A mere 7 books read in July:
A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder by Flint, Shamini
I'm not really a mystery fan, so I don't know if the genre is as white-English-village as it's stereotyped to be, but if so this makes a great change.
It wasn't however unproblematic. Islam is, though not evil, certainly a major antagonistic force in this story. We briefly encounter a nomadic tribe in Borneo whose nobly pacific ways are under threat by evil Big Commerce, and who are championed by a white guy gone native, not to even the whole avenging-the-dead-wife-and-son motif. And... I think the author intended to portray Inspector Singh in a fat-positive way? but the language used struck me as rather failing in that goal.
On broader terms, I do think that when you're writing a murder mystery in an omniscient point of view, you've got to be really good or else it just looks like multi-pov-of-convenience. Though I admit, I somehow wasn't terribly annoyed by the fact that the author had been hiding a solution which we should otherwise have seen in the character's thoughts before the end - possibly because we'd had scenes with all the characters' thoughts by then, so I was already resigned to the fact that she wasn't playing fair somewhere and was just waiting to find out where.
I think it was supposed to be interesting that large chunks of this unfolded without, or even in spite of, Inspector Singh's involvement? Theoretically I like that conceit, and maybe it'd succeed better for someone more familiar with the genre. For me it wasn't lampshaded quite enough so felt more like weak plotting than genre subversion.
But really the worst fault I found in it was that the prose was devastatingly lackluster. I was so unimpressed by it that it pains me to admit that such a judgement is necessarily subjective (my sister threw Twilight against the proverbial wall after a few pages of its prose, whereas I thought it was perfectly serviceable) but there, maybe others will enjoy it.
Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1) by Christie, Agatha
I was expecting more Miss Marple than this actually had. Maybe once this moved from being a one-off to being a series Miss Marple becomes a bit more central? Or maybe not. Anyway, I didn't mind at all; I adored the vicar as narrator, with all his own little prejudices and his resigned recognition that these aren't at all Christian of him but humans are only human.
Also I'm always endeared to murder mysteries where I can actually guess who did it, why, and how. I got a few minor things wrong but by and large I was right, and this is for me a great novelty - ordinarily I'm a total dunce. Possibly this one was particularly easy to solve, I neither know nor care, I'm basking in how clever I am.
Wheat in the Ear. by Baker, Louisa Alice
Honestly I started this prepared to be bored - what else should I expect from a random early New Zealand novel by a novelist I've never heard of? I should have heard of Louisa Alice Baker; this novel is brilliant.
I suppose the imagery of the harvest is at times belaboured; but the text is brimming with parallels and oppositions. Town and country; work and play; ambition and domesticity; intellect and love; and torn between all of these is Joan John Jeffries, the longed-for son born a girl mistaken by a priest at her baptism for a boy.
This doesn't, unfortunately, become a great treatise on the wrongs of the gender binary -- but it does rather begin like one. "Little maid, be a gentleman," is her father's instruction to her. All her early years she seems treated half as a boy; and even after she's grown up we're often told she looks like one. I think the point of this was to reframe some of her decisions near the end of the book, which would be dishonourable in a woman, according to the time, but the author wanted to show as honourable in a man -- chivalrous.
The really great question is whether her true love is the old scholar or the young farmer. You can probably guess the answer. The solution is terribly convenient, alas. But the book was still rescued for me because, while this question formed the climax, there were other questions too -- such as whether her true mother is her birth mother or the mother of her intellect, her teacher, a woman fighting for woman's right to vote.
There is so much in here, I don't know why this isn't taught along with Katherine Mansfield. Or maybe it is and I've just never noticed before....
70 Japanese Gestures: No Language Communication by Hamiru-aqui
I love the idea of this book but ultimately I think the very topic doesn't suit my learning style. I learn best when there's an overarching system I can arrange new facts into - but gestural communication, when not codified into a sign language, is an inherently piecemeal thing. So I mostly enjoyed reading it but ten minutes later couldn't remember a thing.
