Sunday, October 28, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

I didn't have high expectations for this book, because the reviews were lukewarm at best. Interestingly, the New York Times gave it a good review while actual readers were less impressed.

The unpopular Wickham is accused of murdering his best friend on the Pemberley estate, and Darcy is forced to come to his aid. The novel moves along at a fairly slow pace, and James introduces some new characters. The upshot is that this is a book mostly about the male characters of Pride and Prejudice, with Darcy mostly in the spotlight.

The female characters are very weak and lackluster, including our previously spunky, independent Elizabeth. Now a wife, mother, and mistress of Pemberley, her life consists mostly of managing the large household. Jane is her closest friend, and she features some in the book. In fact, perhaps because of the popularity of Downton Abbey and the like, Death Comes to Pemberley contains more details about the servant class at Pemberley. We see Elizabeth and Darcy interacting with the servants, and the servants actually play a role in the plot.

The biggest difference, however, between this book and the original Pride and Prejudice is the complete lack of comedy, which was one of the most memorable bits about P and P. Absent (except through letters) are Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Collins, and Lady Catherine DeBurgh, which brought great comic relief through their ridiculous words and actions. Elizabeth's reactions to their snobbish, outlandish behavior helped the reader appreciate her even more.

I have never read a P.D. James book before, but I'm told that this book is very different than her usual ones. One major gap I noticed was the absence of Lydia throughout Wickham's stay in the jail before his trial. Where did she go, and what was happening with her? Altogether, this book just didn't hold together well, and I missed Elizabeth Bennett.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Audition, by Ryu Murakami

Meh. That's my review.

My husband asked me how I had heard about this book, and I can't remember. I had it out of the library for awhile before I finally picked it up.

Audition is the story of a documentary film maker, Aoyama, who was widowed seven years before. His teenage son Shige suggests that he think about remarrying, so he decides to do just that.

He hatches a plan with his friend, Yoshikawa, to hold auditions for a movie so that he can screen dozens of women in the hopes of finding someone suitable for a wife. Through these fake film auditions, he meets Yamasaki Asami, and he becomes completely obsessed with lust. All he knows about her is that she had a difficult childhood. Of course, being Japan, the search for a wife means that he must find a docile, beautiful, elegant, obedient, and submissive woman. On the surface, Yamasaki Asami appears to fit the bill, but of course she turns out to be a sadistic murderer. This book was made into a cult film in Japan, which apparently was highly regarded as a great, creepy horror film (gets four stars on Amazon).

I was not impressed, for several reasons:
  • Shige seemed to be way too mature for a 16-year-old, in fact more mature than his father!
  • The first 3/4 of the book moves along very slowly, with seemingly unimportant details. In fact, it was boring. All of the action happens in the last two chapters, and of course you know what's going to happen. No suspense whatsoever.
  • The two male characters are completely shallow and misogynistic, which might have been part of Murakami's point...or they were just written as typical Japanese men with no irony whatsoever.
  • Yamasaki Asami compares having to give up ballet (because of an injury) to experiencing a death, and Aoyama finds this touching. I can't imagine that someone who has experienced the death of a loved one would find this comparison to be touching. On the contrary, it's heartless and clueless, like comparing the death of an animal to a death of a human child--to the grieving parent's face.
  • None of the characters were sympathetic. I didn't care what happened to any of them.
  • Aoyama was naive and disregarded all weird signs that something wasn't right. He was single-minded in his pursuit and no one could convince him to be suspicious. It just didn't seem realistic.
Ryu Murakami is called "Japan's master of the psycho-thriller," but I don't buy that. I've been disappointed in the Japanese fiction I've read recently, but even Out by Natsuo Kirino or Naoko by Keigo Higashino were stronger books than this one. Perhaps I'd prefer Murakami's other books, but I'm not rushing out to try them!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

Do not read this if you are expecting anything like Harry Potter! I have described this book to a few people as a story about a town full of Dursleys. None of the characters, really, are likable. Some are despicable. I found this book to be very timely during our American election season, as it depicts the battle between the "47 percent" and those that support them, and those who do not wish to help the less fortunate.

When Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly in his 40s, his death opens up a seat on the Pagford Parish Council. (Pagford is apparently a mashup of the towns of Padstow and Chagford.) Soon a war of factions begins in the town, between those who want to keep the idyllic town of Pagford pure (not in my backyard), and those who believe in lending a hand to the poor, addicted, and disadvantaged.

J.K. Rowling is, as always, a great storyteller. This book starts off slowly because it's a great character study of the town's residents as well as those in the council flats in "the Fields," on the edge of Pagford. At first I had a hard time keeping all the characters straight. One of the most vivid and tragic characters is Krystal, who lives in the Fields but attends school in Pagford. Barry Fairbrother had taken an interest in her and coached her on the school rowing team. Krystal's mom is a heroin addict and she adores her neglected, developmentally delayed 3-year-old brother. She's trying to keep her family together at all costs.

It's clear that Rowling has major parent issues. The teenagers are at war with their parents, and many of the parents treat their children with scorn, apathy, or even hatred. Apparently Rowling's mum died when she was a teenager and she has had a highly strained relationship with her father (and did not speak to him for nine years after he sold off several first-edition Harry Potter books). The character of Simon (one of the most hateful in the book) is purported to be based on her father.

