- Premium reviews
- Express reviews
- Reviews rated
- Ratings received
Saturday is a snap shot of a novel. It's a life, a family, a city, a country, a world - all wrapped up and neatly presented as the day in the life of one man. It deals with twenty four hours in the shoes of one man, when simple everyday events threaten to collapse the central structure of his life.
Henry Perowne is a good man. A fine neurosurgeon, a good father and husband. His mind thrives on logic and explanations, and this leads him to analyse every part of the world around him. The book begins with a restless night, insomnia that drives him to the window, where he thinks he sees something horrific happening in the night sky. This is the London of today - where the terrorist threat lurks in every corner and people harbour fears they don't voice. This sets the tone for his day, and the book as a whole. Life teeters in an uncertain manner - London is protesting the war in Iraq, and this preoccupies him as he heads towards a Saturday squash game with a colleague. A minor accident on the way and the introduction to Baxter gives him more cause for thought. These men of the street are nothing like him, they don't think, speak or act like him, and though he knows what makes them function, or cease to function in their grey matter, he doesn't understand the rules. He breaks them, and he will be made to pay.
The book surges ahead, taking in the mundane details of the rest of his Saturday - visiting his mother who has no recollection of who he is anymore, preparing a dinner for visiting children who are all but grown and now think, feel and live without him. Every interlude is rammed with detail - the narrative bulges with thoughts of the science and philosophy of who we are. McEwan fills every exchange so we feel we are living this day with Henry - the squash game fills several pages with a game commentary, the ramblings of his mother are played out in full. This is more than space-filler though. It lets us see who this man is, how his mind works, his worries, loves, joys. By the end of the day when he returns home, his character has been so well drawn that we know how he will act for the final showdown.
The writing in this book is tight and technically beautiful. McEwan has clearly gone to some trouble to research the background of his doctor character - and this adds to the feeling of being inside Henry's head. Nothing is every glossed over, but held up clearly and distinctly for us to examine - explanations are offered exactly as Henry would like them. All McEwans's work is beautifully constructed - densely written and poised to perfection. Saturday is no exception. The story itself is just a meander through one day in one man's life in London. But it contains so many things for us to think about - sometimes things that are too close to home, too close in time to make comfortable fiction reading. It encapsulates our society's hopes and fears in an indelible way - and in a brave way. Highly recommended.
'Saturday' by Ian McEwan. RRP £7.99
Zadie Smith's third novel centres on a mixed-race, mixed-nationality family growing up in the affluent white suburbia of Wellington. It opens with emails between a father and son on different continents, mirroring the opening of EM Forster's 'Howard's End' - a literary classic which Smith pays homage to throughout. This seems to be a very trendy thing to do these days - Will Self attempted the same with his 'Dorian Gray'. Are our modern story tellers so unsure of themselves that they need to piggyback on the established classics? Is it meant to engender the reader who sees the link with a feeling of insider knowledge, and so transfer their feelings for the classic to the new? Or it is just supposed to a non-strings attached retelling of a classic story? I can't decide where I stand on this. I love it when classic books and plays are adapted into modern settings for films, for example. But to use it as a template for your own book? Not sure. As a device it can prove clumsy and laboured if the author tries to stick to it too rigidly. Certain subtle allusions can make for magnificent writing. In this instance I think Smith sits somewhere in between. The book is essentially good, and a worthwhile read despite its flawed streak.
But, enough rant and back to the meat and bones of the book.
Howard Belsey is a middle aged academic with a problem. HIs wife of thirty years is mad at him because he's slept with someone else. His children are growing up and have no time to hold back their own ambitions for their father. And his glittering career has never shaped up the way he wanted - his masterpiece remains unwritten and his rivals tear him to pieces in the press. As the book opens, his eldest son is delcaring his love for the daughter of his rival, Monty Kipps. This dalliance never comes to anything, but seems to be the catalyst that keeps throwing the two families into each other's path. And as the truth of Howard's affair comes into the open, the webs get messier and the ride just a little bit bumpy.
That, essentially, is the story. It meanders throughout, with threads not only Howard, but his wife Kiki and each of their three children. Their lives are played out on the picture-postcard background of Wellington college, and their manners and obsessions never feel quite real. It's all very easy to paint academics as social-inepts with different views of the world, but somehow the dynamics here don't rinf quite true.
Like the two novels that have come before it, On Beauty deals neatly with issues of race and gender - never pandering to political correctness. Some characters seem to wear a stereotype as a sort of shield, a distraction, but Smith is adept at showing us the humanity of everyone. Kiki is the best drawn character - full of life and beating with the unspoken hurt Howard has caused her. Levi too is well written - but the two older children are a little flat.
As a way to pass the time on the train, in the bath, On Beauty is a good read. It has had very mixed reviews - but although such accolades rarely mean much, it is worth remembering that it reached the Booker shortlist this year, so it can't all be bad. And it isn't. It is flawed in places where characters don't seem to gel, or the writing seerms bored - filling space. But overall it is a very good third novel. When her forst novel, White Teeth, was so good it is easy to be disappointed by the follow ups (Autograph Man was pretty dire). But let On Beauty stand alone from what has gone before and it is a good piece of contemporary writing. Nothing in it will astound your senses or intellect - but you won't die of boredom either.
