The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies

You know what my favorite thing about this book was?  And don’t think I’m saying this in an anti-Rebel-Angels way at all, because I’m not and I loved Parlabane even though his (spoilers, I guess?) farewell letter was silly.  My favorite thing about this book is that the main character (I think I can call her that), Maria, has a mum that reads Tarot cards, and she reads the Five of Coins (our Pentacles) to mean a loss, but a far greater gain is coming.  The very next day, I was doing a reading for my sister, and I realized I had reached a friendly comfortable understanding of the Five of Pentacles, previously amongst my least favorite of the Tarot cards.  I don’t read it exactly like Maria’s mum, but I do feel friendly with it now.  So DO NOT FEAR.  If I am doing your cards and you come up Five of Pentacles, I am all set.  You will not have to worry anymore that I am slightly making shit up.

The Rebel Angels is set at a university, and it’s hard to describe the main thrust of the plot, because there are a number of things going on.  Student Maria Theotoky is trying to come to terms with her Gypsy heritage; her supervising professor and erstwhile lover Hollier is executing the will of a recently deceased colleague, along with fellow professor and priest Darcourt, and an unpleasant insinuating fellow called Urquhart McVarish like the guy (Urquhart anyway) in Strong Poison.  Hollier’s old decadent friend Parlabane, recently escaped from being a priest and intent on pestering Maria as much as possible, is also floating around making trouble.

Oh, and Hollier compliments Oscar Wilde, making it impossible for me to think ill of him.  He said a kinder and more generous person never walked in shoe leather – yes, I remember it his exact words, because it’s perfectly true of course! and because I am like Oscar Wilde’s Jewish mama and every time someone gives him a compliment I want to post it on a big sign and have a plane fly around with the message out in back.  You know how they do.

Reading the end didn’t make any difference to the rest of the book, which just goes to show it’s not terribly plot-driven.  Ordinarily I do not love a book as chatty as this one, but it held my interest anyway, which I feel like goes to show something but I don’t know what.  I was pleased that McVarish (spoilers!) was going to come to a sticky end.  I wanted him to come to a sticky end.  Actually I liked the way things wrapped up, because things were sort of done after that.  I felt.  In terms of that nobody had to keep worrying about Maria, and she had her manuscript to study and she could produce an important work.  Hooray.

I should read Rabelais.  I hear (not just from this book, from other places too) that he is a riot.

Other views: Jackie at Farm Lane Books, Orpheus Sings the Guitar Electric

Tell me if I missed yours!

Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, Pamela Dean

I do not appreciate casual slaps at the South for being racist.  I do not mind delineations of particular racist things the South has done and continues to do (that’s fair, although I don’t know why the North always gets such a pass), but I just can’t stand this unsupported assumption that the South is full of people ten times more racist than the rest of the country.  So I didn’t like it in this book when the Mysterious (read: deeply aggravating and nobody in her right mind would ever bother with him) Boy Next Door, Dominic, says a few racist things to Gentian and her friends, and then says he’s from “south of here,” and Gentian thinks, I’ll just bet.  Since they’re in Minnesota, everything is south of there, but they of course assume that he’s from The South.

However, I didn’t like Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary even without that.  In Tam Lin, I was willing to be entertained by the vagaries of college life in between waiting for the plot to show up, and I didn’t mind so much that the plot points were few and far between.  In Juniper, Gentian, and Rosemary, I was bored by the plot points as much as the not-plot parts.  The omphaloskepsis (yeah, I went there) of Gentian and her friends was enough to drive me crazy all by itself.  I couldn’t summon up any interest in Dominic.  It’s not that I couldn’t believe any fourteen-year-old would be interested in him, it’s just that I was so bored by him myself that I didn’t want to read anything else about him.  These things, combined with the skimpy plot, have put me off Pamela Dean.

Things to consider: I am rereading Strong Poison now, having thought about it so much while reading The Case of Madeleine Smith that I realized I couldn’t live without it much longer, and I find Harriet and Peter much more tolerable than Pamela Dean’s characters.  Why?  They quote things at each other all the time too.  Do you ever find yourself aggravated by something in one book and thrilled by it in another?  Is it just the way the author presents it?  I feel very muddled about this.

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

This is more like it.

I read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when I was in England.  I don’t remember why – maybe it was that phase in my life where I was getting book recommendations from book prize lists.  Book prize books are often not good books for me (see Darkmans).  However, I really liked Never Let Me Go, and I really liked this one too.  The Remains of the Day is all about a butler called Stevens who has been in service for many years, and has gone on a trip to visit an old friend (she sounds unhappy in her marriage), and as he travels, he is remembering his life.  This sounds a bit boring but it really isn’t once it gets going.

