Friday, September 28, 2007

bookish aside

A rainy Friday afternoon, a quick break from the last legs of Darkmans, a quick chat about a few book related matters.

This week I discovered Goodreads, as evidenced by my sidebar. I’ve wanted to catalogue my reading online for a while, but the most recommended site (Library Thing) wanted to charge money if I input more that 200 titles. I want to catalogue everything I’ve read since 2000, which is when I first started keeping a log. Goodreads seems fairly easy to use (I’ve only input 2007 so far), at least for what I want it to do - which is just to keep track, so I can quickly check to see if I’ve read something and what I thought of it, without having to go through the pages of a notebook. You also get to see what I’ve read in a lovely little box - I’ve chosen to share my books in order of how highly I rated them.

I buy most of my books online - its almost always cheaper than any of the local bookshops. But I like to browse in bookshops - online browsing just isn’t quite the same, I tend to get too lost down those alleyways of ‘if you liked this you might also like…’. Proper bricks and mortar bookshops also allow a better inspection of cover art and printing quality, font style and size etc - good examples of which can help any reading experience.

So when I spotted the new Penguin Celebration range online I had to head downtown to check these little devils out in the flesh - and thankfully they had pleasing matt finish covers as I hoped. The only let down is that I have already read most of the titles that I fancy, but they are so appealing that I might have to try a few of the ones I don’t fancy too - especially when they are only £3.99 each at Amazon!

I prefer to read paperbacks - in fact the Booker bunch is mainly the only time I read hardbacks - unless I am particularly impatient and can’t wait / won’t wait for the paperback issue. Or unless someone gives me a hardback as a gift, clearly ignoring the fact that I don’t really like reading hardbacks. Paperbacks are easier to cram into a bag to take out and about, for alfresco reading opportunities - and less likely to cause damage if I drop them on my face while reading in bed. So I’m looking forward to getting back amongst my little papery friends once the Booker is done and dusted.

I think I might keep the Kingfisher Scrapbook in sometime operation between Bookers. And my first non-Booker aim will probably be a couple of titles for the R.I.P. II Challenge. I think I should just about have time to digest a couple of slim volumes before the Halloween deadline. After that, who knows what I’ll do here, talk about other books I guess…

Sunday, September 23, 2007

four legs good

Some novels stand out from the crowd based on their plot, some on their characters and Animal’s People is clearly the latter. Which isn’t to say the plot was a let down. Obviously a fictionalised account of the aftermath of a chemical disaster like that which occurred in Bhopal in the early 80’s - we encounter Khaufpur, an Indian community twenty years on, fighting to survive and get justice and compensation from the American ‘Kampani’ responsible for the leak.

‘Like drunks with arms round each others’ necks, the houses of the Nutcracker lurch along this lane…’

But Indra Sinha deftly avoids any danger of bogging his novel down with weighty issues by the masterful creation that is Animal, his central character. Born at the time of the chemical spill Animal is profoundly distorted, doubled over and forced to walk on all fours.

Animal takes us by the hand (and be careful to watch where he puts his other one!) and leads us through his world, often bending low, but sometimes climbing high like a manic monkey. We see through his eyes - just as we are the ‘Eyes’ who he directly addresses - his captive audience, unable to turn away even if we choose to. His world view is infectious, vile and hilarious in equal measures.

‘If you took a skeleton, chopped off one of its legs, removed half its teeth, dressed the result in rags and pissed all over it, this is the type of impression that Mr Saliq likes to give.’

He speaks his own language - a backwards mix of Indian, English and French, but this proves no obstacle to understanding him and the reader quickly slips into his speech pattern.

As we follow Animal through the twists and turns of his double dealing with everyone he encounters we come to learn a fundamental dilemma at the heart of his existence. The choice (which becomes a real possibility when an American doctor arrives in Khaufpur offering curative treatment) between his animal existence and potential normality. He regularly asserts his desire to be viewed as animal rather than human, and we can see that this attitude has probably accounted for his survival so far, a lack of self awareness easing the pain that full acknowledgement might bring.

