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Monthly Archives: April 2013

The problem with Hook Books: Life after Life

Just as I have a problem with books which are “all about the ending” (see blog of 27 July 2012) I also can’t really appreciate novels which are “all about a hook”.  Because, once you get over the hook, they often lack any substance.

life after

 

Now, don’t get me wrong, Life after Life is well-written.  I like Kate Atkinson’s style.  But, I think because of the reincarnation hook focus (although I can’t know that for sure) the novel itself is a little bland and depressing….

The blandness:

    1. None of the characters are particularly interesting or well-rounded.  Well, maybe with the exception of the wild sister, Izzy, but even she is something of a stereotype.  The principal character, Ursulla’s whole personality seems to be focussed on her experience of reincarnation.  This only worsens in the second half of the novel, where that is all she seems to think about.
    2. The rest of the narrative is pretty samey.  Set between 1910 and the 1960s in London (and a little in Germany), so many of the key themes – war, rationing, the Blitz, Hilter, the swinging sixties etc – have been covered extensively in so many other novels, and this one doesn’t really carve out any new space.
    3. Not only is that samey, but the repeated telling of the same event (e.g. Ursuall’s birth) albeit from different angles, can’t help but become somewhat repetitive after 500 or so pages.

The depressing-ness:

    1. The reincarnation narrative is depressing.  It seems that whatever Ursula does to try and change an outcome, it either happens anyway, or something equally horrific comes to pass. I appreciate that this is a reference to fat and / or the butterfly effect, but it after a while it wears you down.  It appears that though we may frequently wish for them, second chances offer no better opportunities than the first.
    2. The non-reincarnation narrative is equally depressing.  It seems to focus on either miserable marriages (including Ursula’s own) or successful relationships which are destroyed by fate, frequently death.  The novel is full of death – not only Ursula’s  but that of those around her.  In some ways, this may be the reality of that era, but it brings little light relief, especially when it is replayed over and over again.

“Bridget seemed to spend a lot of time trying to cheer Clarence up.  Ursula supposed she was practising for marriage.”

Complaints with no category:

    1. For a novel which is all about the “hook” you expect a lot from said hook.  However, when the “hook” does play a central role, it is often just really confusing.  This is most true at the end, where (though I won’t spoil it) the reader is never entirely sure whether the protagonist’s main aim has been achieved.
    2. As a historian, the ahistorical / alternative history element of the book frustrates me.  I find nothing more depressing than suddenly, in the middle of a novel, coming across two pages of counter-history, without any real thought or explanation.

But I do give it this, it contains one of my favourite ever quotes about England: “German romanticism, it seemed to Ursula, was writ large and mystical, the English lakes seemed tame by comparison.  And the English soul, if it resided anywhere, was surely in some unheroic back garden – a patch of lawn, a bed of roses, a row of runner beans.”

Man Booker vs. Women’s Prize

I have been thinking over the last few days about how blogging the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is a very different experience to blogging the Man Booker longlist.


MB

women's prize

Now, clearly, some of this is down to the ‘me’ factor: the fact I am no longer a blogging ‘newbie’, the stage in my life I am at nine months later and even the different seasons in which I am reading.

But there is also something more to it, and I think it is about both the novels themselves and the way they are judged (although clearly these two things are intertwined).

I find it interesting that, of my original criteria for a “good book” (for me), Man Booker novels tend to favour one (and a half) of them, whilst Women’s Prize novels favour the two (and a half) others.  This goes a long was to explaining my preference for Women’s Prize books, I think.

Man Booker novels are far, far more quoteable than Women’s Prize novels.  In general, they tend to be more philosophical and ‘meaningful’ so this makes a lot of sense.  But unfortunately, this seems to directly correlate with them being far less plot-driven and much more doom and gloom than the Women’s Prize texts.   Not all, but most, tended to linger on subjects for longer than I found them interesting.

At the same time, Women’s Prize novels tend to be less ‘meaningful’ than Man Booker books.  Instead they focus on plot and characterisation.  This makes them more enjoyable at the time.  And memorable in their own ways, though maybe not for as long, or in ways which are as fundamental as the more philosophical texts.  I am yet to wholly land on which prize wins the ‘memorable’ point – as you can tell.

Now, in all likelihood  it is probably not a coincidence that the two prizes attract different styles of novels.  The most probable cause is that the judges have different definitions of what a ‘good’ novel is.  The Man Booker judges are clearly looking for something more literary, whilst the Women’s Prize judges focus on readability.  These different preferences lead to very different choices. (Clearly, it also has to be noted that the Women’s Prize list excludes male authors, but I am not going to be drawn on whether there are more ‘male’ or ‘female’ styles of writing).

It says something for Hilary Mantel that she made it onto both lists.  And rightly so.  Because Bring up the Bodies really is all things to all people.  Or at least to me.  It is one of the rare novels that I felt had all the qualities of a good read.  Now, interestingly, that doesn’t necessarily make it my favourite book on either list.  But it is probably the most rounded, quality, and universal in its appeal of any (so far….)

An unexpected pleasure: Where’d you go Bernadette?

