Tuesday, September 25, 2012

to read list

I'm not always someone who has a clear list in my mind of what books to read next, and that means I don't tend to have piles of books waiting around to be read, like lots of bloggers that I read seem to do. This is great for not having unread-book-guilt, but terrible when I finish one book and have no idea what to read next. The panic! Happily, at the moment I do happen to have a large reading list lined up, and I'm a little bit excited about it. Now I can rush through trying to finish them all and put off having to worry about where my next book's coming from for a little while. So I thought I would share my current TBR list with you:

I borrowed a few from my friend (the lovely Georgia), which I have started on:

On Literature by Umberto Eco
I just finished this- really enjoyed the change of pace (it's non-fiction essays, I usually read fiction). Had some nice arguments with him about reviewing and symbolism and felt very inspired to read a lot more classics (for the intertextuality mostly).

Essays  by George Orwell
More essays! I think I am in a non-fictiony mood at the moment so looking forward to these

Love by Angela Carter
Borrowed to fill in my '70s decade for my Century of Books reading project, so should be blogging about this one. I've just started it and it looks like this will be an interesting read...

King, Queen, Knave by Vladimir Nabokov
Haven't read any Nabokov, despite hearing wonderful things about his writing, and have no great desire to read Lolita. This should be good!

With the announcement of the Booker prize shortlist this year I had the vague idea that I have every year of trying to read all the shortlisted books, preferably before the winner is announced. This year might be the year? I've already read Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (and I really love this series of hers) and I went to my library website to see what was available. I now have holds on:
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Umbrella by Will Self
Just have to track down The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, Swimming Home by Deborah Levy and The Lighthouse by Alison Moore.

I also put a hold on the latest Tana French Dublin Murder Squad book, Broken Harbour, a little while ago. There's a bit of a queue for that though so I'm not sure when I'll get to it. No matter! Plenty to keep me occupied in the meantime.

And I also noticed that there is a new Kate Griffin out, so that will go on the list, and I thought I might try some Pushkin, because I have always been intrigued by him but never read anything at all. But those might have to wait a while.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

1960s - Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut is one of those books that people have been recommending to me forever, and yet the title has always put me off actually reading it. That and the fact that I have always kind of mixed it together with Catch-22 (which I have also never read) in my mind. But in the spirit of this Century of Books challenge I thought needing a '60s book to read was  the perfect opportunity to put my misconceptions behind me and actually see what this book is all about.

In short, this book is all about the life of Billy Pilgrim- traveller in time- and sort of revolves around his experience of WWII and, in particular, the bombing of Dresden. The book proceeds in a linear way through Billy's war experiences, but these are inter-cut with his travels to a range of different moments in his life, sometimes for a brief impressionistic moment and sometimes for longer, from his time in hospital to his time as an alien abductee on the planet Trafalmadore. The time and space travel can be read as fact, or as products of the war-shattered mind of Billy, who has after all read a lot of bad science fiction. Or at least that's how I read it. The time travel and encounters with an alien culture prompt musings on the nature of time and fate, which might be read as Billy trying to make sense of his wartime experiences.

The character of Billy Pilgrim almost seems to run on rails, fated to end up where he does, accepting of all events that come his way, a sort of fool, an innocent caught up in an incomprehensible situation. This really picks up on the book's subtitle, The Children's Crusade, but it's a ludicrous sort of innocence- at the climax of the book Billy emerges into the bombed landscape of Dresden wearing a number of cast-offs from a POW camp production of Cinderella, including silver boots and a sort of toga. He doesn't seem to give any thought to it, though people around him are amused by his appearance. His reaction to the aftermath of the bombing is similarly wide-eyed- it's described as 'like the surface of the moon' and Billy Pilgrim spends one of the happiest moments of his life asleep in a wagon drawn by a donkey in the desolate ruins of the town.

The effect of all this is what makes it a powerful anti-war book. It's devoid of heroism or scenes of military prowess- Billy Pilgrim goes into the war unarmed (he is trained as a Chaplain's assistant) and is captured by a rag-tag bunch of soldiers. War in this book is ridiculous, it is horrible but not tragic, because there is romance in tragedy. Instead it is a farce, and the idea of justified war is undermined by the centre-piece of the story- the destruction of the entire city of Dresden. It's not that the Nazi's are portrayed positively, the corpse candles for instance are a sharp reminder of how bad it was, it's just that the war is not a positive thing.

