rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Read August 8th. Author via [personal profile] coffeeandink.

Gorgeous, delicious noir which both upholds the conventions of the genre perfectly and is quietly subversive on questions such as who has agency in the story. The prose is amazing.

This novel is based on a real murder which made the tabloids in 1931, one of those crimes which became a nationwide scandal but has by our day faded into the background for everyone except those who encounter it in an academic context. In 1930, Marion Seeley, twenty-one, doctor's wife, finds herself alone in Phoenix, Arizona working at a tuberculosis clinic. Her drug addict husband, de-licensed, has gone to Mexico to work as a mining company doctor, his last desperate hope at cleaning up and making some money so they can have a life together. Marion, by herself in the big city, is taken under the wing of one of the other nurses at the clinic, Louise; Louise is supporting a tubercular roommate, Ginny, and the two of them hold parties which are attended by all the wealthy men of the city. Sex and liquor and drugs flow freely, and at one of the parties Marion, an innocent abroad, meets one of the town's most influential businessmen, and falls instantly into lust for him.

The core of the book is the quadrangle formed by the three women and this (inevitably married) man: the women bound to him by economics and desperation, because they could maybe make rent and food on their salaries, but not medicine, and not parties, nothing that might be fun for girls in their early twenties who know they are one step away from homelessness and will do anything not only not to take that step, but to forget it for a little while; the women, bound to each other by friendship and love and the sexual currents between them that cannot be openly spoken about (even when acted on); the man who is not worth a smudge on one of their shoes, and who is rich beyond counting, and who doesn't think he's bound to anyone by anything.

It goes badly. It does not go badly in any of the ways one might instantly expect it to go badly, given the setup. It is worse. You need a certain gore tolerance, for this book, with its beautiful, nightmarish descriptions.

The thing that's amazing is that you never lose sympathy for Marion, Marion who starts as unforgivably naive, a girl who can't believe what's going on around her, and who at first is only having what comes naturally, an affair that fills her life with fire, something to look back on when she's old. But it slips beyond that and beyond that and beyond that, until even she doesn't know where the line ought to have been drawn, only that it ought to have. There is no line, that's the problem, it all feels inevitable although it can't have been; the important thing, though, is that there is a point where Marion looks around and says to herself, I am still here, I will still be here, and no one can take me from me, and that's a moment I can't recall ever seeing in noir before, film or novel. For a woman. In the movies they'd have made one of these women into a femme fatale. God knows the tabloids did. Of course, scratch the surface of the femme fatale and you find a woman who'd like to get off her feet, get off the street, and get her rent paid for the next six months solid. This book knows that.

There's a section at the end, after the novel proper, where the author tells you about the real murder, and what the newspaper coverage of it was like, and what we can and cannot know about it, and what she has done to extrapolate. It's a fascinating and sensitive reflection on what it means to be writing about other people's real, though historical, pain. I wish more novels based-on-a-true-story had sections like it.

I am also not going to get over the prose of this anytime soon. It's an amazing combination of hard-boiled, rhythmic, and sensual, the lushness of one of those thirties movie boudoirs turned mean (not that those rooms weren't vicious already). It's the sort of language that makes me want to read the entire thing aloud, except that for content reasons I really don't. I highly, highly recommend this.
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When I walk into a new library, where I have not been before, usually I go to the card catalog and poke around a little, to see if it is a good and thorough library, or at least one with unexpected erudite corners. There are a handful of authors and works I use for this, because only good libraries have them: Lucy Boston's adult work, Sylvia Townsend Warner's letters, the correct three novels by Elizabeth Goudge. (All the books that make me happy that I can't afford: Goudge's Valley of Song starts at fifty on abebooks and only goes up.)

And of course Naomi Mitchison. Who wrote so many books, of which so few are findable; just about everywhere has The Corn King and the Spring Queen, and Small Beer very kindly recently reprinted Travel Light, but we are speaking here of a writer whose first book was published in 1923 and whose last in 1998, whose full bibliography is more than ninety titles. Of which, given my general lack of finance, I have despite inveterate library and used-bookstore scrounging managed to read-- not own but read-- five, counting the one tonight. It is intolerable, because every single one I have read has been a treasure. The library in town here has no Mitchison at all, but the university library has, bless them, three, so I've two more to look forward to. Therefore it is down in my books as a good library and nothing can change that.

