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The Dissident
The Dissident
by Nell Freudenberger
Edition: Paperback

1.0 out of 5 stars Slow trance, 29 Nov. 2008
This review is from: The Dissident (Paperback)
Freudenberger's first novel tells the story of Chinese performance artist, Yuan Zhao, during his year as visiting professor at a private all-girls high school in Los Angeles. Much of the novel is concerned with the family relations of his affluent and drearily dysfunctional hosts (affairs, denial, eating disorders, weaponry). This is disappointing as his accounts of events in China are by far the novel's most interesting strand. Time seems to be something of a problem for Freudenberger as characters fall into settled routines while still recovering from their jet lag. Pacing too, as it is only after 200 pages that Zhao makes it into the classroom and begins some painting. Early on we are told that he is an expert in counterfeiting, and an awkard sentence on page 5 suggests, possibly unintentionally, that he is a female impersonator. I never did find out as the novel demanded either an abrupt shift in pace as Freudenberger crammed the remaining 11 months into the other half of her novel, or there'd only be another six weeks of trance-like tedium

After Dark
After Dark
by Haruki Murakami
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars What's the story, morning glory?, 29 Nov. 2008
This review is from: After Dark (Paperback)
After Dark has all the Murakami hallmarks of isolation, chance meetings, surrealism, and urban existentialism. The story opens with Mari reading alone in a fast food restaurant a little before midnight. She is soon joined by the drifting student, Takahasi, on a break from band practice. These two part and separate through the night as Murakami explores its peace and violence in his own cool style. As with his other books this style is one which resists easy endings, but here he is so inconclusive that as dawn breaks on Tokyo one wonders if his lightness of touch comes at the cost his story.

The White Castle
The White Castle
by Orhan Pamuk
Edition: Paperback

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tale of identical differences, 28 Dec. 2007
This review is from: The White Castle (Paperback)
The narrator of Orhan Pamuk's first book is a young Italian scholar who is captured by Turkish pirates. At Constantinople he is sold at auction, eventually passing into the service of a man who looks identical to him and is as eager to gain the sultan's ear as he is to learn the ways of the West. The two men embark on an intense journey of self-examination, vacillating between equal forces of attraction and repulsion. Pamuk explores the complexities of these emotions in sentences which are equally nuanced and are rich with detail. The White Castle anticipates the themes of cultural identity and doubleness offered by the host of narrators in My Name is Red. That book's detective story is replaced here with the story court intrigue, and, with only two main characters, this slimmer novel has a more intense focus on individual identity.

The Emperor's Children
The Emperor's Children
by Claire Messud
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Out of the vacuum, 27 Dec. 2007
This review is from: The Emperor's Children (Paperback)
For this thirty-one year-old, Claire Messud's story of thirty-somethings in 2001 New York made for mortifying reading. Seeing something myself in each of the three main characters I was left wondering at the narcissistic vacuity of my own life. Was I like Danielle, a producer for PBS, who, in spite of an earnest desire to achieve greater, nobler things, makes when-liposuction-goes-wrong documentaries. Or was I more like Marina, paralysed in ever-forthcoming cultural commentary on how we dress our children, The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes by a risk aversion created by paternal expectations and the suspicion that she is pitifully ordinary. Of course, wondering which character is one's sembable is not the best way of reading a novel. It is, however, one taken by the novel's critic, Julius Clarke, who reads his life through War and Peace and whom we meet not knowing "whether to be Pierre or Natasha, the solitary brooding loner or the vivacious social butterfly". A dilemma, if not an approach, I can also understand.

Presiding over these three is Murray Thwaite, Marina's father, liberal commentator in chief, and the novel's titular emperor. Into his tranquil imperium in the manner of Tolstoy's Napoleon (don't worry, Julius will guide) comes Ludovic Seely, bent on a satirical revolution and the imperial denuding. In contrast to the main characters, Seely is singled out for his sense of purpose. Also recently arrived in Manhattan is the book's real Pierre, the like-wise chubby, Bootie Tubb, college drop-out and supplicant at the throne of his uncle Murray for guidance in an autodidact's quest for truth.

For 370 pages these characters conduct their military campaigns and love affairs against and with each other with about as much consequence as Anna and Vronsky would in the Manhattan Tom Wolfe saw as he channelled Lionel Trilling. "... Anna would just move in with Vronsky, and people in their social set would duly note the change in their Scully & Scully address books; the arrival of the baby, if they chose to have it, would occasion no more than a grinning snigger in the gossip columns." All very amusing and to little apparent purpose; it is to Messud's credit that we care about her self-avowedly vacuous characters.

In only 60 pages, the novel's characters have to deal with the negative shadow that has loomed since we learned that this is 2001. It is around 9/11 that the novel's work takes place, but the introduction of this event is not a desperate attempt to salvage it from Wolfian irrelevance. Rather Messud uses 9/11 to contrast this and the daily vacuity of her characters with the incongruity of the historical event.

