Tuesday, September 27, 2005

“Name two.”

I particularly like this passage from Mary Doria Russell’s A Thread Of Grace. Set in World War Two, the protagonists, Albert Blum and his teenage daughter Claudette, are Jewish refugees seeking shelter in northern Italy:

    “The people in these mountains are illiterate peasants! They’re ignorant, Claudette. Priests have been filling their heads with Christ-killer lies all of their lives!”
    She bites into one of the pears and moans. “Oh, Papa! Oh, this is beautiful! This is the best pear I ever tasted!”
    “They think we poison wells! They think we murder babies and use their blood to make matzoh! They hate us—”
    “Name two.”
    Albert blinks.
    “Whenever we said ‘they’, Mama told us to name two.” Claudette divides the lump of cheese, handing half to Albert. “Mama said if you can’t name two actual people, then you’re just being prejudiced. So name two peasants who hate us.” She takes another bite of pear, holding his eyes with her own: ocean green and guileless in a dirt-smeared face. “Mama said.”
    Albert sighs. “All right,” he says, capitulating to hunger, and to a heart-deep weariness, and to the ethical precepts of a wife whose face is more difficult to conjure as each day passes. “All right, but just this once.”
It’s a great book, well-written, and with many moments of commonplace bravery and quiet heroism.

I’m slowly working my way through the recommendations made in this MetaFilter post, which had some overlap with books I’d enjoyed previously (Audrey Nifnegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife; Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) and makes a lot of good suggestions.

One caveat though: it seems to me that often people find specific books memorable because they tell the story in some unconventional way. The Time Traveler’s Wife, on the surface at least, appears extremely non-linear; it gets away with it because underneath the time-travelling glitz is a fairly straightforward love story. Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers tells its story by cutting between the journals of its protagonists. David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas both tell multiple stories, the first tangentially and the second by nesting them like Russian dolls. And Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion often cuts between its protagonists points of view several times a paragraph; a good story, but a very confusing technique. After too many of these in a row, I started to long for a straightforward yarn with no gimmicks.

So I revisited Steinbeck. For most people my age who grew up in the UK, all we know of Steinbeck is classroom readings of Of Mice And Men, which I always found a little too sentimental. Well: East Of Eden is spectacular, very simply told, but very deep. And The Grapes Of Wrath is amazing, very different in technique—a lot of painting of vignettes—but my god, I’d forgotten how bleak it was.

Bum recommendations: Katherine Neville’s The Eight is hokum, and was obviously somewhat of a prototype for The Da Vinci Code. And Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is solid, but rather dull, time-travelling-historians stuff.