Books read, January – April 2012
As part of an ongoing attempt to keep better (and more public) track of my reading:
Adventures of a Shopaholic, Sophie Kinsella
An opportunistic read, as this book happened to be hanging around the Marrakech riad where I spent new year, and I wanted an easy read for new year’s day. I had actually read it before, years ago, and remember quite liking it – Kinsela is one of the better chicklit writers, and I generally find her pretty funny; however, in the intervening years the character of Becky seems to have become infinitely more enraging, and I can’t quite see why I ever liked her in the first place.
Sudan’s Wars and Peace Agreements, edited by Jay Spaulding et al.
Fancy academic review available in The Kelvingrove Review.
The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald
I thought I’d read this as a teenager, and vaguely remember misguided adolescent adulation for the dissolute Anthony Patch (akin to my yearning for Sebastian Flyte). Eh. As a jaded adult, the story of Anthony and Gloria has lost enormous parts of its appeal, and Fitzgerald’s writing, which can be absolutely breathtaking, verges here on the overblown. In my head, the couple in Revolutionary Road are the same couple as in The Sheltering Sky, and Anthony and Gloria are another (albeit not quite exact) iteration of them; and I have to say I find them pretty unappealing every time. I’ve lost any tolerance I once had for self-destruction.
“The incident or character may be from life, but the writer usually interprets it in terms of the last book he read.”
“The room was full of morning.” (Now, that’s the sort of Fitzgerald imagery that I’m looking for.)
“It is in the twenties that the actual momentum of life begins to slacken, and it is a simple soul indeed to whom as many things are significant and meaningful at thirty as at ten years before. At thirty an organ-grinder is a more or less moth-eaten man who grinds an organ – and once he was an organ-grinder!” (I suppose I am a simple soul indeed, then.)
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
What a lovely book this is! I think this is one of those novels that Americans grow up reading (though the American with whom I was travelling at the time I read it claimed not to have done so), and the rest of us miss out. I admit I am an easy audience for dog-related things, due to my parents’ fantastic dog, Fido, but I can’t imagine that anyone could come out of this book without thinking that dogs are amazing. (Also, the scene in which Buck pulls the thousand pound sled for Thornton is one of the most gripping and moving I can remember reading of late.)
“There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.”
“He would thrust his nose into the cool wood moss, or into the black soil where long grasses grew, and snort with joy at the fat earth smells”.
The Horse Stealers and Other Stories, Anton Chekhov
I am gradually working my way through Chekhov’s short stories, most of which seem to be available (in the Constance Garnett translations) at Project Gutenberg; having read Lady with a Lapdog in hardcopy back in 2009, I read The Schoolmaster, The Chorus Girl and The Witch collections on my Kindle last year. This collection, I think, moved me a little less than some of the others that I’ve read, but my general view still stands: even though I’m not generally much of a short-story reader, I have never read any better examples of the form than those of Chekhov. His understanding of human nature is unflinchingly acute, and the themes he deals with feel timeless. I don’t understand why he’s primarily known as a playwright when his stories are so brilliant. EVERYONE SHOULD READ HIM, the end.
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Now, this is more like it. It’s still no Gatsby, but it’s infinitely preferable to The Beautiful and Damned, largely due to it having a protagonist whom I only rarely wanted to punch in the face. Despite Amory’s many faults, he’s far more of a life-affirming character than pretty much anyone in The Beautiful and Damned – plus, the book ends in a sort of socialist polemic, which is the sort of thing that is bound to win me over.
“Sudden revulsion seized Amory, disgust, loathing for the whole incident. He desired frantically to be away, never to see Myra again, never to kiss any one; he became conscious of his face and hers, of their clinging hands, and he wanted to creep out of his body and hide somewhere safe out of sight, up in the corner of his mind.” (This is almost precisely how I remember feeling after my own first kiss. Sorry, BP, wherever you are.)
“It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.”
“’Why do we have to do the next thing? It never seems the sort of thing I should do.’”
“’I notice that when you want to stay over an extra day from college you go about it in a sure way. You never decide at first while the merits of going or staying are fairly clear in your mind. You let your imagination shinny on the side of your desires for a few hours, and then you decide. Naturally your imagination, after a little freedom, thinks up a million reasons why you should stay, so your decision when it comes isn’t true. It’s biased.’”
