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.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

August Reading: 1Q84 Book Three, Sabra Zoo, From the Mouth of the Whale, The Story of an African Farm, The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Song of Achilles, Tuesdays with Morrie, Quilt, Pedro Paramo

1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami (2011)

The final part of Murakami’s trilogy was, for me, stronger than the middle book. The elevation of the character of Ushikawa to a third viewpoint character makes a change to the alternating Aomame-Tengo chapters of the previous two parts. Although some might not approve of the novel’s unusually neat ending, I found this a satisfying conclusion to one of the more readable Murakami novels. However, I think I still prefer his short stories.

Sabra Zoo by Mischa Hiller (2010)

An economical and balanced account of the weeks leading up to the massacre at the Sabra refugee camp in Beriut in 1982, told from the point of view of half-Danish, half-Palestinian Ivan. At eighteen, his own selfish preoccuptations loom almost as large as the turmoil around him, and the novel is all the stronger for refusing to make the protagonist either hero or anti-hero. Another book that made me want to find out more about the history surrounding it.

From the Mouth of the Whale by Sjón (2011)

A dazzling, surreal, poetic vision of Iceland in the seventeenth century, this novel is unlike any other I have read. Telling the story (in both first and third person) of healer and learned man Jónas Pálmason, this book is part myth, part comedy, part historical chronicle. The landscape and wildlife of Iceland come to life through Victoria Cribb’s fantastic translation, making me very excited about my visit there later in the year. Although I’m hoping for fewer evil spirits.

The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner (1883)

A re-read of a book I read many moons ago as an undergrad, Schreiner’s novel is quite hard work, at times veering into dangerously preachy territory, as nineteenth century novels are sometimes apt to do. However, as a portrait of an unfamiliar life and, even more, an unfamiliar landscape, it does seem fresher than similar novels set in Britain. The character of Waldo, the farm boy, is deeply sympathetic, although the heroine, Lyndall, is less so (and she does like to go on a bit). I was mainly reading this for research purposes, but it reminded me of the importance of going back in time a little in my reading. I have become slightly too focused on contemporary fiction recently. Any reading suggestions for older fiction that stands outside the traditional British ‘canon’?

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (2006)

Another book club read, this book opens with one heck of a hook. The central premise, that an American woman in the sixties gives birth to twins, one of whom has Down’s Syndrome and is sent away by the father, immediately provides momentum to the plot, as we watch the husband, David, (who tells his wife the child is dead) stack lie upon lie to protect his secret. It is an intelligent portrait of a marriage, and Edwards does a pretty good job of showing the prevailing attitudes of the time that caused David to make his awful decision. But there are still a few ‘suspension of disbelief’ moments, and the ending felt very rushed.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (2011)

If ever there was a book I wish I’d written, this is it.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I have a bit of a soft spot for the ol’Ancient Greeks. I even, I have to confess, spent two weeks of one teenage summer at Greek Camp. Wait, I really didn’t have to confess that, did I? I was also the only person in my year at school to study Greek A-Level, and one of my set texts was Book XVI of The Iliad. The one with the death of Patroclus. Y’know, Achilles’ best mate. Even with my hazy grasp of Greek grammar, he always struck me as a fascinating, underrated character, and somewhere in my geeky mind, I knew I wanted to write a story about him.

Turns out Madeline Miller beat me to it. And I’m quite glad about it, because there’s no way I could ever match her beautiful prose, sensitive respect for the source-material-to-end-all-source-material, and above all her moving portrayal of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. I always knew they were more than just good friends.

The second half of the novel focuses on the story of the Trojan War, familiar, epic, full of characters brought wonderfully to life by Miller. But I found I preferred the quieter first section of the novel, the ‘untold story’ of Patroclus and Achilles as boys.

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom (1997)

A sentimental non-fiction account of Albom’s ‘last class’ with his old professor. Diagnosed with ALS (the disease Stephen Hawking suffers from), Morrie invites friends and family to gather and learn from him before his death. Albom visits on Tuesday afternoons, and receives nuggets of wisdom from the dying man. Read it in the right frame of mind, and you will cry. If you’re feeling cynical, you’ll probably just raise an eyebrow. Especially if you’re British.

Quilt by Nicholas Royale (2010)

I have to admit, I found this novel very difficult to get into. It is the story of a man dealing with the death of his father. The prose is wonderfully inventive, words riffing on other words, spiralling in a poetic rush, and the surreal touch of the narrator/protagonist’s (the viewpoint varies, often unannounced) obsession with sting rays was right up my street, but I found it hard to empathize with him. I suspect I read it too quickly, and that it deserves another look.

