Wednesday, November 23, 2011

October Reading: This is How, The Empty Family, The Sense of an Ending, Anagrams

Disclaimer: these reviews are very late and very short due to my last-minute decision to take part in National Novel Writing Month and my laptop’s protest at this silly decision, which involved deliberately infecting itself with a disease (not a virus, because that has a real meaning with computers, apparently) that I call ‘stripy screen’.  So, between nanowrimo and the curse of the stripy screen, only my determination to review every book I read this year has ensured that these scrappy lines are here at all.  Be grateful (all three who enter here.) 

This Is How by M.J. Hyland (2009)

In our MA workshops with Hyland (warning: if this name drop annoys you, there’s another one to come in the next review.  Then that’s it, I promise) the emphasis is very much on editing.  As such, I wasn’t overly surprised that her third novel contains not a word more than necessary.  The bare, stark prose is an astonishingly effective vehicle for a story that refuses to conform to the conventions of the genres of ‘crime novel’ or ‘prison drama’ while containing elements of both.  The protagonist, Patrick Oxtoby, draws the reader uncomfortably close to his point of view (the story is first person, present tense).  The intensity of this relationship makes this book a fast, unsettling read, quite unlike anything I’ve read in a long time.

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín (2010)

The Empty Family: Stories (Hardcover) ~ Colm Toibin (Author) Cover Art
Another MA tutor, and another advocate of pared down prose (my lavish use of adjectives and adverbs is taking a battering this term).  A lot of the stories in this excellent collection are concerned with leaving or, more often, returning, home, such as my personal favourite, ‘The New Spain’, in which a Catalan woman who has been living in London comes back to find, as people inevitably do, that everything and nothing has changed.  A friend of mine recently described one of Tóibín’s novels as ‘quiet’ (she meant it as a compliment), and that’s the best word I can use to describe these stories as well.  There is so much shouting and posturing in fiction, it is a relief to find a quiet voice.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)


I haven’t read any of Barnes’s earlier work, and as the title suggests, this is probably not the most logical place to start.  However, I can’t quite shake the feeling each year that I ‘ought’ to read the winner of the Booker.  Reading something because you feel you should is usually a sure fire route to disappointment, and I have to admit, I began this novel with my lip curled in expectation of being underwhelmed (it’s not my best look).  And it did take a while for my lip to uncurl, but by the end (of which there was indeed a very good sense), it had. 

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore (1986)


The thing that I like most about Lorrie Moore is that she quite clearly loves language.  She finds it interesting and quirky, and she does interesting and quirky things with it.  I am a sucker for a pun, and will be eternally grateful to Moore for introducing me to the ‘Tom Swiftie’ (my colleagues at the school I worked at in London may be less grateful – I was trotting them out every break time for weeks).  For those of you yet to be acquainted with the Tom Swiftie, look here, but be warned, they are addictive:

I’d read four of the stories that make up this novel in Moore’s ‘Collected Stories’, but here, with the final, novella-length piece, they work better, building up a picture of the complex, hilarious, desperate protagonist, Benna at the same time as Benna builds and rebuilds her own world.  Characters and plotlines reappear in slightly different guises, and the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined are pushed into shapes as interesting as the linguistic trickery.  I’m actually not really looking forward to discussing this book in our seminar – it is put together in such a unique and appealing way that I don’t really want to see it taken apart.  And I bet some people hated it.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

September Reading: The Comforters, By Night in Chile, Mrs Dalloway, Madame Bovary, The Good Soldier

The Comforters by Muriel Spark (1957)

The more observant among you may have noticed that I have spent most of this year reading very contemporary literature.  The discovery of the ominously titled ‘Preliminary Reading List’ for my MA course forced me to step a little further back in time last month, which is also why there will be a few ‘classics’ appearing on this blog over the coming months.  In fact, The Comforters is the only novel I have read this month that wasn’t on the list (we do have to read Spark, but Girls of Slender Means – if anyone has read it, let me know what you thought of it), but it was an attempt to get me out of the 21st century mindset I have been stuck in all year.  This is Spark’s first novel, and the first work of hers that I have read.

Spark is very appropriately named.  She is, indeed sparky.  And feisty.  The witty, tongue-in-cheek prose carries the reader along for a swift and enjoyable ride, following the story of Caroline Rose, a young woman who makes the startling discovery that she is trapped in a novel.  This isn’t as annoying as it sounds; rather than a pretentious post-modern angst-fest, we are instead simply treated to several wry references to plotting and to the ‘author’s’ own frustration with her character Caroline, who is berated for

“exerting an undue, unreckoned influence on the narrative from which she is supposed to be absent for a time.”

The supporting characters are colourful and intriguing, from the despicable Mrs Hogg to the diamond-smuggling Super Gran, Louisa Jepp.  My only problem with the novel is that it is such a quick read I felt like I didn’t have enough time to really immerse myself in the world of the novel.  Or the novel within the novel.  Or whatever.  I may be an MA student, but complicated things still hurt my head.

