Wednesday, March 26, 2014

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

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

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

On Black Sisters' Street by Chika Unigwe (2010)

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

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman (2011)

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

Every Secret Thing by Gillian Slovo (2009)

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

Saturday, February 15, 2014

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

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty (2013)

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

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

Tangled Lives by Hilary Boyd (2012)

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

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel (2012)

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

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

Monday, January 6, 2014

Where Did 2013 Go?/December Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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