Saturday, 11 February 2012

February books so far

An Object of Beauty (2010) by Steve Martin

This third novel by comedian and actor Steve Martin boasts a great opening line, which I found impossible to resist:

I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else.

The narrator is Daniel, an art writer in 1990s New York. However, he is a largely featureless figure, with his narrative (as the above suggests) being almost entirely devoted to his friend and one-time lover, Lacey Yeager. Lacey is an art dealer - an up-and-coming young gun at the story's beginning, and a gallery owner by its end, fifteen years later. Daniel observes and listens to much of Lacey's story, and fills in the blanks using his imagination, so it's almost as though this is just a third-person narrative about Lacey: we never learn much about Daniel's own life, and I often forgot he was there. The plot traces Lacey's career and hints at Daniel's involvement in her sudden, mysterious acquisition of a large amount of money, an event which proves to have lasting repercussions on the lives of both characters.

That opening sentence - along with the general premise of the novel - instantly had me hooked, but all in all I found it a bit of a lacklustre affair. I liked the idea of it more than the reality, I think, and I felt that the final revelation regarding Lacey's windfall was a little anticlimactic. My favourite part of the plot was probably Lacey's relationship with Patrice - but let's be real, this is mainly because I want a hot affair with a sexy older multi-millionaire European art collector. When do I get mine??

My main problem with this book was the same issue that stopped me giving Kirsten Tranter's otherwise excellent The Legacy full marks: I am mentioning the comparison because both books feature an impossibly alluring young woman involved in a relationship with an older man amidst the New York art scene, although the plots are very different. Lacey, like The Legacy's Ingrid, is one of those characters we're constantly told amazing things about without any clear supporting evidence or justification for them. She has an incredible effect on almost every person she ever comes into contact with, yet I was never quite sure why, or at least I never felt convinced this would truly be the case in real life. I wasn't entirely sure the narrative style worked, either, and I was constantly frustrated by my desire to know more about Daniel. I understand why he's there, but I don't think fleshing him out a bit more, giving him a life of his own beyond an outline of his career, would have been detrimental to the story.

I liked the themes of this book - the world of fine art, New York, Lacey's glamorous lifestyle and the unspoken mysteries lurking behind it - but ultimately it all just seemed a bit... flat. I wanted to get emotionally involved in the story, but because the narrator was virtually anonymous, and therefore the narrative could only get so far under Lacey's skin, and Lacey herself was (in my opinion) somewhat unrealistic, I couldn't engage with it properly. Interesting, sexy, but in the end, a little too empty.

Rating: 7/10

Cold Earth (2009) by Sarah Moss

Cold Earth follows a group of young people on an archaeological dig in Greenland. The team is made up of four archaeologists, Ruth, Catriona, Ben and Jim, along with their team leader Yianni, and Nina, a literature student who has tagged along for various vague reasons. A mixture of nationalities and backgrounds, they struggle to get along in the isolated, cramped conditions of the camp, with only sporadic access to the internet providing a link with the outside world. With reports of a potential pandemic starting to surface as they arrive in Greenland, they are faced with the possibility that a deadly virus may be spreading across the rest of the world, making them anxious about their families and friends, and eventually prompting the uncomfortable and terrifying question: could they be the only ones left? The book is written as a series of letters from the team members to their loved ones back home, with the perspective switching to different characters as it progresses.

Unfortunately, the first third of the book is lumbered with impossible-to-like Nina as narrator. She is selfish, childish, pretentious, hideously judgemental, throws tantrums for next to no reason, decides she hates Ruth because she takes care of her appearance while on the dig (yet she - Nina, that is - claims to be a feminist...!), and is irritatingly obsessed with her boyfriend, to whom her narrative is addressed. She drops brand names into her account for no reason other, it seems, than to show off (when she's had a panic attack and Yianni makes her hot chocolate: 'when I didn't think about Charbonnel et Walker, it was warm and sweet') and makes awful, selfish statements about the pandemic, since her boyfriend is the only person she cares about ('the rest of the country can lie dying in the streets for all I care as long as you are all right') - which begs the question of why she would ever have agreed to join the expedition in the first place. She's supposed to love adventure, but this doesn't gel with her needy and immature personality.

Then we're handed over to Ruth, who (thank god) is much more likeable. Through Ruth's eyes, we see that Nina's neurotic tendencies are escalating into a sort of madness, as she becomes convinced that the team's activity is causing them to be haunted by malevolent ghosts. Ruth, who has ghosts of her own, isn't convinced, even as the rest of the group becomes increasingly spooked by unexplained noises and strange voices in the night. We hear from the other characters too, but the chapters get progressively shorter and more urgent as the situation worsens.

Although I didn't think this book was brilliant, it was undoubtedly the most gripping thing I've read in a while, and I thought the premise was excellent. I even liked the ending. I just wished I could have taken this journey with characters I actually wanted to read about. I liked Ruth, but that was about it, and I wasn't keen on how the female characters were all obsessively attached to men who seemed to be rather indifferent about them, and I simply couldn't believe how insufferable Nina was. A great idea with a compelling plot and some chilling, thought-provoking moments, but ultimately it's marred by the characters, and because of this I found it difficult to actually enjoy.

Rating: 7/10

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (2010) by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

A short, uplifting memoir, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is the story of Elisabeth Tova Bailey's illness and recovery. A healthy, active woman, she is quite suddenly struck down by a mystery illness, which proves difficult to diagnose and treat. One day, she is brought a pot of violets as a gift by a friend, and inside the pot is a snail. As she is bedridden, the snail becomes a kind of pet, as she observes its daily movements, becomes accustomed to its habits, and begins to feel emotionally attached to it.

I hadn't heard of this book until it popped up as Amazon's Kindle Daily Deal. The unusual but lovely title appealed to me, as did the idea of the author's fascination with her snail - I loved them as a child, and often used to try bringing them inside and keeping them as pets. But, although the book does feature a lot of factual information about snails, it is really about how finding wonder in small things and the beauty of nature can help those in difficult situations, particularly if they are isolated. Although minimal, the prose style is quietly beautiful and the book is very well-written.

I imagine it would be difficult to dislike this book (unless, of course, you really hate snails), because Bailey writes with such charm and even the most hard-hearted reader will empathise with the frustration of her condition. However, it's very slight, and at least half the text is taken up by facts the author has found out during her research on the lives of snails, which make it feel more like a biology essay than a memoir. Instead of this, I would have liked to read more about her life before and after the illness. I enjoyed this book, and I can understand why it was sparsely written, but the fact that Bailey's style was so appealing made it all the more frustrating that her experience wasn't expanded on in more detail.

Rating: 6/10


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