ToB Quarterfinals

Welcome to the TOB17 Quarterfinals! A wonderful world in which I have read most of the books and have been saving up things to say about them. Let’s start with The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. As an Australian I haven’t read/seen/learned much about the experience of American slavery and so I didn’t notice what Judge Butler pointed out in the first round: the idea that each stop on the railroad is ‘a set piece for a different aspect of the African-American experience.’ I’ve been thinking about this ever since. I also like this from Judge Adewunmi:

America’s sin of slavery is not new, but its terrors have been somewhat dulled over time . . . So Whitehead brought some of that back. Here’s a definitively chilling line on a slave catcher: “Ridgeway gathered renown with his facility for ensuring that property remained property.” The matter-of-fact tone is perhaps the book’s strongest weapon. You do not need to embellish horror: It’s in the way Ridgeway calls all the enslaved people “it,” and it lives in one specifically chilling paragraph about the punishment meted out to another runaway that will haunt me forever.

I know exactly the paragraph she’s talking about and I totally agree. The Underground Railroad was a visceral reading experience. It is full of the close and personal terrors of slavery. The different stops provide a fascinatingly broad picture of the places and people of that era. My only criticism of the book was it’s sense of contingency, in the sense that I didn’t feel it. The structure of the book necessitated its end point in a way that I felt very heavily from about halfway through. I won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers but I will say that at first it didn’t bother me and then as it got closer and closer to the end I started to find the book overburdened with the sense of what needed to happen but hadn’t yet. I found myself skimming through the end because I could see what was coming so clearly that I didn’t really care how it got there.

Even though I really enjoyed All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders I thought The Underground Railroad deserved the win. Although Birds captivated me in a way that Railroad did not, I’ve said before that the book also didn’t surprise me. But I did like it as a way of exploring human emotions against a background of the fantastical. As Judge Adewunmi writes, despite the magic and science fiction, ‘Laurence and Patricia’s dilemmas are rooted in a much more recognisable world: of being at a certain age and feeling like you’re coasting; about wanting something to change but feeling like it is intangible and therefore beyond your reach; of imposter syndrome, and men who assault women’. What I loved about this book (and the others that I have read in this genre) is that, unlike a lot of traditional fantasy, the characters are playing out real life. It makes the impossible approachable, in the way that I would 100% cast spells during sex. But as Judge Adewunmi writes, ‘Anders’s prose—pretty, joyous, and inventive—felt a little too light next to Whitehead’s.’

The next match up was between Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Version Control by Dexter Palmer. (Still haven’t read Version Control but I’m picking it up from the library today.) I really like The Mothers. It follows the story of Nadia Turner who, after her mother’s suicide and an affair with the preacher’s son, gets an abortion. This act echoes through the years as she befriends another girl from church, goes away to college, and comes back to find her friend married to the father of her unborn child. I haven’t read much about abortion and I liked the way the book gave it a weight without ever condemning the choice Nadia made. That being said, a friend I talked to thought it ended up reading as an anti-abortion piece. I disagree: I think the life Nadia end up with would not have been possible without the abortion and though it isn’t a fairytale ending it includes the escape from her hometown that she longed for and a reconciliation with her father. As a review in the Guardian puts it, ‘Nadia doesn’t want to be pregnant, so she has an abortion, and gets on with her life. But she doesn’t pretend it never happened.’

Judge Rinehart and the commentators talk about the economy and precision of Bennett’s book. Commentator Kurtz says, ‘Bennett’s book is “tightly woven” in sentence structure, yes, but even thematically this sense of constriction is marvelously persistent . . . Bennett is at her best when her characters are too much with themselves, bodies jostling for space in cramped rooms and hallways. She’s a good writer of the claustrophobia of hometowns and tight communities and our banging against the walls of ourselves and our expectations for how intimacy should operate.’ I think that’s a great description of the joys of the book. But parts of it didn’t work for me. I found the device of the omniscient church Mothers a bit forced. It was sometimes clunky and unnecessary, going over delicately handled and interesting plot points with a highlighter as often as it elucidated something new.

