Reading through the reviews on goodreads, I'm interested by how much this book divides readers. (My favourite comment, by the way, was the person whoReading through the reviews on goodreads, I'm interested by how much this book divides readers. (My favourite comment, by the way, was the person who described it as a 'perfect gift for an expectant woman'. In the book, there are three mothers: Daniel's mother, a ghastly, needy woman, about as welcome in the house as cancer; lost lonely frozen Winifred, who can't relate to any of her three children; and Stephanie, 'sunk in biology', struggling to keep her intellect alive as it drowns in the swamp of domestic life, and who - well, that's a spoiler, but if you know the book you'll share the disbelief. Oh, actually, there's a fourth mother, an out-of-sight character who neglected her child to death. It's an absorbing book, and maybe that's what you need when you're pregnant, but it's hardly cheerful).
Having gone off on one myself, I'm now going to criticise Byatt for her tangents in this book. Like 'The Virgin in the Garden', I think the authorial asides in 'Still Life' - wholly appropriate in the throes of 1980s literary criticism and the emergence of post-modernism - have aged badly. At the time I'm sure they felt like sharp interpolations into the modern (1950s) intellectual landscape this series maps, but today they feel tiresome. Where in 'Possession' Byatt melds literary talk seamlessly into the characters' internal lives and interactions, here it feels like bad icing on a good cake.
The good cake are Byatt's characters. I can think of few other writers who can keep developing and revealing their characters the way Byatt does. I am as sucked in as I was the first (second, third? goodness knows how many times I've read these books) time round, and will keep going. However, as I'm about to embark on a 467-page-long book about cancer, my next fiction choice is going to be deliberately light: we're taking a break from Byatt for the rest of May....more
Oh my gawd y'all - I just downgraded A.S. Byatt by two stars.
I'm a big Byatt fan. 'Possession' and 'The Biographer's Tale' would probably both make myOh my gawd y'all - I just downgraded A.S. Byatt by two stars.
I'm a big Byatt fan. 'Possession' and 'The Biographer's Tale' would probably both make my Top 25 list, if I ever drew it up. But I think my love for some of her books perhaps clouded my retrospective judgement.
Today, 'The Virgin in the Garden' feels over-worked and a bit clunky (the obvious bits of authorial voice most particularly). And the plot around Marcus Potter and Lucas Simmonds just bored me this time round; the denouement is still powerful, but the endless pages about the Nousphere lost me.
Byatt does get you wound up in her characters though. I still dislike Frederica, so book-smart and so people-stupid. I still feel the dark mass of Daniel, and the helpless fastidiousness of Alexander Wedderburn (gosh, Byatt's adjectives really rub off on a girl). And I am still so angry over her treatment of Stephanie Potter, in the way that you can only be if you have a sneaking suspicion that like her, you might be letting your brain slowly degrade in a welter of daily concerns.
And so I'm moving on to 'Still Life' - just to see whether I can get the magic back.
God, I'd forgotten how much I loved this book. Actually, not how much I loved it - how much reading it in my late teens defined me. Re-reading it overGod, I'd forgotten how much I loved this book. Actually, not how much I loved it - how much reading it in my late teens defined me. Re-reading it over a sickly weekend wasn't so much like coming home, or slipping into something comfortable, as reacquainting myself with my younger me and finding out I still liked her.
The characters feel less like old friends than like mythological figures, each with their accompanying adjective and mystic power: mole-ish, startle-haired Roland; splendid, icy Maud; snake-hipped devious/deviant Cropper; dusty Scottish Blackadder; woolly woebegone Beatrice; overabundant, overwhelming Leonora. And Val, whose transformation from bedraggled and shrewish sparrow to sleekly satisfied has always been one of my favourite subplots.
Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash remain just characters, ciphers - as they're meant to be (although I was still moved to tears by the last few pages). One of the nice things about re-reading this book a few times is that you get to skim the poems, or skip them altogether. It interests me that the feminist literary theory that's such a part of the book has become as much a period piece as the Victoriana - I wonder if she knew that would happen?
When I read 'The Children's Book', I was struck anew by Byatt's rich style: she piles on and piles on and piles on the detail and the observation, but you only ever feel like you're floating in it, not drowning. One of my favourite passages:
The bathroom was a long narrow rectangle, space-saving, coloured like sugar almonds. The fitments were a strong pink, tinged with a dusky greyish tone. The tiled floor was a greyish violet. With little bunches of ghostly Madonna lilies - they were of Italian design - on certain tiles, not all. These tiles extended halfway up the walls, where they met a paisley vinyl paper crawling with busy suckered globules, octopods, sea-slugs, in very bright purple and pink. There were toning ceramic fitmets, in dusky pink pottery, a lavatory-paper holder, a tissue-holder, a toothmug on a plate like those huge African lip-decorations, a scallop-shell holding pristine ovoids of purple and pink soap. The slatted, wipe-clean vinyl blind represented a pink dawn, with rose-tinged bulbous cumuli. The candlewick bath-mat, with its hide-like rubber backing, was lavender-coloured and so was the candle-wick crescent snugly clutching the lavatory pedestal and so was the candlewick mob-cap cushioned protector worn by the lavatory lid. On top of this, alert for house-sounds, and urgently concentrating, perched Professor Mortimer P. Cropper. It was 3.00am. He was arranging a thick wad of papr, a black rubbr torch, and a kind of rigid matt black box, just the size to fit on his knee, without bumping the walls.
