Monthly Archives: June 2012

To read (?): James Tully’s The Crimes of Charlotte Bronte

That question mark says it all. This week’s Follow Friday is a bit backwards. Posted on a Saturday, it’s a book which I feel a terrible compulsion to read. I feel like I’m in a horror film. I know it’s there. I know it’s bad. But I’m still following the sound of the creaking floorboard, calling out ‘Who’s there?’, turning on the light to find the mangled corpse of literature with a knife deep in its lifeless body.

Which is a fitting analogy, as this novel is apparently all about how the Brontes were stabbing each other in the back. Kaite Welsh’s review on the For Books Sake blog of the offending work of slash bio fic/Bioslash/fanbio/[all of these sound like cleaning agents rather than genres now anyway] is hilarious.

As well as being a tale of Arthur Bell Nicholls And His Magical Novel-Writing Penis, it is also a chilling horror story about the terrible things women do to each other when they’re stuck in the wilds of Yorkshire with nothing to do but write works of classic literature.

I know I shouldn’t…but it makes me kind of want to go there…

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Mid-week Treat: Ward Shelley’s History of Science Fiction

Sci-fi fans! Art fans! Infographic fans! Nice thing fans! Here is a treat for you this Friday. This has already done the rounds on the internet, and I actually came across it when doing my dissertation in genre fiction, but I submit it here for your consideration (and also as I am considering treating myself to a print, which you can buy here if you’re similarly weak-willed).

The History of Science Fiction

Click on the image for full size.

Here are some of my favourite bits:

1. James Hogg getting props – Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a brilliant, dark novel that makes great use of the doppelganger, and is in many ways an excellent 19th century Twilight Zone. I only learned about it through a Scottish Lit course and I wish more people were introduced to it – in my opinion way better than Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The creepy doppelganger section

2. Genre Holes. There’s something strangely satisfying about seeing these tentacles slithering off into another genre, without actually suggesting there’s a definitive line between them.

Holes

3. Panic! As things get more modern and the sci-fi genre gets more complex, Shelley’s obviously had his work cut out for him. Rather than leave things out to look tidy, he crams it all in there!

Panic!

Above all, the flowing lines make genre very clearly a dialogue and a nebulous concept, rather than something fixed and formulaic.

Lovely stuff!

To read: Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding

Kind of a different Follow Friday, once a week I’m going to try to put a book review that’s inspired me to stick something on my to-read list.

This week, it’s Tom Cox’s Guardian review of The Member of the Wedding. I have really vague memories of picking this up at the library about 10 years ago and then never getting very far with it, but The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my all-time favourite novels so I think it’s about time I gave her other work a look – there are only four novels so it’s fair enough to ration them a little…

I dunno, people kind of roll their eyes at literary crushes on Carson McCullers these days, but man it is so easy!

Carson McCullers

 

 

Review: An Ice Cream War by William Boyd

Having only read Any Human Heart before, and loved it, I was surprised by the tone of An Ice Cream War, which takes a comic and vaguely satirical look at the First World War as waged on its African borders, while also making a poignant comment on the arbitrary and often devastating effect of larger political and societal changes.

The book follows three main characters – Walter Smith, who finds his farm near Mount Kilimanjaro is one of the first casualties of war, commandeered and burned by his apparently affable neighbour Erich von Bishop. Walter signs up with the British Army for revenge, and four years of total chaos ensue. Felix Cobb is an earnest Oxford student, champagne socialist and greatest of disappointments to his military father. When his strapping brother Gabriel abandons his honeymoon to sign up and is posted to Africa, Felix develops a strange and dangerous closeness with his sister-in-law. As for Gabriel –relieved of the curious and unfamiliar pressures of his new marriage, he finds himself similarly unsuited to the poorly-managed combat and soon becomes a prisoner of war, tended by none other than von Bishop’s buxom wife, Liesl, with whom he becomes obsessed in a way that he has never felt with his wife.