Now the thing about Mitchison is that she is, somehow, beyond or outside of time. I don't know how. The Delicate Fire was first published in 1933, and there are precisely two other books it reminds me of, in tone and in nature, and they are Ursula Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) and Laurie Marks' Fire Logic (2003). Mitchison has that nature to her, where she reads as though she were, even now, writing this very minute, or tomorrow.

This is not one of the things she did in fantasy or science fiction directions; it is a collection of historical short stories and poetry. The poetry is sadly mostly negligible, although there are a few turns of phrase that make me blink and look at it again, and the couple of things that are narrative and poetry both are amazing. The fiction is arranged chronologically according to when it is set, beginning in ancient Greece and moving through the Vikings.

The title piece is a delicate novella set in Mytilene, on Lesbos, during a summer one young girl spends there before being married; and we gradually realize that this girl's mother had a history with the poet, Sappho, when they were girls together. It's a piece that works by indirection and physical detail and then hits you with the poetry right between the eyes, with the specific moments that must have gone into the poetry, figs and orchards and ocean and wedding songs and mud.

But the center of the book, the interlinked stories that together make a novel (it is novel-length) follow several people who were citizens of the city of Mantinea, when it was sacked, and the men were sold north to Macedonia and the women sold to the Macedonian settlers of the town. The couple at the center of it, Aglaos and Kleta, are fairly newly married, deeply in love, and it is a hard parting: they vow, of course, to return to one another, with their child, and Kleta's brother, and remake their family. But there is a lot of blood and time and pain and ocean in the way of that.

This ought to be depressing, and it ought to be unbelievable, and it is neither; both kindness and cruelty are sufficiently unexpected. It is Kleta I am most amazed by, because even nowadays people do not write women this way, Kleta who will do what she has to do and bear the children she has to bear and find, somewhere, the kind of strength no one ever really recognizes but herself, but she knows her own power. Kleta is so amazing, I cannot get over it. Certainly you can see Mitchison's politics in this work, if you are looking for them, certainly you can say it's not gritty enough or too gritty or anything like that, but for me it walks a perfect transcendent line between real pain and real grace. There is a moment here where two people fall in love, and it was both precisely the best possible thing and precisely the worst possible thing for both of them, at the same time, and writers are always trying to do that in fiction, but I think this may be the best I've seen it done.

Ah hell, this is Naomi Mitchison, I don't know why I'm trying to review her, that writer I am so glad I came to as an adult because if I had met her as a child I would have tried to write like her instead of like myself. There are books and writers who are good and great, and then there are the ones who are enduring comfort, enduring certainty that fiction can do what one always wants it to, the things it almost never does do. I cannot make her sound as truly new and different and quietly explosive as she is. I only hope that someday the rest of us can catch up to some of the things that she did in the thirties.

Because I can: have some of her narrative poetry. )
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Apparently it is World Book Day. There's been a meme going round in honor of that; here it is.

The book I am currently reading: today's will be below.
The books I am currently writing: this currently untitled collection of book reviews; the book on shoujo and josei anime and manga with Thrud and the household, tentatively titled Shoujo Revolution; Altarwise by Owl-Light, the three-quarters-done novel which is kind of what you get if you put some Dylan Thomas poems and Machiavelli's play Mandragora in a blender with bits of Final Fantasy VII, except not.
The book I love most: there is no most. There are too many. And anyway it would only change.
The last book I received as a gift: the pocket edition of Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia.
The last book I gave as a gift: Joanna Russ's To Write Like A Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction.
The nearest book on my desk: I have no desk. The hearthrow-shelf books are tied as to what's closest to me-- I think the principal contenders are The Collected Poems of Amy Clampitt, John Banville's The Infinities, C.J. Cherryh's Rimrunners, and John Bellairs' The Curse of the Blue Figurine.

Nightwatching is one of Peter Greenaway's films; this is the published script. Unusually for a film script, it has no images except that of the painting it's centered around, a painting probably Rembrandt's most famous and certainly one of his most confusing.

Greenaway in recent years has developed something of an obsession with artists, history, and conspiracy. One of the books I read very early for this project was his Rosa, which is one of ten opera libretti he wrote in the nineties about the deaths of composers. The composers were fictional, but he seems to have moved on to real paintings and painters, as for the last few years he's been doing a video installation series called Nine Classical Paintings Revisited, of which this is the first.

