Saturday, March 19, 2011

Between the Wars: The Remains of the Day

It's odd that I should read two books set in Engalnd between World Wars I and II back-to-back. It's an interesting period of history, because even looking back, World War II doesn't seem like a foregone conclusion. There were lots of points where it could have gone differently. Kazuo Ishiguro explores these in his terrific novel The Remains of the Day, and chooses a very interesting person as his narrator.

What must it be like to see your entire way of life crumble and change? That's the question facing his narrator, a butler in a large house. He was at the top of his field, and it was indeed considered a field as legitimate as plumbing or law or nursing. There was a lot to know, there was extensive training, there were trade publications and professional societies. Moreover, being a butler apparently wasn't something you did, it was something you were. Until you weren't.

The book is set in 1956, and the butler's employer for 30 years has been dead for about three, his home sold to an American who finds his formalities baffling. His new American employer invites him to take his car and go on vacation while he's away, and he decides to go visit Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper.

During his trip, he remembers many incidences, most of which were highlights of his career and bittersweet at the same time, for example, the night when his father died, which was the very night his employer hosted a large gathering of influential people from a variety of nations, with an eye to forming a coalition to change the conditions of the German surrender and stop punishing them so severely before there was real trouble.

Through these reminiscenses, we get the sense of how much he sacrificed for his career, how much it meant to him, and we feel for him that he lived long enough to see himself become obsolete. At the age of about 60 or so, he never married, had few personal joys, but all he can really say is that the silver was always polished. It started to make me feel sad and stressed out for him, but despite these serious themes, the book ends on a high note, a casual conversation from which the title comes.

It's actually a book of hope, it's very absorbing and well-written, there's humor in it along with the more serrious themes. I do believe Ishiguro is going to become a favorite of mine.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Brideshead Revisited: now for something completely different

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, was a completely random selection on my part. I have no idea what could have influenced it. I think I might have noticed a memoir about someone's relationship to that book and decided to read the real thing, but I'm not sure. I essentially had no idea what I was getting into. I knew nothing about Waugh other than that he was a man, was British, and lived sometime between 1850 and and 1960. In fact, at one point in my life, I'm pretty sure I thought this book was a sequel to something.

The way this book unfolded reminded me very much of how Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter unfolded. In modern books, you typically get the backstory, the incident that drives the rest of the book, and a bit of character development right up front. Take, for example, Ron McLarty's The Memory of Running, a book no one would accuse of being terribly plot-driven. Yet, right away, you find out that the narrator is an overweight middle-aged man who is unmarried and works a shitty job in a factory. Both of his parents die in a car accident, then he receives a letter from a California coroner saying that the body of his sister, who disappeared decades earlier due to mental illness, had turned up in their morgue. He has a conversation with the paralyzed girl next door, who is still in love with him, then gets on his bkie and goes out, cross-country, after his sister.

All of that in about 40 pages. Whereas, with Brideshead Revisited, I didn't quite know where things were going until they got there.

The book has an aura of things lost about it, in fact, I'd say that's its central theme. It's a flashback told by Charles Ryder, an army commander in World War II who is moving his troops to a donated country home, only to find out that it's one he spent a great deal of time at on and off throughout his life. He remembers those times, first coming there with his friend Sebastian from Oxford. I think many people had a Sebastian of one sort or another in their lives at college, a friend who was intensely interesting, lots of fun, very smart, but there was some sort of darkness there, too.

As the story wears on, Charles gets to know the whole wealthy, eccentric family. Lady Marchmain, called Mummy by all of her children, who managed to turf her husband out yet make herself seem abandoned at the same time. Brideshead, Sebastian's religious older brother who spends much of his adult life collecting matchboxes. Julia, his sister, who discovers that the bad thing about making a good match is that you then have to live with the gentleman. Cordelia, also religious, who transforms from a young girl to a grim nurse caring for war wounded over the two-decade sprawl of the book. Sebastian himself, who still carries a teddy bear around, and descends into alcoholism.

The book does a reversal on you, as you think it's going to be about a long friendship between Sebastian and Charles, it shifts to the events following a chance meeting between Charles and Julia. Since one of the pleasures of this book for me was seeing everything unfold, I don't want to give away too much along the lines of plot. Although it wasn't exactly a happy book, it felt good to read, and I'd reccomend giving this one a chance.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Zombie invasion

A few years ago, zombies had A Moment. Remember that? Everyone was making 'braaaaaains' jokes, a few ironically shitty movies with zombies in it came out, stuff like that. They got eclipsed, of course, by ninjas or pirates or yetis or something.

Still, Max Brooks' World War Z is an excellent, if depressing read. It is an oral history of the war that humanity fought against zombies, a conceit taken all the way to the author's bio on the back cover.

But it's not really *about* zombies, something that the page who reccomended it tried to explain, and something I've spent the last week trying to explain to everyone else. It is one of those books that's like an inkblot. Different people will see in it what they want: it's about the fact that American society isn't sustainable, it's about the dangers of bureaucracy, it's about the fallacy of relying on tech-based military solutions for all problems, it's about the limits of science, it's about the nobility of the human spirit, it's about what happens when people revert to their basic instincts and the trappings of society are stripped away, it's about hard choices during war, it's about what it means to be a leader. And all of those people are right, and probably a few more.

World War Z will definitely make you think, that's for sure. (Ironic, because zombies can't. In the book, some people 'reanimate' inside of cars and wind up spending eternity there because they don't have the brainpower to figure out how to open the door and get out.) It may even make you go out and buy a low-tech item like a crowbar or heavy metal shovel that can be used as a weapon -- just in case.

Me, I've decided that I'm on to more cheerful fare. I got several books that day. I sure hope one of them is not bleak and apocalyptic.