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (1955)

A short novel that took me an embarrassingly long time to read, due to the deterioration of my Spanish, this is a classic text which has been praised by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. It starts off by telling the story of a man returning to his mother’s village, Comala, to look for his father, but soon dissolves into a fragmented narrative of Comala’s ghosts, including the eponymous Pedro Páramo. I will have to read it in English at some point and see if it is any less confusing, but the wafts of story and character that managed to reach me were beautiful, and I didn’t really mind never being quite sure of what was going on.

I read Pedro Páramo partly because I am working on a novel about a small town and its ghosts. Next up on that theme is a re-read of Cien Años de Soledad   - if anyone has any more suggestions, let me know!

Friday, August 3, 2012

July Reading: Cannery Row, Sister, Afterwards, The King's Last Song, Human Diastrophism, Freedom, Don't Run,Whatever You Do, Fifty Shades Trilogy

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)

I’ve spent so much time reading very contemporary literature this year that I wasn’t sure I would be in the mood for a Steinbeck novel. How wrong I was. Apart from being just the thing to inspire me with my own novel-in-progress about a small town with an ensemble cast, it reminded me of how gorgeously and yet simply Steinbeck uses language. I was hooked right from the novel’s opening:

                ‘Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped, pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “Whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.’

If you haven’t already read Cannery Row, do. I would rate it as easily one of the best novels I have read this year, and my new favourite work by Steinbeck.

Sister (2010) and Afterwards (2011) by Rosamund Lupton

I’ve gone and joined a Book Club. Well, I’m new in a small town, and it seemed as good a way as any to meet a few people and have a book chat over a glass or two of white. (Which is pretty much what happened.) The book for this month was Lupton’s novel Afterwards, and since a friend had given me her first novel, Sister, a few months back, I read them both, in the wrong order, admittedly. I struggled with Afterwards, mostly because I had a problem with the main premise of the book, that Grace, the first person narrator, and her daughter, Jenny, have been badly injured in a fire at a posh school, and are floating around the hospital all spirit-like, meeting up and having mother-daughter chin-wags from time to time. To Lupton’s credit, as ludicrous as it may sound, you do get used to it quite quickly, and as long as disbelief can be suspended, the novel itself is an enjoyable unravelling of the mystery of who set fire to the school. There are a few too many red herrings, and not enough subtle clues, to make the big reveal satisfying, but the family dynamics are interestingly explored.

Lupton’s first novel, Sister, held my attention more, and has a more satisfyingly dramatic denouement, and her trick of a first person narrator addressing one of the other characters in the second person worked better in Sister than in Afterwards, where Grace continually and distractingly describes her husband’s actions using ‘you’. I found that very irritating.

Next month’s book is The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. Has anyone read it?

The King’s Last Song by Geoff Ryman (2006)

Epic in scale, The King’s Last Song flits between ancient and modern Cambodia, and gradually builds up a picture of a country I previously only had very limited knowledge of. The discovery of ancient scrolls, written on gold leaf, leads to consequences in the present day that unfold in tandem with the story of the King Jayavarman. It’s a dense book, with a lot of characters and plot strands to deal with, but it is full of striking descriptions and a real sense of the way in which history and the present interact.

Human Diastrophism by Gilbert Hernandez (2007)

The second graphic novel/comic book (this is a comic book which contains a graphic novel within it, so I really don’t know what to call it) that I’ve read this year (and, ahem, ever), and, along with Heartbreak Soup, one of only two collections set mainly in the town of Palomar. I’m quite saddened by this; Hernandez, over the years, has done an amazing job of exploring the lives of the characters of the town, and gathered together in the two fat volumes I have now devoured, they still leave you wanting more. Luckily I still have Beyond Palomar, which contains some of the same characters, and Gilbert’s brother Jaime’s collections, to go. And after that, who knows? Perhaps full-on comic book geekdom awaits.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (2010)

Corrections, which I read last year, left me a little cold. It started out great, but the last third of the novel lost me entirely, which is why I have been putting off reading Freedom. Luckily, I had a much more positive experience with this novel. I thought the different styles of narration, focalised through different characters, worked well, and although, as usual, there is nothing warm and fuzzy, or even necessarily particularly likeable, about Franzen’s characters, the depth that he manages to create, the complexities of personality and experience, is impressive and fascinating. I got a bit frustrated, as I did in Corrections, when I felt that Franzen’s own political agenda was being put into the mouths of his characters, but it works better here.

