January Books

A brief review of the books I read this past month, including comments on those I didn't get a chance to review at length:

1) "A Child's Book of True Crime" Chloe Hooper ***

2) "The Cyclops" Euripides **

3) "Le Grand Meaulnes" Henri Alain-Fournier ****

Luminous (do I use this word too much? It is the only word I can think of for this glowing novella of youth and love) tale of a schoolboy friendship struck up in the early years of the last century between the narrator and Meaulnes, a charismatic older boy. The heart of this very short, dreamlike work concerns the incident in which the runaway Meaulnes (lost miles from home) stumbles upon an eccentric party in a ruinous estate, and falls (equally ruinously) in love with a girl he meets there. This is a green world tale along the lines of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but (more pressingly) it recalls the sinister, infinitesimal lightness of Gatsby's entertainments. So pressing was this association, in fact, that it completely obliterated a more obvious parallel; it was not until much later that I realized that the charisma of le Grand Meaulnes and the Great Gatsby (and the fraught loyalty they inspire in the narrators of their tales) is contained within the very titles of the two books.

4) "Topdog/Underdog" Suzan-Lori Parks ****

5) "Killing Pablo" Mark Bowden ***

6) "Equus" Peter Shaffer ****

Reread for the umpteenth time for my dissertation, this play has recently made the news (of course), because Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) is about to appear as the troubled (and abundantly naked) young horse-mauler Alan Strang.

7) "Silk" Alessandro Baricco ****

8) "Crave" and "Skin" Sarah Kane ***

I have slowly been making my way through Kane's plays of late. "Crave" is considerably less lucid than "4.48 Psychosis" while being less formally experimental. Which is not to say that formal risks are unimportant to this play - they are its central concern. "Crave" is like a musical composition divided into four voices, which only sometimes demonstrate cohesiveness of character and only sometimes respond to one another. "Skin" is a very short (ten minutes long) teleplay about a skinhead who becomes enamored of his black neighbor (what a quaint phrase, inadequate to the complex emotion he feels, a combination of self-hatred, desire for the different, and rebellious humanity). She then wreaks a pedagogical revenge.

9) "Joys of Motherhood" Buchi Emecheta **1/2

10) "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" Anne Bronte ***

11) "Uglies" Scott Westerfeld ***1/2

There are a number of young adult novel in my TBR list this year. This is the first and probably the lightest. It concerns a society that prides itself on its egalitarian approach to beauty - everyone gets a series of surgeries on their 16th birthday that transform them from "uglies" to "pretties," at which point they can devote themselves wholeheartedly to partying. This is highly readable stuff, but the obsession with prettiness (rather than beauty, for instance, which implies both a wider range of possibilities and a greater depth or complexity) necessitates some highly unsympathetic characterizations. Both pretties and uglies (including our heroine at the novel's beginning) are so narrow minded and self-deluding that it is hard not to despise them a little bit even as you sympathize with them. The fact that the next novel in the trilogy is called "Pretties" doesn't inspire confidence in a reprieve from some of the more inane dialogue, but I am rather attached to the narrative now, and will probably forge ahead.

12) "La Perdida" Jessica Abel ***1/2

I have a minor fascination with graphic novels of the "guilty tourist" genre (which, to a certain extent, includes the guilty-writer/journalist-seeking-inspiration-in-less-privileged-countries) - "Carnet de Voyage," Joe Sacco's work, and now, "La Perdida," a fictional account of an American who tries to get back to her Mexican roots and ends up in a dangerous spiral of poverty-glamorizing self-abnegation. The dilemma of this genre is always compelling for me - the inadequacy of travel which seeks out education and understanding but never escapes the shadow of exploitation and stereotype. This is a worthy member of tradition, but in the last third the emphasis on detail (both of culture and character) gives way to a kidnapping caper plot line that is ill at ease with the gorgeous mundanity of the rest.

13) "Phaedra's Love" Sarah Kane **1/2

My least favorite of Sarah Kane's plays thus far. I understand the subtle seductions (!) of the tale of Hippolytus and his besotted stepmother Phaedra for an author, but what has Kane added to this tradition (besides onstage blow jobs)? Please enlighten me, fellow Kane admirers!

14) "Suite Francaise" Irene Nemirovsky ****1/2

"Important events— whether serious, happy or unfortunate— do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves." (167)

It pleases me that my month was bracketed by two excellent French novels by authors I had never read before. At the same time, I am immeasurably saddened to find that both authors were cut off in the prime of their lives and the apex of their talent by events of world wars - Alain-Fournier in the battles of the first, and Nemirovsky in a concentration camp during the second. "Suite Francaise" is a an impossibly lucid (more light language! Time to expand my critical vocabulary.), detailed study of the occupation of France, written as the events were unfolding. The humanity of a broad cast of characters (broad on the scale of a Russian novel, showing the profound influence of Tolstoy on the Franco-Russian Nemirovsky) is underscored again and again, for good and for ill. German soldiers, living in French homes and requisitioning French property, are both eager to please and defensive about their actions. The upper classes (and particularly the upper middle class) come in for a scathing critique of their selfishness, but people from all walks of life manage to be alternately poisonous and self-sacrificing. Ideals like patriotism and piety have their roots in a profound selfishness. It is the details that scar and sear, a particularly striking feat since this novel remains unfinished and largely unedited by its author. In one nightmarish scene, a priest who agrees to take charge of a group of orphans from an institution under his family's patronage. They beat him to death after he leads them through the evacuation of Paris, and leave him mired in much on the grounds of a decayed estate.

Some other scathingly honest observations on the occupation:

On the French response to defeat -
"They feared a German victory, yet weren’t altogether happy at the idea that the English might win. All in all, they preferred everyone to be defeated." (270)

And, from the terrifying appendices of the book, which provide Nemirovsky's notes for the work as a whole and the correspondence that traces her family's struggle with occupation authorities who sent both Irene and her husband to their deaths in Nazi camps -
"The French grew tired of the Republic as if she were an old wife. For them, the dictatorship was a brief affair, adultery. But they intended to cheat on their wife, not to kill her. Now they realise she’s dead, their Republic, their freedom. They’re mourning her." (344)

[I have to note, at least tangentially, that this was the first eBook I have ever read in its entirety, and it was a laborious endeavor. It was very hard to maintain a rhythm of reading when you have to wait for the next page to load, or cannot see the whole page at once. I hadn't fully realize before how darting my reading style is - rather than proceeding methodically and linearly down the page, I frequently retrace my steps, reading a phrase here and there from different parts of the page. Don't ask how this makes for a coherent reading experience; I don't completely understand it myself.]

Prose Fiction/novels: 7
Drama: 5
Graphic novels/comics: 1
Non-fiction: 1
1001 Books I must read before I die: 2
Chunksters: 2
Year of Down Under: 1
New (to me) authors: 8 (Nemirovsky, Abel, Westerfeld, Emecheta, Baricco, Bowden, Alain-Fournier, Hooper)

All in all, an appropriate January: a month of new encounters.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi -- I arrived here via Toddled Dredge and was amazed to discover someone else who'd read Le Grand Meaulnes. I only got halfway through before I had to return it (interlibrary loan, no hope of renewal). I liked what I read, but found myself wishing it had footnotes or some kind of annotation. The time & place felt so far removed from me that I felt like I wasn't "getting" it.

  2. Hi, Julie!
    I thought that the first half of the novel was very dreamlike and slow-moving. In the second half, the plot suddenly moved into high gear and it became much more gripping. Despite this, I felt pointedly kept at a distance by the novel sort of soft-focus prose style - although I obviously still enjoyed it!

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