Wednesday 29 October 2014

Three books

'The First Century After Beatrice' by Amin Maalouf was one from my TBR Pile Challenge. I bought it on the spur of the moment quite a long time ago after reading a glowing review, but I was not as absorbed by it as I had anticipated. It charts the story of a man and his daughter against the background of the emergence of a 'substance' that promotes the conception of boys and its impact on the planet, so there is a lot of politics and social commentary. I found its dividing of the world into the affluent developed 'North' and poverty stricken underdeveloped 'South' a little dated, as if they are homogenous blocks with no differentiation of societies, economies, cultures and environments. This was such a big stumbling block for me that I found myself criticising everything about the way that he described the crisis and its consequences and aftermath. I'm kind of sorry because I think the idea had potential but he ended up trying to do too much with the story. I enjoyed it more for the relationships between the members of the family and how it played out over time. The character of the 'wife' Clarence interested me the most but her journalism took her away from the story so much I did not get to see enough of her and she played second place in his life to Beatrice.

One brief quote, nothing to do with style, just one that I thought made the point well:
" You sometimes imagine that with so many newspapers, radios, TV channels, you're going to hear an infinite number of different opinions. Then you discover that it's just the opposite: the power of these means of communication only amplifies the dominant opinions of the time, to the point when it becomes impossible to hear any other bell ringing." (p.104)

'The Secret of Lost Things' by Sheridan Hay was another that I read about and bought, but much more recently. In this book a young girl called Rosemary, upon the untimely death of her mother, finds herself thrust into the surreal world of an obscure New York second hand bookshop called the Arcade. It is populated by the most incredible cast of misfits and oddballs, united I felt by the fact that they are all rather self-absorbed. Alone in the world she befriends Lillian, the concierge at the crappy hotel she lives in, and the glamorous Pearl, the transsexual who works the cash register. She becomes obsessed with the elusive (and unobtainable) Oscar and forms a bond with him as they begin researching the possibility of a lost Herman Melville manuscript. Meanwhile the weird shop manager Walter Geist has developed an obsession with Rosemary, and seeks to involve her in his plans to obtain the manuscript. It is as if the whole book takes place in some kind of alternate universe or time warp; everyone is obsessed with books, either reading, or collecting, or, in the case of Arthur, looking at the pictures (mainly of naked men). I am not sure that as a group they are very good role models for literary involvement as it has become a rather unhealthy habit all round. But I still wanted Rosemary's life; it is romantic and bohemian, and nothing at all like working in a real bookshop I'm sure. 

Lots of quotes, because I loved this book, and it is all about the characters, with the Arcade a character in its own right:
"As well, a number of the Arcade's employees had rather dramatic aspirations. They were variously failed writers, poets, musicians, singers, and were marked with the clerkish frustration of the unacknowledged, the unpublished. The Arcade's thousands of volumes mocked, in particular, literary aspirations. The out-of-print status of most of the stock was further proof of the futile dream of publication. As a monument to literature, the Arcade had an air of the tombstone about it." (p.37)

This second one reminded me of the Susan Hill quote about literary DNA, I like quotes about reading:
"The books housed on one's first adult bookshelf are the geological bed of who we wish to become. And when I think of my few acquisitions, I have to admit how fiercely the autodidact struggles for her education, and how incomplete the education remains. How illusory is any accumulation of knowledge!" (p.106)

" 'Well, a bookstore, but also a reliquary for the bones of strange creatures. Mermaids' tails, unicorn heads ... that sort of thing. You're looking at natural history in this place.'
He swivelled his big head around.
'The books act to filter out the normal. The real. And we've changed shape in the isolation, like specimens from the Galapagos. We're isolates ... islands in an island, like the island you came from ...'
'Stop Arthur, you are peculiar,' I told him, impatient with not following his point, with his rambling.
'Exactly so. You've concluded my argument for me. I've no choice but to be peculiar.' " (p.117)

Lovely contrast between two of the characters:
"Metcalf was probably close in age to Geist, but preserved to a kind of specimen-like perfection. The cashmere turtleneck clung to his trim form, which was dressed completely in black: it would have been easy to confuse his shadow with his actual self.
A more striking contrast in figures could not be imagined, unless it was Geist's and mine. Metcalf appeared a man at once attenuated and condensed; Walter Geist, simply the spectre of one." (p.158)

Last one, again a nice contrast, but here in places not people:
"It was clean and orderly. The architecture - concrete, glass and steel - was aloof and spacious. The interior lights were bright; every aspect the antithesis of the Arcade. I knew books to be objects that loved to cluster and form disordered piles, but here books seemed robbed of their zany capacity to fall about, to conspire. In the library, books behaved themselves." (p.183)

A wonderful book, not much action but plenty of literary intrigue and references. I have shied away from the idea that a whole story can be peopled by outrageous characters, but why not?

'Everything I Found on the Beach' by Cynan Jones. One of the events I volunteered at for the Manchester Literature Festival this year was an evening with Evie Wyld and Cynan Jones. I have reviewed both of Evie's books (here and here ) and requested this from the library on the strength of the reading. He read a long passage from his novel The Dig, which is about a badger baiter. It was graphic and profoundly disturbing and I have no desire to read the book, but the intensity of the writing made quite an impact. This book has some harsh moments in it, it is very dark, but I could not look away. It follows two men, Grzegorz, a polish immigrant working in a slaughter house and struggling to make a new life for himself and his family, and Holden, a young fisherman, dealing with the death of a friend and the responsibilities it has laid upon him. It is a short book, only 200 or so pages, and the tale all takes place within a very short space of time, and we follow in detail the thoughts, decisions and actions of the two as they react to an unexpected opportunity. Then we are introduced to a third man, part of the criminal underclass, and watch as he coldly plans the consequences of their choices. The story was very much outside my usual reading matter but it was completely absorbing. The writing takes you right inside the heads of all three men, understanding their intentions and motivations, even when the choices they make are alien. I anticipated the outcome somewhat but it did not take away from my involvement because by that time I was so emotionally engaged with Holden. The atmosphere of the book is quite bleak and even hopeless. The men are quite powerless to control their own lives, and you sense their intense frustration; they can feel themselves drowning and the events are a last ditch fight for their lives before they go under. 

Two quotes, taken almost at random because so much of the book would be worth quoting. They contrast the two men; Grzegorz with his sense of dislocation, trying to make a new life but missing the old, and Holden with his strong sense of belonging where he is:

"The boy stared. Grzegorz thought his son must have some faint memory of the big farm table, the low ceiling. Of the warm milky smell of the soft old woman that was being blurred in his mind amongst the matrons of this house, was turning into nothing more than a suspicion that he once know someone special. Poland would be a strange thing to him, a distant awareness that would perhaps fade and become nothing more than a historical fact as he grew. With all the Polish around him, nothing had really changed. But there was no place of focus for the boy now, and, looking at him, Grzegorz felt the boy would always carry this sense of having been removed from something and that he would never understand it." (p.18)

"A few fields over he could hear the bleats of the newly turned out lambs, calling for their mothers in the night, and the maternal patience in the answering mearghhs. The bad rain had kept off and it had been a good year for the lambs so far as the wet on their backs could bring them down very quickly. Somewhere, the plaintive call of a fox.
He knew this place well now. The field he was in was not farmed hard and it was scattered with stands of blackthorn and gorse, and sprawling piles of brambles. Everything had a bonsai quality to it, a denseness brought on by the constant, stunting grazing, the tough salt wind." (p.71)

A small book, but very densely written, even when 'nothing' is happening there is a lot going on; you certainly get your money's worth.

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