reading 2009

I'm A Professional Cynic (But My Heart's Not In It)

It is fair to say that the last week or so has been a bit of a blur. I spent it recovering from two days in Kraków(!) which meant painkillers, getting up only to need a long nap two hours later, and spending my awake hours on the sofa either looking out on the sunshine or reading. My partner, David, took over cooking duties for most of the week, bless him, but I still feel vaguely guilty about leaving it all to him. I've read three books this past week: Anne Donovan's Being Emily, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Michel Faber's Under the Skin.

Donovan's book was a letdown after her excellent Buddha Da or perhaps I am just not very good with emotional, comic and heart-warming family tales. Satrapi's graphic novel proved an interesting, clever and often funny look at growing up a smart woman in 1970s and 1980s Iran. I still struggle with the actual graphic novel format, though. Finally, Faber's Under the Skin. A fascinating, horrifying and absorbing read. I wonder what it says about me that I cannot get behind "emotional, comic and heart-warming family tales" but I fall head over heels for a strange, disturbing, genre-defying short novel?

Finally, I know I've posted a lot of YouTube links lately, but this one is an absolute cracker. A student at Glasgow's School of Art sat down to make a video installation about obsolete technology. This is the result. So strange and beautiful.

Books 2009: Junot Diáz - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

It is not very often that I have to spend time figuring out whether or not I liked a book and what its strengths/weaknesses were. I'm a trained professional, for heaven's sake, and I did not spend [undisclosed] years in Evil Literary Geek School just to sit here and go "uhm". But, dear readers, I am indeed going "uhm" over The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I have been uhmming for a few days now. I started out loving this book with a fierce passion. I loved the narrator with his footnotes* and idiosyncratic diction. He was funny, contemporary and really refreshing. And then, whoah nelly, the book shifted to another voice, another place, and another time. Diáz is a technically gifted writer and I cannot fault him for wanting to play around with timelines, but once the narrator turned out to just be one among many (or, to use more correct terms, what I thought was just the main diegesis was in many ways both extradiegetic and metadiegetic), the book felt ..

.. and this is where I am going "uhm". Most books would fall apart with a narrative structure like the one I have outlined above, but this one doesn't. It is woefully uneven and comes to a muddled conclusion, but it does not fall apart. It had some sublime moments, but it also came across as very contrived at other times. I cannot make up my mind whether or not I liked it or not.

Perhaps it suffices to say that parts of the novel were excellent but as a whole it left me going "uhm." (And that you could probably categorise it as a post-colonial homage to geek chic.)

(* I love footnotes in fiction! The barking mad footnotes in Nabokov's Pale Fire! The mind-bending footnotes in Gray's Lanark! The comedic footnotes in Coe's The House of Sleep! The elegant footnotes in Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell! The conversational footnotes in Fforde's Thursday Next novels! Even the very silly footnotes in Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy! If it has footnotes, chances are that I'll love the book)

Things I Have Learned

In the past week I have learned that:

  1. The majority of my friends here in the UK are either bloggers who knit or knitters who blog. I had a really nice birthday lunch the other day and counted just three non-knitters (although all three are bloggers). Interesting.
  2. I really, really like edamame and it could very easily turn into an obsession (except my stomach aches today).
  3. My taste in books has become somewhat predictable. I finished reading Andrew Crumey's Sputnik Caledonia and thought it "freaking amazing" (yes, I've lost my critical vocabulary). I searched the net for reviews and came across The Guardian's review. It thought the book read like a cross between Alasdair Gray's Lanark and Jonathan Coe's What a Carve Up!. Those two novels happen to be two of my absolute favourite contemporary novels.. whoopsie.
  4. Sweden belongs to a parallel universe. How else can I account for the fact that I've met two Swedish women this past week - one of whom is me in another universe (she has long red hair; I don't) and the other a parallel universe version of my bestest friend back in Denmark (she has tattoos; bestest friend doesn't)? Very, very strange .. and fun.
  5. The world is a scary place. This past week has seen big smackdown drama on everybody's favourite knitting forum and me wising up to the fact that Twilight fans of a certain age enjoy making felted wombs (and the wombs apparently sparkle when you open them up!). You get nutters everywhere - especially among amateur goldfish enthusiasts, I've reliably been told - but who would have thought crafters could be that .. well, special?
  6. And who knew that foxes love playing on trampolines? I didn't but it makes life a little bit better.

I'm off to a hospital appointment this afternoon but hopefully I'll be able to join my knitting group tonight. I have yarn to show off and an almost completed cardigan (I swear: Forecast (rav link) has been the quickest project ever).

It's also nice to have ttime and energy to blog once more.

