Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Books Pt. 2: Fiction and Memoir

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, August 19, 2009 | Category: |

Many apologies.  This post has been sitting in ScribeFire for some time awaiting final my final editing process and late editions before I published it.  The process was confounded by our travels to Florence, Rome, packing up house in Siena, and our trip to South Africa via London.  Anyway, here is Part 2: Fiction and Memoir, the second installment of my post on recent books I've read begun almost a month ago in Pt 1: Non-fiction.

Fiction & Memoir Ker Conway - The Road from Coorain (Memoir)
Jill Ker Conway details her childhood and youth in this, the first, of her memoirs.  From her childhood growing up on a struggling farm in Australia, to her father's death, to the transformation of her mother from a sylph-like, charming wife and mother to a strange, manipulative woman, to attending university in Sydney to study history, to first love, to traveling to Europe with her mother, Ker Conway captures each period with warmth, honesty, and empathy. 

Ker Conway first draws you into the nature of her life by detailing the Australian landscape, which must be seen as the mise en scène for what she lives and believes, for how she studies history, and for the ways in which she engages with feminism, femininity, and love.  We view the landscape of her family farm invigorated with rainfall, later ravaged by drought, and yet later anchoring for Ker Conway to her past, to Australia, to her 'soul', and to her work. 

I find this a strange book to review.  I so thoroughly enjoyed it, as did my wife Amy. Ker Conway details the perceptions, beliefs, and actions towards women in Australia in the 50s-70s that I found her narrative far more convincing as a life lived than I have certain feminist tracts. I count myself a feminist so this was an odd experience. Ker Conway made me see particular characteristics about patriarchal society and Australian, or maybe Anglo-centric, patriarchy particularly that enlivened my feminist sensibilities.  Do not let my discussion put you off the book, Ker Conway does not hate men, nor does she rant against oppression, but as a social historian she characterizes the society she lives in so well that I could not help be engaged by the polemic underlying the narrative of her life, a polemic which evidently energizes and motivates Ker Conway. 

Moreover, as you are told in the blurb, Ker Conway is an extraordinary woman. She became the first female vice-president of a University in all of Canada, she went on to become the first female president of Smith College in Massachusetts, USA.   She documents these triumphs in her later memoirs.  But, this background of her life lived on an Australian farm, with the stresses of a mother whose potency languished unchanneled, and the strangeness of a society that so easily excludes - or remonstrates - bright and driven women, gives us access to the travails she overcame, and her unique take on attachment, history, and feminism.  I strongly recommend The Road from Coorain.

A point of clarity: do not confuse my discussion of Ker Conway's father's death and her mother's harshness for the anguish and distress recounted in the 'pity lit' style memoirs (like, say, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes).  First, Ker Conway describes how imaginative and challenging her mother was when Ker Conway was a child, how through her mother she was educated and given a critical faculty allowing her to engage with the world as an academic historian, she also accounts for her own complicity in her mother's devolution, and she  describes the revelatory moments well, honestly and empathetically.  What remains important are Ker Conway's engagement with landscape, family history (embedded in the history of Australia), and the role of women.  I found it to be a truly fantastic memoir, better than many others I have read. Ker Conway - True North (Memoir)
Having read The Road from Coorain and having thoroughly enjoyed it, and having passed it on to my wife who enjoyed it too, we both wanted to unveil the rest of Jill Ker Conway's life, what the United States held for her, who the man was who added his 'Conway' to her 'Ker', and the rest of the unfolding tale of her apotheosis as a female in the male-dominated academia of the 60s and 70s.  I was not disappointed (my wife has still to read it).  But, there is a caveat to anyone intending to read this book: The Road from Coorain coheres around the detailed landscape of Australia and how that landscape in its geographic, material, social, familial and academic manifestations sculpted Ker Conway. 

In True North, Ker Conway cannot write about any one landscape because they change too regularly: from Harvard, to Oxford, Rome, Paris, Toronto, Vancouver, Brisbane, Sydney, and finally Smith College, Massachusetts, there is no one shaping geography.  Instead, Ker Conway charts her paths to and through these places to find a location independent of 'place' for her and John. She realises a particular and special route, which is why I recommend the book.

