RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: September 2012

Reflections…

Two months to the day after I embarked on my project to read the Longlist, I finished my last book.  It is a funny feeling finishing a project like this – there is a brief moment of triumph, followed quickly by the question, what next?  Right now I am taking a hiatus, but soon I think I will be looking for my next project.

I am programmed by my job (and also just the way I am, I guess) to end a project with some reflections… what did I learn, what would I do differently next time.  So here goes.

I began this project to expand my literary mind and to give myself a rare opportunity to try ‘the best’ of other genres of novel.  And in some cases this worked.  I genuinely enjoyed Bringing up the Bodies (a red book originally) and The Teleportation Accident (a yellow) and didn’t much care for Phillida (green) or most of the yellow books.  But, overall, I don’t think this project moved the dial much on the books I would choose to read. Maybe I am just too set on my ways.  Maybe I have developed a mindset where the things I like about books (see blog 26 July) are biased toward the genres of books I already like.

This project has changed the way I think about the books I read.  I have just started my first non-Man Booker novel and already want to underline, annotate, pick out themes and ideas.  I don’t know whether I will go back to my old, lazy ways over time, but at the moment I am thinking much harder about what I read and why (and if) I am enjoying it than ever before.

I worked on this project very much as a project.  I worked to schedules and deadlines and took time out of other activities to complete it.  In some ways, this was the point.  I wanted to take time for reading.  I also wanted to make sure I stuck out novels which otherwise I would have given up (though Will Self defeated me). But it also undermined my enjoyment at points – I was focussed more on completing the project than doing the reading.  And by the end I got tired.  Another time, I would let the schedule slide a little.

I didn’t think I would care about followers to my blog.  This project was really for me and it was great to be able to share it with friends and family.  But it was great to build up followers over time, seeing people read and respond to my thoughts all over the world.  To date, people have read this blog in 21 countries.  That is pretty cool.  Thanks to all of you.

People were fascinated by this project.  I have spoken to friends, family and strangers about it, at work, in the pub, at parties and other gatherings.  If nothing else, I will miss it as a topic of dinner party conversation.

As I said, I am taking a break.  But I am thinking of starting again in November. Suggestions welcome.

Communion Town: A Ragtag Bunch of Tales

I started out really liking Communion Town – I remember thinking to myself that I might even like this one best.  The stories draw you in and even the constant suggestion of monsters didn’t deter me.  I liked that the city was in some ways so recognisable, yet definitively no city I have ever visited or heard of.

But over time it frustrated me.  In each case, the same themes came up again and again, but each story felt open-ended.  There was no feeling of resolution.  I only knew I had got to the end because there was no book left to read, not because it actually felt over.  And this novel was so unswervingly dark – no good came of anyone – and this exhausted me, it sapped all my energy.

 

After a while, I found I had stopped focussed on the characters, their frustrations and lives.  And instead, had started picking out repeated themes, like an English teacher, preparing for a class.

Our worlds are constructed

“Have you noticed how each of us conjures up our own city?  You have your secret haunts and private landmarks and favourite short cuts, and I have mine, so as we navigate the streets each of us walks through a world of our own invention”.

“What I’d always thought of as the city was just an idea I had been inventing without realising it for longer than I could tell.”

Though we all live in the same city, each person’s city is different, as it is built by their imaginations, relationships and memories.  Each story focussed on one person’s relationship with another individual and how that impacted on their feelings about their city and those around them.

Time is fluid

“if you took the right path… you could follow the evening as far as you wanted and never reach nightfall.”

“time was strange in here.  He knew that the scene was in some way permanent, pinched out of sequence: it is still going on, somewhere, in the inturned landscape of houses, waste ground and streets where memory begins.”

“there was a catch in time, here beside the canal, and there seemed no way to move forward”.

“we all meet ourselves coming back every now and then”.

People are defined by their relationships with others

Each story focussed on the relationship between two individuals – how they defined themselves and each other, and how these definitions eventually led to their hurt, defeat or demise.

“You are the image by which I remember myself,  Peregrine.  Without you I would not be Lazarus Glass.”

“It was fascination enough that, whatever he did, he was doing it, so to speak, in relation to me.”

 

In  a funny way, I would recommend this book.  The underlying themes make you think about your world and how you define your place in it.  But at the same time, I am not sure I actually liked it.

Umbrella: defeated by Will Self

I have been dreading reading Umbrella. I think Will Self is pretentious, arrogant and confusing and I expected his book to be more of the same.  But I also really hoped I was proven wrong.  Like every girl ever, I had hoped the man would change.

Image

I managed 10 per cent of Umbrella before calling it quits.  As I explained to friends and family alike, “I had to, it is ruining my life!” I ended up in this circular situation where I was bored and confused and frustrated, so my mind wandered and then I really didn’t know what was going on, so was more bored and confused and frustrated.  For the first time in my adult life I just didn’t read for 48 hours, because I couldn’t bare the idea of reading this.  This had to end.

So I decided, self-justifyingly, that being an adult (and indeed a reviewer) is about knowing your limits.  And this is mine. As part of ths project, I have struggled through books which I never would have chosen, which I didn’t find funny or which I didn’t see the point of.  This has been good for me. But this one pushed me too far. This one stopped the project being fun.  Enough is enough.  Time to move on.

The Lighthouse versus Harold Fry

This is going to be short.

Thinking about The Lighthouse, it is hard not to compare it to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – for me at least.  Both are walking novels, which tie memories and past experiences into the present.  And in some ways I can see why the shortlisters thought The Lighthouse was a better novel.  It is tighter, less repetitious and the links between sections are clearer.

