• Carolyn

Books I'm reading 4

Inspired by one of my subscribers, here is another post about books I've been reading.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

Set in the New Zealand goldfields of the 1860s, this very long book is part mystery, part skullduggery, part love story (sort of). There are a good number of plot twists and 'red herrings,' and a complex cast of characters.

So complex in fact, that after reading a couple of chapters, I found myself skimming along, not concentrating too much on each story thread, but more on the beautifully evocative period descriptions and on the interactions between individual characters. And the interesting, rather heavy but pleasing, writing style. I simply let the action unfold, and I was happy to find that, when it was all neatly resolved in the end, I was quite happy with the approach I'd taken.

Another aspect that I found interesting, but ignored completely, was the interlinking of the story and its characters with the signs of the zodiac. Not having a huge interest in horoscopes, and wanting to keep reading without becoming sidetracked, I ignored all those references (or missed them entirely) without losing anything in the reading - or maybe I did miss something. Maybe I missed a lot. But I don't feel as though I did.

The book left me with a very satisfying feeling - a beautiful sense of time, place and character. I happily lost myself in the wonderful descriptions of the goldfields, of shipboard life, and of opium dens.

But if I had tried to read every word and follow every twist and turn, I may well not have finished the book.

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

I read this book on a recommendation from a friend, and found it amazing. It's a story of three generations of a Greek-American family, related by Cal, an intersex child growing up in Detroit. Here's the opening line:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

The story is a seamless narrative that covers both the concept of the American Dream and the issues of gender identity. It also covers recent American history as well as race relations - between Greeks and Turks, WASPs and Greeks, and the attacks on Blacks in Detroit during World War II, and the race riots of 1967.

I love the way that a certain gene is described, winging its way through the family generations and into Cal's parent's incestuous relationship, and ending up in Cal. Cal begins life as a girl but later decides that she is a boy, and Cal's coming of age as a man is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Cal's character as a young girl is beautifully developed and entirely believable.

Oh, and by the way, Middlesex won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

The Gold Diggings of Cape Horn, by John R Spears

I love these old travel stories that have been placed on the web for free by Project Gutenburg. This one was published in 1895 and its subtitle is 'A Study of Life in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia.'

The style is, of course, rather wordy, as is common for the era. Here's the first line of the book:

If any of the readers of this book have an unrestrainable longing for wild adventure, with the possibility of suddenly acquiring riches thrown in as an incentive to endurance, let them pack their outfits and hasten away to the region lying between Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan to dig for gold.

But wordy as it is, it plunges the reader right into the 1890s.

John Randolph Spears was a journalist and he travelled through southern Patagonia, describing the land, sea, flora, fauna, and cultures of the region. The 'gold' refers to the rush for alluvial gold on the eastern beaches of Tierra del Fuego. Whilst Spears describes the conflicts of gold diggers with indigenous groups, these clashes are more starkly related by Robert J. Payró in his book La Australia argentina: Excursión periodística a las costas patagónicas, Tierra del Fuego e Isla de los Estados, mentioned in my blog post Quirky Spanish translations. Payrós book is also free - though not through Project Gutenberg - and he was also a journalist who wrote beautifully, though unfortunately his book was not translated into English.

Spears describes the 'metropolis' of Punta Arenas, the settlement of Ushuaia and the Welsh colony in Chubut. He describes the life of a gaucho, and the sheep farming industry, and paints the picture of a few interesting individuals.

It's not for everyone, but it's an interesting look at the Patagonia of over 100 years ago.


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