Don’t Run, Whatever You Do: My Adventures as a Safari Guide by Peter Allison (2007)

While half of my family were on holiday in the Kruger National Park in South Africa (quite possibly my favourite place in the entire world), I decided to live vicariously and downloaded Allison’s book, which is one of the books in Kindle’s ‘Marathon’ (and therefore cheap!). It’s a very light-hearted, anecdote-driven account of life as a safari guide in the African bush; perfect for a quick read. What struck me most about his stories was the unrealistic expectations of the guests, who come to Africa with a tick-list of animals they want to see (mainly the cats) and aren’t satisfied with anything less. The beauty of game viewing in the wild is its unpredictability; if you want guaranteed sightings, go to a zoo.

Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker, Fifty Shades Freed by E.L. James (2011, 2012)

Last but not least…I resisted as long as I could, but in the end I gave in and decided to see what all the fuss was about. Honestly, I was genuinely intrigued as a writer to find out for myself why this trilogy, which started life as fan fiction based on the Twilight series, has become such a phenomenon. That’s the only reason. Honestly.

I have to say, I guiltily enjoyed the first book; it’s a quick, easy read, the prose wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, and the characters are fairly engaging. It wasn’t nearly as naughty as I had been led to believe (disappointed? Me?) and there was a lot more plot than I thought there would be. I finished the book in a matter of hours, intrigued to find out what happened to Ana and Christian next. Then I started Book Two, and within pages, I realised that I was going to be treated to the same scenes, the same expressions, the same metaphors, over and over and over again until my head hurt. I almost stopped caring what happened, but annoyingly, not quite, so I limped through to the end of Fifty Shades Darker and, with a heavy heart, picked up Fifty Shades Freed. I ended up skipping the sex scenes because they are so monotonous, and surprisingly coy, considering the BDSM subject matter – Christian’s bits are described as his ‘essentials’, and Ana makes frequent shocked, italicised references to being touched ‘there’.

There’s a great piece by Victoria Coren explaining why she thinks women are drawn to the books, and, specifically, to Christian Grey, and it’s something that crossed my mind more than once: he makes her eat. Ana has pancakes and syrup and bacon for breakfast more times than the most obese of Americans, and is constantly being criticised for skipping meals – and that, apparently, is what we really want in a man.

Read the article here.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

June Reading: Ghosts and Lightning, The Stranger's Child, 1Q84 Books 1 & 2, Eating Animals

Ghosts and Lightning by Trevor Byrne (2009)

A brilliant debut novel which tells the story of Dubliner Denny Cullen returning home after his mother’s death. Denny narrates in a full-on Dublin accent that takes a bit of getting used to, but the sheer energy of the language pushes the reader along. Highly recommended, except if you’re sensitive to the f-word.

The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (2011)

I have to admit, I have struggled in the past with Hollinghurst’s work, and this was no exception. About a third of the way through this sprawling novel, which covers almost a century, I realised that I didn’t much care what happened to any of the characters, nor could I face more descriptions of the grand houses they lived in. I plodded on, but even Hollinghurst’s usually beautiful prose seemed lacking to me. I’d be really interested to hear what others thought of this novel.

1Q84 Books 1 &2 by Haruki Murakami (2011)

I really, really like Murakami, but I so far I have preferred his short stories to his novels. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from this three-part monster of a novel. His style is definitely an acquired taste, and there is a meticulous precision to his both his characters and his prose which is quite different from the colourful, messy chaos that I normally prefer in fiction. But I did find myself being drawn into the mysterious, surreal story of the Little People who come out at night to build their air chrysalises, and the two long-separated protagonists whose lives are intertwining without them realising it. I’ve heard that Book Three is a bit of a disappointment, but I will have to find that out for myself, as I was definitely left wanting more.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (2009)

I downloaded this onto my Kindle thinking that it was the latest novel by an author whose work I have previously enjoyed. Turns out it is in fact a non-fiction book about exactly what it says on the tin. This book covers familiar ground; the devastating effects of factory farming on both the animals’ welfare and the environment, and the arguments for a vegetarian or vegan diet, but it is backed up by some impressive first hand research and manages, for the most part, to avoid being preachy. I did find it a hard read, simply because while I am affected in the moment by books and documentaries about the evils of meat eating, I know myself well enough to realise that I am probably not about to make any major lifestyle changes. And I don’t feel very proud of that. On a separate note, the extensive endnotes are not very Kindle-friendly. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

May Reading: Tiny Sunbirds,Far Away, The Thing Around Your Neck, The Whore's Asylum, Tipping the Velvet, Incredible Bodies, One World, Jawbreakers, Knockemstiff

Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson (2011)