It's an intensely political book, based much on the fact that Rowling was living on the dole before she struck it big, and her husband once worked as a doctor in an addiction clinic. She has said, "The poor are discussed as this homogeneous mash.To me, it’s heartbreaking. This is a book about responsibility, how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.”

The book tackles drug abuse, child abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cutting (self-mutilation), theft, Internet bullying, infidelity, racism, homophobia, cruelty, and marital unhappiness. In fact, none of the couples are happily married. The teenagers take revenge on their horrible parents. It's not an easy book to read. But it has an important message about how we live our lives and our responsibility to help people by giving them a lift out of their miserable lives. Those who refuse to do so do not come across very well in this book.

The Casual Vacancy is not fine literary fiction, but it's a good story. I found the book to be highly British...not just in usage and culture but also in the way people interact with each other. Much is below the surface, never to be expressed aloud.

Some say that Rowling had too much of an agenda for this book, but I think this is an important book for our day and age. Mitt Romney is a much suaver, more handsome and trim Howard Mollison, believing that the hangers-on are to be cut off, as they are sucking on the teats of society. How you feel about that idea will probably indicate how you feel about this novel.

If you're interested, take a look at Jon Stewart's recent interview with J.K Rowling.

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
J.K. Rowling
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Monday, October 8, 2012

All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent,
by Vita Sackville-West

I'd heard of Vita Sackville-West but didn't know much about her before my book group chose this for October's selection. Sackville-West was married to Sir Harold Nicholson and spent most of her life at their estate at Sissinghurst Castle. She and Nicholson had an open marriage, and both of them carried on extensive same-sex relationships. Sackville-West's most famous lover was Virginia Woolf. Some describe this novel as the fictional version of A Room of One's Own.

The story begins with the death of Lady Slane's husband, who had been prime minister and Viceroy of India during his prime. Suddenly, Lady Slane is presented with freedom for the first time in her the ripe age of 88. Her scheming children devise a plan by which she would be passed around from family to family, but she has other ideas. She retires to a modest cottage in Hampstead and directs them that she is to live on her own, and she doesn't want her grandchildren or grandchildren to visit her (no one under 60)...and doesn't much want her children around either.

Vita Sackville-West, later in life
Lady Slane reflects back on her life and her regrets, chief among them the fact that she was never able to pursue her artistic ambitions. She is quite happy with her little circle--her French maid, Genoux; her landlord, Mr. Bucktrout; and Mr. FitzGeorge, a reclusive, wealthy collector who fell in love with her in India, in another time, and saw immediately what she had given up.

My copy from the library was published in 1931
She revels in the precious time she has left, finding pleasure in sitting outside in her back garden, going for brisk winter walks, and quietly reflecting back on her life, mistakes, and relationships. It's a beautiful, feminist story about what women in those days (and still, now) give up to pursue marriage and family. Lady Slane never really enjoyed motherhood, being a wife, or being a grandmother. She just wanted time to reflect and paint, and she never got it. She comes to peace with her realization that she did not really love her husband and she had given up everything to be with him.
It even had a hole-punched watermark
 saying "Library Association of Portland Ore."!

And she realizes that she doesn't, really, want to be completely alone. She just wants to carefully choose her companions and how she will spend the remainder of her time.

I enjoyed this book very much and plan to view the BBC miniseries about Vita Sackville-West's relationship with her husband, "Portrait of a Marriage," based on their son Nigel's book of the same name.

To hear Vita's own voice, listen to this recording of her talking about Virginia Woolf and Orlando.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

In One Person

In One Person, by John Irving

As a long-time John Irving fan (one year I even gave my husband tickets to go see/hear him at Portland's Wordstock, and he was great, talking about his novel about tattoo addicts [Until I Find You]!), I have never failed to finish one of his books. But I could not bear to go on.

I read up until about page 95 and put it aside to read my book group book (All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West), hoping that I'd be more interested once I got back to it.

This morning I picked up the book again, read a few pages, and gave up. Life's too short to read a book I'm not enjoying The premise sounded intriguing, but as one reviewer put it, Irving manages to make the life of bisexual Billy seem completely boring and uninspired. He fails to elicit any kind of sympathy for his main character because Billy is so detached. 

Even the early theater and Shakespeare descriptions bored me (and I'm a theater lover!). The sexual proclivities and lust were tiresome and hard to comprehend...perhaps because I've never been drawn (sexually or otherwise) to people who were horrible to me.

I'll quote another Goodreads reviewer (Robyn Roscoe), who described my feelings well:

"I long for the well-crafted story, the characters that made you care, and the experiences that both surprised and satisfied. In this novel, Irving spoils his own story over and over again, essentially telling us what is going to happen well in advance and then dragging out the actual reveal through page after page of tedious description and narrative. I know Irving can write a story with characters I care about, so either he needs to listen to his editors or get some new ones. Since I didn't get through more than about a third of this book, I don't know what actually happens to Billy through his life. Sadly, I don't really care. If this story was meant to develop understanding of the tribulations of the LGBT community, it fails to accomplish that. It also fails to interest or entertain."

So disappointed. I think I'll go back and reread one of his earlier books.