The best way I can describe this is that it's a film that attempts to make a context by which one can read the painting as a murder mystery. It's a depiction of the time in Rembrandt's life surrounding the act of painting the picture, a turbulent and grief-ridden time including the death of his wife, and it builds a portrait of the members of the Amsterdam militia as a set of profiteers and swindlers who set up a killing for money and then can't make Rembrandt stop painting about it (because, by that point, what does he care). Greenaway says in the preface that he's stuck to verifiable facts wherever possible but that the shaping of them is his own, that this is meant to be a conspiracy theory as with those about the Kennedy assassination and at the same time a plausible overturning of an artwork, as with the anti-monarchical theories around Velasquez's Las Meninas.

Being a film script intended as an actual shooting guide, it doesn't have much in the way of character interpretation: one sees these people from the outside. But it's got a lot of set-dressing and a lot of color, physical description, and this serves well, especially because all the paintings that are meant to be referenced in the film shots are tagged for you, which would not happen watching the actual cinema. I want to see it. I don't believe a word of it, but it's a good movie to read, and it catches something about seventeenth-century Holland, a time which could contrast an incredible roistering bawdiness with the gentle delicacy of Vermeer's light.

And it's a clever story, a well-balanced story, with a man at the heart of it who's sympathetic despite himself because of a believably clutching grief. I'd like to see this film. Unlike Rosa, which was intended to be in the medium it presents itself in, this is the translation of one art into another art (into a third, if you take the painting as the original), and therefore, while moving, probably better seen than read. See it, I'd say, and then use the script to footnote. I suspect I've got it the wrong way around, though I don't think it should hurt the movie, when I get there.
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Recommended and made available to me by B. and consequently while the internet tells me that there was probably a U.S. edition, and I am certain of a British edition, this copy is from Peshawar. B. suggested this book strongly enough that I tried to find a U.S. copy and had no luck. Just to mention that at the start.

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22 (oh dear, sorry, wrong book, ahem:) Mohammed Hanif's first and so far only novel is a fictionalized version of events surrounding the (entirely real) plane crash which killed the then President of Pakistan Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, and several generals in August 1988. B. described it as a mystery novel, the blurb is by John le Carré, the back calls it a black comedy and biting satire and I could add several other genres to that list except that even to mention several of them would critically spoil the plot.

One thread of the novel is on the level of international affairs: looks inside the head of Zia, his bodyguard, his generals, his wife. This thread is comedy so black it occasionally comes around the other side and starts being funny because it's so insistently not funny at all; the problem is that much of it is quite believable and if the world actually works this way we are probably all doomed, which is what makes the book genuinely hilarious. You laugh that you may not hurt your head from face-palming. It's kind of amazing that twenty years is sufficient statute of limitations for a satire this vicious, except that from everything I've heard somebody had to do it.

The other thread follows Ali Shigri, a young officer in the Pakistani Air Force whose much more illustrious military father's suicide was recently staged by upper government officials. Shigri is in no particular order competent, intelligent, bitter, cynical, funny, about six times as naive as he thinks he is, desperately in love, obsessively grieving, and in entirely over his head. His first person narration gives the book its heart and is almost noirish, except with more being beaten up and thrown into prison by one's superior officers than usual. He provides the focus for the ridiculous number of plots swirling about, as of course the question is not whether anyone staged the plane crash, but who it might have been. And what they were thinking, and whether any of this was remotely intentional. Shigri is that rare thing in a noir or a satire, a hero who can rise to actual tragedy; his hatred of God is the most optimistic thing about the book and every time we see it it is genuinely cheering.

If looked at objectively, this ought to be the most depressing book I've read all year, but I mean it when I say it is funny-- laugh-out-loud funny, on multiple occasions-- and it's just too good to be depressing. The plotting's too good, the characters are too good, the ironies of history and the ironies of fate and the ironies that are the author smiling at you from behind his meta and saying now, really, what were you expecting? and proceeding with, if there is such a thing, the opposite of eucatastrophe, one truly, truly epic fuck-up. This book is a child of Heller and Orwell, by way of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and though I will not claim greatness for it, it has learned some lessons from its parents. Among which is to be genuinely enjoyable, so that the audience doesn't run away immediately. And I like it better than Catch-22, which is sometimes gratuitously nasty, whereas this one is never gratuitous.

This has the feel of an authorial one-off, one of those books where the writer may well have said (fully and successfully) what he had to say. But if Hanif writes another novel I will be very interested, and I recommend this one, to those who have an extremely high tolerance for cynicism.
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Recommended by [profile] domficfan. This is the third of the Erast Fandorin series of mystery novels, and the library has not as yet consented to cough up the first two, so I decided to start here, and indeed it is quite possible to start with this book.