I love the way Kazuo Ishiguro writes (love his name too).  The narrators are carrying along narrating, and everything’s fine, and then there occurs a jarring note – some incident or anecdote that seems a bit weird.  And you’re thinking, Huh.  That was weird, but things keep going along, so you aren’t too fussed about it.  And then when you’ve mostly forgotten about it, there occurs another jarring note, and another one, until you are quite, quite certain that there is something not very nice going on.  Then at the exact moment when you have become completely positive that something is up, that is the exact moment at which it (more or less) snaps into focus.

At least, such has been my experience with the two of Ishiguro’s books that I have read.

In this case – spoilers, if you don’t want to know what has been happening, and it’s not some big revelation or anything, it’s just a thing you don’t become aware of at first – the not-nice things are related to Stevens’s previous employer’s political affiliations.  Again, I swear to you, not as boring as I’ve just made it sound; it’s all about the emotional resonance for Stevens, realizing he’s given his life and all his loyalty to someone who was doing bad things (albeit with good intentions).

At the same time, and with the same theme, you’re seeing flashbacks of Stevens’s relationship with one of his previous coworkers, Miss Kenton – the same lady he is going on a trip to visit in the present day.  This is all along the same themes as the business with his employer: the way that he ignores himself for the sake of his professionalism.

Major props, can I just say, to Ishiguro for managing to make this book so absorbing, when the action is essentially emotional rather than actually actiony.  It’s books like these that make me carry on picking things up that people say “don’t have much in the way of plot” – I think they’ll be like this.  Not a lot happens in The Remains of the Day, but I still couldn’t put it down, and I read it all the way through on Monday evening.  It’s funny and sad and evocative and emotionally resonant, and it made me want to go get the rest of Ishiguro’s books and read them.

In the Springtime of the Year, Susan Hill

Blech.  Everyone’s been reading Susan Hill lately, and her books all sounded so creepy and cool, but I couldn’t finish this.  I stayed up late last night reading it, because I kept thinking I would read it until it got interesting and then I would go to sleep and have something to look forward to in the morning.  What a stupid idea.  I mean, that was always going to be a stupid idea, but it was particularly stupid in this case because the book never got interesting at all.  Two-thirds of the way through, I figured out that I was never going to like it, and I chucked it into my papasan chair and went to sleep.  Bah.  Oh, and then, and then?  Instead of getting up at 6:30, and reading the news in leisurely fashion, and watching an episode of Torchwood that seems to have totally stolen its idea from Buffy while working on my cross-stitching, I was so sleepy I reset my alarm for 7:30 and I had to get ready very very fast and go running into work.


So anyway I now feel too cranky to review this book properly.  Suffice it to say: it’s about a woman who spends a lot of time being very, very unhappy because her husband has died; and if you are waiting for something interesting to happen, you may be waiting a long time.  In addition, Susan Hill’s use of multiple staccato clauses drove me insane.

P.S. I may be being unwarrantedly harsh, because I had high expectations of a particular type, which did not align with the reality of the book.  Never a recipe for loving a book you read.  Bah.

Excellent Women, Barbara Pym

Recommended to me by my dear friend tim, who is extremely clever as she can draw, knit, cook, and do complicated math problems.  She recently became addicted to Barbara Pym so I checked two of Ms. Pym’s books out of the library.

Excellent Women is all about a spinster called Mildred Lathbury living in post-WWII England, being excellent by helping out at the vicarage and doing good works.  This is not very exciting for her.  However, she gets some new neighbors – an anthropologist woman who is not good at housekeeping, and her very charming and cheerful ex-military husband, by whom I was never very impressed.  Moreover, her closest friends – the vicar Julian Malory and his sister Winifred – have some issues of their own going on, as Julian unstaunchly forgets about his beliefs that clergy shouldn’t marry, and gets engaged to a widow called Allegra.

You evidently don’t read Barbara Pym for the plots.  Which was okay in this book, because it was quite funny and entertaining in an understated way, but in other books that were less funny it might get a bit trying.  (tim is more tolerant than I am of these plot-lite books.)  In this case it was most enjoyable, and I completely felt sorry for Mildred, getting asked to do everything for everyone.  It did seem to stop a bit abruptly – like nothing had particularly come to an end, but Ms. Pym just got tired of the book and decided to stop writing it.

