Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Books read in April 2012

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

Caleb’s Crossing – Geraldine Brooks (3.5)
This novel is based upon the true story of the first Native American to go to Harvard, told through the narrative of Bethia Mayhew, a missionary’s daughter. Growing up on Martha’s Vineyard, Bethia rides her pony around the island and spies upon the Wampanoag tribe, fascinated by their painted faces and strange dances. She befriends Cheeshahteaumauck, nephew of the most powerful and aggressive paw-paw or shaman of the tribe. He calls her Storm-Eyes; she calls him Caleb, and they learn each other’s language and customs.

Bethia’s father attempts to convert the tribe, little realising that Bethia has already made inroads. Much to the anger of the shaman, he takes Caleb to raise him with his own son, Makepeace, and teach him Latin and Greek, preparatory to entering Harvard. Although Bethia is far brighter than her brother, as a girl reared in a Puritan family, she is forbidden from learning, and cannot maintain the same friendship with Caleb. Her plight is to be indentured as the men’s housekeeper in payment for Makepeace’s attendance at school, where she remains in contact with Caleb and his friends, while also eavesdropping on his lessons in her unquenched thirst for knowledge.

Two threads run through Bethia’s narrative. One is the water, and the other is Caleb. Fortunately Brooks avoids the modern storyteller’s habit of enforcing an anachronistic love-story, but their tales are nevertheless interwoven.

The novel is written in the form of fragmented diaries, which only pick up the story at random passages, and give it a disjointed feel. Perhaps because it is true and Brooks felt restrained by the facts, or perhaps because the narrative voice of the Puritan doesn’t allow for colour, but the novel is strangely uninspiring from a usually vivid author.

Percy Jackson and the Sea Monsters – Rick Riordan (3.7)
The second instalment of Percy Jackson’s adventures in the land of myths and Greek gods continues where the previous one left off. Percy (son of Poseidon) is happily playing basketball in his New York school gym when he is attacked by a race of giant cannibals (Laistrygonians) who live in the far north, possibly Canada. He is soon back at Camp Half-Blood, the summer camp for demi-gods where all is not so friendly as before and, like later terms at Hogwarts, there is an air of danger.

Chariot races take the place of Quidditch. They are a sport the children love but which are extremely dangerous and would never be allowed in the sanitised education department in which we live today.

Percy is sent on quests by Hermes, a shifty character dressed as a courier, who delivers messages, provides him with travelling equipment, tells him stories and is surprised when Percy wants them to have a moral. “Goodness, you act like it’s a fable. It’s a true story. Does truth have a moral?”

Percy must sail through the Sea of Monsters, through which all heroes sail on their adventures. It used to be in the Mediterranean but now the power of Western Civilization has shifted to the United States (with Mount Olympus being above the Empire State Building, and Hades being under Los Angeles), the Sea of Monsters is off the east coast – the Bermuda Triangle, where weird things happen that mortals can’t explain. He battles many mythical beasts such as hydra in a Florida swamp, and the Gray sisters in a taxi. He encounters pirate ships manned by skeleton ghosts, Edward Teach (Blackbeard) who likes celery, Circe turning men into guinea pigs, Cyclops, sirens, Charybdis and Scylla, the Golden Fleece, and man-eating sheep.

Percy is again assisted by Annabeth (daughter of Athena), Tyson (Percy’s half-brother and actually a Cyclops) and Clarisse (daughter of Ares) in his attempts to find and release his friend Grover, the satyr. All the children are trying to win the admiration, or even simply the attention, of their God-like parents while the Gods have to act indirectly and cannot intervene every time their child is in trouble. With echoes of Tolstoy, Riordan writes, “Families are messy. Immortal families are eternally messy.”

The novel is fast-paced and narrated in a relaxed, humorous style, full of mythological references and throw-away lines. Mostly it is perfectly pitched to provide entertainment with a sprinkling of education and is a fine sequel. I’m still looking forward to reading the next one.

The Gathering – Anne Enright (3.9)
When Liam Hegarty’s body is found washed ashore at Brighton, it falls to his sister, Veronica, to break the news to their mother. She is one of seemingly endless children (I think there are nine) and the whole family congregates for the wake and funeral. Veronica was closest in age and sentiment to her alcoholic brother, and his loss throws her into a reverie in which she remembers her childhood and reflects how unhappy she is with her present domestic situation: estranged husband; two daughters.

Veronica reinvents her past and it is important to her that she tells her story well. She is obsessed with sex and how people’s bodies fit together, which strikes the reader as awkward – imagining one’s grandparents having sex (in graphic detail) is not comfortable. Themes of sex (as opposed to love), abuse, children and procreation, are thrust upon us throughout the novel.

The novel has that blindingly brilliant but increasingly irritating Irish literature style of recording every minor detail. There are random asides and semantic tangents that lead to cul-de-sacs, like Virginia Woolf or, yes, I’m afraid it must be said, James Joyce. Veronica allows herself to be easily distracted by wordplay, and, in trying to comment on all minutiae, she can run out of specifics and trails off into vagueness. Although she makes constant perceptive comments, you begin to wonder how discerning these are, or whether they are just another device to distract you from the fact that there isn’t actually a story.

Waiting for Sunrise – William Boyd (3.6)
Waiting for Sunrise begins in Vienna in 1913 with elements of psychology and seduction, but it soon becomes a First World War spy thriller along the lines of John Buchan or John Le Carré. The switches between the two genres can cause disorientation, but the plot twists are intriguing enough to keep the pages turning.

Lysander Rief is an actor, like his famous father before him. The novel commences as he walks into an appointment with a psychiatrist, Dr Bensimon, whom he (and presumably his fiancée, Blanche) hopes will be able to help him with his anorgasma (failure to reach climax during sex). Dr Bensimon suggests parallelism as a cure. His theory, which is discredited in a mocking cafe scene by Freud, posits that we can change our past by inventing new memories. “The world is in essence neutral – flat, empty, bereft of meaning and significance. It’s us, our imaginations, that make it vivid, fill it with colour, feeling purpose and emotion. Once we understand this we can shape our world in any way we want. In theory.”

And therein lies the essence of the novel, as nothing is as it seems and pretence is everywhere. Vienna (and London as it transpires) is, “So nice and so pleasant, everybody smiling politely, nobody farting or picking their nose. But below the surface the river is flowing dark and strong. The river of sex.” Everything is a facade, created for maximum effect, from the poses of actors to the disguises of spies.

The war changes things beyond recognition. While it may appear unlikely that a mild-mannered actor can become embroiled in secret codes, torture and blackmail, these are interesting times. The “dislocation and sudden rupture” of war casts him in a new light, placing an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation. The novel is extremely readable, offering personal insight alongside the thrilling tale.

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