Watson’s debut novel is told from the point of view of 12 year old Blessing, a Nigerian girl who is forced to move from Lagos to Warri, a village in the Niger Delta, with her mother and brother when her father leaves her mother for another woman. Using a narrator who is both a child and new to the village allows Watson, herself an ‘outsider,’ to explore the world she creates with a wide-eyed attention to detail. The violence and political unrest that hover menacingly on the periphery of Blessing’s world sometimes threatens to tip this into a ‘novel with a cause,’ and the episodic nature of the story makes it seem a little less than whole. Certain incidents ring truer than others, and Watson’s background as a nurse seems to stand her in good stead when describing Blessing’s new job as a midwife’s assistant, working alongside her grandmother. The book won the Costa First Novel award, and although I felt that it had its flaws, I would be very interested to read her work again in the future.

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009)

While in the process of writing an essay on Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, I checked out her short story collection. The bright young star of Nigerian literature, Adichie’s stories tend to focus on ideas of exile and identity, and many are narrated by young women, so that I had the sense that Adichie was sticking close to the dictum ‘write what you know.’ It seems to pay off; there is a readability to these stories that makes the prose seem effortless, though on closer inspection, the elegance of her sentences becomes clear. I didn’t love all of the stories; one or two felt a little too rushed, and I had to raise an eyebrow at the story of the young female writer who is invited to a conference of Africa writers and there writes a possibly autobiographical story – all a little meta for me. But on the whole, I am almost as impressed with Adichie’s skills as a short story writer as I am with her novels. I’m looking forward to seeing what she produces next.

The Whores’ Asylum by Katy Darby (2012)

Coursework finally handed in, I decided to treat myself to an afternoon of novel reading. A few hours later, I finished Katy Darby’s debut novel without having moved from the sofa. A page turner in the best sense of the word, this book draws on the tradition of writers such as Wilkie Collins, but brings a modern sensibility to its Victorian setting, without stumbling into anachronism. There are fallen women, duels at dawn, and even a dancing bear. What’s not to love?

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (1998)

More Victoriana, and another speedy read, despite its bulk. Waters’ attention to detail is something that impressed me greatly in The Night Watch, and this earlier novel didn’t disappoint. I’ve got Affinity and The Little Stranger on my ‘to read’ pile – since I’ve messed up the Waters chronology already, any suggestions as to which to read first?

Incredible Bodies by Ian McGuire (2006)

A bitingly funny campus novel, written by one of the tutors at Manchester (I did wonder if any of his characters were based on his colleagues – impossible to say, of course!), Incredible Bodies tells the story of Morris Gutman, hapless lecturer at the University of, ahem, Coketown. It is an all-too-accurate picture of everything that is wrong with academia, and contains some fantastically black (and bleak) humour.

One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories (2009)

Published by the New Internationalist, this collection of 23 stories from writers across the globe contains many gems. Some of my favourite writers, including Adichie and Petina Gappah, whose short story collection An Elegy for Easterly I have reviewed on this blog and would highly recommend, sit alongside writers I had never heard of, but whose stories had a real effect on me, like Sequoia Nagamatsu’s ‘Melancholy Nights in a Tokyo Cyber Café.’ I read short stories to be transported to another place, and this collection does that in spades.

Jawbreakers ed. Calum Kerr and Valerie O’Riordan (2012)

A wonderful collection of flash fiction published in honour of National Flash Fiction Day, this contains some real corkers, by well known authors and not (yet) as well known authors, and is perfect for dipping into when you want a fiction injection. As with Kerr’s collection 31, which I read back in March, Jawbreakers is another reminder of how powerful really, really short stories can be, and how flash fiction is much more than a shrunken short story or a twist-in-the-tail gag.

Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock (2008)

At the moment I am looking for suggestions for books set in small towns, with casts of characters whose lives interlink – if you have any, please wing them my way. Knockemstiff was suggested to me as a good place to start, and I am glad I followed it up, because although at times the writing reminded me of Cormac McCarthy and at other times of Denis Jonson, Pollock is a true original, and his voice is all his own. This collection of short stories paints a bleak but never melodramatic picture of life in the (real) town of Knockemstiff in Southern Ohio. The inhabitants’ struggle just to get on with life is all the subject matter he needs, and although there is plenty of violence and depravity, it never feels forced. It’s just how it is, and this sad truth is described with shocking beauty. He published a novel, The Devil All The Time, last year – if anyone’s read it, I’d love to know what you thought. I am definitely adding it to the pile.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

April Reading: Remainder, Falling Man, Saturday, The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2006)
Due to the presence of a big fat essay deadline, much of my reading in April consisted of critical works on the relationship between history and fiction, which I won't bore you with. The four fiction books I managed to get through were for the final few weeks of MA classes, and were, in varying degrees, related to the somewhat dubious category of ‘post 9/11 fiction’.

