There are no doubt piles upon piles of books that make you want to travel, and there’s probably no shortage of books that make you want to visit VenicThere are no doubt piles upon piles of books that make you want to travel, and there’s probably no shortage of books that make you want to visit Venice in particular. Then there’s Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, the book that makes you dread just the thought of Venice. Or really any travelling. After finishing this book, you will want to stay home forever, and lock all the doors to keep the outside world and its evils at bay.
Mary and Colin encounter those evils from the mundane (sore feet, crowded beaches, rude waitstaff) to the baroque — the titular strangers, Robert, his stories, and the life he lives with his wife Caroline. After already spending some time in the sinking city, they walk out one evening in search of a restaurant, and into a nightmare. They get lost in the maze of canals and back alleys and that’s when they meet Robert who takes them to his bar. What follows is a somewhat ludicrous tale of violence and perversion.
A slim volume at about 130 pages, The Comfort of Strangers was nonetheless a chore for me to read. McEwan bogs the narrative down with endless descriptions everyday life, little street dramas and supposedly realistic details of scenery. All this struck me as sleigh of hand, smoke and mirrors to obscure the fact that when you get right down to it, the story itself doesn’t make that much sense. And it’s probably not supposed to. Like the writer’s first novel, Cement Garden, this is a nightmare. Highlighting the sense of unreal is the fact that McEwan never actually mentions any real world place names once during the novel. The words Venice, Lido, Piazza San Marco etc. never make an appearance.
As a reading experience, this wasn’t a pleasant one, but I do have to admire McEwan’s skill at creating the atmosphere of dread, and in turning the magnifying glass at interpersonal relationships in such detail, grotesque as the view often is....more
Reading The Shock of the Fall took me back to my early teens a little bit. Because back then, before wizard, vampires, and dystopian societies had expReading The Shock of the Fall took me back to my early teens a little bit. Because back then, before wizard, vampires, and dystopian societies had exploded the YA market, the age-appropriate books found in my local library fell mostly into two categories: the ones with horses and the ones with problems. Sometimes the categories overlapped of course, so you'd get books with horses and problems. For a few years, after picture books and Nancy Drew, but before my brief Serious Adult Classics Only phase I read a lot of books with horses and/or problems.
Nathan Filer's first novel is a book with problems. Lots of them, in fact. Our narrator, Matthew, lost his brother as a child under clearly traumatic circumstances, but we only find out how everything happened towards the end of the book. We do know that Matt's brother Simon had Down's syndrome. We also find out that in the present time, when Matt is telling his story, he suffers from some kind of mental illness. The story jerks back and forth as it unfolds.
Filer does a commendable job in exploring difficult themes without sentimentality or sensationalism (for the most part, more on that in a bit). The novel is structured effectively, and the writing pleasing. And Matt is a wonderful creation. You have to care for him, and like him, not because he's particularly likable, but because he IS. He can't be summed up in simple terms such as likable or unlikable, he's too complex for that.
It's really such a pity then that the plot falters at the last pages just a little bit. Here we have sentimentality, and what's worse, sentimentality that rings false. The rest of the book is so filled with truth that the elements that are less so are jarring indeed. ...more
In her Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, author Fay Weldon calls the Regency era “by our standards, a horrible time to be alive.” She alsIn her Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen, author Fay Weldon calls the Regency era “by our standards, a horrible time to be alive.” She also writes that the class society was “fair enough if you were Jane Austen, but supposing you were the maid?” That is what Jo Baker’s Longbourn does: supposes you were the maid. And it does the supposing brilliantly. For me, this was one of those books where the reading experience is so emotionally magnificent, it seems like a waste to read anything else for a while afterwards: they’re just bound to pale in comparison.
Longbourn is of course the home for Lizzie, Jane, their sisters, and parents, The Bennet’s, whose lives and romantic entanglements are mapped in Jane Austen’s “light, and bright, and sparkling” Pride and Prejudice. Those adjectives could not be more ill fitting to describe Longbourn where we follow the folks downstairs, instead of upstairs. In other words, Baker has imagined lives and romantic entanglements for the servants who bring Bennet’s their letters, keep them fed, mend their clothes, hear their worries, and empty their chamber-pots. The servants do rather demonstrate the terribleness of the times. They toil in back-breaking labor, subject to the whims and capriciousness of their “betters”, and even then they’re the lucky ones, not starving, not sleeping outdoors.
