Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Review - The Call of the Wild

Staring. Staring. STARING.
Today one of my seminar tutors was talking about war literature and said that Birdsong was a very bad book. I got so excited to discover a kindred spirit that I shouted "I KNOW, RIGHT?! I KNOW!" into his face. I think I alarmed him. It was worth it.

For the record, I watched the first 30 minutes of the BBC adaptation and then sunk under the sheer amount of fish-like gazing I was being subjected to. I will say it was better than its source material, but that's not difficult. (Yes, I am now firmly in the anti-Birdsong camp. It is a scourge upon this earth. Come at me.)

What was good, though - I think I may have mentioned this before - was the BBC's Sherlock. I've reviewed it - and talked about what makes a good adaptation - over at Litro, and I've also done a piece on why Culture should be for everyone (but Ulysses is very bad).

Now. I keep saying I won't review the books I read for my MA course. And then I read a set text and end up weeping covertly into an airplane window so the guy sitting next to me won't think I am mad or regretting my decision to commit an act of international terrorism (though considering this flight was going to Cork I'd have really been thinking outside the box, target-wise. Note: I am a law-abiding tender-hearted humanist. If any policemen are reading this, I'm joking, don't arrest me).

Anyway, my point is that some books are too good not to tell you about, and so it is with The Call of the Wild. 

The Call of the Wild is great in two very different ways. The first sixty pages (it's a tender morsel of a thing at just under 100 pages) make up one of the greatest wilderness novels I've ever read, simply because Jack London has realised something really crucial about wilderness novels: if your protagonist is a human man, it's never going to work out. Your guy can get busy hefting hacksaws and bringing down bison but ultimately he will feel the call of cooked food and toes that are not frostbitten, and he will go back to New York, or London, or wherever it is, and get hitched.

In fact, most wild men aren't really that wild at all. Robinson Crusoe looked at nature and saw a table, and from then on people in wilderness novels have approached the landscape in terms of the best setting for their new log cabin. But if at the centre of every man's heart is a large feather bed, in the heart of every dog lurks a wolf, ready to jump out and rip everything to shreds. Therefore, if you make your protagonist a large dog, and stick him in the middle of the snowy wastes, then shit, my friends, is going to go down and it's never going to stop.

The Call of the Wild is the story of Buck, a large dog (you see where I am going with this) who gets kidnapped from his cushy home in Southern California and shipped off to the Klondike goldrush to become a sled dog. Horribly mistreated and forced to fend for himself, his layers of good-doggishness get stripped away to reveal the neolithic badass wolf beneath. Buck goes wild, and then wilder, and it's all so incredibly hardcore that even reading it makes you feel awesome by association. By page 40 I  wanted to run straight up the nearest mountain and punch the sky in the face.

And then, just as I was powerfully psyched and ready to see Buck become king of the world, the novel changed pace and became one of the most beautiful human-dog relationships I've ever read. Buck is rescued from particularly wicked owners by the gentle woodsman John Thornton, and they fall instantly and madly in... love, I guess, that special sort of human-dog adoration that's almost better than anything you can get from another person.

This is something that has a huge capacity to affect me. I lost the canine love of my life two years ago and to a large degree I think I'm still in mourning for her. When she died it felt as though I'd lost a family member, and even now I have moments when I think of her and feel absolutely bereft, that I'm missing something I'll never get back again. So the bond between dog and human, if written well, has a great potential to make me cry. But I defy even you, dogless ones, not to feel a pang at the moment when John Thornton puts his entire life savings on the line over a bet that Buck can drag half a ton (because he thinks that Buck is the best dog there is and won't hear anyone say otherwise), and then Buck does it, on his own, out of sheer mad fidelity to his master.

Where it goes after that I won't say - but really, I just want to know where this book has been all my life. It's wonderful. Brutal and incredibly sweet by turns, it's got dogs, nature, Victorian adventure and most importantly DOGS, and I am absolutely writing my essay about it when the time comes.

And best of all, it's on the 1001 Books list.

4 stars.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Review - The Virgin in the Garden

'"Happy birthday," said Bird, "Happy me!"'

