Monday, 8 March 2010

Books read in October

Below are short reviews of the books that I read in October 2009. The numbers in the brackets are the marks I have given them out of five.

Red, White and Blue – Susan Isaacs (3.7)
The notion of national identity is one fraught with complex issues. In this novel, Susan Isaacs questions what it means to be American through her protagonists, Charlie Blair, an FBI agent in Wyoming, and Lauren Miller, a New York journalist. When a supposed hate crime is perpetrated against the Jewish community of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Charlie is sent to infiltrate a vicious anti-Semitic group called Wrath, while Lauren covers the story for her paper, the Jewish News.

It is obvious that these two are going to become romantically involved, but the story is more than the individuals. Isaacs traces who they are though their ancestors, taking the narrative back their grandparents – both of them are descended from Eastern European Jews and they share a heritage. Is it more important to maintain your cultural roots or to assume the nature of your new country? Isaacs suggests you can do both but equally you can be unaffected by your past, as Charlie, in keeping with many descendants of Eastern European Jews, doesn’t know his family history. She is heavy-handed on this issue, driving the point home to ensure that we have understood.

When Charlie goes undercover to infiltrate Wrath he gets a job as a mechanic, which he enjoys as he likes to work with his hands – the nurturing, caring man of the people. Good solid work and the sharing of stories are seen as examples to live by. Meanwhile Lauren fears for the future of print journalism – “At some point in the twenty-first century, we’ll fall into a state of permanent semi-literacy. A picture really will be worth a thousand words.”

Isaacs also attempts to introduce a mystical element, perhaps as a sop to the indigenous tribes – “The land is worth more than the trees and the forage and the water that’re on it. It has value to people who don’t own it, to people who will never see it” – but this strikes a hollow note. You can almost hear the strains of, ‘This land is your land, this land is my land...’ Subtlety is clearly not one of the required attributes to make an American.

Windmill Hill – Michael Jacobson (3.3)
In this easy to read and surprisingly uplifting novel of atonement, Paul kidnaps his grandfather, Blink Johns, from a nursing home and takes him on a trip to Queenstown, Tasmania where the ground is particularly inhospitable. Blink used to be a great gardener but after WWI and family tragedies, he has retreated into old age and dementia. Paul, whom his grandfather confuses with his old army pal, Angus, wants to revive his senses and attempts to do it through the soil. Agricultural metaphors and gardening imagery are scattered throughout the novel.

Paul takes Blink to Queenstown because he knows that is where Angus grew up. It is a mining town where the earth is useless after years of chemical treatments and excavations, yet with hard work and a tender care it can become fertile again. Angus is from mining stock and he finds it exciting that he should be going around the world to places such as Egypt, when he spent his days underground and had never even been to Hobart.

The war shaped and destroyed men, playing a huge part on the Australian psyche and encapsulating their relationship with the land. Much of the novel is comprised of his reminisces; Blink talks to Paul as though he were remembering alongside him. At other times, flashbacks fill in the narrative.

This is a sturdy novel about honest folk; families who were deeply affected by a war on the other side of the world; people with personal tragedies who don’t seek revenge but merely acceptance. Michael Jacobson is a journalist and he draws on his spare, economical style in this debut novel which tells a good story without mawkish sentimentality or apportioning blame. The optimistic conclusion draws upon the adage, ‘to everything there is a season’ and leaves the reader with a rare sense of hope.

The Vintner’s Luck – Elizabeth Knox (4.2)
The vintner is Sobran Jodeau and his luck is an angel called Xas. One drunken night, Sobran encounters Xas in his vineyard and they arrange to meet every year on the same date. Through natural and unnatural disasters, they keep their assignation almost religiously for 63 years. In each chapter, which is named after a type of wine or a process in viticulture, Sobran tells the angel about the births, deaths, marriages, affairs and murder in his large rustic vineyard family life, and Xas drops little snippets of information about his world. The descriptions of wine and the countryside are whimsical and lyrical. But Xas finds it hard to be pinned down as he has lived through thousands of years and cannot isolate moments, only emotions.

Xas is a remarkable creation. He ‘can go freely’ with huge wings that are warm and fluffy and smell of snow. He collects rose bushes to plant in his garden, always arrives with a bottle of wine from some exotic location, and has an enquiring mind and a sulky temperament. He is both earthy and ethereal, and he is achingly sensual. Over the years, Sobran shares an intimacy with Xas that he lacks with his wife, children and even his mistress. When his daughter dies, he pines for the angel. “The whole house was sad. Sobran’s friends brought him brandy or laid their arms along his shoulders – but no one wrapped their body about his and bore him away.”

In return, Xas informs him of the nature of God and Lucifer, of Heaven and Hell and everything in between. His relationship with God is clearly troubled and he seems to resent His influence. “Sometimes I feel God is all over me like pollen and I go about pollinating things with God.” He is also scathing of God’s liking for copies and imitations. Elizabeth Knox has now written a prequel to this novel which clarifies the relationship between God and his angel, and might explain some of these tantalising vagaries.

Antoine, Sobran’s son, learns from his tutor that “Books can be the people we never get to meet, ancestors or far neighbours.” I am very glad that I met these fanciful characters in this delightful novel of angels and wine where morality and assumptions are examined and questioned.

Will in the World – Stephen Greenblatt (4.2)
In this book, Stephen Greenblatt attempts to put William Shakespeare in his place, as it were. Against the political, social and historic background he looks at what may have influenced him to write the plays and sonnets that he did. From parental pressure to royal patronage, he examines the factors and experiences that possibly shaped his art.

Shakespeare was influenced by both morality plays and the pastoral. His father’s financial issues may have had a bearing on his plays as did his marriage and the death of his son. Of course this is all conjecture as there is no record of Shakespeare’s feelings about anything.

Perhaps one of the major players in Shakespeare’s art was the theatre itself. He knew the attributes of actors; they were supposed to be gifted musicians, who could both fight and dance. “They were also expected to wear clothes gracefully – in this period of long dresses, it was men’s legs, rather than women’s, to which eyes were drawn.”
London was another key-player in his development. Touring players by nature of moving on between towns could repeat the same show and so cope with a limited repertoire. This didn’t work in London. The open amphitheatres held over two thousand people which meant that it was not enough to mount one or two successful plays a season – “The companies had to induce people, large numbers of people, to get in the habit of coming to the theatre again and again, and this meant a constantly changing repertoire, as many as five or six plays per week.”

Shakespeare brought a host of new words to the theatre, none more so than in Hamlet which introduces more than 600. He discovered the power of blank verse and how to seduce the audience through poetry rather than just the story, removing explanatory elements, so there is no back-story or explanation necessary. With a love of character and language, Shakespeare wrote plays for as many people to see as possible.

Like a magpie that steals bright shiny bits from other people to make its own nest, Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare borrowed from all around him, and that only a study in context will reveal the true shape of the man.

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