Wednesday, March 26, 2014

February Reading: Satantango, On Black Sisters' Street, Pigeon English, Every Secret Thing

Satantango by Lazslo Krazsnahorkai (1985; translated by George Szirtes)

This is apparently the Hungarian writer Krazsnahorkai's 'most accessible' novel. The fact that I don't know where to begin describing the plot, the hugely demanding prose style, the looming and shrinking characterization, and the gloomy, wry pessimism that pervades the whole book is probably a sign that his other works will be beyond me. It is different, and quite brilliant, in a perplexing, juddering way.

On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe (2010)

This novel tells story of four African prostitutes sharing a Belgian apartment who know little about each other, until the disappearance of one of them, Sisi, prompts them to share their stories. Their shocking experiences are related with warm, humorous touches, and Unigwe's dialogue in particular is engaging and fresh. Personally I found that the girls, and their stories, blended into each other - this may have been part of the point, but it left me without much of an emotional attachment to any of them.

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011)

Kelman's novel has been on my 'to read' list for ages - or "donkey years," as his protagonist, Harri, might put it. I have read a few mixed reviews - it seems there has been a bit of a backlash against the novel's 'fairytale' success. For me, however, Harri's voice was utterly convincing - like Unigwe, Kelman does wonderful things with language, but he also manages to create a character I completely believed in. It verges on the sentimental, but the clash between Harri's childish naivety and grim reality of life on the Dell Farm estate creates a dynamic that avoids syrupy sweetness. I think writing from the point of view of a child is one of the hardest things to do, and Kelman, here, has got it just right.

Every Secret Thing by Gillian Slovo (2009)

If writing from a child's point of view is tricky, then even trickier is the feat that Slovo pulls off in this work of non-fiction: writing about one's parents. Especially when you consider that her parents were two of South Africa's most prominent anti-Apartheid activists, public figures as much as private ones (the subtitle of Slovo's novel, 'My Family, My Country, reveals the inseparable nature of these two spheres in the lives of Ruth First and Joe Slovo). This is a brave book to have written - the risk of it turning into either a eulogy or a therapeutic catharsis of deep childhood issues is ever-present, but Slovo instead produces a politically relevant, intellectually challenging and moving memoir. I am currently reading First's book 117 Days, which is equally fascinating, but First's daughter's book seems to me, at the moment, to be a more layered, nuanced work.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

January Reading: Flight Behaviour, The Husband's Secret, Tangled Lives, Bring Up The Bodies

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

In David Attenborough's series Life, there is an incredible section about the monarch butterflies' annual migration to Mexico, where they hibernate for four months. In one scene, the butterflies face an unexpected frost. The forest floor is littered with ice-coated butterflies.When the butterflies finally wake up and begin to fly off, it looks like the trees are on fire, flashes of orange leaping up from the branches.

It is such a visual image, but in Kingsolver's novel, she does an impressive job of describing it:

"The flames now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it is poked. The sparks spiralled upward in swirls like funnel clouds. Twisters of brightness against grey sky."

The book is partly a cautionary tale about global warming, as the monarchs mysteriously appear on an Appalachian farm, their normal patterns of migration disrupted. But it is also a fantastic character study of the protagonist, Dellarobia Turnbow, a woman stuck in small town USA poverty, but who has so much more to give.

I remember loving The Poisonwood Bible - Kingsolver doesn't disappoint here.

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty (2013)

A wife finds a letter written by her husband marked 'to be opened in the event of my death'. He is still alive - what does the wife do? As a newly married lady, the answer is obvious - OPEN IT!

This is a quietly gripping novel - I didn't want to get as involved as I did, but it is a credit to the writer that the plot is decidedly 'moreish'.

Tangled Lives by Hilary Boyd (2012)

Um, yeah. I am not sure how this ended up on my Kindle, but in the spirit of trying new stuff I haven't heard of, I read it. It is...okay. Fine. A family saga of Rosamund whats-her-name proportions. Not my thing. But always nice to read about people who have Agas. I'd like an Aga one day.

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012)

Even better than its prequel. Mantel really must have been Cromwell in a previous life. This is writing. Can't wait for the final installment.

I still have a massive reading list for 2014, but am always looking for suggestions. Best reads of last year, people?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Where Did 2013 Go?/December Reading

2013 was a very exciting year, for lots of reasons, but it seems to have whizzed by without my having read nearly enough books or done nearly enough writing. And I only managed one solitary blog post. For shame.