There really are very few books I have been unable to finish. I like to think this is because I am a) pretty stubborn and won't give up on something once I've started, and b) pretty damn good at choosing books. I love books. Buying them, reading them, and lining my home with them. So it saddens me when I come across a bad one. Especially when that bad one has had good reviews - it makes me question my literary sensibility.
This particular one was a Booker shortlister from 2004. It has been languising on the back seat of my car since my holiday in Wales five months ago. Less than a third of the way in I had no desire to finish reading it, and even less of a desire to take it indoors and find it a shelf space.
'I'll go to bed at noon' was the recipient of many favourable reviews, and supposedly a follow up to a previous novel by the same author. I found very little in it to like, storywise, or in the writing. Set in the London of the 1970s it documents a family ravaged by alcohol abuse. A drunken mother, son, uncle. Does alcoholism run in families? It does in this one. Each so absorbed in their own sodden threads of denial that they cannot seem to help each other.
It sounds like it should have something to say. Perhaps later on in the book it does - perhaps it imparts a useful wisdom for our binge-drinking society. I couldn't get far enough to find out. The writing is cold and hard, the book never seems to yield to the reader - feels like it isn't designed to be shared. The characters, although quirky and entertaining in parts with their eccentricities, fail to be fully real. Some flatness keeps them on the page, and prevents you ever really caring whether they sober up or not. Even a short way into the book it feels repetitive as someone gets drunk yet again and messes up some part of their/someone else's life. Alcoholism is perhaps one of the most repetitive and destructive addictions a family can harbour, but recreating this pattern in the prose doesn't work.
When it isn't going in circles, the narrative takes us on mind-bogglingly boring tours of the surroundings. Setting the scene is one thing, but Woodward seems to run with his factual mapping and it just isn't readable. Did I mention the mother also indulges in a spot of glue-sniffing. Your normal, every day middle-class set up? Not quite - all families have their dark sides, but this just doesn't sit right. The people populating the miserable house are so unbelievable it pains you to read each new sentence.
In all, the book is monotonous, uninspired and badly conceived. Tacking a knotty subject is all very well, but not if you have no true talent for the written word. Definitely not recommended.
The premise of Nick Hornby's new novel is a tenuous one: four strangers meet on New Year's Eve at the top of a tower block known locally as 'Toppers' House'. Each one has ended up there with the intention of hurling themselves over the edge. First up, best planned, and closest to the edge is Martin - a disgraced tv personality - whose last minutes of solitude are disturbed by Maureen who has been looking forward to this event for months. Next comes Jess, who hurtles across the roof in a spur of the moment rush of teenage angst. And last up, to discover Maureen and Martin sitting on Jess to stop her jumping, is JJ - failed musician and pizza boy. What is the etiquette here? Turn a blind eye? Try and talk someone else out of doing what you yourself are set on?
This unlikely quartet take some time out from their planned leaps to the concrete below to eat the pizza that JJ is carrying, and give Hornby his first opportunity to start to live up to the blurb on the book jacket about 'answering the big questions about life and death '. Sadly this is just the beginning of a long, uninspiring and unbelievable story. The four agree not to jump, and this bond keeps them together over the next three months and the duration of the story.
There is humour that emanates from just how different to each other these people are. But that's the problem - how on earth does this unlikely grouping manage to keep each away from the ledge of Topper's House again? The distances between them are too great to be waved away by the shared bond of being suicidal. And at points the plot that follows is plain farcical - the media circus is funny, but the joint holiday? The continued revolting and plain spoilt behaviour of Jess? Maureen you feel sorry for - her troubles have been nursed for decades, but all she needs is a few friends to lean on. Martin is a sad creature who has brought everything on himself, but has some opportunities still open to him and people who care. JJ too has a way out he can take. And really, it's very hard to feel sympathy for any of them or believe that any of them would have really jumped.
Hornby's writing isn't as perfectly pitched as in previous works. How To Be Good fell short of the mark for me, and this offering hasn't returned him to form. The dialogue works well in places, but the characters aren't fully formed, and the story - designed I am sure to shock with the subject matter - is not engaging or exciting and doesn't serve to make you think anything very deep or profound. A shame. Readable but not anywhere near the level Hornby is capable of.
"Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface sludge of sloughed-off memories; giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside."
Nikolai has lost his wife after decades of faithful looking after and sticking to the rules. An eccentric old man, he decides to take a new one. A thirty-six year old from his home land of the Ukraine. After years of estrangement, this decision brings his two daughters back into contact with each other, and kick starts the warmly funny tale of 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian'.
Nadezhda (Nadia) and Vera have been raised in England by their war time refugee parents. They are as different as it is possible for two sisters to be - their social, political and ethical reasoning always at odds. But the arrival of Valentina and her bosoms into their father's life makes it essential that they work together to stop the marriage. And when that fails, to protect him from his new love - and find a different solution to the lycra-clad problem.
