Quick Reviews of Non-Japanese Books

Although I’ve posted mainly reviews of the books I read for January in Japan thus far, I’ve actually read quite a lot of enjoyable books this month.

Lucy Atkins: Magpie Lane – a modern take on The Turn of the Screw, with a very classical feel to it nevertheless because it is set in Oxford and its rather anachronistic college system. A dysfunctional family with a selectively mute child, viewed through the no-nonsense eyes of a nanny who is an outsider to Oxford. Excellent build-up, although I felt slightly ambiguous about the ending.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I am probably being a bit unfair on this one when I say it is a very narrow world that is being presented here: the world of writing and publishing, a young woman in search of success and love. I like such subject matter (and probably would have loved it even more in my 20s), but it’s a bit of a disappointment after King’s previous book Euphoria, an excellent and rather revolutionary book about anthropologists, which felt like it was painted on a much larger canvas with bold brushstrokes. This one is a neat little miniature.

Jenny Offill: Weather – I was perhaps the only person in the world who was not smitten with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. It had many witty observations which struck a chord with me, but overall I felt it was a lazy way to tell a story. The fragments just did not seem to build up to a coherent and complex whole (unlike Tokarczuk’s Flights, for example). But I do think she is an interesting writer, so I was willing to give her another chance. This is also a fragmented novel, but the format suits the subject matter better: the musings of a mother trying to navigate the opaque education system in the great American cities, interspersed with her work with a climate activist, her reactions to the 2016 presidential elections and so on. A state of the nation novel, but on a much shorter scale than Ducks, Newburyport (as far as I can tell, not having read the latter).

Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street – the most poetic German crime writer you could ever hope to find, her style is an intriguing mix of noir and jazz and modern sensibilities. I liken it to my own personal Cowboy Bebop (the cool cult anime series of the 1990s). This volume is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story set in the Mhallami community (yes, new to me too, an ethnic minority historically designed to protect the Eastern flank of the Ottoman Empire) in Germany.

Matt Wesolowski: Beast – There are six sides to every story, or so Matt Wesolowski tells us in his series of books imitating true crime podcasts. With every new ‘podcast’ we get a different view on the story, an added layer of complexity, and it really shows us that there is no such thing as an ultimate truth or an easy answer. This one was particularly terrifying, not so much for its links to vampire stories, but because it is about a young girl, Elizabeth Barton, a popular vlogger, who is found frozen to death in a ruined tower on the Northumbrian coast. It depicts how desperate some people are to find online fame and friendships, and it frightened me when I thgouth how this might affect my own children (even though they say it doesn’t).

Neil Blackmore: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle – Perhaps the weakest of the bunch, because the plot felt rather predictable. Two brothers, sons of a rich tradesman, set off on their European tour in the 1760s. They are well-read but haven’t been able to break into ‘good society’, so this is their chance to impress. But things go awry when they meet the rebellious, cynical, charming and utterly corrupt Mr Lavelle. Although at times it did feel like a philosophy tract (look, I like my dose of Voltaire as much as anyone, but it didn’t have all that much bearing on the story!), it was on the whole great fun to read, quite a lot of description of gay sex, and an excellent rebuttal of British snobbery past and present.

Liz Nugent: Our Little Cruelties – Another book, another dysfunctional family, this time three brothers who have competed all their lives for their mother’s love and admiration. Written from the points of view of each of the brothers, it is clever in the way it shows how easy it is to justify even our ugliest actions to ourselves – and that we never learn from mistakes but merely blame others. Liz Nugent is frighteningly good at depicting male narcissists.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – a last-minute entry for the mini #PersephoneReadathon, deserves a separate review and got it

I am currently reading Square Haunting by Francesca Wade about five formidable women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square at some point in the 1920s and 30s, and I can already see it will become a firm favourite!

The Euphoria of Anthropology

euphoriaThis is a long overdue review of Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, a novel based on the life and loves of Margaret Mead and her two anthropologist husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. It is also a life-lesson for me: don’t leave it too long before you review a book you liked, just because you think you’ll be able to write something wiser, wittier, more in-depth about it.

