Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al

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Reading Wednesday

Recently read I've been travelling and had more time than usual for reading, so there's a few reviews to catch up with.
  • Suite française: Tempête en Juin by Irène Némirovsky.

    I don't have the details here, but SF was written in 1940-42, and the manuscripts were hidden and unearthed and published in the 2000s. I'd been meaning to read it for ages, and for a while couldn't find a French language original rather than a translation, and then I was a bit scared of it because it's about the Nazi invasion of France so likely to be pretty grim. So I picked it as my book that was made into a movie for the Bringing up Burns challenge.

    Suite française is kind of an amazing cultural artefact, in that Némirovsky was an established writer who was novelizing the events of the invasion more or less in real time. And the whole story with the hidden manuscript saved even when Némirovsky herself, who was Jewish, was deported and murdered seems barely plausible.

    I instantly clicked with Némirovsky as a writer, and shall probably seek out her more conventional novels. She has a lovely wry style that I associate with women writing in the first half of the twentieth century, and the characterization in SF:TeJ was excellent. I assume the title is a reference to the Bach suite of French dances, and the structure is very much like that, it's a bunch of interwoven stories of different people caught up in the invasion. Tempête en Juin starts in Paris the day before the invasion, covers its various characters desperately trying to get out of Paris and becoming refugees, and continues with the French surrender and the survivors gradually drifting back to Paris since there's no longer much advantage in being anywhere else.

    It's never melodramatic, but extremely vivid and painful to read. The danger seems extremely real, not only because it's based on an actual historical event. Némirovsky evokes real horror at the deaths of unsympathetic characters even as she satirizes them; she doesn't only choose to kill the admirable characters to generate pathos, or only kill the minor supporting characters to protect those the reader might relate to. There's a little bit of commentary about how the flight from Paris is nothing special, refugees in all times and places leave their beloved homes and stable lives and endure extremely dangerous journeys to get away from wars.

    SF:TeJ is also very much a political satire of social class. The rich and famous characters still run very physical dangers but if they survive they find ways to come out ahead financially and personally. They are constantly complaining about how they are so much more sensitive to suffering than commoners, while the viewpoints of lower middle class and servants are vividly portrayed in other stories. They are not mocked for being devastated when loved ones are killed, they are mocked for expecting, and often even obtaining, gold star service in hotels that are already packed with desperate, starving refugees.

    When I got to the end of Tempête en Juin I didn't really want to go on into the second book, titled Dolce. Partly because even though it's very well written it's hard going because of the subject matter. And partly because it seemed like a bad idea to continue reading in French when I was travelling to Germany and trying to recall my very rusty German. (Let alone reading a French novel where the Germans are very much the Bad Guys!) So I poked around a bit and discovered that Dolce is a separate, though thematically connected, work, a single short novel rather than a series of character sketches. I assume that this is where we get the romance across enemy lines described in the film synopsis, and that the film didn't just make it up out of compulsory heterosexuality.

  • Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. (c) Emily St John Mandel 2014, Pub Picador 2014, ISBN 978-1-4472-6900-7.

    Knowing I had some very long journeys ahead of me, I loaded up my e-reader with a bunch of non-rigged award nominees from [community profile] bookatorium. [personal profile] ceb was very enthusiastic about Station Eleven, which had also won the Clarke Award by this stage, so I decided to give it a go.

    I am not completely convinced that a post-apocalyptic story set after more than 99% of humanity has been wiped out by massively pandemic flu is really more cheerful than a book set in 1940s France, though I suppose at least it's fictional rather than being based on events that actually happened. Station Eleven is also remarkably hopeful in tone, and the sad parts are tragic without being grindingly awful. Some people have described it using papersky's term cosy catastrophe.

    It's very much an apocalypse for the internet generation; the characters mourn just not the loss of almost everybody they knew and the destruction of civilization, but the loss of the internet and everything that represents. And the glimpses of life immediately before the apocalypse are very much about cross-cultural friendships. There's a story told in fragments and flashbacks of a famous Hollywood star who dies of a heart attack just before the pandemic hits, and the fairly ordinary, geeky amateur comic artist who was his first of a series of wives.

    Unlike the traditional cosy catastrophes, this isn't about white middle class English men saving the world through sheer force of decency. It's set in a North America which is almost diverse enough to be realistic, and has plenty of non-default main characters being noble and brave. Life both a few years from now and after the apocalypse are just beautifully conveyed, and the story is exciting throughout. Mandel manages to pull off the very difficult trick of making the reader care about whether specific characters will survive without detracting from the horror of mass death. Indeed, I even cared about the philandering actor and his ex, even though everything is told in flashback so it was impossible to ignore the fact that these banal relationship stories were taking place in the last years of human civilization.

    And I loved the ending, which is just the right level of hopeful without being completely implausible or denying the tragedy of everything that has gone before. I can completely see why this is getting awards, I do recommend it. And there's very little medical detail, so even if you don't normally like books about pandemic disease, that's not necessarily a reason to avoid SE.

    The book also contains some samples of the fictional comic, the eponymous Station Eleven. Unfortunately I got lazy and bought the ebook directly from the Nook store, which means I can't get at the file to open it on my computer and look at the comics in colour (or indeed to break the expletive DRM). So if anyone has a cracked copy they wouldn't mind sending to me, given I have in fact already paid full price for the book, that'd be appreciated.

    Currently reading After that I started a draft of an unpublished novel by a friend, so I shan't be talking about that here. It's fairly long so I might be a bit quiet on Reading Wednesdays for a while.

    Up next Still looking for an opportunity to get to a charity shop or library and pick a book solely for the cover

    Also, I'm having lots of fun with [personal profile] jadelennox's Dreamwidth Friending meme. Welcome, new people, and current readers, if you are looking for more people for your DW circle, the meme is well worth checking out.

    I prefer comments at Dreamwidth. There are currently comment count unavailable comments there. You can use your LJ address as an OpenID, or just write your name.
  • Tags: book, reading wednesday

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