Thursday, 3 December 2009

U is for Updike

I have never read a book that grated on me like The Widows of Eastwick did. We got off to a bad start because I thought that the Widows of  Eastwick was the book name for the film. When I began reading it, though, I realised it was the sequel. Boy, did I know it was the sequel – constant references to the first book and how depraved it was and how they killed poor little whatshername were irritating beyond belief.

The main story revolves around the three witches of Eastwick, thirty years older and now appropriately all widows.
Alexandra is the middle in age, a large hippy living in Mexico. She’s scraping through after her husband died, leaving with next to nothing.
Jane is the oldest and richest, living with her ancient mother in law after the death of her husband. Materially cared for, but not emotionally.
Sukie is the youngest and possibly least irritating. She’s moderately rich and moderately emotionally balanced.
After ignoring each other for decades, they decide that now they’re alone, they’ll visit a few countries together. This is the cue for cringeworthy, racist speech where the ‘small Asian couple’ lose their ‘L’s completely and the Egyptians are all filthy men with no teeth and Arab headgear. As if that wasn’t quite enough, a man unfortunate enough to be mistaken for a suitor for Alexandra is internally derided as ‘faggy’ as soon as he mentions his dead partner.

It’s got a horrible tone to it, a seething mass of bitterness and hatred for everything. I think the worst thing for me was that it pretends to be a feminist novel, but it’s written by a man and has far too many lesbian-ish scenes for it to be anywhere near true feminism. I’m not exactly the world’s biggest feminist (if we’re that equal, why are we shouting about it?) but I object to a ‘feminist’ novel which includes a scene with a magic circle and ‘sky clad’ women, just so he can write about flesh and wrinkles.

It was tiresome, repetitive and boring. All the women were old, widows, elderly, alone…. The townspeople of Eastwick were suspicious, wary… In three hundred pages, about two things happen which are actually of any interest, and even these are buried under pages of dead prose which can be easily skimmed with no detriment to the plot.

Before reading this, I was interested in reading the Witches of Eastwick. After this though, I don’t want to read another Updike novel, and would strongly advise against anyone else reading one.

Next book – Slaughterhouse 5

T is for Thomas

Scarlett Thomas is probably best well known for The End of Mr Y, the black tinged page book with the striking red cover. Popco is the re-issued 2004 novel – a blue tinged paged book with a striking blue cover.
Thomas has an odd tone of voice which won’t sit well with all readers. It’s hard to describe, but is generally slightly standoffish, almost patronising. Popco has a similar tone of voice, but Thomas obviously loves language so much that you can overlook this.

Popco is the story of Alice Butler, a twenty nine year old cryptanalyst/cryptographer. She lives in a tiny London flat with her cat, and works for toy company, Popco. The book opens with a corporate excursion to Devon, which Alice travels to alone, as she doesn’t enjoy crowds. From the outset, then, she’s a loner, someone who’s happy with her own company. It’s lucky that she’s a likeable protagonist.
The location of the majority of the book is an isolated mansion in the middle of Dartmoor, designed to get the creative juices flowing amongst the bright young creative things. Alice is quickly selected for a mysterious ‘secret project’, along with a few others she’s noticed in the crowd. I don’t want to write too much about the plot, but basically she realises that she is disillusioned with Popco and the principles at it’s foundation.

There are times where the story falls away slightly, and the propaganda undertones are exposed a little more forcefully than expected, but I never felt preached to. One conversation in particular has stuck with me, and that was one around why vegans are vegans. Milk comes from cows, but cows don’t produce milk without being pregnant, or in a state of pregnancy. It’s an obvious conclusion, but one that’s left out of the children’s stories. The milk we drink comes from cows who are pregnant for the whole of their generally short lives, who don’t get to see their calves. When you look at it like that, it puts that glass of milk in a whole different light, doesn’t it?

Apart from the anti-establishment message, Alice is concerned with solving a treasure map left by her late grandfather. A cryptologist himself, he taught her everything she knows about cracking codes. This part of the book is interesting as Thomas manages to teach the reader fairly complex methods of code cracking without being too heavy or boring. I’m not that great at maths, but I managed to keep up for most of it.
A couple of chapters in the book tell the story behind the treasure map, about two lovers I immediately dubbed ‘Dread Pirate Roberts’ and ‘Buttercup’ as the story seemed to be straight out of The Princess Bride. Despite this, there was enough of a difference to ignore the similarities. Usually I find intertwined stories to be a bit of a distrraction from the ‘real’plot, but in this case it worked really well.

Popco isn’t for everyone, but I found the story, coupled with well drawn characters and, of course, the pretty cover, came together to make a good book. I especially enjoyed the little phrases and idea Alice comes out with, such as the one where she talks about footsteps having a tune, or note, of their own.

If you’ve read and enjoyed The End of Mr Y, you’ll enjoy this too. If you like puzzle solving, you’ll like this.