As Valentina ploughs into their lives, old family secrets come to the surface. Nikolai starts to write a history of his beloved homeland and the tractors that he helped to build there - each machine description falling into the story as if an analogy for the ever increasing power of his new wife and her cunning knowledge of how to do things to get what she wants - a UK passport and all the modern appliances a girl previously denied a western life could want. Snippets of wartime life are shared, fleeting hints at the reasons for the way everyone is. Everything comes together quite slowly - and the end result is not a sharp jarring twist - just the history of a family uprooted and deemed best forgotten on arrival in England. Vera remembers; Nadia does not - the baby of the family. She fights against Vera's greater knowledge, prising out stories where she can from her contrary father and her cold sister.
The central characters are well drawn - the sisters, Nikolai and Valentina are all very solid creations - each with separate mannerisms and speech patterns on the page - all credit to Lewycka for this. In fact, some of the Ukrainian English is genuinely funny in its half translation - nothing translates so badly as an insult, and those the women trade are a delight. Nikolai and his microwaved apples paint a very vivid picture of an elderly man - some marbles gone and set utterly in his ways. Some of the more peripheral characters are not so well placed. Nadia's husband Mike teeters on the edge of the story with a glass in his hand - and I can't decide if we are supposed to think that she is missing her husband turning into an alcoholic because she is so obsessed with her father.
Essentially the story is a simple one - readable but not utterly compelling. The writing is sound, but not great literary fiction. The whole thing is quite easy going and doesn't ask anything of the reader in terms of intelligence, intuition. There is no great underlying philosophy, and it won't teach you anything about yourself - but you might enjoy it. Which probably makes it a good bet as a holiday read.
Before we begin, it is only fair to tell you that I am hugely biased in favour of Mr Kundera. I think he is one of the most beautiful writers that ever put pen to paper. And not only that, one of the most intelligent and darkly funny, too. But this bias probably works in your favour because it means I am hard on him when he doesnt live up to my expectations. This very rarely happens, and I am pleased to say it there is not a moment during reading Farewell Waltz when you will think he is anything other than a genius.
The book, translated from the Czech, centres on a five day period in a spa town in Eastern Europe. Klima is a famous trumpeter and receives a call from a nurse at the spa to inform him that their brief night of recent passion has left her pregnant. He is determined not to be labelled the father since he has a wife he loves very much, and so begins the five day jaunt to try and get her to change her mind about keeping the baby. Or to name her boyfriend as the father. Or to do whatever he can to rectify the situation. Parts of what ensue are farcical the misunderstandings and games that can unfold between people and drive a situation insightful and perfectly pitched. The tangential boyfriend, suspicious wife, a rich American patron of the spa and the residential gynaecologist sweep in and out of the story, adding depth and background. The whole thing really is one great tangled waltz as in the title. Another visitor at the spa is a man trying to rid his guilt at his imminent fleeing of the country and the young woman who he has taken under his wing. He also has a small gift to return to the gynaecologist. It is his involvement in the story that introduces the notion of death into this panic of sexual jealously and motherhood.
Often Kundera is content in his novels to lend no real structure to his plot indeed often there is no plot at all. Here though it is well planned and detailed in the execution. The pace picks up over the five days pulling the reader in to the inevitable ending and marking them with the black humour that pervades the whole. This is a delicious book. The characters are vivid, even the background chatter of the women in the spa baths is admirably written the female banter and cruel observations are spot on. This makes Farewell Waltz one of his more accessible books and slighter in pages than many of the others too it would make a good introduction to the Master and his talent for picking out something in our society and holding it up for us to examine in the best traditions of tragi-comedies.
Never Let Me Go is somewhat of a departure for Ishiguro, whilst at the same time being true to this form. The writing is, as always, infallible; but the story doesnt sit alongside his other work as an obvious route for him to take. Still, I think he is one of the great writers of out time in this respect he doesnt fall into a standard format with his stories, they are all entirely different in scope and setting, and without a doubt he can write.
In this most recent offering, he has returned to England for his setting as used in probably his most well know work Remains Of The Day. This time, instead of depicting a repressed butler, he introduces us to a handful of boarders at a secluded school. This is done through one lone trip down memory lane with Kathy, our narrator. We meet her briefly in her grown up state before being transported back to Hailsham, and the years of idyll she and her friends lived through there.