Somehow, I just didn’t expect to like “Where’d you go, Bernadette?”

bd

In retrospect, my reasons seem pretty lame.  Firstly, I didn’t really like the cover.  It looked like a kids book.  And secondly, the blurb on the back was just too “PR”, full of exclamations and drama.

And in some ways, both these things turned out to be true.  The book does read a bit like a kids book, in places.  But then again, it is supposed to be written by a kid.  So you kind of have to let it off.  And the book is full of high drama.  The mother character (Bernadette herself) is hugely melodramatic.  And a lot of the narrative of the novel focusses on the petty dramas of small communities, in smallish towns (okay, Seattle is a city, but this novel makes it sound like a small town).  Not only that, but it is bitty – a story here, a letter there, an email here – which is a style which tends to frustrate me, as you never get a sense of flow.

And at the beginning, those things really annoyed me.  And although I was annoyed, I was also smug about being right (I’m perverse in that way) and then bam – I was hooked.

Thinking back on how it reeled me in, I think there are four main reasons:

It is entirely different to anything I have ever read before

Not the style per se.  But somehow the combination of style, narrative and characters gave it a totally unique feel.

It balanced the known and the unknown

You truly never knew what would happen next, yet the characters were strangely recognisable.  We all know people like many of them.  Granted, some traits were taken to extremes, but still.

But mostly, it was just funny

Okay, more ‘bitter’ / ‘ironic’ funny than, ‘ha ha’ funny, but funny nevertheless.  It really poked fun at elements of modern life and the way certain people (yes, including me at times) live. Most of the hilarity comes from the mother; although frequently she is unaware she is being funny:

Canadians versus Americans – “Americans are pushy, obnoxious, neurotic, crass – anything and everything….Canadians are none of that…. To Canadians, everyone is equal.  Joni Mitchell is interchangeable with a secretary at open-mic night. Frank Gehry is no greater than a hack pumping out McMansions on AutoCAD.  John Candy is no fuinnier than Uncle Lou when he gets a couple of beers in him. No wonder the only Canadians anyone’s ever heard of are the ones who have gotten the hell out.”

Chihulys- “Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle.  They’re everywhere, and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them.”

Being ‘right on’ – “Even the Mayor gets in on the action.  There was a comic-book store in my neighbourhood thjat demonstrated great courage by putting up a sign in the window indicating that nobody with pants below their buttocks would be allowed in.  And the mayor said he wanted to get to the root of why kids sag their pants.”

Although it’s light, I learned stuff

Ok, undoubtedly this novel is light.  But not so light that I didn’t learn a few interesting titbits along the way, for instance:

  • The brain is a “discounting mechanism”.  Depending on our life experiences to date, we aren’t all overwhelmed by the same beauty, noise etc.  We get used to things so we can note new things.  This is how we sense danger,
  • When your eyes are softly focussed on the horizon for any length of time your brain releases endorphins, like a runners high, and
  • The South Pole is on an existing ice sheet – every year they move the marker up to 100 feet.

In totalis, my recommendation is: read this book.  It’s an easy, it’s fun, it’s education and it’s different.  What more can you want?

Some thoughts on the Women’s Prize Shortlist

As those of you with eagle eyes will have seen, I am not quite keeping the reading pace necessary to complete the entire Women’s Prize longlist, before the winner is announced on 5 June.  I could provide you with a vast array of excuses, but when it comes down to it, there are simply more books this time, and slightly less time.

Luckily – for me – I have, however, nearly completed 4 out of the 6 novels on the shortlist, announced today.

Completed (green circle)

  • May we be Forgiven – A M Homes
  • Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver
  • Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

Nearly Completed (yellow circle)

  • Where’d you go, Bernadette? – Marie Semple (more on this to follow, tomorrow)

Yet to Read (red circle)

  • Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
  • NW – Zadie Smith

Women_fiction

And, to their credit, I think the Women’s Prize judges have done a sterling job (far better than that of their Man Booker colleagues).  All four are truly wonderful, and unique novels, and I would struggle to pick between them.  It makes sense to me that this prize was well-judged, because well, I have heard of, and respect the judges.

For the next week or two, I will focus my reading efforts on finishing the shortlist.  I hope numbers 5 and 6 are as remarkable.  They have a lot to live up to!  Luckily, they are by two of my favourite authors, so now I have doubly high hopes for them.

No better than average: Ignorance

This is going to be a relatively short post, full of indifference.  Because although there is nothing particularly wrong with Ignorance, there is nothing particularly right with it either.

Ignorance-650x999In my reading life, I have read a lot of Second World War fiction.  And for me, this was nowhere near as memorable as many other novels of this genre.  The characters were insufficiently well-rounded and were almost wholly portrayed as victims, the story didn’t go anywhere and I don’t feel like I learned anything new.  I am not saying it wasn’t well written, just that – I hope – being reasonably well written alone is not a sufficient reason to be nominated for a high-Ignprofile prize.

This isn’t an awful novel, but I wouldn’t say it was worth the time and effort either.  Within a few hours of ending it, it will merge seamlessly with the thousands of other Second World War victim novels and within weeks you will have forgotten about it entirely.  Surely, the winner of the Women’s Prize will be more innovative than this.