But for me, despite its flaws, I would rather read Harold Fry.  The Lighthouse felt too much like other books I had read in the past – unerringly dark, focussed on protagonists who had somehow missed something in their lives, always suggesting but never quite telling.  It was short and relatively easy to read, but left nothing with me.

The Lighthouse may be a technically better book, but Harold Fry will make you a little bit of a better person.

Narcopolis: a struggle to get to the end

Even though I am three books from the end of the adventure, I can almost guarantee that for me, this was the most difficult novel to get through.  Were it not for my project, I would have given up after the first sentence… which is nine pages long.

This novel is the opposite of any novel I would normally choose to read. Set in opium dens, full of  “the lowest of the low, prostitutes and criminals and drug addicts, people with no faith in God or man, no faith in anything except the truth of their own senses” – I knew this wouldn’t be a book I would normally choose.  But I have thought this about other books in the project, only to be pleasantly surprised about how much I enjoy reading them, once I have begun.  Reading good novels I wouldn’t normally read was the point of this project, after all.

Unfortunately, Narcopolis didn’t really have any redeeming features. Revisiting my rules for liking a book, Narcopolis was:

All doom and gloom – although some characters are likeable, sometimes, nobody is redeemed.  The novel is negative about everything: men, women, rich, poor, adults, children:

“childhood was a kind of affliction, certainly physical and possibly mental.  Children were at a hopeless disadvantage; they were unsuited for the world.  They were short and ungainly and stupid, half-people, dwarf bundles of ectoplasm and shit, stunted organisms incapable of finding food or keeping their asses clean.”

Had very little plot line – although things happen, nothing seems to lead to the next thing; events seem to occur in an arbitrary order as if the author had thrown all his ideas in the air and caught them as they fell.

Wasn’t as quotable as it should have been – it strayed into God, the true meaning of freedom (are addicts the most free?) and doubt but most of the novel was so convoluted and confusing that interesting snippets of thought got lost.

Wasn’t memorable – having just got to the end, I can’t really remember what happened in the novel.  I am not even sure in a few cases what happened to whom, or which character was which.  You are warned by the author at the beginning that this novel is supposed to be confusing, and if that is the point, I got it.

“The I you’re imagining at the moment, a thinking someone who is writing these words, who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story.”

Otherwise, I am definitely not sure what I was supposed to take away from it, if anything.

The Man Booker Shortlist… Thoughts

So, today they published the Shortlist: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/news/2012-shortlist-announced

And even though I knew full well that there  was no hope I would get through the whole list before the shortlist came out, I am still a little disappointed that it feels like a decision has already been made for me, somewhat.

Luckily, I think the judges are wrong. 

The judges claim that their decision was about “the pure power of prose” and the “vigour and vividly defined values” of the novels they selected.  To me, it feels more like they were trying a little too hard (even these quotes sound like they were trying a little too hard)…. to be inclusive, or alternative, or challenging.  Some of the more engaging, but gentler, books were junked in favour of books on big, controversial themes.  I am surprised The Yips didn’t make this shortlist, looking at how it has been out together.

My shortlist:

To date I have read 9 (well, almost…) of the Longlisted books.  So that would mean, the statistical likelihood would be, that I would have read 5/6 of my final shortlist….

But having put some thought into it, there are only three that stand out from the crowd for me.

The Garden of Evening Mists

My favourite: engaging storyline, beautifully written, fascinating protaganist – almost faultless

 

 

The Teleportation Accident

After some initial doubt, it kind of stuck with me – quirky, interest, untried, big themes – can’t believe Swimming Home and Narcopolis (two of the most self-absorbed books I have read in a while) were shortlisted instead of this.

 

Bring up the Bodies

An unexpected delight – quality characterisation, provokes thinking, revolutionises ‘historical literature’.

Although I am sad that the shortlisters beat me to it, it has been lovely to sit back and think about my project so far.  Six weeks and nine books in, the end is in sight.  I think I have the book blogging habit though now and alongside my lifelong project habit, I get the feeling this may not be the last you see of my reading adventures….

Skios: a pink book for the Booker?

Initially, the front cover of Skios confused me.  It makes it look like a light holiday read, what my friends and I call a ‘pink book’, or a holiday romance.

 

But actually, this initial impression is surprisingly accurate.  This novel is light and easy to read and a little funny (it may be more funny to most people, but not to me).

My favourite quote by far was: “The almost egregiously English couple, Cedric and Rosamund Chailey, had slipped away quietly when the conversation turned to God.  It had not seemed polite to be present when anything so American was being discussed.”

The novel is a traditional farce of the ‘man enters from one door while woman leaves from another door’ variety.  I enjoyed it, but have no idea why you would shortlist it for a prestigious award.

The only real theme in the book is identity (mostly in the sense of mistaken identity) and cause and effect, and this is done to death.  There are a few relatively interesting quotes on the matter, but these are mostly subsumed by the identity-based twists in the plot line, (maybe purposefully) not helped by the author electing to call both the real and fake versions of individuals by the same name at certain points.

I found the ending of this novel terribly frustrating in a variety of ways.  Firstly, it stepped outside the plot to comment on it – an approach I always dislike.  You are in the novel’s world, then bam, commentary takes you into the author’s.  It always strikes me as horribly self-centred on the author’s part.  Secondly, the ending just seems to have very little to do with the rest of the novel.  It is like Frayn gave up, or got bored and just wanted to tie everything up.

In sum, this book is fine.  Read it by the pool.  But don’t you dare let it win a prize.