Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jennifer Egan/LOOK AT ME


Charlotte, a thirty-five-year-old model at a dangerous point in her failing career is in a near-fatal car accident that ends her up with 80 titanium screws in her reconstructed face. As she desperately tries to save her professional life, Charlotte finds her life intersecting with those of an alcoholic detective, a depressive and mildly psychotic history professor, an anti-American math teacher, and, most critically, a precocious and lonely sixteen-year-old girl.

While it was full of clever concepts and foresights that have, since the book was published, come true, this book was quite a disappointment in terms of execution. Egan had some really potentially interesting ideas, but the relationships between and among the nicely developed characters were, without exception, very contrived. When I realized where the ending was heading, I found myself skimming the last 150 pages. It is not completely fair for me to judge the passages I did not read carefully, but there was not a whole lot of action in the plot and I failed to force myself through it. Most frustratingly for me, the narrative went from long passages of first person (Charlotte) to a rotating third person (everyone else) without apology or explanation. That just about drove me crazy.

I am glad I read the book, because there are a lot of things in it to think about and I am left with a very strong impression of the characters. I do not, however, understand how this was a National Book Award finalist.

Sarah Waters/THE NIGHT WATCH


London, 1947: Three women and one man are forced by circumstance to reflect on their failed and failing relationships (romantic and otherwise). Kaye, a wealthy loner, sulks alone in an apartment above a Christian Scientist doctor. Helen, a young woman who runs a dating service, can't help herself from undermining her own relationship with her live-in girlfriend, Julia, with her own distrust and insecurities. Viv, Helen's coworker, realizes she barely tolerates her long-term boyfriend. And Duncan, Viv's brother, has to confront his shameful, inert existence when a former acquaintance resurfaces. All the secrets the characters are hiding come out as the author moves into the past and the war, which changed even the most basic facets of life for London civilians.

The historical detail in this book is so rich that I feel like I had no understanding for the war experience before I read it. Waters has really done an impressive level of recreation, and THE NIGHT WATCH is a powerful reminder that war directly affects a lot more people than the soldiers fighting the battles. The characters are very evocative, and the author has done a marvelous job manipulating an unorthodox narrative format in order to tell the story satisfyingly. The book also moves at a very good pace, so don't be deterred by the length.

My one problem with the book was the fact that some passages dragged on and on for tens of pages after I'd already lost interest. I never stopped reading, but I was tempted to skim more than once. I wish the author had trimmed out at least 100 or so of the 540 pages. Overall, the book is certainly worth reading, but I have to say that I liked it, I didn't love it.

Also, incidentally, I love this cover. One of my friends who is a book cover designer claimed there are no interesting elements on covers like this, but I really like nice, simple pictures like this. I actually bought this book by the cover.

Brian Selznick/THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET


Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret is this year's winner of the Caldecott award for best picture book, yet it was almost nominated for the Newberry award. It's a story told intermittently in pictures and words--you read a few pages, then look through a few pages of illustrations. As you can see, the book is really thick, but most of that thickness is due to the illustrations, so it's also a very fast read.

The story is about a young boy who lives in a Paris train station at the turn of the 20th century. Hugo keeps the station's clocks running, but what he really wants to use his mechanical skills for is fixing a strange automaton left behind in the fire that killed his father. The automation is a little man sitting at a desk with a pen in hand, and Hugo is convinced that once all the gears are working properly, the mechanical man will write an important message.

The story combines elements of mechanics, magic tricks, and early film history, and the illustrations evoke a sense of wonder and intrigue. While I liked the book overall, I don't think the story would be as special without the illustrations. In fact, other than a few intriguing elements (like the automation), the text portions of the story were a little slow and repetitive--I felt the story had a bit of a shallow feel to it. I think the book would be better if about 3/4 of the text were removed and the illustrations held more of the brunt of the storytelling.

That said, if you spot this in a bookstore, I recommend at least checking out the illustrations: the start and finish of the book are particularly enchanting--more so if you understand the story. Whether you will like the narrative is probably a matter of how interested you are in the elements mentioned above and how prone you are to reading children's literature.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Pierre Bayard/HOW TO TALK ABOUT BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T READ

This concept might well be anathema to BookBook readers, many of whom, I think, have a reverential, not to say obsessive-compulsive, attitude towards books and reading. One of Moonrat's few rules for this blog is that we should have read a book before we write about it; and 'reading' here generally seems to be taken to mean 'reading thoroughly, from end to end'. I worry sometimes that an excessive reverentiality towards books can be harmful, and in a notorious post on my own blog ("The 7 Habits Of Highly Efficient Readers") I did once playfully attack the notion - not entirely in earnest, you understand, but for the sake of debate - suggesting, for example, that browsing books and not finishing books were OK, and that one should try not to buy more books than one was actually going to be able to read.