‘…if I agree to be a human being I’ll also have to agree that I’m wrong-shaped and abnormal. But let me be a quatre pattes animal, four-footed and free, then I am whole, my own proper shape…’

But if Animal is to fulfil his main ambition - the desire for love in the long term, and sex in the foreseeable future - straightening up and embracing humanity might be his only option. And the call of the wild beast barely contained in his shorts is a loud one - indeed Animal easily wins the meaty battle of the penis begun by Anne Enright.

A number of the shortlist novels have struggled at their endings - most notably the McEwan and the Hamid - and while the final tying of the last few pages of Animals’ People might come as a little too ahhhh for some, the section immediately preceeding them gives all the ooohh I had come to hope for. Like an apocalyptic acid trip Animal shares his final sensory overdose, worn with a style that suits just like his kakadus.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

more than a mouthful

Gifted tells the story of Rumi, fourteen going on fifteen. Born in Wales to Indian parents, she struggles to reconcile their conflicting demands. On one hand they want her to excel in British academic circles. But on the other they demand she show due respect to her blood heritage - complete with a lack of sex before the inevitable arranged marriage.

Gifted is also the story of Rumi’s parents. Her father who struggles to find the balance between love and discipline and who tends to treat his wife and friend as though they were also children. And her mother who tries to fit in despite a hankering for the country she left behind - a woman whose preoccupation with food quickly rubs off on Rumi, marking much of her inner thought with edible references and prompting her addiction to cumin seeds.

Gifted is also the story of Rumi the maths prodigy - more at home with numbers than people -

‘Under the burning tube lights, she attacked the numbers with speed and ferocity, as though she was playing Space Invaders, devouring the figures with the hunger in her belly and spitting out the remains.’

accelerated academically to Oxford, succeeding in exams but falling at all the basic hurdles of adolescence .

There is great strength in Nikita Lalwani’s characters and plot but fundamental weaknesses in her delivery. Vivid loops and twirls add colour to her prose -

‘It was a tart globule of thought, bitter as a gooseberry gobstopper, which she sucked, waiting for it to crack up into something she could chew, digest and understand.’

but she tends to over-describe nearly everything which bogs the story down. She also fell into the McEwan trap of trying to hard to tie up all the loose ends - and I feel the novel would have been stronger had it ended with the Brit-flick style finale, omitting the epilogue.

Where Mohsin Hamid gave us tasters and left us wanting more, Lalwani overheaps our plate at every course and offers such a vast menu that all our choices become spoilt. Any one of the major storylines in itself could have made a great novel (given a slightly lighter hand with the prose) - but all together I’m overfed and a little nauseous.

Monday, September 10, 2007

half a world away

If I had to name my favourite cover from this years selection Mister Pip would win. Eye catching colours fill bold shapes, printed onto pleasing matt paper. And thankfully the words within please too.

We join Matilda (aged 14) on her South Pacific island home. It’s 1991 and a time of change - war is rumbling, people are taking sides, lives are being lost. But the children of Bougainville are offered a welcome escape from the harsh realities by Pop Eye Watts, the only white man on the island, and self-styled teacher who transports them far away with his reading of Great Expectations. [Great Expectations works as a character within this novel - as such a reader needs no more previous knowledge of the book than they would have of any other fictional character they encounter]

Watts is everything a good teacher should be - knowing his limits, never claiming to know everything he calls upon the parents to come in and share their knowledge which results in lessons on such wonderful topics as the colour blue and broken dreams. As with the many stories within stories that are told in Mister Pip it’s the vivid telling that gives them their life -

“His mum got drunk on jungle juice and feel off a tree inside the house. When she hit the ground her eyes bounced out of her skull. When she lost her eyes she also lost her memory.”

Despite the ever present threat of violence this novel really tells the story of the power of literature itself. The way a book can make you think about yourself, your life - the way you can draw parallels and note differences. Charles Dickens offers Matilda a way to learn things not passed down from her parents. But the power of books also brings danger - and Great Expectations takes on the status of a holy book, it can support or denounce, save or condemn. It can also raise barriers between a mother and daughter forcing difficult choices.

