Just read, The Chateau by William Maxwell

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Oh dear, I haven’t been posting much lately, I haven’t been posting at all… What has happened is that I have thoroughly underestimated how much time I’d have to spend on study this time around. I’ve been studying part time for several years, inching my way to a history degree while working. I’ve been enjoying it immensely but the course I’m doing at the moment, on 20th century just has a huge amount of reading – some compulsory but mostly it’s all been so interesting that I can’t quite help myself so I read more and more: have already bought 14-15 books on top of what’s available through my course so this has basically taken over my life… Anyway, William Maxwell’s The Chateau arrived a few months ago as part of my Daunt fiction subscription and I picked it up – not deliberately other than on some subconscious level, perhaps, just as we were studying postwar reconstruction in Europe and Marshall Plan. As it happens, Harold and Barbara Rhodes, the couple at the centre of the story travel to France in 1948 to spend the summer and it was interesting to compare a fictional account with the political, social and economic I studied. It is a grand tour of sorts, albeit one that deals with search for friendships and intimacy rather than art and architecture of the old world. Barbara and Harold are a happy couple but many of the characters they meet are not. For the French, there are burdens of years spent under German occupation, of wartime destruction, rationing. The Americans, on the other hand, appear to have it all, confidence, youth, nylon stockings, sugar and hunger to see, experience, do.  Much of the story takes place at the chateau where Barbara and Harold spend a couple of weeks and later in Paris where they see some of the people they’d met at the chateau again. There are uncomfortable silences, stilted conversations and misunderstandings, not helped by the language barrier when all Barbara and Harold want is to be accepted, to be open with everyone they meet, to make friends. Barbara and especially Harold spend a lot of time worrying whether they have said or done the right thing, hurt when it seems that someone they’d reached a level of intimacy with one day, reverts back to coolness or aloofness next time they meet. I enjoyed this book a lot, it is a wonderful study of character, what we present to the world and what we keep inside. Beautifully written and engaging, it’s a rewarding read. I’ve already passed it on for others to enjoy. I think it will be doing the rounds for some time.

 

Recent books, fiction

A group book post since I never got around to posting up recent reads individually. To be frank, none were amazing so I may as well bundle them together. First up, A Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington, one of the books Daunt sent me last year as part of the fiction subscription. It took me a while to get through it, I stopped half way a month or so ago and only picked it up again last week in order to get it done, not because I was particularly enjoying it. It takes place in East Berlin during the early/ mid eighties and deals with fear, paranoia, insecurities – the usual sort of Eastern Block stuff and love. I found it tough going because there wasn’t anything particularly redeemable or interesting about the main character. I hoped this would change but it didn’t and there was no real depth to any of the other characters, even the love interest. Afraid I get bored with inner monologues that go on forever and this book felt like a one long inner monologue. It’s not meditative or poetic like a Kundera book and I just found it lacking depth overall.

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Beloved gave me S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst for Christmas, which I enjoyed a lot more than the above. This story within a story within a story is a bit meta and took a while to get into and focus but once I did, I read it pretty quickly. It’s had quite a bit of press for the innovative design – it features a ‘book’ called Ship of Theseus by a chap called V.M. Straka, which a college girl finds in a library with some handwritten notes, she writes notes of her own and thus begins correspondence with a postgrad student to whom Straka’s book belongs. The pair also leave ephemera for each other in the book as they attempt to unravel mysteries and conspiracies surrounding the identity of author, his translator and various other interwar figures. As they correspond, their relationship deepens.

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The outer packaging and the inner book. The relationship in the notes, ‘written’ in different colour pens over time (photo below) I found more interesting and engaging than the story of  Ship of Theseus, although this was pretty good too. The actual search for Straka’s identity I found less plausible, mainly because here the fiction (Straka and the circle of people presumed to be Straka) is occasionally interwoven with real events and real characters. The historical elements, I thought, could have been better researched. The search for Straka’s identity then also slowly develops into discovery of a love story so on top of everything else there are several layers of love stories and not all of them work equally well. On top of that (see, full on meta!), the authors have left a few unsolved mysteries for readers to look into. So we’re in Lost territory and I was not a fan. Otherwise, I liked the idea of S, it reminded me a little of William Boyd and the trick he played on the gullible art world with the imaginary artist Nat Tate – although I am not sure whether Boyd deliberately set out to trick anyone. I liked the interactive elements and I liked the commitment it required of the reader. Example of the ‘interior’ below.

