Books I’ve talked about when I’ve talked about books at book group (part one)

A few weeks back I hit the one-year mark of living in London. It’s hard to believe, but some thirteen months ago all the talk of ‘Oh I’m just going  to the UK to see what happens’ became a reality. It’s been an interesting year; magical in some ways (I met my wonderful boyfriend and have visited lovely places), uneventful in others (one still has to work for a living, you know), ridiculously simple on occasion (you mean I just hop on this train and two hours later I’m in Paris?) and, at times, terribly difficult. The main difficulties come from being without family and social networks mixed in with a little British bureaucracy and the fact that even though Australian and British cultures have much in common, there are enough differences to sometimes make everyday conversations and errands somewhat… puzzling… and more difficult than you know they should be.

But the good times outweigh the tough times. Most of the time. The longer I’ve been here the more friends and contacts I’ve made and the more I seem to be able to function in society without having to use charades or repeat myself. Yes, this happens even when you’re both speaking English.

One of the best things I did last year was join a book group. They’re an excellent bunch of people, and I look forward to our monthly meetings. The chance of a group of strangers thrown together because they all ‘like reading’ getting on really well and even being able to talk about other things than the books they like (or don’t like), must be slim. Think of all those author events you’ve been to where everyone who asks a question seems to be a bore or raving lunatic… they all really like reading too.

So joining a book group worked out for me. For all the reasons I have mentioned in previous posts and now I also always gain a snippet of information about London life or a recommendation for a new thing to see, do or visit. Most of all, I like that it is my thing. My new book group is a little piece of my London life.

And so to the books. Selected for general interest, discussion potential, reputation, size (a shorter book has more chance of being read by all), enjoyment and intellectual growth, we have read six books in the last six months that I have yet to share with you. I am tired of focusing on the infrequency of my blogging (one of the not-good things that has occurred over the last thirteen months), so let’s just get on with it.

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

A slim volume where the reader is put in the position of one of the characters. A not-particularly-interesting character but the person to whom the is-he-just-friendly or is-he-simply-dangerous narrator addresses himself throughout the novel. It’s rare as a reader to be being told by the narrator about what ‘you’ are doing. It puts you in an intriguing position. Do I feel uncomfortable because the story is setting me up to feel this way? Or do I just feel uncomfortable? And do I want to be continually addressed as a middle-aged American businessman? I am very different to those kinds of people. Aren’t I?

Our narrator, Changez, tells his story in a cafe in Pakistan to a man who he may or may not have run into on purpose. His story is of his development from an optimistic, ambitious Princeton student who socialised with the wealthy and aimed to have a New York business career, to a young man disillusioned with America and all it represents, so much so that he finds himself returning to Pakistan and ‘siding’ with Islamic fundamentalism.

The writing is technically strong, and the narrator slippery and clever. This has its annoyances for a reader. I read the whole novel with a sense of mistrust and a slight sinister feeling. I constantly wondered if I was being misdirected. I recall finding it difficult to relate to any of the characters, though I felt sorry for Changez at times. Could he really be a terrorist? Maybe he’s just a friendly man. Why do I assume he is dangerous? Is it because he claims to be sympathetic to the jihadists’ cause? Or is it just because of his clothes, his beard, his language? There is allegory and symbolism at play—perhaps a little too much. And I say this having not caught it all as I was reading the novel. When the extent of it was relayed to me by—more insightful—others, I do admit to some eye rolling on my part.

I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist an interesting read and it dealt with themes I wouldn’t usually choose to deal with in my novel-choices. Many in my group liked it and had enjoyed the author’s previous work. It was a good novel to talk about and, as we all know, for a book to work at book group it has to be able to be talked about.

With that premise in mind, the next selection definitely fit the bill. Ever wanted to use the term ‘Kafka-esque’ in context? Well, soon you will be able to. (Mind you, my readers being such a smart bunch you probably already do!) Our next selection was The Trial and I will post on it and other book-club selections sooner than you—or even I—could possibly imagine.

To be continued…

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R is for a Richard who Rocks

What I want to write about is hard to discuss without potentially revealing myself as at least one of three things. 1) a moron, 2) a snob, 3) a cultural philistine. And yet this isn’t a post about TV, my inability to snag a man, or my not-so-secret love for a power ballad…

In recent years I’ve discovered I really like American fiction. American fiction in particular which is focused on specific landscapes and types of people. McCarthy, Leonard, Proulx, Meyer, Gay, Carver, Capote are names which roll off the top of my head. They aren’t all related by an easily boxed-up a theme, style or setting, but they are authors I think of as embodying an American literature that speaks to me, which shares particular qualities that I admire, enjoy and gain much food for thought. Qualities like a particular spareseness of style, an ear for language, an interest in those on the edges of society, an eye for landscape, an ability to express what is true. And now, after reading Rock Springs, I add Richard Ford to this list.

