Pinging around the universe, hoping for a host

The Girls
by Emma Cline

I had heard mixed reviews of this huge bestseller, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, from page one it was clear that this was an impressive book by an author with a masterful grasp of language.

The story is narrated by Evie, a middle-aged woman who is reminded by the intrusion of a teenage couple into her life of the summer of 1969, when she was 14. She was a typically insecure girl, lusting after her best friend Connie’s brother, feeling generally invisible. Then she saw the girls, or more specifically, she saw Suzanne. Suzanne is unwashed, wearing ill-fitting ragged clothes, but she exudes confidence and young Evie is transfixed.

Evie follows her new obsession to a remote ranch where she finds a cult led by a man called Russell. Over her summer holiday she spends more and more time at the ranch, exposed to drugs, sex and other behaviours Russell’s followers think of as adult. Evie clocks right away that Russell has magnetic appeal and that all the girls are sleeping with him, but for her the attraction is still Suzanne.

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Autumn reads in brief

These are some very brief reviews indeed because I have had so much else on this month, I’m frankly amazed I’ve found time to read at all. Before I zone out in front of another half-dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, here is what I’ve been reading.

 

pride of baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
by Brian K Vaughan (writer) and Niko Henrichon (artist)

This is a beautiful, moving and unusual perspective on war. It takes as inspiration the 2003 news story that four lions escaped Baghdad Zoo during a bombing raid in the Iraq War. Vaughan and Henrichon give the lions names and personalities, and this does result in some anthropomorphising, but that can be forgiven because the result is so good.

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Early summer reads in brief

As you might gather from the sparcity of this blog this month, I’ve been busy. I’ve still been reading, but I’m very very behind on writing reviews, so here’s a few shorter thoughts on recent reads.

captain america

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z,
books 1 and 2
by Rick Remender and John Romita Jr

This relatively short storyline is a great example of how comics – superhero comics, at that – can be a really good medium through which to explore unusual or difficult ideas. Cap is doing his thing for the Avengers when he is kidnapped by the evil Dr Zola and taken to Dimension Z, and while he soon escapes his captors it seems that Dimension Z will not give him up so easily. Over time he gets caught up in the ongoing war between Zola’s bioengineered army and the phrox, who look monstrous but are willing to give Cap a home. Which all sounds a bit robots fight monsters grr argh, but while this book is distinctly masculine, it’s also very thoughtful. In fact, my main reservation was that Cap was perhaps too brooding and thoughtful. By far the majority of the text is his thoughts and for several pages I wondered whether he was going to speak at all. But overall I enjoyed it and the take on questions surrounding, among other things, war, parenthood, love, loyalty and belonging.

“Adrenaline surging—enough to jolt a dead man to a waltz. Need the help—so long as I don’t pass out. Pain—the shattered left hand screaming at me—it has no business maintaining a grip on a B-52 in a dead drop. Thank the adrenaline…His howl—agony…a reminder of what happens to a million people if you fail—millions of screams.”

Published 2013 by Marvel.

Source: Borrowed from Tim, who bought them at Excelsior! comic shop, Bristol.


Tales from the Secret Annexe
by Anne Frank
translated from Dutch by Susan Massotty

It pains me, after rediscovering the talent of Anne Frank earlier this year, to conclude that this collection of her essays and short stories is so far below the standard of her diary that it should probably never have been published. There are signs of her writing ability, certainly, and I don’t doubt that if she had lived she would have produced a collection after the war that would have shone with greatness. But this isn’t it; these are the writings of a child and it shows. Even her moving essays about hope and charity suffer from youthful naivety. The first part of the collection is especially odd, as it is a series of alternative accounts of events that are also included in Anne’s diary – essentially discarded early drafts. The book isn’t entirely without merit: it’s perfectly readable, provides a little extra depth to the picture of Anne for anyone who has read her diary, and the foreword is actually the best summary I have read of the Frank family’s war-time experience.

