Monday, 1 October 2012

Books read in September

Deep Water – Debi Gliori
Middle books are always problematic. Most could be dispensed with but we do love a trilogy. The problem is they are usually bridges from book one to book three and very little happens. Those criticisms could be levelled at this book, after all at the end we are pretty much where we were at the beginning. But some writers can do that with such fun and such style, going in a circle is a joy. Needless to say, Debi Gliori is one such writer. We get more of the strangeness that is life at StregSchloss and we learn about the characters - the absence of pretty much any story except an almost accidental search for someone forcing a concentration on those involved. Because of that, the outrageous fantasy characters suddenly become very real people with very real problems. Which puts this series onto a whole new level and sets up intriguing possibilities for the final book.

Near To The Wild Heart – Clarice Lispector
I have only recently ‘discovered’ Claric Lispector. What a joy to think I have all her writing to devour. What a crock to think that I am this old and never once heard mention of her before. But that is how it goes. The same might be said of Dorothy Richardson. I have known of her for decades, but I still talk with well read people who have never heard of her.

Lispector uses powerful writing of weight and depth to create fragile scenes; still lives that, on closer inspection, are a ferment of thought and emotion. The climactic scene between Joana and Otavio in particular is a tour de force. In itself it would have been a fitting end to the work both in terms of content and power of writing, but Lispector then tops it with two truly magnificent chapters – revelatory, stunning.

Lispector has been compared with the likes of Woolf, Joyce, even Kafka. But her work, whilst of comparable skill, takes a different tack. There are certainly great similarities with modernist work from other writers, but there is a unique quality here that has drawn on an unlikely meeting of disparate heritages and transcended any mere melding of these. That it is a first novel, starting where many writers would be pleased to finish, makes it all the more remarkable.

Walk To The End Of The World – Suzy McKee Charnas
The late 60s and 70s saw a flowering of science fiction and fantasy. New doors opened. A lot of new writers saw the potential that had been there (and often realised) all along. As always, much of what was produced was mediocre at best. Some of it stood out as rare and beautiful, orchids that beguiled. This is one such.

Of course, much of sci fi and fantasy has swung back the other way. In that brief, bright period we had work that explored ideas and expanded horizons, that went in as well as out, which weren’t afraid of politics and philosophy on a level of sophistication that made previous efforts look crude. And there were women writers.

There had always been women writers and intelligent books, but you had to look hard to find them. For a while they were everywhere. Now we are back in the ante-diluvian swamps. So what are we missing? Books like this one.

I have so far resisted the portmanteau that would have most people diving for cover, but it now has to be used. Feminist fantasy. There. That didn’t hurt. Now, I know there were some awful feminist works written. Their assumptions and clichés were every bit as dire as you would find in books by non-feminists. But, face it, many of these authors were fighting their way out of a system and they paved a way for the really good writers, let sunlight into gloomy glades to encourage the true and rare flowers to break out.

Charnas writes well and with intelligence. Her future world whilst apparently built on the cliché of sex war very quickly undermines all assumptions by examining (as one of its many themes) the power of myth in underpinning systems of control. The world as it exists is always well realised. But what is most important is that the book is character led. World building, realistic settings, all these count for nothing if you cannot populate them with realistic characters. And that is what we have. A vicious patriarchy on the point of collapse. Sceptical men, most of whom cannot see the lies on which their society is built but who still wish to bring it down. Others with a glimmer of what the world has truly become and what it once might have been. And women, finally breaking free after centuries of the kind of oppression that is nothing less than brute slavery.

I know this has already lost a lot of people. Believe me, this is a far more realistic (in all senses) future than many I have seen. It is also a realistic present in many parts of the world. That Suzy Charnas can take this reality and weave a gripping story through it without it once feeling like a sermon is a credit to her skill as a writer and as a story-teller.