The first few pages of the book seem cloudy, as Ishiguro gently lowers us into the school, and reels off memories for us to piece together. It quickly becomes evident that despite the continal feeling that he is building to something explosive, this crescendo will never come. We are moulded just as superbly as the children into thinking nothing particular with regard to their fate, once it unfolds infront of us. Hints and subtle indications filter through to give you the answers subconsciously before any full sentence reveals it. For this school is populated by children with no families. Sterile, and educated in nothing other than art and basic role-play of the outside world, their purpose is simply to donate their organs when the time comes. They dont seem to mind, and nor does the reader as this tale of connections and memory plays out smoothly from start to finish. The memories are beautifully done as you would tell such a remembrance to a friend linking it to other events and things that occur to you in the telling. Most of the actual content is terribly mundane but accurate for it. A falling out over a pencil case is petty but rings true of school girls adrfit in an emotionless void. The minuatiae of life is turned over and retold, most often with no real meaning. The only tugs of emotion come when Madame stumbles upon Kathy dancing with a pillow, mimicing a mother and child, and we feel her shock as a normal woman at seeing this child of spare parts exhibiting such human characteristics.
It seems an unusal subject for Ishiguro to pick, rooted as it is in cloning and a world of science fiction made real. A nod perhaps to Huxley and writers like John Wyndham, who made such stories their own with their futuristic imaginings. But he has created a perfectly readable book, albeit a little on the light side. That seems improbable, given the content, but it is hard to really feel anything for the characters, and it is equally hard to tell whether this is a device in order for us to not mind them essentially being slaughtered or if its just a side effect of the perfect writing style. I have never felt any real empathy towards an Ishiguro character they seem to stay half hidden behind the well contructed words, never coming close enough to strike a chord of empathy. And everything around them is so well veiled that it is impossible to decide whether the forces intigating this brave new world are inherently evil, or making a bold step towards something good with these young sacrifices simply a part of a greater whole.
Ishiguro never really fails in his works, because his goals are not to create the perfectly tied up story. If you prefer something with a beginning, middle and end, then this isnt for you. If you enjoy good writing, and dont mind a little ambiguity along the way, then this is worth a look. Its a quick read, apart from anything else, being rather ethereal and easy going.
I know you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but we all invariably do. And this one has a quite stomach-turningly hideous jacket: shades of brown, turquoise and maroon combine in what was hopefully the last project of some cover-art executive before they locked him up for crimes to the visual senses. Not only is it unfeasibly ugly, it's also cumbersomely large.
If these are the sorts of things that would put you off reading a book, then Cloud Atlas isn't for you. However, if you are bloodyminded enough to wrap it in newspaper, and only dip into it at home with some large contraption you have build in your shed with which to hold the damned thing, then the following review may be of some interest to you.
Cloud Atlas is a ridiculously ambitious book - which may account for the size of the thing. It spans several hundred years, takes in a large handful of central characters, uses a different style and structure for every section, and collapses back onto you just as you are starting to come to terms with the whole thing. That isn't to say it's not worth persevering with, though. If you have the patience to get into it, you can derive some enjoyment. It is undeniably well written, and clever in a fashion. Which is why it caught the attention of the literary radar of the Booker judges. Do also note that it failed to win, and perhaps for the very reason that ambitiousness is all very well, but it has to pay off. And I'm not entirely sure that Cloud Atlas manages to.
Shall we start from the beginning?
The book opens with the pacific journal of a Mr. Adam Ewing, documenting his homeward bound journey from the Australias. He is a rather uptight chap, given to disparaging accounts of the seamen, but good at heart for all his bluster. The device, however, is one that has come to the literary fore rather too recently to be used again as an opener in any book wanting to be seen as original. Anyone who has read The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale (and I do recommend it) will not be able to help comparing the two - the journal style, the attempt at representing the lilt of dialogues and accents that might be found aboard a colonial ship in sound and the patterns they make on the page - I very nearly gave up just a few pages in because I felt it was a poor imitation, but luckily it ends after just forty pages, and the whole thing becomes very much more readable. Ewing's account is left half way through - indeed half way through a sentence - with the reader aware that he is misguided in his friendship with Dr. Goose.
Next comes a delightful and completely unexpected account of Robert Frobisher - disinherited English rogue and would-be composer in Belgium between the wars. This tale is altogether more readable - and the character more likeable. We read a series of letters from Frobisher to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. The letters are witty and sparkle with tales of the characters in the house he has established himself in. The link seems non-existent, until Frobisher gets engrossed in reading a copy of the journal we have just been privy to. The letters then end just as abruptly as Ewing's diary, and we are transported into the life of Luisa Rey. Who bumps into Dr. Sixsmith. And also has a predilection for Frobisher's music - although she has never heard of him.
The coincidences, it is clear, are meant to be part of the story. From Luisa Rey and her journalistic attempts to get the Swanekke Island power plant exposed, we travel to Timothy Cavendish in England, a publisher into whose hands a Luisa Rey story has fallen - just before he is locked up for being mental. Then on to a futuristic world where genetically modified slaves are bred to serve burgers. Sonmi, our narrator in this section, connects back to Cavendish by watching a film of his life. And Sonmi connects to the island of nuclear fall-out survivors that follow by being their God. Somehow. And once you start getting a grip on this part of the book, it all caves back in and you go backwards again through the characters to hear the second part of their stories - Zachary back to Sonmi, to Cavendish, Rey, Frobisher, with the book finishing where it began - with Ewing.
So we finish at the beginning, too.
