Tuesday, September 09, 2008

short measures

The announcement of the Booker shortlist is expected later today.  I have read 7 and ¾ books from the longlist.  And have shared my thoughts on 7 of those here.  I’m 100 pages from finishing Sea of Poppies and am hoping that we actually head out to sea before the end!

It seems I’m not the only person to feel a little disappointed by this years selection.  Or perhaps the past few years have just spoilt us.  Some of these books felt quite a drag to get through whereas in the past I’ve enjoyed being introduced to some sparkling new literature.  Perhaps this year offered a poor choice of new releases, perhaps the Booker judging panel have unusual tastes?

Only 4 of those I read deserve a place on my shortlist, those being - 

From A to X - John Berger
The Lost Dog - Michelle de Kretser
The Clothes on Their Backs - Linda Grant 
The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry

I’ll wait to see which titles make the official shortlist before I decide whether to read any more this year…

Monday, September 08, 2008

From A to X - John Berger

  • We are allowed access to the letters sent from A’ida to Xavier during his time in prison.  We are eavesdroppers in their story - trying to build a picture of their lives despite the non-chronological order of the letters and the lack of responses from Xavier.  We cannot know everything, we are asked to read between the lines.  We must bring our own contribution to this story.  Berger demonstrates the principle of show not tell at its very best.  
  • Everyday events are interspersed with feelings and thoughts.  This is true communication - the art of letter writing, of love.   It is writing to share life experiences, however mundane.  Love is so tangible in these letters - perhaps proving that absence does make the heart grow fonder, perhaps such passionate expressions of love could only be shared through a letter rather than face to face.  
  • The troubles in their country are inherent and referred to but never dominate and aren’t explained or justified or attacked - and they gain power for that.  A’ida shields Xavier from the harsher truths, sometimes only offering him news that will comfort him.  She writes the harder things for herself, but they remain unsent.  
  • There are many striking moments that will stay with me for a long time - images and events that A’ida describes, like flying with Xavier, the isolation, the height and defying gravity.  Berger captures the sensuality of this woman so well.  One of my favourite letters was the one where she is eating blackcurrants and spotting small snails.
  • Collected quotes - ‘He walked several hundred metres down the road to one of the ancient ruins, where a window-frame was still a window-frame, even if there was no glass, and a chair was still a chair with two legs missing.  There he found in an outhouse what he was looking for - a broom.’ and ‘I take a small bite for both of us.  The baked wheat flour and almond dust, sweet and a little greasy, lines the top of the palette, it sticks to the curved roof of the mouth, whilst below, on the floor, on our tongue lie tiny fragments of roasted nut to shift between the teeth and bite into.’
  • My favourite Booker read so far - 8 out of 10 snails

Sunday, September 07, 2008

and now for a short break

I’ve not read a lot of short story collections - but over recent years I’ve dipped into Hanif Kureishi, Anne Enright, Bernard Schlink, Ian McEwan, and Franz Kafka among others. Only two short story books have had any lasting impression on me - The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (Yann Martel) and The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter). At best I find I am no sooner getting involved in a short story before it has ended. I often find little connection between the stories in a collection and they appear randomly bundled together, with quite a few appearing as padding. At worst a story can read as little more than a writing exercise that should never have gone any further than the authors notebook.

My aim with Short Story Summer was to immerse myself more fully in the form and to try to break down my barriers to enjoyment. And I feel I have succeeded. And I think the shift has come due to my redefining what I hope to get from the stories. The best analogy is the album versus the compilation. I am a fan of both, but there is a time and a place for each. If I want a complete piece, which hopefully speaks as a whole and shows progression throughout I will opt for an album by an artist. If I want variety, and am willing to accept that some tracks will be great, others less so I would choose a compilation. And this is how the short stories have worked for me. Reading them alongside novels means that if I want a sustained reading session, picking up familiar characters and plot and places I will reach for the novel. If I want a quick fix of something new I will read a couple of stories. I’ve also learned to look for my own themes to tie the collections together, and once I’ve found these the stories have felt more satisfying.

I’m not done with my journey into the land of the short story - I’m halfway through Dave Eggers at the moment, but for now, these are the ones I’ve read -

Margaret Atwood - Moral Disorder

I broke myself in gently by reading a collection by an author I like. Atwood has also chosen to unite her stories by having them revolve around one central character - meeting her at different times and places in her life. Many stories focus on relationships with friends, lovers, parents, siblings, children and animals. I particularly enjoyed ones about houses lived in and the movements between them, her as a teenage literature lover, and reading the morning news. Atwood offers vignettes of a life - some are familiar to me as a reader some not so, but the way she portrays them allows me a level of access and recognition to each.

‘She was particularly apprehensive about doors, and about who might come through them.’

Andre Dubus - Dancing After Hours

This was the most striking of the three collections I read. Dubus writes with precise, tight prose. Sentences are sparing with each word carefully placed. The stories focus closely on people and particularly their feelings. Bodies thriving and failing featured often. He seemed especially strong when writing from the female viewpoint. Three of the stories feature the same character - as if Dubus can’t quite bear to let her go. The stories are fragile, heartbreaking, uplifting and poetic. Some of the stories feel as though they are written backwards - you know what the big conclusion is going to be from the start, but the pleasure is in seeing how you get there.

‘…feared scattered her grief: it lay beside her, hovered behind her. Shards of it stayed in her body; she could touch the places they pierced in her brain and heart.’