“Everyone is born equal; we all come into the world helpless and innocent. We all breathe the same air…Riches, power and fame last for only a few short years. Why do we cling so desperately to these fleeting things? Why can’t those who have more than enough for their own needs give the rest to their fellow human beings?”

Verhaaltjes, en gebeurtenissen uit het Achterhuis published 1982 by Bert Bakker.
This edition published 2010 by Halban.

Source: I bought it at Anne Frank House, Amsterdam.


Sex Criminals volume 1: One Weird Trick
by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

It really tells how much I enjoyed the first volume of Hawkeye by Matt Fraction that I was eager to check out his other current project despite a title that didn’t seem entirely aimed at me. However, it turns out that this is another fun, well written and stylishly presented series. The premise is that librarian Suzie stops time whenever she has an orgasm, an ability she discovered in her teens and has quietly enjoyed since, while getting on with her otherwise normal life. Until she meets Jon, who not only shares her ability, but has ideas about what they could do with it. Her library is closing due to lack of money, they can stop time – it seems like robbing the bank will be an easy solution. But when is life ever easy? Although this comic is undeniably explicit and R-rated, it’s actually much less explicit than some Alan Moore stuff I’ve read and, importantly, far more honest about sex. As Suzie and Jon get to know each other we learn about their teen years, discovering masturbation and other sexual acts, which is a subject that, while not quite taboo, is usually dealt with extremely lightly. This comic combines a good level of honesty and humour with a bit of action adventure thrown in.

Published 2014 by Image Comics.

Source: Borrowed from Tim, who bought it from comiXology.

I was penetrated by sunlight

Claudine Married
by Colette
translated from French by Antonia White

Claudine Married

Getting hold of this book was a little bit of a saga. I came across the first Claudine book in a secondhand bookshop and fell in love with both the charming story and the attractive old Penguin edition I had picked up. I resolved to collect the set of four in the same design and soon had three, but this one proved a bit of a challenge. Twice I ordered it from sellers on Abe Books only for the sale to fall through because they didn’t have it in stock after all. It was with some excitement I finally lined up my little collection.

It’s a shame then that this instalment didn’t quite live up to the first two, though I hasten to add that it’s still a beautifully written and insightful book. But one of the things that I liked about the character of Claudine was her mixture of naughty wilfulness and youthful innocence. Now she is innocent no more. Or isn’t she?

In this third book in the Claudine series she returns to Paris from a long, leisurely honeymoon with her husband Renaud. She is just 18 years old and her husband in his 40s, which gives us an early clue as to his sexual tastes. There is an uncomfortable section where the newlyweds visit Claudine’s old school and both flirt outrageously with the 15-year-old girls boarding there.

Sexual attraction had been a major topic of the series previously but here that’s what it’s all about. Claudine had dabbled with both sexes before her marriage and the pattern continues. As well as loving her husband, she falls hopelessly in lust with a new acquaintance, Rezi, the buxom wife of a jealous invalid. Renaud immediately sees this and encourages Claudine in what she sees as him being an understanding husband, but I read as straightforward lechery. I won’t say which of us was right, but Claudine certainly has some lessons to learn.

As always, Colette writes with great affection for the French countryside.

“At least I had been able to bathe my bare hands and trembling legs in thick, deep grass, sprawl my tired limbs on the dry velvet of moss and pine-needles, rest without a thought in my head, baked by the fierce, mounting sun. I was penetrated by sunlight, rustling with breezes, echoing with crickets and birdsong, like a room open on a garden.”

This book is fairly sexually explicit but it’s not Henry Miller. The deed itself is usually skipped past. The narrative concentrates instead on Claudine’s reaction to events. It was with some relief I realised that her reluctance to give in to her desire for Rezi stems from wanting to be faithful to her husband, not the fact that Rezi is a woman. She has, after all, been there before.

I can see why it took almost 60 years for an English translation to appear in print but I do wonder how shocking (or not) these novels were in France.