All sounds terribly confusing, doesn't it? Well, actually, it's not too bad. Once you are in each section and you have worked out the bones of what is going on, the stories are quite enjoyable and imaginative. If you can forgive Ewing's unoriginality, you can probably also forgive the Atwood-esque-ness of the Sonmi interlude, and just get on with trying to work out what Mitchell is trying to tell us in his epic book.
And, the answer is I don't know. I'm not sure he was trying to impart anything to his reader. The book is just one big clever device that must have occurred to him one morning when sat infront of his laptop. Half forwards, all linked, half backwards, all linked. Then, of course, linked in lots of other ways too - Frobisher's sextet composition Cloud Atlas which is - wait for it - six instruments all going half forwards, and then half backwards, overlapping and conversing, Familiar? And then there's the very annoying main connector between all the characters - this silly birthmark they all have shaped like a comet, which is supposed to mean they are all in fact the same soul reincarnated. Bit hoopy-loopy of you ask me - never properly explained and just chucked in from time to time to 'explain' why, for example, Luisa recognises Frobisher's music the first time she hears it.
All in all. Yes, ambitious. Carried off? Not entirely - but not gapingly badly, either. Perfectly readable once you get into it. But not something that has made any great impression - there are no lasting lessons on humanity, philosophy, social order. And any fiction is bound to be poorer for that.
The vast proportion of what is published these days is rubbish. Publisher lists are full to bursting with badly written, ill-conceived novels, trite stories that have nothing to say and should be shredded before they even hit the shops. It's a mine-field out there. Which is why it's a shame when a clearly intelligent man like Desoto, with a background that should give him something intelligent to say, produces another nothing of a book.
Now, that might sound rather harsh, but allow me to elaborate. Desoto is apparently well known as an artist, with previous writing under his belt too. So he cannot even be forgiven for falling short with a virginal foray into a different medium. This aside, he has chosen to write about South Africa - which seems to be a very popular subject matter these days - alongside Desoto's book on the Booker longlist was Bitter Fruit, which is directed upon the same sort of subject matter, although in a similarly bad fashion - so how that one made the shortlist and left Desoto languishing at the bottom of the pile I don't know. But there is no reason why A Blade Of Grass should not be a great read - Desoto is South African himself, he should be able to write of these events with some insight. Instead he has produced a book, a long book at that, which is shallow and doesn't address any of the issues.
But let's start at the beginning, shall we?
The book concerns itself with the inhabitants of a farm near the South African border during the reign of apartheid, beginning with a girl washing some seeds. The opening itself is good in its detail, the mood pitched to pique the reader's interest in Tembi and her seeds. Actually these blasted fruits she is planting come to be one of the most annoying symbols in the book, but nevermind. Then we meet Märit, the new farmer's wife. She is out of place on the farm, clean and pathetic in her inability to get to grips with her new role. She is scared of the Blacks on the farm, embarrassed by her husband's easy manner with them, and ultimately feels the colour division between her and the workers rather strongly. These aren't the kind of sentiments that we are used to these days, but in the setting they are nothing unusual. Which is why it's a bit odd that when her hubby gets bumped off, she becomes bestest buds with the Tembi - seedplanter and daughter of the old housemaid who's just died - and who she's met, ooh, once.
This really is where it all starts to go wrong. It is inconceivable that this would have happened - Märit latches on to Tembi because she is the only person on the farm whose name she knows - not because of any bond between the women. The woman we have met is not a liberal, and she has no feelings for the farm. She should sell up, move back to Durban, and Mr Desoto wouldn't have to craft hundreds of pages of ridiculous tales for us to read. But essentially this is all you need to know - Märit and Tembi run the farm single handed and without any racial problems surfacing. Uh huh. Why isn't Märit ridiculed by the author for the breakdown she is obviously having? How can he defend having his main character veer so unexplainedly in her position on the divisions between the races? These are gaping holes in the text. But we plod on anyway in this post-Ben, sarong wearing manner.
Then the cows are all stolen. The workers up and leave. The generator packs in. A plague of locusts arrives. The water stops. Etc, etc. Each time the women emerge triumphant. 'Oh no, this time it's the last straw. Oh hang on, hurrah we've survived'. This is unbelievable, tedious, and farcical, and makes up pretty much the rest of the book.
So why then, is this book billed as something worth reading, something that will give insights on 'what it means to be Black or White in a land where both feel entitlement'. This proclaimed discourse on race relations never takes place. The people who vie for power over the farm do so for reasons of greed, not for matters of race or entitlement. Even the baboons try to muscle in on the act. There is no sympathy elicited by the oppressed 'freedom fighters' that flit into the story. All the politics and intelligent comment that could have been made has been left out in favour of a frankly tedious, humour-less, and longwinded story about two women messing about on a patch of land eating lots of porridge. Until the flour runs out. Nightmare.
This book, although little known in this country, is something of a classic in America - covered in schools and universities as an example not just of first-rate literature, but held up as a forerunner to the black female writer of today.