I am a fan of fiction written from a child’s perspective and Lloyd Jones handles the form with great skill - Matilda is alive and believable, balancing knowledge with naivety.

“The great shame of trees is that they have no conscience. They just go on staring.”

Hand in hand with Matilda we come to understand the magic of imagination - not least in the scene where the islanders pool their collective memories of Mrs Watts, both real and fictional, and thereby bring her to a new kind of life.

As is often the case, I find it hardest to describe those things I like the most, and so it is with Mister Pip. The prose was light and poetic and in keeping with the story and Matilda’s voice and had me catching my breath at times -

“The world is grey at that hour, it moves more slowly. Even the seabirds are content to hold onto their reflections.”

Safe to say, Mister Pip is my favourite Booker read so far. I’m pleased to see it sitting tight on the shortlist and I think its become my choice to win so far.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

short changed

And so the Booker judges have announced their final six -

I’m pleased to see The Gathering there - good that they aren’t put off by possibly the most miserable of the 13. And a wave to Mister Pip which so far is still so good.

Animal’s People and the mighty Darkmans seem reasonable choices based on what others have said about them - and I am looking forward to bumping them up the pecking order of my still to be reads.

But On Chesil Beach and The Reluctant Fundamentalist seem this years odd choices. Perhaps they fancied a couple of short reads to offset Darkmans? perhaps they thought they better put the Hamid on so that people wouldn’t solely point the finger at McEwan for being too short? perhaps McEwan is on just to keep him sweet? perhaps Hamid purely for the post 9/11 fiction fans?

Looking forward to seeing what others think of the list - and to hear the cursing that The Welsh Girl fell at the first hurdle.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

great expectations

On the eve of the announcement of the Booker shortlist it seems apt to share my hopes and fears. Over the past few weeks I’ve read my way through six of the titles, and am part way through my seventh.

So far all of the novels have been good reads, none have been appalling or a struggle to finish. At no point have I felt I could be spending my time a better way. Although one or two have lulled me close to a semi-conscious state, it has been a pleasurable one and may owe more to the erratic English weather than the novel itself. But some have stood out as better.

But what does better mean? to me? or to the Booker judges? Quite possibly two different things. At this half way point in my reading I come to realise that my criteria for judging these books is far stricter than for the rest of the books I read throughout the year. Mostly I stumble across books or seek them out from various lists and recommendations, and read them with little or no expectation. But these thirteen arrive under a banner that suggests they are the pick of the crop of English language novels. And I read them as such. Some fall short of that accolade, some make the grade but don’t particularly appeal to me.

My favourite two novels from those I have read so far are The Gathering and Consolation. Both had their flaws, but told a story that engaged me in a style that felt comfortable and appropriate. Both have stayed in mind despite them being my first two reads. As such I would like to see these two make the shortlist.

I think The Welsh Girl deserves a place on the list too - despite it not really capturing my heart - because as I said in my review, I find it hard to point out a fault. And at this stage, unless it takes an unexpected turn for the worse - I would also stick Mister Pip on my shortlist too. However the other three seem a little too holey to continue in the race, perhaps in other years they might have gone further, but this year the competition is too good for anything but the best to get through. But that only makes 4 out of the required 6, so adding on the 2 most tempting titles from my remaining pile gives this as my Booker shortlist -

However, if I had to make a guess at the judges final six, based on my own reading so far, and various quality reviews from other Booker bloggers - it would look more like this -

But then again, looking at these, there is far too much overlap - I am never in that close agreement with the Booker panel, something must have gone wrong in my estimations! Till tomorrow then…

a little less conversation, a little more action

I would class myself as a fan of Ian McEwan - granted On Chesil Beach seems a little slim for the Booker criteria, but I was pleased to see it waiting on my pile. The plot premise was a good one - an early sixties couple in their honeymoon suite, about to consummate their marriage, with all the hopes and fears that entails. But it fell sadly short of the mark. Admittedly there was a fair dousing of striking writing, the kind I’ve come to expect from McEwan -

‘Entering the bedroom, she had plunged into an uncomfortable, dream-like condition that encumbered her like an old-fashioned diving suit in deep water. Her thoughts did not seem her own - they were piped down to her, thoughts instead of oxygen.’

