No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, May 29, 2006

#53: The Seven Daughters of Eve -- Bryan Sykes

Accessible pop science from the man responsible for the discovery, via analysis of mitochondrial DNA, that anyone of European ancestry can trace their maternal lineage to one of just seven women, who lived at various times from 45,000 to 25,000 years ago.

I am absolutely fascinated by this notion, I have to say: if I could justify the expense, I'd send £180 to Oxford Ancestors and find out which of the seven was my ancestress. (Though it's possible that it wouldn't be any of them: all depends on some very recent, but as yet still tangled, family history.) Having read the book, though, I have a better understanding of how the process works, and why -- and what sparked the original research.

Sykes is an authority on the analysis of archaeological DNA, having been involved in testing samples taken from the 'Iceman', a 5000-year-old corpse found on a glacier on the Italo-Austrian border. During the analysis of the Iceman's DNA, he discovered that the same DNA sequences were present as were found in modern Europeans. One of the modern matches was a friend of Sykes', and she subsequently reported feeling 'kinship' for the long-dead Iceman, who'd turned out to be a distant, but direct, relative of hers.

Other assignments gave Sykes more sense of the connections that link many people in the modern world directly to historical figures. (Obviously we all have ancestors who lived hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years ago; in Roman times; in the time before farming; in the last Ice Age; et cetera.) Studying DNA extracted from skeletons thought to be those of the murdered Tsar and his family, Sykes discovered that he was related to Peter Romanov, the last Tsar: more precisely, that he and the Tsar shared a female ancestor who'd lived (given the rate of mutation of mitochondrial DNA) at some time in the last ten thousand years.

Using evidence from analysis of mitochondrial DNA, Sykes proved that the Polynesian islands were colonised from south-east Asia, rather than from America as Thor Heyerdahl claimed: "I could not help feeling a tinge of disappointment that I had been unable to vindicate the man who had inspired a generation with his voyage in Kon-Tiki."

He also found that there is no trace of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA anywhere in modern Europe; thus, no interbreeding, or no viable interbreeding. (He hypothesises that the offspring of Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens might have been infertile, like mules, due to chromosomal mismatch.)

And he showed that the Duke of Bath's butler's family have been in the area for longer than the Duke: the butler shares DNA with a 12,000-year-old skull from Cheddar Gorge, but the Duke does not.

There is a fair amount of space given to scientific infighting, but Sykes manages to sidestep any nastiness, and falls over himself to explain away the competition's 'errors' and 'instrument malfunctions'. As far as one can tell, the opposition has conceded that the whole 'mitochondrial DNA' theory is sound.

Perhaps the weakest part of the book, scientifically, is also the most entertaining: the seven chapters that deal with the seven 'daughters of Eve'. As fiction they're perfectly adequate, and some effort has been made to explain aberrations such as the wide geographical spread of two branches of one woman's DNA -- here, the result of one of her daughters being reared by another tribe -- but in the end it can only be fiction, however well researched. Your 'clan mother' might as well be a character from Jean Auel's 'Earth's Children' series.

Still: absolutely fascinating. So what if it has no relevance to anything? Though Sykes tries hard to give it relevance: Many people experience a feeling of closeness and intimacy with others in the same clan. But would they feel this if the DNA tests had not reveaaled the connection? Two strangers enter a crowded room. Their eyes meet and they feel instinctively drawn to each other but they don't know why. Are they acting under the influence of the subconscious awareness of an ancient connection?

Almost certainly not: but it doesn't stop me wanting to know!

#52: The Crimson Petal and the White -- Michael Faber

I received this vast (834pp) novel as a gift some years ago, but have only just read it: the sheer size put me off, not because I dislike long novels but for practical reasons to do with carrying a large book around with me. Simply put, the desire to read a novel set in Victorian times had not coincided with the opportunity to stay at home over a rainy Bank Holiday weekend.

The Crimson Petal and the White is an immensely readable novel, with fascinating characters and their various dilemmas. It's primarily a novel about women, although there are two men (William Rackham, and to a lesser extent his brother Henry) at the heart of the novel. Everybody in the novel is linked, somehow, to everyone else: and each life is changed, irrevocably, by the protagonist, a nineteen-year-old prostitute named Sugar whose selling-point is that she'll do absolutely anything.