When I was a fledgeling, one of my favourite picture books was Bird's Birthday, which I liked because it was about me. (By the same token, I hated 'Who Killed Cock Robin' and 'The North Wind Shall Blow', because they were about me being shot and freezing to death respectively). Bird's Birthday, though, was about a bird who - you guessed it - had a birthday. My favourite part was the beginning, when the bird, excited about the upcoming day, went around for a week 'mentioning things in a casual way, like presents a bird most preferred.'

I tell you this because today is my happy birthday. I am 24, which is the same age Franz Muller was when he maybe killed Mr Briggs, and one year younger than Tea Obrecht was when she won the Orange Prize OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE WITH MY LIFE.

To console me, though, I got an awful lot of books, which will keep me in reviews for months, or at least weeks. And here for you, while I get on and read them, is a review of one of my Christmas pile, A. S. Byatt's The Virgin in the Garden.

You know how I love A. S. Byatt. I thought, after the whitewash of fabulousness that was Possession, The Children's Book, Ragnarok and Angels and Insects, she could do no wrong. But even great writers have to have a few years where they're a bit wobbly, and it seems like Byatt's dodgy training wheels book is The Virgin in the Garden. To be fair, she was 42 when she wrote it, which I suppose leaves me with a few more years before I have to turn out that masterpiece, and also to be fair, when I say it's dodgy what I mean is that it's not practically perfect in every way. I have high standards when it comes to my Byatts.

Set in 1953 in The North, it's the story of some people putting on a play in honour of Queen Elizabeth's coronation. Somehow, when I first read the synopsis, I managed to swap the 9 and the 5 round in my head, so I thought it was set in 1593 and about Liz I instead of II. I had a very confusing fifty pages of reading before I realised my elementary mistake. I suspect, actually, that Byatt is trying to make a 1953/1593 connection - the play in question is a flowery verse tribute to Elizabethan drama, and there are lots of slightly forced literary jokes about virgins and queens and so on. Everyone involved in the pageant runs about in bodices, sleeping with each other under bushes and considering the Alexandrine verse form, while there's an exceedingly weird sub-plot involving two people who think they're summoning demons. The whole thing is trying very hard to be riotous, and I suppose it is, in a studied way. It's certainly weird and it's even, about half of the time, fairly interesting - and yet there are ways that The Virgin in the Garden never quite works.

You can see the ways Byatt's going to excel in future, and to an extent already does - the minute attention to detail, the big, beautiful language, engrossing family relationships and a precisely described historic moment. But all the same, she's not quite there yet. For all that there are beautiful bits, the writing can be clumpy and overdone, and the light touch of her literary references in things like Possession fees, in this book, more like being beaten over the head with Shakespeare in a fat leather binding. In one party scene, for example, an unwelcome guest is compared to the character de Flores (he's the murder victim in Middleton's The Changeling, which I only know because I studied it at university). Yes, well done A. S. Byatt, very clever reference, top marks for being literary, but only about 2% of your readers are going to get it and the other 98% are just going to wonder who the hell that is and if it's about sex.

The humour, too, isn't as light and smart as in Byatt's later work. She's obviously in a phase where she's TRYING TO BE FUNNY, and the result is strange and ponderous, like bad Iris Murdoch. Actually, there's a distinct Murdochy flavour to The Virgin in the Garden, especially the demonic world-soul sub-plot, which could have been lifted wholesale from The Philosopher's Pupil. People spend a lot of time perched on bits of landscape, having odd philosophical discussions about sex and glaring at each other. Partly as a result of all those wordy words I spent a lot of the novel wondering whether or not I actually liked the characters enough to be reading 500 pages about their lives. The Potters, the family group that The Virgin in the Garden centres on, are all just a bit... unpleasant. Sure, some of them are that mix of objectionable-but-ultimately-loveable that makes for a well-rounded character, but some I just wanted to strangle and have done with it. Patriarch Bill Potter, especially, is a creation so absolutely infuriating that I frequently found myself wanting to rend his head from his shoulders and then jump up and down on it in an iambic rhythm.

All the same, the fact that I didn't enjoy this as much as other Byatts I've read still means I liked it a hell of a lot more than about three quarters of novels in general. Apparently, it makes up the first in a quartet of novels. I decided on about page 100 I wasn't going to read the rest of them, but by page 500 I was cravenly searching Amazon for good used copies. Partly this is because The Virgin in the Garden doesn't end, as such, but just cuts off with some people sitting on a sofa and feeling gloomy, but despite myself I found myself pulled into the Potters' world. Damn Byatt and her tricksy ways! I really was going to 2.5 star this, but the fact that I do want more makes me reluctantly admit that it's probably a 3 star book at least. So, 3 stars it is. And I know what I'm going to be spending my birthday book tokens on.

