Thursday, March 31, 2011

March Reading: The Road, Birthday Stories, Child of God, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Bright Lights, Big City, Jesus' Son

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)



I’ll admit, I’ve had this book for a while, and have been putting off reading it.  The thing is, I’m pretty squeamish, and I have a hyper-active imagination: watching a horror film can result in a week of no sleep.  And I had been warned that The Road wasn’t exactly full of fluffy kittens and rainbows.  That’s not to say I don’t like my books a bit ‘dark’ – I was just slightly concerned that it might be too gory for me. 

Fortunately, the slow-burning terror of The Road relies less on guts and gore and more on the poetic, terrible beauty of McCarthy’s language:

“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”

McCarthy’s description of a post-apocalyptic landscape is all black ash and charred trees, relentlessly colourless: it is a world where the ecosystem has been all but destroyed.  It cheapens the novel to refer to it as a ‘global warming warning’; we never find out what has caused this destruction – it isn’t necessary.  The emphasis isn’t on the cause, but on what the chilling reality of nature turned barren means for the humans in the novel.  In this, McCarthy’s vision seems terrifyingly accurate – his indictment of human behaviour is all too convincing.  However, amid all the doom and gloom, of which there is a lot, there is an element of hope.  The central relationship, between the nameless father and son, lifts the story out of despair and adds a seam of redemption to the bleak setting. 

McCarthy’s sparse punctuation, doing away with speechmarks and apostrophes: “dont”,“cant”, and his truncated, often verbless, sentences allow his words to resonate in an elemental way.  There is a startling authority to the narrative which really makes you believe that this could actually happen.  It’s a book that cannot fail to make you think.  As the father says to his son in the novel:

“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever.”

The Road is definitely one of those things.


Birthday Stories - Selected and Introduced by Haruki Murakami (2004)


One of the things I liked most about this collection of short stories is the brief insight into Murakami’s personality offered by his introduction.  As a recent convert (see February’s reviews), I’m delighted that the man behind the novels seems just as bizarre and baffling as his characters.  He has compiled an anthology of stories about birthdays, basically because he read a couple of stories on the theme, and thought, hey, there must be more.  And there are.  So here they are.  Each author is carefully introduced by Murakami in his own, inimitable style: “his work is not for everybody”, “[his stories] can seem somewhat contrived”, “I myself was fortunate enough to meet her […] and found her to be slim and elegant”. 

The stories themselves are well-chosen and varied, and include writers that I have been meaning to check out for a while, such as David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson (see below for a review of Johnson’s Jesus’ Son).  The ‘birthday’ theme doesn’t overwhelm the anthology, as the stories are of a high enough quality to avoid mawkish sentiment on the subject.  It also includes a short version of Raymond Carver’s story ‘A Small, Good Thing’ called ‘The Bath’: Carver’s editor notoriously pruned his work, much to the writer’s displeasure – hence Carver’s later publication of ‘restored’ versions of his stories.  Murakami being Murakami, he has chosen the first version because it “has its own special flavour […] as if it has had its head lopped off for no reason.”  At a later moment, when I’m feeling extra-geeky, I’ll compare the two properly.  Among the other writers included are William Trevor, Andrea Lee, Paul Theroux, and of course, Murakami himself (rude not to).

All in all, this is a solid collection of stories, and would make a good, if slightly gimmicky, present for literary types on their special day.  Which was probably exactly what canny Murakami was thinking.


Child of God by Cormac McCarthy (1973)

Even though The Road wasn’t exactly a ‘feet up with a mug of tea’ read, I was left in awe of McCarthy’s prose style and narrative mastery.  I also highly rated No Country for Old Men (I’ve only seen the film – has anyone read the book?) so I thought I’d check out an earlier work of his. 

Child of God is both more violent and more humorous than The Road, although the humour is wrapped up in some deeply disturbing events.  The story of Lester Ballard, a social outcast in a country community in East Tennessee, the book flicks between a third person narration which sticks close to Lester as the plot unfolds and an unnamed first person commentator with a strong Southern accent, who offers us nuggets of information about Ballard’s history:

“I don’t know.  They say he never was right after his daddy killed hisself.” 

Describing Ballard as not ‘right’ is something of an understatement.  As the novel progresses and Ballard retreats further from normal society, his acts of violence and depravity become more and more shocking.  It’s not entirely surprising to learn that the book caused some outrage when it was first published, but it is a testament to McCarthy’s skill as prose stylist that the descriptions of Ballard’s acts, though disturbing in the extreme, never feel gratuitous.  The occasional glimpses of humanity in Lester, such as when he chases, laughing, after a flock of birds, pose the same dilemma as the title of the novel: can this man, for whom the phrase ‘a danger to society’ might have been invented, really be considered a ‘child of God?’.


Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)


This is actually a re-read – I enjoyed both this and his previous novel, Everything Is Illuminated, when they first came out, but it was time for a revisit.  Foer is one of those writers I almost love, but have to keep going back to in order to figure out just what is missing for me.  In Foer’s case, it’s hard to identify, as he uses such a dazzling array of narrative tricks and modernist flourishes that it’s easy to get a little blind-sighted.  This novel is full of ‘special effects’, from photos to coloured scribblings to blank pages, all of which teeter dangerously on the ‘pretentious’ precipice. 

Dealing with the tricky subject of 9/11, Foer makes a seemingly wise move in having a child as the main narrator.  Oskar’s father was killed in the attacks, and the novel charts his attempts to come to terms with his father’s death through embarking on a kind of ‘treasure hunt’ to track down the lock which matches a key left by his dad.  Oskar is nine years old.  Supposedly.  And here is one of the problems: Oskar is an often hilarious, sometimes endearing, mostly very odd character, but he is in no way convincing as a nine year old.  Sometimes Foer just about gets away with it, such as this reported conversation with a cab driver to whom he owes $76.50:
           
“I said, “Mr Mahaltra, are you an optimist or a pessimist?” He said, “What?”  I said, “Because unfortunately I only have seven dollars and sixty-eight cents.”

but all too often, his precociousness just sounds like the author intruding with another witty gem he just can’t resist. 

Another issue, which I also found with Everything Is Illuminated, is that the narrative that runs parallel to the main story just doesn’t interest me as much.  The complex relationship between Oskar’s grandparents, with all its melodrama and historical tragedy, failed to engage me. 

For all of these perceived flaws (which are only a matter of personal opinion) I do admire Foer’s virtuoso use of language, his humour, and his daring.  I would love to see him write a simple, pared-down narrative, but it would probably bore the pants of him.  He has a new novel coming out this year – if anyone has read it, let me know.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1984)

 


 
I mentioned Bright Lights, Big City when reviewing Then We Came to the End (February Reading) as both novels use unusual points of view.  In the case of McInerney’s narrative, the entire story is in the second person: ‘you’. The novel begins:

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.  But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar to you, although the details are fuzzy.”

From here on, the reader is plunged into the self-destructive world of the protagonist, all the while addressed as ‘you’.  This is a risky move, but one that has resulted in his novel becoming the seminal example of such a narrative.  (Which means, really, that no one else should try it, because it’s been done.)  It does indeed work well – once the strangeness has worn off, it has the effect not of trying to implicate the reader or suggest that ‘you’ yourself are actually the protagonist, but rather of providing a communal bond with the protagonist, a bit like when ‘you’ is used to mean ‘one’ in general, such as when I review a book and write “as the novel progresses, you find yourself beginning to really care about the characters”.

McInerney is careful not to allow this neat little trick to detract from other aspects of the novel.  The supporting cast of characters are colourful and well drawn, especially at the magazine where the protagonist works in the Department of Factual Verification.  In fact, some of these sections reminded me of Then We Came to the End, depicting office life with the same kind of humorous despair.

The novel also presents the various vices of the protagonist without glamourising or demonising.  ‘You’ take drugs, drink too much, indulge in the excesses of the era, but Bright Lights, Big City never becomes a cautionary tale about addiction.  It is about a self-indulgent man who has had some hard times and needs to grow up, to figure out how to live:

“Your head is pounding with voices of confession and revelation.  You followed the rails of white powder across the mirror in pursuit of a point of convergence where everything was cross-referenced according to a master code.”

Bright Lights, Big City paints a convincing portrait of a young man “all messed up and nowhere to go” in eighties Manhattan; it’s a short, snappy, snazzy book that still feels fresh.


Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992)

There’s a kind of pleasing symmetry to reading this as my last ‘March’ book – in some ways, Johnson’s work combines the bleak, blank violence of McCarthy’s work and the drug-hazy derailment of McInerney’s novel.  In addition, Johnson’ story ‘Dundun’ was one of the Birthday Stories chosen by Murakami (see above) and contains one of the best sections of dialogue I’ve read recently:

“McInnes isn’t feeling too good today.  I just shot him.”
“You mean killed him?”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Is he really dead?”
“No.  He’s sitting down.”
“But he’s alive.”
“Oh, sure he’s alive.”

The only minor flaw in this harmonious aligning of the literary planets is that the edition I bought off Amazon is by a German publisher.  Luckily, the stories themselves are in English (heavily glossed – I can now tell you the German for “subterranean”, “to squish”, “yank someone off” and  “f*ck with someone’s high” if you’re interested - although the doubtless insightful mini-essay at the back of the book remains beyond my capabilities).