(Sidebar: you should read Bennett’s essay ‘I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People’.)

The next round was between Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. I found myself in agreement with Judge Popkey on Grief. It’s a slight, impressionistic book about the grief of a father and his sons for the loss of their wife and mother. I really liked parts of it (see previous post) but found that ‘Crow’s presence, and its implications, feel less personal—that is, specific—than private—that is inaccessible, and in a way that Porter’s sketches of the father and his boys’ grief does not.’ I also felt like I needed to read more Ted Hughes to appreciate this book and I kind of resented it. I don’t want to read Ted Hughes. And to be honest I’m not sure if it would have added much anyway.

On the other hand, I loved Homegoing. It tells the story of two branches of a family descended from sisters born in West Africa, each unaware of the other’s existence. One daughter is sold into slavery and the other marries a British slave trader. From there, each chapter tells the story of a different descendent of these women going through the years to the present day. In the way of such collections, you get snapshots of people in time only to lose track of them entirely or learn of their fate second-hand later. And, also common to these type of works, some sections are stronger than others. But on the whole it created an incredibly broad picture of generations of people who’s lives were shaped, in one way or another, by the slave trade. And then again I liked the juxtaposition with the extreme specificity of the experiences of only certain members of the family. It’s similar to The Underground Railroad in using its chapters as a way to showcase different parts of history from various perspectives. A lot of people (including Commentator Kearns) have said they didn’t think the execution matched the ambition of the concept. I disagree: I loved it. I was excited to see it pass through to the next round and I think it would be really interesting to see it go up against The Undergroung Railroad, a book with which it has lots in common but at the same time couldn’t be more different from.

I haven’t read The Nix or Mister Monkey so I’ll have to give that round a miss for now. See you back next week for more!

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On rereading The Great Gatsby

My terrible cover

In one of my rare forays into movie-going last week I saw the trailer for the new The Great Gatsby movie. (Heads up: you don’t want to go to the movies with me, I have terrible taste and will talk the whole way through. That’s probably why I get so few invites now that I think about it.) It was so shiny and pretty and it made me want to cut my hair short and reread the book that I loved.

I first read The Great Gatsby when I was in year 11. I was 17 and faux-disillusioned with life. The world of the novel seemed so beautiful to me; it was sharp and glittery but so fragile. When Nick moves in next door to the fabulously rich Gatsby you can feel his life shiver. Life around Gatsby kind of shivers in general and his fabulous parties are held in a perfect balance between his extravagance and disinterest. But it turns out that Nick’s cousin Daisy is Gatsby’s first love and when Nick is bullied into reuniting them everything comes tumbling down.

I want her hair!

It’s all surface, and that’s the point, but it really stood out to me on this reading. What was still beautiful was the rhythm and the dialogue. I mean it just reads really well. Daisy and Myrtle’s dialogue give away far more about them than their short lines seem to contain. But overall I kind of wish I hadn’t gone back to it. Insert some green light metaphor here.

Edward St Aubyn at the Wheeler Centre

I did it! I finished the five Patrick Melrose novels in five days, in time to see Edward St Aubyn at the Wheeler Centre without any spoilers! And there were spoilers…

The whole experience was humbling and I’m so glad I got this opportunity. Having a reason to read something I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up and being blown away by it is the reason I started reading the list. I forget that sometimes in my laziness and desire to read things I know I will like. Book four, Mother’s Milk is on the list and shortlisted for the Booker and, while it was not my personal favourite, I can see why.

What is my favourite, I hear you ask? Hard to

Never mind

say. When colleagues asked if I loved the books, it was hard to say yes because, though I could easily say they are compelling and accomplished and generally amazing they are also (especially at first) deeply disturbing. I found Never Mind to be the most striking. I am incredibly over-sensitive (seriously) and tend to avoid violence and particularly cruelty in all my reading endeavours. Never Mind is full of unrepentant cruelty; the sociopathic David inflicts pain on Patrick while pretending it is some sort of social experiment and wife Eleanor, also a victim, self medicates and ignores responsibility for her son. However what makes the book so accomplished is the stylish way St Aubyn is able to depict the most profound violations without forcing the reader to flinch away. Even a very sensitive reader. The shifts between character viewpoints highlights the flaws and pretensions of each of the characters while simultaneously allowing understanding of the damage that brought them to these points.

