular, so she made some kind of short story collection/novel hybrid that doesn’t quite hold together. The premise is that Abie returns to Sierra Leone after years in England, and hears the life-stories of her four ‘aunts’ (other wives of her father). Each chapter is narrated by a different aunt (and while the voices don’t sound exactly the same, there isn’t a lot of difference between them either, which y’all know is one of my pet peeves) and jumps forward in time in a pretty random manner, which makes the book feel episodic and disjointed. That being said, it’s not all bad! Forna’s descriptions of Sierra Leone were quite convincing, and the earliest stories of the aunts, the ones about their childhood, had touches of magic in them. The book on the whole felt a bit forced, but I’m not sorry that I read it, and I’d be willing to give Forna another try in the future. If you enjoy issue-focused novels, this would be a great one to pick up.
Considering my love for Nikolai Gogol’s short stories, I was quite excited to pick up Pevear & Volokhonsky’s translation of Dead Souls! Part One surpassed my wildest expectations: I giggled constantly, was reminded of Austen or Trollope’s wit and provincial focus, and was totally in love. Unfortunately, Gogol didn’t complete the manuscript in his lifetime, and while part two starts off strong, as the story progresses there are more and more gaps from where first sentences and later pages and chapters are missing. It finally trails off into nothingness, which was a bit frustrating. That being said, I still very much enjoyed the book, and Part One is nothing short of brilliant! I think Dead Souls will be my new reply to people who say Russian literature is too depressing. I only wish that Gogol had finished it: I’d have loved it to be a 600 or 800 page chunkster. :D I think any Trollope lover would find much to enjoy here. And those curious about life in Imperial Russia will love the day-to-day descriptions and gentle satire. (I compared the P&V edition to an earlier translation I have on my shelves, and as expected, I strongly preferred the P&V. That’s the one I’d recommend if you’re not sure which translator to go with!)
I thought that Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga was a novel, so imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a memoir! I also thought that Orga was a women, but he’s definitely a man. ;) Most of the book is about his family’s experiences during WWI, as the Ottoman Empire was coming undone. Orga’s wonderful at depicting the Istanbul he grew up with, and his moving account of his mother finding her strength during the way brought me to tears several times. I don’t know how much of the memoir is actually true (at least there isn’t a lot of dialogue in the book; one of my biggest turnoffs for nonfiction is when a book contains dialogue that supposedly took place years earlier), but since Orga makes is clear from the beginning that these are his impressions from his boyhood, it didn’t bother me so much. I’d be just as happy with this as a novel! I do think the post-WWI section is weaker: the book seems to lose its narrative thread for awhile and it ends rather abruptly. So it’s not perfect, but it was still a very interesting and enjoyable read. I’m glad that Ardent Reader brought this to my attention: I’m quite curious to read his other book (The Caravan Moves On, about his travels amongst a nomadic tribe in southeastern Turkey). Definitely a book I’d recommend to anyone eager to learn more about Turkey or those who enjoy accounts of life ‘on the homefront’ during war.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie ended up being the perfect Christmas choice for me! I’m a big Christie fan, but I prefer Miss Marple to Poirot so I kept my expectations in check when I picked it up. Fortunately, I loved it! It had that classic set-up (locked room, big house with lots of suspects, ingenious method), and Christie pulled it off with perfect panache. I actually think this will join the ranks as one of my favourite Poirots (the other two being Death on the Nile and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd), and it brought a smile to my face when I was in the midst of a reading slump. If you’re curious about classic mysteries, this would be as good a place as any to begin. And if you’re a long-time Christie lover, this one won’t disappoint. :)
My final read of 2010 was a book I received for Christmas: Ghost Song by Sarah Rayne. I read Rayne A Dark Dividing towards the end of 2009 and very much enjoyed it; since then, I’ve been frustrated that neither of my libraries seem to be aware of her other books. I didn’t love this one as much as Dark Dividing, but since I was in the mood for a slightly trashy bookish psychological thriller I still enjoyed it. Funnily enough, Rayne uses multiple narrators that don’t have very distinctive voices. In non-genre fiction, this is one of my biggest pet peeves. But for some reason, when I’m reading thrillers, I don’t give it a second thought. Perhaps because it’s such a standard device in the genre? Anyway, I found the plot a bit obvious, but I enjoyed the characters anyway and there were a few scenes that gave me goosebumps. I don’t imagine Rayne will ever be a super favourite of mine, but I will keep her in mind for when I’m craving a certain type of book. She reminds me of S.J. Bolton, whose Blood Harvest I read a few months ago. If the blurbs of her novels sound interesting to you, and you’re ok with books that have some formulaic aspects to them, definitely give her a try! (In full disclosure, earlier in the month I’d ILLed a different novel of hers, Spider Light, fully expecting to love it. But eighty pages in, with four rape scenes already tallied, I gave up in disgust. If I hadn’t had that experience, I’d probably be a bit more effusive here.)
