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

Joyce Cary, ‘A Good Investment’ (1954)

Tom Catto, a forty-eight-year-old widower, decides to find a new wife; taking a utilitarian view, he looks for someone who can be a good housekeeper and look after his daughter. During his search, tom is reunited with members of the Bill family whom he knew as a youngster; he marries the youngest Bill sister, Francie, who is put upon horrendously by her mother and sister. As time goes by, Tom realises that his feelings for Francie may be more genuine than he had thought.

This is the second of Cary’s stories in the anthology, and my opinion has not much changed from when I read the first. ‘A Good Investment’ does its job adequately, and there’s a certain energy to its telling; but it left no great impression on me and did not inspire me to seek out any more of the author’s work.

Rating: ***

Elizabeth Moon, Speed of Dark (2002)

Speed of Dark is the story of Lou Arrendale, an autistic man working for a pharmaceutical company. Lou is part of a division staffed by autistic people, who were employed because they are also remarkably skilled in spotting patterns (Lou’s division works with data, but exactly what they do is neither explored much nor, for that matter, particularly relevant to the novel). Pattern is perhaps the greatest source of pleasure in Lou’s life, as his two main interests are also pattern-based: classical music and fencing, which he practises at a class every Wednesday night (Lou’s facility with fencing stems from his ability to recognise the patterns in his opponents’ moves). Lou harbours feelings for Marjory, another member of his fencing group, though he isn’t sure whether those feelings are reciprocated.

Several developments threaten to disrupt Lou’s lifestyle, however. A series of attacks on his car by a person who apparently knows his weekly routine leads Lou to consider that someone he thought was a friend may in fact be an enemy. A new boss at the company, Gene Crenshaw, sees Lou’s division as a drain on resources (even though their productivity speaks for itself), and seeks to remove the special privileges (such as the private gym) which help them to focus their minds on work. Potentially the most far-reaching of all, though, is that Crenshaw also wishes to put the autistic staff through an experimental treatment which promises to ‘cure’ their autism – but what effect would that have on their personal identity?

The most immediately striking aspect of Speed of Dark is its narrative voice: there are some third-person sections, but most of the novel is narrated by Lou in the first person, and Elizabeth Moon has done a remarkable job of creating his worldview. Lou’s narration is a little stiff and formal, a tone well-suited to the literal logicalness of his thought processes; one of his key character traits is his difficulty grasping the nuances of language used by non-autistic people:

He stands there, looking at me. He does not say anything for a moment, then he says, ‘Well, be seeing you,’ and turns away. Of course he will be seeing me; we live in the same building. I think this means he does not want to walk back inside with me. I do not know why he could not just say that, if that is what he means. (p. 147)

One of the great strengths of Moon’s telling is how easy she makes it for the reader to see things from Lou’s viewpoint; I think it’s crucial to the overall affect of the novel that we don’t have to work hard to reach Lou, because it makes all the clearer what is at stake for him. The whole issue of the experimental treatment is not clear-cut, because there are genuine losses and gains to be made. If Lou undergoes the procedure, he doesn’t know whether he will truly be the same person – will he still enjoy the same things, have the same insights (into people as well as pattern), feel the same about Marjory? Yet, by the same token, could the treatment bring about new interests, new insights, new feelings? Lou’s condition brings with it both advantages and limitations, and Moon shows the difficult choice he has to make between the two.

Given the moral complexity of this aspect of Speed of Dark, I find it a little disappointing that there isn’t the same complexity on show when it comes to the character of Gene Crenshaw. In his opposition to the autistic employees and their amenities, Crenshaw simply has no legitimate argument – the value of their work to the company is clear, and far outweighs the cost of the aids provided for them; not to mention the reputational risk and the tax breaks that would be lost if Lou’s division were dismantled. It’s a little jarring not to have the same level of nuance here as elsewhere in the book. But there is an interesting undercurrent suggesting that Crenshaw is not all that different from Lou underneath – both share an intense focus, for example, though Crenshaw would use his destructively – and a subplot examining the morality of a behavioural-correction chip for criminals in comparison with the treatment proposed for Lou and his colleagues. Moon’s novel certainly leaves one with a great deal to think about.