The Wizard Of Oz – L Frank Baum
A classic. Objectively it is not that well written, even for its young audience in the period it was conceived. However, it is not so much the style or craftsmanship for which it is loved as for the characters and the land of Oz itself which to begin with is not so very different from the real world, except it is imbued with the kind of things a child imagines. In that respect it is a great step forward in terms of when it was written. It is certainly much lighter than the film which played fast and loose with the story and its details.

The basic story is too well known to recount and for a long time, Baum resisted writing more. In the end he wrote fourteen Oz books (and there were others after his death). Thanks to the wizardry of electronics, I now have all fourteen and will have great fun reading them all – because that is what they are about. Fun. There may be moral messages in there, but they don’t get in the way of the story.

The Marvellous Land Of Oz – L Frank Baum
An altogether more sophisticated book, perhaps aimed at those readers who had read the first one and had since, of course, grown up a bit. Not only is the language more sophisticated, the story is also more complex. There are also hints of the social questions that were being asked at the time of publication, particularly with regard to women’s rights. Another fun read.

Ozma Of Oz – L Frank Baum
Although perhaps nowehere close to the sophistication of modern children’s books in tackling issues, for its day this was quite advanced. Baum never put issues at the centre of his stories, they were fun entertainments, but they were there for readers to pick up on. On top of this, Baum is wonderfully inventive.

Orlando – Virginia Woolf
I had forgotten how funny this book is. Dry, mocking in a gentle way its own pretensions (or those of biographers – especially of writers), and with wonderfully witty observations of people and life. I had also forgotten just how good the writing is. I knew it was good, it is one of my favourite books, but the final chapter in particular flows with such ease, you know just how much hard work went into it.

The importance of the work lies in its treatment of gender and its view of the world from a woman’s point of view with all the conflicting pressures laid upon one because of gender and status. Although not the first to do this (see Dorothy Richardson), Woolf does so with a light touch that makes the work highly accessible. At the same time, it contains many layers of meaning and reference that repay the reader who revisits. And although not often cited as such, this is a fine example of literary magic realism, fulifilling all the criteria since set out as defining that form of writing.

A Study In Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In some respects this is a dog’s dinner of a book. It breaks off half way through and suddenly presents chapters of detailed backstory that are, in many ways irrelevant to the story. It’s almost as if Conan Doyle wrote his tale and came up short 15000 words. But then, this is the first outing for Sherlock Holmes and despite the odd structure, the tale rattles along in friendly fashion and with an authorial awareness of the form and the competition.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book these days (and I have read it a number of times) is how one’s image of the original stories is coloured by later film and television portrayals. A lot has transferred, much hasn’t, and plenty that has appeared on screen has little to do with the originals which, when all is said and done, are rather wonderful tales with superb characters at their heart.

The Sign Of Four – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
An altogether more sophisticated outing for Sherlock Holmes and one that is much better written. To modern sensibilities, the long explanations at the end can seem a little overdone, but that is how it was done in those days. Nowadays an editor would blue pencil most of that and tell you to work into the text, but Conan Doyle creates a wonderful atmosphere so that, in a sense, you get two stories for the price of one. Because whilst the book initially concentrates on the solving of a mystery and subsequent crime – showcasing Sherlock Holmes – we are then presented with the story of the villain of the piece and the story suddenly goes from black & white to a much more complex level of story-telling. At the heart of this is a man who, once forced into making a pledge to save his life, stays true to that pledge as he sees it. Indeed, the one-legged man becomes by far the most interesting character as Homes and Watson have yet to develop.

The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
It is in the short stories that we finally see the characters being given a chance to breathe. Although Watson stays very much in the background (and the stories are out of chronological order), we get to see very much more of the character of Holmes than was presented in the novels. In those, he was shown as he tends to consider himself – a problem solving machine that uses logic applied to fact. The short stories, however, revolve around character. Most of the puzzles, even if intriguing, are slight. Around them we have a parade of representatives of various late Victorian social classes bumping up against a Holmes who becomes ever more interesting the more we learn of him. Because we do learn more – his habits, his prejudices, his compassion (which he would probably deny), and the things which drive him.