Friday, December 16, 2011

Reading is sexy XLVIII

(image source) The next two books I read had a theme of dysfunctional sibling relationships, where siblings compete for love with fatal results, also the theme of Eden, the serpent and fall from grace. Just in time for the holidays! (kidding of course)

23. The Game by A.S. Byatt This is a shorter, early novel by Byatt, which tells the story of two adult sisters, Casandra the Oxford don and Medievalist, and Julia, best-selling novelist. As children they had an elaborate, shared, imaginative life and the titular game, inspired by Medieval romances, reminiscent of what the young Brontë sisters made with their mythology of Gondal and the associated maps and stories they created together. The adult sisters are distant, but brought together when their father has a stroke. They grew apart, we learn, as the novel progresses, due to a series of perceived transgressions (Julia writing about their shared game, their mutual and competitive love of the neighbour Simon -now a jungle-dwelling herpetologist with a budding TV career, Cassandra's rather melodramatic denunciation of the family's Quaker faith and conversion to Anglicanism, Julia's sort of self-sabotaging hero-worship for her older sister). Cassandra is a spinster, with a secret obsession still for Simon, who shared her early religious investigations. Julia is married to would-be Quaker saint Thor, and has a teenage daughter Deborah. Julia finds herself on a TV show about art and ideas, through which Simon re-enters their lives. Once again, Byatt has a natural scientist as a character to involve zoology, but also the symbol and mythology of snakes and serpents. I appreciate her consistent argument that science, like art, contributes to culture. Julia, initially intending to repair her relationship with her sister, ends up writing a novel, which is a thinly-veiled story of Cassandra and her relationship with and to Simon, without much thought to consequences. This is a study of family relationships, unrequited love, ideas, the nature of art versus science, writing, mental health, suicide, charity, academia, and responsibility. The characters feel quite real and the story is engaging, though it is perhaps less of a tapestry of ideas than Byatt's later novels.

(Literary gossip being what it is, I read once that this novel started her feud with her sister Margaret Drabble, though, it's also been attributed to writing about a family tea set.)

24. Cain by José Saramago This strange and final parable from the wise old man himself, is a sort of mythical biography of Cain. It begins with his parents, Adam and Eve, and their despotic Old Testament Creator (complete with ample pride and crown) in the Garden of Eden. After their expulsion, and an interesting interlude between Eve and the guarding Cherubim, they land on their feet when taken in by a caravan (because, of course, there are other people), and eventually they make a home and a family. Cain, in frustration with God's petty testing of his faith by only accepting Abel's tributes, kills his brother in jealousy, but argues for God's partial culpability. The story is really of his life after this, as a nomad, through time and space. He serves as skeptical witness to all of the most famous Old Testament stories (from Abraham and Isaac through Sodom and Gomorrah, the Tower of Babel, Moses, Job, various wars and battles ending with Noah). The thesis seems to be that the Old Testament God is cruel and capricious (all that senseless death and destruction, including innocent children destroyed in Sodom and cruel demands of sacrifice), but Cain has a plan for retribution.

As intriguing as all of Saramago's novels, this is a most unusual book.

25. My White Planet by Mark Anthony Jarman At first I thought, that's what you get for choosing books at random off RJH's shelf. He, after all, has King Leopold's Ghost (about the exploitation of the Congo) by his bedside, and The Road (in which *spoiler alert* people are eaten) in the glove compartment of his car. I wondered whether perhaps all his favorite books would be sad. Jarman's first story (and some of the subsequent stories) of a soldier's life in Custer's army is a bit grim. Several stories are informed by the violent North American colonial wars and battles (with allusions to Sitting Bull through Louis Riel). The titular dreamy story about seven isolated men at arctic research station which has fallen out of contact with civilization, who find a shipwrecked girl, is quite creepy. But, he writes crystalline stories like poems. "Make way for my itchy antlers, my spikes of rage, my affection for the slippery slope." I have the idea that Jarman is a writer's writer. He knows how to wield words. His stories are very evocative. I recognized the unnamed Straight of Georgia (and was unsurprised to learn the author lived in Victoria, prior to moving to Fredericton) in the description of a float plane flight in Bad Men Who Love Buzz Lightyear; I recognized Fredericton with its right side and wrong side of the Saint John River in Bear on a Chain. I can see how his simple story of a New Brunswick old timers hockey team, A Nation Plays Chopsticks would charm RJH, with its descriptions of the game, the odd camaraderie, driving moose-ridden highways at night, haunting old arenas, and questioning the drive of the 'civilized' narrator (presumably Jarman) to play a sometimes violent game. I personally enjoyed the sporadic allusions to an interesting array of music (clearly he's an avid listener) - from Bobbie Gentry through the White Stripes, by way of everyone from Otis Blackwell, Neil Young, Stereolab, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Joy Division, the Tragically Hip, Sid Vicious, Syd Barrett and assorted unexpected allusions. The final two stories are even labeled "Bonus Tracks". Personally, I would read this book for the sheer pleasure of these two sentences: "If Derrida didn't exist we'd have to invent him. And then beat him up at recess," but the book is much richer than that. Read these well-crafted stories and see.

26. Myths To Live By by Joseph Campbell. Guess it's back to the imagery of the Garden and the serpent.

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