I had one of those afternoons where I ended up wandering around the public library sipping lukewarm decaf coffee and waiting to meet someone. You know, one of those library visits when you’re not properly looking for a book to read (you already have a mass stack waiting at home), but you browse because you browse. And you end up finding on the spinning carousel a murder mystery set in Russia and shortlisted for the Booker Prize and you think, yeah, I’m in the mood for something plot driven. So you checkout A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops.
It’s a fast read and an enjoyable one, but probably not a novel I’ll remember reading (without this blog). Set in Moscow it follows an American expat lawyer as he falls in love with a Russian… some kind of woman. Written as a letter to his fiancee, the reader knows from the outset that all of the drama is safely in the past, but also that something dramatic and terrible happens because our protagonist, Nicholas, has withheld the story from his fiancee until now – just days before the wedding (which raises questions about the viability of their marriage, but whatever). (It’s also a fast read because it’s short: think big text and double spaced. So it’s satisfying to read over breakfast or on the bus because you finish a reading session and find you’re already halfway done. It would, in fact, be ideal airplane reading because you’d enjoy the thing and finish it on your flight.)
What exactly the dramatic and terrible something is propels reader speculation throughout and is, I suppose, the substance of the ‘mystery’: what has happened or will happen to Nicholas that will be so bad he’s had to withhold it for so long? I’ll admit that by the end of the novel I wasn’t convinced that what he did was all that terrible, more that he was so stupid as to not realize what he was doing until it was too late. As a fiancee I’d be far more concerned about marrying someone so daft than someone with a checkered past. Oh well.
So yeah. If you’re in an airport looking for something for a flight, or want a book to read while you ride a stationary bike and train for your summer triathlon season (not that I would know anything about reading under such conditions…), I wouldn’t argue against this one (which is clearly not the same thing as arguing for it).
It’s been hard to write about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Hard to find words for how affecting I found the novel, how much I appreciated it. I really, really, emphatically, as loud as I’ve ever claimed it, think this is a brilliant novel. It’s not worth it to have best lists, I get it. But if I was someone who kept best lists (okay, I do) this one would be near the top. I can’t think of a book in recent (or any?) memory that has lived so fully in my mind, has occupied such a significant place in my thinking while – and after – I was reading it. Note I didn’t say “enjoyed” – it’s a hard story to live within, and you really will live within it (and for days and weeks after you finish it – it’s still following me around). It’s a long book, but you won’t notice the length, except maybe the anxiety of realizing you only have half of it left, the worry that eventually the last page will come. It’s a book that wants you to feel deeply and succeeds through masterful – truly – narration and character development in making you feel so. much. Continue reading
Imagine a book about a butler. A butler on a road trip. In the 1920s. Remembering his time being a butler. Polishing the silver. Straightening the pantry. Dealing with inconstant maids and footmen. You’d think: this book can’t be that exciting. Because butlers and descriptions of floral arrangements are not that exciting. Because your standards of good books are dictated by the ratio of exciting to explosion. But you don’t need to imagine much because you’ve been watching Downtown Abbey for the last five years and you’re already sold on the impossibly fascinating quality of finding yourself in a changing society: shifting understandings of class and gender, fading attachment to the aristocratic standards of manner and decorum. You already appreciate how enthralling it can be to extrapolate the upheaval of a society through close observation of a handful of characters as they attempt – unsuccessfully – to hold on to their traditions, expectations for decorum and propriety.
The question then shifts from will you be interested (you absolutely will – this is a (perhaps unexpectedly) enthralling read) to why is the story so engrossing? What is it about The Remains of the Day that had this reader utterly absorbed? Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel follows Stevens, a classic butler trained for the height of 19th century aristocratic estates, as he finds himself without friends, family or meaningful employment (his beloved Lord has been disgraced and he finds himself in the employ of a (gasp) American), when the best years of his life are behind him and he is made to confront the question of what has given – and gives – his life meaning. As Stevens putters his car across the English countryside we likewise meander through his memories, recalling his years with Lord Darlington. More than memories, we explore with Stevens his ideas about what makes for great service, the behaviours and attitudes of living with ‘dignity,’ the sisyphean struggle to adapt not simply a personality, but an identity, to a changed political and social landscape.
For this reader the most fascinating questions Stevens mines are those related to labour. He fiercely defends a life led in service of others, the deferral of desire and autonomy to a benevolent and wiser master and the subsumption of choice or opinion to those of the wiser ruling class – the force of his defense suggesting the precarity of the beliefs, safeguarded up by his staunch refusal to entertain their vulnerability. Stevens sees value in his job – which to him is not a ‘job’ at all, but an identity and life – of serving others, always and necessarily serving, never questioning, never doubting the paternal protection of his Lord. We are meant to question this unshakable faith, meant to see his abnegation of love for Ms Keaton, his deferral of desire, his ambition to be the finest butler of the greatest dignity as not apathy but a blindness to his own subjugation. That ultimately leaves him alone and lonely, without a sense of place or purpose.
Of course the obvious argument is that we read (and watch Downtown Abbey) with such attention because we find ourselves in a moment of similar change. Offered the opportunity to challenge accepted categories (most notably for the novel) of class, we continue to generate excuses for the continuation of our own service, rationales for a status quo that does not benefit the majority but is nevertheless defended because it promises stability.
So think what you will about a book about a butler taking a road trip. And then read it. And be blown away. But not so blown away that you have to change. Because nobody wants that.