You won’t. And you’ll have forgotten most of the reasons why you loved it in the first place.

Margaret Mead’s autobiography ‘Blackberry Winter’ is one of the reasons I decided to become an anthropologist. She was one of the superstars of anthropology and, no matter how much subsequent debate there has been about her conclusions, no one doubts her passion and unabashed curiosity for other people and cultures.  Outspoken and candid in most personal matters, she is nevertheless coy about the few months she spent in what must have been a tense relationship triangle with Bateson and Fortune in 1933 in New Guinea. I was somewhat worried that Lily King would romanticise and sensationalise the situation to the detriment of the real people and the anthropology. Would I love a book that reimagined my childhood heroes beyond all recognition?

But love it I did, although I struggled to find my bearings in the opening chapter. Who is doing the observing and the talking? The woman is not named at first, and there are two other women to add to the confusion. Are these characters heading out or coming back? Perhaps this is a deliberate construct, to give the reader an example of what it is like for an anthropologist going into an unknown culture, where none of the usual rules or landmarks make sense.

After that, however, the narrative settled down, and the action is perceived largely through the eyes of Andrew Bankson (the Bateson character), including what he imagines Nell Stone’s (the Margaret Mead character) life in the field to be like, interspersed with extracts from her diary. The rather repulsive husband Fen (the Fortune character) is only ever described by these two main protagonists, so does not get his say. He appears to be struggling to make a lasting impression in anthropology, is envious of his wife’s fame and constantly belittles her work ethic. ‘Got your Novel Prize yet, Nellie?’ he asks whenever she receives her long-delayed mail, and hurts her in rather symbolic ways (damaging her glasses, her typewriter, her body).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.
Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.

Atlhough the author imagines a completely different resolution to the story of this explosive trio, I was surprised how closely she stuck to some of the biographical elements. The characteristics of the tribes they visited are accurately described; the Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas mentor characters reappear as Helen and  himself respectively. Bateson was indeed as much affected by the death of his two older brothers as the fictional Bankson is in the book.

The four-fold scheme of cultural ‘temperaments’ were indeed formulated by Margaret and Bateson at the time, based on the manuscript of Benedict’s work ‘Patterns of Culture’, which they received in the field. Although this theoretical model has since been discredited (partly because of the misuse the Nazis made of such models), King does a great job of describing the excitement, the beauty of frenzy, which overcomes researchers when they think they might be on the brink of a great discovery. This is the ‘euphoria’ of the title, although it is also described elsewhere in the book as the moment, typically two months into fieldwork, when a culture suddenly begins to make sense.

It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

Another aspect of the novel which I enjoyed was the implied contemporary reassessment of the way anthropology was conducted back in the 1930s. Although they mean well, there is an unspoken ‘white man’ arrogance about the way in which the researchers descend upon a village with all of their belongings, rope people into building a treehouse for them, attempt to impose a schedule on them for interviews and observations etc.

The balance between love affair and professional fulfillment is just about right. The author manages to make anthropology – or perhaps just intellectual quest for excellence and meaning – sexy, despite the flies, the malaria, the self-doubts and the lack of plumbing.

lilykingThe ending, however, diverges sharply from the real life stories – and the love story between Nell and Andrew is perhaps all the more beautiful for it. Back in the real world, Bateson married his princess, and they did do some successful fieldwork together in Bali and they had a daughter (who also became an anthropologist). However, they got divorced ten years later and their grand unifying construct of cultural patterns amounted to nothing.

Fiction! It trumps reality every single time.

 

Room for Yet Another Book List?

It’s been a year of excessive reading. Define excess? I suspect 189 books (even if a handful of those were graphic novels) fit the criteria. This has not always been reflected in the amount of reviewing I’ve done. Perhaps I used reading as therapy, to blunt the senses, stop thinking too deeply – always safer to divert your thinking to fictional problems or other people’s plight. It also keeps you snug and warm, away from writing and exposing your clumsy way with words and your fear of failing … yet again.

