Wednesday, 12 December 2012

3 in 1

Oh deary me, having just checked my posting history, I found that my last update was a month ago on 11/11/12… That’s no way to cultivate a blog. It probably doesn’t help that the last month has been a time of change for me, but even so, I really didn’t think it had been that long since a post.

Right, so straight down to business.

In the last few months I’ve read several books worthy of reviewing. And I keep meaning to give them all their own posts, but have failed. So to ensure that my move into 2013 is not going to be weighed down with a long list of To-Do’s from 2012, I think I will give a brief review of each below, and then endeavour to move along.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

A weird and wonderful book about a man deserted by his wife. This was my first Murakami and I absolutely devoured it. There are brutal scenes of awful violence (just to warn anyone) from the war in Japan and these are mixed with the alienation of the central character from the world around him. I would guess that critics generally say that the escalation of violence in the novel represents the estrangment from society. But to me it felt more like an important part of modern history which runs just below the surface of life in modern Japan.

My friend who lent it to me recommended it by saying that I would want to go and sit at the bottom of a well after reading it. Suffice to say she was right. Read it, really, read it.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I was turned onto this book by the review, which I can no longer find anywhere! At any rate, it was a really interesting read.

A researcher heads out to the Amazon in search for her missing professor who has been researching specific new drugs. Once there though, things become much more complicated.

This is a difficult book to discuss without giving away large chunks of the plot. I’m trying to write carefully here.

The researcher finds herself with a tribe in the Amazonian rainforest where women are fertile until death. The questions this particular issue raises I found were poignant and stayed with me long after finishing the book. It is written as something of a mystery story, which kept me hooked and turning pages up until the very end.

I liked the writing even if the book itself seemed very plot driven (which isn’t normally my style). And I’ll be looking out for Ann Patchett again.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I should have read this book a long time ago. And I didn’t. But I picked it up in a bookshop in September, with a vow to finally do so.

I’ve heard it mentioned in critical literature on gender identity whilst studying for my Masters, and so I had some inkling of the issues to be raised. I was also quite curious as to the reaction to the portrayal of Cal from the transgender community, and so have since read up on that as well online. I think what I’m trying to say is that, unlike my normal reviews, this one is entered into knowing some of the problems caused by Eugenides’ creation.

The story opens in a very self-reflexive way, invoking the power of the Muses to help Cal tell his/her history. If you do not like epic tales (a la Salman Rushdie or Guenter Grass) then this is probably not a book for you – at least this is what I think the opening is trying to tell you! (I for one liked the beginning)

Then the problems start.

Eugenides creates Cal by having his/her grandparents commit incest. I guess Eugenides at this point was more interested in including a small Greek community in the drama (where his roots are as well) than in pacifying all the critics of the book. I’m sure it could be argued that incest is such a taboo subject that however it is included there will be a gut reaction of disgust from the readers. All the same, I can see the critics’ point that it does to some extent demonise hermaphrodites as the product of this union.

If we can ignore this argument briefly, I did enjoy the section in Greece and coming to America. The depiction of the industrial age in American history was excellent. The epic nature of the book really comes home at this point – it does feel necessary for Eugenides’ story to move from the birthplace of tragedy to the great arena of the American Dream – I can really understand the story arch at this point.

I’m not sure quite whether the final sections of the book work quite as well. Obviously an analysis with a doctor is crucial to the plot (in New York) and Cal’s subsequent flight is fully understandable, but the steam has somewhat gone out of the book’s sails. With the reader aware from the outset that Cal is now living in Berlin, identifying as a man (due to the narrative itself being at times told from Berlin), the final coda from Berlin, feels not quite so perfectly timed as the rest.

Having read the biography of Eugenides’ (who also lived in Berlin) I felt that he had a built a story around his own circumstances as much as possible, and then fed into that the gender identity question. Maybe this is a successful technique for a writer who is not transgender to engage with this question. I think it was probably necessary for him. That doesn’t stop me feeling as if the story was slightly stilted by it. And then combined with the returning problem that I have with the creation of Cal from incest, this stopped me enjoying the book as much as I could have done.

The book was convention breaking, a real first for the mass market, for that reason I really recommend it. But readers should be aware of its limitations. A much more convincing look at the intersex debate (and the awful operations performed until very recently) can be found in “Mitgift” by Ulrike Draesner. But that’s just my personal opinion.