But that’s about as far as the good marks go. I found Florence and Edward largely ridiculous people. Products of their time, they show how love doesn’t always feed lust, that what may be natural doesn’t always come easily and that sex is nothing like they show in the movies. Perhaps I too am a product of my time - a snakebite snog to the B52’s - but I couldn’t help giggling at Florence’s fears of ‘the close embrace’.

On the cusp of personal and sexual liberation, a decade of new freedoms and fun to come, I somehow doubt these two would know how to enjoy it if it bit them on the arse. A spark of possibility and hopes glimmers when Edward starts to give vent to his angry side -

‘the beginnings of a darkening of mood, a darker reckoning, a trace of poison that even now was branching through his being. Anger. The demon he had kept down earlier when he thought his patience was about to break.’

But fizzles out as quickly as it ignites. More lasting was my rage at his choice of white wine to go with the beef!

A neat little afternoon read, there was a strong sense of momentum throughout the novel, steady progress that builds as we are carried along, to learn how they came to this moment. This effectively mirrors the sex that so unnerves Florence, the dreaded one-thing-leads-to-another. But sadly, before we reach the end, Mr McEwan himself falls foul of Edwards greatest fear, that of ‘arriving too soon’. He spills his conclusion rapidly and messily over the last few pages - leaving me unsatisfied and unimpressed.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

counting sheep

Some books stand out for how they make you think, some for how they make you feel. The Welsh Girl makes me feel like a child on a Sunday afternoon - stuffed full of meat and two veg, overdosed on gravy and crashed out in front of the telly. There’s nothing on the box but a black and white war movie and my mind screams ‘BORING’ but I feel myself hopelessly drawn in by the tale, despite the stiff upper lips and foolish costumes. Because while times and places change, people are people.

And people are what this novel is all about. The relationships between children and their mothers and fathers, between people and their birthplace and their country of origin. People dislocated by war, and people craving to break free from the limits of their roots.

All the characters and communities that Peter Ho Davies creates are peopled and alive, sparking with warm little details like the German POW who makes toy planes for the evacuee out of bed slats and bullet casings.

There is risk with any novel that adopts multiple narratives that each might be diluted by only claiming a share of the novel but this never seems to happen in The Welsh Girl. Each narrative - the surrendered German POW, the interrogator or the Welsh girl herself, Esther - seems to reinforce and elaborate on each other. This supportive narrative allows Peter Ho Davies to break through the barriers of enemy and friend, them and us -

‘She tries to decide how she feels about the Germans now. It seems important. She ought to hate them, she thinks, and she supposes she does, but she can’t quite muster the heat of anger. She doesn’t know them, after all; whatever they’ve done, it doesn’t feel like they’ve done it to her.’

I particularly enjoyed Esther’s struggles to find expression between two languages, each which seems to have a life and mode of thought of its own. She struggles to understand what happened to her in the abandoned swimming pool within the context of the word itself -

‘In the midst of it, yes, the word had filled her mind, buzzing and crackling like a lurid neon sign in a gangster picture. But not afterwards’

The novel seems almost faultless (incredible considering it’s his first), and every box ticked that ought to be. The prose is highly accomplished and vivid -

‘his nose as sharp as a beak and his cheekbones swept up like wings under his skin, as if his face were about to take flight.’

and I can see why all the reviews I’ve read speak so highly and tip the novel for the Booker shortlist at the least. It’s a well woven blanket, each thread handled with care and combined into a colourful pattern - but ultimately for me the blanket is a little too thick, a little too warm, and I am liable to find myself dozing beneath it, dreaming of sheep.