Zora Neale-Hurston was from a very different time to our own. First published in 1937, 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' was her second novel, and provides a snapshot of the burgeoning beginnings of free black towns - the struggle of a race to set itself up on an equal footing with the white man, while retaining a strong sense of its identity and origins. But more than that, this book is about women. How they live and love, and what they are worth.
The story centres around Janie - we meet her on her return to Eatonville and sit with her friend Pheoby as Janie begins to recount her life - from her violent origins to the teenager living with a grandmother, a scared old woman who in a fit of pique has Janie married off to an old farmer after spotting her kissing a boy over the gate. The old woman then promptly goes and dies, leaving Janie with a man she doesn't care for, making her staying with him impossible to her young heart full of idealist dreams of what love should be. She runs off with Jody, a younger man who promises her the world, but proves to value her only as a pretty trophy on his arm. Janie's romantic aspirations are slowly dashed upon the rocks of life, until she is widowed and meets Tea Cake, a man much younger than herself who finally offers all the love she has craved, a soul mate who takes her from her picket-fenced life as the ex-mayor's wife and introduces her to a life in the fields, where she finds her voice and her strength, which she will come to need. This is the tale told to Pheoby as Janie soaks her tired feet back in her house, widowed again, but now full with the knowledge of love.
The book itself is beautifully written, right from the first page I was hooked on the story, and equally on the gentle lilt of the narrator. Hurston has a real gift for bringing places to life through characters rather than lengthy description. The people in this book leap off the page at you, vivid and each tanglibly different to the next. Her knack for getting dialogue and accent down is enviable, and although these thick voices are hard work at first, by the end of the book it is as natural to read as any of the narrative in between.
Interesting too in my edition, the story and writing aside, are the foreword and afterword by writers who have been inspired by Hurston - a giddying list that includes Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. These essays ponder on the importance of this kind of work in its time - where it sat with contemporary fiction, and how is portrayed the less fictional elements of black life. Hurston does not fall back on racial stereotypes, and that is refreshing. I was surprised when I realised how old this work was - it has no feel of having aged or dated and was thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.
This is going to sound a little hypocritical from one who so despises adults reading children's books for pleasure. But I love this book. And I don't care that it is meant to be for persons twenty years my junior. This is a very funny, very clever little book, and I'm tempted to have a baby just so that I can read this to a giggling little audience.
The Little Mole came to my attention thanks to my dearly beloved, who for some reason thought it might tickle me. And he was right: even just the title and the concept tickled me, so the next time I found myself in a bookshop with a fiver to spare I ventured into the kiddie section (which was like a journey back in time for me - I used to spend so much time in there begging my Mum to buy me all manner of books - shame the Little Mole wasn't around in the early Eighties). Eventually though I managed to locate a copy of the oversized book. I had been imagining something Mr.Men sized, but this is a landscape-A4.
Curiosity could not be contained, and I whipped it out as soon as I was on the tube and proceeded to read - complete with giggles, snorts at snuffles at the delightful story, which goes something like this:
Our little Hero - The Mole - pokes his head out one morning only to have something or someone deposit a sausage on his head. Not a bad breakfast? Well, this particular sausagey-shaped thing is actually a poo, and the mole quite indignantly goes looking for the owner (keeping the poo on his head at all times, naturally).
This leads him to meet several farmyard animals, and gives the author the opportunity to use some lovely language that I'm sure will inspire kids and have them reeling with laughter - as if it won't be funny enough for them that the book is about (whisper it) poo. Poo! I've taken the phrase 'horsey apples' to my heart and use it frequently to describe the presents left on our road by the local riding school. Kids will adore it. And not only is the language clever enough to get them (and me) interested and thinking, the pictures are great too - scribbly drawings in pencil with wonderful colours and tone. The Little Mole is a lovely visual character - his facial expressions exactly conveying his mood at having a poo on his head - and my favourite: him hiding in fear behind the cow's leg when faced with a cowpat (and pleased it wasn't the cow who had done her business on his head). Woe betide the culprit as the Little Mole dreams up his revenge, and brews a poo of his own,
If you've got small kids; buy them this. Actually, buy it for anyone with a sense of humour. My 21-year-old-little-brother thought it was hysterical, and my mum couldn't stop laughing and saying 'oh no! oh no!' Money well spent. And if you want more Mole, you can even get a gift pack with a hardback copy of the book and a little stuffed mole toy. Complete with stuffed poo toy on his head. Brilliant.
Much slighter than many of Kundera's other offerings, 'Ignorance' is a concise story, far less rambling than anything else of his I have read. Typically Kundera seems to set out with a philosophial agenda, and splits his novels into deep debates where the actual 'story' part becomes secondary. This is not the case with 'Ignorance', which has a linear plot that is easy to follow, with fewer characters and less snapshot 'time travel'. That is not to say that there are no Kunderian lessons to be learnt - the major theme is that our memories are ours and ours alone - that even events shared with our closest loved ones are separate experiences which create differing memories in the individuals, and moreover that those imprints morph and change with time.
