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It book time!

Here be readin’s! I’m knee-deep in the pages these days. This is a glorious development, a long way from my Masters’ studies, when the suggestion of reading anything longer than a case study or essay would elicit a terse, ironic chuckle and smothered sobs. I’ve got three (four?) others on the go, which I want to finish by the end of the year, but let’s focus on the ones I’m done with for now.

Vinland – George Mackay Brown

I was seduced by the damn gorgeous cover: muted fern green and fawn, with ghostly nordic/celtic coils watermarked over a hazy picture of a sailing ship. Serrr-wooon. Vinland, my Vinland! It tells the life story of Ranald Sigmundson, starting off with him going to sea with his Dad, leaving his poor old Mum to try and run the farm on her own. Ranald shows preternatural sea legs and good sense: he runs off from his Dad (who’s a total stinker, by the way) and joins a merchant ship. They find out later that his Dad’s ship was wrecked shortly after, and so begins Ranald’s life on the merchant ship. He shows preternatural skill at trading and bargaining and earns the ship a tidy profit. When he eventually makes it home and is reunited with his Mum, he shows preternatural skill in running the farm: he single-handedly drives out the blackguards who have been exploiting her, resurrects the farm’s good name and rules with wisdom and courage unheard-of in one so young! And so on. There’s lots of moments were someone refuses to be taken in by pomp and sasses an authority figure (usually our hero, and usually a king/prince/laird/etc.), and then the authority figure quivers briefly with rage before slapping their knee and ROARING with laughter, declaring that it’s a refreshing change to be told the truth. The sassy individual is then rewarded with a position of advisor and usually a fair whack of gold. (I suspect in real life the sassy individual would be killed fairly quickly). Our hero marries and has children, and the lives and adventures of those children as they grow and have their own children is recorded. The hero ages and his thoughts turn towards preparing himself for death.

On the whole, it’s not a bad read, but it’s a bit hard to take it seriously. The hero is preternaturally good at everything he turns his mind to, and shows wisdom and compassion beyond his years, even when he’s really old. A few of the characters are predictable and so feel easy and two-dimensional, and there’s one or two scenes whose development/endings are obvious as soon as they’re established. Having said that, it’s an interesting reflection on life and the atmosphere is lush and enjoyable. Vinland is set in pre-Christian Scandanavia, so there’s lots of revelry (mead, bread, cheese and honey, mostly), some battles, farming, and a fair bit of politics. Pretty escapist stuff, with a shake of reflection and philosophy.

so i am glad – A. L. Kennedy

My second dabble with A.L. Kennedy’s work, the first being Original Bliss, so i am glad tells the story of the relationship between (main character/narrator) Jennifer Wilson and a dude who shows up and moves into the vacant room in her share house. They’re expecting someone called Martin, so she calls him Martin: but it becomes apparent he is not Martin, but Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th-century French writer and duellist. The way their relationship unfolds is really lovely and interesting: there’s setbacks, and both Jennifer and Cyrano have some very dark patches in their lives. But the strength and beauty, tenderness and growth that becomes apparent as their relationship deepens is touching and warming. I liked it a lot. Jennifer is a character who feels real to me: the narrative voice is convincing, fluid and articulate, especially the way she nudges against difficult matters and then darts away, to later talk about in depth — it feels a lot like talking to a new friend, as they test the waters to see how much to reveal about themselves. The change and growth in Jennifer over the book is wonderful. This isn’t a story that shirks the grime of ordinary lives, but it glows beyond it. I like it. Currently reading another one of Kennedy’s books, which I’ll talk about down the line. I like her stuff.

Quantum Man: the Undiscovered Sex – Ken Fegradoe

Okay, this one was tricky. The blurb opens with the question at the core of the book: “What does it mean to be a man in a world of dissolving sexual stereotypes?” The plot of the book is straightforward when you summarise it — it’s about the relationship between a man and his beloved partner, as they move in together and have a baby. But it covers a ton of turf in the process of answering the first question. The book explores the ideas of identity and what contributes to them — what makes a man, what makes a woman, what makes a child — and the way those ideas are challenged/demolished/reinvented in the context of a relationship. There’s a lot to like about this book: the sense of ideas bubbling and developing away as you read them, the sense of humour, the pace of the language (which isn’t necessarily a reflection of the pace of the plot, mind you: the baby’s birth takes two or three chapters). At first, I found it a bit self-indulgent and frustrating. I tend to be pretty sceptical of gender-based assertions, especially that motif of women being sacred, cosmic, in tune, emotionally fine-tuned, etc., while men have forced themselves away from their primary, intuitive understanding and civilised themselves to their detriment. I don’t think this is a gender issue: I think ignoring intuition is a person thing, regardless of gender. But I really dig the idea of fluid identity, reevaulated and reformed as your life changes and the people in it shift. So, overall: fun read, didn’t agree with all the ideas, but that’s totes okay.

Books are fun. Reader 4 lyfe, yo.

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