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño (2000)

Speaking of complicated things, how about a novel consisting of 130 pages but only two paragraphs, narrated by a dying priest with a dual identity telling us things in a feverish stream-of-consciousness that may or may not be true about a combination of real and fictional characters?  Ouch.

Some of the passages are incredibly lyrical, and Bolaño weaves his country’s literary and political history into the life of his protagonist in a way that made me want to go and read up on Chile, a country of which I am woefully ignorant.  Several literary figures I wish I had heard of turn up, as does Pinochet, who I have heard of – but mostly because my Dad was accused of being involved in some kind of conspiracy when Pinochet was up for extradition, and the Chilean press referred to him as ‘Kenny’ Hogger, which is the very long-winded explanation for why we call him Kenny (Dad, not Pinochet). 

In retrospect, I probably should have left this one until after we have discussed it in class.  My fellow MA students are very clever and probably understood it better than I did, and I could have stolen their brilliant ideas and passed them off as my own.  Ah well

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)

I have to admit, this is the first work of fiction by Woolf that I have read (did you really study English as an undergrad, Ellie?) although I have read A Room of One’s Own.  I’ve also read and watched The Hours, though I don’t think that counts.  I know that she is supposed to be one of those Marmite authors, but I have to say, I didn’t love it or hate it.  I liked the way the novel dips in and out of the point of view of all the various characters, creating an unsettling but invigorating effect, and the paralleling of Clarissa’s story with that of Septimus neatly illustrates the lurking despair behind Mrs Dalloway’s social brightness:

            “She felt somehow very like him […] She felt glad that he had done it.”

However, there were definitely points where I wished she’d throw in a joke or two to lighten the mood, and I found it hard to find a connection to the eponymous protagonist.  I am quite an emotional reader, and if I don’t feel any kind of attachment to the main character, then however brilliant the writing, I tend to struggle.  Which was also a problem I had with the following book.

Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert (1856)

One day, I am going to read Madame Bovary in French.  I may have to get past level Elementaire Trois first, but dammit, I will do it.  We’ve actually so far only looked at literature in translation in our MA seminars (this novel, and a couple of Chekhov stories), and whether or not you have a good translation makes a big difference.  I think mine was ok for Bovary (though not for the Chekhov), but it was still startlingly different to some of the other students’ versions.

I don’t like Emma Bovary.  If I had to go out for a drink with her, I would probably end up pouring it all over her (in my head, of course: I am far too English for such behaviour in real life).  I understand that her life is a bit tedious and that her husband is a bit dull, and that, as a woman at that time, her choices were severely limited and blah blah blah.  But she is a very silly woman, and at times downright hateful, such as when she contemplates her own daughter:

            “It is very strange,” thought Emma, “how ugly this child is!”

That is just mean. 

Having said that, I did like the novel as a whole.  Translations aside, Flaubert certainly knows how to capture a landscape, or a character, or a mood.  And, unlike Woolf, he isn’t afraid of exploiting his characters’ weaknesses for the sake of humour.  He also has a knack for making his characters voice thoughts that really strike a chord, so that I read the following:

            “Has it ever happened to you,” Leon went on, “to come across some vague idea of one’s own in a book, some dim image that comes back to you from afar, and as the completest image of your own slightest sentiment?”

and I said, possibly out loud, “Yes, all the time, Leon!”

An interesting aspect of the book is how Flaubert views the literature of his day.  Emma is, at one point, banned from reading novels, though this doesn’t last long.  For her, it seems, such reading has a similar effect to rom-coms today, building up a hopelessly unrealistic picture of love and life, and even death, all of which fail to play out as the overly romantic Emma plans.  I’ll admit to being a bit of a romantic too.  I suppose, if we ever do get round to that drink, we can always have a good bitch about how life is never like it is in the movies.

The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (1915)

Anyone who has read this book won’t be surprised that we’ve been asked to read it in order to discuss ‘the unreliable narrator’.  John Dowell (whose name I just had to check on Google because it is used so infrequently in the novel), the narrator of The Good Soldier,  relates the story of his and his wife’s ‘friendship’ with the Ashburnhams, Edward (the ‘good soldier’ of the title) and Leonora.  Right from the start, Dowell poses the question of narration as a quandary:

            I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down – whether it would be better to try and tell the story from the beginning as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from this distance of time, as it reached me from the lips of Leonora or from those of Edward himself.”

In the event, Dowell’s narration skips about: facts are hidden, histories concealed until the last few chapters: time in the novel is anything but linear.  (Having just read a chapter on this very subject by Gérard Genette, I could bore you senseless about internal homodiegetic analepses, but this is Review Number Five and you’re probably half asleep already).  Obviously, Dowell presents this as artless, the fault of lack of planning and faulty memory:

            “But, looking over what I have written, I see that I have unintentionally misled you”

However, Ford (how did he ever know if people were calling him by his first name or his surname? For the record, I’m being polite and using his surname here) knows exactly what he is doing.  In gradually feeding the reader the story in dribs and drabs, the picture that we build up of the relationships between the characters becomes infinitely more complex, and much more true to life.  When Dowell states in the novel that we can never truly know another person, he is, of course, right, but the way we get close to some kind of understanding of other people is never simply from hearing their story as a simple, linear narrative.  

