These are the books I read while on my European Vacation.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I initially decided to read this because I’m teaching a course in Creative Non-Fiction come September, and obviously had heard about it and wondered if it would be suitable either to recommend to students or even to teach. Also the first part of it is set in Italy, so it appealed for that reason.

It relates the experiences and discoveries of a young-ish woman, recovering from a marriage break-up and near nervous breakdown, who decides to explore physical pleasure (eating) in Italy, spiritual enlightenment (praying) in an Ashram in India, and some kind of balance between the two in Bali. I found it enjoyable, if a little uneven. It’s impossible to avoid feeling that it’s incredibly self-absorbed and self-indulgent, that she needs to stop thinking about herself all the time and just get on with the job of living, and to be envious that she managed to get paid to lounge about eating, praying, and having sex and then writing about it, however engagingly (and where do I apply for a similar assignment?).

It is an easy read, perfect for travelling, as it’s written in short, two or three page bites rather than extended essays. Of the three sections, disappointingly I found the Italian bit the weakest and the least interesting – too much emotional angst and not enough about Italy or eating. The whole book is All About Her, which I suppose is only to be expected; the interest, I suppose, lies in reading about the experiences of someone not all that unlike oneself rather than finding any great insights about Life.

Georgette Heyer, Sylvester

Heyer is also perfect vacation reading, light as air, amusing and frothy. This, however, was far from the best of her books that I’ve ever read. I found the female protagonist rather tiresome rather than sympathetic, and the predictable romantic entanglement was mechanical rather than engaging or believable.

Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters

This was on the bookshelf on my Venice apartment, obviously left by a previous tenant. I took it with me (and donated it to my hotel in Bath), donating the two books above to the flat collection, so a fair exchange. Possibly the previous reader had chosen it because it in part involves a trip to Italy, but it has more to offer than vicarious travel pleasure.

The novel is written in the form of a diary of sorts in the voice of a middle-aged woman who is starting a new life in London after the break up of her marriage. She has led a dull, predictable life of marriage and children, and now finds herself exploring her own interests and identity away from her husband and suburban life-style. She takes an evening course, reading Vergil’s Aeneid in Latin, and an unexpected financial windfall makes her decide to arrange a trip to North Africa and Italy with her teacher, one of her classmates and a couple of longtime friends, to find places mentioned in the epic.

One of the pleasures for me in reading this novel was some identification with the “coming-of-middle-age” emotional arc. The narrative voice is distinctive and sympathetic, and the novel’s exploration of ideas about narrative and identity is intriguing. I found one or two of the deliberate metafictive “tricks” somewhat tiresome, however; to be honest, I couldn’t really see the point of a deliberate destabilization two-thirds of the way through, and it seemed to be something “authorly” rather than anything that developed naturally from the character of the narrator. It’s one that I’d like to discuss with someone else who has read it, though, just to explore some of the ideas and devices in it.

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth

And I’d LOVE to talk to someone about this one! Particularly the ending, which I can’t say anything about because of potential spoilage, except to say that I really, really want to know what others thought about it.

This novel involves a group of young academics, mostly archaeologists, in Greenland to do research on a Viking settlement, with the intention to discover what caused it to disappear. While they are there, news reaches them of a pandemic in the “real” world, and eventually communication breaks off and they are stranded.

It is written in the form of letters or journals from the various members of the dig. The first, last, and most interesting voice is Nina’s – she is the only non-archaeologist in the group, seems to have signed up more or less on a whim and brought because the group’s leader has a crush on her. She appears to be being haunted by the ghosts of the dead Vikings, and gradually her fears, and possibly her experiences, are passed on to the other members of the group.

The novel is ambitious in its ideas, but falls short in the execution of them. The parallel plot about the pandemic is intriguing. Moss creates real tension and atmosphere in the early build-up of the ghost story element. Apart from Nina’s, I didn’t find any of the voices particularly distinctive, and although each of the characters had some aspect that was interesting (one appears to be a closet lesbian, another is in mourning for a dead partner, another is a devout Christian who finds his certainty unsettled), they are never developed enough. There is enough here to fill out a book twice as long, and I felt that everything was rushed, particularly towards the end. And the ending … well. As I said, I’d very much like to hear what someone else thought about it, but discussion needs to be protected from spoilers.

Janice Hardy, The Pain Merchants

I got this free at the DWJ conference, as an ARC, and read it from start to finish on the train from Penzance to London. I’m ashamed to admit that I left it on the Heathrow Express because of luggage weight issues – I hope someone found it who will read it and enjoy it!

