Thursday, March 28, 2013

Books I read in March

The not many books I read this month + Anna.
Misadventures, Sylvia Smith. A collection of autobiographical vignettes by a superficially unremarkable woman who, in her 50s, decided she would quite like to write a book.

To say Smith's prose is unaffected would be an understatement. Hers is the turgid "then this happened, and then..." style of the family Christmas letter, the postcard from a slightly dull friend, the daily Facebook update by that guy you used to work with who keeps posting "hilarious" stories about his kids. It is undistinguished, even amateurish, and the stories themselves often lack a discernible structure, or, indeed, a point.

Yet Misadventures has a cumulative effect. Smith worked a variety of jobs, mostly administrative, never married, and carried on an active social life. So, for one thing, Misadventures is an account of small but often important moments in a single, working woman's life in the mid-to-late 20th century. But the appeal of the book is more than anthropological. There is a fascinating ordinariness to the events Smith describes. These are minor triumphs, sadnesses, scares; moments of humour and kindness. Smith lived a relatively circumscribed life, but not an unpleasant one. Misadventures takes us into her world of social clubs, tour groups, dances, country pubs, rambles, boyfriends, lodging houses. Smith's prose, which at first feels so wooden, begins to seem like the perfect vehicle for her doggedly unglamourous tales.

Halfway through reading Misadventures, I googled Smith to find out if she had written anything else. Turns out there are two further books, My Holidays and Appleby House. It also turned out that she had died in late February, aged 67. Via a couple of rather snide newspaper obits, I learned that Misadventures was widely panned upon publication. This is not surprising, given Smith's naive lack of "literary-ness". But it does raise some questions. Must literature contain, even privilege  introspection? What is the value of the mundane? Can the mundane only transmute into art when filtered through a more intellectual aesthetic, (eg Nicholson Baker)? Does the writer's gender matter when it comes to reporting on the mundane? What is a "significant" subject for memoir? Is it possible to achieve literary effects only if one is "well read" and part of a dominant literary culture? Are the accidental or incidental effects of the "amateur" as valuable as those achieved by "professionals"? What does it mean when a book such as Misadventures connects with a broad range of readers, despite lacking the obvious trappings of "good" writing? Could I use any more scare quotes in this paragraph?

Your answers on the back of a copy of Amazing Spiderman #1, please.

Whatever the broader questions raised by the production, publication and reception of Misadventures, the book works as a warm and charming memoir. It's probably a bit of a love it or hate it proposition, and that in itself is all to the good. Oh, here is Dan Rhodes's lovely post on the late Ms. Smith, may she rest in peace.

A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow, George R.R. Martin. The first volume of the third book of A Song of Ice and Fire is a 600pp behemoth in its own right. I loved the first two books, but GRRM is really revved up here. I'm not sure I have ever read a novel in which so much shit has gone down. Every chapter brings unexpected twists of fate, and at least two chapters ended with me shaking my head and whispering, "Oh. Fuck me."

If you're into this series, you don't need me to tell you to read this, and indeed you probably did so years ago. If you're not into it, or only know the tv show, I want to impress upon you how brilliant and thrilling this work is. The fantasy setting is so detailed, yet the complexity is immersive rather than overwhelming. Martin has built the world before our eyes, and even now, three books in, he's adding details that incrementally flesh out our understanding of its geography, history, and peoples. Martin's does this without info-dumping, without dry appendices. Everything that he wants you to know is in the text, and it works to build a world rich in character, story and thematic resonance.

Because the narrative flits between a range of p.o.v. characters, many of the chapters resemble short stories into which the reader is dropped, disoriented, and which then build to often nerve-wracking crescendoes. Critics tend to focus on the ASOIAF books' conceptual scope and ever-increasing length, overlooking  Martin's brilliance at writing powerful individual scenes or passages. A chapter like the one in which Samwell Tarly flees the Others (later used as the basis for the best episode of The Biggest Loser evah!), demonstrates Martin's extraordinary ability to tell a compressed, structurally complex narrative.

Another pejorative leveled at Martin - sometimes even by ostensible fans - is that he is writing "pulp". Divorced from its historical context, I assume this is intended to mean cheap, disposable  workmanlike. I can understand criticism of Martin's occasionally idiosyncratic grammar and word-choice, as well as his more lascivious descriptions of nudity and sex, but he is not a "cheap" or careless writer. In fact, his prose is usually supple and direct. I'm now over 2500 pages into the saga, and I have noticed very little obvious repetition of figurative language. (The characters' repetition of homilies and mottos is a different matter, being deliberate and of a piece with the world depicted.) Even the infamous epithet that attaches to Jon Snow isn't as prevalent here as in the tv series. (Although that might only seem to be the case because we encounter him every few chapters, rather than every few minutes.) Even the much-derided longuers involving supposedly endless descriptions of meals or sigils feel well-honed, and there are far fewer of these moments than comment thread wits would have you believe. Anyway, I quite enjoy them.

Sure, there are flaws: the occasional flat scene or chapter, moments of coincidence that challenge belief. There is also the ongoing issue of Martin's apparent preoccupation with incest and his sometimes dubious approach to secondary women characters - in marked contrast to his array of excellent leading women. But overall I was enthralled by this book, and I'm looking forward to reading the closing volume and the remaining two books in the series to date.

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