First published as Claudine amoureuse 1902.
Published as Claudine en ménage after the above edition had been destroyed.
This translation published 1960 by Secker & Warburg.
My edition published 1972 by Penguin Books.

Source: I bought it secondhand via Abe Books.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

Hunting for metaphors which might convey something

The Alexandria Quartet
Book 4: Clea
by Lawrence Durrell

And so at last I have finished the quartet. Was it a fitting end, full of vagueness and mystery? Did the poetic unreliable narrator return, both as a narrator and to Alexandria itself?

The Alexandria Quartet

Well, the answer to question two (both parts) is yes but to question one…I’d hazard no. The series began, in Justine, with a lot of vagueness, events in uncertain order and a lot was left unsaid. As the Quartet proceeded, the narrative got clearer and clearer until this book, even though it is once again narrated by Darley, who was previously so unreliable, was perfectly straightforward and linear. I mean, there were memories and extracts from old letters, but they were clearly signposted as such. To be honest I found this disappointing, though it was good to get closure on all the characters and storylines at last.

Which is not to say that the writing in this book is less good than it has been previously. In fact, I have bookmarked more quotable passages than ever. But as a story it didn’t grip me. Which is odd because there was a lot going on in this book. Darley has been called back to Alexandria from his Greek island to return the child he has been looking after to her true father. World War II has finally got under way and Alexandria has not escaped unscathed. Mountolive (the British Ambassador to Egypt) finds Darley a job in the censorship department of the War Office, which is a perfect statement on his narrative. No mention is made of Darley ever having been expected to fight, despite his being a British citizen of, I assumed, good health and young age, but I don’t know what the situation was for ex-pats.

And so, until the end of the war and a short time afterward, Darley catches up with the lives of his old friends, makes sure the girl settles in with her new parents and discovers more details about his previous stay in Alexandria that once again force him to re-evaluate the truth. Clea is, as ever, everyone’s friend and confidante, and a cheery one at that, so through her we hear the little anecdotes that people really do tell about their friends, particularly those who have died. She is a good influence on Darley, encouraging him to not just face the truth but actively seek it. When one friend asks Darley how his writing is going, he replies:

“It has stopped…I somehow can’t match the truth to the illusions which are necessary to art without the gap showing…”

The picture of a city at war is hauntingly real. A lot of the time, Alexandria is on the outskirts of the war, the place where soldiers come on leave from the desert frontlines, but it is for a short time bombarded and the harbour is full of warships rather than pleasure boats.

“How had things changed? It was not danger, then, but a less easily analysable quality which made the notion of war distinctive; a sensation of some change in the specific gravity of things. It was as if the oxygen content of the air we breathed were being steadily, invisibly reduced day by day…”

One thing I found a little strange was that one longish chapter takes the form of an essay written by (Darley’s former flatmate) Pursewarden years earlier after a series of conversations with Darley about literature. It is eloquent and interesting and so, so quotable (“Words being what they are, people being what they are, perhaps it would be better always to say the opposite of what one means”) but it perhaps went on a little long and broke up the story more than necessary for its purpose: making Darley realise he had misjudged Pursewarden.

Despite the apparent changes in Darley, perhaps he is still unreliable, because he still manages to fool himself and he repeatedly declares that he is done with writing yet he narrates as if he is writing it down:

“I am hunting for metaphors which might convey something of the piercing happiness too seldom granted to those who love; but words, which were first invented against despair, are too crude to mirror the properties of something so profoundly at peace with itself…”

And lest all the revelations and clarifications of this book fool us into thinking we are here learning the absolute final truth about these characters, we have this pearl from the wise old doctor Balthazar:

“When one casts around the fields of so-called knowledge which we have partially opened up one is conscious that there may well be whole areas of darkness which may belong to the Paracelsian regions—the submerged part of the iceberg of knowledge.”

So on the whole it was a fitting end to the Quartet. It made me laugh, it made me sad. It has a surprisingly modern attitude to sex, love and homosexuality (though the characters do not necessarily have modern attitudes) and I can now go and have a look at the last discussion of the Guardian Reading Group without having the story spoiled for me!