However, a super-relaxing 10 day holiday in December gave me the chance to sink back into fiction-reading in a way I haven't done for months. A lovely mixture of literary and less-literary novels were consumed along with the rum cocktails and sunshine. Here's a quick summary of my sunbed reading:

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013)  - Excellent novel which deals with complex issues of race and identity and tells a damn good story at the same time. Draws heavily on personal experience of moving from Nigeria to the States (and back again).

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012) - This thriller is silly. And I quite enjoyed it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013) - The protagonist, Ursula Todd, lives through the events of last century again and again, with subtle or significant differences each time. This novel manages to be intelligent without being annoyingly clever - Atkinson is up there with my favourite writers.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (2012) -  Made me snort with laughter in an unladylike manner. Allan Karlsson is one of the best creations in modern fiction.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín (2012) - Did not make me snort with laughter. But this is a brief, beautifully written book which is well worth a read.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012) - Another (very different) old man protagonises in this lovely, understated story. Funny and sad.

Harvest by Jim Crace (2013) - The first novel I've read by Crace, and it certainly won't be the last. Staggering prose - I have never read such evocative descriptions of rural England.

Reading suggestions for 2014? What were your best reads of last year? What's on your 'to read' list this year?  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Happy New(ish) Year!

Slightly belatedly, Happy 2013! I hope it is off to a good start for you all.

Once again, December proved to be a shamefully bad month for fiction reading and/or blogging; this is only partly because I have been diving back into novel research and reading lots of random non-fiction books on German colonialism and the like, which I won’t bore you about. Yet.

Research aside, the festive fun meant that I only managed to limp through two novels last month: Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God (1964) and Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog. Arrow of God is the final book in what is sometimes known as ‘The African Trilogy’, which also includes Things Fall Apart, and No Longer at Ease. It deals with the colonial policy of indirect rule, and provides another fascinating portrait of Igbo life in Colonial Nigeria. Atkinson’s novel is also part of a series; it is her fourth novel featuring Detective Jackson Brodie. I have been a fan of Atkinson’s writing for a long time (check out her weird and wonderful short story collection Not The End of the World), but she has really come into her own since turning to crime (novels, that is). She doesn’t confine herself to the more sterile, predictable rules of the genre, and her prose is sparky and fresh. Brodie is a likeable protagonist, and Atkinson’s strategy of interweaving the narratives of different characters at various points in their history means that we build up the full picture in pieces, echoing the way a crime is solved.

 My new year’s resolution is to set achievable goals for myself. In view of the fact that I’ve got a fairly full teaching timetable at the moment, I am trying to avoid making sweeping statements like ‘By the end of this year, I will have finished my novel,’ or 'I have to read more books than last year.' I am currently working out how to carve out a little bit of time each day for writing (and reading) – I have a feeling this is either going to involve switching off the TV in the evenings, or giving up my morning snooze on the commuter train. Possibly both.

In the meantime, I’ve had a bit of a spree on Amazon, and am very excited about getting started on the first batch:

Recommendations of which one to start with once I have finished my current read (The Master and Margarita), as well as any other reading suggestions for 2013, are very much appreciated. What was the best novel you read last year?

Here's to another good year of reading and writing!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

November Reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Starter for Ten, The Mammoth Book of Nebula Awards SF, The Things We Did for Love, Mittee, Fingersmith

I’m going to cheat slightly this month and just do a very quick round-up of what I read in November, mostly because it’s Sunday evening and I still have half the week’s lessons to plan. Ah, the joys of being in gainful employment.

I started off with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (2000), which has frequently been recommended to me. A gorgeous fusion of comic book style adventure, Jewish mythology and American history, this novel didn’t disappoint. I am now officially a Chabon fan – what should I read next of his?

Down to earth with a bit of a bump, I read Starter for Ten by David Nicholls (2003), as I got it free from someone at the book group I (sporadically) go to. A nostalgic, era-embracing book, I assume this easy-to-read novel would be more fun if I’d actually gone to university in the eighties. I’d put it on a par with One Day – a quick read, but not very memorable.

And now for something completely different; as part of my attempt to broaden my literary horizons, I tackled The (aptly named) Mammoth Book of Nebula Awards SF edited by Kevin J. Anderson (2011). I’m gradually learning that the sin of judging a book by its cover is equalled by that of discounting stories on the basis of their genre. ‘I’m not really into Sci-Fi’ is the line I have always taken, but after reading this collection, that seems a bit like saying ‘I’m not really into clever, well-written stories which challenge preconceptions and paint beautiful word-images’. So that’s me told.