The lives of Sarah, Polly and Mrs. and Mr. Hill begin to change when Mr. Bennet hires a new valet, the mysterious, half-starved James Smith. Quite frankly, it’s immediately obvious who and what James really is, but that little bit of predictability doesn’t much lessen the quality of the book. The plot doesn’t have to leave you gasping in astonishment, since Baker’s true strength, where she really shines, is character building. All the servants have rich inner lives, their own hopes and dreams. And even though seen from the servants’ perspective, the Bennet’s may appear a touch less sympathetic than in P&P, they’re not really villains. Longbourn is not interested in that kind of simplification. There’s on villain though, and his name is George Wickham.
What I loved most about this book, was the sense of bitter-sweetness that permeates it. The characters long for better, but there’s an inevitable loss to even the happiest of endings.
The next part of this review is just a note of some recurring themes that fascinated me during reading. Feel free to skip them.
Sugar. The sweet stuff comes up again and again in the pages of Longbourn. It’s offered with bread and milk to a half-starved Sarah when she comes to the house as a child. Polly and Lydia crave it. It and the slaves that grow it form the bases of Bingleys’ wealth. James sails a ships that brings sugar from New World to Old. And so on.
Blood. Sarah and Polly’s hands bleed after washing. The clothes stained with period blood soak in the corner of the kitchen. Sarah leaves a little pinprick of blood behind when she leaves Pemberley. And of course the blood of war. So when blood and blood stains are mentioned so frequently, it becomes noticeable when the narrator keeps silent about them. And that’s in relation to sex.
Water. Water is heavy to carry, but also necessary, it’s needed constantly. The servants carry it up and down, they ruin their hands in it. But it also offers comfort and sustenance for James.
All in all, a very successful look behind the scenes of one of my favorite novels, and highly recommended. A book hasn’t managed to make me cry in a good long while, but this one did, and every one of those tears was richly earned....more
Melko sujuvasti kirjoitettu ja mielenkiintoinen sukellus varsinaissuomalaisten elämään 1100-luvulla. Pari asiaa jäi vain tökkimään: 1. juoni lähtee kuMelko sujuvasti kirjoitettu ja mielenkiintoinen sukellus varsinaissuomalaisten elämään 1100-luvulla. Pari asiaa jäi vain tökkimään: 1. juoni lähtee kunnolla liikkelle vasta kirjan loppupuolella ja 2. teksti toistaa itseään, mikä on aina rasittavaa....more
**spoiler alert** It's a house party book, with turn of the century English lingo, ghosts, and a pony that ends up indoors. So there was never any dan**spoiler alert** It's a house party book, with turn of the century English lingo, ghosts, and a pony that ends up indoors. So there was never any danger of me not enjoying it at least a little. Still, on the whole not the most memorable or dazzling novel ever. Competently written and fun to read, yes. A timeless masterpiece, no. But not every book needs to be....more
In Cassandra (1984), German writer Christa Wolf retells the familiar Greek myth of the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the seer and prophet who was doomIn Cassandra (1984), German writer Christa Wolf retells the familiar Greek myth of the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the seer and prophet who was doomed to know the future and have everyone not believe her. Wolf’s novel takes place during the last few hours of Cassandra’s life, as she’s being taken in a carriage towards her death in Argos, after Troy has fallen. During that last trip, Cassandra remembers her life, and tells it in a very conversational style, going back and forth in time as the associations take her.
Wolf plays with different aspects of the mythology quite deftly. Those who are familiar with the stories of the Trojan war, will recognize many elements. But Wolf also takes aspects of not just Greek but Roman and even Medieval traditions to draft characters such as Briseis. Her own imagination gets to play too, for example in the relationship between Cassandra and Aeneas, or the character of Anchises, father of Aeneas.
As a novel, Cassandra is a character study of a mythological figure, and it works as the popular feminist gesture of giving a voice to the mostly voiceless. It’s also an allegory. It’s not apparent at first, but once the reader finds out what really happened to Helena in Egypt, the parallels and patterns start to emerge. Wolf is vicious and viciously accurate, in tracing the process of enemy-creation, of propaganda and fear-mongering. Well, she lived in East-Germany. She knows how it’s done.
As far as allegories go, Cassandra is among the better ones, because the characters truly live, or at least Cassandra does. She doesn't exist just to illustrate a point about East-German politics and state terrorism, although she does that beautifully. But she also talks about her life in such a way that it almost feels like you can hear her speak trough the Millennia to tell her own truth.
This is one of the best books I've read so far this year, but I’m docking a star and giving it four instead of five for two reasons: some parts of the sexual morals Wolf gives the Greeks and the Trojans ring false to me. And much as I admire Wolf’s skill in creating a believable prehistoric Troy, I’m not sure I can get completely on board with all the demythologizing. This world has no gods, nothing supernatural. Everything is explained rationally. It’s a neat trick, but I do so like my gods and monsters....more