19 November 2014

A Sicilian Romance, by Ann Radcliffe

This is one of Radcliffe's earlier novels, and it's obvious that she is still perfecting her craft. It's a surprisingly creaky book, all seams and stuffing. Abrupt jumps in time and space, people conveniently happening across each other when they were seemingly lost forever (and can in no way be found by other people looking for them), and a rather ineffective effort to make mysterious occurrences seem supernatural. Whereas in later works it will be suggested that her protagonists are border-line delusional, eager to see the supernatural everywhere they look, in this novel the characters strongly RESIST that interpretation, even when it is explicitly suggested. It's the servants who immediately see everything as otherworldly, but other characters specifically deny this view (even when it seems absurd for them to do so). But none of that really matters that much: the real suspense in the story is whether or not Julia will be forced to marry against her will. This further strengthens my sense that the explained supernatural, seemingly Ann Radcliffe's most defining trait, is largely beside the point in her novels. She is much more interested in the moral behavior of her characters, and whether evil is punished by a kind of invisible hand of justice. These are old-school romances with supernatural window-dressing. And this one, to be frank, is one of her weaker efforts.

18 November 2014

Artful, by Ali Smith

This collections of lectures -- or should I say essays -- or should I say stories -- or should I say, well, I just don't know, because it is such a dazzlingly creative work that I haven't the faintest idea how one would characterize it. A narrator is visited by (or imagines the return of) her dead lover, who was a lecturer in literature. She discusses things like time and plot and form, and is also well-versed in poetry, or maybe she is just relating the lover's lectures, or maybe both. Occasionally she inserts bits of poetry or quotes from Oliver Twist and it is stunning, how something about the context makes you stop and read them so carefully, and marvel at the density of expression, how tightly packed a poem is. The observations about literature are mostly quite pleasant and interesting, as are the interactions, or are they imagined? with the lover, and the musings about love and loss and getting on with your life.

All in all, a wonderful tribute to art and relationships. Just incredible. Savour it.

Calvary

Calvary begins quite dramatically: a man comes to confession, tells the priest there that he was molested by a priest for many years as a child, that the man who did it is dead, and that he intends to kill his current confessor -- precisely because he has never done anyone wrong. Killing a bad priest is old news, he says. But a good, one, now that'll get people talking. The man gives the priest time to say his goodbyes and set his affairs in order, saying that he'll expect to meet him on the beach in a week's time.

The film then chronicles the priest's doings during that suspenseful week, as he goes about his business in his village. What made the movie so fantastic, to me, is the way it subtly transforms into a meditation on the Catholic church's role -- both good and bad -- in society. It does not excuse or shy away from the extreme suffering the Church has caused, not only in the sexual abuses, but also more simply, through ignorance or dogmatism. The main character's fellow priest is a narrow-minded idiot, quick to condemn, close-minded and greedy. Many of the villagers openly despise the church, and in their interactions with the priest, one gets a sense of past harms they have suffered at its hands.

At the same time, however, our hero seems like a genuinely good man, one who is imperfect but thoughtful, and who mostly strives to do the right thing. It is this, combined with his genuine interest in and concern for others, that makes him a kind of moral anchor in his small but chaotic world. If a person is lost or struggling, they will have someone to turn to, no matter what. At one point there's a great bit of dialogue between the two priests, where one notes that the sins people confess are increasingly horrific and bizarre, and that he even had to look a word up recently to understand the depravity being described. It's a nice nod to both the psychological toll that the work of being a confessor would exact, but also an interesting way of raising the question as to whether someone who lives largely apart from the everyday world is qualified (perhaps is best qualified, mind you) to listen to the woes of someone embroiled in it.

What is striking about the film, to me, is the way that it also emphasizes personal responsibility. My boyfriend felt that the priest didn't seem to want to help most of the people in the movie, but to me it rather seemed like he wasn't willing to do the work for them, or be a quick fix. If someone genuinely felt remorse and wanted to make a change, he was there. If they simply wanted a stamp of approval, he refused it. It was in some ways a very passive role in terms of moral leadership, but simultaneously, the very presence of a priest is in some ways a visible instantiation of a moral beacon, or at least a reminder of sorts, giving people something to aspire to.

Overall, a very interesting film, often quite funny and occasionally very moving. Also just unbelievably gorgeous to look at -- stunning cinematography. Very much worth seeing.

21 October 2014

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

This book feels much more like guilty pleasure reading than I'd expected. Not because of all the graphic sex -- although there is plenty of that, it never feels gratuitous. This is one of those rare books in which the sex is explicitly (and beautifully) described in ways that tell you things about the characters and their relationships, in addition to being quite titillating. No, what makes this book feel a bit trashy (and maybe this is my bias) is the way it cycles through so many tropes of Victorian role-playing fantasy. It's all the sexiest parts of the what we often think of as the stuffiest and most uptight era, and thus most enjoy imagining with its hair down. So, I can't help but feel a tinge of embarrassment over my enjoyment of reading descriptions of elaborately tailored clothing and thrilling plays on the master-servant relationship. I guess in my mind, there is something suspicious and middle-brow about a lot of historical fiction?  It might also be some of the melodrama in certain stock tropes of lesbian stories.