And my most favourite, when Roland and Maud go to Yorkshire and slowly warm to each other, talking sexual theory but not acting sexy at all. The picture that remains for me above all in this book, all these years on:
He disposed himself for sleep. The sheets were white and felt slightly starched; he imagined that they smelled of fresh air and even the sea-salt. He moved down into their clean whiteness, scissoring his legs like a swimmer, abandoning himself to them, floating free. His unaccustomed muscles relaxed. He slept.
A slim, perfect book about love, death, friendship, being 12, and time travel - and a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time' to boot.A slim, perfect book about love, death, friendship, being 12, and time travel - and a love letter to Madeleine L'Engle's 'A Wrinkle in Time' to boot.
I ordered Stead's book through the public library after finding out it was the winner of last year's Newbery Medal. When I picked it up and saw the big print, I felt disappointed; I'd been excited, but thought that even with my growing passion for children's and YA novels, this was going to be too simple.
I took it home anyway, figuring I'd give it a few pages. And I was immediately hooked. The book might be aimed at 10 year-olds and up, but it's completely engrossing. Miranda, the central figure, is one of the most appealing female characters I've found in a long time, and the book is beautifully and tautly written, managing to be both a straightforward narrative, and a mystery with time-clues dangling throughout.
Rebecca Stead also includes, in Miranda's voice, two of the loveliest evocations of the way you can feel about a book when you're 12:
'The truth is that my book doesn't say how old Meg is, but I'm twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven.'
'I was getting annoyed. The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book. It's like watching someone go through the box of private stuff that I keep under my bed.'
If you have a daughter, you should buy this book for her. No matter how old she is.
Worth checking out just for the map on the flyleaves ....
While the two central characters are a little flatly drawn - an (orphaned) princeling learninWorth checking out just for the map on the flyleaves ....
While the two central characters are a little flatly drawn - an (orphaned) princeling learning to mix with the common people and a plucky (fatherless) girl faking it as a boy to break into the masculine world of excitement - I was utterly seduced by Westerfeld's description of the fabricated beasts, especially the Leviathan. It reminded me of the power of Philip Pullman's daemons - an invention that is totally satisfying, something that makes you hanker for this imaginary world to be a possibility.
The one bum note overall was the fake swearing - "barking spiders", anyone? There's something a little fake about suggesting that your character speaks in a particular way, but then cleaning this up for a tidy G-rating by subbing in fake words. ...more
I'm not usually a fan of the 'Like a mixture of X and Y with a dash of Z' although I would make an exception for Luca Turin, who described a perfume a
I'm not usually a fan of the 'Like a mixture of X and Y with a dash of Z' although I would make an exception for Luca Turin, who described a perfume as embodying the child Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller didn't have. But the reviewer who described 'The Magicians' as the missing link between the Narnia books and Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' was on to something.
As soon as I read the opening page of 'The Magicians' I felt like I was reading along to a New Romantic soundtrack, all cutting observations and floppy fringes. Brilliant and unloved, 17-year-old Quentin Coldwater is still secretly yearning for the imaginary world of the British 1930s fantasy series he read as a child - and still covertly re-reads - to be real. To quote Grossman's website:
Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he thought it would.
Grossman takes the magical world of JK Rowlings' Hogwarts and brings it back down to earth by making magic something hard, not playful, and filling the school with aggressively intelligent Type A overachievers who are going through the normal discoveries of university - drinking, drugs, sex, loneliness, metaphysics.
I think I might be 'The Magicians' target audience - the person who hasn't outgrown their love of CS Lewis, Susan Cooper, TH White, but feels like they were meant to move on to 'real' literature. Thank goodness for writers like Grossman, Gaiman and Chabon for making both things possible.
I am a rabid Michael Chabon fan. I would read an anthology of his grocery lists. Having said that, I don't think this collection holds a candle to hisI am a rabid Michael Chabon fan. I would read an anthology of his grocery lists. Having said that, I don't think this collection holds a candle to his other book of essays, 'Maps and Legends', which covers some of the same ground (his feeling that children are less free to explore the world and their own imaginations these days; his geek and pop culture obsessions; his authorial antecedents) in more satisfying depth.
The flaw in the collection, for me, is not the material but the length of the essays. Adapted from a column in Details magazine, the essays are just long enough to have a starting point, one or two tangents, and then a wrap-up. There's no time to really delve into anything, to build that richly detailed setting that is Chabon's speciality.
There are some small pleasures though. His essays on the reconfiguration of Halloween and Christmas as inoffensive, non-denominational, unreligious occasions (which goes in more interesting places than these discussions usually do); likewise his essays on his eldest daughter approaching puberty. His description of his compulsions, including his habitual rocking:
And - this is not a boast - I rock. Davening, my wife calls it: steady, rapid, rhythmic rocking, sometimes fitful, sometimes continuous, from foot to foot when I'm standing, and front to back when I'm sitting down. Rocking like a junkie who needs a fix, a madman on the subway, a devout Jew at prayer, a kid who really needs to pee.