Most of the novel concerns Sugar's relationship with William Rackham, who she transforms from an effete, aspiring writer to a hard-nosed industrialist: with William, and eventually with his wife, and his daughter, and (at one remove) his brother. Sugar, at the beginning of The Crimson Petal and the White, is penning a novel, a barbarous tale of revenge upon the whole male gender: long after she has stopped writing it, that novel plays a key role in events.

Sugar is a compelling character, torn between her essential good nature and the mental and emotional cruelty of her mother, who started her in her career: at times, indeed, Sugar fears that she has inherited her 'bad blood'. Faber paints a sympathetic (though not sentimental) portrait of Sugar's life, sparing no details: contraceptive douches, vile customers, the perils of life on the streets. Sugar is very much a victim of circumstance, climbing out of the Pit by any means necessary. Later in the novel, when she begins to act for herself, to make a deliberate difference to the lives of those around her, it's difficult to blame her -- though easy to see just how culpable she is, by society's standards.

There are some wonderfully evocative passages in this book, and some starkly realistic scenes: a great deal of time on basic bodily functions (urination and menstruation, rather than fornication or perversion), and a gentle, seldom forced emphasis on the role of ignorance and repression in the lives of the women who orbit William Rackham -- wife, mistress, daughter.

This can be read as a story about motherhood, in several dysfunctional guises: Sugar and Mrs Castaway, Agnes and Sophie, Sugar and her charge. Or a novel about commerce: prostitution, obviously, but the less-concrete transactions that make up the lives of the characters, from Sugar's deal with the coachman to Rackham's anger at his suppliers.

It's an occasionally self-conscious novel, addressing the reader directly from time to time -- most notably at the end of the novel, which is abrupt and leaves several tales untold. And it's self-conscious, too, in the way it treats its subjects: this is not a Victorian novel, but a modern novel looking back to another time, and contrasting it, if only by implication, with our own.

I'd recommend this very highly to anyone who'd like to fall, for the space of an afternoon or a weekend or a week, into late Victorian London: anyone who likes good writing, or good characterisation: anyone who is comfortable with some of the less pleasant realities of the era: and anyone with a sense of humour, for -- though it's probably not apparent from my sober analysis! -- this is often a very entertaining and witty read.

"Doctor Curlew will come today, as always."
"Very well, sir. But you are a spineless fool and that's the only thing making your wife sick." Well, no, actually Clara doesn't say that last sentence. Not aloud.

#51: Cloven Hooves -- Megan Lindholm

First published in 1991 and reissued as a Voyager Classic in 2002, this is a surprisingly hard-edged novel: bad things, irrevocable things happen to the characters, and there are no easy answers.

There are two threads to Evelyn's story. One is the nostalgic recollection of her tomboyish childhood in Alaska, roaming the forest, bullied and teased by her sisters but content to be the odd one out because of the special friendship she's forged. The other thread is the tale of Evelyn the wife and mother, unwillingly transplanted to her husband's family's farm somewhere near Tacoma. Their stay on the farm -- and Evelyn's exposure to her in-laws -- is supposed to be a temporary measure, helping out while her brother-in-law recovers from an injury. But somehow the family's departure is delayed, and delayed again: and all that keeps Evelyn going is the reappearance of her old friend from the Alaskan wilderness, a creature she knows only as Pan.

The plot of the novel is much more interesting than its execution, if you see my distinction. It's about man versus nature, and nature's implacability: about being true to oneself, and about selfishness: about how a creature of legend might survive in the modern world, and how he might adapt. And all those themes, those threads, are explored, and brought to life. But the characters in the novel seem essentially two-dimensional. And Evelyn, though she narrates the tale and thus gives us insight into her emotional life, can easily be read as either very stupid, or very self-centred, or as the victim of an ancient and effective con-trick. I don't like her, and I don't understand why she puts up with the appalling treatment she receives from her in-laws. To a point, yes, she's trapped and feels powerless and out of her depth: but they are so relentlessly unpleasant that surely she should crack before she does?

And then, having cracked, having run, having turned away from humanity and towards the woods, the mystery, the heart of nature ... at the very end of the book it's all there waiting in a way that I find puzzling. It's as though Evelyn's own feelings of worthlessness are being carried over into the real world. But then, she's done so much to cut herself off from that world that it's unsurprising to find those last ties being severed, without emotion.