So why is it so bloody special for me to admit to liking American literature? Well, because it’s a public acknowledgment that I’m shaking off an old shackle. A shackle I wasn’t always necessarily aware was there, but which I think was clamped on my wrist from a young age. And that was that America is a cultural wasteland. Well, for ‘high’ culture. Rock ‘n’ roll and television, sure. Art, poetry, literature—no. My lovely American readers, please accept my sincerest apology.

I don’t  blame anyone for this and I’m willing to accept it as a weird idea I gained as an impressionable youth, along with many other weird notions no one meant to place in my head (flannelette shirts were fetching, Luke Perry was hot, orange cheese-flavoured corn snacks were a food group). But if I look back on my schooling and on the cultural and literary influences in my life, they were pretty much pushing the British line of culture. Perhaps with the odd Italian painting or French classic thrown in for good measure, and some Australians, but pretty much British. And by British, I mostly mean English.

This could have been luck. A coincidental conglomeration of teachers, parents and other influential adults’ personal tastes; a strange symbiosis of syllabus; an unintentional leaning to Commonwealth cultural heritage. And, of course, it could have been just my subconscious. Somewhere around age 12 I may have decided that the absence of American culture in my learning meant that it wasn’t worth learning, that it had nothing to offer. Which is, of course, nonsense.

What this babble is about is that I think for a long time I was biased against American literature. As a school of writing—if I can be so insanely general. Sure I used to read American authors, but I wouldn’t have offered that American literature was something I was ‘in to’, or which I sought out. I was straightjacketed, in a way, by the notion that the odd American book may be wondrous, but British was best. And this is what I meant at the start about looking like a moron.

Whatever the connections my subconscious once made about the value of American literature, this cultural apartheid has served one good purpose: I now have the pleasure of discovering how much I really, really like particular branches of American writing; and how much I really, really like authors like Richard Ford.

Rock Springs is a collection of stories set in the American West, many of them in Montana and its surrounds. We read of unforgiving cold, single parents (many of them fathers), people holding down deadend jobs, bad cheques being passed, folk trying to avoid (some unsuccessfully) the law, odd strangers met and even odder family members being tolerated. These are not big stories. Some of them are more minute—in action, in setting—than you think a story can be. They entail part of a train ride, the fixing of dinner, random phone calls, an afternoon’s trip into the hillside, a drive to nowhere. And yet the power of Ford’s short stories reverberate inside you like a shift-change whistle. The language is as taut as a trip wire; the characters are ever-intriguing, and often endearing, in their everyday hopelessness. Some stories have an odd humour about them, some a plain old sadness, some a plain old oddness; there isn’t one you could do without, nor one you wish was different.

My book group read Rock Springs and it was one of those books which set us off on a tangle of conversations about writing, observation, authors’ abilities and then the western world, class, social stigmas, literacy, language, the different opportunities people have and how this affects their future, how this affects our society. We talked for hours and could have kept going; Richard Ford stirred up a whole lot of stuff inside us and we wanted a further whisking.

As I’ve said before, you know you’ve read a marvellous book when once you finish it you go online to look up everything the author has ever written  and decide which books to immediately get your hands on. This was the case after I read Rock Springs. If you like short stories, of if, like me, you’ve decided you need more excellent American literature in your life, then I whole-heartedly recommend this collection of Richard Ford’s work.

M is for McCarthy

The last time I read a Cormac McCarthy novel I became so animated that a stranger sharing my dining space walked over and insisted I write down the name of the book I was reading because any book which caused someone to have so many emotions flash across their face was worth purchasing. Now I’ll admit there was a fair chance this was a line, but I still got the opportunity to spread the McCarthy gospel—so let’s not dwell on my gullibility, but rather the most recent book from one of my favourite authors.

The letter M was always going to be hard because I had so many books to choose from. No need to worry for now that the letters Q and V are coming up, for M I was solid. Margaret Atwood, Inspector Montalbano, Magical themes and titles, Mormons, the options fanned around me like a fan made of books. In the end the choice was easy. Sitting in the pile was The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy.

The Sunset Limited is ‘a novel in dramatic form’. Call me dense, but that’s basically a play, right? And call me denser still but I find that reading a play is very different to reading a novel, dramatically formed or otherwise. Remember that english teacher who made you read Othello out loud because ‘Shakespeare was meant to be performed’? They had a point. And even though when reading stories in this structure I tend to read aloud to myself in my head (if you follow me), it can’t replace seeing the play/novel in dramatic form and I don’t think it can affect you in the same way. I am more than happy to re-read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Hamlet, The Lady in the Van, Don’s Party or Waiting for Godot, but the reason I go back to these plays and like them so much is that as well as reading them I have also seen them. So I’m wondering: if I see The Sunset Limited performed will I like it more than I did when I read it? And would I then re-read it to different result?

