Monday, 13 October 2014

Seraphita by Honore de Balzac / A Matter of Temperance by Ichabod Temperance / The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing

Seraphita by Honoré de Balzac
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I thought I had better read a French book while we are in France and settled upon Honore de Balzac's Seraphita as I had downloaded it from ForgottenBooks ages ago and not yet gotten around to starting it. The edition begins with a lengthy introduction which discusses and explains the religious significance of Seraphita at great length. This was so in depth and dull that I nearly didn't get through its eighty-odd pages in order to start the novel itself!

Seraphita is set in Norway and Balzac does a fantastic job of describing the country, its landscape, seasons and the people of the isolated rural village where his story is set. I loved reading these passages which actually advanced the story and would love to someday visit a similar remote fjord as it was so romantically presented. However, two long sections of the book are simply Seraphita expounding (over many pages of monologue) various religious doctrines and dogmas and I found these bits incredibly difficult to understand and to remain focused on. The beliefs range across Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism amongst others, and also include mentions the beliefs of races of people on other planets such as Mars and Venus. It is all probably fabulously imagined but felt like sitting through a long harangue. Perhaps it would all make more sense to someone of the time as much of the science has now advanced far beyond that denounced by Seraphita as her proofs.

All in all, this is an odd book for me to have read and it is pretty much two books mashed together - one a lovely story and one a intensely detailed lesson!

A Matter of Temperance by Ichabod Temperance
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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A Matter of Temperance was recommended to me by Amazon because I enjoyed another steampunk novel, S C Barrus' Discovering Aberration. Both are indie fiction and entertaining reads but I think Discovering Aberration was the more satisfying of the two.

Ichabod Temperance undertakes a fantastical adventure when he first rescues one Persephone Plumtartt from clutches of an invisible otherworldly monster. Our hero has a knack for this kind of chivalry as he continues to repeat the feat, firstly across a slightly-geographically-redesigned Europe, and then across the rest of the world. We read his story from two viewpoints, both his and also Miss Plumtartt's. Unfortunately their characters are not strongly defined so as the chapters rush past, I didn't always know which one was narrating. It doesn't really matter as this book is all about action. Villains are cartoonish and allies are named but not created as defined people. On reflection, this is disappointing as I would have cared more about the quest had more words been expended on character rather than fighting. I liked the initial inventions which are perfectly steampunk, however as the book goes along, more and more items are invented but not described so imagining what the author means is tricky. Also the perils are often surprisingly easily despatched and occasionally seem thrown in for no apparent reason - why were the sirens included? Why the pearl?

For me, A Matter of Temperance felt unfinished. It is a fun fast-paced romp but needs more explanation of the whys and wherefores in order to really reward the reader.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I chose The Grass Is Singing as my 1950s books for the Bookcrossing/Goodreads Decade Challenge. I don't think I've read any Doris Lessing before, certainly not recently, and was pleased to find that I love her writing style! This novel confronts several major issues within a relatively small number of pages yet never feels preachy and is an amazing achievement for a first publication.

Our heroine, Mary, is a free-spirited young white city woman, earning her own wage and not subject to marital or family ties. She has overcome a poverty-stricken childhood, but her chance overhearing of acquaintances gossiping about her make Mary believe that her life is incomplete and would be better with the freedom of marriage. She ignores her own happiness in favour of the beliefs of others and pretty much jumps on the next man who doesn't get out the way quickly enough! Richard Turner is a poor white rural farmer described as living in isolation although he has black workers with whom he communicates every day, but those men and their families can not be suitable as friends and Richard also shuns the companionship of neighbouring white families.

After their marriage, Mary joins Richard on his farm, initially happily as she goes to work improving the shack in which he lives. However, there is little money so this task is quickly completed and it is at this point that Lessing's story begins to draw in its claustrophobic threads. We know from the first chapter that Mary has died and Richard is mad, presumably with grief. Now we start to discover why. Perhaps Mary's terrible treatment of a succession of black houseboys, the result of institutionalised racism, has led to murder; perhaps she cannot stand the months and years of isolation; perhaps the sheer heat of living in essentially a tin box is to blame; perhaps Richard can no longer bear her criticism of his poor farming decisions which results in their downward-spiralling into ever deeper poverty.
Each of Lessing's themes - racism, sexism, isolation, not belonging, poverty - are beautifully and powerfully portrayed. The Turner's predicament is completely believable and I pitied the couple intensely while at the same time being exasperated at them for being so unable to drag themselves away from their self-imposed prison. Even as hope is forced upon them towards the end of the book, we already know it will be too late and the poignancy of this is almost unbearable.

The Grass Is Singing is a wonderful novel and, while I look forward to reading more of her work, I think this debut will have been very hard for her to beat.

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