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Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Innocents: You don’t have to be Jewish, but it helps

I now know that ‘The Innocents’ is a modern remarking of Wharton’s ‘The Age of Innocence’ and that this is one of the main selling points of the novel.  However, I did not know this when I was reading the novel, nor have I read Wharton.  But nevertheless I loved this novel.

For me, this novel evoked so many powerful images.  I may not have had the stereotypical North West London upbringing it describes, but my childhood was – for all my parents’ alternative decisions and my Dad’s utter lack of Jewish-ness – a Jewish one.  And this is such a Jewish novel.  The characters, their choice of language, of food, their world vision, all of it is thoroughly recognisable to a Western, liberal Jew like me.  And more than this, this novel is insightful about this worldview.

For example:

Firstly Ziva, the Holocaust-surviving matriarch, who has seen too much pain to care much for social niceties.

“’Obviously my Grandmother’s generation, actually living through what they lived through, didn’t give a shit about napkin rings’…”

Then her daughter, Jaffa, the over-zealous, over-feeding, overbearing daughter of a Holocaust survivor (for clarity, I am in no way looking at my mother here, but I can name plenty of other examples).

“… But for the kids they raised with all their baggage, suburbia feels safe.  The trivia matters precisely because it’s trivia.  Being free to care about napkin rings is a luxury’.” (Adam on Ziva and Jaffa)

 “’The children of survivors are sort of ignored in terms of their impact but I think that’s part of their legacy.  Creating a sense of security and of routine and a very tight circle of friends after a generation when the world turned upside down’.” (Olivia on Jaffa).

And then her daughter, Rachel.  The first to be born, and give birth to her own children in the same country.

“In north-west London, grandchildren were considered the source of life’s highest pleasure; more, Adam sometimes suspected, even than the children who begat them.”

Then there are wonderful snippets on what it means to be modern, liberal Jew.

“There is a place for you in synagogue if you don’t believe, if you do believe, if you’re not sure or if you only believe during brief moments of turbulence on aeroplanes or in the final five minutes of a football match in which only divine intervention might save you.”

“’FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER’ is one of the most evocative phrases in the vocabulary of any Jew – up there in significance with ‘my son the Doctor’ or ‘my daughter’s wedding’… ruining one’s dinner was a sin punishable by swift but potent guilt-inducement.”

“There was no life event – marriage, birth, parenthood or loss – through which one need ever walk alone.  Twenty-five people were always poised to help.  The other side of interference was support.”

All this, though interesting to some non-Jews (okay, Goyim) may not be to everyone’s taste.

But I challenge anyone not to fall in love with Lawrence. In a world where the most appealing character often turns out to be fatally flawed, he remains throughout a man of dignity, warmth and valour.  He is old fashioned in the right ways and modern in the right ways.  There are so many touching passages about him, but this is my favourite:

“[He] wore his habitual Shabbat expression of beatific contentment.  He had been to synagogue to mark the transition from week to weekend, from work to rest, and there had greeted the approaching Sabbath with joy, as was customary – as one celebrates the arrival of a Bride.  Lawrence had a quiet faith and he liked to reconnect with it like this, once a week.  He would come home from shul and stop Rachel wherever she was, placing his hands on her head and blessing her softly, father to daughter.”

Okay, I admit that not much happens in this novel.  But at the same time, through such vivid characterisation, everything happens. Everything about this book was wonderful to me.  It was a novel I was truly dissapointed to end.  I realise it may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you think it might be, I highly recommend you give it a go.

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Nothingyneess (and a rant on reviewers): The Forrests

It’s funny how books seem to come in runs of luck.  Now clearly, there is a human element to this.  Sometimes I am in a good mood, or a bad mood, or just the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ mood for a certain type of novel or (rarely) I just don’t feel like reading at all.  For me,  was another ‘what’s the point’ kind of novel.

The Forressts

I got to the end, and I was so confused about the point, I actually had to go out and read some other reviews (which, as you know, generally I am loathe to do).

