Anne Bishop, Julian Barnes, Jo Walton

The Invisible Ring, by Anne Bishop: My level of tolerance for Anne Bishop’s prose (can you believe she actually makes a catchphrase out of “balls and sass”?) has decreased over the years, but The Invisible Ring still makes an indulgent and mindless read. I finished the book in a day, over three train rides. Jared is not as intriguing as Daemon, alas, and Lia is cut out of the same cookie-cutter mold as all of Bishop’s supposedly strong, spunky heroines (who are nonetheless kind of infuriatingly helpless and dependent on the males in their lives). The villains of the plot, Dorothea and Krelis, are so two-dimensional that they’re actually kind of amusing. It was a great trashy novel, and I enjoyed the book.

Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian Barnes: My first exposure to Julian Barnes, and I’m completely smitten. Initially, the book sounds like the sort of narrative nonfiction that I enjoy reading; the first-person narrator being a sort of companion in the exploration of the life of Flaubert, masquerading as an observer but not as a character or subject of the novel. But of course, Geoffrey Braithwaite is a character in his own right, though he tries to avoid it, and we see him let slip maddening little details, which don’t fully cohere into a complete picture even when he gets drunk and grows unusually candid with the reader. We do piece together the story, Braithwaite’s story, in between his recounting and retelling of Flaubert’s life, but there’s always that lingering uncertainty from receiving a story through apocrypha. Of course, there’s also a peculiar sense of satisfaction in it as well—like constructing an image glimpsed through the cracks or between the bars—which appeals to the postmodernist within me.

It soon becomes clear that Braithwaite’s fascination with Flaubert is more than literary appreciation or enthusiasm; his obsession has a focus on adultery, on that most notorious Flaubertian creation, Emma Bovary, on authenticity, on the two parrots. Asking who is the real Flaubert is really asking who is the real Braithwaite (and perhaps also who was the real Ellen as well). I loved the three different chronologies of Flaubert’s life: one recording his achievements and successes, one recording his tragedies and failures, and one last one made up entirely of quotes from his writing. How chameleon a single individual can be! Our image of them perhaps no more authentic than a parrot’s imitation of their voice.

But all such lofty thoughts aside, the simple fact of his fixation on Flaubert is what makes the book appealing to me. Who knew that Flaubert was such an interesting individual? In corollary, if I’d realized before just how wonderful his prose was, I would have made more effort to finish reading Madame Bovary from where I left off so many years before. (I’ve since been inspired to check it out from the local library.) Also, I had especial sympathy for Braithwaite’s emotional defensiveness of Flaubert, his dissection of the writer’s flaws and his equally careful defense of them. I spend a lot of time criticizing books and authors in writing and in conversation, but I am equally prone to jump to their defense when they are criticized by others. Perhaps it’s because no book I’ve read has been entirely worthless: even those I’ve hated or despised have left their imprint on me and have become touchstones for my opinions and reactions, and of course, the most frivolous novel still provides a few hours of pleasure, if nothing else.

Tooth and Claw, by Jo Walton: What a clever twist on the mannerpunk novel! It seems to be the fashion to write fantasy set during the Regency or Victorian period (or perhaps I’ve just gravitated towards those novels), but I don’t think any author’s gone so far as to write about Victorian dragons before. I’m reminded not so much of Jane Austen but of Charles Dickens (e.g., the casual cruelty of Daverak to his servants and social inferiors, young Avan trying to make his way in the city, the pseudo-industrial setting of a countryside being overtaken by railroads, the seeds of socialist consciousness). Walton cites Trollope for her inspiration, which makes me think that I ought to read Framley Parsonage someday. Some particularly interesting twists: Victorian prudishness being biologically enforced by female dragons changing color after they’ve been in close contact with a male, the Old Religion (equivalent to the Catholic Church, I suppose) being a vehicle of socialist reform, body size as equal measure of prosperity as wealth, and of course, that beginning scene that I’ve heard mentioned in every review of this book, children and other relatives devouring their dead father’s body as part of their inheritance. Strangely, the eating of dragonflesh—should I call it cannibalism?—didn’t shock me that much, partly because the dragons themselves thought it perfectly natural. (A testament to how well Walton thought out this society.)