So the awesome things about this are twofold: Erast Fandorin, our detective; and the setting. The setting is Bulgaria in 1877, in the middle of the Russo-Turkish War. Erast Fandorin is an occasional policeman, occasional soldier, occasional diplomat, and one of those quietly understatedly competent people who actually run things. Amazingly enough, he isn't annoying, either. And I cannot overemphasize the interest of the setting. It's not a war I know much about, but it's a fascinating mixture of medieval and modern tech, everyone getting everywhere on trains but still fighting occasional bandits in the backcountry, discussing people one generation back who were kidnapped by pirates in parts of the Mediterranean, getting all the Paris papers every morning off the telegraph.

The mystery plot, on the other hand, might literally have been written by Agatha Christie. It's exactly the way she thinks. It's a perfectly competent mystery plot, with the usual high treason and murder, and it lends an odd air of cognitive dissonance because this was not, necessarily, where one was expecting to see it. I think it works. Maybe? Serious cognitive dissonance! It's like Agatha Christie started writing Dorothy Dunnett and it takes a bit of work to get my head around. Actually, the previous sentence summarizes fairly well both what I liked and what I didn't about this book.

I am also decidedly unsure about the young female narrator who is clearly a character specific to this particular novel, as there are ways in which she is very young and ways in which she is very culture-bound; and this means I cannot actually tell whether I am annoyed about how Akunin portrays women as I must go find another woman portrayed by Akunin to see whether that one is any different. At any rate, there is only one woman in this book, though, given the setting, that makes some sense. And she doesn't do that much, but she is also clearly one of those people designed, by their own basic natures, not to do that much. I need a larger sample size. I shall probably go back and try to find one of the first two books, as in fact one does not find out much about them from this-- things I think must have been in there are alluded to, but not described in detail. This works as a stand-alone despite being the third in a thirteen-book series.

The translation, by Andrew Bromfield, is perfectly workmanlike.

I note also that there have been Russian films of the first three books and an English-language film of the first due anytime now, and I may have to hunt those down whether I decide I really like these or not, as I cannot imagine a book more suited to make a very interesting movie. It is entirely possible I'd like a movie better than the book. It would rather depend on who played Erast Fandorin.
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Lo these several years ago, when I was at college, I picked up a book by an author previously unknown to me, but who had recently gotten a great deal of critical attention. The book was wonderful, and the author turned out to be Michael Chabon.

But, because I have something of an occasionally voluntary curse that whatever I first pick up by an author will be, inevitably, their least known book, the Chabon I read was Summerland, which is the one nobody ever talks about. It's great-- a strong fantasy YA about fairies and baseball, and I can't imagine why it seems to fall out of lists of his novels. And I bounced so hard off The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay that I saw stars, could not make it fifty pages into that book, and that was my previous experience with Chabon.

Then I heard about this one. The working title of this book was 'Jews With Swords', and it reminds me greatly, in several ways, of The Princess Bride, only with Khazars, which is cooler than The Princess Bride ever got. It's an utterly charming slightly sardonic swashbuckler set in a region of the world and historical period nobody writes about much, suitable for fans of Milorad Pavic's Dictionary of the Khazars and Naomi Mitchison's Travel Light (which it reminds me of oddly) and, say, Captain Blood, only with more worrying about how to make a minyan in the middle of nowhere. Extremely fun voice.

"It was remarked by one of the eminent physician-rabbis of the city of Regensburg, in his commentary on the Book of Samuel, a work now lost but quoted in the responsa of Rabbi Judah the Pious, that apart from Torah the only subject truly worthy of study is the science of saving men's lives. Measured by the criterion of this teaching-- propounded by his grandfather-- Zelikman counted two great scholars among his present acquaintance, and one of them was a horse."

I wish this book were about four times longer. Also, it is slashy as all get out. I like it even better than Summerland, which is difficult. Maybe I should try one of his Big Serious Novels again.
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Oh dear. I appear to have miscounted somewhere, but I can't figure out where. I have entries that entirely cover the segment I was offline, except for the last day of it, but I also have two books left that I read to review, not counting the one I read this morning, and I didn't read them on the same day. I took notes! What the hell?

Anyway, yesterday I read Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander, and at some point that cannot, logically, have been yesterday, and cannot, logically, have been at any other time I read the Sarashina Nikki, and as I clearly read these books on alternate-universe versions of the same evening I have decided to review them in terms of one another. )


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