Mothers MilkMother’s Milk is far more traditional in a number of ways. Instead of just a day or two, the action takes place over the same day repeated over a number of years. It’s also much less graphic and frightening in the depiction of abuse as Patrick, now in his 40s tries to deal with his marriage, his sons, his mother’s compulsive but misdirected charity that leaves him disinherited. His relationship with his father takes on new meaning as he is now a father himself and constantly worries how best not to become the man he loathed. As in Never Mind it tells the story from numerous perspectives: Patrick’s, his son Robert’s, his wife Mary’s. This is perfect for showing up both flaws and motivations in each character and, even more than before, probably due to a more introspective Patrick, creates great empathy for each of the characters.

Edward St AubynSeeing Edward St Aubyn was a wonderful experience. He was exactly how I had hoped and imagined him to be: dry, funny, incredibly eloquent and slightly tortured.  And handsome. He was also incredibly insightful about his own work which sounds like an obvious thing but, as my favourite teacher once told me, just because you’re a good writer it doesn’t mean you are the best person to talk about your work. But there were a few things he said that really crystallised some of the trajectories of the series, things that I wouldn’t have been able to annunciate myself but once he did it was kind of an “of course!” moment. He talked about the way that these novels came about, his own lofty influences (Proust) and insisted, as he always does, that while they are based on his own life they are not autobiographical. It never occurred to him to write about himself, he said, but he had always imagined he’d write a book and had been writing from a very young age. He also talked about the dialogue, that of course it was polished and overly witty because “There’s no point writing down what people actually say. What would be the point of that?” It is frequently noted that the Melrose series creates a scathing portrait of the upper class but, in another “of course” moment, St Aubyn explained that the class of his characters was fairly incidental to the events. Cruelty happens regardless of socioeconomic status and, for him, class is the setting rather than the subject.

It was a wonderful evening and a humbling reading experience.

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

You guys! Today is not a rave. I did not like this one. Not that I hated it. But I haven’t been unenthusiastic about a book on this blog for a while, so here goes:

Dangling ManDangling Man, I did not love you. Apparently you “reflected contemporary intellectual preoccupations with the nature of freedom” but, to be honest, I was mostly bored.

The dangling man of the title, Joseph has quit his job at the Inter-American Travel Bureau in preparation for a draft that never seems to come. Now he just spends a lot of time in his room thinking about his existence and human nature in general, that is, when he’s not taking out his frustration by picking fights with his family and friends.

Joseph’s complete self-absorption coupled with his detachment from his own life stopped me from connecting with him as a character. Meanwhile, his petty squabbles never elevated beyond little tantrums of pride and self interest to become engaging.

I also found the book to be strangely ungrounded; I had to keep reminding myself it was taking place in Chicago. With the intellectual friends, musings on French and German philosophy and existentialism, industrial landscape and foreign surnames I thought it all felt somehow European. I also found the weird mix of the banal and rambles on existentialism kind of jarring, each mode prevented me from connecting with the other.

Look, I probably missed something important but this book left me cold.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

It’s books like this that make me remember why I started doing this.

Posession is a book that’s been sitting on my to-read shelf for ages without ever particularly motivating me to read it. The real and ridiculous reason that I even bought it was because it was part of that Vintage  colours range and I like different coloured spines on my bookshelves. I am shallow and childish like that. Judge away.

But not only is Possession a delightful shade of purple, it is also a ridiculously brilliant novel. The story centres on two couples: Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, scholars of Victorian poets Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte. When Roland finds an incomplete letter from Ash to LaMotte he begins tracking a literary trail of clues that unearths a previously unimagined connection between the two authors, offering insights into hidden periods of their lives and work. However with the promise of every new discovery there are more dead ends as well as rival scholars on Roland and Maud’s tail.

