The Forever Queen, by Helen Hollick

Okay, this is embarrassing to admit, but I picked up this book at the library book sale simply because I liked the cover. Because, just to be clear, I liked the colors used on the cover. They match my bedroom. Such an admission is almost as bad as revealing that when I first started buying wine, I chose bottles based on how pretty their labels were. But these days I'm no longer a novice oenophile, or bibliophile for that matter.

Much to my surprise, this big novel about Emma, Queen of Saxon England, is a good read. It opens in 1002, when Emma, thirteen-year-old sister of Richard, Duke of Normandy, arrives in England for her arranged marriage to the 34-year-old king, Aethelred (“the Unready” if you recall your history), and ends in 1042. It was interesting to recall that the first half of the book covers the same time frame as the Murasaki book, on the other side of the world.

This is Emma's story, her growth from a shy, scared girl into a competent, confidant queen.

I was interested in following Emma's thoughts about and participation in the continuing struggles over the crown of England, not just between Saxon and Dane, but the shifting alliances, the hesitation to invoke outright civil war, the treachery inspired by a lust for power. She recognises how seductive that lust can be. Speaking with Edmund, Aethelred's second son, she compares it to syphilis:

“It is a sorry fact . . . that wealthy and powerful men possess a driving need to acquire more of what they have already got. Corruption in a man is an insidious disease . . . the fire takes hold and consumes him from the inside out.”

But she herself is not immune. She enjoys exercising what power she has as queen, power that increases as Aethelred ages and declines. At first she needs it, to protect herself against her abusive husband. Later, she resolves to use it to protect her people, the English people whom she has grown to care for. She says she has become more English than the English. She also respects the fact that it is her duty as queen to protect her people, even if Aethelred seems to shirk his role as protector at every opportunity.

The chapters are quite short, only three or four pages and encompassing only a single scene, so they seem to fly by. If I have any complaint, it is that sometimes we whiz along from year to year, with only a single chapter/scene for each. It is far more satisfying when we pause for several of these short chapters in a row to follow out a story line.

I like that the cast of characters is fairly stable, given that it is a long book, even if few approach the depth and complexity of Emma's characterisation. Aethelred and his sons, the treacherous Eadric Streona, and the Danish invaders Swein and his son Cnut are well-drawn.

There is much death; the living conditions and brutal punishments of Saxon England would have ensured that, even without the near-constant warfare. But there is also honor and love and an attempt to understand what makes a life worth living.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

This popular book, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize along with many other awards, was my book club's selection for this month. It's a highly experimental book, moving back and forth in time and introducing new characters with each chapter. Since we rarely return to any of the characters from the previous chapters, Egan's challenge to herself is to create a cohesive narrative out of these fragments.

In her reader's guide she says:

I began A Visit from the Goon Squad without a clear plan, following my own curiosity from one character and situation to the next. My guiding rules were only these: 1) Each chapter had to be about a different person. 2) Each chapter had to have a different mood and tone and approach. 3) Each chapter had to stand completely on its own. This last was especially important; since I ask readers to start over repeatedly in A Visit from the Goon Squad, it seemed the least I could do was provide a total experience each time.

In other words, you can read this book without making a single connection between any two chapters. They were written—and published—as individual pieces, apart from the book as a whole.

My book club was split fairly evenly between those who enjoyed the book a lot and those who disliked it. While I appreciated Egan's wit and inventiveness—one surprisingly effective chapter is done entirely in PowerPoint slides—I had to count myself among the ones who didn't enjoy it.

Partly my lack of enjoyment was due to the constant switching to new characters. I found it hard to care about characters, however vividly drawn, who disappeared a few pages later. The writing is great. I loved the first chapter where Sasha lifts a wallet in the ladies room of the Lassimo Hotel. And the story of Dolly, aka La Doll, a publicist and cultural barometer, was hilarious, if sad. But the repeated jolting kept me from getting into the book.

The other part that made me actively dislike the book was the theme. One character says, “‘Time's a goon, right?'” And indeed, all of the characters are roughed up if not killed by time, by the lives they fall into. You're a sad, confused child and then life goes downhill from there. Several different characters end up saying, “‘I feel like everything is ending.'” Or they have to come to terms with “‘the unspeakable knowledge that everything is lost.'” As several folks in my book club said, it made for a very depressing read.

I guess I'm just a Pollyanna at heart. Life gets better all the time, that's what I think.

Still, as I say, I'm in the minority! The book is tremendously popular and successful, and many people are hugely enthusiastic about it. Just because the book is not my cup of tea doesn't mean that you won't enjoy it. Use the comments section below to let me know what you thought about the book.