McCarthy’s novel has the most tenuous link to that category. It’s so fresh and original that I almost forgot I was reading it for the course and actually (shhh) enjoyed it. The unnamed narrator has received £8.5 million of compensation for an accident involving ‘something falling from the sky,’ and he finds himself compelled to spend the money on increasingly bizarre re-enactments of events in his life and incidents he has seen in the news. It is strange and funny and unlike anything else I have read this year; which is probably why it failed to find a publisher in the UK until after a French publishing house took a chance on it (originality gets you about as far in the publishing world as it does in Hollywood – so speaks the newly cynical recipient of many, many lectures on the dismal state of British publishing). My only complaint is that I wasn’t quite convinced by the ending, but I would recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who fancies reading something wonderfully different.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo (2007)
Much more overtly related to the 9/11 theme, Falling Man opens with a man stumbling away from the collapsing towers, and goes on to explore the effects on him and his family. DeLillo’s prose is sharp and oddly discomfiting, in a way which fits his theme here more than ever. There is a description of a poker group that is among the best things I have read in a long time, and the characters of Keith and Lianne, the estranged and now tentatively reunited couple, are meticulously built up. However, the sections showing the terrorists’ point of view feel forced and unnecessary, and for me, they distracted from the power of the book.

Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
I read Saturday soon after it first came out and I didn’t like it much. I reread it this time, and I didn’t like it at all. The idea of the ridiculously privileged Henry Perowne as some kind of ‘everyman,’ representative of ‘the way we live,’ rang supremely false, and the long, long descriptions of him performing brain surgery seemed merely a self-indulgent way for McEwan to show off how much research he had done. The Mrs Dalloway-style set up, telling the story of one day in this man’s life, just made me sigh when I realised it was still only eleven o’clock in the morning.

I’d like to point out that I do normally rate McEwan’s writing, and there is an outside chance that my antagonism towards this book may be partly caused by my recent discovery that a quotation I have adored for about four years and had written out and attributed to McEwan, turns out to be from a Sebastian Faulks novel. I didn’t think I liked Sebastian Faulks.

And if you want to read a review from someone who liked the book even less than I did, check out John Banville's harsh but quite amusing take:

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007)
The final novel for my MA course (classes have now ended and I am feeling bereft and adrift), Hamid’s book could be seen as a response to Western 9/11 fiction. It is narrated in the first person by a Pakistani man in a Lahore café, who directly addresses a silent interlocutor, an American, with whom the narrator, Changez, is having tea. Changez relates the story of his relationship with America, where he studied and worked, and with an American woman, Erica (Am-Erica, geddit?) who herself has a tragic past. As Changez relates his gradual disillusionment with the West, the use of ‘you’ is uncomfortably and deliberately implicating. The gentle, polite tone with which Changez speaks may be too mannered for some tastes, but for me the voice worked, and I found this book a fascinating foil to the British and American perspectives. I didn’t quite get the ending, but I don’t think I was alone in that, so I don’t feel too stupid.

Now that I have a bit of time for 'fun' reading, tell me, what books have you enjoyed so far this year? 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

March Reading: Cloud Atlas, Diary of a Bad Year, Heartbreak Soup, Bristol Anthology Volume 3, 31

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)

A re-read for my MA course. I feel oddly defensive of this book. It was the first novel by Mitchell that I read, not long after it came out, and I really enjoyed it, right up until everyone started pointing out all its flaws. In class, no one seemed to have a good word to say about it. So I am going to be stubborn and maintain that I like it. Yes, it is a bit knowing/pretentious/coyly self-aware of its own postmodernist tendencies, but it is also good entertainment. Flipping through time over six very different stories, the structure definitely worked for me. 

As I think I wrote in an earlier review of a Mitchell novel, I admire the way he has fun with language, his enthusiasm and willingness to experiment. However, considering the success of this novel and the fact that it is (somehow) being made into a Hollywood film, I don’t think Mitchell needs too much sympathy from me.

Diary of a Bad Year by J. M. Coetzee (2007)

A little literary experimentation goes a long way: Coetzee’s novel-that-isn’t-really-a-novel-or-maybe-it-is-because-what-is-a-novel-anyway takes it too far for me. Disgrace was one of my favourite books when I was an undergrad, but it is the only Coetzee novel I have ever managed to finish – and if this one wasn’t (you guessed it) on the MA reading list, I doubt I would have made it to the end, despite the fact that it is actually quite a slim book. 