The stories in Jesus’ Son are all told by the same narrator, though they aren’t entirely sequential, and read just as well individually.  Like McCarthy, Johnson’s prose is lean and precise, and occasionally quite beautiful, despite the grim underbelly of life that he depicts.  The world of drugs and addiction here has nothing of the veneer of respectability it maintains in McInerney’s novel.  There’s a film, made in 2000, which I’d like to watch, although I can imagine I’d have to cover my eyes at a couple of points.  As I said at the start, I’m pretty squeamish, and there's a guy with a knife in his eye in one story.

 

Saturday, March 26, 2011

February Reading: Kafka on the Shore, American Pastoral, Then We Came to the End

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (2003)


Kafka on the Shore is the first work by Murakami that I have read, and I have to say, I am captivated by his uniqueness, his otherness, and his absurd sense of humour.  It’s quite rare, and very exciting, to find a book that is so unlike anything I’ve read before. 

The characters who inhabit Murakami’s novel are wonderful combinations of the bizarre and the poignant.  There is Oshima, a strange, wise figure, who is neither male nor female, or perhaps both, and whose intellectual capacity extends to a deep understanding of Greek philosophy, classical music, and much in between.  His opposite is the cat-man Nakata, who refers to himself in the third person: “Nakata isn’t very bright.”  Nakata’s simple, sometimes baffled language is hugely endearing: his brother is a “depart mint chief”, his father studied “theery of fine ants.”  (It would be interesting to find out how the translator chose this way of rendering Nakata’s simple speech, how the language joke works in Japanese.)  And of course, there is Kafka, the fifteen year old runaway whose real name we never learn. 

I won’t even attempt to explain the plot – suffice to say, it gets pretty trippy, especially when characters such as ‘Johnny Walker’ and ‘Colonel Sanders’ get involved.  I have a strong suspicion that Murakami isn’t for everyone, but I will definitely be reading more of his work.


American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997)


American Pastoral is one of those books that, while I can appreciate the skill of the author, I would be hard pressed to say I ‘enjoyed’.  The relentless misery of the tragedy that befalls Swede Levov (“it rhymes with ‘the love’”), the cold dissection of a good man’s life into ragged shards of flesh and bone, it all felt a bit like being beaten over the head with a big stick.  I also found it hard to understand why he uses Zuckerman and the ‘novel within a novel’ structure; is it all in Nathan’s head?  Has he filled in all the details based on nothing but his imagination?  This may be making some profound point about the nature of all fiction, but for me it makes the Swede less real, even while I was flinching at his suffering.  I know I really ought to read more by Roth, so if anyone has any suggestions of something marginally more cheerful, please let me know.


Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris (2007)


This book was recommended by my tutor on the writing course I took last year at City University; it was mentioned during a class on point of view, along with Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, which is next on my ‘to read’ list.  The latter is written in the second person, ‘you’, whereas Then We Came To The End is mostly written in the first person plural, from the collective point of view of the workers of an advertising company.  99% of the time, it works, creating a sense of the uniformity of the office workers’ experience.  However, if you over think it, the insights the reader is given into individual characters’ thoughts and their ability to recall dialogue word-for-word as they relate their stories to each other stretch credulity.  

On the other hand, the small absurdities of Ferris’s office microcosm ring hilariously and painfully true, reminding me a little of the great film, Office Space, and, of course, The Office.  The structure is deceptively complex, reminiscent of water-cooler chat in the way it darts between past and (narrative) ‘present’, letting out trickles of information and backstory so that we build up a picture slowly, mosaically, of the cast of quirky characters that make up the office ‘family’, with all the dysfunction that word implies.  I'm not really one for laughing out loud at books, but Then We Came to the End made me smile a lot.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

January Reading: One Day, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, The Big Sleep, Wolf Hall, The Corrections

One Day by David Nicholls (2009)


Normally, the fact that so many people were recommending a book would immediately turn me off it (I resisted Harry Potter and Twilight for as long as humanly possible), but for once I decided to get over my hype allergy and settle down to read One Day.  In about one day.  It's an absorbing and genuine novel - the main characters, while not always likeable, are so realistically drawn that the somewhat arch premise (we meet the protagonists, Emma and Dexter, on the same day, the 15th July, over a period of twenty years) actually works very well.  Its depiction of the changing social climate of Britain, while never heavy-handed, adds depth to what might otherwise be a frothy will-they-won't-they story.  An engaging novel that doesn't presume to take up too much of your time.