The genius of this book is the Ash and LaMotte source material all written by Byatt. She creates epic poems, fairy tale stories, letters and diary entries for the pair as well as literary criticism and biographies from other characters. Completely convincing, these documents not only allow A.S. Byatt to show off her range but are also integral in furthering the story and establish characters with complete inner lives. I actually Googled them to make sure they weren’t real. Then there are the complex relationships, both past and present, of the characters themselves and between scholars and their subjects. AND apart from that Byatt manages to pose important literary questions about subtext, sexual politics and the issue of particular readings closing off other meanings.

While it took me a while to get into, this book is SO ACCOMPLISHED. It’s a wonderful reminder of the payoff for not being lazy with reading. I feel like I could go back and read it again and get even more out of it, but for the moment, other books call.

A Room With A View by E.M Forster

Here is a fun fact: read is not a noun. But this is clearly not an issue for the editors of 1001 Books, who are content to describe A Room with a View as ‘a simply delightful read’.

Still no book cover so you get a picture of Florence instead

Pet peeves aside, I definitely agree with the sentiment. A Room with a View follows the wonderfully named Lucy Honeychurch who is taking her first trip to Italy, accompanied by her overprotective and interfering cousin Miss Bartlett. The title comes from an early encounter, the type of conundrum that echoes throughout the novel: on arriving at their pensione, the ladies discover that the room with a view promised to them is unavailable. Fellow travelers Mr Emerson and his son George offer to swap rooms with them but while Lucy would like to, Miss Bartlett thinks it would be quite improper. As Lucy continues her stay in Florence she continues to find herself torn between her own desires and the restrictions of polite society. The second half of the novel is set at her home in Surrey as Lucy must choose between two admirers: George and Cecil, who embody this predicament.

I wish I had read this while I was in Italy. The descriptions of scenery are so clear and evocative. The light, the trees, the lakes in both Florence and Surrey present beautiful pictures full of light and shade. Nature is almost an extra character and the novel has a wonderfully grounded sense of place. 1001 Books calls it a satire of social conventions and a coming of age novel and I loved the way Forster was able to capture Lucy’s increasing awareness of her emotions. Even with an omniscient third person narrator, Lucy’s initial sense of confusion and discomfort is almost palpable. It’s a convincing picture of a young girl beginning to realise what is and is not acceptable and her innocence is the perfect tool to demonstrate the ridiculousness of some of these rules.

The characters and situations were all so convincing that I felt like I could almost fall into this book. The art, scenery and Lucy were so lovely that I wished I could.

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks (in Heathrow airport)

Bad news: I had an obscenely long wait for my flight to Istanbul due to bad weather in London.

Good news: I had plenty of time to read!

I started and finished The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks with mixed feelings. I started with mixed feelings because I’d been awake since 4am and everything seemed like too much effort. I finished with mixed feelings because it is a strange book.

Set in a remote village in Scotland, The Wasp Factory is a kind of coming of age story. 16 year old Frank lives with his father on their ‘island’, in virtual isolation except for occasional outings with his one friend Jamie, the dwarf. Otherwise Frank lives in a strange world of his eccentric father’s secrets while practising his own pagan rituals of death and destruction.

The novel opens as Frank learns that his brother, Eric, has escaped from a psychiatric institution. Frank is both eager to see him and a little bit worried because, as he tells us, his brother is insane. Although not far into the book I found myself beginning to doubt Frank’s own sanity. Frank moves around the island, creating and destroying elaborate damns, killing small animals and using them for the strange rituals that he believes will give him power over the island and his future. As Eric gets closer, Frank reveals the secrets of his past and the story builds up to a shocking twist.

