Tuesday, September 02, 2014

The Bone Clocks

The Bone Clocks / David Mitchell
Toronto: Knopf Canada, c2014.
640 p.

This is the first Mitchell I've read. I enjoyed it during the process of reading, but on reflection, I keep thinking of things that irritate me in retrospect. So I'd give it a well-worth-reading-but-not-a-must-read rating. There have been quite a few reviews posted online already, in every single media presence in New York, apparently -- I've seen the New York Times, the New Yorker, the NY Review of Books, so far. If you want lengthy analysis just try those. My thoughts are a bit more personal.

If you've read Mitchell before, or even watched the movie of Cloud Atlas, you will be familiar with his default style. Many characters telling distinct narratives which intertwine as you read each section. Sometimes this kind of structure really works well, but here I found that it was a bit jarring.

The book follows Holly Sykes from 1984 to 2048. By that I mean she is a character in each section, the linking one. The first section is told from her viewpoint, at age 15, when she gets into an argument with her mother and runs away. Strange things begin happening very quickly, tied to Holly's experience of hearing voices, which she calls The Radio People. This introduces the other main element of the plot, that of warring factions of an elite secret group known as Horologists with their enemies, the Anchorites, a group using dark magic to achieve the form of immortality with which the Horologists are naturally gifted.

Each section takes the action further, with more information about the Horologists weaving into each bit, until the final showdown in section 5. Which is then followed by section 6, Holly in her 80's living in an apocalyptic Ireland with civil society effectively dismantled. This seemed like a completely unnecessary and irrelevant storyline, tacked on to the end, perhaps to finish off Holly's story, or to make this book into the huge chunkster than Mitchell is known for and people seem to love to buy.

Anyhow, I don't mean to sound cynical. I did enjoy this while reading it, mostly. The eruptions of graphic video game style violence were things I skimmed over quickly, and found excessive, particularly in the very beginning and end parts. And the tone of the various sections, upon reflection, has not jelled into a whole, for me. It's particularly the bits told from the male perspectives that I felt were plucked from other books, not really this one.

The section told from the perspective of Hugo Lamb, a sociopathic British college boy felt a bit too "laddish" for me; Hugo was a darker, crueller version of Edward Docx's Jasper of The Calligrapher -- a self-centred, immature man focused on gratifying his own needs. Another section, the long and self-referential tale of a writer who becomes fixated on punishing a reviewer who has panned his book, was a bit much. Interesting in parts, I just felt like the ending of this section didn't make sense or have any meaning for the rest of the story. And the section with Ed, Holly's husband, talking about his experiences as a war reporter, just seemed to jar in its extreme reality with the 'supernatural' elements of the premise of the book. If we are expected to suspend disbelief long enough to buy into the idea of a cabal of supremely gifted, nearly immortal figures who twist the action of the world, it is very difficult to also be thrown back into a violent realistic portrayal of a situation that is actually happening due to human idiocy and has always happened, with a sense of its inevitable losses and our inability to fix it -- war in Syria and Gaza and all of those places that we are living with now.

Anyhow -- the idea of the Horologists and Holly's involvement was well formed. The complexity of this creation was fascinating, and quite entertaining. But mixing this all up into a dog's breakfast of style, tone, and character just didn't work for me.

What I did like about it was the character of Holly, and her relationships with her family. I also found the Horologists fun, and the use of a paranormal maze as a escape route was quite brilliant -- and represented so effectively in the beautiful cover of this book. I also found the phrase "bone clocks" evocative, a great description of the frail mortality of us all, the mortality that both of the paranormal organizations are mostly exempt from.

 If you already like David Mitchell, or you've read and enjoyed this kind of collage-like storytelling elsewhere, then you will likely really enjoy this one too. I read it and liked it, in the way that you like eating chocolate chip cookies for breakfast sometimes, but would never say that you'd just had the best meal ever. Recommended as an enjoyable romp for a relaxing weekend or a summer's lazy day indulgence.

Further Reading:

If you're looking for another super-long tale of mysterious shadowy characters, writers and multiple converging storylines, try Murakami's IQ84.

Max Barry's Lexicon tells another story of a mysterious yet powerful organization that controls humanity through the persuasive power of magic words, but which is in the process of infighting, which results in numerous violent episodes. Similar tones, and a similarity in the confusion of timelines.

Monday, September 01, 2014

It's Time... for RIP IX!