First published 1960 by Faber & Faber.

N.B. It’s too late now to join in the Guardian Reading Group discussion about this book but you can still listen to the Guardian Books podcast about Lawrence Durrell at 100. It discusses and quotes heavily from The Alexandria Quartet and is well worth checking out.

See also: my reviews of
Book 1: Justine
Book 2: Balthazar
Book 3: Mountolive

You’re gonna get screwed but good in this town

Tales of the City
by Armistead Maupin

After hearing this book praised left, right and centre since I started book blogging I figured I had to give it a go. And what a joy it is!

This is the first in what has turned out to be a very long-running series about a large cast of characters in San Francisco. In this book (I don’t know if this is true of any of the rest) the focus is on a boarding house on Russian Hill run by the inimitable Anna Madrigal (who grows her own weed and claims to have been raised in a whorehouse), and in particular her tenant Mary Ann Singleton. Mary Ann has newly arrived in the city from Cleveland and her sweet naivety is in for a shock. Or several shocks.

According to something I heard on Radio 4 (I think it was on A Good Read) the editors of the San Francisco Chronicle, in which this started life as a serial, kept a tally of straight versus gay sex scenes because there was a concern about it being “too gay”. Which tells you a little about the book. It is outrageous and wickedly funny but also intelligent and insightful. The characters lean very slightly into the larger-than-life category but they are not stereotypical or predictable. It really is an achievement that so much silliness can be so lovable.

There are dozens of storylines at work, only a couple of which are wrapped up by the end of the novel. The characters are introduced separately but their lives quickly overlap to the point where I was hard-pressed to remember who knew who from where. I’ll just have to read it again!

The extra character is, of course, the city of San Francisco. Maupin lovingly describes its streets and views and bars and people with all the little details of someone who calls it home. It is very much a tale of 1978, with an undercurrent of the politics and social nuances of the time. I was (perhaps naively) surprised by how much of the “pretentious” of middle-class life today (organic food, over-earnest attempts to appear not racist or homophobic, caring about global warming) was considered pretentious back then too. It is satirical but somehow firmly on the side of the people it satirises. Both prudish innocent (Mary Ann) and sexaholic (most everyone else) are celebrated in their own way.

I can see why it has been called a literary soap opera and it is indeed both those things. It isn’t literary in floweriness but rather in insight and cleverly spare language that gives you just enough, while finding room for some fantastic little jokes with words and meanings. So that’s six more books to add to the wishlist then, I guess!

First published in 1978 in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Published in book form in 1980 by Corgi Books.

The trouble with eternal life

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969
by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill

The first two volumes in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series were fantastic, a book lover’s dream, so I have continued buying all of the series even as they have gone (in my opinion) seriously downhill.

If you haven’t read any of this series, I recommend you check out the first two books and don’t read this review, because part of the pleasure of the first book is figuring out who the characters are. The first set were all taken from Victorian fiction, and some of those characters became the League, but the hints were dropped slowly as to who was who (in most cases, some were clear from the start).

Since those brilliantly clever beginnings, the plot has jumped forward in time to 1958 (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier), back to 1910 (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910) and now 1969. A final book set in 2009 is in the works.

In this volume, Mina and Allen are growing weary of eternal life (already!) and Orlando is, as ever, mid-change, so there’s a lot of tension in their little group. They have been called upon to investigate the murder of a pop star, which turns out to be related to a circle of black magicians and an attempt to create an antichrist (spot the Harry Potter references…).

As ever, every character and most (if not all) of the background detail is a reference to books, TV or films set in or around 1969. Possibly I’m not as familiar with that time, or possibly the references are getting more obscure (this has been mooted by a few critics) but I didn’t get that pleasure I got from the first few volumes at recognising the fictional references and how they all fitted together. And the 1960s setting appears to have given Moore licence to go all out on the sex front, with far too much of it for my liking (I’m no prude, but I prefer to read about it rather than see it). Add in drugs and psychedelia and it was pretty hard to follow what was actually a simple plot.

