Monday, October 12, 2015

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

Told in the voice of Pythias, daughter of Aristotle, Annabel Lyon's The Sweet Girl opens when she is seven years old.

"The first time I ask to carry a knife to the temple, Daddy tells me I'm not allowed to because we're Macedonian. Here in Athens, you have to be born an Athenian girl to carry the basket with the knife, to lead the procession to the sacrifice. The Athenians can be awfully snotty, even all these years after our army defeated their army."

Lyon's use of words like "snotty" is one of the playful elements in this novel that's based on real people in ancient Greece. Another is that gods make cameo appearances and interact with Pythias. The blend of historical fact with myth is very appealing. I don't remember any fantastical elements in Lyon's earlier novel,  The Golden Mean which is set about 20 years further back in time, when Aristotle tutored the 15-year-old prince who grew up to be Alexander the Great.

I read one of Aristotle's works, Poetics, and blogged about the experience a few years ago. Pythias has, of course, read all of her father's writings. As a precocious prepubescent, she is given a rare opportunity to speak in a room of men. Impressed, one of them says:

"The question, then, is whether little Athena is unique, or whether she is an example of what many girls could be, if they were encouraged by such fathers."

Another says: "A freak. Oh, I don't mean that unkindly. But how could such a great man produce an ordinary child? The tallest mountains have the tallest shadows. She's not representative of her sex."

Perhaps Pythias is a freak, because she is an early version of a modern woman. Orphaned at 16 when her father dies, she discovers there are few options open to her. Somehow, she must find a place for herself in society. This book really made me appreciate how far we have come since then in terms of women's rights.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I was wrong about A Brief History of Seven Killings. I did not want to read it because review descriptions made me think it wasn't my kind of book. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times called it: "raw, dense, violent, scalding, darkly comic, exhilarating and exhausting." Aside from "darkly comic" and "exhilarating," the rest of that string scared me away. "Dense, violent and exhausting" sounds like something to avoid. And it's a doorstop on top of that, 688 pages, which means investing a significant amount of time.

People that I trust were raving about how good this is, so I decided to give it a try in audio. Excellent decision! I love this book so much that now I am the one raving about it.

The story spans decades of history in Jamaica, centered around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Pieces link together in surprising ways. The characterization is outstanding. Most of them are men, but there are a few women, including Nina Burgess:

A Brief History of Seven Killings
had me revisiting all things Bob
Marley, including this picture
book biography by Tony Medina
and Jesse Joshua Watson.
"Kimmy learning from Ras Trent to take the words English people gave her as a tool of oppression and spit them back in their face. Rastaman don't deal with negativity so oppression is now downpression even though there is no up in the word. Dedicate is livicate, I and I, well God knows what that means, but it sounds like somebody is trying for their own holy trinity but forgetting the name of the third person. A lot of shit if you ask me."

The audiobook [Highbridge: 26 hours] is read by an ensemble cast (Robertson Dean, Cherise Booth and Dwight Bacquie), so not only are the multiple voices distinctive, the Jamaican patois rolled easily into my ears. I enjoy the way dialect gets me into a setting and it's even better when I can hear it in audio format. Sensitive listeners are forewarned that the dialogue has a lot of profanity, which in Jamaica relies heavily on words that have to do with the vagina and menstruation. But I hope this warning will not scare you away from a fantastic reading experience.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, along with another title I adored, A Little Life. It's a close call, but I think I like A Brief History of Seven Killings best. The winner will be announced tomorrow and I would be pleased if either of them wins.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

Patrick deWitt's Undermajordomo Minor is a dark comedy that transforms European folktale elements into something entirely original. Imagine a mash-up of Wes Anderson's film The Grand Budapest Hotel with Pauline Reage's The Story of O and PG Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster.

Lucien (Lucy) Minor, a puny young man from a village of giants, accepts a position as assistant to the majordomo at a distant castle. When he gets to the castle of Baron Von Aux, you know it doesn't bode well for him when he is instructed to lock himself in his room at night.

I reviewed deWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a few years ago. As in that earlier novel, this one has dialogue that I found extremely amusing. In the following passage, the majordomo Mr Olderglough has asked Lucy what he thinks of a plan that has been proposed:

Lucy said, "I think it is somewhat far-fetched, sir."
"Are you not up for it?"
"I'm not, actually, no. And to be frank, sir, I don't believe you are, either."
"What sort of attitude is that? Let us rally, boy."
"Let us come up with another plan."
"Let us look within ourselves and search out the dormant warrior."
"Mine is dormant to the point of non-existence, sir. There is no part of me that wishes to lay nakedly abed and await that man's arrival."
"I tell you you will not be alone."
"And yet I shall surely feel alone, sir."
Mr Olderglough looked down the length of his nose. "May I admit to being disappointed in you, boy."
"You may write a lengthy treatise on the subject, sir, and I will read it with interest. But I highly doubt there will be anything written within those pages which will alter my dissatisfaction with the scheme."
"Well I'm sorry to have to tell you this, boy, but it must come to pass, and it will."
"I believe it will not, sir."