What made the book all the more empassioning for me was Ker Conway's descriptions of learning, studying, and reading.  It isn't all that often that I get to read about the sensations and joys of studying, of being challenged by interesting and dynamics people, and of finding a partner who engages you in multiple arenas intellectually, yer retaining a stron emotional connection to you.  As someone who 'married young', who is probably bound for academia, and whose partner is bound for academia I found these intimate descriptions uplifting and enjoyable, even though honesty requires that she revealed the oddities and dark times as much as she revealed the good, the love-sustaining, and the wonderful. 

Furthermore, what intrigued me was Ker Conway's engagement, as a feminist, with notions of things like 'gender studies' which she characterizes as taking an incorrect path in their progenitors' and propagators' needs to separate from the traditional disciplines of history, sociology, anthropology, etc as if 'gender studies' are independent of the other humanities.  Kery Conway, instead, argues (or rather portrays her thinking and feelings about) how feminist and social thinking should be embedded in all the social sciences so that it is something about which all people learn and which they must confront, rather than something apart which people can more easily avoid.  I find this strikingly appropriate. Follett - World Without End
Amy and I both read Pillars of the Earth some time ago, we saw this in an English language bookstore here in Siena and both read it.  Amy read it some time ago, I decided to give it a go more recently.  It fits well into my 'ripping yarn' (or should that be 'guilty pleasure') category.Follett tells a tale of a British landscape of political intrigue among barons and bishops, of personal losses and triumphs, of genius and innovation, of the ravages of the Black Death, and of a long-lived love.

While holding to historical accuracy for architecture, landscape, labour, etc the book's protagonists often seem anachronistic: the man and woman treating each other as an ideal(?) modern couple would, mutual respect,  division of  labour, and understanding the paths that each took to realising eventual love. Did such things occur in England during the bubonic plague and the reign of Edward III? I'm not so sure. 

You don't need to have read Pillars of the Earth to understand the goings on in World Without End. Everything you need to know is fairly well-established in World itself.  As others comment, Pillars and World define the category 'historical thriller', rather than just 'historical fiction'.  Follett doesn't try to be highbrow, but gets the setting right, throws in sufficient intrigue right at the beginning to get you hooked, and then pulls you on.  I think, though, that there was one phase in the book where Follett lost track of the tale a bit and needed to weave the strands together more tightly (towards the beginning of section with the Black Death). Nevertheless, the book was most enjoyable in how it tracked the lives of its characters from youth to late middle-age, their bumps, dips, loves, and frustrations. 

I read the hard cover of World Without End while journeying to and from London for a conference.  I received several furtive glances, probably because the glancers were uncertain at the wisdom of carrying such a weighty tome during my journey. Little did they know I was enthralled by the intrigue, violence, and passion! Or at least so I tell myself.

Donna Leon - Death at La Fenice
A fun traipse through Venice, with death, droplets of personal history, and a decent characterization of the city.  Leon characterizes a fair number of Italians well, playing on the stereotypes while ensuring that she keeps her main character gruff, stoic, and Venetian enough to count. 

Vice-commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the strange death of the musical genius Helmut Wellauer at the famous La Fenice opera house in Venice.  In the 'official' blurb, Brunetti's described as 'suave and pithy', I'd say pithy, yes, suave, no.  Leon unveils a story showing that method and perseverance should get you to your end, or at least should get Brunetti there.  Brunetti shows a deft hand at dealing with his superior, with Italian bureacracy and social mores generally, and with his suspects and interviewees.  Leon builds a detective story about stories, rather than about crime scene evidence, sudden inspired insights, or malign criminals failing to cover their tracks.  It was a fun, swift read, enjoyable all the more if you've spent sufficient time in Venice to know streets, places, and some of the city's strangeness.  Leon doesn't overly romanticize this beautiful city, but sets it down in the mud of the lagoon reminding the reader of the strange smells, the occasional dankness, and the damp as much as she does of its architecture and history.  