On the other hand, had I realised that The Things We Did for Love by Natasha Farrant (2012) was trashy teen fiction (the title should have given me a clue, but I bought it in a job lot when Amazon was doing its ‘Kindle Marathon’ during the Olympics – it seemed the most Ellie-ish way of getting involved in the whole Team GB furore), I might have spared myself some pretty terrible prose and huge great whopping clichés. That said, as a writer, sometimes reading bad fiction is more helpful than reading great literature.

I read Mittee by Daphne Rooke (1951) for research purposes; having finally got my dissertation back, I am ready to delve back into my historical novel, and this book proved a fantastic way of immersing myself in the world of Southern Africa in the early twentieth century. It isn’t perfect (J.M. Coetzee provides a very informative critique at the back of the Kindle edition I read), but it contains some wonderful descriptions, and it has a cracking plot. I do like a good story.

Speaking of good stories, I finished the month with Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2003), whose ability to produce intricately plotted novels full of impeccable detail always impresses me. I am still struggling with The Little Stranger, but this book restored my faith in Waters’ abilities.

I’m hoping for a few book tokens for Christmas, and if anyone has any suggestions as to which novels I should treat myself to in the New Year, please let me know! Which books have you enjoyed most in 2012?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

October Reading: A Life in Full and Other Stories, Room, The Secret Agent, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

A Life in Full and Other Stories by Various Authors (2010)

The Caine Prize for African Writing has introduced me to some fantastic short story writers, and this anthology from 2010 is no exception. It includes the five shortlisted stories, plus an additional twelve stories which came out of the Caine Prize’s workshop for that year. Alongside superb stories from writers whose work I’ve read, such as Lily Mabura and Jude Dibia, are new discoveries, particularly Olufemi Terry’s powerful story ‘Stickfighting Days,’ which shows a darker side to the ‘games’ that children play. I would recommend the Caine Prize anthologies as a great introduction to the huge array of talent in African literature.

Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)

Inspired by the Fritzl case, Room is told from the point of view of five year old Jack, whose mother is kidnapped aged nineteen and kept prisoner in a single room, in which she gives birth to and raises her son. The genius of the book lies in its avoidance of ‘trauma novel’ tropes, and its focus on Jack’s world, which, despite its limitations to our eyes, is all he knows, and which has been lovingly created for him by his mother. In this sense, there is an almost sci-fi feel to the novel. Objects are described without articles: Room, Bowl, Rug, Bed – because, of course, for Jack, there is only one of everything.

The tone of the novel changes when Jack’s mother confesses that she has been lying to him, that there is a whole world outside ‘Room,’ and that the images he has seen on TV are not entirely fictional, as she has led him to believe. The tension between her desire to escape and Jack’s contentedness with his life in Room is played out wonderfully. Once the two of them finally make it to the outside world, the dynamic between mother and son necessarily alters, and this section is portrayed as cleverly as what has gone before. Donoghue’s choice to focalise the novel through Jack is what makes this novel special – adult behaviour as seen through a child’s eyes is a tough trick to pull off in fiction, but Donoghue excels here.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907)

I read this Conrad novel as I’m currently tutoring English Literature A-level and, amazingly, this is one of the set texts. I’m surprised because it is one of the most convoluted, difficult to follow novels I have read in a long time, and if you’d given this to me when I was seventeen, I wouldn’t have been able to make head nor tail of it. It has apparently enjoyed a revival since 9/11 due to its terrorist themes, and some have argued that Conrad showed remarkable foresight, but this seems to me to be missing the point – terrorism is hardly a 21st century development.

The lack of sympathetic characters in the novel makes it hard to care too much, and the shifting point of view adds to the general confusion (which may be appropriate for a novel about anarchy, but it hardly makes for a pleasurable reading experience.) I read Heart of Darkness a long time ago and I can remember the sensation of being lost in a gloomy, dark maze – I had a similar feeling on reading this novel. If anyone can tell me what I'm missing with Conrad, I'd love to hear from them.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004)

One of the problems with reading books on a Kindle is that I often don’t know how long a book is when I start reading it. The reason I have only made it through four novels this month is because this one is a beast: the paperback is about 800 pages long. Since finishing it, I’ve thought long and hard about whether its length is justified; on the whole, I think it is. Clarke has created a wonderful world which sits comfortably between history and fantasy, infusing magic into a realistically drawn nineteenth century setting. It tells the story of England’s only two ‘practical magicians,’ who inevitably become rivals. Of the two, Strange is the more likeable, relatable character – the stuffy, anti-social Norrell is less nuanced, and I enjoyed the sections that focused on him less. While Norrell’s elitist attitude to magic leads to him hiding his books and only performing the spells that he sees fit, Strange’s adventures with real-life characters such as the Duke of Wellington add a real sense of fun to this epic novel.