Crossed paths and missed connections seem to be the motif in this novel, both between individuals, whose relationships are never quite what they could have been, and in the war itself, which is shown as a farcical endeavour run by almost comically incompetent leaders. But it avoids Oh! What a Lovely War! territory with touching humane insights, whether that is Smith’s despair at losing his precious decorticator, or the devastating results of Felix’s quest to find his brother.

Sometimes felt a bit slow going, but I think that was in part due to the confused and frustrating nature of the war Boyd is writing about. I wasn’t nearly as interested in Walter as I was in Felix and Gabriel, and to an extent it seems like Boyd felt the same, as Walter fades out towards the latter half. And for the stunning moments that are also in this novel, it’s completely worth it.

Rating: 
In a tweet: War! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing nothin’ nothin’

Friday Treat: Disc-overy of the Day!

Eugh, terrible title pun, sorry. But here, here I have found an excellent guide to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, via comments on the Savidge Reads blog.

Discworld Reading Guide

I’ve kind of lost touch with the Discworld series in recent years, having once received one every Christmas and dipped in throughout the year – I think Going Postal was probably my last. Have they had their heyday? Were the old ones the best? Either way, whoever made this has done fans a great service.

Review: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

I remember the hype around this when it came out, as the first major work from Pullman after His Dark Materials and promising a similarly inflammatory reading of religion. It was available in two simple-but-beautiful editions from Canongate, suggesting a choosing of sides or an aligning of allegiance (I’d be interested to know which sold better, the black or the white. My money’s on the black).

The Good Man Jesusand the Scoundrel Christ

Anyway, when I finally settled down to read it, it was in a much less imaginatively designed paperback and on loan from a theology graduate friend who described it as ‘really disappointing’, but who also acknowledged that she has a much deeper knowledge of the Bible than your average reader and thought she might have been giving Pullman a bit of a hard time.

Not so, theology friend! For somebody who had obviously done his homework on religious literature for The Amber Spyglass, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an incredibly simplistic retelling, and I say this as somebody with a pretty limited Sunday School grasp of the Biblical stories, plus whatever you pick up in English Lit class along the way. I wasn’t offended by it in a religious sense, but I really thought it smacked of a kind of adolescent storytelling – ‘Wouldn’t it blow everybody’s minds if Jesus wasn’t one person….BUT TWO?!’. There used to be an old drunk guy who would regularly get on my bus and tell everybody ‘IF YOU SPELL LIVED BACKWARDS, YOU GET DEVIL’ and then stare at you like he’d proved an infallible conspiracy about the universe. I mean, he wasn’t wrong, but he definitely wasn’t as clever as he thought, either, smelling of Special Brew on the 143. And I feel like he and Philip Pullman have been to one too many Tennants-flavoured theology seminars.

The novel is written in a pared down style which I guess is supposed to be redolent of Biblical writing, although why people insist on suggesting that people 2,000 years ago all narrated their own inner monologues in this sparse way I have no idea. Christ is the black sheep of the family, intelligent, sensitive to moral ambiguity, and distinctly non-miraculous whereas Jesus is all impassioned earnestness and miracles. Christ becomes Jesus’s history writer, and inevitably starts to edit some of the occurrences for the sake of posterity, neatly bringing in a debate about the difference between History and Truth (and often helpfully telling you that’s what it’s doing at the same time. Just so, y’know, you don’t miss the significance). The man who encourages Christ in his endeavours is a shadowy figure (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe he’s the devil) who seems to be preparing the way for the church (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: maybe the church is bad) – an institution that Jesus himself is against (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: doesn’t that just blow your mind, man?). We all know how the story is going to end, and surprise surprise, Judas and Christ are in cahoots, only it’s Christ that gets the 30 pieces of silver (SIGNIFICANCE KLAXON: exhausted).