What I liked about this novel was the sheer brutality of nature, and of Pan. This is not some hazy, sunlit idyll: this is the tale of a woman who follows a faun into the woods when winter's on its way, and finds herself living the raw side of the myth. She must submit to nature, and to its embodiment in Pan: and there are indications that what is left when spring comes is a stronger, more human individual.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Opera review: The Fairy Queen, Brighton Theatre Royal, 19.05.06

Purcell's The Fairy Queen -- not so much an opera as a series of interludes, written to fit between the scenes of Shakespeare's play -- is a favourite of mine. I fell in love with the ENO production that featured punk fairies, Oberon in a red velvet frock coat and leather trousers, and plenty of rats and bats. Armonico Consort's production was completely different, thought-provoking and marvellous and unsettling.

The production is set in a mental hospital: instead of fairies teasing and manipulating mortals, it's doctors and nurses manipulating (and abetting) the patients. According to the programme, the company was greatly influenced by Richard Dadd (painter of The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke, and himself a long-term resident in Bedlam). Even the puppets in the 'Chinese' scene -- wonderfully, er, puppeteered by two of the singers -- have faces drawn from a Dadd painting.

I've never watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I'm told there's considerable influence from that too: the empty bed on the ward, the patients dancing ...

There wasn't a duff voice in the cast, and all played their parts credibly and compellingly -- the drunken poet frolicking amid the audience; one of the tenors throwing arms wide, beaming, in the exuberant 'Let the pipes and the clarions'; the nurses humouring 'King Oberon'. Add two gifted and agile dancers, and two stunning aerialists, and the result is more compelling than one has any right to expect of Baroque opera.

#50: The Penelopiad -- Margaret Atwood

One of the first novels in a new series, The Myths, this is the story of Odysseus's wife Penelope, who waited twenty years for her husband to sail to Troy, besiege it, conquer it and finally make his way home via Cyclops, Calypso, Circe, Scylla and Charybis. Penelope, Homer tells us, waited faithfully; tricked her hundred suitors into waiting, too, for her to choose one of them; and, when Odysseus came home at last, was deceived by his disguise, and stood by as he and their son Telemachus hanged twelve of her maids for the crime of sleeping with the enemy.

Atwood gives the story a different slant. She reminds us that Penelope is cousin to Helen of Troy, and paints her as the clever, plain one. (This resonates with the reference to 'cousin Penelope with her long nose' in La Belle Helene, reviewed here recently.) She's constantly at odds with her mother-in-law, slowly learning to govern Ithaca in her husband's absence, and -- the daughter of a Naiad, thus prone to wateriness -- she weeps constantly for lost Odysseus.

Then the suitors arrive, and Penelope enlists the help of her maids. What she regrets is her own cunning, her own secrecy: her own reluctance to share the details of her scheming with Eurycleia, the old woman who recognises Odysseus before Penelope herself does.

Or so Penelope lets everyone think. "It's always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness."

This is a tale told by a ghost, with a chorus of ghosts: the maids, accusing, haunting Odysseus even down in Hades, dooming him to a restless fate. There are some light-hearted glimpses of ghost-life: Helen with her entourage of admirers, determined to reward them by bathing nude. "We're spirits now, Helen," says Penelope. "Spirits don't have bodies. They don't get dirty. They don't need baths." "Oh," says Helen airily, "but my reason for taking a bath was always spiritual." And the summonings, by magicians and conjurors and tedious table-tapping spiritualists: Penelope is as much an aristocrat as ever, and her contempt for such things is clear; but, as she says, she doesn't get out much.

A Learned Friend expressed disquiet at the influence of Graves' 'Penelope as cult goddess' theory, and the role of the maids as priestesses: but this seems more a footnote than an integral plot element. Penelope is very human, and her cleverness -- not to mention her small victories over husband and son -- is mortal cleverness. Her relationship with her son, and her understanding of his dilemma -- losing his inheritance to the suitors, losing more each day that Penelope's alive and keeping them waiting -- makes perfect sense, both in the timeless sense of human emotions and in the context of a world view that prescribes supernatural punishments for mortal crimes.

