Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Two excellent books

I've just finished the really superb Jar City by Arndaldur Indridason. I loved this book! I like Henning Mankell a LOT, and this definitely has points in common (I've got a thing for Scandinavia & the Baltic--northern Europe more generally--& I am also fond of police procedurals), yet I'd pick this over Mankell's books any day, there is a delightfully macabre sensibility at work and there's just something more interesting and peculiar going on in Indridason's fiction with regard to the texture of the language and the observations. (And I would have read this book even sooner if I realized that the phrase "Jar City" refers to a room where organs are kept in formalin in glass jars: "All kinds of organs that were sent there from the hospitals. For teaching. In the faculty of medicine. . . . Preserved innards. Hearts, livers and limbs. Brains too." And the novel's all about heredity and genetic disease! Oh, how excellent... I am going to get all his others as soon as possible. I am actually hoping to go to Iceland sometime soonish, that's been true in general for a while but there may be a particularly good excuse to go this winter. More details if it all works out.)

(There's been controversy in the wake of this author recently, his latest won the Golden Dagger award of the British Crimewriters Association and then there was backlash leading to a subsequent ban on foreign-language writers competing for the prize in the future. Here's Sarah Weinman on the topic, and here's another piece which includes a nice quotation from Serpent's Tail publisher Pete Ayrton and also some discussion of the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid's criticisms of the American as opposed to British translation of the Danish writer Peter Hoeg's novel Smilla's Sense of Snow/Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow. That's a novel I LOVED, and as an American reader who read the American but also looked at the British translation--partly due to my horror at the artificiality of the English-English title, which seemed to me much less appealing than the one on the cover of the American translation--I would have to say that I found the American one greatly preferable. And I have a relatively high tolerance for Anglicisms, I was born in England and read a lot of British fiction, but I think the American one read as more neutral and less distracting. In other words I like McDermid's writing a lot but I think she's wrong on this particular count.)

And last night I finished Joyce Carol Oates's latest novel Missing Mom. (Actually both of these novels--Oates and Indridason--were ones I sought out from the library and that then languished on the TBR pile until I got a recall notice & realized I desperately wanted to read them after all.) I have a real thing for Joyce Carol Oates. I loved her books when I was in high school--I think The Bloodsmoor Romance was my particular favorite then, but I like all her stuff--more recently my special favorites have been the completely excellent Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (a previous link to this book has led to a comically frequent search result for Light Reading that is no doubt scorned by people looking for something to do with the operating system--other frequent search results clearly result from [I'm too lazy to link back to the original posts, plus it seems that it might compound the original search effect in some evil feedback loop] my minor obsessions with the vegetable lamb of Tartary aka the borometz, Meryl Streep's hilarious line "the dingo ate my baby," a Luc Sante essay about Smurfs in French and a NYT piece about a very muscular baby, plus reasonably regular searches to do with my linking to articles about primates--the highland mangabey, for instance, leads you to Light Reading fairly directly....); the historical novel My Heart Laid Bare; and the really excellent young-adult novel Freaky Green Eyes. And I adore the Rosamond Smith ones (and I've got several of the Lauren Kelly ones--I only recently realized this was a new JCO pseudonym--sitting ready to hand). And this latest is really excellent too. I feel there is no better writer on what happens to the young woman whose ordinary life broken into by violence--and of course in practice this is very apropros for almost everybody.

The thing that surprises me, though, is how often JCO is mocked rather than admired. Maybe it has to do with some critical anointing and backlash. But I recently praised her at a dinner party & was startled by the level of irritation expressed by a female contemporary of mine, and this only echoed many previous conversations I've had. Admittedly I'm biased, not only have I loved her books for many years but I also had an amazing personal encounter with her in the spring of 2002 that saved me from extreme discouragement about the prospects of my first novel (which was then rescued at the eleventh hour, but she managed to encourage me at a very dark moment in the pre-publication history of Heredity). But her books are great! What is it that damns her in so many people's eyes? Her prolific publication? Her slightly pulpy sensibility (to me that's a good thing)? I actually really don't get it. I'm going on record here as a huge fan.


  1. Jenny, dropping in again on your excellent blog. I appreciated your comments on JCO. Gave me some ideas on what to read next. Still trying to catch up with you and others, though, on contemporary novel-immersion before I can say anything insightful with any frerquency on your blog. Just finished the new Ishiguro, though, and hastened to proclaim that it is the best book I have ever read in my life.