March wrap-up

March felt like a month that was relatively light on reading, though I must admit I haven’t counted up to confirm this. There was still a fair amount of stuff on the blog, though, as I shall now list.

Book of the Month

The best book I read in March came from the Arthur C. Clarke Award shortlist. Generosity by Richard Powers is a fascinating story about stories and science and being caught up in change. It’s in my top two contenders for the Clarke, with only one book on the list left to read.

Reviews

No book notes this month, but quite a few full-length reviews:

… and I finally completed Volume I of The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories.

Features

Ariana Franklin, Mistress of the Art of Death (2007)

Time now for my third and final book in the Great Transworld Crime Caper. I arranged my choices in reverse chronological order of setting, so we’ve gone from the present day to the Second World War, and now we head back to the twelfth century. Mistress of the Art of Death is the first of Ariana Franklin’s (a pseudonym of Diana Norman, who sadly died in January) mysteries featuring Adelia Aguilar, an anatomist from the medical school at Salerno. In 1171, the King of Sicily sends her, along with Simon Menahem of Naples, to investigate the brutal murder of a child in Cambridge. Blame for the killing is being placed on the city’s Jewish population – erroneously, believes Henry II, who has no wish to the revenue they provide placed in jeopardy, and so asked Sicily to send help. As the investigation progresses, the stakes only grow higher, as more bodies are found, and the danger grows closer to Adelia.

Franklin suggests in her afterword that ‘It is almost impossible to write a comprehensible story set in the twelfth century without being anachronistic, at least in part’. I suspect that is probably true, and almost certainly so with a detective story, which relies on the reader’s being able to follow the protagonist’s processes of thought and deduction. It’s telling that Franklin has made Adelia so clearly exceptional within the wider world of the book, both by profession (she risks being accused of witchcraft If her medical knowledge is discovered, so must pretend that her Saracen manservant Mansur is the doctor, and she his assistant) and by her outlook and attitudes. Adelia is a very engaging character, in part because she is such an outsider, and therefore placed in a similar position to the reader with regard to the setting – even more so than usual for a novel’s protagonist, she becomes our eyes (this also allows Franklin relatively unobtrusively to slip in ancillary historical detail). However, Adelia’s distance from her surroundings also means that she lacks empathy at times: when she learns that the parents of the murdered boy (who is now being venerated as a saint) are charging people to visit their cottage, her response is, ‘How shameful’ – but she’s soon made to realise that the family are acting out of desperation, not greed. Adelia Aguilar leaps off the page as a fully-rounded individual.

Indeed, it’s the protagonist who really carries the book for me; the mystery, I think, is less satisfying. The plot advances with a goodly number of twists and turns, but the way the murderer is revealed strikes me as short on impact, as I didn’t gain a sense of it being worked out on the page, as it were. The ending of the novel is interesting at first in the way it uses the conventions of twelfth-century society to create a problem – but the solution to that problem is pretty much a deus ex machina.

Though its plot didn’t quite work for me, Mistress of the Art of Death is still worth reading for the character of Adelia. There are three other books, and I’m interested to see if any have a mystery that’s as well realised as the protagonist.

Links
Transworld website about the book
Mistress of the Art of Death reviewed elsewhere: Novel Readings; A Fantastical Librarian; Alive on the Shelves; She Reads Novels.

Night and Day, Issue 1: Reinvention (Spring 2011)

I must admit I’d never heard of Night and Day magazine before, but apparently it was published in 1937 by Chatto & Windus under the editorship of Graham Greene and John Marks, and lasted all of six months. The title has now been revived by Random House editors Parisa Ebrahimi and Tom Avery; the first issue (on the theme of ‘Reinvention’) was published online last week, and it is a lovingly crafted piece of work. The design is elegant, managing to feel both classic and contemporary; and the content sets a similar standard.