Then along comes this French academic, Pierre Bayard, with his witty and provocative little treatise that overturns our whole notion of reading. BookBook regulars are probably going to be out of sympathy with his thesis, but it does make for an entertaining read.

His opening words immediately betray how unlike 'us' he is, and actually make me rather sad: "Born into a milieu where reading was rare, deriving little pleasure from the activity, and lacking in any case the time to devote to it...." No, definitely not one of us (although one suspects that his claim to dislike reading is disingenuous, a playful pose; in the book he displays a formidable breadth of reading).

However, Bayard does have many apt and interesting points to make in analysing how we relate to books, and how we use books to relate to each other. He points out that the concepts of 'reading' and 'non-reading' are not so clearcut as are generally assumed: the fallibility of human memory, and the subjectivity of our interaction with a book that can so strongly colour - perhaps distort - both our initial perceptions of it and our subsequent recollection of it, mean that even our knowledge of a book we think we have "read" may be highly shifting, uncertain, inaccurate. Bayard here cites the example of Montaigne, whose memory was so bad that he couldn't even recognise quotations from books he had written himself; he was forced to develop the habit of annotating the endpapers of every book he'd read, to remind himself that he had read it and what his opinion of it had been.

Bayard speaks up for the practice of partial reading, whether dipping in here and there at random, or a more planned sampling, or reading the "whole" book at speed - rather than the dutiful page-by-page and sentence-by-sentence plodding that I imagine most of us do. He also emphasises how much one can "know" about a book simply from our general knowledge, from other references to it in our culture, from reviews, from conversations. He proposes three categories (not mutually exclusive) for discussing books: books you've skimmed, books you've heard about, and books you have forgotten. He will never admit to having "read" a book in the conventional sense at all.

Even more teasingly, he celebrates 'non-reading' as an active and laudable practice. Given the infinity of published books, it is a hopeless task to try to read them all, or even a significant number of the 'best' of them. "Reading is first and foremost non-reading. Even in the case of the most passionate lifelong readers, the act of picking up and opening a book masks the countergesture that occurs at the same time: the involuntary act of not picking up and not opening every other book in the universe." Bayard suggests that what is really important in 'cultural literacy' is 'orientation': not knowing the contents of any individual book, but knowing a book's place in our culture, its position within the wider system of books in general. The most extreme expression of this attitude is found in the figure of the librarian in Robert Musil's novel, The Man Without Qualities: this is a man so concerned with attaining an overview of the entirety of published literature that he regards it as a kind of sacred duty to refrain from reading any individual volume - "I never read a single book. Only the catalogues."

Bayard's philosophizing on the nature of reading can get a little heavy-going at times (and there are just a few occasions when Jeffrey Mehlman's translation makes it even more so), but this is regularly leavened with extended quotations and plot summaries of favourite books (I told you he wasn't really such an avid 'non-reader' as he pretends). It's a short and highly stimulating read, full of fascinating insights. Many of his points - for example, that we should not be inhibited by shame at the gaps in our cultural knowledge, that we can have valid and useful opinions on books we haven't actually read - could be valuable, liberating. And I think it's safe to say that his more extreme positions - that it's actually better not to read, that having no knowledge of a book can lead to a better discussion of it - are intended to be taken with a large pinch of salt. BookBook members, don't revile this man as an Antichrist. You should read his book. Or at least skim it.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Kazuo Ishiguro/THE UNCONSOLED

I'm really, really trying hard to get through this. I'm on page 150 and I've honestly just about given up, which is something I almost never do. Anyone have an opinion to see me through (or not)?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Atonement :: Ian McEwan


If you've been on my blog, you'll know that I recently finished Atonement, and that I struggled with this book in the beginning.

I actually HATED Part I. With a discontent bordering on passionate anger. I DESPISED Briony, felt the thoughts of the characters were self-indulgent and trivial and utterly annoying. I actually started to somewhat skim through the last 30 pages of Part 1 because I was so SICK of their little internal whims and fantasies, and I just wanted to know the basic plot. If I hadn't been a person who sticks through a book til the end, I probably would have closed the book and never picked it up again (until I saw the movie and my curiosity got the better of me).

But as it was, I kept going. And after my initial reaction, the rest of the book was actually really good. I enjoyed it. And of course the ending (which I won't give away here, but I talk about on my blog).

It's hard to say much about why I ended up liking the book without giving away the ending. So I'll say this: McEwan is great with language, but I could have done without the beginning drivel. Even if I understand why now he did it, I still hate it. But ultimately what redeemed this book for me was the question and theme that it was situated around. The concept. It's an incredibly brilliant way of executing a theme such that the reader asks themselves certain questions. And it's on this alone -- the ending, the reveal, the big picture, that this book redeems itself to me.

Hey, and maybe that's part of his genius. In the end, it gains atonement.

So, this is a book for a patient reader. But good. And the movie does not do the ending justice, but how could it?

