22 August, 2006

Two French novels

Both quite short. Philippe Claudel's Grey souls is a murder story set in Eastern France towards the end of the First World War - grey, atmospheric, sad and full of deaths. Very French. [46]

And Eliette Abécassis's short novel La répudiée, about a Jewish Orthodox woman in Jerusalem whose husband 'repudiates' her, under Jewish law, when she hasn't produced an heir for him. One of those novels you read to find out about a way of life rather than for the literary experience. [47]

21 August, 2006

The run of good books continues

I've barely read any fiction so far this year, but now I can use the library again I'm barrelling through decent novels.

Finished James Meek's The people's act of love on Friday, which was strange and beautiful. Set in a tiny village in Siberia in 1919, it's a sort of Wild East setting: a stranger comes to town; the townspeople are a small, closed off religious community; there's a garrison of Czech troops fighting for the Whites in the Civil War, and a beautiful, mysterious widow. Beautifully written and wonderfully evocative of the empty vastness of the Siberian landscape. [43]

Andrea Levy's Small Island was excellent too - funny and very well observed with lots of brilliant detail. It's about the experiences of the first black immigrants to Britain, following Gilbert, who fought in the RAF in the Second World War, and returns in 1948 thinking this experience will be an advantage to him, and his wife Hortense, who is deeply surprised to discover that the education and fastidiousness that marks her out as a more refined person in Jamaica is not noticed behind her black skin when she moves to Britain. I liked a lot of the little bits about culture clash, like when the RAF sergeant decides that Jamaican teeth-sucking is an insubordinate act. A rather pat ending spoiled the book, unfortunately. [44]

Now half way through something a bit heavier, the Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness which is already very good: it's about Auschwitz, but from the point of view of a fifteen year oild boy (the age Kertesz himself was when he was sent to Auschwitz). The narrative voice is particularly good, showing the utter confusion Holocaust victims were plunged into when they were sent to the camps, but covered with a brittle facade of logic and confidence which I think is utterly characteristic of children of that age. [45]

14 August, 2006

Beyond brilliant

And so my Book Of The Year (So Far) is Hilary Mantel's Beyond black. It's the story of a medium, Alison, who does psychic shows around the London orbital towns, and the spirits who haunt her, and her relationship with her cold, cynical manager/PA Collette, a woman who is also strangely alone in the world. It was a wonderful book, funny and black and depressing and witty. I loved the way it was about a woman who lives her life mostly in a spirit world, and yet the reality of the depressing conference centres and Harvesters she 'performs' in is so concrete: Hilary Mantel has a wonderful eye for the detail of everyday life.

Alison's spirits are also brilliantly drawn: her spirit guide is no noble Cherokee or ancient Egyptian, but a sordid, nasty old man from the criminal underworld, forever looking for his mates Pikey Pete and Aitkenside. Perhaps it sounds a really strange book, but it gripped me so much that having picked up the cohabitee's copy for an idle look I couldn't put it down till I'd finished reading it. Really, all go out and read it. It was totally brilliant. [42]

Quick fire

Four quick, trashy, indulgences: To the nines, Ten big ones, Eleven on top and Twelve sharp, the last four instalments of Janet Evanovich's crimes series about slacker bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. The dialogue is snappy and the novels are still entertaining, although losing their edge a bit now that she has written so many of them. Still, the set-ups are funny and silly and not predictable, and it makes a nice change to read something that requires no effort. [37] [38] [39] [40]

I've also very much enjoyed Alan Furst's The world at night and shall be reading more of him. It was a wonderful escapist read, all atmospheric Paris by night and haunted, beautiful women, brutal but charming Nazis and a world-weary, sophisticated hero who finally has to choose to fight for what he truly believes in... [41]

01 August, 2006

A scientist called Steve

Just finished Leonardo's mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms, another of Stephen Jay Gould's excellent collections of essays on biological, palaeontological and evolutionary topics. He's a wonderful writer, witty and lucid and the approach to each topic is illuminating not just for what he says on particular issues but for what he tells you about scientific philosophy and method. [36]

I was pleased to notice recently when reading the Bad Science archive that there is now a list of scientists called Steve in his honour. As a counter to the lists produced by creationists naming hundreds of people with Phds who don't believe in evolution, the National Center for Science Education asked scientists to sign up to a statement affirming the scientific basis for evolution - but only if they were called Steve (or Stephanie). Incidentally, Bad Science is a wonderful way to while a way a few minutes if you're bored at work and have an internet connection...