It's that time again! September 1st and time for the Ninth RIP (Readers Imbibing Peril) Challenge! Fall doesn't really start until RIP appears; and although it is humid, windy and warm today, I'm sure that before long the oven will be used again, sweaters will be dug out of summer storage and I'll return to my hot chocolate addiction that takes over in the cooler months :) But to kick off any season, the most important thing is to read some appropriate literature, of course...

Ably hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings, this challenge is all about throwing yourself into 

  • Mystery.
  • Suspense.
  • Thriller.
  • Dark Fantasy.
  • Gothic.
  • Horror.
  • Supernatural.
  • Or anything sufficiently moody that shares a kinship with the above.

I've always loved this challenge -- it's such fun to read creepy tales and share them at this time of year. This year I'm choosing to do Peril the Second: read two books that fit this criteria between Sept 1 and Oct 31. I'm hoping I'll get to read at least four titles to make it to Peril the First, but not sure I will able to, so for now I am committing to two! Here are two suitable titles that I plan to read, both from my Century of Books challenge list:

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne DuMaurier
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Hope you will also think about reading along!

Postal Reading Challenge: September

Any Postal reading, or letter writing, during September can be shared here. Here's to some great discoveries!

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Measure of a Man

The Measure of a Man / J.J. Lee
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2011.
304 p.

What an interesting read this was! I recently discovered J.J. Lee's radio show on CBC radio, called Head to Toe, all about clothes and why and how we wear them (you can catch up on the podcasts at the Head to Toe website -- really worth listening to, they are short but really well done). It's a perfect show to listen to while I am sewing!

So I also wanted to read this memoir of sorts, a story that is nominally about Lee's attempts to tailor one of his father's old suits to fit him, and in the process, mend his damaged memories of his mercurial father. Lee grew up in a family of four children, and his parents were happy together for a long time. Unfortunately, his father suffered from addictions, and their family life unravelled as he began to drink more and behave violently. Lee, as the eldest son, suffered from this situation in many ways.

Lee's story is gripping, told with love and sorrow intermingled. The reader sees the influence of his childhood on his newly-found passion both for tailoring and for the mentorship of older Chinese men in the tailoring shop he apprentices at in Vancouver. One of the threads of the story is the role that his father's forced immigration played in his development -- he was sent from China to Canada, to live with his grandparents when very young, and had to make his own way in life without parental assistance.

Lee is a professional writer (writing for newspapers and for magazines, as well as online) and that shows. The story is well constructed; moving from childhood memories to present-day ponderings, tying it all to Lee's love of clothes and fashion, using the old suit as a trigger for his narrative flow. It's quite fascinating how all the pieces come together, with the book finally being a more successful recreation of his father than the suit will ever be.

But not just memoir, this book also talks quite a lot about suits, and their meaning in a man's life. Lee discusses how the number of buttons and the roll of a collar can affect the signal that a wearer is giving out -- are you hip, old-fashioned, rich, poor, on the way up or down, old, young -- all this can be read in a suit. He raises the question "What is the significance of a man's choice, or lack of choice, in his clothing?" He also shares stories of tailors and shops, all interesting as social commentary, plus there are a couple of stories included that he has gone on to tell in his radio show.

It's a fascinating melange of personal and professional, and I really enjoyed it. It's elegaic, sad, often funny, and full of much more information than you'd guess from its size. Well worth reading!

Further Reading:

For another Canadian memoir of fraught relationships between father and son, rolled up with details of the writer's career path, try musician Dan Hill's I Am My Father's Son.

If it's more on suits and men's fashion you want, try Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed by Richard Anderson, a tailor whom JJ Lee spoke to for his book.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Cover Designs! #6

And now for another installment in my occasional feature: "women facing away on book covers" matched up with a modern pattern that can recreate the look of her outfit, with some creative license!

I recently discovered this fabulous vintage cover over at The Dusty Bookcase, whose review is entertaining in itself -- this book sounds lurid, dreadful, and like a good argument for why 'vintage' is not always better.

As soon as I saw that dame's back I knew instantly which pattern could replicate that look. The brassy hair, however, is another story...

I would choose Vogue 8728
See, even the gloves and shoes are right on!

This back view provides a better comparison. Lengthen this one
slightly, perhaps reduce the fullness of the skirt slightly...spot on.

This line drawing gives a clear view. Exchange
the skinny belt for a wide green sash and you are done.

