Friday, February 17, 2012

Arthur and George's tipping point into slow water

Reading muddle

I'm in a bit of a (paper) reading muddle at the moment. I seem to start a book I'm really excited about, then something more important will come along that I need to read, like the latest book from a writer with whom I'm appearing on a panel discussion in Perth (I fly out in less than a week, excitement).

But the real culprit seems to be the millstone of reading Commonwealth Short Story Prize entries. Not that being a judge isn't a privilege and reading the stories isn't fun and often edifying, but reading pdf's on my iPad seems to have eaten up all my paper reading time. (It also doesn't help that several of the books I'm trying to finish are short story collections themselves, making it easier to put down at the end of a story and not pick back up). iPads are great things, but reading for anything more than twenty minutes on the backlit screen is tiring. And on beaut days like today, you can't read outside!!

I guess it beats printing all the stories out and killing the planet.

Talk to me

I have, however, been ploughing through audiobooks.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big DifferenceFirst up, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. It's really hard to judge this book on it's merits after it made such a big splash when it was released more than a decade ago and many of its terms and ideas have permeated the culture.

But it was nice to spend eight hours with Gladwell after only reading the occasional New Yorker article from him. 

One of the cool things about the audiobook is that it's read by Gladwell himself. I'm sure the book reads personably on the page, but it's lifted to another level when he's speaking sense right into your ear. 

Arthur and GeorgeThen it was back to fiction with Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. The novel is based on the real life struggle of solicitor George Edalji and his famous supporter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, against accusations of animal mutilation and criminal mischief.

The novel is much longer than Barnes' most recent work, The Sense of an Ending, which I read and enjoyed last year. A&G feels more substantial because of this greater length and historical weighting, but it fails to ever really take off into truly facinating realms. It is well observed, well researched, pleasingly written at the sentence level, but fails to be interesting for long periods (some that read like pure reportage; others, such as when Conan Doyle agonises over committing infidelity for pages on end, seem more at home in a sixteenth century melodrama or Mills and Boon).

Having said this, I still think it's a good book.

Slow WaterAnd now I'm listening to Slow Water by Annamarie Jagose. The book won the Montana Book Award in 2004, which means that a panel of judges thought it was the best book of New Zealand fiction published in the previous year.

Without looking back at what other books were eligible that year, I can sort of see why the judges liked Slow Water. It is sumptuous at the sentence level. Both the music of the words and the evident research that has gone into getting the historical details sorted. There's also an overriding modern sensiblity that doesn't ever mess with the sense that these things actually happened, but there's a point why we're being shown this moment (always to do with hypocrisy and/or gender/sexuality).

But the plot is as slow as the title suggests.  Like Arthur and George, Jagose's novel is based on a real historical event, the sexual transgressions of an English missionary, William Yate, on board the Prince Regent as he made is way back to his mission in Waimate (in the Bay of Islands, as opposed to Waimate in South Canterbury) and the subsequent fall-out when the ship docks in Sydney.  But the novel does not adhere to Yate's story. Rather, it bounces around all those on board the Prince Regent, from the passengers in steerage, their children, the rough crewmen and the newbies aboard. Again, I can see why this is done (to contrast their behaviour and attitudes at sea with those in port), but for the longest time there's no plot to carry a reader through the beautiful sentences.

Again, I think Slow Water is a good book in many respects, but if this is what is expected of serious historical fiction, excuse me while I run the other way.


Carole said...

Hi, I am also from New Zealand. Here is the post I did about The Tipping Point.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that 'Arthur and George' is still being read, even if yoiu were not entirely convinced by it! My own book ('Outrage: The Edalji Five and the Shadow of Sherlock Holmes', Vanguard)contains, among other things, an examination of the extent to which 'Arthur and George' reflects the actual historical record. In fact there are some references in the novel which must count as mistakes: George's mother for example was English, not Scottish, and when she wrote to the Home Secretary about George’s case she glowed with pride about her English origins. At other points Julian Barnes departs quite deliberately from the evidence, but the general reader cannot know which parts are fact and which are fiction; a case in point is the character Harry Charlesworth, who never existed but is such a reliable and sympathetic figure in the novel that the evidence he produces for Conan Doyle is much more credible than that provided by the two ‘Baker Street Irregulars’ Conan Doyle actually used, and this twists the plot in George’s favour. As for characters who actually lived, Julian Barnes uses their names but makes no claims to have described them as they actually were; the grandson of the inspector who arrested George, for example, feels unhappy about the way his grandfather is portrayed.