Friday, June 16, 2006

Reviews: #24, #25, #26, #27

Seems like it's been ages since the last book review around here, huh? (Though it doesn't much affect my ad-less site, there's another debate raging in blogland about blogger book reviews and commercial ethics; click here for the opening volley and some of the responses. Thanks to Max at the Millions for the link)

My reading time lately has been taken up with several books I've been assigned for review, as well as some guilty pleasures in between. First, the work reading (which won't be out for several months).

Review #24
by Dan Jacobson
(Metropolitan/Holt, September 2006)

It's a true story: in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, a princess fell in love with a lower-class cavalry officer, defied her husband and her family and ran away with him. When the forces of the status quo caught up with them, he was thrown into prison and she into an insane asylum, until he won his release and staged a daring breakout of the asylum. Then they fled to Paris, braved the world war together, and wrote their romantic memoirs while remaining faithful to each other until death.

Dan Jacobson was clearly attracted to this romantic tale, but on examination it turns out to have some twists that weren't brought out in the memoirs. Princess Louise and her officer, Geza Mattachich, got thrown in jail because their lavish lifestyle had racked up so much debt (in hopes that her husband would quietly pay it) that Mattachich illegally forged a promissory note from a royal relative. The mastermind behind his release and Louise's breakout was Maria Stoger, a working class woman who had Mattachich's child while he was in prison and continued to live with the pair for much of their lives. And both of them were probably self-dramatizing, self-absorbed ninnies who didn't care that the money for their jewels and houses and parties and clothes came from the Belgian king's horrific depredations of the Congo.

All of that still makes for a good story, obviously – except that this is supposed to be a novel. I got the feeling that Jacobson didn't have quite enough information to make this officially a biography of the pair, so he included all his research (with footnotes!) and a few scenes of invented dialogue and called it a novel. Despite the explosive subject matter, I have to admit I found the book incredibly dry. It was longlisted for the Booker prize when it came out in Britain, but it's said that British readers love biographies much more than their American counterparts, and this seems like a book that would appeal especially to biography readers. As a fiction reader myself, I wanted more feel-of-real-life stuff, and less descriptions of which train the princess took to Croatia or the rules of dueling. Nevertheless, the story itself is an irresistible one, and fans of historical fiction and biography might find much scandalous and decadent and romantic detail to be enchanted by.

Review #25
by Andrea de Carlo
(Rizzoli, August 2006)

This is another import, and another book with fascinatingly flawed and self-dramatizing characters – but it's a much more novelistic novel, and one that I found absorbing and thought-provoking. Andrea de Carlo is "one of Italy's most successful contemporary novelists," according to the jacket; this is his first book written in English. (This makes for some interesting linguistic quirks, by the way; my favorite is when one character tells another "You can only go to hell" – meaning, presumably, "You can just go to hell," but missing something in the non-translation.)

The author definitely proves his chops here, with the story of four high-powered Milanese urbanites and their preening real estate agent who jaunt off to rural Umbria for the weekend to look at some charming rustic houses for sale. When they lose their way, the car breaks down in a ditch, and a storm breaks, all civility is lost, and the five find themselves thrown upon the mercy of a group of squatters in the very houses they had hoped to buy – the settlement of Windshift. These purposeful peasants have rejected contemporary society and live without machines or commerce of any kind, making their own food and clothing – but instead of being Frances Mayes romantic, it's cold, dirty, and frightening (at least for the urbanites), as life before electricity or cell phones was wont to be.

I usually have a hard time enjoying novels where the characters are unlikeable, and there are some incredibly unlikeable ones in here: a vain and childish talk show host, a self-righteous architect who's cheating on his wife but sees posturing and hypocrisy in everyone else. But Andrea de Carlo turns it into good drama, putting them up against other, imperfect but more self-aware characters, and showing the depth of self-justification involved in almost any lifestyle choice as well as the essential emptiness of an unexamined life. The utopian Windshifters have their share of anger and self-dramatization too, but they have at least chosen their lives instead of being swept along by commerce and self-image (the scene of driving out of Milan, everyone involved in dozens of different urgent cell phone conversations, is priceless.) Cell phones come in for a lot of abuse in this book, which I enjoy as a denizen of Rude Cell Manners Land (come on, must you walk in and out the door while arguing with your agent or your girlfriend? This isn't your office or your living room…). In the end, the urbanites are affected by their forced displacement in radically different ways which ring very true, and even some of the Windshifters have been forced to reexamine their goals. I'd recommend this one highly, as the work of a clearly talented and insightful author, which is quintessentially Italian but will be very recognizable to any urban American.