Sunday, September 4, 2011

August Reading: The Blind Assassin, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Norwegian Wood

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)

I recently met up with a university friend who asked what I was reading at the moment.  When I told him I was reading Margaret Atwood (the subject of my final year dissertation) he raised an eyebrow in disbelief.  “Still?”

It’s true: in many ways, I haven’t moved on from my twenty year old self: I still drink too much at parties, live mostly off my overdraft, refuse to dress like an adult (see recent purchase of Pinocchio necklace) and am about to enter once more into full time studenthood.  And yes, I’m still reading Margaret Atwood.  Yet oddly enough, my fascination with her work isn’t based on pure enjoyment – which is probably why I felt able to write a critical dissertation on her, now I come to think of it.  What interests me about Atwood is the sense of the craft of writing, the emphasis on how a novel is put together rather than the story that is being told.  In The Blind Assassin, the novel-within-a-novel-within-a-novel structure repeatedly draws attention to the story as narrative, as does the fact that we have an unreliable first person narrator.  I find this really interesting, but it also has the effect of distancing us from the characters.  Iris Chase, the elderly narrator of the story, which revolves around her sister Laura’s death, often sounds suspiciously like Atwood herself:

            The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read […] You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand, you must see your left hand erasing it.”  

This could have been taken from Atwood’s non-fiction work on writing, Negotiating with the Dead (which I will be reviewing soon).

The playful dabbling with genres such as science fiction provides some welcome light relief, as does Iris’s occasional comic asides, such as her scepticism of a friend’s opinion: “she reads a lot of magazines at the hairdressers.”  The use of newspaper extracts to advance the plot seems a little outdated and forced, though they do offer an insight into the kind of society that the Chase sisters are expected to try and be a part of.

Although this novel isn’t one of my favourites, I still believe that Atwood is one of the most daring and courageous writers around, and her conviction in what she writes is both intimidating and awe-inspiring.  So JJ, ask me what I’m reading in ten years, and there’s a good chance my answer will be the same.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)

I’m not generally a fan of Swedish things (ok, by that I mean I just don’t like Ikea), but a spate of reportedly excellent Swedish crime dramas on TV, and the huge success of Larsson’s Millenium trilogy mean that I can no longer ignore the country that brought us The Evil One-Way System Store.  So, with my typical reluctance to embrace anything anyone else likes, I picked up the book originally titled ‘Men Who Hate Women.’

And, in this novel, oh boy do they ever.  I hadn’t expected the book to be so dark.  However, this is far from your average thriller, and the violence is rarely played for mere shock factor.  The main characters, journalist Mikael Blomkvist and more-than-a-little-bit-messed-up security specialist Lisbeth Salander, are two of the most complex and intriguing characters I’ve come across in my recent reading.  Nothing about them is conventional or two-dimensional, the usual pitfalls of ‘characters who solve crimes’.  The plot itself is intriguing enough to sustain interest, though Larsson wisely resists the urge to do a Dan Brown and pack in as many ridiculous cliff hangers as possible.  I did struggle to get into the story, as a large portion of the start of the book is about setting the scene (it might not help that much of that ‘scene’ revolves around the world of Swedish finance, not exactly my specialist subject), but once it took off, I’ll admit, I was hooked.  I will definitely be reading the sequels, and I may even have to rethink my furniture-based prejudices. 

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (1987)

Although I’m a recent Murakami convert/fanatic, I was a bit wary of reading Norwegian Wood after hearing a less-than-flattering critique of the recent film version from my friend JJ (who is getting quite a bit of press in this blog entry).  I believe his exact words were: “Two hours of a woman in a wood screaming about how she can’t get wet.”

Fortunately, the novel offers something more than this.  The narrator, Toru, is one of Murakami’s sanest characters, and the plot one of his most realistic.  The book tells the story of Toru’s relationship with two women: his first, unrequited love, Naoko (she of the screaming) and the girl he meets at university, the much more likeable (in my opinion) Midori.  Both girls slide up and down a scale of craziness, partly connected with certain traumatic events in their past, and partly, one assumes, because Murakami rightly believes that there’s no such thing as normal.  Murakami writes the female characters extremely well, and draws a pleasing contrast between the fragile Naoko, who withdraws to a private clinic in the mountains to try and recover, and the bold, brash Midori, who brazens out life in the real world even while things seem to fall apart around her.  Naoko’s friend Reiko is another believable and well-drawn character, with her own shocking demons to deal with.  Toru is also a sympathetic character, not without his weaknesses, but self-aware enough to try and do the right thing.