Books 2009: Julian Barnes - Flaubert's Parrot

Perhaps the real question is not why you read, but how you read. This observation was brought to you from me having finished Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot just an hour ago. I was certain I had read the book before - but I'm not sure. I recognised the opening chapter. It is entirely possible I had read the opening chapter and then put the book aside. This is one of the ways I read: I flirt with books. So, the much-fabled, oft-taught and already-classic Flaubert's Parrot which I may or may not have read previously but which I have definitely read now?

How did I read it?

Well. I felt tempted to make a check-list of post-modern fiction trademarks, so I could check them all: fragmented self (constructed out of texts); history understood and recast as fiction (as the past is inaccessible to us except through texts which by their very nature are linguistic constructs and thus unreliable); the text as bricolage (assembled by quotations and various types of texts); no such thing as Truth but only truthS; &c.

In short: it read like a lesser Pale Fire (true to his metier, Barnes does keep name-dropping Nabokov) but without Pale Fire's mania and fevour. My head placed Flaubert's Parrot next to Graham Swift's Waterland. Barnes' novel is a textbook case of post-modern fiction, just like Swift. I did not particularly care for the book - to me, it reads old in way that much older books do not. Because it is such a full-blooded second-generation English post-modern book, it feels very dated to me.

That's how I read. My head assigns books their place in the literary canon based upon their kinship with other books/authors. I measure them against similar books I have read (and often against unrelated books). How does the writing hold up? Does it surprise me anyway? Does it make me work hard or does it lead me gently through the pages? Will it make me reassess books I have already read? Does it point me towards books I need to read in order to fully appreciate the book I hold in my hands?

Next: a post on things I find in secondhand books. It was my intention to post this today, but someone has not charged the camera batteries. Boo.

Books 2009: Andrew Crumey - Mobius Dick

About eighteen months ago I read Scarlett Thomas' The End of Mr Y. I really enjoyed it and recommended her to several people. I regret doing that now I've read several books by her. Earlier I wrote this:

I do not know why I’ve read three Scarlett Thomas novels because if you take away the colourful packaging of a) metafiction (”The End of Mr Y”), b) anti-consumerism (”PopCo”) and c) popculture (”Going Out”) you get pretty much the same novel.

New Age health solutions? Check. Schrödinger’s cat? Check. Main protagonist being into her math puzzles? Check. Slightly deviant sexual orientation painted in a fairly vague way? Check. C-category drug use? Check. Vegetarianism or some variant upon it? Check. Internet featuring heavily? Check.

Andrew Crumey's novel, Mobius Dick, has me hoping that I have found the novel I thought I had in my hands when I read The End of Mr Y. It is a dazzling, original novel which defies easy categorisation (postmodern metafiction? science-fiction? thriller?). Like Thomas' book, Mobius Dick takes its cue from theoretical physics, the idea of parallel worlds and the intersection between literature and science. However, unlike Thomas, Crumey is in full control of his material and does not take the reader on unnecessary detours (although getting to the "end" is quite a roller-coaster ride).

Will I read more Crumey novels and discover he is a one-trick pony much like Ms Thomas? I hope I'll end up discovering a new favourite author. Right now it feels as though I have. Explaining the plot of Mobius Dick terrifies me slightly, so suffice to say that it feels like a bit Jorge Luis Borges mixed with David Mitchell and a dash of early Alasdair Gray. Heady.

Books 2009: Gregory Maguire - Wicked.

First book read in 2009: Gregory Maguire's Wicked which is a retelling of "The Wizard of Oz" from the viewpoint of the Wicked Witch. It read a bit like really decent fanfiction in the sense that it subverted canon, told the story via a secondary character and fleshed out the world of Oz (like, just how did they build the Yellow Brick Road and why?). Like much fanfiction, the book also adds a healthy dollop of sexuality to a familiar story.

Did I like it? If it had been fanfiction - i.e. self-published fiction by someone whose day-job does not involve literature - I would have sung its praise because it is clever, inventive and does a marvellous job at humanising a character who's cardboard Evil in the original book. But it's not the work of a smart fan. "Wicked" is professionally published, has a John-Updike-in-the-New-Yorker recommendation on the front cover and its author talks about his book being a parable for the Vietnam war. This is where I begin to have serious reservations.

"Wicked" simply isn't good enough for that sort of pretension. It's a fun read with its fair share of structural and characterisation problems (most of which are forgiveable, admittedly, except for the middle third of the book which is one big mess) but it does not go any deeper than that. Maguire sets up quite a few interesting points - the distinction between Animals/animals; attitude towards sexuality; the divide and interdependence of science/religion - and completely fails to follow up on these points. Other Half has another two Maguire books set in Oz. I will be reading them at some point, but I'm not in any rush.

Related: Gregory Maguire reimagines "The Little Match Girl" for NPR.