But I am grateful for all the books that kept me sane and balanced this year. Here are my top reads by category (not all of them were published in 2014, needless to say):

niton999.co.uk
niton999.co.uk

1) Poetry:

Mihaela Moscaliuc: Father Dirt  – for teaching me to push boundaries and be truly fearless in my writing

2) Non-fiction:

Andrew Solomon: Far from the Tree – for redefining parenting and commitment to the family

3) Crime fiction:

I’m going to cheat a bit in this category and refer you to my Top 5 Crime Picks from Crime Fiction Lover. One additional book that would make the list, but which I read too late to include there was Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters.

4) Short Story Collection:

Vienna Tales – selected and translated by Deborah Holmes – for sheer variety, its unbeatable location and nostalgia value

5) Rereads:

With thanks to Tony Malone for challenging me to turn to my old love of Japanese literature once more:

Murakami Haruki: Kafka on the Shore – dream-like sequences, a library, a coming of age story and talking cats – need I say more?

Enchi Fumiko: The Waiting Years – almost unbearable depiction of the lack of choice of Japanese women during the years of modernisation and opening up to the West

6) Non-Crime Novels:

What do two sweeping, panoramic, ambitious novels, trying to encompass a multitude of voices and experiences, and a much more intimate love story between desperate people from different cultures have in common? Unforgettable voices and characters.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah

Kerry Hudson: Thirst

Tore Renberg: See You Tomorrow

I also owe you a few reviews of books which I’ve only recently read :

  • ‘Euphoria’ by Lily King – a story of anthropologists doing fieldwork in the 1920s; I want to write a longer review, comparing fiction to reality to Margaret Mead’s own account of events in ‘Blackberry Winter’
  • Pascal Garnier’s ‘The Islanders’ – the anti-Christmas family gathering
  • Tove Jansson books I gifted myself for Christmas – comparing biography to her own memoirs

but I’ve run out of year to…

 

 

Personal Reading Challenge for December

The year of reading womenIt’s very simple: for December, I’ve resolved to read only books by women authors. This did not start out as an intentional challenge. In fact, the first book I finished in December (which I had started on the last weekend of November) was written by a man. It was Mark Edwards’ stalker thriller ‘Because She Loves Me’.

However, all of the books I had borrowed from the library or that were waiting patiently from me on my Netgalley shelf seemed to be by women writers – or at least the ones that were calling out to me: ‘Read me next! Me!’

So here are the books I have read, am reading and will be reading for this month.

Nina Stibbe: Man at the Helm – I opened this instead of another book and could not stop reading

Françoize Boucher: Le livre qui fait aimer les livres (The Book that Will Make You Love Books: Even If You Hate Reading)

BelCantoAnn Patchett: Bel Canto – because I love her writing and I couldn’t resist the hook: ‘kidnappers storm an international gathering of opera lovers at the Vice President’s residence in a poor Latin American country’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah – because, given my cross-cultural experience and profession, everyone is surprised that I haven’t read it yet (and it does sound like the sort of thing I would enjoy)

Jacqueline Saphra: The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions – when I first started writing poetry again, the wonderful poet Naomi Shihab Nye said that my (very modest) efforts reminded her of Saphra’s work, so I’ve been reading her work ever since and finally bought the whole first collection

Lauren Beukes: Broken Monsters – because Lauren is a life-force, unpredictable and irrepressible, and boy, can she write!

icecreammanKatri Lipson: The Ice Cream Man – because it’s a Finnish author, although the action takes place largely in Czechoslovakia of the 1940s/50s.

Alison Mercer: After I Left You – because it’s been on my Netgalley shelf for far too long and Cleo recommends it

Lily King: Euphoria – because it’s about anthropologists in the field caught up in a pernicious love triangle (based on Margaret Mead, who is one of the main reasons I studied anthropology)

Look how many varied and wonderful women writers there are just in this small sample!

Am I being a little over-ambitious? Am I not making any allowances for spontaneity? Well, we shall have to wait and see whether the home-made plans bear any semblance to the end result. But I do know that I have plenty more women writers to choose from…