A lot of contemporary fiction focuses on the isolated individual, on self-absorbed characters failing to communicate.  One of the things I like most about Murakami’s writing, especially in Norwegian Wood, is the emphasis he places on empathy, on our efforts to help and understand those that we care about.  The narrator’s relationships with the women in his life and the friendship between Naoko and Reiko offer a more constructive, though never saccharine, view of life. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Stylist Microfiction Competition

Picking up my free Stylist magazine this week (actually, 'picking up' isn't quite right - 'having it thrust at me by a poor sod desperate to give out all her copies so she could go home' is more accurate), I was pleasantly surprised to find five original short stories by female writers, three of which were really, really good.  Best of all was Belinda Bauer's 'Everything Must Go' - not only does she share a surname with Jack, but she has also written the most accurate description of the Swedish hell that is Ikea I've ever read:

"Ikea's a maze of pyramidal proportions.  It's a prescriptive passage - a strict alimentary canal which swallows you at the door, forces you down the throat and into the bowels of the shop, where you are compelled to snatch up things you don't want or need, on the sole basis of their outrageous value for money.  Then it shits you out at the checkout, where you realise that even tealights and plastic spoons cost plenty if you buy them in multiples of a thousand."

Couldn't have said it better myself.  Stylist are also running a competition to produce a 100-word story inspired by a photo - the last chance to enter is on Tuesday 16th August, but you must submit your story between 10am and 3pm.  Sadly I'll be in class, but here are the details:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

July Reading: Blood Meridian, Bill Bryson, Daisy Miller and Other Stories

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)

This is the third McCarthy novel I’ve read this year, and let me tell you, he doesn’t get any cheerier.  Set in the mid-nineteenth century, it tells the story of an unnamed ‘kid’ who finds himself part of the Glanton gang, a group of scalp-hunters who prowled the Mexican border.  The violence is extreme and relentless, and I found some of the worst passages almost physically exhausting to read.  However, bleak as his outlook may be, McCarthy still constantly astounds me with his mastery of language; I have never read an author who seems more in command of his prose.  His vocabulary is dauntingly vast: analogies and metaphors are drawn from everything from architectural structures to obscure ecclesiastical terms, giving me a chance to test my Kindle’s dictionary to the limit.  He is at his most impressive when describing the landscape his characters find themselves in:

Seated tailorwise in the eye of that cratered waste he watched the world tend away at the edges to a shimmering surmise that ringed the desert round.

The ‘villain’ of the novel, the Judge, is as sinister and amoral as you might expect from someone who takes such a dim view of humanity, and capable of invoking a genuine chill, especially towards the end of the book.  However, whereas in The Road, we were at least given someone to root for, and in Child of God, the protagonist was fascinating in a macabre way, here, ‘the kid’ is too loosely drawn, too anonymous, to hold attention throughout what essentially seems to be a series of ultra-violent episodes.  Or maybe I am just suffering from McCarthy fatigue: I think I’ll take a break for a while.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

For a bit of light relief, I usually turn to good old Bill.  Both of these are re-reads, but if you put a finished Bryson book away for a few years, coming back to it is like catching up with an old friend.  I’ve read his excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything at least three times, and I always feel so much wiser when I have finished it.  For about a day, until I forget it all.  

I’m a Stranger Here Myself is a collection of his columns written for a UK audience on returning to the States after two decades away, and A Walk in the Woods is Bryson’s account of his attempt to hike the Appalachian trail.  Both are great reads, though the bitty nature of I’m a Stranger…makes it more suitable for dipping into than devouring in one sitting.  I am sure that one of the reasons Bryson felt at home in Britain is that he’s as self-deprecating and wry as any Brit.  I also find myself identifying with a lot of what he says, especially the following, which brings to mind my constant refrain: ‘It’s so hard, being me’:

Of all the things I am not very good at, living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding.  I am constantly filled with wonder at the number of things that other people do without any evident difficulty that are pretty much beyond me.

Daisy Miller and Other Stories by Henry James (1878)

I have spent most of this year reading contemporary fiction, and I am beginning to worry that it has warped my ability to enjoy ‘classic’ literature, because to be honest, I struggled through this collection.  The title story somehow managed to be melodramatic and dull at the same time, and in general I found it hard to engage with the characters or the stories, which mostly involved variations on the Grand Tour theme.  The final story, about a man called Benvolio (actually not his real name, but “we shall call him so for the sake both of convenience and of picturesqueness”), had a bit more depth, telling of his inner battle between his two natures, one of which draws him to the strong, independent Countess, and the other to Scholastica, who, if you couldn’t guess from the name, is a bookish, quiet sort of girl.  James uses some nice descriptions: a blind man’s “mild, sightless blue eyes” sit

fixed beneath his shaggy, white brows like patches of pale winter sky under a high-piled cloud.

However, as much as I can appreciate his elegant style, for me, the substance is lacking.  I’d like to try again with James, though – any suggestions of what else of his to read?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

June Reading: Life on Air, Ransom, Bel Canto

Life on Air by David Attenborough (2002)

I don’t read a lot of autobiographies, as I tend to find fictional lives more interesting than real ones.  However, if there is one person whose life story is worth reading, it has to be Sir David Attenborough.  I’m going to keep this brief, because when it comes to His Legendariness, I have a tendency to gush.  I’m also still a bit upset that my brother recently had the chance to interview him – my DA obsession doesn’t allow for gracious acceptance of said sibling’s ridiculous good fortune, I’m afraid.  I’m bitter.