There are no gods in this tale, though Penelope's Naiad mother is not precisely human. Penelope, in any case, has little time for a capricious pack of deities, "mischievous as a pack of ten-year-olds with a sick cat to play with and a lot of time on their hands": she gives as much credence to tales of Odysseus beguiled by some high-class prostitute as to the tale of his sojourn with Calypso. Odysseus' tale requires the gods, the supernatural, the grand epic scale of feuds in heaven and the venegful fury of wind and wave. Penelope's requires only human nature.

#49: Piratica II: Return to Parrot Island -- Tanith Lee

Piratica II is subtitled 'Return to Parrot Island', but it's not as simple as that. Tanith Lee's alternate history -- it's roughly 1803, and France is a Monarchy, Britain a Republic -- is the backdrop for more Romantick Mishaps, Girls in Disguise and Ethical Piracy.

I don't think this is quite as successful as Piratica was; it feels as though there are too many loose ends, and one of the major plot twists is signalled so unsubtly that surely even the intended YA audience would have spotted it at once. But Lee's invention and playfulness are still very much in evidence: the Black Widow, a spectral pirate-hunting ship captained by Mary Hell (actually Hellstrom); the Morrocain port of Tangerine, complete with rhino-baiting; the ancient Roman ruins of Trey Falco, including four granite lions, a couple of nymph-infested fountains and an empty stone pillar ... and, deliciously, the popular fad for dressing and talking like pirates -- leading to the growth of organisations such as Ahoy Anonymous ("Entirely Confidential Help in Giving Up Pirateness").

Recommended for a grey hungover Saturday.

#48: Prodigal Summer -- Barbara Kingsolver

As an exploration of hormones, attraction and human interaction with nature, I'll take this over The Truth about Hormones any day.

It's the story of three lonely -- well, solitary -- people, each of whom reacts differently to their encounters with society. Deanna Wolfe is a ranger in a National Park, two years alone in a forest cabin high on the slopes of a mountain. Lusa Landowski, widowed at twenty-seven, finds herself the sole occupant of a sixty-acre farm, hemmed in by in-laws and determined not to farm tobacco -- not least because the bottom's falling out of the market. Garnett Widener is an old man living alone, feuding with his neighbour Nannie, who's given to organic farming ("grow[ing] apples with no chemicals at all, in defiance of the laws of nature") and arguments in favour of evolution.

Each of the characters is subtly drawn: the reader is privy to things they don't necessarily know about themselves. Lusa's love of moths -- she was an entomologist before her marriage -- has emotional resonance. Deanna celebrates the arrival of a coyote troup, mourns the death of baby chicks without understanding the empty space in her own life. Garnett lives in the land, knows every tree, has 'a strange sad thought about his own special way of seeing trees inside his mind, and how it would go dark, like a television set going off, at the moment of his death': but he doesn't know how to fend off that intimation of mortality.

There are some wonderful images in this book: rockets on the Fourth of July as 'men trying to have sex with the sky', the hormone-stream of luna moths, the 'sadness of lost things' as Deanna imagines the ghosts of extinct species in the quiet cathedral of the forest. When I first read it, I found myself swept up by the tales of strong women, women who by accident or design have ended up alone, women who get along in the world without a close romantic attachment. This isn't a romantic novel in any traditional sense, though there is love and lust aplenty, inappropriate attraction, individuals behaving like idiots because of the way they feel about somebody else.

On reflection, I think there's another layer of story, an underlying narrative about everybody needing somebody, possibly even a paean to family and motherhood. It's very much a novel about choice, though: about how minds and hearts balance, how free will lets human beings make conscious choices about things that affect them, happen to them, at a subconscious level.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Opera review: La Belle Helene, ENO, 6.5.06

La Belle Helene (Offenbach) -- ENO, May 6th

A hasty and belated write-up. This is one of my favourite oper(ett)as -- frivolous and bubbly in the true Offenbach tradition, not bad for a dramatic presentation about the causes of the Trojan War. It has some of the most glorious duets I've ever heard: and the finest and most sensual of these, "Oui c'est un rêve", was accompanied in this production by an especially athletic, and comic, flock of dancing sheep.

Enough said, perhaps.

I generally enjoy the lightheartedness that the ENO bring to comic opera. The chorus is fabulous, and I've never seen a company that can present such joie de vivre in ensemble pieces. La Belle Helene was no exception: air stewardesses, the Kings of Greece in beach-wear, and the standard parade of gawping tourists all did their bit to brighten the stage and the air. Kitsch as anything, gaudy as a Covent Garden tat shop: splendid stuff.

