Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Two that got away. Or rather, I let them escape. Good riddance.

I didn't have time to go to the library, so I was stuck with all the books here that I haven't read. In all fairness, there's a good few of them, and my reasons for not reading them are often not that good... So first I tried Flann O'Brien, to be more precise I tried reading The Third Policeman.

See, I have this (Irish) cousin whom I used to be great friends with, but we haven't really seen each other for years (I think we could probably easily pick up the relationship though if we got together), and she used to get me books with a capital L for "Literature one should read". For example, she gave me Doris Lessing I think, and Solzhenitsyn, and one of the Irish writers she could me for my education was Flann O'Brien. This was back in our teens. And I did try to read it then, but I didn't get it and put it away. Now, at the age of 31, surely I'm more mature and can appreciate more things? Surely now I can read Flann O'Brien and enjoy, or at least appreciate the humour?

No. Because it's shite. Jesus, I cannot stand this type of writing. James fecking Joyce has a lot to answer for, in my opinion. This is a typical quote:

"That is the real point" said MacCruiskeen, "but it is so thin that it could go into your hand out in the other extremity externally and you would not feel a bit of it and you would see nothing and hear nothing. It is so thin that maybe it does not exist at all and you could spend half an hour trying to think about it and you could put no thought around it in the end. The beginning part of the inch is thicker than the last part and is nearly there for a fact but I don't think it is if it is my private opinion that you are anxious to enlist."

Actually, that's one of the more sensible bits. Not the best example. I gave up. It started out pretty good though, so I had some hopes. But when he starts yapping to these three policemen at the station (apparently he's dead and in limbo or something, which explains the oddness, but I still can't take it) it gets to be too much. No no no.

Then, I tried reading The Last of the Mohicans (by James Fennimore Cooper). Just for fun. Millions of young lads have plowed through this at a far tenderer age than I, so surely it must be readable?

No. This is another one to scream SHUT UP at. I had imagined that I should feel some liking for the white scout Hawk-Eye (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film...), but he is a petulant, wordy, self-important twit. It would send you to sleep so it would. I only got as far as I did because I was at work and had NOTHING else to do. Definitely a case of the film being better than the book, and after all the film isn't that strong either.

Interesting introduction though.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Isabel Dalhousie x 2 by Alexander McCall Smith

Mr Bani bought me Friends, Lovers, Chocolate as an impromptu gift, and also borrowed the sequel, The Right Attitude to Rain for me from his colleague. In the former our philosopher Isabel discovers that she is not only fond of but actually romantically interested in her niece Cat's former boyfriend Jamie, and in the latter the two of them do really hit it off.

While reading these I was also thinking about how come I prefer the Mma Ramotswe series, when really the tone set in the two series is not that dissimilar. Is it just exotism on my part? I don't think so... I think that the Botswana books will always work better for the simple reason that a detective agency is a good frame for the problem-solving, whereas with Isabel Dalhousie one only has her nosiness as an excuse and that sometimes doesn't seem sufficient. I mean, the author has to chuck in a few too many coincidences to make it fly, I think. Also, for some reason Isabel seems a little more remote as a character. I'm not sure why. Perhaps the fact that Precious Ramotswe has experienced such pain in her life (the loss of her child for example) makes her more believable as a character... no, now I sound a little unfair, since Isabel too has experienced loss... Maybe it's that Precious's flaws are more explicit, thus making her more human, whereas Isabel's flaws aren't portrayed as clearly?

But it's quite sweet all the same.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is The Night

Many many years ago, when I was much too young really, I read The Great Gatsby. And failed to get it. My lingering impression of the book is... nothing, boredom perhaps. (In some ways perhaps this is not a wrong thing to take with me from reading Fitzgerald, since lassitude is a prevailing theme in his stories of the Jazz Generation.) The lesson one must learn is to Not Read Classics when you're Too Young just to Seem Smart. If you don't get it, you've gone and destroyed a perfectly good book and/or author for nothing.

More due to lack of anything else I did however pluck Tender Is The Night from the bookshelf the day before yesterday. I really didn't feel like giving The Great Gatsby another try - coward that I am - and also I needed a thicker book to last me through a whole day at work. Just in case. There is nothing worse than running out of reading material at work. Oh, and guess grace à qui we own both books? Yup, thanks to mr. Self-Improvement...gotta love him. *smooch*

Tender Is The Night is a story of a marriage between a doctor and a former mental patient, and how their life together and marriage disintegrates slowly. I think it falls apart because they can't think and live outside their roles as weak v. capable, sick v. healthy, young v. older etc. - but what do I know, this wasn't a Wordsworth edition with a handy clever preface to help me know what I should think... It is in large part drawn from Fitzgerald's own experiences, since his wife Zelda was mentally ill. This autobiographical slant does shine through quite strongly. The novel feels very bare and true in the parts that relate to the illness. Also, I find it fascinatingly modern that Nicole's illness can be traced to an incestous father - although in those days she is to some extent considered an accomplice. There are plenty of very modern ideas in the book, and all people who have the misplaced idea that people were somehow better, more "moral" and such things "back then" should read it.

I liked loads of things about it, the description of "global" Americans living abroad for example - feels rarer nowadays. Somehow though I never really grew to care much about the characters. Maybe I didn't feel like I got to understand their motives properly, what made them tick. Maybe I'm too rooted in my time, and I'd need to read a book like this more slowly, to understand what's written between the lines better. But it's poignant, sad, yet not hopeless, and ultimately both readable and recommendable. I think I'll give mr. Gatsby another go sometime in the near future, and compare the two. Possibly Fitzgerald's good points will come across better in The Great Gatsby, since it's shorter. I mean, it must be more succint, I think.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ngaoi Marsh: Spinsters in Jeopardy

I'd forgotten this one, had to return it today because it was late. Bad Bani. It's not one of Marsh's best, but it had it's moments - not that I remember them well now, so they can't have been that great... Alleyn and Troy and their six-year-old son are on a holiday in France, which they've combined with work for Alleyn. The two missions (holiday and work) happen to come together when Troy is accidentally introduced to the mansion where the drug-dealing cult is based. And then their son is kidnapped. But it's all very British stiff-upper-lip in places.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ian McEwan: Enduring Love

Another of mr Bani's buys. On the cover is a quote from Bill Bryson saying that it's "beautifully written" and "utterly compelling from the very first page". I suspect that Bryson is very attracted to our main character, Joe Rose, who is a scientist-turned-writer/television persona. Now, it is well written - but it ain't all that, all the same.

The storyline is that Joe Rose and his wife witness a hot-air balloon accident, resulting in one death. Another man present, Jed, meets Joe's eyes immediately afterwards, and this results in a sickly romantic fixation (on behalf of Jed, not Joe). So while Joe and his wife are trying to cope with the trauma of witnessing the tragedy and the guilt, they also have to cope with Jed stalking Joe. And Joe's wife is none too sure that it's not all in Joe's head, or that he isn't in some way causing it.

The novel starts out very philosophical. A lot of thinking, a lot of what-ifs and if-onlys. Sort of like Jonathan Safran Foer, whom I must now admit that I never finished reading (but I blame the fact that it was a translation and I never got sucked in). I liked this bit, and by the time it started becoming a more conventional thriller-type story I still had high hopes that it would be original, thanks to the pensive beginning. However, it doesn't live up to expectation IMO, but sort of peters out into a predictable showdown. And then we get some sort of epilogue that purports to be written by the psychologists in charge of Jed, who sum up the nature of his fixation, describe its causes and cures, and also slip in the "what happened next".

I'm not sure what to make of that. I usually quite like that kind of genre-mixing, but I was disappointed this time.

Joyce Carol Oates: Mother Missing

I believe this novel has earned Oates lots of praise. My sister lent it to me, and said that she wasn't too impressed by it, she found it too childish. At the time I didn't really see what she meant, but then I haven't read much Oates, only Big Mouth, Ugly Girl which is aimed at teens. I remembered a sort of childish style, but figured it was the genre (teen lit). Now I do see what she means. As an adult novel this comes across as a bit flat and over-simple. I don't know if I find it that strong and powerful as some of the reviewers seem to have done!

Nikki Eaton likes her life as the black sheep of the family, she loves her mother but is exasperated by her unspoken and spoken demands. One day she comes home and finds her mother murdered. The rest of the novel is about Nikki (and to a certain extent her goody-goody sister) coping with the grief, and also about Nikki discovering some things about her mother she never imagined. There is an idea in the book that it's good to be nice - Nikki's mother was very nice and caring, with empathy for the most stray of creatures - but it's not that well explored. In my opinion it's one of the books most interesting themes, but it gets lost a bit.

It's clearly quite personal though, and I did have the odd cry. Bits are more emotionally compelling than others.

Michael Innes: A Connoisseur's Case

A rather early one.

Appleby and his wife Judith visit an old uncle, and stumble across the murder of an old man who recently returned to the neighbourhood from Canada. I can't be arsed to go into detail here, the memory of it has almost faded by now, I read it weeks ago... anyway, there is a mansion and a canal tunnel and a pub owner... I dunno, it was enjoyable, but fleetingly so.

So, The Scarlet Letter

I didn't enjoy this as much as I did Silas Marner, I'll admit, but it was still an good read. Personally I found Hawthorne's style a little too wordy and lumbered. That said - does one ever feel the wings of history beating about one's ears while reading this book! I didn't know anything about Hawthorne, so his biographical information was tremendously interesting - like, how his ancestor was a judge during the Salem trials. It's quite unusual in an American author to find this sense of being burdened by history, being tied to a particular place on the continent, rooted.

The story is of a Puritan town, in which a woman living without her husband becomes pregnant and gives birth to a girl. She is accused and condemned of adultery, but refuses to say who the child's father is. Her sentence is to always wear a capital A pinned on her clothing. Perversely (in the original sense of the word), she sews her A in scarlet, and embroiders it finely (she is an expert needlewoman). In time her humility and moral fibre lead to people starting to view the A as a badge of honour rather than dishonour.

I was thinking that this could make a rather fine film (thus eliminating the wordiness). A friend of mine claimed it had been filmed, with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman - I remember that monstrosity vaguely, and to me it doesn't have much to do with the spirit of the book that I'd like portrayed on the screen. The Demi Moore one is some sort of action flick. I'd like a more thoughtful tale, about the moral anguish the adulterers go through. After all, Hester admits she is a sinner. She doesn't resent her punishment on the grounds that what she did wasn't a sin and thus punishable. She wishes to be reminded of the fact that she was weak. This is a fascinating mindset to explore. Possibly someone like Tykwer could manage it.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A classic: Silas Marner by George Eliot

One of those books that we've owned for ages, and I never read it, thinking that ah sure, it won't run away. Plus I thought it was a depressing book. For some reason. About misery and stuff.

But I was wrong. It's an adorable little story about a lonely weaver who lives for his money, and is devastated when it is stolen. Then chance sends him a little orphan to care for, instead of his gold. It's moral, and suffused with good. I loved it. We have a Wordsworth edition, and as you may know they come with very good introductions written by Clever People, and I even enjoyed that - it truly enhanced my reading experience. So now, on a classics kick, I'm reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, another book I've always assumed was on some dull subject, but it isn't. I haven't gotten that far yet, but I already stand corrected.

Right, that's all I'm able for today.