So, in a nutshell, the book is as engaging, fascinating, and full of enthusiasm for life as the man himself, and provides a real insight into the behind-the-scenes world both of the programmes so familiar to Attenborough geeks such as myself, and of the BBC’s early years.  He is a natural storyteller, with a gentle sense of humour, a keen eye for detail (he must have kept meticulous diaries or else he has superhuman powers of recall) and that peculiarly British regard for the absurd.

Attenborough is a man who has spent his life doing what he loves, and though in his modest way he would probably put this down to luck, his autobiography reveals the awesome extent of his talent, though of course in a typically unassuming way.  Now I’ll finish this before I really get carried away.

Ransom by David Malouf (2009)

Just to further damage my street cred, let me reiterate that I am not only an avid fan of natural history, I am also what my dear brothers so charmingly describe as a ‘Greek geek’.  Yes, I have dabbled in Ancient Greek in my time, I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I’m not quite as keen on Homer as I am on Attenborough, but I did watch the whole of the film Troy through splayed fingers, cringing at every inconsistency and ranting indignantly to my somewhat embarrassed siblings about Hollywood’s butchery of the Iliad (ok, perhaps I can see where they’re coming from on the name-calling front.  But honestly: if you kill off Menelaus, the whole bloody war is POINTLESS.)  So it was with interest and perhaps a little trepidation that I started to read Malouf’s novel, which tells the story of King Priam’s attempts to reclaim the body of his son Hector from the Greek camp.

Malouf’s prose is damn good: lofty and visceral in equal measures, and unlike That Film, he doesn’t shy away from the presence of the gods in the narrative.  Achilles’ divine parentage is made clear from the start:

            “The sea surface bellies and glistens, a lustrous sliver-blue – a membrane stretched to a fine transparency where once for nine changes of the moon, he had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence and was rocked and comforted.”

It is no mean feat to produce sentences that are as exquisite as the original, although I will admit that it took me a long time to get into the story. At first, I felt a bit like I was merely reading another translation of the Iliad, even though the passages are invented.  I just didn’t really see the need for this novel.  However, his motivation is neatly laid out in the Afterword:

“Its primary interest is in storytelling itself – why stories are told and why we need to hear them, how stories get changed in the telling – and much of what it has to tell are ‘untold tales’ found only in the margins of earlier writers.”

This in itself is nothing new: stories are told and retold ad infinitum, and some would argue that no story is truly original.  What shines through, however, is Malouf’s respect for his sources.  Unlike Atwood’s Penelopiad, another novel which draws on Homer’s stories, Malouf maintains the nobility of his characters, refusing to modernise them or subject their actions to our ethical standards.  This may alienate us from his characters, but it also makes Ransom a much more plausible part, in a literary sense, of the story of Troy.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001)


This is the first book I read on my new Kindle (a birthday present from the boy which left me slightly shame-faced about the oh-so-thoughtful pot plant I’d got him for his special day a week earlier).  As a technophobe who loves the physical feel of books, and of course, ‘that old book smell’ that we literary types bang on about, I wasn’t sure that the Kindle was for me, and I have to admit that it did sit in my drawer for a couple of weeks while the boy asked me awkward questions about how I was enjoying my gift.  Finally, I cracked, and devoured Patchett’s novel in electronic form in about two days.

First, a word about the Kindle: it is amazing.  It is lighter than most books, you can hold it and ‘turn the pages’ with one hand, you can bookmark passages, and there is an inbuilt dictionary feature which allows you to read pretentious literature and almost understand it (Bel Canto is not in this category, by the way).  There are probably many other things it can do, but for the moment, that’s enough for me – I’m sold.

As for the novel itself, the premise is based on the Lima hostage situation of 1996.  In an unnamed South American country, the guests of a reception at the Vice President’s residence are taken hostage by a terrorist organisation.  The hostages include the head of a major Japanese corporation, Katsumi Hosokawa, his translator, Gen, and the opera singer who had been hired to sing for Hosokawa as a birthday present, Roxane Coss, along with various other foreign businessmen and diplomats, and of course, the Vice President himself.

Patchett was inspired by what she saw as the operatic nature of the Lima crisis, and took this as a starting point, throwing herself into the world of opera and building her story around its melodramatic narrative structures and grandiose themes. 

Gen’s role in the scenario is an interesting one: as a translator, he provides a vital link between the terrorists and the hostages, and between the hostages themselves.  The theme of communication emerges as one of supreme importance, and links back to opera’s power to convey meaning without necessarily understanding the language.  There is a moment when Roxane sings in Czech, moving her audience to tears, and only Gen can tell that she doesn’t understand the words.

Patchett’s enthusiasm for music and opera (which she only really started appreciating while doing research for the novel) gives her prose a lyrical elegance that is impressive, and the scenes of interaction between the hostages and the terrorists allow her to flirt with the intriguing notion of Stockholm Syndrome.

