writereaderly

writing of readerly reviews of writings

Month: October, 2012

Review: Inga Clendinnen’s “Agamemnon’s Kiss: Selected Essays”

I feel a bit mixed about these essays. I prefer the essay form to short stories, but the risk of an anthology is always that it is a wee bit patchy, with too much diversity between the voices adopted for different publications and audiences. And so it was with this book. I was a bit naffed out by the first section, entitled “Backstage” aka “let’s talk about me some more” (the liver transplant AGAIN?), but I got quite a lot out of the pieces in “Dispatches” and “Secret Lives”, where Clendinnen exercised her historical and “public intellectual” skills on subjects other than herself and her own opinions: informative, considered writings on Aboriginal Australia, the Holocaust, the Aztecs, and not too bad writing style. I enjoyed reading her reviews of books I had also read, also. Not that Clendinnen was especially narcissistic, but I guess I prefer essayists being in the world rather than in themselves. Selectively recommended.

Where it came from: L’s Bookshelf (gifting lend)
Time and manner of reading: About four or five reads, beddy and armchairy
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of:
Who I’d recommend it to:
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon; Kalila and Dimna by Ramsey Woods

Review: Gail Edwards & Judith Saltman’s “Picturing Canada: A History of Canadian Children’s Illustrated Books and Publishing”

I was lent this book to go with my YA lit uni subject, but found that all I cared about was the pictures: a nice, anthropological overview of Canada through its children’s book illustrations. A pleasant interlude among other reads…

Where it came from: ED+LD’s Bookshelf
Time and manner of reading: Two flickering image searches
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of:
Who I’d recommend it to: Children’s book cognoscienti
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; Agamemnon’s Kiss by Inga Clendinnen

Review: Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart”

This book reminded me very strongly of Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, in that it traces the aborted revelation of a young girl’s empty self. Very strongly. Bowen’s novel is carefully crafted, very carefully framed, evidently she’s a craftswoman, but ultimately oh so bleak: “an anatomisation of human emptinesses” is the best précis I can devise. Heroine Portia is formlessness, pseudo-boyfriend Eddie is vicious flightiness, sister-in-law Anna is bourgeois apathy, brother Thomas is urbane disregard… Etc. Bowen’s dialogue is sharp (I think it’s meant to be funny, but I missed that) and her social acuity is impressive, but I can’t say I enjoyed this book. It’s never pleasurable to be taken this close to the void.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading: Several reads, with moderate interest by the end
Where it went: KAM
Reminds me of: The Hour of the Star
Who I’d recommend it to: Readers interested in the niceties of character dissection
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; Picturing Canada by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman (just the images)

Review: Philip Pullman’s “The Amber Spyglass” (His Dark Materials III)

Third and final installment of the Pullman reviews: this one made me feel more equivocal than the earlier two books in the series. Lyra and Will head off to end death and save the world, adventures ensue, the Apocalypse is averted, ta-da. The story is still quite gripping, but the threads of the plot fray a few too many times, as if the book were written too fast and not quite pulled together in time for publication: that was all that happened to the padre-assassin? Mummy and Daddy really became so nice so fast? Christianity is that bad, the end? I got irritated also with Lyra’s new doggishness (wherefore art thou, Will?), and found the Coming of Love remarkably burdensome for ~13 year olds. However, I was very moved by the descriptions of the dead atomising with joy into the universe, and the powerful creed of “tell them (true) stories” – whichever page that was, it was the best one of the book. All in all it was pretty good, though for the sake of the series I wish it had been more tightly written.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading: Bed, bath, bed, car and walking to the train station reads
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: None come to mind right now, although many a book has saved the world from ending
Who I’d recommend it to: Idem
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; Picturing Canada by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman (just the images); The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Review: Philip Pullman’s “The Subtle Knife” (His Dark Materials II)

Here we are in at Book II in the Pullman read-in (Book I review here). This one takes us straight into a parallel world which is a little more modern, a little less steam punk, no less magickal. Lyra has a new ally, small determined murderer Will, and some mystickal new enemies to spice it up as they flit between worlds. The quest pro-Dust and anti-Mummy continues, but I’m more respectful of the casual yet entrancing writing style this man has and was enthralled from whoa to go. Was really enjoying the breadth of character in the daemons. Not so keen on the emerging religious angle, though – we all remember the disappointment when we found out what Narnia was all about, don’t we peeps… On to #3 later today, although I must make sure to get enough sleep.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading: A beach-nibble and a bed-gobble
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: Increasingly like Narnia, with a good dash of Lord of the Flies
Who I’d recommend it to: Still comes with a pretty all-round recommendation: gripping
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; Picturing Canada by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman (just the images); The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Review: Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights” (His Dark Materials I)

This one only crossed my lectoral consciousness because it appeared on BBC’s list: all I knew was that it was a YA fantasy novel that went, quote unquote, “viral” and was now “recognised as a masterpiece”. Hmm. The first 50pp were a drag as the standard fantasy framework was erected: rambunctious preadolescent girl, mystery family, quirky steam-punk setting in almost our world, magickal powers, familiars, etc., etc. But then the story just took off, and I didn’t much care about the average writing style because I was so drawn into the plot and convolutions as heroine Lyra explores with her daemon and her gyptian friends and armoured bears and wanders into the lands of the Aurora and the mystery of Dust. I was gripped and think I will take the risky step of getting the next two out of the library even though I have an assignment due (oh the fool I remain…). Recommended.

Where it came from: Library
Time and manner of reading: An afternoon snippet then absorbed, bookended bed-reads
Where it went: Home
Reminds me of: Atoms, Motion and the Void, episodes 22-24, by Sherwin Sleeves
Who I’d recommend it to: Fantasy readers, but not just them… a good bit of escapism from reality can be promised
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; Picturing Canada by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman (just the images); The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Review: Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong”

A superb novel. In 1910, Britisher and orphan Stephen Wraysford travels to Amiens, France, for work and stays for soul-love. In 1916, he returns as a lieutenant to the Somme and other bellic disasters, and – partial spoiler alert – miraculously survives it all to return to England with a French wife and later a child. Stephen’s journey through passion and hate and despair and world-love, as extreme as a four-year tour-of-duty can make it, is exquisitely rendered, and the numerous minor characters who contextualise Stephen’s experience are all finely wrought and powerfully felt. The only slightly weak point is the 1978-79 section, somewhat tacked on for synchronicity (?), but overall this novel is a stunner and I look forward to reading anything else Faulks has written. (His Girl at the Lion d’Or was a delightful surprise when I opshopped it last year.) Most excellent.

Where it came from: Opshop
Time and manner of reading: A couple of bed-bits then a gripped long bed-haul
Where it went: As yet undecided
Reminds me of: Those other superlative WWI novels – McEwan’s Atonement, Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy – and, to its detriment (again), Tom McCarthy’s self-important one, C
Who I’d recommend it to: You cannot fault the power of this read; it’s only a matter of being up for the rawness of the emotions and the trenches
Also reading: Rabbit #4; How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch; Selected Essays by George Orwell; Picturing Canada by Gail Edwards and Judith Saltman (just the images)