I’ve spoken about the thrill we experience when we discover one of our favourite authors has a new book on the shelves; but what do you do when that new book fails to satisfy like others have? Possibly it depends how disappointed you are. I’m not overly distraught in this case, just a little underwhelmed. I am used to reading Mr McCarthy and being thrust into a thoughtful haze for a number of days, to feeling it necessary to take long full breaths just to stay somewhat upright, to uttering his name in low, reverential tones the type of which I otherwise reserve for large religious buildings, national art galleries and the British Museum. If someone asked me should I read The Road or No Country for Old Men I’d likely hold their collar and rock them about a bit in my insistence that they must. If they asked me should they read The Sunset Limited I would look up from my coffee, go to point my teaspoon at them in a half-hearted manner, then shrug and say, ‘Sure, there’re some interesting bits. It’s McCarthy after all.’

What I like best, and admire  most, about McCarthy’s writing are his artful descriptions and his ability to work with tension, suspense, conflict and basic, raw human emotions (and weave a plot through it all). His dialogue can be pretty magic too, though often spare, and it wouldn’t usually be the first thing I mentioned when discussing his work. But here we have a novel in dramatic form and thus what we have is dialogue, and almost dialogue alone. What Sunset gives us is an old-school philosophical discussion on life and religion. Two characters sitting in a bare room in a ‘black ghetto’—opposites in many ways, representative of different worlds—are brought together by a simple, desperate act. A white, educated man who believes existence in this world offers nothing tries to kill himself and is rescued by a black man, ex-con, who believes that God and the Bible are the only answer anyone needs to anything. Lock them in a room and discuss. And in the end the answer is…

I think the reasons for my lack of whelm are three-fold: I find reading a play simply to read it a slightly utilitarian experience; the thing I love most about McCarthy’s writing is his description (which scripts necessarily lack); and when you revere an author so much and the last thing he wrote was The Road, well, your expectations for the next thing from him are high—ridiculously high—and the chances of him meeting those expectations are slim no matter what he produces, but perhaps especially when what he produces is a little play and you weren’t really expecting that at all.

If you cast your eyes over the list of plays I like, you’ll see that a novel in dramatic form which deals with the notions of, and reasons for, existence should be something which appeals to me. And like I said, The Sunset Limited isn’t completely devoid of appeal, but it lacked oomph and didn’t have that McCarthy road-train effect on my being which I’ve come to expect. I’m willing to accept some of this as a deficit of skill or comprehension as a reader, but not all of it. I do believe that if I saw it performed I would appreciate it more and perhaps I would flip back into using those respectful church/Picasso/Rosetta-stone tones. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself. It’s McCarthy after all.

Book 26: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

I don’t know where to begin. I finished reading this book two weeks ago and I’m still speechless (about the book, not speechless in general, that’s impossible). I’m still thinking about it. Still trying to decide things. And still feel ill-equipped to explain it to anyone (except in the barest of terms). All I can say is that Blood Meridian is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read. I am in awe of it. Like Wayne and Garth to Aerosmith … I feel unworthy.

I’m not going to say anything new here – the novel is 25 years old, it’s on many people’s fave list (probably a certain genre of person – see my views on this in a very early post – though I’m starting to wonder about this now), everyone has reviewed it. And I just don’t think I’m capable of expressing what it is I want to express. A case in point: when stirring a tasty no-sugar hot chocolate in a hostel kitchen, I was asked what I was reading by a fellow traveller. On my reply, which I was kind of chuffed to be able to say – cos let’s face it, the answer could have been much less impressive – I was then asked what the novel was about.

‘Um, it’s about this boy who kind of joins a gang, in the wild west, and there’s all this blood and violence, oh and Indians. Comanches. Scalping. More blood. It’s pretty full on.’

Yep, Rhodes scholar.

Let’s not worry about the plot anyway. That wasn’t so important for me. What was important were the characters, the writing, the intensity of the novel and the way it made me feel.

It’s tricky to write about how a book makes you feel. It runs the risk of the ‘I don’t know Art but I know what I like’ genre of discussion. But that’s about all I can explain about this book. I can tell, though probably not show.

When reading Blood Meridian I was compelled to turn the pages, despite often feeling frightened, disgusted, overwhelmed by violence, and despising many of the characters. Like the men in the novel forced by circumstance (and greed) to keep plowing on through a dead, deadly and inhospitable landscape; I was pushed on by an intensity in the narrative and description (oh the descriptions!), by the collection of words on the page, and a strange whirling in my head and thumping in my chest. By a certain disbelief at what was happening and a need to find out what was going to happen next. Like the guns for hire, I felt covered in grime and sweat, stumbling over rocks and spiky vegetation, frightened, desperate and savage. I’m surprised I too didn’t start spitting every five minutes.