And now for the guilty pleasures:

Review #26
by Agatha Christie
(Black Dog and Leventhal, September 2006)

Review #27
by Agatha Christie
(Dell, 1961)

The one book I picked up at BEA for my own reading pleasure was a beautiful hardcover reissue edition from Black Dog and Levanthal; I was just gloating over the chance to sink into her satisfying world on the train ride home. I'm pretty sure I'd already read ROGER ACKROYD at some point, but the great thing about Agatha Christie mysteries is you can never remember whodunnit, or even who the suspects were. This is a Hercule Poirot mystery, one of the first written but set after the great eccentric little Belgian has retired to an English country town. It has one of the most astonishing culprits of all Christie's novels, but I'm certainly not going to reveal their identity here.

And that got me on an Agatha Christie kick. I have at least half a dozen of the little mass market editions of her books lying around, picked up for a dollar at book tables or stoop sales, and they're the most irresistible portable treat. THE TUESDAY CLUB MURDERS is a Miss Marple book, this time a series of brief problems posed by younger and supposedly smarter folks, which the grand little old lady of St. Mary Mead composedly solves.

There are two things I love about Agatha Christie. One is her evocation of a world of rules and rituals, the deviations from which are the indicators that something is amiss. I love the idea of "at 10:00 we had just finished dinner, Miss X had retired to her room, while the gentlemen sat around over cigars, and someone began to tell an odd story…" and "if you had a garden you would know that gardeners always take Fridays off." It's a pre-feminist, pre-egalitarian world (though there are quite strong female characters and it never does to leave the servants out of your calculations). I doubt if even in England in the 1940s (and Christie wrote and set her books all the way up to the 1970s) things were this settled and comforting, but in a world where we rarely bother to make plans in advance ("I'll just call your cell when we're leaving") and dinner isn't something one dresses for (even dinner in a fancy restaurant rarely calls for anything nicer than jeans), it's a strongly tempting fantasy.

The other appeal and brilliance of Christie's novels is the way she always manages to turn the characters' class, sex, and age-based expectations on their heads. If I were an academic, I'd write a paper on generational conflict and misunderstanding and resolution in Agatha Christie; it's the one theme I think appears in every single one of her books. It's amazing to read the same language and thinking in books set in the 1920s and in the 1970s, and know that it rings true: younger people thinking of older ones as hopelessly tame and out of touch, older people thinking of young ones as wild and unreliable. In ROGER ACKROYD, it's a May-December romance that upsets these expectations; in TUESDAY CLUB, it's elderly Miss Marple's unfailing insight into the hip young lives of actresses, writers and painters.

Agatha Christie is a little like Rudyard Kipling, I think, representing everything that most appeals and repulses about English culture (hide-bound ritual, class distinctions, the Stiff Upper Lip, the White Man's Burden), while at the same time subtly undermining it with a knowledge of how human beings really work, English or not. Maybe this is just how I justify my periodic addiction to the puzzle-like workings of her (to be honest, interchangeable) novels, but gosh darn it, I think she's really good. As a young whippersnapper, I've got to give old Dame Agatha some serious props.

Speaking of which, one last plug for the Emerging Leaders Night Out happening on Tuesday. I'm sorry if I've given the impression that attendance is restricted only to hipsters under 40; truth is, it's open to hipsters of all ages. Seriously, if you think of yourself as someone who is interested in where the book industry is going, who is interested in developing and changing the future rather than digging in and hoping for a return to the past, and who plans to stick around for the next couple of decades, I'd love to have you come and meet other like-minded folks. We might even challenge each other to reexamine our own prejudices. Send me an email if you're interested and I'll send you the time and place info. In the meantime, enjoy the weekend!