The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom (2003)


The premise of this book is pretty self-explanatory.  Heaven is presented as a place, or series of places, in which you meet five people who were in your life (whether you knew them or not) and they help you to make sense of your life. The main character is Eddie, who, at the novel’s opening, dies on his 83rd birthday at Ruby Pier, where he has worked for most of his life, trying to save a little girl during an accident on one of the rides.

There is a childish 'magic' quality to his journey as he is taken from place to place which I found a bit grating – the sky changes colour, he is whooshed to his next destination, almost as if he is flying:

"A sudden wind lifted Eddie, and he spun like a pocket watch on the end of a chain." 
  
The least whimsical parts of the book concern Eddie’s army days.  There is a certain amount of moralising:

"Young men go to war.  Sometimes because they have to, sometimes because they want to.  Always, they feel they are supposed to.  This comes from the sad, layered stories of life, which over the centuries have seen courage confused with picking up arms, and cowardice confused with laying them down"

but he paints a vivid and compelling picture of life as a soldier, especially in terms of the emotions experienced.

Albom is good with emotion.  Perhaps a little too good – some may find this book a little too cloying, too sentimental, though on the whole it avoids falling into that trap because of its quirky characters and the truth behind the sentiment.  It is a book from which comfort can be drawn: as the novel ends, Eddie waits his turn to tell others the 'secret of heaven':

"That each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one."


The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)


I am not a big crime fiction reader, and to be honest, I had my doubts about whether or not I would enjoy Chandler's work, mostly because I knew nothing about it.  Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised, above all by the protagonist.  Philip Marlowe, the detective, is a constantly intriguing, frequently amusing, occasionally frustrating character, much more appealing to me than any of Agatha Christie’s sleuths.  He reminds me a little, now I think of it, of Jimmy McNulty in The Wire, and that can only be a good thing.  (Yes, I may have a crush on both of these fictional characters.  That's okay, isn't it?) 

The other pleasant discovery was the author's use of language.  Chandler’s descriptions are sharp and clear.  He uses what I think of as ‘clean’ prose; free of embellishments and whimsy, yet possessed of a clear-eyed beauty.  He zeroes in on unlikely details, such as a woman's thumb:

"It was a curiously shaped thumb, thin and narrow like an extra finger, with no curve in the first joint."

I'm pretty sure it's just me, perhaps because, as I say, I don't read or even watch a lot of crime stuff, but I found the plot a little hard to follow.  However, that aside, it was a great introduction to Chandler's work, and I am looking forward to meeting Marlowe again.


Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (2009)


Like crime, historical fiction doesn't usually do it for me, and I was slightly daunted by Wolf Hall's doorstopper thickness.  However, once again, I learned something about books, covers and judging.  Mantel throws you straight into a Tudor England that thrums with realism.  The use of the present tense is an extremely effective way of positioning the reader in the moment rather than making us feel as if we are looking back on history we learned in school.

Cromwell as a character is so nuanced and believable that, in the words of one reviewer:

"I have my suspicions that Hilary Mantel actually is Thomas Cromwell." 

He is also almost always referred to merely with the pronoun, except when clarification is needed, when Mantel uses “he, Cromwell,”.  This places us almost, but, perhaps crucially, not quite, as close to him and to his point of view a first person narrative would.  Like Marlowe, Cromwell is a fascinating character, three-dimensional and complex, unmistakeably real.

With its 650 pages barely covering two of of Henry VIII's marriages, and with a sequel to come, Wolf Hall doesn't crackle along pace-wise, but what it lacks in rip-roaring adventure, it more than makes up for in subtle intelligence.


The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (2001)


I wanted to love this, especially after finding out that it apparently took ten years to write, and at times I did.  By the end, however, I had lost interest.  In my defence, it's not a short book, and I had just worked my way through the epic Wolf Hall - perhaps I should have treated myself to something a bit flimsier first.  Exploring the tangled lives of the Lambert family, Franzen presents us with multiple points of view and time-shifts, and the increasingly complicated, and in my opinion, increasingly implausible, plot detracts from the well-drawn characters, clever imagery and, most importantly, the black humour that Franzen does so well.  I'd be really interested to hear what other people think of this book, and of Franzen; I'm planning to read Freedom soon, and will try and do so with an open mind.

My Name's Ellie...

...and I like reading.  And writing.  Come September, I will be combining these two lovely things on an MA course in Creative Writing.  In the meantime, I'm aiming to munch my way through as much tasty fiction as I can.  As a result, this blog is shifting its emphasis from foreign forays to the slightly less exotic 'what I have been reading', plus any interesting writery bits and pieces that come my way. 

Reading recommendations always welcome!