And though the book is said to be the Kid’s story, it’s the Judge that stays with you. I’ve read more than a few times that No Country for Old Men‘s murdering psycho Anton Chigurh is considered one of the scariest muthas created. Well, the Judge kicks Chigurh to the kerb like nobody’s business. Do you want to meet the devil in human form? Introduce yourself to the Judge – a terrifying, all-knowing, seemingly unstoppable journeyman of evil. Is he Lucifer in disguise? Or is it more terrifying if he’s just a man? There are certainly many references to the lower realms as the band of killers make their way through the American south-west. Hell on Earth? Or is an individual’s existence just a private hell of their own?

Depressed yet?

And yet there is humour in this book. Sure, gallows humour often, and perhaps more of a disbelief at events that leads you to a little breath of laughter in lieu of gnashing your teeth. But it’s there.

For me, raised on John Wayne, Spaghetti Westerns, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Blood Meridian takes the notion of the Wild West expansion and knocks it on its head and shakes it about til it is beaten and bruised into a weeping lump of degradation. Paint your Wagon? How about you flip it over and use it as a barricade against the hordes of desperadoes – native, Mexican and Americano – riding down upon you in a blood lust.

Is this book perfect? Of course not. You can read the original New York Times review, which contains as much criticism as praise. But I haven’t been stirred up like this by a novel in some time. And that’s always a welcome feeling – even if the stirring puts you off balance a bit, or indeed leaves you lying face down in the dirt, scrambling for breath.

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Canadian depository: Ottawa Backpackers Inn – under the ‘Sierra Nevada’ bunk in the ‘North America’ room. Fitting, non?

Book 11: American Rust by Phillipp Meyer

american rustA debut novel is fraught with emotion for both writer and reader. And as I wear my reader’s beret for this blog, that’s what I’m going to discuss. What do you think about when you see ‘first-time novelist’ on the back of the book? I feel a sense of excitement but also concern. On the one hand there is the wondrous possibility that you will discover an entertaining, thought-provoking, intelligent voice (or funny, or scary, or dryly cynical… whatever motors your scooter), a storyteller to spend future nights tucked up in bed with. I suppose this is the same with any writer you are trying for the first time, but when this new writer is also a new writer, there are other possibilities that the watchful reader can experience jitters over. These are the ones I worry about most:

1. Is this going to be a fictionalised account of their life story to date? (Pros: their life may have been interesting. Cons: they may have just grown up in an odd family, been teased at school, travelled, fallen in love and been dumped just like the rest of us.)

2. Are they going to try to write like their favourite author? (Pros: Their favourite author could be your favourite author. Cons: They might think they can write like your favourite author.)

3. Are they going to be experimental? (Pros: a breath of fresh air. Cons: a vast list of misdemeanours (sometimes capital crimes) against plotlines, characterisation, grammar, dialogue, the English language and literary sense in general)

4. Will it be Worthy? (Pros: discover a new, wonderful author who makes you think/laugh/cry etc. Cons: (1) it won’t meet expectations – yours, the gushing reviews on the cover, those of a general English literature kind of standard. (2) The young Y or X’er will think they have something important to tell you and that no one but them has ever contemplated before nor put laser ink to paper about it before.)

[Sigh], it’s a fraught journey to embark on, and possibly one of the reasons I scramble back into the classics at regular intervals, or am content to read my eighth Inspector Montalbano book. Besides, there is so much to read, how many newbies can you let in?

So, Phillip Meyer’s American Rust. How do you approach a debut novel that the New York Times raved about? How do you settle in your mind the act of reading a piece of literature which critics have compared to Faulkner, to Steinbeck, to McCarthy (who regular readers to this blog know is my current favourite author)? Hopeful but cautious is what I went with.

So, the verdict? I think this is a good novel. I think it is an excellent first novel. It’s not perfect. It’s not extraordinary. But I felt for the characters and the situation, I was compelled to keep reading, it was very easy to read which I like to think is the sign of a well-written story. It’s very real. Having heard Meyer a couple of times in the last week (at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and on the radio – he’s incredibly likeable by the way) I know that one of the things he sees as key to his job (and privilege) of being a writer is telling the truth and I think he has achieved this. One of the ‘problems’, of course, with being real and in this case writing about an economically and socially depressed area and the bind the characters have found themselves in, is that the book often left me feeling despondent. But life ain’t always happy or fair is it? And Meyer does leave us with a little hope. Perhaps not as much as I would have liked but then I am a firm supporter of happy endings.

American Rust is definitely worth finding space for in your reading piles, even if, like me, you are often trepidatious about letting a new author in to your reading realm.