The knowledge that this recent event must feature in Messud's book means that we move through her book wary of the asbestos of cliché. Such wariness is justified as while Messud avoids clichés around the actual event, she is guilty of some clumsy foreshadowing. Having established that we are in Manhattan in 2001, it is unnecessary to force our attention on a plane as it appears "to weave among the buildings, a light flashing between lights" in late July. By the time we get to September 9th one character's disfigurement in a nightclub is discussed in terms of the earth-shattering.

As much as such passages grate, they highlight the emptiness of hyperbole and, if they grate, they do so for a reason consistent with the idea that the historical event is incongruous. These people talk, I talk, as if anything out of the day-to-day is of historical significance. Life is lived from one day to another, and most of them are pretty much the same; a friend being disfigured is significant; language rises to the occasion. Having said this about the relatively ordinary, what language is there for the truly extraordinary? The point does not seem to me that language has been debased, rather that it was never sufficient. As a consequence though the extraordinary can only be described in the language of the ordinary and of earlier vacuities. The problem not only for Messud but any form with a sense of aesthetic decorum is that Marina's hyperbole is in too close a proximity to events of genuine historical significance known not to catch in the airways like literary asbestos.

Despite these grating passages, it is just this everyday vacuity and its relationship to the historical event that Messud's book explores and where its success lies. The difficulties her characters face in being extraordinary, of making a mark in what they perceive "are almost criminally uninteresting" times, are frequently given an almost Jamesian complexity. Here vacuity is given weight and depth. This is of no historical consequence, however grand or powerful the feeling, but in giving weight and depth to the historically inconsequential, Messud reveals the patterns and textures of her character's consciousness, not as they are during the extraordinary, but as they usually are, as we usually are, among the day-to-day and ordinary.

The exploration of vacuity is a risky business over 400 hundred pages, and one which Messud does not always pull off. The benefit of Julius to the plot largely appears to be that he has read War and Peace. When Danielle is mystified by the intensity of his love affair, we are less so but instead wonder why it is there at all. But like Tolstoy in War and Peace, Messud's book says something about history, in particular the incongruity of the historical event and its relationship to everyday life and preoccupations. Day-to-day experience suggests that history happens to other people. If it is the task of the novel to explore consciousness, how it veils and mists taint events then it is the banal vacuity that is of greater importance. Most hypocritical is the need to mask that vacuity, the historical vacuity of daily life. To the extent that ordinarily we choose our roles, they are chosen in that vacuum, without regard to the historical incongruity. Messud both exposes and celebrates such vacuities.

The Saffron Kitchen
The Saffron Kitchen
by Yasmin Crowther
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

6 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A choice between the senses and the story, 4 July 2007
This review is from: The Saffron Kitchen (Paperback)
When the orphaned Saeed arrives in London to live with his aunt Maryam, he sets off a series of events which forces her to confront the past she left in Iran half a century earlier. Difficult as Maryam may find this, she at least knows her past. Her journey upsets the complacent life of her daughter, Sara, as she learns about the woman who is her mother. Told in their alternating voices, Crowther's debut novel is full of the colours and smells of metropolitan England and the mountains of Iran. But in the dislocated lives of Maryam and Sara, it is the cupboards of London which are "filled with henna, herbs, dried figs and limes" and the smells of the Tube that are found in the fast-growing cities of Iran. While Crowther's attempt to evoke mood and place occasionally overwhelms her narrative, The Saffron Kitchen marks the collision between a past where choices were too few and a present where choice itself is taken for granted.

Donne: The Reformed Soul
Donne: The Reformed Soul
by John Stubbs
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A flawed picture worth buying, 29 Jun. 2007
John Donne is, after Shakespeare, perhaps our most familiar poet of the English Renaissance. Yet his best known insight - "that no man is an island" - comes not from his poems, nor even from his sermons, but from his private meditations.

This is perhaps how Donne would have wished it. Despite the urging of his admirers, he felt that his early poems were "Satrique thornes ... growne/ where seeds of better Arts, were early sown". These were the poems of a young man observing the world as he tried to find his place in it, and whose career, first as a government administrator, and later as a clergyman, might be damaged by their erotic and satiric tone. Yet, as this new biography suggests, this private thought was the "great thought at the heart of Donne's life," and one by which we can understand the man and his poems.

For young man and elderly clergyman alike finding a place in the world was difficult. Born in 1572 to a Catholic family of saintly pedigree (the corporeal relics of his ancestor, Thomas More, were macabre heirlooms), he was part of a growing middle-class which sought to distinguish its sons from unruly apprentices with a university education. Despite diligence at Oxford, the Oath of Allegiance to the Reformed Church prevented Donne from graduating. After a spell at Lincoln's Inn, where he was both studious and a frequenter of plays, writing those "Satirique thornes" in the bargain, he fought with the glamourous but ill-fated Earl of Essex against the Spanish. Surviving these wars, he seemed to find a place as secretary to Elizabeth's favourite lawyer.

