Review: The Sisters Mortland

30 08 2007

In The Sisters Mortland, Sally Beauman focuses on the story of three sisters, Julia, Finn and Maisie, and their complex relationships with three young men, Dan, Nick and Lucas. The story begins in the summer of 1967 and then flashes forward several years into the future for the second and third section of the novel. It is told from the perspective of three characters: Maisie, Dan and Julia. The title of the novel comes from a painting that one of the men does of the three sisters during that fateful summer.

This isn’t my first experience with Beauman’s work. I read Rebecca’s Tale awhile ago. Before I began reading Rebecca’s Tale I was almost determined not to like – such was my love of Rebecca. But I enjoyed that novel much more than I expected and I purchased The Sisters Mortland on the basis of that reading experience.

While reading the first section of the novel (narrated by Maisie) I was reminded a great deal of atonement.  Perhaps it was that feeling of a long ago defining summer.  Also Maisie’s voice and the child nearing adolescence who narrates about all these things going on around her that she doesn’t entirely understand, that she seems to have a sixth sense about and yet who struggles with the complex relations between men and women.

It is quite a long book, taking many different paths and diversions, but at the same time something felt incomplete about it – and I’ll come back to that. I didn’t find the characters particularly likeable and perhaps that was what Beauman was striving for, to make them more well-rounded and developed and human. I didn’t not like them because they were flawed, but more because there was almost a type of arrogance about their flawed personality. There are also all sorts of different configurations of the sisters and the young men – virtually every one of these relationships is explored and this struck me as something a little too much on the soap opera-ish side of things.

Getting back to the issue of incompleteness, there were aspects of what happened during that summer and specifically why one of the characters does something which were left unexplained. This connects again, I think, to the issue of real life and how much there is in real life that we don’t know, particularly about people’s motivation. At the same time, I always enjoy fiction where we are given more than we usually are in life. Something like Byatt’s Possession – where you get to the almost end and you think how sad that this was never resolved (or at least I did) and then there is a final section where she does share a very important scene – the kind that wasn’t known or recorded in “life” (the lives of her characters) where there is a meeting or experience which explains and more importantly gives meaning and because it is a work of fiction we (as readers) are able to experience that type of transcendence we don’t often get in real life. That is something I enjoy in my reading and I sometimes – actually usually – get disappointed as a reader when I don’t get that. I understand the randomness and chaotic nature of life and that sometimes we just don’t know and the meaning of things is unsure. I already know all of that. I look to my fiction for answers to those types of questions.  I look to it for questions to, but I like it best when I also get some answers – answers to questions in the text and also to ones outside or inspired or provoked by the text.


Books of a different sort…

26 08 2007

I’m going to be spending time today reading The Sisters Mortland (which is reminding me so much of Atonement though I’m not entirely sure why yet) and finishing this:

I’ve wanted something like this for sometime and thanks to the Artsy Mama I’ve finally almost got it.  I’ve included the names of all my favourite books and it will hang, with pride, among them.

Review: The Reader

22 08 2007

I’ve spent most of my day with Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader.  I can’t say it is a book I enjoyed reading, but it was an important book to read.

I have an old, battered up copy that I purchased at a local library sale. There was an elastic round it when I bought it, holding all the pages in and there are creases where pages have been folded down and then turned back up by other readers or attentive librarians. I’ve re-creased those pages and several more in my reading for there was much that spoke to me in this text.

It didn’t read for me like most novels do. It seemed very much a conversation, as if Michael were speaking his text or his confession directly to me, and yet paradoxically there seemed some barrier or restraint there as well. I read very few works that have been translated into English – I can only think of this and Norwegian Wood – but I found this same sensation while reading both of them.

There was a great deal that I also connected with and recognized in terms of writing about trauma and dealing with trauma and the peculiar position of second generation or third generation inheritances of that trauma. Much of the second half of the novel seemed to mediate and almost philosophize about these issues, explicitly explaining the position as Michael considered it, while at other times backing away and reverting to more simplistic and effecting passages that suggest a lack of answers or resolution, while at the same time emphasizing that the only way is forward.  He also raised some interesting points about how the admittance of shame and guilt over crimes committed by those that have come before can lead to, as Schlink puts if, someone “parad[ing] one’s self-righteousness” (171), as if that break with the past and the denial of their crimes makes one superior.  I don’t feel that is the case with many who denounce the crimes of a previous generation, but it can occur and it is that blind spot, that inability to see the same potential that I find so dangerous.

I found Michael’s relationship with Hanna complex and as a reader I also felt my response to her quite complex as well. Michael makes clear that she was not guilty of everything she was accused of while working at the camps and that there is a more humane explanation of why she chose the girls she did to read to her and the end of the novel makes clear that learning to read – and therefore making the admission that prior to that she was illiterate – was an attempt to learn about the Holocaust and reconcile with what happened and her role in it. And yet for all of this I could not in any way excuse her actions – that was not my place. No matter what I learned of her and her history, I could not really sympathize with her. I could only wish for her that she had made different choices. If there was a moment when I felt myself feeling sympathy for her, I seemed to consciously stop myself and to also feel guilt for having that reaction. Because of that, one passage in particular struck me:

“I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it. But it was too terrible for that. When I tried to understand it, I had the feeling I was failing to condemn it as it must be condemned. When I condemned it as it must be condemned, there was no room for understanding.” (157)

If we attempt to understand the position and the motivations and the actions of someone who commits a heinous crime, are we somehow diminishing what occurred?  But how can we prevent something like that crime from occurring again if no attempt is made to understand it?  It’s a challenging paradox and certainly those questions were on my mind throughout my reading and will stay very much with me.