It's an interesting scenario, I don't think that the Dresden bombing is something that I really knew or thought about until I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johnathan Safran Foer (which I loved). The descriptions in that book are more horrifying because it is not avoiding the tragic, the images of liquid fire, the idea of large-scale death came through so strongly in that book that Slaughterhouse Five seemed flat by comparison. Recently I read Above Suspicion by Helen McInnes, a spy novel written during the early years of WWII and set in the lead up to the outbreak of war. That book was heavily shadowed by the idea of appeasement, and expressed a sort of moral disgust at not acting against Germany earlier. Obviously it's written in wartime, but it's hard to read it and see how you could not go to war- after all, not only was Nazi Germany an awful regime, it was also actively invading other countries. But then you read books like Slaughterhouse Five, and remember Dresden (and Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and wonder how anyone can get through a war with their conscience intact?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

1950s- The End of the Affair (1951)

I was already late writing up this one, and then I found that the draft of the post I'd been writing has disappeared, so that is partly my excuse for such a long blog silence. I have run so far behind schedule on this project but I haven't given up, in fact I'm already reading my 1960s book. Hopefully I will post on that in a more timely fashion! But I digress, back to The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, and hopefully I haven't forgotten too much of it...

I haven't read any Graham Greene before, but when I noticed this book in the bookshop while looking for something completely different (The Door in the Air by Margaret Mahy, but that's another story) and realised it was written in the '50s it seemed like the perfect time to start. When I started reading the book my feelings of serendipity diminished somewhat. It wasn't what I felt like reading, it was too ironic feeling, too much emotional distance, the kind of book that makes me want to start grumbling that all contemporary literature is the same- all infidelity and unsympathetic characters. The 1950s was clearly not long enough ago to escape this.

I tend to feel that such a reaction reflects badly on me rather than the book, and means that either I need to take a bit of a break from the genre or read something exceptional that makes sense of the genre again. It bodes ill for writing book reviews. But! The story does not end there. I kept reading and eventually the book turned around for me. I was reading along, grumbling at how unbelievable the love between two characters often seems in books that are centered around being in love, and thinking about manic pixie dream girls, and generally not getting along with the central character, when Sarah's diary started, and everything just made much more sense to me. Then the story moved into the tragic, and I thought it was the better for it.

Short digression for a plot summary: Maurice runs into Henry in the park, and is reminded of his ended affair with Henry's wife, Sarah, which ended when a bomb fell on his house and Sarah inexplicably left him. This reminder reawakens his obsession, and he set about trying to understand what happened, and following Sarah's movements by hiring a private detective to follow her, and eventually to steal her diary. And I don't think it's too much of a spoiler (though look away if you want) to say that Sarah ends up dying- Maurice attends the funeral and then falls into a strange sort-of friendship with Henry, who is rather a pathetic figure.

It's funny reviewing books by your reactions to them rather than what they are trying to do, but then it's not easy to do anything else. Maurice introduces his story by saying "this is a record of hate far more than of love", and yet what I want is a story of love, and it is for the parts of it that made sense of the book as a love story that I particularly liked it. Sarah's diary did that for me, because she was able to express love, because through her voice I understood how Maurice could be loveable. Maurice, on the other hand, is clouded by pain  and insecurity and obsession. He goes on from the sentence I quoted before to say "... and if I come to say anything in favour of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near truth, even to the expression of my near hate." But to the reader, or to this reader anyway, this sentence only underlines how much he cannot be trusted, his hate is complicated by his love. The way the love affair plays out seems very real, and really underlines this complication- the obsession and the insecurity and the tedium of it. But for me, the tedium and the negativity of the affair only made sense once I could see the love.

The book goes on to talk more about the relationship between love and hate, not only in terms of the relationship between Maurice and Sarah but also in terms of their relationship with God. Both start out as confirmed atheists, but have to confront what they actually believe over the course of the book. Whether they believe in God, and what they believe about God, turns out to be the destructive force in their affair.

Towards the end the tone changed again, from the tragic to the more everyday, and it lost me a little bit again. But it seems unfair to try to make a book that is trying to undermine in some way the idea of a grand love affair into a grand love affair. It's just that with the loss of Sarah, just when I had come to find her so important, I lost interest a bit.

So a lot to think about there, clearly! All in all I really enjoyed this book, despite feeling less than excited by it to begin with, and maybe I will look up some more Greene in future. In the meanwhile I'll be reading Slaughterhouse Five and hopefully this blog will not be neglected for so long again!