Kit Hesketh-Harvey (one half of Kit and the Widow) was responsible for the translation, and I think he kept the spirit of the original, despite via some truly appalling puns. "I feel foul!" "Only to be expected if one's the offspring of poultry." I suspect he's also responsible for the revision of the riddle-game. In the original French this is a laboured game of charades, the solution being 'locomotive'. (Yes, this is Antiquity.) Making it into a musical riddle, we had the New World Symphony (3rd syllable of composer's name), O Fortuna (composer), 'Rule Britannia' (composer) and a bit of Bach. Go on, you'll never guess.

In retrospect, the production rather overwhelms the actual performance. But Toby Spence made an excellently sung, and suitably glamorous, Paris. Felicity Lott was older than the average Helen, but nailed the Mature Woman Seeks Toyboy aspect of the role. The only disappointment, vocally, was Leah-Marian Jones as Orestes: I could hardly hear her, which was a shame as it's a sharp and witty role. (We were in the balcony, and spent the first half behind a woman who was desperately trying to see around the tallest man in the house), but everyone except Orestes was audible.) Orestes, sadly, was overshadowed by the two burlesque dancers who followed him everywhere.

Some very nice moments -- a reprise from an earlier duet as the couple ascend in Paris's flying galley, for example -- and a great many laugh-out-loud lines. Important to remember that a lot of the irreverence is Offenbach's: he set the finale at a beach resort, had Calchas (High Priest) as a doddery old bloke more concerned with protocol than religion, and is 100% responsible for 'l'homme a la pomme', yodelling Paris and recorded-delivery doves.

I hope some day to be able to listen to "Oui, c'est un rêve" without thinking of sheep cavorting, rug-like, around the bed.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

#47: The Long Firm -- Jake Arnott

Picked this up because I was in the mood for a crime novel: I got much more than I expected!

The Long Firm is the story of Harry Starks, as told from the viewpoints of five people who come into his orbit. Harry's the epitome of the glamorous Sixties East End gangster, a Kray with more style. He runs a club, imports hardcore pornography in shipments of Danish bacon, controls various rackets and scams, is always on the lookout for new schemes. He's also homosexual and manic-depressive. When he's finally arrested and brought to trial, the newspapers dub him TORTURE GANG BOSS.

And that's how the novel opens, really: Terry, one of Harry's boys, getting his come-uppance for trying to cheat his boss. Then there's Teddy Thursby, Tory peer with some shady secrets, who ends up going to Nigeria with Harry to finance a deal; Jack the Hat (I don't think Arnott ever gives his surname, but surely Jack McVitie, killed by the Krays?) who does Harry a favour by investigating a murder; Ruby Ryder, a small-time actress who betrays and then saves Harry; and, last but certainly not least, Lenny, a university lecturer who meets Harry while running a sociology course in prison, corresponds with him throughout his time in prison, and ends up a changed man in Malaga.

The Long Firm is slick and sharp and funny. Each voice is distinct, and it's only in hindsight that I'm starting to make out the shape of the story that is really being told, the chain of events -- the relationship between Harry Starks and corrupt police office Mooney -- that forms a continuous chain through each separate narrative.

There's a real Swinging Sixties buzz, though this is the dark underside of the shiny hopeful glamorous decade that's been reinvented by the media. Rachman, Driberg, Joe Meek, the Krays: all here, all (presumably) in character, all part of the scene that Harry moves through. A cameo appearance from Judy Garland. References to the Stones, the Beatles, Cassius Clay.

And Harry, despite being a violent and brutal criminal, comes across as intensely charismatic. There's a vulnerability to him that might be the product of the power he wields: a less secure man would have to hide it. Harry doesn't hide: homosexual, opera fan, Jewish, product of a East End working-class wartime upbringing, son of a communist father who's more concerned about his bourgeois values than his sexuality.

Brilliant writing, anyway. I would read more crime fiction (though that's a grossly simplified categorisation) if there was more like this.

#46: The Seal Wife -- Kathryn Harrison

Anchorage, Alaska, 1916: frontier life. Bigelow is a young meteorologist whose primary duty is to relay weather forecasts to the men building the railroad, and to report back on Alaskan weather fronts that might affect more clement areas.