One of my first reads of 2011 saw me revisiting an author I feel similarly about: Carol Goodman. All of her books tend to be cut from the same mold, and I’m rarely blown away by them (Ghost Orchid is the only one I’d consider excellent), but she’s usually perfect when I’m in a particular kind of mood. I’d already read her first four novels, so when I saw the audio version of Arcadia Falls available, I thought it might be perfect to break me out of my reading slump. Um, let’s just say that it wasn’t. The aspects of her writing that keep me from loving her seemed extra magnified in this novel, and I think I spent almost the entire twelve HOURS rolling my eyes and/or cringing. I would have abandoned it, but I was so sure that it would get better eventually. But the twists were so obvious, the narrator (I mean the narrating character, not the audiobook narrator, although I found her performance less than satisfactory) so, well, dumb, and the pop culture references so jarring that I just felt continually reminded ‘this is fiction’ the whole time. The fun of her earlier novels seemed missing, and it seemed like Goodman was following her own formula rather than truly bringing characters to life. It was too long as well, and the narrator kept making these horrible decisions that I can’t imagine any real woman making just so that the plot would work. I still like Goodman, and I’m sure I’ll give The Sonnet Lover and The Night Villa a go eventually, but it will take a while to get rid of the sour taste that Arcadia Falls left me. If you’re new to Goodman, I’d definitely recommend starting with her older books. All of the being said, I’ve seen quite a few book bloggers posting good things about this one, so take my cranky pants with a grain of salt. ;)
Let’s gush a bit, shall we? The first book I completed in 2011 (though I started it earlier) was If the Spirit Moves You by Justine Picardie. As you may recall, I loved Picardie’s My Mother’s Wedding Dress, and when I saw she had a book about her research into ghosts and spiritualism in the wake of her sister’s death, I knew I had to read it sooner rather than later. This one is written in journal format, tracing a year in Picardie’s life as she grieves and tries desperately to get in contact with her sister. She holds nothing back, and the rawness of her grief is so palpable that I cried several times (while being deeply grateful that my own sister was safe in a room just a few feet from me). At the same time, her investigations into the afterlife fascinated me; she meets some crazy people, as you might imagine, but she also has some experiences that feel truly inexplicable. At the end of the book, Picardie doesn’t attempt to provide any answers; she leaves things open-ended, but I still felt richer for having read it. In this aspect it reminded me a bit of Will Storr vs. the Supernatural, although that one had a humour approach. I’ve mentioned before, but Picardie’s writing style is just incredible: she has a way with prose that often left me breathless. I’m more determined than ever to read her entire backlist, and If the Spirit Moves You is a welcome addition to my short mental list of ‘incredible ghost-related books.’
After I finally finished Arcadia Falls, I decided I needed an audiobook palate cleanser if you will, so I perked up when I came across The Happy Prince and Other Tales by Oscar Wilde. I love Wilde, and read all of his plays when I was in high school, but it’s been awhile since I’ve treated myself to him! This is a collection of five original fairy tales Wilde created for his son, and they have all of the bittersweetness you’d expect from a fairy tale. The writing is, of course, pitch perfect, and while some of the stories made me smile, more made me tear up. They were good tears though! If you only know Wilde through his witty plays, this would be a marvelous choice to see how extensive his talents lie. If you’re an A.S. Byatt fan, I think you’ll feel right at home here. And of course, if you already love Wilde and/or fairy tales, you can’t miss this collection! (For other audiobook fans, I highly recommend this, narrated by Anton Lesser: it’s quite short, just two CDs, but a lovely production.)
And now I’m rather exhausted, so I’ll save the rest of the titles for another day. I’m happy to say I’ve now posted about all of my December books, so soon I’ll be able to focus on the new year. It’s generally off to a marvelous start, which makes me more excited than ever about a new reading year! Tomorrow, I’ll be listing my favourite reads of 2010: woohoo for gushing galore. :D