Yet Donne was not immune to exacerbating his ambiguous social position. The scandal of his marriage to Ann More without her father's consent cost him his job and, briefly, his liberty. For fifteen years his talents were wasted as stigma mired him and his family in shabby penury. With the "Pseudo-Martyr," ironically a treatise on Catholics who make their lives in England more difficult that it need be, he wrote himself into the clergy and rapidly ascended to the most prominent pulpit in the land as Dean of St Paul's where he navigated the religious controversies the past Reformation and the coming Civil War.

Stubbs strategy of ordering the precarious complexity of his subject by treating him not as an island but as part of the historical mainland allows him tell "the story," taking us from our familiar London and bringing to life the concerns of Donne's. Thus, as much as he evokes the solace Donne found in letter writing and letters, which "more than kisses ... mingle souls," the adventures with Essex and the machinations of the court read with the pace of a good thriller, while comedy is to be found in Donne's apoplectic father-in-law.

The portrait that emerges from this detailed research is one from which our multitasking, Ritalin-deficient age has much to learn, and Donne is presented much as we might wish to see ourselves: tolerant, socially responsible, progressive even, hardworking, while also possessed of the meditative resources to see beyond momentary personal circumstance.

But however apt Stubbs' approach may be to telling a life's story, it leaves him at a disadvantage when placing the poetry in that story. As much as his reading of "Love's Exchanges" as a subtle protest against the torture practiced by the government Donne served fits with his general portrait, a lot depends on the suggestion that "it was possibly written during his [Donne's] time as apparatchik". While Stubbs acknowledges the difficulties of dating Donne's poetry, with no argument to tie specific poems to specific times, significant aspects of his portrait, however attractive, are confined to possibility.

The question is do you buy the picture knowing that it may not be entirely accurate. For me the answer is yes. After rejecting the "Satirique thornes" of his earlier days, Donne urges that we "seek ourselves in ourselves". Significantly this urging takes place in a verse-letter, and above all Stubbs' biography is a profound commitment to writing as a process of knowing one's self and knowing that we are not so many islands.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 19, 2008 11:39 AM BST

The Road
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fearful Beauty, 29 Jun. 2007
This review is from: The Road (Paperback)
The father and son of Cormac McCarthy's new novel are "pilgrims" and "mendicant friars" in the "cold glaucoma" of a sunless, wasted America. Scavenging the (hopefully) abandoned houses and stores of a more abundant age, decent shoes are their first priority after food. Two bullets, one apiece for father and son, are their souls' material defence against the gangs of roadreapers who would rape the son and eat them both. Language itself is not immune to this destruction, "the names of things slowly following those things into oblivion". Yet, however spare the language McCarthy uses to imagine the absence of God and words, his is of our abundant age. Through it he has created a tale whose fearful beauty offers a glimmer of hope and reminds us that our civilization, any civilization, is as wafer thin as a "host" and as fleeting as words.

The Real Life of Anthony Burgess
The Real Life of Anthony Burgess
by Andrew Biswell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A life in fiction, 13 May 2007
The title of Biswell's biography of the author of, among others, "A Clockwork Orange" alludes to Nabokov's Sebastian Knight whose brother sets out to correct a "slapdash and very misleading" biography. Biswell's book is neither, but his subject's self-mythologizing was certainly misleading. If Burgess had his way, he was either descended from Charles Stuart - implausibly in Manchester in the year of Culloden - or his biological, as well as literary, genealogy included Shakespeare. Between these and more plausible, yet equally conflicting, stories emerges a defender of high culture who refused to follow any cultural line, a man of doubtful religious belief who wrestled with theological problems, and a man whose extraordinary productivity matched his literary ambition. Meticulous scholarship does not prevent lively prose to recount lives, real and fantastic. The pace quickens towards the end as last thirty years are compressed into thirty pages. Given Burgess's "libel problem", however, Biswell heeds lessons his subject failed to, and until "real life" is taken less seriously this is as authoritative it gets.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 29, 2008 2:18 AM GMT

Pnin (Penguin Modern Classics)
Pnin (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Vladimir Nabokov
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.60

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The powers of muddle shall prevail, 12 May 2007
With Pnin we are introduced to Russian émigré, Timofey Pnin. Tenuously untenured at a New England college, he muddles through 1950s America with a unique variety of English of his own. Mocked and loved on campus in equal measure, he has an acute sense of the ridiculous of the world and of himself. For Pnin sorrow is "the only thing in the world people really possess" and his planned courses will show that "the history of man is the history of pain". Alongside these bleak courseplans, we are treated two parties, a former wife convinced of her own glamour, the visit of her insular, wunderkind son, and Pnin's wonderful driving. As with much of Nabokov, there are dopelgangers aplenty causing Pnin (and us) to ask which is the genuine article. Anyone who knows himself to be fallible and slightly absurd will love Pnin, and will be grateful to Nabokov for making this invention a reality.

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