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Finally, some quick sci fi/ fantasy kindle reads. Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson won several awards last year and sounded interesting: Arab spring, hacktivism, religion with elements of fantasy. Interestingly, I liked the religion bit the most – place of faith in modern society. The story revolved around a manuscript, a sort of an opposite of A Thousand and One Nights and I wished the manuscript text featured more, also the djinn, the ‘unseen’ supernatural characters. They were more interesting than the main characters, who were not particularly well developed and neither was the ending. An OK read I guess.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, I found out later, has been dubbed ‘biopunk’. This book, too, won awards a few years back and I enjoyed the concept although it wasn’t too original: Earth with fossil fuels used up, rising water levels and temperatures a la Drowned World, corporations engineering foods and AI and everything else. It’s fast paced and fun although it was running out of steam towards the end. Same with Redshirts by John Scalzi – this I haven’t even finished because it was running out of steam half way through. Struggled to about 70 something percent (on kindle again) but there’s no point in continuing. Beloved had to explain what ‘redshirts’ meant in Star Trek terms but Scalzi also does this, it seems unnecessarily. No idea why this book also won awards and that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Just read Stoner, John Williams

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Stoner by John Williams got a lot of attention earlier this year. It is not a new book, it was written in the sixties and recently reissued by Vintage Classics. Daunt bookshop sent it to me as one of the monthly fiction subscription books just at the time when reviews started popping up. The reviews were unusual, I thought, book reviewers don’t really have time to review all the new books let alone reissues so I thought it must be good.  Yet I didn’t think the story was really something I like reading about because it is about a man and his life in which nothing much happens. I’d picked Stoner up in early September or thereabouts, having just read a whole load of books where lots of things happened and I don’t think I was in the right frame of mind for it. I’d read about 50 pages then left it and got back into non-fiction, history reading for the course I’m doing.  Not long ago, a friend asked if I’d read it and I felt a bit guilty for just leaving it and also for saying that it wasn’t really the sort of book I liked. So I picked it up again two days ago, I felt calmer than I have in a long while, finally feeling the stress levels from work and study over recent months beginning to subside. I thought maybe Stoner and I could get on now. And we did, as soon as I picked it up again, something clicked immediately. This is a deliberately deceptive book, it is almost as if the author wants to put you off the story at the start by saying how nothing really happens to Stoner, the main character and perhaps compared to some other people’s lives, Stoner’s life is inconsequential but at the same time, it is a remarkably rewarding read. Beautifully written, very clever and life affirming. At one point, I thought it reminded me of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, the life affirming thing, but where Boyd’s book is vibrant and vivid, Stoner has a quiet intensity no less gripping. I think it’s a wonderful book to read over Christmas holidays, blanket, fireplace (if you have it, I read most of it on the bus) and all that. I was very wrong to assume Stoner would be a bit dull and this is what I liked about the book the most I think – sometimes it’s good to persist with something you think you don’t like at first because you may be surprised.

Just read The Man Who was Thursday, GK Chesterton

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I made a mistake of picking The Man Who was Thursday up to read in bed and kept falling asleep after every 2-3 pages. As a result, it took longer to get into it than I would have liked. It actually took me a long while to read it and it’s a pretty short book. It is very funny though, surprising and unexpected. I didn’t know anything about it beforehand other than that it being a classic that perhaps defied easy classification – Beloved actually picked it up in a second hand bookshop, not me but, being on The Guardian’s 1,000 books list, which I follow on and off, I knew I wanted to read it at some point. It was classified under sci fi and fantasy, a broad catch-all. I may have also read a Father Brown novel and a bit about Chesterton when I worked to promote a publishing company reissuing certain old authors many moons ago. This was at the start of digital printing and I found that nobody really seemed to care about old authors, which was a bit sad.

Anyway, back to The Man Who was Thursday, once I moved it from the bedroom and started reading it during the day, it was a very quick read. I think ‘metaphysical thriller’, the label that springs up on googling, suits the book better. It is funny but also questioning. Chesterton’s subtitle was ‘A Nightmare’, and this made sense although there isn’t anything really nightmarish about it. It is satyrical and allegorical too so it’s really all sorts of things. Difficult to name any in particular without giving away the plot, which I don’t want to do other than to say that involves poets, police, anarchists, false identities, chases, elephants and religion among other things. And a very cutting remark or two about class society. Even though it was written in 1908 it is pretty timeless. It’s a very good, quick read and while it won’t appeal to everyone, I certainly enjoyed it.

It’s also provided me with a much needed diversion and respite from both super busy work and intense study. Work’s always busy at this time of the year but ‘school’ is busier than usual as this new course I’m doing on twentieth century history has so much reading – it’s fantastic but I can’t help myself from wanting to read everything. Not that this is necessary but there is so much fascinating stuff available that I’m finding it really difficult to stop and move on. Intense, in a good way.

Recent reads, Patrick Rothfuss and Ruth Ozeki

Perhaps I am suffering from a sort of literary fiction overload. I’ve read loads of it over the summer but for the past 4-6 weeks I’ve found it very hard to read anything other than science fiction/ fantasy/ dystopia/ YA books. I’ve let my ‘pile of shame’ of books (literary fiction for the most part) grow and grow while I’ve downloaded and devoured a whole load of books on kindle and these have been mostly pretty bad but also pretty addictive. So as Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for The Time Being arrived in the post from Daunt Books, I thought it was time to go cold turkey on dystopia and get on with a ‘proper’ book, a recent release (those tend to sit on my shelf and by the time I get to them are practically considered ‘classics’) with all these wonderful reviews and a Booker shortlist to its name. Yes, well, I thought wrong (it’ll probably win the Booker now).

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I liked the beginning and then shortly after, I found myself slowly but increasingly irritated by it. I stopped just over a hundred pages in because the book just didn’t grab me and it all began feeling a bit contrived. I don’t know whether I will finish it, the thought of picking it up again is almost as irritating but I have read books that have irritated me in the past that I persisted with and was rewarded by afterwards, glad to admit my mistakes. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace is one example and Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec another. So while being in two minds about Ruth Ozeki’s book, I downloaded yet another fantasy series – The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss and read it with a patience I don’t usually have for fantasy. I totally loved this – there was something Dune-ish about it (age + arc of the main character), something Lord of the Rings-ish (the languages, the songs), also something romantic about all that music, the adventures, the mythology and finally something distinctly George R.R. Martin-ish in the fact that I’ve now read both of the published books and have a feeling the third and final book will take Rothfuss a while. I would like to read it now please.

And the reason for my patience with The Kingkiller Chronicle is very simple – after a whole summer off history and non-fiction (thought I needed a break), I’ve a new uni course and a load of books on 20th century history to occupy me on the daily bus journey to and from work so can only read fiction in spare time. This morning, as I dipped into The Age of Extremes for a bit of research I realised I’ve totally missed Eric Hobsbawm. Perhaps my current book ennui is totally down to going cold turkey on non-fiction? Must learn to balance better and in the little spare time that I’ll have over the next 8 months, try to stay off silly books and silly books that think they’re clever.

Just read, Darkmans by Nicola Barker

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Oh dear, I think this is one of the most irritating books I’ve read in a very long time. I don’t think myself lucky to be alive at the same time as her, sorry Ali Smith. It’s not a terrible book by any means, there are some great ideas, themes and characters  but the book lacked cohesion as if everything was just taken for a stroll in the park then left to fend for itself. Too many characters, no plot to speak of, no central idea other than characters being loosely linked by the ‘darkmans’ of the title but not really because the whole ‘darkmans’ idea didn’t feel properly developed either. Some other ideas, notably about the language, I liked but this became very repetitive and again, not taken anywhere. Repetition almost seemed to be a theme and it got a bit boring. Love, loss and grief feature but not to a degree that you could say this is what the book is about, there are some history bits that feel a bit far fetched (the life of John Scogin, the supposed court jester who may or may not have existed in real life and, according to the book, seems to have lived for well over a 100 years). I think the worst thing for me is that this book was over 800 pages long and relentless. I didn’t find it funny enough to sustain my interest, I found the repetition unnecessary, the structure too – as if someone was screaming on a loop inside my head and I wanted to tell them to just pause and take a breath. It’s as if Barker tried to cram everything she could think of then she went away, thought of a few more things and threw them in too. Then just left them all there and sort of attempted to tie it all up with one bit of a speech/ message at the end, this in itself was actually quite good but by then I just didn’t really care anymore and wanted the whole thing over and done with. So glad I only had this book on kindle and not in actual paperback. Carrying that about would have driven me mad. Well, at least it’s done now.

Just read, Dune by Frank Herbert

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I’ve a bit of a sci fi/ dystopia/ fantasy/ YA reading obsession at the moment, which shows no signs of abating. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve read some quite bad-to-average novels in the style of The Hunger Games, none of which came close to it (Mortal Instruments, The Bone Season and Divergent, which was a little more enjoyable as far as these types of books go) and also The Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence, which I enjoyed a lot. Then it dawned on me that I should probably have a look at The Guardian’s 1,000 novels list and pick out some good sci fi books as I got all YA’d out.  If I’d only looked at the list first, I would have saved myself a lot of time… I wander now why I’d never read Dune before, it’s exactly the type of book I love reading and getting lost in: a complex universe with amazingly well realised worlds, great mythology, strong characters, good story. It was written nearly 50 years ago and these ladies writing today’s dystopian fantasies (not that Dune is a dystopian fantasy) should really read a classic or two before attempting to emulate the success of The Hunger Games or reaching anything like the complexity of His Dark Materials. I guess complexity is of little interest. What surprises me is that Hollywood seems to be throwing money at them because they sell – the reason I read Mortal Instruments in the first place was seeing the trailer for the film and thinking it could be fun. Yet I wander how many younger people would read Dune? While it usually features on sci fi classics lists, I wander how many people buy it nowadays. The main character is of a similar age but I suppose that’s where the similarities stop. A quick look at Goodreads.com shows both Mortal Instruments and Divergent having higher scores than Dune, which is a bit sad. Perhaps I should blame Kyle MacLachlan but my memory of the film (it has been a while) is that it wasn’t too bad. Beloved informs me that we have it so I’d like to watch it again, having read the book.  Anyway, glad I finally read Dune, I devoured it really and enjoyed it very much.