Ironically, the only problem in this melodious novel is one of pitch: Patchett’s characters are neither flamboyantly larger-than-life nor realistically nuanced, and as a result, they fall flat.  As dramatic as the situation is, I found it difficult to really care about the characters, and their various intrigues and romances felt a little formulaic. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Challenge Writing Competition: 3rd Prize!

Very excited that my story The Swimmer has been awarded 3rd Prize in the 2011 Challenge Writing Competition judged by Professor Robert Winston! 

The three winning stories will be published on the website soon:

The competition was organised to raise funds for Women for Women (further details on the website).

Monday, May 30, 2011

May Reading: The Elephant Vanishes, Incendiary, Zeitoun, Speaking with the Angel, The Dog Who Came in from the Cold, The Finkler Question

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (1993, trans. 2003)

Yes, more Murakami.  Stories this time – seventeen of them, all deliciously bizarre and rather uncryptically titled.  I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I tell you that ‘On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning’ is about seeing a perfect girl one morning in April, while ‘Sleep’ is about a woman who finds that she can survive perfectly well without, well, sleep, which may invoke jealousy in anyone who’s ever suffered from insomnia. 

Wandering into more fantastic realms, ‘The Little Green Monster’ and ‘The Dancing Dwarf’ teeter between parable and parody; the Brothers Grimm have nothing on Murakami’s warped fairytales.  However, he is equally at home on more realistic ground, depicting family relationships and chance encounters with a deep understanding of how we interact – his surreal sense of humour compliments rather than substitutes for his human compassion.    

As much as I enjoyed Murakami’s novel, Kafka on the Shore, I think I am even more taken with his short stories: his forays into the surreal seem to work better over the sprint of a shorter work, where they are less distracting from the main narrative arc, and the sheer variety of ideas laid out in these seventeen stories cannot fail to impress.  By making his world strange in the extreme, Murakami highlights the oddness of our own, and encourages us to find the extraordinary in the mundane.

Incendiary by Chris Cleave (2005)

The publicity campaign for Cleave’s novel showed images of London billowing with smoke, beneath huge ‘What If?’ slogans, daring us, as Incendiary does, to imagine the horror of a Twin Towers Mark Two, this time in London.  This would have been controversial enough, but the release date happened to be the 7th July, 2005, when over fifty people were killed by four bombs throughout the city.  Unsurprisingly, this had a profoundly negative effect both on the book’s reception and on the author himself, and it was only months later that Incendiary began to receive anything like a fair analysis, and Cleave himself came out of what he describes as a period of deep depression.

In a less dramatic coincidence, I had no idea what this book was about when I picked it up and began reading the day after Obama announced Bin Laden’s death.  The book opens:

Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop.  Well I wouldn’t know about that I mean rock n roll didn’t stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse.

It does make you begin to wonder if there isn’t something a bit eerie about this novel.  Actually, there is: the story of a young mother whose husband and son have been killed in a terrorist attack, Incendiary pushes only slightly at the boundaries of believability, so that a post-attack London of barrage balloons and curfews seems terrifyingly possible.  A scene on an overcrowded bridge, with panicking Londoners falling into the water, even made me a little bit jumpy the last time I was crossing the Thames.  But then, I’m a sensitive soul. 

The narrator, writing her plea to Osama, is a working class East Ender who becomes involved with a ‘posh’ couple who live nearby, and with her late husband’s boss at Scotland Yard.  Her voice is convincing and original – she is a sharp, witty woman, run ragged by her grief, but still clinging on to life as best she can.  Not every scene rings true – some of the climactic episodes push things too far – but the courage of both narrator and author is impressive.  I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve heard it is disappointing – so skip it and read the book instead.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2009)

Time for a long-overdue work of non-fiction (my first this year, not counting books on writing, about which I’ll be posting soon).  I read the wonderfully titled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers’ excellent memoir about bringing up his kid brother) a couple of years ago, and have since heard a lot about the great work Eggers has done to promote writing and storytelling around the world.  This book is not Eggers’ story, but that of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a New Orleans resident who refused to leave the city when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.  Zeitoun’s experiences came to Eggers’ attention when he was interviewed as part of Eggers’ Voice of Witness project, which uses oral history to highlight human plight around the world. 

Indeed, the book does have a flavour both of oral storytelling tradition and, unsurprisingly given Eggers’ journalistic credentials, eyewitness reportage.  What begins as a tale of one man’s determination to protect his home and help his neighbours takes an ugly twist when Zeitoun, who is originally from Syria, is mistakenly arrested by the overzealous law enforcers patrolling the flooded city.  Eggers presents events from the alternate viewpoints of Zeitoun and his wife Kathy, building up the suspense and allowing us to sympathise with this family.  Although at times it may feel that the story is somewhat biased (the Zeitoun family is a little too perfect; Zeitoun’s faith in his adopted country a little too naïve) Eggers’ skill lies in his ability to lay out the facts as presented by the story, which he has diligently checked and rechecked, allowing it to tell itself, and thereby removing any sense of an ‘agenda’. 