That's not what The Seal Wife is about. Instead, it deals with Bigelow's involvements with women. There are four: an Aleut woman who never speaks and is never named; Miriam, the daughter of the general store manager, who sings accompaniment at film showings but is otherwise made mute by a frightful stammer; Violet, the prostitute with the least embarrassing name at the local brothel; and Mary, a gap-toothed girl who picks his pocket at a dance.

When Bigelow isn't torn apart by his conflicting feelings (he doesn't use the word 'love' very much) for these four, he's building a meteorological kite that will go higher, further, than any other instrument. It should have been a clue, to me, that some of the most evocative passages in the novel are about the kite:

But why is he surprised? He has pages of calculations relating lift to the sine of the angle of incidence, pages more on the ratio of inertia to viscous forces. He's plotted everything out on paper ... It isn't magic, after all, it's science.
So how to explain the effect on him of the one white face, so bright, like sunlight on the surface of the sea, throwing spangles into the air? How to explain the catch in his chest, the sudden spill of tears?

It's a novel inverted: at the beginning, he is left, and at the end there's a return. And I think the title's a lie, although there is certainly a seal, and a bite -- in fact, there's a lot of biting -- and unlooked-for sympathy: surely a shred of doubt in Bigelow's mind, a faint unvoiced belief that the woman, that the seal ...

It isn't magic, after all, it's science.

A quiet, powerful novel: a window into a male-dominated society, a harsh life on the edge. A novel that will stay with me.

he's falling through a woman's vastness: storms and oceans, a desert, a mountain, a field in bloom, the wind moving in loops and arcs and great gusting sighs, the breath of God, in out in out, God exhaling clouds of geese, and Bigelow in his tower, watching.

#45: The Truth About Hormones -- Vivienne Parry

This is quite possibly the least-proofed book I have ever read. The standard of the text is appalling. I'm sure I missed a lot of the mistakes -- hormone names, endrocrinological terms, proper nouns etc -- but I do pity anyone using this for reference. I can understand the occasional glitch with unusual polysyllabic words, but I can't forgive failure to use a spell-checker. Benifits? Gound-up? Y-shirt? oganotherapy? Britsh? Prenancy? Not to mention poor Jane Austin, who's spelt correctly in the text but not in the index ...

The Truth About Hormones was shortlisted for the Aventis Prize for science writing. As I'm nearing the age when my sister's menopause started, and have also been diagnosed with thyroid problems, it seemed a good thing to read. Although I learnt a great deal from it -- and enjoyed its generally light-hearted tone -- I'm a little disappointed.

For one thing, this book is very deliberately aimed at a female readership. Parry, as well as being an ex-presenter of Tomorrow's World [pop science TV programme] and a columnist for the Guardian [highbrow newspaper], is the science editor of Good Housekeeping magazine [august British periodical aimed at 30+ female readership]. There's nothing on the cover to say 'for women', but honestly they might as well have decked it out in pink and white. There are repeated references to 'your breasts', 'your monthly cycle', and so on, and more than a few jokes at the expense of males -- middle-aged, teenaged, and anything in between -- that I'll bet some men would find offensive. And some of her humour is better-suited to her News of the World column than to what's been touted (though, to be fair, not by its author) as a pop science book. Yes, a toyboy may be a better solution than HRT to post-menopause blues, but for many -- most? -- women it isn't an option available to them.

There are also some sections where the author's opinions are presented in a way that doesn't quite sit with the 'plain explanation' style of other parts of the book. She's not impressed with women who complain about side-effects of the Pill -- "there are plenty of other effective contraceptive methods". (Yep, but for many women the issue is we were told it was safe and it's turned out not to be.)

I did learn a lot from this book, and found it fascinating despite all the problems I've mentioned above. Did you know:

  • thyroxine is the hormone that turns tadpoles into frogs?

  • PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) has been linked to the gene that, in men, causes premature baldness?

  • that switching on the bathroom light in the middle of the night drastically reduces your melatonin?

  • that the mother's stress levels in pregnancy affect the child's stress tolerance / response throughout life?

  • that men pay more attention to what's heard with their right ear?

Well, you do now.

#44: As Meat Loves Salt -- Maria McCann

It's nearly a week since I finished reading this novel, but I still can't really make up my mind about whether I liked it or not.