Banks creates an evocative and moody setting. The scenery of Frank’s home is a wonderfully gothic setting for Frank’s macabre revelations and the tense atmosphere is palpable. Frank’s cold tone and strange acts of violence are undermined as Banks forced me to sympathise with him, against my initial feelings of disgust. Where the book fell down, for me, was in the explanation. Some of the big reveals are great, creating more mysteries and complexities around the main characters. But often the explanations of Frank’s ritualistic activities undid the sense of repulsion that had been so effective. And the twist is SO over-explained at the very end that I actually felt like my intelligence was being insulted.

Ultimately, for me, the explanations and revelations couldn’t live up to the wonderfully dark atmosphere that had been created.

All Quiet on the Western Front and More!

I’ve gotten a bit off track with country related picks and reading list books entirely, if the truth be told. London was easy, I had a great selection of all sorts of related books. But Berlin proved to be more of a challenge (bookwise, not travelling wise – Berlin is awesome). I only had two Berlin related books, one of which was Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. I was keen to read it after Death in Venice but it turned out to be super badly formatted. I’m just assuming here, but I think Thomas Mann intended it to have, you know, punctuation and probably paragraphs too. So that left me with All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.

I read it but to be honest I don’t feel like talking about it right now. I’ve had a couple of goes at this post and it is JUST NOT WORKING. So you’ll have to wait a few weeks for more. But it was good! I would recommend it. It also had nothing to do with Berlin as far as I experienced it. Berlin was so cool, a crazy mishmash of scary totalitarian and beautifully grand architecture, construction around every corner, basement bars, epic antiquities and amazing street art. I did way too much shopping and got to meet up with some family from Melbourne so all in all it was an enjoyable ten days.

Anyway I’ve also been reading some other excellent things. I loved Tess of the D’Ubervilles so much that I think I’d like to save it for its own post. While I’m happy it’s getting some press lately, it makes me sick that it’s due to the popularity of an erotic trilogy I refuse to name. (Here is a great article about it.) If I has known that was why everyone was reading it I would have NOT READ IT and spited myself out of a wonderful book. So yeah I guess that’s two posts you’ll have to wait for.

I also read The Crucible by Arthur Miller which is really chilling. He does an excellent job of capturing a frightening atmosphere where good people are made to suffer because of jealousy, greed and personal and professional vanity. It’s very scary to think of the crimes committed through the manipulation of people’s fear under the guise of morality. I read somewhere that it was written as a parallel for the McCarthy era but it could clearly be applied to many political regimes.

Next I read The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander. I found it meh. No, that’s not quite right. It just didn’t live up to Englander’s excellent writing. It was a pretty brutal account of a Jewish family living through the ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina in 1976, maybe too brutal for me. There was so much darkness, bitter father-son relationships, unfulfilled promises, power struggles, corrupt officials and unlikely helpers, miles of red tape. But I really think it was too long. It was unenjoyable because of the overwhelming darkness (which is ok) and the length of time it took for stuff to happen (less ok).

Then The First Person by Ali Smith, a strange collection of stories that really grew on me. This is getting to be a long post so I will sum it up with some words: whimsical, surreal, unsettling, honest, funny. It captured and crystallised the little but telling moments in relationships as if they’d been snap frozen. (Frozen and crystallising… is that a mixed metaphor?)

My favourite of the last month is The Master by Colm Tóibín. *EDIT: Turns out it’s a list book. Good choice, list editors!* It’s an incredible

Back to covers! (Because I bought this one for reals)

portrait of Henry James, a work of beauty and depth and sadness. Apparently it’s written partly in the style of James (I wouldn’t know) but without the crazy long sentences. The novel covers five years of his life, beginning in 1895 and encapsulating a number of important events (no spoilers!) but elegantly swooping between the present of the novel and episodes from James’ past. It drew me in from the start, building up a portrait of a man who sees all but keeps himself apart, sacrificing emotional connection to his authorial need for distance.  It was so beautiful and it made me want to read Henry James and, as ever, more Colm Tóibín.

Jekyll and Hyde and The Information in London

I am not a big fan of London. But I am a fan of Robert Louis Stephenson and Martin Amis!

