Jun. 12th, 2011 05:59 pm
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This is not a review, only a brief note. I don't know Westerns except as cliches, and in this case I only knew the names. Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, the gunfight at the OK Corral: I couldn't have told you stories that went with them, indeed wasn't consciously aware they were part of the same story. Which made reading Mary Doria Russell's latest novel an odd experience, at times. Doc is part of the story of John Henry Holliday. From context, I gather the summer of 1878 is one of the parts that is less-told, but at least as Russell tells it, it's the summer when, living in Dodge City, Kansas, Holliday and Earp became friends. A relatively quiet summer; unlike The Sparrow there's no shattering personal tragedy to uncover here, unlike A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day no geopolitical event giving shape to the story. Dodge is a frontier town, but there are precious few gunfights (though Russell does allow herself one "get out of Dodge!"); set pieces are more likely to focus on a party or a poker game, and most of the novel is taken up with the texture of daily existence.

But it's a novel that's aware of and comments on the fame of its protagonists, and the other inhabitants of Dodge City. The cast list is even longer than that of A Thread of Grace, I think (although the only other name I recognised was Bat Masterson), and the narrative voice is as temporally free as that of Dreamers of the Day (though without the fantastic enabling conceit), making reference to the OK Corral even though the novel stops years before the event itself, and considering the later exaggeration and distortion of certain events. The result is a novel very aware of the contingency of life, whose emotional peaks often involve evocation of the "ghost lives" that its characters might have lived if certain events had gone otherwise; usually as grace notes, but in one chapter there is a sustained imaging of an unremarkable alternative life for Holliday, hanging off a turning-point in his relationship with a prostitute, Kate Harony. Such explicit self-commentary did ensure that I wasn't as adrift as I might have been; and made it clear that the novel is in part an intervention into the dialogue of the Western, and the processes by which people have been made into myths; yet also made it clear how much of the detail of that intervention I must be missing.

Perhaps it also played into the fact that Doc took a while to win me over. Russell's writing is always a mix of sentiment and steel, but the balance seemed off in the first half of this novel, too much of the former and too much of the latter. But as more perspectives are brought into the mix -- Jau Dong-Sing, proprietor of the town laundry; Bessie Earp, the madam of a Dodge brothel; Alex von Angensperg, S.J.; Captain Elijah Garrett Grier; I gather some of these were real people, some are invented -- the more Holliday and Earp and Dodge itself are seen from a variety of angles -- the better the balance, and the more Doc drew me in. Unlike Ron Charles I don't hunger for a sequel (in fact I think a sequel would rather miss the point), and by some margin it's not my favourite of Russell's books. But Doc contains some exquisite moments, and taught me some things, and I'm not sorry to have read it.
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Well, not that lazy; I have done a full 900 words for Vector, after all. But rather than think up another 900 for here, I'm going to do that thing of borrowing other peoples' words and commenting on them instead. It's what blogs were made for, after all, right?
No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.
Now, you might ask what a historical novel--the story of Jewish refugees in Northern Italy in the last years of World War II--is doing in Vector at all. The answer is that it gets in because it's by Mary Doria Russell, whose first novel The Sparrow was one of the most highly-praised sf novels of the 1990s (and a book of some personal significance). The books share a sort of fundamental moral honesty--a willingness to look at both the very good and the very bad in humanity; to take what you might expect to be simple situations and make them complex; to ask questions, in the case of A Thread of Grace, about the limits of human kindness. The prologue (which is actually fairly atypical of the book) is excerpted here.

And now I'll hand over to Laura Miller at Salon:
From this description, or to anyone familiar with Russell's previous novel, "The Sparrow" -- the story of a Jesuit mission to another planet -- "A Thread of Grace" might sound like a philosophical novel in which the characters think a lot about right, wrong and the nature of faith. Instead, the book is a veritable symphony of action, deploying about a dozen characters (all solidly delineated), in a nonstop string of escapes, ambushes, ruses, sabotages, sorties, disguises, coded communications and rescues.
This is true--A Thread of Grace is a much broader novel, with a much larger cast, even warranting a dramatis personae list--but it doesn't mean the book sacrifices depth. It's just that these are characters who (through necessity, as much as anything else) demonstrate their morals with deeds more than words.

Malena Watrous in the San Francisco Chronicle relates an interesting anecdote:
According to Russell, there's an Italian saying that goes: "'If you can help, you must help.'' And many of those who help in this novel pay the price. Objecting to the insinuation of movies like "Life is Beautiful" that the plucky and courageous were more likely to survive the Holocaust, Russell wanted to show what so many actual survivors insist: that it was luck, not heroism, that got them through the war. So she had her son flip a coin to determine the fate of each character.
I didn't read this until after I'd finished the book, but it rings true. There's a real sense of peril in the novel's second half; nobody is safe.

Stevie Davies in The Guardian:
The most moving characters are 14-year-old Claudette Blum and her Jewish scholar-father, Albert, crossing the Alps, she in an adolescent tantrum, he bottling his ire at her antics. The tragicomic pair are treated with tender wit. Russell's simple style is able to morph into a language of intimacy, comedy, punchy action, and sheer sublimity. Like the bare parataxis of the Old Testament, giving the sense that things "came to pass", unaccountably but incontrovertibly, this style lends dignity to ordinariness.
I agree with this; Claudette's story is the most emotionally fullsome of all the arcs in the book, and contains uplifting, heartwarming moments as well as tragedy. I think that overall, however, Renzo Leoni, who initially seems to be a simply drawn roguish hero, eventually acquires greater depth than any of the other characters.

I liked this book a great deal, although not quite as much as The Sparrow. I think at least part of the reason for that is that A Thread of Grace stands firmly in the shadow of history. The Sparrow, though immensely moving, was in some ways a fairly abstract moral debate--there was no exact historical precedent, but many parallels. For this novel, on the other hand, it's impossible to ignore the specifics of the context, and it's hard, at least for me, to separate the sobering effect that has from the internal successes of the novel. Mind you, perhaps that's how it should be.
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The Arthur C Clarke Award is given annually to the best science fiction novel first published in the UK in the previous year. The first recipient of the award, in 1987, was The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. At the time, I didn't pay much attention; I was six.

Read more... ) And this year's winner (instantly blogged by Andrew, of course) is:

Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Read more... )

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