In any literary magazine, it’s the fiction that interests me most, so that is where I’ll start here. There are two stories in this issue of Night and Day, the first of which is ‘Hermie’ by Nathaniel Rich. A lecturer in marine biology is gathering his nerves before delivering his speech at a conference, when he finds a hermit crab in the toilets. This is not just any old crab, but Hermie, the talking crab who was one of our man’s imaginary friends as a boy. The two reminisce about old times, until the academic has to give his talk. Rich’s story is cleanly told, with no interest in making a song and dance about its featuring a talking crab; it works well as both an evocation of childhood, and as a metaphoric  portrait of someone letting go and moving on in life.

I first came across Zachary Mason’s name last year, when Scott Pack enthused about his debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which (as its title suggests) reworks elements of the Odyssey. Mason’s piece here does something similar for Ovid’s story of Echo and Narcissus, interestingly inverting the tale so that Narcissus is the one who falls for Echo, whilst she remains aloof. It’s cleverly done, and makes one think again about the myths; I really must check out Mason’s novel.

The bulk of Night and Day is given over to non-fiction, and what really strikes me about this content is how accessible and rewarding it is, even when one is unfamiliar with the subject matter. For example, one of the features is an email dialogue between the novelists Chloe Aridjis and Ali Smith; I’ve never read anything by either of them, I don’t know any of the works to which they refer – but it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because the sheer joy and exuberance of the exchange (Smith:’ Plot for me veers between the Gunpowder kind and the kind marked out in cemeteries; it can explode, it’s underhand, it can be a kind of political fireworks, it’s the perfect place for a corpse.’) makes it a delight to read.

Elsewhere, we find Adam Thorpe writing about the challenges of translating Madame Bovary, which I found fascinating precisely because (rather than in spite of) the specific detail into which it goes. Tom Morton contributes a hilarious column as Samuel Johnson, describing various types of contemporary newspaper columnists (such as the ‘Pitchfork Wielder’: ‘When he implores “thou couldst not make it up”, the righteous Reader may counter “but Sir, that is the very North-Star of yr. CRAFT”’).

There’s also a column labelled ‘From the Archive’ describing ‘The Ideal Reader’ (‘He reads books. He buys books. He buys at least one a month. He would buy more if a) he could afford to, b) he had room to house them…’), in which I (very tentatively, and perhaps more hopefully) saw something of myself; and a ‘glossary for readers of reviews’ (‘ACHIEVEMENT, A considerable: Long book’), which made the reader in me smile even as the reviewer in me cringed.

Completing the issue are: an article on the history of Night and Day, by former Chatto publisher Jeremy Lewis; poet Paul Batchelor on Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry; an anonymous column on bookselling; Karen Russell on her writing habits; and Roddy Lumsden on the Eric Gregory Prize for young poets. I found Night and Day to be a very welcoming and entertaining magazine, and I wish it a long and healthy future.

Link
Issue 1 of Night and Day is available to read and download here.

Seven Penguin authors

Earlier this week, Penguin Books held a reading event with seven of their authors, each on their first or second novels. A bunch of bloggers and friends gathered at the Union Club in the heart of London to hear about some new books – and it was a very enjoyable evening.

First up was Joe Dunthorne, whose debut novel, Submarine, has just been made into a film. He read an extract from Wild Abandon, about young Albert, who is convinced the world will end in 2012. Attempting to dispel his fears, the boy’s mother persuades Albert to imagine a conversation with his sixteen-year-old self, thereby reassuring himself there is life beyond a couple of years hence. But the plan doesn’t quite work out as Albert’s mum intended… The conversation that Dunthorne read out was very funny, and I’m sure I’ll be checking out Wild Abandon when it’s published in August, and perhaps also Submarine before then.

Luke Williams’ The Echo Chamber (due in May) was already on my radar because it has the sort of crossover speculative premise (the life of a woman with preternatural abilities of hearing) that particularly appeals to me. I’m not sure how well I can judge from the opening extract Williams read here just what The Echo Chamber will be like as a whole (and he did say that the novel goes through a number of styles as it progresses), but it is still a novel I want to investigate.

