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

I missed book group last week. It makes me sad for all the missed joys mentioned in the first part of this post series and also because when I can’t get around to reading the book-group book I feel it means I am not using my potential reading time as I should. It means I am letting work-reading start to take over again. It means I am checking emails while commuting when I could be reading my books. It means I am watching too many TV shows where an expert comes in to fix a bankrupt country house/failing hotel/failing restaurant or where amateur cooks try to make me feel un-gourmet by pretending they are proper chefs, and maybe we should all get over our fascination with goat’s cheese and pop-up restaurants. Not that we should blame the goat’s cheese.

So, yes, I wasn’t reading as much last month and I missed my previous book group meeting. Well, I opted out. But before that moment of truancy I had read a lot of book-group books. And if you didn’t catch the link to part one of this series above, I’m giving you another chance to click on it here.

Sometimes outsiders fear book groups are full of self-proclaimed intellectuals full of high talk about this literary theory and that rather brilliant but unfathomable novelist. Telling them you discussed Kafka the other month doesn’t help this fear. Mind you, if they’d been at the pub where we hold our meetings and overheard our conversation, they may not have felt so intellectually threatened. It went a little bit like this:

‘Oh my god, I just couldn’t finish it.’

‘I finished it but I didn’t really get it.’

‘I think I get what he’s on about but I don’t think I really care.’

‘Although, I am kind of glad that I can now legitimately use the term Kafkaesque.’

I was glad of that too, well not about using the term so much, but having now read a novel by Franz Kafka I will no longer feel as deceitful about the odd reference to him or his writing that I may have occasionally made in the past without having ever read any of his work.

So The Trial was not a resounding success, but not everyone hated it. The person who chose the novel, for example, adores it. He chose it for book group because it is one of his favourite books and he wanted to see what other people thought about it. He held up well, I must say. And he continues to attend our meetings so mustn’t think we’re entirely stupid. Plus the university student who sold me my copy at the bookstore raved on about dear old Franz for some time. And as once mentioned in a post a few years back, author and playwright Alan Bennett often wrote of Kafka in his journals.

So what did I think? I found The Trial a challenging reading experience. It took a lot of brain power to get through and as a reader who prefers a steady plot and reasonably clear character motivations my reading of this novel was slow. It was also tentative. I kept waiting for a penny to drop, for a revealing, for a proactive change in the character and/or his situation, I  kept waiting to feel as though I understood exactly what the point of the book was and therefore could allow myself to feel smart. I kept waiting. I also had a gap of a week or more between readings, which was not a good idea. It was difficult to get back into the tale even to the small degree that I had been ‘in it’ previously. I was on holiday and who wants to be reading Kafka while on safari? Well, maybe Alan Bennett and that girl from the book store. Maybe a lot of people, for all I know. But not me. It felt like homework. I was lying under a tree in the Namibian bush and I did not want to be doing homework.

Like my book group cohort who was glad they could now use the term ‘Kafkaesque’ without shame, I am still pleased that I have read The Trial, though perhaps not for the reasons I should. It is always better to be able to say that you didn’t really like a novel having read it, than pretend you know all about it when you haven’t. Plus sometimes it is good to challenge yourself, to exercise your mind and see how far it will stretch,  to be able to discuss how a book made you feel instead of avoid writings you are frightened you might not understand. In the end you may not enjoy the book, it might even make you feel a little bit thick, but going through the process and then discussing it with others can still be one of the joys of book group.

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…

Thank You, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

When I started writing this post I was ten days away from moving my bodily self across the seas to live in a different country for a while. I was packing up most of my earthly possessions into boxes once more (seriously, how many times can I do this in two years?), and trying to decide just how many favourite things and necessities of life I could stuff into a suitcase. For this reason, the posts have been a little slow going (sorry Postaweek commitment!),  but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading…

What it does mean is that over the last month my brain has been a little overfull so forgive the potential nonsense which may spout forth over the next few weeks, well, more nonsense than usual. You may also need to forgive the lack of detail on the books being discussed, as the finer points fade off into that part of my brain where thoughts go to hibernate.

When I was in high school an Anglophile friend encouraged me to read PG Wodehouse and I fell in book-love with the Jeeves and Wooster stories. There is something so delightful in the pip-pip, good-show optimism of Bertie Wooster and the ever-present dryness of the more-than-capable Jeeves. Back in the day, among the frantic studying and analysis of the likes of Joyce, Donne, Yeats and Bronte, Wodehouse offered a delightful distraction of boater hats, toast and tea, and frightful great aunts.

A friend from work and I recently foisted Wodehouse, in the form of Thank You, Jeeves, onto our book group. We are both big fans and wanted others to experience the affection we feel. In the wash-up it probably wasn’t the perfect book-group choice—not because people didn’t like it but because there’s nothing overly meaty in Wodehouse to sink one’s book-group choppers into. It was a case of ‘Yes, I quite enjoyed that. Another glass of wine?’