The setting is a world in which Healers take pain away from people and deposit it in a mineral called pynvium, where it can be stored, discharged, or used as a weapon. Nya has the powers of a Healer, but thinks she can’t heal because she can’t discharge the pain into pynvium; she can, however, transfer the pain to another person, a skill that is forbidden and which she thinks is useless. Of course, it turns out to be more useful than she had suspected. The pleasures here are not from the pretty predictable “useless person saves the day” plot arc, but from the very interesting world, revealed through showing, not telling, and very interesting complexity of politics. The characters are well-drawn and the writing is good. The voice is humorous without being tiresomely anachronistic. I’ll look forward to reading the inevitable sequel (once again I bemoan the fact that no one these days writes stand-alone fantasy novels).

I have never found Brad Pitt attractive. I know we’re supposed to – he represents that brand of “all American” clean cut wholesome good looks that is the “ideal” for the rest of us – but there is something curiously bloated about his eyes and his lips that has always repelled me. And there is nothing going on behind his eyes. I would far rather sleep with Angelina Jolie, but that’s another story.

There’s another story buried somewhere in Brad Pitt’s curiously bloated star vehicle, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, one that is never allowed to surface, any more than any real character surfaces from under the immaculate CGI or makeup effects that propel the plot, and this applies equally to both Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. There are hints of something about how time is fleeting and how we need to appreciate every moment of our lives. How it’s possible to have a love affair with life itself, no matter what fate hands you. How age doesn’t, or shouldn’t matter. But those are all different movies, not this one, though this one is trying desperately hard to be profound.

It’s all about how we’re meant to respond. We’re meant to think that Brad Pitt going from an octegenarian babyhood to a time-worn teenager is a brilliant acting job. He’s being touted for an Oscar, and if he wins it there’ll be no justice in this world. One of the things that is so profoundly wrong about this movie is that he doesn’t age, or change, at all under all that makeup. It’s always Brad Pitt, with that smug, curiously bloated, smile, looking out.

We’re meant to get caught up in the great Romance at the heart – the lovers living life in reverse who can only meet in the middle (where, of course, Cate Blanchett is maybe just past her prime, and has anyway had her leg crushed and can’t dance, but Brad is at the height of his gorgeosity). I would have been more moved if there had been the least bit of chemistry between the two stars. There is far more chemistry between Brad and the exquisite Tilda Swinton. The brief romance between those two gets the movie nowhere but at least provides us with a glimpse of some real feeling. The romance between Cate and Brad takes forever to get going and then is over too quickly. And the really profound and interesting period where Cate gets to look after the toddler and baby Brad is just another wasted opportunity.

We’re meant, I think, so see Benjamin’s life as some reflection of “America” itself, much as we were with Forrest Gump (no coincidence, then, that the screenwriter is the same). The movie, like Brad Pitt’s performance, is one of the front-runners for an Oscar (“run, Benjamin, run!”), and if it wins, which it could well, it will be because, like Brad Pitt, the movie reflects back to Americans how they want to see themselves. Homespun, folksey, noble, beautiful, tolerant. Empty-headed.

Apart from the failure at the core of this film, there were other annoyances. The bushman who comes out of nowhere, apparently having been an exhibit at a zoo, to stay conveniently in the all-purpose, all-race, oh-so-tolerant old-folks home where Brad is brought up, presumably there to make gnomic utterances and signal how tolerant everyone is (oh, look, there’s white Brad Pitt sitting at the back of the bus with the short black guy! I mean, wtf?).

There’s the fact that Benjamin and his ship-mates are in Russia when Pearl Harbour is bombed, without anyone apparently noticing that several years of World War 2 had been going on – IN RUSSIA !!! The setting allows some more nice CGI effects of snow and streets with neon writing in cyrillic alphabet and for Brad and Tilda Swinton to eat caviar and drink vodka. And the war, of course, allows more demonstration of how brave and patriotic and generally wonderful our American hero is. And not only Russia, but Paris and the ocean battles and all the other settings are CGI and as fake as the emotions we are supposed to feel while watching the film. And Brad refers to the exquisite Tilda Swinton as “plain.” Of course, she’s British; she couldn’t be beautiful.

There’s the fact that Cate Blanchett doesn’t walk like a dancer. I normally love Cate Blanchett, but her performance here is mannered, as if an accent and some pointy toes make up for the fact that she has no character. As she got older, her accent slipped once or twice into Katherine Hepburn. I found myself wishing for Kate to blast in and wake everyone up.

There are the heavy-handed symbols: the clock, that blasted hummingbird. (symbols of what, I’m not quite sure…) And the thunderstorm that seems to follow Brad around. And why the blazes does the movie end with Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters wooshing in??

Ultimately, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a well-meaning, beautiful and empty-headed mess of a movie, and no doubt will make millions and win dozens of awards for its star.

Sigh.

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