It's a compelling read, on the whole. Set during the English Civil War, it's the first-person narrative of Jacob Cullen. When the story opens, he is a man-servant at Beaurepair, a Royalist estate somewhere in the south-west of England. A body has just been found in a pond in the estate, and Jacob -- unbeknown to those around him -- is the killer.

Jacob's betrothal feast goes horribly wrong and, with his fiancee Caro and his brother Zeb, he flees Beaurepair, ending up in the New Model Army. There he meets Christopher Ferris, an idealistic fellow who dreams of establishing a Digger colony and living free on common land.

The greater part of the book deals with the relationship, the powerplay, between Ferris and Jacob. Gradually, the reader begins to see things in Jacob's narrative -- and in his character -- that Jacob himself isn't aware of. Ferris, though, seems to understand Jacob better than he understands himself: Ferris understands the violent temper, the 'devil of mastery' that overcomes him from time to time. Ferris, I suspect, sees more clearly than Jacob (who's prone to self-delusion). Yet Ferris is not without blame. At each turning-point, it's at least partly his influence that guides Jacob down one path or another -- paths that ultimately lead to an unexpected, and unhappy, outcome.

There are aspects of this book that didn't endear it to me. The Civil War isn't a period I'm overly familiar with, but the historical detail was convincing: however, at times it seemed to overwhelm the actual story. (I'm not sure if this is an issue with the pacing of the novel itself, or just my impatience with any scenes that didn't focus on the protagonists!) And some of the deliberately archaic language -- 'frighted', 'methought' and so on -- was obtrusive: authenticity is all very well, but not if it detracts from flow. Use of period language is a tricky thing to balance, though.

Jacob is a marvellous creation: compellingly dreadful, criminal, and borderline insane, and yet blind to so much that his self-image is quite another matter. McCann's characterisation -- not only Jacob but Ferris, and Ferris's aunt, and various Diggers and other revolutionaries -- is stunning. I want to read more.

Monday, May 08, 2006

#43: How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theatre -- Marc Acito

This is a self-referential teen movie of a book -- there's plenty of references to framing, soundtracks (Handel's Hallelujah Chorus), the perfect line -- but there's more to it than just another Breakfast Club rip-off. It's got all the key ingredients, though: schemes that backfire but turn out better than anyone ever intended; predatory older woman; eccentric best friend (opposite sex); gorgeous best friend (same sex); stunning girlfriend / boyfriend, with whom things are not going quite as they should; raw ambition, thwarted by parental disapproval; and a cameo for a really famous person, in this case Frank Sinatra.

For a novel that's set in 1983, the use of computers seems a bit too advanced. And there is no hint at all about the wider world, except a single reference to HIV. But this was a very enjoyable read, heartfelt in all the right places (I can see why Edward wants to be an actor, and why he's going to be good at it) and laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes at the same time as the heartfelt bits. The teenage sexuality hits just the right imbalance of experience and understanding -- and this novel ventures where few Hollywood hits would go. What's more, there's character development, weird coincidence and yes, plenty of sex, friendship, crime (not just theft) and music theatre.

Not too frivolous to be well-written: not too earnest to be fun.

#42: Stet -- Diana Athill

Written when the author was in her eighties, this is the story of a life in publishing. Half of the book is an account of Athill's life, with emphasis on the early years of publishing house Andre Deutsch, dealing with the difficulties of producing affordable quality books in the post-war period -- and the difficulties of dealing with Andre Deutsch himself, a man who liked absolute control and / or someone to blame. The second part of the book is given over to reminiscences about some of the authors whose works Athill edited: Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul. She has an excellent eye for detail (the 'beady eye', she calls it) and is accurate without cruelty.

'Stet', in proof-reading terminology, means 'let the original stand': this was how things stood. There's a strong sense of Athill's personality in Stet: an independent woman with a strong propensity for idleness, who never worked harder than she had to for any extended period, and was lucky to have found a career that she enjoyed and was good at. She was determined to stay an editor, choosing and editing books, rather than a publisher who'd have to deal with all the minutae of running a publishing house: finances, advertising, production, supply ... Personally, I think the world would be a better place if ambition were insisted upon a little less. But that's just me, idle.

Athill has some more or less scathing remarks about the current state of publishing. Whole generations have grown up to find images more exciting than words, and the roaming of space via a computer more exciting than turning a page. Of course a lot of them still read: but a progressively smaller lot, and fewer and fewer can be bothered to dig into a book that offers any resistance. Although these people may seem stupid to us, they are no stupider than we: they just enjoy different things.