But it must be said that this is a smart novel, and one that cleverly weaves in all kinds of issues circulating in the 1890s. It's also a mostly compelling story, though it tends towards the larger-than-life and perhaps goes on a little too long. Overall, it's an enjoyable read, and it's not like intelligent, sexy books about lesbians are a dime a dozen, so it's nice to see someone who manages to be taken seriously when writing them.

20 October 2014

Severina, by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

(translated by Chris Andrews)

While I was shelving the other day, one of my co-workers walked by, plucked this out of a stack and said "This is a great, weird book." So of course I bought it, and indeed. The story of a bookseller who becomes obsessed with a beautiful and mysterious shoplifter, it turns out to be a surprising, but quite pleasing, love story.

I have limited patience with tales of men stalking beautiful women they know nothing about, but this one is effective, perhaps because it is so short, one, because it strikes the right balance of sentimentality and a sort of emotional flatness, two, and because it does not idolize the young woman, three. Even while in her thrall, the narrator seems perfectly able to see her flaws, and their relationship is one of compromise and resignation. The plot is just strange enough to make the story feel a bit unhinged, but not so off-the-rails as to seem entirely silly.

A small book that will grab you, shake you a few times, set you down, pat you on the head, and walk away.

14 October 2014

Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is an interesting figure in the contemporary literary landscape. She is increasingly perceived as an important author, but she is perhaps a little bit too prolific to be comfortably ensconced in the pantheon of greats. A Thousand Acres is a masterpiece -- really an absolutely phenomenal novel. None of her other books quite achieves its heights, though most of them are warm, wonderful, and highly pleasant reads (I quite liked both Horse Heaven and Moo). She puts them out at a surprisingly reliable pace, about one every three years (with some young adult novels, which I am unfamiliar with, in between). Although one wonders if a better editor and maybe a little more time wouldn't help these texts ripen a bit, it must also be admitted that there is something wonderful about her energetic willingness to explore all kinds of different ideas and settings (clearly gravitating, however, towards the rural, particularly the Iowan).

Some Luck is a chronicle of the life of an Iowa family, year by year. We are told it is the first in a trilogy, one that will take us into 2020; an idea that gives me pause (I try to be open-minded about sci-fi, but I tend to find it dull and transparently ideological. I'm sorry.). In a lesser writer's hands, this format of jumping between characters and gathering up stories big and small as well as sundry bits of fluff could easily have resulted in a disconnected, dull, and overly cliche narrative. But Jane Smiley is such a masterful creator of characters that I was completely engrossed, and found myself deeply caring about the different people in the story. It's an interesting thing, one that makes me want to ponder the relationship between readers and characters and the reality effects at work, in that I was tempted to say that the characters are realistic, but that's not quite right. It's not that I form a relationship to them the way I do to actual people. It's also not that I come to feel like I know them as well as I know my closest friends -- though Smiley really is brilliant at "showing" you her characters rather than telling you about then, and also once again deploys her trademark move of getting into the mind of a being (in this case, a baby) that we generally see as unknowable. But I develop a certain intimacy and familiarity with them, and a sense of them 'coming to life,' that I don't often get elsewhere.

It is not a perfect book -- Smiley occasionally tends towards corn-fed folksiness, and some of the plot turns feel more contrived than others. But it is a very enjoyable read. You can certainly wait for it to come out in paperback, at which point, perhaps, the next installment won't be too far off.

03 October 2014

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher

The reviews and general buzz around this book had led me to think it would be a bitter, angry bit of grousing at the absurdity of university bureaucracy, an attack on institutions of higher learning from within. To my pleased surprise, however, it was a quite affable, and often very funny sort of book. And curiously enough -- a powerful advocate for the very institutions it seemingly pokes fun at.

The book is a collection of letters of recommendation. Many of these are for positions within academia; students trying to get into graduate school, professors seeking tenure, etc. But one of the charms of the book is that a good quarter or more are for former students seeking regular jobs in the "normal" world -- data entry clerks, paintball park supervisors, high-profile corporate types. It is an interesting reminder of just how many people a college professor educates, and how varied are the paths they take from there. At moments, the protagonist goes even further, offering explicit arguments for the merits of English majors. I'm biased, of course, but I very much appreciated the novel's subtle bid to argue for the relevance and importance of literature and creative writing programs.

Perhaps I should be somewhat concerned that I found the main character, whom others have described as a pompous, self-centered jerk, to be fairly sympathetic. I had a similar experience when I read The Anthologist -- I was surprised, later, to learn how much people despised the narrator. Look, nobody is perfect. We are all trying. I guess I am more tolerant of people, even flawed people who have been total jerks to people who love them, if they are aware of and regret their mistakes, and  deeply care about many other humans, even those not especially close to them. And I think this character does.

Although the back story woven into the letters feels a bit shoe-horned in at times, and the plot makes some overly extreme moves, it is overall an entertaining, thought-provoking, and even somewhat moving book, a light read that stays with you after it's over.