Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Books Read in February 2012

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in February 2012. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

The Postmistress – Sarah Blake (3.2)
There are some things about The Postmistress that don’t make sense. Iris James runs the post office in Franklin, a small Cape Cod village, where she insists there is no such thing as a postmistress; it is a gender-neutral position. So why is the novel called the postmistress? Is it because it is marketed to women? Is it to draw attention to the fact that women in office were still unusual? Or is it to suggest an illicit relationship between the post and the woman who delivers it? Whatever the reason, it is meant to deliver a talking point for book groups – one of many.

The setting is 1940 and the spectre of war looms large (it’s the sort of novel that warrants such clichés in review), although many Americans question whether they need to intervene with Europe’s problems. Frankie Bard is an attractive female reporter from Greenwich Village, with a decidedly male name and a distinctively feminine outlook. She attempts to get the situation across to the listeners in the United States to sway their emotions and their decisions. Hopefully her dispatches are less hyperbolic than the purple prose.

Iris is among her listeners, as is Emma Fitch, young pregnant wife of Will, the town doctor. Will Fitch has gone to London to try and do some good while assuaging his conscience. In a highly implausible plot point, he meets Frankie in a bomb shelter, and Emma hears the report of the devastation without realising her personal involvement. Will gives Frankie a letter for Emma that she cannot deliver; an act which assumes major significance due to the war. Not since Romeo and Juliet has an undelivered letter caused such consternation.

Frankie tries to wrest some of the importance to herself, detracting from the great events unfolding on the world stage. She claims, “Some stories don’t get told. Some stories you hold on to. To stand and watch and hold it in your arms was not cowardice. To look straight ahead at the beast and feel its breath on your flanks and not to turn – one could carry the world that way.” But the story is told, and this is the fundamental philosophical paradox: we are meant to feel for her because she doesn’t divulge her secret, but if it really were secret, we wouldn’t know or be able to feel it.

The author writes in the ‘story behind the story’ that the central question of the novel is ‘How do you bear (in both senses of the word) the news?’ It is increasingly common for the author to attempt to direct our thoughts. When Frankie’s boss tells her the difference between reporting and recording, he suggests, “You need a frame. People need to know where to look. They need us to point.” This gives the reader very little to do and so this reader practically gave up.

Books Burn Badly – Manuel Rivas (3.8)
I know people will love this book and liken it to work by Salman Rushdie and Garcia Marquez among others, and level charges of magical realism and colourful history at it, but it just didn’t enthral me, despite the gorgeous cover. Perhaps it is because there are too many characters, or it jumps around in chronological order so much, or the persistent overuse of personal pronouns (who is he this time?).

The premise of the novel is the well-documented fact that, during the Spanish Civil War, the Falangists burned books at the Coruña Docks on 19th August 1936. Books were stolen and removed from burning piles, then buried or hunted down and all are highly valued. Words, sentences and books become prized objects in a land of uncertainty.

A prisoner learns Braille so that he can read at night. A harpooner “practised the art of saying ugly words in foreign languages for them to sound a little distinguished.” A woman realises she must welcome words into her relationship with a man “man lived in a state of extreme alert with language.” Can the beauty of language mitigate the malice of action? “What would you think of someone who recites beautiful poems and sings melancholy songs before committing a crime? Does this affect the poems they recite and the songs they sing?” Such is the existentialist nature of the novel that questions like this arise frequently.

The language is, indeed even in translation, remarkably seductive, and it is easy to forget the factious fighting and allow the perfect prose to wash over you. Although frequently dealing in the abstract, it is the details that baffle. The novel and the characters maintain their distance; there is probably a way into this intricate novel but I failed to find it.

There are people who draw pictures of “women with things on their heads”; there are people who claim that “In this country, history always spoils everything”; there is a prophet who is excellent at predicting the past; there are also those whose recollections bear little resemblance to reality. These people may or may not be the same person. It is difficult to fathom how they relate to each other, if at all, due to the previously mentioned excess of personal pronouns.

And through it all, there are books and words and stories. A man who listens to radio stations in foreign languages claims that, “Words sound wonderful when you can’t understand them.” That may be, but when you can’t understand novels, they are merely frustrating.

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