Having outlined the background framework, what is this singular story that Kundera has presented for us? It centres around two Czech exiles who are returning to their homeland after many years as emigres in France and Denmark. Irena and Josef never believed they would return to Bohemia, and are reluctant to do so when the chance arises. Pushed by their respective friends they find themselves taking the trip back, and bumping into each other, awakening memories and desires. What is the history shared by these two people, who have so much and so little in common? What does each mean to the other? And where will their time back in their homeland take them? Will they meet and make friends with their young ghosts? I'm loathe to tell you any of the answers, as Irena and Josef can weave their tales so much better than I. These central characters are well examined, their motivations and desires laid bare, and everything that happens is so well written, all so beautifully thought out that before you know it you've read the whole book, despite a relatively slow start.
Kundera uses as an analogy at points throughout the story of Ulysses and his return to Ithaca, the disappointment of finding that your memories no longer match reality. This is an insight into what it means to leave your life, your homeland behind. Kundera tells of the loneliness you can never quite escape as an emigre, but that can not be sated by the return to your now alien birthplace, nor by meeting someone you believe shares a piece of memory with you, only to discover they 'no longer match'. He tells of emigre dreams, how they all yearn for the same things, and the horror of realising your dreams beong collectively to all those in your situation.
This work is an engaging read, erotic and enlightening in places. But as a huge fan of his older novels, I cannot help but feel that it does not live up to my expectations. Part of me is quick to blame this on the fact that it was written in emigre French, rather than his native Czech. The language is still beautiful, never wasting a word, but somehow it feels like there is something missing. Certainly there is decidedly less of Kundera's superb tongue in cheek wit, his observations are still spot on, but there is less content that will make you chuckle away like a freak when you are reading it on the train.
That said this is still definitely a great read. And an easier one that many others by the same author. In terms of other recently published novels, this is one that has rightly received critical praise. Kundera outshines many other contemporary novelists, and I only question this book in comparison to others he has written. I still loved picking out the teachings from the fictional bones of the novel, it makes you think, about yourself and others. One of the things that really affected me was to realise that I have no control over how others perceive me, or indeed whether they form memories of me at all.
'Ignorance' by Milan Kundera, translated to English by Linda Asher. Faber & Faber, £6.99
Oh go on, get cross with me right from the off. You can tell already from my title that I'm about to go against the tide of popular opinion on this one. And if you're particularly bright you'll have noticed even quicker from the star rating.
Call me heartless, call me cold. But I didn't think this much-acclaimed novel really deserves all the praise it has attracted, not to mention some of the awards. But before I go off on a little one-woman literary rant, let's have a look at the book that has provoked it.
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nightime. You've heard of it, we've all heard of it, seen its dual forms gracing children's and adult's bestseller lists for several months. Those close to the melee will know that this alone is enough to get me ranting, but despite having been burnt by such plebian recommendations before, I again bit the bullet and invested in the dark blue adult paperback.
Meet Christopher. And a black poodle named Wellington. Christopher is rather special: he has Asperger's syndrome. Wellington too is rather special: he has a garden fork stuck right through him. Now, for Wellington his trials are over, but Christopher is really only just starting on the difficult journey that his life is going to be. Asperger's is a distinct form of Autism which affects the way sufferers relate to the world, and I very much admire the way Haddon has portrayed it here. I went into thedoginthedoodah knowing something of this anyway thanks to a mother who teaches in a school for girls with the syndrome, but for most this will prove to be an enlightening read in that respect alone. And this possibly explains some of the critical applause. Haddon pitches Christopher's voice just right, he is sympathetic, but never really pitiful. His life is one of rules and timetables, deviations from which scare the bejesus out of him, and that is all very well written.
But hang on, I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the first page. Someone has killed Wellington, and Christopher resolves to do some detecting and find out what happened. Under the guidance of a very special teacher at the school, he begins to write a crime book to piece together the events leading to the murder. This is the book we are reading, being put together before our very eyes, complete with all Christopher's thoughts, observations, mathematical asides and explanations of his life and how he needs to live it.
Now this is all very well. Christopher certainly makes a unique narrator, and I think it would be something I would be pleased to have my children read, as every page serves somehow to introduce some nuggets for thought or debate, be it maths or the difficulties faced by someone with aspergers. But I haven't got any sprogs. And having read it myself I again feel that these 'crossover' books just don't work. The adult version has the additon of swear words. But retains Christopher's very simplistic narrative, which is endearing in it's naivety, but I found it didn't really do justice to the idea after a while, and indeed towards the end both the story and the style were suffering. This may be a deliberate ploy on Haddon's part, in order to reflect the deterioration of Christopher's routines and habits. Or it could just be the evidence of a highly contrived narrative style falling in on itself.
Oh stop shouting. OK, sometimes it is refreshing to read a book that takes a chance in this way. And I do not deny that I found it quite engaging. But although some of the ideas are challenging, the writing just isn't, and I like my reading to have a real literary bent. Christopher doesn't have a feel for words and description, and as such the book lacked a lot for me.