3 stars.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Review - Mr Briggs' Hat

In Litro news, my first blog of the year is up there, a review of the recent BBC Great Expectations.Which I liked, although I think I was feeling a bit post-Christmas grim when I wrote it. Be warned. Also, Writersdock has very kindly reblogged my review of Birdsong, which is especially relevant right now since the BBC is about to air their remake of that, too. It may be good. The book was a turd.

Anyway. Today my review is non-fiction, and also crime, which is my favourite sort of non-fiction (this probably doesn't imply good things about me). Here goes.

There is a railway bridge that runs right in front of my window. It's one of those heavy red brick ones with arches and built-in storage units (incidentally, the owners of the unit closest to me may have found the entrance to Narnia, judging by the astonishing number and range of goods and people that go in and out of there every morning). Commuter trains rattle across it for 20 hours a day, pleasantly lit up and sounding vaguely like the washing machine. It's a very nice view. I get to stare at the trains as they pass, and presumably the people in the trains get to stare at me staring blankly at a computer screen and drinking coffee. Sometimes they also get to see me putting on my tights.

My point is, what with that and the Tube, trains make up a large part of my urban day. It's strange to think that once upon a time 150 years ago trains were still a deeply unnatural and quite frightening imposition on Londoners' lives. Even stranger, for those of us used to watching babies and drunkards weaving their way up and down between carriages, is that trains used to be the ultimate locked room scenario. Until the late nineteenth century there were no connecting doors between carriages, just side doors that got locked between stations. Once you were shut in, there was really no way out, and you just had to cross your fingers and mightily hope that you were not sharing your space with a mad axe murderer.

Unfortunately for senior bank clerk Mr Thomas Briggs, that was more or less what happened to him. Poor Briggs, the subject of Kate Colquhoun's book Mr Briggs' Hat, has gone down in history for being the man with the dubious honour of being the first person to be murdered on a train in Britain.

The facts in his case are briefly these:

Just after 10pm on the 9th July 1864, two men trying to board a train carriage at Hackney Wick station in London discovered it empty but slathered in blood. The alarm was raised, and subsequent investigations found Mr Briggs lying upside down on the track between Bow and Hackney Wick, in a coma from which he never recovered. A more thorough search of the carriage and Mr Briggs revealed that he was missing both his watch and his hat. A hat was found under the carriage's seats, but, crucially, it did not belong to Mr Briggs.

With the sort of blugeoning fit-the-peg-in-the-hole certainty familiar to those familiar with the police and/or the Victorians, the detectives on the case worked their way via hat and watch to a 24-year-old tailor named Franz Muller, who was German and thus seemed shifty. The only problem was that by the time they were ready to make their arrest, Mr Muller was already en route to America.

I won't give you the details of the rest of the story, which involves intrigue, complex watch- and hat-swapping scenarios, a brilliantly slow high-speed sea chase across two continents and a lot of confusion, but I will say that Kate Colquhoun is quite right to give her book the subtitle 'A Sensational Account'. It's one of those true stories so interesting that it ought to be fiction, and Colquhoun tells it sensationally (with all the 1860s connotations of the word) and at speed. There's a lot of high colour and general jollity, and though Colquhoun obviously has done her research on the era and the case, she doesn't smother the reader with needless superior knowledge (which I like, on the whole, although I do wish she'd found out about quotation marks - as a temporary academic I feel strongly that italics are not how we quote).

There's such a lot of atmosphere and local colour that it can get oppressive sometimes - cockneys hawking haddock, pea soupers, rough waves, sweltering Upper East Side days and so on - but if you shove all that fog out of the way there's an interesting and surprisingly informative account of Britain and America in the mid 1860s lurking beneath it. There's also a fairly interesting and twisty mystery. I was expecting an open and shut case, but the more I read, the more doubt began to worm its way into me. Could there be other explanations? Could Muller's alibi be true? I don't know, and now it's bothering my brain.

