Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Sweet-Shop Owner - Graham Swift

I love Graham Swift.  He is quite possibly my favorite (living) English author.  Waterland ranks in my top ten all-time favorites and for a bookslut, that says a lot.  I picked up a copy of his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, when I was at a used bookstore.  It's my favorite kind of used book - meaning that it doesn't look like it was ever read.  While it is unfortunate that it wasn't read because of its brilliance and fantastic writing, I loved paying used prices for new condition books.  Anyway, I digress.

As previously mentioned, The Sweet-Shop Owner is Graham's first novel.  Published in 1980, it was highly praised and started the long amazing career for the English novelist who won the Booker Prize in '96.  Swift's first novel shows how he mastered the tools of genius writing early in his career, and the novel is everything I look for in a good book; each word carefully chosen, each character artfully depicted, and each heartbreak/victory/failure of resonating quality.  After the disappointing The Elephant Keeper, it was nice to pick up another English novel and be swept away.

The novel centers around Willy Chapman, the sweet-shop owner, and blends the past with the present to create the ordinary life of an ordinary man.  But things aren't all as they seem.  The reader is introduced to his dead wife - a beautiful strange creature who, though dead, is a very living character.  Willy's daughter also is a very present character even though she doesn't appear physically all that much.

It is a story of family, money, and the things we do for love.  It is also a story of letting go and accepting the hand you've been dealt.  I'm not going to lie; the story is heartbreaking and I learned to hate the women that Willy loved with all his being, but if you're looking for a great story, a story that is tightly woven by a true literary master, then pick up any Swift novel.  Better yet, pick up this one.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Elephant Keeper - Christopher Nicholson

"The Elephant Keeper is the best book I've read in the past twenty years or so." - Nikki Giovanni

Dear Nikki,

You clearly don't read many books.


The Bookslut.

I didn't purchase this book because of Giovanni's blurb or the pretty colors of the cover (okay, maybe the colors did factor in) - it was an impulse buy in a very sad Borders that had been stripped done to barely nothing.  And I'm a sucker for books about animals.  I should have spent my money on something else.

The author, Christopher Nicholson is a radio documentary producer who worked for BBC and many of the shows he produced dealt with the connections/bonds between animals and humans so it is not surprising that his novel focuses around such a bond.  How he develops the bond between human and animal is fantastically done and the writing is quite beautiful, but the novel reaches a point where I was left going "oh no, honey," which tends to my response when a book takes a turn or jumps the track and the editor didn't put things back on track before print.  Sigh.

Set in England in the 1770s, The Elephant Keeper is about Tom Page, a man who followed his father's footsteps into a stable as a groomsman and later as the elephant keeper.  When his employer decided to acquire two young elephants, Tom could barely contain his excitement.  As the male and female elephants grew, Tom created a bond with the two of them that went beyond any connection he'd had with horses, family, or other people.  This "feeling each other out" period of the bonding process is the best of the book.

Due to expenses, Tom's employer has to get rid of one of the elephants and Tom suggests he keep the more docile female and sell the less predictable male.  Tom's relationship with the elephant he calls Jenny takes a weird turn as he begins to have conversations with her, forsakes his family and his "true" love for her, and begins to have sexual fantasies about her.  This single obsession ruins what had been a very interesting book about developing bonds between animal and keeper set against a backdrop of the social hierarchy of England.  (There are some fantastic parallels between Tom and Jenny - isn't Tom but a "pet" of his employer's son?)

I think Nicholson is channeling a bit of Martel is this work, but he fails horribly.