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17 January 2013 @ 12:54 pm
publicBooks, books, books  
It's sooo gooood to be reading again ♥ It's so easy for it to fall by the wayside when you have loads of other things to do, but I've missed just curling up on the couch with an actual, physical book. I want to keep track for a while, of what I've read, what I've liked, in the hopes that it'll keep me in the habit.

1. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (English, novel)
"Born at the stroke of midnight at the exact moment of India’s independence, Saleem Sinai is a special child. However, this coincidence of birth has consequences he is not prepared for: telepathic powers connect him with 1,000 other 'midnight’s children' all of whom are endowed with unusual gifts. Inextricably linked to his nation, Saleem’s story is a whirlwind of disasters and triumphs that mirrors the course of modern India at its most impossible and glorious."

I kept coming across references to Salman Rushdie in the books and papers I read about postcolonialism and magic realism, so I was intrigued to try reading some of his stuff, and this book was indeed interesting. What I most liked was the issue of trust – usually novels make you suspend any disbelief, just accept things within the book as being true in their own reality, but Midnight’s Children kept throwing me out of this comfortable space by having the narrator suddenly say that things he’d written earlier turned out to be historically inaccurate, and he couldn’t understand why, or telling things in a way that made me begin to wonder if even he believed what he was saying. It was unexpectedly disquieting, not knowing if the narrator does have these supernatural experiences and abilities, or if he’s just imagining everything, or if he’s manipulating the reader for his own ends. It made it very obvious that all information was coming from this one person, that your view of what the narrator is like is warped by how he feels about himself, and that his strange mixture of arrogance, self-pity, and self-loathing therefore had a strong effect on whether I trusted and liked him. It made me question reality and sanity, what you can really know about anything. The description too, of smells and textures and colours, was quite amazing in places, and there was that intriguing contrast between the beautiful and the disgusting.

2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (English, novel)
"The year is 1969. On the Chochin highway a skyblue Plymouth with chrome tailfins is stranded in a workers’ demonstration. Inside the car sit two-egg twins Rahel and Estha, and so begins the tale. They grow up between vats of banana jam and heaps of peppercorns in their blind grandmother Mammachi’s factory. Armed only with the invincible innocence of children, they try to fashion a childhood in the shade of the wreck that is their family."

This is an incredible book, I think. It worked out well, that I read it right after Midnight’s Children, which this book occasionally either parodies or pays homage to, I’m not quite sure. The God of Small Things is much more simply written than Midnight’s Children, and to me the latter now just seems a bit over-blown in comparison (though I also wonder if maybe M. C. is actually meant to sound a bit pompous, making fun of itself?). The images of settings, people, facial expressions, clothes, food were all very vivid, but everything had a certain dream-like quality which I found quite amazing – the characters seem to be swimming in a situation that’s out of their control, struggling to face tragedies, living in worlds of imagination and/or denial, and this is reflected very well in the atmosphere. The strength of the female characters was refreshing, even if they’re horrible, or are trapped by the world and people around them. I felt kept out almost deliberately by Salman Rushdie’s narrator, because of his conceit and questionable truthfulness, and I felt accidentally kept out by the characters in The God of Small Things by the fact that they’re keeping themselves out, unhappy and hopeless. I was able to more powerfully connect to this second group, who almost didn’t realise that they were lost. So many tiny details rang true, too, like Ammu’s hair, frizzing on the top, smooth underneath...

3. The Summer without Men by Siri Hustvedt (English, novel)
"After Mia Fredricksen’s husband of thirty years asks for a pause – so he can indulge his infatuation with a young French colleague – she cracks up (briefly), rages (deeply), then decamps to her prairie childhood home. There, gradually, she is drawn into the lives of those around her: her mother’s circle of feisty widows; the young woman next door; and the diabolical teenage girls in her poetry class. By the end of the summer without men, Mia knows what’s worth fighting for – and on whose terms."

I think this book started out strongly, talking openly about mental breakdowns, saying that you can go crazy and that it’s not a weakness to be ashamed of, or irretrievable, and showing her just feeling her horrible emotions, not bottling anything or trying to appear the ‘bigger person’ when she was crushed, as was expected of her. I liked her encounters with the older women, who were powerful in their different ways, liked the female friendships and rivalries. But then I felt that a Dramatic Plot was sort of flung in to make things more interesting, that some of the feminist theorising was a bit heavy handed, if true, and that the second half sounded like maybe her deadline had been moved closer or something – there seemed to be a lot more to explore slowly, realisations to be had and points to be made (like the fact that she was thinking about men all the time, even if none appeared onstage), that were suddenly cut or shoved into just a few paragraphs.

4. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell (English, novel)
"Edinburgh in the 1930s. The Lennox family is having trouble with its youngest daughter. Esme is outspoken, unconventional, and repeatedly embarrasses them in polite society. Something will have to be done. Years later, a young woman named Iris Lockhart receives a letter informing her that she has a great-aunt in a psychiatric unit who is about to be released. Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris’ questions."

This book is still haunting me. I picked it up at first because it’s set in Edinburgh, and it was comforting to read again about the places I know and love, through someone else’s eyes. “She recalls flashes of high, dark buildings, of veils of rain, of gas-lamps reflected on wet cobbles.” This image, from when they come in to Waverly Station after travelling from India, really affected me: I was reminded how much I love that beautiful city. The sense of the city changing through the years was somehow very powerful – remembering that it’s been the university coming-of-age setting for people over years and generations gave me a feeling of tenuous connection to all these others who’ve shared my experience. The portraits of the three main characters are quite fascinating, especially as I didn’t immediately like Iris: it was quite refreshing to not have a perfect heroine shoved in my face, but instead a believable woman who grew on me as she changed her life. Kitty has Alzheimer’s, so the sections from her perspective were interesting. The major theme is women suffering from male domination, but I liked that it wasn’t just Completely Evil Male Villain manipulates Helpless Female Victim, but slightly more complex pathways of subtle influence and the ways in which relationships between women are restricted or skewed by the men around them.

5. Polina by Bastien Vivès (French, graphic novel)
«Il faut être souple si vous voulez espérer un jour devenir danseuse. Si vous n'êtes pas souple à 6 ans, vous le serez encore moins à 16 ans. La souplesse et la grâce ne s'apprennent pas. C'est un don. Suivante...»
Testing my French translation skills D: "You must be supple if you hope to become a dancer one day. If you’re not supple at 6 years old, you will be even less so at 16. Suppleness and grace are not learned. They are a gift. Next..."

This is a mildly bewildering book, not seeming to be about anything in particular, but quite powerful. Our French friend P. lent it to us, asking us to tell her if we understood the ending any better than she did... I’m not sure... It follows Polina from her ballet audition at 6 years old to her mid-twenties (probably, though it’s hard to tell how old she’s meant to be at the end) life, with no dramatic plot twists, just the normal problems of friendships made and lost, small encounters that change you, love, figuring out what you want to do with your life and why. I just happened to flick through the beginning just after finishing in vague confusion, and was struck by the fact that it’s an entire life told in those pages, the history of this girl, not extraordinary but special to her. The art is quite intriguing – it doesn’t strike me as technically good, lines seem randomly thick or thin, things are out of proportion... and yet it is strangely and impressively compelling.

Completely unrelatedly, LJ and Delicious have both just brought out updates that I don't like :/ I feel a bit old and crotchety >.>;
Mood: good
Music: Prince - Purple Rain