I do find it odd that, at the end, after managing to question so much of the evidence against Muller, Colquhoun doesn't come down firmly on one side or the other over the question of his guilt. I think she thinks he didn't do it, or that it was sort of an accident, but she doesn't say, and it left me feeling slightly at a loose end. Sensation fiction is supposed to end with certainty, damn it, and the small matter of this being fact shouldn't prevent a good bit of editorial wrapping-up.

What we do hear is that the Briggs case heralded a new era in train safety, in that it made people realise for the first time that train safety might be a good idea. It also (and I know this from my own crime obsession) was the crime that spawned a thousand books. You can see the shadow of Mr Briggs in countless train-carriage murder mysteries, in hordes of respectable white-haired murder victims, in foreign suspects and thrilling chases and objects that manage to silently tell the story of the crime.

Not, of course, that this would be much consolation to Mr Briggs, or, if he was innocent, to Mr Muller. But it's all very interesting to think about, and Kate Colquhoun's presentation of the Briggs case is also a lot more fun to read than Love and Mr Lewisham was. Enjoyable stuff.

3 stars.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Review - Love and Mr Lewisham

Happy 2012, readers! Felicitations, fireworks, champagne and all that. Indeed, I may have had too much of that - but now it is the 4th I can look life in the face again and tell you about the first book of my year, and the first book from my towering Christmas present pile, Love and Mr Lewisham.

I guess the good thing about getting through Love and Mr Lewisham first is that it leaves definite room for improvement as far as my reading material goes. I've already had the situation, with the new episode of Sherlock, where I sat down afterwards and wondered if anything could ever be that good again, and for that to happen with a book as well as with a TV show in the first four days of 2012 would be asking too much of the universe. 

Love and Mr Lewisham was - fine. It was perfectly good, and even quite sweet (which I found a bit weird, conceptually - you think H. G. Wells and you think of angry metal objects exploding violently while invisible people do experiments on animals in the background, rather than a story about two people falling in love and arguing about it, which is Love and Mr Lewisham's basic plot).

Actually, Love and Mr Lewisham is more technically relevant to my interests than anything else I've read by Wells. It's all about being young and poor in London, which I have vivid personal experience of, and also about being in love, which has happened to me too, whereas I have never personally travelled to the future or been shot at by an alien death ray. And yet, if you go into a novel expecting death rays and end up with 200 pages of people having misunderstandings about bunches of flowers you are going to feel slightly cheated, plot-wise, and so I did. Allegedly Love and Mr Lewisham is about spiritualism (another reason why I was interested in it, I love a good bit of chicanery and/or haunting), but it turns out that Wells just wants an excuse to have an ethical discussion about whether or not faking seances is cheating (yes), and if so whether or not that is wrong in the grand scheme of things (still yes), and that's fine, but to be brutally honest I prefer it when he writes about invisible people.

That's not to say I didn't get something from Love and Mr Lewisham. It proved to me rather neatly that 1) I should thank every power in the universe for the rise of women's education, because (all jokes about the earning power of English Literature graduates aside) it means that I can go out and earn cold hard cash rather than having to sit all day staring at the wall and being a drain on my (fictitious) husband, only for him to (fictitiously) come home and talk about things that I don't understand, like Science and Politics and Spelling. And 2) I am really glad that I did not get married aged 21 just because I wanted to cohabit with someone. It works for some people, of course, but it has the potential to go hideously wrong, especially if you are both poor and living in London, and so, in Love and Mr Lewisham, it does.

Things turns out OK in the end, in a sappy sort of way, but all the same Mr Lewisham and Ethel's trials and tribulations (will he choose his Woman or his Career? Will she escape her trickster father in law? etc) are just never going to be as interesting as a death ray. Maybe I'm shallow. Maybe I misunderstood the kind of book Love and Mr Lewisham is. But I have to say that if you're looking for a good (less famous) H. G. Wells novel, don't read this. Read The Island of Doctor Moreau, because that has insane conflicted half-human half-animal lab experiments in it, and it's also set on a desert island, and as I have said many times before ('m lying, I've never said this before but it's true anyway) a desert island setting means that things are going to be AWESOME. Also, you should watch Sherlock, because it was amazing.

Welcome to 2012.

Love and Mr Lewisham gets 2.5 stars.