But then, sometimes it’s nice to read a book for the sole reason that you know you’ll have a good time. Like going to a musical or dancing to disco, the world’s not going to change but you’re sure going to leave with a smile on your face. And leave with a smile on my face I did as Bertie moves to the country to avoid the ire of his London neighbours after he practises his banjo-playing too enthusiastically, and then finds himself stuck in the general confusion of his friend’s engagement, an ex-fiancee’s father wanting his head on a stick, some over enthusiastic local police officers, and Jeeves seeming to be in the service of everyone except him!

My one criticism of Thank You, Jeeves is that it could be a tighter story. This was the first Jeeves and Wooster novel Wodehouse wrote, having previously presented their adventures in short-story form, and I got the feeling, perhaps from pure excitement at suddenly having so many more words available to him, that he overdid it a bit. It doesn’t destroy the experience, you just occasionally come to a point and think, ‘Okay, enough with this bit, let’s move on PG.’ And soon enough he does.

The Anglophile friend who introduced me to PG Wodehouse and Jeeves and Wooster moved to London 10 years ago and has lived here ever since. Though it now bares only a small resemblance to the London of Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, I like to think that the Wodehouse stories helped her along a bit as she was setting herself up. And I like to think they will do the same for me. If not in any practical sense, at least the sweet entertainment of a comical genius will keep me chuckling in those far-away-from-home times.

V is for Virtual Reality

Sometimes I finally get around to doing one of those things I’ve been meaning to do and end up disappointed. Perhaps the anticipation outweighs the pleasure of completing the task. Perhaps it was never a good idea to begin with. Being a dedicated, loyal type of person doesn’t help.  Something I agreed to months earlier, or decided was a new interest, has—as a notion—passed its natural expiry date but I am loath to let it go due to my previous commitment and/or original enthusiasm. When it turns out well I congratulate myself on going through with the activity; when it doesn’t I wish I’d kept it as merely a happy thought in my head.

Earlier in the year my book group read Neuromancer by William Gibson. Touted as the seminal cyberpunk novel, the best science fiction novel, the book that invented the internet etc. we thought we’d give it a whirl. After all, there were Dr Who fans among us, we could read science fiction and love it. Plus a few of us had been meaning to read it for, oh, a decade or so. As I traipsed off to my independent genre bookshop, I was feeling all uber-geeky and techno-cool at the thought of crossing this ‘intended task’ off my list. But in the end I felt a little deflated. The techo-cool became techno-tepid.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept—the ideas—are fantastic. Even 27 years after the book was published. They’re probably not as ‘unique’ as they were back in the early eighties, but then, as you read it you see that Neuromancer was most likely where a whole lot of writers and filmmakers got their inspiration. So I appreciated it from that point of view. I liked its dystopic, grungy, metallic feel. And, in a small way, I liked that I was getting around to reading it. But liking a concept and being able to tick it off your list are different things to making a connection with a book.

This could be one of those times when my reading and comprehension abilities let me down, but honestly, if I hadn’t seen The Matrix trilogy I would have had a hard time visualising (and somewhat following) what was going on in cyberspace. Maybe if you spent your adolescent years pulling  apart motherboards it would all make sense, but I struggled at times to have a clear idea of ‘what was going on’ when protagonist Case was in the system, and to move on in the novel I just had to continue blindly and assume my brain would pick things up again when it could. Not necessarily a bad thing if you’re after some literary leaps of faith, but potentially frustrating for a reader who is spending more time trying to comprehend, instead of engage.

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m failing to connect with a book I start finding other things wrong with it, and the current edition that I read left a little to be desired production-wise. As an editor I know more than anyone that there are always small mistakes in books but Neuromancer has been kicking around for almost three decades and yet it seems no one could be bothered on one of the trillion reprintings it must have had to fix any basic typos, dodgy line spacing, or update the internal design to something that looked less Gutenberg. The cover was pretty naff as well, in my opinion.

None of these whinges should have too much effect on a reader if they are loving what they’re reading, but this wasn’t my experience. Maybe seminal cyberpunk just isn’t my thing, and I’m happy to accept that. I’m also happy to accept that I may be a narrow-brained dunce and missed the whole point, but William Gibson’s breakthrough novel just didn’t leave me feeling particularly enlightened or entertained, just kind of fuzzy-minded and slightly disappointed. Even the satisfaction of doing something I’d been meaning to do for years wasn’t quite enough. In the end the biggest influence it had on me was that it made me want to watch The Matrix again.

U is for Unfinished

Always finishing the book they started is a badge many hard-core readers (like hard-core bikies but without so much leather) love to wear with honour. Similar to those who are anti e-book because they like the way p-books smell, the ‘always finish’ crew can get a little Salem-villagey if you dare admit you closed a book part-way through with no intention of re-opening it. They say things such as ‘I never let a book defeat me’ or ‘Once I start it I have to finish it’, as if there’s some biblio-scorecard being kept somewhere.

U is for Unfinished. Yes, you tome-tallying library lovers, I ‘gave up’ on a novel.