The Tale of Murasaki, by Liza Dalby

Very little is known about Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji. Genji, completed probably in 1021, is often considered to be the first novel, and while there is some question as to whether Murasaki herself wrote all of the chapters, she is generally celebrated as the author. The story goes that she was inspired to write the Genji stories by gazing at the full moon during a religious retreat to Ishiyama Temple.

However, far more likely is the scenario Dalby dreams up for this fictionalized biography: a young Murasaki, giggling with her best friend and dreaming of one day serving at court (however unlikely the possibility), makes up stories about a handsome, romantic prince. As she grows older, she adapts the stories to her better understanding of men and women and what goes on between them.

When she becomes a widow with a young child, she is unexpectedly called to court to serve the new Empress Shoshi, primarily because of her now-popular Genji stories. Aware of the political plotting of the regent, Shoshi's father, and learning all too quickly about the barbs, boredom and bounties of court life, she once again revises her stories to add these realistic details.

The book is almost a case study in how to write historical fiction. Dalby takes the few known facts, some surviving fragments of Murasaki's diary and poetry, and research into the Heian period to create an engrossing and believable story. She also uses—though sparingly—some of the events from the Genji stories themselves. Not one for one: that would be too crass. Instead, she creates some scenes and events that a writer such as Murasaki could have transmuted into those stories.

What an astute strategy! While there are some fiction writers producing slightly concealed autobiography, most writers these days create a character by throwing aspects of multiple people into the blender: this characteristic, that prejudice, these dreams, those handicaps. So Murasaki's writing life rang as true as her friendships and romances.

With this book I truly felt as though I was entering a different world every time I picked it up. Dalby has provided an exquisitely detailed view of life in the early 11th century. She has also included bits of Murasaki's diary and all of her surviving poetry. Men and women of the time carried on courtships and conversations using waka, which today we call tanka. Some of the most intriguing sections are these conversations, but always the short five-line poems grow seamlessly out of the scene:

Lifting my head to look out at the dawning day, I saw a family of waterbirds playing on the lake as if they hadn't a care in the world. Then it struck me that to an outside observer they may look as though they were enjoying life, but in fact they must often suffer, too.

How can I view the birds on the water with indifference? Like them, I float through a sad, uncertain world.

I recommend reading this book when you have the time to sink into it. I so enjoyed my immersion in Murasaki's world and aesthetic that I was sad when the book ended.

The Narrow Road to the Interior, by Kimiko Hahn

A few years ago, writer Christine Stewart led a workshop on applying the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi to the writing of poetry, wabi-sabi being the appreciation of the beauty of unfinished or transient things. I thought of that workshop while reading this book, which looks like a collection of fragments of poetry and prose. However, brought together these scraps create an ever-changing collage, one where there is space for the reader's imagination. I read this deeply moving book three times and interpreted much of it differently each time.

Hahn uses two Japanese forms for the poems in this book: tanka and zuihitsu. Most poets are familiar with tanka, though here Hahn presents them as a single line. Zuihitsu has no Western equivalent. It has been translated as “following the brush” or “stray notes expressing random thoughts”. It is the form used by Sei Shonagon in The Pillow Book, with her lists and random diary entries. Hahn intersperses thoughts and reminiscences with lists and emails and question-and-answer sessions. While they appear to be prose, there is no doubt that in their ambiguity and resonance these fragments are indeed poetry.

It takes a lot of guts to give your book the same title as one of the most famous books of poetry, Basho's famous travel journal. Basho wrote in a form called Haibun which combines short journal prose pieces with haiku. Yet for all these traditional forms and nods to antiquity, this is a thoroughly modern book. The ancient and modern elements create a dialogue between them that affects the meaning of each. Similarly the two poetic forms work with and against each other to lift everything to another level.

This is a gutsy book in other ways, too. Hahn bares herself in these pages as she departs a marriage and tries to balance the demands of lovers and children against those of the work. Referring to the classic Japanese symbol of transience, she writes:

The brown branches, the pink moments.

I was at a loss.

Was marriage my imagination? I look at photos of cheery tanned profiles from little family vacations and cannot know what I was thinking.

Hahn also plays with language, employing puns as associations: “pomegranate, poppy, pod—”. She says “I love words that confuse—” like “canon/cannon/cannot”. The disconnection, the stumble in the space between the so-similar words possesses the reader with its ambiguity. I want poems that unsettle me.

Far from the former husband, this rain-soaked marsh is where I know a downpour will last. And the lover's breadth.

In poetry I look for what Robert Bly calls “leaping poetry”, works with space in them, that make you feel like the earth has given way beneath your feet. Here the fragmentary nature and the energy of the work provide a particularly rich experience.