Anyone who has seen the fantastic TV series Treme will know that the tragedy of Katrina lies not so much in the destructive power of nature but in the authorities’ failure to rise to the challenges posed.  While Treme gives us an insight into the hardships suffered by the New Orleans community by focusing on various fictional individuals, Zeitoun provides a fascinating view of the impact the storm, and the spectacular mismanagement that occurred in its wake, on a real-life individual.

Speaking with the Angel - ed. Nick Hornby (2000)


Technically a re-read, but I hadn’t looked at this collection of short stories for ten years, and thought it deserved another look.  I love anthologies of stories – you’re bound to find something you like, and it is a great way of discovering new writers.  Compiled by Hornby in order to raise money for a charity for autistic children, Speaking with the Angel is a tasty selection, with original stories by big names such as Zadie Smith, Helen Fielding, Roddy Doyle and Irvine Welsh, doing an honourable favour for their pal Nick.

There is also a story by Zeitoun author Dave Eggers (see above) – it’s a small literary world after all.  And it’s one of the best stories in here, dammit (it’s told from the point of view of a dog, but don’t let that put you off) – the man really is multi-talented.  Apart from Eggers’ ‘After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned’, I also enjoyed Giles Smith’s story about a woman who cooks on Death Row, ‘Last Requests’, and the novelty value of reading a story by Mr Darcy himself, Colin Firth’s ‘The Department of Nothing’.  (It’s not bad at all, actually).  Hornby’s own contribution, ‘NippleJesus’, about a controversial work of art, is the only story that hasn’t aged well – I feel as if we’ve moved beyond that kind of outrage and shockability – I doubt there is anything they could put in the Tate Modern now that would raise much of a fuss, but perhaps I am wrong.

The most unnerving thing about this book is how quickly all the stories came back to me – so either they’re brilliant, or a decade has passed in an eye-blink.  Let’s say they’re brilliant.

For more information about the charity that this book supports, visit

The Dog Who Came in from the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith (2010)


I am a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series; to me his books are the equivalent of Galaxy chocolate – a total indulgence, but guaranteed to make the world seem just a little bit brighter, if only for a short while.  I have read a couple of his other books (the man loves a series – he currently has four on the go) and while the lack of Mma Ramotswe and the sunny African setting might make me downgrade the guilty pleasure factor to that of a Fruit and Nut, I’ve always found them enjoyable.

Perfect reading, then, for a little weekend break.  This novel is his second set in Corduroy Mansions, a seemingly time-warped building in Pimlico where the neighbours still communicate with each other, even slipping notes under each others’ doors to invite them to ‘soirees’.  The cast of characters is rich and varied, but the main plotline concerns William French, whose dog is recruited by MI6.  So far, so P.G.Wodehouse, and indeed, most of the novel concerns ridiculously named posh people getting into implausible scrapes, and probably calling them ‘scrapes’ as well.  It reads like a series of interlinked short stories, and I can’t help wondering if it might have been a more satisfying read if it wasn’t presented as a novel.  But it is a lot of fun, and there aren’t many books that can get away with characters called ‘Oedipus Snark’ or dogs called ‘Freddie de la Hay’ these days.  Still, I’d recommend the Botswana series first.

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (2010)

After a holiday both literal and literary, time to plunge into another Booker winner.  I haven’t read any of Jacobson’s other work, or his column in The Independent, so I was coming at this quite fresh.  (Although halfway through my Dad told me he didn’t agree with a lot of his opinions, which always makes me think twice.  Father knows best.)

The plot of this novel is actually pretty scanty: three men past their prime meet up from time to time, two of them, Libor and Finkler, are Jewish, one of them, Treslove isn’t but kind of wants to be, then he gets attacked and thinks that perhaps he is.  Of the three main characters, only the older man, Libor Sevcik, is in any way endearing, mostly by virtue of his devotion to his now deceased wife of fifty years.  Finkler and Treslove, old schoolmates, have an intensely uncomfortable friendship, based on strange jealousies and petty rivalries that make for tough reading at times. 

However, Jacobson’s refusal to simplify is what makes this novel so impressive.  Much of the time, we follow Treslove’s tortured thoughts as he struggles to carve out an identity that can never belong to him.  His agonising is depicted in minute detail; he constantly questions himself, is wildly insecure and almost wilfully unhappy much of the time – it is a sad picture of a man approaching his fifties, but one which may in fact be more accurate than many would like to admit.  The struggle to be happy is almost as contentious as the struggle for success in our society, and failure to achieve it becomes a reflection on our own weak nature.

In terms of conclusions or resolutions, the book offers no easy answers either.  Contemporary Jewishness in all its forms sprawls across its pages, but we are still left with more questions than answers about what it means to be a Jew in Britain today.  The most startling thing about this novel for me, though, as a newcomer to Jacobson’s work, is how effectively he blends humour and tragedy.  The aching hearts of the protagonists thrum in time with the impeccable comic beats that skip across the page, pithy one-liners nestle alongside real human suffering.  Whether or not the intensity of his style is for you, there is no denying that this is a writer who knows what he is doing.  Hence the Booker, I suppose.    

