Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Report

Next on my journey to complete the ambitious 26 "Lists of Bests" I've set out for myself, I decided to hit Sebastian Faulks' "Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War."

The novel came highly recommended, highly rated and was on several lists of "books you should read before you die." There's a lesson in that last categorization. Because after reading this novel, and having to acknowledge that there are that many people that think it's a masterpiece, dying looks pretty good.

The premise is sound enough, centering around a young Englishman who has an affair with the charming wife of a slightly sadistic mill owner while staying in Amiens, France and then later follows his travails in the trenches of World War I. There's a random more "modern" annoying character from 1978 thrown into the mix but I'll get to that in a minute.

I have several complaints about this book apart from it being a complete waste of time and making that book on hedge funds that my boss left in my chair "for Labor Day reading" all the more enticing. The language is cloutish and unrelentingly awkward. Every character speaks exactly the same - like a philosopher in a Victorian novel (something of which I was once accused of in a writer's circle and thus can easily peg). Halfway through the book, I actually decided to look up Faulks' nationality, thinking that maybe a clumsy translator had made mincemeat or his otherwise promising prose. It was then that I discovered he was British. Which explained the first of my complaints.

If ever you have read a Harlequin romance, however ironically, take those play-by-plays and imagine that they were written by a British man. Big deal, you say. Ha! You must not have ever been sexually involved with an Englishman, because overall (with some exceptions of course, which I doubt Faulks falls into) their lovemaking skills are as bad as their dentists. I actually had to start flipping through the pages (and pages) of the "torrid affair" because I felt some vomit rise in my throat. A German could've done better, really.

I'm just glad that Faulks informed us that it wasn't just about sex - the hero had "feelings" for her too. Wow. It must be real love if it needs to be pointed out.

Anyway, that about covers the "Love" part, except for some self-involved female character from 1978 who we later learn - and I'm really giving nothing away here - is a descendant of this sensitive British man. Her kicks are designing and having an affair with a married man. There's a weird scene where a man she only went on a couple of dates with suddenly demands that she marry him, but then he disappears as arbitrarily as he came and she discovers that she is then pregnant with her lover's child.

In fact random disappearing characters was a recurring theme in the book. I want to give Faulks some credit here. Maybe something like "this is a tribute to the transience of people in our lives." But I just can't. I think the fucker had too difficult of a time developing the main characters - mostly unsuccessfully. Having to add humanness to these minor persons was simply too much for the old guy.

The "modern woman" part was was completely pointless, except for one thing. The description of her birthing her love child (with married lover completely supporting her to add to the unbelievability factor) was far more gruesome than any of the war scenes in the "War" portion of the book. Rotting bodies, blown-out brains and random dismemberments I can completely deal with. Long descriptions of placenta trailing out of a woman's nether regions was frankly too much for this girl to handle. More page-skipping.

Which brings me to my final observation. I'm pretty sure that many of the war scenes were parroted by Faulks from Remarques's far more noble "All Quiet on the Western Front." A novel that is somehow not making these lists with the frequency it deserves. Well, it did make the all-important list of "Hitler's books to burn because they might scare people out of starting a war."

All Faulks did was scare me off childbirth and reading more sex scenes written by British men.

"Birdsong: A Novel of Love and War." Very highly not recommended.

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