We will leave Lucy and Mr Olderglough at this point in their oh-so-polite disagreement. In their world, soldiers fight because they are soldiers, not because there is a war, and servants work because it's their job - even if they do not get paid. Befriended by a family of thieves, Lucy struggles to find meaning in his life.  

This gothic tale charmed me from the very start. There are no illustrations in Undermajordomo Minor, yet the books that I think most closely capture its essence are in graphic novel format: Tinder (Sally Gardner); Through the Woods (Emily Carroll), The Adventuress (Audrey Niffenegger), Baloney (Pascal Blanchet); and Beautiful Darkness (Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet). It would make a great movie.

I look forward to hearing Patrick deWitt at the Vancouver Writers Fest on October 23, 2015.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Likely Event of Literary Connections

There's a frisson that comes from encountering related passages in entirely unrelated books that I just happen to be reading at the same time. Yesterday I finished two: Patrick deWitt's Undermajordomo Minor, a dark fable set somewhere in central Europe during the steam-powered era, and the audiobook of Judy Blume's In the Unlikely Event, realistic fiction set in New Jersey in the 1950s. In each story is a character who ends his emotional torment the same way.

What follows will not spoil either of the plots, because these are minor characters and the excerpts do not identify them. Both describe a socially-sanctioned form of suicide: men who intentionally sacrifice themselves during wartime action.

"At last he simply ran towards their cannons, and that was the end of him." -Patrick deWitt.

"He walked into enemy fire, didn't he?" -Judy Blume

While I wouldn't describe myself as someone who seeks out books set during wartime, war does come up often in the novels I read. Mental health, on the other hand, is a topic I do look for in fiction. I had not expected to find it addressed in these two novels, but I was pleasantly surprised. Blume and deWitt incorporate mental health issues throughout their respective storylines. I enjoyed both books very much.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

On the book jacket of A Little Life is the face a man who looks like he is suffering. So many people have recommended it that I overrode my reluctance to tackle a 720-page novel that looks like it might be full of pain. Now I'll add my praise to that already heaped upon Hanya Yanagihara for this sad story that I love so very, very much.

I found Yanagihara's first novel, The People in the Trees, intellectually compelling. A Little Life is better. It's emotionally compelling. Unlike the repulsive characters in The People in the Trees, A Little Life is full of people that I would be honoured to spend time with in real life. (There are also a few who are true villains, whom I'd never want to meet.)

Jude St. Francis and three other guys meet in college and remain close for the rest of their lives. They come from mixed ethnic backgrounds and have diverse sexual identities and career paths. The focus on their remarkable bonds of friendship that last over decades is one of the reasons that this book so wonderful. There are mysterious, heartbreaking circumstances in Jude's past that are slowly revealed, propelling the plot forward. The main story, however, is that of people's ordinary lives and the importance of human connections.

"And yet he sometimes wondered if he could ever love anyone as much as he loved ___. It was the fact of him, of course, but also the utter comfort of life with him, of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was on that particular day."

There was a part that reminded me of the excellent essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed (Meaghan Daum, ed.):

"But he and his friends have no children, and in their absence, the world sprawls before them, almost stifling in its possibilities. Without them, one's status as an adult is never secure; a childless adult creates adulthood for himself, and as exhilarating as it often is, it is also a state of perpetual insecurity, of perpetual doubt."

Here's another example of Yanagihara's introspective style:

"He found himself doubting therapy - its promises, its premises - for the first time. He had never before questioned that therapy was, at worst, a benign treatment: when he was younger, he had even considered it a form of luxury, this right to speak about his life, essentially uninterrupted, for fifty minutes proof that he had somehow become someone whose life deserved such lengthy consideration, such an indulgent listener. But now, he was conscious of his own impatience with what he had begun to see as the sinister pedantry of therapy, its suggestion that life was somehow reparable, that there existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided toward conforming to it."

Details about food preparation are always a hook for me. In the following passage, Harold has asked Jude to teach him to cook.

"And so he did. [...] My main problem, it emerged, was a lack of patience, my inability to accept tedium. I'd wander away to look for something to read and forget that I was leaving the risotto to glue itself into a sticky glop, or I'd forget to turn the carrots in their puddle of olive oil and come back to find them seared to the bottom of the pan. (So much of cooking, it seemed, was petting and bathing and monitoring and flipping and turning and soothing: demands I associated with human infancy.)"

A Little Life is currently on the Man Booker shortlist. The only other title on the list that I've read so far is Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings. I'm glad I'm not a judge choosing between these two because they are both outstanding. The winner will be announced on October 13.