Summer I think not

Unfortunately I was a bit disappointed with both of these books… But strangely less disappointed with London on this visit? Go figure. Anyway I started with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which I think would actually be really great if you didn’t know what it was about. I won’t spoiler it just in case, but seriously, who doesn’t know what’s up with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I liked the story telling device of Mr Utterson investigating the strange happenings at Dr Jekyll’s house and the use of letters and different voices to reveal the plot. But then there’s the big reveal! Which turns out to be not much of a reveal. It gave London a gothic feel, full of darkness and shadowy creatures only lightened by puddles of light at the foot of various lamp posts. But it’s not just knowing the end that’s the problem, it’s that knowing what happens ruins the entire atmosphere of mystery and strangeness.

The Information is classic Martin Amis. It follows Richard Tull, a failed writer of difficult fiction and his friend Gwynn Barry who has become an overnight success with (what Tull thinks is) inane and merit-less fiction. In true Martin Amis style the characters are all largely horrible people hanging out with a criminal element in a grotesque caricature of modern London. Everyone is out to get everyone else and no-one but the worst people get what they want.  Amis is an amazing writer, conjuring up an entirely threatening world representing the worst of our own. But I found that The Information dragged a bit. Things took too long to happen and when everyone in the book is pretty repulsive anyway it makes it hard to get through the slow parts. And unlike Money and London Fields it lacked the killer twist that brings everything together and shows off just how smart Amis is.

Harry Potter!

London, on the other hand, was far better than I had hopes. I had a super-literary time: our apartment was in Bloomsbury, former home to Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and J M Barrie, I went to the British Library every couple of days to look at famous manuscripts, I spent a ridiculous amount of time in bookshops and went to author talks. Most of my heroes are writers and after reading their work, reading literary criticism on their work, learning about their lives and seeing who they’ve influenced they turn into these giant characters in and of themselves so it was amazing to see their handwriting and remember that these geniuses were real people too. And I got to see the handwritten first draft of Harry Potter.

It all made me very excited about going to the Edinburgh Book Festival where I’ll get to meet some of my favourite authors for reals! Now I just have to think of some intelligent things to say to them…..

Anne Frank in Amsterdam

Confession times! I had never read The Diary of Anne Frank before. I’d talked about it, read about it, watched some of the movie and sold heaps of them in the shop but I’d actually never actually read the original.

I went through a phase when I read every Holocaust related novel I could lay my hands on (although surprisingly not this one). Growing up as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, learning about it at school, reading books, visiting sites, hearing stories from survivors, sometimes it’s easy to feel like you’ve ‘done’ the Holocaust. But I think it’s not really possible to have ‘done’ the Holocaust, perhaps it’s just easier to think that and stop forcing yourself to think about unthinkable things.

So I started reading the Diary and I was surprised by how readable and compelling it is. Anne wrote honestly, self-deprecatingly and crazy well for a thirteen year old. She was committed to recording herself with all her flaws and gave a real insight into the inner workings of a teenage girl and the development of her identity. And like I said, she wrote really, really well for someone so young, especially when you consider how monotonous her life became. Because for all the fear, angst and politics, she spent her days doing the same things, over and over again.

Visiting the annex in Amsterdam was a strange experience. Anne described the place very specifically when she first moved in and the details were made very clear over the course of the diary. The place is kept empty now and, compared to Anne’s descriptions, it seemed blank, almost like a set. But it did reinforce the tragedy of the events – this wasn’t just a fictional account but the real life diary of a girl and her family who were persecuted, trapped and murdered.

I found The Diary of Anne Frank not only compelling and moving but also darkly humorous and brutally honest. I think it is Anne’s lively and witty personality rather than her tragic circumstances that have made this book the classic that it is. I think part of the trouble with trying to comprehend the the Holocaust is the sheer scale of murder, so Anne’s story is a reminder of the real lives lost; it is just one tiny part of the tragedy that is the Holocaust that this talented, funny and clever girl was never able to write anything else.