One of my favourite university tutors (I have two), a great man, writer and reader who had the odd job of teaching us about ‘the internet and digital media’ back in 1998 when many of the class were yet to open an email account, once mentioned that the only book he couldn’t make it through was Kangaroo by DH Lawrence. As I liked and respected this tutor so much I have always had Kangaroo on a mental ‘never-to-be-read’ list, though occasionally I am struck with a sadistic urge to attempt it. I’m not sure what it will prove if I finish it. That my boredom threshold is stronger than my tutor’s was? Seems an odd thing to give a damn about. (As an aside, Kangaroo is one of the books I sometimes imply I have read when in a high-brow conversation about ‘tough’ books, so much do I trust my tutor’s views.)

A common theme across the blog this year has been that ‘life is too short’—to focus on regrets (or, as I’ve started calling them, ‘recognisable errors in  judgement’), to beat yourself up about not managing to squeeze four thousand tasks into each day, to read a bad book, to read a book you don’t want to. And so, this year, there was one book I didn’t finish. It was Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Haymann and there were two main reasons I closed it, never to be reopened: it was too long and it wasn’t interesting enough for me to forgive its length. And when I say too long I don’t just mean it needed a few paragraphs cut. I mean it was overwritten, overblown and overfull with unnecessary plot, exposition and description. It was the kind of book where I think I could have randomly skipped 10 pages and still follow the plot. But why would you want to do that? As an editor I wondered if the author even considered any of the editorial suggestions, and then I shudder at the thought that she did, and this was still the result. It was a shame as there were some lovely little details, expressions, thoughts from the narrator, but you had to find these rare gems in the jungle of words around them, and in the end, well about half-way through, I just didn’t feel it was worth it anymore and just looking at it on the bedside table gave me a heavy heart.

As I didn’t finish the novel I’m not going to sit here and bag it for three paragraphs. Take what you will from the fact that I didn’t read the whole thing, and the fact that this was a book group selection and I have never attended a book group session where passions ran so high when discussing whether the book was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ novel. (Seriously, people brought visual aids with them to support their argument.)

The language we hard-core booklovers sometimes use fascinates me. Books ‘defeat us’, we ‘give up’, we take a break to ‘gather strength’ to go back to it, but ‘won’t succumb’ to letting it go. Sports fans are often ridiculed for comparing their games to military battles, but surely us book geeks should also be put to task for similar appropriations.  And if we’re going to play word games, why do we so rarely blame the book? Maybe the book let us down. Maybe our greater sense, imagination, reasoning or life experiences ‘beat’ the lesser merits of the book. Maybe, just maybe, life is too short to read something we’re not enjoying or being intellectually tickled by. Maybe some books should remain unfinished.

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.

P is for Peru

Those more astute than your humble blogger may have come to the realisation that there are only ten days of the year left and, in theory, eleven books still to post on. The maths is starting to get the better of the hopes. But like some less-fun things I don’t want to face up to I’ve decided to ignore the fact that we still have book-friends lingering on our alphabetical sideline worried they won’t get a game, and stick out my chin and plough on regardless. You should never let a deadline stop you from having a good time, or reading a good book.

Just as our book group was pondering its next selection, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and having been rather North America-centric this year, we decided to venture south of the border. None of us had read Llosa before and we liked the idea of reading ‘something a bit different’. We chose Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. We chose it mostly because it was supposed to be funny and it was one of the shorter of the laureate’s books we could get our hands on. See, you think we make book-group decisions based on high falutin’ notions, but really we choose it on practicality and wanting a bit of a laugh.

And didn’t we laugh. But didn’t we do so much more than that. We clutched the little wad of paper to our chests, sipped our wine, and exclaimed what a  delight this novel was. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is one of the most entertaining, well-written, well-told stories I have read, and it was a hands-down favourite of our little clave. One person stated they’d be happy to read it for a decade. Another pondered out loud what rot they had been reading all their lives when they could have been reading the work of this Peruvian master. We had all ‘found’ a new writer to devour, and it filled us with a joyful hunger.

Mario is 18 and working for a radio station in Lima, trying his best to study and live on his meagre salary, and dreaming of being a writer and living in a Parisian garret. Then an odd little man—scriptwriter, actor and director extraordinaire Pedro Camacho—arrives at the radio station to revamp its flagging soap operas and fills Mario with curiosity. At the same time Mario falls in love with his aunt’s sister, who is older and (shock) a divorcee. Running parallel with Mario’s story are Camacho’s serials; sagas filled with delectable intrigue, passion, gore and violence, which take on a life of their own and, as the novel progresses, shadow the scriptwriter’s fate. 

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter may sound like an overambitious mess of a concept, and perhaps in the hands of another writer it would be a disaster, but in Llosa’s charge it is a glorious tale of genius. His writing is magical, the plot (believe it or not) runs smoothly, his description and turn of phrase are startlingly perfect; he is funny, smart, and entertaining. His novel is full of life and humanity; his writing epitomises what great storytelling should be.  

I was troubled for a while about how long it was taking me to finish this novel, especially when I liked it so much. I put it down to stress, the ‘time of year’ and annoying things like work and responsibilities getting in the way. In the end I wonder if perhaps my subconscious connived against me by staging a go-slow in the reading department. To echo a statement from one of my book-group colleagues, I hadn’t wanted Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter to ever end.