No doubt I will still buy the last book in the series, and I am interested to see what 2009 references it will incorporate, but I don’t hold high hopes for it being as good as the first volume.

Published 2011 by Knockabout Comics.

Examining happiness

Happy Creatures
by Ángela Vallvey
translated by Margaret Jull Costa

This is an odd book. I know this because every time I mentioned a scene to my friends they were incredulous as to why I would want to read such a book. But even with the weirdness, I thought it pretty good.

It’s also cerebral, much in the manner of Sophie’s World. There’s a simple storyline told in simple language but you rarely get through a paragraph without learning some philosophy.

You can tell it’s going to be cerebral from the start because the main characters are Ulysses, Penelope and their infant son Telemachus. They’re living in modern-day Madrid and very much aware of the provenance of their names (in fact it’s why they named their son as they did) but that doesn’t stop the author comparing their life events to episodes in The Odyssey.

Ulysses and Penelope are separated. She left him holding the baby when Telemachus was just three months old to pursue her career in fashion design. This episode is not told fully until more than halfway through the book, though it is referred to often. The first section of the novel is told from Ulysses’ perspective so it is a bit of a jolt to finally hear Penelope’s side of things and realise she had her reasons, and not bad ones either. I was impressed by how this was handled.

Another large element of the first part of the novel is Penelope’s father Vili’s class that he teaches at the Academy about the philosophy of happiness. Vallvey details a lot of conversations held at these classes, and also snapshots of the lives of several class members. These add interesting colour around Ulysses’ seemingly endless search for his own happiness.

So far so good, although the endless quotes do get a bit tiresome. But what I found disconcerting was how…comfortable the characters are with their bodies and discussing sex. I’m no prude but there were a couple of scenes at which I cringed and struggled to believe could be real. Maybe it’s a Spanish thing.

It was an entertaining read with some good comic moments and some interesting observations. However, I found the philosophising a little tedious and felt there was too much of a tendency to judge characters’ actions.

First published in Spain in 2002 by Ediciones Destino.
This translation first published in Great Britain in 2004 by Viking.

Wackiness: not just for kids

My Uncle Oswald
by Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl was insane. The end.

Okay, just kidding. Sort of. But you know how his children’s books were so original, wacky, different but we tend to put that down to knowing what it takes to write well for children? His adult short stories give a bit of a clue that it’s just how Dahl’s brain worked but this book really rammed it home for me. It is crazy. But also good, well written and moreish.

This is written in the form of an excerpt from a faux memoir, that of the author’s uncle Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, a self-made millionaire and hopeless womaniser (who apparently also stars in some of Dahl’s short stories). He is over-the-top, unapologetic, extreme in his exploits, manner and voice and reminded me of both Byron’s Don Juan and Blackadder’s Flash. No, really. He has no self-doubt and is both offensively unlikeable and at the same time funny and fascinating enough to keep you interested.

The story is about how Oswald made his fortune. He has two get-rich schemes that he details, both of which are outlandish and involve the rich and famous and a whole lot of sex. It’s risqué and definitely not politically correct. There are judgements made on dwarfs, gay men, women, artists versus intellectuals and probably others that I have forgotten and at first it grated but it also fits as part of the Oswald character and after a while you just shrug and accept that he’s a bigoted bastard.

Wikipedia describes this as akin to the ribald tales a gentleman tells over brandy and I dare say that’s true (I’ve never been in that room myself). I found this very interesting reading after having not long ago finished The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant, which made it clear that Dahl’s spy work was in no small part based around his ability to charm high-ranking ladies into bed. He was also unafraid of ruffling feathers with controversial statements, so the Oswald character treads a fine line between parody and idealised self-image.

I thought this completed my Dahl reading but apparently he published another adult novel in 1948 and there may well be some short stories that have escaped me. I am sure they will all be worth searching for.

Published 1979 by Michael Joseph.