Gina Ochsner - People I Wanted to Be

There is unreality amid the everyday in these stories - the magical sits alongside the mundane. It’s almost supernatural but never in an intentionally scary way - Ochsner’s ghosts are household ghosts. Stories focus on the missing and the lost - and some people are lost even when they are firmly present. There is a sadness and a resigned tone to many of the stories. The eastern European settings and characters in some stories seems to reinforce this. Again there are repetitions in the collection as a whole - mostly in tone, but I couldn’t help but smile as for the fourth time I read about a fish being filled with oil - once in a bath, once on a bus.

‘In Archangel he’d gotten into a face-slapping contest with a priest. When a clear victor could not be decided, the priest has stabbed Niels in the hand with a holy bird feather carved out of ice.’

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Girl in a Blue Dress - Gaynor Arnold

  • They say don’t judge a book by it’s cover - but I think its important to like something you are going to hold in your hands for a few days. And I don’t like this, the blue is too blue, that silver ‘nomination declaration’ looks tacky and was clearly added at the last minute and the paper quality is quite poor, it almost feels a bit vanity press. I know that Tindal Street is a small independent publisher but I don’t recall that What Was Lost from last year looked this bad.
  • I thought the parts about the public grief and mourning and mass funeral of Alfred Gibson were quite interesting as they seemed very current with the ways the public has claimed a share of private grief and the nature of celebrity.
  • There was a dated feel to the prose. I wonder if this is inevitable or intentional? either way I didn’t really like it. If I wanted to read a Dickensian novel I would read Dickens. Which brings me to another gripe about this - I think that fictionalised accounts of real people can be great novels - but I would prefer it to be one thing or the other - call him Dickens if he is meant to be Dickens, not something else but acknowledging at the end that its mostly Dickens. It just seems slightly lacking in balls to go all the way.
  • I liked the focus on the woman behind the great man. The pull of the family versus the spouse versus the public. The sacrifices that are made in the name of art. And questions about how good liberated thinking really is. How possible is it to commit to one when you are loved by many?
  • Another novel that seems to be an individuals account of their life, through time, writing wrongs and seeking understanding and forgiveness.
  • Collected quote - ‘I have to confess to a certain mute rebellion as I poured half the tea away in the potted ferns, and gave the biscuits to the dog or, when the dog refused, threw them on the fire, where they burned with a resentful glow.’
  • Just an ok read - rather longwinded, with lots of quite repetitive dialogue and nothing very striking. It read a quite a thorough piece of research, with a little speculation thrown in, but fell rather flat in the telling, which was rather disappointing seeing as it was about a key literary figure. 5 out of 10 cups of tea

The Secret Scripture - Sebastian Barry

  • I call this chewy prose. I need to read it slowly, to savour it, at times to read parts aloud to hear the words dissolve in the air to get their full impact. To me it’s no surprise that this is published by Faber & Faber, I associate them with the more poetic end of prose.
  • Roseanne has a nostalgic voice that I could listen to for hours. She is hypnotic and lulls me into a pleasing dreamlike state.
  • Collected quotes - ‘There was a curious skein of whiteness on her features, like a sprinkle of halfhearted snow on a roadside. Perhaps it was a powder she used. The sunlight that they day outside virtually dumped into the room had betrayed it.’ and ‘…it all gathered together like a sea, the sea of Bet, and rose up from the depths of our history, the seabed of all we were, in a great wave, and crashed down on the greying shore of myself, engulfed me, and would that it had washed me away for good.’
  • I like the duet that the two narratives create. Dr. Grene isn’t all knowing despite his power and position and Roseanne fills in the gaps for us. Although at times their voices sound rather too alike considering their difference in age and circumstance, this seems rather unlikely. There is a confessional tone, it feels like they are speaking directly to the reader. This seems quite common in Irish literature.
  • There is a gothic tone to this novel. Rat catchers, grave diggers, orphanages, asylums, ghostly phonecalls and windswept beaches. It is the second book in a row to feature a hanging.
  • The relationship between psychiatrist and patient seems a popular one - and if it’s done well it’s one I enjoy. A good example for me was 98 Reasons for Being (Clare Dudman) while one that didn’t work was The Other Side of You (Salley Vickers).
  • This would have been higher up in my 2008 Booker favourites were it not for the ending - which came so suddenly and felt so contrived as to leave me with nothing but an ‘oh’ of disappointment! 7 out of 10 falling feathers

A Case of Exploding Mangoes - Mohammed Hanif

  • The humour (which seems to be one of its selling points) didn’t really appeal to me - at times I felt like I was watching an episode of ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mom’ with my parents - they are laughing, I know it’s funny, but I can’t quite bring myself to laugh.
  • Mostly the humour revolves around - hierarchy, procedure, religion and sex and toilets. Ineffectual men and dominant women (The First Lady was my favourite character!). Petty inner rivalries. At times I am reminded of Catch 22. I wonder what we are meant to gain from reading this book - is satire meant to carry a serious message or just to entertain?
  • A lot of the book revolves around knocking people down to size - important people make to look stupid and vice versa.
  • I liked the sections told from the perspective of Shigri more than those of Zia. Perhaps because he is the downtrodden one, and we gain more personal access to his feelings. I also likes the way the dual narratives steadily came together to a conclusive meeting point.
  • Hanif has a good eye to detail, which makes for some decent pieces of prose, I’d like to see what he does with a more straight novel, as this didn’t really appeal to me.
  • ‘The scribbling on the walls is in three language and the writers have used a variety of materials. I can read two of the languages, the third I have to guess. I can make out the etchings done with nails. The dried rust is probably blood, and I don’t wan to think what else they might have used.’
  • 5 out of 10 canny crows