Madagascar on QF580 (Qantas flight Perth to Sydney)

Madagascar was occasionally mildly amusing, but mostly pretty dull. Not a patch on Monsters, Inc. or Shrek.

The Interpreter on QF577 (Qantas flight Sydney to Perth)

The Interpreter was quite a good thriller, with enough plot to keep it engaging the whole way through. (Though occasionally it was a bit predictable – did anyone really have any doubts about what Nicole Kidman’s character was planning when she said she was “going home”?)

The only thing that really lifted it out of the ordinary was Sean Penn’s strong performance as a bereaved husband. And I thought the relationship between the two main characters was well done – a bit more subtle than the standard romantic subplot.

Mirror Dance and Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

It’s odd that although these are two of my favourite Bujold books, I always skip the first few chapters of each of them when I am re-reading. It’s because I know the main character is going to make an absolutely enormous mistake, and I just can’t stand seeing it happen. So I tend to pick up Mirror Dance at Chapter 12, when Mark arrives on Barrayar (after everything that could possibly have gone wrong has done so); and Memory at Chapter 7, when Miles is discharged. I know in both cases there is good stuff in the earlier chapters (not to mention things highly relevant to the plot!) but I just can’t subject myself to the pain of watching Mark and Miles dig their own graves.

Once the mistakes are made, though, and the books move into “recovery” mode, I love them. In fact, both of these are books that I will occasionally get off the shelf just to read one of the “good bits”. (I also do this with A Civil Campaign – which I also can’t re-read the first few chapters of.) They seem to have more depth than the earlier books in the series, though you probably need to have read at least some of the earlier books in order to fully understand these ones.

Mirror Dance is the first Miles book where there is a non-Miles perspective character. And I actually find the Mark sections of the book (after the excruciatingly painful first few chapters) far more interesting than the Miles bits. In fact, I find the Miles sections pretty dull.

I’m not totally convinced that Mark is the same character I first met in Brothers in Arms – he seems much more brisk and efficient there than he does in Mirror Dance. However, that’s more of an issue when I’m re-reading Brothers in Arms – the Mark of Mirror Dance is the same as the one in Civil Campaign. And I guess you can justify the change partly by saying that you only see him from the outside (Miles’ perspective) in Brothers in Arms, and also that he has spend the intervening time hiding out, and without Galen driving him, so it does make sense that he’d seem a bit more adrift than he did in the earlier book.

I think one of my favourite scenes in the book is the one where Mark overhears Cordelia and Aral talking – I particularly love Cordelia’s analysis of Ivan as only playing the fool, and Aral pointing out that Ivan has been like that all his life, and her interpretation would make him “a fiendishly Machiavellian five-year-old”. And the bit earlier in the book where she points out that “Miles thinks he’s a knight-errant. A rational government wouldn’t allow him possession of a pocket-knife, let alone a space fleet.” Cordelia really enriches this book, even though her part is relatively small (though still bigger than in any of the earlier books except Cordelia’s Honor).

Memory is my absolute, all-time favourite Vorkosigan book. The detective story and Miles’ personal growth are really well woven together, so the book is neither too depressing nor too lightweight. Fun minor characters are either introduced for the first time (Martin, Ma Kosti and Zap the Cat), or developed from earlier books (Duv Galeni, and also Illyan – not that he was previously underdeveloped). And it has so many wonderful scenes: Ivan taking over and moving into Vorkosigan House, the trip back to Silvy Vale, Illyan’s illness and Miles’ management of it, the “wrestling with temptation” scene, the Assault on Cockroach Central, and the confession to Gregor. Some of these scenes are fun, some moving, some powerful – all of them really good to read and re-read.

Possession by A. S. Byatt

Possession was the first A. S. Byatt I ever read, and it is still far and away my favourite. I love the variety and interactions of the modern characters, the sense of such a completely diverse group of people linked by nothing more than a passion for two long dead poets, and the fact that they have such different ways of relating to them. I find all the characters – even the unlikable ones – enjoyable to read about. I also love the treasure hunt aspect of it – particularly as it gains momentum towards the end.

For all that I love the book, though, I don’t think I’ve ever read the Ash or LaMotte poetry, and I mostly skip the LaMotte prose as well. In fact, this time through I found myself skimming very lightly through the whole Ash/LaMotte correspondence, and I also skipped large segments of Sabine’s journal. On the other hand, I still read the Ellen Ash journal bits with great pleasure.

For me, though, this book also crystallises why it is I chose to study literature rather than history. With history, there is an absolute Truth – events either happened or they did not – and the historian may never know for certain whether what they believe is right. And there are other things that will simply never be known – as the Postscript to Possession says, “There are things which happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of”.

This is also reflected earlier in the book, when Roland and Maud go to the Boggle Hole to “take a day off from them, get out of their story, go and look at something for ourselves. There’s no Boggle Hole in Cropper or the Ash Letters”. And then in the next chapter we see that Ash and LaMotte did go to the Boggle Hole – I love the parallel between the two pairs, but at the same time it is incredibly frustrating and sad that Roland and Maud will never know about it.

The same idea comes up in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (which, co-incidentally, I saw at about the same time I first read Possession). As in Possession, while the modern characters end up knowing most of the things the audience does about the past, there are some things they are unaware of – or, as in the case of the Fuseli portrait, some things they have a gut feeling about, but no way of proving it (“I know it’s them. … How? It just is.”)

Studying literature isn’t like that, at least for me. You have the text, and you have the reader, and you really don’t need anything else – it’s all about the relationship between the two, which, of course, will be unique for each reader. I guess an exception to this is if you are specifically trying to work out “what the author intended”. But I suspect this is a task sitting somewhere between the problematic and the impossible – and, as with history, leads to the situation where you will never know – or never be able to prove – how close to the truth you are.

But in terms of general appreciation/interpretation of a text, everything you need to know is between the covers of the book. If the author has written or said something elsewhere about it, that’s a bonus; and a greater knowledge of the author’s life, or the historical period they lived in, or anything else of that nature, may shed a different kind of light on the text. But ultimately, any interpretation a reader chooses to make of the book – unless it is actually contradicted by something between the covers of the book itself – is totally valid. It’s not like history, where you may never know if you are right or wrong. If you know something about a text, then it is true – even if the next person to read it knows the complete opposite.