Now, interestingly, the other reviewers see the flaws that I see.  In no particular order:

  • There is no description or scene setting – often you have literally no idea where a scene is set
  • The novel jumps around, showing snippets of life – but it is as if they are selected at random, as most seem normal and meaningless.  It is kind of like reading random pages of a very average person’s diary
  • There are no real highs or lows – there is no real emotion in much of the novel and where it is expressed, it falls flat, like fact, rather than feeling
  • Daniel – usually just outside the scene – is an annoyance and provides nothing much to the narrative

However, in the end, they all seem to agree that they actually like the novel, for it’s ‘sadness’ or ‘fractured quality’ or the domestic passages when nothing happens.  And this is what frustrates me about reviews.  How are these stated as good things?  How, in one place can you complain that a novel jumps around and in another praise it’s ‘fractured’ style?  Or say there are no emotional highs or lows, but claim nothing happens in a good way?  For me, the positives are just as negative as the negatives.

This book wasn’t horrible, it was just nothingy.  Boring.

The opposite of exceeding my expectations: The People of Forever are not Afraid

Sometimes a book starts with so much hope.  And so it was with The People of Forever are Not Afraid.  I liked it’s slightly melancholy narrative style and it’s short story-esque approach.  I liked the idea of following a group of women, in Israel, through their army years and getting some understanding of their experiences.  I liked that it was a novel set in a place I had been, so I could truly imagine the towns, and the dust, and the checkpoints.  I even liked the cover, for once.

the people of

I know, so often I start this blog by telling you how a book exceeded my expectations, well this one did quite the opposite (as an aside, I am reliably informed there is no antonym for exceed).

 

This novel is fundamentally flawed for three main reasons.

1. There is no narrative arc

It is (kind of) linear and follows the same characters, so you expect more than short stories.  But yet, in many ways this is a novel composed of short stories.  It seems to break in in the middle of something and stay pretty much in the middle until well, the end.  Time passes, but that is about all.

2. You can’t really differentiate the characters

I realised that, as I was reading this, I often didn’t know which girl was which.  Now some may say this is a side effect of the narrative style where a number of individual stories are intertwined.  But I like, and frequently read, novels like that, and I normally know who’s who.  I think the basic problem here, is that each character was troubled and complex but in similar ways, which, particularly when taken out of their home context and put on an army base, made them very hard to differentiate.  I think this is why I walked away from this novel with no quotes – it is strong, memorable characters which normally lead to the best quotes.

3. I expected more insight

When reading a novel on an unusual (and controversial) theme such as this, I expect to come to the end having garnered some fundamental insight(s).  And I didn’t really.  Instead, there was no real end, and I remained confused about who was who.

 

 

The end of the Women’s Prize Shortlist: taking stock

So, I may not finish the Longlist before the winner is announced, but I have come to the end of the Shortlist and so thought it was time to gather and share some thoughts.

The first think that strikes me is that the Shortlist is very diverse.  In the past I have found Orange Prize (as it was) novels good, but often quite ‘samey’ and this can’t be said of this year’s list.

The other important thing to note is that there isn’t a ‘bad’ book on there.  There isn’t one novel on the Shortlist that I found challenging to complete.  Yes, some were more interesting, erudite and original than others, but I wouldn’t discourage a friend from picking up any of them.

However (drum roll) having said that…. here is my Shortlist, in order of preference.

1. May we be Forgiven
I would be very, very surprised if I read a better book in the course of 2013.  This novels subverted all my expectations, the narrative went at a madcap pace and crazy things happened all over the place.  But I fell for it hook, line and sinker.  It is the only book for a long, long time that I have dreamed about.  I would recommend this novel to anyone, male or female.

forgiven

2. Where’d you go Bernadette?
Another total surprise for me.  This was a book I rated as “yellow” as I was fairly unsure how much I would enjoy it.  But this book did a rare, rare thing.  It made me laugh.  And I almost never laugh at novels.  It won my heart right there.

bd

(Numbers 1 & 2 I would rate far, far above the remaining four for both sheer entertainment and originality).

3. Bring up the Bodies
As those of you who read my Man Booker blog will remember, this is yet another novel I didn’t expect to like (sensing a theme here?).  And it is really, really good.  And beautifully written.  But somehow I just can’t get over the feeling that in both intent and style it is just more of a Man Booker book than a Women’s Prize book.  I am yet to be convinced you can be both.  And, more importantly, I would still rather read numbers 1 and 2 than this one.  And for me, reader enjoyment remains the number one thing that this prize (if not all prizes?) should be about.