Review: The Eyre Affair

22 08 2007

I purchased my copy of the book six years ago when I was in the UK for a month. The airport had a sale – buy three books for the price of two. I already had one suitcase full of books, but I couldn’t pass up a deal like that. I think I got six total. I was intrigued by the premise and any book that delved into Jane Eyre had to be worth a look. I was so excited in fact that I started reading it on the plane. I made it through one chapter and I have to admit that I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it. I put it at that point to the airplane and travel and all that. I tried to pick it up again about two months later and made it through two chapters before putting it down. Again, there was just something that I didn’t get about it.

I’m happy to report that I made it all the way through this time and I wasn’t as confounded by the opening chapters as I was before. It only took me about four days to make my way through The Eyre Affair. Speed in this case didn’t mean it was a book I couldn’t put down. Alas it was more of a skimming. Well, not such much a skimming, but I just let the story go and tried not to focus on a lot of the details because I just found them too confusing. It wasn’t a text I was able to question or wonder about in anyway, because the moment I did I seemed to lose the string that carried me through and I just confused myself. I think my main problem was with the alternate history or reality that the novel is set in. I’m not a big fantasy reader at the best of times, but with this alternate reality that was similar and yet not the same as now left me in a kind of in-between state. I wasn’t sure why some changes were made and not others and as with Kalooki Nights maybe I lacked enough basic knowledge of British history to grasp the implications of some of the changes Fforde did make. I also have to admit that I found it hard to believe that there would be a society so enamored of its literature and culture. I would love it that was the case, but it’s not something that I see around me and I was lacking an explanation of how that came to be. It was in terms of that alternate reality that I had to skim a bit. If I wondered at all about why certain things had changed and others hadn’t I was right out of the text.

I also found that I didn’t relate well to the character of Thursday and that also took me out of the story a bit. She is brave and intelligent and has a history and yet she was never three-dimensional to me and I wasn’t invested in her investigation or the back and forth with Landon.

I didn’t dislike it altogether. I found the performance of Richard III re-envisioned as an audience-participation Rocky-Horror-esque event kind of interesting and amusing. It also connected a bit to some of the things that have been said at the talks and lectures I’ve been attending throughout the summer about Shakespeare – in his time – being popular theatre or popular entertainment. The reverence some people have for Shakespeare is sometimes a blocking point, particularly for students and I like how Fforde approaches that in this scene, though certainly he pushes that to the extreme.  Another touch I liked was Mrs. Nakijima’s tourist trips into the world of Jane Eyre.

I have the second novel in the series.  I found it quite cheap at one of the local bookstores awhile ago and when I still felt that I might become enamored of the series.  I’m going to give it a try soon and see if it grows on me at all.

This is how to do history

19 08 2007

This is totally un-book or un-writing related, but an interesting link to explore. I attend an after-theatre cabaret yesterday evening and one of the surprise appearances was the Six String Nation guitar. The guitar is made of pieces that are historically and/or culturally significant to Canada. If you click here you can learn more about the guitar and explore the history behind different parts of it.  It was an amazing thing to see and to hear played.
Edit: Actually there is something book-related.  There is a piece from Lucy Maude Montgomery’s birthplace on the guitar.

Review: Maisie Dobbs

18 08 2007

I really enjoyed reading Maisie Dobbs. I read the second in the series several months ago and enjoyed it, but I think that I probably would have enjoyed the book a bit more if I’d read them in order. This book provided a great deal more history and background on Maisie and that really expanded the character for me.  While I was able to understand the relationships in the second novel, there were important details in the first novel – particularly Maisie’s relationship with Simon.

The mystery itself seemed to take a backseat for the middle part of the novel – but Maisie’s background provided important in terms of her solving the case and dealing with the trauma that was connected to the case and to her own history.  I did find that the shift back was a bit abrupt, but as I came to the end of the novel I saw why Winspear chose to insert it and how it spoke to Maisie’s need to deal with her own war experiences in working through and solving this case.  The mystery itself wasn’t difficult to solve, but I don’t think that the solving of the who or what is nearly as important as the why in these novels. I’m interested in how Winspear is able to come up with these WWI mysteries and deal with what has occurred in a very direct, but at the same time sensitive manner. She underlines the trauma and difficulty of the war, while never exploiting that suffering.

Happiness (3)

18 08 2007

Only one happiness entry today, but it’s a big one…

Things that make me happy:

1. Having a job!

Yes, I’ve got a job for September.  Not full time – yet.  Contract college teaching, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Having a job makes me happy on so many different levels.  Certainly there is a lot less stress financially, but it really is a lot more than that.  I feel quite adrift when I’m not working.  Looking for work when you don’t have any – and when it drags on – can really impact a lot of things, including your confidence.  I know that your job shouldn’t be everything, it shouldn’t be your whole life, but I’m someone who is much happier when I’m working and working towards something and working at something that I feel is meaningful.

And I get more done.  This summer I’ve had tons of time to do things I’ve always wanted to do, but something held me back, particularly where my writing was concerned.  I get a lot more done when I have more structure, more of a schedule, more to occupy myself.

I probably won’t be quite as enthusiastic when I’m loaded down with marking from seven and a half (can’t forget that half!) courses, but for today I say three cheers for work!