The protagonist, who may or may not be the author himself, is writing a series of essays for a book entitled ‘Strong Opinions,’ and he hires his neighbour Anya as his secretary. Their two first person narratives are laid out on the page under the essays, creating a deliberately confusing reading experience which goes some way to concealing the thin and unbelievable plot. The ideas that Coetzee is exploring are profound and thought-provoking, but the format left me cold.

Heartbreak Soup by Gilbert Hernandez (2007)

Drum roll please: this book marks my first foray into the world of graphic novels. And I loved it. I’ve ordered three more Love and Rockets collections. There is something really exciting about reading a genre you have never read before, whose rules you don’t quite understand – everything seems shiny and new and different. 

The fictional Central American town of Palomar is populated with a cast of intriguing characters, and the stories flit back and forth in time so that their backstories are gradually revealed. It is often the female characters who, despite their predictably ample chests, come across as the most complex and strongest personalities, especially the fascinating Luba. 

I would definitely recommend Heartbreak Soup as a great place to start if you are new to the genre, and I’d be interested to hear what more seasoned comic book readers make of the series.

Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 3 (2010)

I do love a good short story anthology. And competition anthologies like this one are especially rewarding: high standards and a huge variety of themes, genres and styles make them ideal for dipping into for inspiration. The winning story, by Valerie O’Riordan, is only 350 words long, a reminder, like the Calum Kerr book I review below, that a good story doesn’t have to be a long story.

I have a couple more Bristol anthologies on my ‘to read’ pile, and I am really looking forward to them. Oh, the lovely things I will read once this MA is over. Any more anthology recommendations for me to add to the pile?

31 by Calum Kerr (2011)

Flash fiction is much, much harder to write than it looks – believe me, I have tried – and I am full of admiration for anyone who can do it well. Kerr certainly can. This collection consists of 31 stories written during the course of one month; like the Bristol anthology, it is full of slices of tasty inspiration, showing an impressive imaginative range and an enviable ability to tell a whole story in few words. 

Flash fiction is by no means new, but it is (deservedly) gaining respect as a genre in its own right, not just as some kind of ‘warm up’ for novelists. National Flash Fiction Day is fast approaching: check out the website for details of all kinds of events and competitions taking place around the 16th May:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Books On Writing: Part One

A round-up of some of the writing books I've read recently.  

1. A Writer’s Workbook: Daily Exercises for the Writing Life by Caroline Sharp (2000)

Full of encouragement and chatty confessions, this book provides a solid introduction to some of the tips and tricks that writers use to get going.  The exercises are mostly designed to take no more than half an hour, and while not all of them were useful for me personally, there are a number that I have been using on a regular basis, such as “Reviews” (pretty self-explanatory), “Conversation Observation” (yes, I spy on you all, mwa ha ha) and “Where Have You Gone”, though seeing as this last one asks you to describe in detail every place you have ever lived, it’ll be a while before I’m done.  The ‘Obstacle’ pages give advice on how to overcome the dreaded writer’s block. 

The overall tone of the book is informal, passionate and ever so slightly earnest, in that peculiarly American way which is very well-meaning, but can sound a bit patronising to British ears.  That aside, the exercises are simple and well thought out, and often yield interesting (if not necessarily publishable) results.

  1. How Novels Work by John Mullan (2006)
Based on his columns for The Guardian, this book is aimed squarely at the book club crowd, but is an interesting read for any avid novel reader.  Avoiding both stodgy literary criticism and any ‘dumbing down’ in his explanations, this is an interesting dissection of the techniques used by both classic and contemporary authors, paying particular attention to the history and development of the novel as a form. 

My only slight gripe is that he does assume that you have either read the novels under discussion or else won’t mind if he gives away every plot twist and surprise ending – if Mullan mentions a novel you think you’d like to read in the future, I highly recommend skipping those pages until you have done so.  Spoiler alerts would’ve been nice, John.

  1. The Creative Writing Coursebook – ed. Julia Bell and Paul Magrs (2001)
 This coursebook grew out of the Creative Writing undergrad course at UEA, and includes exercises used on the programme. It is a much more comprehensive introduction than the Sharp book reviewed above. It is divided into three sections: Gathering, Shaping and Finishing, and within each section there are contributions from highly-regarded authors such as Ali Smith, David Lodge and Patricia Duncker.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is considering taking a Creative Writing course – I worked my way through most of it before starting my MA, and I think it gives you a good introduction to the practice of Creative Writing as a discipline.