And later, commenting on the expectations of 'great' writers such as Naipaul: every publisher knows you don't necessarily become a best-seller by writing well. Of course you don't necessarily have to write badly to do it: it is true that some best-selling books are written astonishingly badly, and equally true that some are written very well. The quality of the writing -- even the quality of the thinking -- is irrelevant. It is a matter of whether or not a nerve is hit in the wider reading public, as opposed to the serious one which is composed of people who are interested in writing as an art.

And summarising, at the end: the greatest demand [is] for the quick and easy and for the simple, instantly recognisable flavours such as sugar and vinegar, or their mental equivalents ...

What will stay with me from this book, though, is something that the author perhaps did not intend: the idea that old age need not mean any diminution of faculties or fervour, that one might grow old and still care, still think, still be the same person. Athill's clear sight and dry humour are wonderfully affirming, and her evident love and appreciation of life, "something to enjoy and to foster as much as possible; something not to betray by succumbing to despair", is inspirational.

Old people don't want to mop and mow, but age has a blinkering effect, and their narrowed field of vision often contains things that are going from bad to worse: it is therefore consoling to be reminded that much exists outside that narrow field, just as it did when we were forty or thirty or twenty.

#41: The Mistress of Lilliput -- Alison Fell

This is the tale of Mrs Mary Gulliver, a woman with "a mind more given to ecstasy than enquiry", abandoned by her husband while he adventured in Lilliput and all those other exotic lands; briefly overjoyed at the return of said husband, but distressed by his repulsion of her; and, when her husband flees England, pursuing him with devoted determination, through shipwreck and privation, until she is cast ashore on that very isle where Gulliver made such an impression upon the locals.

It's also the story of a young French botanist whose aim in life is to grow a huge hybrid strawberry. We hear some of the story of 'Bluebottle', a Negro prince enslaved and working as a common sailor, who is Mary Gulliver's salvation. And it's the story of Lady Mary, the narrator of the novel, who is soon revealed to be Mary Gulliver's doll.

This is a beautifully written novel, but it's not altogether likeable. Following the maxim that no man is a hero to his valet, it seems that no woman's a heroine to her doll. Lady Mary, mostly unperturbed by her own limitations (motionless, sexless, voiceless), is a cool and occasionally cruel observer, and though she repeatedly assures us that she will remain an invisible narrator she returns again and again to the oppressive behaviour of her mistress. Lady Mary shows surprisingly little sympathy for Mary Gulliver's plight, but instead represents a strict, meek virtue:

Life has many lessons to teach a woman if she will learn, the first being that the mind must not get above itself, for it is marooned in the body like a castaway on an island, circumscribed not by the ocean but by the mighty materiality of flesh. At first she may rail like a madman against the alien environment, against wild surf, strange fruit and inhospitable thorn, but after years of rebellion she will begin to see the sense in coexistence, and will gradually desist from gazing at the horizon, building rafts and screaming for rescue, and learn instead to savour the produce of the place, learn its livestock and its lineaments, and not only be reconciled with it, but even favour its rhythm above all others.

There's a lavish sensuousness to many of the scenes -- Lady Mary living vicariously, for she never tastes a strawberry, or an embrace -- and inventions that are almost, self-consciously, absurd. The Gentlemen's Supper Club (Lilliput's version of the Hellfire Club) is a case in point: "so refined were their appetites that they had bored themselves with every protruberance in the province, and exhausted themselves in every orifice." When we first meet them, they are eagerly eyeing the flowers of the garden, muttering about calyxes and stigma ... That rococo sensuality (complete with plenty of swooning) is deceptive, because it puts a gloss on some unpleasant events, not least what's essentially a rape.

After Lilliput, Mary Gulliver finally encounters her husband in a fabulous, though rather laboured, three-isled archipelago: she visits Sumina, Amina and Oge before finding what she's been looking for. Though it's a happy ending, it feels almost too facile.

There's a lot to this novel if one looks beyond the surface. Duty versus desire; the nature of servitude and submission; ecstasy versus enquiry. And, too, the fate of the Lilliputian sheep that Gulliver brought to England; the fate of the man himself; and the pleasures of intellectual curiosity.