The title of Speed of Dark comes from Lou’s repeated wondering of whether, given that light has a speed, dark also has one; he reasons that it would be faster, as light is always chasing behind dark. Lou further equates darkness to ignorance and light to knowledge, which is then represented in the novel by both the ignorance of the likes of Crenshaw; but also as Lou’s own ignorance of himself and who he might be. If we interpret Lou’s dilemma over the treatment as representing any decision of whether to make a major life-change, Speed of Dark ultimately gives us cause to reflect how far we might want to sweep away the dark if faced with such a choice.

Links
Two reviews of Speed of Dark at Infinity Plus, by John Grant and Adam Roberts.
Elizabeth Moon’s website

Richard Powers, Generosity (2009)

Russell Stone is a washed-up writer making ends meet by teaching a ‘Journal and Journey’ class to a group of art students at a Chicago college. One member of that group stands out because of her remarkable personality: Thassadit Amzwar is a young woman from Algeria who is apparently happy all the time; nothing seems to bother her, and people are naturally attracted to her sunny disposition. Even after everything she has experienced in her life, Thassa remains in perpetual good humour; Russell speaks to Candace Weld, one of the college’s counsellors, who can only conclude that nothing is wrong, and Thassa is just a naturally happy person. At the same time, we read about Thomas Kurton, a biotechnologist with an evangelical zeal for his work in the field of genetics. Kurton’s current project is to isolate the genetic basis for happiness; when he hears about Thassa, he invites her to participate in his study – and soon she becomes public knowledge.

Generosity has a number of concerns, but the one that’s most prominent to me is stories. The novel is full of then: the creative nonfiction taught by Russell makes a story out of one’s life; media reporting makes a story out of science; science itself makes a story out of the stuff of the universe. The characters are presented to us through filters of story: we first encounter Thomas Kurton as a talking head in a science documentary; and there are frequent asides from the narrator (whose identity is unclear; it may be Richard Powers himself, or perhaps Russell Stone, or the science broadcaster Tonia Schiff, or someone else entirely) which emphasise the fictional nature of what we’re reading. The effect of this is to suggest that reality is mutable: our conceptions of the world change with the telling, and there is no escaping the web of story, however much we might think otherwise (some of the most effective passages in the book show this in action, describing the spread of information in an age when the boundary between public and private has all but dissolved).

This leads into another of Generosity’s main themes, which has to do with the ethics of science and its reporting. Powers is more concerned with dramatising questions than providing answers, and paints a complex picture: is it unethical for Thassa to profit from her genes, if it means that she can improve her family’s lot to a degree that would otherwise be impossible? When Kurton makes a song and dance in the media over his company’s research, is he feeding the flames of hype, or just doing what he has to do to get noticed in that day and age? Such issues never quite lose their shades of grey in the book, as characters are shown to both benefit and lose out from the choices they make.

I’ve been thinking about the characterisation in Generosity for some time, particularly that of Thassa. For one so charismatic with by definition an extraordinary personality, she comes across on the page as remarkably unremarkable – I never felt Thassa’s charisma when reading about her. At first, I considered this a problem, because generally I want to experience characters’ traits, rather than just read about them. But now I tend to think it’s a way of showing how this aspect of her character can be a space that other people fill in their own way; there’s a striking scene where Thassa makes an impassioned speech that spreads all over the internet, but we witness its detail only through the online reactions and imitations. Of the other characters, I found the depiction of Russell Stone particularly vivid; in some ways, he is the opposite of Thassa – where her personality faces naturally outwards, his turns inwards (when we first meet him on the train to work, Russell is described as being ‘dressed for being overlooked’). Over the course of the novel, Powers traces the (fairly complex) development of Russell’s character, as he becomes less withdrawn, but without shaking off his doubts.

Generosity leaves one with much to think about in a variety of areas, from ethical issues in science to the effects on people of being caught up in scientific change; from the place of story in the world to the effects of contemporary communication methods. Recommended.

Elsewhere
Richard Powers website
Generosity reviewed elsewhere: Paul Kincaid for Strange Horizons; Just William’s Luck; Word Travels; David Loftus for the California Literary Review.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.