BUB

4. Flight Behaviour
This novel was a mixed one for me.  I loved everything about the butterflies and the setting and can utterly imagine the community.  But  something about the way it wrote about fate and class made me uncomfortable, mostly because it seemed to do so unknowingly.  I guess it comes down to the fact that I am just not entirely comfortable with the idea that people can’t escape their circumstances.

flight

5. NW
This novel suffered even more from than Flight Behaviour from reinforcing stereotypes.  And maybe they hit me harder because these stereotypes are closer to home.  It also lacked some narrative direction, even though at times the writing style and descriptions were highly evocative.

NW

6. Life After Life
This novel was pretty much all hook and no substance.  Not awful, just a little repetitive and dis-spiriting after a while.

life after

Now, back to the rest of the LongList….

NW: a London Stereotype

NW was something of a challenge for me.  It’s the kind of novel you find yourself enjoying until you stop to think about what it really means.  So much of the way it was written seemed to stereotype London and lack depth and meaning in a way which I found depressing.  The narrative meandered and didn’t really tie together at the end.  However, there is something about the way Smith writes about woman, which I find compelling, which redeemed the novel somewhat for me.

NW

The frustrations:

1. Reinforcing perceptions of estates

At the start I found it frustrating in it’s stereotypical London ‘estate-ness’.  Most of the novel’s protagonists are quoted in a London-estate patois, which those of us familiar with it can hear in our heads and associate with a certain look, body movements, behaviours etc.

“Use to see Tommy and James Haven but I ain’t seen them recent. Not for time.”
(For instance, in this quote, “time” would always be the emphasized point in the sentence).

But without these associations I think the repeated patois could become confusing and irritating    Although, if I didn’t over-analyse it, it didn’t bother me too much, I couldn’t understand how anyone who wasn’t very familiar with this world would find anything particularly engaging in the novel.

And if you are familiar with the estate life and the associations, this novel is simply a little depressing.  Everyone is an addict, or living in poverty, or miserable, or trying to get out. It makes estates sound both depressing and inescapable. As an estate-dweller myself (although I accept a far-from-typical one) these stereotypes frustrate and sadden me.  And more than that, I believe that their continued reinforcement in all forms of British media – even fiction – does nothing to improve the self-respect, aspirations or life chances of the people who may choose, or not, to live on an estate.

“In the 1880s or thereabouts the whole thing went up at once…Well-appointed country living for those tired of the city.  Fast-forward.  Disappointed city living for those tired of their countries.”

2. Obsession with class

This novel also falls into the English trap of being obsessed with class.  And in a typically English way, nobody is right, everyone is just differently wrong.  In general, I find this depressing about English novels, which are so rarely optimistic in the way of American ones.  Again, I am not sure this plays well with external audiences, and presents the Brits in an unfairly depressing light.

“Bourgeois, bourgeois, bourgeois   I think this is the only French word you knoew.  You have become one of those English people.. who hate all their friends.”

“Some schools you ‘attended.’  Brayton you ‘went to.'”

“‘You can;t get anything on the park for less than a million’… The money was not for those poky terrace houses with their short back gardens.  The money was for the distance the house put between you and Caldwell.”

3. Open-ended-ness

Over time, my opinion changed.  The characters were well-rounded, and the storyline – at times – compelling.  I did want to know what happened to people.  Although one of the frustrations of the novel is that it’s hardcore this is real life approach meant most individual stories were left open ended.

In fact, the open ended issue is one of the novel’s greatest frustrations.  The narrative consists of a series of vignettes, telling the stories of individuals from Caldwell, an estate in North West London.  At the end these are loosely tied together.  But in a way which is somehow so loose, it just feels like a lazy ending.  Again, too open ended.

 

However, I think the novel was genuinely insightful about the way that women interact with women

Now, I am not much of a feminist.  But still, it frustrated me that, often, in novels, the complexities of female behaviours and relationships is often lost, and women are portrayed as either “best buds” or “bitchy” without much substance to follow either assertion.  Women’s friendships – and particularly the close ones – are far more complex than that, with a litany of unwritten rules.  Something about Smith’s style captures this perfectly.

“It is perhaps the profound way in which capitalism enters women’s minds and bodies that renders ‘ruthless comparison’ the basic mode of their relationship with others.”

“She was in breech of that feminine law that states no weakness may be shown by a women to another woman without a sacrifice of equal value being made in return.”