  1. Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood (2002)
 “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté”

Atwood apparently has this epigram above her desk, which makes me love her a little bit more than I already did. It also sums up her attitude towards being a famous writer.  This book is based on a series of lectures she gave at Cambridge, and there is a conversational tone to the prose that allows her wit to come through in her pithy asides. She explores questions of what it means to be a writer, but steers clear of the pitfalls of pretentiousness and arrogance (she is remarkably self-deprecating, in fact).

A wonderful antidote to all the ‘How To’ books on writing, and one I intend to reread often.  

  1. The Art of Fiction by David Lodge (1992)
 Like Mullan’s book, Lodge’s much acclaimed work is based on a series of articles, and also like Mullan, he focuses in on particular authors and texts to give close readings which illustrate various aspects of classic and modern literature. As A.S. Byatt says on the back cover, it is “a book for dipping” – there are 50 short chapters on topics ranging from teenage skaz (J.D Salinger) to weather (Jane Austen, Charles Dickens) to metafiction (John Barth).

I have to admit that I personally find Lodge a bit dry at times, and I am not entirely sure that we share the same sense of humour, but this is an instructive and accessible book.

  1. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
 Subtitled A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (that’d be me, then) this book is based on one of the fundamental principles of writing: a good writer is an avid reader. The oh-so-aptly named Prose believes absolutely that the two go hand-in-hand, arguing that “a close reading course should at least be a companion, if not an alternative, to the writing workshop.” She also reiterates a point that has been stressed on our MA course – that it is important read slowly (advice that is all very well, but might have to be heeded once the course is over and the mountain of books on my bedside table becomes non-compulsory reading once more).

As an English teacher, I was a fan of her emphasis on the importance of good grammar, and as a writer, I was pleased to see her debunk some of the more didactic rules of writing, notably the cliché ‘show, don’t tell.’ But this book isn’t only for aspiring writers; anyone who is interested in literature will take something away from it.

  1. On Writing by Stephen King (2000)
 Say what you like about Stephen King, the man knows how to get a book written. As an arch-procrastinator, any tips that will help me actually sit down and write are always appreciated. With that in mind, even though I have only read one or two of King’s books, I was keen to see what he had to say.

King certainly has a very disciplined approach: he “generously” suggests a starting goal of 1,000 words a day and four to six hours of reading and writing, which even at the moment is something I only achieve on a really, really good day. I do like his analogy of writing with the door closed and rewriting with the door open – more and more I am realising that writing and editing are two very different halves of a writing life, equally important, but calling for completely different skills (more on this in the next review).

There is plenty of good, basic advice in this book; I saw a review which described it as ‘the equivalent of Delia’s How To Cook,’ which sums up it nicely. However, the pally tone in which it is delivered may grate – see my fellow MA-er Benjamin Judge’s harsh-but-fair take on King’s book at - and it is hard to take as gospel the word of a writer whose idea of a complete re-edit is to print out the first draft and make a few minor changes with a felt tip.

  1. Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (1934)
 Of all the books on writing reviewed here, this classic text was the one that had the most impact on me. It is encouraging without being patronising, and startlingly insightful, articulating what it means to be a writer in ways that, to me at least, made absolute sense. I also loved the old-fashioned tone: I feel like I can picture Dorothea in her horn-rimmed glasses, dispensing delightful advice such as this, for coffee addicts:

If you have an ingrained habit of putting off everything until after you have had your morning coffee, buy a thermos bottle and fill it at night. This will thwart your wily unconscious in the neatest fashion. You will have no excuse to postpone work while you wait for your stimulant.

Most of the advice she gives is much less ‘prosaic’, however, and her explanation of the ‘dual personality’ of the writer allows for a real sense of how to approach the very different disciplines of writing the first draft and returning to edit it. She explores the importance of the unconscious mind, along with ideas of what we now term ‘mindfulness,’ which can be an incredibly useful tool for a writer. The technique of ‘morning pages’ – writing two or three pages as soon as you wake up – has also proved invaluable for me.

I would definitely recommend this book to all aspiring writers, though I did wonder how male writers would react to it – boys, if any of you have read this, let me know what you thought!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? And if you have any suggestions for other books on writing, let me know.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

February Reading: Diaries of a Dead African, The Night Watch, An Elegy for Easterly, GB84, Purple Hibiscus

Diaries of a Dead African by Chuma Nwokolo Jr. (2003)

Given its title, I was surprised by just how funny this book is. Tracing the tales of Meme and his two sons, Calamatus and Abel, who each in succession find the previous diaries, Diaries of a Dead African is a merciless comedy, which doesn’t shy away from the problems faced by its Nigerian protagonists, but nor does it present them as mere victims. Calama’s involvement in the 419 scams is nicely nuanced, and the letters he writes are increasingly inventive and amusing – his section reminded me of another Nigerian novel, I Do Not Come To You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, which deals with the same theme, and is also well worth reading.