 

May we be Forgiven: True Love

We are often told that when you fall in love it is beyond reason.  It is not rational, and all your previously-held and long-voiced thoughts go out of the window.  So it was for me and “May we be Forgiven.”

may

On the face of it, there were so many things about this novel I shouldn’t like:

  1. It has a male protagonist, who, at least at the start, is hard to warm to;
  2. It has a hugely implausible plot line, from beginning to end.  The first few chapters seem unlikely, and that is before the growth of the adopted family, the introduction of the CIA and various Nixon-based turns;
  3. It isn’t at all quotable – I didn’t underline one quote in the entire thing, almost unknown for me; and
  4. The narrative is so fast paced that it almost feels rushed.  It is constantly turning and evolving.  You can’t really talk about twists, because for a twist to have impact, you have to be lulled into a false sense of security.

But despite all of this, I bloody loved it.  I loved it in that way where you can’t put it down, you dream about it, and you actually feel emotionally bereft when it is over.   And there is good reason for that too:

  1. Although it may not seem so at the start, this is an utterly hopeful book, full of redemption;
  2. Equally, this novel is warm and kind, despite the flaws of many of the key characters.  Somehow, in spite of the pace of the narrative, the characters feel well-developed and real;
  3.  The narrative always keeps you with it.  It has a good slow-fast-slow-fast rhythm, so just when everything gets too crazy it gives you time to pause, reappraise, take a deep breath and move on; and
  4.  It is modern.  In all that in some ways it is a commentary on the American Dream, with classic references to Nixon and Willy Loman, it’s approach, style and other key themes are very Twenty-First Century.

The style of the book means I can’t tell you more without ruining something fundamental to it.  But oh God, go and read it – you won’t be disappointed.

Flight Behavior – not really a book about butterflies

This novel left me confused, but thinking.

flight

At the outset it seemed mostly long and slow and depressing.  A book, set in the south, with  a female protagonist  old before her time, with nothing much to hope for.  And this is definitely all true.  And I never did totally warm to the protagonist.  And it was a book about nature.  So it shouldn’t really have stood a chance with me.  But somehow it stuck.

Firstly, it stuck, because I became geekily fascinated by the monarch butterflies and the changes to their flight path, caused by climate change.  You can’t really enjoy this book if you aren’t something of an information sponge, as the sheer amount of data divulged is astonishing.  Luckily, I am a geek, so that was fine.

I also think it stuck because it gave me an insight into a life totally at odds with my own.  A small town life, governed by seasons and farming cycles and local gossip and church on Sunday.  And I understand that there are plenty of novels like this.  But the narrator of this one was the perfect insider / outsider: sometimes part of the crowd, and sometimes a little apart and hyper-aware of the behaviours of those around her.

“They all attended Hester’s church, which Dellarobia viewed as a complicated pyramid scheme of moral debt and credit resting ultimately on the shoulders of the Lord, but rife with middle managers.”

“Being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always and never by herself.”

Finally, I think it stuck because it made me think.

Now, I am not sure the author intended to make me think.  I feel like this whole novel is expressed as a classic education and opportunity = good, poverty and religion =  bad dichotomy. Throughout the novel, those who believe in God, who challenge climate change, who are more old fashioned, less educated and less wealthy, are  self-righteously, insidiously lumped together and labelled “wrong”.  You cannot be one, the book tells you, without the other.  Well, unless you are extra, extra special. Further, it implies this is caused by powers beyond your control.  Both the wealthy and the poor in the novel are guilty of these assumptions, although they express them in their own terms:

“‘I’d say the teams get picked and then the belief get handed around,’ she said.  ‘Team camo, we get the right to bear arms and John Deere and the canning jars and tough love and taking care of our own.  The other side wears I don’t know what, something expensive.  They get recycling and population control and lattes and as many second chances as anybody wants…. the environment got assigned to the other team.  Worries like that are not for people like us’.”

“The theory of the territorial divide. With some confusion, Dellarobia understood this was her theory, he was attributing it to her, though the terms he used were unfamiliar: climate-change denial functioning like folk art or some people, he said, a way of defining survival in their own terms.  But it’s not indigenous, Juliet argues.  It’s like a cargo cult.  Introduced from the outside, corporate motives via conservative media.  But now it’s become fully identified with the icons of local culture, so it’s no longer up for discussion.”

For a book which goes to great lengths to oppose any belief in God, it seems to focus on pre-ordination in another sense.  There is a feeling that life, for each of us, is fixed and cannot be changed or challenged.  That is the way of nature, the novel implies.  And even at the end of the novel, when the protagonist appears to make a new, alternative choice, her options remain so constrained, so small.

But I guess this is why this novel made me think.  What appears small to me would completely alter the course of the protagonist’s life.  In some ways what this novel made me do is reconsider the idea that we are all, to a large degree ‘victims’ of circumstance. And further, to consider whether the only reason I don’t wholly believe that is that my ‘circumstance’ allowed me an almost boundless frontier to play with.  I guess it reminded me that this isn’t true for most, and that their highs and lows, fears and expectations are none the lesser for it.