Death and La Fenice is Leon's first book with Brunetti as the detective-protagonist.  She has written a series of detective novels based in Venice with Brunetti as her main character, and supposedly certain characters he meets in this novel crop up later.  Were I feeling like something bite-sized and quick, I'd definitely pick up one of the later ones in an airport shop or train station. This one was left with us by a travelling relative, and I agree it's suitably engaging travel/holiday reading.

In its category of detective fiction, it's a cut above most of those I've read.  Hence the 4 stars. Ruiz Zafon - The Shadow of the Wind
I became bored reading this.  I put it down just over half way through. I found it over-written, stylised in a manner not to my tastes, and ultimately executed and plotted in such a way that the ideas were stifled.  I think that the author was trying to make too obvious a point about living in Fascist Spain (darkness, shadows, terror, secret love), and that its embodiment in the power of the evil, demented and covetous Fumero was laughable. The self-doubting hero-detective protagonist was also just a bit too cookie-cutter. 

Some of the ideas in the book are fantastic - who couldn't like the idea of the cemetery of books? - but then I felt like I was reading a book that wanted to be a movie, and not really a book.  This was strange because the book is 'meant' to be a book about books (which was why I was given it as a gift in the first place, I love books about books, such as Fadiman's Ex Libris and Lewis Buzbee's The Yellow-lighted Bookshop). Because I became enchanted by some of the ideas I tried to champion onward - not such a good idea. I can see why this book might work as an introduction to magical realism, or maybe as a kind of faux magical realism, but it doesn't make the transition to mature ideas, mature writing, or mature execution that characterize that genre - Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude come to mind, or maybe even Esquivel's popular Like Water for Chocolate.

I have seen some reviewers try to compare Zafon to a hybrid of Borges, Marquez and Eco, but if Zafon was trying to be this Hybrid, then he was rather a Shadow of the Hybrid, reaching neither the gentleness with
tone, nor the verve with language that these authors attain.  All of which said, I think this book comes down strongly to personal preference.  If you like long, flowery descriptions of things, in addition to a plot that slowly unfolds (unfolds is apt, one fold, next fold, then the next fold, like a large, sheet, packed away for months being deliberately unfolded) then you'll probably enjoy this novel.  It's understandable why people compare it to The Da Vinci Code, another novel that unfolds 'mysteriously'.  If you're not into that, then rather steer clear. To me the novel wasn't bad, it just wasn't anything better than average.

Poetry & Ve
Ted Hughes - Tales from Ovid
My wife and I read this slowly, being sure to read the entire book out loud.  During our semi-nightly ritual of reading out loud to one another, which mostly involves me reading to Amy, I found myself shivering with the visceral, accurate, and beautiful writing that Hughes engages to re-tell these most famous of stories: Ovid's Metamorphosis

I was introduced to this book some time back by a dear friend of mine who loved Hughes's translation of the story of Echo and Narcissus and read it while studying Classics.  That was indeed one of my favourites in the collection, accompanied too by the stories of Arethusa, of Venus and Adonis (and Atalanta), of Actaeon, of Arachne, and of so many others.  Amy also studied classics and we resolved some time ago to purchase the book and read it out loud, which was a fantastic experience.  I almost cannot imagine these stories read silently.   

Hughes represents forcibly Ovid's core theme of metamorphosis: the fact that men and gods are vulnerable to change and flux.  Furthermore, Hughes also captures the morals of the stories well in his physical and robust language - you feel Arachne's pride as she takes on Minerva, you internalise the urgent, visceral need that Narcissus feels for himself, you experience the change of body to water as Arethusa tries to evade Alpheus and the metamorphose.  Ovid's original stories contain violence, rape, murder, and vengeance and Hughes's presentation of these acts is vivid and transformative.  Again, in the story of Arethusa you cannot help but understand the sense of pursuit, of intent to fulfil passionate ravishment, the urge to penetrate, to touch, to clutch. Reading this book is unlike reading a novel, and unlike reading most contemporary poetry.  The stories are long and require concentration, but the translation (itself a metamorphosis, oh how clever) and re-creation are superb. I cannot recommend the book enough to those interested in classic literature and 20th century poetry.

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