I'm davening as I write these words, and it's always while I'm in the act of writing that the impulse to rock grows strongest, the rocking feels the best, the most necessary and right. The more easily the words come, the more wildly I rock.
His discussion of losing his virginity, aged 14 or 15, with a 17-year-old girl who seems empathetic beyond her years:
After the elapse of a gratifyingly brief interval she brought me home to her bedroom in the basement of her family's town house, and she bestowed upon me the magic of her permission.
I will try as hard as I can not to exaggerate here: I estimate that I spent merely forty-three minutes of the prolonged episode that followed in conducting a detailed and glorious survey, a USGS mapping expedition, complete with aerial reconnaissance and depth soundings, of the young woman's vagina. I would not affirm that I was more interested in studying it than introducing my penis therein, but it was awfully close. ...
And then on Monday she dumped me. She had done me so many favours - had indulged, with a tenderness that even at the time I recognized as a kind of grace, all my exclamations over and examinations of her body, especially that astonishing evolutionary feat of origami between her legs - and now she did me the final one of being honest.
His delight in raising four children who share his deep love of pop culture, not as mindless consumers, but as passionately engaged participants:
Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I haved raised my children to be: a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner - through writing, drawing, dressing up or endless conversational riffing and Talmudic debate - the world of the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art. The closest I have ever come for myself is amateur, in all the original best senses of the word: a lover; a devotee; a person driven by passion and obsession to do it - to explore the imaginary world - oneself.
So maybe this is a book for Chabon enthusiasts and amateurs. 'Maps and Legends' though - that's a book for readers. You should give it a go. ...more
Terribly disappointing. I'm a big fan of the Best Science & Best Non-Required Readings series, and I thought this would be of the same calibre. AmTerribly disappointing. I'm a big fan of the Best Science & Best Non-Required Readings series, and I thought this would be of the same calibre. Am now confused as to who (if anyone?) owns the 'Best American' name...more
John Banville, writing in the Guardian, described Cathcart's book as 'unemphatic' and, while perhaps it's not as phlegmatic as that might suggest, 'ThJohn Banville, writing in the Guardian, described Cathcart's book as 'unemphatic' and, while perhaps it's not as phlegmatic as that might suggest, 'The Fly in the Cathedral' (or 'the gnat in Albert Hall, as Rutherford put it) is a good solid account of the 1932 'splitting' of the atom.
The aspect of the book I found most interesting were the descriptions of working life at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, headed up Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford comes across as results-focused, theory-impatient, hurry-up-and-show-me-something, curious and excitable even in his 60s; a biography is high on my reading list. Despite his pushing of his staff and students to find stuff out already, under his lead research began around 10am each day, and the lab was firmly locked at 6pm, with the men sent home to 'read and think'. On the very rare occasion - like, for instance, when you've just bombarded some lithium with a highly concentrated beam of protons and proved the existence of the neutron - the lab might be opened up.
I think it's in James Watson's account of the cracking of the gene that Watson observes that this way of working - complete with four o'clock tea and buns - was still in place in the English universities. It's so different from how we expect people on the cutting edge of anything to work nowadays, and I find that quite fascinating. ...more
I read 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', the first book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, in one breathless weekend, and repeated the feat withI read 'The Knife of Never Letting Go', the first book in Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, in one breathless weekend, and repeated the feat with 'The Ask and the Answer'.
'The Knife of Never Letting Go' is a book of discovery - of a new world (a planet only settled within living memory) a new trouble (men's relentless Noise, the ceaseless broadcasting of their every thought, and women's lack of it) and two new people, the central characters, Todd and Viola.
'The Ask and the Answer' gives greater depth to the world and the troubles sketched out in the first book. Todd and Viola are separated, on opposite sides of a horrific conflict; the theme of the book might be that war makes people - even good people, even people you want to love and trust - do terrible, terrible things.
While the surprise of Ness's narrative voice has settled in by the time you get to the second book, it still gives the book an astounding depth. It is unusual to understand more than one perspective in a YA book; Ness gives us at least four - Todd, Viola, and the leaders of the two opposing forces, the horrifying Mayor Prentiss of the first book, and the ruthless, steely Mistress Coyle we meet now. There are other dystopian series out there - The Hunger Games naturally spring to mind - but this is the first that for me rivals Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials moral weight and thoughtfulness.
Despite being a book of hardship, horror and tragedy, 'The Ask and the Answer' contains a few merciful spots of warmth and gentleness. One is the transformation that slowly and unspectacularly takes place within Mayor Prentiss's son Davy. Another is the quiet friendship between Todd and his horse Angaharrad - a mirror to Manchee in the first book.
In good second-book tradition, 'The Ask and the Answer' starts with one climax and ends with another. Along the way, Todd and Viola finish growing up, and move into active roles in the adult world. In the third book, they'll face the consequences of their choices. As we're reminded throughout this book, our choices are what shape us. I can't wait....more