I don’t know what I will read next.  I am reading a whole bunch of books right now, because I suddenly remembered how interesting sexual ethics are and checked out loads of books about that, so I’m going between: Virgin: An Untouched History, Rereading Sex (which is all about sexual mores in 19th-century America, and told me an interesting thing about graham crackers, which I will share with you later), Notes from a Small Island (which I got out of the library to stop myself borrowing my mother’s copy that she just received for Christmas, because I really miss England), The Underdog (a book by Markus Zusak I didn’t even know existed until my sister gave it to me for Christmas!!!), The Sixteen Pleasures (which I keep seeing on my desk at inopportune moments, when I am busy with something else and can’t pick it back up), and The Film Club (which I took pity on because it’s been lying around my room for ages and I’ve just been too busy with other things to get around to reading it).

The Hills at Home, Nancy Clark

“Did someone die in here or what?” ….

“Yes,” she told Andy, “somebody die die in here but I have, of course, since changed the sheets.”

I read about this book here, and felt smugly certain that I would not be, as Powell’s review suggested some would be, “deaf to this novel’s considerable charm”, thus would not have “wandered away long before those scenes [the ones with plot in them] arrive.”  They said it was like Jane Austen, and I suppose I thought that meant gently satirical and not very exciting in a Scarlet Pimpernel way, but nevertheless containing various things for its well-drawn characters to do.

It’s all about a family of Hills, and they all come to live with their Aunt Lily in her large house.  Lily’s brother Harvey comes, and he doesn’t like damn liberals; and histrionic Ginger with her teen daughter Betsy; and out-of-work Alden and his wife Becky and their four children; and Arthur and Phoebe, who are someone’s nephew and his girlfriend but I can’t remember whose because my brain doesn’t have the capacity for all this; and finally a distantly-related sociology student called Andy who wants to study the Hills.  And I think that’s all of them.

I got on pretty well for a while.  The characters were indeed entertaining, if too numerous to be bothered keeping track of (Ms. Clark appeared to feel the same way), and the dialogue could be funny, and everyone thought a number of humorous thoughts, and all.  But seriously, nothing ever happened.  I mean nothing.  They would eat breakfast and go into town and come back from town and talk, but there was nothing ever actually happening.  I appreciate having characters at whom the author pokes gentle fun, and at the same time, that doesn’t make a book.  After a while I found myself flipping through pages trying to discover whether anything, ever, was going to happen to induce change, and when I had pretty well figured out that nothing ever would, I returned the book to the library.

Oh well.  Then I no longer had it to worry about, and I settled down instead and read Tom Finder, which I liked a very great deal more.

Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Recommended by: Between the Covers

Ah, time travel books.  You are so numerous, and yet you so often do not want me to love you.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  The Time Traveler’s Wife and me are buddies.  Time at the Top makes my life happy by its very existence.  It can be done.  Apparently with Time in the title.

(Just so I don’t feel like a big meanie when I complain about Doomsday Book, I’ll say that Diana Wynne Jones, whom I love more than my luggage, wrote a time travel book that I didn’t much care for either.  It’s one of my least favorites of hers, not quite down there with The Time of the Ghost, but still very not my favorite, maybe even less favorite than Hexwood which I also don’t like as much as her others.)

I don’t know.  I read this over a long period of time, much longer than is normal for me, and at no point did I feel the slightest interest in what was going to happen to anyone.  For this book to have worked, the characters would have had to be really vivid –

Er, P.S., this is a book about a girl from Oxford in the future, called Kivrin, who goes back in time to 1320 in order to study the Middle Ages and she gets there and lives with a family there and meanwhile back in future-Oxford a bunch of stuff goes wrong and everyone gets sick with a weird virus that came from they don’t know where.

– as I was saying, the characters would have had to be really vivid, because Kivrin doesn’t ultimately have much to do in the past.  In fact, no one does.  I’m so glad I didn’t live back in the day because I would have caught plague and furthermore it was obviously AMAZINGLY BORING, because nobody in the past did anything until they all caught the plague and died.  These things kept coming up, and I’d be all, Aha, a plot! and get set for that to be the important thing, like Kivrin crushing on the Manly Priest, or the lady’s husband’s vassal having a big crush on the lady, or the daughter’s engagement to the big old creepy guy.  These were not the important things.  They weren’t anything.  God, it was boring.  And then it would cut to chapters set in future-Oxford where everyone there was bitching about futurey things and asking each other where, oh where, could this mysterious deadly virus have come from?

(The past, as it goes.)

And I’m not saying it couldn’t have worked, this nothing happening thing, because there are books in which the characters are just so vivid and interesting that there doesn’t have to be a lot of action. You’re just content to lie back and watch these interesting characters go about their daily lives doing regular interactions and nothing out of the ordinary.  Doomsday Book does not achieve this effect, and blah, I just couldn’t be bothered with it.