Archive for April 19th, 2009

Mid-April Reading Notes: Tey and Collins

April 19, 2009 @ 8:18 pm | Filed under:

Well, it hasn’t all been Nick Hornby this month. Last week I read two of the books from my March TBR stack and both of them were the kind of book you fall into headfirst and feel dazed when, hours later, you come up for air. That’s about the only thing they have in common. The first was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. I bought a copy last year when Jane was reading a lot of books from the Ambleside Year 7 list. We don’t “do” Ambleside but we mine those booklists for all we’re worth. (Thanks again, women-behind-Ambleside, for putting treasure in our path once more.)

Jane has probably read Daughter of Time half a dozen times in the past year. Now I see why. I’m enormously impressed that Tey was able to pull off having a mystery novel take place entirely in one room—in one hospital bed, really—and have the mystery revolve around a five-hundred-year-old bit of English history, and wind up with not one millisecond of dull moment in the whole book. That’s quite a feat.

It’s hard to say anything about this book, and how fascinating it was, without giving things away. I think I can safely say this much: the novel is about a Scotland Yard policeman, Alan Grant, who is convalescing from a serious back injury after an on-the-job fall. He’s bored and irritable, and his actress friend—aware of his interest in faces as revealers of character—brings him a stack of portraits of historical figures connected with mysteries of one kind and another. Grant’s attention is captured by a portrait of Richard III—you can see the very one here—whose serious and sensitive expression does not gel with Grant’s understanding of the man as a monster who ordered the murder of his nephews to secure his own place on the throne. Despite being stuck flat on his back, subject to the ministrations of businesslike nurses, Grant-the-policeman opens an investigation, as it were. He wants to know the facts behind the case against Richard III.

Have I said too much? I hope not. The real magic of this novel is the gradual unraveling of the ancient mystery, the poking through old letters and town records to get at the truth. (Grant ropes in a volunteer to do the leg work, and here I felt a sharp stab of deja vu, because that’s exactly how I managed the research for Little House in the Highlands. Jane was stuck in the hospital, getting chemo, and I had a researcher in Edinburgh who would take my daily battery of questions and go look up the answers for me, and then she’d send me sheaves of articles and impenetrable scholarly documents to pore through at night beside my baby’s hospital bed. So Grant’s fascination, his obsession really, rang very true to me. There’s nothing like a treasure hunt to get you through long days and nights in a hospital.)

About the mystery (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers)—did we all know this already? I was blown away by the revealed truth. But then, everything I knew about Richard III I learned from Shakespeare, and now I realize Shakespeare got the Tudor-approved version of the story. Not that Shakespeare was ever particularly interested in accuracy. He was after compelling drama, and that he certainly succeeded in creating with his version of Richard III.

After Daughter of Time, I turned to Suzanne Collins’s recent YA thriller The Hunger Games. Wow. Going just on its premise, I wasn’t sure I would be recommending it to Jane, but by the end of the book I was as eager for her to read it as she’d been for me to pick up Daughter of Time. I’m thinking it’s too dark for my sensitive Rose, at this point (she’s only ten anyway; not exactly the YA audience).

All the kidlit bloggers were raving about Hunger Games this past year, but I didn’t read any of the reviews. You know how I feel about spoilers. What I gathered from skimming past was that it was grim and gripping and well written, and that it was about (click away right now if you don’t want to know) a future dystopia whose government hosts mandatory annual ‘games’ in which 24 teenagers (chosen by lottery) must fight to the death. As if that weren’t chilling enough, every moment (as the publisher’s website blinks at us in creepy TV-static text) is televised. So, yes, as you’re fighting for your life in a wilderness arena, liable to fall victim to starvation, dehydration, wildfire, wild beasts, or treacherous terrain if your teenage competitors don’t brain you first, your family back home is watching. Grim is too weak a word.

But it was great storytelling and, in these days of creeping privacy erosion and reality-show entertainments, there is much food for thought in this novel. Jane and I (and Scott read it too) have been discussing it for days. The ending leaves you hanging a bit, just a warning. I figure if you’re still reading this post, you’re the kind of reader who appreciates a warning.

I believe The Hunger Games is being made into a movie, and if I have any complaints about the book, it’s only that it felt self-consciously cinematic, as if the author were keenly aware as she wrote that the story was a shoo-in for film adaptation. But I want to say (to myself) that that supposition is actually a too-shallow reading of the cinematic quality: the self-consciousness is part of the point. The heroine knows she is being filmed, knows her reactions to arena events will affect her audience in certain ways and will in fact have a material affect on her own situation. If her anonymous sponsors like what she’s doing, they may choose to send her food or supplies. Her fight for survival, therefore, happens on two levels. She must literally fight her opponents in the arena, but she must also fight her fears and fatigue and desire for privacy and even, sometimes, her sense of honor and decency, in order to turn in the right sort of performance, because her life depends as much on audience approval as anything else. This is complicated stuff, and it’s part of what makes the book so powerful.

So: highly recommended, but, you know, with caveats for the very young or very sensitive. After all, it’s kids killing kids because their government makes them do so. Not exactly the stuff of which bedtime stories are made.

Housekeeping vs. Sludge

April 19, 2009 @ 2:11 pm | Filed under:

“I have always prized the accessible over the obscure, but after reading Housekeeping [by Marilynne Robinson] I can see that in some ways the easy, accessible novel is working at a disadvantage (not that Housekeeping is inaccessible, but it is deep and dark and rich): it’s possible to whiz through it without allowing it even to touch the sides, and a bit of side-touching has to happen if a book is going to be properly transformative. If you are so gripped by a book that you want to read it in the mythical single sitting, what chance has it got of making it all the way through the long march to your soul? It’ll get flushed out by something else before it’s even halfway there. The trouble is that most literary novels don’t do anything but touch the sides. They stick to them like sludge, and in the end you have to get the garden hose out. (I have no idea what that might mean. But I had to escape from the metaphor somehow.)”

—Nick Hornby, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt