I’ve not been very good at keeping a decent reading list because, quite frankly, my reading has not been very good. This decline in form must have begun some halfway through last year, when the only thing I was reading for was my dissertation, and really got a bit sick of reading. But the new year is a good time to begin again in the manner in which one intends to continue, so I’ve done my best. I’ve never much gone in for something as solid as a resolution; the only thing I knew when I entered the year was the simple desire to read more, and to write more.
Henry Miller, Black Spring
Patrick de Witt, The Sisters Brothers
Nicholas Royle, Quilt
Anaïs Nin, Diaries of Anaïs Nin, Vol. II
Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain
Jack Kerouac, Lonesome Traveller
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay
Jonathan Kemp, London Triptych
Jonathan Kemp, Twentysix
Erland Loe, Naïve. Super
It has been an extraordinary three months of reading. Free from dissertation and all expectation, I read whatever caught my fancy, and this resulted in a reading list of quality and variety, and some pleasant surprises too.
From this list I have already written on some of the most interesting books and authors, including Anaïs Nin, and Patrick de Witt and Cormac McCarthy, but there are several that deserve at least a mention; not least Jennifer Egan’s really excellent A Visit from the Goon Squad. If I were the kind of girl, and this the kind of blog that had a ‘Book of the Quarter’, I’m fairly confident A Visit from the Goon Squad would be it. Not because I found it the most interesting to me, in terms of either language or content – that prestige I believe would go to Jack Kerouac – and even though I read it with an appetite I don’t recall reading with since the days of Harry Potter, I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games even quicker. What attracted me to this book, apart from the rave reviews and hype that brought it to my attention, was the life and vitality of the prose.
From the first page I was drawn in; it’s a very enjoyable book to read. Characters are interesting, believable and engaging. The novel, narrated from different points in time and the viewpoints of many characters, in that ensemble cast kind of form, so that their stories overlap. Egan does a very skilful job of this; she endows each story with a light and life of its own, and they build to create a very satisfying whole. Some chapters were moving, others were gripping; the chapter, ‘Selling the General’ in particular has haunted my thoughts to a degree, for the way it combines this extraordinary, believable humanity, with characters that are quite utterly flawed but still somehow relatable, and this stark thriller scenario.
Another really appealing thing about this book is that it seems to work equally well for both men and women, at least from my limited experience – which is to say both my mother and my father read it before me and seemed to enjoy it as much as each other. Nevertheless, I will endeavour with this line of thinking. It is written by a woman, this is one thing, and though much of its content is masculine in tone, the sympathetic relationships, ongoing character development and cross-connections the book plays with will, I think, especially please a female audience. It was interesting for me to note that my mother and I both found it easier to read than my father; we both enjoyed the puzzle of working out the connections, while my dad found this more difficult. I wondered over possible psychological/sociological reasons for this for a while, but as I’m no anthropologist I hesitate to draw any conclusions from this.
My single criticism of this book is that I think it ought to have ended a chapter earlier. The penultimate chapter is brilliant – it is set out as a simple slideshow, and I admit I was sceptical about this technique at first, distrusting unconventional forms as gimmick. But Egan employs this device with such skill that I was outright convinced. Something about the way Egan manages to reveal a great deal in a sparsity of a prose is a real coup d’état, and I felt it wrapped up the story so well, that the final chapter felt like a shame even before I’d started reading it. And it was a shame. Of all the chapters it is the least credible; it felt unnecessary and almost irrelevant, and it focused on the least interesting character in the book so far. So it was a shame.
The other books that might vie for the title of ‘Book of the Quarter’ would certainly include Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveller, which I loved perhaps even more than A Visit from the Goon Squad. I liked Egan’s novel because it was energetic and readable, but in some ways Lonesome Traveller was a much richer surprise. What I loved about this book was the language. Colloquial, poetic, idiosyncratic, and completely at ease, natural, I was half submerged in it because it was lovely to read; but the other half of me read it as a writer thinking how does he do that? The one particular phrase which has stuck with me as a perfect example of what I mean is disappointingly short, just two words: ‘silly tub’. As in the curtailed text of penultimate chapter of AVFTGS, those two words contain this incredible wealth of meaning. They contain wit, humour, and affection, and just about everything you need to know about the way Kerouac feels about the boat he’s on.
Some lengthier examples then:
‘HAVE YOU SEEN A GREAT FREIGHTER SLIDE by in the bay on a dreamy afternoon and as you stretch your eyes along the iron serpentine length in search of people, seamen, ghosts, who must be operating this dreaming vessel so softly parting harbour waters of its steel-shin bow with snout pointed to the Four Winds of the World you see nothing, no – one, not a soul?’
‘And O the lost insane gulls yowking around a grey and restless shroud at the moving poop’
Lonesome Traveller has a warmth to it, a love, humour, and a sense of beauty that is irresistible. I enjoyed it more than On The Road.
The other book or series of books that surprised me and caught my attention this quarter was Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. My sister had lent them to me a while ago; seeing a trailer of the soon-to-be released (already released by now, of course) film inspired me to read them, since I’d nothing else to read at the time. And my goodness. As I’ve already hinted, these are books to be utterly devoured. I read the last one in the span of about five or six hours huddled up in bed, feeling enormously guilty but also rather delighted. I should mention that I was also horribly ill at the time.
So the premise of the books riffs off our reality TV phenomenon, in a dystopian Battle Royale scenario. I think Collins has done a remarkable job. So what I liked about the Hunger Games starts with the premise. There is a degree of romance in the trilogy, a love triangle, which seems a device that’s a little inescapable in YA literature a times, but happily the love story takes a back seat to blood and gore, politics and war. I’ve a bit of a predilection for dystopian scenarios and, honestly, I think they make good reading material for young adults. The vision offered by Collins’ book is by no means original, but this isn’t important; what’s important is to see young people questioning authority, questioning the status quo and learning to understand the world and their place in it in a much bigger way. And what’s also impressive is how Collins resists offering easy solutions. Her characters make good decisions and bad ones, they get things wrong. Often, they’re simply carried along by circumstances beyond their control. Best of all, The Hunger Games is the kind of book that makes the reader think for herself.
I found the romantic angle to provide a necessary human cheesy tenderness to balance out the girt, because the book gets pretty dark. Moreover the characters involved are not dazzling archetypes and specimens of humanity, and it’s a plausibly handled. Collins never loses sight of the fact that her characters are the product of their world and the situations they are really just thrown into. They have a chance to be heroic and they acquit themselves well, but at the end of the day and the end of the book, Collins’ three protagonists especially have been to hell and back, and changed accordingly. We are left with damaged, battered people. Although the final book of the trilogy has received some negative reviews, and there were several things in it I really wished I could have changed, the ending was not at all a disappointment. Rather sombre and sad, but really quite poignant, almost profound: it was characteristic of what makes this book so surprising.
The Hunger Games I really works because of this interesting combination of slush and insight. Collins connects exceptionally well with the reality TV concept –I first described the book as a dystopian America’s Next Top Model, and I largely stick by that. In the opening ceremony, interviews, and multiple extravagant costume changes, Collins hits the nail on the head. I also found myself reading with the same addiction and the same feeling of guilty pleasure you get from watching reality TV. Written from the first person perspective in present tense, the prose is designed to make you get caught up in the midst of the action, and you do.
Finally, then, I’ll turn my eye to the novel that won last year’s Man Booker Prize: Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. A book I’ve been curious to read for a while, in part because of the controversy that surrounded the prize last year (in literary circles that is…); also because I’m not very good at reading contemporary fiction, although I’ve been making some tracks this year, and picking up the book some months ago I was a little intrigued. Well, interestingly, this is the only book on my list I wouldn’t recommend to anybody. I knew at the time of buying it I should probably wait for it to appear in charity shops, because I’m guaranteeing that that’s where it will be, because it is simply not a satisfying enough read to make you want to read it twice.
To me The Sense of an Ending was too academic. You get the sense from the start that Barnes is doing, or wants to do, something clever. But actually, aside from it’s slight opaqueness in parts, it’s fairly standard L. P. Hartley ‘the past is a foreign county’ kind of territory, with an unsympathetic character, and the fact of suicide hanging over the plot as if to make it that much more urgent. For me, nothing fit. I did not find it particularly clever, original, or thought provoking, and the sense that the author was urging me to feel those things didn’t help. Because the book had been so evasive, pointing to deep issues and gulfs of mistranslation, I wanted a pacy and conclusive ending, but despite what quotations from reviews on the back of the book say, the ending is no thriller and the book is not a masterpiece.
This is not to say there aren’t good things about it, and I may be being overcritical because of the books status, but there we have it; I was disappointed.
I would also like write about Jonathan Kemp, and I certainly recommend reading London Triptych for fans of Oscar Wilde, and Twentysix for aficionados of the likes of Georges Bataille, Kathy Acker, and an explicit, experimental kind of literature, but there is no time. Instead I promise to direct you to the interview I had with the author a week ago in sunny Soho, when it’s published.
For now, happy reading.
Anyone interested in a more detailed analysis of The Hunger Games ought to read this blog by Kristin Cashore, one of my sister’s favourite authors. I think this post says just about everything I want to say about THG.
Anyone disappointed by the results of last year’s Booker Prize might be interested to read this article by John Self for the Guardian in which he analyses the prize, and proposes some alternative suggestions for nominations, including a book on my own list: Quilt, by Nicholas Royle.
Finally, I love lists. Lists feature quite strongly in Erland Loe’s Naive. Super, a book that really deserves a mention for being so sweet. It’s an short book, ideal for spring and summer sunny months, and if you enjoyed The Perks of Being a Wallflower or if you’ve ever enjoyed indie flicks featuring Zach Braff or Zooey Deschanel, you’re very likely to enjoy this. But speaking of lists, Jack Kerouac’s list of ‘30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life‘ on Brainpicker is unmissable. The page also has links to lists by the likes of Henry Miller and John Steinbeck.