David Mitchell/CLOUD ATLAS

I probably find myself here - not for the first time in my life - in a dissenting minority. This book appears to have been rapturously received by most reviewers and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize a few years ago. It was also very highly recommended by the writer friend who sent it to me as a gift; and I hate to seem ungrateful, but..... While many people seem to see this as a work of breathtaking genius, I found it to be a work of colossal self-indulgence.

I don't dispute Mitchell's talents as a writer: here he proves himself adept in a succession of different genres and styles, handles both humour and horror effectively, and creates some highly distinctive narrative voices (indeed, for the two sci-fi episodes, he forges new languages). Yes, he writes marvellously, and this book is a very entertaining read; but I find the 'cleverness' too self-conscious - it seems to me to be empty showing off rather than serving any useful purpose. And there are other failings too: the resolutions of the individual stories are perfunctory and unsatisfying; and collectively, the different strands just don't hang together.

This is my major objection: Cloud Atlas is not a novel at all; it is a collection of long short stories, arbitrarily sewn together. There is a very flimsy and irrelevant linking device (a recurring birthmark hinting that key characters in the different stories are reincarnations of the same soul), but the stories are quite unconnected. There are also a few structural links, where each story is referred to briefly in its successor (sometimes as a historical document, sometimes as a piece of fiction; sometimes as a written work, sometimes as a film). I suppose this is a post-modern conceit intended to provoke reflection on the distinctions between fact and fiction. I just find it irritatingly obtrusive and pointless: it does nothing to advance the stories (I gather Mitchell is fond of recycling his characters in different books as well - another self-indulgent silliness that just bugs the crap out of me!). Some admirers of the book have also suggested that there is a strong thematic connection between the stories, in that they are all, in some sense, about the innate brutality of mankind, the abuse of power to create oppression, and the struggle to survive. Well, yes, but that's a very broad theme: a huge number of books touch on this idea; it scarcely makes for a strong or distinctive unifying device.

The gimmicky structure is also rather unsatisfying. The six stories are nested within each other, cut off at the half-way point, to be concluded - in reverse order - in the second half of the book. Only the central story is told in a single instalment. Guess which the most satisfying of the six stories is. If I re-read this book, I think I would ignore the author's arrangement, and just read the two halves of each story together. There is a further problem, I feel, in that without exception the concluding halves of the stories are far, far less engaging than their openings. Moreover, the first (and thus also the last) story in the collection is, in my view, much the least impressive: I didn't find the narrative persona (a sickly 19th Century lawyer on a voyage across the South Pacific) entirely convincing here; the use of period vocabulary seemed a rather heavy-handed showing off of the author's research; and indeed, the entire episode seemed to be primarily an excuse for introducing a little history lesson on the genocide of the Moriori, the native people of the Chatham Islands, by invading Maori.

The two middle stories, set in the far future, are probably the most effective. The dystopian adventure about a cloned slave girl who is raised to full consciousness as a scientific experiment is the most moving, although it all gets a bit hectic and formulaic in the latter stages (Mitchell is a gorgeous stylist, but he seems to lack discipline or insight in shaping his stories). The central tale about a post-apocalyptic world reverted to medieval conditions, an oral history of his exterminated people recounted by an old man, has the most compelling narrative voice.

The two more humorous tales are also very enjoyable: one, an account of the misadventures of a London publisher who finds himself imprisoned in an old people's home, is a very slight story, but it is distinguished by the characterisation of its narrator - a frightful reactionary snob, who somehow still manages to elicit your sympathy; the other (my personal favourite of the six) is the story, told in a series of letters, of a louche young musician who insinuates himself into the home of a famous, elderly composer but then finds himself terrorised and exploited by the eccentric old bully (this episode is in part inspired by the last days of Delius).

The pulp thriller pastiche is competently done, but fails to engage. And, as I've said already, I find the lawyer's journal which opens and closes the book to be rather dull and unconvincing.

How on earth did Mitchell persuade his publisher to accept this ragbag of writer's sketches as a novel?? Very good sketches they are; but they are none of them quite fully realised; and they certainly don't fit together to make a coherent novel. Perhaps it was the publisher's idea? Maybe he presented this as a collection of short stories and was told something like, "Oh, David, that's such a step backwards for you. We're promoting you as a novelist, not a short story writer. Couldn't you find some way of linking these together?"

Many reviewers - and general readers - seem to have been blown away by the 'skill' with which Mitchell has stitched these disparate stories together. No - the linking devices here are utterly facile. It's not clever. It's not difficult. And there is absolutely no point to it.

I'm afraid I get the impression that Mr Mitchell is rather too intoxicated with his own talent - and that his editor is altogether too deferential to him. Someone really needs to tell him that this Emperor is only half-dressed. He certainly has the makings of a great, great writer; but, at the moment, reports of his genius are greatly exaggerated.