This cover model clearly does things her own way, including what really should be a vintage fashion faux pas in her colour choices ("blue and green should never be seen") I can only think she's reaching into her green purse for a revolver...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Cleaner of Chartres

The Cleaner of Chartres / Salley Vickers
New York: Plum, 2014, c2012.
296 p.

And the third in my trio of books set in France, this is a more modern and mysterious story than the others.

Agnes Morel is a stranger to Chartres, despite having lived there for nearly 20 years. She is a quiet, reclusive woman, trying to keep on living despite a dark secret in her past. Because of this secret, she doesn't make friends lightly -- she really only has one or two.

Agnes works as a cleaner, both for the great Chartres Cathedral and for local residents. This occupation gets her into some hot water, as one jealous housefrau accuses her of theft and then stirs up gossip about her past, becoming obsessed with uncovering Agnes' secret. This situation drives most of the action of the story, although most of the actual "action" takes place in the past, and here we are finally seeing the truth and its repercussions.

Chartres is a beautiful part of this book; the town's side-by-side modernity and very ancient history creates a wonderful setting. Scenes of Agnes scrubbing the 11th century labyrinth on her knees, following the path as she goes, are a rich symbol of her daily existence as a penitent, trying to atone for her previous life. There are quite a number of mentions of the labyrinth in this novel -- how could there not be, when it is such a part of Chartres? (and a large part of the inspiration for this novel). Agnes' lonely work in an empty, quiet cathedral is beautiful and evocative, even when suddenly broken by the appearance of Alain, a stone mason working far above on repairs. It was because of my own interest in the labyrinth that I picked up this book in the first place, hoping to see some mention of it; it is discussed and evoked in a wonderful manner, wholly within the context of the story.

Gentle priests, troubled women, painters, artists, restaurateurs...there are many intriguing characters living in the old town of Chartres, interacting with Agnes as she moves in her daily round, brushing against the walls she's set up to protect herself, drawing her into community. In this way I see the structure of the whole book as a labyrinth; Agnes is following the same path as others, though they are all in different places.

But even without a fascination for the labyrinth like mine, readers can enjoy a well-developed character in Agnes, and the strong presence of France itself as the setting for her story. It's a slow-moving book that depends on characters being exposed bit by bit, through indirect means -- it's perfect for those who enjoy stories based on character, told in language that is also full of images, reflecting the fragmented nature of Agnes' past life. I really enjoyed this book, as it slowed me down to follow the twists of the sentences and the story. But it also held lots of human behaviour that made this deceptively quiet; there are many incidents despite the slower pace. It's worth getting to know Agnes, and especially Chartres.

Further Reading:

Joanne Harris' Chocolat captures the same feeling of a strange woman in a small French town who mysteriously causes things to happen, and people to change.

An Uncertain Age by Ulrica Hume also centres around Chartes and delves into its mysterious esoteric past. It features characters who are on a philosophical search for meaning and who experience things that can't always be explained.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Those Without Shadows

Those Without Shadows / Francoise Sagan; translated from the French by Frances Frenaye.
New York: Dell, 1959, c1957.
158 p.

Now here's another slim tale set in France, but it is so very different from my last readerly visit to that country: this one is definitely for adults, and it is much more cynical as well.

In fact, the level of blase cynicism really put me off. Because the book was brief, because it was written by Sagan, because I had hopes it might turn around for me, I continued. But sadly, the mid-century French misogyny just got me down. I've seen Sagan's characters compared to Salinger's take on restless teenagers -- perhaps that should have warned me off as I also dislike Salinger -- but I went ahead and read this account of shallow, substance-less people existing amidst great ennui, "those without shadows" indeed -- they are all surface.

It is fully taken for granted in this book that young beautiful women are every middle-aged man's property to trade and use and lust after. That middle-aged wives just have to grin and bear their husband's public infatuations, after all, they've lost their looks and are lucky they're still married. That a young woman can sleep with one man because she's sorry for him (oh, so sad, you've turned down his advances so owe him one) and then go home to another who is far below her intellectually but whom she adores because he is strong, aggressive, and possessive.

There is a whole mess of characters in this tale, and they're all tangled up. Older male writers and businessmen, young female actresses and ingenues, dumb young men from the country, tortured young artistic men etc. etc. They all lust after one another, shift their allegiances, and trail off into an inconclusive ending.

I was so not in the mood for this kind of read; I could find no redeeming qualities in it except for the adorable vintage cover. After two tries at her novels (Bonjour, Tristesse was the other) I think I've pretty much established that Sagan is not the writer for me. Perhaps she will find admiration elsewhere from now on.