It isn’t a bad book, not by a long shot, and for fans of Pullman it’s another bit of writing to gobble up by him. But where His Dark Materials offered some really challenging ideas with a bit of Milton thrown in, I found this to be a bit facile in comparison, and without the gimmick of the religious retelling, not a very compelling novel in its own right. I kept thinking about one of my favourite novels, The Master and Margarita, which contains a retelling of Jesus’ story through the eyes of Pontius Pilate in a much more nuanced, interesting, beautiful way. This just didn’t compete.

 Rating: 
In a tweet: Sunday school’s out for summer.

Review: Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

Mr FoxPretty much a love song to Angela Carter, Mr Fox is a tangled web of stories centred around their well-to-do author in the 1930s, St John Fox, his wife Daphne, and his ‘muse’, Mary Foxe. It’s a book that demands careful attention to get everything out of it (and I think I’m going to have to go back and read it again for this reason), but that also skips along exuberantly.

Each tale is an exploration or a play on the Bluebeard legend – the story (also taken on by Carter) of the serial wife-murderer who gives his latest wife the key to a room she’s forbidden to enter. When she does, finding the bodies of his previous victims, she seals her own fate. In Oyeyemi’s spin on the tail, Mr Fox is a serial slasher writer who can’t help but kill of the women in his stories. As half-participant, half-muse in these stories, Mary Foxe is tired of the bloodshed:

“What you’re doing is building a horrible kind of logic. People read what you write and they say, ‘Yes, he is talking about things that really happen,’ and they keep reading, and it makes sense to them. You’re explaining things that can’t be defended, and the explanations themselves are mad, just bizarre–but you offer them with such confidence. It was because she kept the chain on the door; it was because he needed to let off steam after a hard day’s scraping and bowing at work; it was because she was irritating and stupid; it was because she lied to him, made a fool of him; it was because she had to die, she just had to, it made dramatic sense; it was because ‘nothing is more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman’; it was because of this, it was because of that. It’s obscene to make such things reasonable.”

In protest against the narrative satisfaction of a dame done in and her killer’s remorse, redemption or discovery, Mary Foxe proposes a different set of stories. It’s up to the reader to discern whether it is she, Mr Fox, or later Daphne, who is the author. Characters slip in and out of reality and lapse from one story to the next, which can be a disorienting experience if you don’t a) pay attention or b) stop worrying about it. Some stories work better than others but that’s probably a question of taste: I enjoyed ‘fitcher’s bird’ for the blunt rejection of fairytale logic, ‘My Daughter the Racist’, although as that separately won a short story prize before Mr Fox’s publication, it doesn’t entirely mesh with the others, and ‘some foxes’ which was a genuinely moving end to the novel, coming full circle and creating a new myth out of the problems of male-female communication, but one that results in stilted co-operation, rather than death.

If I had a gripe about the novel, it was that Oyeyemi didn’t quite seem to do justice to the 1930s ‘meta’ storyline (maybe she was as sick of him as the women in the novel). While there is some working through of the problems in St John and Daphne’s marriage, it’s hard to see where exactly St John owns up to his responsibility for his female characters, and his total self indugence in his infatuation with Mary. Also, while the Yoruba story is really interesting, it isn’t something that a 1930s author could really write, and My Daughter the Racist, draws heavily on Western intervention in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, even if it does not mention them by name. While other stories mesh seamlessly into Mr Fox’s life, the segue is much more stilted when Oyeyemi tries to fit these anachronistic tales into his broader story. But it’s hard to see how you could reconcile this, when ultimately Mr Fox is doing service to Oyeyemi’s wider ideas about violence towards women in fiction – and its very real dangers. I also felt like sometimes Mary Foxe’s laconic demeanour actually did her a disservice – sometimes I wanted rage and fury when instead I got a sad, noir-ish drag of a cigarette and an imploring ‘Don’t look at me’. Unlike in Angela Carter’s writing, there isn’t a full working through of her ideas – Mr Fox’s misogyny is challenged, but I’m not sure it’s ever really thwarted.

That said, this is the kind of book where everything shifts on a second reading, and it’s worth at least that.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Fantastic.