“’Rotten, rotten old world,’ broke out Eleanor suddenly, ‘and the wretchedest thing of all is me – oh, why am I a girl? Why am I not stupid – ? Look at you; you’re stupider than I am, not much, but some, and you can lope about and get bored and then lope somewhere else, and you can play around with girls without being involved in meshes of sentiment, and you can do anything and be justified – and here I am with the brains to do everything, yet tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony. If I were born a hundred years from now, well and good, but now what’s in store for me – I have to marry, that goes without saying. Who? I’m too bright for most men, and yet I have to descend to their level and let them patronize my intellect in order to get their attention. […]
‘Listen,’ she leaned close again, ‘I like clever men and good-looking men, and, of course, no one cares more for personality than I do. Oh, just one person in fifty has any glimmer of what sex is. I’m hipped on Freud and all that, but it’s rotten that every bit of real love in the world is ninety-nine per cent passion and one little soupcon of jealousy.’” (If I ever need convincing about why it’s better to be born a woman now than at any point in history – which mostly I don’t – I just need to read this over.)
“The wet salt breeze filled his hair with moisture, the rim of a moon seared the sky and made the curtains dim and ghostly. He fell asleep.”
“Q – Can you live?
A – I can’t imagine not being able to. People make money in books and I’ve found that I can always do the things that people do in books. Really they are the only things I can do.”
“Youth is like having a big plate of candy. Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again. The matron doesn’t want to repeat her girlhood – she wants to repeat her honeymoon. I don’t want to repeat my innocence. I want the pleasure of losing it again.”
And now for the socialism:
“’Next I’d have a fair trial of government ownership of all industries.’
‘That’s been proven a failure.’
‘No – it merely failed. If we had government ownership we’d have the best analytical business minds in the government working for something besides themselves. We’d have Mackays instead of Burlesons; we’d have Morgans in the Treasury Department; we’d have Hills running interstate commerce. We’d have the best lawyers in the Senate.’
‘They wouldn’t give their best efforts for nothing. McAdoo –‘
‘No,’ said Amory, shaking his head. ‘Money isn’t the only stimulus that brings out the best that’s in a man, even in America.’
‘You said a while ago that it was.’
‘It is, right now. But if it were made illegal to have more than a certain amount the best men would all flock for the one other reward which attracts humanity – honor.’ […]
‘The idea that to make a man work you’ve got to hold gold in front of his eyes is a growth, not an axiom. We’ve done that for so long that we’ve forgotten there’s any other way. We’ve made a world where that’s necessary. Let me tell you’ – Amory became emphatic – ‘if there were ten men insured against either wealth or starvation, and offered a green ribbon for five hours’ work a day and a blue ribbon for ten hours’ work a day, nine out of ten of them would be trying for the blue ribbon. That competitive instinct only wants a badge. If the size of their house is the badge they’ll sweat their heads off for that. If it’s only a blue ribbon, I damn near believe they’ll work just as hard. They have in other ages.’ […]
‘The theory that people are fit to govern themselves rests on this man. If he can be educated to think clearly, concisely, and logically, freed of his habit of taking refuge in platitudes and prejudices and sentimentalisms, then I’m a militant Socialist. If he can’t, then I don’t think it matters much what happens to man or his systems, now or hereafter.’ […]
‘A laissez-faire policy is like spoiling a child by saying he’ll turn out all right in the end. He will – if he’s made to.’”
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
C., with whom I was travelling through West Africa earlier this year, lent me this and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bryson is such an engaging writer (albeit occasionally slipping into self-parody) that he could make almost anything appealing, and he’s able to bring out the fundamental interest in aspects of science that would otherwise seem dry. Probably the most interesting aspect of the book to me is the scientists and explorers Bryson writes about, rather than the science itself, but either way, it’s both readable and erudite.
Reading the Ceiling, Dayo Forster
I picked this up in a bookshop in Bakau, The Gambia, as I’m always keen to read local authors that I might not encounter elsewhere. While I enjoyed the book and its central theme (three parallel stories based on the protagonist Ayodele’s decision about who to lose her virginity to), it’s quite a flawed novel, and feels, in parts, over-workshopped, particularly regarding Gambian-specific imagery; much as I enjoy local colour, this felt overdone, as if some editor somewhere had insisted Forster Gambia it up as much as possible. I was also struck by the fact that all of Ayodele’s parallel futures are, to a greater or lesser degree, sad and unsatisfying, which reads a little like Woman Being Punished for Sex (interestingly subverted by the character of Kainde, one of Ayodele’s sisters, who is portrayed as the most empowered and satisfied female character, and who remains single throughout much of the book, finding love later in life).
“He’s not yet safe in his own body.”
“Whatever [emotion] I manage to fob off during the day slinks back [at night], semi-crouching with tail down and belly skirting the ground.”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
Short but excellent book with an endearing unreliable narrator and a pleasingly ambiguous ending. Everyone has read this book already, so I shan’t go on.
Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta
My friend C. (different C. to the one above – I need to get creative with my pseudonyms) lent this to me when I was staying at hers and needed something quick and absorbing to read. This was absolutely perfect. Growing up in Sydney, I read Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi when I was in high school (it may have been part of our syllabus), and I don’t remember having as strong feelings about it as many people seem to, but that may have been because the setting was just to quotidian for me at the time; seventeen years (bloody hell) after leaving Sydney, I found Saving Francesca extremely nostalgic and very moving. (I am very keen to read the sequel.) There’s not much that re-evokes my Australian side these days, as I’ve been out of the country for so long (and since my parents moved back to the UK in 2007, I no longer have much of an excuse to visit), so it’s always a very pleasant surprise when something does.
Pure, Andrew Miller
I picked this up at my parents’ house at a time that I was finding it difficult to settle to reading anything, and the first part pulled me in straight away, though I found the second half of the book unsatisfying – it was as if it had been set up to be a much, much longer book and had then been rather brutally edited; numerous characters who had been introduced in significant detail early on in the book remained un-fleshed out or even forgotten. I would have preferred it to be half as long again as it was.
The Hunger Games / Catching Fire / Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
My friends A. and P. pushed these books on me when I was staying with them in London, and I absolutely devoured the first one; the second and third I also found compelling but I read them mostly for the sake of completion and to find out how the plot was tied up; by the second book and certainly the third I found the character of Katniss much less engaging (obviously she was suffering from extreme PTSD, but I would venture that characters suffering from severe PTSD don’t necessarily make compelling protagonists), and the whole series seemed to have descended into violence and trauma porn. Plus, post-Twilight, the whole love triangle theme feels played out, though I did rather like Katniss’s indifference to it.
The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay
Following The Hunger Games trilogy and my tearing through the Vorkosigan saga last year, I was keen to read more fantasy and sci-fi, which are not normally genres I seek out (partly due to snobbishness, I confess; partly also due to the fact that I don’t really read much in the way of genre fiction full stop – no mysteries, no detective stories, only horror and historical fiction from specific authors I know I enjoy – because I feel that too often it rests on the assumption that people will buy it for the genre alone, and therefore it doesn’t need as much by way of appealing characterisation, elegant writing and a convincing and engaging plot). I’d had Lions hanging around for ages, legacy (I think) of a book-swap, and also the ardent recommendation of Best Friend from High School J., years and years ago; she also recommended the Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry series to me, back when I was 15 or 16, and I loved it (and was devastated by it) in a very teenage way. Anyhow. In my opinion the strength of Kay’s writing is in his characters, and that’s also true in Lions (I was predictably taken by Ammar ibn-Khairan); he also has a deft touch with a love story. However, I find his exploration of real history through a very thin veneer of fantasy baffling and ultimately disengaging; it kept throwing me out of the story and I wound up just wanting to read a historical analysis of the Reconquista. I’d understand it more if he was going to play around with historical facts, or introduce genuine elements of fantasy or magic, but no: the Jaddites (=Christians) reconquer the Peninsula, the Asharites (=Muslims) are driven to the margins, and the Kindath (=Jews) are persecuted into exile; meanwhile, the only fantastic element of the story seems to be the existence of two moons (and, I suppose, the psychic ability of one of the characters). As a result, while I generally enjoyed the book while I was reading it, I found it surprisingly put-downable.
The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
I actually started reading this in Nairobi airport in December, and I’m not sure why I took so long to finish, as it’s an enjoyable story and the first third, in particular, is very funny. I did note, of course, that reading the book requires not so much a suspension of disbelief as a suspension of morality, as the Musketeers + d’Artagnan go round murdering people to right and left for very little reason; this is never more noticeable than when Athos is telling d’Artagnan the story of his wife, how he found the fleur-de-lys brand on her shoulder: “and so I hanged her,” he says, all matter-of-fact, and d’Artagnan’s like, well, what else are you going to do?
The Magicians / The Magician King, Lev Grossman
While I was on my fantasy/sci-fi kick, various friends recommended these to me, while various others told me they’d disliked them; however someone described them as a cross between Harry Potter and The Secret History, which is the sort of descriptor that’s bound to catch my attention. Ultimately I bloody loved these books, although I was a little uncertain as I was reading the first one, at least; I’m not particularly keen on the main character, Quentin (though I’m not sure the extent to which he’s intended to be likeable), and the first half or so of The Magicians, the Brakebills section, reads a little like a strung together series of Things That Happened to Quentin at Brakebills, rather than having a robust plot. However, I think the central theme of the books – what happens to members of the jaded millennial generation when they’re thrust into a Narnia-esque magical world – is rather genius, and as much as I sometimes rolled my eyes at the central characters’ anhedonic worldviews, to some extent I find them very relatable. Plus, the fact that Grossman has a very engaging blog does help.
Quotes (The Magicians):
“But despite his odd appearance Eliot had an air of effortless self-possession that made Quentin urgently want to be his friend, or maybe just be him period. He was obviously one of those people who felt at home in the world – he was naturally buoyant, where Quentin felt like he had to dog-paddle constantly, exhaustingly, humiliatingly, just to get one sip of air.” (I love Eliot, utterly predictably.)