The slightly tongue-in-cheek tone does develop, however, and as the novel progresses, Clarke introduces sinister elements which increase gradually until the book’s conclusion. The plot is complicated enough to fill several novels, and it’s no wonder it took ten years to write. Like writers such as Tolkein and Neil Gaiman, the world that she creates is so satisfyingly all-consuming that when I reached the final page and was spat out into the real, non-magical world, I felt quite bereft. This is not a novel to be undertaken lightly, but it is a masterpiece.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

September Reading: Affinity, Burger's Daughter, Small Island, American Gods, Two in a Boat

Affinity by Sarah Waters (2000)

I’m reading Waters’ books in a funny order. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read - I still have to read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger. Affinity is my least favourite so far. It tells the story of Margaret Prior, a troubled young woman who becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank prison and finds herself drawn to one of the inmates, spiritualist Selina Dawes. This is a somewhat bleak, dispiriting novel which lacks the sparkle of Tipping the Velvet or the intricacy of The Night Watch. The ‘twist’ ending, too, fell flat for me. But I am not giving up on Waters yet – her prose is still great, and her attention to detail, building up the Victorian world surrounding her characters, is still impressive.

Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer (1979)

Gordimer has described her novel as a ‘coded homage’ to Bram Fischer, Mandela’s defence lawyer and a prominent anti-apartheid activist, and Lionel Burger, the ‘Fischer’ figure, looms over the book as a lofty presence. However, the real story, as the title suggests, is about Lionel’s daughter, Rosa. It is a fascinating premise: how does it feel to have grown up in a family obsessed with activism, to be left with a legacy that is impossible to live up to?

The narrative dips in and out of first person, and this is mirrored in the interplay between personal and political concerns in the novel. Gordimer uses language with beauty and  precision – I haven’t read anything by her for a while, and I had forgotten just how good she is.  I particularly loved the almost dream-like passages of the time Rosa spends in a small, rundown tin cottage with her not-quite lover, Conrad, such as this one describing re-reading letters:
I read them again and again, their script appeared in everything I seemed to be looking at, pupils of yellow egg yolk slipping separate from whites of eyes cracked against the bowl, faint quarterings of tabby ancestry vestigial on the belly of the black cat, the slow alphabetical dissolve from identity to identity, changing one letter at a time through the spelling of names in the telephone directory.”

Rosa’s search for an identity which isn’t wholly contingent on her father’s legacy takes her abroad and back again, in and out of the South Africa Gordimer writes about so well. Highly recommended.

Also check out Tessa Hadley reading and talking about Gordimer’s excellent short story, ‘City Lovers’:

Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)

Quite a few people have suggested this novel to me, and having read it, I can see why. Interweaving the stories of four characters, the English Queenie and Bernard, and the Jamaican Hortense and Gilbert, the novel’s main plot is set in England in 1948. However, in the sections labelled ‘Before,’ Levy manages to elevate the characters’ backstories to a more prominent position even than the ‘main’ events. Each character has a highly distinctive voice, my particular favourite being Gilbert, whose experiences in the country he has come to defend are wonderfully tragi-comic. I was also very impressed with how Levy deals with the racism of characters such as Bernard: it is a real skill to write about attitudes we now find repugnant without making the reader turn against the character who holds those opinions.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)

I am ashamed to admit that this is the first work by Gaiman that I have read, but it won’t be the last. American Gods is one of the most imaginative novels I have read in a long time, with a cast of fantastical, mythical, and yet somehow utterly believable characters and a road trip plot that revels in the epic scale of the States. Only the final section involving Shadow’s (was there ever a greater name for a protagonist?) ‘vigil’ lost my attention a little; other than that I was fully immersed in the crazily inventive world that Gaiman has created. What should I read next of his?

Two in a Boat by Gwyneth Lewis (2005)

Time for a little bit of non-fiction, because variety is the spice and all that. Subtitled ‘A Marital Rite of Passage,’ this book unflinchingly depicts a marriage at close quarters, as Lewis and her husband Leighton decide to take to the seas and attempt to cross the Atlantic. Spoiler alert: everything does not go to plan.

The nautical terminology got a bit much for me at some points, but in fairness to Lewis, she does make an effort to explain it all in layman’s terms, and most people who pick up this book probably have more of an interest in boats than I do (not difficult). And as a poet, Lewis can certainly paint a picture with words; there are some gorgeously visual descriptions. The book ends with the couple finding themselves on quite a different journey than the one they were (sort of) prepared for – a tragic twist that helps to make sense of what has gone before.