Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Gambling with Books in 2010
1. The American Boy by Andrew Taylor
This was my gift from Secret Santa at our Christmas Book Club dinner 16 December at the very swish Montrachet Restaurant in honour of our reading Julie and Julia by Julie Powell last year.
You might not be able to see it in the photo of the cover but it is a very beautiful cover with a kind of reflective foil finish on the green bits which makes it even more Christmassy. The cover gives a hint of the story to come. Up til now I have regarded the female figure on the front as somebody from Ancient Rome but now I realise that she is a probably more likely a Regency figure. The novel is set in 1819/1820. The swirling lines indicate the complex plot to follow.
A few disclaimers on my part as a reviewer up front. Firstly I am not a lover of crime fiction. Secondly, I know next to nothing about Edgar Allen Poe - allright - I recognise the name and that's about it!! [The American Boy] won the CWA Historical Dagger for Fiction. As an Australian who doesn't have a great interest in crime fiction this can be somewhat of a misleading piece of information to have on the back cover. The acronym CWA in Australia probably has a greater profile amongst females as the venerable institution - the Country Women's Association - rather than the Crime Writers Association. I therefore perhaps foolishly spent the first chapter looking for references to scone recipes or needlework or good works. No !! I jest. But this story does sum up my conflicted response to the book.
It was not an entirely difficult read but I didn't fully enjoy it and I'm not quite sure why. Perhaps the lead character, a school teacher/tutor, wasn't quite strong enough for my liking. The novel itself is a marvellous study of a society adhering rigidly to notions of class. It is set well before the Married Women's Property Act where women are at the bottom of the social heap in terms of rights/standing and must marry well to have any form of tolerable existence. Men are valued first and foremost by their property. Servants are not to be trusted - even by each other and it's a slippery and long slope to the bottom of the social scale - ignominy and ruin. There was no-one I really liked or wanted to barrack for. It's a shame because I think the author put stacks of work into researching the time period and reflecting it accurately in so many ways -from language, to accounts of conveyances and the mores of the time. I think he may have had rather more enjoyment constructing it, than I did reading it.
Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman was my first Stefan Zweig experience - polished off in less than twenty four hours. And the experience wasn't too bad at all and has whetted my appetite for more. I don't read many short stories (though maybe this qualifies as a novella; I'm not sure of the precise definitions). It was nevertheless a diverting - nay an absorbing read. One was very quickly sucked into the world of the story and intrigued to find out what happened next. I was conscious much of the time of the enormous debt a reader bears to the translator. Zweig obviously loves language and is keen to communicate just the right nuance in his carefully chosen words. I think this must put an added pressure on the translator to capture those sometimes ephemeral nuances between languages. In this instance Anthea Bell was the translator and has received awards for her work. Did you know she translated Asterix the comic for us? No wonder I like her work!!
There were a couple of things that grabbed me about this story. I liked the idea of someone trying to amuse themselves when they were bored witless by changing the way they viewed the world i.e. by looking at the gambler's hands rather than their faces. I will never forget that and may now employ the technique in other fields! Secondly, I liked the account of how a person changes in the grip of an addiction. Zweig impressively managed to capture the hurt/insult that our heroine suffered at the hands of the man she tried to save from ruin. I have only been to a casino once with my husband - never again !!! It was truly appalling witnessing a very smart man thinking he could possibly beat the system. There was no reasoning with him - well in hindsight there must have been because we did emerge from that truly tacky establishment eventually - but it was one of the loneliest and scariest experiences I have ever had the misfortune to experience. Zweig captures it beautifully.