The next author was Jean Kwok, whose novel Girl in Translation concerns Kimberly Chang, who moves with her family from Hong Kong to a squalid apartment in Brooklyn, and finds herself caught between the worlds of great achievement at school, and working in a factory at night to help make ends meet. Kwok told how she drew significantly on her own life experiences for the novel, which sounds an interesting story.

I’ve been meaning to read God’s Own Country, the first novel by Ross Raisin – a fellow native of West Yorkshire – for some time now. I will get around to it – honest. Tonight, Raisin was reading from his forthcoming book, Waterline (to be published in July), which is set amongst the shipyards of Glasgow. As it’s written partly in dialect, Raisin said, it didn’t sound right in his natural voice; so he affected a Glaswegian accent to read his extract. How good he was, I’m in no position to judge; but the extract itself was nicely atmospheric, and bodes well for the whole novel. I’ll probably read God’s Own Country first, though.

On now to Rebecca Hunt, whose novel Mr Chartwell was the only one of the seven featured writers’ that I’d already read. Essentially it’s the story of Churchill’s Black Dog of depression come to life, well worth a look. Hunt was an excellent reader; had I not known about the novel already, the strength of her reading alone would have made me want to seek it out.

Helen Gordon’s debut, Landfall – about an art journalist reassessing her life when she moves temporarily back to the suburbs – is not published until October, so it was quite a treat to hear an excerpt of it so early on. The snapshot Gordon read was a conversation between the protagonist and her daughter during a car journey; again, I’m not sure how much of a sense of the wider novel I have from this, but it was a nicely observed extract and I am intrigued.

The final author to read was Hisham Matar, a Booker nominee for his first novel, In the Country of Men. He read an excerpt from his newly-published second book, Anatomy of a Disappearance, which concerns a boy dealing with the disappearance of his father. Matar’s description was vivid, and left me wanting to read more. A fine conclusion to a strong set of readings.

The Oxford Library of Classic English Short Stories, Vol. I: 1900-1956 – Conclusion

So, I’ve reached the end of my journey through that anthology of stories from (roughly) the first half of the twentieth century. My principal motivation for taking on the project was that I don’t read much in the way of ‘classic’ fiction; I think I have now come to the conclusion that, though I will occasionally be a visitor to the world of the classics, my true interest lies with more recent fiction.

The term ‘classic’ in the book’s title may perhaps be a red herring, as this volume was an omnibus of two earlier ones, so the stories would have been much more contemporary when originally selected. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I found this anthology as much of a mixed bag as I’d expect one of new fiction to be. If I never came across anything that truly blew me away, there are some writers that I’m keen to investigate further. I’ve read more of Frank O’Connor and Saki already; top of my list now are Dylan Thomas, Evelyn Waugh, and Naomi Mitchison. (I’d add Leonard Merrick and William Sansom to that list, but it seems their work is not easily available these days.)

Yet, for all that I enjoyed individual stories, I never took to them in the way I do more contemporary work — I never crossed the gap of the years. That’s why I think I’m going to be a visitor, rather than a denizen, when it comes to older fiction. I’m glad to have read this book, but I feel it’s time to move back towards my own reading heartland for a while.

V.S. Pritchett, ‘The Scapegoat’ (1956)

The end of the volume, and the second consecutive Pritchett story, this time focusing on the residents of Terence Street, who are determined to raise more money for the Jubilee than their rivals on Earl Street. My feelings about ‘The Scapegoat’ are as mixed as they were about ‘The Aristocrat’ — it’s interesting to read, and I particularly appreciate the irony of the ending; yet still I’m left with a sense that something is lacking.

Rating: ***½

V.S. Pritchett, ‘The Aristocrat’ (1956)

An old man entertains the regulars at a pub with magic tricks, but is not all he seems. This was a very enjoyable story to read; I particularly liked some of Pritchett’s imagery at the beginning (such as this, describing one pub-goer: ‘A pair of yellow gloves drooped in one hand like the most elegant banana-skins’). So it’s a little frustrating that there doesn’t seem to be much more to the piece besides a sting-in-the-tale ending.

Rating: ***½