For me, the final section was the most interesting, probably because Abel is an aspiring writer, with a bit of a chip on his shoulder: “Why won’t publishers take a chance on me? Must everybody write like Chinua Achebe? I like to write about Tortoises. That is how I am.” His (partly) unwitting involvement in politics brings yet another dimension to a book that functions on many levels, a book that (when I eventually have time for such things) I will definitely reread. Nwokolo himself is a deeply impressive man, and his website is well worth checking out:

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters (2006)

I just read a review of Waters’ latest novel, The Little Stranger (which I haven’t read yet – anyone who has, let me know what you thought of it) in which the reviewer mused “perhaps it was a mistake to lose the lesbians”. Luckily, they are out in force in The Night Watch. The 1940s setting, which is beautifully evoked, allows for an interesting exploration of the obstacles, and, arguably, increasing freedoms, encountered by lesbians, and indeed by everyone, during World War Two. I’ve decided to write about Waters for my MA essay, which I have just started doing the research for, but I won’t bore you by getting all geeky about it here.

Instead, I will just say that I found The Night Watch a refreshing change from some of the more ‘heavyweight’ stuff we’ve had to read for the course (yes, Sebald, I’m talking about you) – another reminder of the fact that what I am really looking for in a novel is a cracking story and great characters. Sue me. The reverse chronology of the novel (the three sections move backwards in time from 1947) worked for me, although it does create a lack of resolution at the end of the novel which some may find unsatisfying.

  An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah (2009)

This collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe manages to be scathing, cynical, compassionate and funny all at the same time. It gave me a jolt, made me realise how little thought I have given to the situation in Zimbabwe since it dropped out of the news. These thirteen stories are laced with the reality of living with political corruption, economic turmoil and an AIDS epidemic (the latter brought to the fore even by the title of the story ‘The Cracked, Pink Lips of Rosie’s Bridegroom’) but the tone is far from didactic or moralizing, and the characters are much more than mere symbols. 

The spectre of death, as suggested by the collection’s title, looms as large as the ever-present hyperinflation in many of the stories, but there is also gentle humour and a quotidian normality that grounds the stories in everyday life. ‘Our Man in Geneva Wins a Million Euros’ is a lovely twist on the scams mentioned in my first review, and ‘The Negociated Settlement’ is an understated and complex depiction of a marriage that may or may not be breaking down. Gappah is a writer I will definitely be keeping an eye on; luckily she has a blog, too, so that makes things easier:

GB84 by David Peace (2004)

Another MA read, and, in all honesty, another struggle to get through to the end. Peace’s novel is a week-by-week account of the Miners’ Strikes, told with such intensity that reading it becomes an almost physical act. There are two narratives running parallel to each other – I don’t know if this is the done thing, but I read the ‘main’ one through to the end and then went back and read the second, shorter, and, for me at least, more accessible, narrative. I’d be interested to know if anyone read both simultaneously, and if that added anything. Peace’s novel has been described as ‘the literary equivalent of the epic events it commemorates’ (Guardian review), and I definitely felt as if I had ‘lived through’ something on finishing the book, rather than just read a novel. I’m not sure I will be reading more of Peace’s work, though: I feel like ‘I survived’ isn’t the best reaction to have to a book.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2004)

Having read Half of a Yellow Sun a while back, which was one of the best books I have read in a long time, I thought I would go back to Adichie’s first novel. It tells the story, in the first person, of fifteen year old Kambili, daughter of a wealthy and respected Nigerian businessman who is a tyrant and religious fanatic at home. This is a much quieter, more subdued novel than Half of a Yellow Sun, much more domestic in its themes, and I have to admit, I found the main character frustratingly passive. Her hero-worship of her father in particular made me side with the other characters in the novel, those who take a more critical view, such as her brother Jaja and her auntie Ifeoma, and I found myself wanting to hear them speak rather than Kambili. 

Having said that, the story is extremely well-told (like Waters, Adichie plays around with the chronology, so that we are presented with four sections: ‘Palm Sunday’, ‘Before Palm Sunday’, ‘After Palm Sunday’ and ‘The Present’) and her language is just the sort of prose I enjoy, clean without being too spare, descriptive without being overwritten. Her book of short stories, The Thing Around My Neck, arrived from Amazon today - I'm looking forward to seeing what Adichie does with the short story form.