“’Most people are blind to magic. They move through a blank and empty world. They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it. They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they die.’” (I don’t believe this in the slightest, but I do believe that a lot of people believe this.)
“’That guy was a mystery wrapped in an enigma and crudely stapled to a ticking time bomb. He was either going to hit somebody or start a blog. To tell you the truth I’m kind of glad he hit you.’”
“’This isn’t a story! It’s just one fucking thing after another!’” (I absolutely love this as an illustration of the fiction / real life divide.)
“But he kept on with it [drinking], and soon a deep, pure, luxurious sadness came over him, as heady and decadent as a drug.” (I really enjoy the way Grossman writes.)
And from The Magician King:
“’Out there’ – she pointed out to sea, past the Muntjac’s cozy hurricane lamps, past the faint black-on-blue outlines of the palm trees on the rim of the bay, where the hushing of distant breakers came from – ‘That’s not Fillory. Your kingdom ends here. Here you’re a king, you’re all powerful. You’re not king of any of that. Out there you’re just Quentin. Are you sure that’s going to be enough?’ […]
‘Of course I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘That’s why you go. To find out if it’s enough. You just have to be sure you want to find out.’”
“Only Julia picked at her food, managing a bite every few minutes, like her body was an unloved pet that she was being forced to babysit.”
“The pain was amazing, like a pulsing flare hanging there in the softening early evening, an evening star. Not looking, he couldn’t have said with absolute confidence if the pain was even located inside his body.” (Possibly the best description of extreme pain I have ever read. Reminds me a little of a line from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, in which Seth describes Lata as experiencing “a misery so complete she could not believe it was she who was feeling it” – paraphrase, as sadly I do not have a copy of the book with me. MAKE IT AVAILABLE ON KINDLE, PEOPLE. It’s far too big to carry around.)
“’You’re saying the gods don’t have free will.’
‘The power to make mistakes,’ Penny said. ‘Only we have that. Mortals.’”
The Street Sweeper, Eliot Perlman
Way back when I was living in Azerbaijan, I picked up a copy of Perlman’s novel Three Dollars from an Australian who was leaving the country, and I remember finding it enjoyable but a little forgettable. (I wonder if I would react differently to it now.) Then in March I saw Perlman read from The Street Sweeper at Glasgow’s Aye Write festival, at a session I was mostly attending to see Caroline Moorehead (whose book on refugees, Human Cargo, I read back in 2010 and is absolutely brilliant). However I really enjoyed Perlman’s reading (and, I confess, may have developed a tiny crush on him), and so picked up The Street Sweeper, a novel that intertwines the Holocaust with the US Civil Rights movement, and which I found largely excellent – perhaps a little too neatly life-affirming, given the context, but who am I to comment? There was one element in the central story of Adam Zigelnik that I found slightly disappointing (which I won’t go into, to avoid spoilers), largely because I thought Perlman was going to take the slightly braver route – but I can see why he wrote it the way he did. Recommended.
The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver
Like Reading the Ceiling, another parallel-lives story. I have a lot of respect for Shriver, as I loved We Need to Talk about Kevin (another book that I reread recently, and found it to be just as good as I’d remembered). However, I’m not sure about her female characters. Eva Khachadourian in Kevin is clearly meant to be ambiguous and difficult to like, so it works within the context of the book, but I had the impression that Irina, the protagonist of The Post-Birthday World, was supposed to be much more sympathetic, whereas to me she replicated a lot of what I’d disliked in Eva – in particular, the fact that all her decisions are driven by the need for a man in her life. I get the impression that Shriver believes this to be an essentially female trait (though almost certainly I’m being unfair; after all, I’ve only read two of her books), whereas I strongly disagree. Ultimately it made Irina much less relatable to me, and I had a hard time caring much about what happened to her. (Now that I come to think about it, I felt that to a certain extent she was a cipher – I have a far clearer picture in my mind of both primary male characters, even Lawrence, the supposedly boring one.)
Un Lun Dun, China Miėville
A number of my friends swear by Miėville, and I’d tried a Kindle sample of The City and the City but not been gripped by it at all. This, however, I thoroughly enjoyed, and I particularly liked its subversion of the Chosen One trope, as well as its London setting. I’m not sure if I’m sufficiently compelled to pick up more Miėville, but you never know.
As Meat Loves Salt, Maria McCann
This was recommended in an interview with Lionel Shriver in the back of The Post-Birthday World, and so I picked it up for my Kindle. It’s a fascinating and very disturbing read that I keep going back to – very well-researched historical fiction, with a couple of intriguing characters at its heart, particularly Jacob, through whose eyes the story is told; I do love a good unreliable narrator.