On the upside being so simple to read, I had finished it in one bath and a train trip to work and back. So those who harbour my cynicism about populist book choices can rest assured that it won't require too much of an investment of your time. Just £6.99 and the willingness to step into the shoes of someone very different from yourself.
'The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nightime' by Mark Haddon
I can't remember how this book ended up on my wish list, I must have read a favourable review of it somewhere or other. But after languishing on the wish list for a while, it ended up in a Waterstone's bag and then keeping me company on the train for a few days.
Now, I'll start by saying, I'm not sure if I enjoyed it or not. The story line is certainly unique, and the body of the text is well written, with patches of pleasantly dark humour, although it can be confusing at times (and not intentionally, I don't think).
Our narrator is Oceane - one time sex performer now living the life of a recluse in London. She's financially solvent thanks to a spot of graphic design that keeps rolling in the royalties, and it's a good job too, as she doesn't venture outside her building now for anything. The traveller in her still wants to explore, and so she buys the outside world in with the help of a novel travel agent who sets up new cities and countries in the second flat she owns in the building. Strange? Yes, just a bit, but then Oceane is an odd lady (and a little bit annoying too, if truth be told).
The next big character is Audley - a debt collector who seems to inspire something in Oceane with his equally odd approach to life - and she ends up employing him to track down the source of the letters she keeps getting from her dead boyfriend.
Filling in all the gaps between this part of the story are rembrances from Barcelona, and that sex-performer life that probably got your attention in my first description of our heroine. Fischer weaves in some amusing anecdotes here, but the people seem a little stiff, and the story, although funny in its constituent parts, seems to lack something as a whole. Certainly there is nothing very realistic about the sequence of events. The dead boyfriend is supposed to be explained here, but somehow he never is, and so when Audley goes out into the world connected up as Oceane's eyes and ears, it isn't really clear what she is looking for, or realistically expecting to find. What I did enjoy here was that Fischer doesn't spell out what's happening, but you get to slowly realise what's going on in your own sweet time.
All said, sometimes it doesn't matter that the plot of a book doesn't make much sense. Fischer offers us fistfuls of witty, wry observations, and those are worth the read in themselves. There are nuggets of philosophy lurking in there too if you look carefully (almost akin to my beloved Kundera). I'm loathe to say it's her voyage of self discovery, but ultimately I suppose it is. With alot of nudity and some butter-phobias thrown in along the way for good measure. But maybe the overall concept was just a little too clever to be executed smoothly. The narrative is jerky and convoluted, Oceane's actions are not terribly understandable, and ultimately the end of the book leaves you disappointed. Still recommended though, for the humour and the sections of brilliant prose. And the undoubtedly novel idea.
You know those stories that start at the end, and then go back to the start and fill in how the character got there to start at the end, if you see what I mean? Clever aren't they? Well, in comparison to Time's Arrow, no, they're not clever at all. They're the baby version, playing around the feet of the great master - Amis. Here, in his typically smart-arse clever way, he tells a story backwards the whole way through, with a conscious inner 'soul' being born at the death of an old man, and travelling with him as his wrinkles tighten up, his back straightens, and he heads towards his inevitable birth.
The story is one of Tod Friendly - an old man who apparently nicks things off kids and regurgitates food for cash. Our narrator is inside him, seeing all he sees, living Tod's life with him in real time from death to birth, but unable to change anything, or to understand a lot of what goes on - disgusted at how Tod mutilates his patients and sends them out into the world, bewildered by the women in his life who arrive in a whirl of tears and gradually move further away to acquaintances and nothings. Tod's life is one where everything heralds from the dustbin or the lavatory (and Amis manages to elaborate on that repeatedly, making certain that no reader can escape a vivid mental image of a great big turd leaping up from the toilet bowl and reinserting itself). But however bizarre this sounds, it works.
I'm not a great fan of such heavy devices in writing, they mostly end up feeling contrived after a couple of pages, and ultimately ruining the story. Not so here. It takes a few pages to get into this reverse universe, but once in everything is eaily understood. Many transactions work just as smoothly this way round if we suspend our 'forwards' notions. Everyday occurences take on a grotesque and comical appearance. Tod running away from a lover's husband turns into a beautifully funny scene of him running down the road taking off his trousers, and leaping into bed with the woman as her husband turns the lights out for them.
But there's more to this book than a novel approach, it actually plays with some very serious subject matter. The essence of which is spoilt on the back cover where you are told Tod has Nazi war connections. As you progress it becomes more and more obvious that these memories torture him. But played backwards, those are the noble, good parts of his life. What is Amis trying to say here? Is he just trying to shock us and our modern attitudes to the holocaust - one of our great taboos - by making it a clean thing in a world of filth and incomprehension? With the rebounding of the arrow is he voicing a belief that our lives are set, played out by time with no human free-will or choice? I think his vision was to give us a different angle on all these things. It certainly makes you think, and that's no bad thing. And despite the unrelenting 'backwards' device, it's a very readable book.