Friday, May 6, 2011

April Reading: number9dream, The Last King of Scotland, The Harmony Silk Factory

number9dream by David Mitchell (2001)


David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was one of those books that I thought was brilliant, until I spoke to a lot of cruel people who pointed out all of its flaws.  They ruined it for me a little bit, damn them.  Determined not to give up on Mitchell so easily, I decided to read one of his earlier novels.  Like Cloud Atlas, the novel flits through genres in an appropriately dreamlike way as we follow the story of a naïve Japanese boy, Eiji Miyake, facing life in the big city.  The plot, concerning his search for his father, is complex, and is interspersed by Miyake’s own fantasies, as well as extracts from a seemingly irrelevant and rather bizarre text that he is reading.  Thus the novel draws attention to the constructed nature of narrative, the dreamlike quality of fiction, and other such ‘postmodern’ concepts that make those who just want a good story squirm.    

However, even as I recognised that some people might find this kind of novel frustrating, I was reminded of the three things about Mitchell’s writing that had engaged me before: his sense of humour, his depth of feeling and his incredible linguistic dexterity.  Maybe I am just a sucker for a deft turn of phrase or a startlingly fresh metaphor, but I even warmed to the hugely surreal ‘Goatwriter’ extracts, written by one of the characters, an author, to ‘warm up’ before she starts her real writing – yes, I am pretty sure Mitchell is just crowbarring his own fanciful scribbles into his novel, but they are funny, so I forgive him.  It may not be entirely consistent to have a goat, a hen and a prehistoric man running around in between Miyake's encounters with Japanese gangsters, but it keeps things interesting. 

And if you really weren’t a fan of Cloud Atlas, don’t read this, read Mitchell’s Black Swan Green instead.

The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden (1998)

On starting to read Foden’s novel, I found myself in the unusual and somehow shameful position of having seen the film first (shh!).  This meant that the book’s portrayal of Idi Amin had to live up to Forrest Whittaker’s Oscar-winning performance, and the protagonist doctor had to compete with James McAvoy.  No mean feat. 

The book is very different from the film.  Foden’s style, which also characterises his World War Two novel, Turbulence, is scientific and detached, full of meticulous detail but strangely lacking in emotion.  Throughout the novel, Amin is a much more shadowy presence than he is in the film, largely absent from the narrative except at key points.   Amin’s deadly attraction is not so much implied by presenting him as a charismatic force of nature, but stated directly by the narrator, time and time again:

“Without question, there was something fascinating about him; a quality of naked, visceral attraction that commanded the attention, mustering assent, overcoming resistance – fostering the loss of oneself, or so it felt, in the very modulations of his voice.”

The idea that the cool, calm, formal doctor could ‘lose himself’ isn’t entirely plausible.  Nicholas isn’t a likeable character, and his attempts to excuse his actions are sometimes downright distasteful.  This changes the feeling of the book when compared to the film: instead of a happy-go-lucky, naïve protagonist who inadvertently gets in over his head, the novel’s Nicholas seems much more culpable.  When given the chance to explain himself, even in his own thoughts, he claims:

“a kind of mental speechlessness descends on me.” 

This kind of emotional detachment on the part of the protagonist is also a feature of Foden’s (admittedly beautifully crafted) prose.  Personally, I would have liked a bit more feeling, a bit more mess.  Which is an odd thing to say about Amin’s Uganda. 

The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw (2005)

I have been playing it fairly safe with my reading this year – most of what I’ve read has been recommended to me.  So, in the spirit of mixing it up, I bought a book I had never heard of.  (Aside: how will this happen if the whole Kindle thing replaces books completely?  Do people ‘browse’ on Amazon in the way they do in bookshops?  Hmmm, more on that later, perhaps). 

I’d like to say that my gamble paid off (not even that much of a gamble considering that The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread First Novel Award), but unfortunately I think I missed something with this novel.  It tells the story of a Chinese man, Johnny Lim, and his family in Malaysia in the 1940s (promising exotic location: check) and is divided into three parts, each narrated by a different character (interesting narrative structure: check). 

After struggling for about a week to get into the novel (hence a slightly shorter reading list this month), and limping through the first two sections (narrated by Johnny’s son and wife respectively), I realised that my problem was that I really didn’t care about the characters.  Johnny is presented as a devil by his son, Jasper, and a pitiable wretch by his wife, Snow, (Aw is perhaps making a point about the unknowability of another person’s true character) both of whom are themselves entirely unengaging narrators.

Finally, in the last section, Peter Wormwood, the cantankerous old English ex-pat (a familiar breed) makes his bid as narrator, and at least manages to be quietly amusing, telling his companion, who believes that people are nicer in cold climates,

“I shan’t disabuse you of that notion […] If you are ever unlucky enough to find yourself in an English winter you will quickly learn the truth for yourself.”

However, Wormwood is relating the same events as Snow, and while it is kind of interesting to see them presented from another perspective, it does little to move the narrative towards any kind of conclusion.  I’d be really interested to hear from anyone else who has read this book – parts of it are beautifully written, but it left me cold.