Generally I found the explanations really useful and interesting. Just occasionally they were a bit too jokey-jokey, and a few times I'd have liked a little more: for example when he explained what a gesture means, but I didn't feel I had a good grasp of what context it'd actually be used in; or when he mentioned that women should avoid using a pair of gestures, but not why (would people think we're gay? sluts? foreign weirdos? incredibly rude?)
The Ghost Rider by Kadare, Ismail
This is an even shorter book than it seems to be, the last forty pages consisting of the first two chapters of The Siege. Even with that brevity there was one point where I wondered if the story's conceit could be spun out to full book-length -- but that was before the plot thickened. By the end I was noticing ways it could have been explored even further and enjoying it so much I wished it had gone on longer. (The introduction explains its shortness: in 1975 Ismail Kadare was banned by the Writer's Union from publishing novels, so his subsequent novels were "disguised as short stories" and published in a collection.)
The Ghost Rider retells the folktale of Konstandin rising from the grave to fulfill his promise to take his married sister Doruntine home to visit her mother -- as a detective story. Stres is summoned in the middle of the night to investigate when Doruntine, newly arrived home, and her mother both fall ill with shock. The pressure on him to discover a rational explanation increases when both women die and the supernatural story begins to spread: the heresy of the resurrection motif is exacerbating political tensions between the Catholic and Orthodox churches between which Albania has long been caught in the middle.
The narrative is gripping: the voice and style is of a cosy murder mystery, but threaded with half-remembered dreams and reinforced with the steel of political awareness. As a legend is formed, so is national identity. On one level of reality, what happened becomes irrelevant; on another, it is the foundation stone of everything.
(Read for my Around the World in 204 Books project.)
The Rebirth of Pan by Walton, Jo
I can see why this wasn't published traditionally - the structure especially but also the angle taken on the content make it a challenging read, at times verging on opaque. It makes it more clear to me why my own experiments at telling a story through dozens of viewpoints have been doomed to failure -- not that I think Walton fails really; it's just inherently difficult to read. The fairly even alternating between the island and elsewhere helped a lot, but there were still times when I'd have to think hard to recall who was who, or even when I couldn't recognise a previously-viewpoint character through a new character's eyes.
In terms of its dealings with religion, it's very reminiscent of The King's Peace, in some ways a mirror image to the Christianisation of Sulien's environs. It's not quite in the same world I think (not in the same world as the prologue of The King's Name, certainly) but in spirit it's not very far from it at all.
Algerian White by Djebar, Assia
Algerian White is essentially a longform personal essay: Djebar explores the deaths of three friends in particular and of Algerian writers in general, some from accidents or illness but a distressingly long procession assassinated in the succession of “events” from the 1950s to the 1990s. Where writing is so heavily intermingled with politics, this book becomes an overview of both Algerian history and Algerian literature from the War of Independence through to its publication in 1995, but all told from this very intimate point of view.
In retrospect I should have tried harder to find it in the original French. Language is so central to its theme – right from the start Djebar discusses her relationships with French, Arabic, and Berber in a way that reminded me of the Engliss Only, Pliss Tumblr, and this idea emerges again and again, only gaining importance throughout the book as it’s seen through the lens of the different authors and their lives and deaths. And Djebar chooses her words so very carefully, writing in the very literary French where you don’t use a vague word when a precise one will do, nor a simple sentence structure in place of the complex – although ellipsis... The translator has clearly been reluctant to mess with this language, so that reading it in English put me into the francophone mindset just the same way reading actual French does, to the point where I was tutoie-ing my cat. Since literary French and literary English work so differently, this makes it very difficult to read to begin with, and at least once I noticed an undertranslation (“C’est normal” doesn’t mean what we mean by “It’s normal”; it’s more akin to “It’s proper” formally, or informally “It’s the Way We Do Things around here”.)
But though it can be annoying to need to reread every second sentence to understand it, it’s mind-expanding to read prose that rewards it as Djebar’s prose does. It’s highly allusive, often close to poetry. I found myself making extracts just to come back to the thought later. Slow reading, because so very dense with meaning.
(Read for my Around the World in 204 Books project.)
- Books read in July 2011